Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Letter: The Aims of the I.L.P. (1928)

Letter to the Editors from the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Further Reply to a Correspondent.

Catford, S.E.6

Dear Comrades, .

I am sorry I was not able to continue our debate in time for the May number of the “Standard.” However, if you will tolerate a final letter, I should like to reply to two of the points you raise.

(1) You challenge me to quote from I.L.P. literature that the I.L.P. aims at Socialism. Here are four quotations taken at random :—

(a) From the Constitution of the I.L.P. :

Object.—Establishment of Socialist Commonwealth.

The Socialist Commonwealth is that state of society in which land and capital are communallv owned and the processes of production, distribution and exchange are social functions.

(b) From Fred Henderson’s Case for Socialism, Chap. II. (Reprinted as a pamphlet by I.L.P.) 

The whole chapter explains the Socialist outlook on confiscation of ”private” property, e.g., “Socialists advocate the expropriation of the landed and capitalist class, the deprivation of their way of living ; and the organisation of the wealth-producing activities of the nation by nation itself, by the whole people acting in civic co-operation, for the benefit of all the citizens and members of the nation” (pages 31-32).

(c) From a leaflet “Socialism—What it is—What it is not.” (published by I.L.P.) 

“Socialism is the ownership of the means of life by the people and for the people.”

(d) From “Keir Hardie’s Socialism”—Francis Johnson (published by I.L.P.).

Object of I.L.P. : “To secure the collective ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange.” (Page 6.)

(2) I appreciated the “Salvation Army” joke —both in the original (Engel's “Socialism,” p. 11), and in your use of the reference on p. 27, but I was annoyed at “my loose method of argument” because I said “Marx and Engels maintain,” etc. In the introduction to Engels' book he explains how the book came to be written and how it expresses “the views held by Marx and myself on this great variety of subjects,” etc. (page 4). The number of times Engels used “we” instead of “I” must be hundreds. “H” is guilty of a lie to score a point—a genuine Socialist would not stoop to that.
Yours fraternally,
H. W. R. Keeble.

Our Reply.
(1) (a) If Mr. Keeble will refer to the June Socialist Standard, he will see that Mr. Maxton, Chairman of the I.L.P., agrees with us that ” communal ownership of capital ” is not Socialism, but a meaningless phrase.

(b) Mr. Fred Henderson’s writings are not the official policy of the I.L.P., but merely his private opinions.

(c) Mr. Keeble forgets that both the I.L.P. and the Labour Party (as we have repeatedly shown from their official publications) regard State Capitalism or Nationalisation, which still permit bondholders to live by owning property, as being “ownership by the people.”

(d) The quotation from Keir Hardie merely bears out our contention in (c). Under Socialism there will be common ownership of the means of production and distribution. There can be no “exchange” except under a private property system.
Edgar Hardcastle

Socialism Smashed Again. (1928)

From the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

A correspondent has sent us a cutting from the “Daily Express” of July 2nd, with a request that we answer it. The cutting is an article entitled “J. D. Beresford Tried Socialism But Found It Wanting—Too Much.” Then follows a portrait of the author’s face and a picture of his mind. Neither is flattering. The article is too long to quote in full, and the reader must accept our assurance that we will summarise Mr. Beresford’s “points” as fairly as muddled sentiment can be summarised.

First, then, he became a convinced Socialist, for a time, more than twenty years ago, through reading one or two of H. G. Wells’ books.

Perhaps we can conveniently pause here and clear away a little brushwood. H. G. Wells is not a Socialist. To a Socialist, his political utterances have been puerile. He has repeatedly confused municipal capitalism and nationalisation with Socialism and believes in the rule of the expert and the bureaucrat. He supported the late War. Wells foams at the mouth whenever the name of Marx is mentioned. Marx, who raised Socialism from the realms of sentiment to those of science.

And now we reach the final stage. “My true argument against Socialism is founded on … first, the present state of human nature; and second, our regard for its development.” So that is his true argument. Poor old human nature ! Dear ! oh dear ! ! The number of times the “human nature” tag has been used is past all counting. What is human nature, anyway? Like all the flat, tepid tribe who use the phrase, Mr. Beresford makes no attempt to define it. He proceeds to false prophecy right away :—
“But your average man or woman under fifty would be bored stiff by life in a Socialist State. There would be no outlet for ambition, no delicious hope from week to week that next year we might be in a better position than we are to-day.

