Thursday, March 19, 2020

Who Are The Impossiblists? (1912)

From the November 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

The leaders of the Labour Party, in order to obtain the confidence and support of the workers —without which they cannot obtain seats in the House of Commons and other comfortable positions — have to satisfy their followers that they understand social problems, and possess the ability to cope with them. This, in itself, is not difficult, because the workers, surrounded by capitalist institutions and taught capitalist ideals from childhood, have not yet, in any considerable numbers, questioned the basis of the system under which they live.

They accept in blind faith the assertion that there must always be rich and poor, rulers and ruled, if there is to be any sort of order. The result is that, although the workers recognise the social evils from which they suffer, they are easily persuaded that those evils can be removed by legislation.

Unconscious of the conflicting interests between capitalists and workers, they believe that when due representation is made to Parliament ; when a sprinkling of Labour members "voice the grievances of Labour on the floor of the House," legislators will, acting with fairness and impartiality, take steps to deal with those evils.

This is the mistaken belief that leads the workers to support the Labour Party. The leaders of the Party do their utmost to foster this belief, because it increases the security of their positions. But they go further than this, for they assert that the reforms they advocate, besides improving the conditions of the working class now, lead gradually toward Socialism.

Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, for instance, writing in the "Daily Chronicle," says that "We are passing rapidly into a transition stage, which is not Socialism, but introductory to Socialism . . . Under it the powers of the workmen will increase, and with that will come a better distribution of wealth."

The worker all the more readily believes the transition stage fiction because the exploitation which he suffers from, and has suffered from for so many generations, has reduced him, both mentally and physically, to a condition of abject apathy.

Unsupported by evidence of any kind, the transition stage myth is mouthed by all the Fabian and Labour hacks. A period will intervene between capitalism and Socialism, says Mr. MacDonald, "which can be called either State Socialism or State Capitalism, according to fancy." The basis of the "intermediate system" is not described. He evidently refers, however, to the more developed form, or latest stages, of capitalism, wherein the concentration and monopoly of the most important industries have been effected, together with the nationalisation of those services and industries which are most amenable to government administration and in agreement with the interests of the majority of the capitalist class.

The nationalisation fable is always very loosely handled by its advocates. They invariably neglect to point out that, even thongh all the industries were nationalised, the workers would still have to organise politically in opposition to the class that owned them, before they could take and hold.

Such a period—if the workers allowed the system to develop so far—would be merely an advanced stage of capitalism. Class ownership of the means of life would still be the basis of the system, and the working class still retain their merchandise character. Wealth still would be produced for profit, and unemployment still be necessary in order that the price of labour-power might be kept at or about the cost of living—the difference between the cost of living and the total wealth produced being the extent to which the workers are robbed.

Such, a stage in the development of capitalism could only be productive of increased competition among the workers, because concentration and monopoly lead to greater economy, which means increased unemployment.

Yet, in spite of this very obvious and logical deduction, we are informed by Mr. MacDonald that, in this very stage, the "powers of the workmen will be increased, and there will come a better distribution of wealth."

The contradiction must be evident. Unemployment increasing, competition becomes greater, and the workers are, inevitably, more at the mercy of their exploiters : their powers must, therefore, instead of increasing, diminish.

"There will be," says Mr. MacDonald, "a code of legislation dealing with wages, housing, hours of labour, and so on, and the pressure of that legislation will transform State capitalism into a more human form of national organisation." The State capitalist, according to him, will introduce legislation that will diminish the intensity of the workers' struggle for existence.

It is fairly easy to be optimistic about the possibilities of capitalist philanthropy, somewhere in the future, when one contemplates it from the position of an agent of that class, with a salary of £400 a year, plenty of time to augment this by writing in the capitalists' interests, and with (dare I say it ?) "prospects." But the eagerness with which capitalists pursue the question of rate reduction proves that where their interests are pooled, as in nationalisation or municipalisation schemes, their business interest— their desire for profits or for reduction of rates —will determine their resistance to any conceivable working-class reform that will lessen their share of the wealth produced.

That is why a capitalist government will never introduce an insurance bill that really insures the workers against unemployment, or a "right to work" bill that will mean for every worker the right to live under decent conditions. To eliminate competition by either of these methods, or in any other way, would be a form of social suicide which is not in harmony with the nature of the capitalist.

Mr. MacDonald next tells us that "Socialism must adapt itself to the peculiar conditions that exist in different countries." But he does not inform us of any essential difference where all countries are alike capitalist.

He speaks of German Socialism being different from English, as though Socialism were some indefinite creed, to be built up according to fancy, or according to the climate or the physical aspect of the different countries. German labourism may be slightly different from the English brand in the matter of details, but the underlying principles are the same in both countries—to spread confusion among the workers by advocating reforms, and to look for their reward from the class they serve.

Some Labour leaders really believe they have done something practical for the workers when they have taken their seats in the House of Commons. What they really do is to assist the master class to interest the workers in capitalist politics.

The permanence of any system of society depends upon the numbers who are interested, or think they are interested, in maintaining it. Obviously, then, as Socialism cannot be established while capitalism is in existence, the Socialist will decline to bolster up the system he wishes to abolish. By withholding his vote from either capitalist party, by refusing to favour reforms, or one capitalist policy over another, he leaves; purely capitalist questions to be settled by fewer and fewer members of society, until capitalist politics become of diminishing consequence, appear ridiculous because they interest so few, and by that means strike directly at the confidence of the ruling class.

The constitutional form of government depends for its authority and permanence upon the numerical sanction it receives from those it governs. The more workers that support capitalist parties, the firmer and more stable is the capitalist rule.

Practical politics for the working class mean to organise for control of the political machine, in order to take possession of the means of life. The Government will introduce reforms fast enough when they are threatened with such an organisation. They have not yet commenced to throw any real sops or palliatives to the working class. When they do commence their concessions should be treated with contempt, for they cannot be anything else than paltry in comparison with the object the workers have in view.

The Labour Party denies that the interests of the workers and those of the capitalists are in conflict. To them working-class revolution is impossible : from their standpoint, therefore, Socialism, too, is impossible. The real Impossiblists are, for that reason, those who expect to establish Socialism with the assistance of the master class, and without revolution.

