Proposition number one and one-dimensional Marxism
The SWP leadership has jumped on the 'stop climate change' bandwagon. But, argues Jack Conrad, if they want to be taken seriously the first thing for them to do is to reformulate their proposition one
Week in and week out Socialist Worker carries a standard 'Where we stand' column. There are five headed propositions:
1. Independent working class action.
2. Revolution, not reform.
3. There is no parliamentary road.
5. The revolutionary party.
Apart from political novices, few will bother to read it. Fewer still, if any, cross-examine and seriously think about criticising it line by line. A mistake. 'Where we stand' is about all the famished Socialist Workers Party membership possesses when it comes to a programme.
As we have repeatedly shown, and conclusively proven, there is a growing cleavage, a gulf, between Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' and SWP practice. The obvious example is Respect. Directed, manipulated and heavily policed by the SWP machine, Respect was founded as, and continues to show all the morbid symptoms of, a popular front.
Famously, notoriously, horribly, it was Joseph Stalin who sponsored popular fronts in the 1930s. But other examples would be the British Labour Party and the governments of Alexander Kerensky, Salvador Allende and Thabo Mbeki. 'Official communist' parties were urged, and if need be instructed, by Stalin to construct strategic cross-class alliances with 'progressive' sections of the labour bureaucracy, the middle classes and even the imperial bourgeoisie. Inevitably that meant dropping working class rule and socialism as an immediate aim. Allies to the right would hardly countenance that.
Hence it is the right, no matter how numerically small or politically marginal, which decides the parameters, sets the limits of the popular front programme. Instead of fighting for socialism the socialists ratchet down their sights. In the name of realism, maintaining unity and preserving the 'magnificent' rainbow coalition they look to a popular front government, which in due course ushers in a fair, an egalitarian, a pro-trade union capitalism. That becomes the real maximum aim. Socialism is occasionally mentioned at branch meetings, put in worthy editorials and served up from platform speeches "¦ but now as a hollow pretence. In practice then popular frontism can only but help to limit, confuse and demoralise the working class.
And that has been the role of Respect. Maintaining unity with the likes of George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley and the muslim councillors - a significant proportion being businessmen or patriarchal community leaders - gags, suffocates and effectively buries leftwing principles. John Rees - the Tony Blair of Cliffism - marshals an increasingly sullen body of troops to vote down, one after another, the principles implicitly or explicitly contained in the five 'Where we stand' propositions. Gay rights, a woman's right to have an abortion on demand, open borders, republicanism, a workers' representative taking only an average skilled worker's wage, secularism, proletarian socialism, etc. All these so-called 'shibboleths' have been sacrificed at Respect's annual conferences. Each vote has been a 'clause four' moment.
Albeit, recruited as 'Where we stand' revolutionary socialists, the SWP bureaucracy works remorselessly to reduce rank and file members into pliant speaking tools. Slaves. Theirs not to openly differ or question why. Theirs just to obediently do as they are bidden. As soon as John Rees has one of his inspired hunches, they are expected to serve as unthinking foot soldiers. That or they are on their way out. Because of the revolving door the ex-SWP is now the size of a small mass party.
But the problem with the SWP is not to be found simply in the divergence between theory and practice. The problem runs deeper. Much deeper. The SWP's theory is itself highly problematic. It is Marxist in outward appearance only. Attractive packaging and presentation. However, the real content of SWP politics is economism.
In the last analysis economism is a bourgeois world outlook which in its most mundane form restricts and narrows down the horizons of the working class to mere trade unionism. Workerism, the worship of workers as workers, is one result. However, the general feature of economism is the denial or belittling of the essential role of high politics and democracy in the struggle for socialism and communism.
The SWP is hardly alone. Almost the whole spectrum of the left in the United Kingdom advocates economism in one form or another - Socialist Campaign Group, Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement, Socialist Party in England and Wales, International Socialist Group, Workers Power, Socialist Appeal, Labour Briefing, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, etc.
Not that economism denies politics. The problem is that, when the economistic left takes up politics, it is not the politics of the working class and necessarily therefore orthodox Marxism. It is the politics of other classes and other ideological trends: left social democracy, bureaucratic socialism, liberalism, greenism, feminism, black separatism, petty nationalism, stageist halfway houses, etc. Economism is therefore a parody of Marxism. One-dimensional Marxism.
Genuine Marxism strives on every front to bring about an understanding of the necessity of the working class mastering scientific theory and extending mass organisation and popular control. Crucially, the working class must form itself into a party and win the battle for democracy. Hence the call in Britain for a reforged CPGB and the abolition of the monarchy system and its replacement by a democratic republic.
Democracy and socialism are inseparable. Socialism is not the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies or even ending the system of profit. Socialism is working class rule and the first stage in the transition to a communist society, where the guarantee for the full development of each individual is the full development of all. In other words the Marxist project is about the realisation of universal freedom. It is that or nothing.
Workers create all the wealth?
We shall not delve into the dark nooks and dusty crannies of Cliffite state capitalist theory or even detail the sorry history of Respect in order to reveal the SWP's economism. Take proposition one of 'Where we stand'. This is how it reads in full: "The workers create all the wealth under capitalism. A new society can only be constructed when they collectively seize control of that wealth and plan its production and distribution."
For those inexperienced in Marxism this might appear as a perfectly acceptable formulation. Yes, it is superficially anti-capitalist and apparently militantly pro-working class. What do we object to then? Where is the economism? It lies not in the call for the working class to "collectively seize" control of the wealth they create and then "plan its production and distribution". Economism announces itself in the very first sentence: "The workers create all the wealth under capitalism."
The problem with this statement is twofold:
Firstly, the proposition is simply untrue. Workers do not create all the wealth under capitalism.
Secondly, it treats workers merely as wage slaves, the producers of commodities, not human beings.
Let us begin with wealth. Wealth under capitalism - or, put another way, wealth for capital - primarily concerns generating value, surplus value and accumulated surplus value, its general form being money. Karl Marx gives a simple algebraic formula: M-C-M'. This movement involves the capitalist laying out money to purchase commodities in order to realise more money in the marketplace.
When this takes the embryonic form of mercantile capitalism, the seeming miracle of making something out of nothing has its source in cheating the immediate producers and the existence of isolated zones which are linked by the merchant's ships or caravans. Arab traders bought cheap in India and China and sold dear in Byzantine and feudal Europe. Merchants parasitically inserted themselves between these 'worlds'. Unequal exchange is therefore the key to wealth and accumulation - there exist no socially determining capitalist relations of production.
Under industrial capitalism, how-ever, things change. Surplus value derives from the surplus labour performed by workers who are forced to sell their ability to labour to a capitalist. By means of coercion direct producers have been separated from the means of production. In England that began in Elizabethan times with the dispossession of the peasantry and the seizure of the land by the great lords. As a result, those who became free workers - free from the means of production, that is - had to daily present themselves for hire. It is that or poverty and maybe even starvation.
Yet, as Marx showed, on average workers are able to sell their labour-power at a 'fair' market price. As sellers of a commodity - labour-power - they in general receive back its full worth from the capitalists. They are not cheated through unequal exchange. Wages buy the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of the worker as a wage-slave. Only as human beings are they robbed.
Capital - and therefore in the last analysis even its 'caring' personifications such as Bill Gates, Ben Cohen and Richard Branson - has no concern for the worker as a human being. Capital is an alienated social relationship that has but one interest: constant self-expansion. Capital as capital would therefore compel workers to work for 24 hours a day and for seven days a week - if such a feat were physically possible. Nor, of course, has capital any particular concern for the commodity created by the combination of labour-power, the instruments of labour and raw materials - even though they are brought together under the auspices of capital. The commodity could be of the highest quality or complete rubbish. But, as long as it sells and sells at a profit, that is what really matters. Value is what drives capitalism to constant forward motion. Growth and overcoming all barriers to growth is inseparable from the system. The capitalist lays out money at the beginning of the circuit in order to realise more money "¦ not just once, but repeatedly, tirelessly, feverishly.
"On, on! still on! Peace, rest have flown!"
For capital, wealth comes in the form of value, surplus-value and above all money. In other words, exchange value. Of course, for the capitalists themselves wealth also comes in the form of use-values. Commodities are made in order to realise exchange value, but they are bought in order to realise use-value. And despite the so-called protestant work ethic no-one should imagine the individual capitalist living a frugal, self-denying existence, which sees all takings ploughed back into the production process and making more money. An idea popularised by Adam Smith and taken to mythic proportions by Max Weber.
As individuals capitalists indulge themselves "¦ and often to extraordinary excess. They live surrounded by luxury and cultivate all manner of louche habits and expensive tastes. When it comes to transnational corporations, Lear jets, chauffeur-driven limos, Saville Row suits and a ready supply of female flesh are almost considered the birthright of every CEO.
Because use-value relies on subjective judgement, Marx quite correctly gave the widest possible definition. Use-value, he said, must satisfy a human need of "some sort". Whether these needs arise from the "stomach or from fancy" makes no difference.1 Use-value is therefore not just about physical needs; it encompasses the imagination too. Indeed a use-value may be purely imaginary. Its essence is to be found in the human being rather than the thing itself. The consumer determines utility or use-value.
Obviously use-values are bought on the market for money and come in the form of commodities produced through the capitalist production process. Yet it is vital to understand that capital as capital has not only an interest, a drive, to exploit labour and maximise surplus labour. In pursuit of profit, capital also seeks to maximise sales and therefore to constantly expand consumption. Capitalists sell raw materials and the instruments of labour to other capitalists: electricity, steel, machine tools, computer hardware, etc (what Marx called department I). They also, however, sell the means of consumption (department II) to other capitalists "¦ and workers too (food, drink, clothing, housing, transport, etc).
While the individual capitalist, the particular capital, attempts to minimise wages, capital as many capitals, capital as a system, pulls the other way and encourages, manufactures and even acts as the pimp for all manner of new or even artificial wants and needs. Hence advertising, round-the-year special-offer promotions, celebrity culture and the endless transformation of luxuries into necessities. That and the class struggle conducted by workers themselves combine to constantly overcome the barrier represented by the limited consumption power of the working class. Part of what the working class produces is therefore sold back to the working class "¦ and on an ever increasing scale. That way workers manage to partially develop themselves as human beings.
Not that their needs are ever fully satisfied. There is a steady and ever widening stream of the latest 'must haves'. Moreover capital, capital accumulation and the lifestyles of the rich always run far ahead of the workers. Relative impoverishment, gnawing dissatisfaction and immiseration remain their lot.
However, workers and capitalists not only consume commodities that come from the sphere of capitalist relations of production and the exploitation of wage-labour. They might well also consume commodities that come from peasant agriculture, the individual service-provider or the self-employed artisan. Eg, when visiting India, I enjoy eating the quick food and drinking the iced fruit juices sold along almost every city street by the army of small traders; at home I buy my daily papers from the local newsagent and get my shoes repaired by the self-employed cobbler over the road. Such little businesses produce use-values and by definition wealth too. With such examples in mind it is surely mistaken to baldly state that "workers create all the wealth under capitalism."
In theoretical terms forgetting, or passing over, the labour of the petty bourgeoisie is a mote, a mere speck of dust, in the eye of the SWP's 'Where we stand' column. But there exists a beam. A bloody big one at that. In his Critique of the Gotha programme Marx is quite explicit. "Labour is not the source of all wealth."2 There is nature too.
Marx writes here against the first paragraph of the draft programme of the newly established German Social Democratic Party - the Gotha unity congress in 1875 represented a rotten, unprincipled unification, joining together Lassallean state socialists and the Eisenachers, the followers of Marx and Engels led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht.
The first paragraph of the Gotha programme has a sadly familiar ring. In fact Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' proposition one is almost a carbon copy: "Labour is the source of all wealth and culture, and since useful labour is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society."
Incidentally, Marx had doubtless been stung into writing his Critique by Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76). In his book Statism and anarchy (1873) Bakunin portrayed Marx as being a German nationalist and an "authoritarian" advocate of the strong state; not only that, but Marx was said to have been responsible for the programme and every step taken by the Eisenachers from day one. Eg, "The supreme objective of all his efforts, as is proclaimed to us by the fundamental statutes of his party in Germany, is the establishment of the great People's State (Volksstaat)."3
As a skilled political infighter, Marx chose to point the finger of blame at Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64). Lassalle was the real German nationalist and advocate of the strong state. He secretly offered to do a deal with Otto von Bismarck. The German proletariat would align itself with the Prussian state "¦ against the capitalists.
Marx credited Lassalle with being the spiritual father of the Gotha programme, including the above quoted paragraph. Unfair, perhaps. Lassalle was dead, killed in a silly duel. More to the point, Marx's own pupils - ie, Bebel and Liebknecht - were quite capable of making such an elementary blunder all by themselves. No help, no prompting from Lassalle and his state socialists was needed. But by blaming Lassalle Marx was able to give his comrades an escape route, a route which, if it had been taken, would simultaneously go to drawing a clear line of demarcation against Lassallism and state socialism. That would harden up his Eisenachers no end.
Ditto the SWP leadership. Neither John Rees, Chris Harman, Chris Bambery nor Alex Callinicos have been cribbing from Lassalle ... or Bebel and Liebknecht, for that matter. With the SWP we have a case of historical reflex, opportunism recurring, economism spontaneously resurfacing - as it inevitably does, given the material conditions of capitalism and the oppressed position of the working class.
Anyway, Marx mocks the "hollow phrases" about "useful labour" and all members of society having an "equal right" to society's wealth. A borrowing from Lassalle, an unwarranted concession to Lassallism, he claimed. Marx also points out that there is 'useless labour'. Labour that fails to produce the intended result. Furthermore, every society needs a surplus to reinvest in production and infrastructural projects or in case of emergencies. Hence not all production can be, or should be, returned "undiminished" to the producers. As for equality, Marx states the obvious: people are not equal in their abilities. Nor in their needs. The first stage of communist society will operate according to the principle of work time done; only when it is fully developed will it inscribe on its banner these splendid words: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs." Hence in the future some will put in more than they take out and vice versa.
Nature is the primary source of wealth
However, what mainly concerns us in this article is what Marx had to say about nature. He emphasised: "Nature is just as much the source of wealth of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power." In Capital, it should be remembered, he approvingly quotes William Petty: "Labour is its father and the earth its mother."4
Marx goes on to explain in the Critique that "insofar as man from the outset behaves towards nature" - what he calls the "primary source of all instruments and objects of labour" - as an "owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labour becomes the source of use-values, therefore also of wealth". Following the same logic, but from the other direction, we can say that those who imagine that labour is the sole source of wealth are almost bound to treat nature as mere possession, there simply for human beings to dispose of as they see fit. Nature will as an inevitable consequence be wasted, used up, polluted and degraded with hardly a thought. The French satirist and dramatist, Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1615-55), called this the "insufferable arrogance of human beings". As "if nature was made solely for their benefit, as if it was conceivable that the sun had been set afire merely to ripen men's apples and head their cabbages".
And, far from "labour is the source of all wealth" being a militant anti-capitalist declaration, if anything the opposite is the case. Showing penetrating insight, Marx argues that the "bourgeoisie have very good grounds for ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour is determined by nature it follows that man who possesses no other property than his labour-power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission."5
Undoubtedly for Marx the source of wealth therefore lies in both labour and nature. It goes without saying that the two forms conjoin and co-evolve. Though nature is accorded no value by the laws of capital, commodities such as cotton, wheat and steel obviously derive from the application of labour to the products of nature. Sunshine and rain, minerals and animals, the air and seas, plants and the soil, are all nature's gifts. Without them our life on Earth would be impossible.
There is also a spiritual, or artistic, dimension. Human beings live not by bread alone. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin," wrote William Shakespeare. How true. I took an energetic afternoon walk on Hampstead Heath in between putting together this article. There just above me and running into the distance were heavy, dark, rain-filled storm clouds looming over London "¦ and all accompanied by sudden flashes of lightening and booming rolls of thunder. Marvellous. Beautiful. Inspiring. Put another way, nature has use-value. It allows us to feel more human, at one with nature, at one with ourselves and at one with others.
Wealth must include every form of consumption which produces human beings in one respect or another. Michael Lebowitz rightly considers this of particular importance: "Marx's identification of nature as a source of wealth is critical in identifying a concept of wealth that goes beyond capital's perspective."6
Capital, as we have shown, has one overriding interest - self-expansion. Capital has no intrinsic concern either for the worker or nature. Nature and the human being are nothing for capital except an object of exploitation. Especially over the last 100 years, but also increasingly, capitalist exploitation of nature has resulted in unprecedented destruction. Deforestation, the erosion of topsoil, air and water pollution, and the danger of runaway climate change are growing apace. Half the world's population has no ready access to clean drinking water. Countless species of plants and animals have been driven to extinction. Instead of cherishing the resources of nature, there is plunder. Oil is criminally wasted through the car economy, air travel booms while railway prices are hiked, nuclear power is presented as the only solution to global warming.
Marx was amongst the first to theorise human dependence on nature - the fact that humanity and nature had co-evolved. He warned, however, that a metabolic "rift" had occurred which threatened the nature-imposed conditions of human existence. Capitalism crowds vast numbers into polluted, soulless, crime-ridden concrete jungles. Simultaneously the ever bigger farms of capitalist agriculture denude nature with mono-crops, the ripping up of hedgerows and, as highlighted by Rachel Carson back in the early 1960s, the chemical death meted out to "birds, mammals, fishes and indeed practically every form of wildlife".7
It is working class power that is the only viable alternative to the destructive reproduction of capital. First as a countervailing force within capitalism that pulls against the logic of capital. The political economy of the working class brings with it not only higher wages and shorter hours. It brings health services, social security systems, pensions, universal primary and secondary education "¦ and measures that protect the environment. Human need thereby confronts the law of value. Wealth for the working class is manifestly not merely about the accumulation and consumption of an ever greater range of commodities. It is fundamentally about the quality of life.
As well as being of capitalism, the working class is uniquely opposed to capitalism. The political economy of the working class more than challenges capital. It points beyond, to the total reorganisation of society and, with that, to the ending of humanity's crisis-ridden relationship with nature.
Socialism and communism do not raise the workers to the position where they own planet Earth. Repeating the insufferable arrogance associated with capitalism - as witnessed under bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union - that brings ecological degradation "¦ and the certain revenge of nature. Humanity can only be the custodian.
Marxism recognises the necessity of sustainable development and preserving nature for the sake of future generations. The Marx-Engels team wanted to re-establish an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and rationally redistribute the population. Mega-cities are profoundly alienating and inhuman. Urban centres should be smaller, full of trees, parks, public gardens and little farms. As argued by John Bellamy Foster, this programme has "very little practical relevance to capitalist society", because of its short-termism and commitment to generating profits.8 But under conditions of socialism and communism such necessary and far-ranging measures are fully realisable.
Of course, the great rain forests of Congo, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia and Brazil must be protected. So must the much depleted life in the oceans and seas. But more can be done. Communism would restore and where possible enhance the riches of nature.
Human activity - when it progresses spontaneously and not according to a conscious plan - leaves deserts in its wake. Mesopotamia - now dry and dusty - can be remade into the lush habitat it was in pre-Sumerian times. The Sahara in Africa and Rajputana in India were once home to a wonderful variety of fauna and flora. The parched interior of Australia too. With sufficient resources and careful management they can all be greened once again.
The aim of such projects would not be to maximise output and churn out more and more units of production. Not the Marxist version of abundance. On the contrary the communist economy has every reason to rationally economise and minimise all necessary inputs. The "enormous waste" under capitalist social conditions outraged Marx. The by-products of industry, agriculture and human consumption are squandered and lead to pollution of the air and the contamination of rivers. Capital volume three contains a section entitled 'Utilisation of the extractions of production' and here Marx shows his commitment to the scientific "reduction" and "re-employment" of waste.9
In place of capitalism's accumulation of money for the sake of money and Stalin's soulless cult of tons of steel, coal and cement, there comes with communism the human being who is rich in human needs. These needs cannot be satisfied by the mere supply of things; they are primarily satisfied through the rounded development of each individual, the full working out of innate capabilities and acquired potentialities. At the heart of the Marxist project is therefore a readjusted fully human relationship amongst human beings, as well as between human beings and nature.