With the American retreat from Afghanistan, there was a predictably tragic exodus of many, fleeing in terror at the return to power of the ultra-religious conservative Taliban. Like other Islamist rulers, they are remembered for horrific public beheadings, chopping off peoples' hands, stoning and zero rights for women.
"Catastrophe on catastrophe!" said the spokesman for the World Food Programme (AL JAZEERA NEWS, 24 Aug. 21) speaking of desperate food shortages. In Afghanistan alone, the number of people "marching towards starvation" had doubled in the last year, to 14 million. And worldwide the numbers facing famine had spiked to around 270 m. The causes he cited were: conflicts and wars, the Covid pandemic, and various effects of climate change such as droughts and floods. He did not cite capitalism which is the common cause for all these problems and then some. Yet the capitalist system is historically responsible for so many being now "on the brink of starvation".
We see a vicious cycle where droughts bring starvation, and famines bring diseases and pandemics, spread globally via trade and 'globalisation'. With these there are problems due to environmental degradation, as land is degraded, exploited for competitive and profitable global markets.
Along with wars, climate change creates masses of refugees, also the powerful, toxic, divisive and paranoid propaganda spread by nationalists and religious ideologists. These and many other problems are all by-products of capitalism. The solution? World Socialism.
Market Failure and Global Warming
According to the TIMES (16/9/21), Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has blamed the capitalist free market for global warming. He believes that governments around the world have a duty to "legislate and intervene" in order to protect the environment.
However, governments represent the interest of their respective capitalist class. The capitalist class of each nation is in competition with capitalists from other countries. This is reflected in the competition between nation states over trade routes, markets, strategic spheres of influence and gaining a competitive edge on the world market.
Under capitalism, profit comes before the environment. Countries do not want their own capitalist class to suffer by supporting and implementing environmental reforms which makes their capitalist class lose out.
Why undertake environmentally reform when other countries do not. Competition and economic growth are more important than floods in Bangladesh or drought in Africa.
Will Brazil stop cutting down the rain forests and China close the coal mines they have just spent millions on opening? Will Kwarteng's Tory government halt the opening of the Cumbrian coal mine in the North West of England where 40 conservative MPs have signed a letter in support of the mine? And despite hosting Cop26 in Glasgow this November, will Kwarteng's Tory government close the Cambo oil field west of Shetland? Fossil fuel burning is a major contributory factor to global warming.
Global warming, is, as Kwarteng states, all about "market failure". Market failure is the admission that the market is not benign, harmonious and self-adjusting as Adam Smith believed. The market fundamentalists have been worshipping a false god.
Kwarteng's admission that capitalism is the problem of global warming is to put forward the only solution to environmental degradation. The only way to deal with global warming is for the world's working class to politically and democratically replace capitalism with socialism: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
In July 2021 the United States and its NATO allies moved their military out of Afghanistan. The war on Terror, begun in 2001, had cost $815.7 billion and 241,000 lives. As the military left the Taliban took more and more territory. The debacle in Afghanistan was similar to the war in Vietnam which saw a brief period of civil war between the US leaving the country and the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
So who won the war on terror? The US certainly was supreme in the terror it caused, killing unknown civilians with destructive drone and aircraft strikes. The poppy fields producing heroin are secure and the Taliban will become the government although that may still prove to be a poisoned chalice.
One winner is Chinese capitalism. China looks at Afghanistan for investment and strategic influence opportunities. It is part of its great imperialistic plan to dominate the region to the exclusion of the United States.
Kabul authorities, have become much more deeply engaged with Chinese authorities as the two work toward a commercial deal to invest in Afghanistan's infrastructure through China's international Belt and Road Initiative.
The Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.
'Belt' is short for the 'Silk Belt Economic Belt', referring to the proposed overland routes for road and rail transportation through landlocked Central Asia whereas 'road' is short for the '21st Century Maritime Silk Road', referring to the Indo-Pacific sea routes through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Examples of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments include ports, skyscrapers, railroads, roads, airports, dams, and railroad tunnels.
(Lily Kuo/Niko Kommenda. 'What is China's Belt and Road Initiative?' THE GUARDIAN 5/9/18).
The project has been used by the Chinese government to grow its influence by providing infrastructure loans to poorer countries in return for control over local resources. The deal would extend the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of the Beijing-led initiative.
The project has included the construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines that reach to Afghanistan. The construction of a major road between Afghanistan and Peshawar, a city in north-western Pakistan, is one of the specific projects on the table.
Trade, Competition and International Rivalry
The United States does not like this project. It would create a trade network dominated by China to the exclusion of United States capitalism. The US has created in 2019 its own initiative with Japan and Australia called the Blue Dot Network. So as one conflict ends another begins. War and conflict are a fact of life under capitalism where the world is split into competitive nation states.
We live in a world capitalist system shot through with international rivalry and conflict. As one war ends so another begins. With each passing decade tens of thousands of people are maimed and killed while the weapons used to 'degrade', 'take-out' and inflict 'collateral damage' become more sophisticated and deadly in their use and consequences.
US warships have passed through the South China Sea with increasing frequency in recent years, in a show of force against the Chinese claims. China has also stepped-up its military presence in the region in recent years, including building artificial islands and air bases, where it has installed missile systems and other equipment.
Recently, FORBES MAGAZINE carried an article Anticipating War with China, The U.S. Air Force Is Fanning out across the Pacific (7/6/21).
The author, David Axe wrote:
For years, the U.S. Air Force concentrated its warplanes at just two bases in the western Pacific: for fighters, Kadena Air Force Base in Japan's Okinawa prefecture; and for bombers and big support planes, Guam's Andersen Air Force Base.
Beijing looked at these bases and devised a simple strategy for suppressing U.S. air power in the region. China constructed a couple of thousand non-nuclear ballistic missile silos which, in wartime, could be fired at the US bases until their runways, aprons, hangars, fuel tanks and warehouses were nothing but ash blowing in the wind.
After years of build-up, the Chinese rocket force possesses around 1,300 ground-launched missiles with sufficient range to hit Kadena and Andersen from mainland China. In response, the US government is getting its hands on as many islands to construct mini air force bases thereby dispersing its military over the whole region and, of course, the military build-up of air craft carriers and destroyers in the region has also increased the likelihood of conflict.
According to Bloomberg:
As the world's biggest economies spar on everything from trade to the coronavirus, fears have grown that a miscalculation between warships could spark a wider military confrontation. (17/12/20)
Capitalism causes war but it is not only through market competition and trade - the buying and selling of commodities for profit - that causes governments to go to war. Wars is usually fought over the acquisition and protection of raw resources, trade routes and spheres of strategic influence.
Raw Resources, Trade Routes and Spheres of Strategic Influence
Nearly a decade ago, in an edition of Foreign Policy, an article by John Reed, under the heading Surrounded: How the US military is encircling China (20/8/13) highlighted the increasing conflict between China and the US in the Pacific. The writer was no socialist but the content of his article confirmed the socialist analysis and reasons for war, particularly the consolidation and expansion of spheres of strategic influence. He wrote:
The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a 'divert airfield' on an old World War II airbase there but the residents don't want it and the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon's big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that's nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly formidable defences of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy - and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
His article also highlighted plans by the USAF to send fighter jets and bombers to bases in countries as far apart as Australia and India.
In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia...
China has responded in kind by courting friendly governments like Tonga with vast sums of money for the use of ports and infrastructural development in which to construct military and naval bases. In countries across the South Pacific, Chinese money is pouring into infrastructure and construction projects. In Tonga, the Chinese have built roads, invested in telecommunications, and just completed a huge wharf that can accommodate cruise liners and container ships. The investments in infrastructure have also built influence.
