Monday, March 29, 2021

Letter: Was Marx Right? (1922)

Letter to the Editors from the August 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear comrade,

I have had one or two specimen copies of the Socialist Standard and have taken an interest in Marx, but having very little knowledge of the position I would be pleased if you would help me in the clearing up of a few points.

(1) Marx lays it down that Capital, as the system develops, becomes concentrated in fewer hands. Is it not a fact that instead of that being the case decentralisation of Capital is taking place on an ever larger and larger scale? And instead of the small man or middle class such as lawyers, doctors, etc., being eliminated they are becoming more numerous?

(2) Marx states that the workers condition under Capitalist must get worse, and that the worker must sink lower and lower in the social scale. Is it not true to say that for the last 30 years the workers condition instead of getting worse has been gradually improving’. If these two statements are true, how do you reconcile them with the position of Marx? Should be much obliged if you would supply me with the answers to these questions. I am only seeking for information.
I am, 
Yours fraternally,
C. F. Bransby.

Reply to Bransby.
The student of Marx is often astonished at the emptiness of the supposed arguments advanced against the Marxist case. The questions given above are good specimens of these objections, as the following facts show.

For several years there have been numerous agitations organised in America against the ”Trusts,” and various methods—all equally futile—have been proposed for curbing these huge concentrations of wealth. At one period the capitalist press here claimed that such ”Trusts” were purely American phenomena, and that they could not exist in "freedom loving Britain.” Yet at the time such statements were made Trusts existed here in more than one industry. The Cotton Thread Trust, under the control of J. and P. Coats, and the Tobacco Trust were well known cases. The directors of the various Railway Companies used to meet periodically to arrange fares and rates and so forming a price-fixing ring.

The war increased the speed at which these combinations were formed, and in whatever direction one cares to look now combinations are seen in control. Lever Brothers, Ltd., is a gigantic Soap Trust and it is spreading into the Fish Industry. The armament firms form a big ring and control the battleship building yards. Over 80 per cent. of the banking business is controlled by five Banks, viz., Barclay’s Bank, Lloyds Bank, London County Westminster and Parr’s Bank, London Joint City and Midland Bank, National Provincial and Union Bank of England. (Wages, Prices and Profits, p. 101).

In 1919 the Government issued a report of a “Committee on Trusts ” (Cd. 9,236, price 6d.), which states : —
  “We find that there is at the present time in every important branch of industry in the United Kingdom an increasing tendency to the formation of Trade Associations and Combinations. . . ."
Some highly interesting information, with curious details, is given in this valuable report, that every critic of Marx should read.

In view of recent developments in the East it may be mentioned that practically the whole of the oil resources of the world is controlled by two immensely wealthy Trusts—The Standard Oil Co. and the Roya1 Dutch Shell Co.

There is some confusion of thought shown in referring to lawyers, doctors, etc., as the “middle class.” When Marx was dealing with the concentration of wealth, he referred to the small producer or capitalist being crushed out. The lawyers, doctors, and the whole of the professional section live by the sale of their services and are therefore, in the mass, members of the working class. They have increased in numbers due to the greater demand for trained and technical advisers and managers in the industrial combinations and to the fact that so many small capitalists, seeing the hopelessness of their own position, have had their sons trained for the professions as they believe there is a greater chance of obtaining a livelihood in such directions. 

In face of the huge array of facts around us to-day showing the misery of the worker’s position, it is remarkable that anyone—not a defender of capitalism—can talk of the workers’ position being “improved.” The standard of life of the working class has been steadily deteriorating for more than 30 years. Even during the period of the war, when the workers opportunities of raising wages were greater than at any previous time under capitalism, the wages paid did not keep pace with the increasing cost of living. Since then wages have fallen heavily in all directions, far faster than the cost of living has decreased, so much so that in certain cases, e.g., the coal miners, many of those in work have to seek relief from the local Guardians.

But this is not the whole, nor even the main part of the case. First, relative to the amount of wealth produced, the social position of the worker has become much worse. In the middle of the 19th century the millionaire was looked upon as a wonder. To-day the billionaire excites no particular comment. While immense fortunes have been amassed in the hands of the few, the workers are struggling harder than ever to obtain a subsistence.

Second, whether the wages of a particular worker has increased or not the insecurity of his existence has grown by leaps and bounds. No one to-day is sure of his job, no matter how "high” or "low” his status may be. And it is this appalling insecurity of life amidst wealth produced in gigantic quantities that drives the workers down in the social scale as capitalism develops.

Every fact of the workers position demonstrates the correctness of Marx’s great analysis of society, and the path society was bound to follow.
Jack Fitzgerald

American Resources. (1922)

From the August 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
“This Country (U.S.A.) alone has resources more than sufficient to feed, clothe, and shelter the entire population of all civilised countries. Probably it would not be too strong a statement to say that with our present man-power and material equipment, properly and effectively applied to our natural resources, we could furnish all the principal necessities for the economic support of all the people of the earth for years to come. It has been computed that we have standing room for all the human beings now living, in the State of Texas alone, giving to each individual 66 feet square of space. It has been estimated that California alone could furnish all necessities and many luxuries for one-half the present population of the United States. That section of the country usually referred to as the North-West could feed the present population of United States with the exception of such things as are grown in tropical countries, without any great strain upon its resources, and its surplus will be sufficient to purchase these products. Taken together with the Pacific North-West, it could furnish all the breadstuffs, meat products, dairy and poultry products, wool, flax, shoes, lumber, iron, steel, coal and water power, the entire country could use in the next five hundred years.

