Monday, April 27, 2020

Cartoonish Politics (1987)

From the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bye-Elections (1987)

Rosie Barnes
From the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Greenwich groan

There is one way in which the SDP/Liberal Alliance, self-proclaimed mould breakers of British politics, are set rigidly in tradition. Whenever they win an election they elevate the result into an historic event which will change the face of politics.

So it was in Greenwich where Rosie Barnes, ex-Labour Party and straight out of the Posy Simmonds mould of a Blackheath liberal, won a by-election famous for making an issue over whether the Labour candidate's father had been a drunken wife-basher. Another enduring tradition ensures that elections should concern themselves with such irrelevant nonsense.

The Alliance claimed their victory was evidence that the working class are fed up with the established two party system and are looking for another way, a third party. This does not square up with another well used Alliance ploy, to encourage people to vote "tactically" to keep one party out rather than let another one in. Tactical voting — if it ever happens — could be used to the benefit of the Labour and Tory Parties; it does not indicate any disillusion with the two party set-up but a strong revulsion against one or other of those parties. And there is nothing new, or mould-breaking, in that.

In any case it is the depth of negative thinking to argue that workers should vote for a party they don't really support rather than another which they like even less. That is a cynical misuse of workers' political power to change society. The Alliance, which is a re-arrangement of the failed leaders and policies of other capitalist parties, is bound to feed off the cynicism and disillusion which those failures have nurtured.

The two Davids, then, offer nothing that is new or hopeful. On economic policy they deal in the same sterile ruses of trying to make British capitalism more profitable by holding back wages. On war weapons they concern themselves with trivial debates about which method of mass annihilation they favour.

The authentic mould breakers of politics aim for a fundamental change — for a different social system with none of the desperate social ailments which are the stuff of capitalist politics and of the parties, like the Alliance, which seek power to run the system.

. . . Truro Tremble

In Truro, "tactical voting" had a different meaning for the Alliance. There they urged voters to support the candidate of their choice — because they always assumed they had victory in their pockets. The big issue was the "Cornishness" of the candidates with the Labour man. who comes from decidedly un-Cornwall-like Hillingdon in West London, upstaging the rest by speaking Cornish. A famous victory for the Liberals, they say; a typically cynical and irrelevant contest, we say.

Reluctant anarchists (1987)

Party News from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

In January our Newcastle Branch invited the local Anarcho-Syndicalist group to take part in one of a series of debates and forums, with a title on the lines of "Socialism or Anarcho-Syndicalism: How Can Workers Achieve Freedom?" The branch pointed out that as a democratic, leaderless socialist group they are committed to the free exchange of ideas with others who are interested in changing society. The invitation was sent after a member of the Syndicalists' editorial group had attended several of the Branch meetings, had taken part in lengthy discussions and claimed to share our aim of a classless, moneyless society based on common ownership.

This was how the Anarcho-Syndicalists replied:
Dear SPGB.
  I have been asked to inform you that the Syndicalist does not wish to take part in the type of public debate as you propose. While believing that public meetings are a major part in the growth of revolutionary ideas we do not, as anarcho-syndicalists, wish to take part in the political power struggle of the left vanguardist parties and have no intention, either now or in the future of participating in the type of political competition to see which theoretical and "politically correct" ideas will prevail under such circumstances. 
  We are however willing to discuss our ideas with any member, or any of your associates, that are interested in the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism on a personal level. If you would wish to further this conversation as we have stated please contact us at the above address. 
  Due to the short amount of time you gave for a reply this decision was reached at an Editorial Group meting and will be put to our Full Business Meeting in March. Though the decision will most certainly stand.
As our Newcastle group comments, the reply shows the Anarcho-Syndicalists' complete lack of willingness to be open about their political ideas in a forum of members of the working class. This lack no doubt leads to their undemocratic practices in decision making, as evidenced in the final paragraph of their letter. Notwithstanding, the Newcastle Branch will continue their propaganda work, including regular challenges to their opponents.

