Book Reviews: ‘Pity the Billionaire’, ‘Zinoviev & Martov: Head to Head in Halle’, ‘The Reason Why’

Poor Old Capitalists

Pity the Billionaire. By Thomas Frank. Harvill Secker. £14.99.

If you have been paying attention to the Republican primaries, you have probably been shocked by the low level of political debate in the US. Personal attacks, vacuous appeals to religion and the use of ‘liberal’ as a swearword seem to be the common ground in speeches and debates. In the book under review, Thomas Frank looks at the politics and tactics of the ‘newest Right’, as he calls them.

The banking crisis and recession have led, not to calls for more government control of the economy, but for less regulation and the introduction of a genuine ‘free market’. Despite the Reagan and Bush regimes, it is claimed by many that ‘true conservatives’ have never really been in charge and the market has never had a proper chance to impose its discipline on the economy, as there has always been some state interference.

The Tea Party movement is the most obvious manifestation of these ideas. Interestingly, Frank argues that the Tea Party is essentially based on small-business owners who see government regulation as a matter of time-wasting interference in their activities, in contrast to the checks and balances that were (to some small degree) imposed on the big banks. The smaller capitalists tended to borrow money against their homes, so the collapse of house prices left them far less able to borrow and made them look on with envy at the bank bail-outs.

Along with this is an ideology of individual responsibility, the view that those who make it succeed by their own efforts and those who fail and suffer deserve to do so. Where once communities might have rallied round to help someone whose home was being repossessed, now many people are pleased to see a person losing a home that they should never have tried to buy in the first place.

Frank shows how the Democrats have made no serious attempt to respond to these illusions. And he makes a valid point that the real role of the state is far from what the conservatives imagine: ‘neither federal nor state governments have ever mounted a campaign to intern the free-market faithful or blacklist the hardworking proletarians in the Chicago futures pits. However, they have used force over the years to break up strikes, imprison labor organizers, keep minorities from voting, round up people of Japanese descent, and disrupt antiwar movements.’




Zinoviev & Martov: Head to Head in Halle. With introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih. November Publications. 2011.

In October 1920 the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had broken away from the pro-war SPD in 1917 and which numbered amongst its members such pre-WWI Social Democrat tenors as Kautsky, Bernstein and Hilferding, met in Halle to decide whether or not to affiliate to the Russian Bolsheviks’“Comintern”or “Third International”.

The German authorities allowed the head of the Comintern, Gregory Zinoviev, to enter Germany while the Bolshevik authorities allowed the leading Menshevik Julius Martov to leave Russia, both to take part. Zinoviev spoke for over four hours in what Ben Lewis claims was “one of the most significant speeches of the 20th century workers’movement.”

Lenin had justified the Bolsheviks seizing power in backward Russia on the grounds that this was only the first event in the world socialist revolution. He also justified the Bolsheviks using all means to stay in power –including suppressing opponents, invading Poland and stirring up a holy war against the West amongst Muslims, all of which Zinoviev defended in his speech –until they were rescued by the revolution spreading to Europe and in particular Germany.

In 1920 the leading Bolsheviks were still in this mode. There is no doubting their sincerity, only theirjudgement. Zinoviev’s main argument was that as the world revolution was under way you were either for or against the government of the one place where it had already triumphed. How divorced from reality he was can be gauged from his claim that in England “the beginning of the proletarian revolution can be clearly seen”.  He added, “I am convinced that in two or three years, it will be said that this was the beginning of a new era. The proletarian revolution has a great chance in England.”

In his contribution Martov argued that the workers in Europe were certainly discontented but that this was not an expression of socialist consciousness but of elemental despair. He accused the Bolsheviks of exploiting this to come to power instead of trying to turn it into the socialist understanding required before socialism could be established, a view which he claimed the USPD was committed to. Hence the title of his talk “May the USPD be preserved”.

