Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Spycatchers (2022)

Book Review from the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

A good number of years ago the branch of the Socialist Party I’m a member of was holding its meetings in a room in a pub on the edge of Swansea town centre. We would advertise our fortnightly Monday meetings via posters, leaflets and in the local daily paper. When I arrived at the pub early for one of the meetings and stood at the bar, the landlady informed me, quite innocently, that a detective had been there asking what we were doing. I thanked her for telling me and suggested that, if he came again, she might tell him that our meetings were open to everyone, nothing was hidden and he was perfectly free to find out by attending. She thanked me and we heard nothing more, but at the time it reminded me of conversations members sometimes had about being spied on, either by having their telephone tapped or by someone from the Special Branch attending meetings covertly or even infiltrating the Party by becoming members.

I’d always wondered about this, but on balance thought it was unlikely to be happening. After all, if even a small number of such people had attended our meetings or otherwise found out what we were about, surely they would quickly realise that we didn’t pose a threat to ‘national security’ in the sense that the Security Services understood it. While it’s true that we are ‘dissidents’, we have never supported one government or state against another and we have never advocated any kind of violence. Yet that incident couldn’t but shift my thinking a little and what now, many years later, has shifted it even more is a recently published book entitled Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century by David Caute (Verso, 2022, 404 pp.). It’s a book that draws on official MI5 documents released to the National Archive and so publicly available which provide startling insights into the enormous efforts (and massive resources) put into tracking the activities and affiliations of an extraordinarily wide range of people who, over most of the 20th century, were suspected of being sympathetic to or interested in regimes deemed to be enemies of the British state (largely the Soviet Union) or were seen as constituting a possible ‘threat to national security’.

Threat to national security?
The main thing that switched on the light of suspicion in the minds of the security men and women (mainly men) of MI5 (or Special Branch, as its police service was called) was any connection whatever to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) or to anyone associated with it. While it’s true that the Communist Party was in thrall to Moscow and in effect the British arm of the Soviet regime during most of the years of its existence and some of the individuals targeted by MI5 were members of the CPGB, many were not and some had only peripheral connections to it or to any of its members or sympathisers. But MI5 did not, as David Caute’s book shows, stop at the CPGB. It extended its investigations to any other organisations it considered potentially ‘subversive’, for example to small left-wing groups who were not actually supportive of the Stalinist Soviet regime and in fact were disciples of Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky. Their investigation also extended to trade unions, to anti-colonial national independence supporters, and, from the 1970s onwards, to the IRA. Given MI5’s apparent failure, as made clear in this book, to distinguish between different kinds of potential ‘subversives’ , it seems quite likely that not just those small Trotskyist groups but any group with the word ‘socialist’ in its name was being targeted, and perhaps still are today – even if, as the author points out, much more of their attention nowadays is likely to be focused on newly perceived threats to national security such as militant Islam and, maybe, a resurgent non-Soviet Russia.

But what of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the detective asking questions in that Swansea pub? Surely anyone attending a single meeting or reading just one Party pamphlet or issue of the Socialist Standard would have understood that we didn’t pose an immediate, violent, non-democratic threat to the British state but that our aim was to openly spread socialist ideas among workers with a view to a socialist society being established democratically through the ballot box once the majority had come to understand those ideas? Yes, but what emerges from the pages of this book is that neither the security system nor its operatives stood out for their brightness or intelligence. Despite countless and ongoing phone taps, mail interceptions, buggings, burglaries, physical surveillance and even infiltration by ‘moles’, the released papers investigated by David Caute show that they seemed to find it difficult to work out whether individuals or organisations constituted genuine, plausible threats to ‘national security’ or whether they just happened to be friends or associates of those who might have ‘subversion’ in their minds and might quite innocently have found themselves in particular places at particular times. So, as we learn, ‘the net cast was incredibly broad’ and ‘guilt by association was paramount’, even if that association was sometimes imagined rather than real. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Socialist Party and its members, though they could not be sensibly categorised as any kind of immediate threat to national security, should be (and probably still are) lumped together with those who perhaps could be seen as some kind of threat – even if of course most of them weren’t.

Incompetence and bungling
The result of all the glaring incompetence recorded in this book (referred to by the writer with typically entertaining wry commentary as ‘the stumbling confusion of M15 minds’) is that most of the targeting of potential spies came to nothing, simply because they weren’t spies and never constituted any feasible threat to the British state, while the real spies, such as Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Philby, operated for many years before their activities became known. The lenses of MI5 were clouded partly because it was staffed at the top by out-of-touch former military and colonial officers and its agents on the ground, the ‘Special Branch’ operatives, were, as already noted, simply not very bright. They often included manifestly irrelevant and sometimes unintentionally comic details in their reports. Surveillance of the home of poet C. Day Lewis, for example, produced such vital information as ‘seldom wears a hat, not altogether smart appearance in dress’, and the agent reporting from Harwich on the historian Christopher Hill returning from Russia wrote: ‘He has the appearance of a communist; but his baggage, which was searched by HM Customs, did not contain any subversive literature.’ Charlie Chaplin came under investigation but was deemed to be ‘a progressive or radical rather than communist’, even though it was widely known, as the book points out, that ‘Chaplin had long been an out-and-out fellow-traveller of Stalin’s Russia’. The contents of the papers examined here also reveal MI5 culture as highly bigoted and in particular, perhaps predictably, racist and anti-semitic. One memo quoted states that ‘the chief Bolshevik leaders are not Russians but Jews who carefully hide their real names’. Another report talks about a suspect’s home being visited by ‘a number of young men who have the appearance of Communist Jews’, while an uncle of the historian and Communist Party member Eric Hobsbawm is described as ‘sneering, half Jew in appearance, having a long nose’.