It is this elementary question which has to be recognised first—the fundamental basis of the working-class position—that the Labour Party declines even to discuss. Like the "Christian Socialist," they mouth the "brotherhood of man " and denounce class hatred, posing all the while as pacificators reconciling conflicting interests—regardless of the fact that reconciliation means submission for the workers.

The Labour Party assert that their object is the same as that of the Socialists, although their method is different. They consider this as sufficient reason for declining debates. They are not, however, above the contemptible tricks of the party politicians with whom they are associated. Mr. MacDonald snatches the opportunity afforded him by the publication of Mr. Walling's book "Socialism As It Is," to deal a blow at Socialism from a vantage-ground where he himself is inaccessible —the capitalist Press.

Mr. Walling's book, published at 8s. 6d., is not likely to be widely read by members of the working class, but an attack on Socialism in the "Daily Chronicle" will find many readers.

Under cover of a book review Socialism can be misrepresented ; and when the critic sets up for himself the object of his criticism, it is fairly easy to ridicule, or show its fallacy.

Mr. MacDonald, however, only boomerangs himself in trying to ridicule Socialism. At the very outset he tells us that "the impossiblist has to admit that his State can only be realised in stages." He forgets that if a thing is impossible it cannot be realised at all.

Next he complains that the Labour Party in this country "have to face in the most awkward way the difficulties of a party which can make public opinion outside, but which sees that public opinion used from time to time by Governments which they cannot control."

It is only necessary to read the programme of any Labour candidate, with its Liberal policy and reforms, to realise how absurd is this lament.

The Labour members, without exception, obtain their seats by compromise with the Liberals, so much so that Mr. Davis, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress, complained that "the Liberal party might be a little more generous in conceding seats in Liberal constituencies where vacancies arise. The Labour Party do not like to be asked to fight only those constituencies where there are strong Tory majorities."

The Liberal Press invariably supports Labour candidates. They stand for Liberalism in the absence of official Liberals. At Hanley the spectacle was witnessed of a Liberal Press unable to make up its mind which to support, leaning, if anything, toward the Labour man. If the Labour Party were a genuine working class party such things could not occur. The capitalist Press would denounce every candidate and the Liberal Party would not allow one seat to go uncontested. It is because Liberal and Labour form one party inside the House that they are so completely united outside.

Mr. MacDonald's claim that the Labour Party makes public opinion is absurd in view of the real facts. They merely assist the Liberals to foster Liberal opinions. The reward for their treachery takes the shape of an opportunity to contest, here and there, a seat in the Liberal interest.

Socialism is always impossible to the Labour faker, because to confess otherwise prevents his personal ambitions being realised. Seats in the House of Commons and other comfortable jobs are not given in return for Socialist propaganda, but only for capitalist propaganda.

The working class can only achieve their emancipation when they understand Socialist principles, and are determined to follow those principles to their conclusion. But they have first to learn, and the real Impossiblists are those who would teach them something else and at the same time claim that it leads to Socialism.
F. Foan

The Lansbury Lesson. (1912)

Editorial from the December 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

Exit Lansbury !

The Revolutionary Movement has not a great deal to thank Mr. George Lansbury for. For years he has more or less successfully exploited its name, waxing fat on the very outrage ; but at last he has tumbled, and in his fall has afforded those misguided workers who believed in his "Socialism," a lesson which, if they do but take it to heart, will serve them better than its author ever wittingly served anybody but himself. The Revolutionary Movement has to thank him for that!

We have always claimed that neither Mr. Lansbury nor any other member of the Labour Party is a Socialist. We have always held, and still hold, that there is not at the present time, and never has been, a Socialist in the British Parliament. Our position always has been that Socialism essentially includes democracy—the genuine thing, not the pitiful caricature some confusionist lips and pens love to portray. We have always held, as one of the primary tenets of our political faith, that a knowledge of the principles of Socialism, even together with an avowal of acceptance thereof, is not of itself sufficient to make a person a Socialist. Something more, we have maintained, is required.

This something more is goodwill. The Socialist must not only be one who understands Socialism and believes in it : he must be one who wants Socialism, and whose political activities, be they great or small, be they enacted in the full blaze of the Speaker's eye or in the humble obscurity of the street corner rostrum, are consistent with the understanding of what Socialism is, and with the desire for its speedy achievement.

We claim to-day that the political actions of Mr. Lansbury have never been consistent with both a comprehensive grasp of Socialist principles and a desire to see those principles triumphant. Whether they were inconsistent on the first or the second point it is not for us to say. It is not our duty to analyse every loud-mouthed claimant of the revolutionary title, and to assign him to his place, on this hand among the fools, or on that hand among the rogues. Our part is to show his non-Socialist character, and to oppose him on that sure and unquestionable ground. This we did in the case of Mr. Lansbury in his recent contest, when the Executive Committee of our Party passed the following resolution and instructed the General Secretary to send it to the Press :—
  "That as Mr. G. Lansbury is not a Socialist, and is therefore not standing for Bow and Bromley in the interest of the working class, the working-class electors in that division are advised to abstain from voting."
This very clear and definite statement was published by a large number of newspapers, in some cases with comments in kind. We do not flatter ourselves that our action affected the result, nor were we greatly concerned with that, but we challenged Mr. Lansbury's statement that he is a Socialist, and contradicted it in the most emphatic manner and in the most effective way in which we were able.

Naturally our action created a bit of a stir, and a certain section of the Press, who for some time past have made it a practice to refer even to the orthodox Liberal policy as Socialistic, affected to find our pronouncement false. Thus the "Globe" (22.11.12) said:
"Whatever the Socialist Party of Great Britain says, Mr. Lansbury stands for Socialism, and that is a fact which all electors in Bow and Bromley who are opposed to that policy should remember."
while the "Morning Post" (23.11.12) remarked :
  "Till the Socialist Party of Great Britain amplifies its statement with proofs, most people who know Mr. Lansbury and have heard him speak will continue to suspect him at least of Socialist leanings."
Well, the proofs are at hand. In his Election Address for the recent contest Mr. Lansbury makes no mention whatever of Socialism. Instead, he declares definitely that "the policy which I urge you to support is the only policy in these days worth fighting for."

