Abergavenny Left

“Mountains, Markets and Marxists…”

Upcoming national event: Fighting For Marxism On Campus

Saturday October 17 2009


Details TBC.

Capitalism is in its deepest crisis since the 1930s. The world is at an historic turning point. The crisis comes at an enormous human cost – soaring unemployment, house repossessions, wage cuts and attacks on basic services and social security provision. The so-called third world has been particularly hit, with an extra 50 million people expected to live in absolute poverty.

With the onset of this global economic crisis, Karl Marx has found himself back in the mainstream press, as even sections of the capitalist class look to him for an understanding of their system.

We in Communist Students also turn to Marx and his method – not in order to prop up the moribund capitalist system, but in order to understand it and fight for a complete transformation of all existing social conditions.

Communist Students organise around the principles of Marxism because we think that they are uniquely able to come to grips with capitalism’s origins, rise to maturity, long decline and structural crisis. Marxism is both intellectually rigorous and yet its basic propositions are easy for anyone to grasp; because Marxism is both immensely inspiring in scope and thoroughly realistic in its aim of universal human liberation led by the self-emancipation of the working class majority.

Come and join CS in discussing what it is that makes the capitalist system tick, and how we can educate, agitate and organise in order to contribute to its overthrow.


1. A world in crisis: how can Marxism help us to understand and change it?

2. Internationalism: what does it mean and why do we emphasise it? With a speaker reporting on the current situation in Iran.

3. Communist Students: Who we are, what we fight for and why we fight for it

Facebook event page here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=123094247774

This will be followed by a conference for members and supporters of Communist Students on Sunday October 18. If you wish to attend this then please get in touch to book a place.

September 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond the limits

Huw Sheridan reviews Steve Jones’s Darwin’s island: The Galapagos in the garden of England Little, Brown, 2009, pp307, £20

book - Darwins island

The anniversarial hype surrounding Charles Darwin continues unabated. The BBC alone broadcast a seemingly endless flow of programmes as part of its Darwin season.

Jones’s book is essentially a polemic against the parody of Darwin’s life and work which goes something like: Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands, where he saw some finches and quickly churned out his only book worth having on your bookshelf. On the origin of species proved the existence of something called ‘evolution’ and upset various religious types, but (in some versions of the story) Darwin recanted this blasphemy on his deathbed.

Darwin wrote more than six million published words, including 19 books, as well as thousands of letters, many of which survive (see darwin-online.org.uk). This vast literature, and the body of experimentation which lay behind much of it, was a crucial foundation in establishing biology in its modern form. Darwin’s theory of ‘descent with modification’, or natural selection, was the glue which held everything together.

On the origin of species was somewhat different to most of his subsequent writings, being largely a literature review and articulation of a new theoretical paradigm. In his later writings, which Jones has in his crosshairs, Darwin focused on his own experimentation conducted on his home island and in doing so effectively founded several branches of modern biology. Trying to understand Darwin from Origin alone is like trying to understand Marx by only reading volume 1 of Capital, or Shakespeare by Hamlet.

In providing a readable account of the many undervalued contributions of Darwin to science, and how his foundations have been built on by later scientists, Jones succeeds admirably. But this is merely one aspect of the book. It is also a potted biography of Darwin and a selective guide to modern biology. It is easy to read and packed full of interesting facts, whilst unfortunately not including references and overly simplifying some complex debates.

It is also – despite the author’s protestations that he aims to “avoid as far as possible any discussion of the relevance of Darwinism to the human predicament”, as well as “empty arguments” on topics such as the relationship between Darwinism and religion (p7) – a deeply ‘philosophical’ and indeed political work. I will explore some of the threads Jones raises, to the detriment of topics such as the sexual antics of barnacles, interesting as they are.

Jones’s primary philosophical attack is against Platonic essentialism. He criticises pioneering figures in genetic research, such as James Watson, for having “out Plato-ed Plato” (p20). Like many modern biologists, he argues that, as individuals are varied, evolution should be a purely comparative science. In many cases such complaints are justified, in others they are merely postmodernist attempts at obscuration.

Every page, for better or for worse, drips with the world-changing effects, power and uniqueness of Homo sapiens sapiens. Jones may be a specialist in genetics, a field all too prone to crude reductionism, but his words are underlined by a fundamentally humanistic perspective.

Politics is never far from the surface. Take his discussion of comparative psychology, a field given approximate shape by Darwin’s Expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872): “kick a dog and it crouches and turns down the corners of its mouth; torture an al-Qa’eda suspect and he does the same” (p77).

Likewise Jones does a good balancing job in discussing our closeness to chimpanzees. Frequently cited figures, such as 99% genetic similarity, are somewhat misleading. Immediately obvious and significant differences include humans having a brain three times as large. But crucially, of course, “ideas, not genes, make us what we are” (p44). Yet this does not mean humans are something apart from nature – the ‘superstructure’ of things like language rests upon the ‘base’ of primate sociality. Jones provides ample ammunition for such a perspective, in contrast to Rousseau’s abstract ‘noble savage’ or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ approach.

Indeed the first chapter focuses on human evolution, which is quite rightly stressed as a good exemplar of the wider Darwinian paradigm. In the myriad examples Jones gives, the overriding theme is the contingency of evolution, in contrast to any sort of inevitable progress or ‘design’ by some supernatural being: “genes – like cells, guts and brains – work, but only just” (p18). Jones’s evolutionary world is one where evolving species ‘scavenge’ and ‘hijack’ elements of their morphology and put them to new uses. One example is the ‘hammer’ and ‘anvil’ bones in our ears, which were once part of the jaw.

One of the most obvious and sickening indictments of capitalism is the continuing prevalence of famine and malnourishment. Today some 800 million people go hungry, but, as Jones points out with thinly disguised anger, we now have the historically unheard of phenomenon of around a billion overweight people: “a tsunami of fat has struck the world” (p134). In America alone obesity causes over 100 times more deaths every year than occurred in the 9/11 attacks.

To understand this strange state of affairs Jones takes us back to the origins of agriculture. Before this time humans ate a wide-ranging diet – according to Jones some 80,000 different types. And yet, to take the example of the Middle East, within a short time of the establishment of farming’s hegemony this diversity had been reduced to around eight crops. Indeed, to this day, many people’s diet predominantly consists of a ‘staple crop’, such as rice, maize or wheat. The domestication of various types of animals has similarly reduced variation, both between and within species. The effect is to damage the health of both humans and the planet.

The example of maize, the world’s most widely cultivated crop, is particularly pertinent. Maize now has such a symbiotic relationship with Homo sapiens that it struggles to naturally reproduce, the sheer number of seeds causing intense and generally deadly competition between seedlings. Jones is probably accurate when he argues that maize has altered “the global economy as much, or more, than has nuclear power” (p142).

Jones’s weakness here is that questions such as food production and consumption cannot be understood in ‘scientific’ isolation, but must be viewed in the context of private property, classes and nations. We must learn from the past, but not sentimentalise it.

Perhaps the key theme which emerges from Jones’s discussion of living nature is its interconnectivity. For example, the nitrogen-fixing abilities of legumes are responsible for generating half of the nitrates used on farms. Humans are no less reliant on them than are acacias on their insect visitors, from which they take almost all their nitrogen (p69).

Like the co-evolution of predator and prey species in animals, the relationship between the more than 200,000 species of pollen-carrying insects and flowering plants is an example of the complex interactions of nature, involving an “endless set of tactics, but no strategy” (p221).

