Monday, September 14, 2020

Imperialism Part 2: Super-profits and the labour aristocracy (2020)

From the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
We continue our series debunking the view that workers in the First World live off the backs of those in the Third World by examining in further detail Lenin’s mistaken theory.
Lenin’s theory of the ‘weakest link’ led him to believe a ‘socialist proletarian revolution’ would most likely occur first in parts of the world still transitioning towards full capitalism, not the advanced capitalist countries themselves. Partly, this arose from his belief that a stratum of workers in the latter – the ‘labour aristocracy’ – had been ‘bribed’ into supporting capitalism out of imperialist ‘super-profits’ produced by a super-exploited colonial workforce.

In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), Lenin quotes the arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, reminiscing about a meeting of the unemployed he once attended. The discontent he encountered there convinced Rhodes that Britain should expand its empire, thereby improving the economic prospects of British workers, in order to avert a civil war.

Yet, incongruously, Lenin states elsewhere in his book (Ch. 4) that if capitalism could ‘raise the living standards of the masses, who in spite of the amazing technical progress are everywhere still half-starved and poverty-stricken … it would not be capitalism’. This prompts the question – why then would the capitalists go to such lengths to raise the living standards of some workers by ‘bribing’ them?

Lenin’s definitive statement on the subject appears in the 1920 Preface of Imperialism:
 ‘Obviously out of such enormous super-profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are bribing them, they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect. This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism’.
Prior to the First World War, as Eric Hobsbawn notes, Lenin did not really make a connection between the ‘labour aristocracy’ and imperialist ‘super-profits’ as an explanation for the reformist outlook of workers. Rather, he seems to have attributed this to the influence of certain ‘petty bourgeois’ tendencies becoming more prominent due to a changing occupational structure and the development of a purely ‘economist trade union movement fragmenting the working class into ‘selfish’ (“petty bourgeois”) segments each pursuing its interest at the expense of others’ (Monthly Review, December 2012).

It was the impact of the First World War and Lenin’s profound sense of shock induced by the various Social Democratic parties (comprising the Second International) abandoning all pretence of international solidarity and aligning themselves with their respective capitalist governments in the cause of an imperialist bloodbath, which jolted him into further developing his idea of the labour aristocracy. That War, he reasoned, was the quintessential expression of the capitalist rivalries inherent in imperialism. By supporting it, the parties of the Second International betrayed their own inadvertent support for the imperialist project.

Imperialism had been condoned on the grounds that, by imposing capitalist development on the newly colonised countries, this would hasten the advent of socialism. However, behind the superficial rationalisations portraying imperialism as some kind of objectively ‘civilising’ and progressive project there lurked ulterior motives.

Lenin argued that by materially benefitting from the imperialist project, by increasing their living standards at the expense of the colonial workforce, the labour aristocracy comprising the ‘principal prop of the Second International’, found their appetite for socialist revolution had been considerably dulled if not altogether extinguished. Thus did they succumb to the politics of ‘opportunism’ – or reformism – and, in their leadership role as representatives of the wider working class, they set about persuading the latter to adopt this course of action as well, in the process abandoning their earlier commitment to socialist revolution. Indeed, reformism itself could likewise be construed as a form of bribery insofar as it held out the prospect of workers improving their circumstances within the framework of capitalism itself, thereby shoring it up.

Earlier theories
The term ‘labour aristocracy’ was originally coined by the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, in 1872. Bakunin felt it was not the organised and more skilled workers within the proletariat that were its most radical elements but, rather, those lower down the labour hierarchy: ‘To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers’ (On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,1872).

This, in a way, anticipated Lenin’s view that revolution was more likely to break out first in the poorer countries of the world. In both instances, the underlying (and rather mechanistic) assumption seems to have been that the more intense the poverty experienced, the more likely are people to revolt.

However, this raises the question – what are the people supposedly revolting for? A violent uprising, however understandable, does not of itself constitute a social revolution if all it does is to replace one ruling class with another. Social revolution means a fundamental change in the basis of society irrespective of how it is achieved.

