Friday, February 11, 2022

How workers are displaced. (1926)

From the January 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Diesel Passenger Liner's Lesson.

The last word in labour-displacing machinery on the high seas is the s.s. “Gripsholm,” Swedish-American liner of 23,500 tons displacement, the first big diesel propelled passenger boat to put into New York harbour. She spells the coming revolution in marine transportation that will leave thousands of engine-room men on the beach without jobs. Her first engineer told me what her twin Burmeister & Wain internal combustion engines could do with a force of only 39 men :—
“It would require at least 150 men to get the same 22,000 horse-power and 17¾ knots an hour with the old coal burning system,” he said. “And about 75 men with an oil burning steamship. We need only 11 engineers, with 28 oilers, machinists and other engine-room attendants. Think what that means.”
It means a lot to the seamen’s unions, as half to two-thirds of the firemen, oilers, water tenders, wipers and coal passers find their jobs gone. And their jobs are going fast. Sweden is in the van of diesel construction with 85 per cent. of the tonnage now on her yards of that type, but the world as a whole runs over 60 per cent. Bethlehem Steel already has two 22,000-ton freighters, built in Hamburg, on the ore run from Chile to Sparrow’s Point, Maryland and the U.S. Shipping Board is fitting 11 ships with diesel engines.

The staff reduction is not entirely confined to below decks. Above, fewer deck hands are needed, for the diesel boat has neither smoke nor soot. The two stacks on the Gripsholm are dummies, concessions to prevailing fashions of marine architecture. The crude oil used as fuel is not burned under boilers, but is exploded under high pressure, much as gasoline is exploded in automobiles. Other savings to the management, besides those in wages, are affected, for the diesels use only half the oil of an oil-burning steamship. And this in turn, means a saving in cargo space, added to the cargo space gained by the elimination of the fire-room and boilers.

On this new smokeless liner you see electricity carried to the futhest point it has gained on the water. Even the winches, or donkey engines that work the cargo, are electrically driven and the cooking and heating comes from the same agency. There is less vibration and more cleanliness but for the workers the basis grievance of low wages remains—something like $40 a month, in American money, for the average engine-room man below the rank of engineer and about $52 up for the latter. And on these wages when the worker has made a few expenditures in port he is broke again and ready to ship out again on another low wage voyage.

(“Federated Press,” New York.)

Marx v. Christ. (1926)

From the January 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard
“During his long rest in the Welsh Hills this summer, Rev. Thos. Phillips, of Bloomsbury, has been examining carefully all the alternatives to Christianity in setting the world right. The only one that has greatly impressed him is that of Karl Marx, and he believes the battle of the future lies between Marxian Materialism and Christian Idealism.” — (“Christian World,” Sept. 24, 1925.)
Our nonconformist divine omits to tell us what this Christian idealism has been doing for 1900 years.
Adolph Kohn

Curiosities. (1926)

From the January 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

A gem hath fallen from the lips of one of our “great” men, and we must hasten to put it in a suitable setting lest it escape the notice of posterity.

One, Joynson-Hicks, speaking in the House of Commons on the 17th of December did give utterance to the following:
“So far as Joynson-Hicks and Co. is concerned, I was, of course, senior partner, but I have nothing to do with the management of the business,” (reported by the “Daily News,” 18-12-25).
Verily the ways of our great men of business are strange ; they “direct” in a manner that requires neither their presence not assistance !

Bird’s Eye View: ‘Don’t you wish you were free…?’ (2022)

The Bird’s Eye View Column from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

‘Don’t you wish you were free…?’

‘There’s a debate going on among the disaffected/terrified over which dystopian novel we’re now living in. Some point to social media addiction and designer drugs to suggest Brave New World. Others see mass surveillance and pandemic lockdowns. Each of these opinions seems valid, which is confusing… Turns out we’re not in a single dystopian novel. We’re in all of them simultaneously’ (, 17 December).

