Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Socialist Party's Summer School on Technology (2020)

Party News from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party’s 2020 Summer School looks at technological progress and its application in the past, present and future. weekend of talks and discussion is an exciting opportunity to share and explore revolutionary ideas with others, through the SPGB’s Discord server. From the development of the first tools and the wheel through to the invention of the printing press, the steam engine, the microprocessor and beyond, technology has always shaped how we live. Scientific developments take place in the context of the social and economic conditions of the time. In capitalism, technological progress and how technology is used are driven by what is profitable and cost effective more than by what is really needed and wanted. This means that technology is often used in ways which go against our best interests, whether through environmental damage, the development of ever-more destructive weapons or the misuse of data gathered online and through social media. In a future socialist society based on common ownership and democratic organisation of industries and services, technology could really be used to benefit us, in harmony with the environment. To join in or for further information, e-mail

Friday 7th August 19:30

Is Marxism technological determinism? 
Speaker: Adam Buick

“In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
(Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

“It is the development of tools, of these technical aids which men direct, which is the main cause, the propelling force of all social development. It is self-understood that the people are ever trying to improve these tools so that their labour be easier and more productive, and the practice they acquire in using these tools, leads their thoughts upon further improvements. Owing to this development, a slow or quick progress of technique takes place, which at the same time changes the social forms of labour. This leads to new class relations, new social institutions and new classes.”
(Anton Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, 1912) 

To what extent, if at all, is this a theory of technological determinism? How do changes in technology lead to a change of society?

Saturday 8th August 10:00

How the Socialist Party can use technology better.
Speaker: Jake AWOFA

Socialist Party sympathiser Jake AWOFA’s site ‘A World of Free Access’ has a following of 17,000 on Facebook, and he joins us from Western Australia to open a discussion on ideas about how the Socialist Party can make better use of technology. How can our online and social media presence be improved? Can technology help us be (even) more democratic? What are our views on Discord?

Saturday 8th August 14:00

Ideology as technology.
Speaker: Bill Martin

This talk looks at how the way we think is a form of technology. Starting with mundane objects, like a bicycle, it looks at how the ideas behind inventions are not the outcomes of lone geniuses and inspiration, but are connected to social relations and practices. It discounts the idea that history is driven by simple technological changes, and looks back to the age of conquest to show it was how technology was applied, rather than the possession of technology itself, that was behind the establishment of the European empires. It concludes by looking at the implications for socialism and how a future society might use technology.

Saturday 8th August 16:00

How we feel about technology – the views of Günther Anders and beyond.
Speaker: Mike Foster

‘Philosophical anthropologist’ Günther Anders’ theories about our attitudes towards technology were formed in the middle of the last century, when television and the nuclear bomb represented the latest in human achievements. He argued that technology makes us feel ashamed, not because of the impact of the mass media or the threat of nuclear war, but because we have become inferior to the technology we have created. Since Anders’ time, technological progress has given us smartphones, artificial intelligence and the world wide web, feats which he would argue further humanity’s obsolescence. This talk gives a Marxist perspective on Anders’ theories and their implications in today’s hi-tech world.

Saturday 8th August 18:00

Quiz night

Saturday 8th August 19:00


Sunday 9th August 10:00

Digital technologies as a core of social organisation of the future.
Speaker: Leon Rozanov

Direct democracy may have worked well in ancient Greek city-states with thousands of decision-makers. Now with most modern states having millions of citizens, the most widespread form of democracy is representative, and it is easily hijacked by the interests of capital owners or political figures who serve them. Even if socialist ideas were to become more widespread, it remains a question, how exactly would democratic principles that we all consider indispensable be put to work for a socialist society to function efficiently? One of the earliest markers of human societies differentiating themselves from other animals was language, and later its written form, text. We have learned to pass knowledge on to future generations, and the earliest texts are almost exclusively collections of rules and laws that helped organise societies according to their commonly shared values and beliefs. If we want to create a successful future society based on socialist principles, we need to cement these principles in the text of modern technologies – software code – that will have principles of equality, fairness and resource- and need-based economy built into the digital technologies specifically designed to help run this society.

