Friday, May 5, 2023

Canadian impossibilist (2023)

Book Review from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Class Warrior. The Selected Works of E. T. Kingsley, Edited and introduced by Benjamin Isitt and Ravi Malhotra. Canadian Committee on Labour History. 2022.

E. T. Kingsley (1856-1929) was a prominent member of the old Socialist Party of Canada that was founded in 1905 as a result of socialist parties and groups in the various Canadian Provinces merging. Based in British Columbia, he was the editor of its paper, the Western Clarion, one of its main organisers and a popular speaker. In their introduction, the authors describe him as the founder and leader of ‘the British Colombia school of socialism’ which adopted the ‘impossibilist perspective’ that ‘viewed capitalism as a system that could not be reformed’ and ‘stressed the impossibility of uplifting the working class through incremental reforms’. This led them to seek support only for ‘the abolition of the wages system’ and to avoid advocating ‘palliative measures’, a position the authors describe, not unfairly, as ‘one-plank Marxism’, the one plank being to win political power for the sole purpose of using it to establish the common ownership of the means of production.

They mention the SPGB as espousing ‘similar ideas to this very day’. Unfortunately, this is in connection with Kingsley’s opposition not just to ‘palliatives’ but also to trade unionism and strikes which he also regarded as useless. For him, the trade union struggle for better wages and conditions was not part of the class struggle, but was just a commodity struggle. This is not (and was not at the time) our position, nor that of other members of the SPC.

There were certain obvious parallels between the SPC and the SPGB. The SPC pioneered the idea of writing ‘Socialism’ across the ballot paper where there was no socialist candidate standing; they took the position that socialists elected to national or local office should judge measures put before them on whether or not they would be in the interest of the working class; and they refused to affiliate to the Second International on the grounds that it was dominated by reformists. They opposed participation in the First World War. Kingsley didn’t, which led to him leaving the SPC.

The authors suggest that Kingsley and the SPC advocated, and practised, taking part in elections (Kingsley was a candidate himself on a number of occasions) ‘primarily as a means to educate the public about the evils of capitalist wage exploitation’. This is to get the emphasis quite wrong. The SPC, and Kingsley in particular, saw elections as the way for the working class to win control of political power as the first step towards abolishing capitalist wage slavery. As Kingsley put it in 1911 in articles reproduced in the book:
‘The determination of the workers to conquer the state and use its organized powers for the purpose of striking the fetters of wage slavery from their limbs by the abolition of capitalist property, marks the awakening of labor.’

‘The conquest of the capitalist State by the working class will open the gateway for the transformation of capitalist property into the collective, or common, property of the working class. This will mean the ending of the wages slave system … With the ending of the rule of capital, “the State will die out”, as Marx and Engels have said. With no longer a ruling class and a class to be ruled it would no longer have a function to perform. It would become obsolete.’
That the way to ‘conquer the state’ was through the intelligent use of the ballot box by the working class was spelt out in this passage from a pamphlet Kingsley published in 1916:
‘In most countries the workers possess some semblance of a franchise, and to that extent at least they have the legal right to conquer the state for their own purposes. In countries where the workers do not possess the franchise, or where there are such limitations placed upon it as to nullify their superiority of numbers, they are justified in exercising their political power in any other manner they may choose for the attainment of the end in view. In Canada and the United States, there is nothing in the way of a working class conquest of the public powers at the polls at the present time, except the peculiar perspicacity of the slave that usually enables him to readily discern his master’s interests, while at the same time remaining blissfully blind to his own.’
The last sentence is a typical example of Kingsley’s style of speaking and writing with its heavy use of irony. He didn’t hold back from calling workers ‘slaves’ and telling them they were stupid to support capitalism and its politicians, but his audiences seemed to like it. This pamphlet, The Genesis and Evolution of Slavery, the only one he wrote, is a typical socialist propaganda pamphlet of the time.

The editors have included a lot of what he wrote and said after he left the SPC over his support for the war. After the end of war, he seems to have convinced himself that not only capitalism but civilisation itself was about to collapse and that ‘the only hope for the race was for the farmers and city dwellers to come to some arrangement whereby the latter would withdraw to the land and sustain themselves’. He forgot his Marxian economics and came up with the currency-crankish idea that surplus value only existed as debt settled by future production and which couldn’t go for much longer.

