Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A Tribute To My Parents

A few hours ago (Sunday) my Mother passed away. She was just a few months short of her 89th. Birthday, and she had outlived my Father by just over 17 years, who died in 1991 at the age of 71. Today when my Mother died, although I felt the normal sorrow I was able to accept her passing with some composure, whereas when my Father died I was grief stricken for weeks. That is not because I loved my Mother any less than my Father, or because she was much older, or even that I am older. My Mother had been bed-ridden for the last five years, after having been in hospital for several months, due to coming close to death from pancretitis, brought on by a trapped gall stone. She had been living in a Nursing Home, almost in solitary confinement, in her room, apart from visits by my sister and I, and occasionally other relatives and the time that staff could give to her. As a result of being bed-ridden, she suffered numerous urinary infections, and had to be readmitted to hospital several times. This last time she contracted septic shock as a result of an infection, again caused by a trapped gall stone, and, basically, her body shut down. It was a release from suffering, and one both me and my sister were prepared for. In contrast, when my Dad died he was an extremely fit man not just for his age. But, he was struck down by an aneurism in the brain, and the suddenness of his passing made it very hard to come to terms with. In 1991, there was no Internet in order for me to pay Public Homage to him, and, to be honest, as long as my Mum was alive, at least a part of my Dad was alive too. So I now want to pay tribute to them both.

My Mother’s grandfather was Swedish. He came to Britain and worked originally as a journalist. He also learned and taught shorthand. For a time he lived in Ireland, and my Mother’s Mother was born in Dublin toward the end of the 19th century. But, the family moved to Carlisle where my Great Grandfather set up an electrical engineering business, A.J. Crawford, which specialised in supplying conveyor belts. My Grandmother had all the benefits of a middle class upbringing, being sent to a private School and so on. But her Mother died, and relations with the stepmother weren’t very good. At the outbreak of WWI she was working in a Munitions factory in Newcastle on Tyne where she met my Grandfather who was a fitter. Due to her education my Grandmother worked at a number of places including Farnborough as she and my Grandfather moved around the country in search of work. Mostly, my Grandfather worked as a fitter in collieries, and was an active Trade Unionist. It was on these travels, and whilst he was working in a colliery in Wales that my Mother was born in Aberbargoed in 1919. She was the oldest in a family of 6 children.

Eventually, the family arrived in Stoke and my Grandfather worked at one of the local collieries. He was also for a time Secretary of the Branch Labour Party. I think it was while he was working there that he lost the end of his thumb, which my Mother said always came in handy for his Grandchildren to suck and chew on when we were teething. They lived in a row of houses, which, for the time, must have seemed quite luxurious having a small front garden, all of which were owned by the Colliery and rented out to employees. At the end of the road was a sizeable spoil heap, which as kids we all knew as the “Starvation Banks”, because during the 1926 Strike, and afterwards in the Depression people would go to pick what bits of coal from there they could find. During the Depression, the colliery, where my Grandad worked, closed, and like millions more he was out of work. My Grandma who was just a little dot, but from all accounts very feisty – my Mother says the local Bobby came round to tell her off one day after getting into a fight with another bigger woman from round the corner – also suffered from TB, which was eventually to kill her. At about this time my Great Grandfather’s business was divided up between the children, but according to my Mother because her Mother had basically been pushed out by her stepmother, they ended up being shortchanged. My Mother says there was something of a commotion in the street when this large car pulled up outside bearing her relations from Carlisle. As part of her share from what my Mum told me they got £1,000, which for them in the 1930’s was a lot of money.

But, it didn’t last too long. My Grandfather spent some of it buying incubators and other equipment, with the idea of rearing chickens and other livestock on his allotment, but a lot also went on looking after his friends who were also unemployed, in the Pub. Mt Grandma had suggested they could actually use some of the money to buy their house, but Grandad didn’t trust the idea of buying the house from the colliery. All of the kids in the family benefited from my Grandmother’s education. My Mum’s sister even came top of the City, obtaining the highest score of all students, in Stoke, in the 11 plus exams, for her year. My Mum went to work in the village chemist’s shop where she learned how to make up medicines, and so on, at a time when they were not all simply bought from a wholesaler. Typical of the time, as well as working in the shop, and although its only a small village, she was also expected to live in the house of the chemist and his wife, and to act as effectively a domestic servant.

I know very little about my Dad’s lineage other than that his Father had been brought up on a farm. When I grew up in the village, it was surrounded by fields and farms, but, when my Father was a child there were even fewer houses. He told me that he would often be walking with his father in the fields, and his Father would grab hold of a horse and open its mouth to inspect its teeth, which he said was the best way to tell the condition. The other story he told me was that when he was a child he was afraid of the dark – I found it difficult to believe he could ever have been afraid of anything – and my Grandad had said that he would cure him of it. He took him out into one of the fields one night – and then it really was dark in the middle of open fields – and told him to walk across it. My Dad began to walk across the field until after a few yards there was a terrible clamour that sent him scurrying back even more afraid than before, as he had fallen over a horse lying down in the field! In fact, my Grandad had a particularly interest in horses, but he only ever managed to break even from it at best. Unlike, my Mum, my Dad was the youngest of the family of 7, though a number of other children died.

I did find out one piece of lineage by accident. In 1983, I was in hospital for some time because I had to have a big operation for a detached retina. In fact, it’s the only thing I can thank Maggie Thatcher for, because if she hadn’t had one at the same time, I wouldn’t have known the symptoms, and according to the hospital Consultant I was probably only 24 hours away from having lost the sight of my left eye. For some time after I had to pay regular visits to the hospital, and one day I was sitting next to an old lady. Its common for people to get our name wrong either inserting an R to make it Brough, or coming out with all kinds of variations of pronunciations of Bough. So when the nurse called out Brough both me, and the old lady, rose together. “I think they mean me,” I said, “People always get my name wrong.” “Is your name Bough as well then?” she asked. It turned out that she was the Auntie of one time TV presenter Frank Bough, who is also from Stoke. She told me that her daughter had traced the family tree, and had found that we were all related, and that the name actually was a corruption of a French name. So, Swedish, French, Irish, Welsh. What would the BNP make of that?

My Father’s Father also worked down the pit, but this time using a hand drill, and pick and shuffle in tight seams. He too lost his job during the Depression, and I remember my Dad telling me that having been out of work for a while when he did get some work labouring on the roads, he came home with his hands bleeding from using the shovel, because they had by then gone soft. My Dad also left school at 14 at the height of the Depression. Like many other school leavers who couldn’t find work he was sent to “Dole School” where they were taught some practical skills, but much of the time they were just thrown a pair of boxing gloves to pass the time. He got a job working for a firm making road signs where he learned some useful skills both in glazing, and painting signs. In fact, it came in handy when as a kid I hit a cricket ball through a neighbour’s window, and he was able to go and glaze it.

But, shortly after he got a job as an engineer – in fact he’d really wanted to be a mechanic. He worked at Rolls Royce at Crewe making Merlin engines for Spitfires. Despite, the fact its about 8 miles to Crewe he used to walk there and back everyday. That was fine, but on one occasion he was a bit late because he’d been courting a girl from Crewe, and found himself being stopped by military police as he took a short cut across some fields – obviously his Dad’s help eventually worked – who were looking for German paratroopers sabotaging the local ordnance factory. He told me that a lot of the stuff about wartime spirit was a load of rubbish. For example, he said that they used to test the engines on a testbed, and walking down the shop one day he commented to another engineer that the engine on the testbed was vibrating a lot, to which the other engineer simply said, “It’ll shake a lot more when its over the Channel.”

As an engineer, which was a reserved Occupation, he couldn’t go into the army when War broke out, as his other brothers had done. Over the next few years he worked at pretty much every car manufacturer going. Even though, he was still only young, he found himself continually being the spokesman for other workers grievances, and each time he upset the management he was moved to another company. Eventually, the management of the last company literally blacked his cards with ink so he couldn’t get a job, and he was able to join his brothers in the army. He joined the Staffordshire regiment, but was seconded to the Shropshire Light Infantry where he became a Motorbike Dispatch Rider spending most of his time in Italy.

My sister was born on Christmas Day 1945, so she managed to get her picture in the paper more than 25 years before I did. My Dad was in the army until 1947, and they all shared a room in an old terraced house with a nasty landlady, who kept telling my Mum that she would lose my sister. It was far, far harder to get a house then than it is today. House prices were sky high. Having tried living with other family members, in desperation they bought the old terraced house where I was born. In 1949, it cost them £1,000! Nearly 30 years later when the house got destroyed in a gas explosion they got back - £1,000. By comparison within just a few years of them buying this house a number of semi-detached houses with gardens back and front were built that were sold for just £250 each. Such is the degree to which workers lives are affected by the mere chance of the capitalist casino economy.

