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Notes and Comments
Fighting for socialism
One hundred issues
WHEN WE launched Socialism Today in 1995, we outlined a number of key issues and ideas that we believed should be the main themes to be developed in the magazine (What future for socialism today?)
At the height of the mood of international capitalist triumphalism that following the fall of the Berlin wall, we set out to combat the idea, regrettably widely accepted on the left, that economic planning could no longer be regarded as an alternative to the capitalist market. Linked to this was the delusion, induced by the bubble economy of the late 1990s, that capitalism was now able to ride out crises, delivering continuous growth and ever-rising prosperity.
We pointed to the rapid bourgeoisification of the traditional workers’ parties as their leaders adopted completely pro-market views, and raised the need for new, independent political representation of the working class. We reiterated the decisive role of the working class in fighting for a change of society, and reaffirmed the need to fight for "an anti-capitalist programme based on the ideas of Marxism and the perspective of a socialist transformation of society".
As the magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales), our approach has naturally expressed the political thinking of the Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). Events since Issue No.1 of Socialism Today have, in our view, confirmed the key importance of the issues we raised and validated our approach.
As a guide to activists, we have attempted to provide commentary and analysis of the main events that have taken place in Britain and internationally. We have also carried a range of historical articles, and regularly covered the global environmental crisis in our "Global Warning" feature. And as we cannot live by politics alone, we have regularly published articles and reviews covering literature, art, films, science and other cultural issues. All this material, going back to Issue No.31, is available on our website and later this year we will be producing a complete index to issues 1 to 100.
HOW MANY TIMES have bourgeois leaders ‘finally’ exorcised the spectre of Marxism?
In January, fifteen years after the ‘collapse of communism’ and the ‘triumph of capitalism’, the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution condemning "the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes". (Guardian, 26 January)
This was proposed by the right-wing Swedish MEP, Göran Lindblad, who called for an international conference on the issue, as well as the revision of school textbooks throughout Europe to portray communism as the totalitarian twin of fascism.
This ideological offensive was not a genuine attempt to clarify the character of the former Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is yet another attempt to use the record of Stalinism to discredit genuine communism and socialism.
Stalinism was a grotesque deformation of real communism. Under Stalin, a privileged bureaucracy usurped the power of the working class and ruled through grotesque totalitarian methods. This arose from the isolation of the Russian revolution in an economically backward country. Despite the bureaucracy, the planned economy rapidly transformed the USSR from a poor, under-developed country into a modern industrial state. Ultimately, however, the bureaucratic stranglehold – counterpart of a complete lack of workers’ democracy – led to economic collapse. Undoubtedly, this discredited the idea of economic planning in general, though in reality it demonstrated only the bankruptcy of Stalinism. At the same time, the history of purges, labour camps, the suppression of all dissent, and the perversion of genuine Marxist ideas, discredited the idea of communism.
There are still people on the left, of course, who continue to act as apologists for Stalinism. Commenting on the Lindblad resolution, for instance, Seamus Milne (Guardian, 16 February) rightly asks why the European Parliament is taking no steps to publicise and repudiate the bloody history of European colonialism and imperialism. While referring to the social gains achieved by workers in the former Soviet Union, however, Milne sidesteps the issue of totalitarian repression and the lack of workers’ democracy under Stalinism. "No major political traditions", he says, "is without blood on its hands". Readers might well get the impression that Milne regards the former Soviet Union as an authentic, if imperfect, model for socialism. Socialists have to clearly explain its contradictory nature, positive (planned economy) and negative (bureaucratic dictatorship). This is a vital part of our task of clearing the ground for a revival of genuine Marxism in the workers’ movement.
There is no doubt that capitalist leaders fear the strengthening of anti-capitalist and specifically socialist ideas, which reflects a growing radicalisation of the working class in response to the neo-liberal offensive. Lindblad himself revealed the real motive of his initiative. It is not just to remember the victims of communism, but to combat "communist nostalgia", for public ownership and class struggle and "elements of communist ideology such as equality or social justice [which] still seduce many". In the past, of course, even social democrats claimed they stood for equality and social justice. In January, however, Euro MPs voted 99 to 42 (with 12 abstentions) for a brutal class message: There is no alternative to capitalism and any attempt to change the system will lead to violence and totalitarianism.
