Sunday, August 2, 2020

Socialists and War. (1932)

From the August 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

Boris Souvarine (a French ex-Communist), writing in La Critique Sociale (March, 1932, published at 31, rue Jacob, Paris, price 5 francs), maintains that there has been a fundamental, if unobserved change in the attitude of Socialists towards war during the past 25 years.

Taking the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) as an illustration, Souvarine says that most of the Socialists “declared themselves on the side of Japan, less by reason of sympathy for a superior civilisation than out of hatred for Czarism, and, above all, because they anticipated that the defeat of Russia would have beneficial results for the international Socialist movement.” He quotes Jules Guesde as having said : “We must be against Russia and for Japan. Long live Japan !”

Kautsky, who took the same view wrote : “Never in my opinion has a problem been set in such simple terms.”

Franz Mehring went into the question rather more deeply. He differentiated between what he called the “policy of neutrality of the workers,” and the “policy of neutrality of the capitalists.” In his view the workers “have little cause to wax enthusiastic for either Japan or for Russia, but it is not a matter of indifference to them whether Japan or Russia wins.” He argued that a Japanese victory would be in the interests of the Socialist movement.

Plekhanov approved of this point of view. The Russian Party (including Lenin’s group) hoped for the defeat of Russia, and the Russian Poles actually sent Pilsudsky to Japan to mark their support of that country against their own Government.

Edouard Vaillant, while anxious that the Western countries should not be involved, looked to the victory of Japan to lead to an immediate revolution in Russia.

Vandervelde thought similarly, and said there was no room for hesitation―” Czarism is the enemy.”

Souvarine quotes Hyndman as holding the view that War in itself is a factor in progress : ―
“I do not share the opinion of Jean Jaurès and some others of our friends who wish to prevent war between Japan and Russia. This war seemed to me inevitable and all my Russian friends, Social-democrats and Social Revolutionaries, have said the same thing, namely, that whether Russia is victor or vanquished, a revolution in Russia will certainly follow.”
(This passage is not the original, but is re-translated into English from Souvarine’s French version).

He hailed Japan for having “helped to deliver the whole Western world from a shameful oppression.”

Souvarine remarks that, although there was a general tendency to support Japan against Russia, yet there was conflict of opinion as well as confusion of thought among the groups whose spokesmen are referred to above. In particular, Souvarine instances the different standpoints of Mehring and Hyndman.

Going back still further, Souvarine argues that even the confused views of 1904 were an advance on the attitude of many Socialists during earlier war crises.

In 1885, when war threatened between Russia and England, Jules Guesde openly welcomed it. In his opinion, a Russian defeat would lead to a proletarian victory in Germany, “a working class 1789,” and a British defeat would mean a universal upheaval, with the British workers at its head. In an article entitled “Long Live War,” he prophesied the immediate overthrow of capitalism whichever way the war might end. To him, war was a “fertiliser of progress,” and the God of Battles was an ally of the Socialist Movement. As Souvarine quite rightly points out, it was this sort of reasoning that led Guesde to welcome the war of 1914 on the ground that it would “give birth to revolution.”

Souvarine traces the Bolshevists’ attitude towards war back to Kautsky, from whom, he says, Lenin derived his views. Extensive quotations are given from a pre-war, but undated, article written by Kautsky. Briefly the argument is as follows :

Socialists are not bound to support defensive wars and oppose offensive wars, any more than they should renounce the class struggle. However much we may dislike war, we cannot prevent this appeal to violence on the part of rival capitalist groups. The working class cannot repudiate all use of force, and therefore they cannot repudiate war. We must judge the policy which leads to war, but not war itself.

Souvarine claims that Lenin’s writings in 1914, particularly an “Open Letter to Souvarine,” contained arguments identical with Kautsky’s. Souvarine says:―
“There is no doubt that Lenin borrowed from Kautsky the best of his reasoning. Both of them paraphrased the dictum of Clausewitz that “war is a continuation of policy by other means,” …. and agree in affirming that there is not always cause for condemning even offensive wars. In support of this contention that socialists may support an offensive war, Kautsky instances the view of Marx and Engels, in 1848, that it was necessary for Germany to wage an offensive war on Russia, and their efforts later on to stir up English public opinion for war against Russia.” (This was the Crimean War.)
Souvarine quotes Plekhanoff as saying: “The international working class, faithful to its revolutionary point of view, must approve of every war – whether of defence or of conquest – which promises to remove an important obstacle on the road to revolution.”

After his survey of the pronouncements made by these leaders of various schools of thought, Souvarine claims that the present attitude of Communists and the Labour Parties, of demanding “disarmament,” the “outlawry of war,” and “pacts of non-aggression,” represents a definite break with the views of those who have claimed to speak for the working class in the past. (He does not mention the demand made by the “Labour and Socialist International,” that the League of Nations, the Governments, and the Trade Unions should take action against Japan on account of the “aggression” in Manchuria and other Chinese territories.)

