Monday, October 29, 2007

After Socialism. Reconstructing Critical Social Thought

Book Review from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

After Socialism. Reconstructing Critical Social Thought. By Gabriel Kolko. Routledge

Kolko writes as a critic of capitalism, but as one who has no time for Marxism, or rather for what he thinks is Marxism. His two chapters on this are irritating as he paints Marx as a crude economic determinist who saw working class action to establish socialism as a mere inevitable reflex action to capitalist conditions. But if this was the case, why was he a revolutionary agitator in the 1840s and again in the 1860s and 1870s? True, he got it wrong in that, contrary to what must have been his expectation, the working class has still not acted to establish socialism. And this has meant that we socialists today are a lot less confident than earlier generations in speaking in terms of socialism being inevitable.

Kolko also criticises Marx for not having much to say on imperialism, war and state intervention. This is true too, but then these only became big issues after his death in 1883, and those in the Marxist tradition (including ourselves but also the likes of Hilferding and Bukharin) did address these questions.

Kolko's real argument is with the two attempts in the 20th century to ostensibly challenge capitalism – Social Democracy and "Communism". The former was led by ambitious parliamentary politicians who ended up merely administering the status quo, and the latter by those who cynically installed themselves in power as a new elite and then paved the way for later members of this elite to transform themselves into ordinary capitalists. According to him (and we can concur) both these have been utter failures and any radical movement against capitalism has to start all over again on a quite different basis. For him, "socialism" is dead and cannot be resurrected. Hence the book's title.

The two chapters in which he describes "capitalist realities" - a world dominated by capitalist corporations run by greedy and self-seeking executives and by governments which do their bidding when not lining their own pockets – are the best.

As to his solution, he proposes a new radical Left party which will be more democratic and more principled than the old Social Democratic parties. But, because he has rejected the sort of overall view that Marxism has of capitalism as a system governed by economic laws, he thinks that problems such as the threat of nuclear war, inequality and poverty can be dealt with piecemeal. In other words, another version of the same old, failed reformism.

Kolko is a historian who has specialised in analysing wars and he thinks that history demonstrates that the best chance of a mass working class movement to overthrow capitalism will be after some war that the ruling class will have foolishly embarked on. He could be right. But let's hope he's not.

Adam Buick

Friday, October 26, 2007

Marxism versus Leninism

From the Socialist Standard, March 1990.

Marx's theory of socialist revolution is grounded on the fundamental principle that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself". Marx held to this view throughout his entire forty years of socialist political activity, and it distinguished his theory of social change from that of both those who appealed to the princes, governments and industrialists to change the world for the benefit of the working class (such as Robert Owen and Saint Simon) and of those who relied on the determined action of some enlightened minority of professional revolutionaries to liberate the working class (such as Buonarotti, Blanqui and Weitling).

Conscious Self-emancipation

Marx saw that the very social position of the working class within capitalist society as a non-owning, exploited, wealth-producing class forced it to struggle against its capitalist conditions of existence. This "movement" of the working class could be said to be implicitly socialist since the struggle was ultimately over who should control the means of production: the minority capitalist class or the working class (i.e. society as a whole). At first the movement of the working class would be, Marx believed, unconscious and unorganised but in time, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves.

The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be "spontaneous" in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about (not that such people could not take part in this process, but their participation was not essential or crucial). Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary but would come to be carried out by workers themselves whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, "the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority".

This in fact was Marx's conception of "the workers' party". He did not see the party of the working class as a self-appointed elite of professional revolutionaries, as did the Blanquists, but as the mass democratic movement of the working class with a view to establishing Socialism, the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.

Lenin's Opposing View

This was Marx's view, but it wasn't Lenin's. Lenin in his pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, written in 1901-2, declared:

"The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals" (Foreign Languages Publishing House edition, Moscow, pp. 50-51).

"Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside of the economic struggle, from outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers" (Lenin's emphasis, p.133).

"The spontaneous working class movement by itself is able to create (and inevitably creates) only trade unionism, and working class trade unionist politics are precisely working class bourgeois politics" (pp. 159-60) .

Lenin went on to argue that the people who would have to bring "socialist consciousness" to the working class "from without" would be "professional revolutionaries", drawn at first mainly from the ranks of the bourgeois intelligentsia. In fact he argued that the Russian Social Democratic Party should be such an "organisation of professional revolutionaries", acting as the vanguard of the working class. The task of this vanguard party to be composed of professional revolutionaries under strict central control was to "lead" the working class, offering them slogans to follow and struggle for. It is the very antithesis of Marx's theory of working class self-emancipation.

The Bolshevik Coup

The implication of Marx's theory of working class self-emancipation is that the immense majority of the working class must be consciously involved in the socialist revolution against capitalism. "The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority".

The Bolshevik coup in November, 1917, carried out under the guise of protecting the rights of the Congress of Soviets, did not enjoy conscious majority support, at least not for socialism, though their slogan "Peace, Bread and Land" was widely popular. For instance, elections to the Constituent Assembly, held after the Bolshevik coup and so under Bolshevik government, gave them only about 25 per cent of the votes.

John Reed, a sympathetic American journalist, whose famous account of the Bolshevik coup, Ten Days That Shook The World, was commended in a foreword by Lenin, quotes Lenin as replying to this kind of criticism in a speech he made to the Congress of Peasants' Soviets on 27 November, 1917:

"If Socialism can only be realized when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least five hundred years . . . The Socialist political party - this is the vanguard of the working class; it must not allow itself to be halted by the lack of education of the mass average, but it must lead the masses, using the Soviets as organs of revolutionary initiative…" (Reed's emphasis and omissions, Modern Library edition, 1960, p.15).

Compare this with a passage from the utopian communist, Weitling: "to want to wait . . . until all are suitably enlightened would be to abandon the thing altogether!" Not, of course, that it is a question of "all" the workers needing to be socialists before there can be Socialism. Marx, in rejecting the view that Socialism could be established by some enlightened minority, was merely saying that a sufficient majority of workers would have to be socialists.

Lenin's Legacy

Having seized power before the working class (and, even less, the 80 per cent peasant majority of the population) had prepared themselves for Socialism, all the Bolshevik government could do, as Lenin himself openly admitted, was to establish state capitalism in Russia. Which is what they did, while at the same time imposing their own dictatorship over the working class.

Contempt for the intellectual abilities of the working class led to the claim that the vanguard party should rule on their behalf, even against their will. Lenin's theory of the vanguard party became enshrined as a principle of government ("the leading role of the Party") which has served to justify what has proved to be the world's longest-lasting political dictatorship.

The self-emancipation of the working class, as advocated by Marx, remains on the agenda.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hitler and Stalin

Book Review from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia. By Richard Overy. Penguin

If you've been thinking that books on the two most renowned political dictators, Hitler and Stalin, have been done to death forget it and read this book. Whereas books such as Alan Bullock's Parallel Lives, Alan Kershaw's Hitler and Simon Sebag Montefiore's Court of the Red Czar (reviewed in the March 2006 Socialist Standard) concentrate on personality, Richard Overy investigates issues far more important to the working class. He raises such questions as how dictatorships could happen, how did they manage to hold on to power and impose their will on a sometimes-uncooperative working class. For answers to questions such as these this book is excellent.

Overy finds many similarities in the methods adopted by the dictators but also some important differences, lying mainly in the varying levels of economic development existing in the two countries. Germany, emerging from its history as a collection of loosely federated states was already a capitalist nation. It had a native capitalist class, trade unions, a democratic political constitution in the Weimar Republic. Russia had none of these. Eighty percent of its population were peasants, its homegrown capitalist class were almost non-existent, or at any rate very weak. There were trade unions (in fact it was largely trade union action which had toppled the Czar) they had not yet reached the same level of development as those in Germany. There had never been even the semblance of political democracy in Russia.

These historical conditions were important in the way the dictators came to power and held on to it. One thing Overy makes abundantly clear is that neither dictator was "imposed" or brought about by force against an unwilling or resisting populace. Hitler used the electoral process to gain power and, although no one in Russia ever had the chance of voting against Stalin, he still needed working class support to remain in power.

Hitler maintained his position of supreme ruler by adopting the cult of leadership right from the beginning. Everyone (including, crucially, the army) had to swear allegiance to the Führer. Stalin had to work slowly and behind the scenes to achieve his pre-eminence. But, as Overy makes clear, neither of them could move very far without popular support, and they both went to extraordinary lengths to hold on to a mass following.

This does not mean of course that Stalin and Hitler did not routinely employ force. But by means of propaganda, of general scare alarms - about "wreckers" in the case of Stalin, or "undesirables" in the case of Hitler - they managed to enlist the support of the ordinary citizen. Informers were actively encouraged and many enthusiastically took part in wholesale denunciation of the regime's opponents.

