Friday, April 30, 2021

Produce more—children ! (1923)

Editorial from the October 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the meeting of the British Association in Liverpool some of the scientists demonstrated once again that the payer of the piper calls the tune. Official science must give evidence, now and again, that it is a bulwark of capitalism, so that learned professors may obtain the wherewithal to live and carry on their studies.

Many years ago it was alleged that an important cause of the workers’ poverty was the largeness of the worker’s family. Since that time war has swept away a huge number of the pick of manhood. In spite of this latter fact, there are, at the present time, nearly two million workers wanting employment. One would imagine, therefore, that any present restrictions in the size of the worker’s family would be welcome, particularly as so much is made of the difficulty of handling the “unemployment problem.”

But the capitalist does not aim at solving unemployment. If he did solve this problem he would be placed in a similar position to that in which he found himself during the war—forced to pay comparatively high wages on account of the shortage of the labour supply. Since the war the labour supply has overflown the demand, and the capitalist has been able to press wages down.

Under capitalism business moves at varying rates of speed. At one time there is a rush of business ; at another time there is a slump. The employers require a supply of labour sufficient to meet the demands, of brisk business and still have a sufficient number of workers over to prevent those in work from demanding wages above the normal. In periods of slump the number of workers over during the busy time is swelled by the number the slump throws out of work, and the unemployment problem becomes acute.

The growing difficulty of sustaining life, even at the best of times, has a tendency in recent years to force the workers to limit the size of their families. The capitalist sees in this a dangerous symptom—a symptom that might reduce the industrial reserve army and limit the extent of his profits.

It is just here that the scientist can lend him some aid—and he does his “duty.”

The Special Correspondent of the Daily News, reporting the speech of Dr. Vaughan Cornish, President of the Geographical Section, writes :
  “In his opinion if you are to do your duty to the Empire you must have at least four children. He made it clear that you should not invite children into the world for their own pleasure or amusement, but should enlist them, as it were, in an army for home defence.

  “In his view it appeared children were merely potential soldiers.

   “In order to have strategic security in this, island,” he insisted, “we must be able to meet the air force of a European combination as well as to carry out our traditional plan of dispatching a powerful expeditionary force for the support of a friendly Power. This active defence requires a large population.”—(“Daily News,” 14/9/23.)
Imagine urging us to increase our families so that our children may provide food for guns ! And the monuments to the “glorious dead” are still being covered with wreaths, though their dependants cannot find the necessary covering to shelter them from the inclement weather.

But the patriotic plea put forward is only a cloak for the masters’ desire for cheap labour.

Not only do the masters require an industrial reserve army, but they also require a plentiful supply of youthful labour. Machines are taking a greater part in industry as time goes on, and the operation of these machines is becoming more and more the work of children. In spite of official regulations, the half-time system is growing. According to the Westminster Gazette (27/8/23), there are 3,437 children between the ages of 12 and 13 at work in Staffordshire alone. In Rochdale the number of half-timers increased from 871 in 1915 to 1,219 in 1920.

Therefore, workers, if you would raise-up multitudes of youthful competitors and provide the employers with cheaper labour, then heed the advice of the scientist—be fruitful and multiply.

Letter: The Socialist Party and Trade Unions. (1923)

Letter to the Editors from the October 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

July 5th, 1923.


Your contention that the workers do not pay rates and taxes on the basis that what he hasn’t got he cannot part with has always seemed to me quite sound. But in this month’s Socialist Standard Comrade Reynolds declares, “For, bad as the condition of the working class is, only a fool would deny that it could be far worse.” This seems to me to contradict the above, for if his condition can be made worse, to say nothing of far worse, it surely can be made so by the capitalists collectively (taxation) as by the capitalists individually (wages).

The point I would wish to make is that, according to our friend Reynolds, the worker has a surplus or margin above the bare subsistence level, thus rendering him susceptible to taxation in his degree even as the man with £10,000 a year.
Yours fraternally,

Our contention that taxation does not affect the working class is in no way contradicted by the statement quoted from the July Socialist Standard. The statement is made to indicate the fact that the struggle of the workers on the economic field over the question of wages, hours, and the general conditions of employment does to some extent act as a brake upon the tendency of capitalism to worsen the condition of the working class. The writer does not imply that the workers have “a surplus or margin above the bare subsistence level, thus rendering them susceptible to taxation”; on the contrary, he implies that it is necessary for the workers to carry on the struggle in order that they should realise the value of their labour-power.

Of course, the workers have no surplus above the subsistence level, out of which to pay taxes. But it does not follow that because of that fact their condition could not be worse than it is at present. The social condition of the workers not only could be worse, but is actually becoming so as capitalism develops. For instance, as more efficient methods of wealth production are introduced, unemployment increases, and, with the consequent increase of competition for jobs, the workers are subject to a more intensive exploitation, their position is more insecure, and their poverty becomes greater than ever.

Now “Inquirer” seems to be of the opinion that the level of subsistence is a fixed point. But that is not the case. The workers sell their energy to the capitalist at the cost of their subsistence, but the cost of subsistence depends upon, among other things, the standard of living which varies, in different trades and in different countries. The standard of living is a product of historical and social forces, and may be raised or lowered. As Marx puts it :
  “The value of labour is in every country determined by a traditional standard of life. It is not a mere physical life, but it is the satisfaction of certain wants springing from the social conditions in which people are placed and reared up. The English standard of life may be reduced to the Irish standard ; the standard of life of a German peasant to that of a Livonian peasant.”— (“Value, Price and Profit.”)
And, as the whole history of capitalism shows, the tendency is in the direction of lowering the standard of living of the workers, to the extent, to use the words of Marx, of reducing the whole working class to the “utmost state of degradation.” Around this question of the standard of living a constant struggle goes on between the workers and the capitalists. The former endeavouring to maintain it at a certain level, and the latter endeavouring to reduce it to its lowest point. It is precisely here where the organisation of the workers on the economic field functions. By means of withholding their labour-power, or threatening to do so, the workers do, to a certain extent, put a brake upon the encroachments of capital. In other words, whilst the workers by trade union action cannot altogether prevent the worsening of the social condition, they can slow down the worsening process.

To state such an obvious truth, namely, that the condition of the workers could be far worse, is something totally different from saying that the workers have a surplus above the subsistence level out of which to pay taxes. For the workers to be susceptible to taxation would necessitate their getting a surplus above the amount necessary for their subsistence as wealth producers for the capitalists, and this they do not get. Consequently, the capitalists cannot make the condition of the workers worse by means of taxation. They can and do, however, by means of reducing wages and intensifying exploitation, a fact with which we as workers are painfully acquainted.
Robert Reynolds

A professor on the equality of opportunity. (1923)

From the October 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard 
  “What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne—we may stop there. Of these all but Keats, Browning and Rossetti were university men; and of these three Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well-to-do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say; but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact nine out of those twelve were university men, which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. As a matter of hard fact of the remaining three you know that Browning was well-to-do, and I challenge you that, if he had not been well-to-do, he would no more have attained to writing “Saul” or the “Ring and the Book,” than Ruskin would have attained to writing “Modern Painters,” if his father had not dealt prosperously in business. Rossetti had a small private income ; and, moreover, he painted. There remains but Keats, whom Atropos slew young, as he slew John Clare in a madhouse, and James Thompson by the laudanum he took to drug disappointment. These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is—however dishonouring to us as a nation—certain that by some fault in our commonwealth the poor poet has not in these days, nor has bad for two hundred years, a dog’s chance. Believe me—and I have spent a great part of the last ten years in watching some 320 Elementary Schools —we may prate of democracy, but actually a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”

(Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On the Art of Writing,” page 33, 1923 Edition.)

£1000 Fund. (1923)

Party News from the October 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Market failure (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Businesses never spontaneously take into account the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, let alone that of society in general. They have always acted on the basis that, as Thatcher put it, there is no such thing as society. One result has been the current global overwarming, which Nicholas Stern, in his report to the Labour government on the economics of climate change, described as the biggest market failure ever.