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 also form part of the Venn diagram of our overlapping dystopian oppression along with A Handmaid’s Tale, Brazil, Clockwork Orange, Gattaca, Logan’s Run, as well as Soylent Green, Farenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and The Matrix.

‘You’re bought as soon as they pay you a salary.’

The film Soylent Green, which is loosely based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room!, dates from 1973 and depicts a future (2022!) in which food shortages and overpopulation feature prominently – New York City alone has forty million inhabitants, which is over four times the current total – and there are many who opine that such ‘problems’ form part of reality today. They are wrong.
‘In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that human populations tend to increase more rapidly than their food supplies, which would lead to mass starvation. More than 150 years later, Paul Ehrlich predicted that “hundreds of millions would starve to death” in the 1970s and ’80s due to overpopulation. What both men missed is mankind’s propensity for problem solving and innovation, which, thanks to capitalism and globalization, has seen rates of food insecurity decrease, while the world’s population has skyrocketed’ (, December 23).
Yet under capitalism, where the profit motive reigns supreme, food is destroyed and famines persist in a world of potential abundance.

‘Do you ever read any of the books you burn?’

Socialists do not call for The National Post to be censored because it promotes the dystopia known as free market capitalism. Indeed, we oppose censorship and, of course, its extreme expression in the form of book burning.
‘It had started two meetings prior when two parents addressed the board during Public Comments to complain about two books on the high school’s shelves, Call Me By Your Name by AndrĂ© Aciman and 33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp. In response, the board voted 6-0 to remove all “sexually explicit” books from the high school shelves, though it never defined what constituted “sexually explicit”. Going further, two members, Mr. Rabih Abuismail and Mr. Kirk Twigg, suggested that they might burn any books they found to be inappropriate’ (, 19 December).
Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 has itself been censored, but not, like copies of Capital and the Communist Manifesto, burned in public. His novel concerns a future American society where books are outlawed and ’firemen’ burn any that are found. Arguably, perhaps the most horrifying depiction of book burning appears in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Guy Montag, a fireman in Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, who becomes disillusioned with his role of censoring literature and destroying knowledge (he eventually quits his job and commits himself to the preservation of books) might just agree.

‘Who cares?’

William Golding, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983, is (in)famous for his debut novel Lord of the Flies which concerns a group of schoolboys who are stranded on an uninhabited coral island and their struggle to survive. The boys’ differing personalities soon determine their function within the group: leaders, followers, outcasts. Soon they are organised hierarchically and, shortly after, divided into tribes. The adventure is provided by the boys’ growing fear of The Beast, an apparently natural danger which threatens to destroy them. Life adapts to a chain of ordered survivalism in defence against the Beast. There are those who think The Beast an invention and others who seek to hunt and kill it. But the reader, guided by Golding, comes soon to see The Beast is neither an infantile invention of self-torment nor a conquerable enemy from without. Few novels have so eloquently served the cause of capitalist ideology which contends that humans are inherently aggressive, gullible, self-serving, easily led and un-cooperative. Growing evidence from modern anthropology and archaeology tells us otherwise. Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything ‘reins in history’s rules and replaces them with a radical, uncompromising play, not such that we are overwhelmed with an infinity of nihilistic political choices, but so we may finally articulate and follow the values that lead to our better possible world’ (, December 18).

Neo: ‘What truth?’ Morpheus: ‘That you are a slave.’

We have a choice, not unlike that of Morpheus in The Matrix 4.

‘As Bugs offers Morpheus a blue pill or a red pill, she remembers her own experience with initially discovering the truth about the Matrix and receiving the same offer to pursue the truth or return to her false reality…For characters such as Bugs and Morpheus, once they have realized the deeper truth about existence they could never be satisfied going back to living a lie. In a franchise about enlightenment and self-discovery, this quote speaks to the powerful nature of truth’ (, 26 December).

We need to take the red pill of socialist understanding. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race’ (The Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Colston verdict – the big picture (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tory MPs were spitting feathers last month after four Black Lives Matters activists were acquitted of criminal damage by a jury at Bristol Crown Court after pulling down the statue of a 17th century slave trader and chucking it in the harbour during the BLM protests in 2020.

