Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Running Commentary: Pass Laws out (1986)

The Running Commentary column from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Pass Laws out

Abolition of the hated South African Pass Laws was the main purpose behind the protest organised by the Pan-African Congress which culminated in the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 in which 69 people were killed by the police.

Twenty six years later the Pass Laws, which control the movements of black workers, are to be abolished and all blacks imprisoned for offences against them are to be released. In 1960 such a reform might have been welcomed by blacks as a significant change. In 1986 it has been greeted with scepticism. For, as Pass books are abolished, so the South African government is introducing a new identity document to be carried by all South Africans (it's not yet clear whether it will indicate the race of the holder); the Group Areas Act which restricts the areas in which blacks can live will continue in force, and it is generally feared that influx control, the basis of segregation according to race, will continue under the new euphemism of "orderly urbanisation".

At the same time that the government offers these token gestures of reform in an attempt to defuse the violence and protests of black workers in the townships without conceding them political rights, they are also fearful of alarming their white supporters who are increasingly critical of what they see as the chipping away of the citadel of apartheid. It remains to be seen how long Botha and his cronies can continue to pretend to the blacks that they are dismantling apartheid, and to the whites that they are not.

Screws’ turn

Britain currently locks up more people (both absolutely and in proportion to its population) than any other West European country except Turkey — not noted for its liberal regime. At present 47,000 people are being held in prisons designed to accommodate no more than 41,000. In order to meet the expected rise in the prison population, the government has embarked on a £360 million prison-building programme — 16 new prisons by 1991. While most areas of government spending — health, housing and education — have been cut since the mid 1970s, prisons have continued to be a growth area, in terms of expenditure, numbers of prisons and numbers of prisoners.

Next year's prison budget will be £700 million of which two thirds will be to pay prison staff. So, if the government is to apply its philosophy of spending cuts to the prison service, while at the same time continuing to lock up significant numbers of people, then it is in the area of expenditure on prison staff that cuts will have to be made. But despite an 18 per cent rise in the number of prison officers over the past five years, and only a 12 per cent rise in the prison population, there has also been a rise in the number of remand prisoners from 10 per cent to 18 per cent of the total prison population. So, unable to reduce the actual number of prison officers without either risking a breach in security, or reducing still further prisoners' access to certain "privileges" like education, PE. and visits, the government has turned to the highly contentious issue of overtime, manning levels and the restrictive practices used by the Prison Officers Association (POA) to get the maximum in overtime payments. Budgets recently announced by the Home Office are thought to require a reduction of about 400 hours each week in most prisons which would mean an average loss of overtime of about 2.5 hours a week for prison officers. The POA argue that this is unacceptable since overcrowding and the resulting increased levels of stress and violence in prisons, have made their jobs more difficult, more dangerous and their working conditions more insanitary.

The recent overtime ban in prisons resulted in widespread riots, arson and damage. The POA. clearly shocked at the effect of their industrial action, agreed to return to normal working and enter into talks with the Home Office about manning levels. The desire to avoid a repetition of the prison riots that took place may well lead to a settlement being reached. What the dispute will not have achieved is an end to the barbaric practice of locking up human beings in inhumane and brutalising conditions; what is at issue in this dispute is not the system itself, but how to run that system most cheaply.

Slums for sale

The aims of selling off council housing, once you delve behind the rhetoric of the "property-owning democracy", was to rid the local authorities of the burden of maintaining increasingly dilapidated and troublesome council estates. It didn't work. Most council tenants don't want to buy the run-down houses and flats they are forced to live in, not even for the knock-down prices they were being offered at. The result was that only the better quality council housing was sold off, leaving a residuum of the worst council estates. And because local authority building has almost ceased, more and more workers are now chasing an ever-decreasing number of sub-standard council properties.

That number now looks set to be reduced still further as a result of the Housing and Planning Bill which will make it easier for local authorities to sell off, not just individual houses, but whole estates. At present about 40 local authorities have begun to sell approximately 80 council estates. The Bill will make it easier to increase this number since it gives councils the power to evict tenants so that estates can be sold off empty to private developers. Labour, Tory and Alliance controlled councils have all jumped at the chance of getting rid of their problem estates in this way.

