Sunday, July 12, 2020

Agriculture: Profit Versus Plenty (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Calling agriculture an industry is like making other statements — such as that man is an animal — which are accepted as technically true but contrary to popular imagery. Agriculture in most people’s minds is the antithesis of industry. Agriculture means bucolic bliss: waving corn and lowing herds, fresh food and cider with Rosie, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife — and so on.

Nevertheless, an industry it is. Michael Allaby in The Environmental Handbook describes it as the biggest factory-floor in Britain:
  Men have been replaced by machines and chemicals. Individual farms and whole wide areas of the countryside have specialized. Every last square yard has been put under the plough. It has been found more profitable to bring concentrated food to animals than to allow them to graze grass, and so poultry, cattle and pigs have moved indoors to semi-industrial units.
The most striking change in farming since the second world war is the progressive absence of men. In 1949 there were 645,000 male and 85,000 female agricultural workers in the United Kingdom. The figures in 1970 were 195,000 and 22,000. The numbers of part-time and seasonal workers have gone down similarly, from a total of 934,000 in 1949 to 252,000 in 1970. In the hill-farm districts of northern England stone cottages stand abandoned and crumbling; in the south, the cottages have gone to a high-priced market for commuters and the well-to-do. Characteristically, an arable farm of 200 acres or more requires only one man besides the farmer.

The mechanization and technology can show, at first glance, impressively greater production figures than those of the old days. Allaby says:
  In 1946 the average yield of wheat was 19.1 cwts. per acre; in 1968-9 it was 28.2 cwts. The barley yield rose from an average 17.8 cwts. per acre in 1946 to 27.4 cwts. in 1968-9. All other produce has shown a similar increase.
However, this suggestion of abundance needs at once to be qualified. The land available for agricultural use is decreasing all the time. According to Best and Coppock in The Changing Use of Land in Britain, the area producing food in England and Wales has fallen since the beginning of the century by 2,500,000 acres. The reduction has been caused by building development, motorways, etc. The same authors expect a greater loss in the second part of the century, making a total reduction of 15-20 per cent, of the whole.

Increased production per acre has then to be balanced against a shrinking acreage — which, in turn, tends more and more to be concentrated in favoured crops. The growing of wheat has remained fairly stable since the war at about 2,000,000 acres, and was not much less before it. Oats have declined dramatically from 2,272,000 acres in 1920 to 575,000 in 1970, and potatoes by half since 1945: other root crops too. The increase has been in barley-farming. Running at about a million before the war, the annual crop now approaches 5 million acres.

It is worth remarking on the chief reason why barley has become the most profitable, and therefore the most widely grown, crop. It is unsuitable for bread, and as livestock food is useful mainly as a fattener. Its great use is for making beer and whiskey, and the highest prices are the brewers’ and distillers’ for a heavy crop of it. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, more than a quarter of the barley produced in Western Europe and America is for this purpose. The central importance of modern agriculture, taken for granted and proclaimed, is the production of necessary food. With the largest acreage in Britain thus given to barley-growing, one sees plain illustration of the fact that it is not so: as with every industry under capitalism, the object is not social good but profit. A not-too-harsh comparison can be made with eastern countries where, amid starving populations, thousands of acres are devoted to the cannabis plant.

