Friday, May 30, 2008

What causes world poverty?

From the Socialist Standard, June 2001. (Socialist Party of Great Britain)

The World Development Organisation claims that the policies of governments and multinational businesses cause poverty. Are they right?

"The world has the wealth and means to end poverty. Yet nearly half of the world's population live on less than £1.40 a day And over 11 million children will die from poverty-related illness this year alone, read the leaflet that fell out of a recent issue of the New Internationalist. This particular leaflet, entitled "Isn't it time we tackled the causes of poverty?" was issued by an organisation called the World Development Movement but it could have come from any of the numerous other campaigning charities in this field.

What they say is true - the world does have the wealth and means to end poverty - and, yes, it is more than time that we tackled the causes (or rather the cause) of poverty.

So what causes world poverty? Clearly, this is the key question since if you don't get the answer right, you're not going to get the solution right either.

According to the WDM, what causes world poverty are the policies currently pursued by governments and multinational companies:

"Policies of governments and companies are keeping people poor. Policies that ensure global trade benefits the rich, not the poor - the three richest men in the world are wealthier than the 48 poorest countries combined. Policies that give increasing power to multinational companies - for every £1 of aid going into poor countries, multinationals take 66p of profits out. The powerful are exploiting the poor to make bigger and bigger profits."

The WDM's solution to the problem of world poverty follows logically from this analysis that it is "the policies of governments and companies" that is the cause:

"We lobby decision makers to change the policies that keep people poor."

They claim that this can work, if enough pressure is brought to bear:

"In rich countries like Britain, decisions are made which can make or break the lives of the poor. We can influence those decisions. That's why our actions matter so much. Together we can be powerful and win change for the world's poor."

Is this true? Is world poverty caused by the mistaken policies of governments and multinationals? Can lobbying and campaigning get these policies changed?

As socialists, we have to say that the answer to both questions is "no". Governments don't pursue policies that put profits before poor people because they have chosen to do this rather than chosen not to. Nor have they given in to pressure from the rich and powerful to pursue policies that favour them. They don't have any choice in the matter, because they are not in control of things.

Governments operate within the framework of an economic system, and the current economic system - capitalism, to give it a name - is based on wealth being produced for sale on a market with a view to profit and on the competitive pressures of the market dictating that these profits be accumulated in the form of more and more capital invested to make yet further profits.

The aim of production under capitalism is not to satisfy people's needs but to accumulate profits. This is not a policy choice but an economic necessity imposed by the operation of impersonal and uncontrollable economic laws which governments have to abide by, unless they want to risk making things worse by provoking an economic crisis and stagnation in the area they rule over.

In short, governments put profits before poor people because they are obliged to by the impersonal workings of world market forces, not out of choice. The same goes, even more forcefully, for capitalist corporations. Their whole purpose is to make a profit on the capital invested in their businesses so that their shareholders can benefit. That's the nature of the beast, and we can't imagine that the World Development Movement is really so naïve as to believe that private companies, whether national or multinational, could pursue any other policy than to maximise their profits.

Classic reformist mistake
The WDM and the other campaigning charities are making, on the world level, the same classic reformist mistake that used to be made at national level: blaming policies pursued by governments rather than the economic system, and so seeing the solution as changing the government or even just its policies rather than changing the economic system. Not just in Britain but in many other countries too, governments have been changed but the policies involving putting profits before people continued just as they did under the old government that openly upheld the status quo.

So, to be frank, campaigning charities like the WDM have got no chance at all of getting governments, and even less multinational companies, to change their practice of putting profits before people. And it is not because they believe merely in lobbying that dooms them to failure; not even the most violent street demonstrations can bring about a change in this practice. As long as the international capitalist system continues to exist, its economic laws will operate to put profits before people, and governments will have no choice but to dance to this tune.

But what are the alternative policies that the WDM and the others would like governments and companies to pursue? The WDM don't go into details in their leaflet but you can find out if you return their cut-off coupon. But this is not really necessary as another leaflet that fell out of the New Internationalist provides the answer. Issued by Christian Aid, and entitled "Trade for Life" it claims that "every day trade rules keep millions in poverty and a few in riches":

"Trade affects almost everybody on earth. Over the centuries it has become an increasingly powerful international force. But it is being manipulated by rich countries and companies to suit their interests. Poor people are missing out on the opportunities trade could bring. They are forced to continue living in poverty, sacrificing their lives and livelihoods for others to get rich."

But if the current "rules" governing trade are the cause, then the solution, logically, is to change the rules, and this is precisely the declared aim of the "Trade for Life" campaign:

"With new rules, trade could become one of the greatest solutions to global poverty. Trade has the power to create jobs, improve healthcare and benefit people's lives and livelihoods. The Trade for Life campaign calls for a major overhaul of the rules that run the international trading system."

Trade - the buying and selling of goods and services - should not be confused with the physical transportation of goods and services from one part of the world to another to be used there. The two are not the same, though trade usually involves the latter. In fact, it is precisely because there is trade - and not mere transportation - that goods and services are not distributed today to people according to their needs.

Trade is buying and selling, and this means markets and that goods and services are only produced to be sold on some market with a view to making a profit. It means that production is carried on not to satisfy people's needs, but to satisfy only paying needs, i.e. needs backed up by what pro-capitalist economists call "effective demand". In short, it means the application of the economic principle of "can't pay, can't have".

As long as profit lives, life will take second place
As long as profit lives, life will take second place

It is because the millions of people living in absolute poverty, who organisations like the WDM and Christian Aid are rightly concerned about, do not have any money, or not enough money, that their needs are not met: they don't constitute a market, or only an insufficiently profitable market. Because their demand for decent food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and sanitation is "ineffective", trade and the international trading system ignore them. No change in the rules of international trade is going to change this since it is the "international trading system" itself (aka the world market, aka capitalism) that is the cause.

What is required is not a reform of this system such as demanded by the World Development Movement, Christian Aid and the others, but its abolition and its replacement by one in which the Earth's resources become the common heritage of all humanity. Only on this basis can these resources be mobilised to eradicate world poverty and ensure a decent life for every man, woman and child on the planet. Yes, the world does have the wealth and means to end world poverty. And, yes, it is high time we tackled the problem.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Materialist Conception of History

The purpose of this pamphlet is to show that the capitalist social system is a dynamic and not a static organization, having developed out of previous social systems. The historical role of capitalism was progressive insofar that the means of production, hitherto small and fragmentary in character, were welded into the gigantic productive organizations which we know today. The social powers of production are not under the control of society and the relations of production do not serve the interests of the producers, the working class. The social classes have been reduced to two, a propertyless working class forming the vast majority, and a property owning capitalist class, the minority. The relations of production are antisocial because the object behind production is not the satisfaction of social need but the amassing of profit and the accumulation of capital.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Biofuels…What the hell’s goin’ on?

A series of media reports indicate that fuel produced from food crops to replace fossil oil is far from the panacea it was hoped to be. For example Guenter Verheugen, a vice president of the European Commission, stated recently that "It makes no sense to make car fuel from plants that ought to provide human and animal food." Indeed, the 'moral' question of diverting food and using fertile food-growing land to produce fuel, while 850 million people in the world today are hungry, is a cause for concern.

The explosion in demand for food crops to be converted into biodiesel and ethanol in America and Europe is backed by government subsidies and enticements. Farmers, of course, have no compunction in chasing higher returns for their produce so food prices will be driven up by the biofuel industry. General Motors (USA) are already creating fleets of vehicles designed to run on ethanol by 2012. four hundred million tonnes of food will burn as a fuel substitute each year by 2020…equivalent to the entire rice harvest of the world, or the complete American wheat crop.

The destruction of the world's remaining jungle, forest and native vegetation, especially in South America, Malaysia and Indonesia, to grow palm oil and other such crops is a further worry. A Western Australian biofuel company intends to convert 400,000 tonnes of wheat, the entire harvest of mid-west farmers, when they commence production in 2009.

Research indicates that these activities in changing land use will actually increase greenhouse emissions. Advocates of biofuels counter that this is not a factor because existing crops will be used for conversion to ethanol etc. but, of course, replacement sites will then be in need to grow food crops for those who are able to afford escaping starvation.

Australian government involvement in biodiesel is now showing signs of caution and restrain by encouraging investigations into non-food waste biofuel production, possibly from garbage and sewerage. Strange, then, that the only operating biodiesel company in Australia has ceased production, citing financial non-viability, crippling difficulties in securing contracts with major oil companies and a 50 percent price increase to obtain tallow, the animal abattoir waste that is the main ingredient for its biodiesel. What will happen to this waste now?

Despite having to repay over $7 million in government grants, this company now plans on moving to New Mexico (USA), enticed by government financial incentives there and a compulsory rule that makes all diesel fuel to have five percent biofuel content.

