Posts Tagged ‘‘Masters of Political Thought’’

The Spanish Civil War and the Real Origins of Orwell’s Anti-Communism

January 2, 2019

Orwell’s 1984 is one of the very greatest classic dystopian novels depicting a bleak future in which the state has nearly absolute, total control. It’s particularly impressed Russians and others, who lived through and criticized Stalinism. Some of these have expressed amazement at how Orwell could have written the book without actually experiencing the horrific reality of Stalin’s USSR for himself. After the War, Orwell became a snitch for MI5 providing the agency with information on the suspected Communists. It’s a sordid part of his brilliant career as an anti-imperialist, socialist writer and activist. Conservatives have naturally seized on Orwell’s 1984, and the earlier satire, Animal Farm, to argue that the great writer had become so profoundly disillusioned that he had abandoned socialism altogether to become a fierce critic of it.

This is unlikely, as the previous year Orwell had written The Lion and the Unicorn, subtitled Socialism and the English. This examined English identity, and argued that for socialism to win in England, it had to adapt to British traditions and the English national character. But it didn’t reject socialism. Instead, it looked forward to a socialist victory and a socialist revolution, but one that would be so in keeping with English nationhood that some would wonder if there had been a revolution at all. He believed this would come about through the increasing blurring of class lines, and pointed to the emergence of a class of people occupying suburban council housing, who could not be easily defined as either working or middle class.

This view of the necessity of developing of a particularly British, English variety of socialism was one of the fundamental assumptions of the Fabians. They said in the History of the society that

‘Fabian Essays’ presented the case for Socialism in plain language which everybody could understand. It based Socialism, not on the speculations of a German philosopher, but on the obvious evolution of society as we see it around us. It accepted economic science as taught by the accredited British professors; it built up the edifice of Socialism on the foundations of our existing political and social institutions; it proved that Socialism was but the next step in the development of society, rendered inevitable by the changes which followed from the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.

In Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 3, Hegel to Dewey (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959) 309.

George Bernard Shaw, in his paper ‘The Transition to Social Democracy’, also stressed that the movement towards socialism was a proper part of general developments in British society. He wrote of the Fabian programme

There is not one new item in it. All are applications of principles already in full activity. All have on them that stamp of the vestry which is so congenial to the British mind. None of them compel the use of the words Socialism or Evolution; at no point do they involve guillotining, declaring the Rights of Man, swearing on the alter of the country, or anything else that is supposed to be essentially un-English. And they are all sure to come – landmarks on our course already visible to far-sighted politicians even of the party that dreads them.

Lancaster, op. cit., p. 316.

Shaw was right, and continues to be right. Thatcher wanted to privatise everything because she was afraid of the ‘ratcheting down’ of increasing nationalization, and believed this would result in the gradual emergence of a completely socialized British economy. And the fact that so much British socialism was based on British rather than continental traditions may also explain why Conservatives spend so much of their effort trying to persuade the public that that Socialists, or at least the Labour left, are all agents of Moscow.

It appears to me that what turned Orwell into an anti-Communist was seeing the Communist party abandon its socialist allies and attack their achievements under Stalin’s orders in the Spanish Civil War. The Trotskyite writer Ernest Mandel discusses this betrayal in his From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (New York: Schocken Books 1978).

The switch to a defence of the bourgeois state and the social status quo in the ‘democratic’ imperialist countries – which implied the defence of private property in the event of severe social crisis and national defence in the event of imperialist war – was made officially by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. It had been preceded by an initial turn in this direction by the French Communist Party (PCF) when the Stalin-Laval military pact was signed. The clearest reflection of this turn was the Popular Front policy; its most radical effects came with the application of this policy during the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, the Communist Party made itself the most determined, consistent and bloody defender of the reestablishment of the bourgeois order against the collectivisations spontaneously effected by the workers and poor peasants of the Republic and against the organs of power created by the proletariat, particularly the committees and militias, which had inflicted a decisive defeat on the miltaro-fascist insurgents in nearly all the large cities of the country in July 1936. (p. 18).

Others have also pointed out that the nightmare world of 1984 is a depiction of a revolution that has taken the wrong turn, not one that has failed, which is another tactic adopted by Conservative propagandists. Orwell was greatly impressed by the achievements of the Spanish anarchists, and anarchism is highly critical of state socialism and particularly the USSR.

It thus seems to me that what Orwell attacked in Animal Farm and 1984 was not socialism as such, but its usurpation and abuse by bitterly intolerant, repressive groups like the Bolsheviks. It was a view partly based by what he had seen in Spain, and would no doubt have been reinforced by his awareness of the way Stalin had also rounded up, imprisoned and shot socialist dissidents in the USSR. Orwell was probably anti-Communist, not anti-Socialist.

