Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Brutal symmetry

(December 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.192, December 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The industrial revolution depended on the slave trade, the pillage of India, the starving of Ireland, the driving of the English and Scottish peasantry from the land through enclosures and clearances, the workhouse, child labour, the vagrancy laws and the Combination Acts’

‘But surely if you break with the market you end up in a new version of Stalinism in Russia or Year Zero in Cambodia.’

That was the retort thrown at me by a student at a meeting recently. It sums up a major objection made these days to socialist arguments from those attracted by the ideas of Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour.

Whatever the faults of the market system, it is said, it offers people freedom. By contrast, whatever the intentions of socialists, at the end of the day our attempts to plan will inevitably end in a tyranny which will destroy human initiative and prevent economic advance.

Yet there is one feature of the New Labourite language which raises questions about this argument – its increasingly authoritarian tone. Tony Blair’s stress is on ‘duties’, not rights. Jack Straw obtained overnight notoriety for his attack on ‘squeegee merchants’ and beggars. And Gordon Brown now proposes to force unemployed under 25-year-olds to perform cheap labour on ‘training courses’ by slashing their benefits – echoing the calls of Frank Field for the unemployed to have to draw up a ‘job plan for life’.

The authoritarianism is not an accident. Marx noted in Capital that the other side to the anarchy of the market is the tyranny of the factory. The ‘free competition’ of capitals compels each to exploit its workers as much as possible. This involves stamping out every form of freedom during worktime, so that the worker becomes little more than an appendage to the machine – the experience of millions of people today, not just in the factory or mine, but also in the office or the school.

But the tyranny of the factory can only work if the bulk of the population has no choice but to accept it. Ordinary people might have a choice as to who they should work for, but not that they have to work for someone. This requires authoritarianism in society at large, with restrictions on people’s ability to get a livelihood except through wage labour, and with moral codes which condemn ‘idleness’ and ‘fecklessness’ among the poor.

The founders of capitalist political economy understood this well enough. Thus David Ricardo could write 180 years ago, against poor law measures aimed at dealing with hardship, ‘Instead of making the poor rich, they are calculated to make the rich poor ...’ and warn of the danger that ‘the fund for the maintenance of the poor should progressively increase until it has absorbed all the net revenue of the country’.

The remedy to this had to be to ‘gradually contract the sphere of the poor laws’ and to ‘impress on the poor the value of independence by teaching them that they must look not to systematic or casual charity, but to their own exertions for support’.

The language of today’s ‘modernisers’ – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Frank Field – is hardly any different. Their embrace of the ‘freedom’ of the market involves, in reality, the attempt to subordinate the workforce of Britain to the dictates of a worldwide system.

They virtually admit as much with their talk of ‘globalisation’. It exalts a situation in which the mass of people only matter in so far as they can be ‘trained’ as labour power to make capital competitive.

There is, in fact, an amazing similarity between this approach and that which led to the horrors of Stalinism. That system arose as the rulers of relatively backward countries sought to ‘catch up’ with the advanced Western capitalisms by subjecting the national workforce to the ‘rigours’ of military and economic competition.

This is the fundamental reason for the barbarities of the Stalin period. The British industrial revolution depended on the slave trade, the pillage of India, the starving of Ireland, the driving of the English and Scottish peasantry from the land through enclosures and clearances, the workhouse, child labour, the vagrancy laws and the Combination Acts.

Stalinist industrialisation relied on the gulag labour camps, the starving of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the bloody ‘collectivisation’ of agriculture, the conquest of much of Eastern Europe, the suppression of the non-Russian minorities inside the USSR and the shooting down of strikers. The total death toll of the one was not so different from that of the other. Estimates in a debate initiated by the late Alex Nove in Soviet Studies range from 5-6 million to 20-25 million for the USSR. An ‘audit’ of the total human costs of ‘primitive capital accumulation’ would give a similar range.

As for the ‘planning’ of Stalinism, it was as far from real socialist planning as the ‘business plans’ which exist in every capitalist enterprise today and which are so admired by the Blairites. What was ‘planned’ was how the mass of people were to be subordinated to the blind dictates of a system of international competition. And such planning failed, as business plans always do, precisely because it could not foresee what competing in the world system would mean a few years hence.

Blairism, of course, differs from Stalinism, just as the business plans of ICI or General Motors today differ from those of the slave traders of 200 years ago. Blair is concerned with making an advanced industrial capitalism competitive in the late 1990s, not a backward, overwhelming agrarian country in the late 1920s.

What is more, Blair is still constrained by his ties to a party reliant on working class votes and money, however much he may wish things were different.

Yet there is still a common logic at work, of trying to subject the mass of people’s lives to the dictates of an anarchic and bloody international system. And the more that system enters into crises, the more horrendous are the ‘sacrifices’ demanded by that logic – whether it is the shooting down of workers in Hungary in 1956 or the bombing of the road to Basra in 1991.

Last updated on 21 December 2009