A member of our Party was sent an unsolicited letter by the Labour Party under the heading “Have Your Say”.
You were not allowed to give your opinion about the Labour Party but were directed to a questionnaire to respond to a survey which obliged you to reply in a particular way. You could not give your opinion on the anti-working-class Labour Party or its authoritarian leader Keir Starmer.
In the letter you were told that Labour had “missions for Britain”. We were told that “for too long working people have been held back”. Reference was then made to “our economy”, “our public services” and “our communities” which were supposed to be “in crisis”. Labour’s objective was to solve these problems and make “a Britain” that “can stand tall again”.
What is Labour’s “mission for Britain”. Its mission is not to question capitalism or the capitalist class. It is not to question the private ownership of the means of production and distribution – the private ownership of land, raw resources, factories, communication and transport system, and distribution points. It is not to question the profit system and class exploitation.
In fact, the working class “are held back”, but not by the Conservative Party – popularly known as the Tory Party. They are held back by capitalism. Only socialism, the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution can free them from the profit system. Only socialism can allow free access to what workers need to live fulfilling and creative lives.
Capitalism is not “our economy”. It is the capitalist class who see their “economy” protected by the armed forces of the State. The armed forces protect the private ownership of the means of production through capitalist governments and the Labour Party is no different in this endeavour than so called ‘right wing’ political parties. Labour, like the Tories, have used troops to break strikes and imprison workers.
We are an exploited class who produce but do not own. It is the capitalist class who live off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.
Workers do not own the public services. In health, education and housing the working class get second best or not at all. The capitalist class get the best. It is their system, one which the Labour Party supports and defends.
And it is not “our Britain” either. Workers do not have a country. We have no raw resources to defend, no trade routes to protect, no spheres of influence to maintain. We own nothing but our labour power.
We should also not forget the Labour Party’s contribution to war and the death and destruction of thousands of workers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Over half million Iraqi children died following the imposition of UN sanctions enthusiastically supported by Britain under a Labour government. Labour now gives unconditional support for NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine which see Russian and Ukrainian workers kill each other daily in their hundreds.
What we say is that workers should ignore the Labour Parry and other capitalist parties. Workers should organise politically and democratically to replace capitalism with socialism. That is what socialists say and the more socialists do say this, the nearer we come to creating a world fit for human beings not wage-slaves.
Who owns the moon? A trivial pursuits question but it has an answer: no one owns the Moon. That's because of a piece of international law. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, put forward by the United Nations, says that space belongs to no one country or one person.
This is not to the liking of the free market fanatics at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). They exist to defend the private ownership of the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the vast majority. The market is their God. Commodity production and exchange for profit is all that matters.
Now this sect has its eyes on the moon. The ASI believes businesses should be allowed to privatise the moon and other parts of space. It was a PR stunt to get them noticed (INDEPENDENT 11 Feb 2022). They crave attention for their madcap ideas.
The ASI thinks that property rights in space would boost the economy and reduce poverty. Well, capitalism holds back the forces of production on Earth and creates world-wide poverty, so extending it into space is a non-starter except, that is, to make a profit. That is the real aim of the ASI. Profit and capital accumulation for a capitalist minority is what the ASI is all about, even though it masquerades as a charity.
What is not needed is international treatises, free market fanatics and capitalism. What is needed to harness the benefits of planets, passing asteroids and space in general is the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
That is: the establishment of world socialism.
From Religion to Socialism
The Socialist Rejection of the Irrationality of Religion
One of the major barriers preventing the working class from having a clear understanding of socialism and socialist ideas is religion.
In the US, religion is used to denounce science and in particular Darwinism. Creationism is a dominant ideology which corrupts and enfeebles human thought. Its leading proponents decry any criticism of the profit system as “Socialist”, “Marxist” or “Communist”.
Religious pastors tell their congregation that the Bible is fact. They say that evolutionary science is the work of the Devil, and their pulpit sermons tell the congregation to place their trust in ignorance and obscurantism.
In the USA, religion is a "free market" business and hence the plethora of rich, or would be rich, conmen and snake oil salesmen claiming to be pastors whilst fleecing their flocks in order to live luxurious lives. It seems they have forgotten that Jesus urged his followers to give everything away and follow him into the desert. There are also plenty of current "prophets" speaking with God and predicting Trump's return to the White House before 2025. Holy men with big pockets.
Like the seventeenth century Puritans they favour the Old Testament with its revenge, authoritarianism, violence and hate. No compassion from the creationists. Unbelievers go straight to hell along with gays, feminists, and woman seeking an abortion where pregnancy has been caused even by incest, rape or social circumstances. And of course, there are the “evil”, socialists and Marxists. Jehovah Witnesses hand out a card with an image of a train full of heretic’s on the way to eternal damnation.
However, there is some light. More and more workers in the United States are walking away from religion. They have rejected “God” and are now thinking for themselves. Reason rather than irrationality; experience and fact instead of faith.
“What’s Your religion?” is a common question asked in surveys and opinion polls and is increasingly being answered by “None” (AP NEWS 14 December 2021). Elizabeth Drescher, an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University has recently written a book CHOOSING OUR RELIGION: THE SPRITUAL LIVES OF AMERICA'S NONES(2021). She has set out to study the belief systems of those who are increasingly rejecting institutional religion.
In her interview with APS News she said:
“If the unaffiliated were a religion, they’d be the largest religious group in the United States.”
She went on to say:
“The religiously unaffiliated were once concentrated in urban, coastal areas, but now live across the U.S., representing a diversity of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Yet most people interviewed by Professor Drescher held “spiritual” beliefs. So, religion is still a dominant force even among those who do not subscribe to any organised religion.
Socialist Materialism or Religion
If more and more people in the United States are shaking off religious belief, embracing science and thinking for themselves then that is a positive step. But it is not a step towards becoming a socialist. No one interviewed by Professor Drescher gave a socialist reason to dismiss religion organised or not. More’s the pity.
A few people interviewed by Drescher were atheists in the tradition of the philosophers David Hume and Bertrand Russell, the late journalist Christopher Hitchens and the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. However, socialists do not share the same rejection of religion as atheists.
Most atheists support capitalism. There have been atheist governments. The absence of religion does not guarantee socialism, although it helps.
Atheism is a negative attitude towards belief in the "Gods" whereas the materialist view of history held by the socialist leaves no room for gods or “spirits” in our outlook on the world. We explain the rise as well as the demise of ideas and beliefs of "Gods and Ghosts" by the changes in the conditions under which men and women work and live.
The Catholic Church once supported Feudalism and had its power and wealth to go with this support. Protestantism once held the working class in its grip: now Church of England congregations are empty, Wesleyan chapels in the countryside have been converted into homes and few care what the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks.
Notwithstanding the irrelevance of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the present incumbent was once “something big” in the City. And, although the Church of England is spiritually a dead horse, it is still a major player in British capitalism. As Marx put it in the 1st Preface to CAPITAL: "The Church of England would rather part with 38 of its 39 Articles, than part with 1/39 of its income”.
Socialists take our view of the world from Marx and Engels. These two revolutionary socialists held that socialism, a distinct social system that has never existed, was not the same as atheism. To become a socialist is to have a positive and constructive attitude towards life and society involving recognition of the material basis of social relations and institutions.
We live in a class divided society and given a socialist majority, we could establish a socialist society around the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by everyone.
Socialists are hostile to all religions. Yet there is a difference between the socialist attitude towards religion and that of the secularist or atheist. In his book THE GOD DELUSION, Richard Dawkins treats religion simply as a set of beliefs which he seeks to demolish by rational and logical criticism. This gets us nowhere.
