Monday, June 1, 2020

Common-Sense or Super-Sense. (1922)

From the February 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some people might argue that there is no such thing as common sense, or sense which is common to everybody, and that, consequently, the term common sense is a misnomer. They are both right and wrong, because two meanings can be read into the term. It is perfectly true that there is no sense common to everyone, but, if we regard the word "common" merely as a synonym for "ordinary" or "common-place" as distinguished from extraordinary, the term at once becomes intelligible, because it is a well-known fact that only a small minority of the people can lay claim to a wide general knowledge. The great majority are more or less ignorant of advanced knowledge and science, and are, therefore, compelled to think and reason on the facts in their immediate environment. The bulk of society are common people and possess only common sense. According to certain apostles of the great man theory, there are in any period of history supermen and men, leaders and followers, intellectual giants who unearth the secrets of nature and publish them to ordinary folk in order that they may know how to live

The most fitting reply to the apostles of such a creed is to ask them if the "great men" are responsible for the mess in which the human race finds itself to-day. Millions of people all over the world dying of starvation while corn is burnt as fuel and fish is spread over the land as manure, millions of workers forced to starve in idleness because the land and tools required by them to produce the necessaries of life for themselves are owned by a small class who will only allow them to be used when profits come to them as a result. In a word, unspeakable poverty in the presence of means and methods that could satisfy every need, could flood the world with a cornucopia of abundance.

It requires very little intelligence, combined with a practical knowledge of modern industrial methods, to see that unemployment, poverty and war are the results of a system of production and distribution based on the class ownership of the means of life, and production for profits; and that a system based on common ownership of the means of life with associated production for use, would not only abolish these evils but would entirely eliminate the competitive struggle for existence, or supremacy, as we know it under Capitalism.

Notwithstanding the simplicity and correctness of the Socialist position the "supermen," with all their knowledge are nearly always the apologists of the system of starvation and murder. They are with few exceptions to be found on the side of the ruling-class, declaring that the world is all right or that it will right itself if only the common herd will submit quietly to their toil and poverty and not attempt to interfere with the things they do not understand ; if they will only consent to be ruled by those who understand the business of ruling, instead of attempting to run or direct things for themselves.

No one could, with truth, deny that many professional men and scientists today are as widely separated from the average man in knowledge and intelligence, as the latter is from the savages ; yet every scientist who has approached the problem of poverty has failed to see the only solution—Socialism, or has purposely misrepresented it in order to mislead the workers and assist the ruling-class in suppressing it. Spencer wrote profusely on sociology, yet failed to observe facts and tendencies under his very nose. Haeckel, Lodge, Wallace, and many others could see no purpose in civilisation beyond the growing power and glory of the ruling-class and the continued servitude of the toiling millions.

Professor T. H. Huxley, in his essay, "Government: Anarchy or Regimentation," though failing to arrive at a solution, saw much more clearly than most scientists the nature of the poverty problem. He says, for instance : "What profits it to the human Prometheus that he has stolen the fire of heaven to be his servant and that the spirits of the earth and of the air obey him, if the vulture of pauperism is eternally to tear his very vitals and keep him on the brink of destruction?" And again : "No doubt, if out of a thousand men, one holds and can keep all the capital, the rest are bound to serve him or die." And yet again: "Individualism, on the other hand, admitting the inevitability of the struggle, is too apt to try to persuade us that it is all for our good, as an essential condition of progress to higher things. But this is not necessarily true, the creature that survives a free fight only demonstrates his superior fitness for coping with free fighters—not any other kind of superiority.''