T.H. Green’s Criticism of Utilitarian Laissez-Faire Individualism

December 24, 2018

T.H. Green was a 19th century British philosopher, who with others provided the philosophical justification for the change in Liberal politics away from complete laissez-faire economics to active state intervention. A week or so ago I put up another passage from D.G. Ritchie, another Liberal philosopher, who similarly argued for greater state intervention. Ritchie considered that the state was entitled to purchase and manage private enterprises on behalf of society, which Green totally rejected. However, Green was in favour of passing legislation to improve conditions for working people, and attacked the Utilitarians for their stance that Liberals such try to repeal laws in order to expand individual freedom. He believed the real reasons to objecting for laws affecting religious observances were that they interfered with the basis of morality in religion, and similarly believed that the real objection to the erection of the workhouses was that they took away the need for parental foresight, children’s respect for their parents and neighbourly kindness. He criticized the Utilitarians for demanding the removal of this laws on the grounds of pure individualism. Green wrote

Laws of this kind have often been objected to on the strength of a one-sided view of the function of laws; the view, viz. that their only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual. And this view has gained undue favour on account of the real reforms to which it has led. The laws which it has helped to get rid of were really mischievous, but mischievous for further reasons than those conceived of by the supporters of this theory. Having done its work, the theory now tends to beco0me obstructive, because in fact advancing civilization brings with it more and more interference with the liberty of the individual to do as he likes, and this theory affords a reason for resisting all positive reforms, all reforms which involve an action of the state in the way of promoting conditions favourable to moral life. It is one thing to say that the state in promoting these conditions must take care not to defeat its true end by narrowing the region within which the spontaneity and disinterestness of true morality can have play; another thing to say that it has no moral end to serve at all, and that it goes beyond its province when it seeks to do more than save the individual from violent interference from other individuals. The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez-faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and the play of disinterested motives.

T.H.Green, Political Obligations, cited in Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought vol. 3, Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959) 212.

Lancaster comments on this passage on the following page, stating

Green here approves the central idea of laissez-faire since he believes that the individual should be allowed to make his own choices, and he concedes that early liberal legislation had been on the whole directed to that end. He does not believe, however, that the general good of society could be served in the altered conditions of English life by leaving people alone. This is the case, he thinks, because real freedom implies a choice of actions, and actual choices may not exist when, for example, the alternative to terms set by landlord or employer is destitution or dispossession. His criticism amounts to the charge that laissez-faire is only the defence of class interests, and as such ignores the general welfare. (p. 213).

It’s a good point. Clearly Green is far from promoting that the state should run the economy, but, like the passage I put up by Ritchie, it’s an effective demolition of some of the arguments behind Libertarianism. This is sometimes defined as ‘Classical Liberalism’, and is the doctrine that the state should interfere as little as possible. But as Green and Ritchie pointed out, that was no longer possible due to the changed circumstances of the 19th century. Green is also right when he makes the point the choice between that offered by a landlord or employer and being thrown out of work or on the street is absolutely no choice at all, and that in this instance laissez-faire individualism is simply a defence of class interests. This is very much the case. Libertarianism and later anarcho-capitalism was formulated by a group of big businessmen, who objected to F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The members of this group include the Koch brothers, the multi-millionaire heads of the American oil industry. It became one of the ideological strands in the Republican party after Reagan’s victory in 1980, and also in Thatcherism, such as the Tories idea that instead of using the state police, householders could instead employ private security firms.

Green and Ritchie together show that the Classical Liberalism to which Libertarianism harks back was refuted long ago, and that Libertarianism itself is similarly a philosophy that has been utterly demolished both in theory and in practice.

Lenin on Worker’s Industrial Management, Government and the Withering Away of the State

December 24, 2018

One of the central tenets of Marxism is that the period of socialism ushered in by the seizure of power by the workers will eventually lead to the withering away the state and begin the transition to the period of true Communism. This will be the ideal, final phase of society when the government of people will be replaced by the administration of things.

Lenin seems to have believed that the transition to this ideal society would begin after everything had been nationalized and placed in the hands of the workers. The workers would then be able to manage the economy and society through the way capitalism had simplified the management of industry so that it could be performed by the workers themselves. This is explained in a passage from his The State and Revolution, reproduced in Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 3: Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959), pp.193-4.

Accounting and control – these are the chief things necessary for the organizing and correct functioning of the first phase of Communist society. All citizens are here transformed into hired employees of the State, which is made up of the armed workers. All citizens become employees and workers of one national state ‘syndicate’. All that is required is that they should work equally, should regularly doe their share of work, and should received equal pay. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anyone who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.

When the majority of the people begin everywhere to keep such accounts and maintain such control over the capitalists (now converted into employees) and over the intellectual gentry, who still retain capitalist habits, this control will really become universal, general, national; and there will be no way of getting away from it, there will be ‘nowhere to go’.

The whole of society will have become one office and one factory, with equal and equal pay.

But this ‘factory’ discipline, which the proletariat will extend to the whole of society after the defeat of the capitalists and the overthrow of the exploiters, is by no means our ideal, or our final aim. It is but a foothold necessary for the radical cleansing of society of all the hideousness and foulness of capitalist exploitation, in order to advance further.

From the moment when all members of society, ore even the overwhelming majority, have learned how to govern the State themselves, have taken this business into their own hands, have established control over the insignificant minority of capitalists, over the gentry with capitalist leanings, and the workers thoroughly demoralized by capitalism-from this moment the need for any government begins to disappear. The more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it begins to be unnecessary. The more democratic the ‘State’ consisting of armed workers, which is no longer a State in the proper sense of the term, the more rapidly does every State begin to wither away.

for when all have learned to manage, and independently are actually managing by themselves social production, keeping accounts, controlling the idlers, the gentlefolk, the swindlers and similar ‘guardians of capitalist traditions’, then the escape from this national accounting and control will inevitable become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment (for the armed workers are men of practical life, not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that very soon the necessity of observing the simple fundamental rules of every day social life in common will have become a habit.

The door will then be open for the transition from the first phase of Communist society to its highest phase, and along with it to the complete withering away of the state.

Lenin’s ideas here about industrial management and the withering away of the state are utopian, despite his denials elsewhere in his book. Lancaster in his comments on the passage points out that industrial management required to feed, clothe and house a society is far more complex than simply ‘watching, recording and issuing receipts’. Lenin in fact did try to put workers’ control into practice, with the result that industry and the economy almost collapsed completely. The capitalists and managers, who had been thrown out of the factories and industries in wheelbarrows by the workers, were invited back in afterwards, and restored to their former power. At the same, Alexandra Kollontai and the Left Communists, who wanted the workers to run the factories through trade unions, were gradually but ruthlessly suppressed as Lenin centralized political decision making.

Lancaster also points out that the administration of things nevertheless means government, and that it is very hard to convince a man, who has just been refused permission to open a new bus route or produce as many shoes as he can, that he is not being governed. Lancaster also argues that practice in both the democratic west and the USSR shows that a truly ‘stateless’ society impossible. He also states that the reduction of society to one enormous factory or office will repulse the normal mind, as it resembles a colony of insects, and that the similar routinization of the fundamental rules of normal social life into a habit destroys the autonomous individual and reduces them to a machine. He could also have mentioned, but doesn’t, the very sinister implications of ‘armed workers’ and the use of military force. The USSR was created by violent revolution, and maintained itself through force. Those attempting to set up their own businesses were arrested for ‘economic sabotage’ and sent to the gulags, where they were treated worse than ordinary criminals.

However, workers are capable of participating in government. One of the points Anthony Crossland made in one of his books was that the American unions had a large measure of industrial democracy, all though it was never called that. He was arguing against worker’s control, considering it unnecessary where there were strong unions, a progressive income tax and the possibility of social advancement. The unions have since been all but smashed and social mobility has vanished. And under Thatcherite tax reforms, income tax has become less progressive as the rich are given massive tax cuts, while the tax burden has been shifted on to working people. But the point remains: workers are capable of becoming managers. It was demonstrated by the anarcho-syndicalists in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. And Red Ken, when he was once asked by a journo why he supported worker’s management, said that it came from his experience as had of the GLC. Livingstone was now the head of a vast local government system, but there was nothing special about him. So, he believed, could ordinary people run a business. I think Leninspart was probably too modest, and he possessed managerial talents others don’t have, but the point’s a good one.

If the ability to make managerial and governmental decisions were broadened, so that they included employees and members of the public, this would empower both groups. It would make the domination of the rich 1% more difficult, and lead to a more equal, less class-ridden society. A truly classless, stateless society is probably impossible, as the example of the USSR shows. But introducing a measure of workers’ control is surely worthwhile in order to make things just that bit better.

Of course, to do so properly might mean giving working people management training. Well, Thatcher tried to turn British schoolchildren into a new generation of capitalists by making business studies part of the curriculum. She stressed competition and private enterprise. But it would turn her ideas on its head if such education instead turned workers not into aspiring businesspeople, but gave them the ability to manage industry as well as the elite above them.

That really would be capitalist contradiction Marx would have enjoyed.