Bakunin’s basic argument has been endorsed by others – like Frantz Fanon, whose seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961), contended that it was the lumpenproletariat and Third World peasantry who, precisely because of their social distance from the capitalist mainstream and its dominant ideology, embodied the greatest revolutionary potential within modern capitalism. Similar sentiments have been expressed with regard to the newly-identified ‘precariat’ of more recent times.

Marx’s opinion of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ contrasted starkly with Bakunin’s. Living largely outside of the constraints of formal wage labour and subject to the vagaries of desperate poverty, the lumpenproletariat, by virtue of its very life situation, was more likely to become a ‘bribed tool of reactionary intrigue’ rather than a force for revolution. This was a reference to elements of the lumpenproletariat being employed by the French state within its armed forces for the purposes of maintaining order during the social upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century – the bribe in question being a soldier’s wage rather than something received in addition to this wage (The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850).

Marx’s reference to the lumpenproletariat being ‘bribed’ is ironic, given Lenin’s insistence that it was labour aristocracy, instead, that was the beneficiary of capitalist bribery.

However, this may be a case of over-theorising on both sides. One’s own circumstances – be one a lumpenproletarian or labour aristocrat – need not be particularly decisive as far as one’s receptivity to socialist ideas are concerned. Indeed, Marx and Engels themselves in the Communist Manifesto speculated on the possibility of even some capitalists (Engels himself, being a prime example), cutting themselves adrift from their class and seeking common cause with the workers.

Nevertheless, the weight of historical evidence suggests that the more militant elements within the working class (particularly those who have embraced revolutionary socialism) have, indeed, tended to be drawn from the ranks of semi-skilled and skilled workers.

There is a further irony in Lenin’s depiction of the labour aristocracy as a force for conservatism since it was precisely this segment of the Russian working class that formed the social base from which the Bolsheviks primarily drew their support – skilled machinists in the large factories whereas ‘Lower paid workers, such as the predominantly female textile workers, were generally either unorganized or apolitical (until the beginnings of the revolution) or supported the reformist Mensheviks’ (C Post, Solidarity Sept-Oct 2006).

Engels, before Lenin, had suggested a link between capitalist monopoly and the labour aristocracy, in a letter to Kautsky, concerning the political situation in England: ‘There is no workers party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s Monopoly of the world market and the colonies’ (12 September 1882).

However, unlike Lenin, Engels held that the tendency for capital to penetrate everywhere would eventually break down England’s global monopoly (and, by extension, undermine the super-profits it derived from such a monopoly), thereby reversing the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the English proletariat.

Bribery but how?
For all Lenin’s talk of how the capitalists bribe the labour aristocracy in ‘a thousand different ways, direct and indirect’, it is difficult to envisage even a single way in which this might happen – not if we are to remain faithful to the meaning of the term ‘bribe’ as a premeditated act to materially induce the other party to the transaction to do your bidding. For Lenin’s concept of a bribe to make any sense, and to work on its own terms, it would need to imply something given in addition to the wages received – meaning one would need to transparently disaggregate the income of the labour aristocracy into a ‘legitimate’ wage and ‘illegitimate’ bribe component. This obviously did not happen; all workers received was a wage so any alleged bribe would be hidden within this wage.

This raises multiple problems. If the capitalists of the imperialist countries were so amenable to surreptitiously sharing the proceeds of their investments abroad with (some of) their workforce at home, one might surmise that they would be less resistant to pressure from the latter for better wages than was the case. As Tony Cliff noted: ‘No capitalist says to the workers: “I have made high profits this year, so I am ready to give you higher wages”’ Socialist Review, June 1957). Workers always have to struggle for higher wages. Indeed, Lenin rather contradicted himself by suggesting that super-profits are obtained over and above ‘the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country’ – implying a systemic need, arising out of market competition, for these capitalists to exert a constant downward pressure on wage levels.

If Lenin’s thesis was correct we would expect income differentials between the labour aristocracy and other workers to vary in proportion to a country’s level of colonial investment. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to Cliff, wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers were higher in a country like Rumania which had very little foreign investment compared to, say, Britain – in Lenin’s time by far the world largest source of foreign capital.