Most of our food–vegetables, root crops, fruit, fungi, spices and animal meats–originated in forests; nearly all our healthcare products– medicines, vaccines, drugs, ointments etc–are from forest plants; forests absorb carbon and noxious gases, control ground-water levels thereby preventing surface salinity; they transpire oxygen and moisture which attracts rainfall and thus play an instrumental part in the recycling of ocean water and preventing drought. And they keep rivers flowing. Yet it is said the 'surface has hardly been scratched' with regard to the treasures that forests still hold. But they are being destroyed, all in the name of profit.

RON STONE, Western Australia

Friday, May 23, 2008

Capitalist Catch-22

From New York Times we hear that President Bush is threatening to veto a bill that “would pay tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for anyone who has served in the military for at least three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” The main reason for this? Fear that it would cause an exodus from military ranks.

In a society in which workers have faced a 35 year-year downward pressure on their standard of living (Independent (UK) 23 March), i.e. the cost of living has increased whereas wages have remained stagnant or decreased, many young people turn to military enlistment in hopes of obtaining a college education and/or career training - known as the “poverty draft.”

We can only urge workers not to look for the better carrot at the end of the rope, but to look for the source of this economic instability and wealth inequality.

As stated in the March ‘08 Socialist Standard:

As socialists we analyze social affairs in class terms. We approach problems in the field of economics and politics from a consideration of what we see as being the real interests of the world working class. It is our contention that there are only two classes in present day society. Firstly, the working class, who collectively produce the wealth of society and who, in order to live, have to sell their ability to work for a wage or a salary. Secondly, the capitalist class who accumulate profit through the economic exploitation of the working class.

This situation leads to an inevitable conflict of interests and the generation of social and economic problems that cannot be solved while capitalism of whatever form continues. Commodity production (production of wealth for sale with a view to profit) inevitably brings conflict over access to markets and sources of raw materials, and for the control of trade routes, and for strategic points around the globe. Attempts are made to resolve these conflicts through discussion and diplomacy. Where diplomacy fails there remains the threat of force of arms to get what is wanted. From time to time this clash of interests breaks out in armed conflict. For the Socialist Party “capitalism and war are inseparable. There can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest.” ( SPGB: War and the Working Class. 1936. p.1)

And so it is a vicious circle, wars are waged abroad with a view to capitalist profit, and wages are continually driven down for the same reason. Bodies are needed to fight these wars, however, and the capitalists are not going to do the fighting themselves. The only way the ruling class can garner these bodies (other than through force by a draft) is by offering some small hope of economic alleviation from the conditions they have created, lets not forget the nationalistic exhortations, to coax workers into killing each other and dying for causes which do not serve their own interests, but that of their masters.

As President Bush seems to have found himself in a catch-22, the WSP says don’t buy it either way. The only solution to the plethora of problems such as war and poverty is the dispossession of the ruling class through the conscious, political self-emancipation of the working class and the establishment of a system of common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production – socialism.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How close was France to a socialist revolution?

From the July 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most amusing reports to come out of France during the recent unrest was of one panic-stricken capitalist, convinced that his class was about to be expropriated, who loaded his car with over £1 million in cash and made a dash for the Swiss border. But his terror, ridiculous in retrospect, was matched by a corresponding euphoria in left-wing circles. Anyone accustomed to thinking along Bolshevik or anarchist lines was convinced that "a revolutionary situation" had developed and, in Britain at any rate, there were several groups declaring that the socialist revolution had started. Already May 1968 is part of the mythology of the left and there is a generally accepted explanation of why the agitation seeped away and why the strikers drifted back to work. The French workers are supposed to have been ripe for revolution and all that was missing was "a large revolutionary organisation capable of giving direction to the demands of the working class".

This raises the whole question of what constitutes a socialist revolution. The Socialist Party of Great Britain argues that it is not enough to have thousands of demonstrators on the streets or even millions of workers occupying the factories. Above all the working class must have a clear understanding of what Socialism entails and what methods are effective in overthrowing capitalism. A grasp of socialist principles by the vast majority of the workers is a minimal condition for going forward to Socialism and no party, no matter how religiously it follows the Bolshevik tradition, can substitute for this.

If this is accepted, then we can estimate how close France came to a socialist revolution by taking a look at the demands which the workers advanced during the period of upheaval. Most prominent were the usual claims for higher wages, better working conditions, shorter hours and security of employment. (There are between two and three million workers on the minimum wage level of less than £8 a week and at least four million earning under £11 a week.) Such demands have the full support of the Socialist Party--but we must emphasise that there is nothing revolutionary about them. In fact, the wage increases that have been secured need to be put in perspective. They seem to be averaging out to a general rise of about 13 per cent (on the basis of a 10 per cent all-round increase and a 3 per cent rise in the minimum wage) but this needs to be set against the fact that nominal wages have been rising by 6 per cent annually over the last few years anyway. Although these increases will naturally cut into profits, the international capitalist class hastened to reassure itself that the outcome would be far from a disaster As the Economics Editor of the Sunday Times put it:

"The pay settlement will not be wholly adverse for France's economy. The big increase in the minimum wage will help send the poorer French firms to the wall, releasing workers for the big, profitable ones--which pay well above the minimum."

Yet the strikers did not restrict their demands simply to these issues. At numerous plants there were calls for "a radical change in the power structure" and for "participation of the workers in the running of the factory". A leader of Force Ouvriere (the social democratic trade union federation) pointed out his members were agitating for "genuine workers' participation in the policy of industry" and a senior Renault shop steward came out for nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, including all the car firms, the chemical industry and the banks. Understandably, demands such as these were greeted with rapturous delight by all those who imagine Socialism as a system of nationalisation under workers' control; but the Socialist Party rejects this view. For socialists nationalisation, whatever its trimmings, is nothing more than state capitalism. The policy of workers' control does not pose threat to the capitalist system as long as those workers are still committed to capitalism and have not understood the socialist alternative. That this was the case in France is made clear by the fact that even the most extreme elements, such as Cohn-Bendit, went no further than the old utopian demand for equal wages. Who was urging the abolition of the wages system and an end to the market economy? For this reason, we cannot accept the claims of one young activist in St. Nazaire:

"The long-term outlook is uncertain, but not hopeless. On one tier, there are the traditional union claims, which must be met immediately. On another, the government and the regime itself are in question. There is the challenge of capitalist society, of social orders based on private property."

Obviously there was a challenge to the government and the Gaullist regime but capitalism remained secure throughout.

For all that, the Socialist Party recognises that there are vital lessons to be drawn from the recent struggles of the French workers. One of the most important is the complete bankruptcy of the "communist" parties, as demonstrated by the PCF. Another striking feature was the way in which the factories and universities were organised while the employers and authorities were temporarily eliminated. Although there was no production during the strikes, all the factory services had to be maintained. At the Renault plant at Billancourt, for example, the factory hospital was still functioning, the firemen and security officers had to keep patrolling, food had to be prepared—and so on. Even more impressive was the Sorbonne, with the students in control. A hospital service, treating those injured in the riots, was centred on the Medical Faculty and it was estimated that a daily average of 10,000 posters and hand-outs were being produced by the Fine Arts School. Yet all of this was done by unpaid, voluntary labour, by people cooperating for a common purpose. Too much should not be made of this (we are not suggesting it represented "socialism in action") but it does at least disprove the often-heard objection to a socialist society that, if the coercive pressures of the wages system were removed, nothing but chaos would result.

Another important aspect was the role of the police and armed forces. Although vast publicity was given to the brutality of the CRS, there was less on the discontent which was building up among the ordinary police forces over their use as government thugs. Already by May 18 there were reports from the police unions of "extreme tension" in the forces. Some of the police were also adopting the tactics of the strikers themselves. An article in the Times mentioned that the branch dealing with intelligence on student activity had been deliberately depriving the government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim! This indicates that the majority of those who make up the police and armed forces are subjected to the general pressures which act on all working men and women.

As for the army, General Fourquet—the Chief of Staff—made it clear that it would obey any constitutionally elected government—even a "communist" one. Whether Fourquet and the general meant this or not is largely immaterial for, when we are in a position to establish Socialism, the bulk of the armed forces (as with the rest of the working class) will be socialists and will understand that their interest lies not in fighting their fellow workers but in freeing mankind as a whole by stripping the capitalist class of its wealth.

