2000s >> 2003 >> no-1183-march-2003

Book Reviews

The Countryside Alliance: our masters’ voice

The Rich At Play: Foxhunting, Land Ownership And The ‘Countryside Alliance’. Revolutions Per Minute, BCM Box 3328, London, WC1N 3XX (www.red-star-research.org.uk), 2002. (ISBN: 0 9543014 0 4)

The Countryside Alliance represents sections of the ruling class with interests in land ownership, and is essentially a front set up by the British Field Sports Society in its efforts to prevent a ban on hunting with dogs. Its website (www.countryside-alliance.org) is still banging on triumphantly about the 407,791 people it managed to march through London in 2002 in the cause of “liberty and livelihood”. It is a matter of some concern that so many working class people turned out on a march that was all about the “liberty and livelihood” of no-one but their own exploiters.

This pamphlet, published by Revolutions Per Minute, is an interesting and quite useful collection of articles, though it’s also packed full of reformist politics, as well as being badly in need of being proof-read and re-edited to make it easier to follow. Its appeal to workers to get involved in campaigning to ban foxhunting and “reclaim” the land is basically an invitation for us to embark on yet more wild goose chases (or hunts) that will do no more than leave us exhausted and still stuck firmly in the ditch of capitalism.

However, it outlines pretty well how the Countryside Alliance has absolutely no interest in the problems of rural poverty that it pays lip service to. The CA exists first and last to defend the right of the landed gentry to do whatever they see fit (such as foxhunting) on “their” land – land they stole or conned their way into. That landowners and businessmen who have done so much to make life as hard as possible for rural workers are now claiming to be deeply concerned about everything from poverty wages (“how about paying your staff more then, Fauntleroy?”) to lack of public services is just too much to take. It’s well documented, for one thing, that business interests behind the Countryside Alliance include those making a fortune buying up bankrupted farms and flogging pricey rural getaways to rich city folk. Donors to the CA include Sir Robert McAlpine, of construction fame, and the Duke of Northumberland, who caused some controversy in 2000 by planning the building of expensive executive homes on his Chatton estate, in the face of local opposition (See The Rich At Play, p. 49).

A very interesting issue raised in this pamphlet is the way the CA has set up a “trade union”, the Union of Country Sports Workers, to give their campaign a “working class” façade. As it happens, the UCSW, which is not affiliated to the TUC, is open to “anyone who enjoys country sports”, according to their website (www.ucsw.org); an unusual foundation for a union to say the least. The Transport and General Workers Union already has a long-standing Rural, Agricultural and Allied Workers Group with 22,000 members, which is the largest representative of rural workers. The UCSW is a classic bosses’ union, which working class people should avoid like the plague. A measure of the UCSW’s proletarian credentials is perhaps given by a meeting they held in November 1997 at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall in London, which was addressed by Baroness Mallalieu and Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE, both wealthy and conspicuous figures in the Countryside Alliance.

In short, this is a useful reminder (if one is needed) that the Countryside Alliance is a thoroughly anti-working class tool of the rich. It is a front for certain sections of the ruling class to defend their interests as they see them (the right to use the land they have stolen in any way they wish). A part of their strategy is to create the illusion of a “broad-based movement”, claiming to unite all people who live in the countryside, regardless of their class position. This appeal to workers to a fake “cultural” identity with their own exploiters is similar to the appeal of patriotism with its fake “national” unity, and both are utterly poisonous to the real interests of the working class. While the well-heeled fools of the Countryside Alliance continue their ludicrous bellowing about a coming “civil war” if the government don’t drop their plans to ban hunting with dogs, socialists can only reply: “No war but the class war!”

Anarchist communism

ABC of Anarchism. By Alexander Berkman. Freedom Press (Anarchist Classics) 2002 edition, 112 pages, £3.95.

First published in the United States, in 1929, under the title What is Communist Anarchism?, this slightly shortened version has been reprinted 12 times by Freedom Press. The present edition also reprints an introductory biography of Berkman, originally written by this writer in 1970 for the fifth edition.

Many of the words and phrases in the ABC of Anarchism were dated thirty years ago, and are even more so now. Nevertheless, it is still one of the best introductions to the ideas of anarchism, written from the communist-anarchist viewpoint. Berkman’s knowledge of economics in general, and Marxist economics in particular, is somewhat shaky, although he has no time for capitalism and the profit system, unlike some anarchists such as individualists and mutualists. Like Marxists, Berkman argues that “there is a continuous warfare between capital and labour”. Again, as with other anarchists, he claims that communist-anarchists “are at one on the basic principle of abolishing government”. He sees government, rather than private-property society that needs and perpetuates government and the coercive state, as the main cause of humanity’s problems. Like his companion, Emma Goldman, Berkman was not always consistent regarding governments. On their return to Russia in 1919, they were quite sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks and the Soviet government, but soon criticised Lenin and Trotsky for jailing and executing anarchists, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.

Berkman admits that some anarchists have thrown bombs, and have advocated violence, but argues that anarchism is not about bombs, disorder or chaos. He says that anarchists “have no monopoly on violence”, and that governments have committed far more acts of violence than anarchists. For Berkman, anarchism is the very opposite of violence.

As a communist-anarchist, Berkman advocates a system without commodity-production or any “price system”, wages or payment of money. “This”, he says, “logically leads to ownership in common and to joint use. Which is a sensible, just, and equitable system, and is known as communism”. And “work will become a pleasure instead of the deadening drudgery it is today”. His views are similar to those of William Morris in as far as, in communism, people will no longer be employed in useless toil, but will be appreciated according to their willingness to be socially useful. People will live in freedom and equality.

How will such a society come about?, asks Berkman.

To him, the idea is the thing. People must want fundamental change. They must want a revolutionary change before they can achieve a social revolution. And they must prepare for a social revolution. Unlike some anarchists, Berkman does not put much faith in spontaneous uprisings, although he does not reject them on principle. Indeed, he says “we know that revolution begins with street disturbances and outbreaks; it is the initial phase which involves force and violence”. Such a phase is of short duration. According to Berkman, “the social revolution can take place only by means of the general strike”. The general strike is the revolution. (All emphasis in the original). And such a strike can only be carried out by workers organised in labour, or industrial, unions. In his last chapter Berkman assumes that such a revolution would have to be defended by “armed force” if necessary

This, very briefly, is Alexander Berkman’s case for anarchist-communism and revolution. Is it desirable, and would it work? The answer is “yes” and “no”. The Socialist Party advocates and is organised for the establishment of a world-wide system of production solely for use and the abolition of the wages system; such a society would, of necessity, replace government over people by democratic administration of things. Unlike Berkman and the anarchist-communists, however, socialists claim that such actions as insurrection and a general strike by workers would not, and could not, bring about a socialist society. In our view (but not held by this writer 30 years ago!), the working class must organise consciously and politically first, for the conquest of the powers of government, before it can convert private property in the means of production into common property.

Nevertheless, the ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman should be read by all those interested in what anarchists in general, and anarchist-communists in particular, stand for.

Stop Supporting Capitalism! Start Building Socialism! by Stan Parker, (Bridge Books, Wrexham, 176pp)

What is the best medium for putting to people the case for a society of free access? Many things have been tried. The Socialist Party has been doing it through the pages of the Socialist Standard for nearly a century. Dozens of Party pamphlets – and many more leaflets and manifestoes – have been produced. Countless public meetings have been organised and addressed. But only in very recent times have we seen the case for socialism being expressed in full-length book form. If we exclude from this category Robert Barltrop’s 1975 book on the Socialist Party, The Monument, on the grounds that it was as much a personal reminiscence as a exposition of the socialist idea, it is only in the twenty years or so that we have seen writers producing books which attempt to make a detailed case for socialism seen as a wageless, moneyless world system characterised by free access to all goods and services, socially co-operative work and democratic administration. This was discussed in the final chapter of State Capitalism: The Wages System under New Management by Adam Buick and John Crump in 1986 and in the chapter on the SPGB in Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in 1987. In 1988 and 1994 Ken Smith wrote Free is Cheaper and The Survival of the Weakest, in 1990 and 1997 Melvyn Chapman wrote Money and Survival and The Universal Impediment, in 2000 Dave Perrin wrote The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Politics, Economics and Britain’s Oldest Socialist Party, and in 2001 Ron Cook wrote Yes, Utopia! We Have the Technology. Now, in 2002, the latest in this ‘series’ has appeared, Stan Parker’s volume entitled Stop Supporting Capitalism! Start Building Socialism! (Bridge Books, Wrexham, 176pp).

Parker’s approach is to divide his book into two major sections, the first subtitled ‘Capitalism’ the second ‘Socialism’, and within these to discuss what he sees as the major aspects of both systems. So in the ‘Capitalism’ section he first describes how early primitive communities not based on wage labour, money and exchange gradually transformed themselves into socially and economically hierarchical societies culminating in modern capitalism. He then looks at the first thorough analysis of capitalism carried out by Marx in the nineteenth century before examining various modern views of capitalism put forward both by its supporters and its opponents and assessing the effects of some of the different ways of running capitalism that have been tried (e.g. ‘Free Market or State Control?’). He ends this section with comment on recent developments within capitalism, in particular so-called ‘globalisation’, information technology and the rise of environmental problems and ‘green’ politics.

In the ‘Socialism’ section Parker looks both backward and forward. He traces the trajectory of socialist ideas from notions of social equality that surfaced during the Peasant’s Revolt and again in the 17th century with the Diggers and the Levellers, through the early 19th century practice of such figures as Robert Owen and Saint-Simon, to the fully-fledged thought of Marx and Morris at the end of that century. He then differentiates the reformism that is often called ‘socialism’ today from the real substance of socialism, which involves not cumulatively reforming capitalism but actually getting rid of it and is therefore by definition revolutionary. The rest of this section and of the book is devoted to chapters explaining the meaning of the various terms often used to describe how a socialist society will be organised – common ownership, production for use, democratic control, free access – and suggesting ways we can organise now in order to move towards the achievement of that society.

It is these chapters that I found most successful, in the sense that, if I were not already a socialist, I would, I think, be more persuaded to become one by what Parker has to say about how socialism will be organised and can be achieved than by the case against capitalism in the first section of his book, which, while excellently documented and referenced, is somehow not clearly and fully argued out on its own ground. What is especially attractive about the last few chapters is that they present a hard-headed yet optimistic appraisal of the benefits and the problems of organising a society based on production for need. The same can be said of the author’s view on the prospects and the timescale for achieving Socialism. There is perhaps something of an irony here, for, while more than once denying the usefulness of trying to present any kind of detailed description of a socialist society, there is a certain human warmth about the author’s brushstrokes which for me actually manage to paint such a picture more successfully than those who have actively attempted it in the past.

There are some aspects of Parker’s book which will provoke critical discussion in the socialist movement. Some will see an over-emphasis on a ‘reformist’ rather than a revolutionary Marx, some will find the author too dismissive of the role new technology can play in the establishment and running of a new society, and some will criticise his apparent relegation of the trade unions in capitalism to a simple agent of reformism. However socialists will applaud most of what they read and find new information and new angles on issues they are familiar with. His analysis of what an old Socialist friend of mine used to call capitalism’s “head-fixing machine” is outstanding as is his take on the “human nature” issue, where he draws on the work of a psychologist who argues that human nature is often one-sidely evoked “to explain selfishness rather than service, competition rather than cooperation, egocentricity rather than apathy” and concludes that “social structures predicated on human selfishness have no claim to inevitability”. Parker’s arguments about the reasons for capitalism’s tenacity, based on compliance rather then active support and a “there is no alternative” view of the world, are compelling too. And, as he says, perhaps the most difficult thing to imagine about socialism is a society which will bring “not only the socialisation of the means of production but also the liberation from the millennia-long habits of dependence and submission’.

Howard Moss

Leave a Reply