Soylent Green and the reactionary Malthusians

Karl Marx didn’t mince words when it came to the Rev. Thomas Malthus, the ‘pastor of the Poor House’. Marx described him as “the greatest destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity” and “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes“.

(Apart from that, he wasn’t too bad, though!)

In 1968, Paul Erlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’, revived Mathusian dystopianism and, surprisingly, was embraced by some people who regarded thermselves as on the Left. Yet in emphasizing population growth and limited resources as the source of problems, the neo-Malthusians overlooked the capitalist mode of production and the structures of class power.

In the C19th, in blaming ‘too many people’ as the source of poverty, Malthus was indeed committing “a libel on the human race” and offering “apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.

The Canberra Times recently published my article below. It had been gestating for a long time and the movie ‘Soylent Green‘ prompted me to write something, given that the dystopian sci-fi film is set in our year: 2022. The movie came out nearly 50 years ago.

My article in The Canberra Times took up a full page, so I definitely can’t complain about the generous word length. However, had I had more words, I would have included at least three more references

First, a personal memory: In the mid-1990s, I was at a party at a friend’s place overlooking the Georges River in Sylvania Heights, Sydney, and the eminent palaeontologist and climate alarmist, Tim Flannery, was among the guests. We had known each other, briefly, at La Trobe University around 1973 or 1974, and struck up a conversation. Tim was very much concerned about population growth, believing that Australia was already over-populated. He told me that the optimum population for Australia was seven million people. I pointed out that that figure approximated the population in 1947 and asked whether he really wanted an Australia of the 1947 type. He seemed not to have thought of it like that, in terms of society, before.

I would also have liked to add more examples of very popular dystopian sci-fi films that have helped create a disempowering doom-and-gloom ethos and that were proven completely wrong in how they saw the future. A powerful example is the original ‘Mad Max‘. The filmmakers in 1979 were so freaked out by the oil crisis of 1973 that they set Mad Max in the ‘wasteland’ of 1985!

Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the Internet Movie Data Base lists the top 500 dystopian sci-fi films – which means there are many more than that. They really are a cultural phenomenon.

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Science fiction stories had a big impact on my early political development. I liked the ones that dealt with ‘the impossible’ that was nonetheless potentially possible. Unlike fantasy, which never interested me with its dragons and other mythical creatures and impossible scenarios, sci-fi had a basis in science and innovation. Stories and films about space travel, planetary exploration and colonisation of other planets thrilled me; they seemed beyond possibility back then but I loved to fantasize about a future in which they would be part of life. Later, I was influenced by ideas about how society itself could be reshaped into something much better and, through Marxism, came to a rudimentary understand about the forces that were retarding such progress and those that were pushing things forward.

It’s very rare to find progressive sci-fi in mainstream cinema today. An exception in the mainstream was the movie ‘The Martian‘ which came out in 2015. I really enjoyed the way it showed how humans can overcome obstacles imposed by Nature, in this case the apparently uninhabitable planet Mars. Human ingenuity, wit, courage, innovation and spirit combine to ‘conquer’ Nature. The stranded astronaut survives to tell the tale.

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Anyway, here is my article…

‘SOYLENT GREEN’ IS STILL BAD FOR YOU – 50 YEARS ON

Barry York

It is a brave science fiction film that offers a precise year in its speculations. This is particularly so in the dystopian genre where eco-catastrophe is a common theme.

The makers of the iconic ‘Soylent Green’, which was released nearly 50 years ago, offered us a glimpse to our own year, 2022. It was the first film to mention the Greenhouse Effect, though there is no suggestion that the inhumanly overcrowded, sweltering, society depicted is the result of CO2 emissions. Rather, all the problems in the dystopia of 2022 are caused by ‘overpopulation’.

The film was made in 1973 when the world’s population was 4 billion. Today, it is 7.7 billion. The filmmakers’ expected it to be much larger than that. Some countries, like China and India, with huge populations are lifting themselves from poverty. The United Nations Human Development Index, which has measured health, education, income, gender equality, and poverty since 1990, indicates that population growth and progress are not mutually exclusive.

Soylent Green is a type of biscuit on which the malnourished population portrayed in 2022 has come to rely. It was formerly made from plankton but then the oceans acidified. Soylent, the monopoly manufacturer, finds a new source, one that is not revealed until the film’s shocking end.

The action takes place in New York City, which in the film has a population of 40 million and is terribly overcrowded and polluted. (Reality check: New York City’s population today is 8.8 million). There is no sunshine, just grim darkness and power outages. The streets have people dying in gutters, car wrecks everywhere, and makeshift shanties in laneways. Tenements are dilapidated and their stairwells crowded with women and children who have nowhere else to sleep. The film’s main character, Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, clammers over them to reach his small room.

In this imagined 2022, Manhattan has two million out of work. Corruption and crime are out of control. (Reality: crime has reduced greatly in New York City since the 1970s). In Thorn’s precinct, there are 137 murders a day. (Reality: there were 450 murders in all of New York City last year).

In the Soylent Corporation’s New York, everyone swelters as the days reach 32 degrees all year round. (Reality: Winters remain very, very, cold).  The masses line up at rusty central water pumps for their ration of water which has become a scarce resource. (Reality: New York City’s seven reservoirs are at 88% capacity).

Fresh food is a luxury for the great mass of people who are malnourished. But not so the rich. Thorn, who is probably in his late 30s, has to be taught how to eat an apple by his best friend, Sol, the elderly man of wisdom who remembers how things used to be in ‘the good old days’ before ‘our scientific magicians poisoned the water’. (Reality: New York City water is only poisonous if you regard fluoride as a poison). Sol is played admirably by Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role.

An exasperated Sol declares that ‘Everything’s burning up! No-one cares!’, but that is hardly true when it comes to climate change. Not only do governments around the world take action to reduce CO2 emissions, admittedly some more than others, but some of the biggest multinational corporations are on side as well.

