Friday, October 2, 2020

Letters: “Peacefully if possible, violently if necessary” . . . (1970)

Letters to the Editors from the October 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Peacefully if possible, violently if necessary”

Dear Sir.

‘Peacefully if possible, violently if necessary’. This was quoted in the July issue of the Socialist Standard as The Socialist Party of Great Britain's viewpoint on the overthrow of the capitalist system (Debate with IS Group). In the same issue the Standard also makes its readers aware of the logical thought that Socialism could not be introduced, nor indeed function properly, unless the majority understood it to be the obvious method of organising society in absolute equality and freedom (About Ourselves). It is to this end—opening the eyes of the majority—that the SPGB surely works? How then could the SPGB actively ever work forward into a situation that would give rise to violence? It obviously knows that men who are forced to comply with an imposed system, not understanding that system, are of no value to that society, and are not helped or liberated themselves.

May we then see a published affirmation that the SPGB docs not agitate for that brand of struggle that requires violence? Or otherwise an explanation of that phrase which must grate on so many: ‘violently if necessary'.
R. Molony.
Bridport, Dorset.

“Peacefully if possible, violently if necessary” only applies when once the vast majority of society are already in favour of the establishment of Socialism. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always said that Socialism cannot be established unless and until it has majority support and has always emphatically rejected minority violence. We are actively working to avoid violence by seeking to persuade in an open, democratic and peaceful manner a majority of the merits of Socialism.

The socialist revolution will be essentially peaceful precisely because it will be the act of a conscious majority. Unfortunately, whether isolated incidents involving violence may occur does not depend on the majority, but on the anti-socialist minority.

Whether a minority of anti-socialists, faced with an overwhelming democratic decision in favour of the establishment of Socialism, would dare to take up arms in a futile gesture against the Socialist majority is very much open to question. But if they do, the Socialist majority must have a policy for dealing with them. We think it reasonable that steps should be taken to restrain them, even to the extent of using actual physical violence if need be. After all it will be they who began the violence and acted in an anti-democratic way. Not to act against them would be to allow a few fanatics to hold up the establishment of Socialism.
Editorial Committee

" . . . false and sterile position."

The April issue of the Socialist Standard throws an interesting light on the theory of state capitalism as supported by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and also as supported by the leadership and majority of the International Socialism group.

The concept of slate capitalism as put forward by the Socialist Party of Great Britain is based on essentially contradictory premises. The article, “Just a Russian Revolutionary”, shows this. You, in contrast to Menshevism, admit that the Russian capitalist class was incapable of carrying out its bourgeois democratic tasks. This would lead one to conclude, in accordance with the theory of Permanent Revolution, that the working class would have to carry out the tasks of the bourgeoisie as well as creating a socialist state. Instead you are forced to say that the intelligentsia is a class, which could take state power and institute a bourgeois revolution! The intelligentsia is not a class per se, having no specific relationship with the means of production. It generally forms part of the petit-bourgeoisie, a class which, due to its peculiar economic position, tends to vacillate between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. As an intermediate class, it cannot exist independently in capitalist society and thus cannot take state power.

To add to this confusion, the intelligentsia also became a bourgeois class when it assumed power and ruled over a “capitalist state” in Russia. They managed to do this, despite the fact that the Russian capitalists “were dependent both on Tsarism and on foreign investors”, both of which would have liked to crush Lenin's “state capitalism”!

In the article on IS's position on the Soviet Union, you correctly state that IS failed to see all the implications of the state capitalist theory. Yet for all its faults (and I accept many of your criticisms but draw different conclusions) IS’s concept comes a hundred times closer to the correct interpretation of the Russian Revolution than the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s false and sterile position.
Bruce Robinson.
London, N.W.1.

