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

The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

The offer by the EU to significantly reduce checks on goods, especially food, on the Irish Sea border, and the promise to legislate for British authorisation of medicines supplied into NI and therefore the Single Market, takes away the salience of complaints of barriers to the supply of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland.  The solution of the medicines issue was promised long ago and the EU was never going to allow itself to be held up to criticism for preventing the supply of medicines, including cancer treatments, to NI.  The non-issue of British sausages that was already hardly alive was killed once again by the EU breaking with its policy on chilled meats entering the Single Market. 

This does not mean that these issues are solved.  One reason that the existing border checks did not work was because the British and Unionist minister at Stormont made sure that they didn’t.  The scope, or motivation, for a repeat approach by the British in the enforcement of the compensating mechanisms proposed by the EU for the abandonment of checks at the sea border remain to be seen.

Instead, the question of the role of the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been held aloft by the British as the key requirement in negotiation of a new Protocol.  Of course, the unionists don’t want any Protocol but that could only be the outcome if the UK and EU entered a trade war that none would benefit from, especially the British.  The unionists aren’t worth that price for the British so they will just have to sell as a victory whatever Johnson and Frost agree to in the end.

However, if both the British and unionists wanted to declare victory now is the time to do it.  The EU declared it would not negotiate and it has; its restrictions on food imports and requirement for authorisation within the EU for medicines circulating within it are important elements of its Single Market but have been given up in this case (the former to an extent).  It can bypass them only because it believes it can contain these concessions within the Protocol, that is within its arrangements for the North of Ireland.  It obviously takes the view that there will be no leakage into any other trading relationship and no precedent set that could be exploited by other trading partners.

Both the British and unionists could therefore claim that not only has it forced the EU to negotiate the Protocol, which it still denies, but that they have compelled the EU to surrender much of what it said it could not do.  It has political coverage for this not only for the reasons just set out but also because for its Irish member state and for Northern nationalists what matters is that there is no Single Market land border down the middle of the country.  As long as the checks along the Irish sea are held to be working, they are happy.

But this will remain an issue.  The more the British depart from EU regulation, the greater the scope for unapproved goods to circulate into the Single Market and therefore greater risk to the integrity of it.  The compensating proposals from the EU would therefore have to have meaningful effect and will grow in impact as Britain diverges from EU requirements, whether arising from its own decisions or from those of changed EU rules.

This is not the declared reason for the new prominence of the ECJ in British demands.  Instead, it is what a NI business representative called “nothing but a Brexit purity issue.”  For him the ECJ “it is not a practical or business issue.”  In fact, for business the Protocol gives unique access to both the UK and EU markets.  Were the British market certain to continue to be the much more lucrative and important the unionists would have little to fear from this parallel opportunity.  However, the growing trade between North and South and the reduced trade between the Irish State and Britain means that their opposition to the Protocol on political grounds is justified even if nationalists deny it. Unfortunately for unionist leaders this political opposition is detrimental to the people they represent, which will not have short term importance but will in the long term.

The unionist commentator Newton Emerson has argued that Irish and EU complaints about British negotiating tactics are a ‘slight loss of perspective’ and that their annoyance is mistaken.  In effect, both sides are at it and it’s a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’ . . . and trade negotiations.  He is however wrong to say that “the fact that Frost is tearing up his own deal is a redundant complaint.  The protocol is being negotiated.”  It matters that the negotiations that are now being conducted are not a first stab at an agreement but follow bad faith negotiations by the British who never intended to implement the deal they signed.

It matters because all the arguments made by Emerson about the ECJ not being necessary for Single Market governance must face up to this.  It is not a matter of whether the NI Protocol can be made amenable to Swiss type arrangements or those governing EU relations with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which insert arrangements that put ECJ competence at a greater distance.

Why would the EU agree to Swiss governance arrangements when the British have just rejected Swiss trading arrangements? Why would they seek to introduce arrangements involving numerous bilateral treaties that they already find too onerous and have sought to dispense with?  Why would they seek the governance arrangements applied with Norway etc. when the British specifically rejected the EEA option as the form of Brexit they should seek?  Part of the reason why the EU will not want to agree is that the British cannot be trusted.  

If Emerson wants to critique the statements of Irish politicians in relation to the British approach to negotiations he would be better to start with Varadkar’s nonsense that “for decades, for centuries, British people in many ways were renowned by the fact that they were an honourable people; people whose word you could trust . . .“ And by “people” it should be understood to mean the British state.

Has he not heard of Perfidious Albion?  Has he no knowledge of the Anglo-Irish treaty, with its Boundary Commission, or the promise by the British king in 1921 that the new Northern Ireland parliament would be “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community . . .’?

