Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Problem of Transport (1967)

From the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

A constant and pressing problem today, especially in a greater conurbation like London, is the problem of transport. Crowded trains, buses late or cut out, the constant whine of jet planes, dirt, noise and fumes — the list is endless.

At the heart of to-day’s transport problems is the motor-car, loved and hated to an immoderate degree, transforming the very face of the country, as a century ago the steam locomotive was transforming it. Any tenth-rate comedian can get a laugh by just saying ‘Barbara Castle’, as if a change of personality at the head of the Ministry of Transport would make an atom of difference to the problem.

In an effort to ease the jammed-up roads, pleasant gardens and tree-lined avenues are cut up for wider roads, while parks and squares are ruined to make car parks, and even the humble pub garden becomes a little asphalt desert. Motorways run like a scar across the countryside, and winding lanes are ‘improved’ out of recognition. Worst of all is the ever mounting toll of accidents.

None of this is particularly new; it is merely a change of form. That profit is the only serious consideration, with human comfort and happiness coming a very poor second, is true to-day and has been true for as long as capitalism has existed. London, and all big cities, have for centuries been very noisy places. Iron clad wheels and horses’ hooves, clattering over cobbles, made a terrible din and congestion in London was notorious.

Rowlandson, in a typically unflattering series of etchings, drew a picture of traffic chaos in the early 19th century. In the late 1850’s the London General Omnibus Company alone had about six hundred horse-buses, and horse trams appeared on the scene in the 1860’s. Congestion in the City gave rise to plans for a pedestrian bridge over Ludgate Circus, and the first underground railway (imagine the “Met” with steam engines) was put through to relieve congestion.

By the 1890’s there were over 1,700 buses and about 900 trams in central London. Over it all rode the locomotive, a smoky monster that blackened the working class districts through which it cut into London. The childish squabbles indulged in by rival railway companies, as in 1884 when the District Line chained a locomotive in a disputed siding at South Kensington Station and three Metropolitan Line engines tried to pull it out, make the snarling of motorists at traffic light to-day seem very tame.

The protests at Motorways ruining the countryside echo the protests of a century ago when the railways were doing the same thing. No, the problem hasn’t changed, but the vast increase in population, and the much greater powers of production, have made it more acute.

Now, the canals that once drove men and horses hard for greater speed and profit are pleasant, green oases in endless suburbs, and the once hated steam engine a romantic memory. It is the internal combustion engine that dominates the 20th Century.

No other modern industry has had such a profound influence on the social and economic life to-day as the motor industry. Its development has resulted in the decline of once important industries, and has given an impetus to a mass of others that were unimportant at the turn of the century. It was one of the main factors in the migration of industries, from the North of England to the South and to the Midlands, that took place between the wars.

Like the steam engine that preceded it, the internal combustion engine began its existence as a static form of power, and was later adapted for locomotion. Steam cars had been in existence since the early years of the 19th century, but they were heavy and fuel was a problem. The internal combustion engine made possible a much lighter vehicle. More important, it could be run over existing public roads, unlike the railways which had to stick to a set route; this made for greater mobility. By the beginning of the present century the motor vehicle was with us.

Its application followed existing patterns, in the various forms of road transport in existence at the time—the private carriage, the bus and the wagon. In its early days the motor-car was still a luxury reserved for the type of people who could afford a carriage. The bulk of the population travelled by public transport.

The first motor buses appeared in Britain about 1898, and by the early 1920’s they had been joined by the long distance coach.

One of the selling points used by the promoters of coach travel before the war was that coaches took you through the heart of towns and villages, and gave you a better view of the country. Today more and more coaches trail along dreary motorways and by-pass towns and villages.

Slowly the motor buses pushed the railways into the background, and drove the tramcars off the road. The swing was first from the railways to public road transport; the golden age of the bus was the 1930’s.

But now, by changed production methods and a heavy reliance on hire purchase, the private car has become available to the mass of the people. There were four times as many cars on the roads in 1964 as in 1939 and the number is still growing. Furthermore, the number of people travelling to work from a fair distance away has grown steadily over the last 100 years. The resulting chaos has brought home the importance of the railways, with their much greater carrying capacity. Without their rail systems, cities like London woud seize up in the rush hour.

