I enjoyed Ben Lewis’s report of the climate change demonstration, which I attended, but I must take issue with a couple of the immediate demands proposed by the comrade (‘Blue wave needs red vision’, December 10).
These are ‘No to nuclear power’ and ‘No to biofuels’, because blanket opposition to technology plays into the hands of the petty bourgeois moralism which Lewis correctly identifies as the dominant politics of the environmental movement. As Marxists we are always for the advancement of science, which at present is used for the purposes of capital, but could in the future be used to benefit humanity as a whole.
We would be unwise to side with reactionary ‘deep greens’ and others who oppose nuclear because it is ‘dirty’ or ‘unnatural’. Of course, there is hardly any human industry which could not be labelled with those words, but Marxists are not idealists: we are materialists; and any technology must be assessed on its empirical benefits and drawbacks. These facts must be separated from the capitalist’s use of technology, which pays little attention to consequences for human health and the environment.
Even taking into consideration the cost-cutting spur of the profit motive, existing nuclear reactors have performed safely for decades, producing huge amounts of energy from a small amount of uranium fuel (yes, there was Chernobyl - but it took the monstrously bureaucratic USSR to create such a disaster). The waste produced, which remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years, is a problem, but not one beyond the bounds of human ingenuity. Jettisoning it into space would not be a difficult feat technologically, but there is simply no motivation for the capitalists to do so.
Nuclear fission based on uranium has its drawbacks, but blanket opposition to nuclear power also writes off other promising technologies like thorium fission and nuclear fusion. The latter is the reaction which powers the sun and could yield limitless, clean energy from a small amount of water fuel.
In the case of biofuels, the scientific case is clearer cut: growing crops to create fuel is hugely inefficient, uses vast tracts of land, and appears to have been pursued only because of state subsidies for ‘green’ technologies (though it turned out that growing fuel in this way does little to reduce CO2 emissions). Nevertheless it is not the technology that we should oppose, but the capitalists’ use of it - to prop up the system at the expense of the imperialised countries, and as an ideological weapon in the battle to appear green.
Communists should definitely engage with the ‘green’ movement and we have powerful arguments to bring to bear, but we should be wary of picking demands for the sake of agreement with other forces. Marxists oppose the destruction of the environment not because we believe humans have a transcendental responsibility for the planet, but because the majority of people, given a choice, would surely desire the presence of nature, for their own very human enjoyment.
Arthur Bough is correct to remind readers that Marx does not argue that “capitalism drives down wages and living standards absolutely” (Letters, December 10). He rightly targets Stalinism for the notion that workers’ standard of living could only go down in capitalism and that there is a tendency for the spending power of wages to decline over time.
However, he also argues that the idea of a declining capitalism is unMarxist and undialectical. It is a form of Lassalle’s doctrine of the ‘iron law of wages’. By doing so, he confuses the concept of decline with Marx’s law of the accumulation of misery and suggests misleadingly that Trotsky disagreed with Lenin on the relationship between imperialism and decline. This leads him to state that “capitalism … is in a period of rapid advance”, implying that the system is in a healthy, mature state and will decline at some unknown point in the future.
It is true that Soviet economists falsely associated decline with terminal crisis and absolute collapse. Arthur Bough rejects the concept because of this. If capitalism is not in terminal crisis and if it is not facing absolute collapse - which it isn’t - then, he reasons, capitalism is not in decline and must be stronger then ever.
On the contrary, the concept of a decline of a mode of production is at the centre of Marx’s dialectical method. Marx assumed that every entity has a birth, a maturation, decline and death. This includes class societies based on slavery, serfdom and wage-slavery. A declining mode of production coexists with forms transitional to the new form of production. Thus the transformation of rent into money and the commodification of land were transitional forms that preceded capitalism and were features of a declining feudalism.
Decline implies that the laws determining social relations within a mode of production do not function as efficiently as they once did. New contradictory forms of establishing stability, such as finance capital and imperialism, have emerged out of previous crises. Within a mature capitalism, stability is safeguarded by commodity fetishism and the industrial reserve army of labour. Force and the use of nationalism, sexism, racism and religion are not capital’s preferred methods of control.
However, competition and the class struggle have resulted in forms that inhibit rather than advance the free operation of the law of value. These increase tendencies toward crisis and generate further attempts to stabilise the system. They have included a parasitic form of finance capital that extracts surplus value forcibly from labour-power in the developing world and destroys industrial manufacture in the developed world.
Decline is therefore decline of the law of value. On the side of exchange-value, finance capital tries to escape investment in industrial production. On the side of use-value, there is growth of bureaucracy and an extension of unproductive spheres of production, funded by state revenue. Underlying this there is a decline in abstract labour. The reduction of all forms of work to socially necessary labour time becomes more limited. Bureaucracy has arisen alongside more attempts to organise capitalism with non-market forms. Bureaucracy generates its own set of contradictions, such as pseudo-markets based on imaginary profits, combined with use-value-oriented targets.
Arthur Bough uses the evidence that “capital used Keynesian methods” in the United States in the 1930s and “during the post-war boom” in order to discredit the left’s “economic catastrophism”. He blames this on the idea of decline. However, the evidence can be used just as plausibly to argue the opposite position. A greater socialisation of labour, bureaucracy and the expansion of arms manufacture during the cold war, plus the existence of a non-market sector in a part of the world where capitalism had been overthrown, were all aspects of attempts to organise and ‘plan’ the global economy. They were therefore consistent with a decline in the operation of the law of value.
Arthur Bough does not distinguish between the ideas of decay and decline. On the other hand, he refers to deindustrialisation and cheap, imported labour as making the lives of workers “very uncomfortable” for the next 15-20 years. He might also have mentioned an increasing reliance on harmful forms of use-value such as alcohol, drugs and prostitution; the extent of ethnic cleansing and genocide caused by nationalism; the waste of mass unemployment; the increasing use of unfree forms of production and consumption; and the profits made from weapons of mass destruction - these are aspects of decay caused by decline. These symptoms were present in embryo within a mature capitalism, but inessential to its efficient functioning. They are now ineradicable aspects of capitalism in decline. They also provide confirmation of Marx’s law of the accumulation of misery.
The ideas in this letter are influenced by a reading of some of Hillel Ticktin’s writings. Readers sceptical of them might like to study Ticktin for themselves. I would recommend his articles in Critique and in this paper, in particular his article ‘Declining capitalism’ (March 31 2005). They will find out that - contrary to Arthur Bough’s assertion - the notion that capitalism is in long-term decline has absolutely nothing to do with Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’.
Having naively considered myself for many years to have been a Marxist, imagine my surprise to wake up one morning to find I was a Lassallean!
Such is the charge levelled at me by Arthur Bough in a somewhat strange way (Letters, January 12). Comrade Bough argues that a call in one of my articles (‘In another world’, December 10) for the nationalisation of the banks - not just as a minimum demand, but an immediate demand that we make, for whatever reason, of the existing regime rather than as a task for a communist government - is the type of thing Marx lambasted the Eisenachers for signing up to in the 1875 Gotha programme of the German social democrats.
He links the immediate demand for the nationalisation of the banks to the trade-mark Lassallean fetish of state aid. He also repeats the criticism of Marx that the Eisenachers hid their “shame” behind the accessory clause, ‘under the control of the masses’.
In some ways, comrade Bough’s criticism is justified, as I was not sufficiently clear in the original article. Still, his criticism involves a couple of elementary confusions, which if applied across the board would barely allow us to act in the world at all.
The principal confusion is between the two types of demand above. To make an immediate demand for the nationalisation of the banks is to say that this is an objective need for the vast masses of society; the banks cannot keep us afloat whether under the control of private or state bureaucrats; if the state does not hand us this on a silver plate, we should take it. It is an agitational and propagandistic statement about what needs to be done rather than what can be done.
Comrade Bough argues that, since the working class is in no position to force this on the state, and the state is not inclined to give it away, the demand is addressed to no-one and is pointless. But surely this goes for almost any demand. Comrade Bough has had endless run-ins with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty over their scab line on Iraq. But if we couldn’t stop the war with two million people, what chance is there of imposing our timetable for withdrawal? The AWL actually use variants of this argument to defend their line (when they’re desperate): the question of troop withdrawal is a question for the Americans and the Islamists, in which the working class has neither any stake nor any traction. It is their problem and not our business to raise ‘abstract’ demands for troop withdrawal.
To put the call for nationalisation in the minimum programme does no more than demand that the rest of the programme substantiate it. Our programme is one of radical democracy, to transform the state apparatus entirely. The Gotha programme includes a slate of democratic demands, but also a full paragraph on cooperative societies as nuclei of the future socialist society, demanding they be propped up by state aid. This, in the end, is a contradiction - it embodies two incompatible strategies for power: through state aid and through transforming the state.
We are simply not doing the same thing - the nationalisation of the banks can be under mass, democratic control if all of society is under mass, democratic control, surely?
Comrade KRV Hari displays a philistine contempt for our ancient ancestors, which is common amongst those on the left who think technology is the true measure of man and progress (Letters, January 7).
In reality tribal people got to Australia a mere 50,000 years before captain Cook and Columbus found that tribal peoples had not only discovered America, but successfully occupied every possible ecological niche. Even as late as the 19th century European explorers in Australia and the Arctic were failing to master those environments till they learnt lessons from the locals. The comrade underestimates the technology of tribal people and grossly overestimates the innovativeness of class society.
A farmer transported from the Bronze Age to medieval India would have found one man, one cow and one wooden plough, scraping a precarious existence from a tiny plot of land. For ordinary people there was not that much technological change over thousands of years. In fact the majority of such change has occurred under capitalism and especially in our own lifetime.
Class society in fact puts limits on technological development when it starts to threaten ruling class interests. For instance, the ancient Greeks invented the steam engine, but why develop it when slaves do all the work? At this very moment our own ruling class is refusing point blank to apply already existing technology on a sufficient scale to solve the problem of global warming, even though they acknowledge that the problem may destroy their civilisation. All because it requires actions that undermine their class control.
As for the stone axe, it predates Homo sapiens by a considerable time and chimpanzees use sticks and stones in fights between groups. But who defines chimpanzees by their methods of warfare? The environment decides how many chimps can live in a given area and the only real solution is to move on.
Comrade Hari defines society as being based principally on the control and use of brute force. Rather like Eugen Dühring. In fact, while hunter-gatherers do have disputes between groups which on occasion are resolved by violence, they do not have specialist armies or military technology. In the Stone Age the world was vast and the population tiny. Why fight when you can move on?
More fundamentally class society is not about resolving conflicts between tribes, but about the ability of a minority group to exploit the majority by means or threats of violence. This is the precise problem that ancient hominids had to solve in order to evolve into human beings. They had to find a way of incorporating the alpha male into society as an equal member or face extinction. This they did neither through tool use nor by eliminating the alpha males with weapons. Instead they used sex, symbolism, language, art, negotiation and ritual to produce a democratic society of equals.
Socialists do not reject technology or on occasion the use of violence, but if you want a democratic society of equals the answer lies in the culture of the majority. That is, the working class.
This week’s conviction of five Muslim men who protested at a homecoming parade by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009 is a dangerous infringement of free speech and the right to protest. The five defendants were convicted under the Public Order Act of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms. I want to defend these values. If we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them.
Judge Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. There is no right to not be offended, since almost any idea can be offensive to someone. Many of the greatest thinkers in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.
The five convicted Islamists would like to censor us and put us on trial. We should not stoop to their level of intolerance. Democracy is superior to their proposed theocratic state and we need to prove it by demonstrating that we allow objectionable opinions and contest them by debate, not by repression and censorship.
Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds in a democratic society to criminalise words and actions. The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile or inciting murder.
Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed. Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe, Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these Islamic fundamentalists to make their views heard, providing they don’t incite violence.
The best way to respond to such fanatics is to expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions. Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them.