Free Market Fundamentalism
For many years we have been monitoring and commenting on the market fundamentalists in their think tanks who have been circling like sharks around Westminster. They now seem to have taken control of the economic policy direction of the Conservative Party and, in particular, the Prime Minister, Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng.
Writing in the FINANCIAL TIMES, Tim Harford said that Liz Truss is right to acknowledge that under capitalism growth or capital accumulation is important irrespective of the environmental consequences but “she seems to have no idea how to go about it”. Faith in the theologians of the IEA means the blind leading the blind.
Another economist, Paul Donovan, at UBS Global Wealth Management, referred to this market theology as “doomsday cult” economics. The Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tax Payers Alliance, the CPS and other wild and demonic think tanks certainly are economic cults largely underpinned by secretive dark money from unknown sources. These are the people who believe the science of climate change is a “Marxist conspiracy”. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Ironically, their evangelical pursuit of free markets – markets free from government interference - appeared to have doomed the conservative government and the Conservative Party itself into electoral oblivion. Although, as Keir Starmer will discover if he ever gets elected into No 10, administrating capitalism is always a poisoned chalice.
Marx dismissed the market economists of his day, like J.B Say, as “vulgar economists”. They were not real economists wanting to know how capitalism worked but were mere apologists of an exploitative profit motivated social system, shallow and bereft of economic understanding.
Marx contrasted the “vulgar” or superficial from the classical political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the latter comprising of “all the economists who since the time of W. Petty have investigated the real internal framework of bourgeois relations of production” (CAPITAL, Vol. I, pp. 174–5).
Marx would have seen the ghouls and vampires in the free market think tanks in Tufton Street Westminster as particularly vulgar and shallow, Vulgar economics only look at ‘appearances’. They mistake social relationship between classes as mere relationship between things. Marx saw, in capitalist production, ‘more than in any other’, a deeper ‘reality’, ‘the inner workings’ of the social system of capitalist class exploitation — which was captured in his critique of political economy over three volumes of CAPITAL.
Central to Marx’s critique of capitalism is in its analysis locating the generation of surplus value in production. Marx explained the manner in which surplus value is extracted from the working class and why all capitalist politicians, Starmer and Truss et al, tell workers to be more productive, to work harder and not be idle, that we must increase the intensity and extent of our own exploitation, produce more profit and keep the capitalist class in a state of privilege and luxury to which they have become accustomed.
Furthermore, Marx showed that through private property ownership, surplus value is extracted from the working class, appropriated by the owners of the means of production and distributed as the tripartite revenues of the unearned income of rent, profit and interest. Class exploitation brings to light the inevitable and endemic conflicts of class interest and class struggle.
And in her genuflection towards the rich and powerful this is exactly what the Prime Minister has done with her economic reforms. Tax cuts for the rich and attacks on the poor. This should not surprise us.
Let us not forget that Liz Truss was co-author with Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore, of BRITANNIA UNCHAINED (2012) which described the working class in Britain, particularly those in the north, as perhaps the laziest workers in the world. All workers have to work. It is the capitalist class that parasitically feeds off the work of others and does not have to sell their ability to work on a daily basis. Many workers now have two to three jobs to make ends meet and still have to go to food banks to provide for their families. Liz Truss holds the unfounded conviction that governments can prepare the grounds for capital to expand faster in Britain than anywhere else in the world. They cannot.
The laws of capitalism cannot be affected by government intervention. Chancellors of the Exchequer, the Bank of England, the Treasury and their economic advisors do not have that power. This is true of all countries worldwide.
Already the IEA is distancing itself from Truss. They believe she will tarnish the purity of their beliefs in the market and everything they stand for much as the Spanish inquisition did for the Catholic Church (THE OBSERVER 2 October 2022).
The Government’s baseless economic belief is that if they decree growth will increase by 2 or 3 percent then it will come to pass. It is similar thinking to the five year plans of the old Soviet Union where Stalin said industrial or agricultural production would reach a certain amount each year with state capitalism having no ability to deliver these targets. Whereas Truss sacks advisors who will tell truth about their baseless economic theories, Stalin had the managers of state enterprises shot. Just as the economy can’t be talked down so it cannot be talked up. Governments react to the economy and events but the anarchic laws of capitalist production dictates the way the market goes; from boom to bust.
And in reacting to the financial crisis the government will react in the only way it can and that is to impose austerity on the poor by cutting back on social services, unemployment benefits and health care. Already we are being told that there are cuts on the way, although previously we were being told about “world beating social services”.
It is not tax cuts per se but the fact that it is investment and higher productivity which grows the economy. Tax cuts do not necessarily mean future investment. Truss said that she supports the profit motive but she did not understand when and why capitalists invest. Nor does she understand – how could she with Free Market Think Tanks advising her - where profit comes from. CAPITAL and Marx’s theory of surplus value is a closed book to her.
If the economy looks like it is not going to make a profit then the money going to the rich will only be used to buy luxury goods or invested in savings particularly when interest rates are going up. In times of uncertainty or during trade depressions capitalist firms do not invest, in fact, they even lend to banks for interest or create “cash mountains”.
Truss: Another Thatcher?
Truss believes she is another Thatcher with all the certainty and arrogance of how to prevent another slump and increase growth forever. Truss believes she has economic policies to prevent economic slumps occurring and “unchain Britannia” to make British capitalism as competitive as it was in the 19th century.
In her speeches she’s spelt it out: get rid of inflation, nationalisation and monopolies, cut government spending, borrowing and interest rates, expand the manufacturing industry and export, through low interest rates, and a strong pound, weaken the trade unions, to cut trade union laws, encourage free trade and competition, and last but not least have strong Tory government following strict free market and free trade doctrines. .
Now here you’ve got Truss’s policies spelt out, it’s quite clear this is what she believes and what she thinks will in fact happen in the future when she enacts her economic policies. But there was a certain year which all of these things were in existence.
There had been no inflation for half a century, British manufacture was highly competitive, in fact, Britain was then the workshop of the world and there were no monopolies because it was not till later, in the nineteenth century, that monopolies began to develop, Government spending in real terms was only one fifth of what it is now and there was no government borrowing.
When we say in real terms, you compare government spending now with the total of the national income and the government spending in that year we are going to name was only a fifth of what it is now.
Taxation was low, income tax was only three pence in the pound and interest rates were also generally low, the bank rate at that time was 3% (as against the current predictions of 6 to 7%), the pound was strong, it was worth $4.86 dollars, that’s about four times as much as it is now.
The unions were weak and small and subject to much tougher anti-trade union laws than they are now. There was no Government welfare, no state pensions, no National Insurance no NHS and minimal state education There was no Labour Party to worry about and the Prime Minister was the Tory idol, Benjamin Disraeli.
. Now, if all these conditions were recreated now Ms Truss would say there will be no slumps, no trade depression and constant rising growth. Well, the year was 1875. And if you look up your history books, you’ll find that the reason why the year 1875 was known to historians is because it was the year in which began what was known as the Great Depression.
