It’s easy to get nostalgic for the 1980s these days. At least things happened then. Bitter and desperate the struggles may have been, the Miners’ Strike and the Anti-Poll Tax. But at least there was something going on, something to get involved in. By comparison the Major government has been a period of terminal boredom. The conflict of Thatcherism has been defused by blandness and grey. Presumably this will be seen as Major’s principal contribution to the ruling class. Since Thatcher’s fall, expecting the pendulum of politics to be swinging in our direction, from reaction to progression, I’ve continually scanned the horizon for signs of energy and hope, but with little success.
But there are things stirring out there. I subscribe to an occasional left wing magazine called Between the Lines. Published in London and sold around gigs and parties, its politics are an open-minded, pro-working class, socialist with a revolutionary instinct, and its style is humorous and accessible. A recent issue carried a review of a magazine called Bypass, which claims to be the ‘The Direct Line to the World of the Zines’. Bypass, produced in Brighton, reviews and catalogues the underground press. Emerging from the phenomenon of fanzines that accompanied the punk explosion of 1976-78, underground publishing witnessed the flowering of football fanzines with supporters producing magazines at nearly every league club. Since then, new subject matters have prompted home publication — sex, UFOs, squatting, drugs and, of course, politics. Bypass reviews nearly 500 publications on every conceivable flavour. Humour and graphics appear to be a strong, common theme. Comic formats, poetry, fiction, philosophy and fact — it’s all here. The phenomenon is international with Japan, the USA and Europe all producing stuff. For most of the material, you just send off a stamped addressed envelope and perhaps a pound coin taped to a piece of cardboard.
The appeal of the zine explosion is the idea that things are stirring at the bottom of society and that the people producing the zines are not seeking richness or fame, but are expressing themselves to each other. We need more confidence and energy at the bottom levels — among the masses. We don’t need just one revolutionary organ under tight editorial control. We need a profusion of ideas and creativity from below. Perhaps the day will dawn when it’s more glamorous and exciting to be a working class activist producing a zine than to be a famous person on television.
Between the Lines: 50p + SAE to Box 32, 136 Kingsland High Street, London E8; Bypass: £1-50 for one issue, £4 for three issues (cheques to ‘Slab-O-Concrete’), Bypass, PO Box 148, Hove BN3 3DQ.
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It’s easy to get nostalgic for the 1980s these days. At least things happened then. Bitter and desperate the struggles may have been, the Miners’ Strike and the Anti-Poll Tax. But at least there was something going on, something to get involved in. By comparison the Major government has been a period of terminal boredom. The conflict of Thatcherism has been defused by blandness and grey. Presumably this will be seen as Major’s principal contribution to the ruling class. Since Thatcher’s fall, expecting the pendulum of politics to be swinging in our direction, from reaction to progression, I’ve continually scanned the horizon for signs of energy and hope, but with little success.
I. The Distribution of Casualties by Social Class within the Armed Services
How far the upper classes among the fighting men suffer relative to those beneath them in war depends on two factors: the differential casualty rates of officers as opposed to other ranks, and the degree to which such officers come from the upper classes. Changes in either of these will have social and political effects. This has some importance for Marxists, as the degree to which the upper classes have a higher chance of dying in conflicts as opposed to the lower orders may effect their enthusiasm for war and whether they remain enthusiastic for longer than the hoi-poloi. It is also important that the bourgeoisie controls the armed forces which have to act, if not in their name, in their interests. This little essay is an attempt to throw some light on this matter which has been obscured, on the one hand, by the belief of the left that the poor always suffer most, and, on the other, the opinion of the British upper classes that their losses were disproportionately high in two world wars. Furthermore, statistics are not collected to provide details of the class origin of casualties, and some rough guesswork has to be done.1
There is no doubt that in the gunpowder age from about 1650 to 1900, the casualties of the rank and file in land forces were always much greater proportionately than among the officers. This was because the overwhelming proportion of such casualties were ‘non-battle’ ones, largely from disease, so that the superior food and living conditions of the officers, particularly while on campaign, meant that they fell ill less often, and, if they did fall ill, they were far more likely to be nursed back to health or sent home. In battle itself infantry and cavalry officers tended to suffer rather more than their men, and medical aid, however costly, was often as deadly as neglect, but even so their losses were not too disproportionate, because, as weapon accuracy was poor, deaths were distributed fairly randomly among those present on the ‘field of honour’. It was a matter of some comment that battles in the American War of Independence and in the American war of 1812 against frontiersmen who were good marksmen with muzzle loading rifles, led to heavier officer casualties in the British army.2
A few statistics are of interest here, always remembering that before the middle of the eighteenth century disease was even more deadly, and armies swiftly wasted away during European campaigns, even when there was no fighting to speak of. The most disastrous campaign ever recorded in terms of casualties for the British army was that in the West Indies during 1793-99 when perhaps 75 000 men died of disease, comprising the vast majority who had been sent out, and including most of the officers.3 In the Crimean War about 25 000 British lives were lost, but fewer than 4000 were killed or died of wounds. The hospital at Scutari over which Florence Nightingale presided was full of sick — not wounded. Even in the six-year-long Peninsular War, two-thirds of the 24 000 dead were from sickness not battle, and Wellington, though a fearful reactionary, was very careful of the health of his troops, knowing that they were very difficult to replace by voluntary enlistment. The American Civil War, involving vastly greater numbers, had similar proportions of battle to non-battle dead as the British experienced in the Peninsular, and the same was true 40 years later in the Boer War, with 7000 killed to about 13 000 dead of disease.4 Indeed, the first prolonged war in history in which the battle dead outnumbered fatalities from sicknesses was as late as the present century, in the Russo-Japanese in 1904-05.
Naval service, which invariably involved far fewer people than land service, was, before the middle of the nineteenth century, always characterised by very high death rates among sailors, and in the Great War with France (1793-1815) 80 per cent of the deaths among British sailors were from sickness, 15 per cent from accident (including wrecks), and only five per cent in battle. Seamen had a far, far greater chance of dying from disease and falling from the rigging than officers. In battles such as Trafalgar, senior officers, including captains, admirals and captains of marines, had very high casualty rates,5 but battles were few and far between. Earlier than Trafalgar, non-battle losses were an even larger proportion of the total. In more modern times, death rates on board ship are generally very low unless the entire vessel disintegrates in a horrible sort of industrial accident. There is not much distinction, therefore, between the losses of officers and men on board ship in a modern naval battle, but, as in the eighteenth century, naval losses are a very small proportion of the total deaths in war.
As the twentieth century opened, the accuracy and deadliness of modern weapons on land meant that when the fighting did occur officer casualties were getting proportionately higher, and the accuracy of the Chassepot rifle led to frightful casualties among the Prussian Guard officers at Gravelotte and St Privat in 1870. It was very noticeable at the battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War that the proportions of officers to other rank dead among the colonial troops, Australian and South African, were similar for the Boers could not distinguish between them, and simply aimed at the tallest men in the unit. Unlike the colonials, who had been fed on a decent diet in their youth, the stunted offspring of the slums among the British regulars were pygmies compared with their officers, so the officer losses were proportionately double. This provided an excellent rationale for the upper classes to support health and welfare reforms in the period of 1902-14.
Thus when the First World War opened, there was an historically new situation. Because of medical advances, losses from sickness were very small in Western Europe in 1914-18, although they were much worse in ‘side-shows’ like the East African campaign.6 The socially prestigious corps were the infantry and the cavalry, which suffered far more in battle than the artillery and engineers, particularly the infantry, though cavalry frequently had to take a turn on foot in the trenches as well.7 Troops even further back than the gunners, the non-combatant corps such as railway troops, had grown in the nineteenth century, but by the First World War the ratio was still about 9:1 in favour of the front line. As a result, the many literary and historical accounts of this period do accurately reflect the fact that the upper classes suffered even more than the poor. In Britain it has been said that of those members of the aristocracy who served in the military, one out of five was killed, as opposed to one out of eight of the general population.8 A brief glance at the war memorials of the great public schools tells the same story. Indeed, not since the Wars of the Roses had there been such a kill-off of the English nobility.9 The social, technical and tactical situation was similar in all European countries, and so the ancient aristocracies paid a terrible price — as too did the aspiring middle classes who sought to emulate their style and coveted junior commands in the ‘smart’ regiments. If there was any group that suffered rather less, it was probably the skilled workers who were held back for essential war work, but in the First World War the importance of these for total mobilisation had often not been realised, and they were frequently called up to be duly mown down with unfortunate effects on the production of munitions and therefore the war effort as a whole. Sometimes industrial workers in Russia and Germany were not called up because they were considered politically unreliable, the peasants were preferred, but this option was not open to the British as there were not enough peasants here, though Irish and Scottish Highlanders served in relatively large numbers.
The Second World War was not very different for the British, save that the period of time when great armies were in combat was very much shorter, and so casualties as a whole were that much smaller, even if the rate of casualties over any given time was much the same.10 Once more the officers in the infantry and this time the cavalry too, who were frequently burnt alive in their tanks, suffered disproportionately, but with the difference that the proportion of rear echelon troops was growing, and the more mechanised and therefore mobile the armies became, the bigger did the proportion supplying them. But officers of such troops as the RAOC, RASC and REME were less socially elevated, and once more the war memorials of the public schools repay study. The losses among the general male population of that age range were about a third of First World War, but Eton had more ex-pupils killed in the Second than the First World War,11 while my own rather less prestigious old school had about 50 per cent of the slaughter in the previous conflict, 278 as opposed to 578.12 It is true that staffs,13 which were disproportionately of higher rank, became relatively larger and amounted in total to a division or two on the main fronts, but to balance this there were huge losses in the RAF so that 40 000 aircrew of Bomber Command, mostly commissioned but generally of middle class or lower middle class rather than upper class origin, died over Germany.
