Friday, April 1, 2022

Cooking the Books: A price worth paying? (2022)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The war in Ukraine will inflict an “economic cost” on the UK and worsen the cost of living crisis, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned. But she suggested it was a price worth paying’ (i paper, 27 February). ‘The long-term defence of freedom’, she has also said, ‘is worth short-term economic pain’ (Times, 7 March).

‘Freedom’ is a nebulous concept that can mean anything and everything. On the surface, Truss appears to mean that Ukraine should be free to be a capitalist political democracy like in Britain and the EU countries. However, digging deeper, it turns out that she also means that Ukraine should be free to enter the Western capitalist bloc’s sphere of interest and not capitalist Russia’s.

In any event, whatever it is, there will be a price to pay for the economic sanctions that the government has imposed on Russia. When a state is in a war that threatens its existence, its capitalists have to make sacrifices so that their state survives. Normal profit-making and capital accumulation are subordinated ‘for the duration’ to the need to ward off or defeat the enemy state. It’s a price they consider worth paying.

Although Britain is not actually fighting a war, the government still considers that geopolitical interests are at stake that justify the imposition of the wartime-like economic measures that the sanctions against Russia amount to. Many capitalist firms will suffer ‘pain’ as a result in terms of a loss of profits and, more generally, a slower rate of capital accumulation.

Those capitalist corporations which trade or invest in Russia will lose profits from sales and investments there. BP, for instance, is said to suffer a loss of $25 billion on its investments there while Shell’s loss is said to be $3 billion; McDonalds’ probably rather less. Others will have to find alternative, more expensive sources of raw materials. All will suffer from higher energy – gas and oil – prices, which will increase their costs and cut into profits. With fewer profits available, capital accumulation is likely to slow down, even falter.

Capitalist corporations seem to be accepting, at least for the time being, the need to sacrifice some of their profits to stop Ukraine falling into Russian capitalism’s sphere of influence. But what about the workers?

There is widespread sympathy for the suffering of ordinary people like themselves in Ukraine – an expression of human empathy and solidarity – but agreeing to a further cut in living standards to arguably further the geopolitical aims of NATO is a different matter.

Truss admits that the sanctions imposed in Russia will ‘worsen the cost of living crisis’ here in Britain. Robert Lea (Times, 9 March) spells out what this involves:
‘Six million UK homes, one-fifth of its households, will teeter into heat-or-eat fuel poverty – and if domestic energy bills head towards £3,000 a year, it will be a case of neither heating nor eating.’
Not that the government is interested in the opinion of those it will cause to suffer. It has decided and that is that. Workers must pay the price, whether they like it or not. They always do under capitalism.

Double Trouble (2022)

Book Review from the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Norms Under Siege: The Parallel Political Lives of Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi. By Edoardo M Fracanzani, Zero Books, 2021. 244 pages, £14.99

Edoardo M Fracanzani has used his background in studying Italian politics and society to make a comparison between Italy’s and America’s most prominent leaders of recent years. The similarities he finds between the careers and approaches of Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump are cogently described in Norms Under Siege, and go much further than them both being slimy right-wing populists.

As Fracanzani explains, the parallels between Berlusconi and Trump began before they entered the political arena. Both started out in the real estate business and later moved into the entertainment industry, with Berlusconi’s empire of television channels and Trump as co-producer and host of The Apprentice. Their business careers were built on ‘a heavy reliance on cronyism, a proclivity to bending (and occasionally breaking) the rules, the adoption of a rather low ethical bar in the pursuit of their objectives’ (p.33), tendencies they continued to employ in their subsequent political careers. These were new vehicles for increasing the power they gained in business, with neither entering politics aiming to improve wider society. Before they became heads of government, each played around with political affiliations which would serve them best at the time. Trump had been a member of several parties, including the Democrats, before settling with the Republicans, while Berlusconi had allies in National Alliance, a party with roots in fascism, as well as Italy’s so-called Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano).

Berlusconi, as head of the Forza Italia (‘Go Italy’) party, was first elected as Prime Minister in 1994, following a period of reform of the electoral system and public dislike of the centrist establishment. His influence over the output of Italy’s TV stations meant that he could win over the support of a large chunk of the populace, in particular those who were anti-left. He was re-elected in 2001 and 2008, and was prevented from running again in 2018 by his conviction for tax evasion. Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States in early 2017, after decades of the Republican Party shifting further to the right on social policies and promoting a stance of tax cuts, which didn’t really translate to reductions in state expenditure. Norms Under Siege was completed before Joe Biden moved into the White House, denying us Fracanzani’s views on Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his presidency’s turbulent end in January 2021.

As Fracanzani convincingly argues, with patiently explained examples, the two leaders used similar approaches to attract public support. Generally, this was among people with lower levels of mainstream education and a higher than average income. He writes that ‘possibly the most important element of Trump’s, as well as Berlusconi’s, extraordinary success with a certain class of voters is a rooted resentment toward the elites’ (p.135). They channelled this resentment into support by somehow giving the impression to many people that they are against the elite, despite them firmly being part of it because of their wealth and power. They are distanced from others in their privileged position, though their personalities (particularly their lack of taste, according to Fracanzani) made them unpopular with their peers, and their loose way of behaving differentiated them from other politicians. Berlusconi has the ‘manners of a TV loud-speaking salesman’ (p.25), which many voters could still relate to more than their usual staid politicians. The resentment towards the elite which Trump and Berlusconi used wasn’t only directed towards leaders but also to a perceived ‘cultural elite’ driving social trends leftwards. As Fracanzani says, ‘no one exploited political correctness fatigue for political gain more than [Trump]’ (p.107). His and Berlusconi’s disregard of ‘political correctness’, or even just basic decency, is exemplified in their sexist attitudes to women, which escalated to sex scandals which failed to derail them. Their behaviour is marked by a lack of shame, which indicates that they aren’t concerned about acting ethically. Despite, or even because of, their transgressions, they maintained a base of supporters whose loyalty is perhaps ‘the most striking aspect of the Trump and Berlusconi phenomena’ (p.124).