Sunday 9th August 11:30

The 4th Industrial Revolution, what it is, what it means, what capitalism is doing with it, and what socialism could do with it.
Speaker: Paddy Shannon

Just as people didn’t stop using stone as a material when they learned to use bronze, then iron, and then plastic, industrial revolutions have also overlapped, with first-generation steam turbines still producing second-generation electrical power, controlled by third-generation digital computer interfaces. Now a tsunami of new acronyms including AI, IoT and VR is breaking over the top of all that, the so-called 4th industrial revolution. If you’re still having trouble figuring out how to do online shopping on your home computer, you’d really better strap in and hold onto your hat, because capitalism is about to go to warp speed. From the development of the first tools and the wheel through to the invention of the printing press, the steam engine, the microprocessor and beyond, technology has always shaped how we live. Scientific developments take place in the context of the social and economic conditions of the time. In capitalism, technological progress and how technology is used are driven by what is profitable and cost effective more than by what is really needed and wanted. This means that technology is often used in ways which go against our best interests, whether through environmental damage, the development of ever-more destructive weapons or the misuse of data gathered online and through social media. In a future socialist society based on common ownership and democratic organisation of industries and services, technology could really be used to benefit us, in harmony with the environment.

Proper Gander: Turning The Page (2020)

The Proper Gander Column from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In 1969, The Sun newspaper was a left-leaning broadsheet, believe it or not, and one which was running at a financial loss for its owners. This all changed when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch and relaunched as a more populist red-top tabloid to directly compete with the Daily Mirror. As part of this revamp, The Sun started to feature photos of topless women, and within 12 months its sales had doubled. Since the 1970s, ‘page three’ has been most associated with The Sun, although such photos have also appeared in other tabloids. A recent documentary on Channel 4, Page Three: The Naked Truth, told the story of this seedy tradition and how it has portrayed and affected women and girls. Unsurprisingly, it’s money which has driven the ‘page three’ industry. Lucrative contracts have drawn people in to being ‘glamour models’, there to make profits for publishers and promoters.

The 1980s was when ‘page three’ was most well-known, especially after Samantha Fox became a household name. When she was aged 16, her mother sent clothed photos of her to the Sunday People for its ‘Girl of the Year’ contest. This led to a photo-shoot, and Fox agreed to topless photos thinking they wouldn’t be published, as she was still at school. She and her family were shocked when they saw one of these pictures plastered on the Sunday People’s front page. Fox remembers being told by a photographer ‘you’ve got the face of a child but the body of a woman’, and only realised how sinister this was in hindsight. Some newspapers had sickening ‘countdowns’ to when their models reached 16 and they could be shown partially naked. All of this was somehow acceptable, or at least just something to put up with. It wasn’t until 2003 that legislation came in to make 18 the minimum age to appear unclothed in print.

The age of models wasn’t the focus of campaigns against ‘page three’ during the 1980s, when attempts were made to ban it entirely. In 1986, MP Clare Short introduced a Private Members Bill which proposed prohibiting newspapers from publishing sexualised pictures of naked or partially naked women. When she raised this in the House of Commons, many male MPs’ reaction was laughter, and presumably they were those whose votes made the bill fail. For The Sun, who branded Short a ‘killjoy’ and ‘fat and jealous’ when she renewed her campaign in 2004, this was decent publicity as much as anything.

As summed up by Clare Short, ‘what page three says is ‘take me, use me, throw me away’’. This isn’t only an attitude towards women which ‘page three’ photos encourage among the public, it also describes how models have been treated. Being groped (i.e. sexually assaulted) on a chat show or being preyed on by drunks at parties were seen as part of the job. A particularly sad example of how women have been treated is what happened to Emma Morgan. In the 1990s, her boyfriend sent a topless photo of her to the Sunday Sport, which printed it without her knowledge. That Morgan (like Fox) wasn’t considered important enough to even be asked if she minded having such an image published highlights the extent to which women have been demeaned. Morgan’s modelling career started by being used and it ended in a similar way, when she says she was set up by an undercover journalist who filmed her taking illegal drugs. The story appeared in the News of the World with the headline ‘Page 3 Girls’ Drugs And Vice Scandal’ and as a result Morgan lost her contracts, spat out by the same industry which had got her into the situation.

