Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The royal ceiling (2023)

From the October 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The Labour Party is currently promising to ‘smash the class ceiling’ (although, with the way things are going, they may have quietly dropped this slogan by the time this article sees press). This is part of their ‘5 missions’: ‘These missions will only be achieved through relentless focus. They require government departments working together. Business working with unions. The private sector working with the public sector. And a common partnership between national and local government’ (tinyurl.com/y7z84czd). So they are committed to ‘break down the barriers to opportunity for every child, at every stage and shatter the class ceiling’.

The strange thing, though, is that they continue to support the existence of the monarchy. After all, if a kid from Bradford dreams of one day being head of state, there is absolutely no opportunity for them to do so precisely because of the sort of ‘entrenched class system with low socio-economic mobility and opportunities to develop skills available to just some’ that they are objecting to.

With the identities of the UK head of state being known for the next, possibly, hundred years, with a whole host of jobs and roles at their discretion to appoint, you’d think that it would definitely be in line for smashing as part of the class ceiling. Starmer himself has been confronted by historic comments about supporting the abolition of the monarchy, but the current Labour Party strategy is to continue to support the crown as part of winning over the Red Wall seats, where support for the monarchy is presumed to be strong.

The process of crowning a new king demonstrated in part how that majority of support is aggressively built: wall-to-wall propaganda for the monarchy filled the airways, backed up by physical force of the police. The campaign group Republic found that out as they got arrested for trying to organise a protest against the coronation (later found to be baseless arrests: even though the organisers had been working with the police to arrange their protest, they were still picked up).

The police have form on this, they had previously lawlessly arrested a group called Movement against the Monarchy (made up of avowed anarchists) to stop them potentially disrupting the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II (they were compensated for unlawful arrest, but the police clearly felt it was worth the cost to protect the image of the Jubilee celebration).

But the Republic protest group is a nice liberal campaign group, so its members were probably surprised to find themselves on the receiving end of state repression. If their republicanism is about making the idea of a liberal democracy real, the reality of Labour’s smashing the class ceiling is to make inequality real. The content of their detailed document on their mission makes clear that ‘Smash the class ceiling’ is just ‘education, education, education’ striking back undead from the tomb we all hoped it was imprisoned in forever. Skills and training to give people opportunity: Starmer wants to leave the social edifice intact, complete with inequality, but simply give the impression of a fair chance at the starting gate.

Just as with the obsession that economic growth can deliver fairness without having to make any difficult choices about changing social structures, so the idea is that handing out better education will give people better chances of higher paying jobs (but someone will still have to do the unskilled manual and clerical work, and as we saw during the last Labour government, their share of the national wealth stayed static even as the economy grew).

We, of course, don’t want to smash the class ceiling, we want to dismantle the class tower, to sweep away aristocratic and plutocratic privilege and live in a society where everyone is comfortable and has an equal say in how their community should be organised. We stand against Kings and Presidents alike.
Pik Smeet

Halo, Halo (2023)

The Halo Halo! column from the October 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life’ (George Bernard Shaw Androcles and the Lion).

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La République est laïque. The Republic is secular. French women want to play football. Bon. They petition to continue their religious repression by wearing hijabs when playing. Not bon.

French Football Federation says Non! If you want to play, remove them. Bon. The decision has to do with separatism rather than the obvious one, if in situ, how are they going to head the ball? How are you going to slow a forward who’s got a yard in pace more than you, with no hair to grab? Female basketball players are also prohibited from same. Who knew basketball was played in France? (BitterWinter, 30 June)

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Is female Islamic sport haram (forbidden)? An ‘expert’ says no, providing no men can see it, participants wear modest, covering clothing and the sport does not lead to any argument or conflict. Also, don’t copy female unbelievers’ hairstyles, clothing or names (Islam Question and Answer 18 September 2015). Some good stuff from the Imam there; no arguments or conflict. Pity religions don’t follow their own advice.