Unlike Richard Dawkins, socialists apply Marx’s theory of history (more popularly known as the Materialist Conception of History) to religion and religious ideas. Socialists do not see religious ideas as an aberration but deriving from specific historical conditions and either sustained by an intellectual immaturity or usefulness as ruling class ideas to control a subject class.
We show how and why religion came into being, how it was used by the ruling class as a means of ideological control and why its promise of “heaven” gives hope to millions whose lives are marked by poverty, homelessness and misery.
Religion is not a private affair. You cannot be both a socialist and hold religious beliefs. And, as the Socialist Party of Great Britain said in its 1910 pamphlet on religion:
“Under its multifarious forms the modern mission of religion is to cloak the hideousness and injustice of social conditions and keep the exploited meek and submissive”
(Socialism and Religion 1910).
Explaining Religion to Avoid Religion
The socialist does not set out to destroy the idea of God—that is the idealist strategy pursued by Dawkins et al. Our policy is to recognise the cause of social beliefs and to work for the establishment of a global system whose social conditions men and women can understand and take part in, without believing in the need for someone to kick start the universe.
Socialism, the science of society, is based upon reason, facts and experience. It is a recognition that the working class has independent and diametrically opposite interests to the capitalist class and its political agents.
As a class we do not have control and ownership of the means of production and distribution. Our needs are not met. We are unable to flourish and fulfil our abilities as human beings. We cannot produce to meet our needs and neither can we have direct access to meet the needs of ourselves and our families. Our creativity is stunted and unrealised.
The socialist opposition to religion over the decades has not in any way changed. The case for socialism is built upon a materialist understanding of history, the fact that men make history through class struggles which are the motor force of historical change from one system of society to another.
Socialism is scientific in that the evidence of men and women’s experience in social production supports it. The social relationships entered into to produce goods and services in order to survive and reproduce ourselves, shows that social production must be harmonised with social ownership and class antagonism abolished. Socialism is sustained by knowledge of the instability bred of conflicting class interests under capitalism. Socialism is the only resolution of class conflict and harmonising production with social need.
Religion, on the contrary, has no basis in knowledge or science; it is built upon myths and superstition, and sustained by poverty, fear and ignorance. The study of religion reveals more than anything the seemingly infinite capacity of the human mind to fantasise and to believe the unbelievable –think of the current QAnon conspiracy theory which has seen many die of COVID-19 through their fundamental Christian faith.
We live in an age of mathematics, science and technology yet the Catholic Church has exorcists whose function is to drive out the devil from the human body. And in taking the Bible literally, creationists have been forced to perform intellectual gymnastics by arguing that dinosaurs got onto the Ark before the flood, as eggs!
Establishing Socialism means ending the pernicious grip of Religion
The sheer diversity of religion both historically and currently throughout the world really goes full cycle and cancels itself out. They cannot all be right but they can certainly all be wrong. The myths of creation, of almighty spirits, the immortality of the soul and the efficacy of prayer have trapped believers in the grip of predatory ruling classes whose interest it is to perpetuate their submission and servility. Religion, along with nationalism chains the working class to the profit system and class exploitation.
The appeal of socialism is of such a fundamentally different order that, when it is asked why, after a hundred years of SPGB and socialist propaganda, so little progress has been made, a major part of the answer is that the lack of progress has been on the part of those who live on their knees or fight in capitalism’s wars.
Before socialism can be established a majority of the working class must reject the pernicious ideology of capitalism which includes religion and nationalism. To look at the persistence of religious myths and primitive superstitions gives us a sobering realisation of the distance we have yet to travel before the exploited class of capitalism prioritise their emancipation.
Poverty and religion have always been bedfellows. Capitalism guarantees the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and deprivation for the class that sells its labour-power for wages. Those who have freed themselves from religion still have a long way to go.
They have to free their minds of the need for leaders, of blaming members of their own class, of supporting capitalism’s wars, of the unnecessary world of commodity production and exchange for profit and for the urgent need of abolishing world capitalism and replacing it with world socialism.
It is as futile to yearn for a form of capitalism without religion as it is to imagine capitalism without war. They are an integral part of the same degenerate society. When the world's workers abolish capitalism, religion and war - together with the other ill effects of that system - will be consigned to the past.
We would recommend SOCIALISM VERSUS RELIGION, WAR, AND CAPITALISM, produced by the reconstituted SPGB
Marx on Louis Bonaparte’s Coup
While it is fair to say that many people really do struggle to read Marx, especially the daunting volumes of CAPITAL (not for the faint-hearted!), it is also true to say that the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848) is very readable and never out of print. But his contemporary account of the 1851 coup by Napoleon’s shady nephew is not so widely known. This little book, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is a classic, full of important insights, and very relevant, both then and now.
The title is an ironic reference to the date when Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in post-Revolutionary France, to become dictator and later Emperor. Later, his exiled nephew/stepson, the disreputable Louis Bonaparte, had delusions of grandeur. So, in December 1851, just a few years after the 1848 year of revolutions, he seized his opportunity, gambling as if on a single throw of the dice.
Marx’s book was first published in 1852 in the US, and reprinted in Germany in an abridged version (Hamburg, 1869). In 1926, an English translation by Eden and Cedar Paul came out, using the original text, collected by David Ryazanov and held in Moscow, in the Marx-Engels Institute’s archive.
In our time, stacks of books have been written about political figures such as Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin, Stalin and Hitler. So too with Louis Bonaparte and his coup, among them books by Proudhon and Victor Hugo. Marx criticized both authors.
Victor Hugo, he wrote, “can see nothing but the isolated act of an arbitrary individual … [to him] the incident resembles a thunder clap in a clear sky,” while Proudhon, making the “mistake of the so-called objective historian” saw the coup simply as “the outcome of an antecedent historical development.”
Marx however had another explanation:
“I prove that the class war in France created circumstances and relationships that enabled a grotesque mediocrity to strut about in a hero’s garb.”
(Preface to the first German edition, 1869).
Without those “circumstances and relationships” that coup could not have happened. But, without the name of ‘Napoleon’ to impress the peasants with the illusion of another Caesar, come to make France great again, this adventurer could not have got a following.
But Marx’s book shows that he too was fallible. He predicted confidently that, if Louis Napoleon were ever to become emperor, that would surely put paid to the Napoleon cult. But Napoleon-worship continued, and not just in France – even now, there are still would-be great men who collect Napoleonic relics, or attach themselves to Churchill’s reputation.
There have been many other so-called Great Men/Women, each with their own ‘cult of the individual’: to name just a few, Bismarck, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, de Gaulle, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Putin, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Mao, Xi, Modi, Victor Urban, Bolsonaro, Trump and Boris Johnson. A ‘Leader’ is an essential feature of Fascist movements.
A Cult of the Individual?
Marx challenged this view, as it could not explain how it was that this exiled, dissolute and bankrupt adventurer could have managed to climb to supreme power:
“What has to be explained here is how a nation of thirty-six million persons can have been surprised by three swell mobsmen, and unresistingly carried off to prison.”
(THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, chap. 1).
In our time, something of the same sort happened when the womanising, draft-dodging and tax-dodging, con-man, Trump, became American President, backed by a ‘base’, a cult following of true believers. Much as Louis Bonaparte created a following from the ‘slum proletariat’, ‘man of the people’ Trump told his mass rallies, how he “loved the uneducated.”
Boris Johnson, a similar opportunist, did populist photo-ops, much as Bonaparte had made tours of the country accompanied by his following, the ‘Society of December the Tenth’.
The Society of December Tenth was for Bonaparte his own partisan fighting force.