This nonsense makes painful reading. The editors probably included his writings and speeches from this period as in them he also took the overthrow of the Kerensky government in Russia in November 1917 as what it appeared to be: the workers there taking power. The authors betray their Trotskyist background when they note that Trotsky’s ‘notion of transitional demands is unlikely to have appealed to him’. Of course it wouldn’t! Such a programme of palliative measures would have had no appeal to an impossibilist (and still doesn’t). In that respect the ‘British Columbia school of socialism’ was way in advance of Trotskyism.

The old Socialist Party of Canada disappeared in the 1920s and was reconstituted in 1931 with the same declaration of principles as the SPGB, including the ‘conquest of the powers of government’ with a view to converting them from ‘an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation’. Two of those mentioned in the book as chairing or speaking at Kingsley’s meetings for the reformist Federated Labour Party — W. A. Prichard and Charles Lestor — later returned to ‘impossibilism’. For a history of the past and present SPC see:
Adam Buick

The Chartist Legacy . . . 175 Years On (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 10 April, 1848, the grounds of Kennington Common shook as 150,000 working men and women assembled to present a petition to Parliament demanding political rights. The rights for which they campaigned, radically democratic for their time, were enshrined in a document titled ‘The People’s Charter’. These Chartists, as they had become known, were described by historian Dorothy Thompson as the world’s first working-class political party and had existed since the first drafting of the Charter by a joint committee of London working men and Members of Parliament in the winter months between 1837 and 1838. The document itself called for six main demands: universal male suffrage, the abolition of the property requirement for MPs, equally sized constituencies, annual parliaments, a fixed salary for elected MPs, and the secret ballot. While their campaigns were unsuccessful at the time, the spirit of Chartism suffused the Victorian working class with the irrevocable knowledge that they had political rights of their own. Now, 175 years later to the day, supporters of the Chartist legacy in Great Britain gather again at Kennington Park, on that same ground that rallied the democratic hopes and dreams of an entire working nation.

Chartist historian Malcolm Chase called Kennington Common ‘a major piece of political theatre’; an apt description for an assembly that was intended as a display of solidarity more than a show of force. The arrayed forces of the Victorian state employed Royal Engineers, special constables and retired generals to turn London into an urban fortress, with the Royal Family displaced to the Isle of Wight to avoid any outbreak of revolutionary violence. Such violence, however, was never to be forthcoming. In contrast to the overt militancy of the establishment in seeking to suppress the Chartist cause, the arrayed workers on Kennington Common that day were exemplary in their peaceable, moral and orderly conduct. Feargus O’Connor, Chartism’s leading orator and Parliamentary spokesman, declared to the assembly that ‘We are Chartists, not pickpockets, and we will not jeopardise our cause by a single act of wickedness or folly’.

After the rejection of the 1848 petition, signed and supported by roughly a third of Britain’s population, Chartism entered a decline from which it would not recover. Most of the movement’s support was split between Marxism and popular Liberalism as the century went on, both benefiting from the grassroots organisation and ideological conviction that had sustained the world’s largest mass political movement throughout the ‘Hungry Forties’. One of the greatest strengths of Chartism’s organisation was that it was both democratic and highly literate; subscriber-funded newspapers such as the Northern Star were filled with pages of working-class poetry, lectures in Chartist localities and open letter columns through which readers could correspond with one another to strengthen Chartism from within and without, as political strategy was both disseminated and debated by the membership itself rather than being proclaimed by diktat or decree. Not only was Chartist literature journalistic, but the movement also created a thriving literary counterculture with both poetry volumes and popular novels that turned radicals like T.M Wheeler, Ernest Jones and Thomas Cooper into both household names and vital spokespeople in the movement’s developmental processes, described by one Chartist historian as ‘thinking out loud’. This is the legacy that Chartism leaves to us, and one that bears honouring in our radical press; the democratic power of the written word.

Modern grassroots movements owe a lot to Chartism. Progressive for their time, they provided an example of a functioning democratic framework for mass organisation and were millions-strong when Engels and Marx wrote both The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Chartism was also directly responsible for introducing Marxist philosophy to the English-speaking worker; Engels himself contributed several articles to the Northern Star and an English [translation of the] Manifesto appeared first in the Chartist press thanks to the translation efforts of Helen MacFarlane, a fact that pays due homage to the thousands of female radicals who also fought for the Charter. The movement has ample reason to be celebrated today, with the anniversary of Chartism’s largest assembly turning Kennington Park into an annual site of radical pilgrimage. In recent years, the Kennington Chartist Project and Friends of Kennington Park have regularly marked the anniversary of the assembly with a small rally of their own at which all are welcome. Other Chartist history events are also held occasionally in the Park, with recent examples including an introduction to William Cuffay, a London Chartist leader and important figure in the history of Britain’s black radicals. The Friends of Kennington Park and the Kennington Chartist Project inform us that, by way of marking the 175th anniversary of the protest, they are in the final stages of developing a Chartist History Trail around Kennington Park with an optional audio guide and posts dedicated to covering the events of the Chartist rally. This trail will open on 10 April as a permanent fixture in the park and will be supplemented by larger, more permanent monuments in due course.