Of course, that wharf could equally be used to support 'military assets' such as warships while the investment in infrastructure across the island could lead to the construction of airfields for fighter-jets and ballistic missiles. Chinese capitalism is just as imperialistic as its 19th century European counterparts. Military build-up in the region has not been seen since the Second World War.
And it is not just the Pacific area that the increasing international rivalry between the US and China asserts itself. China's recent colonial adventurism to take control over disputed islands in the potentially energy-rich waters of the East and South China Seas, against the interests of Japan and the Philippines (both enjoying political and military support from the United States), sets the grounds for future wars not just regionally, but potentially globally too.
If we were living in global socialism and not global capitalism, war, death and destruction would not take place. The reasons for war would not exist. There would be no trade, no buying and selling and no markets, no profits.
The world would not be connected by trade routes but by the direct transportation of goods and services to where they were needed. Free access and production for use would be the guiding motivation. There would be no artificial barriers, trade competition or disputes over sphere of influence. There would be no countries and no international rivalry but if global wars are to be ended, then the world's working class must democratically and politically organise for the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution for everyone and in the interests of the whole world community.
There is a great deal of misinformation about capitalism. Free market fanatics believe that any state interference in the economy is not capitalism, forgetting that the private ownership of the means of production and distribution is protected by the machinery of government and the coercive forces of the state. There is no such thing as a 'free market'. Workers are coerced into the labour market on pain of starvation.
Worse than the market fundamentalists are those who believe you can have a 'caring' and 'compassionate' capitalism. The single-minded drive of the profit motive, competition and the destruction of competitors are seen as being reformed to become something more humane and environmentally friendly.
The capitalist left prattle on and on about an 'ethical' capitalism with 'green credentials' as opposed to the ugly brutalism of capitalism we all currently experience but they want the impossible: capitalism without the effects of capitalism.
However, capitalism cannot change into something else. Profit making is what capitalism is all about - not meeting human need, directly and sufficiently. Profit is everything.
If you want human need met globally then capitalism has to be replaced by socialism. This is what capitalism's reformers, with their talk of 'compassion' and 'care' do not want. They want to retain a system of profit making and competition but not its consequences. It cannot be done.
Modern capitalism is about investing capital into a number of companies on the basis that you will get more money than the original sum invested. You do not care about the business or how the profit mechanism works as long as you make a profit.
Marx showed that the value of all commodities, comes from the exploitation of the working class. Workers are exploited, but not because of accidental cheating or individual 'nasty' capitalists. Labour power is the only commodity that workers possess and they must sell or hire out this to employers for wages, salaries, etc. Marx described it as: "the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use value of any description". (CAPITAL VOL 1 ch 5, p. 167).
It is this exploitation of surplus value which provides the basis of capitalist profits. Marx, like the classical economists before him, Smith and Ricardo, was concerned to show the origin and nature of profits from production, not circulation. Circulation could not offer any explanation for the origin of profits, but simply its distribution.
But capitalism does not run smoothly. Profits are not guaranteed. Investors might not receive profits but instead lose their original capital.
China: A Century of State Capitalism
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
It is a hundred years since the Chinese Communist Party was founded and there was an uncritical article in the French newspaper journal LE MONDE DIPLAMATIQUE, (China's balancing act: power or prosperity? by J-L Rocca July 2021), praising China's historical development.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) was set up in 1921, just a few years after the Bolshevik coup d'etat in Russia. The Party is based on the Leninist model, with a centralised as a vanguard resulting in a one-party state, control of the media, totalitarian dictatorship, secret police, party control of the unions and expansion of aggressive armed forces. It is alleged to have 700 million members.
The Communist Party in China likes to refer to itself as 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. Socialism has never been established in China. Nationalisation is state capitalism. Where you have a working class, you have class exploitation and class struggle. Nationalisation is state capitalism. The State exists to conserve the power and monopoly of the ruling class, in particular the private or state ownership of the means of production and distribution.
With totalitarian governments in power, you get the emergence over decades of a 'new class' - as the apparatchiks gain wealth from their positions of power and political control. As was the case in Russia and Yugoslavia, they then became a ruling class with access to commodities and services denied to the majority of the population live a life apart and distinct from the rest of the population.
Under the 'Great Helmsman', Chairman Mao, the Chinese Government was responsible for a massive famine, caused by their policies and method of government.
The 'Cultural Revolution' of the 1960s, instigated by Mao and a Party clique around him, saw the death or imprisonment of thousands, with workers and students forced out of the cities onto the land. Mao's 'Cultural Revolution' foreshadowed the genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia during the 1970s, a regime influenced by the ideas of Mao.
Under Xi and his predecessors, the CPC follows discriminatory policies towards the population of Tibet and the Uighurs. Opponents of the state are held in concentration camps, tortured and indoctrinated. Criticism of the regime is not tolerated as seen by the recent brutal suppression of protests in Hong Kong.
This so-called 'Communist Party' waged war against those who protested against its dictatorship with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Troops armed with assault rifles and accompanied by tanks fired at the demonstrators and those trying to block the military's advance into Tiananmen Square. Thousands were killed, injured and imprisoned. No mention of the massacre was ever allowed.
The Chinese government, controlled by the ruling polit bureau, has used forced sterilisation as a form of crude birth control. Ironically the policy has proven self-defeating with a drop in population affecting access by capital to sufficient number of exploitable workers. China scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit which has failed to lead to a sustained upsurge in births. The cost of raising children in cities is prohibitive for many workers (BBC NEWS 31 May 2021).
China's current 'Belt and Road' expansion is imperialist in its intent. The Belt and Road Initiative, reminiscent of the Silk Road, is a massive infrastructure project that would stretch from East Asia to Europe. The purpose is to impose global economic power and political hegemony for Chinese capitalist interests around the globe. This imperialist project is seen as a threatening expansion of Chinese power, and the United States has struggled to offer any competing economic and political alternatives.
Locked in a global conflict with US capitalism China's military expenditure, the second highest in the world, is estimated to have totalled $252 billion in 2020
This represents an increase of 1.9 per cent over 2019 and 76 per cent over the decade 2011-2020. Like any other capitalist state, the Chinese government is preparing for war and conflict by seizing territory, monopolising raw resources and defending trade routes and spheres of influence.
As socialists, we argue that socialism is not socialism unless it is
And the Chinese ruling party dictatorship is nothing but a corrupt authoritarian dictatorship, trampling over the lives of their wage-slaves. It's Leninist ideology has nothing to do with Marx who insisted that socialism could only ever be established by the working class uniting and acting in their own class interest.
The fact is that the working class in China are exploited just as ruthlessly as they are in the rest of the world. The class struggle in China is a daily occurrence as employers try to extract the highest rate of exploitation as possible and this is resisted. Despite strikes not being permitted workers do periodically strike for higher pay and better working conditions.
The Chinese Communist Party may be criticised by liberals and conservatives but you will not see in the capitalist media a critique of the 'Communist Party' by socialists. Socialists have a powerful refutation of the Chinese Communist Party. We use a Marxian explanation of why the Chinese Communist Party has nothing to do with socialism/communism.
Applying Marx's materialist conception of history, the Chinese revolution can be understood as a capitalist revolution which led a feudal country into an advanced capitalist country with industry and an accompanying working class. Peasants were driven from the land by force or economic necessity and form a working class with its own economic and political interest. That is what the Chinese Communist Party has achieved over the bodies of millions of peasants and workers.
