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

A Marxist Response to the the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers’ Report “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”

Prometheus-Gives-Mankind-Fire

From ‘Simply Marxism‘, excellent new site:

A Marxist Response to the CEA’s Report “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”

David McMullen

Simply Marxism

June 2019

Summary

Introduction

Communist Famines

Universal Awfulness

The Need for Markets

Economic Calculation

The Green Problem

Venezuela

Economic Freedom

The Nordic Countries

Medicare for All

What could a socialist state do?

Not necessarily all free

Government Revenue

Healthcare under socialism

Summing Up

References

Summary

The Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA) in October 2018 issued a report called “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”. It covers a diverse range of “socialisms”. In this reply I will only be defending socialism in the Marxist sense – a period of revolutionary transition during which capitalism is transformed into communism. I will not be defending “socialism” when it simply means government intervention under the present capitalist system.

The report starts with the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, and zooms in on the famines during the collectivization of agriculture as prime examples of their failings. I suggest that when putting their inadequacies and disasters in perspective, one needs to keep in mind a bit of background. Two things strike me as being particularly important.

First thing, the transition from backwardness to modernity has been, and still is, generally a nasty business. The prime example is western Europe. When it emerged from the Middle Ages and started on the road to capitalism, it managed with the aid of ocean-going sailing ships to devastate every other society on the planet. While this was necessary in order to bring the rest of the world into modern history it was accompanied by a lot of awful behavior such as the slave trade, and the trashing of India and China in ways that brought death and misery to millions. At the same time, on the home front, we saw the expulsion of peasants from the land, and stage one of the Industrial Revolution with its expendable workforce.  

Second thing, a successful socialist revolution requires advanced capitalism to prepare the ground. Both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China had to deal with essentially pre-capitalist societies. They were ready for capitalism not for a transition to communism, and once the regimes were taken over by people who had lost interest in revolution, “socialism” had little trouble in becoming nothing more than a hollow shell.

At the end of the day, these countries did quite well compared with similarly backward countries in the capitalist sphere. Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s feverish industrialization during the 1930s gave it the means to defeat fascism in the 1940s, something from which we have all benefited.

Through its development of industry, capitalism prepares the ground for communism by eliminating the necessity of want and toil. Once we no longer need to compete for decent material conditions, our good side can start  to shine through. We can begin to think about doing without “market incentives” and doing work for its own sake and the desire to contribute while being happy with a shared prosperity. Economists argue that this would be all in vain because of the “calculation problem” while greens claim we are stuck with want and toil because of “limits to growth”. In this paper I respond to both of these views.

The report endorses the claim of the Venezuelan regime that it is socialist when it is clearly just a very corrupt kleptocracy. The involvement of the zombie regime in Cuba is fully in keeping with this assessment. The people are starving, and are inheriting rundown industrial capacity and lots of foreign debt.

Like all “free marketeers”, the CEA attempts to dissociate capitalism from the behavior of its own state. They fail to recognize that “government failure” is endogenous to the system and not some exogenous imposition on an otherwise pristine capitalism.

The report ends with a rather stern assessment of “Medicare for All”. It points to the problems of free government provision and the negative impact of having to raise so much more tax revenue to pay for it.

I make the point that a proletarian government could well make extensive use of user pays and that as health provision increasingly takes on a communist character, care that is both high quality and economical will require less and less material inducement.

As for the increasing need for revenue, a proletarian government would have a range of options that would eliminate or greatly reduce distortions, and would have low collection and compliance costs. With income secure and distribution far more equal, there would not be the present political problems in having a regressive income tax or in employing a poll tax. Then there is Henry George’s land value tax that capitalist countries have failed to make significant use of.

Introduction

The Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA) in October 2018 issued a report called “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”. (CEA 2018.) The term “opportunity cost” is used by economists and simply means the benefit you forgo by doing one thing rather than the best alternative. If what you choose to do has greater benefit you are ahead. If not then you have made a mistake. It is an odd title but does sound more profound and eye-catching than “The Failure of Socialism.”

The report starts with the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, and zooms in on their collectivization of agriculture as prime examples of their failing. We are then brought right up to the here and now and reminded of the disaster that is Venezuela’s “Socialism of the 21st Century”. This is followed by a discussion of the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index which measures an economy’s freedom from government intervention (ie “socialist policies”) and its positive correlation with economic performance. Next we are shown how the U.S. has fared better than the “socialist” Nordic Countries. Last but not least we come to the U.S. itself where there is a looming threat of socialism in the form of free health care. Here the concern is the excess burden of taxation and the perverse effects of having a third-party payer.

In the CEA report, and in popular discourse generally, the term socialism is used for a grab bag of things. For Marxists it can only mean the period of revolutionary transition that begins with the old capitalist ruling class losing its property, power and influence and then proceeds with the proletariat transforming itself and society. At the core is joint or shared ownership of the means of production which enables the typical individual to thrive for the first time. As a Marxist, it is only in this sense of the word that I am interested in defending socialism. I will not be defending “socialism” that is simply government intervention under capitalism.

Karl Marx’s referred to this transition period on various occasions. The most well-known comes from Critique of the Gotha Program (1875):

“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other.”

And as a young man, he had this to say in The German Ideology (1846):

“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” (Part I, section D)

Socialism in this sense should not be seen as a social system in its own right. It is an unstable transition phase during which both regression and progression are possible. It is a period of struggle between conflicting forces. The more unfavorable the underlying conditions, the more chance of regression, and hence the rocky road travelled in the 20th century. The matters raised in the CEA report will be examined from this perspective.

Communist Famines

First in the line-up we have the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Famines during their early years come in for special scrutiny. The events are used to highlight the question of property rights and economic incentives given that they occurred at the times when the regimes were trying to collectivize peasant agriculture while increasing the food supplies available either for the increasing non-farm population or for exports in return for investment goods such as machinery.

I am unqualified to comment on the contributing factors or the extent of these famines. So I will confine myself to two key points that should be kept in mind before anything else when looking at these events. Firstly, the transition from a backward agricultural society to a modern industrial one has been and still is a nasty business no matter where you look. Secondly, any attempt to go from feudal backwardness to socialism while circumventing capitalism is bound to have its own serious problems. So let us look at these in turn.

Universal Awfulness

Historically, we should look to Western Europe for the worst case of this universally nasty business. Its emergence from the Middle Ages into the bright shiny day of capitalism was a thoroughly messy affair. Peasants were thrown off the land and made to work in factories where they did not need to survive for long because there was no shortage of fresh “hands” to replace them. The power loom that launched the industrial revolution saw the starvation of handloom weavers. This was just the home front. Elsewhere, it was even worse. While ocean going sailing ships and the creation of a world market were just what were needed to get the west on the road to capitalism, the effect on the rest of the world was total devastation. Of course, things had to be that way unless you think that Europe should have stayed in the Middle Ages. Marx saw the whole business as nasty but necessary. It brought the rest of the world into modern history. This meant that capitalism would eventually catch on there and create an international proletariat that would march together towards world communism.

Marx expresses this globalist point of view in The Communist Manifesto (1848) as follows:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Then in a letter to Frederick Engels of October 8 1858 he expresses the same sentiment:

The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.

Here I will just look at some of the more prominent cases of European beastliness.

We have the African slave trade of course. Millions became slaves and millions died during capture and transportation. With that there was also the economic destruction. The young and fit were the target; and kidnapping or the avoidance of kidnapping was the primary activity of virtually an entire continent.  The subsequent colonial period was also somewhat less than benevolent. Forced labor, mutilation and murder in the Belgian Congo comes readily to mind. At the moment, Africans are still waiting for the benefits of being dragged into the modern world.

Then there was British rule in India where the most notable horrors were the famines.

British policy did much to contribute to the great famines during the dry years of 1876-79 and 1896-1902. Estimates range from 12 to 30 million deaths. (Davis 2007: 7) Most appalling was the fact that grain was exported to Britain while Indians starved. (Davis 2007: 299)  Also, the British created a range of realities that made the country vulnerable to famine. Land was converted from subsistence crops to export crops such as cotton and opium. There was the neglect of rural improvement such as irrigation both by the government and the local elites who were encouraged to be usurers rather than capitalists. (Davis 323ff.)

According to Davis (2007 p.346): “As far back as 1785, Edmund Burke had indicted the East India Company for allowing native irrigation to fall into decay, thereby ensuring higher famine mortality during droughts.” This was still the case a century later.

At the same time the appalling tax and debt burdens on the peasants meant the need for short-term income at the expense of longer-term fertility. And their usurious landlords opposed any improvement work that would reduce peasants’ dependence on them. (Davis 2007: 333)

As for famine relief, the railroad system ensured that grain moved speedily to where it would get the best price, which made things worse for the starving penniless. (Polanyi 2001 [1944]: 160.)

While still on India, we should not pass up the opportunity to mention the handloom weavers crushed by competition from the English power loom. In Capital, Marx quotes the Governor General reporting in the 1830s: “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India”. (Marx 1976 [1867]: 557)

Writing for the New York Daily News, Marx explained Britain’s dual role. In “The British Rule in India” (June 25, 1853) he wrote:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

And in “The Future Results of British Rule in India” (July 22, 1853) he made much the same the same point:

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.  

Looking back from the present point in time we can say that the British performed their dual role in a rather lopsided fashion. They were far more efficient at undermining the existing socio-economic system in ways that deepened the misery of the vast mass of people than they were in creating the conditions that would encourage the development of capitalism. As well as discouraging capitalism in agriculture they also discouraged any local industry that would compete with British imports. Capitalist development eventually caught on but even now there is still considerable backwardness with 50 percent of the population employed in agriculture.

