Friday, April 5, 2024

Cooking the Books: Be they dragons? (2024)

The Cooking The Books column from the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the November/December issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, Benjamin Radford dealt with a question ‘What do you make of the memes going around comparing billionaires to hoarding dragons and monkeys? Are billionaires hurting the world by hoarding their obscene wealth?’ He answered that billionaires were not like the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit who slept on a hoard of gold as they did not literally ‘hoard’ their wealth. Although he appears to be a supporter of the world as it currently is he made a couple of valid points.

First, that much of the wealth of billionaires is not actual, tangible wealth like gold.
‘Ultra-rich people don’t literally own billions of physical dollars in the way that Smaug physically sits on gold and treasure. Instead, owning five billion dollars and being worth $5 billion on paper are two different things. That’s because the value isn’t tangible. It’s not a zero-sum game in which if you have something (say a house, car or $100 bill) that, by definition, means someone else does not have it. In the case of wealth, a person can (and usually does) get rich when the value of a company’s stock increases. But that increase doesn’t mean that someone else loses money or value if the value of your stocks goes up by $100.’
Radford presents this as a difference between ‘money’ and ‘wealth’, between money as a store of wealth and the price of what a person owns. There is a difference here but between wealth (properly understood as physical things that have a use) and its price. The price of some item of tangible wealth can go up (or down) without affecting the ownership of that wealth. If it goes up, this is a ‘capital gain’ for the owner.

In the case of stocks and shares, what is being bought and sold is not even anything tangible, but the right to draw an income from the production of future tangible wealth, more precisely the expected profits to be made from this. Marx called this ‘fictitious capital’ but a more immediately understandable term might have been ‘notional capital’.

The riches of super-rich individuals like Musk and Bezos are mainly in the form of stocks in the corporations they own. If the price of these goes up then they get richer. Recently, due largely to the quantitative easing, there has been a boom in the price of stocks and shares, resulting in the rich and super-rich getting richer. Thus, calculations have been made of how much Musk’s riches have been increasing per day. It’s $49,439,601 (

These capital gains don’t represent any increase in real, tangible wealth. Radford is correct in pointing out that they don’t represent wealth that can be hoarded or could be redistributed to others. They don’t deprive anybody of anything. But this doesn’t mean that all the wealth of billionaires exists only as ‘notional capital’. They also have a share of property titles to real tangible wealth, the physical assets (buildings, equipment) of the corporations that they have shares in. They are part of the class that monopolises the means that society needs to use to survive.

Which brings us to Radford’s second point, that hoarding is ‘the last thing that they want to do with their money’:
‘They neither have nor hoard treasure but instead invest their wealth in businesses, which in turn buy equipment and hire employees’.
Exactly. What they want to do with their money is to invest it with a view to making more money. Which is the opposite of hoarding. Unlike ‘capital gains’, profits represent real wealth, a monetary reflection of one part of the real, tangible wealth that employees produce.

Billionaires can be acquitted of the charge of behaving like dragons. But not of being part of the class that monopolises the means of production, to the detriment of the rest of us.

Proper Gander: Presenting the past (2024)

The Proper Gander TV column from the March 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

How accurate do we expect or want historical dramas on TV and film to be? Fiction, by definition, isn’t factual, and even when a story is based on real events, it can’t be an exact recreation. There will always be liberties taken to fit the events into the drama’s running time and conventions about plot and character development. Depictions of the past are always infused with the mores of the time when they were made. A drama produced in the 1970s and set in the 1870s has 1970s interpretations of Victorian styles of dress and furnishings, as well as of the attitudes and motivations of the characters. Anyone watching Upstairs Downstairs, for example, would instantly know whether they were watching the 1970s or the 2010s version.

One prominent trend in recent years is to place more emphasis on diversity in how historical dramas are produced. Previously, the media has been guilty of neglecting non-white people’s experiences and perpetuating negative stereotypes. A notorious example is the 1915 film Birth of a Nation for its racist depiction of black people in 19th-century America, while 1939’s Gone with the Wind, set in the same period, gave a distorted impression of relations between black and white people. Of course, many historical dramas have aimed to bring attention to issues affecting black people and communities by recreating what happened as realistically as possible, two examples being Roots (1977, 2016) and BBC One’s Small Axe (2020). Authenticity hasn’t been a priority for Netflix’s ratings hit Bridgerton, which revolves around an aristocratic black family in early 19th-century London. Series creator Chris Van Dusen acknowledges the unlikeliness of this scenario, saying that Bridgerton ‘is a reimagined world, we’re not a history lesson, it’s not a documentary. What we’re really doing with the show is marrying history and fantasy in what I think is a very exciting way. One approach that we took to that is our approach to race’ (