Moreover, though wage differentials in Britain did widen significantly between, roughly, 1850 and 1890 because of the growth of craft unions (e.g. the Amalgamated Society of Engineers) dominated by ‘labour aristocrats’, these differentials narrowed towards the end of the nineteenth century with the appearance of the ‘new unionism’ which sought to reach out and organise unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The point is that it was precisely then when the age of imperialism commenced (as Lenin saw it) that these differentials started narrowing, thus contradicting what his theory predicts.

There are other grounds on which one might question the theory. For instance, it overlooks that what might theoretically be in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole to collude in bribing workers to achieve some nebulous political objective, may not be a sufficiently persuasive reason for individual capitalists (in competition with other capitalists) to become involved in this stratagem. Meaning it may never take off as a stratagem.

Likewise, workers succumbing to such bribery and seeing themselves as indebted to their employers would probably be less likely to militantly struggle for better wages and conditions. This would probably more than wipe out the value of any hypothetical bribe they might have received.

There are other problems with Lenin’s theory which we will consider later in the context of a ‘post-colonial’ world. While Lenin fondly imagined ‘national liberation struggles’ would serve to undermine imperialism and thereby strike a blow against ‘monopoly capitalism’ the outcome of such struggles, as we shall see, has been quite the opposite of what he hoped for.
Robin Cox

(To be continued)

Imperialism and the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ (2020)

From the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Given that many believe that those living in the ‘Global North’ are living off the backs of the people in the ‘Global South’, we begin a multi-part series of articles correcting this, starting with the origin of this mistaken view.
Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto was not just a scathing indictment of capitalism; it was also a paean to its material achievements which were seen as preparing the ground for communism.

Remarkably anticipating today’s globally interconnected world, it spoke of capitalism’s expansionist dynamic, propelling it to spread out across the world from its heartland in Western Europe:
  ‘The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production’.
These days the shoe is on the other foot: the footprint of Chinese capitalism is everywhere visible in the guise of its mass-produced commodities and those ‘Chinese walls’ have long since become just a tourist attraction. As Marx said:
  ‘The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future’ (Capital, Vol 1).
However, this ‘diffusionist’ perspective has not gone unchallenged among those claiming allegiance to Marxism. In the early 1900s Trotsky developed his concept of ‘combined and uneven development’ which he coupled with another – ‘permanent revolution’ – in opposition to the ‘stageist’ model of the Mensheviks. That model maintained that a relatively backward country like Russia needed to pass sequentially through two distinct stages – a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution (which socialists were urged to support) followed by a socialist revolution once capitalism had become sufficiently developed.

Trotsky argued that Russia exhibited a dualistic character -– a modern urban-based capitalist sector and a vast pre-capitalist peasantry – which necessitated a quite different model. The Russian bourgeoisie were too weak to implement a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution themselves. Consequently, it fell to the workers’ party to do this. Concurrently, the new ‘workers’ state’ should move towards implementing a socialist revolution. Hence the idea of a continuous ‘permanent revolution’ – two revolutions rolled into one.

However, Trotsky acknowledged that Russia alone lacked the productive capacity socialism required and so opposed the concept of ‘socialism in one country’ promoted by Stalin and Bukharin. For a socialist revolution to succeed this depended on developments elsewhere – notably, the advanced countries:
  ‘We rest all our hope on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the revolting peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed – that is indubitable. Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution’ (1930, History of the Russian Revolution).
The ‘European revolution’ did not occur. Nor was there any good reason to expect it might. After all, most workers there had been patriotically supporting one capitalist bloc against another in World War One. But in Russia, too, the vast majority were not socialists either (as Lenin repeatedly acknowledged) and without a conscious socialist majority you can’t have a ‘socialist revolution’. Thus, having seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks had little option but to develop capitalism.