The verdict will have come as a surprise to some who expected an open and shut case, as the defendants were filmed on CCTV and so were scarcely in a position to deny the deed. Their somewhat tenuous defence was that the presence of the statue was in itself a ‘hate crime’ and that therefore its removal was in line with current legislation. Even more dubiously, they argued that as the statue was public property, and they were members of the public, they had a right to dispose of their own property as they saw fit. It’s hard to imagine any jury being persuaded by either of these arguments, but they were probably more exercised by the prospect of appearing to endorse slavery if they went the other way, so delivered an acquittal verdict anyway.

Unsurprisingly the prosecution case was that it didn’t matter who Colston was, that the law was clear: people couldn’t run around wrecking monuments they didn’t like. This was also the line taken by government ministers and Tory backbenchers, who are always the first to leap nobly to the defence of a set of laws which protect their wealth and privilege.

Transport minister Grant Shapps spoke for many of them, saying ‘we live in a democratic country. If you want to see things changed you can get them changed, you do that through the ballot box, or petitioning your local council, etc. You don’t do it by going out and causing criminal damage’.

The problem with this is that there had already been legal campaigns, for no less than 100 years, to remove this statue, but from 1920 onwards these had resulted in no action because no government had ever bothered to establish a framework for the democratic removal of a public monument, on whatever grounds.

Tory yahoos immediately fulminated that ‘the result of this ruling will be that mobs will seek to tear down statues across the country – it gives a green light for mobs’, and that ‘as a country we need to protect our heritage from mob rule’. Note how quickly ‘the people’ becomes ‘the mob’ in government parlance when they do anything the establishment doesn’t like. It’s democracy when it pleases our masters, it’s ochlocracy when it doesn’t.

Respect for venerable monuments did not stop Shapps from muttering darkly about changing the rules of jury trials to prevent juries delivering verdicts that upset the government. Possibly sensing that red-eyed zombie rage was taking over the Tory camp, arch-Tory Jacob Rees Mogg felt obliged to state that, when it came to great monuments, the British jury system was up there with the best of them, and loose talk about pulling it down just because of one trivial verdict was not hugely constructive. Boris Johnson meanwhile, showing as ever his forensic grasp of historical matters, opined that it was wrong for people ‘to go round seeking retrospectively to change our history’.

The big picture
This echoes the recent furore engulfing the National Trust, whose current policy of daring to mention slavery in connection with the history of landed estates and country piles has provoked allegations of ‘wokeism’ and even death threats against its senior figures. But it seems clear to anyone who has ever visited these estates that slavery has been largely airbrushed out of the pretty picture to spare the blushes of the current owners. All that NT bosses have tried to do is restore the real truth about where the money came from that paid for these country piles in the first place. The argument that this is somehow ‘historical revisionism’ is as transparent as it is hypocritical. Many of Britain’s rich got to be rich through slavery, and consequently many of the monuments, palaces and public buildings of Britain’s cities, and of the former slave ports of Bristol and Liverpool, deserve to be understood in this context. This being so, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that statues of slave owners are a continuing and blatant affront to human decency which should have been removed decades ago. If the state wasn’t going to do it, then individuals would have to instead, and as it turned out, the Bristol jury had no problem with that.

The even bigger picture
But this is not what’s really bothering the frothing Tory MPs. They couldn’t care less about history, gesture politics, or statues. What worries them is that a jury can take such a cavalier attitude to the destruction of property, because property is what makes the rich rich. If the mobile vulgus can take down a statue today, what’s to stop them taking down Buckingham Palace tomorrow? Or taking over the lands of the Duke of Westminster, or any private mansion? Property is a concept that underpins capitalism, and it has acquired a fetishised totemic power in the minds of workers. It demands to be respected, worshiped even, as a sacrosanct and inviolable thing. But like all fetishes, its power is only apparent, not real. Once people stop believing in it, it ceases to exist. It is like a vast bubble of magical nothingness which holds society in its thrall. And, shock horror, the Bristol jury went and stuck a pin in it.