It is worth adding that, while having a well-organised national executive and leadership, Chartism was also local to its core. Integrating a vast, extant network of recognised and respected regional activists gave the movement a sense of familiarity and widespread appeal that allowed the mill workers of Manchester, the miners of Durham and the farm labourers of Dorset to unite behind the Charter. An elective system of district delegates (that, in some cases, were organised street by street) meant that Chartists campaigned for local issues alongside their struggle for national political recognition. Kennington Park is ably supported by Newport, Blackstone Edge, Kersal Moor and many others, these being sites of equal importance in honouring the memory of a decentralised and democratic workers’ movement. Many will doubtless have good reasons for being unable to attend the commemoration at Kennington Park; it would therefore be well worth the time of local Branches to both research and attend sites of Chartist significance in their own localities where possible.
Duncan Hamilton

Can we adapt to climate change? (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recent much publicised book, The Journey of Humanity by Oded Galor (The Bodley Head, 2022, to be reviewed here next month), which seeks to explain human development over the whole of history and the different pace of it in different places largely in terms of environmental conditions prevailing in the earliest times, sees more to be positive than negative about the effects of modern capitalism. It expresses hope that the global warming and climate crisis it has produced will be a ‘short-lived’ phenomenon resolvable via what the book calls ‘revolutionary technologies’. A similar hope is also the subject of an article entitled ‘Can Technology Help Us to Adapt to Climate Change?’ which appeared recently on the ‘We The People’ United Nations website.

The article first gives examples of how past societies managed to use existing technology to adapt to extreme climate conditions, for instance ancient Persian wind towers harnessing the breeze and directing it into homes to keep houses cool, or early farmers guiding and storing water to cope with dry periods. But while expressing optimism around the ingenuity of humans and our capacity to adapt, it then recognises that the extreme weather events happening because of increasing emissions and likely to continue are set to be far more devastating than anything that has happened before. It points to the fact that just last year ‘millions of people around the world were affected by deadly floods forcing them to leave their homes’. It expresses the hope that innovation in the shape of flood barriers, early warning systems and other ‘climate adaptation technologies’ can help to mitigate some of this, while at the same time recognising that such innovation is less likely to be accessible to the countries that need it most. It recommends the Green Technology Book, published digitally in 2022 by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, which displays over 200 adaptation technologies for agriculture and forestry, coastal areas and cities and which is, it says, ‘paving the way for increased efforts to turn climate policy into action’.

The article then goes into considerable detail about how some of these technologies are being developed, Examples are sea water being turned into drinking water by the use of solar power and so without the large amount of energy this process would normally require, typhoon-proof wind turbines as a way of combating extreme weather conditions, and climate-resistant rice that thrives in salty soils. But then, in a section entitled ‘Money makes adaptation go round’, it states: ‘Here is the rub… As always, funding remains a challenge … the diverse set of solutions that are needed do not come cheap. It has been estimated that up to US$340 billion is needed to cover global climate adaptation costs annually by 2030.’ The point is made here that, though the technology for this adaptation is globally available, the ‘poor’ countries will be unable to afford to develop it or to import it from other countries, nor will they be able to expect other countries to share it with them.

So though the section heading states ‘Money makes adaptation go round’, it is saying in effect just the opposite, ie, that climate adaptation will not happen for the millions perhaps billions of people in the countries which cannot pay for those technologies. The reason for this is that the world we live in is one where all goods and services, including technologies, have a price that builds in profit for those who have developed, manufactured and are marketing them. In other words, the grave potential threat to people in some of the countries most exposed to the effects of climate change will not be eliminated or mitigated, since it will not be profitable to do so. So, though the article does not say this explicitly, what it provides, for those reading between the lines, is a stark example of how the system we live under, capitalism, is driven to waging not just military wars but what has been called ‘a war of profit against life on earth’.