Intellectuals and others
Yet what we have in this study is only a small taste of everything MI5 has got up to over the years. That is firstly because the records made publicly available only cover people already deceased, and secondly because this study focuses only on ‘intellectuals’, (eg, writers, artists, scientists, historians, politicians, actors, musicians, lawyers), for the most part well-known ones (eg, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Jacob Bronowski, Cecil Day-Lewis, Michael Foot, Eric Hobsbawm, Doris Lessing, Ewan McColl, George Orwell, J.B. Priestley, Paul Robeson, Stephen Spender, E.P Thompson). Yet, despite the 200+ suspect ‘intellectuals’ covered, many records relating to deceased individuals have, as the author tells us, not been released (without any reason being given) and there is significant redaction of some of those that have been. So who knows how much other bungling, how many other dead ends would be revealed if the totality of security records were available, especially if those also included people still alive? And who knows whether, if the net were cast wider than those the authors see as ‘intellectuals’, suspicions many other people have had about being spied on over the years would be confirmed? And who knows whether there would not be reference to the Socialist Party and any covert investigations carried out over the years on both the organisation and its members, living or dead? From what we find here, there very likely would.

It should be added that, despite the vast majority of this activity leading nowhere in particular and being a pale shadow of the McCarthyite witchhunt that took place in the US in the 1950s where intense persecution took place of anyone deemed to be or to have been in any way associated with ‘communism’, MI5 spying did nevertheless have negative consequences for some in the shape, for example, of difficulty in finding or keeping employment or being refused entry to or residence in Britain if you were a non-British subject. And in some cases, when spying was proved, prosecution did lead to prison sentences, such as the 10 years given to physicist Alan Nunn May (he served 6½).

All this took place and was sanctioned under both Conservative and Labour governments, with Caute’s book highlighting the particular emphasis put on this work by the immediate post-war Labour government under Clement Attlee, who in 1947 introduced a new more stringent vetting system. One of the results of this – perhaps ironic – was that a not insignificant number of Labour Party politicians, even leading ones such as Harold Wilson and Tony Benn, found their way on to the ‘red list’ and the author of this book has discovered that others still living (eg, Harriet Harman) have unreleased files against their names.

The BBC and democracy
The BBC was complicit too. David Caute dedicates a whole chapter, ‘The BBC Toes the Line’, to illustrating how, until recent times at least, the BBC was ‘up MI5’s armpit’, functioning as a servile collaborator of the Secret Services. It was, as he calls it, ‘a semi-covert department of state’, which even carried out its own extensive vetting procedures on those within it or seeking to enter it to check whether there was any sniff of ‘subversion’ about them. This led, for example, to the BBC cancelling a planned series of radio talks on atomic power scheduled to be given by a listed MI5 ‘suspect’, the celebrated scientist Jacob Bronowski.

Finally any security set up, any ‘spy industry’ involves a colossal squandering of resources, human and material, and, as David Caute’s book uncovers, MI5 was no exception. It should be added however that this kind of waste is an inevitable function of a social system that pits capitalist classes and governments of whatever kind (even those that may falsely call themselves ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’) against one another in the battle for political and economic control of the world’s resources. But it also throws significant light on the severe limitations that the system, even in so called ‘liberal democracies’, inevitably imposes, via institutions like MI5, on freedom of speech and free exchange of ideas and thought. In the end capitalism, whether it takes the form of state control or a relatively unfettered market, needs state secrecy to assist the national interests of each country’s wealth holders in their never-ending quest for profit as they compete on the world market with those elsewhere who own and control the world’s wealth.
Howard Moss

Urban Mining – E-Waste Recycling (2022)

From the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The more modern neo-Malthusians disparage the idea that a post-scarcity society of bountiful abundance is possible by insisting that the world’s resources are finite and such a vision is unsustainable. Economic growth and calculating the planet’s ‘carrying capacity’ are conceived in their capitalist context. One of socialism’s aims will be to reduce waste of all kinds where the goal will be conservation. Quality goods will replace built-in obsolescence. Cleaning up their mess robs corporations of their profits, the costs in human health and environmental problems are not their worry. With socialism, resources will no longer be frittered away and instead people will devote their energy and skills to healing a sickened poisoned planet.

Mining is a dangerous, dirty, destructive and damaging method of extracting metals and minerals. It is harmful to the environment and to the local communities. Yet it is viewed as the inevitable price to be paid to supply the world’s industry and technology.

Could it be different?

Some of the richest deposits of valuable elements necessary for manufacturing are found in refuse dumps and landfill, ranging from gold in smartphones to cobalt in electric car batteries.

