Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ralph Miliband - Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour

The election of the socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party in September 2015 should have made every revolutionary socialist think through their understanding of that political party. For the tens of thousands of people joining, or rejoining Labour in 2015, this was a seminal moment. For years Labour had been dominated by slavishy pro-market, neo-liberal, pro-war politics, but Corbyn brought the prospect of something very new.

This is not the place to rehearse discussions on what Corbyn means for the left in Labour. There are other excellent pieces that do this. In trying to understand Corbyn, I turned to one of the "seminal texts" of the Marxist left in Britain, Ralph Miliband's pioneering study of the politics of Labour.

Miliband's book puts Labour's history into its wider context. This is the belief that change, even fundamental change, could come through a peaceful, parliamentary road. In fact, Miliband makes this a core argument, he points out that this reformist position was not something that developed later in Labour's history but was there from the start,
It did not take the Bolshevik Revolution or the Communists Party's involvement with the Third International and Russia to define the attitude of the leaders of Labour to any organisation which proclaimed its adherence to a revolutionary ideology. The attitude was defined from the earliest days of the Labour Party's existence.
In the early decades of Labour's existence there was a contradiction then. Labour's leaders would denounce capitalism and argue for socialism, but would do nothing to further the struggle on the streets towards that goal. In particular, Labour saw class struggle, strikes and protest movements as a distraction from the key work of getting Labour members elected to Parliament. Take for instance the huge battles that took place in 1919, when, in the aftermath of World War One, Britain seemed "on the brink of revolution". Miliband writes that three things were demonstrated
firstly, that a majority of Labour leaders remained as timid and cautious after the war as they had been before,. in some ways more; secondly, that a substantial segment of the organised working class was far ahead of its leadership in its willingness to challenge the Government; and thirdly, that while the Left wielded far greater influence than it had done before 1914, and could win temporary majorities at Conferences, it was not in a position to supplant the traditionalists.
The result of this timidness was that the Labour Party and the TUC pulled back from the sort of action that could have defeated the government and little was won, in fact, as Miliband notes, on the key question of the nationalisation of the mines, when the TUC and Labour decided against calling a general strike to fight for this, "it settled the issue, and much else as well, for twenty-five years".

The story of the first few Labour governments was equally bland. In Labour's first minority government, Labour was terrified of doing anything radical. Headed by Ramsey MacDonald, a man so scared of confrontation he apologised to the king for the singing of the Red Flag by MPs, and so desperate to be part of the establishment he strictly enforced dress codes and behaviour among his MPs, there was little that was likely to change.

By the time the General Strike of 1926 was betrayed by the TUC and the Labour leadership, the problem was well and truly obvious. The defeat of that strike lay not simply in an act betrayal, but something much more fundamental
But the notion of betrayal, though accurate, should not be allowed to reduce the episode to the scale of a Victorian melodrama, with the Labour leaders as the gleeful villains, planning and perpetrating an evil deed. The Labour movement was betrayed, but not because the Labour leaders were villains or cowards. It was betrayed because betrayal was the inherent and inescapable consequence of their whole philosophy of politics.
There was a fear (particularly from the union leadership) that the strike would get out of hand. More important though, "was the belief... that a challenge to the Government through the assertion of working class strength outside Parliament was wrong".

Part of the reason for this lies in the close links between Labour and the trade union leadership. The union bureaucracy, at one stage removed from its membership and the shop-floor, feels a pull on both sides. On the one hand it must articulate its members interests. But it must also feel the pressure from the bosses. The bureaucracy becomes a class in and of itself, economically and politically buffered from the working class struggles, it identifies less with the shop floor and more with managing the system. Challenging that situation means undermining its own position, making it harder to envisage.

Labour's origins from this class help create some of the conservatism within the parliamentary organisation in particular. But so does Labour's philosophy, identifying with the "national interest". During the period when a National Government, headed by the former Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was assaulting workers living standards on an enormous scale, Labour did little to challenge this, accepting the myth that such economic changes were needed for the greater good of the country. They didn't and, as Miliband notes, had Labour mobilised "effective opposition to the Government's policies, at home and abroad. The history of that terrible decade might have been different, perhaps decisively different, but for its deliberate refusal to do so."