We did not say that “the intelligentsia” were a class; we said they were “a social group peculiar to the Russia of that time”. Intelligentsia is in fact a Russian word and “the intelligentsia of diverse ranks,” composed of professional people of non-noble origin working mainly for the government, was one of the legal orders into which Tsarist society was divided, the others being nobility, clergy, merchants and peasants. This social group — or feudal order, if you like — is not at all the same as those who in modern capitalist society are loosely called “intellectuals”. Those employed for a wage or salary to do mainly intellectual work today are members of the working class as much as those employed in factories or down coal mines.

The Russian revolutionary intelligentsia were inspired by the ideals of the French bourgeois revolution. They wished to free the Russian “nation” from the yoke of Tsarism and to establish a democratic, and even a “socialist”, republic. These revolutionists knew that they could not overthrow Tsarism on their own; they knew their revolution needed a mass basis. At first they looked to the peasants. Then, as the development of capitalism in Russia produced a class of wage earners, they turned to the working class. Most of the Russian Social Democrats, and especially the Bolsheviks, shared the assumption of the peasant-oriented Narodniks that they, the revolutionary intelligentsia, were to be the general staff of the coming Russian revolution with the workers and/or the peasants as the rank and file.

Bolshevism — with its theory of the vanguard party and of the inability of the working class to evolve beyond reformist ideas — was an adapting of the Russian revolutionary tradition to the conditions created by early capitalist development in Russia.

Everywhere in the early stages of capitalism the workers incline towards blind violent revolt. It is a sign of their immaturity. It was Lenin’s genius as a Russian revolutionary, helped by some understanding of social forces he had gained from Marxism, to realise that this revolt could be harnessed to overthrow the Tsar, and to establish a democratic republic (the Bolsheviks' aim till 1917). In contrast to Menshevism and correctly, Lenin realised that Russia's bourgeois revolution would have to be carried through without the bourgeoisie.

The Bolshevik military coup of November 1917 was not a working class or socialist revolution (as IS, whose views on this Bruce Robinson commends, claim). It was essentially a stage in the revolution that cleared away feudal obstacles to the development of an economic system in Russia based on production for profit, money, the wages system and the accumulation of capital — Russia's capitalist revolution.

Once in power the Bolsheviks had no choice but to develop capitalism since (given that the rest of the world was staying capitalist) this was the only way forward for Russia. Over time the top members of the Bolshevik party and their hangers-on (including those recruited from the working class and the peasantry) gained a solid privileged position on the basis of exploiting wage-labour through their State-run industries and became a definite Russian capitalist class.
Editorial Committee.


It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is Crypto-Leninistic when it claims that capitalism was necessary to build up the organization of production until it could be replaced by democratic control of society. If people are inadequate to develop their economy communally and co-operatively, then by what means does competence magically descend on them after elitist-controlled growth. It takes blindness to ignore the achievements in voluntary collectivization (free sharing of talents and resources) of the Spanish anarchists in the 1930’s and to disregard the potential of the Mahknovites in the Russian Revolution. Again on what grounds does the SPGB condemn the Bolshevik usurpations when it alleges that capitalism is necessary in primitive countries (see p.45 Russia 1917-1967). I am very disappointed in the Companion Parties (WSP. SPGB. et al). This lack of faith in the ability of the people to control their own destiny was certainly not shared by Rosa Luxemburg who is otherwise favourably regarded by the WSP. 1 regret having to be so critical and I hope this disagreement is based on a misunderstanding.
Yours for Socialism.
Roger Lee.
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.

Roger Lee will be pleased to know that he has misunderstood us. When we say that the development of capitalism was necessary before Socialism could be established, we are thinking in world terms. By the end of the last century capitalism had performed this task of building up the material basis for Socialism. From then on it has been a reactionary system everywhere. We reject the view that the coming of capitalism to the backward countries now (or to backward Russia after 1917) is necessary before Socialism can be established.