Topics such as botany, which the author suggests “philosophers, like poets, should perhaps pay more attention to” (p164), are not merely of interest in themselves, but because of the many similarities at the chemical level between plants and humans. There is also the potential for significant scientific and medical discoveries.

This potential is, of course, found throughout nature. The barnacles on which Darwin exerted so much time and effort, for instance, produce a type of water-repelling cement to cling to wave-battered rocks. Such is the strength of the stuff that attempts are being made to use some of the substances in surgical procedures (p194).

Darwin’s final book, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms with observations on their habits (1881), is, in effect, a homage to worms. This worm worship was nothing new: Aristotle, for instance, celebrated them as the “earth’s entrails”.

Animals such as worms break down organic matter and improve drainage, therefore doing much for the fertility of the land. For us surface-dwellers it is hard to appreciate the slow but cumulatively powerful work of such beasts. If we add other types such as mites and spiders, then Jones claims every hectare of soil may contain as much as 15 tons of flesh (p247).

The potential for human-aiding scientific discoveries at the microbial level is another important factor. Since Darwin’s birth more than a billion people have died of tuberculosis. Thankfully the number has been massively reduced by the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in the soil. But, thanks to capitalism, aided and abetted by the emergence of drug-resistant strains, the disease remains a problem for the world’s poor.

Soil is a good example of the disrupted ‘metabolic’ relationship of humans to nature as a whole. Take ploughing, that evolutionary recent habit of ours, which loosens the topsoil but leaves a compacted and impermeable layer a metre or so down. As a result of such techniques, and despite simple measures which could be applied like ploughing with and not against the contours, some 24 billion tonnes of soil are washed away each year (p256).

Human history is littered with examples of the disastrous effects of soil erosion, from the Mesoamerican Maya, via Italy and Mesopotamia to the banks of the Yellow River – ‘the cradle of Chinese civilisation’, which was until some 2,000 years ago known as the Great River, until soil erosion turned it yellow (p258).

In the 1930s president Roosevelt wrote that “the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself” (p260). In today’s world there is but one ‘civilisation’: international capitalism. With our globalised economy the destruction of soil in the quest for profit threatens us all. Of course, soil erosion is not the only ecological problem we face. In reality we are staring in the face of an “ecological earthquake”, the product of our “universal attack on the biosphere” (p270).

Much of this makes for somewhat depressing reading, but to change something it is necessary to understand it. Jones goes so far as to describe humans as “weeds” – a hearty dose of 21th century pessimism. But, as he concludes, we are the “only creature ever to step beyond the limits of Darwinian evolution” (p287).

On every page of this book are warnings of what we are doing to our planet and its inhabitants. Such dangers are manifestations of the reactionary nature of late capitalism. And they are further reasons why the organised global working class needs to take power and institute a democratic and rational relationship of humans to nature, if we are to avoid the destruction of all classes and indeed most species.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

VI Lenin and the influence of Kautsky

In the first of three talks given at the CPGB’s Communist University, historian Lars T Lih discussed the relationship between two great Marxists. This is an edited version of his speech dealing with the period 1894-1914


Picture the situation. It is Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s 50th birthday in April 1920. The Bolsheviks have been fighting the civil war and, although they are in a pretty desperate situation in the spring, they can see victory as pretty much assured, and they are celebrating the occasion with their great hero and great leader, Lenin. He rather reluctantly comes out onto the stage and says that he would like to read out a rather long quotation by Karl Kautsky from a 1902 work, ‘Slavs and revolution’. Lenin also inserted the same page-and-a-half-long quote into Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder.

He introduced it in this way: “I’d like to say a few words about the present position of the Bolshevik Party, and was led to these thoughts by a passage from a certain writer written by him 18 years ago in 1902. This writer is Karl Kautsky, who we have at present had to break away from and fight in an exceptionally sharp form [which is putting it rather politely!], but who earlier was one of the vozhdi, the leaders of the proletarian party in the fight against German opportunism, and with whom we once collaborated. There were no Bolsheviks back then [before the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party], but all future Bolsheviks who collaborated with him valued him highly.”

So, on this great occasion, Lenin tells the audience that the person they had been fighting and whom they had all been looking down upon really was a great guy. He read out the quotation which still thrilled him. That for me is significant. I wonder how shocked some of the people must have been.

A couple of weeks later the Second Congress of the Communist International met and Lenin did the same thing. He referred again to the same long quote in Leftwing communism and repeated his appreciation of Kautsky: “When he was a Marxist, how well he wrote!” I imagine a lot of the people in both audiences – those at his birthday and those present at the Second Congress – were surprised to hear anything like that.

After all, following 1914 you could read tremendous polemics against Kautsky, where Lenin seemed unable to think of enough bad names for him. But it is clear that Lenin still had a soft spot for him – in his heart and also in his thinking. People on the left have all grown up with the idea of the “renegade Kautsky” – indeed, I gather many actually think “renegade” is his first name, as they have never heard him called anything else! And there is a long list of other things we have learnt about him – ie, that he was a passive and mechanical determinist, not very revolutionary, Darwinist, and so on and so forth.

We are told that in 1914 Lenin managed to see through not only Kautsky, the person (which he clearly did), but also what he stood for. Then we are told that this led Lenin to finally settle accounts with Kautskyism root and branch, that there was a massive rethinking of Marxism. Kautsky was associated with the Second International and so that was also bad. That is how the Kautsky-Lenin relationship is generally thought of. And, of course, there are people on the other side of the political spectrum who have the same idea of Kautsky versus Lenin – except that they like Kautsky!

Well, lately there has been a sort of Kautsky revival going on. Mike Macnair’s book Revolutionary strategy is one example of it, and there are a lot of other articles I could cite. There is another huge book in the Historical Materialism series called Witness to permanent revolution, which has several hundred pages of Kautsky documents from the 1904-06 period, which I will quote from later on.

I am proud to be part of this little revival and I think I can describe myself as probably the most extreme member of it, as I have probably gone further than anyone else in saying that Lenin’s view on Kautsky was highly positive, never changed and continued to play an important role in all points of his career, including in the last decade. My little epigram for the relationship is this: ‘After 1914 Lenin hated Kautsky because he loved Kautsky’s books’. This is what I am going to try and convey.

One reason I am confident about what I am saying is that after publishing my book Lenin rediscovered, the reviews by some people on the left were complimentary, but a couple of them highlighted what they thought was a weak point: that is, I saw the Lenin-Kautsky relationship as closer than it was – although Lenin might have considered the relationship close before 1914, he did not realise the real issues involved, that he actually disagreed with Kautsky; but in 1914 the scales fell from his eyes.

That was a valid criticism, as I did not talk in the book about the later period. So I thought I would do some research on this. I compiled a rather odd little database which I refer to as ‘Kautsky as Marxist’. I went through Lenin’s works and pulled out all the references I could find about Kautsky’s writings up to 1909, when Road to power came out. Lenin considered this the cut-off point. Kautsky might not have become a full traitor until 1914, but after 1909 he is not so good.

The first surprise is that there is a lot of it. The second is the picture that arose from this, which was almost entirely positive and also had a wide range of issues and a lot of references to specific writings and so forth. I am still working out the whole picture and trying to get all the facts that came out of it.