The series was inspired by the largely debunked claim that Queen Charlotte (1744 – 1818) recognisably had some black African ancestry. In 2023 spin-off Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, she is played by India Amarteifio, who has part-black African heritage. Channel 5’s 2021 miniseries Anne Boleyn has Jodie Turner-Smith, of Jamaican heritage, cast as Henry VIII’s second wife. These are examples of one of the bugbears of right-wing online commentators, which they would call ‘race-swapping’. Criticisms of the casting in Netflix’s 2023 docudrama Queen Cleopatra weren’t only limited to social media posts, though. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a stern statement that Adele James, of Jamaican and British heritage, portraying the Egyptian queen was a falsification of history in that she actually had ‘white skin and Hellenistic characteristics’ (

The reverse was more common in old dramas, with white actors often playing non-white historical figures. As recently as 2014, director Ridley Scott said that he cast white actors in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings because ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such’ ( While the landscape has changed a lot even since Exodus, what has remained the same is that those working in the media have to follow whichever approach will attract the most investment and viewers, who also represent income. The recent emphasis on diversity and inclusion is hoped to fit in with the values of those (mainly younger) people in the target market. This is shown most clearly in the increase of non-white people in TV adverts. A more diverse cast is intended to reach a more diverse audience, to attract a more diverse range of people to part with their money to make profits for the elite.

Another motivation is that films need to be made by or cast a set proportion of people from hitherto under-represented groups to be considered for some Academy Awards and BAFTAs. Awards don’t just give recognition for talent; they also confer financial advantage in being another advert for the film, and award-winning artistes can attract more revenue.

So, the emphasis on diversity on TV and in film has economic explanations, alongside sincere attempts to improve the profile and opportunities of groups of people who have traditionally been disadvantaged. This disadvantage has itself stemmed from economic circumstances, when non-white people have been seen as less attractive in the labour market.

Right-wing commentators on social media have been particularly vocal with their view that representations of ethnicity on TV and film demonstrate that ‘woke’ leftists have infiltrated the industry. This discussion generates attention, and therefore more publicity. Hardly anyone would have heard of Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn series if it hadn’t provoked blather about its lead actor. Predictably, much of the left and right’s discourse is bitter and combative in tone, casting aspersions and fuelling division.

Does it matter if the past is depicted on our screens in a way which doesn’t accurately reflect what it was like? A drama showing non-white characters in improbable positions of status for the time risks dismissing the actual societal restrictions which have been imposed on some groups. While there were a small number of privileged black people in Regency era Britain, such as Ignatius Sancho and Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black family wouldn’t have been as wealthy and powerful among the English elite of the early 1800s as the fictional Bridgertons. Their lifestyles would bear no relation to those of the people from Africa still trapped in the slave trade at the time. Another drama set in the same era which gives a misleading impression is 2022’s The Woman King. This film retells the story of the Agojie, a female warrior unit of the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), as an example of empowered black women, downplaying the patriarchal and slave-based system of which they were part. The inaccuracies undermine the strength which the messages of emancipation or equality aim for.

An important distinction between these dramas is in how they are pitched. With Bridgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Anne Boleyn, there’s a stated or unstated understanding that what’s on screen is not historically accurate, with this looseness giving a wider range of actors the chance to explore roles. With Queen Cleopatra, Queen Charlotte and The Woman King, there are some claims for authenticity, which invite more scrutiny. Unfortunately, the way the ‘culture war’ over historical dramas is usually fought online distracts from recognising the economic context in which the debate has arisen.
Mike Foster

Blogger's Note:
Small Axe was reviewed in the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard.

A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? (2024)

From the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The expectation, within an exchange economy like capitalism, is that products and services are exchanged in a like-for-like measure of value. The money you pay for anything is a contract of exchange based on the promise of equal value. Your money is a universal commodity that legally ensures this and, for the most part, it will be a reality of economic activity. Although universally accepted this description of a transaction makes a rather naive assumption about the nature and definition of ‘value’.

Economists have long pondered on this phenomenon and continue to disagree as to its nature and even its efficacy in describing financial activity. There are deep ideological reasons for the attempt to divide the disciplines of politics and economics but anyone genuinely seeking to understand the history of this most basic, and important, social activity will quickly discover the impossibility of doing so.

The defenders of capitalism will go to great lengths to try and prove that the system has coherence, equality and fairness built into its transactional process so that any hint of irrational and exploitative elements will be described as originating in ‘ideological extremism’ or be completely ignored. Such is the grip of this economic propaganda that very few are willing to concede the possibility of the establishment of a non-exchange economy called socialism.

Consider the meaning and implications of the title of this article in the light of what socialists believe to be the most glaring example of an irrational and unequal economic exchange within the capitalist system – the exchange of labour for wages. We have all heard the phrase: ‘He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. This hints at both an economic suspicion and a moral criticism of the system based on a notion that price and value are not the same thing. As described above we usually experience an assumed parity of value when we buy anything and, despite the vagaries of supply and demand, this is indeed the case. But if we describe wages/salaries as the price of labour power we see immediately a disparity of value that this represents in terms of the value produced and the profits enjoyed by non-producers.

The only possible conclusion is that wages do not represent the full value of what a worker produces – if it did there would be no profit and no capitalism. Labour power is the only commodity that can produce more value than is represented by its price (wages). If this is a correct analysis it condemns the capitalist system as one of exploitation and theft which is why, as mentioned above, those who defend the system could never acknowledge this obvious truth and go to such great lengths to obfuscate it in their tortuous economic theories.

This doesn’t imply a massive conspiracy theory against the truth but merely a profound ignorance of the reality of economic activity. How has this come about? Socialists contend that it is because of the confusion and misunderstanding of the relationship between price and use-value. To try and untangle this we have to go back and understand the concept of value.

It is a fascinating study to understand what different societies in different times have considered valuable. Other than human qualities like intelligence, courage, moral integrity and compassion we have attributed value to objects of our and nature’s creation such as gold, silver, gem stones, art, music, antiques, etc. Phenomena of great utility like oil, gas, water, metals and wood have enjoyed varied levels of prestige through the ages but one thing above all others has been valued the most – social status through the accumulation of wealth together with the political power it generates.

To overcome the impracticalities of direct exchange via barter one item of wealth ultimately evolved into currency (money), something that could be exchanged for anything else. As trade expanded it became necessary to produce such coins in a universally acknowledged medium of value such as gold or silver which was in turn superseded by a legal attachment to these material incarnations of value and then merely to the prestige and power of the state (fiat money). But at the root of all of these commodities is human labour. Gold and oil are not valuable because they are rare but because of the labour-time needed in finding and extracting them (due to their rarity).

The price of the labour power expended to do this is determined by the amount of labour needed to create (training, etc) and maintain it (means of life/standard of living). But the price paid for labour power is always much less than the price paid for the results of labour like gold and so on. Those who produce wealth only get in return the value incarnated in the price of their labour power (wages) and not the price incarnated in the value of what they produce.

Surplus value is the difference between the wealth represented by the wages of producers and the wealth generated by their labour. When the products of this labour are exchanged (sold) this magnitude of difference becomes profit – part of which can be resurrected as capital which is used to expand this whole cycle of exploitation over again and again. Capitalism depends on the fact that a day’s wages do not represent the value of a day’s work. No ‘redistribution’ of wealth can overcome this essential fact of capitalism. Exploitation occurs at the point of production and is immoral, irrational and a relic of the past. No form of exchange economy within an advanced technological culture is needed – indeed capitalism represents a fetter on production. It is a remnant of class inequality and has no shred of economic coherence or relevance for the 21st century.

Limitarianism (2024)

Book Review from the April 2024 issue of the 
Socialist Standard

Enough. Why It’s Time to Abolish the Super-Rich. By Luke Hildyard. Pluto Press. 2024

Luke Hildyard, director of the think-tank the High Pay Centre, shows that the super-rich (the top 1 percent) don’t need most of their income and refutes all the arguments that they deserve it all. He also shows that, if they were reduced to being merely rich (a maximum income of £187,000 a year), then there would be enough money available for other uses, in particular improving the standard of living of others. This, he says, could be done both by redistribution (taxation) and by what he calls ‘pre-distribution’ (preventing too much income going to them in the first place). An average figure of around £2,500 a year per adult for everyone else is floated at one point. The money is definitely there but could it be diverted in the way he wants?

He favours the money going mostly to those currently with the lowest incomes. In fact, he sees the amount available being enough to ‘eliminate poverty pay at a stroke’. This would be done by raising the minimum wage, which, by reducing profits, would prevent so much income flowing to the super-rich.

But that’s not how the capitalist system works. It runs on profits and any reduction in profits would reduce the incentive and the amount to invest and risk proving an economic slowdown if not a recession. On the other hand, the aim of capitalist production is not the consumption of the rich owners of productive resources. It is the accumulation of profits as more and more capital invested for profit. In this sense, a disproportionate amount of profits going to the super-rich to spend on a personal super-luxurious lifestyle (yachts, private jets, bunkers, 40-bedroom mansions, lavish parties, etc) is a drag on capital accumulation. This in fact is what Hildyard argues in chapter 3 on ‘The Economic Case for Equality’, though a better title would have been ‘The Capitalist Case for Less Income Inequality’ since that’s what in effect he is arguing for.

Two other ‘pre-distributive’ measures that he advocates are worker-directors and profit-sharing. He thinks that workers on the board is likely to mean less exorbitant executive salaries. Maybe, but that wouldn’t mean that the money saved would go to increase wages. Profit-sharing is a snare which, besides tying workers to their employers, also means that they have an unpredictable income from year to year rather than a secure contracted amount.

As to the money raised by taxing the consumption income of the super-rich, this could in theory be used to provide improved public services and amenities but, capitalism not being geared to meeting people’s needs, is more likely to be used to reduce taxes on businesses or spent on capitalist priorities such as the armed forces.

Capitalism is based on the exclusion of the vast majority of the population from the ownership of productive resources, thereby obliging them to get a living by working for the tiny minority which does own them. Inequality in the ownership of productive resources is thus built into the system. This results in inequality in incomes too since profits are shared by a small number, giving each a high income. As capital accumulates, through the reinvestment under the pressure of competition of most profits, so does the wealth and income of the owners. The tendency, then, is for the rich as a whole to get richer. Reformist measures to redistribute wealth and income are up against this tendency which wins out in the long run.

Despite its naive reformism, the book is very readable and, as you would expect from the director of a think-tank devoted full-time to the issue, is well researched and referenced and so a useful source of information on the inequality of income and wealth ownership built into capitalism.
Adam Buick

Coal Face-offs (2024)

Joseph Skipsey
From the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Conflict has always been integral to capitalism. The contradictory relationship between employers and employed erupts periodically into often bitter, at times deadly, conflict. Workers have banded together to fight for their mutual interests only to be met by intimidation and even physical force on behalf of employers, often by the forces of the state.

2024 is the 40th anniversary of the most recent protracted struggle against a blatantly determined government bent on nothing less than breaking the power of trade unions in general, the National Union of Mineworkers in particular.

Miners have long been at the forefront of struggles for better wages and working conditions. An industry bedevilled by very obvious dangers benefitted from the close communities generated. However, such social, and political, solidarity was always perceived to be a threat by mine owners and state alike.

One hundred and fifty years previous to the Great Strike, in 1832, the Durham and Northumberland coalfields were riven by collier strikes and belligerent responses to those industrial actions. An instance of this was the Battle of Goose Green in Gateshead. A strike by miners was met by a direct attempt to break it by employers bringing in unemployed lead miners from other areas of the country. They needed to be housed, so the owners resorted to evicting the striking miners and their families from their tied housing. Unsurprisingly there was determined resistance which resulted in armed special constables being deployed to enforce the evictions.

When some of that force were disarmed by miners, who then had weapons they could use, they became a significant threat. This resulted in troops from a barracks in Newcastle being sent to extinguish this act of rebellion. A clear example of the state deploying its forces to protect the interests of capital, in this case, mine owners.

In the same year, Cuthbert Skipsey, a pitman at Percy main colliery, near Tynemouth, was shot and killed outside The Pineapple, a pub in the village of Chirton, North Shields. It was an incident highlighting the difference in treatment a miner might expect from the authorities, compared with when a victim was of the authorities, such as a magistrate.

Cuthbert Skipsey was generally regarded as quiet and inoffensive. A meeting of striking miners taking place in Chirton was confronted by special constables and what was described as an affray ensued.

It seems that Cuthbert stepped forward intending to diffuse an explosive situation. Whether his action was genuinely misunderstood or there was malice, one of the constables, George Weddle drew a pistol and shot Skipsey.

The death of the respected collier, and the subsequent plight of his wife and eight (or 6, accounts vary) children was, unsurprisingly, the cause of outrage in the community. This resulted in Weddle’s arrest. His trial, on 3 August, and conviction for manslaughter lasted 12 hours and led to a sentence of six months imprisonment with hard labour.

Previously, on 1 August, another collier, William Jobling, was found guilty of killing Nicholas Fairless, a magistrate. He was sentenced to death, his body to be hung in chains near the location of the crime.

The death of Cuthbert Skipsey had a rather unlikely outcome. His family was plunged into poverty, his children being expected to do whatever they could to ease their dire circumstances, such as gathering nettles for the cooking pot.

Newly born around the time of his father’s death, Joseph Skipsey, aged 7, became employed, in what had been his father’s workplace, Percy Main Colliery, as a trapper. Twelve hour shifts underground opening and closing trapdoors used to control air flow to, hopefully, prevent the build-up of gases.

As it was just hewers digging the coal, the only work activity that was actually directly paid, at the face who had any light. So a trapper would spend his or her shift in complete darkness. A situation from which a phrase was coined that is still in use; ‘so-and-so’ is not worth the candle.

From such an unpromising beginning Joseph went on to become a poet, friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Oscar Wilde and others of the literary world. He became secretary of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, Custodian of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford upon Avon and recipient of an annual pension awarded by Queen Victoria.

There was a somewhat tenuous link between Joseph and the Queen. On 16 January 1862 at Hartley Colliery, near Whitley Bay, the huge arm of the steam pumping engine sheared off and fell into the single shaft of the pit, effectively sealing it.

204 men and boys were trapped and perished. Joseph Skipsey marked this tragedy by writing The Hartley Calamity, a 25 stanza ballad poem. He toured the area giving readings to raise money for the widows and orphans. Queen Victoria, on learning of this tragedy, pressed her ministers to legislate to outlaw single shaft pits. From then all mines had to have at least two ways in and, more importantly two ways out.

A life that began in tragedy commemorated one tragedy amongst so many in that industry. Coal mining serves as an exemplar of the impact of capitalism on working class lives, too often the premature losing of those lives.

Of course, the situation in mining changed from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, as it did in wider society. Engels had recognised when he wrote about the condition of the labouring masses that the state would have to intervene to bring some stability to capitalism by curbing its worst excesses.

While the depredations of capitalism were mitigated they have not been, and cannot be, erased altogether. The nationalisation of coal mining did a great deal to improve the conditions in which miners laboured. However, the portrayal of nationalisation as a socialist act was and is grievously mistaken. It could not be possible for miners to take strike action in 1972, ’74 and then 1984-5 if they, as workers, were the owners of the industry. They would have been striking against themselves.

Even if miners had become the mine owners, the rest of the working class would have been excluded from that ownership, which would have been effectively private. A non-mine worker wanting coal to meet a need for fuel would not have had free access to it.

The miners’ strike laid bare how the state and its legal system will always be stacked against the working class acting on its own behalf. Until that is workers realise that only by dispossessing capital of the means of wealth production and deploying those means mutually to meet their own needs.

Until that happens then, in the words of Joseph Skipsey:
Not rest or peace, but toil and strife,

Do there the soul enthral;

And turn the precious cup of life

Into a cup of gall.

(From The Stars are Twinkling)
Dave Alton

Horrorscope revisited (2024)

A Short Story from the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard
(Updated from a short story in the February 1984 Socialist Standard)

Right behind the headlines of the papers there’s a space entitled Horoscope
Do you think I’m some sort of dope?
Because it’s always there I turn to first of all to help me cope.
(With apologies to Jake Thackray)
Good news and bad news. The bad news is that the government has increased the retirement age yet again. You’re now expected to continue to work until you’re 81. Or until you fall down dead from exhaustion. Whichever comes first. The good news is that as part of the government’s compulsory mobilisation plans you are in the third tier of those awaiting the call.

A tall stranger will appear on your doorstep today. You immediately realise that he is not someone who swiped right on the dating app. Although uniforms are something that can be a turn on they are not so when the dark blue also wears at the hip a Sig Sauer P250. You have been accused of offending someone by your use of mean hurty words. You are strongly advised not to criticise the government. Bear in mind, Big Brother is watching you at all times. Or else.