With our eternally fixed income, our everlastingly regulated work and leisure, most of us would find no outlet for our surplus activity other than in quarrelling with our neighbours. There is certainly a minority of people who are content with flat monotony . . . But not the majority. Ours is not the right kind of climate for that sort of life. In the south of France, or in Italy, it might be more endurable.”
Gawd save us from that. One wants to walk through the dung-strewn streets of Bermondsey to see what joys Socialism means to destroy. The streets are alive with adventure. Narrow, foetid thoroughfares are thronged with thousands of kiddies. Their taste for adventure seems fairly divided between dodging the motor lorries they can see and the bacteria they cannot. Fortunately, Guy’s Hospital is on the spot, so that quite a number avoid the flat monotony of a tombstone, and grow up to be carmen, pickle workers, hide scrapers, tanners, gutter merchants, truck pushers, and other outlets for ambition. Not for them the eternally fixed income, the everlastingly regulated work and leisure. Bless you, no ! They are bung full of the delicious hope from week to week that next year they may be better off than they are to-day. Hope seems to be all they are full of. Many exchange it for hops when occasion offers, and, curiously enough, seem happier for it. But what should be still more curious to Mr. Beresford is that if one of the denizens of Bermondsey heard of a monotonous, constant job, with an eternally fixed income, and even everlastingly regulated work and leisure, say, as a porter on the gate of Guy’s Hospital, he would throw all the glorious possibilities of a fugitive to-morrow to the four winds and grab the job. Will any reader of the “Daily Express” blame him?

“Another point,” we learn, “that the Socialists avoid with a shrug of the shoulders is that of invention.” As we said before, Mr. Beresford should read more. If the Socialists he has met have confined themselves to shrugging their shoulders, it is obvious he has been unfortunate or indiscriminating in his acquaintance. One cannot shrug the shoulders in print, and if there is one point that Socialists have dealt with in extenso it is that of invention. It is one of Capitalism’s black chapters. If Mr. Beresford read even the newspapers to which he contributes he would know that the inventors that Capitalism made use of in the Great War are still fighting for their rewards in the Courts. One, only a fortnight ago, complained that his legal expenses already have exceeded his original claim. Capitalism has one test for invention, as it has for most other things— is there money in it?

The remainder of Mr. Beresford’s article is really too vapid for anything. Under Socialism—appalling thought—”our daily newspapers would have been limited to a single and, no doubt, dull sheet.” We cherish the consolation that it could not be flatter than his article, anyway. It proclaims the fact that when Mr. Beresford uses the word Socialism he does not know what he is talking about. Like all the profoundest truths in existence, the elementary case for Socialism can be reduced to a few simple, self-evident statements. Only blindness, prejudice, ignorance and selfishness stand in the way of its realisation. Listen to this:—

The following are mankind’s prime necessities : Air, water, food, shelter and clothing. Without air we should die in a few minutes ; without water, in a few days. Socialism simply means that food, shelter and clothing, etc., shall be supplied similarly without question or condition; that they shall not be the sport of profit-makers, that access to them shall not be through a gate bearing the sign, “Profit First.” Without the necessities of life we die. To obtain them we hire ourselves for a period to those who own the means whereby we live. How do they make and retain themselves masters of our lives? By force and custom. We propose to dissolve the first by converting a majority to our opinion, and at an Election taking control of the machinery of government. We propose to vary the second by substituting common ownership of the masses whereby we all live, for private ownership of them. When people thoroughly understand these simple facts, we venture to think they will chance the monotony of regular and choice food, the boredom of roomy houses instead of stuffy hutches, the lameness of plentiful clothing instead of shoddy and patches. Perhaps Mr. Beresford could recommend the great tonic value of the present system to the 200,000 mine workers whose unemployment the “Daily News” says (July 24th) “is not a temporary difficulty but a permanent condition ; they are definitely and irrecoverably surplus to the industry.” What a chance for Mr. Beresford to explain to them the joys of not knowing from week to week whether they will be better off next year or no ! And there are the other happy million of unemployed who would welcome the joyous gospel. And perhaps they would not.

Anyhow, Mr. Beresford can be reassured on one point. Socialism will not abolish hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, blizzards and other natural hazards. There will be nearly as many opportunities for the adventurous to risk their necks as now. We can suggest at least a score under Socialism that will be more spicily adventurous than writing for the “Daily Express.”
W. T. Hopley

Letter: Socialists and Rota Committees: Answer to “Revolutionist”. (1928)

Letter to the Editors from the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have received from “Revolutionist” a long, rambling and confused letter in which he complains that we have not answered his previous questions. As has already been explained, we receive far too many letters for it to be possible to print them and answer them in the Socialist Standard. We, of course, must decide whether any subject dealt with by a correspondent is of sufficient interest to our readers to warrant insertion of a reply to a letter, and moreover, we cannot undertake to print lengthy letters in full. If “Revolutionist” will be brief and to the point we will try to answer his questions. His last letter was neither brief nor to the point, and we answered what we supposed was the main question at issue.