The British may reject the mitigations of border checks and alternative arrangements and may demand removal of any role for the ECJ.  If they do, they may proceed with Article 16, which will lead to further negotiations but also opens up the possibility of retaliatory measures against them by the EU.  Tory Brexiteers are still bloviating about the EU needing Britain more than the Brits need the EU but only the blinkered continue to entertain such nonsense.

It is reported that Article 16 may be triggered by the British on narrow grounds that may avoid a fuller EU retaliatory response but we would have to see what such narrow grounds might be and the EU has indicated it is weary of British negotiating tactics.

Even if the EU were to agree to some intervening body between the operation of the Protocol and adjudication by the ECJ, this would not essentially change the fact that there would be a Protocol that would involve a trade border between NI and GB and none between the North and South of Ireland.  It would not change Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets or the economic dynamics released by this arrangement.  It would not put to bed the problems that will arise if the British decide to increasingly diverge from EU rules.  It would not change the enforcement mechanisms ultimately available under the Protocol or wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement and it would not change the power imbalance between the UK and EU.

The attitude socialists should take to all of this should follow from their opposition to the whole reactionary Brexit project, which seeks to reverse the internationalisation of capitalism and the long-achieved broaching of nation state constraints on the productive forces.  Such an international development of capitalism is precisely the material basis for socialism and the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality.

Some on the left have opposed Brexit only by registering its English nationalist clothes and necessarily xenophobic and racist expression, without appreciation of this more fundamental basis.  For some, not even this has dawned on them and they have supported Brexit without being able to demonstrate that it has led to any compensating advance by the working class.

Just as nationalism feeds off other nationalisms so the Brexit war of words has involved Priti Patel advocating the threat to Ireland of food shortages from a no-deal Brexit and the French threatening to deny power supplies to the Channel Islands.  Socialists must oppose all such offensive nationalist threats.  Opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of the policies of the EU but simply recognition that we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to creation of a new society.

In terms of the Protocol, we oppose the creation of a land border in Ireland as a strengthening of division on the island and recognise that this could only come about from increasing the separation of Britain from the EU, most likely from acrimonious conflict that would have the effect of dividing workers, and not only in Ireland.

Back to part 1

Brexit still not done – the Northern Ireland Protocol 1

I was in the south of England as the recent fuel crisis hit, when many petrol stations ran out of fuel and closed.  Stuck in Bath, I drove around the city looking for one that was open, then drove to nearby Chippenham where Google Maps was telling me that there were a number of stations open.  All were closed so I decided the best thing to do was to drive North, where I was heading to the ferry at Stranraer that would take me home.  My wife had cancer treatment the day after next and we really didn’t want to miss it – the treatment is keeping her alive.  I was able to get petrol on the M4 and then headed North via the M5, filling up again in a Motorway service station north of Lancaster.

So, we got home safe and sound and to the sight of petrol stations in Belfast with lots of fuel and no queues. Buying the local Irish papers in order to get up to speed on the local scene I read speculation that the Tories were going to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of getting rid of it, although it doesn’t actually do this, on the grounds that the Protocol gives rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”

Since unionists have been declaring a crisis and organising protests that have managed to mobilise only hundreds of protestors; and trade between the North and South of Ireland has grown dramatically, albeit from a low base, their strained narrative has claimed that the grounds for unilateral action by the British to trigger Article 16 exists.

I thought to myself, if only the Article applied to Britain, where trade with the EU has fallen; ports are clogged up; goods are sent to Rotterdam and Antwerp before being unloaded and re-loaded onto smaller vessels so they can be taken to England; the shortage of lorry drivers has led to restrictions on the supply of goods with even more knock-on effects due soon; the shortage of other workers has led to a culling of animals and the shortage of all these workers has led to approval for recruitment of foreign drivers and butchers – a clear reversal of the rationale for Brexit.

But still Article 16 is waved as a magic sovereignty wand that derives its power from being a unilateral action that needs no EU negotiation or agreement, although the foresight of a goldfish is required in order to overlook that it leads to both.

The growing crisis caused by Brexit has been answered by louder and louder bellicose rhetoric, especially by Lord Frost.  This rhetoric is all the more raucus because Britain has few cards to play; the opposition(?) Labour Party is silent so the high pitch is only necessary to divert attention from real events.  Even so, Frost finds himself admitting that the British were compelled to agree to the NI Protocol because of a weak bargaining position – one glint of truth in a trough of bullshit and deception.  On this score not much has changed so rhetoric substitutes for real power.  The response to the driver shortage demonstrates this.

Not only has the British government had to beg foreign lorry drivers to return, having just told them to get lost (why would they come back?), but rules on the number of internal deliveries that foreign companies can carry out when delivering into Britain have been relaxed while the British Road Haulage industry complains that they cannot avail of the same rights when delivering into the EU.  Just like Brussels enforcing Single Market restrictions on British exports to the EU but London still not able to enforce restrictions on EU exports to Britain.

Unionist opposition also reveals its weakness not just in low numbers protesting or the absence of any queues at petrol stations, but through plummeting support for the DUP, now down to 13% from over 31% in the December 2019 Westminster election.  With Sinn Fein now the largest party it is in line to nominate the First Minister after new Assembly elections scheduled for May.

In the latest poll the DUP is the third largest unionist party, although what matters most is the division in unionism caused by the DUP collapse.  Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson has attempted to reverse this by relying on Johnson to get him a better deal, in itself a terrible admission of weakness (relying on the guy who shafted you in the first place) and also by attempting to get the rest of unionism to own the failure.

So, when I arrived back from England I came back to a joint article in the ‘Irish Times’ by Donaldson and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, plus a joint statement by the ‘four main unionist leaders’ with a video to accompany it.  One I didn’t bother to watch.

The ‘Irish Times’ article was a joint statement of opposition to the Protocol by Donaldson who declares he wants it scraped because it contradicts the Belfast Agreement (which he originally opposed) and by Allister who has never supported it.

The joint statement and video to the unionist public proved only that you really can have too many leaders.  The motivation for Donaldson is obvious – ‘I may have helped get you into this mess but all the rest are now just as responsible for getting you out of it’.  For the Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie all his claims to be modernising his party and putting clear blue water between him and the DUP is exposed to ridicule as he stands beside the even more extreme TUV.

The contradictions for the TUV in uniting with supporters of the Stormont administration that it never ceases to denounce are obvious but matter less.  If the campaign fails the TUV can still blame the DUP and if it can be portrayed as any sort of victory they can own part of it.  The loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson is there to show that loyalist paramilitarism and its own particular means of exerting influence are part of the family, to be ostracised when embarrassing but embraced as a delinquent brother if required.  For Billy Hutchinson, he gets to wear a suit for the day out and a boost to mainstream credibility that has been less frequent of late.  

Where there does appear to be some genuine unity is revealed in one of the opinion poll‘s other findings, which recorded that 79% think the performance of Johnson and his NI Secretary is bad or awful.

Forward to part 2

State Socialism and The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 46

In the Communist Manifesto Marx states that ‘the first step in the workers’ revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to the ruling class, the winning of democracy.  The proletariat will use its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as ruling class . . . ‘

There then follows a set of demands that ‘will naturally be different depending on the different countries.  For the most advanced countries, however the following can be put into effect fairly generally.’  There is then a list of ten demands of which the most relevant for our purposes are –

‘5 Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state through a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.’

‘6. Centralisation of the whole transportation system in the hands of the state.’

‘7. Increase in national factories and instruments of production, reclamation and improvement of land in accordance with a common plan.’

These demands would appear to entail the introduction of socialism through actions of the state – albeit with the vital condition that this is a state in the hands of the workers – with state control of industry etc. under a centralised plan as the objective.  This is in obvious contrast to Marx and Engels antipathy to (capitalist) state ownership and control as noted in previous posts; their opposition to a putative necessary role for the state in sponsoring workers cooperatives; and the prominent role they give to cooperatives in the development of the working class, its movement, and its heralding of a new socialist society.

To anticipate the argument to be presented: the Manifesto was written quickly, in particular circumstances, and, more importantly, at an early part of Marx and Engels’ political careers, including before their experience of the Paris Commune.  However, none of this explains, or rather explains away, these passages since much of what is written in the Manifesto Marx and Engels defended for the rest of their lives.

If we take the opening lines quoted above: ‘the first step in the workers’ revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to the ruling class, the winning of democracy’, it must be said that while control of the state is required to secure the rule of any ruling class, such control does not make a class the rulers of society.  Only in relation to the means of production can a class be constituted as the ruling class.  Even were the working class to ‘win democracy’ it would not yet be a ruling class unless this democracy included its ownership and control of society’s productive powers.

Of course, Marx goes on to say that ‘the proletariat will use its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state’ but again, the state is a separate body of men and women and cannot be considered to be synonymous with the working class.  So, if the state has its hands on the means of production it means the working class does not, and this is true even if the workers state is democratic.  As noted before, state title to the productive resources of society would only be consistent with effective workers’ ownership if it performed the negative function of preventing alienation of particular factories etc from the collective ownership of society and their appropriation as private capital.

Immediately after the ten demands, Marx states that ‘when, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production is concentrated in the hands of the associated individuals, the public power loses its political character.’

As Marx then says, ‘political power in its proper sense is the organised power of one class for the oppression of another.’  For the ‘public power to lose its political character’ the state would therefore have to cease to exist, but how does production leave its hands and come into the hands of the ‘associated individuals’?

The state, as instrument of ‘oppression’ is unsuitable for control of production and certainly for its exercise by the working class, and it is only by the working class becoming the ruling class can the state ‘wither away’, as it was later put by Lenin.  The working class can therefore only be a ruling class through its role in production and can sustain and defend its position, at least initially, only by having a state of its own.

The socialist scholar, Hal Draper, states that the term ‘winning the battle of democracy’ (in one translation of the Manifesto) was cryptic and reflected Marx’s lack of certainty over whether this meant the victory of the democratic bloc existing in much of Europe at the time, that did not seek to go beyond capitalism or bourgeois rule, or outright proletarian rule as might be thought given the context.

The first edition of the Manifesto was in German and at this time only a bourgeois revolution was immediately anticipated in Germany – “the Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution . . .”  The ten demands can be better understood as the programme of a radical bourgeois revolution that the working class would support in light of its own weakness and inability at that time to achieve its own class rule.  This incapacity did not however mean that the working class was ever to cease for a minute to organise to defend and advance its own particular interests. 

In the later 1872 German preface to the Manifesto Marx makes the following points:

‘However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II [the ten demands].’

‘That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organisation of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”’

The Manifesto speaks of the proletariat using its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as ruling class . . .’  It goes on to say that this involves ‘measures which seem economically inadequate and untenable but which in the course of operation drive beyond their own limits, and are unavoidable as a means of transforming the whole mode of production.’

These might seem to have some correspondence to Trotsky’s approach laid out in the Transitional Programme, but here they relate to measures to be implemented following the already achieved ‘political supremacy’ of the working class and not the programme that precedes it.  In this context it should also be said that a ‘transitional’ approach that substitutes demands for expropriation by the (capitalist) state in place of workers’ expropriation is a very different approach and involves a different transition.

Draper notes that:

‘the Manifesto was one of the few writings in which Marx spoke in terms of state ownership of the means of production.  He usually left open the question of the forms of social ownership, which might include workers’ associations and cooperatives.  The emphasis in the Manifesto reflected the emphasis in the movement for which it was written at the time.  State ownership (by a workers’ state) was, to be sure, one form of social ownership for Marx.’

Draper also endorses the view that the demands were not specifically those of Marx or Engels but already existing and agreed demands of the Communist League, for whom the Manifesto was written.  He also notes the extent that some other specific demands did not represent Marx’s own views, (in The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto).

These demands accord with other programmatic statements such as The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, which were set out as the programme to be adopted in what was understood to be a radical democratic revolution, but not yet a working class and socialist one.  In the Manifesto Marx employs the argument about their transitional nature in order to cover this (rather wide) gap, but their realisation would not achieve socialism even if it would strengthen the existing position of the working class and its future struggle. 

Marx states in the Manifesto that when the proletariat ‘has become the ruling class by revolution, and as such has destroyed, by force, the old conditions of production, it destroys, necessarily, with these conditions of production, the conditions of existence of all class antagonism, of classes generally, and thus it destroys, also, its own supremacy as a class.’

Like Engels in Anti-Duhring, the prospectus is of the state dying following working class revolution and the means of production becoming the property of the associated producers, i.e. the working class.  Since no capitalist class would now exist, and no other class could have ownership of the means of production, all class distinctions are removed and the division of society into classes disappears.

In this process many questions arise as to sequence, timing and agency and the telescoped summary in the Manifesto can only be properly considered with due regard to the development of Marx’s views at that time.  It is possible to quote Marx and Engels in favour of state ownership but not possible to make this consistent with other major statements of view; with the consistency of their overall perspective and programme, or their foundational beliefs.

Two years after the publication of the Manifesto Marx, when he still had hopes for an approaching revolution, hoped that the communists could “make the revolution permanent until . . . at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.” (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League)

Back to part 45

State support for the workers?


Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 45

The first premise to the rules of the First International, written by Marx in 1864 as the first clause, was that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves . . .’

In 1882 Engels in London wrote to the German socialist August Bebel:

‘The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles and France, which is now forming a workers’ party for the first time, is no exception. We in Germany have got beyond the first phase of the internal struggle, other phases still lie before us. Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.’

One such famous internal struggle was against the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany. The Critique of the Gotha Programme is a document based on a letter by Marx written in early May 1875 to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP), with whom he and Engels were in close association. 

The Critique, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings and is named after the proposed platform for the new united party to be created at the forthcoming congress, to take place in the town of Gotha. At the congress, the SDAP (“Eisenachers”, based in Eisenach) planned to unite with the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), followers of the deceased Ferdinand Lassalle.

