Blind alley

Writing in Weekly Worker, Ammar Kazmi asks me to “promptly explain” and “correct” what I wrote in my article, ‘Defend David Miller’, about the professor’s “alignment with pro-Shia groups” (Letters, March 18). I am very happy to respond - not to correct or retract, but to further emphasise the main points.

The thrust of the article was to defend David Miller, his rights to free expression and broader academic freedom in the face of a concerted assault. The defence of free speech is essential, especially given the current attempts by the Johnson government, the Labour leadership and sections of the media to undermine it, such as in their attacks on the left and their witch-hunt against anti-Zionists and supporters of Palestinian rights.

However, in defending his right to free speech, it is also important for Marxists to point out the political differences we have with David Miller: we defend his right to speak, but we do not support his political position and alignment with the Muslim organisations, whether Shia or Sunni, that Ammar cites in his letter.

As I argued in my original article (and which Ammar quoted in his letter), this is because Marxists are opposed to “a sectional and religiously sectarian form of politics” and instead stand for the universalist, “radical, secular traditions of the workers’ movement” (my emphasis). Our working class politics must be based on the independence of the workers’ movement from bourgeois and religious ideology and organisations, whether state, church or mosque.

That does not mean that we do not support the freedom of conscience of religious believers or fail to welcome them into the ranks of the workers’ movement: we stand alongside oppressed groups internationally, and support their battles for democracy, such as the struggles of Iranian workers against the Islamic Republic. Marxists distinguish between, on the one hand, reactionary ideologies, whether religious or secular, and the power structures which uphold them, and, on the other hand, individual believers, who can be won to the movement to end oppression and to the cause of socialism.

This means we must critique all reactionary ideas and organisations which represent a blind alley for the working class, not accommodate our politics to them or give them credibility in any way. It is this type of accommodation on which we differ from David Miller. It would be wrong to hide these important differences of political principle and so, while we support the campaign to defend him, we also continue to assert our right to disagree with his political positions.

Derek James

Strange argument

Michael Roberts says: “Then from 1450 to 1600 the population (and labour supply) recovered and real wages fell. In 1630, the English economy was back to almost exactly the same point it was at in 1300” (‘Capitalism and labour productivity’, April 1).

This is a strange argument for a Marxist to make. Capitalist production begins in the towns in the 15th century, as the towns grow, creating the minimum size of market required for capitalist production to be able to undercut the independent handicraft producers. It’s why, as Marx describes, capitalism has to begin in the towns and such industrial production rather than in agriculture. But it’s precisely for this same reason that the number of wage workers employed in capitalist production remains tiny, compared to the number of petty-commodity producers, and peasants. Indeed, as Marx writes in Critique of the Gotha programme, even in the middle of the 19th century in Germany, peasants comprised the majority of society. So for the majority of society wages can play little role in relation to living standards during this period.

Roberts’ analysis seems similar to that of Friedrich Lange, which was criticised by Marx, and of Petr Struve, who utilised Lange’s argument in relation to Russia. Struve was criticised by Lenin, who also dismissed Lange’s argument. Even if we assume that the number of non-capitalist wage workers increased - in other words, workers employed by the feudal lords as retainers, etc, and paid wages - this still represents a small proportion of society.

As Lenin points out, dismissing this same argument from Struve and Lange, it’s not wages that determine the living standard of the direct producing peasant, but (a) the fertility of their land and (b) the proportion of their product taken from them by the landlord in feudal rents, by the church in tithes and by the state in taxes.

What does happen during this period of growing capitalist industry in the towns (especially as the growing merchant class also brings in exotic products from overseas) is that, as global trade expands - also creating a basis for capitalist industrial production, as Marx sets out in the Communist manifesto - the feudal lords find themselves requiring a larger surplus product, as the commodity economy expands. They seek to buy this wider range of industrial products - especially since, as Marx explains, the towns on the basis of this capitalist production begin to exploit the countryside via unequal exchange. It’s this which causes the landlords not only to move from labour rents, through rent in kind, to money rents - as they need money to buy this expanded range of industrial commodities - but also to increase the proportion of the peasants’ output that must be handed over as rent. It’s that which impacts the living standards of the peasants, not changes in wages, given that the peasants are not paid wages!

The need of the peasants to acquire money to pay rents, tithes and taxes, where previously they only needed to supply surplus labour or surplus product, means that peasants must now also begin to produce commodities, rather than engage entirely in direct production. As Lenin describes, it’s this boost to the commodity economy - as the peasants must engage in increased domestic production and begin to divert a portion of their agricultural output to commodity production, in order to sell to an increasing town workforce - which creates the basis for the differentiation of the peasantry. That is not possible until capitalist development in the towns promotes this demand for agricultural commodities and so commodity production in agriculture.

Even, then, of course, as Marx describes - and Lenin also establishes in ‘On the so-called market question’ - this commodity production in the countryside is not capitalist production, unlike that already established in the towns. But, the commodity economy now implanted in the countryside creates the basis for the differentiation of the peasantry into proletarians and bourgeois, just as the differentiation of the independent commodity producers in the towns had done previously.

The increased pressure from rising feudal rents on the peasants sharpens this process, as Lenin’s analysis of it in Russia illustrates. The peasants with more fertile land, or otherwise better placed, are able to meet these rents, by expanding their commodity production, and vice versa. The poorer peasants, more dependent on domestic production, find themselves unable to compete with the capitalist production of commodities in the towns. They become wage workers under the ‘putting out system’, and become increasingly incapable of devoting enough time to their own land even to produce their own subsistence.

In Russia, as Lenin illustrates, they then rent out their land to richer peasants, becoming themselves increasingly proletarianised. Some become full-time agricultural day labourers; others move to the towns to become industrial wage workers. As the richer peasants now are able to employ such day labourers, their money revenues, which previously only acted as money, can now become capital, employing wage workers to produce surplus value. It’s by this process, as Marx and Lenin describe, that capitalist production, which starts in the towns, becomes transferred to agriculture.

But, this occurs a long time after the capitalist development of industrial production in the towns, as Marx also describes in Capital. The urban capitalist production places increasing demands on the old agricultural production in the countryside, which continues for a long time, causing increasing pressure on the land, given that the peasant producers continue to utilise the old methods. It not only leads to their own exhaustion, but to them exhausting the land itself through overuse. Indeed, as once again Marx describes in Capital, it’s only when this has led to large-scale ruination of the land that capital begins to invade agricultural production - and to reorganise it, and to apply capital so as to raise its productivity and restore its former fertility.

Incidentally, this process shows how silly it is to talk about ‘the law of value under capitalism - in particular, the existence of surplus value in capitalist accumulation’, because it’s quite clear that the law of value here operates in relation to the non-capitalist commodity production. Moreover, it’s also quite clear that the independent peasant producer who pays a money rent to a landlord, pays over an amount of surplus value, rather than simply surplus product. It’s the existence of this surplus value, arising from non-capitalist commodity production that makes possible the establishment and accumulation of capital itself in the first place.

Michael seems to have made the mistake of bourgeois academics of taking the categories of capitalism (wages) and extending them back into history, rather than analysing each historical period in its specificity. It is even more incongruous to do that at the same time as trying to claim that the law of value, as a natural law, only exists under capitalism, or indeed that the concepts, value and surplus value, only exist under capitalism, when it’s quite clear that they operated for thousands of years prior to capitalism, in different forms - each of which has to be analysed in its own specificity. That indeed is the real lesson and foundation of the Marx-Engels theory of historical materialism.

To say “The development of capitalism in agriculture and in trade laid the basis for the introduction of industrial technology that led to the so-called Industrial Revolution and industrial capitalism” is back to front, as the analysis of Marx and Lenin demonstrates. Simply throwing peasants off their land cannot lead to capitalist production, because, as Marx describes, that has happened throughout history, going back to antiquity, without resulting in capitalism. Instead it led simply to various forms of slavery, and a sinking back of the level of development. Capitalist production can only become established if it is more efficient than existing forms of production, which means it has to take place on a large scale to take advantage of economies of scale and division of labour, even prior to the introduction of machines. But, such large-scale production can only occur when sufficiently large markets have developed - otherwise the produce cannot be sold.

Those large markets can only develop in the towns first on the basis of the development of urban industrial producers. There is no basis for such to occur in agriculture first, because the peasants, even the poorest peasants, are able to eke out their subsistence from the land without any requirement to go to market to meet their needs. If they are dispossessed of their land, they become slaves or serfs, not wage workers employed by capitalist farmers, because there is no basis for the latter to exist. If they are employed as wage workers, it is not by capitalists: ie, they are not paid out of capital, but out of revenue. It’s only after a long period of development of capital in the towns, and the growth of an urban proletariat, that the demand for agricultural commodities reaches a stage when capitalist production in agriculture becomes possible.

Confusing the Industrial Revolution after 1800 (actually the Industrial Revolution is normally taken as having started in 1760) as the commencement of industrial capitalism is to make the same mistake as Jean-Charles de Sismondi, or the Narodniks and Nikolai Danielson in Russia, as Lenin describes - for example in A characterisation of economic romanticism. Industrial capitalism had started in Britain centuries prior to that, and prior to capitalism entering agriculture. The former is the necessary condition for the latter.

What occurs after 1760 is the development of machine industry, and the increasing role played by relative surplus value. It also creates the material conditions for the growth of this productive capital relative to the antediluvian forms of capital that previously dominated - commercial capital and financial capital. It creates the basis for the dominance of industrial capital over those previous forms, which becomes manifest with the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Arthur Bough

Gramsci’s comrade

Debates over how Gramsci’s writings have been interpreted and deployed can be helpful in clarifying important questions of left strategy. But David Broder makes a disingenuous and misleading point in his article, ‘The misuses of Gramsci’ (February 25).

Broder states that “Gramsci had ended comradely relations with Togliatti in October 1926, when the latter refused to pass on to the Russian leadership his letter critical of the tone of exchanges with the Left Opposition”. Broder’s intention is to suggest a fundamental divergence between Gramsci and Togliatti from this point, so as to support his argument that Togliatti misrepresented Gramsci’s politics, when developing the PCI’s post-war strategy.

Of course, what really “ended comradely relations” between the two friends and comrades from Sardinia was that, at the beginning of November 1926, Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime. Further direct debate and dialogue became impossible. Nevertheless, there are multiple pieces of evidence that Gramsci’s views in prison anticipated key elements of Togliatti’s post-war leadership approach.

Furthermore, as detailed in chapter 20 of Andrew Pearmain’s new book, Antonio Gramsci: a biography (IB Tauris, 2020), Togliatti made serious attempts to contact Gramsci in prison, so as to seek his views on developments within the movement. In June 1930, Togliatti asked Gramsci’s brother, Gennaro, to visit him to request his opinion on Stalin’s move against the ‘right opposition’ in the Soviet party, and the implications that this had for the Communist International.

Gramsci’s scope to feed back his views was limited by his lack of access to reliable information, and by the strict supervision of his meetings with Gennaro by the fascist prison guards, but there is no evidence to suggest that he was in principle opposed to picking up and further developing his comradely relations with his fellow Sardinian and old classmate from Turin University days.

Mike Makin-Waite

Useful idiots?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. So goes an old adage. But, of course, words can be hurtful: it all depends on the context. However, words cannot be made to de-exist and nor can the use of any words be claimed as the sole prerogative of any self-defined group.

Words, especially in the context of social rejection, can be extremely hurtful - as indeed can certain gestures or behaviour (which is why in most legal systems there exist laws which make it a criminal offence to offend the dignity of another person or group). But words, phrases and concepts can also be weaponised usually by those wishing to stifle debate in order to promote some religious, ethnic or political objective.

Internationally, the most obvious and persistent case is that of the conflation of the nationalist political philosophy of Zionism with the religion of Judaism. According to this definition, anyone opposing the politics and policies of the state of Israel is defined as ‘anti-Semitic’ - in other words, expressing a hatred of Jews. This has the effect of intimidating individuals and of shutting down debate on a major human rights issue.

However, this form of ethnic nationalism has been widely condemned - most recently last week by 200 Jewish intellectuals in what has been dubbed the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA). It is the latest in statements that have pointed out that politicians and ideologues can and do use ethnic, religious, linguistic and other fundamentally superficial differences to divide, rule and manipulate populations.

But news of the JDA, certainly here in South Africa, was overwhelmed by another ruckus about the use of words: the so-called ‘N-word row’ at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), involving its director, Adam Habib, former vice-chancellor of Wits University in Johannesburg. In a discussion in which he made clear that the use of offending terminology would not be tolerated at SOAS, he mentioned - correctly in the context - the offending word.

He was promptly dubbed, by what can only be described as a vocal mob, as a racist. And they maintained that the context did not matter: only black people could use the term. Habib, of Indian ancestry, was not apparently black enough. So, according to this grouping, the ‘N-word’ may only be used by those they define as ‘black’. Does this mean people defining themselves as ‘black’ may use it in all and any context, even when it is aimed to cause pain by social rejection?

And does this ruling also apply to the South African equivalent of the ‘N-word’ - the ‘K-word’ [‘Kaffir’]? Not only has author Fred Khumalo, by using this word in context, shown how silly is this ultra-woke censorship, but the word is also to be found - again in context - in justly praised works of literature. Imagine describing a scene in rural, apartheid South Africa, for example, where a white farmer threatens a black worker. It would be a travesty to print the dialogue as ‘I’m going to kill you, you bloody K-word.’

Then there is, of course, the ‘F-word’, which was most definitely likely to cause offence to a great many people, even a decade or two ago. But this short-form description of fornication is now fairly commonplace in films and even in some mainstream publications. And at a time when the publication of ‘short-form fornication’ was severely - even legally - frowned upon, so too was the use of the term, ‘queer’. But it became, in our sexist society, quite proudly appropriated by homosexual groups. The word, ‘gay’, also underwent a similar transition in recent decades.

Depending on the context, even now such terms can be used in a hurtful way. Context - it includes apparent intent - is vital. And, for all the current furore, it is not only words with racist connotations that, in certain contexts, would be hurtful and harm the dignity of someone they were directed at. What about those words - in a sexist, male-dominant society - referring particularly to the female anatomy? Or those referring to male genitalia? Dependent again on the context, I have found it either ridiculous or simply vulgar to be called a ‘silly old C-word’ - especially since the reference is to something I do not possess! The same would apply to what, for the sake of apparent super-political correctness, I should refer to as the ‘P-word’ - something I do at least have.

The simple truth is that words cannot be obliterated. And driving them underground merely guarantees their longevity in hurtful contexts. Context is all and laws already exist to deal with those who would hurt others by sticks, stones or words.

The mob howling now for the head of Habib display their ignorance of history and language. They are perhaps useful idiots, helping to promote the tribal fragmentation of the working class majority. And that can only help to serve the very system that creates and maintains the racism they complain about.

Terry Bell
Cape Town

Council housing

I first became interested in housing when I came across the book, The downwave: surviving the second great depression by the late Robert C Beckman, in 1984.

Beckman was a disciple of the ‘Kondratieff wave’, which says that there is a 45-65-year cycle in the world capitalist economy. Whilst many statisticians have shown that this theory is statistically incorrect, Beckman made many millions of pounds through the sales of his books - The downwave selling over 500,000 copies.

Beckman became famous in the 1980s for predicting that house prices would collapse following a big expansion in the private rental market. At a certain stage it would become cheaper to rent property than to rent money from a bank or building society. Whilst house prices did fall a little in the early 1990s, however, the big collapse in house prices is yet to happen.

For many years now I have believed that the big dividing line in politics is not whether one supports the nationalisation of the top 150 monopolies, but whether one supports the building of council houses. Margaret Thatcher clearly did not want council housing - hence the selling off of five million council houses through the so-called ‘right to buy’ from 1980.

However, as Thatcher famously replied, when asked what her biggest achievement was, she did not say privatisation or winning the Falklands war, but “Tony Blair and New Labour”. Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, following in Thatcher’s footsteps, did not support the building of council houses, but preferred to expand the private rental market by allowing ‘buy to let’ mortgage interest to continue as a business expense.

In contrast Jeremy Corbyn wanted to build 100,000 new council houses per year, whilst at the same time building 500,000 private houses. But even Corbyn, along with his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, had bought into Thatcher’s so-called ‘property-owning democracy’. 100,000 new council houses works out at only 150 per constituency per year, whilst there are three million people on current council housing waiting lists.

Anneliese Dodds, shadow chancellor under Keir Starmer - in spite of pressure from the Labour Campaign for Council Housing, which calls for the building of 100,000 council houses per year - is lukewarm when it comes to committing a future Labour government to building houses. Dodds has said that Labour will keep the disastrous ‘right to buy’, but will allow receipts from council house sales to be spent on building new council houses instead of the money going to the treasury, as currently happens.

As many capitalist and socialist economists have pointed out, “the UK is a private housing market with an economy attached”. House prices and rents in central London are falling fast, as many middle class Londoners are selling up and moving to the suburbs and the countryside due to the expansion of home working. With the ‘buy to let’ market on the verge of collapse, we may soon be witnessing Beckman’s long-predicted collapse in house prices - more recently echoed by august institutions such as The Economist magazine and the Warwick Business School.

As in the 1930s depression-era USA, we can see the spectacle of empty properties at the same time as homeless families. In 2021 USA this has been clearly shown in the Oscar-nominated film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a senior citizen who lost her home and pension in the 2007-08 sub-prime mortgage credit crunch. Now, like many thousands of American citizens, she travels across the USA in her camper van in search of temporary work.

Closer to home, I have personal experience of the widespread homelessness that is affecting people in the UK, especially amongst the young. My 26-year-old nephew has been sofa-surfing for the last three years ever since he came out of prison. When he has nowhere else to stay for the night, he sleeps on a mattress in my mother’s front room.

I have tried to get my nephew a rented room in a house in multi-occupancy, but rents here are £100-plus a week, whilst the local housing allowance (LHA) for a single person is only £65.35. He is on the housing waiting list for Clarion Housing, which took over Fenland’s council housing under New Labour, but he is in ‘band C’ - meaning in reality that he will never get a flat.

I have tried everything to help my nephew find accommodation. I have contacted his probation officer, as well as social services and Fenland district council, but no-one seems to want to help. At the same time, the council has - temporarily due to Covid-19 - housed 54 street homeless (mainly migrants) in local hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation.

The housing crisis is a crisis made in 10 Downing Street. It started with Thatcher’s selling off of council houses under the ‘right to buy’ and the failure of successive governments, including New Labour, to build council houses. The so-called ‘benefit cap’ and the cuts to local housing allowances have added to the numbers of street homeless, the numbers of sofa-surfers and the numbers in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation, whilst £32 billion a year goes to subsidise private landlords through housing benefit.

What should be done? Well, for a start Marxists must be much more ambitious than the Labour Campaign for Council Housing (and Left Unity), which parrot the call of Corbyn and McDonnell for the building of a meagre 100,000 new council houses a year. Marxists would be well-advised to copy the policy of Socialist Appeal, which calls for the building of one million new council houses each year, whilst at the same time nationalising the banks and the 10 big private house-building companies, along with all land.

As Marxists we must put an end to the so-called ‘property-owning democracy’. By building millions of council houses, together with controls on private rents, we can put all private landlords out of business. By doing this we can put an end to ‘blood-sucking landlords’ - and homelessness and overcrowding at the same time.

John Smithee