“The like could be said of almost any other great sub-division of the United States, yet there are millions in this country to-day who are facing a winter of threatened suffering from exposure and lack of food. At the same time, the farmers of the country have produced so great an excess of food that it cannot be carried over by our transportation, marketing, and credit system and placed in the hands of consumers, even though we have employment at prices within their reach. We have ample resources of coal and other fuel to meet all needs for industrial and domestic uses of our people and more; yet many parts of the country are facing the practical certainty of a fuel famine in case the winter should be severe.”
(Senator E. F. Ladd, reported in Congressional Record Sixty-Seventh Congress, Second Session, December 15th, 1921. Washington, U.S.A.).

Some I.L.P. Distortions of Marx. (1922)

Pamphlet Review from the August 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

On page 5 of a pamphlet “All about the I.L.P.” we read that the I.L.P. “has never formulated its theory of Socialism.” In the I.L.P. study course “The Principles of Socialism” we have the theory which the I.L.P. says it had never formulated. If, however, you hastily conclude that its left hand is ignorant of what its right hand is doing you may be wrong. When you read further and learn that the basic principle of I.L.P. doctrine is “the belief that there is in the human soul as such, something precious,” you realise that the denial is accurate; the I.L.P. has not formulated a theory of Socialism.

It is true that the I.L.P. has never systematised its propaganda and has been content to allow its members of various shades of political opinion to air their views as the spirit moved; but to suggest that there is some merit in this looseness is to ignore facts. What has actually happened is that the I.L.P. has been used in the main to spread the anti-socialist theories of the Liberal Party. It has, by emphasising those catch-phrases which expressed the earlier revolt of the rising industrial capitalists against the autocracy which hampered them, appealed to the discontent of the working class, without, however, assisting them to understand and solve the problems which faced them in their struggle.

The “Principles of Socialism” contains more positively harmful stuff than one would have thought possible for so slim a booklet, and we will therefore confine our attention to one piece of misrepresentation.

On page 24 we read :—
  “. . . Karl Marx and his followers developed the theory of economic determination. In accordance with this, capitalist exploitation would proceed progressively with the consequent deterioration of the workers, until, at last, the extremity of their despair and a common consciousness of it would cause them to break their chains, which were all that they possessed, and seize possession of the, by then, completed construction of capitalist concentration. Both sides assumed the class war and the continuance of misery in its extreme form. Neither has proved true. There has been a slow amelioration in the condition of even the poorest; and a recognition that whereas Capitalism is based upon classes, Socialism cuts across them. The I.L.P. has always seen that though misery may make Socialists, social progress makes for Socialism, which represents a fulfilment and emancipation not for the proletarian only, but for workers of all grades, whether by hand or brain.”
That is the considered opinion of Mary Agnes Hamilton, the mouthpiece of the I.L.P., and I propose to deal with it.

First for the condition of the workers: Mrs. Hamilton says there has been “slow amelioration.” She gives no dates, but as concerns the last ten years I think it can be asserted with some confidence that there has been no such amelioration. There is hardly an industry the workers of which do not complain that the increased cost of living has left them poorer than in the years before the war, and with unemployment so widespread and the trade unions so demoralised, it cannot even be said that the future offers hope of their regaining what they have lost. I do know that in America, where statistics have been compiled, the standard of living in 15 chief industries has fallen 25 per cent, in 24 years (“American Economic Review,” September, 1921), and that in this country in 1921, according to the “Daily Herald” (7th January, 1922), there were more people (1,519,823) in receipt of poor law relief than at any time during the 72 years for which record is available.

No proof of this amelioration is offered and I see no signs that it is taking place. Furthermore, Mrs. Hamilton has to convince not only me, but also her fellow member, R. C. Wallhead, who, as Chairman of the I.L.P., is reported to have spoken as follows at the Easter, 1922, Conference :—
   “The conditions of the workers go from bad to worse.” . . . “There has been a reduction in wages of the working class of Britain of not less than 400 million pounds a year, and still the insatiable demand continues for more. In addition actual working conditions were again being attacked, and the workers would soon have in their program once more a renewed demand for the eight hour day.” (“Daily Herald,” 17th April).
So much for the facts.

Now for the theory. Since Mrs. Hamilton evidently assumes facts which will fit her arguments it is not at all surprising that she also invents theories which, with the assistance of her unreliable facts, she can make a pretence of disproving. One wonders though why Marx was introduced into the affair, unless it is because he is so much disliked in the I.L.P. and other Liberal circles in which Mrs. Hamilton moves.

She makes plain by her attempted refutation, her belief that the Marxian theory which she purported to state, involved acceptance of the idea of increasing poverty for the workers. Let it be noted therefore that Marx did not formulate such a theory, and his explanation of the process of the breakdown of capitalism in no wise depended on a continued worsening of the condition of working class life.

Briefly put, this is the theory:—that there is a tendency to the concentration of the means of wealth production in fewer and fewer hands. That with the increase in powers of production owing to technical improvements, the mass of wealth produced becomes ever larger. That the growing use and higher quality of machinery render the workers ever more redundant, and prevent their obtaining much more than the bare necessaries of life. That the share of wealth enjoyed by the workers stands therefore in ever-decreasing proportion to the amount produced, with the consequent widening of the gulf which separates the working class from the capitalist class. As a result of these developments the workers, compelled to organise as a class in opposition to their exploiters, will ultimately recognise that their only hope lies in capturing political power in order to destroy the capitalist system of society.