The Eisenachers sent the draft programme for the united party to Marx for comment. He found it negatively influenced by Lassalle, whom Marx regarded as an opportunist, and Marx’s response offers perhaps his last extended summary on programmatic strategy.

In a letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx states that “After the Unity Congress has been held, Engels and I will publish a short statement to the effect that our position is altogether remote from the said programme of principle and that we have nothing to do with it.’  Describing it as a ‘thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the Party’, he vowed not to ‘give [it] recognition, even by diplomatic silence.’ 

The document discusses numerous questions but it is particularly useful in presenting Marx’s views on strategy before working class conquest of political power, including the two questions at issue in our latest posts – on the cooperative movement and the role of the state.

It should be noted that Marx was not against socialist unity but did not support the abandonment of political principle in order to achieve it:

‘If, therefore, it was not possible — and the conditions of the item did not permit it — to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the Party movement.’

Marx prefaced these remarks by saying that ‘every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes’, and he undoubtedly saw the cooperative movement as involving just such steps.  Following the experience of the Paris Commune just a few years before he had also learned lessons from the real movement of the working class in relation to the role of the state.

The offending paragraph of the proposed united German Party stated:

‘The German Workers’ party, in order to pave the way to the solution of the social question, demands the establishment of producers’ co-operative societies with state aid under the democratic control of the toiling people. The producers’ co-operative societies are to be called into being for industry and agriculture on such a scale that the socialist organization of the total labour will arise from them.”

Marx notes sarcastically that:

‘Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organisation of the total labour” “arises” from “state aid”; that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!’

He goes on, quoting the programme’s own words:

‘Second, “democratic” means in German “Volksherrschaftlich” [by the rule of the people] But what does “control by the rule of the people of the toiling people” mean? And particularly in the case of a toiling people which, through these demands that it puts to the state, expresses its full consciousness that it neither rules nor is ripe for ruling! . . .  The chief offense does not lie in having inscribed this specific nostrum in the program, but in taking, in general, a retrograde step from the standpoint of a class movement to that of a sectarian movement.’

The socialist scholar Hal Draper has argued that ‘Marx’s objection to the “state aid” nostrum was not to “state aid” per se but to its place in the programme.’  What it had become in the hands of their ex-leader Lassalle was ‘a universal panacea’ and substitute for a rounded programme because the programme had no other socialist plank within it.  The state-aid plank was already in the existing Eisenachers’ programme but only as one of many measures.  On its own the demand was acceptable as part of a larger strategy as Engels argued:

‘that the universal panacea of state aid should be, if not entirely relinquished, at any rate recognised . . . as a subordinate transitional measure, one among and alongside of many other possible ones.’

But not as the strategy as a whole, which would make the working class dependent on state support: in effect with the same sort of result as today’s demands for widespread ‘public ownership’ and ‘nationalisation’; plus much of the approach to state redistribution of income. 

Draper turns the issue into an aspect of Marx’s support for reforms but not for reformism; a question of what place reforms have in the programme, and not of reforms being assigned a certain all-encompassing role as the be-all and end-all.  He also notes that holding up this single point in the programme is sectarian – holding aloft a particular demand that differentiates the Party from the working class movement.  An approach that does not seek to marry the understanding of socialists to the real struggles of the working class and its organisations.

Marx goes on to say in his Critique:

‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.’

So, it is not the case that the Party’s support for workers’ cooperatives could routinely and always supplement support with calls for state assistance, rather in the way that today nationalisation is often accompanied with the call for ‘workers’ control’; but that such state support can be acceptable and may not on its own invalidate the workers’ efforts.  However – ‘they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers.’

This need for independence of the workers from the state is highlighted in the following section of the Gotha Critique, beginning by him quoting the programme that ‘according to [section] II, the German Workers’ the party strives for “the free state.” 

Marx says of this that:

‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state.”

‘The German Workers’ party—at least if it adopts the program—shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.’

This reminds us of Engels’ remark in an earlier post that the state represents society and the conclusion we drew that ‘In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production of the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.’

For Marx ‘the whole programme, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state . . .’

The Critique of the Gotha Programme, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings but at the time German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, who supported the unity initiative, attempted to censor his criticism.  Only in 1891, after threats by Engels, was the Critique published.  Much of today’s Marxist movement gives every indication that this censorship was, in fact, successful.

Back to part 44

Forward to part 46

The role of the workers’ state

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 44

In the previous post we noted that state ownership appeared an inevitable progression of the capitalist mode of production and could be read as a tendency to complete its development, with ‘the partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. (All quotations from Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific)

Such an outcome would not be socialism as some political tendencies might suggest with their programmes for widespread nationalisation: ‘the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.’ 

The state guarantees (including ownership in many cases) of the financial system after the financial crash in 2008 illustrated almost perfectly the growing role of the state in supporting the whole constitution of the existing mode of production.  The world-wide assumption of guarantees of employment and business survival during the Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this.  It is unfortunate that rather than highlight this, much of the left has called for even greater state intervention, further sowing illusions in its potentially progressive role.

So, if Engels made it clear that capitalist state ownership is not socialism, a second question was nevertheless raised: is ownership by a workers’ state socialist even if ownership by the capitalist state is not?

Engels says: ‘Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.’

So, it would appear that the seizure of the means of production by the workers’ state constitutes the decisive opening of the road to socialism, and some form of state socialism may indeed be the genuine article. (Although the wording here is rather peculiar, for while capitalism more and more transforms the ‘vast means of production . . . into state property’ the proletariat through its revolution is to turn it ‘into state property’–to complete the transformation?)

Except Engels immediately goes on to say this:         

‘But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society, thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was, pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour).’

‘The State was the official representative of society as a whole; the gathering of it together into a visible embodiment. But, it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

‘When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State.’

‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out.  This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.’

How do we avoid the conclusion that what is being proposed is that upon the socialist political revolution the new workers’ state that has gained ownership and control of the means of production through that revolution begins to disappear?  Does this mean workers should struggle to enormously expand the power and scope of the state only in order for it to then more or less rapidly shrink and disappear?

To jump straight to a conclusion–the alternative is not to demand state ownership under capitalism, or to seek it under a workers’ state, but to struggle for workers’ ownership, that is for cooperative production by the working class and this ownership and control to encompass the whole economy.

It is the workers organised as producers that represents ‘society as a whole’, as required by Engels, and which can ‘openly and directly take possession’ of the productive forces and manage them, not any sort of state.  Even a democratic workers’ state is an organised body of repression separate from the working class; any other definition simply mistakes what a state is.  Whatever legal and administrative arrangements required to maintain the collective ownership of individual productive forces will either require a minimal role for the state or none at all, e.g. to prevent the alienation of particular productive forces owned by the class as a whole.

Capitalism has so developed the intellectual and social powers of the working class that it can direct the economy without capitalists; provided we do not stupidly restrict definition of the working class in such a way that it excludes its most educated layers, for example because they are normally significantly better off in terms of income than many other workers.

If we read Engels he speaks of ‘the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.

Only upon these grounds can the class nature of society be radically changed such that, as Engels argued, the working class abolishes itself and all classes and in so doing abolishes the state.  It makes no sense to believe that the state through its ownership of the forces of production will employ its political power to abolish itself, including its direction of society’s productive powers.

Socialism is not the granting of the productive powers of society to the working class by any sort of benevolent state.  In Engels terms, the workers’ state can more and more be the representative of society under socialism to the extent that it disappears, reflecting the disappearance of classes themselves.

The socialist political revolution is the capture of political power by the working class in order to defend, and to extend, its social gains as the rising class in society, with its own ownership and control of society’s productive powers central to this.  The struggle for workers’ cooperatives is the most direct way to make this a reality under capitalism, as both ideological and practical example of the power of the working class to create a new society.

Such a view is consistent with the other expressed views of Marx and Engels, including ‘seizing the means of production by society’, which we shall review in the next post.

Back to part 43

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Socialism from the State

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 43

Most organisations declaring themselves to be Marxist offer little or no role to the development of worker cooperatives as part of their programme. In one sense this is surprising given the striking declarations of Marx on their importance.  In another way it is not so unexpected.

The road to socialism was much debated in the 19th century with a number of currents putting forward a leading role for the state, including in sponsoring cooperatives.  Since that time the state has grown enormously, including for reasons that Marx and Engels set out. Its  prominence has often been obvious in less developed capitalisms where its role in industrialisation has been more direct from the start of its development.

The misplaced role for the state now current among socialists (nationalisation, income redistribution, state welfare etc.) arises as a reflection in ideology of the massively increased economic and social power of the state within capitalism, and the weight of that ideology transmitted into Marxism through social democracy and Stalinism.  All these have been too powerful in their effect on weak Marxist currents.  When we appreciate the ideological influence of the Russian revolution, the dominance of the idea of socialism as an expression of state power is unsurprising.

For this reason, it is important in setting out Marx’s alternative to capitalism to address not only what he positively advocated but also what he fought against, and one of his recurring battles was against the idea of some of his contemporaries that socialism would issue from the state.  Against this he also had to address the views of anarchism, which argued that the state could quickly be abolished.

Given the hold that this ‘state socialism’ continues to have on a wide variety of socialist and generally ‘left’ opinion, it is therefore necessary to set out Marx and Engels’ views on the role of the state in the creation of socialism.  In doing so we will leave aside the actual experience of attempts to implement such a view in the 20th century and will come back to some aspects of these in future posts.