Overy makes a strong case for believing that both dictators believed in their own ideologies - something that can be readily accepted in the case of Hitler with his belief in the existence of "race" and of a "racially pure" Aryan blood. However we find it much more difficult to accept that Stalin really believed that he was building socialism. Overy also suggests that Stalin's purges of Communist Party members had some basis in reality in the sense that they really did threaten his conception of "socialism". After getting rid of Roehm, Hitler was much more loyal to his close circle as he built up his authority on the basis of personal loyalty and did not see them as a threat. His biggest problem lay in the conservative nature of the generals. This explains why he took over the conduct of the war as sole commander, something also attempted by Stalin, who sacked or murdered most of his generals. Overy also appears to have a greater respect for Stalin as a political theoretician than is warranted by the facts.

For anyone who wants to understand how the Holocaust came about and the circumstances building up to it this book is essential reading. From general beginnings as slave labour to its eventual conclusion as mass killing, it makes chilling reading. He also presents some interesting statistics on the Gulags and their role as providers of slave labour in the economy that goes a long way to understand them. In the pursuit of maintaining power both dictators used spectacle. Parades, military processions, torchlight rallies - all were used extensively and served as displays of power and as entertainment. In the days before television this was very effective. Rigid control of the press was also an essential. Any criticism of the establishment was viciously suppressed.

A serious shortcoming of this book lies in the author's conception of socialism. Overy takes the word "socialism" and the concept of "national socialism" as used by Stalin and Hitler at their face value. He never defines the terms and appears to believe that socialism is synonymous with a "command economy" capitalism, regarding which he has some very perceptive things to say. However the lessons implicit in this book are vitally important and it is to be recommended.

Cyril Evans

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Forgotten War

From Socialist Banner

There is much media coverage of the conflict in Darfur that concentrates the minds and concerns of the great and good yet in other parts of this continent other conflicts and violence goes on with little comment .

According to the mortality survey carried out by the International Rescue Committee and published in the British medical journal Lancet between 1997 and 2004, up to four million people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to conflict. The IRC also estimates that today, three years later, 38,000 people continue to die there each month.

Democracy Now talks to Christine Schuler Deschryver is a Congolese human rights activist. She lives in Bukavu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and particularly on the the violence against women .

Speaking to the New York Times, John Homes, the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, called the sexual violence in the Congo "the worst in the world."

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Four million. It was three years ago, in 2004. And now we are waiting for the new report, I think, for beginning October. It will probably be seven million or more, and nobody is talking about this silent war that's going on in Congo, because the official war ended three years ago. We had elections last year.
But there's another form of very violent war with sexual terrorism going on in Congo. We are talking about more than -- in all eastern part of Congo, more than 200,000 women, children and babies being raped every day, and now, right now, I am talking to you, thousands of women are taken and children into forests as slave sex. And today --

AMY GOODMAN: As sex slaves.

DESCHRYVER: As sex slaves, yeah. And we are not -- I'm sorry just to talk like this -- we are not talking about normal rapes anymore. We are talking about sexual terrorism, because they destroyed, and they -- you cannot imagine what's going on in Congo. Rape is a taboo, I think, in most of African countries, so the women who accept to go to the hospital or to be registered, it's because they don't have a choice anymore. They have to go and be repaired, because we are talking about new surgery to repair the women, because they're completely destroyed. And the ones who are just raped without big destruction, they don't talk about rape, because the African -- the Congolese woman, she suffered so much that she can support being raped without telling it, when she doesn't need medical care...

GOODMAN: Who is doing this?

DESCHRYVER: The ones who are doing this, they are 60% -- because we made studies -- it's 60% is committed by these people who made genocide in Rwanda, by Rwandans, the Hutu, the one who made the genocide. And, you know, we talk to women, and sometimes these people who made this can tell them, "You know, we died in '94 in Rwanda, so now we don't care about what we are doing." So 60% of these rapes are made by these random Hutu who made the genocide in their country.

GOODMAN: There are supposedly peace talks that are going on. Foreign ministers from the Great Lakes countries failed to make progress in two days of talks in Uganda. Latest news, no solution has been agreed on how to deal with the dissident General Laurent Nkunda, whose forces were at war with the Congolese authorities. How does this figure into what you are describing?