On his journeys … members of the Society were packed away in the train, to improvise an audience for him, to display the enthusiasm of the “public”, to shout “vive l’Empereur”. When he returned to Paris, these faithful henchmen were the vanguard to forestall or break up counter-demonstrations (ibid. ch 5).
Marx argued that the creation of this “private army” was the key to Bonaparte’s successful rise to power; the picture Marx painted was recognizably the portrait of the first fascist:
“The Society of December the Tenth belonged to [Louis Bonaparte], was his creature, the child of his own thought. Other things he acquires, are acquired thanks to the favour of circumstances … But the Bonaparte who struts before the citizens mouthing formal phrases about Order, Religion, the Family, and Property, while backed up by this secret society of blackguards and rakehells, the Society of Disorder, Prostitution, and Theft, is Bonaparte as an original author. The history of the Society of December the Tenth is his own history.” (ibid., chap 5).
This was how that exiled “grotesque mediocrity” was enabled to regain French citizenship, with doors opened for him to take part in politics, step by step gaining power, stripping Parliament of its powers, and finally becoming Emperor Napoleon III. No doubt he saw that as his ‘Destiny’, just as Bonaparte and Hitler claimed God was on their side.
Corruption: Rule by Kleptocrats
From the start this new Napoleonic regime governed, like Putin, according to one principle: corrupt self-interest. As Marx argued:
“Bonaparte sees himself as chief of the Society of December the Tenth, as representative of the slum proletariat, to which he himself, his entourage, his government, and his army belong. (We must not forget that the main object of the slum proletariat is to seek its own advantage and to draw Californian prizes out of the State treasury.) … Numberless railway concessions are granted…. the Bonapartist slum proletariat must feather its own nest.
All State institutions – the Senate, the Council of State, the legislature, the Legion of Honour, the soldiers’ medals, the public baths and wash-houses, the State buildings, the railways … [are] transformed into an Institute for Purchase and Sale. Every post in the army and in the governmental machine is to become a means for money making. But the most important feature of the process … are the percentages which will accrue to the head and the members of the Society of December the Tenth.” (ibid., chap. 7).
There are many modern governments of this sort - politicians who seek power, not to serve the interests of the state, but to make the state serve their interests.
Among many modern examples, we can cite, in the US, pork-barrel politics, and widespread profiteering and ‘price-gouging’ on government contracts.
In the UK, there are many examples, from Thatcher’s privatisation of state services and industries, the widespread corruption of local councillors over planning and development, the Covid scandal of PPE ‘crony-contracts’, fast-tracked for friends of the Minister, MPs’ expenses scandals, ‘cash for questions’, paid lobbying, and so on.
In post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, in the 1990s under Yeltsin and his fellow oligarchs, the sell-off of state industries enabled a new quasi-criminal class to emerge: the oligarchs / kleptocrats, whose vast wealth, acquired and protected by Mafia-style methods, is cached in offshore, secretive, tax havens, and whose chief is Putin.
There are today few, if any, states that are not riddled with endemic corruption, a problem for all of us since corruption results in substandard buildings, bridges liable to collapse, fake medicines, and many other dangers. Almost every state has had its scandals about state contracts and bent politicians. Occasionally an attempt is made to clear the muck from the stinking Augean stables of modern politics but that soon gives way to business as usual.
As Marxists we are used to being blamed for wanting to enlarge the functions of the state, a view that is wrongly said to be a core principle of Marxism. But that view cannot be reconciled with Marx’s scathing condemnation of the bloated and “parasitic” French bureaucracy:
“This executive, with its colossal bureaucratic and administrative organisation, with its wide-spreading and artificial State machinery (half a million officials backed up by half a million soldiers) – this executive is a sort of dreadful parasitic growth, or a sort of network enwrapping the body and limbs and choking the pores of French society.” (ibid., chap. 7).
Under Louis Bonaparte, this controlling bureaucracy, with its miasma of corruption and secrecy, dominated society:
[Louis Bonaparte] “perfected this State machinery … Every joint interest was promptly cut adrift from society, set up against society as a higher general interest, wrested from the hands of the individual members of society, and made an object of governmental activity.” (ibid. chap 7).
How anyone can suppose Marx would have approved of a vast extension of state bureaucracy is incomprehensible. Those who would associate Marx with the post-1917, Leninist, Party-state dictatorship, with its spies, secret police, censorship and totalitarian control, are either oddly ignorant or deliberately dishonest.
Marx’s Political Warnings
It is not usual to credit Karl Marx for his common sense but his useful advice on how to assess political parties is just that:
“Just as, in private life, we draw a distinction between what a human being thinks and says of himself, and what he really is and does; so, and even more definitely, in the struggles on the stage of history, must we distinguish the phrases and fancies of the political parties from their true organic entity and their genuine interests, must distinguish appearance from reality.” (ibid ch. 4).
Now, after more than a century of Marxism being universally confused with Bolshevism, and a number of Leninist, one-party, state dictatorships, these words are very prescient.
It was as if Marx had anticipated what was to come: endless confusion as generations of workers have been conned by so-called Communist and Social Democratic parties. His argument applies just as well to Britain now with the so-called Labour Party, still posing as a ‘Socialist’ party.
The Dangers of ‘Social Democracy’
Marx warned French workers about what would happen when the workers’ party, to compensate for its failure in 1848, formed a coalition with another party. Such alliances have been formed in many countries, always with the dismal results that Marx warned against:
“The revolutionary point of the socialist demands of the proletariat was blunted, and these demands were given a democratic gloss. Conversely, in the case of the democratic demands of the petty bourgeoisie, … they were made to seem as socialistic as possible. That was the origin of social democracy.” (ibid., chap. 3).
Marx warned that this ‘Social Democracy’ politics had to be seen clearly as a betrayal of their cause, a step back from the real, class, basis of the workers’ movement:
“The essential characteristic of social democracy is as follows. Democratic institutions are demanded as a means, not for the abolition of the two extremes, Capital and Labour, but for the mitigation of their opposition, and for the transformation of their discord into a harmony.” (ibid, chap. 3).
Peasants and the Petit Bourgeois
Having lived in France, and studied its society and economics, Marx understood the social and political conditions. Different parties attracted the support of the peasants, the petit-bourgeois, the landowners, the clergy, etc.
That was not a mere sterile dogma but an observable fact, as obvious as, after 1815, the English landowners’ dogged support for the Tory party, the Corn Laws, high food prices – and high rents.
Marx argued, for the French working class, then emerging and organising in the factories and mining areas, an alliance with the petit-bourgeoisie and their party was likely to be disastrous:
“… the democrat, because he represents the interests of the petty bourgeoisie – a transitional class in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously blunted – arrogates to himself a position of superiority to class conflicts.” (ibid., chap 3).
To enter into such an alliance meant the workers’ interests and demands would be relegated to second place, compared to the interests of their respectable, one foot in each camp, allies.
In our own time, one sees such a petty-bourgeois class in the large numbers of small businesses, the ‘self-employed’, small shopkeepers and trades people, slaving away all hours. Because of their insecurity, they feel vulnerable and so, fearing change, are forever conservative in their outlook, and see themselves as a cut above those who work for others. These petty-bourgeois have hopes of bettering themselves but rarely succeed, usually ending up again as mere wage-slaves, as workers.
As for the modern Labour Party, now led by a lawyer, it is - and has been for over a century - a party which is keen to reassure the powerful, Tory-leaning, mass media that it serves the ‘national interest’, and now has little to do with the trade unions. It is hard to recognize this party as the grandchild of the party the unions had established, to protect their interests, over 100 years ago. Whose interests does this useless party really serve?
The French Peasants
Marx noted that just a few decades after the Napoleonic era, by 1850 many French peasants were in debt, mortgaged, ruined, with many starving:
“Two generations have been enough to produce the inevitable result: the progressive deterioration of agriculture and the increasing indebtedness of the tillers of the soil.”
The “Napoleonic” land tenure, which in the opening years of the nineteenth century enfranchised and enriched the French countryfolk, had by the middle of the same century enslaved and pauperized them …
“… the obligations that the feudal system had imposed upon those who were bound to the soil found their modern counterparts in the obligation to the mortgagee; aristocratic landlordism had been exchanged for bourgeois capitalism.” (ibid., chap.7).
Those small farms were not productive enough to maintain a growing population, so many families fell into debt, mortgaging and then losing their land.
As peasants fell into destitution, finance capital profited:
“The peasant’s holding is still only the pretext whereby the capitalist is enabled to draw profit, interest, and rent from the land, while leaving the cultivator to wrest his own wages from the soil. French agricultural land is so heavily burdened with mortgages, that the interest paid on them is equal to the interest on the British national debt … Today, [the] bourgeois system has become a vampire which sucks the blood and marrow from the peasants’ little farms.” (ibid., chap 7).
Finance capital was then, and still is, ruthlessly leeching the life-blood from hardworking people. Under the new Emperor, finance houses and banks flourished. But in France, there was misery, as Marx wrote:
“Sixteen million peasants (the women and children included) live in cave-like hovels, most of which have but one opening … According to official figures, there are in France four million paupers (always including women and children) living on the very margin of subsistence, now in the country, and now, with their rags and their children, migrating for a time to the towns”. (ibid., chap 7).
Since the peasant lifestyle was one of independent isolation, that made it hard for them to organise together as a class, so one might ask whether such people really were a class.
In the conditions of that time, communication would have been very difficult, the only regular social gatherings being at churches or the markets. At church the priests would be watching them, while at markets they confronted each other as competitors, not as colleagues. Marx concluded:
[Although] “their mode of production isolates them … In so far as millions of families live in economic circumstances which distinguish their mode of life, their interests, and their culture, from those of other classes, and make them more or less hostile to other classes, these peasant families form a class. But in so far as … the identity of their interests has failed to find expression in a community, in a national association, or in a political organization, these peasant families do not form a class.” (ibid., chap.7).
It was because of the peasants’ precarious circumstances, their extreme poverty, debt and destitution, and their longing for the good old days under Bonaparte when they had had land distribution, that the peasants were especially vulnerable to the deceptive promises of another Napoleon, another ‘Messiah’, again offering them the earth:
“He who is to be their representative must also appear to them as their lord and master … who will protect them against the other classes, and who will send them the rain and the sunshine from above. Consequently, the political influence of the peasants finds its last expression in an executive which subordinates society to its own autocratic will.” (ibid., chap.7).
This last point helps explain why it is that in agrarian countries, in countless banana republics, in China, Russia, India, Africa, Asia, Latin America etc, modern revolutions typically result in corrupt, self-serving and ruthless, dictatorships - not democracies.
It helps explain the rise of ‘populist’ charismatic ‘leaders – like Trump and Boris. Each posed as a protector, a champion of the people’s interests. Trump offered to fight against the Washington elite, Boris against the Brussels bureaucracy and the ‘deep state’. Trump would represent the ‘left behind’, Boris Johnson promised to “level up”. Each in his way would “send them the rain and the sunshine from above.” Neither did anything of the sort.
Such larger-than-life figures stalk the pages of history books. The conditions which enable them to rise are usually situations where a state, once powerful and rich, has been weakened by some huge disaster, and workers’ conditions are especially desperate. For instance, the years after defeat in World War One brought Hitler and Mussolini, Franco and Salazar to power, as mass unemployment plus hyper-inflation led workers to seek some strong man, a Fuhrer or Generalissimo, to save them from their misery.
In the decades after the second big bloodbath, more empires fell.
In France, with the loss of the Indo-Chinese war and the bloodshed of the Algerian war for independence, a former war hero, General de Gaulle, emerged as the new Messiah, promising to restore France’s “gloire”.
Similarly, after losing India and the Empire, Britain was thought to be less ‘Great’, and in the 1950s Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, the League of Empire Loyalists and other quasi-Fascist parties were formed. Some of these thuggish groupings persisted down the decades, spreading violent and toxic racism, an evil legacy still poisoning political discourse.
Post-Soviet Russia was weakened by decades of economic decline, and the chaotic and corrupt Yeltsin era of kleptocrats and the lawless Russian Mafia. Putin’s rise as Yeltsin’s chosen successor, backed by the security services, was welcomed as a sign of strength, stability and efficiency.
But, behind this appearance, the reality was a regime of entrenched greed and corruption, plus a return to the old ways, as in the decades of Stalin’s totalitarian rule. All types of independent mass media, from TV stations to the press, have been snuffed out. Elections are blatantly and routinely rigged, with ballot box stuffing and opponents jailed. Symbolic of this harking back to the old system, with old statues of Stalin being restored in public places. The old ‘cult of the individual’ is back in force, and few now dare to criticize the regime.
In another warning, Marx wrote of the danger of trusting power to such power-hungry leaders, and the real risk of a return to a coercive state:
“… we see that society has not entered a new phase after all. Instead, the State has gone back to its earliest form, in which the sword rules without shame and club-law prevails.” (ibid., chap.1).
The Legacy of the Past
At the start of his book, Marx adapted a quotation from Hegel about how in history all great events and personalities reappear, commenting that “on the first occasion they appear as tragedy; on the second as farce”. The first Napoleon, defeated, in his years of solitary exile, was indeed a tragic figure. But, as for his paunchy nephew, Louis Bonaparte, and his squalidly corrupt self-serving regime, backed not by the “Grande Armée” but by an entourage of cynical, money-grabbing, carpet-baggers: to compare him with the aims and achievements of the Napoleonic era could only be seen as farcical.
Marx summed up his view of history:
“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.” (ibid., chap. 1).
In this slim booklet, there is so much of value, to help explain and understand the modern capitalist world: it should surely be ranked with the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO for its significance. As a piece of instant analysis of a contemporary coup, setting it in a historical context, it was, and still is, relevant, satirical, and superlative.
Propaganda, Politicians and the Media
The Ukraine conflict is a war of propaganda where mainstream journalists and social media outlets are compliant in this war. They are “doing their bit”. Was it ever so?
Mainstream journalists are too scared in losing their jobs to be critical of NATO and Ukraine. In Russia they run the risk of losing their lives. Imprisonment in Russia await those exercising dissent or refusal to fight. The media outlets are controlled. The first casualty of war is the truth and Ukraine has followed the same route. No one over 18 was allowed to leave the country. Workers are forced into the armed forces. Criticism of the government is forbidden. Journalists on both sides of the war must please their editors by writing a daily stream of propaganda. They must write from a partisan position uncritically reproducing briefings from government and military officials.
The control of what we can read in the media about the war Ukraine is as controlled as ruthlessly as it was controlled during the First and Second World Wars. The same applies to Russia and its allies. Social media is awash with Russian propagandists, celebrating the death and destruction of the Ukrainian army.
Political leaders have a tight control of dissent about the war in Ukraine and critique of NATO. The Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and a keen supporter of NATO, threatens members of his parliamentary Labour Party with withdrawal of the whip if they do not do as they are told. He has found no dissenters prepared to take him on. Political careers rather than principle is their reply to this political coercion. Socialists remind workers to never have anything to do with political leaders.
Defenders of capitalism have a long record of having no interest in the death visited on civilians in war. How many civilians have been killed, how many workers conscripted into the armed forces have lost their lives or been maimed and injured? Many politicians, including Starmer, have no problem in unleashing a nuclear conflagration upon the world. The politicians do not care.
Let us recall the interview former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave to the journalist Lesley Stahl on the consequences of the sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Here is part of the interview Stahl asked:
“We have heard that half a million [Iraqi] children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima and, you know, is the price worth it? ” “I think that is a very hard choice,” Albright answered, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.” (CBS 60 Minutes. May 1992).
The price of what? What is the price for killing half a million children? The price of access to oil. Sheer callousness from someone who thought of children in Iraq as nothing more than disposable collateral damage.
When she died Albright received fulsome praise in the capitalist media. We do not draw a moral line against Albright, she is only doing what capitalist politicians are expected to do.
Then there is President Joe Biden. Workers were told to vote for Biden at the last Presidential election as the “lesser of two evils”. Biden has no regrets in the daily slaughter of Ukrainian soldiers in the US proxy war with Russia. Tens of thousands have already died and thousands more will follow in the so-called “great offensive”. The same applies to Putin’s regime. Not only has the war in Ukraine seen the death of tens of thousands of soldiers from Russia, mostly conscripts, but the ruling class have secured, through patronage, the secure safety for their children from having to fight like many did in the US during the Vietnam war. It is only the working class who kill and who are killed in capitalism’s wars.
We should also recall the journalist who write of their support for war from the safety of their armchairs or hotel rooms. First David Aaronovitch late of THE TIMES who was a big supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He has spent the years since the war claiming he supported the war, on the grounds of “freeing the Iraqis”. Nothing of the sort. In 2003, he wrote that the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” necessitated the war:
“If nothing is eventually found, I — as a supporter of the war — will never believe another thing that I am told by our government or that of the US ever again. And more to the point, neither will anyone else. The weapons had better be somewhere"
The weapons were not, in fact, somewhere. They were nowhere, except, that is, for the use of depleted uranium shells by the US and its allies. When Aaronovitch was asked by a socialist that if he so supported the war in Iraq, why did he not enlist and fight for something he believed in - he thought the comment was facetious.
Facetious or not, Aaronovitch was a backer of a bloody war for oil. He dismissed those opposing the war as indulging in ‘a cosmic whinge’. Aaronovitch promised to ‘eat his hat’ if weapons of mass destruction were not found. It remains to be consumed.
And yet Aaronovitch has never stopped believing what governments tell him: don’t rock the boat; don’t think for yourself; don’t question or show dissent because five to six figure salaries are at stake.
The politicians and the home-bound journalists never go and fight in capitalism’s wars. They leave that to workers forced to join to escape economic hardship or conscripted against their choice.
Paul Mason, supporter of Kier Starmer, now with a weekly comment piece on THE NEW EUROPEAN recently wrote an article ‘Sanctions against Putin aren’t working fast enough…so it will have to be guns’ (19 May 2023). He is a more recent cheerleader of war and the death and destruction of the working class fighting in the conflict.
Mason admits that Russia has by passed Western sanctions, its economy has survived and its industry replacing used armaments. However, he is not deterred that Russia must lose the war and calls for “Total defeat on the battlefield” even though “it will cost many Ukrainian lives”. Another journalist telling others to kill and be killed. Another coward who will not be seen on the front line eking out miserable lives in rain sodden trenches or having to scrape up dead bodies from mortar explosions.
Divide and Rule: Fragmenting The Ruling Class
The working class form a majority in society. They are united as a class because workers have to sell their ability to work (their labour power) for a wage or salary to an employer. They are forced by economic circumstances to enter the labour market where they are exploited as a class in producing more social wealth than their income, what Marx called “surplus value” or “surplus labour time”. As a class, workers have the potential power to change society in a revolutionary way, from production for profit to production solely and directly to meet human need.
Workers have the ability to politically and democratically form themselves into socialist political parties, gain control of the machinery of government and replace capitalism with socialism. What prevents this from happening? One serious barrier preventing workers acting in their own class interest is that they are constantly being split and fragmented by defenders of the capitalist class into opposing groups; both nationally and within the country itself.
Divide and rule is not new. The Latin phrase “divide et impera” is as old as politics and war. The Romans were adept at divide and rule. Julius Caesar successfully applied it to conquer Gaul. The British used the policy of divide and rule in India in the 19th and early 20th centuries when they created a rift between the Hindus and Muslims and between lower and upper castes. The policy of divide and rule still did not stop the Roman Empire collapsing nor prevent the British being forced to leave India in 1947.
During war, government propaganda often successfully pits workers from one country against workers from another country. However, workers have no interest in capitalism’s wars. Workers do not own the means of production and distribution. Issues such as disputes over trade routes, spheres of strategic interest, land and resources are of no interest to the working class. There is one world working class with workers in Russia, for example, having the same interest as workers in Ukraine and workers in Israel having the same class interest as workers in the occupied regions of Palestine. One global class and one global class enemy. Nevertheless, in times of war, governments constantly depict other workers as “the enemy” to be killed and destroyed.
Divide and rule splits the working class into fragments and they misleadingly see other workers as the problem rather than capitalism and the profit system. Low wages, unemployment, poor housing and health care are all mistakenly seen as the fault of other workers but not capitalism: the private ownership of the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the rest of society. Workers misleadingly believe that if migrants were stopped coming to the UK, wages would rise and there would be no scarcity of housing.
This is not the case. Workers are paid as little as employers can get away with and the reason why workers cannot get decent housing to meet their needs is because it is just too expensive. With or without migrants, workers would still be in the same subservient class position. Workers are in poverty because of capitalism not because of other workers.
Who is to Blame?
To divide the worker class, a minority group is identified, demonised by politicians and the media and then presented as a threat to all that is decent and wholesome. In the mid-1970s, Margaret Thatcher’s right-hand man, Keith Joseph, warned that the cycle of social deprivation was the result of sexual promiscuity and over breeding of sections of the working class. Single parent mothers on council housing estates were, according to Joseph, threatening “our human stock”. He conveniently changed the focus of attention from capitalism as the cause of social deprivation to groups within the working class who were unable to defend themselves.
We are reminded that in the 19th century the working class were divided into ”the deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”. Vagrancy laws set up the dichotomy between the “deserving and undeserving poor”. The undeserving poor became increasingly associated with society’s social decay – the “Residuum” who became prey to the pseudo-science of eugenics from which social programmes of sterilisation were considered. The Labour Party Fabians, Shaw, H. G. Wells and the Webbs were ardent eugenicists as was Keynes and Beveridge (See G. R. Searle “THE WUEST FOR NATIONAL EFFICIENCY” 1971).
Margaret Thatcher played on fears of immigration to help win the 1979 election by remarking about British people fearing they might be “rather swamped by people of a different culture”. She was after the National Front vote and she succeeded in getting it. The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon used a similar slur against immigrants in October 2014. All part of the politician’s racist arsenal to divide and rule.
Enoch Powell successfully divided the working class during the late 1960s. In his so-called “rivers of blood”, speech in Birmingham in 1968, he quoted Virgil’s Aeneid: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the river Tiber foaming with much blood’.” His image was future “race wars”; violence between black and white members of the working class leading to bloodshed and death.
Shortly afterwards, thousands of Dockers and meat packers marched and took strike action in support of Powell’s xenophobic views. Capitalism, the cause of the poverty facing the working class, was moved onto other workers. Boris Johnson, a student of Powell, when Prime minister, pushed white English ethno-nationalism in the North of England to gain votes that were formerly going to Farage’s UKIP.