Not that capitalism will implode just because of that. But the rich are terrified of workers losing their awe of private property. Once they do that, they might start asking themselves why there are rich people at all, and why they, the workers, are obliged to be poor and waste their lives as wage slaves in order for those rich people to enjoy luxury and idleness. As socialists often say, the rich are much more class-conscious than workers, at least for now. They know that they owe their wealth to the despoliation of the planet and the utter subjection and exploitation of the overwhelming majority of the population. They also realise that workers, organised collectively, have a real and irresistible power that could sweep them away utterly, while their own power as a tiny minority resides in nothing but fetishised symbols, rituals and customs. In short, they know how weak they really are.

Society now accepts that slavery is an indefensible crime against humanity. The Bristol verdict suggests that workers now take a dim view of public monuments glorifying it, regardless of who the monuments belong to or what laws are in place to preserve them. But many of the arguments against slavery also apply to the practice of wage slavery, which is part of the machinery of capitalism and which condemns billions to relentless misery. We look forward to the moment when workers stop respecting its monuments and institutions too, and start pulling down more than a few statues.
Paddy Shannon

The Bogey of Overpopulation (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party are optimists for the future of the planet. Unlike the Malthusian-influenced eco-dystopians predicting the extinction of humanity, we actually hold that society is capable of feeding and sheltering our growing global population and can keep all healthy and contented. Very obviously, we add one huge caveat which is that we require a world socialist system to achieve that goal. Otherwise, those catastrophists may turn out to be correct that our present civilisation could collapse with dire consequences such as climate-change refugees storming the gates of Fortress Europe, reminiscent of the Barbarian hordes of the past.

It takes socialists to explain that the deprivation and squalor that most working people experience is caused by the operations of the capitalist market system, not by population size and its carbon footprints. Regardless of the progress of technology and its ability to produce an abundance of social wealth using fewer resources, great numbers of people will always endure deprivation. Socialists suggest that the so-called overpopulation problem has been popularised to disguise the intrinsic failure of the capitalist exchange economy to provide a decent level of security and comfort to most of the world. Other than certain specific situations complicated by military conflict there has always been enough food to feed everyone, but billions have faced hunger because they didn’t possess the money to buy it.

It is worth recalling the actual experience of David Crawford, who was a member of Oxfam’s humanitarian support team and the senior humanitarian adviser in Africa’s Sahel region. Back in 2007 when interviewed by the BBC he explained that the media widely perceived that food shortages were the cause of widespread hunger. Although this played a role at a local level, it wasn’t the main cause as he learned from experience in Niger which was still exporting food, and staple cereals were available in the markets. The problem, Crawford pointed out, was that the poorest couldn’t afford to buy it in the markets. Once people ran out of money they fell into debt and sold off their valuable livestock. For the poor, the main problem is access to food, not the availability of food.

But let’s not take Crawford’s word.

Robert Watson, a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained ‘hunger is not a food production problem. It is an income problem.’

Robert Fox, formerly of Oxfam Canada: ‘there is no food shortage in the world. Food is simply priced out of the reach of the world’s poorest people.’

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, when World Bank Managing Director – ‘there is not a global food shortage — there is a price crisis’.

American Association for the Advancement of Science: ‘the problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food… Even though “hungry countries” have enough food for all their people right now, many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products.’

The truth is out there about the effects of capitalism, but regardless of the facts on the ground, there are those involved who still do not recognise socialism as a viable solution and continue with their palliatives, over and over again, without ever learning the lessons of experience. If food shortages exist it is due to this economic system where production is primarily for private profit and despite desperate demand, the capitalists are unwilling to satisfy such demand unless the return is sufficiently rewarding. The ability to produce and distribute is not the issue. The Socialist Party’s case is that the necessary changes cannot and will not be permitted by capitalism.

We can only for now speculate, but even under the constraints of the profit system since 1948, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, annual world food production has outpaced the increase in population.