Of course, the two leaders had their critics as well. Their stock response to complaints against their behaviour has been to childishly play the victim and portray their accusers as enemies to get revenge on, a trick which apparently works. ‘The most striking similarity between Berlusconi and Trump is the way they were able to shape the public debate in such a way as to escape accountability from their unprecedented, unethical, and illegal behaviour’ (p.175). When challenged through the legal system, they used their position to avoid censure in ways which, according to Fracanzani, have caused ‘institutional damage’: ‘Possibly, the most apparent dents inflicted regard the law enforcement institutions these leaders choose to denigrate in order to bully their way out of criminal investigations’ (p.219).

Norms Under Siege’s account of the parallel careers of Berlusconi and Trump is a catalogue of the rules they have broken. Among these rules, there is a distinction between laws (which are, of course, set in legislation) and norms (social expectations, including ethical values), which is where we find the book’s title (although surprisingly, the word ‘siege’ never appears in its text). For Fracanzani, a combination of laws and norms ‘governs all systems’ (p.142), and because norms are less enforceable, a system which relies too much on them is vulnerable to being misused by any politicians there for their own benefit. So, his stance is based on believing in capitalist tenets like laws and that government is a machine which can be run responsibly, if it has sufficient safeguards against self-serving politicians. But his own opinions aren’t prominent in the book: his clear dislike for Berlusconi and Trump is tempered by his methodical tone, and he prefers to let his detailed analysis of the context in which they rose to their positions speak for itself. His book is a warning about how our political culture and system enable contemptible people like them to get power.
Mike Foster

50 Years Ago: Raising of the School Leaving Age (2022)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

From next year pupils whose fifteenth birthday falls on or after 1 September, 1972, will have to remain at school for one year more than they would otherwise have done, although it must at once be made clear that many children already stay on at school quite voluntarily. In fact there is an average of some 60 percent of the age group throughout the country already doing so. This figure must, however, be considered further to establish precisely where the problems are likely to arise. It does not follow that 60 percent in every area stay on at school; the incidence varies from about 68 percent in Greater London and the South to some 42 percent in the East Midlands.

The concern among practising teachers and administrators is directed towards the group of pupils who would normally leave at fifteen, and although these represent a minority of the age group there is a feeling that these “reluctant learners”, as they have come to be called, will cause disruption disproportionately to their numbers. (…)

Education in the seventies will continue to develop along the lines that it has for the past century, and to the same purpose, that is producing workers capable of manning the machinery of production and distribution, who are paid in return sufficient wages and salaries to reproduce their energies. The fact that some workers progress beyond this stage is due to their own efforts rather than the educational system, just as it was during the last century in Britain and just as it is today in many of the underdeveloped countries throughout the world. The Times “Turnover” article (29 April, 1964) pointed out that “Strictly speaking the hottest political debates about education are not about education at all. They are about national investment, national competitiveness, social justice and above all class.” The discussion, in other words, is about educational reforms within the context of capitalism. Real freedom and a truly liberal education can only come about in a cooperative and non-competitive society. Socialists look forward to the day when education will be genuinely for the individual, and when the development of creative talents will replace the pre-packeted, mass-training that sadly passes for education today.

(Socialist Standard, April 1972)

Editorial: Whatever happened to the Peace Dividend? (2022)

Editorial from the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many believed that Russia having abandoned ‘communism’ (really state capitalism) and embraced free market private capitalism, a new age of freedom and prosperity was beckoning. Any threat of a global nuclear war was buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. If any such illusions still lingered, they were cruelly shattered when Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. With President Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and President Biden’s warning of the possibility of a third world war, the spectre of a global military conflict between major capitalist powers is back on the agenda.

Putin’s pretext for what he calls the ‘special military operation’ is to ‘de-nazify’ the country and to rescue the Russian speaking population in the so-called ‘independent republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region from ‘genocide’ by the Ukrainian forces. The Western capitalist media offers us a tale of the Ukrainian David gallantly battling the Russian Goliath. The Ukrainian state is presented as a plucky defender of democracy, despite the fact that it is little more democratic than Russia. All this obscures the rather sordid reality that this war, like any other war, is a conflict between rival capitalist powers over the wealth looted from the working class.

The Russian capitalist class, which includes the oligarchs and senior members of the military and the state, has been striving to become a major player in the world capitalist markets. Part of their strategy is to regain their sphere of influence in the former state capitalist countries that border Russia. However, the Western capitalist powers, the US, UK and EU, will never be too enamoured with a resurgent Russian capitalist class muscling in on their turf. Since the 1990s NATO has been expanding eastwards close to the Russian border. The EU has also moved eastwards bringing membership to Eastern European countries which effectively removed them from Russia’s economic orbit. After the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by the Euromaidan protests in 2014, the new Ukrainian government sought closer relations with the West. The Russian government responded by annexing the Crimea. Alarmed by the Ukraine government’s interest in joining NATO and the EU and sensing weakness and division on the Western side, particularly after the ignominious retreat of the US and other western powers from Afghanistan last August, Putin decided to make his move and attempt to forcibly return Ukraine to the Russian capitalist fold. The Western powers retaliated by supplying arms to the Ukrainian armed forces and imposing economic sanctions against Russian business interests.

As always it is members of the working class who have to pay the bloody price of capitalism’s wars, whether they are civilians or members of the armed forces. The Socialist Party has consistently maintained that workers have no interest in supporting capitalism’s wars and that their only interest is in abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism. It is encouraging that not all workers in Russia accept the government’s pro-war propaganda and many have come out to protest. If strong socialist movements existed in both countries, then the ruling classes would have found it more difficult to mobilise their populations to wage war.

Voice From The Back: The Terminator Terminated? (2010)

The Voice From The Back Column from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Terminator Terminated?

In the big budget movies of some years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger often played the all-action hero. Today he is the governor of California and is finding that in an economic downturn capitalism isn’t so easy to manage. One of the causes of that state’s economic deficit is the growing number of prisoners and the consequent growth of economic deficit in the state’s budget. “The fact that 9.5% of spending now goes to prisoners while only 5.7% goes to universities – 25 years ago, prisons got 4% and universities 11% – is indeed a harsh indication of California’s fall from grace.” (Time, 13 February) Schwarzenegger has proposed three different ideas lately to deal with the problem. One is to pay Mexico to build prisons and have US prisoners in them, another is to spend more of the state’s budget on prisons and finally he proposes to privatise prisons as a cheaper way of running things. Twist and turn as they may capitalism’s politicians are finding that capitalism throws up problems that are incapable of easy Hollywood solutions. Here is one though – Capitalism? Exterminate!

