Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. A Criticism. (1921)

Book Review from the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

As Mr. Wells's history approaches modern times it lays greater stress than in earlier epochs upon changes in economic conditions and their profound effects upon social and intellectual life. The reason is, of course, the fact that the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries—the most striking and momentous economic change in the annals of man—is so conspicuously at the root of all the characteristics peculiar to "modern society" that its importance cannot be overlooked nor an account of it shirked.

At the close of Chap. XXXVI. 12, after dealing with the "Enclosure Acts" and the beginnings of the factory system, we find this, for the most part, fine passage :
  As the Industrial Revolution went on, a great gulf opened between employer and employed. In the past every manufacturing worker had the hope of becoming an independent master. Even the slave craftsmen of Babylon and Rome were protected by laws that enabled them to save and buy their freedom and to set up for themselves. But now a factory and its engines and machines became a vast and costly thing measured by the scale of the worker's pocket. Wealthy men had to come together to create an enterprise ; credit and plant, that is to say, "Capital," were required. "Setting up for oneself" ceased to be the normal hope for an artisan. The worker was henceforth a worker from the cradle to the grave. Besides the landlords and merchants and the money-dealers who financed trading  companies and lent their money to the merchants and the State, there now arose this new wealth of industrial capital—a new sort of power in the State.
Many so called Industrial Histories do not state the facts so clearly and frankly as does the above quotation. In a later chapter Mr. Wells deals at greater length with the Industrial Revolution, but while it is itself described in a fairly satisfactory manner, some of its effects upon society are missed. Little mention is made (probably by design, as will be seen later) of the horrors and miseries of the new factory system, nor of the child slaves of the factory lords. The cycles of industrial crises—among the most conspicuous phenomena of the 19th century—are not mentioned at all.

Mr. Wells treats briefly of the early trade unions but, strangely enough, omits to make mention of the Chartist movement. The life and brilliant, though Utopian, schemes of Robert Owen are dealt with at some length as being typical of the Utopian school of thought. Although the authors' misconception of the Marxian theory lead him to make some very foolish criticisms, he provides the following testimony to Marx's foresight and clarity of thought:
  A sense of solidarity between all sorts of poor and propertyless men, as against the profit-amassing and wealth-concentrating class, is growing more and more evident in our world. Old differences fade away, the difference between craftsman and open-air worker, between black-coat and overall. . . . They must all buy the same cheap furnishings and live in similar cheap houses ; their sons and daughters will all mingle and marry; success at the upper levels becomes more and more hopeless for the rank and file. Marx, who did not so much advocate the class war, the expropriated mass against the 'expropriating ' few, as foretell it, is being more and more justified by events. Chap. XXXIX. 2.
In an earlier chapter the author points out that "The 'solidarity of labour' is, we shall find when we come to study the mechanical revolution of the nineteenth century A.D, a new idea and a new possibility in human affairs."

In the light of the three quotations given above what shall we think of the following extract from an article by Mr. Wells in the "Sunday Express," 14.11.20?
  Das Kapital (by Marx) a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. . . . when I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constitute the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows.
Is this only confusion of thought of an extraordinary variety, or is it deliberate journalistic humbug and lying ?

A point which is worthy of comment and appreciation because it is so rare to find it recognised by a non-Marxian writer, is the fact that Mr. Wells sees in the economic needs of the capitalist class the factor which produced "popular education." After mentioning the sectarian night classes and Sunday schools of the early 19th century he says : 
  The earlier, less enlightened manufacturers, unable to take a broad view of their own interests, hated and opposed these schools. But here again needy Germany led her richer neighbours. The religious teacher found the profit-seeker at his side unexpectedly eager to get the commonality, if not educated, at least 'trained.' The student of English magazines of the middle and later Victorian-period may trace the steadily spreading recognition of the new necessity for popular education. . . . At the back of this process was the mechanical revolution . . . insisting inexorably upon the complete abolition of a totally illiterate class throughout the world. (Chap. XXXIX. 2.). 
Surely Mr. Wells missed a golden opportunity here of demonstrating the truth and utility of his great theory of "nomadization"?

In the final chapter of the history proper an account is given of the "imperialism" of the European "Powers" and of the political events which led up to the "Great War," followed by a brief but excellent record of the military side of the war itself. In dealing with earlier wars Mr. Wells makes much of "the Powers" as social forces, discusses their "rivalries," and constantly refers to the "traditional policy" of this Power or that. All this is in the approved style of the usual bourgeois "historian." The social forces upon which these "rivalries" and "traditional policies," nay, even the very existence of the "powers" themselves, are based are almost entirely unrecognised.

The author deals in the same barren way with the ''Great War." To him it was the inevitable outcome of rampant "nationalism" and "imperialism," but what these were the inevitable outcome of he does not tell us. Here again "nomadization" might have been pressed into service. That war is a necessary result of the capitalist method of production and that nationalism and imperialism are but the theoretical and political expression of two successive phases of this system, Mr. Wells fails to recognise. More satisfactory by far is the account of the material, social, and mental effects of the war. Here Mr. Wells gets nearer to bedrock economic facts. He is greatly influenced by and quotes lengthily from the "Economic Consequences of the Peace," by J. M. Keynes.

In the final chapter of his work our historian ventures a forecast of the future of society. He sees the ideal community of the future as a "Community of Knowledge and Will." This, if interpreted as a community of knowledge and interest is quite an acceptable forecast. The various details of this society which Mr. Wells enumerates we need not trouble about. Criticising Utopias of the distant future is a waste of energy. Vividly he points out the possibilities inherent in the machine. 
  This—and the disappearance of war and the smoothing out of endless restraints and contentions by juster social and economic arrangements—will lift the burden of toilsome work and routine work, that has been the price of human security since the dawn of the first civilizations, from the shoulders of our children. Which does not mean that they will cease to work, but that they will cease to do irksome work under pressure, and will work freely, planning, making, creating, according to their gifts and instincts. They will fight nature no longer as dull conscripts of the pick and plough, but for a splendid conquest.
He discusses the possibilities of and tendencies towards this ideal community, but the fact that he denies the socially constructive importance of the modern class struggle drives him to the conclusion that the only hope lies in a great revival of moral enthusiasm (which he mistakenly calls "religion") combined with "education." We also believe in. the efficacy of education —revolutionary education amongst the world's proletariat. But Mr. Wells's "education" is a universal instruction for social service. We also believe in that, but see and point out that it is an impossible dream in a society grounded on exploitation and class-rule. Such a scheme of education can and will only be achieved after the Socialist Revolution— not before.

It is Mr. Wells's opinion that the ruling class of to-day can be persuaded by reasonable, humanitarian arguments or by far-sighted self-interest to bring about a "re-adjustment" of society which will gradually abolish exploitation and class distinctions. This opinion we cannot share. It is opposed by the whole teaching of history. No ruling class when faced by discontent and revolt ever acted in such a manner. To expect our present rulers to do so is to wallow in superstition rather than stand four-square to science.

Mr. Wells has guided us through latter-day history upon a plan of his own. He has emphasised the stupidity and ignorance of our ruling class and its political representatives, but his standard has been an idealist, not a realist one. Gladstone, a typical capitalist statesman, is declared, for instance, a "grossly ignorant man." But W.E.G. can only be considered ignorant in a relative sense. Everyone is ignorant by some standard of wisdom. Gladstone did what was expected of him by the class he represented. He conformed to the conditions imposed upon him. He was sufficiently wise for his task and no wiser. Thus he became the most popular and revered statesman of his age —he became "great."

