Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Russian Challenge. (1915)

From the March 1915 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We have received the following and publish it in order to show the trickery resorted to by the pseudo-Socialists responsible for the London Conference in endeavouring to exploit the Russian Socialists , whose challenge they dare not face.

Comrades, – Your Conference calls itself a conference of the Socialist parties of the allied belligerent countries, Belgium, England, France and Russia.

Allow me first of all to draw your attention to the fact that the Social-Democracy of Russia, as an organised body, as represented by its Central Committee and affiliated to the International Socialist Bureau, has received no invitation from you. The Russian Social-Democracy, whose views have been expressed by the members of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Group in the Duma, now arrested by the Tsar’s Government (Petrovsky, Muranoff, Badaoff, Samoiloff representing the workers of Petrograd, Yokaterinoslaff, Kharkoff, Kastroma and Vladimir districts) have nothing in common with your conference. We hope that you will state so publicly, as otherwise you may be accused of distorting the truth.

Now allow me to say a few words with regard to your conference, i.e., to tell you what the class-conscious Social-Democratic workers of Russia would expect from you.

We believe that before entering upon any deliberations with regard to the reconstruction of the International, before attempting to restore international bonds between Socialist workers, it is our Socialist duty to demand:
  1. That Vandervelde, Guesde and Sembat immediately leave the Belgian and French bourgeois ministries.
  2. That the Belgian and French Socialist parties break up the so-called “bloc national” which is a disgrace to the Socialist flag and under cover of which the bourgeoisie celebrates its orgies of chauvinism.
  3. That all Socialist parties cease their policies of ignoring the crimes of Russian Tsarism and renew their support of that struggle against Tsarism which is being carried on by the Russian workers in spite of all the sacrifices they have to make.
  4. That in fulfilment of the resolutions of the Basle conference we hold out our hands to those revolutionary Social-Democrats of Germany and Austria who are prepared to carry on propaganda for revolutionary action as a reply to war. The voting for war credits must be condemned without any reserves.

The German and Austrian Social-Democrats have committed a monstrous crime against Socialism and the International by voting war credits and entering into domestic truce with the Junkers, the priests and the bourgeoisie, but the action of the Belgian and French Socialists has by no means been better. We fully understand the conditions are possible when Socialists as a minority have to submit to a bourgeois majority, but under no circumstances should Socialists cease to be Socialists or join in the chorus of bourgeois chauvinism, forsake the workers’ cause and enter bourgeois ministries.

The German and Austrian Social-Democrats are committing a great crime against Socialism when, after the example of the bourgeoisie they hypocritically assert that the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs are carrying on the war of liberation “against Tsarism.”

But those are committing a crime no less stupendous who assert that Tsarism is becoming democratised and civilized, who are passing over in silence the fact that Tsarism is strangling and ruining unhappy Galicia just as the German Kaiser is strangling and ruining Belgium, who keep silent about the facts that the Tsar’s gang has thrown into gaol the parliamentary representatives of the Russian working class, and only the other day condemned to six years penal servitude a member of Moscow workers for the only offence of belonging to our party, that Tsarism is now oppressing Finland worse than ever, that our Labour press and organisations in Russia are suppressed, that all the milliards necessary for the war are being wrung by the Tsar’s clique out of the poor workers and starving peasants.

On behalf of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party,
London, February 14th, 1915.                  M. Maximovich.

Blogger's Note:
The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, also known as the Bolshevik Party, later changed its name to Communist Party.

“M. Maximovich” who signed the statement was Maxim Maximovich Litvinov, Commissar for Foreign Affairs 1930-1939.

Correspondence: The "Daily Herald" Finds a Defender. (1921)

Letter to the Editors from the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

To the editors.

The current issue of the Socialist Standard drifted into my hands this week, and I was somewhat surprised to find an article by "D.W.F." attacking the "Daily Herald."

It may be possible to look down upon the "Daily Herald" from the lofty pinnacle of Socialism, but is it not possible for Socialists to admit that the "Daily Herald" is in advance of the rest of the daily Press ? It may obtain funds from the co-operative societies and trade unions, and trade union officials may have a voice on the board, but is it not good for the workers that trade unionists have a voice in the policy of just one of the many daily papers ?

Why sneer at the "Daily Herald" for advancing its price from 1d. to 2d. because the capitalists will not buy advertisement space ?

Why allude to the editor as "the renegade Atheist Lansbury?" I do not judge a man by the opinions he has held, or does hold. I judge him by his works, and I venture to say that George Lansbury will go down in history as one of the few men of this generation who have accomplished something for the betterment of mankind.

George Lansbury has spent his life in working for the proletariat; after years of endeavour he has established a workers' paper that makes its voice heard amidst the retrograde screeches of the capitalist's Press. If D.W.F. finds the paper not to his liking I would remind him that the circulation is only some 300,000 in a population of forty millions, therefore there is plenty of scope, and I think that instead of "crying down" the most advanced paper we have, he would be better employed in copying George Lansbury (if he can) and starting another advanced paper more in keeping with his personal views.
E. Julius Mills.