When we wrote on page 45 of our pamphlet Russia 1917-1967: “That Russia had to follow the capitalist road and employ capitalist methods was inevitable”, we meant this to be understood in the context of the conditions then existing, i.e., that Russia was economically backward and that a majority of the workers both there and in other countries of the world did not want or understand Socialism. In fact we specially spelt this out on the previous page of the same pamphlet:
  . . . in the conditions that existed in Russia and the absence of a strong world socialist movement no other development was possible. Russia had to go through the stage of capitalism (emphasis added).
The land area of Russia and its people could have formed part of a world socialist community after 1917 had there been a majority of Socialists in the industrialised parts of the world. The brutal Bolshevik industrialisation of Russia was not historically necessary, whatever “crypto-Leninists" might say (if that is what they do say).

We are aware that throughout the history of capitalism there have been examples of workers (and peasants) organising themselves democratically to produce wealth. These however were not examples of Socialism but they do confirm that ordinary people can run society's affairs without a boss class — an argument we have always put forward.
Editorial Committee.

Need pollution be a threat? (1970)

From the October 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Despite the overwhelming evidence for man’s ability to produce an abundance of the means of life, including food, there is growing evidence that if man continues to ruthlessly plunder his environment in the way he has done over the last hundred years or so then the gloomy predictions of the ‘miserable parson’ Malthus may become true. Rivers, oceans, the atmosphere and the land may steadily become less productive as the result of the irrational drive to accumulate wealth on the part of a minority.

We would be committing a Malthusian error ourselves, however, if we claim that this is an inevitable process. Capitalism is nothing if it is not in ovatory and it can and will attempt to solve the worst of the pollution problems, especially if they endanger the growth of capital accumulation generally. Neither should we neglect the effects of the growth of movements supporting conservation. Once movements and institutions of this kind are in being they acquire a momentum of their own and justify their existence by forcing politicians and industrialists to change their policies even at the expense of profits.

The extent of their success will depend partly upon the growth of such movements in various parts of the world and partly upon the degree to which the aims of the conservationists will coincide with the imperative need to accumulate capital. It could well be that the competitiveness of industrial nations in the future will depend upon their ability to control pollution.

The conservationists themselves have produced some interesting and important works on pollution in the modern world. In his Reith Lectures Dr. Frank Fraser Darling gives some telling examples of the effects of the indiscriminate use of modern technology on our environment. He makes a serious blunder, however, in blaming population growth for this indiscriminate, criminal mis-use of technology :
  Population and pollution are the two great problems of our age, and pollution is a function of population increase, though it need not necessarily be so. (The Listener, 27 November 1969).
What he is saying is that in order to feed the extra millions we have to continually develop technology in the form of fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and agricultural machinery, all of which will pollute the atmosphere in one form or another.

If we examine his analysis we can quite easily see the fallacy of his argument. Is it true to say that technology is continually advancing in response to increasing population? Technology advances and has a far greater polluting effect in advanced industrial countries where output is increasing at a far greater rate than population. On the other hand, areas like India and Latin America have tremendous population problems and technology is barely keeping pace with the growth of population, and pollution, as a side-effect of technology, is not serious.

It would be unfair to dismiss Dr. Darling’s arguments on this subject however because on several occasions he comes close to identifying what should be at the core of his argument:
  “The economic factor is enormously powerful, setting firm against firm in cutting down production costs and caring little about disposal of wastes. Country is set against country in getting the world markets, so the materialist’s creed is that once more industry' must not be handicapped by idealistic policies of pollution control.” (The Listener 13 November 1969).
It is not the materialist creed that is at fault; but the way humans are related to each other compel them to adopt ‘materialistic’ and inhuman attitudes.

He also realises that it is possible to organise ourselves so that the world becomes a fit place to live in through the intelligent use of technology:
  “There are examples of some correction through the advance of technology, for do remember that if the will of the people is ultimately that the environment of man shall be clean and decent, it will be technology that will be the handmaiden in achieving it.” (The Listener 27 November 1969).
It is a great pity that people like Dr. Darling do not realise that before the environment of man can become clean and decent a tremendous transformation in human organisations and institutions is necessary and that the main arguments he puts forward are holding up this transformation by offering false solutions to the wrong problems.
L. H.

