Monday, February 22, 2021

Socialism Now! (1992)

From the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is on the agenda — and right now. But it will not come by people putting their trust in leaders. It will be established when the vast majority of workers understand it, want it and democratically organise for it in a party which is not out to mend capitalism but to end it.

Socialism means the total abolition of capitalism. An end to private and state ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution. Production will be solely for use, with all people having free access to the common store of goods and services, instead of production for sale with a view to profit.

To win workers to organise for socialism is no small task and it is easy to be demoralised or to deceive yourself that there is an easier way to initiate the new system. But there is no alternative to the hard work being carried out by the Socialist Party — whose sole aim is socialism — and the sooner those who want socialism join us, the sooner it will be achieved.

Caught In The Act: At Issue (1992)

The Caught In The Act Column from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

At Issue

Months before polling day the 1992 general election has got under way. Along with the frantic politician’s speeches, the polls and the press conferences we are being deluged with what Tony Benn would call "ishoos" — diverting and irrelevant matter which the politicians exploit in order to undermine their opponents and suck up votes for themselves.

One such issue is the argument about whether taxes would be higher under a Labour government than under the Tories. In this argument tradition is powerful: the Conservatives have always represented themselves as the party of low taxation, fixing Labour in the voters’ minds as the avaricious collector, and profligate spender of taxes. The Labour Party, skewered on this attack, have had a hard time pointing out that it is hardly justified by the evidence and that they are as prudent and stingy about the finances of British capitalism as any Tory could be.

What both parties ignore is that the whole issue is irrelevant because the majority of people — the working class — do not effectively pay taxes and indeed can't pay them. Our income is determined by what it takes to reproduce ourselves as wage labour, whatever apparent deductions are on our wage-slips at the end of the month or week.

Taxes are a charge on the class who can afford to pay them and in whose interests they are collected — the capitalist, employing class. The state machine in all of its manifestations exists to protect and maintain the position of the capitalist class and they pay for it to do that. Workers who allow themselves to be misled about this and who vote for one capitalist party or the other on the basis of whether they will raise or lower taxes are wasting their votes and denying their own political power.


Another point at which the Tories are making some powerful attacks is the Labour Party policy towards the armed forces. Their ease here is that a Labour government, influenced by the pacifists and nuclear disarmers who infest their party membership, would reduce the British forces to impotence and so leave us undefended. This is always a popular issue — after all we need "our" soldiers, sailors and airmen to prevent the Germans, Russians, French, Japanese or whichever group happens to be the enemy at the time from pouring into this country and raping our grandmothers while they generally defile the British Way Of Life. On the other hand the Tories, their ranks thick with ex-officers, can be trusted to protect All That We Hold Dear.

Reality is rather different. As we have seen under the present government Tory ministers do not shrink from slashing back the forces to what British capitalism can afford. While Labour has done the same thing in similar circumstances, they have always made it clear that in government they are quite unmoved by the woolier opinions of their membership: they have supported every one of British capitalism’s wars and they have maintained, protected and used British forces whenever they saw this as necessary, they could not have put it any clearer than in their 1989 Policy Review: "Labour is determined that in the 1990s and beyond, Britain shall be properly defended ..."

In any case, the people who will vote about this in their millions do not have a Britain to defend; all they have is their degraded status as workers. The issue of which party will keep the larger forces should not intrude into the polling booths.


So is there no important issue? Is nothing at slake in the election? Well, as a start, we can say that whether the Labour or Tory party wins, the class structure of society will not be changed in any significant way. One effect of this will be that the inequalities in society — the existence of riches and poverty will continue to be something politicians promise to do something about.

A recent study by Inland Revenue, dealing with marketable wealth — goods which can be sold quickly as well as savings and investments — stated that in 1989 the richest ten per cent of the population owned 53 per cent — more than the other 90 per cent put together., the poorest 50 per cent owned just six per cent of the wealth. These figures will not surprise anyone who has been concerned to look behind the political sham fight to the real issues. They will come as no surprise to anyone who knows that poverty is basic to capitalism and will not be eradicated by voting for the parties who support capitalism's continuing.