But although Huxley saw clearly enough the evils of individualism, or Capitalism, like Spencer, he failed to see the remedy. Socialism, as he understood it, was State ownership, as the I.L.P. preaches it to-day; and he, quite rightly, judged this to be no solution. Where Huxley showed his inability to deal with, or understand social questions, was in attributing poverty to over-population. Obsessed with the Malthusian idea that, without competition and war, the human race would multiply until there was not standing room on the globe, he completely forgot that evolution is just as applicable to social science as physical science or biology. Huxley knew quite well that society had evolved from savagery, under different systems, up to the present. A scientific mind should not assume the end of systems when all social history is a succession of systems, but should endeavour to understand from the outstanding features and tendencies of the present system what forces are being generated by the prevailing conditions. Every system of the past is recognised by its class struggle ; feudal barons and serfs, slave owners and slaves, etc. ; to-day it is capitalists and wage-slaves. As all ruling-classes in the past have had to give way to the class below, who struggled against them, and as the working-class today is engaging ever more keenly in the struggle against the capitalist class, there is little doubt that the latter will share the same fate and that capitalism will give way to a new system more in harmony with the interests of the working-class.

Huxley failed to apply the scientific method, but what was even worse for so brilliant a scientist, he allowed himself to be confused by the Malthusian rubbish which had been exploded almost as soon as it was published by Godwin in his book "On Population," and later by Henry George in "Progress and Poverty."

Moreover, there is no doubt whatever that all the people at present living could, by their own labour, satisfy all their wants, if it were not for the fact that the ruling class own the land and machinery of production and will not permit them to be used for that purpose, but only to obtain surplus value for themselves. Even if it were true, however, that population would increase beyond the means of subsistence under Socialism, that would be no excuse for prolonging Capitalism with its wage-slavery, unemployment, starvation, war and many other evils. Capitalism is so obviously a system of robbery—robbery of the wealth producers by an idle class—that nothing could justify its continuance once it became generally understood that all these evils were due to the system and would cease to exist under a sane system where profits were no longer the only incentive to production.

It is often said of those who are scientifically trained that they are more easily imposed upon than ordinary folk, and it would almost appear as if years spent in scientific research left the mind simple and childlike towards mundane affairs. This may be the explanation in some cases, but many scientists are on the side of the ruling-class for the same reason as the professional politician and the parson— because it pays.

Whatever the reason, it is quite obvious that the workers must not allow themselves to be confused or guided by them. The evils of Capitalism are quite plain to every man who possesses average common sense. It needs no great scientific knowledge to see that these evils are due to the system ; nor does it require super men with giant intellects to tell the workers that they can achieve Socialism by first understanding it and then organising as a class to gain political control.

There is nothing in Socialist principles or objects beyond the comprehension of the average worker; but what there is must be understood by them before they can become organised to establish it.

Jottings. (1922)

The Jottings Column from the February 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our readers will be deeply grieved, I am sure, to learn that the year that has just ended has been the hardest that the propertied class has ever experienced, at least, so says a writer in the "Manchester Guardian" (6/1/22). It is a most harrowing story. It seems that more old families have parted with their territorial possessions and cut themselves away from places which have been theirs for generations and generations. More heirlooms have been sold, more houses have been deserted, than ever before in the history of the class. Most humiliating of all, champagne is no longer drunk, and they are obliged to fall back on the humble whisky and soda. I cannot verify this at the moment-—none of the things they have renounced have come my way, therefore I must be content to shed a tear. Poor devils !

--0--

And yet in the very same column in which this distressful state of affairs is described, we are regaled with an account of the costly New Year celebrations at the London hotels and restaurants, the lavish expenditure on set scenes and gifts for the guests. At one hotel alone 6,000 crackers were distributed to the guests. And they weren't penny ones, either! Other accounts elsewhere described the carnivals as being the rendezvous of the most elite of London society. Beautiful scenery, orchestras playing glorious music, lovely ladies with dresses and jewels costing thousands of pounds, plenty of cigars, booze and—oh ! what's the use !

But before I leave the subject, perhaps I ought to mention, by way of contrast, that in one district alone—Poplar—10,000 very poor children were provided with a dinner by means of charity. The fact that this number of working-class children, in one district alone, could be found who were in need of something to eat, while at the other end of the town thousands of idlers were gorging them selves to death, forms a very striking commentary, indeed.