You will have trouble at work today. You are summoned to appear before Human Resources. HR is run by the boss’s daughter. Are you happy working here, is the first question put to you. Your bat senses immediately perceive that you are not here to be given a pay rise but that instead the proverbial is about to hit the fan. Miss Otis regrets to inform you that it has come to their attention that you have been making disparaging remarks on your private social media about working conditions at the company, and further, you have made extremely rude comment about the boss, her father, but she wants you to know she is being very objective in dealing with this matter. Describing your boss as a mean grasping slave driver of a capitalist will not be tolerated. Perhaps you would not only like to delete those comments but you should post something very positive about him and the company too. She is deeply concerned and strongly suggests that you are much more careful what you post privately in future. Or else.

Beware of turmoil in the home. Your private landlord notifies you that given the continual interest rate rises his property empire is faced with extra costs that are seriously reducing the amount of unearned income that he is able to extract from his tenants. He says that next month’s rent will be double what you are paying at present. Failure to comply with these new terms blah blah blah will result in the eviction of you and your family. Your partner has a complete meltdown at the effect eviction would have on you all especially the children. He points out that there are plenty of desperate people looking for accommodation who are prepared to pay whatever exorbitant rent he might charge. Remember, before you start complaining that landlords provide a public service, and their altruistic motives should not be at all questioned blah blah blah. Further, don’t you know we live in a capitalist system which means never give a sucker a break and if you and yours end up on the street then it will be your fault for being such a tight-fisted git.

A letter bearing bad news. Dear Patient, as a result of the government having privatised the National Health Service we wish to inform you that every appointment made with a doctor at this surgery will now incur a cost of twenty pounds. If you are taking regular medication please be aware that all drugs will have to be paid for at whatever price is levied by the drug manufacture.

A slight bit of bad luck. You’re a single mother. Your child minder says they can no longer look after your child. What to do? Basically, you’re screwed.

You receive a summons. You are alleged to have transgressed the Public Order Act. What’s it going to take to make you realise that you can’t go around demonstrating in favour of things the government disapproves of? Are you one of those freaks who believe in democracy? It might go easier with you if you snitch on those who imbued you with such insidious beliefs. You’ve already been warned about saying mean hurty things. You need to learn to keep quiet about things that don’t concern you and to kowtow to your betters.

A marvellous time for you. You’re dreaming.

You are in a spending mood. Spoiler alert: Unfortunately, you do not possess the wherewithal to indulge such ridiculous fantasies. You decide to cheer everyone up so you say, how about a treat? Let’s have three pennorth of chips! At the fish and chip shop you peruse the prices on the board and wonder how food could have become so expensive since your last sojourn there. As you didn’t have a win on the national Lottery that week you reluctantly leave there empty handed.

You are developing some strange habits. Resolve never to believe in astrology ever again. You have come to realise that what politicians and the media tell you has as much credence as the pseudoscience of star signs which may or may not be taken seriously by very many. Please temper your greatest heresy which is no longer believing that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds which benefits the majority as opposed to the minority ruling class who continue to have power over your everyday life. You are treading on a slippery slope. If you let these invidious thoughts get the better of you, you will be challenging the prevailing heterodoxy and before you know it you will be confronting capitalism and saying that it should be abolished. Cleanse your mind of such thoughts. Or else!
Dave Coggan

The Gleam of Socialism? (2024)

Book Review from the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Gleam of Socialism’. By Robert Griffiths, Praxis Press, 2004.

Why is there still a Communist Party? Good question. After all, the main role of that party throughout its history was to win support amongst workers for the foreign policy of the old USSR and its rulers. In fact, that’s why that state helped the finances of the party until the late 1970s, either directly or by buying thousands of copies of the old Daily Worker and its successor, the Morning Star.

No doubt, the leaders of the party weren’t just useful idiots but had sincerely convinced themselves that Russia was on the road to socialism and that in serving the interests of the USSR they were furthering the cause of socialism. But it wasn’t socialism. Far from it. It was a one-party dictatorship, the aim of whose rulers was to develop capitalism, in the form of a state capitalism, as rapidly as possible; which inevitably involved the economic exploitation of the workers there through the wages system and the extraction of surplus value. But this is the view of those Griffiths describes as ‘ultra-left anti-communists’.

Griffiths is the current general secretary of the ‘Communist Party of Britain’ (CPB), formed as a breakaway in 1988 from the historic ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ whose leaders were indeed coming to the conclusion that there was no longer a need for a party dedicated to taking a lead from the rulers of the USSR. When the state-capitalist regime there finally collapsed in 1991 they decided to change the party’s name, to Democratic Left. Confusing matters, a grouplet, opportunistically, immediately took up the name and still exists under that name, publishing the Weekly Worker. This current CPGB has nothing to do with the historic party of that name. The original CPGB’s legitimate political successor can be said to be the CPB and the Morning Star.

There is also a previous breakaway, for the same sort of reason, in 1977 to form the still extant ‘New Communist Party’ which might have been able to claim this if they had not decided to link up with North Korea.

Griffiths’s book is a collection of articles, some of them published previously including short pieces on various well-known past CP members, mainly from Wales, from where he himself hails. The more substantial part is a history of the old CPGB — and its various policy twists and turns — and is accurate enough factually. It’s the explanation for them that is at fault as he presents them as being made in response to changes in conditions in Britain rather than at the behest of Moscow. Nor is there any reason to doubt the accuracy of his blow-by-blow account of the struggle in 1980s between the Old Guard CPers, centred around the Morning Star, and the ‘Eurocommunists’ who had won control of the party apparatus and who wanted to turn the party into a coalition of social movements, a sort of democratic green feminist left, and who were indeed ‘revisionists’ and ‘liquidationists’ from the Old Guard’s point of view.

The main reason for accepting the CPB as the political successor of the old CPGB is the continuity of political analysis which Griffiths illustrates. The CPB still sees the old USSR as having been socialist and still analyses present-day capitalism as ‘state-monopoly capitalism’ and still sees the way forward as a broad alliance of all anti-monopoly elements led by the ‘united working class movement’ to elect a left-wing Labour government. The aim, in other words, is an economy with a state-capitalist sector and a fairly extensive private non-monopoly sector under a reformist government.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn is described as a ‘longstanding friend of the Communist Party’. Maybe he just sees them as general Old Labour left-wing reformists like himself.
Adam Buick

Capitalism and the fallacy of reform (2024)

From the April 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recently, Sir Keir Starmer announced his ambition for a ‘patriotic economy’ through the championing of home ownership and the building of new model towns. Evidently, the Labour leader is attempting to harness the middle ground, by blending Thatcher and Attlee. Many recall the faux revolution of ‘right to buy’ which, forty years on, has spawned a social housing crisis. Throw in the legacy of the 1946 New Towns Act, which sought to construct model towns in the aftermath of the Second World War, and you have yet another Social Democratic fudge to reform capitalism.

Starmer is not alone in seeking to reinvent the wheel. Every Labour leader has bound themselves to the yoke of the system. Ramsay Macdonald all too willingly succumbed to the protracted economic crisis of the interwar years, content at playing establishment bank manager in a period of decline. The Attlee Government, despite the strides made in welfarism, struck the rocks, and yielded to the rules of capitalism, laying the course for twenty-five years of Butskellism. Harold Wilson had us believe that a new Britain could be forged in the white heat of technology, but this fire burned in the hall of capitalism, prostrated by markets and a depreciating pound. James Callaghan surrendered what vestiges of leftism remained, implementing the kind of monetarism Thatcher later claimed as her own. Need anything be said of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – the would-be heirs to the Iron Lady?

No, the British labour movement, like so many Social Democratic movements the world over, has always been a willing hostage to capitalism, engaging in a futile quest to reform it, rather than introduce socialism. In some respects, they cannot be blamed, for the boom-and-bust integral to the existence of capitalism has attracted many in vainglorious quests to improve it and acquire the eternal elixir of socioeconomic harmony. Many also point to the idea that capitalism has in fact undergone transformations as justification for reform, such as the shift from industrial capitalism to the information age. The rise of technology and globalisation has apparently altered the dynamics of production, trade, and employment. Some have also claimed the attainment of adaptation within capitalism – the Nordic model, exemplified by countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, supposedly combines capitalist elements with a strong welfare state. This model allegedly seeks to prioritise social equality, education, and healthcare, challenging the notion that capitalism must follow a rigid, laissez-faire approach.

However, reformist approaches are an illusion and cannot ameliorate the structural antagonisms which provide the fundamental basis for capitalism. Even in the venerated Nordic economies high inflation and interest rates, youth unemployment and poverty persist. Finland is in recession while the Swedish economy is weakening. Norway, propped up by oil and gas exploitation faces fiscal challenges with high public spending. The message is clear: under capitalism, boom will always lead to bust.

The system requires inequality and the exploitation of workers, else there would be no profit or incentive to accumulate. Over the past hundred years, Social Democratic efforts to introduce welfarism and redistribution have failed to eradicate this inequality and exploitation. Today, the rich are richer and the poor poorer. The gap has widened, and reformism has served only to pacify the masses so that the top one per cent can acquire more. Today, the poorest 50 percent hold only 8 percent of global wealth, while the richest 10 percent earn over 50 percent. The top 1 percent alone owns 35 percent of global wealth, takes 19 percent of income, and emits 17 percent of global carbon emissions (International Monetary Fund, Global Inequalities). This has occurred despite the founding of welfare states in some countries, free healthcare, state education, social security, and the ‘redistribution’ of wealth.

It appears the capitalist system has assimilated Social Democracy and turned it into a weapon to perpetuate exploitation. Harold Macmillan once said of Britons in the 1950s that they had never had it so good – (hardly an accolade considering decades of economic instability and destructive war). In truth, any semblance of prosperity is nothing more than the offering of more crumbs off the capitalist plate. You may receive sustenance, but the people at the top still get a hearty meal. If anything is true of today it is that the rich have never had it so good.

Alas, Social Democrats have been hood-winked, in no small way thanks to the Social Democratic theorist Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). In Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation (1899) Bernstein did not believe in capitalism’s inevitable destruction; he accepted the strength of its capacity to adapt and advocated reform so that humanity could transition from capitalism to social democracy. He contended that as workers attained greater rights, their grievances would diminish, making revolution implausible. In this, he is perhaps accurate. The extension of rights and the offering of the ‘crumbs’ have pacified the masses and encouraged social democrats to continue along the path of reformism. However, his call for reform contradicts his appraisal of capitalism’s adaptational strength. Everything promulgated within the system is consumed by the system. Nothing changes.

Like Bernstein, today’s Labour and Social Democratic parties do not champion any meaningful alternative – in fact, they are complicit in the perpetuation of capitalism. As Bernstein’s contemporary, the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) contested:
‘…people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal’. Consequently, their goal is ‘not the realisation of Socialism, but the reform of capitalism.’
She did not mean workers should not fight for mitigations within the system – indeed we cannot suspend ourselves nor exist outside of it – but we must acknowledge that meaningful change can only be attained by transcending the capitalist system. Once this has been achieved and socialism established, humanity must then work to continually improve socialism so that it fulfils its basic mission of meeting the needs of all. Here, and only here, is where socialism truly becomes evolutionary.

Socialists can take some comfort from the fact that, notwithstanding the futility of Social Democratic attempts to reform the system, capitalism is by no means an eternal fact, nor inherent to human nature. Closer examination reveals that it is more accurately understood as a phase in human development. Throughout history, economic systems have undergone significant transformations, and capitalism is just one stage in this ongoing progression.

The advent of capitalism brought forth key principles, such as private ownership of the means of production, free-market competition, and the profit motive. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not without conflict, as evidenced by the social upheavals and labour movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. These movements sought to address the challenges posed by the industrialisation of society, including issues of worker exploitation and poor working conditions.

There is, therefore, hope that humanity can transcend capitalism. It requires a widespread global consciousness, an acceptance of the truth that the system we currently perpetuate is harsh and damaging to us all, and that reforming that system equates to nothing more than that perpetuation.

While capitalism has undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping modern economies, it is not a reflection of human nature, as its apologists, ignoring the historical and cultural evidence, have claimed since the time of Adam Smith, if not before.

Human societies have demonstrated adaptability and a capacity for diverse economic systems throughout history, and while no thinking socialist can dispute the transformative impact of capitalism; the extent of technological advancement and human dominion over the environment, one would do well to remember that it does not symbolise the culmination of all conceivable endeavours to organise as a species. To rest on the laurels of capitalism is to commit the mistake of previous generations, specifically those who held up religion, imperialism, feudalism, and slavery as essential preconditions for civilisation. We must take what we have learned under capitalism and use it to build a better version of the world – one of peace, community, and equality. In short, a socialist world.
John Elliston