If there were a working class committed to Socialism in France the correct method of achieving political power would be to fight the general election on a revolutionary programme, without any reforms to attract support from non-socialists. In fact, the first stage in a socialist revolution is for the vast majority of the working class to use their votes as class weapons. This would represent the transfer of political power to the working class. We adopt this position not because we are mesmerised by legality and not because we overlook the cynical and two-faced double-dealing which the capitalists will no doubt resort to. We say, however, that a majority of socialist delegates voted into the national assembly or parliament would use political power to coordinate the measures needed to overthrow the capitalist system. Any minority which was inclined to waver would have second thoughts about taking on such a socialist majority which was in a position to wield the state power.

But since the workers in France are still convinced that capitalism is the only viable social system, the immediate task must be for genuine socialists to concentrate their efforts on spreading socialist ideas among the working class. For this purpose an independent socialist party, which does not compromise its principles or dissipate its activity in attempts to reform capitalism, is indispensable.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Appeasing the Nazis?

President Bush made the following comment last week:

Bush gave a speech to Israel's Knesset in which he spoke of the president of Iran, who has called for the destruction of the U.S. ally. Then, the president said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

"We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," Bush added.

Of course, Bush ignores how his grandfather, Prescott Bush, sat on the Board of Directors of the company which made the steel for the tanks - even as the US was at war with Germany:

The Guardian has seen evidence that shows Bush was the director of the New York-based Union Banking Corporation (UBC) that represented Thyssen's US interests and he continued to work for the bank after America entered the war.

(Prescott) Bush was also on the board of at least one of the companies that formed part of a multinational network of front companies to allow Thyssen to move assets around the world.

Thyssen owned the largest steel and coal company in Germany and grew rich from Hitler's efforts to re-arm between the two world wars. One of the pillars in Thyssen's international corporate web, UBC, worked exclusively for, and was owned by, a Thyssen-controlled bank in the Netherlands. More tantalising are Bush's links to the Consolidated Silesian Steel Company (CSSC), based in mineral rich Silesia on the German-Polish border. During the war, the company made use of Nazi slave labour from the concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The ownership of CSSC changed hands several times in the 1930s, but documents from the US National Archive declassified last year link Bush to CSSC, although it is not clear if he and UBC were still involved in the company when Thyssen's American assets were seized in 1942.

Prescott Bush actually sat on the Boards of three companies confiscated by the US government for trading with the enemy.

A report issued by the Office of Alien Property Custodian in 1942 stated of the companies that "since 1939, these (steel and mining) properties have been in possession of and have been operated by the German government and have undoubtedly been of considerable assistance to that country's war effort".

This all comes as no surprise to socialists - capitalists will do business with other capitalists, enemy or friend no matter what political label they are operating under: As one nazi hunter tells the Guardian:

Loftus stressed that what Prescott Bush was involved in was just what many other American and British businessmen were doing at the time…"You can't blame Bush for what his grandfather did any more than you can blame Jack Kennedy for what his father did - bought Nazi stocks - but what is important is the cover-up, how it could have gone on so successfully for half a century, and does that have implications for us today?" he said.

"This was the mechanism by which Hitler was funded to come to power, this was the mechanism by which the Third Reich's defence industry was re-armed, this was the mechanism by which Nazi profits were repatriated back to the American owners, this was the mechanism by which investigations into the financial laundering of the Third Reich were blunted,"

You can best believe that capitalists - from both the Democratic and Republican capitalist factions - are making profits trading with the so-called terrorist states, Iran, etc.

War is something for workers to believe in and fight. The WSP says don't buy it.

For Capitalists, war is just another profit opportunity.

Xenophobic violence erupts in South Africa

About 12 people were killed and more than 50 were taken to hospitals with gunshot and stab wounds last night in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city. Local police used tear gas and rubber bullets in attempt to try to stop the attackers - gangs of armed youths. (BBC)

This was not, however, the racial violence we are used to hearing regarding South Africa. The victims of these attacks are immigrants from neighboring African countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi etc.

The BBC report sated that "Since the end of apartheid, millions of African immigrants have poured into South Africa seeking jobs and sanctuary. But they have become scapegoats for many of the country's social problems - its high rate of unemployment, a shortage of housing and one of the worst levels of crime in the world."

Incidents such as these are nothing new in modern history as immigrants are often the scapegoats for the economic problems of the various capitalist states. The common view is that the "aliens" are somehow the cause of unemployment, crime, and even poverty itself. The true source of these problems, however, is a chaotic and unequal economic system -capitalism. These nationalistic illusions, which beguile workers into fighting among themselves and believing that their interests and the interests of their rulers are linked, are a convenient instrument of the ruling class which serve as a divergent to the real struggle - the class struggle.

As the Socialist Standard summed up back in May 2001: is the problem of "the haves and have-nots" which is central to war, violence and hatred. Thus the real solution will be to eliminate the present situation of a minority owning the means of production and distribution of wealth whilst the majority owning nothing, have to work for the few. In other words money, buying and selling, commodities and the like must be done away with. Humanity must commonly own the means of production and must have free and equal access to the produce. Under such circumstances there will be no want and consequently no war and hatred.

But this type of system can only be possible when people make efforts to understand it. When they understand and want it, they can organise to usher it in.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Workers in Greece march against privatizations

After months of labor unrest over pension reforms, thousands of workers in Greece walked off the job yesterday and marched through the streets of Athens in protest of current conservative government's plans to privatize more industries.

According to the report:

Dock workers, hospital and civil aviation authority staff and workers at Greece's biggest phone company OTE walked out a day after the government agreed to sell a stake in OTE to Deutsche Telekom and share management with the German firm.

In other industrial sectors there were slowdowns or stoppages, including the grounding of dozens of flights and the closing of public offices. OTE labor unions have pledged to conduct more strikes in protest of the government's deal with a Germen firm, which is awaiting parliamentary approval.

"Workers have agreed to escalate the fight because they believe the government was elected on a platform to strengthen the economy and not to sell it off," said Stathis Anestis, spokesman for the GSEE private sector umbrella union.

The conflicts within capitalist society take many forms, but the most fundamental conflict is between labor and capital. This aspect does not change whether industry is privatized or nationalized. Under any form of capitalism, the primary function of the working class is to produce wealth for the owners of capital, in return for which workers are paid the lowest possible price for their labor power (wages).

As workers, we need to reorganize our priorities. Our interests lie not in parliamentary reforms or the nationalization of companies, but our emancipation from the system of wage labor. Our interests lie in production for use rather than for profit, and common ownership rather than private property and markets

Friday, May 16, 2008

What are your wages?

From the SPGB Pamphlet named Marxian Economics: An Introduction.

IF IT weren't for the money, most of us would stop work tomorrow. After all, wages are the common means of getting work out of men and women. You can hear some of them call it "bloody slavery". They are not trying to be accurate-only to express their feelings.

There is very little real slavery in the world today. It is a very old-fashioned and inefficient system of getting work out of people. The big empires of the past were built up on slave labour; and there was a brief flare-up of it again in America when the virgin land of the new continent was being opened up to agriculture. The slave was caught or bought, like a horse or a machine; and he was fed or flogged when necessary in order to get the maximum of work out of him. Slaves were not really regarded as people: they were denied citizenship; and their owners usually had power of life and death over them. But the quality of work they could do was generally very low; and there is a snag to owning slaves: they have to be fed and housed even when there is no work for them to do.

Although there has always been a certain amount of it, getting work out of people for wages is fairly new as a universal system. Almost everywhere in the world the slave empires were overthrown by the much less highly organised system of feudalism. The feudal serf was a "free" man owning his own bit of land; but to protect themselves from attack serfs clustered round the strong-arm men, the lords of the manor; and they paid for their "protection" by working on the land or fighting the battles of their lords. In the time that was left over, they were able to work their own strips of land. A tenth of what they produced was demanded from them by a highly organised church, which operated in league with the lords to prevent serfs from running away. It is debatable, therefore, whether serfs were much better off than slaves.

With the rise of capitalism, however, the serfs were gradually freed entirely-by having even their strips of land taken from them. They were no longer forced to work for anybody-except by the pressure of starvation. As it was, they offered themselves for work eagerly, even desperately at times, for there was no other way of getting food, clothing and shelter, except by wages. At last, in capitalism, the system of buying and selling became universal. Everything was for sale. Anything could be bought. The problem for the great mass of humanity was that they had nothing left to sell except their ability to work.

Most of us feel we have the right to live. The trouble is that hardly any of us have got "private means". We can only get the means to live by "selling ourselves". It is rather like prostitution; but we have no choice. Because of this, a lot of workers talk about the "right to work" almost as though it were the same thing as the right to live. They take part in marches and demonstrations when jobs are scarce, insisting upon their right to work. They feel offended if they are told that they are demanding the right to prostitute themselves. Actually, of course, workers have no legal right to work. Nor will they ever have. All they possess is a commodity-the ability to work. Millions of people throughout the world own nothing else.

This is what distinguishes them as a separate economic class, the working class. They constitute about ninety per cent of the civilized population of the world. Of course, in the more advanced countries they may own their own house and their own car; but economically their class is determined by the fact that they have to prostitute themselves throughout their useful lives in order to keep these things and live from day to day.

Obviously, if workers are sellers of the ability to work, there must also be a class of buyers. Occasionally and briefly, one worker may buy the services of another to do a job; but as he only has his wages with which to pay wages it cannot be general. Only those who possess the wealth which can be worked upon to produce more wealth, can really afford to pay wages. But why should anyone want to hire us - especially if they already have the wealth, and we have none? Why should anyone pay us wages for the use of our mental and physical energy? There can only be one reason: to increase their wealth further by our work. And not only that: to increase it by more than the cost of our wages.

Wealth used in this way to make more wealth is called capital; and those who use it in this way are called capitalists. So the bulk of humanity is divided into two classes: sellers and buyers of labour power; workers and capitalists.

So wages are really the price paid for our ability to work. The very existence of wages proves the division into classes, wherever it is found. Every week or every month our pay packet or cheque reminds us of the fact that we belong to the class which can only secure the right to live by offering themselves for work by prostituting themselves to those who find it convenient to buy their abilities-the world's capitalists.

Such a situation inevitably produces conflict. In buying and selling, the seller always tries to raise the price, while the buyer tries to reduce it. There is no let-up. And the very point of conflict is the wage packet itself. The quickest and surest way for the capitalist to increase his profits is by cutting wages. And yet the worker's wage is his only means of living, so that he has no choice but to struggle-not only to raise his wages, but to prevent them being depressed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Anniversary of the Winnepg General Strike (1919)

Western Socialist, No 3, 1969

I have been bombarded throughout the past half-century from many quarters to write about this event. Hitherto I have refused, being reluctant to do so, feeling that one cannot deal with events in which one may have been involved and do so with the objectivity necessary. For the same reason I refrain from reviewing books in which I may have been (honorably or otherwise) mentioned.

But now, this year being the fiftieth anniversary of that historic event, receiving an official request from the Executive Committee of The Socialist Party of Canada, and simultaneously one from The United Steel Workers of America (Canadian Section) I feel I must comply. The Steel Workers, with headquarters in Toronto, will hold their National (annual) Policy Conference in Montreal, May 1st and 2nd this year, and intend to commemorate the Winnipeg' Strike's fiftieth anniversary and have their proceedings covered by national radio and possibly television.

As to the Strike and myself. Contrary to the general opinion I had little or almost nothing to do with it personally, and therefore have very little knowledge of all the ingredients which led up to it. That the panic-stricken authorities pounced on me in their blind fury and were successful in having me jailed does not alter the fact. That I went to Winnipeg at the behest of a committee of workers as a spectator and in the week (approximately) I was there, sitting by invitation once with the Strike Committee, and addressing a few open-air gatherings, gave the authorities their chance and they took it.

I have no documents in my possession at the moment and must rely upon a memory which at the age of eighty-one may be defective, although my contemporaries seem to think it almost devilishly keen.

Recommended for reading, though, is a work of some years ago by Dr. D. C. Masters, and there are in Canada two other works by scholars whose names for the moment escape me. Both are from The Toronto Univ. Press. Also, I understand, a further work on this subject will shortly appear from the pen of David J. Bercuson of Montreal. These are recommended for what they might contain to students of Canadian history. I have but few reservations for the Masters opus and these only on rather minor points. Background of Strike To understand the Strike one should place it in the context of the social atmosphere of the country, the position of organized labor (especially in Western Canada), together with the political situation of that time.

The government was a coalition war-time product. The war (to make the world safe for Democracy) was - but not the peace (the outbreak of which was "more cataclysmic than the outbreak of war".)

The Government had been operating for some time less and less by statute and more and more by the exigent weapon of "Order-in-Council". The Meighen Administration came to be known as "Government By Order-in-Council". The people were ordered not to eat meat on two days of the week but at the same time were not informed how the many poor were to get meat on the other five days. A censorship, under the erudite Col. Chambers was established and hundreds of publications were banned, the penalty for possessing any cited: twenty years in the penitentiary. The government "sublimity" slid rapidly downhill to the lowest depths of the "ridiculous". For under this Order-in-Council such works as Darwin's Origin of Species, Tyndall's Fragments of Science and even the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were placed on the governmental "Index Expurgatorius". This in an attempt to ban the socialist and labor classics of a century.

Rapidly rising prices affected all, particularly workers. The allowances to the wives and families of men in the service overseas had not been increased and many hardships were the lot of these folk. Scandals in connection with the war effort were popping up all over the country in which prominent patriots figured: the Ross rifle that jammed; the "Flavelle" affair; and the noise about hay for the armed forces. And when the cry about corruption in the purchase of hay went up governmental donkeys immediately cocked their long ears.

Against these growing enormities Labor, particularly in the West, protested vigorously. They accepted reluctantly the order to eat meat but not on the specified days of the week; they objected somewhat as to what they should read, or what a man might have in his own library, but when instructions appeared as to what they should think, they balked.

In British Columbia in 1918, the employees of the Street Railway Co., tied up transportation in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster for some time, their demands being for raise in pay but more so for a reduction of the working day from nine to eight hours. As one of these strikers said to this writer at the time: "Bill, if we don't get the eight-hour day now, it will be a long time". Many other instances of unrest among the workers could be cited, and all this could be accompanied with the fact of West Canadian's dissatisfaction with The Canadian Trades Congress and its generally reactionary attitude. The Strike starts Into this setting one must place the Winnipeg Strike. So far as I can recall it developed in this wise: The organized workers in the Building Trades tried to open negotiations with the City's Building Masters on wages and working conditions, stipulating that they wished to have the Building Trades Council, of which they were members, act as their bargaining agency. This was refused out of hand. A long story made short is that was how the building workers went on strike. At the same time the machinists, boiler makers, etc., in what were called the contract shops tried to open negotiations with the Ironmasters of the City (Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works, Dominion Bridge Co., Vulcan Iron Works, etc.,) in order to have the rates of pay for the same categories in the railway shops. These rates had been set for the railroads by William G. McAdoo. They were working under a signed agreement, the result of collective bargaining, at approximately 40% higher rates than their brothers in the Contract Shops. As with the Building Masters, the Iron Masters refused to bargain. they, like the building trades workers, wanted a bargaining agency: The Metal Trades Council.

And that is how it started. Some highlights A short account of a large and important event, such as the Winnipeg Strike, requires that specifics must give way to generalities. Nonetheless I'll try to deal with some highlights as I can best recall them from my week's sojourn in Winnipeg during the Strike.

Early in May, 1919, the workers in the Metal and Building Trades had already "hit the bricks". The International Offices of all these unions gave no endorsement and no help. These men were on strike for a principle and without pay. Their only recourse was appeal to the general body of the city's workers. And this body was, of course, the Trades and Labor Council. So, May 6th, 1919, the Trades Council was confronted with the question of either giving support to the strikers, or not. Following long and heated debate the decision was made to take a vote of all the Council's affiliates on the question of a strike in support of the building trades and metal workers.

The rest was announced at the next Council meeting, May 13th, 1919: Over eleven thousand in favor; five hundred against. The strike was called for 11 a.m. Thursday, May 15th.

Seventy unions voted, all in favor. According to the report of H. A. Robson, K. C., appointed commissioner to investigate and report on the strike the vote was fairly conducted. From questions he claims to have put to certain members and officers of eighteen unions, some of whom were opposed to the strike "stated that the large majority had voted in favor . . ."

I found out quickly what would be considered a phenomenon under other circumstances and in another geographical area. Some thirteen thousand organized workers on strike in a city, have their numbers greatly augmented, almost overnight, by the sudden strikes of unorganized workers, from candy workers to newspaper vendors. This demanded attention and forthwith organizing committees were created to organize the striking unorganized.

The police had also voted and came out on strike, only to be requested by the strike committee to go back to their jobs. The reason for this should be apparent to any serious analyst of the situation. Not until they were confronted with the demand made later to denounce the strike, express regret for their part in it did the bulk of the police force appear as strikers. They were forced out by the forces of "Law and Order", and their places filled with an assortment of second-story men, forgers, burglars, etc., etc., chiefly imported from Minneapolis. I was to meet with and observe these pillars of justice in the County Jail later. But that is another story.

What lesson this strike committee was soon to learn (composed of men of different political outlooks though it was) was that when a withdrawal of efficiency on the part of labor takes place in a community everything stops. No milk and bread for the people, or for hospital needs, etc., and this affects not merely men and women but infants.

In this acute situation the committee acted with good sense and promptitude. The committee was composed of fifteen members and was thereupon named the "inner" committee. It organized another committee of three hundred known as the outer committee, which then subdivided into communities specifically charged with those functions that would keep the city population as a viable community. So milk and bread, etc., supplies were maintained, transportation organized, and so on. Of course, there were inconveniences but the city was kept alive - and by the good sense, humanitarianism, and organization of the workers. The bosses could not do it. Those who had performed these social services, etc., heretofore for wages now were doing it without pay. This might give one a gleam of light as to just how socially unnecessary wages and the wage system really are.

Significant too was the action of the Strike Committee in requesting the Theatre owners to re-open. This was a measure designed to keep people from congregating on the streets, a condition conducive to volatile and irresponsible action that could occur through the gathering of crowds, and one which, no doubt, would have been welcomed by the authorities as an excuse for violent repression.

So that the theatre owners would not be accused by the strikers (and one must understand that the families involved numbered well over thirty thousand) placards were placed outside the theatres "Open by Authority of the Strike Committee". One theatre manager had thrown upon his picture screen this message, "Working in Harmony with the Strike Committee".

Also, in contrast with so many other strikes, this had no demonstrations, protests, or those other manifestations of which we see so much today. People were exhorted to keep the peace and keep off the streets. To this end numerous public meetings took place in the various parks in the city and its environs. The only parades of which this writer has knowledge were the rather huge parades of returned soldiers sympathetic to the strike, and the significantly small parades of those supporting The Citizen's Committee, composed chiefly of the officer caste. Common sense on both sides in this connection seemed to have been used by both parade managers. They paraded at different times, or, if not, trotted off in different directions. The Strikers' soldier element also held sessions of what they termed their "parliament" in Victoria Park. How Strike was broken Attempts were made from time to time by elements on both sides to come to a compromise and end the dispute. I remember being asked to accompany a delegation in this connection to meet with one from the anti-strike soldiers. The meeting was presided over by Canon F. G. Scott, senior chaplain of the First Division in France. He came to Winnipeg to look after "his boys", evidently had no interest in politics, a very gracious and charming individual, and with a deep sympathy for the Strike and the strikers. He seemed to me, from my short observation, to be very much attached to Russell.

The members of the delegation which I accompanied were Winning, Russell and Scoble. The spokesman of the other side was a young army officer, an attorney, Captain F. G. Thompson. My immediate impression of him as the talks opened was that he had now discovered the first arena in which he could demonstrate his legal expertise. All his questions were such as to provide material for legal action and he was definitely addicted, in my opinion, to the job of involving Russell in a legal tangle. I, thereupon, advised Russell not to attempt the answering of the obviously loaded questions. There may have been many other efforts on both sides towards affecting a settlement, but the foregoing is the only one of which I have any personal knowledge.

It was at the close of this abortive meeting that I heard Canon Scott tell Russell that he had been ordered home to Eastern Canada.

As I remember Winnipeg, during the week of my stay (I had a longer stay later on, but that was if I remember aright, quite involuntary) it was the most peaceful city I had ever seen, a well disciplined and behaved community, singularly free from the crimes which are so noticeable in our cities today, and remained so until the installation of the special police (criminals and thugs already referred to).

The strike did not seem to be weakening, not to the extent that the employers expected, so drastic action was needed. And this was used in the midnight, or early morning, raids on the homes of certain men. The six who were so unceremoniously "kidnapped" from their warm beds in the wee morning hours, were Russell, Queen, Armstrong, Heaps, Ivens and Bray. R. J. (Dick) Johns had not been in Winnipeg during the entire strike period, but was carrying out his duties as a member of the War Relations Labor Board in Montreal. I was taken from a C. P. R. train in the city of Calgary, on my way home to Vancouver.

At the same time, several labor sympathizers from North Winnipeg who had the misfortune to carry "foreign" sounding names, especially Russian, were also slipped into the net, and shipped with the rest to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. This I opine was (to slightly paraphrase the inimitable phrase of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pooh-Bah) undertaken as "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing (narrative)".

By this means was the strike broken. What lessons can be taken therefrom depends on how the workers now view the event. Unknown, perhaps, to a large majority of Canadian workers is the fact that what is now accepted without question - the Principle of Collective Bargaining - resulted. Today the metal contract shops in Winnipeg all have agreements with the United Steel Workers. Several other so-called problems were attended to as a result of the Mather and the Robson commissions. Lessons of the Strike But while forms may have changed, and some "improvements" made - for instance in the living conditions, etc., of lumber workers and others - the basic fact remains. The workers are still wage recipients and the masters the beneficiaries of the surplus value extracted from the result of labor's effort.

The workers still must engage in confrontations and even conflicts with their masters. The labor history since Winnipeg is replete with instances: the longshoremen of Vancouver - the then only remaining organized body of waterfront workers on the Pacific Coast in 1922; the strikes of miners and lumber workers; the Kirkland Land Strike of 1941. But why go on?

Strikes may result in changes and even so-called improvements but this is but superficial. This will continue until the workers in sufficient numbers free themselves from the concepts of this society, from ideas that bind them to the notion that the present is the only possible social system, and recognize that under this system "the more things change the more they remain the same"; that even now in their struggles over wages and conditions, like the character in "Alice in Wonderland" they have to keep running in order to stay in the same place.

But the Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working class solidarity and courage.

W. A. Pritchard

Invade Burma? Oh, the Hypocrisy!

The capitalist press is shedding tears over the Burmese government’s rejection of foreign aid for Cyclone victims. Now Time Magazine and others are asking if it’s time to invade Burma/Myanmar.

Of course, they ignore that the US rejected foreign aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To the tune of $854 Million dollars.

There are still plenty of Katrina refugees in makeshift camps waiting for help… So when will Time call for the US to be invaded?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iraq: Violence Without End Or Purpose?

“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Michael Ledeen (American Enterprise Institute)

Last month 100 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan held hearings in Washington to describe their experience. Named Winter Soldier after a similar meeting of Vietnam veterans in 1971, the event was ignored by the major corporate media outlets. In contrast to Vietnam, media coverage of these wars is sanitized. Viewers see no scenes of carnage, hear no cries of pain. No publicity accompanies the coffins on their return.

On the internet, however, there is uncensored testimony, including videos and personal blogs (e.g.:,,,, These are the sources on which I draw here.

The recruiter’s lament

Let’s start with the army recruiter who inveigles the naïve youngster into the inferno. A sinister figure? Or just another victim? After all, he didn’t seek transfer to the Recruitment Command. Now he has to make his quota or else endure constant humiliation, weekends in “corrective retraining” and the threat of the sack. So he works himself to exhaustion, answers the kids’ questions with lies, and recruits anyone he can, whether or not they meet official standards of health, education or “moral character” (i.e., no criminal record).

Few now join for “patriotic” reasons. Most are bribed with the promise of financial benefits, often payment of college fees. Many foreign residents sign up as a way of becoming U.S. citizens. Over 100 have been awarded citizenship posthumously.

Destroy the enemy

A few weeks of basic training and the new teenage soldier, who has probably never been abroad or even in another region of the U.S., suddenly finds himself in a strange, uncomfortable and disorienting environment. He does not understand the language, nor can he decipher the Arabic script. He has been taught to fear every haji — the term used to dehumanize Iraqis – as a possible enemy. He starts to kill and goes on killing, usually with the connivance of his superiors, often with their open encouragement. He kills in blind fear, or on orders, or even out of boredom. Most likely he feels no shame: his mates take souvenir photos of him standing by his “trophies.”

It is not necessarily only Iraqis who he kills. When Marines find their forward movement blocked, one blogger tells us, they “start using their training ‘to destroy the enemy’ on civilians or other Marines.” Violence and degradation pervade relations not just between the military and Iraqi civilians but also within the military. Soldiers are abused and humiliated by officers. Rape is commonplace.

To what purpose?

It is hard to see what purpose all this violence can possibly serve. The U.S. government would like to suppress all resistance to the occupation and stabilize a client regime that can be trusted to keep Iraq open to plunder by Western (mainly U.S.) corporations. But the more people are killed the more of their relatives and friends will take up arms to avenge them. Various militias temporarily ally themselves with the occupation forces in order to eliminate their rivals, but later they too will fight the Americans (as well as one another). And the persisting “instability” and destruction of resources make Iraq less appealing to corporate investors.

So the chances are that the U.S. will cut losses and give up, although the process will no doubt drag on for years. Otherwise the fighting will continue until the whole population is dead or has fled the country. In that case there will be no one left to run the puppet government or work for the corporations. Of course, the chore of administration could be dumped on the UN and workers brought in from abroad.