But the great "sin of omission" on the part of Mr. Wells is that he fails to point out—in the present writer's opinion deliberately refrains from pointing out, for he must know of it—that for greed, stubbornness, and rapacity in the defence of their interests—even their most grossly material interests—the capitalist class of the present order have shown themselves worthy successors of the slave- and serf-holders of proceeding periods, whilst for political craftiness the earlier ruling classes were "children at the game" in comparison with the modern, bourgeoisie,  

Why does Mr. Wells make no mention whatever in his review of the nineteenth century, of the Paris Commune ? This was no mere political episode, but an object lesson in sociology and, as such, one of the most significant occurrences of the century. Mr. Wells is no "drum and trumpet" historian, but to him as to the common run of bourgeois historians the Commune is taboo. With its 100,000 working-class victims the Paris Commune tears aside the veil of hypocrisy and humanitarian cant which envelop the social relations of our day and reveal naked the power-lust of the capitalist class. The more recent history of the class struggle in Russia, Finland, Germany, and Hungary but confirms and strengthens our view. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive that Mr. Wells, with his knowledge, really believes in the tactic of moralising the capitalist class. In the present writer's opinion Mr. Wells knows better. But as an experienced and "successful" writer and journalist, camouflage (to be polite) is one of the tools of his trade.
#    #    #    #

In conclusion : It is one of the minor tragedies of capitalism that in this "scientific age" the scientific history of our race has yet to be written. Material in abundance lies in the archives, museums, and libraries of the world, and the theoretical means thereto have existed for close upon a century. But the capitalist class forbid. Let us work mightily for the great day when those social parasites which thus paralyse the activity of that supreme product of evolution—the intellect of man—will be banished with the dead and gone into the limbo of the past.
R. W. Housley.

A Tilt at a Travesty. (1921)

Book Review from the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Illusion, A Critical Review of the Principles of State Socialism. By Reginald Tayler. Allen & Unwin. Paper, 1s. 3d. 

It will be noted that Mr. Tayler entities his book "The Socialist Illusion" and immediately qualifies his title by describing the work as "a critical review of the principles of State Socialism." It is difficult to tell from the reading whether the author is aware of the wide difference between Socialism and the purely capitalist notion of nationalising industries under the control of the capitalist State. In places it would almost appear that he does realise this difference, though nowhere does he attempt to prove his "Socialist illusion." Instead, he shows the fallacies of State Socialism and nationalisation, though this has been done long ago by the Socialist, and far more effectively.

In a long chapter entitled "Economic Factors" Mr. Tayler labours pitifully to persuade his readers that the capitalist only gets a very small share of the total wealth produced and that he is really necessary to production. In another chapter, on "State Confiscation," he says that the Labour leaders, while denying that Socialism means confiscation, mean that and nothing else. Holding this view he should have tried to show the fallacy of trying to establish a new order of society after the capitalists had been expropriated. Instead, he devotes his space to the much easier task of showing what a financial mess the State would be in if it took over certain industries, either paying for them or guaranteeing a dividend or interest, while at the same time fixing a higher standard of living for the workers, maintenance while unemployed, etc.

"The State as Captain of Industry" heads another chapter, in which it is declared that trade, under salaried managers, would languish and die, forgetting meanwhile that the big and thriving concerns under capitalism are run in this way, and are rapidly ousting the small concerns managed by their owners. In chapter 6, where our author pretends to deal with the question of production under Socialism, it would almost appear that he is entirely ignorant of the meaning of the word Socialism, or even of many of the phrases he uses, such as "production for use," "under Socialism there would be no trade in the sense in which we understand it," etc. Under Socialism, he says, every undertaking would have to pay its way, consequently useful services, like railways, etc., will cease to be run because the extra costs of running would swallow up the small dividend now paid.

Instead of levelling his criticism at Socialism Mr. Tayler merely tilts at nationalisation, the red herring that the Labour Party drags across the path of the workers. This is the more remarkable seeing that he deliberately accuses the Labour Party of being out for confiscation, which by depriving the capitalist class of ownership in the means of wealth production, would naturally leave them in the workers' possession. His chief mistakes are due to the fact that he has failed to conceive the possibility of the working class attaining sufficient knowledge to establish a system where the means of life, being owned in common, could be operated according to a settled plan without the intervention of trade.

Under capitalism exchange, or trade, must take place because the product of labour is privately owned. But under Socialism it becomes merely a question of producing and distributing, or making available the goods and services required. Each member of the community would take part in the necessary labour and enjoy the fullest life possible under the existing conditions and development of the means of production.

Mr. Tayler sees in capitalist society the distribution of goods taking place on a basis of exchange and imagines that it is this exchange that effects the distribution. But the exchange is merely a social arrangement ; the actual distribution is a result of working-class activities. The workers first produce and then move the goods to where they are wanted. The social arrangement that imposes exchange on top of these quite adequate operations are those historically developed institutions, private, or class, ownership of the means of wealth-production—and therefore of the wealth produced— and the commodity character of human labour-power. On these trade and commerce are built up, and Mr. Tayler on page 21 exclaims, "A marvellous thing is commerce" and on page 23, "Socialists in destroying commerce would destroy the machinery for producing wealth."

True, commerce is a marvellous thing, not for the production of wealth, however, but for its appropriation by the ruling class. Commerce enables the capitalist class to realise the surplus-value contained in commodities, the difference between the wages paid for their production and their real value. Mr. Tayler has read all about surplus-value and his only comment is that "so far from there being a surplus, there is in a large proportion of cases a minus" (p. 53). And again on p. 132, "It was always nearer the truth, and is so still, that Labour received at least eleven pence in the shilling and often the entire shilling." He tries to prove these wild statements by imaginary cases of concerns that have gone on paying wages when no profits have been forthcoming, and by figures recording capitalist failures. But whether a firm fails or succeeds is not evidence that the worker's commodity is paid for above its value.

But "what a marvellous thing is commerce" from the worker's point, of view! The competitive struggle for markets between capitalists falls entirely on the workers. It is they that must produce ever more cheaply by working with greater intensity for wages that are continually being reduced with the slackening of demand. It is the workers, too, that starve when there is abundance, when the markets are choked with commodities they cannot buy because they are unemployed. Truly a marvellous thing is commerce, Mr. Tayler's machinery for producing wealth—those who work it cannot satisfy their own needs, while those who own it are powerless in the face of its staggering over-production, which is the root cause of the intense conflict for markets.

Sometimes our author exposes his own lack of understanding of ordinary terms and definitions. On page 49 he says : 
  "So also the labour power expended upon a commodity is not more than one factor in its production. Take for example the machines which are used. Probably the actual construction of the machines has been the result of mechanical labour, but who knows exactly what brain power has been expended in the invention and development of the machine, and not only of the machine as a whole but of the many individual parts which in their turn have demanded the application of the brain power of perhaps scores of persons not one of whom was a mere artisan."
Here we see that his conception of labour-power is "mechanical labour" or the labour of "artisans," whereas within the term labour power is included not only low-skilled labour, but the organising abilities of the foremen and managers, and even the intellectual qualities of professionals. The fact that the possessors of such forms of energy have to sell them in order to live, places them all in the same category, i.e., purveyors of labour power. All are combinations of nervous and muscular energy. In supposing that labour power means only that combination of nervous and muscular energy common to labourers and artisans, Mr. Tayler shows a lamentable ignorance of bourgeois economics, which long ago accepted the definition of labour power given above.