Mr. Mills having come into possession of the November "S.S." through its having "drifted" into his hands, has let at least one item of its contents drift into his head, namely, an article by myself applying some moderate criticism to the "Daily Herald." I say moderate because the criticism would have caused greater displeasure to him had I found time to go into the subject in greater detail. For instance, I did mention that the subject of his championship boxes the compass politically in every issue, or I should rather say, nearly boxes the compass, the qualification being admissible because one point of politics is always avoided, and that is Socialism. This, however, causes no disappointment to the Socialist, who would not look to such a reactionary journal for his principles. Nevertheless it is necessary that the non-Socialist worker who is seeking knowledge shall be warned of the pitfalls set for the unwary in the shape of pseudo-Socialist journals and organisations. The "Daily Herald" coming in the former category, is exposed so that the awakening consciousness of the working class shall not be stifled through its agency. We Socialists have an objection to seeing seekers after truth progressing sideways like the crab ; we know the necessity of forward movement, and as far as we are able we ensure it. Any casual examination of the doctrines propounded in the "Herald" will show the confusion of thought with which its readers are confronted; for instance, side by side with pious protestations that Socialism is the only ultimate cure for the disabilities imposed upon society by capitalism, one will find a medley of appeals for its palliation, such as nationalisation or public ownership of mines, railways, tramways and the like.

Let me put a question to my critic. If Socialism is the only thing that can benefit the worker, how can he claim that Lansbury is "working for the proletariat" by inducing them to waste their energies in chasing will-o'-the-wisps which he and his scribes admit will not ultimately benefit the worker, which means that if all their palliatives became accomplished facts the Social Revolution would still have lo be attained? Lansbury and his gang know full well that whilst the workers are engaged in shadow-chasing those things that matter are being neglected, and this is a knowledge shared by all misleaders of the working class, from Tory Coalitionists to Lansbury and his satellites.

In reply to the query "is it not possible for Socialists to admit that the "Daily Herald" is in advance of the rest of the daily Press ?" as I said in my contribution to the November issue, the "Daily Herald" tells a little more of the truth than its avowedly capitalist rivals "when it suits the powers behind it"—from which it may be gathered that the "advance" is a mere instrument in their reactionary policy. As to whether it is "good for the workers that trade unionists have a voice in the policy of just one of the many daily papers,'' that depends entirely upon the daily paper, and when one finds that the contributors to the "Herald" are interchangeable with nearly the whole field of the capitalist Press, one is not moved to transports of delight in this regard. Let me quote a few of the luminaries of the labour firmament who scintillate from the columns of the "'Daily Herald": J. H. Thomas, John Scurr, Ben Tillett, Margaret Bondfield, Ben Turner. How long does my critic think the working class will require to overthrow capitalism if such are to be their teachers?

I deny sneering at the ''Herald" for raising its price. The Socialist Party have had to raise the price of the "S.S." recently, but not because the capitalists would not buy advertisement space. We, being a Socialist organisation, do not accept capitalist advertisements, and surely it should be obvious to my critic that the capitalist is not likely to support that which is out to overthrow him. It is significant that the "Daily Herald" gets even the advertisements that it does. Mr. Mills has probably also noticed that there has been some back-scratching just lately between the paper he champions and the "Evening News" over the new ''Advertisers Demand Nett Sales" dodge, and if he stretches his memory a little he will remember that Mr. Lansbury explained in an article on the "Russian Gold" that the "Daily Mail'' and other capitalist papers came to its aid over the period of the paper shortage. Apart from all this it is clear that journals touting for advertisements have to suit their policies to their advertisers' liking. Could Mr. Mills imagine the "Daily Herald" attacking the Co-operative Wholesale Society or Messrs. Bolsom ?

When the class conscious workers decide that the time is ripe for the Socialist daily paper they will support it and see that its welfare is not bound up with the activities of capitalist advertisers. They will want to be posted as to the progress of the movement and the steps the enemy are taking to crush it, not to read about Pelman's for Pimply Brains. They will expect and get the uncompromising hostility of the capitalist class.

No, George Lansbury has not "spent his life working for the proletariat." On the contrary, he has spent it in very effectively working for himself.

The prospect that is offered to me, as a parting shot, that I copy Lansbury—ye gods, a prospect indeed!—by "starting another advanced paper more in keeping" with my views would be very enticing if it were not for the fact that this population of 45 millions includes a few too many millions of people who think as my critic does, and who therefore stand in the way of working-class emancipation by supporting political charlatans and time-servers instead of working for Socialism. In any case, were the workers ready to start a Socialist daily it would not be for me to do it. I or some other individual or individuals might be the instruments chosen, but it would necessarily be controlled by the organised class conscious workers themselves and run according to their dictates, and not "more in keeping" with my views, or those of any other individual.