The sanctity of property

Amid the bloody mayhem, measures are still taken to preserve the sanctity of property – or at least of American property. One soldier tells of being sent with others to guard a military contractor’s truck that has broken down on the highway. After hours of warding off hungry Iraqis who want to take the food stored inside, they received the order to destroy the truck together with its contents. On another occasion they were ordered to destroy an ambulance.

When capitalists are forced by circumstances to abandon their property, they evidently prefer to have it destroyed rather than permit its use to satisfy the needs of desperate people. That is the true face of the real enemy – the class enemy.

The cost to American society

The cost of this futile war to American society can hardly be compared with the damage inflicted on a devastated and shattered Iraq. It is quite substantial nonetheless. As always, the working class pays by far the highest price for their masters’ insane adventures.

Over 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far. This may seem quite modest in view of the 50,000 killed in Vietnam. However, the number killed is a misleading indicator of the amount of suffering. Due to medical advances, the ratio of wounded to killed, which was 3:1 in Vietnam, is 7:1 in Iraq. Many soldiers who in previous wars would have died of severe brain injury, loss of limbs or extensive third-degree burns have been “saved” – not restored to health, but salvaged to live out the rest of their lives in pain and discomfort.

Brutalized and traumatized

Even more numerous are the psychological casualties. Apart from those who serve in office jobs and rarely if ever leave the Green Zone (the specially secured part of Baghdad where the U.S. embassy and military headquarters are located), there can be few who return from Iraq free of psychological trauma — “post-traumatic stress disorder” as the psychiatrists call it. (Over 100,000 are seeking treatment, but there must be many more who do not seek treatment – and, indeed, it is doubtful whether any effective treatment exists.)

Many veterans feel unbearable guilt for what they have done, although it is those who sent them who are mainly responsible. So it is not uncommon for a young soldier to return home “safe and sound” only to hang himself the next day. Besides suicide, the veterans are prone to alcoholism and depression, homicide and domestic violence.
And there are so many of these brutalized and traumatized veterans! While “only” about 175,000 troops are deployed at any one time (currently 158,000 in Iraq and 18,000 in Afghanistan), at least 1,400,000 soldiers have fought at some time in one or both of these wars. The damage to the social fabric is therefore enormous — in the same way that the social fabric in Russia, for instance, has been torn by its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. And a new war against Iran is still on the cards. Nor can we exclude a U.S. military intervention against pro-Taliban forces in northwestern Pakistan.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

30,000 Dispossessed Die In Cyclone

The 22,000 confirmed dead and 41,000 reported missing that followed the cyclone that struck Myanmar, formerly Burma, on Saturday, revealed a tragedy of unspeakable horror, yielding nauseating stories of impossibly strong winds, damage to life and property wrought by falling trees and, as though that were not enough, the main culprit, a 12-foot high wave that ravaged coastal areas upon which resided millions of the nation’s poor in shanty towns.

Myanmar is ruled by a military dictatorship headed by Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye since the 1990s, but who themselves followed in the footsteps of the original general who established rule by a coup d’etat in 1962, General Ne Win. The latter began the military dictatorship and nationalization of major industries by the name of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. This party was Leninist to the core, and had nothing to do with socialism in the orthodox sense of a classless society. Perhaps Leninist would be an appropriate term in considering the Burmese military junta’s belief in a vanguard party establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat (meaning one OVER the proletariat rather than OF it), or perhaps one could also use the term Stalinist in referring to the extreme deprivations of the people, the important role of the army and secret police, and the strong cult of personality that the Burmese generals attempt to create. Privilege, power and wealth were and remain tightly controlled by the ruling elite.

In 1988, the country was swept by student-led demonstrations in March and June, and more widespread protests later that summer (in August) that led to security forces killing hundreds of demonstrators (known thereafter as the 8888 Uprising). However, in response to these protests, another General, Saw Maung, staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which declared martial law. It was this dictatorship that changed the name of the country from Burma to the Union of Myanmar. While free elections were held (the first in 30 years) in 1990, they were really a sham to appease the disgruntled population, as the hands-down winner of the election, the National League for Democracy that won 392 of the 489 seats, was prevented from taking office by the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

The UNICEF website describes the deplorable living conditions in Burma. It is one of the poorest nations in the world, with the average worker making $1500 a year compared with the United States average of $32,000. Most of the inhabitants live in small villages comprised of hut-like shelters. The working population tends to reside in or near Rangoon, the capital. The remainder of the population resides on the land, attempting to procure the means of subsistence from yielding small crops, however 37% of these have no land or livestock at all to generate such means of life. Poverty is so extreme that many families send their children to work. Women, desperate to bring in money for the family, are known to leave their children in others’ care in Burma while seeking wage-labor in Thailand. Street children are a common sight in Myanmar, and some turn to prostitution. Malnutrition among children is increasingly commonplace. Prostitution and drug use generate high rates of HIV and AIDS, while medical conditions that are frequent friends of poverty and unhygienic lifestyles like malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, and tuberculosis run rampant. This is a country in which millions are too poor to afford a grass mat upon which to sleep, so the entire family will often huddle together on a bed of packed earth.

The rural population lives in waterless and toiletless huts. Even in the cities, workers frequently reside in small and overcrowded brick houses. The ruling military tend to absorb most of the country’s budget, while health and education take distant places. Few children go to school in the preteen and teen years. Illiteracy is common.

These were the typical conditions of life for the dispossessed in Burma when the cyclone hit. Thousands of people living in the most desperate conditions were easy prey to severe weather. Even now, after the storm subsided, 400,000 troops were made to go to work immediately on the homes of the wealthy first, according to a May 6th article in the International Herald Tribune. Buddhist monks and some international charity organizations are the only entities presently busy trying to assist the millions affected especially by the tidal wave, other than the victims themselves. These monks were in the news eight months ago when they took part in peaceful anti-government demonstrations that led thousands to be jailed, and hundreds to be killed by the military by bullets, clubs, tear gas, and even torture.

Human life comes really cheap in Burma. Capitalism reduces most humans anywhere around the globe at any given time to expendable commodities to be bought and sold by the wealthy for profit, but our brothers and sisters in Burma have it much harder than most of us here in the United States. Shame on the television news stations or programs, with all the millions of dollars they could have put to good use in reporting the recent tragedy objectively, that resorted to the usual Spectacle about the thousands who died a violent death by violent weather and the usual claptrap urging us to become charitable in hard times. Instead, those of us with limited means like your friendly socialist reporter must hunt about the internet for scrips and scraps of information. The news these days is quickly approaching the level you encounter in a science fiction novel like Fahrenheit 451, a mere cartoon to amuse us, while thousands of miles away one million (that word does not do it justice, let me write it out thus: 1,000,000) of our fellow workers sit amidst their ruins, having already lost relatives and homes following the tidal wave, awaiting the second tidal wave of diarrhea and water-borne diseases, likely to affect millions of people, children being the most vulnerable. Another example of the cruelty imposed upon children by our capitalist system which this reporter will admit to getting particularly incensed about, especially in discussion with fellow Americans without class consciousness about to vote in four more years of capitalism in November when either Tweedledee or TweedleDum parties win.

A year and a half ago, another Spectacle was seen both in that country on television where it caused a minor scandal and abroad via a video on Youtube ( It was the story of the wedding of Thandar Shwe, the daughter of junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, wearing a multi-million dollar stunning collection of diamond encrusted jewelry and clothing of the most extravagant nature. The wedding cost about $350,000, and the couple received gifts in excess of $50,000,000. The guests were all junta leaders and their families. This, of course, is the socialism that they are dedicated to promoting as an example of their strong socialist convictions, the sharing of their wealth amongst themselves the way the poor have had to learn the difficult task of sharing their poverty, their huts, their dying children, their diseases, and their recent bout of homelessness.

To the people of Burma, we offer our deepest sympathies after the terrible tragedy that befell you five days ago and continues to strike you now as you attempt to return to some semblance of human life again. We wish as socialists to express our solidarity with you across the globe. We also want to clarify for you the term “socialism,” so misused by the butchers who rule the country you reside in. Socialism, when NOT used by governments and dictators, means a worldwide society characterized by common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. This means that the production of all wealth would be controlled by the community, not by the state. In fact there would be no state at all, a term we understand to mean a military, legal and administrative apparatus that exists to take care of the interests of each country’s ruling class. Socialists, therefore, do not support either left-wing governments any more than they support right-wing ones. Rather, they insist upon a new paradigm in both understanding modern social problems as rooted in the control of the means of production by one class (by whatever political hue, it matters not), and in advocating a solution to those problems in the immediate institution of a truly classless society. Socialism will have neither dictators in power nor even liberal minded representatives, but rather a democracy so inclusive that the term “democracy” to characterize an entire social system (examples of democratic native societies notwithstanding) will begin to acquire real meaning for the first time in our human history. It will mean a society without wage labor in which wealth will be produced directly to meet needs.

Socialists certainly admire the bravery of the pro-democracy activists of Burma. They additionally understand that fellow workers of all nations will not be able to advocate the abolition of capitalism without also achieving minimal rights to organize and speak freely without facing intimidation and brutal treatment by the state. However, socialists do insist that a solution to the problems that befall the citizens of Burma will not be the mere increasing liberalization of that country, but the complete abolition of the market economy, and its replacement by a nonmarket economy based on production for use, and the free access of the wealth society produces.

It is this author’s contention that it is impossible to understand the events that led to the recent deaths of tens of thousands of humans in Burma without also understanding the state of dispossession of most of them that is characteristic of a capitalist economy, whether the government is as despotic as Burma’s or not. The role that poverty plays in this terrible drama will be all the more apparent as millions of affected individuals fail to receive the best that human science and ingenuity on the one hand, and economic resources and human care on the other, are able to muster for them in the wake of a potentially serious wave of malnutrition and disease, while the rich and powerful move to other locations and get back on their feet quickly because in our society it is ownership of property and money in the bank that does the walking.

dr. who (2008)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

War: the socialist attiitude

From the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard (Socialist Party of Great Britain)

Since our formation in 1904 our response to the problem of war has clearly distinguished us from other organisations claiming descent from Marx and Engels and the early socialist pioneers.

We analyse social affairs in class terms. We approach problems in the field of economics and politics from a consideration of what we see as being the real interests of the world working class. It is our contention that there are only two classes in present day society. Firstly, the working class, who collectively produce the wealth of society and who, in order to live, have to sell their ability to work for a wage or a salary. Secondly, the capitalist class who accumulate profit through the economic exploitation of the working class.

This situation leads to an inevitable conflict of interests and the generation of social and economic problems that cannot be solved while capitalism of whatever form continues. Commodity production (production of wealth for sale with a view to profit) inevitably brings conflict over access to markets and sources of raw materials, and for the control of trade routes, and for strategic point around the globe. Attempts are made to resolve these conflicts through discussion and diplomacy. Where diplomacy fails there remains the threat of force of arms to get what is wanted. From time to time this clash of interests breaks out in armed conflict. For the Socialist Party "capitalism and war are inseparable. There can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest." ( SPGB: War and the Working Class. 1936. p.1)

Within a year of our founding the Party published an article putting forward our view on war. In it the author wrote:

"I do not think it will be questioned by any socialist that it is his duty to oppose the wars of the ruling class of one nation with the ruling class of another, and refuse to participate in them." ('The curse of national prestige.' Socialist Standard, August 1905.)

This has been our consistent view ever since. So long as the working class continue to support capitalism so long will its wars, and preparations for war, continue. Before the mass slaughter of the First World War we argued that because wars were the outcome of economic and strategic conflicts between the capitalists of the various nations any attempt to abolish war while those economic conflicts remained was bound to be futile. International meetings passing pious resolutions aimed at achieving "universal disarmament" were doomed to failure. This is what one early member wrote in December 1910 about a pre-World War I peace campaign:

"[That] the 'anti-war campaign', as such, is, from the working class standpoint, absurd. Just as the class struggle cannot be abolished save by abolishing classes, so it is impossible for capitalist nations to get rid of the grim spectre of war, for Capitalism presupposes economic conflicts which must finally be fought out with the aid of the armed forces of the State." ('Socialism and the anti-war campaign.' Socialist Standard, December 1910.)

The only solution to war and the myriad other problems that face the workers of the world is to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism. This involves democratic political action by a majority of the working class who understand the need for change and know how to bring it about.

We do not call for people to love one another (though we are not opposed to that of course) rather we appeal to the workers of this and other countries to recognise their common class interest and to organise consciously and politically to gain the political power necessary to dispossess the owning class – to strip them of their right to own the means of life – and to put in its place a system of common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production – socialism.

Socialism will be a classless, propertyless and moneyless world community of production directly for use without the mediation of buying and selling. Nothing else will suffice. Abolition of class ownership will result in the abolition of conflicts of interest both between the owners and the non-owners and also between competing national groups of owners organised politically into armed nation states. We can conceive of no situation in which we would give our support to either side in any of capitalism's armed struggles.

The role of the Socialist Party in helping bring socialism about is one of agitation and education. We are an instrument to be used by a conscious working class once the need for a revolutionary social change is recognised. Because they don't stand for socialism, we are "hostile to every other Party", even to those which claim to have socialism as their goal.

Much of our argument with the left-wing revolves around their demands for reforms. Most radical left-wing parties say (or in the case of the Labour Party used to say) that their goal is "socialism". However they also pursue reforms of capitalism as "stepping stones" to socialism. Any political party doing this soon find themselves saddled with the problems inevitably associated with the running of capitalism.

In an article written in the Journal of Modern History on the eve of the Second World War the historian Harry J. Marks dealt with the collapse of the German Social Democratic Party as a revolutionary party in 1914. He encapsulated and highlighted the dangers to a working class movement inherent in the pursuit of reforms. The author wrote that:

"By accepting the policy of the German Government on August 4, 1914, as fundamentally its own, the role of this enormous organisation as an independent factor in world history sank to insignificance and became no more than that of a cog to gear the labour movement into the German war machine." (Harry J. Marks: 'Sources of Reformism in the SDP of Germany 1890-1914.' Journal of Modern History XI (1939) p. 334.)

Our hostility therefore is no mere semantic quibble. It goes to the heart of our case against adopting the "something now" approach to problems, including the problem of war. Unlike those on the left who are choosy as to which wars they object to, we in the Socialist Party are against all of capitalism's wars. Nor do we single out one or two aspects of war – atomic weapons, or land mines, or poison gas, or the use of child soldiers – we oppose the system that give rise to these things.

Both the established capitalist class and those intent on joining them by force of arms need these weapons to defend and advance their interests against threats from competing groups of capitalists also armed to the teeth to defend their interests. The working class on the other hand have no such interests to defend. The workers have no country. What they do have is a common interest in making the world the common heritage of all who live in it.

Gwynn Thomas

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bill Casey - Socialist Pioneer

A letter from a WSM comrade in Australia reprinted in our magazine, then called Western Socialist, Nov-Dec 1949

Your many readers will regret to hear of the loss of a pioneer of the Socialist Movement in Australia. There have been many pioneers in the Socialist Movement and the Old World has been rich in them; but down here in Australia, we have not been so fortunate. On the 19th. Oct. last, Bill Casey died in the Brisbane General Hospital.

Bill Casey, who hailed from Manchester, arrived in Australia some years before World War I. Almost immediately he became involved in industrial activities and participated in some of the most historical disputes recorded in this country. Ever on the move, he spent much of his time in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. During the First War he played a leading part in Queensland industrial affairs and was active in the strikes on the Cane fields and the Meat Industry. On more than one occasion he had to run the gauntlet of Labor Party Police, who spurred on by Labor Governments, dealt ruthlessly with those who championed the workers cause.

Job conscious Union officials and Big Businessmen on one occasion urged his deportation from the local township because of his union activities. When war-time Labor Prime Minister, Wm, Morris Hughes, tried to enforce conscription in 1916, anyone who opposed the move was branded "traitor", "Seditionist" or "I.W.W." But the anti-conscription campaign grew and the Labor Party split on the issue. The chief opponents were the "Wobblies" (I.W.W.) and their supporters. Casey, who had experienced the persecution of the I.W.W. in America, threw himself into the fight and became one of the most active and enthusiastic members of the Anti-Conscription Army. When we point out that the anti-conscription campaign left an indelible mark on the history of Australia, it will be easier to understand the significance of our reference to in this obituary.

In those days, much of the I.W.W. propaganda took the form of parodying of popular songs. To the tunes I.W.W. rhymsters would fit words ridiculing and satirising their opponents. Most meetings opened up with "Doxology"
"Praise Boss when morning work-bells chime, Praise him for bits of over-time, Praise him whose wars we love to fight, Praise Him. Fat Leech and Parasite, Oh Hell".
Meetings would be held up awaiting some subtle satire from Casey on the topic of the day. Couriers would run from the press, with literally red-hot jingles copies of which were passed round the audiences who lustily chorused the latest ditty, much to the discomfiture of "Law and Order". So popular did they become that friend and foe alike eagerly awaited the latest lampoon. Politicians shrunk from his satire but ever many of them, years afterwards, openly boasted acquaintanceship with "Bill Casey."

Back To Sea

Returning to sea, Casey played a big part in the Seaman's strike of 1919. Just about this time he chummed up with Jack Temple who had recently arrived from Scotland after some years in Canada. Temple who had been active in the S. P. of Canada and had some connection with the S.P.G.B. played a big part in weaning Casey from the I.W.W. viewpoint. It may be pointed out that though Casey had leanings towards the "Wobblies" he was not a member although he was generally regarded as such.

Very soon Casey was expounding the S.P.G.B. position and as the Bolsheviks had just gained control in Russia, he lost no time in analysing the position. Probably aided by articles in the "S.S.", he became a caustic critic of the "Neo-Communists." He was delegate to represent the Seamen at an International T. U. Conference in Moscow. This, being one of the earliest "Missions to Moscow" was beset with difficulties all the way. Passports were forged; passages were "stowing away," Dutch, German, Polish and Russian frontiers had to be "hopped." Guides were often un-reliable; "go-betweens" were often in the pay of both sides; sometimes both had to be discarded until bona-fides were definitely established, a delicate job under the conditions then prevailing on the continent.

The ultimate arrival in Moscow, after much suffering, danger and perseverance, was hailed as a masterpiece of undercover work. Once at the gates of the Kremlin, most delegates became insufferable Bolshevik "Yes-men" whereas Casey and his co-delegate, Barney Kelly (another adherent of the S.P.G.B.) soberly tried to obtain a truthful estimate of the position. A few days sojourn in Moscow drew the following observations from Casey: "Production was in a straight-jacket, lethargy and indifference permeated the whole economy; the people were entirely lacking in a sense of time. Without the normal industrial development of production and some measure of buying and selling (war-communism was the order of the day) drift and indifference would gradually strangle the economy of the Soviet". These observations were greeted with disgust and dismay by the other delegates.

However, before they left Moscow, Lenin introduced his "New Economic Policy" which, in essence, provided for the very things which Casey opined was needed to stabilize the Russian economy. In contrast to their hostile reception of Casey's prognostications, the "yes-men" cheered and echoed Lenin's belated pronouncements. Back in Australia, he submitted his report to Tom Walsh (then a leading Communist and foundation member of the Australian Communist Party), General President of the Australian Seamen's Union. Walsh rejected the report and refused to publish it on the ground that it criticized the Bolsheviks and the Russian system. After spending some time in Melbourne, Casey proceeded to Sydney where he again crossed swords with Walsh who, carrying out the policy of the C.P. was endeavouring to get the Seamen to affiliate with the A.L.P. (Australian Labor Party) from which body the Seamen had seceded because of the anti-working class role of Labor Governments and politicians during the Seamen's strike of 1917 and 1919.

With Jacob Johnson (Assist. Sec'y. Sydney Branch of the Seamen's Union) and a handful of supporters, Casey pursued the fight against affiliation with the Labor Party. This fight continued up to 1925 when an un-expected walk-out of British Seamen, who left their ships tied up on the Australian coast, over-shadowed the affiliation dispute. Incidental to the British Seamen's strike, both Walsh and Johnson were arrested, brought before a tribunal set up under special legislation, and sentenced to deportation from Australia. We knew, at the time, that Walsh wanted to be deported and was to be given a job in England with Havelock Wilson. Casey worked unceasingly to prevent the deportation. Those who were associated with Casey believe that his activities on behalf of Johnson were the most brilliant of his career. An appeal was made to the High Court of Australia. He marshalled facts, ferreted information, countered the sabotage of Government henchmen, suggested successful points of law, and finally his subtle optimism triumphed. Dr. Evatt, one of Johnson's counsel, (now Attorney General and ex-president of U.N.O.) unstintedly praised Casey's remarkable accomplishments. Many barristers have openly acknowledged him to be "the cleverest lay-man they ever met." The High Court held the Tribunal's decision to deport to be 'ultra vires': Walsh and Johnson were released from the Naval prison on Garden Island where they had been held while awaiting deportation. Following the release and the settlement of the British Seamen's strike, the fight around affiliation with the Labor Party again assumed an important place in the Seamen's Union. Finally Walsh's move was defeated and he was deposed from his position as G. P. Later a high officer of the N.S.F.U. visited Australia and reported that Havelock Wilson had sent over £3,000 to help Walsh in the fight against Johnson and Casey. In justice to this official, let it be said that on hearing the facts of the case, he urged that no more money be sent from the English Seamen's Union for this purpose.

During these periods, Casey consistently carried on Socialist propaganda. He debated almost every "leader" in the Communist Party. He represented the S.P. of A. in debates with the Henry George League, the Labor Party, the Communist Party, Currency Experts, and host of others. He trounced Individualist A.D. Kay who after losing his seat in Parliament and on the Meat Board, went to England to be given later, a job by Churchill during the last war. Casey conducted Speakers' Classes, Economic classes, open air and indoor meetings for the S.P.A. Prior to the formation of the S.P.A., he, together with Moses Baritz struck terror into the hearts of the professional "revolutionaries" of the C. P.

The anecdotes about them would fill a book; Moses, bombastic, merciless, ruthlessly capable in expounding the Socialist position; Casey, puckish, simple, unsurpassed as a teacher of young fellows, flashing with satire and armed with a power of mental penetration that pierced the armor of the most hide-bound opponent of Socialism.

For many years he held official positions in the Seamen's Union. He was Secretary of the Brisbane Branch when he died. For many years he found it difficult to get jobs on ships. Victimised, he battled around on scanty food, a few beers and a bit of tobacco. Long speels of unemployment meant more time for Socialist activities. He never went short while his friends had a few bob. His knowledge of philosophy, economics, political and industrial history was amazing and his uncanny ability to interpret industrial awards, surmount legal difficulties with regard to the Merchant Shipping Act, The Australian Navigation Act and the various Compensation Acts, redounded to the benefit of his ship-mates. He was known as the Seaman Philosopher. So much, and yet so little, of that side of his life.

Personally, Casey was the finest friend ever a man could wish for. His loyalty to friends and principles was universally acknowledged. A little, broad-shouldered fellow, quietly spoken, with impish grin, happy and humming some simple Old-country folk song. It was a pleasure to be in his company. Ever ready to quaff a pot. A lover of children, he was always the butt of their frolicking at some friend's family gathering. He was popular in the truest sense of the word. His friendship never wavered. Now Casey is gone and comrades, all over the world, will regret his passing. He died of cancer. The working class has lost a champion; the Socialist Party has lost a great pioneer in Australia. A fellow member of the S.P.A. gave the final address at his cremation; a sad task but a privileged one. Casey's life was devoted to the life of establishing a new social order. For while the sands were running out, in a recent letter to the writer, after describing his suffering, he concluded thus:
"I wish nothing better to anybody than good health, except a better system in which to enjoy it."
The memory of Bill Casey will sustain us in our future struggles. W. J. C. (Sydney) 1949

Monday, May 5, 2008

Marx misunderstood

A book review from the February 2008 Socialist Standard

Economics Transformed. By Robert Albritton, Pluto Press, 2007

Classical economics began with the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in 1776. It continued with John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, which was to remain a standard textbook on the subject for nearly a century. After the Second World War, neoclassical economics became the new orthodoxy in academia. The main difference with neoclassical economics is a much greater emphasis on mathematical formulas. However, what unites classical and neoclassical economics, together with all its various sub-divisions, is a theory of price with explicit or implicit policy recommendations for running the economy – unemployment levels, interest rates, cures for inflation, and so on. Where does Marxian economics fit into all this? The short answer is – it doesn't. Marxian economics provides a theory of profit and doesn't presume to tell the capitalists and their governments how they should run their system.

Profit-making is the life-blood of capitalism, though you wouldn't guess it from the news reports that economic well-being is threatened by a lack of "consumer confidence" – in other words, you're not buying enough stuff from the shops. Capitalist economics is there to explain that profit is untouchable as the reward for waiting for investments to pay off for the capitalists, and as a reward for risking their capital. But these are an attempt at justification of profit, not an explanation of the source of profit, which is what Marxian economics is concerned with. Waiting and risk in themselves do not create profit. There is only one way that vast personal fortunes and the social accumulation of capital can be satisfactorily explained: as the result of the unpaid labour of the working class being appropriated by the capitalist class in the form of profit.

And then there are the consequences of the profit motive: crises, recessions and mass unemployment; and all the other effects which create human and environmental degradation in its wake. Albritton doesn't deal adequately with any of this, which is unfortunate in a book which claims we can be "Discovering the Brilliance of Marx" in economics. Moreover, Albritton's understanding of Marx is undermined by his claim that we can "democratically manage markets so as to serve the needs of social justice." Firstly, Marx never made that claim and in fact specifically argued against the use of markets of any sort. Secondly, markets presuppose private or class ownership of the means of production and distribution. Students of Marxian economics will need to look elsewhere.