But it was the American armed services which perhaps heralded the future. In their drafting process, skilled workers were funnelled into those sectors of the services where their skills would be of use, the most striking example being the engineering troops composed of construction workers who built airfields, occasionally under fire, at the most amazing speed on Pacific islands. In this respect at least, the United States was far ahead of anywhere else in military effectiveness.14 The technical arms, the navy and the air force ground staff got the first choice of the draftees (aviators were all volunteers), while the infantry got the worst educated and socially deprived recruits, and often too the less-well-educated junior officers. The more upper class Americans went into the Secret Service, the more flash parts of the staff, perhaps the navy, which maintained its social prestige, and sometimes the air force, though this last did suffer severely.15 Both in the United States and Britain, war mobilisation was far more efficiently run than in the First World War, and skilled workers, engineers, electricians and so forth were as far as possible slotted into civilian or military tasks where their abilities would be useful, and which were either totally out of danger, or were much further back than the fighting arms. In both countries, it is probable that unskilled workers lost a much higher proportion than the skilled, but in Britain, as opposed to the United States, the upper classes too suffered far more than the average.16
In the 50 or so years that have elapsed since 1945, a longer period than that from the Boer War to the Hiroshima bomb, we have seen no all-out war. The experience of the USA in Vietnam, and on a more Lilliputian scale the New Zealand and Australian contingent in the same conflict, is, however, very suggestive. In such colonial-type wars against technically inferior opposition, the technical troops, the airforce ground staff, the men on board ship, and the enormous planning and administrative staff suffered very little indeed save boredom, fatigue, traffic accidents, the disruption of their lives from military service, and venereal disease. To a considerable extent this was true of the artillery too, but the overwhelming proportion of losses fell on the infantry, and even within battalions tended to fall on a tiny minority of the whole army in the rifle companies. The wireless operators and those in the support companies suffered a great deal less when the enemy lacked much artillery support. It was for this reason that such a disproportionate number of American casualties were black soldiers, but, I suspect, no more than the general percentage of the ill-educated and unskilled, as both Mexican and American Indians suffered disproportionately as well.17 White ‘blue collar’ workers lost a great deal too. Vietnam was truly a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’, and this broke the army, which eventually disintegrated and forced a withdrawal. There was no land fighting to speak of in the Gulf War, but those that did die often did so as a result of accident — rather more than the official statistics suggest.18
In the British army today, the infantrymen are also often quite lumpenised and often barely literate, though all are volunteers, unlike the Americans in Vietnam, and it is almost certainly the same in every other country where there is a volunteer army from a wealthy society. Such volunteer armed services are becoming more general and will, I predict, continue to do so.19 The skilled arms can be recruited by the bribe of training to those with aptitude but who are poorly qualified, while the infantry will merely get the poorly qualified. Any prolonged war with heavy losses would mean conscription, and this will be difficult, if not impossible, for present-day Western societies. Increasingly, the risky job of aerial fighting will be delegated to nerveless machines, drones, cruise and stand-off missiles. In such a scenario, the educated and the manager will not be much at risk, unlike the poor and fit young infantryman. So the first 50 years of this century may be the exception that proves the rule, a period of mass armies and mass production where class differences in battle casualty rates as well as living standards tended to narrow greatly in the areas of developed capitalism. This era seems to have come to an end.
As far as the cost to the rank and file is concerned, all this has analogies with the widening class differentials as regards wages, security of employment, conditions and general welfare in civilian society. The difference between the armed services and the productive labour force is that a section of the managers, the officer class, have to put themselves into danger, many of them into even more danger that those that they command, and since in the last analysis such managers have control over the application of force and violence in society, they have to be utterly loyal and committed to the existing mode of production. The question of how this has been guaranteed in the past and how it is to be guaranteed in the future is, however, an interesting one, and perhaps one of considerable difficulty for present-day international capital.
II. The Creation of Armed Forces by Capitalist Societies in the Twenty-First Century
The classical Marxist writers and thinkers were very often deeply concerned with the sociology of the armed services and military technique. One need only think of Engels, Liebknecht, Jaurès and Trotsky. This was not because of their wish to play toy soldiers, but because they were aware that the armed forces embodied the state — and the state in its sharpest and most brutal form. What is more, on the continent of Europe, the universality of military service and its reserve obligations meant that from 1870 to 1918, a period of rising working class consciousness, the whole male population had experienced such service with its social pressures and its brutality. Even in the interwar period the Left Book Club produced a number of books by people like Tom Wintringham and Max Werner on military themes. Today this tradition seems almost dead, though, during period of the quarter of a century of anti-colonial guerrilla war of 1950-75, there was some interest by left wingers in some politico-military techniques. This period has now come to an end, and ‘guerrillaism’ was always an orientation to the Third World and socially backward states, rather than the most developed capitalist ones. To that extent, it was quite different in the pre-1914 period. Yet it remains true that the state is still ‘armed bodies of men’, and these armed bodies should repay study. The article which follows is a preliminary attempt to do this for the twenty-first century, and I hope that others will take it much further. I would welcome criticism.
As far as military technique itself is concerned, Marxists have no more to say than other intelligent observers, but the direction in which society may be pushed as a result of the changing forces of military production, if I can coin this Marxist term, and the ways in which technologies alter the ‘relations of military production’ can perhaps be illuminated by the Marxist method. More important still is the fact that as society changes so its armed forces will reflect this fact, and such changes will not always be in the direction of greater military effectiveness. But whether this is so or not, it is important to be aware of what is happening. As in so many other non-military respects, there seems to be some convergence internationally.
I will start by looking at the ideas of an anti-Marxist, but in my opinion a most fertile thinker, the economist Joseph Schumpeter. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he remarked in the chapter ‘The Destruction of the Protecting Strata’1 on the fact that the processes of capitalism itself destroy the pre-bourgeois military classes, and that this meant that faced by a threat from outside its society (presumably the Soviet Union, or, as he thought, the anti-bourgeois Nazi Germany), or a non-bourgeois one within it (presumably the working class), capitalism was doomed. He thought that the old land-owning aristocratic classes provided the steel framework within which capitalist relations could flourish, and here he was obviously thinking of Hohenzollern Germany and his own Hapsburg Austria (but not only there). His metaphor is that bourgeois society destroys its own entrenchments, and is left defenceless. This has not happened, or not yet anyway, and to be fair does not look like happening in the near or medium term future, so it is interesting to see why. This essay, therefore, will concentrate on this theme. Weapons of mass destruction are of enormous importance here as they have meant that all-out warfare between nuclear armed states has ceased to be in any sense a rational policy, but I will not deal with this as much academic and political ink has been spilled on this question, and I have nothing to say that has not been said better.
But Schumpeter’s forecast that the values of bourgeois society were profoundly antipathetic to military virtue seems to me to be true. It does seem the case that the armed services of capitalist states are most effective when their tone is determined by pre-capitalist social formations. It is difficult to be an individual welfare maximiser and win the Victoria Cross. I do not think that it is a trivial point that Mark Thatcher, the epitome of self-seeking capitalist (rather than noble) youth, was not a Harrier pilot in the Falklands. The experience of this century has shown that the armies and populations of advanced capitalist states seem less and less willing to accept casualties as the pre-capitalist formations within them become less and less important. Consider the declension of the First and Second World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and finally the political fear of casualties in the Gulf. In each successive war the blood-tax became more and more unpopular. That itself cries out for an explanation which may arise in part from the smaller size of family so that the death of an only child or son is unendurable,2 in part from a general mood when death is not expected among the young, and is all the more resented when, for whatever reason, it does occur.
There is no difficulty in recruiting poor and even lumpen elements for the rank and file as long as not too large an army is required. Capitalism creates these strata quite plentifully, in fact more plentifully than it would like in strictly functional terms. Falstaff’s cynical comment that ‘food for powder Hal, food for powder, they’ll fill a grave as well as any man’, must be the unspoken thought about the poor by many of our rulers — if not expressed openly in these mealy-mouthed and politically correct times. It is also perfectly possible to get officers for the support elements, the job has many civilian analogies (technical training can be offered as a bribe), and even in wartime the casualty rate here is relatively low. Any shortage arises from the demand for similar skills in civilian life. It is in the creation of officers for the front line units that there is a problem. There is an element of primitive blood sacrifice in this. For 600 years the Spartans never lost a battle without losing their commanders — the kings. Often when they won a battle, they also lost a commander or two. Unless the ruling class are there being slaughtered with the rest, there is an insufficient sense of solidarity and community, and the phalanx will not go forward. Capitalist development, of course, increasingly breaks down this sentiment, and this is most noticeable when the social system contains even fewer tribal or aristocratic elements as in the USA compared to Europe. Schumpeter would not disagree with any of this.
The bourgeois solution to this problem is that of a technical fix. An increasing proportion of both the personnel and material of the armed forces is devoted to air power where only a small minority of individuals are put at risk, unless there is a counter-bombardment of the air bases, while in land warfare there has been a move to put everyone into armoured vehicles which will move forward regardless of the wishes of those within the machine. This reaches its apogee in naval warfare where it has done so for a long time. Sea operations are now increasingly automated, and the most extreme example is the bombardment of Iraq by cruise missiles launched from nuclear submarines in deep waters many hundreds if not thousands of miles away. So to deal with the political problem of casualties in advanced capitalist countries, there arises the need for small, reliable regular armies if only because the military labour force is so capital intensive that few people can be afforded. But such forces also reflect their own changing social structures as well as their external needs, which seem, at the moment, to be post-colonial policing and the deterrence of other great powers by weapons of mass destruction.
I think that Schumpeter’s was a brilliant insight, even if the growing automation of war has prevented the military collapse of capitalism before a non-capitalist conqueror that he prophesied. But his insight does have implications for predictions as to how imperialism will behave. The Beast will, I envision, be far more fearful of war with anybody who could inflict a butcher’s bill. And this, as we can see in Bosnia and elsewhere, will enormously hamper any attempt to impose any valid political solution, since a few thousand dead citizens, and in the case of the United States mostly black citizens at that, cannot be endured in the messy task of conquering populations and creating a stable postwar political structure — not just massacring them from afar. The inability to impose solutions has important implications for socialists, though a purely military solution can still be imposed on an economically backward enemy. I say nothing one way or another of the justice of any solution imposed on Bosnia or anywhere else, I would simply emphasise that whether just or unjust, such a solution must be stable, and this will involve lots of people on the ground and therefore casualties.
So even if Schumpeter may have been wrong in thinking that capitalist societies were not driven to war, he was correct in thinking that their social tone and style was increasingly anti-warrior. There is a distinction. He did not predict that technical change would make this less important as mass armies became less affordable — as has occurred. (After huge expenditures over the past 40 years, Britain was only just able to rake up enough equipment in running order for one armoured division in the Gulf War — and to do that the rest of the army was gutted, believe you me.) France was unable to match even the British contribution, and as a result has decided to move to a smaller regular army, which is what De Gaulle called for in 1936. (It is interesting to note that De Gaulle’s book, Une Armée de Métier, was denounced at the time as a call by a right wing royalist to destroy the republican tradition of a ‘nation in arms’.) If France moves in this way, Spain, Italy and the whole of Latin America will not be far behind. This must have implications both for imperialist intervention in the Third World, and for an eventual socialist insurrection.
So it seems as if other countries are moving to the Anglo-Saxon model of smaller but highly equipped regular armies. What, then, is the nature of such a force as the British army, which appears to be a model for some other nations, and what problems does it face? At this point a word of warning is necessary. There is little standard sociology on the military officer class in the public domain, and this is particularly so in Britain.3 One suspects that the reality would be both difficult to face for many influential people, and even more difficult to justify in our ‘democratic’ state, and for this reason most of the data is almost certainly not even collected by the bureaucracy. Thus anecdotal evidence rather than the HMSO’s numbers must often be used to assess their society, but this does not make anecdotes any less valid. For a Marxist too, the special sources of his or her evidence, non-political friends, family or sexual partners must remain uncited for the most obvious of reasons. I will concentrate largely on the American and British services, the former because there is more published material about them, and the latter because they are rather peculiar compared with other capitalist states, and I know a little more about them.
In the British army, the officers in the line infantry regiments are often from the ranks, while in the navy and air force they are often A-level candidates or graduates from comprehensive schools. Nevertheless, from rough second-hand observation, the candidates at Army Regular Commission Boards do seem to be largely from independent public schools and grammar schools, though their academic qualifications average about three Cs or below. It may be that a high proportion are sons of NCOs,4 but to ask that question is to ask an Official Secret to be divulged. The Coldstreams, the Grenadiers and Household cavalry are still led by the nobility and gentry, while even the territorial Guards are more like the smart Light Infantry of yesteryear, ex-public school boys with a reasonable entry in the stud book, but with limited means. The gangster-like SAS units have a high proportion of these socially elevated hard men taking a turn among them. It is strange and incredibly archaic, but many of the cavalry regiments still need a small private income for junior officers because their mess bills are so high. As a result, observers of the cavalry mess have commented to me that there are many very ‘thick’ young men from top boarding schools and with ‘poor politics degrees from ex-Polys’, though many are very keen on polo. They are said to be ‘unbelievable — another world’.5 So there are still probably just enough young men going to Sandhurst to join such ‘smart’ regiments who think of their profession as a ‘calling’ similar to the Church, and, surprising though it may seem to readers of New Interventions, many still do. There will be enough to officer the Guards, Cavalry and Light Infantry in a very small regular army so that as yet the British ruling class can cope. But even the British would soon run out of both such types and the sons of NCOs in any prolonged clash. (Even then I note that three of the ‘tough guy’ SAS were taken prisoner unwounded by the Iraqis — hardly Japanese or Spartan behaviour.)
But what is extraordinary is the greater and greater contrast between the social mores and archaic attitudes expected within the regular army and society outside it. This must set up unbelievable tensions within it. The Officers’ Mess is a necessary institution, not an accidental one, because the ‘laddishness’ of the young men within it involves a bonding process which is needed for efficient operations on the battlefield. The greatest social difficulty arising from present day society is not gays,6 or the role of women (both comparatively trivial), but the problem of officers’ wives. In civilian life, young, able, educated, urban professionals increasingly marry women like themselves who also have careers, and because of their high joint incomes can afford the necessary child care. It is precisely from this stratum of young men that the army hopes to get its future generals and capable staff officers, but no woman can continue a professional career if she has to up sticks and move at the behest of the Service when her husband has a new posting. So the army loses just the high-flyers that it wants to keep, and continues to employ the dullards. That is a really serious problem for the army, which has arisen because of the emancipation of women and their growing integration into the labour force under modern capitalism. It is not so much a shortage of the ‘right chaps’, but of the ‘right sort of gels’, Air-Heads or Earth Mothers from the appropriate social stratum who are both attractive to clever young men, and who will breed another military dynasty without complaint. The Royal Family has similar difficulties in finding the right sort of female.
Normal American infantry officers, apart from a Samurai elite from West Point (about 15 per cent of the total corps) are Lieutenant Calleys — if not always the scum of the earth like him, then poor working class lads who got to a very minor US university thanks to army money, and did not have a family plumbing firm into which they could go. (With the economic development in the Southern United States, the role of the local gentry and small town middle class there has much diminished in the US Army.) The infantry officers who would take the overwhelming bulk of casualties in a stand-up conventional war are almost totally of respectable working class origin, and many are black as well. They would number about 20 000 men, and again in any real butchery the attraction of social mobility upwards for such types would pall very quickly, much faster than for young British infantry officers in 1914-18, or the bomber crews in 1941-45. I have heard it said that the US Army is very physically soft (and much less hard drinking than the British), while the bonding of the mess is non-existent — they are a much more nine to five and civilianised force. The other area which could have proportionately heavy combat losses and which needs brave (or as we now say ‘motivated’) people is the air force, and the US Air Force and Navy have a combined total of about 20 000 pilots, of whom perhaps as many as a quarter (but probably a good deal less) have to take themselves into danger. They can probably get enough aircrew as the attraction to young men is that of driving an immensely powerful but risky machine (a Porsche of Porsches that not even yuppies can afford), though whether all the US pilots would press home attacks with quite the zeal of the Israelis in 1973 can be doubted. In any case, the skills needed of the ground attack and fighter pilots are great, and in any prolonged clash the consequent losses will mean severe personnel shortages which can be less easily replaced than their machines.7 That is one reason, of course, for the increasing development of stand-off weapons and drones which will avoid a high rate of loss.
But I do not think American society can produce very many of this sort of individual, and not nearly enough for a massive clash with a developed power. Thus their desperate attempts to automate the process of war, which, in the Gulf, against a very inferior opponent, seems to have worked. To my vast amazement, I may add, though I did prophesy that most British casualties would be slain by the Yanks, only nine men were officially killed in that way.
I believe that the situation I have outlined above is sensed, if not stated, by the political leaderships of the great capitalist powers. They will therefore desperately avoid direct military confrontation, and against an enemy will increasingly use diplomatic pressure, bribery, blockade, even the mining of harbours, internal coups d’état, and, if a military clash is finally unavoidable they will, as in Bosnia and the Gulf, seek to use precise air attacks to destroy military and communication centres, and will rely for the messy part of the fighting on irregular auxiliaries whose mothers have no votes within the imperialist centres. Thus far that is what they have done against third world and economically weak opponents. If things get of hand and they have to bring in masses of their own troops, their political strength, though not their economic muscles, would prove very feeble. But out of such an unforeseen political crisis opportunities for the working class might arrive. Honesty makes me add that if the shape of such events is unforeseen by the intelligence, journalistic and academic agencies of the great powers, it is unlikely that I will be able to predict them except in the most general terms — the future is unknowable in detail.8 But the fragility can be noted, and is tending, I believe, to increase so that some optimism of the will can be engendered to counteract the deep pessimism that our intellect must feel today.
Notes (part I)
1. John Ellis’ The Sharp End of War provides interesting data on living conditions at the front and casualties by arm in the Second World War.
2. An Irish great-great grandfather of mine, a Major Maunsell of the 85th Foot, was badly wounded at New Orleans in 1814 just before the main assault, though another Irish great-great-great grandfather, Captain Spaight, survived Bunker Hill.
3. Those of a literary turn of mind will remember that Cassandra Austen, the sister of the novelist Jane, lost her admirer in present-day Haiti, where whole regiments were wiped out by disease. See Michael Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Sea-Power, Oxford, 1987.
4. To be precise, officers lost 716 killed or died of wounds and 408 dead from disease, while the soldiers’ ratio was 7010 to 12 699 (Times History of the War in South Africa, Volume 7, p23). In the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand contingents, which were probably fitter to start with, the losses from disease and enemy action were equal. The relatively low battle loss was also due to the fact that the fighting was not very severe.
5. Nearly 20 per cent at Trafalgar. See Keegan’s The Price of Admiralty, pp113-4.
6. Rupert Brooke died of disease on a Greek island awaiting the Gallipoli campaign.
7. The difficulty of the Woolwich exam for the gunners and sappers was always far greater than for the Sandhurst one, but such middle class officers could live on their income (their mess was cheaper), and had some small supplements to their pay.
8. See Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, 1992, pp72-84
9. In the Wars of the Roses fighting was almost invariably on foot. On the defeated side the archers easily ran away, while the gentlemen were slaughtered in their heavy armour. In a Civil Wars no ransoms were taken — only estates.
10. Duncan Hallas told me that in the 10 months of fighting from the arrival of his infantry battalion in Normandy to the end of the war, there was almost a complete turnover of personnel. He went from private to a senior sergeant in the period. See Ellis, op cit.
11. A high proportion of cavalry and Guards Officers might account for much of this.
12. And 43 dead in the Boer War, in proportionate terms enormous.
13. Typically this was where scum like the brothers Ian and Peter Fleming both served. My father told me that Peter, a great ‘explorer’ and tough guy, used to walk around Delhi festooned with Tommy guns, grenades and bowie knives several hundred miles away from dangerous Japanese, while of Ian (of James Bond fame) it is said that he always got his Wren (generally at the Ritz), while serving comfortably in London.
14. In naval aviation matters they were also far ahead of the British.
15. President Kennedy’s elder brother was killed as a pilot. President Bush was shot down, and Kennedy himself served in the navy and was shot up.
16. In the Second World War US blacks were often used in more ‘menial’ rather than fighting roles, so their losses were proportionately lower than in Vietnam.
17. About a third of the New Zealand dead were Maori from one tenth of the population.
18. You will hear it said that an individual in a unit was killed by a ‘sniper’ or, more accurately, a ‘stray bullet’. Nobody is going to check and search out precisely where the shot came from. The man is dead, distress would be caused, and no purpose served.
19. After their experience in Bosnia and the Gulf, the French are moving to a volunteer army, as are the Dutch and Belgians. If the French change so will the Italians, Portuguese and Spanish, while the Russians too are talking of abolishing conscription.
Notes (part II)
1. J Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, London, 1959, pp134-9.
2. In some countries with conscription such as Spain or Latin America, the only son of a widow or even the eldest son was always exempted.
3. Raoul Girardet, Société Militaire de la France Contemporaine, 1953, and Girardet’s other works have data which do not exist for the UK.
4. Like officers, the senior NCOs get help from the army with boarding school fees (80 per cent), and if their sons can pass the entrance exam they can get into the smartest ones. Apart from Eton and Winchester, common entrance marks at the boarding schools are much lower than at the great day schools, and the pass mark is never divulged by the schools themselves.
5. It is only fair to say that the Rifle Brigade officers are said to be very relaxed and genial people, though the Paras can be quite unpleasant. Traditionally, the Rifle Brigade was regarded as the ‘thinking men of the infantry’, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
6. Male homosexuals are swiftly flung out if discovered, but although the rule is the same for women a blind eye is turned to practising lesbians if they are discreet. The Royal Logistic Corps, which has the highest proportion of women in it, is sometimes known as the Royal Lesbian Corps.
7. It may take at least two years to build an aeroplane, and four to train a pilot. There is a greater prospect that technology will speed up the former process more quickly than the latter.
8. If I had to hazard a wild guess, I would think a clash in East Asia between the USA and China would be the destabilising event most likely to occur.
I was a member of the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition) (KPDO) prior to Hitler’s ascent to power. I left Germany in March 1933, and was a political refugee in three countries — Palestine (1933-35), Czechoslovakia (1936-38) and Sweden from 1938 to early 1946 — and returned to the British occupation zone in Germany on 1 April 1946. I had with me two basic papers by the KPDO’s leaders August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, and the addresses of surviving friends from the party. Before starting any political activity, we duplicated the two papers, and distributed them to our old comrades. Thereafter, I travelled twice around the four zones of occupation to meet my comrades, to discuss our political views, and then to decide how we should organise our common activities.
The Material Conditions
Whilst waiting in Sweden for the end of the war and for my return to Germany, I had read all available reports about the situation there. Although I was thus prepared, what I found upon my return was beyond what I could have imagined. The effects of bombing had been limited in Lübeck, where we had landed, but horrible in Hamburg, to where I travelled on the back of an open lorry. Street after street was wrecked, with hardly a house standing. What houses that were still standing lacked roofs and windows. Nevertheless, the main streets were already cleared of rubble, and a few tramways were in operation. In the early morning, one could see trams filled with workers on their way to work, with passengers clinging on outside. My first trip from Lübeck to Hanover was in an open coal wagon. After a night’s travelling, I ‘changed trains’ at the Elbe, as the bombed bridge had not been repaired. I arrived at Hanover in the morning, as black as a coal-miner. The trip took a whole day, now it takes about two hours.
Communications, railways and tramways were in a similar condition across Germany. Facing final defeat, the Nazi armies had implemented a scorched earth strategy. Many bridges which had escaped Allied bombing were blown up by the fascists. Railways and trams in the larger cities were disrupted, as were the inter-urban lines in North Rhine Westphalia. Passengers had to alight from their trains, climb down to the river, board small ferries, climb up the other bank, and board another train. It took several years even to provide provisional bridges. Moreover, the French occupation zone was kept apart from the others, and the doors of trains running between the British and American zones were locked.
Food and fuel were very scarce. Rations dropped below the minimum subsistence level. In the British zone in particular, merchants refused to honour ration cards, and they preferred to sell food on the flourishing black market. Factory owners hoarded their products. Workers would exchange some of the goods they produced with farmers and fishermen. What trains that ran were overcrowded. People with no products to exchange would take towels, bed linen, etc, to the villages to exchange for milk or potatoes. The farmers were unhappy, as they could not obtain the necessary resources for increasing their harvests through the normal channels, and by the payment of official prices. Paper money had barely any value beyond the basic rations, and the ‘cigarette currency’ prevailed.
But the disciplined German workers went to work to reconstruct bombed factories, put machines in order, and started production after a virtual standstill. We went through a period of primary accumulation, natural economy, and a wage freeze inherited from the Third Reich and maintained by the occupying powers. From 1945 to 1948 the working class lived at a very low level, close to the physiological minimum. It was in those years that the workers laid the basis for the ‘economic miracle’ of the currency reform of June 1948.
Working Class Political Activity
Much of the energy of the working class was expended in maintaining everyday life, working 48 hours a week, travelling to and from work, repairing shattered houses, bartering for food in a distant village, etc. But political activity took place. Immediately after the breakdown of the Wehrmacht, workers’ committees sprang up in many towns and cities, in which workers of all socialist currents united, trying to liquidate the Nazi institutions, and trying to set up some type of administration that could begin to organise daily life. These united anti-fascist committees, as they were often called, had been prepared clandestinely during the final period of Nazi rule, when military defeat was approaching, and the Nazi state was starting to collapse. Most socialist activists insisted that they should learn from the defeat of 1933, when the rivalry between the social democrats and the communists facilitated the ascent of the fascists to power. They insisted that there must be working class unity against fascism and the re-establishment of capitalism, whose representatives had brought the Nazis into government. These committees were the first visible sign of genuine independent political activity prior to the establishment of the political parties which the four military occupation governments would permit and licence. The committees were not licensed by the military administrations.
Having returned to the British zone of Germany on 1 April, I was in Hamburg for the May Day demonstration. In the central park of Planten un Blommen, a huge crowd of perhaps 10 000 male and female workers had assembled in the morning in their poor clothes, some still in military uniform (because they had nothing else), meagre and physically weak. They had come to hear Fenner Brockway, the main speaker of the meeting. Brockway, in a British military uniform, spoke about international solidarity, offering a helping hand to rebuild a better, socialist Germany. Since he did not know any German, he had to use an interpreter, a German socialist refugee, Wolf Nelki, an old schoolmate of mine who had fled from Germany in 1933, and was now living in London.
Military rules and regulations in 1946 did not permit any foreigner to enter the occupation zone without military uniform. Thus my friend, who had never served in the British army, was clad in British military clothes, as was Brockway. Of all the many May Day meetings I have attended in many countries since 1928, this remains one of the most remarkable in my memory. During a time of growing nationalist feeling, stigmatising all Germans as fascists, Brockway brought the message of socialist internationalism to the German working class.
A wage freeze, hunger, the hoarding of goods by the capitalists, black marketeering and the dismantling of factories provoked the working class, and led to hunger demonstrations and strikes. In some large and important factories, workers attempted to prevent the removal of plant and equipment, which was often carried out under the supervision and protection of the occupying troops. But the two main workers’ parties — the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) — and the trade unions, which were gradually licensed by the military governments, opposed any initiatives that would be genuinely independent from the occupying powers. The social democrats and the ‘communists’ had both pledged their full loyalty to the military governments in the four sectors, and collaborated with them.
The Policies of the Occupation Powers
Material conditions improved very slowly. There were several reasons for this. Millions of soldiers returned from the German army and from prisoner of war camps only to find that Hitler’s megalomaniac objectives had finally destroyed Germany itself. Further millions of workers and peasants had been evacuated ‘voluntarily’ by the Wehrmacht from eastern Germany and Poland, where they had been settled by Hitler after 1939. The rest had been transferred by force from the regions allocated to the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia (eastern Poland, now partly Kaliningrad and partly Poland; Silesia and Sudatenland). The population of the three Western zones of Germany rose rapidly, from about 38 million in 1945 to 50 million in 1950.
Another factor was the conservative stance of considering all Germans indiscriminately as fascists, guilty of fascist crimes, who were to be punished by austerity, re-agrarianisation, reparations and the dismantling of factories. This line of thinking was most clearly exemplified by Lord Vansittart in Britain, and Henry Morganthau in the USA. It fitted well together with the urgent needs of some of the victorious Allies — France and the Soviet Union — to rebuild their war-shattered economies, but it was a short-sighted view.
In this early period, the conservative foreign rulers in the three Western zones (I shall deal with the Soviet zone below) limited food importation, dismantled factories, exported huge quantities of coal and other raw materials, and tightly controlled the establishment of political and economic organisations, not to mention the press. Everybody was to be denazified, and to do this special commissions were established which categorised the population into five categories. The small fry was dealt with first, and when it came to the big shots, the zeal had faded, and the wind had changed.
All organisations, newspapers and journals required a licence from the military government. Parties were permitted first only on a local level, and every stage of building inter-urban, inter-regional and inter-zonal organisations needed a new permit. Thus, for example, the merger of the shoemaker and leatherworker unions for the British and US zones was possible only in late 1948, whilst the French authorities had not permitted ‘their’ union to join them. The ‘theory’ was basically that a population infected with fascism had to be guided through small careful steps towards Western-style democracy.
The two licensed workers’ parties toed this line, and formed their structures in accordance with it. They both joined the provisional governments in the occupation zones, and these governments were under the full supervision of the foreign military forces. The communists were mostly given the department of social affairs in these pre-governments. They were to teach the discontented and hungry workers not to strike, but to join in with the employers to build the economy of a new, democratic society. These parties accepted almost all of the demands made by the occupying powers, including the dismantling of German factories, preferential deliveries of scarce coal and building materials to the victorious powers as reparations, etc.
The licensed parties and the military governments agreed to dismantle the various united workers’ committees that had been set up. But the winds were changing. The uneasy wartime alliance between the capitalist Allied powers and the Soviet Union lasted only until their common enemy, German fascist imperialism, was defeated. From that moment on, the class character of the two sides prevailed again. Quite early on, Field Marshall Montgomery advised the supervising commanders of the prisoner of war camps in Germany not to disarm the Nazi officers, as they might become useful in countering the ‘Soviet threat’. The Cold War had begun. Its meaning was spelt out by Winston Churchill in his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. This was also the strategic line of John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, who wanted first to contain the Soviet Union, and then to roll it back. This led ‘naturally’ (that is, by the international logic of the class struggle) to the maintenance, revival and strengthening of German capitalism and expansionism (these two are inextricably intertwined). Thus, in a conference of the Western Allies with the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York in 1950, they unilaterally — thus excluding their wartime ally, the Soviet Union — conferred to the German government in Bonn the right to be the sole representative of all Germans, including those in East Germany.
German Capitalism Wins in the Cold War
There was a clear split in Britain over the strategy to be followed in Germany. The conservative elements — often influential people in the diplomatic and military structures — to a large extent saw all Germans as fascists, and set the objective to re-establishing a domesticated capitalism under the tight control of the victorious Allies. This line was also favoured by the staunchly anti-communist Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the new Labour government. On the other hand, the internationalist left wanted a socialist Germany as part of a socialist Europe. A clear rift emerged between the British military authorities and the British High Commissioner, Lord Pakenham.
As the Cold War began, the conservatives adopted an openly anti-communist and hostile stance towards the ‘courageous ally’ of yesteryear. They accelerated the internal consolidation of Germany, and promoted German rearmament. They aimed to strengthen Germany as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, but to keep it weak against the Western powers — an apparently insoluble task of squaring a circle. German rearmament and all that which followed were clearly in contradiction to the Potsdam agreement. The realignment of alliances began, and the victorious Western powers and their defeated German enemy were now entering into an increasingly close collaboration.
This policy naturally found an enthusiastic response amongst the leading circles of German capitalism. It offered them the opportunity to regain in the future the regions lost through the Potsdam agreement, and they therefore complied with most of the demands of the Western powers.
To start with, German capitalism was very doubtful about its political survival. It tried to cheat the labour movement, and in 1947, in a demonstration of pure hypocrisy, actually inscribed socialism in its programme. The capitalists formally agreed to many steps which had a semblance of repentance for the past, and which suggested the democratic control of the power structures of industry. Under the pressure of the British Labour government, the steel and coal industries were ‘nationalised’ because their owners had been instrumental in financing Hitler and ultimately installing him in power in 1933. Co-management was established in the steel industry, and in some big enterprises the small number of shareholders and the thousands of workers were given an equal number of posts on the companies’ advisory committee, the chairman being nominated by the owners. This was ‘economic democracy’; the two halves of industry — capital and labour — have equal rights, but the workers would always have 50 per cent minus one. A really beautiful theory! In the agricultural sector, an agrarian reform was formally accepted, which should have expropriated the big landlords, most of whom had actively supported Hitler before and after 1933.
In the growing confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the three capitalist occupying powers closed ranks with German capitalism. US representatives, who had the strongest influence upon the new developments and strategies, played the leading role. All the promises and intentions of 1945 were waived, and German capitalism was bolstered in all fields — the economy, foreign affairs, institutions, etc. The uniting factor was anti-communism. In 1945 all four occupying powers had pledged the ‘Three Ds’ — demilitarisation, denazification and decartelisation of heavy industry. August Thalheimer warned that year that this plan could not be achieved by the capitalist powers. And when the Cold War began, all of these powers had forgotten about their official policies of 1945.
Political Developments in Eastern Germany
Stalin’s plans for eastern Germany were very different from those of the Western powers. Formally, he tried to maintain the wartime alliance, and the ‘unity’ of the four occupying powers and the four zones under the Allied Control Council. At the same time, the Soviet military administration started to implement its interpretation of the Potsdam agreement, which differed radically from the Western interpretation, and consisted of the radical expropriation of the big landlords and large industries, denazification, and heavy reparations, including the dismantling of several valuable industries. When in 1948 the Western powers unilaterally introduced a new currency, the economic division of Germany was inevitable. When in 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany was established, the full separation of Germany was finalised, thus concluding a process which was inevitable because of the different and contradictory character of the capitalist and socialist occupying powers.
The Stalin model of socialism was introduced — over-centralised planning, rapid and full collectivisation of agriculture, and rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which was formed under some Soviet pressure from the two main workers’ parties. Several fake parties were formed — a peasant party, a party for former Nazis (the NDPD), one for the middle classes (the LDPD), and one for the Christians (the CDU). All were united in the National Front, led and controlled by the SED. By 1949 the leading group in the SED had consolidated its position, and the party’s cadres were reorganised. The SED was purged of all critical elements, particularly those who had been critical before 1933 — Brandlerites, Trotskyists, etc — but who for the sake of socialist unity and the construction of a socialist Germany had pledged their support for party unity. Members who had been in exile in Western countries were suspect. As Stalin implemented his last round of terror, the SED prepared victims for a show trial, and many of them, such as Kurt Müller and Paul Merker, were old and disciplined Stalinist cadres. Stalin’s orders in respect of reparations and the dismantling of factories were carried out to the letter.
As in the Western zones, all independent working class initiatives were halted. This influenced the motivation and initiative of workers and managers in economic affairs. The SED was even more subservient to its occupying power than the SPD was in the Western zones. The KPD in the Western zones, which enjoyed freedom of expression, applauded every step taken by the Soviet Union, be it the expulsion and transfer of German workers and peasants from Eastern Prussia, or the dismantling of factories.
A Marxist Position
The KPDO, the ‘right wing deviation’ of the German Communist Party, lost many of its active members during the period of fascism and war. After 1945 the survivors, plus some former members of the Socialist Workers Party (SAP), united to form the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. We were the only political organisation without a licence from the military governments, and our paper, the monthly and later twice monthly Arbeiterpolitik, did not have one either. The main points of the GAP’s platform were as follows.
A repudiation of the Potsdam agreement, its content and its rationale. We asserted that not all Germans were fascists. Part of the guilt for the rise and international progress of fascism, particularly of German fascism, lay with the democratic powers, as the Spanish Civil War and the Munich agreement showed, and with Stalin’s influence upon the KPD. The expulsion of millions of German workers and peasants was both a crime against humanity and a political mistake. The settlers in the West would become enemies of socialism. Denazification, cleansing our society of fascism, should be implemented in a political process by German anti-fascists, rather than by foreign conservatives, and not by a judiciary, but by a revolutionary act of the German working class.
Protest against reparations and the dismantling of factories in East and West Germany. It is wasteful, slows down economic recovery, and angers the working class. It would be better to arouse and organise international solidarity — German workers voluntarily building new factories for the devastated Soviet Union.
No cooperation with the occupying powers. The organisations of the working class ought to be entirely independent.
Distinction between capitalist and socialist occupying powers. From 1945 we did not believe in the possibility of the continuation of the victorious wartime alliance, because of the contradictory class character of the Allied regimes. Our opposition to the occupying forces differed in the Western and Soviet zones. We accepted the foundations of socialism that were laid down by the Red Army. But we were certain that, at least for the time being, the ‘national’ interests of the German and the Soviet working classes were contradictory. The Soviet occupation stalled the necessary initiatives of the German working class. We demanded that the Red Army withdraw, in order that the German workers could build their own genuine socialism, adapted to our cultural, historical, economic and natural conditions. This criticism was not based upon revanchism, but on the principles of real internationalism and socialist democracy. We understood in 1945 that a unification of Germany was unfeasible under occupation by opposing, hostile big powers, and was undesirable under capitalism.
The ‘German problem’. The dominance of German capitalism, its renascent militarism and expansionism, cannot be solved by rebuilding a purified, democratic and re-educated capitalism, but only by its destruction and replacement by a socialist system. The German working class and its allies are the sole force to solve the ‘German question’ once and for all — and in a revolutionary way. Given the experience of the defeat of 1933 and the common suffering under fascism, reformism and Stalinist ‘communism’ could be overcome; the working class could voluntarily unite in the struggle for a socialist Germany with its own model. That was the objective, spelt out in the Buchenwald manifesto, in which socialists of different currents united at the occasion of their liberation in 1945.
Realpolitik or Marxist Analysis and Strategy?
The critical communists, undogmatic Marxists, who joined in the GAP came under a sustained attack from both of the licensed German workers’ parties. These two parties agreed on certain points. The reformists had forgotten Marxism as long ago as 1914, and were to renounce the most mild socialism at Bad Godesberg in 1959. The reconstituted KPD asserted in 1945 that neither half of Germany should try to attain socialism, and that a joint effort with the democratic bourgeoisie to build a new, democratic, peace-loving Germany was the order of the day. One of its poets, JR Becher, even wrote a poem and a national anthem, Deutschland einig Vaterland. The KPD accused the critical communists of all manner of political crimes — German nationalism, Trotskyism, Titoism, anti-Sovietism, and of being CIA agents, etc.
The reformists and Stalinists had forgotten Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxist criticism of Millerandism, her criticism of cooperation with a capitalist coalition government, as they fought against ‘Luxemburgism’. This was for Stalin and the KPD the most dangerous right wing deviation. The KPD had forgotten Marxism, and had become a servile supporter of every one of Stalin’s diplomatic manoeuvres, and also, as long as the wartime alliance lasted, of the Western occupying forces. Both the SPD and the KPD rejected any idea of either half of Germany being ready for socialism. They accused the GAP of being unrealistic, and they claimed that realpolitik would block for ever any return to the horrible past. Looking back over the last five decades since the defeat of German capitalism in 1945, we can clearly see how much their realpolitik was wishful thinking. German capitalism is again economically and militarily the strongest power in Europe, and is now in a dangerous military alliance with the world’s leading capitalist power, the USA. Germany’s neighbours are worried. The German ruling class is in a victorious mood, and only recently bluntly told the Czech government that it no longer recognised the Potsdam agreement. Germany’s rulers are about to become the victors of the Second World War.
Critical Marxists cannot merely substantiate the failure of reformism and Stalinism. We must also ask whether our strategy was realistic. It is a fact that the sole resistance to the dismantling of industries was organised in Salzgitter in West Germany and Jena in East Germany by shop stewards from the Communist Opposition, and this was carried out against the explicit will of the official working class organisations. But events have shown that the Marxists in Germany were too weak, too few and too exhausted from the effects of fascist persecution (with many of their activists executed), exile and the daily struggle for survival. On the other hand, these Marxists proved that socialist alternatives to a surrender to capitalism were available, and these alternatives would have received a positive response and active support from influential socialist forces in Britain and elsewhere had they been implemented.
Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, £7.99, pp274
THIS book is a very depressing read. It begins by describing New Labour’s purpose as being ‘to move forward from where Margaret Thatcher left off, rather than to dismantle every single thing she did’ (p1).
Thatcher stated that the elimination of socialism in Britain was one of her aims. Socialism has certainly been eliminated from this book as the index doesn’t even carry any references to it, just saying ‘Socialism — see New Labour’. The ‘social market’ embraced by Blair is unwittingly exposed as the contradiction in terms it really is. We are told that New Labour ‘does not seek to limit markets’, only then to read that the markets will ‘need to operate within a fair framework of rules’ (p4), which, of course, would be a limit on the markets.
The second chapter considers Tony Blair the person. Instead of a rounded assessment, we get an appallingly sycophantic account of Blair, which in its 29 pages fails to make a single criticism of the Labour leader! Unlike the rest of us, Blair is, apparently, a person without weaknesses or limitations. We are told that ‘for Blair, Clause Four was not a harmless anachronism; it created a split identity for the party, tying it to an outdated and redundant economic doctrine’, and ‘rewriting Clause Four was indispensable to his mission to create a fresh agenda for the left and centre in British politics’ (p52). It was a shame that Blair couldn’t share his mission with the party members whose votes he wanted by mentioning it in his campaign for the party leadership. In fact, as the book fails to mention, Blair said on Breakfast with Frost on 12 June 1994: ‘I don’t think anyone actually wants the abolition of Clause Four to be the priority of the Labour Party at the moment… The vast majority of the British people don’t sit out there and debate the intricacies of the Labour Party constitution.’ In other words, for Blair, it was a harmless anachronism.
The book spends a lot of time considering reasons why Labour has been out of power for 17 years, and lost four elections in a row. Yet the authors place no blame at the door of the splitters who left Labour to form the SDP and so divide the anti-Tory vote. Perhaps a reason for this is that Roger Liddle was one of those splitters leaving Labour to become a founder member of the SDP! Instead, the trade unions and workers fighting to defend their jobs and conditions in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ are blamed.
In fact, attacking organised labour is a recurrent theme in the book. The authors say that under the Tories ‘British industrial relations have been changed for the better’ (p12). No doubt former miners, printers and others would have a different opinion. Mandelson and Liddle want to go one step beyond the Tory anti-union laws — proposing ‘restrictions on the freedom to undertake industrial action in the emergency services’ (p152).
The different versions of stakeholding have been such discussed in the media. For Mandelson and Liddle, it is a way of isolating workers and undermining their collective strength: ‘The concept of a stakeholder economy addresses the needs and aspirations of individuals, not interest groups acting for them.’ (p25)
The book calls for ‘a more equal and cohesive society’. Yet the extreme limitations of the policies on offer and the poor way arguments are presented in The Blair Revolution can be shown by using the example of education, which is New Labour’s ‘first priority’ (p92). We are told that ‘all the evidence suggests fundamental weaknesses remain, and in recent years concern over general educational standards has grown’ (p90). Yet on page 229 we hear that we live ‘in an age where individuals are now better educated and more informed’. Which is it?
The teaching unions are blamed for loss of public confidence in the education system (p142). Meanwhile, the educationalist Michael Barber is praised in the book. Barber is a professor at the trendy Institute of Education, a school governor, and a former chair of Hackney Education Committee. Yet just after this book was written, Barber decided to save his youngest child from the consequences of some of his own policies by sending her to a private school! Barber’s cranky ideas include more teacher time to be spent on developing written learning plans for each child (a recipe for more paperwork rather than concentrating on actually teaching children the basics) and appointing ‘mentors’ from industry, commerce or the locality to guide children in need (p92). There is likely to be a shortage of well-meaning people to take on this role. Many of those that do will drop difficult children when the going gets rough.
However, the fact that under New Labour some people will be distinctly more equal than others is revealed in the following extract:
‘Private schools should be encouraged to twin with state schools in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain. The purpose would be to encourage a two-way traffic between the two systems. The state school might initially make use of some private school facilities for games, music or drama, for example. The private school could use its association with the school and the local neighbourhood to give its pupils much-needed contact with the real world, to develop leadership skills, and to create opportunities for community service (for example, as helpers in out-of-school clubs). There might be exchanges of pupils for blocks of time. This would be a modern-day extension of the charitable purposes for which most public schools were originally founded.’ (p133)
Here the consequences of abandoning meaningful reforms for mere tinkering with Tory Britain are shown in stark relief: the rich provide charity and the chance to use their gyms, whilst they get practice in learning how to lead us.
Since The Blair Revolution was published, the much trumpeted Road to the Manifesto has been shown by a series of opinion polls to have failed to win voters over to Labour. In fact, the Tories have picked up support and reduced Labour’s lead. The unthinkable — a fifth election defeat — starts to become increasingly possible. If it does happen, the next ‘spin’ of Mandelson & Co is likely to be merger with the Liberals, with whom ‘there is no barrier to cooperation in terms of principles or policy’ (p207). Labour’s links with the unions are also threatened by the call for state funding of political parties (p202). It took the trade union movement decades to break free of dependence on Liberal politicians, and to get its own MPs into parliament. It looks like the modernisers are planning to modernise the movement back to the nineteenth century!
Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: Life and Legacy, Harper Collins, London, 1995, pp529, £9.95
PRIOR to his death late last year, General Dmitri Volkogonov had established himself more or less as the court historian of the post-Soviet Russian elite, ready to condemn not merely the Stalin era, but the entire Soviet experience, Lenin and all. He had been a career officer in the Red Army, and had enjoyed a reputation of being a hardline Stalinist in the army propaganda department in which he worked. The words ‘vicar’ and ‘Bray’ may spring to an unkind mind. But let us not speak too ill of the dead. He did start having doubts about the Stalinist system, and he started to collect details for a biography of Stalin. Getting into trouble with his military colleagues, who would hear nothing against the old dictator, he turned to full-time historical study in the late 1980s.
Although Volkogonov says that his change of heart was a ‘painful transition’, it is clear that his later views were more or less a mirror image of his outlook when he was an orthodox Stalinist. Stalinism was a direct consequence of Leninism in both cases, only he now puts a condemnatory cross where he once put a tick of approval. Much of this book resembles an unimaginative rehash of right wing Western biographies of Lenin. Lenin was a manipulative and scheming fanatic, the October Revolution was a ‘coup’ that was largely the result of German financing, the Bolsheviks ruled entirely by terror, every one of Stalin’s atrocities can be traced back to Lenin, and so on. It’s all very familiar, and although Volkogonov rummaged about in the archives and brought to light a lot of interesting documentation on many aspects of Lenin’s political career, there is a remarkably stale feeling about this book.
Moreover, a lot of space is taken up with secondary issues, such as Lenin’s personal finances, German funding of the Bolsheviks during the First World War, the execution of the Tsar, and the Bolsheviks’ treatment of the Orthodox Church. Much as the reader will find certain diversions interesting, such as Zinoviev’s unpublished notes on Lenin (including a few amusing jokes at Lenin’s expense), Stalin’s offer to cede much of the western flank of the Soviet Union to Hitler during the Second World War (which Volkogonov absurdly equates with Lenin and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), the banalities of Brezhnev’s diary, etc, these add little or nothing to the narrative, and interrupt its flow, as does Volkogonov’s continual leaping from one period of Lenin’s life to another.
The translator’s introduction says that Volkogonov’s original work has been abridged for the English-language version, omitting the author’s philosophical ideas, and background information that is familiar to Western readers. Perhaps the longer Russian original contained more analytical material on its subject. Or maybe it didn’t. Whatever, Volkogonov hardly bothers to analyse Lenin’s ideas, and he is too interested in inverting his previous saint-worshipping into demonology to embark upon a serious study of his politics. His actual attempts to discuss Lenin’s ideas are hopelessly inadequate, and often confusing. He raises What Is To Be Done? and the concept of professional revolutionaries, then suddenly veers off to discuss the close ties between the party leaders and the Cheka. The none-too-hot Materialism and Empiriocriticism is given a couple of paragraphs, but no mention is made of his self-criticisms in the later Philosophical Notebooks. State and Revolution is written off as ‘scholastic, contrived and detached from life’. Yet this book was and remains a remarkable work, not least in its critique of Second International Marxism (which was an implicit self-criticism), and in the way it raised for the first time in decades the question of the actively creative role of the proletariat in a revolution. It had a deeply democratic core, and clearly represented what Lenin wanted a proletarian revolution to be.
It is not sufficient merely to say that Lenin turned his back on this, and resorted to repression. State and Revolution and other writings of 1917 were concerned with the relationship between the working class and the proletarian party, on how the creativity of the working class could be linked in with the need for a centralised state. These finer points do not interest Volkogonov, although, to be fair, he is not alone in this. For him, the Marxist project is a ‘utopia’ unworthy of further discussion. The most to which humanity can aspire is a parliamentary democracy, and it is quite absurd even to consider that the working class can take power, and remodel society in a more efficient and democratic way than capitalism can do. That’s ‘social racism’, whatever that means. As far as Volkogonov is concerned, any attempt to go beyond a liberal democracy can only end in tears.
Volkogonov is convinced that the Bolsheviks deliberately destroyed the possibility of Russia becoming a parliamentary democracy after the February Revolution, an idea that is becoming fashionable again. Had it not been for these fanatics, well plied with German gold, all would have been fine. Yet the Bolsheviks did not cause the problems which destroyed the Tsar and undermined the Provisional Government. Industry, communications and agriculture were all in a parlous state prior to 1917. The peasants did not need the Bolsheviks to tell them to seize the land, nor did the national minorities of the Russian Empire need them to formulate their demands for autonomy or secession. The Bolsheviks initiated neither workers’ control in the factories, nor the discontent in the army and navy. No matter how much German gold flowed into their party coffers, the Bolsheviks’ propaganda would have fallen on deaf ears if the masses were not intensely discontented. Moreover, any non-Bolshevik government in Russia would have been obliged to deal with a militant working class, a rebellious peasantry, a world war and a German advance to the East, national struggles for autonomy and secession, not to mention a chronic economic crisis tending towards collapse. No government could have tackled this without resorting to coercion. A parliamentary democratic regime in Russia was a pipedream. Had the Bolsheviks not taken power, or if their regime had collapsed, Russia’s future would have been grim — a crisis-ridden economy and a series of unstable authoritarian governments.
Volkogonov condemns Lenin and his colleagues for spending a lot of money on the Communist International whilst there was famine at home, yet overlooks the fact that until the mid-1920s all Bolsheviks considered that the very survival of their state depended upon successful revolutions occurring in Western Europe. Like so many other commentators, Volkogonov does not recognise the essential international aspects of the Russian Revolution, that the October Revolution did not make sense outwith the concept of a general European revolution. For Lenin, the October Revolution was not a self-contained affair, but the start of a Europe-wide revolutionary wave that itself was the beginning of a global shift to socialism. The Soviet regime was a desperate holding operation to maintain the first bridgehead, as its collapse would be a devastating blow to the hoped-for European revolution. Volkogonov generally sees the Russian Revolution as a self-contained entity, whilst at the same time considering Lenin’s ideas of a world revolution to be utterly utopian.
It may well be that any transition to socialism will be obliged to go through an authoritarian stage; the question here is whether the democratic impulse behind that transition can be recovered. The transformation of the Soviet leadership into a permanently oppressive ruling elite was not a foregone conclusion. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalin’s terror regime was not caused by the authoritarian measures of the Bolsheviks after 1917 (although their harmful effect upon both the Bolsheviks and Soviet society as a whole cannot be denied), but because the Soviet republic was isolated due to the failure of revolutions to materialise in Western Europe. Confined within a backward, devastated country, there was little chance that the democratic features of Bolshevism could successfully reassert themselves. A democratic strand did exist within Bolshevism, as during the 1920s and into the 1930s not only did inveterate oppositionists demand the democratisation of the regime, so did those like Trotsky, who had been quite authoritarian at times, and even former Stalinist yahoos like Riutin.
Volkogonov does not investigate whether Lenin’s authoritarian measures after the October Revolution were rooted in his political evolution in the Second International, with its essentially statist conception of the transition to socialism. Although State and Revolution signified a considerable break from that tradition, and although he understood the necessity of bringing the working class into the management of the Soviet system, to what degree did his previous political evolution act as a statist counterweight to those democratic aspirations? This is of no interest to Volkogonov. He never understood the essence of Lenin’s ideas, either in his time as a saint-worshipping Stalinist or in his last years as a born-again anti-communist.
Volkogonov notes that compared to the thousands of hagiographical works on Lenin, there are but a few objective works, no doubt implying that this book deserves to be numbered amongst the latter. He does not mention the tendentious hatchet-jobs that have appeared over the years in the West, but it is in this genre that this book should be included.
Cyril Smith, Marx at the Millennium, Pluto Press, London, 1996, pp182
THIS is a book every socialist should read. It is not just another interpretation of Marx, but marks a decisive stage in an argument that has been in progress in the UK since the early 1960s, when Marx’s early writings began to be available in the English language.
These writings, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in Paris in 1844, revealed a side of Marx that many people had not suspected. The texts, with their emphasis on ‘alienation’, found favour with the New Left in Britain, whose adherents were keen to advance a view of Marx as not merely the founder of ‘historical materialism’, but also as a socialist humanist whose theories contained a strong ethical component. Indeed, they tended to elevate the latter as opposed to the former. Against this emphasis on ‘the young Marx’, traditionalists laid stress on ‘the mature Marx’. Prominent amongst them was the French communist Louis Althusser. He asserted that ‘the young Marx’ eventually gave way to ‘the mature Marx’, and it was possible to discern a ‘break’ in Marx’s writings marking the transition between the two.1 For Althusser ‘Marxism’ in the proper sense is constituted by The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach, and all subsequent works, and what Marx wrote before these, do not properly belong to the canon.
Cyril Smith argues, in effect, that both these interpretations are wrong. The whole notion of ‘the young Marx’ being opposed to ‘the mature Marx’ is nonsense: there is only one Marx, and the later works are a logical outgrowth and extension of the earlier writings.
How did Cyril Smith arrive at this conclusion? By a process of questioning received wisdom. In outlining his own investigations he tries to show how Marx confronts us with a number of questions which go right to the heart of our current condition:
‘In this book, I try to show that all of Marx’s major works — not just the work of “the young Marx” as some have thought — contain an investigation of questions such as What is it to be human? In what ways are we estranged from our humanity? How can we live humanly? What must we do to make this possible? How must we think about the world to find answers to these problems?’ (p16)
He then goes on to explore four separate themes: Stalinism, or ‘Marxism-Leninism’; the outlook of the Communist International; the pre-1914 ‘orthodoxy’ of the Second International, and its relation to the writings of Engels; and finally Marx’s own attitude to ‘Marxism’ (p20).
Cyril Smith argues that ‘Marxism’ as usually understood was the combined invention of Plekhanov and Kautsky. For Kautsky, the movement towards socialism was guaranteed by historical law. Laws of history, like those of nature, operated independently of human will and consciousness. In the economic field, Capital set forth a number of economic doctrines quite unconnected with the idea of socialism. It was the task of the ‘Marxist party’ to bring this scientific consciousness to the masses (pp34-5).
Plekhanov and Lenin, the leaders of the Russian social democrats, firmly supported Kautsky, especially against Eduard Bernstein’s attempt to get the German party to ditch the notion of a socialist revolution. But Plekhanov himself introduced a revision of Marx’s idea of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Marx used this term in a sense virtually synonymous with ‘workers’ power’; Plekhanov, however, understood ‘dictatorship’ to mean a form of government unrestricted by law.
It was also Plekhanov who invented the expression ‘dialectical materialism’. In his zeal to counter the Russian populists, who exalted the subjective revolutionary will, ‘Plekhanov installed a materialism which left no room for will at all and this is what he foisted onto Marx’ (p40). When Marxism came under philosophical attack, Plekhanov and Lenin replied by stressing the continuity between Marx and Engels and earlier materialists. Lenin’s initial contribution here was his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism — a philosophically flawed piece of work (p43). He went on to achieve a deeper understanding of these issues, as can be seen from his Philosophical Notebooks, but Stalin and his followers extolled the former work. Lenin’s State and Revolution, another work lying closer to Marx’s views, was also consigned to virtual oblivion.
Cyril Smith includes a short discussion of Engels and his contribution to the development of what became known as Marxism, before turning to Marx’s own views. He notes how Marx, in a comment on developments in Russia, protested against those who would transform his ‘historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed’ (cited on p55). He also finds support for the view that Marx was more sympathetic to the Russian Narodniks than to the exile group in Geneva led by Plekhanov, and records that Marx wrote to his daughter Jenny in 1881, denouncing Kautsky as ‘a mediocrity, with a small-minded outlook’ (p57).
Cyril Smith then turns to two fundamental questions, firstly, Marx’s conception of humanity, and, secondly, his ideas on science. The basic question for Marx, he argues, was: ‘What do humans have to do in order to live humanly?’ Or, to put it another way: ‘How can humanity make itself what it is in essence?’
This section (chapter 3) is the most interesting part of the book. A glance at the notes indicates the persistence of such themes in Marx: the early part of the chapter alludes to early writings such as the Theses on Feuerbach, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, The German Ideology, and so on, but there are many citations from the Grundrisse, Capital and later works.
Marx’s conception of communism, says Cyril Smith, was based on the possibility of ‘the free development of individualities’ (p67). He refers the reader to the Grundrisse, citing Collected Works, Volume 29, p91. Not being in possession of this volume, I have so far been unable to trace this reference, but I note that in the Penguin translation of the Grundrisse, Marx discusses the development of capitalism (the world market, etc) as a form which ‘produces the real conditions of its own suspension’ (pp541-2). This development of the productive forces, with the world market as a basis, provides ‘the possibility of the universal development of the individual’ (p542).
Cyril Smith also reminds us of Marx’s Tenth Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The standpoint of the old materialism is “civil” society [ourselves as merely a collection of individuals accidentally united in various ways — CG]; the standpoint of the new is human society, or socialised humanity.’ This raises a further puzzle. Cyril Smith asks:
‘In a society increasingly based upon self-interest, how can anybody take “the standpoint of socialised humanity”? Somehow, amidst all the corruption and fragmentation of the modern world, we have remained… human. At the back of our minds, we still know it. If this were not the case, there could be no language, no science, no philosophy, no politics, no poetry, no love. These activities — twisted and perverted, organically entangled in their inhuman wrapping as they are — still do exist. That tells us that humanity does indeed survive, but bound up with, and hidden by, its direct opposite, in forms which simultaneously give us this message of humanity and deny it.’ (p73)
It follows that for Marx to have had some notion of a truly human society, he had to have an idea of what constitutes inhumanity. We come back to the crucial concept of alienation, as discussed in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The human species makes itself, but in the process it creates a series of powers — for example, money, capital, private property, the state — which exercise dominion over it. Broadly speaking, we have a dialectical pair of opposites, namely, on the one hand, the productive forces, and, on the other, the social relations of production, and the two come into conflict.2 Hence, as Cyril Smith says:
‘For Marx, history was the process in which humans engaged in “the social production of their life”. In this process of becoming human, they developed means and powers of production. But the forms of social relations within which this took place denied their humanity, their capacity for free self-creation. These social relations of production were “independent of their will”, imposed on them from the past, unfree.’(p136).3
Marx’s view of the human species and human characteristics was accompanied, says Cyril Smith, by an appropriate conception of science and its social role. Marx agreed with Aristotle that in order to decide how humans should behave, it is necessary to investigate how they actually do behave. Marx, accordingly, eschewed the approach of the utopian socialists — Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier and kindred spirits — who tried to find the answers to social problems in their own heads. The theoreticians of the working class, says Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy, ‘in the measure as history moves forward… no longer need to seek science in their minds; they have only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouthpiece’.
From the foregoing analysis of those social institutions whose effect is the frustration of human creativity it is possible to grasp exactly what Marx meant in that famous pair of sentences in The German Ideology where he says: ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.’ Taken out of context, this is vague and mysterious: if what is required is abolition of the present state of things in any shape or form then even fascism might possibly fit the bill — but this is not what Marx and Engels had in mind. Their attention was directed to those social relations of production alluded to above whose overthrow was crucial if human liberation was to be achieved. Thus when the dockers on Merseyside act against the threat of redundancy (see New Interventions, Volume 7, no l), they are in fact engaged in a revolt against the despotic power of capital, and the logical end of that revolt is the dethronement of that power and its replacement by a democratic way of running industry, something which socialists have sought to establish for the last hundred years or more.
Certain legitimate criticisms can, I think, be made of the book. The suggestion, for example, that Bukharin, in his Historical Materialism, expounded a system of ‘Marxian sociology’ on purely mechanical lines is open to question (pp30-2). For a contrary view, see Ken Tarbuck’s Bukharin’s Theory of Equilibrium (Pluto Press, 1989), which is subtitled A Defence of Historical Materialism, especially chapters 1 and 2.
Secondly, partly because Cyril Smith presents his arguments as a journey back in time rather than a movement forwards, we do not get a proper sense of how Marx’s followers were able to read his works. This makes it more difficult to apportion blame for distortions, Here, apparently, it was the leaders of the German party who were most at fault; they could have taken steps to publish everything available during the period 1883-1914, but only produced a certain amount ‘aus dem Nachlass’ —from Marx’s legacy. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts were published in Moscow in 1932 in a German-language edition prepared by David Riazanov. The Grundrisse was published in Russia during the Second World War Two. Even now it is difficult for the general reader to gain access to all of the Marx that is available in English translation — not, of course, that this absolves us if we foist opinions onto Marx that he never held.
1. See Louis Althusser, For Marx, Penguin, 1969, pp83-6, 227-31. For a criticism of this notion of a ‘break’ by another French communist, see Lucien Sève’s ‘Man in Marxist Theory and the Psychology of Personality’ (Harvester Press, 1978), pp162-7.
2. From this perspective it can now be seen how Marx developed his own distinctive view of history, known to his later followers as ‘historical materialism’. His conception was a richer one than theirs. It was so because he retained those insights developed in his early writings. The ‘young Marx’ grew into the ‘mature Marx’; there was no ‘break’.
3. In a sense, this view is a commentary on that great description of human nature put forward by the Chinese philosopher Meng Tzu (Mencius). Mencius compared human nature to the trees on the Ox mountain which, being close to a great city, are constantly being chopped down — hence it is no wonder that they are no longer fine (see Mencius, Penguin, pp164-5). Incidentally, Mencius also argued: ‘All that matters is that there should be benevolence and righteousness. What is the point of mentioning the word “profit”?’ (Ibid, p49)
Irvine Welch, Trainspotting, Minerva, London, 1995, pp344, £6.99
RECENTLY Socialist Worker printed a review of the latest book by Edinburgh author Irvine Welch. It was sharply critical, and ended by labelling Welch ‘anti-working class’. I had found Welch’s first book Trainspotting to be the most disturbing, exciting, funny and thought-provoking thing I had read for many years, including Socialist Worker, so I was pleased when the paper printed an angry letter from an Edinburgh supporter demanding that the critic should be banished from the review pages for a decent period for her ludicrous efforts.
Trainspotting relates the adventures of a group of friends in their early 20s. Having grown up on council estates and landed on the dole, they survive by drug-dealing, stealing and screwing the benefit system. Different chapters tell tales from their wild lives; the stories are like the best pub stories — bitterly funny, amazing and bizarre. The stories are about death, drugs, sex, class, violence, gender, money, animal rights, bigotry and families.
The book has an authentic feel to it. Welch knows the world he is writing about. And while some of it is grim and shocking, the book is never depressing since the characters have a vividness and humanity. The writing is taut and pacey, and the funny bits just really funny. The book has an outrageous and dangerous feel to it.
Never before have I read a novel about the working class from the inside, as it were. Trainspotting is that novel. When Welch reads extracts in public in Edinburgh a few months ago, 700 people turned up to listen. His books are the most shoplifted of any; they have also topped the best sellers list.
Trainspotting should be compulsory reading for everybody over 50 to teach them something about drugs. The arrogance of some old left wingers who revel in their ignorance of modern culture is such crap. Drugs are very important — they bring people into conflict with the law, in touch with other cultures, they alter people’s minds and make them think different thoughts, they are a major sub-economy, they are subject to public hysteria and moral panic, they are highly connected to crime, policing, the state and the law.
To be left wing is to know what you think about everything. Or at least to pretend to. It’s good stuff that reminds you that there are lots of things you don’t know about, and are not sure what you think about. Glib generalisations about ‘everybody who doesn’t own capital is working class’ seem so inadequate after reading Trainspotting.
The following words are written on the cover of the book: ‘The best book ever written by man or woman — deserves to sell more than the Bible.’ For once I felt having finished a book that the cover notes couldn’t be accused of exaggeration. Read this book!
Video News, No 1, 52 minutes
THIS spring saw the launch of Video News, a quarterly socialist video news production aiming to provide ‘A Forum for Direct Democracy’. The first edition of Video News is 52 minutes long, and contains five items: media bias, Labour’s rightward drift, housing associations, a review of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, and a report on the fight for trade union rights in South Korea.
Video News is extremely well produced, and provides the labour movement with its first socialist video programme. The best piece is ‘Unaccountable Housing Associations: The New Property Empires’, which looks at the example of Circle 33 and how the tenants have been treated by the unelected housing association officials, including some New Labour politicians. According to Video News, when the tenants started to organise, Circle 33 Chair Margaret Hodge MP dismissed them as ‘nobodies’.
The video also contains dramatic footage of South Korean workers’ mass demonstrations. The BBC and ITV hardly ever show pictures like these, which conflict with the image of a docile workforce enjoying the benefits of an economic miracle in the Pacific rim.
The review of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom also contains an interview with Bill Alexander, a veteran leader of the International Brigade. The video uses the tactic (all too rarely used on the left) of giving someone enough rope to hang himself, by letting Alexander say that Stalin’s mistakes were ‘good mistakes’, and that the revolutionaries of the POUM militia did virtually no fighting in the Civil War.
The piece on the Labour Party concentrates on attacking Blair’s leadership style. However correct many of the observations are, it would have been better to have provided more positive coverage, such as considering the policies that Labour needs, and how to mobilise people for a Labour victory.
The only other criticism is that five subjects is too many for a 52 minute film. Nevertheless, this first issue of Video News is a highly promising one, and I would encourage people to take a look for themselves.
Copies are available from Video News, PO Box 10395, London N7 7HY, telephone 0171‑700-7660. Individual copies cost £10 per issue, £30 for an annual subscription (four issues). There is a higher rate for organisations and educational institutions.
Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, Pluto, London, 1995, pp320
AT the Erfurt Congress in 1891 which laid the basis for the then infant socialist parties (the Russian included) all around the world, August Bebel, colleague of Marx, co-founder with Wilhelm Liebknecht of German social democracy, confidently assured the assembled delegates: ‘I am convinced that there are only a few people in this hall who will not experience the “Great Day”.’ One hundred and five long and weary years have passed, and the Great Day has yet to arrive. What went wrong? This is the problem to which Michael Harrington, American socialist and an Honorary President of the Socialist International, devotes his attention. By and large, he does so very well.
Harrington sets himself three specific tasks. Firstly, to examine the past history of socialist theory and practice; secondly, to distinguish socialism proper from the Stalinist command economy which existed in the former Soviet Union and its satellites; and thirdly, to consider the hopes and prospects for socialism in the really existing world of multinational capitalism in which we live today.
Harrington’s treatment of these themes is wide-ranging, well written and singularly well informed. That is not to say that we find here many avuncular judgements which lay claim to a finality which in the real world it is more usually singularly difficult to achieve. As a former Shachtmanite, he clearly sees himself as a Marxist, but not any longer one in any sense out of the Leninist or Trotskyist schools. This leads to a certain eclectic tolerance of outlook which this reviewer at least finds a great deal the better for that.
It is now clear, Harrington concludes, ‘that there is no such thing as a socialist apocalypse, a sudden leap, to use the classic Marxian formulation, from the “kingdom of necessity” to the “kingdom of freedom”. Modern society is so complex that even in the unlikely event of a political revolution in the West, fundamental change — of human consciousness as well as of technology and institutions — takes a great deal of time. We are talking, then, about a transitional epoch, not a day, a year, or even a decade.’ What we are talking of is what Harrington terms ‘visionary gradualism’ working itself out over a whole epoch.
The question is: ‘Can socialism learn from the defeats and betrayals that resulted from its flawed understanding of its own profound truths?’ The answer to this question as yet remains open and undecided. Everyone concerned to find an answer would do well to read this book.
The text is preceded by a stimulating introduction by Arthur Lipow of the Michael Harrington Foundation, which is based at Birkbeck College of the University of London. One hopes that this centre will give birth to further volumes of equal merit in the not-too-distant future.
Ernest Haberkern and Arthur Lipow, Neither Capitalism Nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996, pp203, £32.50
THE contrast between the promises of the October Revolution and its grim aftermath has exercised the minds of several generations of Marxists. Those who welcomed Bolshevism as the start of a worldwide transformation to socialism but were repelled by the rise of Stalinism had not only to explain why the latter occurred, but to show what sort of society had emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Trotsky considered that the Soviet Union had become a degenerated workers’ state. Although the ruling bureaucracy had usurped power from the working class, and its rule was worse than that of Hitler’s, the Soviet Union remained at root a workers’ state because of the existence of nationalised property. Not all of his followers could accept that. Some came to consider that the Soviet Union was a form of state capitalism, whilst others came around to thinking that it constituted a new form of class society; not socialist, but not capitalist either. Neither Capitalism Nor Socialism consists of 13 essays from 1937 to 1951 by supporters of the latter current.
Some of the contributors made some pertinent points. Max Shachtman made mincemeat of Trotsky’s analysis, making the essential point that whilst the capitalist class can still rule even when its political rights are restricted under fascism, as it still exercises great social power, this cannot apply to a workers’ state. Unlike Hitler’s Germany, which still remained a capitalist state, the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy meant the ousting of the working class from power, and therefore the state was no longer a worker’s state, nationalised property forms notwithstanding. Hal Draper recognised in 1948 that the Soviet-Yugoslav split was a squalid case of squabbling over power in the Balkans, and Jack Brad saw as early as 1949 the first signs of discord between Moscow and the Chinese Stalinists.
There are differing opinions amongst the authors within the generally agreed parameters. Some differences were tactical, with Joseph Carter and Max Shachtman arguing over whether Marxists should call for the defence of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, whilst others were of a theoretical nature. Whilst most authors saw the only the Soviet Union and the later Stalinist countries as collectivist states, James Burnham came to consider that the collectivist society was the next stage of social development, and then proceeded to argue that socialism was impossible. Dwight Macdonald claimed that both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were bureaucratic collectivist societies.
Altogether, however, this collection is a disappointment. To call these pieces ‘theories of bureaucratic collectivism’ is a little arrogant. ‘Essays on…’ would be a better subtitle, as one of the most remarkable things about the theory is how little theoretical work was actually done on it. Of course, these essays deal with the birth of the system, and the authors cannot be blamed for failing to foresee its subsequent development. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the editors to explain how Nazi Germany returned to being (at least in the Federal Republic) a democratic capitalist power, how and why the Soviet bloc collapsed, and why nearly all Stalinists have ended up opting for the market.
A look at the Stalinist command economy shows that although it could achieve prodigious growth rates in its initial stage through the use of liberal amounts of unskilled labour, raw material and terror, any attempt to go beyond this led to a declining rate of output, which meant that as industry became more complex, the amount of goods produced declined relatively to the amount of resources invested in industry. Unlike the crisis of profitability under capitalism, which can be reversed even if it takes brutal means, the crisis of output under Stalinism was terminal. With growth rates tending towards zero during the 1980s, the Soviet bureaucracy gave up on the command economy, and attempted to move to the market.
If the collapse of the Soviet Union tells us anything, it is that the Stalinist system did not constitute a new mode of production. The short tenure of the command economy — a mere six decades — shows that it was not a viable socio-economic system, and that the editors were wrong in denying that it was ‘a peculiar byway of history’ (p125). They admit that it ‘was economically regressive as compared to capitalism’ (p xi). But this stands in contrast with the essays, which either state outright or imply that the bureaucratic collective system was more dynamic than capitalism.
Like the other analyses of the time, the theory of bureaucratic collectivism was based upon superficial observations. It was superior to Trotsky’s analysis in that it denied that the existence of nationalised property in Stalinist states gave them a proletarian character, yet Trotsky recognised that the Stalinist system was a temporary phenomenon with a limited lifespan. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism was an attempt to come to grips theoretically with the ugly spectacle of Stalinism. It failed because the laws of motion of the Stalinist system were not visible during its formative stages, and the subsequent development of the Stalinist states, with their slide or collapse into the market, shows that the kernel of the theory — that Stalinism represented a new form of class society — was mistaken.
The latter half of the 1930s was the time of what George Orwell called ‘the stupid cult of Russia’. The tremendous growth of the Soviet economy whilst the capitalist world experienced chronic unemployment and poverty, seemed to demonstrate the superiority of the planned economy not merely to many people who were not in the official communist movement, but also to quite a few outwith the labour movement altogether. The quest of the Soviet Union for a ‘collective security’ deal with the democratic imperialist powers against the threat of Nazi Germany reinforced the concept of the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving’ state. This was the time of fellow travelling, a period when people who should have known better were to praise Stalin and the Soviet Union, closing their eyes to the terror which was consuming vast numbers of Soviet citizens, and when the official communist movement was attempting to gather around itself anyone from any class who favoured forcing their governments to implement social reform at home and a foreign policy based upon an alliance with the Soviet Union.
One of the products of the Popular Front period in Britain was the weekly paper Tribune. Launched in January 1937, Tribune was the flagship of the Unity Campaign, which was promoted by the Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the Socialist League within the Labour Party, in order to promote a wide united left wing front, although by 1939 the Socialist League had been dissolved, and the ILP was no longer associated with the CPGB, as the latter was promoting the all-class Popular Front. During the late 1930s, there had been a convergence between the CPGB and left wingers within the Labour Party, and the mainstays of Tribune, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss, had been expelled from the Labour Party precisely for their support for the Popular Front.
Along with the Left Book Club, Tribune acted as a useful adjunct of the CPGB, offering a non-party platform for its views, and helping to promote the concepts of narrow anti-fascism and ‘collective security’ in areas that the party could not so easily reach. Although Tribune was little more than a mouthpiece of Stalinism, it articulated a substantial current of thought in and around the Labour Party.
When the Soviet Union and Germany signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939, Tribune greeted it as effusively and absurdly as any Stalinist publication, asking rhetorically: ‘Is it not clear… that only malicious or ignorant political commentators could pretend that the Soviet-German pact is an arrangement to give Germany a free hand in Europe.’ Moreover:
‘Article 4 of the Soviet-German pact is entirely compatible with a mutual assistance pact against aggression signed by Britain, France and the USSR. For such a triple pact would be directed against an aggressor, whoever that aggressor was, and not directly or indirectly against Germany.’ (1 September 1939)
It would be ‘a contemptible lie’ to think otherwise. But the whole thrust of Popular Front politics was that Germany was the aggressor. Just who Tribune considered the aggressor to be was not explained. One thing, however, was certain. In words that would very soon appear ludicrous, Konni Zilliacus asked us to ‘dismiss the tales of a secret Nazi-Soviet alliance for the partition of Poland’ (ibid).
Along with the other parties of the Communist International, the CPGB gave its support to the Allies when the Second World War broke out in early September, in a strategy called the ‘war on two fronts’, that is, support for the war against Germany, combined with a call for a new government. Moscow, however, was soon to advise the official communist movement that the war was imperialist, and could not be supported. Not without some ructions at the highest echelons, the CPGB adopted an anti-war line, which it was to maintain until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Tribune adhered to the ‘war on two fronts’ position, but for six months said nothing about the CPGB’s volte face, and restricted its criticisms of Stalinism to Soviet foreign policy. ‘Vigilans’, the paper’s foreign affairs writer, condemned the idea of a peace conference that was being promoted by the CPGB. This, said would only benefit the right wing, who would welcome the chance to ‘switch the peace’, so that ‘the two fascisms’ — Germany and Italy — and ‘the two plutocracies’ — Britain and France — could unite against the Soviet Union ‘and against their own working classes’. He also cast doubts upon the benevolent nature of the Soviet Union, and recognised that it was only interested in its own position:
‘That being the situation, it would be idle to expect that if Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini were to get together, the USSR could or would “dictate peace terms” that would make it easier for us or for the German workers to get rid of fascism or plutocracy.’ (17 November 1939)
It was, however, the Finnish Winter War which widened the gulf between Tribune and the CPGB. Soviet troops had barely crossed the border into Finland in late November 1939 before an angry front page statement by the editorial board declared:
‘It is useless to conceal from ourselves that this action of the Soviet Union has profoundly shocked socialist opinion throughout the world. The diplomatic preparation for the invasion smelt more of Mein Kampf than of The Communist Manifesto… Socialism, if it is to be won at all, must be won by the workers themselves in struggle with their own ruling class, and cannot be conferred upon them from outside. Certainly it cannot be expected to take root if its seeds are sown by means of bombing raids… “Socialism means war” is hardly a slogan which will endear socialism to the workers.’ (8 December 1939)
There was, it added, little evidence of Britain or France actually attempting to ‘switch’ the war into an anti-Soviet crusade, but the Soviet Union was now ‘making a handsome contribution’ to the possibility of such a manoeuvre (ibid). Nevertheless, Tribune stood firm against the attempts by British politicians to send arms and men to Finland. Bevan said:
‘Why is it that in the middle of a war with fascist Germany, we are in a position to send planes to be used against the Soviet Union? Are they not needed to fight Germany? Or is it that the British government prefers to fight the Soviet Union?’ (22 December 1939)
By the end of 1939 Tribune was claiming, in words which stood in contrast to those four months prior, that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had ‘encouraged Hitler to risk a European war (by delivering him from the fear of having to face great powers on both fronts)’ (15 December 1939).
Tribune kept silent about the CPGB’s anti-war stance until around May 1940, when it launched into it with considerable venom. Reviewing Gollancz’s Where Are You Going?, ‘Vigilans’ declared:
‘Today the CP, by sticking to the principle that it must blindly support the line dictated through the Comintern, by the Russian Communist Party, which is thinking solely in the interests of Russian foreign policy, is sinking involuntarily and perhaps even unwittingly into the position of being the apologists and almost the accomplices of fascist aggression.’ (10 May 1940)
In an extremely intemperate attack, Bevan said that, on the one hand, there was the pro-fascist right wing, and on the other:
‘… we have the group that still calls itself communist, which has not had the guts to stand up to a real war, though it talked bigger than anyone else. These people relied on Stalin to do their thinking for them; now he has travelled his own road they can do nothing but snarl and whine. No honest anti-fascist worker cares for them at all. They shame their own dead in Spain.’ (24 May 1940)
Both of these points could easily have been made the previous autumn, but Tribune waited until May 1940 before launching into the CPGB, even though by then the CPGB had dropped the sinister pro-German asides which had been a feature of its propaganda since late 1939. This change in line can be partly contributed to the replacement in early 1940 of HJ Hartshorn as editor by Raymond Postgate. But it is strange that Tribune stood silent for several months on an issue that that was of national importance, and was discussed at great length and in great detail in both labour movement publications and in the national press.