I found Simon Wells’ review of Gregor Gall’s book, An agency of their own: sex worker union organising, very interesting (‘Solidarity, morality and sex’, July 12).
The policy of the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan towards prostitution was a train crash waiting to happen. That train crash has set back the cause of socialism in Scotland by decades. Why did the SSP approve such a reactionary policy of outright hostility to prostitution? I can only conclude that it was a direct result of the bourgeois morality inculcated by the leaders of Militant. The Militant and its successors, embodied in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and its offshoot, Socialist Appeal, are centrists at best and left social democrats at worst. As such, they reflect bourgeois moral attitudes towards sex.
Most people have no idea of the reality of prostitution. As Simon Wells explains, the idea that clients exploit prostitutes is just so much hogwash. A client no more exploits a prostitute than a man exploits a mechanic when he needs his car fixed.
Prostitution in the UK should be decriminalised. However, as Simon Wells points out, state registration of prostitutes and legalisation should be opposed. Legalisation would lead to companies owning chains of brothels and the listing of such companies on the stock market, as happens in Australia.
Finally, sex workers should be supported by all communists. In a capitalist society, it gives sex workers an element of financial independence both from men and the bourgeois family.
The US International Socialist Organization conference took place in Chicago from June 28 to July 1. There were about 1,300 participants (although the membership stands at around 800, I believe), with a fair racial mix, and on the whole very young. There was a fair geographical spread, with a sprinkling of Canadians, including Ian Angus of the Socialist History Project, John Riddell and Paul Kellogg. Among others I spoke to was Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party. There was a very large and excellent bookshop run by Haymarket Press, at least as big as Bookmarks at Marxism, I would have thought.
Sessions included Neil Davidson on ‘How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?’; John Riddell on ‘Towards the united front’; Paul Kellogg on ‘Explaining the tragedy of Germany’s 1921 March action’; and Mostafa Ali on ‘The Egyptian revolution: which way forward?’ In all cases there was plenty of time for discussion.
While Ahmed Shawki’s talk on the history of the ISO was excellent, he said little on events after about 2001 and rather evaded the sharpness of the ‘split’. He was challenged from the floor by Sharon Smith, who quite truthfully said it was not a split at all - the ISO had been brutally expelled from the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency. (In retrospect this was clearly the best thing that could have happened to them, although they now maintain comradely relations with the SWP.)
On this early period he quoted a note by Chris Harman in the early 80s, which was extremely pessimistic about their chances. They were still very small at the beginning of the 1990s, but after a period of growth they began publishing their own International Socialist Review in the summer of 1997 - against the advice of the SWP, clearly a sign of growing independence.
Shawki emphasised internal democracy and the necessity of discussions and disagreements in public - before the membership and everyone else. Talking with a few old-timers, I was told that this openness was quite new: they would not have dreamt of joining the ISO before 2004, when its internal regime started to become much more attractive. Others I spoke to said that the ISO is less and less defined by the theology of state capitalism - they had to contain both state-capitalist and bureaucratic-collectivist theologians, while also trying to attract those from the American SWP tradition who subscribe to the theory of the degenerated workers’ state.
It turns out that the ISO took opposite sides when the Greek section of the IST split in early 2001 just before the ISO break with the SWP. I think in fact these disagreements within the Greek group were growing for some time before that. When talking to Callinicos I objected that at no point in the documents which were whirling about on the web at the time was this mentioned. Alex did not demur. It was the first I had heard that disagreements in the Greek section had helped provoked the split in the IST - the main argument concerned the failure of the ISO to buy into the nonsense of the ‘1930s in slow motion’ and throw everything into the Seattle protests.
I was impressed by the ISO, particularly their openness and development of a democratic culture. I think they compare rather favourably with the British SWP.
Mike Macnair argues that the orthodox definition of sectarianism - ‘putting the interests of one’s own organisation before those of the working class as a whole’ - is inaccurate and amounts to no more than an “empty insult”. Instead he offers an alternative: ‘the rejection of united organisation and common action where it is possible on the basis of partial common ground’ (Letters, July 12).