Mrs. Hamilton alters this considerably; fakes her evidence and then triumphantly asserts that Marx and Engels were wrong ! What she misunderstands, if, that is, she ever attempted to grasp the theory, is that Marx put the emphasis on the widening of the gulf between the working class and the capitalist class, the worsening of the workers social status relative to that of the employing class, the increasing degree of the workers’ exploitation. He expressly excludes the idea of increasing poverty by assuming the continuance of this process, whether wages are high or low.
   “It follows therefore, that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.” (Page 661; Capital, Vol. I., Swarm, Sonnenschein),
and again,
  “Just as little as better clothing, food, and treatment, and a larger peculium, do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker ” (page 631).
As for the class struggle, Mrs. Hamilton says that the assumption of its continued existence “has proved untrue.” Now she may (although it is hardly credible) live in such seclusion as to be unaware of familiar evidence of the class struggle; that last year for instance, the miners were locked out and beaten, and that the engineers, who have recently been locked out, were promised all possible support by the I.L.P. ; but she cannot be excused for having overlooked what she herself wrote. “The existing system is based on a competition between classes; of which the essential fact is the private ownership by one class of the means of production” (page 8) and on page 9 “So long as Capitalism lasts, no reconciliation of Labour and Capital is possible.” The two participants in the struggle, the existence of which has “proved untrue,” can never be reconciled !

As a matter of fact is it difficult to find any point on which Mrs. Hamilton is clear. Even her knowledge of the I.L.P. seems to be somewhat shadowy.

She goes on to make a distinction (which she does not attempt to define) between workers and proletarians. A proletarian in the Marxian use is just simply a wage or salary earner; a member of a propertyless class which, in order to live, must sell their energies to the owners of the means of production.

To encourage its members to use a word in any meaning they chose may be a way of giving effect to the I.L.P’s. belief in “Liberty of Conscience,” but, even so, it would really be less confusing if this was explained.

Then again, “the I.L.P. has always seen that though misery may make Socialists, social progress makes for Socialism.” Apparently the second part of the sentence represents the I.L.P’s. notion that social reforms are stepping stones to Socialism, although Mrs. Hamilton herself says “there must be a fundamental change” (page 8) and refers contemptuously to the social legislation of the last half century as “State grants in aid of wages” (page 14). It is implied that Marx also believed that mere wretchedness would make Socialists, which is again untrue. Does any sane person expect Socialists to be recruited from slums, workhouses and prisons, or from the dregs of society generally? If misery, in the sense accepted by Mrs. Hamilton, would make Socialists, how might we thank the capitalists for their share in causing the Volga famine.

The effects of the degradation imposed on the workers by the present system of society are such that there are many whose physical condition of life and whose opportunities of mental development sufficiently explain their failure to take an intelligent interest in their own welfare and that of their class. This explanation cannot be offered for more fortunately placed people like Mrs. Hamilton, and unless, therefore, she has deliberately misrepresented, she is guilty at least of inexcusable negligence.
Edgar Hardcastle

Some Dietzgen quotes (1922)

From the August 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
"The longing for knowledge has been the cause of speculative attempts to explain the phenomena of life and nature at a time when lack of experience and observation made inductive understanding impossible. Experience was then supplemented by speculation. In later times when experience had grown, previous speculation was generally recognised as erroneous. But it nevertheless requires thousands of years of repeated disappointments on one side and numerous brilliant successes of the inductive method on the other before these speculative hobbies came into disfavour."
- Joseph Dietzgen, "Positive Outcome of Philosophy."

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"We may leave certain objects of scientific research to professionals, but general thought is public matter which every one should be required to attend himself."
- Joseph Dietzgen

Rear View: Court jesters (2021)

The Rear View Column from the March 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Court jesters

As of 30 January 2021, more than 102 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, and over 2.2 million deaths attributed to the disease. Given that the knowledge and resources exist to reduce the number of epidemics and minimise the possibility of them becoming pandemics, the vast majority of these deaths can be considered premature. Little wonder then that some people think ‘It is time to impanel a citizens’ tribunal to investigate the utter failure of the governments of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and others to break the chain of the infection of COVID-19. Such a tribunal would collect the factual information that would ensure that we do not allow these states to tamper with the crime scene; the tribunal would provide the ICC with a firm foundation to do a forensic investigation of this crime against humanity when its own political suffocation is eased’ (, 22 January). Supporters of this approach take the short-sighted view that the prosecution of a motley crew of misleaders is enough. They are but temporary pustules on the ever-hungry, profit-chasing beast whose tentacles reach across the world.

Master of puppets

The vast majority of the working class fail to see the beast and blindly support capitalism. None of them can escape responsibility for the consequences. For the power wielded by the rulers of world capitalism is a reflection of the political ignorance of the working class everywhere. It is absurd to blame misleaders, particularly those elected by millions of us. The depth of that ignorance was shown recently when after four years as president of USA Inc., the cockwomble Trump received more than 74 million votes. Tanzania’s equally odious President Magufuli also got there with our support. It was reported that he recently stated ‘. . .  that no lockdown was planned because God would protect people from COVID-19 while homespun precautions such as steam inhalation were better than vaccines. ‘Vaccines are not good. If they were, then the white man would have brought vaccines for HIV/AIDS,’ he said in a speech in western Tanzania, contradicting the global scientific consensus and advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). Tanzania has officially reported a total number of 509 COVID-19 infections and 21 deaths, WHO data shows, but it has not updated the figures for more than six months. ‘We Tanzanians haven’t locked ourselves in and we don’t expect to lock ourselves down. I don’t expect to announce any lockdown because our God is living and He will continue to protect Tanzanians’ …’We will also continue to take health precautions including the use of steam inhalation. You inhale while you pray to God, you pray while farming maize, potatoes, so that you can eat well and corona fails to enter your body. They will scare you a lot, my fellow Tanzanians, but you should stand firm’ (, 27 January).

ANC Inc.

Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa (1999-2008), once compared AIDS scientists to Nazi concentration camp doctors and viewed black people who accepted orthodox AIDS science as ‘self-repressed’ victims of a slave mentality. He saw the ‘HIV/AIDS thesis’ as entrenched in ‘centuries-old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans’. Mbeki promoted alternative remedies such as vinegar rather than antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) which saved the state’s funds at a cost of up to 365,000 lives. Winnie Mandela to her credit ‘… said to president Mbeki: ‘Why are ARVs not toxic for the members in Parliament who are taking them but toxic for the poor?’’ Members of the 99 percent have also called for him to be tried for crimes against humanity. Others, less myopic, have pierced the miasma of misinformation: ‘The working class all over the world have far more in common with each other than they do with the bourgeoisie in business, politics and the media within their own borders. Covid-19 has taken millions from us – but we cannot allow the global bourgeoisie to play their divisive games using nationalism, or narratives of political catastrophe to fool us. Let us not side with our countries or one flavour of politician – let us unite in the class war – and let us see through the luxury the political, media, and business bourgeoisie enjoy for what they really are – scared and incompetent’ (, 28 January).

Social justice or socialism?

In an open letter to South Africa’s current president, billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa, entitled ‘Maybe there should be different laws for the ruling elite and ordinary citizens’ (, 25 January), Dikeledi Molatol, a ‘social justice activist’, writes: ‘Perhaps what should happen, Mr President, is that you and your Cabinet must just consider declaring special laws and regulations for elites and your fellow politicians in the ANC, and different ones to govern us, ordinary citizens. In that way we will stop being under the illusion that we are all equal before the law and all committed to combatting this pandemic.’ King Zuma has his palace and shares responsibility for the Marikana massacre with Ramaphosa. Anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the ANC: ‘They stopped the gravy train just long enough to get on themselves.’ He went on describe the Zuma administration as ‘worse than the apartheid government’ and that he would ‘pray for the downfall of the ANC.’ South Africa today is the most unequal society in the world – economic apartheid persists for millions. ‘How many more presidents will come and go before the billions see that you cannot change the nature of the capitalist beast, and as long as we continue to feed it, war and want, pestilence and famine will persist?

Pathfinders: Speaking of tongues (2021)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

A year ago most of us were hearing terms like lockdown, social distancing and furlough for the first time. Since then the pandemic has spawned a host of new coinages, such as Miley (as in Miley Cyrus, geddit?), covidiot or morona (someone who behaves as if there’s no Miley), quarantini (home martini) fresh from your isobar (well-stocked booze fridge), zoom bombing, coronials (babies conceived in lockdown), and spendemic (the increase in online shopping).

These neologisms probably won’t last, but they do showcase the effervescent wit and ingenuity of the working class. People like language. It’s not just a tool, it’s a toy. And it can be a political hot potato.

Just last December it was reported that Germany is going to revert to its pre-1940s phonetic spelling table (equivalent to English call-signs Alpha, Bravo, Charlie), which the Nazis had altered as being ‘too Jewish’. Now Germans will have to remember to say Samuel instead of Siegfried, Zacharias for Zeppelin, Nathan for Nordpol, and David for Dora. It’s kind of funny, in a dark sort of way.

Not that we should laugh. Jack went up the hill with their bucket while Jill fell down and broke their crown. Er, whose bucket, whose crown? Apparently it doesn’t matter. The woke war against pronouns is making us all into undifferentiated plurals, even when our individual gender is neither an unknown nor a contentious issue. English is abandoning clarity for the sake of a political point, but perhaps that’s the price we have to pay for diplomacy. The Germans call each other ‘they’, the French retain the polite you-plural centuries after the English stopped caring about politeness, while the Italians were put off the you-plural because Mussolini liked it, and now call each other ‘she’.

From the standpoint of modern English, which has dispensed with a lot of language rules we were too bored or incompetent to follow, the use of gender in other languages seems bizarre and mysterious, as well as hard to learn and inconsistent. Why is salt female in Spanish, but male in French? Why does the German for ‘girl’ have a neuter article? Why does ‘hand’ in Italian have a male form but a female article? What is it with all this sex anyway? It’s very unBritish.

After much official foot-dragging, the French are now feminising male nouns so as to recognise the existence of female ‘docteures, professeures, pompières’ (firefighters), although in highlighting gender instead of erasing it completely they’re arguably rowing the language in the wrong direction. Meanwhile the appearance of the weird composite form ‘’ and ‘lecteur.rice.s’ (readers) is creating a Gallic backlash against what is known as ‘inclusive writing’, with the French Prime Minister in 2017 imposing a ban on its use in state documents. It may well be true, or at least plausible, that male-biased language forms tend to create male-biased social paradigms, but structurally there’s a limit to what you can do. Gendered noun classes run through a huge number of languages like Brighton through a stick of rock. To make them gender-neutral you’d have to dismantle the languages and rebuild them from the ground up.

That’s not going to happen, on purpose anyway. People with good pattern-recognition skills often learn to like the forms and structures of languages for their own sake, and can become prim sticklers over its rules, decrying the slightest deviation as an offence of ignorance or heresy. But language was always a matter of ignorance and heresy. People spelt things the way they sounded, and frequently misheard. Un napron became an apron because the Saxons wrote it down wrong. Snottingham became Nottingham because the Normans couldn’t pronounce it. Latin crocodilus became coccodrillo because the Italians couldn’t pronounce it. Jewellery becomes joolery, nuclear becomes nucular. What the hell, we know what we mean.

The intolerance set in with Dr Johnson’s dictionary and a desire for standardisation. It’s impossible to imagine modern capitalism managing its business and communications successfully without such language standards, but it ultimately goes against the grain of what language is, a dynamic and creative process that does not want to lie still and play dead. And it won’t, no matter what the rules say.

After dropping genders, case systems and polite forms English is now busily merging its simple past with its perfect past (Sink, sank, sunk = Sink, sunk, sunk). It often doesn’t bother with a future tense (I’m going tomorrow), even less with archaic subjunctives (If I were you), and seems increasingly confused about perfect conditionals (I should of known).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, languages tend to become simpler as they evolve, at least if they’re allowed to. That being so, it’s tempting to wonder if socialism will strip out a lot of legacy linguistics that only really mean anything in culture-bound capitalism.

