The Sleeping Poodle

It is the role of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to monitor overall progress against carbon budgets and the 2050 target. It is the nation’s watchdog to confirm that the UK meets its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as set out in the Climate Change Act. ‘Watchdog’ is, however, a generous metaphor. A sleeping, toothless poodle would be more appropriate. The CCC was sidelined when Howard Davies, the bungling former head of the Financial Services Authority, produced his report recommending Heathrow expansion (see earlier comment). The CCC continued to doze while the government accepted Mr Davies’s recommendation, believing itself to be inhibited from examining “specific projects”, including even Heathrow expansion. It has, however, finally woken up to the fact that the Heathrow expansion is incompatible with the 2050 target. It has now belatedly called on the government to “publish a strategic policy framework for UK aviation emissions”. More of a whimper than a snarl!

The CCC refers to the need for the government to address “strategic options and innovation priorities to pursue deeper cuts in aviation emissions” but they must know that no such options or innovations exist other than restricting demand for flying. As David MacKay demonstrated in   Chapter 5 of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air , after 100 years of aviation development, the theoretical efficiency limits for hydro-carbon based aviation are being approached. There are, essentially, no more efficiency savings to be secured. If the CCC doesn’t understand this, it’s time they stood down.

Capitalists don’t, of course, like interfering in any market capable of generating huge profits. They are also not very keen on restricting the “freedom of choice” of the rich and powerful – the people responsible for the great majority of flights. On the whole, they come clean about such motives. They are less transparent when it comes to their willingness to tolerate a large proportion of the world’s population being exterminated by global warming so that the super-rich can survive and thrive. When this is appreciated, so is the understanding that halting global warming and replacing capitalism with communism are synonymous.

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What’s the difference between a socialist and a communist?

Party Congress, a biennial event at which delegates from every branch, district and nation meet to agree party policy and strategy and to elect a new Executive Committee which, in turn, will elect Party Officers, including the General Secretary, will be held later this month. It’s therefore an appropriate time to reflect on why we are communists and what is the difference, if any, between a communist and a socialist.

In the popular mind, the distinction is one of degree. Socialists want a significant degree of public ownership and greater equality of outcome – although some would settle for mere equality of opportunity. Communists, on the other hand, are commonly thought to want to abolish all private property and achieve total equality. There is also a commonly held view that communists want a society modelled on that of the former USSR and former socialist states in Eastern Europe. There may be elements of truth in all these distinctions, but they are, nevertheless, mistaken. The principal distinction between a socialist and a communist is that anyone can call themselves a socialist, but to call yourself a communist you need to be a member of a communist party.

Communist parties differ from other parties in that they are subject to democratic centralism, which means they arrive at decisions and policies after unrestricted internal discussion and debate and then unite to promote these policies and implement them. Communist parties reach their decisions by applying the ideas of Karl Marx as developed by others Marxists such as Lenin and Gramsci. These ideas can be described in one hyphenated word: Marxism-Leninism.

Does Marxism-Leninism mean that we are striving to replicate the former USSR and Socialist countries of Eastern Europe? No. We recognise that, while the USSR achieved much, it failed in the end to build socialism. Lessons must be learnt from these failures, and no one is keener to discover them than communist parties. Next time we must do it better – more democracy, greater efficiency, deeper humanity and more effective connection with working people.

This emphasis on communist parties begs the question – what is a communist party? The much loved and missed Tony Benn was fond of pointing out that there were too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. Regrettably, this is also true of communist parties. Only one party in Britain can trace its origins back the formation of the British Section of the Communist International in 1920. This section became the Communist Party of Great Britain and, in 1991, the Communist Party of Britain. Now known simply as the Communist Party or CP (generally preferred to CPB), we do not recruit in Northern Ireland, leaving that to our sister party, the Communist Party of Ireland. There are, however, four or five other parties and small groups in Britain calling themselves communist parties – the New Communist Party, the Communist Party of Scotland, CPB-ML, CPGB-ML etc. Without wishing to disrespect individuals who are members of these groups – some are sound Marxist who engage constructively with the wider labour and trade union movement – overall they lack substance, legitimacy and, as reference to Solidnet, will confirm, recognition by the international movement of communist and workers parties[i]. This lack of legitimacy is especially true of the so called Communist Party of Great Britain, a grouplet that high-jacked the party name dropped in 1991 in order to defeat an attempt at that time to dissolve the party and close our newspaper, the Morning Star. This attempt failed and the group behind it has long since dissipated, but the consequence, loss of the use of our original name, continues, only partially ameliorated by the fact that we retain its exclusive use for electoral purposes, having registered it with the Electoral Commission.