 He objects to a member of the S.P.G.B. sitting on a Rota Committee because he “must ask such questions as ‘are you genuinely seeking employment?’ “

As this statement is untrue, “Revolutionist” must be unaware of what a member of a Rota Committee must do.

“Revolutionist” is quite willing to receive “charity” from a Board of Guardians because “it is a linking chain in workers’ lives to-day.” But he will only receive “charity” from the Guardians when he applies for it. To obtain this he must state his case, argue his needs, compromise about the amount he will receive, etc.

He must do, in fact, those things which he condemns in a member of a Rota Committee.

The simple fact is that everyone, whether in work or out, helps to administer the capitalist system. The only escape is by suicide.

On the original point about local government, our position is plain, we invite votes from Socialists on a Socialist programme, that and nothing else. We continue to propagate Socialism, telling the workers that no change in the administration of capitalism, either locally or nationally, will raise them from their subject position in society.
Editorial Committee.

The Communists and the Trusts. (1928)

From the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The Communist Party declares that such trusts and combines can only be successfully fought by initiating an energetic price war.”

The above is the advice tendered to the Co-op. Societies by the Communist Party (“Workers’ Weekly,” July 6th). The particular trusts referred to are the drapery and cotton combines. Poor Teddy Roosevelt years ago had an election slogan, “Bust the Trusts,” but he demanded State Control as the means.

The Communists have a simpler method—”lower prices” ! While economic evolution inevitably causes competition to lead to monopoly, these Trust Busters—Capitalist or Communist—are doomed to failure. But it is somewhat pathetic to see the so-called Revolutionary Communists advocate a “remedy” which the Trusts themselves have used to “bust” would-be competitors. And the notion that Co-ops. can sustain lower prices than international trusts with large resources to gamble with—well, to say the least, the idea belongs to petty bourgeois and small shopkeepers’ “economics.” How are lower prices going to benefit the working class, whose wages are based on the cost of living?
Adolph Kohn

Letter: Political Means to Economic Ends. (1928)

Letter to the Editors from the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

A. T. Rogers, of Turling (Essex), writes us a lengthy letter criticising our position. The essence of his objection is contained in the following two extracts :—
“The powers of government are of no use to the workers, their disabilities are not political but economic, and therefore their fight is not a political fight but an economic one.

The power of the ruling class is based on the wealth produced by the people which is appropriated by the said class. Consequently to free themselves from this domination the people must refuse to yield up the fruit of their toil to their masters.”
Our critic’s error results from confusing the means with the end. While the end in view must be an economic one, it does not follow that the means to that end is an economic one also. The ruling class do not rule the workers simply because they are owners, but they are able to continue their rule and domination because they control the political machinery which gives them the protection necessary to maintain their position. The working-class, therefore, must get control of this same political machinery in order to get access to economic possession. The mere refusal of the workers to give up the fruits of their toil is insufficient without the power to back up their refusal. Industrial action or striking does not bring the workers into possession, but leaves the owners in complete ownership of all the means of life. A general strike (which our friend supports in his letter) is a policy which brings the workers up against the full forces of government without in any way giving the workers any access to the means and instruments of production, or the wealth already produced.
Editorial Committee.

Sting in the Tail: Hobson's Choice (1989)

The Sting in the Tail column from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hobson's Choice

Walk down your local High Street and marvel at the choice capitalism gives to the consumer.

Just look at all the different stores and shops there are competing for our custom. Take shoe shops for example. There's Dolcis, Freeman Hardy Willis, Lllley and Skinner, Saxone, Manfleld, Cable, Trueform, Curtess and Shoe City.

Plenty of healthy competition there, eh?

Well, no, because all of them are owned by Sears which describes itself as "Britain's foremost speciality retailer with 3,600 outlets".

Some competition. Some choice!

Good News, Bad News

First, the good news for the government The 60,000 drop in unemployment in April was double the expected figure (cheers). The bad news Is that this will add to the pressure for higher wages and salaries (groan).

But what's bad about that? tf demand for labour is high then its price will rise and surely this is in line with the government's free market philosophy?

Ah, but THAT'S different! Why? Norman Fowler, the Employment Secretary, explains that the current increase in average earnings of over nine per cent "puts at risk our ability to compete" (The Guardian, 19 May)

Those who choose to run capitalism never have their troubles to seek, with even good news bringing gloom in its wake. Don't you feel sorry for them?

Intellectual Poverty

John Moore's claim that poverty has been abolished was probably meant to rescue his sinking political career, but did he have to make such a fool of himself by arguing that poverty should only be measured by Victorian standards?