When we come to China, we can blame the British once again for death and misery. It all started with the importation of Indian opium that destroyed the lives of multitudes and drained the country of silver. The Qing Dynasty was further weakened economically and politically by its defeat at the hands of the British in the First Opium War of 1841. This laid the ground for the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war from 1850 to 1864 that lead to many millions of deaths through plague, famine and the sword, together with long-term economic damage. The rebellion may have contributed to the necessary unravelling of Old China but was still a very nasty business.

The El Nino weather conditions that struck India in the late 19th century also struck China and caused deadly famines there as well. Prior to its degeneration, the Qing Dynasty had been quite adept at reducing famine and food insecurity. (Davis p. 367) In the 18th century they had budget surpluses, well stocked granaries and the ability to move large stocks of food across long distances. They also had flood control, extensive irrigation, and canal navigation.

When writing about Britain’s role in China, Marx took the same dual nature approach that he did with India. So that in The New York Daily News of June 14 1853 he wrote:

It is almost needless to observe that, in the same measure in which opium has obtained the sovereignty over the Chinese, the Emperor and his staff of pedantic mandarins have become dispossessed of their own sovereignty. It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity. ….

All these dissolving agencies acting together on the finances, the morals, the industry, and political structure of China, received their full development under the English cannon in 1840, which broke down the authority of the Emperor, and forced the Celestial Empire into contact with the terrestrial world. Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.

In the 20th century, China got a second going-over. This time it was at the hands of the Japanese. Their emergence from feudal seclusion brought a toxic mix of industrial development and militarists who thought stealing resources would be better than buying them. In this case one cannot talk of a dual role. China was already well and truly “opened up”. This was better described as a disemboweling. Total Chinese deaths during the China-Japan War from 1937-1945 have been estimated at between 15 and 20 million. (Ho Ping-ti, 1959, p. 252)

After making a mess everywhere else, the European powers turned in on themselves and committed another major act of depravity, to wit, World War I from 1914 to 1918. This was a war of imperialist rivalries in which 15-19 million died and which some naively believed had been ruled out by the international nature of capitalism. Capitalists instead rallied to the flag, produced lots of guns and made lots of profits. Added to the war toll was the 1918 influenza pandemic made particularly deadly by war conditions. (Gladwell 1997: 55)  This saw the death of 50-100 million people worldwide.

One upshot of this awful affair was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Increasing military defeats and the economic strains of the war were the final straw for the Czarist regime. And the Czar did not help matters by taking command of the armed forces and leaving his wife and Rasputin to run the government. The collapse of the regime was followed by a four year civil war in which the Reds defeated the Whites. The Whites were Russian nationalists with a penchant for massacring Jews. So the alternative to the Reds were not nice democrats; indeed, many exiled Whites subsequently joined fascist organizations.

The Need for Markets

The CEA report uses the failings in Soviet and Chinese agriculture to argue the  case for incentives and the need for private property and markets to prompt us to work and to produce the things we want. The Marxist view is that once we achieve an advanced level of economic development this is no longer the case because the possibility of eliminating want and toil changes the rules of the game. It is now possible to contemplate social ownership where the prime motivation is mutual regard and the satisfaction obtained from labor, with material reward being of diminishing importance.

The problem with Russia and China is that communists took over in countries that were still extremely backward. Their revolutions were very much historical accidents occurring before their due time. Under these conditions any movement down the communist road was bound to be very limited; and indeed in these cases the obstacles made it unsustainable. The same could be said about the rest of the “socialist camp” that emerged after World War II.[1] 

After dragging their countries out of extreme backwardness, the regimes in these countries lost interest in radical change and became quite reactionary. Socialism became equated with economic development plus the “communist” party in charge. The workers became ciphers rather than actors in their own right.

Notwithstanding this dead-end for the revolution, the efforts to overcome backwardness are nothing to be sneezed at. They fared better than comparable regions that remained under capitalist suzerainty. And in the case of the Soviet Union, feverish efforts in the 1930s meant that it was industrially prepared for the task of defeating fascism, an event best described as the greatest achievement of the 20th century. They are now relatively advanced capitalist societies in the “upper middle income” category, and comparable in terms of GNI per capita to countries such as Turkey, Mexico and Brazil that did not suffer “the scourge of communism”.

The modernizing efforts of the Mao years in China created the conditions the bourgeoisie needed once they took over after his death. Previously they had been confined to sabotaging socialism. Now they were in charge and had free rein to do it their way. They have really gone to town; and we also have India following up the rear. Both these mega-regions are undergoing considerable industrialization and have a shrinking peasantry and growing proletariat. From a Marxist perspective this augurs well for the future.

At the moment, only part of the world has achieved a level of development where the elimination of the necessity of want and toil is within reach. It comprises about 20 percent of the world’s population and primarily includes the United States, Europe and Japan. While some regions are not far out of reach, others still have quite a way to go. So, unfortunately a large section of the world’s population, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will take a few generations to get on top of their backwardness.

With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty. Under less developed conditions, the prospect of shared hunger and distress impels those who are in a position to do so to exploit others through plunder, slavery, serfdom or the ownership of the means of production. However, as the average share begins to promise an increasing degree of prosperity, the imperative to fare better than others diminishes.

Mechanization and automation, under developed capitalism have done much to reduce the odious or toilsome nature of work. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past and much of the remaining menial and routine work in the manufacturing and service sectors will be automated in the next generation. The work we are left with will be primarily intellectual in nature and potentially interesting and challenging. It begins to be something one could imagine doing for its own sake.

We can expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to underperform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties.

Under these new conditions where we no longer need to compete for a decent material existence, it now becomes possible to base a society on mutual regard and social ownership of the means of production. We can discard the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism where sociopaths are often the biggest winners.

Mutual regard is enlightened self-interest. You only thrive when others thrive. You do the right thing by others because you know that an increasing majority are doing the same. You know you are contributing to a “pool” of well-being that everybody shares.

This will transform work. It will end what Marxists call alienation. We will do what we can to make the work of others productive and rewarding. These relations with our fellows are what make it possible for work to become something performed for its own sake rather than simply a necessary means to an income. At the same time, we are happy with your equal share knowing that others on the whole are doing their best.

The thriving of others is critical in all areas of life. You cannot thrive if those who impact on your life are disturbed, frustrated and poorly functioning.

Mutual regard will not just be a case of caring more. It will have to also mean being willing and able to confront bad behavior directed against ourselves or others. This will require us to cast off passive, submissive and weak-spirited habits engendered by our subordination under capitalism, and acquire a strength of character that gives us the confidence and moral courage to deal with bullies, schemers and people with a whole gamut of behavioral issues. We will not let the worst people set the tone. Top of the list are those who want to lord it over us and become a new ruling class.

Critical to the process is the emergence of a large and increasing number of people who see the revolutionary transformation of the conditions around them as an important mission in life.[2]

Economic Calculation

Most economists would argue that this is all in vain. They tell us that an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system.[3]

While we do not know how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody between economic units that would prevent decentralized decision-making based on prices.

We can also counter the claim that any price system under social ownership would be inferior to a market based one because it would not reflect the discovery process that emerges from competition between market participants. It is true that in the presence of uncertainty, there needs to be multiple participants trying out their own approaches to problems on the basis of their own opinions, guesses and hunches. Those that come up with the best and most highly valued products using the cheapest methods win out in this competitive contest. However, social ownership does not throw up any inherent obstacles to a diversity of approaches.

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 could be free to try out different production methods and product designs. Some will be new entrants who are either existing enterprises moving into a new area with synergies or starts ups established by enthusiasts with ideas the incumbents are not open to or capable of developing. This diversity could be greatly assisted by having a number of independent agencies (‘banks’) disbursing funds in any given industry on the basis of their own assessment of what are good investments. Indeed, diversity could be planned if there is not enough of it emerging of its own accord.

At the same time, it is possible to imagine enterprises being free to choose their suppliers on the basis of cost and quality and having to outbid other users of a resource or intermediate good.

Economists have also spilt much ink on the impossibility of effective central economic planning. However, their view now seem out of date. Quantities for highly disaggregated product codes can be fed into an input-output table in real time with modern computer networks, and numbers crunched using modern computers and appropriate algorithms.[4] 

Collective ownership could do a great job of producing what people want. This is despite the widely held view that it would require some central body to arbitrarily decide on final output.  Individuals could receive vouchers that they could spend on what they choose, with prices responding to changes in supply and demand. Consumer surveys could play a role. There could be democratic decisions on what collective goods to produce and the rate of investment, and these could be funded through taxation. And there would be nothing to stop the use of interest rates to guide investment decisions.

Initially people’s income will mainly be a wage that is a market price for their labor power but even when we get a fair way down the communist path, and income becomes pretty much separated from work performed, you could still have shadow prices for labor power where enterprises put in bids for the various kinds of workers they require.

Not only will an economy based on social ownership work fine. It will do a better job than capitalism. Capitalism may be streets ahead of stagnant pre-capitalist societies, however, the gap between what is possible and what capitalism delivers is wide and getting wider. It is an increasing fetter on the economy’s productive forces that social ownership can remove. The revolutionary transformation of the economy and society will take off the brakes by eliminating economic crises, by vastly increasing the science and innovation effort, and by unleashing the initiative and enthusiasm of workers that capitalism cannot tap.