The Great Depression started in 1875 and lasted twenty years. And to tell you it was nothing of any consequence would be a big mistake. A damning description of it was given in Parliament by Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the middle of the Great Depression.
“We are suffering from a depression of trade extending as far back as 1875, ten years of trade depression, in the most hopeful either among our capitalists or among our artisans can discover no signs of a revival, your iron industry is dead, dead as mutton, your coal industries, which depend greatly on the iron industries, are languishing. Your silk industry is dead assassinated by the foreigner. Your woollen industry is in articulo mortis gasping and struggling. Your cotton industries is seriously sick. The ship building industry which held out longest of all is come to a standstill. Turn your eyes where you will, survey any branch of British industry life you like, you will find signs of mortal disease". .
Now this was the twenty years Great Depression, a depression that Ms Truss believes could never happen if her economic policies are enacted. But it did occur. It went on for twenty years. It merely marked the permanent decline of British manufacturing in the world.
At the time, they held lots of committees of enquiry, and racked up all sorts of information but they did what capitalists do after every depression they say we will see that it doesn’t happen again, and of course it happens scores of time and it will happen again in the future. .
What Lord Randolph Churchill said about the Great Depression undermines Truss’s belief about her ability to prevent another depression. There is one very good reason for this.
Politicians and economists throughout the world simply do not understand the economic system they defend. They could go on, year after year, facing economic depressions but they only have to look up their history books to see that these depressions have happened scores of times before, but they still cannot find out or explain why they happen.
The BBC recently reported that wages and salaries had fallen further behind the rising cost of living (16 August 2022). While the average rose 4.7% between April and June, it has been outpaced by inflation - or price rises - which is growing at a much faster rate. As a result, the "real value" of pay fell by 3%, according to the Office for National Statistics. The gap between pay growth and inflation is the biggest since records began more than 20 years ago.
We are supposed to be going through a cost of living crisis with high inflation, rising energy and electricity bills and pressure on workers to be able to pay for a range of commodities on which they and their families need to live. The cost of living crisis is presented as an aberration; as something which is out of the ordinary. It is forgotten that capitalism is anarchic, unpredictable and prone to crisis and social dislocation.
The cost of living crisis is not new. Workers have always struggled to makes ends meet. The problem is that most workers currently accept capitalism and the profit system. Workers may bitterly complain about the pressures placed on wages and salaries and misguidedly look to politicians to solve their problems but it is a basic mistake to think that politicians can solve the problems facing the working class.
Politicians cannot solve the problems facing the working class for a very simple reason. Workers’ lives are constrained within the rationing of the wages system. Everything which is made is bought with money. And this includes food, clothes, heating, mortgage repayments, rent, and transport and so on. What workers and their families need and what their wages and salaries will buy are two entirely different things.
For the working class, the main way in which they can buy the commodities they live on is either through a wage or salary. And under capitalism, a system in which the means of production and distribution are owned by a capitalist class minority to the exclusion of the rest of society, workers are forced to sell their ability to work (their labour power) to an employer in exchange for a wage or salary.
The wages system is considered ‘natural’: a fact of life. Labour markets, employers, buying and selling of labour power, a wage and a salary are not questioned. The whole wages system is never questioned, that is, except by socialists. The wages system is why there is a cost of living crisis and the socialist’s answer is to abolish it. Workers should have direct access to all the things they need to live. Under capitalism they are prevented from producing what they need and having direct access to what they need, by the private ownership of the means of production.
However, to understand the cost of living crisis is to understand capitalism, something politicians will not explain to the working class. Politicians want workers to remain ignorant, and to do as they are told so the overriding importance of the profit motive for sustaining capitalism is played down.
Capitalism is all about profit. The media have highlighted the massive profits of BP and the water companies. However, they do not explain where profits come from and who the wealth creators really are.
The actual work of producing the wealth is undertaken by the social and co-operative labour of millions of workers, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, while the means of production and the commodities produced by workers belong to a minority capitalist class. Where social needs conflict with profit-making these needs will come second or not at all.
The capitalist class produce no wealth. The source of the profits going to the capitalist class; the CEO’s and investors comes from the unpaid labour of the working class. Workers produce more in a day or a week than they receive in wages and salaries. Workers produce what Marx called “surplus value” the source of the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.
The rising cost of living has meant strike action and a struggle for higher wages because there is a conflict of interests between the capitalist class and the working class. Employers want to pay as little as possible in terms of wages and salaries while the working class, within or without trade unions, try to get as much as possible under market conditions. It is the struggle over the extent and intensity of class exploitation and this gives real meaning to the cost of living and the economic crisis facing the working class.
What should be appreciated is that wages are the price of labour power. The price of labour power or a worker’s ability to work is determined in the same way as the price of any other commodity. The commodity labour power is also subject to supply and demand. Nevertheless, supply and demand tell us very little. The value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour that goes into its production and reproduction.
We are now able to give an account of the cost of living for the working class. Workers and their families must consume a certain amount of food; they must be clothed and sheltered and they must have access to gas and electricity to heat their homes. This has of course an historical element and must also take into account the education of the workforce. In essence, the value of labour-power is equal to the value of the commodities workers need to consume in order to maintain themselves at work and produce future workers.
Not all workers are paid the same just as not all workers are organised in trade unions. Different types of labour power require the expenditure of different amounts of labour power to train and maintain particular types of workers. Some workers are highly paid but most are not though all workers run the risk of being made unemployed in a trade depression.
The lie told by politicians whether Labour, Tory, Green or SDP, about the cost of living is that they tell the working class that they can, if elected and form a government, make capitalism run in the interest of all society. They cannot.
Politicians have one major function and that is to support the profit interest of the capitalist class.
It will always be workers who are going to have to make sacrifices; to take a cut in income when inflation rises or lose their jobs when there is an economic crisis or trade depression.
Under capitalism, workers suffer pain, discomfort and unnecessary poverty. When workers fight back in trade unions they are faced with anti-trade union legislation. Politicians cannot end the economic trade cycle, prevent war, and end poverty. Politicians cannot do any of these things. The problem for the working class is capitalism.
Fortunately, the working class do not have to put up with capitalism, employers and their politicians. They do not have to scrimp and save; to worry how they are going to feed their children or heat their homes. Workers have the very real political possibility of democratically replacing the profit system for one based upon production directly for social use and meeting human need.
For the workers to abolish capitalism they must go beyond the day-to-day class struggle. Workers must form themselves into a conscious and political movement for the abolition of the wages system and the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
Workers have not yet reached a position where they can abolish capitalism and establish socialism. Generations of workers have had to face a struggle to make ends meet; to have what they need to live worthwhile lives rationed by the wages system. Workers must come to understand that they are the exploited class; a world working class facing a world capitalism class. Until workers establish socialism they will face the pain, insecurity and unpredictability of capitalism and all the economic, environmental and social problems it causes.
Tax the Rich or Abolish Capitalism?