Maybe my critic has got too set in the habit of letting things "drift" into his hands and head, but if not my advice to him is that he should stop the "drift" policy and adopt a new plan. That plan is to study Socialism, understand it, and then join in the fight for the overthrow of capitalism, for the new world which awaits the proletariat when they have discarded their chains—a world in which no man shall be another's master : all shall be free.
D. W. F. 

Saving The Rates. (1921)

From the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is often stated that Labour representatives busy themselves with affairs that are of no concern to the class they are elected to represent. Indeed, they appear to go out of their way in order to give effective support to measures that are calculated to serve the interests of the class which exploits labour. A superficial examination of the workings of any municipal authority will show that its function is usually confined to matters of supervising the running of profit-making trams, gas-works, or any old thing which can be utilised for the purpose of producing a profit in order that the rate-payers (that is, the property holders) shall not be unduly pressed. Any worker, if he be candid, will tell you that he doesn't care a rap whether the streets are paved or not so long as his job is secure and a wage coming in. That is where he is chiefly interested. Consequently, whether the rates be high or low it cannot be of any concern to the worker. Being a propertyless person and a wage slave into the bargain, it cannot be held that he possesses any assessable property. Living, at the best of times, virtually from hand to mouth, his chief concern is the getting of the wherewithal to fill his mouth. If Labour received all the wealth it produces— that is, all wealth—then the story would be different. All of which is a sufficient reason why the doings of the Labour men on the v»rious municipal bodies should be condemned, since they all appear to go the same way. A recent instance at Lambeth is a case in point.

The Borough Council formerly put out all its refuse collecting to contract. Due to pressure by the labour members it was decided to intro duce a scheme of "direct municipal enterprise." To use a less fanciful term, it was resolved that they shift their own muck. The borough engineer's estimate worked out at something like £9,600 for six months. After working the scheme the actual cost proved to be nearly £1,000 less, which made a total saving in four wards of £3,235 on the lowest tender for contract work. This is an instance of "saving the rates" in which Labour representatives excell.

It might be argued that since Labonr doesn't benefit either way, what's the odds? But it matters a great deal, because if these men were to devote the time, energy, and money spent on easing the "burden" of the master class to a different purpose—that of getting to understand the real interests of the workers and then getting others to understand—then the odds would be in our favour. As it is, the work of these individuals only redounds to the credit of the capitalist class: being the dominant class in the present system of society it follows that only its welfare is worthy of consideration. If these people are not doing their duty to the class they pretend to represent, then obviously the thing to do is to repudiate them and expose their work on every possible occasion. This applies especially to those who hold good and lucrative jobs both in the House of Commons and in the various trade unions. They believe the workers to be sheep that require to be led, whereas they are asses—for allowing it. It is time the game of "follow my leader" was played out. What is needed is not leadership, but knowledge—in large doses. This is easily accessible to the worker if he will not be side tracked by any such rubbish as benefiting by the saving of rates.

A last pointer: which is troubling the workers most at the present moment—rising rates or falling wages ?
Tom Sala

Capitalist Fears and Admissions. (1921)

From the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

The ever-increasing development of machinery—a law of existence to capitalism—begets problems faster than they can be solved. "Efficiency," the watchword of the capitalists, works with a boomerang effect through the glutting of world markets and compulsory closing down of industry, and a realisation of this sets to work the brains of professors, journalists, and individual capitalists, thinking out schemes for the weathering of commercial storms which grow more intensive in ratio with increasing productive forces.

So it is that the capitalist Press gives a large amount of space to the discussion of society's problems, and the more conscious members of the master class-draw attention to and attempt to solve the various problems.

"Printer's Ink" for November contains a report of a speech delivered by Wm. B. Dickson (President Midvale Steel Corporation) before the American Society of Engineers, in which he declares:
  "Efficiency in all lines of human endeavour is greatly to be desired, yet I fear that we are in danger of making a fetich of efficiency such as to endanger human freedom. It is a deadly menace in a people clothed with political power but stunted in body and soul by their environment. . . The tendency [sic] of modern industry is towards autocratic control of the workers through ownership of what our Socialistic friends term 'the tools of production,' which include not only the natural resources, but also the furnaces, mills, factories, and transportation systems." (Italics mine.)
Just how this autocratic control of the workers arose, exists, and is maintained has been explained innumerable times in the columns of the "S.S."

Divorced from the ownership of the necessary tools of production, the workers are compelled to sell the only power they possess—the power to labour—and in return receive wages which represent in the main only the bare necessaries needed to produce that labour power, despite the fact that their energy, applied to the materials they work with adds value to the subject of their labour. The products, however, remain the property of the masters, who proceed to realise their profits by selling the products on the market. Thus, being dependent upon the masters, the workers are enslaved and subjected to exploitation, which grows more and more intense, with the result that ever more quickly markets are flooded and more workers are thrown on their own resources—which means that they are at liberty to starve.