The unpalatable implications of this for a self-proclaimed ‘Marxist’ like Lenin helps to explain his subsequent subterfuge in trying rationalise away developments there. Though he generally did not anticipate the coming upheaval in 1917 would be socialist, it later became commonplace among Bolshevik cadres to refer to it as a ‘socialist revolution’. That was only credible if you completely redefine what socialism meant which is precisely what Lenin did – identifying it with a form of ‘state-capitalist monopoly’ made to ‘serve the interests of the whole people’ (1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It).

This new definition grew out of Lenin’s belief that state capitalism was a ‘step forward’ for Russia. Though he distinguished between ‘socialism’ and other forms of state capitalism – such as in wartime Germany – he nevertheless endorsed the latter too, arguing that ‘our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it’ (1918, ‘Left Wing’ Childishness).

Lenin’s semantic gymnastics help us to better understand other aspects of his worldview – most notably how he envisaged a ‘proletarian revolution’ unfolding. According to him, this was likely to first occur, not where capitalism was most advanced (as Marxists contended), but rather ‘at the weakest link in the imperialist chain’. Russia, though itself an imperialist power, was a paradigmatic example, being heavily dependent on foreign capital. By breaking that chain here this would induce a domino effect, starting in Europe and culminating in capitalism’s overthrow worldwide. When this did not happen Lenin increasingly shifted his focus from Europe to national liberation struggles against imperialism in the ‘backward’ countries as the way forward.

For Lenin, imperialism was the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, commencing in the late nineteenth century. He was not referring to imperialism in general but rather a new and virulent kind of imperialism originating in certain structural changes within capitalism itself – notably, the emergence of ‘monopoly capital’.

In his book, Imperialism: A Study (1902) which influenced Lenin, the liberal, J.A. Hobson, wrote of a shift from ‘competitive capitalism’ to ‘monopoly capitalism’, after the late nineteenth century Great Depression. Monopoly capitalism was the ‘tap-root’ of the new imperialist era exemplified by the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Hobson opposed the then establishment view that ‘trade followed the flag’, arguing instead that trade could flourish without the need for colonial conquest.

According to him, what fueled imperialism was the accumulation of surpluses of capital beyond what the advanced countries could profitably invest domestically. These surpluses arose out of extreme inequality. Given the capitalists’ ‘higher propensity to save’, redistributing wealth in their favour, not only increased their savings (‘capital’) to the point of excess; it also reduced the workers’ income and thus exerted a restraining influence on their capacity to consume.

Consequently, there was diminished scope for the capitalisation of profits, because of insufficient market demand. This depressed prices and solidified a movement toward monopoly by making it increasingly difficult for small businesses to survive.

Lenin concurred with Hobson’s ‘capital surplus’ theory but disagreed with his ‘underconsumptionism’. As Charles Barone notes, Lenin seemingly argued that capital would be exported, ‘not because it was absolutely impossible to invest in the home market but because it could obtain a higher rate of profit abroad. The variance of profits existed ostensibly because of the uneven development of capitalism where capitalism had become “overripe” in some countries’ (Marxist Thought on Imperialism: Survey and Critique, 2016).

According to the labour theory of value, a higher rate of profit initially occurs where production is more labour-intensive (typically the case in the economically backward colonies) since ‘living labour’ is the sole source of profit. This rate tends to decline with mechanisation and industrialisation (as was happening in the developed countries) though that would be compensated for by an increase in the absolute mass of profits.

Normally, under competitive capitalism, this situation would be mitigated by the tendency for profit rates to equalise through the flow of capital towards industries temporarily experiencing above average profits, thereby increasing supply and thus eventually reducing prices (and profit rates).

However, in the context of the new imperialism, Lenin held that Marx’s 19th century model of competitive capitalism no longer applied. It was being progressively replaced by monopoly capitalism which interrupted this tendency for profit rates to equalise. As Paul Sweezy contended in The Theory of Capitalist Development (1968), under monopoly capitalism, the ‘equal profit rates of competitive capitalism are turned into a hierarchy of profit rates, highest in the most completely monopolized industries and lowest in the most competitive’.