But how should poverty be measured? Here's how Owen, the socialist house painter, did it In Robert Tressed's novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists":
What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation . . . If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilisation he might just as well be a savage; better, In fact, for a savage does not know what he is deprived of.
This was written by a working man and Moore's argument is, by comparison, a measure of his intellectual poverty.

Racial Nonsense

Jewish and Aslan groups in Glasgow were upset recently over an invitation to take part in a TV debate with Lady Jane Birdwood, a veteran racist loony.

A spokesman summed up why both these groups boycotted the debate:
We were concerned that the programme would publicise the views of the far right. Their opinion is rarely reported In Scotland and we wish that to remain the case.
(Observer Scotland 7th May)
Leaving aside the undemocratic idea expressed here, do these people think that racist organisations don't exist in Glasgow? Their literature is openly sold in the city and they cannot be ignored out of existence.

The best way to deal with racist ideas is to publicly expose them for the nonsense they are, and those who refused to participate in the debate, which took place anyway, missed an opportunity the Socialist Party would have jumped at.

The Baby Killers
The world has ten per cent more food than it needs, but human error, neglect and complacency have left at least half a billion people hungry, a UN conference was told yesterday. "It Is . . . a question of distribution and imbalances created by International trade, not of shortage”, a conference report said.

Participants were told malnutrition, coupled with diarrohoea and Infectious diseases, kill an estimated 14 million children every five years. The conference reported that most malnourished people live in Asia and Africa.
(The Guardian 23rd. May)
Could any evidence be more damning? Capitalism, the mass killer without parallel, stands convicted yet again and only awaits its deserved fate. Come on, workers, what are you waiting for?


That capitalism is a wasteful society is nowhere better illustrated than in the advertising industry. The latest piece of madness from there is reported in the advertising trade magazine Campaign (19th. May)
Lyons Tetley Is introducing round tea bags In a bid to grab a bigger slice of a £300 million market, while trying to halt the relentless decline in tea sales.

The company has spent £9 million developing what it claims is its biggest product innovation since tea bags appeared in Britain 36 years ago. And It Is putting £3 million behind a TV campaign through D'Arcy Masslus Benton and Bowles.

The new round bags have been launched, because, according to the company, they give the consumer ”emotional satisfaction”. Deputy marketing director Ian Prutton said: *The shape Is such a neat fit with a cup, mug or pot there’s an immediate practical, tangible benefit.”
£9 million spent on developing and £3 million in advertising round tea bags.

It does not take much imagination to think of £12 million being spent on something a little more socially useful.

Like perhaps helping to avoid the death of 14 million children in the next five years. That would certainly give us more "emotional satisfaction".

T.V. Drama

The studio lighting is turned down. The subject is seen in silhouette. The voice has been distorted, so that the subject cannot be identified.

What's going on? Is it a Mafia supergrass, a sex offender perhaps an IRA bomber? Let's listen to the disguised voice. "I've been working on the railway for 15 years. My take home pay with overtime and working my rest day is £150 per week".

It's nothing more sinister than a member of the National Union of Railwaymen in dispute with the British Railways Board. But why the elaborate precautions to disguise the identity of the striker? It is because the BRB have issued a directive that forbids railway workers talking to the Press unless what they say has been cleared by the BRB. This is industrial relations 1989 style.

The government also have a representative in the studio. He is bathed in the full glare of the studio lights. The only distortion to his voice is the arrogant upper class accent of a public school education.

He is Mr. Paul Channon, Minister of Transport and millionaire. He doesn't need to work his rest day. In fact after the Lockerbie air disaster he flew off to the West Indies on holiday.

He is indignant about the "selfishness" of railway workers. He speaks angrily about "duty to the public".
He is a hypocritical parasite defending a class divided exploitative system. It is time the working class turned the lights out on him and all his class!

Caught In The Act: No, No, Nigel. (1989)

The Caught In The Act Column from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

No, No, Nigel.

Nigel Lawson did not get where he is today through being bashful or at all reticent about his own talents so he does not take kindly to any criticism about the way he handles the financial affairs of British capitalism. That is why, some time ago, he dismissed the analysis of a large group of economists with the inadequate—and untrue—sneer that they were a bunch of teenage scribblers. That is why he is locked in an apparently unbreakable conflict with Thatcher and her toadies and why, as it is rumoured, he may take his talents and his touchiness off to some well-paid job in the City, where they are prepared to pay a lot to know all about the impotence of Chancellors of the Exchequer straight from the horse's mouth.

For Nigel is no longer a success. Against a rising tide of criticism and in face of all the evidence he can only insist that he is in complete control of the situation, working to an effective plan which is moving smoothly into operation. Of course there are some doubters, as financial observers consider what is happening to prices and the balance of payments but Lawson's response to these is that his remedies are taking rather longer to be effective than he at first thought. We only have to wait a little longer, be patient and trustful of the Law- son talents and all will come out well.