At its core, Soylent Green is a reactionary film because it adopts the Malthusian view that ‘too many people’ cause the problems. The misanthropy is expressed through Sol when he says: ‘People were always rotten but the world was beautiful’. Beautiful – but for the people?! None of the world’s problems, such as lack of democracy and development, corrupt governments, oppression of women, inequality, nationalism, shifts in climate patterns and the rule of capital, would be solved by reducing population numbers.

Charlton Heston, a prominent right-winger in the US, commissioned the script for the film. The great divide between rich and poor is revealed when Thorn investigates the murder of a director of the Soylent Corp and enters the victim’s spacious apartment in the ruling class’ exclusive Chelsea Towers. The capitalists live in utter luxury with fresh food, water, air-conditioning and the latest mod-cons, including video games. But the film goes nowhere with this class divide; instead, the problem is overpopulation. Echoing the Rev Thomas Malthus’ ‘libel against humanity’, as Marx described it 157 years ago, it is the poor, tired, huddled masses who are responsible for their own suffering. A very convenient belief system.

There is one scene in which the people riot but that is short-lived and they are easily defeated, their bodies scooped up from the streets in large front-end loaders and taken off to… well, that would be a spoiler.

The film’s portrayal of women in the imagined 2022 is laughable. They are either part of the sweaty anonymous mass or beautiful ‘furniture girls’, who are assigned to each new tenant in the apartments of the rich. They do what they are told. It’s as though the Women’s Liberation movement never happened.

The film ends with poor old Sol going to a euthanasia clinic. Given his attitude to Humanity, who can blame him? It’s legal in 2022 and performed in clean comfortable circumstances. Sol watches beautiful scenes of Nature on a large screen – blooming flowers, blue skies, fluffy white clouds, streaming rivers, forests, ocean waves crashing gently on a beach – while his favourite classical music is played in the background.

He is nearly eighty, which approximates the life expectancy in New York today. But in 1973, when the film was released, life expectancy was seventy-one.

After Sol dies, Thorn secretly follows the truck carrying the corpse to an unknown destination. Dozens of bodies end up in a large warehouse and are then processed into… you’ve guessed it! – Soylent Green. Thorn screams out: ‘It’s made out of people!’ Not a bad metaphor for capitalism, actually, as a system that objectifies our labour potential and exploits and consumes the best hours of our lives.

As the end credits roll, we again see the scenes of beautiful Nature. My mind turns to recent road trips with my wife along the east coast of Australia and the glorious scenery.

Soylent Green inspired hundreds of similar sci fi films and influenced countless numbers of people with its unreal dystopian vision. Such films are a reflection of a social system that accurately sees no future for itself.

Soylent Green, and the ideology it represents, really are bad for us – toxic, in fact.

Tiananmen Square 1989 – an American Marxist-Maoist’s view from the ground

William Hinton (1919-2004) was an American Marxist who lived and worked in China before and after the revolution of 1949. In 1966, he wrote up his experiences and observations of daily life, class struggle, strategic planning and social transformation in Long Bow village. The book, ‘Fanshen‘, remains a classic. (‘Fanshen’ broadly means overturning something).

As a Marxist and ‘Maoist’, Hinton naturally rejected the ascendancy of the capitalist-roaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, and pulled no punches in his 1983 book, ‘Shenfan’ (meaning the opposite of Fanshen).

The account of what happened at Tiananmen Square in Hinton’s book is here.

I’m posting this because, incredibly, there are still people around who claim to be leftists but regard the rebellion as a foreign plot, its suppression as justified, and the massacre as fake news.

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Book review: ‘Radicals’ – struggle between the lines pushed things forward

Here is my review of ‘Radicals’ by Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley, just published in the Melbourne Labour History Society’s newsletter ‘Recorder’ (July 2021, No 301).

What is capitalism and why should we be against it? – panel discussion featuring Rory Dufficy, Arthur Dent and Rjurik Davidson, Melbourne 22 May 2021

On Saturday, May 22nd, 2021, the Melbourne chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an in-person panel discussion at the Clyde Hotel in Carlton, Australia on the question: “What is Capitalism, and why should we be against it?”

The present is characterized not only by a political crisis of the global neoliberal order but also by differing interpretations of the cause of this crisis:

Capitalism. If we are to interpret capitalism, we must also know how to change it.

– What is capitalism? – Is capitalism contradictory? If so, what is this contradiction and how does it relate to Left politics?

– How has capitalism changed over time, and what have these changes meant politically for the Left?

– Does class struggle take place today? If so, how, and what role should it play for the Left?

– Is capitalism in crisis? If so, how? And how should the Left respond?

– If a new era of global capitalism is emerging, how do we envision the future of capitalism and what are the implications of this for the Left?

Panelists: – Rory Dufficy (Scholar of Avante-Garde politics and teaches Marx’s Capital at the Melbourne School Of Continental Philosophy) – Rjurik Davidson (Marxist writer, editor & speaker. Former Associate Editor of Overland magazine) – Arthur Dent (Unreconstructed Maoist and contributor at c21stleft.com)

[ Unfortunately 20 seconds of Dufficy’s opening remarks were lost due to an internet drop-out. However, his remarks are complete in the transcript expected to be published in an upcoming issue of The Platypus Review ]

Uneasy lies the head… Bertolt Brecht

I came across this poem, written by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in the 1930s, in an edited collection called ‘Student Power’ edited by Julian Nagel and published in 1969. The poem is attributed to Brecht’s ‘Svendborg poems’ collection. The poems were written by Brecht when he was in exile from Nazi Germany on the Danish island of Funen.

We need a revival of the spirit fueling the poem. Its truths remain valid – pretty much everywhere.

Fascism and the Left… how do left-wing individuals end up fascists?

I am republishing this from 1980 as it remains so pertinent.

Barely a week goes by without me receiving a post on facebook from individuals who were once good comrades but who now promote all manner of right-wing conspiratorial theory and who openly take the side of fascist, autocratic and theocratic regimes against the masses who are trying to overthrow them and establish basic democracy, or what Marxists call ‘bourgeois democracy’. The chest-beaters are the worst.