50 Years Ago: The depression is over (1987)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The depression is over and prosperity is here once again. This is the good news discovered by politicians, bankers and captains of industry and passed on to the workers in speeches and articles up and down the country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr Neville Chamberlain, in a speech at Birmingham on January 29th said that the Midlands are "enjoying a greater prosperity than had ever been known in the history of living people". (The Times. January 30th. 1937.) Mr Colin Campbell. Chairman of the National Provincial Bank. Ltd., in his survey of the country's affairs at the annual meeting of his bank, sees "prosperity firmly based on well-distributed purchasing power". (Economist, January 30th. 1937.) Indeed, the bankers and economists are becoming alarmed at the comparative shortage of skilled labour and consequent ability of the workers to secure wage increases. The question occupying their minds is when the next slump is due to break and whether by any means they or the governments can prevent it.

It need hardly be said that the prosperity which so impresses the spokesmen of the propertied class is the prosperity of that class, hence their view that higher wages due to scarcity of labour is an "evil".

[From an article "This Prosperity", Socialist Standard, April 1937.]

Socialist Correspondence Club (1987)

Party News from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1983 a Socialist Correspondence Club was formed with the aim of breaking down the sense of isolation felt by many socialists across the world. Since then the number of participants in this project has grown substantially and now includes readers of the Socialist Standard in America, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Mauritius, New Zealand, Poland and Zimbabwe.

The club's membership list is now being updated. Would readers who wish to join please contact the co-ordinator. Louise Cox c/o Head Office. SPGB. 52 Clapham High Street. London SW4 7UN. stating their name and address, and most importantly, any specific interests they may have e.g. Victorian history, cycling. Dire Straits etc. The deadline for all letters is the end of July 1987. Those already on the list are asked to advise of any change of circumstances.

Shortly afterwards a complete list of members will be sent to all participants for each to decide with whom to start a correspondence. If you want to join please don't delay. And if you know anyone who might want to join, tell them about it! It costs absolutely nothing (except your stamps) but any donations to party funds would be most welcome.

Political Notes: Union Bashing (1987)

The Political Notes Column from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Union Bashing

The government has recently published a green paper (discussion document) entitled Trade Unions and Their Members which outlines phase four of its union bashing programme. Having whittled away at the rights of trade unions to engage in industrial action, and dictated how they should constitute themselves and run their affairs, the latest proposals are primarily concerned with bolstering the rights of individual trade union members against their unions. The intention is to provide legal protection to trade union members who refuse to take strike action, even though that action has majority support as expressed through a ballot of the whole membership. The Green Paper states:
  Every union member should be free to decide for himself whether or not he wishes to break his contract of employment and run the risk of dismissal without compensation. No union member should be penalised by his trade union for exercising his right to cross a picket line and go to work.
And to ensure that the rights of individual union members are so protected, it is proposed that a special commissioner for trade union affairs be appointed by the government to provide advice to trade unionists wishing to take legal action against their union.

The language of the Green Paper is that of "rights" and "freedoms", but it is individual rights that are to be protected at the expense of the collective rights of the unions themselves. The only strength that unions have comes from their collective strength and ability to remain united when involved in industrial action in defence of wages and conditions of work. The rhetoric of "rights" and "freedoms" disguises the government’s real purpose which is to undermine trade unions by helping to create divisions within them. The fact that some of the proposals contained in the Green Paper are concerned with the democratisation of trade union organisation — such as the proposal for secret ballots for elections of union officials — should not blind us to the fact that this is not the real reason for this latest round of trade union laws. It is up to workers themselves to ensure that their unions are democratic and that governments do not interfere in the internal structure and constitution of trade unions.

Teaching Teachers a Lesson

Another blow was struck against the trade union movement with the passing of the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act, which completely removes from teaching unions the right to negotiate with their employers (local education authorities) about pay and conditions of work. Instead the Act imposes a pay settlement and contains provision for the appointment of a committee which is to be responsible for advising the Minister for Education on teachers' salaries and conditions of employment. The minister will then decide whether or not to accept the recommendations of the committee.

The teaching unions will play no part in this process since the Act only states that the unions can be consulted on the Advisory Committee's recommendations. So in other words the government, acting on the advice of a body appointed by, and responsible to, itself will be able to decree what teachers should be paid, how long they must work and so on. And this from a government that claims to be committed to the "free market"!

Teachers have once again voted to take strike action in protest at this erosion of their union rights. However, in taking further industrial action they may well run up against other restrictions on the right to strike. The government and the media will undoubtedly try to present teachers as irresponsible, unprofessional and even in breach of the law. The fact that the government, in passing this Act. is itself in breach of the International Labour Conventions is likely to go unnoticed.

Unemployment Tactics

The government offers two tactics for dealing with unemployment: job training schemes and financial support for small businesses. Since the usefulness of the former depends on sufficient jobs being available when people are trained, even the most complacent of government supporters can have very little confidence in this remedy. The president of the Confederation of British Industries in his New Year message for 1987 was certainly not over-optimistic about future trends in employment: he "warned of fewer jobs in manufacturing in 1987" but thought that "demand for labour by service industries should more than offset the loss to bring about a slow but steady fall in unemployment of about 100.000 over the year".

However, the government has shown its determination to support small businesses by making David Trippier the "Minister of Small Firms”. One of his jobs is the encouragement of investment in small firms by insurance companies and the controllers of pension funds. Barely one per cent of their huge financial resources, he claims, are being used to back small companies.
  Given that their total funds were estimated at £170 billion in 1983, and taking account of the 100 per cent rise in the FT share index since 1983 this is a national disgrace. . . . I can't believe that they would be taking too big a risk by investing up to 2 per cent in the smaller companies which are not quoted on the Stock Exchange (The Times 2 February 1987).
Under the present economic system, capital flows to those areas of the economy where the prospect of profit is greatest, for maximising profit is the very basis of our economic system. David Trippier has been given a thankless task indeed, but it could be worth quite a few votes.

To Fit the Crime?

If anything excites the gutter press more than a horrific rape it is a horrific rape for which the rapist receives a comparatively light sentence.

So we should not be impressed when newspapers like the Sun report (they would probably prefer the word expose) sexual offences, in a mixture of relish and indignation. while at the same time they publish girlie pictures with captions like this:
  Sexy Sammy Fox simply shines — as she gets set to make you and your partner BULLIONAIRES.
This merchanting of distorted femininity — superficially inviting but actually unreal and unattainable — is good for sales but not for sexual harmony. Deliberately and cynically, it preys on the repressed and malformed sexuality which is ail too often evident in offences like rape.

The Ealing vicarage rape case — particularly brutal and horrifying — was all the gutter press could ask for. It also gave a few publicity-crazed MPs the opportunity to get themselves a bit more media exposure. Notable among these, seizing his chance like the pro he is, was the local Member Harry Greenway, who annually shows how he rates women by arranging to have himself photographed clutching some haplessly smiling contestants in the Miss World festival of female degradation.

Punishment freaks on the right wing like Peter Bruinvels — who wouldn't mind the job of hangman if capital punishment is ever brought back here — were in sympathy with feminists and left wingers in outrage at the Ealing sentences. It was, they agreed, a simple matter to reduce the incidence of rape — dish out harsher sentences to the rapists. Clearly, there is need for a few words from another point of view.

The Ealing sentences were short only by the standards of the English courts, which are notorious as among the most punitive in Europe. The sentenced men are likely to suffer grievously at the hands of their fellow prisoners. They are unlikely to learn anything about how capitalism with its poverty, its slums, its repression, its cynicism, discourages people from trusting or caring for each other. What sort of attitude does the Sun. for example, encourage men to adopt towards sexy Sammy Fox?

The mock horror in the press at a judge who seemed to set property at a value higher than human beings was particularly sickening for these same newspapers ardently support the capitalist system which operates on exactly that principle. What else was the Sun saying, when it gloated over the slaughter of hundreds of Argentinian workers when the Belgrano was sunk?

The outcry over "inadequate" or "lenient" sentences encourages workers who are afraid or disturbed about what they see of capitalism in the 1980s to think they can leave the remedy to politicians to introduce harsher laws and to the judiciary who will impose them. Crime springs from the roots of capitalism and. contrary to the hysteria of the gutter press and vote-obsessed MPs. it will not be eradicated through punishment.

Business as usual

The Tower Commission's report into the sale of arms to Iran by the United States has left the way open for things to continue pretty much as usual. The Commission concluded that the (unelected) National Security Council. from which the policy apparently emanated. on the whole does a good job; that the decision-making processes are basically sound; and the President, although incompetent. is a good guy at heart. Ronnie has gone on television to put things right with the "American people" by admitting that he goofed and his popularity ratings seem to have recovered as a result. Nancy gave Don Regan the boot and a new Mr Clean has been brought in as the White House Chief of Staff. No doubt, as a consequence of the continuing investigation by Senate and House of Representatives committees, a few other people will be asked to resign. There may even be a few prosecutions and the self-styled Rambo, Oliver North, may, with luck, be certified insane.

What is unlikely to happen is large numbers of people in America asking the question why, in a country where there is a long history of shady deals by politicians, covert activities by those responsible for "national security" and deliberate attempts to conceal what is really going on — and all this in a country which boasts of its democratic political system — why is it that the majority continue to grant power to the minority?

Testing to Destruction (1987)

Book Review from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Poisoned Reign. French Nuclear Colonialism in the Pacific by Bengt Danielsson and Marie-Therese Danielsson (Penguin Books 1986)

On 10 July 1985 the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was blown up in Auckland harbour by two French agents. This act might appear to be surprising, considering the fact that both France and New Zealand are members of the "free world". This book tells the story of how successive French governments, including the "socialists" who changed from opposition to support, have been determined to use French Polynesia for nuclear weapons testing and not let any opposition get in the way.

The post-war years saw the great European empires in decline. When the French were being kicked out of Algeria, they were on the lookout for an alternative nuclear testing site to the Sahara. French Polynesia seemed the best bet — its islands are spread over an area the size of Europe and the 120,000 inhabitants were easy-going and the French had been manipulating them for years. The fact that the South Pacific is rich in food, metals and oil was another reason to maintain French dominance.

Other countries at this time were also testing nuclear weapons — the British at Christmas Island, the Americans in the Marshall Islands, the Russians in Siberia, and the Chinese in parts of Mongolia and Tibet. None of them showed much concern for the effects this would have on the local population.

When the French nuclear testing programme was announced in the early sixties the local people were mostly opposed to it. But this opposition was ineffective — the islands were run from France and the various institutions available to the islanders, to have a say in their affairs, were powerless. The authorities used various methods, devious and oppressive, to neutralise this opposition.

On 2 July 1966 the first French nuclear bomb was exploded above Moruroa Atoll. The French President, de Gaulle, was there to observe. He had made many flowery speeches claiming a great regard for. and affinity with, the Polynesian people, who were the first overseas territory to recognise the Free French during the war and who had sent a battalion to two world wars.

The French nuclear authorities, when dismissing the dangers of the tests, had said that the bombs would only be exploded when the wind was blowing east, away from the inhabited areas. This was despite the fact that winds in the South Pacific can blow in many different directions during the same day. However, when de Gaulle was there the wind kept blowing straight towards inhabited areas. Rather than keep the General waiting, the bomb was exploded anyway. The fall-out reached as far west as Fiji and Samoa. Islanders in the vicinity of Moruroa were given advice on how to protect themselves They were told not to drink rain water or eat fish for a while. This advice was not particularly helpful as this is precisely what the islanders exist on.

The nuclear programme had other effects on the islanders. Many of them were needed to work on the project. They were enticed to Tahiti by high wages only to end up in slums around Papeete, the largest town. They had to endure filthy conditions and crime, prostitution and drunkenness all increased sharply. As most of the work was needed at the start of the programme, when this finished they found themselves unemployed and unable to get back to their islands, as they had been promised.

By 1974, 42 French nuclear bombs had been exploded in the Pacific skies. Due to pressure from other Pacific countries and environmentalists the French government decided to continue its testing underground. They still used Moruroa. despite the fact that a Pacific atoll is one of the worst possible sites. The rock is thin and brittle and the many tests carried out almost certainly caused radioactive leakage and contamination of fish, plankton, shells, dams and squid regularly eaten by the local population.