--0--

At the time of writing there is some talk of postponing the General Election which was forecasted for February. Most political parties are preparing for the fray. The Right Hon. J. M. Robertson has written a pamphlet in the cause of the true Liberals. He calls it "Liberalism and Labour," and makes the bold claim that Liberalism "has wrought for Britain an ever-increasing liberty of life with an ever advancing betterment." Yes, we've noticed it! "It has steadily and successfully aimed at the betterment of the life conditions of the mass." Maybe. They might have aimed at it, but they have certainly missed it, for they are notoriously bad shots. Lloyd George !

The Labour Party in particular is sanguine of success. They expect to run about 400 candidates in the hope of realising their ambition—a Labour Parliament. No programme has been decided on as yet. But judging by the pronouncements made already it will differ in no respect from that of the Liberals. Ireland, reconstruction in Europe, substantial and progressive disarmament, recognition of Germany and Russia—all these non-working class issues will be the main planks in the programme.

Workers have suffered untold miseries under capitalist domination; under a Labour Government they will continue. One can easily imagine the capitalists, in order to ease their own responsibilities, handing over the reins of government to the Labour Party with their best wishes for success. We have seen what has happened under "Labour's rule" in Australia. Capitalism in this country has little to fear from the present form of industrial and political organisation of labour. Since their own existence as a class is not seriously threatened, they could rest assured that the Labour Party would do its best to clean up the rotten mess which between them they have made.

--0--

Proof of this was given by Mr. Clynes himself when speaking at a Labour Conference at Plymouth on December 10 last. He said that the Government, since the end of the war, had stumbled from one economic blunder to another, until now six or seven millions were existing under conditions of acute distress on the labour of other people instead of being at work and living on the results of their own labour. The bluff in this will be seen where he tries to make it appear that those who are out of work are living on those who are in work. Government doles and allowances and the like, are paid out of the surplus value possessed by the capitalists ; what the workers get in the form of wages represents their cost of subsistence.

Beyond that they have nothing to pay with. If the capitalists are obliged to feed their surplus slaves it is the fault of their own system. The implication in Clynes' statement is that if all those who at present are unemployed were found work, those who are now at work would be better off by as much as it is costing to keep alive those who are out of work. This is not true.

--0--

Again : "If political relations with any other country will limit our freedom for economic recovery, freedom must be secured to avoid economic ruin. By separate action, or better still, by international conference and co-operation" (i.e., of capital and labour !) "we should speedily diminish the appalling list of our unemployed. Business men and financiers now see that they must take some step to solve this question, or it will submerge them in the privations which others now endure."

You see the drift ! Worrying about what might happen to the capitalists if they don't get busy and squeeze the worker some more !

--0--

It has been complained that the Labour Party never made Socialism the issue at an election. That's true. It would be absurd to expect it. After what has been said it will be obvious that we have some justification for saying that the Labour Party is saturated with capitalist notions.

Permit me to inflict Clynes on you once more :—"The share of Labour in providing a remedy would be in increasing the national products by greater output, so as to reach those lower prices which are a guarantee for effective competition. A demand for output should, however, be preceded by a foreign and home policy which would not destroy markets, but make them certain, and output should be preached together with the doctrine that men doing their best shall not thereby incur the penalty of unemployment, and shall have their fair share of the increased product from increased energy." Could anything be plainer than that ?

Increased production so as to reach lower prices ! Lower prices, in the present condition of the labour market, mean lower wages; in some cases to below the subsistence point.

Greater output means intenser exploitation. "There is immanent in capital an inclination and constant tendency to heighten the productiveness of labour, in order to cheapen commodities, and by such cheapening, to cheapen the labourer himself" ("Capital," p. 309). It is being proved every day. Only recently a Sheffield inventor was reported to have sold to a well-known Birmingham concern for £5,000 a mass output machine which produces at 7d. per pair scissors which to-day cost Sheffield makers 3s. 6d. It is claimed that the machine, operated by one man and a boy, does the work of ten men employed on former processes.

