Just a phase
Just a couple of points in relation to Michael Roberts’ article, ‘The current long depression and its nature’ (October 2).
He says: “Consumption as a share of GDP had never been higher in 2007 in most major economies. And the subsequent fall in consumption was much milder and later than the huge collapse in investment - so a lack of consumption could hardly be the major cause of the crisis.” But this is a non sequitur. If I am accustomed to eating only 1,000 calories per day, the fact that my calorie intake rises to a record high of 1,200 calories a day does not change the fact that I am malnourished, or that any health problem I suffer may not be a consequence of it!
More importantly, Marx himself describes the fact that crises of overproduction often occur at times when consumption is at a high point. The difference is that, where Marx analyses this situation, he describes it as arising due to a period of exuberance, fuelled by high rates and masses of profits, whereas Michael insists that it arises from the opposite. According to Marx, it is high rates of profit that cause new businesses to be created, for existing companies to ramp up production, to hire more labour, causing wages to rise, which is one of the bases of the rising consumption. Michael has a problem then in explaining why businesses were employing more workers and bidding up wages to fuel this higher consumption, if they were not encouraged to do so by higher profits.
Here is the difference. For Marx the crisis of overproduction is precisely that. Even as consumption rises due to these conditions, production rises even faster, so that more is produced than can be consumed at prices that enable the capital used in their production to be reproduced. In fact, the rise in consumption is a factor in this, because, as workers’ consumption rises, their requirements for certain commodities are satisfied. They can only be persuaded to buy more of them if market prices fall significantly, and that significant fall may be so significant as to drive the price below the cost of production.
In other words, Marx understands the idea of the elasticity of demand, and he castigates those who fail to recognise the difference in relation to demand between value and use-value. So, for example, he writes: “The same value can be embodied in very different quantities [of commodities]. But the use-value - consumption - depends not on value, but on the quantity. It is quite unintelligible why I should buy six knives because I can get them for the same price that I previously paid for one” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch20.htm).
And, setting out again that it is the increase in the quantity of use-values produced, as opposed to the quantity of value, which leads to the overproduction, he writes: “By the way, in the various branches of industry in which the same accumulation of capital takes place … the amount of products corresponding to the increased capital employed may vary greatly ... The same value is produced in both cases, but the quantity of commodities in which it is represented is very different. It is quite incomprehensible, therefore, why industry A, because the value of its output has increased by 1% while the mass of its products has grown by 20%, must find a market in B, where the value has likewise increased by 1%, but the quantity of its output only by 5%. Here, the author has failed to take into consideration the difference between use-value and exchange-value” (ibid).
In other words, although both industries have increased the value of their output by the same amount, so that workers and capitalists in both industries have sufficient value available to them to continue to fully exchange their products, there is no reason why they will, if the mass of products from one has grown by 20% and the other by only 5%. It’s going to be the case that the consumption of workers from both industries rises here, but, because the volume of industry A has risen by 20%, the demand for these commodities from industry B will have been more satisfied, and so it will have been overproduced. Industry A will have to sell these commodities beneath their value to clear the overproduction, and that may mean at a price below the cost of production.
Michael also sets out the sequence of long-wave winters, based on the usual 50/55-year cycle. The last winter cycle he cites is 1929-46. But he then jumps from here to declare that a new winter phase started in 1997. A 50-year cycle would have meant it starting in 1979, not 1997. Michael resolves this problem by announcing that he believes the long-wave cycle is now 64-72 years long, which is convenient in order to make the otherwise unfortunate facts fit the theory. The problem being, of course, that Michael then has to explain the small matter of the second slump that began in 1974, and ran through the 1980s and 90s. He also has to explain why things such as raw material prices continued to fall throughout that period up to 1999, as they have done in every previous long-wave downturn, and why they shot up after 1999, as they have done in every previous long-wave boom.
Michael has to explain why it is that global trade expanded hugely after 1999, compared with the previous period. Perhaps the reason might be that, according to his own diagrams (Figs 3 and 6), the rate of profit was rising since the early 1980s, not falling, even without taking into consideration the rise in the rate of turnover of capital during that period. That, of course, is consistent with every previous long-wave cycle. It means that the autumn phase ran from around 1974 to 1987, the winter phase ran from 1987 to 1999, a new spring phase ran from 1999 to 2012, and we are now in a new summer phase that started around 2012 and will run to around 2025-30.
I am not entirely sure of the point of publishing Konrad Haenisch’s October 4 1914 letter to Karl Radek, although Ben Lewis has done a fabulous translation and it is a fascinating read (‘Tied to the national state’, October 2).
There are some interesting ultra-Menshevisms and even some hints of Eurocommunism in the letter, arguing for the fullest development of capitalism, the fullest development and defence of the nation-state, as the preconditions for any successful socialist revolution.
Haenisch actually rather lucidly and cogently sets out the basic case for opportunism - ie, capitulation in practice to the class enemy and the imperatives of capitalism and imperialism - by arguing that if social democracy had not supported the war (in line with the basic ‘common sense’, ‘patriotism’ and nationalist war fervour of the masses), it would have lost any credibility and connection with the working class.
Maybe, maybe not. If social democracy had stuck to its principles and opposed the war, at least it stood the chance of being proved to have been correct and to be seen to have been correct, either at the time, or subsequently, decades later, even 100 years later. It is surely more important to be eventually shown to have been correct than never at all?
Haenisch’s case that successful defence of the nation-state through war is a precondition for socialism inevitably and automatically falls down, in that victory for one nation-state implies the defeat of others. So, while allegedly, socialism is promoted in the victor nation-state, it is undermined in the defeated nation-states.
Perhaps the resolution of that contradiction was behind the thought that “German bayonets [are] to carry out this great historical task”. Something the German National Socialists tried to implement far more effectively and ruthlessly just 25 years later.
But I come back to my initial question: what was the point of publishing this letter? Surely, what the Weekly Worker and other socialist papers should be doing is actively promoting the names, ideas, words and arguments of those socialists 100 years ago who actively opposed World War I?
Even our dear old friends in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who reject Leninism and the idea that capitalism had by 1914 become imperialist, nonetheless expressed staunch opposition to World War I and in a quite magnificent piece of prose stated: “Placing on record our abhorrence of this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class, and declaring that no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, we protest the brutal and bloody butchery of our brothers of this and other lands, who are being used as food for cannon abroad, while suffering and starvation are the lot of their fellows at home. We have no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to the workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism, the world for the workers!”
It is odd that in the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, today’s SPGB chose not to reprint this classic editorial.
The workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Russia in November 1917 was surely the single most powerful and most effective anti-war action ever taken in modern history.
Unsurprisingly, the result of the Scottish independence referendum has not ended the debate about constitutional change in the UK. In the run-up to the general election next year and the Westminster parties declaring their agendas for increasing powers to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the Northern Ireland assembly, such debate will continue. Good.
In Wales, unlike Scotland, independence is not supported by a significant proportion of the population. A recent poll suggested only 3% - a record low - favoured such an outcome. Just as notable, however, was the 49% figure that represented support for increased powers for the parliament in Wales. Of course, what ‘increased powers’ means in practice is uncertain, but the exact implications of Tory policy proposals in relation to the ‘Barnett plus’ formula and public spending for Wales, lockstep and potential taxation levying and the Silk report’s ‘reserved powers’ perspective for the parliament will, without doubt, open up a further can of worms relating to constitutional settlement.
In response to events in Scotland, what socialists in Wales say on such issues over the coming weeks and months will thus take on an increased importance. Problematically, most already have a perspective on the national question that ends up giving nationalism a left, albeit sometimes radical, twist: the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales wholeheartedly supported a ‘yes’ vote in Scotland last month, for example. The socialist milieu within the Labour Party in Wales now appears be moving in the same direction. Whilst the consensus in the party on the constitutional question may still be based very much on a limited tinkering with the British constitutional arrangement, many are beginning to advocate solutions based on Welsh parliamentary rights alone and the dumbing down of how the question of the solidarity of British workers is to be extended.
Neither an accommodation to nationalism nor the unchallenging defence of the British union offer a principled, long-term solution to the national question in Britain. There is an alternative to both, of course: federalism and republicanism, and the combination of these perspectives within a federal republic.
Tony Greenstein persists in retailing the silly falsehood that I have characterised him as a “Zionist” in recent discussions (Letters, October 2). He is right that what I have written is “quite explicit”. On September 6, I published, in my most comprehensive criticism of his politics, the following statement: “Among these are … Tony Greenstein. They are outright opponents of the Zionist project and subjectively seek its destruction by revolutionary means, involving the Arab working class” (http://commexplor.com/2014/09/06/the-centrist-politics-of-tony-greenstein). So there is no need to ‘withdraw’ a statement never made, but whose exact opposite was published!
This symbolises the irrationality, capriciousness and personalism of Greenstein’s conduct in this dispute and the lack of principle of those in the CPGB who have backed him. Greenstein says my criticisms of his identity politics and communalism amount to an accusation of Zionism. But Zionism is not the only type of Jewish identity politics.
In the early 20th century, there existed the Bund, which opposed Zionism and Jewish migration to the Middle East, instead focusing on the preservation of Jewish culture. It demanded recognition as the sole representative of Jewish workers within Russian and Polish social democracy. Lenin fought hard against this leftwing communalism, considered it divisive, and in contradiction to the duty of a revolutionary party to draw all layers of the specially oppressed behind the proletariat. This in the tsarist empire, when Jews were certainly an oppressed population.
Today, when Jews are no longer oppressed, but have achieved considerable political clout for their mainstream kind of identity politics - Zionism - in western imperialist countries, the likes of Tony Greenstein and Moshé Machover promote, along with a sometimes very left-sounding anti-Zionism, their own alternative ‘left’ identity politics and communalism. Thus the proliferation of self-described Jewish groups in the Palestine solidarity movement: Jews against Zionism, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, etc.
This is in the context of a situation where many - including Greenstein (though, to be fair, not Machover) make direct analogies with South African apartheid. This brings us to the paradox of what would be involved if in the movement against apartheid there had appeared groups like ‘Whites against Apartheid’, ‘Whites for Boycotting South African Goods’, etc. Such groups, had they existed, would accept the racial segregation that was key to apartheid! The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with ‘Jews against Zionism’ et al.
I am appalled that the Weekly Worker would print a direct and public libel against me. The first paragraph of René Gimpel’s letter (September 25) quite clearly accuses me of wishing to engage in criminal sexual activities. That the editor didn’t delete this scurrilous accusation makes the paper culpable of libel too.
Nothing in my attempt to offer a non-hysterical, non-paedophobic perspective on Rotherham in the previous issue (September 18), and absolutely nothing in my private life or personal behaviour, could ever warrant such a dangerous and damaging accusation. I demand that the paper disassociates itself from this accusation and Gimpel withdraws that part of his letter. I am loath to use the courts and the law in internal labour-movement disputes, but this is not that: it is just a plain nasty and potentially murderous accusation.
Whatever happens, this is the last correspondence with this paper. Discussion has clearly reached an all-time low, if this kind of slander can be allowed as part of serious debate.
Berwick upon Tweed
I have just started to read that section of British history covering the period when Ramsey MacDonald formed a ‘National Government’ and the one theme that appears to run through the received orthodoxy covering this period is that no one appears to have offered an alternative.
Can readers point me towards any ‘progressive’ writing on this subject?
Brian M Leahy