Friday, February 27, 2009

It’s capitalism that’s to blame

In the space of a few months bankers and the rest of the financial sector have gone from being the self-styled "masters of the universe" to little more than "Scumbag Millionaires" in the words of the tabloids. Even social workers, teachers and imams are getting a better press these days.

On both sides of the Atlantic, bankers are being hounded by journalists and interrogated by politicians in televised show trials. They're having to hand back the private jet and cancel the company team building event at Florida. (Realising it might look bad to take the private jet, Bank of America’s CEO slummed it on a train for 8 hours travelling to Washington to give testimony at the Senate hearing). Not all executives take well to the sackcloth and ashes: Eric Daniels, Chief Executive of LloydsTSB, tried to claim his £1 million was a "modest salary".

The blame game is in full swing with politicians, bankers and regulators all trying to place responsibility with someone else. And every so often of course, the working class are dragged into this and accused of starting the problem by daring to imagine that they could lead the lives of the class above them that have been trailed endlessly over the years in the media, so ending up over-stretching themselves to accept all those mortgages and other loans.

The current stand-off between the banks and the government exposes one of the hidden features of the market system. While the government has provided the banks with mind-bogglingly large sums of financial support, they still seem reluctant to lend. (There is even a joke doing the rounds. Apparently Gordon Brown has told the police that they should now turn a blind eye when they see a bank robbery. The reason? - he's realised that given the current stand-off between the banks and the government, it’s probably the quickest way to get some money into circulation).

But of course, while capitalism may be going through interesting times at the moment, that does not mean that the fundamental rules of capitalism are not holding. In fact we are going through such apparent upheavals in order to maintain an orderly and even conveyor belt of profit to the capitalist class. Recession is a natural part of the life-cycle of capitalism.

Economists may be confused, and financial modellers may be bamboozled, but capitalism is actually acting true to form. The fundamental requirement is for investment to deliver a return commensurate with the risk. The banks don't see many parts of the economy where they can confidently see a return on their investment, so they are refusing to lend. For the 5 percent of the world's population who don't need to work but instead live off their monopoly and the profit generated by others (or its close relations, rent and – with particular relevance to the banking sector – interest), this may be a period of uncertainty. But it’s all in a good cause, ensuring the maintenance of a healthy profit stream into the future.

There will be many innocent by-standers caught in the cross-fire of this latest in the long list of economic crises of the market system, but ultimately it’s an issue for the capitalist class. Workers shouldn't waste their time trying to sort out this mess, or to try and better regulate it. Instead its high time we posted notice on an economic system that creates chaos and is, by its nature always in crisis.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

People's power?

On this day in 1986, the dictator Marcos and some of his cronies were whisked to safety by US helicopters. The contemporary article below provides background to this event and analyses the coming of 'people's power' in the Philippines.

It is tempting in politics to see things in stark black and white terms: if a regime is obviously "bad" then those who oppose it are necessarily "good". This tendency to reduce complex situations to simplistic terms has nowhere been more evident in recent times than in the Philippines. Marcos was so evidently "bad" that Aquino must be "good".

The Philippines is a cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean with a total population of 54 million. Formerly an American colony, it achieved independence in 1946 although the United States maintained strong economic and military ties with the new state. lmmediately after independence the Philippines was ruled by a coterie of the landed aristocracy. Ferdinand Marcos was elected in the mid '60s when he was seen as a radical, reforming politician, especially by progressive industrialists and businessmen. He received considerable support from the Americans, who were at this time extending their war in Vietnam and therefore concemed to maintain a strategically important foothold in the area. Although Marcos did not keep his election promises he secured re-election in 1969 and began to develop what came to be known as "crony capitalism", members of his own family, business associates and political supporters were granted favours and allowed to build up monopolies at the expense of economic effidency. At the same time Marcos installed his own supporters at all levels of government and administration.

Under the terms of the constitution Marcos was ineligible for a third term as President, and so he dedded to abandon any pretence of democratic government. In 1972 martial law was imposed and justified by the need to deal with armed rebellion by the "communist" New People's Army (NPA). Marcos continued to rule in this way for a further nine years, during which time opposition politicians (including Benigno Aquino) were arrested and imprisoned. Torture and inhumane treatment of those deemed subversive became comnmon. In 1981 martial law was lifted and Marcos secured re-election for a further six year term.

By this time, however, his failure to implement the promised reforms, the evidence of economic and political corruption and mismanagement and the inhumane treatment of political opponents had lost him the support of many industrialists and professionals who had backed him in the 1960s. lncreasingly he was forced to turn to the Americans, who were willing to ignore his corruption and human rights violations so long as their bases in the Philippines were secure. However, as opposition increased and the NPA began to attract popular support, American backing began to weaken.

This year, Marcos called a snap election in the hope that he could demonstrate to the Americans that he still comnmanded popular support. He had, however, under-estimated the degree to which the previously fragmented opposition groups had united after the assassination of Benigno Aquino on his return from exile in the United States, and the subsequent acquittal of leading members of the army elite who, it was wide1y assumed, were guilty of his murder. The opposition united behind Corazon Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino, whose lack of political experience and aspiration was viewed as positively advantageous. A devout Catholic, she also had the support of at least the most conservative elements of the immensely powerful Catholic hierarchy, who deplored what they saw as the moral degeneracy of Marcos and his wife, lmelda.

While Cardinal Sin, the leader of the Catholic church, called for divine intervention to ensure a free and fair election, Marcos relied on the physical activities of his political henchrnen: ballot boxes were stolen, voters intimidated, Aquino supporters subjected to physical violence and, finally, attempts were made to "cook" the voting figures. It was becoming obvious that Marcos' final political gamble had not paid off, but the American government was still unwilling to give him the "kiss of death''. Clearly concerned over the fate of their bases and unsure to what extent Aquino would protect their interests, they were unwilling to declare the election fraudulent. In fact Reagan pathetically asserted to a press conference that there had probably been an element of fraud on both sides.

By now sections of the army had staged a rebellion and Aquino returned to Manila and called for a campaign of civil disobedience. The Americans sent an envoy, Philip Habib, to discover what thev might expect from Aquino and, having got a satisfactory response, decided to cut their losses and run. Marcos and his family were "advised" to leave, which they did with gold worth $240,000 and crates containing $1,179,000 in cash.

As the new President, Cory Aquino is unlikely to have an easy task. Although the opposition was united against Marcos it is doubtful whether Aquino has a political programme which can hold together all the different factions. Indeed, the mere announcement of her cabinet was suffident to threaten the political marriage of convenience between herself and her Vice-President, Prime Minister designate and Foreign Minister, Salvador Laurel. Laurel had originally stood as a presidential candidate for his Unido party, but was persuaded to join forces with Aquino so as not to split the anti-Marcos opposition. However, in the post-election carve-up of political jobs it was felt that Unido was not being given sufficient recognition.

Laurel is by no means the only problem that Aquino faces from within her own ranks. She came to power on the back of what was called "People Power" - a populist desire for changes not dissimilar to those pledged by Marcos in the '60s. She promised land reform - the majority of Filippinos are poor, landless peasants who work for subsistence wages on large plantations, provision of agricultural support schemes to permit small-scale peasant farms to be developed, an end to "crony capitalism", and to seek more favourable terms for the Philippines' $26-30 million international debt.

The problem for Aquino is that she has promised what she almost certainly cannot "deliver". She will need to negotiate loans from the lMF, who will probably demand curbs on public expenditure in return, thus restricting her ability to offer rnuch in the way of support for peasant farms. Her ability to control the direction of economic reconstruction is also likely to be hampered by the fact that much of Philippine industry is owned by American multi-nationals, which have been only too happy to exploit cheap domestic labour. If Aquino fulfills her promise to free the trade unions from the draconian controls imposed in the Marcos years, then there is also the likelihood that cheap labour will become organised labour engaged in industrial action against low wages and poor working conditions. If that occurs the multinationals may decide that Filippino labour power is no longer such a bargain and move their operations elsewhere.