Finally, Souvarine urges the workers to clarify their minds on the problem, so that they may take up a realistic attitude in future.

OUR VIEWS ON THE PROBLEM                                             

Readers of the Socialist Standard who have acquainted themselves with the S.P.G.B.’s attitude towards war will see that not one of the views mentioned by Souvarine is identical with ours. Nor is it true that our view has changed with the years. Articles in the Socialist Standard at the time of the Russo-Japanese war show the S.P.G.B.’s attitude then to be essentially the same as in 1914 and now (see, for example, the issues for July and August, 1905). The writers at that time cherished certain illusions about the French and German so-called Socialists and their attitude towards war, and about the likely outcome of the Russo-Japanese conflict, but they fully understood the fundamental point that the workers have no interest in supporting wars between capitalist States. When it is remembered that the S.P.G.B. was at that time a newly formed party, clarifying its attitude on various questions of policy, it is remarkable that the question of war should have been understood as clearly as it was.

The S.P.G.B.’s view can best be explained by taking up points referred to by Souvarine.

We do not distinguish between “offensive” and “defensive” wars. In truth, no real distinction is possible. Let those who believe such distinctions to be practicable answer these questions :―Can a Government which pleads the necessity of war to defend its territory be denied the right to conduct operations outside its borders? Could the English Government in 1914, before the declaration of war, allow the German Fleet in the Channel? Could Germany refrain from defending itself by occupying Belgium? Could the Allies trouble about the neutrality of Greece when they needed Salonika as a base against Bulgaria and Turkey? If defence and offense appeared to be separable half a century ago, the changing technique of war has made it difficult to-day. An obvious defence against air attack is to strike against the air base of the other side. Any Government can put up a plausible case to show that its military offensive is needed to defend “vital national interests.”

And what – in a capitalist world – is a war of conquest”? Germany in 1914 pleaded the necessity of war to prevent encirclement and extinction. Germany demanded colonies. Was Germany guilty of “aggression” when she demanded colonies, and the other Powers, which had already seized the best colonial lands, not guilty of “aggression”? Capitalist Japan needs the natural resources of Manchuria, and Japan’s steps to seize Manchuria fall into the same category as Germany’s gamble in 1914. In other words, “aggression” is merely the name applied to the actions of the late-comers by those who were first to collar the loot.

The S.P.G.B. does not attempt to distinguish between the relative merits of the conduct of capitalist Governments at war with each other. We recognise as a fact that they are all of them defending by armed force the private ownership of the world’s means of production and distribution, i.e., forcibly excluding the mass of the population from entering into possession. Should the slaves take sides when the slave-owners fall out? Obviously, no.

There remains the Guesde-Lenin-Kautsky argument that wars, or some of them at least, are “progressive” in their effects and lead on to revolution. We repudiate this argument that certain wars should be supported by the workers because of their supposed revolutionary effects. First of all, there is the suffering for the workers which war brings in its train – both to combatants and civilians. Then there is the war fever and political repression which make Socialist propaganda more difficult. Then it will be observed that the Russo-Japanese War did not result in the overthrow of Czarism. The progressive effect of war and defeat has been misunderstood. War may speed up the development of industry and may produce disturbed conditions leading to the overthrow of Governments. In countries where democratic methods of electing and changing the Government have not yet developed, this possible result of defeat may appear to possess considerable importance. But the defeats in the Great War which hastened political changes in Germany, Russia, Austria, and elsewhere, did not lead to Socialism. What was overlooked by those who put forward the argument was that the overthrow of a throne or an autocratic Government cannot possibly lead to Socialism where the working class are not fit to take on that task. In other words, their view on this aspect of war was different from that of the S.P.G.B. because their view on the conditions for achieving Socialism was different. Experience has taught us something it had not at that time taught them. They (and this includes Marx and Engels in their earlier years) had underestimated the extent of the knowledge and experience required to build up a solid and reliable Socialist political organisation out of the unorganised workers. To them, the overthrow of an autocracy was but a step removed from the conquest of power by the working-class. The lessons of the past 100 years have shown how over-sanguine they were. Wars, revolutions, and ordinary economic and political evolution have destroyed numerous monarchies and autocracies, but because an organised Socialist working class nowhere exists, every attempt to gain power for Socialism has failed – including, of course, the Russian attempt.

The S.P.G.B. opposes working class participation in war between capitalist Governments for reasons based directly on working class interests and the interests of the Socialist Movement.