Tons of disused electronic equipment are wastefully dumped every year. According to UN research, 50 million tons of e-waste were produced in 2018. Discarded mobile phones, televisions, computers, car parts and countless other items contain varying amounts of gold and silver, lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and zinc. They can be reused if processed properly.

The annual production of electronic goods worldwide requires 320 tons of gold and 7,500 tons of silver. Yet only 15-20% of the world’s electronics are recycled annually.

The US generated an estimated 6.92 million tons of e-waste in 2019. To put that into monetary terms, the value of the materials contained in those electronics is estimated to be around $7.49 billion. But in terms of labour, it is millions of hours of toil.

If we look at cell phones alone, one ton of cell phones produces 150g of gold. Not a lot but consider that one ton of ore excavated from a gold mine produces only 5g of gold. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that for every million units recycled, one could extract: 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 33 pounds of palladium and 35 thousand pounds of copper.

‘…we need a circular economy for these materials. At the moment, we’re just mining them out of the ground constantly,’ Elizabeth Ratcliffe from the Royal Society of Chemistry has explained (

Prof Richard Herrington, the head of Earth sciences at London’s Natural History Museum, has suggested that ‘…by 2035, we’ll have sorted out a good source of recycled metal; we’ll need to continue some mining. But hopefully, by 2050, we would have built a truly circular economy so that most if not all of what we need can come from metals that we’ve already mined and are already being used in products and technologies’ (

However, the Socialist Party doubts such optimism. Costs of recycling deter investments in urban mining. Currently, companies choosing to skirt the regulations around how e-waste is processed means more money for them in the short term.

In the name of profit production, capitalism depletes an enormous amount of the world’s resources and its people’s abilities. We’ve got the technology to reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle much of what we throw away, but its use isn’t encouraged enough by our current system. Before we can apply more sensible and practical approaches to using our resources, capitalism itself needs to get thrown onto the rubbish dump. Production can be geared to meeting needs in an ecologically acceptable way, instead of making profits without consideration for the environment.

The Socialist Party is not appealing to individuals or governments to launch lifestyle campaigns to recycle more. We want systemic change to make a real difference.
“Not enough is being produced, that is the root of the whole matter. But why is not enough being produced? Not because the limits of production have been reached — even for today ndand by present-day means. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies, but rather by the number of purchasers with full purses. Bourgeois society has no desire, and can have no desire, to produce more. Those impecunious bellies, the labour which cannot be utilised with profit and is thus incapable of purchasing, fall prey to the mortality figures. Let us assume that there is a sudden boom in industry, such as is constantly occurring, to enable this labour to be employed with profit, then the labour will acquire the money with which to purchase, and the means of subsistence have as yet always been found. It is the endless circulus vitiosus [vicious circle] in which the whole political economy revolves. One takes bourgeois conditions in their entirety as one’s premise, and then proves that each separate part is a necessary part thereof — ergo, an ‘eternal law’ (Marx, letter to F.A. Lange, 29 March 1865).

According to Need (2022)

From the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ is an old socialist slogan. Both parts of it prompt further questions, and here we will look at the second half: what are needs? How are they determined? Do people differ in what they need?

Simply put, a person’s needs are what are required to live a secure and fulfilling life. This would include at least access to adequate food, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, travel, leisure, entertainment. This is not meant to be a complete list, just an initial indication of some of the needs that people have. Poverty is sometimes defined in terms of social exclusion (see the October 2014 Socialist Standard), which means being unable to access what most people take for granted. This would cover decent housing, healthy food, good-quality healthcare, buying warm clothes, affording fares on public transport, going to the cinema, having an annual holiday. Doing useful work could be included too. These are people’s essential needs, and capitalism is often unable to ensure that they can be met. In a socialist society, nobody would be excluded in this way.

It may be said that there is a lot more that people need, or at least want, from a fast car to a top-notch stereo system, from a season ticket to their favourite football team to a luxurious second home in the countryside. In socialism people will define their own needs, and they will surely vary between individuals. But things like a fast car and a second home are really reflections of a capitalist society that puts emphasis on people’s status and showing off. Free access does not mean that people will take home with them large amounts of potatoes or toilet paper or light bulbs, as they have far more common sense than that.

A more elaborate theory of needs was outlined by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, in an article first published in 1943. He revised his views somewhat over the years, and his work has been subject to a number of criticisms (eg that it is based primarily on consideration of white men in relatively prosperous countries). Nevertheless, it is a reasonable place to start a fuller consideration of human needs.

Maslow’s original theory involved five kinds of need. Physiological needs enable the human body to function, and include food, drink, shelter, warmth. Safety needs include protection from the elements and security from danger, whether diseases or wild animals. Love and belongingness would include friendship, intimacy, affiliation to a group. Esteem needs involve respect from others and a personal feeling of dignity and independence. Lastly, self-actualisation would cover personal potential and fulfilment. Importantly, he argued that these needs were set in a hierarchy, with more basic needs having to be satisfied before higher ones can be. Thus, we clearly have to be able to survive before we can worry about self-esteem. But, as has been pointed out, some people may struggle to meet some of their physiological needs but still have close and supportive friends and family. His later work added other kinds of need, but here we can just consider his original scheme.