As we have seen, the development of the socialisation of production lays the grounds for collective ownership of the means of production by the working class.  This socialisation is expressed through the development of joint stock companies, workers cooperatives and state ownership, following the concentration and centralisation of capital.

Capitalism is therefore a transitional form to socialism but it is necessary to understand the forms of this transition and their unfolding.  It is therefore not the case that because state ownership is one of the most developed forms of capitalism, and therefore of transition, it is by this fact also an early form of socialism.

In ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ Frederick Engels sums up the historical evolution of capitalism – from medieval society to capitalism – and the contradictions that lead to proletarian revolution:

‘Partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later on by trusts, then by the State. The bourgeoisie demonstrated to be a superfluous class. All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees.‘

Proletarian Revolution — Solution of the contradictions. The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialised means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialised character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialised production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State dies out.’

This formulation leaves open the view that seizure of the mean of production by the state – once itself seized by the working class – removes them as forms of capital, becomes the form of socialisation under the rule of the working class, and initiates their employment as means of satisfying the needs of the vast majority of society.  The same proposition appears in Anti-Duhring, from which the short pamphlet is derived.

In an earlier section of  ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ Engels addresses the Marxist view of the state in the transition to socialism by noting the planning that is involved in the development of Trusts and monopoly:

‘. . . with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. [4] This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.’

In the footnote within this passage Engels states that:

‘4. I say “have to”. For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint- stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.’

‘But of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the State of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism.’

‘If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes — this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III’s reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels.’

This footnote makes clear that Engels did not regard ownership by the capitalist state, often now euphemistically called public ownership, to be any sort of socialism.  As he goes on to say in the main body of the text:

‘But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.’

‘The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.’

He goes on to say that ‘This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonising with the socialised character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole.’

This ‘open and direct’ taking into possession cannot be by the state since this is a separate machine apart from the class.  Engels follows up the above remarks by stating that the productive forces that ‘work in spite of us, in opposition to us, so long they master us . . .  when once their nature is understood, they can, in the hands of the producers working together, be transformed from master demons into willing servants.’

The tendency for the state to more and more take over production is therefore posited as the dynamic development of capitalism and not of society ruled by the working class.  The state is not the true representative of society, a point made very early in Marx’s political development, and is as Engels says: ‘essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital.’

So, if capitalist state ownership does not mean socialism, what does it mean for ‘society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces’, a phrase repeated by Engels a number of times.  How is to be done and once done does ownership by the new workers’ state mean socialism?

Back to part 42

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Marx against cooperation?

Ernest Jones

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 42

The Inaugural Address to the First International in which Marx expressed support for workers’ cooperatives, and the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, were both political interventions into the working class movement by the ‘Marx party’, understood as a current of thought in the broader working class movement rather than a separate centralised organisation.  The idea that the strong views expressed by Marx in support of cooperatives in the Inaugural Address were a concession to the Owenites and Proudhonists in the International is not credible and requires implausible arguments to dismiss, what are for some, quite uncongenial views.  However, as we noted in the previous post, the Address was not the first occasion when Marx expressed support for them, if previously at one remove.

In Volume 11 of Marx and Engels Collected Works the editor has a footnote to two articles nominally written by the English Chartist leader Ernest Jones. In it he says that:

“In 1851 the Chartist weekly Notes to the People published two articles by Ernest Jones, the editor, on co-operation: “A Letter to the Advocates of the Co-operative Principle, and to the Members of Co-operative Societies” (No. 2, May 10, 1851), and “Co-operation. What It Is, and What It Ought to Be” (No. 21, September 20, 1851). They were written at a time when especially close, friendly relations had been established between Marx and Engels on the one hand and Ernest Jones, the Left-wing Chartist leader on the other.”

“Marx and Engels constantly helped Jones in his fight for the revival of Chartism on a socialist basis, in his propaganda campaign and his work as publisher and editor of the Chartist papers . . . .  On November 4, 1864 Marx wrote to Engels the following: “I happened to come across several numbers of E.Jones Notes to the People (1851, 1852) which, as far as economic articles are concerned, had been written in the main points under my direction and in part even with my close participation. Well! What do I find there? That then we conducted the same polemic—only in a better way—against the co-operative movement, since in its present narrow-minded form it claimed to be the latest word, as ten to twelve years later Lassalle conducted in Germany against Schulze-Delitzsch.” 

The editor declares that the articles by Jones and the replies by a Christian socialist “show clearly the difference between the viewpoints of the Christian socialist and the proletarian revolutionary. The former saw the aim of the co-operative movement in distracting the workers from the class struggle and called for the collaboration of hostile classes and the reconciliation of their interests.” 