The former director of the Agricultural Economic Institute at Oxford University, Colin Clark, has estimated that if the world’s farmers were to use the best methods of farming available, an American diet could be provided for 35.1 billion people.

Roger Revelle, former director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, estimated that Africa, Asia and Latin America alone, simply by using water more efficiently, could feed 35 billion to 40 billion people.

While accepting the truism that we live on a finite planet and infinite growth is impossible, socialists propose a steady-state, zero-growth model of the economy for the future society and envisage an anti-consumerism trend to prevail with an expected drop in consumption levels following an initial phase of higher production to raise the impoverished to a decent standard of living. We say this sustainable future can come about because in a society of social equals there will be no need for conspicuous consumption and public ostentation to display superiority and social status. The conditions are now ripe for socialism, ie, production for use where all humanity cooperates in the common social interest. In a sane world fit for human beings the economic forces fostering malnutrition and under-nourishment disappear.

Seeing Red (2022)

Book Review from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Always Red. By Len McCluskey. OR Books. 2021.

McCluskey has always come across as the ultimate trade union bruiser and then, in later years, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. Originally a ‘planman’ on the Liverpool docks (drawing up plans of where cargoes from various ports would be held on ships), he rose through the ranks of the Transport and General Workers’ Union before playing a key role in the creation of Britain’s most powerful union, Unite – formed in 2007 from a merger of the T & G and Amicus. From 2010 until recently, he became its General Secretary.

The ‘red’ in the title refers not only to McCluskey’s politics – he was an early supporter of Militant, though says he was never a member – but also to his love of Liverpool FC, with which he appears to have travelled all over Europe. He also appears to have seen red many times in the more metaphorical sense during his union career and the book is full of score-settling. Former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – who was McCluskey’s old flat mate – comes out of it particularly badly. And there is clearly no love lost with Keir Starmer either, who he accuses of duplicity.

One of the recurring issues in the book though is McCluskey’s belief that the working class are ready to rally behind a radical left-wing programme of nationalisation and state planning if it wasn’t for the right-wing of the Labour Party selling them out. This, of course, is the old Militant line, parroted today by their successors SPEW (he also still uses some of their terminology, banging on not just about the Labour Right but the ‘ultra-left’ too).

This perspective leads him to often make a highly selective and one-sided analysis of events, the best example being the Labour performance under his friend Corbyn in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. 2017 is portrayed as a great victory in all but name as Labour increased its vote with a radical programme of reforms by more than in any other election since 1945. However, 2019 is portrayed as the Brexit election and that Labour’s downfall was simply a reflection of this and its pro-Remain stance.

But this won’t do. Not just because Brexit wasn’t the only factor that led to their disastrous showing in 2019 – the public perception of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s unrealistic long ‘shopping list’ of leftist demands were almost as significant. But it’s also because their relative success in 2017 (even though they didn’t actually win of course) wasn’t principally due to the fact they presented the British working class with the radical stuff they had long been waiting for. After all, they’d actually done the same in 1983 and had come a big cropper then, as they later did in 2019 with an even bigger radical promise.

The main reason for Labour’s relatively good showing in 2017 was because that election was also dominated by Brexit but that time they more successfully pitched themselves as a party that could be supported by Remainers and even some ‘soft’ Brexiters worried by a no-deal outcome. It was why Labour managed to win strongly pro-Remain Kensington and Canterbury for the first time ever, yet against the national swing, could also contrive to lose the likes of hard-Brexit Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South for the first time in living memory. The correlation between increases in the Tory vote in strong Brexit areas and the increase in the Labour vote in strong Remain areas was statistically significant and the biggest factor at play, but McCluskey just ignores this. By 2019 the ground had shifted and Labour was by then simply left with an unpopular leader, an incoherent campaign and an unconvincing set of leftist reforms.

But it was ever the way with the left – always wanting to convince themselves the precise cocktail of radical reforms of capitalism purveyed by one or other of their factions would one day triumph, when most of the evidence is to the contrary (and not just in the UK either).