Anyhow, I feel that this analysis, originally from the Red Eureka Movement in Melbourne, explains a lot and offers a rare but exceptionally important, cogent, analysis. (I was not with the REM people back then but rather stayed with the Blue Eureka nationalists – and had stopped thinking quite a few years earlier).

* * * * * * * *


Written: November 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.


EROL Note: This was a document that was circulated within the Red Eureka Movement in late 1980.

* * *

A major theme in left wing propaganda is opposition to fascism. Quite often relatively moderate opponents of the left are described as “fascists”.

Yet scratch a “Communist” and one quite often finds a fascist underneath.

The regime that began with the October Revolution is now a fascist dictatorship. In China too, since the defeat of the Cultural Revolution many revolutionaries have been executed and the right to speak out freely, hold great debates, put up big character posters and so on has been officially and formally repudiated.

The degeneration of Communist Parties in power is a separate problem calling for a separate analysis. But what about the degeneration of parties holding no power?

THE CPA (ML)

Our experiences with the “Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)” were sufficiently frightening to require some deep analysis. Almost any split is accompanied by outraged cries of “unfair” or “undemocratic” from the losing side, so it seemed undesirable to distract attention from the fundamental issues at stake by going into details of who done what to who. But another reason why we never got around to it was probably embarrassment at ever having been involved with such a sick group.

The bankruptcy of Australian nationalism as an ideology for communists is now pretty apparent, while the question of whether China has gone revisionist has been settled by open proclamations from the Chinese leadership themselves. Although Vanguard keeps coming out each week, the people behind it seem pretty discredited and there is little need to discredit them further.

In Adelaide the “Worker Student Alliance for Australian Independence” has disintegrated, along with its newspaper People’s Voice. In Melbourne the entire editorial collective of Independence Voice quit some time ago, there was no “Independence platform” at Mayday, the “Australian Independence Movement” is virtually defunct and supporters of this line have been completely routed in “Community Radio” 3CR. The Australia China Society is unable to defend the new regime in China and little has been heard from the CPA(ML) in the trade union movement either.

As a complete expression of E.F. Hill’s bankruptcy we have the suggestion in “Australian Communist”, that they want unity with us (previously described as “Soviet agents”). Hill has even signed an article proposing reunification with the CPA in “one Communist Party” (presumably because the Chinese revisionists, having recently re-united with their Italian and Yugoslav colleagues, also wish to re-establish relations with the CPA, leaving Hill out in the cold).

The thuggish behaviour of the CPA(ML) supporters in attempting to intimidate their opponents is well known. Both intellectual and physical thuggery, in 3CR and elsewhere, has become so notorious that the only “broad united front” they have been able to create has been that directed against themselves. They have also become notorious for openly preferring to ally themselves with various Nazis and other fascists against the Soviet Union rather than trying to unite the people, and especially the left, against Soviet imperialism on the basis of progressive principles. Their main political theme these days is the united front they claim to have with Malcolm Fraser, who nevertheless remains quite unaware of their existence. As for China, they openly say they would rather not talk about it, even though China was, and is, central to their whole political outlook.

These facts are mentioned, not to kick a dead horse, but to emphasise that the horse really is dead and to confirm that the additional facts about it cited below are genuine observations and not just part of some ongoing sectarian faction fight.

OTHERS TOO

The more or less open fascism of the CPA (ML) has resulted in that group being simply dismissed as “crazies”. But in fact they are only a more extreme expression of problems that exist, less overtly, throughout the left. Indeed it has been noticeable in 3CR for example, that the excuse of “keeping out the crazies”, has been used to justify appallingly manipulative and undemocratic behaviour (e.g. elected listener sponsor representatives voting against explicit directives from a large general meeting of listener sponsors). People who would be shocked and indignant about that in other contexts have made excuses for it when their own friends are doing it. Really how far is it from making excuses to acting in the same way?  And how far from there to ending up just like the “crazies” themselves?

Also the fact that China and the Chinese parrots are anti-Soviet (and Reagan, Thatcher, Fraser etc) has become an excuse to actually apologise for Soviet actions that would be called “fascist” if American was doing it.  Indeed many quite non-crazy “left liberals” have been prepared to go through the most amazing mental contortions to justify the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea or to minimise the significance of Soviet aggression elsewhere.  Rather than agree with “right-wingers” (like Churchill), they prefer to apologise for fascists (like Hitler).

Where was the left wing outrage (as distinct from concern) when Polish workers were being denied the elementary right to form free trade unions?  Why do “militants” in “left-wing” unions take delight in the same bureaucratic manoeuvres their opponents use to stay in power?  Why are splits in left wing groups so common and so nasty?

In Australia many other groups supposedly on the left have exhibited a personal intolerance comparable to the Chinese parrots, and also a comparable willingness to apologise for reactionary regimes in other countries, provided those regimes pay lip service to “anti-imperialist” principles. (Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, Libya… name a country that is suppressing some other country or trying to impose some medieval religion on its people and you will find a “left” group wildly enthusiastic about it.)  Scanning overseas “left” newspapers one gets the impression that narrow minded religious bigotry is pretty common, and even where it is not taken to extremes, it is still present.  No wonder so many on the “left” thought a fellow zealot like Khomeiny would be progressive for Iran.

The undemocratic tendencies of “Leninists” is a common theme in anti-Communist propaganda – from open representatives of the bourgeoisie, from Social Democrats, from Anarchists, from “Left” or “Council” Communists and what have you.  Nevertheless, attacks from our opponents should be taken seriously, and indeed have been taken seriously by the classic exponents of Marxism.

CHINESE FASCISM

This question was especially taken seriously in China and some of the material from the Chinese Cultural Revolution is very valuable for understanding the emergence of fascist tendencies among alleged “Communists”.

For example Mao Tsetung’s unpublished works, and the material criticizing Lin Piao (the “successor” who turned out to be a fascist). The Cultural Revolution was after all a direct struggle between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries who both purported to be part of the “left”. The concept of fighting bourgeois ideas disguised as “left” ideas was crucial to unleashing the 1960s upsurge and will be crucial again. It was necessary to challenge the “peace” ideas that were dominant in the left in the 1960s and it will be necessary to challenge the views that are dominant now – many of which are again crystallised in the eclectic mishmash of the “CPA”.