The capitalist class increased its wealth during the world pandemic. The World Inequality Report said that 2020 saw the steepest increase in billionaires' wealth on record. Meanwhile, 100 million people sank into extreme poverty, the report from the Paris based World Inequality Lab said: “The richest 10% of the population now takes 52% of global income and the poorest half just 8%”
The 228-page report, whose authors are part of a group founded by social reformer and economist Thomas Piketty, also said that since 1995, billionaires' wealth had risen from 1% to 3%.
"While the wealth of billionaires rose by more than €3.6tn (£3tn), 100 million more people joined the ranks of extreme poverty," said Mr Chancel, noting that extreme poverty had been previously falling for 25 years.
The report concluded that:
* Since 1995 the top 1% took 38% of all additional wealth, whereas the bottom 50% captured just 2% of it
* On average, an individual from the top 10% of the global income distribution earns €87,200 per year
* An individual from the poorest half of the global income distribution makes just €2,800
* The poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth, possessing just 2% of the total
* The richest 10% of the global population own 52% of all wealth.
The researchers found that the world's 52 richest individuals saw the value of their wealth grow by 9.2% per year for the past 25 years, well above less wealthy social groups (GUARDIAN 7/12/2021).
Tax the rich?
To help redress the imbalance, the economists call for a "modest progressive wealth tax on global multi-millionaires" in order to redistribute wealth. They also call for tougher action on tax evasion.
They can “call all they like” but the Capitalist governments and politicians do not exist to redistribute wealth like some latter day Robin Hood. The economists do not go to the root cause of the problem. The reason why the capitalist class gets its wealth in the first place is their ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. Their private ownership to the exclusion of the world’s majority allows them to exploit.
Workers are forced to sell their labour power as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. The world’s working class are paid less in wages and salaries than the wealth they produce or “Surplus Value”, as Marx called it.
It is because of their class ownership, protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces that the capitalist class live off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.
Professor Piketty and those at the World Inequality Lab want the impossible. They want distribution on the basis of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by capitalist states who act as “the executive of the bourgeoisie” and by politicians whose job is to serve the interest of the capitalist class, not the working class.
The right conclusion – the socialist conclusion- to take from this vast and obscene inequality of wealth, is to abolish capitalism and to replace the profit system with common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
Only the world working class can establish socialism. And this requires conscious and democratic action in socialist political parties. Until then the rich will get richer and the rest of the population will get second best or nothing at all.
War and the Working Class
It is incredible to realise, but it is 86 years ago that the Socialist Party of Great Britain produced a superb pamphlet with the above title arguing the socialist answer to war. The concluding words were in bold type on page 36:
“Socialism must become The Single Aim of a politically organised working class. Then capitalism and war will be no more”.
We in The SPGB today, still hold tenaciously to The Single Aim of Socialism. Others have added further “mean-while” objectives and become part of the problem by being opportunist and pushing socialism to an ultimate aim, which of course, means no aim at all.
The one thing that damns the ideas and actions of the opportunists with their “mean-while” objectives is that they are left with capitalism which repeatedly throws up all the problems and contradictions against which they pit themselves. If they had the understanding to go straight for The Single Aim, the job would have long since been done.
Whilst we have to deal with the present world situation, if the Labour Party had not supported every war since it came into existence in 1906 and had the so-called Communist Party and assorted leftists not used their religious attachment to Soviet State-capitalism to divert workers away from their real interest, the “present” situation could have been quite different. Nationalism is divisive, what is needed is class unity based on a mutual recognition by workers that their interest is the same world-wide.
One thing is certain; there can be no wars without the working class. So ending war must begin with the workers; those who are forced to sell their labour power as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. While workers are prepared to kill each other to enable their rulers, the capitalist class, to plunder the earth’s resources for profits conflicts will continue.
It is absurd, but we are regularly told, that in more than one hundred years, we have made little progress. This is surely the case of the shoe being on the wrong foot. It is the majority of workers who are gullibly persuaded by the capitalist mind-poisoning media, to behave against their own interest, and support capitalism.
Socialists, in opposing war, have been told over many years:
“If the country’s good enough to live in – it’s good enough to fight for”.
This ignorant piece of nonsense has been endlessly repeated, despite the fact that between the end of World War One and the start of World War Two, there was never less than one million unemployed and poverty, insecurity and housing misery have remained the lot of millions of workers to the present day.
“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (See Clause 5 of our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES).
Also, in the Inaugural Address, it is stated:
“That the economical subjection of the man of labour –to the monopoliser of the means of labour, (that is the sources of life) lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of all social misery, mental degradation and political dependence”.
“that the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore –the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means”
The profundity of these remarks, and their relevance to today’s world, can hardly be exaggerated. These socialist sentiments are only to be found in The DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
In August, India and Pakistan “celebrated” 75 years of independence from British capitalism. Right at the start in 1947, as the sub-continent divided into two nations plus Bangladesh, one million people were killed. Thirty of those years of independence in Pakistan have been spent under military rule.
Now there is the territorial conflict over the Kashmir region. Here the conflict is between India and Pakistan with Chinese capitalism playing a third-party role.
Again, the conflict is presented in nationalist terms hiding the fact that Kashmir is strategically important, it is vital trade route and has raw resources particularly water, with direct regional and global consequences.
What has been gained for the workers? Extreme poverty is still wide-spread in both countries; this co-exists with religious ignorance, as it has done for many centuries. These are stark examples that show again, nationalism is the ideology of the capitalists; workers should be concerned with emancipation and socialism.
No worker’s blood
There is no working class blood on the hands of the SPGB unlike those of the Labour Party and so-called Communist Parties. The SPGB is not just opposed to this or that war, nor simply opposed to the United States side.
It was dangerous to oppose war from 1914 to 1918 but the SPGB issued a front page statement saying:
“…that no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood…”
The Party saw German capitalist encroachment on the markets of British capitalism as not being an issue of the working class. While workers in this and other countries see capitalist class interests as their own, they will be prepared to kill other workers for capitalist interests against their own and those of fellow workers elsewhere.
Some years ago, ITV screened a film by John Pilger. In dealing with the USA colonising of Latin American republics. He interviewed a leading CIA figure who frankly admitted it was oil and gas they sought to grab and he openly stated that the US would use any force necessary anywhere for such American interests. He could only make such a statement if he knew he could count on American workers willingness to produce and drop the bombs and use all other weapons for killing and war-making. Without that willingness on the part of the workers, war would be impossible.
Workers will only withdraw their support for wars when they become class conscious, they must reject their rulers’ ideology and see the world’s workers as their fellow socialists. Certainly, a minority will oppose a particular war as “unjust”, but class-consciousness is the only answer to war. This makes socialist activity and awareness the issue of greatest importance in world society today.
War, vile in every detail, as it is, is not the most extreme degradation to which workers are subject. The “ordinary” everyday world of the labour-market, selling themselves for wages all their working lives, is the ultimate degradation. It is a travesty that workers consider themselves lucky to be exploited and get a monthly wage. The misery of capitalism will always fall upon the working class until they do something political about it.
Shelley at 200
Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet of radical imagination in an age informed by the 1789 French revolution. He was born in 1792 during the European wars and died by drowning off the coast of the north-west coast of Italy in 1822, some two hundred years ago.