The best chapter is actually the last one, on ‘fighting back’ trade unionism as he calls it. Here McCluskey outlines how Unite has developed the tactic of ‘leverage’ and discusses how it works. A good example was when ‘passenger transport company Go Ahead sacked a steward working on the buses in Manchester, we discovered its growth plan was to move into the Norwegian rail market by winning a contract worth £3.8 billion. We dispatched a team to speak to Norwegian politicians and the press, armed with a dossier detailing how this company dealt with rail contracts in the UK. The company was forced to weigh the benefit of getting rid of the steward against the threat to a multi-billion pound contract. Soon enough, the steward was back at work’ (p.292).

There are a variety of examples of Unite using leverage in successful ways to defend its members and their pay and conditions. This is what good unions are for (despite their imperfections) and this chapter is arguably worth more than the rest of the book put together. Indeed, McCluskey can take some genuine pride in the role he has played in developing this – and certainly far more than in what appears to be his enduring adherence to the Trotskyist tactics and programmes of the 70s and 80s.

Cooking the Books: The Return of Tariff Reform (2022)

The Cooking the Books Column from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article in The Times, headed ‘PM has a lever to ease cost of living crisis’, James Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor, wrote that ‘tariff reform would be a good place to start’. He suggested the government ‘scrap tariffs on all imports bar certain sensitive agriculture goods’, claiming that ‘abolishing tariffs on what consumers buy would help shoppers.’

The currently rapid rise in the cost of living – the index of this went up by 5.4 percent in the 12 months to December – is a crisis, but not the same for workers as for employers. For workers, it represents a fall in their standard of living. The remedy for this is an increase in money wages. Given the current labour shortage, this becomes a crisis for employers. Even without trade union pressure, the play of supply and demand on the labour market will bring about an increase in money wages:

‘UK job vacancies surge to record high of 2.7 million as labour shortage worsens’ (Independent, 12 November).

‘UK labour shortages drive up wages’ (Financial Times, 16 November).

‘Moving jobs means big pay rise as firms fight for staff’ (Times, 12 January).

The FT reported:
‘More than half of FTSE 100 companies are now paying employees and contractors the voluntary “living wage” — which takes into account rising living costs — of £9.90 an hour outside London and £11.05 in the capital, compared with the current statutory minimum of £8.91, rising to £9.50’ .
So, the government has an economic as well as an obvious political reason to do something to ease the rise in the cost of living, and no doubt will.

What about ‘slashing import tariffs’? Would that work?

In the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, tariffs on food imports were a burning issue. After the defeat of Napoleon, the landlord class, which controlled political power, continued the war-time tariffs imposed on imported cereals as this kept the price and so rents up. However, a high price of bread meant higher money wages.

The factory owners resented this and launched a mass, and ultimately successful, campaign in the 1840s to repeal the ‘Corn Laws’. They knew that reducing the cost of bread would also reduce money wages, so making their exports more competitive. They managed to convince large sections of the working class for well over sixty years that tariffs on imports, a policy the Tories had begun to advocate under the name of ‘Tariff Reform’, would increase their cost of living and so reduce their standard of living.

But, as Engels explained in 1881 in an article on ‘The Wages Theory of the Anti-Corn Law League’:
‘The average price of a commodity is equal to its cost of production; the action of supply and demand consists in bringing it back to that standard around which it oscillates. If this be true of all commodities, it is true also of the commodity Labour (or more strictly speaking, Labour-force). Then the rate of wages is determined by the price of those commodities which enter into the habitual and necessary consumption of the labourer. In other words, all other things remaining unchanged, wages rise and fall with the price of the necessaries of life’ (Labour Standard, 9 July 1881).
If the cost of living (the cost of producing the commodity labour-power) goes up there would be an upward pressure on wages. Which is what is happening today. ‘Slashing import tariffs’ would reduce this pressure; and so benefit employers; not that, for various reasons, it is likely to be adopted. It wouldn’t make workers better off, at most just put a brake on their standard of living getting worse.