A socialist world would clearly have to give priority to meeting physiological needs for the whole of the earth’s population. Nobody should go hungry or homeless, and the planet’s resources (from raw materials to machines and technology and human skills) are more than adequate to achieve this. Producing enough food to feed everybody adequately is fairly straightforward, and will be perfectly feasible in a society where the profit motive has been confined to the rubbish bin. Decent housing for all will be an essential aim, with production no longer having to worry about mortgages or affordable rents, or to directing resources to building banks or aircraft carriers.

Meeting safety needs will be a crucial issue too. If we include healthcare under this heading, there will need to be a focus on providing adequate medical care for all, from doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc. Reducing as far as possible the number of women who die in childbirth, for instance, may well require immediate ‘investment’ in appropriate people and equipment. Depending on the extent of global warming and other aspects of climate change by the time socialism is established, there may need to be attention to supporting people who live in areas with unbearable temperatures or in danger of flooding or prone to hurricanes.

As for love and belongingness, satisfying these in socialism can hardly be guaranteed now. People may want a range of friends, a loving partner, perhaps an affectionate pet cat or dog. Friendship and relationships cannot be ensured by a social system, but a society based on co-operation rather than competition will make it far more likely that people will relate to each other in friendly and egalitarian ways. In the case of esteem, people who are no longer at the beck and call of capitalism will surely feel more independent and in control of their lives. Self-actualisation is harder to discuss, though we can say that people in socialism will be able to enjoy education, perhaps at different stages of their life, that makes them happier and better-informed, rather than fitting them for a life of wage slavery. The availability of good-quality childcare will help parents to spend time learning. People may discover skills they did not know they had.

An article in the August 2019 Socialist Standard argued that in socialism it would be possible to establish a hierarchy of needs (perhaps using Maslow’s ideas) and so classify different consumer goods to guide resource allocation. This would not mean just accepting Maslow’s views but adapting them to the situation at the time. It would also be necessary to take environmental problems into consideration, and determine whether growth should continue or whether the state of the planet would impose restrictions. But satisfying human need would be the key criterion for socialism.
Paul Bennett

Material World: A pox on capitalism (2022)

The Material World column from the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Vaccine shortages in poorer countries have revealed the callous nature of the capitalist profit system and its inability to protect the lives of vulnerable people and avert unnecessary preventable deaths and suffering from health inequality. Shortages of vaccines are endemic to capitalism. One would have thought the mistakes made during the Covid-19 pandemic would have improved the distribution of vital medicines. Apparently not when it comes to the recent spread of the monkeypox virus.

According to Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, ‘Our lives are not the same; their lives are worth more than ours…’ Happi continued, ‘Any outbreak anywhere should concern the whole world, which is not how they are dealing with it now’ (

‘In the Covid-19 pandemic, world leaders have allowed pharmaceutical companies to place extraordinary profits ahead of saving lives,’ said the People’s Vaccine Alliance’s Mohga Kamal-Yanni. ‘And we have seen the huge impact on life and livelihoods in lower-income countries that is far more than in rich countries. Unless we change course, the world’s response to a crisis like monkeypox will be just as brutally unequal’ (

Prof Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University and a member of the medical journal Lancet’s commission on health and human rights, pointed out that ‘It turns out that monkeypox emerged out of its central African endemic zone into west Africa in 2017, five years ago, and that outbreak has been ongoing for five years with no urgency, no response, no WHO engagement around vaccines in those countries. Now that it has gone from six endemic countries to 76, and is the new emerging global health threat in the wealthy world, we have this sense of urgency’ (

Meg Doherty, WHO’s director of Global HIV, Hepatitis and Sexually Transmitted Infections Programmes, said, ‘We can’t have a monkeypox response that’s only responding to the UK, Canada, the United States. We need a response that also addresses what’s happening in the DRC right now; in Nigeria where cases are going up.’

Are the limited supplies of vaccines being rushed to Africa?

Unlike when COVID first spread, vaccines for monkeypox already exist. A new vaccine called Jynneos is available, plus millions of doses of ACAM2000, an older smallpox vaccine that also works against monkeypox. Of the 16.4m doses of Jynneos that existed in July, low-income countries are already losing the race to buy sufficient doses.

The American government has the world’s largest stockpile of monkeypox vaccine, which includes stored vaccine bulk that could be converted to more than 10 million doses. In addition, the US holds nearly 80 percent of the Jynneos vaccine used to fight monkeypox, despite having only 36 percent of the global monkeypox cases, even as many countries go without access to any doses. The US has 22 times more doses than the EU and the UK. For every monkeypox case reported in the US, sixty-six doses are available. No countries in Africa have any doses (

Naïké Ledan, associate director of international policy and advocacy at HealthGAP protested at the 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal, ‘We’re demanding immediate equitable global sharing of supplies of testing, treatments, and vaccines. We’re demanding rejection of any and all intellectual property, because it’s a global crisis, not an opportunity to make money again’ (

While rich countries have ordered millions of vaccines to stop monkeypox within their borders, none have announced plans to share doses with Africa.

‘The mistakes we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic are already being repeated,’ said Dr. Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University (

‘Africa is still not benefiting from either monkeypox vaccines or the antiviral treatments,’ said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Africa director (

If only the problem was just monkeypox.

Politicians and pharmaceutical CEOs boasted of the speed at which the Covid-19 vaccine was developed, put into production and distributed. Much less has been said on their tardy roll-out of a new malaria vaccine.

A new vaccine R21 could eradicate malaria. And has already shown to be 77 percent effective after the initial doses and maintains its high efficacy after a single booster jab. It could help to reduce deaths from the disease by 70 percent by 2030 and eradicate it by 2040. Good news. The bad news is, delivering it to millions of African children who most need it is presently without sufficient funding.

And, of course, deaths from HIV/AIDS still persist. In Africa 460,000 people died from HIV-related causes in 2020. A new long-acting drug called Cabotegravir works by blocking the HIV genome, which means that the virus is prevented from integrating itself into human DNA and that stops it from replicating. So, it can’t spread and take hold in the body. Yet, WHO notes it is too expensive for poorer nations to afford.

‘While many in the global north are getting access to long-acting HIV prevention tools and medicines, Africans are overwhelmingly denied the opportunity… As long as the price is unaffordably high for our governments and for funders to purchase, we will continue to be locked out from being able to access them. They are vital to preventing new HIV infections and they could become transformational in treatment. Our message is simple: all of our lives matter,’ said Lilian Mworeko, regional coordinator of the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa (

Socialists say it is possible for the world to cooperate and collaborate for the common good. The basic networks such as the WHO already exist. Once socialism is established, it and similar agencies can re-focus and re-prioritise to serve communities and not corporations. 

Bird’s Eye View: Democratic, Stateless, Commonwealth (2022)

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

Socialism: Democratic

‘The curtailment of the rights of local government began back in the 1990s. In 1993, liberal reformers, represented by President Boris Yeltsin, came into conflict with the system of councils that was left over from revolutionary times and given a new lease of life during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika’ (Jacobin, 11 September,).

Actually the rot set in over a century ago with the forceful dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1918. Ironically, one supporter of this measure provided an excellent account of why the Social Revolutionary Party, representing the peasants, who were in a large majority, should be denied their victory:
‘It may certainly appear as a monstrous crime against democracy on the part of a regime which regards itself as Socialist to have suppressed an institution which had been the dream of generations, which the Bolsheviks themselves had been championing ever since the first revolution of 1905 with more enthusiasm than any other party… What better proof could have been furnished that the Bolsheviks were trampling on the people’s will in a manner hitherto exhibited by the worst tyrants in history, that they were afraid of the verdict of the nation gathered through its representatives in the highest assembly known to democracy …?” (The Bolshevik Revolution, Maxim Litvinoff, 1918).
For a contemporary account, see our article ‘The Revolution in Russia: Where it Fails’ (Socialist Standard, August 1918). With regard to Gorbachev and life in state capitalist Russia post 1917, this candid comment from journalist Vitali Vitaliev is worth repeating:
‘The main mistake of Western analysts trying to assess Gorbachev’s career is the attempt to treat him as a kind of God-sent Messiah who emerged to save Russia from ‘socialism’. Nothing can be further from reality. Throughout his political career Gorbachev was part and parcel of the apparat. He came not to dismantle ‘socialism’ but to preserve it. I am putting ‘socialism’ into inverted commas because there has never been anything of the kind in Russia. No other country is so far from the ideas of equality and fraternity as the Soviet Union. If there was a socialism, or even a Communism at all, it was only for the ruling elite who lived and are still living in a separate world. It is a world of privileges, starting from birth (special maternity homes) going on all through their lives (special shops, hospitals, hairdressers’ salons, canteens, toilets and what not) and not ending even with the end of their physical existence (special cemeteries). Yes, yes, special cemeteries for the rulers of ‘the first working-class State in the world’, where workers are not supposed to be buried’ (Observer, 11 March 1990).


Margaret Thatcher in a meeting with Gorbachev reportedly argued at one stage about the merits of capitalism versus ‘communism’ and she told him ”’We are all capitalists. The only difference is that for you it’s the state that invests, while for us it’s private individuals.” Gorbachev was apparently flummoxed’ (Mission to Moscow, Sunday Times 5 April 1987).

She was correct. Capitalist hallmarks, such as class society, commodity production, profit motive, exploitation of wage labour, markets, etc., exist in Russia, both pre- and post-Gorbachev, as they do worldwide. The very idea of socialism in one country is akin to being a little bit pregnant! People who insist otherwise are living in a world of make believe, which is home, alas, to billions, including fans of the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

‘The North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly gathered for its first session on Wednesday. According to state news agency KCNA, the chamber agreed to adopt laws on landscaping and rural development. However, it also pledged to help turn the nation into a “beautiful and civilised socialist fairyland”. The two laws are intended to help advance efforts made by the governing party to bring about “a radical turn in the rural community and its policy on landscaping to achieve a rapid development of the Korean-style socialist rural community and spruce up the country into a beautiful and civilised socialist fairyland”. Kim Jong-un, who did not attend the parliamentary event, also promised to improve people’s livelihoods and boost rural development amid spiralling economic crises. Economic difficulties have been blamed on self-imposed Covid-19 lockdowns, international sanctions over the country’s nuclear weapons programme and also natural disasters’ (Daily Express, September 8).