An argument in support of ‘page three’ is that women are free to choose their own roles, and if they enjoy being a model, then why not? Some of the models themselves would agree with this, but it rings hollow to those who were tricked into starting a modelling career, often when still a child, or who found this was their only opportunity to escape poverty. The wealth and the celebrity lifestyle came at a price for Emma Morgan and others. Debee Ashby, like Samantha Fox, first had topless pictures published without her consent at the age of 16, and later regretted her subsequent modelling career, as it led to her suffering from bulimia and undergoing therapy.

The decline of ‘page three’ came about not through changes to legislation, but following a grassroots campaign run by author and actor Lucy-Anne Holmes. Her ‘No More Page 3’ crusade began in 2012 when she noticed the disparity between how men and women were depicted in newspapers. She says that men were represented as active and industrious, but photos of women on page three were sending out the message that they have to be ‘pretty and passive’. Holmes said that the campaign wasn’t against pornography as such, just that a ‘family newspaper’ isn’t the place for it. Three years later, The Sun retired ‘page three’, although not on its website until 2017. The Daily Star didn’t stop printing photos of topless women until 2019, and the Sport newspapers still continue the degrading tradition.

Of course, it’s a step forward that fewer people now believe it’s acceptable for women – and girls – to be reduced to ‘page three’ fodder, but the feature’s demise doesn’t seem all that significant considering that far more extreme images can easily be found with a few clicks of a button. It’s likely that ‘page three’ has largely died out more because newspapers can no longer rely on softcore porn to sell copies than due to campaigns. What’s profitable has shifted away from print to online. So, rather than ‘page three’ being brought down, it’s instead been superseded. The market will find new ways to objectify women as long as there’s money to be made.
Mike Foster

Fairy Tales (2020)

Book Review from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Castle of Truth and Other Revolutionary Tales. By Hermynia Zur Mühlen. Edited and Translated by Jack Zipes for the series, Oddly Modern Fairy Tales. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Hermynia Zur Mühlen, born into the Austrian upper class in 1883, earned the sobriquet ‘The Red Countess’ by rebelling against her upbringing and embracing a left-wing outlook. She did, however, marry an Estonian/German baron and tried to convert his estates into a cooperative enterprise under the control of the workers. The project failed, but illustrates her acceptance, common amongst many left-wingers, that socialism is something brought to the workers.

A member of the German Communist Party, Zur Mühlen began to reflect on how children’s literature could change their socialisation. In 1921, her first book of radical fairy tales, What Little Peter’s Friends Told Him, was published. Many more followed, including the one that lends itself to the title of this collection, The Castle of Truth.

The first impression on reading these tales is the didactic nature of them. The rich are greedy and careless of the lives of their workers. Meanwhile, those workers are portrayed as being too dumb to see how they are being done down.

In The Carriage Horse (1924), militant unionism is expressed through the eponymous horse coming among the exploited farm horses and organising them to strike for better fodder. The strike is undermined by dumb oxen who take on the tasks of the horses, until they agree to stop doing so, but only through the threat of violence. The horses win their fodder rise, but remain essentially in the same situation they were at the beginning. The oxen remain dumb.

This theme runs through the stories. Even when a worker acquires the wherewithal to become a capitalist in Ali, the Carpet Weaver (1923), he quickly transforms into rapacious employer. The bloated plutocrat beloved of Bolshevik posters was an obvious model.

Another element becomes apparent when Ali gains that wherewithal through a good deed supernaturally rewarded. His eventual comeuppance also comes via the ‘Good Spirit’ who will return at some unspecified future point to judge all exploiters.