In all countries the workers are exploited by the owners of the means of production and distribution. There are no differences between the conditions under which exploitation is carried on in the different countries sufficient to make it worth the workers’ while supporting war in order to defend their subjection to one national group of capitalists rather than to another. As a case in point, the new Manchurian Government (said to be a tool of Japan) in taking over the Posts and Customs from China, guarantees to the staffs exactly the same wages and conditions as before. Why should they worry who governs Manchuria while capitalism lasts?

Many people who recognise these facts, nevertheless argue in favour of supporting wars for national defence and to secure national independence on the ground that only in this way can the national question be thrust on one side. They argue that Socialists ought to help the Irish, Chinese, Indians and others to secure national independence as a means of clearing nationalistic prejudices out of the way. This is an illusion. Every support of nationalism feeds it and encourages it. Nationalism breeds conditions in which Socialist propaganda and organisation are made more difficult. The Irish Free State is not less nationalistic than it was ten years ago because it is now partly independent of England. England is not free from nationalism in spite of its hundreds of years of independence. Japan – whose own territory is under no threat – is at present going through a violent fever of nationalism. For Socialist propaganda to make headway, nationalistic prejudices have got to be struck it the roots, and that from the very beginning.

As a practical policy this means that Socialists must carry on their struggle against the capitalist parties in their own country and must on no account allow it to appear, through political alliances or collaboration in capitalist Governments, that they associate themselves with their own capitalists against the rest of the world. It is only natural that the Labour Parties, believing as they do in associating with capitalist parties, should find themselves during war forming nationalist united fronts against the “enemy” country. There can be no sound Socialist attitude towards war except where there is a sound Socialist attitude towards capitalism at home.

The Great War showed how easy it was for the Governments to capture the so-called Labour and Socialist Parties. Germany provided a particularly interesting spectacle. The German Social Democratic Party had cherished the illusion that it was opposed to wars of aggression, and had also professed to abhor the methods of the Czarist Government in Russia. In August, 1914, the German Government was afraid that a war with France and England would not be popular with the Social Democrats and might be opposed by them. Here was a problem which the German Chancellor (Bethmann-Hollweg) and his advisers solved with the greatest ease by declaring war on Russia, thus giving the Social Democrats the kind of war their unsound theories would inevitably lead them to support. Prince von Buelow, in his Memoirs (Putnam, 1932, p. 163) describes the situation, and states that it was this motive which induced the Chancellor to hasten the declaration of war on Russia, for which otherwise there was no immediate cause. In “Class 1902” (Martin Seeker, 1929), Ernst Glaeser describes from the point of view of a member of the Social Democratic Party how easily the trick worked.

In Japan, at the present time, the wave or nationalism that has swept over the Trade Unions and so-called Socialist Parties has been helped on by the Labour Parties in England and elsewhere through their endeavour to judge the “merits” of the disputants. By denouncing Japan as the aggressor, these parties have at once thrown themselves open to the suspicion of being pro-China and anti-Japan. The nationalist elements in the Japanese organisations have used this effectively to discredit the whole idea of internationalism and of Socialism. By being able to represent the foreign so-called Socialists as helping capitalist interests hostile to Japanese capitalism, they have succeeded in overwhelming the working-class elements in Japan which have a clearer understanding of the position. Confidence between Socialists in the different countries requires as its first condition that each group shall show that its hands are clean in its activities at home. The Labour Parties can make no such claim and are rightly suspect in the eyes of the Japanese workers.

When Souvarine suggests that there is need for a revision of theories about war held by the Labour and Communist Parties, he is right. But what is really needed is that they should undertake the fundamental revision required to bring their theories as a whole into line with the facts of capitalism and the lessons of experience.
Edgar Hardcastle

The German Situation. (1932)

Editorial from the August 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

The problem that concerns capitalists in general is freedom to accumulate profits without economic or political hindrance either from economic conditions or from dissatisfied workers and impecunious sections of their own class. In each country each section of the capitalist class seeks to gain the lion’s share of the wealth plundered from the workers. The International interests of groups (large trusts for. instance) again cut across these other interests and produce further complications.

On the main issue there is unity, but on sectional issues there is conflict. Hence the divergent policies which at one time and another throw up alleged representative men and which provide professional politicians with a fruitful field to build up ephemeral reputations and fortunes.

Germany is at present torn with internal strife produced by the class conflict of wage-worker and capitalist, complicated by the minor clashing of capitalist national and international sectional interests. The general dissatisfaction has been increased by the ineptitude and wavering policy of the Social Democratic Party which has tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Since the end of the war this party and its supporters have sought to hold power by means of compromises and alliances; at one time crushing the workers at another fighting mock battles with the capitalists. In the end it has reaped the contempt of the capitalists and the distrust of the workers.

