Saturday, July 22, 2023

Cooking the Books: Oliver in Blunderland (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the July 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a recent speech Tory MP and would-be intellectual Oliver Letwin – his last brilliant idea was the poll tax – ventured to discuss Marx and Marxism. After mocking Gordon Brown for mouthing sounds such as “post neo-classical endogamous growth theory” he himself offered an alternative set of sounds in “shift the locus of debate from an economo-centric paradigm to a socio-centric paradigm”, and continued:
“It all goes back to Marx. Before Marx, politics was multi-dimensional – constitutional, social, environmental as well as economic. But Marx changed all that. The real triumph of Marxism consisted in the way that it defined the preoccupations not only of its supporters but also of its opponents. After Marx, socialists defended socialism and free marketeers defended capitalism. For both sides, the centrepiece of the debate was the system of economic management” (Daily Telegraph, 10 May).
Marx did argue that the key issue in politics ought to be the ownership and control of the means of wealth-production, but unfortunately the actual debate in the 20th century was not between socialism (common ownership) and capitalism (sectional ownership). It was merely over the best way to manage capitalism: through state ownership and control or by leaving things to the free play of competing, profit-seeking private enterprises.

This debate, says Letwin, is now over:
“Since Thatcher, and despite recent recurrences of something like full-blooded socialism in some parts of Latin America, the capitalist/socialist debate has in general ceased to dominate modern politics. From Beijing to Brussels, the free market has won the battle of economic ideas”.
In other words, except for Chavez we’re all pro-capitalists now. We have, claims Letwin, “entered a post-Marxist era”.

He is assuming that socialism and government ownership are the same thing and that Marx favoured government ownership, and concluded that anyone favouring government ownership was a Marxist. Both premises and the conclusion are wrong.

That government ownership is socialism is a popular misconception and, to be honest, is how the word “socialism” has come to be used. But it has never been accepted by Marxian socialists, who have always drawn a distinction between state capitalism (nationalisation by a capitalist government) and socialism.

Nationalisation has been carried out by all sorts of governments, both in Britain and in other countries. The Post Office became a government monopoly in Britain in 1680. A Tory government nationalised the telegraph system while successive Liberal and Tory government nationalised the telephone network. An Act of 1844, piloted through by Gladstone, provided for the nationalisation of the railways if need be. In France cigarette production was a government monopoly and in Prussia the railways were government-owned. So, on Letwin’s logic, Napoleon, Gladstone and Bismarck must have been Marxists.

Marx was always clear that socialism as such had nothing to do with government ownership of capitalist industry. It was a new social system where the means of production would belong to the whole community – not the state, which as an instrument of minority class rule, would disappear – and where there would be production to satisfy people’s needs not for sale and profit, and so where there’d be no money, no banks, nor working for wages.

Socialism in this sense or capitalism should have been the burning issue of the 20th century but, as stated, unfortunately it wasn’t. Far from entering “a post-Marxist era” we are still in a “pre-Marxist era” where politics has yet to be what Marx wanted: a political struggle by the class of wage and salary workers to win control of political power with a view to establishing the common ownership of the means of production by the whole people.

50 Years Ago: Socialists and the Press (2007)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

We live in what is claimed to be a “free country,” where there is “free expression of opinion,” but this must not be taken literally. It does not mean that anyone can say or write just what he likes. The Official Secrets Act and the libel laws cut off considerable areas of expression, into which you trespass at your peril. Much greater restriction arises because we live in a money world, in which capacity to make views known depends largely on what you can afford to pay. If your resources run into hundreds of thousands or millions pounds, you can publish the Daily Worker, Daily Express, etc.: if not you may have to be content with a monthly journal. But what about the possibility of the “free” expression of varied points of view in the columns of those and other journals with the big circulations? This again is a very narrowly circumscribed possibility when it is a question of securing publicity for a minority and not popular point of view, such as that of the S.P.G.B. When daily newspapers misreport matters of concern to us, or when they refuse to publish our letters or advertisements, there is no remedy—and this notwithstanding the existence of the Press Council, which is supposed to keep an eye on the conduct of the Press.

(From front page article by ‘H’, Socialist Standard, July 1957)