Sunday, December 31, 2023

Vietnam-again? (1972)

From the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

If one war can be more depraved and dehumanising than another, then only in these terms is there a winner in Vietnam. For more than thirty years, virtually non-stop, Vietnam has been ravaged by the modern military hardware of rival armies. Back in 1941 the Japanese; then the British, then the French, the Vietnamese themselves, and finally the Americans. The wholesale slaughter and destruction, and the indifference to human suffering has been common to them all. The lying and hypocrisy of the politicians on all sides has been outstripped only by their gory deeds.

In the name of peace, the war steadily escalated for eight years. In the name of freedom, brutal dictators were installed and people whose “freedom” was denied burned themselves alive in protest. In the name of democracy, elections were suspended. In the name of liberation, many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been blown to pieces or burned alive with napalm. On the ideological pretence of stemming “communism” every conceivable horror and outrage has been practised. Regardless of how many Vietnamese were killed in the process, they had to be “saved”. The utter ruthlessness of governments purporting to be champions of the “free” world could hardly be surpassed by those of police-state dictatorships.

Humiliation & Protest
America has suffered the humiliation of having to bring members of her armed forces to trial, accused of atrocities against the people they were supposed to be defending, while those atrocities were condoned by the then deputy leader of British Labour government. We have witnessed the spectacle of returning military personnel denouncing the war and their own brutal conduct. The American Army has had to face the desertion of tens of thousands of its men, while the scale of drug-taking was so vast among those who remained in the war, it had to be virtually ignored.

There have been massive demonstrations against the war, throughout America’s largest cities, with the added irony that the same coercive State apparatus which carried on the war was frequently used against the demonstrators. In Britain, as in other parts of the world, there were also demonstrations. The British “left” which organised the protests here were not opposed to the war as such, but were anti-America, and favoured a Northern victory. They dragged out all the anti-working-class arguments about national independence and home-rule to justify their support for the bloody butchers on the other side. As with CND before them, the protest reached fever pitch and then fizzled out. Since October 1968 there has been hardly a peep out of them. Such movements inevitably dissipate the enthusiasm of the workers who support them. Capitalism mocks all such limited objectives when its vital interests are at stake. The tragedy is that this same enthusiasm coupled with Socialist ideas could rid the world of the scourge of capitalism itself.

Amazing Gracey
As the misery and the bombing drag on towards the end of another year, it is worth remembering that it was the post-war British Labour government who restarted the war after taking over from the Japanese in 1945. In September of that year 20,000 British troops arrived, and General Gracey was set up as military dictator.

Despite the fact that the Vietminh (the forerunners of today’s Vietcong) had control of Saigon, the Labour government co-operated with the French ruling class, who wanted their colony back. The Labour government helped ship back French troops. General Gracey closed down the press and used the Japanese army to post a proclamation saying: “I hereby warn all wrongdoers, especially looters and saboteurs of public property and those carrying out similar activities, that they will be summarily shot.”

After arming former French prisoners who immediately started shooting up the Vietminh, Gracey disarmed them, and used Japanese forces to put down the guerrilla war he had sparked off. He ordered British troops: “Always use the maximum force to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet”. Like the Americans, the British had no way of knowing “hostiles” from innocent people. A British and Japanese military operation followed before the British left it to the French to continue the slaughter in March 1946. It was thus that “liberation” came to the people of Vietnam. Even the great American butcher General MacArthur (who wanted to use A-bombs in Korea) condemned as “ignoble” the conduct of the British Labour government in Indo-China.

With Friends Like These …
The French government carried on the war for eight years with financial aid from America, and the active support of the French Communist Party, whose deputies consistently voted for increased arms expenditure, in full knowledge that the arms were being used for killing their own “comrades” in Indochina. During 1946 Charles Tillon, a Communist, was in fact Minister for Armaments. These same deputies including Thorez, the C.P. Vice-Premier, voted unanimous congratulations to General Leclere after the bombardment of Haiphong where 6,000 civilians were killed.

On the other side, Ho Chi Minh wasted no time proving himself at least as treacherous and murderous as his adversaries. After running phony elections in January 1946, where 70 seats were promised to non-Communists (provided they did not compete in the election) he spent the next ten months liquidating 202 out of 444 elected representatives. The Vietminh carried out wholesale murder of opponents, in particular Trotskyists. One popular Trotskyist leader Ta Tu Thau, had three trials and three acquittals before he was shot. As a result of Cardinal Spellman’s campaign of propaganda half a million Catholics left North Vietnam in the mid-1950’s. This helped create serious food shortages, which led to peasant uprisings in late 1956. Ho Chi Minn’s army crushed the “rebels” and killed or deported 6,000 farmers.

. . . who needs the Enemy?
The Chinese ruling class whilst pouring military aid into the North and conducting a propaganda war against “American Imperialism” has supplied steel for American army and air bases. The Russian bosses have done much the same thing, trading with both sides, and there have been the usual hypocritical accusations and counter-accusations hurled between the Chinese and Rusian rulers.

If Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon have been the wililng tools of American capitalism in prosecuting the war, (backed up by Wilson and Heath on behalf of British capitalism) Mao Tse Tung, Brezhnev and Ho Chi Minh were as soaked in the blood of the working class as their western counterparts.

Wilson’s Labour government supplied some of the napalm which American forces used to burn alive so many thousands of men, women, and children. They also trained South Vietnamese forces and built bases for the U.S. air force.

Workers Have no Country
If anyone doubts that the sordid economic motives of capitalism lie behind the war in Vietnam, the U.S. News and World Report for the 16 April 1954 said: “One of the world’s richest areas is open to the winner in Indo-China — tin, rubber, rice, key strategic raw materials are what the war is really about” (quoted in Solidarity Pamphlet, The Rape of Vietnam, from which other material in this article has been taken).

The fact that the world has absorbed the emotional shock waves of the war in Vietnam, and a generation has lived with the stock-piling of H-bombs, is a measure of the terrifying extent of capitalism’s conditioning. It is also a damning indictment of this system of society.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties including the World Socialist Party of the U.S. have consistently opposed all wars. Taking our stand on the basis of the interests of the world’s working class, we condemned the two world wars as thieves’-quarrels of rival capitalist classes. We declared that no war is worth the shedding of a single drop of workers’ blood. We re-affirm that attitude. Vietnam is likewise a thieves’ war. The workers and peasants own no country on either side. They will find themselves as firmly shackled to the juggernaut of exploitation, whoever emerges as their new masters. Neither can “peace” be long secure, for fresh conflicts and future wars are inseparable from continuing capitalism. Vast air bases and thousands of planes stand in readiness to continue the war, despite the much-trumpeted withdrawal of ground forces. More than three million dead for nothing. And how many more millions will be slaughtered before the working class gets rid of the slaughter-house, remains a very open question.
Harry Baldwin

The Freeze and After (1972)

From the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the myths of our age is that wages are sometimes restricted and sometimes not. Wages are always restricted; it is only the method that changes. Unless wage rates are kept down to levels which leave a margin of profit for the employer he intensifies the search for ways to reduce his total wages bill by getting more output from each worker; failing which he stops production and stands workers off.