The war and post-war conditions gave an added impetus to the complete industrialisation of Germany and converted the old landowners (Junkers) into modern agricultural capitalists. These together with the industrial capitalists who serve agriculture, and the Bankers and Traders are the interests behind Von Papen. Prussia is the centre of these interests and contains roughly two-thirds of the total population of. Germany. Heavy industry (coal, iron and steel) centres in South Germany and has strong international connections and interests which demand stable government, the curbing of workers aspirations, and an “enlightened” policy abroad.

The bureaucracy in Germany is very highly developed and positions in it are the object of and the bait for the small investors and shop-keeping sections together with the families of the old army officers. Hitler appeals particularly to these groups and also to disillusioned workers.

There is much in the Hitler movement that directly serves the interests of the German capitalists but there is an element of disorder and incapacity in it that inspires them with doubt. Hence from the beginning they have distrusted it and alternately given it support and withdrawn their support from it according to their immediate interests and ideas. In other words it has and will be used only Where it serves the interests of those who control the means of wealth production, etc., in Germany.

Underneath all the above mentioned groups is a large and dissatisfied working class, with low wages, hard conditions and an unemployed section numbering over six millions.

For some time, prominence in the news has been given to the growth of the Hitler movement and to the clash between it and the Catholics, Social Democrats and Communists. On July 20th the situation took a dramatic turn when President Hindenburg appointed the German Chancellor, Von Papen, to be Commissioner of Prussia, and dismissed the Prussian Government which was a coalition of the Social-Democrats with the Catholic Centre Party. A very important result of this move was that it gave the Federal Government direct control of the Prussian Police—a body almost as formidable as the army.

The Social Democrats at once raised the cry that this was an attack on representative government, but they cannot dispute the fact that dissatisfaction with their own activities has robbed them of much of their support among the workers, and has made Hitler’s party the largest in Germany. At the Prussian elections in April, 1932, the votes cast for Hitler’s party totalled 8,000,000 as compared with 4,670,000 for the Social-Democrats and 3,370,000 for the next largest party, the Centre Party. Similarly, the fact that Hindenburg was able to use the Presidential powers specified in Article 48 of the German Constitution and dismiss the Prussian Government was due to his having been elected by the German voters in April. He was elected with the unqualified support of the Social-Democrats and the Centre Party.

The Presidential elections clearly illustrate the uselessness of the Social-Democrats' policy of compromise and bargaining. In 1925 they withdrew their own presidential candidate and officially supported the Centre Party’s candidate, Dr. Marx, an avowed anti-socialist, because they declared that it was imperative that the republic and democracy should be saved from the rival candidate, Hindenburg. They failed, and Hindenburg was elected.

At the next presidential election, in 1932, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party officially supported Hindenburg because they said that it was imperative that the republic and democracy should be saved from Hitler. This time the manoeuvre appeared to be successful in that the Social Democrats gave their votes to the man who topped the poll—Hindenburg. Now three months later they are indignantly protesting that the republic is being betrayed by Hindenburg.

The decline of the Social Democrats and the rise of Hitler is an evidence of the disrepute into which their crooked policy has brought them.

Social Contrasts (1932)

From the August 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is sometimes amusing, when temporarily relaxing from the stern realities of the struggle for existence, to notice the care taken by our masters for our moral welfare. This is exemplified by the recent warning of the Board of Film Censors to the film industry on the subject of “daring” films. Leaving aside the question of what are desirable or undesirable films, the warning in question is an example of the arrogance of the master class in claiming to decide what is good for us.

Commenting upon this in the “News-Chronicle" of 18/2/32, E. A. Baughan says:—
  Indeed, one could wish it were possible that the Board of Censors extended its veto and banned those films, mainly of American origin, which show how the wealthy classes waste their money (to put it at the lowest) in senseless orgies. What kind of effect must these pictures have on men and women who have the greatest, difficulty in buying the necessaries of existence?
Thus we are not only to be deprived of any temptation to forsake the straight path of virtue, but we may even be deprived of witnessing at secondhand the manner in which our masters enjoy their leisure, for fear it might make us just a wee bit jealous.

However, the cogs of capitalism are such that these little secrets are continually coming our way, and in the “News-Chronicle” of 20/4/31 there is an interesting description of the new Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, where the cheapest room is 35s. a day. We learn that
  not even a film advertisement writer could find superlatives sufficient to express the exquisite sumptuousness of the dearest suite at £15 a day or £105 a week. . . . There are eighty salons, Turkish baths for women, and a number of slimming rooms and beauty parlours.
It is interesting to contrast the comparative comfort of such a hotel as this with the lives of the unemployed existing on a dole which Judge Parsons at the Bristol County Court said was “barely sufficient to keep body and soul together.”