But I am going to make a modest claim here: I am not giving you Lars Lih’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship, I am giving you Lenin’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship. He may be wrong, but this is what he thought. I have a summary here that I wrote out of that guide. It is my guide, but it is an attempt to paraphrase what Lenin says about Kautsky after 1914. This is the picture you would get of Kautsky, if you were listening to Lenin:

“Karl Kautsky was an outstanding Marxist who is the most authoritative theoretician in the Second International and teacher to a generation of Marxists. His popularisation of Das Kapital back in the 1890s has canonical status. He was one of the first to refute opportunism in detail, although personally he somewhat hesitated before launching his attack, and he continued to fight energetically against it, asserting even that a split would be necessary if opportunism ever became the official tendency of the German party. Marxists of Lenin’s generation learned a dialectical approach to tactics from him. Only vis-à-vis the state do we observe a tendency to restrict himself to general truths and evade a concrete discussion.

“Kautsky was also a reliable guide to the revolutionary developments of the early 20th century. His great work on the agrarian question is still valid. He correctly diagnosed the national problem, as opposed to Rosa Luxemburg. He insisted that western Europe was ripe for socialist revolution and foretold the connection between war and revolution.

“Kautsky had a special relation to Russia and to Bolshevism. On the one hand, he himself took great interest in Russian developments and endorsed the basic Bolshevik view of the 1905 revolution and the peasant strategy which emerged from it. On the other hand, the Russian revolutionary workers read him eagerly and his writings enjoyed greater influence in Russia than anywhere else. This enthusiastic interest in the latest word of European Marxism is one of the main reasons for Bolshevism’s later revolutionary prowess.”

That, as I say, is Lenin’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship. Of course, I have left out the angry irony of ‘Look at him now!’, ‘Look at what happened!’ and how Kautsky had become a traitor or renegade in 1914 and so forth.

I want first to give the big picture and then proceed to the first two decades of their relationship (1894-1904 and 1904-14). I will talk about the third decade in the next sessions. The first decade I summarise under the title of ‘Lenin, the social democrat’ and the second under ‘Lenin, the Bolshevik’. ‘Lenin, the communist’ comes in the third decade. I have chosen these titles merely in order to identify the central theme of the particular decade – I am convinced of the continuity in Lenin’s thought and do not think he changed that much at all.

‘Lenin, the social democrat’ refers to his desire to initiate a social democratic party in Russia. ‘Lenin, the Bolshevik’ is so called as I regard Bolshevism as a Russian answer to a Russian question of how to defeat the tsar. You can call this classic Bolshevism, old Bolshevism or whatever, but that is what people meant when the word was invented. ‘Lenin, the communist’ obviously refers to the Lenin of 1917 and the socialist revolution.

By using this framework, the point I wanted to make about the Lenin-Kautsky relationship is the following: Kautsky’s influence is continuing, complex and central. It is complex because it has different facets that are more important at particular times – not just one or another issue. It is central because in the central concerns of each decade of Lenin’s life you will find Kautsky.

In the first decade, Kautsky was the authoritative spokesman of ‘Erfurtianism’ – the term I introduced in Lenin rediscovered. It is my word, referring to the Erfurt programme, for the image of the German party that inspired the Russians in this decade. In addition, it refers to Kautsky’s polemics against opportunism, such as his book against Bernstein.

It is true that at the start of the second decade – ie, when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split in 1904 – Kautsky sided with the Mensheviks. But this was just temporary. Actually on the more substantive issues and for most of the time from 1906 on, Kautsky was associated with the Bolsheviks, and he more or less endorsed the Bolshevik strategy. In fact both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks saw Kautsky as a sort of honorary Bolshevik. This seems to have been forgotten, but it does have to be said.

I would like to go into more detail on three points: Firstly the role of Kautsky as a mentor – the historical fact of the role that Kautsky played in the history of Russian social democracy. Secondly, Kautsky as an expounder of the logic of the party and the Russian underground (which is mainly what my book is about). And, thirdly, Kautsky’s support for the explicitly Bolshevik strategy of hegemony.

Kautsky as mentor

The best account of this is given by Lenin in State and revolution, which, as you know, is in many ways a polemic against Kautsky. But before he begins the polemic, Lenin gives the following generous and accurate account of Kautsky’s relationship to Bolshevism and the Russian movement (I should say, by the way, that if you read State and revolution you will find a great deal of praise even in this highly polemical pamphlet):

“Undoubtedly, an immeasurably larger number of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian than into any other language. It is not without justification that some German social democrats sometimes say jokingly that Kautsky is read more in Russia than in Germany. (We may say, in parentheses, that there is a deeper historical significance to this joke than those who made it first suspected. For the Russian workers, having manifested in 1905 an unusually strong and unprecedented demand for the best works of the best social democratic literature in the world, and having been supplied with editions and translations of these works in quantities unheard of in other countries, thereby transplanted, so to speak, with an accelerated tempo, the immense experience of a neighbouring, more advanced country into the almost virgin soil of our proletarian movement)”.

A somewhat similar comment can be found in Leftwing communism.

What Lenin is saying is that Kautsky was the main reference point of the Russian movement and Russian workers, and that this continued not only during the underground period, but almost throughout the 1920s – at least until 1929. For example, I have a long Bolshevik reading list for study and propaganda circles in the underground. This one is from 1908. The first thing to be said is that it is an extremely impressive reading list – if I had read all this stuff, then I would know a lot more than I do! I counted 23 works by Karl Kautsky, who dominates the list. Nobody else comes even close. There are only four articles by Lenin – none of the famous books such as What is to be done? or Two tactics.

But this continues for a long time. The classic Bolshevik textbook published in 1919, The ABC of communism, also has reading lists, from which you get the same picture – Kautsky is by far the leading author. Of Lenin’s pre-1909 works, the only ones that are included are those on agrarian development. Again, no trace of What is to be done? or Two tactics. So workers and Bolsheviks looking to educate and develop themselves are reading Kautsky! That is an historical fact.

Kautsky himself had more interest in Russia than any other non-Russian writer (ie, not Rosa Luxemburg, who was Russian in the sense that she grew up in the Russian empire). He gives specific support to Iskra and later to the Bolsheviks, and he told German and European readers about the heroic struggles going on in Russia and their immense significance. I would just like to quote from the article ‘Slavs and revolution’ from 1902, which was read out by Lenin at his 50th birthday. You can see why he was so inspired by it. This is what Kautsky said about the Russian workers:

“We are entering a new epoch of revolutionary struggle in Russia, a struggle that is developing on a much wider basis than a quarter of a century ago, but also one that in terms of the zeal of its fighters, in terms of the meanness and cruelty of the oppressors, and in terms of the heroism and devoted self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries is just as impressive as the Russian struggle of earlier periods, and involves more than physics in pitting force against force. The revolutionising of minds advances alongside the revolution of fists. The now awakening strata of the people are being seized by a passionate thirst for knowledge and are attempting to clarify for themselves their historical tasks, so that they might attempt to solve the most complex political problems, rising above the small daily struggle to the great historical goals that it serves.”

He then goes on to argue that in Marx’s day the Slavs were often seen as the force of reaction against the revolution, but perhaps now we can rather see them as the spark that sets off western socialism, which is becoming rather philistine.

Kautsky wrote a lot about Russia and it is always in this vein – ie, that in terms of their development the Russian workers are far above and beyond the English workers, etc.

The merger formula

I now want to discuss the logic of the party in Kautsky and Lenin. I refer to this as the ‘merger formula’ and it comes up a lot in my book because it is essential to this first decade – you do not read it much after that because the issues have basically been resolved.

The merger formula is this: social democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement. Lenin quotes this in the early 1890s and writes that this is how Kautsky sums up the essential message of the Communist manifesto – I do not think you can find higher praise than that. He also thought that it summed up the logic of German social democracy – the SPD. So the merger formula is the definition of ‘Erfurtianism’. It is seen as the prediction of the Communist manifesto, which, according to Lenin, is being confirmed before our eyes by the German SPD. So we have Kautsky formulating the link between the Communist manifesto and the party. Not only Lenin thought this – a whole generation of Marxists and activists of the 1890s did too.

What was this party logic? First of all, it is both a vanguard and a mass party – those are not opposed, because first of all bringing what Kautsky called the “good news” of socialism to the workers requires a vanguard who know about socialism, because the masses do not yet know about it. At the same time it requires a mass party, because you are trying to attract as many people as possible to this message and because the party is a large and open organisation that is going to argue for this message day and night. That is one aspect that results from this formula.

The second is what I call ‘campaignism’, which is the large array of jewels that the SPD came up with for getting the message across. This was very innovative stuff back then. I do not think we can appreciate all the things that – although familiar to us – were pioneered by the SPD: rallies, petition campaigns, a huge press, a large range of societies. These are all the things that the Soviet system based itself on and which all groups on the left use to some extent. This is due to the idea of merging. The workers will protest, but, if socialism is the real and final answer, then the only way to get socialism is to merge the two: the workers’ movement must adopt socialism as its goal.

Finally, the third implication of this is ‘political freedom’. That was the term used back then which is not used so much any more. It might be referred to today as ‘civil liberties’ perhaps, but this was the term that referred to the freedom of the press, freedom of association, strikes – ie, a basic array of organisational freedoms that allow this kind of party to exist. Particularly, of course, political freedom is needed in order to get the papers out, to hold rallies and to organise meetings in order to get the message across.

Most explicitly in his commentary on the Erfurt programme, Kautsky argues that anybody who does not want political freedom is an objective enemy of the proletariat – even if they are sincere in their desire to help the workers. Back then of course, a lot of socialists were either dubious on the question of political freedom or even hostile towards it, because they saw it as a sort of bourgeois-liberal toy. The best news for political freedom as a cause in the 19th century was the fact that the logic of Marxism meant arguing for political freedoms for the party.

That is what the merger formula meant. Let us now look at it from the point of view of what I call the ‘social democratic wannabes’ in the 1890s – these young activists either in Petersburg or in some isolated town in Russia. In illegal literature they read about this great party which is both popular and revolutionary and is run by the workers themselves. What an inspiring party! But, they asked, what does it mean for us today? We cannot do anything like that at all because we will be hauled off for speaking out in public.

So what could be done? First of all, they could adopt political freedom as their goal. This was not an obvious choice for revolutionaries in Russia because first of all they had to go through a long period of internal development in order to understand the importance of political freedom. The assassination of the tsar in 1881, for example, was a step forward towards this understanding. Whereas they previously rejected its significance, they now realised it was important.

This brings me to the next problem – is it possible to have something like political freedom under absolutism? Some people said that they were for political freedom, but that the only way to get it was the old terrorist way – ie, to throw bombs and force the government to do what they wanted because it was simply not possible to use newspapers and rallies, etc. That made a lot of sense. Others thought that the liberals would do it for them.

There was, however, another view held by people who had read Kautsky (in this sense Kautsky must be seen as the father, or godfather, of Russian social democracy). These people who had read Kautsky turned to the German party and started experimenting to see whether it was possible to carry out agitation and campaigns amongst the workers without getting arrested. The Russian word for this is konspiratsia, which does not mean ‘conspiracy’ (the word for that is zagovor). Konspiratsia has a specific meaning (or at least it did back in those days) of a set of operating rules which I call the fine art of not getting arrested. I did not use this phrase in Lenin rediscovered, but I now refer to this as the ‘konspiratsia underground’ – a new type of underground. Not one where you sit in a small room and plot to throw a bomb which will overthrow the tsar, but an underground that manages to keep its members safe from arrest. They form a national party with local roots, trying to get the word out to the workers à la SPD.

What is to be done? is therefore not Lenin saying, ‘Here is my great idea of a party – go and do likewise’. It was the summation and codification of what had been worked out by this underground. For that reason I would make the further argument that a lot, if not most, of what he is saying there became the common property of the underground – not just the Bolsheviks. For example, the term and actuality of ‘professional revolutionary’ were common to all parties – not at all a Bolshevik trick. The Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries and even the Liberals (to the extent that they were underground) had professional revolutionaries.

I therefore sum up Lenin’s slogan for this period as: ‘Let us build a party as much like the German party as possible under tsarist conditions. Then we can overthrow the tsar and build a party which is even more like the German one.’

Kautsky and Bolshevik strategy

I now wish to discuss Kautsky and the Bolshevik strategy that developed and became clear after the 1905 revolution.

Let us put it like this. You have a goal: political freedom. You have an institution in the form of the underground. But what about strategy? What sort of reading of class forces do you have that will achieve this political freedom? The Bolshevik strategy is one of hegemony.

Now the word ‘hegemony’ is a very famous one for a variety of reasons. What it meant back then was that the peasants were not only a discontented or destructive force, but by this time they were genuinely radical democrats whose interest it was to have a democratic, anti-tsarist revolution – partly because they wanted the land, but for other reasons too. They also needed leadership, so they had to choose between the main classes. One of these was the liberal bourgeoisie, who were anti-tsarist for their own reasons, and the other was the proletariat. The bourgeois liberals were already becoming counterrevolutionary because they were afraid of revolution, and they could more or less put up with what they got in 1905. Therefore the proletariat should aim to win, and has a very good chance of winning, class leadership over the peasants by promising them land and by being an uncompromising revolutionary force.

The way I summarise it is that the bourgeois revolution is too important to be left to the bourgeoisie – in fact the bourgeoisie is not going to carry out the bourgeois revolution. What follows from this is that the proletariat has a duty to lead the revolution and the mass of the people as a whole – ie, in the first instance the peasantry. Where did this hegemony strategy come from?

One common view is that Lenin invented it in 1905 when he realised that orthodox Marxism was insufficient, because it says that the bourgeoisie will lead the bourgeois revolution. So this view bases itself on Lenin repudiating German textbooks. But actually this is not so.

After 1905 Lenin wrote that the Bolsheviks had always been in favour of the hegemony scenario and it was the Mensheviks who were falling away from it. It is hard to locate just when the term ‘hegemony’ came about, but he was arguing that the Bolsheviks had always fought for it and that they still were. The idea goes back to Plekhanov in the 1880s, when he said that the Russian revolution can only succeed as a worker revolution. What he meant by revolution was a democratic and anti-tsarist revolution.

From the very beginning, Kautsky was again an influence, a conduit, for the hegemony strategy. The logic of it can be traced back to his writings in the 1890s, and it is based on three things. Firstly, that the bourgeoisie is unreliable. Marx and Engels realised this as soon as the ink was dry on the Communist manifesto in 1848. Another thing Kautsky says is that the bourgeoisie becomes weaker and feebler the further east we get, something which was picked up on by other writers. Then the idea of social democracy as the leader of the peopledas Volk in German or narod in Russian. This means that the social democrats were not merely leading the workers, but were also the consistent champions of the wide masses of the non-proletarians and could also count on their support – the peasants above all, but the urban petty bourgeoisie too.

