Weekly Worker: Lesser evils

Letters

Distinction

Adam Buick says I have “confused” two transitions (Letters, November 17). The “transition from capitalism to the first phase of communist society and the transition from the first phase of communist society to the higher phase.”

However, apart from the fact that I call the first phase of communist society ‘socialism’, and the higher phase ‘communism’, I cannot really see where we differ here. Note, with the Socialist Party of Great Britain the first and the second phases of communism are named ‘socialism’.

The first phase, of what we could agree to call the society of the future, emerges from capitalism as it is, from where the working class finds it when it takes political power. In other words, the “transition from capitalism” begins with a decisive moment. That is at the point when, through winning the battle for democracy, the working class establishes its own rule – ie, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Only when the state finally withers away, where the antithesis between mental and manual labour has vanished, where there is fully rounded individual development, etc, can society “inscribe on its banners, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’” Comrade Buick says that “Jack Conrad asserts that the distinction between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ was “an orthodox Second International formulation”. Well, not quite. What I actually did was quote Lenin’s State and revolution (1917), saying it was “usual” to call the first phase “socialism”. I then stated that it was Second International orthodoxy to make the distinction between a lower and a higher stage – whatever name one gives it.

And there have been any number of names. Eg, Karl Kautsky, in The class struggle (1892) – his extended commentary on the Erfurt programme – writes of the “cooperative commonwealth”.

All Lenin seems to have done is return to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and their preference for the word “communism” – at least when it comes to the higher stage. Hence also the name change of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) to Communist Party.

Jack Conrad
London


Price tag

I find little to disagree with Maren Clarke’s reply (Letters, November 17). Socialism will be a system of planned allocation of resources, accomplished through democratic decision-making. Socialists have always acknowledged capitalism’s past achievements, but capitalism (and what has passed for ‘socialism’) has failed to satisfy people’s needs and has excluded them from the determination of those needs. As Marx said, “The process of production dominates individuals; individuals do not dominate the process of production”.

Maren says I “miss another factor to be taken into account: namely, time.” Guilty. Society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will, in the end, determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted “value”.

Maren makes good points. In socialism, the answer could be, ‘No, we will not be producing this, even though there is a need for it.’ And people will have to develop a culture where need is considered and argued over, rather than being simply a reaction to the immense collection of commodities before our eyes, from which we pick what we feel we need. And also consumption itself will be a debated and discussed action, and will not simply be a signal for stores to produce more widgets; and if you have stores where the technology determines what is demanded this week or the next and responds to this change in demand, then all you really have is a system of sale and exchange in another guise.

These last comments allude to my analogy that we will use existing logistics systems to keep the shelves stacked, but I am not suggesting that it will be isolated consumers who direct production. I am assuming that, after the initial assessments of the expected needs of a local community, these may well be later adjusted by changes in individual desires that will add up to an aggregate demand.

Socialism does not imply the non-communication of costs in terms of hours of work, input resources and environmental impact. Nor does it imply no processes for comparing this information which will all go hand in hand. We already have statistical and information departments. Socialism will not lead to the creation of new layers of administration, but simply the transformation of them. Socialism will not disregard opportunity costs calculated by such methods as cost-benefit analysis. We will economise most on what is the scarcest. Socialism does not reject Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. High-priority goals would take precedence over low-priority goals, where the same resources are required by both. Some may wish luxury goods, but by collectively deciding to prioritise resource allocation to the production of other goods higher up in production hierarchy, people are indicating their preference for the latter as a priority. Jane’s kidney machine comes before John’s karaoke machine – “to each according to needs”.

Maren’s car factory does not require recourse to monetary prices to make a decision about its production. A monetary economy gives rise to the illusion that the cost of producing something is merely financial. The point I wanted to make is explained by Paresh Chattopadhyay: “The problem of rationally allocating productive resources in an economy is common to all human societies, at least as long as these resources remain relatively limited compared to needs. However, there is no need to assume that this allocation could be effected rationally (if at all) only through the exchange of resources taking the value (price) form.”

Alan Johnstone
SPGB


Pure Marxism

Concerning the comments made by Robin Cox (Letters, November 17), my major concern is not to provide the latest version of ‘what Marx said’ about socialist economy, but instead to support the alternative conception of market socialism. However, I would still claim to be a Marxist, because only the strategy of class struggle will bring about the realisation of an alternative to capitalism. In other words, adherence to a revolutionary approach is crucial when defining a person as a Marxist. But it is also obvious that Marxism is not a doctrine that is based on rigid dogmas. Marxism can only thrive when it is subject to constant revision and improvement in its ability to explain reality.

