Political Notes: Unhappy Birthday
May 10 this year was for some the first birthday of socialism in France. It was on this day last year that Francois Mitterand was elected President. He has not stood, and does not stand, for socialism and of course even if he did decide to support the idea of common ownership he would be incapable alone, or with the help of his fellow government ministers, of introducing such a system.
As it is, capitalism has ground on during the past twelve months under the diligent administration of the “socialist” government. When Mitterand won the election there was some anxiety that dramatic social change was on its way and a revolutionary new system was to be introduced. Those who were anxious soon had their worries quelled as it became evident that the real goal of the new government was to re-organise the poverty of the working class, and to oil the machinery of the profit system, in order that it might operate more smoothly.
Minimum wages and family allowances rose by 25 per cent and pensions by as much as 50 per cent, but prices were running high, taxes and social charges were raised steeply and wage-earners suffered a special surcharge to help fill the widening gap in the social insecurity budget. Unemployment, which Mitterrand vowed would never reach two million, passed that figure last October: and as the government wrestles with the problem of running a system of exploitation while making pious remarks about socialism, its inability to deliver the goods it promised becomes more apparent.
Among the reforms that have been introduced by the government was the abolition of the guillotine. As the rich get richer while the poor remain poor, and with mounting discontent in the working class in France, perhaps that reform was one of the more cynical proposals of the regime.
In a recent interview Tony Benn was asked the question: “Would-be socialists are worried that we don’t see a socialist country anywhere in the world that is working perfectly. Does that worry you?” His reply was as follows:
We’re not looking for perfection, are we? Can you name one capitalist country that is working well? If you want to see where socialism is, it’s in a comprehensive school and in the Health Service where people are dealt with without regard to their wealth.(New Musical Express, 1 May 1982.)
With these beliefs, Benn could probably be accepted tomorrow for membership of the Liberal Party. Comprehensive schools and the National Health Service are badly-equipped, second-rate services run on the basis of skimping and making the best of a bad job. They were designed to be cheap methods of conditioning working-class children for a life of political conformity, adequately (but no more than that) preparing us for lives of wage-slavery and providing a “patch ’em up and send ’em back to work” service for when injury or illness befall us.
Meanwhile members of the ruling class pay huge sums of money to have their children properly educated for the lives of idleness and leisure that they are to lead, and there is no trace of the NHS queues, inadequate apparatus, or brusque treatment to be found in the exclusive private hospitals.
Tony Benn’s interviewer was almost right. In fact there is no socialist country in the world working perfectly or imperfectly. At present socialism is only an idea: but remember that all products of mankind whether technical devices, like the typewriter, or social arrangements, like the trade union were ideas before they were put into practice.
But all good things come to an end and the Minister was found out. This was especially nasty for him because he was a Deputy Minister in the Russian government and as his was an “economic” crime there could be only one outcome. He was shot.
The episode was reported in a long article, by the Russian Chief Prosecutor, in a recent issue of Pravda, which was heavy with dire warnings of the consequences for any more economic criminals. In fact such offences—bribery, embezzlement, currency fiddles are said to be increasing in Russia. Recently, for example, the mayor of a South Georgia town was executed after making about £100,000 in bribes in exchange for illegally allocating apartments to his “clients”. The Chief Prosecutor storms that such offences are costing the Russian state millions of roubles every year: “No clemency should be shown” he warns.
Clearly, it is necessary to ask one or two questions. If, as is claimed, Russia is a “socialist” country in which everyone stands equally, how can a person commit, and benefit from, an “economic” crime? How can such crimes exist? How can bribery be effective unless there is an inequality of access to necessary things like food and housing? How can caviar be sold as herring unless there is a caviar- eating class and a herring-eating one? Is it not proved, by such evidence, that there is in Russia a privileged class and therefore an unprivileged one?
There are no two ways of answering these questions. Apart from the fact that socialism cannot exist except as a worldwide system, all the evidence supports the case that Russia is an unexceptional capitalist state. This means that we will find there all the elements of class privilege, with the unpleasant, conditioned behaviour which goes with it.