The Green Problem

While the economists are telling us that eliminating the necessity of want and toil cannot be the basis for communism, the green movement is telling us that want and toil are unavoidable. They say there are limits to growth and we are already exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity. However, I would suggest that prosperity for all is not difficult to imagine with scientific and technological advances. Where land is a constraint, we can build higher into the sky and tunnel deeper into the ground. Precision farming, biotechnology and other innovations will provide far more food while using less land and water, an already established trend that is gathering pace in spite of opposition from greens. There will be limitless supplies of clean energy from a range of resources. We can already be sure that future generations of nuclear power technology would be able to rely on virtually inexhaustible fuel resources. Then there are future technologies we can presently only guess at. For example, biotechnology may open up new ways of harnessing the sun. The mineral resources we rely on are more than sufficient, even without considering future access to extraterrestrial resources and our ability to devise ways to substitute one resource for another. We will protect the biosphere with more advanced and better funded waste and conservation management. Indeed, in many respects we have seen capitalist countries get cleaner as they get richer.

Venezuela

The report provides Venezuela as a present-day example of a country with highly socialist policies. The regime calls itself ‘socialist’ and so do its supporters and opponents. However, it  is, of course, just an oppressive kleptocracy and hated by the vast majority. Like all kleptocracies it places as much of the economy as possible under state control in order to suck it dry. It is a country with 4,000 generals all on the take. Anyone who calls this ‘socialism’ is just being disingenuous, whether they are supporters or opponents of the regime.

Of course, the fact that the regime describes itself as socialist is no great surprise. You could not really have expected Chavez to call his regime “Kleptocracy of the 21st Century”. His socialist rhetoric fitted well with his anti-American demagoguery. Everyone who opposes the regime is an imperialist agent and any problem the regime was having was due to imperialist sabotage.

Kleptocracy was accompanied by the buying of votes from the poorest section of society. However, these bribes did not represent a redistribution away from the rich. Just like the billions stolen by the “boliburguesía”, these benefits were at the expense of future consumption. They were funded by oil revenue that should have gone into maintaining and increasing production capacity and by foreign loans. They have been eating their seed corn.

All Chavez did was create hopes that he then shattered. His education and healthcare schemes are now a burnt-out wreck. There was never any “from below”. Chavez dispensed the cash, and policies were his thought bubbles pronounced from on high.

There are Chavez fans who try to retrieve something by claiming that the present Maduro regime has strayed from Chavismo. In fact, it has simply taken it to the next level.

Then there is the regime’s sinister relationship with Cuba where it receives police state support in return for oil. Cuba has a zombie regime on which Marxism long ago past judgement. It is very much a Soviet clone on the lines of the old eastern Europe. Its socialism is state ownership with their “communist” party in charge. Society is not undergoing a socialist transformation and the best thing the government can do is assist the transition to a more normal bourgeois society by holding free elections, a bit like those that occurred in eastern Europe 30 years ago.

The fact that much of the “left” has some sympathy for the regimes in Caracas and Havana is one of a number of signs that it is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Economic Freedom

The report refers to studies that show a strong positive association between “economic freedom” and economic performance. The former is measured using the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index which measures an economy’s freedom from government intervention (ie socialist policies). (Fraser Institute 2018)

 “The indicators are aggregated to five main categories, which are then given equal weight in the overall index. The first category is the size of the government in terms of spending, taxation, and the size of government-controlled enterprises. The second is the legal system and property rights in terms of the protection of persons having such rights. The third category is referred to as “sound money,” and measures policies related to inflation. The fourth is free international trade, which means that citizens are free to trade with other countries. The fifth is limited regulation, which addresses the freedom to exchange and trade domestically.” (CEA 2018: 24)

They are talking here about government intervention in a capitalist economy.  Of course, Marxists do not have a dog in this fight because they are not interested in tinkering with capitalism only eliminating it. But that being said, free market or “neoliberal” economics has an extensive literature critiquing such tinkering that is fairly sound and represents a real contribution to economic thought. However, it falls short by ignoring the fact that this government failure is a form of market failure. These problems are seen as some sort of exogenous imposition on what would otherwise be a pure pristine capitalism. In fact, they are very much endogenous to the system.

A lot of government interference in the free market serves the vested interests of the capitalists and workers in the favored industries, and the bureaucrats and politicians who make a career out of it. It enhances the value of their property rights – their capital or their job and career prospects – at the expense of society as whole. Vested interest is just another name for bourgeois private property which in turn is just another name for capitalism.

Welfare programs have become great opportunities for bureaucratic empire building, but historically the primary motivator was a desire to save capitalism from itself. There was a concern that if they did not introduce a range of social welfare reforms workers would be seduced by communism. It was an attempt by the system to inoculate itself from that dreaded infection.

The Nordic Countries

The report wants to disabuse American socialists and left liberals of their love affair with the Nordic countries.

They point out that the Nordic countries have abandoned many of their much admired “socialist policies” as measured by their much improved EPW Index. Besides, their higher levels of government spending do not look quite so socialist when you take into account that it is middle income earners rather than the rich who bare the tax burden.

We are also reminded that these countries are poorer economic performers with lower GDP per capita than the US. While not wanting to spend any time defending an “alternative” form of capitalism, it is difficult not to at least suggest that any comparison should also look at how people at the bottom of the heap fare.

The report also claims that the value of their free education is less than the US when measured by earning differential between graduates and non-graduates. They see this as an example of how free provision leads to lower quality. The logic is that there would be a tendency to underfund the institutions and students would be less concerned about the standard of their degree. Determining whether this is the case would require knowing a lot more about tertiary education in Nordic countries and other tuition-free countries. This is a task I am quite unwilling to take on. Furthermore, nothing hinges on it. Any problems of free provision in the Nordic or other capitalist countries tells you nothing about free provision in a society undergoing a proletarian revolutionary transition. And I must add there is nothing preventing such a society from having tuition fees.

Medicare for All

The CEA report criticizes proposals for a universal single payer health system supported by the likes of Bernie Sanders and usually dubbed “Medicare for All” (Sanders 2017).  Such a system would replace all existing private health insurance and would leave the patient with no out of pocket expenses, no copayments or deductibles. The report points to a range of problems with free government provision and to the negative impact of having to raise so much more tax revenue to pay for it.

They describe this as patients and bureaucrats spending other people’s money. Patients would have an incentive to overuse services such as doctor’s visits much like a prepaid all you can eat buffet. The healthier would crowd out the less healthy and there would be no incentive to seek out the cheapest options. At the same time bureaucrats will not have the incentive to economize or make the best purchases.

A government medical insurance monopoly as proposed would be less efficient than having many competing companies. In particular, the government healthcare bureaucracy has shown itself to be very poor at detecting fraud. Efforts to rein in government spending are bound to affect the health budget leading to waiting lists and quotas for particular treatments.

Then there is the fiscal burden of such a program. A free universal healthcare system would require a huge increase in income tax collection unless other government spending was cut drastically.[5] This is not just the same as taking in tax what people would otherwise have spent on their own healthcare because of the so-called excess burden or deadweight loss of taxes in excess of the revenues.

“Earning additional income requires sacrifices (a loss of free time, relocating to an area with better-paying jobs, training, taking an inconvenient schedule, etc.), and people evaluate whether the net income earned is enough to justify the sacrifices. Socialism’s high tax rates fundamentally tilt that trade-off in favor of less income.” (CEA page 12)

What could a socialist state do?

I will leave it to “socialists” of the Bernie Sanders variety to put the case for public provision of healthcare under the present capitalist system. My only concern is whether the CEA’s critique has any relevance for a society undergoing a proletarian revolution.

Not necessarily all free

While a proletarian state could have free provision of healthcare, there would be nothing to rule out significant levels of user pays.

You could have individuals paying for insurance that covers unlikely and unpredictable but high cost health events. There could be a single insurer or mutual insurance schemes owned by their members (friendly societies). At the same time, more routine or predictable health spending could be out of pocket, assisted by health saving and loan schemes. In the case of drugs, you may have patients paying the production cost while research costs are paid for out of taxation.

To the extent that people are financially secure and receiving an adequate wage, training allowance or pension we can move away from healthcare being part of the welfare system. Of course, special provisions will have to be made for people with unusually serious medical needs.

Government Revenue

What about government revenue under socialism? A proletarian state could, for the following reasons, have high levels of taxation without the present distortions.

To begin with income tax would not have to be progressive. Tax could be a constant percentage of income  or you could even have marginal rates that decline or even go to zero. To the extent that wage differences continue, they will be for good economic reasons that should not to be undone by progressive income taxation.

Scope for reducing marginal rates is limited at the moment where the tax system is seen as a means of redistribution in a world where there are some people on extremely low and insecure income and others on extremely high income such as capitalists with the dividends and senior executives pulling in economic rents.[6]

As communism takes root and work is primarily undertaken for its own sake and from a desire to contribute, the incentive effect of income tax would be reduced even further. Also, a proletarian state could make greater use of taxes that do not distort wages or prices and have far lower collection costs.

Firstly, there are poll or head taxes. These are an equal amount paid by everyone on a regular basis regardless of their income. These are unacceptable under capitalism where income for some people is low and insecure. Indeed, it caused riots when Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce one to cover the cost of local government. In the context of medical insurance, it is worth noting that premiums in a compulsory scheme would effectively be an hypothecated poll tax. Collection and compliance costs would be low because the individual simply has to provide their bank account details and authorize regular payments just like a utility bill.

The other non-distorting tax is one imposed on land values. People would pay a tax for the natural and built amenities around where they live. If all land is deemed to be publicly owned one could describe this as a land rent. (Whether people own their residence is a separate matter.) This tax is famously associated with the 19th century economist Henry George.

The tax would be set so as to “ration” a location to those who place the highest value on living there. At the same time, improving the amenity of an area would ensure a tax revenue stream to pay for it. This would include building hospitals and other health facilities.

Collection costs would be low because you cannot conceal or move land and there are well established methods for calculating the tax. The amount that can be collected from this tax will, however, be reduced by other taxes that people have to pay. Anything that reduces their effective income will reduce what they are willing to pay in land rent. Unsurprisingly land value taxes under capitalism are opposed by wealthy landowners.