US Labour Pains

Barrack Obama’s election to the US presidency was supported by many American trade unionists, but as unemployment rises much of that support is evaporating. “Richard Trumka does not mince his words. The former miner now leads America’s largest union body, the AFL-CIO, describes George Bush’s language as: ‘stolen elections, ruinous tax cuts for the rich, dishonest wars, financial scandal, government sponsored torture, flooded cities and finally economic collapse.” Barrack Obama is a huge improvement, of course, but unemployment is close to 10% and the government must do something, reckons Mr Trumka.” (Time, 13 February)  Trumka like many supporters of capitalism thinks by government intervention of $400 billion of what he calls “immediate job-creating investment” the problem of rising unemployment can be solved. He is living in cloud cuckoo land. Capitalism has periodic slumps and booms and governments know that getting the capitalist class to invest during a slump is near impossible.

£23 Million and £1 a Day

We live in society full of inequalities. We see people starving and kids dying from lack of clean water, but surely the most hardhearted of us must scream at this news item when we realise that many members of the human race must survive on less than a £1 a day. “This is a bauble that even a banker with an intact bonus would struggle to buy – the 507.5 carat, flawless white-coloured Cullinan Heritage Diamond which was sold to a Chinese buyer yesterday for $35.3 million (£23 million)… The sale to Chow Tai Fok Jewellery in Hong Kong highlights the growing importance of China in the global diamond market.” (Times, 27 February) It also highlights the madness of a society that allows some useless bastard in China to consume the equivalent in wealth of millions of kids staying alive. Capitalism sucks.

Demonic Drivel

In order to keep those collection plates full religious groups have to appear modern and “with it”. The Roman Catholic Church is no exception to this rule and compared with some American fundamentalist Protestant churches with their opposition to evolution they may appear almost scientific. It is doubtful though if even those American bastions of superstitious nonsense could outdo the Vatican’s chief exorcist. “The growing clerical sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are proof that the Devil is at work inside the Vatican according to the Holy See’s chief exorcist. Father Gabriele Amorth said that the Pope “fully believes in liberation from evil, because the Devil lodges in the Vatican.” (Times, 11 March) In case you imagine that this is just some crazy old priest who has been indulging in too much communion wine it should be pointed out that he has been the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years. One of his claims is that he has dealt with 70,000 cases of demonic possession. Like all supporters of private property society the religious zealots will go to any lengths to support the status quo even calling up demonic myths to explain social problems.

Pathfinders: All Quiet in the Western Front Room (2010)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

All Quiet in the Western Front Room

Pathfinders, in defiance of its own dire warnings against making predictions, predicts that watching too much BBC iPlayer will lead directly to a net fall in wages. Oh yeah, how come? Well, see if you can fault the logic. Currently, according to Microsoft’s own possibly somewhat self-serving trends analysis (EUROPE. LOGS ON. European Internet Trends of Today and Tomorrow, April 2009), while all patterns of media consumption are flat or, in the case of DVDs, declining, internet use is climbing inexorably. TV consumption at 11.5 hrs pw is set to be outstripped by internet use at 14.2 hrs pw by June 2010. There are of course a variety of reasons for this, among them people’s mania for buying and selling mostly useless tat (eBay) and reading and writing mostly useless tittle-tattle (blogs, Facebook etc).

Still, one can’t be too curmudgeonly about a social trend that connects people more than they’ve ever been connected in living memory, especially if it gets them off the front room sofa too. People are eschewing the traditional sit-down-and-slurp-it-up TV diet in favour of an a-la-carte and on the move eclecticism. Microsoft estimates that one in seven of the age range 18-24 watch no live TV at all.

This is affecting not only the pattern of what is being watched and when, but where. Increasingly the viewing audience is lounging in its bedroom with a laptop, so what does this mean for the lonely and neglected TV in the now rarely occupied front room? Do the householders succumb to the blandishments of TV manufacturers and buy yet more and bigger flat-screens, and soon to be had 3D TVs? Maybe, but probably not in this economic climate. Instead,  the TV goes on eBay with the rest of the junk and the front room stands ready for other purposes. The creative householder, mindful of the high cost of housing and the consequent demand for rented rooms, now decides to turn the vacant room to good account by sub-letting it. Thus, cyberspace turns TV space into living space.

What happens? The sudden availability of rented accommodation creates a downward pressure on rents and also on housing demand and house prices. Seeing that workers are now paying less to live under a roof and therefore are being paid just that little bit too much, employers will put the squeeze on wages until they in turn show a net fall.

Dare one go on? Increased friction between workers and employers, together with all this networking, media choosiness and increased domestic sociability will lead directly to an upsurge in political class consciousness and the emergence of a new revolutionary… oh, but wait, it’s time for the pills again . . .

All this tireless internet activity has also, of course, raised the hypothetical question: what if somebody sabotages it? The House of Lords EU Home Affairs sub-committee, charged with the task of investigating this question, has reported that the UK is very well placed to withstand a cyber-attack from persons unknown (China) or rogue states (China) or criminal masterminds (China). “Last year the UK government staged a simulation of a catastrophic nationwide failure of the phone network, codenamed operation White Noise” (‘UK can cope with cyber attack, says Lords committee’, BBC Online, 18 March). The phone networks promptly fell over each other’s feet in a straggly attempt to recover from this, however the fact that the UK did this experiment before the EU is what entitled the sub-committee to claim that the UK is ‘ahead’ in its war against non-specific cyber-crime (China) and thus claim a victory rather than a sprawling mess for Operation White Noise (Yellow Peril). Why all this paranoia? you ask. What evidence is there to suggest that persons unknown (China) are really expending every effort to bring down western civilisation, especially given that they already own most of its financial institutions? Well, the evidence is cold-war logical: our spooks are doing it to them, so they must be doing it back.

