Rare economism

You’ll have to forgive me, comrades, but even under the very oldest articles on the Weekly Worker website the bottom line invites the reader to “respond on our letters page” and so I’ll take the opportunity to respond to an interesting debate in issues 451-453, at a time when the Socialist Alliance was discussing the prospect of Britain joining the European single currency.

The debates in the SA aren’t just interesting reading because they’re relevant to the current travails surrounding Brexit, or indeed because (in retrospect at least) the special conference on Europe appears to have been a rarely productive and sincere debate among the various sects who took part in the Socialist Alliance. In fact, some of the arguments made by the Socialist Workers Party and others against euro membership back in 2002 - just months after continental Europeans first started using the new notes and coins - are reminiscent of the very hollowest arguments for a ‘leave’ vote in 2016, in both cases reducing the whole question to the most immediately propagandistic level of ‘giving Blair (or Cameron) a bloody nose’. Alas, it seems this nonsense could cohere SWPers effectively, regardless of what was really at stake - or the ability of the working class left to even remotely shape the terms of debate.

Back in 2002, the CPGB-PCC line was for an active boycott of any referendum on euro membership, refusing to pick between the pound and euro, and rejecting the general logic of such plebiscites - the same stance as it took in the June 23 2016 vote on remaining in the European Union. But from both CPGB-PCC members’ own interventions and the Weekly Worker’s approving reference to the stance adopted by members of the putrid Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), there shines through a rather unsatisfactory manner of engaging the question, limited to a rather formal problematisation of the broad historical issues that it raised. The CPGB-PCC interventions seemed above all focused on the need for communists to act upon the bases of capitalism, such as it really exists, including its progressive achievements, rather than hark back to the past. This is obviously a key divide between Marxian socialism and various reactionary utopias. Yet this hardly exhausts the question.

Indeed, the issue which this basic approach poses, and which we can appreciate better with a certain benefit of hindsight, is - does the euro really represent a unification of European capitalism, and (connected to this, if not reducible to it) a basis for working class unity, where we would do better to fight as Europeans on the terrain of the single currency rather than return to our francs, lire and deutschmarks? Even the first question has no clear answers - studies by the likes of Cedric Durand (notably his A European capitalism? Revisiting the Mandel-Poulantzas debate, written together with Tristan Auvray) have perhaps surprisingly indicated a very weak Europeanisation of trade over recent decades, dwarfed by a much wider internationalisation. In any case, the single currency itself has not truly provided grounds for class unity across the participating countries, not only given the lack of euro-zone-scale democratic infrastructure, but even the lack of bodies subject to any kind of democratic influence or pressure.

Far from providing the basis for unity among all workers in euro-zone countries, in the absence of shared employment conditions or a common fiscal policy the existence of the single currency has instead intensified the division of the European working class along national lines - the yawning gap between the untouchability of European institutions and the primacy of national-level accountability in fact serving as an instrument of division. In depriving national governments of the tools of borrowing and currency devaluation - instead creating an inflexible economic architecture, governed by an undemocratic central bank - the basic dogmas of the euro, unchangeable except with the unanimous agreement of all national governments, have in effect ensured that opposition to European Central Bank monetary policy, as well as euro-zone rules, can only take place on a sovereigntist versus Europeanist axis, for any other reformist approach is simply excluded. This lack of accountability has presented a tremendous boon to nationalist forces - indeed even those such as Italy’s Lega and France’s Front National, which attack the euro, but do not seek to bring their countries out of it.

In this regard, a clear weakness of the British left’s discussion at the time of the euro’s creation (including the debate between Rob Hoveman, then of the SWP, and John Bridge at Communist University) was a failure to recognise the specific importance of the fiscal criteria that were built into the euro-zone architecture, as well as the way in which the very existence of permanently fixed exchange rates removed tools of democratic decision-making and crisis resolution. Even if euro-zone rules were (and remain) respected only arbitrarily - with sanctions for deficit and debt limits in general more laxly applied to core, large economies than peripheral countries, especially those with leftwing governments - this itself goes hand in hand with their role as a disciplining mechanism, a constitutionally-established mechanism to dish out punishment to any government that dares even slightly diverge from the dogmas imposed from Berlin (and by the German constitution itself).

Is what I’m saying an example of nationalism? Am I just harking back to the golden age of the good old pound, or perhaps the Irish punt? No. Of course, to reject the euro was not to bid for a world without money. Yet precisely because money is not just a neutral instrument of exchange, every currency embodies a specific juridical order and form of sovereignty. And in the context of its creation, from the European Monetary System (EMS) to Maastricht and the euro zone itself, the architecture of the single currency codified in law specific economic policies that effectively banned even Keynesian (and not only Keynesian) investment and crisis-relief measures, constitutionalising a new balance of forces less favourable to labour that emerged from the 1980s. This was, across Europe - and would have been in Britain - a regressive step compared to the national currencies that already existed (even within the EMS). Taking a pre-existing situation in which central banks and monetary policy were increasingly unfettered by democratic control, the euro zone radicalised and reified this balance of forces, making it a more permanent and unchangeable order.

Anyone who cares to look back to the same issues of the Weekly Worker in which this debate is covered will note the - not glowing, but optimistic - reports on the Italian left, at that time one of the most promising in Europe. Alongside the reasonable results for Rifondazione Comunista, preparations were being made for the European Social Forum in Florence, again making the Italian left a centre of attention. Today, Italy has perhaps the weakest left anywhere in Europe, due not only to the failings of Rifondazione, but also the straitjacket imposed by support for the single currency, which has since the mid-1990s been the most prominent instrument of a both cultural and economic war - waged by the leaders of the mainstream, pro-European, ex-communist centre-left - to make Italy into a ‘normal country’, with all the budget cutting, efficiency savings, ‘war on corruption’ and similar neoliberal measures that this project implies. Just as in the 1990s, Italian governments mounted ‘blood and tears’ austerity budgets in order to prepare its public finances for European approval, over the crisis period technocratic governments - often backed by the left, out of horror at Silvio Berlusconi and then the far right - have mounted all manner of devastating attacks on public spending and working class living standards in the name of obedience to what really are unchangeable euro-zone rules.

What needs insisting upon here is precisely the fact that the single currency isn’t a battlefield, to be contested between different class forces, but rather an architecture built as the direct product of a pre-existing working class defeat. The voters in individual countries can’t change its rules, so long as there aren’t simultaneous electoral victories in all euro-zone states at once: and in waiting for that to happen, the euro zone serves as an iron cage that can easily pick off individual leftwing governments one by one, having denied them the monetary tools to survive independently of it. It serves not as the basis for international unity, but only as a means of denying a possible break, or even divergence, by individual nation-states.

There are no utopias to be found in returning to national currencies. A more independent capitalist Italy or Greece or Britain will remain subject to the pressures of international finance and trade and cannot disappear up the path of autarky. Yet the euro zone really did, and does, represent a democratic retreat, and the debate on joining illustrated an illiteracy on the British left with regard to the very basics of what money and currencies actually are. It was absurd to see the issue in terms of bloodying Blair’s nose, just as it was for the derelict social-imperialists of the AWL to insist that it was all a fuss about nothing, given the primacy of the ‘real’ class struggle to be fought only by trade unions the level of individual workplaces.

The battle between class interests is also fought at the level of laws and constitutions - that is, democracy - and the creation of the single currency permanently codified a harsh disciplinary framework designed to punish even soft-left governments. Whatever their more dubious and demagogic tones, the leftwing opponents of the euro zone were onto something - and the Weekly Worker failed to capture its real significance. Such was a rare breed of economism from a paper that can usually be expected to promise otherwise.


David Broder

Middle way

In response to Gerry Downing’s letter (October 18) on the misuses and abuses of Aristotle, let me recall how as a sixth-form schoolboy I had to endure an ‘interview’ with my headmaster. He was partly responsible for writing my reference for university application, but it had come to his attention that I had joined the Socialist Workers Party.

“So, Robert, it would seem you are a red-in-tooth-and-claw revolutionary socialist.” “Yes, sir,” I say, squirming a little. He continued: “You wish to study politics at university - presumably to gain some intellectual weight in pursuit of the revolution?” “Yes, in a way, but I’m fascinated by politics as a subject.” “When you get there you will read Aristotle pretty early in your course - he may well change your whole political outlook.”

I read Aristotle at university. I was struck by his pursuit of the ‘middle way’. Moderation in all things and pursuit of harmonious accord between competing interests in respect of the common good. Equilibrium is the goal of political society.

In the Middle Ages this Aristotelian philosophy was picked up, and developed, by Thomas Aquinas. Now we have neo-Thomists like Alasdair McIntyre and Richard Rorty preaching the same doctrine as ‘communitarians’. This seems to me a natural progression from ancient Greece to the modern world.

Citing Aristotle in support of a totalitarian state must have the venerable old boy spinning in his grave.

Robbie Leslie

Political cover

In Tony Greenstein’s original reply to me, he said: “The question why Hannah Arendt ... resumes her relationship with Heidegger and also provides him with political cover is not one I can answer” (Letters, October 10). I will attempt to assist him on this also, as I attempted to assist him last week on his declared ignorance on philosophy in general - and got labelled a philistine for my pains (Letters, October 17).

As Charles S Maier quoted in his The two post-war eras and the condition for stability in 20th-century Europe, most ex-soldiers only wanted “the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a household of kids”; or to “return to the mountains of the Caucuses, the exciting blue smoke of the foothills …, the sweet faces of loved ones”. But it was not to be. Black soldiers returned from the war to find Jim Crow still thriving in the south and so the civil rights movement began. Our thesis is that Arendt, with the ideological/philosophical assistance of Heidegger post-war, was very important in providing that rationalism for capitalism and imperialism for the non-revolutionary, third-campist, reformist and Stalinist left: reject revolution because it is worse than fascism.

The economic crisis, caused by the falling rate of profit internationally, has given rise to a period of intense political and ideological turmoil in the ruling class, middle class and working class, between friends and within families. It is a civil-war, ideological-type crisis. Boris Johnson’s Brexit predicament and Donald Trump’s impending impeachment are some of the manifestations of this. Inspiring working class uprisings in Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, Catalonia, Iraq, Kashmir and Syria are also manifestations, even if Hong Kong is a bogus colour revolution.

As are the ideological crises now tearing apart those who are still committed to revolution in the self-declared Trotskyists groups: the International Socialist Organization, the biggest US self-declared Trotskyist group, has dissolved itself and liquidated into the Democrats. Its pro-imperialism makes that its fitting home. The Committee for a Workers’ International, the largest self-declared international Trotskyist group, another pro-imperialist group (“A Labour government … would continue the war on socialist lines”), has split at least three ways nationally and internationally. In the United Secretariat for the Fourth International itself enormous turmoil has seen the leftist US Socialist Action split; Socialist Resurgence appeared on October 17, obviously pitching in the direction of the more leftist Socialist Action/Ligue Pour l’Action Socialiste, who are themselves in dialogue with the Trotskyist PTS (Argentina’s leading left group).

The last time this level of ideological conflict happened was in the wake of the defeat of the miners’ strike, the fall of the Berlin Wall and restoration of capitalism in the USSR and China (1985-92). The Workers Revolutionary Party split (and the expulsion of Gerry Healy in 1985) was the most spectacular Trotskyist manifestation of that crisis, but there were many others.

John Spencer was a participant with me in that 1985 WRP split, but now he has such a legalistic conception of the unwritten English constitution that he cannot see the dangers to a future Labour government of the Supreme Court decision on the proroguing of parliament (Letters, October 10). On the other hand, whilst correctly taking John up on this, Mike Macnair does not see the limitations of bourgeois parliaments in defending workers’ rights, let alone achieving socialism - shades of the debate at the 2019 Communist University, where Mike boohooed my efforts to outline the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy and forms of rule.

Jim Cook was also a WRP comrade who participated in that split. But, like John, he too has abandoned revolutionary politics, but we are grateful to him for spelling out the ideological justification he used for doing so (Letters, October 17). Cliff Slaughter used István Mészáros to abandon the Russian Revolution, but Jim has used Hannah Arendt also. He reread Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, “along with many other books on sects, brainwashing”, and got “an inner ‘tick, tick, tick’”.

The following information is freely available on Wikipedia. Jonathan Schell, in his introduction to his book, The Arendtian revolutions, says: “In On revolution Arendt argues that the French Revolution, while well studied and often emulated, was a disaster and that the largely ignored American Revolution was a success ... the Founding Fathers never betrayed the goal of Constitutio Libertatis. Yet Arendt believes the revolutionary spirit of those men was later lost and advocates a ‘council system’ as an appropriate institution to regain it.”

Let us recall that the so-called American Revolution was a slave-owner’s revolution. Even in terms of a bourgeois revolution, whose aim is to transfer power from a reactionary, outdated ruling class to a newer and more progressive form of oppression, it was only half a revolution. It had to be completed - in so far as the democratic tasks of any bourgeois revolution are ever completed (never!) - by Abraham Lincoln in the civil war of 1861-65.

These were Lincoln’s principles that Arendt found so attractive: “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” And he presided over the greatest mass execution of native Americans in US history, on December 26 1862: 38 Santee Sioux Indians were hanged on the orders of Lincoln for believing the fine words of the revolution and attempting to drive out the white settlers from their lands.

Surely the fascistic contempt for the Untermensch shines through all of Arendt’s works. It implies, for those who follow her and are inspired by her, that you must reject revolution and only have a paternalistic concern for the poor - enough to keep them in their place, whilst the masters of life, like the slave-holding Founding Fathers and Adolf Hitler, get on with the real work of civilisation. Arendt hopes that the names of the great leaders of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre and Gracchus Babeuf, are now forgotten. They foreshadowed the next great revolution - the Russian Revolution, led by Lenin and Trotsky, which Heidegger and Arendt worked so hard to defeat ideologically and politically.

After 1985 many leaders of the WRP also turned away from revolution and threw the baby out with the bathwater. As we enter a new period of political, ideological and philosophical turmoil, we must fight the class struggle on all these levels also. Karl Marx was not an English empiricist: “The philosophers have interpreted the world; the point is to change it” does not mean that we must now abandon philosophical thinking. All he abandoned was the separation between philosophy and action, between thinking and doing, between the class struggle at its most basic level of strikes and occupations, and the theory and practice of the revolution itself - the only way that class struggle can ultimately succeed. And this neither Tony nor Jim understand.

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight


I thought John Smithee’s letter - where he argued powerfully for in effect a guaranteed minimum income for everyone of at least £500 a week either through wages or full benefits for those unable to work through unemployment, sickness, disability or caring responsibilities - really interesting and thought-provoking (June 13).

It seems to me that, if we are really serious about tackling/ending genuine poverty in this country, a major part has got to be significantly increasing the cash incomes for the poorest and disadvantaged. Of course, alongside this, we should substantially increase the “basic offer” of universal services free at the point of use, not just for those on benefits.

I don’t know if £500 a week is the right figure, but I like the idea of using (say) the Living Wage Foundation Calculator as a basis for ensuring every individual, partnership or family unit has access to enough cash to live a decent life with adequate access to all the basic necessities and, equally importantly, to engage fully in social, cultural and leisure activities.

This would be a far simpler and straightforward mechanism and would remove the basic ‘means tests’ at the heart of either pre-universal credit or UC itself. Including a value for housing costs also removes the current housing benefit subsidy to private landlords, allows the citizen to spend this on a range of housing options and enables the state to put a downward pressure on market rents.

A guaranteed minimum income also proceeds from the assumption that all people make some form of useful contribution to society - not just through paid work, but through their families, bringing up children, providing a safe and secure home, volunteering, building up local communities, cohesion and inclusiveness, etc.

Of course, those with special and/or additional needs should have those individually assessed and met through agreed criteria and process. We would not envisage anyone receiving less then they currently do with regard to any form of special needs/disability benefits.

We do need to think about how we ensure that work always pays and is a genuine incentive for all people. This may sound like a Tory slogan, but it was one cleverly hijacked by Cameron/Osborne/Clegg from the original socialists, who recognised that labour is at the heart of society and the creation of all useful wealth, goods and services to meet people’s needs. We need to take it back.

As socialists/communists/Marxists, we should reclaim the principle that labour and work is at the centre of our vision for a decent society. It should be an incredibly powerful slogan that anyone who works hard physically and mentally full-time should be entitled to more than enough income to meet their needs. As the current minimum wages rises, it includes greater and more significant numbers who are paid it. The slogan would mean something very specific and direct for them and also the wider numbers of workers who agree with the principle and sentiment.

For paid work, this clearly requires a significantly higher minimum wage than at present, plus the setting of maximum wages/salaries at the other end of the spectrum, and significant reductions in the current working week, year and lifetime, to enable paid workers adequate time to support and develop their families, themselves, and local communities.

Wages and salaries should be sufficient to more than adequately cover the costs of reproducing our labour-power. Yes, there should be gradations to reward additional physical and mental effort, skills, experience and performance. A range of 3:1 (say) between maximum and minimum wages would be massively more equitable than at present and yet would still provide outstanding opportunities to reward contribution and performance. The state should take the opportunity to set much higher wages than the current market determines for incredibly valuable roles, such as cleaning, caring and environmental work.

We do need to ensure that people moving from benefits/non-paid work into paid work have adequate financial incentives to do so. This suggests a form of universal basic income available to everyone as of right and which they would retain if they moved into paid employment or additional hours. The current withdrawal rates of benefits are a massive financial disincentive. Equally, we need to ensure that people on benefits who are nonetheless making a significant contribution to society in the ways suggested above are able to have a comparable cash income to those in paid employment.

We do need to confront the issue of the genuinely feckless, parasitic and sometimes criminal elements in society. Should they be automatically entitled to the suggested guaranteed basic income? These are a very small fraction of the population indeed. We shouldn’t allow the cases of a very small number of bad apples from doing what is right from a socialist and societal perspective. They may often have dependents, including children, and we should not inadvertently penalise these for the actions or behaviour of a relatively small number of individuals. For the relatively small number of recalcitrant and anti-social individuals, we might guarantee their access to the basics, but require some form of community service in return. If they refused even that, more severe penalties might apply.

Valuing all members of society for their actual and potential contribution to the society we want to see should be an underpinning principle for socialists. It should be a basic principle that every member of society should as of right have access to all the essential requirements to live a decent life. It is also appropriate that a socialist state in ensuring the delivery of what the Chinese called “the iron rice bowl” - ie, that no one shall starve - should expect all individuals to contribute their abilities and capacities to meet the collective needs of society.

The 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party concluded with the oddly individualist rather than collectivist slogan that the society we want is based on the principle, “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” This can sound like a somewhat idyllic, utopian idea, as are some passages about the ending of the division of labour in The German ideology.

The production of goods and services to meet the needs of society may well require the most modern techniques, processes and divisions of labour, to maximise these outputs, and yet allow individual workers adequate time and energy away from paid work to progress all the other activities they want and need to.

There may well be a number of societal tasks and roles which are essential, but currently unattractive, unpleasant, difficult and demanding. Would not a more progressive, collectivist society want to see such roles picked up on a more shared basis, so the majority of people are expected to perform some of these duties, as well as their more chosen work or profession and wider social and cultural activities?

I think the above constitutes a perfect set of ‘transitional’ demands. I think we can and should sketch out some of the main contours of a ‘transitional’ society moving towards socialism, and how technically feasible and indeed completely rational and productivist they would be. They are all technically affordable and deliverable by capitalism, but, of course, would require massive inroads into the wealth and power of the capitalist class.

Andrew Northall


I disagree with Paul Drummond’s analysis that Tony Mulhearn’s political career did not end in failure (‘Making of a Liverpool militant’, October 17). Right up to the end of his life Tony Mulhearn had been led up the garden path by the disastrous policies of his close friend, Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

Whilst Tony was obviously deeply affected by the role of Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the Labour Party in sabotaging the Liverpool council struggle of 1983-87, I can fully understand why he supported Taaffe’s view that the Labour Party had become a bourgeois party similar to the Democrats in the US. Whilst Ted Grant, founder of the Revolutionary Socialist League (which went on to become the Militant Tendency and then the Socialist Party) remained political editor of the Militant newspaper, Peter Taaffe, a brilliant organiser, borrowed all his political ideas from Ted.

At the same time, the decision in the mid-1980s that the Militant central committee should be made up only of full-timers led to Tony Mulhearn no longer having a major impact on Militant’s strategy and tactics on a national level. Further to this, the poll tax struggle led to Militant full-timers focussing on that. Political education, despite protests from Ted Grant, was downgraded to the point where new recruits would be ‘educated on the streets’.

The failure of the Militant project goes back to 1945, when Ted Grant and Jock Haston, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), supported the faction of Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow within the US Socialist Workers Party. This faction supported Michel Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International after World War II, who wanted to dissolve the FI into the Stalinist and Social Democrat parties. This is something Ted Grant took notice of and, after the collapse of the RCP in the late 1940s, entered the Labour Party.

Ted Grant theorised the policy of deep entryism. The result was that his supporters became left social democrats who believed in municipal socialism, which eventually led to the Liverpool council struggle of 1983-87. Tony Mulhearn, as a working class militant, was one of the leading strategists and tacticians of this struggle.

The last 30 years have been politically very difficult. It wasn’t helped by the credit-fuelled boom of 1992-2008. As Paul Drummond correctly points out, up until the last months of his life comrade Mulhearn was still an activist, taking part in pickets and demonstrations, speaking at meetings and rallies. However, the SPEW has achieved nothing since the end of the poll tax struggle in 1991.

Taaffe leads a sect, of which Mulhearn was a member, with its own oil-slick international in the form of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which this summer experienced its biggest crisis yet, with its loss of sections in China/Hong Kong, the US, Israel/Palestine, Australia, Sweden and many others, all in the name of fighting ‘Mandelism’.

All this is a failure of theory. The Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party, as Lenin put it, with a capitalist leadership and a working class base. The entryist tactic in Liverpool, led by Tony Mulhearn, Terry Harrison and Ted Mooney, was shipwrecked by the end of the Liverpool council struggle in 1987. It showed that Marxists cannot take hold of the capitalist state even in its local government form.

What is needed is a Communist Party which has a correct policy when it comes to Labour. The failure of the entryist tactic, whilst temporarily successful during the 1980s in Liverpool and elsewhere, is no match for a Communist Party independent of the Labour Party. This is something Tony Mulhearn did not understand, despite all his hard work during his political life.

John Smithee