So far, Africa and China have been comparatively free from these extraordinary contrasts in the modes of existence of the two different classes constituting capitalist society, but in the “Daily Telegraph" of 2/8/30 the Marquis of Lothian, secretary of the Rhodes Trust, was reported as saying that
  the industrial age was going to sweep through Africa and Asia in the same way as it had in England and America. Nothing on earth could prevent Asia and Africa from having their countryside filled with great smoking factories, thundering railways, filling stations, popular newspapers, and the whole paraphernalia  of Western civilisation.
We will add a little prophecy of our own to these remarks, namely, that an understanding of the principles of Socialism will have spread even more rapidly, and that we shall be nearer still to the goal of Socialism.
R. M.

Lest We Forget (1932)

From the August 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “And the end of the War finds cadgers for money for war memorials. War memorials! they are in hospital wards, in lunatic asylums, and in graveyards; they are in the hearts of widows and fatherless children, and 50,000 priests specially fitted and ordained for heaven, were exempted. Had they no faith in their Father? Would not his hand have spared them a clout on the head from a rifle butt, or a prod from the end of a bayonet? Would not his hand have guided the shrieking shell away from their holy bodies? O ye of little faith! Would not the very lice have refused to nibble their precious skins? Would not the ravens have fed them? Their choice was the safety of the recruiting platform. If they were Men, they would have left the Church; if they were women, they would have dropped tears of warm compassion; as they were Priests, like their God, they did nothing.”
(From "The Fourth Age” by William Repton, Pioneer Press, 61, Farringdon Street, 1s.)

Rear View: Disaster capitalism (2020)

The Rear View Column from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Disaster capitalism

‘The Covid virus has been a gift from God, began Ken Eldred. The kingdom of God advances through a series of glorious victories, cleverly disguised as disasters. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Eldred noted, millions of Americans are turning to Christ, Walmart is selling out of Bibles, and online church broadcasts have hit record numbers’ (, 23 May). The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius saw religion as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. His view remains apposite some two thousand years after his death. Eldred’s god supposedly created a world where at least 40 percent of animal species are parasites, and over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are extinct. Actually, the five mass extinction events took place long before we arrived – at 23:58:43 if Earth’s history is pictured as a 24-hour clock. Capitalism is the cause of many disasters, some ongoing, and religion supports the status quo. Conspiracy theories, which have faded in and out of history since Greek and Roman antiquity, also serve to delay the establishment of a post-capitalist world. But progress is being made. ‘In the 18th and 19th centuries, around 90% of the population probably believed in some kind of conspiracy’ according to Michael Butter, professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen (, 29 May).

Capitalism at work

‘The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all’ Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath, his 1939 novel of the Great Depression. ‘Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground… a million people hungry, needing the fruit — and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.’ During the H5NI bird flu in Hong Kong in 1997, the government sought to kill 1.3 million chickens to eliminate the virus. ‘After the financial crash of 2008, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed from New York to industrial meat production in China as bankers at Goldman Sachs hunted for safe investments. Partly as a result, large-scale industrial agriculture pushed smaller Chinese producers out into dangerous terrains where their animals came into contact with bats, which carry coronaviruses’ (, 28 May). Have you spotted the connection? A wrathful god? A cabal of Jewish bankers? Neither: it is capitalism at work. Some US farmers are once again destroying food, pouring their milk down the drain, killing their livestock and dumping their eggs. COVID-19 has disrupted capitalism’s can’t–pay,–can’t–have food supply chains. Farmers in China have been unable to sell their produce at closed wet markets or replace stocks of animal feed. And in the UK and Germany, there has been a shortage of largely immigrant workers to help with the spring harvest because of lockdown and self-isolation measures.

Pandemic of profit-seeking

‘… the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. There was a long line of hogs, with squeals and lifeblood ebbing away together; until at last each started again, and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water. It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics’ (The Jungle, 1906). Little would seem to have changed since Upton Sinclair’s time: ‘Iowa’s largest pork producer, Iowa Select Farms, has been using a cruel and excruciating method to kill thousands of pigs that have become commercially worthless due to the coronavirus pandemic. As is true for so much of what the agricultural industry does, the company’s gruesome extermination of sentient animals that are emotionally complex and intelligent has been conducted entirely out of public view’ (, 29 May). Worth noting too: ‘A Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Iowa is shutting down after officials revealed an astonishing 22% of workers tested positive for COVID-19’ (, 29 May).

Post capitalism

The author of Animal Farm, George Orwell, commenting on the genesis of this work, stated: ‘Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.’ In the global capitalist system which robs, slaughters and degrades, socialists say: ‘Cruelty to animals will go the way of all forms of cruelty, when a real civilised existence becomes a possibility to everyone’ (Socialist Standard, February 1926).