Is that policy Socialism ? It is not—it is, in Mr. Lansbury's own words, "to put this question of Votes for Women in the very foremost rank of social reform." Is that policy part of the working-class struggle for emancipation? Mr. Lansbury himself supplies the answer when he says (Election Address) "four hundred men now in the House of Commons . . . pledged themselves at the last election to vote for the enfranchisement of women."

So, this policy, to which four hundred Liberals and Tories in the House of Commons are pledged, is "the only policy in these days worth lighting for"! Socialism, then, according to this man who (except in his Election Address) claims to be a Socialist, is not worth fighting for! The terse pronouncement is sufficient.

As we have said, the Socialist must want Socialism—and the man who says it is not worth fighting for cannot want it very badly. As we have said, the political activities of the Socialist must never belie his principles, but must always fit in with the struggle for its speedy triumph —the man who says that Socialism is not worth fighting for not only belies one of the first principles of Socialism (viz., that it is the only means for the emancipation of the working class), but he deliberately discourages the prosecution of the struggle for its achievement.

On this ground alone, we contend, our resolution affirming that Mr. G. Lansbury is not a Socialist is amply justified, and is quite devoid of that "element of comedy" which that beery journal the "Morning Advertiser," professes to see attaching to it.

We have said that Socialism includes democracy. It includes, therefore, the supremacy of the people over their representatives. Mr. Lansbury, however, says this concerning political parties:—
  "Many will come to you and talk of party and party principles, but believe me, we have been caucus ridden and party driven too long. . . . To vote according to one's conscience is often to be untrue to party, and I want you to send me back to the House of Commons to fight, irrespective of the convenience either of Government or party."
Now a political party is a group of people organised to achieve a certain object or objects. The duty of its representatives is simply to act as its agents. If they are sent to Parliament it is not "to vote according to one's conscience," but according to the "conscience," or the will and instruction of those who sent them there. A man is not representing the views of those who elect him on the guarantee of a party, and on the strength of its programme and principles, by voting according to his "conscience," if that involves being "untrue to party." Twinges of "conscience" should occur before accepting office. If they manifest themselves later they indicate simply that the sufferer is sensible of being in a false position—and the honest course is to get out of it.

Mr. Lansbury, however, did not get out of it. He was elected under the auspices of the Labour Party, and with the assistance of the Liberals. He was therefore elected to support the Liberal-Labour policy. Then he begins to set up his conscience. Was he representing the views of his constituents when he opposed the Insurance Act ? Was he representing the views of his constituents when he shook his fist in Asquith's face because forcible feeding was being applied to women of the class who forcibly starve ours? No. On the other hand, the man who aspires to be the champion of Votes for Women, with consummate impudence and conceit, disfranchised his own constituents by setting up his "conscience" against theirs, and opposing the policy they had sent him there to support.

The question of the merits of that policy is not raised in the slightest degree. Mr. Lansbury was elected upon it, and chose to flout it, until a group of "middle class" women got hold of him for their purposes. Then he has the impudence to come forward, not to ask his constituents if he may oppose the policy they sent him to support, but to tell them he has done it. He comes forward, asking those whom he has flouted and misrepresented for two years without scruple, to stake their every political asset on the vagaries of his "conscience."

And as if to touch the very limits of cynical impudence, he himself reveals the true value of that "conscience " by lamenting that: "In regard to the Osborne Judgment, we have also failed to secure . . . the complete reversal of this piece of judge made law"—a reversal which, Mr. Lansbury forgets to say, would simply restore to the "labour leaders" the opportunity of plundering trade unionists for the support of a party and a policy which even he, Mr. Lansbury, finds it against his "conscience" to adhere to ! So much for Lansbury's democracy. So much also, we may perhaps say, for his reputed "transparent honesty." It certainly has not proved very opaque to us.

The lesson for the working class is clear. Mr. Lansbury is a man with a following. Like all such, he is not particularly concerned with his followers understanding their position. He knows that he can only exploit their ignorance. Hence, instead of declaring for a definite set of principles, leading to a clear and worthy object, he mouths meaningless phrases about "fighting for the weak," and makes all manner of vague and contradictory promises. In this way, and trading on a certain seeming bland and open address, and a Christ-like compound of magnanimous and forgiving injured innocence, he manages to gather about him a considerable portion of those who are looking for someone to repose their simple faith in.

Being thus equipped with an extensive following, Mr. Lansbury is qualified to become a political "tool," so the Liberals take him up, through the Labour Party, of course. But Mr. Lanbbury is not content to remain a call-bird in the Liberal trap cage. He sees an opportunity of advancement in "Votes for Women." He says : "The fight for woman's enfranchisement is the biggest fight socially that is going on in this country." To be the biggest figure in the biggest fight is better than being an uncounted hair in the Liberal dog's tail.

So Mr. Lansbury throws over the Liberals aud adventures into that land flowing with milk and money, the Suffragist camp. He is received with open arms. He is just what is wanted—a man with an unquestioning following. He can provide them with a good run for their money, and there is plenty of that. True, there is his £400 a year to be considered, if he loses ; but that is a small matter where £10,000 is obtained at a single meeting.

So Lansbury, who claims to be a Socialist, becomes a Suffragist candidate, declares that nothing else is "worth fighting for," and sheds a lurid light on the whole business by making a grievance of the fact that (we quote his Election Address) "on the Conciliation Bill, which would have given votes to only a few women, Liberal and Irish Members who were avowed supporters of the Women's cause, either went into the Lobby against the Bill or abstained from voting." Who were those few women who would have been, enfranchised under the Conciliation Bill—rich women or poor? The answer to this question will show whose agent Mr. Lansbury is.

Those workers who, sympathising with Socialism without understanding it, thought they were sending a Socialist to Parliament whan, two years ago, they voted for Mr. Lansbury, have now something to think about. Well for them if they realise that they can never elect a Socialist by voting for a popular personality with a following, but only by voting for the clear, definite Socialist principles through a candidate put forward, guaranteed, and controlled by a political party based upon those principles.