After the war he got a job with a local engineering Company. Given the times he had only had a basic education. In fact, until the day he died he never knew the alphabet. He never found the need for it. He could read and write perfectly well. He could also convert obscure fractions into decimals in an instant, because as an engineer he was dealing with them all the time, and learned them off by heart. Yet on the wall at the side of his Milling Machine was a huge Chart he’d made with them all listed, because he said it was quicker to just look. That was the kind of practical approach he had. It was his time so if he could cut it down all the better. Over the years he made lots of tools. At this first place he made a tool that even in the 1940’s saved the company tens of thousands of pounds. Yet he got just a tenner for it off the firm.

Shortly after that he got a job in the engineering shop of a local tile manufacturing company, where apart from a few short intervals where he went to work for English Electric and a small engineering Company he worked for the rest of his working life. He also became shop steward of the AEEU at the Company, and came into contact with a member of the CP. I grew up from an early age in a political background. The main “discussions” I remember between my Dad and my Mother’s father were about politics and Trade Unionism. Every night my Dad would take the dog for a walk, and I would go with him. From where we lived literally within a matter of about 300 yards we were in fields and open country. In the Summer we’d walk up through the fields to Newchapel churchyard where the great canal builder James Brindley is buried. When the night’s drew in we would walk to the top of Kidsgrove Bank – by the “Starvation Banks” mentioned earlier, which marks a clear demarcation because stretched out beyond it is the great expanse of the Cheshire Plain, and from where you can look across to Manchester and to Liverpool, and see clearly the large dish of Jodrell Bank. So it was not surprising that on these nightly excursions we would talk either of politics or else of science and space travel. If my Mother gave me some of the basic tools of literacy, and an encouragement to put pen to paper, my Father was the greatest inspiration on me to accept nothing, and to challenge everything.

The house we lived in was built in 1870 according to the plaque that was situated next to the outside of the front bedroom window. With no cavity – in fact half of the house was built just in single brick, and no damp course, it was perpetually suffering from damp running down the walls. Every time simple decoration needed to be done it became a much bigger job, as damp plaster came away. The walls in the back-kitchen – in those days for some reason we all called the living room the kitchen, and the kitchen the back-kitchen – continually ran with moisture. And, of course the only heating – especially in a mining village – was from a single coal fire. There was a fireplace in the front parlour, but again typical of the times that room was only every used on special occasions like Christmas.

From, when I was three years old I suffered badly – and given the conditions not unexpectedly – with asthma and bronchitis. Again in those days there was no adequate medicine to treat it. It was fortunate that my Mother had worked in the chemists, because she was able to dose me with all kinds of concoctions. In fact, I was ill so much, and for so long that it was impossible for my Mum to work, because she spent so much time looking after me. That meant that they only had my Dad’s pretty low wages coming in, whilst they were still paying a significant amount on the mortgage for an overpriced house. For a long time, I can remember my Dad saying that he had argued and argued with the blokes at work not to be conned into accepting offers from management of more overtime in place of a decent pay rise, but to no avail. So I can also remember for a long time that he would go out to work at 7.30 in a morning, and not get back until nearly 9.00 at night, as well as often working half a day on Saturday. It wasn’t until almost the mid 60’s that his wages rose to £20 a week, and he was able to begin to stop working over time.

Especially, when I was ill either when I was very young my Mum would read to me, and later I was able to read what seemed an inexhaustible supply of books on all manner of subjects. My Mum would also get me to write stories, and my Sister who is eight years older than me, used to set me maths questions, or teach me how to calculate wages. My Mother was also a good cook, and encouraged me to help her with baking and so on. It was a way of making money go further. Don’t get me wrong we were not living in abject poverty by any means, there were others living in the same street who were worse off. In fact, even in the 1950’s we had something no one else in the street had. We had transport, in the form of a motorbike and sidecar. My Dad had a BSA 500, and having got a chassis from the scrap yard made a sidecar out of orange boxes, Perspex, and canvas. Its distinctive square angles earned it the nickname from neighbours of – “the coffin”.

Nevertheless, in the period of rising prosperity of the 1950’s and 60’s there were certainly many more who were better off. Until I was about 10, or maybe a bit more, we all had to bath in a zinc bath in from of the fire. It was only one Summer that my Dad purchased an old cast iron bath – the kind that are now very fashionable – from a farm nearby that sold old stuff from all the demolition and slum clearance that was taking place. Even then, we didn’t have running hot water. Hot water for the bath had to be boiled up in an old gas boiler next to the bath, and tipped in with buckets. Right up until the time I left home in 1974, we never had running hot water. Yet, when I’ve spoken to my Mother in recent years she has said she loved that house, because it was hers, and the first house she had had for her and my Dad.

But, we never went on holiday other than day trips to the seaside on the motorbike. Later, my Dad replaced the BSA with an Ariel Square Four. It was his pride and joy, but continually had something wrong with it. At work he always had young friends, because he was a good engineer, and always prepared to teach them. One of them, who was also interested in motorbikes had a Vincent Black Shadow, and I remember him and my Dad stripping the Ariel down completely, reboring the cylinders, and rebuilding it. But, my Dad still wasn’t happy with it, and eventually as he was getting older and suffering with rheumatism decided to sell it. But, I remember during the 1960’s having some great times on it going to places at one time we wouldn’t have considered, especially as motorways and better roads opened up. We went to lots of National Trust places too.

Although, my Dad worked long hours for many years I can always remember that when he came home he’d spend ages playing with me. Fortunately, my parents never insisted I went to bed early, and I can’t remember ever going to bed before 10.30. At night time we used to play cards, and on a Sunday we would all play cards or some other game. He was also very good at sport, all kinds of sport. He had been the Captain of the Staffordshire Schoolboys football team, but he was good at Cricket and other sport too. Even in retirement he was remarkably fit – he used to do 100 press-ups strictly every morning and evening – and won several trophies for bowls.

It was fortunate for me that he was so fit too. When I was about ten I was ill. The Doctor came out and said there was nothing wrong with me, that I was just avoiding School. My Mum gave the Doctor a right telling off, which ended in me being sent to hospital for tests. It turned out I had silent pneumonia. The Doctor didn’t show his face again for several years. A few years later I came down with pneumonia again, but this time much worse. Especially, suffering with asthma I had terrible time breathing. My Mum told me later they thought I would die. One of the few things that enabled me to breathe slightly easier was that my Dad would put me on his back – I was 13 at this stage – and carry me round the house, jogging me up and down. This would go on for at least an hour at a time. And for hour after hour day and night my Mother would sit with me rubbing my back. But, it wasn’t just me she used to care for. I know that she used to regularly go to help various old people in the street with their cleaning and other tasks without any consideration for wanting anything in return. Its no wonder I have considered myself a socialist from as early an age as I can remember.

In a class society we are what that society makes us, but setting that aside whatever I am that is good I owe entirely to my parents, whatever is not I take responsibility for entirely myself. Goodbye Mum and Dad, rest in peace, you more than deserve it.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Labour Lose Glasgow East

For most of the last week or so Michael Crick has been giving reports from Glasgow to the effect that despite earlier predictions of an SNP triumph, Labour was set to hold on to the seat. BUt, the reality contradicted the predictions - Labour lost what should for it be one of its strongest seats. It looks like SNP voters turned out, and Labour voters didn't. It crowns a succession of terrible election defeats for Brown as the successor to Blair's New labour crown. All of the criticisms of Brown as against Blair in that respect are nonsense. The rot had already set in under Blair who was himself losing elections. In fact, when he first took over Brown's popularity and that of Labour rose significantly. With decisive action over a number of crises last Summer Brown looked to be in the ascendant, until the uncalled election fiasco, and the turn of the economy with the Credit Crunch and Northern Rock put the skids under his administration.

As Tony Benn said, on BBC News 24 this morning voters are not turbning away from Labour because of Brown, but because the New Labour project is dead in the water, it has conspicuously failed to meet the needs of ordinary workers. It has fed their basic desires for the last ten years on a debt fuelled orgy of consumption, and even to some extent met their needs for better Public Services by pumping billions and billions into health and education Spending and other Public Services as part of its Keynesian counter-cyclical policies during the early part of the decade. But given the inefficient, state capitalist nature of those services most of the money there was swallowed up by the Stalinesque bureaucracies that dominate these institutions. Simply replacing Brown is no answer. But nor is replacing the policies of New Labour with the policies of Old Labour, or even the statist plicies of much of the Left including the Trotskyists whose worshipping of solutions based on greater State involvement covered with the veneer of "Workers Control" or "Workers Government", owe far more to the politics of Ferdinand Lassalle than they do to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Criticising such an approach in "The Critique of the Gotha Programme", Marx wrote,

"“Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the "socialist organization of the total labour" "arises" from the "state aid" that the state gives to the producers' co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, "calls into being". It is worthy of Lassalle's imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!
From the remnants of a sense of shame, "state aid" has been put -- under the democratic control of the "toiling people". …"

and he went on,

"That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

In fact, the whole of his Critique is devoted to warning socialists against advocating the role of the State as a means of resolving workers problems, against calling on workers to place demands for the State to act in such a manner, rather than mobilising the working class to get up off its knees to resolve its own problems, to create its own Co-operative enterprises and so on as the basis of developing the workers own self-confidecne and class conscioussness.