Since the war a favourite pipe-dream has been an ‘integrated public transport system’, with transport used in a balanced way to its best advantage. But capitalism doesn’t work that way. If profit can be made it will be made, however pleasant or unpleasant the result may be. If, on the other hand, something like the railways no longer pays, but is considered necessary to the general interest of capitalism, then it will be subsidised, but as cheaply as possible.

The grim railway arches that overshadowed the mean terraces of south and east London were held up as examples of the inhumanity of the Victorians, but the new fly-overs that overshadow houses to-day show the same contempt for the people who live underneath. Transport has changed. It will change again, we can only guess how; but one thing is certain. If capitalism remains the new transport will be as nasty as the old.
Les Dale

50 Years Ago: The Question of Alsace Lorraine (1967)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

The question of Alsace Lorraine has received considerable attention from the political and journalistic hirelings of the capitalist class. A vast amount of sloppy sentiment has been thrust upon us with the object of covering up the real facts at issue, a good example of which comes from Mr. Lloyd George. “However long the war may be”, says that worthy, “however great the strain upon our resources, this country intends to stand by her gallant ally, France, until she redeems her oppressed children from the degradation of a foreign yoke”.

Knowing the history of the capitalist class, Socialists reject with scorn their professed sympathy for the workers of any nation. Material interest dominates their every action, as the following demonstrates:

“If Germany could secure a peace based on her present military position”, says a writer in the Daily Chronicle 24.10.17. 
“the whole of this wealth of iron ore, estimated at some 5,000 million tons, would pass under her control . . . Liberate these provinces from her clutch with their 21,000,000 tons of iron ore a year, their 3,800,000 tons of iron smeltings, their 2,300,000 tons of steel smeltings, and useful coalfields of the Somme Valley, and a long step has been taken towards peace”.

“It is clearly an almost vital interest, both for France and Great Britain, that the formation of a huge Franco-German cartel, based on the reciprocal exchange of coal for ore, should be prevented, that we should ourselves supply France with the coke that will enable her to do her own smelting, and that we should take from her in return the iron ore that we now import from Sweden and from Spain”. (“Daily Chronicle”, 24.10.17.)
The evidence given shows the capitalists in their true character, as a cold-blooded, profit-seeking tribe, ready to slaughter millions of workers to gain an advantage over a commercial rival.

From the Socialist Standard, December 1917 Article by E. L. Wake.

SPGB Meetings (1967)

Party News from the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Correction (1967)

From the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret that an unintentional mistake rather changed the meaning of a passage in the letter from Mr. Raymond V. McNally in the third column of page 145 of the September Socialist Standard. Mr. McNally wrote “Yet, theoretically, the capitalist appears to be a disembodied spirit…” but this came out as “… appears to be a dismembered spirit…” We apologise to Mr. McNally, and our readers, for any confusion this mistake has caused.
Editorial Committee.

Blogger's Note:
Corrected for the blog.

Autumn School (1967)

Party News from the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard 

There was a good response to the school on Saturday November 11th when Comrade McClatchie addressed the session. It is hoped that the next school will be arranged for a Saturday in March 1968.

Austria (1967)

From the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

ALLE MENSCHEN SIND BRUDER—DIE GANZE ERDE IHR VATERLAND is the headline of the latest issue (Oct.-Nov.-Dec. 1967) of the WFW, quarterly journal of our comrades in Austria. The WFW is also serialising our pamphlet Russia 1917-1967 A Socialist Analysis. The first part appears in this issue. Obtainable price 1/- (excluding postage) from our Head Office, 52 Clapham High Street, London, S.W.4.

Voice From The Back: A Thrifty Life (2005)

The Voice From The Back Column from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Thrifty Life

“Even by Philip Green’s extraordinary standards, it is a handsome pay day – the retail tycoon has awarded himself Britain’s biggest bonus of £1.2 billion.” (Times, 21 October) Mr Green denies that this big cash pay-out is likely to fund more takeover bids. “I’m saving up,” he says. This is unlikely as he is not known for his frugality; in fact he spent £4 million earlier in the year on his son’s bar mitzvah. He also owns a 12 seater Gulfstream G550 jet and a 200ft yacht, each worth around £20 million. The salesgirls in Top Shop and Miss Selfridge, which Mr Green owns and who help produce the £1.2 billion that he wallows in, can only dream of such frugality.