Nevertheless agriculture does provide food, of course. If "for the nation” is added, as it usually is, the clue is given to the special status of agriculture. Throughout the history of capitalism there has been a conflict between the industrial capitalist and the agriculturist over, as a writer in this journal put it in 1936, “how cheaply the latter can be compelled to feed the former’s human cattle”. Following the first world war farming fell into an extreme plight, after the Government dropped its wartime price-guarantee system. Eventually in the nineteen-thirties, with another European war in prospect, first steps were taken in a system of subsidies for agricultural production. This system was extended during and after the war to the point where, according to the authors of the Penguin Farming in Britain Today (1972 edition):
 The calculated 'net farm income’ of the country exceeds the subsidy bill by no more than 20 per cent; in other words four fifths of the farmers’ income is directly due to state assistance.
As in all industries, small concerns are gradually being eliminated. Between 1955 and 1968, the number of holdings under 50 acres in England and Wales fell by nearly 30 per cent., from 232,900 to 161,600; while the number over 300 acres rose by 25 per cent. The system of government grants benefits big farmers more than small ones; and large acreages are needed to take advantage of mechanization. Strangely enough, statistics suggest persistently that small farms are far more efficient than big ones. Surveying the evidence, Farming in Britain Today says:
  Therefore, even if one concedes, and undoubtedly one should, that after making adjustments to allow for the greater effect on the profit from bought feeding-stuff's, small holdings still show a greater output per acre than large, it remains a factor that could have over-riding importance only in a situation where food was scarcer than manpower or other resources.
It seems a grudging, tortuous conclusion — but the real point is put a few sentences later:
At the moment the aim is not high production as such but production at low cost.
The tendency, supported by Government policy, is for farms to amalgamate and make larger units. Since 1967 grants have been given for amalgamation schemes, and fresh legislation in 1970 made the terms more attractive still.

What of the farm worker? He is notoriously the poorest-paid of all workers, regardless of the state of agriculture. Today the weekly wage is £16.20, and in April this year a request for a rise was rejected flat by the Agricultural Wages Board. The tied cottage is still widespread: after a lifetime on near-starvation wages families are summarily evicted when the man has to retire through age or ill-health, or if he has died. In this respect, as over wages, the NUAAW (the farm workers’ union) put strong hopes in successive Labour governments, but the promises made were never implemented. It is commonly believed, of course, that in the country there are countless “perks” — an inexhaustible supply of free vegetables and rabbit pie — which more than make up wages to town levels. There was little truth in this in the past, and today rural living is in most ways dearer than in town. The farm worker’s life is one of abject poverty; he is still treated in many cases like a feudal serf, and is too scattered to be able to organize effectively for better pay and conditions.

In the last few years the ecologists have drawn attention repeatedly to modern farming techniques. At a simple level, the removal of hedges and the massive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers have decimated wild life: the commonplace creatures of not long ago — tadpoles, tiddlers, bumble-bees, insects and plants galore — have suddenly become rarities in the countryside. Beyond this, there are immediate physical dangers. Countless drums of poison whose disposal is a chronic problem, whose use is seen to be a source of pollution of lakes and water-courses, and whose contact with food is disturbing to many scientists.

Although this kind of technology has raised crop yields, there is mounting evidence that it is self-destructive. Allaby in The Environmental Handbook writes:
  Farmers have been aware of the deterioration of the soil for some time. Yields have begun to decline, suggesting that the increase of yields may have reached a peak. The crops appear to be less healthy: pest outbreaks, weeds and disease are increasing. The National Farmers’ Union set up an enquiry in 1969 to examine the problem . . . Such information is published and discussed in technical terms that may not impress the town dweller. The experts may forget to tell him that what they are debating is, in fact, the fertility of the land, its ability to produce food.
In the debates on these matters, from the point of view of capitalism it does not matter who is right. Whatever “the balance of nature” may mean, what may be the future of the soil and the environment — these are long-term questions: but farming policies are short-term ones, preoccupied with this year’s profit. The farmers’ reply to criticism is always that they are directed by Government policy. What is meant is that they must farm to get the subsidies and grants and seek the highest market price.

The protests against factory-farming of poultry, pigs and cattle appear to have died down now, presumably because it is established as the condition on which we may continue to have chicken and other things for dinner. Apart from the economics of land use, pig and poultry farming in the open are characteristically small-scale enterprises: the product is immensely better, but the relative price of food-stuffs makes “free range” less and less able to compete. The authors of Farming in Britain Today admit the inferiority of factory-farmed products, but say they are “here to stay” and “the housewife of today must reconcile herself". What does "efficiency” mean, then?

Contemporary agriculture is an industry, with the motives and tendencies and hopeless contradictions of all industries in capitalism. It fails to produce the wealth of which its resources are capable, relegating production to cost and profit. Its economics are those of the shortest term and the biggest penny, and inevitably inferior goods. It is sustained by a labour force kept in poverty and subject to primitive conditions and humiliations. The policies it is forced to pursue are pregnant with damage to human beings and their environment, but only profit is heeded. Yet, in the same view, the answers are obvious. Given the reorganization of society to production for use, agriculture could and would produce abundance.
Robert Barltrop

Except where otherwise stated, figures in this article are taken from statistics published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Of Wars Hunts & Elections (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was Bismarck who said: "Never are so many lies told as during wars, after the hunt and before elections". The greatest electoral liar in Italian history, Giovanni Giolitti, the Prime Minister (1900-14) who gave his name to a whole era of political crookery, would have been in his element in this year’s Italian election campaign. The methods of persuasion he used to acquire votes were, it is true, somewhat more forceful, infinitely less subtle than those used by contemporary politicians and political parties. Now the crude threats of violence and electors supervised as they voted have been replaced by electoral dinners for a thousand, professionally designed propaganda posters and politically inclined actors, pop singers and sports personalities[1]. But, if you are a politician, your end remains the same: to win a share in the administration of the capitalist system. And no matter how much wool you have to pull over your electorate’s eyes in the process.

Let’s pull the wool aside for a moment and look at the way the sheep, the Italian working class, have obediently followed behind their leaders’ perennial promises of reform, employment, prosperity and a full and happy life.

In a rundown of Italian parliamentary politics since the war, no fewer than nine parties emerge as serious contenders for a share in government. Percentage votes gained in General Elections are as follows:

Held in the shadow of the Cold War and the Soviet-inspired coup in Czechoslovakia, the elections of 1948 easily lent themselves to billing as a straight fight between Christ and anti-Christ, Western freedom and Eastern tyranny. The Christian Democrats found it useful to issue propaganda posters showing a voter filling in his ballot paper with the caption ‘God sees you, Stalin does not’, while Pope Pius XII’s appeal to the faithful to vote for those candidates "who guarantee the right of God and the soul" fell on anything but stony ground. For their part the left-wing front of PCI and PSI could only mutter feebly about the DC wanting to restore the hardships of Fascism.

Yet in spite of all this no party managed (or has managed since) to muster enough votes to run the show itself. What has resulted therefore is a series of coalition governments with Christian Democrat majorities propped up either by ‘centre’ parties (Republicans, Liberals, PSDI) or by the right wing (Monarchists and Neo-Fascists) or, more recently, by the left (PSI). The monotony with which these coalitions rise and fall is matched only by the recurrent lameness of the excuses proffered for their failure by the politicians involved.

The first government set up after 1948 constituted an intransigent “anti-Red” front, utterly hostile to all contact with the PCI and its allies. But times changed. The storm clouds of the Cold War began to pass, the era of Common Market capitalism dawned, the Italian economy strained at the leash to expand into its new European markets. So after a series of disastrous ‘centre’ and ‘centre-right’ governments, several years of negotiation saw the inauguration in 1962 of the ‘opening to the left’, a new line-up of centre and left-wing parties (DC, PRI, and PSI) considered more capable of meeting the new requirements of Italian capitalism. As many governments before it, it declared its first priorities to be economic growth and social reform.

In the event the economy expanded rapidly, but despite its excuses and protestations to the contrary the new governing clique proved no more capable than any other of delivering its promised paradise of reforms in housing, education, health, transport, employment and Southern development. The reason for this, according to the present leader of the PSI, Francesco De Martino, is that “a real Socialist economy has never been tried”. There can be no quarrel with this statement, except that De Martino’s ‘‘socialist economy” turns out to be not a moneyless system of production for use in which reforms, the palliatives and crack-paperings of capitalism, are rendered unnecessary, but some bizarre, dreamlike contortion of capitalism in which ‘‘the importance of the consumer must be recognised while at the same time preventing the speculations of the capitalists”. (Interview in Corriere della Sera, 3 May 1972).

The ‘opening to the left’ cast a ray of sunshine across the largest Communist party in Western Europe, out in the icy political cold for so long. Since the entry into government of the PSI, a ‘friendly’ party, and the subsequent establishment of contact with the disaffected left of the DC, the PCI has pulled out all the stops to destroy its image as a bolshevik, totalitarian party and to meet the left of the ruling coalition half way. It gained local control of certain areas in the 1970 regional elections and since then, sniffing the sweet smell of power, has popularly screamed for law and order just as loudly as the next party and quite openly stated its readiness to enter a government coalition with the PSI and willing elements of the Christian Democracy, a party officially described in the 1968 election campaign as an ‘‘objective class enemy, an instrument of bourgeois repression”. Like Communist parties everywhere it would dearly love its record to vanish from the face of the earth. How can it convince people that from being a puppet of Stalin’s foreign policy, it has turned into a respectable, non-violent, reforming capitalist party no longer tied to the apron strings of the CPSU? This year’s election campaign consisted largely of desperate protestations to the effect that Russian-style, one-party state capitalism is not its aim. [2]

It had a certain measure of success too, in as much as the PCI, as in all General Elections since the war, registered overall gains. But give or take a few votes the balance of political power among the parties remains very much the same. A number of general conclusions can be drawn from the results (see chart above).

Although as yet undecided amid the wheeling and dealing now taking place, a centre-left coalition seems about to be re-formed. Since during the election campaign, however, the PSI had committed itself to a "more advanced balance of forces” (a euphemism for a left-wing coalition to include the communists) it will very likely continue to provide a bridge between Communists and sympathetic Christian Democrats. Perhaps, given the internal disarray of the DC [3], a half-way meeting along it will not be too long delayed.

In the bleak economic situation (last year investments slumped by 10.3 per cent, industrial production by 2.7 per cent, and unemployment soared to over 1 million) and the climate of uncertainty and apprehension created by the terrorist activities of various right and left-wing extra-parliamentary groups, the new union of right-wing forces (the National Right-Wing Front) made the gains everyone expected. But the 56 seats it now holds can hardly be said to constitute the same danger to the parliamentary system as Mussolini’s Fascist Party did in 1921. The effect of the socialisation of industry policies advocated by the MSI, unsurprisingly reminiscent of the programme of the ill-fated Republic of Salo, would be to put a brake on capitalist development. Hence any attempt to bring the Neo-Fascists into the government would meet with the strongest opposition from Italy’s capitalist class. Besides, the largest party representing the interests of this class has declared against any form of union with the right.

A right-wing coup of the type mooted for so long by sensation-hungry journalists seems equally out of the question. Any political regime in charge of an advanced economy needs the active cooperation of its workers, the geese that lay the productive golden eggs. It seems improbable, therefore, that a working class which, despite an atmosphere of social and economic chaos, has just declared itself only 8 per cent in favour of Fascist-style totalitarianism will be panicked overnight into supporting the interests of a tiny minority.

Over 90 per cent of the Italian working class — and make no mistake about this — is just as thoroughly committed to capitalism as ever it was.[4] It has shown this by a massive vote of confidence in the various parties lined up along the capitalist political spectrum. Now for its trouble, until the time comes for it to be hoodwinked again, it will suffer another term of broken promises, insecurity, bad housing, unemployment, struggle to maintain living standards, and all the other features of misery associated with capitalism.

In the political struggle which has just taken place, the word which tripped most freely and most frequently from the lips of demagogues, right, left and centre, was democracy. The election results themselves were variously described as "a triumph for democracy”, ‘‘the maturity of Italian democracy”, “the democratic process vindicated”, etc. And, with a few reservations, these elections were indeed democratic. What is pseudo-democracy, however, is the use the results will be put to by the parties who touted for votes and power. They will need of course to be more watchful than governments in the one-party state capitalist countries like Russia, Cuba and China which have not yet reached the stage of free elections, but this will not remove the ruthless cynicism and total disregard for human, social priorities with which the administrators of capitalism operate. Not that they can do otherwise. They are merely obeying the laws of a system of production for profit which cannot, by its very nature, be run in the interests of the working majority.

None of this is to deny the value of the ballot-box. The right to vote, on the contrary, constitutes a potentially revolutionary instrument which the majority of workers, once they understand where their true interests lie, can use to take over the state, preparatory to the changeover from Capitalism to Socialism. In Italy, without a parliamentary party putting the case for Socialism, the only true democratic way for a worker to use his vote, is to write “Socialism” across his ballot paper. For only with the end of the wages and money system will it be possible to extend true democracy to all departments of life.
Howard Moss

[1] Concetto Lo Bello, a famous football referee and successful DC candidate in Sicily, came out with a novel solution to social problems: “A youth raised in the traditions of sport will never be a hooligan, a drug addict or at a loss for something to do. What we need are sports fields, gymnasiums and physical training instructors”. (Election speech reported in Corriere della Sera, 4 April, 1972).
[2] To emphasise their ‘Europeanism’, the PCI sent their present leader, Enrico Berlinguer, over to London last year to plead with Harold Wilson not to oppose Britain’s entry into the Common Market. In 1958 the Italian Communist Party had declared its implacable hostility to the Treaty of Rome.
[3] At least eight ‘currents’ can be traced in the DC. The recent passing of Italy’s divorce law aggravated the situation, for although the party’s official attitude reflected the fierce opposition of the Vatican, it by no means received carte blanche for this from all its deputies.
[4] Voting figures are high in Italy — 92.8% in 1968, 93.0% in 1972.

Review: June 1972 (1972)

The Review of the Month column from the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard


Events in the docks, on the railways and in the Industrial Relations Court seemed to indicate that the government policy on the unions is, as the newspapermen like to say, in ruins. At first they huffed, with the big fine for the TGWU; then they puffed with the railmen’s ballot and the threats to imprison the dockers. But then their house fell down. The Labour Party seized upon the government’s confusion, implying that things would have been better ordered under Wilson. They forgot that the last time a government was made to look foolish over taking legal action against strikers was the Labour government who prosecuted dockers in 1951. They forgot also that every government starts off with promises to tackle the unions, in one way or another. This applied to the Wilson period, which began with attempts at getting the unions to agree to voluntary restrants and ended with the famous, ill fated legal restrictions of In Place of Strife. The insoluble problem for all governments, which are trying to run capitalism, is to legislate order into an anarchic situation. The class struggle is an essential part of capitalism; politicians who think they can control it, and workers who vote for them in that belief, are simply deluding themselves.

The same newspapers which took a high moral tone over the allegedly grabbing activities of the unions also adopted the same attitude over the activities of the asset strippers, notably John Bentley who has stripped so effectively in recent times that he has become a millionaire. The whole point about asset stripping is that someone makes money — a lot of money — over shutting a factory down. City editors striving to believe that there is something logical and beneficial to us all in capitalism thought it a bit much, that someone can make a fortune over a process which involves throwing thousands of other people out of work. In fact, asset stripping conforms perfectly to the basics of capitalism, which is that everything must be carried on with a view to making profit. Bentley personifies the uselessness of the system which provides for him so well.


The South African government are under increasing pressure to modify, if not abandon, their policies of apartheid. Of course we have been hearing for a long time now, that the end of apartheid was near; meanwhile the special type of suffering which it entails has if anything worsened. What is new about recent developments has been the growing tendency for whites to protest against the government— and not just whites who were anxious that they would lose the chance to watch touring sports teams but some with other concerns, other interests. In many ways apartheid stands against the logic of capitalism, which needs a free, mobile working class. In South Africa, the industrialists have smarted under the restrictions of the official policies and have looked hungrily at the vast labour force which was being denied them. The immediate possibility is that Vorster will crack down on the protests with more restrictions but beyond that, in some way, there must be an end to apartheid if capitalism is to develop in South Africa. When that happens, and the Africans have arrived at a state of established working class life style, with all that implies in terms of poverty and suppression, the protesters may realise that something more fundamental is needed by way of social change, if human problems are to be dealt with effectively.