In the “gang of four’s” Peking University Journal of September 1, 1976 there is an important article on “The Bureaucrat Class and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

…We must further recognise the high concentration of political and economic powers under the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the bureaucrat class succeeded in usurping power and in its restorationist conspiracies throughout the country, then it would continue to flaunt the banner of socialism, take advantage of this high concentration of political and economic powers and turn the democratic centralism of the proletariat into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class.

In controlling and manipulating the means of production and the product of Labor, these bureaucrats will be far more powerful than any previous exploiting classes and their political representatives, than the slave owners and feudal rulers who claimed that “all land under the sun is my territory and all people on earth are my subjects”, and than the bureaucrats and financiers in capitalist countries…In a similar vein, the present day new tsars behave much worse than the old tsars… (Translation from Selections from People’s Republic of China Magazines No 895, American Consulate General, Hong Kong. Reprinted in Study Notes No 6, Red Eureka Movement, August 1978)

This article also goes into the question of the transformation of authority into capital and capital into authority, which is relevant to an understanding of imperialism in the West as well as in the Soviet Union and China.

Western bourgeois democratic society is heading towards an acute crisis and upheaval as another Great Depression and a Third World War develop. The outcome can be Communist Revolution or some form of fascism or social-fascism. We could face a new ruling class more powerful than the present one. It largely depends on how clear the left is on what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against and how sharply we can draw the line against perpetuating the old system of exploitation in our own practice. If the left continues to whinge about capitalism, and even oppose it from a reactionary perspective then it cannot hope to inspire people to fight for something fundamentally different.

Indeed, just as one would have to defend the national independence that Western and Third World countries have already achieved, from Soviet “socialist” imperialism, one would also have to defend the achievements already won by the bourgeois democratic revolution from attack by alleged “socialists” who want to go backwards to a more oppressive society.

DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

If the democratic centralism of the proletarian dictatorship can be easily transformed into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class in a developing socialist country, then what about democratic centralism in Leninist parties out of power? Is this an argument against democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship, as anarchists and others insist?

The answer to this argument is that there never can be a guarantee against proletarian dictatorship turning into its opposite, and Communists in power must always be prepared for transition to underground life as Communists in opposition to capitalist roaders in power. Likewise in Communist Parties generally – one must be prepared to rebel and to be expelled for rebelling.

But if there was no democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship then it would be quite impossible for the revolutionary ideas held only by a minority in capitalist and socialist society to be centralised and dominant and in that case the bourgeoisie holds power anyway. So weakening democratic centralism is not the answer. On the contrary, it needs to be strengthened to keep fascists out, on the same argument that the left cannot afford to be pacifist and must learn the use of arms if it doesn’t want warmongers to hold power.

Proletarian dictatorship means just that. It does not mean dictatorship over the proletariat by some bureaucrats. It means a political system in which the working class can really wield political power – something that can be achieved by workers councils led by a revolutionary party and cannot be achieved by parliamentary institutions or by milling around in confusion.

Democratic centralism also means just that. It does not mean the leadership imposing decisions on a reluctant membership. It means that the abstract “parliamentary” right which almost all organisations give their members to ultimately take decisions, is made real by conscious leadership of the decision making process to make it “from the masses, to the masses” and so make it actually work without manipulation or obstruction.

This article is not a plea for everybody to be more tolerant of everybody else. It is a call for sharper defence of our basic principles and less tolerance of attempts to undermine them. One cannot be a Communist if one is not first a democrat. The democratic revolutionaries of England, France and so on in earlier centuries had no hesitation about chopping off the heads of their aristocratic opponents and neither should we.

Fear of strengthening democratic centralism is really fear of struggle. Such fear is fully understandable in the present situation, and a lot better than blinkered complacency. But it must be overcome.

The quote from Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” in “the Personal is Political” (Discussion Bulletin No 9) rang a few bells and is worth repeating:–

…..“Socialism” is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal Socialists would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause. The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.

We should be ready to fight against the dictatorship of the prigs and to do this it is necessary to understand the transformation of Communists into prigs.

ARE WE DIFFERENT?

If we take Lin Piao for example, there is no doubt that he did make contributions to the Chinese revolution before emerging as an outright fascist. The superstitious Mao cult he built up in opposition to Mao had definite roots in China’s feudal past, but also struck a chord among Western “Maoists”.

Ted Hill now appears to be nothing more than a follower of Liu Shao-chi, then Lin Piao (as a major cult advocate) then Liu Shao-chi again, or whoever may hold power in China at any given moment. But some of his analyses of revisionism, parliamentarism and trade union politics in publications like “Looking Backward; Looking Forward” are still valuable and he once made a point of opposing sacred cows and stereotypes and supporting rebellion.

Things were drastically wrong with the CPA(ML) long before we parted company and people are entitled to ask how we got mixed up with them and why we should be regarded as any different. If we are to be any different then we must analyse the thin dividing line that appears to exist between being a Marxist-Leninist or “Maoist” on the one hand, and being a lunatic or a fascist on the other.

There is little need to “expose” the CPA(ML) leadership now in view of its obvious degeneration. But the roots of current fascist attitudes do need study, so the following facts are placed on the record for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of anyone still taken in by Hill.