Only if Marxists return to that perspective, and integrate themselves with the workers mass organisations including the co-operatives and Labour Party, and through real Trade Union work on the shopfloor rather than pedantic debates at Trade Union meetings can the further onward march of Capitalism be stemmed.

In a discussion at a recent left event John McDonnell argued that Labour faced an annihilation similar to that of 1931. There will be some sectarians on the left who will view such a prospect with glee as confirming their own prejudices. As TRotsky said of the Oehlerites they put defending their own prejudices above the interests of the working class. But such sectarians should be careful about thinking that such a development will benefit their own narrow aspirations. After 1931, despite the existence of the centrist ILP, and a much larger and more entrenched in the working class group of British Trotskyists, history saw the ILP effectively disappear and get swallowed up again into the LP, and the Trotskyists continued to splinter into ever more particles. It was not the Left that benefitted from the disintegration of the 1930's form of New Labour, but the Right, and further entrenching of bourgeois ideas. Even in the aftermath of the War, and in need of rebuilding a decaying British capitalism it was the Labour Party not the left that the working class turned to. Today the weakness of the Labour party finds its concomitant again not in any increase in support for the left but in increased support for the Right whether it be the Nationalists, the BNP, or the various bouregois parties of varying hue from the Tories to the Lib Dems and the Greens.

Marxists are supposed to learn from analysing reality. Its time the Left after 80 years of a failed strategy leanred that perhaps they have something wrong.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Do They Think We Are Green or Something?

Looking at the media over the last few days, it has struck me how, in its various manifestations, it acts to subtly reinforce ideas. A few days ago, there was a report on the News, about the investigation into the Channel 4 Documentary, sometime ago, on Global Warming, which caused considerable controversy, because it challenged the consensus view that the world is going to hell in a handcart all caused by Man’s activities. The investigation concluded that Channel 4 had been correct to show the documentary – a conclusion now to be challenged by some of the scientists and others who disagree with the views expressed in the Programme, and so much for free speech – but that the programme, itself, had not been objective, by which it meant it had not reflected the majority view – which surely was the point of the programme in the first place!


A number of things strike me from this. Firstly, as I said the decision to challenge the ruling seems to give an indication of just how much the right to free speech is under threat. Those that advocate the thesis, that the world is on the edge of destruction due to Global Warming, already have behind them massive resources, and the majority of publicity. If opposing views cannot even be put forward, on a TV Programme, then this is a poor show, and to my mind says something about how sure those are that advocate this position of their views. It has often been the case that those who hold a minority viewpoint turn out to be right, and it is not uncommon that those who hold the majority viewpoint try to suppress the right of the Minority to express their views. Marxists in particular have personal experience of that.

Secondly, everyday we see newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express print garbage about immigrants and asylum seekers being given free cars and houses, being paid thousands of pounds to live a life of luxury at the taxpayers expense. Anyone with a brain knows that such stories should be treated with the same contempt as those such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, but unfortunately, talk to many ordinary workers and they will repeat these stories to you as though they were the Gospel truth. Such is the power of the media in being able to play on people’s prejudices, and limited knowledge. Yet, where are the worthies insisting on an enquiry into these stories that quite clearly are without any objective foundation?

Thirdly, why should such stories be “objective” i.e. try to provide a balance of differing views? When I write this blog I do not pretend to any such “objectivity”. In reality nor do the media. As a Marxist the basis of objectivity is to begin with the facts as you can as best uncover them, and to proceed from there. But, in proceeding from there you then reach conclusions based on a set of pre-existing value judgements. Certainly, for a Marxist those value judgements are not purely subjective based on some moral imperative of what is “good” or “evil”, but are based on a scientific understanding that everything changes, and that human society is ascending – not always in a straight line – to ever higher levels, based on the increasing development of the productive forces, and that consequently anything that facilitates such development is historically progressive and to be supported, or at least not opposed, and anything that hinders such development is to be opposed. But on that basis take two given facts. Let us say that an analysis shows that the working class is becoming increasingly unionised, and let us further say that this analysis shows that a larger number of strikes are taking place. On the basis of these facts a Marxist will conclude that the working class is becoming stronger, more confident, and more class conscious. As a Marxist views the working class as the vehicle of historical change this will be viewed as progressive and to be supported. But, a Conservative who views Capitalism as the end of history, as the best of all possible worlds will view such development with alarm, because it threatens to undermine and destabilise that best of all possible worlds, and will conclude that it is to be opposed. So, from the original objectively determined truths we have two contingent, but opposing truths.

Against the Flow

Marxists have experience of this in other respects too. Marxist Economics. Every Marxist economist knows that they have an explanation for the way that the economy works, whereas bourgeois economics does not. Yet, the vast majority of economic literature, all of economic teaching in school, and mostly in higher education only deals with bourgeois economic theory. In fact, most bourgeois economists if they were honest know that there are problems with their theories, even if that would not lead them to accept Marxist economic theory. And even Marxist economists are led in the academic world to have to accede to the prevailing viewpoint if they want to work. A self-reinforcing cycle is established. If you want to get a research grant to investigate Global Warming, you are much more likely to obtain one if the purpose of your research is to confirm existing theories, and the more that is true the more research does confirm existing theories.

In fact, I am impressed with the work of Bjorn Lomborg in this respect. See: Lomborg. Lomborg was a member of Greenpeace. He is a statistician, and began analysing the actual data rather than simply going along with his existing Green prejudices. As a result Lomborg found himself coming to a whole series of conclusions, which challenge the current consensus. It is not that Lomborg challenges the fact that Global Warming is occurring, or even that he believes that some if not a large part of it is due to human activity, but that he challenges the conclusions drawn from the facts. In large part I think he is right. For example, Lomborg points out that even if all of the tens of billions of dollars that Kyoto and other programmes require to be spent as part of the anti-Global Warming programme were actually spent, the consequence would be to put back the rise in sea levels by just 6 years. On a cost-benefit analysis that is simply a huge waste of resources. It would be far better as Lomborg argues to accept that sea levels will rise, and use those tens of billions of dollars to develop the economies of poor nations so that they are less effected by such climatic shifts, but moving their economies away from coastal areas, by lessening dependence on agriculture etc. etc. Capitalism will not do this because there is little profit in it. It will advocate the kind of Green Programmes required by Kyoto etc. because such programmes provide state subsidies for huge investment opportunities for the biggest companies, and therefore huge opportunities for guaranteed profits. Moreover, all of the environmentalist industry creates a climate in which consumer sentiment can be shifted. Just look at the way DIY companies began selling individual wind turbines for gullible consumers to put on their houses, which it turned out could barely in most cases produce enough electric to power a single light bulb.

One of the first things school students learn in elementary economics is about stratified marketing. The classic example that used to be given was of the two soap producers Lever brothers and Procter and Gamble. They produced essentially the same soap powder, and simply packaged it in different boxes. One set of boxes was designed to look cheap, another to look expensive. This was backed up with advertising, which emphasised to consumers the cheapness of one set, and the expensiveness of the other. By this means they could maximise profits. The middle class bought the soap powder, at a higher price because they thought they were getting something better, whilst the working class bought the soap powder in the cheaper boxes, because they thought they were getting better value. If you look in the supermarkets now you see the same thing, but in a different guise. There are a whole panoply of organic this and that, free range eggs, or whatever all at much higher prices than the same products in the non-organic packaging all aimed at assuaging the middle class angst, and making them pay through the nose to do so. All of the environmentalist industry and attendant propaganda plays into this as a means of shifting consumer preferences on to ranges of products that capitalists can sell at higher prices, and consequently higher profits having sated normal demand.

Burn Up

The other thing I was watching was last night’s first episode of “Burn Up” an environmentalist political thriller. One of the central themes is about the fact that there are vast reservoirs of methane gas locked up in frozen tundra around the world. Methane is 23 times more effective as a Greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide. As long as the gas is locked up in the frozen tundra everything is fine, but if it is released as a result of the ground beginning to that through Global Warming then the shit hits the fan as a snowball effect of warming is set in train. In fact we know such occurrences have happened in the Earth’s history due to other periods of warming.

But, watching the programme raised a fairly obvious question in my mind. The plot centres on a fictional Oil Company – Arrow Oil – which is heavily invested in exploiting Canadian tar sands. The company has a Green Division investing marginally in Solar Energy. The CEO having got his leg over Neve Campbell who plays the Vice President of this Division, and who has been badly affected by an Inuit woman campaigner who self immolates in front of him is led to consider increasing massively the role of the Solar Power division, funding it by pulling out of the expensive tar sands production.