New Image

In the run up to polling day the Tories have had to confront the problems of ridding themselves of the lingering image of what has been called Thatcherism. It is instructive to observe how they have set about this task. The object has been to wipe out the memory of our being subjected to the harsh but bracing winds of the market system and to convince us that we are now cossetted in the warmth and comfort of a new, caring Tory Party. It has been to replace Thatcher’s style as a strident, abrasive dictator with Major's image as the nice guy next door.

This has been done with a ruthless thoroughness of which the Tories, experienced as they are in political in-fighting, are the masters. It has been done with no regard to the fact that Thatcher's style and characteristics were once represented to us, by the very people who are now trying to eradicate them, as vitally necessary to our welfare and even our survival.

To some people — the Tories hope to a lot of voters — this will come as an easeful relief. But should we accept so easily that we can be manipulated in this way? Is a social system supportable when it requires such massive cynicism to defend its political representatives? What justifies all this investment in deceit? The answer is that elections are times when society can be up for grabs. The working class —the majority of the voters — do not have to choose between one bunch of cynical impotents and another, so that capitalism carries on. They can replace this social system with one based on human interests with all that that implies. That is the issue at the election — food for thought and for conscious political action.

Russia drops the pretence (1992)

From the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (or Union of So-called Socialist Republics, to be more accurate) is no more. When, on 25 December, the red flag over the Kremlin was lowered for the last time, the 74-year association of Russia and “socialism” came to an end. In each of the member-states of the new Commonwealth of Independent States nationalism has replaced Leninism as the official ideology.

Socialists can only welcome the abandonment by the Russian authorities of any claim to be socialist. That claim was never justified, not under Lenin any more than under Stalin, and did uncalculable damage to the cause of genuine socialism. Now Russia can be seen as what it always was in reality: one other capitalist state in a world of capitalist states.

What has happened in Russia—the emergence of a political regime relying more on the consent of the ruled than on their coercion—was bound to happen sooner or later since a developed capitalist economy cannot be run for any length of time on police-state lines, at least not without creating serious economic difficulties.

A modern industrial economy requires an educated working class to operate it, and such a working class cannot be bullied into working efficiently. Their co-operation has to be sought, and to this end they have to be granted certain rights both at work and in society generally, such as the right to form trade unions that can bargain over wages and working conditions and the right to have a say via the ballot box in the choice of political leaders.

State capitalism
All developed capitalist countries have been forced to grant the working class such rights. So it was possible to predict that this would happen sooner or later in Russia too. but not precisely when and how. We detected the beginning of this process in Russia under Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early 1960s and it seemed then that some sort of political democracy would emerge there within a decade or so. But then came Brezhnev. And we must confess to being as surprised as anyone else at the speed with which events have moved in Russia and Eastern Europe over the past three years.

The point is that the actual course of events depends on the precise historical background and on the choices made by those involved—the ruling class and their political representatives, and the working class. Those who seized political power in Russia in 1917 used it to force the pace of capitalist development there. The state was used not only to drive the peasants off the land and into the factories, mines and construction sites (as had happened in the early stages of capitalism in England too) but also to organise the extraction of surplus value from the newly-created working class and its accumulation as more and more capital, a task which in other capitalist countries had been left to the private initiative of capitalist enterprises.

As a result the type of capitalism that emerged in Russia was one where the state was the capitalist. As the state was monopolised by a clique of Party and state officials, known in Russian as the “nomenklatura”, this made them the effective owners of the means of production, even if collectively as a body rather than as individuals, and enabled them to enjoy a privileged lifestyle.

From the point of view of Russian capitalism, this system was relatively successful in that it built up an industrial infrastructure which allowed Russia to emerge from the Second World War as the second greatest military power in the world. However, by the 1950s there were signs that it was beginning to become a drag on further capitalist development in Russia in the same way that previously the Tsarist regime had been.