The Marxist view of Russia (1970)

From the October 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those who understand the Marxian theory of social development have no illusions about Russia. Even in 1918 it was obvious that Socialism, as a democratic classless society, could not be set up there. Economically, Russia was too backward. Politically, the mass of the people were either ignorant of or opposed to Socialism. In other words, Russia was not ripe for Socialism. Marx had concluded that it was not possible for countries to skip the necessary stages of their social development by “bold leaps or legal enactments”. The Bolshevik bid to do this, to avoid capitalism by leaping from backward Tsarism straight into Socialism by means of a dictatorship, was doomed to fail and led not to Socialism but to a brutal state capitalism in which the former professional revolutionaries turned into a new privileged and exploiting class. Russia has got nothing to do with Socialism or Marxism, though of course a Marxist analysis can be made of the class society there.

Many from Lenin to Mao and Guevara do stand for minority insurrection leading to minority rule and this is accepted by many, supporters and opponents alike, as “Marxism”. But this was not Marx’s own view of the socialist revolution. He held that Socialism could only be set up when the immense majority of workers wanted it. This socialist majority should win political power (through the ballot-box where possible) and use it to carry out the social revolution. It is true that a few times Marx did refer to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” but it is obvious from the contexts that this was merely another way of saying “rule of the workers” which Marx insisted could only be based on democracy. Lenin is the man responsible for twisting this phrase to mean dictatorship over the proletariat for that is what his “vanguard party” set up in Russia.

Saving graces (2020)

Book Review from the October 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Science and Passion of Communism. Selected Writings of Amadeo Bordiga. Edited by Pietro Basso. Brill. 540 pages,

Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970), the first leader of the Italian Communist Party who later became a prominent figure in the Left Communist opposition to Stalin, was a super-Leninist. Not only did he hold that under capitalism the working class was incapable of understanding socialism but that (for this reason) the working class should not be consulted by the vanguard party as to what to do; this party should seize power as a minority in an armed uprising and then rule on behalf of the workers. So why should he be of any interest to socialists?

After the Second World War Bordiga resumed activity (during the fascist period he had remained in Italy), which for him was mainly a question of developing a correct understanding of Marx. This led to his two saving graces – his analysis of the USSR as capitalist and his view that communist society had to be a society from which production for the market, working for wages, and using money (even as an accounting unit) had disappeared.

According to him, Russia had never ceased to have a capitalist economy. In this he followed up Lenin’s view of the ‘New Economic Policy’ that the Bolsheviks were forced to adopt in 1921 and which Lenin described as the development of capitalism under the auspices of the ‘proletarian state’ (i.e, a state controlled by a vanguard party claiming to have socialism as its aim). For Bordiga, at some point during the 1920s the ‘proletarian state’ ceased to exist but capitalism continued. He preferred to call Russia simply capitalist rather than state capitalist, on the grounds that production was in the hands of enterprises as separate accounting and capital accumulating units producing for the market. Even though he exaggerated the degree of autonomy of state enterprises, he was to be proved right to the extent that, with the collapse of Bolshevik rule in the 1990s, many of the oligarchs who emerged as open capitalists did come from the ranks of those who had managed state enterprises.

To illustrate Bordiga’s view of communism (which we call socialism) the editor has chosen an article written in 1958 entitled ‘The Revolutionary Programme of Communist Society Eliminates All Forms of Ownership of Land, the Instruments of Production and the Products of Labour’. In it Bordiga starts from a criticism Engels made of the agrarian programme adopted by the French Workers Party in 1894 which came out in favour of peasants owning the land they worked even those employing workers. Engels saw this as ‘opportunism’ in the sense of adopting a policy to attract votes that contradicted the socialist aim of common ownership by society of land. This aim, says Bordiga, rules out both peasant cooperatives and either municipal or state ownership of land.

He doesn’t object so much to the word ‘nationalisation’ (also used by Marx) as this implies that the land belongs to the people rather than to a political institution. He ends up rejecting the word ‘property’ – even as ‘common property’ – altogether as it still implies ownership by a restricted group, even if this group is the whole human population alive at a particular time. In communism the existing population would not have exclusive rights over the land to do with it as they pleased, as this would be to exclude future generations. What they will have is the use of the land which they will have to care for and hand down to future generations in the same or better state that they found it. Bordiga quotes Marx:
  ‘Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias’ (Capital, Volume 3, chapter 46).
The words in Latin are from Roman law (which Marx started to study in university) meaning literally ‘good heads of family’. Today, we would use a more familiar form of words such as ‘good stewards’.

This introduces what would now be called an ecological dimension to socialist society as envisaged by Marx. Bordiga, writing in the 1950s as a Marxist, took up this point and developed it in other writings, long before ecological movements got off the ground.

Bordiga goes on to apply this not just to natural resources but also to the instruments of labour made by humans and to the products of their work (hence the article’s title). None of these will be ‘owned’ but will simply be there to be used by good stewards. The concept of ‘property’ and ‘ownership’ is replaced by that of ‘stewardship’ though the word Bordiga uses is ‘usufruct’ (use without ownership).

Bordiga’s brand of Left Communism gave rise to various groups in the 1970s which inherited his (and Marx’s) view of communism as a worldwide society from which classes, private property, the coercive state, markets, money, wages and profits had disappeared. So he deserves some credit for keeping alive, as we have done, the original idea of socialism/communism.

Priced at over £50 this book is mainly for university libraries not the general public. Bordiga’s article is available, though in a different translation, in the Libcom online library.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Do monkeys produce surplus value? (2020)

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

‘Liverpool FC have cut ties with their “official” coconut milk following allegations that monkeys were used as slave labour to pick fruit for the product’ (Times, 11 August). The animal rights group PETA had produced evidence that in Thailand monkeys were being used as ‘coconut-picking machines’ and were maltreated by being held in chains when not working.

The monkeys were certainly maltreated but were they being economically exploited in the same way as human wage workers? Were they producing surplus value?

Marx divided the capital of a business into two parts. (1) The instruments of production, raw materials, buildings, fuel, which he called ‘constant capital’ and (2) the fund out of which productive workers were paid, which he called ‘variable capital’. In the course of production the elements of constant capital transferred only their pre-existing value, whether in one go or gradually, to the product. Productive workers too transferred the value of their labour power to the product, but at the same time added new value over and above this; hence ‘variable capital’ with the variation being surplus value.

But what about the labour power of animals used in production, which at one time was so widespread that ‘horse-power’ was chosen as the name of a unit of mechanical force: is this constant or variable capital?

In discussing, in the opening chapter of Volume I of Capital, production by humans of what they need, Marx made the point that this involved them changing other parts of nature into something useful for them. These use values
  ‘are combinations of two elements – matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended on them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. The latter can work only as Nature does, that is by changing the form of matter. Nay more, in this work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces’ (Section 2).
In a later chapter Marx pointed out that ‘physical forces, like steam, water, etc when appropriated to productive processes cost nothing’ (chapter 15, section 2). In the previous section of the same chapter he had included animal power alongside wind power and water power as among the natural forces that humans used in production.

A capitalist enterprise, therefore, does not have to pay for the ‘material substratum’ of wealth or for the forces provided by Nature; these are available to them cost-free. This applies as much to animal power as to wind or waterfalls (or the sun’s rays, tidal power, etc). What a capitalist enterprise does have to pay for, however and which can be costly, is the means of harnessing these free natural forces – windmills, water-wheels (solar panels, tidal barrages etc). In the case of animal labour, it is the animal itself that has to be paid for; its labour power does contribute to production but, as it is free, is not a part of capital, neither constant nor variable.

 As the animal itself has value (it has to be bred or acquired and maintained by human labour) it is a part of capital, but as constant capital. Like a machine it transfers its value gradually to the product until it wears out, but adds no new value. PETA was not so wide of the mark in describing those monkeys in Thailand as ‘coconut-picking machines’.