The February 2012 Socialist Standard’s cover features a young-looking ‘Great Successor’ under the title ‘Kim, All Ye Faithful. Leaders in the Land Time Forgot’ and related article ‘Death of a Dictator’.


‘Everything seems to tick in “Unrest” the latest effort from Zurich-born writer/director Cyril Schäublin. “Unrest” depicts the working lives of 19th century anarchist watchmakers in the Swiss mountains, laying bare the absurdities of the wage system’ (Roger, 12 September). During the interview, Schäublin states: ‘Kropotkin, contra Karl Marx… believed in the abolition of any kind of wage labor whatsoever.’ Au contraire. In Value, Price and Profit (1865) Marx stated:
‘At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”

Cooking the Books: ‘Ignorant and mistaken’ (2022)

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

The irony of it! A government with a free-marketeer Prime Minister and Chancellor punished by ‘the markets’. This normally happens to reformist governments that have promised to spend money on improving conditions for the workers. The 1929-31 Labour government was said to have been brought down by a ‘bankers’ ramp’. In France the term used was that such governments came up against a ‘wall of money’. Harold Wilson in the 1960s blamed ‘the gnomes of Zurich’.

The villains in question are international speculators – sometimes politely called ‘international investors’ – who buy and sell the bonds issued by different governments. Governments borrow money by selling bonds. These have a face-value and a rate of interest fixed as a percentage of this. Say, £100 at 5 percent. However, while the amount of interest payable remains the same (in the example, £5), the price at which the bonds are bought and sold on the bond market varies. So, if the price falls to £90 the interest is still £5, but 5/90 is 5.56 percent. If the price rises to £110, this ‘yield’ (interest/selling price) is 4.5 percent. When the government sells new bonds it has to take into account the yield on existing bonds and offer that as the rate of interest.

When on 23 September Kwarteng announced tax cuts to be funded by borrowing, the speculators perceived the new government as behaving like a reformist one. Cutting taxes without reducing government spending and covering the extra deficit by borrowing was seen as no different from increasing government spending by extra borrowing. So they sold UK government bonds. With more sellers than buyers, the price of these fell and the ‘yield’ went up, meaning that government has to pay a higher rate of interest to borrow.

This had an unintended side-effect. Some pension fund managers had been persuaded by clever City financiers to borrow money by effectively betting on the price of government bonds they hold not falling significantly. They lost the bet and were required to pay cash to settle. This they could only get by selling some of their bonds, so driving their price further down. To prevent the pension funds becoming insolvent and the risk of this leading to a wider financial crash, the Bank of England stepped in to buy bonds and keep their price up.

This was a classic case of how a central bank has to deal with a dash for cash – it makes more cash available to prevent the whole financial system clogging up. Marx came across this in his time. Under the 1844 Bank Charter Act, the Bank of England was allowed to issue money not backed by gold in its vaults only up to a certain amount. However, in the financial crises of 1857 and 1866 the Act had to be suspended to permit the Bank to make more cash available. Gordon Brown thought he had invented the wheel – and saved the world – when he followed this long-established practice during the Crash of 2008.

Marx’s comment was:
‘Ignorant and mistaken bank legislation, such as that of 1844-45, can intensify this money crisis. But no kind of bank legislation can eliminate a crisis’ (Capital, Vol 3, ch. 30).
Governments can’t make things better but they can make things worse, as we have just seen. Starmer tweeted that ‘the government has lost control of the economy’ (2.02pm, 28 September). But governments don’t control the economy. It’s the other way around, as he will find out if ever he gets the chance to have a go.

Socialist Stewardship? (2022)

From the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The question ‘Who should own the Earth?’ is a common one in political theory. To the capitalists, their private ownership of the land and the wealth they’ve stolen from the workers justifies their class collectively deciding the fate of the planet. The socialist response to the capitalists’ private ownership is that the Earth should be commonly owned by all and managed in the best interest of all. However, common ownership doesn’t solve all the issues which capitalist private ownership of the planet has created; profit over the welfare of the Earth has created a climate crisis (which at this point might be far too late to reverse regardless of the system) but, under a misguided interpretation of the idea, common ownership in the interest of all could lead to this same crisis. If you understand “in the interest of all” as meaning maintaining the ease of travel by car or plane you could justify maintaining the current rate of use of fossil fuels which is destroying the ecosystem.

This is the greatest flaw of the general understanding of common ownership, no group can truly own the planet. As humans we’re merely a part of nature and we have a duty to care for the Earth for future generations; this idea is known as stewardship. If we wish to maintain our planet for us and future generations, we must integrate it into our ideas of common ownership. If we as a species collectively own everything then it must be understood that ownership comes with the priority of maintaining and improving its condition. Simply put, private ownership is killing our planet for economic profit and common ownership can’t make the mistake of killing our planet for short-term conveniences or improvement in our material conditions; instead socialists must embrace the duty to protect the environment and repair the Earth after the ecological trauma of private ownership.