Most obviously, you’d expect vocabulary changes. For instance, we may see words like property, money, market, trade, buy and sell fall out of use entirely, along with an entire lexicon of financial, business, judicial and military terms. The words steal and robbery would surely disappear, and hopefully murder and rape along with them.

As for gendered noun classes, it’s not hard to envisage socialist society dropping them. And in a society where time isn’t money and you don’t have to watch the clock, is it a stretch to suggest that even tenses might simplify or even disappear? It’s not impossible. Mandarin Chinese manages quite well without tenses (It is cold yesterday).

How might this realistically come about? By revolution, of course, not reform. Consider what happens if people become more mobile, as is quite possible when location and occupation cease to be a ball and chain, and where available transport systems are free at the point of use. Suppose you are a sixteen-year-old and you want to go off and see the world. There’s nothing to stop you travelling, perhaps to every country in the world, helping out with the menial jobs wherever you fetch up, and soaking up a global cultural and linguistic experience beyond anything conceivable today except for the idle rich. When 18th century officials of the East India Company returned to England after plundering Bengal, they spoke fluent Hindustani, wore flowing Indian silks and turbans, and built ‘Nabob’ country houses replete with minarets and domes. They also brought curry to England, thereby transforming the British favourite food. Imagine what worldwide free and open mobility might do for your local town and culture. And with this mobility, languages might flow and merge into a global travellers’ creole with remnants of everything in it, just like we get ‘sky’ from the Vikings, ‘telephone’ from Greek, ‘shampoo’ from Hindi and ‘paradise’ from Persian.

Young white Londoners today speak a hip new Asian-Cockney that didn’t exist a generation ago. ‘Street’ dictionaries have to be updated weekly. The one constant thing about language is change. And that’s just as true of the people who speak it. When people get around to creating the post-scarcity world of common ownership which we call socialism, we should expect our languages and cultures to start doing all kinds of interesting and surprising things.
Paddy Shannon

An Emotional History (2021)

The Proper Gander TV column from the March 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (BBC iPlayer), is a fascinating watch, weaving together eight hours of archive footage, music and narration, delivered in Curtis’s serious, concerned style.

The six-part series describes itself as ‘an emotional history of the modern world’, telling how fear and paranoia shaped global events since the start of the Cold War. In Britain, this took the form of post-colonial racism and retreating into a romanticised vision of village greens and red telephone boxes. America promoted itself as proudly individualistic, defined against the image of Soviet citizens as a grey, uniform mass. But America’s individualists were living in anonymous suburbs, numbed by post-Vietnam anxieties and suppressed by valium, oxycontin and crack cocaine. The brutal regimes in China and Russia replaced their figureheads and spoke of progress, but each new set of rulers operated with the same divisive motivations as their predecessors. The ideologies which propped up society were based on misconceptions and antagonisms, resulting in aggression.

According to Curtis, then came the failure of world leaders to predict the fall of the Soviet Union, and the later realisation of the threat of climate change, which further weakened confidence to explain events using stories or ideologies, unless they were conspiracy theories. Abstract systems were increasingly used to try and rationalise a chaotic world. When computers harvest and process data they can find patterns, but they can’t link them together as stories, and therefore meaning is irrelevant. And where data-processing is applied, it’s used to watch over, control or manipulate people. So although the technology is new, the aim remains to exercise power.

Curtis’s style of film-making counters the data-crunching method, as he follows the personal stories which emerge from our experiences of authority. The characters he chooses to illustrate his points aren’t those you’d expect; Margaret Thatcher, for example, only appears briefly to tell us about her preferred way of ironing the hem of a dress. Chinese leader Mao Zedong takes up much less screen-time than his wife, Jiang Qing, who, like the documentary’s other main players, held a pivotal role which might otherwise stay under-acknowledged and which expresses wider trends.

Jiang Qing wielded considerable influence during China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960s and 70s, including over state propaganda, and in which enemies of the government and herself were hunted down by the Red Guards militia. Mao turned on Qing, having used her to destroy his opponents. She was one of the Gang of Four, a faction of the Chinese Communist Party who were convicted of treasonous offences soon after Mao’s death in 1976. Qing is portrayed as ruthless, ambitious and individualistic, her approach just a reaction against existing power networks without changing anything fundamental. The same applies to Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping with his economic reforms, making it clear by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 that if China no longer even pretends to believe in democracy what does it believe in apart from money?

The other people featured in the series are mostly radicals and would-be radicals, including Eduard Limonov, Michael X, and Afeni and Tupac Shakur. Through each of their stories Curtis explains how they all set out to challenge those with power, but they revealed old conflicts lurking underneath, fuelled by anger and resentment. And each failed because they couldn’t or wouldn’t escape from the power structures they knew.

Eduard Limonov was a Russian dissident who lived for a time in a poor neighbourhood in 70s New York, the setting of his novel It’s Me, Eddie. This argued that people think they are free and living in a democracy, but it’s all a sham and we follow the rules set by the money system. Despite this promising view, Limonov slid into believing that nationalism is the way to convey collective strength. So, after returning to Russia he founded the National Bolshevik Party as a grim fusion of fascism and ‘communism’, with the goal of reawakening oppressive ideas.

Michael de Freitas arrived in London from Trinidad in 1957. He found work as an enforcer for notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, and discovered a callousness behind British society. Renamed Michael X, he joined the Black Power movement in Notting Hill. His activism led to him being sent to prison for inciting racial hatred (at the same time as Enoch Powell made his racist speeches as an MP) and when he was released he found that his previous support among white liberals had gone. They had instead turned their energies to setting up community centres, which made Michael believe that now, black people in Notting Hill were being treated as subjects to measure and manage by liberals with their own position to protect. He decided to set up short-lived communes where, Curtis tells us, he reverted to old ways to gain influence he learnt working for Rachman – extortion and violence.

From the mid-1960s, Afeni Shakur was prominent in the New York Black Panthers, a group infiltrated and pushed towards a bombing campaign by undercover police. Her son, Tupac, later aimed to revive the movement through his music. He began by wanting to turn hostility outwards from gang culture to be directed at those who oppress, but ended up being more cynical and self-promoting. According to Curtis, he intensified aggression rather than changing anything, driven by individualism.

As with his prior film HyperNormalisation (2016), Curtis argues that lacking a vision of a different, future society holds back real change, both on a personal and collective level. The characters he describes failed because of this, only acting within existing antagonistic frameworks. Unfortunately, Curtis doesn’t go into enough detail about what these structures are. He hasn’t taken the next step, on screen at least, of directly criticising the economic root causes of power struggles, nor explaining what kind of future society he would advocate. Despite this, and his loose use of the term ‘revolution’, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is refreshingly provocative, and worth getting into your head.
Mike Foster

Hexham Riot: A Lesson for Today? (2021)

From the March 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bloody Monday! Not a Sunday night expostulation over the prospect of another working week, but a reference to 9 March, 1761. Two hundred and sixty years ago 50 or so men and women were killed and over 300 wounded in the market square in Hexham, Northumberland.

Ask most people for an example of Crown (state) brutality in the period of the burgeoning industrial revolution and they will cite St. Peter’s Fields, Peterloo, in Manchester, that quite rightly was written into the annals of infamy. However, it was not the first, nor the last, confrontation between the authorities and working people.

The specific issue in the 1760s was a form of conscription known as balloting. This had nothing to do with elections and certainly not democracy. The Militia Act had been passed through parliament to boost the said military force to free up and support the army heavily engaged in the Seven Years War (1754-63).

Potential militia recruits were to be identified and those whose names were then drawn from this census had, by law, to serve. The North East of England was nominated as the first area in which to begin this process, with Hexham one of the main centres.

9 March, 1761 was to be the initial enlistment day and rumblings of discontent had been gathering force throughout the preceding weeks. Conscious that opposition might be rather more than just grumbling, local magistrates brought a detachment of the North Yorkshire Militia into Hexham and deployed them in front of the Moot Hall.

Before them protesters gathered in huge numbers in the market square, drawing widespread support from many local parishes as well as the town itself. It was at this point that the gathering officially became a riot.

This is not to say an actual riot with violence towards persons or property was taking place, although the crowd was undoubtedly vociferous and menacing. The magistrates read The Riot Act, which instructed the crowd to disperse by law.

The assembled did no such thing and thus, officially, became rioters. They did nothing to dispel this notion, instead they advanced, many bearing staves, on the bayonets protecting the Moot Hall. In that febrile atmosphere, two militia men were shot with their own weapons. The magistrates panicked and gave the order to fire.

When the gunpowder smoke cleared, so had the market square, leaving the dead and seriously wounded. Reports at the time noted that many of the militia men were visibly shocked by the consequences. This did not prevent the authorities seeking out and arresting many of those who got away on the day.

260 years later there are still lessons to be drawn from events such as this one. Those who advocate the necessity for the violent overthrow of the capitalist state would do well to reflect on such incidents. If a crowd superior in numbers can be dealt such a dreadful blow with muskets, how much worse with modern automatic weapons.

Flying police squads

The deployment of a militia force from a different region was, in principle, utilised during the miners’ strike (1984-5) when police were brought from non-mining areas into the coalfields. The state has long since recognised the greater efficiency of its coercive powers when applied via forces deficient in local sympathies.

It also a dramatic confirmation of the importance of democracy, however imperfect it may be under capitalism. The Hexham ‘rioters’ had no means by which to pursue their grievance or exercise choice. Confrontation would have seemed their only option as they could not challenge, or change, the law used against them.

Collective expressions of outrage, such as that gathering in Hexham, are essentially reactive, an expression of weakness. The best that could have been hoped for was a return to the status quo. A forced repeal of The Militia Act might have inconvenienced the Crown in the short term, but was no real threat to its actual authority.

Had the ballot system been stopped at that point, life for those assembled would have simply gone back to the way things were. There would have been no forward movement, politically, economically or socially. This is the way with all immediate, pragmatic demands, even when initially met.

The state, to this day, continues to enact and employ laws to the advantage of capitalism against the interests of the vast majority, the working class. But only for as long as the working class chooses to tolerate this state of affairs. It is within the means of the working class to not only challenge, but take control of the state away from the capitalist class.

There is a danger to the state of over-reacting; the seeming solution to a local problem can become a national, and persisting difficulty if a general perception of unfair or brutal treatment develops. For all the repressive apparatus available, the Warsaw Pact states, and eventually the Soviet Union itself, could not assuage popular discontent.

It is also the case that it’s not enough to secure what turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory when the result is a case of ‘the state is dead, long live the state’. The bureaucrats become oligarchs and capitalism continues along its (not so) merry way.

What history shows

There are those of a radical bent who might argue the tragic outcome in Hexham is a demonstration of the need for a disciplined body to covertly organise rebellion. However, history does not hold much promise for such a notion.

Nearly sixty years after the Hexham ‘riot’, one year after Peterloo, such a clandestine operation occurred in the West Riding of Yorkshire. There had been a number of radical working men’s clubs established in the West Riding and Lancashire, some of their leading lights being ex-Luddites. Many a plan was drawn up with Huddersfield being an initial target for insurrectionists.