The government always plays a part in this. It stands behind the employers, backing them up to deal with strikes and other manifestations of working-class discontent. But the government’s role is not always in the same form. It sometimes includes direct intervention through the imposition of controls on wages and prices. Generally this is when conditions favour the workers in pressing for wage increases. This happened in two world wars when unemployment had practically disappeared. By contrast, nobody talked about a prices and incomes policy between the wars when there were two million unemployed, markets were failing and bankruptcies soaring, prices were tumbling and workers were completely unable to prevent wages falling with them.

Promises, Promises
Since 1945 there have been half a dozen attempts by Labour and Tory governments to impose controls, starting with the “Wage Restraint” of the Attlee Labour Government imposed in September 1948. They have been variously named but all conform to the same general pattern. They were all excused as emergency measures called for by unforeseen circumstances, they were all claimed to be needed to prevent prices from rising and British exports being priced out of world markets with consequent increase of unemployment, and all were in contradiction with the election programmes of the Labour and Tory parties. Mr. Wilson rightly chided Heath with having abandoned his election pledges but seems to have forgotten that the freeze imposed by his own government in July 1966 came only four months after the Labour Party election programme had said “our purpose is not to dictate prices, wages and salaries”.

None of the post-war “freezes” completely prevented some increases of wages and prices. Nearly all were followed by a bigger rate of increase, with wages rising slightly more than prices. From the employers’ point of view the most successful freeze was the first, the Labour Government wage restraint from September 1948 to October 1950 which kept wage increases appreciably below the rise of the cost of living. As a method of preventing prices from rising the freezes, individually and collectively, have been a complete failure, for the rate of price increase in 1971 was higher than at any time since 1945.

Trying to Manage
In 1944 the Tory, Liberal and Labour parties all committed themselves to a three-point policy of stable prices, full employment and steady growth of production. Critics of government policy have often pointed out that at no time has a Labour or Tory government succeeded in getting all three together; it remained for Heath in 1972 to fall down on all three at the same time — a million unemployed, fast-rising prices and near-stagnant production.

The imposition of the present freeze was surrounded with loud recriminations between Heath and Wilson, all of it signifying nothing because this one does not differ from past Labour Government freezes except in minor details and reflects the same erroneous theories which are shared by the Labour and trade-union leaders with most of the Tory leaders. (The Times cynically commented that “it is their business to criticize each other”.) The Labour Party motion of dissent in the House of Commons on November 8 did not condemn capitalism and offer an alternative, but blamed the highest unemployment since the ‘thirties and a massive increase in the cost of living on “mismanagement of the economy” by the Tory government. The chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Mr. Douglas Houghton MP, who in 1967 was boasting of the success of the Wilson government in making “modern capitalism work”, attacked the Tories this time not on the ground that they are running capitalism but on the ground that they are not “managing” it properly: they have, he said, “left capitalism unbridled”.

Guess the Answer
The completely erroneous theories held by the political and trade-union leaders since the three-party declaration in 1944 are that capitalism can be managed in a way to secure permanent full employment, with a more or less stable price level. On full employment, the TUC in 1970 declared:
“Maintenance of full employment is chiefly the responsibility of the government. All political parties, the Confederation of British Industry and the TUC accept that this should be the case. There is agreement that the necessary techniques are available to sustain full employment . . . “ (TUC pamphlet, Automation and Technical Change)
On stable prices, Mr. Wilson in 1957 wrote:
“Ever since the Coalition Government’s White Paper all major parties have been committed on Keynesian lines to using the Budget as a means of avoiding undue inflation or deflation.” (Labour Party pamphlet, Remedies for Inflation)
At the beginning none of them said anything about wage and price freezes, but already in 1957 Mr. Wilson was saying that: “For a Labour government no less than for the Conservatives, success or failure in the battle against inflation would depend on its ability to secure an understanding with the unions which would make wage restraint possible”. For the unions it was either you agree “voluntarily” to restraint or you have it imposed.

Act of Iniquity
Much of the conflict between the Labour Party and the unions on the one side and the Heath government on the other about the failure of the consultations which preceded the present freeze concerned the question of the Industrial Relations Act. The Labour-trade union side argued that if the Government would suspend the Act it would make agreement easier.

It is to the point here to recall the case made against the Act in 1970 by Vic Feather, General Secretary of the TUC. It was not that the Act would depress wages but that it would encourage competitive wage claims between workers and push wages up too much. “This Bill would create a wage drift of a kind the country could not afford, either now or at any time in the future.” (Report of a trade union conference, Sunday Times, 13 December 1970).

What has happened is that the policy held by all of them has proved quite fallacious and they do not know what to do next. What the TUC described as “the necessary techniques … to sustain full employment” meant in practice “pumping more money into the economy”, which they imagined would lead to expanded production and full employment but which is a sure specific for putting up prices. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Barber, has complained, he wants to pump more money in the belief that production will then expand but at the same time wants to “curb the money supply” to stop prices going up.

Marx was right. Capitalism goes through its phases of expansion with low unemployment on one hand, depression with heavier unemployment on the other, in spite of government financial and budgetary policies. The only remedy is to replace capitalism with Socialism.

Dreadful Prospect
In the meantime, fearful of the explosion that could occur if inflation is carried on extremes, the view has been gathering support among economists and business men that the government should stop inflation whatever the consequences. The Tory politicians on the other hand recoil from this because one consequence could be that they lose the next election. So they put their trust in the hope that British capitalism now, after several false starts, is on the way to recovery from the depression.

They have another fear. There is one Tory politician who never accepted the Keynesian nonsense and who wants to go back to the old-style policy of letting capitalism take its course, with the unions “free” to make which wage claims they choose and businesses “free” to go bankrupt if they can’t survive. Some commentators have begun to speculate on the possibility that if Heath’s hopes of industrial recovery are not speedily fulfilled, Enoch Powell will get the leadership of the Tory Party.
Edgar Hardcastle

An Open Letter to Dave Douglass (1972)

From the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

I see from the News of the World for November 15th that you are the editor of the Trotskyist magazine ‘Mineworkers Internationale’, and that you have published articles addressing the miners on union policy.

You appear to have upset the editor of the News of the World, and the officials of the Communist Party, who say that you are getting the “sane militants” (the C.P.) a bad name.

You wrote (apparently) in one issue of your magazine
“The only long-term justice for the workers will be under a system which they themselves control—a Socialist system.”
“Launch the General Strike immediately and occupy the factories, docks, railways without charging, capture the supermarkets and food wholesalers and distribute the food free.”
Hard Enough
And you claim to work for the overthrow of Capitalism.

One can sympathise with your indignation with your exploitation and the fact, as you say, “that Capitalists are making a fortune out of my sweat, discomfort and forfeiture of human dignity”. Fair enough!

But, Dave boy, indignation is not enough! In this business (the class struggle) brains are more important than heart, because our enemy, the Capitalist, is immensely powerful, and helped by a large staff of cunning labour leaders and T.U. Officials.