Businesses leave it to governments to represent the overall capitalist interest but, even here, they are reluctant to let governments interfere with their freedom to make profits in the way they want. Not that, these days, governments want to impose coercive restrictions on capitalist businesses. Environment minister David Miliband has openly declared:
“Climate change is, according to Sir Nicholas Stern, the greatest ever market failure, but the answer is not to replace markets. Instead, we need to price pollution into markets and extend market mechanisms so that they work more effectively” (Times, 12 February).
In other words, calling on Beelzebub to cast out Beelzebub. But some supporters of Beelzebub are not content even with this light touch. In an article entitled “A free market solution to global warming” the US business correspondent of the Times, Gerard Baker, put it ironically:
“Man-made global warming is, if the critics are correct, the biggest example of market failure in the history of the planet. It makes Marx’s critique of capitalism look like nitpicking. Inequality and labour alienation we can live with. Global warming is a bit harder” (20 February).
He then went on to point out that the sort of measures envisaged by Stern and Miliband wouldn’t be enough:
  “Despite reassuringly low-cost estimates from the likes of Sir Nicholas Stern, attempting to arrest and then roll back carbon emissions by relatively mild taxation and regulatory measures over decades looks a tall order. If you are really serious about it, you need to be thinking in terms of an internationally mandated programme of regulation and control over economic activity that will surpass anything ever seen in human history”.
Capitalism, he implies, just couldn’t afford this: “The real present-day cost of reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere substantially below where they are now is almost certainly prohibitive and ruinous to economic growth”.

As an alternative to what he calls “the leap into the socialist abyss” he advocates “measures to limit the effects of global warming – improving sea defences for example”. One better than King Canute but likely to be just as ineffective in the long run.

Not that socialists advocate “an internationally mandated programme of regulation and control” over capitalist businesses. What we want is for the production of the useful things that people need to live and enjoy life to be taken out of the hands of profit-seeking enterprises altogether. We want the means of production to be owned in common by the whole community as the only basis on which production can be organised to take account of the overall interest of all the members of society.

In socialism there won’t be any profit-seeking capitalist enterprises to regulate; just democratically-run productive units producing, in an ecologically and socially acceptable way, what people need.

Letters: Class War (2007)

Letters to the Editors from the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Class War

Dear Editors

I read the review of Ian Bone’s Bash the Rich (March Socialist Standard) with interest as a few years back I had a couple of pints with the author in a pub in Bristol. And until recently he could be found selling the excellent community news-and-scandal sheet The Bristolian in that same fair city.

Indeed, one of the most interesting sections in his “confessions” deals with his involvement in a similar publication in Swansea during the late 1970s called Alarm. Populist, pro-working class publications are evidently what he does best, and the mother of them all of course turned out to be Class War.

Here’s my “confession” . . . I always had a bit of a soft spot for CW. Their political positions (such as they were) were always closer to the Socialist Party’s than most anarchists and any lefties. And the paper in its heyday was something to behold. But – and it’s a big but – their avowed methods were, and are, different from ours in the extreme. Bone quotes a comrade of his criticising elitist violence (as opposed to political mob violence) by stating ‘petrol bombs are far more democratic than dynamite’. OK then, but isn’t democratic political action even more democratic still? And, of course, CW famously developed a veritable obsession with the “middle class” that they saw as standing between us and the ruling class.

As his memoirs end abruptly around 1985 we can presumably await further fond rememberings, no doubt featuring tales of the anti-Poll Tax conflict of the early 1990s. Until then, Ian, if you’re reading this, where on Earth did the bloody Bristolian vanish to?
Ben Malcolm, 


Dear Editors

Thanks for the review of my book Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction (March Socialist Standard), which I appreciate. I introduce the notion of a stage of managed capitalism largely in order to contrast the tendencies of the period (roughly speaking) 1850-1970s with what has happened since the 1970s. I agree that there are continuities across this watershed – the concentration of capital has, for example, steadily increased – but I think we need some notion of a different stage since the 1980s in order to make sense of Thatcherism and New Labour, their similarities and their difference from old Conservatism and old Labour.

While it appeared to many in the 1970s that capitalism was collapsing, and there was plenty of evidence they could draw upon – notably the global decline in rates of profit – capitalism did seem to get a new lease of life in the 1980s.

On the issue of whether the Soviet Union was a form of state capitalism, I would argue that the institutional differences between the Soviet system and the capitalist countries are sufficiently great to warrant the treatment of the Soviet system as fundamentally different, though I would agree that the Soviet Union was a part of the capitalist world economy rather than distinct from it and that it was another means by which labour was systematically exploited. If one treats the Soviet system as a form of state capitalism it is also more difficult to make sense of the 1990s transformation of Russia and its consequences, which flowed from the introduction of capitalist mechanisms.

Perhaps you are too pessimistic on the possibility of changing capitalism, since there have been many important institutional changes in many different countries at many different times. By change you mean change from rather than change of! Are there any signs that a change from is going to happen?
James Fulcher 


Dear Editors

I agree with Bob Dixon (book of poems reviewed in the March Socialist Standard) that the working class do not give much thought to wars. Some regard them as part of life. You can see this from the way they buy poppies and the way they attend ceremonies which glorify wars. Although many join the forces for adventure and to escape poverty. But we must try to change this culture of war by any means we can including by poems like Bob Dixon’s. If you join the forces you will be expected to kill and be killed. All wars are illegal and you will be expected to fight for the ruling class. Who will put poppies on your grave? You will become part of the poppy day parade. No sympathy. No comment. Just silence. Like the dead.
Joe Boughey, 

Death penalty

Dear Editors

In his article (Socialist Standard, March) John Bissett explains some of the cruelties of the death penalty, and talks movingly of his own experience of trying to support someone on death row. As a constitutionally secular society that, ostensibly at least, champions the right of the individual, executions in America seem particularly perverse.

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone reading this letter is likely to have any overly idealistic ideas about the American government (to say the least!) but couldn’t we at least hope for them to not engage in such a seemingly obvious contradiction of the values for which they claim to stand?

A real turning point for me, in my understanding of both the death penalty and my attitude towards it, came from reading the book ,Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment the American Conscience and the end of executions, by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. I really found this to be one of the cleverest and most illuminating books I’ve ever read. I was honestly bowled over by the skill with which the authors tackled this subject. Rather than dwelling exclusively on the point that executions aren’t terribly nice for the person getting killed in this manner, and then vilifying anyone who possessed the inhumanity to express even the slightest sympathy for it under any circumstances ever (as I might have been tempted to do) the authors adopt a diametrically different approach – seeking to understand, rather than pass judgment, on everyone in any way involved in the death penalty process or expressing an opinion on it.

The authors draw a distinction between personal emotions concerning violent crime, and government policy. As they put it: “we can well understand how a husband or sister of a murder victim might want to tear the killer limb from limb; we’d probably feel the same way, at least initially. Yet this does not provide a clear indication about what society should do with convicted killers.”

I’ve had a few conversations with people who regarded themselves as supporters of the death-penalty who I’ve managed to bring around to agreeing it wasn’t a good idea, by first expressing sympathy for their sense of indignation and wish for vengeance, and then gently asking them if they thought the death penalty would really help stop such things (i.e. violent murders) from happening.

The authors explain how the condemned man comes to serve a symbolic purpose – representing evil that needs to be purged, and, a “hard” attitude towards crime generally. This is of course relevant to other groups that can come to represent evil, and towards whom a similarly “hard” attitude is seen as appropriate, i.e. “Islamic terrorists”.

The death penalty is significant not just from the point of view of the suffering it causes to its victims (and everyone else involved in the death penalty process – a point explained by Lifton and Mitchell), but also because it is related to fundamental moral and psychological issues that are a part of everyone’s lives, to do with justice, vengeance, forgiveness, and the value we place on human life. By improving our understanding of these, and learning to ditch the attitude of considering people as “evil” in favour of recognizing them as flesh and blood humans like ourselves, erring and misguided though they may be, we can start to gain a recognition of our shared humanity that, when shared by enough of us, will help bring an end to all instances of inhumanity and neglect.
Adam Waterhouse, 

A stroke of the pen (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is to revise the way Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is calculated. According to the Times (26 February) “from 2008 the ONS will also add into GDP an estimate of the output generated by banks related to the higher rates of interest they charge on loans compared with deposits”. Output generated by banks? What are they talking about? Banks don’t produce anything.

