Peak questions

Writing on peak oil (his favourite, not to say, obsessive, subject), Tony Clark worries that Jack Conrad believes that peak oil is “basically a myth” (Letters, July 13). Correct. Comrade Clark further worries that Jack Conrad thinks that “there is no danger of oil production peaking any time soon”. If by that is meant that oil production is about to decline due to meeting insurmountable geological limits - again correct. From this, however, comrade Clark draws the radically false conclusion that Jack Conrad is of the view that “We can therefore continue our love affair with oil into the indefinite future.”

In fact, Jack Conrad issued this urgent warning:

“Primary energy consumption is set to increase and, therefore, anthropogenic CO2 emissions - the main cause of global warming - are unlikely to be capped … There is a real danger … that by 2100 the rise [in temperature] could be … 4°C - and with that will come severe disruption to agriculture systems and food supplies, mass plant and animal extinctions, substantial and permanent polar ice losses, higher sea levels … and the distinct possibility of an abrupt shift in the climatic pattern.”

Jack Conrad’s article, ‘Fossil fuel era continues’, concludes with this emphatic declaration: “As I have repeatedly argued, the only hope for humanity lies not in so-called green politics, but fundamentally breaking with the destructive logic of capital and refounding society on the basis of the communist principle of production for need” (July 6).

Comrade Clark goes on to maintain that the problem with Jack Conrad’s thesis is that it only “refers to the peaking of conventional oil production”. Wrong. Jack Conrad dealt with conventional oil, unconventional oil, conventional gas, unconventional gas … and the whole range of alternative sources of primary energy: eg, wind, solar and nuclear power.

Obviously, comrade Clark believes that conventional oil has peaked, or is about to peak. For him this explains the turn to “unconventional oil supplies like oil from tar sands, shale oil, not to mention drilling for oil from deep under the seabed”. He naively asks, “Why turn to these sources if we were not depleting conventional oil?”

Well, as Jack Conrad explained, the “turn” can be explained as part and parcel of the ongoing scientific and technological revolution. Crudely put, under capitalism, what was unprofitable yesterday becomes profitable the day after. Hence, remarkably, despite the recent massive falls in oil prices, the US shale oil industry not only survives, but prospers. The cost of producing a barrel of shale oil has significantly reduced.

Comrade Clark tells us that Jack Conrad “misses” the crucial point that “modern capitalism was made possible by cheap energy”. Well, I do not know what comrade Clark means by “modern capitalism”. But, let us say that “modern capitalism” - ie, what Marxism calls mature capitalism - came into existence with the late 18th and early 19th century industrial revolution and the widespread introduction of factory production, steam power, etc.

Was this epochal shift from the “formal” to the “real” subsumption of the labour process by capital made possible by “cheap energy”? Posing the question in this way (ie, x joules = so many pounds, shillings and pence) does indeed spectacularly miss the crucial point.

We also have to ask our own question: what is “cheap energy”? In and of itself it is just an empty abstraction. No, what decides things, in this context, is what is profitable for capital. Eg, when it became profitable to dig deep-mined coal, deep-mined coal was dug. And, as the coal industry advanced, so did the necessary pumping, tunnelling and transport technologies.

But for the widespread introduction of factories, steam power, etc to happen, the social conditions had first to be in place. Free workers - free, that is, from the means of production - had to be available as a general condition. Without labour-power itself becoming a commodity that is readily available on the market, capitalism would never have been able to take off, become self-sustaining and triumph as the dominant mode of production.

Comrade Clark considers it axiomatic that capitalism “cannot exist on the basis of rising energy costs”. Why? Energy costs might well rise. So might the price of cotton, iron … and labour-power. That said, with improved labour productivity, with technological innovations and with competition between capitalist and capitalist and between worker and worker, we should expect production costs to fall over time. Be that as it may, in the final analysis, what decides the matter is profit and self-expansion: ie, capital accumulation.

If capital cannot expect, as a norm, to realise surplus value, through selling commodities at a profit, money will remain as money. It will, therefore, cease being capital. Note, the sole source of surplus value is the exploitation of labour-power.

Comrade Clark seems to imagine that feudalism came to an end in England because of the depletion of woodlands and therefore a consequent rise in prices. The rapid growth of shipping and the systematic enclosure of land in the 16th and 17th centuries did serve to deplete England’s once extensive woodlands. But this was the consequence of the rise of mercantile and agricultural capitalism, not the cause of feudalism’s decline.

Feudalism is an exploitative social relationship fundamentally based on coercion. Serfs, the vassals, were obliged to supply goods and labour services to the fief-holding nobility (including the church bureaucracy). A form of exploitation which fell into decay, pivotally, during the 14th century. Not because of lack of firewood though. Feudalism reached its limits both in terms of available land and in terms of population numbers. Add to that a sustained period of hugely costly wars, the associated drive to increase the exploitation of peasants and the outbreak of a whole series of social revolts, then, yes, there was an absolute decline in agricultural productivity.

However, an industrial revolution also occurred during the late Middle Ages. While some enterprises were undoubtedly feudalistic in nature, an increasing portion were run along unmistakably capitalist lines. In terms of prime energy, there was wood, of course, but characteristically it was wind and water power which constituted the prime movers: eg, with iron smelting, tanning and milling.

Comrade Clark claims that coal “unleashed the real power of the industrial revolution, which was being held back from lack of energy”. True - well, at least in part. However, it should be stressed that the industrial use of coal dates back to classical antiquity. Eg, the Romans mined outcropping coal for iron smelting and burning lime. The real point, though, is that it was capitalism that led to deep-mined coal, not that deep-mined coal led to capitalism. Certainly coal and capitalism are not synonymous. An elementary error.

Comrade Clark says: “Marxism teaches that the development of the productive forces led to the decline of feudalism, but in fact it was the opposite: the decline of the productive forces started the whole process.” Did Marx deny the crisis of feudalism in the 14th century? Hardly. Indeed in the Grundrisse he writes of the “decline and fall of the feudal system”, crucially with the emergence of a relatively free peasantry, as providing the vital precondition for the subsequent growth of capitalism (K Marx Grundrisse Harmondsworth 1973, p510). In places as diverse as northern Germany, northern Italy, the low countries, but above all in England, the general wealth available to the ruling classes therefore increased by leaps and bounds. Cities grew, trade grew, agricultural productivity grew, industrial production grew.

Fixated as he is on prime energy sources, comrade Clark says feudalism could not survive “rising energy costs, nor should we expect capitalism to do so. Cheap energy - first coal and then oil - gave birth to capitalism.” He then rhetorically asks: “Is anyone seriously suggesting that capitalism will survive rising energy costs indefinitely?”

We shall leave aside the eccentric idea of the decline and fall of feudalism in England being due, not to the combination of socio-economic limits and peasant class struggles, but the rising price of firewood. As explained many times before, capitalism was not born through “cheap energy - first coal and then oil”. Capitalism can be traced back to ancient times, and it then developed within the belly of feudalism.

What about expensive oil killing off late capitalism? Well, imagine, for the sake of the argument, that because of peak conventional oil - not because of stock market speculation, not because of international conflicts, not because of rentier state cartels - that the current price of oil tripled overnight, and returned to something like the $138 a barrel it reached back in 2008 (we must also, once again, for the sake of the argument, have to disappear tar sands oil, shale oil, natural gases, solar power, nuclear power, etc, from the equation). Even if the price of oil were to reach $200 a barrel, why on earth would this bring capital accumulation to a halt? Why would this stop capital extracting surplus value from workers? Any such proposition is clearly an absurdity.

Comrade Clark condescendingly tells us that “19th century economics, including Marxism, ignored the primary role of energy in society. Energy was treated as just another commodity, while money made the world go around. This found its classic expression in Marx’s M-C-M’ formula.”

And yet Jack Conrad quoted that very 19th century economist, William Stanley Jevons, and his Coal question (1865). Using the same Malthusian method as comrade Clark, Jevons predicted the end of Britain’s imperial hegemony. Why? Because coal production was bound to peak and then rapidly decline. Suffice to say, Britain’s imperial hegemony ended … but not because of the depletion of coal deposits.

What of Marxism? It was not Karl Marx who treated energy - and other natural resources, for that matter - “as just another commodity”. Nor did he consider that it is “money that makes the world go round”. No, it was, and is, capital - ie, its personifications - who think that way. Profit is their overriding aim and money their measure of worth. For Marx, on the contrary, there was an elemental two-fold source of wealth. Human labour … and nature.

Those who serve capital are more than prone to treat nature as a ‘free gift’ (apart from the labour-power necessary to exploit it). But Marx was of the view that human society should guard, cherish and where possible ensure the regeneration of nature: that would include, of course, native animal and plant species, the seas, rivers, lakes, forests, the soil, the air we breathe, etc. Marx was insistent that we should seek to heal the metabolic rift that had opened up between society and nature (we humans are, of course, not only reliant on nature: we are part of nature).

Nor did Marx adhere to the view that money, and money-making, “makes the world go round”. To make such a statement is just to display one’s profound ignorance. After all, Marx famously proclaimed: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (the opening statement of chapter one in the Communist manifesto). Above all though, Marx based his world-historic outlook on human nature, our “species being” and the human striving for freedom and full personal and collective development (inextricably linked with valuing nature)

Jack Conrad

Robot wars

The unintended and indeed ironic consequence of capitalist competition is that, whilst it gives the individual capitalist a temporary competitive advantage and profit boost, thanks to automation ultimately it results in an ever-declining general rate of profit, as the new production techniques become widespread.

The use value of a commodity is largely obvious, but the exchange value is a more abstract thing. It is based on the amount of socially necessary labour time invested in each individual commodity’s production. With no labour-power expended in the production of a commodity, then it has no exchange and therefore monetary value and so cannot realise a profit.

The owners of the robots, if they were to remain a privileged elite, would have nobody to buy their commodities and would therefore have a massive surplus population that they would need to dispose of via a series of massive genocides. It could give the masses a small universal basic income that it could spend on necessities like food, but what would be the point of that? Surely the recipients of this UBI would soon wonder why it was that any particular person should be an elite owner of robots, whilst the rest of us languish on some UBI, doing nothing - after all the pretence of meritocracy and social mobility would be long gone. There would be no obvious reason why one person should be an owner and another not. The robot owners would choose the kill option for the billions of non-robot owners, leaving only robot owners - which would be a de facto form of communism. And then one asks, what on earth was the point of killing all those billions of people? They might as well have just initiated communism for all.

So, if you don’t want to die, not at the hands of the robots, but the robot owners, even though it would be the robots doing the actual killing, then it’s time to rise up against a dead and decaying capitalist system and socialise the means of production.

David Ellis


Once again, we are faced with another falsification by Lars T Lih (Weekly Worker supplement, June 29).

Here we learn that “The Petrograd Bolsheviks nudged Lenin’s letter [from afar - GD] in the direction of the April theses”. To summarise the Lars T theses here, Lenin was utterly clueless on the real situation on the ground in Russia, and Kamenev and Stalin had to edit his first Letter from afar so as not to make him look a complete idiot.

Lars gives us a list of who was on the editorial board, with the ousted Shliapnikov and Molotov first and third, and the editor-in-chief, Kamenev, and his close allies, Stalin and Muranov, fourth, fifth and sixth, as if the turnabout had not happened. And that board contained Lenin’s sister and Aleksandra Kollontai, who were so supportive of Lenin that they would surely never betray him. And he might have added Lenin’s own wife, Krupskaya, did not support him on this in the beginning:

“No prominent Bolshevik leader supported his call to revolution, and the editorial board of Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating themselves and the party from Lenin’s proposals. Bogdanov characterised the April theses as ‘the delirium of a madman’; Nadezhda Krupskaya concluded: ‘I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy’” (Slavoj Žižek, quoting Hélène Carrère d’Encausse’s Lenin, in the London Review of Books).

Pravda under Shliapnikov and Molotov was absolutely anti-war, but the line immediately changed in mid-March to support for the war and the Provisional Government: “Under Kamenev’s and Stalin’s influence, Pravda took a conciliatory tone towards the provisional government - ‘insofar as it struggles against reaction or counterrevolution’ (Stalin) - and called for a unification conference with the internationalist wing of the Mensheviks. On March 14, Kamenev wrote in his first editorial: ‘What purpose would it serve to speed things up, when things were already taking place at such a rapid pace?’” (Marcel Liebman Leninism under Lenin).

According to EH Carr (The Bolshevik revolution, Vol 1, p75), on March 15 he (Kamenev) supported the war effort: “When army faces army, it would be the most insane policy to suggest to one of those armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected with disgust by a free people.” On March 16 Stalin wrote: “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless”.

We must suppose Lars T chooses to ignore this evidence - or else perhaps he wishes to deny their authenticity because I have not checked the original Russian, as he has done?

“Kamenev led the opposition to Lenin’s call for the overthrow of the government. In Pravda he disputed Lenin’s assumption that ‘the bourgeois democratic revolution has ended’, and warned against utopianism that would transform the ‘party of the revolutionary masses of the proletariat’ into ‘a group of communist propagandists’. A meeting of the Petrograd Bolshevik Committee the day after the April theses appeared voted 13 to 2 to reject Lenin’s position” (http://spartacus-educational.com/RUSapril.htm).

Trotsky reminded us that Permanent revolution and the April theses were viewed as absolutely complementary while Lenin lived:

“My books, The year 1905 (with the criminal foreword [Radek had found great errors in the foreword in his desperate attempts to appease Stalin in 1927 - GD]) and The October revolution, played the role, while Lenin was alive, of fundamental historical text-books on both revolutions. At that time, they went through innumerable editions in Russian as well as in foreign languages. Never did anybody tell me that my books contained a counterposing of two lines, because at that time, before the revisionist volte-face by the epigones, no sound-thinking party member subordinated the October experience to old quotations, but instead viewed old quotations in the light of the October revolution.”

Lenin himself accused Kamenev and Zinoviev of treason four days after the successful revolution on October 25: “And now, at such a moment, when we are in power, we are faced with a split. Zinoviev and Kamenev say that we will not seize power [in the entire country]. I am in no mood to listen to this calmly. I view this as treason. What do they want? Do they want to plunge us into [spontaneous] knife-play? Only the proletariat is able to lead the country.”

Five times mention of Kerensky is cut from Lenin’s original, so determined were the rightwingers to defend their relationship with him. As proof, Lars T tells us Stalin was proud of the role he played because he allowed the authentic Letter from afar to appear in Lenin’s Collected works in 1949: “If the usual story of Stalin and Kamenev’s censorship of Lenin is true, Stalin’s publication of Lenin’s draft would be equivalent to a guilty man returning to the scene of the crime and planting new evidence of his own guilt. How plausible is this account of Stalin’s motives? Shouldn’t we assume that, surprising as it may seem, Stalin was proud of the job he and others did in preparing Lenin’s article for publication?”

Do we really have to point out that in 1949 no-one dared to criticise Stalin about anything and he was quite free to say black was white and everyone immediately agreed with him, or else execution or exile to the gulag quickly followed? And are there some examples of the earlier editions of Lenin’s CW being falsified? The 1949 volume 31 did not have its English translation until 1965, for some strange reason. Stalin was really proud of having executed every critic or potential critic by then.

Having cut out all mention of “the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks]) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom”, there can be no doubt but that the motivation was not to upset the Provisional Government, whom Pravda was now supporting in the war, against Lenin’s furious opposition. And not to make the obvious comparison with the almost identical political position of the Pravda EB.

And if that is not historical falsification, I don’t know what is.

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight

Not so quaint

John Masters (Letters, July 13) professes to be amused by the fact that, “after all these years of plugging away at their quaint little version of socialism”, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has never registered as an organisation of any influence.

I don’t know how familiar he is with the SPGB or, indeed, with Marxist thinking on the subject, but there is one fact that even its most hostile critics would have to acknowledge - that this “quaint little version” of socialism that the SPGB has been plugging away at is none other than the classical version of socialism propounded by people like Marx, Engels, Morris, Kropotkin, Bebel, Kautsky and numerous others in the late 19th and early 20th century. Namely, a non-market, stateless and classless commonwealth. In other words, a society in which voluntary labour has replaced wage labour and free goods and services have replaced commodified exchange.

Even the Russian Social Democrats in the late 19th century cleaved to this particular version of socialism and Stalin himself in his 1906 work, Anarchism or socialism, described socialism exactly as the SPGB do today - as a society without buying and selling, without classes and without a state. It was this same Stalin who, in the 1930s, asserted that the Soviet Union was now a fully-fledged “socialist state” controlled by the working class when he had previously excluded both the state and classes from his earlier conception of socialism. The point being that it was largely (though not entirely) due to the influence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that the very definition of socialism itself underwent a fundamental transformation, effectively derailing, and setting back by decades, the struggle to achieve socialism in the original Marxian sense.

The SPGB represents one of the very few revolutionary survivors of the pre-Leninist era and its voice, though it might appear faint amongst the din and clamour of reformist demands, is not to be scoffed at or lightly dismissed. The comprehensive collapse of the state-capitalist bloc that had so brazenly usurped the mantle of socialism, and to which the SPGB had been implacably opposed from the outset, gives those critics of the SPGB reason enough to at least reconsider their criticisms. On so many matters the SPGB has proved to be uncannily correct in its analysis.

John Masters is, of course, entirely at liberty to reject the full-blooded, classical vision of socialism tirelessly promoted by the SPGB as “quaint” and in so doing place himself outside of, and opposed to, the whole Marxist tradition. That’s his prerogative. However, he might have come across as slightly less unconvincing had he bothered to give some substance to his rhetoric and to back up his barbed comments with something recognisably approaching an argument. For example, by “quaint” he presumably means that Marxian socialism, though a “nice idea”, is essentially unattainable - a utopian dream. So here was his opportunity to present some grounds for coming to this conclusion. But, alas, he turned this down, preferring to indulge himself in the less challenging task of issuing lazy insults.

And finally - let us not play the numbers game. No-one on what is called the ‘far left’ comes out of this looking good. Agreed, the SPGB - although arguably it punches well above its weight - has achieved very little. The obstacles to its growth have been formidable, not the least of which is the fact that it has faced an uphill struggle in having to explain more often than not what socialism is not, rather than what it is, in the face of mainstream media misrepresentation, and to disassociate itself from those regimes that have cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of socialist emancipation.

But, in the end, what vindicates a particular political position is not the number of adherents it attracts, but the soundness of the arguments it presents. If John Masters thinks otherwise, then I suggest he reflects on the fact that more workers voted for Mrs May’s Conservative Party than Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party and then draws his own conclusions.

Robin Cox

Same template

Following on from your report last week of the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism event (‘Stumbling over Labour’, July 13), I went to a session on Sunday morning of the Marxism event, ‘Is human nature a barrier to socialism?’ with Jenny Sutton.

The session was well attended and the speaker pointed out that there were numerous examples in everyday life that showed human nature was cooperative - not just present-day examples, but going back to our human origins and the beginnings of egalitarianism. However, this is as far as it went in terms of theory or providing a deep understanding about human nature.

As for the discussion, there were well intentioned contributions from the floor about the cooperativeness of rent strikes, including from one comrade who told us that all we need in the world was more love and empathy. Given that speakers were limited to three minutes, my contribution questioned why we were cooperative, and what it is about language that makes us trust each other. In the end, the session was unsatisfactory and did not live up to the potential of the title.

However, the title of this talk was not some randomly chosen topic - it has featured a few times in the past couple of years and a Google search brings up a pamphlet of the same name by SWP comrade John Molyneux, published by Bookmarks in 1993. The date of the pamphlet is no coincidence either for historians of the SWP. It was in 1991 that Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group had published his book Blood relations: menstruation and the origins of culture.

At the time, there were several close comrades of Knight’s who were in the SWP and were taken with his thesis of a human revolution. What followed at the subsequent 1991 SWP Marxism was a fierce polemical battle way ahead of the debate I attended on Sunday. Knight’s book had been warmly received at SWP branch level, as it vindicated the followers of the journal Women’s Voice, which had been closed down a decade earlier. The SWP hierarchy did not want to encourage the idea that a human revolution, led by a coalition of women - ‘feminists’, so to speak - could give rise to what it means to be human, and that a class struggle is replaced by a male-female conflict to understand human origins. To quote from a RAG pamphlet aimed at those attending the 1991 conference, “Some comrades might find the idea of comparing gender struggles with the class struggle difficult - perhaps because it seems dangerously reminiscent of feminism.”

It was so difficult that leading theoreticians and scientists, SWP members and comrades of Chris Knight were summoned to a star chamber and told to give up Knight or give up the SWP. The counteroffensive started shortly after. Chris Harman, in his review of Blood relations, called it “menstrual moonshine”.

And this takes us back to John Molyneux’s 1993 pamphlet. It provides the template that the SWP have been using for the past couple of years for their talk at Marxism, ‘Is human nature a barrier to socialism?’ And not just at Marxism, but up and down the country, Molyneux’s template is the standard reference for SWP talks. For the SWP nothing has moved in their understanding of human origins and they would have nothing to say to a recent paper in Current Anthropology by Knight and fellow comrade Jerome Lewis, ‘Wild voices: mimicry, reversal, metaphor and the emergence of language’, which a leading Oxford academic has said was especially welcome for our understanding of human sociality and the emergence of language.

No doubt the SWP will continue to use the Molyneux text - until there is a women’s revolution within the organisation, when gender conflict is properly addressed and there is a grown-up discussion about sex.

Simon Wells
East London

Leap frog

Even though seemingly revealing inconsistent, bordering upon highly dubious, thinking on my part, I have now changed my mind from my earlier position. I now believe all communists should proactively support the UK remaining in a capitalist European Union, insofar as it will allow a continued, ‘quasi-communistic’ free movement of working citizenry of whatever skills level or educational status.

OK, it’s not a perfect scheme providing finite advantages by any stretch of the imagination; but it is at least a small step along the way to the fully unrestricted system that will be available under socialism. In any event, whichever way the cake is cut, the EU will thereby continue to be providing all communists with what I’d describe as the immediately useful ‘stepping stone’ of their semi-progressive egalitarianism; something which can be utilised as an equivalently helpful ‘leap frog’ quasi-democracy.

Bruno Kretzschmar


Every week your letters page is clogged up with tedious, long-winded guff by Steve Freeman and Gerry Downing.

Can we please have a moratorium on this until I’m dead. My son will contact you when the inevitable happens. If I have to read any more of their crap, that day will be a lot sooner. Please!

Doug Lowe