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It’s not all levity at Halo Halo. ‘A German woman who joined the Islamic State (IS) group has been jailed for nine years for crimes including keeping a Yazidi woman as a slave. She was also found guilty of crimes against humanity and membership of a foreign terrorist organisation. A Koblenz court said the 37-year-old had abused the young Yazidi woman for three years while they lived in Syria and Iraq and that encouraged her husband to rape and beat the woman. “All of this served the declared purpose of IS (Islamic State), to wipe out the Yazidi faith,” said prosecutors. In 2014, IS fighters stormed into Sinjar and thousands of men and boys over the age of 12 were summarily killed after being given the ultimatum to convert or die. Some 7,000 women and girls were enslaved and subjected to brutal abuses’ (BBC 22 June).

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Isn’t it odd how some religions eschew ‘love your neighbour’?

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A devout young female Mormon relates how, at age nineteen, she was sent to Argentina as a missionary, and was ecstatic to do so. Whilst there she says she developed horrendous health issues. She claims that indifference was shown to her health problems by the Mormon official in charge. When she asked for proper medical help the response given was, we’ll say a prayer for you. An acolyte of Mary Baker Eddy, do you think? She, and her family, are no longer members of the Mormon organisation (tinyurl.com/36xfsu49).

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The Mormons were founded by Joseph Smith following a visitation from an angel. Information regarding their wealth is hard to come by but like all ‘churches’ it’s beyond the dreams of avarice.

Working together (2023)

From the October 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Some of you may remember that earlier this year an event took place – it was called ‘the Coronation’. Up and down the country ‘loyal’ citizens organised celebrations, street parties, cup cake sales for charity, and so on. But one of the things that took place in my neck of the woods was a ‘yarn bombing’.

A group of women of all ages and backgrounds, who get together regularly to knit, crochet, have tea and cake and just chat and socialise, this year decided to celebrate the Coronation by knitting, embroidering and crocheting a fantastic array of exhibits to adorn the village of Oystermouth just to the west of Swansea.

To say that the items produced were amazing would be an understatement. Imagine, for example, a knitted Beefeater, Charles and Camilla’s rescued Jack Russells from Battersea Dogs Home, not to mention a tropical rainforest complete with wild life decorating the bollards along the pretty sea front. So much work went into this enterprise. Ladies were working into the night to finish their contributions. Some were defying the authorities and sneaking out after dark to bedeck trees with colourful crocheted flowers. All was done with such enthusiasm and love.

But what struck me more poignantly and powerfully was something else. Nothing to do with the patriotism or nationalism of the moment, but rather the sense of communal purpose and cooperation which invested this activity. They were loving doing something together as a group.

Matilda, for example, widowed in her 80s after 50 years of happy marriage, had previously lost all her sense of purpose. She no longer felt she had any role in society, until a chance notice in the local free sheet brought to her attention a knitting circle which she joined. And it gave her not just a purpose but also a sense of community.

Then, Sharon, in her mid thirties, who had suffered from mental health issues for nearly all her life, found a group of people who loved and accepted her for who she was and loved her innate creativity. This had turned her life around and shifted her thoughts from suicidal to joyful, as well as easing her lovely mother’s anxiety for her child’s future.

Another member of the group, Jean, had an adored sister who died very young from cancer. The sister is now remembered by all the group with lovely knitted flowers which decorate a bench dedicated to her name and where anyone can sit, look out over the bay and remember their own loved ones

Finding out about this made me remember, if I needed to, how working together for no profit or gain enhances our lives as human beings. It also brought it home to me, if left to our own devices without the worries of bills, mortgages and debts, what a fulfilling and useful life we could create. Not only do we want to be ‘happy’ but innate in most of us is the desire to make others happy. Freed of financial chains we are a great species.
Joy Baszucki

Which Socialist Party are you? (2023)

From the October 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Are there two Socialist Parties? If you type ‘Socialist Party’ into the internet, you might think so. That’s because you come up with our own organisation, the one that’s been advocating a world without buying and selling with free access to goods and services since 1904 and that’s also known by our full name the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). But you also come up with a ‘Socialist Party’ that’s been around since 1997 and was previously called ‘The Militant Tendency’. Historically it was an ‘entryist’ group on the left-wing of the Labour Party and even had its own Labour MPs. One of those MPs was Dave Nellist, who’s still active in this post-1997 ‘Socialist Party’ who took part in a debate this May at the Oxford Union Debating Society with the title ‘This House believes that class defines British politics’. His party’s website has published a condensed version of Nellist’s speech at the debate (tinyurl.com/3pv4a78d).