Just because they don’t produce surplus value is no reason for us workers not to show solidarity with our fellow other-animal workers and oppose their maltreatment.

Cooking the Books: Socialism in one enterprise? (2020)

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

In an article in Counterpunch (28 July) Richard D. Wolff, of ‘Capitalism hits the fan’ fame, criticised the widespread definition of capitalism as ‘private’ or ‘free’ enterprise on the grounds that it ignores state enterprises and that ‘free’ is a loaded term that in any case only applies to those who own enterprises. He offered instead:
  ‘A key unique quality of capitalism is the employer/employee relationship between two different groups of the people engaged together in the economic system. That relationship entails an exchange of wages or salaries for labor power (the ability of an employee to work). A contract between employer and employee covers that exchange plus the employee’s exertion of brains and muscles over lengths of time and to ends specified by the employer. ’.
A defining feature of capitalism is indeed the wages system. Ending capitalism does involve the ending of this employer/employee relationship. Wolff, however, sees this as being implemented at enterprise level, describing as ‘instances of communist enterprises’ worker co-ops where ‘one and the same community designs, directs, and performs the work of an enterprise such that each community member has one vote and enterprise decisions are made democratically.’

His justification for calling worker co-ops ‘communism’ is that they are commonly owned by those working in them and end the employer/employee relationship as far as their members are concerned. But if the common ownership of something by a group is ‘communism’ then there are many other examples of it within capitalist society. What socialists aim at, however, is the common ownership of the means of life by society as a whole – a communist society.

Marx wasn’t opposed to workers forming co-operatives. In fact he saw their emergence as one of the signs that society was becoming ripe to move from a capitalist to a communist society; they showed that the individual private owner/employer was redundant and that workers were quite capable of organising production without them. He was, however, opposed to the reformist demand that the state should subside them. In his own words:
  ‘The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour’ (Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27).
In other words, under capitalism, workers co-ops had to function like a capitalist enterprise with all the shortcomings this involves such as, we can specify, having to make a profit to re-invest in up-to-date methods of production so as to remain competitive and stay in business.

Wolff’s conception of the role and significance of ‘co-operative factories’ is different. He envisages them as producing for the market alongside private and state enterprises both under capitalism and in ‘socialism’ (by which, going completely off the rails, he seems to mean places like the old USSR). He advocates co-operative enterprises as a way forward for workers within capitalism in the same way that other reformists used to advocate state enterprises.

This brings out that his definition of capitalism is incomplete. It needs to include as well as the employer/employee relationship that production is carried on for sale with a view to profit. Capitalism is a market society in which everything is bought and sold, not just labour power.

Common ownership on a society-wide scale implies that the democratically-run productive units would not be producing for a market, precisely because what they produced would belong to society and be available to be distributed in non-market ways, whether free distribution, free use or taking according to need.

Conflicts in Hong Kong (2020)

From the October 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hong Kong was a small but important part of the British Empire, acquired by military might. Hong Kong Island originally became part of the Empire in 1842, after China was defeated in the First Opium War, as the lucrative opium trade was imposed on China by Britain. After the Second Opium War in 1860, further land was ceded, including Kowloon Peninsula. Then in 1898 the New Territories to the north of Kowloon were leased to Britain for 99 years.

Under British rule, Hong Kong became a centre of global trade and finance, much of it supported, directly or indirectly, by the opium industry. Its Chinese population lived in squalor, while, in the first decades at least, many wealthy Westerners enjoyed opulence and an often-debauched lifestyle, with the Royal Navy ready to defend Britain’s interests and so-called free trade.

As the end of the lease approached, the British government decided that Hong Kong without the New Territories would not be viable, so in 1984 an agreement was reached that the whole of Hong Kong would be transferred to China in 1997, with an undertaking that the social system would be guaranteed for fifty years. Hong Kong is officially a Special Administrative Region of China, under the supposed principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and there is at least a semblance of the capitalist idea of democracy, with elections and political parties, though the members of the Legislative Council are only partly chosen by direct elections.