Shelley was a controversial figure during his short life whose important works like QUEEN MAB were suppressed until late into the Nineteenth century.
Dismissed by literary critics during most of the Twentieth century, it was not until recently that his poetry and political prose, such as OZYMANDIAS and THE MASK OF ANARCHY have been positively reassessed as a contribution to radical political dissent.
Unfortunately, many of his works remain largely unknown or unread. There is his infamous THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM which got him expelled as a student from Oxford. And he wrote a trenchant criticism against capital punishment and a defence of revolutionaries like Jeremiah Brandreth. Brandreth was publically executed for treason at Derby Jail following the failed Pentrich Uprising when workers, who were faced with high unemployment, rising corn prices and general inflation following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, marched on Nottingham Castle as a prelude for an assault on London (‘An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte’).
In 1811, Shelley wrote THE POETIC ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS which was published as a backdrop to his visit to Ireland in support of Catholic emancipation and the Repeal of the Union. The pamphlet was dedicated to the Irish journalist Peter Finnerty. Finnerty had been imprisoned for seditious libel and forced to stand in the stocks when he accused Viscount Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary of State for ordering the torture of Irish rebels following the Irish uprising of 1798 which had been put down with ruthless savagery by Pitt the Younger’s Tory administration.
Shelley’s adult life could be summed up in a suggestion by a character in Salman Rushdie’s novel THE SATANIC VERSES:
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”. It is in this respect that Shelley believed “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A DEFENCE OF POETRY, 1821). Poetry is political or it is nothing.
Politics in late 18th and early 19th century
Shelly should be placed in and understood in the revolutionary politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. At the time, the nobility dominated both houses of parliament, and very few people had a vote. The French Revolution posed a threat to aristocrat privilege.
Reformers set up societies throughout the country, such as the London Corresponding Society, and the Manchester and Sheffield Constitutional Societies. These agitated for moderate and radical reform of English government and the constitution. The most common demands were for the sovereignty of the people, fairer representation in parliament, universal male suffrage, and regular or annual parliaments.
In the early 1790s, these societies publicly congratulated France on its successful revolution. Some activists were more revolutionary still, visiting Paris and calling for the overthrow of all European despotic governments and universal freedom for all people – a world of revolutions.
The government response to the revolutionary movement, generated by fear and panic at the possible loss of their property and lives, was swift and dramatic. All English supporters of the French revolution were labelled “Jacobins”, a term associated with French terrorists and revolutionary intent; much in the same way as the right wing media today name anyone who criticises the profit system as a “Marxist.”
The State used coercive powers to stop the spread of radical ideas such as suffrage and democracy for all. Writers, printers and publishers were arrested and prosecuted for seditious libel under a Royal Proclamation against Seditious Writings issued by George III in 1792.
In an attempt to suppress this wave of radicalism, Prime Minister William Pitt introduced draconian measures known as his “Reign of Terror” (1793-5). Government spies were deployed to infiltrate the corresponding societies in Britain and the group of British activists in Paris who met at White’s Hotel and were labelled the “British Club”.
In 1793, groups modelled on the French Convention were held in Edinburgh with the aim of creating popular political assemblies around Britain. The ringleaders were arrested, tried, convicted of treason and transported to Australia.
In 1794 the government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act, which protected people from unlawful imprisonment. A number of leading English radicals were arrested and charged with high treason for which the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. They were examined before the Privy Council and tried at what became known as the “Treason Trials”. All were acquitted which only increased the government determination to use the evidence of “spies” and to have tame juries sworn-in to convict the innocent.
The first result of the peace in Europe, following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, was a severe political and economic crisis.
In the face of political dissent and riots the government passed the “Gagging Acts” of 1817 (Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) to further suppress political ideas and publications deemed a threat to private property and the interest of the landed aristocracy and rising capitalist class. The act of treason was even extended to imagining the king’s death. The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre.
Shelley was political.
The political significance of Shelley’s poetry was not lost on Friedrich Engels. Engels wrote extensively on the Chartist movement, most notably in THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS (1845) as well as writing articles in the Chartist Newspaper NORTHERN STAR.
The NORTHERN STAR issue of 1839, quoted an excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem QUEEN MAB: A PHILOSOPHICAL POEM. Queen Mab was banned at the time due to its atheistically provocative passages. It was an underground text to resurface just as the working class were politically finding its feet.
Engels, when he first arrived in England and met up with Chartists, translated QUEEN MAB into German. Engels wrote:
"Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of [his] readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.”
And the Chartists in their struggle for the vote and against the Poor Law Reform Acts of the 1830s found the political Shelley. The NORTHERN STAR was a Chartist newspaper that campaigned for political reform, particular the vote and published between 1837 and 1852.
The Chartists struggle for the vote forced one former Whig Government Minister, Thomas Macaulay to remark:
‘Universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists. It is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation...civilisation rests on the security of property...while property is insecure; it is not in the power...of the moral or intellectual constitution of any country sinking into barbarism...” (quoted in Malcolm Chase, THE CHARTISTS: PERSPECTIVES & LEGACIES, 2007p. 8).
It was Macaulay’s class who were to sink into barbarism as they desperately tried to politically secure the institution of private property by denying the vote to the rest of society; the propertyless. Two decades later in 1867 and again in 1884, with the passing of the second and third reform Acts, the working class had the potential to use the revolutionary vote to establish socialism.
Marx, too held Shelley in high esteem. According to Eleanor Marx, her father,
“who understood the poets as well as he understood the philosophers and economists, was wont to say: “The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at thirty-six, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at twenty-nine, because he was essentially a revolutionist, and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism” (quoted in P.B.SHELLEY: POET AND REVOLUTIONARY, J Mulhallen p 130 Pluto 2015).
Here is Shelley on the death of Napoleon
‘Napoleon’s fierce spirit rolled,
In terror, and blood, and gold,
A torrent of ruin to death from his birth’
This dismissal of dictators should be read in conjunction with Byron’s ODE TO NAPOLEON BONAPARTE:
‘Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones.
And can he this survive?
Since he, miscalled the morning Star
Nor man nor fiend has fallen so far’
Shelley also pricked the pomposity of ‘great men’ who believed they would be remembered forever.
In OZYMANDIAS, one of Shelley’s best known and most accessible poems a ‘traveller from an antique land’ describes to the poet the crumbling remains of a colossal statue he had encountered in the desert of an ancient Egyptian tyrant.
The head of the statue, now lying in crumbling ruins on the sands, preserves the tyrant’s ‘sneer of cold command’; on the statue’s pedestal is a vainglorious inscription:
‘My name is Ozymandias,
King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
And, though from the aristocracy, Shelley sided with the poor struggling to form, what Marx called, a ‘class for itself’ against the landed aristocracy and rising bourgeoisie.
Shelley, like Marx and Engels, grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution. He grew up in a political environment of state repression and violence towards any form of radicalism or revolutionary change.
“We Claim him as a Socialist”
In April of 1888 Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a socialist address to ‘The Shelley Society’ in which they tried to show Shelley was a “socialist” rather than an apolitical romantic poet.
This lecture was to be published as a pamphlet ‘Shelley and Socialism’ first by the Shelley Society then, in altered form, by ‘To-Day’, April 1888, (pp.103-116 marxists.org).
Marx and Aveling were at pains to point out that:
“The question to be considered is not whether Socialism is right or wrong, but whether Shelley was or was not a Socialist; and it may not be unfair to contend, that if it can be shown that Shelley was a Socialist, a prima facia case, at least, is in the judgment of every Shelley lover made out in favour of Socialism”. 17
They first described a set of six distinguishing hallmarks of socialism and pointed out:
“…If he enunciated views such as these, or even approximating to these, it is clear that we must admit that Shelley was a teacher as well as a poet.”
The authors then set out the six most pertinent conditions which they believed illustrated Shelley’s “socialism”:
(1) A note or two on Shelley himself and his own personality, as bearing on his relations to socialism;
(2) On those, who, in this connection had most influence upon his thinking;
(3) His attacks on tyranny, and his singing for liberty, in the abstract;
(4) His attacks on tyranny in the concrete;
(5) His clear perception of the class struggle; and
(6) His insight into the real meaning of such words as “freedom,'’ “justice,” “crime,” “labour,” and “property”.
The authors also quote from a letter Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt in 1820, in which he stated:
“...the system of human society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations.”
However, it is doubtful Shelley meant a “capitalist system” in which the ownership of the means of living is owned by the capitalist class to the exclusion of the working class majority.
At the time he was writing, way before the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, he could not conceive of a working class acting democratically and politically in its own interest.
And even if Shelley believed in universal suffrage and a peaceful revolution he was in no position to identify the agency for a socialist revolution as a mature working class majority taking control of the machinery of government including the armed forces to replace capitalism with socialism.
The class struggle was taking place but it was Engels who described the Canut revolts of the Lyon workers in 1831 as “the first working-class rising” of the early period of capitalist development just as he described the organizational capacity of the Chartists to struggle for workers’ interests in England around the same time.
If Shelley is to be conceived as a socialist at all it would be a utopian socialist; a social reformer in line with others like Robert Owen whom he knew. QUEEN MAB, for example, is written in the form of a fairy tale that presents a future vision of a utopian society.
Shelley at the time was influenced by the political philosopher William Godwin who pursued a passive theory of “social justice” rather than an active “social revolution”. Shelley offered no socialist objective, how it could be achieved and by whom.
Although Engels knew Eleanor Marx had remarked: “We all knew Shelley by heart then” he would have placed Shelley with the “Utopian Socialists” where he dismissed them in his pamphlet SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC as:
“...a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook”.
To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.
This was to be Marx’s scientific contribution to socialism with his theory of history and theory of surplus value.
‘The Mask of Anarchy’
Like many other British artists, including Byron, Shelley and his second wife Mary decamped to Italy due to its political climate at the end of the 1810s. Here Shelly continued to write politically charged poetry and drama, including THE MASK OF ANARCHY, a bitter response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Manchester.
The Peterloo Massacre, recently made into a film by Mark Leigh, took place at St Peters Field Manchester on Monday 16 august 1819. Fifteen people were killed and 500 injured when cavalry, led by a local factory owner, Captain Birley charged into a crowd of around 60,000 people many women and children who had gathered to call for universal suffrage and vote by ballot. They had come peacefully to listen to Henry Hunt who was arrested and sent to prison for two years.
The Prince Regent congratulated the cavalry at Peterloo for preserving the “public peace”. As a consequence of the massacre, the Tory government passed the Six Acts of 1819 banning all “unofficial” large public meetings. Magistrates were given extra powers to arrest people and search for weapons. It became illegal to criticise the state in print and punitive taxes were imposed on all newspaper sales.
The news of the Peterloo massacre reached Shelley only on 6 September. He set to work almost immediately, writing the ninety-one stanzas of THE MASK OF ANARCHY within a few days.
Leigh Hunt, the editor to whom Shelley originally sent the poem, was afraid to publish it in 1819 because of the repressive laws against ‘sedition’, but the poem was still appropriate in 1832 when once again there was agitation for reform of Parliament and he published it where it found a new audience with the Chartists who were then struggling for male suffrage.
The opening lines of the MASK OF ANARCHY describe a huge carnival procession. Leading the procession are the government’s principal actors: Murder (Castlereagh, the foreign secretary), Fraud (Eldon, the Lord Chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth, the home secretary), and other Destructions (bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies).
Here is the hated Castlereagh personified as murder:
“I met murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him”
In face of defeat and a repressive state, Shelley gave us Hope:
“And the prostrate multitude
Looked – and ankle-deep in blood
Hope, that maiden most serene
Was walking with a quiet mien:”
In his poem THE MASQUE OF ANARCHY, Shelley lays bare the hypocrisy of the government and calls for the people to continue to challenge its rule despite the violence deployed against them. It culminates with the famous verse:
‘Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few.’
‘Ye are many – they are few’.
And this is still the case today: 'ye are many –they are few’. The working class form a majority in society, owning nothing but their labour power which they sell as a commodity to employers for a wage or salary. In the productive process the working class are exploited producing what Marx called “surplus value”, from which the unearned income of rent, interest and profit are derived, including the taxation that goes to support the coercive capitalist state.
The working class face a capitalist class minority and their state – the “few”- who own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of everybody else. As a consequence of the wages system they cannot produce what they need and cannot take what they want.
“Rise like lions” means social revolution. A revolution in which a socialist majority takes democratic and political action in order to replace the profit system with socialism; the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. A social revolution in which socialist delegates will be sent by a socialist majority to Parliament for the express purpose of gaining control of the means of government including the armed forces of the state for “the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic”.
What of today’s politicians like Castlereagh, those who wear the masque of hypocrisy, fraud and murder; the Starmers, the Trusses and the Johnsons of the world? We can only recall the words of Lord Byron, a friend and contemporary of Shelley, who wrote a fitting tribute to Castlereagh the tyrant as he lay buried in Westminster Abbey:
‘Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this
Here lies the bones of Castlereagh
Stop, traveller, and piss’
No Social System Lasts Forever
Class and Class Struggle
Unlike the classical school of economics (e.g. Adam Smith and David Ricardo) who believed in the harmony of classes, Marx emphasized the importance of class, class conflict and class struggle. In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO the class struggle was, for Marx and Engels, “the motor force of history”. Class and class struggle were defined in an objective way with respects to the ownership or otherwise of the means of production and distribution.
In capitalism, Marx considered the social and historical existence of two major classes. First there was the class of capitalists who privately owned the means of life like factories, offices, land, tools, machinery, transport, communication systems’ distribution points, raw resources and second, the working class majority who were excluded from ownership. Workers could only sell their ability to work as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. A class of power and privilege daily confronted a class of wage slaves.
As in every other class system there was class exploitation. Marx explained the technicalities of class exploitation in his three volumes entitled CAPITAL. Workers produced more value than they received in wages and salaries. Workers produced what Marx called “surplus value”.