Healthcare under socialism

Under a proletarian regime, healthcare, like all sectors of the economy, will undergo a stage by stage transformation. Larger capitalist enterprises would have to come fairly quickly under state control. Smaller businesses in many cases would remain under individual or “cooperative” ownership for somewhat longer.

As with all the other sectors of the revolutionary transitional economy, healthcare will display its greater efficiency and effectiveness as it takes on more communist characteristics. Contributing to the best outcomes will become the overriding motivation of medical workers. This will include overcoming all of the authoritarian nastiness found here as everywhere else. There will be no deferring to incompetent or corrupt superiors nor a passive “I just work here” attitude. Everyone will be a “whistle blower” if necessary, except they will be fixing the problems themselves.

Summing Up

By setting out the full range of confusion on the subject of socialism, the CEA report has provided a good opportunity to both explain and defend the Marxist view on the matter.

When Marxists use the term socialism, they mean the revolutionary transition period when capitalism is transformed into communism. Attempts at this transition to date have been defeated by unfavorable conditions and balance of forces, particularly those arising from economic and social backwardness. These defeats have been achieved by means of socialist regimes losing their revolutionary nature and being “socialist” only because the people running the show continued to call themselves communists.

Key to the success of proletarian revolution is full capitalist development. This will eliminate the necessity of want and toil that historically has set all against all. When it comes to “economic calculation” there is nothing that capitalism can do that socialism cannot do better.

A proletarian government would be in a better position to freely provide healthcare and other goods and services particularly as conditions become more communist. However, there is nothing about socialism that rules out extensive user pays.

Most of the CEA report is taken up with government intervention under capitalism. The report calls this socialism, as do a lot of people. However, this is not socialism by the reckoning of Marxists and its success or failure is not their concern.

References

Cottrell, W. Paul and Allin Cockshott 1993. Towards a New Socialism

http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/new_socialism.pdf

Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA). ”The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”, October 2018

https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Opportunity-Costs-of-Socialism.pdf

Davis, Mike 2007. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the Third World. Verso. London

Fraser Institute 2018. The Human Freedom Index 2018

https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/human-freedom-index-2018

Gladwell, M. (29 September 1997). “The Dead Zone”. New Yorker. (Cited in “Spanish Flu” Wikipedia.)

Ho Ping-ti. 1959. Studies on the Population of China, 1368–1953. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Cited in “World War II casualties” Wikipedia.)

Lavoie, Don 1985. Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press,

Marx, Karl 1853. “The British Rule in India” Marx-Engels Collected Works Volume 12

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/25.htm

———.1853. “Revolution in China and Europe.” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 12.  Lawrence & Wishart. London.  pp. 93-100.

———.1858. “Marx to Engels 8 October 1858” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 40.  Lawrence & Wishart. London.  pp. 345-7

———.1859. “The Future Results of British Rule in India” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 12.  Lawrence & Wishart. London.  pp. 217-222.

———. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Online edition.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/.

———. 1976 [1867], Capital, volume 1 (Penguin).

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels.1846. The German Ideology, Part 1, Section D

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01d.htm#d4

———. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Online edition.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf.

McMullen, David (2019) “The Forgotten Message of Marxism”, Simply Marxism

www.simplymarxism.com

Polanyi, Karl (2001 [1944]).  The Great TransformationThe Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.

Beacon Press. Boston.

Sanders, B. 2017. “Options to Finance Medicare for All.”

https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/options-to-finance-medicare-forall?

inline=file.


[1] The only industrialized exceptions were East Germany and the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. The regimes were the product of the Soviet Red Army rather than any homegrown proletarian revolution and had no independent existence.

[2] For more on the problem of proletarian revolution see the pages 11 – 14 of the booklet Some Forgotten Marxism which is available to download at www.simplymarxism.com

[3] Lavoie (1985) best sums up this argument. There is also plenty of material at mises.org.

[4] See Cottrell and Cockshott (1993).

[5] The CEA report, does not discuss the possibility of reducing the work incentive problem by the federal government introducing a value added tax (VAT) on goods and services. This is very common in other countries. On the other side of the ledger, they do not mention the incentive to free ride by working less when the government pays for what you would otherwise have to pay for. You have a reduced need for income.

[6] They are paid more than their “opportunity cost” which is what they would be paid if they did an ordinary paying job. Stockholders feel they have to bid for the “best” and also reward them in ways that encourage them to act in their interest.

Persecution of Marxist students in Beijing – where there is repression, there is resistance!

Where there is repression, there is resistance – Mao.

‘Qiu disappeared April 29.

‘State security agents seized him that day from Beijing’s outskirts, his classmates say. Qiu’s offense? He was the leader of the Marxist student association at the elite Peking University, a communist of conscience who defied the Communist Party of China.

‘Over the past eight months, China’s ruling party has gone to extraordinary lengths to shut down the small club of students at the country’s top university. Peking University’s young Marxists drew the government’s ire after they campaigned for workers’ rights and openly criticized social inequality and corruption in China.

‘That alone was provocative. In recent years, China’s leaders have been highly sensitive to rumblings of labor unrest as the sputtering economy lays bare the divides between rich and poor — fissures that were formed, and mostly overlooked, during decades of white-hot growth’.

* * * *

June 4th marks the 30th anniversary of the day on which troops entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire upon protestors. It was an outcome of the restoration of capitalism in China, the victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’ within the Communist Party that Mao had warned against and led struggle against.

The idea that things can turn into their opposite is a very challenging one, but it is true.

The violent repression at Tiananmen Square is proof that the Communist Party was no longer revolutionary, no longer socialist but a case of ‘capitalism without democracy’.

The Chinese parliament currently has about a hundred billionaires among its delegates, most are nominally ‘communists’. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/02/chinas-parliament-has-about-100-billionaires-according-to-data-from-the-hurun-report.html

Maoists and other pro-democracy dissidents are imprisoned and now ‘disappear’ at the hands of state authorities. https://monthlyreview.org/commentary/on-december-24-2004-maoists-in-china-get-three-year-prison-sentences-for-leafleting/

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2125541/chinese-scholars-sign-open-letter-calling-release

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/if-i-disappear-chinese-students-make-farewell-messages-amid-crackdowns-over-labor-activism-/2019/05/25/6fc949c0-727d-11e9-9331-30bc5836f48e_story.html?fbclid=IwAR0SOnpzbmRBUyB6j3uYJ02PkAALeAyxGtqV03hzPrWuQVK6sb6eHMr8hmQ&utm_term=.4e004ccb1811

The people, however, understand revolutionary change and their own socialist revolution is within living memory.

Where there is repression, there is resistance.

* * * *

Photo of statue at York University, Canada, commemorating the resistance of students and workers in Tiananmen Square.

Some fighting words for International Women’s Day

 

atlantic

The Russian Revolution began on International Women’s Day of February 23, 1917 (according to the Julian calendar, March 8 in the West). After the revolution and the winning of suffrage by women, Soviet Russia adopted ‘Working Women’s Day’ as an official holiday in 1917. The move was instigated by the world’s first woman to be a minister of state, Alexandra Kollontai, and by Lenin.

In 1920, Kollontai said:

‘The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us’.

At the turn of the C20th, Lenin, as a Marxist, understood the progressive transformative aspects of developing capitalism, in the context of a largely feudal society:

‘Large-scale machine industry, which concentrates masses of workers who often come from various parts of the country, absolutely refuses to tolerate survivals of patriarchalism and personal dependence, and is marked by a truly contemptuous attitude to the past.

‘It is this break with obsolete tradition that is one of the substantial conditions which have created the possibility and evoked the necessity of regulating production and of public control over it. In particular, speaking of the transformation brought about by the factory in the conditions of life of the population, it must be stated that the drawing of women and juveniles into production is, at bottom, progressive. It is indisputable that the capitalist factory places these categories of the working population in particularly hard conditions, and that for them it is particularly necessary to regulate and shorten the working day, to guarantee hygienic conditions of labour, etc.; but endeavours completely to ban the work of women and juveniles in industry, or to maintain the patriarchal manner of life that ruled out such work, would be reactionary and utopian.

‘By destroying the patriarchal isolation of these categories of the population who formerly never emerged from the narrow circle of domestic, family relationships, by drawing them into direct participation in social production, large-scale machine industry stimulates their development and increases their independence, in other words, creates conditions of life that are incomparably superior to the patriarchal immobility of pre-capitalist relations.” (The Development of Capitalism in Russia – V.I. Lenin)

The earliest (unofficial) observance of the day, known as Working Woman’s Day, occurred in New York in 1909, under the auspices of the Socialist Party of America.

International Women’s Day became a global event in 1975, when it was adopted by the United Nations.

In March 1921, Lenin wrote that,

‘…under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly—and this is the main thing—they remain in household bondage”, they continue to be “household slaves”, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household’.

Much has been achieved by women since then, pretty much everywhere (save for societies that still have feudal and tribalist cultures and property relations), though the ‘survivals of patriarchalism’, as Lenin put it, also are to be found pretty much everywhere and still need to be exposed and defeated.

Helen Reddy’s song, ‘I am Woman’ (1971), became an anthem for the 1970s women’s liberation movement in many countries. It is defiant, stirring and confident – with no hint of victimhood ideology. It remains a great anthem, into the twenty-first century. The Bolsheviks would have approved.

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am

 

 

Celebrating the Russian revolution: from the ox-drawn plough to nuclear power and Sputnik

 

Sputnik_670

I was six years of age when ‘Sputnik’ became the first artificial earth satellite. It was sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. I have a vague memory of my parents taking me into the street that night and, with curious neighbours, peering into the dark star-lit skies over West Brunswick, Melbourne. I’m fairly sure someone said they could see it, and maybe I saw it, or something, among the stars too.