Politically, Aquino faces opposition not only from Laurel's Unido faction but also from the New People's Army, which has been waging a guerrilla war in an attempt to bring about a state-capitalist, anti-American regime. So far she has sought to placate them (to the alarm of the Americans who fear that Aquino may turn out to be "soft" on communism) by releasing those held as political prisoners. But if Aquino does not move fast enough in the direction of land reform and the removal of the American bases, they may step up their activity once more.

The American bases - Clark airfield and Subic Bay - are crucial to an understanding of contemporary Filippino politics. At a time when the Russians are thought to be developing their bases in Vietnam - at Cam Ranh bay (ironically a former US base) and in North Korea at Wosan - the Americans are anxious to retain their strategic foothold in the Philippines. This has become even more pressing given that their other allies in the area are beginning to look less secure there is increasing opposition to the authoritarian, American-backed dictatorship in South Korea; tension exists between America and Japan over trade (in any case, there is no way that Japan would permit strategic, offensive US bases in the country); and controversy with Australia and New Zealand over harbour rights for American ships carrying nudear weapons. Aquino could placate the NPA by not renewing the lease for the American bases which expires in 1991, but this is unlikely given the strength of the opposition and the econornic sanctions that this would inevitably provoke from the Americans.

Aquino's government is also likely to be pulled in opposite directions by the National Democratic Front - an illegal confederation of radical clergy, left-wing trade unions, students and single issue groups, and reformist businessmen and church moderates like Cardinal Sin who played an important part in bringing Aquino to power.

Finally, Aquino faces opposition from the rump of loyal Marcos supporters who still hold crucial positions in the judiciary, civil service and local government. It will not be easy to replace such officials quickly and in the meantime they are weIl-placed to sabotage attempts to introduce reforms. It should also be remembered that the Philippines parliament contains two-thirds Marcos supporters who are in power until 1990. The army, too, remains a problem for the new President: the "rebels" - Enrile and Ramos - were both architects of martial law. Enrile worked for Marcos for twenty years, and although Ramos is depicted as the new "professional" soldier who finally lost patience with corrupt political appointees in the army (notably Marcos' right-hand man, General Ver), in fact he was head of the Philippines constabulary - notorious for atrocities like the shooting of 18 sugar cane workers on a plantation in Negros last September. Both men have nevertheless been incorporated into the new administration.

The Aquino family owns one of the world's largest sugar cane plantations and is part of the landed aristocracy that has dominated Filippino politics since independence. While the new President enthuses about "People's Power", it is significant that her cabinet contains not one single representative of "the people" - they are all businessmen and members of the political elite. Her regime may be more humane but, given her commitment to capitalism, the free market and private property, any hopes that the lot of the majority will improve should soon prove to be misplaced. And if, having flexed their political muscle once, "the people" realise that Aquino cannot deliver the reforms and decide to flex it again, it will be interesting to see how long she retains her political innocence. Among capitalist politidans "Peoples Power" is supported so long as it is tending in their direction; if it is not, it is just as likely to be condemned as subversion.


Socialist Standard April 1986

Reform or Revolution

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is Russia Capitalist?

The 'Class versus class' post (17 February 2009) has generated a welcome amount of comment. The report of a related debate below will hopefully prove to be of interest and stimulate further feedback.

Can nationalisation be socialist? And should the workers put their trust in leaders? These two crucial questions were raised during a recent confrontation between a Socialist and a Trotskyist.

Over 50 students attended a debate staged by Hull University Marxist Society and titIed "Is Russia Capitalist?" Yes, said A. Buick for the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain. No, said Tom Kemp (economics lecturer at Hull) on behalf of the so-called Socialist Labour League.

Mr. Kemp opened. He said that there were those who thought Russia was Socialist, those who found it an enigrna, and those (including the Socialist Party) who maintained a "sectarian aloofness." He disagreed with all of these. He didn't think Russia was Socialist, and he denounced the Russian governrnent's crimes against the working class. But, he maintained, these crimes were not caused by the nationalised economy. They were alien to it. He thought there was a number of features of capitalism which did not exist in Russia : a disproportion between production and consumption goods; a falling rate of profit; financial difficulties of the sort which led to the 1929 crash.

Referring to the recent sterling crisis and devaluation he commented: "No international speculation against the rouble could conceivably affect the Soviet government's policy in that way. That would be utterly fantastic." Mr. Kemp also thought there was no expansionist tendency in Russia - at least not of the imperialist sort as in the West. The ruling bureaucracy, though it lived in high style, was not a class, as it was so limited by the political set-up.

Our comrade Buick began by defining Socialism: a world without frontiers, democratically controlled, where production would be for use, not for profit. The Bolshevik coup of 1917 was neither a Socialist revolution nor a working-class take over. The Bolsheviks used Marxist phrases but were really descended from a long line of Russian insurrectionaries who were conspiratorial and elitist. Their ideas could be traced back to the Jacobins.

State control did not mean that there was no ruling class. There were several cases in history where state ownership had been a form of class rule. The Catholic Church in feudal times was a ruling group which was not hereditary, from which people could be easily disrnissed, and which was not based on individual ownership, All the same, it was stilI a property system with class rule.

Buick said capital was not a thing, but a social relation. It meant there was wage labour, massive production of commodities and accumulation out of profits. All these existed in Russia, and so did the falling tendency of the profit rate.

In the open discussion session, supporters of the "Communist" Party argued that the government had done all it could, considering Russia had been so baekward. It was pointed out, however, that Socialists didn't say the government ought to have a change of heart. On the contrary, they couldn't introduce Socialism. Only the majority of the working class could do that, and the Russian workers still wanted capitalism, like most workers of the world.

Some economics students, apparently unused to political argument, seemed amazed that anyone should think the workers were exploited anywhere at all. Shouldn't enterpreneurs be rewarded? Buick pointed out that wealth was produeed by human labour. In capitalism, profit was derived from paying workers less than what they produced. In Socialism there would not be a "fair return" to workers. On the contrary, wages would be abolished and all goods and services would be free.

One student thought Russia was an "anti-capitalist bureaucracy," because of its Leninist ideology. However it was explained that since 1917 the ideology had not determined the social structure, but had been continuously altered to suit current policies.

On the whole, the open discussion was very poor, despite the good attendance. Winding up, the speakers agreed that the argument was not just a matter of applying labels to Russia. Deeper issues were involved.

The debate showed up two of these issues very clearly, First, the Trotskyists are convinced that state ownership has something to do with Socialism. Seeond, they place great emphasis on the concept of an elite, the "leadership" or "vanguard," to whom the workers are supposed to turn in time of crisis, whereas Socialists say that since Socialism will be democratic it can only be established democratically - when it is the will of the majority.

As a result of the debate, there was a lot of argument among students, which is to the good. At Hull a growing number of students realise that Russia is capitalist - though there are many other falsehoods to be fought.

People often point to the rather slow growth of the Socialist movement so far. But, although the Socialist case in its entirety hasn't a very big following, certain parts of it are gaining ground fast. The blaze of publicity in celebration of 50 years' state tyranny in Russia has given added impetus to the view that Russia is not Socialist, nor a "workers' state", nor bureaucratic collectivist - but state capitalist. To encourage clear thinking about Russia is to help the spread of this truth.


(Socialist Standard, March 1968)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Black Muslims

Forty four years ago today Malcolm X was assassinated. The following year, 1965, we debated his 'British brother', Michael X. The message remains the same.