Referring to Russia, he said that the Bolshevik party had “conquered state power in a country with a proletariat that was numerically insignificant, a country with an insignificant productivity of labour, with a complete lack of the basic economic and cultural preconditions for the organisation of socialist production – and these objective conditions presented the Bolsheviks with an insurmountable obstacle for therealisationof their ideals.”He went on to point out that “the development of the revolution in the West …is not going as quickly as the Bolshevik party had reckoned when it obtained state power through a fortunate confluence of circumstances and then used this power in an attempt to turn Russia into a socialist country by a radically accelerated path.”

The extent to which the Bolshevik leaders really did believe at this time that they were turning “Russiainto a socialist country”can be gauged from a passage in an article included in this book that Zinoviev later wrote on his “Twelve Days in Germany”:

“We are approaching a time when we shall do away with all money. We are paying wages in kind, we are introducing free tramways, we have free schools, a free dinner, perhaps for the time being unsatisfactory free housing, light, etc.”

Zinoviev won the debate and a majority of the USPD voted to affiliate to the Comintern and become the Communist Party of Germany (the minority eventually rejoined the SPD). But within a year Martov was proved right about the Bolsheviks’prospects in Russia. In 1921 they were forced to abandon trying to establish a moneyless society and to introduce the New Economic Policy, described by Lenin as “state capitalism”or the development of capitalism under the control of the “proletarian state”(as he called the Bolshevik regime). Four years later when he broke with Stalin, Zinoviev went further and described Russia’s nationalised industries as “state capitalism”(see Weekly Worker, 8 January, 1926) and wascriticisedby both Stalin and Trotsky for admitting this.

Lih says that Martov could be seen as a sort of “premature Trotskyist”in that he applied the same arguments to why the Russian Revolution would degenerate (economic backwardness and isolation) “to events and processes that the Trotskyist tradition treats in a more admiring way”- in fact from day one of Bolshevik rule.

Martov, wisely, did not return to Russia and died in exile in Germany in 1923. Zinoviev ended up being shot in 1936 as a “counter-revolutionary”, a victim of the same sort of terror and logic he had defended in Halle in 1920.




The Reason Why. By John Gribbin.Allen Lane. £20.

In the 1960s, a group of heterodox Trotskyists known as the Posadists shackled the UFO craze, then sweeping the world, to ‘socialism’ (in their case doubtless meaning some form of half-baked developmental dictatorship). Their leader Juan Posadas ‘reasoned’ that since these alien visitors were technologically advanced they must also be communists, and called for their assistance and our emulation. Now it is likely that UFOs were nothing more than secret US aviation experiments (could anything be more otherworldly than stealth aircraft such as the B-2 or the F-117?), but the question remains “where are the aliens”? Gribbin answers with Occamist precision: “They are not here because they do not exist”.

Subtitled “The miracle of life on earth”, this book seeks to argue why life, especially intelligent life with advanced technological capacity, is extremely unlikely to be duplicated in our galaxy, if not, indeed, the universe. While the influence of the moon in making the earth habitable is well known, the author contends that there is a wide range of other factors at work. As an astrophysicist, he most effectively explores the really large ones to do with the peculiar position, composition and geography of our solar system, but seems on unfamiliar ground with evolution (for instance, rating the intelligence of Troodon, the most advanced dinosaur, as on a par with a baboon, whereas most reliable sources rate it as a clever chicken) and ventures not at all into history – how unlikely, looking at the untold eons of hand to mouth survival, is the evolution and survival of technological civilisation? Like Posadas, Gribbin also ventures into science fiction with a purely speculative account of the emergence of complex multi-cellular life in the early Cambrian involving the collision of Venus and a supercomet. Despite its limitations, which include a lack of illustrative diagrams, this is a worthwhile book, with a firm and easily accessible scientific background.

The implications are clear. If we are indeed alone, what a crime it is to put the fate of civilisation in the hands of the capitalist system whose reckless wars and insane waste of resources endanger our very survival as a species. As the twenty-first century progresses and human knowledge and abilities expand, it will become increasingly obvious that only socialism can provide the necessary preconditions for our continued long-term existence.


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