Lest we appear biased, let Mr. Dickson describe the process of shutting down industry. He says :
  "The merchants were driven out of business, real estate values were depreciated, and the workers were thrown on their own resources and had to break up their homes and seek employment elsewhere. None of these persons had any voice in the momentous decision, which was made in a New York office and which resulted in social paralysis in all of these communities. . . . It is the effect of the unconscious insolence of conscious power. . . By reason of this condition we have the unstable situation of a government founded on the suffrages of men who—for all practical purposes—and industrially bond men."
Coming to his solution of the problem the steel magnate declares for a "fair system of collective bargaining," and insists that the worker must be given a real stake in the enterprise, slyly suggesting that the employee should be induced to invest his savings. Also a greater measure of management must be introduced according to this capitalist sociologist, who goes on to issue the following warning to those who will have nothing to do with "industrial democracy."
  "My answer to this is that all human relations are not static but dynamic, and unless I am mistaken as to the direction and force of the tide which is now running so strongly in human affairs your choice will not lie between the present system of industrial control and industrial democracy."
Ah ! the cat is out of the bag. Of what can Mr. Dickson be afraid ? SOCIALISM ! as is obvious from his quotation from Carnegie's "Problems of to-day." 
  "Revolutionary Socialism is successfully to be combatted only by promptly conceding the just claims of moderate men."
What a noble compliment to the pseudo-Socialists who are the formulators of "just claims" and so-called working-class reforms. Like the Italian premier, Mr. Dickson would like to be able to declare that "Socialism has been prevented for at least fifty years," but because he is not confident in either his own solution or the many other palliatives which have been advocated at different times and in so many different guises, he is compelled to fall back upon the bourgeois religion of hope. He concluded his address with the following: "I am hopeful that our generation will guess the sphinx riddle, and that 'Out of the nettle, danger, will pluck the flower, safety.' "

So much for Mr. Dickson. We will now turn to another defender of the bulwarks of capitalism, Mr. Hoover, who is reported by the New York "Daily News" of November 20th as saying before the Federated Engineering Societies that 
  "the intermittency of unemployment . . the ever-present industrial conflicts by strike and lockout produce infinite wastes and great suffering. The aggregation of great wealth with its power to economic domination presents social economic ills which we are constantly struggling to remedy."
Hoover, like Mr. Dickson, is concerned with the removal of this condition of affairs which gives the workers innumerable object lessons which, with the aid of Socialist analysis, will bring them to a definite acceptance of Socialism. He asserts that employers frequently overlook the fact that "Labour organisations as they stand to-day are the greatest bulwarks against Socialism."

He also advocates shop committees "imbued with the principle of co-operation" and. discloses another "shilling under the foot," for apropos of the recent agitation on the part of master-class associations against the closed shop he remarked: "There would be little outcry against the closed shop if it were closed in order to secure unity of purpose in constructive increase of production by offering the full value of the worker's mind and effort as well as his hands." In other words, a BRAIN-SUCKING SCHEME with which the British worker is familiar under the guise of Whitley councils, Nationalisation schemes, etc.

Mr. Hoover's solution is no solution, but an aggravation of the problem, as indeed all capitalist solutions tend to be. Although they see how they are compelled to dig their own graves they are also compelled to evolve even bigger tools for the purpose. Shop committees, whether built up from the more conservative unions or the ultra-revolutionary (sic) industrial unions, will, according to his theory, serve as the instrument for removing minor points of friction in this industrial machine, as well as contribute by suggestion towards more efficient development.

Always tinged with the insatiable greed for wealth, the solutions offered by the master class fall short, as that very profit lust is the expression of the causes of the problem and it cannot be solved without their self-abolition or without the working class organsing for that purpose.

While production is social the product is privately owned, and as the workers can only absorb wealth according to their meagre purchasing-power, and the master class cannot dispose of the surplus wealth even by indulging in stupendous orgies of waste, distributing centres become choked with wealth and the cycle of unemployment and starvation in the midst of plenty is gone over again until the wealth is gradually absorbed and the channels once more freed. Private ownership, then, is the root cause of the problem; and it is at the root cause we must strike.

Capitalism is rotten, as is evident from a glance over the headlines in any newspaper. Crime, disease, oppression, starvation, indicate the social and economic bankruptcy of the system of private ownership of property, and we of the working class can confidently go ahead to wield ourselves into the party which shall take the helm and usher in the system that, for the first time in the history of man, shall make freedom possible. While the masters are futilely trying to "pluck the nettle," we Socialists shall continue the educational work which makes the roses grow on the cheeks of a working-class party determined to make use of the political power with which we are clothed and digging out the weed of capitalism which chokes most that is best in human relations.

We declare with Engels: 
  "To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed proletarian class a full knowledge of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement—Scientific Socialism."