Finally, there is what I sometimes call the Kautsky hypothesis or theory. He says at one point that the social democrats are better defenders of democracy than the democrats, and what he means by that is that – in Germany especially – the democrats are to the left of the liberals, but they are starting to compromise, so the force that was really fighting for democracy was the workers’ party.

I read an American writer from this period who drew a comparison between the US and Germany. When something happened to the workers in the US then it would be ignored, but in Germany the party would kick off a big fuss about it in the Reichstag. This is the background to the hegemony strategy.

When applied to Russia, Kautsky specifically endorsed it and might have even helped to formulate it. Writing in February 1904, he says: “More than anywhere else, the proletariat in Russia today is the advocate of the vital interests of the whole nation – ie, the struggle against the government. That is to say, it is the proletariat which is the defender of national interests that the other classes are letting down. And particularly the peasantry is a source of possible support. Until the 1880s, Russian absolutism found its support in the peasantry. This no longer exists. The Russian peasant is ruined, starved and rebellious.”

By December 1905 Kautsky had taken the argument further by comparing the Russian revolution with the French revolution. He says that he expects “the disappearance of today’s great landed estates throughout the whole Russian kingdom and their transformation into peasant possessions. Next to tsarism, it is the large landed estates that will pay the bill of the revolution. We do not know what the result will be in terms of the mode of production, but we will say that the peasants will fight tooth and nail against anybody trying to restore the old aristocratic landed regime – even by foreign intervention.” This obviously says something not only about 1905, but also about 1917.

Then, in 1906, Kautsky specifically endorsed Bolshevik strategy – something that came out of a logic of Kautsky’s particular way of looking at social democracy (I will not say that this is something coming from social democracy in general – this is Kautsky individually – but he and Lenin were on the same wave length on this vital question).

To sum up, we have to understand that political freedom as a goal really was the central theme of Lenin’s first two decades – why it was important and how to get it. Political freedom also has a political logic – both in the ideal party that would be possible when political freedom was achieved and in the underground as a sort of ray of political freedom in the gloom of absolutism. Finally the strategy for winning political freedom was to get the peasants on board and to win leadership and hegemony over the peasants away from the liberals.

At each step we find Kautsky is a central influence and active mentor and educator. If I were speaking merely as a Russian historian I would have to say that Kautsky was a very important figure in Russian social democracy. He was a figure in Russian history.

The Kautsky-Lenin relationship is, for me, one of the most fascinating individual relationships in Lenin’s life. It is full of a passion and emotion that is hard to find elsewhere, but also it tells us about Lenin’s relationship to the Marxism of his day and to the Second International.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Richard Hunt was not just a statistic


John Sidwell recalls a well intentioned and honest young man

On Saturday August 15, my good friend Richard Hunt became the 200th British casualty since the initial invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. Inevitably a shock to all his friends and family, his death brought home to me the fragility of thousands of working class lives in the shape of troops sent to fight the latest imperialist war – always in the name of both the ‘national interest’ and ‘bringing democracy’ to whatever people are suffering under occupation. His death was all the more tragic in that it came in only his second week in Afghanistan (his first outing from base camp), when he was just a week short of his 22nd birthday.

Richard was a well intentioned and honest young man. Although I did not share his passion for all things rugby, we got along very well and spent many an hour in the pub discussing the question of the war and the validity of British involvement. Whilst he was committed to whatever function his position as a private in the British army would entail for him, he was always clear that his main allegiance on the battlefield was to his fellow soldiers, and not to some grand political agenda. But that is fine by the top brass – however it is achieved, the unquestioning carrying out of orders is the aim. The more far-fetched and unjustifiable the apparent reasons for such conflicts are, the more vital this becomes, and Richard told me this was the attitude prevalent amongst the majority of lower-ranking troops he came into contact with.

Because Richard’s death was the 200th in Afghanistan it received more than the usual publicity – I doubt whether The Guardian would have felt it necessary to feature it on its front page had it been the 201st. But the Stop the War Coalition was correct to call for it to be marked with demonstrations and pickets. It is our duty to stop the slaughter – of both innocent Afghans and the occupying troops.

The fact that I felt this as a personal loss emphasised for me how grotesquely misplaced it would be for anti-imperialists, anti-war campaigners and working class partisans to express satisfaction at, still less celebrate, the death of British troops. We are for the defeat of the British state’s imperialist operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and defend the right of the Afghan people to fight back using any means at their disposal, but that does not mean we relish the deaths that result. Rather we fight for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying troops.

We have to recognise that the military rank and file are overwhelmingly working class. Forced or encouraged into the armed forces for a variety of reasons – often the lack of any viable alternative – they are persuaded to carry out the agenda of an enemy class by the prospect of a ‘decent’ wage, training or perhaps escape from a dead-end life of unemployment and alienation. They are denied even the most basic right to speak out or exercise the slightest control over their working environment.

The case of Joe Glenton – court-marshalled for desertion after refusing to be sent to Afghanistan – is clear evidence of a level of discontent within the armed forces. While we would criticise the terms of his condemnation of Britain’s role in Afghanistan – such wars must be opposed whether or not they are technically “illegal” – his rebellion is to be welcomed and could easily be replicated and generalised if the left took agitation amongst troops more seriously. Labelling all British troops as imperialist butchers is hardly going to help in such a task.

It is understandable that Richard’s family have called for any donations in his name to be given to the Help for Heroes organisation. But it is an utter indictment of the British state that those injured in a conflict supposedly waged in ‘our’ interest are dependent on Rupert Murdoch-backed charity handouts to provide them with the most basic of needs.

As communists it is vital we seek to build a mass anti-war movement equipped with both the political and practical means to challenge the state. Both in order to apply as much pressure as possible on the government for the immediate withdrawal of troops from the Gulf region, and to make its pursuit of further imperialist projects increasingly impossible. That is the way to defeat imperialism.

While Richard never came to agree with all my criticisms of the British state’s role in the ‘war on terror’, our discussions on the issue were certainly worthwhile and, I would hope, informative for both parties – they certainly were for me. Although my time with Richard was too short – it was certainly far too short for me to be able to persuade him to take a different course – the memory of him will be with me forever. He was warm and friendly and always up for a laugh. His needless death, whilst deeply personal for me, was another wasted life in a barbarous conflict

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Another deadly war

Afghanistan is not the only campaign to be escalated under Obama, writes Ted North

Barack Obama conveniently found god at the time he entered politics. Similarly, as he has risen in politics, his attitude to drugs has become ever more reactionary and opportunist. He was lucky the police did not kick down the door when as a youth he was experimenting with cannabis and cocaine. He might well have landed in a six by eight cell, rather than the White House.

In the election campaign Obama’s team were quick to iron out his past slightly off-message hiccups about drug policy. In this field, as in every other, he was firmly for the status quo; just look at his Senate voting record since 2004. Once in office, his administration approved the state department report on drugs for 2008, compiled under Bush.

The war on drugs

Richard Nixon was the first to use the provocative term ‘war on drugs’ in 1971. The Drug Enforcement Administration now has offices in over 60 countries. Since 1972 its staff has increased from 3,000 to 11,000, and its budget from $65 million to $2.5 billion.

Almost one in 30 Americans are behind bars, on probation or on parole. Indeed a quarter of the world’s prisoners are on American concrete. Many of these are there due to drugs charges, or indirectly relating to drugs (eg, theft to fund a habit).


A quarter of the world’s prisoners are in US jails

Young and poor black and Latino men are disproportionately affected: ‘white America’ consumes vast amounts of legal drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (not to mention gargantuan amounts of prescription pills) and middle class whites are likely to be less harshly treated if caught with illegal drugs.

And what America does, the world does. Through a mixture of political/ideological hegemony, economic dominance and direct military intervention the tentacles of America’s war on drugs stretch from the jungles of the South America to the mountains of Afghanistan.

Last year more than 6,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico. This year’s body count already stretches into the thousands. Thanks to the war on drugs, hippies bringing a few pounds of weed back from Mexico have been replaced by today’s ultra-violent cartels. Volkswagen vans and Timothy Leary books have been transcended by Kevlar body armour, automatic assault rifles, rocket launchers and submarines.

Late in Bush’s reign America launched the Mérida Initiative. This provides Mexico and central American countries with hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the flow of drugs. Voices calling for at least partial legalisation are trampled underfoot as American policy under Obama is centred on ever greater militarisation.

Tens of thousands of armed men have been sent by the Mexican government into ‘problem areas’. Torture and other forms of mistreatment are rife; indeed a video leaked in July 2008 showed police in Guanajuato being instructed in torture methods by American officers.

It was no coincidence that Mexican president Felipe Calderón was the first foreign leader to meet then president-elect Obama. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been in Mexico to assist the government. On March 25 the Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a meeting on the escalating violence.

Nearly a thousand people linked to the cartels have been arrested on drug charges in America in recent weeks in the strangely named ‘Operation Xcellerator’, under the control of new attorney general Eric Holder. Many tonnes of drugs have been seized. As a result drug prices have quickly increased. Of course, this merely means those still in the game will be even more competitive, ever more violent and cutting their products with unknown substances.

All of this echoes Plan Colombia; hailed by Mullen as a model of success. Never mind the rightwing death squads and resulting kidnappings, assassinations and massacres which were, and still are, funded by billions of American dollars. Indeed never mind the fact that Colombian cocaine production actually increased!

Reach for the lasers

Vice-president Joe Biden has long been hawkish on drugs, sponsoring the ‘crackhouse laws’ of the 1980s. He chairs both the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Caucus.

Biden also sponsored the appropriately abbreviated Rave Act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy). In the face of stiff opposition this was stalled, only becoming law by being tagged onto the Amber Alert Bill (dealing with child abduction) in 2003.

To understand this law we need to go back a few years. In January 2000 the DEA infiltrated a monthly rave at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans. They found ‘drug paraphernalia’ including glow sticks, bottled water and a ‘chill room’. The organisers were arrested on drug charges, although no narcotics were found. A somewhat convoluted legal case followed.

The DEA tried again the following year, this time targeting the Club La Vela in Panama Beach City. In addition to the dreaded glow sticks they found Blow Pops candy. It took a jury less than two hours to decide that this was in fact candy, and not drug paraphernalia.

The DEA was pissed off. The drug laws which have seen millions imprisoned were just not tight enough. So Joe Biden potters into our story. He drafted the new law which specifically targets events with “loud, pounding dance music”. Things like glow sticks are now de facto evidence of organisers allowing drug use. They face fines and long jail terms.

In Britain the 1997 Criminal Justice Act similarly targeted events playing “loud, repetitive beats”. The police regularly break up raves with force. For example, 250 police in full riot gear attacked a rave of some 3,500 people near Newport, south Wales in 2007. Many people were injured by police batons and arrested. It seems like the police use such events as training sessions.

The rave (‘free party’) culture is a reflection of people rejecting hyper-commercialised ‘superclubs’ – violent, over-priced, over-policed and playing crap music.


Another crucial cog in the American war on drugs is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The ONDCP is, unsurprisingly, a model of bureaucracy. In 2000 the Federal Communications Commission was strongly critical of it for pumping millions of dollars into networks which integrated anti-drug messages into television programmes.

Likewise in 2005 the Government Accountability Office found that the ONDCP had violated laws by circulating pre-packaged news stories to television networks. In both cases the ONDCP failed to give any indication that they were coming from a government source.

Bill Clinton’s director of ONDCP was Barry McCaffrey. This retired general and business consultant has been accused of war crimes for his role in the first Gulf War. It is alleged that he ordered his troops to attack retreating Iraqi forces after a ceasefire had been signed. He dismisses the story as “revisionist history”. Thanks to McCaffrey’s opposition to needle exchanges thousands of people contracted HIV.

Obama continued the Democratic Party tradition in good style with his apparent choice of man for the job: recovering alcoholic and unrecovered Republican Jim Ramstad. Talk of Obama’s gestures towards this anti-drug crusader and opponent of needle exchanges and medical cannabis led to more than 40 healthcare organisations writing to Obama to complain.

Ramstad was quietly dropped. The man who is now in the job, pending Senate approval, is former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske. He is actually, in relative terms, something of a moderate; but the whole debacle provides another illustration of the opportunism of those on the left who advocated support for Obama.

Notorious Zionist Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, has long being considered another hawk on drugs. As a narcotics advisor under Clinton he infamously attacked even the “notion of legalisation”. We have little reason to expect better of other Obama appointees like Janet Napolitano. Eric Holder, now attorney general, pursued a strict approach to drugs when attorney in Washington DC (see, for example, Washington Post September 9 1996).

Free the weed

In Britain the 1999 Runciman report called for the downgrading of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD. Cannabis became a class C drug for a few years, but once again the government ignored the moderate conclusions of its own commission and recently raised the drug to class B in another victory for the Daily Mail lobby.

The news is full of horror stories about the effects of ‘skunk’. This is used as a generic name for any powerful weed; the original skunk was actually a particular and specific blend of Afghani, Colombian and Mexican strains. It is one of many combinations of the two main subspecies, cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.

Aside from the illusion/lie that strong weed was not around in the past, few discuss the real reason for the increasing strength: its illegalisation. In the face of the economic laws of capitalism, concentrated through strident prohibition, cannabis breeding has largely been driven by the need to produce compact, quick flowering and potent plants. Thus there is a trend towards cannabis indica dominant strains, rather than the less ‘couch-lock’ inducing, but tall and slow flowering cannabis sativa.

In Britain the large number of raids on growing operations means many smokers face dealers adding tiny glass beads to their mass-produced herbs to bulk up the weight; presumably not too good for the lungs. Hairspray is another unwelcome additive. Oil, lumps of plastic and other unknown niceties are found in low-quality Moroccan hashish (‘soap bar’). Commercial pressure means that hydroponically grown cannabis is not properly ‘flushed’ of fertilisers, possibly posing more of a health issue than pure cannabis itself.

Even if we accept the ‘scientific’ arguments (eg, a link to schizophrenia) this is no grounds for illegalisation. The damage pales into insignificance compared to that caused by, for instance, fatty foods and cars. Precise statistics are superfluous when considering the massive harm caused by tobacco and alcohol.

Followed to its logical conclusion, the prohibitionist approach would see the state dictate every breath and every twitch of our short lives. The simple fact is that millions of people enjoy smoking cannabis and have done so for thousands of years, whilst many find it medically beneficial.