In London, the Labour Tower Hamlets Council has sold over two-thirds of the 400-flat Waterlow Estate to the building company Barratts. Most of the tenants who objected and refused to move out were eventually "persuaded" to move as a result of council pressure and the refusal by the housing authority to carry out even basic repairs The Labour Party, especially Jeff Rooker, their housing spokesperson, has supported the selling of estates using the now fashionable rhetoric of "decentralisation" and condemnation of "public landlordism". What this conceals is that the sale of council estates, while it may result in better-maintained housing, also results in housing that the present tenants can no longer afford to rent. If estate agents are buying up decrepit council estates you can be quite sure that it is not because they intend to run them as a social service for the poor, the homeless or those living in slums, but because there's profit to be made out of them.

Side by side

On the food and drink page of the Guardian on 2 May, a headline states The Book That Made A Feast Out Of Famine. There follows a very critical review by Colin Spencer of the just-published Delia Smith Food Aid Cookery Book (BBC Publications). This, in case the hullabaloo has failed to reach you. is a collection of favourite recipes of "famous" people. The review queries the ethics of a plush launch at the Savoy among contributors who looked "rather pink, plump and well fed" of a book intended to raise funds for the starving. Further, it queries the "good taste" of such a book featuring (rather unimaginative) recipes such as Mrs Terry Wogan's caviar pie, to be eaten with smoked salmon. There follows a lecture on world nutrition, how wealthy EEC countries, instead of exploiting Third World agriculture and then overproducing beef and wheat themselves, should hold back, mend their ways and encourage the hungry countries to produce food to feed themselves rather than crops for export. Colin Spencer obviously has no understanding of the workings of capitalism.

Alongside this well-meaning lecture is the Good Food Guide by Drew Smith. It is headed Oysters. Langoustine. Raw Mussels, Winkles And Whelks, and is a review of the best fish restaurants in London. Recommended among other things, is the "lobster, plain grilled in butter" available at one of them. No doubt, had the chef at the restaurant been famous, the recipe would have appeared in the Food Aid Cookery Book. . .

Bhutto’s return

Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). recently returned to Pakistan from exile in Britain in order to mobilise Pakistani workers and demand early elections, in the hope of winning power from the present ruling clique.

Benazir Bhutto is the daughter of former Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, overthrown in the military coup of 1977 and executed by the now President. Zia ul Haq. in 1979. Since that time Pakistan has endured nine years of martial law until the end of last year when President Zia restored at least a measure of democracy by allowing elections (hardly free, however, since most of the opposition were imprisoned).

Bhutto is a populist leader who is currently riding high on the desire for change among many Pakistani workers as a result of the brutality of the Zia regime. To the extent that the PPP has a policy, other than to secure power, it is mildly reformist in domestic terms (slum clearance, improved health care, land reform and a minimum wage) and, in foreign policy, attempts to offer something to both Russia and America in the hope of getting back a lot more. Bhutto promises an independent foreign policy based on "bilateral relations a political settlement that would permit the Russians to withdraw their forces from the area so that the 3.5 million Afghan refugees, which Bhutto sees as a destabilising force in Pakistan, can go home.

Like all opportunistic political leaders Bhutto changes her political colours to suit her audience. The recent rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, as in any other Moslem countries, has persuaded Bhutto to exchange her western clothing for traditional, more "modest" garb acceptable to Moslem conservatives. But while this change of image might win her some popular support, the Islamic fundamentalist party, Jamat Islami, remains politically opposed to her and represents a serious challenge since it is both the richest and best-armed political group in Pakistan. Its help and co-operation in the coup of 1977 secured the presidency for Zia and. since then, they have retained a hold on power and influence which they are unlikely to relinquish willingly. So the usually winning combination of political opportunism, populist appeal and promises of reform may not be enough to secure power for Bhutto in the face of a coalition of the military, religious fanaticism and vested interests. A not unfamiliar story.

Race or Class? (2020)

From the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The killing of George Floyd has contributed hugely to the worldwide consciousness of police brutality, but also to some important points about class.

There has been a spontaneous response to Floyd’s murder, more or less united, organised around principles of solidarity, that has taken the world by storm.