My Lady Tells 'Em Orf. (1921)

From the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ingratitude is a most despairing fault. Whenever or wherever it rears its ugly form combat must inevitably be given by those among us of culture, tone, and gentility. Small wonder then, that my good Lady Bathurst should feel so distressed at the alarming evidences of working-class ingratitude around her. So disturbed is she in her contemplation of the dire effects of their ungrateful attitude that the kindly lady has spared a few of her precious moments to rebuke them, gently but firmly, in a letter to the Press.

Let us hope that their ingratitude is not so hopelessly ingrained that they will not feel at least a tinge of gratefulness for the solicitude so potently portrayed in this generous admonition. Hear her !
  Nowhere in the world was so much done for the working class as in England. Privileges and gifts were showered upon them by the Government, by local authorities, and private individuals. Clubs and halls, hospitals and libraries, were maintained for them, but she had noticed of late years these things were accepted as a matter of course ; they were not in the least grateful."—("Daily News," 15.1.21.)
The charm of this rebuke lies in its restraint. Who could have been surprised if her ladyship had adopted a tone more curt? Even violence of expression the circumstances would warrant. Her ladyship's late lamented friend Lord Fisher would doubtless have done greater justice to the theme. It is quite possible the time given to penning this kindly warning to the workers might have encroached on a visit to the opera, or perchance have delayed her in allowing her maid to dress her for a ball. Surely the reasonableness and charity of my lady cannot be lost on those workers she has had to chide, and the spirit of her homily will not go unheeded. Let those workers see to it that in future no such cause for complaint is left to agitate this generous lady. Remember, she and her class never show ingratitude toward you, the workers. True, they never show gratitude either, but where's the need ? You plough their land for them ; you till the soil ; you burrow your way into the bowels of the earth and bring to them minerals for their use and wealth for their aggrandisement. You sweat yourselves and stint yourselves in your mad haste to procure and fashion all that makes their lives an orgy of enjoyment. You starve your minds and bodies and your children's minds and bodies, so that they and theirs may have pleasure and leisure. You shed your blood, you mangle your limbs, you surrender to the tortures of the factory hell your progeny in their service. And yet they need not show you gratitude ! They need not even show you decency.

On, on, fellow workers, will you go in your hopelessness, and idle parasites will lecture you in their mocking tones until— —. Until you learn the simplicity of your emancipation ; until you see the hope that lies in your dormant mighty strength, and, rousing yourselves, you sweep away for ever the subjection of your class. In the consummation of your mission you will have rid your contemporaries of the pest of indolent ladies and their patronising insolence will have been forgotten.
W. H. S.

Voice From The Back: A Class Divided Society (2011)

The Voice From The Back column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Class Divided Society

When socialists describe capitalism as a class divided society some of capitalism’s supporters dispute this claim, but here is one dyed-in-the wool supporter of capitalism who seems to be agreeing with us. “Britain is dividing into ‘two nations’,” Iain Duncan Smith warns today, as he identifies a growing underclass for whom life is comparable to the Third World and who can expect to die in their fifties. … Speaking just days after publishing his Welfare Reform Bill with radical measures to drive people into work, he said: ‘In Britain today there are pockets that are peculiarly Third Worldish in terms of life expectancy, general expectations, disconnection for a group that is growing in number’” (Times, 19 February). Needless to say Smith’s determination to ‘drive people into work’ applies to the working class not the useless parasitical capitalists.

A World of Inequality

There is a widespread illusion that we live in more equitable times than previous generations, but recent statistics from the World Bank give the lie to that notion. “A sharp rise in food prices since June has pushed 44 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty – having to live on less than $1.25 a day – according to a report by the World Bank” (New York Times, 15 February).

Class Division in India

A visit to an Indian city such as Calcutta would convince the visitor that it is a country of extreme poverty and qualifies as what the press call a “third world country”. You can see homeless families seeking out an existence living on the streets but that is only part of the story. “In a wedding estimated to have cost Kanwar Singh Tanwar, the groom’s father and a member of Parliament, £15 million, about 30,000 guests ate 100 different dishes and the couple’s main gift was a seven seater helicopter” (Times, 4 March). For a tiny minority of Indians a life of undreamt affluence is the norm in this “third world” country.

Hard Times – For Some

We are told ever day by the mass media that we are living in hard times and that we must be prepared to tighten our belts. Longer working lives, lower pensions and the threat of growing unemployment are the prospects for the working class. This period of “economic reality” does not affect the owning class of course. “Carlos Slim gets even richer as he beats Bill Gates to the top of the 2011 Forbes billionaires list. Carlos Slim, the world’s wealthiest man, saw his fortune jump $20.5bn last year as he beat a record 1,209 rival billionaires, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and British resident Lakshmi Mittal, to the top of the Forbes global rich list” (Daily Telegraph, 10 March). In case you imagine that this only applies to Mexican, American or Indian billionaires Forbes informs us that the Duke of Westminster managed to increase his stack to $13 billion last year.

Land of the Free?

