Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 5: capitalism’s achievements

classroom-19th-century-1140x684One comment on an earlier post on the blog relating to the situation in Greece included the following: “So I think the task at hand is not to solve Greece’s economic crisis, this will certainly take years. Rather it is to add some political organisation and direction on to the instinct to fight. I believe that you are thinking too far ahead, overly concerned with what socialism should be in the future, and not really catching the fire of the present.”

Leaving aside whether this was true of this particular post on Greece or even of other posts; a point I have made is that the Marxist movement is too concerned with attempting to “catch the fire of the present”.  This has usually meant jumping on whatever bandwagon it thinks might propel it along in some opportunist direction.  This is informed by the view that socialism will arrive through a capitalist crisis that precipitates political revolution that will destroy the existing state and then introduce the new society.  All of which it will lead through “catching the fire” in some sort of eschatological conflagration.

Missing is the development of the alternative, evolving within capitalism in advance of any crisis, that creates and develops workers’ power in the present and most of all creates the conditions that means workers actually seek a socialist alternative long before any crisis.  Missing is the building of a working class movement that fights for an alternative society now, sees such a new society as its answer to its problems and does not limit itself to the necessarily defensive struggles against capitalist attacks.

This understanding of the working class movement, as embodying the future alternative within itself, is now more or less completely lost but would have been the foundation of workers’ socialist consciousness during most of the first century of the movement’s existence.  So, the building of mass workers’ parties, trade unions, friendly societies, educational organisations and cooperatives were all seen to be the visible rise of the more or less inevitable final victory of socialism.

No such confidence now pervades the socialist movement and part of this impoverished outlook is the perspective of fighting for and relying on the state to deliver the goods.  This and/or the view that some future, but always more or less near, political crisis will quickly precipitate a struggle and a consciousness adequate for a successful political revolution.   A view that forgets that socialist revolution is distinguished by it being primarily a social one and the Marxist view that social being determines consciousness: that is the development of consciousness is based on the development of capitalism, including what workers do over many decades to develop their own power and organisation within it. There is no exception in such a view for small groups propagandising for revolution, crisis or no crisis.

The patient building of workers organisations, such as cooperatives, is viewed by some as simply reform of capitalism when in fact no successful revolution will be possible without them.  Opposition to what has been termed the stages theory of revolution, that every workers struggle is inevitably limited to certain non-socialist goals, is confused with rejection of the truth that the working class will go through stages of development and that earlier stages that do not immediately threaten the system are also just as necessary because they are expressions of the workers own activity and power.

That this has been more or less forgotten is both a product and producer of the decline of the socialist movement.

That is why I started to write a series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, because without such an alternative there will be no, well to state the obvious – alternative!  It’s why this series is now continued.

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In the last post on Marx’s alternative I said I would look at the evidence that the development of capitalism continues to provide the grounds for socialism as an alternative.  By this I mean the contradictory nature of capitalism is still creating on an increasing scale its gravediggers, the working class, and that even “with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.” Marx.

A look at the long term development of capitalism illustrates what Marx called its civilising mission, a product not just of the growing requirements of capitalist production for an educated and relatively healthy workforce but of the needs of the capitalist state itself that provides most of this education.  By 1985 mass education was compulsory in 80 per cent of the countries of the world and over 90 per cent of the world’s children spent some time enrolled in school.

Estimates for the year 1900 put participation rates in primary education at under 40 per cent in most parts of the world outside North America, northwest Europe and English speaking areas of the Pacific, where it was over 70 per cent.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century every part of the world had achieved the minimum of the most industrialised countries at the start of the 20th century and most had exceeded it.

The picture of course is far from universally rosy and a 2007 UNESCO report estimated that in 2004 781 million adults did not have minimum literacy skills and close to 77 million children of school age were not enrolled in school.  Nevertheless the twentieth century was the first in human history in which the majority of the world’s population learned to read and write.