Stealing a name
When, in 1997, the Militant Tendency changed its name to the Socialist Party, we, the SPGB, objected vigorously. We said they were duplicating, in fact seeking to steal, our long-held name. But to no avail, since they went ahead regardless. The only (truly laughable) argument they could summon was that the name wasn’t really the same, since they were ‘Socialist Party’ (ie, without the definite article) and we were ‘The Socialist Party’ (ie, with the article). Of course we were aware that anyone looking closely at the two organisations and what they stood for would quickly see the difference. We were arguing for a completely different kind of world society to replace the market system of profit, money and buying and selling, while they were campaigning for reforms of the system with more state and less private ownership, but still with production and distribution based on money and buying and selling – and solely within this country too. However, for people not looking too closely, it was likely to cause confusion, especially as this new Party was calling itself ‘Marxist’, even if they were (and are) a million miles away from Marx’s demand for a society of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. Nor has any of this changed in the 25 plus years since the Militant Tendency changed its name.

Class in society
Nevertheless, reading the summary of Dave Nellist’s speech at the Oxford Union, there is undeniably a certain amount in it that we might agree with. This applies in particular to what he has to say about class in capitalist society. He states, for example, that modern capitalism is ‘a class society based on the market’ and that ‘the two main classes are those with ownership and control of production, the capitalist class, and those who only sell their labour power, the working class’. He also goes on to say, quite rightly, that the capitalist class who dominate the wealth in society constitute a tiny minority and the working class, who are the overwhelming majority, hold only a tiny proportion of that wealth. He further tells his listeners that the ‘system of politics … serves the interests of the minority capital-owning class within society, not the majority’ and that Labour governments are just an alternative team (‘a reliable second eleven’) for running that system with similar agendas and policies to the Conservatives and are ‘wedded to the profit system’.

State ownership
So far so good. We can share the analysis of how class is the overriding feature of the way capitalist society is organised. But from there on Nellist’s ‘Socialist Party’ starts to part company with the socialist (and Marxist) idea of a society based on the satisfaction of universal human needs rather than production for the market. First of all, he suggests that it was Margaret Thatcher’s government that brought about a fundamental change in wealth ownership and she was the one who then drove Labour, via Tony Blair, away from socialism. He seems to attribute at least some of this to the fact that more Labour MPs had Oxford or Cambridge educations and that somehow ‘leads them naturally to defend the current market system, not fundamentally challenge it’. He then goes on to talk about Jeremy Corbyn, for whom he has nothing but praise. In his words, ‘a Labour challenge under Jeremy Corbyn was different’ and it was ‘a brief period when Labour was seen, paraphrasing Shelley, as “for the many, not the few” – fundamentally different from the Tories, and promoting a political alternative for the working class’. If Corbyn had been successful, he argues, it would have led to ‘the public ownership of essential industries’.

And this is the key to that organisation’s ‘socialism’. It is not the completely different kind of society that we in the Socialist Party argue and campaign for – a society of common (not state) ownership, without markets, without money, without governments or leaders and without borders or states, where the production and distribution of goods and services takes place cooperatively to satisfy human needs. The ‘socialism’ of Nellist and his organisation is infinitely more limited than this. It is, in his own words, ‘an anti-austerity political agenda that talks unashamedly about planning the economy through public ownership and transferring wealth far more equally across society’. In other words, a less unequal form of capitalism and one in which the state rather than private companies or individuals seeks to manage economic activity. Essentially it is not the abolition of capitalism, its markets and its system of buying and selling. As to whether such reforms (since ‘reforms’ is what they are) are even possible within the market system, that is entirely open to question. But, even if they were and they somehow had the effect of ‘transferring wealth far more equally across society’, it would still be a case of tinkering at the edges of the endless and manifold problems capitalism throws up and would come nowhere near to abolishing that system and establishing a real socialist society. We said in 1997 that Militant were impostors to call themselves the ‘Socialist Party’. Imposters they still are.
Howard Moss

Blogger's Note:
There is a video of Dave Nellist's speech at the Oxford Union on YouTube.

See also the following article from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard, where the matter of the Militant Tendency stealing the Party's name is taken up.

Socialism or Capitalism (1959)

From the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
The one vital issue is the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment of Socialism
Have no illusions about the sham fight between Tory and Labour or the pretensions of the Liberals, at this Election. All stand for the retention of capitalism.

The one vital issue that should concern the workers of Britain is the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. This is not the aim of the Labour Party. State capitalism or nationalisation is not Socialism. The attempts to run capitalism under price controls and profit controls are not Socialism. In the Labour Party election manifesto of 1945 the false claim was made that the “Labour Party is a Socialist Party and proud of it.” Even this lip service to Socialism has now been dropped and replaced by meaningless references to the “welfare State” the building of a “just society,” and "equality of opportunity.”

Capitalism, whether run by a Labour Government, a Tory Government, a Liberal Government or (as in Russia) by a Communist Government cannot solve your problems. Capitalism means endless poverty and insecurity for the working class. In addition, its inescapable international rivalries are the cause of war which no United Nations can prevent. The only way out is to establish Socialism. This requires the conversion of the means of production and distribution from their present function of producing profit to common ownership by the whole of society. Goods and services would then be produced solely to satisfy human needs, and by ridding society of the waste of armaments and of all the financial and other operations inseparable from capitalism human society would for the first time be easily able to provide all the needs and comforts of life.

The achievement of this great purpose waits only on the recognition of its necessity by you, the working-class, and on your understanding of the democratic political action necessary to carry it through.

Do not be deterred by the magnitude of the problem or by the timid argument that world-wide agreement to achieve it is impracticable. The workers of all other countries are harassed by the same capitalist evils that make your lives a burden. They are no less anxious than you to find the way out. They are as able as you are to grasp the great truth that humanity can be saved only by the co-operation of the workers of all countries. Like you they abhor capitalism's wars and long for real peace that only Socialism can provide.

At present the number of Socialists in this and other countries is too small to determine the results of elections. In recent Parliamentary elections the Socialist Party of Great Britain has put up one or two candidates and, as we knew would be the result, they received the votes of only the very small number of Socialists in the constituencies chosen. On this occasion we have one candidate in Bethnal Green but in other constituencies, if you have finally turned your back on the parties that put forward different methods of trying to run capitalism you will be able to register your vote for Socialism by writing. “Socialism" across the ballot paper. This will serve to advertise the number of those who have realised that the use of the vote to support any other candidate no matter how he describes himself, is a vote for capitalism.

Study Socialism. Become Socialists. Resolve thal you will help to make the Socialist Party strong enough to be the decisive factor at future elections.

Election Address (1959)

From the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

To the Working Men and Women of Bethnal Green.

Fellow Workers,

As candidate for the Socialist Party of Great Britain I am asking you to consider only the case of the organisation that I represent—that is, the case for Socialism.

The viewpoint of my organisation is one that is fundamentally different from those of the other parties taking part in this election. It is different because the Socialist Party of Great Britain is concerned with the interests of the working class, whereas all the other parties represent the interests of the ruling, or employing class.

It may be objected that the Labour Party, too, is concerned with working class interests, but their record conclusively shows otherwise. In their period of office in the six post-war years they introduced "wage-freeze" and “wage restraint" schemes which resulted in workers finding themselves worse off in 1951 than they were in 1945: the Labour Party used troops in strikes; they are the party who introduced the largest peacetime re-armament programme in history; it was they who promised to solve the housing problem and dismally failed.

Not that the Tories have done any better. These two parties, and the Liberals too, exist to preserve the existing social system—the system of capitalism. Even if you do feel in sympathy with the Labour, Liberal or Tory Parties, I do suggest that you do not put this address to one side, but read on; for I know you will find it interesting and worth-while.

Pie Crust Promises

You have been promised peace, but there are still wars.

You have been promised prosperity, and are told that prosperity is here, but it is not prosperity for you.

You have been promised security but it still eludes you.

You have been promised an end to poverty, but it is still with us.

You have been promised houses, and you are still being promised them.

You have been promised cheaper living costs, but the cost of living is now higher than ever before.

You have been promised anything that seemed a good vote catching stunt.

Now look at the literature that the other parties are distributing and note that the same old things are still being promised, just re-arranged and dressed up in different words. Yet all these problems still confront you.

Our Common Cause
We of the Socialist Party of Great Britain are, like you, members of the working class. Whether we earn our living in overalls or in a white collar and pin-stripe trousers: whether we are paid by the hour, day, week, month or contract; whether the price we receive for our ability to work is called a wage or a salary, we are all members of a class that needs to find an employer in order to live. Our problems are identical. We have a common cause.

All industry today, whether private or state-controlled, is run for the purpose of producing profit. When you and I go to work we produce a wealth of commodities that we leave in the hands of our employers. We receive a wage that enables us to continue to go to work and to rear our families of future wage earners, with very little over. The surplus that we produce over and above what our wages will buy is the store of wealth from which landlords, investors and industrialists draw their rent, interest and profit. In the perpetual pressure to increase that surplus we are goaded to work harder and to produce more.

It is this profit-making basis of society that is the root of all our problems. There is no solution to be found by dealing only with the effects.

Glance at some of the tinkering reforms that arc offered by our political opponents.

Houses, Rents and Slums
First the ever-present housing problem. There have been innumerable Acts of Parliament aimed at solving the workers' housing problems since (he Earl of Shaftesbury introduced the first Bill, in 1851. Despite the efforts of Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties, the problem has become more acute with the passing years.

You are now told that rent control has failed and rents must go up because of the hundreds of thousands of neglected houses falling into dilapidation and slumdom.

The Fallacy of Full Employment
Why do we fear unemployment? Not usually because we like our jobs but because we cannot live without our wages. The wealthy capitalist has no fear of being out-of-work. For him it is leisure, for us it is hardship.

Although unemployment since the war has not reached pre-war levels in this country and although the Tories boast that employment is now increasing, do not forget that in January of this year there were nearly 700,000 registered unemployed; if the unregistered were added, the total would probably have been a million.

That fact alone shows how hollow is the claim that governments can maintain “full employment"; the next world trade recession would send unemployment up again.

Who Wins Wars?
Certainly not you and I. Out of the profit that we make for our employers, millions are used to maintain the armed forces, police, law courts, prisons, and all the state machinery necessary to protect interests of the rich. But before that profit can be used for this purpose it must be realised into pounds, shillings and pence—the goods must be sold in a market.

In world markets there are competitors from other countries. The rivalry between different groups of capitalists driving for markets gives rise to friction between states, and when diplomacy fails to ease the friction, war becomes imminent.

Then you and 1 arc subjected to a spate of patriotic propaganda to whip us into a frenzy of hate and we, or our sons, are sent to slaughter our fellow workers in the rival countries.

War is another evil that springs direct from the wage-labour and capital base of present day society and will remain whilst that base is intact. Nuclear weapons and germ warfare are part of this evil, and campaigns directed against them leave the problem of capitalism and war untouched.

Reforms beget Reforms
Much ill-health, most crime and nearly ail malnutrition can be traced to poverty which is a product of capitalist society. Reforms to alleviate poverty may ease the lot of some of the poor, but no reforms can remove the cause of poverty. A reform that eases one outstanding evil frequently gives rise to others. Just as new houses can help some workers who desperately need homes, they find that rents are so high that the larder must suffer. Only a complete change in the basis of society can produce a lasting improvement in the lot of the working class.

Non-Socialist “Socialists"
We are not the only ones in this election who call ourselves Socialists.

The Labour Party claims to be a socialist party but it enters this election, as it did every election in the past, inviting your support for scores of reforms and promises designed to make you believe that capitalism can be re-organised to give you what you want from life.

The Communist Party is not one whit different in that respect. It competes with the other parties of capitalism in offering bigger and better reforms.

The Lesser Evil
Some people say that they agree with us, but, as there is no immediate prospect of achieving Socialism, it would be better to choose the less of two evils by supporting one of the Capitalist parties. There is only one evil, that is Capitalism. From it your problems flow. No matter which political party you choose to operate it. the results will differ but little. Offering you the choice of capitalist parties is like offering the Christmas goose the choice of being baked or boiled. As far as you and I are concerned our goose will be cooked whichever you choose.

What Can Nationalisation Do For Us?
Nothing. But the Conservative and Labour parties, and the Communist party, are in favour of some measure of state control of industry; they differ only in degree. State or private industries are all of a kind. Shareholders may become bondholders and trade union officials may have top jobs in nationalised industries, but the terrible twins, wage-labour and capital, are still there. There is still wealth for the few and a bare living wage for you and me.

Nationalisation was formerly the main plank in the Labour platform but the experience of the past ten years has brought disillusionment among those who expected so much from it.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain never supported nationalisation.

Permanent Sacrifice
We are called upon to make sacrifices to safeguard democracy, to “defend our living standards,” to “defend our way of life,” and for many other high sounding and meaningless reasons. You and I have done nothing other than make sacrifices, first to build up armaments, then for a war effort, next for post-war reconstruction and then to help over the bad times between wars. There is always an excuse for demanding sacrifices from the workers. It is time you stood on your feet and made some drastic changes in a world that could satisfy your needs with plenty but provides only plenty of needs.

What Must Be Done
You and I have only our energies to sell; we can only live by finding employment from those who own the land, mines, factories, machines, tools and transport system and all the things necessary to produce the necessaries and comforts of life. This ownership must be ended, these things must be converted to the common property of everyone and democratically controlled in the interests of all. Wealth will not then be produced for the profit of a few but will become common-wealth, available to all.

Why It Must Be Done
Science and discovery have made it possible for everyone to have a fuller life but capitalism bars the way. Millions now engaged in unnecessary tasks such as making bombs and bus tickets, or counting other people’s money and advertising catch-penny products, as well as the unemployed of both classes, can be brought into the field of useful production when the capitalist system is abolished. Hours of work can be shortened, wars ended and economic security achieved.

How It Can Be Done
Members of the capitalist class can go to Bermuda or Balmoral, confident that their interests are secure so long as you continue to support the parties that ensure the continuation of the Capitalist ownership of the means of life.

When a Socialist working class in all countries decides to reconstruct society in keeping with its own interests by dispossessing the Capitalist class, it must first gain control of the machinery of government. It is with that object that the SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN enters this electoral contest.

Now Is The Time
During this campaign you will see no posters or window tickets urging you to vote for me. We shall indulge in no ballyhoo or electioneering stunts. We appeal to your understanding and intelligence and not to your emotions and prejudices.

If you want Socialism you have got to set about the task of achieving it; no one is going to present it to you on a plate. All we ask is that you consider our case and. if you agree with it. help us to fight for it. We have built our political party in order that you can use it to achieve Socialism. This election is your opportunity, don't waste it.
Comradely yours.
Jack Read.

On the doorstep (1959)

Political Cartoon from the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Campaign News (1959)

Party News from the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Election Headquarters have been obtained at 4 Westgate Street. Hackney. E.8. just off Mare Street and opposite King Edward Road. London Fields Station 2 minutes. Bethnal Green Tube Station 5 minutes. Buses No. 6, 106, 170, 277, Trolley buses 555, 557, 653—all pass the door.

Help from members and sympathisers is urgently required. Literature needs distributing. Canvassing must be done. We are open every day and shall be pleased to see you. Telephone: AMH 5010.

Do not delay ! (1959)

Party News from the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

This Election Campaign is going to cost a lot of money — to be more precise £500 is the minimum sum we shall need. This will cover literature, deposit, Committee rooms, etc.—-in fact, the lot. Needless to say, we haven’t got it. In fact the Parliamentary Fund stands at £308, just now. We’ve got to find the balance of £200 from somewhere. We’ve had the floorboards up at Head Office, but there is no hidden treasure. So we come back to you. We’ve never been let down in the past, and feel sure you won’t disappoint us this time. Please see what you can do. No sum is too large or too small, but we must have it now. Please send all donations to E. Lake, S.P.G.B., 52 Clapham High Street, S.W.4, and earmark it “Parliamentary Fund.”

Capitalism or Socialism? (1959)

From the front page of the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Flanders Field: Bloody arithmetic (1959)

From the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

In times of war, Generals become very important people; sometimes, as in 1917, much too important for the general interests of the ruling-class. Not only did they decide on questions of strategy in their own sectors, they were able to influence or make decisions on the widest scale. Haig, Foch, Cadorna, Joffre, Nivelie, each had taken part in decisions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. To some extent the Generals constituted a special sectional interest, running things their way, and able to deceive, ignore, or persuade the politicians. False reports (and Haig’s Staff turned these out in hundreds) would serve to blind the politicians to the appalling errors being committed. Once appointed, Generals became notoriously touchy, resenting criticism and blocking any move by politicians to interfere.

The threat of resignation, with the resulting blows at morale of troops and workers, would frequently serve to bring the politicians into line. Generals were removed, but only after their particular front had begun to resemble a slaughterhouse, and sometimes not even then. Kitchener set an example, closely followed by his one-time protege Haig, of the stiff-lipped, silent autocratic General. Haig was scandalised when Lloyd George discussed west-front strategy with French officers and politicians behind his back; he noted in his diary that the man was not a gentleman, a supremely irrelevant consideration, bearing in mind the tremendous interests at stake. Apart from the prestige of their professional positions, the British west-front butchers, Haig and Robertson, had considerable support from the British ruling-class.

They were able to override Lloyd George, who thought west-front strategy useless and incapable of producing any decisive result. Lloyd George did have part of his way after the battles of 1917, for by then even the adoring Lord Northcliffe had begun to have his doubts. It was becoming obvious that the German Army was not destroyed, and that no important gain had been made. There were important reasons why Haig was not given the sack; reasons of morale, social influence, and because Haig was a good general in the limited sense of organising, defensive measures. Robertson lost his job as Chief of the Imperial General Staff; reserves were withheld from Haig, and a. system of closer co-operation with the French came into being.

The problem of maintaining control over the Generals is still exercising the ingenuity of Governments. Churchill was to be in much closer touch with the Generals than Lloyd George. By 1939, the Generals were tamed; the old-fashioned officer gave way to more technically-minded machine-conscious officers. Closer systems of control prevented any repetition of 1917. Slaughter became a subject of scientific planning. Hitler, Stalin and Churchill were careful to be always on their guard against the Generals. The German Staffs were purged again and again; Stalin relegated Zhukov to obscurity after the war.

The Bloody Arithmetic of Attrition
The first world war introduced a new branch of arithmetic—a branch that even the cavalry generals could appreciate. The equation was a simple one; three million dead British and French soldiers plus two million dead Germans could equal defeat for Germany. Some there were, like Lloyd George, who were astute enough to realise that attrition could be dangerous for Capitalism. Lloyd George, as a popular orator, was more in touch with public opinion than were the supporters of this simple arithmetic. Ceaseless battering had led to the final collapse of Russia, and had led to serious trouble for the French Government.

’’Attrition ” was popular with a large section of the ruling-class because it offered something more than mere military defeat; it offered the destruction of a large part of Germany’s manhood, the exhaustion of her economy, and a Europe free for Britain and France to bustle in.

For popular consumption the argument was modified, the enemy was being defeated even though no significant advance was being made. The enemy’s armies were being destroyed (as indeed they were, but not as fast as Haig and his Staff liked to believe, for even at the height of the Flanders battle the Germans could afford to send troops to defeat Italy). Attrition did work, but in a way unforeseen by its supporters. In March 1918 Germany began her last offensive, and in thirteen weeks suffered 700,000 casualties. Germany, desperate to finish the war before the full weight of America could be brought to bear, destroyed the army that had held the western front for four years.

The Dead Weight of Tradition
Capitalist organizations do not always function in the best interests of the ruling-class as a whole. Conflicting demands during wartime may paralyse strategy, so that nothing is achieved. An example is the Dardanelles campaign; (here was no agreement on how many troops to send, the haggling went on for months. It seems that Britain and France almost sustained defeat, not by Germany, but by their own traditions and methods of warfare that had become irrelevant by 1914. As a result, Germany, while maintaining the defensive in the west, was able to gain considerable victories elsewhere, as for instance in Russia. Rumania and Italy. There were alternatives to attrition, but the opportunities were lost, and if such a complex situation can be summarised at all, they were lost because of the outmoded thinking of the ruling-class, of whom the Generals were a part.

A new Waterloo was always just round the corner, and if the Waterloo turned into slaughter-house warfare, there was always the argument for attrition to fall back on. They were full of arguments, those Generals, Haig had another one in his magazine; he had waged the Flanders campaign in order to prevent the Germans from falling on the French. He also waged it because the French had offered their support! And what of the chief participants, the poor bloody soldiers? They were always ready for another effort, another crawl across ground covered by machine-gun fire and under continuous bombardment. The British troops set an example of devotion to duty unequalled in those days; apparently British workers were well-drilled and well impregnated with their ideologies, of which there was a fairly wide choice, all leading to the conclusion that one must tight for one's country, whatever the cost.

The New Passchendaels
The overthrow of one set of myths doesn't matter very much to Capitalism, for there are plenty of brainy people ready to provide variations of the theme “fight and die.” New ideologies are continually being manufactured, and there will always be one or two to suit the needs of the time. The bitterness aroused by 1917 did not make workers into Socialists, but it did give rise to numerous peace movements (in one of which “Go to it” Herbie Morrison was prominent). These movements withered away when Capitalism was once more torn apart by war. With a new appeal, workers could be called out to fight again. Cassino, Stalingrad and Hiroshima mocked the 1918 politicians’ boasts “war to end wars.” The second world war also gave rise to its peace movements, but rather different. The New Pacifists would apparently be prepared to fight if H-bombs were excluded and war consisted of battles like Passchendael, Stalingrad or Cassino.

Breaking the Circle
There is a way out; humanity do not have to tear each other apart; the circle can be broken. What has been said here about ideologies does not mean that there is no end to Capitalism and its wars. A new society can be brought into being. This new society has already taken rough shape in the minds of some of us. Disgust and disillusionment take a slow but steady toll of Capitalist ideas —an example of this is the decline of “white feather” incidents! People in the last war were far less ready to condemn those who stayed at home.

Unfortunately there has been far more apathy and disillusionment than determination to put things right. People are disgusted with politics, including even the Socialist Party in their condemnation. Perhaps in a way there is here a terrible indictment of Capitalism; men and women have lost their faith in a world fit for humans, taking refuge in the acquisition of cars, brass-plates and the material flotsam of a mass-rubbish-producing society. Change is possible; we can reject Capitalism with its Passchendaels, Stalingrads and Hiroshimas. People can act in their own interests, instead of in the barren, blood-smeared interests of ruling groups. The way out does not lie along the road of pacifism or ban-the-bomb (a futile movement if ever there was one). The way lies along the path of Socialist understanding.
F. R. Ivimey.