Again on p. 27 he shows that he is incapable of drawing a correct conclusion from his own facts. In a paragraph too long to quote in full he supposes a group of capitalists who pool  their money, build a factory, install machinery and provide raw materials. He then says: The workmen are got together, they do their first week's work and receive a large sum collectively in wages. The capitalists have meanwhile received nothing." We might ask Mr. Tayler to whom the product of the first week's work belongs, and if that product is nothing.

But on page 51, when our author finds it necessary to show that capitalists are business-like as well as philanthropic, he finds himself in agreement with the Socialist, for he says that "the manufacturer, being a business man, buys labour power just as he would any other commodity with the hope of making a profit therefrom." His group of capitalists, therefore, were possessed of the best intentions towards themselves, even if ultimately they failed to build up a thriving concern.

Mr. Tayler's chapter on "State Confiscation" is very amusing. On page 58 he says 
  "Marx sought to prove that the capitalist was a spoiler and a robber, and the present-day followers of Marx—that is to say practically all those persons who call themselves Socialists—believe that theory. Now to take from a robber his ill-gotten gains and hand them back to the rightful owners is not confiscation but restitution." 
As Mr. Tayler throughout his work has failed to disprove the charge of robbery he cannot logically object to restitution.

On page 59 he says
  "How can anyone suppose that the notion of compensation would ever enter the heads of such people. To compensate a robber and bespoiler would be the height of absurdity. Besides, who would compensate ? Not the workers themselves, because if they had it in their power to give value for value they would be in no different position than before. And in any case to pay for the good things of life would be quite a prosaic proceeding compared with obtaining them by political power, suddenly and in immense quantities, on that great day when the shackles of economic slavery fell from the limbs of the workers." 
But Mr. Tayler is afraid to follow this line of reasoning which knocks the bottom out of Fabian and l.L.P. nationalisation schemes and at the same time renders all his subsequent remarks superfluous because they are directed against just such schemes of nationalisation based on the condition of compensation. It is significant that he does not attempt to deal with the correct Socialist position because he says emphatically, though without evidence to justify the statement, "When Labour agitators speak of nationalisation they mean confiscation, for nothing short of this would really satisfy their aspirations."

The foregoing do not exhaust the errors, misrepresentations, and contradictions contained in the book. These are to be found on every page. There is nothing new, and no argument that has not been tried against Socialism before and smashed to pieces against its invulnerable principles. All the old bogies are hashed up afresh in the struggle to frighten the workers away from Socialism. But those who understand the principles of Socialism will be quick to see how pitifully weak it all is.
F. Foan

A Lesson in Politics (1921)

Editorial from the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

Reports to hand of the result of the Parliamentary elections in South Africa furnish the usual lesson to those who follow the Labour Party policy of building up a political party with unsound—because politically uneducated—material. As to the issue between the Smuts and the Hertzog, we do not feel the slightest interest in that. But if it is true, as the “Daily Chronicle” (11.2.21) states—and we have no reason to doubt it—that the former party “have already won 72 seats out of 132, . . . It has been won largely by the effacement of the Labour party, whose strength has fallen from 21 seats to 9,” then we are interested in as much as we are called upon to point the usual moral.

We have stated time and time again, even to weariness, we are afraid, the only issue upon which the workers can be organised to pursue a steady and consistently progressive path is the plain issue of Socialism. That, of course, means long years of educational work, but it is the only way. When the workers understand the principles of Socialism all side issues cease to interest them. A question such as shall South Africa become a republic or remain part of the British Empire is the sort of question politically ignorant workers can be led to butcher each other over for ages, but the Socialist, who knows that the only thing that matters is whether the workers of the world are to live under capitalism or under Socialism, is not going to be side-tracked into voting capitalist upon ANY issue.

Letter: Again—Have We? (1921)

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

145 Ham Park Road,
Forest Gate, E.7.

Dear Sir, —Quite inadvertently, I am sure, you do an injustice to my good friend William Montgomery Brown in imputing plagiarism to him on the strength of "The Communist's" notice of the book ''Socialism and Christianism." You, I know, will welcome it as a sincere piece of writing on the theme of your official manifesto on the complete incompatibility of religion with Socialism. The foreword to part 1, which is headed "Communism : The, Naturalistic, This-worldly Gospel for the Coming Age of Classless Equality and Economic Freedom," is a quotation from your manifesto and clearly acknowledged at the foot of the page. You will be glad to make the amende honourable in your next issue.
I am yours truly,
George Underwood.

[Mr. Underwood encloses with the above a leaflet advertising the ex-Bishop's book and offering prizes for essays in the judging of which our pamphlet "Socialism and Religion" is to be the standard. We are glad we did not attribute plagiarism to the author.—Ed. Com.]

Leaders and Leadership. (1921)

From the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent appointment of a prominent official of the Miners' Federation to a remunerative government post emphasises, once again, how logical the Socialist Party is in its fierce opposition to all forms of leaders and leadership. It will, perhaps, be instructive at this juncture to examine and analyse at some length the relative position of the leaders and the led, and to trace the motives that instigate the desire of so many members of the working class to follow blindly anyone with the ability to impress upon them the qualifications generally considered necessary for successful leadership.

The Socialist, holding as he does a materialist conception of the universe, and understanding how great a part environment plays in the development of the individual, realises that the mentality of the majority of the workers is such as provides an excellently fruitful soil for the sowing and growth of the leadership idea. They—the workers—are taught from youth upward that they are beings of a low order of intelligence; that they must obey implicitly the precepts and orders of certain people who are supposed to "be much wiser than they; that theirs is not to reason why, but to do or die in whatever way their "superiors" may ordain. They have instilled into their minds from childhood by the priests of the various religious organisations the idea that the intellect must be quiescent and subservient when coming into conflict with anything that appertains to the doctrines taught.

All religions are forms of mental weakness. They embody, without exception, the desire of feeble minds to find something stronger than themselves on which they can lean and to which they can turn for help and guidance when faced by any tribulation or trial. The Press from the time of its inception has invariably used its power to impress upon the workers the fact that their place is, and should be, the lowest possible at the table of life, while at any orthodox political meeting one is made to feel that the politicians are the elite of social and intellectual refinement and the audience (if it is a working class audience) merely the residue left after the refining process by which politicians are made has been accomplished.

Teachers, priests, pressmen, politicians, all the agents employed to train and bend the proletarian mind in the direction desired by the capitalists have for generations done their business so well that it is really not surprising that most working-class men and women are in a mentally supine condition, willing and eager to follow blindly anyone with a strong and commanding personality, a glibness of tongue, or a persuasive manner. This gullibility is almost incredible, until one remembers past occasions and incidents, such as occurred, for instance, during the late European war and the General Election campaign during the close of 1918.

Thus it is easy for a would-be leader to obtain followers and an enormous ascendency over them. The material he has to work upon has been so well prepared for him that little or no difficulty is found in making people accept at his own valuation; in making them believe in his superior wisdom and attainments ; that it would be all to their benefit to follow unquestioningly whatever dictates he may give or in whatever direction he may lead ; that he is a man to be trusted, a shepherd whose only desire is to bring his sheep to more juicy pastures and better feeding places.