And I’m going to tell you straight out, that your stuff is doing more harm than good.

First “seize the pits” or “the Supermarkets”, or “the railways”, is rubbish. The workers have a difficult enough job trying seize half-a-pound of steak on a Friday night, without you try to feed them this baloney.

You must begin to learn that the control of the public apparatus of production and distribution is political, not industrial. It is maintained by the Government of the day, if necessary by armed force, although the workers don’t show much evidence of doing any “seizing”, do they? Could it be they’ve too much sense?

The Wrong Interests
Neither are you doing any good trying to cod the miners into taking action for “workers’ control”. The workers will never control Capitalism. What determines class control is ownership, and that ownership is legalised and maintained through Parliament, by the Government of the day, backed by an electoral majority.

It is no business of trade unions to try to usurp the job of a political party. Control of the whole of industry is a political matter concerning the whole capitalist class. The strongest, most militant trade union in the world can do nothing about it and won’t want to, anyway, because people join unions to look after the trade interests, not class interests.

Dave, I’m sorry, but your other stuff urging the miners on strike last year to do as much damage as possible is nonsense too. This is a hang-over from early Russian days when the isolated Bolsheviks sought to create as much dissension abroad as possible, for political propaganda materials.

Strike What For?
I now come to what, for me, is the most stupid and ridiculous nonsense of all. “Launch the General Strike and occupy the factories”. Are you really in your right mind, mate? Don’t you know that whenever the workers have occupied factories, after a few weeks with the wives bringing meals and drinks, they have unoccupied them again?

The capitalists will always beat you at this game; they own everything; they can retire to the Hilton or the country, and starve you out. In fact, the French authorities have said they approve of the strikers occupying the factory because “It keeps the place clean”.

And lastly, the General Strike! What stupid bloody rubbish. First of all, General Strikes for industrial ends are difficult enough, because workers’ action on such a scale concerns the whole capitalist class who have shown repeatedly, all over the world, that they will not hesitate if necessary, to crush strikes by armed force.

But even worse, you are urging a General Strike for “Workers’ Control”, which because you are not clear about it, you call a “Socialist system”.

A Socialist system will and must abolish classes! What are you on about? Will there be wage-workers under Trotskyist “Socialism” then ?

But, worst of all, you are trying to control trade unionists in General Strikes for political purposes — and this is disastrous.

If you claim that all the workers (or a lot of them) are militants, anxious to overthrow Capitalism, why have they got to lose their wages (and some of them, their personal freedom) in General Strikes?

Consciousness Wanted
If they want a General Strike why do they vote for Tory and Labour parties?

If the workers are Socialists, they have a perfectly safe and sane method of abolishing Capitalism, which also happens (as time will show) to be the only possible method — the ballot box.

It is for this reason that the Socialist Party of Great Britain will never support calls for General Strikes for political purposes. People like you, Dave, may feel very strongly, but you haven’t thought very much.

Socialists, in their capacity as trade unionists, because we are exploited like you, and have to join them, say to their fellow workers : Political action is for political parties! Trade union political independence at all costs!

Socialism will be established by a class political party, not the T.U.C., or any trade union.

It Can be Done
Let trade unions mind their own business, the interests of their members.

Let the affairs of the union be run democratically, by the rank-and-file vote, make strikes short and sharp. Procrastination is the death of strikes.

And, lastly, some advice to you, by one who has been right through the Leninist mill himself.

Forget all your Trotskyist dreamworld; it never was right. Look where the Leninist “boring from within” the trade unions has landed the C.P. The very nominees the Communist factions have got “elected” as officials have at times been the first to kick out Communists.

Study Socialism! Get clear on the necessity of conscious political actions by the workers, organised in a political party to take political power, to abolish capitalist control; and replace it by “democratic control”.

This is the road of Success, to Victory.

What you are doing now will only spread apathy as a result of bitter disappointment.

Forget Trotsky, and remember Marx!
Yours for Socialism,

11 November 1972.

Letter: More about Rents (1972)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Editorial Committee is slipping. The reason why Glasgow people won their rent strike had nothing to do with house building having ceased. There had been housing shortage before the war, as indeed there still is, but the tenants did not and do not effectively challenge the landlords as they did in 1915 when the landlords tried to put up the rents; it seemed to them quite a natural thing to do since the butchers, grocers, etc. were all putting up their prices. People had to have food but, as they discovered, they did not have to pay the landlords; indeed, there was a decided advantage in not doing so, they had more money to spend in the shops. That is what forced the Government to step in and save the rent system.

If tenants could not be forced to pay rent in 1915 it is obvious they could not be forced to pay rent today if they stood together and refused to do so.

The Editorial Committee also assume that if tenants refuse to pay rent it will enable the non-landlord members of the capitalist class to reduce wages by that amount. Why? If, by combined action, the workers free themselves against the burden of rents they will find themselves strong enough to refuse to accept reduced wages; in fact, they would rapidly, having realised their strength, demand increased wages, finally making profit taking impossible and so ending the capitalist system. This is the reply to the last paragraph in the Committee’s reply to me; it shows them what the working class would achieve by first of all destroying the landlord class. Certainly, every household would be better off by spending money for themselves instead of giving it to the rent collector.

It is quite likely that I am about the oldest reader of “Socialist Standard” still alive. I started in 1907, I used buy it off “Hutch” ‘a member of the Tooting S.P.G.B., after that I got it in Charing Cross Road and now that I am a refugee on the South Coast I get it by post direct from Clapham. I have always read it to the great advantage of my faith in Socialism. It is only on this matter of rents that I have found the S.P.G.B. not agreeing to any working class struggle. I am well aware that, at the same time, they warn the struggle can’t succeed until all the workers of the World become Socialists which, of course, is absurd. For instance, in Bulgaria today the workers pay no rent or rates or suffer any deduction from their pay for pensions. Why? Because the Bulgarian State owns 80 per cent of all productive work, the present remaining 20 per cent is covered by a very small income tax.
Tom Braddock,
East Preston.

The questions referred to here arise from the article Why Must the Rent Go Up ? in the Socialist Standard for January this year. Tom Braddock’s first letter disputing the Socialist Party’s attitude to rent control appeared, with our reply, in the July issue.

On the question of what happened in Glasgow in 1915 having “nothing to do with house building having ceased”, we quote from Housing Finance and Development by A. J. Merrett and Allen Sykes (Longmans, 1965). In the opening chapter they say:
“House building virtually ceased with the advent of war and rents began to rise, particularly in munitions-producing areas. This provoked an outcry such that in 1915 the government passed the first rent restriction Act — the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915. It froze the rents of all unfurnished tenancies (approximately 85 per cent of the total) below certain limits at the August 1914 level, and landlords were virtually forbidden to evict protected tenants save for obvious defaults such as non-payment of rent.”
This passage also makes clear that Braddock’s assertion in his second paragraph is untrue. It is correct only in the technical sense that — of course — tenants could not be forced to pay rent raised above the level permitted by their wages, i.e. to produce money they had not got. The alternative to the 1915 Act would have been for the government to let wages go up to meet increasing rents; instead, the Act restrained wage demands by keeping rents low — and provided also that workers, in Glasgow or anywhere else, were forced to pay them. Braddock appears not to realize that this “blow against landlords”, as he called it in his previous letter, was struck not by the workers but by the government in the wider interests of capitalism.

Second, our reply did not say that the non-payment of rent would enable employers “to reduce wages by that amount”. Wage cuts have not operated for a number of years. What happens nowadays is that pay increases endeavour to keep up with the cost of living, and where part of the cost of living is artificially held down by subsidies or controls the effect is to check the pressure for pay increases. Braddock must have read, of late, that the Labour Party wants the new rent rises postponed for just this reason: that the keeping down of rents is essential to make “an incomes policy” — that is, wage restraint — work.

Last — leaving aside the remarks about Bulgaria, which show more confusion than is possible to deal with in a short reply — Tom Braddock says the contention that the majority of workers in the developed countries must become Socialists or “the struggle can’t succeed” is absurd. It is nothing like as absurd as the urging that what workers should continue with is rent strikes and attempts to reform capitalism. This sort of “struggle” has been going on for more than a century without the workers’ position in society changing; and we are asked to support more of the same thing!
Editorial Committee.

Blogger's Note:
Not sure what happened with the fact checking for the Editorial Committee's reply to Tom Braddock's letter but the article Why Must the Rent Go Up ? actually appeared in the February 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard, not the January issue and Tom Braddock's first reply to that article appeared in the September 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard, not the July issue.

Letter: The Belgian “Socialist” Party (1972)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard
We have received the following from a correspondent in Belgium and reproduce it without necessarily subscribing to viewpoints conveyed in parts of it.
The Belgian Social-Democrats are going through a crisis at the moment. Every election they lose votes to the nationalist parties (Flemish nationalists and Walloon nationalists). The most important reason for the decline of the party is the ideological turn to the right of their leaders. They want to reform the party into a pragmatic “centre-party”, after the example of the “Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands” (SPD).

The Social-Democrat Ministers in the present government are nearly avowedly capitalist. Henri Simonet, theoretician of the right-wing and Minister of Economic Affairs, is a supporter of free trade. He only wants a few reforms, so that the capitalist system works “at its best”. In opposition to his policy are the left-wingers (mainly “Young Socialists”) and the Trade Unions. They want a turn to the left; that means, in their opinions, nationalisation of the basic industries under workers’ control. So in fact they want state capitalism.

The majority of the left wing is in favour of the so-called “revolutionary-reformism”, an idea of the French “Marxist” Andre Gorz. They believe that by struggling for reforms the workers will become socialists. In their opinion the B.S.P., reformed into a new vanguard party, will lead the masses gradually to the “inevitable” socialist revolution.

But among the left-wingers there are a few who are in practice in favour of world socialism. They want to give the workers a socialist consciousness, so that the workers can make their own revolution in future. Of course, those who are in practice for world socialism constitute a very small minority in the left wing. But, most important: there are socialists in Belgium.

In March 1973, an Ideological Congress will be held. There are only two possibilities: either the Congress will be in favour of a “centre-party” which can win the votes of the middle class, or the Congress will be in favour of the nationalisation of basic industry. It’s almost sure the right-wingers will be in the majority. For real socialists it doesn’t make any difference: in practice the party will always support capitalism.

There is only one alternative: to unite all socialists in a new real socialist party; only then the establishment of Socialism will become possible in future.
Dirk Wouters, 
Mechelen, Belgium.

SPGB Meetings (1972)

Party News from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Russia’s Rich Men (1972)

Book Review from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The End of Inequality? by David Lane.

This is an interesting discussion of “social stratification” in Russia even though Lane dismisses the various theories which say Russia is a class society in the Marxian sense — which for some reason he calls theories of state capitalism even though only one of those he mentions used this term. This does not mean that Lane thinks Russia is a classless society. Far from it. He just thinks Marxian definitions do not apply.

Even so, the first two chapters where Lane points out that Socialism in Marx’s sense could not have been established in Russia after 1917 because of the low level of productivity then prevailing rely heavily on Marxist ideas. Indeed Lane seems to recognise that Socialism is not possible till the means of production can produce abundance, but he does persist in using the misleading phrase “state socialism” to describe Russian society.

The other three chapters are based on the evidence of social research carried out in Russia, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia which reveals that the pattern of status and style-of-life groups (which some sociologists use to define class) in these countries is much the same as in the West.

The one difference, claims Lane, “is the absence of a private propertied class possessing great concentrations of wealth”. Later he speaks of “the elimination of inheritance of substantial wealth”. Now, while it is true that the predominant form of class monopoly in Russia is the ruling class’s collective control over the means of production, it is not true that there are no individually wealthy persons there. Members of the Russian ruling class do have the chance to accumulate — out of high salaries, bonuses, prizes and even fiddles — considerable private fortunes. Lane himself says that the salary of a government Minister is nine times the average wage, and this is not counting various fringe benefits like cars, big houses, holidays and special shops. In Britain this would be an income of about £250 a week (which would be worth more in Russia because of the low rates of income tax there). Some of this is bound to be saved and over the years a large sum, which can be inherited, built up.

In fact this whole field of individual wealth in countries like Russia — its sources, its distribution, where it is invested — is wide open for original research. It is even fair to speculate whether, with the spread of enterprise freedom and the possible success of the Russian civil rights movement, private ownership of wealth rather than political power may not become the predominant form of class privilege in Russia.
Adam Buick

Black History (1972)

Book Review from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Red and Black, Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History, by Eugene D. Genovese, Allen Lane. The Penguin Press 5.00

This book is a compilation of some eighteen previously published essays by Professor Genovese and, like books of this nature, suffers a bit from disjointedness, even from an occasional contradiction. But it is not this in the book that really bothers us. It is, rather, the Genovese approach to the Marxian method of interpreting history. His opening chapter: On Being a Socialist and a Historian and his concluding essay: On Antonio Gramsci (head of the Communist Party in Italy in the early 1920s; arrested and imprisoned for the last eleven years of his life by Mussolini) should be read carefully as one sees, in starkness, the utter contempt or, at best, condescension of the self-appointed intellectual “Marxist” for the mental potentialities of ordinary working people. To Genovese, leadership—presumably of intellectuals — is certainly the most important factor in educating the working class to the urgencies of Socialism. He approves of Gramsci’s vision of the ideal party:
“A party justifies its historical existence when it develops three strata: (1) a rank-and-file of ordinary men whose participation is characterised by discipline and faith; (2) a leadership, which provides cohesion; and (3) cadres, which mediate morally, physically, and intellectually between the other two.”
Of these strata he stressed leadership:
“We speak of captains without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to find captains. It is surely true that an already existing army will be destroyed if it lacks captains, whereas a group of captains, co-operative and in agreement on common ends, will not be slow in forming an army where none exists.”
But this is not Marxism nor was it really new with either Gramsci or Lenin. It is the sort of theory which Marx and Engels consistently fought against throughout their careers. As far back as 1848, in their Communist Manifesto, they made clear that: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” (Our emphasis). The Marxian case rests, indeed, on the theory that the ideas of man (not merely of leaders) are basically determined by the mode of production and that it is the business of working for wages for an owning class (not the preachments or captaincies of great men) that will cause workers to organise for Socialism.

The foregoing should not discourage the student of Socialism from obtaining the book (if he can afford it). There is much of interest to be gotten from the essays on the blacks in America notwithstanding the incredible misunderstanding of the Marxian method. Genovese, for example, sees American blacks as embracing “genuine ingredients of a separate nationality, even as they form part of a general American nationality … (and that) it is no longer possible to believe that a class can be understood apart from its culture, or that most modern classes can be understood apart from their nationality.” But what, after all, is a nationality? In the final analysis it is a group split into people with rival and conflicting interests. Even in the case of American blacks, where the percentage of capitalists is undoubtedly smaller than usual, the struggle between and within the classes is apparent. Black bourgeois pit themselves against one another as well as against the white bourgeoisie, and against the black (or white) workers they hire. Black workers, on the other hand, must also compete among themselves—as well as with white workers—for jobs.

It should also be pointed out that Genovese does a creditable job in showing the limitations of the economic determinists both of the non-Marxist and professed Marxist varieties. Creditable, that is, to the extent that he does not go overboard himself in an opposite direction. Certainly historians such as Charles and Mary Beard (who were not professedly Marxist) could be categorised as economic determinists and yet their analysis of the factors motivating the South to secede in 1860 was not as “narrowly defined” as he would have it. For the tariff did play a major role in antagonising the cotton planters who had an enormous stake in trade with England, Genovese and even Marx to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Homestead Law was certainly not in the interests of a ruling class that was based largely on latifundia-type labour, a wasteful sort of labour which, together with a one-crop economy, burned up land quickly and helped generate competition between North and South for frontier areas. The spread of homesteading certainly did offer a threat to the South.

Part of the problem of Professor Genovese seems to be his obvious lack of understanding of the basics of a capitalist system. Even his attempt to label the southern slave economy bears this out although he does correctly show that it was certainly not feudal, as so many professed Marxists maintain. Unfortunately, despite his grasp of the form feudalism, he declares that economy to be as different from capitalism as it was from feudalism. In fact the ante-bellum South had a system of plantation capitalism. True, the relationships were not [wage-labour and capital] but, rather, chattel-slave labour and capital (although there were many wage-slaves too). Nevertheless, unlike the classical systems of slavery and of serfdom, production was organised for sale on the market with view to profit. The production of cotton, tobacco, and (following the government’s ban on slave-importation) slaves themselves, was not carried on primarily for the use of the ruling class. A backward and inefficient type of capitalism, yes. But nevertheless capitalism.
Harry Morrison
(World Socialist Party of the United States)

Blogger's Note:
Not sure what happened but this review was a bit garbled in places and there were no corrections in a later issue of the Socialist Standard. It happens.

50 Years Ago: Christmas Shopping (1972)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

When November was scarcely half spent, the shops began to make their special displays. Now, as I write, the wares of the world are heaped behind the shining windows. Like so many Aladdin’s caves they will yield their store to him who has the golden key; to all other the frail glass pane is a barrier impassable.

And who are they that can command the best and largest share? Those who took no part in producing it … Alaskan furs, Chinese silks, ivories of Japan, Sheffield cutlery, Spanish, Arabian and Tasmanian fruits, do not create and convey themselves, even at Christmas time. That which shaped, transported and arranged them was your work, and that of your fellows in all corners of the earth.

These goods, and the posters that advertise them, the factories where they were made and the machines within the factories, the engines and ships that carried them here—you made them all. Yet your part in the season’s celebrations is to watch more fortunate folks enjoy them, and feel your own needs more bitterly. You who have distant friends and families—why cannot you visit them? You fathers and mothers of children, do not even their small delights mean the sacrifice of something necessary to yourselves?

There are young men and girls among you who dreamed homes of your own; and this winter finds you further off than ever from your desires.

* * *

If a crowning absurdity was lacking, it is supplied by the presence of multitudes who are not even allowed to work.

(From an article in the Socialist Standard, December 1922, signed “A”)

Voice From The Back: End of a dream (2009)

The Voice From The Back Column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

End of a dream 

Ever since the publication of his Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 Ralph Nader has been the darling of radical circles in the USA. Here was a man who dared to question the power of such capitalist concerns as General Motors. He went on to found scores of progressive non-profit organisations. He even ran as a Green Party and later an Independent candidate for the President of the USA. On one occasion he even polled almost 3 million votes. Capitalism however is a resilient social system and his attempt at reforming capitalism has ended up with him looking to the capitalists to solve the problems. He is on tour at present to promote his first fictional book entitled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. This has led some of his former supporters to doubt his reasoning. “There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these days. Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He’s dented it more than anyone else in America. But he knows it’s still chugging, even more strongly than ever. Nader understands that he’s losing. He understands that we’re losing—we who believe in democracy, we who care about justice. But if our only hope is with a handful of billionaires, we’re in a lot worse shape than I thought.” (The Progressive, 28 September)

How about socialism? 

As the social problems of capitalism mount up its administrators have to be seen to be doing something. The usual drill in the past has been for world leaders to meet together usually in some splendid hotel or other, make pious noises about “something has to be done”, pat each other on the back and fly home first class in a glow of self-satisfaction. The most recent crisis of world hunger has occasioned another useless backscratching summit. “With food prices remaining high in developing countries, the United Nations estimates that the number of hungry people around the world could increase by 100 million in 2009 and pass the one billion mark. A summit of world leaders in Rome scheduled for November will set an agenda for ways to reduce hunger and increase investment in agriculture development in poor countries. What will drive the next Green Revolution? Is genetically modified food an answer to world hunger? Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?” (New York Times, 26 October) The one factor that they have not taken in to consideration is not yet another summit at a higher and higher level, but a sump level meeting of the world’s working class. Only by such a movement as the World Socialist Movement can men and women abolish for ever the madness of millions starving to keep a system of robbery and exploitation intact. The journalist asks the question “Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?” Yes there is – world socialism and production solely for use! That is one issue that wont be discussed in Rome.

Capitalism is gangsterism 

Politicians and clergymen and even well-paid TV personalities will claim that the Middle East conflict has something to do with morality and justice and that it has nothing to do with crass consideration such as “making a couple of bucks” as Al Capone once famously said. “The British oil giant BP will today take control of Iraq’s biggest oilfield in the first important energy deal since the 2003 invasion. The move has created uproar among local politicians invoking resentful memories of their nation’s colonial past. The agreement to develop the Rumaila field, near the southern city of Basra, will potentially put Iraq on the path to rivalling the riches of Saudi Arabia within a decade — if the Government can fend off corrupt officials, continuing terrorist attacks on pipelines and political uncertainty.” (Times, 3 November) Hey, Iraq workers may continue to live in poverty, so what, we can make a couple of bucks. That is how capitalism works, isn’t it Al Capone?

The new gangsters 

It used to be popular for supporters of the so-called Communist Party to decry Imperialism. They would point out how Britain had exploited Africa and India during their colonial conquests. Later on they would concentrate on the role of the USA in Central and South America. Changed days now with China investing heavily in all sorts of corrupt regimes throughout Asia and Africa. “Barely a fortnight after soldiers loyal to Guinea’s military junta butchered at least 150 demonstrators calling for civilian rule, a deal for oil and mineral rights worth about $7 billion has been struck between China and Guinea. … It seems that China’s commercial march across Africa will continue unabated, however vile the human-rights record of the government it seeks to befriend.” (Economist, 17 October)

Pathfinders: Calorie counts and pet scans (2009)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Calorie counts and pet scans

Hail the season of good capitalist cheer which will soon be upon you, while you’re on holiday from your lack of job and looking forward to the Christmas repossession and credit collection letters. Since you’re not likely to be merry and you can’t afford to buy presents or drink, let Pathfinders at least assure you that you can eat crap food because the scientists have got all their calorie intake levels wrong by about 16 per cent (‘Rethink for calorie eating levels’, BBC Online, 14 November).

But please stop feeding the leftovers to the damn dog, who’s probably clinically obese. One in three household pets in the UK, about 7m animals, is overweight (Vetpulse Blog ) while in USA it’s 50 per cent (Pet obesity facts)

The fact that pooch has got a paunch in a dog-eat-dog world where 750m people eat nearly nothing is no surprise to socialists, however Fido and Tiddles-lovers in the top 10 cat and dog-owning countries might be surprised to learn that it takes six and a half times the land area of New Zealand to provide the petfood. And in a delicious knife-twist to any self-righteous organic dog-owning vegan climate-protestors at Copenhagen this month, it turns out that for the eco-pawprint of an average sized dog you could instead drive not one but two SUVs 10,000 kilometres over a year (New Scientist, 24 October and Guardian, 13 November). In fact, for the price of an overweight small Scottie dog you could even run an Ethiopian or a Vietnamese human.

Once you’ve eaten the dogfood and the dog you can always resort to drugs, now that the debate has been satisfactorily resolved and we can reliably tell how to assess the relative safety of any drug. Oh, you didn’t know? Well it’s simple. If the government says nothing at all about it, it will most probably kill you, whereas if they swear blind it’s dangerous and what’s more do their Nutt and sack any scientific advisor who dares to disagree with them, you know you can party!

Crystal balls-ups

No doubt many readers have come to regard Pathfinders as their infallible technical and scientific guru, and one is of course reluctant to disabuse them of such notions, however in positively the last anniversary item of 2009 it might be fun to reflect on the fate of pundit predictions from 20 years ago. The following comes from the book Towards 2001 – A consumer’s guide to the 21st century, by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein (Angus, London, 1989). Quite what qualified these two journalists to write this book is unclear, however they probably did about as well as Pathfinders would have done.
  • Correct (if late): Flat screens, pocket computer, CDRs, digital cameras and hearing aids, impotence pills, sat-nav, supermarket self-checkout.
  • Wrong (or not heard of): walking TV, self-weeding gardens, bark-stopper dog collar, flying car, potato ice-cream.
  • Not predicted (stand by for a shock): pen-drives, DVDs, small mobile phones, text messaging, World Wide Web, PDAs, lithium-ion batteries (making small portable electronics possible).
What do we learn from this? Not much, apart from never believe what gurus tell you. The list of things they signally failed to predict accords eerily with the most revolutionary changes in our culture, which is a kind of reverse trick-shot. Hope for socialists, perhaps, since people are always telling us socialism will never happen. But Pathfinders can hardly stand by and laugh without entering the fray, so here are a few modest offerings for the next ten years:

They won’t find a graviton or a Higgs boson; they won’t understand what they do get; the LHC will break down anyway because somebody sneezed; somebody will announce the overthrow of Einstein (again); most of the heat from the Caderache nuclear fusion plant will be generated by rows over money; Dawkins will get baptised a Catholic.

Things that go Plod in the night

Modern detective work is a serious and scientific business, apparently. Only not in Wales, whose police force embarked on a £20,000 investigation into a suicide after being told that the man’s ghost had visited psychics and told them he had been poisoned (Guardian, 7 November). Learning that the words ‘lion’, ‘horse’ and ‘fox’ were significant, the police set off to visit every pub with one of those names in its title, and one with a statue of a horse outside. The case was closed only after a second post-mortem revealed no trace of any poison. “We are a laughing stock,” complained one police source. Perhaps, but spirits were doubtless apprehended in several of those pubs.

Competition results

If you interrogate your 140 character memory you will recall that Pathfinders attempted, back in September, to raise the level of debate on Twitter by holding a competition to find the best SMS-length rendition of the socialist case. To say that there was a tsunami of enthusiastic responses might be a slight exaggeration (ask a socialist whatever you like, but don’t ask them to be brief!) however some notable entries deserve honourable mention (the prize is that we keep your name out of it).
Most rallying: Society marches on its belly; give us the land, farms and the bakery not the crumbs! 4 1 world socialist community! (FA)

Most exact: From each according to ability, to each according to need. Free labour, free access. That’s Socialism. (SJW)

Most poetic: The essence of capitalism is the stench of cordite and blood. The essence of communism is the flavour of fulfilment. (JN)

Most McGonagall: The essence of capitalism is wages and profit. The essence of socialism is how to get off it. (ALB)

Most conversational: Think outside the box of capitalism and make the world a pleasurable place to inhabit. Work for the benefit of society, not your masters. (JV)

Most economical: I vote to end capitalism X (PM)

Most toddler-friendly: world socialism – for a world without war, want, wages and the fat controller. (DON)

Most street-hip: Banish the gods from the sky, the capitalists from the earth and the chuggers from the high street. (DON)
Thanks to all those who contributed. Due to postal difficulties the prize Seychelles tickets regrettably cannot be mailed out. Pathfinders will return in January. With a tan.
Paddy Shannon

Cooking the Books: This year’s Nobel Prize for Economics (2009)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every year the Bank of Sweden awards a prize to some economist, often called the Nobel Prize for Economics even though it wasn’t established by the old merchant of death himself. It has in fact only been going since 1968. Usually the prize goes to some obscure economist for work on some obscure aspect of the market economy. Sometimes it goes to a big name such as the Keynesian Paul Samuelson (1970) or the Monetarist Milton Friedman (1976). Even the mad marketeer Baron von Hayek got one, in 1974.

Very occasionally it goes to someone who has done some interesting work, as when in 1998 it went to Amartya Sen who had shown that famines were caused by a collapse in legal access to food (via money or direct production) and not by any actual shortage of food or overpopulation. This year, too, it has gone to someone whose work sounds interesting – Elinor Ostrom whose 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action refuted the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” parable that is often used to try to show that socialism wouldn’t work.

In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin conceived of a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would only make matters worse. Called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, his parable went like this: assume a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle; in these circumstances each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons and, in the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation.