On September 7 Michael X, a leader of the Black Muslims in Britain, spoke "In Favour of the Separation of the Races" at our Paddington branch. He claimed that "the black man's greatest problem was the white man". White men had shipped black men to the West Indies; they had deprived them of their names, their language, their religion and their culture. Christianity was a slave religion. That was why people like him returned to Islam, the religion of their forefathers. He was president of an organisation that admitted no whites. This was because if they did the whites would help the organisation to death; the "white liberals" would do all the work so that black people would never learn to act for thernselves. Black people from the West Indies were basically agricultural; they were unused to the disciplines of industrial society. They had to learn these "to catch up with the whites". But they could only do this, Michael X said, through "separate development"; by keeping away from, and not trusting, white people and by learning on their own,

In discussion it was pointed out that Socialists did not see themselves as white people or black people or as British or any other nationality. They knew they were members of a world-wide working class without any country. They knew that the only solutions to our troubles as workers was, whatever our pigmentation or what not, through the establishment of a world Socialist community. Members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain had come from all kinds of religious backgrounds - Christian, Jewish, even Muslim. They had seen through all this mumbojumbo. When the Black Muslims had "caught up", what then? Tbey would only be ordinary wage slaves like the rest of us. Was this all they wanted?

In reply Michael X said that Socialism was a "white man's theory'.

Socialist Standard, November 1966

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Class versus class

Earlier today an opponent of Socialism on the World Socialist Movement Discussion Forum (join here) stated that the class struggle is an illusion. We know otherwise. Read on!

With all the jingoistic talk about our masters' imperial battles it is easy to ignore the fact that there is a social war going on which will never cease as long as society is divided into two antagonistic classes. The class war turns humans into competing enemies and transforms society into a battlefield.

Under capitalism the means of wealth production and distribution are monopolised by a class which is legally entitled to defend its ownership and control by means of violent force. The facts of class possession are beyond dispute: in Britain, for example, the richest ten per cent of the population owns more of the accumulated wealth than the poorer ninety per cent put together. A society which is so fundamentally unequal can never be genuinely democratic.

The relationship between the two classes - capital and wage labour - is that of exploiter and exploited, robber and robbed. To understand this, one must consider the common source of wages and profits. It is sometimes claimed that workers should be grateful to their employers for giving them wages. It is implied that employment is a gift provided by the capitalists so as to support the workers. In fact, the opposite is the case: wages are the hallmark of legalised robbery; profits are a gift provided by the workers so as to support the capitalists. This closely-guarded secret may sound strange to workers ignorant of their own exploited position, but a little investigation into capitalist production soon demonstrates the truth of it.

The capitalists own and control the technology, means of production and resources which enable humanity to survive. In some countries they own them privately; in others they do so through their executive committee, the state. They are only in this privileged position because a majority of people allow thern to be. In Britain, workers regularly go to the polIs and vote for representatives of the system of class monopoly.

The majority of people are not capitalists: they possess very littie except their ability to work: labour power. So the workers possess mental and physical energies, but lack the ownership and control of the productive machinery; the capitalists have the productive machinery, but they need human labour to run it for them. The obvious conclusion must be for the two sides to form a "partnership ": the workers are employed to produce, but not possess and the capitalists are permitted to possess, but not produce.

A partnership between Haves and Have-Nots is bound to be an unequal one and this is the case under capitalism. The relationship of wage labour and capital is not that of equal partners, but of user and used. The capitalist employs - uses - the worker's labour power at a price which is called a wage or salary. When labour power is purchased it is the capitalist's to use for a period of time. Labour power is a commodity in that, like baked beans and electric toasters, it is produced for sale on the market. Why does the capitalist buy labour power? It is not that he or she feels sorry for propertyless workers and wants to give them money. Capitalists only pay workers to produce wealth if there is a likelihood that the value of the wealth produced will be greater than the wage or salary paid to the wealth producers. In short, unless workers create surplus value they are of no use to the capitalists.

Surplus value is that proportion of wealth produced by a worker which is over and above the reproduction of his own wage or salary (variable capital) plus the cost of machinery and raw materials, used during production (constant capital). So if a worker is paid £100 a week he must produce wealth which reproduces the value of £100, reproduces the cost of machinery and materials used, and in addition he must create a surplus which provides unearned income for the idle owner of capital. If a worker earning £100 only reproduces wealth to the value of £100 plus the cost of machinery and materials used, but not any surplus value, he or she will be considered unproductive.

The objective of capitalist production is the creation of surplus value. Out of surplus value comes rent, interest and profit. In short, profits arise from
unpaid labour of the working class. This is not simply a case of a few fraud capitalists robbing a few gullible workers; legalised exploitation is as necessary
the capitalist system as illegal robbery is to mugging - just as one cannot have a successful mugger who does not hit his victims over the head and rob them, so one cannot have a successful capitalist who does not exploit workers.

Many workers thank the capitalists for exploiting them; they think that being exploited is the greatest piece of luck that could happen to them. Some misguided workers, who call themselves socialists, but are in fact the most backward of social thinkers, actually organise processions demanding the right to be exploited. Yet despite the political acquiescence of the working class to its own inferior status, there are frequent and inevitable battles between the two classes. This struggle is inevitable because of the fundamental antagonisrn of interests between those who receive wages and those who receive profits. At its most primitive level the class struggle is a series of minor battles between sections of the two cIasses over the rate of exploitation, or how much of the wealth prooduced shall go to the workers as wages and how much will go to the capitalists as profits. Because the capitalist class own the productive and distributive machinery they always have the upper hand in these battles over the conditions of exploitation. Trade unions are a feature of this defensive struggle by workers to obtain a few more precious crumbs from the capitalist-owned, worker-baked cake. The class war never ceases under capitalism because there can never be a reconciliation of interests between capitalists and workers.

Victory in the class war can only be won by the exploited class, consciously, politically and democratically defeating the exploiting class. The workers must have no sympathy for the professed needs of the capitalists: they are our class enemies, they possess what we want and every effort must be made to take it from them. The political objective of socialists is to dispossess the capitalist class of its ownership and control of the means of life. Once we have done that society will be able to produce wealth for use rather than for profit. Socialists will not waste time engaging in diversionary and ultimately utopian attempts to reform the capitalist system. The revolutionary task is to end the system, not to amend it, for until the wages system has been abolished the majority of humankind will continue to be exploited.


Socialist Standard July 1982

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The religious mentality

Twenty years ago today Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. The essay below offers a contemporary perspective on this issue and religion in general.

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people." (Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law)

These are embarrassing times for the religious opium addicts who want to uphold their ideas in the company of rational people. Last year saw thousands of religious Americans ranting and raving because cinemas showed The Last Temptation of Christ. Christ on the cross is shown fantasising about having sex with Mary. The Christians screamed blasphemy: our Lord would descend to no such vulgar antics in the course of crucifixion: he was human, but he wasn't that human. The Bishop of Durham shuffled around hoping that his nutcase followers would get off the TV screens and back on their knees where they belonged. Leave the intellectualising to Bishops who know how to square circles. But the self-appointed censors were the real Christians; they knew that in the New Testament Christ says that anyone who doubts him will face eternal damnation. Still, at least the crazy Christians did not want to kill the film's director - just making him mute would have suited their Christian consciences.

Crazy Muslim consciences are not so easily satisfied. The Ayatollah Khomeini has called upon all good Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, a novel with a dream sequence in which the prophet Mohammed indulges in a few last temptations of his own. Copies of the work have been publically burned by Muslims in Bradford.

Let us not beat about any religious bushes on these book burnings: they are the acts of modern Nazis who think that ideas can be destroyed by fire. Max Madden, the Labour MP for Bradford, motivated both by a cynical quest for the local Asian vote as well as some sincere but half-baked anti--racist sentiments, has called for an extension of the blasphemy law to include Islam. In short, it would be illegal (punishable by fines and imprisonment) to speak or write in ways which give offence to Muslim irrationalists, just as it currently is in relation to Christian irrationalists. In this wholly undemocratic enterprise Madden has been supported by other Labour MPS, including Bernie Grant. Madden even went so far as to state on BBC Radio Two that any book likely to cause offense to Muslims should be published only if they were granted by the publishers a right of reply. One can only speculate as to which particular guardians of the absolute Truth of Islam would be granted this right for, as Madden must surely know, there are several factions of the religion, each bitterly opposed to the others.