As a capitalist country it has a constant class struggle between employers and workers with the Chinese Communist Party siding with the employers. But despite the power of the state, workers still strike, there is dissent and questioning and there are protests. Socialist ideas can still be assessed as can be seen by the number of visitors to our web site from China.
There has never been socialism in China. There has never been common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution to all of society. Production in China takes place for profit not to directly meet social need. This has created billionaires of unimaginable wealth of which much is invested abroad.
The Western Left-wing fashion to be Maoists and open Maoist bookshops as in the 1960s has long since passed. However, there are still Maoists today giving their support to Chinese capitalism on the basis that any country who is an enemy of the United States is 'our friend'. It is the politics of the simple minded.
However, the monolithic Chinese Communist Party is not immune from the contradictions and powerful forces of global capitalism. World war could shatter its power. Within the Communist Party there are bitter factions vying for control, there are economic interests in China wanting their own political representation and there are national struggles which may cause civil war, secession and separate capitalist regions.
Over time, workers' experience of the class struggle will create socialists in China who will try to form their own democratic and principled socialist political party. Socialists look forward to the day when workers in China will organise with their fellow workers to replace capitalism with world socialism.
Who was Rosa Luxemburg? Rosa Luxemburg was born, in March 1871, 150 years ago. She is known as a 'Marxist revolutionary'. However, what was her contribution to socialism? What is she best remembered for? How are we to rate her contribution to the struggle to establish socialism?
Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zanosc, a town in eastern Poland near the Russian border. In 1871 it was part of the Russian empire as Poland had not existed as an independent state since 1795. Polish nationalism was widespread and clouded the minds of a growing working class. She was the daughter of a Polish Jewish family and was active in Polish radical politics from her teens. Polish Jews with their own language and networks, had formed a strong radical organisation, the bund, which she joined. She spent most of her adult life in Germany as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), where she was imprisoned several times for opposing the war and campaigning for a general strike.
Luxemburg wrote a great deal on socialism, capitalism, and politics generally. She also taught at the SPD summer school, principally teaching Marxian economics. (For a full collection of her writings see the 14 volume COMPLETE WORKS, in English edited by Peter Hudis.) However, her four principal works are REFORM AND REVOLUTION (1899), THE NATIONAL QUESTION (1907), CAPITAL AND ACCUMULATION (1913) and THE JUNIUS PAMPHLET (1915).
Reform or Revolution?
When the 'revisionist controversy' broke out in the late 1890s, Luxemburg wrote REFORM OR REVOLUTION? one of the most widely read responses to Eduard Bernstein's reformism, set out in his book THE PREREQUISITES FOR SOCIALISM AND THE TASKS OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY (1899), was an attempt, within the German SPD, to provide a theoretical justification for rejecting the 'Marxism' which, it was claimed, underpinned the SPD's socialist programme.
Luxemburg made some salient points against Bernstein, particularly her defence of the class struggle and the importance of the socialist objective. However, in her pamphlet she roundly defended the mistaken theory of capitalist collapse, which she said was "the corner-stone of scientific socialism (p 8). She argued:
Socialist theory up to now declared that the point of departure for a transformation to socialism would be a general and catastrophic crisis... (p8).
......According to scientific socialism, the historic necessity of the socialist revolution manifests itself above all in the growing anarchy of capitalism which drives the system into an impasse. (p 8 to 9)
However, a collapse theory of capitalism was never held by Marx. In fact, in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE he stated: "There are no permanent crises"
What Marx did say was:
...capitalist production moves through certain periodical cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence, growing animation, prosperity, overtrade, crisis and stagnation. (WAHES, PRICE AND PROFIT in SELECTED WORKS, vol. 1, p. 440).
Capitalism, for Marx, was to be abolished by the political and democratic action of the working class. Workers would not have to wait around for its collapse and then walk over its rubble to a new society. Marx rejected fatalism. Socialism was to be attained politically and democratically by the workers themselves, without leaders and the led. The workers did not have to wait for socialism but had to struggle, democratically and politically, for the establishment of a social system based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
What she did get right in her criticism of Eduard Bernstein's revisionism, the target of her pamphlet, was that if you get rid of the socialist objective and just keep the reform programme, you ditch socialism and become just another capitalist political party. Which is what exactly the SPD did: it became just another capitalist political party. The SPD's politicians obediently voted for war credits in 1914, while much of its membership obediently supported the war. After the First World War, the SPD became the government of German capitalism until the rise to power of Hitler in 1933. Like the reformist Labour Party, the SPD still exists as a shadow opposition to the main capitalist political parties.
The National Question
In her book THE NATIONAL QUESTION (ed. H. B. Davis,2009), Luxemburg repudiated the right of nations to self-determination. Luxemburg argued that a nation state was not politically homogenous. A country was a place of class exploitation. She argued that at the turn of the twentieth century, subjected countries like Poland did not need 'liberating' from a larger power like Russia. This meant that the working class needed to focus on class struggle not national struggle.
Luxemburg even criticised Marx: his earlier support for an independent Poland between Russia and Germany was now "obsolete and mistaken" as Russia was becoming more and more a capitalist country.
A country contains two diametrically opposed classes: a minority capitalism class owning the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the majority. And a majority working class who are forced to sell its labour power for a wage or salary. There was no common class interest, only a class struggle over the intensity and extent of class exploitation for profit. Politically, the class struggle is over the ownership of the mean of production and distribution: over whether these are used for the purpose of class exploitation for profit as in capitalism, or to directly meet the needs of all society as will be the case in socialism.
Luxemburg argued that in a class society, to speak of national "self-determination" would merely mean self-determination for the ruling class while the workers would be left in a subordinate class position as before. Look at all the post-colonial countries; like India and Singapore, which became independent from the UK. They all have a capitalist class owning the means of production and an exploited working class owning nothing but their ability to work.
This has led socialists, rightly, not to take sides over Irish nationalism, the Vietnam War of the 1960s, nationalist struggles in South America and Africa and the Far East, and more recently in Palestine. This logically consistent position marks a fundamental distinction between socialists and the capitalist left. We do not give our support to 'democratic movements' because they all contain a potential ruling class.
Socialists are well aware that in some countries workers do not have the vote. The struggle for the vote, for trade unions and the ability to form a principled socialist party, should not be set apart from the struggle for socialism. Workers in these countries should not make pacts, take part in shared political platforms, issue joint manifestoes or join street demonstrations with non-socialist organisations. The socialist objective must not be compromised.
Socialism will not be an aggregate of autonomous nation states but, instead, a World-wide integrated socialist system in which there are no boundaries, no borders, no passports, no barbed wire and no security guards. Socialism will be a world free from national rivalry and war.
The Junius Pamphlet
Luxemburg opposed the First World War on the grounds of class. Within the social democratic parties, she was one of the few who rightly saw the First World War as a capitalist war in which the working class had no interest in killing or dying. For her opposition to the war she was imprisoned by the authorities.
Luxemburg was also associated with the phrase 'socialism or barbarism'. Luxemburg first raised the idea that humanity faced a choice between the victory of socialism or a collapse into barbarism in the powerful anti-war pamphlet she wrote in prison in 1915: THE CRISIS IN GERMAN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY - better known as THE JUNIUS PAMPHLET, after the pen name she used to avoid prosecution. She wrote:
Friedrich Engels once said: 'Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.' ... Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. ... Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.
Whether Engels invented the phrase 'socialism or barbarism' or not, is irrelevant. The phrase aptly described what happened in the trenches, in the destruction of villages and towns and in the death and destruction visited upon the working class between 1914 and 1918. It really was a period of barbarism. Capitalism survived to mete out more death and destruction onto the world. Luxemburg never lived to see the destruction of cities by atomic bombs or the concentration camps and the genocide which were to characterise the twentieth century.
