‘From Empire to Europe’, and then where?

‘From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry since the Second World War, Geoffrey Owen, Harper Collins, 2000.

This is another book I read last year: a history that more than most has contemporary relevance.  It charts the story of British manufacturing from the end of the Second World War to the end of the century.  The majority consists of ten chapters on the experience of separate industries, from textiles and steel to cars and pharmaceuticals.  Not all are stories of failure.

Two early chapters present the historical background and four at the end review differing explanations for Britain’s relative decline.

The book was first published in 1999 and screams ‘BREXIT’ – as a history of the future of Britain outside the EU, or so it might too easily be concluded.  In fact, given the relative starting positions of Britain and the rest of Europe, then and now, the mistake of standing outside of the rest the continent now looks more obviously stupid and will more quickly be seen to be so.  If it isn’t already.

After the war ended it was expected that in due course Germany would resume its pre-war role of supplying Europe with manufactures; Britain could concentrate on the rest of the world with which it already traded.  The Labour Government decided against joining the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ceding sovereignty over its two most important industries, while the left of the Labour Party complained of the economic liberalism on the Continent it said led to social injustice.  Foreign  Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted that Britain was ‘not just another European country.’  Some economists at the Board of Trade favoured membership of the ECSC on the grounds of exposure to European competition, but this was a minority view.

The Tory Government from 1951 broadly followed its predecessor, rejecting a second opportunity to join the ECSC or taking part in negotiations to create the Common Market.  European integration was, in the words of another author quoted, ‘at best irrelevant to Britain’s economic self-interest and at worst a political nuisance which had to be tolerated, if only in public, because of the Americans.’

Again and again, Owen records the effect of being outside the European market.  In textiles small and medium-sized firms from Italy and Germany benefited ‘to a far greater extent than the British industry from the expansion of intra-European trade in the 1950s and 1960s . . . where the long-standing bias towards non-European export markets proved to be a serious disadvantage’ (p57)

When eventually Britain did join the Common Market, it found that its European competitors ‘instead of scale and standardisation . . . had put more emphasis on design and technical innovation . . . imports from the Continent rose sharply in the second half of the 1970s, and the British textile industry, having neglected European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, was not well equipped to respond.’ (p77)

In shipbuilding ‘the export trade was regarded as marginal and unpredictable’ and ‘a marketing strategy geared to the requirements of domestic owners was becoming obsolete’. (p97 & 100). In steel, ‘traditionally the most nationalistic of all major industries . . .  European steel-makers needed a market as large and competitive as that of the US’, and ‘while recognising that the smaller domestic market-imposed limits on how far British steel-makers could go in the American direction . . .’ there were barriers to this being achieved within Britain.

On the other hand, while ‘there was a long tradition of price-fixing in French steel, and the industry had bee oriented almost entirely to the domestic market the effect of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was opposed by most French steel makers) was to break down the parochialism of the industry and force it to plan for a wider European market.’ (p 148, 127 & 130).

In the paper industry, joining the Common Market ‘would have exposed it ‘at an earlier stage to competition in a large dynamic market; ‘modernisation and rationalisation which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s might have occurred earlier’ and it would ‘have provided export opportunities’ which might also ‘have started earlier.’ (p170)

In relation to the engineering industry Owen writes that, after the war, ‘when the continental economies were in disarray and the need for hard currency was urgent’, when standing aside might been seen as explicable, ‘the neglect of Continental Europe . . . after its recovery in the 1950s . . . was to prove a serious error.’ Seemingly strongly placed in the early 1960s, low economic growth and lack of involvement in intra-European trade meant that ‘an increasing number of British manufacturers were falling behind their Continental counterparts in the scale of their production.’   The failure to Europeanise in the 10–15 years after the war meant that for many firms it was too late when they did.

A similar experience les behind the decline of the British motor industry: ‘the decline of Leyland has to be seen as an avoidable disaster, largely attributable to the failure to Europeanise the business in the 1950s and 1960s.’ (p249). The ‘low priority’ given by British firms to Continental Europe meant that they did not join ‘homogenous, fast-expanding and highly competitive mass market enabled companies such as Renault, Volkswagen and Fiat to narrow the productivity gap with American manufactures . . .’ (p250)

Owen points out that European industry was itself not always successful and notes its failure in computers and semiconductors.  Of the former he says that ‘European industry might have done better if governments, instead of nurturing and protecting national champions, had concentrated on widening the market for computers . . . As it was, nationalistic, producer-oriented policies, discriminating in favour of chosen domestic suppliers, exacerbated Europe’s most serious weakness vis-à-vis the US, the small size of the market.’ (p270)

Owen makes clear that lack of orientation to a European market was sometimes a mistake not just made by the British, and that failure was not simply a result of lack of access to that market.  Other strategic mistakes were made. Half a century later it would therefore be an identical mistake to see market restrictions only on a continental scale as the problem, when many industries now have global markets and global production.

So, Renault is partnered with Nissan and Mitsubishi; Volkswagen includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda plus others and has an alliance with Ford, while Fiat is now part of Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Jeep, Peugeot, and Citroën.  Britain has a small luxury car market with volume production owned by foreign companies.

Owen tells a similar story about chemicals, noting however that the success of ICI by the end of the period covered was despite the factors that harmed the development of British companies in other industries.

Others were also successful, such as pharmaceuticals, which Owen says was due, among other things, to its ‘openness to foreign investment.’ (p372). This ensured that ‘British-owned firms were forced to compete against the world leaders and learn from them.’ (p387)

In the last chapters he looks at common explanations for the decline of British industry after the war, including the nature and dominance of the financial system; the quality of training, education and culture; poor industrial relations, and Government policy.

On the first, he says that ‘the financial system on its own does not have a decisive influence on which countries succeed in particular industries, although it may play a supporting role.’ (p403).  He does not believe culture or education factors were decisive either, and although he notes that ‘there is no doubt that some British companies were badly managed in the 1950s and 1960s . . . there was significant improvement in the 1980s and 1990s.’ (p 422)

On Government policy ‘the decision to opt out of European integration was the biggest missed opportunity of the 1945–60 period, more important than any mistakes in macro-economic policy.  Indeed, it is hard to argue that Britain suffered from uniquely incompetent macro-economic management during these years.’  (p 450) Britain became a member of the EEC ‘fifteen years too late.’  He concludes on an optimistic note, telling us that ‘by the end of the 1990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market.’  (p 461)

Everyone loves a happy ending so maybe it’s as well the book hasn’t had another edition.  The ‘unique incompetence’ of British Government economic policy that didn’t exist after the war looks as if it has arrived.  But not only the government, the informed commentariat look as if they think this policy should persist, or, more charitably, be persevered with.

In today’s ‘Financial Times’ (6 January) Robert Shrimsley records the view that ‘Tories are wondering what happened to the Brexit they promised’, as if they got ‘the house red’ rather than the ‘vintage claret’.  He recommends that ‘whether one sees Brexit as fabulous or foolhardy, it is absurd not to take the wins that are available.’   

Unfortunately, the wins he seems to champion do not seem to be up to very much and also have downsides. His recommendation, therefore, is to continue better with a failed policy that will do nothing much more than deliver failure.  He, like Kier Starmer – the so-called leader of the opposition – can no more think of going back into the EU than Tory Eurosceptics could previously stop dreaming of leaving it.

The book tells a sorry tale of British failure to appreciate where the world was going and what its place in this changing world was to be.  It has happened again with Brexit.  Deciding to persevere is what’s called déjà vu all over again. 

Some books I read in 2021 (3) – ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’

The appearance of widespread support among organisations describing themselves as Marxist for demands that don’t have a material basis – I’m referring to the claims of some trans activists that men can become women simply by declaring it – has come as has surprise to many, although perhaps it should not.

In attempting to explain this, those Marxists who are rooted in a materialist understanding of the world have referred to these organisations’ orientation to students, who are a strong constituency of the broad movement supporting this particular claim.  In effect, it is argued that these organisations that should know better do not want to alienate potential recruits and presumably don’t see the issue as important enough to risk doing so.

They are acutely aware that even to raise any question invites denunciation as a transphobe and calls for what is now called cancelling – ‘trans rights are not a debate’ is not only a slogan.  This censorious approach does not sit well with Marxists, for whom this is simply not an approach we can afford to take even if we wanted to, which we don’t.

It is all very well for trans activists to refuse to debate, or refuse to argue for their views and address challenges; their demands have had access in corporate boardrooms and HR departments, and in the corridors of government departments, judiciary and university administrations.  This is a more than inviting substitute.  For Marxists this is impossible – our politics are based on the self-emancipation of working people and this isn’t going to come from within these locations.

Of course, a more interesting question is how this constituency came to support these views in the first place, although the book reviewed doesn’t really focus on this.  I’ve rather read it with a view as to how these views, that should be so alien, have been so easily embraced by sections of the Left.

Reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’, published twenty-five years ago, makes a number of observations about its target that help inform this inquiry.

So, in his preface, he defends himself against the anticipated criticism that he is placing himself on the same side as conservatives, which has often been an argument of some on the Left, thus the examples are numerous.  As one example we have Brexit, which supposedly must be supported because the EU is capitalist, and big business supports it, so we can’t be on the same side as it.  Of course, this also requires a certain set of blinkers.

Eagleton agrees that ‘radicals and conservatives, after all, necessarily share some ground in common’, which explains resistance to postmodernism and its progeny, including the type of claim above.  ‘Radicals, for example, are traditionalists., just as conservatives are; it is simply that they adhere to entirely different traditions.’ (page ix) 

The Left has lots of ‘antis’ – anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-austerity.  That none of them necessarily entails socialism gets missed, so much so that some organisations name or define themselves in these terms, forgetting that there are reactionary movements that endorse each.  Ironically, many ‘social justice’ demands today are not even anti-capitalist.

He thus notes that postmodernist ideas (and their offspring) can be subversive but not transformative; positive content is effectively evacuated and the power to change does not arise, even if it were contemplated, from reality but from moral outrage against the oppressive power of language, hence the need to police it.

‘Some, one might predict, would assume that the dominant system was entirely negative – that nothing within this seamlessly non-contradictory whole could by definition be of value – and turn from it in dismay to ideologise some numinous Other.’ (page 7)

Many on the Left have long thought of capitalism as in terminal decline, in continual crisis with workers equally as long being exhorted to be angry and outraged.  Capitalism has no contradictions, otherwise it would not simply be utterly reactionary and, faced with a simple negative, the positive becomes a socialism that is not grounded in capitalism but has its own foundations.  Since these are uncontaminated by capitalism they are uncontaminated by reality and must rest on purely ethical claims – as do the claims of trans activists that men can become women and that they must be supported because they are oppressed: ‘only the oppressed know their oppression’ so no need to be ‘labouring away in the British museum’, as Eagleton explains, in order to understand it. (page 5)

In responding to postmodernist claims that it is opposed to dogma – and Marxism is always characterised by opponents as such – Eagleton notes that ‘one of the commonest forms of postmodernist dogma is an intuitive appeal to ‘experience’, which is absolute because it cannot be gainsaid.’ (page 67)  This, of course, also means that anyone else’s experience, of postmodernists for example, cannot be challenged either.

The low level of class struggle facilitates the alternative arising out of capitalism being judged on purely moral grounds because a real mass struggle will contain lots of impurities (which of course Marxists will want to combat) so will not therefore withstand any test based on a perfectly moral yardstick.

We know this from the experience Marxist organisations continually hark back to – the Russian revolution.  The issue here is not to excuse or condemn its failings but to recognise it is not a great example for today and that these failings were not moral but material and political.  It wasn’t ripe for socialism, particularly if left on its own – and it was left on its own – and given this it was inevitable that something other than working class self-emancipation would rise to take over.

This is what has happened with opposition to racism and sexual oppression etc.  Without a working class movement which can embrace them and offer a totally different system, within which their needs can be expressed, their demands are enveloped by politics compatible with capitalism.  All the rhetoric and ‘Theory’ is mainly camouflage.

So, the autonomous and rational individual subject that is the basis of liberalism is taken to another level when such an individual can determine the sexual nature of their own body.  It is claimed by some transgender activists that their gender identity is innate and not an internal processing of external culture, but this is similar to ‘any brand of epistemological anti-realism, it consistently denies the possibility of describing the way the world is, and just as consistently finds itself doing so.’ (page 28)

Hence, some trans activists deny the world has caused their gender dysphoria but just as consistently demand that this world can and must ameliorate it.

As Eagleton notes ‘at a certain point in the 1970s, all concern with biology became ‘biologistic’ overnight . . . Properly afraid of a vulgar reductionism, some strands of postmodernism responded to this danger by the rather more violent tactic of erasing the biological, and occasionally the economic, altogether.   In speaking materially about culture, it began to speak culturally about the material.’ (page 48)

‘What culture you inhabit is not definitive of your humanity, in the sense that beings of different cultures are not creatures of different species.  To be some kind of cultural being is indeed essential to our humanity, but not to be any particular kind.  There are no non-cultural human beings, not because culture is all there is to human beings, but because culture belongs to their nature.’ (page 101)

Eagleton takes up the sibling of race and gender as these are perceived by some postmodernists, which is class.  But ‘classism’ is not something Marxists have ever complained about, unlike racism and sexism.

‘’Classism, on this analogy, would seem to be the sin of stereotyping people in terms of social class, which taken literally would mean that it was politically incorrect to describe Donald Trump as a capitalist. Socialists, however, churlishly refuse to subscribe to the orthodoxy that social class is a bad thing, even though they are out to abolish it.  For socialism, the working class is an excellent thing, since without it one could never usurp the power of capital.’

‘On the surface, the class–race–gender triplet appears convincing enough.  Some people are oppressed because of their gender, some on account of their race, and others by virtue of their class.  But this is a deeply misleading formulation.  For it is not as though some individuals display certain characteristics known as ‘class’, which then result in their oppression.  On the contrary, Marxists have considered that to belong to a social class just is to be oppressed, or to be an oppressor.  Class is in this sense a wholly social category, as being female or having a certain skin pigmentation is not.’ (page 57)

‘The oppression of women is a matter of gender, which is wholly a social construct; but women are oppressed as women, which involves the kind of body one happens to have.  Being bourgeois or proletarian, by contrast, is not biological at all.’ (page 58)

Some of these ideas are obvious for Marxists, which points not to explaining how easily some Marxist organisations have adopted idealist constructs of woman, but how difficult it should be.  Any explanation should therefore entail how this departure is not really unique and surely a result of some general malaise.

So, to come back to what I have called the moral basis of much of the politics practiced by some on the Left; Eagleton asks a question that returns us to social reality – ‘Is the capitalist system progressive?’

He responds – ‘The only reasonable answer is a firm yes and no.  On the one hand, Marx’s praise for capitalism is surely well justified.  Capitalism, as he never tires of arguing, is the most dynamic, revolutionary, transgressive social system known to history, one which melts barriers, deconstructs oppositions, pitches diverse life-forms promiscuously together and unleashes an infinity of desire . . . As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil.’

‘All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost.  This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few.  Capitalism is most certainly a progressive system, and is just as certainly nothing of the kind.’ (page 61)

For a long time, many on the Left have sought to overcome their marginality by relying on capitalist crises to radicalise workers, but through a moral critique unhinged from how that capitalism works.  The key question for them was creation of a revolutionary party, but neither capitalist crises or moral indignation will create it, so it becomes as idealistic a construct as postmodern ideas of social justice that look to other agencies, if they look at all.  When they do they especially look to the state.

Today some of the Left endorses claims that are utterly unrelated to reality, doing so because these appear as demands of the oppressed, forgetting that the working class is not the agent of change because it is particularly oppressed; others have been much more oppressed and much more numerous.   Unfortunately, an ungrounded moralistic alternative is very unlikely to be accepted by the working class and especially its more irrational claims.  This Left will make another mistake, and if we have learnt anything, it is that it always pays for them.

Some books I read in 2021 (2) – ‘Market Maoists’

The rapid economic growth of China to one of the world’s leading powers has prompted debate on how this was achieved, from its extreme poverty to the prodigious development associated with its insertion into the world capitalist system.  This book traces the evolution of the earlier relations between China under Mao and the capitalist world, before the explicit economic reorientation and while still proclaiming adherence to the revolutionary transformation to socialism.

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still proclaims socialism, and that before the Deng Xiaoping era China had relations with the capitalist world, means that the story is not a simple one, hence the debate on whether China today is capitalist or imperialist.  This book doesn’t directly address these issues but seeks to provide the story of the early Maoist relations with the capitalist world, starting with the semi-underground trading arrangements set up by the CCP in British ruled Hong Kong in 1938, years before the conquest of political power nationally in 1949.

In the first full year of Maoist rule roughly 74 per cent of trade was with capitalist countries; two years later this had fallen to 21 per cent, with the share taken by the Soviet Union etc. dramatically increasing.  Like the experience of the USSR surveyed in the previous post, China sought to trade its farm goods for advanced technology and equipment, plus chemicals and fuels, in order to build its industry.

As is well known, the 1949 revolution did not initially involve state takeover of all private capitalist enterprises and the Maoists were acutely conscious of their lack of economic experience, which had been limited to relatively remote rural regions.  CCP policy involved repeatedly contacting foreign capitalists to explore trading opportunities, and the book records their meeting in Tianjin with the American Chamber of Commerce to discuss cooperation, although with no success.

This policy was very much encouraged by Stalin, with the Maoist leadership supporting trade with Japan despite the very recent and brutal war against their occupation.  This and later engagements were far from smooth.  For Stalin, geopolitical considerations of defending the Soviet Union were paramount while the Chinese sought to expose latent contradictions between Japan and the US; something which was to become a recurring theme as the US attempted to isolate the new regime and China attempted to wriggle free. Other capitalist states showed themselves to be more open to acceptance of it by way of developing trading opportunities.

The eruption of the Korean war set back Mao’s plans; when meeting with Stalin for the first and only time he told him that “China needs a period of 3–5 years of peace”.  Their negotiations yielded a new Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1950 but relationships were not particularly warm as Stalin kept Mao hanging about Moscow for a second meeting in order to show him who was boss.

Most welcome was a loan from the Soviet Union, its need apparent from the government budget in the first three months of the new year being nearly balanced, having been in deficit by nearly two-thirds in the previous year.

The importance given to trade was made clear through the decision to break the unwritten rule – that commercial work should remain in the hand of trusted CCP members – and employ technical experts from the old Nationalist regime.  The new Korean war-time conditions meant a return to clandestine trading activities, with the CIA estimating that “China was smuggling between two hundred and three hundred tons of strategic materials from Hong Kong to mainland China every night.” (page 82)

The launch of the “three Anti Campaign” targeting corruption, waste and obstructionism in 1951 was followed in 1952 by the “Five Anti Campaign” which mobilised the population against China’s corrupt bourgeoisie.  Native private capitalists would no longer be protected as the CCP consolidated its control of the economy.

These campaigns also involved targeting the type of individuals that the Party wanted to recruit to agencies set up to assist its development of trade with capitalist countries, a problem that was to recur again, requiring the support of leading sections of the bureaucracy for the state bodies involved and their work. Zhou Enlai told the Chinese delegation to an international conference in Moscow that “You must make friends widely, don’t just make friends with progressives; make reactionary friends, too.” (page 89). The US opposed the conference but the Chinese delegation were able to sign its first contract with the British, while the CIA lamented that “our side can be expected to sustain loss after loss.” (page 91)

The CCP showed its elastic use of Marxist categories, developing “a new narrative for China’s place in global markets, one that centred on the theme of trading with capitalists as an anti-imperialist struggle.” (page 99).

In this vein, the end of the Korean war in 1953 was received by China as an opportunity to undermine the US blockade and use the Geneva Conference, organised to settle the peace at the end of hostilities, to enhance the new line of “peace in economics”.  In that year the country’s volume of trade reached its highest level since 1930; exchange with the capitalist countries growing by 29 per cent on the previous year. China however was still not important globally, so this didn’t prevent its share of capitalist countries’ trade falling relatively as world exchange soared.

On the back of this the CCP elaborated the concept of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”, which entailed containing American imperialism and hastening the demise of capitalism.  Meanwhile relations with other capitalist countries such as Britain and France could be improved.

In 1958 China opened its first significant trade exhibition in Canton from April 25 to May 25 hosting 1,200 people from nineteen countries.  Later in the year Britain decided unilaterally to eliminate the differential (greater restrictions compared to the Soviet Union) in controls on exports to China, followed within weeks by a host of other countries including France, West Germany, Italy and Holland.

Not long after this Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, by which he hoped to mobilise the population to overcome existing material constraints and rapidly accelerate the industrialisation and modernisation of the country.  It was a project that seemed directly to contradict the foundations of the Marxist doctrine he claimed to hold, which recognised that the underdevelopment of the forces of production could not be overcome by sheer will.  In the event, they couldn’t, and the initiative failed in its objective, including that of catching up with Britain in fifteen years.

Part of it was meant to involve a key role for trade with foreign capitalism.  Like the Soviet Union, taxation of agriculture – in effect the peasant – was to provide the resources to feed the growth of the working class which would also allow for increased trade with foreign capitalism.  Unfortunately, this period saw political considerations lead to a major spat with Japan and a fall in trade until the early 1960s.

This, however, was only one aspect of the harmful effects of the Great Leap Forward on the conduct of trade policy.  Decentralisation of decision making led to import orders from capitalist markets in the first six months exceeding by twice the ministry budget for the whole year.  Targets were missed, foreign currency reserves fell and the risk arose of defaulting on contracts.  The central state struggled to regain control while “chaos” reigned in Chinese ports causing “crippling” delays. (page 145)

Japanese business and others started to complain about Chinese price “dumping”, pirating of designs and copying of Western patents.  Other South-East Asian countries complained of special financial inducements, while China encouraged ethnic Chinese in these countries to boycott Japanese goods, although British diplomats in a number of them reported scant evidence of this happening.

At the same time relations with the Soviet Union started to fall apart and China launched an artillery attack on the Nationalist Kuomintang-occupied Island of Jinmen.  For Mao this was part of the effort to rally the people to the demands of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou Enlai again intervened to support the organisation of the work of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, including to ensure contracts with foreign capitalist were honoured.  At a meeting of staff he told them that “[we would] rather ourselves not eat or eat less, not use or use less, and fulfil the contracts already signed.” (page 149). The Ministry had for years been aware of the need to defend China’s credit rating and Zhou was concerned that dumping was affecting relations with capitalist countries, including India, which was concerned about “dumping” of cotton on the market.

Zhou acknowledged that international trade with capitalists was a form of class struggle, ‘but China could not afford to struggle blindly.’  The Ministry had to differentiate between different capitalists in order to serve China’s diplomatic objectives and avoid behaviour that would undercut relationships. (page 150).