The Rushdie matter has highlighted the basic issue in relation to religion. It is not, as secularists have rather tiresomely contended for decades, about whether god exists. Scientific thinkers are hardly likely to waste time arguing about an invisible entity which demands faith as the proof of its existence. Does god exist? Do fairies live at the bottom of my garden? Is Elvis Presley alive? Let those who can define these supernatural phenomena offer proof. Religious thinkers have not tended to be bothered with scientific investigations to establish proof; faith will do nicely. The issue is not what they believe, but that they believe. Believing is what you do when you don't know, and religious belief is certainly based on ignorance of what there is to be known. The religious mentality is one which substitutes what is believable for what is scientifically knowable.

With his or her pack of beliefs, the religious individual looks at the world, embracing that which reinforces the beliefs, retreating from experience which conflicts with them. New knowledge, untried feelings, novel perspectives must be first mistrusted, then banned. Nothing must interfere with the dogma. If Christians really believe that Christ lived and was a pure and wonderful person, then they would have the confidence to withstand a film which says otherwise. But dogmatism is fragile. It is upheld by denying all other images than those which reinforce it. The Ayatollah's assassination call, as well as being a cynical political tactic to distract his war-weary subjects (some of whom might just be thinking about assassinating him and others in the theocratic mullah elite), is also a sign of a lack of confidence. It is the uncertainty which all dogmatists always feel and always will feel: it was lack of assurance which led Christ to state that all doubters would go to Hell and Lenin, at the Tenth Bolshevik Congress in 1921, to say that those who did not follow the leadership were state enemies.

When Muslims in Britain petitioned the Ayatollah about Rushdie they were testifying that their beliefs were under threat by truths they could not handle. Polite and embarrassed liberal Muslims have said that the Ayatollah does not represent real Islam. Maybe he does not (on the basis of Sura 42 verse 35 of the Koran, governments established by coups are said to be sinful); but whether one old Iranian tyrant is a good Muslim is not the point. To be a good Muslim is to possess a religious outlook; to be religious is to offend against the most elementary requirements of reasonable thought. And a society inhabited by unreasonable workers is one which is safe for the minority who prey on ignorance.

Marx, as well as referring to religion as "the opium of the people", called it "The self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again". The religious mentality exists in those workers who have not yet discovered the essential, exhilirating fact that we are the gods. We must make the future out of the material conditions which surround us: gods, prophets, bishops and mullahs are the illusory masters who people in vent to tower over them. The socialist transformation of society will banish the capitalists from the earth and the gods from the skies - or to be accurate from the minds of men and women, where they have exercised their pernicious fantasies for too long. Those who choose to believe in powers beyond will be free to do so in a socialist society. Indeed, without the state to adopt this or that religious dogma as the official one, religious believers will be freer than they are now. Freer, but never free to tell others what to do. It will take more than a divine injunction from a white-bearded guru to tell socialists what we can think, say or write.


Socialist Standard, March 1989

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Socialists and free speech

"Here, dad, what's that bloke doing standing on a platform in the middle of the pavement?"

"Ignore him, son, he's a nutter."

"But why's he shouting about socialism?" "Because he's got freedom of speech. Now, take no bloody notice of him - you'll only encourage him to come back."

"Is anyone allowed to stand up there like that?"

"Of course, they are: this is a free country. I fought for the likes of him to have his say.

Now, get a move on or we'll miss EastEnders:"

The socialist on the outdoor platform, shouting to whoever will turn their gaze from the distractions provided by their masters, does not owe anything to the democratic inclinations of the capitalist class. The bosses who own and control the resources of society are an undemocratic class; whatever power the workers they exploit possess has been won in struggle. The first trade unionists were crushed by the coercion of the state, and only when the bosses leamt that wage sIaves could not be stopped from organising were trade unions recognised. Free speech - that much cherished right which workers in Britain are urged to receive with gratitude from their employers - was won (to the limited extent it has been won) only after long struggle by workers who understood the value of democracy.

When the workers of Manchester assembled to discuss their grievances in 1819 the bosses responded by demanding the silence of the crowd - a silence which was achieved through the barrels of the rich men's guns. In its infancy as a ruling class, the capitalists realised that workers thinking, criticising, talking, organising, assembling was a mighty threat to the power of the minority which is the political basis of the capitalist system. In the 1820s Lord Liverpool's Tories passed the notorious Gag Acts, making it illegal for groups of workers to meet together and virtually criminalising open political debate. Brave men and women of our class ignored the bosses' gag and persisted in the effort to persuade their fellow workers of the need for social change. Those great democrats have their counterparts today in the modern capitalist dictatorships - from Soweto to Moscow - and socialists can have nothing but admiration for the efforts of these battlers against tyranny.

The socialist pioneers in Britain in the 1880s made great use of the public platform as a means of spreading the case for a new kind of society. Indeed, as early as 24 June, 1855 Karl Marx attended an illegal public meeting in Hyde Park. In an artide in Neue Oder-Zeitung Marx described the scene and the struggle:

"At 3 o'clock about 50,000 people had gathered at the appointed spot on the right side of the Serpentine in the huge meadows of Hyde Park. Gradually the numbers swelled to about 200,000 as people came from the left bank too. Small knots of people could be seen being jostled from one spot to another. A large contingent of police was evidently attempting to deprive the organisers of the meeting of what Archimedes had demanded in order to move the earth: a fixed place to stand on. Finally, a large crowd made a firm stand and the Chartist, James Bligh, constituted himself chairman on a small rise in the middle of the crowd. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police Inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon -swinging constables explained to him that the park was the private property of the Crown and that they were not allowed to hold a meeting in it. After some preliminary exchanges, in the course of which Bligh tried to demonstrate that the Park was public property and Banks replied that he had strict orders to arrest him if he persisted in his intention, Bligh shouted amidst the tremendous roar of the masses around him: "Her Majesty's police decIare that Hyde Park is the private property of the crown and that Her Majesty is not incIined to lend her land to the people for their meetings".

Bligh urged the crowd to move elsewhere, the workers, angered by the Crown's contempt for their right to meet and speak, stayed and fought and one of them, by the name of Russell, was murdered by the police.

The Marxists of the Socialist League set up their platforms on street corners and in parks and the revolutionary content of their message led the police (acting under the orders of the ruling class) to smash their meetings. One place where many socialist speakers were arrested was Dod Street in London. On Sunday, 20 September 1885 the police moved in to the meeting after it had been closed and arrested eight League members. Marx's son-in-law, Edward Aveling, gave evidence in court and when warned by the despicable magistrate, Saunders, that if he spoke at Dod Street he too would be locked up, Aveling responded "I shall speak there each Sunday till I am locked up." The prosecuted speakers were found guilty and William Morris was then arrested for daring to shout out "Shame". The following summer the state was even more active in its fight agaiinst free speech; in his Notes on Propaganda Morris noted that:

"This summer we were much annoyed by the police who persisted in interfering with our open-air rneetings ... it was made cIear that the law could be so wrested as to make impossible any meeting on public ground not specially set apart."

By the turn of the century every major British city had its outdoor speaking places and large crowds assembled to hear differing points of view. In these open-air universities working-class scholars were made. It was in this setting that The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1904. Right from the start The Sodalist Party recognised that intelligent persuasion was the way to make socialists; our platform was then, and is now, democratic and open to criticism. Indeed, it has long been a Party tradition to allow serious opponents on to our platform for a few minutes to state the case against socialism, The value of serious heckling against opponents has always been realised and socialists have always been eager to give the defenders of capitalism a hard time. But never have we indulged in or supported the disruption of our opponents' meetings; like the workers who fought hard for the opportunity to speak openly, socialists understand that nothing is to be gained for our class by stifling ideas. When in the 1930s, Communist Party members attempted to break up Socialist Party meetings. arguing that whoever was not a Stalinist was a fascist, it was they who were the Red Fascists.

The Socialist Party still uses the outdoor platform as a propaganda weapon, although we know that new material conditions require new communication methods and it is not as important now as it was in 1904. In London and Dundee, and several places in between, socialists use the platform to put the argument for democratic social revolution. The critics still criticise and the would-be comedians tell their bad jokes and the listeners who stop to scoff often go away with some new ideas. Since 1984 in Hyde Park our speakers have witnessed a new problem (not onlv noted by socialists, but also by the police, journalists who have visited the park and other speakers and regular attenders). a gang of verbal vandals intent on smashing up meetings. On several occasions while these disrupters have been in action speakers have been stopped from speaking as a result of organised chanting drowning them out, others have been subjected to racist and other vicious abuse and on more than one occasion violence has been threatened. One of the gang is an official in the Kensington Young Conservatives and the son of a West London magistrate. We refer to this gang of dedicated anti-democrats to make clear that there are still those whose response to the logic of the socialist case is to do their best to shout it down. They will not succeed.

Not onlv from the university-smashing FCS types does the threat come. The Leninist Left, with their contemptuous view of workers as a class who are only capable of following leaders, is eager to prevent certain would be leaders from being heard. This view is expressed by Lucy Kaminska in a letter to the Guardian oppøsing the giving of a "platforrn for speakers with known racist, sexist and anti-gay views":

"What meaning can "freedom of speech" hold in a Britain where blacks, Asians and Jews are attacked and murdered by neo-fascist thugs..."Rational arguments" clearly fail to dissuade these criminals from their actions, so why should their ideologues be given a platform?"

Whatever the emotive force of Karninska's view, that view needs to be questioned. We are told that neo-fascist thugs will never be dissuaded by intelligent persuasion. Does that mean that they are inherently inferior to people like Kaminska? If she believes they are, then why not go further and argue that they should be denied the vote - or imprisoned? But who is to define what is a neofacist thug? All racists - including the Labourites who are committed to immigration controls? Those who favour violence - including the majority of workers who vote for war policies? And where is the evidence that these deluded workers will not respond to rational arguments? After all, the Left has long opposed debating with racists, so how do they propose to convince them?

The way to defeat anti-socialist ideas, including racism and sexism, is by dernocratic discussion. Rather than giving publicity to capitalism's most obscene defenders by shouting them down and letting them appear as martyrs, socialists must be present at their meetings to defeat their arguments in public. The best treatment for the likes of Martin Webster or John Carlisle or Enoch Powell is the lash of socialist logic, leaving them to endure the public scorn of workers who have seen through the idiocy of their propaganda. Remember, fascists are experts at kicking, socialists are experts at reasoning - if we are to defeat them we need to use our best weapon, not theirs.

The Leninists who do not think that wage slaves have the capacity to see through the nonsense of capitalist ideology regard free speech as a concept which should be denied to those who will confuse workers' minds. (In that case it should apply to them). If the Leninists think that a Tory MP will confuse students at a university they attempt to shout him down - so giving him maximum media publicity. In an article in Socialist Worker (5 April 1986) entitled What Price Free Speech? the writer asks, "where should the line be drawn? It should be drawn at the point where it can be effective". In other words, you shout down speakers as long as you can get away with it. The article argues that university Catholic and Jewish societies should be left alone, despite their unacceptable ideas, because it will not be effective to smash up their meetings. We must assume from this that if the SWP regards The Socialist Party's ideas as dangerously mistaken - which it does -, then they should be able to break up our meetings, the only principle determining when this will happen being whether the SWP's action can be effective. The only difference between the SWP and the National Front in this respect is that the latter are less open about their methods of undemocratic behaviour. The Leninists stand in complete contradiction to the historical efforts of workers to gain the right to express ideas openly to one another.

Under capitalism the worker who speaks freely is open to the ridicule of those who have been conditioned to fear freedom. Our voices are all but drowned out by the pernicious blasts of the capitalist media which functions as a silencer on the minds of the working class. But still we make our voices heard and, combined with the hard lessons of capitalist experience, those who ignore us today will be echoing our message in the times to come.


Socialist Standard July 1986

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

the Islamic Republic of Iran - 30 Years On

The change of rulers in Iran

There is a story said to have circulated in Tehran recently about a meeting between the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1963 after the riots which Khomeini had played a prominent part in stirring up. “I’ll pay you $25 million if you leave the country”, said the Shah. To which Khomeini is supposed to have replied, “I’ll give you $50 million if you leave”. In the event Khomeini was forced into exile for nothing. This time it’s the Shah who has left, though no doubt with a lot more than $50 million in his pockets. Of course no such conversation ever took place but the story does neatly illustrate that the social conflict in Iran was essentially between two sections of the propertied class there.

The Shah is the son of a jumped-up army officer who seized power in 1921 and had himself proclaimed Shah, or Emperor, a few years later. He came to the throne in 1941 when his father was deposed by the Allies for his pro-Axis sympathies but only acquired dictatorial powers in 1953 in a coup d’Etat which overthrew the nationalist Prime Minister, Mossadek, who in his day was the bugbear of the British press for having dared to nationalise the British-owned Persian oil industry.

Oil is of course the source of the immense wealth of the Shah and the section of the propertied class he represented. The payments which oil companies pay to the States where oil is produced are a form of ground-rent. The Iranian State receives this rent purely and simply because it happens to monopolise a part of the globe where oil is found. The Shah used this windfall, first, to build up the Iranian armed forces and, secondly, to introduce industrial capitalism into Iran. In doing so brought into being a new class of rich entrepreneurs independent on his State for the capital they invest.

But there already existed in Iran a class of wealthy people, the bazari, the merchants and traders of the bazaars which exist in all the big towns. The bazari existed long before oil was discovered and long before industrial capitalism was introduced. Their economic role in pre-capitalist Persia was to keep the towns supplied with food and other essentials, and this role still survives to a certain extent today although it has been severely reduced by the alternative commercial and banking network that has accompanied the coming of industrial capitalism.

The bazari have always been closely linked to the mullahs and ayatollahs, the priests of the Shi’ite sect of Islam to which most Persians formally belong. The mosque is generally situated in the bazaar area but, more important, the Shi’ite priests are financed by the various payments the merchants are required to make to them under Islamic law:

The Shi’ite hierarchy, from the simple mullah to the ayatollah also collects a substantial tax, the khoms or ‘fifth’ which consists of taking one fifth of all commercial profits and, generally, on any capital gain as well as on the sale of lands belonging to Muslims to a person of another religion . . . The amount of the ‘fifth’ is in principle divided in two, one part is normally reserved for the destitute, on condition that they are sayyeds, that is descendants of the prophet. The other part is distributed amongst the mullahs and ayatollahs. These also have the right to a hidden tax, the zahat, which consists in asking every believer to dispose of any ‘wheat, barley, dates, raisins’ but also of any ‘gold, silver, camels, sheep and cattle’ which he does not really need. This zahat is what now permits the church to help a large number of strikers.

But the Iranian Shi’ite hierarchy has access above all to the immense wealth of the bazari of all the main towns of the country. For centuries, it has forged close links with this little business world, has given the blessing of Allah to certain transactions and has thrown all its weight against the secular power. When this latter became too demanding or when its desire to modernise the country became too restricting, the bazari knew that Shi’itism was behind them and were prepared to do anything for it” (RĂ©publicain Lorrain, 14/1/79).