The extent of the pollution caused by these tests and their resulting effect on the population can only be guessed at, as the authorities engage in the usual practice of secrecy and cover up. No reliable health figures are published and safety standards certainly appear lax. Much of the nuclear waste was dumped on the north of the atoll and washed away by several cyclones and tidal floods which have become more common in recent years. Some of these tidal waves will have been caused by explosions blowing out the side of the atoll, spilling out its radioactive muck. The fact that by 1985, 115 French nuclear devices had been detonated in the Pacific along with 106 American and 21 British, does not bode well for the future health of the islanders.

The authors tell the story of the French nuclear programme well, but their analysis of why it took place, with stories of politicians' duplicity and pride is weak. They clearly disapprove of French attempts to keep up with the superpowers and be independent and are sad that French public opinion doesn't seem to care. Unfortunately, the fact that any capitalist government exists to defend its national interest, and will develop whatever weapons it can to do this, with scant regard for the effects on people, escapes them.

There was a statement recently from a French government spokesman that they might stop nuclear testing at Moruroa as even they think that the atoll cannot take any more blasts. The underground rock is apparently in a very fragile, unstable condition. This will come as a relief to the people in the Pacific, although others had better watch out — the spokesman said they were searching the North Atlantic for an alternative.
Ian Ratcliffe

Letter: "The poisoning of the Rhine" (1987)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard


Carl Pinel does not, unfortunately, quote the source of his figure of 30 tons of poisonous chemicals "accidentally" released into the Rhine. ("The poisoning of the Rhine", Socialist Standard February 1987 p.265).

According to the New Scientist (13 November 1986) Sandoz, the superpolluters involved, admitted the amount to be 1,300 tonnes — including 934 tonnes of pesticides and 12 tonnes of compounds containing mercury.

But this is merely one incident, spectacular in itself, in a steady routine of pollution in the name of profit. In the same month BASF leaked 2,000kg of herbicide from rusted pipes; Giba-Geigy spilled chemicals into the Rhine on the day prior to the Sandoz incident, didn't tell anyone, and were only discovered because the journey of the Sandoz chemicals was being monitored; Hoffman LaRoche leaked toxic liquid methyl vinylketone from its Sisein (Switzerland) plant; the German state of Hesse claimed that the chemical giant Hoechst spilled 50kg of chlorobenzol into the Main, a tributary of the Rhine on November 22.

Clearly the Rhine is an open sewer. By the time it reaches the sea its daily load of pollutants is a staggering 60,000 tons (40,000 tons of salts. 16,000 tons of sulphate, over 200 tons of iron, and thousands of other poisonous products). At the height of public concern over the pollution of the environment it was reported that the city of Basle (home of the Swiss chemical industry) dumped its sewage direct into the Rhine, and that many other cities downstream only had mechanical sewage works. Prior to European Conservation Year (1970) Hoechst were spending a mere £5m per year on anti-pollution measures compared to £30m paid in dividends. Bayer's dividend for one year equalled what they spent against pollution over 15 years. (Figures quoted in the "European Business Magazine" Vision, October 1971.)

The argument that capitalism pollutes because of its need for profitable trade, and will continue to do so, was underlined at the time by the following comment from Vision (December 1971)
  . . . complicating the pollution control issue are the likely repercussions on international trade. It is difficult enough to ensure uniform application of anti-pollution standards (and hence equal sharing of costs) within national frontiers; how much more difficult it will be internationally once a number of major trading nations have set up differing standards.
  . . . German firms facing tough legislation governing pollution by their products — as well as in production processes — thus claim their competitive position is being unfairly prejudiced by costs not imposed on their foreign competitors . . . Bayer's annual report for 1970 claims that such costs are already reducing the competitiveness of German industry.
  . . . pollution control means eating into profits. And business is about profits . . . Firms can only afford and will only be willing to act against pollution so long as their competition does the same.
Fifteen years later the problem remains — and the solution is still socialism.
Gwynn Thomas,
Welling. Kent

The source of the figure of 30 tons was the Independent 10 November 1986.