There is but one such political party in this country; there is but one party so grounded in democracy that its candidates and representatives but the mouthieces and representatives of vital Socialist principles. That party ia the Socialist Party.

Those principles appear on the last page of every issue of this journal. Study them!

Capital and Labour in Paris. (1908)

From the April 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Tis a drizzly Sunday afternoon, and the great Place de la Republic looks at first glance much as usual. But a closer survey reveals the presence of a large number of policemen, some, indeed, standing in ranks under the wall of the Château d’Eau barracks, while opposite, an officer in glittering helmet talks with some persons who, in spite of their “bourgeois” clothing, betray the state functionary. What’s in the wind ? We pass out of the “Place” and see that the Bourse du Travail or Labour Exchange a few steps further on is honoured by the presence of a number of perambulating policemen. The mystery begins to clear: working men in republican Paris are holding a meeting. And why? To discuss what steps can be taken to alleviate or remove the workers’ ever-present curse —UNEMPLOYMENT.

The numerous speakers vigorously, aye, often eloquently, call upon the suffering toilers to get together and do things, but no efficacious scheme for the alleviation of unemployment shows itself.

All seem agreed that the overthrow of the master class and the control of industry by the workers, that is to say, the Social Revolution, is indispensable to the workers’ well-being. We note meanwhile that our Parisian comrades hope yet much from their traditional street demonstration, from “direct action,” a euphemism for various acts of violence.

At least they have outgrown the particular idiocy which consists in petitioning ministers, asking these to abolish capital’s reserve army— the unemployed.

As we leave the hall and go out into the street, the policemen by twos quickly mix with the crowd and we hear their “avancez!” “circulez!”—equivalents of the “move on!” with which English workers are familiar. Meanwhile across the boulevard opposite stand a long double line of Republican Guards, rifle by knee.

And we are told “there is no class struggle,” or if there is it does not matter.

And what a commentary are these typical Parisian scenes upon the worth of neo-Malthusianism, protection, and “democratic institutions" which reach their apotheosis in France!
John H. Halls

The Commune of Paris. Who shot the prisoners? (1908)

From the April 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard

Thirty seven years have passed since the 18th March, 1871, when the working class of Paris took the management of affairs into their own hands, though the Prussians were at the gates. What the working class did and how they did it has already been told in detail by Lissagaray ; and in the description, marvellous for the amount of information and deep analysis of. events, given in Marx's pamphlets on "The Civil War in France."

To-day the working class should study this historical event, not only as a record of the treatment meted out to them by their rulers, but still more for its lessons for their future guidance in their struggles with the bourgeoisie. The first lesson is that lying on the surface— the way in which the capitalist class howled and shrieked at the (mostly mythical) actions of the Communards. Taking their cue from what Marx called "the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption "—M. Thiers—they called for vengeance upon the "murderers" and "assassins" of Generals Lecomte and Clément Thomas, and denounced the Central Committee for their death.

General Lecomte was the one in command of the soldiers sent by M. Thiers to steal the cannon belonging to the National Guard at Montmartre. When the people surrounded the soldiers and persuaded them to leave the guns, Lecomte four times ordered the soldiers to fire upon the crowd, including women and children. Instead of doing so the soldiers took him prisoner, and wished to shoot him on the spot, but were induced by some officers of the National Guard to place him under guard in a house in the Rue des Hosiers and to send for the Central Committee.

There happens to be in existence a document detailing the death of these two Generals, by one of the enemies of the Commune—a Versailles officer—and published by P. Vésinier in his "History of the Commune." This officer details his own arrest with two companions, by the National Guard, and how they were taken to a house in the Rue des Rosiers and there met General Lecomte—all awaiting the Central Committee. He then says, "The Committee did not arrive. The crowd outside tired of waiting for it and its decisions, broke the window panes and every moment levelled a gun at us; but the officers of the National Guard, seeing the gravity of our position . . . thrust back the arms that were directed against our breasts and spoke to the crowd, (who yelled 'To Death !') and did everything to gain time, promising to defend our lives with their own . . . The window frame was broken by the efforts of those outside, and gave passage to the most furious of them. Must I say that the very first who laid their hands on the General were a corporal of the 3rd battalion of foot chasseurs, a soldier of the 88th infantry, and two Mobile Guards. One of the last two named miserable men, striking his face with his fist cried out 'you once put me in prison for thirty days: it is I who will give you the first shot.' This was a horrible scene . . . and all at once an old man, whom I did not know, was thrown into the midst of us who evidently had only a few instants to live. Lieutenant Meyer told me that he was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Rue Pigalle while going for a walk as a spectator." (This is incorrect. General Clément Thomas was caught, in civilian clothes, taking plans of the street barricades, and was arrested as a spy.) ". . . The unexpected arrival of the unfortunate General Thomas, so much detested by these battalions of Montmartre and Belleville on account of his just severity during the siege, had ruined us all . . . he was dragged a few steps aside and killed by ten or a dozen shots, . . . a few moments later, the unfortunate General Leccomte had to submit to a like fate in the same manner. . . . What was most to be lamented was that French soldiers were the first, at such a moment, to fire on their general, alone and disarmed; . . . ." (Signed) Captain Beugnot, (Ordnance Officer of the Minister of War. Versailles. March 23rd, 1871.

Here, then, is proof positive from the enemy's side, that these two Generals were shot by their own soldiers in the fury their actions had aroused. But the existence of this evidence did not prevent in the slightest the pouring out of wild rhetorical abuse upon the Commune. Just as to-day when some poor fanatic, either for personal or other reasons, decides to put an end to the existence of some royal or other ruling "head" of capitalism, the Press pumps up a deluge of mingled "sympathetic thrills" for the victim and "righteous indignation and horror" against the "assassin" at so much per "thrill" or line as the case may be; or as when the workers voted a Liberal Government into power here they were described as a "keenly intelligent section of the community, far too wise to swallow the sophisms of Mr. Chamberlain," but when, in Belfast, they wished to improve their economic condition, then they were "a mob of lawless rioters," and were shot down, regardless of sex, in the name of "Law and Order." Even as late as 1902, Mr. E. Emerson, in his "History of the Nineteenth Century," says, "The prisoners were shot on both sides." This is a deliberate lie, written in the interests of the ruling class by its paid agents, historians and others.