Since the 1960s the targets for those wanting to split the working class has been immigrants, gays, trade unionists, people with a disability, those living in inner-city council estates, the unemployed and youth sub-culture. In the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher looked to striking miners as “the enemy within”. These striking miners were also condemned by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock. New Labour also supported attacks on single parents when they cut lone parent benefits in the early days of the Blair government. Labour, too, carried on Tory policies of demonising migrants. Remember labour’s anti-immigrant branded mug with its promise “Controls on immigration”.
Of course, this is not new. At the turn of the Twentieth Century it was the Jews from Eastern Europe. Then it was workers from the Caribbean in the 1950s, then Refugees from Kenya and Uganda in the 1970s and then “trade union barons” holding the country to ransom in the late 1970s who had to be disciplined with anti-trade union legislation. And the universities and politicians divide the working class into “working class” and “middle class” ignoring the fact that all workers who receive a wage or salary are members of the same class. The so-called “middle-class” (architects, doctors, university lecturers) make up 15% of the working class.
More recently the young have been encouraged to blame their inability to get housing on the elderly who are reported to live such fantastic lives on the state pensions. David Willets, the former universities Minister, contributed to this false division in his book THE PINCH: HOW THE BABY BOOMERS TOOK THEIR CHILDREN'S FUTURE - AND WHY THEY SHOULD GIVE IT BACK, in 2010 and up-dated it in 2020. The “enemy” now were the “baby boomers”, an alleged pampered section of the working class who, according to Willets, were ruining their children’s future. Yet, pensioner poverty is at an all time high. The Centre for Ageing Better’s annual report, published on 17 March, finds that there were 200,000 more poor pensioners in 2021. Nothing was said about capitalism by David Willets. And he was unsurprisingly quiet on the vast wealth and privilege of the capitalist class.
Beyond the Fragments
Is the working class so fragmented that it would rather tear itself apart rather than understand that capitalism, the profit system, is the cause of their social and economic problems not other workers? Politicians and the media seemingly find it very easy to divide and rule. Capitalism and the capitalist class get off scot-free.
Are the cynics right? Is there no hope? Can the working class be brought together? It is true that the working class are pitted against each other the minute they go to school in preparation for the jobs market. As adults, workers compete against each other for resources and jobs. This competition affects all areas of their lives.
Marx commented on the problem of competition which fragments the working class against itself:
“Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois, but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence it is a long time before these individuals can unite...Hence every organized power standing over these isolated individuals, who live in conditions daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. To demand the opposite would be tantamount to demanding that competition should not exist in this definite epoch of history, or that the individuals should banish from their minds conditions over which in their isolation they have no control.” (German Ideology).
Marx believed that despite competition and class division, workers can unite and this unification came out of the dynamics of the class struggle. In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO he sketched out the development of the working class from an incoherent mass to one organising into trade unions and then political parties.
Conditions of capitalism have the potential for class solidarity and unity. Struggling for pay and better working conditions unites all workers, so does the necessity for joining trade unions to further class interests. And not all workers, for example, see migrants as “the enemy” as demagogues like Nigel Farage hoped for when he criticised the RNLI as a “migrant taxi service” for saving migrants. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution raised more than £200,000 in a single day after defending its work rescuing migrants at risk of drowning in the Channel, while volunteering inquiries almost quadrupled.
Marx distinguished between what he called a "class in itself" and a "class for itself." Workers first become conscious of sharing common interests around pay and working conditions (a class “in itself”) and eventually develop an awareness as a class opposed to employers and seeing the necessity to replace capitalism with socialism (a class “for itself”).
Most of the time, workers experience life in isolation from other workers. The economic and political narrative of their isolated lives is framed by the media; particularly the newspapers and television who continually demonise other workers. As individuals, they are much more likely to accept the ruling ideas of society, to see others as the problem not capitalism as a debilitating social system to be changed in a revolutionary way. Even in the face of a sea of capitalist propaganda dividing the working class against itself, workers; male and female, black and white, work together for a common purpose in trade union organisations and socialist political parties. There is class solidarity, weak as it currently is.
Workers, despite the capitalist propaganda, have understood that the social system has to be changed and can be changed once there is a majority of socialists in society.
In this revolutionary process “divide and rule” loses its political power. Workers have become socialists and workers will become socialists because capitalism, as Marx noted, “creates its own grave diggers”. Capitalism can never resolve the problems facing the working class. It can never meet the needs of all society. Capitalism and the contradictions of capitalism cause into existence socialist ideas, socialists and a socialist revolutionary force. Capitalism is a “fetter on production” generating economic crises and the class struggle.
Nevertheless, there is only so much socialists can do. We can warn and we can persuade but we cannot lead. The abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism have to be the work of the working class itself. Yet as socialists we have to remain positive and optimistic even in these dark and depressing times. As Bob Marley sang: “Don’t give up the fight: Never give up the fight”.
What of the political terrain over which the working class lay fragmented and fighting against each other. We can look no further than the optimism of Erin Quinn in Channel Four’s “DERRY GIRLS”:
“If our dreams get broken into pieces, we have to make a new future from the pieces”
What the S.P.G.B. Has Done Since 1904
The Socialist Party of Great Britain is often asked: “You agree with and teach the Materialist Conception of History and the Labour Theory of Value. You kicked off in 1904, but what have you contributed to the Socialist movement, what else have you learnt and taught?” Before answering that question, we think it is appropriate to state what the Socialist Party of Great Britain has not done.
The problems facing the working class under capitalism broadly comes under three headings war, want & insecurity.
The British capitalist class were involved in two major wars in the last century and have been involved in a war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century. NATO is currently fighting a proxy war in Ukraine with tens of thousands of working-class deaths.
While capitalism lasts, these will not be the only conflicts to be fought this century. The SPGB has not encouraged the working class to lay down their lives to maintain British capitalism or to defend the Russian revolution of 1917 when it was, in fact, a coup d’etat.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks could not establish socialism in a largely backward country. In the First World War, we issued a statement pointing out that war was endemic to capitalism and that only socialism could end war:
“Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism.”
In the 1914-18 war, the Labour Party urged workers to fight in order to “crush militarism and end all war”. It supported the 1939-45 war for “freedom and democracy” and promised a programme of ‘social justice’ after the war. It is still pursuing this failed policy in the misguided belief that you can have capitalism without the effects of capitalism. Organisations “left” of the Labour Party either supported the war in order to defend Russia, or because they thought the Russian revolution was socialist but had taken the wrong path and needed to be preserved to get it back on the correct one. The SPGB in 1918 had pointed out that Russia could only develop capitalism – a fact proved by history.
Want & insecurity are both endemic to capitalism. When the Beveridge Plan was proposed, workers were to be given the princely sum of £2 per week unemployment benefit. The Labour Party, the Communist Party and the Conservative Party all entered the market offering £2.10, £2.50 and £3.00 benefit respectively. The SPGB issued a pamphlet BEVERIDGE RE-ORGANISES POVERTY. We urged the abolition of capitalism, not its retention.
We said that whatever reforms were brought in, poverty would continue. How right we were. The National Health Service is now 75 years old. Yet cuts in services are the order of the day. Wards are shut; health workers are made redundant, and health provision for the working class are, as we predicted, very second rate compared to what the capitalist class enjoy. Nurses and mid-wives are forced to strike. So too the ambulance drivers.
