Monday, March 27, 2023

Revolution in the 21st Century (2004)

Book Review from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Revolution in the 21st Century. A Rough Guide to Revolution for Academics and Activists. By Jack Grassby, TUPS book, Newcastle, 2003

This is basically an up-dated version of Jack Grassby’s previous book, A Socialist’s Guide for the 21st Century, reviewed in the July 2001 Socialist Standard. In this he sets out, mainly for politics students, the range of approaches adopted by political activists.

First, there are those who think that the present social, economic and political system  capitalism, based on class ownership of the means of production and driven by production for profit  is basically OK but needs improving in one way or another. Some want “more capitalism”, i.e. less social interference in the market and profit-making (Grassby calls them the “Anti-Socialists”) while others want to move in the direction of more communal responsibility for people (Grassby calls them the “Non-Socialists” or “social democrats” such as Blair, ex-President Clinton and the Lib Dems in Britain).

Secondly, there are those who think that the present system should be replaced by another system they call “socialism” (variously defined, but all involving social control of production). Some believe that such a new system could be introduced gradually through a series of reforms voted by a democratically-elected government (Grassby calls them the “Evolutionary Socialists” or “gradualists” or “reformists”, as exemplified by Old Labour). Then, says Grassby, there are the “Revolutionary Socialists” who argue that socialism can only be established after a decisive break during which the present ruling class are deprived of power –  a “revolution”.

Grassby divides this group into those who hold that such a revolution has to be the work of a conscious majority and can be achieved essentially peacefully by making use of existing elective institutions (he gives us as the typical, indeed the main, example) and those who hold that it has to be the work of an enlightened minority, a political vanguard, leading the workers in what will inevitably be a violent show-down with the state (here, his typical example is the SWP). He also discusses the anarchists but doesn’t classify them as a separate approach, presumably because, depending on their views, they can be fitted into one of other of the three categories above (reformists, democratic revolutionists, vanguardists).

He does, however, introduce a fourth group who he calls the “New Socialists” (even though most of them don’t call themselves socialists, “anti-capitalists” being as far as they are prepared to go): the amorphous group of those who don’t see any single alternative to capitalism but many possible alternatives, including some which retain money and markets, all of which are seen as equally valid; in fact, for them, the goal is not that important, it’s what you do now that is.

Despite the fact that they reduce “socialism”, as has the Labour Party when it pretends to have something to do with this, to “socialist values” that can be achieved within capitalism, Grassby’s sympathies go to this last group, or rather it is in them that he sees the future hope for socialism. Certainly, at the moment, this is the approach that probably most of those radically dissatisfied with the worst features of capitalism are inclined to adopt. But even he recognises that pursuing single issues is ultimately a dead-end, an endless uphill struggle like trying to run up a downward-moving escalator. And, we would add, both he and they are wrong to imagine that there are many possible alternatives to capitalism.

At this particular historical juncture, due to the productive system that has developed, there is only one possible way forward for humanity: a world-wide society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources. This is not to say that, on this basis, alternative structures are not possible. Of course they are , and no doubt in different parts of the world these structures will reflect the different traditions and preferences of the people living there. That would be a consequence of the democracy that socialism necessarily involves. Socialism is not a blueprint as to all aspects of the alternative society to capitalism, only a definition of what its basis has inevitably to be.

Grassby is over-impressed with “post-modernism” which he seems to identify with philosophical scepticism and moral relativism, but these have existed since Ancient Greek times. Post-modernism, if it is to mean anything (not that it is clear that it is), surely, must have something to do with “modernism”, i.e. the view that emerged, at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century the Age of Reason, that there are universal human values and which advanced the project of universal human emancipation, a project inherited by early socialists such as Marx. It is this that post-modernism rejects, and shows itself to be, not as Grassby thinks the basis for a theory of 21st century revolution, but an expression of  capitalism’s current intellectual bankruptcy.

Grassby has also been taken in by “socio-biology”, the theory of biological determinism thought up by EO Wilson, the specialist in ant behaviour. Grassby argues that “the Marxist view that the post-capitalist society will operate altruistically, without money, prices or wages, demands a uniform standard of human behaviour not consistent with the sociobiologist’s description” and “would require universally altruistic human behaviour without greed, selfishness, prejudice or power”.

It is not clear where in Marx or any other socialist writer, Grassby gets this idea that socialism requires “universally altruistic human behaviour”, i.e. that everybody should put everybody else’s interest before their own, but probably from the biological determinist opponents of socialism such as Wilson and Steven Pinker who he quotes. But in fact socialism doesn’t require everyday human behaviour to change much from what it is today, essentially only the accentuation of some of the behaviours which people exhibit today (friendliness, helpfulness, cooperation) at the expense of others which capitalism encourages (violence, competitiveness and acquisitiveness).

Of course humans are biologically capable of aggressive as well as non-aggressive behaviour, of being narrowly self-centred as well as of showing concern for others that’s what being biologically capable of a wide range of behaviour, a key feature of “human nature”, means. But that’s not the same as saying that humans have a “biological predisposition” (through a gene or combination of genes) for aggression, domination or greed or, for that matter, for non-violent, co-operative or altruistic behaviour. Because we are “biologically programmed” for flexible behaviour, humans are capable of both types of behaviour depending on the circumstances in which we were brought up or find ourselves in.

So, while Grassby’s book may provide some useful material for students’ essays on politics, they should be wary on relying on it for their essays on philosophy. And they are advised, if they want avoid bad marks, to refer to John Stuart Mill as “Mill” rather than “Mills”.

One further correction. Grassby says that the SPGB has “its roots in the Labour Representative Committee established in 1900” which was the forerunner of the Labour Party. This is a misunderstanding. We were a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation which was indeed present at the 1900 conference which established the, to give it its proper name, Labour Representation Committee. But in 1901 the SDF disaffiliated from the LRC and it was after this, in 1904, that the Socialist Party broke away.  So, we have never had any links to the Labour Party.
Adam Buick

The cloying embrace of the New Age (2004)

From the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard 
"The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man, that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised”. (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
In the last thirty or so years there has sprung up a set of ideas, loosely related in content but closely tied by form, referred to collectively as the ‘New Age’ Aquarianism, Wicca, crystal healing, aromatherapy, holistic remedies, along with a host of offshoots from more conventional religions whether Christian or otherwise. These institutions themselves are internal to a general ‘change of consciousness’, in the main anti-technological and pro-‘spiritual’, or ‘Green’.

We as Socialists often appear alone in standing against this seeming tide of goodwill, good vibrations, and wholesomeness, as if slaughtermen at a refuge for foundling woodland animals. People know, and usually respect, our position on organised religion; that religion is debilitating to the mind of the worker and thus to the progress which we wish to make as workers in advancing our interests. But the New Age? What could be bad about ‘healing’? Who could protest against a Green utopia? Or, indeed, the benefits of goddess worship in empowering women? Surely this New Age is at worst harmless fun and at best a route to a new, gentler society?

Our answer is that the New Age religion is merely the old age religion in a new, consistently modern form. For example, it follows all the rules of modern science, often becoming a cult of scientism itself, demanding (usually)? no virgin births or flat earths, and steps between the cracks of this modern science where it fails to tread, in the subjective part of human experience; the New Age’s powers are all developed on the side of ‘spiritual energy’, ‘psychic transformation’, etc. If the old religion was the opium of the people, then this is the heroin; no longer extracted by chance from nature but refined, even artificially manufactured, and all the stronger for the process. The chants and prayers of the old religion have become commodified into tarot cards, crystals, massage and healing workshops, incense burners, and scented candles.

How did this come to pass? How could a modern working class, far more capable at mental labour than our forebears, sink so low as to fall in love with our own mental chains instead of merely bearing them in guilt and shame? The answer is to be found in considering what religious alienation is.

Religious alienation
Religion is not a set of monotheistic doctrines, whether Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., but an ideal world where the problems of society are transcended in thought. The underlying cause, the system of society, capitalist social relations, which alienates us as humans from our material powers, remains intact, in fact, unchecked; it reproduces the problem. The New Age is not different from religion as anciently conceived; it is the perfection of it.

The old religions are dying in the West not because of a lack of proselytisation, the loss of God’s favour, or any other cause which religions might claim, but because actual experience of the modern world has ripped them asunder, and as dogmas they must break instead of bowing to this change. The Pope cannot end the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, for example, even though every Catholic with a rudimentary scientific education knows that there is no divine spark at conception, unseeable until nine months later; the entire process of human reproduction is now well known and it would be expected in any doctor’s surgery that in practice no-one would hold such a belief.

Protestantism instead is the basis of the New Age religion, even though virtually unrecognisable once it has cast off its particular historical cloak of inherited catholic ideas, adapting new materials to its needs. What remains is that ‘each man and woman is their own priest’. As Marx put it, “Luther freed the body from its chains in order to put the heart in chains”; rather than obeying a priest, we choose the form of our own mental domination, just as in work we no longer slave for one master but can choose from hundreds to slave for. The pagan backdrop of Catholicism is filled by that of Hinduism, Buddhism, even Islam, removed from their own social contexts of native exploitation; all are grist to this mill, generating a thousand and one cults, sects, and aquarian societies.

What all these have in common is the form they take; the flight from reality into a magical world where the evils of the material world are transcended in thought. They are not revolutionary, as some might suppose, from their content of peace, love and contentment; they are escape, the only escape of the life prisoner staring from their cell window, and the form is the acceptance of their existence only as an ideal life, never as a fully material one. They are the product of personal inspiration, mental focussing, or good vibrations, not the actual powers of human beings living and breathing in and out all of the powers of nature.

So what is the socialist answer? Quite simply that we wish to abolish alienation at its root; rather than fleeing from its effects we wish to tackle its causes. These causes are, briefly put, the forces behind the capitalist mode of production.

To expand a little, the capitalist mode of production involves a division of the productive process into the production of two kinds of values; use values, which the capitalist later sells to make more capital, and exchange value, which is the labour cost, including reproducing our labour-power, of producing them. Note that there is no need to invoke Dickensian poverty or the lash of the Pharaohs in order to explain the reproduction of the working class; we are not necessarily materially impoverished by the process, that would be like failing to put oil in a car engine or charge the radiator with antifreeze. Instead, like the car, we are objects of use, means rather than ends, and as the productive process accelerates, as capitalism has come to predominate, mere cogs in a machine, and our creative powers of producing values appear irrevocably transferred to the objects we have made. As Marx put it, “in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse”. Contrary to popular apprehension, therefore, we as socialists are primarily concerned not with becoming better fed workers, but ending our existence as the ciphers of our own life process. Our immiseration, which we wish to overcome, is precisely that which the New Ager recognises at one remove, as the world of other people who have not heard of healing, spiritual crystal workshops, or whatever, which has transformed their life: we as socialists (or, the same thing, communists) do not have the luxury of such self-delusion, whether through an inability to be so hypnotised, an allergic reaction to religion, or sheer bloody-mindedness, and must therefore instead overthrow the conditions which give rise to the pain from which New Agers flee.

We are not fighting blindly. We have a theory of society, of our history, which explains how we have come to this pass and how we can escape it – a theory explained further throughout this journal and in books, pamphlets, in fact every time you stop a socialist and ask them the time of day. We have the vast mass of society potentially as allies, and stand at the end of society’s historical alienation process, with no further worlds to be won but our own. Moreover, the process itself is liberatory; again, as Marx put it, “Communism is the actual movement which abolishes the state of affairs” and anyone who has been to a big rally or demonstration will know a small part of the power that is to be had through participation in one’s own liberation, be the goal seemingly ever so far off.

These are the things which we offer instead of the New Age, and why we consider it to be such an enemy and attack it with such determination. It is a trap for our kind, all the more pernicious because of our potential to transcend its petty gifts were all its prisoners released and their energies devoted to socialism. Its supposed similarity to socialism at isolated points are invariably arrived at from opposite directions; ‘world peace’ from a sense of passivity as to world affairs rather than a wish to participate in world affairs; ‘communalism’ from an inability to conceive of social action above the level of the commune, a retreat rather than an advance; ‘abolish money’ in order to live the passive existence of a lotus eater rather than to produce and consume with abandon.

We would thus urge anyone who would see themselves as a ‘New Ager’ – and is probably now just angry enough from reading the above to have started thinking – to free themself from an imaginary world; there is a real world to be transformed, and that transformation itself contains within it the realisation of our social powers.

Letters: Making allowances (2004)

Letters to the Editors from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Making allowances

Dear Editors,

The review of Beyond Capital in the December Socialist Standard deals with the question of wage determination as affected by the balance of class forces, there being no automatic passing on of workers’ higher living costs or taxes in higher wage levels. But government’s unceasing tinkering with the social wage in the form of benefits and subsidies shows that they are very much concerned with their role in maintaining and trying to regulate such a link.

The role of post-war Family Allowances in influencing wage levels is well known to Socialist Standard readers over the years. Rent control, introduced to prevent a wage explosion in the first world war, is another example.

More recently government has openly acknowledged Family Credits to be a top-up for low wages. Junior Employment Minister in the 1994 Conservative government, Philip Oppenheim, was reported as saying (Observer 28 August 1994):
“Employers cannot be expected to have regard to the family commitments of each of their employees. This must be the role of the tax and benefit system, which ensured that households have sufficient income upon which to live. That is why we introduced Family Credits and other benefits for lower-paid employees with a family to support. It would make no sense to outlaw every job which did not pay wages high enough to support a family.”
At the time now Deputy Prime Minister Prescott criticised the Conservative Party policy of this topping-up low wages, saying, “Family Credit is now part of wage negotiations”, encouraging low pay.

What is surprising is not Prescott’s tacit admission of his earlier ignorance of the purpose of much social welfare legislation, but the Conservative Party’s frankness in acknowledging the purpose of such “benefits” as being government policy in their attempts to regulate wage or, certainly income levels for the low-paid.

It is a case of government being compelled to throw its weight in the balance of class forces mentioned in the review, in order to maintain competitiveness and profitability of the national economy. Seen as a necessary response to capitalism’s compulsions and priorities, political and economic, it might well be considered “automatic”.
Bill Robertson, 

RMT and the SSP

Dear Editors,

Now that the RMT has been expelled from the Labour Party, the party they helped found 100 years ago, I wonder how long it will be before they are expelled again if the Scottish Socialist Party develop into a total British party whose reformist policies will no doubt evolve into what the Labour Party practice, as any other party who promises to manager Big Business.
Joe Boughey, 
Newton-le-willows, Merseyside

Alec Hart

Dear Editors,

Further to the obituary published in the February Socialist Standard, I have received the following story from one of Alec’s friends in Johannesburg:

“During the apartheid era he (Alec) was visited on many occasions by the ‘Special Branch’. Alec had an enormous picture of Karl Marx on the wall and when asked by one of these detectives ‘Who’s that man?’, he quite blandly said it was Johannes Brahms. Fortunately they believed him!”

I would have included this in the obituary if I’d had this story at the time
of writing!
Phyllis Hart, 
Westerham, Kent

50 Years Ago: Fighters for the right (2004)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard 

But our Labour Party leaders are not concerned with abolishing capitalism and, along with it, war; they want to keep capitalism, and their chief concern about war seems to be that there shall be more up-to-date weapons for the workers to kill each other with. Mr. Churchill recently announced in the Commons that the new rifle with which the British Army is to be equipped is not one of British design, which had been recommended earlier; the new rifle finally adopted was designed in Belgium. The reason for this seems to be mainly that the U.S.A. is likely to adopt the Belgian rifle, whereas had the choice rested on the British rifle it is probable that the U.S.A. would not have adopted it, and therefore an increased measure of standardization would not have been possible. This decision has aroused a storm of protest among Labour M.P.s. Mr. Woodrow Wyatt alleged that it was due to the Prime Minister not standing up to the Americans for something he knew to be “right” (20-1-54). What is “right” about a machine designed for the single purpose of killing human beings? Presumably Mr. Wyatt knows, but if he does he has not told us. Mr. Shinwell took the opportunity to proclaim the superiority of inventions produced by the British capitalist system over those produced by foreign capitalism: he asked the Prime Minister “why this preference for foreign products?” (27-1-54). Mr. Attlee, ex-Major, rose indignantly and complained that the new rifle “has to have all sorts of bits and pieces put on it before you can even use the bayonet.” Really, Mr. Attlee? Is this a disadvantage in your eyes? Many people would have thought that this was to be numbered among the rifle’s good points.