DESCHRYVER: You know, I'm just sorry to say that it's one more meeting, and I think these meetings are just going on because of the international pressure. The consequences, I'm sure, it will be nothing. Like General Nkunda, he has an international mandate against him, but everybody, every journalist who go to Goma -- Goma is north part of Bukavu -- can go and interview him. He's like a king there. He became a pastor. So is that normal, this impunity? ...

DESCHRYVER: People can help me, first of all, being our ambassador, you know, talking about the problem that's going on in Congo, because it's a silent war. It's like silent. They are killing, they are raping babies and women in Congo. It's to talk about -- you know, it's like Darfur. Darfur started four years ago. I don't want to compare, you know, problems we have in this world, but Congo, it started almost eleven years ago, and nobody's talking about this femicide, this holocaust.

GOODMAN: Femicide.

DESCHRYVER: Yeah, it's a femicide, because they are just destroying the female species, if I can talk like this, because can you imagine now -- in Africa, woman is the heart of family. She is doing everything, babies, looking for food, looking for the whole family. And now they're destroying this resource.
Also, can you imagine with this massive rape, AIDS? How will be the population, for example, in ten years? And these children who are teenagers now, who just know violence, seeing murdered the family, raped sister, the mother, what's the next generation?
So, for me, the most important thing now, it's that the international community to realize that there's an holocaust, to wake up and try to change something, because even the war we had in Congo, it was not -- it was like an African world war, because so many countries were involved, but it was not a Congolese war, Congolese against Congolese. It was some countries who came and invaded Congo with the help, of course, of the international community to come and steal everything out from Congo. And now we are asking for the international community reparation, not for money, but to be involved to try to find solution, Rwanda to take back these people, these genociders, and also Congo to prioritize security of the population.

Full interview can be read at the link

One of the few international media articles about these atrocities can be read here .

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore.Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

"We don't know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear," said Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo's rape epidemic. "They are done to destroy women."

Andre Bourque, a Canadian consultant. "Sexual violence in Congo reaches a level never reached anywhere else. It is even worse than in Rwanda during the genocide."


Many Congolese aid workers denied that the problem was cultural and insisted that the widespread rapes were not the product of something ingrained in the way men treated women in Congolese society.

"If that were the case, this would have showed up long ago," said Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, who coordinates a sexual violence program in Bukavu. Instead, she said, the epidemic of rapes seems to have started in the mid-1990s. That coincides with the waves of Hutu militiamen who escaped into Congo's forests after exterminating 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda's genocide 13 years ago

UN's John Holmes said that while government troops might have raped thousands of women, the most vicious attacks had been carried out by Hutu militias. "These are people who were involved with the genocide and have been psychologically destroyed by it," he said.

Bourque called this phenomenon "reversed values" and said it could develop in heavily traumatized areas that had been steeped in conflict for many years.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Back to the Iron Age? from the latest Socialist Standard.

"They eat food from skips, wear discarded clothes and want to topple capitalism", wrote Brian O'Connell in an article headed "Masters of free lunch" in the Irish Times (4 September). He was describing the activities of a group of people who call themselves "freegans" – "a combination of the words free and vegan, whose aim is to live as non-commercially as possible". They "don't believe in working for money", nor in paying for the things they need to live.

Socialists don't either, but in the context of a society based on the common ownership of the means of life where there'd be no need for money or buying and selling, not as a lifestyle choice within capitalism. No doubt it is theoretically possible to live within capitalism without using money, but to what end? Not even 5 percent of the population (and that's probably an exaggeration), let alone a majority, could live like that. Not that skip diving for food and other things needed to survive is ever likely to appeal to more than a tiny handful of people.

So, we are talking about an inevitably very marginal activity, and one that depends on most other people working for wages and producing the wealth of society, including the thrown-away products the freegans gather and consume. As everything produced under capitalism is the result of exploitation, they are carrying to its logical extreme the practice of those who refrain from buying certain products on ethical grounds. They see themselves as the ultimate "ethical consumers", even if they are doing through voluntary choice what a number of others are obliged to do through economic necessity.

But how is such a lifestyle going to "topple capitalism"? We can't deny that they are against capitalism or what one of them is quoted as calling "a profit-driven commodities economy". The trouble is that that's not all they are against. They also denounce "industrialism" and "globalism". They want to renounce the real and potential benefits of industrial production and go back to living a simple agricultural life with an Iron Age technology but without using animals.