Hardin’s parable was completely unhistorical. Wherever commons have existed there also existed rules governing their use, sometimes in the form of traditions, sometimes in the form of arrangements for decision-making in common, which precluded such overgrazing and other threats to the long-term sustainability of the system.

One of the conclusions that governments drew from Hardin’s armchair theorising was that in existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions. Ostrom took the trouble to study various common property arrangements some of which had lasted for centuries, including grazing pastures in Switzerland, forests in Japan, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.

According to The Times (13 October),
“Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, she asserts that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest”.
In other words, common ownership did not necessarily have to lead to resource depletion as predicted by Hardin and trumpeted by opponents of socialism. The cases Ostrom examined were not socialism as the common owners were private producers. In socialism the producers, the immediate users of the common resources, would not be trying to make an independent living for themselves but would be carrying out a particular function on behalf of the community in a social context where the aim of production would be to satisfy needs on a sustainable basis. But the rules they would draw up for the use of the grazing land, forests, fishing grounds and the like would be similar to those in the cases she studied.

The Ire Of The Irate Itinerant (2009)

From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Too good to be true (2009)

From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
We are conditioned to accept the absurdities and contradictions that capitalism throws up.
It is possible now to build a world where every single human being is adequately provided with the material means of a full and happy life in a truly meaningful democratic society; where there is no such thing as world hunger; where wars and armaments no longer exist; where all have access to the knowledge and information they desire and where the system of rich and poor, the brutal class system that alienates human beings from one another, is a historical memory.

Actually that statement is not correct. It is not possible to create such a world now because one feature essential in its creation does not exist. In order to discern the missing element in a world of such promise it would be useful to examine the components that would be required to make a reality of what, from our present perspective, must seem like a dream world.

First we might look at the physical requirements of the world we are considering; is there the means, real or potential, to create the enormous quantities of food and other materials to provide sufficiency for all? To answer that question we must look at how wealth is produced now and how it would be produced in the world we are considering.

One thing is common to the production of wealth in whatever form of society we live in: it is produced from the resources of nature by human labour power whether, as in the past, by a human hand or, as now or in the future, by the most advanced technological means. However, the factors that currently determine what is produced and how it is distributed would differ fundamentally in the society we are considering from those that obtain today.

Current economic crisis
We could not make this point more graphically than by referring to the current chapter in the cyclic crisis which our present mode of production has thrown up.

These crises, which cause an intensification of poverty through unemployment and most often the restricting or slashing of vital public services, are an inevitable result of the normal capitalist way of organising the production and distribution of wealth. The terrible effects of these breakdowns in the productive and distributive process of what is increasingly a globally integrated system are usually, as now, world-wide and, given that the countries affected are governed by parties right across the political spectrum, from Right to Left clearly shows that neither national identity or political labelling offers protection from global capitalism’s trade cycles.

By looking briefly at ‘the Credit Crunch’ – the media’s sobriquet for the latest in slumps – we can discern why millions of people have lost their jobs, why political parties are making policies out of which set of politicians will be least savage in cutting social welfare ‘benefits’ including health care and education. The wealth-producing equation (the providence of nature plus human labour power) is the same now as it was three or four years ago when, in capitalist terms, the economy was flourishing. As then, both the human factor and the material potential of nature remain available; there is no physical bar to full production not only to its previous levels but to the levels required to provide adequately for every human being on the planet within the system we are contemplating Why then is there such a dramatic slowdown in the production of human needs which, in turn is expressed in massive increases of unemployment and poverty within the working class?

Legal right
The answer clearly is the motive currently underpinning the production of goods and services and that motive arises from the fact of ownership. Legally the great majority of the world’s population have no right to the food, clothing and shelter they need in order to continue to exist as human beings. That sounds an utterly outrageous statement to make but it is quite clearly demonstrated by the fact that the means of life, the resources of nature, and the tools of production and distribution are legally owned by a relatively small minority class of people who generally enjoy rich lives of wealth and privilege based on the profits they extract from their ownership.

If you lived in an area of the world where death frequently occurs from malnutrition of lack of necessary medication you would know that what is said in the foregoing is true. You would know that the victims of hunger and preventable disease are people who are unable to get the food or medicine they desperately need to sustain their lives not because the means to satisfy these needs are not available but because they do not have the money to buy them.

In more politically and economically sophisticated countries such evidence is less evident. Nevertheless, the things that people need are directly or indirectly the property of the capitalist class and are released by way of sale with a view to profit. In other words, goods and services are produced in the form of commodities for the market and, generally, will not be produced if a viable market does not exist.

Obviously minority ownership of our means of life, either directly or through the state, could not form the basis of the politically and economically free society mooted at the beginning of this article. To achieve that it is necessary to abolish the legal framework on which minority ownership of our means of life is based; which means we need to bring about a democratic social revolution to get control of the law-making process vested in government.

Achieving control of government throughout the world for the purpose of establishing a system of common ownership in which everyone has the freedom to contribute their physical and mental skills to the production of the needs of their society and all have the right to freely avail of their individual needs will be a monumental task of political and social organisation. Its achievement will require a vast and willing effort in social co-operation on the part of humanity and yet looked at against our collective skills and wisdom it is a relatively simply job – always provided that we have the collective will to bring it about.

That collective will is the single factor we referred to at the commencement of this article; the single prevailing condition that stands between us and a world where civilised history will begin. A world without the greed and savage competition that breeds conflict, alienation and war; a world where our collective energies are directed to the nurture of ourselves and our planet. That collective will is the political consciousness that will bring about what we clearly define as Socialism.

The really hard bit
Most people today do not question the organisation and value systems behind the way we live. From an early age we learn that when we need something we have to pay for it either directly or indirectly or else, however essential it is to our health or happiness, we have to do without it. At an early age we commence our ‘education’, a process orientated towards inculcating the beliefs and values of the world we live in; its morality, its inflexible system of social organisation and how to compete for a place in the pecking order.

Effectively we are conditioned to accept the absurdities and contradictions that capitalism throws up. In our daily relations with one another we can identify and condemn those contradictions but when, as we are now doing, it is suggested that we should consider another way of organising the affairs of humanity the armour of rejection too often comes into play; the belief that we who run the world for the capitalists cannot run a considerably less complicated and rational alternative world society for ourselves.

The really hard bit is the beginning: simply considering that it might not be too good to be true.
Richard Montague

Cooking the Books: Free is good (2009)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Journalist, broadcaster and author Libby Purves chose the day that the London Evening Standard became a free, give-away paper to launch an attack on the whole idea of people having free access to things. Under the headline “If the future’s worth having, it won’t be free”, she laid into the “internet generation” which “has grown up believing it can enjoy other people’s hard work for nothing. This has got to stop” (Times, 12 October).

We socialists would say that, on the contrary, “if we’re going to have to pay for everything, the future is not worth having”. The resources exist today to produce enough food, clothes, housing, transport and health care so that no one on the planet needs to starve or be malnourished, or go without clean water, or live in slums, or not have access to the medicines and treatment they need. Society could go over to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, with everybody having access to what they need without having to pay in return for contributing what they can to the work of producing what is needed.