It is just that, given the way a country’s output is calculated, banks have to be assumed to produce something. The value of the new national output produced in a year has theoretically to equal the total annual income of the country’s inhabitants as wages, profits, rent, interest, fees, etc in that year (national income). One way new national output is calculated is to add up the monetary value of the goods and services on which the national income is spent (final consumption). To do this it is assumed that whatever a sum of moneyfor this purpose is spent on is an “output”.

Thus, interest paid to banks is assumed to be a payment for the bank’s “output” (the service of lending the money). Similarly, taxes are assumed to be a payment for the government’s output (the “service” of providing “defence” and “law and order” as well as health and education).

This is all right for statistical purposes, but wrong if this statistical device is taken for reality. In reality neither banks nor governments produce anything. They – or rather, the workers employed by them – do of course do something, but the activity of banks and governments is in the end paid for out of the surplus value produced in productive industry which transforms materials that originally came from nature. In the case of the government this is obtained through taxes. For banks, it’s through interest.

An ONS paper explains how banks work, better in fact that most economics textbooks: “In essence, financial institutions provide services in two ways; by direct charging (overdraft fees, mortgage arrangement fee), and by an interest differential; that is paying depositors less than they charge borrowers . . . For example, current accounts are usually maintained free by financial institutions,
and the associated costs are met by the difference between the low interest payments awarded on credit balances maintained in such accounts whilst the bank lends funds from such accounts at a higher rate to borrowers”.

In other words, no nonsense about banks “creating” credit or deposits, but a recognition that they make their money by lending out money deposited with them at a higher rate of interest than that paid (if at all) to those who deposit money with them. Even so, this description is still tied to the concept that banks provide a service, i.e., that they are selling something. But what?

Because of the theoretical and practical problems involved in the idea of banks selling something, the national income statisticians have till now not included in GDP any value for the “output” of banks for the services they are regarded as providing – banking facilities for depositors – and for which they don’t charge. The solution they have come up with, and which will be applied in Britain as from 2008, is to regard the income of banks from “paying depositors less than interest than they charge borrowers” as a notional payment for these notional services.

It’s a bit of an artificial solution and it will increase GDP by a one-off 1.9 percent or so – which is more than normal growth in some years – by a mere stroke of the pen. But one held by statisticians rather than the bankers of currency crank myth.

Greasy Pole: The fall of the House of Lords (2007)

The Greasy Pole column from the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The House of Commons has expressed a preference for turning the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber. This is being touted as a great democratic advance: the final abolition of the hereditary principle in political decision-making, something that has been talked about and promised by Liberals and Labourites for well over a hundred years, and the end of the sale of peerages to jumped-up businessmen and their distribution to cronies and superannuated politicians.

A second chamber (such as the House of Lords evolved into) is an anti-democratic concept. Nearly all capitalist states have one and in all cases it was intended to be a check on the power of the more popularly elected first chamber. The US Constitution is a prime example. It was drawn up towards the end of the 18th century when the propertied class were still afraid – as they were to be for the whole of the following century – of what might happen if they gave the vote to all (male) adults, such as the taxing away or the dividing up of their property. They therefore provided for a Senate that was explicitly modelled on the British House of Lords except that it excluded the hereditary principle.

Feudal relic
Britain doesn’t have a formal constitution; only a set of constitutional practices that have evolved over the years. The House of Lords dates from feudal times when the Norman barons who had conquered England forced their leader, the King, to take their views into account. Originally it was the House of Lords that was the “first chamber”. The House of Commons was a body convoked to represent the non-noble elite in the towns whenever the king wanted to raise money by taxing them.

The House of Commons became the instrument which, from the 16th century onwards, the rising capitalist class of the towns used to win control of political power, first at the expense of the king and, later, at the expense of the House of Lords. Under Cromwell, not only was the king executed but the House of Lords was abolished. That proved to be an interlude only. Even so, Charles II, when his family was restored to the throne in 1660, did not undo the anti-feudal reforms carried through under Cromwell. But he did restore the House of Lords and made many more lords (some his illegitimate sons). When his successor, James II, tried to revive the “divine right of kings” to rule, both the Lords and the Commons united to boot him out in what they called the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and replace him with a new king – William of Orange – and a new royal family chosen by them.

From that time on, the king’s chief – “prime” – minister and the “cabinet” of other ministers had to be able to command the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons. That body was elected, but not on any sort of democratic basis. Only a tiny minority of those living in a parliamentary constituency had the vote. In many cases, these depended on the local landowner who was thus in a position to choose the MP. All the same, parliament was able to reflect changes of opinion amongst the privileged class of landowners and merchant capitalists and there were changes of government even in the corrupt 18th century.

With the industrial revolution, the newly emerging propertied group of factory-owning capitalists agitated to share in the political decision-making process. The result was the Reform Act of 1832 which admitted the “middle class” – in the proper sense of the term as the propertied class between the upper class of landed aristocrats and the lower class of propertyless wage workers – to the franchise and so to a say in who got elected to parliament and who formed the government.

For the rest of the 19th century the British constitution was a compromise between the capitalist class and the landed aristocracy. The capitalists accepted that the top posts in the government should be in the hands of landed aristocrats as long as these governed in the capitalist interest. Thus, apart from the Gladstone/Disraeli double act, most of the other 19th century prime ministers were lords – the Duke of Wellington, Earl Grey, Lord Melbourne, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Earl Russell, the Marquess of Salisbury, the Earl of Roseberry. But, by the 20th century this was no longer acceptable and when in 1963 the Tories, rather inexplicably, chose the 14th Earl of Home as their Leader he had to renounce his peerage and get elected to the House of Commons.

Lloyd George knew my father
In 1909 the Lords made the fatal mistake of putting their own sectional interest as landowners first by rejecting the budget drawn up by the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, because it imposed death duties on landed estates. Nemesis was swift. The Liberal government called two general elections and won both. The Lords submitted and voted for the budget. In 1911 the powers of the House of Lords were restricted to only delaying for two years, not rejecting, any laws voted by the House of Commons and from then on they only second-guessed the Commons on minor matters of drafting detail. The British State had been made subject to complete capitalist control.

If the Lords hadn’t submitted in 1910 the Liberal government had been prepared to create enough new peers who supported them to obtain a majority for its budget in the House of Lords. The idea must have appealed to Lloyd George since, when he was the prime minister in a Liberal-Tory government after the first world war he earned a reputation for selling seats in the House of Lords. This led to the Act of Parliament banning this, under which the Blair government is now being investigated. But the practice of a peerage for jumped-up businessmen in return for donations to the Tory or Liberal or Labour parties continued, though more discreetly.

In 1948 the period by which the Lords could delay laws voted by the Commons was reduced to one year. The Labour Prime Minister of the time, Clement Attlee, had once declared that if offered a peerage he would call himself Lord Love-a-Duck of Limehouse. When he retired from politics in 1955 and was made an Earl he chose the rather more conventional title of Earl Attlee. Life peerages were introduced by the Tories in 1958 and in 1999 the Blair government limited to 90 the number of hereditary peers entitled to a seat in the House of Lords pending a final settlement of the question.

It is by no means clear that the proposal for a wholly-elected House of Lords will go through, despite the vote for this in the House of Commons. The present members of the House of Lords – life peers just as much, if not more, than the dukes, earls and marquesses – don’t want to vote themselves out of existence. So, more negotiations and amendments can be expected as the saga continues.

Much time and energy will be wasted on this irrelevant side-issue which won’t affect the position of workers either way. Irrelevant because the point at issue is a detail of the structure of the capitalist state. Diverting because it sustains the impression that politics is about what goes on in parliament: the sham confrontations of Prime Minister’s Question Time, the ambitions of leaders and would be leaders, the squabbles of the professional politicians. Whereas politics is really about collective action to deal with the everyday problems that affect everyday people.
Adam Buick

50 Years Ago: £400 for a Slave (2007)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fairly recently King Saud of Saudi Arabia visited “the land of the free”—the United States of America, where he was feted by President Eisenhower, and other American politicians. Little is known of his country except that there is sand—and more important—oil, in Saudi Arabia. But a recent United Nations report (News Chronicle, 22/ 2/57) gives us some idea just how “free” and democratic King Saud’s oil-soaked land is.