Why, if they are so confident of the triumph of capitalism, are they so concerned about "communist nostalgia"? No doubt it is because of the rising tide of mass workers’ struggles, in Europe and around the world, against the effects of an unleashed, free-market capitalism. Moreover, there is a growing radicalisation of sections of the working class, with the most politically conscious looking to the ideas of socialism for an alternative. It is not ‘nostalgia’ but a search for a way forward.
The alternative to capitalism?
BUT WHAT IS the alternative to capitalism? The collapse of Stalinism – a caricature of socialism, but seen as the only actually existing form – undermined confidence in the idea of a socialist transformation of society, even amongst the most active, politically conscious workers. France, for instance, is experiencing a new version of the ‘May events’ of 1968. But there is not the same overwhelming ideological support for socialism as there was 36 years ago. Workers, young people, students, have no doubt what they are against. But there is no clarity on what they are for.
A big factor in this crisis of consciousness is the disorientation and demoralisation of most of the leaders of the left, including avowedly Marxist organisations. Whether they spell it out openly or not, many have in reality succumbed to the notion that there is no alternative to the capitalist market.
The mood of ideological pessimism was recently expressed by George Monbiot, a prominent figure in the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement. The European Social Forum (Paris, November 2003), commented Monbiot, represented a bottomless pit of discontent. (Rattling the bars, Guardian, 18 November 2003) "Whenever anyone announced that capitalism in all its forms should be overthrown, everyone cheered. But is this what we really want? And, if so, with what do we hope to replace it? And could that other system be established without violent repression?"
Is there life after capitalism? Monbiot’s ‘answer’ is another list of questions: is "totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if, as almost all of us profess to do, we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit".
In other words: No. There is no alternative to capitalism!
Monbiot cannot see beyond the totalitarian model of Stalinism. He accepts the claim that socialist revolution inevitably leads to totalitarian dictatorship, that economic planning is unworkable. But Stalinism, ‘socialism in one country’, arose from the isolation of the revolution in an economically and culturally backward country, in which the working class (though politically decisive in 1917) was a minority of the population.
Scarcity of resources, continued shortages of essential goods (housing, food, clothing, etc) produced a new social differentiation, with the rise of a privileged bureaucratic caste that concentrated power into its own hands. The national confines of the planned economy and mismanagement by the bureaucracy limited – and ultimately strangled – the development of technology and production. However, the fact that planning failed under Stalinism, that is, under specific historical conditions, does not prove that economic planning is, by its very nature, impossible.
Worldwide symptoms of social crisis and the prospect of environmental catastrophe show that capitalism can no longer take society forward. Technology and production develop in a completely distorted way because of the domination of the profit motive and the anarchy of market competition. Nevertheless, the science and technology exist to develop the economy internationally to meet the real needs of the world’s population. But this will only be possible if it is utilised in a planned way, under the democratic control of the working class. On the basis of an international plan of production it would be possible to make rapid strides towards real social equality, to dramatically raise the living standards of the peoples of the under-developed countries, and ensure the protection of natural resources. Undoubtedly, there will be a baneful legacy of capitalist problems to be overcome.
Why should the elimination of capitalism take a totalitarian form, as Monbiot believes? In fact, a genuine socialist transformation can only be carried through with the overwhelming support of the population. The heavy battalions of the working class internationally, concentrated in the advanced and some semi-developed countries, are today on a much higher economic and cultural level than the Russian working class of 1917. They have a preponderant social weight, and have experienced political democracy and mass trade union organisation. In other words, they have the capacity to ensure the democratic transformation of society and democratic running of socialist states.
But, argues Monbiot, "as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism". This is a variant of the ‘human nature’ objection to socialism: ‘people are selfish and greedy’. As if the egotistical pursuit of self-interest has not been generated by capitalism over many generations, based as it is on the exploitation of workers’ labour power and the accumulation of wealth by a minority, in other words a system based on greed for profit. Monbiot, it seems, cannot conceive of a social system operating on a higher level than capitalism, steadily eliminating scarcity (wiping out poverty and overcoming inequality). A socialist planned economy, run under workers’ democracy, would provide the basis for social cooperation and human solidarity on an international level.
What is Monbiot’s answer to capitalism? Again, he offers only a series of questions. "How do we threaten power? How do we capture the political processes which have excluded us? We don’t yet have all the answers…" Yet Monbiot himself points out that, "Democracy everywhere looks as if it has been hit by a neutron bomb. Its structures – the parliaments and their committees, the elections and referendums – remain intact, but the life within them has died". Governing parties and their opposition rivals offer no real choice, there is no discussion on "the kind of economy we want" or state responsibility for social provision. His explanation is that the ‘real decisions’ are made at the continental level, in Brussels, the White House, and corporate boardrooms, and "handed down to national governments for implementation".
This is true, of course, as far as it goes. But Monbiot shrinks from a clear class analysis. The real decisions are taken, as they always have been, by the capitalist class at a national and international level (with the major imperialist powers dominating policy). The difference today, under the regime of globalisation (in contrast to the period of the economic upswing period of 1950-73), is that the capitalist class has launched an offensive to intensify the worldwide exploitation of the working class. Compliance with this policy is forced on national governments through the imposition of neo-liberal policies. It is the dictatorship of the so-called ‘free market’ dominated by giant banks and transnational corporations. This is why parliamentary democracy has become a hollow shell, corrupted by big capitalist money and ruthlessly manipulated by the big-business mass media.
Rattling the bars?
WHAT IS MONBIOT’S answer? "We must ask ourselves", he says, "what we can do to recolonise and revitalise parliamentary politics". "Our task is to find the means of rattling the bars of our enclosed and corrupted parliaments without succumbing to their enclosure and corruption".
We are not against rattling the bars if it means fighting for the independent political representation of the working class through building new mass workers’ parties. But our aim must be to fight for the interests of the working class, to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary mass campaigning to fight to defend workers’ conditions and democratic rights. This will involve using parliament and parliamentary elections as a platform for anti-capitalist and socialist policies, while exposing the hollowness and corruption of the institutions.
Defence of past gains and battles for new reforms have to be linked by socialists to the need to abolish capitalism and carry through the socialist transformation of society. This would certainly ‘rattle the bars’ of bourgeois institutions. But it has nothing in common with a futile quest for a mythical unicorn – the fantasy of revitalising parliamentary democracy on the basis of capitalism.
Monbiot’s strategy, though he does not clearly spell it out, is one of taming capitalism through a revival of bourgeois democracy. This idea of a new ‘democratic revolution’ is the position of many on the left who formerly advocated some kind of socialist programme but who have retreated and abandoned socialism since the fall of the Berlin wall.
In reality, democracy can only be ‘revived’ through working-class struggle against capitalism to defend political, trade union and civil rights. These are being seriously eroded within the framework of capitalist parliamentary democracy, especially since the attacks of 11 September 2001 which have provided the ruling class with a political pretext for enormously strengthening arbitrary state powers.
At one point Monbiot refers to parliamentary politics as "the system for which our ancestors lost so much blood". But historically it has always been the working class that overwhelmingly provided the forces which forced the bourgeoisie to concede democratic rights, and workers who made the most sacrifices in the struggle.
It is the working class that guarantees the preservation of democratic rights. Ultimately, the deepening of democracy to embrace control of society from below and economic rights (to employment, a living wage, decent housing, education, health-care, and social protection) depends on the creation of a new social order, a socialist society run on the basis of workers’ democracy. It is a crisis-ridden, increasingly militarised capitalist system that poses the threat of authoritarian state repression, not socialism, as Monbiot believes.
His approach (the democratic taming of capitalism) completely lacks any class dimension. The anti-capitalist movement which started in the 1990s expressed the growing radicalisation of students, young people and sections of workers. The last few years, however, have seen waves of mass workers’ struggles on every continent against the big-business, neo-liberal offensive. These struggles reflect an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the ruling capitalist class.
The key question for the next period is what ideas, what programme, will guide these struggles? In our view, it is only the programme of socialism and the ideas of Marxism that can offer a reliable guide to struggle and a viable alternative to capitalism. Monbiot, though no doubt passionately believing in ‘a better world’, offers no map to guide us there.
Setting out the ideological underpinnings of the struggle to change society remains the paramount task for Socialism Today.
March 2002: Cleaning up corrupt political funding? Will the McCain-Feingold, Shays-Meehan reforms now before Congress make any real difference? Lynn Walsh comments:
THE ENRON SCANDAL has intensified public outrage at the overwhelming corruption of elections, Congress, and state legislatures by big-business money. Public support for reform has been building up over recent years. In the 2000 Primaries, for instance, John McCain, contending to become the Republican’s presidential candidate, won strong support for his proposals to curb unrestricted ‘soft money’ donations which amounted to $500 million during the last election cycle. Together with Russell Feingold, a Democrat, McCain introduced a bill which was passed by the Senate. However, an identical bill tabled in the House of Representatives by Christopher Shays (Republican) and Martin Meehan (Democrat) was blocked by the House Republican leaders, who command a majority in the House.
The opposition was spearheaded by ‘Mr Enron’ himself, Tom De Lay, the House majority whip from Texas. After Enron, however, Bush felt obliged to announce that he would not necessarily veto a campaign finance reform bill, and more recently has expressed support for such a measure. However, Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, reiterated opposition: "This is Armageddon," he proclaimed; "It is a life-and-death issue for the Republican Party". Despite this, a section of the Republicans has been swayed by the wave of public anger and it now seems likely that the Shays-Meehan bill will be passed. Agreement between the Senate McCain-Feingold bill and the House Shays-Meehan bill would make it likely that the legislation would go through.
If passed, however, Shays-Meehan will have only a cosmetic effect. The bill’s main target is so-called ‘soft money’, that is finance from big business, special interest groups, advocacy organisations, and the unions to parties rather than named candidates. ‘Soft money’ donations developed in the 1980s as a way of evading the $1,000 limit for direct donations to individual candidates (so-called ‘hard money’), a restriction that was imposed by Congress in 1975 after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of president Nixon. ‘Soft money’ donations amounted to an astronomical $500 million in the last election cycle, most of it being used for advertising campaigns which clearly supported individual candidates even if they were not named.
Shays-Meehan will outlaw soft money in federal elections, but will still allow it to be used in state elections, leaving an obvious loophole. At the same time, the $1,000 limit per individual donor for ‘hard money’ donations to individual Senate and House candidates (which totaled $380m in the 2000 elections) will be doubled. Individuals will be able to contribute $30,000 to parties. Ironically, most of the money donated by Enron has been ‘hard money’. Since 1990, Enron officials made $500,000 in thousand-dollar contributions to federal candidates. Under Shays-Meehan they could have handed out a million bucks. In any case, as with all previous ‘reforms’, lawyers and accountants will not take very long to find new ways for big business to bankroll their political stooges.
Explaining his opposition to the Shays-Meehan legislation, a spokesperson for Hastert said that the legislation would transfer political power to "special-interest groups – big labour, environmental groups and other Democratic groups – that will be more engaged than our allies. That puts us at a great disadvantage". (Washington Post, 8 February) This comment is very revealing. Who does he mean by ‘our allies’? Presumably, big business and the wealthy, who are not very ‘engaged’ in political activity, but donate huge amounts of cash to Republicans (and Democrats) to act on their behalf. If their contributions to pro-big business politicians are restricted, politics might become more influenced by ‘engaged’ forces – union activists, community groups, environmental campaigns, and others. Instead of being trapped into a choice between two big-business election machines, Republicans and Democrats, voters could have the option of supporting a campaigning organisation speaking for working people and campaigning for radical change. Big business money would no longer determine the outcome of every primary and make most election results a foregone conclusion.
Unfortunately, however, despite the comments of Hastert’s aide, big labor, together with many environmental and community groups, are still tied to the Democrats, through and through a capitalist party notwithstanding any differences with Republicans. Breaking the mould of corrupt, big-business politics requires a new mass party of the left, which will provide a voice for workers, minorities, community activists and anti-capitalist youth. Such a party will only be built through contesting elections on the basis of opposition to big-business policies and through active support for all those struggling for democratic rights and social justice. The necessary funds will have to be raised on the basis of political support and sympathy, because even where state funding is available, most of it will go to the established big-business parties.
The Bush Budget
March 2002: The Bush Budget: Higher arms spending and tax cuts for the wealthy will driving a tank through social spending, by Lynn Walsh [From ‘The Socialist’ 243: 1 March, 2002]
IN THE name of the "war against terrorism", president George W Bush is proposing a massive increase in US arms spending. If Congress accepts his proposed budget, it will be the biggest spurt in military spending since Ronald Reagan's 1980s arms build-up against the "evil empire" of the former Soviet Union.
At the same time, Bush intends to extend tax cuts for the super-rich while freezing social spending.
Next year Bush plans to give the Pentagon an extra $48 billion, a massive 14% increase. Together with another $16.9 billion in the Energy Department's budget to finance nuclear warhead production, the total military budget will grow to $396 billion.
That means fuelling the military machine with over $1 billion a day. Bush also plans to spend about $19 billion on "homeland security". Much of this will go to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service and the Border Patrol to clamp down on undocumented immigrants and non-citizens generally.
The US already accounts for 40% of world military spending, more than the 15 next-biggest states combined. Yet over the next five years Bush wants to spend an extra $120 billion.
In contrast, when UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called for an extra $50 billion to double the advanced countries' foreign aid to under-developed countries to $100 billion this year, the US government abruptly rejected the proposal.
Instead, Bush proposes a paltry $750 million increase in US foreign aid for 2003, including $552 million of military assistance to regimes favoured by the US. At the recent Tokyo conference on Afghanistan, the US pledged a mere $300 million to help reconstruct that devastated country, estimated by the UN to require $10 billion to $15 billion over the next ten years.
Bush's military plans are a bonanza for the big corporations of the military-industrial complex. Procurement - spending on weapons - will soar from $61 billion this year to $99 billion in 2007, a 30% increase over five years. Major items include the Crusader mobile howitzer (a massive field-gun), costing $475 million.
Even critics in the capitalist press ask how such weapons will counteract terrorists - the September 11 hijackers were armed with box-cutters (Stanley knives). Building and operating the missile defence programme could cost $238 billion by 2025, according to a study by the (non-party) Congressional Budget Office.
THE REPUBLICAN Bush used some Democrat-sounding rhetoric in his State of the Union message, claiming to defend working families' interests. He promised increased spending on two or three social programmes, such as food stamps, family nutrition and health research.
This was flimsy camouflage for a general freeze on social spending apart from mandatory expenditures such as Social Security (pensions) and Medicaid (health insurance for retirees) - and deep cuts in (according to Bush) "ineffective" programmes like youth job training and environmental protection.
Non-mandatory spending will be held to a 2% increase, below government projections for inflation (2.2%). Education, public housing, highways will all be cut. Retirees won't get help with ever-rising prescription payments, and will have to make bigger "co-payments" for their health care.
Despite Bush's earlier promise not to raid the Social Security and Medicare funds, these will now be used to supplement tax revenue. The Republicans no doubt believe that as these funds slide into deficit they will be able to push through privatisation of pension funds. So far, the Democrats seem to have swallowed this blatant manoeuvre without a murmur.
Despite the social spending cuts, Bush's plans will mean a rising Federal budget deficit (a projected $80 billion in 2003). Already, the last few years' boom-time surpluses have evaporated. As the economy slows, tax revenues automatically decline. Inflated military spending will be an enormous burden.
The main source of the deficit, however, will be the gigantic tax cuts Bush is handing to the super-rich. "Almost incredibly," commented the New York Times (6 February), "President Bush wants to accelerate and make permanent previously enacted tax cuts and add new tax cuts on top".
Last year, most wage earners received a tax rebate of a couple of hundred dollars - a sweetener for the masses. But the real cuts are for those with incomes over $200,000 a year, who will collect over half the total $1.3 trillion tax reduction over the next ten years. Two-thirds of the population will receive nothing at all.
Under the slogan of "security", Bush is pursuing the Republicans' extreme big-business agenda. The US's limited social safety net is being shredded just as unemployment, poverty and homelessness are again rising (and state budgets are also being slashed).
The long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare is being undermined. This is being concealed, moreover, by Enron-style, "off-balance-sheet" accounting. For the first time, this budget drops its ten-year projections into the future, obviously to conceal from people where the George W road is heading.
War on workers
IN THE name of defending the US, Bush is in effect declaring all-out war on working class living standards. The Democrats are screaming. Bush, they say, calls for "bipartisan" support for the "war against terrorism" but pushes through out-and-out partisan domestic policies.
What is their answer? Only a handful of Democrats, like Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, publicly call for a reversal of the tax cuts. Tom Daschle, who leads the Democrat majority in the Senate, refuses to call for a reversal or even a delay of tax cuts.
While the Democrats will undoubtedly try to dilute Bush's social cuts (while swallowing the military budget whole), they are themselves too closely tied to big business to wage effective opposition to the White House.
As the Republicans' big-business arithmetic becomes clear, there will be a tide of fury among workers and middle-class people who are already beginning to taste the bitter fruits of the 1990s bubble economy.
Politically conscious workers will once again have to grapple with the task of breaking the labor unions and community and campaigning organisations away from the Democratic Party stranglehold and creating a mass party that will speak for the working majority.
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