This, surely, is a better future than the continued application of the opposite principle of “can’t pay, can’t have” ? Which means that in some parts of the world people die from starvation or easily preventable disease, or exist in shanty towns on the outskirts of big cities. And that, all over the world, most people are deprived of something which would improve their lives and which could easily be provided. Where we can’t build adequate public infrastructures or install anti-pollution technologies because it would “cost too much”.

And what is wrong with the “internet generation” taking for granted that “music, films, news, photographs, cartoons and carefully researched or creative prose” should be available for free? Isn’t this a sign that the money-wages-profit system that is capitalism has outlived its usefulness and perhaps also a sign of the beginning of a consciousness that it needs to be replaced by a system in which people have free access to what they need?

Purves is defending her vested interest as a royalty-reaping author. That’s understandable as, under capitalism, people need money to live and that’s how she gets hers. It might be thought, though, that as a public intellectual she’d be more broad-minded than to judge an economic system by whether or not it ensures her her chosen source of income.

In pleading her cause she goes back to the labour theory of property first put forward by John Locke in the 17th century:
“Content is not cost free. Writing is work. Musicianship involves cost and labour, art is not innately free, nor the infrastructure of news reporting. Until food, clothes, housing and transport are doled out free, content-makers need to be paid”.
And, according to her, the way to ensure this is through “intellectual property rights”, even if these are difficult, not to say impossible, to enforce in some cases.

But she does at least concede that if “food, clothes, housing and transport” were free – which will be the case in socialism – so should watching films or listening to music or reading a book, on the internet. As these will be too in socialism. The future is free.

Tiny (URL) Tips (2009)

The Tiny Tips column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In the wake of the horrific events of the day, his captain is cool. He walks up to Massey and asks; “Are you doing all right, Staff Sergeant?” Massey responds: “No, sir. I am not doing O.K. Today was a bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.”

Fully aware of the civilian carnage, his captain asserts: “No, today was a good day.” Relatives wailing, cars destroyed, blood all over the ground, Marines celebrating, civilians dead, and “it was good day”!:

Even as the financial system collapsed last year, and millions of investors lost billions of dollars, one unlikely investor was racking up historic profits: John Paulson, a hedge-fund manager in New York. His firm made $20 billion between 2007 and early 2009 by betting against the housing market and big financial companies. Mr. Paulson’s personal cut would amount to nearly $4 billion, or more than $10 million a day. That was more than the 2007 earnings of J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods combined:

Sixteen workers are killed a day in the United States because of reckless negligence on the part of their employers. Under existing laws, these employers get a slap on the wrist, or walk away scot-free. Meanwhile, workers who blow the whistle face threats and retaliation at the workplace:
[Dead Link.]

Its ruler re-named the days of the week after himself and his mother. Opera, ballet and the circus are banned. To get a driving licence, citizens must sit an exam on the dead leader’s autobiography. Welcome to Turkmenistan:

When veterans die — from lack of health insurance More than 1.5 million vets don’t have it, and 2,200 vets die every year because of it :

“. . . We suggest that it will be pretty much like this in socialist society. Although it will be global as opposed to tribal, people will still live in small localised communities..” But some people I imagine will choose a clean, green high-rise city lifestyle instead:

Why are so many Americans now toying with socialism, in a country that created the most successful free market economic system in history and spent half of the last century fighting the heresy of Marx’s socialism?
[Dead Link.]

“Americans are saying that with their planes they can see an egg 18 kilometers away, so why can’t they see the Taliban?” ABDULLAH WASAY, an Afghan pharmacist:

Friday, December 29, 2023

Free (2009)

Book Review from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Free. The Future of a Radical Price.  By Chris Anderson. Random House. 2009. £18.99.

“What happens when advances in technology allow many things to be produced for more or less nothing? And what happens when those things are then made available to the consumer for free?” asks the publicity for this (paying) book by the editor of Wired. His answer is not that this is the beginning of some sort of transition towards a system where eventually all goods and services will be available free of charge (which it isn’t anyway). It’s that profit-seeking enterprises involved in these things have to adopt, have adopted and will increasingly adopt, a different marketing strategy.

Thus, enterprises in that line of business can choose to give away free DVDs and charge for DVD-players or they can give away free DVD-players and charge for DVDs, in either case covering their costs and making a profit.

It is, as Anderson explains, a modern version of the strategy adopted by saloon owners in New Orleans in the 1880s. They offered customers free lunches banking on them buying drinks priced so as to cover the cost of the lunches. Hence the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Today – and it will be the case as long as capitalism lasts – there’s no such thing either as a free DVD or a free paper or a free mobile. Those giving them away will be recuperating the cost from something else that they are selling.

Still, it can’t be bad that there are books discussing things being free.
Adam Buick

End of work? (2009)

Book Review from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Critical Social Theory and the End of Work. By Edward Granter. Ashgate, 2009. £55.

The main theme of this book (adapted from a PhD thesis) is that work is being eliminated through the use of advanced production technology. The Critical Social Theory in the title refers to the publications of the Frankfurt School (notably Adorno, Horkheimer, Lowenthal and Marcuse) but the views on work of other critical social theorists such as Marx and Gorz are also included.

Sensibly Granter devotes a few pages to definitions of work, but the results are disappointing. The author wastes space telling us that someone thinks work is “picking something up and putting it down somewhere else because you have to”. Gorz is more helpful in pointing out that “‘work’ nowadays refers almost exclusively to activities carried out for a wage”. Curiously Granter writes of work hundreds of times but hardly mentions employment. He doesn’t seem at all clear that although all employment involves work, not all work is employment.

The chapter on utopians and the end of work summarises what More, Fourier and the little-known Etzler had to say on the subject. Apparently Etzler though that the ‘powers in nature’ (wind, solar, tidal energy) could be developed to replace all human labour. The two pages devoted to William Morris correctly note that his News From Nowhere was a reaction to Bellamy’s Looking Backward, but fail to convey much of the richness of Morris’s imagination about what work will be like in socialist society.

Granter’s discussion of Marx quotes from no less than 14 of his works and the author believes there are “many Marxisms”. He confuses the issue by referring to “the erstwhile superpower that many saw as operating on Marxist principles…” It is also misleading to say that “The idea of the end of work is at the centre of Marx’s vision of a future society…” Granter is however on stronger ground when he writes that Marx was not in any way against work and did advocate its “radical transformation”.

Prior to a short concluding section, the final chapter is about globalisation and work. This is by far the most opinionated and forceful chapter, offering the most devastating critique of capitalism. Starting with Marx’s “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connection everywhere,” Granter goes on to show that the impetus for globalisation “comes primarily from the need of the expanding capitalist system to maximise profit”. The worst victims are Britain’s underpaid, easy to sack, second class workforce of migrant labour, ‘a world of gangmasters, zero hour contracts, the minimum wage [or less] and eventually no employment rights.”
Stan Parker