According to the report Saudi Arabia has 450,000 slaves— just 20% of the population. Prices on the Jeddah slave market were said to be between £200 and £400 for a girl under 5; £150 for a man under 40 and £40 for an old woman. Like Christian Archbishops who also live quite well, Moslem Kings, such as King Saud, do not condemn slavery—chattel slavery in Arabia, and wage-slavery in Britain!

(from “Odds and Ends” by Peter E. Newell, Socialist Standard, April 1957)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Capital Levy. (1923)

From the August 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent war caused an enormous increase in the National debts of most of the belligerent nations, and the burden of finding interest has helped to popularise an old bogey, trotted forward in a new disguise as the Capital Levy. It has been made one of the main planks in the Labour Party’s programme, and was presented in various lights and with varying degrees of warmth by Labour men at the General Election. In the main, it seems to have been useful to that party as a rallying cry for the more aggressive of the industrial workers; and in quarters where the votes were sought of the mentally more slavish section, which goes by the misleading name of the middle class, the local members did their best to explain that the levy really didn’t mean much. Most opponents relied chiefly upon the iniquity of robbing the capitalist of his savings, etc.

We, however, are not concerned with this purely superficial attitude towards the proposal. As Socialists, we are bent on discovering by what means the position of our class may be advanced. Our class consists of all those people who, not being owners of property, must sell their mental and physical energies to those who are owners. This proposal must stand the general test—Is it or is it not one which is useful to the workers?

In the “Forward” (Saturday, May 5th, 1923), Mr. F. W. Pethick Lawrence, a Labour candidate and prominent advocate, sets out what he calls “The Case for the Capital Levy,” with the sub-title, “Lift the Burden of Debt from Industry and Labour.”

Now, we are agreed that there is a burden ; and, further, that people who have burdens are naturally interested in having them lifted; but Mr. Lawrence makes the somewhat important omission of not troubling to prove that the debt is a burden on the workers. If it isn’t, why should the workers trouble to lift the burdens of the capitalist class? And, on the other hand, what are we to think of an organisation which asks them to do so?

Let us consider the matter in an elementary way. First, can Mr. Lawrence deny that a small class does own the bulk of the means of producing wealth in this and other capitalist countries? This is a matter of common knowledge, for which it is not necessary to quote statistics.

Owning the means, the capitalist class also own the products. If you are a boot operative, you know that all the boots, when they are finished, belong to your employer ; and so throughout the productive system in which we live. As a worker you receive wages or salary at certain intervals, the length of which is immaterial. Your wages are drawn from the store of wealth produced by you, but owned by your employer. The reason he gives you something he would willingly keep, is surely not that he loves you. It is a simple necessity that you must have the means of obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, recreation, etc., in order that you may continue alive and in a state of sufficient fitness.

Then, what is it that determines for the workers as a whole the amount given in return for services rendered? We contend that, broadly regarded, that amount is based for different sections of workers, under different climatic conditions and with different social standards and different lines of historical development, on their standard of living. This may change, and in an immediate sense it fluctuates up or down according as there is a comparatively large or small supply of labour, and according to the degree and method of organisation. Generally, however, the capitalist class must pay away so much wealth for the upkeep of the wealth producers, and the surplus is theirs.

But the matter doesn’t end there. The same class also controls the political machinery, the Government, in all these capitalist countries. It must control politically in order to safeguard its private ownership. But the great and growing State services cannot be run for nothing. The capitalists must dip into their surplus to find the necessary cash—a proceeding to which they all object very strongly.

Needless to say, sections among the owning class are always willing to hand over their share of the burden to their weaker brethren. Now, the top capitalist dogs and the weaker brethren are all alike dependent on the votes of the workers. Without your support they can do nothing.

And this is where we return to our Mr. Pethick Lawrence.

If the burden rested on the backs of the workers it might be worth while trying to throw it off. But if the workers have no surplus, then they cannot be robbed of what they don’t possess; and, in spite of apparent objections, the workers as a whole do not suffer from high, nor benefit from low taxation. They suffer because they are robbed, and they are robbed whether taxes are high or low, and the degree of the robbery has, over a period, no direct or indirect relation to taxation. As we have seen, the workers receive all the wealth they possess from the capitalist owners, and, further, these owners control at present the machinery by means of which taxes are levied.

Now, the workers either receive a surplus over their minimum needs or they do not. If they don’t, then they cannot be robbed of that non-existent surplus afterwards. If they do, then the capitalists will have given the surplus either because they are philanthropists or because they are compelled by economic forces. If they are philanthropists, then they will not take back the gift they gave; and if they were compelled to give, then the same forces will prevent them from taking it back.

The burden of taxation for the payment of interest or the National Debt is Not a burden on the workers.

But, say these levy advocates, food prices will be lowered. Possibly this is true, but are you certain you will benefit? Is a railwayman, for instance, worse off on 60s. when it costs 60s. to live, than on 30s. when it costs 30s. to live? And although all workers’ wages do not vary automatically on a sliding-scale basis, is there any grade or industry in which wages are not very closely dependent on the general level of prices?

Mr. Lawrence, with unconscious humour, writes: “The workers out of their poverty are paying for all their old-age pensions, all the soldiers’ and widows’ pensions, the State’s contribution to Health and Unemployment Insurance, etc., etc.”

The pertinent question Lawrence might answer is this : Would the capitalists, if there were no taxation at all, give the workers a larger share of the wealth produced, and, if so, why?

Mr. Lawrence says : “The main principle of the levy is simplicity itself. It is to pay off debt out of wealth. The wealth of the country as a whole is the wealth of its citizens.” This, as I have already explained, is quite untrue. The wealth of the country as a whole is the private property of the capitalist class. Only the owners of property can suffer the burden of taxation, and only the owners do suffer. Some of them want you, the propertyless workers, to pull their chestnuts out of the fire, and Mr. Lawrence and the Labour Party are making a bid for office on the strength of offering to do the necessary publicity work.

Mr. Lawrence admits our charge in full. He writes, “Payment of the levy will, in effect, be carried out by means of a reshuffling of the title-deeds of wealth among wealthy persons, and the actual cancellation of a large amount of war debt.”

This is of vital concern to those who hope to get some good cards out of the re-shuffle, but does it matter the least little bit to us whether Mr. Capitalist A. or Mr. Capitalist B. gets the aces? Perhaps Mr. Lawrence and a few others may be suitably rewarded; and perhaps not, for the master class are notoriously ungrateful where there are so many willing servants.

The fact of the matter is that the capital levy, like any other mere juggling with figures, will not alter the amount of real wealth, land, factories, railways, etc. ; it will not alter the worker’s position in relation to the owners, and, finally, it will not affect the capitalist class except to the extent that it leads to some redistribution of wealth among themselves.

While the capitalists will on the one hand be relieved from the burden of paying the debt interest, they will also, on the other hand, be deprived of the present means of paying that interest. Some will gain by reduced taxation what others lose by the paying off by the State of their quota of the debt and their consequent loss of interest on their bonds. The money paid out will, in its turn, be reinvested in industry, and we shall be as we were.

Funnily enough, while the Labour Party wants the Capital Levy in order to stop paying “a vast tribute to the nation’s bond¬holders” (Mr. Lawrence), this same Labour Party wants to create more bondholders to “draw vast tribute” by nationalising the land and compensating the present owners with 5 per cent. bonds redeemable in 30 years (Mr. Snowden’s Land Nationalisation Bill now before the House).

The National Debt, too, was produced by wars, chiefly the last war. The Labour Party opposed that one up to the 30th July, 1914, and then vigorously supported it until such time as the capitalists thought it wise to call a halt in 1918. The apologists assure us that next time the Labour Party will act differently, and in conference they carried unanimously a resolution “calling upon the Government to summon an International Conference, and propose thereat immediate and universal disarmament” (Daily Herald, 29th June). It was then moved that “The Labour Party in Parliament should vote against all military and naval estimates,” and surely a No-More-War Party could do no less. But, as Mr. Henderson pointed out, “It was absurd . . . we could not do without a Navy. If France continued in her present frame of mind, were we to neglect the possibilities of defence?” Mr. Brownlie (A.E.U.) thought it might “embarrass candidates at a future election,” and it would throw out of work his members engaged on building battleships !

So it seems that all Mr. Lawrence’s work trying to wipe out the last war’s debts is going to be rendered vain by Mr. Henderson’s next war. Incidentally, how could Mr. Henderson advocate the use of the armed forces against strikers if there were no armed forces?

After wiping out this war debt Mr. Lawrence says “there will probably be a balance of over £100,000,000 a year on the right side,” and then he adds, “Great things can be done with this sum.” Glorious ! But who is going to decide what “great things” are to be done? Surely the owners ; and the capitalists don’t voluntarily do great things for the workers. On the other hand, if the workers are of a mind to do so, great things, even greater things, might be done now.

And the workers would stand a better chance of making up their minds if shoddy economists like Mr. Lawrence ceased propagating among them quack nostrums conceived for the salvation of the small fry of the capitalist class. The levy is not to affect owners of £5,000 or less.

Lawrence is aware that “some Socialists contend that it (the Capital Levy) is not Socialism, but only a palliative to buttress up the capitalist system,” and he agrees that “it will leave heaps of evils untouched, and it will not take the place of the Socialist remedy for the reconstruction of society.” He carefully omits to answer the charge that it will bolster up capitalism, and makes the lame excuse that in meeting “the one purpose for which it is designed, viz., that of cancelling a great part of the debt,” it will also remove “some of the worst evils of the present maldistribution of wealth.” He does not say it will remedy the maldistribution, and war could equally be commended, on the same ground as the policy of battleship building, i.e., that it removes unemployment. Lawrence doesn’t even say what those evils are which the Levy will remove.

In short, as cannot be too often repeated, the workers are poor because they arc robbed. They are robbed just the same, high taxes or low taxes or no taxes ; big National Debt or no National Debt; great foreign trade or no foreign trade. At present the workers are often worse off when unemployment is widespread than when trade is booming, but is this not simply because they accept the position? However bad trade depressions may be, do the capitalists go without, and, if not, why not?

While there is wealth in existence not being used to maintain the workers who produced it, those people are deliberately or unwittingly playing the capitalist game, who talk about measures to revive “our trade,” whether they be Labour, Liberal, or Communists.

We are Socialists, and do not ask you to seek salvation by reviving capitalist trade. We tell you there is only one solution to your problems.

Lawrence says there are four alternatives before you :—
  1. Repudiation.
  2. Inflation.
  3. A Sinking Fund.
  4. Capital Levy.
We say that each and every one of these is a question of no interest or use whatever to the workers. We add a fifth alternative—SOCIALISM. This is the only remedy for present or future working-class ills, and one that can be applied as soon as the workers choose to apply it.
Edgar Hardcastle

Whence ideas. (1923)

From the August 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is quite a common view that the events of life are governed by the ideas of certain “great” men, some of whom are “good” and some “bad.” If the “good” are in the majority then all is well; if the “bad” are in the majority then all is not well.

Ideas are supposed to be due to some peculiar quality that only exists in “great” men’s minds, and have no connection with the world around until forced upon a willing or unwilling people.

There are many who believe that Socialism is an idea of this nature, and hence Socialists are referred to as “dreamers” and “idealists.”

Socialism is an idea that is born out of the present condition of society. The conditions themselves force the idea into the minds of the workers and are the guarantee of its ultimate accomplishment.

A little thought will convince any average person that material is necessary in order to think at all—and that the material about which each thinks is that which he finds in the world around. This being so the ideas and outlook of people depend, as a rule, upon the way in which they live, or their method of obtaining a livelihood.

When we think, what do we think about? Where do we find our material? We cannot very successfully think about nothing ! A child opens its eyes to a certain set of surroundings, and these surroundings govern the child’s outlook on life, and provide it with ideas. As the child grows to the adult, practical life and books furnish matter for thought and shape the outlook of the grown-up.

For the average person the things that are nearest occupy the bulk of his thoughts. The nearest and most important thing of all for the majority is obtaining the necessaries of life. Where, as with the rich man, the means of life depend upon profit, so his thoughts turn upon methods of making profit. With the poor man, however, the means of living have to be obtained by working; consequently the poor man’s thoughts turn mainly upon work and the problems connected with work. The poor man is the working man. He belongs to a group that depends for a living upon wages. He is therefore a member of the working class. His outlook on life is a working-class outlook—the opposite to the outlook of the rich man, who is his master. The latter also has a class outlook—the outlook of the master class to which he belongs.

In the course of his occupation the worker tends more and more to observe that he is the backbone of society, that he, by applying his labour power to what the earth provides, produces all the wealth upon which the whole of society lives. Later he begins to wonder why it is that, although his class is the only class necessary to wealth production, yet it receives relatively the smallest share of the wealth produced, the rest going to support a group of idlers. By and by he realises that it is not necessary to support a group of idlers— that if the workers own the wealth they produce then there will be no need for idlers. He becomes a Socialist and takes part in the struggle for Socialism.

“Harder Lying”. (1923)

From the August 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

To distinguish between counterfeit and genuine necessitates close examination. Experts can at a glance detect the spurious, while Socialists know what is and what is not Socialism. But to those whose contact with pseudo socialism is so close that it is accepted by them as “the goods,” Socialism, when expounded, seems a different philosophy. In a leader of the Daily Herald of Monday, June 25th, headed “Hard Lying,” the scribe writes in the following fashion :—
  “When Tories of the Banbury type inveigh against Socialism, they blunder into every kind of foolishness, because they take no intelligent interest in public affairs and have never troubled their heads to understand what Socialism means.”
Unfortunately there are many Banburys who, having control of political power, and possessing vast wealth, have no need to “trouble their heads,” as members of the working class (for a weekly wage or monthly salary) can always be hired to study or understand for them. But even so it cannot be said that they do not understand ; they do, and doing so, are always seeking means, by propaganda, misrepresentation and other methods, of diverting the minds of the workers from proper understanding of their class position and socialist knowledge. They, however, are not the only guilty ones, as the following extracts prove. The writer continues as follows :—
  “But when a man of the intellectual eminence of Sir John Simon misrepresents Socialism and solemnly warns people against a danger which he knows must be imaginary, it is necessary to nail his false coin to the counter. It is necessary to prove that he uttered it knowing it to be false.”
Why this particular lawyer politician should be expected to be exempt from capitalist propaganda it is hard to say, but let the writer continue :—
  “On Saturday, Sir John Simon told a gathering of the ‘Dubb’ family in Yorkshire that the Labour Party aimed at the suppression of private enterprise in all directions, intending to commit the fortunes of this country, the happiness of every man, woman and child, and the delicately poised mechanism of our international trade, to the crude untried experiment of vast Socialistic schemes.”
This indictment the writer disclaims, obviously meaning that the Labour Party are not out for the suppression of private enterprise, a disclaimer with which we are bound to agree.

The writer likens Simon to an utterer of base coin, a clear case of pot and kettle; listen to this :—
   “Let us first take the statement that Socialist schemes are crude and untried, would Sir J. apply those epithets to the London Water Board? Would he apply them to our municipal gas and electric light undertakings? Would he hurl them at the L.C.C. tramways, and all the other systems of road transport which are run by ratepayers, not for profits but for use? All these are Socialist schemes.” (Writer’s italics.)
First he naively states that things are run by ratepayers for use and not for profit ! and are socialist schemes. Reform or improvement is the utmost they can be labelled.

The writer continues :—
  “To say that the Labour Party aims at anything so nonsensical as a complete and simultaneous suppression of private enterprise is to charge it with lunacy.”
In other words, we are promised a social system which will allow private enterprise to operate, and it will be called “socialism,” and it will be the essence of sanity ! That being so, we shall earnestly hope that in the near future the predominating complaint of the workers will be “lunacy.” Could anti-socialist aims be clearer? Now, you workers, adjust your headphones and listen to us.

The common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth, by, and in the interest of, the whole community.

That is Socialism, and anything based differently is not Socialism. Government control or nationalisation of industries under the existing system does not comply with the demand of Socialists, nothing short of the complete overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of the co-operative commonwealth will suffice.

This is not the Labour Party’s aim; it only wishes to apply remedies that have commended themselves to a British Cabinet and a Royal Commission.

The writer concludes by stating :
  “It does equal discredit to Sir J. Simon’s reputation for honesty and to his political acumen.