Hong Kong’s economy has fared pretty well in capitalist terms since the Chinese takeover. It is a very large importer and exporter, with many goods being trans-shipped through its container port and its airport the largest anywhere for international cargo. It has the world’s seventh-busiest stock exchange, and the second-highest number of billionaires of any city (behind only New York). Some supporters of capitalism have regarded Hong Kong as leading the world in economic freedom, in terms of the rule of law and the ability of people to make decisions about their lives. Given the extent of inequality and poverty and the lack of genuine democracy, this was always nonsense, but presumably even such apologists are likely to be changing their minds given recent events.

At the end of June this year, China imposed on Hong Kong a new security law, which included possible life sentences for secession, subversion or terrorism. Some cases could be tried in China, not Hong Kong, and the Beijing government would have the final say on how the law should be interpreted. The head of Amnesty International’s China Team said the law ‘represents the greatest threat to human rights in [Hong Kong’s] recent history’ and ‘China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses’. Others claim that it infringes human rights and international law. There were protests last year that involved pitched battles with police, and the new law was widely seen as making any kind of protest illegal. Some critics thought the law meant that Hong Kong was ‘turning into China for real’.

Even before the law came into effect, some opposition groups, both pro-independence ones and campaigning organisations, decided to dissolve themselves, though some carried on their work from Taiwan. Many people deleted social media posts in order to be on the safe side. On the first day of the law being in operation, there were demonstrations, met by riot police, with ten people being arrested under the security law. Anyone allegedly promoting ‘Hong Kong independence’ can be charged with inciting secession.

China set up a new security agency in Hong Kong, with a so-called ‘hard-liner’ as its head. Journalists have become worried about revealing sources and fear that even reporting banned slogans may be illegal. Books by pro-democracy activists have begun to disappear from local libraries, supposedly so it can be ascertained if they violate the new law. Among those arrested was a newspaper owner, and the offices of his paper were searched. At one demo in early September, around 300 people were arrested, including a twelve-year-old girl who allegedly ran away ‘in a suspicious manner’.

District council elections held in November last year resulted in a big majority for the ‘pro-democracy’ groups, while opinion polls showed that most people supported the protests, if not the violence. This year’s Legislative Council elections have been postponed till next year, presumably because the authorities fear an outcome unfavourable to them.

Politicians in other capitalist countries have objected to China’s recent policies. Johnson has said that up to three million Hong Kong residents who hold British national overseas status would be given the right to settle in the UK, though it remains to be seen if he would keep to this if push comes to shove. Australia has made it easier for Hong Kong students in Australia to remain there after they graduate. Trump has put an end to any special economic treatment for Hong Kong, so that it will be treated the same as China. This may mean that US companies will switch from using Hong Kong as a regional hub to another Chinese city or Singapore.

One reason for these actions by China may relate to the issue of control in the South China Sea, which is an important sea lane and has extensive oil and gas reserves (see the August Socialist Standard). Eight missile boats and corvettes from the Chinese navy are currently stationed in Hong Kong, and one recently took part in a ‘live-fire drill’ which involved firing cannons and torpedoes. This is a very small part of the whole navy and even of the South Sea Fleet but it may still be useful in standing up to US naval operations there. There is, however, little chance of demonstrations in Hong Kong undermining the Chinese navy’s strength, and Hong Kong becoming independent from China is hardly a real possibility in the short or medium term. It may also be the case that clamping down on dissent in Hong Kong is a way of sending messages to Taiwan, which is still viewed as a ‘rebel province’, or to workers in China who may be kicking against the traces. China, the message reads, will not put up with dissent or any kind of demand for more democracy. The Beijing government is in charge, and people had better bear that in mind. Stopping demos and arresting fairly small numbers of people could be an effective way of making this point.
Paul Bennett