American politicians are fond of boasting about the “land of the free” and contrasting the freedoms of people in the USA with that of other countries, but recent developments in the state senate in Ohio seem more dictatorial than democratic. “Ohio joined Wisconsin on Wednesday in advancing a plan to restrict public sector unions, posing a new threat to U.S. labor union power in one of the most politically and economically important states. The Republican-controlled Ohio state senate approved a proposal to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employees and forbid government workers from going on strike” (Reuters, 2 March).

The Ganja of the People

Away back in the 19th Century Karl Marx once stated “Religion is the opium of the people”, but how do you respond to this 21st Century news item? “The sale of marijuana has been banned by authorities in Nepal during a popular Hindu festival at which holy men traditionally smoke the drug. About 500,000 people and thousands of holy men travelled to the Pashupatinath temple in Katmandu for the festival, which marks the end of winter. … Police stopped people from dealing but did not prevent the holy men from smoking the drug” (Times, 4 March). Perhaps the Christian holy men should take a leaf out of the Hindu’s book, it might help their falling church attendance figures. “Truck on Jesus man”, may become part of the new holy orders as a way to fill those empty collection plates.

Pathfinders: Brain Strain (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just recently a song by a 13 year old singer has been ‘trending on Twitter’ and ‘going viral’ with 16 million views on YouTube. Not the latest offering from Justin Bieber to his adoring teeny tribe of ‘Beliebers’, but something truly and insanely bad. So bad that many are calling it the worst song ever. Being so devoid of any merit has guaranteed the song’s runaway success.

So what’s the point of watching something when you already know it’s dire and you’re not going to like it one bit? Logically there shouldn’t be any reason. But people find bad performances hilarious. We often do the opposite of reason. We’re not predictably rational beings.

There’s quite a lot of interest in ‘irrationality’ these days, with analysis from FMRI scans to show that our supposed act of free choice has already taken place down in the brain’s scullery, moments before milord ‘consciousness’ rings the bell from the upstairs library.

This is very worrying for those who like to feel in control and who obsess about the notion of ‘free will’. If all our frontal lobe clever-clogness is really being primed and directed from below stairs by the witless emotions of the limbic system and the savage lusts and dreads of the amygdala, where does that leave the notion that humans are rational creatures?

Such an idea lies behind various theories to the effect that investors think they’re being rational when in fact they’re really responding to a herd instinct, or to emotional triggers. Economic trends and crises come about, it is argued, precisely because people do not always pursue their immediate self interests as they ought to, and this wild and woolly behaviour is what makes outcomes unpredictable and therefore financial disasters unforeseeable.

Here is classical determinism in disguise, the idea that the world is fundamentally mechanical and manageable, if only we could understand our own thought processes.

But financial crises are unforeseeable in any case, or they wouldn’t be crises. As socialists are obliged to point out, capitalism would always be an unstable and unpredictable system even if the investors were androids with telephone number IQs.

But there is something to the idea that we’re not as rational as we think we are, though it doesn’t take scans with giant magnets to show it. Let’s not forget that we’re animals, after all, and rationality is something of a new invention for us.

An interesting bit of research on climate change attitudes shows that different socio-political groups tend to believe evidence put forward by scientists who appear to be most like themselves, whereas they will reject the same arguments if made by someone they identify less with (New Scientist, 19 March).

This will be no great news to people in marketing, of course, who know that the customer buys the salesman first and the product second, but it is of some concern to scientists hoping to communicate scientific ideas to the general public and in so doing to influence public policy. It is also of some concern to socialists hoping to achieve a similar level of communication. It is not just about the argument, it’s how you dress it up and deliver it.

But are we talking about ‘irrationality’ or merely redefining the term ‘rationality’ with a little more finesse? Two plus two is always going to equal four, whatever your amygdala says about it. The fact that our thought processes may begin with primitive urges doesn’t mean that they are enslaved by them, and that we simply can’t make rational choices about our existence. The bigger problem facing socialists as well as scientists is not how we process information but how and from where we get it in the first place.

The process of rationality may be more complicated than used to be thought, but it still relies heavily on the information available to it, and most decisions made by people today are likely to be poorly informed rather than fundamentally illogical. And being poorly informed is not the same as being stupid.

A recent survey from the Birmingham Science City suggests that 30 percent of the UK population, based on a sample of 3,000 respondents, believe that time travel is possible. 50 percent believe that memory-erasing technology exists, around 25 percent believe in teleportation and light sabres, while 18 percent apparently think they can ‘see’ gravity

It would be interesting to see the wording of this survey however, and it is not at all clear that the short quiz on the website bears any relation to the survey.

Did the survey ask if humans could be teleported, which is impossible, or subatomic particles, which is debatable? Were the ones who believed in light sabres the youth end of the statistical distribution, who had all got broken ones in their toy cupboards, or perhaps adults who had heard all about military laser cannons?

