A Socialist Response
"The Socialist Party of Great Britain, like a voice crying in the wilderness, has always maintained that capitalism and war are inseparable. There can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest. From these arise the national rivalries and hatreds, the fears and armaments which may at any time provoke war on a terrifying scale"
This argument, from our 1936 pamphlet, ‘War and the Working Class’, remains a valid statement today when assessing the conflict and war in the Ukraine taking place nearly a century later in February 2022. Many people believe wars are inevitable due to "human nature". Others tell us that a particular war is necessary and justifiable in terms of the "national interest".
The Socialist Party of Great Britain opposition to wars is on grounds of class - an old-fashioned term, maybe but it is a fact that most people live by selling their labour-power for wages whenever and wherever they can. Without a job, life is bleak.
Socialists argue that workers should not let themselves be dragged into wars caused by disputes between different sections of the capitalist class. As we stated in the 1936 pamphlet:
"There is only one safe rule for the working class to follow when urged by the capitalists to support capitalist wars. No matter what form the appeal may take, they should examine the question in the light of working class interests. Ask yourself the question: 'Have the working class of one nation any interest in slaughtering (and being slaughtered by) the workers of another?'; 'Have they any interest in supporting one national section of the capitalist world against another?' "
The wages system constantly creates a surplus in the form of rent, interest and profit; it is a system of class exploitation where workers are paid less in wages and salaries than they, in fact produce. Worldwide, there is a class division and class struggle - opposing interests between employers and employed, between Labour and Capital.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain’s consistent, principled and uncompromising record of opposition to wars is unique. We urge workers to join us in working to end this profit system and replace it by a new society - one based upon common ownership of the world's productive resources, where democratic co-operation will replace cut-throat economic competition which is cause of war.
War and the Working Class
Question: Why do wars, like the one in Ukraine, happen, given that everyone you ask says they are against war, that wars only cause destruction and distress, and never solve any problems?
It is quite a paradox. Politicians all declare they detest war. Governments spend a small fortune on diplomacy in attempts to prevent wars. Look at the tens of thousands of pounds ferrying politicians from London to Ukraine or Moscow. World institutions, like the United Nations, are funded at vast expense in order to prevent wars happening – something they always fail to do.
Wars are extremely destructive. They cause terrible waste - waste of human lives, waste of economic resources, and destruction of whole cities. There are long-term consequences too: survivors who are disabled or scarred mentally and emotionally by the trauma. The effects of war may handicap them, both socially and economically, for the rest of their lives.
The list is a long one, but you get the point. So, the question is: who could possibly benefit from war?
Or, put another way, in whose interests are wars fought? To answer that we need to show how the capitalist system operates. It is the socialist contention that modern wars are fought because of the rivalries between various sections of the capitalist class. War being the last resort to resolve these rivalries.
So, what of Putin and the war in Ukraine?
For a start, politically, Putin represents the Russian ruling class even though their interests are often divided, as they are in all nations. He makes decisions along with other government officials on what they think is right for Russian capitalism in a world of competing nation states.
We are given acres of copy exploring what is in his mind. With global warming, he may be thinking ahead about food supplies – Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat (No.3 in the world) – especially to the Middle East and North Africa. Then there are the industries and distribution points which can be plundered and workers profitable exploited. Or he might simply be seeing a chance, long-term, to manipulate key world markets and governments by destabilising commodity prices, like oil and gas, so creating political instability. Then there are the important mineral and coal reserves in Ukraine that are what he’s really after whilst maintaining that his main goal is to stop Ukraine joining NATO to create a buffer zone between Russia NATO countries in the Baltic and in East Europe.
If you read Putin’s “Historical Essay” about Ukraine on the Delphi Initiative website, first posted on the RT/RUSSIA TODAY site you will find it is historically tendentious and clearly propagandist. It is fantasy politics looking back to the days when the Soviet Union was a superpower.
Putin’s speech in February 2022 blamed Lenin for the Ukrainian problem. He ignored Stalin except for praising him in orchestrating the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and suggested that the 1930s famine the Khlodomor (hunger-death) was not caused by Stalin’s genocidal policy, as the UN maintain, but by nature.
Putin also falsely accuses Ukrainians of being Nazis – talk of the pot and the kettle! Putin likes to be seen on a black motorbike, with a club of black-clad bikers – a neo-Nazi thuggish group like the Trumpist bikers in the US.
For a long time, Putin’s aim has been to restore Greater Russia – to recover Russia’s power over all Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States. As with the fantasy entertained by Trump to make “America Great Again” as with Chinese imperialism or Boris Johnson wanting the UK to be a new “super powerhouse” on the world stage, harking back to its former imperial prestige. All countries are imperialist, expansionist and in violent competition with other capitalist countries.
Today, Putin says he respects the sovereignty of former Soviet republics, that Ukraine is “an exception”. Even in February this year, he was saying he had no intention of invading Ukraine – and overnight his forces were trucking into the Lukhansk and Donetsk in support of the Russian separatist movement. Now Putin announces a ‘military operation’ in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Boris Johnson has a similar mindset – he loves to talk of “Global Britain !” All countries want to be the big fish in the global pond, to be seen as a superpower with ‘exceptionalism’ pretensions. There is a famous painting by Pieter van der Heyden of ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ (1557) – an image of the large fish eating the small fish, that adequately symbolises the bitter competitive rivalry of capitalist nations. Johnson, in the House of Commons, rebuked Putin for wanting a Hobbesian world of ‘all against all’. Well, that is capitalism with its competition, conflict and war.
As the various propaganda machines spew out their call for nationalism and democracy whilst demonizing of the enemy, it's interesting that in the USA Fox News (owned by Murdoch) appears to be taking the "isolationist" line: “What business is it of ours where the border between Ukraine and Russia is?” So, it seems the American capitalists haven’t abandoned their ‘gung-ho, go get’em’ attitude. Even in Russia, we suspect not everyone is behind Putin’s military adventure in the Ukraine.
The capitalist class in Russia will have to pay for Putin’s war through taxation out of their profits. As the SPGB has often argued, warfare is expensive, and much socially produced wealth is literally destroyed without even changing hands. As for the workers, it is they who will lose their lives in conflicts and suffer the after effects on behalf of their masters.
Capitalism is a system where competition is the rule. At one level, there is commercial competition between companies. At another level, the capitalists of one country are in competition with the capitalists of other countries. They compete at every turn: to gain control of key raw materials or mineral resources, to economise on transport and distribution costs and to organise production so as to produce their commodities as cheaply as possible.
They spend a lot on advertising and marketing to ensure that customers will choose their products or services as against those of their competitors. At times commercial competition heats up, boiling over into armed conflict - war. To find out in whose interests wars are fought you need to know what they are about - that is, what they are really fought over, not what the politicians tell us.
The socialist position is that every country, the whole world, is divided into two classes with opposing interests. There is the vast majority who own little except their ability to work, and there is the small, but powerful, minority class of those who own and control the land, factories, mines, oil wells, transport systems etc. and the commodities produced by those they employ and exploit.
So, when wars break out over raw materials, trade routes or markets, it is obvious that they are being fought in the interests of some section of the capitalist class, not in the interests of the working class. Wars are fought over the employers' interest, not those of the workers.