“Jones, supported by Marx, emphasised that from the viewpoint of the workers’ liberation struggle peaceful co-operation had no prospect and that under capitalism workers’ co-operative societies could not exist for long; they would not withstand competition on the part of big capital and would go bankrupt, or else they would turn into purely capitalist enterprises deriving profit from exploiting workers. The decisive condition, Jones said, for the workers’ co-operative societies to be really of use to the working class was that the latter win political power in order to reorganise the existing system in the interest of the working people.” 

“Of Jones’ many articles on co-operation the two mentioned at the beginning of this note are included in this volume because they most vividly reflect the influence of Marx’s views on Jones and show clearly that Marx in fact took part in writing them.” (Collected Works Volume 11) p. 57 

The spin by the editor would leave the impression that Marx, through Jones, was an opponent of workers’ cooperatives and that their existence was merely a prelude to the conquering of political power.  Their character, as described by Marx in the Inaugural Address to the First International, demonstrates a quite different view of their significance and prompts a wholly different reading of the articles.

Far from seeking to minimise their significance Jones argues, as does Marx in the Address, that they should be expanded.  As to the overall approach to their contemporary advocates Jones says that he writes as “the real friend of co-operation” and that:

“I am not the enemy of co-operation, but its friend—its true friend—I do not oppose co-operation, but wish to rescue it from that course, in which it is digging its own grave.”

He notes that the objectives of cooperation are to “destroy profitmongering. . . put an end to competition and . . .  to counteract the centralisation of wealth” but that in its present form it fails in all of these:

In the second article he states that

“Therefore, the present plan is not true co-operation; it is essentially hostile to the spread of associated labour; instead of ending profitmongering, it renews it; instead of abolishing competition, it recreates it; instead of abrogating monopoly, it re-establishes it, and is the death-blow to the hopes of labour’s emancipation.”

In the first he argues that “. . .  the co-operative system, as at present practised, carries within it the germs of dissolution, would inflict a renewed evil on the masses of the people, and is essentially destructive of the real principles of co-operation. Instead of abrogating profitmongering, it re-creates it. Instead of counteracting competition, it re-establishes it. Instead of preventing centralisation, it renews it—merely transferring the rôle from one set of actors to another.”

“Let us reflect, what are the great canal-companies, joint-stock companies, banking companies, railway companies, trading companies—what are they but co-operative associations in the hands of the rich?”

But, he states, “here again I admit that co-operation on a sound basis is salutary, and may be a powerful adjunct towards both social and political emancipation.”

“Then what is the only salutary basis for co-operative industry? A national one. All co-operation should be founded, not on isolated efforts, absorbing, if successful, vast riches to themselves, but on a national union which should distribute the national wealth. To make these associations secure and beneficial, you must make it their interest to assist each other, instead of competing with each other—you must give them unity of action, and identity of interest.”

Jones ends the first article by saying that “I have given the difficulties in the way of the co-operative movement—not with a view to discouragement—but that by seeing the dangers, we may learn how to avoid them.”

In the second article he explains a bit more what is meant by this:

“People imagine if a few individuals co-operate together to start a trading concern and make as much money as they can, that this means co-operation in the real sense of emancipated and associated labour.

Nothing of the sort! If that were so, every railway, banking, or shipping company would realise the true principles of co-operation.

By co-operation, a very inadequate word, by the way, we mean the abolition of profitmongering and wages-slavery, by the development of independent and associated labour. But this can be established only on the basis of the following principle already laid down in this article.’

No man has a right to take more from society, than the value of that which he confers upon it.”

In the first article the watchword is “Nationalise Co-operation”; not in the sense of seeking state ownership, but the extension of cooperatives to national dimensions through seeking their growth and development, not through competition with each other but through cooperation.  The further development of economic relations today requires that the corresponding demand would be to call for the extension of cooperation on the international level.

“This is co-operation. It is co-operation, because it establishes a community of interest—the success of each “branch” furthers the success of every other, and of the whole collectively. There can be no conflicting interests—no rivalry—no competition—for the greater the success of each undertaking, the more the stability and permanency of the whole is ensured”

The argument by Jones, and through him by Marx, is not that the conquest of political power is not vital but that cooperation would strengthen the unity and power of the working class and make it better able to resist the attacks of the capitalist class by the state.  It does not reduce the importance of the conquest of political power but illustrates the necessity for it to protect and advance the cooperative power of the associated producers, the working class.

Many of today’s Marxists understand none of these points, but on the contrary, routinely argue that the state that is the enemy of the growing power of the working class should be hailed as its benefactor, so that instead workers ownership should be discarded for the objective of state ownership!  Such is the degeneration of political understanding of much of today’s Marxist movement. 

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