The development of higher level education has been just as dramatic.  In 1900 roughly half a million were enrolled in higher education institutions across the world.  By 2000 the number had grown two-hundredfold to 100 million people.  Growth in higher education has not slowed but accelerated in the latter part of the twentieth century; particularly after about 1960, with enrolment rates climbing rapidly, especially of women.  This growth has created what amounts to a global higher education system with “the same subjects . . . taught with the same perspectives leading to very similar degrees . .” (The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century)

If we look at population and health we can see the capacity of the productive system to support a growing population and improved health.  “Since 1800, global population size has already increased by a factor of six and by 2010 will have risen by a factor of ten. . . . The length of life, which has already more than doubled, will have tripled . . In 1800, women spent about 70 percent of their adult years bearing and rearing young children, but that fraction has decreased in many parts of the world to only about 14 percent, due to lower fertility and longer life.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Global life expectancy (years at birth) in 1700 was 27, still 27 in 1800, 30 by 1900 47 by 1950 and 65 by 2000, while population was 0.68 billion, 0.98, 1.65, 2.52 and 6.07 billion in the same years.  This decline in mortality began about 1800 in northwest Europe, and in many lower income countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, accelerating after the Second World War.

“The first stage of mortality decline is due to reductions in contagious and infectious diseases that are spread by air or water. Starting with the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century, preventive medicine played a role in mortality decline in Europe. However, public health measures played an important role from the late nineteenth century, and some quarantine measures may have been effective in earlier centuries. Improved personal hygiene also helped as income rose and as the germ theory of disease became more widely known and accepted. Another major factor in the early phases of growing life expectancy is improvements in nutrition. Famine mortality was reduced by improvements in storage and transportation that permitted integration of regional and international food markets . . .”

“In recent decades, the continuing reduction in mortality is due to reductions in chronic and degenerative diseases, notably heart disease and cancer (Riley, 2001). In the later part of the century, publicly organized and funded biomedical research has played an increasingly important part, and the human genome project and stem cell research promise future gains.”

“Many low-income populations did not begin the mortality transition until some time in the twentieth century. However, they then made gains in life expectancy quite rapidly by historical standards. In India, life expectancy rose from around 24 years in 1920 to 62 years today, a gain of .48 years per calendar year over 80 years. In China, life expectancy rose from 41 in 1950–1955 to 70 in 1995–1999, a gain of .65 years per year over 45 years.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Again however the gains in life expectancy are not uniform and the productive advances of capitalism, some of which are reflected in public health and medical advances, are subordinated to the accumulation of profit.  This is most clearly seen in the two significant exceptions noted in the article quoted above – the stagnation in mortality gains and increased mortality from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and the decline in life expectancy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union arising from their transition to capitalism.  The article quotes the UN in 2002 noting that male life expectancy in the Russian Federation was 60, similar to that of India.

Back to Part 4

Forward to Part 6

How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 2

Roy-Keane-as-Braveheart-Paddy-Power-3When Irish unionists claim rights to self-determination history has shown that this is not a claim for equality but a claim on behalf of sectarian supremacy – a claim to the right to inequality.

But, the question can be put, if socialists regard self-determination as a means to facilitate the voluntary unity of nationalities surely a united Ireland will itself involve the forcible suppression of Protestants and of Protestant workers?  This would mean that while Irish unionism has no legitimacy the alternative of a united Ireland is also not one that socialists can support?

Some on the Left have stopped there, accepted this, and said that the only solution to the question of democratic national rights in Ireland is therefore socialism.  This tends to come from those for whom every thorny problem is solved by the invocation of socialism.

Workers’ opposition to mass immigration? A socialist society with full employment, great public services and housing would deal with objections.  Economic crises, with periodic mass unemployment and cuts in living standards? A socialist society!  Women’s oppression and racism? Socialism is the answer.  Workers’ passivity in the face of their right wing leaders’ betrayals?  A revolutionary party with a socialist alternative.  Sectarian division?  Workers unity around a socialist programme!

Such solutions are not so much an answer to a specific problem as an invocation that the problem would simply go away if it were made not to exist. It invokes an alternative reality and not an alternative set of policies to get there.  It says that the problems and challenges faced by workers are solved by socialism when in fact the reality is the reverse – socialism is created by workers.

This means working people being persuaded and organised to present answers to all these different questions, not invoking an idealist formula disembodied from those whose conscious actions alone can bring them about.  And the only people who can do this are working people themselves, with those who are socialists attempting to advance this process.

In the case of Ireland, the point of opposing self-determination for the Protestant Irish in the North is that such a claim is not compatible with workers’ interests.  It is not an invitation to violently impose a united Ireland.  Its purpose is to explain that the claiming of such rights is reactionary.  It is meant to identify unionist and loyalist ideas and movements as right wing by virtue of the demands they hold most dear.  In this sense the demand for a united Ireland is not one taken up despite the Protestant population but because of it, because it is they who are most saturated with reactionary sectarian and imperialistic ideology.

Treating it as a sanction to pursue an armed struggle against the wishes of the artificial majority in the Northern State is part of the Irish republican liberal understanding that there are rights which, if they exist, should be exercised regardless of any considerations of the reality in which they are supposed to be grounded.

This means for example that armed struggle by republicans is justified by the principle of the right of the oppressed to fight their oppressors by any means necessary, without stopping to ask ‘by any means necessary to achieve what?’  It means rights asserted as abstract principles without regard to efficacy or morality.

Socialism on the other hand is based on workers’ interests and needs grounded in the world they live in and not of abstractions that efface these needs and interests.

Opposition to Scottish independence by socialists can therefore only respond with bemusement to nationalist claims that every other country to achieve ‘independence’ has not wanted to go back, so that it can’t therefore be such a bad idea.

Well how many of these countries are really independent, of the requirements and pressures of capitalist globalisation for example?  How many of the workers in these countries have had their basic needs and interests resolved by the ‘independence’ of the countries they live in?  In what way does the principle of separation of itself address these problems; meaning have these nationalists really considered the alternatives; meaning also that if they have, this particular argument is not really one of principle at all.

The nationalists who claim that there are 200 or so nation states in the world – why has Scotland to be different – might want to ask how this world of nation states has fared in the twentieth century and whether it has been such a good way to order the world’s affairs.  Or have two world wars taught nothing?  Perhaps a look at the character of many of these states might make one think twice that this model is one to emulate.

When it comes to the demand for a united Ireland such a demand is both abstract and unrealistic outside of its insertion into a social and political struggle that understands it, not as the demand for a new Irish capitalist state, but as a means of reducing division; including by rejecting sectarian claims to state legitimacy and power by the Protestant population and rejecting the intervention of the British state to uphold such claims.

But it also means rejection of all the other ways in which division is imposed, including sectarian organisation of education and other state services both North and South, religious imposition of restrictions on women’s rights, sectarian employment practices, sectarian political arrangements such as Stormont and state sponsorship of armed sectarian paramilitary outfits.

It means building alternative centres of working class identification and power including a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian labour movement, trade unions and political parties, democratic campaigns, and workers cooperatives where workers livelihoods directly depend on their working together.

This socialist agenda is light years from nationalist answers. By understanding this workers might be able to see that the arguments of nationalists, their claims for rights that do nothing for workers, and their claims to address grievances which are either spurious or actually derive from class oppression are false.


How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 1

Celtic snp2_310902033This week I had a conversation arising out of Jeremy Corbyn’s interview in the Andrew Marr show on the BBC.  Like others I have spoken to who saw it I can’t remember ever making a point of watching until I knew it featured this interview.

The basic issue that arose was how Corbyn could claim to support a united Ireland but oppose Scottish independence.  Surely if you support the independence of one you should support it for the other?

Given that I agree with Corbyn I answered this question by pointing out that in both cases we were talking about removing borders (or stopping them being erected) and thereby preventing barriers to unity.

Through a united Ireland the unity of Irish people would be advanced, and by opposing the separation of Scotland from England and Wales you would support the unity of British people.  Since unity of the working class irrespective of nationality is a basic socialist principle it would require some argument to trump it.  None has been advanced for Scottish separation that isn’t either factually incorrect (like Scotland is an oppressed nation) or exceedingly weak (it would also be good for the English!).

An obvious response would be – does that mean you are also in favour of unity of Britain and Ireland?   And the answer is yes.  Provided the unity was one of equals, then there could be no objection to political arrangements that would further the erosion of national division and increase the grounds for united action by the working classes of the nationalities involved – English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.  Previous unity of the islands involved British imperialist domination that was rejected by the majority of the Irish people and history demonstrated that no unity of the peoples was possible under these conditions, at that time at least. As I pointed out in this discussion – I am in favour of a united Europe.

The independence of Ireland has not been an over-riding principle for socialists and this is something that divides us from republicans, including those describing themselves as socialist republicans, or more bizarrely, republican socialists, whose socialism is in reality a variety of republicanism.  So much so that their socialism is not a means to overcome national division but a means of emphasising their nationalism: ensuring what they believe will be effective independence as opposed to nominal independence under a neo-colonial yoke.

What matters to socialists therefore is the unity of people, particularly of the working class, which is the bearer of a new socialist society, and not particularly the unity of state formations.  This is why socialists support self-determination so that unity is the voluntary unity required to overcome national divisions and not the forced unity of foreign rule and occupation.

As I have said before the absence of violent repression by English armed forces in Scotland stands in stark contrast to British repression in Ireland.  So while socialists support self-determination for Scotland we believe it should be exercised by continuing voluntary unity with the rest of Britain.  That the majority of Scottish people decided this in the referendum is therefore to be welcomed.

But if this is the case why do I support the unity of the Northern and Southern Irish states when quite clearly the majority in the north do not favour unity with the south?  Surely that would involve the coerced unity that you have just said you oppose?

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this argument that unlike the Scots the population of Northern Ireland is not a nation and therefore not subject to the right of self-determination.  Leave aside also the argument that even if we restrict ourselves to the Protestant population it too, while being an identifiable people, are also not a nation and any purported right to self-determination on their behalf is transparently a means of frustrating the right to self-determination of the Irish people as a whole.

We’ll also ignore the historical fact that any declared separateness of the Ulster Protestants is inaccurate because it does not refer to Ulster but a truncated part of it and did not seem to arise when the whole of the island was ruled by Britain, when the Protestant population in the North was quite happy to consider itself Irish, the specifically ‘loyal’ part of the nation.

It’s much harder to put aside the coerced separation of partition and the continual violence needed to maintain it even if this is usually, but not always, ‘merely’ in the form of a threat to the majority of the Irish people residing south of the border.

We will however also ignore the visceral opposition to considering themselves Irish that some Northern Protestants express when the idea of a united Ireland is proposed.  Down this road leads capitulation to the most deranged bigotry – I recall being told by my father that my uncle refused to eat off a white plate with a green trim in a bed and breakfast in Blackpool, such was his sectarian impulses.  He even apparently showed some ambivalence about supporting the Northern Ireland football team because they played in green – much better the red, white and blue of Linfield and Rangers.

While it is of no interest of socialists to impose national identities on peoples against their will it is necessary for such identities to have some grounding in reality to be considered seriously by everyone else.

On this basis however it might seem that Irish Protestants in the northern state have some grounds to claim separate political rights since they obviously are in some senses a separate people.  It might appear that it doesn’t matter whether this is a nationality, defined as ‘Northern Irish’ or as simply British inhabitants of part of Ireland, or both.

What matters however again is the objective basis for claiming rights to self-determination because some of the argumentation above is really beside the point.

And the point is that (some) Irish Protestants have been provided with what they can consider self-determination, exercised as unity under the British state, which they chose to participate in through rampant and systematic sectarian discrimination; itself reflecting the objective fact that their claims for national status were based primarily on sectarian self-identification as a colonial population in what they considered, when it suited them, was (26/32 of) a foreign country.

Since for socialists national rights are democratic rights, which are reactionary if without democratic content, it would appear that the right to self-determination of the Irish/Ulster Protestants or Northern Ireland, however one wants to put it, is a reactionary demand that cannot be supported.  And it cannot be supported because not only does it not facilitate the unity of peoples but it furthers their disunity along sectarian grounds, plus the division that arises from living in two separate Irish states.  The violent and sectarian history of this self-determination is cast iron proof of the thoroughly reactionary nature of Irish unionism.