In relation to war communism, my primary aim was to try and indicate that it could not succeed because it was based on the methods of extra-economic coercion of the peasants. Indeed, it was generally known as the surplus grain appropriation system. War communism could only be a transitory emergency measure for the period of the civil war, and it was sensible for the Bolsheviks to replace it with the New Economic Policy, which allowed for freedom to trade.

Lenin’s justification of an end to war communism was based on the following understanding: “We know that, so long as there is no revolution in other countries, only agreement with the peasantry can save the socialist revolution in Russia” (CW Vol 32, p215). The aim was to create a system of exchange of goods between industry and agriculture based upon the market. This system was superior to the confiscation of goods from the peasantry: “The exchange is an incentive, a spur to the peasants. The proprietor can and will surely make an effort in his own interest when he knows that his surplus produce will not be taken away from him and that he will only have to pay a tax, which should whenever possible be fixed in advance” (CW Vol 32, p226). The historical importance of this policy is that it indicates the importance of compromise, and retreat, plus the dilution of goals, if the overall objectives of socialism are to be promoted.

Hence the contemporary relevance of the New Economic Policy is that it represents a recognition that socialism can only be realised if any tendency towards compulsion in economic and political relations is rejected. Instead it is vital that the importance of developing the maximum support for socialism is generated via acceptance of market incentives. It is significant that the advocates of pure Marxism can only justify their standpoint in terms of the supposed smooth functioning of economic processes, and so are silent about the crucial issue of how to develop maximum support for the objectives of socialism.

Alan Johnstone is right to consider that socialism was not created within the Soviet Union. But what he is silent about is that the SPGB never supported what was a genuine proletarian revolution, which was based on the role of the popular organisations of the soviets. The choice in 1918 was between support for world revolution to facilitate the possibility of socialism in Russia, or passive acceptance of capitalism. The Bolsheviks failed, but their strategy was based on the internationalist understanding that World War I created the conditions for the success of a revolutionary approach. Hence this failure was not futile, or an expression of illusory politics. What happened was that an isolated proletarian regime turned into its opposite in terms of Stalinist degeneration.

Between 1918 and 1928 the Soviet regime presided over a system of state-capitalist regulation because workers’ self-management was not successful in 1918. This contradictory situation was resolved by the ruthless industrialising policies of Stalin in 1929. But this adverse situation does not reduce the October revolution to an expression of a modernising project of industrialisation, contrary to the claims made in John H Kautsky’s Communism and the politics of development (New York 1968, pp69-82). Kautsky’s view, like that of his distinguished relative, is dogmatic, because it is absurd to define the revolutionary activity of the working class in 1917 as an expression of an implicit bourgeois revolution.

Lastly, Adam Buick considers that my interpretation of market socialism is an accommodation to the understanding that people are inherently greedy. This is a caricatured view. Instead we have to reconcile individual interests with the needs of the community. This relationship can be ensured by the role of the market and the price system. In contrast, Adam advocates a society where people accept “mutual obligations and generalised reciprocity” (Letters, November 17). The problem is that this standpoint is based on the substitution of moral premises in place of the role of economic mechanisms.

Phil Sharpe
email


Lesser evils

Who can deny that communists are better positioned under Trump than they would have been under Clinton? The election has already produced the beginning of a youth radicalisation, and Trump supporters themselves will follow when the next president fails to deliver.

Yet, writers for the Weekly Worker call the Trump victory over Clinton a defeat (a win for nationalism) and Paul Demarty even hopes the Trump era will soon be replaced by normalcy (“Trump need only be a one-term president, or less than that …”) The Spartacists Workers Vanguard states flatly: “Trump’s victory is bad news.” Comrades who reject ‘lesser-evilism’ apparently harbour the belief that Clinton really was the lesser evil. Lesser-evilism hasn’t been well refuted. Most of the contemporary left that rejects lesser-evilism doesn’t understand why it’s misguided. There’s a theoretical lacuna.

Let’s review the stock of arguments. They are wanting. The most popular argument was stated by Julian Assange, when he compared the choice between ruling class parties to being forced to choose between contracting cholera and gonorrhoea. But revolutionary strategy cannot always avoid choices between unfavourable alternatives. We make choices between evils. Why not? Another argument – one I’ve made – is that we really don’t know which capitalist candidate will turn out to be the lesser evil. But why should we rule out the possibility that sometimes we do know? The best argument is due to Engels, who maintained that the gains from running independent working class candidates are more important than securing the election of the more reformist bourgeois candidate. While a correct observation, it doesn’t explain why this should always be the case, nor is the generalisation useful when there are no mass working class parties.

Lesser-evilism hasn’t been defeated even on a theoretical plane, and to rebut it some fundamentals of Marxist strategy must be recovered. For a Marxist to support a demand on the ruling class, including a candidate for office, two criteria must be met, objective and subjective. The objective criterion is that the realisation of the demand benefits the working class. The subjective criterion is that the effort to realise the demand benefits the class. Ignoring the subjective criterion is the error of objectivism. Ignoring the objective criterion is the error of demagoguism.

Lesser-evilism as we know it – the support for liberals against hard reactionaries – is a demagoguist error. Objectively, the victory of the more reactionary candidate is the lesser evil: the victory of the reformist is the greater! The more reactionary candidate fails the subjective test, but the reformist candidate fails the objective test.

Howls of protest will be heard: third periodism! Communists during the declared third period responded to the National Socialists by proclaiming ‘the worse, the better’, but in Germany the error was objectivist because the subjective criterion was ignored. ‘Worse is better’ in electoral conflicts is not an excuse for strategic failure to mobilise to improve the relations of forces.

When all else is equal, the reactionary side is objectively the lesser evil electorally. All else was equal in the last US election – essentially a toss-up. The victory of one side or the other connotes nothing about a change in the relations of forces, causally isolating the electoral result. The difference causally between a Clinton and Trump win is the difference between the ratio of concession and repression that will characterise ruling class tactics. Except under fascism the bourgeoisie divides between a more far-seeing reformist wing and a hidebound rigid wing that’s unwilling to compromise. The ruling class deployment of hard reaction improves the objective position of the working class in dialectical fashion, because the ruling class discards its most potent weapon, reformism. Although the subjective criterion requires communists to oppose both Clinton and Trump, the Trump victory places the proletariat in an objectively better position. (The Social Democratic second-ballot support for the reformist Cadets in Russia is objectively justified for the sake of Social Democratic gains due to the electoral pacts, which presumably was greater than the harm caused by electing Cadets.)

The widespread preference for a Clinton win on the left, even among those who opposed her absolutely (such as comrade Demarty), is a concentrated expression of centrism. When contemplating a Clinton regime featuring a few possibilities for reform versus a Trump regime featuring none, centrists show their inclinations in their preference for reform. They never see contradiction between what serves reform and what serves revolution. (Sometimes this is expressed with the pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that the struggle for revolution is always the effective way to obtain reforms.) Centrist thinking bars the true rebuttal of lesser-evilism: reformism is the greater objective evil.

Stephen Diamond
USA


Little England

The iconic picture of Trump with Farage reveals a certain truth about Brexit. Here we have a glimpse of reality, entirely absent from the Tory referendum. We can invent our own dialogue. Farage says: ‘Donald, I am handing you the UK on a plate.’ Trump, thumbs up, replies: ‘Thanks. I’ll take Scotland as my golf course, the NHS and more tax breaks for American multinationals. I want free trade deals to benefit America and no more wind farms.’

The decision to leave the European Union did not take place in isolation from real economic forces. In 2015 China became the world’s largest economy with a gross domestic product measured at $19.5 trillion. The EU was not far behind with $19.1 trillion, followed by the United States with $17.9 trillion. The UK is integrated with and dependent on both the US and EU economies, not least through the close relations between Wall Street and the City.

Exit from the EU therefore leaves the UK more dependent on the US. There is no future for the UK as an independent imperialist power. Only fantasists like the UK Independence Party and Tory free marketers seem to think so. The UK is not about to conquer the world by imposing ‘free trade’ deals on Europe, China and America with our 19 frigates. So Farage has arrived where Brexit was always taking us.

After meeting Trump, the Ukip leader said we should “be in no doubt” that Trump was a supporter of the UK and willing to be “very close partners”. There was a “real opportunity” for “Brexit Britain” to have improved UK trade with the US. He claimed that Trump would be a much more accommodating partner than Obama, who he suggested had “damaged” the relationship between both countries.

So in reality England and Wales voted to leave the EU for a new Atlantic partnership with the USA. The picture portrays the reality of ‘partnership’. It provides a cold shower of realism and a metaphor for America and England. On one side is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world and on the other a powerless Little Englander pumped up by his own hubris.