Although Zur Mühlen was a lapsed Catholic, perhaps, as is often claimed, Catholicism is never entirely set aside. Come the 1950s she was a lapsed communist, having parted company with the KPD during the rising Stalinism of the 1930s. She turned back to religion, if not Catholicism, which perhaps provides an alternative understanding of her tales.

Zur Mühlen does deal with a variety of political issues: the absence of concern for workers’ wellbeing (The Coals, 1921), critical thinking (Why, 1922), ideological myopia (The Glasses, 1923), technology (The Servant, 1923), nationalism (The Troublemakers, 1923), persistence of radical ideas (The Castle of Truth, 1924), religion (The Fence, 1924) and others exploring similar themes.

Twenty years later Zur Mühlen was writing in a more traditional mode of fairy tale. The Crown of the King of Domnonee (1944) involves an innocent younger prince betrayed by malevolent elder siblings that all resolves to a happy, royal, ending. The Story of the Wise Judge (1944) revolves around a poor but wise young woman who solves a number of riddles to prosper. The radical tropes have largely disappeared.

The politics of the 1920s stories are those of idealised Bolshevism, liberation being brought to the working class by the enlightened, or a reformed, more benign capitalism. Society is still one in which money plays a crucial part, just more fairly. There is no sense that capitalism, state or moderated, remains capitalism.

These tales, illustrated by George Grosz, John Heartfield, Heinrich Vogeler and Karl Holtz in the spare pen and ink style of the 1920s, were written for children. It is difficult to see the appeal in them for the young who would have to be old enough to appreciate the language and concepts, making them too old to be interested in fairy tales. A story read to two children aged 7 and 9, voracious readers both, did not make it to the end. Different times maybe, but were children more receptive a century ago?

That this collection comes from the Princeton University Press declares its academic interest. This it has in abundance for the insights it gives into Communist political thinking of the time, the identification of state capitalism with Soviet Communism and the issues outlined above. It sits within the ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’ series edited by Jack Zipes, who has done a commendable job of translating Zur Mühlen’s tales.

If you are looking for a collection of fairy tales for children, this is not it. Should your interest be in the literary expression of political and historical ideas, then it is.
Dave Alton

Right Direction (2020)

Pamphlet Review from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Food, Health and Capitalism. Covid-19 and Beyond. Published by the Anarchist Communist Group, June 2020. 45 pages.

The Anarchist Communist Group (ACG), formed in 2018 by former members of the Anarchist Federation in Great Britain, states its aim as ‘a complete transformation of society’, explained as ‘the working class overthrowing capitalism, abolishing the State, getting rid of exploitation, hierarchies and oppressions, and halting the destruction of the environment’. Among the group’s activities is the production of pamphlets arguing their case, the latest of which looks at the way capitalism produces food and the part this has played in the Covid-19 virus.

Despite its limited length, this is a well-researched and highly informative publication which outlines very effectively how the profit system, the driving force of today’s world capitalist economy, dictates an increasingly intensive exploitation of land and animals, leading to a ‘perfect storm environment’ for diseases which are likely to be infectious. It outlines the conditions of industrial farming that, after causing previous virus epidemics such as MERS, Ebola and SARS, have now led to the current Covid-19 pandemic which in its indiscriminate worldwide spread is causing panic and threatening social and economic breakdown. It explains how these viruses stem from a form of intensive agriculture, in which ‘the more you can produce with fewer inputs, the greater the profit’, with the effect on human health (not to speak of the welfare of animals) always a secondary consideration.