That is one reason why The Socialist Party of Great Britain has consistently declared that workers should recognise that they have no interests at stake which would justify getting involved in wars. We are also opposed to war because war propaganda is used to distract the working class from recognising their class interests. In wartime, workers are bombarded with hyped-up propaganda about the so-called 'national interest' and the ideology of nationalism. Workers are urged to see the workers of other countries as the enemy, whereas their real enemy is the worldwide capitalist class.
In short, socialists oppose war because we object to being forced to kill our fellow workers in the interests of the employers, and also because war propaganda drowns the issue of the class struggle, the worldwide struggle of labour against capital.
Propaganda - What They Say War is About
In order to persuade us that war is absolutely necessary, unavoidable and justifiable, governments use a number of fairly standard pretexts. They tell us it is a question of 'national interest'. But since the majority of the 'nation' consists of people who own no oil wells, gas reserves, goldmines or any other natural resource, their meagre assets are not the issue in any war and, if they are lucky enough to survive, will be no better off at the end of it. This so-called 'national interest' is nothing to do with us, it is simply the commercial assets and interests of the capitalist class, our employers, that are at stake.
The same point can be made in answer to the argument that this is a war in defence of 'our' country (the Motherland or Fatherland). We, the working class, do not own the country. If we did, we would hardly need to go to work for wages or salaries. Those who do own the country, including its mineral resources, industries, supermarkets, etc, are the capitalist class. They have something to defend; the working class do not.
Another argument used to justify war is the claim that it is about the defence of democracy. Yet, curiously, the same government which is suddenly concerned about defending democracy was only yesterday doing deals with dictators. Putin was feted in the West. Germany co-operated in building a gas pipeline. Business was conducted. Russia was part of the global finance system. The assassination or imprisoning of opposition politicians and journalists was conveniently forgotten when it came to trade and profit and, let us not forget, there are Russian oligarchs funding the Tory Party – invest a few million and your application for a British passport will be fast tracked and assured. The City is awash with ‘dirty money’, and it has been so for years, enriching bankers, financiers, hedge fund managers, property developers, lawyers and accountants.
Also, it should be noted that the very first casualty of war is democracy. In World War I restrictions on press freedoms were imposed. The Defence of the Realm Regulations (November 1914) was a catch-all law prohibiting any political activity except in support of the blood-bath. After conscription came in, conscientious objectors were jailed, including some members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Again, in World War II, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was imposed. Conscription was brought in before the war even started. So-called 'enemy aliens’, including refugees and children, were held in internment camps, and many were deported.
How governments and politicians support democracy and people having access to opposing political ideas, can be seen in Kier Starmer’s call for the Russian state-controlled TV network RT (Russia Today) to be banned from broadcasting in the UK. Many have compared Starmer to Clement Attlee. In Labour’s contempt for democracy, we can recall the situation where the Second World War was supposed to be about defending democracy and opposing dictatorship, however, Britain promptly suspended universal suffrage and became a totalitarian one-party state as Labour MPs joined the Coalition Government which announced sweeping "special powers". Attlee, Lord Privy Seal, announced: "we are taking power over all persons and property" (HANSARD, 22 May 1940). So much for democracy.
There is an obvious contradiction: if the aim was to defend democracy, why destroy free speech? Why suspend national and local elections? Why impose a one-party state? And why such a totalitarian regime? How can you defend democracy by stopping it?
Starmer is in a long tradition of politicians who only want their views and their views alone from being heard. Workers should have nothing but contempt for politicians like Starmer who wants to be seen as more patriotic than the Tories, more war-like than Boris Johnson and more ruthless towards Putin than the Tory government, anything to secure the votes of non-socialists. In short, politicians who claim that a war is justified if it is about ‘freedom and democracy’ are simply not to be believed.
Democracy is not something they would go to war about. If that were the case, how come there are so many dictators in the world? Instead of going to war against a dictatorship, capitalist governments are much more likely to sell them weapons. A government’s real concern is the so-called 'national interest' – which really means the interests of their capitalists not those who have to sell their labour. Only when these capitalist interests are involved do governments find it necessary to go to war.
Sometimes the case is made that a war is one of 'self-determination' or 'national liberation'. In most cases, such wars result in a dictatorship or a one-party state, often corrupt as well as ruthless. The workers remain, as before, the have-nots. The struggle was over who should profit from the country's raw materials, markets and labour force. Liberation was never the issue, only a convenient pretext.
We do not, like the left-wing liberals, think that capitalism can be reformed and regulated or that if the imperialist ambitions of countries are defeated that this will somehow solve all the world’s problems. Just a casual look at history will show that all those endeavours have been in vain.
The media see the world in black and white. The Western media see it as a struggle between “evil” Putin and plucky democratic Ukraine with institutions like NATO beyond criticism. The Russian media paint NATO as “evil”, the West wanting to economically contain and cripple Russia while Putin is a saint looking after the interests of all right thinking Russians. Socialists do not take sides in capitalism’s wars. We do not weigh up the arguments of each side and come to a conclusion about who to support. We oppose all of capitalism’s wars and have done so through the First and Second World Wars right up until today in Ukraine.
Capitalism cannot function as a peaceful social system. If workers want a world without war and conflict then they are going to have to drop their nationalist illusions, reject “exceptionalism”, stop supporting and voting for capitalist politicians and join with their fellow world workers as socialists to politically and democratically abolish capitalism and establish socialism.
Until then, the socialist response to the conflict and war in Ukraine is:
“a plague on both your houses.”
‘How To Spend It’- and where it comes from
Each weekend the FINANCIAL TIMES publishes a glossy magazine “How To Spend It”. The magazine showcases expensive commodities from houses to paintings only the seriously rich can afford. Commodity pornography or, as Marx put it in the first volume of CAPITAL: “commodity fetishism”.
Commodity consumption of the rich was well known to Marx. He had the example of his friend and collaborator Frederick Engels who enjoyed good quality wine and a life-style denied to the working class.
Marx wrote in the ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’ that luxury goods are only “absolutely necessary for a mode of production which creates wealth for non-producer” rather than for the poor producer (Appendix to the Penguin edition of CAPITAL vol 1, 1976: p1045). And by luxury consumption Marx meant “all production that is not required by the reproduction of labour power” CAPITAL vol. III p 201).
When writing CAPITAL Marx divided consumption or consumer goods into two parts: working class consumption and the luxury consumption of the capitalist class. In the ‘Schemes of Simple and Expanded Reproduction’ in volume II of CAPITAL he brought subsistence consumption and luxury consumption into one department.
However, we can define luxury commodities as those products which are generally out of the reach of the working class. Workers may dream of escaping into a world of luxury commodities but it is only a dream.
The point Marx was making is that there are two streams of income going to the working class and capitalist class respectively, one based on wage labour and the other on the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. Workers have to labour for their wage or salary, capitalist do not have to work but live off the exploitation of the working class. These two classes might consume commodities but do so as separate and diametrically opposed classes. Unlike the FINANCIAL TIMES Marx not only showed how the rich spent their money but more to the point, showed where it came from.
Marx described commodity production and exchange for profit as “commodity fetishism”. Not just leather wear, gas masks and shoes but all commodities. The section is known as “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” and concludes the first volume of CAPITAL. We are confronted with a world of commodities but this world is mysterious and alien.