What solution then do ‘We The People’ propose to cope with ‘the challenges of biodiversity loss, land degradation and climate change’ on a worldwide basis? They propose that, apart from new technologies, ‘we must make fundamental changes to the way we live, work, produce, and consume’ in order to ‘address the root causes of climate vulnerability’. While it’s impossible to disagree with this in general, the specific recipe it advocates (‘a strong focus on reducing inequalities and promotion of social and economic justice’ and ‘the political drive and financing needed to implement and scale-up these solutions- at the right place and in the right way’) is not something that capitalism can serve up. While it may be true, as the article says, that ‘many of the solutions that can help us adapt to climate change are already available’, within the framework of a system that puts profit before every other priority, ‘climate action’ is unlikely to be quick or effective even if solutions ‘are already available’. Such solutions can in fact only see their full potential realised in a system that puts needs before profit, the system of production for use based on worldwide voluntary cooperation and free access to all goods and services that we call socialism.
Howard Moss

Full English (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
We look at a number of issues relating to languages and their use, together with points about translation and teaching
English is currently the mostly widely spoken language, with around one and a half billion speakers, including 370 million native speakers. Mandarin Chinese has 1.1 billion speakers, nearly 90 percent of whom have it as their mother tongue. Of course, what counts as speaking a language is not straightforward: does a GCSE in French make you a speaker of it?

English has an important role as a vehicular language or lingua franca, used between people who do not speak each other’s first language. So if a Hungarian and Japanese scientist wish to communicate, they would probably use English. Russian had a similar role in much of eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the case of Swahili, as many as 98 percent of its speakers use it as a lingua franca (Nicholas Ostler: The Last Lingua Franca); the corresponding figure for English is 71 percent.

Chinese has more native speakers than English but is not a likely candidate to replace English as a world lingua franca. It has relatively few second-language speakers, its writing system is fearsomely complex, and the differences among its varieties are much larger than even that between, say, British and Singapore English.

People learn other languages for various reasons, perhaps for fun or so they can get a bit more enjoyment from a holiday abroad. But usually it is for more serious motives: ‘Arabic is for foreign learners the language of the Koran, English the language of modern business and global popular culture’ (Nicholas Ostler: Empires of the Word).

There are disagreements as to the extent of the dominance of English on the Internet. The number of pages in other languages (such as Spanish and Chinese) has been increasing at a faster rate than pages in English, but English sites are well ahead among the most widely used ones. In terms of Internet users, on one account around a quarter use English and a fifth Chinese, with speakers of other languages far behind.

Colonialism (and the consequent population movement) is the main reason for the spread of languages, such as the use of Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America. English has not always been as dominant as it is now, having been little used on the Continent prior to 1714, when the ruler of Hanover became king of Great Britain. Before the Second World War, German was also an important language for reporting scientific and technological research. But the British Empire was clearly responsible for the spread of English to South Asia and North America, and the political, economic and social power and influence of the USA is behind the language’s dominance now.

The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but a distinction can be made between a second language and a foreign language. A second language has official status in a country, though it is not widely spoken as a first language, while a foreign language has no official standing. So English is a second language in India and Nigeria, while it is a foreign language in, for instance, Denmark, though most educated Danes have a very good command of the language.

There has recently been a proposal that English be adopted as an official language in Germany (Guardian, 10 February). There is a shortage of skilled workers and, as German is by no means a global language, companies may be at a disadvantage in competing for talented employees. In the words of the head of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, ‘English is the world language and should suffice for anyone to achieve great things in many German businesses.’ This proposal has been less welcome in the former East Germany, where Russian rather than English was formerly the main second language learned in school, and it is not clear if it will be adopted.

In all, only about fifty languages are used in translation, that is translation into and out of these languages (David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?). According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, English is by far the most common source language of translated texts, with over five times the number translated from French, which ranks second. For target languages, the situation is less one-sided, with more texts translated into German than any other language, but only a quarter more than were translated into French, which again is in second place.

Capitalism turns so many things into an industry, from healthcare to pornography, and the same thing has happened with language, there being a translation industry and an industry for teaching English. People may think of translation as mainly involving literary texts, whether novels or plays. But in fact technical, commercial and legal translation take place far more often than translation of books. Literary translation into English is very badly paid, but translation into French and German is more remunerative. Legal documents pose their own difficulties, as David Bellos notes. Even simple-seeming terms such as ‘murder’ and ‘human rights’ give rise to many difficulties in terms of both linguistic equivalents and corresponding legal categories. Courtroom interpreting is another big problem area, with usually little real supervision of the interpreter’s experience or competence.

TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) is big business and concerned with profit-making for the companies who run it. On one estimate, its value is $10bn a year. Teachers themselves are relatively well paid in the Middle East, but not at all so in South America. With the increasing popularity of English in China, there are many language schools there, but some take a would-be teacher on to give demonstration classes for a few days, and then sack them without pay. An entry on the Industrial Workers of the World site (, 25 March 2021) noted that English language teachers had to fight for outstanding holiday pay. The Covid lockdown had a big impact, with about half the TEFL workforce being made redundant that year.

In The Last Lingua Franca, Ostler suggests that English could well retreat from its current global status. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) currently teach English for use as both a lingua franca and with native English speakers, but their own languages ‘may develop their own spheres of wider currency’. If Portuguese, Russian, Hindi-Urdu and Chinese become the languages of the world’s leading economic and political powers, then English could ‘withdraw to its home territories’. But it is not at all clear how likely this is. And what impact would a socialist world with no borders or powerful nations have on such matters?
Paul Bennett

Post-capitalist farming (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
We continue our series on farming under capitalism and in a post-capitalist society of common ownership.

Link to Part 1 

Compared to the capitalist mode of production, a post-capitalist society of common ownership would be able to exercise a significantly greater degree of flexibility and choice when it comes to selecting a particular productive technique or approach to farming. Freed from the imperative of having to seek a profit through the sale of commodities, decisions can be made that would be prudently adapted to the actual physical circumstances that farmers face as opposed to the socially contingent conditions imposed on them by market competition.

Such flexibility might very well take the form of a more eclectic approach to farming, combining the best elements of one farming model with that of another. For instance, while there is a lot to recommend the traditional farming model in terms of its environment-friendly practices there is no reason why this could not be coupled with state-of-the-art modern technology such as genetic engineering, so called ‘smart farming’ and computerised irrigation systems, to boost output – providing, of course, that adequate safeguards can be built in to protect both human health and biological diversity. In that regard, a post-capitalist society would not be forced into taking rash impromptu decisions by sheer commercial pressures.

Those ‘actual physical circumstances’ referred to above that future farming would face would include, of course, the extent to which human labour was available as an agricultural input alongside other inputs. There is a tendency in capitalism, driven by market competition, to increase productivity by reducing unit costs in order for businesses – in this case, farming units – to compete more effectively and capture a larger market share. This results in increasing capital intensity and the shedding of human labour. The large scale, modern, commercial farm with its highly industrialised farming techniques is the consummate expression – or, if you like, culmination of – this tendency. Very few workers are employed on very large farms that are many hundreds or even thousands of hectares in size, using big bulky machines.

This is not a particularly healthy state of affairs – either for farming or for society as a whole. It tends to commit farmers to a set of techniques that are damaging to the environment and not sustainable in the long run. The rate of soil erosion is a clear indication of just how unsustainable such techniques are – particularly deep ploughing with heavy machinery which, over time, destroys the microscopic life in the soil and undermines soil structure as well as stimulating weed growth. Loss of topsoil translates into declining crop yields. That, in turn, tends to make farmers more reliant on synthetic fertilisers with all that this entails for the environment.

There can be no better illustration of the sheer irrationality – not to say, insanity – of a capitalist mindset with respect to farming than that provided by the Amazon forests. The Amazon is the most biologically diverse region in the world. It contains ‘tens of thousands of plant species, including countless medicinal plants, over 2.5 million insect species, 1,300 kinds of birds, 430 mammals, over 3,000 fish species, hundreds of different amphibians and reptiles. Numerous species are discovered every year, and many have yet to even be been seen by us humans’ (Amazon: Abundant rainforests, useless

Ironically, this prolific diversity is rooted in a soil that is quite nutrient-poor and infertile. It contains little or no humus unlike the soils of more temperate climates such as the United States. Dead plant material is rapidly decomposed in the hot and humid conditions of the Amazon and nutrients are absorbed back into the plants and trees. These, in turn, provide protection for the soil from the heavy rain and ensure it is not washed away.

The removal of forests to make way for cattle ranching (to provide meat for burgers amongst other things) is nothing short of ecological madness. Once this tree cover is removed it cannot be replaced. The soil is fully exposed to the elements and simply washes way, leaving a more or less barren environment. The removal of tree cover also makes the land drier and more vulnerable to devastating wildfires that, as well as releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, result in even more loss of tree cover and the heightened risk of devastating floods. All this might mean increased profits for farmers in the short term – Brazil is currently the largest exporter of beef in the world and cattle ranching accounts for up to 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation – but in the long run it is simply not sustainable.

Here we have a perfect example of how the pressure of unrelenting capitalist accumulation systemically works against the goal of sustainable development and good farming. Market competition induces economic agents to expand output regardless of the (very obvious) consequences.

It is argued that governments themselves need to generate foreign exchange somehow and Brazil’s opening up of the Amazon to economic exploitation is one way of doing this. But that is precisely the point. This need to ‘earn a living’ or generate government revenues only arises in – or presupposes – a society in which the goods and services take the form of commodities and your access to these commodities is governed by how much money you have. You would not need to generate a ‘revenue stream’ or ‘earn a living’ in a free society in which the market as an institution, and money as a means of market exchange, ceased to exist.
Robin Cox

Next month: more on the possibilities of post-capitalist food production.

An opinion of fact (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many a debate is punctuated with a reference to the difference between an opinion and a fact. A fact is said to be an opinion of a higher order: it is an ‘irrefutable statement’. Given that very few statements made in political debates can be said to be irrefutable why is there such a widespread belief in their existence? Certainly, an informed opinion has more value than an uninformed opinion but how do we choose between two diametrically opposed opinions held by those who are equally informed?

A political debate is not a mathematical equation with only one correct answer however much we might wish it to be. In the sciences we refer to empirical study and peer review in deciding the ‘facts’ but in politics, history, economics etc. this is not always so relatively easily ascertained. Of course, many seek to elevate their opinions to the level of facts for purely egotistical and ideological reasons. Political facts do exist such as: ‘racial superiority is a lie’ and ‘the first victim of war is the truth’ but unfortunately not all statements can be so conveniently separated into mere opinions contrasted with superior facts. Let us examine the process involved in elevating certain opinions into facts.

As with most elements of social and political phenomena we must start with economics and the relationship between wealth and power. ‘Public opinion’ is created by the propaganda of the media owned by the parasite class. The sole purpose for the existence of the mainstream media is to create a consensus among the exploited that their exploitation is both necessary and normal. Is the preceding a statement of fact or just this author’s opinion? Obviously, the majority of journalists would agree that it is the latter and that this article and the journal it is printed in represent a minority opinion and are therefore outside the consensus on which the creation of ‘facts’ is dependent. This is how power works – it creates a majority consensus suitable for the needs of a minority.

The first step towards the birth of a political ‘fact’ is to acquire the support of the powerful. In this way it becomes a ‘fact’ that people wouldn’t work without the threat of poverty or that global democracy is too complex to become a reality. The next step demands some superficial level of pseudo- scientific coherence and methodology. Genetic determinism and other theories of ‘human nature’ together with the inevitability of tribal (national) identities fall into this category. Finally, the creation of some kind of authority or establishment to back up the credibility of certain factual information. We’ve all encountered various types of ‘fact checkers’ but their origin must always be ascertained and even then the best we can say for many of their ‘facts’ is that they’ve proved that a statement is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ which falls far short of the metaphysics needed to establish a fact as understood by many.

So what is the origin of this ‘tyranny of facts’? As we have seen, the element of control it provides for those who wish to preserve the status quo is invaluable but this was not always the case and indeed there was a time when such an ideology was revolutionary. We call this ‘the Enlightenment’ and it was at the forefront of the bourgeoisie’s ideological struggle against religion and the old ruling elite. The industrial revolution, with which it had a symbiotic relationship, was in need of ever more precise measurements for continual technological innovation. Precision became a necessity for all machinery and this could only be achieved through the application of mathematics in the creation of universal standards for weights and measures etc.

This fitted neatly into the capitalist perspective as the measurement of the level of profit also depended on similar arithmetical precision. Everything was transformed into numbers and the rule of quantification was absolute. Not only was human labour defined exclusively in terms of wages but even the workers’ role as consumers became commoditised. Today everyone has become part of an algorithm in terms of their purchasing demography. The Enlightenment provided us with the hope of science but also with the curse of human economic objectification. Truth was transformed into an equation.

The perceived relationship between a fact and the ‘truth’ is what gives it such ideological power in the minds of many. Indeed, in science it has given us a very successful insight into the workings of nature but it never represents the whole story of a human’s relationship with themselves, their culture and the nature from which it all originated. It is a fact that Russia invaded the Ukraine but that doesn’t tell us why this happened or how it might have been prevented. It is a fact that the present government’s language concerning ‘illegal’ immigration is reminiscent of elements of 1930’s Nazi propaganda but again that doesn’t tell us why some highly educated people would want to use such a disgusting demonisation of desperate and vulnerable people.

Karl Marx himself was an immigrant who found a last refuge in this country where he laboured for countless hours within the British Museum Library poring over government statistics to transform his theory of capitalism into a thoroughly empirical study of the ‘facts’. He did this not only to counter capitalist propaganda by using its own statistics but with the hope of transforming our lost humanity of alienated labour back into creative meaningful production that is our true nature. The next time someone attempts to trump your arguments with reference to a ‘fact’ you might like to try countering them with the idea that mere facts are superficial compared with an informed opinion. At the very least such a heretical idea might create pause for thought as to the origin and usefulness of such a widely used but poorly understood metaphysical concept.

Reformist mish-mash (2023)

Book Review from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Confronting Capitalism. How the World Works and How to Change It, By Vivek Chibber. Verso. 2022. 164pp.

A significant part of this short book presents a clear and accessible explanation of how capitalism works, its relationship with the state and the struggle it inevitably generates between the two classes in society – capitalists and workers. It explains how and why the organisation of the capitalist system determines that, despite the vast resources and wealth it makes available, ‘a thin layer of the population’ is able to live in luxury while millions struggle to keep their heads above water and ‘experience life as a daily grind’. It goes on to explain how capitalists, regardless of an individual’s character or personal values, are compelled by the nature of the system they operate in to minimise costs and seek profit, wherever possible and whatever the consequences.

The book also takes down the widely held idea that governments are somehow neutral in the conflict between the vast majority who have to seek employment to survive and the tiny minority who offer and control that employment. It demonstrates how and why, far from mediating between workers and capitalists, the role of governments, whatever their stated ideology, is to govern on behalf of the capitalist class and in their collective profit-making interest. The state, in other words, has the role of a class organ, and governments of whatever colour are its administrators. As the author writes, ‘the state in capitalism is not and cannot be politically neutral’.

Following this lucid explanation of how capitalism works are recommendations on, as per the book’s title, ‘how to change it’. But from here on in it goes very much downhill. After telling us quite reasonably and correctly that ‘to truly enable full participation in the decisions that affect us all, it will be necessary to go beyond capitalism’, what it then gives us is a mish-mash of prescriptions not on how capitalism can be replaced by a non-capitalist, non-market system but about how it can be reformed so as to be more palatable. Alarm bells start to ring in particular when it refers in a relatively positive way to the Bolshevik revolution (‘the most successful model of the past hundred years’), to Nordic ‘social democracy’ and to ‘workers’ control in some Soviet satellites’ and informs us that ‘even while the Russian experience can’t serve as a model, there are aspects of it that still have a lot to offer’. The author clearly doesn’t see the Soviet Union as the state-capitalist society that it was and as a system that was as far away as can be imagined from the free-access, moneyless, stateless society that socialism has to be. And in fact, as a way forward, he advocates ‘the Leninist party model’, described as ‘a mass cadre-based party with a centralised leadership and internal coherence’, which must adopt ‘a combination of electoral and mobilizational politics’ and ‘a gradualist approach’. One of the names he gives to this approach is ‘non-reformist reforms’.

But is the author here doing what many other opponents of capitalists do and advocating ‘in the meantime’ stages to a real socialist society, one without the markets, buying and selling and class antagonisms which this book has outlined so admirably? Apparently not, since his ambition which he reveals to us on the last page of his book is to ‘start down the road of social democracy and then to market socialism’. The enormity of the contradiction in terms represented by the idea of ‘market socialism’ is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Howard Moss

The Old Lie (2023)

From the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’ – It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country – is taken from an ode by the Roman poet, Horace. There are lots of sick people in the world who would agree with Horace. Just so long as they’re not the ones doing the fighting and dying. Politicians, deluded nationalists, arms dealers, arms manufacturers, as currently is the case in Russia and Ukraine. Wilfred Owen responded:
…If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer,
bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
In August 1914 the SPGB had already declared:
Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good will and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism. THE WORLD FOR THE WORKERS!
In the mid-sixties Barry McGuire was growling ‘We’re on the eve of destruction.’ We’ve been on the eve ever since the first American-produced atomic bomb was exploded on Japan in 1945. Twice.

At the same time, Donovan was singing about the effects of nuclear war:
Cities full of people burning, screaming, shouting loud, 
And right over head, a great orange mushroom cloud. 
Now there’s no more war 
For there’s no more world.
Heavy metal bands were also producing anti-war songs.
As the mad men play on words, 
And make us all dance to their song,
To the tune of starving millions, 
To make a better kind of gun. 