On the part of the leaders themselves, various motives may come into operation in the process of elevating a member of the rank and file to a position as a full blown labour leader. The motive may be a desire on his part for place and power; for a better social position ; for money and the power it gives. He may desire to escape from a hard and uncongenial task to an easier and more congenial one. He may see dangling before his eyes a position in Parliament and the emoluments that generally accompany such a position. He may realise how much more valuable to the capitalist Press (and consequently how much more remunerative to the writer) are articles written by a prominent labour leader in comparison with those written by a mere rank-and-filer. It may even be at the outset that he sincerely believes that in accepting the position offered him he is doing what is best for those from whose ranks he has risen— though in this case, the strength of the social and political environment in which he finds himself—a totally different environment as a leader from that in which he moved before— will very quickly change his outlook and bring him into line with those of his confreres who look down from their high altitude at the plane from which they have sprung and wonder how in the world they could ever have found anything in common with the denizens of such a benighted district.

In any case, whatever the motive may be, it is inevitable that directly a man reaches a position wherein he is able to exercise to their fullest extent his powers of personality, or plausibility, or rhetoric—that is the very powers that have enabled him to occupy the place he does—he is to all intents and purposes a martinet whose word is law and who is able to sway whatever way suits him the people from whom he has risen and who have themselves elected him to the position he holds.

Take the generality of labour leaders. One would have thought that long ere this their followers would have seen on which side—the workers' or the capitalists'—these men actually were. Their past record is sufficient for any impartial observer to perceive that their sole aim is their own advancement, and that they are astute enough to see that such advancement will be quicker and better obtained by keeping in agreement with the capitalists rather than by opposing them. But their followers are too obtuse to understand what is happening, or even when, in rare instances, their eyes are opened, they prefer to put up with the men they have elected rather than dismiss them and admit that they have been misled, gulled, and betrayed by those to whom they have been stupid enough to give their confidence and trust.

A short time ago a prominent trade union official and member of Parliament was subjected to a good deal of criticism from certain recalcitrant members of his union with regard to his activities on behalf of the capitalists more directly connected with his particular union. His retort to his critics was a threat to resign, whereon all criticism was immediately silenced and as a mark of confidence his salary was raised. Not only so, but soon after he was presented with other pecuniary tokens of his followers' reverence for authority and their willing acceptance of the fact of their inferiority. When one comes to consider the question, it must really be the easiest thing in the world— for anyone with few scruples and plenty of bluff to lead such a purblind and readily deluded mob as the bulk of the working class is at present. "In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king," and the workers are so blind to their own interests that the men they elect as leaders, however oblique of vision they may be, apparently appear quite god-like in comparison with the electors own humble opinion of themselves.

It is not surprising that when these "men in authority" are offered a well-paid Government position they jump at the chance of bettering themselves and throw over without the slightest compunction the rather shaky props upon which they have risen. So it will continue as long as the workers remain in their present condition of economic and political ignorance.

They must first of all realise their class position of wage slaves and ascertain why they are wage-slaves. Then will come in due course a knowledge of their tremendous strength as a social force and their organisation in the Socialist Party, which has no leaders in any shape or form, To follow blindly anyone or anything is a sure symptom of mental weakness. The training and strengthening of the working-class intellect is the first step towards the emancipation of the workers from the degradation which is the inevitable outcome of their position as wage-slaves into the freedom of body and mind desired by the Socialist, not only for himself and his class, but for all men and women—even perhaps (though this may sound fantastic) for labour leaders.
F. J. Webb

Cooking the Books: Iron asteroids and golden meteorites (2020)

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

‘Iron asteroid that can make us billionaires’, read the headline in the Times (6 March), explaining:
  ‘Somewhere far away hurtling through space is a giant ball thought to be made from enough metal to make everyone on Earth a billionaire. (…) American scientists have said that the body, probably once the core of a planet, contains iron worth £8,000 quadrillion. A quadrillion is one followed by 15 zeros. Shared among the world’s nearly eight billion people, this would amount to about £1 billion each.’
Actually, the asteroid is currently worth nothing as its iron is not available for human use, but even if it were to be brought to Earth it would be worth nothing like that amount.

This is because the value of items of wealth produced as commodities, i.e., for sale, is determined by the average amount of labour that has to be expended under average conditions to produce it from start to finish; or, more accurately, to reproduce it, as, if this average falls for newly produced items, then it falls too for all previously produced ones.

In his pamphlet Producers and Parasites John Keracher pointed out:
  ‘Gold as dug out of the mine has a value the same as other metals have a value and for the same reason. They are all repositories of human labor. More labor is required to get an ounce of gold than an ounce of iron. If gold were as plentiful as iron or coal, requiring the same amount of labour to produce as these two commoner minerals, gold would be just as cheap.’
Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk, a nineteenth-century Austrian economist, tried to refute the Marxian labour theory of value by invoking the example of a ‘gold lump which falls down on the parcel of a landed proprietor as meteor’. This lump of gold, he claimed, would have value, the same as that of other lumps of gold of the same weight, without having been the product of any human labour.

Louis Boudin replied in his The Theoretical System of Karl Marx:
  ‘Its value, like that of all commodities, is the socially necessary labor that must be spent on its reproduction. The clouds not being in the habit of showering gold on us, and the necessarily prevailing method of obtaining gold being by spending labor on its production (…), this gold, if wasted as suggested by Boehm-Bawerk, could not be obtained again from the clouds, but would have to be produced by labor’ (p. 110).
On the other hand, if golden meteorites should become a regular occurrence, the value of gold would fall, from the cost of mining it to the cost of collecting the meteorites. This is what would happen to the value of iron if the asteroid could somehow be brought to Earth. The cost of producing iron would fall to the cost of chipping it off the grounded asteroid. This would be considerably less than the value of iron today and so considerably reduce the worth of the asteroid.

So, everyone on Earth would not become a billionaire. That assumes that the value of the asteroid would be shared evenly amongst the world’s population, which of course it wouldn’t be under capitalism as the asteroid would be the private property of some rich individual, corporation or state. But it would also be impossible because capitalism is based on there being a propertyless class obliged to work for wages and, if we were all billionaires, who would do the work of keeping society going?

Transport : Future Travel (2020)

From the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Travelling Hopefully

It now sounds massively out of date, but Jules Verne’s 1872 novel Around the World in Eighty Days pointed to the increased speed of travel, as the result of the expansion of railways and the opening of the Suez Canal. For transport is not just a way of travelling from one place to another, and technological developments in means of transport have both reflected and contributed to the rise of global capitalism. For centuries relatively few people travelled far outside their local areas, though there were exceptions (soldiers, sailors, explorers, merchants, slaves). But travel is now a part of people’s lives, from the daily commute into work to the annual holiday, and also an essential part of how capitalism operates, including travel for business meetings, movement of raw materials and finished goods and also of armed forces to protect the interests of rulers. At the same time, transport raises various issues, the efficiency, reliability and safety of travel, and its environmental impact all being crucial.

State-owned British railway services were sold off from 1995 onwards, though in many cases the new ‘private’ franchises are part-owned by other governments, such as the French and German. These companies receive massive subsidies, and sometimes have to walk away from contracts that are still not profitable enough. Even the Conservative government has had to take back two failing rail franchises, Northern and East Coast. There is a plethora of companies and tickets, and woe betide you if by mistake you get on a service run by the ‘wrong’ company so that your ticket is not valid for it. Delays and cancellations have become so commonplace that they are no longer a surprise. TransPennine Express had to cancel some services as they had apparently not realised that drivers would have to be trained to run their new trains. At least things are not as bad as South Africa, where passengers travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town were recently left stranded for over a day. Of course, neither state- nor privately-owned rail systems, or some mix of the two, are really run in the interests of passengers, because transport is run to make a profit rather than to meet people’s needs.

