It only lasted two months, but the Paris Commune (1871) has been repeatedly invoked and re-interpreted. writing at the time, Marx noted many different interpretations. Having written about previous French revolutions of his time (THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE: 1848 TO 1850 and, in 1852, THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE), he was well qualified to chronicle and analyse the 1871 revolution. Earlier he wrote:
"Men make their own history ... not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited conditions with which they are directly confronted".
(THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE pbl. 1852 K.Marx).
This point applies especially to the Paris Commune. The people of Paris seized power at a time when Bismarck's victorious troops surrounded the city and the French government was negotiating for peace. From the start, the Commune was at war. As time passed the government forces grew, with Bismarck's help by releasing French prisoners until, at the end of May, they seized Paris and slaughtered most of the Communards. This gruesome, indiscriminate massacre, where even children were killed, where the wounded were buried alive in mass graves, was evidence of how far the party of 'order' and property saw the Commune as a threat.
It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour ... The Commune was to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of class, and therefore of class rule"
(THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE).
The Commune was fully democratic, its members being revocable at any time. Although in a position to do so, it did not seize the Bank of France or expropriate the businesses of the capitalists.
If Marx thought the Commune's aim was the abolition of the class system, it may be that he over-estimated the influence of those Communards who supported the International. However, as Engels noted later, the majority were Proudhonists and Blanquists. The former were opposed to the principle of association, which was central to the Commune's efforts at social transformation. Blanquists, like Lenin, held to a disastrous vanguardist theory of revolution as a putsch, a coup d'etat: "... a proportionately small number of resolute, well-organised men would be able .... not only to seize the helm of the State, but also ... to keep power until they succeeded in drawing the mass of the people into the revolution ... This conception involved... the strictest discipline and centralisation of all power..."
(Engels, Introduction, 1891, to THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE).
Proudhonists saw the Commune as a mini-Utopia, with all France to become a federation of Communes. Blanquists wanted a Jacobin dictatorship - a view which became increasingly dominant in beleaguered Paris. Neither view fitted Marx's wish for a democratic working class revolution.
Bakunin: "the 'Negation' of the State"
Before this, Bakunin and Marx had been in dispute. Marx played a key role in defining the policy of the International: "to conquer political power has ... become the great duty of the working class" (Inaugural Address, 1864). In order to achieve social emancipation, the abolition of classes, the working class needed to organise politically to gain control over the State.
Bakunin saw the state as the cause of violence and injustice: "the abolition of the church and of the State must be the first and indispensable condition of the real emancipation of society".
(Bakunin, THE PARIS COMMUNE AND THE IDEA OF THE STATE, 1871).
While Marx saw in the Commune "the political form of the social emancipation" (first draft of THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE), Bakunin declared himself a supporter of the Commune both because it was "drowned in blood" and "because it was a bold and outspoken negation of the State".
The dispute between Anarchists (now often called 'Libertarians') and Marxists centres on the question of the state. We argue that, since the state exists to protect the interests of property, in order to end the system of class exploitation we need to take control of the state. Only by the abolition of the class system can we create a society with no need for a state. Anarchist programmes can only be, at best, impractical; as long as the class system exists, so will the coercive political institutions it needs.
Lenin: A "Dictatorship of the Proletariat"
As Lenin's views changed about Russia and his own plans for revolution, so did his claims about the lessons of the Commune. He was as opportunist and inconsistent in this, as in other things.
In 1908, he praised the idea of "armed conflict and civil war". In 1911, he wrote that the Commune "sprang up spontaneously" and was a "truly democratic, proletarian government". Come 1917, he discovered in the Commune the organisation of Soviets and the arming of the workers (LENIN ON THE PARIS COMMUNE, Moscow, 1970).
In THE STATE AND REVOLUTION (1917), he invoked the Commune to justify his own programme:
...to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy - this... is the experience of the Commune.
Why did Lenin think it necessary to construct a new bureaucracy? Why suppose this would assist in the abolition of all bureaucracy, gradual or otherwise? The fact is - and Lenin demonstrated this - that simply changing the bureaucracy has nothing to do with the abolition of the class system.
Libertarians: A 'Self-Managed' Society
After 1968, there were some who saw in the Paris Commune a form of non-bureaucratic, 'self-managed society', an anarchist Utopia.
However, this does not fit the facts: "the real executive powers ... were still vested in the military and the police" (Frank Jellinek, THE PARIS COMMUNE OF 1871).
New Labour's Gloss: An 'Urban Community'
More recently there was an attempt to claim the commune for New Labour. Apparently, it was not about class; only about ""neighbourhood" and "community", New Labour buzz-words.
"It is the Communards' attempts to decentralise and federate, to re-establish community in a changing city, and their ability to conduct pluralist politics without the aid of political parties that resonates down the years"
(Kevin Davey, NEW STATESMAN AND SOCIETY, 12 April 1996).
So, what it all comes down to is merely 'the appropriate shape of a modern urban community'. How very soothing, bland and reassuring this New Labour interpretation is and how remote from the blood-spattered reality. That NSS article by Kevin Davey was also wrong in asserting that the use of the Commune "as a means of legitimising the Soviet Union" was never questioned until the 1960s. The Socialist Party of Great Britain challenged such Leninist claims repeatedly.
For instance, in 1920, in publishing an 1874 article by Engels about the Blanquist fugitives from the Paris Commune, the SPGB prefaced it with a note drawing attention to "similarities with groups in Germany and Russia". The SPGB shared Engels's critique of Blanquism/Bolshevism and its practical consequences.
"From Blanqui's assumption that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship. This is, of course, a dictatorship not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals"
(SOCIALIST STANDARD, January 1920).
Lessons of the Commune
The Blanquist/Leninist theory of revolution by a minority coup is not supported by the history of the Commune. Vanguardism entails dictatorship. But the Commune was egalitarian and democratic. Bakunin's claim that there was a "socialist instinct" at work is also wrong. If this had been the case, the Communards' respect for the rights of business would be inexplicable.
What remains of lasting significance is that Marx developed his ideas about the necessity for political organisation.
Later in 1871, the London Conference of the International adopted an important resolution on political action, drafted by Marx and Engels:
"... Considering that against the collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; that this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure ...the abolition of classes".
(Marx: THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL AND AFTER, Penguin, p270)
The key lesson from the Commune is the necessity for the revolutionary Socialist movement to act as a political party, in order to gain control over the machinery of government. Without this any revolution is bound to be crushed.
As Marx asserted, the working-class party must not ally itself with other parties; it must be "opposed to" such parties, representing as they do, the interests of the "propertied classes". From 1904 onwards, the SPGB has asserted these points as part of its founding OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES 1904.
Now, in 2021, 150 years after the Paris Commune, we continue to assert the need for Socialists to organise as a political party in the interests of the working class, and, in opposition to all other parties, to work for Socialism.
Has Socialism Ever Been Tried?
When socialists say that socialism has never been tried or failed, we are often derided by anti-socialists or incredulous workers. Our opponents point to the failure of the 'socialist' policies of past Labour governments and the Soviet Union. Are our opponents correct? Has socialism been tried and failed?
The debate is a pointless one unless our opponents are prepared to understand and accept our definition of socialism. We can use reasoned argument and facts to defend our unique conception of socialism. And it's upon these arguments we want to be judged, not on what people ordinarily understand as socialism.