According to O'Connell:

"Freeganism has its roots in traditional activities such as gleaning, or historical collectives such as the Diggers, a group of agrarian communists who flourished in mid-17th-century England . . . [T]he first official use of the word 'freegan' appeared in 2000 and began to gain popularity through a website,, set up in New York by Adam Weissman and Wendy Sher in 2003".

Hang on a minute! Website? Doesn't that assume the existence of "industrialism" and in fact a highly developed technology? And is not the internet one of the more prominent aspects of "globalism"?

The freegans are right, however, to want to recreate the social relationships of early human society, which were co-operative and sharing and based on giving and taking rather than buying and selling. Socialists want this too, but we say this can be done without having to renounce the advances in sanitation, medicine and comfort that modern science and technology have brought, including the ability to find ecologically-acceptable techniques of energy generation and industrial production. We want to restore the original common ownership of the Earth's resources – for the Earth to become, as the Diggers put it, "a common Treasury for All" – and the social relationships that went with it, while retaining both industrialism and globalism.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Religion or capitalism: Which is the root of evil?

Atheism—thank god—is gaining in popularity and in converts. Books by atheists have been appearing on non-fiction bestseller lists, such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Even Christopher Hitchens, who has been cheering on the US imperialist crusade with his Christian comrades in the 101st Keyboard Brigade, has cashed in on the trend with his new book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

These prominent atheists have pointed out the ill effects of religion on society and exposed the errors and outright stupidity of religious thought. Such efforts are all-too necessary today, unfortunately, especially in countries like the United States, where politicians cannot even order a cup of coffee without declaring: "God bless America." It is encouraging that atheists are now confidently voicing their ideas and that their criticism of religion has struck a chord with so many people.

If anything, though, the "new atheists" take religion too seriously, extending their criticism to the point that religion seems to be the fundamental cause of many—if not most—of the society's ills. Dawkins, for instance, depicts an epic struggle between religion (evil) and science (good), while effectively detaching both from the society in which they exist and function. He and others overlook capitalism and the role that religion and science play within this system of production for profit.

Neither religion nor science exists in a vacuum, isolated from society at large. The pursuit of science, for instance, is hardly exempt from the life-or-death struggle to accumulate capital that is all around us. Indeed, the main force that is narrowing the directions that scientific research can take is not religion but the capitalist system of production itself.

Examples of this abound, whether it be the degree of intellectual energy channeled to the creation of lethal new weapons for the never-ending struggle over markets and resources, or the simple fact that any new device must not only be useful but profitable as well. Under capitalism, the development of science and technology is driven forward by the unceasing competition to raise the productivity of labor as a means of augmenting profit—not a desire to better satisfy human needs—so the potential of science to improve the quality of our lives is severely curtailed.

Atheists thus do science no great favor in letting capitalism off the hook and presenting religion as the primary obstacle to the free development of science. They view religion as an ugly carbuncle crouching upon what would otherwise be a beautiful and healthy body, hoping to lance this unsightly growth with the sharp blade of science. But the carbuncle of religion is more like the ones that plagued poor Karl Marx, as it will always grow back, perhaps in a more "delicate" spot, as long as society remains in a constricted and unhealthy state.

Having said all of that, socialists still enthusiastically welcome the new books by atheists. It is just that we would go a step further. In addition to pointing out (for the thousand-and-first time) that religion is bunk, or describing its negative impact on society, we would pose the more interesting question: Why does religious thought continue to exist (and even flourish) in modern capitalist society? That is to say: Why does "God"—who has been declared dead on so many occasions—keep popping up in people's imaginations?

To answer that question we need to consider the relationship between religion and society. More specifically: What is the usefulness of religion as far as capitalism is concerned, and what aspects of life in capitalist society make religious thought appealing to individuals?

A convenient untruth

In a class-divided society, as capitalism so clearly is, religious thought comes in handy for those in positions of wealth and power. It promises workers—who happen to form the bulk of the population—that we will get some pie in the sky (after we die), as a reward for our suffering here on earth. Religious leaders encourage their working class "flock" to stoically accept their existence as wage slaves, going on about how "the meek shall inherit the earth." The benefits to the ruling class of inculcating workers with such a masochistic outlook goes without saying.

Granted, the rich are lambasted in most "holy books" and told that they should give up their wealth if they hope to enter heaven. And this would pose a real concern to them if such a place actually existed. In reality, the religious criticism of the rich and powerful, far from threatening their social position, only serves to reinforce their rule. Religion may promise that the filthy rich will be punished—but the court date is in the hereafter, not the here-and-now.