SOME FACTS

1. There never was anything remotely resembling democracy within the CPA(ML). This became obvious when concrete disagreements made it necessary to have a proper discussion and take a decision. But it should have been obvious even when people thought they were in agreement.
2. As soon as a disagreement in principle was announced “through the proper channels” etcetera, the immediate response was to launch vituperative attacks on individuals – at first surreptitiously behind their backs and then openly in Vanguard.
3. The very idea of discussing the differences was repudiated and “security” was abused to tell people that there had been a full democratic discussion, which they just didn’t happen to be part of.
4. As a matter of fact it turned out that no Central Committee actually existed. One member of the Red Eureka Movement discovered that he was supposed to be a CC member after wanting to express his views to the CC. This must be some sort of record in the international communist movement!
5. Other members of the Red Eureka Movement who were both on the Central Committee and knew it, were able to expose the lie that there had been some kind of Central Committee discussion about China and that documents expressing opposition had been circulated to the Central Committee etc.
6. Individual party members had to go outside the “channels” to get any kind of discussion and then discovered that the “channels” didn’t really exist. Now others who accepted this are finding the same situation.
7. It was not a case of discussion being suppressed arbitrarily and decisions usurped, but of there being no provision whatever for seriously discussing and reversing a policy disagreed with.
8. This situation which existed long before it came to a head was put up with by people who would rebel strongly against similar fascist practices in any other social institution.
9. Many people on becoming aware of it, and seeing people branded as Soviet agents etcetera, took a cynical attitude that this was wrong but not a major question of principle requiring them to take a stand.
10. Our initial reaction to all this shit was not to launch a public struggle as in the Cultural Revolution or in accord with our own experiences in the 1960s. Instead we had great hangups about “the party” and organised semi-conspiratorially.
11. Despite being a very small group, since breaking with the CPA(ML) leadership we have not been able to resolve internal disagreements in a civilised, let alone comradely manner, but have had two further splits. While nowhere near as bad as Hill’s, these have also involved strange behaviour that would not be tolerated in most community organisations and should not be tolerated on the left. Moreover they have occurred in a situation where we are not leading any great revolutionary struggle and no pressing life or death decision was at stake.

LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY!

We did not fully realise it at the time, but there was little alternative to the apparent extremism of Hill’s stand because there really wasn’t any possibility of a discussion. If he had agreed to a discussion, what could he possibly have said? And if the CPA(ML) did not follow China religiously, what else could it do? We cannot blame Hill for our own naivety.

We only realised how difficult most people find it to rebel and think for themselves once we had broken with Hill and company. “Stalinists without a country” was the contemptuous Trotskyist label, and there is something in it. It really is enormously easier to at least think you know what you’re doing when there is some “socialist motherland” backing you up. (Or a “Fourth International”, a “great leader” or some other crutch).

For non-revolutionaries it’s fairly easy to maintain a political position sustained by one or other of the reformist currents in mainstream bourgeois society. But in a non-revolutionary society and with no back up from a revolutionary society, it requires real effort to develop a revolutionary program. How much easer it would have been if we could have forgotten that we didn’t have such a program by simply pretending to ourselves that China, or Albania or somewhere was revolutionary and that supporting them would somehow produce a revolution here. Or by pretending that if we were all more dedicated, we would figure out where we were going while getting there.

Its interesting to note how even people with no attachment to Russia, China or Albania have managed to persuade themselves that Vietnam is still worth supporting and feel a deep and personal threat to their whole ideology when this is questioned. Or how people leaving REM because it hasn’t been getting anywhere who know perfectly well what’s wrong with the political line of the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), are nevertheless attracted by the reassuring certainty of that group’s proclamations.

Idealism and metaphysics are the easiest things in the world, because people can talk as much nonsense as they like without basing it on objective reality or having it tested against reality. Materialism and dialectics, on the other hand, need effort. They must be based on and tested by objective reality. Unless one makes the effort, one is liable to slip into idealism and metaphysics. (Mao Tsetung)

PRIESTS AND HORSES

Judging from overseas literature, the temptation of closed minded religious fanaticism is very strong in this situation. It provides a certainty that would otherwise be lacking and puts an end to all confusion, doubt, cynicism, liberalism and so on.

But this way out is the way out of the movement. It means joining the innumerable sects that are much better organised and disciplined than we are, and are able to get more done precisely because they do not have the “burden” of really having to think out a revolutionary line.

We did not hesitate to reject the “security” of blindly following China, Albania or anybody else so we should not regret the consequences.

One consequence is that we are in some respects more vulnerable to confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on than other left groups that feel more confident about their (manifestly wrong!) lines. The reason horses are given blinkers is that it keeps them working away steadily without getting distracted by things they might see. Groups that have attached themselves to a foreign state, or that merely reflect a reformist current  in mainstream bourgeois ideology, have a secure basis for their activity and can work away at it for years after it has ceased to have any social relevance or has become purely reactionary.

The same can easily be true of “revolutionary” groups that feel secure, or pretend to feel secure in their “correct line”. They can whip up a great frenzy of activity, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Take a look at the Communist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA). On many points we would be in full agreement. They have a similar analysis of China and Albania to ours and they certainly do make a clear distinction between communist revolution and the bourgeois reformism advocated by most “revolutionaries”.

On international questions of very great significance they appear to have a fundamentally wrong analysis, But even more important, their whole approach to “correct line” politics seems alien. They are certainly not paralysed by liberalism like we are – but so what?

While confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on persist we will remain unable to accomplish very much, including theoretical work:

We must have faith in the masses and we must have faith in the Party. These are two cardinal principles. If we doubt these principles, we shall accomplish nothing. (Mao Tsetung)

But the only basis for faith in the Party is confidence in the soundness of its analysis and line. Once we have grounds for such faith we will be able to accomplish something, but not before. (And of course once we do, we will again have the problem of blind faith and the potential for people to continue following a leadership that has proved itself worthy of confidence, long after it has ceased to play a progressive or revolutionary role. But then it would be at a higher stage of the spiral).

Demands that people pull themselves together, combat liberalism or what have you, will not solve the problem of lack of faith. This is an atheistic age and real communists are atheistic people. Our only God is the masses and the only basis for our faith is scientific analysis of reality.

The situation we are in calls urgently for working out where we are and where we are going. Without that, calls to press on more resolutely and with greater vigour will only result in people getting more lost.

CHIN UP, BACK STRAIGHT, EYES SHUT!

