Sideways shift

Comrade Ian Donovan’s letter on anti-imperialism (June 5) still fails to respond to the substance of my arguments in our exchange of articles, effectively shifting sideways onto new grounds in support of his views. In particular, he fails completely to respond to the point in my last article, that my ‘revisionism’ produces something closer to the line of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern than his ‘orthodoxy’.

He makes three points of substance. The first is: “The history of the workers’ movement is littered with the withered husks of those would-be socialist organisations which have tried to uncouple ‘socialist transformation’ from the duty of consistent opposition to all forms of oppression ...”

The short answer to this is that Ian’s line, which subordinates working class political independence to support for various ‘anti-imperialists’, is no more than the line of orthodox Stalinism on the issue. (Here, as on the party question, the Spartacist tradition which Ian inherits was deeply infected by American Maoism.) The history of the 20thcentury is littered with the human corpses - literally millions of them - which this policy has produced, together with the destruction of mass communist parties: from Shanghai to Indonesia, to Iran and Iraq, and so on in a dismal list.

Ian’s second point is an argument from Lenin’s polemic against the ‘imperialist economists’, Bukharin, Pyatakov and Bosh (more accurately, a Luxemburgist-influenced trend), who argued against the slogan of national self-determination. Lenin responded that the proletariat must be “schooled in the struggle for democracy”.

That the proletariat must fight for political democracy is, of course, true. That this fight involves public opposition to imperialism and the subordination of one nation to another is also unequivocally true. That this requires subordination of the local workers’ movement to the local ‘anti-imperialists’ or a fortiori to their tactics by ‘public support’ does not in the least follow. The case of the supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ Iranian regime is perhaps the most obvious. Ian quotes the Communist manifesto: “The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.” De te fabula narratur: it is Ian’s policy which involves the communists “concealing their views and aims” and hiding behind nationalism, Islamism, or whatever.

Ian’s third point of substance is that my argument that imperialism is a normal feature of capitalism, rather than a feature of capitalist decline, requires me either to reject Lenin’s view that the imperialist powers were incapable of fighting progressive wars, or to reject Marx’s view that the great powers during the period of the French Revolution and in his own time were capable of fighting progressive wars.

The supposed dilemma is a false one. Marx was perfectly capable of seeing that “If money ... ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood stain on one cheek’, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Capital Vol 1, chapter 31) and of commenting on the 1857 first Indian war of independence: “However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her eastern empire, but even during the last 10 years of a long-settled rule. To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself “(New York Daily Tribune September 4 1857). More in Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the margins (2010).

That said, Ian quotes Marx’s 1870 claim that Bismarck was fighting a “war of defence” against France, and his celebration of Napoleon I’s conquests as continuing the French revolution abroad. For the Franco-Prussian war it is quite clear that the German defencism of Marx and Engels was wrong, and the refusal of Liebknecht and Bebel to support the war was right. Marx and Engels could certainly be simply wrong on such questions: I should not need to remark on the very notorious “non-historic nations” crap from the late 1840s and early 1850s. The conquests of Napoleon I are also a great deal more ambiguous than Marx made them appear in 1852, in order to make a rhetorical contrast at the expense of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte - witness the ease with which the British were able to raise up mass, conservative, nationalist movements against them in Spain, Germany and elsewhere.

More generally, revolutionary politics - politics which aims for the overthrow of the state order, in order to “set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant” - requires willingness in an appropriate case to be defeatist in wars. This was as true in 1640, when leaders of the English parliamentary opposition supported a Scots invasion of England, and 1688, when British oppositionists called for and supported a Dutch invasion, as it was in 1870-71, when Liebknecht and Bebel marked themselves out as uncompromising opponents of the kaiser regime by their opposition to the war; or - on the other side - in 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s collapse on the war question led inexorably to the Burgfrieden agreement to suspend the class struggle (from the workers’ side only!) for the duration of the war. It does not depend on Lenin’s reasoning on the issue.

Mike Macnair


Although one can discuss whether the rate of return on capital calculated by Thomas Piketty is based on the most relevant definitions, the figures that Michael Roberts uses to back up the claim of a long-term drop in the rate of profit seem to my inexpert eye (I was trained as a physicist, not an economist) to be much more clearly problematic (‘Unpicking Piketty’, June 5).

Roberts explains that he prefers a much narrower definition of capital than Piketty, but he does not explain that his sources (the extended Penn world tables and the various national sources collated by Esteban Maito) use this definition when estimating the amount of capital present in an economy, but use a notion of profit (total production minus wages) which can only correspond to an even broader definition of capital than Piketty’s. Among other things, this means that land rent is counted as profit, but land is not counted as capital, arbitrarily making agrarian economies appear more dynamic than industrial ones.

In this respect, it is interesting that Maito gives rates of profits for the United States which seem to show no particular upwards or downwards trend, at least since the start of his data in 1865 - coincidentally the end of the civil war, which (among other things) ruined most of the country’s truly large landowners. If this left the country with a seemingly derisory rate of profit (at least by the standards of the time), this did not keep American industrial capitalists from becoming the world’s richest and most powerful.

Rafael G

Capital error

Michael Roberts says: “Thus the circuit of capital, for Marx, is M-C…P…C’ to M’.” This is wrong, but a common mistake. In fact, in Capital Vol 2, in chapters 1 to 4, Marx goes into great detail to demonstrate that the circuit of industrial capital is a fusion of the circuits of capital in its three forms - money, productive and commodity. He also goes into considerable detail to show that the above circuit within this context is only the circuit of newly invested money capital. In chapter 1, Marx writes:

“M...M’ becomes a special form of the industrial capital circuit when newly active capital is first advanced in the form of money and then withdrawn in the same form, either in passing from one branch of industry to another or in retiring industrial capital from a business ... M...M’ may be the first circuit of a certain capital; it may be the last; it may be regarded as the form of the total social capital; it is the form of capital that is newly invested, either as capital recently accumulated in the form of money or as some old capital which is entirely transformed into money for the purpose of transfer from one branch of industry to another” (p61).

As Marx goes on to demonstrate, for already functioning capital the circuit is rather P...C’-M’. M-C...P. That is, the circuit begins with the existing productive capital (means of production and labour-power), which engages in production, and thereby creates surplus value. The surplus value has already been produced at the stage of C, and is merely realised in money form when the commodities are sold. But, for already functioning capital, M’ is not the culmination of this cycle. It is only a transient moment within it. The cycle of this already functioning capital does not close until such time as the realised money capital has been thrown back into circulation to once more buy productive capital, to reproduce that consumed at the commencement of the cycle.

As Marx says in Capital Vol 3, chapter 24, “In the reproduction process of capital, the money form is but transient - a mere point of transit.”

In other words, once money capital has been invested to buy productive capital, it ceases being the starting point of the circuit. The requirement of this actually functioning capital is that it must continue to function as capital, and to do so the consumed productive capital must be reproduced. If a capital is established producing yarn, for example, to continue to function as such a capital, cotton must be continually bought, alongside labour-power to spin it, machines must be repaired and replaced and so on. The significance is that this productive capital, as Marx sets out, must have both a qualitative and quantitative relation to itself, whilst the money capital has only a qualitative relation to itself. The productive capital has a qualitative relation to itself, in that the reproduction process requires that the use-values consumed in production are reproduced in the shape of the same type of use-value. If the reproduction process results not in the reproduction of cotton or cotton spinners, but in wood and joiners, then clearly the capital has not been reproduced. But, similarly, if 100 kilos of cotton was consumed in the production process, and was spun by 10 workers, then if the reproduction process results in only 80 kilos of cotton and eight workers, the capital has not been reproduced quantitatively.

That is not the case with money capital. It only has to have a qualitative relation to itself within this circuit - ie, money capital is reproduced as money capital - but the quantity of this money capital could be different, for the simple reason that within the process of reproduction the value of the productive capital itself might have changed. £100 may be advanced to buy cotton at its value, for example, but if during the production process, prior to the yarn being sold, the value of cotton falls to £80, then it is only this value, not the £100 of money originally advanced, that has to be reproduced. The same is true where the value of fixed capital falls due to moral depreciation. In this case, only £80 of value of cotton is transferred into the final product, and realised as money capital, but this £80 is enough to ensure the reproduction of the 100 kilos of cotton, at its new lower value.

The failure to understand this principle is a problem of historic pricing, as opposed to reproduction cost valuation. But Marx’s position on this is clear and he goes on to say in chapter 24:

“Aside from all accidental interference, a large part of available capital is constantly more or less depreciated in the course of the reproduction process, because the value of commodities is not determined by the labour time originally expended in their production, but by the labour time expended in their reproduction, and this decreases continually owing to the development of the social productivity of labour. On a higher level of social productivity, all available capital appears, for this reason, to be the result of a relatively short period of reproduction, instead of a long process of accumulation of capital.”

This fundamental aspect of Marx’s theory that the value of commodities, including those that comprise the productive capital, is determined by their current reproduction cost, rather than their historic cost (or the labour time previously embodied in their production), is also spelled out by Marx where he discusses this as the basis upon which the rate of profit should be calculated. So he writes:

“The rate of profit must be calculated by measuring the mass of produced and realised surplus value not only in relation to the consumed portion of capital reappearing in the commodities, but also to this part plus that portion of unconsumed but applied capital which continues to operate in production. However, the mass of profit cannot be equal to anything but the mass of profit, or surplus value, contained in the commodities themselves, and to be realised by their sale” (Capital Vol 3, chapter 13).

It’s wrong therefore to describe M-C...P...C’-M’ as the circuit of capital, because it is only the circuit of newly invested money capital. Newly invested money capital is a small portion of the total accumulated invested capital. Even the newly invested money capital arising from accumulation of surplus value represents a small proportion of the total accumulated capital and, as soon as it is invested, itself adds to the total mass of already functioning capital.

Arthur Bough

Bulldoze them

In recent weeks there has been some debate as to whether believers can be members of the party or not. That is for CPGB members to decide. However, the CPGB is not the only group involved in revolution.

As a revolutionary socialist, I think that people who believe in god should be forewarned that all religious buildings after the revolution will be bulldozed and replaced with hospitals and decent housing for the working class.

The problem with god and religion is that it goes hand in hand with capitalism (in god we trust - and the US dollar) and monarchy, thus making god an enemy of the people. Even the Vicar of Rome does not really believe in god’s existence, as is proved by his lack of faith as he travels around in his bulletproof vehicle.

Religions create division even within the same religion, let alone between Christians, Muslims and Jews and others. Let’s leave this superstition where it should be - in the distant past. Let’s get on with the job in hand and get rid of this rotten system.

Now, if you can excuse me, I am off to start my present list ready to send to Father Christmas.

Tony Roberts

Don't cry

A worker who had voted for the UK Independence Party on May 22 was interviewed on BBC and made this profound contribution to political discourse: “There are too many of them”, he said.

He did not mean too many rich people exploiting workers to get richer. He meant too many immigrants. Blame-game politics is in fashion. Ukip gets votes and moves towards a position which could produce the nightmare of a Tory-Ukip coalition in 2015 - sooner if the Liberal Democrats bolt from the current coalition. This is a real danger.

It is as if there had never been a Labour government setting up a welfare state, never been trade unions, never been a World War II, in which Nazism moved from blame-game politics to mass extermination.

Labour has let us down. But Labour and all of us have a problem if a sizable minority, if not a majority, are so backward politically that they cannot grasp simple facts - such as rich people forming new political parties don’t benefit poorer people. They do benefit their own class. What we need is politics where working people - employed, jobless, retired or on disability - benefit. We face a situation where sizable numbers of our population are either urban kulaks or lumpenised workers.

On polling day I rounded up some pensioner neighbours who had not voted for years, and we all voted Labour. Originally I intended to vote Green, but realised that this is a luxury I could not afford. As for the left-nationalist No2EU, thankfully their pathetic support did not split the anti-racist vote to any dangerous extent.

Racist, chauvinistic and xenophobic ideas have infected many people who do want to save the NHS, do want an end to low wages, but don’t see any connection with these desirable things and voting. Voting for the Labour Party as it is now was not to endorse their lack of politics, but an effort to maximise their vote. Had Labour not stood, I would have voted for the Lib Dems (if out of the coalition) or Green, who are not racist and pro-NHS and pro-publicly owned railways.

The hope now, no matter how forlorn, is Labour adopting the living wage and a public ownership policy in fighting the right.

Reaction triumphed, but it has before. So don’t cry - just fight back. Avoid any politics which divide our side.

Rob Jameson
North Yorkshire


I responded to Frank Grafton’s article, ‘Is it our industry?’, when it first appeared in 1984. Its republication under the headline, ‘Countering illusions’ (June 5), illustrates that it has lost none of its arrogance and pomposity in 30 years.

Grafton homes in on the miners’ use of the word ‘our’, as in ‘our industry’, and gives to it meanings which none of us ascribed to it then or now. Why he thought he could lecture the men in the pits as to their actual relationship to the industry and not some foolish illusion they had developed takes some delusion in his own powers of perception as well as our apparent social stupidity.

It’s actually quite simple. We tended to live in National Coal Board houses. Many were born in them, some died in them, families were raised in them. Through tears and happiness, we called them our houses. Because that’s where we lived, because our occupation of them made them ours. It really didn’t need some smart Alec to point out, ‘Well, actually, it’s not your house. It’s the NCB’s’.

Similarly, the coal industry was ours because we worked in it generation on generation. Toil, blood and sometimes deaths, we invested our labour. We regarded the coal as the property of the people (yes, yes, the working people, of course). We regarded the work we did as a service to the community and the class. We believed the industry, lock, stock and barrel, ought to have been under our control and that had been our aspiration for centuries. This is what we meant by ‘our industry’. Why does Grafton need to explain to coal miners why the nationalisation we got in 1947 wasn’t the workers’ control we aspired to, as part of the socialism we sought? He thinks we didn’t know we were sold far short?

But nationalisation was a different world from the murderous indifference and profit-grubbing of the owners. As conceded by your editorial comment, it hadn’t been simply a cynical exercise, but a response to the strength of the National Union of Mineworkers. Both of those things ensured a steadily rising standard of safety and improving conditions, until the advent of Callaghan’s social-contract ‘area incentive scheme’, which then marks a sudden fall in safety standards in the mad dash for money and bonuses.

There is, however, no comparison to the private mines before and now. After nationalisation, with weakened union presence, safety fell dramatically. So, no, the nationalisation we got wasn’t what we wanted, but was an undeniable massive improvement in terms and conditions.

Grafton next goes on to lecture us on the nature of the NUM collaborative bureaucracy, which, for 22 years following nationalisation, tied us to the whims of the government and NCB, as if we didn’t know. Who does he think broke that old guard? Who does he think changed the political completion of the union and fought the outright battles of 1969, 72 and 74? The same men who were already three months into the greatest labour dispute of the 20th century at the time Grafton thought we were in need of instruction.

Amazingly, he then lectures us about our sectionalism! Miners who blacked steel, and stood on picket lines with steelworkers and saw hundreds arrested. Miners who successively struck work in strikes for the NHS workers. Miners who picketed and bled at Grunwick, Stockport, Warrington and Wapping for process workers and printers. We repeatedly said that the 1984-85 strike wasn’t just about the miners, but the survival of combative unions and preservation of the manufacturing base, on which many of them rested. To blame us for the treachery of key unions and the back-stabbing of the TUC bureaucracy in selling us out takes a particularly bent vision, not to mention bastard cheek!

Faced with the arrant arrogance of such saviours from on high as Grafton, was it any wonder the miners stuck to their union as having a better grip on the world than the numerous bands of Moses, with their self-perceived words of god?

David Douglass

British Mafiosi

At the recent Left Unity national council, notice was given of a new tendency being set up under the name ‘Scottish Republic Yes’. Most of the 50 supporters live in England, but we hope to get more support from Scottish LU members. I hope one of the roles of this new LU tendency will be to help the left in Scotland combat any manifestation of anti-English racism, not least by showing in practice solidarity and by building a united front between the progressive section of the English and Scottish working class.

Suppose you look out and see your garden shed burning down. Next day two shady-looking characters come to the door and warn you about the dangers of crime in the area and offer to ‘protect’ you for a ‘small’ fee. Something similar happens when George Galloway or Sandy McBurney visit your town and offer to protect you from anti-English racism for the price of a ‘no’ vote.

We have to confront the darker side of the struggle for democracy. Racism and chauvinism exist in the thoughts, attitudes and actions of people across the UK. Given the bloody history of the British empire, how could it be otherwise? Of course, the ethnic and religious composition of the UK population varies from the Irish in Glasgow to Muslims in Bradford or Jewish people in north London, etc. In Scotland there are 400,000 English people.

The real danger is not the existence of social prejudices, which the left has a proud history of combating. It is the exploitation or the stoking up of such prejudices for political ends. Politicians and parties play the ‘race card’ to win power or maintain the status quo, as with Ukip. Today the big danger lies with the British unionist Mafiosi playing the anti-English race card in Scotland. Stirring up fears of anti-English racism could deliver up to 400,000 ‘no’ votes.

Crime is about motive. If the gap between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ narrows, there is every reason for the ruling class to throw in the race card. It will damage the Scottish National Party and drive a wedge between the English and Scottish left. The British ruling class have billions to be protected. They have many ways to stir it up and much skill and practice from empire days. They have the secret role of the security services, the mouthpiece of the BBC and all the rightwing press. People like Jeremy Paxman and left unionists like George Galloway and Greg Philo may or may not be innocent dupes in this game.

The closer the contest becomes, the more desperate the unionist Mafioso will become. For all we know, some MI5-sponsored ‘tartan army’ is planning to burn down a few garden sheds. The British ruling class has two sides. One is the nice face, like some godfather protecting the ‘one big happy family’. The other is the nasty face of ‘Project Fear’. Add to the list of disasters threatening Scotland if a majority vote ‘yes’ - no currency union, expulsion from the EU, capital flight and job destruction - now the spectre of anti-English racism.

The answer is to build an international united front between the Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish working class movements. England, with by far the largest working class, is the key. The idea that the left in England should sit on the fence, pretend to be neutral or preen like ‘catwalk communists’ must be combated. The neutrals aren’t neutral. They are soft unionists, who lack the courage to say ‘no’. They may think they are hiding in some political safe space. In fact, they are sinking in the bog that surrounds and protects the unionist citadel built around HM treasury and the Bank of England.

Steve Freeman

Thornett shocked

On June 7, the ‘Ecosocialism’ conference sponsored by Socialist Resistance and RS21 took place in London. The workshops covered everything from Marxism and ecology to transport and fracking. Approximately 100 people attended the event - enough to nearly fill the main conference room at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

The opening plenary featured Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, who called for renationalisation of the railways, a citizen’s income and support for a proposal from the New Economics Foundation to work towards a 21-hour working week. Also speaking was Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance, who said the left had failed to recognise the environmental crisis because it had adapted to productivist language. As a former car plant worker, he never questioned the “weapons of mass pollution” he was helping to produce. He said SR was among the first to take up the environmental question by adopting “ecosocialism”, which was a fundamental part of its political identity. Ecosocialism aimed to build a society based on equality and sustainability and where use values take priority over exchange values. But things cannot wait for socialism - people cannot continue to live as they currently do: there are just too many things.

Özlem Onaran, also of SR, said in one of the workshops that capitalism needs crisis - even an ecological crisis. However, this, she said, was “bad capitalism”. There is also “good capitalism”, such as initiatives like the Green New Deal, where capitalism uses the state to save itself from itself. But the real alternative was ecosocialism, where we do not rely on growth and we have a policy of full employment, equality and sustainability. But to me it sounded very similar to Keynesianism.

In the discussion that followed, I argued that if the working class is feeling the effects of the climate crisis more than anyone else then the answer is to get organised, and put forward our maximum demands - that should be our “exit strategy”, which comrade Thornett had said we do not have. I also wondered why Left Unity had voted down a shorter working week when several speakers here had proposed it in the opening plenary. In reply, Özlem said that we can sell on the doorstep public money for public investment, wealth transfers and inheritance tax, but we cannot sell a maximalist programme. And we cannot work those shorter hours because, of course, there is all the work needed doing to build up the housing stock and so on. The answer appears to be to appeal to what the voters out there want and what is currently achievable under the capitalist system. She was definitely not proposing an imaginative programme for what we actually need to resolve the climate crisis and ameliorate the effects it has on those least able to adapt.

The most interesting session for me was a workshop called ‘Revolution and alternatives’, because it veered off into talk about left unity (as opposed to Left Unity). There were calls to build a united left which is not explicitly socialist and one contributor asked why, if we can agree on environmentalism, we can’t agree on everything else. Someone else said we should look to movements such as UK Uncut - protests won’t come from us; they will come from somewhere else. But Alan Thornett said he was shocked by these comments from people on the left, since they disparaged the possibility of unity. He added that this conference had been organised by several groups and there was no reason why these groups could not work together at a higher level - the subtext being the ongoing regroupment talks.

The final plenary had an atmosphere of impending doom, as if the climate crisis was just about to crash through the windows of the conference hall. Jonathan Neale of RS21 wrapped up the day, and I almost thought he was going to break down in tears after he had talked about a personal experience that demonstrated for him the power of solidarity. It was a mixed closing speech, calling for a big public works programmes and the cutting of carbon emissions, and bemoaning the failure of the left to develop a vision for an alternative.

There was a comradely atmosphere, and all the speakers were no doubt sincere and committed in their proposals. But there is much to learn about how the left can tackle climate change - we need to unite on the basis of Marxism, not Keynesianism or ecosocialism.

Simon Wells