We are not the Labour Party. Nor are we associated with Lenin and Bolshevism. Throughout the history of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (founded in 1904) we have opposed both the Labour Party and Bolshevism. We have shown their policies of nationalisation to be capitalist not socialist ones.
This does not mean we do not expect to be challenged on our socialist case against capitalism. But what we do expect from our opponents is to be criticised on what we are, what we say and what we do, not on the past policies of other political organisations we are hostile to.
The definition of socialism we defend, for example, was stated clearly and unambiguously in the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904.
Socialism was defined as:
"The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community.
That is the definition of socialism that we defend today and the yardstick by which we point out the shortcomings of our opponents use of the word.
Past Labour Governments
Why were the policies of past labour governments not socialist but capitalist ones?
Socialists have opposed the Labour Party since its formation in 1906. We have described the nationalisation policies of the Labour Party as state capitalism; policies that should not be supported by workers.
Take nationalisation which was reconsidered by Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Opposition. He wanted to renationalise the transport system, the utilities and the Post Office. In the Labour Manifesto, at the last election, these nationalisation programmes were described as 'socialist policies'. They were also attacked by the Tories as 'socialist policies' although once upon a time the Tories advocated nationalisation in dealing with monopolies.
Although socialists have attacked nationalisation from many angles, the principle attack is the position of workers under nationalisation.
The claim of the Labour Party, and recently made again by the Corbyn leadership, is that workers would be better off employed in nationalised industries than they were under private companies.
This has not been the case. Workers have found that they still needed the protection of trade unions in the nationalised industries. They still had to strike for better pay and working condition coming up against the intransigence of the capitalist state rather than individual capitalists. The state have often used troops to break strikes and the secret service to spy on trade unionists. The Labour Governments under Atlee, Wilson, Callaghan and Tony Blair all used troops to break strikes.
Workers in the nationalised industries also did not have direct access to what they needed to live on. What workers produced were still commodities for the market. Workers in the nationalised industries still remained a class of wage earners. And they still faced unemployment.
It was the darling of the capitalist Left, Tony Benn, who, when Energy Minister, made about half a million miners redundant in the 1960s with the implementation of the Labour governments' National Plan. Benn closed more mines than Thatcher.
(WHO KILLED THE MINES, WalesonLine 5/3/05).
Fundamentally, workers in the nationalised industries were still exploited as a class. The capital-labour relationship was never done away with. Workers still produced, what Marx called, 'surplus value'. They still produced a profit which went to the state rather than individual share-holders. The workers class position did not change.
The Soviet Union
Why do socialists say that the Soviet Union was state capitalist?
The main criticism against state capitalism found in dictatorships such as the Soviet Union is the same one we apply to the failed nationalisation policies of the Labour Party.
There is another aspect of Bolshevik policy which is not socialist and has nothing to do with socialism and it was the rejection by Lenin and his followers that socialism must be the work of the working class themselves.
Marx and Engels were quite clear that socialism had to be established by the working class and no one else. Workers were the revolutionary class. This is echoed in the fifth clause of the Socialist Party of Great Britain:
"That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself".
Lenin and his followers rejected this important Marxian principle. They still do. They believe workers are too stupid to become socialists. They do not believe a majority of socialists throughout the world is possible. Socialism, or what they believe is socialism, has to be imposed. Workers have to be led.
This has nothing to do with socialism. It has nothing to do with the socialism set out in the Declaration and Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904.
Therefore, socialism has never existed. What previous labour governments and the Bolsheviks regarded as 'socialism' or 'communism' was various form of state capitalism. The wage-labour-capital relationship was never done away with. Workers were exploited in the production process just as ruthlessly in a state run company as if they worked for a corporation or individual capitalist.
Privatisation and Economic Liberalism
Privatisation and economic liberalism have been the policy pursued by most governments over the last forty years. It was seen by its supporters as the means to make society better for everyone.
The reverse has occurred. Food banks, zero hour contracts, low pay, hire and fire labour market on the one hand and vast wealth going to the rich on the other is the reality. There was no trickle-down benefit for the poor and nor was there a market utopia. Capitalism still went into boom and bust.
Yet defenders of economic liberalism ask for a viable alternative. Look at nationalisation, they say. It has demonstrably failed. There is no competitor in view. There is no alternative. They wish!
Yet there is an alternative to capitalism. There is the socialism outlined by Marx and taken forward by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. There is the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution.
The Socialist Alternative to Capitalism
Central to the meaning of socialism is common ownership. This means the resources of the world being owned in common by the entire global population.
The land, materials, factories, transport and communication and distribution points will be the common property of society as a whole. Along with capitalism, the wages system would cease to exist.
With each person having equal access to the means of living, no one would be forced to sell their labour power to an employer in order to live. No one could buy labour power because there would be no one selling it. No one would possess the means of production and distribution, so no one would be able to exploit labour-power.
In socialism, then, there would be no classes. There would be no class ownership of the means of production and distribution. There would be no capitalists and no wage workers. There would be free, co-operative and voluntary labour.
Socialism will be a global system of production and distribution. Humanity will not be segregated behind national frontiers or coerced by the armed forces of governments.
In a society based on common ownership the means of living, goods and services would not be produced for sale. Goods and services would only be produced for use, and production would continue as long as there were social needs to be satisfied.
Democratic control should speak for itself, but the point must be made nevertheless, that in a society wherein the means and instruments of wealth production and distribution are commonly owned it is difficult to conceive of control other than it being democratic.
Socialism will be a society in which everybody will have the right to participate in the social decisions that affect them. These decisions could be on a wide range of issues-one of the most important kinds of decision, for example, would be how to organise the production and distribution of goods and services.
Production Directly to Meet Human Need would be how common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution would work in a socialist society. People will have direct access to what they need to live worthwhile lives and to take democratic part in the affairs of society.
There has never been a society of free men and women in which production takes place to directly meet human need. There has never been a social system in which the socialist principle: 'from each according to ability to each according to need' holds throughout the world.
From Capitalism to Socialism
Socialism will not come by itself. It cannot be introduced by 'enlightened politicians'. Socialism can only be established, democratically and politically, by a socialist majority. All workers have an interest in the establishment of socialism. All workers have the potential to become socialists. Workers need to organise into principled socialist parties. Socialists need to elect socialist delegates to Parliament, and socialists need to take full control of the powers of government, including the armed forces of the state.
Only then can a socialist majority replace capitalism with socialism.
Marx's theory of history also rejects the 'great man' theory of history first put forward by Thomas Carlyle in his book ON HEROES, HERO-WORSHIP AND THE HEROIC IN HISTORY (1841). It is a collection of six lectures given in May 1840 about prominent historical figures. It lays out Carlyle's belief in the importance of heroic leadership. Ironically, for a Tory, one of Carlyle's heroic great men was Oliver Cromwell who had signed the King's death warrant: a revolutionary as hero.
This facile view of history has been recently popularized by Boris Johnson in his historically illiterate and factually incorrect THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY (2013) and by his chum and fellow Etonian, Jacob Rees-Mogg in his, VICTORIANS (2019).
The historian Richard J Evans dismissed the numerous inaccuracies of Johnson's book, which included the belief that the German army won the battle of Stalingrad which took place between August 1942 and February 1943, when, in fact, the German army lost. Detail has never been Johnson's strong point as the thousands of unnecessary deaths during the Covid 19 pandemic attest.
Evans wrote that the book seemed that:
"as if it was dictated, not written. All the way through we hear Boris's voice; it's like being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster" (NEW STATESMAN 06 November2014).
Later Evans was to apologise for insulting Bertie Wooster.
What of Boris Johnson's hero, Winston Churchill. His racism is passed over in silence. As does his anti-working class actions against miners in Wales. Churchill did send troops to areas containing strikers and riots in 1910-11. He withheld their deployment in 1910, but in 1911 their presence at one location resulted in fatalities.
So too, was Churchill's contribution to the 1943 Bengal famine in India which led to millions of deaths when he was Prime Minster during the Second World War. While British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region he bluntly refused. He raged that it was their own fault for "breeding like rabbits". At other times, he said the plague was "merrily" culling the population.
(Richard Toye CHURCHILL'S EMPIRE: THE WORLD THAT MADE HIM AND THE WORLD HE MADE, 2010)
Rees-Mogg and his Imperial heroes do little better in the great man stakes. One of his heroes was General Charles Napier whose genocide and plunder in India got him a statue erected in Trafalgar Square.
Rees-Mogg's book gave an autobiographical sketch of ten eminent Victorians but was unmercifully panned in the media by a plague of Tory historians, an indication of how bad the book really was. The author A.N. Wilson described it as a 'staggeringly silly book.
The conservative historian, Dominic Sandbrook declared the book as 'abysmal and soul-destroying'. Writing in the SUNDAY TIMES, he said:
'No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg's book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them...but there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published'.
The Tory conception of history is the highest form of ignorance and the lowest form of thought.
What of Great Men? Great men make great mistakes. They are usually destroyed by events; a Napoleon and a Hitler in Russia's winter comes to mind. Marx dismissed Louis Bonaparte's 'greatness' by commenting that it was the class struggle in France that created the circumstances and relationships:'that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part' (1869 Preface to THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE).
And 'Great Men' are unaware of the historical forces facing them. Lenin may have successively grasped political power through a coup d'etat in Russia in 1917, but circumstances meant he and the Bolsheviks could only ever establish state capitalism not socialism.
The conditions were not right in Russia at that time for the establishment of socialism: there existed a rural peasant majority only interested in their land, the productive forces had not yet fully developed for socialist production to be possible, there had been no other successful revolution elsewhere in Europe while the majority of the Russian working class were not socialist, had no idea what socialism meant and only wanted the war to end.
And then there is President Trump. He thought he was a 'Great Man' So did his supporters. Let us not forget Trump's supporters in the UK.
Michael Gove conducted a fawning interview with Trump and was photographed eagerly shaking Trump's hand. Rupert Murdoch was in the room at the same time but that was supposed to be a secret.
Boris Johnson called for Trump to be given the Nobel Peace Prize
Jacob Rees-Mogg said that Trump "exudes confidence about his own actions...which also inspires the Brexiteers".
Look at the craven articles in the Tory media praising Trump to the hilt particularly those published in the SUNDAY TIMES and the SPECTATOR.
And Nigel Farage said that Trump was "the only current leader in the free world who has got the guts to stand up and fight for the nation state".
So much for Great Men!
Capitalism's Environmental Crisis (4 of 5)
Environmentalism is a class issue
There are a number of criticisms which can be levelled by socialists at environmentalists. Environmentalists largely ignore the fact that we live in a capitalist social system in which there is a capitalist class who own the means of production and distribution and a working class who do not own the land, minerals, factories, transport, communication networks and distribution systems.
Climate change problems are only one part of the global environmental problems facing the working class. These have been born from capitalist production methods, especially from the industrial revolution. And they include water, soil and air pollution - these are not the same as climate change but like climate change these are global issues which demand international co-operation as rivers and oceans and winds do not respect national frontiers and borders.
If one country dams a river, that may affect its downstream neighbour's fishery and farming. If air is polluted by industry in one country, that may damage the health of people and forests in its neighbours. The millions of tons of plastic rubbish dumped in the seas and found even on the remotest mountain peaks, killing marine life and much else, is the by-product of consumer capitalism and its reliance on cheap packaging materials.
It follows that such problems are very difficult to solve so long as we are stuck with competitive and nationalistic capitalist states, all seeking their own interest, in a beggar-my-neighbour contest.
Political parties may mean well but operating within the constraints of capitalism, with profits the primary criterion of 'success', they are attempting to make water run uphill in trying to prioritise the environment.
The only party which can make nature a global priority is the Socialist Party of Great Britain and companion political organisations throughout the world.
Only by putting an end to this squalid and destructive production for profit system would we be able to freely address these horrendous global problems. Only socialists argue for the world to be seen as our common heritage to be cherished and treated responsibly, rather than abused and exploited. True, many environmentalists argue this point, but the problem for the environmentalists is that they are trying to work within the capitalist system, which has other priorities of profit-making.
The capitalist class - the rich - both in their ownership and control of the means of production in their consumption create a huge carbon footprint. A hundred companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gases emitted since the beginning of the industrial era. Just 25 "corporate and state owned entities" are responsible for 50 percent (THE GUARDIAN 10/7/17).
And the richest 10 percent are responsible for half of global emissions. Someone in the top "1 percent" has an emissions footprint about 175 times larger than someone in the poorest 10%.
(EXTREME CARBON INEQUALITY, Oxfam Media Briefing, December 2015, www.oxfam.org).
Take the example of private jet production. Almost 8,000 new private jets are expected to be bought by multinational companies and the super-rich over the next decade, each of which will burn 40 times as much carbon per passenger as regular commercial flights, according to a report by aviation firm Honeywell Aerospace. Despite their huge carbon footprint, demand for new private jets is expected to continue to grow next year, according to the report. Over the next decade, the number of new private jets taking to the skies is expected to cost buyers a combined $248bn (Â£193bn). (SUPER-RICH FUELLING DEMAND FOR PRIVATE JETS, GUARDIAN 28th October 2019).
Capitalism causes environmental degradation and the removal of capitalism, its artificial boundaries, its endless costly and harmful wars, and class exploitation will create the conditions that will enable society to begin to solve the social, economic and environmental problems facing the world today.
Persuading our fellow workers to become socialists is hard. All we have available to us, as individual socialists and as a political organisation, is persuasion and sound and principled socialist ideas. However, the failure of capitalism to meet the needs of all society should generate dissent, questioning and the spread of socialist ideas. Capitalism creates its own gravediggers. Under capitalism profit and capital accumulation has to come first. Revolutionary change, however, is possible. In fact, it is a necessity. What we do not need is capitalism, with or without a Green New Deal. What we need is socialism.
A socialist energy infrastructure based on renewable energy is already, in principal, a practical proposition. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published a paper which stated that the erection of wind turbines on the world's best offshore sites could provide more than enough clean energy to meet global electricity demand. This is a current demand which carries with it an enormous amount of waste like finance, commerce, military and government. The IEA is a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organization established in 1974 in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.
Although still having technological teething problems in life span, the huge promise of offshore wind power is underscored by the development of floating turbines that could be deployed further out at sea. According to IEA estimates the next generation of floating turbines will be capable of operating further from the shore and could generate enough energy to meet the world's total electricity demand 11 times over in 2040.
Added to this, other forms of renewable energy will be available to a socialist society, such as solar energy, geo-thermal energy, hydro-electric energy, biomass energy, tidal energy, wave energy and perhaps nuclear energy.
However, they frame their paper within the context of capitalism and renewable markets. You cannot retain the capitalist cause. What stands in the way of the universal application of wind farms is capitalism, the nation state and the competing interests of nation states against each other. World socialism would not have this political problem.
