John McDonnell’s IRA apology

Brent-Hosts-Question-Time-1If you relied on the mainstream media to know what was happening in the world you would be mightily confused.  Some bearded, deluded and dishevelled guy has just become leader of the Labour Party.  Even worse, the BBC Six O’clock news led its programme with the announcement that he had just named a guy called John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, someone, the voiceover immediately told us, who once supported the IRA.

Who he was, what he had previously done that made him qualified for the job, what his economic policies were, none of these were the foremost issue for the BBC.

Now, John McDonnell has apologised for saying “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”

He explained the remarks by saying that  “I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing, because we did hold on to the peace process.  There was a real risk of the republican movement splitting and some of them continuing the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise, I apologise.”

A number of things should be said about this.

Firstly, there’s little point complaining about the obvious bias that pervades not only the Tory press but also the BBC.

This is fuelled by the social background of those in the organisation and their political views.  Their commitment to a view of objectivity and balance embraces such a narrow conception of what is acceptable that Corbyn and his supporters are clearly beyond the pale and don’t fall within the normal rules.

Along with this there is an inability to fully comprehend their politics, partly as a result of their limited experience of political debate that doesn’t stretch back beyond the Thatcherite consensus imposed on society during the 1980s.This means for example that the idea that the leader doesn’t make all the decisions is not seen as an example of democracy but as a weakness, causing confusion and division. And of course, there is fear of the Tories who have put the squeeze on the BBC as an organisation.

Complaining about bias is not going to change any of these.

What would change the situation is the British labour movement building its own mass media which, given modern technology, does not need to immediately seek to replicate the scale of the capitalist media.  Within the hundreds of thousands who voted for Jeremy Corbyn and the many more millions who support him there is the basis to do this.

The second thing to note is that the media presentation on this issue is only one example of a barrage of attacks that reveal not only bias but the current weakness of the Corbyn led movement.  It is not a surprise that Jeremy Corbyn and his support have not been prepared for the tasks of leading the opposition to the Tories.  They will obviously for example have to build a team to deal with a hostile media.

The greatest weakness however is not in this lack of media preparedness but in the weakness of their support among the mass of careerist Labour MPs.  It is this that has allowed the media to present the new leadership as shambolic.

There’s nothing that can immediately be done about this either.  In one ironic sense it is to be hoped that this right wing shower are actually motivated by careerism and not ideological fidelity to their rotten right wing politics.  If they are simply careerists they might understand that if they attempt to destroy Corbyn they will in all likelihood so damage their party that they would scupper their own careers as well.

In contrast the great strength of the Corbyn phenomenon, which put him where he is, is invisible, or invisible to the mass media anyway.  While appearing to recognise his mandate the media presents the world from ‘the Westminster bubble’, the same bubble it claims everyone else is outside of, although not apparently themselves.

Even in the case of John McDonnell’s apology on ‘Question Time’, the reporter in the local BBC Northern Ireland news noted that his apology seemed to go down well with the audience.

This support will be tested and its cohesion and growth depends not so much on Jeremy Corbyn himself but on what these people do.  In order to resist and fight the media as part of rebuilding the labour movement they must organise for this objective.  The arguments and political activism of hundreds of thousands will be the only effective response to a hostile media.

What Corbyn and McDonnell’s are now in a position to do is deliver political leadership, with arguments that can effectively galvanise, educate and rally their supporters.  Organisation of their support is the number one objective because only this support can convince the millions who can be won to their cause.

When it comes to the question of Ireland their position needs to be better.  The original political position of McDonnell arose because he put solidarity with the political leadership of the resistance to British rule before opposition to his own country’s oppression of Ireland.  And he did this at a time when this political leadership was surrendering its opposition.

So McDonnell claimed that armed struggle forced the British state to the negotiating table.  So it did, but once it got there this armed struggle showed how useless it was at getting anything from it.  It also showed that there wasn’t going to be any real negotiations unless the armed struggle stopped.  This is always the demand of the British and they get their way.  In fact it is more accurate to say that armed struggle gets them to the table which only becomes a negotiating table when they stop it.

But even in the recent ‘peace process’ this is to overstate its importance.  The Provos had to make significant political concessions before the British would get into substantive political talks, including accepting the supposed neutrality of the British state.  This is before we even consider the capitulation required before unionists would talk to them.