Pathfinders: Virus pandemonium (2020)

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

Virus pandemonium

The pandemic grinds on, the death toll mounts, and politicians parrot platitudes that ring as hollow as their heads. The clueless UK government continues to pursue its pro-economy, sod-the-facts lockdown relaxation policy despite having made a balls-up of practically everything including transparency, contact tracing, keeping to their own lockdown rules and listening to the scientific consensus. The bombastic chutzpah of Boris Johnson strains credulity given that he has presided over the world’s worst death rate after only bollock-brained Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil. No wonder that the chief editor of The Lancet has called for a public enquiry (New Scientist, 15 June). No wonder too that one virologist commented ‘I worry that policy is being motivated by the need to come up with good news rather than evidence’ (New Scientist, 9 June).

And the British media seem happy to play the government’s game by promoting news stories about virus breakthroughs that look distinctly dubious. The latest of these is dexamethasone, which the BBC claims saves a third of patients on ventilators and a fifth of those on oxygen. The trouble is that the same article goes on to say that it will actually save one in 8 of those on ventilators and one in 25 of those on oxygen (BBC, 16 June). You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that 1/3 is not 1/8, and 1/5 is not 1/25. But it’s good enough news for the government, because dexamethasone already exists, and it’s cheap, and it works a little bit.

Meanwhile the search for a vaccine also grinds on, with over a hundred currently under investigation. It’s not the lab work that takes the time, it’s the field trials, since the only way to be sure a vaccine works in the long term is to wait a long term. That wait-time is further complicated by the fact that by the time vaccines are ready for trials, the pandemic could be naturally declining anyway, affording vaccinated test subjects little chance of contracting it. This is what happened with Ebola and why so many drug firms lost money.

One idea that’s been mooted, to get round this, is to vaccinate young people and then deliberately give them the coronavirus to see if the vaccine works. The chance of them dying is reckoned at around 1 in 3,000, yet no government has yet expressed a willingness to step over that ethical divide. Despite this, socialists will be warmed by one statistic. Even though the risk of death is small, it’s not nothing, yet 26,000 young people have stepped forward as volunteers (New Scientist, 6 June).

Statues of non-liberty

After months of nothing but virus news, the recent international protests over racism seemed to explode out of nowhere, yet of course they were decades and even centuries in the making. Perhaps nothing underscored the depth of feeling and the determination for change so much as the way in which statues were targeted, from those representing a slave-runner in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, to George Washington and Columbus in the US. In London, Churchill’s statue was boarded up and protected by a police armed response vehicle after Prime Minister Boris Johnson described supposed threats to it as ‘absurd and shameful’, although New Statesman considered this a ‘straw statue’ argument as there were no serious calls for its removal in the first place. ‘We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols’, he also said, while demonstrating that he had no intention of tackling either, by announcing in a classic Yes Minister ploy the launch of yet another new commission on racial inequalities. When a government intends to sit on its hands and ignore the recommendations of all previous commissions on the subject, it launches a new commission.

Symbols are a big deal to a species that communicates in symbols, and people have been pulling down or defacing statues as long as sculpture has been an art form. Many churches in England have statues with the heads struck off by Cromwell’s soldiers. Many Roman statues of former emperors had their heads removed and replaced with later emperors. Ancient Egyptians destroyed the images of previous unpopular pharaohs. There is a timeless and understandable impulse to purge oneself of the past and its bad memories by vandalising its physical symbols in the present.

The Memento Park in Budapest
In a connected world where information is overloaded and attention spans are short, symbols matter even more. Now they are ‘memes’, image-based morsels, videos or ‘flash-poems’ that use humour and wit to convey at a glance something we never quite realised we also wanted to say. And clever ones can spread like wildfire. There are several online meme databases too, if you feel like catching up. Just compare the zesty ingenuity of the working class to the stodgy pomposity of the ruling elite, and ask yourself who the future really belongs to.

Perhaps that’s why capitalist businesses are increasingly indulging in ‘virtue signalling’ in order to loudly proclaim their supposed ethical bona fides, because they know how easily and how powerfully they can be damaged in today’s febrile social media world. Now Greene King and Lloyds of London have anticipated getting a pasting in the racist debate by apologising for their historic links to the slave trade (BBC, 18 June). It didn’t matter to them when the masses couldn’t talk back. But now every voice is a megaphone and every message multiplies at light-speed, any company with a dark past has a reason to be afraid. And socialists are in on the act too, with flash-mob-style meets on our Discord server to generate news-based memes for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s small-scale as yet but it’s what we need to be doing, because if enough good socialist memes get out there, things might start to swing our way. As socialists often say, the rich have to win every day, but the dispossessed only have to win once. And that’s a meme for starters.