There would be no nation states in socialism. There would be no commodity production and exchange for profit. There would be no wasteful competition or throw-away consumerism. And there would be no constraint on the use of technology by the market and profit. Innovation would be immediately applicable and not restricted by profit considerations and artificial national boundaries and territorial waters.
Socialist society would redesign cities, transport and communication networks, the way food is produced along with the network of distribution systems so that these could be made to run in the interest of the whole community not just for the profits of a few. To be able to adapt and use the potential of technologies for all society and to create a sustainable social system within a stable biosphere first requires the establishment of socialism: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
Racism, Iconoclasm And Socialism
Socialism is an international question that concerns workers of all countries. One of the barriers to accepting socialism is race-prejudice, which sets groups of workers against each other on grounds of colour, religion, and so on. When workers understand the need for class unity and political action as socialists, they will be rid of this false and harmful race-prejudice.
Recently there have been widespread demonstrations in the US over the murder by a policeman of an un-armed black man, George Floyd. Demonstrations in support of Floyd and calling for an end to police violence, took place in many other countries, notably Britain where death in police custody of ethnic minorities is common and disproportionate stop and search of blacks by the police in inner city areas is the norm. Racism exists in British capitalism just as it does in other countries.
Socialists are forced to deal with the question of 'race' - an unscientific concept based on ignorance and misunderstanding.
Adam Rutherford, who has written extensively on genetics, wrote in the Guardian 1/3/15:
As we harvest ever more human genomes one fact remains unshakable: race does not exist.....we now know that the way we talk about race has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone....this is fact.
However, Rutherford goes on to observe that: 'Race doesn't exist, racism does.'
In the hands of politicians like Oswald Mosley in the 1930s and even in the 1950s, and today with Boris Johnson, Katie Hopkins, Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and the writers of such magazines as the SPECTATOR, racism is much more often deliberate and calculated, used to divide the working class into 'us' and 'them'.
The socialist position when dealing with the question of racism is quite clear. The Socialist Party of Great Britain recognises only one fundamental social division in the modern world - the division that exists between the capitalist class on the one hand and the working-class on the other. All other divisions whether they are based on religion, nationality, language, sex, gender or 'race' are incidental to this main division.
Regarding our attitude to the problem of race-prejudice, let us state categorically so that nobody will misunderstand:
The interests of the whole working class, no matter where they live or come from, are fundamentally opposed to the interests of the capitalist class, irrespective of the ethnicity to which the members of the capitalist class belong.
The class division cuts directly across all others. All capitalists exploit the working class, a truth the capitalist left like to play down or tend to ignore.
Furthermore, it is essential to remember that racism is but one of the many social problems that spring directly from the contradictions of capitalist society itself. As such, racism must be kept in its proper perspective. To attempt to solve the problem of race prejudice separately from all the many other problems caused by capitalism, will meet with the same abject failure that has resulted from the efforts to end through reforms, the social problems of poverty and unemployment.
Workers of the world have to understand their class position under capitalism. It is only when workers understand and agree with the case for socialism that they will cease to be a prey to the hatreds and prejudices arising from fictional notions of 'race'. Only then will they be immune to the politicians that feed-off race hatred. It is only with the establishment of socialism that race-prejudice will finally disappear.
To believe that removing statues like that of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes or changing the names of streets, squares and buildings will remove racism from society is naive. To think that racial equality is possible in a class divided society in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned and controlled by a minority capitalist class is equally naive. To believe we can have a harmonious and balanced society when the working class face the divisive consequences of the destructive economic laws of capitalism, including its wars is utterly foolish.
The economic and social problems of poor housing, unemployment, low wages, and inadequate health care will continue to generate racism, class disunity as well as boosting the careers and opportunism of parasitical politicians feeding off this social discontent. The problems facing the working class will remain while capitalism remains.
The only way to abolish racism is to abolish its cause, capitalism, and to replace it with socialism. And that has to be the work of a unified working class, without distinction of race and sex. Black live matter as do the interests of all the working class. There is no alternative but the formation of a global movement of socialists, with the singular object of establishing the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
Iconoclasm and Changing History
The demonstrations throughout the world against the police murder of George Floyd in the United States took a life of their own. In Belgium a notable statue of the genocidal monarch Leopard II was toppled. His forces in the Congo killed millions of men, women and children at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Demonstrations also took place in the United Kingdom. Here, attention turned towards statues and memorials to slave traders and imperialists.
One action by Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Bristol was the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, the 16th century slave trader who was a leading figure in the slave-trading Royal African Company. He shared responsibility for the transportation of an estimated 84,000 Africans, around 19,000 of whom are thought to have died at sea.
The defenders of Empire in the capitalist media were upset with the removal of the statue of Edward Colston. Jimmy Saville, the paedophile, can have his statue removed from Scotstoun Leisure Centre almost overnight to wide-spread applause but for the apologists of the slave trade, Colston the slave trader and mass murderer must be kept on his pedestal at all costs.
Historians trawling through history for forgotten black men and women, might consider the Cato Street Conspiracy, 200 years old last year. A useful commentary can be found in the late Malcolm 'book 1820 (pp. 76-84).
The conspiracy set out to kill the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool and his Cabinet and then start a revolution. One of the conspirators was the Afro-Caribbean, William Davidson, a cabinet-maker. The conspiracy failed and the building in which the conspirators met is now marked by a Blue Plaque. Is the plaque to commemorate the conspiracy and the conspirators or to the success of the ruling class who put the conspiracy down with the use of spies? Davidson went on to be publically executed on 1 May with four other conspirators. A lesson to be learnt by today's workers who believe they can achieve their political objective by taking violent direct action. The machinery of government, including the armed forces, is stronger and more powerful today than it was in 1820.
The destruction of imagery is not new. Although it is associated with religion iconoclasm (literally "image breaking") it has a political meaning. Revolutions and changes of regime, whether through uprising of the local population, foreign invasion, or a combination of both, are often accompanied by the public destruction of statues and monuments identified with the previous regime.
Iconoclasm was prevalent during the English Civil War. At St Mary's Church, Harrow-on-the-Hill, a troop of soldiers from Cromwell's army hacked away at effigies within the church. The sword marks are still apparent. During the American war of Independence, the Sons of Liberty pulled down a statue of George III on Bowling Green in New York City. No tears were shed as they were to be two hundred and forty years later by racists and white supremacists at the removal of statues of Confederates generals and politicians in Southern states.
Throughout Eastern Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Empire, statues of Marx and Engels were vandalised as though they had something to do with the Russian ruling class and state capitalism.
The bust of Marx in Highgate cemetery is periodically vandalised. It is a peculiarly repulsive monumental, carried out in the very worst Stalinist 'socialist-realism' style, or lack of it, and funded by the Kremlin.
The point about history and the past is not to celebrate or curse it but to change it in a revolutionary way. And History can only be changed by the political actions of men and women. To make history - to establish socialism - requires a socialist majority united together with one aim. There can be no division, no disunity only the single-minded pursuit of replacing capitalism with socialism.
What will a future socialist society do about the names of the capitalist class associated with Oxbridge colleges, museums, concert halls, art galleries and so on? Will the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square be permanently entombed within a timber box with a suitable explanatory note of his misdeeds pinned on the outside?
However, there will be more important things for socialists to consider and act upon, like ending world poverty and dealing with the environmental problems bequeathed by capitalism to a socialist society. Removing statues and changing names is easier than ensuring the rapid implication of the socialist principle 'from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs' that could be much harder.
Iconoclasm and Trafalgar Square
Edward Colston is not the first target from those calling for the cleansing of British streets of slave traders and apologists for the slave trade. The writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch wrote an article TOPPLING STATUES: HERE'S WHY NELSON'S COLUMN SHOULD BE NEXT (GUARDIAN, 22/8/20) in which she argued that the statue of Admiral Nelson should be lopped off his column. Afua said that one of the obstacles abolitionists of the slave trade had to overcome was the influence of Nelson. She said:
'While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it.'
She went on to say Nelson used his position to:
'perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends'.
Upset by Hirsh's article, the SUN(22/8/17) tried to defend Nelson's column by digging out a statement by Chris McGovern of the Campaign for Real Education, that Hadrian's Wall was built by a system based on slave labour, as though that was a valid excuse for keeping the status quo and celebrating the British Empire. McGovern should get a 'real education'. In fact, Hadrian's Wall was built by the skilled Roman legionary masons, with thousands of auxiliary soldiers providing the labour. A 500 strong unit of Moors manned the wall which would not go down well with the SUN's anti-immigration politics.
(BLACK PAST November 2011).
Not many tears were shed when the IRA destroyed Nelson's Pillar with explosives in O'Connell Street, Dublin, in 1966. This was an act of nationalism against 'the Brits'. Although socialists have no interest in defending Admiral Nelson's career - socialist oppose all wars on grounds of class, who would want to be associated with the murderous actions of the IRA and their nationalist politics?
The DAILY TELEGRAPH journalist, Leo McKinstry, railed against those who wanted to remove Nelson from his column. MARXIST VANDALS (11/6/20) he called them, forgetting that William Morris in NEWS FROM NOWHERE had proposed for the space to be planted with an orchard of apricot trees while another proposal had Nelson replaced with John Ball (Owen Holland, WILLIAM MORRIS'S UTOPIANISMm, 2017).
In fact, Trafalgar Square has an association with the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Socialist rallies were once held their annually, organised by the then national organiser, Cyril May.
A photograph of the rally appears on the front cover of the SOCIALIST STANDARD of January 1974. Behind the five speakers is a pertinent banner for the 21st century "Workers of the World. Unite for Socialism". Trafalgar Square became a place for working class unity. For a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, the square lost its association with Admiral Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. It became a site of socialist activity and class struggle.
The Slave Trade and the Primitive Accumulation of Capital
Slavery, the slave trade and the compensation paid to the slave owners by the British state helped kick-start the industrial revolution. 'Primitive capital accumulation', Marx called it.
Abolition of slavery came only after three centuries of the slave trade. And when it was ended, the equivalent of £13bn in today's money was given by the British government to indemnify 3,000 slave owning families. Nothing went to victims or their families. Private property - which slaves were - was sacrosanct and had to be compensated for.
Post Brexit imperialism wants to play down slavery. British politicians from Gordon Brown through to David Cameron and Jacob Rees Mogg insist politicians and historians should stop apologising for Britain's imperial past and 'celebrate' its achievements.
Socialists have no interest in the future resting place of the statue of Edward Colston. Nor have we an interest, unlike Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson, in the class he represented. The real interest of socialists is the issue of racism in the twenty-first century which is class-divisive and has to be opposed. Our socialist opposition to racism is set out in the fourth clause of our 1904 Declaration of Principles: "the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex".
We say that racism can only end with the rise of a socialist majority and the establishment of socialism. Our opponents deny this stating that you can get rid of racism while retaining a capitalism system but as the profit system is the cause, racism will continue as long as the system continues; it will fester and explode in times of economic crises and depression. Leave the statue to the curiosity of the fish.
More worrying is Boris Johnson and his vision of British capitalism. On Africa he wrote:
"Africa is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore". (THE SPECTATOR 13 July 2016).
Johnson's imperialist dream is for British capitalism is to be in charge of sections of the world again - economically and politically. On the basis of a post-Brexit Imperialism, led by entrepreneurial "Buccaneers" (BRITANNIA UNCHAINED, Conservative Party pamphlet 2012 ch. 5, Kwarteng, Patel, Raab et al), he believes, like Cecil Rhodes, in the superiority of Anglo Saxon whites.
While editor of THE SPECTATOR in 2008, then Tory MP Boris Johnson, published an article that said "blacks have lower IQs". (EVENING STANDARD 2/4/08). Another article from around the same time said that people from the Caribbean were "multiplying like flies"
Johnson, it should be noted, is a fan of Winston Churchill. Churchill was, as his deeds and actions confirmed, a racist, eugenicist, anti-working class and an imperialist. Their view of the dominance of "The Anglo-Saxon race" is shared with that other imperialist, Cecil Rhodes. One of Rhodes's primary motivations in politics and business was his professed belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was, to quote his will, "the first race in the world", where, "the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race" (Cecil Rhodes, ed, William Thomas, 1902).
In defence of the memorials to his hero Winston Churchill, Johnson has said that "we should not censor the past" but we do not want his past, we do not want his history. Our history is not the history of the ruling class. Johnson wants the imperial past, of Waterloo and the Battle of Trafalgar, as a springboard for the future. His is a history of when Britain was 'Great' and ruled the waves. It is not the history of the working class.
Throwing a statue of a slave owner into a Bristol harbour is not censoring the past. If you were not allowed to study Edward Colston the slave trader who caused the deaths of thousands of slaves, then that would be censoring history. What their class did to our class should be remembered. However, our history is censored. It is censored through the school curriculum by Michael Grove when he was Minister of Education. His class want to impose their history on us - a story of British history taught as a series of kings and queens and passive subjects.
If Black history is to be taught in schools, as Black Lives want it to be, why not teach all aspects of capitalism's origins, the class exploitation - the use of child labour in the factories, the enclosure of the commons and accumulation of capital through piracy, war and plunder? Why not celebrate the establishment of trade unions by workers in the face of opponents like Lord Wilberforce calling Combinations (trade unions) "a general disease in our society". In 1794 Wilberforce backed the prosecution of twelve members of the London Corresponding Society for high treason. Their crime was to advocate universal suffrage. In addition, there was the struggle of the Chartists for the vote, now considered a "niche subject" and unknown to most school children.
In reality capitalism's history will always be partial and selective. It will only be through a growing socialist movement that our history and our struggle will be told.
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force"
(THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY. Marx & Engels, 1846)
We will have to wait until socialist ideas become a "material force of society" and dominate throughout society as the political class struggle intensifies, until such time socialist ideas are the ruling ideas and we have control and determination the making of history.
Acknowledging the existence of slavery, its effects and its resultant racism, undermines the idea of British history's inclusiveness. It punctures the seamless "history of our nation" from 1066 until today.
The history and politics of immigration shatters the myth of a common history and the powerful ideology surrounding the claim that the British Empire was a benign, civilizing influence on world history, something to be proud of, an example of "British exceptionalism"
And it shows who benefitted from the slave trade and to what ends. It gives a lie to the industrial revolution being politically. The workings of capitalism are for the benefit of everyone. Capitalist history is shown for what it is: a history of class struggle.
Is The Pope A Catholic?
The GUARDIAN recently carried a headline: 'Jaw-Dropping evidence has exposed a business culture in which money comes first' (25 November 2020). This was in reference to the Grenfell public enquiry. In capitalism does profit come first?
Is the Pope a Catholic?
At the enquiry, evidence was given from key witnesses employed by the insulation manufacturer Celotex, and e-mails sent by employees at the cladding company Arconic, that they were cheating and cutting corners even though it was dangerous. The companies did not care for the consequences of their actions only the profit they were likely to make.
That profit was the motivating force of the companies should surprise no one. In a highly competitive industry, to steal an advantage over commercial competitors and corner the market goes on all the time. Capitalists want to produce their commodities as cheaply as possible.
According to the GUARDIAN, Celotex, the main supplier of the building's insulation, added fire resistant boards to a fire safety test to ensure its product would pass - and deliberately concealed what it had done. And the editorial went on to say:
"Kingspan insulation, the market leader with whom Celotex was trying to compete worked for years to persuade the National House Building Council to grant safety certificates. Internal emails reveal how this was described as "slow educating" the firm and boasted that it had been achieved without taking executives out drinking. Kingspan sold its foam insulation to at least 240 high-rise bocks...".
Kingspan saved itself from having to commission costly lobbyists by using free market institutes to bewail regulating capitalism. How many other rigged tests? How many other corners cut? We do not know. We only know when a Grenfell disaster occurs.
The risk taking was systematic and deliberate. Celotex and Arconic were not the first and will not be the last to behave in this way. The profit motive and making huge amounts of money for their investors is the name of the game.
Celotex and Arconic join a long list of capitalists who have shown scant regard to human life.
Earlier this year a California judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay nearly $344m in penalties for deceptively marketing pelvic mesh devices for women, as the state attorney general accused the company of putting "profits ahead of the health of millions of women" (GUARDIAN 30 January 2020).
VW Diesel Volkswagen, pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal charges that included obstruction of justice and conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act. The company admitted that it had rigged nearly 600,000 Volkswagen and Audi vehicles sold in the United States to conceal excess emissions.
In 2009 the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer agreed to pay $486 million to settle civil and criminal allegations that it had illegally marketed its painkiller Bextra, which has been withdrawn. It was the largest health care fraud settlement and the largest criminal fine of any kind ever. Now they are being lauded for their work in finding a vaccine to the Covid-19 virus.
Then there was the Ford Pinto of the 1970s and 1980s. It was alleged that if it was hit by another car from the rear the doors would jam shut and the bomb-like rear gas tank would explode upon impact. Critics argued that before the Pinto was released to the public in 1970, Ford knew it was a potentially murderous poorly designed commodity. Only, instead of recalling the cars for safety retrofits, Ford ran a cost-benefit analysis on the matter and found it would be cheaper to pay off the possible lawsuits of crash victims in out-of-court settlements.
The GUARDIAN asked the question whether the tragedy highlights how businesses do things under capitalism. There are few saints within the capitalist class. It questioned the increasing domination of markets by multinational companies far removed from the end users. And it questioned the private-equity owners with their intense focus on profit.
Of course, the problem is the profit motive. The GUARDIAN will not admit this. They think you can have capitalism without the effects of capitalism. The GUARDIAN holds the utopian belief that you can have a regulated capitalism that meets the needs of all society. You can't. Capitalism runs in the interest of those who own the means of production and distribution; the minority capitalist class.
Capitalism cannot be questioned. The Grenfell inquiry will not question the profit motive. Nor will it question capitalism. Individuals will be highlighted, blamed and punished. Recommendations will be made, politicians will promise to implement them but the recommendations will largely be ignored until the next Grenfell disaster.
All of society does not have democratic control over production and distribution. People do not get what they need because they are rationed by the wages system. More so with housing, where the cost of buying a house is out of reach of most workers who are instead forced to rent, lease or obtain a mortgage. Under capitalism the working class consumer is not king but a dependent wage slave.
Following the Grenfell inquiry, tens of thousands of mostly young leaseholders are now stuck in inflammable buildings. There are thousands of Grenfell's around the country, with inflammable cladding, inflammable insulation and other major safety defects. The freeholders and developers do not care. The developers have made their profit while freeholders, often large property institutions, have plenty of wriggle room in the lease agreements, to off-load the responsibility of repair onto the lease holders; members of the working class. Their wages just do not cover the cost of the necessary refurbishment.
Of course, the lease holders are not the only ones living in sub-standard buildings. The Building Services Engineer (29/7/20), stated that one-third of all homes being rented fail to meet the Decent Home Standard. There are more than half a million overcrowded households in England, affecting one child in ten. The Royal College of Physicians suggests that, at a minimum, thousands of deaths per year are directly caused by pollutants in the air. All are consequences of the profit system. The end user of housing is irrelevant. What is important are the shareholders and Directors.
If the Pope is a Catholic then he is certainly no Marxist. If profit-making drives capitalists it would be useful to ask where profits come from. Profits come from the exploitation of the working class.
Workers produce more value in the working day than they receive in wages and salaries. This surplus value goes to the capitalist class in the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.
We should not wait for the next disaster and loss of life. Yes, profit is the problem. Production should not take place for the purpose of profit but just directly to meet human need. The solution to Grenfell and the underhand practices it exposed is the abolition of capitalism by the establishment of socialism. This requires the conscious, political and democratic action of a socialist majority. Only a socialist majority can abolish commodity production and exchange for profit, the establish the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
The Magic Of Money
In his painstaking analysis of how capitalism works, the dynamics of commodity production, the role of money as a medium of exchange, Marx quoted - in his notebooks and later in CAPITAL (VOL 1) - a ringing passage from Shakespeare:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, godS,...
... Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair;
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant;...
... This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless th'accurst;
Make the hoar leprosy ador'd; place thieves
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench;...
... Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that putt'st odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
Timon of Athens
In 2020, the US election of a president was to be decided - as so often - not by the character, ability and policy of the competing individuals, or the popularity of their parties.
Like so many elections, a lot depended on the power of the purse. Just as so much Russian 'funny money' polluted the UK's 2016 Brexit referendum, and later that year the US election of Trump to the White House, now too the deep pockets of the Kremlin are in competition with the very deep pockets of Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. In 2016, the gullible among the US voters were hugely impressed by Trump's apparent wealth and supposed success as a businessman.
Yet this was a man who had to be sued by his victims for the 'Trump University' lucrative con-trick and in his shady past had succeeded in bankrupting even his casinos; whose business dealings as a developer had involved being in hock to the illegal racketeers of the Mafia; and whose word was so unreliable that many New York lawyers refused to take him on as a client (like many others, e.g. architects and other suppliers, they had found him refusing to pay his bills). Such dodgy American 'businessmen' are seen as 'grifters'.
Shakespeare's view of gold's power seems prophetic - wealth has the power to: "place thieves / And give them title, knee, and approbation,..."
From Earth to Money
Gold starts out as simply a form of 'rare earth', to be mined like any other ore. Once mined it is processed. But this 'processing' is itself a dangerous and dirty business. A recent discovery of gold in the hills of an Armenian spa-town, with a Western company about to develop a mine, has roused fears. Imagine:
"...a giant open-cast pit, stripping the top off one of the mountains above beautiful Jerrmak, home to our country's most beloved brand of mineral water. Using the 'heap leach' method, Lydian intends to pour liquid cyanide over vast piles of crumbled rock, washing the gold out.
(PRIVATE EYE, no 1531, 25/10/20).
There are obvious environmental risks in this. But poisoning the environment and polluting your source of drinking water is nothing new. The same scenario was described by the 19th C playwright Henrik Ibsen in his 1882 play, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. In a small town with a health-giving spa, it is found that the water is polluted by a nearby industry, so what to do? In the end it is decided to cover up the facts, and hope the town's trade - and visitors - continue as before. And to destroy the career and life of the town's whistle-blower Doctor. Such issues have led to conflicts and protests all over the world but always they seem to come out the same: capitalist interests ride rough-shod over all else. If groundwater is polluted, politicians can be bribed. Money rules. The people and the planet suffer the consequences.
After processing, gold is then shipped away to be hoarded and guarded in the US in Fort Knox, in the UK in the vaults of the Bank of England. Some gold is supplied for the jewellery trade or for art, some for medicinal, industrial and research use.
But its main use and its crucial importance is its economic functions - as currency, as medium of exchange, as a store of value, as a hoard.
When Shakespeare wrote and for many centuries after, gold was used as currency. If in a Shakespeare play, someone's purse is stolen, that purse like as not contained gold coins. Such coins could be used in trade to buy everyday commodities, and then gold served as a 'medium of exchange'.
You could change one gold coin for several silver coins, or for food, drink, clothing, and rent, and to pay wages. Like any form of money, gold served as a 'universal equivalent'.
From this it is clear that money of any sort serves as a lubricant to oil the engine of capitalist trade, just as credit does. Gold was selected for this role as it does not rust, is easily converted into different types of coin and is easy to carry. Nowadays gold is no longer used as everyday currency and has been largely replaced by 'promise to pay' paper currencies, which seem to have only the loosest connection with gold as a reserve and increasingly credit cards, with even less connection.
Gold however is still hoarded. Shakespeare's Timon himself was a hoarder: ruined and bankrupt, unable to pay his debts, he had fled the city and, digging for edible roots to eat, found gold which he hoarded, buried in the ground, until he could find a way of buying his revenge. Today, governments hoard their gold and use it to finance their wars - to buy their revenge.
"Money has no smell"
As the universal equivalent, money is unique. As Shakespeare noted, it had the amazing ability to conceal the often sordid or criminal origins of wealth: "... Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair; / Wrong, right..."
In our own time, banks and finance houses have developed a criminal culture of industrial scale 'money-laundering', with networks circulating mysterious slush funds from thousands of shadowy shell companies, whose real ownership and origins are carefully shielded from the authorities.
Compliant governments seem to turn a blind eye and even to act as enablers as, among others, Russian 'oligarchs' and Putin's placemen export their ill-gotten gains.
The World's Money Laundromat
A recent special report, Carry on laundering - How Britain's wash cycle keeps crime bosses and kleptocrats in business and in power (PRIVATE EYE, no 1531 25/9/20) details a lot but is clearly just the tip of the iceberg.
In post-Soviet times, Russia's rulers have been creaming off the wealth of Russian business, especially its 'black gold', the ever-flowing oil and gas.
Corruption is rampant so that funds, supposedly allocated for infrastructure projects, e.g. to improve their dreadful roads, somehow are mysteriously transmuted into expensive Western real estate, school fees at Eton, super-rich in their extravagant lifestyles.
But such is the almost magical power of money that the most obviously crooked characters are immune to any fear of being held to account.
There are kleptocracies in many states, states where the ruling elites and their nearest and dearest use the state's funds as their own piggy-banks - much as the US-Italian Mafia used their protection rackets to fund their own lavish lifestyles, much as Donald Trump used his casinos as his own piggy-banks - how else could these casinos have gone broke? His - and others' - golf-clubs, casinos and hotels have been a useful conduit of money-laundering for Russian - and other - kleptocrats.
Here it is that the shape-shifting nature of money is most useful. But that characteristic of money can be found throughout the system, wherever money is changed, whether through everyday purchases and trade, or in exchanging one currency for another when travelling, or in financial speculation as in City trading on the currency exchanges or in the unregulated 'crypto' currencies like Bitcoin. Just as engines rely on oil or diesel for lubrication, so capitalism's manifold exchanges require money in its flexible and accommodating role as a medium of exchange, as the universal equivalent, as well as a store of value, to keep all trade and exchange transactions going.
But there is a social price to pay, as Shakespeare noted in the tale of Timon. Gold can and often does corrupt, it can be used for bribery and to pay for murder and other crimes, and it can be used to corrupt once honest officials, and to buy privilege.
The 'black market'
In black market conditions, you can see most obviously the danger from the corrupting power of money. For instance, in post-war 1940s Vienna, where there were shortages of all sorts especially of the new wonder-drug, penicillin, spivs took advantage of this and developed a racket, selling it to hospitals, diluted. As spivs lined their pockets, their profits came from this dilution - but the patients suffered horribly from this cynical self-serving racket. (This nice little tale was the gist of the plot of the 1949 film, THE THIRD MAN.)
In Marx's London, it was common for the 'milk' you bought to be actually just water, whitened with powdered chalk: not much use if TB patients needed a better diet, or for young children in need of calcium. In Afghanistan, one enterprising British racketeer was cynically selling useless gadgets as life-saving 'mine detectors' - and this con cost lives.
But whatever the rights or wrongs of it, as the Roman saying has it, "money has no smell" (Pecunia non olet). However foul its past, money conceals its dodgy past. The lucrative trade in concealing the criminal looting by Russian and other kleptocrats is vastly profitable for Western banks, estate agents, luxury trades, and lawyers. Plus, parasites of all sorts, and politicians too, all happily lining their pockets - "Enrichissez-vous!".
Once duly 'laundered', like the Mafia money in the past, money - however ill-gotten - becomes respectable and moves in the very best circles where no-one questions its legitimacy. One of Putin's people has recently been made a member of the House of Lords, an unelected law-maker. Leading Western politicians are only too happy to hobnob with these shady characters, just so long as their super-yachts offer enough luxury and creature comforts for enjoyable and lucrative networking. No wonder there are always plenty of would-be parliamentary candidates whenever there's a vacancy! And no wonder so few MPs actually show up in the Commons, even by speaking on-line from home: the fact is for many of them politics is actually only a side-line, as their main business is making money, on the side.
In the 19th C, many novelists wrote of money matters. The awesome power, economic and political, of money is found in the ever-popular works of Jane Austen, whose characters' lives and loves are so often tied up in their financial situation and fortunes. Such fortunes dictate whether they can marry, just as money is the driving ambition of Thackeray's fortune-hunter, Becky Sharp, in VANITY FAIR.
This awesome power is now more blatant than ever. There is nothing in capitalism which cannot be bought, as Shakespeare saw. In today's world too, gold is still possessed of near-magical powers. And Marx in his notes on this, wrote of "the divine power" of money:
It is the visible deity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposite, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings incompatibles into fraternity. It is the universal whore, the universal pander between man and nature...
What I as a man am unable to do ... is made possible for me by means of money."
(ECONOMIC AND PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS, 1844)
Now we see in the looming tragedy of climate change how this corrupting power has been utterly destructive, of humanity's relationship to the natural environment as well as of our relationships with one another. The power of money is destructive of our very nature as creatures of Mother Nature, and of our natural sociability - our social ability to cooperate and trust each other. Such is the corroding power of capitalism's indispensable sine qua non, its medium of exchange and store of value. It cannot act honestly: it can only corrupt and distort.