(From “The Passing Show” by Joshua, Socialist Standard, March 1954)

Editorial: Media Distractions (2004)

Editorial from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

The vicious competition among the media institutions, of the electronic as well as the print varieties, has led to ugly expressions of journalistic enterprise. No priority is given, in this competition for readership and audiences, to the devastating effects of capitalism on the working class, with serious investigations, analysis and reporting outlining the cause. Instead, following the American example, journalism in Britain has been increasingly devoid of real reportage.  This is a general trend to spiral down our world in almost every area of human activity to a cheap and shoddy impression of its, not too bright, former self.  Talking too much about the real issues facing the working class or about ecological and other problems caused by the profit system would draw too much unwanted attention on the system ideology and accompanying practices of the capitalist world.  Instead whether on the TV, radio or in print, news stories have tended to feature mainly a mixture of crime, tittle-tattle, sex, sleaze and all things fetid, as well as the political posturing of the main political parties in parliament in their pursuits at home and abroad with accompanying comments from toadies in the columns.  Both the BBC and ITN main national news bulletins have become the Sun, Star or Daily Record on wheels.  Now of late we can add asylum seekers and terrorist scare stories to their compilations. Here certainly the capitalist dogma that competition improves the competing organisations’ service and products has been disproved. It is the opposite that happens.  We should not forget that this style of news menu is easy and (dirt) cheap to produce.

Crime (with terrorism) is a major plank in the programmes of the main capitalist political parties. This is despite the fact that it  has been elevated by their media tools to an extent completely out of proportion to the number of individuals taking part in crime.  As well as providing an opportunity to sensationalise the story to excite (and entertain) and attract new readers or viewers, an opportunity is happily taken in conjunction with state authorities to highlight by example the due consequences awaiting anyone that might be tempted astray into crime in the future.  We are of course brought up to detest crime as a violation of the rights of others. Empathy among workers who suffer or are likely to suffer crime is conjoined equally with a hatred for the criminal, which unfortunately generates a variety of punishment cries from the armchair judges.

Child molestation, a charge facing Michael Jackson, has in recent years come into its own as a major news topic, with one newspaper naming past offenders and providing their address, with monstrous consequences for them.  And while the incidents are indeed horrific for the child and parents when proved to be real, the fact remains that a very small proportion of individuals are likely to practice this crime.  Catholic priests are highlighted as one of the main offenders.  This is hardly surprising, with the fact of them being ordered to remain celibate perhaps having some bearing on the behaviour of offending priests, a behaviour which might well have gone on for as long as the Catholic Church itself, and not a recent development, as the media would suggest.

In the capitalist world, famous individuals have enormous influence over their fans or followers, hence the honours systems where this influence is nurtured by a State to reflect the existing ideology in practice.  Although, when a famous individual is off-message then that individual is seen as some kind of threat.  Michael Jackson – pop icon to tens of millions of  humans all over the world – has annoyed authorities and the media with is attitude to mixing with children. It might be of some significance here that he is reportedly connected to a radical black separatist group whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, a hate figure among the British and American establishments, was banned from entering the UK a year or two ago.  Jackson has provided an easy target in that he has form in the eyes of the authorities, media and members of the public for acting out of the ordinary and thus has been nicknamed Whacko Jacko by many. 

The consequences for human society of the daily production of these scare stories and sensationalist reporting is further alienation between humans of all ages. A society that makes adults wary of approaching children while placing children’s mothers on edge is not good for human relations or wellbeing.