While religious ideology is no doubt a useful means of dampening social discontent, it would be mistaken, I think, to exaggerate how effective it is today, at least in the urban areas where most people live and work. It seems safe to say that the key ideology propagated by capitalists is not religion, but nationalism, which is more effective in blinding workers to their class interests and chaining them to a system that turns their blood and sweat into profits.

Capitalists, however, do not have to choose between religion and nationalism. Both come in handy as far as distorting the nature of the problems we face and offering false solutions. They also complement each other nicely: religion encouraging patient suffering, while nationalism offers a way to channel frustrations. The point to note here is simply that one important reason why religion continues to exist, and to be enthusiastically propagated, is that a religious outlook—particularly its focus on a better life after death instead of here on earth—serves the interests of the minority ruling class.

And this is also an important reason for socialists to oppose religion. Still, in our zeal to debunk religion, we should not forget that it is only one ideological form at the disposal of the capitalist class. We need to remember that our criticism of religion is one part of a broader struggle against the ideas that hinder the socialist movement.

The need to believe

Pointing out the benefits of religious ideology for the capitalist class, however, does not account for why individuals actually believe in religion.

Part of the answer to that question, as already touched on, is that religion can diminish the frustrations we experience in class society, offering the hope (illusion) of divine reward and retribution in an afterlife. It seems likely, though, that there are more people who believe in the possibility of winning the lottery some day than who truly and consistently believe in the existence of heaven and hell.

Perhaps some souls do invest in religious faith in the hope of later gain, or out of fear of eternal damnation, but that sort of purely selfish impulse does not adequately explain the stubborn charms of religion in modern-day capitalism. More than the temptation of immortality it offers, much of religion's power seems to come from its view of the real world in which we live and the answers it provides to baffled and worried minds.

The attraction of a religious worldview is not hard to understand in the case of the early human societies. Surrounded by a natural world that was poorly understood and often experienced as a hostile force, religion provided answers and a good deal of comfort. A terrifying flash of lightening or the roar of thunder, for example, could be explained as the sky god communicating his anger or indigestion to the mortals down below. Even this early religious notion that the world is governed by the arbitrary decisions of (often peevish) gods must have been far more reassuring than a view of the world as complete chaos.

The development of science chipped away at those unfounded religious beliefs, answering questions about the natural world that had previously been explained by fairy tales. And with the increase in scientific knowledge, the natural world became less threatening and more subject to human control.

The social world, however, continued to be a confusing place. And with the development of capitalism, where relations between human beings in production present themselves as relations between things, society became even more difficult to decipher. Not only confusing, capitalist society is every bit as hostile as the natural environment was to early human societies. If the primitive hunter feared the lion in the bush or death by starvation, workers today face the danger of unemployment or crushing debt, not to mention the wars and environmental devastation that continually arise from a system driven by competition for profit. Even the "lucky ones" with jobs face the drudgery of work in the office, at the cash register, or on the production line—driven only by a dire need for money. And when boom turns to bust, or the financial bubble bursts, those workers too might be thrown out on the street. As the saying goes: "It's a jungle out there."

In the face of this dizzying anarchy that characterizes capitalist production, our knowledge gained from the natural sciences is of little help. (In fact, more than a few scientists contribute to our sense of despair by advancing the fatuous argument that selfish, competitive behavior is a reflection of an unchanging human nature, rather than being determined by our social system.) Religious ideas can thrive in this situation. Religion not only offers the comforting thought that if this world goes to hell there is a "better world" out there after death, but also provides an explanation of why things are so bad, arguing that it is the outcome of our evil thoughts and actions. Religion even holds out the hope that life on earth could be better if we would only be less selfish and love—or at least tolerate—our neighbors.

By offering a criticism of the status quo, and suggestions for social improvements, religion is able to attract some of the vast majority of people who are frustrated with life under capitalism. But the superficial criticism that religion offers only serves to bolster capitalism, suggesting that the problem is our "sinful" behavior rather than a social system that encourages and rewards such behavior.

The "promised land"

Socialists present an analysis that differs sharply from the religious worldview (and from the views of those who mechanically apply theories of natural science to explain human behavior under capitalism).