I also recall my father, Loreto, remarking on how the success of Sputnik highlighted ‘the superiority of socialism’. Of course, I didn’t understand what that meant. What was socialism? And what was it meant to be superior to? He was a Labor voter, but very much to the left, and it wasn’t uncommon for Labor men and women to talk favourably about socialism in those days.

About a decade later, when I was 16, my dad and I would sometimes take the number 19 tram from Brunswick to the City on Saturday mornings and visit the International Bookshop in Excelsior House, 17 Elizabeth Street. An antiquated rickety old lift would take us up to the second floor where we’d be greeted by the Communist Party shopkeeper, Jack Morrison.

Sometimes a couple of dad’s young workmates from the factory where he worked would meet us there. We’d browse through copies of glossy propaganda magazines like ‘Soviet Pictorial’ and ‘China Pictorial’, marvelling at the photographic evidence of bumper harvests and advanced technology. I was a reader of science fiction and the images of gigantic tractors and huge pumpkins enthused and fascinated me.

By this stage of my life I had an understanding of socialism and identified with it in a gut kind of way. It was about progress, about eradication of poverty, about imagining a better future based on scientific discovery and technological innovation – and about the working class who produced society’s wealth taking control of the means of producing it.

At a time when censorship laws in Australia and the west were ridiculous, it was also about greater freedom. The International Bookshop flaunted censorship laws by stocking some of the books that had been banned by the government for political or sexual content. (D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was in the latter category).

An example of political censorship was a ban on a pamphlet that exposed US war crimes in Vietnam. I forget its title now but remember obtaining copies from the Eureka Youth League in 1968 and distributing them, surreptitiously, at my high school. The pamphlet was banned under the Obscene Publications Act, from memory.

* * * *

My father had served in the Second World War, volunteering in 1940 for the Royal Air Force in his homeland, Malta, when the Italian Fascists started bombarding the main island of the Mediterranean archipelago. He remembered the priests opposing British imperialism from the pulpit in the lead up to the War and assuring their congregations that Malta’s future was best served by accepting Mussolini’s Italia Irredenta.

By any measure, British imperialism’s crimes at that time were far worse than those of Italian imperialism, but on the other hand, British bourgeois democracy was much preferable to Italian/German fascism.

During the War, my father served in Africa, the Middle East, Palestine, and France, before being stationed in London after the War.

The War changed his world, everyone’s world, and in mixing with other RAF men, his eyes were opened to new ways of seeing and thinking. He remembered Jewish and Scottish airmen telling him about Stalin, the Soviet Union (“where the workers ruled”) and communism. (Note, they are called ‘airmen’ but they served on the ground, in regiments, and never flew).

The troops knew that Stalin’s Red Army were routing the Nazis in Europe and my dad’s comrades told him the story about the early British appeasement of Hitler and the west’s refusal to heed Stalin’s calls for collective security against fascism as early as 1933.

After the War, in London, still in uniform, my father thrived in the cosmopolitan environment of one of the world’s biggest cities. Servicemen in uniform were given free tickets to the West End theatres and to lectures given by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’. My dad took advantage of such opportunities.

He started buying the ‘Daily Worker’ regularly, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and found that while there were strong pockets of anti-communism, in general Londoners were tolerant of it and there was sympathy for Stalin and the Red Army.

My dad told me about an occasion when he went to work at his job in the Air Ministry in London after the War, having purchased the Daily Worker that morning. Walking through the main office, one of the heads of the ministry – a ‘Lord’ no less – noticed him and asked, ‘What’s that paper you’re carrying?’ My dad saluted and replied, ‘Sir! It’s the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party’. Lord-so-and-so responded: ‘Oh, I thought it was. May I borrow it after you’ve finished with it? I forgot to buy mine this morning’.

It’s easy to forget that communism was popular after the War and that the Cold War arose in part because of communism’s popularity in Europe, west and east. If it’s true that reactionaries tremble at the mere rustle of leaves, then you can imagine how they responded to elections in places like France and Italy where between a quarter and third of the people voted Communist.

* * * *

I want to celebrate the centenary of the Russian revolution because it was an attempt to build socialism after the old feudal order had been overthrown by the people, led by the communist Bolsheviks. That it was led by communists was a rather flukish situation. The overthrow of the feudal order required a bourgeois democratic revolution that would develop capitalism. As David McMullen says in Rescuing the Message of the Communist Manifesto:

‘There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution’.

The Russian revolution also shows how the old order never just gives in. Civil war followed the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, with the old order backed by military forces of more than a dozen foreign governments.

Then there came the rise of fascism in Europe and the active pro-fascist fifth columns in various countries, especially the Soviet Union. Hitler hated communism, which he called Judeo-Bolshevism. In the Soviet Union, the fifth columnists engaged in sabotage and collaboration – as they did in some western countries too. In the west, the fascist sympathisers promoted isolationism in foreign policy. It’s “over there”, not our problem, we’ll only make things worse, blah blah blah. Such is the mentality that thinks in terms of ethnic identity and nationality rather than humanity.

As if things couldn’t become more difficult, there came the Second World War which, initially, the Soviet Union tried to keep out of; though Stalin had sought collective security agreements with Britain and other powers in the early 1930s when Hitler’s Nazis took power. Britain declined and instead entered into the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1934. Poland agreed to a non-aggression pact with Hitler, rather than collective security to thwart him, also in 1934.

The Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, and Soviet resistance, resulted in 25 million mainly Russian deaths. The Soviet Union instigated the greatest military action in world history known as Operation Bagration, codename for the 1944 Soviet Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation, which secured the defeat of the Nazis. Women were mobilised along with men and the Red Army’s women’s sniper force became legendary in the Soviet Union. Lyudmila Pavlichenko shot 309 Nazi soldiers as a Ukrainian Red Army Soviet sniper during the war. (Woody Guthrie wrote a song for her in 1942).

It was understood at that time that the Soviet Union, despite what it had been through – a revolution followed by a civil war caused by the military intervention of forces backed by a dozen foreign governments, the subversive activities and sabotage of a pro-fascist fifth column, and an invasion by the German Nazis and their Finnish and Romanian allies that killed 25 million Soviet citizens – had achieved plenty through its socialist system.

Industrialisation, massive dam construction and electrification of the countryside had lifted millions from the acute poverty experienced under Tsardom. Stalin wanted to create “a second America” in terms of industrial progress. For the first time, the socialist republics of the USSR developed their own motor, aircraft, tank, tractor, machine tool, electrical and chemical industries – with the assistance of European and American experts.

The dam built on the Dnieper River from 1927 was the biggest hydro-electric station in Europe and was consistent with Lenin’s slogan: ‘Communism is soviet power plus electrification’.

lenin electrification soviet

New cities were built, most notably Magnitogorsk, which was based on iron ore mining and steel production. Hundreds of experts were brought in as advisers, including Americans, as the city was to be based on US steel-cities, Gary (Indiana) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania).

Roads, railways, canals also helped move Russia and the Soviet Union further from the feudal era of the ox-drawn plough. The Volga-Don Canal and the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal were achievements of a system in which need and progress motivate planning and production. And, in 1954, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to harness nuclear power for peaceful use, with the operation of the APS-1 nuclear power plant at Obninsk, the ‘Science City’.

This material progress, the application of human ingenuity in the creative-destructive transformation of Nature through labour, is a key reason as to why so many working class people in the west were attracted to socialism.

If the unleashing of the productive forces in a backward economy like Russia in the early C20th could produce such results via social ownership, then what could be achieved under socialism in the advanced industrial west where progress was held back by concentrated private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of maximum profit for those private owners as the goal of production?

Despite the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, these questions remain. They just need to be put back on the agenda of public discourse. Instead, we can expect the same old ritualistic denunciations based on the false premise that ‘the History is settled’.

Celebrating the Russian revolution

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Eye-witness accounts

The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

The specific achievements under socialism

Homeless children 1927

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

Baku oil fields

Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

* * * *

The Russian revolution may be 100 years old but reactionaries of all stripes, if they must see it at all, want to see it dead and rotting. In this state its use to them is in glorifying its actual and putative failures and turning a blind eye to its successes.

If the communists and their allies were able to achieve what they did in such backward conditions, what is that saying about the bourgeoisie today? Slovenly, past their use by date and basically backward (lift your game or get out of the way!)

Bourgeois leadership may have been fine against the feudalists. However it was pretty pathetic in Russia and China – to the point where the proletarian parties had to do it for them and did a vastly better job in the process. This last point is an irony of significance. And that’s the point about the advances of the 1920’s in the USSR: they need to ‘live’ and be exciting for us now – and be used as a contemporary point of comparison.

‘It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership.

‘There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it’.*

* * * *

Eye-witness accounts

In browsing on the topic of the Russian revolution, I came across a 40 page pamphlet, Women in Russia. It was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1928 and reveals some of the changes and improvements in everyday life for women in Russia in the short space of ten years after the revolution.

women in russia

Karl Marx once said that you can measure the progress of a society by looking at the condition of women within it and that great social changes were not possible without ‘the feminine ferment’. I think he was – and is – right.

The pamphlet is the report by a group of five English women who visited Russia on the occasion of the revolution’s first decade to see what was happening. They were Beth Turner, Rose Smith, Lily Webb, Fanny Deakin and Florence Maxwell.

I can’t find out much about them individually, except for Fanny Deakin who at some point in time joined the Communist Party. Fanny was also a graduate with distinction from the ‘University of Life and Hard Knocks’. The Working Class Movement Library outlines her story thus:

Fanny Deakin (1883–1968) was a lifelong activist from Silverdale in the North Staffordshire coalfield. Of the five children born to her marriage with Noah Deakin, only one survived into adulthood.  This experience, typical of that of many working class communities, led to lifetime campaigning for better maternity services.  But her political involvement incorporated membership of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party and, later, the Communist Party.  Her political experience was shaped by disputes in local collieries and, above all, by the 1926 General Strike where Fanny was involved in leading processions, holding protests and speaking at large gatherings. Her motivation was summed up as ‘Fighting for the Mothers’.

The five women visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kharkov and Baku in order to learn about health services, kindergartens, birth control and abortion. They also visited coalfields in the Don Basin and the newly developed oilfields in Azerbaijan. Their trip was funded by local collections in England.

If you want to know why so many working class people around the world were pro-communist or pro-Soviet back then, before the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the development of today’s openly authoritarian oligarchy, ‘Women in Russia’ is one among many eye-witness accounts that helps explain the reasons.

Women had fought in the revolution and in the civil war. During the latter, for instance, 14,000 women took part in the military defence of Leningrad against the ‘White’ army forces of the anti-communist anti-Semite General Yudenich.

Women’s liberation from feudal autocracy was a promise of the revolution, and it was certainly achieved.

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The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

In the decade after the Bolshevik-led victory, many foreign delegations visited to see for themselves what was happening, including some from the United Kingdom, which was geographically close and had a great militant working class socialist tradition of its own.

Could the seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks, the redistribution of land and the taking over of the principal means of production by the workers, lead to anything good? It’s amazing what was achieved so quickly, given the obstacles.

The mass poverty and suffering under Tsarist autocracy was bad enough – the Bolshevik-led government in 1917 was starting off under terrible socio-economic conditions. Russia was very backward economically with little industry.

And then, with the revolution’s success, a civil war instigated by the anti-communists in Russia and supported militarily by more than a dozen western governments made things extremely difficult for the new socialist government. About 8 million people were killed in the civil war, for which responsibility lay with the instigators. In the areas controlled by the anti-communist ‘White’ armies, such as the Ukraine, massacres were carried out by the ‘Whites’ against communists and Jews.

On top of that, Britain and its War allies blockaded Russia from 1918 to 1920, making trade (and the wealth arising from it) impossible.

In 1921, to make matters even worse (if that were possible), lack of rainfall led to famine.

Yet, under conditions of social ownership based on workers’ control, with production geared to social need rather than private profit, much progress was achieved.

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The specific achievements under socialism

The five English women properly contrasted the things they saw and experienced in Russia in 1927 to what they understood about conditions prior to the revolution:

In comparison with pre-revolution standards and conditions, the lot of the workers and peasants has improved almost beyond belief and is still on the upgrade.

Among the changes introduced by the Soviet government that particularly impressed the women were:

Equal pay for equal work enforced.

Laws against child labour. No child under 14 could be employed and those aged between 14 and 16 could not work more than four hours a day.

Allowance for single mothers. Unheard of in Tsarist times, the revolutionary government compelled fathers to pay one-third of their income in child support.

Birth control information was freely available and ‘secret abortion’ (what we would call ‘backyard abortion’) was countered by the provision of ‘skilled medical assistance’.

Workers’ committees established in each factory to make decisions, including the power to recall foremen and bosses. (In the Rabotchi textile factory which the women visited, the factory committee was dominated by women workers. The factory employed 5,750 workers and was previously owned by English capitalists. Under workers’ control, the factory abolished the humiliating practice of fines for lateness and introduced a medical clinic, crèche and kindergarten, subsidised meals, study groups, a library, games, sporting activity and a theatre).

Reduction of the working day from 10-and-a-half hours to 8 hours, with plans to reduce it to 7 hours in 1928. (This happened in January 1929).

Child care. Any workplace with more than 40 workers had to provide a crèche for the children of parents in the factory (paid for by the industry). Larger factories had kindergartens as well.

Free health care, including dentistry, introduced, with a program of new clinics and hospitals being built in cities and towns.

Expansion of maternity hospitals – 12,221 new ones built between 1917 and 1927.

– ‘Mother and child institutes’ set up to provide pre- and post-natal care.

– Conversion of the mansions and palaces of the rich into ‘rest homes’ for the workers.

Maternity leave. Workers received two months leave on full pay plus an allowance for staying at home to nurse the baby for nine months.

– Attachment of vocational schools to some large factories.

– Provision of rent-free accommodation for workers in places where factories owned the residences.

Free travel on public transport for workers who lived far from their workplaces.

– Programs introduced to improve health and safety in the workplaces, such as regular health checks, ventilation, drinking fountains and appropriate work clothing.

Expansion of formal education. In 1914, there were seven million children at primary school. In 1927, there were 10 million. In 1914, Russia had 90 universities. In 1927, there were 136.

Consumer co-operatives. Retail shops set up, with 15 million share-holders, along with state shops, accounted for 80% of business transactions.

* * * *

Homeless children

The ‘big enduring problem’ observed by the women in Russia was ‘one of the biggest problems’: homeless children. These were children ‘orphaned by war, famine and blockade’. The issue had been taken up by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, and was, in part, a cultural problem. The children ‘prefer to roam about in bands… the wanderlust is in their blood’.

The state was trying to assist them, however, and the five women visited a former monastery that was now being used as a home for vagrant children. The chapel was still being used for religious purposes.

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

As some of the women came from coal mining families and areas, they were also able to compare with the situation in England, as they experienced it. They visited two coal mines in the Don Basin and were favourably impressed. The Russian miners, for instance, worked a 6 hour day or an 8 hour day depending on the depth at which they worked underground. Under the Tsar, it was either 10-and-a-half or 12 hour day.

The mine workers enjoyed a month off each year, on full pay, whereas in England, the women said, coal miners dreaded holidays as it meant financial hardship. Fanny Deakin knew this from experience, as her husband was a coal miner.

Mine workers mostly lived in new housing developments, which the women said were based on the ‘English garden cities’, near the mines.

Under workers’ control, every pit-yard had a medical clinic and health-and-safety inspectors were brought in, for the first time. Medical treatment was free – an impossibility under the old order.

Work gear was also supplied free of charge, and mine workers retired at the age of 55 on a pension. When in between jobs, miners received ‘generous’ unemployment insurance.

Unlike under capitalism, coal production was increasing in the Soviet Union because of modernisation, not because of the workers being compelled to work faster.

Experts from Germany were recruited by the Soviet government to assist with new mines that were being sunk and the construction of power plants to supply electricity to areas that had lacked it.

****

Baku oil fields

The women visited part of the Baku oil field, and this is what they experienced:

In Baku we saw oilfields of enormous extent. They cover over a hundred square miles. Oil is exported from here to India, France, Britain, Italy, Turkey, Persia and America, and the wells now dug will last for fifty years.

Fabulous wealth is represented in this wonderful oilfield, and it is easy to see why it is coveted by the British capitalists.

On our way, we saw the place where the British General Thomas set fire to several oil tanks in 1917, when he was compelled to retreat. He blew up many buildings and a large part of the population.

When capitalists owned the oilfield, the workers were housed in mud huts without windows — places that reminded us of the middens in some of our English slums.

Now, 20,000 men are employed erecting houses. On one estate alone, accommodation has been provided for 10,000 families. Rents average 1s. 6d. a week, and each group of houses has an up-to-date wash-house and each estate its own social club for recreation.

The houses are built in family flats on the American style, each with its verandah… Gas, electricity and heating are all free. The average wage is about 35s. a week.

The workers have, in addition, many benefits from social insurance for which there are no deductions from their wages. When they are ill, they receive full pay for a month. Women get eight roubles a month (4s. a week) for nine months while nursing a baby, and 30 roubles (£3) at their confinement. At death, 45 roubles (£4 10s.) is paid for funeral expenses.

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Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

The report says:

It was in their work amongst the Eastern peoples, particularly the women, that the Bolsheviks encountered some of their most serious difficulties.

A backward and illiterate population, bound by superstition, religion and prejudice to keep its women in a state of seclusion, hidden from the eyes of men, bought and sold like cattle, subject to the whims and wishes of their husbands, had to be made to realise that the revolution had come, bringing with it freedom for women as well as men.

Under the influence of Bolshevik organisers tens of thousands of Eastern women threw off the “parandjak,” a hideous black veil of horsehair they had previously been compelled to wear when walking abroad, and dared to show their faces unveiled.

Although this was but a symbol of their new-found freedom, it was strenuously resisted by the priests and wealthy peasants. Women were beaten, in some cases to death, and murder and violence were frequent. Some of the organisers themselves met their death at the hands of the infuriated men.

Laws had to be passed for the protection of women who dared to unveil themselves, and funds were raised for the relief of the families of those who were killed during the campaign.

In spite of these difficulties the work progressed, and Eastern women are being drawn into the work of the co-operatives, the factories and even of the Soviets. In 1926-7 some 951,812 Eastern women took part in the elections to the rural Soviets, and 36,258 were elected as members of the Soviets.

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Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

The progress made in the first decade laid the basis for the first Five Year Plan adopted in 1928, which saw further rapid progress in the economic and social realms. The successes of the first 5 Year Plan influenced US President Roosevelt’s decision to officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1933.

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Bold thinking, revolutionary democracy and ‘the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola’

Last month, La Trobe University organised a ‘Bold Thinking’ panel for its 50th anniversary program at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

I was one of the four panellists. The others were Katie Holmes, professor of History at La Trobe, and my two old comrades, Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola. Fergus and Brian and I became known as ‘the La Trobe Three’ after we were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972. Amnesty International became interested in our case as we were political prisoners.

La Trobe live-streamed the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, including question time, and it can be seen here. Anyone wanting greater background can check out my book ‘Student Revolt’ (1989) or this essay which appeared in ‘Vestes: Australian Universities Review’ in 1984: VESTES essay – Student dissent LTU 1967-72 (1984)

This morning, I viewed the film of the event for the first time. I thought each of us did well but had a lot more we could have said.

As for me, I was extremely nervous. The last time I had spoken before so many people in a public political forum was 1980 at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall when I was on a panel in support of a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games.

Prior to the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, I jotted down a few key points. I was only able to make a few of them – after all, there were four of us sharing an hour – and I want to offer a few more thoughts (in no particular order) here.

* * * *

  1. I had wanted to mention at the beginning of the evening that while the notion of ‘the La Trobe Three’ is valid because only three of us were gaoled, there were in fact four of us who were named in the Supreme Court injunctions. The fourth was Rodney Taylor, who was never captured and thus not gaoled.
  1. Also, in late 1971, twenty-three left-wing students were fined by the University’s kangaroo court, or Proctorial Board, and twelve were excluded (expelled for specific periods). The authorities had accurately identified the core of the militant left, with one or two ‘innocents’ thrown in to make it look fairer. The point I had wanted to make was that of those 23 comrades, five are no longer with us. I want them to be remembered, and do so now: Rob Mathews, Ken Rushgrove, John Cummins, Jan Schapper and Maggie Grant.
  1. A factual blooper on my part: I said that we escorted Defence Department recruiters from the campus in 1969 – it was actually 1970. (The first on-campus confrontation with the University’s governing body, the Council, had occurred in 1969, when a protest delegation entered a Council meeting without permission to demand student representation on the governing body).
  1. Fergus made the point that the type of student rebellion of the late 1960s-early 1970s is “almost impossible to replicate today”. I broadly agree but feel that his reasoning – decentralised campus structures and overseas students – requires further consideration. To me, a glaring problem is the absence of communists on campuses. La Trobe – and Monash – had genuine left-wing leadership for at least a couple of years and we instigated and led the issues and set the pace. At La Trobe, this was the situation in 1970 and 1971. Today there are lots of ‘greens’ and post-modernists on campuses so…
  1. Left-wing leadership was made possible through challenges we made to ‘revisionist’ or pseudo-left people with whom we were in open conflict. The CPA (Communist Party of Australia) was not just an opponent but an enemy. They sought to constrain our militancy and politically sought to divert our energies into supporting the Australian Labor Party. (At this time, after the ascendancy of Whitlam in 1967 as ALP Leader, the ALP’s position as the federal Opposition on Vietnam was no longer one of immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops but rather ‘holding operations’ in Vietnam. This pushed many of us further to the extra-parliamentary left, as there was no parliamentary party through which we could secure our goal in Vietnam).

The CPA was not in any sense a revolutionary organisation, and we were revolutionaries with an understanding of state power and the history of class struggle and the nature of the overthrow of one class by another. As with Marx and Engels in the C19th, some of our biggest ideological battles were with ostensible comrades, those seen as leftists or progressives. Within the left/rads/revs (whatever) is its opposite.

I believe there is a need for a similar overthrow of the faux left leadership today. Until that happens, the period of hibernation, or whatever it is, may continue for another 40 years.

  1. The question of our relationship to the counter-culture came up and I wish I had been a bit more nuanced. It’s true that I wrote my book, ‘Student Revolt’, because I didn’t like the way the period was being portrayed/trivialised in popular culture as almost wholly about sex, drugs and rock music. But I should have made the point that, for all our hard-line politics, we were also part of a counter-culture in that we were working and thinking outside the system. We eschewed the ‘proper channels’ established by the La Trobe University Act to channel student discontent – the Student Representative Council – and I recall a leaflet describing the SRC as a ‘glorified high school prefect system’.

Personally, I had a good relationship with the hippy kind of people but I didn’t approve of the idea of ‘dropping out’ of society and living in share-houses or of the drug culture. Indeed, in 1971 or thereabouts, I compiled a pamphlet called ‘Goddam the pusher man’.

I did wear my hair long back then, wore a purple coloured top from London’s trendy Carnaby Street for a while and loved the more edgy music – especially The Animals, Nina Simone, Country Joe and the Fish, and J B Lenoir (one of the few overtly political blues men). And (gulp) I owned a pair of flairs.

My distaste for the idea of communal share-house living reflected my strong commitment to home ownership, something I retain to this day. I had this attitude because from the age of three to five, I was technically homeless (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homelessness).

My parents and I disembarked at Station Pier, Melbourne, in 1954 and after a very brief stint with my dad’s brother, Joe, who had worked on the wharves since the mid-1920s when he migrated from Malta, we became the ‘drifting migrants’ you see in the movies. My mum used to talk about how we had seven different accommodations – all boarding-houses in Coburg and Brunswick – within our first 21 months in Melbourne. That averages out as a move every three months. In each place, there was a single room for each family, with rooms running off long corridors. A notorious one in West Brunswick was run by a Lithuanian landlady. I was five but still vividly recall the police coming to evict an old drunk from his room. As they forced him out, the landlady ran behind them, screaming in her thick Baltic accent to the poor old bloke: “God help you! God help you!”

‘Housing for all!’ was a communist slogan back then. It should be revived today.

  1. We also shared with the counter-culture a genuine interest in how society could be reorganised, how people could live differently to the alienating system based on wage slavery.

And we were all moved by the wonderful provocative slogans emanating from the 1968 Paris uprising when ten million workers went on strike and students took over the streets with them. I use one of the 1968 Paris slogans as part of the banner of C21st Left: “Sous les paves la plage” – Under the paving stones, the beach!” Awesome stuff and I hope I live long enough to see a revival of the soixante-huitard spirit.

“Society is a carnivorous flower!” Oui!

  1. I had also wanted to mention and discuss Jean Luc Godard’s famous phrase (used in his 1960s film ‘Masculin-Feminin’): “The children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola”. It’s a rich comment, and an accurate one. We were the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola in so many ways. I’ll flesh this out if I ever write a subjective memoir of those years.
  1. Brian said he was still a communist. Fergus indicated he wasn’t. I described myself as a “revolutionary democrat” who supports all struggles against dictators and tyranny, especially in Syria. I said that I wouldn’t feel safe in North Korea or Cuba or any other nominally ‘communist’ country today. I wish I had expanded on what this means. The reason I wouldn’t be safe is because I’d seek out the dissenters and rebels against ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’.

Revolutionary democracy, to me, is entirely consistent with Marxism. But one can be a revolutionary democrat without being a Marxist. For instance, there are Islamists who are revolutionary democrats (and there are those who are very much the opposite). Under conditions of fascism, people who fight for basic bourgeois democracy can be revolutionary democrats regardless of how they self-identify politically.

For Marxists, the ultimate aim is a more democratic society, one in which democracy is extended to the social and economic realm through the ‘lifters’ overthrowing the rule of the 0.1% who are ‘leaners’ and establishing their own rule. In the C21st, no-one in their right mind will support this if it means one-party dictatorship or a continuation of the current Australian model of two-party dictatorship. They will want a genuine competitive multi-party electoral system, one in which the parliament and other representative bodies reflect accurately and proportionately the people’s will. There is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a system based on social ownership.

  1. Which leads me to my regret that I didn’t once talk about ownership of the means of production. “Means of production”! Sometimes I feel like emulating Howard Beale, the character in Paddy Chayevsky’s great film script, ‘Network’ (1976), by going to a window in a tall building, opening it, and yelling to the universe: “I can’t take it anymore!!” but with the added words: “Why is no-one talking about the means of production?!!!!”

Revolutionary democracy, to me, implies the eventual social ownership of means of producing the stuff society needs, with a view to improving living standards and lifting everyone currently in poverty out of it globally, while also going well beyond catering for ‘social need’ through greatly expanding scientific and technological research and development in the interests of even greater progress – the pursuit of fun and fantasy. The early Suffragettes had it right when they talked about ‘Abundance for all!’ My early interest in communism, in the late 1960s, found that slogan enormously attractive. Old coms often talked like that. Back then.

  1. Early influences. It’s always of interest to others to know how and why someone becomes a communist revolutionary. This is largely because 99.9% of people in the west don’t, and they find it intriguing and weird that anyone would.

The ‘Bold Thinking’ event provided opportunity for each of us to talk about this. Fergus and Brian and I had very different upbringings and socio-economic-family environments. I’m sure we each could have talked more about ourselves, and I’ll do so now partly because, for one thing, I regret not being able to explain the extent to which I was already political when I first went to La Trobe in 1969.

I had been involved in the campaign against capital punishment – the hanging of Ronald Ryan – in 1966 and 1967. It was easy as a 15 year old to cycle from my home in West Brunswick up to Coburg to attend protests outside Pentridge Gaol. This year is my 50th ‘on the left’.

In my final years of high school, 1968, I attended the ‘riot’ outside the US Consulate in Commercial Road, St Kilda, Melbourne. The militancy helped ‘bring the war home’ and also jolted the CPA revisionists who had assumed they could keep leading and controlling the growing Vietnam solidarity movement. I was in my school uniform and my emotional response to the police riot, baton assaults and mass arrests left me both very frightened and excited by the fact that people were fighting back.

It may have been my first experience of the feeling that I was taking part in something much bigger than Australia. I had seen footage of the French and US student uprisings of that year – thanks to television. I felt for the first time that little ol’ me was part of a truly international movement of solidarity. (It was not, however, my first riot, as I had been at Festival Hall, West Melbourne, in 1965 when the Mongolian Stomper attacked Domenic DeNucci with the heavy brass ringside bell causing 7,000 Italian wrestling fans to engage in riotous behaviour that required the attendance of many police and several police divisional vans).

  1. And speaking of my old friend Television, I should have thanked it for bringing the world into my lounge-room. News reports of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 11, stay with me to this day, as does film of Bull Connor setting vicious attack dogs onto black protestors in Alabama. Connor was a Democrat of the ‘southern’ kind and Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. There was also footage on the news of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. I wasn’t just disappointed or saddened by what was happening. I was angry – an anger intensified by the juxtaposition of programs like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, which promoted the idealised American family, against the real world characterised by so much oppression, suffering and resistance. Programs like ‘The Twilight Zone’ were among my favourites. In taking me into “a world of imagination”, Rod Serling really helped spark my imagination. Subversive stuff.
  1. Another cultural influence of that time – another expression of the ‘Coca Cola’ in Godard’s formulation – was science-fiction literature (and movies). For a few years in my teenage years I read short stories in that genre and received at Christmas the year’s ‘Best of Sci Fi’ collections. Back then, there wasn’t so much dystopianism. Arthur C Clarke in particular saw the positive potential in rapid technological development. To this day, I believe in reaching for the stars, figuratively and literally. But we won’t get there via capitalism, where R&D is constrained by the pursuit of maximum profit and concentrated private ownership. I would have liked to have made that point on the night.
  1. Still on personal influences, I told the audience how my parents were wage workers, my dad a factory worker and we were on the lower socio-economic side of life. I spent about 30 years growing up in Brunswick, which was all pretty much ‘lower socio-economic’ with many migrants from diverse places and many factories. You could be sure back then that wherever there were lots of migrants there would also be lots of factories. For more than ten years I lived next door to one. Its high red brick wall was the view a metre from my bedroom, blocking out the sun.

Perhaps coming from that background was the reason I do not share Fergus’ view that university life was fairly drab and that the left provided an avenue into stimulation from the boredom. To me, just going to the campus – two bus rides and eleven kilometres away in a strangely named suburb called Bundoora – was excitement in itself. My parents never owned a car and everything went into paying off our house. We never had a family holiday. I knew – and still know – West Brunswick like the back of my hand – every back alley, road and side street. There was a strong neighbourly ethos among some along my street but there was also insularity. For instance, West Brunswick ‘boys’ viewed East Brunswick, on ‘the other side’ of Sydney Road, with caution while we all regarded Coburg people as toffs and snobs. For me, going to La Trobe University in 1969 was like a whole new universe opening up. The politics was icing on that cake. I was meeting people of my own age cohort who lived on properties with beautiful gum trees in places I’d never normally visit, like Montmorency and Eltham. Not a factory wall in sight.

Brunswick suffered three main social problems back then: alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence. In my family home, there was no gambling and no alcoholism. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The act of going to university each day, all that way from Brunswick, was in itself liberating for me. An escape. I loved it.

  1. There was a smattering of applause when Brian declared that ‘the New Left’ treated women very badly. I noticed that some of those applauding were not our age cohorts, so wondered how did they know?

images

I would gladly have swapped places with a woman, had one been able to replace me as a target in the Supreme Court injunctions, but none were in positions of leadership at that time to experience that degree of state repression. Was this because of the undoubtedly male dominated nature of the left’s leadership at La Trobe? Did the men hold them back, consciously? I don’t think so.

Was there a problem with male chauvinism? Yes.

When I enrolled at La Trobe I broadly sympathised with equality for women but I also brought with me the common assumptions about men and women of that time. I didn’t come from a ‘bohemian’ bayside background, where Simone de Beauvoir was discussed over fine wine in the evenings. Some of my personal attitudes and expectations were quite conservative in that regard. I was fairly backward in some ways but, as a slow learner, I’m a good learner. While achieving much progress for women, the women’s movement also challenged and changed many men. Including me.

Was there also egalitarianism within the left? Yes again. (I wish I had a dollar for every leaflet I typed – it’s a myth that women did all the typing. It is true, though, that nearly all the leaflets were written by men – which is certainly proof of male dominance).

Going by memory, I think the first regular newssheet published by a women’s lib group on the campus was called ‘Women Arise’ in 1970 (or perhaps 1969). Helen Reddy’s magnificent anthem, ‘I am woman’ was a year or two away but, to me, it sums up all that was and is great about the best politics of women’s liberation. No hint of victimhood, it is a song of defiance, determination and optimism.

I told the audience that I strongly supported the Women’s Liberation movement back then. I did, and still do. It was a very effective movement with clear, attainable, political objectives and it included many socialist women. I regard it as one of the great socio-cultural-political developments of the C20th. But it certainly fragmented – as part of the left’s rapid decline, I would argue – and some of the later varieties of feminism were distinctively not socialist and some were divisive and reactionary.

Any “ism” that uses the term “white men” as though it somehow wins an argument or proves a point, let alone as an insult, loses me as someone influenced by Marxism. These days, I’m favourably disposed to the libertarian feminists who, while not socialist, none the less display some of the qualities of the soixante-huitards. Conservative feminists don’t like them very much. I would have liked to make the point that, in my opinion, we need more Pussy Riots and fewer neo-Mary-Whitehouses.

An old comrade from the La Trobe days has made this comment: “The effect was certainly one of male dominance. A more contentious and important issue is that of intent. Did we write stuff out of a sense of ‘male entitlement’ or because we had things to say and stepped onto a stage that was as much our own making as not? Did we exclude women, that is, discourage their involvement? That is not my memory and the problem I have with the proposition that we did (it’s more an assumption than a proposition) is that it delivers a nice backhander to the women, a more pernicious form of sexism than anything I can remember us being guilty of”.

  1. Smash Soviet social-imperialism! Fergus and Brian and I made it clear that we believed in international solidarity but it’s a pity none of us mentioned the fact that we supported the student and worker uprisings ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ as well as in the west. Again, I was a slow but good learner and came to regard the Czech and Polish rebellions as part and parcel of our own struggle. It made sense from a Marxist revolutionary democrat perspective to support the Polish Solidarity movement later and to rejoice in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had no problem with the Maoist line that saw Soviet social-imperialism as an ascendant threat and US imperialism in decline following its defeat in Indo-China. Richard Nixon’s memoir (1978) shows how Mao and Zhou En Lai wanted more than just normalised diplomatic relations with the US in facing the Soviet threat.
  1. Decline of the revolutionary left. I know that several hours would have been required to discuss and debate the above points. It’s understandable that people are interested mostly in the dynamic period of the late 1960s to early 1970s when there was so much passion, intensity, dedication, excitement, argument, optimism and resistance to repression. But I would have liked to have said something about the period of decline too, which I think was starting during 1972. The subsequent years in the 1970s were nothing like the period from 1968 to 1971, in activism or in spirit, and I’m still waiting for the spirit of ’68 to re-emerge in the C21st.

The period from 1972 to 1980 warrants the same level of investigation and discussion as the earlier period but this has not been undertaken. From my point of view, those years were characterised by increasing dogmatism. We stopped thinking anew, or dialectically. In some cases, ‘we’ turned into our opposites. I know this from personal experience, and to a large extent it happened to me.

One of the important lessons I learned from my activism back then is that it is very hard to think critically or dialectically. And it is even harder to think for oneself.

  1. People usually want to know whether the gaolings, and involvement in left revolutionary politics, had an impact on our employment and careers. In my case, it had a very negative effect later in the 1970s when I was black-listed by the Director-General of the Victorian Education Department. I had completed my Diploma of Education and worked as an Emergency (or Relief) teacher in the Technical Schools Division of the Education Department. Back then, the principals of the schools could employ such casual teachers without needing the approval of the Department. To cut a long story short (I must write it up one day), I had been working at various schools on a casual basis, hoping to eventually be offered a ‘permanent’ teaching job, which would mean having a career and some security. I still have the references from principals of those schools and they range from good to very good in their assessments of me.

Finally, the principal at one of the schools told me that a full-time teacher was retiring and he would like to have me on the staff as an on-going teacher. I was thrilled, as I had been hoping for such an opportunity for many months. The principal took me into his office and rang the Staffing Office in my presence. He told the person on the phone that he had someone to replace the other teacher but when he mentioned my name the response made his face drop. His tone changed and at the end of the call he turned to me and said, “I’m very sorry, Barry, they told me you’re not to be employed”.

It’s hard for me to describe what a personal blow this was – in 1976 or 1977. It knocked me badly, emotionally and psychologically.

I was called to attend a meeting with someone from the Staffing Office, on a street corner in the CBD (I kid you not). I was told that the meeting was strictly ‘off the record’. The officer told me that “someone upstairs” had marked my file “Not to be employed” and that the reason was because I was “a known political activist”.

Of course, I went straight to the union with this news and, to their credit, the union leaders saw the issue in a principled way, as one of opposing the political black-listing of qualified teachers. I was able to keep working on a casual basis, as the Department regulations allowed principals in each school to decide who to take on as a Relief teacher. I had a lot of support and worked pretty much full-time as a Relief teacher, going from school to school as required. The fact that I was doing well in the classrooms, sometimes five days a week, completely undermined any arguments from the Department that I was not suitable for permanent employment.

It took about 18 months of protests, meetings, negotiations, and utter anguish on my part (I was almost certainly clinically depressed during this period) before the Director-General, Laurie Shears, surrendered and I was given an on-going teaching job. A highlight of the struggle was when the three separate teacher unions – The Victorian Teachers Union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria united and stopped work on my behalf. I was told by the TTUV president that it was the first time that the three teacher unions had taken united action.

Mao said that reactionaries lift a rock only to drop it on their own feet. I have experienced and witnessed that truth many times.

Barry victimisation by Education Dept - Brunswick Sentinel - 23 Nov 1977

 

  1. I hope this piece will prompt others from that period, or those with an interest in it, to send in their thoughts on that period of struggle… and beyond.

Struggle - La Trobe heroes cover 1972