Meanwhile, once again fortified with reality pills, Pathfinders wonders whether the odd internet shut-down would be so terrible anyway. According to Microsoft only 30 percent of internet traffic involves commerce while 65 percent is instant messaging and social networking. If nobody could text their friends for 24 hours they might regain all feeling in their thumbs and rediscover the art of conversations longer than four sentences but may otherwise be entirely unharmed.

It seems barely a moment since the capitalist state fretted over the internet’s ability to undermine its power, and now here it is fretting over somebody’s ability to pull the plug. Among the several measures being suggested for emergency communications during a cyber shut-down the boffins seem to have overlooked a tried and tested system that would get us all out in the open air—bonfire beacons on every hillside from coast to city, just in case the Chinese invade. Instant messaging plus roasted chestnuts. Well, it worked with Napoleon.

Climate sceptics pass ID test

 Those who think there is an element of doubt about human-caused climate change are of course correct, but only because there is always an element of doubt in science, and always will be. This does not mean, however, that there is an evenly balanced controversy, despite what the deniers claim. In science as in socialist theory there is rarely if ever proof, only a weight of evidence.  Pseudo-scientists exploit this lack of certainty to insinuate their own bogus ideas into the public consciousness, demanding in the name of free speech the right to air these ‘controversies’.

Does all this remind you of anything? Of course, evolution versus intelligent design! Coincidental then that in Texas the pro-ID lobby are now moving to align ID with climate change denial, in order to shoehorn the former back into school text books on the basis of the supposedly more respectable latter (‘Battle over climate science now spreads to US schoolrooms’, New Scientist, 13 March).

Socialists must be on their guard against the misrepresentation of supposed controversies. Just because there is a Flat Earth Society doesn’t mean there is legitimate doubt about the shape of the planet. Pseudoscience isn’t just cranky, it’s downright dangerous. The MMR scare persuaded parents to disregard the scientific consensus and refuse to vaccinate their children, exposing them to risk, while tourists to Asia returned suffering from malaria because they believed their homeopathic remedies would protect them. Pseudoscience is an unscrupulous and dishonest fast-buck industry, and reacts to defeat by changing its argument, as with the recent MMR class action in the US. “They keep moving the goalposts”, remarks one scientist, “It’s the hallmark of pseudoscience”(‘Victory for vaccines’, New Scientist, 20 March). Workers need their wits about them, because capitalism is always finding ingenious ways to stitch them up.
Paddy Shannon

Letters: Opportunity (2010)

Letters to the Editors from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard


Dear Editors

I am writing to you because never in my lifetime has there been as great an opportunity for Socialism to win the hearts and minds of the people than exists today — thanks mainly to the blundering ineptitudes of our crypto Fascist prime minister and his government.

I suggest below a message you might consider sending out by email as well as being given out in pamphlet form on street corners — not just in the poor deprived areas but in the university towns and up- market suburbs.


An immovable head of state.

A media that can be controlled and manipulated on all and any matters of state.

A massive police force, especially a secret police force which is given almost unlimited powers. Where every resident is registered on a police computer and where one either is, or can be, watched by a multitude of cameras: where police are allowed to secretly plant listening devices and micro TV cameras in one’s home. Where the police can smash your door down, arrest you and hold you in prison for 28 days without any explanation or charge.

An effectively one party state, achieved by having three parties to give the appearance of choice, but which, given even the most cursory investigation, proves that all have the same basic political agenda – a capitalist, class-ridden, monarchy.

A method of taxation favouring indirect taxation (VAT) over income tax thus creating a situation where the tax raised as a percentage of income is greater for the poorer classes than it is for the wealthier. A system which will also allow generous tax escapes for the very wealthy by legalising off-shore trusts, blind trusts etc.

A country run primarily for and on behalf of the banks and major international financial conglomerates.

Rule being maintained by a small cabal presided over by a leader who is in fact, in total and dictatorial control due to a Parliament whose sole duty is to be a smokescreen to cover the real truth of where governmental power resides and to ‘rubber stamp’ through the decisions of the ruling junta.

The maintenance of statutes forbidding any Parliamentary or other serious discussion as to any change to the automatic placement of royalty as the head of state, thus maintaining the status quo which in turn blocks any improvement to our political structure.

The blocking of minority political groups to gain access to any section of the mass media, thereby not allowing the general public any proper knowledge of alternative political systems and structures.

The lack of independence of the judiciary from the administration: a clear sign of Fascism.

In summary, a system of government which by covert manipulation of all media outlets, and misleading the public into believing it is ruled by a democratic system, when in fact it is a monolithic government of, for, and by the wealthy and powerful, is to all practical intents and purposes, a description of a government run on Fascist lines. That is New Labour under Gordon Brown

For real, democratic change DEMAND A SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT”.
David Lee 
(by email)

We agree that the present political setup is undemocratic in the ways you describe but don’t think “fascist” is the right word as it is not as bad as in the pre-war Fascist countries. We are, for instance, allowed to publish this journal – and others theirs –, hold meetings and contest elections even if the odds are stacked against us. What exists in Britain is a limited and distorted political democracy where, as you say, the government does indeed act in the interests of the wealthy few.

We agree too that this should be a good time to get across the point that capitalism is obviously failing to meet people’s needs. Which is what we are doing all the time and will be stepping up during the elections, especially in the constituency we’re contesting (Vauxhall in London). The leaflets we will be distributing are published elsewhere in this issue.

We don’t use the term “socialist government” since governments exists to run capitalism and a government composed of our members would be no more able to make capitalism serve the common good than can New Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, the Greens or Old Labour. We prefer to talk simply of socialism – the common ownership and the democratic administration of the means of production. And, given the international nature of capitalism – as the current world economic crisis has underlined – we don’t think socialism can be established in just one country but has to be worldwide.  

Not just technical

Dear Editors

I agree with Pathfinders (February issue) that ‘socialists should applaud and encourage the efforts of Peter Joseph and Zeitgeist activists everywhere to popularise the ideas of non-market production for use...’

