Monday, May 1, 2023

Party Notes. (1905)

Party News from the May 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

With the month of May will open our outdoor propaganda lemon, and all members are expected to assist at the stations of their respective Branches in order that the best possible results may be obtained from the efforts of the Party speakers. Will all those concerned note that the Lecture Secretary is: T. A. Jackson, 408. St Anns Road, Harringay, N„ to whom all communications respecting the Lecture List should be addressed.

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Special efforts should now be made in pushing the Party Organ. The members and Branches have done well in this direction during the winter months, but this summer we should be able to increase our circulation.

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Two new Assistant Secretaries have been appointed: R. H. Kent and L. Boyne. Comrade Boyne is in charge of the financial department of the Secretaryship, and, all applications for membership cards, remittances for dues stamps, etc., should be sent to him. Address, 17, Etherley Road, South Tottenham, N.

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The Party Emblem is now ready. It is an attractive button, hand coloured, and is to be had at the price of 2d. through any Branch Secretary.

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Photographs, size 12 by 10, of the First Annual Conference of the Party, can be obtained, price 2/- per copy. Applications, accompanied by cash, for this souvenir, should be addressed to the undersigned.—Con Lehane.

Blogger's Note:
I'm guessing that the advertised photograph of the First Annual Conference is the same photograph that is at the top of the blog.

Answers to Correspondents. (1905)

From the May 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

A.S. (Prague).—There is no official organ of the Builders Workers Trade Union, nor indeed is there any journal specially devoted to this section of the working-class in Britain. There are, of course, trade circulars issued by the Union from time to time, but these are only for members of the Union. There are, however, several so-called Trade Newspapers run by capitalists as ordinary business ventures, that deal in various matters connected with the Building Trade, but none of them pretend to be official. The two that circulate among the workers are "The Building World" and “The Carpenter and Builder," specimens of which are being posted to you as requested.

S.P.G.B. Lecture List For May. (1905)

Party News from the May 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

In revolt (2023)

Book Review from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14. By Ralph Darlington, Pluto Press, 2023

The period of strikes between 1910 and 1914 was known at the time as the ‘Labour Unrest’. Darlington says that it should rather be described as the ‘Labour Revolt’. Miners, railway workers, dock workers, and many others were involved in bitter strikes, some accompanied by rioting when the police protected ‘blacklegs’ that the employers brought in to try to keep production going. The army was called in too. Workers were killed, either shot by soldiers or beaten by the police, in Belfast (2), Liverpool (2), Tonypandy (1), Llanelli (2) and Dublin (2).

Darlington discusses possible reasons for the revolt. Wanting to be treated with more respect will have been an element as he suggests but the rise in the cost of living which eroded real living standards will have been the most important.

The bogey for the capitalist press was ‘syndicalism’. Darlington brings out that what was called this was a practice rather than a doctrine and was a revolt against trade union officialdom as much as against employers. He notes that the number of paid union officials had increased faster than the number of union members. These officials prioritised union recognition by employers to negotiate agreements but these involved commitments not to strike without first going through conciliation procedures. An element of ‘syndicalism’ was workers insisting that their union’s officials be their servants and not do deals over their heads; they wanted employers to be treated as the class enemy rather than mere bargaining partners. It was essentially militant trade unionism.

There were doctrinaire syndicalists who advocated more than this and saw the objective as the workers eventually, through ‘direct action’ and a general strike, taking over and running the industries in which they worked. But there can’t have been many activists and strikers who took this seriously or who thought it realistic to expect the government to stand by and let this happen when it even intervened to hinder the ordinary trade union struggle. Most activist workers knew that political action was also necessary; indeed the demand for worker representation in Parliament was another feature of the wider period.

Darlington criticises the SDP (as the SDF became in 1908 and then in 1911 the BSP) for insisting on the need to gain control of political power before taking over the means of production and so regarding the trade union struggle as ‘secondary’. But, in a footnote towards the end of the book, he criticises syndicalism because ‘it did not explicitly address the problem of how a revolutionary general strike to establish workers’ control would overcome the state monopoly of armed force in defence of the capitalist economic and social order’, adding ‘it did not consider the question of the conquest of political power’.

He also discusses the position of the De Leonist SLP and criticises its ‘doctrinaire and sectarian’ view that workers should form revolutionary unions to oppose the existing unions. This doctrine, known as ‘dual unionism’, was also embraced by the IWW and some syndicalists. Other syndicalists favoured staying in the existing unions and trying to make them more democratic and militant.

One contemporary group whose views he does not discuss is the SPGB. There is a single mention, to say that George Hicks, the national organiser of the Operative Bricklayers’ Society, was a founder member. E. J. B. Allen, one of the doctrinaire syndicalists he cites on a number of occasions, was also a founder member, though Darlington has him as a founder member of the SLP. There can be no justification for discussing the views only of the SLP but not the SPGB which was probably slightly larger and was active in more places.

The Socialist Standard of the time covered all of the big strikes discussed by Darlington (and one he doesn’t — the 1911 London printers’ strike). The September 1911 issue carried a detailed 4,600 word editorial on the failed 1911 railway workers strike under the title “Strikers Struck. How the Railway Servants were betrayed’ which argued that the strikers should have given priority to demanding the release of all imprisoned strikers and improved hours and wages rather than to the ‘recognition’ of union officials as negotiators, and concluded:
‘The most they may snatch from the ashes of their ruined hopes is the lesson that, whether on the industrial or the political field, their struggles must be grounded upon democracy. Their position must be democratic, their methods must be democratic, their weapons must be democratic. Even under capitalism democracy is no empty word, and its first interpretation is that the representative is the servant, not the leader. Had the railwaymen given this reply to their so-called leaders when the latter sent the fatal message: “All men must return to work immediately,” they would not now be chewing the cud of their disappointment, marvelling at the difference between recognition of the unions and recognition of their officials, and wondering if they had not better set about making the unions (which appear to consist of the officials) recognise the men.’
As to the syndicalists and other anti-parliamentarians:
‘The final lesson, and the greatest of all, is to be found in the crushed hopes of the Industrialists, the Syndicalists, the Anarchists. These claim that the means of production must be seized in the teeth of the armed forces; the Socialists hold that the preliminary must be to get control of the armed forces by capturing the machinery of government.’
The 1912 strike in the London docks was dealt with in the August issue under the title “Dockers Betrayed” which made the same point regarding union officials. The failure of the rail union leaders to support sympathetic strike action to help the locked-out (by an Irish Nationalist employer) Dublin transport workers was covered in the January 1914 issue under the title “Sold Again”. The August 1911 issue included an eye-witness account, and experience, of police brutality in Manchester (all these articles can be found here:

What the articles show is that the SPGB didn’t conform to the left-wing calumny that it is ‘anti-trade union’. What it was against was not to workers forming unions or even appointing officials but to the control of unions and of struggles over wages and working conditions by officials who regarded themselves as the leaders rather than the servants of their members. It was for democratic organisation of workers to wage the struggle against employers, even if this was indeed ‘secondary’ to the need to gain control of political power. And it opposed ‘dual unionism’, working within the existing unions.

It is only on the last but one page that Darlington reveals that he supports ‘the Bolshevik doctrine of a revolutionary vanguard party’, though this could have been guessed from his earlier analysis that what was lacking in the period was the right leadership.

Nevertheless, the book does usefully describe in detail and analyse the national and local strikes of the period, including those by women workers. It will obviously be on the reading list for anyone studying or interested in the period.
Adam Buick

Proper Gander: Flat broke (2023)

The Proper Gander Column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since 1953, BBC One’s Panorama has been unearthing problems in society, but as it’s part of the mainstream media we shouldn’t expect it to dig deep enough to reach the root cause of inequalities and inadequacies. In What’s Gone Wrong With Our Housing?, reporter Richard Bilton aims to explain how our current housing crisis has happened, but focuses on the role of legislation rather than more fundamental factors about why the housing market is as it is.

Bilton visits the Bampton Estate in the part of south London overseen by Lewisham Council. Its tower blocks and streets were built in the 1960s as part of a drive to replace dilapidated slums, with its 290 properties initially being owned and managed by the local authority. Then, one of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policies, The Housing Act 1980, expanded the rights of council tenants to buy their properties at a discounted amount. Since the Act was introduced, 2.8 million council homes have been sold off in the largest privatisation initiative we’ve seen, according to Rachael Williamson of the Chartered Institute of Housing. For some people, buying from the council didn’t lead to the freedom they expected. Properties in tower blocks tend to be leased rather than sold outright, meaning that the council retains ownership and control of the building itself. A consequence of this for Bampton Estate leaseholders Anthony and Gloria is that Lewisham Council imposed new windows on them at a cost of £27,000 which they can’t afford.

Around 40 per cent of former council homes in London are now owned (or mortgaged) not by those who live in them but by private landlords. Avril, who bought and then sold one of the flats on the Bampton Estate returns to see what it looks like now it’s owned and rented out by a private landlord. She’s shocked to see that the flat has been divided into six tiny bedsits, their tenants each being charged a whopping £960 rent a month to live in what used to be the bathroom or the kitchen. Bilton confronts dodgy landlord Joel Zwiebel who with his wife owns 24 bedsits on one road and receives around quarter of a million in rent a year. Most of this rent is paid through benefit payments by the council which sold the properties off, ironically. Rather than explaining about his substandard properties Zwiebel drives off in his car without saying anything. Lord Best of the Affordable Housing Commission says that the current situation is ‘an absolute disgrace’, with the right-to-buy legislation leading to a return of ‘slum landlords’ profiteering.

The housing shortage benefits private landlords because it means there are lots of people hunting for places to live, so landlords have more choice over who to let to and can charge high rents knowing that someone will pay. Rent amounts for private sector properties tend to be greater than the maximum amounts which can be claimed in housing-related benefits, pricing out many people without sufficiently paid employment. Landlords like Zwiebel can easily find tenants because their properties are cheap enough to have rent covered by benefits, with shoddiness being almost expected.

People on lower incomes are likely to aim not for private rented properties but ‘social housing’, such as that owned by councils, which tends to have lower rent and more secure terms. But local authorities haven’t been building enough new properties to replace those they have sold off, leading to a dire shortage of social housing stock. Some properties on the Bampton Estate remain council-owned. Bilton speaks to one council tenant who waited two years after reporting mould and only managed to get some plasterboard replaced after he got a solicitor involved. In 2022, Lewisham Council had a budget of a million pounds for repairs but almost three quarters of this went on legal fees and compensation, leaving not much money to spend on actual maintenance.

Most of the properties on the Bampton Estate which weren’t sold off privately are held not by the council but by the L&Q housing association. Housing associations represent the other kind of social housing, not being run to make profits for themselves. According to the English Housing Survey, they are responsible for around two and a half million properties in England, a million more than councils. Housing associations were intended to be more reactive and flexible than councils, to better manage estates in the interests of their residents. Over the decades, though, the original model of the small-scale community-based housing association has been replaced by larger, more corporate organisations such as L&Q, which is the second biggest housing association in the country. Of its 51 residents on the Bampton Estate, 11 said they were unhappy with how it operates, especially its repairs service. Tenants have reported damp and mouldy flats and waited years for a resolution.

Bilton says that 1980’s right-to-buy legislation has ‘fragmented the estate between tenant and owner’. It’s true that the Housing Act triggered a decrease in ‘social housing’, and that ownership of homes on any estate is a complicated mix of owner-occupiers, leaseholders, and tenants of councils, housing associations or private landlords. But even if the Act hadn’t been passed, there would still be a divide between tenant and owner. The ‘social housing’ model hasn’t proved itself to be necessarily better than the private rented sector, as demonstrated by the council and housing association tenants putting up with run-down properties. As always, more investment and new legislation are promised, but never end up solving the problems. Being an owner-occupier isn’t an ideal solution either, as it means decades of debt alongside the responsibility and cost of maintenance. So, the real problem isn’t the ‘right to buy’ legislation, it’s how properties are owned in capitalism. When ownership is based on who has the wealth to buy a legal right, what people need for a decent life becomes much less important. Money’s rationing of resources means that there’s never enough to keep homes to a decent standard. ‘The system isn’t working’ says Bilton, but it’s just as fair to say that the system is working in the expected way.
Mike Foster

Cooking the Books: What the market will bear (2023)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some people think that businesses can fix at will the price of what they sell. Among them, it seems, is the Governor of the Bank of England. After announcing on 23 March an increase in the Bank rate to 4.25 per cent, Andrew Bailey asked business to ‘please’ not increase their prices. As the headline in the Guardian the next day reported, ‘Bank of England boss urges firms to hold back price rises or risk higher rates’. His argument was that ‘if all prices try to beat inflation we will get higher inflation’ and that, if that happened, the Bank would have to increase the Bank rate to an even higher level.

It may seem surprising that the Governor of the Bank of England should not understand how businesses operate, but then finance is a bit isolated from the real world of production. Patrick Hosking, the Financial Editor of the Times, was particularly scathing in his column on 28 March:
‘Surely, when first introduced to an economics textbook, Bailey learnt that firms are not driven by altruism or patriotism but by market forces and profit? They will charge what the market will bear. If possible, they will go further, ever on the lookout for, in Adam Smith’s immortal phrase, “some contrivance to raise prices.” It’s a boardroom instinct as natural as breathing. While modern-day corporations have to consider many stakeholders, they still see their prime duty over the long run to maximise profits for the shareholders’.
In other words, if they can increase prices without jeopardising sales and so profits they will; otherwise, they won’t. It all depends on market conditions for what they are selling. Hoskins reckoned that for the time being the market for most goods can still ‘bear’ a price increase. But this might not necessarily continue:
‘Until businesses see more capitulation by their customers, the price escalation will go on. Businesses will stop lifting their prices only if enough customers defect to competitors, trade down to cheaper lines or find near-substitutes. Or stop buying at all. For the poorest households, this has happened already’.
There is some evidence that people have been trading down, buying in Tesco and Sainsbury’s instead of Waitrose, or else in Lidl and Aldi instead of Tesco and Sainsbury’s. So, if prices do stop rising so much this will not be because Bailey’s plea was listened too, but because the limits of ‘what the market will bear’ would have been reached.

This, incidentally, explains why businesses cannot automatically pass on a wage increase. Sometimes they can, but sometimes they can’t. It depends on market conditions.

In any event, businesses can’t cause inflation in the proper sense of the term — a rise in the general price level due to a depreciation of the currency — but Bailey wasn’t using the word in that sense but in the simplistic sense in which it has come to be widely used of an increase in the consumer price index. An increase in the price at which businesses sell consumer goods and services, for whatever reason, will cause an increase in ‘inflation’ in that sense because it will cause the index to go up. But that’s by definition. And, equally by definition, if businesses don’t increase their prices then there won’t be ‘inflation’. So Bailey was calling on businesses not to increase prices so that prices don’t increase. How very profound.

50 Years Ago: Black liberation – George Jackson and political violence (2023)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

George Jackson’s crime was not that he complied in the theft of 70 dollars, but that in prison he could not accept the ignominious terms on which the authorities might have released him. For this crime he was imprisoned for eleven years, seven-and-a-half in solitary confinement, and eventually in August 1971, shot to death.

In prison, in spite of the limitations of his personal background, Jackson began to read seriously, gradually seeking an explanation for the forces, social and historical, underlying his plight. Eventually, he devoured such left-wing and Marxist literature as he could get hold of. Jackson did not become a Socialist. It is doubtful whether his views would fit neatly into any political category. He became an inspiration to the civil rights movement in America, and also to the Black Power movement. Although there is much that is perceptive in Jackson’s views as expressed in The Prison Letters of George Jackson, his understanding of economic relationships and social and political institutions, fall short of a Socialist understanding. If George Jackson was anything, he was a black nihilist.

Jackson claimed to be opposed to capitalism. “The principal enemy must be isolated and identified as capitalism. Our enemy at present is the capitalist system and its supporters.” However, closer analysis would show that in fact what Jackson was opposed to was American-style private enterprise. Jackson sympathized with China and the emerging African states. So he ignored the fact that capitalism is a world mode of production where the means of wealth production are monopolized and controlled either by private owners or a political bureaucratic √©lite. (…)

Jackson considered that political democracy was a fraud. “Of what value is quasi-political control if the capitalists are allowed to hold on to the people’s whole mode of subsistence?” He believed in leadership and elevated violence. “The people who run this country will never let us succeed to power. Everything in history that was of any value was taken by force.”

There is no doubt that if in some time of crisis Jackson’s views on leadership and violence became practical action, this would lead to disaster. It would compound crisis with death and violence with no possible hope of getting anywhere towards Socialism.

(Socialist Standard, May 1973)

Editorial: Coronation chickens (2023)

Editorial from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

As of 2023 there are still 43 countries in the world with a monarch as head of state. Most of those pampered parasites seem content to stay away from the media and enjoy their exalted status in relative obscurity. Not so in Britain, where the royals are a glitzy public circus act, and this month are staging a huge event that will no doubt grab headlines around the world. Britain seems weirdly addicted to silly medieval ritual. There has never not been a monarchy here, apart from a strange 11-year hiatus following the beheading of one king in 1649. While politicians regularly rise and fall on their swords due to fluctuating polls or appalling performances, it seems that no scandal, internecine row or public disgrace ever dents the popularity of this archaic and anachronistic state institution. It’s not that there’s no anti-monarchy sentiment. YouGov surveys of 18-24 yr olds since 2020 have shown 53 to 67 percent opposition. But politicians are too chicken-shit to come out against the monarchy. The so-called democrats of the Labour Party are as sycophantically gung-ho for the royal freeloaders as the Tories, while the supposedly radical tax-the-rich brigade didn’t utter a squeak over Chas’s £650 million tax-free inheritance. And now the whole country is expected to lose its collective mind as the nobs and toffs convene at Westminster Abbey to plonk a metal party hat on the old plant-botherer.

Socialists will take the free bank holiday hand-out, but otherwise treat the fancy-dress pomp and pomposity of the king’s coronation with the contempt it deserves. We’re no advocates of a capitalist republic – they exploit their workers every bit as much – but having your nose rubbed in class privilege and entitlement is a bit more than we can stand. In republican countries like the US, disingenuous efforts are sometimes made to background, de-emphasise and disguise class divisions. In the UK they are flaunted in our faces. It would be nice to think that British workers, sick of the cost of living crisis, of war in Europe, of lying politicians, of global warming, would at least treat the royals with disgust, if not turf them out of their palaces as a prelude to general socialist revolution. But the truth is that many workers lap up the royals like a dog laps up its own sick.

The Republic website is asking people to use the coronation event to protest, on the grounds that ‘there is a positive, exciting, democratic alternative’ to paying court to yet another gilded idler. They’re right, there is, but it’s not the alternative they’ve got in mind. The real alternative to a king is not some other ruling class finger puppet, whether elected or not. It’s the abolition of inequality and class privilege through the democratic common ownership of the world’s resources, and the collective and responsible stewardship of the planet and everything on it and in it. Not our king? Not our capitalism!