It is conservative, not revolutionary to promote “leadership”, “organisation”, “doing things”, “collective life” and so on without a clear perspective for liberating people from oppression. Defenders of the status quo habitually make such appeals and every organisation, revolutionary or not, naturally wants to be as effectively organised as possible (and most sewing circles and amateur theatrical societies are probably a lot better organised than REM). But it is quite wrong to see the organisational reflection of our confusion as the central problem instead of dealing with the confusion itself. (As for any who are not confused, they would have an even greater problem. Take off the blinkers!)

Communism is not the only ideology opposed to liberalism. Fascism opposes liberalism too. It is one thing to want to widen and deepen and ultimately transcend democracy by going beyond such mere forms as majority voting. It is quite another thing to declare that ones policies have proved their own correctness and deliberately exclude others from even a vote, let alone a real say, on the matter. Yet we have repeatedly experienced this kind of behaviour not just from enemies, but from comrades who probably really do want to be revolutionaries.

The fact that people like Lin Piao or Ted Hill could turn out to be fascists and that we could go along with a load of shit for a long time should alert us to the dangers. When people on the left start acting like people on the extreme right they must be pulled up sharply and told “You’re Ill” before the disease becomes incurable and before it spreads.

“Follow me and you need never think again”: Richard Wright, Liu Shao-Chi, Julius Fucik, the CPA(ML)… and the fire we need…

The following article is by Tom Griffiths…

“Follow me and you need never think again.”

This was the pithy saying uttered by an old comrade to describe secular religious thinking, or blind faith, in adhering to the Party line, no matter what the line was or how it was arrived at. It need not be confined to, or even predominantly associated with, Communist Party politics of course with yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir, the Daleks “I obey” and other variants all treding the same path. Follow me … arose in the aftermath of the CPA M-L kindly informing a number of us that we had “expelled” ourselves and the sense we then made of how a reputedly revolutionary organization, prompted by the arrest of the Gang of Four, could perform a 180 degree pivot overnight without discussion and still keep a straight face. I need hardly add that we did not keep a straight face but saw this as a joke – and not one on us.

I don’t know about others, but there are some sayings I hear that are gold and are instantly hard wired. “Follow me …” was one of them. It spoke to me then, and has done so since, most  recently after reading Richard Wright’s American Hunger, the second part of his autobiography Black Boy that deals, in large part, with his experiences in the CPUSA in the 1930’s. I will come back to this, for while this post is not about Wright per se, his experiences have certainly prompted it. Not for the first occasion it brought into sharp relief the contradiction between  communist aspirations (what we believe in, this is what we are fighting/struggling for), and the more disturbing, at times reactionary, internal and personal processes involved with what the ‘correct line’ is, how it is arrived at and ‘followed’. Walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, in other words; how what we do, and how we do it, as a reflection of our revolutionary (transformative or synthesizing) aspirations and practice.

So let me come back to Richard Wright and American Hunger. Wright (1908-1960) was a black American writer of great talent and vision who effectively fled the Jim Crow south when 19. Like so many of his black contemporaries he headed to Chicago. “The environment the South creates is too small to nourish human beings, especially Negro human beings.” he said later in a radio interview. He brought with him an intense curiosity, a hunger, a desire to grow. It was this that enabled him to observe in himself and others who had fled the south, loneliness and confusion. “Wherever my eyes turned they saw stricken, black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization that they did not understand. I felt lonely. I had fled one insecurity and embraced another.”

By his mid twenties his hunger and curiosity, containing as they did a worldly, universalizing vision, had led him to the CPUSA. “Of all the developments in the Soviet Union the method by which scores of backward peoples had been led to unity on a national scale was what had enthralled me. I had read with awe how the Communists had sent phonetic experts into the vast regions of Russia to listen to the stammering dialects of peoples oppressed for centuries by the czars. I had made the first total emotional commitment of my life when I read how the phonetic experts had given these tongueless people a language, newspapers, institutions. I had read how these forgotten folk had been encouraged to keep their old cultures, to see in their ancient customs meanings and satisfactions as deep as those contained in supposedly superior ways of living. And I had exclaimed to myself how different this was from the way in which Negroes were sneered at in America.”

He wanted to use his ability and drive, with the organizational and political support of the CPUSA, to give the ignored and sneered at a place and a voice on the political stage. This was not simply a political quest, but also one that unavoidably required acculturation. In the same decade Mao was developing the mass line in China, while in still unoccupied Europe Bertolt Brecht was writing The Life of Galileo, the sixth scene of which begins with this couplet: ‘Things indeed take a wondrous turn/When learned men do stoop to learn’. In effect Wright advocated the adoption of a stooping stance and he began a process of taking oral histories from men, like himself, who had migrated north, effectively changing planets in the process. The one we hear about in American Hunger is Ross, a fellow Party member. But rather than applauding and supporting his initiative, what in Maoist language would be termed ‘learning from the masses’, the CPUSA viewed his project with suspicion. Paranoid thinking, in partnership with anxiety, is probably more accurate.

Outside of Ross, who was initially cooperative, this suspicion came from both black and white members. I think I get the nervousness of his black comrades. The confusion and insecurity Wright refers to above sounds very familiar to utterances I have heard from refugees. One, a young Hazara man from Afghanistan, said to a colleague some eight years ago, that what he really needed to know was “where do I fit in?” Coming from a society still dominated by strictly hierarchical and tribal norms this is a question he would never have had to seriously consider before he changed planets. Another, from a Sierra Leonean colleague, put the anxiety and confusion this way: “We have come from hell to find heaven. And it is heaven, if you change overnight.” Wright’s black comrades were still finding their feet, not yet standing on culturally solid ground and needed the support and approval of their white comrades.

Empathic understanding (an interest in, and understanding of, the hurdles they faced) appeared not to be present or offered, a situation Wright found baffling. Offering feelings of acceptance and purpose, probably patronizing, where the rules pertaining to these are too heavily sourced from above, was not good enough. Fascist organizations, and there were a few around at the time, provided this too. Indeed they were arguably better at it as they had no desire at all to see their membership grow intellectually or emotionally. Unthinking loyalty was what was demanded to both the organization and its ideological script.