Bus services, especially in rural areas, have also suffered from cut-backs and the concerns of profit. Though half of low-income households have no car and so are reliant on public transport, it is difficult to run buses at a profit in many areas. While some routes have been subsidised, austerity has led to reductions in subsidies, resulting, for instance, in plenty of places – especially outside big cities – having unaffordable fares and effectively no bus services of an evening. So many people are isolated, and, while it is all very well for pensioners who have free bus travel, it is no use if there are no buses to catch.

Earlier this year the Centre for Cities think-tank issued a report Cities Outlook 2020, which included a chapter on poor air quality in cities. Transport is not the only cause of air pollution, and some pollution is blown in from outside cities (including across the English Channel). Nevertheless, transport, especially road transport, is the main source of nitrogen dioxide pollution, though it has a less central role in pollution from fine particulate matter. The Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) prepared by the Met Office is based on five pollutants; it varies greatly from one area to another. In 2018, DAQI was at a level likely to affect those with pre-existing health issues on 62 days in Bournemouth, but only seven days in Belfast and Edinburgh. In London nearly 40 per cent of monitored roads were on average above the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. And poor air quality is a killer: fine particulate matter is estimated to have caused 14,400 deaths of those aged 25 or older in UK cities in 2017. Living near a busy road can increase the chance of a hospital admission for a stroke, and stunt lung growth in children.

And it is not just air pollution, but also the impact that transport can have on carbon dioxide emissions and hence climate change. Air travel is responsible for just 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, but is expected to increase massively by mid-century, and there are other damaging emissions as well, such as particulates and water vapour. Ryanair were recently refused permission to advertise themselves as a ‘low CO2 emissions airline’, on the grounds that no airline could be. Flying is energy-intensive, and a very small number of people who fly a lot produce very high levels of CO2. Even a return flight from London to Edinburgh will produce more CO2 than the carbon footprint for a whole year of the average person in Uganda. Just two or three return flights can more than offset a person’s attempt to minimise their carbon footprint (such as being a vegan and having a reusable coffee cup). Sustainable fuels, such as biofuels, remain very much in development. A frequent flyer levy is sometimes proposed, but may have little overall effect as air travel increases.

Road transport can produce carbon emissions too. The government has announced a plan to ban the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars by 2032, but it is not clear that they have any concrete ideas on how to ensure there is enough electric or hydrogen charging infrastructure available by that date.

Let’s look at some realistic ways in which a socialist world could address these problems, without in any way predicting how things will be. We might suggest that in socialism there will be far less long-distance travel for work purposes. After all, most ‘business trips’ nowadays are for purposes of marketing and profit-making, and there are plenty of journeys for governmental or diplomatic reasons. Already video conferencing is beginning to take the place of some face-to-face meetings. We cannot say anything definite about commuting to work: maybe there will be fewer big cities, or people will live closer to where they work and so need less commuting. Nor can we comment on the transport of raw materials. There might certainly be less air travel, as people elect to travel by more leisurely means in order to enjoy the journey. New car-sharing trends are starting to emerge even today, and it is likely that there will be far fewer private cars in socialism, with the emphasis on public transport instead. But whatever happens, transport policies will address issues of safety, the environment and meeting people’s needs, not of profit-making.
Paul Bennett

Irish Capitalism: Who Cares Who Runs it (2020)

From the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Irish electorate went to the polls on 8 February 2020 to elect a government to rule over them. The outgoing regime was based on a pact between the two traditional ruling parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; the actual construction was a novel ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement whereby Fine Gael actually formed the government (together with some independent members of the Irish parliament) that was supported externally in any crucial parliamentary votes by Fianna Fáil. In return for propping up the government, Fianna Fáil had an effective veto over government policy (a deal not too dissimilar from the recent voting pact between the Tories and the DUP in Westminster).

In the run-up to the election, Fine Gael (who had the advantage of being able to set the date), might have considered themselves to be in a strong electoral position to be returned to government. They could claim to have turned around the economy from the disastrous crash of 2009 when Fianna Fáil had been in power and furthermore were seen to have performed competently in the difficult Brexit negotiations and successfully withstood Tory Brexiteer demands that Ireland facilitate the UK’s withdrawal by being flexible about the operation of the Good Friday agreement.

Fianna Fáil themselves were also expecting to do well, hoping that the electorate had forgotten/forgiven their inept handling of the economy in 2009 and anticipating some credit for aiding Fine Gael in restoring the country’s economic fortunes. In the end, Sinn Féin have generally been acclaimed as being the clear winners having taken the largest share of the vote of any party (25 percent) and having won nearly the most seats (37). They are left in a quandary though because while obtaining the largest mandate, they still have far fewer seats than required to have a parliamentary majority (minimum 80 seats).

Sinn Féin success

Sinn Féin’s success has been attributed to the two basic issues of housing and health and the failure of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government to solve these long-running problems. The housing crisis manifests itself most acutely in the homeless who sleep out rough in Ireland’s major cities, night after night, summer and winter. However, at most 10,000 people are actually homeless, which while a large figure in itself, is still a very small fraction of the total population of the republic. In terms of widespread impact, the real issue is the very high cost of houses compared to wages/salaries and as a consequence very expensive rents. Over the last 40 years, governments of all persuasions have scaled back their commitment to social housing so now it is the private sector (i.e. private capitalism) in the form of developers or landlords who supply most of the housing needs either for purchase or renting. As with any commodity, scarcity drives the price up and the limited supply of new housing to the market has been exacerbated by high demand partly resulting from a strong increase in the population. Rents are so high that some workers can be paying over 50 percent of their take-home salary in rent leaving little opportunity to save. Housing is so expensive, particularly in the Dublin region, that many workers are forced to live in cheaper dormitory commuting towns and spend 3 hours or more on return trips daily to work. It means the actual length of the working day (not unreasonably measured from time going out the front door in the morning to time coming back in the evening) can be as long as it was 100 years ago.

This clearly unsatisfactory state of affairs led to great anger amongst the younger electorate, feeling excluded from the housing market, and it is from this group that Sinn Féin primarily drew support. Health too was a major issue. Currently its provision is a mix of public provision, which is free, and a private component which must be paid by obtaining health insurance. The main problem is the very long waiting time for public patients. Here the electoral benefit to Sinn Féin was less clear cut as there is a resigned acceptance amongst the public that no party is likely to make any meaningful inroad into this matter at least in the short term. It’s a powerful illustration that even when the economy is going strong, some basic needs of workers in housing and health remain unsatisfied by capitalism.

Reformism before republicanism

That Sinn Féin would be the primary beneficiary of voter anger was not immediately obvious prior to the election. In fact they performed very badly in local and European elections just 7 months previously and themselves were really hoping just to consolidate their vote. The party was founded in 1905 and can claim to be the oldest party in the state. It has gone through many manifestations over the last 115 years and at various times has adopted either left-wing or right-wing ideologies; the situation being confused by the fact that sometimes rival organisations have simultaneously claimed the name Sinn Féin. Its primary policy was always the establishment of an Irish nation separate from England which since 1921 has meant repudiating the border in Ireland. Since the 1980s, it began to define itself as a ‘socialist republican’ party with the aim of establishing socialism (never exactly spelled out but generally taken to imply more widespread state ownership and involvement in the economy) across a single, united, 32-county Ireland. Over that era though its main role was to articulate the political demands of the Provisional IRA.