If so, we would expect investment to incrementally flow into the monopoly sector at the expense of the competitive sector. Rudolf Hilferding in Finance Capital (1910) suggested this is precisely what was happening. Bank capital and industrial capital were merging into finance capital, the ultimate form of capital most closely associated with imperialism. Centralisation of capital would eventuate in the formation of a general cartel which would fuse with the state, replacing market competition with planned production. This probably influenced Lenin’s own thinking on the allegedly progressive role of state capitalism.

For Marx, super-profits could indeed arise from monopolies (and developments like technological innovations). However, he did not go as far as Hilferding in thinking this would kill off competition: Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. Monopolists compete among themselves; competitors become monopolists (1847, The Poverty of Philosophy).

For Lenin, the primary source of super-profits originated not within the domestic economies of advanced capitalism, however, but rather from the export of capital to the colonised countries. These super-profits were enormous, being obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers in their own country (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism).

One would expect this to be reflected in the pattern of investment given that capital tends to flow to wherever the rate of return is highest. However, the evidence suggests, firstly, that the great bulk of capital then, as now, raised in the advanced countries was invested domestically rather than abroad (as foreign direct investment – FDI). Secondly, most FDI was itself invested (as Lenin acknowledged), not in the colonies but in other advanced countries – particularly America. Thirdly, at this time there were few controls on the movement of capital internationally so it is unlikely that the equalisation of profits rates would have been significantly impeded. Finally, fluctuations in FDI flows tended to follow the same pattern as domestic investment, implying a roughly similar rate of return – a conclusion empirically supported by historians like D K Fieldhouse and others.

Bukharin, in Imperialism and World Economy (1915), wrote of two contradictory trends shaping modern imperialism. While monopoly capital made for the decline of competition domestically, internationally competition was intensifying in the guise of economic nationalism (mainly in the form of tariffs rather than capital controls).

Lenin called this state of affairs monopolistic competition – the imperialist conquest of foreign territories opened up additional markets to soak up the expanded output of domestic manufactured goods whilst affording opportunities to invest surplus capital in the primary sector of these colonies, employing a super-exploited workforce to produce cheap raw materials for export to imperialist countries themselves.

Thus, in contrast to Marxian diffusionist thinking, Lenin (following Trotsky) argued that imperialism shored up and perpetuated the ‘uneven development of capitalism’ and, with that, spatial variations in the rate of profit. Repressive colonial policies that pushed down wages, the establishment of native reserves to subsidise labour costs out of the proceeds of peasant farming and the persistence of labour-intensive production techniques constituted the material basis of these ‘imperialist super-profits’.

Before modern imperialism some countries (notably Germany) had been able to rapidly develop their economies, exploiting what Trotsky called the ‘privilege of historical backwardness’ and join the select club of imperialist powers. However, by the early twentieth century this was no longer possible. Those powers having carved up the rest of the world amongst themselves, one could only expand its sphere of influence at the expense of another. This is what led up to the First World War.

It was then, wrote Lenin, that the ‘world proletarian revolution’ was in the process of ‘clearly maturing’. The events in Russia, he suggested, could ‘only be understood as a link in a chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war’ (The State and Revolution, 1917).

But Lenin’s reading of the situation was hopelessly misguided. A ‘socialist proletarian revolution’ would surely have entailed an emphatic widespread rejection of nationalism and, as noted, there was little evidence of that happening then. Indeed, ironically, Lenin himself was a fervent advocate of the ‘national liberation’ of ‘oppressed states’ from the ‘oppressor states’, convinced that political independence would strike a blow against imperialism and, by extension, monopoly capitalism.