Another policy in the capitalist Left’s attack on want is nationalisation (in reality for reasons of “efficiency”), all the major capitalist parties once advocated it, especially Labour, and trade unionists supported it thinking that industries were being bought under ‘public ownership’ and that they would take part in the control of their industry. The SPGB has continually pointed out that nationalisation is not socialism but state capitalism. There is no evidence that nationalisation has guaranteed security for the workers. In some respects, the workers are worse off with nationalisation, having no alternative employer.
With the fear of atomic annihilation and the periodic crises of capitalism, increasing the unemployed from hundreds of thousands to millions, in no way can it be argued that workers are any more secure today through the efforts of Labour governments. They have instituted reform after reform, but they have been powerless to remove any problem facing the working class.
Marx had another theory as well as the two mentioned in the question: the Theory of the Class Struggle. In any suggested political, social or economic programme, the socialist asks: “What is in it for the working class as a whole in the long run and what are the consequences for the capitalist class?”
The capitalist class wants their system to run smoothly and so will offer reforms that may give temporary benefit to a section of the working class. Similar reforms, advocated by organisations that have mass misguided support from the working class, may also be acceptable to the capitalists. This is the reason why the parliamentary parties keep complaining that the other parties have stolen parts of their programme Reforms do not change the basic structure of capitalism and so do not endanger the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. We have learned the correctness of the analysis of capitalist society made by our founder-members, and which they detailed when they drew up the SPGB’s Object and Declaration of Principles.
We have taught:
* That the capture of political power is essential before any fundamental change in the social system can be made.
* That while leadership is a necessary principle for capitalist society, the Socialist revolution requires the conscious understanding and participation of the majority of the working class. That means it must be a bottom-up, not a top-down, revolution.
* That the Socialist Party cannot advocate reforms of capitalism, must not encourage support from non-Socialists, and must be independent of all other parties.
* That socialism can only be a world-wide system.
* That there is no need for a transition period between capitalism and socialism. Production for social use, and direct and free access to what people need to live decent human lives: these are possible now
* That all wars must be opposed, without distinction between alleged wars of defence, offence, or opposition to tyranny, since no capitalist wars are ever fought in the interest of the working class.
* That nationalism will not exist in a socialist society.
* That taxation is a burden on the capitalist class and not on the working class, whose take-home pay must approximate at least to the minimum of wages needed to reproduce the commodity labour-power.
* That all Socialist parties in different areas of the capitalist world must be open democratic parties, with no leaders, no closed or secret meetings, with all members on an equal footing, operating by majority decision, and thus demonstrating the society they seek to establish.
* That capitalism will not collapse of its own accord, but crisis will follow crisis until the working class of the world consciously and politically unite to abolish commodity production and exchange for profit and replace capitalism with common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society.
And we have learnt from bitter experience that the pursuit of the socialist object within clearly defined principles is the only way to conduct political action: the only way the working class can democratically and politically replace the profit system with the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy and Political Parties
There are many books which came out of the Cold War which were published to show Marx was “wrong”, “utopian” or, worse, led to Lenin / Stalin / Mao, etc. Many are still in circulation, published by conservative think tanks, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Mises, Hayek and Popper lead the field followed by Acton and Berlin.
Another less known, but still widely circulated anti-Marxist author is Robert Michels. His best known work, still on many academic lists for sociology undergraduates, was POLITICAL PARTIES: A SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY OF THE OLIGARCHAL TENDENCIES OF MODERN DEMOCRACY (publ. 1911). He might be a third-division anti-Marxist, on the grounds that he eventually joined the Italian Fascists, but his pernicious ideas are still in circulation, still being used against socialists.
Did Michels influence the SPGB?
What was his alleged influence on socialists? Since Michels’s POLITICAL PARTIES was not published till 7 years after the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded, it clearly did not and could not have been an early influence. This Party was established in 1904 by Socialist workers, without leaders and without a bureaucracy. The SPGB was from the start a repudiation of Robert Michels’s argument.
If you look at the Contents page of the Michels book, you find near the end a section on the “Oligarchal Tendencies of Organisation” and a chapter on the “iron law of oligarchy” (pp.342-356). The supposed conservatism of “the masses” and their assumed need for leadership are often cited in academic attacks on Marx, and the ability of the working class to establish socialism without leaders is denied.
Michels was originally a member of the Social Democrats in Germany which did have a leadership and cloying bureaucracy. The Social Democratic Party was originally radical, paying lip-service to the ideas of Marx, but became a reform party, and in 1914 voted for war credits. Post-war, the SDP helped form an openly capitalist government in 1919 with the formation of the Weimer Republic. Socialist it was not.
Michels argued that any social or political organisation of any size is bound to have a bureaucracy and leadership, and he also picked up the phrase “political class” and adopted this concept too. Today that phrase is commonplace in the mass media ‘commentariat’.
But to a Marxist, the term class is a fundamental economic category: – it has to do with the ownership and control, or lack of it, of the means of production and distribution, which is miles away from the ideological world of the political commentators and the politicians that they comment on.
From Michels to Lenin
Michels’s ignorance of Marxism is clear, and of course he cited the CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME, which Lenin later leaned on and distorted in his book THW STATE AND REVOLUTION (1916-1917).
Indeed, in “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?” (c. 1902), Lenin had much earlier argued for a pyramid-style of political organisation, led by a ‘vanguard’, a leadership, with as in an army a General Staff, officers, NCOs and other ranks. We tell you what to think and say, when and where to have a revolution, and you, the masses, follow our inspired leadership, and do as you are told.
That was not Lenin’s own original idea (it is really hard to find any idea he advocated which actually was original, not borrowed) but an idea common among some other Russian revolutionaries of that period, especially Tkachov. It is known that Lenin had read Tkachov, and that he strongly recommended his work and his ideas to fellow-Russians that fetched up as exiles in Geneva.
Nevertheless, it was this Leninist idea of a vanguard party which left an evil legacy in the Bolshevik principle of ‘the leading role of the party’, which meant the domination by Party apparatchiks of every sphere of life in the Soviet Union. This political idea is still prevalent in China, North Korea, Belarus, etc
As the SPGB argued for decades, the Soviet Union was a dictatorship of the party, not of the proletariat. In fact, from the start it was a dictatorship over the working class in Russia by the Bolsheviks, one which did not allow workers to form independent trade unions, did not tolerate independent publications, or a free and independent socialist party. In Russia, the ‘leading role of the party’ has even outlived Lenin’s party, and its legacy is still omni-present, e.g. in Putin’s control over the mass media.
Michels, Bakunin and Fascism
Michels’s dishonesty – or was it just ignorance? – is revealed in his reference to Bakunin as “Marx’s pupil”. Anyone who knew of the way Bakunin deliberately set out to destroy Marx’s reputation, including splitting the First International, could never have written that.
Contrary to Bakunin’s smear, Marx was no “statist”. From the start, he and Engels argued that the state was a coercive class institution, and saw – as Bakunin did not - the need to take political action so as to end the class system and, with that, the existence of the state. Bakunin only willed the end – he failed to see the means and, as a result, the various rash revolts he backed all failed.
What of Michels’s flirtation with Fascism? Decades later, the Socialist Party of Great Britain in the inter-war years was arguing there were two fascisms, both to be opposed – Black Fascism and Red Fascism. So far as we know, the SPGB was the only political party to take up this position.
The Left were relaxed about Red Fascism – and utterly opposed to Black Fascism. They still are. After the disaster of the Soviet Union, particularly for the working class, there are still today some who support Stalinism, just as there are those who follow the ideas of Trotsky. The Tories, Liberals and others took the opposite line – opposing Russian Red Fascism, but easy about Black Fascism, from the Nazis and Hitler, from Italy’s Mussolini to Spain’s Franco and the Portuguese Falangist, Salazar, and so on.