Independence ?

For political reasons the US government pretend that Iraq is now a democratic and independent country, but the facts are somewhat different. “Iraqi President Jalai Talabani said he opposed military action against neighbouring Syria but lacked the power to prevent US troops using his country as a launchpad if it chose to do so. ‘I categorically refuse the use of Iraqi soil to launch a military strike against Syria or any other Arab country,’ Talabani told the London based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview on Tuesday. “But at the end of the day my ability to confront the US military is limited and I cannot impose on them my will.”  (Middle East Online, 1 November)

Democracy ?

When Michael Bloomberg won the election to be Mayor of New York in 2001 we commented that it was a strange sort of democracy that allowed a multi-millionaire to become mayor just because he spent $60 million on his campaign. He looks set to be re-elected because of his vast wealth. “Mr Bloomberg is expected to spend $85 million on his campaign, about eight times as much as his rivals.” (Times, 8 November) 

As they say in US politics: “he bought it fair and square”.

A Grateful Nation?

The British Legion has produced a report that shows that the owning class might pay lip service to the dead and maimed of their wars but that behind the fine words is the cynical reality of running the profit system. “As the nation prepares to remember the sacrifices of millions, exhaustive research by the Legion suggests that almost half of veterans and their dependants – 3.88 million – are living on less than £10,000 a year. Almost one million have to exist on less than half that amount.” (Independent, 11 November)
Died for “your” country? Well done, wage slave, your widow and orphans can cop £96 a week to survive on. We shall also give you a poem about “lest we forget”. Poems are much cheaper than pensions.

The Deadly Dust

An estimated 100,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed as having pleural plaques – internal scarring on the lining of the lung that indicates exposure to asbestos. “A landmark test case will appear in the Court of Appeal tomorrow in which the insurance industry on behalf of employers will argue that a potentially fatal condition caused by exposure to asbestos should not be compensated.” (Observer, 13 November) Earlier this year the insurers with the Department of Trade and Industry on behalf of British shipbuilders managed to slash the compensation from between £12,500 and £20,000 to £5,000 and £7,000. Whether on the battlefront or the shipyard the capitalist class will always put profits before human life.

Torturous Arguments

The US government is opposed to torture, isn’t it? Well, sort of. The US Congress recently passed an amendment to ban American soldiers and spies from torturing prisoners but the White House came out against such legislation. “This week saw the sad spectacle of an American president lamely trying to explain to the citizens of Panama that, yes he would veto any such bill but, no, ‘We do not torture.’ Meanwhile, Mr Bush’s increasingly error-prone vice-president, Dick Cheney, has been on Capitol Hill trying to bully senators to exclude America’s spies from any torture ban. To add a note of farce to the tragedy, the administration has had to explain that the CIA is not torturing prisoners in Asia and Eastern Europe – though of course it cannot confirm that such prisons exist.” (Economist, 12 November) 

Everything quite clear now?

The Lazy Man Objection

“About 73% of workers north of the border who replied to an insurance company study said they regularly failed to take all of their holidays. Workers in London fared worst, with 77% not using up their annual leave.” (BBC News, 15 November)

So what about the objection to socialism that it would not work because people are too lazy?

Summit's up (2005)

From the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

At first there was NAFTA, then there was FTAA – or rather, there wasn’t, because talks to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas have got bogged down in disagreements. The North American Free Trade Agreement, between the US, Canada and Mexico, came into force in 1994. Its declared aims were to eliminate trade barriers between the three countries involved and increase investment opportunities. In fact, it is far more about investment than trade, allowing US and Canadian factories to be moved to cheap-labour areas in Mexico and opening up further chances for privatisation. But it was always seen as a first step only, and the FTAA, which would extend to most of Central and South America and cover 34 countries, is the logical conclusion, originally intended to come into effect at the start of 2005.