Since the millennium, the ‘socialism’ word has been quietly jettisoned as Sinn Féin became more electorally conscious after the IRA ceasefire; the jargon now is to talk about radical, people-focused policies so as not to scare off potential voters. Even more surprisingly the republicanism element of the party’s programme has become more muted which is a big departure for a party that fully justified and supported the Provisional IRA campaign from 1969 onwards. While formally a United Ireland, above all else, remains its primary campaigning plank, now all the party wants any prospective coalition parties to agree to is preparations for a border poll at some future undefined time.

Another facet of interest from the election has been the decline of the Irish Labour party. Once the only alternative leftist political force to the two main centre-right parties and the self-proclaimed voice of the trade union movement, it now has a parliamentary strength in single figures and an ageing and declining membership. It has been supplanted by other more radical groups such as the Social Democrats (slightly more to the left than Labour), the Solidarity-People before Profit group (an amalgam of various movements from the Trotskyite tradition) and a number of non-party left-leaning individuals. The Green Party also did very well in the election obtaining 11 seats reflecting the high profile given to climate change and the need for sustainability in the media and the undeniable fact that when the economy is going well, a certain part of the electorate can ‘afford’ to treat this issue seriously.


Since the election, the focus has been on the formation of a new government. With the fragmented nature of the results, no single party is anywhere close to forming a government on its own and any realistic combination will involve at least three parties, two of which will have to be drawn from the big three of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The outcome is still unclear as both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have publicly ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin and they seem reluctant to combine with each other too. Some of this rhetoric may be genuinely ideologically driven and doubtless some is simply part of a negotiating ploy prior to the point at which an agreed programme of government must be settled on between whichever parties go into government. As of mid-March, the most likely option would seem to be a Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael coalition propped up by some other groups. So while Sinn Féin can correctly claim to be the largest party in terms of vote share won, it has no obvious path to power at the moment. All it can do is decry ‘failed right-wing policies’ and promise ‘radical change’.

For some commentators, the election of 2020 heralded the long-awaited coming of a left/right split in Irish politics with the left-wing option for government involving Sinn Féin, other small left-wing groups, the Green party and ‘progressive’ independents while in this scenario, the right wing would be an amalgamation of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Leaving aside certain important practical impediments to this outcome, it ignores the fact that Sinn Féin (as with most successful political parties under capitalism) is flexible with regard to ideology and election commitments. It certainly positions itself to the left of the two other main parties but this is clearly relative and adjustable leaving huge scope for manoeuvre. The formation of a government with Fianna Fáil is still a possibility as shown by the fact that Sinn Féin has been part of the on-off devolved government of Northern Ireland for the last 10 years with an even more implausible coalition partner, the DUP. Over this duration, it has been ‘business as usual’ in the North.

As with most elections in countries that have parliamentary systems of government, we in the Socialist Party have the frustrating task of being mainly observers rather than significant participants. While many political commentators have spoken of the ‘historic nature’ of Sinn Féin now being the largest party in the island of Ireland, north and south, by vote share, this recent election is fundamentally no different from all those that have preceded it. The capitalist system has failed the workers of Ireland in terms of some very basic human needs and a large number of them are angry and disenchanted with the established parties of government. As with many other recent elections throughout Europe, the people have gone for seemingly radical alternatives in the hope that they can succeed where others have failed. Unfortunately they are mistaken in this hope as any party that accepts the fundamental underpinnings of our current world system (the need for money, profit, countries, leaders, etc.) cannot hope to resolve the crises that inevitably arise from this. The system goes on and even the fact that it takes so long to form a new government is a small demonstration of the irrelevance of conventional political parties to people’s day-to-day lives.
Kevin Cronin

Material World: Proxy warring in Syria (2020)

The Material World Column from the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month’s Socialist Standard focused upon Turkey’s policy to grab a share of the Eastern Mediterranean gas fields. Turkey, once called the ‘sick man of Europe’, is endeavouring to confirm its role as a regional power. In the chaos of Syria, Turkey has been an active participant.

Recently there have been incidents where Turkish troops suffered numerous casualties caused by the Syrian government, which led to Turkey retaliating.

It was clear that working people in Syria started the uprising against the Assad regime because of the lack of freedom and social justice, the prevailing corruption and discrimination. Life for the majority was dismal with low incomes, a rising cost of living, homelessness, and unemployment, which all served to spark Syria’s ‘Arab Spring’. However, foreign powers and various Islamic jihadists became involved and changed the direction of the people’s uprising. The popular protests were diverted by neighbouring rulers into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey with the support of the US and Western nations on one side with Assad’s government, Iran and Russia on the other. The Syrian civil war proceeded to develop into a series of sieges.

Way back at the beginning of Syria’s civil war, Turkish authorities facilitated the involvement of the Islamists by permitting the infiltration of jihadists into Syria via its borders. It also allowed commandeered oil that financed ISIS/ISIL operations to be transported through Turkey to be sold on the world market.

As the Syrian situation escalated it resulted in the mass movement of refugees, with Turkey hosting millions of displaced Syrians fleeing for safety. Turkey is also the route for refugees to reach Europe and it entered into an agreement with the EU to stem the flow of refugees. These desperate and vulnerable people have now become political pawns used by Turkey with Greece now ignoring international law and slamming the doors shut in the faces of refugees.

At first the Kurdish independence movement tried a third way in that it would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. It would defend itself, but it would not wage war. Starting in mid-2012, various places in the Kurdish areas were one by one freed from Assad control. When Kurdish separatists created an autonomous region, Rojava, this was seen as a direct threat to the rule of Turkey and it led to a direct invasion of Syria to neutralise the PYG/PKK (Kurdish People’s Protection Units/Kurdistan Workers’ Party). It meant a military stand-off with the US who inserted its forces within the Kurds’ defences to assist the Kurds in combating the Islamist terrorists. This ended when Trump re-deployed US forces to secure Syria’s oil fields and it left Turkey along with Syrian mercenaries with a free rein to launch an assault against the Kurds who quickly then looked to the Syrian government and its Russian mercenaries for protection.

Added to this complex situation is the current Syrian regime’s advance to retake the last rebel-held territory in the country, the province of Idlib which is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Turkey is backing these anti-Assad rebels. This has brought Syria and Turkey into direct conflict and created a possible confrontation with Russia. If the Syrian government is victorious, there will be a new flight of refugees fleeing towards the safety of Turkey increasing the refugee burden Turkey already carries.

But Turkish military expansionism has not stopped the UK from selling Turkey weaponry. The UK has licensed sales of military equipment to Turkey worth more than £1bn since 2013, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, principally aircraft, helicopters, drones, grenades, small arms and ammunition. Leading armament manufacturers BAE Systems and TAI were awarded with an Open General Export Licence that makes the flow of weapons to Turkey easier. It wasn’t until October 2019 that the UK government halted new sales of weapons to Turkey while still honouring existing arms contracts.

In fact the world’s arms traders – the ‘merchants of death’ – are literally making a killing out of this war, with those in Turkey and Russia being able to test their weapons under battlefield conditions.

Home and Away (2020)

Book Review from the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

No Home For You Here: a Memoir of Class and Culture by Adam Theron-Lee Rensch (Reaktion Books £14.95.)

Rensch was born in rural Ohio in 1984 and spent much of his childhood in a mobile home that had been moved from a trailer park after his family were evicted for not paying rent in protest at conditions there. He became a university student, and much of the book, which includes both personal and more general accounts, deals with the conflict between being a ‘white-trash kid’ and a ‘liberal intellectual’. His family did not have much money but they did have fun, his mother tells him, while Rensch came to owe $160,000 in student loans.

Rather than a characterisation in terms of physical or mental labour, he is keen to offer a material definition of class, based on ownership of resources: the capitalists control and allocate economic resources, while the working class have to sell their labour power in order to live. Even so, there are some unclear references to the middle class, which seems to consist of small-scale capitalists. Working-class life in the US has become increasingly pressurised: the minimum wage has nowhere near kept up with inflation, leading to widespread poverty. In 2016, around 30 percent of wage-earners had an annual income of less than $15,000. Credit cards are used to fund spending, resulting in total household debt exceeding total disposable income.

Some of Rensch’s friends died young, one through suicide at 33, one of a heroin overdose at 34. His father died after a fall, aged just 46: an unemployed widower with ‘nothing to his name but time’, who drank and gradually became less liberal in his politics (‘between losing his job to the economy and his [second] wife to cancer, my father had become a reactionary’). The difference between failure and (relative) success is often just due to luck.

In rural areas, there is very little rented accommodation available, hence the need to buy a house and the extent of predatory lending to enable house purchase; hence, too, the ubiquity of subprime lending and the resulting crash of 2008. It is hard for people to leave the rural US, as doing so requires considerable time and money, including having a reliable car so you can look for a job. In small towns, churches ‘provided a crucial sense of belonging’.

The book offers a well-told account of inequality and the lack of social mobility. Rensch acknowledges that he does not have an easy solution, though he does refer to ending the tyranny of wage labour. And ponder this: ‘admiring the beauty of poverty and despair is easier than trying to change it’.
Paul Bennett

Three new plays (1998)

Theatre Review from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Kevin Elyot had a huge success four years ago with My Night With Reg (Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards etc, filmed by the BBC, and already 17 productions world-wide). His new play The Day I Stood Still at the National Theatre (Cottlesloe) makes for a marvellous evening. By turns funny, sharp and revealing, it tells of Horace, a bumbling curator at a London museum, for whom life stood still on a never-to-be-forgotten day more than 30 years ago when he fell in love with Jimi. Elyot, together with his peerless cast and director Ian Rickson, catch the mood the swinging 60s with great conviction, and manage Horace’s chance meeting with Jimi’s son 30 years later as a sustained climax which is both elegiac and liberating.

Writing in the programme Elyot discusses the power of theatre—of seeing a live event in an age when our lives are so much dominated by screens. He writes, “There should be a moment, at least a moment, during the course of the play, when an audience thinks, ‘I couldn’t have got that anywhere else’, that the hassle of going to the theatre that night has been worth it.”

There are many such moments in Elyot’s latest play, and even more in Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Royal Court (Theatre Downstairs). On a routinely dull night in rural Ireland the regulars settle to drink their ale in a Sligo snug, only to be disturbed by the arrival of Valerie, an attractive woman from Dublin. Released from the tedium of wasteful chat, they tell a series of unlikely stories full of Irish folklore, and blind unreasonable superstition. But as they strut their stuff and tell their tales they also reveal themselves, and the loneliness and wasteful poverty of their lives. Valerie moved by the alcohol and the revealing openness of her hosts has a rather different tale to tell: a real tale of personal tragedy, such as “to melt a heart of stone”. The effect of Valerie’s story is almost cataclysmic. Pomposity and pretence are replaced by sympathy and concern, and one of the characters—liberated by the honest truth-telling of Valerie and wishing to comfort and sustain—tells us of his own wasteful, unhappy life, and of one never-to-be-forgotten moment when in the pits of utter despair a total stranger offered him an unsolicited kindness.

This is theatre at its most sublime. The atmospheric set, and the superb playing of the cast and imaginative direction, conspire to produce a powerful, poetic and realistic drama. You can smell the turf burning in the stove, see the dust lying thick on untended shelves, hear the wind whistling wildly outside; as before the arrival of Valerie the characters reveal a conversational emptiness in tune with the emptiness of their whole lives. Valerie’s revelation serves both to underscore this emptiness and to offer an alternative which might be reached through honest, open discourse, about matters of real concern, managed in an empathetic manner. Were it that the people who decide what should appear on the screens which “so dominate our lives”, were prepared to offer the same opportunities for drama which is both enlightened and potentially enlightening. But an enlightened population is anathema to those who collectively manage the mass media, even if it can be tolerated in the theatre. The Weir might be seen by 30,000 people in its six-week run at the Royal Court. As against this one episode of crude, dishonest EastEnders, is seen by 15 million people.

Stanisława Przybyszewska
Thoughts of enlightenment are also prompted by a new play by Pam Gems, called The Snow Palace (touring widely). Gems has taken a script written by Stanisława Przybyszewska about the French Revolution, and adapted it so that we see some of the major elements in Stanislawa’s play as well as something of her own life. Stanislawa was the illegitimate daughter of an “avant-garde writer, wild man, drinker, reputed Satanist”, who conceived such a passion for Robespierre that she lived alone, writing, almost demonically, her 600-page drama. She died of malnutrition and hypothermia, in an unheated hut partially buried in snow, in 1935.

Pam Gems has fashioned an elegant drama. She is helped by an imaginative set and subtle lighting (which signals a shift of action from Stanislawa’s story to the French Revolution and vice versa) and by a splendid cast. She manages the discussions between Danton and Robespierre with great conviction, contrasting Robespierre’s passionate commitment to “a virtuous life” with Danton’s pleasure-seeking pragmatism.

Socialists will sympathise with many of Robespierre’s sentiments. “A life shaped only by commerce and self-interest,” he says, “leads to bestiality and the rape of children.” But the revolutionaries were undone because, like leaders before and since, they tried to lead people to what they saw as a more desirable future. The essence of the socialist case is that it is only an enlightened working class, conscious of the nature of the world in which we all live, that can transcend vile, unjust capitalism, and build a new world founded on freedom, equality and justice. We have to do it for ourselves.
Michael Gill

Letters: Socialism on one island? (1998)

Letters to the Editors from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism on one island?

Dear Editors,

Is a socialist Britain really still an “impossibility” (Editors’ reply, Letters, Socialist Standard, January)? If the people understood what socialism was, and voted to make a go of it, is there proof: That if we resorted to all the available land for food production, there would not be enough? That we are incapable of producing satisfactory goods we need no matter what? Has there been a scrupulous and fair evaluation into such matters? Advances in productivity may have now reached a state where self-sufficiency in food, goods and essential services is no longer the “impossibility” it once was in Russia, etc due to economic backwardness.

Food is being destroyed, stockpiled or not grown because over- rather than under-productiveness has become a problem for capitalism. Goods can also be mass-produced now with comparative ease. If financial restraints were removed entirely, considerable latent productive forces could be brought into play-—including millions of people unemployed and wasting their labour in banking, etc. new techniques could be adopted, like widespread recycling of metals and other materials. It does not happen now simply because of the financial cost.

The world market needs countries to keep playing the capitalist game. If they can opt out, it would be global capitalism that loses—not socialist countries utilising a far more productive, efficient and flexible system. Your “world car” was merely an example of global market forces—not “interdependence”. Various parts are produced in different countries due simply to more favourable economies and tax systems, cheaper and better prepared workers, grants to attract foreign firms and other incentives that boost profits. You cannot extrapolate from this market that British socialism could not meet all needs. Socialism is superior in many ways, and as no sensible attempt to establish it has ever been made, only proper evaluation of hard facts can shed light on what the outcome might be.