This is what Clynes is in reality advocating, whether he realises its significance or not. And who will determine when a man is "doing his best" and what constitutes the "fair share" of the increased product from increased energy ?

--0--

If we are to believe reports from Russia, the conditions in some of the outlying districts must be terrible indeed. According to correspondents who claim to have witnessed the sufferings of the people, peasants have been reduced to the necessity of eating their horses, dogs and cats, out of sheer starvation. Even rats have been utilised as food. Whether our "smart society," ever on the look-out for stunts, regards this as a novelty worthy of emulation, or not, I am unable to say. Anyway, they have made a start. We read that frogs and snails have been put on the bill of fare at one of the leading London hotels.

I looked again, thinking it might have been advanced as a measure of economy. But no—the explanation is that English and American officers have acquired a taste for them while serving in France (where others acquired a taste for something else) and are anxious to have them again.

There is no doubt that what one class would only resort to out of necessity, another class will adopt because it is "daring" and "quite the thing, you know."

But seemingly it has another aspect. According to the "Manchester Guardian" (13/1/22) "the tremendous commercial fact is that 250 frogs and 200 snails are now facing brought to London daily by air from Paris." What is more, the daily order is going to be doubled because the idea has caught on. No expense will be spared so that they shall live like storks. Anything, I suppose, to relieve the monotony of a satiated useless existence. And these are our rulers—our decadent ruling class !
Tom Sala

Hope Springs Infernal in the Worker's Breast. (1922)

Editorial from the February 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

The present and future outlook of the working class is extremely gloomy—as gloomy as the murky London fog outside the writer's window this Sunday afternoon.

Prices are still in cloudland, whilst wages are falling rapidly. Unemployment engulfs a vast mass of the working class, whilst the movement for increased production (which in effect means both a lowering of wages and a lowering in the number of wage receivers) promises to further increase the workless army.

One country after another has reached the point where it can tackle its own market and compete in foreign markets. The economic signs and portents point to increasing difficulties and increasing misery for the workers of this country. England is no longer the predominant manufacturing and transportation country. In any case, so much have the one time backward countries developed that the predominance of one of them would help such a one but little. The "Good Old Times  have fled, never to return.

Backward countries have stepped into the van of production and can meet, to a great extent, their own requirements; this limits the available world's markets. But such countries also step in as competitors, in foreign markets; this further curtails the available markets. This all-round competition intensifies the struggle for markets and brings about a greater concentration upon the question of lowering the cost of production of articles.

Looking at the matter casually, to-day it would appear that the main objective of the capitalists is increased production. A closer examination of the matter will easily dispose of this false idea.

What are the elements required in order to produce wealth to-day ? Raw material, machinery, and labour-power of various degrees of skill. Is there any shortage of raw material ? The earth is teeming with raw material, and the untapped resources are as relatively unlimited as the development of human ingenuity. Is there a shortage of machinery ? There are numerous first-class manufactories of all classes of machinery working short time for want of orders to execute. Is there a shortage of labour-power ? The hundreds of thousands of unemployed of all degrees of skill searching anxiously, and so often unavailingly, for work can provide a complete answer to this question. Finally, the slowing down of production owing to overstocked markets is the overwhelming' contradiction to the claims of the increased productionists.

The mere increase of production is not the objective of the capitalist; his main objective is the lowering of the cost of production. This point merits a little examination.

The cost of production of an article is determined by the amount of labour-power required, under certain definite conditions, to produce (to be more accurate—reproduce) it. Labour-power itself is subject to the same condition, under capitalism. The worker receives, as a rule, the equivalent of his cost of production, but not the equivalent of what he produces. The difference between what the worker receives and what he produces is surplus value—or that portion of the value of an article which the worker produces for nothing.

The capitalist in competing for markets endeavours to undersell competitors by reducing the labour time spent upon articles to a minimum (reducing the value of an article) and at the same time to obtain the maximum of surplus value by increasing the difference between what the worker receives and what he produces—increasing the amount of wealth a worker can produce and reducing the amount he receives. In other words, increasing the exploitation of the worker.

The wealth the capitalist waxes fat upon comes out of surplus value, hence what the capitalist is after is not the supplying of the world with as great a multitude and variety of goods as possible, but the expansion of surplus value to the greatest possible extent. That he appears to do the former is not due to his philanthropy or good intentions, but because of his thirst for surplus value.

The capitalist is out to relieve the workers as much as possible of the burden of producing (not by shouldering it himself !). This is a very laudable object—very laudable indeed—but unfortunately it is only by shouldering the burden of producing that the worker can get his living under capitalism. Consequently by reducing the cost of production the capitalist relieves more and more workers of the burden of producing, the unemployed army grows, and in due time the graves get more and more burdens. Of course this increases employment in the coffin trade—perhaps this is the real meaning of "increased production" ?

We are continually reading the inky wails of the English capitalists over the loss of trade, and the reason they put forward as causing this loss is the alleged relatively high working costs, endeavouring to impress upon us that high working costs are due to relatively high wages. We have seen above the idea lying behind their agitation, but there is another counter to their move, and that is this: The capitalists in every advanced country in the world are putting exactly the same position to their particular workers—they can't all be right ! Unfortunately, however, the argument, backed up by "trusted labour leaders," serves its purpose to some extent. The workers give credence to this view and submit to wage reductions in a more or less docile manner.

In view of the obvious facts above mentioned in relation to the increase in unemployment, it is remarkable to find what a considerable number of workers base their hopes upon an improvement in their industrial outlook. They accept, without examination, the contention that they are suffering one of the usual periods of "bad times" which will shortly blow over and work will become plentiful. They forget that with the development of capitalism the, "bad times" period has tended more and more to become the normal position; the intensified production spur applied during the war exaggerated the position beyond the normal growth.

So satisfactory, from the outlook of the capitalist, is the present attitude of the workers that a leading capitalist paper can say:
  "The patience which in these circumstances, the masses of unemployed have maintained in the face of hardship and official apathy, is remarkable enough to have excited the astonishment of visitors from abroad as well as writers in other countries" (Daily News, 13/10/21).
And the Communist, the closet philosophers (!) have the blindness or the brazen impudence to assert that this country is on the verge of revolution !

Hope may "spring eternal in the human breast," but when directed into certain channels it is not only as delusive as the desert mirage, but it is also apt to bring harmful results — in the case in question the hope of "Better Times" breeds the attitude of political apathy.

Outside of Socialism there are no "Better Times " ahead for the working class. Consequently the workers must abandon their present apathetic attitude and take a lively interest in their present social position — they must study Socialism and find out what it means to them.

Pathfinders: Locked up in lockdown (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Locked up in lockdown

A US prison inmate with 12 months left on an 8-year sentence for selling crack cocaine is confined to his cell during lockdown with a cell-mate suffering from Covid-19, so in panic he smuggles a phone message out to plead for help, claiming a staff member told him half of the inmates were going to die:
  ‘So all of a sudden, out of the blue, fucking everybody just fucking dying and getting sick and shit. Like this shit serious as fuck. Like, they literally leaving us in here to die’ (LINK).
The Ohio authorities immediately deny the claims, saying the man is exaggerating and that there’s nothing wrong with his cell-mate or with the prison. But given the extent of confusion and misinformation at the moment, especially in a country with a self-proclaimed genius as president who recently announced that he had ‘tested positively toward negative’ for the virus, it’s fair to ask who has got their facts right here. One hint that it might not be the Ohio authorities comes from an LA Times report that 70% of inmates at a federal prison in California have tested positive for the virus.

Up-to-date figures for UK prison infections have been suspiciously absent from media reports, despite warnings from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in March that up to 60% of prisoners could become infected with the coronavirus (Guardian, 23 March).

The suspicion here is that while the public may have sympathy for the plight of care-home residents, there’s no such concern for prison inmates who deserve everything they get, so journalists are ignoring the subject. But as the Guardian article points out, the most dangerous inmates have single cells in maximum security conditions and are therefore not at risk, whereas for the lowest-risk inmates, jailed for often minor misdemeanours, ‘the local jails may well transform into charnel houses’.

Prisons are of course the one place that can really enforce a round-the-clock lockdown, but because of overcrowding there is little realistic chance of maintaining any social distancing. A Telegraph article in April suggested that the number of cases in UK prisons was already six times the published figure, and that lockdown was expected to continue for another 12 months, sparking fears of prison riots (Telegraph, 28 April).

In socialism one common-sense move would be the immediate release of the large majority of inmates jailed for minor property or drug-related offences. Capitalist governments tend to ignore common sense especially where prisons are concerned. Around 60,000 people are sent to prison in the UK each year, of whom nearly 70 percent are jailed for non-violent offences, and nearly 50 percent for six months or less (Independent, 21 May).

Study after study has shown that prison is the least-effective way of tackling crime, yet the UK has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, and the US and China the highest rates in the world.

But the pandemic caused a shock to the system so in April the UK Ministry of Justice proposed an early-release scheme for up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners. The scheme was soon suspended after media furore when 6 prisoners were accidentally released ‘due to human error’, despite the fact that none of these were dangerous and all returned of their own volition when asked (bbc.in/2ZwSXVV).

As we go to press, only 57 of the 4,000 have been released, and prison virus cases have reached 1,000.

Animal rights campaigners often rightly expose the brutality with which capitalism treats battery farm animals, packing them in so tightly they become sick with stress and self-inflicted injuries, yet there is little mention of how society treats its battery farm humans, many of whom experience Dickensian overcrowding conditions and where incidences of self-harming have hit record highs, with UK occurrences now averaging one every eight minutes (Guardian, 30 April).

Nice and Nasty

Some pundits are asking the obvious question, what social practices might change in a post-Covid world, due to the perceived need for continued social distancing and contact tracing? We can predict the answer to that. None. After going through the motions for a while, capitalism will revert to type, cramming people together in vehicles, workplaces, social outlets, hospitals, care homes and prisons in order to save money. Capitalism is, as they say, nasty, brutish and short-sighted.

But socialists could ponder the question of agreed social practices more broadly, by considering how viruses work. In the first place, viruses come in various strains, which compete against each other. Where potential hosts are physically in close proximity, the most virulent or aggressive strain of that virus out-competes all the other strains and spreads rapidly through the population. If a virus born in these conditions makes the species jump, it is the nasty stupid form, not the nice benign form.

If animals and people are dispersed, however, the opposite happens. The most virulent strain is stopped at the host border, just like every other strain, so it has no competitive advantage. In fact, it suffers a competitive disadvantage. Instead the advantage goes to the strain that can survive in its host the longest, which typically means the most benign strain. So the evolutionary tendency of viruses is to become less virulent with distance, until they are able to live in the host with little or no inconvenienc, like the common cold (New Scientist, 20 May).

The 2009 swine flu epidemic evolved in pig farms in Mexico and spread rapidly because the pigs were crammed in together. The Covid-19 virus similarly spread because of densely crammed animals in Chinese wet markets. Human behaviour therefore played a critical role. Capitalism is about chasing money not learning lessons, but socialism will want to ask big questions, not just about farming practices, but about social and working practices too. The more you cram organisms up close and personal, the more you are asking for trouble. That has implications for urban or rural population densities, transport, recreational activities, everything.

Nobody is ever going to stop viruses, the most abundant and successful life form on Earth, if one can even call them a life form. The human race is not going to get wiped out by this virus, and probably not by any virus. But never say never. If we’re going to minimise the likelihood of a future pandemic of truly biblical proportions we need a truly smart and benign social system to do it, not a stupid and virulent one that ignores every lesson and carries on regardless.
Paddy Shannon

Party News – Discord in the Ranks (2020)

Party News from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not like socialists to curl up our tootsies and give up at the first sign of trouble, so we’re not likely to let a once-in-a-century global pandemic cramp our style.