What worries Lawson's enemies—and many of his admirers—is how long this argument of postponement can hold good. As the Chancellor has to revise, again and again, his forecast of how much prices will rise by and how high interest rates will go in the near future, he begins to look like anything but a man in control. Perhaps he is hanging on in the hope that there is still time for the cyclical nature of capitalist trade to come to his aid so that he will be able to publish some statistics which make it seem as if his measures are indeed working. If that happens it will probably add quite a bit to the wage he can expect from his job in the City; he will retire from office in all the glory of a prophet fulfilled; what he assured us was only a "blip” was indeed that.

The success of that will be greater as more people forget how often, and how spectacularly, the forecasts of Lawson and his experts have been discredited in the past. The Tories came to power ten years ago on the promise that their priority would be to eradicate inflation, by which they meant that they would stabilise prices. For a while, as the rise in prices began to flatten out, they were able to claim that their policies were successful (in fact the two are not connected). But as the trend in prices has changed Lawson has been forced to revise again and again his forecasts about the rate at which prices will go up. Almost as soon as it was out of his mouth, each of his forecasts was outstripped by what actually happened. How long will this go on? How long can Lawson keep it up? How long before the voters begin to wonder whether the economy is under anyone’s control?

Teaching us a lesson.

The background to these events is that it is not so long ago that Lawson was making the claim to have conjured up an "economic miracle" for British capitalism; only just over a year that Thatcher was describing his budget as "brilliant". Some of this euphoria was based on the lowering of income tax rates, which so many workers mistakenly believe to be a sort of barometric scale of their prosperity. And some of it was based on the steady lowering of interest rates which, as more and more workers are forced to commit themselves to a lifetime of mortgage repayments, have assumed the same kind of false reputation as income tax rates. Part of the Lawson coda was that low interest rates not only bring us all prosperity but also contribute to its growth, so that the rates would move in a downward spiral while our living standards spiralled upwards. Now all that has changed and those working class dreams have, in many cases, turned into nightmares. The present orthodoxy is that low interest rates are not a form of prosperity but a symptom of a malignant economic disease. They must be forced upwards, to teach us all the evils of living beyond our means.

The popular explanation for all this confusion is that Lawson and his experts are having a little temporary difficulty in sorting out some passing, unpredictable problems. Anyone who believes that will believe anything. It does not require any great feat of memory to recall that every Chancellor has had to face similar problems and that they have all responded in the same way (if not with the same lack of modesty) as Lawson—with the promise that they are only postponing success for a while. Clearly, there must be an explanation more in tune with the facts.

However consummate their expertise, however seductive their promises, the people who claim to be able to control the economy of capitalism are really floundering about in impotence. Lawson's changes of policy and his ever-lengthening string of broken promises are not the result of his notoriously arrogant and pompous conceits. It would be no different if he were the most modest and retiring of men for his job is one of trying to do the impossible.

Not in front of the voters.

Perhaps it was people like Lawson Honourable Members had in mind, when they were so uneasy about allowing the TV cameras into the House of Commons. It is one thing to be seen by millions reading a carefully constructed harangue of the working class for not working hard enough, expecting too high wages or for wanting too much of life's little (very little, in their case) luxuries. It is quite another to be shown up by the camera's merciless eye as a spluttering buffoon. For many Labour Members it is one thing to allow themselves to be filmed addressing ecstatic crowds about building the new Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. It is quite another to be exposed, in a classier kind of soap opera, as the Percy Sugden or the Jack Duckworth of the Commons.

Some of the arguments used against letting in the cameras, such as that it would provoke even more irritating behaviour from the louder MPs and stimulate the rise of media favourites (like Percy and Jack) were deployed a long time ago in the rearguard action against allowing reporters to record parliamentary debates for the press. The question must be asked, now as then, whether Honourable Members are ashamed of their behaviour, whether they feel they have something to hide from the viewing voters.

If they were aware of what actually goes on in the world—and much of what they say and do leaves that open to doubt— MPs would realise that the exposure they have to fear most is of the uniformity of their impotence to affect the problems of capitalism. This is not only a matter of being shown up as ineffective but also of the viewers having it rammed home to them that the clashes in the Commons are sham affairs, at most over trivialities and not worth serious attention or of influencing how people vote at elections.