Barnsley’s Union Society was one such club with around 600 members. The Society received word that an assault on Huddersfield was scheduled for 12 April. The plan was for Barnsley men to go and join a bigger assembly at the village of Grange Moor, close by Huddersfield.

Through the night of the 11-12th approximately 400 men from Barnsley marched to a beating drum with banners bearing political slogans and carrying pikes and guns. At Grange Moor they met not with the expected thousands from across the Riding and Lancashire, but 20 or so radicals from Huddersfield. Aware of a military presence in the town, panic ensued resulting in a disorderly dispersal and the abandonment of weapons and banners. Seventeen were eventually arrested.

Years later Chartists who were sympathetic to the idea of physical force had their ardour cooled by General Napier’s invitation to some of their leaders to witness a display of cannon fire. The romance of violent revolution soon gives way faced with the grim realities of actual combat.

The British state has learned these lessons over two hundred years and more. If there is an instance of over-reaction, Bloody Sunday for example, first allow time to pass. Then set up a public enquiry, hold some official of the time responsible – all the better if he has died in the meantime or can resign from some prestigious post – and even offer an apology, possibly with compensation, but not too much.

Appearances are thus maintained, while the dead and injured slip away into the history books, the rule of law preserved. The state protects itself to protect capitalism and will continue to do so until the working class decides otherwise.

There was one positive factor to be found in the immediate aftermath of the Hexham debacle – the reports that the militia troops were shocked by the results of their actions. Socialists know that military men and, these days, women may be trained to kill, but are not inured to the results, as so many cases of PTSD indicate.

Also, despite being the coercive arm of the state they are workers, from working-class families. When the working class collectively decide they will democratically replace capitalism with socialism, soldiers are not going to be unaffected.

As the Hexham magistrates knew, they couldn’t rely on the local militia to confront their own neighbours so had to bring in others from elsewhere. When the socialist movement becomes worldwide, as it must to achieve socialism, there won’t be an elsewhere to draw soldiers from.
Dave Alton

Anti-Putin Protests (2021)

From the March 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard
It’s clear who they’re against, but what are they for?
What is the significance of the current Russian protests against the Putin regime? Western media have called them ‘unprecedented’. That is not so.

Mass protests are a frequent occurrence in Russia, though rarely do they attract much attention abroad. Many give voice to local grievances. This January, for example, residents of Ufa protested (successfully) against a big increase in heating charges. In 2019 there were mass meetings in Moscow against an urban renewal programme that threatened people’s homes – meetings larger (so a Russian correspondent tells me) than the anti-Putin protest. However, nationwide protest movements also occur, such as that in 2018 against a ‘reform’ to raise by five years the age at which people can start to draw a pension (43 percent of Russian men die before reaching the new retirement age).

Even focusing solely on protests organised by the anti-Putin opposition, today’s protests are similar in size and geographical scope to those that began in December 2011 and continued into 2012. Those protests were not on a large enough scale to have any chance of toppling the regime, nor are the current protests. They mobilise a much smaller proportion of the population (1 percent at most) than the opposition demonstrations in Belarus did last October (about 5 percent).

Enormous power potential

The Putin regime is not going to collapse any time soon. Its power potential is still enormous. It retains full control over TV – still the medium on which most Russians rely for information – and print media. Oligarchs connected with the regime (independent ones are no longer tolerated) own most of Russia’s natural resources and heavy industry. The state bureaucracy and armed forces remain loyal.

True, the regime has reason to be concerned about a gradual long-term erosion of popular support. Younger people have access to a wider range of information through the internet and social media. Tens of millions have watched the opposition video Putin’s Palace, about the president’s luxurious residence on the Black Sea coast.

Polls show that Putin’s approval rating has fallen over the last couple of years to about 60 percent, which is considered too low. This too, however, is not unprecedented. It hovered just above 60 percent from 2011 to 2013. Then in 2014 confrontation with Ukraine bumped it up to 85—90 percent. The annexation of Crimea was especially popular. No doubt the remedy of ‘a short victorious war’ – first recommended as a means of ‘averting revolution’ by Tsarist interior minister Vyacheslav Plehve in 1904 – can be applied yet again.

Nature of the ‘Putin regime’

But what is this ‘regime’ that Putin has established in Russia?

The Putin regime is neither a democracy nor an out-and-out dictatorship. It is officially described as a ‘guided democracy’. It can be represented as three concentric circles:
  • at the core: Putin, his presidential administration and government, and his loyal ‘party of power’ – United Russia (the opposition calls it ‘the party of crooks and thieves’);
  • the ‘intra-system opposition’ of parties that accept Putin as president but advocate their own policies within permitted limits. There are at present three such parties: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Just Russia, a ‘social-democratic’ reform party that belongs to the Socialist International;
  • the ‘extra-system opposition’ of parties and groups that oppose Putin, including Navalny’s ‘Russia of the Future’ (formerly the Party of Progress). Refused registration, they operate under duress and are unable to contest elections.
The term ‘opposition’ is therefore ambiguous. In its broad sense it refers to the intra-system as well as the extra-system opposition, in its narrow sense only to the extra-system opposition.

Uniting the opposition

The political situation in Russia has changed in one significant respect. Nine years ago the extra-system opposition was deeply divided, as we reported in the Socialist Standard (Material World, July 2012). The three main components of the movement were Russian nationalists, Western-type liberals, and leftists of various sorts. Opposition rallies were enlivened by verbal and even physical clashes between nationalists on one side and anarchists or gay activists on the other.