The FTAA has many opponents. The nasty right-wing super-nationalists in the John Birch Society (see view it as part of the ongoing abolition of the United States, opening up borders to all sorts of criminals, terrorists and other undesirables, doing away with US sovereignty and creating a European Union-style integrated political unit. This isolationist conception does not fit in with that of the rulers of the US, however. There have also been opponents from the ‘left’, largely from the anti- globalisation or global justice movements (, for instance). They point to the effects of NAFTA in cutting wages in Mexico and increasing threats to the environment and public health. FTAA, they claim, will just be the same thing, writ larger. 

In early November the Summit of the Americas was held in Argentina, partly to see how FTAA could be put back on track after the rulers of  some countries objected to it. In the meantime, smaller groupings have been pushed forward, such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (due to start in January 2006) and the Andean Free Trade Agreement (which is still under negotiation). The US is also particularly interested in expansion of the Panama Canal, which carries 14% of US foreign trade, so that it can handle more and bigger ships. But the Summit did not give the green light to FTAA, despite Bush’s threats and arm-twisting. A handful of countries stood out against it, including Venezuela, where oil resources give the rulers a bit of bargaining freedom (see the November Socialist Standard). So now things are being left to the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong in the middle of this month.

The Argentinian Summit was marked by protests and police crackdowns, together with the usual populist anti-American pronouncements from Presidents Chavez of Venezuela and Lula of Brazil. Clearly, many workers are unconvinced that a policy is in their interests just because it suits Bush, his fat-cat backers and the American capitalist class in general. But nobody raised the real issues about the way society is run.

The truth is that arguments about ‘free trade’ or ‘fair trade’ or any other kind of trade completely miss the point. All variants on trade accept the idea that food, clothing, housing etc. should be bought and sold rather than freely available. They also accept that the earth should belong to a small class of owners rather than being the common property of all its people. They all accept the existence of capitalism rather than rejecting it entirely as Socialists do.

Pathfinders: Nuclear Con-Fusion (2005)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few situations demonstrate the reactive nature of central government better than the energy question. Faced with a popular tide of opposition to new nuclear build on the one hand, and the utter impossibility of meeting the 40% energy shortfall expected in the next two decades with renewables, it’s easy to see why Blair’s government is desperate to keep treading the fine wire of non-commitment. When in doubt, do and say nothing, and maybe tomorrow the situation will change. 

It wasn’t always so. Nuclear fission energy was once the Philosopher’s Stone of science that was to herald a brave new world of clean and efficient energy for all time. But the optimism didn’t last long, and in the wake of Windscale 1957, the Silkwood affair, and later Three Mile Island and, catastrophically, Chernobyl, the public infatuation with this futuristic technology was well and truly over. Nowadays the questions they should have asked back in the 50’s come easily to the lips of the general public – who says it’s safe, who says it’s cheap, and what about the waste?

But western capitalism is in a bit of a fix, because, quite apart from any fluffy consideration of fossil fuel emissions and the ozone layer, the real issue is that the remaining deposits of oil, coal and gas are largely under the control of Russia and China. Solar, wind and wave energy contribute only a tiny fraction of the national grid and never look likely to manage more than 20 per cent even in the government’s wildest fantasies.

Some excitement has been generated recently over the decision to start building the ITER nuclear fusion reactor at Caderache in Southern France, something of a coup for the EU and one in the eye for Japan, who has been arm-wrestling for the right to host this plant for years. Fusion, it ought to be pointed out, has made some progress in recent years. Gone are the days when  it consumed vastly more energy than it produced – the new larger reactors have seen to that. And it’s remarkably clean and efficient. Instead of burning fossil fuels and releasing their stored electromagnetic energy, you fuse heavy hydrogen isotopes together and in the process unleash the vastly more powerful force that holds protons and neutrons together – about 10 million times more powerful. Best of all, the main waste product is helium, which is useful for balloons, airships and at staff Xmas parties for giving the managers squeaky voices, but is otherwise a non-toxic, inert element.

So what’s the catch? The ITER plant is not even a prototype reactor, it is a pre-prototype, designed to test whether the materials and construction can stand up to the sun-like 100 million degrees centigrade necessary for nuclear fusion to occur. Nobody knows if the material can take it, and until they do, nobody would dare build a real reactor. So we could still be looking at fifty years before fusion is contributing anything to the national grid. So, in the meantime, it could be back to good old filthy fission.