The result of these negotiations and the so-called peace process is something that the British Labour Party should not support.  It should reject the argument that an end to political violence is predicated on a sectarian and increasingly corrupt political settlement.  The political deal, one that has been in crisis since it was born, appeared after the ceasefires.  Of course the rotten nature of this settlement will pass the vast majority of British people by, but then so did the North of Ireland for decades before 1968.

The primary role of a Labour party is to support the independent organisation of workers and this is true of the Labour Party in the imperialist country.  This can best be done by solidarising with Irish workers’ own attempts to do this and campaigning to remove the foreign state presence that frustrates this.

In the North of Ireland the British state does this in a number of ways, including the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries and political policing of republicanism, where it has found ‘good’ republicans in the form of the Provos, for whom it will attempt to cover up violence, and ‘bad’ republicans who are labelled dissidents. (See here )

But even if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister he would be able to do little to prevent the British military continuing its criminal conspiracies.  It swears loyalty to the Queen not parliament and certainly not to the people and it does so for a reason.  Marxists make the distinction between being in Government and being in power, between sitting on the top of a state and controlling and directing it.  The example of the British state’s operations in Ireland is graphic proof of the difference.

And there is yet another problem, as a comrade of mine put it last weekend at a rally in support of the refugees: Corbyn is more left wing than anyone in Ireland.  Who would be his political allies here?  Even if he wanted a united Ireland there is no significant political force in Ireland demanding it never mind in a position to do anything about it.

And don’t give me a response of ‘what about Sinn Fein’.  We have been at the stage for some time that when Sinn Fein politicians appear on TV claiming that they’re ‘for a united Ireland’ the reaction is one of – what?  Really?

What Sinn Fein does, its support for sectarian partitionist institutions and its ideological capitulation to unionism, betrays what it sometimes says about being republican.

The truth is that today there is no significant political force fighting for an end to imperialist rule.  Sinn Fein ‘support’ for a united Ireland is on a spectrum of such support declared by every nationalist party in the country and just as empty as the rest.

The task for Irish socialists is therefore very like the one for British socialists – rebuild a working class movement committed to democracy and socialism independent of their respective capitalist states.  That these are essentially the same is why socialists are internationalists.

For British socialists a democratic policy on Ireland is nothing to apologise for and nothing to hide from the British people, but it does not involve hitching their banner to the failed organisations of Irish nationalism including Provisional republicanism.



Russell Brand and Revolution


I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on the headphones on my way home from work last night when three Westminster politicians were asked about Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman.  The link shows it has had nearly 9 million hits, just a few million more than this blog.  This is why Radio 4 was covering it and why it is important.

Is it another illustration of the celebrity culture that colonises everything?  This is the claim of some of the derisive dismissal of Brand’s rantings by the rest of the media who, at least the ones I’ve read, have slagged him off as a hypocrite.  An obvious example of ad hominem argument or shooting the messenger, not that it’s always wrong to shoot the messenger when the message is intolerable.  In this respect I’m reminded of the opening scene of Gladiator when the Germanic tribes respond to the demand to surrender by the Roman legions by throwing the severed head of the messenger on the ground in front of their massed ranks.

The problem of course is that shooting the messenger doesn’t deal with the message as the Germanic tribes discovered.  It might be claimed Brand doesn’t have an argument.  But read his New Statesman article and he does.

It might be dismissed as primitive or naïve but a better word is elemental and he does have more than a few good lines.  He makes a case.  It’s not the sort you will read on this blog but this blog doesn’t pretend to have the only or the best or the most effective voice for revolutionary change.  It aspires to encourage the recovery of Marxism and its application to the practical political programme of socialists.  It hopes that whoever thinks this is a reasonable objective to pursue will contribute to it and write their own posts.

So what if Brand’s surprising political commitment lights up the sky like a meteor and crashes and burns to earth?  What if he is a one-hit wonder?  When the rest of us are unable to get a gig a one-hit wonder is something to be.

Has his outburst reduced the credibility of our cause?  Or given it a little more light? Perhaps one more point of departure to argue for it and to advance it?