Did the question about time travel include a picture of a Tardis, which is fictional, or a wormhole, which is a hypothetical point in spacetime which might function as a shortcut for high energy particles? Were the ones who believed in mind-wiping reading too much Philip K Dick, or were they maybe recalling 20th century lobotomy techniques?

In short, were the respondents really as thick as planks, or were they being ambushed? One question in the quiz runs thus: Can stars sing? The correct answer to this, apparently, is ‘yes’. The explanation given is that stars oscillate, and that these oscillations when converted into sound waves can give an idea of the size and age of the star.

A better response to the Birmingham quizmasters would be ‘No, you dorks, because sound doesn’t travel through space’.

People make bad investment decisions, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t understand markets and they take bad advice from people who pretend to be experts but in reality are often crooks. People invest in capitalism too, even though it is fundamentally against their best interest. But that doesn’t make them either irrational or stupid. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s my brain wot done it’ is just an excuse for not taking responsibility.

There are always organisations and groups out there keen to show that workers are dumb brutes who need strong leaders to tell them what to do. When the cognitive sciences play into their hands, socialists need to cry foul.
Paddy Shannon

Seeing the trees and the wood (2011)

From the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
  A tree surgeon reflects on why no business can give due regard to the needs of workers and the environment
I am, I suppose, a businessman; not, I should say, from choice but more from the need to follow a prescribed and necessary course; necessary, because, were one not to, inevitably the business would fail and fall by the wayside. I say businessman, now, but thirty years ago I would have called myself a ‘tree surgeon’, or ‘woodman’ without the slightest feeling of inadequacy or embarrassment. Admittedly the term ‘tree surgeon’ does sound rather more grand than the reality of the work, pruning, cutting and working with trees, and certainly does not have the prerequisite of six years’ intensive study at one of the country’s finest universities. Nevertheless a tree surgeon is what I was and work with trees is what I did.

I have often thought back and wondered why I found myself in this industry. The reasons, actually, are quite simple. I loved working outdoors and with my hands; I loved practical problem solving, such as one comes across when dismantling a large tree using ropes in a confined space or in a dangerous condition; I love trees and nature and moreover I enjoyed the work; so much so that I looked forward to the day’s work with interest and enthusiasm. Now, over thirty years on, I have what most people would view as, a successful business; it employs twenty-three people and is well respected in its field – a success story, some might say. So why do I feel unhappy about the place I find myself and why do I find myself questioning the very thing that has enabled me to live in some comfort and pursue my interests and generally enjoy life? The reasons are many but maybe I should start by returning to the beginning and explaining how the business evolved and how it became more and more apparent to me that to operate a business within the system, under which we are all obliged to work and function, could not be done in a way that is commensurate with good practice with regard to people and the environment.

After thirty five years of running a tree business, I think I have a reasonable idea of what I am talking about with regard to the needs and workings of the industry that purports to care for trees in the environment. I also hope that the illustrations below of how my business; although, in reality it could be any business, is quite simply always on a collision course with all that should be right and proper in the pursuit of ‘care of trees’.

The beginning

This is a job that cannot be done alone, one needs to climb the tree and be assisted by a colleague on the ground who helps with the roping and clearing of the cut branches and timber. I used to work with a young chap and would charge the client exactly what I paid him, in those days about £20 per day. It was soon pointed out by my accountant that this would not do; I needed to charge him out at at least three times what he was paid thereby making a profit on his labour.

Therein lay the first step that formed the uneasy gap in what had been a breezy, happy relationship. Now, all these years on, the gap has widened and the company (me) has very much become ‘the employer’, always under pressure to hold down wages or cut corners to maximise profit. I am not saying we treat staff badly or that our work is shoddy, but there is no doubt about it the pressure and conflict are always there.

The ‘care of trees’

This is a term used by most of us in the industry to describe our work. It implies that the work we do is good for trees, makes them ‘better’, is necessary for their well-being and without which they would not survive. The reality of the situation is quite different; 95 percent of the work we do is entirely unnecessary and probably in the majority of cases actually harms the tree. So, what do we do and why do we do it?

Most of our work involves removal of parts or all of the tree or trees. This is usually to solve a perceived problem such as loss of light, leaves falling into gutters or to make space for some form of development. In the vast majority of these cases if we are to abide by scientific recommendations with regard to correct pruning times – which often dictate that work is undertaken over many years to allow the tree to recover from the pruning work – we simply would not get the job, as people will almost always be drawn to the cheapest option, that is, to do the work in one visit thus incurring the least possible expense. As the business is driven by the need to make profit there is no means by which we can operate in the interests of the tree.

Furthermore, all of the jobs we undertake involve an estimator visiting the client to assess the job and provide a quotation. Often the client will be seeking three or more estimates for the work, which may only involve the pruning of a single apple tree, so, when analysed, a small job necessitates at least three people travelling anything up to thirty miles, sometimes more, vast amounts of paperwork and a team travelling in heavy diesel vehicles to do what less than fifty years ago would have been undertaken by a local woodman or even by the owner themselves, all this just for the cheapest price; The cost to the environment speaks for itself.

Although for the owners of trees the work undertaken, either at their request or on the recommendation of the tree surgeon, might seem necessary, the pressure and temptation for the estimator, having driven to the site and needing to ‘get the work in’ is undoubtedly to find work even if it is not needed either by the client or the tree. I am of no doubt that companies are constantly recommending unnecessary and potentially damaging work on trees.

Treework in relation to the environment

I have mentioned the need for long and pointless journeys above but let me mention all the other facets of our work that impact detrimentally on the environment. Ideally, we would use hand tools, such as cross cut saws and axes to cut timber and natural materials for our ropes, clothing and other essentials but, as we are driven by the need to make a profit, we need to get a job done quickly, hence the need for the fast chainsaw – itself, a very dangerous tool. A recent research paper has found that a single hour’s use of a medium sized chainsaw is as damaging to the environment, in terms of emissions, as driving a small saloon car for over two thousand kilometres.

The need for speed when undertaking potentially hazardous work in itself creates a greater likelihood of staff having accidents or, through pressure of time, not working to a high standard; the net result of this is a reduction in job satisfaction and self worth. It seems strange to me that we live in a climate of health and safety and yet something as obvious as this as the reason accidents happen completely escapes the powers that be. Although when one thinks of it when has the health of a working person ever been more important than the bottom line?

Working conditions

The heavy snow in December meant that it was impossible to carry out most of the work we normally do. Suddenly the staff became very worried that they would not be paid if they could not work and the brutal reality was, that, no they wouldn’t.

We reached an agreement in the end which meant that they could choose to take unpaid leave or holidays but the reality of the situation is, that the snow was not their fault and their way of life and plans were compromised. You may ask why were they not paid? The answer is that they were for a brief period but, under the present system, more than a few days would not have been possible as the company would go out of business and then they would not have a job at all. It, like all wage problems, leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth and creates all the usual bad feeling and misery.

We are expected, naturally to provide all workers with serviceable and safe tools and equipment to work with. I will say no more other than the cost of such equipment is a major consideration when the need arises to buy or replace such items. We do our best but I have heard of another company who, to save costs, did not service a wood chipper and it came loose from the vehicle which was towing it and crashed into an oncoming car, severing the woman driver’s arm. There are many more similar stories in this and other industries that clearly indicate that the bottom line comes before safety.

I mentioned above that our company employs twenty-three people. Of those, six are wholly involved with finance such as estimating, typing quotations, bookkeeping, invoicing and purchasing. Thus, over thirty percent of staff carrying out work that in a society without money would equate to free time. I have not included our accountant’s time or the time saved by the workers who, as part of their work, earn the money to pay for the ‘non workers’.

Treework in a socialist society

Working with trees will always, by its nature involve hard physical work but then, as I have already said, the work is enjoyable and rewarding especially when planting trees for the future or solving a problem for someone not to mention the exercise and fresh air (when not using a chainsaw!). Much of the work we do now would be undertaken with no need to rush and always with the highest safety precautions in place. Work would, undoubtedly be very local and without the need for long journeys. When bad weather prevented work, workers will not need to worry that they will lose out; they could simply do the job another time and use the opportunity to relax or pursue another activity.

Work carried out on trees will be undertaken in a way that is sympathetic to the environment and the general health and well-being of people and in a manner that avoids harm to the tree. Tools would be made to last and work practices would as far as is practically possible, be in harmony with the environment. But, above all, work would, once again, be a pleasure, with everybody equal and with the joint aim and shared pleasure of producing work at a craftsman level unfettered by bosses demanding unrealistic targets and destroying the potential for the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well. Wages would be non-existent; but then, who would worry as everybody would have all they needed to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Working on that problem tree would, once more, be the pleasurable experience it was when I first started 35 years ago…

A final thought

I have sat high up in the branches of trees that are hundreds of years old; such trees are often seen as a nuisance when the aphids that suck on their leaves secrete honeydew on a smart car below or drop leaves that blow around the garden. Such trees began their lives before capitalism, before the dawn of the motorcar or the industrial revolution; If they could impart knowledge from within their deepest heartwood, or tell of all that they have seen and learnt since the day when the first leaf emerged from the rich soil, what would they say? What would they tell us; us who cut them to pieces with power saws fuelled by the decayed remains of their long dead relatives; whose activities are destroying countless millions of their cousins in the Amazon and Malaysia; who are poisoning the very air that they breathe… that all is well?

Trees grow slowly, time has an entirely different meaning to them; they do not feel the need to work quicker for more profit. They lay down each year’s wood, their buds swell and the leaves burst forth and finally sail down to feed the soil below; they watch and see all around them.

Will a young tree growing today see the end of this destructive society and some time in the future provide shade for a person who with much leisure time on his hands, sits with his back resting against the gnarled trunk and looking up through the beautiful canopy of green thinks to himself “How could we have once lived like that?”
Glenn Morris