Mike writes of the orthodox definition: “The problem is that we disagree among ourselves as to what the objective interests of the proletariat are.” He gives the example of the Spartacist League, which claims that those objective interests demand a Spartacist-type “Bolshevik-Leninist” international party. Everyone might disagree with them, but who is to say that we are right and they are wrong?
On that basis you could call into question just about any definition. For example, if we define opportunism as, say, ‘engaging in unprincipled action for short-term gain’, then that too runs into the same “problem”: the opportunists simply deny that their actions are unprincipled or designed to achieve short-term gain. So to charge someone with opportunism, to use Mike’s words, “means no more than to say you disagree with them” about what constitutes a principle or whether a course of action is likely to result in a short-term gain.
Personally I think it is perfectly possible to identify an unprincipled action, just as it is possible to identify the objective interests of the proletariat. It is also possible to state with certainty that most of the left does indeed put the interests of their own organisation before those of the working class as a whole. Mike and I both agree that the existence of rival anti-cuts campaigns results from the sectarianism of the sponsoring leftwing groups, but surely he must also agree that their ‘rejection of united organisation and common action’ results directly from their putting the interests of the part before those of the whole. Why else are they refusing to unite?
This gets us to the nub of the matter. Mike’s alternative “rough formulation” describes the symptom, not the cause. It is also unsatisfactory in other ways. For example, where is the dividing line between ‘partial common ground’ and overall disagreement? Is it not possible in some circumstances for there to be sound reasons for rejecting ‘united organisation and common action’ despite ‘partial common ground’? Am I a sectarian if I reject ‘united organisation and common action’ with the Sparts by refusing to join the International Communist League?
Finally, Mike states that his definition is in line with what Marx originally meant and so we should stick to the original. He very much regrets the “broader meaning” lent to ‘sectarianism’ by “modern usage”.
This reminds me of a school teacher of mine who used to insist that the word ‘hopefully’ could be employed only in the sense of ‘full of hope’ (as in ‘I waited hopefully for a positive response’), and never in the sense of ‘It is to be hoped that …’ (as in ‘Hopefully I will see you tomorrow’). The latter was incorrect English and totally unacceptable, he contended. But since then millions of individual usages have proved him wrong.
The point is that language is constantly evolving and it is futile to attempt to persuade large numbers of people that they must revert to the ‘correct’, former use of a word or phrase. It is, after all, constant employment in a particular context that makes it ‘correct’. If we fail to accept “modern usage” then we will find communication very difficult indeed.
Its a gas
In his rejoinder to Arthur Bough, I think Tony Clark makes some good points - about fusion for sure, but also in exposing the sort of technological determinism that Arthur tends to engage in (Letters, July 12).
The missing point from Arthur, and in Tony’s reply, is why coal replaced wood, why oil replaced coal and why gasoline replaced oil in transportation. It was not only cheap. It was not only abundant. It was also energy-dense. It is the density of energy per unit of weight that gives each subsequent form of energy generation its advantage, along with its abundance and relative cheapness. Each step in the advancement of human development was accompanied by better and more efficient uses of cheap and abundant energy forms, as well as experiments in, and deployment of, denser forms of energy.
Arthur Bough is correct to note his point about wood. But it was not just wood; it was wood in its densest form, as charcoal, that really made the difference in things like steel making.
Tony is correct to challenge Arthur, however, on this determinism - the ‘faith’ that technology can somehow get us out of the environmental and economic hole we’re in, assuming the mode of production even allows us to do this. If the technology existed, then yes. But, no matter what we do, there are limits to the physics and ability of our species to ‘invent our way out of’ any particular crisis. But those limits have to be explored. Isaac Asimov once noted that new and advanced discoveries were rarely proclaimed with a ‘Eureka!’, but more often result from ‘That’s funny!’, accompanied by experimentation. We will, I suspect, be surprised by what our species can accomplish. Arthur is no doubt fatalistic in a positive way about this. I’m not. It’s a 50-50 shot that this will occur. But I like Arthur’s optimism, as opposed to Tony’s rather gloomy outlook.
Peak oil folks tend to view reserves as a static concept. But it’s amazing how much more oil becomes available at $100/bbl versus $60/bbl. Imagine what it is at $150/bbl. That’s capitalist economics and it’s quite real. There are hundreds of billions of barrels or, shall I say, decades of oil available in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and in the Orinoco, Venezuela. Decades and decades at current consumption rates and at current oil prices. So ‘peak oil’ viewed at this level becomes quite dynamic. The question then becomes: do we want to pay the social and environmental costs of extracting especially dirty oil?
By the way, peak oil’s younger brother, peak gas, is something that almost doesn’t exist any more, as there is no way to determine just how much gas is available now, with slant drilling, redrilling and fracking.
On density: we can use nuclear energy, safer generation-three and generation-four reactors that will run for 80 years each, produce their own fuel and eat the fuel from previous older nuclear plants. We have centuries of potential energy growth based on nuclear alone. Because it’s denser in terms of energy per unit of weight, it’s ultimately more expandable and cheaper - yes, cheaper - than any other form of energy around. Marxists had better wake up to this fact of physics.
Utilising it in a way that is safer depends in part on moving away from the capitalist mode of production to a socialist one.
Its a gas
Its a gas
How is a debate on decline relevant to socialist politics? Arthur Bough and I share a belief that socialists need an understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalism if they are to change it. We both make a distinction between an ideological and a scientific understanding. The fact we differ so much on the nature of that science is an indication of the importance of a common struggle for a rational alternative to capitalism.
Bough’s science conforms to the inductive method. It relies on generalisations from observable facts or data. These consist of growth and trade statistics. He infers from these that there is a massive growth of productive investment underway (Letters, May 24). In reply, I have denied that growth rates measure the vitality of capitalism (Letters, June 7). The accumulation of capital does not correspond to GDP rates. As far as I know, there is no statistical evidence that can distinguish between growth rates and capital accumulation. Bough cannot use them as proof of an accumulation of productive capital without criticism.
I contend that growth rates do not distinguish between prices and value and show nothing of growth in productivity or in job creation. They are therefore useless in deciding whether there has been an accumulation of productive or unproductive capital. The growth of goods and services from the 1990s to the crash in 2008 could have been as much in the financial sector as in manufacturing. I quoted figures that support the reality of a vast expansion of financial investment during the pre-crash period. Bough has ignored both these figures and my criticisms of his use of statistics. He seems to be unaware that rapid growth can be an expression of decline. An example Hillel Ticktin likes to use is that of the sun’s vast expansion into a red giant before its extinction.
Bough thinks recent growth and trade statistics correspond to the Soviet economist Kondratiev’s prediction of an ascending upward trend once every 50 years. Bough agrees with Kondratiev that it is technological change (such as the invention of computers) that triggered this wave. Technological determinism also colours his concept of decline. He argues that if capitalism were unable to develop the productive forces then he might consider the system to be in decline.
For Bough, ‘decline’ would only make sense if research into science and technology ceased and the tendency towards greater automation reversed. In other words, it would mean an absolute collapse of the system leading to mass impoverishment. Clearly this is not happening and will not happen in the foreseeable future. Here Bough adopts a Stalinist understanding of decline. Thus he is more optimistic about the future of capitalism than most bourgeois commentators today and thinks that financial crises can occur with no harmful effects on industry or employment.
Bough is wrong to think that Trotsky supported Kondratiev’s theory of long waves. Trotsky agreed with Lenin and the other Bolsheviks that capitalism was in decline. Lenin linked the idea of decline with finance capital, the rise of monopolies and imperialism. He argued there had been a fusion of finance capital with industrial capital. He took the idea that finance capital had become the dominant partner of the two from Hilferding.
Trotsky argued that the October revolution had compounded the tendency towards decline. As a result, he linked long waves to turning points in the class struggle, such as revolutions and defeats caused by wars. Trotsky’s theory incorporated the idea that downturns would last increasingly longer periods of time. He thought the ruling class would become less capable of resolving the system’s contradictions. Ticktin follows Trotsky and contends that the bourgeoisie turned to finance capital in order to raise surplus value. However, money cannot create money and the shift from industry led to a decline of productive capital. It follows that the boom of the 1990s and early 2000s can be understood as a short-term cyclical upturn within a long-term downward trend. This is the opposite of Bough’s use of Kondratiev.
Finally, do our different theoretical positions have any political consequences? If capitalism is in decline, then greater socialisation and politicisation of the economy will be an observable tendency. I have cited the dependency of Chinese accumulation on Stalinist bureaucratic and political controls over workers as an example of this.
Attempts to organise capitalism outwith the value form - and Bough’s quotation of Engels (Letters, June 21) is compatible with this position: ie, that workers remain alienated even when their labour-power creates no value or surplus value - have led both to an increased sense of solidarity between workers from below and forms of proto- or pseudo-planning from above. Workers are therefore more powerful. Their objective potential to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratically planned society from below is more evident. The barriers to class-consciousness are - I have argued in this newspaper - increasingly subjective. The immediate task is therefore to bring into being a Marxist party that can help workers supersede these barriers - the greatest of which remains the Stalinised culture of the organised left.
However, if Bough is correct and capitalism is vital, healthy and in the ascendant, the economic barriers to a democratically planned alternative from below pose insuperable limits. If capital is developing the productive powers of human labour to new heights, the idea of a globally planned society will not attract workers. Until capitalism collapses - and I agree with Bough this is unlikely - the best workers can do is to form and run cooperatives. This is an alternative that ameliorates some of the effects of capitalist exploitation. An alliance is therefore needed to build a cooperative alternative to capitalism. Bough’s natural allies are anarchists and religious and liberal humanists - all of whom promote cooperatives. A Marxist party would almost certainly criticise and try to win over people from this perspective.
Several writers in the Weekly Worker have emphasised that a revolution in Greece would probably not trigger revolution from workers in other European countries, but would probably lead Greece to economic disaster.
But for the Greek working class the worst has already happened. Even if the pessimistic writers are correct, Greek workers have nothing to lose. A workers’ takeover might very well lead to a situation like Cuba, which has been boycotted and isolated from the capitalist world market. But the Cuban people somehow continue to survive.
There never will be a perfect situation where the working class in many countries simultaneously takes power. I believe waiting for the ‘perfect situation’ is to oppose a workers’ revolution in Greece.
Former Respect Party national treasurer Will McMahon and myself have been elected to represent independent socialists on the national steering committee of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - its main decision-making body between conferences.
It really is an honour to have been elected. The Tusc steering committee has representation from three political organisations - the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and independent socialists through the Tusc Independent Socialist Network, an organisation set up to give independents like ourselves a voice. The steering committee also includes leading individual members of trade unions, including rail union RMT, civil service union PCS and the Fire Brigades Union.
I feel it is particularly significant that, for the first time in over 30 years of socialist activity, a leftwing organisation has deliberately included direct representation on its leading body from independent socialists. Independents are more than happy to work alongside left parties like the SWP and SP, but we do think we have something different to offer.
With the recent conference decision by the RMT to fully back Tusc as a positive step towards providing political representation for workers, this is an exciting time to be very much a part of building Tusc, and we both look forward to any part we can play in influencing that development.
There are welcome yet disturbing developments in relation to Syriza that Paul Demarty should consider (‘The appeal of Syriza’, July 12).
Someone in Greece commented on the Guardian ‘Comment is free’ website: “The emphasis was … on how to best support the vulnerable members of the community when the new austerity measures go through. Both on a local and national level. ‘Hamas’-style if you wish. I am in the committee for schools and we decided to use Syriza funds to set up a bakery on site to ensure the children get something to eat in the mornings. We are also pushing ahead with a scheme to provide free medical access for the under-12s at school (our hospital has closed and the private doctors no longer take national insurance patients)” (July 10).
The welcome news is that of mutual aid, etc as an alternative to mass actionism and naive electoralism. The bad news is the political illiteracy of the Greek left by calling this “Hamas-style”. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc are merely copying the pre-World War I Social Democratic Party of Germany model.
A ‘workers’ government’ coming to power in Greece should take on the lessons of Argentina, Iceland, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador all rolled into one. The first two countries implemented post-Keynesian monetary and labour measures, plus Argentina defaulted to screw the IMF. Venezuela’s cooperative, social, and co-management measures, and also its drive for energy and general economic sovereignty, is welcome. Bolivia is more focused on agriculture, while Ecuador shows how to deal with neoliberal media barons from the get-go.
I submitted an article to last week’s edition on the National Union of Mineworkers conference and current very bitter internal arguments and faction fights within the union. In a period of such bitterness and quite scandalous mud-slinging it was quite important to give an objective report of the facts as well as my own political take on them.
Unfortunately this didn’t happen, mainly because there was no room for the article and the editor decided to cut it and transform it into letter format (July 12), in the process of which some gross inaccuracies now appear under my name.
In particular, in paragraph four, talking about the cuts in terms and conditions demanded by UK Coal at its three mines, the ‘letter’ says: “The terms of these reductions had been rejected by the national negotiating committee, but Chris Kitchen argued that the company was not in a position to stay afloat without concessions from the miners …”
This clearly gives the impression that Chris Kitchen, the area general secretary and national secretary, drove through acceptance of the cuts against the wishes of the national negotiating committee. What I actually said was that the national negotiating committee (which also included Chris Kitchen) had rejected the first two sets of demands made by the company, which were also rejected by the members - the first time by almost 100%, the second time by a majority in single figures. By the time of the third version, Chris Kitchen and the committee all accepted this was as good as they were going to get. This is what I said: “However, the NEC negotiating committee comprising the sitting area secretary and area agent Chris Kitchen accepted that the company was genuinely not in a position to stay afloat without concessions from the miners on their terms and conditions. They agreed a joint Acas-brokered agreement effective from November 23 this year.” There was a strong recommendation to the members from all of them to accept and they overwhelmingly voted in favour. Chris was no more or less guilty than the whole committee and I have no knowledge that he drove through acceptance and never suggested he did.
The other false impression is that Chris and the committee recommended acceptance of cuts in agreed safety measures. Considering that Chris is a former Kellingley miner, and Kellingley has the worst safety record of any British working deep mine, with a one in 600 chance per annum of dying, this is a serious misrepresentation. This is what I said: “Withdrawal of all area and local agreements on wet working, carrying mine safety lamps, working in excessive heat, carrying explosives, chargemen’s allowances, craftsmen’s report money and night shift allowance.”
The only reference to ‘safety’ here is to the carrying of the traditional miners’ (Davy) lamp. The right to carry the lamp and to inspect your own workplace, and to take measures directly resulting from that inspection without anyone’s else’s permission is a statutory right and is no way affected by withdrawal of the few shillings paid per day for carrying it. No-one carries the lamp because of a less than £5 per week payment and no-one will stop carrying it because of the withdrawal of what was traditionally a recognition fee for the miners’ responsible attitude. The withdrawal of this money is outrageous, by the way, but I’m not implying Chris and the committee were recommending cuts in actual safety practices.
The deal is a shocking one. For miners at the pits to reject it would mean two big decisions: first, risk bringing down the last large employer of underground miners in Britain; and, second, be prepared to take powerful strike action regardless. I think there was perhaps a better deal to get on union rights and on the job freedoms. I think also some of the cuts are just about macho management and they could have been resisted. Perhaps this is isn’t the best time to push for improvements, but I would have certainly recommended action to defend the terms we already held. So I would have fought against this deal too, and campaigned against it.
I don’t, however, think this is anything personal against Chris Kitchen, who has worked his bollocks off trying to pull the union into a more democratic structure and get the tram back on the road after Arthur Scargill led it up several obscure garden paths.
The full article will appear on the miners’ website, www.minersadvice.co.uk.
Not my words
Your report about my talk at the July 8 fringe meeting is very inaccurate (‘Fringe 2012’, July 12). Let me point out just two of the many errors in that report.
I am quoted as saying: “… the forecasted Palestinian revolution has become ... an ‘unreal possibility’.” I said no such thing. What I did say was that the Arab spring has shown that the Arab revolution is a real potentiality. (More generally, the report makes my talk sound considerably more pessimistic than it was.)
I am also quoted as referring to Zionist “anti-colonial struggle against the British mandate in Palestine”. This may have been said by another speaker, at another meeting, on another planet; but not by me.
Not my words
Not my words