Burn Off

But, here is the point. Tar sands extraction IS very expensive, some of the other sources of oil are becoming increasingly difficult to get at, and consequently very expensive too – hence the continuing rise in the price of oil. But, the methane locked up in this tundra, which threatens to destroy the Earth if its accidentally released is as the programme demonstrated just waiting to be tapped – huge quantities of it! This methane is effectively what is burnt now from the North Sea and elsewhere. So, why not reduce the possibility of the earth being destroyed by its accidental release, save the cost of extracting expensive oil, and instead simply tap this methane locked up in the tundra? Gas can be used not only for domestic heating, but for burning in power stations as a much cleaner fuel than oil or coal, it can be used in liquid form to fuel car engines and so on, again more efficient and cleaner than oil. This way not only is cheaper fuel produced, but a potential catastrophe waiting to destroy the Earth with or without Man’s help is reduced. Could it be that the reason this is not proposed is because the oil companies that own all the means of production that could exploit this cheap source of fuel, have trillions of dollars tied up in oil production, and it does not suit them to release a cheap source of fuel from which lower profits would derive?

Feast and Famine

The same thing is true of the other story I was watching the other day about famine in East Africa. The story said the famine was due to the high price of food. Actually, this was unlikely. The people shown in the clip were subsistence farmers. They would normally produce their own food not buy it. They were starving because of drought. In fact, the main cause of these people’s distress is not the high price of food, nor even Capitalism. As Lenin said about Russia in attacking the economic romanticism of the Narodniks, the problem is not Capitalism, but not ENOUGH Capitalism. The problem for most of the people in Africa is, in fact, that they live in societies dominated by precapitalist forms of economy, and consequently the productivity of labour is too low to enable subsistence let alone a decent way of life. Petit bourgeois moralising about trying to defend the very ways of life that cause this problem can then never offer any solution.

In fact, the high price of food is probably a means of salvation for such people. When oil prices rose in the 1970’s, it prompted the opening up of more marginal oil fields; it encouraged new types of technology to enable more oil to be extracted from existing fields. The high price of food arising from a rising demand as the people of China and the rest of Asia rightly demand a standard of living comparable to the West, means that other sources of food production will have to be opened up, and it will become profitable to do so. In most cases the real issue with food production is simply the application of enough and the right kind of Capital to overcome existing climatic, and soil conditions. As Lomborg points out, instead of spending tens of billions of dollars on ineffective anti-global warming measures, that Capital would be better employed in parts of Africa to provide irrigation, drainage, desalination plants etc. etc. in order to open up the vast potential that Africa offers for feeding the world. Yes, such developments would abolish the primitive ways of life that exist in some of these places, but as a Marxist we believe that is progressive. The question is how such change is brought about. But then given the choice of starving or working as an agricultural worker or even in areas where agriculture couldn’t be sustained working to maintain a wind farm, or solar energy farm on a living wage, I know which I would choose.

Monday, 21 July 2008

More Media Misinformation

The BBC over the last couple of days has been running stories about the Government's proposals, published today in a Green Paper, on abolishing Incapacity benefit, and replacing it with a new regime based on forcing sick people to go to work. It follows, ironically a period, during which many employers including the Government and Local Authorities, have been taking a much harder line on sickness by people actually in work, the new regulations in the Public Sector, for instance that have made it almost impossible to obtain retirement on the basis of ill-health, and the turn to simply sacking people for being off sick for too long.

The BBC reports have talked about people claiming Incapacity Benefit having to be seen by a doctor who is not their own GP. But, that gives the impression that that is not the case already, suggesting that people have been simply imposing on their personal relationship with their GP to get them to sign unwarranted sick notes. Firstly, of course that is a terrible slur on GP's, but secondly it simply isn't true. It has always, or at least for many, many years, been the case that if you claim Incapacity Benefit, then after a couple of months, you have to go to see a doctor appointed by the Department of Work and Pensions, in order to be assessed. They have a points based criteria of if you are sufficiently incapacitated to need Benefit. Not only that, but in addition to be seen in the interim by your GP, you have to go back to the DWP doctor at regular intervals to be re-assessed.

So yet again the capitalist media without actually telling lies, phrase things in a way that suggests that some people are getting something for nothing. No wonder you get people writing in like the idiot whose e-mail was read out on News 24, - who probably being lucky enough not yet to have suffered ill-health, and who has been lucky enough to get a well-paid job or leaches of the profit made by workers - who claimed that there were loads of lazy people living off his taxes, who should just be left to work or starve!!!

Of course, in another news story there were identified people who actually do get something for nothing. I'm not talking here about the parasites of the Royal Family who live on a dole of millions o pounds, and who live in luxurious Council houses for free,no I'm talking about the Directors of Network Rail, who were paid bonuses of around £200,000. Most people would be delighted to be paid that amount of money let alone get it just as a bonus!!! Even the highest rate of Incapacity Benefit is only £84.50 a week, the lowest rate £63.75. In other words that single £200,000 bonus is equivalent to all the Incapacity Benefit someone could receive in about 70 years!!!!! That's before we consider all of the billions of pounds that the rich squirrel away that they avoid paying in tax.

One of the features of modern life is the number of quangos that the Government has set up on the pretext of dealing with some of the problems of Sickness and Unemployment. Of course, each of these new organisations that appear and disappear over night like mushrooms, is headed by some bureaucrat on a whacking salary. My son who has recently started his own business after being made redundant has in recent weeks had to come into contact with many of them. One ridiculous thing was that if we lived about half a mile further South he would have been able to have received £72 a week for a year as part of starting a new business. As it is he gets nothing. One organisation he was pointed to, the Princes Trust, which it turns out was sponsored by the Abbey, effectively only wanted to get him to take out a loan!!!! After he was made redundant one piece of advice he was given by the dole was that he should buy a car!!! And they wonder why people have so much debt, and this from a Government that is supposed to be in favour of reducing reliance on the car.

There was another example, of this on the BBC coverage this morning. They had someone on from one of these quangos, I think it was called Worklink or something like that, he interviewer quite rightly asked the question in relation to proposals to make the unemployed work for their dole, if they would be paid the Minimum Wage, or was this effectively just a slave labour programme similar to those run in many totalitarian regimes. Of course, the interviewee didn't answer the question. But, if such schmes are introduced then it is up o the unions to ensure that nyone so employed is paid the Minimum Wage, or better still the Union Rate for whatever job is being undertaken.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Dialectics at Work

Trotsky said that the essence of the dialectic was the understanding that the truth is always concrete. By that what he meant was that for Marxists there can be no room for formalistic thinking when it came to analysing social realities, and how they should react to them. There ar no absolutes. In the last few days I have been reading some of the online material of a couple of left groups, and there are a couple of instances where this approach applies clearly, but where the left still appears stuck in a formalistic method. I am sure there are many more, but its these two in particular I have been reading, and in one case responding to.

Permanent Revolution

The first is a discussion on the permanent Revolution website. The discussion began by an article about Venezuela, and the PSUV, and how Marxists should respond to it. See: PSUV. But, the debate has widened somewhat to encompass the question - "What constitutes a Workers Party?", and "How Should Marxists Relate to Existing Mass Parties?" I have dealt with this question myself before in my blog - Marxists and the Workers Party.

Marx and Definitions

The point is that a Workers Party like a Workers State or any other kind of social formation cannot be viewed as some kind of absolute, cannot be viewed in the formalistic terms of syllogistic logic, where A always equals A, a Workers State is always a Workers State, a Workers party always a Workers Party and so on, provided the definition of what Workers State or Workers Party is set down clearly, and so every example can be compared to see if it matches. It cannot be like that for the simple reason that there cannot be some absolute definition set down in stone of what a Workers State is, or what a Workers Party is. That definition must for a Marxist be determined itself with reference not to absolutes, but with reference to reality.

Look in Marx for a fixed definition of what is central to his theory - class. You will not find it. Look for a similar definition of the other aspect of his theory, which is fundamental - productive relations. Again you will not find it. In Capital III Marx did begin to give an elaborated theory of class, but stopped work on it, because he found himself going round in circles. All we are left with in Capital is a small fragment. As one theorist has put it, Marx found himself becoming a "box person", whereby he found himself trying to fit phenomena such as class, or more precisely individuals in this case into boxes i.e. this individual has this set of characteristics, and therefore goes in this box rather than that box. That is the method of twentieth century analytical science. But in fact, such an approach would be fundamentally alien to Marx and Engels, and indeed many other theorists of the 19th century. The reason it is fundamentally alien can be seen by looking at how Marx and Engels actually did proceed.

Does the fact that Marx never set down in black and white what he meant by class, or by productive relations mean that in fact he did not have a definition of those things, that in fact, therefore, he did not really have a theory based on such a definition? Of course not. Marx does define what he means by class, but what he means by class is not at all formalistic, is not a fixed definition, so he could not define class in terms of class is A, B, C, D etc. characteristics, precisely because at some other time and place, class would not be those components, but might be some of them but not others, might include other components and so on. Look at Marx's clearest use of the concept of class in his works such as the Civil War in France, or the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. There you will see that Marx does not begin by giving a list like definition of class before proceeding to his analysis, but proceeds by an analysis of reality, and defines the various classes in terms of their actual reality and interrelationships.

Engels to Bloch

Engels in his letter to Bloch outlines why he and Marx could not possibly have a definition of class, which sought to locate individuals in particular classes according to fixed formula. He writes,

"In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting force, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it."

See: Engels letter to Bloch

But, the same is true for productive relations. Marx and Engels refer t productive relations many times in their work, but nowhere are they actually defied, nor could they be. Throughout Capital Marx defines Productive Relations not in some fixed, formalistic way, but in their concrete reality, in their process of development as they arise in society.

For the same reason it is not possible to define a Workers State or a Workers Party in such absolute and formalistic terms. To say this cannot be a Workers Party because although the majority of its members are workers its leadership is bourgeois is not a Marxist, dialectical method of analysis. In the same way saying this MUST be a Workers Party, because it is made up of workers, or because it has a Marxist programme etc. is not Marxist either. There can be no such absolute definitions. The only basis of definition can be to take the phenomenon in its concrete reality including all other conditions of its existence, and the direction of the process of development. The German Democrats in terms of its Programme and leadership were when Marx and Engels joined them, but in its concrete reality was it a Workers Party? Yes, it was, precisely because given the historical development and the material conditions there was nothing more advanced that could at the time have existed, nothing that could more closely have approximated the Workers Party in its state of maturity. It would have been sectarian folly then for Marx and Engels to have simply looked at this party in the formal terms of its Programme and leadership, declared it bourgeois, and set off on some adventure to create yet another tiny and irrelevant sect. That is why they didn't do it.

At the same time with a working class demonstrating a clearer class consciousness, clamouring for a Party that more closely met its needs, and coincided with its ideas it would have been equally folly to have argued against establishing the Labour Party - as for example the Fabians did - on the basis that the majority of workers still gave their support to the Liberals!

Dialectics and the Workers Party Today

But, if we apply that dialectical method to today what conclusion do we reach. Can we identify any material conditions which justify the belief that a Workers Party could exist in Britain that was a Workers Party in the way that the LP is i.e. that it is made up of largely ordinary working class people, attracts the support of ordinary working class people, is organically linked to the Labour Movement through the Trade Unions and Co-operative Movement, and yet which had a programme that more adequately reflected the needs of the working class? If anyone can I would love to see it. The fact is that no such material conditions currently exist. The LP is what it is, and is where it is, not for some inexplicable reason, but for wholly identifiable reasons. All of those sects from the Communist Party, through the WRP, to the SWP, to the Socialist Alliance, through to the latest farce of the Left List in the London Elections, have failed to win any kind of substantial working class backing, in votes or in membership for perfectly understandable reasons. The reason was given by Engels, don't try to ram down the throats of workers ideas they are not yet ready to accept. And the fact is that workers CANNOT accept the ideas of such organisations in the mass for the simple reason that the workers consciousness has not yet reached the necessary level to be able to accept those ideas. They remain dominated by bourgeois ideas, at best bourgeois ideas as refracted through the lens of Social Democracy, at worst in their unrefracted clarity through the Tory Party, the Lib Dems, or Blairism. In order for workers consciousness to change the workers material condition has to change, and that in itself is a dialectical process.


For most of the 20th century the workers experience of "socialism" was refracted through the lens of statism. Having experienced the crisis of Capitalism in WWI, in the depression of the 1930's, in the rise of Fascism, of the catastrophe of WWII it is not surprising that workers could reach the conclusion that there must be something better than that. Having seen the success of the Russian Revolution, seen the capacity for Stalinism to develop a medieval economy at a rapid pace at precisely the time when capitalism was collapsing during the Depression, it is not surprising that at least a large section of workers would see in that example a way forward, especially if they either were unaware of, or else set aside from their thoughts the brutal aspects of Stalinism. Having seen, the fact that State provision of certain services such as Education could provide them with some improvement in their lot, and given the fact that all the Socialist and Communist Parties had such state provision as the core of their Programmes, it is not surprising that workers should see such statism as the means of resolving their problems. So we have a combination of material and ideological factors interrelating here in a dialectical fashion to shape workers consciousness. But, in fact as Marx outlined in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, that Programme of statism whether in its Leninist form or in its Social democratic form could in reality never lead workers towards a socialist class consciousness, precisely because it leads workers to rely not on their own self-activity, but to rely on the State whether that be in the former instance a Workers State under the control of an elitist vanguard (at best), or a bourgeois state theoretically at the disposal of a Workers Government.

It is no wonder that this whole edifice collapsed once as Marx had warned such a programme was shown to have nothing to with socialism. And it collapsed not just in its Leninist, but in its Social Democratic forms. Workers consciousness can only be raised and moved towards a socialist consciousness if the material conditions change in a direction which provides the basis for that. That means if the means of production begin to come under the ownership and control not of some State, but of the workers themselves. Only on that basis can workers arrive at the conclusion, not only CAN they manage without bosses, but that they MUST manage without bosses. The workers might fail, this or that co-operative might collapse because it is not competitive etc. But workers can understand that, learn the lessons and move on. They can learn that they need more Capital, they need to be better trained or educated, that they need a greater degree of co-operation with other co-operatives, that they need a political struggle to prevent the bourgeois state and the bourgeoisie from frustrating their efforts. But all of these are lessons that workers can learn that RAISE their level of class-consciousness. And in doing so they facilitate the development of socialist ideas within the class, facilitate their spread and their formulation within the Programme of the Workers Party. None of that is true of those statist approaches, which seek to divert workers down the path of seeking solutions by the good grace of some State.

That is not to say that in order to move forward to socialism workers will not need to establish a Workers State, or that within that process they will need to go beyond individually owned co-operatives, into an economy based on State owned property, this is not a programme of Anarchism or Proudhonism, but it is to suggest as Marx and Engels did, that that process can only arise from the bottom up, that the Workers State rests upon a Civil Society in which Workers Property and Workers Control dominates, and not vice versa. Read, Engels for instance ho insists that he and Marx saw Co-operatives as fulfilling a central role for a long time in the process of transformation between capitalism and socialism, and who says that their view of State ownership amounted to nothing more than that the State held the title deeds to the property, whilst the actual day to day management rested with the workers themselves in each enterprise.

Workers have experienced this statism, and reject it. Even in the form most people have some kind of affinity to - the NHS - a recent poll showed that 70% of people if they could afford would use private health care. Experience of the inefficient, bureaucratic, nature of state provision necessarily leads workers to reject it as a solution to their problems, whereas once - precisely because all they could compare against was private capitalist provision - they saw it as a solution. Marxists should never have been advocating that statist solution to workers problems, but as Draper has correctly argued the mass Social Democratic parties of the late 19th and early centuries owed most of their Programme not to Marx, but to Lassalle and to Fabianism. Lenin cast off the reformist elements of the Second International, but his ideology retained all of that Lassallean statism. It is no use Marxists today continuing to bang hat drum. It is time to get back to the ideas of Marx, and Engels, and indeed others such as Morris that insists on solutions coming from the direct, self-activity of the class, and which sets as its basis the transformation of the workers material conditions as the fundamental requirement for the transformation of consciousness.

See also: Why Marxists Do Not Call for Nationalisation

Workers cannot align themselves with the ideas that the left propose, because the reality is that such ideas are outside the realm of what appears real to them. You cannot ask workers to support a Programme based on statism when they have seen such statism in Britain, and in the USSR and reject it – and quite rightly too. You cannot ask workers to support the idea that all would be well if only the workers in these industries had Workers Control, because the obvious question a worker will ask is, “Why should an employer allow me to exercise control over his business?” Given that only a tiny minority of workers even go to their union Branch meetings, why would these same workers want to put themselves out to go to yet another meeting to exercise such control? That only becomes an obvious and necessary function for the workers to carry out, and something they can understand IF they themselves are the owners of the business. Even if the business is owned by a “Workers State” there is no necessary connection between that ownership, and the individual workers relationship to it. That is one reason why in Russia, workers were prepared to allow in the main the State itself to organise the control, and so led to the formation of a bureaucratic stratum. A necessary alienation between the workers and those means of production is set up from the beginning.

London and the Left List

So time and again the left decide that the Labour Party – or other mass Workers parties elsewhere – is dead, and if only they build the New Workers Party “they will come”. Unfortunately, life is not a movie, and the illusions remain just a dream. Look at the fiasco of the London Elections. The SWP sets up yet another front organisation to contest the elections. Even the SWP’s most virulent opponents, the AWL, having declared the LP a stinking corpse, decides to jump on its bandwagon – See: Vote labour, and The Labour Party is Dead - and calls for a vote for the reactionaries of Hezbollah/SWP. The Left got less than 1% of the vote, just a quarter of the vote that went to the BNP!!! The result was not only that Boris Johnson was elected, which is a catastrophe for all London’s workers, but that it strengthened the Right in the LP, who can now turn round, and demonstrate just how irrelevant the left is, and use that as a weapon against the left in the Workers Party.

Consequence of a Labour Defeat

It is quite possible given the current state of the Parties that Brown will lose the next General Election. It is not certain, they were written off a couple of weeks ago for the Glasgow East by-election, but now look certain to win it, and much will depend upon what happens to the economy, and what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran. See: Will Mr Brown Be Sent Off to the Coast? But, the likely consequence of such a defeat will not be that Workers will swarm to some new Left Party. The likely consequence is that it will spell the end of Brown/Blairism, will lead the TU bureaucrats to reassert some control, and thereby to establish some kind of semi-Stalinist, Left reformist Party with a consequent return of many Old Labour supporters, and probably a significant number of new ones who simply respond to the lifting of the dead-weight of Blairism. That will not be a particularly progressive development. It would be far better were Marxists now to be organising themselves within the Labour Party ready to shape such developments.

The CPGB and the USSR

The second discussion I was reading was one in the Weekly Worker from some time ago about the USSR. The CPGB says in its Draft Programme,


“From the point of view of world revolution, programmes for wholesale nationalisation are today objectively reactionary. The historic task of the working class is to fully socialise the giant transnational corporations not break them up into inefficient national units. Our starting point is the most advanced achievements of capitalism. Globalised production needs global social control.
Communists oppose the illusion that nationalisation equates in some way with socialism. There is nothing inherently progressive or socialistic about nationalised industries.”

Point 3.4

Other than the fact that the first part of this is a bit maximalist and ultimatist, this is largely correct for the reasons I have given above in my blog “Why Marxists Do Not Argue for nationalisation”. But, for the reasons outlined there, the next part of the Weekly Workers Programme is wrong, when it says,

“Under definite circumstances, however, nationalisation serves the interests of the workers. Faced with plans for closure or mass sackings, communists demand that the state - the executive committee of the bourgeoisie - not the workers bear the consequences for failure.”

No it does not!!! The capitalists state if it nationalises something does not do it for the benefit of the workers, but for the benefit of the capitalist class it serves. To suggest otherwise is extremely foolish and misleads the working class. To suggest that the Capitalist state has done this to meet the interest of workers is to suggest one of two things either that in the same way that the Lassalleans and Katheder Socialists argued the State is some kind of empty vessel devoid of class content, which can just as easily act in workers interests as bosses interests, or it is to suggest that workers can actually exercise control over that state. But, Trotsky showed what was wrong with this last concept. Criticising the Comintern and other centrists who argued that it was possible to control the army of the capitalist state he wrote,

"Where and when has an oppressed proletariat “controlled” the foreign policy of the bourgeoisie and the activities of its arm? How can it achieve this when the entire power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie? In order to lead the army, it is necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize power. There is no other road. But the new policy of the Communist International implies the renunciation of this only road.

When a working class party proclaims that in the event of war it is prepared to “control” (i.e., to support) its national militarism and not to overthrow it, it transforms itself by this very thing into the domestic beast of capital. There is not the slightest ground for fearing such a party: it is not a revolutionary tiger but a trained donkey. It may be kept in starvation, flogged, spat upon it – it will nevertheless.”

Marxists and Adequate Slogans of Struggle

But, it is just as ludicrous to suggest that workers can control the actions of the bouregois state in terms of it nationalising means of production, as is the idea that workers can control the armed forces of that state. In a superficial sense the fact that the State interferes to “save” workers jobs appears beneficial, but the state only does that in order to save Capital, not to save the workers jobs. The workers do not make the bourgeois state pay for the crisis, the bouregois state uses its greater power than the power of the private capitalit the better to throw the cost of that crisis on to the workers. Just look at the nationalisation of Norther Rock. The capitalists were protected, the first action of the newly nationalised company was to announce the redundancy of thousands of workers!!!! Of course, just as marxists do not turn round to workers engaging in a strike for higher pay, and procalim, “Your struggle is futile, you should be struggling for the aboliiton of the wages system” so Marxists would not oppose, or stand aside from a struggle by workers for such nationalisation, nor would they argue for private ownership as against a decision of the capitalist state to nationalise. But, the task of Marxists IS at the same time as supporting the workers struggle to raise with them demands which give them an adequate slogan of struggle as Marx put it in his letter to Ruge. In a pay strike, Marxists SHOULD be also pointing out that such can only be a skirmish, that the bosses will seek to claw back any gains, and that only by becoming their own bosses can that change. Similarly, as Engels argued where businesses are being threatened with closure the Marxists argue not for nationalisation, but for the establishment of a Co-operative.

“The matter has nothing to do with either Sch[ulze]-Delitzsch or with Lassalle. Both propagated small cooperatives, the one with, the other without state help; however, in both cases the cooperatives were not meant to come under the ownership of already existing means of production, but create alongside the existing capitalist production a new cooperative one. My suggestion requires the entry of the cooperatives into the existing production. One should give them land which otherwise would be exploited by capitalist means: as demanded by the Paris Commune, the workers should operate the factories shut down by the factory-owners on a cooperative basis. That is the great difference. And Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale. It must only be so organised that society, initially the state, retains the ownership of the means of production so that the private interests of the cooperative vis-a-vis society as a whole cannot establish themselves. It does not matter that the Empire has no domains; one can find the form, just as in the case of the Poland debate, in which the evictions would not directly affect the Empire.”

See:Engels on Co-operatives

As I have argued in my blog “Why Marxists Do Not Call for Nationalisation” Marxists argue for a solution based on workers self-activity, which can act to develop class consciousness, and at the same time change the material conditions of the class – the establishment of co-operatives – not for nationalisation, but that does not mean that Marxists argue AGAINST nationalisation, in favour of private ownership. We take nationalisation for what it is, a more mature, and therefore, more historically progressive form of Capitalist ownership, and defend it against less mature. Less progressive forms such as private ownership, but that defence does not prevent us arguing for going beyond that form, arguing that it is reactionary compared with workers ownership, with the co-operative form.

The demands set out by the CPGB then:

“Against closures and mass sackings communists demand:
· No redundancies. Nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers' control.
· Compensation to former owners should be paid only in cases of proven need.
· There must be no business secrets hidden from the workers. The books and data banks of every company must be open to the inspection of specialists appointed by and responsible to the workers. “

Are meaningless. Who are these demands addressed to? If they are addressed to the bourgeois state, then why on Earth would the bourgeois state accede to them? If the state can be forced to accede to them, then the working class must already be in a position of power itself, must have overthrown the bourgeoisie and exercises state power itself!

Defence of Workers Gains

Of course, Marxists can recognise that say the NHS is inefficient, is run in the interests of the capitalists, not the workers and so on, and needs to be superseded by a Health Service owned and controlled by workers, but that does not mean that Marxists will not oppose attempts to private the NHS, to defend the gains already made, and attempt to build on them. That is so despite the fact that the NHS contains nothing that is socialist any more than any other state capitalist institution. In fact, as I have said, the majority of workers would use private medicine if they could afford. The CPGB agree with this concept of defending existing gains. However, when it comes to dealing with the USSR they abandon that method. In a debate on the USSR, we read,

“Comrade Ticktin declared himself amazed than anyone could still hold to a view of defending the USSR state. He described the Soviet Union in the 1960s, when he lived there, as a crude, brutal society. It is possible to demonstrate both theoretically and practically that there was nothing to defend in the USSR state, and any group that does defend it damns itself and shames the left. We should repudiate the regime, not defend it, he added.”

See: CPGB Debate on USSR.
No one can doubt what Comrade Ticktin says about the brutality etc., but to draw from this the conclusion that there is nothing to defend is to lapse into moralism and subjectivism not Marxism. Capitalism itself in the early 19th century was pretty brutal too, it sat by and watched a quarter of the population of Ireland starve to death in the name of the Free market, for instance. And for much of its existence from its inception in the 15th century, Capitalism was not even more productive than the existing feudal economy. Yet that did not prevent Marx from identifying the process of which it was a part, and the fact that viewed dialectically and not formalistically, Capitalism was progressive, precisely because of the potential it represented. The NHS could be viewed in exactly the same way, it is pretty brutal in the way it denies some workers the treatments and the medication they require, even more brutal in the fact that instead of making some workers better it kills them through MRSA, and other infections that arise because of inadequate cleaning, a concentration on economies of scale to save money at the expense of patient care and so on. It like Stalinism is run by a self serving bureaucracy, with an almost feudal set of patriarchal staff relations and so on. Yet, I am sure that Comrade Ticktin would defend it as against a return of private medicine.