The war on drugs has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Yet it has clearly failed. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Prohibition simply means higher profits, and therefore a propensity to violence by the gangs and cartels. It also means dealers cutting their products with all sorts of crap, leading to many deaths.

All this became clear with attempts at alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that the murder rate in America peaked in the final year of prohibition. Neither was there a decline in alcoholism during this time.

In Britain both the Westminster and Scottish governments are targeting cheap alcohol. It is, of course, impossible for them to actually address the cause of ‘drug problems’ like alcoholism because these reflect alienation produced by the capitalist system they defend. Attacks on cheap drink are attacks on the working class. One hears little mention of the epic drinking sessions around London’s financial district.

The Campaign for Real Ale claims that, on average, six pubs a day are closing. Most of those that remain sell second-rate, overpriced beer – the beer halls run by the early German Social Democratic Party provide a far better model.

Meanwhile, the American ruling class wins out from the war on drugs. The flow of prisoners into overcrowded prisons justifies sweeping police powers and maintains the ‘dictatorship of the lawyers’. The war also serves as a justification for imperialism – witness the American invasion of Panama in 1989. The Iran-Contra scandal reveals the hypocrisy of key sections of the American elite.

Many people’s opposition to the legalisation of drugs hinges on little more than crude distrust of the working class. Communists, on the other hand, fight for the rule of the working class. It must be able to understand the most complicated questions of science and politics, not to mention decide what it should consume.

We need to separate drug use from ‘drug abuse’; and the latter must be seen in a medical and social context, and not a moral and political one. This does not mean that we think that on finishing this article you should go and get off your face on methamphetamine. In fact I would strongly advise against it.

As I write, negotiations are continuing in Vienna on the updated UN declaration on drugs. Obama’s America and Russia, whose anti-drug policies are leading to a huge rise in HIV, are pushing for the continuation of the hard line. Other governments want a more moderate approach. Across the world there are splits in the bourgeoisie and the police on the question.

The working class and its political representatives must stand together in rejecting the war on drugs. Communists call for the complete legalisation of all drugs and their socialisation.

(Weekly Worker March 12 2009).

March 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Darwin’s Revolution

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his seminal ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection’. Huw Sheridan looks at its importance for communists


Charles Robert Darwin died on April 19 1882. Plans for the funeral in his quiet village were quickly interrupted when influential figures called for him to be buried at Westminster Abbey. A House of Commons petition stated that this “would be acceptable to a very large number of our countrymen of all classes and opinions”. And so it was: Darwin was buried alongside the cream of the British empire; one of less than half a dozen non-royals to be buried in Westminster Abbey in his century.

Today, it is hard to avoid Darwin. Bank notes and coins bear his face, whilst towns, universities and national parks are named after him. The anniversary of his birth has led to a torrent of articles, as well as television and radio programmes.


Evolution of evolution

Let us try and put Darwin in context. As far back as the 5th and 6th centuries BCE Greek philosophers such as Anaximander and Empedocles proposed an evolutionary view of life. Not much later, so did taoist philosopher Zhuangzi in China. In the Roman empire men like Titus Lucretius Carus kept these traditions alive. It was also through Lucretius that much of our modern knowledge of the Greek materialist, Epicurus, survived. Through such people materialism and evolutionism, in large part symbiotically, came down to the modern era.

In medieval Europe the notion of the scala naturae, the ‘great chain of being’, was dominant, and largely stifled evolutionary thought. Species, like the social order of feudalism, were seen as god-given and immutable. In contrast, across the ‘Islamic world’ evolutionary ideas were expressed by a number of people, including Al-Jahiz and Ibn Miskawayh.

The renaissance and the enlightenment paved the way for the development of modern evolutionary theory. Carlos Linneaus’s Systema naturae was the high point of enlightenment natural history. Within a creationist framework – and following the work of John Ray, who first used the terms ‘species’ and ‘genus’ – Linneaus developed ‘taxonomy’: the science of naming and classification of the natural world. We still use his system of binomial nomenclature today (eg, Homo sapiens).

Yet Linneaus showed the limits of a descriptive, as opposed to explanatory, approach. Despite being forced by the weight of anatomical evidence to put human and great apes in the same family (Hominidae), he denied there was an evolutionary relationship between them. Other examples of this core contradiction include his initial classifying of whales with fish.

In the later 18th century the real action was in France, particularly in the Paris Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle. Georges Cuvier (the ‘pope of bones’) held classically Aristotelian views, combined with a propensity to bureaucracy and intrigue. In response to the discovery of dinosaur fossils Cuvier proposed the theory of catastrophism, which was still just about compatible with biblical accounts. Nevertheless, his work in uniting anatomy with palaeontology was of lasting significance.

Others at the museum advocated evolutionary ideas. The intellectual spat between Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier makes modern disagreements, such as that between Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, look like a picnic on the beach. Saint-Hilaire was influenced by German philosophy and strongly supported the French revolution. He travelled to Egypt with Napoleon. When he returned, he found Cuvier was widely regarded as the most important scientist in France.1

Saint-Hilaire came to support another colleague at the museum, the young professor of invertebrate biology, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck is a key figure, in that from 1809 he moved beyond abstract speculation on evolution and proposed a mechanism by which it occurred. The ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ was in many ways an application to biology of John Locke’s philosophical ideas, as filtered through the French ideologues.

The clichéd example of Lamarckism is that of the giraffe, which by stretching up for leaves during its lifetime supposedly passes on a longer neck to its offspring. Yet only the genetic information in sperm or eggs can be passed on, and these are not affected by stretching the neck – but it was at least a serious attempt to explain it. Lamarckism later disastrously reappeared as ‘Stalinist-Marxist’, or Lysenkoist, biological theory in the Soviet Union.

Lamarck also broke the legs of the scala naturae; he proposed two chains, with side branches and the ability of species to move along them. It undermined the entire idea of the chain and prepared the way for Darwin.

In Britain geologist James Hutton developed the theory of uniformitarianism. This held that the key to understanding the past was the present; the same forces such as erosion and deposition had always taken place. Hutton impotently tried to combine his geology with theology, yet he was to inspire a generation of geologists.

Charles Lyell was one of them. He was another creationist, yet in his Principles of geology Lyell accumulated considerable evidence for uniformitarianism; in no small part a polemical response to Lamarck. Lyell was a key figure in pushing the age of the earth back, which was crucial in that it allowed for the time Darwin’s mechanism would require.

A final character deserves a mention. William Buckland, professor of geology at Oxford, was another scientist pushing creationist ideas against a wall. An advocate of ‘old earth creationism’, he rejected simplistic ‘flood geology’, which linked sedimentary deposits and what was later shown to be the evidence of glaciation to Noah’s flood.

In 1823 he discovered the famous ‘red lady’ of Paviland, in south Wales. This was actually a 30,000-year-old man, associated with the remains of a mammoth. Buckland claimed the individual was from Roman times, and the mammoth dug from older deposits by those who buried him. Likewise, the association of long extinct species with ancient human tools at Kent’s Cavern in Dorset must have been the work of Celts digging pits into the floor.

In spite of his flaws, Buckland made important advances. To his credit he accepted the idea of Louis Agassiz, a former student of Cuvier, that there had been past glaciation. This helped others to suggest there had been two glaciations. Then three were proposed … and so on. The Earth was getting older; the Bible an ever more inadequate account of history.