Television has already allowed us to sit at home while we watch our leaders, represented as all-knowing, all-caring, all-powerful (there is no point in having leaders unless they come up to these exacting standards) are shown up as blundering helplessly from one crisis to another sustained only by their own self-esteem. This is an encouragement to workers to develop their own consciousness, take their own decisions, run society in their own common interests. What is more likely to happen, if TV is allowed freely into the House, is that Members will mend their ways. No more dropping off during debates; no more yobbish heckling and jostling; only established eccentrics licensed to sport strange clothes and wild hair styles. It is important, to our legislators, that they keep up the pretence of representing our interests. And even more important to us that we see through the pretence.

50 Years Ago: The Scottish National Party (1989)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In their leaflet "Crisis!'' the Scottish National Party bemoan the extent to which work has been transferred from Scotland to English soil by the railway companies, and the number of factories which have been closed in the former country as compared with the latter. It may not be out of place to remind them that English capitalists do not hesitate to close works in Lancashire and open others in India and China, when it proves profitable, and no British Government has shown either ability or willingness to interfere with this process. Capitalists are not primarily concerned with geographical boundaries or the nationality of the people whom they exploit.

On the other hand, the Scottish nation, whether independent or united with England, is divided into classes, as is society elsewhere. It is this division which accounts for the existence of the evils from which the Scottish workers suffer. English rule did not account for the fact that the depopulation of the Scottish Highlands led to the congestion in its industrial slums. The Scottish chieftains themselves turned out their own clansmen in order to make way. first for sheep and later for deer, in order to fill their own pockets. The notorious Duchess of Sutherland, for example, had 15,000 people hunted out in the six years 1814-1820, and called in British soldiers to enforce the eviction. The political union merely facilitated the development of capitalist robbery with violence.

[From an article "A Scottish Red Herring", Socialist Standard, August 1939.]

Letters: The Poll Tax again (1989)

Letters to the Editors from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Poll Tax again

Dear Editors,

Your article on the Poll Tax stinks of ignorance. The claim that the working class will not, in effect, be any worse off is a false hope and does not bear truth. How do you explain my situation? I'm unemployed and receive a pittance of £26 a week. The Poll Tax will cost me about £3 a week for starters, which I can't pay, but also my parents are paying the full amount and with rents already rising this means that my board will go up by a fiver. That's £9 a week I'll lose and that's just the beginning! But will my benefits rise, as you claim will happen to wages? No, I don’t think so either. And I'm far from being in a minority.
C. J. Stephen 
Montrose, Tayside

Dear Comrades,

The article on the Poll Tax in the June issue seems misleading. To quote, “any extra charge . . . imposed on workers . . . will tend to be passed on, through the operation of market forces . . . to employers of labour”. You quote a capitalist MP, David Ricardo, in support.

This may have happened in 1819, but it is unlikely that it will apply to the present poll tax. If one's income is increased so does the charge. In the recent rise in retirement pensions, letters were issued, in my case, on 3 May, informing recipients of "a re-assessment to calculate the new rebate entitlement". So it—the Poll Tax—is a sum which can be changed during the year, in contrast to the old rating system.

There are other anomalies. I still don't have the total amount of what I have to pay. The council seem to make up the rules as they go along, leaving it to luckless office girls to explain to any, usually irate, enquirer. With rising prices, the situation becomes worse. Scottish people seem to have been used as guinea pigs!
John Keith 
Huntly, Aberdeenshire

Dear Editors,

I read the June issue of the Socialist Standard with much interest and I found much to agree with in both the articles and the object and declaration of principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. However, the article about the Poll Tax ('What about the Poll Tax?') which argued that it is not a working class or socialist issue, I found hard to follow.

You quote David Ricardo as saying that taxes on wages will be passed on to the employers via demands for higher wages. In my view, this is both an optimistic view on the effectiveness of the Trade Union leadership in fighting for higher wages, or even fighting for wages that are in line with inflation, and a negation of the real hardship that will be caused by the Poll Tax for many working class people and the importance for the working class to organise for their own defence—although it could be argued that such a defence could prolong the wage system.

As everyone can see with the present dock strike, the Trade Union leadership is not willing to break laws designed to protect the capitalist system, and what action has taken place has been organised by the dockers themselves. Surely it is this type of organisation, and that against the Poll Tax, that will help bring forward the idea that the working class can organise for themselves outside the capitalist system? Secondly, why should the working class pay a more proportionate amount of their income in tax than the rich?

I hope you will answer these points.
Michael Wadsworth,  
Longsight, Manchester

It is true that the editorial on the Poll Tax in our June issue did concentrate on the position of workers in employment. But the position of those not in employment and having their income made up to the poverty line by means-tested benefits is basically the same, except that in their case any increase in their income to compensate for the extra charge represented by the Poll Tax has to come from the government rather than through the operation of market forces aided by trade union action.