Politicians hide themselves away, 
They only started the war,
Why should they go out to fight? 
They leave that role to the poor, yeah’
(Black Sabbath, War Pigs)

War, I despise, it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother’s eyes when their sons go off to fight
and lose their lives.
It’s an enemy to all mankind…
Peace, love and understanding, tell me, 
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our freedom but there’s got to be a better way,
War, What is it good for? You tell me (nothing)
Stand up and shout it (nothing). 
(Written by P F Sloan, performed originally by Edwin Starr)
Folk singers too:
I learned our Government must be strong; 
It’s always right and never wrong; 
Our leaders are the finest men, 
And we elect them again and again.
War is not so bad;
I learned about the great ones we have had.
(Written by Tom Paxton, performed originally by Pete Seeger)
(Written by Tom Paxton, performed originally by Pete Seeger)
Donovan sang:
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame, 
His orders come from far away no more, 
They come from here and there and you and me, 
And brothers, can’t you see?
No, individuals are not to blame for war. Capitalism is. In 1935, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, an American who had taken part in many military campaigns had an epiphany. He spilt the beans, listing the various countries he had worked in and the capitalists whose interests the military was working for: oil, banks, Wall Street, fruit companies. He described himself as a ‘gangster for capitalism’.

Karl Marx’s words that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,’ remain even more relevant today. The time is long past for us all to change it for the better.

Charles Dickens’s Scrooge asked the Ghost of the Future, ‘Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?’ Response: ‘Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead.’
Dave Coggan

Blogger's Note:
I think there was a bit of a mix-up in the editing of this article. 'War' by Edwin Starr wasn't written by P. F. Sloan. It was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. And it wasn't performed originally by Edwin Starr. It originally appeared on The Temptations album,  'Psychedelic Shack'. 

P. F. Sloan did write Barry McGuire's 'Eve Of Destruction'.

Cooking the Books: Collapse of a banking theory (2023)

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

It’s happened again. A bank has collapsed. And not just any bank but the 16th largest in the US. Yet there are still people who argue that banks can create ‘out of thin air’ the money they lend (and others who give the idea credence by using the phrase even though they accept that it couldn’t apply to an individual bank).

According to the thin-air school of banking, a bank’s business model is to lend money it simply creates and gets its income as the interest it charges on the loans.

This is only half the story. A bank’s income does consist of interest. However, unless it is a private bank — a polite, modern word for money-lender — and is lending its own money, it has to obtain money to lend from somewhere. One source is depositors but to attract savers a bank has to pay them interest. Banks also borrow money from other financial institutions on which they have to pay interest too.

In other words, a bank has to pay interest as well as receiving it. A bank’s actual business model is to obtain income from borrowing at one rate of interest and lending at a higher rate. Banks are financial intermediaries, not financial magicians.

The Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was, as its name suggests, a bank based on accepting deposits from tech companies starting up. These would get money from some venture capitalist taking a punt on their success. The new company would deposit this in the SVB before spending it and topping it up with the next tranche of money from a venture capitalist. The SVB paid them interest on this and used the money to make loans, including to other tech companies, at a higher rate. They also held some of it as government and other bonds which could be converted into cash when needed.

The Federal Reserve, the US central bank, has, for various reasons, been putting up short-term interest rates. This had an effect on the SVB banking activities:
‘Silicon Valley Bank has been bleeding deposits as the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised borrowing costs to fight inflation. Higher interest rates bludgeoned many of the tech businesses that had deposited their money with the bank. As venture capitalists retreated from offering companies fresh infusions of capital to sustain their businesses, start-ups needed to burn through the cash in their accounts to stay afloat. Deposits the bank had on hand have fallen steadily over the last several months, according to S&P Global Ratings. Higher rates also meant more investments offered an attractive yield, leading some clients to pull out their deposits and put them elsewhere’ (
With reduced deposits, the SVB no longer had enough money to honour all of its loans. It thought of raising the money to do this by selling off its government and other bonds. Unfortunately for it, one effect of rising short-term interest rates is to lower the price of bonds:
‘When banks run into trouble, they can be forced to sell off investment assets, typically US government debt and mortgage-backed securities, that they purchased to earn a return on their customers’ deposits. As interest rates climb, the price of those older securities fall — which means the banks sell those investments at a loss’.
The money raised from SVB’s sale of its bonds wouldn’t have raised enough. It was insolvent.

Its failure is a classic demonstration that banks cannot create money out of thin air. Otherwise why would losing deposits make any difference? If a bank was short of money, all it would have to do would be to conjure some more out of thin air, lend it and pocket the interest. No bank would need to fail. But they do.