So long as the capitalist system of greedy, competitive production for profit lasts, this cash nexus intrudes into even our most sensitive relationships, dominating and distorting our lives, till we seem to be mere pawns in the game, controlled by 'their' greed. But as Socialists we know we have a choice - not between competing politicians and would-be leaders but the choice to change the rules of the game and to say emphatically "Money Must Go!"
Capital and Ideology
The economist, Thomas Piketty, is praised by his many supporters for being the 'Marx of the Twenty First Century'. However, there is no comparison except in the length of their respective works.
CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY is 655 pages long while Marx's CAPITAL VOLUME 1, published by Pelican, is 853 pages long. The same applies to Piketty's more recent book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY which pans out at 1065 pages long compared to the third volume of Marx's CAPITAL at 1081 pages.
There the similarity ends. Whereas Marx has a lot of sound and valid things to say about capitalism still relevant in this century, Piketty has nothing of relevance to offer at all.
This was apparent in an interview on CBC news in which Piketty admitted:
"I am very much in favour of private property and private capitalism...Making people invest in their businesses, making more people capitalists and owners, that is exactly what I am pushing for."
Unlike Marx, Piketty wants to save capitalism. He is a modern Keynes wanting to stop workers reading Marx's CAPITAL. A 'General Theory' for the 21st century, if you like.
Piketty claimed not to have read Marx. It shows. Both his recent two books are superficial: "vulgar political economy" Marx would have called it. An apology for class exploitation: the work of a hired gunslinger.
Capital, for Piketty, is the wealth of the wealthy. For Marx, capital is a historical mode of production: it has not existed for all time and can be brought to an end.
Marx's understanding of capital is much deeper and richer than Piketty's own. Marx said that capital was a social relationship masquerading as a thing. Here is Marx on the definition of capital:
'Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. All these components of capital are created by labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour that serves as a means to new production is capital.
So say the economists.
What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is worthy of the other. A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.'
Capital lives and grows by class exploitation based on the private ownership of the means of production. The working class is forced onto the labour market for a wage or salary. Workers are forced to sell their ability to work and in the process of producing commodities generate what Marx calls "surplus value", the source of profit for the capitalist class. The difference between Piketty and Marxâ€™s account of capitalism is the difference between chalk and cheese.
In his new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY (2020), Piketty sets out to trace the ideas and beliefs which have sustained class inequality allowing the rich to amass vast fortunes with little censure or criticism from politicians and the media, and only, he argues, indifference on part of the working-class majority. Piketty does not rate the working class who he believes are easily bought off with a diet of commercial sport, pop music and celebrity.
Piketty starts his book with inequality in pre-capitalist societies and in part one and two of the book moves through history of inequality to the modern day. He shows that all class systems have had inequality and have shown cruelty towards the poor. Most people in human history have struggled and lived in poverty. Their lives have been largely ugly, brutal and short.
The main focus of Piketty's book is to relate extreme and rising inequality with the disappearance of a class-based politics which existed in the 1960s and 1970s (chapters 11 and 12). This is set out in part three "The Great transformation of the twentieth Century". To Piketty's way of thinking, there is now no working class politics capable of acting as a downward force on rising inequality as, he argues, there was once in the 20th century.
He believes the failure of Bolshevism and Social Democracy has meant a collapse in working class politics and workers becoming unable to resist the encroachments of capital. He points to two negative trends: trade unions and the rise of identity politics. Trade union membership has declined as has strike action. Piketty thinks that 'radical politics' draws its members from an increasingly narrow pool which now pursues an identity politics rather than seeing any political agency in the working class.
Piketty is also alarmed at the way politics is moving. The working class now blames immigrants rather than billionaires. Many workers have succumbed to 'xenophobic populism' throughout Europe, India, the United States and South America. Such a politics shows indifference to the rich and powerful. Divisive politics place a barrier of a clear understanding of capitalism and the need for the working class to establish socialism.
However, Piketty does not believe the working class are cut-out for socialism. His audience is other academics and other intellectuals.
As with all academics Piketty has to introduce new jargon with buzz-words like "hyper-capitalism" by which to define today's inequality.
Piketty is no socialist revolutionary. He does not want to see capitalism abolished and socialism established. He wants the state to be used to prevent the really rich from escaping taxation through the introduction of older forms of redistribution based on income tax and corporation tax. He wants the impossible: capitalism without the effects of capitalism.
This form of redistribution that Piketty favours failed in the past for the simple reason that you cannot construct distribution policies on the private ownership of the means of production. The latter wins out all the time. Capitalists, under pressure of competition, have to exploit the working class. In the process of exploitation, they amass profit which they have to re-invest but hive off enough to live comfortable lives not open to the majority.
Piketty's utopianism is to retain capitalism, reform it and make it fairer: an impossible task, made more impossible by Piketty giving the role to "enlightened politicians" informed by intellectuals like himself. Who is going to make it 'fairer'? What about the opposition of capitalists and their politicians? Marx, on the other hand, wanted the end of buying and selling of commodities and the abolition of the wages system. He envisaged workers taking their own democratic and political action along a revolutionary political route dependent upon a socialist majority acting in its own interests.
Pikettyâ€™s world of 'hypercapitalism' is underpinned by a powerful set of ruling class ideas and beliefs; that billionaires are justified in their wealth, the poor are 'undeserving' and any form of radical redistribution would lead to economic collapse: hardly novel ideas. Marx was confronting these ideas when he was writing CAPITAL in the 1860s.
Piketty sees history as a struggle of ideas and beliefs in which 'justice' wins out in the end through an enlightened politics looks at ideas as existing in isolation from the conditions in which people live. This is the type of idealism Marx rejected in the 1840s.
He ignores the fact the workers produced their own ideas out of the materialist condition in which they lived. Workers were able to form trade unions and struggle for higher wages; to form organisations like the Chartists and to establish political parties such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And they thought and acted without the need of enlightened politicians and intellectuals.
Marx replaced political idealism with a materialist conception of history which had at its heart the realisation that all history is 'the history of class struggles'. There is nothing deterministic in this class struggle, for in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels even entertained the idea that it could lead to the ruination of both classes; capitalists and workers.
It is men and women who change history not the disembodied movement of ideas. If ideas are what change society, where do these ideas come from?
You can only explain ideas in relation to the material conditions of society in which they occur. That is why Marx insisted: "It is not consciousness that determines being, but social being that determines consciousness".
Piketty's CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY adds nothing to Marx. In fact, it is a reactionary and backward-looking book. Piketty rejects the key Marxian idea that the working class has political agency. He does not believe socialist ideas are viable. And instead of seeing the state as a coercive class institution, he sees it as the only liberatory force within capitalism [with echoes of Hegel]. He wants to see a state made up of enlightened politicians, who would introduce legislation to heavily tax the billionaires and confiscate their wealth.
However, the state is a class institution and the politicians, from all political parties, are elected to form capitalist governments and have to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The capitalist state does not and cannot exist to pursue an egalitarian politics of redistribution. The capitalist state is not a charity. The capitalist state has to protect and further the interests of class exploitation and privilege. All governments - of any party - can always be relied on to oppose trade unionists taking strike action. Episodes like the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1926 British General Strike, the 1984 Miners' strike, and so on, are all examples of whose interests the state defends.
We are therefore back to Marx - to the politics of class politics and seeing the working class as political agents who can change society in a revolutionary way. Socialist politics may be unfashionable within universities and newspapers like the GUARDIAN but it is all we have got to end capitalism, inequality and the obscene wealth in private hands which now exists throughout the world today.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.