But there are some differences, as Pathfinders point out. Zeitgeisters believe that ‘Technology is the fundamental catalyst for progress and change.’ Socialists argue that ‘technology doesn’t determine change but is both determined by and pro-active on underlying material conditions’.

In an 83-page publication, The Zeitgeist Movement: Observations and Responses, it is stated that ‘The valued goals of the Zeitgeist Movement and hence the Venus Project are to redesign society for the benefit of all humanity, making sure (there is enough of everything for everyone, maximizing personal freedom and happiness, while constantly reducing offensive social behaviour or crime.’ Nice sentiments for nice people! But not too strong on clarity of meaning, and not much help in telling the difference between a market society (capitalism) and a non-market society (socialism).

It is worrying that the word ‘democracy’ appears nowhere in the publication quoted. Instead we read ‘When we understand that our problems on this planet are technical, we then see that if any group of people were to be considered as qualified to make decisions about anything, they would naturally technically and thus objectively focused...’ (emphasis in original). ‘Now the rôle humans will play within the high-tech, cybernetic, automated industrial phase of the future will be that of supervisors and nothing more.’ Socialists who like the kind of high-tech, complex (dare I say inhuman?) life may drink to that picture of the future. But I don’t and  I won’t. 
Stan Parker, 
London SW8

Bourgeois Political Economy in Shambles (2010)

Pamphlet Review from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bourgeois Political Economy in Shambles. By Stefan Engel. Verlag Neuer Weg, 2009

This is an English translation of a pamphlet originally published in Germany, with the subtitle “Some additions to the Marxist-Leninist crisis theory.” ‘Marxism-Leninism’ was the official political theory of the former Soviet Union and was enforced throughout most of the former Eastern European satellite governments of the twentieth century. ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is often synonymous with Stalinism.

Engel gives a reasonable account of the current global crisis of capitalism, which began in September 2008.  Crises are inevitable under capitalism because, as Karl Marx pointed out, “a rift must continually ensue between the limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism and a production which forever tends to exceed this immanent barrier” (Capital, Vol. III). German chancellor Merkel, like politicians everywhere, blamed the “financial excesses with no sense of social responsibility, the abandonment of moderation and the middle course by a number of bankers and executives” which “steered the world into this crisis”. As Engel rightly says, this way of arguing “turns attention to the – undeniable – subjective failings of bankers and executives, and distracts attention from the essentials, from the laws of the capitalist mode of production. These laws compel every capitalist, whether factory owner or manager of a stock corporation, whether privately owned or state-owned company, to act, under penalty of ruin”.

But it is the ‘Marxism-Leninist’ understanding of the state, among other things, where it falls down. Engel quotes Engels on the state:
“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head” (
This should have made Engels (and Marx’s) position abundantly clear, but Lenin stood this argument on its head and claimed that capitalism and the state could be made democratic and that this is what socialism means. Engel cites a passage from a pamphlet written by Lenin in 1917:
“… socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased be capitalist monopoly” (original emphasis,
However, the whole thrust of Marx and Engels’s critique is that capitalism and the state, whatever form they take, can never be made to serve the interests of the whole people. For the same reason, the idea of a “socialist state” is a nonsensical contradiction in terms. Lenin was never clear about the need for a “socialist state” as he knew it flouted the basics of Marxism, though it is implicit in some of his writings. Leninists have no such qualms and here we read of the need for a “socialist state of genuine democracy”. But  Leninist states have an abysmal record on democracy, preferring instead a dictatorship over the proletariat as they grapple with the contradictions of managing capitalism. In theory and in practice, ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is a shambles.
Lew Higgins

The Change of Rulers in Iran (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a story said to have circulated in Tehran recently about a meeting between the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1963 after the riots which Khomeini had played a prominent part in stirring up. “I’ll pay you $25 million if you leave the country”, said the Shah. To which Khomeini is supposed to have replied, “I’ll give you $50 million if you leave”. In the event Khomeini was forced into exile for nothing. This time it’s the Shah who has left, though no doubt with a lot more than $50 million in his pockets. Of course no such conversation ever took place but the story does neatly illustrate that the social conflict in Iran was essentially between two sections of the propertied class there.

The Shah is the son of a jumped-up army officer who seized power in 1921 and had himself proclaimed Shah, or Emperor, a few years later. He came to the throne in 1941 when his father was deposed by the Allies for his pro-Axis sympathies but only acquired dictatorial powers in 1953 in a coup d’Etat which overthrew the nationalist Prime Minister, Mossadek, who in his day was the bugbear of the British press for having dared to nationalise the British-owned Persian oil industry.

Oil is of course the source of the immense wealth of the Shah and the section of the propertied class he represented. The payments which oil companies pay to the States where oil is produced are a form of ground-rent. The Iranian State receives this rent purely and simply because it happens to monopolise a part of the globe where oil is found. The Shah used this windfall, first, to build up the Iranian armed forces and, secondly, to introduce industrial capitalism into Iran. In doing so brought into being a new class of rich entrepreneurs independent on his State for the capital they invest.

But there already existed in Iran a class of wealthy people, the bazari, the merchants and traders of the bazaars which exist in all the big towns. The bazari existed long before oil was discovered and long before industrial capitalism was introduced. Their economic role in pre-capitalist Persia was to keep the towns supplied with food and other essentials, and this role still survives to a certain extent today although it has been severely reduced by the alternative commercial and banking network that has accompanied the coming of industrial capitalism.

The bazari have always been closely linked to the mullahs and ayatollahs, the priests of the Shi’ite sect of Islam to which most Persians formally belong. The mosque is generally situated in the bazaar area but, more important, the Shi’ite priests are financed by the various payments the merchants are required to make to them under Islamic law:
“The Shi’ite hierarchy, from the simple mullah to the ayatollah also collects a substantial tax, the khoms or ‘fifth’ which consists of taking one fifth of all commercial profits and, generally, on any capital gain as well as on the sale of lands belonging to Muslims to a person of  another religion . . . The amount of the ‘fifth’ is in principle divided in two, one part is normally reserved for the destitute, on condition that they are sayyeds, that is descendants of the prophet. The other part is distributed amongst the mullahs and ayatollahs. These also have the right to a hidden tax, the zahat, which consists in asking every believer to dispose of any ‘wheat, barley, dates, raisins’ but also of any ‘gold, silver, camels, sheep and cattle’ which he does not really need. This zahat is what now permits the church to help a large number of strikers.