Why commodity fetishism has a bearing on the FINANCIAL TIMES magazine can be gleaned from the following quotation from Marx’s CAPITAL:
“The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social” (The Commodity, Chapter 1, pp 164-165 Penguin edition).
For Marx, the commodity:
“is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assume here, for them, the fantastic form, of a relation between things” (p 165).
Marx goes on to say that commodity fetishism “attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities...”, it arises “from the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them” (p.165).
Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is carried on throughout all three volumes of CAPITAL where the most intense form of fetishism is to be found in banking and finance. Marx writes in the third volume of CAPITAL “...the most complete fetish is interest-bearing capital”. Obsession with money is indeed a fetish!
It is only under the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society that the mystical veil of commodity production is removed. Marx asks the reader to imagine:
“….an association of free men, working with the means of production in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force...labour is social instead of individual.” (p171).
The abolition of commodity production and markets would give conscious control over society as a whole, to plan goods and services to directly meet human need. Production and labour would become social, creative and co-operative.
Where it comes from
What the FINANCIAL TIMES does not tell the readership is where the money comes from to buy these luxury commodities in the first place. We assume the commodities displayed in the magazine – Louis Vuitton jewellery, Art Nouveau drinking glasses and ‘prestigious’ apartments in Rome - are bought solely by the capitalist class –industrialists, bankers and rentiers. Where did this money come from? For an answer we have to turn to Marx again and draw upon his theory of exploitation.
Under capitalism workers do not own the means of production and distribution. They are forced to work. They have to enter the labour market and sell their ability to work as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. There is a market for luxury commodities. You only have to think of all those yachts owned by Russian oligarchs. Roman Abramovich, late owner of Chelsea football club, has a yacht ‘Eclipse’ worth some US$700 with an annual running cost of US$50-70 million. Tens of thousands of workers make the jewellery, work in the art auction houses, build the luxury houses.
However, no matter where workers are employed, they get as wages less than the value of what they produce. The exploitation of labour power produces what Marx called a “surplus value”. A capitalist buys labour power for wages, puts the workers to work and realises a surplus when the commodities are sold. Surplus value is the source of the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.
A vast amount of the money going to the capitalist class has to be re-invested to make more and more capital, but a not too sizable portion goes into buying a lifestyle only the rich can afford and which is displayed in the FINANCIAL TIMES magazine “How to Spend it”. And spend it they do. When asked how they sleep at night in a world of unremitting poverty they say, “within silk sheets and security guards outside the bedroom door”.
A world free from capitalists and their luxury commodity consumption.
Subsistence commodity consumption for the working class and luxury commodity consumption for the capitalist class; does it always have to be this way? Of course not.
In a socialist society production and distribution would be democratically controlled and held in common. Production would take place directly to meet human need. Production would be undertaken by free and voluntary labour. There would be no labour market, no buying and selling of labour power and no capitalist class living off the unpaid labour of the working class.
So, would there still be luxury consumption? It is doubtful if the range of products in the magazine “How to spend it” would have any relevance to a socialist society. There would be no money and no spending. There would be no market for luxury goods and conspicuous consumption to show off and flaunt wealth because the concept of ‘wealth’ would cease to exist.
That is not to say socialism would be stamped with monastic asceticism. Far from it. Socialist production would engender the best possible housing, clothing, education, health care, and provision for all ages. The arts would flourish in a society where they are not tied to a market place where they become just another commodity.
Socialist luxury would be to have no employers, no overseers and no capitalists. It would be luxury to have control over one’s time and work but this is a situation currently denied workers who are forced to behave according to the diktats of the capitalist system. It would be a luxury to be creative and to give one’s ability to the democratic affairs of society.
The capitalist propaganda of consumerism and a desire to emulate the those with wealth would lose its meaning. “To be” would be the standard of luxury within socialism not “to have”.
Royalty - An Antidote
This year the working class of Britain were yet again urged to fly flags, put up bunting, join in with street parties, and generally do all they could to celebrate yet another royal jubilee, but socialists can’t find anything to cheer about.
As we see it, most workers have to struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, pay the soaring costs of gas and electricity, the mortgage or rent, and council tax bills, etc. The cost of living keeps rising but average wages have stayed level for the last decade or more: so what on earth is there for us and the millions like us to celebrate?
Indeed, the fact is that a hereditary monarchy has little if anything to offer and really does not make any sort of sense. One of the most forceful arguments against the hereditary principle was put by Thomas Paine in his best-seller, the pamphlet COMMON SENSE. This was originally printed anonymously in 1774, in Philadelphia, “addressed to the Inhabitants of America”, then teetering on the brink of their revolution against Britain, with its Hanoverian monarchy and their hereditary right to rule and tax.
With England’s history in mind, Tom Paine pointed out that many dynastic and civil wars had been caused by monarchical claims and counter claims. As he saw it, a hereditary succession was not just ridiculous but a dangerous evil: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary” (HarperCollins edition, p70).
Consequently, even the most virtuous and wise can have offspring and heirs whose character and competence cannot be guaranteed.
The hereditary principle is dangerous since
“… it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, the improper...
Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent, selected from the rest of mankind their minds are easily poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions (ibid, chap 2, p22).
Tom Paine, an Englishman who had only lived in America since 1774, had nothing but contempt for the corrupt British government under George III:
In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society … than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived (ibid., chap 2, p25).”
The King’s use of his power to meddle in government had led to the appointment as Prime Minister of the great-great-grandson of Charles II, the Duke of Grafton. This man was both an incredibly scandalous womaniser and utterly incompetent, and only lasted a short time, from 1768-70. When he became PM, he brought with him a lovely but shady lady, a Mrs Haughton.
He got a divorce by Act of Parliament in 1769 – as a modern Grub Street hack noted: “at the time of writing, he is the only prime minister to have got divorced while in office (Andrew Gimson, GIMSON'S PRIME MINISTERS, Square Peg, 2nd ed.,2019)”. Since then, in our own time, Boris has done likewise: moving in to Downing Street with nis new love while his divorce was still pending.
In our times, the world is divided into many nation-states, and a great many of these are ruled by men who came to power as William the Conqueror had:
“When William the Conqueror subdued England, he gave them law at the point of the sword (Tom Paine, op. cit., p67).”
Between those who see themselves as “born to rule” and the “fortunate ruffians” who seize an opportunity and grab power, whoever holds state power in the modern world of capitalist states, holds it by force – and retains it by use of their corrupting power of patronage.
Such rulers are obvious in states like Russia, China, N Korea, India, the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, many African states, many states in Central and South America, and so on. Less obvious are the corrupt, all-powerful (but democratically elected so ‘legitimate’), temporary rulers in states like Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the US, etc.
A Prime Minister with a solid majority in Parliament can indeed, as Quintin Hogg warned, act as an elected dictatorship.
As both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have shown, holders of high office can also be scoundrels, disreputable in their private lives and with a scandalous contempt for political and social norms.
But, as for the modern Royals, few now would condone the exploits of Andrew, ‘Randy Andy’, the Queen’s favourite son. Or Charles and Camilla’s decades-long bigamous affair, even while two-timer Charles was married to Diana.
As Tom Paine in COMMON SENSE argued “virtue is not hereditary” – and it looks as if the current crop of obsolete, redundant and disreputable Royals are determined to prove this point.
In short, Socialists have no reason to applaud this hereditary caste of ‘born-to-rulers’, with their vast inherited wealth. Let others be their lackeys and do their bidding. Let others put up their bits of coloured cloth, have bunting on show to display their servile loyalty, even put flagpoles in their gardens.
Such contemptible displays only show us how far we still have to go before finally the working class wake up to how this system is designed to enrich the few by exploiting the many.
But we do know that, one day, our day will come, when we can tell these parasites and their hangers-on to get lost. The sooner the better!
Nationalism And War
The extract below comes from a pamphlet published by The Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1950 almost three quarters of a century ago. The dates and places may have changed but the socialist argument against nationalism in all its forms has not. The argument applies particularly to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 and the subsequent war.
Nationalism plays an important part in war propaganda and Socialists are often asked to explain their attitude towards it. Some people maintain that nationalism is the cause or main cause of war and this seems to be borne out by the fact that most of the wars in the past 100 years have included so-called national liberation movements or have resulted in the setting up of new nations. At the peace settlement after the First World War, the statesmen who recast the frontiers of Europe proclaimed as their guide the principle of making the boundaries of each State coincide with the nationality of the inhabitants so that there would be no more national minorities complaining of oppression by alien rulers.
They could not have achieved this result if they had wanted to for in many parts of the world, Eastern Europe in particular, there is such intermingling of language, religion and other familiar marks of nationality that it would be impossible to separate them. Poland, Russia, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were some of the countries whose frontiers were subsequently re-drawn because the first attempt had failed.
We need not question the desirability of allowing people freely to preserve whatever way of life suits them and, of course, under Socialism there will be no attempt to impose uniformity. But so-called nationalist movements under Capitalism are both a menace and an illusion. They are a menace because they invariably encourage antagonism towards other groups and thus provide fertile ground for capitalist interests to work up support for war. Nationalism itself is not the cause of war but is exploited to give cover to the naked rivalries of Capitalism.
Nationalism is an illusion because while capitalism lasts, the Powers, great and small, dare not allow themselves to be weakened by giving real freedom of action to any group of citizens. The Governments, in self-defence, are all opposed to the development of internationalism among the working class of the world, and equally opposed to so-called national minorities who resist conforming to centralised rule, conscription for the army, etc. Theoretically the minorities are often supposed to enjoy the right to secede, but no ruling class in fact willingly permits this where it conflicts with important economic or strategic considerations.
The British Labour Government still affronts nationalist sentiment of the countries concerned by holding on to Gibraltar, and Cyprus, by retaining the colonies in Africa and the East, and by maintaining troops on the Suez Canal. The American Civil War of the eighteen sixties, provoked by clash of economic interests between the slave-owning free-trade Southern States and the industrialised protectionist Northern ones, was fought by the North to prevent the secession of the South.
The refusal of the Czechoslovak Government to allow the Sudeten Germans to join Germany is another example. Here the major factor was that it meant the surrender of a relatively strong frontier line and the exposure of the rest of the country to easy invasion from Germany. In Russia there is supposed to be freedom to secede for the many national groups but, in fact, nationalist movements are suppressed and when the population of some regions near the Black Sea sided with the German invaders in the Second World War, they were deprived of their status under the constitution and their populations were forcibly transferred to a distant part of Russia.
“The liquidation of two formerly autonomous republics in South Russia and resettlement of their inhabitants in other regions of the Soviet Union because of the war-time treachery of some of their peoples was disclosed officially today. They were the Crimean and Chechen-Ingush autonomous states, now reduced to the status of provinces of the Russian federation”.
(Moscow cable from Associated Press, TIMES, London, June 27th, 1946).
This action of the Russian government was recalled in June 1950 by the statement made by a sergeant in the Russian army who deserted and sought refuge in the British Occupied Sector of Berlin. A newspaper correspondent in Berlin reported as follows:-
“Karatsyev, who is aged 24 and a Caucasian, was home on leave last month. One of the main reasons for his desertion was, according to a British statement, the treatment of national minorities by the Soviet regime and specifically the cruelty of the deportations of the Muslims of the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingush. The deportations took place in 1944 and the republic, on whose border Karatsyev’s home is, was formally abolished in 1946”.
(TIMES, June 10th, 1950).
All of the colonial powers similarly maintain their colonies without regard to the wishes of their inhabitants. It was pointed out earlier that nationalism is not the cause of war. There are in fact no purely nationalist movements. Invariably the nationalist sentiment is mixed with economic factors and made use of by the class that has an interest to serve by achieving independence; and independence means, not the emancipation of the exploited section of the population, but a mere change of masters.
How secondary is the importance of nationalism is shown by the history of the subject groups that have successfully achieved so-called independence and made good their position in the capitalist world. Given the opportunity they follow the normal expansionism of capitalism irrespective of the wishes and sentiments of other national groups inside or outside their frontiers. Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Holland and India were all at some time subject to another Power and all, after having achieved alleged independence, have either acquired subject colonial peoples or have come into conflict with minority groups incorporated in their territories. In none of them any more than in the rest of the capitalist world have their own exploited class, the workers, secured emancipation.
The twin ideas, nationality as the basis of states and the independence of nations, are impossible of achievement in the world of capitalism. It is difficult to find any country in the world which is not a mixture of language and religious and cultural groups, and in most of them one or other of these minorities is persuaded to feel that they are oppressed.
On the other hand, the idea of independence is a myth. The capitalist world has reached a stage in which, for economic and military reasons, small countries cannot hold their own; all are being driven into one or other of the big economic and military groups. The small countries that survive without formally belonging to a larger group have only a nominal independence. They are tolerated because it suits the larger Powers in all important questions, they must frame their policies and adapt their industries and trade agreements to the needs of their more powerful neighbours. Swiss neutrality was a mere by-product of the European balance of power and the question has already been asked by a Swiss writer on military affairs, Major Rapp: “Has not the disappearance of the old balance of power in Europe deprived it of its very basis in strategy?” (MANCHESTER GUARDIAN, 20th April 1950). Czechoslovakia is another case in point. They achieved a precarious independence as a result of the First World War and are being drawn into the threatening Third World War as a subordinate semi-colony of expanding Russia.
The Productive And Unproductive Worker
This article comes from papers left by Jim D’Arcy. It first appeared in Socialist Studies 74 (2009 Winter edition). The article was to form part of a pamphlet by J.D’Arcy: ‘Marxism in the 21st Century’, but was omitted due to lack of space.
The description “productive” and “unproductive” worker has nothing to do with the specific function of labour power in the creation of use-value; that is, the production of goods and services which satisfy human needs, and in which the worker has deposited the energy of their brain, muscle and nerve.
All wealth is a combination of nature, which supplies the necessary materials, and a person’s energy. This simple relation of a person and nature forms the basis of all human activity, and we see this clearly in a socialist world when our aim will be the production of wealth and not the production of capital. The terms “productive” and “unproductive” have a very narrow definition which only holds good for capitalist society. The proper meaning of these words would convey that productive work was creative and that unproductive work was wasteful. This is not the case in capitalist society, and workers need not be affronted by being called “unproductive”. The perpetually unproductive class in society (the capitalists) are held in the highest esteem.