Anyone who still cherishes the idea that the parties of capitalism are united bands of brothers will have had their delusions damaged somewhat by recent happenings in party committee rooms. In both the big parties, the knives have been out and there have been one or two corpses to cart away afterwards. The whole trouble has been that in the next election there will be a lot of redesigned constituencies, as a result of the adjustment of parliamentary boundaries. In many cases this has meant that thousands of supporters have been drawn into a neighbouring constituency, where they are likely to be swamped by the larger votes of the other side. Some seats probably change hands, others become perilous instead of safe. The struggle has been to desert the sinking ships and find a place on a nice, dry safe one—and it has involved some big names among them no less than the Prime Minister whose seat at Bexley may have become Labour in the reshuffle. Capitalist politicians are persistently telling us that they serve us. sacrifice themselves for us, give us the best years of their lives and so on. When they are struggling for their survival, however, they tend to show rather different motives.

Does Capitalism Work? (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Professor Champions Capitalism” ran the gleeful headline in the Financial and Business supplement of The Scotsman (24 May). The story which followed told us that Professor H. B. Acton, who holds the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, has written a paper for the Foundation of Business Responsibilities titled “The Ethics of Capitalism” in which he glorifies the capitalist system and its beneficiaries, the capitalist class.

The Professor’s paper contains a statement on the historical contribution of the early capitalists:
  The bourgeoisie, more scrupulous and pacific than the aristocracy and less deferential than the peasantry, so improved the arts of production that the system of warrior lords and dependent serfs was replaced by one in which large populations of free citizens enjoy a scope of living which goes beyond what the aristocracy formerly disposed of.
Then follows a list of benefits which the capitalist mode of production brought in its wake:
  Free speech, free movement of trade, free thought, exploration of the earth and oceans, an ideal of peaceful domesticity, etc.
There can be no question that the Professor’s summary is more or less correct. Capitalism was a definite step forward for humanity. Capitalism did abolish the productive methods of feudalism, took away the power of the aristocracy, decimated the peasantry and replaced it by a class of wage-slaves to operate the technology which makes possible modern living, standards – and more.

So, preceding any of capitalism’s benefits, was the forcible removal of millions of these “free citizens” and their children from their means of living to be herded into the industrial hells and slums of the towns and cities. There is no indication that the Professor mentioned this in his paper but possibly the study of Moral Philosophy doesn’t include a reading’ of, say, Gibbins’ Industrial History of England or Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, and whatever the benefits of capitalism they were most definitely not what motivated the bourgeoisie when they set about carrying through their revolution.

Certainly the Professor could claim that all this was yesterday. Nowadays the children have been banished from the mills, mines and factories while in the same issue of The Scotsman Mr. Julian Amery, the Housing Minister, did state that the slum problem could at long last be solved within the next ten years. A likely story, for whatever excesses of the system capitalism does manage to curb it can never eliminate the glaring contradictions and divisions it has given birth to in society. Capitalist is ranged against capitalist over the share-out of the spoils; the workers are periodically at one another’s throats over the available jobs and cheap housing. More important, the workers are at constant war with the capitalists over wages and conditions of work. Indeed The Scotsman carried other reports on such conflicts as the war in Vietnam, a 1,000 lb. bomb explosion in Belfast, a possible strike of BEA pilots, a strike by 200 workers at Rosyth Dockyard, and a squabble between Roxburgh County Council  and Scottish Omnibuses over subsidies for 26 uneconomic bus services’

Even more pointed was the story concerning the discovery that Ford Motor company in Detroit have conducted faulty anti-pollution tests on its entire engine line for all l973 passenger models. Should the Environmental Protection Agency insist on the letter of the law then Ford would be forced  to carry out new lengthy tests, or be barred from selling their 1973 cars as scheduled. Officials of the EPA have hinted, however, that the law might be bent to avoid such a disaster, for the article says:
  The situation brings into sharp focus the potential conflict between government safety and pollution regulations and the practical alternatives when big industry says it cannot meet these standards; the usual approach has been to change the rules.
So in order that capitalism’s day to day functioning isn’t interfered with too much the atmospheric poisoning (and Ford’s profits) may continue. Truly an excellent example of the “ethics of capitalism”.