Of course, governments being notoriously penny-pinching in this field, this increase, introduced in April last year, will leave many worse off while many of those who existed just above the poverty line will find themselves levelled down to it. But to be squeezed in this way is the eternal fate of "the poor" under capitalism and underlines the urgent need to end the capitalist system which treats people who are useless to its profit-making activities in this way—and would continue to do so even if the Poll Tax were abolished and replaced by some other tax such as Labour's proposed local income and property tax.

We never denied “the real hardship that will be caused by the Poll Tax for many working class people". Our argument was that the way to mitigate this was not to wage a political struggle for the repeal of the Poll Tax but to press on with the struggle on the wages front while campaigning politically for the abolition of the wages system. It might indeed be argued that the defensive wages struggle could prolong the wages system but this is not our position. We say that as long as capitalism lasts workers should struggle to get the best price they can for the sale of their labour power.

We have no wish to defend “the Trade union leadership", but we must point out that the existing trade unions are more effective in the wages struggle than Michael Wadsworth gives them credit for: the figures show that at the moment wages are rising on average faster than the cost of living. Anti-Poll Tax groupings (quite apart from mainly being fronts for the Labour Party and/or various Trotskyist would-be vanguards trying to exploit working class discontent for their own anti-working class political ends) could never be as effective as trade unions or other forms of workplace organisation because they seek to organise workers as consumers and not as producers whereas it is only at the place of work—through strikes and the threat of strikes—that we workers have what little bargaining power we do under capitalism. Besides, a group based solely on fighting for the abolition of the Poll Tax can only divide the working class since it is never going to get the support of those workers who as individuals are going to pay less as Poll Tax than they did as rates. Such workers are to be numbered in millions: according to a special issue of Oxford Green News (Spring 1989) on the Poll Tax, “around 22.5 million people in the UK would be paying more and only 17.5 million paying less". Most of these 17.5 million will be workers, so what are they supposed to do to resist financial hardship? Organise politically to defend the Poll Tax? Some way to unite the working class! Socialists represent the common class interest of all workers and so can never be party to setting one group of workers against another over the crumbs that are available under capitalism.

Although we quoted David Ricardo, we could just as easily have quoted Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Here are a couple of quotations from Marx:
The level of wages expressed, not in terms of money, but in in terms of the means of subsistence necessary to the working man, that is the level of real, not of nominal wages, depends on the relationship between demand and supply. An alteration in the mode of taxation may cause a momentary disturbance, but will not change anything in the long run. (Marx-Engels. Collected Works, Vol 6. 1845-1848. p. 225).

If all taxes which bear on the working class were abolished root and branch, the necessary consequence would be the reduction of wages by the whole amount of taxes which today goes into them. Either the employers' profit would rise as a direct consequence by the same quantity, or else no more than an alteration in the form of tax-collecting would have taken place. Instead of the present system, whereby the capitalist also advances, as part of the wage, the taxes which the worker has to pay, he [the capitalist] would no longer pay them in this roundabout way, but directly to the state.(p. 329).
How does this work in practice? How does an extra charge on workers come to be passed on to employers of labour? First, we are not talking here about an individual extra charge imposed on an individual worker, but about an extra charge that is sufficiently widespread to enter into the average cost of production of labour power. So, a worker is Glasgow who previously paid no rates (because he or she was a "dependent" of someone who did) cannot take their Poll Tax bill for £300 to their employer and ask him to pay it. If, on the other hand, a majority of workers suddenly had to pay an extra £300 over and above what they had been paying, say in rates, towards the financing of local government then things would be different. The same sort of pressures would be generated for wages to rise as operate as a result of the fall in the purchasing power of money due to inflation: because their living standard would have fallen, workers would be more motivated to struggle for higher wages; once one group of workers had obtained an increase (through being better organised, through their employer having a full order book and not wanting the flow of profits to be interrupted, etc), then other employers are forced to follow suit to attract or retain workers.

The Poll Tax, however, is not a completely new charge on workers; it is a different charge, a different way of financing local government, replacing the rates. Since the rates—whether paid directly by those owning or buying their homes or indirectly as part of the rent paid by those in rented accommodation—have been long-established they will have become an element in the cost of living of wage and salary workers, so that existing wage rates will already reflect the average charge they represent. This means that the introduction of the Poll Tax will only exert an upward pressure on wages to the extent that the average Poll Tax charge turns out to be substantially higher than the previously- existing average Rates charge. For the time being, in fact, the Poll Tax. seems to be more of a redistribution of the charge for local government finance amongst workers with some paying less and some paying more than previously—in other words, a “redistribution of poverty" within the working class—than an extra charge that will tend to be passed on to employers. However this may change when the increases programmed in the Poll Tax for the coming years come into operation.