From a capitalist standpoint the productive worker is one who produces capital; that is, in addition to reproducing the value of his labour power (his wages) he produces a surplus value. Out of this surplus value the capitalist derives his profit, and this profit, less overheads and expenses, provides further capital for repetitive transactions for the exploitation of the labourer. The expansion of capital is based on this principle, and the greater the accumulation, the greater the pressures on the capitalist to extend the avenues of investment: more markets, more machinery, and greater intensification of the exploitation of the worker.
The productive worker is one employed by capital who produces capital, in the form of the commodity. Capital on the surface exists in the monetary form, but this money represents a sum of commodities of equal value, which when brought into the productive process produces a greater sum through the agency of human labour alone, when additional value is created. .
The unproductive worker, from the point of view of the capitalist, is one who consumes more than he reproduces. One who is paid out of revenue, wages and profits, and whose services are exchanged directly against revenue. Most domestic servants who provide personal services for their employers come into the category of unproductive worker, as do most civil servants, all High Court judges, the whole of the armed forces, priests, parsons and bishops, and so on.
A capitalist may employ a chef or a gardener, for his own personal needs, and pay them out of his property income. The chef or the gardener does not reproduce the value of his labour-power, as he is merely concerned with the production of use-values, e.g. meals, or herbaceous borders and lawns, for the private consumption and amenity of an employer, who incidentally is a capitalist. He is not employing them in his capacity as a capitalist, and they are not producing capital or commodities which embody exchange value. But what they produce has only use-value.
If, on the other hand, the capitalist is a director in Hilton Hotels or Holiday Inns, and he employs the chef and gardener in a wage labour-and capital relation, in this respect they produce a surplus value over and above the wages they receive. The meals prepared by the chef are sold as a profit to the hotel guests, and the floral arrangements, cultivation of grounds or vegetable garden - the work of the gardener - are likewise sold at a profit to the hotel guests. The use value of the labour performed in both cases has not altered at all, but the economic relation under which the labour was performed has changed. It is this economic relation which determines whether work is productive or unproductive, irrespective of the useful character of the work. The number of such workers who can occupy the position of being productive and unproductive under different conditions of employment is very restricted.
Useful or not?
All politicians, the legal profession, government officials, judges, generals etc are unproductive. In fact, the entire state machine is an unproductive institution. Not only are they not productive, they are essentially destructive, yet they manage to appropriate a substantial portion of material wealth. The state is a consumer of revenue, which is compulsorily levied through taxation by the political parties who control it.
There is obviously a distinction between useful labour, in the real sense of the word, and productive labour. A doctor maintains the health of labour-power, keeps it in a reasonable state of repair; but a doctor is not a productive worker any more than a musician or an artist. The absurdity of this is apparent when, for example, a writer, producing books of fiction, or a journalist is a productive worker. One enriches the publisher, the other the newspaper proprietor. What they write may be absolute bilge. But that is not the criterion, which is whether
Useful means that the product of labour must be socially necessary. That which is socially necessary is useful; that which is socially unnecessary is useless. Socially necessary means that useful labour has gone into the manufacture of a commodity or a service; socially unnecessary means that “useless” labour has gone into its production.
The test within capitalism which determines whether a thing is useful or useless is when you try to sell it. If it cannot be sold, it is useless. An armoury full of firearms, shells and ammunition is considered useful, as is a nuclear submarine.
The whole range of the killing instruments comes into the “useful” category. Present-day society has a need for killing instruments. On the other hand, a scheme to remove slums, irrigate the Sahara desert, or for the extension of education, into the proper study of history, sociology, anthropology and political economy, would be considered useless - although capitalists would always pay lip-service to the idea. In effect, socially useless means loss. The merits or desirability of the way in which man’s energy and natural resources ought to be deployed have no place in this economic and social arrangement.
What is Wealth?
Wealth comes into existence at the point of production and only through the application of human labour. The industrial capitalist may appear to be the direct appropriator of surplus value, but there is a whole background of interwoven ruling-class interests struggling for their share of the surplus product. The banker seeks his interest, and the landlord his rent – both are consumers, not producers. The landlord does not produce, nor does the banker produce interest.
Wealth is not made by Stock Exchange transactions, financial transactions, or any other form of dealing on the commercial markets. It is not made by buying and selling either, although it may be transferred between individuals. Only labour power can do that, in the sense that it creates the things which money can buy.
It is precisely the essentially circulatory nature of capital, and the great division of surplus value into rent, interest and profit, that leads to the mystery behind the relations of production, and the artificial distinction between productive and unproductive labour. With the development of labour-saving machinery and other advances in technology, there is a relative decrease in the number of workers engaged directly in the productive process. On the other hand, there is an increase in civil servants, local government officials and other types of clerical workers.
One of the problems facing the capitalist is how to control this expensive and unproductive bureaucracy, which he has created and which he has to pay for. But, without the unproductive worker, certainly at local government and national levels, no revenue through rates, taxes, etc., could be collected and no public service could be provided. The whole system would be in a state of chaos, and every capitalist representative knows this. These “necessary evils” are built into the system and form part of the superstructure.
. The extraction of surplus value is a social process and all workers; whether their work is productive or unproductive, play a part in this process. To this extent all workers are exploited, because they are under the dominion of capital and have to sell their labour power to whoever will buy it.
. Capitalist society cannot exist without its social bureaucracy, notwithstanding that this is becoming top-heavy. The problems faced by the capitalists in trying to keep society on an even keel are nothing compared to the personal and social problems of the workers who have to live and work with it. .
Capitalist production has stood the world on its head in every way. The most respected members of the community are a class of rich indolent parasites – the most revered institutions of law and learning are anti-social in that they exist to maintain the class of parasites, to the detriment of the majority.
Working Class Housing And Capitalism
The fact that the working class occupy cramped, ill-designed and utilitarian housing, if they can get any at all, will be no surprise to socialists. Like many other commodities, even when newly built, housing for workers is meagre, cramped and close to slum conditions; this is as true now as when Engels wrote of the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and later in his pamphlet THE HOUSING QUESTION.
The fact is that workers suffer from many types of poverty, and housing is an obvious example. As a class, it is poverty which drives us onto the labour market, renting ourselves out for wages which are rarely much more than just about what is needed to keep our families alive from payday to payday. Such wages may be enough just to pay for the rent of a room or a flat or maybe a poky, terraced, 2.5 bedroom cottage.
But even in the halcyon years after the Second World War, it was a tough struggle to save enough for a £500 deposit to get a mortgage from a building society, with a never-ending commitment to pay the instalments. Even then, this ‘home ownership’ dream could be a nightmare: with joblessness and unemployment, such workers could then be subject to a repossession order, and then join their fellows on the council housing waiting list – back to square one.
Poverty and insecurity are defining features of the working class, just as much now as 100 or 200 years ago
The Bartlett School of Planning has carried out the first UK nationwide audit of new housing schemes since 2007. The conclusion of the report attacked the standard of design it investigated.
UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning examined 140 housing developments built in England since 2007 and concluded that 74 per cent of them should have either been rejected outright by planning authorities or only allowed to proceed with ‘significant improvements’ to their design.