Instead, like many others during the current lockdown, we are responding to physical restrictions on meeting by going online. We’re using the audio-only Discord system to save bandwidth, and because most of us are not sufficiently photogenic to want to look at each other every day.

The system works pretty well and we’ve already held a couple of online talks, as well as several branch and Executive Committee meetings. It’s not been entirely plain sailing of course, with some members having to drag headphones or microphones out of attics or cellars only to discover that they last worked efficiently when Sony Walkmans were still a new fad.

Others have had computer problems as Discord doesn’t work with very old operating systems, or with the super-restrictive Windows S. Actually Discord was originally designed for gamers, who tend to a) be digital natives and b) have state-of-the-art gear.

Many socialists, it is fair to say, do not belong to this social demographic, so online conferencing software can be something of an uphill struggle. That’s why, for the next few weeks, there will always be someone on the server, ready to talk or answer user questions, at 12 noon and again at 7.30pm, UK BST, unless there’s an evening talk on.

Still, we’re making progress, with around 50 members online at the time of writing. Companion parties have got involved too, with members from the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and India.

And of course visitors are very welcome too, and are free to join any online Discord meeting just as they would be free to attend any physical meeting by the Socialist Party or its companion parties. This is a great opportunity to chat to socialists from around the world without leaving your house!

And if anyone is thinking of joining, having a live chat about it with members is much more fun and informative than simply filling in a form on the website.

If you’d like to drop in and chat to us online, or come to one of our talks or other events, just drop us a line to spgb@worldsocialism.org and ask for an invite.

Will capitalism collapse? (2020)

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

In fact, is it already collapsing? Yes, according to John Smith, author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, in an article published online on 31 March ‘Why coronavirus could spark a capitalist supernova’.

Likening capitalism to a supernova (a rather dubious analogy), a star which implodes before finally exploding, Smith sees the implosion stage as what happened after the crash of 2008. The trillions of dollars, he says, that the ‘neo-liberals’ spent ‘bought another decade of zombie-like life for their vile system.’ Then, after the dubious analogy, the bold prediction:
  ‘This time they will be lucky to get 10 months, or even 10 weeks, before the explosion phase of the supernova begins.’
Well, it’s not happened in the ten weeks since 31 March, so Smith is well on the way to making a fool of himself. We will have to wait till the end of January next year to see just how much egg there will be on his face.

There is a precedent for this. In August 1931, as the slump which followed the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 got worse, Jimmy Maxton, the left-wing leader of the Independent Labour Party, then still affiliated to the Labour Party, predicted:
‘I am perfectly satisfied that the great capitalist system that has endured for 150 years in its modern form, is now at the stage of final collapse, and not all the devices of the statesmen, not all the three-party conferences, not all the collaboration between leaders, can prevent the system from coming down with one unholy crash. They may postpone the collapse for a month, two months, three months, six months but collapse is sure and certain’ (quoted in our 1932 pamphlet Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse.
Smith based his prediction on an inevitable coming collapse of the price of shares traded on stock markets rather than on anything happening in the real economy such as overproduction in some key sector. Capitalism, however, is not driven by what happens on the stock exchange but by what happens in the realm of actual surplus-value production.

The stock exchange is a place where past profits are distributed and future profits anticipated. Those who gamble on the future profit-making of particular companies base these on information about what is happening in the real economy. To this extent a fall in stock market prices can be a sign that a slump in production is coming. But it is not the stock exchange crash that causes the slump but, rather, overproduction in some key sector that causes both.

There has been a slump, a quite drastic one in fact, but not caused by a stock exchange crash nor even by overproduction but by actions taken by governments to deal with the pandemic of an infectious disease. Governments deliberately shut down production by locking down all but key workers and requiring them to stay at home.

When the pandemic is under control or when, with the development of an effective vaccine, it is over, governments will allow people to go back to work and production to resume. Of course things might not go to plan and production might take longer to resume than they anticipate or hope, but in the absence of a movement that consciously aims to end capitalism and replace it with socialism, capital accumulation will eventually recover and resume its zig-zag upward course of ever-repeating cycles of booms and slumps.

50 Years Ago: What about Vietnam? (2020)

The 50 Years Ago column from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Of course we would not have the workers and peasants of Vietnam exploited by French colonialism. Nor do we say that the people of South Vietnam should put up with the series of corrupt American-imposed governments there. We are fully aware of what the world capitalist system has done, and is doing, to the people of Vietnam. The question is, however, how to deal with this: is it by supporting the rise to power of a new state capitalist ruling class or is it by struggling to establish world Socialism?

The Socialist Party of Great Britain argues that capitalism (including the state capitalism of Russia and China) as a world system has become reactionary and that it has no progressive role to play anywhere in the world. This is because Socialism, the next stage in social development which will involve the emancipation of all mankind, is possible. Only Socialism is progressive, and this alone is what workers everywhere should strive to establish.

We do not deny that the NLF in Vietnam is carrying out land reforms and other changes necessary for the development of (state) capitalism there. What we do challenge is the assumption that, now Socialism is possible, Socialists should support this. What workers everywhere should be striving for is Socialism, not national state capitalism.

Our correspondent’s final paragraph is typical of the self-righteousness of many of our critics. Because Socialists do not support their pet struggles we are accused of being unconcerned about the suffering capitalism causes human beings. We could turn the tables on them by saying that in concentrating on single issues it is they who are prolonging the suffering capitalism brings by diverting attention from the struggle to overcome it.

Note also that our position is to oppose both sides, not neutrality as our correspondent suggests.

(from a reply to a letter, Socialist Standard, June 1970)

Socialism hasn’t failed – it’s never been tried (2020)

Editorial from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism is robustly defended by its supporters as being the most successful social system in human history. We are told that it has raised human living standards to unprecedented levels and surpasses any other society in terms of productivity and efficiency. It is meritocratic and promotes human ingenuity and enterprise. It is claimed that socialism, on the other hand, has failed wherever it has been practised – the former Soviet bloc countries, Cuba, Venezuela and not to mention the former nationalised industries in the West.

It is certainly true that capitalism has revolutionised the productive forces of society. Indeed this fact is an important part of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. A prominent argument of scientific socialism has always been that capitalism has developed the means of production to the point that makes possible a society of potential abundance.

Capitalism is not just about private companies and banks, it is an economic and social system, where the means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by a minority to the exclusion of the majority, the working class. This minority can comprise private individuals, the state or a mixture of both. The working class can live only by selling their labour power to the minority capitalist class, whether private businesses or the state. What workers receive in wages is less than what they produce, leaving a surplus (which includes profits) for the capitalist class.

It is true that some workers, either through education or other means, can rise from a relatively low-paid job to a higher-paid salary position. They may enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle and higher social esteem, but, like all workers, their working conditions and employment prospects are subject to the whims of the marketplace and they may find themselves out of a job if it is not profitable for their employer to keep them on. It is not unknown for a worker to make it into the capitalist class. However, the dice are loaded against the workers, as a lot of money is required up-front to start a business and securing finance is not easy if you are not from a rich background. Even if a worker succeeds in business, their new-found wealth will be produced by the workers they employ.

Socialism hasn’t failed. In fact it has never existed anywhere. What we witnessed in the so-called ‘socialist’ countries was not socialism, but state capitalism. The nationalised industries in the West were capitalist enterprises owned and managed by the state. Socialism, properly defined, is a classless, moneyless and wageless society established globally without national borders. It won’t be governments or leaders that will bring it about, but a socialist conscious working class organised on a world scale to capture political power and convert private or state property into common ownership. Humans, at long last, will be free of the constraints of the market system. The employer and employee relationship will be gone, and people will be able to take freely of what they need and contribute according to their ability. Humans will be free to realise their true potential. We urge workers to join us to bring this about.