Nothing could be further from the truth as the subsequent history of post-independence states in the Global South bears out.
Robin Cox

(To be continued)

Rear View: Sick society (2020)

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

Sick society

‘Many Turkish womens’ right groups say the crackdown reflects a wider societal problem. They say many women who are being abused seek — but never receive — proper help. Melek Önder of the We Will Stop Femicide initiative told DW that Turkish police, the government and state officials must do much more to protect women at risk: “There were cases where women who were being violently abused asked for help, but nothing happened,” she says’ (, 24 July). The crackdown on protests is hardly surprising under the would-be Sultan, Erdoğan. Calling for wife beating to become a priority concern for the police, who prefer not to get involved, and thus give their tacit endorsement, is reformist folly, particularly when there are so many reactionaries such as Ebru Asiltürk, ‘the spokeswoman for womens’ affairs for Turkey’s Islamic conservative Saadet Party.’ She opined recently that ‘…the treaty [Istanbul Convention to tackle violence again women and domestic abuse, as well as promoting gender equality – which Turkey was, ironically, the first country to ratify!] would be like a “bomb” destroying Turkey’s traditional family structure.’ Femicide is indeed an indication of serious, wider social and sexual problems that are not confined to a small minority of deviants or reactionary regimes – Poland is another example – but are typical of a sick society. Neither changes in the law and policing policy, nor more prosecutions against wife beaters offer a cure.

Cultural pain and pleasure

‘The UK’s only centre dedicated to stamping out female genital mutilation is facing closure after the government pulled its funding, putting women at fresh risk of harm. Cash has been quietly withdrawn from the unit – set up by Theresa May, when she vowed to end FGM “within a generation” [likely as effective as Tony Blair’s 1999 pledge to end child poverty] – leaving it struggling to survive…The crisis comes despite hundreds of new victims of FGM being identified every month and just one successful prosecution for the practice, despite laws being on the books for 35 years’ (, 26 July). Women supporting the status-quo or reactionary cultural/religious practices abound, alas.

Back to the primitive?

There may be some socialists who would like to see the return of the woolly mammoth, but none favour primitive communism over the establishment of a post-capitalist world. ‘ Lotte Alberg, who owns two sex clubs in Amsterdam’s famous red-light district, is relieved to see her staff back at work. Club BonTon and Club LV both reopened this week after four months of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic’ (, 6 July). To Alberg and Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist who chose clitoridectomy as an adult, we say the only place for prostitution and FGM in a world freed from the dictates of capital and culture will be at the museum of antiquities. Engels showed that the suppression of women had its origin in the rise of private property. Marx saw sex work as ’only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer’ (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1844). Rosa Luxemburg and Sylvia Pankhurst shared the socialist vision of Engels and Marx:
 ‘The mass of the proletariat must do more than stake out clearly the aims and direction of the revolution. It must also personally, by its own activity, bring socialism step by step into life’ (Rosa Luxemburg, What Does the Spartacus League Want?, 1918). 
‘Our aim is Communism. Communism is not an affair of party. It is a theory of life and social organisation. It is a life in which property is held in common; in which the community produces, by conscious aim, sufficient to supply the needs of all its members; in which there is no trading, money, wages, or any direct reward for services rendered’ (Sylvia Pankhurst, What is behind the label? A plea for clearness, 1923).

Mother and daughter

The decade leading up to 1914 and the ‘War to End All Wars’ was they heyday of the Suffragette movement under the leadership of Sylvia Pankhurst’s mother, Emmeline. Some readers may be intrigued surprised to learn that we opposed her and the Women’s Social and Political Union she founded in 1903.

Sylvia Pankhurst is better known for her part in the campaign for votes for all women as well as all men (one third of whom were denied the vote before 1918). Her mother, Emmeline, the authoritarian leader of the WSPU, was against this and campaigned instead only for votes for women on the same terms as then applied to men; which would have resulted in enfranchising more property-owners than workers. Opposing that was a no-brainer.

When Sylvia Pankurst wrote the passage above she had come to hold the (mistaken) position that the vote didn’t matter either for men or for women, arguing that communism (or socialism, she used both words to describe the same form of society) could only be achieved by anti-parliamentary action. A few years later, in 1927, Emmeline, who had been a jingoist in the First World War, was adopted as a Conservative Party parliamentary candidate; not surprising for someone who had stood for votes only for rich women.

Socialism can only be achieved with the majority support of women and of men. This point is so important that it forms part of our Declaration of Principles: ‘That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex‘ (emphasis added). This clause along with the other seven dates from the formation of our Party in 1904. Yes, the founding members, all 142 of them from Miss H. Aitken to H. J. Young, were remarkably forward-thinking in their assertion that women’s emancipation could only be achieved as part of the emancipation of all humanity through the establishment of socialism as described above by Sylvia Pankhurst.

Pathfinders: Two fingers to the virus (2020)

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

Two fingers to the virus

The continuing spikes in Covid cases around the world, in places where it was deemed vanquished or at least in retreat, starts to resemble the physical appearance of the virus itself, with little trumpets erupting everywhere from its spherical surface. But what’s also erupting is the trumpet fanfares of success as countries like India and Russia announce the mass production of vaccines they have supposedly developed for their home markets. How have Modi and Putin succeeded in leaving the rest of the world straggling behind them? Do they have better scientists than anyone else? Did they just get lucky?

In the case of India, it’s just political spin from the nation’s prime administer. “Not one, not two, as many as three coronavirus vaccines are being tested in India,” Modi announced with a flourish in Delhi in August, as if announcing the breakthrough of the century. But you can describe anything as a vaccine and announce tests on it. “Along with mass-production, the roadmap for distribution of vaccine to every single Indian in the least possible time is also ready,” he added with grandiose pomp but again without really saying anything.

Russia’s president Putin went further, however, by announcing that a Covid vaccine had been medically approved and would go into mass production by October. They’ve called it Sputnik V, as a two-finger reminder to the western world that Russia was first into space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. Ignoring calls for a global combined effort, the Russian Health Ministry has released no details of the Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials it ran last month. As for Phase 3 trials, apparently they didn’t run one.

Vaccine trials go in three distinct phases to check three distinct things: 1) will it kill or damage anyone (small test only), 2) does it do anything useful in any way at all (medium sample), and 3) does it do what we actually need it to do (big sample)? Paracetamol would pass the first two phases of clinical trials for the coronavirus. So would a gin and tonic. Almost anything would, apart from Trump’s bleach. Phase 3 is the one that matters. Without that, you’ve basically got nothing. Or you’ve got worse than nothing, because you could make Covid stronger (New Scientist, 12 August). Diseases and drugs vie in a constant arms race. If you attack a disease with a drug that’s meant to kill it, and the disease wins, it’s like Popeye getting a dose of spinach.

Vaccines are already under attack in social media, with anti-vaxxer messages outnumbering pro-vaccine posts on average by five to one, and a recent survey suggesting that, even if a vaccine is produced in the UK, up to 50 percent of the population might refuse to take it (New Scientist, 12 August). Let the idiots die, you might think, the world has enough fools, but their anti-vaxxer idiocy could kill others if it prevents society vaccinating its way to the long-hoped-for herd immunity. And any vaccine toted as effective which turns out to be the opposite will only strengthen the antivaxxer lobby and risk extending the pandemic.

Of course the Russians might be right about their vaccine, though the lack of transparency is not encouraging. Even by capitalist standards, Putin is not a team player. He will certainly be hoping the vaccine works, so he can use it as an armlock on the West, just as he did with gas supplies to Ukraine. Things in Belarus have been kicking off lately, with the repulsive and patriarchal troll Lukashenko stage-managing yet another 80 percent election ‘victory’ despite only scoring 3 percent support in polls, and calling on Moscow for support in the face of the gigantic social protests that followed. A working vaccine would be just the leverage (Ras)Putin needs if he’s considering an empire-building intervention into Belarus, as seemed a possibility when this went to press.

Big Bang in Beirut

The August warehouse fire in Beirut had already attracted a lot of media attention. As the smoke plumed up over the dock area, volunteer firefighters and a paramedic went in on the ground. On a balcony blocks away, a French architect live-streamed the fire to his Facebook friends, a bit of excitement on an otherwise dull day. Little flashes in the smoke suggested fireworks going off, which added spice to the event. Then a stupendous explosion, and a shockwave flashed outwards, ringed by a fat white condensation cloud that was eerily redolent of a small nuclear detonation. Cladding and glass flew like autumn leaves off apartment blocks across the city. The fire team was killed instantly. The architect, who thought he was at a safe distance, was also killed, and two hundred or so other people besides. The docks were obliterated, three hospitals destroyed, ships flipped, sunk or flung in pieces onto the land. The blast measured 3.3 on the Richter scale despite the force going mostly upwards. It was heard 160 miles away. It has been listed as the fifth most powerful, artificial, non-nuclear explosion in history.

Sympathetic city halls across the world draped themselves in the Lebanese flag, including Tel Aviv, though Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. As the fire burned out over the blast area, the recriminations started. How could nearly 3,000 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate have been kept for six years in a port warehouse without proper safety precautions, despite numerous warnings and six letters to judges, and without residents knowing about it? The conspiracy vultures descended to feast, but the simple answer was that people fucked up. The Lebanese cabinet resigned. The country’s food supply, in a pandemic, had been virtually destroyed.

Ammonium nitrate is quite like potassium nitrate, or saltpetre, and is popular because it’s cheap to make, good for fertilisers and, if you mix it with fuel oil, excellent for making bombs. Terrorists love it for this reason, which is why capitalist states are keen to phase it out. It’s not supposed to explode by itself but if you don’t store it right it will do, and has done repeatedly, killing thousands. Of the ten biggest explosions mentioned above, it was responsible for four.

We can’t say people in socialism wouldn’t use ammonium nitrate. We don’t know. But we can pretty much guarantee that they wouldn’t stuff thousands of tonnes of it next to flammable material in a forgotten warehouse for six years just because of a legal dispute over who should pay the port fees after the original shipowner went bankrupt. There are bound to be accidents in socialism too, but they wouldn’t be because of arguments between jobsworths about who owed money to whom.
Paddy Shannon

Popular Marx (2020)

Book Review from the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Compendium of Karl Marx’s Capital. By Carlo Cafiero. Anarchist Communist Group. 2020. 100 pages

Marx’s Capital, first published in German in 1867, is a tome of over 1,000 pages and so not an easy read. As a result, ever since the working-class movement took off in the 1870s its content has been popularised in shorter works. This is an Italian one from 1879. It is accurate enough with long passages from Capital, though Cafiero’s conclusion expresses a rather romantic view of ‘revolution’.

Cafiero was a member of the International Working Men’s Association and met and corresponded with Marx and Engels but who in the end sided with Bakunin when the split came and became a populariser for ‘anarchism communism’, i.e of those anarchists who stood for a society where the means of life were owned in common and the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ applied (as opposed to ‘to each according to their work’ as favoured by other anarchists). His pamphlet Anarchism and Communism puts the case for this (which we call socialism) rather well.

Despite opposing Marx politically, Cafiero accepted Marxian economics, and later anarchists translated his pamphlet into French and Spanish, a tacit recognition that anarchist attempts to develop an alternative analysis of the capitalist economy (as fellow anarchist-communist Kropotkin attempted) had failed. In their introduction the ACG go so far as to describe Capital as ‘a superb contribution to our revolutionary understanding’ and to recommend it to anyone who wants ‘to understand how the system works in order to fight and ultimately destroy it.’ We don’t disagree of course but it must cause raised eyebrows amongst some anarchists.

Unfortunately, it is not a good translation. Why, for instance, are the words ‘currency’ and ‘salary’ used instead of ‘money’ and ‘wages’ as in Marxian economics in English? And there is a glaring error on page 58 where Cafiero is made to say ‘therefore, salary cannot represent the price of labour power’; which is wrong both in terms of what Marx held (wages are precisely the price of labour power) and of what Cafiero himself had written in the preceding paragraph. Socialist Party members familiar with Italian say that a correct translation of what Cafiero wrote in Italian is ‘therefore, wages can represent nothing other than the price of labour power’ (they advise that there are other, though less serious, mistranslations too.) It is a bit odd that the ACG did not pick this up and add a correction as that wages are the price of labour power is a basic part of Marxian economics.
Adam Buick