Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Between the Lines: The Patriot Game (1989)

The Between the Lines column from the September 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Patriot Game
"Come all you young rebels, enlist while I
For the love of one's country is a terrible 
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame

And makes us all part of the patriot game".
These are the opening lines of a song called The Patriot Game, written by Dominic Behan who died last month. The love of countries is, indeed, a terrible thing. It makes fools out of all patriots; it takes noble sentiments of home and community and equips them with guns and bombs. First Tuesday (ITV, 1 August. 10.35pm) allowed the voices of British troops in Northern Ireland to be heard. There are 10,000 of them on active service there: the mugs and thugs who do the dirty work for the British ruling class.

"If you're going to Ireland and afraid of being shot, then you're not doing your job", declared a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Green Jackets who exhibited the kind of wisdom that would not qualify him to look after my cat, let alone a pile of machine guns. Thankfully, most of the workers in uniform interviewed were not as desensitised as that they were frightened—petrified. They did not want to be there. Choice had not brought them: most were economic conscripts. making big money by taking big risks. "You get a load of bull when you join . . . you get told it's a good life, so you believe it". What was most striking about these soldiers was their immaturity. Listening to them, it was quite obvious that most had a conception of conflict which had not developed beyond the traditions of the school playground and the more juvenile antics of the football terraces. They were like puerile gang members: They try to wind us up, you try to wind them up”, explained one young keeper of the peace. He explained how they told him that his mother was sleeping with a black man. so he made them stand in the rain for ten minutes for a security check. They call it the war of nerves; well, they wouldn't call it a war of brains.

What was sickening about this patriotic parade was the brutal deference displayed towards violence. Said one soldier of his gun. “We take better care of it than a woman. Without it you're defenceless’. This
must have explained a lot to his wife if she was watching. But, more importantly, "without it you're defenceless"—the piece of designed killing machinery upholds life. It is little wonder that one of the officers, with more than a touch of perverse pride in his voice, declared that the IRA are the best terrorists in the world. Well, there's a compliment, from a man who gets paid and given medals for being a legalised Queen's terrorist.

By contrast—but not by contrast at all— Families At War (BBC1, 7 August, 9,30pm) was about Shane O'Doherty who became a volunteer for the IRA. Because of the state censorship law forbidding interviews with current members of the IRA the BBC had to interview O'Doherty, who has now denounced violence as being counter-productive. It must be said that O'Doherty came across as a much more human being than the current practitioners of armed brutality in the British army. Silly old British state: they pass a law preventing themselves from depicting the sick views of Irish Nationalists who really believe in the nobility of blowing up their fellow workers. O'Doherty had become a victim of the romantic folly of the patriot game by the time he was eight years old: at fifteen he joined the IRA and within a short time was indulging in such 'liberationary" acts as planting a bomb at Baker Street station in London. I bet he treated his gun better than any woman. They all do. And they go to sleep dreaming of piles of dead bodies on the other side. Their minds have been screwed up and they are victims of war; the gun. though pointed away from them, has inflicted an immeasurable injury upon their dignity and decency.

Shooting from the mouth

Whoever said that the pen is mightier than the sword was right. And talking is more potent than shooting. The present writer would not fancy a fist fight with the uniformed dummies in their Irish barracks, but in a debate they would be bloody slaughtered. A Gift Of The Gab (BBC2. 8 August, 9.50pm) was an interesting three-part series by Ludovic Kennedy about the art of oratory. As expected. Kennedy made some highly perceptive points in his first programme (the only one seen at the time of writing), but the series seems in danger of concentrating too much on the well-recorded oratory of parliamentarians and Presidents This emphasis misses a point: the main impetus for public speaking is the need to communicate beyond the available channels. The MP can go through the motions of repeating sterile speech-making formulae and the trade union leader can wave his arms in the time-honoured fashion, but it is the dissident, denied all opportunity to relate to a big audience except through the wit of holding them with his or her words, who usually makes the most intriguing speaker. To be specific. Churchill might have carved out a reputation as a brilliant pro-war orator, but that skill amounted to little compared with the brilliant eloquence of the orator whose dissenting words shout out against the popular support for warfare. "The love of one's country is a terrible thing" and to extinguish such fool's love is a skill to be admired.
Steve Coleman

50 Years Ago: The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 (1989)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The London newspapers of Tuesday. August 22nd (except the Communist Daily Worker, which was busy ringing Moscow) reported with astonishment the announcement from Berlin that Germany and Russia had negotiated a non-aggression pact, and that Herr von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, was flying at once to Moscow for the formal signature of the Treaty. This announcement. which came immediately after the completion of a trade agreement between the two Governments, was confirmed by the official Russian Tass News Agency in the following terms:
After the conclusion of the Soviet- German trade and credit agreement there arose the problem of improving political relations between Germany and the USSR.

An exchange of views on this subject. which took place between the Government of Germany and the USSR, established that both parties desire to relieve the tension in their political relations, eliminate the war menace, and conclude a non-aggression pact.

Consequently, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, von Ribbentrop. will arrive in Moscow in a few days for corresponding negotiations. (Evening Standard, August 22nd. 1939.)
The Pact was duly signed in Moscow on August 23. thus realising a possibility suggested in these columns more than once.

[From an editorial "Birds of a Feather: The Russo-German Bombshell", Socialist Standard, September 1939.]

SPGB Meetings (1989)

Party News from the September 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Voice From The Back: It’s All Greek to him (2002)

The Voice From The Back Column from the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s All Greek to him 

Another statement from the US government to rival that of the famous ‘Most of our imports come from abroad’ surfaced recently. George Bush is reported in the Sunday Times (21 July) as saying, ‘You know the trouble with the French, they don’t even have a word for entrepreneur’. With such a grasp of foreign affairs the fate of the free world is surely in safe hands.

New Labour and old workers 

An independent charity, Action on Elder Abuse (AEA), have recently investigated more than 2,400 complaints about abuse suffered by the elderly. It makes sad reading for any worker who was foolish enough to vote for the Labour Party, at the last election. According to the survey, one in three old people suffer some form of psychological abuse; one in five is physically abused and the same number conned out of their savings; more than 10 percent are neglected and 2.4 percent sexually abused. Almost 400,000 old people receive home help from largely untrained carers funded by their local council, and the study’s authors fear the scale of abuse will rise after last week’s revelations that 64,000 places in care homes have been lost since Labour came to power in 1997, with the closure of 827 private and voluntary care homes last year alone. Observer (21 July)

Why we need socialism 

During August the sponsor-a-child charity Plan launched a campaign for funds that revealed an appalling picture of world poverty inside capitalism. There are 600 million children who live on less than 70p a day – that’s more than ten times the UK population. In Africa, Latin America and large areas of Asia, acute poverty is depriving children of good health. They are dying needlessly from malnutrition and avoidable infections or diseases spread through contaminated water. So, there we have at least 600 million reasons why we need socialism.

Caring capitalism (1) 

Under the headline of Carey to teach business moguls the joys of caring capitalism, we learn from the Sunday Times (4 August) how much the Church of England supports the capitalist system.The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, is to take on a new role teaching world business leaders about ‘caring capitalism’. He has been appointed chairman of the newly created religious leaders’ advisory council to the World Economic Forum (WEF)… He said: ‘I am certainly no enemy of the creation of wealth . . . some of the most caring and committed Christians I know are successful businessmen and women’.

Caring capitalism (2) 

New York cops are getting used to handcuffing disgraced executives instead of drug dealers. The surrender of Scott Sullivan and David Nyers, the former financial chiefs at WorldCom, come hard on the heels of two high-profile corporate arrests over recent weeks. Only a fortnight ago, three members of the Rigas family, which founded Adelphia Communications, were arrested on charges of ‘rampant self-dealing’ and ‘brazen theft’. Last month Sam Waksal, founder of ImClone Systems, the biotechnology company, was arrested at his Manhattan loft on charges of insider stock trading Times (2 August)

Caring capitalism (3) 

Under the heading Iraq war would be good for markets` the Sunday Times (4 August) reported on an economic forecast by, no doubt caring, capitalists with strong Christian convictions.An American-led war against Iraq could be ‘strongly positive’ for financial markets, a new analysis says. It challenges the view that an attack on Iraq in an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, would hit the market and the economy by pushing up oil prices. The report by economists at Credit SuisseFirst Boston (CSFB), suggests the oil market is already discounting a war. The subdued world economy means that demand is weak, so the effect on prices of a conflict would be temporary and minor. The bank also believes that a successful operation against Iraq, or even what is described as a ‘non-disastrous operation, would provide a boost for the markets’.

Editorial: Middle East hypocrisy (2002)

Editorial from the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism is a dangerous society. The competition between rival economic gangs for markets, trade routes and sources of raw materials is intense; so intense in fact that from time to time it explodes into war with the consequent suffering and death that this brings to the world’s working class. We appear to be at this time on the brink of another war in the Middle East; and although capitalism is in many ways an unpredictable society it seems fairly certain that sooner or later the USA might attack Iraq.

Much nonsense is being talked in the world’s media about this being a war against terrorism. It is no such thing, it is a struggle for control of the vast supplies of oil in the Middle East, and in this sense a continuation of the Gulf War – a war whose aim was always to secure oil supplies in the region rather than “topple Saddam”.

It would of course be difficult for the US government to get its workers to risk their lives in a future war if they were told the purpose of the conflict was to swell the profits of US oil companies, so some sort of propaganda story has to be stitched together before the atrocities start. We will be told that the dictator of Iraq is part of “The Evil Axis” plotting to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and must be overthrown. It will not be mentioned that this dictatorial regime was supported by the US government in the past as a counter to Islamic fundamentalism in neighbouring Iran any more than they wanted to tell us that it was the US that trained many of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists when they were fighting the Russian army in Afghanistan. That is the nature of this crazy society: plots and counter-plots, shifting alliances, pacts and double-dealing is the norm. It might even be that Bush’s sabre-rattling is just a bluff to extract concessions from the Saddam regime. In fact an actual war could lead the Middle East to implode with unforeseen consequences, leaving the US to have to pick up the bill which in present circumstances it might not be able to find the money for, given recessionary pressures, the US national debt and potential loss of cheap Saudi oil.

Writing in the Observer (11 August) Anthony Sampson, author of The Seven Sisters, about oil companies and the Middle East, had several revealing things to say about the present crisis:
“The alarmist briefing to the Pentagon by the Rand Corporation, leaked last week, talked about Saudi Arabia as the ‘kernel of evil’ and proposed that Washington should have a showdown with its former ally, if necessary seizing its oilfields which have become crucial to America’s energy . . . Western oil interests closely influence military and diplomatic policies, and it is no accident that while American companies are competing for access to oil in Central Asia, the US is building up military bases across the region.”
Let there be no ambiguity about this; the United States acts – because of its superior political, military and economic power – as the “gendarme of the world” and the threatening bloodbath is over the control of Middle East oil, not the freedom or democracy of the exploited workers in the region, whether they be in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. If either of these states threaten the US or the US-imposed “stability of the region” they will be dealt with in the same way the US deals with all regimes that seriously threaten its interests – in other words, with a bloodbath.

As in the Gulf War, the last people to gain from the bombing and terror will be the half-starved men, women and children of states like Iraq. The real winners will be the US and its allies, the oil barons, and possibly – as many of the financial papers have been hoping – the ailing stock markets.

Constant warfare against the innocent victims of entrenched dictatorships is no way to run a society. Indeed, capitalism itself, as a competitive system that leads to warfare just as night leads to day, is no way to run a society. To this end socialists are fundamentally opposed to the impending warfare and commit ourselves as in the past to the overthrow of the hellish system that causes so much misery and heartbreak.

Murdering the dead (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the Socialist Standard went to press, it was confirmed that the two bodies found in a Suffolk field on the weekend of 17 August were those of the missing ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. If this was a normal newspaper or journal, you would now expect us to condemn the outrage, and describe in emotive language how sickened we feel about the death of two innocent children; children who might so easily have been our own. We might even pass judgment on the murderer/s: surely evil bastards, for whom a painful death would be far too kind and humane a punishment. We would, in conclusion, denounce the murders as a crime against humanity, and demand that something be done.

But as the antidote to the capitalist press, we don’t need to state piously what is obvious to absolutely everyone who has even a shred of human feeling left in their bodies. Nor do we need to pretend to have all the answers when no one yet even knows exactly what happened, and therefore what the questions raised actually are. What we can do is say how sickened we feel, not just by their deaths, but by the conditions in which their deaths occurred – the barbaric and violent society we analyse in these pages every month – and the way in which the deaths were covered by the media.

Because the deaths weren’t all bad news. For newspaper editors and their proprietors, for example, they were a godsend. Against the background of the economic crisis where they have been losing advertising revenue, and in the midst of their silly season, here at last was a paper-selling story to fill those pages. And pages and pages. As an added bonus, it was a story that had all the ingredients of a good soap opera. They were just waiting for Morse or Inspector Jack Frost to arrive and clean up the loose ends. Through their repetition of stereotyped plots (the tearful press conference, going live to a reporter standing outside a church where prayers were being said for the families, etc) and its characterisation of villains and victims, the media could organise mass sympathies. It was just like when Diana died – or when Deirdre from Coronation Street was sent to prison.

But the circus was not just for fun and for profit. It served a useful propaganda function too. It helped to work up scapegoats for the fear and anxiety that is part of everyday life for the working class and to make us all paranoid and suspicious of each other. It helped, in other words, to justify those same newspapers’ previously stated attitudes on how to deal with child abuse and crime in general, and to exploit our emotions and fears for their own ends. In the two weeks that the media were devoting page after page to what we should think and how we should feel about this individual tragedy, 40,000 children died of diarrhoea for want of clean water. Add to that those, child or adult, who have died of starvation, say, or in capitalism’s wars, and we can begin to put the media’s concern for children in some sort of perspective.

The tabloid and so-called quality press linked hands to weep their crocodile tears, and offered their analysis and opinion, but this amounted to nothing but an apologia for the murders. After all, they are constantly telling us that brutality and violence are an intrinsic part of the human condition and that there is nothing to be done but more of the same (more prison, more punishment, more death, more violence). Their concern and their eulogies are not touching but revolting. They are not the expression of genuine human warmth and concern, but commodities to be sold for the profit of parasites. As scientific Marxists, we offer only this brief outline of our views for the simple reason that no one yet knows what happened beyond the vaguest details. Most people, of course, from the man on the Clapham omnibus to the hacks of the bourgeois press are already experts on the matter. It should therefore come as no surprise that these commentators, for all their froth and anger, have nothing to offer but their pious hopes, prayers and pathetic demands for a bit more legislation here, a bit more violence there.

The hope is gone. Now anger wells in its place, said the Observer . A similar sentiment was to be found in most of the papers on the weekend that those bodies were found. Actually, we hope that anger does surge in its place. But that anger must be directed where it belongs: against our exploiters, and those who cheat us of the truth with their propaganda lie machine. What outrages us as socialists is the systemic whole of barbarity, of one kind or another, are but an integral part. Others may rightly be angered by these individual acts of murder but, stripped of a proper grasp of their real context, they are left, with former prime minister John Major, condemning a little more and understanding a little less.
Stuart Watkins

Labour and the unions: back to square one (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most people join a trade union for a practical reason: to get some protection at work from arbitrary decisions by their employer over pay, hours of work, promotion, safety and working conditions generally.

Some do so in the same sort of way as they might take out an insurance policy or join the AA. Others are more committed and take advantage of the structures most unions have that allow some degree of membership participation. They see unions as a collective way of getting a better deal for themselves and their work colleagues. Others take a broader view; they see unions as a collective way of getting a better deal not just for those in their own workplace but for all those in similar workplaces, be it a coal mine, a car factory, a hospital, a school, a local council, or a government department.

The next step up is to see unions as a way of improving the position of the whole class of wage and salary workers under capitalism. This is the highest degree of what Lenin called “trade union consciousness” which, writing in 1903, he described as “the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc” (Lenin was wrong on most things, but not on this).

There is nothing revolutionary about trade unionism, even at the highest level of trade union consciousness. It’s only about trying to get a better deal for yourself, your work colleagues and perhaps for all wage and salary workers within capitalism. There is nothing wrong with that in itself and socialists, who do want to replace capitalism with socialism, as wage and salary workers ourselves also join unions to try to get some protection from—and to fight against—employers. But clearly trade unionism by itself is quite inadequate.

Trade union party
A hundred or so years ago in Britain active trade unionists recognised this and proposed what to them seemed the next step: to sponsor a political party that, once it got into parliament, would “strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc”. Hence was born the Labour Party, which in 2006 will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first MPs. In this sense, the Labour Party was originally an expression of trade union consciousness on the political field, an attempt to get a better deal for wage and salary workers within capitalism by political means.

Some who called themselves “socialists” welcomed this development; in fact it was they who had actively worked for it. But our predecessors in the Socialist Party (we go back to 1904) took a different position: a political party to further the interests of the whole class of wage and salary workers was indeed necessary but not one whose main aim would be to “strive to compel government’s to pass necessary labour legislation, etc”. What was needed was a workers party that would have as its only aim the replacement of capitalism, its class ownership and its production for profit by socialism and its common ownership, democratic control and production to satisfy people’s needs. In short, a socialist party not a “Labour” party. It is for this reason that we have always opposed the Labour Party and that the unions should have any links with it.
What are they thinking now?
Now, a hundred years later, there can be absolutely no doubt who was right and who was wrong. The Labour Party still exists but it is no longer a trade union party as it was when it was first set up. In fact, the first step away from this was taken as long ago as 1918 when Labour adopted a new constitution and a new aim: not simply to compel governments to pass laws to protect workers within capitalism, but to itself form a government that would pass such laws and that, if re-elected again and again, would pass more and more of them so that eventually capitalism would have been gradually transformed step by step into socialism.

This was a new doctrine that was distinct from trade unionism: reformism, or the view that capitalism could be gradually transformed into socialism by MPs passing reform measures. Trade unionism never had this pretension. It does not aim at trying to replace capitalism, but only at protecting workers within capitalism against the constant pressures from employers. As it happens, generally speaking, unions have not fared too badly in pursuing this more modest aim, even though they have done – and can do – little more than follow labour market and productivity trends, pushing up wages when there’s a labour shortage and applying the brake a bit or negotiating redundancy terms when there’s a slump – and even though, at times, especially under past Labour governments, trade union leaders have put the interests of “the country” (i.e. the profits of capitalist employers) before those of their members and been rewarded for so doing with knighthoods and seats in the House of Lords.

But hopes that the Labour Party would be able to gradually reform capitalism into socialism have been completely shattered. Today nobody thinks that Labour has anything to do with socialism and nobody joins the Labour Party with the aim of furthering the cause of socialism (however understood, or misunderstood). Instead of Labour governments gradually transforming capitalism into socialism, the opposite happened. The experience of governing capitalism (in 1924, in 1929, in 1945, in 1964 and in the 1970s) gradually transformed Labour into the open party of capitalism and proud friend of the City and Business that it is today.

Labour management of capitalism
There was a certain logic and inevitability about this. Capitalism, being based on the exploitation of wage labour for profit, can never be made to work in the interest of the class of wage and salary workers. Even though political pressure can sometimes extract a few, precarious concessions from capitalists, capitalism can only function as the profit-making system that it is, in the interest of the one class in society that lives off profits, the class of capitalist employers and owners. So, all governments, whatever their original intentions, have to give priority to profit-making over pro-worker reforms.

Once you’ve had one experience of being in government you’ve already begun to learn this, but once you’ve been in government five or six times, as Labour has, then this lesson has really sunk in. Pressures begin to build up to drop the pretence of wanting to change society into socialism; in fact, even of wanting to change existing mixed private and state capitalism into full-scale state capitalism (everything nationalised) which was what Labour used to be committed to on paper and which those who took it seriously imagined was the same thing as socialism. This point of view began to be expressed in the Labour Party as early as the 1950s but did not finally triumph until the 1990s under Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.

Trade union leaders and activists have been rather slow to realise this. There was evidence from the time of the first Labour governments of 1924 and 1929 that Labour in government was not and could not be a party furthering the interests of wage and salary workers within capitalism, which is what they wanted it to be (see the Fifty Years Ago column in this issue for how the ruling class viewed the Labour Party at this time). They entertained the illusion that, if only they exerted enough pressure on Labour, from inside and from outside, it could still become the political arm of the trade union movement. It seems that it is only now that it has at last dawned on them that Labour is not only not a party seeking to further the aims of socialism but that it is not even a party pursuing the same aims as the unions of protecting the immediate interests of wage and salary workers against employers within capitalism.

Back to 1900?
So, what conclusions are they drawing from this? Some, such as Arthur Scargill, have given up on Labour and are seeking to . . . form another Labour party on the same basis as a hundred years ago, despite the evident failure of the whole idea of a “Labour” party as a trade union party. Predictably, Scargill is followed in this by the 57 varieties of Trotskyism who, true to form, are trying to jump onto a moving bandwagon (even if this particular one is moving back in time) pretending that they too want to re-create “Old Labour”.

Others, such as the Labour MPs and trade union leaders who met at the TUC’s Congress House in London on 20 July for a conference on “After New Labour”, still think, believe it or not, that there is some chance of recapturing Labour for the unions. They still imagine Labour can be transformed back into (in the words of an Australian union leader where a similar debate is going on, for the same reasons) being “advocates of working people dedicated to a fair society”. But there is absolutely no chance of transforming Labour back into such a reformist party, even if it were desirable. Which it isn’t, since reformism as the attempt to reform capitalism into becoming a “fair society” was a mistaken tactic anyway as the whole history of the 20th century has shown. There is nothing fair about capitalism and never can be.

The most these trade unionists have done is to cut back on their payments to Labour, so, apparently, provoking the biggest financial crisis in Labour’s history. Good, we’re not shedding any tears about that. If we had our way, the unions would give no money at all to the Labour Party. In fact, even today nothing obliges a union member to pay towards supporting Labour; they can opt out of paying the “political levy” as Socialist Party members of unions do.

So the 20th century proved to be a dead-end for the working-class movement. But the mistake made a hundred years ago was not to try to move beyond pure-and-simple trade unionism to a workers’ political party but over the nature of that party. Political action is indeed necessary if capitalism is to be got rid of and, for this, a political party is needed but a real socialist party not a “Labour” party.
Adam Buick

Blogger's Note:
Page 11 of the September 2002 issue of Labour Left Briefing carries a short report of the “After New Labour” Conference.

Party funds: Paying for political favours (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 7 August, the BBC’s on-line news was reporting Peter Mandelson’s call for state funding for political parties. This was on the back of the release of the Electoral Commission’s latest register of donations, which showed that donations to the Labour Party had fallen by 83 percent over three months. The same article also revised the estimate of the Labour Party’s debt. Rumours that they owed £6 million had been floating for weeks previously (the same figure was actually also leaked the previous year); however, the BBC were estimating that the debts might be as high as £8million.

Political parties exist because there is a need for them. They are not, as the common view has it, simply groups of like-minded individuals coming together for the sake of tribalism and a shining ideal, but are, as our own declaration of principles observes, an expression of class and material interests. As capitalism has developed, and social activity has been subjected to ever greater atomisation, complexity and division of labour, so too has the workload for the ruling class in maintaining its system. The state arose from this need of a privileged property-owning class to co-ordinate between themselves and ensure that the property system is properly maintained.

The amount of work involved in administering capitalist society means that it cannot be handled personally by the capitalist class themselves. They require other people to do that work for them, and thus require a political structure which enables them to enforce their general interest and ensure that the state workers who staff this structure do not turn against them. The main means they have for ensuring this are the funding of political parties and the election of some of the administrators.

This control needs to be exercise by the capitalist class collectively, in a sort of arms length way, to avoid individuals or firms being able to monopolise these positions and engage in what economists call “rent-seeking”, that is, using corruption to rake in money through bribes and kick-backs. Where people can cling onto positions of political power corruption sets in, as can be seen in Japan and Italy, where perennial coalition government meant that there was a job for life for incumbents and correspondingly limited promotion prospects for others. To keep the cost of administering society from becoming burdensome to capitalists, they need to ensure competition and turnover for the places of responsibility.

Maintaining control
This is one reason why advanced capitalist states need political democracy, as a means of applying a form of competition for the posts in the state administration. The regular change in state personnel through elections means that incumbents have little opportunity to exploit a monopoly on their position; and the intense competition for their posts ensures that they are pressured into fulfilling their function without rent seeking.

This has led to the emergence of what could be more or less described as firms, which compete for votes. They sell their brand of politics through advertising, and then hope that the results come in as votes. These political firms are themselves complex associations of people, employing many intellectual workers to come up with products (policies) and ways of marketing them. Part of the reason for these political firms, aside from the physical act of distributing the party’s message, is that the complexities of modern administration require equally complex bodies to analyse and control the system.

As the size and complexity of the system of state administration grew, so inversely did the capacity of the tiny number of politically active members of the capitalist class to securely influence it. It is in their interest, then, to ensure that a relatively potent layer of influence remains in as small hands as possible. This conflicts with the need for competition for posts, a contradiction which the capitalist class try to resolve through liberal democracy, in which a relatively small number of public posts are up for open competition and election, and the holders of these few posts in turn control the personnel of the state.

The structures of state prompt the elected politicians’ attempt to maintain a monopoly of power. Though they argue that they and not the lay members of their party have been elected to serve the public interest, this position has its real basis in the fact that once in office politicians are dependent upon other politicians for their continued ascent and advancement. Their interest lies in standing with each other and asserting the authority of office.

The few nationally elected politicians are then expected to exert influence over the whole state bureaucracy. Whilst the UK government does have numerous quangos appointed by politicians, it also has a standing civil service, which is supposed to obey the ministers without question. A permanent bureaucracy, however, means that individual civil servants are dependent upon its internal hierarchy for their advancement. Thus, the internal values of the civil service become the means of success, rather than adhering to the values of ministers. This sometimes brings civil servants into conflict with ministers, who cannot sack them. Whilst its permanency gives its stability, it does act as a partial break on ministerial ideas.

The solution New Labour has tried has been the appointment of special advisers, civil servants dependent upon ministers for their jobs and advancement. This had led to conflict between the special advisers and the permanent bureaucrats. The most high profile version of this was the Jo Moore saga, in which the civil servants fought a guerrilla war to remove a special adviser.

Whether it is special advisers or permanent civil servants, ministers find themselves more dependent upon their office and its associated staff than with the party machine that brought them to power. The Socialist Party has always argued that leaders and followers will inevitably betray each other, because they come together with different ideas about where they are going. The leadership system relies on a difference between the information given to leaders and led, which means the two sides are not co-ordinated in their aims and actions.

Rich private donors
This situation is complicated by the interests of the people and organisations which maintain the material basis of these parties. In the 18th and 19th centuries, politicians had funded their own careers from their own means. As the political system expanded, however, the material independence of politicians has become untenable, and so they require coalitions of social forces to build movements.

For the Tories historically this was think-tanks and bosses’ organisations, for Labour, the unions. These people provided the cash necessary for keeping the political parties up and running. The flow of their supplies of money provide a counter-balance to sheer democratic forces within the parties, ebbing and flowing with disapproval or approval over policy. It is this basis which means that political organisations represent specific economic interests. The funding organisations will only give if they see a benefit (even in general).

That these donors have an interest to defend, separate from the pure electoral interest of the political party, means that they too need intellectual workers to define and promote their policies for administrating capitalism. They can then use access to the media to promote their rival ideas and harass the government.

Seeking a middle way between failed Social Democratic reformism and free-market Toryism, Tony Blair broke Labour out of the previous convention and went into competition with the Tories for getting funds from rich individuals and capitalists. Donations from individuals would free the politicians in the party from organised interests and from the membership of the party at large. The scale of this can be clearly seen from the returns made by the Labour Party to the Electoral Commission for its donations. In the first quarter of 2002, it received £2 million from Lord Sainsbury (who happens to have been ennobled and raised to the cabinet by Tony Blair). Likewise in the second quarter, they received £200,000 from Bill Kenwright, owner of Everton Football club.

This competition for private donors, however, means that the respective parties accuse each other of sleaze and bribery, the very corruption political democracy is meant to prevent. When it was a case of the Capitalist United against a party purporting to represent a clear trade union interest, not a peep was raised about the funding of the Tory Party, but now Labour are in on the act, the press is filled with stories about donations to Labour from capitalists like Ecclestone, Mittal, Hinduja, Desmond, etc. Hence why some sections of the Labour party and our masters in general, are beginning to look at state funding as a means of drawing dependence away from specific individual capitalists but to their class as a whole.

Another cause for the floating of this idea is that individual donors have been put off by the publicity attendant to making a donation, as well as certain donors feeling disillusioned with the government. In the first quarter of this year, Labour received £3.4 million in donations, £800,000 of which came from unions, and £2.5 million from individuals (including Lord Sainsbury). In the second quarter this slumped to £500,000 with £180,000 coming from unions and £346,000 coming from individuals.

Part of this reduction is also down to reductions of donations from trade unions, (such as the GMB, RMT and FBU unions, which are all examining the use of their political funds) although it is clear that their donations continue to be the basis of the day-to-day running of the Labour party at large. Indeed, the Guardian (9 August) reports that unions voted to give Labour £100,000 as an emergency grant to cover day-to-day costs in the face of the current funding crisis.

Desperate though they are to escape from the interests of the trade unions, the Labour leadership find themselves having to go back to them to keep the machinery of their party afloat. The unions form the basic material basis for the existence of the extended Labour Party. It is this that Mandelson wants to bring to an end, as it limits the party’s capacity to manoeuvre between capitalist camps.

The importance of this is not the day-to-day worries of the Labour Party, which can be surmounted temporarily, but to see that vast amount of effort put into maintaining the capitalist political machinery. The interests of a tiny number of property holders run counter to the existence of real democracy. Socialists have long argued that the capitalists’ need for an elected machinery, that necessarily requires the active involvement and support of the workers, means that we can organise as a class to take control of that machinery to bring an end to their system.

Since we would not be sending leaders and reformers into office to administer capitalism, we would not find ourselves subjected to a tiny handful of leaders, but would, rather, subordinate the machinery of state to the will of the vast movement of conscious socialists through our delegates, so that its repressive aspects can be wrested from our masters’ hands and its useful administrative aspects converted for the purpose of making a social revolution.
Pik Smeet

World View: U.N. Report – No challenge to capitalism (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

But for the damning up-to-date statistics it provides, the recently published 2002 United Nations Human Development report could have been written by any reform-minded political analyst with a knowledge of current and global affairs, for as could be expected there is little here that challenges the functioning of capitalist society and class-based antagonisms. The system itself is not seen as being at fault, but the distribution of political power and the workings of the myriad national and international institutions that operate within capitalism.

United Nations: head in the clouds?
The report tells us that whilst globalisation creates greater interdependence between countries and organisations, the world is far more fragmented, both between the rich and the poor, and between the powerful and the powerless. It informs us that whilst many developing countries are making progress on several fronts, for instance with regard to universal primary education, for much of the world the prospects are bleak, with progress continuing at such a small pace that it will take an estimated 130 years to rid the world of hunger.

Whilst economists hail the growth in new technologies, economic integration and new “economic opportunities”, certain perennial facts are hard to ignore, with 2.8 billion people existing on less that $2 per day and one percent of the world’s population receiving as much income as the poorest 57 percent. And although the proportion of the global population living in “extreme poverty” is said to have fallen from 29 percent to 23 percent – this being accounted for by economic growth in East Asia – the number of people living in extreme poverty has risen in sub-Saharan Africa from 242 million to 300 million, with 20 of these African countries poorer than they were 20 years ago.

To halve the proportion of people living on $1 per day would take an annual 3.7 percent increase in per capita income in developing countries. However, 127 countries with just over a third of the world’s population have not grown at this pace, with their share of the number living in poverty actually increasing.

Formal political equality
In a more interdependent world, argues the report “good governance”, “democracy” and “fair and accountable institutions” are essential for development. It further argues that “democracy helps protect people from economic and political catastrophes such as famines and decent into chaos” . In support of this theory, India is cited where, claims the report, there has been no famine since independence in 1947, in spite of chronic food shortages.

Democracies, it states, also contribute to political stability and wars are more frequent in non-democratic countries. These benefits of democracy are attributable to “a virtuous cycle of development”, with political freedom allowing people to campaign for policies [reforms] that expand social and economic opportunities and, all in all, allowing more people to partake in policy decisions and debates. This said, the report does then point out recent and poignant instances of people fighting for political democracy in the hope of gaining enhanced social and economic opportunities, only to have those hopes dashed. After the collapse of Soviet style capitalism in the 90s for instance, “income inequality and poverty rose sharply in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. And despite more widespread democracy, the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa continued to increase”.

To its credit, the report does state that “neither authoritarianism or democracy is a factor in determining either the rate of economic growth or how it is distributed”. It further informs us that “granting all people formal political equality does not create an equal desire or capacity to participate in political processes – or an equal capacity to influence them”. And here the report is critical of the power money plays in politics with the USA in particular, singled out. In the 2000 US election, presidential candidates spent $343 million on their campaigns. Inclusive of spending by their respective parties, an estimated $1 billion was spent on the 2000 US election. A year later, Michael Bloomberg would spend a staggering $74 million just to become New York City mayor, $47 million more than his nearest opponent and close on $99 per vote.

The report is also mindful that politicians are “disproportionately influenced by business interests”. In the 2000 US election, corporations made $1.2 billion worth of political contributions and in India, big business provides major political parties with 80 percent of their funding – perhaps one reason why voter turn out is decreasing across the world with similar decline in political party membership in many countries.

Whilst the world is arguably a more “democratic” place than it was a decade ago, with 140 countries holding multi-party elections (the greatest number in history) only 80 of these, accounting for 55 percent of the world’s people, are “fully democratic by one measure”. Moreover, there are still 106 countries that impose significant restrictions on civic and political freedoms, and in 61 countries there is no free press. Although the number of countries ratifying the six main human rights conventions and covenants has increased notably in the past decade, there still remains 41 countries who are yet to ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, with 51 countries refusing to ratify the ILO’s Convention on Freedom of Association

The media also comes in for scrutiny in the report, which points out that “commercial and political pressures will always skew the playing field in the marketplace of ideas”. Even so, a free and independent media is seen as an “essential pillar of democracy”. But whilst globalisation has tended to reduce state ownership of the press, it has had the effect of intensifying concentration in private ownership. In Britain, just four media groups control 85 percent of daily newspapers. In the US, some six companies control virtually all the media

Rich and powerful
In the field of health and education, some 800 million have gained access to improved water supplies and almost 60 countries, accounting for half the world’s people have halved hunger or aim to do so by 2015. In the last 30 years infant mortality rate has fallen from 96 per thousand births to 56 per thousand births. On the downside, however, 30,000 children die each day of curable diseases (one every three seconds) and 500,000 women die as a result of pregnancy of childbirth every year (almost one per minute).

When it comes to international trade, the report states: “On average, industrial country tariffs on imports from developing countries are four times those on imports from other industrial countries. In addition, countries that belong to the …OECD provide about $1 billion a day in domestic agricultural subsidies – more than six times what they spend on official development assistance for developing countries.”

This imbalance is further reflected at the WTO. Whilst a lustre of democracy is afforded the running of the organisation, in truth “decision-making occurs by consensus, heavily influenced by the largest and richest countries”. And of almost 740 NGOs certified by the WTO’s 1999 ministerial conference in Seattle, 87 percent of these were from industrialised countries.

Ironically, the more representative global institutions, i.e. the UN General Assembly and the UN Social and Economic Council, are similarly the least potent. “The reality,” observes the UNHDR, “is that powerful countries…tend to gravitate towards institutions that give them the most influence . . . they take their power with them: whether it be to the WTO’s ‘Green Room’ meetings or the meetings on the IMF executive board.” Representatives from the UK, USA, Germany, France, Japan, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia account for 46 percent of the voting rights in the World Bank and 48 percent in the IMF.

Although this aims to be an impartial report, about political power and institutions, on the national and global level, and how they shape human progress, and whilst it is often critical of the status quo and postulates how advances in human development lie in improved democratic governance systems, it remains a report that is never going to contribute to the solving of the problems that it identifies for the simple reason that it was never going to query he premises and basic contradictions of capitalist society. The UN, as a capitalist institution itself, was never going to criticise the profit system and how it prioritises profits over real human needs and how, even in the most advanced democracies of the day, the drive to make profit impinges upon every aspect of our lives.

Whilst we would certainly not sniff at such improvements in global democracy – they would, after all, give countless millions the chance to at last determine their own future and further smooth the way for socialism – we are not to be found advocating reform of the present system. If the history of reforms teaches us anything, it is that they can easily be accommodated by the capitalist system. Democracy would thus be used by the master class to their own advantage, giving them the mandate to carry on their injustices, but in a democratic manner, and elected governments would remain as they are at present – the executives of the capitalist class.

In March of this year, at the UN Conference for the Financing of Development in Mexico, the world’s leaders and policy makers assessed moves towards development and poverty eradication goals which were laid down at the UN Millennium summit of 2000, pledging a global effort to realize these goals by the year 2015. The indicators considered, the UNHD report suggests that “without a dramatic turnaround there is a real possibility that a generation from now, world leaders will be setting the same targets again”. We can only comment that even with a “dramatic turnaround” in world-wide democratic procedures, the injustices of capitalism would still prevail and the maxim of capitalism would still apply: “can’t pay – can’t have”.
John Bissett

“A rose by any other name” (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Language is social consciousness, in as much as it exists only for other men”, Marx noted in the German Ideology . It takes its place in the social superstructure, on the battleground where the conflicts between classes are fought – speeches, laws, slogans. These are all merely words, but words through which groups of humans seek to map, describe and create images of the world around them, and through so doing, create and signal an identity for themselves. Without language we would not have society, we would not be able to co-operate the way we do. It is an integral and constitutive part of being human.

For the better part of this century language has intrigued philosophers. How does it work? What effect does it have on our consciousness, on our ways of seeing the world? One of the most important discoveries of this line of thought, is that words do not have any intrinsic connection to the object they refer to (this may sound obvious, but much of previous though, especially in the nineteenth century, assumed an unmediated connection between word and object). Words are just arbitrary signs, used to carve up the world. There is no reason D-O-G means a small stupid furry canine animal, it could as easily be C-A-T meaning the same referent.

This arbitrariness, however, does not mean that we can make any word mean anything we want it to, otherwise we would all be like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty (in Alice Through the Looking Glass ), nor can we just make up new words as and when we like, like Mr. Blackadder (Blackadder the Third) . According to the theorist M M Bakhtin, this association between the word and its object comes about through use. A dog is a D-O-G because the last time D-O-G was used it referred to the stupid furry canine. Thus social “signifying practise” is the driving force behind linguistic meaning, words get their meaning through human lived interaction and co-operation. But, further, it means that the individual is not the source of meaning, the ultimate deciding authority over their own words; it means that society, and its understanding and shared practice is. We do not own our own words.

Words get their meaning from use, every word is saying “this is like the object I referred to the last time I was used”. As such every word is a metaphor, for itself. Further, all words can therefore have their meanings changed, through a metaphorical slippage, where once it referred to one thing in the world it becomes another through a change in the world and in the way of using the word. Raymond Williams examines this point in his book Keywords. He pointed out how centrally important words have changed their meaning over the last two hundred years. Industry moved from meaning to work hard to meaning the abstract sum of factories; economy moved from meaning household management, to referring to the value of shares in the stock exchange; individual from being the constituent part of a greater whole, to being a unique, atomised, autonomous subject.

The way in which these words found themselves changing was through the rise of a class of people who used them to describe their world, and the eventual control this group of people took over the means of communication, and thus of language. Effectively, the changes in these words map the changes in society over the past two hundred years. These words were weapons in the class war, battering rams to change the perceptual world of society from its old feudal outlooks towards describing the world in capitalist terms. With these words came others, all of them fought over, between the different groups that used them. For the capitalist class, freedom meant the freedom to buy and sell, equality meant abstracted equality before the law, not social equality; property became the goods of the individual, rather than of the community.

At the same time, however, another idea arose, with a new word to describe it, an idea about common ownership of the goods of society, of co-operation and mutuality – socialism . Its first use (in English) was apparently in the Owenite Co-operative Magazine in November 1827. Very early on it became tinged with a radicalism, implied by its connotations of a change in the whole social system of society. Right up until the 1920s socialism was the preferred term meaning a society of common ownership.

However, as the word entered into a field of political combat, that meant its meaning became more and more disputed. The “immediate demands” of the Social Democratic parties of the Second International meant that in many minds socialism became associated with the specific statist reforms associated with these immediate demands. Furthermore, certain groups of “Socialists” (such as the Fabians) began to see socialism more and more as a compliment to Liberalism, rather than as a society of co-operative common ownership.

The break was further exacerbated by the Bolshevik revolution, and the renaming of their party “the Communist Party”, and the theoretical shift to “communism” as being the ultimate state to be attained, with socialism becoming a transitory society to this stage. With this predomination of meaning socialism soon became utterly associated in the majority of minds with state ownership and reformism. Its older meaning lost, except to a few bothered scholars, and to the likes of the Socialist Party.

This change of meaning has suited conservatives and reactionaries. It is easy to pigeon-hole opponents, lump them all in together under a common pejorative name, as it means they can all be dismissed out of hand. Thus conservatives, in an attempt to define themselves, and hold their own camp together, were more than willing to call the Labour Party socialist: “You are a socialist”, screamed Thatcher, to Neil Kinnock, “a crypto-communist!”.

All the while, a word, an essentially meaningless jumble of consonants and vowels is being bandied back and forth, while the idea that lay behind it, the idea that spawned it as a word, was all but forgotten, or banished to some alleged fantasy land by the pernicious practitioners of the possible.

In some quarters, the World Socialist Movement for one, this original idea has not been forgotten, and all through the shifts and turns in the meaning of this word, we have been adding our own, albeit small, voice into shaping its social meaning, so that the idea about what socialism “actually” means isn’t forgotten. The idea has been held up above the jumble of letters that make up the word. It remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of co-operation and mutuality, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society.

Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, broken out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as queer or Quaker have been wrested from negative senses to have positive meanings, thus can socialism , with all its history and associations be wrested back as well.

It is our ideas, our practices, and our values, that makes us the Socialist Party, not simply the word socialist , or even our party name. It wouldn’t matter what we call ourselves, as our ideas grow a word would be found to express them, in their full meaning. Since we think that, historically, that word already exists, we choose to use it.
Pik Smeet

Trotsky in Euroland (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have always argued that Trotskyism and Leninism is a non-revolutionary current, part of the extreme left-wing of capitalism. This was demonstrated at a fringe meeting during the SWP's annual Marxism event.

This meeting involved an internal debate between three of the organisations comprising the "Socialist Alliance", concerning the issue of the euro. Two broad viewpoints were expressed: those firmly in the "No" camp and others who took an arguably more pragmatic approach.

First up was the International Socialist Group (ISG) whose speaker argued that opposition to the euro (and the EU in general) is where class politics should start. As the EU was a "Bosses Club", socialists should naturally oppose it and given the "monetarism" of the convergence criteria/stability pact, we should realise that this will mean increasing attacks upon the working class.

This position was attacked by both the other groups, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL) and the Leninist Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). They argued that this logically leads to "little Englandism" even if this was not the intention.

The CPGB speaker proposed an "active boycott" of any forthcoming referendum arguing that class struggle would be more effective given an integrated European working class. So for the CPGB, Euroland offers reluctant possibilities.

It was interesting watching these pseudo-revolutionaries trying to come up with the correct tactical formula and giving a "working class" spin to what is an internal capitalist class debate.

I publicly ventured an alternative: tell us workers the truth! Tell us that global capitalism is our enemy, whether one group of capitalists support the euro or not. Tell us that class struggle and democratic organisation are prerequisites for the revolution which will abolish private property, wages and money itself (including the pound and the euro). Naturally, this got the usual looks of incredulity and a pleasing nod from the AWL speaker who mistakenly thought I was echoing his earlier point about "independent working class action".

I added for the benefit of the ISG supporters that even if Britain did stay outside the eurozone, the pound would still be affected by European Central Bank decisions and any subsequent machinations on the foreign exchange markets. As for the austerity measures, these would happen anyway because of the need to reform the European "social democratic model" so as to better compete with the likes of USA and Japan.

What this all shows is that despite their militant phrase-mongering these people will lead the working class up yet another reformist dead-end — if given an opportunity. Their politics falls safely within capitalism.
Dave Flynn