In less than a month, protests tens-of-thousands strong have popped up, making the call for increased consciousness of race issues. Revealingly, it is this aspect of it that is focused on by most left-liberal analysis. Race is undoubtedly an important aspect of the present issues in society. However, it is not the only aspect.

Class plays a fundamental role in capitalist society. With ever increasing talk of ‘identity politics’, we see the class issue being diminished in favour of other problems. The other problems are very real and very important, without question, but they are underpinned by class.

What is espoused by identity politics is that there is no fundamental problem but multiple, overlapping issues: everyone has a unique perspective to offer; a white working-class person cannot understand the issues faced by a bourgeois person of colour, or a female CEO will not know the problems of male workers. There is something to be said for this, but where the issue arises is their view that these are fundamentally distinct issues that simply happen to overlap.

What is not appreciated is that some issues are more basic than others in capitalist society and may be resolved without resolution of the others.

Socialism cannot exist while racism exists, but capitalism can exist even when racial tensions are at an end (the plausibility of this is another matter, it is simply a possibility). This isn’t to denigrate the problems of racism, but simply to understand that they are underpinned by a more deeply rooted issue: class.

The issues are related, of course. The working class cannot achieve its full consciousness unless it recognises that the international working class is its ally and not its competitor. Much of capitalist propaganda revolves around turning the working class against its migrant allies by use of language like ‘the immigrants stealing the jobs’. We can dismiss this as a straightforward case of racism.

A more rigorous inspection leads us to believe that the act of the working class co-operating would be devastating to capitalism, and, consequently, all that can be done to fragment the workers and to pit them against one another must be done. We can see, even in current demonstrations, something of this streak.

To take a concrete example, people in Seattle have declared an autonomous zone, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, with mutual aid systems and community organised demonstrations. Police are not allowed to enter. It has been praised by prominent left-wing institutions (such as the Industrial Workers of the World) and met with great optimism by many leftists.

Donald Trump tweeted that ‘these ugly Anarchists must be stopped IMMEDIATELY [sic]’. Some of the optimism is merited, insofar as it gives us a glimpse of what socialism may look like. Of course, nothing can be planned in any great detail, but the spontaneous actions of workers in times of crisis shows what the natural human instincts for social organisation are. Therein lies the real benefit of crises.

The brilliance of such organisations is that they give a small insight into what a society without class divides might be like, and demonstrate concretely the feasibility of such a society.

They spring up from all sorts of crises: Occupy Wall Street following the crash of 2008 had similar institutions. In this case, it is a crisis prompted by racial tensions that has led to increased consciousness of class tensions. We must appreciate the connection between the two and the fundamental nature of capitalist society if we are to make serious progress.
M. P. Shah

Obituary: Fred Hallows (2020)

Obituary from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

West London branch regret to report the death in his 90s in March of longstanding member Fred Hallows. He joined the old Ealing branch after the war (during which, before he became a socialist, he had been in the RAF as a glider pilot) and was one of the branch’s stalwarts until his retirement and move to Towcester in Northamptonshire. He worked as a draughtsman and was a founder member in 1950 and president of the Grasshoppers Rugby Club in Isleworth which is still going. During his long retirement he continued to take an interest in Party affairs and vote in Party ballots. Our condolences go to his family and friends.

Party News – Discord in the Ranks (2020)

Party News from the July 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 and ask for an invite.

You can hear some of our recent discussions on our Audio files.

Note: ’Online audio talks can occasionally be patchy due to heavy internet traffic during the virus lockdown, but please don’t give up listening as the interference is only temporary’.

Letters: Why was slavery abolished? (2020)

Letters to the Editors from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why was slavery abolished?

Dear Friends

Comments on ‘No slaves! No gods! No masters!’ (Rear View, May 2020)

The organisation now called Anti-Slavery International (ASI) was not, as you state, founded by William Wilberforce in 1839; he had died in 1833; the founder was Thomas Clarkson. The role played by William Wilberforce had been to lead the parliamentary campaign of the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade and the freeing of slaves in the ‘British Empire’, which was achieved by legislation in the year he died. You don’t give evidence for your assertion that the reason for the owning class agreeing to the abolition of slavery was that ‘it was considered an outmoded and inefficient method of labour exploitation’; well – it persisted in capitalist America for several more decades! Surely the long campaigning by Wilberforce, Clarkson and others in stirring public opinion against the treatment of slaves had some impact on the eventual result in Parliament?

Yes, it was and is incredible and appalling that Wilberforce, while campaigning to free slaves in America, could also at home employ child labour and preach to the working class to ‘know their place’. Nevertheless, there must have been many thousands of freed slaves whose lives were, to some extent at least, improved by their no longer being, literally, the property of their owners, to be bought and sold and ill-treated, without impunity, at a whim. This is surely not the case with those of you now call ‘wage slaves’. Anti-Slavery International works still to campaign on behalf of people, here and internationally, who remain, literally, the property of owners. (Would it not be better for you to use some word other than ‘slaves’ to describe those of us who are employed – not owned?)

So, ASI campaigners are your despised ‘reformists’ – but, may they not also be socialists? Why do you insist that it is and either/or situation? Why not both/and? Do you suppose that reformists are in every case going to rest content at the achievement of their particular reform? Or may it not be that such an achievement, if it gives some improvement in the lives of some human beings, is a step – even if only a small one – towards socialism? ‘From each according to their abilities’, we say, – and if Tory William Wilberforce’s persistent and persuasive oratory (as appallingly blinkered as he was in other respects) led to better lives for wretched slaves, then so be it!

Must socialists be ‘absolutists’, refusing involvement in well-meaning reform campaigns, in order to maintain clean-handed ideological purity? Or, even worse, are we allowed to enjoy the relative material comforts brought to many of us by capitalism in our part of the globe, while engaging in merely cerebral ‘holier-than-thou’ argument, as we await a ‘big-bang’ revolution? Ought we not to be living now as if we really believed in socialism as a way of life, contributing willingly, as we can, to our fellow human beings, and taking in return just what we actually need? Would not our actions, however compromised and seemingly pathetic, speak louder than words alone?
Andrew Durrant, 

You rightly takes us to task for stating that Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 by William Wilberforce, who died in 1833 (see May’s Rear View). To be sure, the group has undergone several name changes since its origin as the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. Campaigning by Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce and other abolitionists likely did lead to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act a decade later, but it should be remembered that William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister as far back as 1783, was not alone in thinking that the trade should be abolished as it was more expensive than using workers. However, you are on shakier ground when you write ‘there must have been many thousands of freed slaves whose lives were, to some extent at least, improved by their no longer being, literally, the property of their owners, to be bought and sold and ill-treated, without [sic] impunity, at a whim.’ In his autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), the former slave writes: ‘The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow- man, You shall serve me or starve, is a master and his subject is a slave….Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him..’ .

You go on to ask if socialists must ‘be absolutists, refusing involvement in well-meaning reform campaigns, in order to maintain clean-handed ideological purity?’ To be clear, socialists oppose reformism, not necessarily individual reforms. Indeed, it would be incorrect to deny that certain reforms won by modern wage slaves have helped to improve general living and working conditions. There are examples of this in such fields as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. Yet as William Morris remarked in a lecture: ‘the palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganized partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organization which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side’ (Art & Socialism, 1884). Reforms, if passed, have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families functioning and while providing some temporary relief only rarely managed to remove the problem completely — as the 170,000 UK registered charities , of which Anti-Slavery International is one, attest. 

Marx or Proudhon?

Dear Editor,

Thank you for your very generous and thoughtful review of my book, Sitopia, How Food Can Save the World. I am delighted that your reviewer liked the book so much and feel that there is much in it with which socialists could agree. I do consider myself a socialist at heart and clearly the metaphor of society being a place in which everyone eats well – and by implication has the means of leading a good and meaningful life – is, I believe, at the heart of socialism. We are clearly agreed that capitalism has proved itself unable to deliver such an outcome – and I accept your point that one cannot lay the blame for totalitarian regimes such as those of modern China and Russia at the feet of Marx – although I found myself very taken with Proudhon’s argument that his optimism in vesting all power in the state had its own inbuilt pitfalls! In any case, I welcome your comments.