Presumably all this strife and turmoil has eluded the professor’s notice. He is far too busy currying the capitalists’ favour by telling them to be proud of their role and to have confidence in fulfilling their prime function:
  to see that the things people need for life and civilisation are produced, modified, multiplied, protected,  stored, moved and delivered.
Do bombs, napalm, defoliant and pollutants come into the category of “things people need for life and civilisation”? Certainly the capitalists see to it that these are “produced, modified, multiplied, protected”. And do they see to it that the necessary food is “stored, moved and delivered” for the starving and ill-fed millions throughout the world? No, Professor, the “prime function” of the capitalist is to increase his capital and everything else including human need must take a back seat.

Undoubtedly the coming of capitalism was a progression in social development since it provided the technical impetus for solving the problem of production. Now it stands as a barrier between man and his product and has split humanity from top to bottom. We now need to abolish the private (including state) ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution and introduce instead a new society based on their common ownership and democratic control. The Professor’s defence of capitalism is, in the light of all this, as justified as advocating horse-drawn transport in the jet age because it’s an improvement over walking.
Vic Vanni

Limits of T. U. Action (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those who advocate that trade unions should stage political strikes to try to defeat objectionable government legislation should heed the little-publicized fate of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union last November.

The union (which had only 1,450 members) called a strike to protest against some clauses on discipline in a shipping bill which was then before parliament. After four days the Minister of Labour gave the seamen a 24-hour ultimatum to return to work. They refused. The government’s reaction on Friday 5 November made Britain’s Industrial Relations Act look positively liberal. The Seamen’s Union was struck off the register of approved unions; its funds were frozen; all agreements to which it was party were set aside; its striking members were barred from getting any social security benefit on the grounds that they were "voluntarily unemployed” and, finally, the airforce and troops were sent in to move people and supplies.

On the Monday the Federation of Labour (New Zealand’s equivalent of the TUC) which had taken over responsibility for the seamen’s interests called on them to return to work and on Wednesday the seamen agreed. A former official of their former union was reported as saying that
  the reason for the back-to-work decision was ‘to keep the organisation intact to live to fight another day’. He said the seamen’s decision to stop work in protest against the controversial shipping and seamen amendment Bill, was to ‘knock the Bill over’. He said: ‘We realised today the tactics proved wrong. Maybe the boys will realise it’s only by being under the umbrella of the trade union movement that we can progress in relation to improving our conditions of employment’ (Lloyd’s List, 11 November. 1971).
The New Zealand seamen, for all their commendable fighting spirit, learned the hard way the futility of minority industrial action to defeat, even over a comparatively minor reform, a legally-constituted government enjoying majority support. Trade union action, though necessary to defend living standards under capitalism, is limited in what it can achieve. It can, by and large, keep wages in line with rising prices but it cannot overthrow governments or dispossess the capitalists. That can only be done by the democratic political action of a Socialist majority.

An Office Worker's View (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you’re an office worker, and particularly a higher paid one, you are about to be the subject of considerable wooing by two rival unions, ASTMS and APEX. The Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, with Clive Jenkins as general secretary, on the one hand, and the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff, on the other. APEX was until its conference in April the “Clerical and Administrative Workers Union”, a name which its leaders felt would be a liability in any campaign to recruit the status-conscious higher paid office worker. Mind you they were lucky: their conference only agreed to the change of name by 49,170 to 48,880 on a card vote.

Clive Jenkins wasn’t so lucky. His conference in May failed by the narrowest of margins to get the two-thirds majority necessary for the union to de-register under the Industrial Relations Act in accordance with TUC policy. He accused Roy Grantham, APEX general secretary, of influencing the vote by his allegation that ASTMS had not de-registered before so as to be able to better recruit new members. Jenkins, taking up the challenge presented by the CAWU’s change of name, said he would complain to the TUC.

There’s not much to choose between the two unions. ASTM’s membership is about 220,000, basically foremen and science workers; APEX’s about 125,000, basically ordinary clerical workers, over half of them women. Both are affiliated to the TUC and both are controlled by an elite, the former (in conventional terms) left-wing and the latter right-wing with anti-Communist rules. Both are trying to recruit new members on the basis, not of being a democratic union of people working together to improve their common lot, but of providing an efficient, professional specialised service in much the same way as banks and insurance companies claim to do in their particular fields.

Their leaders, like those of other unions too, see their members as customers paying for the services they provide in the form of dues, and are anxious to increase the number of these dues-paying customers. To be fair, this attitude is not confined to the leaders and is shared by the great majority of members. They too see the union as an outside organisation providing a specialist service and expect to get their money’s worth from it, as anyone who has tried to collect union dues will be able to confirm. Very few bother to participate in the affairs of their union and most of those that do are either politically-motivated (like the present writer) or ambitious for union office.

The typical modern union is more of a business organization — with some of the leaders living like businessmen too with salaries way above what most of their members get — than a union of workers. They are no threat to capitalism, and were never meant to be. In fact they are now to a large extent integrated into the administration of capitalism.

This is not to say that the existing trade unions are useless. Wage and salary earners need to struggle under capitalism to maintain and improve their pay and conditions, and the existing unions, despite their serious shortcomings, can be used as a weapon in this struggle. Office workers would be well-advised to join one union or other, whether ASTMS or APEX or something else; even employer-established staff associations can be put to some use if the members want to. What union they choose is up to them and should depend on the circumstances. The present writer is in APEX simply because the rest of those in the office are and APEX has the negotiating rights.

But, as a Socialist, I’m not going to take sides in the coming battle for members between APEX and ASTMS. My loyalty is to the working class as a whole and not any one section of it or, rather, any organisation offering to provide a service for any one section of it.

Actually, if the battle doesn’t get out of hand and set worker against worker, office workers may well benefit from the rivalry as each union will have to offer and try to get more in order to outdo its rival. Already APEX has become more militant than it ever used to be.
Adam Buick

50 Years Ago: Action for Socialism (1972)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Modern capitalist society is broad-based upon one central fact — the dominance and enslavement of the many by the few . . . This is the Socialist position. Not all of it, but its essence. The reason we have to repeat it many times, is because the bulk of the working class have never heard it, but few are moved into action. At the risk of wearying those who do understand, we have to iterate and reiterate the one central truth that matters. Our task would be easier if those who do understand, in all cases squared their actions with their belief and did the logical thing — joined the Socialist Party. Socialism is essentially a creed of action. Action, and organised intelligent action at that, is vital to its achievement and yet, there must be thousands of workers, perfectly convinced of the desirability, and of the inevitability of Socialism, who have never lifted a finger to bring it nearer.

It is these who are weary of our repetitions, but they should reflect, it is they who help to make them necessary. Let them take the first step that renders repetition unnecessary so far as they are concerned. Let them cease to wait for the ‘other chap’ to join, but be guided rather by logic and show the ‘other chap’ that you at least are a logical person. 

(From an article “On Getting Tired” by Comrade W. T. Hopley, Socialist Standard July 1922).

Corrections (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are aware that a passage in the item Conference Report in the May Socialist Standard can be read so as to misrepresent our case. The passage reads:
  We have always said that Socialism can only be established by a conscious, participating working class organised not only politically to capture and destroy the State machine but also outside parliament ready to take over and run industry and society generally.
The SPGB case is that a politically conscious working class must use political means—that is through parliament —to take over the state machine, and convert it to an agent for the establishment of Socialism. Once that has been accomplished the coercive state machine will cease to exist; in the words of Engels (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific): “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’, it dies out.”

In addition, in the same issue, there were some less important printers’ errors.

In the article Death of a Publisher, the word “miser” in the second paragraph should have read “Midas” and, in the final paragraph, “few ideas” should have read “pen”. The article The Stretcher Bearers had a mistake in the last paragraph but one; instead of saying that social workers . . . pick their way through the battlefield with their stretchers and their handbags” it should have said “. . . their stretchers and bandages.” Of course, the printed version is hilarious enough almost to be left uncorrected but for all these mistakes, our apologies.
Editorial Committee

Bernadette Devlin (1972)

From the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard
"I think that Russia and Mao's China are capitalist states."
                     Bernadette Devlin, interviewed in the Times, 15 May, 1972.