Paul Demarty’s article, ‘A bureaucratic farce’ (February 20), was a follow-up to his ‘Rudeness and revolution’ (July 4 2013). In his first article he described me as having a “fetish” for Marx’s law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
Paul has downgraded this slightly to an “obsession”. He does at least adopt a more respectful tone towards this core concept of Karl Marx after Andrew Kliman answered his last effort with the letter entitled ‘Straw man’ (July 18 2013), in which he reminded Paul of the importance of this law for Marx. But the message has apparently failed to register.
At the moment a cursory survey identifies a growing number of professionally ‘obsessed’ economists and social scientists, including Michael Roberts, Mick Brooks, Simon Wells, Guglielmo Carchedi, Peter Jones, Paul Cockshott, Shannon Williams, Brian Grogan, Nick Potts, Paul Mattick (Junior) and many more - not to mention Andrew Kliman and Alan Freeman.
Julian Wells, an economist with the Open University, summed it up nicely in a letter to The Guardian in August last year:
“… the proliferation of zero-hours contracts represents an increase in the ‘reserve army of labour’ in an attempt to reverse a long-term decline in profitability … But neither this nor the other responses …, such as financialisation, can ultimately overcome the tendency for profit rates to fall. This is an inherent feature of capitalist competition, resulting not from pressure on prices, but from each capitalist’s attempt to raise their individual profit rate by investing in more capital-intensive production processes. The overall capital, relative to total profit, goes up, and the profit rate goes down.
“Although such things as attacks on wages can offset the basic tendency, sooner or later it results in crises, such as the one in progress since 2008. Since the cause is too much capital, the only cure (within capitalism) is destruction of capital through bankruptcy of less profitable enterprises. Palliatives such as increasing workers’ purchasing power can help the system limp along for a while, but only at the cost of preparing a bigger and worse crisis” (August 12 2013).
Is this too difficult for Paul to understand? He does at least have some humility in his article where he says: “I am underqualified to take on the FRP theorisation directly, but I can state with absolute confidence that it is not the master key the comrades believe it to be.” I would love to see where either Andrew Kliman or myself has ever described Marx’s law as a “master key”. What has been argued is that Marx’s theory fits the facts better than any other as regards the current crisis.
Paul’s absolute confidence apparently rests on two guest CPGB theoreticians, Hillel Ticktin and Moshé Machover. In his reference notes Paul encourages his readers to check out the latter: “for an argument that the law is based entirely on faulty premises, see M Machover, ‘Saving labour or capital?‘ Weekly Worker October 6 2011.”
Interesting though Moshé’s abstract ‘refutation’ is, it is also completely incorrect. Take one example. Moshé suggests: “For example, an increase in the value of the raw material used for a given product can be more than offset by reducing the amount of labour per unit of output. Or, conversely, an increase in the amount of labour per unit can be more than offset by using much cheaper raw materials. Labour productivity will increase if the net result is a reduction of the total amount of living and dead labour embedded in each unit of output.”
Unfortunately Moshé makes sweeping assumptions even in this short passage. It is theoretically possible that “an increase in the amount of labour per unit can be more than offset by using much cheaper raw materials”, but not in the real world by any manner of means, as Karl Marx pointed out:
“If, for example, productivity in spinning increased tenfold … why should not one negro produce 10 times as much cotton as 10 did previously? In other words, why should the value ratio not remain the same? … To this it is quite easy to answer that some kinds of raw material, such as wool, silk, leather, are produced by animal organic processes, while cotton, linen, etc are produced by vegetable organic processes, and capitalist production has not yet succeeded and never will succeed in mastering these processes in the same way it has mastered purely mechanical or inorganic chemical processes … As far as coal and metal (wood) are concerned, they become much cheaper with the advance of production; this will, however, become more difficult, as mines are exhausted, etc.”
Marx then concludes: “This rubbish is herewith disposed of” (Theories of surplus value Vol 3).
Moshé, a reader in mathematical logic, erroneously revives the old “rubbish” “disposed of” by Marx over 150 years ago. Moshé’s purely theoretical-logical ‘disproof’ of Marx’s theory is fatally flawed, but is also bereft of any empirical support, although he declares: “Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the average rate of profit does not in fact tend to decline in the long run. This is an empirical question. My feeling is that, based on existing data, the evidence for it is quite weak.” Empirical data, weak or otherwise, is not cited by Moshé at all and we just have to take his word for it.
If this is the sort of stuff that Paul bases his absolute confidence on then I’m underwhelmed. I’m sorry, but I suggest Paul needs to go back to the books before pontificating on such matters.
Age of consent
Don Browning’s letter (February 27) is remarkable in that, by focusing on one narrow aspect of the oppression of youth in matters to do with sex and sexuality, it completely ignores another that is equally important. By rubbishing the need for any special measures at all to protect children and youth from the real possibility of exploitation and abuse at the hands of their elders with qualitatively greater maturity, sexual and life experience, his argument is in fact callously indifferent.
Thus he opines that youth/children who have been the victims of sexual attention from adults, where ‘consent’ is clearly absent, can use the rape laws for redress (and presumably also the laws relating to sexual assault). It is probably worth noting that these are not exactly an effective redress for adults, particularly women at present, as many studies have shown.
Apart from male chauvinist and also homophobic biases built into the justice system, the fact is that rape is also a difficult crime to prove, since the question of consent is a matter of interpretation and furthermore often boils down to one person’s word against another’s. If the only protection children had against sexual abuse were these laws, given their even greater lack of social power than that of their elders, then the outcome would be even worse and would mean virtual impunity for those who ruin the lives of children through sexual abuse.
The rational element of age-of-consent laws is that they recognise that children in general are emotionally and sexually immature, and therefore additionally vulnerable to sexual exploitation by their elders. They may indeed be coaxed into ‘consenting’ to sexual activity by adults whose own attitudes to sex are deformed, particularly in an often brutal society that does give rise to such deformations.
Such ‘consent’ is highly problematic and may have been gained in part through coaxing from an older person who is ‘loved’ and trusted in a parental sense or something similar. According to the rape/sexual assault laws, as formulated for adults, this would be regarded as consent. But it is not effective, informed consent.
Such abuse at the lower end can permanently damage the child’s self-esteem and ability to form relationships in later life. At the higher end it can result in mental illness, even suicide. If the only obstacle to such ‘consent’ were the rape laws, then that would be no obstacle at all. Such situations do not fit those laws and any attempt to make them so fit would be laughed out of court. A monstrous injustice.
The irrational element of rigid age-of-consent laws is at the interface between childhood and adulthood, and that is what my proposal was aimed at addressing. At this interface, the possibility of effective consent varies widely between individuals, and hence a rigid, absolute age of consent, while protecting some, will necessarily violate the rights of others. State action to break up the genuine relationships of someone who is capable of effective consent is also an abuse that can and does damage the people involved, and also has to be opposed.
Stay and starve
Dave Vincent, a well-known left trade union activist, raises the question of open borders (Letters, February 27). It is a legitimate concern.
He points out that the question was not dealt with by Marx or anyone else in the 19th century, but that was because all borders were then open. The Aliens Act of 1905 was the first attempt by the British state to control immigration into this country. It was primarily aimed at poor Jews escaping Russian pogroms. But it only applied to groups of 20 or more travelling in ‘steerage class’, so it was very ineffective. This brings us to the first health warning about immigration controls: they make people illegal and therefore more easily exploited as cheap labour, but they don’t stop people getting in. Capitalists will ensure that they can access all the cheap labour they need.
What Marx did address was internal mass migration - particularly Irish immigration into mainland Britain. It was not popular with the workers. It was used against trade union organisation: it was used to drive wages down. But the answer was to incorporate the migrants into the union movement - and the number of Irish names amongst trade unionists today demonstrates this was successful. He also campaigned throughout his life for the working class to organise politically, because the power of the working class doesn’t lie primarily in the workplace but in its ability to organise as a social class. A two-pronged approach.
Marx’s overall perspective was that capital was international and the working class had to be international too if it was to succeed in defending itself against capital. So I am puzzled as to where comrade Vincent is coming from when he writes: “I’ve never understood the logic that states because capitalists can move investment around that means millions of workers can follow that investment.” What are they meant to do? Starve? Capital’s values are Malthusian: the kindest thing we can do is let them die. Problem solved.
Thanks to Sarah McDonald (Letters, February 27) for replying to my two letters. Sarah’s reply clarifies some points, but raises other questions. I will also comment on her article, ‘A pox on both houses’ (February 20), since my original letter was prompted by the Communist Platform’s lack of clarity over the geographical extent of the Left Unity party - this at a time when the forthcoming Scottish referendum has become a major political issue, with potential knock-on effects for the rest of the UK, including Northern Ireland.
Ulster loyalists are very strongly opposed to a ‘yes’ vote for fear of the consequences for them. They are part of the wider ‘no’ alliance. It appears that one reason the CPGB and CP have not pushed for Left Unity to organise in Northern Ireland is that you do not see the issue of the Scottish referendum having any bearing on Northern Ireland. It is simply not mentioned in Sarah’s article.
Furthermore, Sarah’s reply only raises the prospect of forming a CPUK, in line with the CPGB’s ‘One state, one party’ principle, at some undetermined time in the future - although, strangely, she would still have it called a “reforged CPGB”. “Tak[ing] on the UK state and fight[ing] for a united Ireland” are not seen as current tasks.
In Northern Ireland, loyalists are currently engaged in a reactionary counteroffensive, directed not only against the prospect of a united Ireland, but at undermining the liberal unionist post-Good Friday Agreement. They form a greater threat in Northern Ireland than the equivalent political combination of the right populists and neo-fascists do in Britain. Loyalists seek support in the rest of the UK, as demonstrated by the Tory election alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party and Cameron’s bowing to the Democratic Unionist Party to undermine the UK state-Republican leadership deal over IRA ‘on the runs’. Socialists need to respond to all this now.
Perhaps there is a hint of, ‘Well, we will become a CPUK, when we have enough members in Northern Ireland to make that possible’ in Sarah’s reply. Yet, at present you call yourselves the CPGB, when you appear to have no organisation in Scotland. When I was across at the 1,100-strong Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow in November (with speakers from Ireland and England), there was no CPGB presence, nor even an account and critique in any subsequent Weekly Worker.
Sarah’s reply makes clear that in trying to advance certain principles the CPGB may use tactical compromises. ‘What we fight for’ is where principles are declared. So why not openly declare for the CPUK and expand and qualify this more fully in the CPGB’s programme and the CP?
Sarah’s reply makes it clear that the CPGB does not understand its “united federal Ireland” to be the traditional republican call for a federation of Leinster, Munster, and Ulster and Connacht. Instead a “united, federal Ireland” appears to mean a federation of the current 26 counties (‘Republic of Ireland’) and six counties of Northern Ireland. Why not say so, especially if you want to distinguish your politics from the much more widely known traditional republican formulation? WWFF does not declare for ‘united, federal Britain’, but is clear that it stands for “a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales” to avoid any possible confusion.
But perhaps the lack of clarity over a “federal, united Ireland” stems from Sarah’s reference to “the Irish majority and the British-Irish”. Who are these “British-Irish”? The Irish-British were indeed a powerful social and political force throughout Ireland, enjoying UK state and wider unionist backing, until the Irish war of independence. Once the Irish free state had been established, however, those identifying themselves as British in the 26 counties rapidly declined until, by the 1970s, the overwhelming majority considered themselves to be Irish, like the rest of the population.
Meanwhile, in the new Northern Ireland the overwhelming majority of those who previously considered themselves to be Irish-British, became ‘Ulster-British’. There is still a very small middle class, sometimes claiming an Irish-British identity, largely confined to the ‘Gold Coast’ of North Down. However, they see their future as part of a unitary (as opposed to unionist) UK.
There has been a still more geographically and class-circumscribed ‘resurgence’ of ‘British-Irishness’ in the ‘Republic’, largely confined to ‘Dublin 4’. The background to this development is the growing economic integration and political cooperation between the UK and Irish states. This has led to the phenomenon of ex-lefty academics and media pundits denouncing the Irish War of Independence.
However, I very much doubt whether you could have a “united, federal Ireland” of North Down, Dublin 4 and the rest of Ireland! So perhaps it is the ‘Ulster-British’ that Sarah really means when she writes about “tensions [which] cannot be wished away”. Now, she is right in thinking that socialist republicans have a great deal of work to do in winning over the majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland to considering themselves to be Irish. However, Protestants did constitute a major section of the leadership of the United Irishmen from 1891-1903. It is only by reasserting that secular, republican Irish tradition for today’s conditions that there can be any real way forward.
Attempts to pander to ‘Irish- British’ or ‘Ulster’-British identities, can only reinforce unionism and imperialism. Where the ‘British’ pole of Scottish-British and Welsh-British identities have been undermined, due to the continued decline of British imperialism, then politics have moved to the left. Northern Ireland is the only place where a particular hybrid British identity, ‘Ulster’-Britishness’, has been able to take root and grow. This has consolidated the right, with marked support for all the most reactionary aspects of ‘Britishness’.
Sarah has cleared up the CPGB’s attitude towards “not proposing federalism as a principle, in general”, but only in certain circumstances. As I understand her, these circumstances are (1) where there is a pressing national question and (2) where federalism represents a step forward from a lower level of unity - eg, separate states or a confederation.
However, the ‘national question’ section of the CP describes a “British nation evolved from the gradual bonding of the English, Welsh and Scottish” (how about the ‘Ulster’-British?). It surely follows from this, that with ‘Britain’ being the ‘nation’, the CP should be arguing for a unitary Britain. This would leave English, Scottish and Welsh as specific nationalities or ethnic identities. Nationalities are fully entitled to having cultural, but not state territorial, rights.
The waters become murkier when we look at Sarah’s reason why the CPGB’s WWFF does not go for the principle of an “indivisible European unity” whilst the CP does, but opts instead for the tactic of a “United States of Europe” as a “possib[le] federal stage”. This is done on the grounds that “WWFF is a 585-word column”, but the CP “motions take up over 6,000 words and therefore can flesh out positions a little more”. Surely, it is in WWFF that the “indivisible European unity” principle should be found. Then “the possibility of a federal stage” - ie, “the United States of Europe” - should be raised in the longer CP statement.
I feel further thinking is still required of the CPGB and CP if these ambiguities are to be resolved.
Bob Dunne writes of the International Socialist Network and the ongoing unity talks: “Rather than seeking to unite ourselves separate to the [Left Unity] project, viewing our revolutionary ‘activity’ as distinctively different, we must have the view of coordinating a fight for communist politics in Left Unity” (Letters, February 27).
This is nonsense and characteristic of how we communists - if we must use the term - are too often portrayed. ‘If only the workers saw our programme then they’d know the truth and rally to us,’ I hear somebody shout. I have a problem, in that no indication is given by Bob as to what such a “fight” entails.
Established only in November, much of LU’s political development is yet unwritten and still to be fought for. This won’t be done by lengthy documents (commissions, platform statements), however important those debates are, but by seeking to bring clarity to what LU’s relationship is with the working class movement: trade unions in particular, but also various local and national campaigns that members are involved in.
By fighting on these issues, opportunities arise for coordination with the added benefit of giving LU a sense of direction, drawing stifled branches into activity while providing opportunities to engage the membership.
Should Bob seriously want to talk about transforming LU into a communist party, he must first explain why.
FI and Ukraine
The left’s response to the recent developments in the Ukraine has taken a very wide variety of forms. Some have taken a variant of the third camp position (with greater or lesser emphasis on the role of the working class), while others adopt either critical or uncritical support for Russia’s intervention. However, the position of the Fourth International stands out like a sore thumb.
It endorses the recent coup, which it refuses to call a coup (see statement of March 2 by the International Committee of the Fourth International) and it declares support for “the social and political forces which are trying to build a left opposition within that movement”. In practice this is a call for some kind of united front - doubtless of a very special type - with the neo-Nazis. Yanukovych’s regime is described as “oligarchic and criminal”, but no such condemnation is made of the successor regime.
It makes repeated references to such non-Marxist, cross-class abstractions as “the population” and “the Ukrainian people as a whole” in a vein reminiscent of the worst of Laclau and Mouffe. However, the opaque and contorted language of the document is a cover for the openly pro-Banderist and social-imperialist line being put forward by Duncan Chapel, a leading member of the British section, who tries to claim there are no Nazis in the Ukrainian government, whose legitimacy he enthusiastically endorses. When confronted by a full list of Svoboda members of the cabinet, he claims that not everybody in Svoboda is a Nazi - as if anybody joins a rabidly anti-Semitic organisation that openly uses swastikas and Celtic crosses and regards Stepan Bandera - the murderously anti- Semitic leader of Ukrainian forces who collaborated with Hitler against the USSR during World War II - as its great hero, under the misapprehension it is some version of the Lib Dems.
In volume 6 of Lenin’s Collected works, in his speech of July 22 on the party programme, he states: “To conclude. We all now know that the ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction - and that is what I have done. I am convinced that Russian social democracy will always vigorously straighten out whatever has been twisted by opportunism of any kind, and that therefore our line of action will always be the straightest and the fittest for action” (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1903/2ndcong/14.htm).
However, in the same speech, as printed in 1903 second ordinary congress of the RSDL: Complete text of the minutes, translated and annotated by Brian Pearce (New Park, 1978), it states on pages 169-70: “We all know that the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and this is what I did. I am convinced that the Russian social democratic movement will always vigorously straighten out a stick that has been bent by opportunism of any kind, and that our stick will always, therefore, be the straightest and fittest for action” (www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/ch09.htm).
Of course, though, Cliff used the phrase in his Lenin Vol 1, which was published in 1975, before the Pearce translation. However, the latter was based on the 1904 Geneva publication, which, according to the New Park edition, was the original. In Lenin, there is a citation from the 1904 Geneva edition. Specifically in chapter 5, the section ‘The 1903 Congress’, footnote 18 (www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap05.htm#n18).
Now if Cliff could read Russian and did have access to the original 1904 publication, it seems quite clear he took the image of ‘bending the stick’ right from Lenin, according to his own translation; a translation which accords with that of Pearce. The question is, which is the right translation? Is it the one produced in volume 6 or the one by Pearce and, separately, Cliff?
While Cliff has a deserved reputation for playing fast and loose with citations, I have never read anything negative about the scholarly work of the late Brian Pearce. So I do not think that ‘bending the stick’ is an original Cliff idiom, no matter how much he abused the phrase.
I would like to make a few points in response to Carl Simmons’ defence of Peter Taaffe (Letters, February 27) - in particular his assertions regarding what Lars T Lih deems one of the “scandalous passages” from Lenin’s What is to be done?: namely, that “the working class, exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade union consciousness … socialist consciousness is introduced into the proletarian struggle from without”.
Firstly, when comrade Simmons wonders whether this passage (or indeed others) could be “misused by Stalinist bureaucrats, political sects and self-important academics alike”, he - perhaps unwittingly - alludes to the exact problem that we on the left encounter when seeking to grapple with the history of our movement. What aspect of Marxism was not, for example, “misused” by the Stalinist school of falsification? An overlapping consensus has emerged between comrade Simmons’s “Stalinist bureaucrats” and “self-important academics”. Worse, however, is that those like comrade Taaffe, who claim to be guardians of the Bolshevik flame, are more than happy to repeat and give credence to some of these very same myths. So it is with the passage in question here. Lenin is portrayed as holding the workers in disdain and being fearful of their self-activity.
Yet this is the realm of mythology. I would highly recommend that comrade Simmons and other readers take a look at Lih’s Lenin rediscovered on this score. Lars argues that, in Lenin’s assessment, economism does not primarily entail “activities associated with trade unions”, but rather “the ideology that urges workers to limit themselves to trade unions” (my emphasis): ie, one of the very approaches that Lenin was seeking to combat in WITBD. The anti-economism of Lenin’s “from without” comment is perhaps what makes it so controversial on today’s left.
The relationship between Marxism and the workers’ movement is nicely summarised in the CPGB’s Draft programme: “The working class is the only consistently revolutionary section of society. Without owning any of the means of production of society, it has nothing to lose but its chains. Of course, left to itself, left to spontaneity, it is riven with sectionalism and exists merely as a slave class, capable of being economically militant, even insurrectionary, but not hegemonic. What makes it a hegemonic class is unity around the communist programme.”
Did Lenin “bend the stick too far”? For Taaffe, Lenin said so “in his own words”. I scotched this by quoting Lenin from the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, where he argued that “to make the stick straight it was necessary to bend the stick in the other direction” - for Lenin, sticks bent “by any kind of opportunism” always need straightening. Yet for comrade Simmons, this quote is somehow “an admission on Lenin’s part that some of his formulations in What is to be done? were one-sided and went too far.” How come? Lenin admits no such thing. Sure, following Menshevik criticism of the same passage in 1907, Lenin argued that WITBD was a “polemical correction of ‘economism’ and to consider its content outside this task of the book is incorrect”, but how is this an “admission” that “the author of WITBD himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory” , as Trotsky put it in a quote cited by comrade Simmons? Surely Lenin is merely attempting to contextualise the polemic. As should we.
Comrade Simmons points out that “Trotsky and others at the time” certainly thought that Lenin later admitted he had been wrong on this question. This is hardly surprising. After all, subsequent to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s Second Congress there was what Lih calls “the constant and obsessive personal vilification of Lenin”. Trotsky weighed into this argument on the side of the Mensheviks. Yet there is an ironic twist to this episode: as Lars outlines in great detail, at this point the Mensheviks (including Trotsky) held a conception of the party and working class consciousness that was actually much closer to the elitist approach that has anachronistically been ascribed to Lenin.
Maybe because of his role in these factional battles, the Trotsky of 1940 offers a retrospective account that - not least thanks to Lars’s work - has been shown to be simply incompatible with those of the time.