The many military generals and juntas who have ruled in South America, Africa, the Middle East, etc. as dictators are all heirs to this legacy of fascism, as are many modern authoritarian states like Hungary, Turkey and Egypt, etc. To the extent that the US’s politics are dominated by the influence of the MIC, the powerful ‘military-industrial complex’, the US too can be said to be a de facto fascist state.
Ironically, British capitalism and Russian capitalism formed an alliance with the United States during the Second World War, with Roosevelt, Churchill and Attlee becoming uneasy bedfellows with Stalin. Again, this was a war that the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed on grounds of class. The working class had no interests to defend – no colonies, no trade routes, no oilfields or gold mines, etc.
War also meant increased nationalist propaganda, further dividing the working class. But from the start, it was known that the world’s working class needed to unite, as Marx and Engels had argued in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains – you have a world to win!”
Why did the Socialist Party of Great Britain reject the capitalist political concept of leadership? We doubt if it was only because of the autocracy and authoritarianism of Hyndman. Indeed, it is hard to find any Continental socialists or social democrats of that period with an egalitarian outlook. Even those who later opposed Leninism as undemocratic – e.g. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky– were not opposed to leadership.
Equality as a principle
It is possible that the SPGB founder-members may well have been influenced by earlier English – and Scottish – writers, e.g. men like Tom Paine (in “Commonsense” he argued against a monarchy, especially the idiotic and dangerous idea of a hereditary monarch and Robert Burns “a man’s a man for all that”.
Generation after generation, working people have held onto the principle of equality. In England, the 19th century movements for an expanded suffrage were founded on strongly held ideas about equality: ‘Orator’ Hunt, the radical speaker at Peterloo in 1819, argued, well ahead of his time, not only for universal male suffrage, even for the poorest, but also for women to have the vote.
Look, too, at the history of the commons and popular resistance to enclosures. Look too at the 17th century Civil War period – and movements like the Diggers and the Levellers. When Gerrard Winstanley and Everard, met General Fairfax to discuss the Digger community at St George’s Hill, near Weybridge, they refused to remove their hats for, to them, Fairfax was “but their fellow creature” (Bulstrode Whitelocke, MEMORIALS, Oxford 1853 p. 18).
In medieval England there was the so-called Peasants’ Revolt, and the popular rhyme “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” was passed down the generations, an heirloom.
Much later, a refusal to “doff the cap” would then be natural for those in 1904 aiming to overthrow this class exploitation system.
For our predecessors, those founder-members of the SPGB, another source would have been Marx’s revolutionary proposition that socialism/communism must be the work of the working class themselves - “...the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). This statement precludes leadership or the emergence of an elite or controlling ‘vanguard’.
We have long held that “democracy” is not something we can be given - it is something we do. Democracy - as something socialists do - became apparent in the Party from the start in our organisation, and in all our social and political interactions and practices.
Hence, however knowledgeable, eloquent or charismatic, none of our members was ever seen as a leader of the party. For that, there would have had to be socialists willing to be the led, rather than working together as comrades. With any sort of democratic practice, there has to be the reality of equality not simply an aspiration or political ‘mission statement’.
And that same ancient principle is at the heart of many social and even many political institutions, even now. But under capitalism that principle is inevitably flouted and trampled on.
There is sometimes talk in Labour Party circles about ‘social justice’. But we argue that you can never have socialist distribution while you retain the private ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. In the hands of the Labour Party, ‘egalitarian’ social and economic reforms can never succeed. Capitalism simply cannot be reformed in our interests.
To the extent that workers fail to object and resist when this system brings injustice, they will continue to be burdened with the chains and shackles of class exploitation. We experience these whenever we have to pay for what we produce – paying for food and housing, etc. We experience these too in the poverty we experience in our everyday life.
If you read up on the history of workers’ struggles or the struggle for slave emancipation – “Am I not a man and a brother?” – this theme of egalitarianism and equality is always there. As in the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, equality and fraternity are inextricably linked to the fight for freedom.
The SPGB founder-members clearly understood that socialism as a social system based on common ownership and democratic control would have to operate on the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” – and that must imply an egalitarian system, without any hierarchy.
As a result, the party they founded has lasted - for over a century – without any leaders or leadership, and without any bureaucracy emerging. Something Robert Michels and his latter-day followers, and modern Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc. would no doubt find utterly incredible.
Why Do You Think You Are a Socialist?
It is not good enough to say you are a socialist. You must also explain why you are a socialist.
Many on the capitalist left believe they are socialists. However, all their “socialism” amounts to is either support for reforms or nationalisation (state capitalism). Some believe they are socialists from an ethical revulsion at capitalism and what it does to the planet. The worse political reason for believing you are a “socialist” is because you are a member of the Labour Party.
To consider yourself a socialist you must show a clear understanding of:
* What we want
* Why socialism is necessary?
* How socialism can be achieved
Furthermore, you must show an understanding of why the Socialist Party of Great Britain always opposes workers getting involved in wars and why socialists reject and oppose religion, nationalism, and racism.
Many who consider themselves “socialist” may have not considered any of the above. They say they are socialists to annoy their parents; an act of youthful rebellion. Political careers often began as teenage rebellion only to end up becoming a Minster of State in a Tory government. It was once remarked that the largest political party in Britain was ex-members of the Communist Party, particularly after 1956 with the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
So, what should a socialist want? It is clearly set out in the Object and Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; a living document which is the framework for democratic and political action.
The Object states that socialism is:
“The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distribution wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
” Socialism would mean production directly to meet human need based on the principle “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” There would be no labour market, no buying and selling of someone’s ability to work no wages and no employers. That is socialism and a socialist is someone who agrees with this object.
This brings us on to why socialism is necessary. First the working class, those who live on wages and salaries (and include the self-employed) do not own the means of production and distribution.
They do not own the gas and oil and other minerals, they do not own the transport and communication systems, the media, the factories and the distribution centres.
Being propertyless, workers are forced onto the labour market controlled by the capitalist class. The capitalist class own the means to life but do not work. We are forced to sell our ability to work for a wage and salary. And during the productive process we are exploited as a class by producing more wealth than we receive in wages and salaries.
What we need and what we receive as wages and salaries are two different things. In this sense we are poor. Our needs go unmet. And to get more we have to struggle as a class. We have to organise in trade unions and we have to go on strike and the capitalist class struggle against us. They want to increase the intensity and extent of class exploitation. They want to make more profit from us. They want to increase productivity and lengthen the working day. And this class struggle takes place daily whether workers are aware of it or not.
So, socialism is a necessity to end class exploitation. Trade unionism is not enough. The class struggle has to be a political struggle. The only way to get control of the means of production and distribution is through socialist political parties and the replacement of world capitalism with world socialism.
How? How can socialist be achieved?
Socialism can only be achieved democratically and politically by a majority of like-minded socialists wanting it to be established. Socialism requires active socialists working together in a political party to gain control of the machinery of government including the armed forces.
This political action must have no leaders and requires socialist delegates to form a majority in Parliament or its equivalent elsewhere in the word. And this requires the revolutionary use of the vote. Not to implement social reforms but to abolish capitalism and establish socialism.
A socialist must also dismiss the barriers which impede class unity: nationalism, patriotism, religion and racism. All four are used by politicians to divide the working class, particular at times of war. Socialists have always opposed war on grounds of class and class interest. Workers have no interest in fighting in capitalism’s wars.
Religion should also be dismissed as it acts as a barrier to a clear understanding of the natural and social world. Socialists are materialists.
This is a requirement for being a socialist and a necessary requirement in becoming a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
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.