What may be called the beginning of the regular murder of the prisoners in cold blood was the killing of the Commune officers, Flourens and Duval, by Thier's soldiers on April 3rd. In response to public pressure, raised through these and similar actions, the Commune seized some hostages, including Archbishop Darboy, but merely kept them confined without any ill-treatment.

Several times the Communards offered to exchange five of the most prominent hostages, including the Archbishop, for one Communard — Blanqui — but Thiers refused. When it was pointed out that these refusals might result in the death of the "saintly" Darboy the answer was "We cannot help it." The murdering of the prisoners taken by the Versailles troops steadily continued, but not a single prisoner or hostage was shot by the Communards till after the entry of Theirs' soldiers into Paris—the first executions taking place on May 22nd, seven weeks after the death of Flourens and Duval. Then three were shot, and later six more, in each case by the people breaking open the prisons and demanding the death of the hostages, not by any official orders of the Commune.

In the same ''History" Emerson says 10,000 Communards were slaughtered in the streets, but even the official report of Theirs' Government admits something like 30,000 victims to its fury, and we may be sure that this report did not over estimate the number.

As far as different actions in war may be termed "bad" or "vile" there is one action proved against the Government soldiers that even the foulest slanderers of the Commune never dared accuse it of, namely, the firing upon the "Red Cross" ambulance waggons and surgeons. The following letter is published by P. Vésenier in his "History" (p. 231).
  "Citizen Editor," (of "Official Journal")—"We bring to your notice an unheard of fact accomplished by the artillery of Mont Valerien on the 3rd of April. About twenty surgeons, accompanied by seven waggons belonging to the International Ambulance Society, bearing the Red Cross of the Geneva Convention on white flags, were made targets of, and had it not been for a bend in the ground, in which they took shelter, the shells would have struck the surgeons and the wounded . . . The Physician in Chief of the Hotel de Ville, Dr. Herzfeld ; Deputy Physician, Dr. Claude."
Another rather thin shriek was the cry of "incendiarism!" "petroleuses!" Quite apart from the fact that the Versailles soldiers set fire to far more buildings than the Communards, both by petroleum and shells, it was the former who commenced the business by inundating a building with petroleum, at Ternes, where some National Guards had taken refuge, and burning them to death. In fact in every case of abuse of the Paris working class the facts show that it was the people of "order" who committed the deeds laid at the workers' door.

One of the useful lessons of the Commune was the workers' power of manipulating various functions in Society. Like other working class movements, the Commune had a large share of middle-class and professional men at the head of affairs, and the useful fact stands out that in those commissions dominated by the workers the operations were almost uniformly successful, while on those commissions dominated by the journalists and "intellectuals" the most serious blunders were committed.

Theisz, Varlin, Frankel, Camélinat, Treilhard, Jourde, were all working men, and their various departments were splendidly managed. On the other hand the "educated" leaders like Cluseret and Félix Pyat, only muddled everything they touched and threw their departments into chaos. The I.L.P. and Fabian drivel that the "intellectual expert" is required to guide the working class in its movement to emancipate itself is flatly contradicted by the history of the Commune. When it is recollected that the intellectual geniuses of the bourgeoisie require months to prepare even the simplest scheme of social action, the work of the proletariat in Paris, despite the mistakes made, shines sunlike by comparison. For it must be remembered that these actions were taken in circumstances of particular difficulty. Surrounded by hostile armies, both French and German; harassed by enemies within and without; with the services designedly thrown into the greatest confusion by the Government officials when they fled to Versailles, and above all, without time to develop or mature their schemes before they had to take part in the battle of the streets; yet they abolished night work in bakehouses, annulled rent debts owing during the siege, stopped the sale of the workers' articles in the municipal pawnshops, and even started a scheme for running the factories and works in Paris by the employees on a co-operative basis. That symbol of tyranny and oppression, the Vendome column, was pulled down, and the guillotine was burnt.

What a change came over the scene when Versailles gained the upper hand ! Then commenced that ruthless slaughter of men, women and children—after the fighting was over—that should sink deep into the minds of the working class as proving the contempt and loathing they are held in by their masters, and how little the latter, despite their bleating of "humanity" and "Christianity," cared for the human lives that stood stood in the way of their retention of power to exploit and dominate the working class. One of the biggest mistakes of the Commune was its humanitarianism, its kindness to its enemies, even to the last moment. All these actions were taken for signs of weakness by the Assembly, and a more ferocious vengeance could not have followed had the Communards shown the greatest brutality. For, be it remembered, the wholesale massacre was stopped only when the ruling class feared a pestilence from the heaps of corpses which littered the city. Then deportation began, and thousands were exiled to inhospitable New Caledonia.

The working class must draw the lesson and allow hate to take a larger place in their view of their enemies, and, when the time comes, to strike with all their might against their foes. In reality this is the most humane method. Had the revolutionaries of 1871 started by shooting Thiers and the whole Government of Defence, even though a bourgeois republic might have finally been established, it would have been with far less bloodshed than actually occurred.

Another lesson provided by the event is the necessity for sound organisation. When the enemy was within the walls then the suicidal Anarchist cry of "each man to his own arrondissment" arose. No one will deny that deeds of valour then took place, but these detached flashes of heroism were useless against the organised armed forces of the enemy. The other Anarchist nonsense, at one time called "direct action," and lately resuscitated under the term "taking and holding the means of production" by trade union action, is shown up in all its hideous fallacy.