What is, for a socialist, strange to the point of comical in all this, is that in all the energetic debate about the pending energy crisis, when all the ageing reactors are closed down and there’s nothing to replace them with, nobody, not one politician, or media pundit, or social commentator, ever suggests that we just take a forty per cent drop in energy consumption and live with it. How can we continue to live the nightmare life of the motorway commuter without petrol? Oh no, we can’t possibly give that up, we’ll have to use hydrogen. How do we continue to have all our cities’ department stores lit up every night like Christmas trees so people can window-shop at 4 am? Dread thought that consumers should have their nocturnal browsing habits constrained, we need to develop fusion technology. How do we keep selling the public more and more energy? Simple, we persuade them to live in ‘smart’ houses where even the tin-opener discusses Kant.

Capitalism is not, of course, really interested in saving energy. Energy companies could offer customer discounts to those who were frugal, but in fact that’s not the way to make money. Some years ago a group called CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) demonstrated that it was possible to provide cavity-wall and loft insulation for every house in England and Wales for less than the cost of one nuclear power station, and at a net energy saving greater than that produced by the same nuclear power station. So saving energy is not the point, using as much as possible in as profligate a way as possible is where the money is at, which fact demonstrates, as few situations can do better, the reactive nature of capitalism and the inability of common sense to prevail where the cash incentive is concerned.
Paddy Shannon

1905: the first Russian Revolution (2005)

From the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
One hundred years ago this year there happened a series of events in Russia, culminating in a general uprising in December, that Trotsky called ‘the dress rehearsal for the revolution of 1917′ and which in terms of bloodshed were far more violent than the actual events in St. Petersburg twelve years later.
Russia at the time was a predominantly agrarian country. 80 per cent of its inhabitants were peasants, eking out a very meagre existence from the soil. They had been emancipated from being serfs in 1861 by a decree of Tsar Alexander III but peasant understanding of personal ownership in land remained very rudimentary. After the 1861 emancipation act there arose a widespread and deeply held belief among the peasants that at some time in the future a redistribution of land was going to happen. This belief made them a very volatile and potentially revolutionary class, although they had no political aims and could see no further than land.

Whereas in Britain and most of Europe at the time, a strong nobility had limited the power of the monarch, allowing a rising capitalist class to develop. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas had absolute power. He ruled under a system called patrimonialism, in which everything belonged to the Tsar. He was absolute monarch and nothing could change without his consent. There was no parliament or constitution. Government officials were directly responsible to him, and he believed firmly in upholding this system, much as Charles I of England believed firmly in the divine right of Kings. This meant in practice that the growth of capitalist industry in Russia was limited and largely reliant on foreign capital. Consequently the indigenous capitalist class was very weak.

As a result of this weakness the path to a political and legal set-up in which capitalist development could flourish was undertaken by the ‘intelligentsia’, a concept peculiar to Russia. Comprised largely of university students, lawyers, and artists (i.e. writers) it was more or less open to anyone who was against the patrimonial set-up. And because Tsar Nicholas was extremely rigid in his outlook and frightened of any change that could limit his power, democratic protest from the 1870s onwards was not an option. Protest became channelled into the form of violence, with assassinations of government officials taking a prominent part.  A movement, openly committed to assassination, called the People’s Will came into being, attracting the support of much of the intelligentsia, including, for a time, Lenin. Some thousands of government officials were killed; assassination became a way of life.

The response from the government, backed by the Tsar, was repression, to clamp down ever more tightly. The use of whips by the police to quell student strikes did not endear the government to those who wanted change. At the close of the 19th century with the setting-up of the Okhrana, Russia became the first police state in history. It was riddled with secret police infiltrating agents into most of the anti-Tsar organisations. Various political parties had developed by this time, with varying aims, ranging from the establishment of a parliament and a constitution to establishing socialism.

The exact nature of what they meant by socialism was never really stated, but probably boiled down to some kind of nationalisation, with tight government control. Around this time many of Marx’s early writings had arrived in Russia and Marx was very popular, but not much understood. Funnily enough Capital was allowed by the censor who thought it was so dreary no one would read it, but mostly Marx’s writings were smuggled in.

