Solidarity, not charity!

Genuine Marxists want to make charity history, not constitute its left wing. Mark Fischer explains why

Few examples highlight better the rapid political degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party than its creeping accommodation to charity-mongering initiatives such as Make Poverty History (Weekly Worker March 10). In the March issue of the SWP's middle-brow Socialist Review, comrade Chris Nineham tells us that "'Make poverty history' is becoming a rallying cry for 2005" (All Nineham quotes from this issue of Socialist Review unless otherwise stated). Apparently, this new coalition of "all the developmental NGOs, most trade unions, many campaigning organisations and a range of celebrities" has the potential - in the aftermath of the London European Social Forum - to "take the global justice movement to a new level". Thus, comrade Nineham tells his readers that the next big protest actions for us all to get excited about (or 'really excited', as SWP cadre will bluster in meetings up and down the country) are those against the G8 meeting in Scotland in July. Clearly, the current role of the SWP in the workers' movement is a highly contradictory one. It remains by far the largest grouping of revolutionaries in Britain and, in the absence of a viable alternative pole of Marxist attraction, any notion that its disintegration or disappearance would be an unalloyed good thing is reactionary nonsense. The SWP has to be postively, not negatively, superseded. However, we also have to be clear about the role of today's SWP. This formally Marxist group now acts as the main conduit of petty bourgeois ideas into the workers' movement. Of course, in the process the SWP is actually starting to mould itself as something other than a Marxist organisation. Just read through Chris Nineham's article if you need convincing. What is striking about the piece is not simply that it does not contain one word of criticism of charity politics - of course, the SWP will grandstand the occasional article to cover its left flank with some mild criticism of Oxfam or the World Development Movement. No, it is psychologically instructive that the comrade actually starts to replicate not simply the phraseology of charity organisations, but also their terms of reference and even the content of their criticisms of government initiatives. Of course, we have already seen this anticipated in the response of Respect councillors Michael Lavalette and Oli Rahman to the south Asian tsunami disaster. SWP national committee member Lavalette - we are told on Respect's website - is now central to organising a week of action on behalf of Make Poverty History, "using the networks that supported his very successful initiative in support of the victims of the tsunami disaster". In fact, the comrade's "successful initiative" was to propose a pro-UN, charity-mongering motion to Preston council peddling the nonsense that this natural disaster "recognised no barrier of colour or religion" (see Weekly Worker January 6). In his respectable footsteps we have comrade Nineham essentially advancing nothing but technical criticisms of the imperialist plan for 'aid' to Africa: * To begin with, going into statesman mode, he remarks, "Whatever the motives, the focus on Africa can only be welcomed." * Then commenting on Gordon Brown's 'Marshal Plan for Africa' (debt write-off, doubling aid, a revision of the terms of trade between 'first' and 'third' world countries), the comrade adopts a sympathetic but regretful pose: "there is nothing wrong with the aspirations, but the plans themselves are problematic". * "The first difficulty" in implementing Gordon Brown's noble "aspirations", says comrade Nineham, is that "the other big powers are not keen". "Close inspection" leaves the Brown plan looking "pretty threadbare anyway". Elements are "welcome, if overdue", despite the fact that there are "catches". The "poor countries" are already "disadvantaged by years of imperialism, debt and underdevelopment". Thus, we should troop up to Edinburgh come July to be handed an SWP placard "demanding immediate cancellation of debt to all poor countries and a massive increase in aid with no strings" - this is the operative programme the comrade proposes the working class in this country should take up in order to fight the horror of world poverty that is the inevitable product of global capitalism. The Nineham article is followed by a companion piece from Malcolm Fleming of Oxfam, who hopes that "the eight men who lead the G8 states have the political will [to] help 800 million people out of poverty". What do these 'world leaders' need to do to "make a difference", he asks rhetorically? "They need to provide more and better aid, they need to drop the unfair debt owed by developing countries and they need to change the rules of international trade to allow poor farmers and workers a chance to help themselves out of poverty" - essentially the programme that the SWP now seems to have adopted, in other words. How will that happen? - "Well that's where you come in!" Malcolm enjoins us. "Everyone who wants to make poverty history needs to add their voice "¦ log on to www.makepovertyhistory.org to find out more and register your support, wear a white band [you'll be in the delightful company of Tony Blair if you do] "¦ and put July 2 in your diary now." Of course, revolutionary Marxists must engage with the sentiments that will prompt tens of thousands of people to take to the streets later this year to protest against the hell that global capitalism makes of our world. Any communist who simply sneers at this mass, global, inchoate human response in the relatively 'affluent' countries of the world is - frankly - not a communist in any meaningful sense. But how should we engage? The job of Marxists is to counterpose a clear communist programme. Not because we are competing for some market niche, but because such a programme is objectively true. Communists have the answers to world poverty - whatever the subjective intentions of the individuals involved, charity actually perpetuates the problem, acting as a prop to the existing world order of exploitation and dedevelopment. Marxists who blur the distinction between our programme to fight world poverty and charity-mongering do a profound disservice to our entire movement. Our first task, given where mass consciousness is at in today's world (and its low level in our own movement, unfortunately), is to draw a sharp ideological line between our revolutionary solutions and the sops and palliatives of the bourgeoisie. Concretely, this must mean a vigorous fight against the poisonous ideas of charity itself within the ranks of the working class movement: a struggle to make charity history. Golden age Academic Donna Andrew argues that there are three distinct phases in the development of charity under early capitalism (cited in JD Smith, C Rochester and R Hedley [eds] An introduction to the voluntary sector London 1995, p13): * 1680-1740s - the promotion of education and employment. By 1729, for example, some 1,400 charity schools with 22,000 pupils had been established - although their dubious educational content actually consisted more of religious instruction that genuine learning. * 1740s-60s - a shift away from these areas towards maternity hospitals and child welfare agencies, reflecting, Andrew argues, growing concern around the need to boost London's working population, and meet the increasing need for human material for military preparations, naval expansion and colonial settlement. * 1770s-1820s - a turn towards moral reform and discipline, explained by the need to regiment the new working class and counter the threat of political unrest. Although forms of charitable organisation have a long history, the 19th century is rightly viewed as its 'golden age'. So, before making some points about its specific origins, it is worthwhile looking at this more recent period to get a contemporary feel for the nature of charity and how our class has responded to it. In the 1880s, The Times noted that the income of London's charities was greater than that of several states combined, including the not insignificant countries of Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. Charities were thus not simply an important feature of social life of the Victorian era: they were a significant sector of its economy. The growth of charity arose from the attempt to ameliorate social tensions engendered by rapid industrialisation and the spread of large metropolitan centres, where the potentially rebellious masses were concentrated. It was an important weapon in the ruling class assault on working people: a form of regulation and control, in other words. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the attitude of the young workers' movement was thoroughly hostile to charity, seeing in it - quite rightly - a consciously contrived alternative to the project of radical social change. The red Chartist, Helen Macfarlane, a brilliant revolutionary journalist and the first translator of the Communist manifesto into English, penned an article in July 1850, 'Fine words (household or otherwise) butter no parsnips', cutting into a characteristically syrupy piece in Charles Dickens' Household words about "two poor little starving children who stole a loaf of bread, and were sentenced "¦ to be whipped for this awful 'crime against society, property and order'". Macfarlane scalds these bleeding hearts with the observation that for these "rosewater political sentimentalists of the Boz school", the alternative would have been transportation to Australia with spelling books provided by charity. Macfarlane expressed the consensus of the revolutionary trend in the workers' movement - that from the point of view of the working class, charity is immoral. Contrast comrade Nineham's weasel words with her militant approach: "We feel humiliated and pained when a beggar stretches out his hand to us for 'charity' - that insult and indignity offered to human nature; that word invented by tyrants and slave-drivers - an infamous word, which we desire to see erased from the language of every civilised person" (D Black Helen Macfarlane New York 2004, pp48-49). French royalist Alphonse de Lamartine reported from London in 1850 on the changes he had seen since the 1830s. Macfarlane quotes his praise of the "charity" and "public virtue" of the "intelligent aristocracy", which had graciously deigned to confer on the great unwashed "incalculable benefits from above", cleansing the streets of filth and introducing the "vigilance of public morality". The only dissenters in this new Eden were "two classes of men, whom nothing ever satisfies: the demagogues and extreme aristocrats "¦ clubs of Chartists and diplomatists" (ibid p50). Thus, the 19th century saw the more perceptive sections of the establishment actively support voluntary agencies such as charities and church schools, in an attempt to quell political radicalism and instil an unthinking factory-fodder discipline into the working class. EP Thompson characterises these church schools as machines for the inculcation of "thrift time" into working class children, as well as the internalisation of ruling class values: "Once inside the school gates, the child entered the new universe of disciplined time," he points out (EP Thompson, 'Time, work, discipline and industrial capitalism' in Past and present 1967, p38). The regimentation of the working class - its reduction to no more than unthinking cogs in the wheels of capitalist industry - was a difficult task, especially at first, when the memory lingered of "earlier processes of production [which had] afforded the workers genuine opportunities for the expression of their personalities in their work, and some of them even permitted the embodiment of artistic conceptions affording pleasure to the craftsman" (W Bowden Industrial society in England towards the end of the 18th century London 1925, pp274-5). The robotic template of an ideal 'worker' in the collective mind's eye of the capitalist class was typified in the comments of inventor James Watt, who observed in 1785 that workers "are to be considered in no other light than as mere acting mechanical powers "¦ it is scarcely necessary that they should use their reason". Similarly, Richard Arkwright, the dodgy industrialist, complained that it was extremely hard to train human beings "to renounce their desultory habits of work, and identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton" (B Inglis Poverty and the industrial revolution London 1971, p75). JL and Barbara Hammonds observed of this period that: ""¦ the upper classes allow no values to the workpeople but those which the slave-owner appreciates in the slave. The working man was to be industrious and attentive, not to think for himself, to owe loyalty and attachment to his master alone, to recognise that his proper place in the economy of the state was the place of the state in the economy of the sugar plantation. Take many virtues we admire in a man, and they become vices in a slave" (JL and B Hammonds The town labourer 1760-1832 London 1917, p307). Of course, the historical problem for our rulers has been that slaves revolt. The attempt to dehumanise proletarians produced a simmering anger which sometimes boiled over into social unrest. An anonymous hosier, speaking in 1806 of his attempts to introduce a factory routine, complained: "I found the utmost distaste on the part of the men to any regular hours or regular habits "¦ The men themselves were considerably dissatisfied, because they could not go in and out as they pleased, and have what holidays they pleased, and go on just as they had been used to do; and were subject, during after-hours, to the ill-nurtured observations of other workmen, to such an extent as completely to disgust them with the whole system, and I was obliged to break it up" (cited in Z Bauman Work, consumerism and the new poor Philadelphia 1998, pp7-8). The very act of workers' resistance - which took a variety of forms, from simple absenteeism up to collective industrial action - was constantly cited as evidence of the moral laxity of the poor and working classes and the ethical superiority of the bee-hive discipline of the factory. Thus getting the 'voluntarily idle' to work was not just an economic task: it was a moral one. It is in this context that the charity initiatives of the time must be viewed. The Edinburgh Review bluntly observed in an 1845 article titled 'The claim of labour' that "it is not in [the charity] spirit that the new schemes of benevolence are conceived "¦ They are celebrated as the beginning of a new moral order "¦ in which the possessors of property are to resume their place as the paternal guardians of those less fortunate "¦ to extinguish, not indeed poverty - that hardly seems to be thought desirable - but the more abject forms of vice, destitution and physical wretchedness" (ibid p11). Of course, our class resisted. The temperance movement was viewed not simply as an attack on an important aspect of individual workers' leisure time, but also on an a sect of the class's collective life and ability to organise for protest action. There was open working class hostility to initiatives such as the Moral Reform Campaign, with its attacks on theatres and music halls: some proletarian neighbourhoods were no-go areas for the creeps of the sabbatical and bible societies. The Socialist Sunday School movement arose out of the London dock strike of 1892, organised as a more or less conscious alternative to the religious version. Food kitchens and educational classes had been set up for the children of the strikers, and the latter were continued in a form which taught young proletarians the causes of poverty for working people. By 1912 there were over 200 socialist Sunday schools throughout Britain, organised in the teeth of opposition from local authorities, politicians and religious bodies, who charged that they subverted the minds of youth with political and anti-religious doctrines. And then there was my personal favourite, the Skeleton Army. The first Skeleton Army was established in Weston-super-mare in 1878 with the express purpose of harassing and - in some case - organising direct physical assaults on the anti-working class proselytisers of the Salvation Army. The decade after its establishment saw 60 branches spring up nationally to fight this good fight. Most of its work seemed to consist of 'rough music' (caterwauling during the Salvation Army's street services) and disrupting its processions rather than any direct ideological confrontation (the movement actually had support from publicans, who saw their livelihood threatened by abstinence). However, the Skeleton Army's very existence speaks of quite widespread culture of working class scepticism and lively hostility to these attempts to reform its low morals. It was not some micro-group of cranks - in Worthing in 1884, the 'skeletons' counted 4,000 in their ranks; they fought pitched battles with the Sally Army and tried to burn down their HQ. The ruling class was in those days perfectly candid about the role of charity as a way of avoiding revolution. Examples of establishment figures of this period promoting charity as a way to lessen support for radical political causes are legion. In the mid-19th century, after the prince consort had visited a poor household in London on behalf of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, the Earl of Shaftesbury is reported to have observed: "Aye, truly, this is the way to stifle Chartism" (D Owen English philanthropy 1660-1960 London 1964, p377). Similarly, Sir John Gorst, Conservative secretary to the treasury, gravely informed the first meeting of Plymouth-based Guild of Help that without their charitable efforts "the people would try socialism as an experiment", lord preserve us (cited in JD Smith, C Rochester and R Hedley [eds] An introduction to the voluntary sector London 1995, p19). As Karl Kautsky acutely observed, "the different ways by which [christian charity] helps the poor, and the sick, and teaches youth, are only useful to [it] so as to be able to detach many members of the working classes from the class war" (www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1903/symposium/symposium.htm). Deserving poor Of course, there have been changes since then. In particular, the radicalism of the late 1960s brought a new generation of more left-inclined activists into the charity sector, leading to the modification of the outlook of established organisations and the setting up of more campaigning ones. Nicholas Deakin argues that struggles for self-determination such as that of the Vietnamese and the move of former British colonies to full independence "released a latent idealism about overseas development and helping to build new societies, which found expression in the phenomenal expansion of Oxfam and the creation of Voluntary Service Overseas" (N Deakin, 'The perils of partnership', in An introduction to the voluntary sector p49). Whatever the subjective intentions of the individual actors, charities clearly serve as an auxiliary arm of state social policy formation and implementation. This is illustrated in the Make Poverty History campaign, which has effectively constituted itself as a critical partner of the government's initiatives on debt relief and overseas aid (a relationship that comrade Chris Nineham unconsciously reveals through the tone of mild reproof in which he chooses to couch his criticisms of Gordon Brown's imperialist plans for Africa). However, the key point to bear in ind is that charity, by definition, is antithetical to solidarity - the real sentiment that communists should fight to inculcate in the working class's response to global poverty and oppression. Solidarity is practical aid and support in the struggle to take our destinies into our own hands - even during a period of acute crisis such as natural disaster. In contrast to our comrades of the SWP/Respect, it seems, we understand that these occasions are not great levellers and will not affect all equally. It is not true that the tsunami "recognised no barrier of colour or religion". Charity presumes victimhood, reducing the human being to a pathetic supplicant, "a beggar [stretching] out his hand to us for 'charity' - that insult and indignity offered to human nature", in Helen Macfarlane's words. Charity today adopts exactly the same approach as it did in the 19th century - that it is the deserving poor, defined by their helplessness, who are deemed worthy of aid and support. This distinction is lodged in the ethos of charity from its very beginnings. In his essay on 'Clericalism and the socialist attitude thereto'(1903), Kautsky described how the early egalitarian communism of the christian church, which had required new members to sell all possessions for the benefit of the collective, were progressively relaxed as it won high class converts and began to be incorporated into the Roman empire system. Instead of selling everything the possessor only sold the "surplus which he did not require for his own use." The leaders of christian communities soon saw that their duty did not consist only in persuading the rich to distribute their goods to the poor and to call thieves those who did not do this, but they also "understood that they must curb the cupidity of the poor and repress their guilty desires." The right of the poor to the wealth of the rich then "became alms", and the church - the organiser of the christian community - the "intermediary which distributed help and administered the funds" which were consecrated to this purpose. The church could not therefore suppress the antagonism between rich and poor, but instead "she made of it a new social antagonism" (www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1903/symposium/symposium.htm). In the 16th century this "new social antagonism" emerged in the form of charities in their recognisable contemporary form. During this period the charitable trust came into existence and the state started to take a keener interest in the relief of poverty. In particular, there were repeated attempts at state regulation aimed (unsuccessfully) at outlawing the giving of alms to any but this category of the 'deserving poor' - the phrase originates from this period. Acts of parliament in the first half of 16th century explicitly banned casual 'doles' and attempted to channel all giving to the 'deserving' section (ie, via the institution of the almshouses to ensure that rebellious, seditious or 'indolent' elements among the lower classes were disciplined by unrelieved hunger). So this distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor - which came to be thought of as very Victorian - was already there in the 16th century. It was this idea that informed the bourgeois reformers of the 1820s and 30s who framed the Poor Laws. After acrimonious debate, parliament agreed to confine assistance only to those that were imprisoned behind the bleak walls of poor houses. The advantages of this system to the establishment were obvious: * It was a self-imposed 'means test'. Conditions in the poor houses were made so horrifying that none but the absolutely desperate would enter them. * It created a clear division between those who could be 'reformed' and those beyond redemption. The abject poor were safe behind thick walls, away from the influence of troublemakers and rebels. * Once there, they functioned as a means of policing those outside. The terrifying stories that leaked out from these hellholes made the general working population more prepared to accept the conditions of the factory, mine or mill, however onerous. The circumstances of the incarcerated 'deserving poor' thus applied a downward pressure on the general conditions of our class. For this reason, we also see a tendency amongst the more frank of the bourgeois moralists of the time not to make too much of the distinction between 'deserving' and 'undeserving'. The crime was poverty itself. Thus Jeremy Bentham explicitly viewed workhouses, poorhouses and factories (as well as prisons, lunatic asylums, hospitals and schools) as institutions linked by a common ethical purpose - the imposition of a uniform discipline on a constitutionally unruly population, in essence by the simple compulsion of human hunger. Despite the more caring tones, the category of the 'deserving poor' remains the operative standard for the huge, bureaucratised zone of the economy that is today's voluntary sector. To qualify for aid, it is necessary to suffer. To disqualify yourself, organise to overthrow the social relations that engender the suffering in the first place. In stark contrast, the working class has a direct interest in providing material solidarity with the 'undeserving' of the world - those sections of the population who are not simply suffering the effects of poverty, but are in actual or potential rebellion against the social conditions that produce their suffering. The growing role of charity and its pervasive ethos of supplication underlines the urgency of rediscovering the uncompromisingly militant traditions of Helen Macfarlane and her crusade to see the word 'charity' "erased from the language of every civilised person". So communists also will be in Edinburgh on July 2. But we will be raising very different demands from either the official behemoths like Oxfam or its pale pink sidekick, the SWP.