No review of communism in Britain, however brief, would be complete without reference to the other revolutionary Marxist tradition present in the UK. This derives, however tortuously, from Trotsky’s Fourth International founded in 1938 rather than directly from the British Section of the Communist International formed in 1920. While also suffering from an excess of minor parties and grouplets, it is represented by two quite significant parties, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). We share much Marxist theory with these parties but, given the history of conflict between us and a resulting lack of trust, it is hardly surprising that it is not always easy to work with them; and these difficulties can be exacerbated by their employment of “entryism” whereby membership is concealed in order to enter social democratic parties and coalitions. This practice was encouraged by Trotsky but abjured by communists who point to the advice in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto that communists should not hide their membership of the party. Despite these differences, we have, however, in recent years managed to work successfully with them in certain narrow areas, particularly opposition to the EU and it is to be hoped that these tentative links will grow in future.

The above reflections are personal ones and don’t necessarily reflect the CP’s formal policy or official history. If your views differ from mine, you are invited to comment accordingly.

[i] With one minor exception – the small New Communist Party has secured some limited recognition internationally.

Meeting the challenge

For an excellent report on and pictures of the Croydon May Day march and rally at Ruskin House last Saturday, you can do no better than see this report on the Sangha Kommune website. I was within earshot of the author of the report when he had his reported encounter with the passer by who, on seeing the hammer and sickle flag, declared that we were “forty years too late” and challenged us to provide an example of where communism had been successfully implemented.

There is not a lot one can do in such situations other than respond with confidence and good humour. This the comrade did with much skill and courtesy. Marches and street demos are not ideal situations for educating and persuading confrontational members of the public who have swallowed the anti-communist propaganda that permeates capitalist society. Of course, we could have pointed out that, without the attempt to build socialism in the USSR, we would have lost the Second World War and he and his family would not be around to challenge us. One could also point to the considerable achievements of Cuba where, by prioritising health and education, life for ordinary people is far better than it is for ordinary people in other developing countries. Finally, one could counsel caution about writing off too soon China’s attempt to build socialism. Of course China faces problems, but we should not let the distorted reporting in our mass media persuade us that China has given up on building socialism. China is taking its own, long term path, and we wish them well. As Marxists, it is, however, our critique of capitalism and our understanding that it is a historical phase that will eventually collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions (and the shove we will give it at the right moment) that leads us to believe that we can and must build something better and more permanent before the capitalists destroy the world.

For a more comprehensive statement of the Case for Communism, try the CP pamphlet of the same name by John Foster, available from the CP shop for £2 plus 50 pence postage. He puts it much better than I can.

TRUMBO

It’s very rare for any film to show communists in a sympathetic light. The excellent Trumbo, currently on general release, does this. It is an excellent film and is highly recommended.

The film recounts the life of Dalton Trumbo, a celebrated screenwriter and open communist who was forced to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his membership of the Communist Party. Refusing to give evidence and to name fellow communists, he was jailed for 10 months and blacklisted. After release, he worked for peanuts without having his work credited while remaining loyal to his fellow communists and helping them too to survive. Almost hounded to destruction, he clings on and, in the end, his genius as a film writer is recognised and he is re-habilitated by winning an Oscar.

One scene particularly caught the attention. Aware of the anti-communist hostility mounting around the family, Trumbo’s daughter asks him, “Are you a communist?” to which he replies “Yes”. She continues “Is Mummy a communist?“ to which he replies “No”. Finally she asks “Am I a communist?” to which he responds with a question:

 

“If you see a fellow classmate at school who doesn’t have anything to eat, what do you do? Do you ignore him, or perhaps do you offer him a loan at 6% to buy some food?” She responds “I would share my lunch with him.” Trumbo smiles at her and says “Then you’re a communist”.

 

It’s very rare indeed for any film, especially a Hollywood film, to put the communist case so succinctly. Such a film can expect to attract plenty of criticism in the capitalist press. This film is no exception. According to the film critic in the Guardian, it “fails to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism”. True: it celebrates it. Other critics have tried to undermine the film for technical reasons such as the supposed dominance and integrity of the central character, Dalton Trumbo. The despicable Economist magazine even tries to argue that Trumbo, while working twelve hours a day to survive by producing anonymous scripts for peanuts, was doing rather well out of his blacklisting. For them working people should apparently be grateful for whatever crumbs fall from the table of the rich and powerful.

The quality as well as the politics of this film are nevertheless undeniable. Bryan Cranston has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo and it’s well deserved. Ignore the negative comments and don’t miss this film.

 

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

It was Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century who gave us the definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s also a good description of 21st Century capitalism. Under capitalism, human activity is increasingly commodified and traded in markets. The market is held out to be the supreme arbiter, providing the price of everything from a loaf of bread to knowledge. Markets are assumed to be ‘perfect’ in the sense that they don’t reflect the interests of individual buyers or sellers and both have perfect knowledge about the commodity being traded. Any exceptions to these conditions are considered to be infrequent, relatively trivial and capable of being remedied by regulation. To the extent to which ‘value’ has any meaning under capitalism, it is the price indicated by a ‘perfect’ market and corresponds to the sum of future benefits from owning the commodity discounted to a present value, the discount rate being the so-called cost of capital, i.e. the average return on capital.