Two Iranian economists writing in the December issue of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique describe how the Shah’s policy of developing an industrial capitalism in Iran adversely affected the bazari :

After the 1953 coup d’etat, the re-integration of the Iranian oil economy into the world market and the ‘open doors’ policy led to a change in the pattern of trade, exceeding more and more widely the organisational capabilities of the bazaar. The beginnings of an import-substitution industry afterwards aggravated the difficulties of the bazaar, which was excluded from the new circuit of exchange set up to serve the needs of the new industries. The traditional importing of consumer goods gave way to the importing of capital goods, and the quotas or duties adopted to protect the nascent industries heavily penalised the traditional activities of the bazaar.”

They go on to note how this also hit the finances of the Shi’ite priesthood :

This economic marginalisation of the bazaar is directly connected with the simultaneous weakening of the network for financing the ‘clerical funds’; these, under the control of the religious leaders known for their moral integrity, receive and distribute various forms of Islamic taxes and alms . . . Today, the inflow of money into these funds controlled by the progressive or combative ayatollahs bears witness to the extent of the struggle of the traditional bourgeoisie against a new class linked to the interest of the multi-national firms. But, in the first phase of industrialisation, the weakening of the bazaar which has historically lived in symbiosis with the religious institutions (financing of clerical funds, legal-religious framework for contracts) considerably reduced the socio-economic effects of the redistribution which the latter assured.”

The Ayatollah Khomeini first came into prominence in 1963 as the instigator of riots centred on the bazaars in Tehran and some other cities, riots which were ruthlessly crushed by the Shah's armed forces.

It can thus be seen that the conflict in Iran is not, as it is often pictured, between a Westernising ruler and a reactionary priesthood defending old-fashioned values. That particular conflict is only an ideological reflection of the more basic conflict of sectional interest within the Iranian propertied class, between the bazari and the new bourgeoisie brought into being by the Shah. Behind the condemnations on religious grounds of beer and mini-skirts (indeed of any kind of skirts) lies an earthly material interest.

For the time being, against the logic of history, the bazari seem to have come out on top. Through their links with the mullahs and ayatollahs they have been able to control the urban poor, including large sections of the working class, and to use their discontent as a battering ram to overthrow the Shah and his regime. The urban poor of course had plenty to be discontented about. Frequently recent migrants from the countryside, they have been forced to live in disgusting housing conditions, only finding employment, if at all, at starvation wages. Independent trade union activity has been banned and strikes crushed sometimes with loss of life. The notorious secret police, the SAVAK, with its omnipresent system of spies and its torture chambers, has been there to root out all opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship.

It is sad that this discontent should have been directed by the mullahs to defend the sectional class interest of the bazari and towards the chimera of an “Islamic Republic”. But there is a reason for this. The only opposition to the Shah that was able to survive the onslaughts of SAVAK was the bazaar, with its independent economic base, and the Shi’ite priesthood it financed. The mosques thus became the focus of opposition to the Shah, especially as the bulk of the urban poor are first-generation migrants from the countryside where religious sentiments are always stronger.

It now looks as if the people of Iran are to have an “Islamic Republic” inflicted on them. But whatever happens industrial capitalism has come to stay in Iran, whether or not the mullahs like it or what comes with it (consumption of alcohol, a certain freedom for women). The Koran, which originated in a pre-capitalist agricultural and trading society, may lay down rules as to how such a society should work – indeed its rules are merely the reflection of the way such a society did work – but capitalism cannot be run according to them.

What will probably happen is that after an initial attempt to put the clock back for the benefit of the bazari, religious thinkers will be found within the “Islamic Republic” to declare that industrial capitalism is not after all contrary to the Koran. This happened in Tunisia a few years after it got its independence from France, as reported by the old News Chronicle at the time (5/3/1960):

Up to now, as in the rest of the Moslem world, Tunisia's life came almost to a standstill during Ramadan because of the dawn to dusk fast. In some cases production dropped 70 per cent. Bourguiba has not banned the fast outright. But he has stated firmly that fasting will not be accepted as an excuse for less work” (quoted in the Socialist Standard, April 1960)

As for the workers and peasants of Iran, they will rapidly find that they have just changed one set of rulers for another.

(Socialist Standard, March 1979).

Monday, February 09, 2009

Borstal Boy

The novelist, poet and playwright Brendan Francis Behan was born on this day in 1923. His autobiographical novel Borstal Boy appeared in 1958 and was reviewed in the Socialist Standard of December that year:

BRENDAN BEHAN at the age of sixteen came from Dublin to Liverpool with an I.R.A. "do it yourself kit," for the purpose of blowing up Cammell Lairds. He was arrested. and after a stay in Walton Detention Prison, LiverpooL was sent for three years to a Borstal Institution in East Anglia. The book (published by Hutchinson) tells of his experiences in these places.

He speaks of the filth and brutality which existed at Walton Prison, and there is no reason to disbelieve it. Life in Borstal, however, was much different. In fact, it smacks of Tom Brown's Schooldays and the Gem and Magnet. Chaps played the game - the Borstal game - apart from the occasional cad, house masters and house captains were sports. There were escapades, larkies and some horseplay. In fact, Behan and Co. at Borstal looks rather like Harry Wharton and Co. at Greyfriars.

The youthful I.R.A. terrorist even assumed a Borstal old school tie attitude, and he said his chinas came to regard the college boys they met via the Rugby field as being something of bounders. Behan also considered that he had a more cultivated and educated mind than the college products.

One of the defects of the book is that the conversation is so loaded or over-loaded with barrack room lingo that it fails to trigger off effectively. In fact, the constant repetition of stereotyped swear words takes on the chant of a litany. If one wants to substitute the soporific effect of counting imaginary sheep-jumping over a stile, then counting the swear-words which appear at such regular and monotonous intervals in the book will prove just as effective. One feels that the author exploits the swearing gimmick in an attempt to impart a vitality and excitement to the conversation which it often lacks. In any case, bad language is not necessarily a criterion of bad boys. even "good boys" of ten indulge in it.

Behan himself outswears the wide boys; the screws, toughies and ponces. But surely if one is describing a drug addict one does not have to take dope for the purpose of so doing. He seems naive enough to believe that "wicked words" are the hall mark of masculinity, especially his masculinity, when more often than not they are a bawdy blanket to cover a paucity of effective expression.

In spite of all the tumult and violence of the book, it has a monastic quality in that nothing of any significance from the outside world ever seeps in. Not even the war which was going on at the time is mentioned, in fact, the author never seems to have really noticed it. There is no serious discussion, not even about Ireland. Behan indulges in rodomantade about Irish politics, religion and history, but never indicates that he has any grasp of the underlying economic and political factors of Irish history.

Behan might say that he takes the world as he finds it. But what he finds in it is precious little, although he is often a little precious about it. His characters might be incorrigible and by certain standards a little impossible, but it seems vide the author that they live in the best of all possible worlds. He sees nothing wrong with the world and his only "revolutionary" aim, it seems, to use his own words, is to become a rich red.

Behan at least went to Borstal wearing a slightly glamourised would-be Martyr's crown. He came out none the worse, perhaps even a Iittle better for it. But what of the mal-adjusted, the misfits and the unfortunates; what happened to them? That, perhaps, is the most disquieting thing of all, but Behan never mentions it.

He has nothing to say against patriotism or nationalism either of the English, Irish or any other variety. He seems to regard many Englishmen as stiff-necked and arrogant, but sees no reason why they should not be eitber in their native country or to people who come from other countries. But in a world of conflicting national interests, being pro Irish, English or American, means even at the best of times being negatively anti-something else. In the worse times such feelings take on an active and hostile form.

Behan's book is of a piece with Behan himseIf, bumptious, bouncing and bawdy, with a hint of hindsight and flashes of poetry. It is generally funny in places, but suffers from repetition. Behan at least has a sense of bubbling humour which pops and fizzes in all sorts of unexpected places and is a refreshing contrast to the "look back in anger," chip on the shoulder, the world owes me a living, writers who have set a literary fashion

He has himself become rather fashionable, but literary fashions, like women's fashions, change quickly, and unless his future output is more significant than his past and present ones, Behan might easily become an has Behan.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

War in the modern world

The secretary-general of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has today called on member states to send more workers to the killing fields of Afghanistan or, to use his euphemism, "share the heavy lifting."

Socialists contend that capitalism is the cause of the rivalries that led to war in the modern world. In general, these conflicts between states and within states (‘civil’ wars) are over property. Specifically, it is competition over markets, sources of raw materials, energy supplies, trade routes, exploitable populations and areas of strategic importance. Within each state in the world there is a conflict of interests over social priorities. But all over the world there are conflicts of interest between states which lead to war when other means fail. Such factors are to be seen in the score of wars currently taking place in the world as well as earlier conflicts, including Russia's Afghanistan campaign over two decades ago. Needless to say, wars took place in class societies before capitalism existed. These wars, however, can generally be attributed to the absolute shortages of the past. In our own age the problem is a different one. Now the means exist for producing enough to supply the needs of all. With international capitalism, however, we have the problem of artificial scarcity created by the capitalist system of production. Social production takes place for profit, not directly for human need. It is this global system of competitive accumulation that creates the rivalry that leads to war.

Reading 'Afghanistan: the Russian withdrawal' from the August 1988 Socialist Standard gives an insight into the reasons for conflict then and today:

Nine bloody years after their intervention in Afghanistan, the Russian army is finally pulling out. The government of Nahmud Berri is to be left to fend for itself against the Mujahadeen guerrilla alliance, which successfully tied down 155,000 troops for almost a decade. How are we to explain this abandonment of a "communist" ally to such an uncertain fate, given the scale of Moscow's past support for the Afghan regime? The answer can be found in the operation of economic pressures on Russian decision makers.

In 1978, the government of Muhammed Daoud was overthrown in a coup led by the "Communist" Party of Afghanistan, the PDPA. The party was split into two antagonistic factions, and alarm bells started ringing in Moscow when the more radical wing, the "Kalq", gained the upper hand and began pushing though far-reaching reforms. They aimed to transform Afghan society into a modern Russian-style state by expropriating the large landlords and attacking feudal social structures. These measures provoked bitter resistance, and within months the country was embroiled in an increasingly savage civil war.

At this point the Russian ruling class became seriously alarmed and tried, without success, to make the President, Hafizulla Amin, soften his position. The Ayatollah Khomeini had just been swept to power in neighbouring Iran, and the Russians were fearful that a similar regime of religious zealots might come to power. At best they would be anti-Russian, and at worst they could ally with Washington. US bases might even follow.

When it became clear that Amin would not be diverted, the Russians sent in their troops, stormed the presidential palace and executed him. In his place they installed Babrak Karmal of the moderate "parcham" faction of the PDPA, and set about trying to win the war. Thus the intervention was about putting a stop to the revolutionary process before it threatened the strategic interests of the Russian Empire.

So why, nine years later and with the war still not won, has the Russian leadership decided on a withdrawal? The dominant factor was the sheer cost of the occupation, not only in maintaining a huge garrison through a war which was unwinable but also in the unseen burdens it was placing on the Russian state.

The process of "Perestroika" is not merely a passing fad of the western media, but involves the very survival of the Russian ruling class. To allow their crumbling economy to stagger on in its present form is to invite relative and eventually absolute decline, which would marginalise the country in the world economy and could prejudice the political and even the territorial integrity of the state. Russian industry simply must become competitive in the world market, and to this end will require vast amounts of capital and new technology, expanding markets and cheap sources of energy and raw materials.

This is the context in which the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan must be seen. As we saw in the case of changing attitudes towards the Korean Peninsula, the primary goal of Russian foreign policy is now regional stability and the reduction of tension. Such a climate is crucial if trade and foreign investment are to be successfully encouraged.

The Afghan war has long been a major source of tension with China, the "third world" and the West. The Chinese government has consistently maintained that the occupation of Afghanistan was one of three obstacles to the normalisation of relations with the Russians {the other two being border disputes and the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea). The Afghan withdrawal will significantly speed up the recent rapprochement between the two states, and this will produce immense benefits for the Russian ruling class. Not only will it allow them to make further reductions in their half million strong forces guarding the Chinese border, but it will also help force the pace of growing trading links.

As far as the "third world'. is concerned, recently released Kremlin documents show that some officials appreciated at the time of the invasion the disastrous effects it would have on Russia's position in the region, particularly with the Islamic nations, whose friendship was necessary for the economy and overall security. These fears proved well founded, particularly in the case of Pakistan and the Arab world.

Finally, the occupation of Afghanistan was one of the factors {along with the imposition of martial law in Poland) which provided the pretext for the United States to launch the "second cold war" of the early 1980s. Most distressing of all to the Russians was the curtailing of trade credits and the tougher restrictions placed on the export of "sensitive" technologies to the Eastern bloc. The recent summit in Moscow demonstrated the value the Russians now place on restoring conditions in which these restrictions can be removed.

It would, however, be wrong to suppose that the Russians are completely abandoning their interests in Afghanistan. They have a large economic stake in the northern oil and gas fields around Jauzan, and army leaders have made a series of agreements with local tribal chiefs {the same "forces of reaction" against whom they are supposedly waging a life or death struggle) to safeguard their interests. Moreover, recent reports suggest that they have pushed the Afghan government into creating what amounts to a buffer state in the north, under the guise of an "administrative reorganisation " , which would serve to protect their real strategic and economic stake in the country should the central government collapse (Guardian, 23 April).

Withdrawal from Afghanistan does not herald a new, more "peaceful" era in international affairs. The foreign policy of the Russian ruling class, like their Western counterparts, cannot afford to renounce war as an instrument for securing their interests. Indeed, they have already warned Pakistan and the United States that the withdrawal will be halted unless they stop supplying arms to the guerrillas. However, economic pressures have proved stronger than the strategic worries which were behind the original invasion and which remain unresolved. This makes the further use of force unlikely, not because Gorbachev is any more pacifically inclined than previous leaders, but because the weakness of the economy leaves him with little real choice.

Andrew Thomas

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is the End of Capitalism Nigh?

Our comrades in Ireland were invited to be one of the speakers in a debate last night at the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin on the motion 'That This House Believes that the End of Capitalism is Nigh'. Unfortunately, we were unable to send a speaker as we had done for previous debates but the organisers agreed to accept a written contribution to be read out. Here it is.

I want to oppose the motion. It would be great if the end of capitalism really was nigh but unfortunately it isn't. Capitalism is not collapsing and will never collapse of its own accord. It will have to be brought to an end. It will only end when a majority of its victims, the majority class of those who work for a wage or a salary, consciously decide to replace it with socialism.

By “socialism” I don't mean government ownership or what existed in Russia (that was state capitalism). What I mean is a society in which the means of production will belong, not to the state, but to the community as a whole, so that they can be used, under democratic control, to produce what people need and not for profit. A society in which the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" will apply.

Many people do want socialism but at the moment we are only a relatively small minority. Before the end of capitalism will be nigh, there will have to be a lot more of us. In fact, we'll have to be the majority. It is because this is not yet the case that I say that, unfortunately, the end of capitalism is not nigh.

Every time capitalism enters a big crisis – as it has done at present and did in the 1930s and before that in the 1880s – overoptimistic people have predicted its collapse. In 1931 the British MP, James Maxton, predicted the collapse of capitalism within six months. He was wrong of course, but views like his spurred on the Socialist Party of Great Britain to publish a pamphlet called Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse that same year. In it we argued that there was no built-in flaw in the mechanism of the capitalist economy that would cause it to collapse automatically, of its own accord, for purely economic reasons.