Under a veil of suspicion Wright was repeatedly questioned about his motives and actions. His explanations fell on deaf ears and he was, again repeatedly, told by members higher up the food chain that he did “not understand”. Projection is an interesting psychological defence mechanism. It is a pity that those not listening to Wright were ignorant of their use of it. More disturbing, however, was the parallel process being reproduced in the party. Being a ‘good communist’ – being seen (needing to be seen) and understood as being compliant, obedient, well behaved and toeing the party line, qualities valorized by Lui Shao-Ch’i (see Quotations of Liu Shao-Ch’i, Paul Flesch and Co.1968, a ‘Little Yellow Book’ worth getting hold of), is not the same as being a good communist. The latter has the capacity, in reality develops the capacity, to swim against the tide, be that tide external or internal and to accept the associated risks. The party line down south was the Jim Crow line where the consequences for not being seen to be ‘good’ and obedient to Jim Crow cultural norms could, and often were, fatal. What Wright and so many others from down south were doing in heading north, was learning how to swim against the tide.

There is a difference between toeing the line (being obedient) and agreeing that a given line or position will be supported and acted upon, and that the processes by which it has been arrived at are democratic and not autocratic. Wright’s experience speaks of the latter and it was something, on a lesser scale, that I recognized at the time I and others ‘expelled ourselves’.

Walking hand in hand with this, and generally justifying it, was the question of organizational security. Wright mentions that, to his understanding, security was reckoned using the conditions under Czarist oppression as a measuring stick. The darkening clouds beginning to engulf Europe will have done nothing to abate this. But the USA was not a fascist state – unless you happened to be black living under the heel of Jim Crow. That this was not sufficiently grasped, underscores the importance of what Wright was trying to do and the failure of the CPUSA in supporting him in doing it. It also indicates that any purportedly revolutionary organization that is too reliant or wedded to top down decision making and the concomitant creation of a culture of membership obedience or compliance is likely to miss what’s under its nose.

None of this is meant to downplay the significance or need of security or measures to maintain a Party’s viability and effectiveness, considerations that become pressing the more oppressive and reactionary the prevailing context. The activities of the Czar’s secret police, the Okhrana, gave the Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks et al good reason to take those activities seriously. So too the activities of the Italian fascist secret police OVRA, the organization upon which the Nazi Gestapo was modelled, not to forget the Gestapo itself. But none of this could justify closing the minds of party members. Caution, in the face of external danger is not the same, and should not be confused with, closed or narrow mindedness in the face of such danger. Paranoid mindsets can be cultivated.

The most influential, and moving, account from a communist who kept the distinction between external danger and internal openness as distinct as circumstances would allow comes from Julius Fucik and his Report From the Gallows. Fucik, a central committee member of the Czech Party, was arrested and gaoled in 1942 and executed the following year. With the assistance of two patriotic cum anti fascist prison warders  he was able to write and smuggle out notes of his experiences and thoughts, his report from the gallows. I came across Fucik’s work in the mid to late 1970’s and, given recent events, I found it refreshing, insightful and invigorating. Here was a man experiencing the harshest of treatments, knowing that death was near, yet still embracing life rather than merely clinging to it. What I found particularly impressive was his ability to listen, to want to understand what made his jailers and wardens, most of whom came from working class stock, tick. Much of the book is devoted to what are dubbed in my edition “Figures and Little Figures”, nuanced reflections on comrades (Figures) and those in a more mixed bag, such as the prison superintendent who were certainly enemies and others among the wardens who deserved a deeper level of understanding (Little Figures), His ability to reflect upon and engage with both/all sides of contradictions was an ability, it would seem, that was absent, or certainly wanting in the CPUSA and the CPA M-L 

One of the things Fucik’s book did for me was to reinforce or make less abstract the absurdity of the CPA M-L adopting the same organizational structure as that used by the Czech and, I presume, other communist parties in occupied Europe (three member cell structures with one reporting higher up the chain, secrecy over membership etc). In occupied Europe this made a lot of sense – it was about survival. But not in the Australia we lived in. And in attempting to explain the rationale for its being, without getting sidetracked in theoretical bushland, the temptation to reach for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association) to determine the clinical criteria is difficult to resist. ‘Fucked’ seems an appropriate term to use that bridges the theoretical/clinical divide.

It is tempting to see my use of the concept ‘fuckedness’ as somewhat flippant. And to a degree it is because the ‘clinical’ component can seem like a cheap shot. But there is also a serious side to this that goes well beyond the drab manifestations I and others saw in the CPA-ML or the more disturbing, but not yet out of control manifestations that Wright witnessed and was subjected to. The example I wish to point to is the fate that befell the El Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton who was murdered by elements in his own party with whom he was in disagreement over the importance of the party developing a mass base if it were to have any chance of overthrowing the regime. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given his murder, Dalton was argueing the importance of developing a mass base.

Dalton’s poetry is worth chasing up and to give a flavour of it – and of its relevance to this post – the following is the first stanza of his Dialectic of Genesis, Crisis and Rebirth:

‘For you we will not put the Party on an altar/Because you taught us that the Party/is an organism which lives in the real world/and it’s sickness is the same as bankruptcy/Because of you we know, Lenin/That the best crib for the Party/Is fire’

A bitter irony exposed in these lines is that Dalton’s murderers, and those who sanctioned it, were trying to put out the fire.

The fire that Dalton was speaking of, was not simply, or even primarily, that of the class enemy, whose fire belongs in the blindingly obvious department, but, as with Mao’s view of swimming against the tide being a revolutionary principle, refers to internal fire. Using gentler language, but making the same point, Wright referred to this as a “nurturing environment”. To see the meaning of this sentiment as being only directed against the tide generated by one’s political foes misses the point.

The proposition, be that stated openly or assumed, that the party line is, by definition correct, is a reflection of one sided, non dialectical thinking, the heritage of which comes more from medieval or pre medieval mind sets than modernist ones. If ever history were able to assume a sentient human form its reaction to the idea that leadership, be that in revolutionary organizations or not, automatically confers correctness and is thus deserving of deference, would be hysterical rolfing.

Our experience in the CPA M-L exposed political fuckedness, an organizational suspicion cum aversion to internal democratic processes, and a gift for paranoid thinking. This also seems to be the case in Wright’s experience of the CPUSA. The same cannot be said for Dalton’s. Politically fucked, certainly. But his murder exposed something pathalogical that was not only not organizationally contained, but was organizationally facilitated.

Revolutionary movements and parties in the developed world have disintegrated leaving in their wake a smug capitalist class and an opportunist and reactionary ‘left’ cum pseudo left drawn to every form of oppression other than that of class. It is ironic and certainly telling that we now live in an age where the capitalist class is quite happy to bend to and accommodate ‘woke’ agendas. And why not? The property question, the goal of expropriating the expropriators, has been successfully swept under the carpet. No prizes for guessing who/what has been doing most of the sweeping.

One of the tasks of a reemergent and genuine revolutionary left, will be to clean up its act regarding democratic processes; or to borrow from Dalton, to actually understand that the best crib or nurturing environment for its existence and growth is ‘fire’. It is not enough that a leadership pays lip service to the idea, as opposed to the practice of criticism and self criticism, reducing it to an auto de fe in the process. It must be open and be seen as being open, to itself being a target of fire.

One of the things communist parties, in whatever form their new iterations take, will need to do is to ensure that, to paraphrase and tweak Wright, the environment it creates is large enough to nourish the development and growth of rebellious and critical spirits, spirits who can not only keep an active eye and involvement on fire that is externally targeted and generated, but internally generated and directed.

Debunking Austrian Economics’ Socialist Calculation Problem

The ‘Calculation Problem‘ is what market economists commonly argue against socialism but there is no reason to be smug about economic calculation under capitalism. Communist workers could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. And there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, the absence of ownership barriers would increase the scope for coordination, and lessen the scope for secrecy and deception.

* * * *

Reprinting this from David McMullen’s site, Simply Marxism. Originally published in May 2017. 

The so-called Austrian school of economics makes much of what they call the socialist calculation problem. They argue that a society based on social ownership could not have an effective price system and therefore could not have the decentralized decision-making we see in a market economy.

The claim was first made by Ludwig Von Mises in the 1920s. Really all he is saying is that transfers between enterprises using a decentralized price system must be market exchanges. Without explaining why, he rules out the possibility of such transfers occurring between socially owned enterprises where there is no exchange of ownership but simply a transfer of socially owned property from one custodian to another. I am thinking here of a transfer between a supplier and user of some component in production. Without predicting what will actually happen in the communist future we could easily imagine production units using decentralized pricing to determine least costs methods of production and assigning output to the highest bidder. We could also easily imagine such a system being ultimately driven by consumer demand.

Then we had the intervention of Frederick Hayek in the 1930s and 40s. He demolished the rather lame decentralized socialist model devised by the economist Oskar Lange. That model confines decentralized price adjustments to consumer goods while price adjustments for intermediate goods are carried out by a central agency that is keeping an eye on inventory levels. Hayek correctly points out the inadequacy of such an arrangement and how it does not represent a fully functioning price system. Discrediting the Lange model is all very well, but Hayek did not then go on to show that an economy based on social ownership would in fact be limited to the Lange model. In other words he did not show that there is something about social ownership that would prevent the use of decentralized price adjustment in the allocation of intermediate goods. So I think I can justly say that all that Hayek has done is refute a straw man.

OK now we come to the final version of the argument and this was developed in the 1980s by Don Lavoie of George Mason University. He conceded that a socially owned economy could have a price system but that it would not be a very good one. In his book Rivalry and Economic Planning, he contends that any price system under social ownership would be inferior to a market based one because it would be unable to reflect the discovery process that emerges from competition between market participants. According to Lavoie, it is important, in the presence of uncertainty, to have numerous participants trying out different approaches to problems, based on their own opinions, guesses and hunches. Those who come up with the best and most highly valued products using the cheapest methods win out in this competitive contest. I fully agree with what he is saying. However, if, as I contend, decentralized custodianship is an important part of social ownership, diversity of approach should not be a problem.

Under social ownership, it would still be very common for an individual enterprise or facility to be just one of many producing the same good or close substitutes and each of them would be free to try out different production methods and product designs. Some would be new entrants who were either existing enterprises moving into a new field with synergies or starts ups established by enthusiasts with ideas that the incumbents were not open to or capable of developing. This diversity would be greatly assisted by having numerous independent agencies being responsible for disbursing funds in each industry and making their own assessment of what were good investments. At the same time, enterprises would be free to choose their suppliers based on cost and quality, and would have to outbid other users of a resource or intermediate good. Discovering and adopting the best methods and products would of course mean that it would be common to see activities abandoned and enterprises closed or reorganized. So, the only real obstacle to a decentralized price system would be the absence of daring and conscientious custodians and this gets us back to the question of whether we can do without the profit motive. Can we do our best just because we enjoy the work and want to contribute? As I argue elsewhere this does not strike me as being all that fanciful if we are sharing high and increasing affluence and all the unpleasant work is performed by robots and computers.

So the calculation argument is not a separate argument from the standard one about whether we need the profit motive.

I think it is appropriate to point out that there is no reason to be smug about economic calculation under capitalism. Communist workers could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. And there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, the absence of ownership barriers would increase the scope for coordination, and lessen the scope for secrecy and deception.

So to sum up. My basic point is that when it comes to economic calculation, communism will be able to do anything capitalism can and do a better job of it.

I have links below to a number of articles that go into more detail on this topic.

https://economsoc.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/re-opening-the-debates.pdf

https://economsoc.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/the-economic-case-for-social-ownership.pdf

Servility is abhorrent

The following poem is terrific. It’s from a site called One Poem .One Planet.

 

KARL MARX
Karl Marx was playing a parlor game
with his daughters. To their question
What is the quality one should most abhor?
he wrote: Servility.

This was found–a scrap of paper
amongst the family albums and letters;
it is the most essential of all
the Complete Works.

 

— Robert Gray (Australia)

 

Thanks to Tom G for drawing my attention to it.