Marxists have a different view. Under capitalism, value derives from the labour, past and present, used to create a commodity. The function of markets is simply to re-distribute this labour value according to the current demand for the commodity. Furthermore, we don’t share the idealised view of markets held by neo-classical economists, the priesthood and apologist for capitalism. Many markets are far from ‘perfect’ and one in particular, the labour market, does not begin the approach this idealised fiction. The tendency in labour markets is to drive prices down to the minimum required for labour to replicate itself. When capitalism, riven by its own contradictions, is eventually overturned and the work to build a communist society begins, the role of markets will be reduced and the economy will be run to meet the needs of those who work, including future generations, not the needs of the 1% who currently own capital.

The difference between these two world views has been brought into sharp focus this week by the reports that, according to Professor Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska, permafrost in parts of Alaska would start to thaw by 2070, resulting in the release of huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and its release could trigger a huge climatic and economic catastrophe 55 years from now. For Marxists, action must be taken now to avoid this catastrophe and protect future generations of workers. Our government should therefore be pressing at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in November for solid agreement on the policies needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees centigrade by 2050 and to make our contribution to achieving this. From the capitalist perspective, however, an event 55 years in the future has little impact on current market prices. Assuming a long run average annual return on capital of 6% real, the price of such a catastrophe, the price reflected in the market, is only 4% of its eventual cost. When we factor in the market ‘imperfection’ that the 1% who trade in capital markets expect to protect themselves and their families from the coming catastrophe which will disproportionately affect the poorest and we can begin to understand why our government, and other governments across the world, won’t be too concerned if they fail to reach the required agreement in Paris in November.

The Crisis of Capitalism – banks and housing

The collapse of the banks in 2008 and the cuts then implemented by the coalition government to bail them out is only one aspect of the crisis facing capitalism. Another is housing.

It should not be overlooked that the banking crisis was itself triggered by reckless mortgage lending in the USA housing market. These dodgy debts were then packaged up and sold to banks and other financial institutions across the world. Whatever the shortcomings of New Labour – and they were many – the banking crisis was not due, as the Tories would have us believe – to excessive spending on the NHS and social services.

Returns on those who invest in property to rent using mortgages from these same banks have been, so far, insulated from the financial crisis. These returns are estimated to have averaged 16.3% over the past eighteen years – a period that spans the banking crisis. They have been generated by inflated rents: in May these averaged £765 per month in England and Wales and are still rising. Such rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable by those who must work for a living. In response, the government paid out £35 billion in 2013-14 in housing benefit – money that goes directly to landlords and supports the banks that provide the mortgages. The increase in rents that supports this edifice has only been made possible by an almost total lack of regulation and control of private landlords and the absence of security of tenure for tenants.

Once upon a time, ordinary working families could turn to Council housing. This was undermined by ‘right-to-buy introduced by Thatcher and continued under Labour. By 2013 up to a third of all council houses purchased under ‘right-to-buy’ had been sold on to rich landlords. A shocking example is provided by the son of Ian Gow, the Tory minister who presided over implementing Thatcher’s policy. He is now a housing tycoon, owning more than forty ex-council houses in one London estate alone! What remains of the council house stock is now subject to lengthening waiting lists, hardening criteria, diminished security of tenure and now the bedroom tax.

With people on average salaries and wages unable to afford mortgages even at current interest rates depressed by so called quantitative easing, i.e. printing money to support the banks, the housing prospects for the working population in Croydon and elsewhere across the country look bleak. Even those of us currently enjoying good housing can have little confidence that the next generation, i.e. our kids, will be so fortunate. Jobs are becoming less secure, unions are shackled, and well paid jobs are only accessed by those who can bear the huge burden of debt from student loans – bankers and those whose parents are wealthy enough to pay them off. Only the wealthy elite can flourish in such a world, albeit behind gated communities.

The solution? Mere tinkering advocated by the Green Party and, modestly and belatedly, by Labour is no longer enough. Regulation of landlords and abolition of the bedroom tax would be welcome, but cannot address the mess we are in. Tory and Tory-Light (i.e. Labour) solutions such as assistance for first time buyers will simply add to the inflation of rents and make buying by the rest of us even less accessible. The only recovery under capitalism will involve, as Thomas Picketty argues in his well publicised book Capital in the Twenty First Century, greater inequality and eventually the impoverishment of the entire working class – i.e. everyone except the super-rich. But while Picketty appears to believe that capitalism can be reformed, the only viable path out of the mess we are in will involve the appropriation of the wealth of those who exploit us. In a word – communism.

Martin Graham