The ARCHITECTURAL Journal commented:
A common flaw is low-density developments unconnected to surrounding areas and lacking amenities, such as shops, green spaces or public transport links. The report says that many rely on car dependency, with driving necessary to get anywhere useful, and little provision for cyclists or pedestrians.
The research showed that individual house builders were able to produce both high-quality and low-quality schemes – the affluence of the location was the biggest determinant of quality, with less well-off areas 10 times more likely to get badly designed housing.
But isn’t the problem here that private house builders’ primary aim is to make profit? Persimmon was behind several of the developments audited in the Bartlett Report such as Plymouth’s Palmerston Heights, previously criticised for its design shortcomings in the OBSERVER. Here are the views of some of the wretched occupants of Palmerston Heights.
The closeness of the homes makes housing association tenant Ashlie Austin, 24, feel uncomfortable. “Everything is so squeezed in, so close together,” she said. She gestured down her hallway towards a window overlooking the rows below: “You can see them in their bathroom. I don’t like it and it must be hard for them.”
“Almost every house has young families in, but there is literally nothing here for kids at the moment,” said Denning, 23, ... “They have to play on the road. Sometimes we move all the cars, so they at least have somewhere to run around.”
Significantly some of the worst ‘slums of the future’ have been and are being built for the so-called housing associations, which took over local councils’ housing estates and responsibility for housing families on council waiting lists. Such housing associations, originally charities, are now powerful and profitable land and property development businesses. As ‘slumlords’, an American word often used to describe President Trump’s son-in-law, housing associations are among the worst you could experience in their cheap, jerry-built housing and callous treatment of their unfortunate tenants.
Like the OBSERVER, the Bartlett Report says nothing about the profit motive, and totally ignores why capitalism and the wages system prevents workers from getting the housing they need. The wages system rations what workers can and cannot buy, which includes housing, forcing many to live with family and friends, and in some cases on the street.
Persimmon’s shareholders won’t be complaining; last year it made record profits of £1.09 billion. There is pressure to build more working class housing but it will always be mean and second best. Not so the luxury apartments along the River Thames or the gated “Executive Houses” advertised in the TIMES and TELEGRAPH newspapers. That is the luxury which comes with owning and controlling the means of production and distribution.
A common excuse given for the ever-shrinking size of workers’ living space is the high cost of land, even before any foundations are laid. Once the houses are built, that high initial price has to be recovered, and all along the line there are businesses looking for profits. The ‘lead developer’ will have employed many other firms, and they in turn will have sub-contracted other firms – and all of these will be waiting to take their cut.
But the development starts with the purchase of land, and building development companies all hold sizeable land banks. These are held till the market makes it most profitable to embark on development – in short, there is hoarding and speculation on a vast and cynical scale. As a result, development of working-class housing is overpriced, and all too many workers find themselves priced out of the market – and even when in work may become homeless.
The Bartlett Report is a reformist report which does not understand the social system in which it was written. It calls for reforms not revolution. However, housing reforms have been enacted for over a hundred years and yet the problems associated with working class housing remain.
The ARCHITECTURAL Journal asked its readers who was primarily to blame for the poor quality of new housing over the past 13 years: architects, volume house builders, local councils or the government.
What you were not allowed to vote on in the poll was capitalism as the cause of poor housing design and construction.
Architects have to work within the cost parameters set out by the developers. Volume house developers are there to maximise the investments of their share-holders. Local councils have to work within a library of planning legislation and central government-imposed bureaucracy. An extension to a house built 100mm too great has a planning notice served on the occupier while a developer’s planning consultants run rings around local authority planners. Cash-strapped Local Authorities are also dependent upon the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations (2010) and 106 agreements. As for central government it has to serve the interest of the volume housing developers. And housing reforms and regulations come and go, often with catastrophic consequences such as the fire at Grenfell Tower.
Under capitalism millions of workers do not have a say in how their houses are built, where they are located and the criteria used to build them. They are just locked out of the construction process. Occasionally some workers build their own homes but it is rare. In most cases the designers of houses never meet the final occupants. There is no discussion of their needs. Houses are built with little or no flexibility to expand to meet changing family needs. More and more young children are raised in cramped, unsuitable congested conditions, more and more have nowhere private to do school homework in peace, and more young adults are now stuck, unable to leave home.
Under capitalism workers get working class housing.
Working class housing may change but so does the housing enjoyed by the capitalist class. As Marx noted:
A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.
(A HREF="https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch06.htm" TARGET="BLANK">https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch06.htm)
Housing in socialism
What of housing design in socialism? How will socialists plan houses and the infrastructure in which housing will take place?
Socialism will have to solve the problem of poor housing as it exists throughout the world. Good housing will have to be built as quickly as possible where the needs are located often linked to sanitation, electricity, communication, drinking water, health care and education. If the Chinese government can attempt to build a hospital in the city of Wuhan in six days in order to treat patients suspected of contracting Coronavirus, then a socialist society would have construction techniques, workers and materials ready to rapidly solve the global housing crisis currently caused by capitalism.
Once socialism solves the problems of poverty caused by capitalism then a more considered approach to housing can be entertained. How do people in a socialist society want to live? How will houses adapt to new ways of living? How will a socialist society determine how houses are constructed and what they will look like? These are questions for the future. The question now is how to persuade our class that as their needs will never be met under capitalism, we need to take democratic and political action as socialists to construct a future society where we can design and build housing such that we are not forced to see our neighbour’s bathrooms and where our children can play safely. Housing that is designed and built to meet all the qualities that would be required by a democratic society based on social needs and not profit.
The Shrewsbury 24
Trade Unions and the Class Struggle
In March 2021, the Court of Appeal squashed the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24. Trade unionists, some of whom were imprisoned, had struggled almost 50 years to clear their name. The issues of their case, which included official disinformation, police malpractice, the right to organise and protest, have not gone away. Workers are still confronted with the capitalist state and the class interests of employers that the machinery of government seek to protect.
The Shrewsbury 24 were, in 1972, part of the first national strike by construction workers for higher wages, better working conditions and the use of casual labour to keep wages down. Striking workers had peacefully picketed building sites in Shrewsbury to persuade others to join the strike. Five months later, they were arrested and charged under the 1875 Conspiracy Act with unlawful assembly, intimidation, affray, criminal damage and assault. Many of those convicted also found that upon their release they had been blacklisted by the construction industry and were unable to work.
The attack on the Shrewsbury 24 was politically motivated. The government wanted to break the union and used the Information Research Department (IRD), a secret Foreign Office cold war propaganda unit set up under the Attlee Labour Government to spread disinformation.
The Information Research Department and Government Fake News.
To spread disinformation against the Shrewsbury 24, the IRD used fake information broadcast through a ITV documentary, ‘The Reds under the Bed’ (ITV Nov, 1973), to smear the striking workers. The documentary was aired the night before the jury went out to consider its verdict.
Danny Friedman QC, representing 12 of the pickets, said a “covert Foreign Office agency” known as the Information Research Department (IRD) provided “considerable assistance” in the making of the programme.
The IRD “consulted the Security Service”, also known as MI5, about the programme, Friedman said, it was also praised by then Prime Minister Edward Heath. Heath said at the time: “We want as much as possible of this.”
Friedman told the court: “It is obvious… a covert executive agency played a part in deliberately propagandising against the core subject matter of the proceedings.”
The use of “fake news” is not new. The capitalist state has a long history of disinformation and now cannot understand why it is not believed over a whole range of political issues.
The mendacity of governments and politicians was a point forcibly made by the journalist, Peter Oborne in his book, ‘THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH’ (2021). Oborne, now a political leper, called out successive lies of governments from Tony Blair (Iraq War) to Boris Johnson (Brexit and the Covid Pandemic).
The genie will not get back into the bottle. As one academic recently wrote:
Since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government’s decision-making has tampered with the trust of the British people on numerous occasions, including by U-turning on decisions at the last minute; giving contracts to personal contacts without recourse to due process; and those contracts subsequently failing to deliver. The U-turns may not have been so inimical were they not done after categorical statements indicating the exact opposite of previous proclamations – for example, Boris Johnson, announcing on 5 January that schools would stay open and then, 24 hours later, announcing a month-long national lockdown.
(J Baxter, WHY THIS GOVERNMENT MAY NEVER REGAIN THE TRUST OF THE PEOPLE – 15/1/ 2021).
The capitalist state is not a cricket umpire. The capitalist state takes the side of employers in the class struggle. Governments administer capitalism in the interest of the capitalist class as Marx pointed out in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, “The executive of the bourgeoisie”.
The Capitalist State and the Class Struggle
The political assault by governments on the construction workers was the beginning of decade’s long attack against trade unions, shackling them with political legislation, blaming them for high inflation, and using the secret police to infiltrate their organisations.
In 1969, James Callaghan secretly urged officials to destabilise troublesome trade unions “by one means or another”. In response to his call, senior officials suggested undermining difficult trade unionists through “inspired leakages to the press” (ITV News 24 July 2018). During the miners’ strike of 1984 the security and intelligence services were involved in the strike. Sources at GCHQ said that it was ordered by Mrs Thatcher to track the movements of union officials and the transfer of funds (GUARDIAN 16 May 2005).
And then there is the use of the police and army to break strikes. From the imposition of the Combination Acts onwards the state has imprisoned workers and broken strikes. Successive Labour and Tory governments have used troops to break strikes, for example, the Fire Fighter disputes in 1977 and in 2002-2003, both of which took place under Labour administrations.
Governments always tell workers to take pay cuts and work harder never telling employers to pay workers more and give them more holidays.
Between 1980 and 1993 there were six Acts of Parliament which increasingly restricted unions' ability to undertake lawful industrial action. Secondary action, better known as 'sympathy strikes', was outlawed and picketing was restricted. Ballots were needed for official industrial action from 1984 and these had to be postal ballots from 1993. Further anti-trade union legislation was introduced in July 2015 by tightening rules on strike ballots.
What Can Unions Do?
Although unions have learned to use ballots as part of the negotiating process, they have incurred increasing financial costs, while the requirement to give employers seven days' notice further reduce unions' ability to respond quickly which also reduced the effectiveness of any action they took.
The result of trade union legislation, along with the ineffectiveness of trade union organisation following successive trade depressions and the disappearance of heavy industry like coal, steel and ship-building, has led to a largely compliant workforce - a fraction of its size in the 1970s. In 2017 strike action was at its lowest since the miners’ strike of 1993 (GUARDIAN 30/5/2018).
A third of workers are precariously employed – in the gig economy, in zero hour jobs or as agency temps. Employers can silence dissent by cutting anyone’s hours to zero. Tesco tried to strip between £4000 and £19,000 off staff wages. British Gas threatened to sack hundreds of long serving boiler repair engineers for refusing longer hours and poorer terms and conditions. And socialists are told that the class struggle does not exist and was a figment of Marx’s imagination.
There has been a slow recovery in trade union numbers over recent years and some success as trade unions and workers win legal cases such as workers at Uber and Asda. Nevertheless, workers are discouraged from organising into trade unions and we have a government intent on making protest that much harder. It is extremely expensive to pursue a legal case against employers who have much greater resources and governments continue to introduce anti-working class legislation, making claims in court more difficult (STRIKES AND THE GOVERNMENT 1893 -1974 Eric Wigham and TROOPS IN STRIKES, S. Peak, 1984).
Then there is the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) by employers into the workplace. AI is increasingly being used to ‘hire and fire’ workers, check on productivity, monitoring home working and other areas of employment for the benefit of employers, not workers. This has led to the TUC calling for the removal of the nefarious use of AI from offices and factories but they face an uphill task. (FINANCIAL TIMES 29 March 2021).
Only Socialism can end the Class Struggle
Socialists have long questioned the continual class struggle over higher pay and better working conditions. Workers need to recognise that the industrial field of the class struggle is always tilted in favour of the capitalist class. Capitalists not only enjoy the protection of the state but also own and control the means of production and distribution. It is this economic and political power which enables employers to hire and fire workers, resist wages claims and better working conditions, and call upon the capitalist state to undermine unions and strike action.
This continual struggle need not take place. The class struggle exists because of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by the capitalist class to the exclusion of everyone else. Workers are exploited by producing more than they receive in wages and salaries. And employers are always trying to increase the intensity and extent of class exploitation. Employers and their governments cannot end the class struggle. But workers can.
If workers became socialists, took democratic and political action in socialist parties and established socialism, they would not have to face a class of employers and their state. They would work in safe and pleasant conditions within the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. In other words, a free association of individuals adhering to the socialist dictum:
‘from each according to ability to each according to their need’
Socialists are sympathetic to workers in their struggle to find refuge in trade unions and to struggle for higher wages when trade conditions permit and also to resist worsening conditions of employment. Nevertheless, the pressures of capitalism on the lives of workers will not go away, in or outside trade unions. Employers will always have the means to introduce new technology, like AI, which benefits their interests, not workers. The capitalist system which gives rise to the problems facing our class must be abolished by a socialist majority otherwise the ups and down of the class struggle will persist from one generation of workers to the next.
About Marx's Theory Of History
Although Marx’s materialist view of history is obviously true and clearly influential, it has been paradoxically and persistently misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented by friends and foes alike.
In his book about Winston Churchill, THE CHURCHILL FACTOR - HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY (2014), Boris Johnson declared that Churchill alone made and could make history:
Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it. He is the resounding rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. The point of the Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the difference (Introduction).
At the end of this ghastly book, Johnson repeated his point:
For several decades now it has been fashionable to say that these so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human activities. Well, I think the story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference (chap. 23).
The idea that one man alone can make history is of course not a new one. In fact, Johnson was echoing the view of an earlier hero-worshipper, in an obituary for Lenin:
Alone in the earthquakes of the war period, this Russian revived the heroic age, and proved what the naked will of one man may do to change the course of history. (Brailsford, editor of THE NEW LEADER, 25 Jan 1924 – quoted March 1924 in the SPGB’s article The Passing of Lenin, reprinted in our 1948 pamphlet, RUSSIA SINCE 1917).
In answer, that 1924 socialist article argued that, far from one man changing the course of history:
[Lenin] was the product of the course of history … Despite his claims at the beginning, he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions. So far was he from “changing the course of history” as Brailsford ignorantly remarks, that it was the course of history which changed him, drove him from one point after anther till to-day Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism (ibid.).