The Second World War saw 55 million deaths and two capitalist countries briefly knocked out of world trade. In his book HUMANITY: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (1999), the philosopher Jonathan Glover calculated that throughout the 20th century one person was killed every minute in one of capitalism's wars.
In her book CAPITAL ACCUMULATION, published in 1913, Luxemburg produced an underconsumptionist theory of crisis. She claimed that surplus value cannot be realized either by workers or capitalists, but only by the exploitation of those living in non-capitalist regions of the world.
Luxemburg admitted that the situation as it existed at the time, formulated her theory in 1913 and "cannot last forever", because, as she said, inevitably the backward countries and backward agricultures themselves develop, so that every country in the world has a larger and larger surplus to get rid of and nowhere to place it. The whole trade and production of the world would come to a halt.
Luxemburg's error was to forget that besides the consumption of the workers, capitalists also invested and bought commodities from other capitalists. They invest in the construction of factories, mining, transport, communication systems, and so on. And they buy these commodities from other sections of the capitalist class.
Luxemburg's theory can be refuted by experience. There has not been a collapse of capitalism. Nothing of this kind has happened in the 100 or so years since she published her book. The passage of time has proved her wrong. All the 180 or so countries in the world now have some developed industries and agriculture. All are exporting, yet total world production and world exports are immensely greater than they were in 1913. It is simply not true that the working class produces more than society consumes.
Finally, in the UK, more and more commodities are sold abroad each year and likewise more and more commodities are imported from abroad. According to the World Bank, between November 2019 and 2020 the UK exported £28.1 billion of goods and services while it imported £48.1 billion of goods and services. Who paid for these and how?
Direct Action and the Spartacist Insurrection
On 1st January 1919, at a convention of the Spartacus League, Luxemburg was outvoted in trying to convince other members that to oppose the forces of the state with their tiny forces was madness and went against their democratic principles. They voted to try to take power in the streets through an armed uprising. Rosa Luxemburg decided, against her better judgement; to support the decision, and to join the suicidal attempt to gain political power through direct action (see THE MURDER OF ROSA LUXEMBURG by K. Gietinger, 2019).
The Berlin police chief, a radical sympathiser who had just been dismissed, supplied weapons to protesters who erected barricades in the streets and seized the offices of an anti-Spartacist socialist newspaper. Calls for a general strike brought thousands of demonstrators into the centre of the city, but the Revolution Committee, which was supposed to be leading the uprising, could not agree what to do next. Some wanted to continue with the armed insurgency, others started discussions with Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrat Party and Germany's new Chancellor. Attempts to get army regiments in Berlin to join the revolt failed.
Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske ordered 3,000 Freikorps soldiers to attack the Spartacists. These former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War 1, which gave them a formidable advantage. The insurrectionists did not stand a chance against disciplined and well trained military units.
Equipped with artillery, machine guns and grenades, the military retook the police headquarters, the war ministry and other buildings that the revolutionaries had captured, and shot hundreds of the demonstrators, including many who surrendered. The government summarily disbanded the workers' and soldiers' councils.
The outcome showed that there was not remotely the widespread support for 'communism' on which the rebels had relied and elections on January 19th were a triumph for Ebert and the creation of a 'democratic constitution' for the new Weimar Republic.
Between 156 and 196 people, including 17 Freikorps soldiers, died during the fighting. Rosa Luxemburg was arrested, along with Karl Liebknecht, and both were murdered by the Freikorps. Her body was unceremoniously thrown into the Landwhehr Canal.
On balance, the negative aspects of Luxemburg's political life far outweigh the positive contribution she made to socialism. Luxemburg's contribution to socialism did more harm than good.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain did not make the same theoretical and practical mistakes Luxemburg made in her relatively short life. Although she opposed the revisionism of Bernstein and others, Luxemburg did not repudiate the reform programme attached to the SDP's objective as the Socialist Party of Great Britain did with the publication of its Object and Declaration of Principles in 1904. These objectives have been included in all our literature since then.
For socialists, there is only one object and that is socialism. Socialists do not get involved with the reforms of capitalism. The reform programme of the SPD and similar organisations, was not a series of stepping stones to socialism. In fact, these 'palliatives' became the political programme itself, attracting non-socialists, and so became the day-to-day politics of the SDP, as the leadership accommodated itself to the political conditions necessary to form a capitalist government.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed reformism from its formation; we saw through the reformism of the Second International and wanted nothing to do with it. The SPGB solved the reform or revolution dilemma by stating that a socialist party should not work for or advocate reforms of capitalism. We said:
That a socialist party should not advocate reforms has always been the policy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This is not to say that reforms can never bring any benefit to the workers. Some can and do, while many are futile or harmful. But a socialist party which advocates reforms would attract the support of people interested more in these reforms than in Socialism.
(Gradualism and Revolution, Questions of the Day, 1976, p.27).
We did not associate our opposition of reform programmes with a belief that capitalism would collapse. The Socialist Party of Great Britain produced, in 1930, the pamphlet CAPITALISM WILL NOT COLLAPSE, and with it the contention that neither underconsumption theories nor the falling rate of profit would lead to a collapse of capitalism. Capitalism has not and will not collapse but passes through successive phases of prosperity, over production, crisis, depression in a seemingly endless cycle. Capitalism has, and always will, function in this way heedless to the wellbeing of the vast majority. Fundamental change can only come about after the abolition of capitalism through the democratic and political action of a socialist majority.
Although Luxemburg made telling arguments about the anti-democratic and dictatorial nature of Lenin's Russia, e.g. 'Leninism or Marxism?' and 'The Russian Revolution' (REFORM OR REVOLUTION? and other writing'â€™ Dover books 2006), the SGPB went further by stating that Russia under the Bolsheviks was not socialist neither would Lenin's 'transition stage' lead to socialism.
Like Rosa Luxemburg, we opposed the First World War on grounds of class.
More importantly, socialists rejected the mass strike and direct action as the route to socialism. Luxemburg should have stood her ground and refused to get involved in direct action which was doomed to failure from the start.
We saw the necessity for a socialist majority to gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, before attempting to replace capitalism with socialism. In QUESTIONS OF THE DAY (March 1978), we said:
The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. We hold the same view as Marx to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. We also hold Marx's view that in the industrially advanced capitalist countries the vote will give that control.
Those who do not accept this sound socialist policy only have to recall how easily and ruthlessly the Spartacus insurrection was suppressed and put down by the forces of the State; likewise, the Paris Commune. The SPGB argues that direct action is a suicidal strategy as workers are so easily outgunned by state forces. History supports our case.
Capitalism and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Let the Elderly Die
The most reactionary of the political economists in the early 19th century was the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who argued that there were too many 'unproductive' poor people in the world, so regular plagues and disease were necessary and inevitable to make economies more productive.
Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased... we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty, and yet few be absolutely starved.
(AN ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLE OF POPULATION, Book 4, Chap. 5)
Malthus has his modern day followers. Free market economists, like the Adam Smith Institute and Institute of Economic Affairs, are not very happy at the way the US and UK governments are "throwing money at the problem". They do not like the shutdown of the economy nor the harm it has caused the capitalist class. Free market economists are briefing journalists to write articles in the media to pressurise the government to end the lock-down. Their arguments draw upon those of the Parson Malthus.
So it comes as no surprise that we read the following headline in the SUN, owned by the billionaire Rupert Murdoch: written by its political editor Trevor Kavanagh: "Hysteria forced the UK into lockdown and will kill more than coronavirus" (31/3/20). These defenders of capitalism want governments to do nothing. A truly laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.
Another journalist, Max Hastings, also said on BBC Radio 4's World At One (5/3/20) that nothing should be done by the government to disrupt capitalism and the virus should be allowed to run its course killing the elderly and the ill but protecting the young. He looked at the elderly as "dead-weight" on the NHS - an expendable part of the population. His tactic was to split the working class along generation lines rather than for the working class to critically look at capitalism and the economic and social problems capitalism causes, particularly to the poor, the sick and the elderly.
Lord King, former Governor of Bank of England, said that the elderly should be sacrificed for the benefit of the young. He based his argument on the young being harmed by the economic crisis of 2008-9 and the elderly not doing too badly (LBC 3/4/20). Nothing was said by King about why capitalism goes into crisis. Nothing was said about the anarchy of commodity production and exchange for profit. And nothing was said about the fact that it is the economic laws acting on capitalism which cause periodic economic depressions and high levels of unemployment.
And then there is the eugenicist and SPECTATOR writer, Toby Young, a vulgar shock-jock and poor man's Peter Hitchins. He used an economic calculus as a justification to cull the elderly (Has the Government Overreacted to the Coronavirus Crisis? THE CRITIC, 31/3/20). He believes that devoting so many medical resources to those in their late 70s does not represent value to the taxpayer. And the burden of taxation falls on the capitalist class. How this economic argument goes down with his fellow Tories Party members, where the average age is 72 (Tory Bow Group, 5/10/17), we have not yet been told.
Two studies are wheeled out by defenders of capitalism to support how badly the young did during the last economic crises and trade depression. A 2016 study by researchers at Imperial College London found that the last global financial crisis caused 500,000 cancer deaths worldwide between 2008 and 2010. They found a correlation between each percentage increase in unemployment, and an upturn in cancer deaths.
Another study in 2014 by University of Oxford researchers found over 10,000 suicides tied to the Great Recession in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Even if these studies are correct, they demonstrate the utter uselessness of capitalism to meet the needs of the working class. The studies give weight to the urgent need of the working class to establish socialism - based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society - not using statistics to write-off a section of the working class.
The trade cycle is not natural. Workers do not have to be unemployed, they do not have to face decades of austerity, and there is a socialist alternative. Capitalism kills, and not just elderly workers.
The Conservative journalist Jeremy Warner also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic "primarily kills the elderly". He reasoned the 1918 Spanish flu had a "lasting impact on supply" because it killed off "primary bread-winners", which he said is unlikely to happen with coronavirus.
He went on to conclude:
Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.
(DAILY TELEGRAPH 3/3/20) One shocked reader of the DAILY TELEGRAPH, owned by the billionaire Barclay Brothers now holed up in their £60m mock Gothic castle with private healthcare facilities on the Channel Island of Brecqhou, wrote:
This breaks my heart. My 85 year old mum reads this paper every day and has spent the last 11 and a half months learning how to live well without my dad and her husband of 62 years. Then she reads this - just imagine. We are so uncaring of our elderly.
'We' are not uncaring of the elderly but capitalism is. If you want a caring and co-operative society then establish socialism. Responding to criticism, Warner said:
Obviously, for those affected it is a human tragedy whatever the age, but this is a piece about economics, not the sum of human misery.
Capitalist economics: an ideology of misery. We do not need capitalism and we do not need its economists. In this respect, we recall the Mikado and his Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, and his "Little List"
As some day may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list - I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed - who never would be missed
And on that list would be those damned capitalists and their tribes of tame economists - 'they would none of them be missed.'
Venezuala Was Never Socialist
According to CNN news "Venezuela is quietly quitting socialism" (20/12/20). This is news to us.
So why did CNN think that Venezuela was socialist? For a start the Venezuelan government believes it is socialist and that its governing party is made up of socialists. Its friends on the capitalist left also say it is a socialist country. And so do its enemies in the West, like Presidents Trump and Biden. So there is an excuse, up to a point, for CNN erroneously believing Venezuela is socialist, a view shared by many workers.
We are told by CNN that the former President Chavez had a vision for Venezuela. Their news item claimed:
Chavez prophesied a Marxist utopia where the state would look after the needs of the people, raise the quality of life, erase inequality and limit private enterprise to a minor role in the economy.
The CNN report contrasted Chavez's 'Marxist Utopia' with the reality for the working class in Venezuela today:
Venezuela today hardly resembles the one pictured by Chavez. Hunger is rampant, inequality dizzying, and public hospitals stand derelict as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic. The US dollar is increasingly taking precedence over the bolivar, and while the Venezuelan minimum wage is the lowest in the region, the country's stock market is booming. Chavez's successor, current President Nicolas Maduro, recently inaugurated an ultra-luxury hotel where rooms are the equivalent of $300 per night.
According to CNN, Venezuela is slowly embracing the market, private property ownership, speculation and all the trappings of capitalism found in the United States. So much for Chavez's 'Marxist Utopia'.
From the perspective of Marx and socialists, Venezuela was never a socialist country. Socialism has nothing to do with the state and nationalisation. Political leaders can never make a capitalist economy run in the interest of all society. And Marx did not present a 'utopia' but said that socialism had to be established by the political action of the working class and no one else.
Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class (CCOMMUNIST MANIFESTO)
.....all previous historical movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.
It was not in Chavez's power to promise socialism in Venezuela. Not only can socialism not be established in one country but it cannot be imposed on a non-socialist working class. Only the working class understanding and taking political action as socialists and without leaders can establish socialism.
So why do socialists say Venezuela is not socialist? It has a long history.
In the nineteenth century some said that Bismarck's social reforms and state enterprises were socialist. Engels dismissed this as absurd. In SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCINTIFIC, Engels remarked that if all this was true then Napoleon and Metternich "would rank among the founders of socialism".
Engels went on to argue:
If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes - this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III's reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels.
Engels was right. Nationalisation has nothing to do with socialism. It is merely state capitalism. The wages system and class exploitation remains intact.
So what is socialism? Why is our definition of socialism better than those holding political power in Venezuela? Why has nationalisation nothing to do with socialism?
To answer these questions, socialism has to be contrasted with capitalism. To understand what socialism is and what are its characteristics we have to begin with capitalism as an integrated global system of production and exchange for profit.
Capitalism is a global system broken-up into competing nation states. And each country has a capitalist class minority who own the means of production and distribution and a majority working class who do not. Whereas the livelihood of the capitalist class is derived from ownership, their workers are forced to sell their ability to work for a wage. They are exploited in the production process by producing more social wealth than they receive in wages. This social wealth or 'surplus value' is the source of the unearned income going to the capitalist class in the form of rent, interest and profit. At the heart of capitalism is the class struggle over the intensity and extent of exploitation.
The working class cannot get their needs met by the rationing of the wages system. Forced into wage slavery, they are only able to get enough to produce and reproduce themselves and their families as an exploited class. And they are forced, as a class, to struggle for higher wages and better working conditions.
This reality applies to Venezuela. In Venezuela, production takes place for profit. Most of the country lives in poverty and are forced to work for wages. Class exploitation exists as does the class struggle. A ruling class live a life of privilege while the rest of society struggle to make ends meet. It will be the rich who will stay at those $500 a night hotels waited on by the working class. Venezuela is a capitalist country, not a socialist one. CNN and Venezuela's supporters and detractors are all wrong. Like Cuba and China, Venezuela has never been socialist. It has never been in a position to slide back into socialism.
This brings us on to socialism. What is socialism? Socialism has never existed anywhere in the world. Like capitalism it will be a global and integrated system of production and distribution. But unlike capitalism it will not have competing nation states or classes. There will be no buying and selling and no wages system.
The fact is, we can define socialism as a system common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. This definition can be contrasted with capitalism and it is clear that the preposterous claim that Venezuela is 'socialist' is found wanting.
There is more we can say about socialism. It will be administered by two socialist principles: 'from each according to their ability to each according to their need' and 'an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'. Production will be undertaken by voluntary social and cooperative labour. Production and distribution will take place directly to meet social need. There will be no markets, no buying or selling.
How do we get from capitalism to socialism? It will not be through political leaders. Socialism has to be established globally by a world socialist movement. Socialism requires principled socialist parties and socialists taking democratic and political action to gain control of the machinery of government through socialist delegates and the revolutionary use of the vote. It is only through the democratic and political action of a socialist majority that capitalism can be replaced by socialism.
Valuing The Commons
As Marx and Engels saw it, the enclosures and loss of common land were not just a land grab. The basis of agricultural capitalism meant the destruction of an independent and largely self-sustaining rural lifestyle as working people were turfed out of their villages, to become a new class of rootless drifting proletarians, driven to seek jobs in factories, mines and even in the colonies.
While the main wave of Enclosure Acts took place in the 1750-1850 period, enclosures were already taking place even in the 13th century, in the Tudor period, through the 16th and 17th centuries, in the latter part of the 19th century and some are still going on even now. Around the world, as capitalism has advanced globally, traditional lifestyles have been losing out, and former peasants and subsistence-farmers have become proles, part of the global working class, mere hands.
An ancient Charter and the people's rights
In his book PLUNDER OF THE COMMONS (Pelican, 2019), Guy Standing examined the 1217 Charter of the Forest and proposed this as a model for a new form of 'public ownership'. His subtitle A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth suggested he had some idea of common ownership but that is misleading.
He rightly points to the basic idea of the old Charter of the Forest as guaranteeing a right of subsistence - "the poor man's overcoat" as it used to be called. But when you look at what he proposes you see only tired old Labour/reformist proposals such as: "ownership of all land in Britain should be registered with the Land Registry" (p350).
His proposed new charter would include a list of Labour's good causes, including environmental issues. It would not demand common ownership and democratic control of all means of producing wealth. Socialists argue for democratic control by and in the interest of the whole community but Standing offers only a set of state bureaucracies, NGOs and quangos.
However, his book is of some value in that he reminds us that, along with Magna Carta, the 13th C brought in the Charter of the Forest which in common law guaranteed to commoners a number of important rights. As Richard Mabey saw it, 'common ground' was protected by very ancient custom-sanctioned rights of usage:
It is now generally accepted that the rights that began to be defined in the 11th century represented the relics of a much wider network of unrecorded customary practice... a very old system that predates the Norman Conquest of 1066.
It was a system of "'land tenure...' in which one party may own the land but others are entitled to various rights in it such as grazing or cutting firewood."
Peter Linebaugh in STOP THIEF! - THE COMMONS, ENCLOSURES AND RESISTANCE (US, 2014), citing Richard Mabey's THE COMMON GROUND - A PLACE FOR NATURE IN BRITAIN'S FUTURE?(1980), not only gave a wealth of detail about the commons and enclosures, and he also had a wider view. Linebaugh's book covered the historical process of land enclosures('commoning') in Britain, and he also saw similar processes happening in other countries.
Everywhere you look in the world you can discover traces of a world where communities once co-owned the land, co-operating in its use. He also described a variety of types of "commoning". Even now when you walk along a footpath or canal towpath, in town or country, your 'rights of way' are examples of these old rights, still surviving except where the property system has robbed us of them.
Linebaugh's book while it proposed no panacea, no quack reform or new charter, which is a mercy, was impressive in his accounts of how the working people have resisted this historic land grab.
The real value of the 'waste'
In England, even largely barren heathlands, moors, marshes and fells had many uses. Until the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, villagers were able to graze cows and sheep on the common; to keep pigs ( the right of pannage is still used in the New Forest); to collect wood for building, fencing, tool-making; to cut peat or furze for fuel; to cut reeds for thatching, or birch twigs for besoms; to cut bundles of rushes to make rush candles, etc. There were also the right of 'lop and top' in woodland areas (in Epping Forest that was still practised in the 19th C), fishing rights, coastal foreshore rights, and so on.
Several writers in the past gave detailed accounts of how using their ancient commons supported the villagers. These include Hampshire's pioneer naturalist, Gilbert White (THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, 1795); William Cobbett from Farnham, the farmer-radical who travelled over southern and Midlands England (COTTAGE ECONOMY, 1821-1823, and RURAL RIDES, 1830); Farnham's George Sturt (CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912), and J Alfred Eggar (LIFE & CUSTOMS IN GILBERT WHITE'S, COBBETT'S AND KINGSLEY'S COUNTRY, c.1925). Between them they covered the main period of the enclosures, seen close up, intimately.
The useful commons and forests
Gilbert White wrote in his NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE (Letter V11) about the economic importance for the local villagers of their commons, such as Wolmer Forest and Alice Holt:
Such forests and wastes... are of considerable service to neighbourhoods that verge upon them, by furnishing them with peat and turf for their firing; with fuel for the burning their lime; and by maintaining their geese and their stock of young cattle at little or no expense. (NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, Letter VII)
Later Cobbett, who was a practical farmer and really hated the barren heaths, praised some newly enclosed and very productive farmland:
The fields on the left... certainly are the most beautiful tract of fields that I ever saw. Their extent may be from 10 to 30 acres each. Divided by quickset hedges, exceedingly well planted and raised. The whole tract is nearly a perfect level. The cultivation neat and the stubble heaps... giving proof of great crops of straw, while, on land with a chalk bottom, there is seldom any want of a proportionate quantity of grain.
That said, Cobbett was angry at how enclosures were harming the villagers:
Labouring people... invariably do best in the woodland and forest and wild countries. Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, they can get but little.
(RURAL RIDES, 1830)
He also pointed out with anger that farmworkers were paid starvation wages - a fraction of what the lowest paid soldier would get, and even less than was paid to men in jail.
Social and economic change
When George Sturt later wrote of the Bourne villagers, a small hamlet a few miles south from Farnham, his older neighbours told of how in the past their lives had been very different:
The impoverished labouring people... were born in a self-supporting peasantry... I heard of the village cows, which used to be turned out to graze on the heaths, and had been told how fir-timber fit for cottage roof-joists could be cut on the common, as well as heath good enough for thatching and turf excellent for firing; and when to this was added the talk of bread-ovens at half the old cottages, and of little corn-crops in the gardens, and of brewing and wine-making and bee-keeping... (CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912)
It was not just about the materials got from the commons but their use in country crafts, as seen by both Cobbett (COTTAGE ECONOMY) and Sturt, a century later:
But it was the common that made all of this possible. It was only by the spacious 'turn-out' which it afforded that enabled the people to keep cows and get milk and butter; it was only by the turf-firing cut on the common that they could smoke their bacon, hanging it in the wide chimneys over those old open hearths where none but such fuel could be used; and, again, it was only because they could get furze from the common to heat their bread-ovens that it was worth their while to grow a little wheat at home and have it ground into flour for making bread.
(Sturt, CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE, 1912, Chap. 9)
With enclosures had come concentration of land ownership and with it, pauperism, plus workhouses. By 1873, a government survey of land ownership found a quarter of the whole country was owned by just 710 aristocrats and their friends, and half of it was owned by just 4,000 families, and this was mostly the best land, seen as profitable to enclose. "That government report was hastily suppressed - its findings were too embarrassing. And no government since has repeated such a survey."
