Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Speaking Out (2023)

Book Review from the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Speakers’ Corner Anthology. Edited by Jim Huggon. Union of Egoists. 2022.

This is a republication (with a new, additional Foreword) of an anthology first published in 1977. It is a collection of excerpts and other written material connected to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner and there are several references to the SPGB scattered throughout. Jim Huggon is an anarchist who spoke regularly there from 1965 to 1983. He refers to a review by the Socialist Standard of the original version which has slightly puzzled us as it appears that no such review was ever published.

The collection also includes a knockabout piece by Harry Young (Horatio) called ‘On the Platform’ and originally published in the Seventieth Anniversary edition of the Standard in June 1974. There are excerpts too from famous Speakers’ Corner regular Bonar Thompson’s book, Hyde Park Orator, which has also recently been republished with added illustrations.

In addition, there is an interesting if rather pious excerpt from a piece by Lord Donald Soper about his time as an outdoor orator (more focused on Tower Hill than Hyde Park). This is interesting as he tells of encounters with a variety of other regular speakers and his relationship with them, without actually naming them. In particular, he writes of his conversations with a well-known Tower Hill personality and that this man was a scientific socialist, ‘breathing fire and slaughter against all religion, sneering at morality [and] despising the consolations of faith’ who turned out to be much warmer privately than his public persona had initially indicated. Given Soper’s detailed description of him it is highly likely that this was Harry Martin, a regular speaker at Tower Hill and who had left the SPGB in 1911 to found the Socialist Propaganda League (see ‘Getting Splinters’, in the June 2004 Centenary Edition of the Socialist Standard).

Tower Hill no longer exists as a speaking station and Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park is a shadow of its former self, these days a veritable bear garden aimed at tourists with very few serious speakers. This anthology helps capture the spirit of an earlier age.
DAP.

Blogger's Note:
There's a wee mistake in the review. The original edition of this book was reviewed by Robert Barltrop in the June 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard.

Letters: New Marx letter (2023)

Letters to the Editors from the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

New Marx letter

Dear Editors

A new Marx letter was recently found (tinyurl.com/yc3ejy5r):

It was written in French originally so I thought I’d translate it. It’s a letter to Jules Guesde. The latter’s response is already known. It doesn’t tell us anything new about Marx’s thought. Marx affirms a vision of an independent workers’ party, distinct both from the Blanquists affirming insurrection is always on the agenda and from the bourgeois tradition of republicanism. It also reaffirms his prediction of revolution in Russia and the inability of the English working class to revolt without revolution on the continent first, because of English imperialism. Here’s the translation:
‘10th of May 1879, 
41 Maitland Park Road, London NW

Dear Citizen Guesde,

No French refugee who has any relation to me would have any doubt about the deep sympathy I feel for you or of the great interest I have in your work. Militant socialism certainly has many partisans in France, but there are few who unite as you do knowledge with courage and devotion. The election of Blanqui due to your initiative, is a first compensation for the sufferings and affronts that the upstarts in power inflict on you.

As for the return of the Legislature to Paris, I have pronounced myself in front of Lissagaray and Longuet in the same vein as your articles. After all, I attached more importance to the debates on this thing than to the thing itself, being well convinced that Messieurs the Gambettistes would rather live in Paris than vegetate in Versailles.

The great task for socialists in France, is the organisation of an independent and militant workers’ party. This organisation which must not be confined to the towns, but must extend to the countryside, can only be done by means of propaganda and continuous struggle, an everyday struggle always corresponding to the given conditions of the moment, to current necessities. Only posthumous Jacobins know only one form of revolutionary action, the explosive form. This is quite natural on the part of bourgeois who have only ever raised their shields after having already occupied dominant social positions.

According to my conviction revolution in the explosive form will start this time not from the West, but from the East – from Russia. It will react first on the two other grave despotisms (illegible), Austria and Germany, where a violent upheaval has become a historical necessity. It is of the utmost importance that at the moment of this general crisis Europe should find the French proletariat already constituted as a workers’ party and ready to play its part. As for England, the material elements of its social transformation are overabundant, but what is lacking is the driving spirit. It will only be formed under the explosion of continental events. We must never forget that however miserable the lot of the bulk of the English working class may be, it nevertheless participates, to some extent, in England’s empire on the world market or, which is even worse, imagines itself participating in it.

A few words on Longuet. You would be doing him a disservice if you thought he was your personal adversary. It’s the contrary, although he was invited by a few coquettish emigrants, he did not allow himself to be drawn into quips. If his opinions sometimes differ from yours in regard to the tactics to be followed, I don’t think they differ fundamentally. Finally family relations and friendships could have no influence on my political line from which I have never deviated.