It was from surplus value that the capitalist class received its unearned income in the form of rent, interest and profit as well as the financial support for the day-to-day running of the capitalist state; an institution of class coercion and control.
The class struggle goes on all the time. The class struggle takes place over the intensity and extent of exploitation. Politically, it is a struggle between a world capitalist class and a world working class about the control and use of the means of production and distribution. That is production for profit or, alternatively, production directly and solely for social use. Politically, the class struggle is about the retention of capitalism as opposed to the establishment of socialism.
Is There an Alternative to Capitalism?
Ever since the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, claimed that there was no alternative to the market of buying and selling, an absurd dogma has arisen (subsequently endorsed by Tony Blair and Keith Starmer) that capitalism is the only viable and rational social system in town. Capitalism, we are told, is going to last forever, however, no social system lasts forever and capitalism is no exception.
Socialists reject the conservative dogma that there is no alternative to capitalism and that the working class is not cut-out for socialism. Capitalism is a social system with a beginning in class struggle and a potential end in class struggle through a socialist revolution.
Socialists have confidence in the working class to take democratic and political action to end capitalism and establish socialism. The weight of history is on our side. A socialist politics is a revolutionary politics using a revolutionary vocabulary or it is nothing. If servility is a vice then so is political cowardice; capitalism is a social system not a natural state of affairs. And social systems come and go.
At the end of the crushing defeat of the rebellion in 71 BC, with Spartacus dead on the battlefield, 6000 slaves were crucified along a 190km stretch of the Apia Way to Rome. Crucifixion was a cruel and painful death recently brought back into barbaric fashion by Isis in its short-lived feudal Islamic State.
Rome’s symbolic exercise of crucifying the slaves was to demonstrate to this class the imperial power of Roman society; the power of its ruling class and the perennial glory of ancient Rome. But within a few centuries that Empire had been swept away. No Empire lasts forever and this is a fact equally applicable to countries today like the United States as it once was to Imperial Rome.
Marx and Engels even contemplated the “destruction of the contending classes” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).
Climate change poses an existential problem for capitalism it is unable to resolve within the confines of international rivalry between competing capitalist countries.
Potential nuclear war as an outcome of the war in Ukraine is a possibility. The US could be ravaged by civil war and in the film, the PLANET OF THE APES, there is the powerful image, equal to Shelley’s Ozymandias, of the ruined head of the Statue of Liberty with astronaut Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) slamming his fists into the sand shouting, “You maniacs! You blew it up! …Damn you all to Hell!”
Here is another example from history. At the end of the failed Peasants Revolt in 1381, Richard II reportedly told the serfs that “serfs you are and serfs you shall remain forever”. John Ball, one of the leading thinkers of the Peasants Revolt was tried in front of the King at St Albans and then hung drawn and quartered with the King’s retort to the failed uprising ringing in his ears.
There is no blue plaque to John Ball in the old market square of St Albans where he was executed. However, his protest: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” lived on in the Peasants’ Song (anon.) and later in William Morris’s romance THE DREAM OF JOHN BULL (Lawrence and Wishart, 1977). But the class to which he preached his sermons of liberation has long since disappeared – the peasants have left little or no written history of their class struggles with the feudal order.
In 1539, during the Reformation, the Abbey of St Albans in which John Ball was imprisoned some two centuries earlier was dissolved. Henry VIII appropriated its income, disposed of its assets and expelled the successors to the monks who had once thought their future secure.
The chronicles against John Ball were written by Jean Froissart’s in THE ANONIMALLE CHRONICLE - a detailed account mainly of Wat Tyler and his end, which is now considered mere propaganda for Richard II [See Spokesmen for Liberty ed. Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword.] The Treasury and cloisters of the Abbey are now ruined fragments - symbolic references to a feudal order no more permanent than capitalism.
Two centuries later no serfs were to be found in Britain at all. Instead, there was a propertyless working class whose children were sent to the mills and where women were forced down the mines. Peasants had been thrown off the land by enclosures, journeymen in towns became mere wage slaves and a new working class was forged in the new cities of the industrial revolution. A different exploited class existed in place of the old feudal one; a class of workers imprisoned within the exploitive wages system and forced to sell their ability to work for a wage and a salary.
Richard II was to be proved wrong. The ruling class he represented would also be swept away, first, in the 17th century, through a Civil War which disposed of the doctrine of the divine right of kings with the swing of an axe along with feudal tithes, and the feudal power base of the monarchy.
Then in the 17th century the Glorious Revolution which took political power from the monarchy and gave it to a cabal of landed aristocracy, City bankers, merchants, and the early industrial capitalists. With the imposition of the Reform Act of 1832 and the consolidation of capitalist power in the reforms of the Liberal government at the beginning of the 20th century the capitalist class became the exploiting class in human history.
From Capitalism to Socialism
The capitalist class came into being through class struggle establishing “new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of old ones” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO) calling into existence the working-class with a revolutionary potential to make history by becoming a class “for itself”. From the perspective of history, the working class movement is relatively young. Its movement is not smooth and linear. Mistakes have been made and there are periods when this movement has been stronger than others. At what point the working class becomes a socialist force within the history of capitalism, we do not yet know.
The working class movement in Britain has passed through three political stages in its development. First, an incoherent stage around the actions of groups like the Diggers and Levellers (1649), the Swing riots and rick burning in the 18th century and the Luddites in the early 19th century. Second, a more coherent phase which saw workers identifying themselves as a class with their own distinct political interests such as the Chartist movement and then another phase with the formation of The First International (1864 -1876), informed by the scientific writings of Marx and Engels among which was stated “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (GENERAL RULES, October 1864).
Third, following bitter political disagreements within the Social Democratic Federation, the development of a political movement of workers who became transparently aware of their class position recognizing that it could only be furthered by their own effort, democratically within a principled political Party and with only one object: socialism.
This mature political development was reached at the turn of the last century in 1904 with the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles, drawn up by working class men and women, presented a sound Marxian critical analysis of capitalism.
It also set out a practical political programme through the revolutionary use of the vote and the capture of the machinery of government by a socialist majority to achieve the socialist object: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
As the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote in 1948:
In 1904 a new era in working class politics commenced with the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles that were laid down by the founders of this party…have remained to this day a clear and concise statement of the basis of the organisation, admitting of neither equivocation nor political compromise with the enemy for any purpose however alluring. Here is no flirting with reforms nor false and soothing catchwords to enlist the sympathies and support of those who lack political knowledge but, instead, a straightforward statement of the essentials of the working-class position under Capitalism and the only road to its solution – the capture of political power by a working-class the majority whose members understand what Socialism means and want it (THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND THE LAST 100 YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1949 pp 28-29).
There is an alternative to the profit system: socialism. There is a world still to win.
War and Conflict: How They Lie To Us
An American senator once said that when war is declared the first casualty is the truth. In reality the lies and propaganda have been going on long before the war is declared. Nationalism is constantly used to poison the minds of the working class. On the way to war it is the first step that counts, the preparation for war, disinformation, build-up of forces, and propaganda moulding “public opinion” to accept war and the depravations and death war causes.
We are told that NATO is a peaceful force for good. Nobody in the media questions why it survived the “cold war” and that it has taken part in wars in Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2003), NATO Training Mission-Iraq (2004), Libya (2001) and Operation Ocean Shield, Somalia (2009). NATO is also looking to have Sweden and Switzerland as members. All countries within NATO have to contribute 2% of GDP to its up keep. And now there is the conflict in Ukraine. Nobody asks why NATO took it upon itself to expand during the 1990s. It is an aggressive and offensive organisation designed to protect and further its member’s global interests.
With Ukraine in NATO the West would be able to patrol the Russian border where any attack on Ukraine would mean all NATO countries joining in the conflict.
Russia has its own interests to pursue. There is Russian expansionism, the land-grab of Crimea and the excuses Russian politicians give for wanting to annexe some or all of Ukraine and the insurgency it supports in west Ukraine. More recently there is Putin’s fantasy history “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, a propaganda tract that made his intentions clear of absorbing Ukraine into the Federal Republic of Russia. The Kremlin too uses nationalism through its control of the media to spread its lies, disinformation and appeal for support from the working class in Russia.
Socialists are not interested in this propaganda. The working class have no country. As Marx and Engels noted in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, “We cannot take from them what they have not”. Socialists, unlike the anti-working class Labour Party, have always opposed wars. And remember, it was under the Blair Labour Government that lies were sown about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist to “justify” the war in Iraq. Unlike The Socialist Party of Great Britain, Labour has supported both World Wars and all the lesser ones in between.
In a competitive world of war and conflict, nation states are forced to defend land, oil and gas reserves, trade routes, spheres of strategic influence and markets. In capitalism’s endless disputes, the last thing you will hear is the truth. Governments want support for their actions.
They want to create an “enemy” to kill. They do this by divide and rule. They produce fictional histories, of loyalty to the Crown or State and “us and them”.
Children are taught that they live in a country with “a common history” and a “common identity”. They do not. The working class has its own history generated by class interest and class struggle diametrically opposed to the capitalist class. It is a class struggle over the intensity and extent of class exploitation and politically in the replacement of capitalism with socialism.
In nationalist disputes socialists do not take sides. This is just as true of the current crisis in the Ukraine where we are being told Russia is about to invade the country with 100,000 soldiers on the border armed to the teeth with tanks, rockets and artillery. Socialists do not want war, but to establish a world without war and conflict you first have to replace the profit system with socialism.
We say that workers in Russia and workers in Ukraine both have identical interests to abolish capitalism and establish socialism. Workers have no interest in the problems facing the capitalist class. The capitalist class privately own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the rest of society; their sole motivation is profit, not to directly meet human need.
And the capitalist class enjoys the support of politicians, government ministers and the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the state.
To get workers’ support the media, politicians and governments use nationalist propaganda. Through nationalist propaganda they will disseminate their lies, tell half truths and depict the enemy in terms that will create fear and hatred in the civilian population. More importantly the propaganda will seek to justify the killing, death and destruction of other workers whether in uniform or as civilians. War is a misery that falls upon the working class, who, in capitalism’s war, do all the killing and dying.
The propaganda will be subtle, clever and disingenuous. Through different media outlets –The BBC, RT NEWS, AL JAZEERA, THE GURDIAN, THE DAILY MAIL and so on – nationalist ideas and beliefs will be spun to a particular audience. The leader or the regime will be depicted as evil personified. The enemy will be the aggressors. There is nothing the media and politicians will stoop-to, in order to gain support from workers.
The population is continually told that “we” are the goodies with right on our side. “We” have not done anything wrong. You will not find in the capitalist media anyone telling readers, listeners or viewers that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has nothing to do with their own class interest.
Of course, there are the politically muddle headed - those who support Russia because they hate United States Imperialism more than Russian Imperialism, and vice versa. Socialists do not take sides. We say a plague on both your houses.
We do not believe your propaganda. We have nothing to do with your nationalism. We want workers in Russia and Ukraine to become socialists. We want them to take democratic and political action with like minded workers throughout the world.
We want world socialism and global harmony not capitalism and its wars.
We want workers to understand the truth about capitalism: that it is a system of class exploitation in which a capitalist class enriches itself at the expense of the working class majority. Capitalism can never be made to work in the interest of all society.
The only solution to war and the lies and propaganda of the politicians is the establishment of world socialism. That is the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
Majority Understanding Versus Direct Action
The various public opinion polls are not always a precise guide to what people think and feel, but one thing they establish beyond any question is the very large proportion of the workers who are actively discontented with their conditions of life. No pollster wastes time asking: “Are you happy?”; always it is in the form “Which of your many hardships and frustrations upsets you most?” And we welcome the fact that at least the discontented are not generally passive; on the contrary they are impatient to have something done as quickly as possible.
They divide roughly into two groups, the ones who are content to try to change, from within the leadership and policies of the large political parties and the others, including the so-called left wing organizations of all kinds, who want to do it themselves and have a go at direct action.
Some of the discontented and disillusioned take a passing glance at the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), only – as regards most of them – to write us off as too slow, too theoretical, too narrow, too “unrevolutionary”. Why, they ask, don’t we unite with “the other socialist bodies to speed the revolution by political strikes, demos, riots, bomb-throwing or guerrilla action” whichever happens to be their favourite tactic? Why, they ask, does the SPGB refuse to recognize the achievement of socialism in Russia, China, Cuba, etc. , and stand aside theorizing, while the real battle is being fought by the “revolutionaries”?
The first point to get clear is what constitutes being a revolutionary. The SPGB is a revolutionary organization because its object is to bring about a complete, revolutionary, change to the structure of society, to replace capitalism by socialism. Action to bring about changes of the law within capitalism, or to get higher wages, is not revolutionary, and trying to achieve these changes by violence or law breaking does not thereby become revolutionary. It is not true that the SPGB is just one of a number of organizations having socialism as their aim, and that what divides us from them is the question of method. Our aim of a socialist system is not their aim. This is not any the less true because some of them carry as a mere piece of decoration the aim of an ultimate socialist objective, which however in no way guides their policies and tactics and will never be achieved by the activities they carry on. Our aim is socialism, not state capitalism or the reform of capitalism; and we do not want, either in the long or short term, to see workers wasting their time and energy on electing Labour governments to run capitalism or communist governments to pursue the dead end of a Russian state capitalist system.
Our case is that the problems of the working class – poverty, exploitation, unemployment, wars, etc. – from which the working class suffers in all countries in the world without exception, cannot be solved either by peaceful reformism or by violent direct action, and that the revolutionary principles of the SPGB are the only way to achieve the socialist solution.
For us the end and the means are in harmony. The future socialist system of society embodying common ownership and democratic control and operating in the interests of the whole community, will require the understanding and co-operation of the great mass of the population. Socialism cannot be imposed from above. Even if, therefore, it was theoretically possible for a minority favouring socialism to come to power, it would be quite unable to introduce socialism.
It follows there that the paramount need before socialism becomes a practical possibility is that the great majority of the working class must be won over to an understanding of capitalism and socialism. This is the task facing the socialist movement, a task totally ignored by the reformist and direct-action movements. Their defence has always been that propagating socialism is useless because the working class cannot understand it. How would they know – for they have never tried? In greater or lesser degree they all share Lenin’s contemptuous attitude towards the workers’ ability to understand, as reported by John Reed: If socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all people permits it, then we shall not see socialism for at least five hundred years.
In place of working class understanding they offer inspired guidance by the leader of the “intellectual minority”, which in practice degenerates into wrangling and feuding about who is the proper leader and how to counteract betrayal by the chosen ones. Their demand is for ”good leaders”: ours is for the understanding in which leaders play no part.
When the SPGB was formed in 1904 it was recognised that, as Engels wrote in the preface to Marx’s CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE: “So that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required”. It has been a longer task than Engels or the Socialist Party anticipated, but there is no other way, there are no short cuts. When that task has been completed the socialist working class needs to gain control of the machinery of government including the armed forces, in order to take away from the capitalist class and their agents the power to dominate society, and thus to clear the way for socialism.
Having said this, we meet the argument of the defeatists who say: Suppose the capitalists or some minority of them or some military group refused to relinquish their hold – would this not prove the weakness of the SPGB argument? In their support they point to examples of ruling-class groups who have in fact defied civil authorities and parliamentary majorities.
Their supposed evidence is utterly irrelevant. We are relying on an internationally united working class, something which has never yet happened in the world or any part of the world.
When the world working class is overwhelmingly socialist, socialists will predominate or at least be in a position of strength throughout capitalist production, distribution and administration, not excluding the armed forces – in the factories and workshops, in transport and communications, in the trade unions, in the government and local-government services. In such a situation any attempt to thwart the will of society would at worst be a nuisance, a futile gesture, not a serious impediment.
It is not the socialist who is foolish in seeking to gain democratic control of the machinery of government and the armed forces, but the advocates of direct action. They first tell the workers to place in power parties like the Labour Party which use their governmental position to perpetuate capitalism, and then tell the workers to take direct action against that government and the armed forces it controls. Even within the narrow framework of their reformist aims the “left wingers” who advocate violence and direct action are short-sighted. History is full of examples of reactionary governments capitalising on violence and disorder even on occasions using agents provocateurs to promote it) by proclaiming themselves the protector of “law and order” and thereby winning the support of sections of the electorate which would otherwise not given much support.
One last word on the discontent about the hardships and evils of modern capitalism. Efforts to improve capitalism either by peaceful reform or by direct action are not new. The present discontents come after a hundred years of such activities. These activities were supposed to remove the evils – from war to unemployment, from poverty to bad housing, from overwork to high prices. Hundreds of struggles have been fought, hundreds of reform measures have been put in the statute books, hundreds of demonstrations for peace and disarmament, conferences have been held – and not one of the evils has been removed. In effect, we are being asked to waste another hundred years on more of the same.
Correcting Lenin, we may say that unless the working class throw overboard their faith in reforms, with or without direct action, and their trust in leadership and turn their minds to understanding socialism, capitalist and its discontents will still be with us in five hundred years – unless before then war pushes us back into a new dark age.
This article was written by Edgar Hardcastle (penned under “H”), was first published in the Socialist Standard September 1972. The article contains a trenchant and principled case for socialism, while highlighting the futility of direct action, leaders and reforms.
The Strike Weapon Within the Class Struggle
In response to numerous potential strikes this summer, the Tories recently passed emergency regulations to allow employers to recruit agency workers to cover official industrial action. Unions, opposed to the anti working class legislation claimed that it would worsen industrial disputes, concerns largely echoed by employers in the recruitment sector.
In many respects it is knee-jerk reaction by a government who has no interest in the day-to-day struggle of workers trying to improve their wages and working conditions. The Act is in a long line of anti-trade union legislation dating back to the 1960s when the Wilson Labour government unsuccessfully tried to impose its “In Place of Strife” legislation followed by the Tories Industrial Relations Act of 1971. The “In Place of Strife” legislation would have imposed settlements where management and unions could not agree and would have implemented a ‘conciliation’ pause of 28 days before a strike could take place.
The Industrial Relations Act created the National Industrial Relations Courts (NIRC) with the power to call strike ballots and order a “cooling off” period. Any union failing to comply with the Court would be fined.
Anti trade union legislation continued during the 1980s and 1990. The Tony Blair Labour government embraced this anti working class legislation and tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a partnership between employers, trade unions and the State.
The trade unions’ weapon for bringing pressure to bear on the employer is the strike, by means of which production is halted. Train drivers, for example are going to refuse to work on the railways over a number of days in July and August after successfully balloting members. Strikes, though, are only effective when market conditions are such that an employer does not want to lose profit if the service is curtailed or that production is stopped. At such times the employer will either make concessions to avoid a strike or quickly settle if a strike is declared.
So, what is the socialist position of the strike weapon? Unlike the capitalist Left we do not see the strike as a harbinger of revolution. Nor do we see it as a litmus test of the class struggle which goes on all the time whether there are strikes or not. We do not parasitically feed off non-socialist discontent to lead striking workers anywhere. Only a socialist majority taking democratic and political action can establish socialism.
Socialists see the usefulness of the strike weapon to gain temporary improvement but are also aware of its limitations. These limitations come out of the reality of capitalism and the fact that the capitalist not only own the means of production and distribution but also enjoy the protection of the machinery of government including the armed forces.
The disadvantage faced by many service workers is that the type of job they do - driving ambulances, fire engines or trains – makes it a practical possibility for the government to use temporary contract workers or troops for strike breaking.
Socialism sees democratic practices as being indispensable in the conduct of trade unions and in particular strike action. No strikes should be started without a ballot and no settlement should be accepted without one. Trade unions should not have leaders and the union should be in the control of the whole membership who then makes decisions. In no way should unions be affiliated to anti working class political organisations like the Labour Party.
In the main, anti trade union legislation will be enforced against trade unions including breaking strikes and imprisoning trade unionists. In some parts of the world trade unionists are tortured and killed.Trade unions also come up against the trade cycle where the union’s ability to halt production is of little use during an economic depression when employers are reducing production or going bankrupt. And in taking strike action workers are confronted with employers who have greater financial resources than those of the unions.
The financial power of employers during strikes can be seen in the disastrous months long strike of the miners in 1926, the strike of firemen (1977-80) when the Labour government used troops as strike-breakers and again in the ill-considered miners’ strike of 1984 which saw miners forced back to work after a year as the employers not only had the forces of the state using violence against them but the resolve of the Thatcher government to see the strike defeated. Long strikes also have the disadvantage of weakening the unions as they deplete their funds so any increase in pay won, has to be off-set against the loss of wages lost during the strike.
Under capitalism, with or without the strike weapon, trade unions and workers generally are faced with extreme limitations of what they can do due to their class position. Something Marx wrote about the imitation of trade union action is as true now as was over a hundred years ago:
“The working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects...that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.” (VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT)”
Marx went on to say:
“Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work they ought to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchwords: “Abolition of the wages system”
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.