An educated urban working class had emerged that could no longer be treated in the same brutal way as the dispossessed peasants who had been slave-driven into building Russia's basic industries. A section of the Russian ruling class realised this and under Khrushchev a number of reforms were made: Stalin's methods were criticised, the labour code was made less strict, and central state control was relaxed in both the economy and the field of ideas. Another section of the ruling class, however, saw where this would logically lead: to some measure of political democracy and the end of the nomenklatura system and their privileged position in society. Khrushchev was deposed in 1964 and Brezhnev took over.

Brezhnev pursued the policy of trying to carry out economic reform while leaving the political structure—the one-party state and its privileged nomenklatura—unchanged. It didn’t work. The working class in effect refused to co-operate. "They pretend to pay us. and we pretend to work", as a popular saying of the Brezhnev era put it. Industrial development and productivity continued to stagnate. It eventually became clear to the dominant elements within the Russian ruling class that the process begun under Khrushchev in the 1960s would have to be resumed if economic stagnation was not to undermine Russia’s military strength. Gorbachev was chosen in 1985 as the man to preside over this process.

Ruling class split
Glasnost (“openness”) was introduced and the working class was allowed a degree of freedom of speech such as they had never known before, not even under Khrushchev. Gorbachev and the section of the ruling class he represented wanted to use the working class against another section of the ruling class which opposed his policies and wished to retain the old political regime. It was a classic case of the working class being drawn into the political arena by one section of the ruling class to settle scores with another section, as had occurred in Britain in the 19th century when the industrial capitalists sought the support of the working class against the landed aristocracy.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that, once in the political arena, the working class were not going to settle for anything less than the complete elimination of the nomenklatura as a privileged ruling class. They didn’t know what they wanted to put in its place but they did know that they wanted the privileged Party bosses, who had exploited and duped them for so many years, off their backs. In this respect. Yeltsin who embraced this view at a relatively early stage proved to be a shrewder politician than Gorbachev who continued to believe that the old regime could be gradually phased out of existence without upsetting the nomenklatura too much.

In the event it was the stupidity of the conservative wing of the nomenklatura that precipitated events. In staging a coup in August against Gorbachev, they brought about the complete destruction of the old political system. Most of the armed forces refused to follow the putschists and Gorbachev returned to power. Within a few days the Communist Party had been banned. As this party wasn’t a party in the conventional sense of the term but the political institution which allowed the nomenklatura to control the state and maintain its privileges, this amounted to the abolition of the nomenklatura. With this act in September 1991 Russia’s political structure caught up with its economic base.

Effective power passed into the hands of Yeltsin who had been elected President of Russia in a country-wide poll (whereas Gorbachev had merely been appointed by a parliament largely composed of nomenklaturists). Yeltsin's analysis of what to do to save Russia's status as a great power in the capitalist world was more radical than anything Gorbachev was prepared to contemplate: granting independence to Russia’s colonies in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as to the Ukraine and Belorussia.

This represents the break-up of the Soviet Union as a single political unit, but since Russia made up 90 percent of the former territory and 72 percent of the former population of the USSR it is not all that of a sacrifice. Of the 10 (11 if Georgia is included) new stales only the Ukraine (population 52 million, making it the fifth largest state in Europe after Germany, France, Britain and Italy) counts for anything and will be a serious loss if it really does go its own way. The others, all apart from Belorussia and Moldavia in Asia, are unviable statelets which will remain as dependent on Russia as France's ex-colonies in Africa have on France.

Russia may have lost its super-power status—which, in any event, was based on a military might well beyond its economic capabilities—but it remains a world power still armed with many more nuclear weapons than any of the other nuclear powers except America. Strengthened by a popular allegiance the old Soviet Union never had, Russia will eventually re-enter the world arena to compete alongside greater Germany and Japan against the currently world-dominant America. At least it won't be doing so in the name of socialism, not that that will make the capitalist world of competing stales a safer place.
Adam Buick