The “course of history had – as Lenin himself admitted - forced him to change his policy, to back-pedal from the chaos of ‘war communism’, and introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP), much to the relief of the starving workers and peasants and also to the advantage of the NEP-men, an army of assorted spivs and racketeers.
That early SPGB assessment that “Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism” was actually spot-on, as Lenin and Stalin soon turned the peasants into wage-slaves.
As for the over-rated ‘great man’ theory of history, Napoleon himself wrote:
I found all the elements ready at hand to found an empire. Europe was weary of anarchy, they wanted to make an end of it. If I had not come probably someone else would have done like me … I repeat, a man is only a man. His power is nothing if circumstances and public sentiment do not favour him. (quoted in HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, SPGB pamphlet 1975, p57).
If Napoleon or Churchill were, in their time, remarkable individuals, with an enormous impact, that is in part because of accidents: that just such a man appeared at that specific time was a historical accident. If not Napoleon or Churchill, surely someone else would have been found. Suppose Napoleon had suffered a fatal injury in some battle? Suppose Churchill had crashed his plane? No doubt a more or less able replacement would have been found.
In 1898, when the Russian Narodniks were arguing that Marxism denied any role for the individual, Plekhanov answered them in his THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY (publ.1898):
Owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces … No great man can foist on society relations which no longer conform to the state of these [productive] forces, or which do not yet conform to them (chaps. 6 and 8).
As for Marx, in fact he was very far from being an economic determinist. In his essay on the farcical Louis Bonaparte coup d’etat of 2 December 1852, he wrote:
Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them … (THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, chap 1).
The first part of this passage is clear: “men make their own history”. But they can only do so within the circumstances in which they are operating - which is simply common-sense.
For instance, consider how important the availability of oil was for Churchill in trying to win a war. He was far from being able to do this all by himself!
Economic and other material matters need to be taken into account, not just the personal qualities of a politician. To think these factors can be left out of the picture is to think like a child, or one of those retarded adults whose understanding of ‘history’ is limited to the dates of the kings and queens of England.
Bonaparte and Brexit
In the 1920s, fellow-travellers like Brailsford were likely to focus on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. But now, in 2022, we are experiencing the aftermath of the ‘Brexit revolution’, with economic shortages, and a ‘Great Man’. the chaotic, dishevelled and disorganised Boris Johnson, erratically steering the ship of state.
Just as Louis Bonaparte had prorogued the National Assembly and later Lenin had sent the Constituent Assembly packing, so too did Boris, that modern “hero of our times”, as he too prorogued parliament - illegally. In Marx’s short essay, again and again he seemed to be describing the way the Brexiteers achieved their coup, and so brought Boris Johnson to Downing Street. As Marx wrote of Louis Bonaparte: Being a fatalist, he was convinced that there are higher powers which no man … can withstand. (op. cit. Chap. 6).
Marx argued: “the class war in France created circumstances that enabled a grotesque mediocrity to strut about in a hero’s garb.” (1869, Preface to the 1st German edition of THE EITHEENTH BRUMAIRE).
It has been likewise with the very unusual circumstances which brought this idiot to be seen as the necessary ‘Leader’ to “get Brexit done”. Again, as with other ‘revolutions’, Boris had to appear to take on the historic mantle, to pose as another Churchill, hence that book eulogising the ‘great man’. As Marx wrote:
… the calling up of the shades of the dead took place in order to embellish the new struggles … it was done for the sake of adding an imaginative halo to the tasks that had to be performed, and not in search of an excuse for refraining from their actual performance. (THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE, Chap. 1).
Similarly, after 1917, Lenin and the leading Bolsheviks liked to compare their revolution with the great French Revolution, and themselves with the leading personalities of that revolution. They too were gulled into supposing that a great movement had to be led by some ‘great man’, and Lenin cast himself in that role, well in advance of any possible revolution. Rather as Boris wrote his book about Churchill, in high hopes of later becoming the Tory party’s leader, and so in due course Prime Minister.
Like other so-called ‘great men’, Boris may have thought this was his destiny. Churchill wrote: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny” (SECOND WORLD WAR, vol. 1, 1948). Hitler too: “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker” (speech, Munich, 1936). Trump too: “I am the Chosen One” (CNN, 22 Aug. 2019).
But others like the poet W H Auden, had a very different view of Churchill: “Providentially / right for once in his lifetime / (his reasons were wrong) /The old sod was permitted / to save civilization”.
Materialism and History
When Marx and Engels wrote about their theory of history, they were consciously opposing the dominant Hegelian school of thinking. They were fully appreciative of Hegel’s dialectics but, while his argument started from ideas and ideologies, they saw history the other way round. Along with Feuerbach and other materialists, Marx and Engels held that “being determines consciousness”, but went further in arguing that this process in turn also leads to further developments:
We begin with real, active men, and, from their real life-process show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process … it is men, who, in developing their material production and their material intercourse, change, along with this, their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.
(THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, 1845-6).
As for the economic determinism that Johnson and many others echo as a parody of Marxism, decades later Engels strongly refuted it:
According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. (Letter to Bloch, 1890).
In another letter the same year, Engels wrote:
If … Barth supposes we deny any and every reaction of the political, etc., reflexes of the economic movement upon the movement itself, he is simply tilting at windmills. … why do we fight for the political dictatorship of the proletariat if political power is itself impotent? … What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and their effect. (Letter to Conrad Schmidt, 1890).
Plekhanov too wrote that Marx’s historical materialism is based on the fact that:
If, on the one hand, men are the products of environment, environment itself, on the other hand, is modified by men.
(FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS OF MARXISM ch. X, 1908).
Marxism and Nature
The fact of real, ongoing, reciprocal interaction between human history and the natural environment, is impossible to deny.
Centuries before Marx, Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan explorer and historian, had written: “wee are compounded of earth; and wee inhabit it”. And, in 1570 a Dutch contemporary of his, Ortelius, publisher of the world’s first atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, had printed this motto: “Geography is the eye of history”.
Now, with the effects of centuries of capitalist industry causing an ecological and climatic catastrophe, that close connection between human history, geography and the natural environment is affecting almost every aspect of our lives, even terrifying capitalists, bankers and governments.
As climate change is clearly the result of industrial pollution, with species extinctions all around us, the relatively new science of ecology also draws on something Marx had argued.
The interconnectedness of the world and the processes of evolutionary change in nature were summed up in our 1975 pamphlet HISTORICAL MATERIALISM:
Everything is part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought. And even when isolating anything in thought it must still be studied in connection with other things. (pp 41-42).
Summing up Marx’s materialist conception of history, we can see it as a method of investigation:
Thinking is done in a social world that is evolving and about a social world that is evolving; change is also, therefore, one of the elements of thought. Man’s social thought and action is dependent upon the special character of the environment in which he lives. He can act upon and modify this environment, but only in accordance with the elements contained within it. (ibid., p49).
We, as members of the working class, are fully aware of how the current capitalist system, itself a product of social evolution, can be changed, can be overthrown, can be replaced. One element is lacking: a world majority of workers sharing that consciousness and uniting politically to make that revolutionary change.
Only with such a democratic movement can we “modify” this class system, can we end production for profit. And in doing that, in creating a social system based on the common ownership and democratic control of all means of production and distribution, we would surely be able to put a stop to the pollution and raping of Mother Earth.
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.