He is obviously very aware of the brickbats he would get for his ‘champagne socialist’ position and his trenchant, and in some ways reasonable, response to this is itself rather honest compared to the carefully constructed insincerity of politician’s continual hypocrisy.  It’s not as if he’s a champagne socialist in the way that that other celebrity in the new is – ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson – with his Icumfigovan sign in his office, his hobnobbing with millionaires and his advice on man management to Tony Bliar. Nevertheless Brand has a brand problem – for example my partner thinks he’s a prat and she is very rarely wrong in such judgements.

russell brand revolution header

Brand can be criticised as anti-political, with his calls for people not to vote, but he is not stupid and he puts forward a case why we ‘should not encourage them’.  He also puts well the idea that apathy is more accessible than anger to all the shit that people have to put up with from politicians and the system they pimp.  Compared to many on the left, who claim there is a crisis of working class representation, that is we don’t have the right politicians in parliament to represent us, the radical critique of all politicians who do represent us is refreshing.

Not because we haven’t heard it before, in fact as Marxists we invented the revolutionary critique of bureaucratic ‘representation’ of the working class, but because we never see it on television.  We are extremists who never get heard but a little bit of a hearing for revolution makes us a little bit less extreme in the sense we are able to register in political debate a little bit more.

Listening to the feeble and self-serving helpings of cant from the Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians last night on the radio shows how even such a minor assault on their system from someone with a shred of credibility can so easily expose the defenders of the status quo.  Now Radio 4 reports the disillusionment of Paxman himself with the politics on offer in Britain. For Ireland multiply that lack of alternative by the number of Euros given to bailout the banks.

Above all, when pressed for what he wants as an alternative Brand calls for socialism and for revolution.  This is a darned sight more than some on the left do when faced with such a question.  The next question is that of the child – but how do we get a revolution?  You can ague all you like that Brand hasn’t much to say about this that seems practical but what is the message of the so-called revolutionary left?

As I have posted many times, the left that claims to be Marxist asks the state to extend its power through extra spending, taxation and through nationalisation while simultaneously believing, but not having the courage to say so in front of the workers, that this same state should be smashed in a revolution.

Let’s not pretend Brand is an advanced political thinker whose views we should instantly embrace.  He may be on a ‘messiah world tour’ but he’s still more a very naughty boy than a genuine Messiah.

Brandism is hardly going to succeed Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism.  It’s not a practical guide but an emotional and reasoned outburst.  It’s not even an inarticulate expression of youth rebellion.  He’s 38 and very articulate.  We’re not obliged to defend his every word or even every tenth one but his avalanche of words creates an impression – there is something radically wrong with the world we inhabit.  Very, very wrong.

It would be easy to criticise what he says for all sorts of reasons, from his apparent attitude to women to his lack of political strategy.  But it is precisely his political limits that creates a focus on the key message that he is held to be delivering – opposition to the venality of the present system, the need for a revolution.

I’ve just finished reading a book – ‘A Marxist History of the World’, written by a member of a British left organisation.  It also makes the argument that what is needed is a socialist revolution.  The French revolution of 1789, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; the 1917 revolution in Russia and revolutionary wave in Europe up to 1923, the Spanish revolution in 1936, the Hungarian revolution of 1956; the French general strike in 1968; the Iranian revolution of 1979; the overthrow of Stalinism after 1989 and the recent Arab revolutions, are all held up to show its possibility.  The last 100 years has been ‘pregnant with revolution’ readers are told.  We face Armageddon reminiscent of that foretold by the bible –with the appearance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The stakes have never been higher with a crisis of capitalism the deepest and most intractable ever.

This to me is no more coherent than Russell Brand’s interview but without a few of the redeeming features of the latter.

The list of revolutions includes only one successful socialist one – 1917 – and it was strangled into Stalinism relatively quickly.  We will, rather shortly, be commemorating the 100th anniversary of this revolution.

The point is not that the objective of revolution should be abandoned.  Revolution is not required to achieve a certain state of affairs – socialism – revolution is that state of affairs, which is the ruling of society by its majority.

Revolution on the other hand is seen by many on the left as one strategy to achieve something as opposed to alternative reformist ones – such as voting and elections to parliament – which are said not to be realistic.  Revolution is therefore seen as a cataclysmic single event rather than as a process, one that begins and grows and that moves towards a qualitative rupture that destroys the old state and creates a new one based on the working majority of society.