(Guy Standing PLUNDER OF THE COMMONS, 2019).
Enclosures as a historic land-grab
In her 2013 study of the social and environmental effects of enclosures in South Cambridgeshire, Alison Wittering showed how this legal process guaranteed that the rich and powerful got the lion's share of the 'allotments', as Parliamentary Commissioners carved up local commons.
In one village, Stapleford, in South Cambridgeshire the records showed how in 1814 the Commissioners charged the rich much less than the poorer bidders for both the cost of the land and for the compulsory, fencing. One man who was allotted over 100 acres paid less than £3 per acre. The Church's parson got over 40 acres and paid nothing! Yet a man who got only 1.5 acres had to pay over £20 per acre - plus over £13 per acre for fencing.
(ECOLOGY AND ENCLOSURES: THE EFFECT OF ENCLOSURES ON SOCIETY. Alison Wittering. p95)
Another source recorded that in Wakefield, Yorkshire, 100% of the common lands were allotted to the Duke of Leeds, whose sole interest was in the coal below ground. Land allotted to the benefit of the poor: a generous 0%!
In many areas local people fought against enclosures. The long and often violent struggle in Otmoor near Oxford went on for decades. Local histories record many such struggles and conflicts where such enclosures happened and the effects for local people were disastrous.
A man-made famine
In the south of England there was such hunger that in 1795 there were food riots, led by women, and often supported by the soldiers, even in towns like Guildford.
In THE VILLAGE LABOURER 1760-1832 (1911), the Hammonds described the many effects of losing the commons: without somewhere to graze a cow, people were unable to have milk, and so children died from hunger. Fuel also was a problem, so home-made bread was replaced by shop bread. As one man in Bedfordshire put it: "I kept four cows before enclosure, and now I don't keep so much as a goose, and you ask me what I lose by it!"
With enclosures also came a loss of old lanes, footpaths and shortcuts, so that people were forced to walk a long way round to get to the fields or markets. And their small communities became increasingly isolated from what was going on in the outside world.
In a few decades, from the 1760s to 1842, when over 2000 Enclosure Acts were passed (even more Enclosure Acts came later), over 4m acres of common land became enclosed. The new landowners now controlled much larger estates, employing say 4 or 5 tenant farmers where before there had been around 20 independent farmers or smallholders.
For instance, in Tilford, a Surrey village near Farnham, the medieval map showed 20 'bondholders' with holdings of 15 or 30 acres, but its 1840 tithe map and other records showed only 3 major landowners, who owned 80% of the allotted land
(John Franklin, THE STORY OF TILFORD, 2000).
Tilford was surrounded by commons in every direction, heathland with sandy soil too poor and arid as to encourage enclosure.
Probably these extensive commons explain why in the late 18th C, when 40% of people in the Farnham area were paupers, in that village only 1 in 6 were paupers. Access to the commons meant these villagers could still be largely self-sufficient.
Recently a systematic effort has been made by PRIVATE EYE to discover the dark secrets of modern landownership. In WHO OWNS ENGLAND? (2019), Guy Shrubsole has attempted a listing of all the major landowners, including the many whose identities are 'unknown' or listed only in secretive offshore tax havens. The subtitle of his book was How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How to Take It Back, which sounded promising. He found that land ownership inequality is: "...staggering. We can conclude... that 25,000 landowners - less than 1 per cent of the population - own half of England". (p268).
Shrubsole's proposal - 'an inspiring manifesto' - is for a Land Reform Act and a Commission, to prevent any more privatising of state sector land, to increase the land available for council allotments, to control the market, to prevent land being used for tax avoidance/evasion, and so on. All that may be worthy but is hardly revolutionary. Reform is rarely 'inspiring'.
Nowhere does he urge that we should act collectively and politically to end both the private and state ownership of land, let alone argue that land like all means of production should become owned or co-owned in a social system based on the common ownership of all the means of production and distribution.
The modern capitalist era with the wages system and commodity production was historically founded on the expropriation of our rural ancestors. True, the old medieval and feudal system had its faults but the new capitalist system was and is uniquely ruthless. After all, the medieval manors had allowed the 'waste' to be used by the common people for grazing cows, getting fuel and building materials, and so much else.
But with the capitalist system poverty and pauperism grew and with unemployment, desperate hunger drove many to the harsh hospitality of the newly invented workhouses. And their orphaned children were then farmed out as 'apprentices' to local farmers or faraway factories. Today, the 'safety net' of the modern 'welfare state', with its humiliating, degrading and bureaucratic system of inadequate and stingy 'benefits', is a very poor substitute for those "age-old" custom-sanctioned subsistence rights of the commons, seen for so long as "the poor man's overcoat".
A new class system
Historically, the capitalist system required a servile working class, utterly destitute of its own independent resources.
How else could a class of exploiting factory-owners have managed to draw so many millions of unfortunate wage-slaves into the voiceless misery of the factories and mines, and stinking city slums?
Legalised theft of the village commons was an important fulcrum, a lever used to detach the new class of now rootless proletarians from their old neighbourhoods and villages, as mere wage-slaves. This was a part of the process that Marx described as the 'primitive accumulation of capital'.
The timid voices of such as Shrubsole and Standing with their very limited reform proposals are far too feeble to challenge the basics of this system, one whereby legal chicanery, by theft and fraud and brutal force, a new class was created, driven off from the newly enclosed commons, in order to be exploited as factory wage-slaves, at the mercy of factory and mill-owners, and their successors, the modern multinationals.
It may be impractical to go back to a time when cottagers could keep a cow, grazing on the common and producing milk for the family. In an age of electricity and electronics, we would not wish to go back to flickering dim candles and rush-lights. The crofter lifestyle can hardly be sustained today.
But our reliance now is on commodities produced for profit, for the markets. This is a competitive system, geared to causing poverty, famine and wars, and it is highly wasteful.
As Socialists we argue there is another possible way of life: one based on having the land and other means of producing wealth owned in common and democratically managed "by and in the interest of the whole community". But since the enclosures, we and our predecessors have been alienated from the land which once gave such a variety of everyday provisions, a right of subsistence, strongly defended for generations.
However, it is still possible for the working class to take back the land and build a better world - not just to reform this cash-nexus class exploitation system but to remove it altogether.
The fact that we know that the self-governing commons lasted for so many centuries is proof that there is nothing in so-called 'human nature' to prevent people from co-operating as a community, and devising and agreeing sensible, practical rules to avoid the over-exploitation of the commons.
Capitalism's anti-social greed
The so-called 'Tragedy of the Commons' was a myth based on the individualistic greed and competitive self-interest which are the key features of capitalism. The Charter of the Forest and the various rules about the governance of commons, recorded in so many places, prove this myth to be an ideological lie.
Garret Hardin's argument naively assumed that, unless land was privately owned, it would inevitably become over-grazed with an irresponsible free-for-all. This was widely held to prove that common ownership could not be sustainable. But the answer to his argument is that historically the use of the commons was always carefully managed, not by the state or the lord of the manor, but by the commoners - the local community - themselves.
For instance, the number of sheep or cattle grazing on the moors, fells or commons was controlled by practical rules such as 'stinting'. These rules could be detailed and specific e.g. in South Cambridgeshire, (see Shirley Wittering THE ECOLOGY OF ENCLOSURE...SOUTH CAMBRIDGESHIRE 1798-1850, 2013). The rules were always practical, rooted in the needs of the community and of the land, e.g. after a corn harvest, first the cattle were turned out to pasture and later the sheep.
Landowners who even now try to close ancient paths and rights of way often come up against determined resistance by local people. Even now, when Trump declared in 2019 that he intended to buy Greenland, there was a unanimous howl of protest and outrage. "Greenland is ours! It is not for sale!"
In J Alfred Eggar's book (LIFE AND CUSTOMS..., c. 1925), he described several such conflicts, sometimes a legal challenge, sometimes by fisticuffs, and usually - but not always - successful. A useful shortcut was not given up lightly, and country people in many areas showed they had an attitude. Even Eggar - himself a farmer and surveyor - showed sympathy for the villagers as against the gentry.
Consistently, from the late 18th century to the early 20th, local writers such as Gilbert White, Cobbett, Sturt and Eggar and many others, argued for the old 'Cottage Economy', the many skills and country crafts that were disappearing, and which depended on the village having access to a piece of common land.
Reading through these old eye-witness accounts is to rediscover a now largely lost way of life, one of production for use, creating use-values - not commodities.
As socialists we argue for a new social system based on common ownership, soundly rooted in the historic realities of recorded community co-operation which in the past thrived for generations on those now stolen commons. That is why historical studies of those commons - and of the enclosures - are so important.
We are all too often accused of being impractical - mere Utopian dreamers. But in reality, our demand for common ownership is justified and rooted in the reality of generations of people, in many parts of the world, where common ownership and democratic control has been successfully practised for centuries.
Will The Real Socialist Stand Up?
Are you a socialist? You might be. There seem to be socialists everywhere.
Trump supporters, who were interviewed demonstrating when against their misguided belief that the election had been stolen from Trump, accused Joe Biden of being a 'socialist' and his programme a 'socialist programme'.
Biden, though, supports capitalism. As Senator for the state of Delaware, he either sponsored or voted in favour of financial deregulation and trade deals, supporting US capitalism. The Democrat programme is a programme to further the interest of the capitalist class in the United States. How can it be socialist?
In a recent interview, Tommy Tuberville, the historically illiterate incoming Republican senator from Alabama, declared that a Biden presidency scared him, because his father a soldier, fought in the Second World War to "free Europe of socialism (GUARDIAN 21/11/20).
Then there is Rudy Giuliani, Trump's loyal henchman. He claimed that the election had been lost because of a 'communist' plot from Venezuela. The voting machines were 'socialist' and caused Trump to lose the election. And when asked for evidence his reply was to accuse his questioner of being a 'socialist'.
At the same press conference, now no longer the one squeezed in between a crematorium and an adult bookstore, one of Trump's legal advisors, Sidney Powell, claimed that a fraud had taken place to deny Trump the presidency. It was the result of money coming from 'socialist' Chavez's Venezuela, Cuba and China, an old 'reds under the bed' conspiracy theory dug-up from the 1950s. And who was directing this conspiracy? The 'socialist' Hugo Chavez who had been dead since 2013!
Venezuela, China and Cuba are all capitalist countries. They all retain the wages system and the exploitation of the working class. Conspiracy theories are only for the stupid. Yet Trump still has millions of supporters who believe this political rubbish. If he said that Fox News was socialist, his supporters would uncritically believe him. Fox News, it should be remembered, routinely referred to former President Obama as a 'socialist'.
Red neck Republican militias, armed to the teeth with semi-automatic rifles, and with their minds wrapped in the racist Confederate flag, spare no time in telling everyone and anyone that the Democratic Party is full of 'socialists'. They yearn for a second civil war to defeat the 'socialism' of the Democratic Party once and for all and, indeed, many members of the Democratic Party believe they are themselves, 'socialists'. They are forever talking up their 'socialist' credentials. Nevertheless, they all support capitalism, the labour market, the buying and selling of labour power and the exploitive wages system. Socialists they are not. The same misuse of socialism applies to the Labour Party in Britain. Thousands of its members believe they are 'socialist'.
They claim their former leader; Jeremy Corbyn was a 'socialist'. The DAILY MAIL, the SUN and the DAILY EXPRESS enjoy referring to the Labour Party as 'socialist'. Corbyn had no intention of abolishing class society. Neither does Starmer. The Labour Party refuses to accept the scientific socialism of Marx with its theory of history, the labour theory of value and political concept of the class struggle. They support capitalism's economics. They do not accept workers are exploited. And they do not see socialism as a possible distinct social system in its own right but expect that capitalism will go on and on forever through the enactment of reforms. The Labour Party refuses to accept socialism as a social system.
Some free market think-tanks claim the economist Maynard Keynes was a 'socialist'. Keynes wanted to save capitalism not get rid of it. He was a Liberal not a socialist. It seems that if you do not politically like someone or something you refer to it as a 'socialist'. It is just a playground politics: childish name-calling.
If the media are to be believed, there are socialists everywhere .and they are dangerous to know. But these are just tales used to frighten the children.
Socialists are not, of course, the first to have to endure this political stupidity. The 17th century Levellers were demonised in this way. No one in the eighteenth century wanted to be called a Leveller. And later 'Jacobin' was also used as a word of abuse. No respectable person wanted to be a 'Jacobin'. Enemies of the ruling class are always shown dining with the devil.
So, who the hell is a socialist and why would you want to be one. Will a real socialist stand up?
Well, we are socialists. There are not many of us but enough to know what we want and how to get it. And we want to see capitalism abolished and replaced with socialism. We want you to become socialists too. We want you, the working class to become socialists. Only a socialist working class majority can establish socialism.
As socialists we have studied capitalism, the world social system in which we live. We recognise that there are two classes; a capitalist class minority and a working class majority. This is the basis we start from.
The capitalist class live off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. The working class produce all the social wealth but only receive a fraction of this wealth in the form of wages and salaries.
As a class, the capitalists exploit and the working class are exploited.
The capitalists own the mineral resources, the oil, the gas, the land, the factories, the transport and communication systems, the distribution points. Capitalists own the means of life to the exclusion of everyone else.
We, the working class majority, own nothing. We only have our ability to work for a wage or salary. We are forced to sell our labour power as a commodity.
At the heart of capitalism there is a class struggle over the extent and intensity of class exploitation. The class struggle takes place whether workers are aware of it or not. Capitalists have to exploit. They need to make surplus value and profits to re-invest and make more profit. Capitalism is all about making a profit for the capitalist class.
Class exploitation can only end with the abolition of capitalism. It can only end when the means of production are brought under common ownership and democratic control by all of society.
Workers have to free themselves from capitalism. Workers must establish socialism without leaders. Workers have to politically think and act for themselves.
And to free themselves from capitalism requires the establishment of a principled socialist party with socialism and only socialism as its democratic objective.
The reason for a socialist political party is for socialists to gain control of the machinery of government including the armed forces of the state. The machinery of government protects the privately owned means of production and distribution.
As a consequence, socialists see the Labour party, the Democratic Party, the Republicans, the Greens, the SNP, and the Liberals all in one capitalist boat. And we oppose them all.
So, we have become socialists not to enact reforms, nationalise industries, and force on capitalists rules and regulations. Capitalism can never be reformed to work in the interest of the working class. Nationalisation is state capitalism and changes nothing for workers and the economic and social problems they face. And most rules and regulations are passed either to protect capitalists from other capitalists or make the system more efficient in the exploitation of the working class.
We became socialists to abolish buying and selling and class exploitation. We become socialists to abolish the wages system and establish a classless society of free men and women. And we became socialists to struggle for a society that directly produces just to meet peopleâ€™s needs not profit: "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
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.