There is no proof that retaining limited financial links would cause a socialist country to fail. Twenty-four million tourists brought £12 billion here in 1995. If this helped socialism to thrive by allowing a few imports of items which Britain could not provide, then it makes sense. British socialism succeeds. Visitors go home impressed. The world’s media report socialism works well. Other populations inevitably consider how they would benefit from joining in. Socialism soon expands. The Socialist Party must handle money to end capitalism. A socialist Britain would be doing the same.

Political, economic and other factors make even development of socialism world-wide unlikely. If supporting evidence does not exist, maintaining that one-country socialism is impossible may be a mistake. Furthermore, must not activists ease off promoting socialism if other countries were lagging behind, thereby causing supporters to despair and feel let down?
Max Hess, 

To start with your last point—which in fact is the whole point—we fundamentally disagree that “political, economic and other factors make even development of socialism world-wide unlikely”. We think the opposite is true.

Leaving aside for the moment that one aspect of the idea of socialism is a world-wide society without frontiers, passports and separate nation-states, why should the idea of a society of common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit, when it begins to take off, progress quicker in (to take your example) Britain as opposed to France or Germany or America or Japan or Argentina or South Africa or . . . ? What’s so special about the 1 percent or so of the world’s population who live on these islands off the northwest coast of the Eurasian landmass?

Life, problems, concerns–and the objective solution–are the same wherever capitalism exists. This is why it is unreasonable to suppose that people in one area will come to see through capitalism without this happening to people in the other areas too, at more or less the same rate.

Already, under capitalism, people are beginning to think in world terms. More and more people are coming to appreciate world music and world theatre. Millions more follow world sporting events, and there is a growing consciousness that all humans are part of one world, that we share a common planet. As more than one astronaut has remarked, when looking down on the Earth you can’t see any frontiers. Millions of people throughout the world are concerned about world poverty and world hunger and problems such as global warming and tropical deforestation.

This is a reflection of the material fact that we are increasingly living in one, interdependent world, albeit a capitalist one at the moment. It is this interdependence which has long meant that there are no national solutions to today’s universal social problems. Capitalism is a global problem, to which the answer is global socialism.

If people in one country were lagging behind (for some reason you will be able to imagine better than us) this would not be a reason for easing off but for stepping up spreading socialist ideas amongst the people of that part of the world.

We should perhaps add that we are not so naive as to imagine that the changeover from world capitalism to world socialism will occur over a single weekend. The changeover can be envisaged as taking place over a relatively short period of time of, say, five years (we don’t know) so the situation might well occur of socialists having won control in some parts of the world but not everywhere. Naturally, they will manage as best they can in the circumstances, no doubt ending class ownership and bringing in democratic control of all aspects of social life including production. Their other main priority would be to do what they could to accelerate the winning of power by socialist majorities in the rest of the world.

But this is not the same as the situation you seem to be envisaging of the people of one country deliberately aiming to establish socialism in just that country while the rest of the world remains solidly capitalist. In our view, this is neither desirable nor at all likely to happen. So we are not called upon to speculate about whether people in Britain would be prepared to go without tea, coffee, chocolate, oranges, bananas, rice, soya, rubber, cotton and other products that won’t grow in these climes, or about whether they will be able to manage without new supplies of iron ore, aluminium, nickel, copper, manganese, mercury, chrome, tungsten and other rare metals.

Stone age economics?

Dear Editors,

I read with great interest your reply to Bryan Fair’s letter in the January issue of Socialist Standard in which it was stated that a Socialist Britain is an impossibility because of international economical interdependence.

I hope you will forgive me for stating the obvious from this, that is, if all countries worked towards being independent of each other for all their needs, indeed, not only would a socialist Britain be possible . . . but a complete socialist world would be possible!

You also stated that countries such as Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua have tried to escape from the laws of the world market economy, yet to my knowledge, none of these countries have ever really gone down the road to a Stateless Moneyless Society, which I think, must include autonomous self-reliant communities.

Probably, the hub of the difference between myself and your thinking is that I do not believe for one moment, that in a future socialist world, workers would clock in and out of massive factories making goods to deliver across to the other side of the planet. Surely, mass culture of any sort must be eradicated if true socialism is to shine through.

It is, however, quite feasible to understand that people would work within small communities for their own needs and the needs of others which they can relate to within their own community. This is not to say that surpluses can not be passed on to other communities and there be some international activity between communities, and migration between communities.
Vic Button, 
Deeside, Flintshire

When you talk about “self-reliant communities” we don’t suppose you mean this literally in the sense that each “small community” should actually have to provide for all its needs from its own resources. If we ignore the resources which will have been inherited from capitalism and which will be able to be used for a while, for many communities this would mean having to go back, not to the iron age or the bronze age, but to the stone age since they wouldn’t have any access to metals or metal ores.

Since we can’t believe you really subscribe to so absurd a position we will interpret your phrase as a rhetorical flourish and assume that what you envisage is “self-administering” communities which would try to meet as many of their everyday needs as practicable from local sources. That local communities should be the basic unit of democratic self-administration is a principle we can go along with but, when it comes to production, it is as well to be aware to what extent local communities are interconnected and interdependent and that this places severe limits on what needs could be met locally.

The fact is that people in small communities aren’t able to produce all they need, or anything like it. The final stage of the production of a range of goods for everyday use could be done locally–food, clothes, shoes, furniture–as well as repairs but neither (most of) the raw materials nor (in most cases) any of the metals to make the tools and machines used in this final stage could be produced locally.

You don’t like the idea of mass production but most people would consider access to such items as a cooker, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, a telephone, a radio (and a TV) as essential, but you can’t be suggesting that these should be assembled individually on an artisanal basis. To meet needs, they would have to be produced en masse. This doesn’t mean that they need be produced under the conditions that exist today in factories under capitalism. Far from it. Factories in a socialist society can and will be structured and run quite differently: slower pace of work, shorter hours, more automation, non-polluting technology, democratic participation in decision-making, even be set amidst trees and gardens.

Nor, to answer your point, would they be “making goods to deliver across to the other side of the planet” (except, perhaps, for some factories producing very specialised equipment as for hospitals or scientific research). They would be making goods to supply all the local communities in a given area.

People also, rightly, consider running water and mains electricity as necessities. Although some water and some electricity could be supplied locally, the machinery and equipment to do this (pipes, pumps, tanks, generators, transformers, cables, wires, etc) couldn’t. Even environment-friendly technology such as solar power involves highly sophisticated equipment that will be beyond the capabilities of local communities to produce on their own.

So, local communities cannot be independent or self-reliant as far as meeting their material needs goes; they are interdependent. This is not a question of communities passing on their “surpluses” to one another (most, if left to themselves, wouldn’t have any surplus); it is a question of them being interlinked in a single network of production which in the end embraces the whole world.

This does not mean that everything has to be controlled from a single world centre. Only a few functions would have to be dealt with at world level such as, for instance, communications satellites. Most could be carried out (as in practice at present) at a level that can be called regional (in world terms). It is at this level that production of intermediate goods and machines and equipment can be envisaged as being produced, for distribution for use either in other factories or by local communities.

Local communities can only be the basis for consumption and for democratic decision-making but not for production. Of course the actual degree of centralisation and decentralisation will be up to the people around at the time to decide in the light of their traditions, experiences and preferences. One thing, however, is clear (but you realise this anyway): even the ultra-decentralised structure you advocate could only be achieved in a world where resources no longer belonged to private individuals, corporations and states and where production was no longer carried on for sale on a market with a view to profit. In other words, in a socialist world.