The road to socialism is not growing state control but increasing workers’ control of every aspect of their lives through incrementally reducing the power of the capitalist class and its state in preparation for the final battle.  I have tried to explain this a little bit on this blog.

When a public intervention leads to Radio 4 interviewers pursuing their politician guests with the question “but why not revolution?” this intervention deserves some support.

BBC ‘Masters of Money’ considers Karl Marx (Part 1)

BBC Karl MarxAs part of its ‘Masters of Money’ series the BBC 2 programme, which looked at the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, finished by looking at the economic ideas of Karl Marx.  The overall verdict?  It could have been a lot worse.

There were of course huge simplifications that erased exactly what Marx was saying.  These could have been avoided, and the dismissal of communism and what Marx had to say about it was on a par with cold war contempt, but despite this there was a coherent argument through the programme.

It was very much the creature of a mainstream bourgeois economist albeit one who thought there were important insights to be found in Marx, particularly his perspective on the inequality of capitalism and its instability.  It avoided some cheap shots and pointed out that Marx appreciated the revolutionising of production achieved by capitalism and its dynamic development across the world.  The presenter Stephanie Flanders repeated the often made observation that Marx’s description of capitalism is more true now than when it was first made.  She also correctly observed that profit is the soul of capitalism and made some correct remarks about the compulsive nature of the drive for profit within the system.

There were some strange observations which tried to tie the relevance of Marx’s views to particular periods which excluded the post war boom and included the 19th century but excluded the great depression of the thirties.  The whole point of the programme however was to assert the relevance of his views today and if it did no more than this then it must be judged positively.

There were some problems that, had they been addressed, would have made for a much better exposition of Marx’s ideas.  The first is that the programme avoided what Marx thought was his greatest economic discovery – the nature of surplus value.  This is the discovery that the economic value created by capitalism is the result of human labour and can be measured by the labour time necessary for its production.  The source of capitalist profit is the result of the difference between what the capitalist pays for this capacity to labour and what this labour actually produces.  This explains how a surplus can be produced and a profit arise when the exchange of commodities, including labour power, is the exchange of equivalents. It is not a question of workers being cheated when they receive a wage in return for their labour power or of unequal exchange of commodities.

This is not a particularly difficult concept to explain but it does very clearly reveal the exploitation of the working class and exposes all the hypocritical justifications of the system.

The second problem is not what was left out but what was included, that Marx held that the absolute level of wages would be held down under capitalism.  This doesn’t sit well with the programme’s acknowledgment of Marx’s view that capitalism develops the forces of production.  Who did Marx believe would buy the goods created by the development of these productive forces?  This of course was the central tenet of the programme: that for Marx this was precisely the problem.

Marx’s argument was held to be that the tendency to lower wages reduced the ability of workers to buy the goods they produced.  Increasing wages would only reduce profits, the objective of the system, so this is not a solution.  As a temporary ‘fix’ the system expanded credit to make up the shortfall in wages and allow all the goods produced to be purchased.  The explosion of credit therefore explains the current economic crisis emanating within the financial services industry.  The programme was actually quite good when it cut to the right-wing talking heads who pooh-poohed the idea that low wages contributed in any way to the crisis.  They looked neither comfortable nor convincing, or maybe that was just me.

The programme argued that Marx’s criticism went much deeper than any other but actually the programme didn’t go deep enough.  Not altogether its fault since there is widespread debate among Marxists about the causes of the current crisis and even about the fundamental mechanisms of what might be called ‘classic’ capitalist crises.

What can be said however is that the description of the crisis given in the programme and the role of credit and wages is only how the crisis manifests itself, not how it is caused.  To explain the latter would require one to start with the idea ignored – surplus value.

If low wages restricting the market were merely the problem the question would not be so acute.  The capitalists who had diddled the workers could simply purchase what the workers did not.  Everything would then be sold.  The problem is worse because the workers create added value over and above what they are paid, over and above what is required to maintain production and also above the conspicuous consumption of the capitalists, and this additional value produced must find a market.  Why can’t this too be solved by the capitalists buying the difference?