Instead of viewing present-day society (capitalism) as unfathomable chaos or an eternal state of affairs linked to our human nature, socialists arrive at an understanding of its fundamental nature as a system driven by the need to generate profit through the exploitation of labor. It is this essence of the social system that accounts, above all, for the selfish or "sinful" behavior that is so rampant within it. This understanding of capitalism does not exempt socialists from the difficulties of living under it, needless to say, but it does reveal the "method to the madness"—just as science has demystified nature. And this understanding is also a great source of hope. It shows us that we can solve many of the problems we face by moving beyond capitalism—towards a new, cooperative form of society.

In such a socialist society, where class divisions have dissolved and our lives are no longer at the mercy of the market, religion will have lost its basis in reality and its seductive powers will quickly fade away. Conversely, as long as its social foundation remains intact, religion will continue to exist—no matter how many times it has been refuted.

Atheists who only fight against religion—turning a blind eye to the hell of capitalism—thus ironically end up prolonging the life of their bête noire.


Friday, October 5, 2007

The Rise and Fall of Money

From the Socialist Standard, September 2000.

Many people mistakenly believe that money has always existed and that it therefore always will. We explain why money is out of date.

Many people think that money has always existed and therefore it always will. Wrong.

Human beings have lived on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years without using money. When they were hungry, they ate. When they were thirsty, they drank. Whatever was available to anyone was available to everyone.

It wasn't paradise, because food was scarce, and growing communities were eventually forced by this scarcity into a competitive struggle for life.

First came the invention of agriculture, and the consequent need to defend the land, or property, on which crops were grown.

Although this gave communities more stability and growth, agriculture and animal husbandry could not by themselves supply everything which they needed to develop as cultures. For this they needed to associate with other communities and pool their resources. But in the new culture of property there was never again to be such freedom to take whatever was available.

And so began the exchange of products known as trade. And although some quite advanced bronze age societies managed to trade very well by using barter (e.g. the Egyptians), it was a supremely awkward way to conduct transactions. With the advent of the Iron Age, cheap metal was for the first time plentiful, and coinage was slowly introduced to facilitate the trading process.

Civilisation has since grown up on the back of this trade, whose sophistication was made possible by the invention of money. To the modern mind therefore, civilisation relies on money. This is a misunderstanding. In fact, it is only trade which relies on money. Civilisation relies on distribution of material goods certainly, but distribution is not the same thing as trade, just as give is not the same thing as sell. Modern industrial society has given us the means to free ourselves forever from that scarcity which has always dogged our forebears. Money is no longer a necessity or logical feature of society, and only a tiny minority benefit from its presence.

In history, many things become out of date, like the steam engine or quill pens. Money is about to join them.

Money today

Money is indispensable to the capitalist system, but this system is not indispensable to human society. Money as a universal means of exchange represents capital. The possessing of money enables the buyer to acquire goods and services (commodities) and the seller to dispose of goods and services. The key resource that is bought and sold is human labour power—the ability to transform initial wealth (resources, raw material, etc) into more wealth.

We live in a society where almost everything is bought and sold. That which you need to live is a commodity, you must buy it from someone who will make (or at least expect) a profit out of selling to you. It is our passport to existence in capitalism. Not only does the movement of products from producer to consumer come to be mediated by money, but the value of a product comes to be judged not in human terms but in terms of a sum of money.

The key to the rise of continuation of the capitalist system is the ability of members of the capitalist class (owners of means of wealth production and distribution) to buy the working abilities of members of the working class. They combine that labour with capital resulting in commodities that can be sold for more than it costs in total to produce them.

A high proportion of employment in capitalism consists of handling money in some way. There are hundreds of occupations that would not exist in a society that had no need for money: they range from accountants, bank and insurance staff, salespeople, wages clerks to name only some of the more numerous occupations. Tangible products needed only in a money system include bank notes and coins, account books and invoices, meters, safes and many others.

Capitalism as a market system means that the normal method of getting what you need is to pay for it. The normal way for members of the capitalist class to get money is to invest their capital to produce rent, interest, dividends or profit. The normal way for workers to get money is to sell their labour power for wages, salaries, commission or fees. If they are unable to find employment they depend on state or other handouts. The result is poverty in the midst of potential plenty—actual plenty only for the privileged minority.

Socialism: a moneyless society

Socialism means a world society based on production solely for use, not profit. It will be a classless society, in which everyone will be able to participate democratically in decisions about the use of the world's resources, each producing according to their ability and each taking from the common store according to their needs.