  “No one can long believe such wild slanders, which merely prove that the Liberals admit the death of Liberalism, and have decided to join with the Tories in the effort to check social improvement by hard lying.”
If the writer hoped that the death of Liberalism would improve the vitality of Labour, and suffers disappointment, we would counsel him to hope on, perhaps Simon will see the error of his simple ways and join the Labour Party.

As for the “wild slander which no one can long believe,” we hope that the wilder slander here reproduced will also be not so long believed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

God or the engineers. (1923)

From the August 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sad, in its immediate results, as is the recent eruption of Mount Etna, it is still more distressing to learn how great is the hold of religious superstition, and the ignorance of the most elementary facts of natural science it signifies, upon the minds of the people. For although the volcanic overflow only actually affects some few thousand wretched Sicilian peasants, the newspapers convey the tidings to their readers in the outside world in a manner most acceptable and understandable by them, and we have, therefore, in our daily newspapers practically no reference in a scientific manner to what, of course, is a natural phenomenon, but are entertained by stories of protecting’ patron saints, praying peasants, and priests appealing to God to stop the flow. Thus the Westminster Gazette (21/6/23) reports:—
  “The eruption of the Mount Etna volcano continues, but by a miracle the town of Linguaglossa, with its 15,000 inhabitants, appears to have been saved from destruction.

  ” ‘A mountain spur just outside the town has diverted the flow of boiling lava away from the town, where ever since the eruption started the people have been in a state bordering upon madness owing to the fear of destruction and the terrible heat.

  “The stream of lava runs to a depth of 20 feet and to a breadth of 500 feet, and in its course has demolished the village of Casozza and fifty houses.
  “The statue of the patron saint of Linguaglossa, St. Egidio, stands close to the mountain spur which has diverted the flow from the town, and yesterday priests and people knelt before this statue praying for their town’s salvation.— ‘ Central News.’


   “They had carried the saint’s staff, which is kept in a richly decorated coffer, through the streets in procession to the spot reached by the lava. Afterwards, fearing that the staff might be stolen by the inhabitants of the neighbouring district of Castiglione, they handed it over to the Bishop, and it is now being zealously watched over by several citizens. It was formerly stolen by the people of Catania, for its supposed miraculous powers.—’ Reuter.’

   “A Naples message says that Professor Ottorino Fiore, teacher of volcanology and a lifelong student of Mount Etna, states that the eruption will last probably a fortnight.—’Exchange.’ ”
Although the mountain spur was there before the statue of the saint, the latter gentleman has collared all the credit, and although Professor Ottorino Fiore may prove to be correct, the priests will doubtless see to it that God and the Roman Catholic Church share the honours between them when it is a fait accompli.

We learn, however, from an evening paper of the same day that the volcano, after slowing clown a bit, had resumed its former fury, and that in spite of St. Egidio the mountain spur was no longer proving a barrier to the ever-increasing stream of burning lava. Engineers were then set to work to dig trenches to divert its course, with the result that the town of Linguaglossa was saved for the time being. Did the saint then fall from popular favour? Not a bit of it ! He became more of a hero than ever, as witness the Daily Sketch (22/6/23) :—
  “A rumour spread yesterday that the neighbouring town of Castiglione intended to steal the St. Egidius statue and crozier from the people of Linguaglossa, its legitimate possessors.

  “Men, women and children seized whatever weapons came to hand, and rushed to the spot where the protecting statue faced the now almost quiescent lava,

  “Finding there some innocent inhabitants of Castiglione who had never dreamed of stealing the sacred image, they attacked them with wild fury, and but for the timely intervention of a body of Fascisti the visitors would have been killed.”
Apparently, then, although appeals to God were useless, and it was left to the spades of the engineers to save the situation, in the minds of the poor peasants no doubt exists that the former method did the trick. And for this no one who has read Zola’s “Verité” will deny the priests the credit. We can imagine them playing upon the, fears of a terror-stricken mob, distraught by apprehension and suffering, and taking every advantage of the circumstances to regain the hold that the gradual unfolding of the book of science is wresting from them day by day. These rural priests and parsons are the outposts of capitalism no less in Sicilian villages than in the villages of England. It may seem supererogatory to declaim against the foolishness of a priest-ridden Italian mob, but to the Socialist it is just as important a manifestation of the slave position of the international working class, as the shooting down of strikers in Featherstone or Chicago. The destiny of the Catanian peasant is that of the mill-worker of Wigan. Slavery is their common lot. Their emancipation must be the same way.

And we in England, who were rather pre-occupied at the time in praying that the sun would shine down upon Ascot, will doubtless be asked to attend thanksgiving services, to offer up thanks to God for stopping the eruption (and presumably for starting it), just as we were asked to return thanks for the cessation of the late war—although we could blame the starting of that on to the Kaiser. The pity of it is that lots of us will do it without question. Not because we have never been able to question. Never before in the whole history of the human race was knowledge so accessible to the multitude. What is it binds us in our present position? Fear? We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose but our chains. We have the weapon wherewith to free ourselves from economic serfdom and intellectual repression in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. WE ARE THE SOCIAL ENGINEERS !
Stanley H. Steele

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Lessons Poland’s workers must learn (1981)

From the April 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

A phone-in programme on a London commercial radio station; Mike Dickin — the interviewer—invites a caller from the Home Counties to have her say. “If you ask me”, she says, “these militant trade unionists in Poland are being whipped up by the Communists”.

The interviewer is confused: “But it’s the Communists they’re striking against”, he informs her. “Yes, it’s definitely the Communists”, she says, without listening ,to a word (as is the tradition on phone-ins). “These Communists have no respect for other people’s property”. Mr. Dickin verbally scratches his head: “But the Communists own the property. And it belongs to everyone. And . . .".

And there we must leave the poor man, suffocating in his own ideological vapour. Had he been a regular reader of the New Communist Party’s weekly paper, The New Worker, the headline on the front of the 22 August 1980 edition would have added to his confusion: “COMMUNISTS SLAM DGANSK WRECKERS” it said, and then went on to explain that “Irresponsible individuals, anarchic and anti-socialist groups are attempting to exploit work stoppages in the Gdansk coastal region of Poland for their own ends”. And just to make clear quite how much. “Communists” are opposed to strikes, the article goes on to quote the Prime Minister of People’s Poland (sic), Edward Gierek:
  Strikes will not change anything for the better here. On the contrary, they multiply the difficulties in the supplies and production, they disturb the normal life of our society.
To some this may seem odd: here is Mr. Gierek, a so-called Communist, opposing strikes much the same as Margaret Thatcher, who says that she is an out and out supporter of capitalism. But then, Thatcher is not always opposed to striking workers, for it was she who was telling the gin and tonic brigade at the Tory Conference last October how much she admired and supported the Polish strikers. The TUC would be delighted if such enthusiasm could be mustered by the government when British workers go on strike. But then, the TUC is not exactly unambiguous when it comes to striking workers in Poland.

Long before the workers of Gdansk had the audacity to go on strike against their dictators, the Polish government-run CRZZ (Polish Central Council of Trade Unions) had invited a delegation of TUC chiefs to visit the Stalinist Paradise and see state capitalism in action. But when the Gdansk workers started getting bolshie, questions were asked about whether the TUC team should go.

While hacks like David Basnett spoke at the TUC Conference in Brighton about the “recent distressing events in Poland", others diplomatically wrote out a resolution saying that the TUC delegation should go to Poland, but must call in and pay regards to the lads in Gdansk while they were there. The CRZZ go: to hear of this and the trip was cancelled. So, to put it all into perspective, Thatcher cheered the struggling Polish toilers, Gierek told them to go back work for the sake of the nation, the CRZZ supported the employers against the strikers and the TUC attacked Thatcher for not supporting workers —while some of them praised Gierek for being a great friend of the working class.

It is not confusion which led to so many people saying things at one moment which they condemned at another, it is the hypocrisy of a system which gives power to the few on the condition that they are able to deceive the majority. Poland is part of the capitalist system, the difference between it and Britain being that in the former the means of wealth production and distribution are owned and controlled by the state, whereas in the latter they are owned partly by private shareholders and partly by the state.

The hallmark of capitalism is that those who produce all the wealth—the working class—are exploited during the course of production by an owning class who pay them less than the value of what they produce. The profit which the employer obtains is the main objective of production. So, when workers ask for higher wages the employer must resist such claims in order to defend that profit. The inevitable antagonism between the worker—who needs wages in order to live—and the capitalist—who receives rent, interest and profit—manifests itself in a continuous class struggle.