In the hope that you will soon regain your freedom and your health, I am

Your very sincere friend Karl Marx.’
Erwan Moysan, 
Cardiff


More on Marx

Dear Editors

As a professional philosopher and a socialist I was interested to read the exchange between Brian Morris and SJW in the June Socialist Standard.

We cannot simply call Marx a philosopher, or indeed an economist or an historian. He made huge contributions to all three disciplines but more importantly he challenged their orthodoxies. He also had other things on his mind, such as fomenting a global revolution.

What shines through in all his work is a commitment to argumentation and evidence rather than just wishful thinking or arm waving. That commitment is echoed in the practice of current Marx commentators known as analytical Marxism (sometimes called by its practitioners non-bullshit Marxism). Whatever their failings politically, they too insist on logic and rigour in contrast to the flashy and obscurantist work of some other currently fashionable commentators.

An excellent example of analytical Marxism is G A Cohen’s book Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (which I reviewed in the Socialist Standard in August 1979). In it Cohen provided a philosophical underpinning for Marx’s theory and considered what implications this had for when and how revolutionary change might occur.

I am not a card-carrying member of the non-bullshit Marxism group but I used the same analytical methodology in my book Karl Marx our Contemporary: Social Theory for a post-Leninist World (reviewed by Adam Buick in the Socialist Standard for October 1992). In it I argued that the welcome collapse of the East European regimes gave us a chance to assess Marx’s theories in their own right rather than through the distorting lens of Leninism. What emerges from that analysis is that Marx’s theories are remarkably close to the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Keith Graham 


Even more on Marx

Dear Editors

I thank SJW for his response my letter. Three reflections.

I was surprised to learn that Marx was a postmodern skeptic who repudiated all ‘isms’. I always thought that he (and his friend Engels) expressed and defended philosophical materialism as a metaphysic.

Contrary to SJW’s assertion, I am unable to read other people’s minds. I simply interpreted Marx as a philosophical (dialectical) materialist through a serious study of his life and works extending over fifty years.

I too am a ‘worker’ and have been so since the age of fifteen when I began work in an iron foundry. But this has no relevance at all to an understanding of Marx’s philosophical outlook. Equating philosophical materialism with ‘capitalist interests’ (whatever they may be) is hardly enlightening.
Brian Morris, 
Lewes

The Passing Politicians’ Show: Uxbridge and Ulez (2023)

From the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in July, caused by Boris Johnson jumping before he was pushed, provided a chance to observe conventional politics at work and to confirm how empty and irrelevant it is.

Labour’s plan
In his manifesto the unsuccessful Labour candidate said ‘the Tories have crashed the economy’ and that ‘since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 real wages have fallen so far that we are now worse off by £1,373 a year’. Labour, he said, ‘has a plan to put money into the pockets of local people.’ Who wouldn’t want that? But when you look closely at how this is to be done it turns out to be a plan not to actually give people more money but to stop them having to pay out so much. ‘A Labour government,’ he promised, ‘would bring your energy bills down by £1,400 by fast-tracking home-grown renewable energy’. Even on their own figures, this would only restore the situation to what it was in 2010, but there is no guarantee that it will happen.

Labour Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, had already rowed back on Labour’s ‘fast tracking’ promise. The Guardian (9 June) reported this under the headlines ‘Labour postpones £28bn green plan as it seeks to be trusted on public finances. Rachel Reeves says fiscal rule is priority as she delays start of promised investment in eco-friendly industry.’
‘Labour would now build up to the annual £28bn plan by halfway through a first parliament. The party had promised to spend £28bn a year on green investment until 2030 from the first year after coming to power. However, Reeves said she could not have predicted the market crash caused by the former prime minister Liz Truss’s plans for unfunded borrowing for tax cuts last autumn, which created the difficult economic conditions including higher interests rates affecting the cost of debt repayment’ (tinyurl.com/4ha669wh).
But that’s precisely the point. No government can predict what the vagaries of the capitalist economic system are going to throw at them. Out of office they can make all sorts of plans and promise all sorts of things, but when in office they can only react to the unpredictable workings of capitalism. Sometimes they might be lucky (and claim this as their own work). More often than not, they will be faced with some economic or financial crisis and then have to impose cutbacks and austerity in order to save profits by not taxing them too much.

Reeves as much as said so when she stated ‘I will never play fast and loose with the public finances.’ Now that’s a promise you can believe.

The Tories
The Tory candidate didn’t promise anything. How could he? He couldn’t play the anti-immigrant card in this constituency with its large number of voters from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants. Instead he chose to challenge Labour’s claim that it would put more money into people’s pockets. On the contrary, he argued, the London Labour mayor’s decision to extend from the end of August the ultra-low-emission zone from central London to the whole of Greater London would take money out of people’s pockets. ‘No to Labour’s £4,550 ULEZ expansion tax’ was his line. It worked.

Owners of more polluting pre-2006 petrol and pre-2016 diesel vehicles will have to pay £12.50 for every day they use their car or van. This will, the Tory leaflet went on, ‘hit the poorest in our communities the hardest’. Although it’s a bit disingenuous of the Tories to say they are concerned about the poorest, they had a point. Most owners of pre-2006 petrol cars will be people who bought one second-hand because they couldn’t afford a new car. Others will have bought diesel cars after Gordon Brown, when Chancellor in 2001, reduced the tax on diesel. As usual under capitalism, it is the poorest who suffer the most from the extra cost of measures like providing for a less polluted environment.

The Greens
Which brings us to the Green Party. Basically, they want a return to the small-scale capitalism that once existed and from which present-day corporate capitalism evolved. And would again if it was possible to turn the clock back (but of course it isn’t).

Their candidate’s manifesto called for ‘Public Money to be spent on Public Good not profits for the few’ and stated that the ‘economy is not working for most people’. That’s true but the capitalist economy cannot be made to work in any other way. It is a profit-making system that can run — and be run by governments— only in the interests of the profit-takers. It is based on ‘profits for the few’ and there’s nothing that can be done about it except getting rid of the system as a whole and replacing it by one based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. This would allow these resources to be used to directly turn out and distribute what people need to live a decent and satisfying life.

The Greens promised to ‘introduce universal basic income to reduce dependency on economic growth.’ But how would UBI do that? The relationship would seem to be the opposite as the economy would have to grow to provide the extra things that the basic income would be used to buy (assuming that the level will be somewhat higher than the current poverty line, which is not immediately evident or likely given the constraints and priorities of capitalism).

The Green candidate was again right when she said:
‘We all see the global environmental crisis that, if not tackled, will destroy the only known living planet in the Universe. Yes, change is needed on a Planetary scale.’
Indeed it is, but the small-scale changes under capitalism that the Greens promise are quite inadequate even if the workings of capitalism allowed them to be given priority over the ‘profits for the few.’

Mistaken assumption
Although the Lib Dems had a candidate he was nowhere to be seen as they were concentrating on trying to win another by-election the same day. Their promises would also have been based on the same, mistaken, basic assumption that governments can control the way the capitalist economic system works and so could reform it to serve, as the Greens put it, the ‘Public Good’.

Experience over the years, under various different governments, has repeatedly shown that this cannot be done, with all governments ending up putting profits first. Yet the conventional parties still make promises to do this, blaming, when not in office, the government of the day rather than capitalism for problems — Labour is doing it now with its mantra of ‘thirteen years of Tory failure’ — and promising that this wouldn’t happen if they were in office. But it always does. The problem is not the Tories (or Labour), it’s capitalism.
Adam Buick

The Passing Politicians’ Show: Somerset and Frome: A socialist elector writes (2023)

From the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

This by-election in Somerton & Frome was triggered by the resignation of the Conservative MP (David Warburton) over allegations he took cocaine (which he at first denied, then later confessed) and sexually harassed a number of women (which he still denies). This is an almost pointless election because the constituency is to be abolished at next year’s general election.

There were 8 candidates to be Somerton & Frome’s final MP. Below are some of their election promises and what I, as socialist elector in the constituency, make of them:

Sarah Dyke (Liberal Democrats) There’s not much to write about this one. She blames the cost of living crisis and the NHS crisis on the Conservative government, not the capitalist system. Didn’t they make massive cuts to the welfare state during the Conservative/LibDem coalition government? Despite this she got elected.

Faye Purbrick (Conservatives) Again, there’s not much to write. There’s just the usual phony promises about: securing more investment in transport and better broadband; protecting ‘our’ green spaces; building more ‘affordable homes’; etc., etc.

Bruce Evans (Reform UK) This is a great party to vote for, if you think the Conservatives are too left wing! They want to: lower taxes; ‘utilise the UK’s fossil fuel supplies’; ‘end the costly Net-Zero plans [what Net-Zero plans?] that make our (!) economy uncompetitive’; ‘oppose a cashless society and central bank digital currency’; and ‘implement a voucher scheme to provide timely healthcare treatment and eliminate waiting lists [that sounds an awful lot like NHS privatisation]’.

Peter Richardson (UKIP) Basically the same as Reform UK.

Neil Guild (Labour) Starmer must be doing a great job of purging Labour of the Left, because the candidate here for the last two elections was a leftist, but they now have a rightist. Of the usual vague promises on his election leaflet, two contradict each other: ‘Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7,’ and ‘Make Britain a clean energy superpower to create jobs’. He is also a trade union official (though it’s not clear which union), which goes to show you can’t necessarily trust trade union officials.

Lorna Corke (Christian People’s Alliance) This is a conservative Christian party that are for ‘promoting different points of view in schools’, which they feel has been abandoned by ‘new age liberalism’ which they define as ‘promotion of LGBT and the sexualisation of young children’. They have a novel policy on ending corporate tax avoidance, which is to: ‘introduce a turnover tax (5 percent initially), which is a seller’s VAT’. Two ways they want to use the ‘£40.5 billion’ raised from this tax is to: ‘support marriage and the family with significant grants’, and ‘guarantee everyone sleeping rough a night shelter and free meal’. How generous of them to want make the lives of homeless people slightly less horrible (instead of getting rid of the system that causes homelessness)!

Rosie Mitchell (independent socialist) A member of the Labour Left from 2016-2020, so at least her vague promises on improving society are sincere. She says she is committed to: ‘a fairer, less profit driven system that works for society and for the planet’. Which makes me wonder how socialism went from meaning ‘a classless, stateless, moneyless global community of common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources, where people live by the principle of: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ to ‘a less profit driven system’. She got 635 votes.

Martin Dimery (Green Party) Firstly, I personally knew Martin from my time in the Green Party (before becoming class conscious). The Greens are by far the most reformist party, so their policies deserve more attention than the others. They want to:
  • Quickly process refugee applications in France (as is permitted). Nothing wrong with that. Although, what to do with refugees isn’t the problem. The problem is that world capitalism causes people to become refugees.
  • Build more affordable and council housing, using environmentally sustainable methods. Homelessness will always be an issue as long as homes are built for profit instead of solely for use. Case in point: the homelessness charity Shelter was set-up in the 1960s when there was a lot more council housing than today. Also, where is the money going to come from to make these homes ‘environmentally sustainable’?
  • Create local not-for-profit banks, that will [apparently] re-generate town centres. This goes to show they don’t understand how banks work, or that town centres face a lot of competition from cheaper online retailers.
  • Nationalise ‘our’ water and energy companies, who have seen bills go up and standards go down. Firstly, nationalisation won’t end the energy crisis. Secondly, it would be much easier to regulate the water companies, forcing them to spend part of their profits to responsibly dispose of sewage (instead of using tax money to do that, which would eat into the profits of the UK’s capitalist class as a whole).
  • Re-join the European Single Market and Customs Union because [apparently] ‘our’ industries and agriculture have suffered enough. Why don’t they just call a spade a spade and say they want to re-join the EU?
To be fair, they do say where they would get the money from. They would:
  • Introduce a “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions. Please read this excellent article on what’s wrong with that.
  • Reduce loopholes to stop the super-rich from avoiding paying taxes. They don’t say how they would do this; perhaps they should copy the Christian People’s Alliance’s policy.
  • Generate bigger windfall taxes from the oil companies. If the oil industry aren’t making higher than usual profits, how can they windfall tax them? This shows that they don’t mind the oil industry making profits, as long as they pay high taxes.
None of them got my vote. I wrote ‘Socialist Party of Great Britain. One World –One People’ on my ballot paper.

The sources for this article were the election leaflets and this piece from the Frome Times.
Matthew Shearn

Tiny Tips (2023)

The Tiny Tips column from the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Klimt’s Lady with a Fan, which became the most expensive work of art sold in Europe. The portrait of an anonymous woman, also known as Dame mit F├Ącher, fetched £85.3 million from a Hong Kong collector at Sotheby’s auction house in London" (tinyurl.com/279ubrrk).

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"Mecca pilgrimages are a major source of income for Saudi Arabia, which is embarking on an ambitious plan to overhaul its largely oil-dependent economy. The hajj and year-round umrah rituals generate an estimated $12 billion annually" (tinyurl.com/4cem98ej).

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"The most tantalizing feature of the ancient Indus Valley remains is what they appear to lack: any trace of a ruling class or managerial elite. This defies the longtime theoretical assumption that any complex society must have stratified social relations: that collective action, urbanization, and economic specialization only develop in a very unequal culture that takes direction from the top, and that all social trajectories evolve toward a common and universal outcome, the state. Yet, here was a stable, prosperous civilization that appeared to remain that way for centuries without a state, without priest-kings or merchant oligarchs, and without a rigid caste system or warrior class. How did they manage it?" (tinyurl.com/2ewf2run).

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"Decades of social mobility research has come to the same conclusion: we are born into an economic caste system and our future success is largely determined by our parents’ income and by the nature of the neighbourhoods in which we grow up. Race is not the determining social factor in individual success: it is, at best, a poor proxy for the real causes. Privilege is very real. But it’s based on class, not race" (tinyurl.com/4sr9cudz).

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"The state that absurdly claims descent from the ideas of Marx and Engels anachronistically boasts of 969 billionaires, putting even the epicentre of capitalism in the shade (691 billionaires in the US)… Workers’ democracy was never part of the agenda under Mao or any of his successors in the new People’s Republic. The post-1949 regime would evolve into a state-capitalist formation, paying lip service to Marxism but primarily committed to making China a self-sufficient state that could ultimately compete with the other great powers" (tinyurl.com/mr24kzye).

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‘The Russian Revolution’ is something of a misnomer as, strictly speaking, there were two such eruptions in 1917: a genuine, spontaneous revolution in February, and the planned coup d’etat by the Bolsheviks in October that founded the Soviet state… It was Lenin, not Stalin, who founded the Cheka (the secret police), who first extorted grain from starving peasants and insisted that revolutions could only be made by firing squads. The machinery of repression and mass murder was in place by the time he died in 1924. All Stalin had to do was use it" (tinyurl.com/yc3dkb4b).

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"Zelensky has banned opposition political parties
He arrested political opponents
He banned all unfriendly media
He shut down Orthodox churches
And now there will be no Presidential election next year
At what point we call him what he is?
A dictator (tinyurl.com/2t469msb)."

What is ‘scientific’ socialism? (2023)

From the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

By the middle of the nineteenth century two revolutions in thought occurred. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace proved the fact of biological evolution by natural selection. This does not imply ‘progress from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ life-forms’ as some people still imagine. That was the slant put upon it by Victorian bourgeois progressivism. This pseudo-theory of evolution – the ladder principle – enables capitalist society to retain the anthropocentric mythology Judaeo-Christian religion had inculcated for centuries in a supposedly scientific guise. Rather, Darwin and Wallace disliked the term ‘evolution’ as too easily open to such misinterpretation.

The other was that the study of human society since the emergence of settled farming communities to modern industrial capitalist society was scientifically enriched thanks to the work of two German thinkers, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Like the biological evolutionists, Marx and Engels had inherited a tradition of social research reaching back in time, and it is no surprise that the two monuments to human self-awareness were published about the same time: Darwin`s The Origin of Species, and Marx`s Capital. Marx`s friend Engels also produced some excellent shorter works such as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, and The Origins of the Family, Private Property & The State.

In Capital, Marx explained the theory of surplus value and the wages system, which is the basis of capitalist society, and showed how this system grew from its predecessor in Europe, the feudal system. He also showed how, with each move forward in social development since chattel slavery, classes are expunged from society, leaving under capitalism but two classes. The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, lives on rent, interest and profit – the surplus value produced by the proletariat, or working class.

The worker must first be deprived of any control of means of production – be it land, industry, means of distribution, factories, railways etc. All of which are exclusively owned by the capitalist class. The peasantry had to be dispossessed of its cottage industries and evicted from the land so as to turn them into a propertyless class obliged to work for the capitalists. Having no access to, nor control of, the means of production and distribution, the worker is obliged to sell their physical and mental energy to the capitalist in return for a wage (call it salary for snob-value if you will). This wage is the price of the worker`s labour-power, and does not cover the value of what they produce. The difference constitutes surplus value, which goes straight into the pocket of the capitalist, enriching him at the worker`s expense. The worker thus remains for life in a state of economic dependence on the parasitical capitalist. As for work which is not directly productive, such as the so-called professions, services, and so on, all serve to buttress the system, of which the accumulation of capital, derived from surplus value, is the core.

Just as the slaves of ancient Rome ran the whole of society, so does the working class today. From surgeons to roadsweepers, from astrophysicists to labourers and the unemployed, all are members of the working class. If you are dependent on a salary (wage) in order to live (or on a handout when unemployed), whether your salary is high or low, if you are thus economically dependent, you belong to the working class. It is more likely that small capitalists will be thrown into the ranks of the working class by the machinery of capitalism, than that a worker will become a capitalist. Generally speaking, one is born into one class or the other. Still, it is inculcated in us by capitalist propaganda that ‘if you work hard, you ‘make good’ and that workers who do manage to switch class by exploiting others and becoming social parasites (capitalists) are to be praised and admired.

The state
The state is the organ of coercion with which a ruling class maintains its rule over the rest of the population. Under capitalism, therefore, the state, of whatever political slant or colour, is the machinery by which the minority capitalist class keeps in subjection the majority working class which is exploited for profit. Under capitalism, only these two social classes remain in existence. There can only be a state where there is a class to rule over others. So, with the emancipation of the working class (the last subject class) from the wages system (capitalism), both classes cease to exist. The state therefore will cease to exist. Marx and Engels believed, and today`s genuine socialists (communists) believe, that in order to topple capitalist rule, the working class must seize control of the state and use its forces of coercion (army and police) to dispossess the capitalists of the means of production, placing those means in the hands democratically of everyone. Capitalist and worker both then cease to exist, as does the state, and we have for the first time a society of human beings, in control of their own destiny.

Thus we have scientific socialism (communism) – the common control of the means of production – following from a scientific historical analysis, whereas before we only had utopian socialism (communism) – usually expressed in terms of common ownership of goods – following from the ancient dream, running through the Middle Ages and into the 18th century, with only hope as a basis and incapable of an accurate historical analysis.

Socialism and communism are two words meaning the same – a future society in which the workers of today have emancipated themselves as described above. But very soon, pro-capitalist politicians saw the advantage in misappropriating the terms to confuse the workers. ‘Socialism’ came to mean Labour Party-type state-ownership, or Leninism, while ‘communism’ was misconstrued as something again which was different – a Bolshevik-style one-party tyranny (again, see below). But, since the state can only be the instrument of class rule, so state ownership (nationalisation) is not socialism, but merely capitalism run by state bureaucrats. This was the outcome in particular of the capitalist revolutions which took place in the 20th century in the Russian and Chinese empires.

In the 19th century too, anarchism arose within the genuine socialist movement to oppose the Marxian view that the state must be seized by the working class in order to use its coercive machinery to dispossess the capitalists. Anarchists were afraid that this would prove too tempting to socialist delegates doing the seizing, who would then use the state`s machinery against the workers. Since ‘socialism’ has been perverted by capitalist ideologues to mean ‘state-ownership’, this concern is understandable. However, unless the state is seized from the capitalists and their politicians, the armed forces remain in their hands and might be used to try to smash any attempted revolution. Hence it is absolutely necessary to take control of the state, thus disarming the capitalist class, which can then be dispossessed of the means of production. Socialist delegates to the parliaments (the law-making part of the state) would have but one mandate: the dismantling of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. They would not attempt to enter office under the capitalist state, and would be instantly recalled and dismissed by the workers if they attempted to do so. Furthermore, the absolute majority of workers would be actively making the revolution – which is why, too, any attempt by a socialist minority to stage a take-over against the wishes of the majority of workers would be doomed.
A. W.

Proper Gander: The state of North Korea (2023)

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

Little information about how people live in North Korea has leaked out beyond its borders. The only footage we’re likely to see is of tightly managed military parades and appearances by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un rather than anything more everyday. The lives of the vast majority are kept secret: the country has its own intranet separate to the internet and communication with outsiders is forbidden. Despite the oppressive laws, some North Koreans have been able to share details of their lives, and the extracts of these on the BBC Two documentary North Korea: The Insiders are even more grim than we might expect.

Jean Mackenzie, the BBC’s correspondent in South Korea, worked with Daily NK, a specialist news organisation which has contacts in North Korea. They found three people there who agreed to be covertly interviewed to raise awareness of their situations. Daily NK sent Mackenzie’s questions to them using a ‘special device’, then interviews would be recorded in ‘safe locations that can’t be bugged’ and sent back. This was done at considerable risk, as if the interviewees were caught by the police they could face execution.

North Korea has been even more insular since the pandemic. Ostensibly to reduce transmission of the virus, the government imposed stricter restrictions on the border with China. An effect of this was to prevent goods being smuggled into North Korea which had previously supplemented the inadequate rations available from within the country. One of the people interviewed sold contraband medicines at a market near the Chinese border, and since the pandemic her income has halved because she can’t get as much stock to sell. The lack of imports also means there is now even less food available than before, and for higher prices. A consequence of this is that two of the three people interviewed personally knew multiple people who had died of starvation. Stories of widespread starvation in the country haven’t been known since its crisis in the mid-late 1990s.

Alongside the threat of malnutrition is the threat from the repressive state. One of the interviewees says ‘If I live according to the rules, I feel like I’ll starve to death but just by trying to survive I could be arrested by the state security, branded as a traitor and killed’. The other interviewees also live in fear of the authorities, such as one who was taken in for questioning under the ‘anti reactionary thought law’. There’s no suggestion in the interviews of any enjoyment at all: no socialising or entertainment. As one of the interviewees says ‘people are stuck here and waiting to die’.

Given the dire conditions in North Korea, it’s understandable that its government doesn’t want the rest of the world to know what’s happening. Nor does it want its own subjects knowing about life outside its boundary, in case they make comparisons. One of the interviewees knew a 22 year old man who was sentenced to over 10 years of hard labour for distributing South Korean songs and films. Before 2020 he would have got a year in prison, but now the official line is that ‘the perverted and animalistic pursuit of South Korean and Western culture must be purged’, and the death penalty is possible. James Heenan, the UN Investigator for Human Rights in North Korea, says that punishments just for watching foreign media are ‘very serious violations of human rights’ and could be crimes against humanity, not that this would concern the regime. When they were sent a video of the documentary, the North Korean government replied that the interviews had been faked, and claimed that it ‘has always prioritised the interests of the people even at difficult times and has an unwavering commitment to the well-being of the people’.

Of the consultants with a view on North Korea featured in the programme, Sue Mi Terry, a previous CIA Senior Analyst on Korea, gets closest to explaining what drives the regime. She says that the government there has always been motivated by preserving its ruling family rather than protecting the people, which is obvious enough. She doesn’t go on to add that all governments work to support the capitalist class, the difference being that in North Korea this class is more compact than in and across most other countries, as its industries and services are all state-owned. The wealth they generate gets channelled into Kim Jong Un and family’s no-doubt lavish lifestyle alongside manufacturing weaponry. In case any North Koreans wonder why investment isn’t being made in food or medicine production, the official justification is that missiles are needed to defend against hostile powers such as the USA and South Korea. Covid has been used as a further pretext for repression and restrictions.

Mackenzie meets Ryu Hyun-woo, who defected from North Korea in 2019 while working as an ambassador. He says that younger people are more likely to ask of the regime ‘what have you done to stop us starving to death?’, adding ‘if anger and discontent keep building up, one day it will explode’. The documentary doesn’t dwell on any action which the people of North Korea could take to improve their conditions: the very real threats of starvation and punishment mean that it’s understandable if many can only concentrate on survival. The situation there makes any kind of worker-based organisation seem unlikely, although this is what’s needed to change it. The programme suggests a little hope, through what Hyun-woo says and how the interviewees have defied the oppressive laws and propaganda to tell their stories.
Mike Foster

Take the Tablets (2023)

Book Review from the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis. By James Davies. Atlantic £10.99.

The basic argument here is that the treatment of mental illness has been medicalised and depoliticised, meaning it has come to be regarded as a problem involving the individual concerned, rather than being part of a wider social situation. Consequently it has been addressed via increased prescription of medication, not by means of talking therapy or sociopolitical changes. This is to some degree due to the lobbying and influence of the pharmaceutical industry (drugs companies such as Pfizer). They aggressively advertise their products and even develop the patient questionnaires that GPs use to diagnose depression.

More generally, though, Davies sees it as part of a wider societal development, that of ‘new capitalism’, neoliberalism, based on deregulation of companies and a regulatory system that is closely linked to those it is allegedly controlling. Depression and anxiety supposedly cost the UK economy £12bn each year in lost productivity and incapacity benefits; this figure is from 2005, so the amount is presumably higher now. Reforming the benefit system and getting people into work was seen as vital, hence workfare and sanctions on the unemployed. Not having a job was regarded as some kind of psychological deficit, rather than being related to the ups and downs of the capitalist economy, just as problems at work were viewed as resulting from individual attitudes and difficulties, not the boring and often pointless nature of the job. The Labour government introduced a programme named Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), but this had far less impact than claimed, with at most one person in five recovering as a result of it. In 2015 it was announced that IAPT workers would be placed in job centres.

There has been a vast increase in recent years in the prescription of antidepressants. This applies in many countries, including the UK, where the number rose from 25 million prescriptions a year in 2002 to 75 million in 2020. This has not led to an improvement in people’s mental health: far from it, as mental health disabilities have risen massively since the 1980s. When taken over the long term, many psychiatric drugs can be harmful, and it can in fact be more helpful to stop taking the drugs, even for the severely ill. Some research suggests that long-term antidepressant use can increase the risk of a person becoming depressed for life. A recent report (BBC Online, 19 June) revealed that in England two million people have been taking antidepressants for five years, despite limited evidence that a course of treatment of that length has overall benefits.

Davies notes that higher rates of prescribing psychiatric drugs occur in the poorest areas of the UK, and refers to the work of Wilkinson and Pickett (The Spirit Level, The Inner Level), which shows that there is more mental illness where there is greater inequality. He presents a powerful and convincing picture of how capitalism defines and treats mental health problems, meaning it avoids having to confront the real causes.
Paul Bennett


Blogger's Notes:
  • Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level was reviewed in the June 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard.
  • Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Inner Level was reviewed in the October 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard.

50 Years Ago: Floating to nowhere – the currency chaos (2023)

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

If of course the dollars were convertible into gold at $35 an ounce as they used to be, nobody would fear to hold dollars. At present the dollar and pound are described as ‘floating’. All this means is that instead of being devalued and immediately fixed at the lower level they were devalued and allowed to fluctuate about the lower level.

The pound was devalued in 1967 by the Wilson government and again in 1971 by the Heath government — on the latter occasion with the enthusiastic support of Tories, Labour and the trade unions on the ground that it would make exports cheaper to foreign buyers and thus encourage production for export. The other side of the coin is that devaluation makes all imports correspondingly dearer. So the Labour Party and trade unions which protest against the higher prices of imported goods are protesting against the inevitable result of an action they approved of.

The governments and capitalists are becoming aware of the fact that while the depreciation of currencies may seem to be of short-term advantage, at least to exporters, the competitive depreciation of currencies such as the dollar and pound creates a chaotic situation which may make all international trading operations more difficult. This is leading some capitalists and economists to see that in the long run capitalism will have to re-learn the need to have stable currencies and that there is no better way than to restore gold convertibility at a fixed rate, in short the end of inflation.

And what does this offer to the workers? In nineteenth-century British capitalism there was no inflation. Prices in 1914 were actually slightly lower than in 1814. In between, prices rose moderately in booms and fell in depressions. And what the workers got was exploitation and poverty all the time, relieved somewhat in booms and worsened in depressions, with unemployment similarly.

Nobody has produced — or will produce — any policy which will change the nature of capitalism. Those who really do learn the lesson of history will concentrate on getting rid of capitalism.

(From the article 'Floating To Nowhere — the currency chaos' by Edgar Hardcastle, Socialist Standard, August 1973)

Editorial: All fiscal conservatives now (2023)

Editorial from the August 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

So Starmer says he doesn’t object to being called a ‘fiscal conservative’ (BBC interview, 16 July).

The Labour Party used to seek support on the basis of providing social reforms that would benefit workers. That in fact was said to be their reason for existence and why trade unions supported them. Not any more. Starmer could not have been more specific when two days later he declared that ‘it was “a big mistake” for the left to equate spending money with radicalism’ (Times, 19 July).

Quite apart from the fact that this is a betrayal of the views he feigned to hold when seeking election as Corbyn’s successor, the economic policy he now espouses is basically the same as Truss’s — which both described in the same terms as ‘Growth, Growth, Growth’. In other words, to try to force the capitalist economy to expand more. Since governments produce no wealth of their own, the only ways they can get money to fund their activities are taxes or borrowing.

The Truss government tried to encourage growth by cutting taxation on capitalist enterprises while leaving government spending more or less unchanged; which meant the shortfall would have to be paid for by increased borrowing. The international speculators who lend money to governments were not prepared to play ball and a financial crisis ensued which led to the fall of the government.

Starmer and the Labour leadership realise they have to avoid this. As Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, put it:
‘We saw what happened with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. They ended up promising huge tax cuts for the rich. None of it was funded and they ended up crashing the economy’ (Times, 18 July).
So as not to spook the international speculators they are not even prepared to offer minor reforms for the workers such as lifting the ban on parents on Universal Credit claiming benefits for more than two children. No, they are assuring the markets that they will be ‘fiscally conservative’.

Labour’s promise to make capitalism grow is a gamble as experience has shown that governments cannot do this. The most they can do is sustain conditions that might encourage profit-making but the final decision as to whether or not to expand production — to grow — rests with individual capitalist enterprises and their estimation of whether or not doing so would be profitable. Sometimes it will be; sometimes it won’t, but no period of growth is ever permanent.

Unless it is very lucky in that world market conditions bring it about, a Labour government will not see capitalism grow as much as they are promising. When growth stalls they will have to continue to be ‘fiscal conservatives’ and cut payments to workers, including the poorest, just as all previous governments, Labour as well as Conservative, have done.

Starmer is in effect admitting that reformism has failed (as we always said it would). His conclusion is to abandon reformism and embrace capitalism and its logic. Ours is to go for socialism, the common instead of class ownership of resources and production directly to satisfy people’s needs not for profit. The choice is what it always was — capitalism or socialism?