Production under capitalism, we said (and it's still true), goes in cycles. Periods of boom inevitably ending in a slump and a period of stagnation, as capitalist firms, driven by a desire to maximise profits and assuming the boom would never end, overproduce in relation to the market for their goods. Which, in fact, is what has happened this time with regard to housing construction in the US.

But, we went on, slump conditions likewise create the conditions for a revival of profitable production. Eventually, the piled-up stocks would be sold, inefficient firms would go to the wall, capital would be depreciated, and real wages would fall, all helping to restore the rate of profit.

As Karl Marx pointed out:

“The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation”.

Having said this, something has indeed collapsed, but it is not capitalism as such, it is only one form of capitalism – so-called "free market" capitalism. From the 1980s onwards we were continually told that if restrictions on short-term profit-making were removed, that's the best way for the economy to work. Let the "free market" rip, they said, and we'll all be better off. It didn't happen of course. The rich did get a lot richer and some of us did get a little more to spend, but look where it has now led. Events have proved Adam Smith wrong and Karl Marx right.

It would be appropriate indeed if people would turn to Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Some are. But others are turning back to Keynes as if his theories hadn't been proved wrong too. Thirty or so years ago when the post-war boom finally came to an end, there was a slump. In Britain the government did what Keynes said you should do in a slump: they increased government spending. But it didn't work. It didn't kick-start or pump-prime the economy. It only added inflation to the stagnation, introducing a new word into the vocabulary of economics: "stagflation”.

This, apparently, has now been forgotten and governments everywhere are trying once again to spend their way out of the depression that's already here. Once again, it won't work. Capitalism will only recover from the depression AFTER inefficient firms have gone out of business, capital values have depreciated, and real wages have fallen due to increased unemployment. Before capitalism will recover – and it eventually will, even if it takes two or three years – there's going to have to be massive job losses. And there's nothing any government can do to stop this. In fact, if they try they'll probably make things worse.

Socialists have to organize now to replace capitalism – not wait in either hope or
expectation that it will collapse. But this organization has to be based on an agreed knowledge of the task ahead. It has to be based on an understanding of, and a rejection of, the failures of the past. It has to be based on a rejection of the half measures and the so-called solutions like state capitalism, political putschism, dictatorships and so-called national revolutions as well as a rejection of leaders and careerists building their lucrative careers and reputations on the naivety and goodwill of millions of workers. Most importantly, we have to end the widespread misconception that Socialism is nothing more than capitalism run by the State.

Capitalism isn’t collapsing. Capitalism won’t collapse. But even if it did, in the absence of the kind of organization I have been alluding to, it wouldn’t be collapsing into Socialism – it would be collapsing to give way to barbarism. So, in opposing the motion that "This House believes the End of Capitalism is Nigh", I would say that, until a majority take political action based on a desire for socialism, capitalism will stagger on from crisis to crisis as it always has done.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Thought For Today

"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities" its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” (Karl Marx Capital Vol 1)

Gray adds

Apart from the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origins of the Species by Means of Natural Selection this year, this January marked the 150th anniversary since Marx's preface to A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy. In it, this famous paragraph

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.


The idea that opposing Israel has to mean supporting Hamas and its ‘resistance’ movement is all too common. We totally reject this argument. Just like any other set of rulers, Hamas, like all the other major Palestinian factions, are happy and willing to sacrifice ordinary Palestinians to increase their power. This isn’t some vague theoretical point – for a period recently most deaths in Gaza were a result of fighting between Hamas and Fatah. The ‘choices’ offered to working-class Palestinian people are between Islamist gangsters (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) or nationalist gangsters (Fatah, Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigades).

These groups have shown their willingness to attack working class attempts to improve their living conditions, seizing union offices, kidnapping prominent trade unionists, and breaking strikes. One spectacular example is the attack on Palestine Workers Radio by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, for “stoking internal conflicts”. Clearly, a “Free Palestine” under the control of these groups would be nothing of the sort.

Therefore, against the divisions and false choices set up by nationalism, we fully support the working-class inhabitants of Gaza and Israel against state warfare – not because of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion, but simply because they're real living, feeling, thinking, suffering, struggling human beings. And this support has to mean total hostility to all those who would oppress and exploit them –the Israeli state and the Western governments and corporations that supply it with weapons, but also any other capitalist factions who seek to use working-class Palestinians as pawns in their power struggles.

The only real solution is one which is collective, based on the fact that as a class, globally, we ultimately have nothing but our ability to work for others, and everything to gain in ending this system – capitalism – and the states and wars it needs.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Xenophobic unionism?..

Socialists say, "Workers have no country.You have nothing to lose but your chains.You have a world to win "

As socialists we want to participate in a progression of the global community to free humankind’s real human potential we say,“We demand the world and everything in it and on it, in conditions of free access and democratic control.”

However,it doesn't come as a surprise to socialists to discover,lurking at the heart of society,nascent racism, xenophobia and nationalist sentiments. This baggage, carefuly nurtured on opposing spectrums of the left-right, capitalist political compost heap.

Ian Mc Whirter in the Glasgow Herald had some interesting comments , once he declared himself safely, 'middle class',what silliness from a fellow worker, concluding, in a nostalgic,if whimsical, note for Robert Tressel's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists .

"Perhaps the trade unionists among them should dig out their copies of that great socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell , to see how hostility to foreign workers was exploited by employers 100 years ago. Plus ca change ..."

We are not so naive as to assume there are many copies, dusty or otherwise, floating around on trade unionists bookshelves these days .The links above in the text,take you directly to the online T.U.C. copies.

If we look at mainstream media and reports it would seem that this strike is, indeed if only partly, informed by slavish, anti-working class attitudes, attempting to preserve access to diminishing job prospects and resist attempts to import whole work-gangs, to the ends of excluding locally resident workers.

By-passing the quality and gutter press ,to see an alleged report from one of the strike hit sites, posted by militant reformists at Lindsey total refinery North Lincolnshire.It is claimed there was overwhelming support for this. "The mass meeting overwhelmingly voted for these demands put to them by the strike committee."

* No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
* All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.
* Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled
union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.
* Government and employer investment in proper training /
apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers - fight
for a future for young people.
* All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
* Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers - including
interpreters - and access to Trade Union advice - to promote
active integrated Trade Union Members.
* Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

Maybe so , but some spinning is going on there also, as left-wingers attempt damage limitation, truth may be a casualty here too, in that account , dressed up as an 'intervention'.

Mc Whirter makes a telling point.
" Labour has adopted largely the same immigration controls that the Tories advocated in 2005. By subtly appealing to economic nationalism in this way, the government has legitimised actions that set worker against worker. Now the entire strategy has blown up in its face".

As socialists we want to participate in a progression of the global community to free humankind’s real human potential.We don't set out minimum demands for capitalism such as the left do.

While some, if not all of this, is quite understandable union activity and 'as workers', socialists are no different from other workers, in seeking to maximise economic advantage, this is not an end in itself.

The SPGB socialists position is uncompromising.

The stance of the unions and the pseudo-socialist groups in the oil refinery protests must serve as a warning.

Faced with a major economic crisis that threatens the capitalist profit system, their response is to adopt the noxious policy of economic nationalism and anti-migrant propaganda, while embracing the government and the employers as the allies of "British workers".
The strikes notably do not challenge the rights of bosses to exploit workers universally, but rather demand that they exploit their own local or national workforce instead!

We don't set out to recycle capitalism and ameliorate the conditions of it ,as history shows, all this activity,even if some success is attended upon parts of it,will be unpicked as soon as circumstances permit, by the capitalist class.

Rather we assert,“Give us our world.” We socialists say, "Dont recycle capitalism,bin it".

To this end we extend the hand of friendship to fellow workers of all countries and none, and urge all to consider the case for socialism, starting by asking,or revisiting the main question , the one the Left never answer, go on look at their sites and lists for an answer,which is...What is socialism?.