The 1930s were low points for Labour. With his forensic examination of Labour Party policy documents and conference reports, Miliband shows how Labour systematically ignored what was taking place. From the conference reports of both the TUC and Labour in 1932, you would not know, that there were mass movements against unemployment taking place. Both organisations were not even involved in the unemployment movements, in part because they saw them as Communist Party fronts, but more so, because once again they were seen as distractions from getting Labour elected.

But today much of this is forgotten. One piece of history that isn't is the result of Attlee's government in 1945. Elected on a wave of hope after World War Two, and a rejection of Tory betrayals in the run up to the war, Labour seemed to promise much. It delivered lots too, a National Health Service, mass housing projects and the nationalisation of key industries. But even here, they pulled their punches. Miliband repeatedly notes that many of these changes were welcomed by the Tories who saw them as a necessity if British Capital was to modernise itself to compete once again on the world stage. In Labour's manifesto, published in 1945, Miliband reports,
A careful distinction was made between 'basic industries ripe and over-ripe for public ownership and management in the direct service of the nation', and 'big industries not yet ripe for public ownership'; these, however, would be required 'by constructive supervision' to further the nation's needs. And there were, thirdly, 'many smaller businesses rendering good service which can be left to go on with their useful work'.
This was hardly a major challenge to British capitalism. The manifesto might be looked upon with rose-tinted glasses from today's vantage point as both Tory and Labour governments have systematically privatised and dismantled the public sector, but as Miliband points out,"developments since, have invested it with a quasi-revolutionary aura, [but] it was, in its concrete proposals, a mild and circumspect document".

Miliband continues that
From the beginning, the nationalisation proposals... were designed to achieve the sole purpose of improving the efficiency of a capitalist economy, not marking the beginning of its wholesale transformation, and this was an aim to which many Tories, whatever they might say in the House of Commons, were easily reconciled.
Miliband's book continues the sorry tale until the 1960s. As Labour came out of the 1945 government, battered and weakened, having to use troops to cross picket lines and stepping back from any more radical proposals, further nationalisation went out of the window and the right-ward drift began. The author's account of the 1950s and 1960s were the book finishes are further dispiriting, with Labour accepting that British capital had to identify with the United States and supporting that country in Korea, and then, at least verbally, in Vietnam. In 1965, faced with a balance of payments crisis, Harold Wilson refused to devalue the pound, even though it would have provided some respite. Instead, a program of attacks on living standards were embarked upon, and in a revealing interview, Wilson explained why
There are many people overseas, including governments, marketing boards, central banks and others, who left their money in the form of sterlin balances, on the assumption that the value of sterling would be maintained. To have let them down would have been not only a betrayal of trust, it would have shaken their faith about holding any further money in the form of sterling.
Wilson here neatly sidesteps the question of the betrayal of trust of those who voted Labour hoping it would protect them from the worst of capitalism, and gives an interesting insight into a Labour PM's priorities.

Where does this leave us today? Firstly, Labour remains a reformist organisation. Its close links to the working class movement make it different to the Tories and while Corbyn clearly would like to go much further than recent Labour leaders, Miliband's book makes it clear that he is not as left as many earlier Labour figures. Corbyn is also trapped by a system, a parliamentary party that wants little to do with radical change and a parliamentary system that has, since Labour MPs first entered into it, done everything it can to foster the idea of slow, gradual activity and change.

Capitalism today is less interested in granting reforms. As crisis follows crisis, workers are always being asked to pay. Labour, despite the best intentions of Jeremy Corbyn and many of its members, remains trapped in that system. Fundamental, revolutionary change is needed more than ever. But what Corbyn has done is to create a space for the fragmented left to gain a hearing. For the first time in decades, socialism is being discussed across the country.

Those on the left outside Labour have a duty to work closely with those inside Labour to build and develop a new movement that can fight for change. Ralph Miliband' book on Labour's history will remain an essential tool in learning the lessons of the past and explaining why Labour cannot bring fundamental change. There are problems - in particular Miliband's focus on Labour means that on occasion he mentions events outside Parliament only in passing, which can be confusing for the reader. Nor does he deal in detail in this work on the question of the state and its action as a barrier to fundamental change. Finally I think Miliband doesn't explore enough about why Labour in government acts as it does. Nontheless this is an extremely important read today and one that every socialist, inside Labour and outside will benefit from reading in the coming months and years.

Related Reading

Newsinger - Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 
Molyneux - Marxism and the Party 
Luxembourg - Reform or Revolution 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Derek Wilson - The People and the Book: The Revolutionary Impact of the English Bible 1380-1611

In reading and writing about the various historical rebellions that have taken place in the British Isles in the pre-capitalist era, it is notable how important the question of religion has been. Both the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 were inseparable from the question of the Reformation.This should not be surprising. How people understand the world and how they interpret or argue for change is sometimes inseparable from their religion, particularly in periods when religion was the dominant ideology.

Derek Wilson's 1977 book is a useful history of how the English bible came to dominant English religion. Today it seems strange that there should not have been an English bible. But if the dominant ideology is religion, then it is in the interest of the ruling classes to control the distribution of that religion. In  sixteenth century England that meant the bible was rare and not available in a language that the common people might understand. In fact, Wilson quotes a study of the wills of almost 900 East Anglian clergy between 1500 and 1550 and finds that only 17 owned a bible. Back in 1407 the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that
no one henceforth on his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English or any other language... and that no book, pamphlet or tract of this kind... be read in part or in whole, publicly or privately
So the scene was set for those who wanted to understand the bible, or believed that everyone should have the opportunity to read and interpret the bible, to begin to organise. Wilson's book brings us a history of those who, often at risk of death, torture and imprisonment, struggled against the dominance of the existing church. On occasion these were mass outbreaks of rebellion, but more often they were networks of illegal, or semi-legal dissenters meeting, reading and writing pamphlets and discussing ideas. A translated bible was often central to this.
in 1428 an informant deposed against Margery Baxter of Martham, Norfolk, that she 'secretly desired her, that she and Joan her main would come secretly, in the night, to her chamber, and there she should hear her husband read the law of Christ unto them, which law was written in a book that her husband was wont to read to her by night'.
This does not mean that all religious dissenters were revolutionary. Far from it. In fact Derek Wilson makes it clear that "no Lollards were revolutionaries" when discussing those who came to follow the great religious dissenter Wycliffe. But by the reign of Henry VIII, change was coming and there was a battle on. Thomas More said that half the English population could read. Wilson argues this was an exaggeration, but that there would be few places were there wasn't someone who could read. The consequences were dangerous for the ruling class
For centuries English Christians had believed what they were told by their priests and bishops, largely because there was no other source of information... But now the battle for men's minds was on.
Growing numbers of English bibles were making their way into the country. Wilson documents the impressive network of merchants prepared to risk smuggling the version translated by Tyndale into the country. BY the late 1530s though, with Henry VIII needing to justify his position as head of the new church and undermine the link with Rome, an official translated bible was allowed.

The new availability of "god's word" meant that ordinary people could read it. Wilson describes the fascinating effects of this, as "gospellers" read allowed the bible to gathered listeners. This must have been extraordinary,
Often they chose to do this during mass, setting up a 'rival show' and sometimes drowning the mumblings of the priest in the sanctuary. William Maldon related how the poor men of Chelmsford came together on Sundays 'in the lower end of the church... to hear their reading of that glad and sweet tidings of the Gospel'
 Once unleashed this was impossible to stop. In fact Henry did try. Eventually, so concerned was he with ordinary people reading the bible, that he banned the lower orders from doing so in 1543. In what Derek Wilson argues was perhaps the first attack on a granted freedom in history, only the rich could read the bible in English. But so rooted was the new religion among ordinary people this did not long last Henry's death and Wilson shows that even with the reign of Catholic Mary and her brutal suppression of Protestantism, Church leaders did not really try and remove English bibles from Churches.

Wilson is enthusiastic about the importance of a translated bible, seeing a close link between the "spiritual freedom brought by the English bible and the political freedom won by seventeenth-century parliamentarians". And "important step on the path to democracy" he calls it. He is probably accurate in this, though he over-extends this argument from the specific story of England by saying that  there are "very few Protestant countries in which totalitarian regimes have been tolerated for any length of time".

Nonetheless the importance of the English bible cannot be underestimated. It was a right that was fought for and defended by thousands of men and women who wanted the right to interpret and understand the dominant ideology of the world themselves. This could be, and frequently was, of revolutionary significance. While I might have minor disagreements with Wilson's emphasis on how important the bible was, this is a fascinating history that highlights the role of ordinary people in shaping their own world.

Related Reviews

Siegel - The Meek and the Militant
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Monday, October 12, 2015

Judith Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation

Judith Orr's new book is an answer to a conundrum. As she asks on the very first page,
Why are women, half the human race, still discriminated against?... Women on average earn around 18 percent less than men. Britain has fallen out of the top 20 countries for gender pay parity because the gap between men's and women's incomes is so wide. The latest economic crisis... has hit working class women the hardest.... The sexual freedom we though had been won in the struggles of the 1960s appears to have just given us the opportunity to be even more crudely defined as sex objects than ever before.
Explaining why it is, that in every country in the world women are systematically under-represented in public and private bodies, paid less, worked harder and objectified, leads Orr to examine the nature of our society and to explain why sexism is central to capitalist society. In doing so, she challenges those who say sexism is caused simply by the sexism of men, or that it has always existed. Marxists argue that oppression has not always existed, and in an excellent early chapter Orr looks at the way that for most of human history women have not been systematically oppressed.
today women are seen as mainly responsible for rearing the next generation in the family and looking after the sick and elderly, even though their role in society is much more than this. But this hasn't always been so. Different forms of the family may reproduce the oldest oppression but it is still a relatively modern development... for 90 percent of human history there were no hierarchies and no systematic oppression.
The importance of this analysis is, as Orr points out, that "oppression is not an inevitable product of human nature" and thus we can imagine and fight for a future without oppression too.

The emphasis on the family in the above quote is important, because the family (in all the forms it has taken) is central to the ongoing existence of women's oppression. Orr quotes from a classic piece by the British Marxist Chris Harman who explained that capitalism creates and uses the family, but it is not the sole aim of the capitalist system. "[Capitalism] has only one driving force - the exploitation of workers in order to accumulate. The family, like religion, the monarchy etc, is only of use to capitalism in so far as it helps this goal." How it helps is two fold. Firstly there is the economic question. Just the "informal" care of the sick and disabled by their family saves the British government £119 billion yearly. Orr quotes David Cameron being open about this when he said "[the family] is the best welfare state we ever had".

Then there is the ideological role of the family. This teaches us to live in small units, to be self-sufficient, to expect little from the state, and to do it for ourselves. As another Tory PM Margaret Thatcher said "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first." This also helps explain another aspect of capitalism - the way that the existence of the family helps to solidify a particular set of relationship as the norm. LGBT people are stigmatized because they are "different" to the supposedly normal family.

Yet these realities are constantly changing. Men and women struggle for changes. Laws to maintain the family are challenged. Abortion rights were won, helping to free women from the dangers of backstreet abortions, and in turn those rights were defended. LGBT people fighting together with straight people have won more rights, in the face of opposition from governments around the globe.

Another central strand to Orr's book is this emphasis on struggle. In particular she examines the mass movements that have fought for key gains for women. The struggle for the vote, the battle for abortion rights, equal pay rights and so on. In examining the Second Wave of the Women's movement, Orr makes a very important observation.
The early 1970s [in Britain] was a period of mass working class struggle. This included two national miner's strikes, a national docker's strike and more than 200 factory occupations. So although the women's movement in Britain was inspired by the Women's Liberation Movement in the US it was built in different circumstances, which included the presence of a stronger revolutionary left and a better rooted and organised labour and trade union movement. This backdrop shaped the dominant ideas and debates of the WLM in Britain. it also shaped the activity of newly politicised women. The campaigns they organised often reflected the demands and needs of working class women - equality at work, equal pay, maternity benefits.
This experience helped to make the demands of the women's movement part of those of the working class movement. That the TUC organised a mass protest, attended by tens of thousands of women and men against a Tory attack on abortion rights in 1979 was one brilliant expression of this.

Because Orr begins her explanation of women's oppression by examining the question of capitalism, a class analysis is central to her strategy for fighting for liberation. This is where Orr disagrees with many feminists, arguing that patriarchy theory misunderstands the origins of women's oppression and directs the movement down a blind alley.

This is why Orr can point to the way that at the high points of class struggle, in particular the early years of the Russian Revolution, working people won gains that showed the potential for an entirely different way of organising society. After the Russian Revolution abortion was a legal right, women played a full role in the democracy in society, child care, food and laundry was collectively organised, removing the burden from women in a society that had been incredibly backward. These achievements did not survive Stalin's rise to power, but Lenin could rightly celebrate in 1918
Take the position of women. In this field, not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power.... We really razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it was disgusting formalities,,,, laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilised countries.
Judith Orr's book ends on the possibility of Revolution to truly liberate women. It is this emphasis that makes the book so inspiring, because it doesn't simply highlight what is wrong in society, but offers a way forward. There is much more that I haven't covered in this review. For instance, Orr looks at contemporary women's movements and discusses some of the ideas that have come out of academia such as intersectionality and privilege theory. She finds these wanting, downplaying as they do the question of class. I also found the section on the question of social reproduction and the debate on wages for housework very useful.

For socialists, radicals and activists today this is a superb book. Its accessible, but takes on big and important debates and questions. It will introduce a new generation to the importance of Marxism as a tool understanding the origins of oppression and how we can fight to build a world where women's oppression is a thing of the past.

Related Reviews

Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

There's little to cheer the reader of Solzhenitsyn's account of a single day in a Soviet gulag. It's a stark, brutal tale of a daily struggle for existence that lives the reader with little hope and a grim sense of hopelessness. Solzhenitsyn's writing is tight and evocative. The detail he uses clearly draws heavily on personal experience, the rolling of a cigarette,
Eino got out a pouch embroidered with pink thread. He took from it a pinch of factory-cut tobacco, put it on Shukhov's pal, sized it up, and added a few wisps. Just enough for one roll-up, not a scrap more. Shukhov had newspaper of his own. He tore a bit off, rolled his cigarette, picked up a hot ember that had landed between the foreman's feet, took a long drag, another long drag and felt a sort of dizziness all over hi body, as though drink had gone to his head and his legs.
The casual treatment of the lack of basics, newspaper instead of rolling papers, and the concern over wisps of tobacco tells us everything we need to know about inmates lives. Shortages of tobacco products are mirrored by the constant quest for food, and more food. The central character declares the day a good one, at the end of the novel, mostly because he'd got himself a couple of extra bites of food.
All you'' get is an extra two hundred grammes of bread of an evening. Bit your life can depend on those two hundred grammes. Two-hundred-gramme portions built the Belomor Canal.
But shortages are nothing compared to the hard work in appalling conditions, and the casual violence for rule-breaking. The isolation, the physical punishment and the bullying of the guards, means making it to the end of the sentence is hard enough. But the real punch in the stomach is the realisation that this is simply one day, in thousands for Ivan Denisovich and his fellow inmates.

The power of One Day is its expose of the reality of the prison camp. Solzhenitsyn's saying little here about why those camps exist, though we get insights into the changes that have taken place in Soviet society. From revolutionary optimism, to the brutal dictatorship of the Stalin era that still uses the language of socialism to justify its rule. One Day caused a shock when first published, alerting the world to the reality of what many knew was taking place.

My edition has a terrible introduction by one John Bayley which seeks to use the novel as a denunciation of all things socialist. While Solzhenitsyn may have had that in his mind as well, this is far from a crude propaganda tract. It's an honest account of what happens when revolutions are destroyed, not an argument against changing the world.