With all best wishes,
Carolyn Steel

Thanks, but we have to point out that neither Marx nor us want to vest “all power in the state”. Marx envisaged, as we do, socialism/communism as a classless, stateless, moneyless community based on the common ownership of productive resources. Proudhon did envisage the end of the state as a centralised coercive power centre, but wanted to retain production for sale even if by co-operatives, which we don’t agree with .

50 Years Ago: Debate with “International Socialism Group” (2020)

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

Edinburgh branch have sent us the following report of a debate on “Which Way Socialism — International Socialism or the Socialist Party of Great Britain?” held in the Freegardeners Hall, Edinburgh, on before an audience of 70. (The local IS branch have seen this report and raised no objections to it) (…)

S. Jeffries opened for the IS by saying that he agreed with the SPGB’s Marxist theory but that there was a failure to link up theory with practice. He went on to quote Engels on the need to build the revolutionary movement within the trade unions. It was stupid to rely on the vote. He preferred the overthrow of the system by non-parliamentary means, and said that Marxists should always be prepared for the revolutionary situation when this overthrow would be possible.

Comrade Vanni replied that revolutionary phrase-mongering did not make a socialist and invited the floor to look at the dismal history of the IS. Using back numbers of the Labour Worker (now Socialist Worker) he drew attention to their lack of socialist understanding giving instances such as IS having urged workers to vote for the Labour Party in the 1964 and 1966 elections instead of fighting the real enemy — capitalism. It was not a Leninist elite that would bring about the revolution but capitalism itself by the contradictions inherent in it. IS far from being a vanguard, were in reality politically backward. They considered the workers too dull to learn from history but instead that they had to be taken through the struggles and learn from strikes. He went into some detail on the bankruptcy of their political theory, such as the permanent arms economy and their belief in the collapse of capitalism. IS did not even understand what Socailism was, as they saw a need for money, banks and the like, saying that instead of being sacked by a boss you would be made redundent by a ‘Workers Council’. In reality it all boiled down to a sophisticated state capitalism.

(Socialist Standard, July 1970)

Editorial: Working class lives matter (2020)

Editorial from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 25 May, George Floyd, an African American working-class man, was brutally slain by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis. This killing unleashed a massive wave of furious protests and demonstrations across the US that had not been seen since the 1960s. It brought into sharp relief the police brutality and systemic racism that many black working class people face in their everyday lives. Compared to the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, the demonstrations have brought together more people from different ethnic backgrounds.

The protests spread rapidly across the globe. Demonstrators in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere did not just come out in solidarity with the US protesters, but they found that the issues raised by the protesters resonated with their own experiences. The UK, for example, has its own roll-call of black and ethnic minority people who have died in state custody. Black and ethnic minority workers face discrimination in the employment market and in housing. There is the hostile environment instituted by the UK government which gave rise to the Windrush scandal.

These protests have to be seen against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis in which black and ethnic minority workers make up a disproportionate number of the victims.

By appearing to be sympathetic with the demands of the protesters, capitalist political parties such as the Democrats in the US are trying to channel their anger into safe reformist ends. Donald Trump is trying to rally his base by playing the Law and Order card, and is threatening to bring in the military to quell the protests. A grim reminder of the lengths that the state is prepared to go to defend capitalist private property.

There is no doubt that black and ethnic minority workers overall have it tougher when it comes to police brutality and lack of opportunities in employment, education and housing. However, it does not follow from this that racism should be treated as an issue that is separate from capitalism and its class divisions.

Indeed we can see that racism is rooted in the history of capitalism. The use of African slaves in the American plantations to produce cotton to be shipped to the mills of Lancashire. The colonisation of whole swathes of Africa, Asia and the Americas, where the western capitalists ruthlessly exploited the local populations and looted their resources. To justify these heinous and inhumane acts, the ruling class had to characterise the victims as subhuman and belonging to an inferior race, and hence the emergence of ideas of white superiority. So it is little surprise that many white workers absorb these ideas, including those who are employed as police officers, from the wider capitalist society. Racist ideas are used to divide workers from each other.

As the primary function of the police force is to preserve capitalist order, police officers are tasked to keep workers in their place, including workers like George Floyd. Many US police forces have their origin in slave patrols, which had the job of ensuring that black slaves did not escape. The only sure way to do away with racism and police killings is to do away with the social system that creates them, and to bring about socialism.