Until the working class control the fighting forces any attempt to forcibly emancipate themselves by other means would merely result in the slaughter of unarmed men and women. But to obtain this control they must conquer political power. By this means and this means alone will the working class overthrow capitalism and all its horrors. And one of the most inspiring of the events, as well as valuable of lessons, in this battle will have been the Commune of Paris.
Jack Fitzgerald

The Gaelic American. (1906)

From the May 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Gaelic American. (New York.) In offering a new Mauser rifle, with knife-bayonet and ammunition, to readers securing subscribers, says in explanation, 
  "Ireland can only be made free by driving out the English. That can only be done by physical force. Physical force means war and the essential thing in modern war is good shooting . . . Until Irishmen learn to shoot straight they might as well be "whistling jigs to milestones" as talking of turning the English out of Ireland. Nothing but good shooting will drive them out . . . The Irish Nationalist in America who means business will learn to shoot. …"
However much we may regret that such spirited determination is evoked for an object which, even if realised, could only mean a change of masters for the Irish working class and not an appreciable change of condition, the unequivocal terms in which the reasons are expressed compel admiration.

Letter: Islands of socialism? (2020)

Letter to the Editors from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Socialist Party,

I’m a big fan of yours. I used to be a liberal, but you guys have opened my eyes and I would like to thank you for that. I have realized that the only solution to our problems and the way to a better life for all is through socialism. But, having read the replies under your tweets, I’m aware there is still a long road ahead.

However, there’s also something else that I’d like to address: what do you guys think of the Free Territory of Ukraine that existed from 1918 to 1921? Was that a real example of socialism working? They had no top down control (only a defensive military, which was needed considering they were under threat from all sides); they had collective property; lived in communes; used no money in most parts, and the parts that did use money were planning on abolishing it soon, and not to forget, they had working co-ops and direct democracy. They were quite successful and would have achieved more had the Bolsheviks not invaded them.

There have been other attempts to anarchism as well.

So would you say this was a real and good example of socialism working? If yes, why don’t you mention this in your tweets against all the ignorant people who ask ‘when has socialism ever worked’. Of course you would mention that in the future, socialism would have to be enacted on a larger scale, but this is as close as it gets out of all real life attempts so far, in my opinion.

Greetings from the Netherlands,

Tamee Gözübüyük

Thanks for your supportive remarks. It’s nice to feel appreciated. You make some interesting points and we agree that the story of Nestor Makhno and the Makhnovists deserves to be better known, especially as it is a good example of something which leftists often tend to gloss over.

Leninists usually excuse the top-down, authoritarian structure of the Bolshevik regime, as well as its murderous excesses, by saying that ‘there was a war on’. But that war didn’t stop the Makhnovists, who were under attack from both the White Army and the Bolshevik Red Army, from , as you say, trying to set up an egalitarian social system, although given the constraints they were operating under, whether we could call this ‘socialism working’ is somewhat debatable.

What it does show is that the Leninist justification is meaningless, and that the main reason Bolsheviks employed authoritarian repression was because that is the nature and mentality of Leninism. This vanguardist mentality is one of the things that makes Leninism quite different from the socialism/communism that Marx and Engels understood, and that we understand.

Ultimately the anarchist endeavour was defeated by armed force, and the same can be said of other famous attempts to establish such libertarian communities within capitalism, such as the 1871 Paris Commune. Such ‘islands’ will always be swamped by capitalism as long it remains globally dominant.

When we talk about socialism we mean a worldwide sustainable society of common ownership, with no leaders, so by our global definition socialism has never existed before. Temporary or small-scale experiments have certainly occurred at different times in history, but we tend to question their usefulness in convincing anyone of the viability of socialism. If anything, the very fact that they didn’t last long can be trumpeted as proof that socialism is not viable. Of course it’s not proof of any such thing, but neither is it proof that socialism could work long-term. Besides, not everyone finds such obscure historical debates either attractive or relatable. Perhaps what such attempts do show, however, is that the human desire for social equality, real democracy, free access and so on is very real and very strong, and the fact that people have acted on that desire in the past is a very good reason to think they will act on it again in the future, next time we hope with happier results. 

Automation & Unemployment (2020)

Book Review from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

A World Without Work. Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond by Daniel Susskind: Allen Lane. 2020. 326pp.

Will there be enough work to go round? That is the fundamental question discussed in this book by Oxford University economist and former government policy adviser, Daniel Susskind. His main concern is whether the rapid spread of automated work, most of it based on the use of artificial intelligence (AI), will, in the near future, lead to ‘technological unemployment’ and if so how that future society can cope with this.

In a compellingly written and clearly argued narrative, his thesis is that, even if in the past, fears that new technology would lead to unemployment have proved unfounded, the nature of current and ongoing technology, especially AI and the robots it is creating, will indeed mean that the demand for human work will ‘wither away’. He argues convincingly and with many salient examples that the potential of AI is such that even the many tasks which are highly important for human society to operate efficiently involving feeling, empathy and judgement will, contrary to commonly expressed views, soon be able to be done by machines. Such machines, he insists, are already in use or in the process of being invented, even if they cannot ape human means of carrying out certain important tasks, are capable of achieving equally (or more) efficient outcomes than the same work done by the manual or brain power of human beings. And if no action is taken to handle this ‘task encroachment’ (the term he uses to describe this process) the resulting ‘technological employment’ is likely to bring increasing social instability.

So what action does he recommend? Certainly not efforts to prevent technology from taking over human jobs, He quite understandably sees that as an impossibility in a system where the criterion for choosing between human work or automation is which is more profitable and where the increasing trend is for the cost of automation based on AI to fall. Instead, accepting that in the future there will be far less work for people to be employed in, he recommends an increased role for the state. He argues that the state (the ‘Big State’ as he calls it) will have to intervene, to regulate and to effectively prop up the living standards of workers by what he calls a ‘conditional basic income’, a variation of the currently much discussed idea of a ‘universal basic income’.

How this could work leads the author on to some interesting discussion about the difference between work and employment. In particular, though not seeing beyond the need for the current organisation of work as paid employment, he also sees another dimension of work – as ‘a source of meaning, purpose and direction in life’. And this connects with the socialist case for a world of voluntary work and free access to all goods and services. The argument often made against this is that such a system could not work since, without the necessity to make money to buy goods and services, people would not work, would not co-operate to carry out the tasks to make society operate efficiently and things would simply fall apart.