Selfish by nature? (2022)

From the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

About 30 years ago, I was feeling a bit pleased with myself. My tiny donor booklet told me that I was on my tenth visit to a mobile blood donation unit. I can’t remember if I was still on the bed or having my brew and biscuit but I’ll never forget the spontaneous acclaim from everyone in that hall when a nurse announced that a donor had turned up to give blood for the fiftieth time. The contribution of most of us there must have paled into insignificance against that of the newcomer. So what? We were all there doing a Good Thing. And it felt good too.

I think we can safely assume that the 10,000 who responded to October’s blood supply alert were acting out of a sense of solidarity, public duty, call it what you will. They did a Good Thing, and will rightly feel good about it too.

Such behaviour sits very badly with the tale that we’re all hard-wired for selfishness and competition rather than for cooperation, that capitalism is our natural state.

Solidarity is no new thing either – a recent report in Nature reveals that, 31,000 years ago, one of our kind, probably in childhood, had part of a lower leg surgically removed. Apart from the wow! factor of the approximate date (previous evidence for surgery dated to ‘only’ 7,000 years ago), what’s significant is that the amputee survived for at least 6 years in mountainous terrain which, the archaeologists infer, could only have been possible with ‘a high degree of community care’.

Our close relatives were at it too some 50,000 years ago. A 2017 study of a Neanderthal‘s skeletal remains shows that he survived into late adulthood despite a missing forearm, profound deafness – unhelpful when there are loads of predators around – and other severe physical problems. Again, the only inference that the researchers could draw was that his survival would only have been possible with continuous social support. In other words, Neanderthals could care for each other too.

Co-operation and sociability appear to have even deeper roots in the history of our species, as Penny Spikins, an archaeology professor at York University, argues in her newly published book Hidden Depths: The origins of human connection. We shall be reviewing this book in future no doubt but here is a taster from her conclusions:
‘We are innately wired to care for living and non-living things, to seek emotional comfort and to reach out to form connections. When the going gets tough, we tend to help each other.’
So it’s not just ‘human nature’ that capitalism’s supporters have got wrong – they misunderstand (or distort) what it means to be part of the genus Homo. Increasingly, scientific research shows that ‘the way we are’ is no barrier to socialism.
S. F.

Pathfinders: Ancient wisdom (2022)

The Pathfinders Column from the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

After last month’s shit-show by the UK Tory leadership, you have to ask yourself why people believe in following leaders at all, when the consequences of doing so can be disappointing at best, at worst spectacularly awful.

Many scientists think we’re programmed to. Leaders perch at the top of hierarchies, and if you look the word up you’ll find the common claim that hierarchies are built into us, and not just us but all animals. ‘Social groups across species rapidly self-organize into hierarchies, where members vary in their level of power, influence, skill, or dominance… A wealth of evidence indicates social hierarchies are endemic, innate, and most likely, evolved to support survival within a group-living context’ (

If this is so, how can we advocate a classless and egalitarian social system? Doesn’t hierarchy scupper socialism?

If by hierarchy we are talking about royal rulers and the oppressive machinery of class societies, palaces, slaves, and all the rest of it, then it is obvious that these are not built into humans, because good evidence for this highly stratified behaviour is only seen within the last 10,000 years, a mere thirtieth of the 300,000 years that anatomically modern humans have existed.

Prior to this, human activity mainly consisted in immediate-return hunting and gathering (HG), an uncomplicated and egalitarian lifestyle sometimes called ‘primitive communism’ and based on sharing resources. HG bands were typically small and mobile, though they may have been part of regional and even continental communities, and any property that did exist was little more than tools and trinkets. Interestingly, studies of modern HG groups show that they often find domineering behaviour insufferable, and actively combat it using tactics like ‘reverse dominance’. Anthropologist Richard Lee quotes one HG member: ‘When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way, we cool his heart and make him gentle’ ( What this suggests is that an innate tendency to hierarchy might exist but that, other things being equal, human groups have no problem keeping it in check and under control.

What happened to humans 10,000 years ago to disrupt aeons of peaceful coexistence? This period saw the shift from hunting and gathering to settled farming, a radical change in the mode of production. With farming, you have to stay in one place and work it, and investing labour in a plot of land creates a ‘value’, both in terms of sunk cost and of productive potential. This value might only be notional in a situation of abundance, but it becomes worth preserving and defending where scarcity enters the equation, which may happen with rising populations. At first the ‘property’ might be shared, but a ruthless warrior elite will have the incentive to monopolise it and then use artificial scarcity as a power base. At this point, whatever social customs exist to keep latent hierarchical tendencies under control are overwhelmed. One way or another, farming historically ushered in all the oppressive apparatus of property ownership including ruling elites, religion, civil administration, money forms, social stratification, massive inequality, slavery and organised warfare.