Between the Lines: The Workers Who Switched Off Wogan (1989)

The Between the Lines column from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Workers Who Switched Off Wogan

When, in happier times to come, the history of these rotten years of capitalism are written. special praise will be recorded for those men and women of the working class who pulled the plug on Terry Wogan. An industrial dispute is in progress at the BBC. and the bosses are being made to learn that without the workers to operate their means of mass communication even such unstoppable giants as Nicholas Witchell and ever-smiling Tel will be left talking to themselves.

The workers have called for a 16 per cent pay increase: profit-conscious Beeb-bosses refuse to offer more than 7 per cent—which is less than the current rate of inflation. The Chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, is paid £679 a week for doing his unelected, part-time job of running the BBC in line with the wishes of the government. The unelected BBC governors—all part-timers, with other incomes—receive £407 a week. In 1987 the top four BBC bosses were paid £225,000: this was increased by 33 per cent, to £340.000, last year This year the 140 top managers at the BBC have been given a £2,000 pay increase. Meanwhile, a clerk in the BBC's Engineering Department starts on £125 a week before tax: researchers in BBC News and Current Affairs start on £208 before tax. Since 1982 the pay of BBC staff has risen even more slowly than teachers, nurses and ambulance drivers.

At a strike meeting in London in June BBC workers were told by workers from the World Service that during the demonstrations in Peking workers there had passed on messages of solidarity to the BBC strikers. These are the people who do the really important work in the broadcasting service. Of course, there is a terrible irony in the fact that when the BBC workers are not out on their one-day strikes they are having to put out programmes attacking the action of other strikers whose problems are the result of the same wages-profit system which puts making money for the idle minority before rewarding hard work. It has been really encouraging to see the power of the unions to blank the BBC screens and force the management to show repeat programmes and abbreviated news reports.

Wogan does homelessness

All good things come to an end. and just as the strikers took off Wogan from our screens. so it came to pass that the strike day was over and the Million-Dollar Smile returned. On 3 July Wogan "did" homelessness. Well, it was a good subject to do. Esther Rantzen had "done" incest and Lenny Henry had "done" starvation in Africa last year.

So, let's "do" the homeless. In half-an-hour, of course. That should crack the problem. This is the way TV “does" social problems. Bring on Tel—my word, he looks sincere tonight, they must be "doing" a Big Subject. Trot on a couple of homeless kids from cardboard city. They look like sad cases. It’s all wrong that they should be homeless. Tel looks compassionate. Then he looks at his watch. Hang on to your hats, lads and lasses, the half hour's nearly over and we ain't “done" the experts.

On trips David Trippier, the Junior Housing Minister. With him is Sheila McKechme of Shelter who explains just how miserable life is for the homeless. She says that there are an official 370,000 homeless people in England and Wales (116,000 homeless families) plus the 100,000 or 150,000 unrecorded kids who sleep rough, beg for a living and are not even counted by the government statistics. She points out that if you are under eighteen and not on a YTS scheme you are not entitled to state income support—but if you're homeless you can't get on to a YTS scheme. The young homeless are compelled to beg.

Trippier waffles on about the importance of housing associations to provide cheap accommodation. (Which is odd, because in the last ten years, while the Thatcher government has placed its hopes in such bodies to build homes, the number of houses built by housing associations has fallen from 40,000 to 25,000 a year). There are 102,000 empty properties in Britain. Nobody has counted the unused bedrooms, but one would not lose too much cash in a bet that our Terry has more than a few in his house.

Enough of such talk; half-an-hour's up and we've "done" the homeless. Switch over to Coronation Street. No homeless people there. Although I for one would rather live in a cardboard box than in Albert Square—better homeless than brainless. I say.

Down on the Farm

The Killing Fields (BBC1, 2 July, 11.05am) was about the dangers facing farm workers. Last year 56 workers were killed on British farms—agriculture is second only to the construction industry for occupational fatalities. These deaths are sometimes caused by personal negligence, but often by cost-cutting refusal by farm employers to bother with safety standards. There are only 160 safety inspectors for the whole of Britain; they cover about 2.000 farms each and do not visit farms more than once every three to nine years. Children of thirteen are legally allowed to drive tractors on farms and this was defended by Richard Epton of the National Farmers Union who pointed out that this kind of work is good training for kids to become efficient farm workers later in life. We were told the sad story of fourteen-year-old Brendan Dixon who was killed on a Norfolk farm where he was a part-time employee.

Another case of profit before safety: money before life. Now, that could be a subject for Wogan to "do" if he finds himself with a spare half-hour to fill—that is, if the BBC strikers haven't filled it in for him.
Steve Coleman

SPGB Meetings (1989)

Party News from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard