Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

Radical Balladry and Poetry for Proles

May 15, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

19th Century Illustration of a Ballad Seller

A few days ago I posted a few pieces on Rob Young’s history of the British folk revival and folk rock, Electric Eden (London: Faber and Faber 2010), and the radical and political folk songs protesting about the conditions of the poor and demanding workers’ rights, such as The Poor Man Pays For All from the 1630s. The Chartist and trade union movements in the 19th century also included poets and song-writers, who attempted to get their message of popular democracy and just treatment for the workers across in verse and music. They included Ernest Charles Jones, a British lawyer, who was born in Berlin in Germany from British parents. In 1845 he became a member of the Chartist movement, and was co-editor, with Feargus O’Connor, of The Labourer, and Northern Star. Not surprisingly, he became embittered and alienated after he was imprisoned in the two years from 1848-50 for inciting the British public to revolt. He was a friend and follower of Karl Marx from 1850 to 1855, whose ideas influenced Jones’ Notes to the People of 1850-1 and the early years of his People’s Paper. Beer in his History of British Socialism, gives an example of his poetry, the Song of the Lower Classes.


We plough and sow- we’re so very, very low
That we delve in the dirty clay
Till we bless the plain – with the golden grain,
And the vale with the verdant hay.
Our place we know-we’re so very low
‘Tis down at the landlord’s feet,
We’re not too low – the bread to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.


“Down, down we go-we’re so very, very low,
To the hell of deep-sunk mines,
But we gather the proudest gems that glow
When the crown of the despot shines.
And whenever he lacks – upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We’re far too low to vote the tax,
But not too low to pay.


“We’re low, we’re low – mere rabble, we know,
But at our plastic power,
The mould at the lordling’s feet will grow
Into palace and church and tower –
The prostrate fall – in the rich men’s hall
And cringe ata the rich man’s door:
We’re not too low to build the wall,
But too low to tread the floor.


“We’re low – we’re low – we’re very, very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow – and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get – and what we give
We know, and we know our share:
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear”.

Other Chartist leaders in their poems urged a general strike and a worker’s revolution in order to achieve democracy. One of Thomas Cooper’s speeches in Staffordshire resulted in ‘serious disturbance’, arson and destruction of property. Cooper himself summarised them in the following lines, according to Beer, in his 1845 Purgatory of Suicides.

“Slaves, toil no more! Why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?
Slaves, toil no more! Up from the midnight mine,
Summon your swarthy thousands to the plain;
Beneath the bright sun marshalled, swell the strain
Of Liberty; and while the lordlings view
Your banded hosts, with stricken heart and brain, –
Shot as one man, ‘Toil we now more renew,
Until the Many cease their slavery to the Few!
We’ll crouch, and toil, and weave, no more – to weep!’
Exclaim your brothers from the weary loom: –
Yea, now they swear with one resolve dread, deep –
‘We’ll toil no more – to win a pauper’s doom!’
And, while the millions swear, fell Famine’s gloom
Spreads from their haggard faces, like a cloud,
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:-
How ‘neat its terrors, are the tyrants bowed!
Slaves, toil no more – to starve! Go forth and tame the proud!

Britain’s mining and cloth industries may have been devastated, but the words are still resonant and very relevant. We are, after all, suffering under the class government of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their fellow financiers and aristos. And the lines ‘we’re too low to vote the tax/ But not too low to pay’ exactly describe the ‘Bedroom tax’.

Jess, one of the commenters on this blog, provided a bit more information. She writes

I forgot to mention, An Anthology of Chartist Verse has been published, not once, but twice.

It first appeared from Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1956,[As An Anthology of Chartist Literature] then largely reprinted by the Associated University Press in 1989. [As ‘An Anthology of Chartist Poetry’]. The second printing excised the Literary Criticism contained in the former edition [mostly reprinted from the Scottish Chartist Circular]

One version of the National Chartist Hymn Book can be viewed here;

This last is well-worth looking at as an example of the aspirations of working class Christian radicals for social justice. It would frighten the modern, ultra-capitalist Christian Right faster than you could say ‘Social Gospel’.

Apart from the Chartists, other radical Left-wing groups and parties also produced song-books. Jess mentioned the Fabian Song book of 1912, which partly drawn from the Carpenter’s and Progressive song books. The ILP also produced a song book and the American Syndicalist union, the International Workers of the World or the ‘Wobblies’, are especially known for their songs. Jess writes about these:

A version of the ‘Little Red Song Book’ can be found here;

Click to access iwwlrs.pdf

It’s last known printing in the UK was in the 1990’s and was done by Scottish Republican Socialists through Clydeside Press (who are still in business)

Another American ‘Socialist Song Book’ can be found here

The Pennsylvania ‘local’ who produced (I would guess around the 1930’s) patently drew on the ILP Songbook of c.1910, initially drawn up by Tom Anderson of Glasgow, but completed by the Glasiers [Anderson felt so annoyed at what they had done that he left the ILP for the Socialist Labour Party. For the latter organisation he produced a ‘Proletarian Songbook’ [primarily for use in his ‘Proletarian Schools’]
More on Anderson here; ]
Songbook cover here;

Unfortunately, the only place you will find those Chartist Anthologies is in Research Libraries. The WCML certainly has the Moscow edition. (I was once told there are only 50 or so in the UK)

Ironically the American one is even scarcer, with probably no more than 10 copies in the UK [It was kept away from Europe due to potential copyright problems}

But I can easily get access to both, so if you have a query, or an interest, I will sort something out.

There is a very strong body of radical, Left-wing working class and folk literature, which is still very relevant. Jess notes that it’s been largely neglected by the Left, except for a very few aficionados and researchers, like Roy Palmer, the author of a Ballad History of England. She also recommended a number of other folk song researchers and experts:

I would recommend, if you can still get hold of it, the EFDSS CD collection of William Kimber. Parts of the interview it contains is fascinating, especially Kimber’s acceptance of the Women’s Morris.

Also worth seeking out are the recordings of Walter Pardon, who includes, on one of his albums, songs used by the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

More recently, the Left has used songs to articulate its criticism of social injustice and promote its causes. I first came across Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about nuclear warfare, ‘And we’ll burn together when we burn’ in 1980s with the revival of CND in Thatcher and Reagan’s new Cold War. The same decade also saw Billy Bragg get onto Top of the Pops with his modern folk-song about the Miners, just when Thatcher was putting the boot into them. With this new attack on the poor and working class, it would be no bad thing at all if some of these songs were revived. It might even remind some of the Labour party’s leaders just whom they’re supposed to represent.

Henry Hyndman and the Democratic Federation

May 10, 2014

Henry_hyndman pic

Henry Hyndman, founder of the Democratic Federation

One of the first Socialist parties in the latter 19th century was Henry Hyndman’s Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. Hyndman corresponded with Marx about reviving Chartism, and intended his new Federation to be a working class organisation continuing ‘the great work of Spence and Owen, , Stephens and Oastler, O’Connor and O’Brien, Ernest Jones and George J. Harney’. Beer in his History of British Socialism considered that his ideas were derived from Marx, Bronterre O’Brien and Benjamin Disraeli. At its founding conference in June 8th, 1881, the party decided on the following programme:

1. Universal suffrage.

2. Triennial parliaments.

3. Equal electoral divisions.

4. Payment of members.

5. Corruption and bribery of the electors to be punishable as criminal offences.

6. Abolition of the House of Lords as a legislative body.

7. Home rule for Ireland.

8. Self-government for the colonies and dependencies.

9. Nationalisation of the land.

They presented a more Socialist programme in their 1883 pamphlet, Socialism Made Plain. This urged working people to campaign for the following:

1. Erection of healthy dwellings by the central or local authorities and letting them at low rents to working men.

2. Free and universal education and at least one free meal for school children.

3. An eight-hour day.

4. Progressive taxation on incomes over £300.

5. Establishment of national banks and gradual abolition of private banking.

6. Nationalisation of railways and land.

7. Organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles.

8. Rapid redemption of the national debt.

Most of their programme had become law by the late 20th century. However, we’re now seeing these reforms increasingly attacked. Workers are increasingly required to work far longer than eight hours as part of their normal working day under various clauses in their contracts. Free education is under attack as the government engages on its programme of piecemeal privation of the school system. The railways were privatised by John Major. And the system of council housing was destroyed by Thatcher and her policies continued by Tony Blair. These reforms should all be revived and actively demanded.

One of the points that has not been put into practice, but which I strongly believe should, is no. 7: organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles. This was harking back to the National Workshops of Louis Blanc, which were opened and undermined through government hostility in the Revolution of 1848. They were intended to provide work for the unemployed, who would manage them and share the profits. Under the Tories, the present system of unemployment benefit is deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible in order to drive the jobless into any kind of work, no matter how poorly paid and with poor working conditions. They are moreover seen as a source of cheap labour for the companies participating in the Workfare programmes. We desperately need a system of unemployment benefit and state provision of work that builds and empowers people. I’d like there to be ways in which the unemployed themselves can seize power so that they can force the government to treat them with humanity and dignity. The government’s lauded campaign to create a more entrepreneurial Britain by forcing the unemployed to classify themselves as self-employed in order to keep receiving benefits is woefully inadequate and doesn’t even come close.

Are Cameron and Osborne Communists?

March 26, 2014

CAmeron Stalin

David Cameron: Stalin’s successor in the Tory Party?

‘If I was an Englishman, I would be a Conservative.’

– Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to Britain in the 1950s.

The Coalition’s attack on the poor by forcing down wages and cutting benefits conforms so closely to Marx’s theory of the ‘Iron Law of Wages’ and the programme the Russian Revolutionary, Nechaev, suggested for the way the true revolutionary should undermine capitalism from within that I ended up idly wondering if the Tories really were aware of how similar they were. In fact, so close are they to those parts of revolutionary socialist ideology that I even wondered if they similarities were deliberate, and Cameron, Osborne and Clegg were trying to see how far they could go in showing that Marx and Engels were right before the workers finally revolted and the Chipping Norton Set were ejected from government. In fact, they are following Marx so closely that I wondered if they weren’t actually following Nechaev’s advice and deliberately trying to undermine capitalism from within.

The Iron Law of Wages

The ‘Iron Law of Wages’ is one of the main doctrines of Marxist ideology. According to it, as capitalism develops, the bourgeoisie attempt to maintain higher profits by deliberating forcing down wage to ever lower levels. Eventually wages will become so poor, and the working classes so miserable, that they will revolt and overthrow the government.

Nechaev and the Revolutionary Catechism

The Russian Revolutionary Nechaev believed that this process should be assisted by revolutionary conspirators. The 19th century Russian revolutionaries had repeatedly failed in their attempts to spread Socialism and overthrow the tsar as the Russian people, on whose behalf the Revolutionaries believed they were fighting, remained largely opposed to their efforts. In his Revolutionary Catechism, Nechaev therefore argued that the true revolutionary should become absolutely ruthless, ready to sacrifice and betray anyone and everyone in order to further the revolution, even create chaos and misery in order to harden and radicalise people to the revolutionary cause. He argued that revolutionaries should deliberately enter the government and try to make conditions as worse as possible for the people. Eventually the people would become so miserable and desperate, that they would revolt, overthrow the tsar and create the new, Communist society.

Revisionism and Rejection of Iron Law of Wages

In the later 19th and 20th centuries many Socialists, such as the German revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, criticised and rejected the ‘Iron Law of Wages’ as it did not seem to be born out by contemporary events. Rather than the workers becoming increasingly impoverished, wages were actually rising. Some of this may have been due not just to expansion of the European economies as capitalism developed, but also through the actions of the various Socialist and working class movements, like trade unions, in forcing industrialists to pay better wages. The post-War economic consensus also stressed the need for higher wages and better conditions for the workers, as this would allow them to purchase consumer products and so stimulate the economy and raise profits.

Return of Iron Law under Tories and Tory Democrats

Now, through globalisation and Neo-Liberal economics, the Iron Law of Wages is back with a vengeance. It’s at the very heart of the Coalition’s policies. They are determined to hold down wages below the rate of inflation, so that in real terms the working and lower middle classes are actually taking a cut in wages. At the same time, they are destroying the education system, the NHS and the welfare state in order to maximise the profits of private industry still further, and so creating a level of poverty and misery that has not been seen in decades. We really are heading back to the 19th century world of ruthlessly predatory capitalism at a rate of knots. So closely do their policies conform to Marx’s prediction, that it strongly reminds me of the slogan on one of the T-shirts sold by Red Molotov. This is a company that specialises in selling such shirts with quirky, and often left-wing or radical slogans. One of their shirts has a portrait of Marx, underneath which is the slogan ‘I told you this would happen’.


Coalition Conscious of Own Predatory Nature

I don’t, however, seriously believe for one single minute that they are revolutionaries trying to provoke an increasingly impoverished British public into overthrowing capitalism and the state. They are simply ruthless, predatory capitalists doing what Marx believed ruthless capitalists would always do: exploit the poor and drive them to ever increasing depths of despair, insecurity and poverty, all for greater profits.

And they know this. Osborne had the temerity to quote Marx, while Philip Blond, Cameron’s mentor, liked and quoted the Russian anarchist, Kropotkin, in his book, Red Tory. They simply don’t care that they conform to Marx’s description of capitalist ruthlessness. All that matters to them is that the ordinary man or woman in Britain doesn’t, and continues to swallow all that nonsense that ‘we’re all in it together’, and that the cuts and the austerity drive are the result of high-spending by the previous Labour administration, rather than an integral part of their own Neo-Liberal economic policies.

The Way to Stop Them: Voting, Not Revolution

There is an alternative. Unlike the masses of 19th century Europe, who were largely excluded from participation in the electoral process because of property qualifications that excluded the poor, people don’t have to riot or revolt simply to make their voices heard. They can force out iniquitous and unpopular governments by simply voting them out. And we need to do so now, at every opportunity before the Tories and Tory Democrats make the situation very much worse.

Jason Read Capitalist Parasites

The Demands of the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee

February 22, 2014

1848 Revolution Germany

F.G. Nordmann: The Barricades on the Kronen- and Freidrichstrasse on the 18th March 1848 by an Eyewitness

I found this manifesto of the demands by the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee during the continental revolutions of 1848 in the ‘Vormarz’ volume of the anthologies of German literature published by Reclam. Although it was written over a century and a half ago in Germany, their demands are still acutely relevant to early 21st century Britain. Over half of the demands made by the Berlin workers have or are being attacked by the Cameron and Clegg. I thought that these demands were worth putting up here, both as an historical document showing the aspirations of 19th century German workers, and as a comment on the way the Coalition’s reactionary regime is trying to destroy everything that has been achieved to improve working peoples’ lives since then.

I last did German at school over twenty years ago, and so I apologise for my highly rocky German. If anyone with a better grasp of German than me wishes to revise some of this, let me know, and I’ll post up the original for them to see and comment on.

The Demands of the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee, 18th June 1847

1. Determination of a minimum wage and working hours through a commission of workers and masters or employers.

2. Workers to unite for the maintenance of the living wage.

3. Lifting of indirect taxes, introduction of progressive incomes tax with the exemption of those, who only have life’s necessities.

4. The state to undertake free instruction, and, where it is necessary, the free education of youth with supervision for their abilities.

5. Free public libraries.

6. Regulation of the number of people learning a trade, which a master is allowed to have, through a commission of workers and employers.

7. Lifting of all exceptional laws on workers’ travel, namely those expressed in the itinerary books.
[This refers to the laws in Wilhelmine Germany limiting a worker’s ability to travel in search of work. Every worker was supposed to have a book listing his employment history. The laws were eventually abolished. The Labour Books, however, returned with the conscription of labour under the Nazis in the Third Reich.]

8. Lowering the voting age to 24.

9. Employment of the unemployed in state institutions, to which the state should provide a measure existence for their human needs.

10. Establishment of model workshops and the expansion of the already constituted public artisans’ workshops for the education of able workers.

11.The state to provide for the helpless and all invalided through work.

12. Comprehensive right to native country and freedom of movement.
[This is another attack on the laws limiting the right of workers to move around Germany. In this case, the laws that prevented them from going back to their homes.]

13. Limiting official tyranny over working people.

The above are only to be dismissed from their places through the decisive judgement of a Committee.

In its demands for commissions of workers and employers, the manifesto shows the influence of the continental system of ‘concertation’, in which both workers’ and employers’ groups are consulted and represented in governmental decision-making. It’s the type of corporativism that Edward Heath attempted to introduce into Britain in the 1970s, and which was abolished by Thatcher. What Thatcher resented was not corporativism per se, no matter what she might have said about promoting free trade, but the inclusion of workers’ groups and organisation in the process. Her government still continued to include private industry in the process of government, so that the Thatcher administration has been fairly described as ‘corporativism without the workers’.

The demands for the unemployed to be given work in state workshops, and for the establishment of model workshops, is less a demand for workhouses after the British model, than for a system of National Workshops as was proposed by the French Socialist, Louis Blanc. These were to be set up by the government, but managed co-operatively by the workers themselves. They were set up by the French government in that year, but deliberately poor funding and management by the authorities, which made the work pointless and degrading, undermined them and led to their collapse.

Now let’s see how these demands are faring under Cameron and Clegg.

1. The minimum wage and working hours. Almost from the start, the Coalition has introduced a series of measure designed to get round them. This has been done through workfare, which allows the participating firms to benefit from the unpaid labour of the unemployed; internships, where aspiring young trainees are also taken on without being paid; the new apprenticeship system, which also seems less concerned with training young workers as with allowing employers to pay them less than the minimum wage.

The zero hours system has also allowed employers to cut wages, by tying workers to their employers, who only employ them when they’re needed, and so don’t pay for them when they are not. The rest of the working population, on the other hand, has suffered from a massive expansion of the working week.

2. Union of workers for the fixed wage. Since Thatcher, successive governments have shown themselves hostile to labour unions, and have done their level best to undermine them and reduce the legislation protecting workers. New Labour in its last year or so of government repealed a vast tranche of labour legislation. The Coalition is, if anything, even more opposed to union and labour legislation, with Vince Cable sputtering all kinds of threats when the public sector unions threatened to strike a year or so ago.

3. Lifting of indirect taxes and introduction of progressive income tax. The Conservatives have hated and demanded the removal of incomes tax since the 1980s. I can remember the Sunday Times demanding the removal of incomes tax and its replacement by indirect taxes following the recommendations of the decade’s monetarist economists. Now George Osborne has raised VAT to 20 per cent, and cut incomes tax for the very right. The result has been a massive transfer of wealth from the working to the upper classes.

4. Free instruction and free education by the state. State education is something else that has been under attack by the Right since Thatcher. Milton Friedman urged the introduction of education vouchers, so that parents could have a choice between educating their children in the state or private sector. Guy Debord’s Cat has shown how Friedman’s reforms has led to massive inequalities in the Chilean educational system. Nevertheless, education vouchers were taken up by Ann Soper of the Social Democrats, amongst others.

The Coalition is intent on effectively privatising the school system, with schools taken out of the state system even when the governors themselves are opposed to the scheme. One of the left-wing blogs – I believe it may have been Another Angry Voice – also covered a school, which had effectively introduced school fees. The school was being run by an American company, which used its own, copyrighted curriculum. The company therefore charged the parents of the children at the school over £100 per year for their children’s use of the company’s curriculum materials.

5. Free public libraries. These have suffered massively under the Coalition’s ‘localism’ and ‘Big Society’ agendas. Central government funding has been cut, and libraries have been forced to close. The intention was that they should be taken over and run for free by local community groups. In fact, few groups have members with the necessary skills or experience to take over their management. Many of those that have survived have been forced to cut staff and opening hours.

8. Lowering of the voting age. This is again another hot issue, as the Scots Nationalist wish to reduce the voting age north of the border to 16. Young people tend to be more idealistic than their elders, who have had all their dreams of creating a just world hammered out of them by life. In Scotland they also tend to be more nationalistic than their elders. The Tories thus wish to keep the voting age at 18 as at present.

The Coalition have also altered the procedure for registration for voting, with what looks suspiciously like the intention to make it so complicated that many people will be unaware of the new regulations and so lose the franchise through default.

9. Employment of the unemployed in state institutions and support of their human needs. Osborne is a rabid Libertarian, and so despises any attempt by the state to directly interfere to promote growth through a programme of public works. It is nevertheless true that when the country has experienced a spurt of growth under Gideon, it’s been when he has adopted a Keynsian programme. So the modern equivalent of national workshops to provide work for the workers has been attacked and discarded by the Coalition.

There was a system of workshops like those advocated by the Berlin workers for the disabled. The Remploy workshops, however, have now been closed down by the Coalition, adding further hardship and unemployment for those with disabilities.

As for unemployment benefit, this has and continues to be savagely cut in order to create a pool of the unemployed and desperate in order to bring down wages. The result of this is that thousands have been thrown out of work and have no support due to benefit cuts and sanctions. As a result, people are being forced to use private charity and food banks. The country has therefore seen rising starvation and the return of diseases believed to have been banished since the 19th century.

10. Establishment of model workshops and the training of the able workers. The Coalition, as good Libertarians, are hostile to direct government intervention, and so have embarked on a comprehensive system of privatisation and the further undermining of workers’ employment rights. They are keen to support various training programmes for young workers, but these seem less about providing new skills, than inculcating the attitude in the unemployed that their inability to find a job is their own fault, rather than the government’s or the economy’s. As for the acquisition of new skills, this largely seems to be focused on computer literacy. This is indeed a vital skill, but it does not suit everyone and there seems to be little provision for the less academic. As for the new apprenticeship programme, this also seems simply a way to exploit trainee workers by not paying them the minimum wage. It also seems to be just another way to falsify the unemployment figures by claiming that the unemployed are in fact in work, while they are only on work placements and other temporary schemes.

11. The state to provide for the disabled. As with unemployment benefit, this is something else that has been savagely cut and undermined by the Coalition. Like the Jobcentres, Atos have been set quotas for people to be thrown off benefits by being falsely declared fit for work. The result has been a truly colossal death rate. As many as 38,000 per year may have died in poverty and hardship due to the governments cuts.

12. The right to one’s native country and freedom of movement. Britain in the 19th century did not have laws restricting workers’ freedom of movement as in Germany. However, rising housing costs and the Coalition’s cap of Housing Benefit is resulting in ‘social cleansing’, in which the poor are being forced out of more expensive, upmarket areas. This is especially true in London. Poor Black communities have been particularly hit, and there is resentment there about the way gentrification has forced them out of their neighbourhoods as these have been bought up by affluent, often extremely affluent, Whites.

13. Limitation of the tyranny of officials. Actually, the tyranny of officialdom over the unemployed has expanded massively under the Coalition. While there are genuinely understanding, caring staff at the Jobcentres, and even, surprisingly, within Atos, these are very much in the minority. Government policy is designed to make the process of signing on as humiliating and degrading as possible. Hence, you are harangued and pressured when you sign on. Many of the staff have real hate towards the unemployed. One female member of staff at one of the Jobcentres was caught on Facebook describing how she hated claimants and her joy at sanctioning them. Such abuse has been privatised under the Tories. An unemployed friend of mine has been repeatedly rung up at home by an employee of the company, that has the contract for getting him into work from the government. As a result, he is continually harangued by this clerk, who has claimed that they are somehow motivating him to find work.

As for workers only being sacked after a decisive judgement by an employment commission, Blair and New Labour did their level best to repeal these laws, and the Tories are pursuing the same policy with a vengeance. All in the interests of promoting a more fluid labour market, of course.

Many of the demands made by the Berlin workers in the 19th century, or their equivalents, are therefore under attack in Britain in the 21st century by a highly reactionary regime. Thatcher and the Libertarians looked back to the 19th century and Victorian values. As a result, post-Thatcher administrations have done much to remove the successes and advances of the 19th and early 20th centuries in improving the lives of the working and lower middle class. This is being done across the world in the name of globalisation and free trade, for the benefit of the multinationals paying the Tories and governments like them. It needs to be stopped. As Marx and Engels ended the Communist Manifesto, working people of all countries, unite!

Workers’ Self-Management in Communist Yugoslavia

February 21, 2014

Self-Management Yugoslavia

I’ve put up a lot of posts about Communist Yugoslavia recently, pointing out the similarities between the Coalition’s policies of Workfare and secret courts with the same policies there and the consequent abuses of human rights. The Yugoslav Communist party also used forced ‘voluntary’ labour after the War, and used secret courts to try dissidents, including one of the leaders and architects of the regime, Milovan Djilas. Although Yugoslavia under Tito was very much a one-party dictatorship, there is one policy, which I do find attractive. This was the experiment in Socialist self-management in which the regime attempted to withdraw partly from the economic and political control of the country and hand over some of that to the workers themselves. workers in particular business were given the power to supervise and alter the business plans of the managerial board through a system of workers’ councils, similar to the workers’ soviets in the Soviet Union before they were taken over by the Bolsheviks and turned into a rigid instrument of Communist political control. The Yugoslavian Communists went further and created a producer’s chamber in government, through which these councils and their workers were to be represented in central government. The architects of that aspect of the regime were Djilas and Edvard Kardelj.


Milovan Djilas, Yugoslav Communist leader and architect of the Self-Management system.

In Rise and Fall, Djilas explains that they formulated the policy as a result of the Yugoslavian Communist party’s break with Stalin. They resented Soviet attempts to turn their country into a satellite of the USSR, dominating the country politically and economically so that it served Russian needs and interests, rather than their own. As they rejected Stalin, they also began to criticise Lenin and form their own, particular brand of Marxism. Djilas writes:

By late 1949 and early 1950, theoretical thinking among our top people not only had abandoned Stalin,, but als was working its way back to the roots, from Lenin to Marx. Kardelj maintained that one could prove anything with quotations, but that it was impossible to separate Lenin from Stalin completely. After all, Stalin was an outgrowth of Lenin.

As we made our way back to Marx, we often paused in our critical ponderings on the Leninist type of party. It was not only the source and instrument of victory, but a means of moving on after power had been seized. In accepting Marx’s theory of the withering away of the state- and the more decisively we broke away from Stalinism, the more firmly we believed Marx on that point – we realized that such withering away required a change in the role of the party. yet in the domain of party problems, progress was minimal and slow. We kept running up against a solid wall of ossified functionaries and a layer of party bureaucracy already formed and consolidated. (p. 267-8).

Djilas and his comrades found the solution in the passages in Marx’s Das Kapital dealing with associations of producers.

And so, as I perused in Marx those passages dealing with a future “association of immediate producers” as a form of the transition to communism, it occurred to me that our whole economic mechanism might be simplified by leaving administration to those who worked in the enterprises, the state only securing for itself the tax. One rainiy day in late spring, while we sat talking in a car in front of my villa, I presented this idea to Kardelj and Kidric. Both thought it premature. At the same time, trade union officials meeting with Kardelj proposed, among other things, discontinuing the workers’ councils, which had long existed as anemic, purely advisory forms. Kardelj, however, urged that the councils be strengthened. The one day Kidrc phoned me: “You know that idea of yours-now might be the moment to introduce it”. Kardelj was to link my idea to the workers’ councils. (p. 268). They then presented the idea to Tito and the other ruling Communists at the National Assembly’s Hall of Ministers. Tito adopted it, and then defended it to the National Assembly on June 26th 1950. (pp. 268-9).

Edvard Kardelj, in his essay ‘The System of Socialist Self-Management in Yugoslavia’, also points to the passage in Marx’s Das Kapital on social property as one of the influences on the self-management system in Yugoslavia, as well as the comments about the nature of capital in the Communist Manifesto. He also refers to the passage on the Paris Commune in Marx’s The Civil War in France.

The passage in Das Kapital runs as follows

The capitalist mode of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of its proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation. This is the negation of a negation. It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the capitalist era: namely cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx also discussed the nature of private property under capitalism.

Capital is therefore not a personal but a social power.
When, therefore, capital is converted into a common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. it is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.

In the passage on the Paris Commune, Marx wrote

It wanted to make individual property a reality, by transforming the means of production, land and capital, which now represent the means of enslavement and exploitation of labour, into the instrument of a free and associated labour .. If cooperative production is not to be a falsehood, if it to repress the capitalist system, if the associated cooperatives are to regulate national production according to a joint plan and thus take it undere their own control and put an end to a continual anarchy and periodical convulsions, which are the inevitable fate of capitalist production – what, gentlemen, would this other than communism, the ‘possible’ communism. (See ‘Edvard Kardelj: The System of Socialist Self-Management in Yugoslavia’ in Blagoje Boskovic and David Dasic, Socialist Self-Management in Yugoslavia 1950-1980: Documents (Belgrade: Socialist Thought and Practice 1980) 9-49 (23-4).

Marx was wrong about the Paris Commune. The Communards were motivated less by Socialism – Socialists were in the minority – but by local, Parisian traditions of activism and a patriotic revolt against the regime that had been humiliatingly defeated by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War. The Yugoslavian self-management system is interesting as it went further than other experiments in workers’ control, in countries such as Germany and Austria, to try and give workers a larger degree of power in the administration of their businesses and the regulation of the economy. There was, however, a cost to this, in that when Djilas and Kardelj fell from power, the regime used the system they had created to accuse them of ‘Anarcho-syndicalist deviation’, and therefore Marxist heresy.

Dr Arnold Hutschnecker on the Psychology of the Tyrant

February 13, 2014

Alex de Jonge begins the last chapter of his biography of Stalin by discussing Dr Arnold Hutschnecker’s ideas about the psychology of the drive to power. Hutschnecker was at one time Nixon’s psychiatrist, and so presumably some of these insights came from his observation of Tricky Dicky’s own warped psyche.

According to de Jonge, Hutschnecker believed that the drive to power came from

‘a painful sense of one’s own insignificance, a fear of death and the wish to have others die. It is associated with a low sexual drive and an inability to love. ‘It moves on the wings of aggression to overcome inferiority … Those whose power to love and consequently create has been broken will choose war in order to experience an intoxicating sense of power or excitement.”

Now some of this is obviously true of Stalin. De Jonge points out in the book that Stalin had very strong feelings of inferiority due to his short stature, and his physical deformities. Two of the toes on one of his feet were fused, he had a withered arm and his face was pockmarked due to smallpox. He also had a bitter hatred of intellectuals, possibly dating from the time the Georgian Marxist Zhordania refused to allow him into his revolutionary group because he didn’t have the depth of understanding of Marxist theory he required. De Jonge also states that his attitude to the West was a mixture of the traditional Russian sense of inferiority at the West’s achievements mixed with a sense of spiritual superiority. This inferiority complex resulted in the Stalinist regime’s extreme xenophobia and nationalism, which saw millions of returning Soviet emigres, prisoners of war and troops from Europe after the Second World War imprisoned in the gulags or shot as potential traitors or otherwise culturally contaminated by anti-Soviet elements. It also resulted in the Soviet Union, not content with the brilliant achievements of its own citizens throughout their history, also appropriating those of the West, so that everything from the steam engine to the radio was held up as the invention of a Russian. Not that Stalin’s Russia was the only totalitarian state to do this. Mussolini’s Italy, one of whose leading scientists, Marconi, really had pioneered radio, also made the same extravagant claims. One of these was that Shakespeare was really Italian.

Stalin also recognised that he lacked the ability to love, especially after the death of his first wife. While he may not have feared death in his youth or middle age, when he was young kinto on the streets of Tiflis and gangster-cum-revolutionary holding up banks and repeatedly being exiled and escaping from Siberia, he certainly was terrified of it at the end of his life. He had the cypresses cut down on his summer estate of Kuntsevo because he found them too gloomy. Possibly some memory of his earlier Christian faith, and what he had learned at the seminary in Georgia came back to haunt him, and he began to fear that his victims would find justice against him in the hereafter. And he certainly did not lack the desire to have others die in their millions.

The description also reminds me of that of another public figure, much closer to home: Ian Duncan Smith, the head of the DWP.

Ian Duncan Smith pic

The man clearly suffers from a massive sense of his own inferiority. How otherwise can you explain his bizarre fantasies and lies, in which he has claimed, amongst other things, to have a degree from an Italian university that doesn’t grant them. He has furthermore declared that the introduction of Universal Credit and his other reforms are an advance as great as the abolition of slavery, as well as his highly dubious claim to have been an officer in the British army. And he does seem to have turned to a military career to give him the power and excitement that he lacked as a civilian.

As for the hardship and suffering his reforms in the DWP have caused, these certainly point to a large cruel and sadistic streak in his character. And while I’ve no doubt that he has a desire to cause anyone’s death, as shown in his refusal to release the figures for the number of people who’ve died after being thrown off their benefits by Atos, this is exactly what his reforms have done. You can find a list of names over at Stilloak’s blog. Some bloggers, such as Jaynelinney, have suggested that the figure may be as high as 38,000 per year.

The final chapter of de Jonge’s book also begins with a quote from Marx to Engels about the Paris Commune in 1871. This was the uprising by the citizen’s of Paris in which they tried to establish the city as an independent, revolutionary municipality after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. It was brutally suppressed by the French monarchy. Marx said

‘We think of terror as the reign of those who inspire terror; on the contrary it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.’

This statement not only describes the paranoid psychology of Stalin himself, but also that of the millions of Soviet citizens, who collaborated with his regime in spying on and denouncing their friends, family and neighbours as saboteurs, agents of Trotsky and the Western, imperial and capitalist powers, or for having an ‘anti-party’ conception of Marxism.

It also describes the psychology of IDS and his servants within the DWP. These are, after all, also demoralised, with those on the lowest ranks of the hierarchy forced to take out advances in their salaries just to ends meet till the end of the month. It also describes the atmosphere of backstabbing and suspicion that also pervades the DWP, and the way its employees take out their own fears, resentment and frustration on those unfortunates, who come to them for unemployment benefit.

Stalin was a monster, who terrorised and murdered millions. Ian Duncan Smith is a petty bureaucrat, but one whose reforms are killing people in their tens of thousands. They are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but the psychology, the feelings of inferiority and the need to persecute, are exactly the same.

The angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice has posted a recent article showing the Stalinist assumptions behind IDS workfare schemes, and used Conservative arguments to demonstrate how anyone, who sincerely stands for the principles of the Right, should reject it. He also has this picture showing Smith as Stalin. This seems particularly appropriate considering the similarities between their psychologies.

IDS Stalin

And the Angry Yorkshireman’s question is all too valid. To see his article, ‘Why do Right-Wing People support Workfare’, go to

An Anthropological View of Homelessness in America – With Lessons for Britain

February 3, 2014

Anthony Marcus, Where Have All The Homeless Gone? The Making and unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006)

America Homeless

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man.
We got a kinder, gentler kind of napalm

– Neil Young, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’.

I’ve posted a couple of piece before on some of the points this book makes about homelessness in America, and its relevance to Britain. One of the most important was the way the massive debt crisis of New York City’s municipal government in 1975 formed the template for Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the welfare state in Britain, and the Coalition’s further attempts to end it altogether in the second decade of the 21st century.

The End of the Welfare State in New York and the Beginning of the Homeless Crisis

New York did have something like Britain’s welfare state, even a form of the dole and affordable, rent controlled housing. In 1975 it overspent to the point where it was unable to pay off its debt. In return for giving the City the right to issue bonds allowing it to finance its debt, the City was placed under the fiscal management of a consortium of businessmen and bankers to ensure its fiscal good government. These made swingeing cuts in the City’s welfare provision, to the point where millions were thrown out of their jobs. Unable to pay their rent, many were forced to move away from New York, while others were forced onto the streets. The rent controls remained, but instead of keeping housing affordable, they resulted in many landlords being unable to afford to maintain their properties. As a result, many were left without basic services like electricity or water, others were abandoned completely as landlords went bankrupt. Some landlords even firebombed their tenements to collect on the insurance. The result was a massive increase in homelessness. At the same time, the location and visibility of New York’s rough sleepers changed. Instead of being confined to certain run down districts – the traditional Skid Row of urban American geography, the homeless moved out into the more upmarket residential districts and even into the city centre.

Racial Stereotypes of Homelessness

The Black community was particularly hard hit. Many of the homeless men interviewed by Marcus were well-educated, from reasonably affluent, middle class backgrounds. However, the Black community particularly relied upon the municipal government, either directly or indirectly for their jobs, and so were disproportionately hit when those jobs were shed. The result was that the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the period in which Marcus worked – the late 1980s and first years of the 1990s – was a poorly dressed, mentally ill Black person. Marcus takes particular care to counter this stereotype, as it formed the basis for the campaigns of several of City’s leaders, like Mayor Dinkins, to tackle homelessness. It ignored the vast numbers of homeless Whites and the homeless Blacks, who were articulate and dressed neatly. While much effort was directed at those groups that corresponded to the stereotype, these people were ignored as they simply didn’t match contemporary ideas of who the homeless were.

The book is based on the doctoral research Marcus did amongst a group of fifty homeless Black men working for one of the City’s homelessness projects from 1989 to 1993. It is his attempt to answer the question of what happened to public awareness of the issue of homelessness. He points out that from 1983 to 1993 homelessness was one of the biggest American political issues. There were rock songs about homeless people, and universities, charities, politicians, and activist groups attempted to study and tackle the issue.

This concern evaporated from 1993 onwards. The crisis continued and the availability of proper, affordable housing continued to fall, but increasingly less attention was paid to the issue. Funds for its study dried up, and the academics researching it moved away to fresher, and more lucrative areas of study. Marcus quotes one of his former research colleagues as laughing when Marcus told him he was writing up his Ph.D. research, declaring that homelessness was so last century.

Critiques of the ‘Cultures of Poverty’

Much of Marcus’ book is a critique of the narrow historiographical focus that determined that rather than tackle the root causes of the homeless crisis in lack of suitably paid jobs, affordable housing and welfare policies that would allow the unemployed to get and retain accommodation, saw the problem exclusively in terms of the supposed moral defects of the homeless themselves in a mirror-image of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view. This grew out of the previous studies of American homelessness centred around Skid Row, the decrepit section of American towns occupied by single-occupancy hotels for the homeless, and a population of homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal, transgressive or bohemian groups. The other major influence was Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, which examined the squalor and poverty in urban Black ghettoes. As a result, when the American welfare state, under Richard Nixon, began to tackle unemployment and homelessness, it did so with the assumption that the homeless themselves were somehow responsible for their condition. They were supported, but that support was made as unpleasant as possible in order to force them to come off welfare whenever possible. Hence the penalisation of the unemployed through demeaning forms of state support such as food stamps, rather than a welfare cheque. Seen the similarity to the attitudes of Cameron, Clegg, IDS and McVie yet?

Cultures of Deviancy and Violence in Homeless Shelters

This attitude by the authorities that there is a ‘culture of poverty’, created by and defined by the idleness, drunkenness, profligacy and other inappropriate behaviour of the poor themselves is particularly attacked by Marcus. He found that there was no difference in morals and behaviour between the homeless people he studied, and those of the wider population. This included the ‘shelterisation’ debate surrounding the perceived culture of violence in the homeless shelters. These had been set up in New York in response to the finding of a judge that the City had failed in its legal duty to provide shelter and wholesome food for a homeless man that had been turned away from one. Marcus states that for most of the residents of these shelters, their greatest problem was finding a lead long enough to reach the wall socket so that they could do their ironing. Nevertheless, the violent criminals included in the shelters’ population meant that the developed a reputation for being dominated by ex-convict bodybuilders and their transvestite shelter ‘wives’. Marcus found that rather than being a gay space, homeless gay men were subjected to the same levels of abuse and intimidation they experienced in the outside world. Their attitude to the ex-cons was that they weren’t really gay. At the same time they had their transvestite lovers in the shelter, they also had heterosexual relationship with wives and girlfriends outside. One of Marcus’ gay informants told him that if you watched the ex-cons outside, they never held hands or socialised with their transvestite shelter partners. He concluded that they were really heterosexual men, who just wanted to have sex and weren’t concerned with whom they had it in the single sex environment of the homeless shelters.

Marcus concluded that the shelters developed their reputation for violence and bizarre behaviour, as few researchers actually interacted or examined the way their residents behaved outside of its environment. The methodological problems were too difficult, making it almost impossible. So instead the academics concentrated on their behaviour inside the shelter, and unconsciously assumed that their behaviour was formed by it. Marcus gradually came to the opposite conclusion – that the men in the homeless shelters acted as they did, not because of the environment of the homeless shelter, but because that was what they did anyway. So the various types of bizarre and slovenly behaviour, which normally remained hidden in the confines of a private home, such as one resident, who never got up on a Sunday morning but simply urinated into a glass by the side of his bed, was suddenly on public display.

Homeless Not Radically Different or Separate from Rest of Population

Linked to this was a wider problem in identifying just who exactly the homeless were. Many of the individuals studied only spent part of their time sleeping in public. Other nights they slept round a friends or girlfriends, or were given room in an airing cupboard or basement by a kindly janitor in return for doing cleaning work. There was also a wider population of young people sleeping on the floors of friends while they looked for an apartment after graduating from university. These middle class, educated Americans weren’t seen as homeless.

And many of the Black homeless men Marcus interviewed didn’t see themselves as homeless either. They compared their state to that of young Whites, who had just graduated. It was a similar stage of carefree abandon until they finally hit maturity and sorted themselves out, got a proper job and apartment. Marcus also notes that for many Black homeless men, their condition meant acting out a variety of roles. He called them The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The Good was the White man’s negro, who accepted mainstream, White American culture and values when it meant impressing White academics or employers in order to get a job or a place on an educational programme. The Bad was that of the angry, violent Black man. His informants told him they had to adopt this pose, as otherwise Whites would just see them as ‘niggers’ and disparage or exploit them. They had stories of an effeminate ‘White man’s Negro’, who tried to fit in with the culture of his White colleagues and bosses, only for him to be exploited and sacked. Interestingly, the models taken for this role of violent, rebellious Black masculinity were all race-natural. They included ‘Leatherface’, from Tobe Hooper’s class bit of grue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Sean Connery’s James Bond. Indeed, many of Marcus’ Black informants identified by Connery so much that they felt sure that Scotland’s cinematic hard man was Black, at least partly. The Ugly was a term coined by Marcus himself, and referred to those homeless, who dressed badly and had lost both their sanity and dignity. It was a role the men studied by Marcus most disliked, because of its passivity, and lack of masculinity. Nevertheless, many homeless Black men adopted it in order to get some of the benefits that were only available through this role.

Disillusionment with Regime in ‘Not-for-Profit’ Housing

Eventually the scandal surrounding the violence and criminality within the municipal shelters became so great that the City authorities were forced to act. The system was privatised, so that instead or supplementing the vast municipal shelters were a system of ‘transient’ accommodation run by not-for-profit corporations. These were supposed to be smaller, and more responsive to their residents’ needs than the City homeless provision. Marcus examines these too, and demonstrates how many of the shelter residents became increasingly disillusioned with them, even to the point where they preferred moving back to the shelters or onto the streets.

What Marcus’ informants most objected to was the intense regimentation and supervision of almost every aspect of their lives. This was supposedly to help the homeless develop the right attitudes and habits that would allow them to move out of the transient housing and into a proper apartment with a proper job. In practice, this control was absolute and degrading. Security was tight, and the inmates were rigorously searched as they entered the building. The not-for-profits, like the shelters, also broke up heterosexual couples. Many of the homeless studied by Marcus had mental health problems of varying severity. Some were particularly ill, while others were less affected. Marcus says that in some the level of mental illness was so slight, he suspected that it may have been a pretence by the sufferer to get off the streets by feigning illness. Well, you can’t blame them for that. As part of the conditions of residence, these men were forced to take medication to combat their mental problems. They complained that it left them feeling like zombies, and deprived them of their sexual functions, a sense of emasculation, which, naturally, they particularly resented.

Lack of Economic Opportunities for Moving into Paid Work in Homeless Shelters

Coupled with this was the way the system knocked back any homeless person, who tried to get a proper job and move out of the hostel. I’ve already blogged on the experience of one homeless man, who hopefully moved to a Salvation Army home in the expectation that he would be given worthwhile work. He wasn’t, and spent his time there sweeping up, for which he was paid 17c an hour. Other homeless men in not-for-profits elsewhere found themselves unable to get work, that would pay sufficiently well for them to get a proper apartment, or a place on one of the few rent-controlled tenements held by the City. The amount of welfare paid to the homeless, which came down to a take home pay of $100 a month for those in the shelter, and $540 for those on the streets, simply wasn’t enough for them to get an apartment and support themselves. As a result, many of the most ambitious and enterprising homeless men got jobs, which they soon lost and so had to move back into the shelter. The social workers and shelter staff were aware of the problem and did their level best to try to dissuade them from trying to get proper jobs so that they would retain their SSI welfare payments. In the shelter, however, the only jobs these homeless men could do were ‘make work’ jobs, sweeping, cleaning and so on. Some of the homeless thus preferred to get jobs outside, as book keepers or security guards, or working off the books as labourers unpacking trucks for local grocery stores. These were better paid, and in the case of one homeless man, gave him status and power over the ex-con hard men working underneath him. They did not, however, pay well enough for them to get a home of their own. Marcus observes that the system seemed to have been set up in the expectation they would fail.

The Crisis in the Black Family: No Different from White Family

The book goes on to tackle the issue of the Black family, and its role in the lack of Black achievement compared to that of immigrant groups such as Asians and Latin Americans. Marcus notes that the Black family is seen as weaker, and more prone to breakdown, than the family structures of other ethnic groups. This lack of family support is seen as being the cause of the lack of social and economic advance in the Black community. Politicians, religious leaders and activists have compared the fragile Black family with the supposedly more robust structures of that of their immigrant counterparts. Instead of conflict and breakdown, these families have a high degree of mutual support and integration, so that immigrants groups like Koreans and Latinos are able to use the unpaid labour of other family members to set up prosperous businesses. Marcus shows how, as a result, Black American churches, community groups and the Nation of Islam exhort their members to take Maya Angelou’s ‘Black Family Pledge’ and emulate the family structure, solidarity and work ethic of their more prosperous immigrant counterparts.

This view of the dysfunctional character of the Black family is similarly permeated by the ‘cultures of poverty’ debate. The Black family is seen as having a uniquely dysfunctional structure and lack of values, that hinders Black Americans from achieving the same success as their White and immigrant compatriots. Marcus again takes issue with this, and demonstrates that the comparison between Black and immigrant families is false. Like is not being compared with like. Marcus states that the structure of the Black family, while different from that of recent immigrant groups, is actually no different from that of White America. He states

‘It will be my argument that, indeed, African-American families living in poverty are generally less suited to certain types of mutual aid in poverty than are their immigrant counterparts. however, this is not because of a defect in the black family or some failure to live up to American kinship norms. Rather, it is because the cultural templates of the black family, even among the poorest and least integrated into “the mainstream,” are fundamentally similar to those of other American families. Nuclear and neo-local in its norms, the African-American family, like its white counterpart, is built around voluntary companionate marriage; the shared values, identity markers, and consumption patterns of its members, and the right to seek individual accomplishment and emotional self-realization. Typically supported on a foundation of legally regulated wage labor, subsidized mortgages, individual savings, public education, state entitlement programs, and socio-legal protections by police and courts, this family type, which I will refer to as the “consumption family,” appears dysfuncational in the absence of such state provisioning and when compared to certain immigrant kinship structures, which I will refer to as the “accumulation family”.’

The “Accumulation Family” of Immigrants to America

Marcus then goes on to describe the “accumulation family” as ‘built around extended kin networks, intense group sacrifice, delayed or permanently postponed gratification, and large amounts of captive low-wage or unpaid family-based labor, particularly from women, children, new arrivals, and other dependents with less recourse to external labor options and social rights’. Marcus points out that while Black families are more likely to break down or experience real difficulties, this is not because Blacks somehow have a different set of family values from their White compatriots. They don’t. It’s simply because the Black family is generally under more acute social pressure than White families, due to the poor social and economic position of Black Americans.

As for the “accumulation family” of southern European, Latin American and Asian immigrants, this depends very much on the unpaid labour of its weaker members – women, children and new arrivals. As such, members of these ethnic groups may increasingly see it as exploitative and backward as they assimilate the values and social structures of their new home, and go from being people with one feet in America and the other in their country of origin, to more or less acculturated Americans.

Housing Panic and Social Solidarity with Squatters, Homeless and Anarchist Activists

Marcus also investigates the way the housing panic over increasingly rents and the threat of eviction created a strong sense of solidarity between ordinary citizens in New York’s slum districts, and the squatters, homeless and Anarchist activists sharing the neighbourhood. The world-wide economic depression of 1982-3 resulted in New York receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, as well as the yuppies graduating from the University. At the same time as the blue collar workers moved out, the white collar financial and IT workers moved in. Rents shot up, to the point where some of the buildings that were worth less than $2,000 in 1977 were worth half a million or more by 1990. Many landlords were, however, prevented from increasing their rents for long-standing tenants through the City’s stringent rent stabilisation laws. Some landlords attempted to circumvent these by putting in unnecessary renovations, as recently renovated premises were immune from the controls under the legislation. Other long-standing tenants, particularly the elderly, found themselves subjected to violence and intimidation, including being thrown down stairs, in order to force them to move out. The result was that slum and low-rent districts, like Hells Kitchen, Loisaida (the Lower East Side), the printing district, West Harlem, and the Bowery became gentrified, and relaunched under the names Clinton, the East Village, Tribeca, Morningside Heights and Noho.

The result of this was that ordinary working and lower middle class New Yorkers suffered increasing alarm at the prospect of being forced out onto the streets. This resulted in popular sympathy for the murderer and cannibal Daniel Rakowitz, who killed his girlfriend, a foreign dancer, after she tried to throw him out after their affair had ended. He was caught serving up her remains as soup to the local homeless. In the East Village, tensions between the municipal authorities and ordinary residents exploded into violence when the police tried to clear the homeless, who had occupied Tompkins Square Park to form a ‘tent city’. Local residents insisted that the violence was cause, not by the homeless, but by anarchists, squatters and youths looking for trouble from outside the area, as well as some local residents. Marcus was told by one waiter at a plush restaurant that ‘this is total war and we need to make the neighbourhood unlivable for yuppies’. In fact, Marcus does point that some of the homeless did fight back, but the fiercest fighting was done by the other groups identified in the riot. He also notes that when some of the yuppies renting properties in the area were questioned, many of them were in fact in the same boat as the rest of the residents, and spending more than half their income on rent.

Marcus believed that the solidarity between the anarchists, squatters, homeless and the area’s ordinary residents occurred because for nearly a decade these groups had created a local counterculture centred on homelessness. In 1990 a group of anarchists, squatters and homeless from Tent City took over the remains of Public School 105, located on Fourth Street between Avenues B and C, and turned it into an alternative community centre. They intended to turn it into permanent, semi-permanent and temporary housing for the homeless, as well as setting up remedial reading, GED-high school equivalency test preparation and plumbing, carpentry and electrical repair classes. It also became the focus for various other anti-gentrification and radical, anti-state groups. A local Communist group, the ‘Class War Tendency’, set up classes in political economy, while a radical priest, who was a housing activist, helped the homeless to set up a soup kitchen in the Community Centre. As a result, the cops moved in in force to retake the Community Centre and clear out its homeless and radical occupants. Marcus notes that the anarchists, squatters and Tent City homeless believed that they were defending everyone’s right to a home, and many people in the neighbourhood concurred.

The radicals lost the battle for Public School 105. In 1991 Mayor David Dinkins cleared them from Tent City in Tompkins Square Park. Four years later, in August 1995, his success, Giuliani, moved in to clear the squatters out from three large tenements on 13th Street between Avenues A and Avenue B. They were successful, and although some residents attacked Giuliani as ‘Mussolini on the Hudson’, this time there was a lot less sympathy for the radicals. There still was a housing problem, and many of the anarchists, squatters and homeless people from the Park remained in the area. However, the housing panic was over, and there was a sense of defeat about being able to beat the forces of authority and create an alternative community.

American Thatcherism, Clinton and the Rise and Fall of Homelessness as an Issue

The final chapter examines the political forces that shaped the housing crisis and ultimately led to it becoming a forgotten issue. Marcus states that while most writers consider that the problems were the result of the ‘Reagan Revolution’, the cuts in state expenditure and particularly welfare that eventually led to the crisis began with the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. It was Carter, who tried to overturn Nixon’s Keynsianism and Great Society/New Deal ideology. He did not, however, have any coherent ideology, and so his attempts to cut expenditure were modest. This was to change with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s PM in 1979. It was Thatcher, who took over and turned into a coherent ideology the Chicago School economic theories, tried to break the unions, privatise public services, cut welfare spending, transfer public sector housing to the private sector, and made ‘liberal use of the military at home and abroad’. He states that in her war against the Labour party, she attacked notions of social democracy, and corporatist or civic belonging. Although she was forced out by the poll tax riots, Thatcherism remained the dominant ideology.

Thatcher’s ideology was taken over and shared over the other side of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan. Although, unlike Thatcher, Reagan could not produce a coherent ideology, nevertheless the values he espoused were so deeply embedded in American culture that ultimate his reach was deeper, and Reagan’s attack on the unions, the New Deal and the welfare state, such as it was, was far more thorough than Thatcher could achieve.

Nevertheless, Reagan’s reforms were still hotly contested in the decade from 1982 to 1992. This changed with Bill Clinton’s election. Suddenly there was much less coverage of homeless issues in the media, and public concern about homelessness vanished. Homelessness remains, and there is still a homeless crisis with rising rents and a lack of affordable housing. However, although Hilary Clinton briefly touched on the issue during her senatorial campaign against Giuliani, few Democrats or Republicans seemed to wish to return to the issue. Marcus considers that public interest in homelessness disappeared due to the economic boom of the last years of Clinton’s presidency. This revitalised formerly moribund sectors of the American economy, unemployment was at its lowest for several decades and there was a general feeling of optimism. Amidst the boom and growth, there was little appreciation that poverty was still present and needed tackling. Marcus states that despite this optimism and the boost to the financial sector of the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation and information technology, the economy will inevitably contract to plunge millions into poverty and misery once more. The book was published in 2006. We only had to wait four more years before this happened.

Homelessness and Poverty Caused by Structure of Society, not Individual Failings

He believed that now, when the good times were still rolling, was the time to tackle poverty, rather than wait till after the next set of riots. He makes the point that although there was much discussion at the time about Reagan’s removal of the safety net and those who were ‘disappearing through its cracks’, no one ever raised the question about why the safety net should be necessary in the first place. The homeless crisis was just part of deteriorating social conditions across America, which saw ordinary citizens having to work harder for much less rewards. He writes

‘A safety net is only as important as the height of a jump and the distance that can be fallen. In a wildly productive society that has achieved exponential increases in productive capacity through technological and work process innovations, the last twenty years have seen housing costs increase dramatically, the average workweek grow by 20 to 30 percent, job security disappear, real wages drop, and the employment market tighten. In addition to all these problems facing all working Americans, the eight years under Clinton saw the United States imprison more people than during any period in the nation’s history. Only contemporary postcommunist Russia, with its dying industrial economy, imprisons as many people per capita.

Despite eight years of America’s greatest economic boom, none of these are signs of social health for the nearly two hundred and fifty million ordinary citizens who comprise the non-Other America. But these developments have been particularly severe for the fifty-plus million Americans at the lower ranges of the wage and skill hierarchy, who remain as poor and miserable as when Michael Harrington wrote his book about them. Though the declining safety net was a problem for most of my informants, it was only one of the aspect of the bigger problem: the rising bar that they were unable to successfully jump.’

Marcus states that the various solutions to America’s homeless problem failed because of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view of the problem: that poverty was created by particular individuals, who lacked the moral values and industrious attitudes of the rest of the population, and who therefore were profoundly Other, and the creators of their own misery. He sees this view of the origins of poverty as similar to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society, only people’. He states of this view, that began with Michael Harrington’s The Other America that

‘Harrington and those who came after allowed that social policy was ultimately the institution for fine-tuning problems in the distribution of resources. However, their unrelenting focus on problematic groups rather than the overall social concerns facing a modern citizenry represented, at best, a progressive era model of “the poor” as loss leaders for proactive social policy. In its more common pedestrian form, it represented a positivist particularism that completely failed to view the parts as a product of the whole, blaming the pinky finger for being small, rather than identifying the hand as determining the morphology and function of the pinky or blaming the Black family for being dysfunctional rather than American kinship for producing the Black family. Such functionalist and particularist logic has proven a distraction from discussions of how America is coping with the challenges of overall social life.

When social policy is based on this particularist individuated model for the obligations and entitlements of citizenship it inevitably fails. This is because it assumes exactly what needs to be demonstrated: that the challenges being faced by the individual or group of individuals are the result of individual differences of culture, history, temperament, and the like, and not the result of being an identifiable part of a social organism. Solutions, even generous ones like the McKinney Homeless Act [this was the act that voted a billion dollars to providing shelter for the homeless] that do not consider the nature of the organism that produced a sick part, but only focus on the section deemed pathological, inevitably involve a form of social excision that is at best provisional.’

As a result, rather than identifying the economic and social factors behind the housing crisis, asking what went wrong so that a prosperous city with a surplus of affordable housing suddenly experienced a massive increase in visible homelessness, scholars instead studied the homeless themselves as an ethnic group that somehow created the problem through its cultural difference. The homeless are homeless because society has become increasingly competitive. People are being forced to jump higher and higher simply to survive. And those at the bottom simply do not have the economic, social or psychological resources. He also states that in addition to the growth and optimism experienced during the Clinton boom years, when the party of the New Deal/ Great Society anti-poverty bureaucracy once again occupied the White House, another factor contributing to the massive lack of interest in homelessness is the War on Terror.

‘The optimism and complacency of the Clinton years that hid vast seas of unvocalized misery among overworked, underpaid working-class people in post-Reganite America has given way to the ultimate silencing: the endless war on terror. However, the bar remains high, the speciation of America is firmly embedded, and the extent of planning for a rainy day is massive growth in police forces and prisons throughout the United States. The crisis remains well managed, but the future is not bright.’

Marcus suggests that the poor and homeless are social barometers measuring the problems experienced in society by Americans generally

‘They measure the amount of competition, the level of functioning that is necessary to survive, the displacement of those who must labor to live, and the degree of comfort and security that we can claim for our own lives. If they are drowning from the high price of housing, declining real wages, rising costs for education, declining public health, and the revival of nineteenth century diseases, then the rest of us are probably “up to our necks in it”‘.

American Model Producing Global ‘Race to the Bottom’ for Workers and the Poor

He suggests that instead of using Durkheimian functionalism, scholars should instead adopt a Marxian approach to examine the growth of policies by nations around the world intended to make their economies more competitive by modelling them on that of America. The result is a race to the bottom for wages, standards of living, and the overall quality of life. With its advanced, massively productive economy, America could, however, become a global leader in the opposite direction and reverse this three-decade trend for worse wages and working conditions.

Conclusion: the Lessons for Britain

Although some of the issues Marcus tackles are unique to America, much of the book is immediately relevant over this side of the Atlantic as well. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives took over Harrington’s ‘cultures of poverty’, and as The Void, Another Angry Voice, Mike over at Vox Political, and many, many other left-wing bloggers have shown, the Coalition’s unemployment policies are based on blaming the poor and jobless for their problems. Hence the pretext for workfare, the various courses the unemployed are placed on, and the sanctions system: they’re simply devices for inculcating the correct values of industriousness in the workforce, just as Victorian paternalists worried about raising the poor out of poverty through getting them to accept the same values. The same attitudes are screamed every day from right-wing rags like the Daily Mail and the Sunday Express, and TV documentaries on the unemployed like Benefits Street.

The British Black Family and Chavs

The chapter on the misinterpretation of the dysfunctional structure of the Black family in America in also relevant here. Black activists in Britain are also worried about the greater incidence of breakdowns amongst Black families on this side of the Atlantic. One explanation for the general poor performance of Black boys at school and their greater involvement in crime and gang culture is that, due to the breakdown of their families, many boys simply don’t see their fathers, and so don’t have positive role models in a caring dad.

This patterns also extends outside the Black community to the White lumpenproletariat, now demonised as ‘chavs’. There’s similarly a pattern of broken homes, poor educational attainment, violence and criminality amongst the boys here. And this is similarly ethnicised as the result of a distinct, ‘chav’ culture, rather than the result of a variety of social and economic pressures permeating society generally. And if we’re talking about cultures of recreational violence, then historically the upper classes have also enthusiastically taken their part. In 18th century France there was a group of aristocratic youths, who described themselves as ‘les Rosbifs’. They consciously modelled themselves on the boorish behaviour of the English country squires, and so swaggered around swearing a lot and sported cudgels, which they used to beat up members of the lower orders. Oh what fun! As sociologists and historians studying the history of such youth cultures have said, there really is no difference between these and the mods and rockers, who used regularly used to beat each other senseless down in Weston during Bank Holidays when I was a teenager. These days it’s all rather more genteel. They simply join the Assassin’s Club at Oxford, and wreck restaurants.

The Benefits Cap Blocking an Escape from Poverty and Homelessness

The description of the problems of the homeless in trying to get out of poverty and into accommodation, and failing due to the cap on their benefits, is also immediately recognisable over this side of the Atlantic. The Tories are capping Housing Benefit here as part of their scheme that people on benefits shouldn’t be wealthier than those in work. The result of this is similarly going to be increased homelessness and further geographical isolation, as people are forced to move away from high-rent areas, especially in London. Not that this’ll bother Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Bullingdon thugs. As the architecture of the new apartment blocks shows, they really don’t want to have to look at the poor. These have a separate entrances for the rich Chinese at whom they’re aimed, and the rest of us plebs, who may well include working and lower middle class Chinese Brits, who’ve been here for generations but lack the massive spondoolicks of the new, global elite.

Solidarity between Squatters, the Radical Left and Ordinary Citizens in NYC and Bristol

As for the politics of squatting, and the need for anarchists and radical activists tackling this issue, there are also lessons for Britain here as well from the experience of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Johnny Void over at his blog strongly supports squatting amongst other forms of anarchist activism. He has pointed out on his blog that despite the scare stories run by the press about ordinary people coming back from holiday to find their house or garden shed has been taken over by squatters, this in fact has been relatively rare. Most of the squatting has been the occupation of abandoned buildings. I’ve put up on this blog a video from Youtube of homeless activists in Bristol, including a group of homeless squatters, who’ve taken over a disused building in Stokes Croft. They too were facing eviction, despite the fact that the place has been abandoned for forty years.

The issue of gentrification and the eviction of poorer, particularly Black residents, in favour of far more affluent tenants is a very hot issue here as well. A few years ago there were riots in Stokes Croft against Tescos, which had just opened another branch in that ward. The people there feared that it would force out of business local shops, and so reacted to defend their community businesses from the commercial giant. The New York experience shows that it is possible to get ordinary residents to support squatters, anarchists and other left-wing radical groups simply through a common concern for the same issues – in this case homelessness – and by being good neighbours.

Poverty and Homelessness a Problem for Society Generally Across the Globe Thanks to the ‘American Model’

Like America also, many of the poor in Britain are actually those in work, who have also seen their wages decline in real terms, despite recent lies by the Coalition, and are finding themselves having to work longer hours. The European Round Table of Industrialists, at the heart of EU’s campaign for integration, is behind much of this on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless of our different political cultures, we Europeans, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from the North Sea to the shores of the Baltic, have to work ourselves to death to compete with the Developing World. And as Greg Palast has shown in his book, Armed Madhouse, the result of this in the Developing World is that they have lowered their wages and raised working hours to truly horrific levels in response. Well, if nothing else, it shows that Marx was right in his view that working people across the globe have to unite to combat the problems of capitalism. ‘It was the bourgeoisie who shot down the Great Wall of China’, he says in the Communist Manifesto. Hence the slogan, ‘Workingmen of all countries, Unite!’ Globalisation had meant the increased exploitation of ordinary people across the world. It’s a global problem that needs to be stopped now. We can start by throwing out three decades of Thatcherism and the culture of Neo-Liberalism.

Books on Radical, Working Class History and The British Constitution: Commenters’ Recommendations

January 19, 2014

A few of the readers of my blog have responded to my posts recommending and suggesting books on the history of the British constitution, and the development of modern democracy, giving their own suggestions. Florence wrote:

‘Too true. People have forgotten their own history – or it is omitted from education for obvious reasons. Another text is “the condition of the Working Class in 1844″ (Marx & Engels), which although not read for many years I recall citing the average age of death in Bethnal Green was 17 – yes seventeen – because of malnutrition, working from the 3- 4 yrs of age showing almost universal deformations caused by working machinery. Most females died in childbirth because of malformed pelvic bones from standing at work. The living, working and health conditions of the working poor of the northern industrial cities were worse still.

The current wave of malnutrition the BMA warned of (also ignored by press and government) holds misery for many in the future. Childhood malnutrition affects mental, social as well as physical development, blighting lives from start to finish, and to be passed on to the next generation through poorly nourished mothers. So it goes on.

True democracy was more widely discussed in past centuries through coffee houses, ale houses, and working guilds. We are never taught about these, and I think it’s time for a really radical curriculum, not just chanting monarchs reigns, which would seem to be Goves best effort. (Dim, dim, and dimmer.)

Another book I recommend is “Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman” by Ken Coates (, to remind us that the deprivations did not end after WWII, but have been won -hard fought for- through to the end of the 20th century, and these conditions are now with us again after only 3 years of the coalition.’

I’ll have to look up Ken Coates, I really haven’t heard of him before, and he sounds interesting. As for previous ages discussing democracy in coffee houses, ale houses and working guilds, this is absolutely true. You only have to consider the social importance of the mechanic’s institutes in Victorian Britain, where working men came to read and educated themselves. In 19th and early 20th century Italy, there were Chambers of Labour, which also served some of the same functions, as well as a very strong political role in directing and co-ordinating industrial action.

Daijohn raised the question why I hadn’t mentioned these important political thinkers:

What about Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Marx
and Mill?’

Hi, Daijohn. I’m not Mike, I’m actually his brother, though the confusion’s natural, as after all Mike did me the honour of reblogging this. I didn’t include Machiavelli and Hobbes as although they are two of the most important political theorists of the renaissance and 17th century, neither of them can be described as in any way liberal.

Hobbes’ Leviathan was an attempt to use social contract theory to justify absolute monarchy, without relying on Scriptural authority. It was immensely controversial even in its own time. In the 18th century there was a change in masculinity as a reaction to it. This was ‘the man of feeling’ or the ‘man of sentiment’, in which men were keen to show they had finer feelings of pity, and compassion, including going into floods of tears at suitable moments. This was to demonstrate that men weren’t the aggressive, predatory animals, who needed an absolute monarch to restrain them from killing and robbing each other in the ‘war of each against all’ Hobbes believed constituted humanity’s natural state.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is similarly far from a democratic text. It was and is notorious for advising renaissance princes, and politicians afterwards, to use ruthless deceit in the pursuit and maintenance of power. One of the questions in it is ‘whether it is better to be loved or feared?’ Machiavelli then replies by saying that although love is good, fear is better because people will respect you more and obey you.

As for Marx, although he’s of crucial importance in the development of Socialism, my focus was on British constitutional history and freedoms, which have emerged and developed independently of Marx. Furthermore, the Communist parties around the world were notorious for human rights abuses. They murdered millions, and the Communist states and parties themselves were very rigidly controlled, with absolute obedience demanded and enforced through Lenin’s theory of ‘democratic centralism’.

However, you are absolutely right about John Locke and John Stewart Mill, so I will certain put up posts about these authors.

Atheism, Materialism and Pre-Revolutionary Russian Radicalism

April 23, 2008

In my earlier blog posts on the persecution of Christianity in Soviet Russia, I discussed the origins of the Communist attacks on religion and people of faith in the atheism and materialism that formed an integral part of Marxism itself. This seems odd, even profoundly mistaken to many people given the apparent lack of connection between the Communist political programme and the defining tenet of atheism that there is no God or gods. However, metaphysical beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality have throughout history informed the nature and essential political and social institutions of cultures and civilisations around the world. Before the secularisation of society beginning in the 18th century, religion to a greater or lesser extent provided the basis for the justification of political and social institutions. By denying the existence of God and the value of religion, atheism challenged the metaphysical basis of society, and demanded its radical restructuring according to secular political ideologies. Rather than simply being about the non-existence of God, 18th century religious scepticism was necessarily part of a wider debate about the nature of society itself.  

Atheism in Marxism and Early 19th century Russian Radicalism

Marx was strongly influenced in his critique of contemporary 19th century society by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose theory that God was merely a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature caused Marx to consider that all social criticism began with religious criticism, and to state that ‘the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness’. 1 As a result, the Soviet state attacked and persecuted religion and promoted atheism in an attempt to create an atheist, Communist state. However, the connection between atheism and militant political radicalism predated the emergence of Marxism in Russia, dating back to the 18th century philosophes in France and the radical, violent opposition to the French ancien regime and contemporary European civilisation. French positivism, utopian socialism and some German Left-Hegelian ideas entered Russia in the 1840s. The literary circle around M.V. Butashevich-Petrashevsky, before its dissolution by the Tsar’s secret police, actively promoted the ideas of the French utopian socialist Fourier, for example. 2 Deeply concerned by the backward state of Russian society, and particularly serfdom, and the political oppression of Tsarist autocracy, Russian radicals such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov and Dmitry Pisarev turned for solutions to their country’s political and social problems to atheism, materialism and western science. 3 This generation of dedicated revolutionaries was later depicted and epitomised by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in the character of Bazarov in his novel, Fathers and Children. In it, Turgenev attempted to describe the confrontation between the old generation of Russian liberals and traditional civilisation with the younger generation of Russian radicals and their harsh positivism, which had no use for anything that could not be established rationally.  In the novel, Bazarov is a dedicated materialist and revolutionary. A self-described Nihilist, he attacks and rejects anything that cannot be established by rational, empirical science, including literature, philosophy, the beauty of art and nature, tradition, authority, religion, intuition, and all uncriticised assumptions, whether of conservatives, liberals, populists or socialists. 4 Bazarov recommends to his friends contemporary popular explositions of materialism, such as Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff. 5 As part of his personal project to establish science as the only true knowledge, Bazarov dissects frogs. 6 The book was immediately controversial amongst the Russian left, with some feeling that Turgenev had betrayed them by portraying them as Bazarov. Others strongly supported Turgenev. The radical literary critic, Pisarev, declared that he identified with Bazarov, and that the character showed that true progress would not come from tradition, but through active, self-emancipated, independent people like Bazarov who were free from romanticism and religion. 7 Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, the review in which Fathers and Children originally appeared, presented his own perspective on the character in an unsigned review in his magazine. Bazarov, Katkov felt, was not interested in scientific truth, otherwise he would not promote cheap materialist tracts, which were nothing but materialist propaganda. Similarly, Bazarov dissected frogs not because of any genuine interest in science, but simply as a method of rejecting civilised and traditional values. Indeed, Bazarov and the other Nihilists were not true scientists genuinely interested in research, but political propagandists offering radical slogans and diatribes in place of hard, scientific fact. 8 Bazarov has been described as the first Bolshevik, despite the fact the character was as critical of socialism as of the other ideologies he considered to be unscientific. 9 Despite his critical stance towards socialism, Bazarov nevertheless shared the later Soviet regime’s claim to represent atheism and science in his revolutionary views.

Religious Scepticism and 18th Century Revolutionary Ideology

Bazarov’s violent rejection of existing culture was shared by some of the radical atheists of the 18th century. Sylvain Marechal, in his Dictionnaire des athees, demanded the destruction of Christian civilisation, declaring that

‘the utter destruction of a long-standing and imposing error, which affects everything in existence, which distorts everything, virtue itself included, which is a pitfall for the weak, a lever for the strong, and a barrier to genius – the utter destruction of such a gigantic error would chyange the face of the world.’ 10 This attack on Christianity culminated in the attempted suppression of Christianity in favour of the Cult of Pure Reason in revolutionary France, and the demands of Hebertists for the absolute suppression of religious belief as a whole. Marechal himself was a Communist, who, during the French Revolution wrote a Manifesto of the Equals to promote his radical political views. 11

In fact hostility to Christianity and organised religion in French revolutionary ideology extended far beyond Communists like Marechal. Philosophers and political theorists such as Helvetius and Rousseau criticised Christianity not just for being false in their view, but also for being unscientific and preaching a destructive morality in conflict with the loyalty required by the state. One could not be both a citizen and a Christian, according to Rousseau, because of this conflict in loyalties. For Helvetius, the conflict between religion and the state would only disappear if the ministers of the legislative body had both temporal and spiritual powers. 12 Rousseau was not an atheist, and looked back to the ancient Greek city states for the type of civic religion he felt would produce morality and virtue, while Helvetius believed this could be produced simply by social legislation and institutions. 13

Just as 18th century atheism viewed humanity as a machine, rather than an ensouled individual, as in LaMettrie’s book L’Homme Machine, so contemporary radical philosophers also viewed society in mechanistic terms. In his 1755 political treatise, Code de la Nature, Morelly declared that society was a marvellous automatic machine’. 14 Based on the same materialist determinism that influenced Baron d’Holbach and Helvetius’ 1758 De l’Esprit, the radical philosophers of the French revolution believed that they had found the basic rationality that would allow the laws of justice to be formed with the same accuracy and certainty as the natural sciences.  They therefore believed in a kind of cosmic pragmatism, in which it would be possible to create a state in which only those acting against the natural order, the foolish and wicked, would fail to be virtuous. 15 The result was the inflexible, doctrinaire attitudes of the French revolutionaries that resulted in the massacre of hundred of thousands in order to create a new, perfect, revolutionary state and society founded on immutable, rational principles. The failure of these ideologies to recognise the reality of human nature as fundamentally flawed, and their consequent impracticality, was recognised by some of the revolutionaries themselves. Salle, a liberal member of the Gironde, in 1792 wrote in alarm to Dubois-Crance, remarking that ‘the principles in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analysed in this society – no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect.’ 16 Morelly’s book was the first discussion of Communism as an achievable political reality, rather than a utopia, and inspired Gracchus Babeuf’s own attempts to establish it in the 1795 Conspiracy of Equals. 17 Over a century later, the establishment of the Soviet Union as a Marxist state following the Russian Revolution was a continuation of the radical 18th century project to create a perfect state on atheist, materialist principles, an experiment that similarly collapsed through its inability to conform to the realities of human nature rather than abstract political theory.

Conclusion: Marxist Atheism a Continuation of 18th Century Religious Scepticism in Radical Politics

Thus French revolutionary ideology included religious scepticism as part of its radical critique of existing society, and demanded the abolition of Christianity and its replacement by a civil religion as part of its political programme. This is not surprising, considering the quasi-theocratic nature of contemporary European states, where there was no separation of church and state in the modern sense. In 19th century Germany Hegelian philosophy was an official part of the educational system, used to justify the Prussian monarchy, while in the Russian Empire the authority of the tsar was supported by the Orthodox Church. Thus revolutionary ideologies attempted to attack the philosophical and religious basis of the feudal and autocratic regimes they criticised and rejected. However, these ideologies went far beyond advocating the separation of church and state or the toleration of different faiths in religiously neutral state, but advocated instead the abolition of religion, either revealed or as a whole, as part of a complete reorganisation of society. Thus the hostility of the Soviet authorities to religion and their attempts to destroy it were due not just to Marx, but were also part of a long tradition of politically radical atheism dating from the 18th century. In their attempts to create a perfect society based on fundamental materialist principles, the atheism of the 18th century French revolutionaries and their successors in Soviet Communism formed part of a general attempt to create a society based on the absence of revealed religion. For these revolutionaries, atheism was about far more than rejecting the existence of God, but was a metaphysical attitude that affected all aspects of society and political theory. 


1. K. Marx, ‘Religion as Opium: Man Makes Religion’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 229.

 2. Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press 1991), p. 172.

3. Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, Russian Thinkers (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1978), p. 19.

4. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 277.  

5. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

6. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

7. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 282.

8. Berlin, ed., Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

9. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

10. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1954), p. 141.

11. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy: Political Theory and Practice during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1952), pp. 186-7.

12. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 22.

13. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 23.

14. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 17.

15. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 18.

16. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 20-1.  

17. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 17-18.