Today, defenders of capitalist privilege are happy to justify all this, in a kind of broken-eggs-and-omelettes way, by pointing to the modern benefits of civilisation, and by ignoring the role that artificial scarcity continues to make in shoring up these hierarchies. They also may hay with the word primitive in the term primitive communism, arguing that HG groups were only egalitarian because they were incapable of anything more complex, and that any non-hierarchical alternative to capitalist inequality must necessarily be a retrograde step that would undo civilisation and take us back to living in huts.

In the first place, we have seen that egalitarianism is not some passive factory default but an active process of collective social management. HGs like it that way, and work to keep it that way.

Secondly, archaeology has some bearing on this. If HG groups were primitive and incapable of complex culture and social organisation, then large-scale projects such as monument building were clearly out of the question. But excavations at the 12,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey are overturning this assumption. Not only does it appear that HGs were indeed able to build monuments, but also that large-scale organisation and interaction were possible before the mechanisms of settled farming, property and social stratification existed. Bottom line: you don’t need hierarchies to do fancy stuff.

If a ‘dominance drive’ is universal and innate among animal species, it seems to be more like a dial than an on/off switch. In some animals, like elephants, manatees, bonobos, bats, the dial is set low. In others, the dial is turned right up to despotic. Some interplay of genetic and environmental factors is clearly at work. Humans don’t have just one behaviour, we’re very adaptable, and as a highly social animal, good at cooperating. But hierarchies don’t help, if anything they get in the way. A study cited in Nature suggests that hierarchies actually hinder the process of cooperation: ‘Compared to a condition lacking hierarchy, cooperation declined in the presence of a hierarchy due to a decrease in investment by lower ranked individuals.’ And it doesn’t matter whether the hierarchy is deemed justifiable or not: ‘hierarchy was detrimental to cooperation regardless of whether it was earned or arbitrary’.

And this is to say nothing of the strong case, eg, Michael Marmot’s 2004 Status Syndrome, that hierarchies cause massive stress, ill health, low fertility and high mortality. Rather than being a rocket booster to civilisation, hierarchies hobble us, make us ill and piss us off. Hunter gatherers weren’t daft. They always knew hierarchies caused trouble, and were best avoided. Socialism would simply apply the same ancient wisdom.
Paddy Shannon

Editorial: That’s not all, folks! (2022)

Editorial from the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month the world looked on with bemused fascination as the UK Tory leadership attempted to handle the economy the same way the iceberg handled the Titanic, reminding everybody once again, as if Trump and Bojo were not lesson enough, that it’s possible for people to get into positions of power who really have no idea what they’re doing.

The markets dived, pundits gaped and soberer heads than Liz Truss, like Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, scratched their heads and wondered if the British state had been taken over by Warner cartoon characters. An anvil dropped on the old Chancellor after he pulled the trigger on his Trust the Market bazooka, Keir Starmer rocketed like Wile E. Coyote into the stratosphere and the Tory PM ran out of road and fell off a cliff. The new Chancellor, who had been hastily whistled up to deploy an Acme Damage Limitation gizmo, started unpromisingly by conceding in his first speech that ‘governments do not control markets’.

We’ve been saying all along that governments can’t do this, although never underestimate their ability to make things worse (see Cooking the Books, this issue). Markets don’t deliver public benefit, they deliver profit for a few and cause misery for many and destruction for the planet. And if they deliver an earthquake, governments normally prefer to blame the opposition, or the unions, or latterly Putin, or their own staff. You can hardly blame the system one minute, and then ask people to vote you into office to control the system the next. The fact that Jeremy Hunt has admitted this shows you what a desperate hole they were in. The only thing they can hope for come next election is a large dose of public amnesia.

Most people will simply shrug and say, that’s what happens when you put criminals or idiots in charge. The next lot will be better, they say, because they couldn’t be any worse. Experience suggests otherwise. Whole government institutions, not just leaders, can display surprising levels of incompetence, as we discover with the British intelligence services (see Spycatchers, this issue). And why follow leaders anyway? Much better not to put anyone in charge, but instead take collective charge ourselves (see Pathfinders, this issue).

The alternative left-wing media outlet Double Down News provided some fun in the form of an exquisitely venomous take-down of Truss and Kwarteng by former Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne, in which he argued that the vainglorious duo had sold out common sense and political reality in order to promote the interests of their favourite hedge fund managers and super-rich oligarchs. But one wonders what he thinks political leaders do the rest of the time. Serving the interests of the rich and powerful is what all governments do, no matter how progressive and reformist their speeches might look, because once they’re in power they have to run capitalism and that means doing what the rich want them to. And that’s not all, folks. Until we get rid of this system, the capitalist cartoon disasters will run and run.

October's "Done & Dusted"

"Another quiet month. I wouldn't be surprised if it continued to be quiet for the rest of the year."

Cue cut and paste . . . 

A new feature on the blog . . . and like all new features on the blog, one that I should have put in place about 10 years ago. (It's the same with the Pages that I'm slowly introducing to the top of the blog's homepage).

It's perfectly simple. Here's a list of the Socialist Standards that were completed on the blog in the month of October 2022. Slowly but surely the digitization of the Standard is *cough* nearing completion. If I'd hazard a guess, I'd say it will be finished by the end of 2024. Famous last words, and all that. 

They are broken up into separate decades for the hard of hearing.

October 2022's "Done & Dusted"