This was not the story presented in the referendum. Brexit was an ideological campaign around the values of British nationalism. Britain would become a free and independent nation once again. There would be “British jobs for British workers”, as Gordon Brown promised. Great Britannia would again rule the waves, striking deals hither and thither, as the vanguard of renewed free market globalisation, innovation and trade.

Of course, Obama wanted the UK to remain in the EU to protect US interests by advancing the neoliberal, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism. Voting to leave was a rejection of advice from Washington in a way which would leave British business more dependent on the US than ever.

It is an opportunity that a businessman like Trump is ready to exploit to the full. Farage explained: “Not only president-elect Trump, but his whole team, is Anglophile. They like our country, they recognise what we’ve done together in the past, and they’re coming into this with an incredibly positive view. We need to seize the day.”

So little England has taken to hanging around the new king of America’s golden palace, hoping for a few favours. Trump duly obliged. He told the world that Farage was his preferred British ambassador. The Tories were embarrassed. Her Majesty was not amused. It is her job to appoint ambassadors and she does not take kindly to somebody interfering with her prerogative powers. Yet in the new post-Brexit world all the Tories can do is grin and bear it.

The divisions of class and nation are at the heart of the problems socialists have to overcome. Scratch British nationalism and behind it is the monster of Great English chauvinism. The referendum showed deep divisions in the country. Ireland, north and south, wants to remain in the EU. Scotland voted to stay, not least because Scottish nationalism looks across the North Sea to a more European social democratic future like Norway or Denmark.

The Tory referendum highlighted divisions within the working class. Many working class people in England and Wales voted out, rejecting the urging of the ruling class and the Westminster establishment. Combine anger, frustration, poverty and an absence of class organisation with patriotic appeals, love of country, resentment of foreigners and we have a dangerous brew.

Most organised workers and Labour Party members did not fall for this British independence bullshit. Yet what is really revealed is confusion about what to do next. The socialist movement has not recognised the danger of Great English chauvinism and has no progressive policy for confronting it other than moral condemnation.

Leaving the EU frying pan means jumping more firmly into the US fire. So now we have to deal urgently with England’s relationship with itself, and with Europe, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The future of Corbyn’s Labour Party and Left Unity depends on this. Let us begin by finding and taking the democratic exit from this nightmare.

Steve Freeman
Left Unity and Rise


Huff off

With Momentum boss Jon Lansman walking out in a huff, amid a hail of accusations of undemocratic behaviour, from the London regional committee meeting on November 19, it is clear that the deep dissatisfaction felt by delegates with the democratic deficit in Momentum has not been, and should not be, covered over with false claims of unanimity. Differences must be brought into the light for clarification, not concealed behind fudged formulations.

The issue in contention is whether Momentum’s constitution and politics will be decided by delegates voting after debate at its February launch conference – the best way to encourage the organisation of members into local branches – or through online voting by atomised members, bypassing face-to-face meetings and discussion, bypassing local and regional organisation. The first opens the way to democratic unity of the left and building a robust socialist organisation capable of transforming the Labour Party and the trade unions. The second, treating Momentum as a stage army to be activated from above when required, inevitably undermines the development of effective and enduring organisation.

Lansman’s October 28 attempted coup announced a fait accompli – that conference decisions would be made after conference by online voting of all members – and cancelled the November 5 national committee meeting, which would likely have rejected that decision. This led to an immediate rebellion led by Matt Wrack and the London committee, quickly followed by several other regions. Within days, John McDonnell had met with Matt Wrack and Jon Lansman, and peace was prematurely announced in a fudged ‘unanimous’ steering committee statement. Under pressure to forget their principles for appearances’ sake, those who opposed online decision-making by an atomised membership nevertheless put their names to it, albeit now as a recommendation to the NC. No wonder Jill Mountford recanted the very next morning.

The November 19 London meeting was outraged to learn that the December 3 NC meeting was being “packed” by new delegates elected with indecent haste through online voting by atomised members – some to represent so called “liberation groups”, which may or may not exist, others to represent lone members not (yet) organised in local branches. Unfortunately reminiscent of the Labour right’s shenanigans during the two recent leader campaigns. Strange that Nick Wrack, newly elected London delegate to Momentum’s NC, has declared that he favours keeping Lansman on, when the NC elects a new steering committee.

Stan Keable
London


Driving force

I’m going to Nick Wrack’s Labour Party Socialist Network meeting this Saturday. It’s at ULU, Malet Street, from 12 to 5pm and looks like it’s the driving force against Lansman and may well defeat him at the February conference.

Nick’s brother, Matt, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, launched the crucial attack on Lansman and is now chair of the Labour Representation Committee. They are mainly ex-Militant Tendency supporters and it’s rumoured to be the vehicle for welcoming in up to half the membership of the Socialist Party, who are now entering Labour.

We could defeat Lansman and then be faced with a new battle there. But in a better, more leftist place to fight, given the democratising of the structures of Momentum necessary to defeat Lansman.

I’ve joined the LPSN for £1 a month retired fee and expect to be warmly welcomed.

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight


Knock-out

Your correspondent, John Holliday (Letters, November 3), thought it justified to criticise Yassamine Mather’s article, A tale of two cities’ (October 27), for lacking any proper Marxist perspective, and thereby for not having any revolutionary ‘bite’ (that being my interpretation of the author’s words, at least).

Well, you can imagine how thrilled some of us bystanders to this skirmish were, when the very next week comrade Yassamine came up with what can only be described as the golden booty welded to the killer blow (‘No democratic advert’, November 10).

There’s an underlying recognition and inherent understanding of the fact that, when capitalism places on offer its baubles, bangles and trinkets, it does so on the basis that a recipient population will continue to tolerate any associated dehumanisations and outrages (or even maintain a downright apathetic acquiescence in all such toxicity, tawdriness and decadence).

Put another way, each side of the equation drawn up between the participants permits the whole thing to continue and at least notionally succeed.

This is a highly unfortunate but pretty much central aspect of modern-day capitalism, that many so-called ‘freethinking’ revolutionists are not prepared to acknowledge – not openly anyway. And, consequently, it’s something that doesn’t get the productive or constructive placement it deserves in everyone’s minds. Comrade Mather corrects that fact with her article. Indeed, she corrects those failings of almost all others rather beautifully, but with knock-out punches.

Bruno Kretzschmar
email


Wealthy few

Despite the lack of headlines, chancellor Philip Hammond’s first mini-budget was like those of his recent Tory predecessors: a range of policies which will continue austerity and the attacks on the poor and most vulnerable in society.

The chancellor confirmed welfare cuts already planned. People on the minimum or living wage depend on benefits, and there was already a freeze on major benefits until 2020, and this will bite harder, as inflation is set to increase. The government plans to cut a total of almost £5 billion from both the work allowance element of universal credit and employment support allowance, but this, wasn’t mentioned by Hammond. Both cuts could, and should, have been withdrawn.

Nearly two million remain unemployed, and permanent jobs are scarce. Outside Rugby job centre, claimants regularly tell us about the poverty they have been forced into, often because of sanctions when their benefits are suspended or cut off altogether. Poverty is clearly getting worse – hence the ever increasing use of food banks – and this autumn statement does nothing to address that.

Even the 30p hourly increase in the national living wage to £7.50 will only marginally help those forced to live on it, and it remains well below what people need to survive. Young workers under 25 are on a much lower minimum wage ranging from £4 to £6.95 per hour, and those on zero-hours contacts will be lucky to receive any benefit at all from the tiny national living wage increase.

Whilst the poor suffer, wealthier households are in line for a tax boost. The autumn statement confirmed that the Tories will raise the threshold at which people start paying the higher rate of tax from the present £43,000 to £45,000 next April and £50,000 by 2020-21. Philip Hammond reconfirmed the Tory commitment to cut income tax for Britain’s 15% richest earners.

The autumn statement also confirms that the Tories are preparing for more austerity, with massive cuts to local government finances, the continuation of the 1% public-sector pay rise caps and the admittance that future cuts will be needed to pay for an ‘ageing society’. But austerity is a political choice. Instead of cutting public services and attacking those on benefits, the government could save the same amount by:

l A 5% wealth tax on the richest 10%, which alone would resolve the country’s debt.

l Reclaiming the £120 billion per year of unpaid tax that rich individuals and companies avoid or evade.

l Nationalisation of the banks and building societies: their massive profits could be used to maintain and improve public services.

However they may try and dress it up, the autumn statement promises more pain and suffering for most of us. Philip Hammond started his speech by stating that the International Monetary Fund predicts the UK will be the fastest growing economy in the world. What a shame this apparent prosperity will only be available to the wealthy few.

Pete McLaren
Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition