YES – Repeal the Eighth 66.4%!

It’s the numbers that make the Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum such a brilliant result.  And a result not just for Ireland but one awaited in many other countries.

In the last week or so of the campaign it was widely believed that the result would be close, and I was preparing to write a post that the narrow win would only be another beginning, that the fight to introduce real abortion rights would face the opposition of a ‘pro-life’ movement that would not accept the result.

We would be faced with an opposition prepared to oppose the limited legalisation proposed by the Government and a movement claiming, as it had already done, that the referendum was in some sense rigged, that they had been ‘silenced’, that the result was not fair and not therefore accepted.

None of that now has any credibility.  Not just in Dublin; not just in urban Ireland; not just among the young; not just among the middle classes and not just among women. The majority in all areas, except in one constituency, and among all age groups, except the eldest, not just women but also men, voted YES to repeal.

There was some concern that those most committed were those zealots inspired by the Catholic Church, all the more determined, as they witness the credibility of their church rotting in front of their eyes.

But it was the YES voters who made sure the turnout was so large, and it was those who witnessed the experience of Savita Halappanaver and were appalled; who appreciated the experience of the thousands of women forced to travel for an abortion – it was they who turned out and determined the result.

It was the YES voters, the young Irish women travelling from Britain, Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil just to vote, who demonstrated the passion that impressed most.

I was in Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo at the start of the week and the majority of posters were calling for No.  Yet in all the areas I visited the majority voted Yes.

The TV pundits are saying the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ voters, who were expected to be NO voters, would make the result closer, but it was the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ YES voters who won it, and they won’t be so shy and quite in future.  It’s those who had the courage to speak out who will have given many of these voters the confidence to vote YES.

Thirty-five years ago, the electorate voted two to one to put a constitutional ban on already-illegal abortion into the State’s constitution. But that was before the exposure of the Church’s litany of abuse of women and children and before the X case and that of Savita Halappanaver, and before many women gained the confidence to tell the truth that abortion was already a choice of many Irish women and weren’t prepared to accept any stigma for that choice.

In 2018 a majority of two-to-one voted to repeal the amendment put in place in 1983 and it is being said that a revolution has taken place in the views of many Irish people – a revolution that has developed over the past years, not weeks or months.

Exit polls record that the majority had decided how to vote before the campaign and that the question of choice was what made up their mind.  This, along with the stronger support among the young, means this victory is not going to be reversed.

But this does not mean that I was wholly mistaken in saying that a new fight would just be beginning.

The reactionaries will not be able to prevent the Government’s legislation passing, although we must be ever-vigilant.  The real fight will be to make access to abortion a reality and not just a legal right and practical difficulty.

This will require not just opposition to ‘pro-life’ intimidation, but also a strenuous fight to make the medical profession responsive to women’s needs and a political campaign to make the state provide the health services women need to turn their often-fine words into reality.

Leo Varadkar basked in the reflected glory of a YES victory and went off on a Fine Gael party political broadcast for a moment in his speech after the result, but the record of the Irish state in providing health services for its people is not one to be particularly proud of.

We are still a long way from a society where women can decide whether to have children based on a free choice in which they are neither compelled by economic and social circumstance nor the diktats of misogynist religion and its state helpers.  Such a society requires an altogether more wide-ranging struggle, but the YES vote has brought that society closer and the real obstacles to it more clearly into view.



Repeal the Eighth!

It is one of the ironies that afflicts the Irish State when it comes to its treatment of women that the last couple of weeks has seen its health services in the dock for its disregard for their health at the same time as the climax to the referendum on whether to repeal the amendment to the constitution that criminalises abortion.

The Health Services Executive (HSE) decided that it would not inform women that the cervical smear test that showed a negative result was wrong, and that they did in fact have cancer.  At least 162 were not informed about their findings.  Of those who could have had earlier intervention if the tests had not been false 18 have died.

Politicians are now declaring their shock, and sympathy with the women and their families, while they sit on top of a state with a long, long history of such secrecy and disregard for women’s rights.  In fact, many are now defending this denial of rights through their support to retain the eighth amendment, which has led to women dying because of its elevation of the foetus over the woman who carries it.

The issue in both is about control.  Do women have control over their own bodies?

In the case of the cervical smear scandal, it was the state and its medical professionals who decided that women would not know about the potential threat to their life.  In the case of women who seek to control their own bodies through control of their womb, it is the state and its medical professionals who are held up as arbiters of the extent of this control, with some seeking to limit it altogether.

If tragedies alone led to change then fundamental change would have happened a long time ago, but it has taken the struggle of women and the revelation of the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Church to bring about change.

The failures of the outsourced cervical screening service and the HSE were exposed not through any change of heart by the state, but by the bravery of one woman suffering from terminal cancer, who took a court case against the US testing company.  In the case of the fight for abortion rights, it was not the X case or the death of Savita Halappanaver or any of the others that has made repeal of the eighth a possibility.  These would have shocked and appalled and led to nothing but the next tragedy, were it not for the movement to demand the rights of women, led by women themselves.

A vital factor nevertheless has undoubtedly been the crushing of the reputation of the Catholic Church, whose moral authority has been fatally undermined for many because of the child abuse carried out by its priests and ‘holy’ orders; its actions to protect the abusers by moving them around the country so they could abuse again, and their failure to pay the minimal compensation to their victims that they campaigned shamelessly to reduce or avoid.

Yet still, despite this litany of infamy, they control the vast majority of primary schools and have massive influence over health service provision.  They continue to do so because of a continuing alliance with the state.

On 25th there is a chance to continue the campaign to reverse this, and repeal the eighth amendment.  Opinion polls show a reduced but still substantial lead in favour of repeal, with support for repeal highest among the young and urban population, especially in Dublin.  Views on both sides appears to have strengthened, hardly surprising given the age-old tactics of the reactionary ‘pro-life’ campaign.

If repealed the Government has promised to legislate for limited abortion rights up to 12 weeks and the anti-abortion rights campaigners have claimed this will open up Ireland to UK-type abortion provision, including abortion of the disabled.  Nothing they can do however will prevent UK abortions, including those of the thousands who travel from Ireland to have the procedure carried out.  Not that it hasn’t been tried, but imprisoning 14 year old rape victims who become pregnant was not a popular policy.

The growth in support for women’s rights among the young and urban population testifies to a transition and transformation in views, also reflected in opinion polls.  While 54% of respondents in the latest agreed with the statement that they have reservations about provision of abortion but feel the 12 weeks in  proposed legislation is “reasonable compromise’; 62% also agreed that “the law in Ireland needs to recognise a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.”

This movement for, and of, women to take control is reflected not just in the possibility of repeal but in the potential for a continuing movement to advance women’s rights and in the courage of some to express their support for abortion rights and opposition to the insults of its reactionary opponents.

Working class women will not gain control over their lives without a veritable social revolution that they can only achieve in unity with working class men, but such unity is impossible if women are unable to control their own bodies and own lives in the most basic of ways.  For a socialist, these are aspects of a single struggle against oppression and for a new fee society in which everyone can flourish.

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 2

The previous post raised a host of issues and it would take a great deal of time to address all of them adequately. Instead I’ll limit myself to only four, which I will still only touch upon.

1.In Marx’s time the main form of the petty bourgeoisie was the peasantry.   This class has declined dramatically across Europe, North America and Japan and is declining relatively in the rest of the world.  By contrast the working class, those that live by their wage labour, has grown enormously, and continues to do so, most recently in East Asian countries including China.  An ILO report from 2013 reported that in 2011 the world-wide labour force employed in agriculture was 1.208 billion, while that working in industry and services totaled 2.057 billion.  There may be more recent figures and more detailed analysis but the basic point would only be reinforced.

These trends are important because they reveal not just class numbers loosely defined but property relationships and class relationships as understood by Marxists. They reveal the growth of the class that Marx held was the grave-digger of capitalism and reduction in that class which owns, or is otherwise tied to, the means of production as land.  It also reveals the increasing role of capital and the class that personifies it. After all, the growth of wage labour and the working class implies the growth of capital that employs and exploits this wage labour.

2. It is argued that there is an emergence of a petty bourgeoisie and the example of Britain is referred to, where “the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million.” Given that the population of the UK is 65.6m the petty bourgeoisie would be over 17% of this population.

But who are these petty bourgeoisie?  Well 76% of these small firms don’t employ anyone.  In Marxist parlance, they don’t exploit labour power. Of the remaining small businesses 96% employ an average of 1.6 workers.

On the other hand, seven thousand large businesses employ 40% of the labour force and account for 49% of total turnover of business.  The rest of the labour force, and just over half of the turnover, is accounted for 5,687,000 businesses. We therefore have a position in which 96% of businesses have fewer than 10 employees.

Over the 15 years from 2001 to 2016, in each year, 10% to 12% of businesses die while 10 to15% of businesses are born. Over ten years the odds aren’t good on surviving, although obviously, many do.  Not so far the makings of a powerful social class.

So over three quarters of the “petty bourgeoisie” don’t employ labour power.  They are self-employed.  So who are these self-employed?

It is first necessary to note that this group has grown in the UK over the last number of years from 3.3 million people in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, or from 12% of the labour force to 15%.  However, this growth has been driven by those self-employed who employ no one but themselves, accounting for 2.4 million in 2001 and 4 million in 2016.

The level of earnings among the self-employed is lower than those in employment.  The most common level is £400 per week for employees but only £240 per week for the self-employed, and the difference in the median earnings between the two groups has grown during these fifteen years.

Earnings of part time self-employed male workers were only just over half of their total income while almost 34% came from pension and retirement income, which was also the second most important source of income for female part-time self-employed workers, who also relied on benefits and tax credits for over 17% of their total income. Many of the self-employed are therefore at an age to collect their pension, or rely on welfare benefits and tax credits.

In terms of wealth just over 25% of the self-employed do not own property, while a slightly greater proportion (26.9%) of employees own no property.  The proportion owning less than £125,000 is less than 30% but around 35% for employees.  At the highest end about 10% of self-employed have property wealth of £500, 000 and over, while the share is only just over 5% for employees.

Just over 45% of the self-employed have no private pension wealth and the self-employed lag behind employees in all the income ranges of such wealth, from those with private pensions worth less than £25,000 to those that have pensions worth more than £500,000. If we look at financial wealth there is little difference between the two groups in the 35 to 54 age group, although 19.4% of the self-employed fall into the £100,000 and over range while only 12.2% of employees do so.

So even if we took, as a crude estimate, the top 20% of the self-employed as owning significant wealth, wealth that is however not enough to save them from working – as we have seen many still do so after retirement, we are talking about roughly 20% of 4.8m, which is nearly 1 million.

If we repeat the exercise of adding one additional family member, which may be on the low side, we get 2 million people.  If we add the number of small and medium businesses that actually employ people, and also add one family member to each, we get 2.7 million people.  In other words, this method of estimating the petty bourgeoisie gives us a total of 4.7 million, not 11.4.  If we round this figure up to 5 million (this is hardly a scientific exercise anyway) we get a percentage of 7.6% of the UK population. Even if we made a crude estimate to work out this group as a proportion of the adult population, the percentage would be something like 10% of the total population. By no means insignificant but less impressive when we consider the tiny fraction of the population that can be considered as consisting of the capitalist class and the vast majority who can be considered as the working class.

The point of this exercise is only to show that this approach to trying to show the power of a new petty bourgeoisie is faulty.  For example, many of the self-employed are construction workers enticed into such status through tax incentives, while many are described as ‘dependent self-employed’, who have none of the advantages of workers’ rights such as employment protection, holiday and sickness entitlements.  In these ways they are exploited more than many employed workers.

Of course, there are self-employed finance consultants, some making do after redundancy from the City; and others are IT consultants, journalists, engineers, accountants etc.  We have seen that many earn less than ordinary employees and could be more accurately classified as such.  The self-employed include in their ranks taxi drivers, plumbers, hairdressers, lorry drivers, musicians and other artists, as well as a host of others.  Legal definition should not get in the way of class analysis.

3. Belfast Plebian makes reference to the idea that the petty bourgeoisie “lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat.”  So far as Marx was concerned the distribution of surplus value involved the payment of state employees out of the surplus created by workers in the productive sector of the economy through taxation.  By productive sector we mean productive of surplus value.  In this case cleaners in the NHS, civil servants in offices and teachers in schools are all paid from surplus value created by other workers.

Most people would understand these people as part of the working class, and they would be right. Irrespective of legal definition, this is also true of many self-employed workers.

Productive workers (productive of surplus value) are not by that account exploited by these workers, since the latter are paid a wage, not out of capital but out of taxation of surplus value.  Their labour is not exploited but the productive labour from which their wages originate is exploited by capital, which is taxed.  They are paid a wage that generally represents a value equal to their labour power, which may be less than the value that their labour time worked might otherwise produce in the productive sector.

Those self-employed, or highly paid state employees, or even more highly paid managers of capitalist enterprises, may be paid a salary that is so high it would not involve any exploitation, where they productive workers.  That is, their salary would cover not only the value of their labour power, the assumed value created by their necessary labour that corresponds to a normal wage, but also any potential surplus value that they could create, that normally would be appropriated by the capitalist as profit.

It should be recognised that many workers described as middle managers or even senior managers are not in any real sense allied to capital in the suppression of their fellow workers, in their assurance of the social reproduction of the capitalist system.  In the state sector in the NHS for example, you can be a ‘senior manager’ but have little control over the organisation you work for, and such control as you have is simply supervision of more junior staff, and if you’re lucky, some minor control over your own work.

Many professions are being proletarianised, with accountants and lawyers more and more divided between those training and earning a pittance; those qualified and hoping for a decent wage; and those earing smaller or larger fortunes at the top of the profession.

That a worker therefore lives off the surplus value created by another worker, either in the state or private sector, does not therefore make them part of the petty bourgeoisie; just as in the contrary case, someone earning a salary could be paid so much that they are amassing capital through savings. The latter might move from well-paid worker creating surplus value, to a petty bourgeois that isn’t exploited, to a manager aspiring to becoming a capitalist. As we have seen, most self-employed are not in the last camp, not in the second camp either, but are in the first – they are effectively working class.

4. Belfast Plebian states that ‘the division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge, Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism?”

Belfast plebian is right that what he calls the petty bourgeoisie are often skilled workers, as I have argued above.  In contrast to many socialists today, who equate socialism with the interests of simply the poor, it has often been reactionary conservatives who have appealed to skilled workers as a means of dividing the working class.

But Marx makes clear that capitalism makes the working class fit to become the ruling class of society and it has done so by increasingly destroying any basis for the monopolization of knowledge.  As this post makes clear, capitalism has created and is still creating an educated working class, and without it no socialism is possible.  Only a view that socialism arises solely from crisis and oppression can fail to recognise and welcome this development as, far from postponing or calling into question the potential to create a new society, the increasing education of working people makes it more likely.

And what sort of socialism does this make workers receptive to? Well, one in which they can develop to the full their existing freedom, knowledge and capacities, that capitalism has promised and given potential to, but which it frustrates and limits.  That is, not the experience of the Russian revolution, where workers found themselves reliant on ‘bourgeois’ experts, but rather the situation more prevalent now, in which they increasingly find the experts from within their own ranks.

Lenin never made the mistake of thinking socialism relied on the most oppressed, otherwise he would have stood on the ground of the peasantry.  Marxists believe the working class is the potential creator of a single class i.e. a classless society, because it is much more than an oppressed class but has the interests and capacity to liberate the whole of society.

Back to part 1

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 1

In response to an earlier post on Marx’s views on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, which gives rise to the potential transition to socialism, a comment questioned the relevance of Marx’s views on the relations of production for understanding current society.  This comment is reproduced below and will be followed by a reply in a further post.

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The historical scheme that Marx was familiar with is barely credible for us today. He argued that in the pre-capitalist era there existed two primary social classes the landed nobility and the peasant serfs. Then a third class emerged that developed the productive forces to a higher degree than was normal for feudalism, this class he called the bourgeoisie. The economic activity of the bourgeoisie really quite quickly brought into play a new class of wage labourers called the proletariat. So we had a transition out of feudalism requiring three classes, being superseded by a capitalist society involving only two primary social classes. The argument then goes the further development of the productive forces within capitalism requires another transition into a society consisting of only one social class, the ‘associated producers’. So we start with three social classes and end up with only one social class, this is not of conscious choice but due mainly to the economic rationality implicit in the act of developing the productive forces. 

The problem is that the schema leaves out the emergence of another social class that we like to dismiss all too readily, called the petty bourgeoisie. It has been a fixed point or Marxism to refer to this social class as a declining or disappearing social class, it is often referred to in the language of harsh politics as the reactionary or conservative social class, Trotsky even spoke about fascism in terms of the petty bourgeoisie having gone wild. The empirical evidence for the gradual disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie is based on economic criteria and not actual sociological numbers, what one could call a political criteria. In Britain for example the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million. This is close to the 12 million who for about one hundred years have been voting for the Conservative Party.

One economic argument that is deployed to downgrade the social importance of the petty bourgeoisie is that the numerically large small business class is in the last instance dependent and subordinate to the real bourgeoisie that in numerical terms is very small, the so called 1 percent. So despite the large numbers, the petty bourgeoisie is responsible for a falling portion of the GDP. The assumption is that small businesses are by definition less efficient than large businesses, small farms and small shops etc. are sure to be eliminated by the larger efficient firms. 

The historical argument is that the petty bourgeoisie is bound to decline and disappear because they stand as an obstacle in the way of the further development of the productive forces. This was taken as basic to Marxist analysis until Nicos Poulantzas in his book Classes in Contemporary Capitalism proposed an account for an emergent class standing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that was qualitatively different from the historic property owning petty bourgeoisie, he called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’. He used three criteria to differentiate the new petty bourgeoisie, the most important being their supervisory and management position role within the monopoly firms. They were the numerous senior and junior managers, work supervisors, scientists, engineers, accountants, technical and legal staff advisers that the absentee bourgeoisie needed to maintain their portfolio owned firms :

‘The division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge,the capitalist form of appropriation of scientific discoveries and the reproduction of ideological relations of domination/subornation, by the permanent exclusion on the subordinated side of those who are deemed not to know how’

One revolutionary characteristic of this new petty bourgeoisie was their interest in developing the productive forces to the highest degree possible, maybe this might make them a potential resource for a transition to socialism but experience suggested otherwise. This looks like the very same class of ‘knowing people’ that Lenin had to call on to maintain and modernise the factories, and the same class that Stalin had to offer special economic privileges to keep them loyal, and the same knowledge class that eventually overthrew ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union.

In short a third social class emerged between the two classes of bourgeois and proletarian, Poulantzas called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’, and this class does have an interest in the further development of the of the productive forces. It is because of the obvious presence of this social class that bourgeois commentary assures itself of the long term stability of capitalism, bourgeois commentary in academia and journalism operates under the assumption that we inhabit a class divided yet solid bourgeois society. The working class is an integral part of bourgeois society but it is not the only the real stakeholder, the big bourgeois in the form of the bankers and the global bond holders can be hated and despised without fear of social instability because they also are not the solid part, it is the the political solidarity of the old and the new petty bourgeois that really preserves the private property basis of capitalism.

Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism? Could it be the socialism of a new class society that became the Soviet Union? The class that came to organise the Soviet Union seems to fit with the three criteria Poulantzas used to define the new petty bourgeoisie that emerged out of monopoly capitalism:

1 They lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat. 2 They conducted supervisory activity over other workers. 3 They performed mental labour and possessed specialised knowledge of a scientific kind.

Forward to part 2

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 27 – forces and relations of production 10

The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx with which the previous post in this series finished needs emphasis because all too many of today’s Marxists fail to acknowledge their place in Marx’s alternative to capitalism. To take just one example: the Irish Marxist Kieran Allen, in his ‘Karl Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism’, references workers’ cooperatives under the heading of ‘Marx and Utopianism’, and with a view that appears to see these cooperatives as ‘islands of socialism’ within a capitalist sea, that “could not break with the logic of capitalism.”  The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx is not referred to by him, which is more than remiss given the title of the book.

Instead trade union organisation is endorsed and the perspectives of Marx described thus:

“Marx’s approach, therefore, was not to build alternatives within the existing mode of production but to overthrow it”

This is a view common to many of today’s Marxists.  However, by using this example of this approach, a number of points can be made, by way of illustration how it may be contrasted to the approach set out so far in these posts.

First, it might be pointed out that while cooperatives may not break completely with the logic of capitalism, this was well understood by Marx, as the first sentence of the extensive quote from the last post makes plain – “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system.”

Second, it may be noted that not only do trade unions enforce the logic of capitalism, by bargaining the price of labour power in the labour market, but they are obviously built within the existing system and generally do not seek to overthrow it, a criticism levelled at cooperatives.

In this sense, it is equally obvious that unless the alternative is built “within the existing mode of production” there will be nothing with which “to overthrow it”.   Something as true of a working class party as of cooperative workplaces.  Without material foundations for example, there will be no revolution, certainly not one that is successful.  This will be the case because it is not just a question of overthrowing capitalism but of replacing it, and the replacement cannot be conjured out of nothing.  It cannot arise from empowering the state to take control – because this is not socialism, as the series of posts on the Russian revolution demonstrated.  But it will also not arise from within the heads of the working class unless the real world outside their heads, the’being that determines consciousness’, propels them to it.

Both within workers’ consciousness and the real world that creates this consciousness there must be a viable alternative, one that the creation of workers’ cooperatives within capitalism can represent.  In this sense, such cooperatives can be made, if not islands of socialism, then sites of struggle to win workers to ownership of the means of production right across society, and a giant step towards it within the existing system.

Allen argues that “unlike the capitalist class, workers need direct political power to begin the process of liberating themselves” (emphasis added), but this confuses the requirement for revolution, and the conquering of political power by the working class, with the process to get there, and what the working class needs to do afterwards in order to rule, not just in the political sense but as a ruling social class.  Much of the Marxist movement has been handicapped by failure to properly understand the necessity to advance the economic, social and political power of the working class, in the way Marx sought to do, within capitalism, as a prerequisite of, and prior to, overthrowing and replacing it.

Since this is a necessity whether one believes it is required or not, the vacuum created by lack of such understanding is filled by reformist and statist conceptions of working class struggle and socialism, which are as routinely condemned as much as they are advanced in practice.  These statist conceptions of socialism were opposed by Marx, as by many Marxists today, but he had conceptions of the alternative, which many of today’s Marxists do not. They thus lapse into Keynesian remedies and calls for nationalisation, ignoring experience of the latter when it happens and results in enforcement of the logic of capitalism – as in Ireland with bank nationalisation and creation of an enormous property development company by the state – NAMA.

This yawning gap in the conception of how the working class prepares itself to be the ruling class, to carry out a revolution, has all sorts of other deleterious consequences, leading not just to reformist capitulation but alternatively to ultra-left isolation, and retreat into vanguardist conceptions that amazingly can include reformist politics as well.  Since the real prerequisites for socialist revolution are ignored, the experience of heightened episodes of class struggle are continually misapprehended as revolutionary outbreaks when they are not.  Their failure leads to a search for scapegoats, for villains who have betrayed, without pausing to ask how this betrayal could have been allowed if the working class was already revolutionary.

It means that even those parties with the purest revolutionary programmes will be compelled to retreat and betray their revolutionary beliefs because the working class they seek to lead, and may even succeed in leading for a time, is simply not in a position to make a revolution, a weakness inevitably reflected in their political consciousness.  Retreat in such circumstances is inevitable regardless of subjective wishes and intentions.

In practice, such realisation affects the most radical parties long before they are in a position to claim outright leadership of the majority of the working class, whereupon the left section denounces the right as betraying socialism and the right denounces the left as lacking in realism.  Meanwhile the decisive question is how the working class has prepared itself for political power, because it is the class that creates the party, not the other way round.

The prevailing general conception of many Marxists is presented by Allen this way:

“It was only in the process of revolution that the mass of people learnt to clarify their own interests and develop a different understanding of their society. In normal times, the majority accept the legitimacy of their rulers and at least some of their ideas.  This cannot be changed simply through preaching, teaching or good example.  A new consciousness cannot emerge on a mass scale by workers ‘waking up’ and then passively following the teachings of their intellectual masters or clever television presenters.  Experience of class struggle is the only way in which people can learn, and, as Draper put it, ‘revolution speeded up the curriculum and enriched the course.’”

What this says is that only revolution can bring about the consciousness within workers that a revolution is required, which is actually partly true but obviously hardly adequate; in other words inadequate.  Read in reverse, the paragraph quoted above makes the weakness of this conception clearer; for it reads – revolution becomes the means of ‘waking up’ the workers, while revolution is the result of their ‘waking up’.

As a more or less sudden and abrupt process, of greater or shorter duration, a revolution alone cannot equip the working class with the consciousness that society must be organised by themselves and that they have the capacity to do so.  Marxists often note that consciousness lags behind material changes in the real world, and stand firmly on the ground that such material reality is the soil upon which consciousness grows.  It is therefore the case that anticipations of the new socialist society must appear within capitalism for the consciousness of the new society to also appear and grow, and to achieve hegemony within the working class.  As we have noted, of all the developments of the forces and relations of production under capitalism, it is cooperative production, working class control of the means of production – even within the capitalist system – that Marx notes should be considered one of the“transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one.”

The creation of workers’ cooperatives raises the potential for increasing numbers of workers to understand the possibility of working class ownership of the means of production.  Such ownership also has the potential to demonstrate the benefits of increasing the scale and scope of cooperative production within capitalism – the benefit of cooperative enterprises cooperating with each other.

It also has the potential to demonstrate the ultimate requirement to defend this working class control through rejecting a capitalist state that exists to defend capitalist ownership and control.   The need for the working class to have its own state can be demonstrated when it becomes clear that it needs it to defend its own cooperative property.

Cooperative production has the potential to burst asunder the existing relations of capitalist production and release the fetters on the forces of production increasingly under strain from the limitations imposed on the socialisation of production by capitalist property relations. So, for example, the savings of workers, including their pension funds, can be mobilised using the existing system of socialised capital to provide the funding for workers to create their own cooperatives.

Workers’ cooperatives are not however a ‘magic bullet’ and do not replace the various other means by which workers must organise, in trade unions and political parties etc. as the example of Marx and Engels’ own lives demonstrates.  Cooperative factories were however important for how they conceived of the transition from capitalism to socialism and clearly fit their conceptions relating to the forces and relations of production that we have reviewed in these last number of posts.

Back to part 26

The Belfast rape case and women’s rights

The nine-week rape trial in Belfast gripped not only the interest of many people in the North of Ireland but many in the South as well. I normally don’t take much, if any, interest in these cases as I regard them as normally fixating on individual questions of evil or wrong doing and diverting from social problems that often lie behind individual misfortune.  They often seem to be exercises in schadenfreude and prurience for many people.

I followed this case because it quickly became apparent that it involved not only trauma for the young woman at the centre of it, and a question of the guilt or otherwise of the four accused, but because it didn’t so much divert attention to an individual assault considered in isolation, as draw into focus sexual violence against women in general, and by extension wider questions of the position of women in society.

The verdict of not guilty found on behalf of the four accused – two charged of rape, one of indecent exposure and one of perverting the course of justice – prompted demonstrations outside the court in Belfast and in Dublin city centre, as well as a couple of other Irish towns.

This was a result of a number of factors, including the ‘celebrity’ status of the accused, with those charged with rape being prominent rugby players who had turned out for Ulster and Ireland, and the way the case was conducted.

For example: the trial involved the young woman being questioned over 8 days while each of the accused sat for no more than one day in the box. The latter was due of course to the decision of the prosecuting lawyers, who must have decided that while the testimony of one woman had required eight appearances, that of each of the accused warranted no more than one.  No wonder it is claimed that it is often the woman who appears to be on trial.

Two other points stood out.  The defence barrister’s summing up included the statement “why didn’t she scream the house down? A lot of very middle-class girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate rape or anything like that.”  Unlike presumably working class women?  That anyone thought this was a good argument to put to a jury says something for some attitudes in the legal profession.

This alone makes the statement of the Green Party politician Claire Bailey, that the case was not about class but only about gender, mistaken.  As the young woman texted in the morning after – “What happened was not consensual. I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work.”

If one sport in Northern Ireland can be regarded as steeped in class it’s rugby, with its roots in ‘middle class’ grammar schools and traditionally played by Protestants.

It’s not something I have any affinity with, even though I had to play it at school. My father had no interest in it at all and used to tell me it was a game for the toffs; I should support Wales because it at least had working class players.  And while the development of the professional game has eroded such factors, I get the impression that this isn’t quite so much the case in the North of Ireland. Having been to one Ulster rugby match I could tell it was nothing like watching football.

The other crucial point was exposure of the numerous Whatsapp messages between the accused after the party at which the rape was alleged to have taken place, which were crudely misogynistic.  It is these displays of vulgar insults against women which have been taken up by subsequent protests and that has fuelled the continuing controversy, precisely because there is no denying their provenance.

On top of these was the less than contrite tone, in fact many might say quite aggressive tone, of the statement following the trial by the defence solicitor for the most prominent of the accused.  The latter hardly smoothed the waters by threatening to sue those who questioned the verdict on social media afterwards.  His more contrite tone in a statement issued nine days later was dismissed by many as way too late, with the suspicion voiced that it had more to do with countering the growing call for an end to his current rugby career than being a genuine act of regret.

Calls, including a petition and newspaper advert, for the players not to be selected again for Ulster and Ireland were countered by opposite calls by other Ulster rugby supporters, who said they would refuse to buy season tickets if the players were not selected again.

Call me paranoid if you want, but when I read statements that seem to see only the man as the victim, that claim to be from the “silent majority’ (who are of course never silent when they make this claim, irrespective of whether they are actually a majority or not); and use other common reactionary tropes such as being “real fans” of Ulster, presumably in contrast to the unreal(?) ones who called for them not to be selected again; well I think I’m entitled to argue that this ‘silent majority’ are also reactionaries who are oblivious to the misogynistic rants of their heroes and the gravity of the effect of their behaviour, whether criminal or not.

I’m afraid however that I must also say that I don’t give a shit whether they represent Ireland and Ulster again or not, and not just because I don’t give a shit about rugby itself.  The Green politician Claire Bailey again said that “this is my Ulster team as well’ – she must be a fan of rugby; while for me the very idea that a sports team could represent a whole country or province is such a lot of fictional nonsense that only buying into the notion of a united ‘national interest’ or un-conflicted ‘national identity’ could make any of this in any way rational. But then nationalism is essentially reactionary anyway, and all the more powerful for being uncritically assumed in many different circumstances, including this one.

I’ve never felt that something being Irish meant I had to have some positive feelings about it, from the Irish State to Irish beef from Irish cows – what the hell is an Irish cow?  These people never ‘represented’ me at any time, no matter what might be understood by such an idea.

However, if there is one thing more powerful than nationalism it is the power of money, and it may well have been that the power of money coming from sponsors has weighed more heavily than anything in the club’s decision that the players will no longer play for them.

For those campaigning for such a decision, this will be seen as a victory against a misogynist culture within the sport, including a victory for women rugby players, with wider ramifications for the position of women in society.  Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that the demands of the Belfast Feminist Network raised during protests are altogether progressive.

There can’t be any objection to improved education against misogyny, and in this case on the question of consent, but the oppression suffered by women is grounded in much more fundamental aspects of society than the culture of the media, justice system and education.  All aspects of the same state from which they expect a solution.

As I’ve noted, far from class being irrelevant, the explicit references to it and the role of money in determining one outcome of the case demonstrates that the position of many women in society, and women as a whole, is based on inequalities of power that are rooted in the class structure of society.  It will simply not be possible for women to achieve full equality if class inequality remains.

This is neither a claim that women’s demands must be dropped while class demands are pursued, or that progress on removing class oppression will of itself remove oppression suffered by women.  It is a claim that women’s equality cannot be simply gender equality within a class-ridden capitalist system.  This meets neither the interests of working class women or of men.

The goal of a socialist society is the free development of the individual from social oppression, not from the individual antagonisms that eventuate from imperfect human beings who will never live in a perfect society, even if that term meant anything.  This is not an excuse for continued sexism but a claim that ending social oppression can only arise out of the struggle to which socialism is devoted, and that this must include the ending of systematic oppression of women, plus repression of gay people and an end to all forms of racism.

Most immediately in Ireland the outcome of the Belfast rape trial shows the importance of repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution which criminalises abortion.

There is widespread commentary that, while there is sympathy among some that women should be allowed to have an abortion in cases of rape, the eighth amendment should not be repealed because legislation will be introduced that facilitates abortion up to 12 weeks in cases where there hasn’t been rape.

What this case shows is that even on this rather narrow ground this is indefensible.  We already know that most sexual assaults aren’t reported and this case has shown what sometimes happens even when they are.  What it highlights, is the need for women to be able to control their own bodies. The fight against rape is one such fight and so is the struggle for abortion rights.

The BBC – how to spin a lie

Watching and listening to the BBC yesterday I was presented with a master class of political spin that would put the worst dictatorship to shame.  The best propaganda isn’t uniform and obvious, peddling straightforward lies, but invites you to look at things differently, to think yourself into a view that you may treat as your very own.

So I listed to PM on Radio 4, looked at the BBC News web site and watched the BBC six o’clock news on television.  The lead item for two was the revelation that Boris Johnson had lied when he said he had been told categorically by Porton Down laboratory that the poison that infected two Russian citizens came from Russia.   In fact, the official response from the Porton Down spokesman was that they couldn’t say.

This was picked up by Jeremy Corbyn, who rather charitably said Johnson had exaggerated and had questions to answer.

The BBC could have run with precisely how the Foreign Secretary had lied, why he had lied and what were the consequences of his lying, particularly given his senior and sensitive position in government.  A backstory could have been filled with Corbyn having taken a more measured approach and having a track record of getting these international issues right, while Johnson had a history of lying.  The great British public could then have been invited to form its own opinion.

Of course, no one who gets their news regularly from the BBC would have expected anything like the above.

Instead we were invited to believe that Johnson ‘appeared’ and might ‘seem’ not to have told the truth, while on the six o’clock news I remember hearing three responses by Johnson to the charge that he lied with the accusation repeated that Corbyn was playing the Russian’s game.  The BBC reporter took the view that it was all a bit of a mess, which given the BBC coverage was actually an accurate portrayal of the way the issue had been presented.

On Radio 4, the BBC talking head was deploring, more in sorrow than in anger, along the same lines but majoring on how the Russians would gain and we (as in Britain) would be put on the back foot by this disagreement between the two British political parties. This was the issue – the whole thing didn’t make Britain look good.  Rather like a person accused of rape; the issue is not whether that person actually did it, and what effect it has had on the victim, but that it doesn’t make them look good.  Pick your own crime and you could repeat the example a thousand times.

On Radio 4 the lead item was wrapped up in the first 15 minutes by an American ‘expert’ who had worked with various intelligence agencies, who reassured us that of course it was the Russians.  So, with the issue being that it was, at the very least, questionable to blame the Russians without evidence, the news item finished with yet another example of the very same, from someone whose bona fides were rather obscure.

When we consider that on the same day the Foreign Office deleted a tweet that claimed what Johnson had claimed – that it was the Russians who were the source of the poison, it seemed rather lop-sided to allow Tory spokesman to avoid the question of lying and simply declare without challenge that of course it was the Russians – who else was going to do it? Well, perhaps the BBC could have taken this question more seriously too?

The explanation for the original tweet, that it was truncated and did not accurately report “our ambassador’s words”, looked lame, particularly when the official transcript of the speech from which it came said the same thing as the tweet. Yet another question that should have been posed by the BBC but was ignored.

The narrative the BBC presented was therefore not one of lying by the Government, and embroiling us in heightened international tensions that had the happy circumstance of diverting attention from Brexit and another Tory reverse.  Instead we have had just a bit of a mess and only the Russians will gain from any controversy; which of course conveniently absolves the BBC of doing any real reporting, of news as opposed to certain views, of the establishment in particular.  And anyway, it was the Russians what done it.

But as we see, the real propaganda value of the BBC coverage is not in what it says but in what it doesn’t – in its highlighting the questions it thinks are important and to which we are invited to divert our attention, and the questions and issues that are ignored.  Lies by the Government while the perceived radical opposition leader is proved correct again?  Such a narrative would obviously be anathema to the BBC and its lofty self-perception of balance.  Just a pity this lofty approach doesn’t touch the truth.

Should we demand that the BBC really be impartial?  Well, it is useful to point out as loudly as possible its bias when it is particularly ourageous.  But why would it be expected the broadcasting arm of the British state would stray from the rest of it?

Perhaps instead we should secretly welcome the BBC when its bias becomes egregious; all the more likely then that more people will notice it. And perhaps do what we say we should always do – try to create an alternative.