Those comrades at the CPGB debate who argued, “that what should be defended is not a state, but the gains of the working class in and against any system. In Britain, for example, we defend the gains of the working class in the form of a health service and so on, without, of course, defending British capitalism, under which those gains have been won.” Were at least partially correct then, but too mealy mouthed in their response. Marxists do not just defend the gains of the working class in the form of a Health Service without defending British capitalism, they defend the Health Service itself, even in its current form, as against a return to private medicine. Marxists should, but largely don’t, argue that the best way to prevent a return of private medicine is for the health Service to be adequate to the needs of Workers, which would mean supporting measures here and now to exercise some form of democratic control over it, by workers and patients. But, in line with what I have said above, it is necessary for Marxists to set out to workers why any such control either will not be given, or will only be given under extreme duress, and will be undermined and taken back by the State, and why, therefore, it is necessary for workers to establish their own Health Service owned and controlled by them. If we apply that to the USSR then it is clear that the workers of the USSR could not set up some other State, some other complex of economic and social relations apart from the actual State that constituted the USSR. Defending the gains made by workers could not be separated from defending the actual territory of the USSR itself. That does not mean defending Stalinism, any more than defending the NHS against private medicine means defending the bureaucratic, inefficient nature of the NHS. On the contrary, just as the best means of defending the workers gains in Britain meant going beyond the limitations of the NHS, so too the best means of defending the workers gains in the USSR meant going beyond Stalinism.

Comrade Ticktin’s argument ends up in reality no different from that of the Bureaucratic Collectivists who denied that the USSR was a Workers State in order to get round the problem that they did not like what they saw, could not reconcile themselves with a reactionary form covering a progressive content. The Moral Socialists, the Economic Romanticists of the Sismondi School had exactly the same problem in relation to their disgust for the horrors of Capitalism. The Narodniks later suffered the same problem as Lenin polemicised against. It is the same methodology that leads some Marxists to deny that the Labour party is a Workers Party, because they disdain the fact that a Workers Party could have such a Programme, and set that outside time and space against their vision of some perfect Workers Party to which all others have to compare. Hillel has the advantage over the Bureaucratic Collectivists that unlike most of them, he has at least undertaken a serious study of the USSR, and rightly concluded that the new class they believe to have sprung miraculously into existence, is in fact a chimera. Unfortunately, he is then left with the problem of explaining what the State in the USSR was. He ends up then denying a basic tenet of Marxism and positing a State, which is not a class state, a state which is not the instrument of any class! Such is the consequence of abandoning Marxist objectivity.


Saturday, 19 July 2008

Great News - House prices Set to Fall Further

According to a BBC interview with the CEO of Citibank there is some great economic news for workers - House prices are set to fall further, perhaps eevn for the next two years. With concern about the steadily rising prices of everything, from fuel to food, that the price of, that other large component of workers expenses, housing, is set to continue to fall is marvellous news. After all, in the last few years the BBC itself has run many stories about the plight of ordinary working class people who cannot afford a home of their own. Now, with house prices falling many more of them will be rescued from that plight.

But, its not just first time buyers who set to be much better off, existing home owners stand to benefit too. Most people tend to move from a less expensive house to a more expensive one. So if say you have a £100,000 house, and were looking to move up to a £200,000 house, you might find that your earnings and savings are not sufficient to make that move up. However, suppose house prices fall by 50%. Your existing house is now priced at only £50,000, but the house you want to buy costs only £100,000. Where before you needed to find an extra £100,000, you now only need to find £50,000, so the fall in house prices has made you £50,000 better off. As I said what wonderful news!

Of course, some people stand to lose. If you have come to a point where you want to move to a smaller house in your later years then the relative change in prices would leave you worse off, but just think how much better off your kids are as a result! And if house prices fall that will affect inflation in general, which always badly affects people on fixed incomes.

Of course, there are others who will lose out. The speculators who bought houses not to live in themselves, but who thought they could screw a profit out of others as prices rose will lose out. But, they are a tiny minority who get what they desrve anyway. Landlords will lose out, both because the Capital value of their properties falls, and because falling house prices means more people can buy instead of rent so reducing rents. Again they are a tiny minority who gets what it deserves. The final group that will lose out are the Banks and other financial sharks that have lent too much money to people - often who they knew had no chance of paying it back - and who thereby pushed house prices up to ridiculous levels that meant many ordinary workers could not afford houses. If those loans go bad as thy have in the US, and the houses they were lent against are now worth less than the loans the Banks and other vultures will make a loss. But again, they and their billionaire shareholders represent a tiny minority, who more than all the others will have got what they deserve.

From where I stand that's a win win situation. Workers gain from cheaper houses, capitalists and landlords lose out. Wonderful news. Yet, despite the fact that the BBC have run all those stories about how bad it is that workers can't afford houses because they are too expensive, the BBC present this news too as though it were bad news. Could it be that their interview with the Head of Citibank, and their interpretation of this as bad news simply tells us from what class perspective the BBC actually views things?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Severe Financial Warning

A Crisis of Biblical proportions

This has to be a short post, because I did my back in a few days ago, and its painful sitting typing. However, events last night on the markets, lead me to believe that a very serious situation might have arisen. If I am right, and it plays out, then we are talking a complete financial meltdown, a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, "rivers of blood, cats and dogs living together etc.". What causes me to think that is two things.

Yesterday, bank stocks got trounced again. Britain's second largest bank - Royal Bank of Scotland - whose share price had already fallen, from over £6 last year down below the £2 price of its £12 billion rights issue, of just a couple of months ago - a rights issue which effectively diluted the share capital by 40% - got trounced again. Its share price fell to just £1.60. Some financial commentators have said that, if its price falls to £1.50, then it is likely to see possible takeover interest, or at least interest from wealthy speculators and investors. We'll see. Royal Bank of Scotland itself, along with other big British banks, had only last week bought shares in Bradford and Bingley, when its shares collapsed, after it botched a proposed takeover by a US Private Equity company. In the meantime, Santander, which does not seem to have the same problems, caused by exposure to the credit crunch, that other European banks have, has taken the opportunity to buy up Alliance and Leicester on the cheap, to be merged with Abbey.

In the US, the same assault on banks' capital base continued. Not only did the huge Government sponsored mortgage providers, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, continue to see their shares collapse, but another large bank, based in California, Indymac, collapsed, causing the state to have to intervene, to protect savers' deposits. As I said last week, it was becoming obvious that the state would have to intervene, to prop up Fanny and Freddie. Outright nationalisation was discussed, then, on Friday, a rumour spread that the Federal Reserve would allow them to have access to the discount window - an emergency measure that it was argued might have saved Bear Stearns. It effectively means the Fed takes mortgage paper in return for cash - but then that rumour was denied by the Fed.  Reminiscent of both Northern Rock and Bear Stearns, official spokesman appeared to proclaim that both Freddie and Fannie were sound and so on. Its said that whenever a spokesman has to appear to give such pronouncements it means the bank is already dead. Sure enough the shares of Freddie and Fannie, along with other banks, continued to fall precipitously, yesterday.

Oil and Liquidity

Then, in the middle of Ben Bernanke's Humphrey Hawkins presentation to Congress, something surprising happened. The August Oil Futures' price fell by $9 a barrel - a fall of more than 5%, which is big, even for today's volatile oil market. There was no basis, in the fundamentals, for such a fall. It appeared that the cause was liquidation of positions by the distressed banks. In other words, banks, which have held positions in oil, for example, the growing number of Exchange Traded Funds, took the profits that these holdings have been showing, due to the rapid rise in the price of oil. But why??? The fundamentals for the oil price remain strong. Supply is not matching demand, and is not likely to. Even if new supply could be brought on stream, it is likely not to be for another 7 years, and, by that time, will not be anywhere near enough even to cover the increase in demand that would have arisen by that time. The increasing likelihood of an attack, by the US on Iran, means that dislocation in the oil market is likely to see the oil price spike, providing a perfect opportunity for holders of oil futures to sell, and make a huge profit. The only reason banks could have been selling oil, on such a scale, and under such conditions, is because they have to.

When the financial crisis hit Japan, in the 1990's, part of the cause was the extent to which Japanese banks had interlocking share ownerships. One bank held shares in other banks. If the share prices rose, then, on the balance sheets of other banks, this meant a stronger asset position, and meant that the bank could lend more money. But, when that all began to unravel, the opposite occurred. All of those bank shares collapsed, reducing the capital value of other banks, and causing them to have to liquidate assets, in order to bolster their balance sheets, to conform to legal requirements on reserve assets. That could be the tsunami about to hit US and British Banks.

It has long been suspected that capitalist states, the US Fed in particular, have intervened in capital markets. In the period after the Crash of 2001, one favoured method was thought to be for the Fed, or the Treasury Department, to buy equity futures, towards the last hour of trade, in the cash market, on days where prices had fallen sharply. By buying futures, particularly in large cap companies, that can move the market indices, at a time when the market is less liquid, prices can be moved more than during other times of the day. Moreover, seeing a sudden move in the futures prices, of important stocks, traders in the cash market, are forced to scramble to buy stock, for fear of being left short of stock, in these companies, the next day, if some important news comes out, which has been the cause of the move in the futures price.

In the long term, such manipulation of the market has to be unwound, it cannot be a means of preventing an ultimate fall in share prices - though in Hong Kong and elsewhere, where such intervention occurs openly and legally, the state has held large share positions, for considerable periods, in order to stabilise share prices - but it can, on days where large falls have been experienced, act as a firebreak, reversing the selling, and stopping a chaotic collapse. Such action, to manipulate the market, is probably illegal, but as recent years have shown, capitalists have little concern for legality in such matters.  The casino is rigged for the big players. Legal or not, it certainly gives the lie to the idea that capitalism operates through a "free" market. Its also thought that, because some large private financial institutions had gone short of gold, in a big way, some years ago - largely because they believed gold served no useful purpose; its price had collapsed, over 20 years, from a high of $800 an ounce, in 1980, to just $250 an ounce, in 1999; the dollar acted as world currency, and there were other assets that could be held, that produced a return - some of them were in danger of going bust, as the sharp rise in the gold price meant they had to cover these shorts, many of which were also highly leveraged. It is a certain fact that, at a time when the gold price was rising, central banks, in Britain and the US, began selling gold from their reserves. Such a decision, by Gordon Brown, a few years ago, cost Britain several billion pounds in lost reserves.

If the large banks are being forced into distressed sales of assets, it must mean that their balance sheets have been badly hit, and they need to rebuild their cash position, in order to conform with reserve requirements. At a time of credit crunch, that is all the more serious. The sharp fall in oil futures caused share prices to rise, including the share prices of the banks. That is partly due to the fact that the high and rising oil price has caused share prices to fall due to concerns about its effect on consumer spending. General Motors, which has effectively been bankrupt for several years, and which has only stayed afloat due to the profits earned by its financial and credit arm - GMAC, whose iffy mortgages Bradford and Bingley was contracted to take on - saw its share price fall sharply as demand for its gas guzzlers collapsed - demand for Toyota's Prius, and other small cars has continued to rise, however. But, such a respite is likely to be short lived. The basic fundamentals for oil remain the same, its price will continue to rise after this blip.


What the above demonstrates is the Byzantine web of interrelationships between capitalist firms and financial institutions, which as Paul Mason, on Newsnight, last week, said, requires a series of fictions to be maintained in order to keep going. Increasingly, those fictions are being exposed. None of this changes the basic economic fundamentals, of the current situation, or the argument I have outlined over the last few weeks, or indeed, the basic economic analysis I have outlined for the last 6 or 7 years. The world economy, IS in the Spring Phase of a new Kondratiev Long Wave, which has, and will, see phenomenal economic growth. The indication of that is that DESPITE the phenomenal pressures that have existed for the last year, the worst FINANCIAL crisis since the 1930's, the huge increase in oil prices etc., the world economy continues to grow. Indeed, Ben Bernanke said, yesterday, that US Second Quarter growth had been stronger than anticipated. Despite all the headline grabbing doom-mongering, in the bourgeois press, aimed, at least in part, to persuade workers from demanding wage increases, to compensate for high inflation, even in the old and sclerotic economies of the US and UK, weighed down with huge amounts of public and private debt, encouraged and accumulated in the last 30 years, as a means of countering the effects of the Long Wave downturn, we continue to see economic growth NOT recession.

But, clearly recessions CAN occur, even during the Long Wave boom. As Trotsky pointed out, in his critique of Kondratiev, there can be exogenous shocks. If, the world's most powerful financial institutions all collapsed - and financial services like other service industries now account for the most important aspects of economic activity - that would be one hell of an exogenous shock, which would be bound to have an effect on the rest of the economy. A lot depends on what happens in terms of the US financial institutions, and in particular Fannie and Freddie. At the moment the intervention of the US authorities is inadequate. But, its a careful balancing act for them. If they don't nationalise them then the possibility exists of a rapid collapse, before such action could be taken. If they do, then this would send a signal to the market that there was a really serious situation, and might cause a run on other banks, which would mean that Fannie and Freddie might be saved, at the cost of collapsing hundreds of other financial institutions. In fact, its thought that, even if they dodge this bullet, hundreds of US banks will either go bust or get bought up, because compared to Europe, the US has far too many small banks.

In fact, although some have said that the state nationalising Fannie and Freddie would double the size of the US deficit, this is not true. Although the assets of Fannie and Freddie run into trillions of dollars, the amount the state would have to inject is much, much smaller. Its only that amount, which would be exposed, because its unlikely all of those mortgages would go bad. In fact, as Jim Cramer said last week, buying up Fannie and Freddie could be seen, in a few years, as a good investment, for the US taxpayer, as those mortgages got repaid.

Either way, it is a serious situation for financial capitalism. Any crisis, that results from it, would be likely to be sharp and severe, but for that reason, might be short lived. Indeed, it might only strengthen China, and other new capitalist powers. China, in particular, with its state controlled economy, could be better placed than most to weather such a storm, especially given its huge reserves, and its potential to develop an enormous home market for its commodities. Given the fact, uncovered recently, that China has been developing a huge navy, including a large submarine fleet, in deep water, as a means of exercising control, in the area, such a development could strengthen China's position considerably.

The New Society Forces Itself on The Old

What is becoming clear, once again, is that the basic contradictions, within capitalism, mean that it cannot proceed on the basis of the myth of neo-liberalism - which really was a myth, because the capitalist state has been intervening in the economy, on an unprecedented scale, over the last 30 years, just using Monetarist rather than Keynesian fiscal measures - let alone old style Liberal methods. Increasingly, capitalism is forced to borrow from the forms and methods of the new society, of socialism. At the level of the enterprise, it is forced to replace competition with monopoly, and oligopolistic competition (which in fact has largely turned into oligopolistic co-operation, for example, the sharing of engines, the joint partnerships of the biggest car manufacturers etc.), to replace the price mechanism with long term planning, and to integrate this within the context of a macro-economic environment of stability, engineered by the state through monetary and fiscal intervention, and through a dominant role, for the state, in economic activity itself - even in neo-liberal America, the state accounts for around 40% of economic activity, and in Europe its closer to 50%. Now, even that most old style of state intervention is returning - state ownership.

But, capitalism can never utilise these forms and methods in the way socialism can and would. Capitalism remains interested only in the production of profit. It uses these methods for that end alone. And, for that reason, it can never utilise them efficiently or effectively. Only if workers own those monopolistic and oligopolistic enterprises can they begin to properly integrate their activities, gear them to meeting workers needs and so on. Only if workers, owning those factories, do the actual planning, of what to produce, can that integration begin to ensure that what is produced meets workers needs, and not the needs of the capitalists.

The economic stability, that workers need, is not one manipulated and engineered by capitalist state institutions, which is built on a series of fictions, which can collapse, but one that flows directly from the fact that workers own their own means of production, and plan production to meet their needs. Endless examples, such as the role of the state now in trying to suppress public sector workers wages, to the vicious class war unleashed by that state, against the miners, in 1984, to the unleashing of MRSA and other features of poor provision, for workers, by that state, show that workers have no real reason to argue for nationalisation, or to support existing state capitalist forms of provision.

As a minimum, workers should demand workers control over these enterprises, from the NHS, to the provision of pensions and other benefits. But, workers control will never be conceded, by the bosses and their state for long, and Marxists should not delude workers into believing they will, any more than they should delude workers, by arguing for state intervention in the first place. The real solution lies in the answer given by Marx. Workers should begin to establish their own co-operative enterprises now, especially in those most important aspects of life such as housing and healthcare, and education. But, that will mean that workers will need to also look to taking over all those ancillary industries that currently leach off these enterprises - look at the prices that the NHS pays for drugs, for example, compared to the prices for those same drugs, in Europe, where patients have to pay for them. That is the solution Marxists, and other socialists, should now be proposing, along with the development of existing co-operative financial institutions, and their closer integration - the Co-op Bank and CIS, with Unity Trust, with all the various credit unions set up by tenants and residents, and even with the various mutual institutions that remain, such as building societies, like Britannia, that have links with the trade unions.

But, such a transformation would also require a huge democratic transformation. Such a process can only be developed from the grass roots upwards. The problem is that the majority of socialists, and even of the Marxists, remain transfixed in a statist frame of mind that militates against such solutions, and indeed, which ultimately leaves them confined to offering solutions which are either ultimatist - Socialism Now, meaning a 1917 style revolution which will not happen - or else solutions which rely on the bourgeois state, and which miseducate workers into such a reliance.

Only a rebirth of true Marxism can provide the answer.