By 1905 there were three major political parties loosely representing different class interests. They were the Democratic Constitutional Party (Kadets) (bourgeois), Social Democratic Labour Party (working class or proletariat in the language of the day), and Socialist Revolutionaries (roughly, peasants and workers).

Tactics varied from assassination,advocating strike action, to ‘leading the workers to the dictatorship of the proletariat’ but all were agreed on the necessity to remove the Tsar. From the 1890s onwards things were growing tense. Conditions of work in the factories and railways were abysmal, with very low wages, working hours of twelve to fourteen hours a day and appalling living conditions, much like they had been a few years earlier in Britain’s industrial revolution. There were many very large factories in Russia employing up to six thousand workers, attracting thousands of unskilled peasants. They were mainly housed in rapidly built barracks crammed in four or five to one room, quite a few of those employing a night shift saving on bed linen by having the night and day shifts use the same bed.

As usual, as a result of hasty building to accommodate large numbers of workers sanitary conditions were practically non-existent with open sewers in St Petersburg and Moscow and the consequent health risk, the usual concomitants of capitalism in its early stages.

In 1903 the Social Democratic Labour Party held a conference in London to draw up fresh rules (largely to contain the split in their ranks between those following Lenin and those supporting Martov). Lenin was insistent on the need for a tightly integrated, disciplined party of  professional revolutionaries. Martov was infavour of a more open, less disciplined party with much easier access to membership. The conference lead to a decisive split, roughly down the middle but with a slight edge to Lenin. From that time on these two sections were known by the name of Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority), leading to open conflict between these groups, played out fifteen years later at the time of the deposition of the Tsar and the Bolshevik rise to power.

So, at the turn of the century there existed a highly critical situation. An all powerful and inflexible, but nevertheless weak, Tsar, a poorly organised and ill-developed native capitalist class, a peasantry in rebellious mood but non-politicised, and a small as yet unorganised working class, not political, whose aims were confined to improving working conditions. On the fringe a party of professional revolutionaries whose aim was to lead the proletariat as their ‘vanguard’, but as yet had minimal influence. Something had to give! In 1905 it did.

In 1904 Russia went to war against Japan, in a war that was partly territorial, and partly, as most Western historians seem agreed, a bid by the Russian government to distract attention from current difficulties and unite the population in a patriotic fervour with a resounding victory. Unfortunately for the Tsar it didn’t work, as there was an even more resounding defeat. The general public lack of support for the Tsar fell even lower. More large-scale strikes ensued, and then, in 1905, there happened an event only too common in the struggles of the working class to gain justice.

Trade unions had been disallowed up till then in Russia but the government had been experimenting with police-led unions in an attempt to take the heat out of workers discontent. One of these was a union led by a priest, Father Gapon. Father Gapon thought it a worthy idea to lead a march in St. Petersburg to appeal to the Tsar, following the commonly-held belief in countries with a very powerful head that their father figure is unaware of the sufferings of the population and will intervene to put them right if only they can bring their problems to his attention. On Sunday 22 January some 150,000 people gathered in St Petersburg and marched on the Winter Palace where it was believed the Tsar was in residence. It was a peaceful protest, many were carrying icons, none were carrying weapons; they believed the Tsar would listen. They were met by troops who opened fire. The death toll was estimated at 200 killed and 800 wounded, reminiscent of many other panic reactions by governing bodies to peaceful working class demonstrations, Peterloo, Tiananmen Square among them. Support for the Tsar fell even further from then on.

Bloody Sunday, as it was thereafter called, opened the floodgates and the country was in turmoil. Strikes, demonstrations, outbreaks of violence were the order of the day. Eventually it was reluctantly agreed to inaugurate a constituent assembly called the ‘Duma’. This was set up and delegates were voted in, many of them peasants, but it never had any real power. In the mind of the Tsar it was only a sop which he intended to revoke as soon as the opportunity presented itself. 

The conservative reaction to this concession was extreme. A party was set up, the Octoberist party, which encouraged mob violence against supporters of the Duma. Government-inspired pogroms against Jews resulted in thousands of deaths and much homelessness. A wave of strikes broke out, peasant violence against their landlords escalated, similar to the French peasant violence and destruction of chateaux in another bourgeois revolution. The country was approaching a civil war.The appointment of a new minister of the interior, Stolypin, brought some ease to the country. His reign of repression consisted of setting special courts, which would have no compunction about passing the death sentence. So many were hanged that the nickname ‘Stolypin’s neckties’ became popular. He was eventually assassinated – at the opera, in front of the Tsar.

On the positive side, Stolypin initiated land reforms that were meant to be progressive but are generally agreed as having no great effect. The country gradually settled down, though never completely, and from around 1908 to 1914 there was a mild boom, with an increase in capital development.

Was 1905 a revolution? Not really. It was more a revolt, by large sections of the population against savagely repressive conditions, and by the nascent capitalist class to establish the freedom to operate. But there was no proposal to change the basis of society and each element, the peasants, the bourgeoisie, the nobles were paddling their own canoe. There was only one way they could go: capitalism. At best it was a rebellion, but one that had a profound influence on a similar uprising twelve years later which did change the basis of Russian society by completely uprooting Tsarism.

There are many lessons to be learned from this one episode in a period of violent change. One is that any worthwhile progress in human society must come, and can only come, from the working class. Relying on our rulers to initiate worthwhile change is as useless as the Russian peasants’ reliance on the Tsar. But above  all is the fact that no force can cut short the natural development of society until it is ready for change.
Cyril Evans

Letters: Human Nature (2005)

Letters to the Editors from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Human Nature

Dear Editors,

I’m aware that Socialists often have to face the criticism that Socialism is against human nature. According to this point of view human beings are naturally selfish and acquisitive, even when they have enough to satisfy their own needs. There would certainly seem to be plenty of apparent evidence for that point of view. I thought you might appreciate a section I came across in “The Neurotic Personality of Our Time” (1937) by Karen Horney:
“The irrational quest for possession is so widespread in our culture that it is only by making comparisons with other cultures that one recognises that it is not a general human instinct, either in the form of an acquisitive instinct or in the form of a sublimation of biologically founded drives. Even in our culture compulsive striving for possession vanishes as soon as the anxieties determining it are diminished or removed.”
Horney saw “the irrational quest for possession” as one of a number of ways in which people try to cope with feelings of anxiety, and not as an expression of “human nature”.  She rejected over-generalised ideas about “human nature” and recognised how diverse people are in their attitudes and behaviour.
Adam Waterhouse, 

Buying Life’s Essentials

Dear Editors

The aim of capitalism is to sell. I remember that in the 1939/45 war if we had food, warmth and shelter we wanted nothing, so I try to restrict my buying to essentials.
M. B. A. Chapman, 

We’re not too sure about this. If it caught on, employers would be able to pay us all less.


Dear Editors

Permit me to comment on your book review of Postmodern Humanism (November). The British Humanist Association was founded in 1896 and not as stated in 1963. A founding member was Charles Bradlaugh MP and when I ceased to be a member in 1997 there existed links with South Place Ethical Society, Rationalist Press Association and National Secular Society. I shall not comment on the reviewer’s claim “they still seem to be working out what their positive case is beyond promoting a non-religious but still ethical approach to life”. But I do assure you that they have taken an active role in the promotion of a large network of funeral celebrants and likewise for wedding and naming ceremonies. Whether these activities exist with the same momentum today, no doubt the book’s author (as a member of the North East Humanists) is  better able to judge.
E. Hirsch, 
Hockley, Essex.

According to the British Humanist Association’s own website, they were founded in 1963. It was another body, the Ethical Union, with which they are now associated, that was founded in 1896.

The workfare state: enforcing the wages system (2005)

From the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The changes which have taken place in what passes for welfare provision in Britain over the course of the last two decades were analysed in a book by Chris Grover and John Stewart, The Work Connection: The Role of Social  Security in British Economic Regulation, that came out in 2002. Largely inspired by Marxist economics, it represented a lucid  account of a domain where the harsh economic realities of capitalist exploitation contradict the illusions of reformist politics.

In many ways these illusions were fed by the extraordinary ideological success of the post-war Beveridge reforms, frequently presented as the triumph of half a century of reformist action led by Liberal, Labour and – to a lesser extent – Tory administrations. Any remaining illusions are now being dissipated. What welfare coverage and rights existed in the immediate post-war period are now being whittled away or simply done away with in order to more closely serve the form of capital accumulation which is now on the agenda. This new ‘inevitability of gradualism’ – to use the term adopted by the Webbs – means more exploitation and fewer rights of access to the means of subsistence for anyone unfortunate enough to have to try to find work for a living.

There never was a golden age of the welfare state. The history of income maintenance in Britain has been the history of coercion, discipline and surveillance. As the first functioning capitalist country, England experienced the workhouse test, ‘less eligibility’ and the doctrine of ‘deterrent’. It’s still one of the most miserly and punitive ‘welfare systems’ in Western Europe, although the other European countries are now catching up. (New rules in France mean that workers on the dole have fewer rights to refuse poorly paid jobs, the same is happening in Germany and Spanish workers are forced to be more mobile in the search for work. Whether the government is right or left changes nothing.)

However, now a new layer of social control has been added since the advent of British ‘workfare’, a policy loosely based on American precedents. In the past, maintaining labour discipline was a fairly simple task. Unemployment insurance benefits tended to be low compared to average wage rates. In a buoyant job market, the only workers who wanted to stay on the dole for a long period were the genial layabouts of the claimants’ unions, people who were using benefits to finance studies on the sly, actors ‘resting’ between roles and artists etc. In this situation, it was relatively easy to identify workers who were dodging work although, in practice, control procedures against the so-called ‘scroungers’ were not applied systematically. Nobody really had an interest in staying on the dole for too long but some did, much to the horror of Daily Mail readers.

The situation has now changed considerably. Successive governments have been trying to lower the wage levels of unskilled and semi-skilled workers (so-called ‘entry-level’ jobs) putatively in order to combat inflation. American ideas about the so-called ‘underclass’ popularised in the highly toxic pseudo-sociology of Charles Murray have replaced the episodic scrounger-bashing campaigns orchestrated by the Tories in the 1970s and 80s. Thus, whereas in the past the unemployed (now known as ‘jobseekers’) could refuse offers of work which didn’t correspond to their levels of skill or even standard trade union rates, now they are hassled into poorly paid jobs as quickly as their legs can carry them. This, in itself, has a particularly depressing effect on wage levels especially in the more lowly-paid occupations.

To make this process go even faster both Conservative and Labour administrations have introduced benefits to workers in low-paid jobs (in-work benefits) modelled on the Family Income Supplement set up in 1971 by the appalling Keith (later Sir Keith) Joseph, a Thatcherite bovver-boy and closet eugenicist. Officially, in-work benefits provide incentives to unemployed people – pardon, ‘jobseekers’ – to take on poorly paid jobs and to leave the supposedly luxurious world of inactive welfare dependency. In actual fact, subsidies to low paid jobs tend to have a depressive effect on wages. Employers know that they can get the labour power they need for less cash, the state stepping in to make up the difference. And of course, the increase in the number of workers coming onto the labour market increases supply and lowers price.

All this continues unabated under New Labour, indeed, with many subtle and often cruel refinements. These include the fine combing of the population of the partially disabled and their gradual inclusion in the reserve army of labour and the particularly brutal treatment meted out to lone mothers. Of course, New Labour has introduced the national minimum wage albeit on an extremely low level. But this only means that over the long-term the depressive forces working on wage levels will result in the legal minimum becoming the maximum paid out for unskilled work, the trade unions having been weakened by two decades of legal meddling.

In the final analysis, welfare administration is really only the problem of policing the frontier between the reserve army of labour – people who are on hold for later exploitation – and the surplus population – people who are simply maintained at low cost outside of the labour market. ‘Labour market activation’ – the trendy term for these new policies – is really about making some formerly excluded workers available for a spot of exploitation. Social welfare policies don’t solve the underlying problem of capitalist exploitation. But then again who would ever look to the Labour Party or New Labour to solve that problem?