However, even if Susskind’s own field of vision lies firmly entrenched in the current society of wages and salaries, buying and selling and the pursuit of profit, it is possible to draw succour for a different system from much of what he says. His final chapter, especially, entitled ‘Meaning and Purpose’, contains the notion implicit in the socialist idea of a moneyless, wageless society that it is not inevitable for human beings to see work merely as a means of keeping the wolf from the door (i.e. gaining income from employment) but that, over and above the current employment system, work is a basic human need, has a ‘social dimension’ and provides ‘a chance to gain status and social esteem’.

In this connection, as pointed out by the writer, even today, in a situation in which most people have difficulty in imagining how society could be organised differently from the way it is, in the UK 15 million people still volunteer regularly, already half as many as are in paid work, and are engaged in the kind of activity referred to by the author as ‘work in pursuit of purpose rather than productivity’. In this they achieve, as he puts it, ‘value through community recognition rather than through market wages’. Then, towards the end of his book, the author quotes with apparent approval the description of work in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme as ‘not only a means of life but life’s prime want’.

So this is a book well worth reading not only for its knowledge of and insights into likely developments in the field of work within the capitalist system but also for its reflections on the nature and purpose of work generally. While the author does not imagine a society structured fundamentally differently from the current one, he clearly sees that work could, and should, be more than just the grind of employment that it is for so many and as helping to fulfil the basic human need for personal fulfilment and social interaction.
Howard Moss

The LTV: A Bad Criticism of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (2020)

From the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article on 12 January for the website Dissident Voice entitled ‘Marx’s Labor Theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism’, David Pena launches a stinging attack on the Marxian theory of value and outlines an alternative theory which he evidently considers more appropriate to an age of heightened environmental concern.

Pena is not exactly breaking new ground, though. The intellectual origins of some of his ideas can be traced back to writers such as Sergei Podolinsky, in the 1880s, a pioneer in the field of ‘energetics’, who tried to reconcile Marx’s labour theory of value with the laws of thermodynamics.

Classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo maintained that a commodity’s value depended on how much labour went into making it. This argument was taken up and refined by Marx. It is important to understand that Marx’s theory does not equate ‘value’ with the actual amount of labour it took to produce a good – ‘concrete labour’. If that were case there would never be any incentive to introduce labour-displacing technology since this would mean less value being produced. Rather the metric of value is ‘abstract labour’ – the socially necessary labour time it takes to produce a good, from start to finish, under average industry-wide conditions.

‘Socially necessary labour time’ is not something you can measure with a stop watch – like concrete labour. Moreover, it can only express itself through market exchange. As Marx explained: ‘Social labour-time exists in these commodities in a latent state, so to speak, and becomes evident only in the course of their exchange. Universal social labour is consequently not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging result’.(A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Lawrence & Wishart, Ch. 1, p. 45). Meaning the value of a product can change even after it has been produced as a result of ongoing technological and other changes.

Pena’s criticism
Pena begins by identifying what he believes is a basic flaw in Marx’s theory:
  ‘“Abstract human labor,” according to Marx, is the “value forming substance” that is “materialized” in commodities. … But how can an immaterial element (an abstraction) become materialized and take up residence in a physical commodity (like the word becoming flesh)? What a confusion of categories!’
This is making rather heavy weather over what is, after all, just a metaphor. That Marx saw value as something immaterial is quite true (even if he used a ‘material’ metaphor like ‘substance’). As he put it ‘the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition’ (Capital Vol 1, Ch.1). Value here is a construct in the same way as the statement, ‘the national average for children per family unit is 1.8’, is a construct. As far as we know there is no actual ‘material’ family unit consisting of 1.8 children.

For Pena, however, this smacks of a contradiction. How can something as immaterial and abstract as value become ‘congealed’ in (and thus, according to him, be transformed into) a material substance? Labour is a process not a substance. Consequently:
  ‘Despite all the talk about Marx’s materialism, his theory is obviously based on an immaterialist metaphysics, which holds that all commodities share a common non-material property that gives them exchange value. Marx is not a materialist after all, at least not when it comes to exchange value’
For Marx’s theory to be ‘scientific’, claims Pena, it needs to identify ‘an empirically detectable and measurable property that gives value to commodities, and a theory that is consistent with fundamental propositions of other relevant sciences, such as physics and chemistry’. But since abstract labour is not something physical and therefore not empirically detectable and measurable, it follows that Marx’s theory cannot be materialist or scientific.

Oddly enough, until recently there was no empirical evidence for the existence of black holes in outer space. Were the astrophysicists inferring the existence of such phenomena being ‘unscientific’ in doing so? The value of scientific theory lives in its predictive power and this is the basis on which Marx’s theory must be judged.

Naïve empiricism
It is precisely the kind of naïve empiricism Pena espouses which focusses only on the outer appearance of phenomena that Marx criticised in his analysis of capital. Capital is not a thing but a social relationship. As he explained in Wage Labour and Capital (1847):
  ‘A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.’
Pena is committing the same error as those who conflate these things. This can be extended to include also natural resources as in Schumacher’s comment that ‘Natural capital is the world’s stock of natural resources’ (Small is Beautiful, 1973). Inadvertently or otherwise this ‘has the effect of ‘naturalising’ capitalism, rendering its categories timeless and ahistorical.

Pena describes ‘value’ in much the same vein:
  ‘value in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual form of matter and energy, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker is an arranger and discoverer of values, but not a creator. Nature is the source of all values, not only use values, as Marx erroneously believed.’
So instead of commodities having in common the fact that they are products of human labour, their commensurability hinges on the fact that they all require energy to produce. As Pena puts it: ‘Rationally expended energy is the “common element” of all commodities. The amount of expenditure represented by the finished commodity is its objective exchange value.’

Pena thus wants to make ‘energy’ the fundamental metric of exchange value because it is physical and can be empirically measured (unlike the ‘metaphysical’ concept of abstract labour). However, exchange value presupposes and springs from commodity production and cannot really be understood outside of this context – which, unfortunately, is precisely what Pena wants to do.