So, for example, both intensive factory farming of domestic animals and the slaughter, preparation and sale of an increasing range of wildlife in the Far East in crowded and insanitary conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for deadly viruses to ‘jump’ from animals to humans and then spread indiscriminately. In addition, the quadrupling of global meat production in the last half century has resulted in most land resources being used to feed animals destined for slaughter rather than to grow food directly for human consumption. This has led to an epidemic of obesity among some populations, but at the same time, as the pamphlet points out, in many parts of the world people die of starvation and, even for example in the UK, it quotes estimates that, even before the present virus hit, at least 3 million were going hungry, while 14.6 million were suffering from food insecurity. The entirely irrefutable reason given for all this is that, while some people get obese because of the cheap, unhealthy food that they eat, others go hungry because they do not have the money to buy enough food of any description. This, the pamphlet insists – again irrefutably – is quite simply the outcome of a system that puts profit before need. As it says, ‘capitalism has penetrated everywhere on earth in its search for profits’.

What remedy then does the ACG propose to resolve deadly industrial farming practices, food produced for cheapness rather than quality, and, even in the more economically advanced parts of the world, poverty amid plenty? It advocates ‘the need to create an agriculture system which is not based on the need to compete in the market economy and in which human need and health is the main priority’ and goes on to say that ‘instead of tinkering with the system… we need to get rid of it altogether and replace it with a food system that can truly meet the needs of everyone… the aim is for food to be free’. So far so good. This seems to mirror the aim of the Socialist Party, ie a society of free access with production for need not for profit. But then, this pamphlet, in its final section entitled ‘Basic Principles of a Revolutionary New Food and Agriculture’, seems to water down this objective advocating not a free access society as such but rather single initiatives such as ‘land reform’ ‘collectivising agriculture’ and ‘developing co-operatives for distribution and consumption’. All it seems within the framework of the current overall capitalist system, this being implicit in the characteristically reformist call to ‘begin to transform our society now’. A pity, because the way to truly transform society is not for individuals or groups to fight capitalism’s imperatives within the current system but to band together to persuade the majority of wage and salary earners to take democratic revolutionary action to usher out the whole framework of capitalism (profit society) and bring in socialism (a free access society based on the satisfaction of human needs).
Howard Moss

Remembering Marx (2020)

Book Review from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx 200. The Significance of Marxism in the 21st Century. Edited by Mary Davis. Praxis Press. 2020. 120 pages.

This is a collection of the talks given at an international conference organised by the Marx Memorial Library to mark the bicentenary in 2018 of the birth of Marx.

The Marx Memorial Library was set up in 1933 by the Communist Party and fellow travellers and is still controlled by successors of that party. The contributions are a mixed bag. There are some interesting contributions on technology and on ecology. The political ones reflect the views of the organisers.

There are a couple of claims that need challenging. John McDonnell in the opening article makes the dubious statement that ‘from the earliest days the ideas of Karl Marx’ were part of the Labour tradition. This is not so. The Labour Party was set up as a trade union pressure group in the House of Commons. Most of its leaders were Liberals known as ‘Lib-Labs’. Even Keir Hardie explicitly rejected the class struggle.

The editor, Mary Davis, says in her contribution that, because women’s wages are on average lower than those of ‘white males’, ‘Women are clearly super-exploited, thus the increased surplus value yielded by their labour power greatly enriches the owners of the means of production.’ This is based on the widespread but un-Marxian misconception that the degree of exploitation is measured by the level of the wage a worker gets – if you get low wages that means that you are ‘super-exploited’ compared with those who get paid more.

However, a high or higher wage does not necessarily mean that less surplus value goes to the employer. It will if the job is the same; in that case an increase in wages would reduce the employer’s profits. A higher wage in a different job, on the other hand, generally reflects a higher grade of labour power as one that is more productive, both in the sense of producing more in a given period of time and of more new value created. In fact, it could be that the higher-paid worker’s wage is a smaller proportion of the greater surplus value produced than that of a lower-paid worker in another job, ie, that the rate of exploitation is higher.

Women workers (not female capitalists and so not women in general), like all wage workers, are exploited and ‘equal pay for equal work’ is a sound trade union demand but this does not mean that those on low pay are more exploited in the Marxian sense than the rest of the working class.
Adam Buick

SPGB Discord Meetings (2020)

Party News from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard