It really would have been useful had Paul B Smith actually read what I wrote about value and exchange value, before he responded to what he claims I said (Letters, January 24). That would have saved him simply repeating all of the same errors that John Bridge had made in confusing and conflating value and exchange value, that I had actually dealt with in my article (‘Subjective and objective value’, January 17).
Smith says: “Labour-time is a necessary condition for value to exist, but it is not sufficient. If value is the form that abstract labour takes within generalised commodity production, then the measurement of labour-time expressed in a value relation presupposes the commodification of labour-power.” That is to assume what he has to prove, which is that value is and only ever can be exchange-value: ie, the form that value takes in a society based upon the production and exchange of commodities. That is not what I argued, and it is not what Marx argues, as the numerous quotes from Marx and Engels that I provided illustrate.
Smith’s argument is directly contradicted by Marx’s argument in Capital volume 1, that the example of Robinson Crusoe tells us all we need to know about value and the law of value. Marx is clearly not describing value as depending upon commodity production and exchange, because Crusoe only ever produces products for his own consumption. It is precisely this calculation of individual value that enables the primitive community to engage in a division of labour, so as to reduce the value of the products it produces for its own requirements, and thereby to increase its output of use-values, thereby increasing its welfare. But none of this has anything to do with commodity production or the production of exchange-values.
Smith begins his argument by assuming what he has to prove, ie, that value is only ever exchange-value, and is only thereby a product of commodity production and exchange, which contrary to his assertion puts him, not me, firmly in the camp of those that fall foul of commodity fetishism, and leaves him agreeing with the proponents of subjective value, that value is only ever a product of exchange. That is precisely what Marx sets out to disprove in his arguments in Theories of surplus value, chapter 20.
But, Smith’s confusion is even greater than that. He says: “... the measurement of labour-time expressed in a value relation presupposes the commodification of labour-power.” This is absolute nonsense. Labour-power is only commodified as wage labour, and wage labour is a feature of capitalist production. But, as both Marx and Engels describe, commodity production and exchange goes back something between 7,000 and 10,000 years, predating capitalism by almost the same amount of time. It is precisely in the period when commodity production is dominated by individual peasant producers and artisans, and when their labour-power is not a commodity, that the expression of value in the form of exchange-value takes its most pure form, in the prices of those commodities.
Smith says: “Ideologically, Bough’s reasoning supports an aspect of commodity fetishism. This is the idea that the market has existed in every form of society. It is therefore natural and eternal.”
This is just a silly inversion of the truth. It is Smith that insists that value is and can only ever be exchange-value, not me! Indeed, it is Smith who claims that value can only be a consequence of commoditised labour-power: ie, of capitalist production! It is Smith who argues that value is premised upon wage-labour and so it is capitalist production that turns exchange-value into an eternal and natural form of society.
Smith says: “Politically, the abolition of the wages system, full employment and the shortened working week strike a blow to the global subordination of workers to the law of value.” Nonsense. Abolition of the wages system, and the implementation of much greater use of fixed capital will raise productivity, and the gradual implementation of planning of production on a wider scale will increase efficiency, but it in no way removes the influence of the law of value on workers, any more than if Robinson Crusoe decided to work half as many hours that would remove the effect of the law of value on him!
The only way in which the law of value can cease to operate is if, in some future society, the level of social productivity is raised to such a fantastically high level that general abundance exists, as Marx describes in the Critique of the Gotha programme, and therefore no effective choices have to be made over the way available social labour-time is allocated between alternative uses.
Arthur Bough objects at some length to my analysis of the left positions on Brexit (Letters, January 25). In one matter, he seems to have simply misunderstood me; on other points, he seems to misunderstand matters of substance.
On the first point, the comrade writes: “[Demarty] says two factors defined the approach of the left: the first, going back to the 1970s and the cold war, was historic hostility to the EU; the second was fanatical hostility to the far right.” He then rebukes me to the effect that fear of the right did not matter very much in the 1970s to left opposition to the European Economic Community. It should be clear from a brief glance at the context of my statement that I was only referring to the 2016 referendum and its lengthy preamble. I do not claim for a minute that fear of the far right was a matter of concern for the left in the 1970s so far as Europe was concerned.
Comrade Bough gets into stickier waters than a mere careless error of reading comprehension, however, when he appears to deny that this is implicated in leftwing remainism today. “In fact,” he writes, “the driving force today behind Brexit is not the far right … it is the reactionary wing of the Tory Party, representing all of those small-trader capitalists.” Here he does not quite exhaust the logical possibilities, and fails to acknowledge that the Tory party’s “reactionary wing” (as opposed to its progressive wing?) is part of the far right. It is merely that the grossly undemocratic British electoral system forcibly attaches the far right to the centre-right, such that British Poujades are commonly lashed to our de Gaulles in fractious party unity (not invariably, as the heyday of Ukip demonstrates).
Thus, also, an ambiguity in his short class analysis (small-trader capitalists) of this wing. We are instead dealing with rogue professionals (politicians) exercising hegemony over a large section of the petty bourgeoisie and also - alas! - another large slice of the proletariat. This is where the ‘fear of the far right’ stuff comes in. Comrade Bough may support a ‘remain’ position on the basis that the EU is a progressive phenomenon relative to the UK state, but I have to wonder if he has ever discussed this with comrades. A straw in the wind: Alan Thornett and the Socialist Resistance majority went over to ‘remain’ explicitly on the basis of preventing a far-right surge in 2015. At the same Left Unity conference where he made that argument, two ex-Militant comrades - almost in tears - spoke movingly of their fear that their infant granddaughter would be deported should the vote go the wrong way. The phrase, ‘carnival of reaction’, was uttered a lot. It is my anecdata against Arthur’s; but I do wonder where he is getting his conversation partners if he dismisses it out of hand now.
Because the left has failed to stake out a serious independent profile in this period, however, it has ended up with its political choices radically constrained. Comrade Bough is right about Lexitism and socialism in one country; but he is too free with the word ‘progressive’, and does not understand that taking a position where George Osborne is to be commended, from the point of view of world history, over Jacob Rees-Mogg is exactly the sort of trap the bourgeois mainstream has set for the left - in most cases, if not Arthur’s, by manipulating fear of the far right.
Dearth of quality
Dave Walters gallant attempt to exorcise the ghost of peak oil haunting the corridors of power misses the main point (Letters, January 17).
Not too long ago, when those in the peak-oil camp predicted that oil prices were heading towards $50 per barrel, they were dismissed and laughed out of court by those who thought they knew better. History has confirmed that the peakists were right. But, when the peakists made that prediction, what they had in mind was a booming economy. In this respect they were wrong, because a booming economy led to oil prices soaring to $147 per barrel, which triggered the 2008 recession. Peak oil is really about the price of oil based on supply and demand. Economic growth is dependant on cheap oil. This is the point Dave Walters and other anti-peakists are overlooking.
Economic growth is basically a function of cheap energy. As Jeff Rubin points out in his important book, Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller, “We shouldn’t be looking at oil prices as the effect of the recession. They are the cause.” The shocking thing is that the global economy slowed down and oil is still hovering around $50 per barrel. What is going to happen if the economy begins to boom again? Or, even more relevant, will the economy ever boom again?
The price of energy, particularly oil, is the most important determinant of economic growth and, as the leading petroleum engineer and one of the founders of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Colin Campbell, pointed out in his book Oil crisis, “The world’s experience over the past century has been one of unprecedented growth made possible by the abundance of cheap, oil-based-energy” (p228).
It is this fact which the critics of peak oil theory ignore: economic growth is related to cheap energy. High-cost energy hinders growth. Cheap energy is becoming a thing of the past, as the Hubbert curve asserts itself. When Walters calls the Hubbert curve “nonsensical”, this reveals his lack of understanding of Hubbert. By the way, it’s important to point out that the Hubbert curve relates to what is called regular or conventional oil. In 1956 he accurately used the curve to predict the peaking of conventional oil production in the United States by 1970. He used the curve again to predict the global peak in the period between 2000 and 2010. In 2008 the world was plunged into recession, as the price came close to $150 per barrel. I conclude Hubbert was right again.
The anti-peak oil supporters believe that the enormous quantities of non-conventional oil which remain have rendered peak oil an obsolete theory. For instance, shale oil production in the US has raised oil production above the Hubbert peak. The exploitation of shale oil has been made possible by the high price of conventional oil. But shale oil doesn’t help to bring down oil prices and, even if it did so, its exploitation would no longer be profitable. Walters recognises this when he points out that if oil prices drop to, say, $30 per barrel non-conventional oil production will grind to a halt. In fact some investors say anything below $50 will begin to impact non-conventional oil production.
The Hubbert curve relates to the peak and decline of conventional, cheap oil production. The interrelationship between this process of depletion, combined with the emergence of non-conventional oil, is complex, but suffice to say that new oil extraction technology depletes oil faster, together with the fact that the depletion rate of non-conventional oil is quicker than regular oil. So the question is, are we moving to a world of cheap energy as in the past, or a world of rising energy prices? Peakists are not saying that non-conventional oil is irrelevant, because they know it will play an important role in mitigating the effects of the decline in cheap energy. What they are saying is non-conventional oil will not return us to the era of cheap energy, at least as far as it is based on hydrocarbons. In other words, peak oil is one of the long-term causes behind rising energy costs. Peak oil remains important because of the ongoing depletion of conventional oil and also because it is one of the most important explanations for the long-term tendency of oil prices to rise.
Finally, Dave Walters claims that the website The Oil Drum was closed down because they realised that Peak Oil discussion was dead and gone. This is totally incorrect because the site was not launched only to discuss peak oil, which was only one issue. Various reasons have been given for closing the site (although it remains as an archive). One reason was server cost, and another was a dearth of high-quality submissions.
Jack Conrad mentions Stalin’s Short course and complains that Stalin also spread lies about Kamenev and Zinoviev: “It is more than ironic then that, with the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) - short course (1939), we find Stalin - widely accepted as the main author of this notorious work of truths, half-truths and downright lies - pirating Trotsky’s account of 1917” (‘Marxism versus holy script’, January 10).
He wasn’t “pirating Trotsky’s account of 1917”: he was telling the truth, because it suited his purpose; he was justifying executing them both in August 1936. And Stalin did tell the truth, when convenient. He summarised Trotsky’s role in 1917 in Pravda on November 6 1918 and in 1934, before he had consolidated his bloody, totalitarian regime with the great purges, which begun with his assassination of Kirov in December, this quote was still there in his book The October revolution (it did not appear in Stalin’s Works of 1949, of course):
“All the work of practical organisation of the insurrection was conducted under the immediate leadership of the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky. It is possible to declare with certainty that the swift passing of the garrison to the side of the soviet and the bold execution of the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee the party owes principally and above all to comrade Trotsky.”
Because Trotsky had been elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet (the post he had held in 1905) on October 8, signifying the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks and all other opponents, only he had the authority to lead the practical work of the insurrection - a fact Stalin was forced to admit in 1918, but lied about in 1936. His Short course tells an entirely different, completely distorted account of these great events:
“On October 16 an enlarged meeting of the central committee of the party was held. This meeting elected a party centre, headed by comrade Stalin, to direct the uprising. This party centre was the leading core of the Revolutionary Military Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and had practical direction of the whole uprising.”
EH Carr, in his Bolshevik revolution part 1 (pp106-07), does record the formation of this centre, consisting of five leading Bolsheviks: “Sverdlov, Stalin, Bubnov, Uritsky and Dzerzhinsky, which was to form part of the military-revolutionary committee of the Petrograd Soviet [led by Trotsky - GD] … contemporary records make no further mention of the centre … and, like the ‘politburo’ appointed a week earlier [on October 10] never seems to have come into existence.” So much for Stalin leading the revolution.
The Short course was drafted by Vilhelms Knoriņš, Yemelyan Yaroslavsky and Pyotr Pospelov, beginning in 1935. The unfortunate Latvian, Knoriņš, was arrested in the great purges and executed on July 29 1938. The other two, now joined by Vyacheslav Molotov, had already got the message and wrote what Stalin told them - and each new edition had changes to damn those executed in the meantime, who had been praised in the previous edition.
Curiously comrade Jack then gives an accurate account of these events and asserts that it must be lies because Stalin said so. But it is the truth and the account of hundreds, including Lenin, John Reed, Tony Cliff, EH Carr, Trotsky and … Stalin. He tells us: “When it comes to 1917 the Short course is a palimpsest of Lessons of October.” And don’t you like that the bit where he says: “the letter immediately fell into the hands [my emphasis] of Novaya Zhizn (a daily paper associated with the leftwing writer, Maxim Gorky)”? What had happened then? Zinoviev was walking out of a meeting; the document fell out of his pocket and a Gorky agent happened upon it? Lenin said that this was strike-breaking and treason: they had handed it over in a bid to stop the insurrection.
And then there is comrade Jack’s extended paean in defence of Kamenev and Zinoviev - who were only a bit cautious and careless, as comrade Jack tells us, in seeking to defend the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which Lenin had consigned to the dustbin of history. But comrade Jack is still trying to revive it: Lenin “had failed to fully grasp the actual state of play in Russia”, because of his exile in Switzerland apparently. All that Lenin had failed to grasp was details about tactical consideration: he had a strategy totally opposed to the rightists. The ‘Letters on tactics’ should really be called ‘Letters on strategy’ - a differentiation the Bolsheviks were later to emphasise strongly in the debates on the united front in the first four congresses of the Comintern.
Comrade Jack writes: “But then we find, soon afterwards, Lenin and Kamenev joining together in opposing the leftist slogan of ‘Down with the Provisional government’, as raised by the Petrograd committee of the RSDLP (a continuation of the crude politics of the Alexander Shliapnikov and Vyacheslav Molotov type). Circumstances were not yet ripe for the overthrow of the Provisional government in April-May 1917. Hence, together with Kamenev, Lenin insisted that the ‘correct slogan’ was ‘Long live the soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies’.”
But, clearly, comrade Jack is using the tactical mistakes of Shliapnikov and Molotov here in calling for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional government as a cover for rejecting the importance of adopting just that strategic perspective for the Bolsheviks, which Lenin’s April theses succeeded in doing so well.
And what are we to make of comrade Jack’s charge of the “politically limited abilities of Alexander Shliapnikov and Vyacheslav Molotov”, the editors of Pravda ousted by Kamenev, Stalin and MK Muranov mid-March? Pravda under Shliapnikov and Molotov was with Lenin and absolutely anti-war and for the overthrow of the Provisional government. The line was immediately changed to support for the war and the Provisional government. The same Molotov was very useful to Stalin later because he and Shliapnikov had championed Lenin’s line (as they understood it). This gave a measure of continuity to the degenerate Stalinised bureaucracy, despite Molotov’s later appalling personal and political degeneration. He died in his bed an old man because of his great flexibility.
Here he is on the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939: “In any case, under the ‘ideological’ flag there has now been started a war of even greater dimensions and fraught with even greater danger for the peoples of Europe and of the whole world. But there is absolutely no justification for a war of this kind. One may accept or reject the ideology of Hitlerism as well as any other ideological system, that is a matter of political views. But everybody should understand that an ideology cannot be destroyed by force, that it cannot be eliminated by war. It is, therefore, not only senseless, but criminal to wage such a war as a war for the ‘destruction of Hitlerism’ camouflaged as a fight for ‘democracy’.”
In fact, this confusion of strategy and tactics has led comrade Jack to a defence of the ‘treason’ of Kamenev and Zinoviev in October in a manner that questions the wisdom of the October revolution itself. If they had such a good case before April and in October, does it not follow that the leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, were just audacious; Zinoviev and Kamenev just cautious? Often it is better to be cautious rather than audacious. The Lenin of April 1905 was seemingly correct against the April theses Lenin of 1917 - to attempt the socialist revolution in Russia was foolish.
Lenin wrote in 1905 in defence of ‘the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’: “By participating in the Provisional government, we are told, Social democracy would have the power in its hands; but, as the party of the proletariat, social democracy cannot hold the power without attempting to put our maximum programme into effect: ie, without attempting to bring about the socialist revolution. In such an undertaking it would, at the present time, inevitably come to grief, discredit itself and play into the hands of the reactionaries. Hence, participation by social democrats in a provisional revolutionary government is inadmissible. This argument is based on a misconception: it confounds the democratic revolution with the socialist revolution, the struggle for the republic (including our entire minimum programme) with the struggle for socialism.”
But between 1905 and 1917 came Bukharin’s 1915 Imperialism and world economy, to which Lenin wrote the very profound foreword and his own Imperialism, the highest state of capitalism in 1916. It was now to a worldwide socialist revolution and a worldwide class consciousness of all workers that Lenin turned resolutely.
But the Russian Revolution was a big mistake apparently. Lenin should not have changed his mind and lashed up with that scoundrel, Trotsky. Only a bourgeois revolution was ever possible in Russia back then and subsequent events have proved this correct. QED - comrade Jack Conrad. Strangely my old Workers Revolutionary Party comrade, Cliff Slaughter, has now come to the same conclusion under the tutelage of István Mészáros. He even deliberately misquoted Trotsky to prove this (see ‘A political obituary to Cliff Slaughter as a Trotskyist’ on the Socialist Fight website). Strange bedfellows indeed!
The letter from your very occasional correspondent, Bruno Kretzschmar, was interesting (January 24). I think he made a very insightful point in identifying that, while the modern capitalist state has unprecedented and unparalleled means to manipulate and control people’s thinking and controls ultimately devastating forces for civil and military oppression, it is nonetheless highly vulnerable to a genuinely mass, democratic movement opposed to it.
I think such a mass movement could arise - apparently out of nowhere, but in truth unnoticed to date - and grow extremely rapidly, using ideas, mass communication and self-organisation, and very quickly represent a significant challenge to both the existing modern capitalist state and the order it seeks to defend. We recall Lenin’s observation that sometimes “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.
Whether such a movement would be authentically or explicitly socialist or communist is probably doubtful. But one could easily imagine that such a movement would be inherently progressive, and perhaps inspired and motivated around the big issues and challenges of our time.
We are not talking of “surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small, conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses” (Engels, in his introduction to Class struggles in France), of coup d’états, revolutionary or otherwise. Faced with a surging, mass democratic, oppositional movement, one can easily imagine modern capitalist states being simply and easily swept aside or atomised if they tried to resist.
Bruno makes a further insightful point about the diversity and range of settings, roles and occupations you will find in the modern working class, but then makes a completely daft point about wanting to abandon the traditional communist symbol of the hammer and sickle. He thinks it is not only old-fashioned, but represents wage-slavery. Absolutely wrong. The vaguest knowledge of the history of the workers’ and communist movement should tell you the hammer and sickle is a symbol of proletarian unity, an alliance between industrial and agricultural workers for socialism, for peaceful, cooperative labour for the common good. It is a symbol of the emancipation of labour, not its oppression. I accept it may be a little old-fashioned, but I do not accept, as Bruno claims, that the use of the hammer and sickle is the reason why thousands are not flocking to join socialist or communist parties.
Communists should be extremely proud of our history and what was achieved especially over the past hundred years. Yes, mistakes and errors were made - we acknowledge, learn and correct going forward. “The communists disdain to conceal their aims and views” - or our history and record. No-one would be fooled by cosmetic changes to our symbols and designs. People would hold us in contempt for even trying to do so. In this modern world of global mass, instant communication, where billions of items of information are in circulation, it is actually really important that communist parties are able to carry symbols and icons which immediately identify who and what we are, our tradition, and what we stand for.
Bruno may well be surprised, but the younger, modern generations do seem to have a basic, instinctive understanding that communism is opposed to and aims to supersede capitalism, that we stand for a society run by working people in the interest of working people, that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries managed to combine strong national security states, able to protect themselves and keep law and order, with very high levels of social provision and protection for the whole of the working population - far more universal, beneficial and guaranteed than anything under capitalism. They tend to understand the basic concepts and values of solidarity, equality and common endeavour and to associate these with communists.
Whether they are interested in the Trotsky-Stalin split in the 1920s, the great purge of 1937-38, the removal of the anti-party group in 1957, the replacement of Khrushchev in 1964 ... probably not, but nor should they be. These have no bearing on our critique and challenge to capitalism, and our basic case for its overthrow of capitalism and replacement by socialism and ultimately for a world communist society.
In his January 14 letter, Gerry Downing informed us that the two main London bookshops selling leftwing journals, Housmans and Bookmarks, have refused to continue supplying Socialist Fight.
This is a disgraceful capitulation to the witch-hunt aimed primarily at Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left, whose main weapon has been the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism (both shops have stated or implied that Socialist Fight is an “anti-Semitic” publication). This criticism applies particularly to Bookmarks, which is, of course, run by the Socialist Workers Party.
SF recently adopted a ‘theory’ which claims that a central reason for imperialist support for Israel is the “overrepresentation” of Jews within the bourgeoisie (ie, there are ‘too many Jews’ at the top), and it is true that this idea is highly problematic. SF’s own conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism in this way was the reason Labour Against the Witchhunt voted to exclude it a year ago.
But exclusion from a political campaign or faction is totally different from a refusal to sell a leftwing publication or engage with its politics in any way. LAW, of course, had a full debate with SF comrades before reaching its decision. The best way to defeat reactionary or mistaken ideas is to take them on and try to persuade those who express them why they are wrong, not attempt to suppress them.
We urge both Bookmarks and Housmans to reconsider their decision.
Weekly Worker editor