These internal conflicts have been resolved, mainly due to the rising influence of so-called ‘national democrats’ who claim to combine Russian nationalism with Western-type liberalism. Alexei Navalny has played a central role in this development. Leftists have been marginalized within the opposition or have abandoned the movement. A group of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists recently issued a declaration in which they renounce:
  ‘all participation in the political spectacles organised by supporters of the right-wing populist Navalny, sadly renowned for his openly nationalist attacks on immigrants, people from the Caucasus and Jews. Whatever excuses or ‘explanations’ may be offered, joining in their demonstrations would mean turning into an appendage of one of the political gangs waging a dirty and unprincipled struggle for power’ (LINK).
Since 2019 Navalny has urged his supporters to vote ‘smart’ – that is, tactically – for the strongest opposition candidate standing in any election, even if that candidate is a ‘communist’ or one of Zhirinovsky’s people. Tactical voting will tend to strengthen the oppositional character of the intra-system opposition and narrow the gap between the intra-system and extra-system oppositions.

Who is Navalny?

Katya Kazbek in The Grayzone says that Navalny is ‘first and foremost … an investigative journalist’ who exposes corruption within the Putin regime. This is certainly the centrepiece of his public activity. However, the investigations on which the anti-corruption campaign relies have for some time been conducted mainly by researchers at his Foundation for Fighting Corruption rather than by Navalny personally. Is fighting corruption an end in itself for Navalny? Or is it an instrument in his bid for power? It is hard to think of any other theme that would be equally effective in bringing diverse elements together in a broad coalition. Who, after all, is in favour of corruption?

This does not mean we can assume that a regime led by Navalny would prove any less corrupt once he came to power. Navalny has himself been convicted for fraud in his business dealings, though he calls the charges ‘frame-ups’.

Navalny is not only a public speaker but also a prolific blogger and video star who exploits social media to the full. He has a characteristic ironic style and sense of humour.

What does Navalny stand for?

The cruel treatment of Navalny by the Putin regime has won him much sympathy and admiration. Nevertheless, this should not bias our view of what he stands for.

Navalny’s constitutional proposals envision transition from a ‘super-presidential’ to a ‘presidential-parliamentary republic’ with an independent judiciary. His economic platform appeals to capitalists who lack close connections to the regime. He undertakes to transform the existing ‘twisted’ and ‘authoritarian-oligarchic model’ of ‘crony capitalism’ into a fully competitive model of capitalism with a level playing field and a strong high-tech sector. He promises to restart economic growth, ‘create a well-functioning pension system’, move towards an all-volunteer military, reduce crime, improve roads, transfer authority and taxes to the regions and municipalities, and stay out of wars abroad.

Not all of Navalny’s slogans seem compatible. For example, is it really possible to ‘fight corruption’ but also ‘trust people’? And how will he fund all his programmes, including a doubling of state spending on healthcare and education, and at the same time cut taxes? He says he will do this by reducing spending on the security services and ‘bureaucracy’ – but that is easier said than done. Although he criticizes the extreme inequality of wealth in Russia, he does not back Just Russia’s demand to replace the current flat-rate income tax (13 percent) by a progressive tax (though he does want to make the property tax more progressive).

Closer examination suggests that not all of Navalny’s promises should be taken at face value. He highlights a promise to establish a minimum monthly wage of 25,000 rubles (£242.50 or $325), but further on we learn that this is a goal to be achieved by stages, the pace to be set by regional governments (LINK).

It is difficult to assess Navalny because he is such a master at projecting different versions of himself at different audiences (an essential skill of any good politician). Facing west, he poses as a champion of human rights and condemns Russia’s ‘aggression against Ukraine’. But he is unwilling to give Crimea back to Ukraine. And he shares Russian nationalist ideas that militate against full recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty – the perception of Russians and Ukrainians as constituting a single nation and the concept of a ‘Russian World’ that extends to Slav areas beyond state borders but does not encompass the Northern Caucasus, which he proposes to sever from the Russian Federation.

Dehumanising ethnic minorities

Most alarming, however, is the internal aspect of Navalny’s nationalism. Of course, the Putin regime itself is nationalistic. But Putin’s is a state nationalism. Navalny’s is primarily an ethnic Russian nationalism. He demands the full assimilation of ethnic minorities: those who wish to live in Russia ‘must become (ethnically) Russian in the full sense’.

Navalny’s main targets have been the Moslem immigrants from Central Asia (above all, Tajikistan) and the Caucasus. They originally came to Russia to earn some money and return home, but increasing numbers have settled in Russian cities, where they have been allowed to build mosques. Even though they do the hardest and dirtiest jobs, they are widely hated and abused. Their position resembles that of Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Like Trump, Navalny has taken full advantage of anti-immigrant sentiment.

In April 2017 Shaun Walker interviewed Navalny for The Guardian. To quote Walker:
  ‘Several years ago, he released a number of disturbing videos, including one in which he is dressed as a dentist, complaining that tooth cavities ruin healthy teeth, as clips of migrant workers are shown. In another video, he speaks out in favour of relaxing gun controls, in a monologue that appears to compare migrants to cockroaches.
I ask him if he regrets those videos now, and he’s unapologetic. He sees it as a strength that he can speak to both liberals and nationalists. But comparing migrants to cockroaches? ‘That was artistic license,’ he says. So there’s nothing at all from those videos or that period that he regrets? ‘No,’ he says again, firmly’.
Another example of Navalny’s dehumanization of ethnic ‘enemies’ came during the 2008 invasion of Georgia, which he enthusiastically supported. Indulging in a play on words, Navalny called Georgians (gruziny) rodents (grizuny).

Russia in Western media

We can conclude by agreeing with the remarks of Katya Kazbek concerning how Western media cover events in Russia (as well as in other countries regarded as adversaries of the West). ‘The overwhelming majority of Western journalists,’ she observes, ‘are busy communicating their own narrative, which does not have anything to do with the real situation on the ground’ but ‘too often reflects the opinions’ of NATO governments. It is therefore ‘misleading and dangerous to judge Russia by what you hear most often about it’.