In such a society there can be no money—or, more precisely, no need for money. Money is only needed when people possess, and most do not.

Imagine that all the things you need are owned and held in common. There is no need to buy food from anyone—it is common property. There are no rent or mortgages to pay because land and buildings belong to all of us. There is no need to buy anything from any other person because society has done away with the absurd division between the owning minority (the capitalists) and the non-owning majority (the workers).

In a socialist world monetary calculation won't be necessary. The alternative to monetary calculation based on exchange-value is calculation based on use values. Decisions apart from purely personal ones of preference or interest will be made after weighing the real advantages and disadvantages and real costs of alternatives in particular circumstances.

The ending of the money system will mean at the same time the ending of war, economic crises, unemployment, poverty and persecution—all of which are consequences of that system.

The revolutionary change that is needed is not possible unless a majority of people understand and want it. We do not imagine all humankind's problems can be solved at a stroke.

Reforms of the present system fail because the problems multiply and recur. It will take time to eliminate hunger, malnutrition, disease and ignorance from the world.

But the enormous liberation of mental and physical energies from the shackles of the money system will ensure that real human progress is made.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The African Brain Drain, Slavery and Racism

Reposted from: Socialist Banner

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said he was not interested in students from his country receiving scholarships "only to have them fly off to France."

The violence, corruption and generalised poverty marring more than three decades of independence in Portugal's five former colonies in Africa have been the main obstacles for development in these countries, but not the only ones.

Brain drain is another phantom that is slowly but inexorably destroying hopes for progress and wellbeing for the people of Guinea-Bissau, which became independent in 1974, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Sao Tomé and Príncipe, which became independent in 1975 .

Skilled and academically qualified people from African countries where Portuguese is an official language often give up their status in their unstable home countries to build a new life in peaceful Portugal, even if it means sacrificing their former careers and having to take up a hastily learned, lower skilled job.

Brain drain does not only affect the former Portuguese colonies, but is a problem throughout the developing South. The editor of the monthly magazine Africa 21, Joao Matos, describes it as "planetary apartheid."

"Nicolas Sarkozy...asked on a recent visit to Senegal if it could be considered normal that there are more doctors from Benin in France than in Benin itself."Africa needs its élites, because if they all end up in France one day, who will concern themselves with the development of Senegal?"" said the Angolan writer who lives in Lisbon. But according to Matos, the French president's statements were "of doubtful sincerity." He said he does not believe that "Sarkozy would make do without the doctors from Benin who are working in France: what he really doesn't want are poor and indigent migrants, mostly from Africa."

The shaky economies of most African countries "are largely a consequence of the plundering of the continent's resources by the West, which continues to this day. It began with its most valuable resource, people, millions of whom were taken by force to far-off lands, which they helped to develop with their slave labour," Matos said.

In a article published by Angolan professor Jonuel Gonçalves, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, in the latest issue of Africa 21, entitled "Negroes and Mestizos in Latin America Today Gonçalves points out that Latin America "is the region of the world with the highest degree of 'mestizaje' (mixed ancestry), from both the biological and cultural points of view, because it was the destination of the greatest flow of slaves in history, and the way in which slavery was abolished left deep marks that still endure."

"There was no consistent programme in Latin America to help former slaves integrate into society, which condemned them to poverty and illiteracy that have lasted, to a greater or lesser degree, through the successive generations," Gonçalves says.

One of the characteristics of Latin American social structures that demonstrate this "is the extremely low representation of descendants of slaves, blacks or mestizos in decision-making," the article says. "Brazil is one of the most striking examples, in spite of having the second largest population in the world of blacks and Afro-descendants, who make up at least 45 percent of its population of 188 million. It is surpassed only by Nigeria," with 131 million people, Gonçalves says. "Cuba, for three centuries another major destination for the slave trade, has similar characteristics," because, in spite of the 1959 revolution and the country's socialist system of government, "the number of black people in the governing bodies remains very small,"

Matos acknowledges that Africans themselves are not entirely free from blame because since independence they have not managed to turn their countries into "good places to live, beginning with our own citizens, especially the young.".

Former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan , of Ghana, spoke of the problems of destructive self-racism and of "our tolerance" of African tyrants.

Angolan intellectual Arlindo Barbeitos frequently deplored the tendency for Africa to reproduce "the same ideas and models imposed by the colonial powers, such as racism, but in reverse."