“But the Iranian Shi’ite hierarchy has access above all to the immense wealth of the bazari of all the main towns of the country. For centuries, it has forged close links with this little business world, has given the blessing of Allah to certain transactions and has thrown all its weight against the secular power. When this latter became too demanding or when its desire to modernise the country became too restricting, the bazari knew that Shi’itism was behind them and were prepared to do anything for it” (R├ępublicain Lorrain, 14/1/79).
Two Iranian economists writing in the December issue of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique describe how the Shah’s policy of developing an industrial capitalism in Iran adversely affected the bazari:
“After the 1953 coup d’etat, the re-integration of the Iranian oil economy into the world market and the ‘open doors’ policy led to a change in the pattern of trade, exceeding more and more widely the organisational capabilities of the bazaar. The beginnings of an import-substitution industry afterwards aggravated the difficulties of the bazaar, which was excluded from the new circuit of exchange set up to serve the needs of the new industries. The traditional importing of consumer goods gave way to the importing of capital goods, and the quotas or duties adopted to protect the nascent industries heavily penalised the traditional activities of the bazaar.”
They go on to note how this also hit the finances of the Shi’ite priesthood:
“This economic marginalisation of the bazaar is directly connected with the simultaneous weakening of the network for financing the ‘clerical funds’; these, under the control of the religious leaders known for their moral integrity, receive and distribute various forms of Islamic taxes and alms . . . Today, the inflow of money into these funds controlled by the progressive or combative ayatollahs bears witness to the extent of the struggle of the traditional bourgeoisie against a new class linked to the interest of the multi-national firms. But, in the first phase of industrialisation, the weakening of the bazaar which has historically lived in symbiosis with the religious institutions (financing of clerical funds, legal-religious framework for contracts) considerably reduced the socio-economic effects of the redistribution which the latter assured.”
The Ayatollah Khomeini first came into prominence in 1963 as the instigator of riots centred on the bazaars in Tehran and some other cities, riots which were ruthlessly crushed by the Shah’s armed forces.

It can thus be seen that the conflict in Iran is not, as it is often pictured, between a Westernising ruler and a reactionary priesthood defending old-fashioned values. That particular conflict is only an ideological reflection of the more basic conflict of sectional interest within the Iranian propertied class, between the bazari and the new bourgeoisie brought into being by the Shah. Behind the condemnations on religious grounds of beer and mini-skirts (indeed of any kind of skirts) lies an earthly material interest.

For the time being, against the logic of history, the bazari seem to have come out on top. Through their links with the mullahs and ayatollahs they have been able to control the urban poor, including large sections of the working class, and to use their discontent as a battering ram to overthrow the Shah and his regime. The urban poor of course had plenty to be discontented about. Frequently recent migrants from the countryside, they have been forced to live in disgusting housing conditions, only finding employment, if at all, at starvation wages. Independent trade union activity has been banned and strikes crushed sometimes with loss of life. The notorious secret police, the SAVAK, with its omnipresent system of spies and its torture chambers, has been there to root out all opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship.

It is sad that this discontent should have been directed by the mullahs to defend the sectional class interest of the bazari and towards the chimera of an “Islamic Republic”. But there is a reason for this. The only opposition to the Shah that was able to survive the onslaughts of SAVAK was the bazaar, with its independent economic base, and the Shi’ite priesthood it financed. The mosques thus became the focus of opposition to the Shah, especially as the bulk of the urban poor are first-generation migrants from the countryside where religious sentiments are always stronger.

It now looks as if the people of Iran are to have an “Islamic Republic” inflicted on them. But whatever happens industrial capitalism has come to stay in Iran, whether or not the mullahs like it or what comes with it (consumption of alcohol, a certain freedom for women). The Koran, which originated in a pre-capitalist agricultural and trading society, may lay down rules as to how such a society should work – indeed its rules are merely the reflection of the way such a society did work—but capitalism cannot be run according to them.

What will probably happen is that after an initial attempt to put the clock back for the benefit of the bazari, religious thinkers will be found within the “Islamic Republic” to declare that industrial capitalism is not after all contrary to the Koran. This happened in Tunisia a few years after it got its independence from France, as reported by the old News Chronicle at the time (5/3/1960):
“Up to now, as in the rest of the Moslem world, Tunisia’s life came almost to a standstill during Ramadan because of the dawn to dusk fast. In some cases production dropped 70 per cent. 

Bourguiba has not banned the fast outright. But he has stated firmly that fasting will not be accepted as an excuse for less work” (quoted in the Socialist Standard, April 1960)
As for the workers and peasants of Iran, they will rapidly find that they have just changed one set of rulers for another.
Adam Buick

Lessons of the Spanish Civil War (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Forty years ago. after three years of bloody civil war, the victorious Franco supporters came to power in Spain and imposed their long rule of savage repression. The war cost 600,000 lives, including about 100,000 “who may be supposed to have died by murder or summary execution” (The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas).

Propagandists for both sides presented the issues in simple terms—the Francoists’ “defence of religion against Communism and Russian influence”, opposed to the Republicans’ “Defence of Parliamentary democracy against reaction and German and Italian invasion”. However, the outstanding feature of the civil war was that hardly anything was what it seemed to be, and in the confusion, misjudgement was general.

There were Catholics on both sides. Many of the poorer priests in Spain sided with the Republicans, and in this country a number of Catholics like Dr. Morgan, Labour MP and medical adviser to the TUC, gave active support.

Although the Franco revolt included part of the Spanish armed forces, most continued to support the government and in spite of his monarchist backing Franco did not restore the monarchy. Neither did he join his German and Italian allies in the second world war which quickly followed the end of the civil war, at which time the Stalin government which had been providing arms to Spain to fight the German troops, entered into its pact of friendship with Hitler.

While the Conservative Party in Britain mostly supported Franco, an influential group actively campaigned to get the British Government to intervene on the side of the Republicans, on the ground that British capitalist interests would be imperiled if Germany got control of Spain and, through it, of the Mediterranean. Other sections of the Conservative Party, while aware of the force of the argument, took the view that British intervention might provoke the war with Germany for which they were not yet ready.

The Civil War from the start was overshadowed by the rivalry of capitalist interests between the Powers, Germany seeking to get a base in the Mediterranean and Britain, France and Russia wishing to prevent it. In addition German capitalism aimed to get control of mineral wealth in Spain. Hugh Thomas says that Germany’s condition for arming the Franco forces “was German participation in all the important iron ore projects in Spain. In return for this rich prize Germany committed enough war material to Spain to tip the balance finally towards the Nationalists.”

This was also the view of the Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists:
The rebellion could not have taken place if the Spanish fascists had not already come to an arrangement with Hitler and Mussolini, who agreed to a mutual aid arrangement against Spain, in furtherance of their imperialist ambition. (Three Years of Straggle in Spain. Freedom Press).
Also, Germany and Italy as well as the French Popular Front government, seized the opportunity to try out new weapons of war in battle conditions.

Inside Spain the line-up on the Franco side rested largely on the big landowners and the Church, both of which saw their privileges threatened by the Popular Front government. It was estimated in 1931 that more than half the total land was owned by less than one per cent of the population and it was the declared intention of the Government to break the landowners’ stranglehold. It was not the capitalists who in the main supported the Franco rebellion—they also saw the big landowners as their enemy.

Capitalist parties belonged to the Popular Front, and the government which held office at the time of the rebellion was entirely composed of "radicals” and “progressives”. Although the Spanish “Socialist Party” (similar to the British Labour Party in outlook) was the largest party in Parliament, they were not in the government until some six months after the start of the war.

The declared aim of the Popular Front government was to establish in Spain a “Parliamentary democracy on the English model”, but to what extent did this represent the views of the voters and parties in the Popular Front? It was certainly the aim of the “Socialists” and the trade unions with whom they were allied, as well as of the capitalist parties in the government, but most of the other Popular Front supporters were completely opposed to it.

The Spanish Communists said that that was their aim too, and for saying so they were condemned by the Trotskyists and Anarchists. It would have been very odd if the Spanish Communists, who supported the Stalin dictatorship in Russia, had really favoured democracy. In fact it was for them merely a temporary political manoeuvre, as the Communist Jose Diaz put it:
To have attempted to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat would have meant skipping a necessary stage of development. . . . (Lessons of the Spanish War, 1936-1939).
He argued that premature disclosure of the real aim would have hampered the government in getting aid from abroad.

The largest body of supporters of the Popular Front, the Anarchist and trade union bodies which jointly published Three Years of Struggle in Spain made no secret of their total opposition to “parliamentary democracy” and determined to prevent its operation. They ridiculed the idea that “the revolution for which we were fighting” was “a new kind of democratic republic: that our politics should circulate in the orbit of the western democratic tradition of England and France.”

Their aim in the war had been, they said, “that the proletariat should repulse the State, no matter what political and economic parties stood in the way.” They complained that republican governments since 1931 had been hardly less repressive than had been the monarchy. Writing when the war was over, they had to admit that, in taking part in the government, helping to form a regular army and allowing Russian control, they had had to compromise—“no one knows it better or regrets it more keenly than we do.”

It is obvious that the Popular Front was a facade, and there never was working class unity for “parliamentary democracy”. The course of the war brought the bitter antagonism of the rival factions to the surface with mutual charges of murder and betrayal and the declaration: “neither in war nor revolution has anti-fascist Spain had a worse enemy than Stalinism.” They charged the Communists with holding the view "Better lose the war than allow the revolution”.

The fact is that democratic political methods require a degree of development, including working class maturity, which did not exist in Spain in 1936. Oliverra, himself a supporter of democracy, writing in the Labour Party journal Labour (September 1936) noted that the industrial capitalists were either neutral or pro-republican and described the Franco rebellion as “the last fling of feudalism". But he believed that at that time "Liberal institutions" could not take root in Spain.

Spain is very different today. Great advances have been made in industrial development and Anarcho-Syndicalist ideas have lost much of their appeal. Spanish capitalism, with its limited monarchy and parliamentary system, is now in course of coming into line with those of the European powers in the Common Market.
Edgar Hardcastle

Socialism: But isn't there an energy shortage? (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
" . . . The babassu palm (Orbignya marlinana) is perhaps the ideal way of converting solar energy into usable, storable fuel, in terms of yield per hectare, capital investment, running cost, and minimum research expenditure, because the basic technics are already known. This Brazilian species grows up to 70 feet high and lives about 200 years, growing on land that has so far been found unsuitable for permanent agriculture . . . If we calculate from the maximum 90 tonne a hectare nut yield [from the babassu palm] and include the charcoal, methyl alcohol and wood gas on their fuel value, this total is equivalent to 28.9 tonnes of Middle East crude oil per hectare. Multiply this by up to one thousand million hectares, roughly one sixth of the land suitable for babassu palms . . . the total is 28.9 milliard tonnes, which is ten times the world crude oil production in 1970 . . " (From a report by the Henry Doubleday Research Association called, “Green Power. A Permanent Alternative to Nuclear Energy”.)

General Election '79 (1979)

Party News from the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Islington South & Finsbury

Islington Branch are stepping up activity in this area prior to the forthcoming General Election and would welcome assistance from other members and sympathisers. A note will appear each month of proposed activity. The following has been arranged for March.

Canvassing. Mondays, 5th and 19th. Meet Angel Tube Stn 6 p.m.

Literature Sales Drives at Chapel Market. Sunday 11th, Saturday 24th. Meet Angel Tube Stn 11 a.m.
Please bring your own supply of Socialist Standards, although copies will be available if required.

Tentative plans have been reached for printing a Manifesto and bulletins; the holding of indoor meetings etc and publication of the Manifesto in the local paper. All this needs money.

OUR TARGET IS £1,000.00. We have got off to a good start with a donation of £100 from Islington Branch.

Whilst there are many causes aimed at extracting hard earned cash from your pockets, here is one of prime importance. Will you help?

Donations, large and small please to The Treasurer, SPGB, 52 Clapham High Street, London, SW4. — marked Parliamentary Fund. We will let you know in due course what is coming in.

The economics of sport (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anthropologists sometimes refer to sport as an example of how codes and conventions can radically alter the significance of everyday activities, pointing out that anyone anywhere can kick a ball past a post but that only within the institutional framework of a football match can one score a goal. This can be taken further: only in a society based on commodity production can one get paid for scoring goals, making runs, serving aces, converting tries, and so on.

As with everything else under capitalism, sporting activity cannot be carried on in isolation from harsh economic realities. This applies also to participatory sports of non-experts. Providing sporting equipment (pitches, clothing. rackets, balls) is big business, geared to making a profit. There is no point in producing only top quality cricket bats and tennis balls, since most workers cannot afford to buy them. As a result, thousands of workers spend their time producing cheap saleable sub standard goods.

But when most people speak of the money involved in sport, they are referring to the vast sums earned by leading professional players, for instance £40,000 to the winners of a recent tennis doubles tournament that involved playing just five matches. Top boxers like Muhammad Ali can earn a million dollars a fight, though much of this money goes to support a large retinue of hangers-on. In most sports, the possibility of such huge earnings is comparatively recent; the maximum wage for footballers was only abolished in 1961, and we have all seen stories of how yesterday's goalscoring heroes are today's social security "scroungers''.

In fact the vast majority of professional sportspeople sell their labour power (their sporting proficiency) for a wage not noticeably greater than they would receive in a factory of office. Indeed, there was a case a couple of years ago of a Fourth Division footballer returning to his previous job as a carpenter because it was better paid.

Many county cricketers—those who have not caught Kerry Packer’s eye—spend the winter on the dole and on the breadline. And it should not be forgotten that for most a career at the top will last fifteen years at the outside. Even the highly paid George Best looked to his post-footballing future by opening a chain of boutiques while he was opening up opposing defences.

Let's look a little more closely at the economics of football. Only a handful of league clubs can exist on income from gate money. Others survive by selling their best players for huge transfer fees, but most rely on various fund-raising schemes run by their supporters’ clubs or on money made available by their directors. Football club boards are usually self-perpetuating elites who deny their players and other employees any say in the running of the club, are often prepared to sack the manager after a handful of adverse results and yet themselves remain in charge no matter how badly things are going. At Newcastle United the directors refused to appoint as manager a man the players preferred: this was one of the causes of the disputes which led to many of the best players leaving the club and the remainder becoming so demoralized that United were relegated. The directors stayed put. however.

In view of the unprofitability of most clubs, directors aren’t in it for the money (the recent controversy over the issue of new shares at Manchester United, perhaps leading to enormous profits for the chairman and his family, is exceptional).. Directors are normally wealthy businessmen who either regard football clubs as rich men’s playthings (the way other capitalists view their mistresses) or aim to acquire some local kudos or publicity. The very last people to be considered at any football club are the paying spectators: at far too many grounds the view from the terraces is atrocious if more than a handful turn up to watch, while sanitary facilities are a disgrace. Part of the explanation for this is that money spent on new players entitles the club to tax relief, while that spent on ground improvements does not.

The most recent example of the impact of financial considerations on sport is undoubtedly Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. The world’s leading cricketers were persuaded by merciless application of the cheque book to play against one another in matches not under the jurisdiction of the official cricketing authorities but concocted for the benefit of Packers’ television cameras. Packer’s TV station had been unable to wrest coverage of Test matches from the Australian government broadcasting service, and his response was to stage and televise his own matches. Various commercially-directed gimmicks followed such as portable pitches and floodlit cricket played with a white ball. One hilarious episode was a match played in the United States, which introduced such variants as bowling all overs from the same end (to make things easier for Americans brought up on baseball). America, you see, offered an enormous potential market where there was no built-in opposition to Packer’s series. It may be arguable that spectators will see more and better cricket under Packer’s scheme, but what is certain is that the ordinary county cricketer has in no way benefitted.

One effect of increased commercialization has been the disappearance of the amateur from many sports. Lawn tennis was made open just over a decade ago, ending the ludicrous situation where full-time tennis players were officially amateurs, their jobs usually being “representatives” for sports goods firms. In football the FA Amateur Cup has been discontinued and cricket no longer distinguishes between Gentlemen and Players. Amateurs still exist at or near the highest level in some sports (Scotland’s Queen’s Park Football Club, for instance) but as a rule the part-time player cannot hope to compete with the full-time, professionally-coached, opponent. Hence the proficiency of Eastern European athletes, who are able to devote almost the whole of their time to sport while being strictly amateurs whose official occupation is student or teacher. Variations on this idea are by no means new. Arsenal Football Club was founded in 1896 as a works team of the Woolwich Arsenal, but soon players were conscripted for the team and then placed in jobs specially created for them (an ignominious start to such a famous team).

The lack of profitability of most sports has led to an increased reliance on two sources of revenue, sponsorship and television. The winners of the £40,000 prize mentioned earlier can proclaim themselves not just as World Double Champions but as Braniff Airways World Doubles Champions. Other lucky people can win the John Player League or the Texaco Cup, or can take part in a Coca-Cola International. He who pays the piper calls the tune, of course, and events are often modified to suit the sponsors' requirements.

The importance of television’s financial support for sport is graphically illustrated by the deal between the Football League and London Weekend Television, an agreement so momentous that it led to questions in the House of Commons and investigation by the EEC. Sports like Rugby League, which has permitted live televising of games, have seen gates diminish and hence an even greater dependence on cash from TV. One of the problems with marketing (an appropriate word) soccer in the US is that, unlike American football, it lacks those brief natural breaks so suitable to the insertion of advertisements during a live broadcast; perhaps players will be encouraged to waste even more time at throw-ins so that the precious ads can be slotted in.

So while watching and taking part in sport is one of the ways in which many workers relax and enjoy a respite from their daily toil, it is as well to remember that even there the requirements and limitations of capitalism still make their ugly presence felt.
Paul Bennett