Regular readers are probably tired of hearing about my suspension from the Manchester branch of Left Unity, which began on June 11 2014. Well, hold on for the good news.
Just to remind you, I was suspended by the branch because I wrote a critical report which covered the attempted censure of one comrade for comments on the internal email list, and the general hostility to minority views being expressed in the branch (‘What “safe spaces” lead to’Weekly Worker May 15 2014). Fortunately Left Unity’s new disputes committee, formed after the last internal elections, has in a few weeks shown more political neutrality, initiative and plain old common sense than the previous DC could muster in over a year. It has thrown out my suspension as totally unconstitutional and apologised for the scandalous delay in dealing with the case (caused by the incompetence of the previous DC). The comrades also asked if I would attend a meeting with their representatives, together with the Manchester branch chair, who had proposed the motion calling for my suspension, to discuss issues around my reporting of the branch.
Fair enough, I thought. However, on arrival at the agreed venue on Saturday August 30, I and another Communist Platform comrade I had asked to attend were told that it had been impossible to pin down the branch chair on a date, so they decided to just go ahead and fix the meeting, to which the chair was invited. Unfortunately, the comrade did not show - and has also given pre-emptive apologies for the next branch meeting (the annual general meeting), by the way. Interesting.
So the meeting was less mediation and more the two DC members agreeing with us on how terribly this dispute has been handled - they also mentioned their attempts to stem the flood of complaints from comrades trying to use the DC to fight political battles or even conduct petty personal vendettas. And the comrades pointed out something that we in the CP had not clocked on to: according to the DC’s own standing orders, confidentiality is binding only on members of the disputes committee, not on the disputants. It was the demand on myself for confidentiality by the previous DC, and my initial refusal to agree to what might amount to a secret trial behind closed doors, which partly caused the dispute to be so long delayed.
The fact that the previous incumbents made this demand illegitimately is worrying in itself. Apart from rare cases, we are for transparency in these matters as a principle, as the only way of ensuring justice really is done, and that people elected to positions are competent to remain in them.
When I did finally and reluctantly agree to abide by confidentiality with the prior DC, they immediately proposed a meeting on an utterly partisan basis. The insinuations about my alleged ‘bullying’ and ‘disruptive’ behaviour (which were never specified and not part of the reasons given for my suspension at the time) were to be taken at face value and my own testimony ignored, with no attempt to talk to third parties and establish something close to reality. At the least I would be expected to apologise for whistleblowing!
The comrades from the new DC also agreed with us that (1) the suspension itself was a flat-out breach of the constitution; (2) not only is there nothing in the LU constitution preventing the reporting of meetings, but it actually enshrines the right to do so, so the basis of the complaint was illegitimate; and (3) no specifics or evidence of ‘bullying behaviour’ had been provided, so it was impossible to verify them. These claims were dropped from the motion to suspend me, so it talked merely about an article comrades claimed to be offended by. Allegations of ‘bullying’ were only dredged up again when the comrade was challenged on the right to report on LU events; once more no specifics or evidence was provided. Indeed one of the DC members present described the ease of dealing with the comrade’s various and shifting complaints as “like pushing over blocks”.
Nonetheless, as a sign of good faith I have agreed that any future reports of LU activity in the city will avoid the use of names wherever possible - with the proviso that this will not apply to any wannabe witch-hunters. Hopefully Manchester LU comrades can build a branch which is a ‘safe space’ for ideas and debate.
Thanks to the new disputes committee for taking on a role the weaker-hearted might avoid, for dealing with this dispute so quickly, intelligently and fairly ... and for not being afraid to tread on a few toes now and then.
Personally, I welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to stand, and I am delighted he is expected to win. We will be discussing how we relate to this at our next meeting of Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Jeremy has been an ardent socialist all his political life, always fighting on principle. This has meant opposing the Labour whip in parliament, and voting against Labour’s Blair-led decline into Toryism, on over 500 occasions. Jeremy Corbyn opposes austerity, campaigned against the war in Iraq, opposes the renewal of Trident and supports renationalisation of the railways, banks, public utilities and other leading institutions. To a certain extent, these are the policies of old Labour, and they are policies fully supported by Tusc.
If Jeremy wins, it will indicate growing opposition in the Labour Party, and in the country as a whole, to austerity, cuts and privatisation - the very issues that Tusc has been campaigning about. We need to draw all this together into one party of the left. In my view, the Labour Party could be a significant part of that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but only if:
These are key issues. I speak as someone who was expelled from the Labour Party in 1992 for being a socialist - and supporting ‘rebel’ MPs Dave Nellist and John Hughes in Coventry. Would I be allowed to rejoin? Would Dave? A Labour Party that had agreed the policies I have outlined should want all socialists to (re)join.
However, I don’t think there is much chance Labour will democratise itself or rediscover its socialist roots, whether or not Jeremy wins. The leaders of those trade unions still embedded within Labour, together with sections of the national media, will not let it happen and indeed the Labour leadership is already working hard to put the result of the election in doubt. If Jeremy is successful, he is likely to be a short-term prisoner inside a rightwing Labour Party until the party leaders find a way to get rid of him.
I really hope that doesn’t happen. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has shown that significant numbers of people want a socialist society, where everyone is treated equally. Whether the Labour Party acts on the enthusiasm to (re)join is highly debatable, so Tusc will continue to offer an alternative socialist programme with campaigning activity, at least until Labour is confirmed as a truly socialist party.
As a member of the precariat and registered Labour supporter, I cannot understand why there are still people on the left who are against voting for Jeremy Corbyn.
So he says he doesn’t want to scrap the monarchy straightaway, which in many a socialist’s eye means he is not a republican, but have they not considered the possibility that as there are thousands of new recruits to the party that have joined because they have a social conscience, not because they are socialists, Corbyn as a seasoned campaigner might not want to startle the horses with such revolutionary talk. He is having a tough time from the mainstream media and the right, as it is.
The precariat is the group most affected by austerity and has already been hit hard with benefit cuts and their effect on families’ living standards. We are the ones suffering from poor housing conditions and high rents, etc. OK a Labour Party led by comrade Corbyn may not be communism, but it would put leftwing politics back on the map and into the people’s conscience. And if Labour won the next election it would alleviate the suffering of some of the most vulnerable in society - no bad thing and a big step in the right direction.
The average age of a first-time buyer in London is 52. Outside London it is 37. In London only one in three people now own their own home. It will soon be like 100 years ago, when only one in 10 people did so. The rest rented. The decline in home ownership is a fitting end to Mrs Thatcher’s so-called ‘property-owning democracy’.
A survey by Inside Housing of 81 English councils shows that 40% of the houses bought under the right-to-buy scheme are now rented out by private landlords - at seven times the level of social rents. At the same time, the buy-to-let market, which is based on a mountain of private debt, is a bubble that is set to burst, once the Bank of England raises its base rate. Meanwhile, private landlords are being subsidised by the taxpayer: £8 billion a year is claimed in mortgage interest tax relief; £32 billion a year is paid in housing benefit to private landlords.
In the 1950s, Labour and Tories competed with each other to see who would build the most council houses, with 400,000 being built each year.
The growth in private landlords must be reversed. It is time to re-introduce rent controls, and time to build council houses again.
Can I thank Stephen Diamond (Letters, August 13) for his response to my criticism of Engels’s theory (July 30). I did, however, point out that Engels didn’t tell us what he meant by ‘quality’ and that subsequent dialecticians regularly apply this law subjectively, appealing to it when and where it suits them, ignoring the many instances where it just does not work. It seems comrade Diamond is happy to emulate them, failing to tell us what he understands by ‘quality’, which means he, too, applies this ‘objective’ law subjectively - for example, in his brief discussion of the (possible) election victory of Jeremy Corbyn.
Stephen also ignores the many instances where this law fails to work, merely brushing them aside perhaps as a superficial view of the phenomenon, but he, too, failed to notice that these aren’t minor exceptions, nor are they all that rare. Every amorphous solid (and not just amorphous ice, which Stephen mentions) and every metal disobeys the nodal requirement of this ‘law’. Furthermore, as I pointed out, most substances can be turned into an amorphous form if they are cooled rapidly. This means that almost every solid in the universe will disobey this aspect of Engels’ law. Moreover, every element in the periodic table remains the same element despite changes to its state of matter - so, for example, nitrogen is still nitrogen as a gas or as a liquid. These aren’t minor, irrelevant exceptions.
I also pointed out that phase changes can’t represent ‘dialectical’ change of ‘quality’ (even if we knew what comrade Diamond meant by ‘quality’). Stephen ignores this salient fact, merely saying: “To the impressionist (that is, anti-philosophical empiricist), the quantitative/qualitative distinction can be read of the surface of phenomena. Molten irons superficially appears analogous to melting ice, so their essential similarity becomes for the impressionist a ‘fact’. The atheoretical empiricist mindset over-prioritises preserving the deliverances of perception.”
Once again, it is quite clear that comrade Diamond can only argue this way since he has left ‘quality’ undefined. And, of course, this has nothing to do with empiricism, since it is a fact that liquid iron has the same atomic structure as solid iron. Does comrade Diamond want to deny this? Or claim it is only a “perception”?
Stephen also had this to say: “I’ll leave Marx out of it, although I don’t see how Rosa can dismiss the endorsement of the dialectic at p423 of Capital.” I presume he meant this passage:
“The possessor of money or commodities actually turns into a capitalist in such cases only where the minimum sum advanced for production greatly exceeds the maximum of the middle ages. Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel ..., that merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes” (CW Vol 35, p313).
Now, Marx had already told us what he meant by “the dialectic method” in the afterword to the second German edition of Capital. There, he quoted a long review of his work, which, oddly enough, is the only summary of ‘the dialectic method’ he published and endorsed in his entire life. In that summary, not one single Hegelian concept is to be found - no ‘contradictions’, no change of ‘quantity into quality’, no ‘negation of the negation’, no ‘unity and identity of opposites’ - and yet Marx still calls this “the dialectic method”, which he says is “my method”. Of the few occurrences of Hegelisms in that book, he says he was merely ‘coquetting’ with them; hardly a ringing endorsement.
But, what of the passage to which Stephen referred? The simple fact is that money does not become capital by mere quantitative increment; it requires the presence of a capitalist mode of production (and thus a change in the relations of production) - or, indeed, adifferent use of that money. The capitalists concerned have to do something with their money. So, the mere increase in money doesn’t automatically “pass over” into a qualitative change and become capital. Quantity has nothing to do with it - the same quantity of money could be employed as capital or fail to be so used. It requires a change in its social setting and/or use to effect such a development. This is a basic tenet of historical materialism.
Now, we either argue that Marx didn’t understand his own theory or we conclude he was merely ‘coquetting’.
Stephen then argues as follows: “In a universe composed of quantities of matter and energy, where is qualitative change to come from, if not from an accumulation of quantitative change? ... But a crystalline ice molecule is one thing; a liquid ice molecule another.”
If we use Hegel’s definition, countless ‘qualitative’ changes can and do occur with no addition of matter or energy - I have listed dozens of examples at my site (anti-dialectics.co.uk - essay 7, part 1). And, of course, “a crystalline ice molecule is one thing; a liquid ice molecule another”, but is Stephen going to deny they are both still essentially the same: they are both H2O? This means that no ‘qualitative’ change (of the required sort) has taken place.
In your comprehensive document proposing a revised constitution for Left Unity, apart from a hint - “a society based on the principle of ‘From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’” - you fail to explicitly explain what ideology the organisation should be based on (‘A constitution fit for purpose’, August 13).
The CPGB frequently criticises other left groups for their lack of a programme, so this is a significant omission. And if it is correct that those organisations not based upon Marxist-Leninism are therefore based upon some kind of bourgeois ideology, social democracy, etc, it is a bit puzzling why you do not call for LU to be based on a proper Marxist programme.
Surely it cannot be for the reason that a Marxist-Leninist programme would ‘put people off’ - a defeatist concept that the CPGB, quite rightly, criticises. Or is it a recognition that LU is not and never will be a principled Marxist organisation? Just asking, comrades!
One or the other
Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the simplest and, indeed, the most glaringly obvious laws of science and nature. One such law springs out of the intellectual discipline of logic, wherein the difference between ‘sufficient’ and ‘necessary’ is clearly and immutably defined: it is sufficient for an animal to be a cat. It is necessary that a cat is an animal.
So it is with being Jewish. Self-evidently, some Jews are middle class or bourgeois; and, in turn, some of those will be enthusiastic supporters of the global system of capitalism or even a central element of its various elites. Those particular Jewish individuals may decide to cooperate closely with each other in pursuit of their personal interests or, more generally, for the achievement of socio-economic/political ends.
But clearly it doesn’t follow that all avidly capitalist and/or rampantly imperialistic people are Jewish by religion or from Jewish ethno-cultural stock. Nor again is it the case that the successful operation of, let alone any future prospects for, the system of capitalism relies exclusively on those specific elements within any particular population. In other words, both capitalism and its imperialist operations exist and can continue to function either with or without Jews.
If someone tries to conflate or confuse any of these multiple and interrelated facts in even the slightest manner, inevitably they will find themselves drifting closer in outlook and political positioning to racism rather than finding themselves to be an acceptable part of any socialist/communist organisation or movement.
It seems to me that your correspondent, Ian Donovan of so-called Communist Explorations, recently has been discovering all of this stuff for himself. Namely that, in its genuine, proper, unsullied form, socialism and/or communism will never want anything to do with disgraceful and disgusting nonsense such as anti-Semitism, under whatever guise or in whatever new and attractively ‘intellectual’ permutation it rears its ugly head. Or, put another way, if neither prostituting itself nor internally betrayed, Marxism-Leninism will never allow itself to be associated with any such anti-democratic and diversionary garbage.
As with pregnancy, in this matter there are no options available; there is no wriggle roomwhatsoever. It is either one thing or the other: we can choose to dwell either on one side of that jointly socio-political, cultural, philosophical as well as psychic line, or on its contradictory and implacably hostile opposite.
Dawning of truth
In the first years of the 16th century, the church made much of a man named Johannes Pfefferkorn - a convert from Judaism who under Dominican tutelage became a bitter anti-Semite. Pfefferkorn agitated for the confiscation of Jewish prayer books and the burning of the Talmud, called for mandatory church attendance of the Jews, enforced by the threat of mass expulsion, and depicted the Jews as implacable agents of darkness.
Pfefferkorn’s pamphlets are now largely considered to have been ghost-written to a significant degree by anti-Semitic Dominicans happy to exploit Pfefferkorn’s Jewishness for their own purposes; the church was in that period engaged in the harshest campaign in its history to eradicate Judaism. Sadly, it is not at all unusual for anti-Semites to hide their hateful ideology behind the writings of their token ‘good Jew’: ‘What we say about the Jews must be true,’ the anti-Semites argue, ‘because even Jews like Pfefferkorn say it is.’
A more modern way of putting it might be: “It should be noted that all five of these sources of my theses are of Jewish origin; far from being anti-Jewish, in terms of sources, my theses are in fact very Jewish.” That is, of course, a direct quote from Ian Donovan, defending his intellectual reliance on, among others, the appalling anti-Semite, Gilad Atzmon.
Ten years have now passed since Atzmon circulated and endorsed an essay from Paul Eisen promoting holocaust denial - the very same holocaust denier the Daily Mail recently used to attack Jeremy Corbyn. It takes some spectacular mental ballet to find anything at all ambiguous morally about Atzmon’s ongoing, 10-year pas de deux with the holocaust denial movement, in which Atzmon finds much to praise and nothing to condemn with more than a passing sigh.
Circa 2002 (and Jenin), the anti-Zionist movement was simply unprepared to handle the issue of anti-Semitism, and summarily declared that absolutely all claims of anti-Semitism against the movement were false a priori. The ugly matter of Gilad Atzmon quickly made that position untenable. That Atzmon is of Jewish extraction slowed the dawning realisation of his anti-Semitism, but dawn did arrive.
Perhaps one day Ian Donovan will see it too, if he has not gone too much further along his current dire path.
Burger or banana
James Linney refers to the “devastating effects of the modern, capitalist-controlled diet” (‘The bitter taste of capitalism’, August 13). Hyperbole aside, where is this diet-related ‘devastation’ exactly?
Type-2 diabetes in children is extremely rare - there are about 500 cases in the UK (largely from the genetically predisposed South Asian population). In the US, type-2 prevalence among under-20s is 0.24 per 1,000. This is hardly epidemic rates. No doubt there are health issues associated with obesity, but they’re almost insignificant when compared to those associated with starvation and undernourishment - phenomena which, until not so long ago, plagued even the richest capitalist countries.
Diabetes or no diabetes, it’s an undeniable fact that people in the west are now leading longer and healthier lives than ever before. Food abundance has played a key role in this and, if anything, should be celebrated.
Obesity is not a social problem in the way that food shortages are. The latter require social solutions, while obesity is solved via individual initiative and effort (eating less, exercising more). Despite what Linney says, weight loss in healthy humans occurs predominantly by calorific deficit - this is not simply McPropaganda, but the scientific consensus.
Also despite Linney, burger corporations don’t have any iron grip on our food choices. The last time I checked, supermarkets were filled with fruit, veg, grains and legumes. The only thing stopping me from spending my £5 KFC allowance on rice, beans and greens is my palate.
The real crux of Linney’s argument is that workers are a bit dim and easily led astray. Arguments such as his often come dressed in radical lingo, but they amount to a condescending petty bourgeois moralism, which has nothing to do with any progressive view of the working class. The latter is seen as so dazzled by colourful adverts on TV that it has become incapable of making the right food choices - hence the need for state regulation to teach workers how to eat. (Not applicable to middle class folk, of course, who can see past corporate lies.)
I don’t see how you can believe in the revolutionary self-emancipation of working men and women when you views them as unfit to manage something as trivial as whether to opt for a burger or a banana.
Marxism and art
Marxism cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe, and also cannot tie down art to its (supposed) context of production. But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change - in all domains.
Clement Greenberg defined ‘avant-garde’ art as having a “superior consciousness of [the] history [of art]”, where ‘kitsch’ elides that. But the necessity of such consciousness is a symptom of the need to overcome capitalism. We may need avant-garde art now, but its criteria didn’t apply before capitalism and so won’t apply (in the same way) after capitalism.
This is what Howard Phillips shies away from in condemning “transcendence” - even while also writing that good art should “point beyond” its context (‘Dylan and the dead’, August 13). As Adorno wrote, art is the attempt to make something without knowing what it is. In other words, art goes beyond theoretical understanding or analysis through concepts, and so must be experienced aesthetically. That aesthetic experience can either affirm society as it is or point beyond it. Often it does both. Art is dialectical - as anything under capitalism.
Certainly one can essay at what makes art good or bad. But the art itself cannot be reduced to such theoretical essaying. As Walter Benjamin put it, art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no-one.
Specialisation is necessary: critics are not artists; artists are not politicians. There are important interrelations among art, criticism and politics, but they are not the same thing. Marx’s Capital was not a work of economics or even of political economy, but rather a (political) critique of political economy. Such critique pointing beyond existing social conditions, with consciousness of potential historical change (ie, beyond the law of the value of labour) could indeed be attempted in any domain (eg, in the physical sciences), but would remain speculative, provisional and disputable. The dialectic is unfinished.
The question is whether Marxist theoretical critique helps potential possibilities - both within and pointing beyond capitalism - become better realised in practice. That effect will always be indirect or oblique. Critical theory is not prescriptive or programmatic, but it is critical. Good critical theory can have some - however indirect and weak, but still productive - effect on the practices of art: on its production and consumption.
But, above all, we need not Marxist art or theory, but Marxist politics. Without that there is only pseudo-theory (pseudo-critique), pseudo-art (ie, kitsch: art without historical consciousness), and pseudo-politics.
The problem with Stalinism, in art as in all other domains, was not in its authoritarianism, but in its opportunist adaptation to the status quo (which required authoritarian enforcement), at the expense of more radical possibilities for changing society.
The argument between Debs and Untermann on the socialist immigration programme, highlighted by Alan Johnstone (Letters, August 13), presages and even helps explain today’s confusions. My main concern here is with criticising Debs, but to avoid creating new confusions I must first mention a caveat. Although Debs espoused bourgeois moralism, which is the main express ideology of open-borderism, Debs was not an open-borderist.
No, the issue wasn’t the opening of the borders, but whether socialists should affirmatively support (a particularly reactionary form of) border control. On that issue Debs was correct and Untermann wrong. The Socialist Party correctly refused to take any responsibility for capitalist border policy. But instead of arguing from the Marxist theory of the state Debs resorted to moralistic platitudes. He espoused that “socialism is Christianity in action”. The outlook is opposed to Marxism and so Debs imported into the workers’ movement a moralism of good deeds, of Christian charity, which came to dominate the socialist programme on immigration in its American crucible.
The crux of Debs’s Christian charity is contained in his basic argument against Untermann - who, it must be said, carried the day polemically despite drawing unwarranted reformist conclusions, unchallenged thereto by Debs. Debs refused “to turn my back upon the oppressed, brutalised and despairing victims of the old world, who are lured to these shores by some faint glimmer of hope that here their crushing burdens may be lightened, and some star of promise rise in their darkened skies.” Lending a helping hand to the “poor wretches” is “Christianity in action”: that is, charity.
The migrants fleeing the class struggle in their native lands do not more deserve the largesse of the working class than those who stay behind, particularly when they remain to fight. Make no mistake: welcoming migrants when it lowers your living standards imposes sacrifices on workers. Are we to encourage those workers to sacrifice for the sake of charity or for the sake of class struggle? The priorities of socialist morality - first, the organisation and consciousness of the class, not the welfare of the most visible individuals - dictates that if workers are asked to sacrifice it should be for the class struggle in their own lands and abroad, not for the relief of some atomised migrants.
Mass immigration is an evil and should be exposed by propaganda both in its effects on the migrants and their destinations, but with emphasis on the causes of the migration, not on relief to a highly selected but very visible set of victims. Today’s migration is driven (intentionally?) by imperialist interventionism. Imperialists inflict disaster on the semi-colonial masses, and then open-borderists ask workers to bear the brunt by welcoming the migrant undercutters. Open-borderists have misled workers on the evil of migration, often denying that the levels are excessive.
We can’t “keep ’em out”. Mass migration is part of modern capitalism. But you can worsen the damage by advocating open borders, or even by perpetuating Debs’s bleeding-heart Christian moralism.