Thursday, September 7, 2023

Sixty Years Ago (1972)

From the September 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard
Answer to a Correspondent from the “Socialist Standard", September 1912. 
It is quite true that “the power of repression was with the master classes before the workers had votes”. But material development, with the alterations in the material conditions, made the ruling class adopt a Constitution — a charter which provides for the consent of citizens to the policy of those in power. Hence it is, alas! only too true that “the murder machinery” is "put into their (the masters’) hands by the votes of the workers”, as the latter hold more than two-thirds of the voting power. You say that “power” is not a thing to be captured by votes, yet our masters spend a great deal of time and money in securing that power through getting a majority of votes. . . . How can "industrial organisation generate power”? History is very explicit on the fact that power has rested with those who commanded the political machinery, but where does history record that power has been generated through "industrial organisation”? It is a pity that our “anti-political” critics do not tell us what the power is that can be generated in this way. If they mean power to destroy, power to paralyse general industry (and themselves), then it can be granted — but that disposes of their case. For if they are unable to carry on production uninterrupted, they are manifestly powerless to take and hold the means of life. You say they will render the State impotent, but we still await information as to how that can be done. Can you render the “murder machinery” impotent? Or if not, can you control it by other means? Until you do control the “murder machinery” you cannot “control industry”.
Adolph Kohn

Voice From The Back: Stay At Your Desk, Slave (2008)

The Voice From The Back Column from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Stay At Your Desk, Slave

Now and then a wonderful product comes along that the owning class just love. This may be one of them. “The maker of a new product that combines a treadmill and computer workstation is banking on the notion that companies will invest in products like the “Walkstation” as a way of keeping health care costs down and improving overall fitness levels. The device allows people to work on their computers while walking on a treadmill at a slow speed of up to three kilometers (two miles) per hour, enabling small amounts of movement that supporters say have the potential to reap big health benefits.” (Yahoo News, 13 July) Now all we need is a “Feedstation” that shovels food into your mouth while you work. Oh, Charlie Chaplin already envisaged that in Modern Times didn’t he? How about the “Bedpanstation”? Too much perhaps?

What's ethics got to do with it?

“European and US defence companies will this week kick off talks on a joint code of ethics to cover arms sales. Representatives from the industry’s leading trade bodies will meet at the Farnborough Air Show  in the UK on Tuesday. European companies have recently developed an anti-corruption code in a bid to improve the industry’s reputation, which has suffered in the wake of allegations of bribery and corruption in connection with some of its biggest players.” (Financial Times, 13 July) As these guardians of morality meet to discuss whether it is more ethical to kill a child with poisonous gas, napalm bombs or good old fashioned high explosives we ask ourselves what do sellers of death know of ethics. They are money grubbing killers. 

Chinese Workers Wake Up

“Doing business in China is beginning to cost real money. Not that Chinese workers are buying second homes or anything like that: Their average wage is still a little short of a dollar an hour. But so many Chinese have now left their villages for the factories that the once bottomless pool of new young workers is beginning to run dry, and the wages of assembly-line employees are rising 10 percent a year.” (Yahoo News, 15 July) We should echo the sentiments of an old song, probably banned in China now. They occur in The Red Flag – “Arise like starvelings from your slumber” Let’s hope so!

Health And Hypocrisy

The following announcement caused a storm of controversy in the media. “Patients cannot rely on the NHS to save their lives if the cost of doing so is too great, the Government’s medicines watchdog has ruled for the first time. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) has said the natural impulse to go to the aid of individuals in trouble – as when vast resources are used to save a sailor lost at sea – should not apply to the NHS. The disclosure follows last week’s controversial decision by Nice to reject four new drugs for kidney cancer even though they have been shown to extend life by five to six months.” (Independent, 13 August) To socialists the announcement is far from shocking. That is how capitalism operates – if you are rich you have access to the best food, clothing, shelter, education and recreation. Why should it be so shocking to learn that if you are poor you cannot afford the best of medicine either.

The Perfect Worker

“A Ugandan official has suggested to MPs that funerals should be limited to Saturday afternoons to stop people taking time off work to attend them. Speciosa Kazibwe, a former vice-president who now heads a state development agency, noted that Uganda’s death rate was very high. (BBC News, 25 July) Socialists used to say that the capitalist’s idea of the perfect worker was one who left school at 15, worked 50 weeks a year for 50 years and dropped down dead the first day he went to collect his pension at the post office. We will have to amend this ideal blueprint in view of the Ugandan official’s view. Ideally he would die on the Thursday so that his family could attend his Saturday funeral without missing out on a day producing surplus value for the owning class.

To dream the impossibilist dream (2008)

Book Review from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Impossibilists. A Brief Profile of the Socialist Party of Canada. By Peter E. Newell. Athena Press. 2008.

The SDF in Britain was a reformist organisation with a revolutionary minority (which eventually broke away). The Socialist Party of Canada was the opposite: a revolutionary party with a reformist minority. Formed in 1905 as an amalgamation of parties from the different provinces of Canada, it sought to be “impossibilist”, i.e. not to seek reforms of capitalism but to advocate only the capture of political power for socialism.

However, it couldn’t avoid the reform issue as it won a few seats in elections. It therefore had to decide what these elected socialists should do. inevitably (and sensibly) it decided that they should use their position not just to propagate socialist views, but also to try to “advance the interests of the working class and aid workers in their class struggle against capitalism”. the trouble was the SPC’s councillors had not been elected by socialist votes alone but, precisely, as people workers considered would stand up and speak for them. When the reformists broke away from the SPC in 1911 (to form the Social democratic Party of Canada) the SPC’s three British Columbia legislative assembly members left to join them. One, Charles O’Brien in Alberta, stayed. One of his speeches in the legislature was published as a pamphlet (which can be found at the following link), but he lost the next election.

The similar position taken up by the SPGB on this issue was undoubtedly influenced by that of the SPC (even though a minority of SPGB members disagreed, arguing that Socialist MPs should never vote for any reform measure). The Canadian party probably also influenced the SPGB’s policy of writing “Socialism” across the ballot paper when there was no socialist candidate standing. this was already being advocated in 1903 by the Socialist Party of British Columbia.

On another issue the very early SPC took up a position that was never that of the SPGB. The editor of its paper, the Western Clarion, E. T. Kingsley, argued that the trade union struggle was not part of the class struggle, but only a “commodity struggle”. this was not the view of all SPC members many of whom were active unionists. Later, some were to be jailed for their part in organising the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Other SPC members were instrumental in founding the One Big Union in 1919; which was not, as its name might suggest, a “syndicalist” union as the SPC was always strongly insistent on the imperative need for the working class to win control of political power before trying to change society.

Like the SPGB, the SPC had no hesitation in opposing the First World War from day one – and the SPC, with some 2000 to 3000 members would have been ten times bigger than the SPGB – but the Russian Revolution unhinged it. The members of the party’s Dominion Executive committee took the view that the working class had won control of political power in Russia in november 1917 (even though they recognised that socialism could not be the outcome, conditions not being ripe for this). This was a view shared by most members; which made them an easy prey for Bolshevik propagandists who deliberately set out, on orders from Moscow, to win over the SPC. They did not succeed, as a referendum rejected the 21 conditions laid down by Lenin for affiliation to the Third international. Those in favour of this then formed the Workers Party which many former SPC members joined (including the future Leader of the Canadian Communist Party, Tim Buck, who had even also been a member of the short-lived Socialist Party of North America whose declaration of principles Newell mentions was based on that of the SPGB). The SPC staggered on for a few more years but disbanded itself in 1925.

Newell records all these events, basing himself on secondary sources which he usefully summarises.

In 1931 some former members of the SPC decided to reconstitute it, accepting as its platform the object and declaration of the SPGB. There has been some controversy as to whether the new SPC was a continuation of the old. Newell argues that it was, even though other ex-SPC members went into the Communist Party and various Labour parties. Most of the members of the new SPC had been members of the old one, including a former editor of the Western Clarion and a former member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. However, two other ex-members more well known on this side of the Atlantic – Charlie Lestor and Bill Pritchard – got involved in reformist politics and did not become impossibilists again till they left Canada, the one for Britain and the other for the US.

The new party was much smaller and had far less impact than the old SPC, but it continued to publish a journal (the present one is Imagine) and to contest elections (the last in 1978). Newell describes not just the SPC’s external activity from 1931 but also its internal life and controversies. These happened and shouldn’t be disguised, but a whole chapter on an organisational dispute in the 1960s, which raised no question of theory or policy, is possibly too much in a “brief profile”.

Newell’s book is not just a chronicle of events. it also covers such matters as reforms, religion, Russia, war, trade unionism and so also gets across the socialist case as well as bringing together historical research.
Adam Buick

Will Belgium survive? (2008)

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
No permanent government has emerged from the elections held in June last year. Does this matter to the working class there?
Belgium is a patently artificial state inhabited by people speaking two different languages. It survived for many years with one of them (French) as the dominant language because it was the language of the ruling class. Now that this has ceased to be the case, and Dutch (Flemish) has also become a language of a part of the capitalist class as well as of the state, Belgium is beginning to show signs of coming apart at the seams. Revision of the constitution — How much autonomy should the regions be given? Should or should not Belgium become a federal state? How far out should the limits of Brussels (basically a French-speaking city surrounded by Dutch-speaking communes) go? — has become an issue preventing other issues being dealt with.

Belgium is a state which the then Great Powers allowed to be set up in 1830. Before that the territory that is now Belgium had formed part, first, of the territories of the King of Spain, then of those of the Emperor of Austria. After the French Revolution Belgium became, in 1792, part of France and remained so until after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. While part of France the Napoleonic code of law, which swept away feudal remnants, was introduced and manufacturing industry began to develop in the South. This, together with strategic considerations, was one of the main reasons why in 1815 Belgium was detached from France: not only were the frontiers of France to be moved further back from the Rhine, but France was also to be deprived of a nascent industrial base. Belgium became part of a kind of Belgian-Dutch federation under King William of Holland.

In 1830, in what Belgian history books refer to as a “national revolution”, the wealthy classes of Belgium broke away from those of Holland and set up an independent State. Though Holland protested, the Great Powers let this change happen as it still left the territory of Belgium detached from France.

The circumstances which led to the establishment of Belgium are worth recalling in that they have shaped the Belgian political scene to this day. Holland was essentially a trading and agricultural country and as such its ruling groups tended to favour free trade. The nascent industrial capitalist class in the south of Belgium, however, wanted tariff walls as a protection against British competition. The Dutch government did make some moves to accommodate them but not enough. In the end the Belgian capitalists decided to break away. This was not too difficult in view of the loose, almost federal character of the Belgian-Dutch State; in addition, the population of Belgium was greater than that of Holland. But the nascent Belgian capitalist class in the South needed support in the Dutch-speaking Northern part of the territory. This they managed to do, despite being French-speaking and anti-clerical in the tradition of the French Revolution, by an opportunist alliance with the Catholic Church over the schools issue. The Dutch government wanted to introduce a system of universal state education. The Catholic Church, (the majority religion in Belgium, unlike Holland which was a Protestant State), vehemently opposed this, insisting on its exclusive right to “educate” Catholic children.

The capitalists got their state. The Belgian constitution of 1831 was a model of bourgeois-liberal government. Power was in the hands of a parliament elected only by wealthy property-owners; the king (a minor German princeling imported specially to fill the post) was a mere figurehead. Their language, French, became the official language of the new State, despite the fact that a majority of people in its territory spoke Dutch.

But there was a price to pay: the power of the Catholic Church, and its control of its own schools, had to be respected. From a short-term point of view, the lack of a modern education system had certain advantages for the Belgian capitalists: they were able to extract very long hours of work for very low rates of pay, to such an extent that Marx once described Belgium as “a capitalists’ paradise”.

The industrialisation of Belgium, apart from Antwerp and Ghent in the Dutch-speaking North, almost exclusively in Wallonia, the French-speaking Southern part, brought into existence an industrial working class and, inevitably, working class attempts at political and industrial organisation. A Belgian Labour Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge) was set up in 1885, along the same lines as was later the British Labour Party except that the co-operatives rather than the trade unions provided the bulk of the members and funds. A deliberate decision was taken not to call it the “Belgian Socialist Party” on the grounds that the word “socialist” was unacceptable to many workers. With a start like this, the POB was destined for a pitiful career of gradualism and reformism. The POB was never really even a social-democratic party in the sense that the German SPD was; it never accepted Marxism as its ideology; in fact it had a contempt for theory altogether, concentrating on trying to get piecemeal social reforms for the working class; it was in short a simple “Labour” party.

In its early years the POB was at least militant on one issue of importance to the working class: the right to vote. The general strike of l893, which forced the Belgian parliament to extend a vote to adult males, was a magnificent episode in the history of the Belgian working class. The strike did not achieve “one man, one vote”, since the rich and educated were given more than one vote, but it did force the members of the Belgian parliament, in which there was not a single POB representative, to do what most of them were opposed to: grant a vote to adult (male) workers. Later strikes to try to get plural voting abolished were less successful, but by then the POB had its own members of parliament and had begun to get involved in parliamentary manoeuvres with its new-found allies, the radical bourgeois Liberals.

In fact the Belgian Labourites tended to be, at this time the tail-end or left-wing of the Liberal party. After more than twenty years of Catholic party rule, the Belgian Liberals were feeling left out in the cold, but they realised they were unlikely to get power again without support from the POB. Accordingly, in preparation for the 1910 election they launched a great anti-clerical campaign and attempted to get the leaders of the POB involved. This was easy, as the POB leaders were anticlerical themselves (and indeed many were freemasons). It is quite clear that had the occasion arose (which it didn’t, because the Catholic party won the election) the POB would have supported a Liberal administration and would probably have gone so far as to have formed an anti-clerical coalition with them. This no doubt would have caused a stir in the Second International, to which the POB was affiliated along with other Labour and Social-Democratic parties. After the First World War, of course, all the Social-Democratic parties were prepared to take power within capitalism and accept responsibility for running it, but it is a measure of the depth of the reformism of the POB that they would have been prepared to do this in 1910 when their fellow reformists still had some doubts.

The Belgian Liberals were, by and large, French-speaking and anti-clerical. As in practice their leftwing, the POB shared these characteristics, with unfortunate results for the development of the Belgian trade union movement, which took place mainly after the founding of the POB and partly under its auspices. As the industrial centre of Belgium was in the French-speaking South it was natural that the trade union movement should be strongest there, but it was by no means inevitable that this movement should have been dominated by an anti-clerical political party, thus cutting itself off from workers of catholic origin.

It would be wrong to put the entire blame on the POB for the present split in the Belgian trade union movement into two main groups, each with about a million members: the Labourite Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique and the self-explanatory Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens (which is in fact the larger). The Catholic Church shares an equal blame; they combatted the POB before the first world war by organising rival co-operatives, sick clubs — and trade unions. Their trade unions didn’t have much success before the first world war, but grew rapidly between the wars as industrialization spread to the Northern part of Belgium. Employers preferred to deal with the less militant Catholic unions than with the “socialist” unions and their talk of the class struggle. But the Catholic unions also took up a very real grievance which the Labourite unions tended to neglect: the position of the Dutch language, spoken by workers in the North of Belgium.

French was the official language of Belgium after 1830. It was the language of the State and, even in the Dutch-speaking area, the language of the bourgeoisie. Thus in Northern Belgium a Dutch-speaking working class faced a French-speaking capitalist class. The Labourite unions, perhaps for the very good reason of not wishing to split the working class on linguistic lines, did not chose to exploit this situation, but it was taken up to some extent by the Catholic unions.

Today there is virtually no difference except in ideology — the FGTB is, on paper, committed to “the disappearance of the wages system”, while the CSC denounces the class struggle— between the two rival trade union groups. In practice both act as pure-and-simple, bread-and-butter unions negotiating over wages and conditions of work; on the political field their leaders are reformists, being supporters either of the Belgian Socialist Party (as, unfortunately for us genuine socialists, the POB has been called since 1945) or of the catholic political party.

The other great division in the Belgian working class besides the catholic/anti-clerical one is of course language. As stated, despite being the minority language, French was made the official language of the Belgian State set up in 1830. Dutch in fact has only been given completely equal status with French since 1932. Since the last world war the centre of economic gravity in Belgium has tended to shift from Wallonia, the French-speaking South, to Flanders, the Dutch-speaking North, and the numerical superiority of Dutch-speakers has began to make itself felt on the political scene.

The man who must share a great responsibility for side-tracking the French-speaking part of the Belgian working class on the language issue was a militant trade union leader in the Liège engineering industry, André Renard, who died in 1962 and who is still something of a myth for many militant trade unionists in Belgium, Towards the end of the grande grève, the general strike of 1960-1 over the government’s attempt to cut workers’ living standards, Renard suddenly introduced the quite unrelated political issue of “federalism”. Claiming that the workers in the French-speaking south, where the strike was virtually solid, had been betrayed by the Dutch-speakers in the North (where the Catholic unions, following a lead given by Cardinal Van Roey in his Christmas message, urged their members to stay at work), Renard argued that if Wallonia had the power to pass its own laws on economic matters it would be able to carry out various “anti-capitalist structural reforms”. He called for Belgium to be converted into a loose federation which would give Wallonia this power, virtually a demand for independence of course. This demand, and the reformist strategy behind it was supported by both the so-called Communist Party (which, under proportional representation, had a handful of members of parliament) and the Trotskyists (including, conspicuously, their international leader, Ernest Mandel, who was from Belgium).

The effect of this appeal was to heighten language-consciousness amongst French-speakers. In the years that followed French-speaking federalist groups increased their representation in parliament. So, on the other side, did the Dutch-speaking federalists, organised in a series far right parties. Today, it is the Flemish federalists and separatists who have been making the running, reflecting the fact that Flemish capitalists don’t want to continue to pay for the state benefits received by workers in Wallonia where heavy industry (coal, steel, engineering) has been considerably run down since Renard’s day.

That the working class in Belgium should be divided on linguistic lines is, from a socialist point of view a matter for regret, but it also confirms the correctness of our opposition to ”leftwing” groups in that they should be partly responsible for it.

Whether Belgium will eventually split up, or at least become a federal State of some sort, remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: this constitutional issue is of no consequence whatsoever for the working class of the area. Whatever the constitution it will be that of a capitalist State and the working class will remain propertyless sellers of labour-power to the minority who own and control the means of production.
Adam Buick

The Irish 'No' (2008)

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
A socialist in Ireland looks at the vote there to reject the EU’s proposed Treaty of Lisbon.
On the 12th of June, voters in the Republic of Ireland rejected a constitutional proposal to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The rejection has caused ripples across Europe and provoked a lively and continuing discussion in the letters pages of the newspapers and in radio phone-in programmes. It is a quintessential example of what passes for ‘politics’ under capitalism with heated debate amongst the protagonists and yet the result is as irrelevant to most people as the composition of government here after the next election. Closer inspection of the campaign and its aftermath reveals all the pointlessness, chicanery and opportunism of mainstream politics.

The European Union (although that wasn’t its name at the time) was founded by six, reasonably like-minded European countries by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The aim then (and still now) was to make capitalism more efficient throughout the continent by organising it on a pan-European scale. The basic tenets of permitting the free movement of capital, goods and ‘labour’ (people in the real world) between member states had the intention of giving capitalists the opportunity to conduct their business in the most profitable location at any moment in time. Over the last 50 years the Union has grown so that it now has nearly 30 member countries ranging from the Mediterranean, to the Nordic states and includes most of the pre-1990 Eastern bloc. In fact most countries in Europe are now either members, candidate members, associate members or at a minimum aspirational members. Like any organisation, as it has evolved over time, its governing rules require continual amendments and the Lisbon Treaty is the latest such initiative. The main thrust of all these successive amendments has been to put flesh on and develop the principle of free movement and free trade within Europe.

The problem for the EU is that there is no longer unanimity amongst what may be termed the European capitalist class as to how the Union should develop and what are the appropriate rules for possibly completing structures for it. The Irish referendum debate and result is a manifestation of this and illustration of how the governing ideas in society are those of the capitalist elite. One section of the capitalist class, controlling large multi-national enterprises that are involved in international manufacture and tradable services are extremely concerned about global competition from the USA, China, India, South America etc. They want to see more integration of capitalism within Europe by the dismantling of any remaining national barriers in order to strengthen their position with respect to these external competitors. Some of this programme would involve having a uniform tax base throughout Europe and a ‘Services Directive’ whereby capitalists in any country in the Union would have open access to markets in all the other countries and not be hindered by any local labour or other regulations. Broadly this section of the capitalist class has the approval of the Brussels Commission, the ruling administration of the EU. Furthermore as part of this programme, they are prepared to accept a stronger social element to the EU in terms of certain aspects of workers rights to in effect partly compensate workers for the increased competitive environment in which they will have to sell their labour. This political philosophy usually goes by the name of Christian or Social Democracy where capitalist engage with the organised labour movement taking a long term view of the benefits to profits that stem from stability and social cohesion. As against that there is another rival section to the capitalist class. These generally operate smaller businesses acting in predominately national markets or trading almost exclusively with individual countries outside Europe such as the USA. They see no real need or advantage to be gained from deeper collaboration and are at a minimum, suspicious or completely opposed to these developments. To them other capitalists within Europe are as much a threat as those outside the EU. They also tend to be more resistant to the social aspects of Europe viewing it as a cost that confers no particular advantage to them.

Within Ireland, this uncertainty or confusion in the ruling circles of Europe also manifested itself. On the Yes or pro-treaty side was an uneasy and in parts unlikely alliance consisting of most of the important political parties, the employers’ umbrella organisation IBEC, the corresponding labour organisation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and important sectional groups such as the Farmers organisations. The political parties, although they spend huge time and effort in ritualistic attacks on each other, basically share the same Christian Democratic ethos which fits in with the EU philosophy and explains their support for the Treaty. Given the predominance of multi-national companies in Ireland’s industrial portfolio (who located here specifically to take advantage of membership of the EU), it was no surprise that IBEC also solicited a yes vote. The unions’ governing body, the ICTU was won over by the social concessions in the Treaty and a desire to be in line with the mainstream labour movement on the continent.

The anti-Treaty side was even more motley in terms of its make-up and consisted of two entirely disparate streams (one from the Right and one from the Left) each in turn containing a myriad of sub-organisations. From the right of the political spectrum were prominent businessmen such as Ben Dunne (retail), Ulick McEvaddy (airlines) and most prominently Declan Ganley (communications). Joining them were a variety of free-market commentators, staunch and unchanging Europhobes and some reactionary populists. The main plank of their opposition to the Lisbon Treaty could be summarised by the lessening of Ireland’s influence within Europe due to the proposed loss of automatic national Commissioners and less ability for Ireland to set independent tax and national macro-economic policies. This Rightist element of the No campaign also included a curious assortment of very traditional and conservative nationalists and extreme Catholics worried about threats to Ireland’s sovereignty and ability to set independent (i.e. Catholic) social policies. The Left side of opposition to Lisbon also had a multitude of identifiable sub-groups each with its own grievance. Although the Green Party is part of the government, a dissident wing of the Green Party opposed the centralising tendencies inherent in the Treaty. Sinn Fein claimed to be concerned about the effect on the position of Irish workers of unrestricted access to the Irish market by foreign capitalists and also were unhappy with the increasing role of a potential European army and its effect on Ireland’s traditional neutrality. The Greens and Sinn Fein were joined in their opposition by a large number of small groups of Leftist, Trotskyite, Anarchist, ‘Anti-War’ and some bizarre single-issue protest organisations (Rural Hospitals, Palestinian Solidarity, etc.).

Most of the debate was ridiculous. The Yes side warned of economic meltdown if the Treaty was rejected when everyone knew an economic recession was already underway caused by factors nothing to do with the issue. Sinn Fein (an organisation responsible for over half of all deaths in the 30-year Troubles through its former armed wing, the IRA) claimed to be worried about growing ‘militarism’ within Europe. The Left groups opposed the Treaty on the longstanding and remarkably persistent misapprehension that capitalism organised on an international basis is something reprehensible while if the same society exists on a national basis, then that is something tolerable. This presumably stems from their aspiration that national capitalism can be more easily converted into state capitalism than if it has an international character. In fact some of the claims, mostly by the No side, made about the EU were so conspiratorial that they had the air of a UFO crank convention.

In any event, the Treaty was rejected by 53 percent to 46 percent on a relatively healthy turnout of over 50 percent. While both elements of the No campaign claimed credit for the result, the real winner out of the debate is the mysterious Mr. Declan Ganley who in the space of a few short weeks went from being an unknown figure to being the perceived architect of the Irish rejection. He is a self-made millionaire who made his money through his close contacts with senior members of the American Bush administration which yielded a number of lucrative defence contracts with the US military authorities. Prior to that he had advised a number of former Communist countries in Eastern Europe on the implementation of ‘privatisation’ of state assets and interests. He set up the campaigning organisation, Libertas which provided the bulk of the resources of the No side in terms of flyers, posters, billboard and newspaper advertising. The generous funding of this body is mysterious and under electoral rules does not have to be disclosed until next year. Also because it is not a political party, the level of disclosure about its donors is less stringent than it would be otherwise. There are rumours (denied by Libertas) that the organisation is financially supported by right wing elements in the Republican Party in America who see a growing and more integrated EU as a future threat in the same way as they now view China. He is now the toast of Euro-sceptics throughout Europe (at least those of a rightist persuasion) and has become a leading standard bearer of trans-European opposition to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. He has been glowingly endorsed by the British euro-sceptics, UKIP and the Tory right.

It is clear that Libertas outspent all the other bodies involved in the campaign. They were helped in this by a court ruling, a decade ago in connection with another referendum which made it illegal for the Government to spend public money on advocating a Yes vote. At the time this ruling was viewed as a progressive measure (levelling the playing field in referenda campaigns) but all it has led to is the American situation where private money now dictates the campaigns and success usually goes to the best funded groups and not those with the best arguments or greater support. The practical effect of the ruling is that the Government parties had to spend their own party money and resources to encourage a yes vote. This led to a very token campaign on their behalf as the party loyalists were hardly going to be enthusiastic about selling a 260-page technical document to the electorate. Although the main opposition parties (Fine Gael and Labour) were nominally supportive they clearly decided against spending money to obtain a result that the government would ultimately claim as a victory for itself. There is nothing unusual about that; most political parties only spend real money on getting their own members elected in sufficient numbers to give them access to power where the prospects of enrichment and rewards are tangible. Spending money to change peoples’ minds for its own sake is not a priority. All in all this has left the Irish government with a headache they could have done without. They are under pressure from the leading integrationist countries such as France and Germany to resolve it before other countries with a history of cold feet about European federalism such as Britain, Denmark and the Czech Republic join the No bandwagon. At the same time they are hemmed in by the justifiable taunts of ignoring the peoples’ sovereign will if they ignore or try to legally finesse the outcome of the vote.

What the future holds for this issue, time will tell. Inevitably it will be resolved by some compromise and the System will continue. In five, ten or twenty years time, people will look back and marvel at the heat and dust that it has raised and maybe wonder whatever became of Declan Ganley. For Socialists such tinkerings with the system are of no real concern. Given that the Treaty itself is mainly technical in nature and independent studies show it will not make a huge change to the day-to-day operation of the EU, whether it is ratified or not will not significantly impact on our lives. Only when the over 90 percent of the world’s people, who make a meaningful contribution to life on earth, realize that their interests need a new outlet, can politics become real and meaningful.
Kevin Cronin

The Ire Of The Irate Itinerant (2008)

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Cooking the Books: The coming purge (2008)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is it a depression or just a recession? According to the Penguin Dictionary of Economics, a recession is “an imprecise term given to a sharp slow-down in the rate of economic growth or a modest decline in economic activity”. This as distinct “from a slump or depression which is a more severe and prolonged downturn”. Government statisticians register a recession when GDP falls for two successive quarters.

On this definition Britain is not in a recession – not yet. But most economy-watchers expect that this stage will soon be reached. Gary Duncan, economics editor of the Times, even writes that this would not be such a bad thing:
“If Britain is to succumb to recession we need to remember that such periods are a virtually inescapable feature of even the most successful capitalist economies, even a necessary one to purge the system of past excesses, inefficient practices and the weakest links among businesses” (21 July).
That’s what Marx said, but it’s not what the economics textbooks teach (they still cultivate the illusion, relayed by politicians, that governments can engineer a steady growth of GDP, i.e. can avoid such periodic “purges”).

For Marx the accumulation of capital, which is the engine of economic growth, proceeded in fits and starts, a series of cycles of moderate activity, boom, crisis, slump, recovery, moderate activity, boom, crisis, etc. Booms eventually created the conditions for the next following slump while slumps created those for recovery.

One thing that happens during a slump that helps recovery is that capital is destroyed. Not just in the physical sense as when machinery is scrapped or factories pulled down but also in terms of the depreciation of capital with the physical elements in which it is embodied not being affected. This is the purge Duncan talks about. Marx explained:
“Values used as capital are prevented from acting again as capital in the hands of the same person. The old capitalists go bankrupt. If the value of the commodities from whose sale a capitalist reproduces his capital was equal to £12,000, of which say £2,000 were profit, and their price falls to £6,000, then the capitalist can neither meet his contracted obligations nor, even if he had none, could he, with the £6,000 restart his business on the former scale, for the commodity prices have risen once more to the level of their cost-prices. In this way, £6,000 has been destroyed, although the buyer of these commodities, because he has acquired them at half their cost-price, can go ahead very well once business livens up again, and may even have made a profit. A large part of the nominal capital of the society, i.e., of the exchange-value of the existing capital, is once for all destroyed, although this very destruction, since it does not affect the use-value, may very much expedite the new reproduction” (Theories of Surplus Value, Part Two, p. 496).
“This fall in the purely nominal capital,” Marx went on “State bonds, shares etc. . . amounts only to the transfer of wealth from one hand to another and will, on the whole, act favourably upon reproduction, since the parvenus into whose hands these stocks or shares fall cheaply, are mostly more enterprising than their former owners.”

As Britain heads for a recession (in whatever sense) the parvenus are already gathering to buy up failed and failing business at bargain prices. As well as laughing all the way to the bank they can justify their unpopular activity as performing a necessary function in capitalism’s business cycle. As indeed they are.

Greasy Pole: Westminster Punch And Judy (2008)

The Greasy Pole column from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
“PMQs are another example of the corruption of politics”
When the MPs pack their sun cream and head off for their long summer break they may leave behind a number of people who are anxious that the country is uncared for, unprotected, ungoverned. There are others who may simply resent being deprived of their weekly fix of Prime Ministers Questions . These last have unusual tastes, suggesting that they will not be easily diverted onto a substitute, however proper. They will not be consoled by suckling on an ice cream, on the beach at Blackpool or Margate or Southwold, contentedly watching a Punch and Judy Show.

Prime Ministers Questions (or PMQs) is an institution promoted as evidence of the virility of British parliamentary democracy. As a regular, important part of House of Commons procedure it began in the 1950s, since when it has not been immune from the juggling and manoeuvring customary to our leaders in Westminster. In 1997 Tony Blair announced that New Labour would not only abolish poverty, introduce open government and run an ethical foreign policy but also replace the two 15 minute session of PMQs on Tuesday and Thursday with one of a half hour on Wednesday. The first question of each session must be directed at the Prime Minister, asking about arrangements for the day; parliamentary procedure then demands that the same person must reply to all other questions, whatever the subject. By this ruse the Prime Minister is prevented from avoiding inconvenient questions by passing them on to some inadequately briefed underling squirming nervously on the front bench.

The word “answer” must be allowed a loose interpretation in this context because what is recorded as an “answer” is very often little more than an evasion – perhaps a reply to a question which has not been asked – or a denial, or a straightforward lie. All of which is perfectly understandable for if the Prime Minister were to deal truthfully with questions about how their government was fumbling with the typical problems of capitalist society – like the current “credit crunch” – it would reveal how utterly ineffective they were. And that is not supposed to be what PMQs is about.

More usually, far from being an opportunity to openly examine a government’s record, PMQs is treated by the MPs as encouragement to behave like excessively unruly children. While a party leader is speaking there is a line of compliant sycophants on the bench behind, nodding like demented marionettes at what they wish us to believe are crucial and conclusive points of argument. The feeblest of jokes – like Vince Cable’s famous sneer about Gordon Brown transforming himself from Stalin to Mr. Bean – has the MPs in paroxysms of helpless laughter. The most ineffective reply to a question – like Brown endlessly reciting statistics which have been cooked up to show, in the face of cruel reality, that his government has us all wallowing in prosperity – will be bolstered by a thunder of approval.

When he became leader of his party in 2005 David Cameron promised that, as part of his drive to change the face of politics for the better, he would end the Punch and Judy aspect of PMQs. However as it dawned on him that Gordon Brown was not as formidable an opponent at the Despatch Box as he had feared he forgot his promise and emerged as an enthusiast participant in the knockabout. On a recent Today programme on Radio Four he admitted that “I will absolutely hold up my hands and say this is a promise I have not been able to deliver…The quieter tone I’d hoped we might be able to have, the better discussion of politics at Prime Minister’s Questions, doesn’t work”. He did not say whether breaking this promise, comparatively unimportant as it was, should encourage confidence that he will in future robustly keep his word on more vital matters, or whether the affair exposes him as a trickster no better than the ministers he so zestfully attacks.

Anyone who doubts that PMQs are little more than just another example of the corruption of politics need only consider the tradition of the Planted Question. These are asked, usually to a storm of jeering from the opposition and of approval from the government side, by a back bencher who has an assurance that their compliance will not exactly damage their promotion prospects. A typical style would be “Would my Right Honourable Friend (that’s the Prime Minister) agree that in spite of what the brainless rabble on the other side think this is the most caring, competent and effective government this country has ever…” A particularly instructive example was in July, when Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield – who is not famous for toeing the party line – got dutifully to his feet to ask whether Britain’s current problems are not caused by economic contamination from abroad. The resultant protests were so noisy that the Speaker told Burden to shut up before he had finished. This snub did not prevent Gordon Brown answering the partial “question”, although he might not have been able to hear it. Eagerly joining the Punch and Judy show he had promised to abolish, Cameron cuttingly commented that “You don’t have to finish a planted question to get a planted answer” – which ignored the fact that in the past Tory governments were happy to use the same deception.

No part of our lives can be untouched by the corruption bred into the property basis and the class relationships of capitalism. The politics of the system, played out by the parties in the seats of government, are immutably shaped by it. At times this corruption is so blatant that it almost seems the only proper response is outraged, incredulous laughter. Just as it is when we watch Mr. Punch beating up Judy. Except that that is just a bit of harmless fun at the seaside.

50 Years Ago: The Conflict in the Middle East (2008)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Another Middle East storm has developed. This time it is the Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq that occupy the centre of the stage, with Kuwait also stirring. Again oil is the mainspring of the eruptions and clashing interests. The struggles concern the rich oil lands and the routes to those areas, with other economic advantages for the privileged seeping in.

The revenues from oil are in the region of the fabulous. They are cherished by the privileged possessors, and sought after by privileged non-possessors who want a larger share of the plunder. The toilers who make these revenues possible have no share in them. They only receive the customary payment for the work they do; some of the Arab workers receive hardly enough to buy the necessities of life.

In spite of the numberless pronouncements on peace, with which we have been deluged for decades from all quarters, armed force, or the threat of it, is always the final resource when capitalist sections feel that their sources of revenue are threatened.

The present flare-up, just as the recent Suez dispute, concerns oil and the interests of the mammoth oil companies. There is no secret about this. Reports, articles, and pronouncements concentrate on this aspect.  ( . . .)

It is an old oft-repeated story; littered with indecision, broken pacts, duplicity, intrigues and wars. In the final chapter the privileged always occupy the seat of power and the mass of people remain in subjection. It will be the same in the Middle East after the present turmoil has come to an end. At best the most the mass of the people there can obtain is a standard of wage slavery that is equivalent to what obtains in the so-called advanced countries.

(from leaflet reproduced in Socialist Standard, September 1958)

Obituary: Valentine McEntee (2008)

Obituary from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Irish comrades report the sudden death in May of Val McEntee. Val joined the Islington branch of the party in London in 1982 as a young man in his mid-twenties. At the time this was perhaps the party’s most dynamic branch and Val was one of its active members. He worked in the accident investigation department of British Rail, and was a keen photographer, building up a collection of photos of party speakers at Hyde Park and elsewhere as well as tape-recording meetings. In the mid-90s he moved to Ireland, in a sense back to Ireland since though bought up in England he was of Irish traveller origin, to live in a small village in Co. Limerick where he earned a sort of living as a professional photographer. In Ireland he took part in the leafletting and other activities of the members there. His death was sudden and, with the authorities unable to contact any relatives, he was buried in the local Catholic church, even though the priest later told a member that he thought he was an Anglican, no doubt because of his English accent and because he didn’t attend mass. The member decided that discretion was the better part of valour and didn’t tell the priest the truth: that he had buried a non-believer in consecrated ground.