The Memento Park in Budapest. Maybe in socialism there would be similar parks and galleries devoted to archiving the artefacts of humanity’s primeval and superstitious past, like a long night of insanity and terror that must not be forgotten on awakening, lest it one day be returned to.
Paddy Shannon

Minority revolutions (2020)

Book Review from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

You Say You Want a Revolution. Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences. By Daniel Chirot. Princeton University Press. 2020

This is a history book whose very title makes no bones about its purpose. The author’s stated aim is to warn against the ‘radical idealism’ which he sees as underlying many attempts at political revolution, since such action almost inevitably has ‘tragic consequences’ in terms of death, destruction and social disorder and rarely leads to worthwhile gain even in the longer term. As he puts it, ‘a strong revolutionary utopian ideology held as an absolute faith, if its believers come to power, will lead to immense human tragedy’.

Starting with France in 1789, the book takes us through the numerous risings that have convulsed societies in the last two hundred years, right up to the ‘Arab spring’ events of the present century. On the way he takes in the Meiji restoration in nineteenth century Japan, the Mexican and Russian revolutions, the Nazi takeover in Germany, Maoism in China, the anti-colonial wars in Algeria, Vietnam and Angola, Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, and the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. What, he argues, characterizes all these episodes is that they were either brought on by radical ideologies that failed to live up to their promises of social and economic improvement and in fact had disastrous results for the people of the countries involved.

This is an argument the author makes compellingly, providing abundant, well documented evidence of the mayhem wrought by many in these chapters both in the short and long term. He dwells in particular on the horrors of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union and of Mao’s leadership in China, both of which caused the deaths, through famine, disease or extermination, of tens of millions of people. He shows too how many other countries with smaller populations suffered similar fates following violent uprisings or radical political change.

However, this book has little notion of any historical forces that might have been driving these events and even less of the idea that, in many cases, for all their disruption and bloodiness, they were the signal of a new form of production, capitalism, taking over, even if under a one-party government, from more antiquated social and economic forms. The author sees much depending on ‘the personality of leaders’ and on ‘chance events’, this being reflected in the title of one of his earlier books Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age. In so much as he has a sense of historical development, it is the belief he expresses that things progress best if those leading change can be, as he puts it, ‘gently liberal’, and there can be ‘gradual change, compromise and flexibility’.

 A greater deficiency, moreover, for those likely to be reading this journal, is the author’s insistence that many of the revolutions he deals with were driven by the ideas of Marx and by socialist or communist ideology (‘the Russian, Chinese, and other successful communist revolutions were inspired by Marxism and killed tens of millions in order to achieve an impossible egalitarian ideal’), when in fact they were not aimed at establishing socialism but state capitalism, as happened in Russia and China. There is no warrant in Marx for state capitalism, even if those setting it up and running it call it socialism or communism, as has often been the case. Though no one has a patent on the word, socialism in Marx’s writing clearly involves abolition of the wages system and a worldwide society of from each according to ability, to each according to need, not state control of the economy, which is in fact just an alternative form of capitalism – state capitalism.
Howard Moss

Material World: The Military Police (2020)

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

Today, in the USA, its police have come to resemble—in appearance, weaponry, and tactics—infantrymen in the US Army who see certain city districts as war-zones to be occupied and subdued, where the confrontations are described in terms of ‘battles’ in what some politicians say are ‘wars on cops’. The War on Drugs and the War on Terror, many will claim, has created such units as the paramilitary SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams which have gained a reputation for excessive force in their military-style ‘counter-insurgency’ strategies for the inner-city ghettoes.

Many police units are better equipped to fight terrorists in foreign lands than serve and protect civilians at home. Even small-town America is acquiring wartime weaponry. When police are equipped like soldiers, trained to be like soldiers, why are we surprised when they act like soldiers? To expect demonstrators to welcome being confronted by riot-police dressed head-to-toe in military gear, alternatively dispersing them and then kettling and corralling them, is delusional.

Some in the US Congress have long endeavoured to curtail police departments’ access to military equipment which the Defense Department have in abundance and have been providing to the civilian police. Billions of dollars of surplus kit has been supplied to law enforcement agencies. The militarisation of America’s police has been on full display during the widespread protests against the recent killing of George Floyd.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, introducing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to discontinue the 1033 programme that transfers military weaponry to local police departments, explained, ‘It is clear that many police departments are being outfitted as if they are going to war, and it is not working in terms of maintaining the peace.’ Obama had placed limits and restrictions on the transfer of ex-military weapons. Trump rescinded those restrictions in 2017, permitting once again the flow of equipment to police departments such as armoured vehicles.

Research shows that the police are more likely to respond with force when they are the subject of protest, and that they respond more aggressively towards younger crowds and black people than they do towards white and older people. ‘There’s deep resentment on the part of the police that so many people are angry at them, and they’re lashing out,’ said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who studies the police response to protest and coordinates the Policing and Social Justice Project.

As Schatz said, ‘it is clear many police departments don’t train and supervise for restraint and de-escalation, and some officers are just plain racist and violent.’

In its 2014 report, ‘AR COMES HOME: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing’ the American Civil Liberties Union contended, ‘American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight. Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.’

A 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports much of what the ACLU found, in that, ‘Aggressive policing strategies have historically been disproportionately applied to citizens of color in ways that serve to preserve race- and class-based social hierarchies.’ The study also found that ‘militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime.’

Socialists take a class view of law and order and do not accept the idea that policing is somehow ‘broken’ and is in need of reforms. We do not have a nostalgic memory of a romanticised past with the friendly ‘bobby on the beat’. We look, instead, towards a future society where community harmony can be maintained without the intervention of armed representatives of the state and the abolition of the social conditions which lead to unacceptable disorder and harmful violence.

Amazon: Fiercely Resisting (2020)

From the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

One indication of the global spread of the coronavirus was the report (Guardian online, 10 April) that a member of the Yanomami indigenous people in Brazil had died after contracting Covid-19. It was not clear how he had become infected but it was entirely possible that it had been through direct or indirect contact with the gold-miners who have flooded the territory of the Yanomami (also known as the Yanomamo).

This was of course by no means the first Yanomami casualty resulting from contact with non-Amazonians. It is difficult to establish firm figures, but a great many have died from contracting diseases to which they had no immunity. In 1982, more than half the children in one area died from whooping cough, and there have been plenty of epidemics of other diseases too, such as measles, smallpox and malaria. More widely, only 800,000 in Brazil classify themselves as indigenous, out of perhaps as many as 15 million prior to European contact (though estimates vary greatly), with many peoples having become extinct or suffered drastic reductions in population. For instance, the Nambiquara numbered twenty thousand when first visited by Europeans in 1909, but are now just twelve hundred.

Nor was it just a matter of death through disease, as there have been many wars and invasions aimed at indigenous peoples and their defenders. There have also been targeted assassinations, the best-known being that of Chico Mendes in 1988, after his efforts to protect peoples and forests. He was killed by a rancher after receiving many death threats.

The main aim of the government and other ‘outsiders’ is to exploit the vast resources of Amazonia. This began with the rubber boom in the late nineteenth century, centred on the rubber tree that is native to the area. By 1910, four-fifths of the Brazilian government’s income came from the rubber trade, but the bubble burst after that, as rubber seeds had been smuggled out of the country and taken to plantations in Asia. More recently, the interest has been in metals such as tin and, especially, gold. Prospectors have moved into the Amazon area in vast numbers, disrupting the lives of local people and polluting rivers and ponds. Thousands work as modern slaves, on farms, construction sites and so on. From the late 1980s, the Brazilian government developed a plan for building massive hydro-electric dams, implying long-distance transmission lines to convey the energy to industrial centres on the Atlantic coast. This was partly aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on oil imports, but entailed large-scale borrowing and occupying land traditionally settled by indigenous peoples (and, again, spreading disease). At least a million people, indigenous and others, have been affected by dam construction.

The Yanomami, who live on both sides of the Brazil–Venezuela border, are among the most-studied of all tribal peoples, and anthropologists often refer to them as ‘the fierce people’, on account of the extent of the fighting that takes place in many of their villages. They practice female infanticide, which leads to a gender imbalance and much conflict over women. Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings) argues that population and ecological pressures, not any innate aggressiveness, are the main reason behind their fighting: villages break up as a way of dispersing population when game resources are too limited.

Yet the Yanomami are not just fierce warriors: they share food as a way of showing friendship. They have no interest in possessions, and the goods of a dead person are systematically destroyed as a way of cancelling their memory, rather than passed on to other family members. ‘The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive, and loving’ (Jacques Lizot: Tales of the Yanomami).

They have also had to withstand massive changes to their lifestyle:
‘What cultural earthquake in the West could possibly let us experience change on the same scale as the sudden and simultaneous arrival of shotguns, malaria, helicopters, writing, land ownership and political autocracy among people who had never seen any metal object only one generation ago?’ (Dennison Berwick: Savages).
Berwick notes that change is an inevitable consequence of meeting between Westerners and indigenous peoples, and may be beneficial to both, with, for instance, many forest plants having medicinal value. But conquest and genocide are the likely result of contact aimed at exploiting land and resources. The transmission of disease may be unintended but can be just as destructive, and the coronavirus has led to many of those working to protect people and environment leaving the area, allowing loggers and miners to move in.

As on so many occasions, considerations of profit and power outweigh any regard for human health and well-being and for the good of the environment.
Paul Bennett