As long as there is class ownership of the means of living this class struggle cannot be eradicated, in spite of the pretence that workers and capitalists have a common interest. In the state capitalist countries of Eastern Europe this pretended unity between classes is given the label "socialism”. Just as Hitler called bus fascist regime “National Socialist”, so the Party bureaucrats who live off the profits in state capitalism have created the ideological illusion that they have socialism. There is a class division in the so-called Communist countries, but some workers in the West have misguidedly been taken in by the claims of the rulers.

Since the war
To understand recent events in Poland it is necessary to consider the country’s history. The workers of Poland faced some of the worst atrocities of Nazi rule during the Second World War. In the Warsaw Rising of 1944 the section of the Polish Resistance which not only opposed Nazism, but also rejected the Moscow-instigated National Home Council, headed by Bolestaw Bierut, was massacred. In July 1944 the National Home Council became the Committee of National Liberation; in June 1945 this became the Provisional Government of National Unity, which declared Poland a “People’s Democracy”.

That not all of the Polish people wanted their new Stalinist-imposed government was demonstrated by the armed resistance to it which lasted until 1947. In January 1947 a “Democratic Alliance”, comprising the Communist Party of Poland and the Socialist Party of Poland, won 9 million out of 12.7 million votes in the last election that Poland has had in which more than one party was allowed to stand. After the election the leader of the opposition Polish Peasants’ Party was exiled and the Socialist Party consumed by the Stalinist Communist Party.

For ten years the Poles, having got rid of the Nazis, then suffered all the dictatorial repression of a Stalinist regime. In 1956 there began a brief period of “de-stalinisation” following the deaths of Stalin and Bierut. This liberalising of the regime was partly in response to demonstrations by workers in Poznan in June 1956. The new Prime Minister, Wladyslaw Gomulka —who had been imprisoned by Bierut in the 1940s for being too “liberal” — was no friend of the Polish workers when they voiced any objections to the dictatorship which he headed.

In 1968 a wave of student demonstrations, which demanded freedom of speech and publication, was suppressed and several of the prominent participants were imprisoned. In December 1970 workers in the Baltic ports went on strike in protest at increasing food prices. They demanded the right to organise in their own unions so as to negotiate with the government over wages—a right they were denied by the government, which said that if the workers wanted to negotiate they should do so through the government controlled unions!

When the Baltic workers refused to accept the government’s answer and organised demonstrations through the streets of Gdansk, the government responded by sending in their uniformed thugs— the “People’s Army" —with instructions to shoot down anyone who disturbed their law and order. Fifty-five Polish workers paid with their lives. Again, in July 1976 workers demonstrated against increased food prices and were violently suppressed. There is nothing new about such a reaction by the ruling class at times of working class dissent. In 1819 workers in Manchester were murdered on the streets when they posed a threat to the dictatorship of their masters. The same in 1834 in Tolpuddle when workers were deported for joining a union. The uniforms of the state bully-boys may be different, but it is all the same class struggle.

On 1 July 1980 the Polish government increased the price of meat. With queues in the shops, chronic shortages of basic requirements facing most working class families and rumours everywhere that Communist Party officials were stockpiling commodities and gaining privileged access to them, the patience of the Polish workers expired. In a spontaneous demonstration of concern for their material interests, reminiscent of the strikes which spread throughout Tsarist Russia in February 1917, the workers began to fight back. This time they were careful not to fall victim to the guns of the state dictatorship; they realised that the first step to liberation must be the organisation of their own, democratic trade unions. Bernard Guetta, who was in Gdansk throughout the summer of 1980, reported in Le Monde what he saw:
  Talking to six strikers sitting in the sun, we soon gather a crowd. When one of them answers, they all voice their approval. “Why are you on strike?” “When things are going that badly, you have to. Meat queues, unions that never do a thing for us, the government always lying and deceiving us—that’s enough! We’re not allowed discussion, we have no information, if we’re politically active we always have to suffer for it.” “What do you hope to achieve?” “Concrete improvements.” “What would be the most important?” “First the free trade unions, then the question of food and wages. We must have unions that are prepared to defend us.” (19/8/80).
The union which these workers established, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), was a well-organised and democratic union of workers, who deserve the support and admiration of the workers of the world. Guetta reports a typical instance of their democratic practice which could serve as an example to trade unionists in Britain: 
At 5 p.m. the talks with management are resumed at the Lenin yard. In the big coference room, under the central gaze of Vladimir Illyich on his pedestal, the Director and his assistant directors face 110 delegates representing 17,000 of their comrades. Twenty of them are members of the strike committee and known militants of long standing. The others were elected in their own shops and are novices. Outside, with the benefit of loudspeakers, the rank and file do not miss a word, and since the amplification works both ways, their comments are heard in the negotiation room. Disagreement is soon established: the management refuse to grant any more than 1,200 zlotys and the workers want the 2,000 they asked for. A few moments later, an appeal for reason by the Prime Minister is not even listened to. “I’ve better things to do than listen to all this twaddle again,” mutters one worker. (Le Monde, 19/8/80)
The question is, will the limited victory of the Polish workers lead to “better things”? That there has been a victory — albeit possibly temporary — is beyond doubt. The workers have won the right to form independent trade unions. By November 1980 “Solidarity had at least 10 million members in a country of 35 million.” (Sunday Times, 18/1/81) Dissident groups like the Polish Committee for Self-Defence (KOR) are now able to operate openly, which means that any genuine socialists in Poland would now be in a position to organise in the open. There are presently between twenty and forty anti-government publications in Poland and “some books and periodicals are being reprinted abroad and smuggled back to Poland, together with books written and signed by writers and essayists living in Poland, but openly published in emigre presses.” (Tadeusz Szafar, in Survey, Winter 1980). Copies of a statement from the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Great Britain have been translated into Polish and sent to the strike committees. Political questions are once again being discussed in the factories, farms and streets of every Polish town and village. For all of that to have happened in an East European state capitalist country is a victory which should not be ignored.

The main lesson that Polish workers must learn is that they are operating under capitalism To win the final battle they must understand how the system works. Some of the Polish rebels have naively assumed that they are living in a socialist society and that their troubles would be over if only they could transform Poland into a western-style capitalist state. They are often strengthened in this belief by the so-called intellectuals.

Poland is also a staunchly Catholic country: 80 per cent of Poles follow the ignorant superstitions of the Polish Pope. It is vital for the Polish workers that at all time they substitute a concern for their own material advantage for their religious beliefs. In the early days of the British labour movement vaguely socialist ideas were mixed with religious ideals, but in time the latter declined. Similarly, it is encouraging to note that when the strikes were in full swing in Poland “even an appeal by the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszinski, could not get the strikers back to work.” (Guardian 1/9/80)

The Polish working class must learn that strikes can only be a limited defence weapon within capitalism. Working class problems cannot be solved by trade unionism. The Polish nation may be likened to a large trading company, with the state bureaucracy the board of directors. As with any capitalist board, it can only concede to the workforce as much as is profitable for the smooth running of the company. As a trading company, Poland has major economic difficulties. It owes over 20 billion dollars to the West as a result of importing equipment and technology:
   Poland . . . now occupies tenth place in world, and sixth place in European, industrial production . . . If this growth is to be sustained, a prerequisite will be efficient and uninterrupted production. The last few months, however, have seen widespread industrial unrest in Poland, and at one point workers were on strike in over fifty plants and factories throughout the country. And the upshot of this has been a 15% pay rise granted to workers — which will cost the government an estimated £60 million. (Industrial Purchasing News, September 1980)
Increased productivity and increased profitability matters more to the defenders of Polish capital than the needs of the working class. The Polish coal industry is a good illustration of this. In 1979 Poland exported 41.4 million tons of coal, amounting to 20 per cent of all the country’s production; 26 million tons was exported to the West. British imports of Polish coal increased by 50 per cent, and 70 per cent of the coal used by the British Steel Corporation was imported from Poland “on straightforward grounds of price and quality.” (Industrial Purchasing News, September 1980). In August 1980 thousands of coal miners in the Silesian region followed the example of the Gdansk shipbuilders and went on strike. One of their main demands was for improved mine safety:
  The number of mines on strike has nearly doubled after an underground accident at the Halemba Colliery, near Katowice, in which eight miners were killed and eighteen injured. The accident is the latest in a series of mine disasters in southern Poland which have caused the deaths of sixty miners over the last year . . . Many miners blame declining safety standards on a new shift system introduced last year with the aim of ensuring a continuous 24-hour operation at the coalface. Critics of the new system claim that proper maintenance and repair of the mines have been sacrificed to increased production. (Guardian, 3/9/80)
The Polish ruling class, like their counterparts in the West, will go to any lengths to increase production, export more and pay their creditors. If this interferes with the well-being of the miners who dig the coal out of the ground it is too bad. Meanwhile, the workers want more pay and better conditions. This is class struggle. In the short-term it is useful to the workers to form trade unions and negotiate with their bosses, but such negotiations will never resolve the fundamental antagonism between wage labour and capital.

Nearly three quarters of all land in Poland is owned by peasants, who produce about 80 per cent of all Polish foodstuffs. For 35 years they have successfully resisted the State’s attempts to collectivise the land. As long as production for the market continues, the land-owning peasants will resist the workers’ desire for cheap food. The Polish government has three problems: how will it increase production, feed the workers and pay its creditors? Like any capitalist government, it will fail. Some Western economists have suggested that the EEC countries should give financial aid to the Polish ruling class. The USA has already invested 3 billion dollars in Polish industry. All that this shows is that capitalists of the world, despite national and ideological divisions, have a common interest.

The Polish rulers fear the class consciousness of their subjects no less than Thatcher, Reagan and Brezhnev do. Nothing hurts a capitalist so much as a worker who is beginning to think. Predictably, they offer reforms in order to pacify their wage slaves:
   The Party . . . will fight against transgressions of social justice and it will tackle the reforms of the economic system. (Polityka, the Polish CP weekly paper)
We’ve all heard that promise before. And we’ve all heard this one too:
  The Party, however, rejects the possibility of any compromise with the forces which are against the foundations of our system. (Polityka)
Our system? The capitalist system. The forces which are against it? Socialists or communists — the words have the same meaning. Why are we against it? Because we are workers and capitalism cannot be made to run in our interests. In Poland our fellow workers have won the right to strike. The next step? It is for the workers of all lands to join together in real solidarity, not merely to ask for a bigger slice of the cake, but to take over the bakery. 
Steve Coleman 

Foolish antics of Tass (1981)

From the April 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Necessary though the continuation and extension of trades union activity is under capitalism, the true interests of the workers lie instead in the political struggle to establish socialism. On the other hand, the vast majority of trade union members are not socialists. Consequently their political motivation does not go further than reformist activity, which they believe will improve their lot under capitalism. Some, particularly the more active, would claim that they are socialists and that their political activity will help to hasten the establishment of socialism. However the acid test is to examine their definition, or rather lack of definition, of socialism.

In Britain it was the unions which brought the Labour Party into being, in the first place motivated by the need to reverse the Taff Vale judgement of 1901. While this specific object was achieved, it involved a deal with the Liberal Party. Since that date British unions have often taken a leading role in agitating for all kinds of reform measures, both through the Labour Party, to which most large unions are affiliated, and outside it. This is the dual role of unions today. On the one hand the day-to-day class struggle in industry, on the other reformist political activity.

An excellent illustration of the contradictory nature of the unions is the case of TASS, the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AEUWi. Before amalgamation with the AEUW, TASS was known as the Draughtsmen’s and Allied Technicians Association (DATA). About 15 years ago union membership among the white collar staff whom TASS represented was low, with plenty of the criticism of unions in general which is common among those workers who consider themselves a cut above the “common herd”.

That situation has now changed considerably. A concerted drive by TASS has led to the recruitment of a large part of the technical staff. This has reflected also the growing frustration among these workers at the erosion of their standards when compared with those of the more militant. While there has not yet been a full-scale strike, there have been a number of walk-outs, works-to-rule and other “non-co-operation". It is noticeable that while the management are now adjusted to dealing with unions on the shop floor, they seem unable to accept the evidence of their own eyes when dealing with those described as “staff”. Evidently the idea that white-collar workers don't do such things is dying hard. .Although it is now eight years since the drawing office walk-out, employers still appear to believe that the unions will go away if they wait a little longer.

TASS also deserves some credit for the partial erosion of the elitist attitudes which have long prevailed among engineers: such views have been encouraged by professional bodies such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. These bodies have recommended that engineers should join small unions or staff associations, which encourage the idea that they are essentially an a different position to other workers. In one typical factory, while draughtsmen and stress engineers have joined TASS, aero-dynamocists still cling to the elitist attitude which is basically a hangover from the craft unions of old. These elements were largely behind an attempt to form, a company “union”, which some members of the board of directors at first appeared to encourage. When the board were compelled to give TASS negotiating rights, they could no longer go along with the idea of a company union, although the actual organisation still operates without the blessing of the company. This withering of elitism is reflected in a more sympathetic attitude towards union activity in general. The change in attitude can now be seen at quite a senior level, and this is an area of the country which has always been very conservative politically.

However, the political side of TASS is another, altogether sadder, story. The more active union members, the fairly small proportion who regularly attend branch meetings, are mainly “left wing” supporters of the Labour Party. Instead of giving their attention to the recruiting of new members and the best methods of waging the industrial struggle, a fair proportion of the available time at meetings is devoted to discussing reformist measures very similar to those which will be pushed within the Labour Party. If anything, this could put off potential members w'ho might join if propaganda were confined to the need to organise and the benefits of so doing. The reformist views of TASS are well illustrated in their monthly publication AUEW/TASS Newss and Journal. To read this can often give you the same breathless feeling as the Socialist Worker does: fight this, demonstrate against that, smash the other. Apart from the total misuse of the word “socialism"—in the January 1981 issue Russia is described as a “highly developed socialist country . . . (which) wants peace and security above all else"—there are some three underlying themes to their political propaganda.

When the necessary translations of have been carried out (for "socialism” read “TASS is for it”, for "capitalism” read “TASS is agin it”) one theme recurs—TASS is keen to fight the battles of British capitalism when the others have given up. The attempts of super patriotic TASS are, so we are told, being sabotaged by the very people who would benefit from them, assuming that they work out as planned. For instance, the January TASS News carried the headline “S.O.S.—Save our Steel. Press industry to buy from Britain”. Ken Gill, General Secretary of TASS, writes “TASS believes that British companies should put their money where their mouths are and act in the country’s interest.” A statement of the concern of TASS for British capitalism, which is in a more restrained vein, is contained in their submission entitled “Qualified Engineers — The Way forward”, to the Committee of Enquiry into the engineering profession.

Recently TASS, in conjunction with the TGWU, put forward a “Plan to save British Leyland”. The argument is that BL is too small to compete with the giants, and suggests that it should join forces with a multinational. Even if such a scheme were to be successful, unless there were a corresponding increase in sales, it could do no more than create some employment for a few British workers at the expense of workers overseas. Many TASS backed schemes and branch resolutions at best transfer problems elsewhere, and often involve deals with interests with doubtful records in their relations with unions. Members engaged in the manufacture of war weapons, for instance, will call for increased expenditure in this direction. The effort spent concocting this sort of scheme would be far better expended in trying to organise multinational union activity to combat the use of low pay and lack of organisation in, for example, Eastern European [countries] as a weapon against unions elsewhere. Such action would help foster international working class consciousness, and could well assist the spread of socialist ideas.

Again, in the current January TASS News, Joe Ashton, a TASS sponsored Labour MP says that “while it took Moses 40 years to find the promised land, the public these days won’t wait that long". This is part of a comic “prayer to god” for a better 1981, but it illustrates another theme which continually recurs in TASS as well as other left-wing propaganda. The “militant masses” are apparently waiting impotently for the leaders to lead them to socialism. Indeed, a very old idea, but it is a myth.

The political antics of TASS are yet another illustration of the need to pay attention to basics. The class structure of capitalism has not been correctly studied, so that they have not understood the causes of the evils which afflict the working class under the present system. Given this lack of understanding of the cause, it is not surprising that some fantastic and utterly useless remedies are prescribed. The basic assumption, despite confusing terminology, is that everything can be solved within capitalism, suitably patched up.
E. C. Edge