Zhou emphasised the political purpose of trade but the Ministry was caught between the demands of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and commercial requirements.  He repeated the mantras of zili gengsheng (revival through one’s own efforts) and repudiated the concept of shangzhan (“commercial war”), emphasising heping jingji (“peaceful economics”. (Page 152) ‘“The Great Leap Forward must also accord with objective realties”, he said. “Foreign trade cannot jump 40–50 percent all at once,” he told ministry officials.’ (page 152).

Unfortunately, ‘Zhou’s call for a more moderate trade policy in late 1958 proved too nuanced for the brute force of the GLF’.  New, more modest, targets for exports and imports were set but ‘still exceeded the actual 1958 values by 19 percent and 3 percent respectively.’

Inevitably contracts were not fulfilled.  Like the other aspects of the GLF, ‘the situation became absurd.  Regions without a single walnut tree had been ordered to harvest the nuts for export.’ (page 153). The demands of the GLF for “more, faster, better, more economical” continued into the new decade.

The state failed to meet its grain target but exceeded its export targets as the last-ditch efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Trade to do so were successful.  Food stocks declined precipitously in 1959 and early 1960 and a crisis was imminent: ‘people were already starving in some places.  The bottom was falling out of the Great Leap Forward.’ (page 158)

Relations with the Soviet Union finally collapsed and the Ministry of Trade had nowhere to turn except the capitalist world for the imports necessary for modernisation and the grain necessary to save lives in the famine.  The Maoist regime was led to discover that Soviet “revisionism” was worse than US imperialism.  One task considered an immediate priority was consequently taken to be wiping out the debt to the ‘socialist countries’, necessary in order to defend China’s “international reputation” (guoji shang de shengyu).

The Chinese state struggled to procure the grain necessary to avoid greater catastrophe, especially while trying to keep the famine a secret. Billed as a great step forward to socialism, and while denouncing “revisionism”, the Great Leap Forward precipitated the requirement for grain imports from the capitalist world throughout the first half of the 1960s. (Although the degree to which other factors were responsible is controversial).  It compelled compromising on the principle of avoiding capitalist debt, which up to then had had the effect of limiting China’s fuller entry into the world capitalist market.

The necessity to regularly import grain from the capitalist world, and maximise exports to it in order to earn the foreign currency to pay for the grain, while husbanding its reserves, meant that foreign trade could no longer be ‘tightly scripted, discrete transactions conducted at arm’s length’. Jason Kelly states that ‘It presaged a much more consequential shift in China’s relationship to the global economy that would occur during Reform and Opening.’(page 176)

Trade then increased, first with Japan, then with Western Europe, so that trade with the capitalist world that had been 18 per cent of the total in 1955 reached 70 per cent by volume in 1964. The CCP also moved away from the Great Leap Forward, Zhou Enlai telling the National People’s Congress in 1962 that ‘“blindness” (mangmuxing) to objective laws had marred China’s socialist construction.’ (page 184)

China was, however, about to go through another tumultuous upheaval before learning the same lesson again. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), of which the late socialist Neil Davidson said ‘every word was a lie’, launched an antibureaucratic campaign against potential capitalist restoration that included familiar target such as ‘bourgeois specialists’ and ‘venerable masters’.

Launched by a section of the CCP bureaucracy it was ended by same, although in-between it witnessed mass assaults on the state apparatus, so that its origin eventually allowed for the manner of its ending.  The Cultural Revolution hit China’s trade but the “figures seem mild in relation to the chaos . . . These were significant declines, but not catastrophic” and “were not caused solely by the Cultural Revolution.” (page 189)

These developments, including skirmishes with the Soviet Union from 1967 but more seriously in 1969, led to rapprochement with the United States.  The logic of socialism in one country, the unity of the Communist – more accurately Stalinist – World, took a giant step towards its ultimate conclusion. China’s planners thus forecast a significant increase in trade with the capitalist world in the fourth Five-Year Plan (1971–1975), including import of whole plant equipment, and later for thousands of foreign workers to come to work in the country.

Many of these developments to closer ties with the capitalist world, and without all the talk about it undermining that world, preceded the changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping, who until 1973 was repairing tractor parts in Jiangxi Province following his purge.  The following years saw the post-Mao leadership of Hua Guofeng launch an even larger, too large as it turned out, import programme, while other CCP leaders worried that China was embracing capitalist markets ‘too enthusiastically.’ (page 208)

Deng Xiaoping, speaking to Party officials in 1978, sums up the history presented in the book: “when Comrade Mao Zedong was alive, we also wanted to expand economic and technological exchanges between China and the outside world, including developing economic and trade relations with some capitalist nations, and even the introduction [into China] of foreign capital, joint ventures, etc.” (page 209).

The book chronicles the early history of one aspect of China’s relationship with capitalism and illustrates incidentally the Marxist understanding of the necessary preconditions for the achievement of socialism and the inevitable failure of trying to leap over them or seeking to achieve this goal in a single country.  The book is, of course, not written from a Marxist perspective and given the size and importance of China, and its rich history over the last 70 or so years, it can be no more than a partial history. It is nevertheless very interesting for its exploration of one aspect of China’s less recent economic development.

Some books I read in 2021 (1) – ‘Red Globalisation’

‘Red Globalisation: The political economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Krushchev’, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc the politics of Stalinism lives on, infecting even those who declare their politics to be its historic left opposition.  This politics is summed up in the idea of the possibility of establishing socialism in one country.  

For example, there is no basis for left support for Brexit other than the possibility of taking otherwise prohibitive steps towards socialism on a purely national basis.  Such a view of this left case is supported by its argument that the EU prevents the implementation of state ownership, which, when combined with nationalism, is termed nationalisation and is considered more or less synonymous with socialism.

Since neither state ownership or nationalism expresses specifically working class interests or its powers to assert them, they do not at all define socialism.  Despite its demise the example of the Soviet Union continues to be been held up as embodying socialism, based on its definition as state ownership, and moreover this achievement in one country, so justifying nationalism.

The book ‘Red Globalisation’ argues that the Soviet Union, far from being an economic construct separate from the world capitalist economy, was intrinsically enmeshed within it as a middle-income country, very much subject to the forces shaping that world economy.  This can be seen not only in its autarky in the 1930s but also in its own particular globalisation after the Second World War.

To forestall any presumption that the book can be employed to make the case that the Soviet Union was some sort of capitalism, it simply confirms that socialism can be international or not at all.  The book argues that ‘as is usual in large countries, trade did not play much of a role in the Soviet Union’s economic growth at this time; in this almost purely domestic achievement, coercion and surveillance were everything, and these only started to be undermined by Krushchev’s reforms late in the 1950s.’ (page 122). It should also be noted that this reviewer would not agree to the assessment that the domestic achievements of the Soviet Union could be put down solely to repression.

After the early years of the revolution, far from disengaging from the capitalist world, Sanchez-Sibony argues that from the industrialisation debate in the 1920s onwards there was widespread agreement on the necessity of links with the foreign capitalist market, and all the steps considered necessary to ensure that this would succeed, including following ‘the liberal prescription of gold standard orthodoxy, namely austerity.’ (page 36-7).

The pressure experienced on new regime’s currency and gold reserves ‘threatened the credibility of the state’s commitment to monetary stability both domestically and abroad . . .  possible exclusion from international capital markets . . . was not countenanced until it became inevitable . . .‘ (page 37).  Sanchez-Sibony notes that the ‘NEP had been designed precisely to take advantage of the coming global expansion; what the Bolsheviks got instead was the full measure of the world economy’s 1920s fluctuations.’ (page 45)

While one response to these was monetary expansion, this only resulted in inflation and a plummeting value of the currency, leading to increased exertion and coercion.  Remaining creditworthy became ‘a bit of an obsession, particularly for Stalin, who would prove quite willing to implement whatever policies were needed to achieve this purpose, both in the 1930s and after World War II, even if it compounded times of starvation.’ (page 47).

So, while the first five-year plan envisaged foreign trade as one of the most rapidly growing sectors, the Great Depression led to a reduction in credit and then of trade, with internal crises leading to a turn to what was called ‘import substitution’ but was in fact import deprivation – reduced imports did not lead to increased domestic production.

It therefore became a case of attempting to make a virtue out of necessity rather than any ‘discourse on the desirability of economic independence.’ (page 52). Cuts to imports to one-third of their 1931 value kept the Soviet Union solvent in 1933 while austerity allowed it to pay off its debt by 1935 – ‘the surprise was that the Soviet Union, unlike many economically emerging countries during those years, did not default on its debt, preferring to starve the Soviet population instead . . .’ (page 53) This included, by the way, paying Adolf Hitler the debt accrued to Germany in gold ingots in the mid-1930s.

All this did not result in any particularly autarkic economy by world standards; while exports by value fell by half between 1931 and 1934, by volume they fell by 28 percent, still 18 percent above the 1929 level, while world trade had reduced by 20 percent.

Sanchez-Sibony acknowledges that ‘trade did not revive much thereafter’, explaining this by the preparations for war making import dependence ‘a foolhardy proposition’ or ‘perhaps’ Soviet leaders coming to believe their ‘own propaganda on the virtues of economic independence’, which seems rather unlikely given their prior and later history.  He argues that imports of equipment became less critical than they had been at the beginning of industrialisation while the requirement  for industrial materials increased and the import of military technology became a priority. (page 55)

He states that during this period ‘the soviets continued to be dictated terms by the world economy against their plans and best interests’ and speculates whether both the role of Stalin and the course of Soviet history might have been different ‘had the Soviet state developed in a globalising, inflationary world economy more akin to the triumph of the 1950s rather than the disaster of the interwar period?’ (page 56)

Following the war, the settlement in Eastern Europe ‘presented the Soviets with their first opportunity ever to trade with other countries without overwhelming economic or political complications.  It was telling that they seized the opportunity; it heralded the explosion to come.’ (page 70) See graph below:

Foreign Trade turnover by Region (millions 1961 rubles) [from ‘Red Globalisation]

This however did not entail a decoupling from the world capitalist system.  Referencing the new Bretton Woods system in the West, Sanchez-Sibony writes that ‘the Soviet Union, along with its CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] partners, remained appendages to the much larger and dominant liberal construct.’ (page 73)

He recalls one ‘small episode’ that ‘best captures the nature of power relations in the new liberal order the Soviets encountered against their best predictions.’  This involved Soviet fears for the security of their ‘meagre’ reserves, more than two-thirds of which lay in American banks and almost half of which was already committed to importing rubber, that they thought might be safer if they were deposited in European banks. (page 73)

The Soviet Union remained committed to engagement with world capitalism, in what they called the “international division of labour”, resisting defaulting on their war debts in order to defend their credit within ‘the liberal financial architecture of the postwar period.’ (page 74). 

The shortage of dollars was a problem for the Soviets as it was for everyone else and they often employed barter arrangements to avoid currency requirements. They could, however, ‘only watch from the sidelines and rage about the subversive American influence’ as the latter led the reconstruction of a functioning capitalist system in Europe through Marshall Plan funding and the European Payments Union, which facilitated commercial and financial transactions among the West European countries.

The Americans became a real barrier to economic relations with other capitalist powers, which only loosened as these reduced their dependence on the US.  Even so, the Soviet economy began to grow quickly during the 1950s with foreign trade expanding at an even faster rate, the vast proportion with the other Stalinist states.  The weight of trade with developing countries also grew along with the process of decolonisation although it soon reached a  plateau, while trade with the West continued to grow ‘unrelentingly’, with the Soviet Union especially keen for access to Western technology, which was exchanged for raw materials such as oil and timber. 

Ironically Sanchez-Sibony argues that ‘the Soviet Union’s inherently weak position in international politics’ was exploited by both its East European allies, whose provision of low quality goods was subsidised, and other ‘alleged allies in the developing world.’ (page 95)  

In 1958 the Soviet Union was declaring that “in the future we will not relax our efforts to normalise and expand trade and economic relations with capitalist countries,” which year was also the beginning of large net imports of machinery from the West. (pages 107-8). About the same time Soviet leaders started to become preoccupied with repeated complaints by customers about the quality of Soviet exports.  These even included issues with their exports of raw materials, such as unseasoned timber, and coal and chromium ‘riddled with too many impurities.’ (p 116) 

Nevertheless, statistics for foreign trade showed that it increased from 12 percent of national income in 1960, to 21 per cent in 1975 and to 27 per cent in 1980; levels comparable to that of Japan.  In fact, Sanchez-Sibony claims that ‘the Soviet Union throughout the postwar era was more sensitive to changes in the world economy than other large countries such as the United States, Brazil, India, and by the late 1970s, even Japan.’ (page 5).

Far from it advancing beyond capitalism however its trade with Western Europe spoke of the reverse – ‘whereas in 1955, manufactured goods made up 28 percent of Soviet exports to Western Europe, in 1983 the figure was 6 percent.  In the mid 1980s, some three-fourths of their exports to the developed countries consisted of oil, gas, and gold.’ (page 19)

He records the fate of eight Ilyushin IL-18 airplanes sold to Ghana in the early 1960s.  Only four worked regularly, only clocking up fifteen hours each month on average, while a single British Bristol Britannia was flying 113 hours a month and required less repairs.

The Soviet Union’s trade with newly independent nations involved ‘no great Communist crusade’, and a good part of ‘Red Globalisation‘ details the commercial considerations on both sides and the absence of ideological considerations, whatever pretence was sometimes made.  For the Soviet Union ‘the main motivations . . . were political goodwill and the alleviation of western pressure on both the Soviet Union and its economic partners.’ (page 251)

He records the visit of Indian businessmen to the Soviet Union in 1954 to what were presented as the country’s most modern ‘flagship’ factories, such as Moscow’s “Stalin” car factory, and the “Red Proletariat” machine-building factory.

The report back by the businessmen to its government noted that they thought the factories ‘rather dilapidated’, housed in ‘neglected buildings’ and with ‘machinery suffering from widespread disrepair’.  They were unimpressed by the quality of output and productivity and the factory manager’s lack of concern for quality.  The ‘airplanes were chronically late’, the trams were ‘too full’, and the hotels outside Moscow and Leningrad ‘were badly made and unsanitary’, although the ‘people seemed content and children in particular looked healthy and well taken care of.’

They concluded that ‘there was little in the way of technology and industrial equipment in the Soviet Union that could not be bought somewhere else, and moreover have it be of better quality.’ (pages 162-3)

More trade with the West was thus not going to be the answer to the question of economic development while exports were uncompetitive.  In any case, as we have seen, trade with the West did increase and the Soviet Union still collapsed.  Even without autarky or the constraints on trade imposed, especially by the United States, the Soviet Union could not constitute a society with greater productivity than Western capitalism.

’Opening-up’ was not in itself an answer.  Trade with the West did not negate the problems imposed by the Stalinist policy of ‘socialism in one country’, which could not survive even with the benefit of massive oil price increases in the 1970s, of which the Soviet Union was a great beneficiary.

‘Red Globalisation’ is not a particularly long book so it could not be comprehensive. It has also been criticised by some academics for relying on a rather narrow range of archival material that avoids the documentation that would reveal the (supposedly aggressively anti-capitalist) ideological and political motives of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the portrayal by Sanchez-Sibony that it was overwhelmingly economic considerations that drove trade and economic policy.

They advance this argument by noting the original Bolshevik repudiation of the Tsarist debt and particularly the state monopoly of trade.  These, they say, demonstrate the mainly ideological character of Soviet policy.  This however misses the point, or rather several.

As Sanchez-Sibony himself argues, the choice of economic policy was itself ideological, which for Marxists derived from Stalinism’s commitment to a policy of socialism in one country.  The commitment to a state monopoly of trade was simply a reflection of the non-capitalist character of the Soviet Union, while the early Bolshevik repudiation of Tsarist debt reflects, among other things, the revolutionary character of the Soviet regime at that early point of the revolution. 

Sanchez-Sibony’s book is mainly concerned to show that the Soviet Union was not an autonomous autarky but that ‘the world economy quickly slotted the country within its economic and technological hierarchy.’ (page 247). This failure has been registered by much of the Left but not assimilated.  The majority of workers consider its experiment a failure, while the determination of much of the left not to learn from it also signals its determination to continue to own that failure.

Three books on Transgender Politics (4 of 4) – Trans – When Ideology Meets Reality

The third book – Trans – was bought in an Oxfam bookshop in England and I wonder would I be able to buy it there again?

It is, like the first, a critique of gender identity theory, which claims that if someone identifies as a woman, they are a woman, regardless of any contrary biological facts.  It is justified because it is claimed that no one can know more or better about a person than the person themselves.  This is plausible to many, and compassion and sympathy for those minorities facing discrimination lead many to accept these claims without considering the full consequences.

The author Helen Joyce argues early in the book that this is not what gender self-identification is about – “it is a misnomer. It is actually about requiring others to identify you as a member of the sex you proclaim.”

Not to do so is to invite denunciation as transphobic, including sometimes the hyperbolic claim that that to do so makes trans people feel unsafe.  The subjectivism of ‘I am who I say I am’ is replaced by ‘you must agree with what I say and agree to the demands that I make’.  Changing objective reality is what it is about, while seeking to redefine it through declaration.

Joyce says that this leads to an Orwellian world, an accusation she notes that is “often made too lightly”, but in this case is applicable because it robs language of the words to frame opposition to gender self-identification (gender ID).  ‘Male’ and ‘female’ becomes both biology and identity; for example, it is your sex when you are born and also your identity some time before and then after you transition. But if they are the same why does any transition matter if your sex is defined by your gender identity?  What does it mean to identify as female if your biological sex is unimportant to your gender identity and thus your sex?

A potential response is that medical intervention and or outward presentation is how I would like to express my identity (and therefore my sex) and this does involve a transition.  The real problem is therefore not lack of words, although this causes multiple confusion and makes any discussion a terminological nightmare, but the closed world of pure subjectivism that demands objective validation and over-rides every negative effect of this validation.

At the end of the previous review, I argued that the differences of view demonstrate that the demands of some trans activists are not the same as, and sometimes in opposition to, those of others, especially women.

But not only that, Joyce states of these activists that “this powerful new lobby far outnumbers the trans people it claims to speak for.  And it serves their interests very poorly.”  One of the purposes of the book is to substantiate these claims and to show that “its overreach is likely to provoke a backlash that will harm ordinary trans people, who simply want safety and social acceptance.”

Joyce gives a brief history of transsexuality and why some men want to be women.  Contrary to the claim that ‘I am who I say I am’ must be automatically accepted, Joyce states that “in no field of medicine are patients’ reports the last word.”  

Certainly, if I were to go to a doctor and say that I have ‘X’ condition and she either says ‘no you don’t’, or ‘I would like to investigate first’, it would usually be a very good idea to accept this, even if only provisionally.  People routinely discount other’s claims about themselves, including about their behaviour, character, temperament and other proclaimed physical traits.  The claim that gender identity is some other physical and mental attribute immune to questioning and sacrosanct requires other’s faith in what they are being told, in other words acceptance without justification.

Joyce refers to studies in the 1970s and 1980s of people’s views of their sex as children and later as adults which showed that “in every one the majority outgrew their dysphoria, and the majority of those ‘desisters’ turned-out gay in adulthood.”  She reports that it is not possible to determine who among those expressing gender dysphoria will persist and seek assignment as the opposite sex, and who will desist, and cites ongoing research that whether highly feminine boys desist and identify as gay men, or persist as transwomen, or something else “is largely determined by their culture.”

Except when children are put on puberty blockers, which one study reported seemed to lead to every child in the study persisting and progressing to take cross-sex hormones.  This particular finding would thus appear to confirm the claims of some trans activists that transitioning treatment for gender dysphoria should be given without questioning or delay.  However, for Joyce, this result is likely only because such treatment itself “blocked the developmental process whereby gender dysphoria often resolves.”

The existence and reporting of such research reinforces Kathleen Stock’s appeal for “robust, accurate data.”  Joyce also comments, as did Stock, on what she sees as misleading clams.  So, she states, some of the statements made by activists to support medical intervention is misleading, citing the claims that forty-eight per cent of young trans people have attempted suicide.  This, she says, comes from responses “of twenty-seven British trans people in a larger survey promoted on LGBT websites.”  The number of respondents is both “tiny” and other explanations for elevated risk are more likely.  

Joyce notes that on the American left “activists had started to judge people and ideas, not according to the evidence . . . but according to a very particular notion of social justice.” And as we have seen, such an approach can mean accepting a three-year-old boy’s claim to be a girl.  Seeking simply to explore what might lie behind such a claim, and not immediately confirming it, is damned as transphobic and thus hazardous for therapists who might be faced with the choice.

Where Shon Faye records the stories of trans people transitioning Joyce records some of the stories of those who went through irreversible medical and surgical procedures that damaged their future health as well as life prospects, for example their future fertility, and who now bitterly regret what was done.

For Joyce, particular gender types that are today in many places considered perfectly ordinary – because the person is gay or does not, for example, fit some stereotypical masculinity – is now argued as evidence that the person is actually a different sex.  And this has the effect of only confirming the old stereotypical view of what it means to be a man or woman.

That gender ID is actually regressive is concealed by it being “defined as an inner knowing” and supposedly revealed by stereotyped appearances and action. “You long to hear that girls (or boys) are people with female (or male) bodies who behave however they damn well please; instead you hear that girls (or boys) are people who behave in feminine (or masculine) ways.”

Another way in which she states that the demands of this ideology have been regressive is that, despite complaining about the objectivisation of trans people by repeated prurient inquiry into their bodies, their demand for inclusivity has led to the objectification of women.  So, women become ‘people who menstruate’, ‘pregnant people’, or ‘people who bleed’, or as the Lancet recently put it ­– ‘bodies with vaginas’.  Trans women become women and women become menstruators etc.

Feminists note the absence of terms such as ‘people with sperm’ or ‘people with penises’ to refer to men.  The supposed requirement for inclusion of transmen does not seem to require the same erasure of the name for biological males. Joyce notes that while gender self-identification is a cardinal requirement of social justice for some, racial self-identification is taboo.  Lesbians who are defined by sexual orientation have this rendered meaningless by there being no meaningful definition of sex, with gender being paramount.  This leads to absurdities that they should really consider transwomen with penises as sexual partners.

The effect on women is further taken up in the argument for single-sex spaces for women on the grounds of “risk reduction, comfort and an opportunity for women to be somewhere that their needs are centred.”  So, while not all males are violent, almost all assaults on women are by men and “it is impossible for women to tell which males pose a risk”.  In some circumstances, such as prisons, self-identification is particularly dangerous as transferring to a women’s prison is especially attractive to the most dangerous men.

She notes therefore that the demands of some trans activists have a direct effect on women, including lesbians, that they do not have on men, including gay men.  It isn’t obvious to her why gay people have not reacted more than they have and gives the example of the fight to add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes in the US Civil Rights Act, to which trans activists tried to tag on gender identity.  When the latter was dropped some “furious trans activists not only withdrew support for the slimmed-down bill, but campaigned against it’, an example with relevance to Shon Faye’s assertion that the demands of trans liberation are “synonymous” with the goals of the gay rights and feminist movements.

She notes, as have others, that although trans’ campaign groups “talk is about the world’s downtrodden . . . the money comes in large part from the world’s most powerful people . . .”  Faye similarly speaks of the oppressed but also notes that the cause she supports is corrupted by corporate interests for whom a gesture to trans rights is good PR.

Joyce argues that trans activists’ influence is exercised through providing training to judges, through the charity Stonewall’s ‘diversity champions’ scheme covering 850 organisations, employing a quarter of the workforce, and guidance to the press, who then report on female paedophiles, homicidal sex-offending teenage girls, and an axe-welding woman, all of whom are male.

That the trans movement is a top-down movement and not a mass, popular one is demonstrated by Joyce’s recounting of how the Irish State brought in gender self-identification under the cover of same-sex marriage.

As Joyce notes: “there was no public consultation or information campaign about gender self-ID.  Even now, hardly anyone I talk to in Ireland knows they can change their sex more cheaply and easily than they could get a passport.  And that, it turns out, was deliberate.”

She then points out that a large international law firm working for a network of LGBT youth organisations noted that the right to change one’s legal sex without parental consent would be unpopular.  However, the firm pointed out that other unpopular trans-rights policies had become law, citing Ireland.  It therefore “recommended linking such proposals with unrelated ones that commanded broad support” as in Ireland, advising clients to stay out of the news, and informing them that “Irish transactivists had ‘directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum.’”

Yet this is held up as an example to follow by Shon Faye in her book.  She endorses a letter by trans rights activists who opposed British feminists coming to Dublin to debate the issue.  This was, for these activists, an example of the arrogance of imperialism and colonialism.  Faye states that “the whiteness and unexamined colonialism of mainstream UK feminism correlate(s) directly with its tendencies towards transphobia.”

The conflation of British feminists coming to Dublin for a debate, and British colonialism/imperialism in Ireland, would be a serious minimising of the crimes of the latter, if one could take the argument at all seriously.  The misdirection seriously mistook its Irish audience, misreading a very large room.  As a letter to ‘The Irish Times’ noted, such an attitude assumed Irish women could not, after a debate, be able to make up their own minds.

Joyce argues that:

“The idea that what makes someone a man or woman is performance of, or identification with, gender is incompatible with the foundational feminist belief that women, like men, are fully human and should not be restricted by stereotypes.  Same-sex orientation cannot be defended if people are self-defined identities, rather than fleshy mortals whose sex can easily be perceived by others.  Free speech is incompatible with privileging discourse over material reality.”

Back to part 3

Three Books on Transgender Politics (3 of 4) – ‘An Argument for Justice’ based on the definition of Woman

Only in the last two chapters of her book does Faye really focus on the debate she said she would not engage, and when she starts, she says something startling.

“The effect of both division and consumerism is to encourage individual identity over and above commonality. A person’s sense of their own identity is certainly important for their psychological wellbeing – but as a political end point it leads to solipsism and detachment from others.  From this perspective, identity is understood as a set of immutable and finite categories with particular criteria for membership.  Yet the political justification for the LGBT coalition must begin with something different . . .”

This reads like a critique of the transgender politics she advances in the rest of the book and with them the impossibility of forging the unity she declares she wants.  Her definitions of being trans are however not always consistent, being feelings about one’s gender identity not being aligned with one’s body, to the female nature of trans women being the case “by virtue of her social, legal, political and sometimes medical reassignment or experience as a woman.”

Leaving aside the question begging of how being a transwoman can call on experience of being a woman to justify qualification of being one, the list might seem to put forward objective criteria, as opposed to the demand that the declared unverifiable feelings of a transwoman is sufficient to make one a woman.  What is missing however, and explicitly rejected, is any idea that being a female is determined by biological sex.

Less than twenty pages later this has changed somewhat and “accounts of colonial domination . . . demonstrate clearly that what it means to be a woman or man (or neither) is not a fixed and stable entity, but a complex constellation of biological, political, economic and cultural factors, which may shift over time.” (emphasis added)

Since this passage is in the context that “society’s understanding of gender can be changed as society itself changes” perhaps Faye is saying that being a man or woman is to be understood in terms of gender, as in one of the two definitions advanced by Kathleen Stock in her book ­– as one of social stereotypes or projected roles – but this would not support her argument that being trans is a product of a personal understanding.

This is because if this private understanding is itself the product of changing factors, that are objective factors, comprehension and analysis also shifts to how these objective factors create this personal understanding. But this leads to interrogating any claims that arise and this brings us back necessarily to a debate that she sees as consisting of ‘hostility’ and ‘misunderstanding’ of trans people.

It is possible that the passage is based on Stock’s remaining definition; on an understanding that gender is another word for sex (by supplanting it), which leads to claims that there are multiple sexes since it can easily be imagined that there are multiple gender types (ideas that people might have about their own sexuality).  As the passage argues these can change, presumably on an individual basis, and not as some societal view of what sex and gender are, so that someone might consider themself a woman one day and a man the next, or gender fluid as it is called.

However, on the same page (p237) as this passage Faye compares her “complex constellation” with the words now condemned as transphobic, the dictionary definition – ‘Woman, noun, an adult human female’ and goes on to say that “leaving aside the fact that dictionary definitions are a product of a culture and not its arbiter, the definition of ‘woman’  as used here focuses solely on the biological and entirely disregards a point that feminists have largely agreed upon: the idea that being a woman is defined by political experience, how you are treated by others, especially those with power over you.”  Another definition.

But all feminists do not define woman as a political experience, or where would be the debate?  Being a woman will involve a political experience but a woman is not any sort of experience.  To encounter some event, to have some practical contact with or observe some fact, and for this to leave some impression on you, there has to be some prior ‘you’ to begin with, and this ‘you’ may be a man or a woman.  Both a man and a woman might have the same political experience but this will not determine their sex.  As has also been argued – what political experience, in common with all other women, makes the British Queen a woman?

This hardly matters for Faye’s argument because she concludes that “the ‘common sense’ argument of the ‘adult human female’ billboards is specious: there are many ways of legitimately interpreting the brief dictionary definition that would, in fact, include a trans woman as an “adult human female.”

But so much hangs on the word “legitimately” in this sentence.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that such legitimate interpretation involves words meaning what their author chooses them to mean, “neither more nor less”, as one author placed in the words of his character – the real question being whether they are just tools to be mastered.

That there exists an objective biological reality which is real and observable, distinct from social concepts attaching to that biological reality is, for Faye, “an oversimplification.” And in any case, she argues that the “two separate sex categories” can be erased . . . “through medical modification” although, as she has already informed us, such interventions are not necessary for a trans woman to be female.

One problem with this approach is that you can end up ‘proving’ too much:

“. . . the increased populations of, for example trans women with a feminine appearance, body and breasts who have a penis, and trans men with chest hair, muscles, lowered voices, beards and a vagina, mean that it is possible to have a mixture of sex characteristics and signifiers on the same body . . . women who will date women with penises, lesbians with vulvas in relationships with women with penises; gay men in relationships with men with vulvas and (naturally) women with penises in relationship with men with vulvas.  Consequently, trans people’s challenge to the gender binary is as physical and sexual as it is intellectual or political.”

Unfortunately, this passage does not challenge the binary nature of sex since it still repeatedly categorises humans as men and women (and the demand for medical intervention certainly does).  What it does point to is that any combination of characteristics is consistent with categorisation as either sex, in which case there is no difference between the sexes.  So, in this sense then, it does erase the binary nature of sex; in which case there is really no need for separate words for humans who are male and humans who are female, or for transwomen and transmen.

The way out of this for those advocating gender ID is that it is the internal view in the mind that determines you are a certain sex, but this realistically requires perception of an objective world in which real sex differences exist and are observable, which is why language that reflects this – ‘men’ and ‘women’ – is employed, as in the passage above.  If these really were erased there would be nothing in the objective world that the mind could reference and thus no way of self-identifying one’s sex.

Opening up the objective world as an influence on your view of your sex, indeed the idea of sex in general and of the male and female sexes, invites inquiry into how this objective world has influenced your view.  And such interrogation, as we keep coming back to, is not permitted by certain trans gender activists for whom this identity is innate, which is an unprovable proposition.

So, the sexed body (that of a female or male) while not determinant of one’s sex as a trans person, is determinant of whether one is trans, because “to be trans, is on some level, to feel that this standardized relationship between one’s genitalia at birth and the assignment of one of two fixed gender identities that are supposed to accurately reflect your feelings about your own body has been interrupted’. So, your sexed body is determinant of being trans if only to determine you as the opposite, or rather different in perhaps multiple gender defined ways, from your natal sex.

Faye claims on page xiii of her book that “the central demands of trans liberation are not merely aligned with, and no threat to, gay rights and feminism, but are synonymous with the goals of those movements.”  The rest of the book and the polemic with those who disagree demonstrates that this is simply not the case.

Her central arguments are not necessary to defend trans people or to remove the prejudice and discrimination they suffer from.  In fact, these arguments are difficult to construct and maintain consistently and an obstacle to these objectives.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Three books on transgender politics (2 of 4) – The Transgender Issue – an Argument for Justice

Shon Faye is a trans woman and activist who argues that trans people should unite with others to overthrow oppression, asserting that trans demands are “synonymous” with the goals of gays and feminists.

In the prologue she gives her rendering of the meaning of the “relatively new term” ‘cis’; – “’Cisgender’ is the Latin antonym for transgender.” While recognising that the word is controversial and that some hear it as an accusation or slur Faye says she needs a word to denote the 99% who are not trans. Unfortunately, this word defines everyone else as something that they are not, as not-trans, and includes gay men, lesbians and all those who are heterosexual.

She (I use trans people’s preferred pronouns for the reason and with the hesitation argued by Kathleen Stock in the first book reviewed), rejects the idea that her book has to regurgitate the debate on the trans issue (on toilets, changing rooms, pronouns and sport) as this “is itself a tactic of those who wish to oppress us.”  As noted, ‘trans rights are not a debate’ is an oft repeated declaration.

Faye wants instead to write a book about what it is like to be trans and the problems trans people face, partly on the grounds that any debate typically includes those who are not “equally affected by the discussion.” She describes such debates as “confected” and “a vehicle for increased hostilities towards and misunderstandings of trans people . . .” She presents a power structure which talks about trans people; so for example the media “want to talk about their issues with us, not the challenges facing us.”

She dismisses the “myth of a powerful trans lobby”, one of the themes especially of the third book to be reviewed, and now the subject of a number of podcasts by the local (to me) BBC journalists Stephen Nolan and David Thompson.  Instead, she notes that there are no trans newspaper editors, MPs, High Court judges etc.  What is at issue then is a question of power, and the need for trans people to have a healthy conversation about the issues facing them.

So, while refusing debate outside, she argues that within the trans population voices are dominated by professional and middle-class members, and that the task is to create solidarity where there is an “overlap with other minorities or marginalised groups.” “Change will only be brought about by bringing class politics back on the political agenda.”

The book is meant to set out the reality of the challenges trans people face.  These include prejudice, discrimination, intimidation and violence and the additional burdens particularly affecting them, including unemployment and reactionary policies such as austerity, especially its effect on health care.

She records a School Report from Stonewall (2017) that “64 per cent of British trans schoolchildren report being bullied for being trans or for their perceived sexual orientation . . . 13 per cent of trans pupils experience physical violence . . . [and] a shocking 84 per cent of British trans young people have self harmed.”  She also notes that “45 per cent of trans young people had attempted suicide at least once.”

Trans people also face domestic abuse – “19 per cent had experienced domestic abuse from a partner in the previous year . . . which is significantly higher than the recorded rate of domestic abuse among the wider population . . .” (The Trans 2018 report referenced records a higher number of 28 per cent).

Elsewhere, these statistical claims have been challenged, for example the finding that “45 per cent of trans young people had attempted suicide at least once” is based on the Stonewall report.  Kathleen Stock says of this that “a non-probability sampling method was used. It’s widely agreed among statisticians that this is an inadequate method with which to extrapolate to a population as a whole, because the sample isn’t random.”

Stock reports that the NHS Gender Identity Service quotes a Freedom of Information request that between 2016 and 2018 one of their patients committed suicide and two attempted it.  Two others on the waiting list also committed suicide; so three in two and a half years.  The doctor making the FoI request notes that “anorexia multiplies the risk of suicide by 18 to 31 times (depending on the method of estimation), while depression multiplies it by 20.”

Stock does not deny the existence of hate crime against trans people but argues that we need better data, and “data that isn’t produced by trans activist organisations for the purpose of lobbying.”

Faye does not argue that trans people are ‘born in the wrong bodies’ but does believe that unjustifiable obstacles are put in the way of medical interventions that support transition.  This would appear to mean opposition to any questioning of the need for such intervention or any delay.  For her it is a question of bodily autonomy, similar to a woman’s right to choose.  She quotes one young person seeking such intervention, that those questioning the relatively high proportion of autistic children also seeking it is “so ableist and insulting that autistic people can’t make decisions or know themselves . . “

Faye argues from the beginning that cis men and women are credited with more authority, insight and experience on both their own identity and those of trans people than trans people themselves, and welcomes the acceptance and confirmation by parents of the declaration by their 3-year-old male child that “I’m a girl”.

But what exactly is this 3-year-old identifying as?  What is the character of the identity that those adults who are not biological women have, and how do they know it is the same or similar to the gender identity of biological women, if the latter admit to any such identity at all? Or would it not matter if it is not similar, introducing another irrelevant difference?

If a woman is also, or even simply, a person identifying as a woman then a woman becomes a person identifying as a person identifying as a woman, which is itself a person identifying as a woman . . . and so it goes on indefinitely.  Defined this way there is no intelligible way of securing the claim that trans women are women.  The definition includes what has to be defined.

Despite the early declaration that she would not get into ‘closed-loop debates’ and “repetitive talking points” this proves impossible and her book moves to take up the issues.

As an indication of her general position, she argues her view that trans women prisoners should not be kept in male prisons.  She quotes a BBC report in May 2020 that “in the previous year, eleven trans women housed in male prisons had been sexually assaulted.”  She states that not only are they more likely to be victims of sexual assault than to perpetrate it, but likely to be assaulted at a higher rate than cis gender prisoners.”

She recognises that there are cases in which transwomen prisoners have assaulted women prisoners and mentions the case of Karen White, but states that this has been weaponised to derail the campaigns for the rights of all trans people.  “In 2018, some sixty prisoners in England and Wales convicted of a sexual offence were recorded as having declared themselves trans.  The rhetorical importance given to this small cohort can be exhausting for the 200,000–500,000 trans people in Britain who fear being tainted – and denied civil rights – by association.”

“Human rights, broadly speaking, are inalienable. Every human being has the right to autonomy over how they define their gender and to some appropriate expression of it.”  

“This topic is emotive” she says.  Trans peoples’ rights cannot only be “given for good behaviour.  There is no easy way out” and Faye rejects possible solutions that might be seen as just such a way out.  She rejects trans wings in men’s prison or in women’s prisons because trans prisoners who are at risk are harmed further, dehumanised, isolated, and their human rights not respected.  

Faye has a lot to say about the prison system, its endemic violence, and her proposals for change, which she admits are currently “a big ask”, “with little hope of achievement in the foreseeable future”, and which entail “moving towards a world with no prisons at all.”  In the meantime, sexual predators that are trans such as Karen White, must be allowed into women’s prisons despite knowledge of the danger.

Shone reaches such an unappealing conclusion because she must.  ‘Transwomen are women’ and we know they are because they say they are; and since they are they must be accorded all the rights that women have, even if those rights have to be modified somewhat because, as she and everyone else in this ‘non-debate’ knows, women’s and transwomen’s bodies are not the same.  In this case, some of the rights associated with women must belong to transmen even though they are also men; so abortion rights apply to women and also to men.  It is just such men for example who make it ‘transphobic’ to say that only women have cervixes.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Three books on Transgender politics (1 of 4) – Material Girls

The three books under review tackle an issue on which there is no agreement in the debate or even whether there should be one.  No agreement on the terms used and no agreement on the facts, no agreement on what the status of the terms employed have in relation to the facts and which are relevant to the issue.

Making resolution much, much harder is the conviction that what is involved are not only conflicting views but conflicting interests, and although there are some claims to these overlapping to some degree, both sides see the fundamental issue as one that cannot be resolved given the differences; what is therefore involved is a conflict that must be won.  What one side considers as philosophical critique the other identifies as physical intimidation and threat.

So, even to assert that there is a debate is seen as taking sides.  This review cannot help but notice that there is a debate so will even by this fact alone be taking sides; already we are into disputed territory. 

The author of the first book, Kathleen Stock, has been in the news recently because trans rights protesters at the university she taught in demanded she be sacked for being transphobic, with the statement that “until then, you’ll see us around.”  The New Statesman summarised the situation:

“Stock – who believes that biological sex is immutable and occasionally takes precedence over someone’s gender identity – told me that a campaign has been waged against her since she raised concerns in 2018 over a shift away from sex-based rights to a world where any male could identify as a woman through self-declaration alone (a process known as “self-ID”). “This month is just the endgame. Some of my colleagues have been spinning a line against me for a long time,” she told me.”

“I asked Nehaal Bajwa, the diversity officer at Sussex Students’ Union, how Stock was contributing to the “dire state of unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole”, as the leaflet put it. Stock’s views created “an unsafe atmosphere” for trans students, Bajwa said, as protesters overtook the campus square, setting off pink and blue flares, while Stock cancelled her courses and followed police advice to stay off campus and secure her home. I asked a protester whether the demo was designed to be intimidating. “We’re standing still,” they said. “Her presence to us is intimidating.”

Not long after this she resigned from her post at the university.

*                   *                   *

Stock begins by explaining how we got here – ‘a brief history of gender identity’ – from what gender identity theory is to the eight intellectual steps taken to its current status.  The idea that gender identity, not biological sex, makes you a man or woman; and that this identity is an inner state that we all have, but that the identity some have – trans people – does not match their biological sex.  In such cases everyone has a moral obligation to recognise and legally protect rights and claims based on gender identity and not biological sex.

Stock explains the different ways in which the word gender is used, which are absolutely necessary to follow the debate, and identifies four:

1. A polite expression of the biological difference between the two sexes, males and females; what might be called the traditional understanding.

2. Social stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

3. The projection on to males and females of the social roles of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ respectively; historically endorsed by feminists as explanations of roles performed by the sexes that were not determined by biology (or at least not alone) but by social imposition.

4. Finally, the definition employed by ‘gender identity’, which Stock describes as a “private experience” or “roughly, whether you relate to yourself psychologically as a boy or man, girl or woman, or neither, in a way that has nothing directly to do with your sex.”

Having defined gender Stock goes on to explain what sex is in terms of an account based on gametes, an organism’s reproductive cells, small in males and large in females.  She then explains the chromosome account based on the XX chromosomes of women and XY of men, including the situation of those where this is not the case due to some disorder of sexual development (DSD), which in the majority of cases will still lead to a “clear answer as to whether someone is male or female.”  The third “cluster account” identifies morphological characteristics relevant to identifying people as male or female and can be employed where there is not a clear answer.  

This can lead to a small number of difficult borderline cases but Stock argues that “hard cases are not a special fact about the categories male and female” and that “difficulty about borderline cases is absolutely standard for biological categories.”

On this basis she critiques views that the sexes are social constructions (and not biological constructs) such that language and the words we use don’t refer to an independent and prior reality but are ‘productive’ or ‘constitutive’ of that reality.  Marxists are conscious that there is an independent reality – we are materialists – but aware that humans are also a part of that reality and that their thoughts and actions interpret and shape that reality.

Stock is referring to Judith Butler for whom “there’s nothing ‘underneath’ or ‘before’ language that would secure linguistic reference to something ‘outside’ of it.”  For Marxists there is something ‘underneath’, ‘before’ and ‘outside’ that make their understanding of the world and political programme to change it relevant and realistic.  The importance of this link is why regular readers of this blog will see the long series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism justifying these claims.

Stock therefore states that “over 99 per cent of humans fall unambiguously into one category or the other,” that is, male or female, with this categorisation being “one of the most stable and predictable there is . . . sex is not ‘assigned at birth’ but detected . . . sex cannot be ‘reassigned’ through surgery or a change in legal status, nor ‘changed’.”

Her next step is to explain why sex matters – for medicine, sport, sexual orientation and the effect on heterosexuality, including the need for reproduction of the species.  So, only females are capable of pregnancy, and whatever the generally greater strength, speed and power of men, only women can grow another human being inside them and give birth to that human being (as pointed out by the author of the third book to be reviewed). 

Stock then refers to the problems of downgrading sex when it comes to data collection, including crime statistics, and access to certain single sex facilities, which are also addressed extensively in the second and third books reviewed.

Most of the rest of the book goes deeper into the concepts she has defined in the first chapters – what is gender identity and what makes a woman, as well as an extension of the story of how we got to where we are.

Stock challenges the view that everyone has a gender identity, as many non-trans people “report no particularly strong sense of one.”  She recognises that trans people do but also that many women “are unhappy with their sex – but without making them trans.”  She then explains what she means by “lots of women don’t enjoy being female”, in terms of “greater or lesser feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness.”  Nevertheless, her focus is on the experience of trans people and she interrogates three models of ‘gender identity’.

The first is the ‘stick of rock’ model (like lettering through one) – a fundamental part of the self, innate, or ‘a core part of who we are’ according to one mental health counsellor quoted.  It states that it is there even if the person isn’t aware of it, although it is something you can become aware of.  Only that person can know what it is so no one else can, except by being told by that person, so that ‘whatever a trans person says about their identity is true’.

This can lead to some trans people stating that they were ‘born in the wrong body’ but this is not necessarily the case and the author of the second book who is trans does not. 

Stock concludes that “when trans people say that they ‘know’ their gender identity or have ‘discovered’ it, or that their gender identity is their ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ self, it’s highly unlikely to be because they somehow gained privileged access to some prior brain fact about themselves which justifies this attribution directly.”  She therefore argues that it is not innate.

She then looks at what she calls the Medical Model, which essentially sees a misaligned gender identity as a mental illness or disorder, the main symptom of which is a condition called ‘gender dysphoria’.  Stock is also critical of this for a number of reasons and believes that the treatment trans people receive on foot of it can be harmful.  “Unusually for a psychiatric diagnosis, sanctioned treatment aims to change the body first, and not (directly) the mind.”

In the third, queer theory of gender identity, she sees an almost opposite problem, that it is not psychological, or any sort of physical issue, but is a political question and its assertion a political act.

Instead, she sets out what she thinks is a “more helpful and detailed account” that involves, for a misaligned female gender identity, a strong psychological identity with a “particular female or with femaleness as a general object or ideal.”  This, she says, “fits well with first-hand testimonies about experiences of gender dysphoria.”  She argues that it does not then have to result in the medical and surgical intervention demanded by some trans activists.

She defends the traditional concepts of what a woman is and its necessary employment for how we live, including its importance for other concepts that are important, such as mother, daughter, lesbian etc.  She notes the radical revision to our understanding of concepts if adult human males could be considered as mothers, sisters and daughters, and adult human females considered as fathers, brothers etc (although some advocate removing words such as mother).

But in order to be trans-inclusive this would have to be the case.  And if this was the case, it would require new words, for example, for those who are not only mothers but also adult human females etc., although these new words would also necessarily be trans-exclusive.  A new word for lesbian would be required not only to denote same-sex attraction (if ‘sex’ is understood as equated to gender and not biological sex) but sexual attraction to those with a female body.

Again, this too would exclude transwomen.  Eveyone, including trans activists, would have to become accepting of concepts that are trans-exclusive, without this automatically being characterised as transphobic.  If not, then the charge that the activist project is really the erasure of women would more justifiably stick.

However, it might still be the case that a parallel series of words denoting concepts that identified biological females and excluded transwomen would still be unacceptable for some activists, who believe that the existing definition of woman as ‘an adult human female’ does include transwomen (see the second book to be reviewed).

Stock thinks it is preferable to retain the existing concepts and therefore the meanings of man and woman and to have separate concepts, and therefore names, that might encompass women and transwomen, and men and transmen; although her proposals are hardly pithy, as she admits.  These would not however have automatically built into them the concepts of MAN and WOMAN.  She is quite clear that “If trans women are women, they are not ‘women’ in the same sense in which adult human females are ‘women’.”  And the same applies to trans men.  Membership of TRANS WOMAN does not entail membership of WOMAN; and the same for TRANS MAN.

She is well aware that in saying this she is challenging key claims of some trans people so she immediately states what she is not saying.  As we have noted above, criticism of some transactivists’ claims are treated by some as attacks on the people themselves.  So, for example, she is not saying that it is never reasonable to alter oneself physically to look like the opposite sex, or that trans people cannot get relief from thinking of themselves as members of the opposite sex.

What she does go on to say is that “at least some of the time many trans and non-trans people alike are immersed in a fiction: the fiction that they themselves, or others around them, have literally changed sex . . .”  Having explained what she means by this fiction she then sets out some of the consequences.

She looks at state action that supports the demands of some trans activists and the sympathy that exists in broad sections of the population for trans people.  In explaining both she says that “one important factor, I think., is public awareness of a history of prejudice against sex-nonconforming people, plus a commendable desire to be (seen to be) on the other side of it.”  She also thinks that trans activist’s propaganda has been important, and quotes what she sees as misleading and misrepresented statistics employed within it, an issue arising within the other books reviewed.  

She concludes with hopes for a better activism in future, including her belief that trans people are not well served by current trans activism, and calls for all sides to be “more non-binary” and to look for areas where “common cause might still be found.”.

She opposes the expansion of feminism to include opposition to almost all oppression – “in other words, feminism is now supposed to be everybody’s mum”, and bemoans that “gay activism has, relatively recently, become ‘LGBT’ activism and so has merged with – and arguably been taken over by – trans activism.  In some parts of the culture, this has expanded yet further into ‘LGBTQIA+’ . . . “  

In response she advocates more intersectionality, although it is not at all obvious that this is a solution since it could be argued that intersectionality does not guarantee harmonious congruity of the demands of the oppressed and has in fact led to the cannibalisation of many, with the rise of arguments by some trans activists as evidence of this.

Forward to part 2

A Scottish road to nationalism

Scotarmy

‘Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013

I have mentioned before that the Yes side of the Scottish independence debate appears to present a positive message that contains hope and optimism while the No campaign appears negative and doubting.

Speaking to my daughter and sister however, it is similarly the case that the Yes campaign also has its powerful negative argument.  This consists of the claim that to vote No is to vote for the status quo and the status quo is neither popular nor acceptable.

But why is the status quo so bad?  What causes it to be like this?

For anyone who calls themselves socialist, by definition the problem is the social system.  One that produces disaffection everywhere and therefore cannot arise from ‘London rule’.  Socialists are also, or rather they should be, well used to nationalist campaigns that put the ills of society down to the nationality of the state, and which therefore obscure real causes.

Some on the left however have argued that Scottish workers and Scottish society generally is more progressive and that this justifies separation from England and Wales, in order to forge ahead in creating a more egalitarian society that can form a better starting point for the creation of socialism.

In a number of places within the two books reviewed the idea of making a fresh start is raised.  However what this demonstrates is not that some formula has been discovered that wipes the slate clean and allows past defeats to be overcome, but that the left has no answers to the problems that have beset socialism.  This means that these will still be there after independence, in worse circumstances and to a worse degree, should the objective of a separate Scottish capitalist state be achieved.

Even if it were true that the Scottish working class is more progressive, for a socialist this would mean finding ways through which Scottish workers could lead the rest of the British working class, of which they are an integral part.  Instead Scottish nationalists seek the creation of a separate state, one that can only be capitalist in current circumstances, and give it the role of catalyst for progressive change.

The key role of the state in substituting itself for the activity of the working class as the agent of change is demonstrated not only in the unavoidable claims that a Scottish state will be more progressive simply because it is Scottish but also in claims made for the unalterably reactionary nature of Britain as a political unit and the UK state.

In order to respond to the argument that, if they are more advanced, Scottish workers should lead their English and Welsh sisters and brothers, it is asserted that this cannot happen because there is something in  British politics or the UK state which just cannot be changed.  Behind the seemingly positive message of Scottish advance, of Yes to independence, is a pessimistic and very negative view of the British working class.  What lies behind the smokescreen of hope is a mountain of despair:

“There is a very simple answer to the question, ‘is socialism possible in contemporary Britain?’  On the basis that it is possible, the answer is yes, but it isn’t going to happen.” (Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism, p 57)

“. . . key vested interests are so entrenched within the very fabric of the UK state that it is difficult to see them ever relinquishing control.”  (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 45)

“Labour can offer no guarantee that it can deliver greater capacity for providing ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ whilst defending the union.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 59)

“We find ourselves in a unitary, multi-national British state that is politically locked into a neo-liberal world order.  In 2014, we have the opportunity to break free from that state and to start again in a newly independent country.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 117-118)

“I find it simply impossible to look at Britain and conceive of any strategy at all that might even bring a hint of socialism to London. . . If we want change in our lifetimes, we’re going to need independence” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 128)

“There is not a scintilla of evidence that Labour can be reformed, that significant forces wish it to be reformed or that any UK socialist party can emerge to replace it.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 157)

“This is what needs to be understood about Britain, that it is structurally incapable of being progressive.” (Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose p. 164)

Since Scotland is an integral part of Britain and the state in Scotland a component part of the British state, the damnation of Britain and the British state is really an equal damning of Scotland.  Except that what these authors really mean is that it is England and the English that are the problem.  Otherwise their assertions make no sense whatsoever.

Somehow the unreformable nature of the British state and British politics does not apply north of the border.  Apparently a Scottish capitalist state can be reformed.  Such a new state will not be part of the neo-liberal world order.  How?  God knows – for even a workers revolution in Scotland that placed political power in the hands of a completely democratic workers’ state could not escape being locked into a neoliberal world order.

Only in a scenario of immediate spread of the revolution could it have any hope of surviving and still be something worthy of the description socialist.  But such a prospect would immediately depend on not just solidarity but spread of the revolution to, of all places, England and Wales.

Aware of the self-defeating argument that Scottish workers are better off being separated from England the argument is then put that the great leap forward by Scottish workers would act as an example which English and Welsh workers would follow.

The two problems with this is, firstly it isn’t shown how this cannot be done more easily by Scottish and English workers remaining united and avoiding nationalist division.  And secondly, the example that Scottish nationalism is giving to English workers is not the need for solidarity and unity but that English workers are incapable, that the Scots are better off advancing by themselves and that this is the way forward for them to follow.  So, if there is a No vote, what our left nationalists are really saying is that English workers should dump the Scots.

Left nationalists might reply that it is not English workers but the ‘British’ state that is unreformable but the nationalist argument is that this state cannot be dealt with by British workers but only by Scottish workers leaving it.  This can only mean that a new Scottish capitalist state will somehow be more reformable and/or that English workers are a drag on Scottish workers in defeating the British state.

Except it is not proposed to  destroy the capitalist character of the British State but simply to set up two capitalist states where previously only one existed.  Much is made of the dominance by the British state by the financial interests of the City of London, but Scottish separation is not going to do anything about that.  This dominance has been around for at least a century, it is not something new brought about by recent ‘neo-liberalism’.  As the Irish contribution to ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’ explains, the new Irish state did nothing to reduce the power of the City of London when it was created.

What it did do was spawn a tiny competitor to it, the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, which has been described as the wild west of international finance.  Irish workers now assert the sovereignty of their state through tax deals with US multinationals and no-union factories. The SNP promise exactly the same.  In the 1970s it promised that Scotland would be like Switzerland and in the 21st century that it would be like the Celtic Tiger, until it crashed and burned.

The example being set by left nationalism in Scotland is that the ills of capitalism, ‘neoliberalism’ and austerity, should be fought through small nations seeking independence.  Not by seeking the broadest unity of workers.

Independence is supported because it would be a defeat for the British state and the British state is a barrier to working class socialism.  In so far as it goes this is correct but what it leaves out is much more important than what it says.  It is not only the bones of the left nationalist argument but its whole physiology.  This makes it simple, simple minded and wrong.

Socialism is the movement of the working class and its conquest of economic, social and political power, irrespective of nationality.  It can exist only at an international level.  This too is a simple description.  But even at this simple level is shows the incompatibility of left nationalism with socialism.

In the case of Scottish nationalism the capitalist nature of the British state is confused with its being British which allows opposition to it being British hiding the fact that whatever replaces it will still be capitalist.  Scottish left nationalism seeks a new start on the basis of a newly independent nation but since Scotland is already a nation what they mean is that the new start depends on creation of a new capitalist state.  Unfortunately for such ideas, socialism is not the result or product of state action no matter how new or progressive that state is.

Nationalism, no matter how left it is, always confuses action by the state for socialism, so it calls upon the state to redistribute wealth and take control of resources ‘for the people’, whereas socialism calls upon workers to take ownership of production itself and build the power of its own organisations so that one day these can replace the state.  Internationalism is not the solidarity of one progressive state with another but is the international action of workers – from organising in parties and unions internationally to creating and building workers’ cooperatives internationally, across borders, not favouring the population within certain lines on a map.

The betrayal of socialism involved in the embrace of nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is revealed by this state-centred conception of socialism, although this is hidden from many because socialism is popularly identified with state action and in particular by the growth of gigantic, bureaucratic state power, exemplified by the Soviet Union.  This is one reason it remains unpopular among the mass of workers.

It is revealed in assertions that Scottish nationalism is really internationalist.  Often such claims are made on the basis of comparisons with the struggle for a separate state in Catalonia or the Basque Country or even Ireland, but what this reveals is not internationalism but the solidarity of nationalisms.

The point of nation states is that they compete with each other, sometimes through alliances with other nations.  In fact it is usually through alliances with other nations, but this doesn’t make such alliances examples of internationalism.  The Axis and Allied powers in World War II were not rival internationalisms except in the sense of being rival imperialisms.

For small countries such alliances are doubly necessary and necessarily involve subordination to bigger and more powerful states.  An ‘independent’ Scotland would be no different.

So the argument that independence is to be supported because it will be a significant defeat for the British state is weak because it will simply create two capitalist states where one previously existed.  It will set a rotten example for workers who seek solutions to austerity and will only exacerbate competition between nations from which workers will suffer.

National separation in the case of Scotland will not settle nationalist grievance but intensify it through Scottish competition with England.  It will not significantly weaken the international imperialist system either economically, since Scotland will remain a capitalist society, or politically, since Scotland will remain part of the EU and of NATO.

What it will do is promote nationalist solutions to the problems of capitalism, or ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ as one author put it.  It will further division of the British working class and make more difficult the radicalisation of this working class into a movement for a new society.

Apologists for Scottish nationalism claim that Scottish workers can still belong to British trade unions, although why they would want to if the British labour movement is an irredeemable failure is nowhere explained.  The history of Ireland shows the powerful divisive potential of creation of separate states even within a single national working class.  Partition has dramatically increased divisions in the Irish working class and not just along religious lines.

The small pro-nationalist left organisations in Scotland have already revealed their true colours when it comes to claims to internationalism.  Almost their first step is creation of separate Scottish organisations.  They are oblivious even to the possibility of supporting Scottish independence while seeking by their own organisation to demonstrate their longer term goal of workers unity by being part of a British socialist party.  This is because working class unity and internationalism has no real practical significance for their programme, activity or organisation.

There is therefore something positive in a No vote that rejects the despair of nationalism.  This is hope and faith in the unity of the British working class, an historical reality with a tradition that has overcome internal nationalist divisions in the past. The future of the Scottish working class lies in its unity with the rest of the British working class and building towards unity on a European scale, not national separation.

 

 

Is Scotland an oppressed nation?

Scot2scot1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

I remember having a brief chat with a left nationalist who argued that, in the context of a reference to Ireland, that there are degrees of national oppression. And so undoubtedly there is. What is demonstrated by the Scottish independence debate is that the measure of it, if it even exists, is very small. We know this because there is no real demand for change.

What we have had are references to “bluff, bullying and bluster” by Alex Salmond over leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, rejecting use of sterling by a new ‘independent’ state. But even here the essential nationalist case is not that Scotland is being told what it can and cannot do but that all this is bluff and bluster, a pure negotiating tactic and not meant to be taken seriously.

Not strong grounds to claim oppression.

A couple of arguments have been raised to demonstrate the national oppression of Scotland. These include the prevention of devolution after the 1979 referendum despite the nearly 52% yes vote on an almost 64% turnout. This was indeed a denial of national democratic rights. It was changed very quickly when the New Labour government of Tony Blair took office in 1997, a new referendum held within six months and the Scottish parliament set up two years later.

It is claimed that Conservative Governments are elected in Britain without a mandate from Scotland. In the 1989 Euro elections Scotland became, for the first time at any elected level, a ‘Tory-free zone’ and in 1992 they were elected for a fourth term with just 25% of the Scottish vote.

Yet governments are elected all the time in Britain without a majority of the vote. English and Welsh workers have suffered the depredations of Conservative Governments no less than Scottish workers and the Tories do not devise policies aimed specifically at the Scottish people. In 2010 the ‘no mandate’ argument became weaker when eleven Liberal Democrats joined the single Tory as Scottish representatives of the new ConDem Government.

It is claimed that the introduction of the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland than England represented national oppression. If it did it obviously didn’t last long. Let’s also forget that one of the two authors of the tax was himself Scottish, dubbed “father of the poll tax.”

The referendum in itself, whatever its limitations, is a demonstration that Scotland has the right to self-determination and can exercise this right.

In this exercise there is no question of nationalists having to face questions of oppression – of the national language; the teaching of Scottish history; the right to fly the Scottish flag; discrimination in employment in favour of English colonists; the mass arrest and detention without trial of political opponents; of English police or an English army called in to police demonstrations or protests; the widespread inflicting of torture on political opponents; the shooting of demonstrators demanding civil rights or the creation of armed gangs to intimidate and terrorise those demanding independence.

If there were any of these or anything like it the referendum debate would be very different; not only the terms of the debate but also the methods of struggle.

The exploitation and oppression that does exist has been displaced and subsumed within a debate within which they cannot be clearly articulated, at least with any honesty, and certainly with any perspective that provides solutions.

Solutions to unemployment and poverty; to chronic insecurity and stress; to ignorance and powerlessness cannot be found in any nationalist programme, either left or right. They arise from the nature of the economic system not the nationality of the state apparatus that presides over it.

Class grievances are portrayed as those of a people, of Scots against ‘London’ or the ‘British state.

Through nationalism the class exploitation of workers either disappears or is rendered secondary to the more immediate demand for national ‘freedom’.

As I have said before such ‘freedom’ does not exist; there are always restrictions and external limitations, which means that pursuit of it, which requires that the demands of workers are postponed, means that they will always be postponed. Nationalism acts as a permanent brake on the aspirations of the working class.

At a certain stage the true class character of nationalism becomes clearer when the new nation trumpets its cause as competitiveness with other nations in the battlefields of lower wages, lower business taxes and willing workers. Such at least has been the Irish experience.

So Scotland is not an oppressed nation but ironically it is nationalism that has the potential to take it in such a direction and the referendum debate has demonstrated how.

Alex Salmond has made much of the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats. But these parties are very aware that they cannot engage in too open a form of bullying because it has the potential to alienate voters and upset the legitimacy of the state they seek to rule. So their bullying has limits. A separated Scotland would provide less restrictions.

Salmond has portrayed all the decisions that will arise from separation, such as sharing the pound sterling and financial regulation, as ones that will be easily agreed to his satisfaction but in such negotiations the UK state has no reason not to flex its muscles with the smaller state. Such actions by the UK state would, within Scotland, no doubt strengthen SNP nationalism and scotch the illusions of the left that after independence nationalism would suddenly dissipate to be replaced by a left-right divide. Real bullying by the UK state would feed Scottish nationalism and further its growth within the Scottish working class while increasing the divisions between Scottish, English and Welsh workers.

So the rump British state would have every reason to want Scotland to use sterling but enough reasonable arguments to place more or less onerous conditions on Scotland in order for it to happen. It is well known that currency union must involve severe limits on monetary policy within Scotland and there is no reason why the rest of Britain should consider Scotland’s interests as equal to that of England and Wales. If burdens have to be borne there is no reason to make them equitable.

It is also clear that currency union would limit the fiscal policy of a separated Scotland so that its taxation and expenditure policy would also be subject to limits, again set at least partly by the UK state. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, put it: “in short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.”

Scottish debt might find itself being owned by UK institutions demanding a premium from the new state and any new financial crisis arising within Bank of Scotland and RBS etc. would all too clearly demonstrate the respective powers of the two states.

Financial regulation will also come from London and there is no reason why this regulation would be to the benefit of anyone other than the City of London except with nationalist hopes or assumptions that what is good for the City is good for Edinburgh – exactly the sort of attitude now so scorned by these Scottish nationalists.

Only recently the BBC reports that the siting of Trident in Scotland is one of many areas that would be up for negotiation. Only a fool believes Salmond when he claims all these negotiations will give the SNP what they want in all of the issues, and he will be first to call out the fools when they complain about it after the negotiations are over.

The BBC states that ‘a dozen high-ranking defence veterans have written to Mr Salmond claiming a proposed constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland “would be unacceptable for NATO”.’

“Were the Scottish people to vote for independence, then Scotland, as a new small nation in an uncertain world, would need international partners to help secure its economic and social objectives and allies to provide national security.”

“NATO, as an alliance with nuclear deterrence as a central part of its strategic concept, could hardly be expected to welcome a new member state whose government put in jeopardy the continued operation of the UK independent nuclear deterrent – a deterrent which protects not only the UK but all of NATO as well.”

Those putting their names to the letter include former chief of the general staff General Sir Mike Jackson (he of Bloody Sunday), Admiral Lord West of Spithead, and former chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire. This was followed up the next day by another political intervention, this time by a serving member of the top brass, Admiral Sir George Zambellas.

How comforting is it to know that NATO will help secure the economic and social objectives of the new state? Whose security does NATO seek to protect? Why is the SNP not denouncing the political interference of the armed forces?

Such a political intervention by those recently and currently in uniform portends the future pressure put on the new separated state should it seek to have its cake of being in NATO and eating it by frustrating its operation. Of course the British monarchy, with all its disguised powers, will also continue to preside over the newly separated state.

So, while Scotland is not currently an oppressed nation, the law of unintended consequences might conceivably shift it in that direction. Just as Thatcher’s policies strained the bonds within the British state she so loudly championed so Scottish nationalists might deliver their separated state into a new partnership of subordination with the rest of Britain.

But perhaps this doesn’t matter to the left nationalist case. After all as I noted right at the start, this case is based on the difference between Scotland and England and the view that socialism or moves towards it are more easily achieved through a separate state. I’ll turn to this in the next post.

PS. In his comment on my previous post Boffy correctly states that even where a nation suffers some form of national oppression within a larger state entity the “priority should still be to defend the unity of the workers.”

This should always be the case. The issue is how this might be achieved.

It might be necessary in certain circumstances not only to champion the right of a nation to self-determination but also to advocate its exercise through separation.

This will depend on the degree of national oppression and related to this (more importantly) whether the socialist movement would place itself outside of a real democratic struggle that dominated politics if it did not advocate separation (by so doing isolating itself from the working class).

Even where this is the case the role of socialists would be to warn workers about the limits of national separation, whether called national liberation or not; to separately organise the working class under its own banner and prosecute the class struggle not only against imperialism but against native capitalism.

Its role would be to draw out the class nature of working class oppression and exploitation and warn that nationalism has no solution to these. It would warn that a new capitalist state will not address working class needs, will not empower it but will be set up to enforce the power of the native capitalist class.

None of this applies to Scotland. It does not suffer such national oppression and the Scottish working class has throughout its history fought its greatest class battles in unity with English and Welsh workers.

The nationalist left in Scotland has not prioritised workers unity or, as the two books under review have made clear, prioritised exposure and condemnation of Scottish nationalism and the future to be offered by a capitalist Scotland. What they have done is attempt to argue the priority of supposed national restrictions on Scottish workers and to conflate opposition to class oppression with that of the nation claiming ‘freedom’.

The need to support separation because of national oppression, which I see as sometimes necessary, entails recognising the need for a retreat from a more open and clear class struggle against capitalism and should be the subject of bitter regret for socialists should they consider it necessary.

The opportunistic championing of Scottish nationalism by sections of the Scottish left is therefore doubly mistaken for it is assisting creation of the barriers to the fight for socialism and a united working class that they should be seeking to destroy.