The answer is that it can but the question then is what is the result of this?  Additional value appropriated by capitalists can expand their luxurious lifestyles but the driving force of the system is not this but profit.  To increase this means expanding production both to garner extra profit and destroy competitors.  This means the capitalist must employ the additional value produced by the workers to further invest in more workers and also machinery, raw materials etc to expand output.  The problem is intensified as production increases, new markets are sought for the things that are produced and the amount of surplus value (unpaid labour) created is expanded.

In the longer term the rate of profit comes under pressure as the capitalists replace workers with machines in order to produce more cheaply or even to produce some goods at all (some high-tech ones for example).  However because profit comes from workers the value of production comprised of workers labour declines and so does the proportion made up of surplus value, from which profit comes.  Fewer workers will create proportionately less surplus value while the cost of machines and raw materials etc increases relatively, so reducing the rate of profit.  The capitalists with the lowest productivity and lowest profitability can be forced into bankruptcy.  Of course to some extent this too can be offset by lower wages but the increasing sophistication of production means that paying peanuts will not allow the ‘monkeys’ to engage in the skilled labour required.  This is a long term tendency but one we can see in operation through the economic history of the west and in the rapid economic development of Asia.  It implies that profit plays a smaller and smaller relative role in production which calls into question a system in which this is the whole purpose of its existence.

The regular periodic crisis, including the current crisis, is the route by which this longer term tendency operates.  The compulsion to produce more and more surplus value also produces these more regular booms and busts.  The drive to expand the creation of surplus value means increased accumulation of workers, machines and materials and the expansion of markets to purchase the additional production.  In an economy dedicated to the needs of the population such increased production can be consciously planned and coordinated and its limits set by society as a whole.  Under capitalism no such limits are acceptable.

The limits on production of surplus value are therefore not set by the needs of society or by the limits of the purchasing capacity of workers and capitalists.  To break from these limits credit is expanded to bridge the limitations on consumption that are the result of the limits of production.  Through credit capitalism seeks to satisfy the capitalist desire to expand production through the accumulation of more and more surplus value.  Credit expands the market for increased surplus value production.

This can produce fantastic economic booms of the sort we have seen in the last decade or so in Ireland and across much of the globe, from China to Brazil.  The attempt to expand real production and to create an even larger market for it must at some point necessarily collapse for the same reason that credit is originally introduced.  Just as increased credit is an attempt to increase profit so the collapse of credit is the result of credit no longer being able to expand profitable production.

Workers must pay back debt at some level and beyond a certain point this becomes impossible because of the limits to their real incomes determined by real production.  The same is true of the capitalists.  Ever more convoluted attempts to expand credit beyond the capacity to pay it back – through creation of yet more credit – is doomed to collapse as the ever expanding amount of debt requires greater and greater repayments to keep it going.  The fantastic expansion of the financial services industry is testament to how big such an exercise can become. A glance at the size of the balance sheets of the Irish banks in comparison to the size of the whole economy reveals the scale of the overproduction and credit expansion that can arise.

In Ireland and the US the limits were reached when workers could no longer pay for inflated housing or capitalists pay for inflated office and other building construction.  A surplus of such properties is eventually created, overproduction appears, prices collapse, capitalists cannot sell except at a loss and those who built the houses and offices go bankrupt, workers in construction are made unemployed and the banks which financed it all go bust.  At such points it can appear that the problem is that workers wages are not big enough to buy all that has been produced and that this is the problem.  Solutions are proffered by Keynesians who say that what is need is yet more investment to take the place of that which has just collapsed.  But as we see, these solutions do not address the underlying problem and provide a ‘solution’ only by postponing the collapse and stoking up a bigger tsunami when the boom busts later.

In these circumstances blame is also placed on the institutions which created the massive credit explosion – the banks – especially since such booms inevitably involve hugely speculative, criminal and stupid behaviour during a time when everyone thinks they should be getting rich quick.   No one needs regulation during a boom when money is being made and afterwards the call is made that we have to have stricter regulation when again, but for opposite reasons, no one needs regulation.  Regulation becomes the alibi for the systematic failures of the system.  Left wing critiques which focus on the banks play into the hands of those who want to ignore or are simply ignorant of the system itself being responsible for the bust.  That the bust is so spectacular is simply a result of earlier failure to burst the bubble.  For a longer and bigger boom the price paid has been a longer and bigger bust but either way capitalismproduces booms and crashes.  Keynesian solutions to extend the boom can simply create bigger crashes.

Forward to Part 2