We see this in his claim that value, ‘pre-exists human and all other life forms’ and has its source in nature. The perfect riposte to this is the rather colourful observation made by the nineteenth-century Ricardian economist John Ramsay McCulloch, as follows:
  ‘When a fish is caught, or a tree is felled, do the nereids or wood-nymphs make their appearance, and stipulate that the labour of nature in its production should be paid for before it is carried off and made use of? When the miner has dug his way down to the ore, does Plutus hinder its appropriation? Nature is not, as so many would have us to suppose, frugal and grudging. Her rude products, and her various capacities and powers, are all freely offered to man. She neither demands nor receives a return for her favours. Her services are of inestimable utility; but being granted freely and unconditionally, they are wholly destitute of value, and are consequently without the power of communicating that quality to any thing.’ (The Principles of Political Economy, 1864)
Nature, along with human labour, is of course the source of all use values but, as McCulloch points out, makes no contribution whatsoever to the production of exchange values. The latter is a product of human society and even then, only a very particular and recent form of human society called capitalism in which alone the law of value applies.

It makes intuitive sense that abstract labour should be the basis of value under capitalism since this system sprang from alienation of the great majority from the means of producing wealth. The economic compulsion this imposes on them to sell their working abilities – or ‘labour power’ – to the capitalists in return for a wage with which they can buy their own means of subsistence is precisely what makes for the generalisation of commodity production and, hence, for the ‘value’ to come into play.

The worker under capitalism does not approach the capitalist offering a particular bundle of energy (measured in joules) in exchange for a wage. Rather, they offer a particular skill which the capitalist specifically requires. The application of their labour power in the process of labouring is what creates a greater value than the value of the wages they receives and is the source of that capitalist’s great wealth.

True, labour in any society (including societies without commodities or markets) involves the expenditure of energy but so too does leisure, love-making and tending to one’s allotment. But none of these latter activities necessarily entail commodity exchange and the production of exchange values.

Value a social relationship
Pena does not see this because he does not grasp that value is essentially a social relationship based on economic exchange. His physical reductionist approach to the whole subject also informs his absurd claim that Marx’s labour theory is ‘bad for ecological socialism’. Since the theory posits only labour as the source of value it overlooks and devalues, he supposes, the contribution of Mother Nature to our material wellbeing.

But this is to totally miss the point. Marx’s labour theory of value is an explanation of the modus operandi of a system socialists want to get rid of, not perpetuate. We want to bring about a society in which the exchange values no longer exist and use values are the sole consideration. It is the very existence of economic exchange that gets in the way of our fully appreciating, and acting upon, the latter and is incompatible with ‘ecological socialism’.

Ironically, Pena himself calls for the retention of exchange value and even argues ‘If we cannot understand and measure value… we cannot have socialism’. But you cannot divorce ‘exchange value’ from the system of generalised commodity production called capitalism. And you cannot divorce capitalism from the relentless accumulation of capital it entails.

When Marx and Engels talked in the Communist Manifesto of the need to ‘increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible’ all they meant by this was that these needed to be developed to the point where human needs could be adequately met as a precondition of socialism itself. This was emphatically not a recipe for infinite growth, as Pena seems to think, or some Promethean desire for ‘production for its own sake’.

Unfortunately, by arguing for the retention of a system of economic exchange (and exchange values couched in units of energy), Pena himself is unwittingly helping to promote the very thing that increasingly imperils our global ecosystem about which he is (quite rightly) concerned.
Robin Cox

Capitalism is irredeemable (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Corbyn’s defeat won’t end the debate about capitalism’ wrote the editor of City AM (10 January) commenting on a report entitled ‘The Crisis of Capitalism’ by William Wright who runs a think-tank, New Financial, that puts out propaganda in favour of private enterprise and so-called ‘free’ market capitalism, his rather narrow definition of the term.

In his report Wright claims that ‘Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and millions of their political supporters want to turn capitalism on its head’, adding ‘Capitalism, it seems, is in crisis.’

So, it’s a crisis of legitimacy not an economic crisis that he is talking about. It is true that millions of people in the US, Britain and elsewhere are dissatisfied with the way capitalism is working and want something done about it. Hence the popularity of politicians like Corbyn and Sanders amongst a minority of the population. But to claim these politicians want to overthrow capitalism is going way beyond the evidence. What they want is to reform capitalism, with more government intervention than Wright would like. Warren even openly admits that she wants to reform, in fact save, capitalism. The other two talk of ‘socialism’ but mean a more state-regulated capitalism.

City AM’s editor made a fool of himself when he wrote that ‘Labour’s ideological error was to insist that the system’s vagaries, contradictions and flaws are proof of its irredeemable inadequacies.’ Labour has never claimed that capitalism is irredeemable; on the contrary they have always claimed – and did in their manifesto for the December general election which envisaged the continuation of a dominant private sector – that the profit system can be reformed so as to work in the interests of the many. But it can’t, as the failure of all Labour and other reformist governments has consistently shown.

Wright lists ten reasons why he thinks his version of capitalism has become unpopular with so many people. Basically, he attributes it to increased inequalities of various sorts (as between generations, regions, types of job contracts, as well the rich getting richer). According to him, ‘the relentless pursuit of profit’ in favour only of shareholders over the past 50 years has meant that ‘workers feel expendable, suppliers are beaten into submission on price, and consumers often feel exploited.’ Further, the increase in ‘market power and concentration’ has had the result that ‘large firms become more powerful and monopolistic, stifling competition and undermining the wider benefits of capitalism to consumers.’ Big business acts as if ‘it doesn’t have to play by the same rules, such as paying tax’, so, with governments going along with this, ‘creating an uneven playing field between large and smaller companies – and between capitalism and consumers.’

This seems a fair list of why Wright’s variety of capitalism has become unpopular, but there’s not much that governments can do about it. They can make Amazon and the others pay more tax and bring in some laws against consumers being swindled. But private enterprises can’t be prevented from relentlessly pursuing profit for their owners. Nor can the concentration of capital into larger and larger units be reversed. These are not ‘vagaries’ or ‘flaws’ of capitalism, but are built-in – irredeemable—features of the system.