Space prevents a thorough discussion of another important field. It may have been idealist and overly speculative, but romantic biology – inspired by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel – was crucial in developing the idea of nature as a dynamic system. It led to advances in fields from neurology to embryology, many of which would have been unlikely if a purely empirical method had been used. The philosophical winds coming out of Germany were thus a vital catalyst for the development of modern evolutionary theory.

Life and times

In many senses Darwin was a synthesis of his two grandfathers. Erasmus Darwin was a personification of the enlightenment in Britain. In Zoönomia and the epic poem Temple of nature he advocated a loosely defined evolutionism, reflecting his belief in reason and progress. Darwin’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, was a rich Unitarian pottery industrialist.

Four first-cousin marriages connected the Darwins and the Wedgewoods. They personified the increasingly influential Unitarian Whig bourgeoisie – although wealth would push them towards Anglican respectability.

Darwin’s father complained of him as a young man: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”2 Indeed at the University of Edinburgh Darwin quickly became averse to his course in medicine. Instead he enjoyed attending debates and collecting marine invertebrates on the shore of the Firth of Forth with Robert Edmond Grant, a follower of Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire.

Darwin left Edinburgh, and moved to Cambridge University as a step towards a career with the Church of England – a ‘calling’ with more than enough free time to pursue his interest in nature. 1820s Cambridge was a strange place, deeply religious and conservative. Darwin spent much of his time collecting beetles, and on Friday evenings would attend Reverend John Stevens Henslow’s dinner parties for discussions on natural history.

In 1830 the monarchy of the reactionary Charles X was overthrown in France. In Britain the working class was beginning to assert itself. In Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales the zenith of a period of radicalisation saw thousands of people take to the streets and hills in the summer of 1831, raising both ‘economic’ and political-democratic demands. The red flag was raised in Britain for the first time and workers forced soldiers out of the town.

However, the rising remained, essentially, socialism in a single town. Reinforcements were sent in; the revolt was isolated and crushed. Yet within weeks trade union lodges started appearing and a new chapter in the history of the working class had opened. The population of Britain had doubled in the previous 30 years, and with the Tories for now frustrating attempts at a Reform Bill, things were in a fluid state.

In 1831, the year Hegel died, the 22-year-old Darwin set off on a five-year voyage around the world. HMS Beagle, bristling with the latest technology, and a not insignificant amount of firepower, was to survey the South American coast. Considerable British capital was invested in the area.

Darwin hit foxes on the head with his geological hammer, knocked hawks off branches with the barrel of his gun, tormented lizards and shot anything which was too slow to get away. One time he was looking for a rare species of bird, only to discover that he had just almost finished cooking and eating one! Despite the ‘savages’, he was pleased to note that “little embryo Englands are springing into life”.3


When he returned in 1836, much had changed. The Reform Bill had finally been passed in 1832. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced the dreaded workhouses.

A growing chorus of voices called for professional scientists, not the traditional gentlemen-amateurs. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in these years, in opposition to the conservative Royal Society. Darwin and many others came to embrace Auguste Comte’s positivism.

Positivism was a particular manifestation of another, wider trend. No longer would nature be explained by god’s random interventions, but rather by fundamental laws. Maybe god had initiated the laws of nature, but for increasingly secular science that was a secondary, philosophical question. From one perspective, it was capitalist ‘rule of law’ constitutionalism applied to science.

These were the conditions under which Darwin began to condense his thoughts and observations on ‘transmutation’ (evolution) in secret notebooks in 1837.

These were also the years of Chartism. Darwin’s cousin, Emma Wedgewood, whom he married in 1838, presumably summed up their shared feelings when on reading Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism pamphlet she declared it “full of compassion and good feeling, but utterly unreasonable”.5

A variety of factors held Darwin back from publishing his ideas. Not least the family and friends who would be shocked. The Malthusian bourgeoisie wanted theories to justify and expand their position, yet Darwin was also concerned that his ideas would be appropriated from below.

Darwin’s fears were understandable. The people were skilled at plagiarising the work of the bourgeoisie for progressive ends. Aside from the Chartists, there were illegal newspapers such as the Oracle of reason. This sold well and expounded atheist and evolutionary ideas. Editor after editor was jailed for blasphemy.

In August 1838 the latest editor of the Oracle (and the man who coined the phrase ‘secularism’), George Holyoake, was put on trial. He turned the trial into a propaganda epic. From the dock he spoke for eight hours on atheism and socialism. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

That summer saw a huge and prolonged Chartist-inspired general strike. But the popular enthusiasm from below was let down by poor leadership, insufficient organisation and an altogether wrong strategy. Troops marching from London to put down disorder in Manchester passed Darwin’s street. They were followed by screaming crowds, who shouted at the soldiers, “Remember, you are brothers” and “Don’t go and slaughter your starving fellow countrymen.” For a respectable Whig like Darwin it must have been terrifying.5


By 1842 Darwin had a basic sketch of what would become On the origin of species. Yet he compared discussing his ideas to “confessing a murder”.6

But by the mid-1840s evolutionary ideas were beginning to gain respectability in ‘polite society’. The anonymous publication in 1844 of Vestiges of the natural history of creation by Robert Chambers is a crucial event preparing the way for the later publication of Darwin’s ideas. Written for a popular audience, it led many to accept that species could change.

In 1845 Tory prime minister Robert Peel embraced ‘free trade’. The following year the hated Corn Laws were repealed. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto crystallised the modern Conservative Party, favouring modest reforms. Whig politics had ‘won’, but in the process heralded their negation.

Darwin turned his attention to that most pressing of subjects, barnacles! It showed that the man who largely lived on his father’s money could do ‘proper science’, and not merely abstract theorisation.

Then 1848 happened. The French workers showed more of a passion for barricades than barnacles, and the king fled to Britain. Europe exploded in revolution. Thousands of Chartists were expected to meet on Kennington Common in April. The upper class engaged in an extensive programme of arming and fortifying buildings. Even the geologist, Reverend Buckland, now Dean of Westminster, wielded a crowbar, ready to bludgeon any undesirables in the Abbey.7 As it turned out, the Chartist demonstrations were peaceful, a period of reaction was ushered in and the economy boomed in the 1850s.

On June 18 1857 a long letter that landed on Darwin’s doormat was like a cruise missile. It was from Alfred Russel Wallace, a working class socialist born near Abergavenny in south Wales. He had some ideas for the respected English naturalist to look over. Little did he know they closely paralleled what Darwin had been working on in secret. Darwin panicked, and rushed to publish his ideas.

On the origin of species

On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life was finally published on November 24 1859. It was a surprise bestseller alongside Charles Dickens’ A tale of two cities, a novel set in the context of the French revolution, and Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the king (superficially a retelling of the Arthurian legend, this was widely interpreted as an allegory of the class struggle). The popularity of such works tells us much about the attitudes of Victorian Britain.

Origin begins by discussing artificial selection. It was clear that selective breeding had strongly changed many species. Thus from the humble wild cabbage came Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. From the wolf we bred the diminutive chihuahua and the mighty Irish wolfhound. Darwin argued, by drowning the reader in examples, that nature worked in the same way. Clearly all species were varied, and most have the ability in theory to rapidly increase in numbers. Yet this does not happen. There is therefore a “struggle for existence”.

Natural selection was, however, considerably slower than artificial selection because nature was blind and change was not teleological. Over time varieties became species. It was a remarkable book, although genetics was perhaps the invisible ‘elephant in the room’ within it.

One notable omission was human evolution. This is what people largely talked about, and Darwin was quite clear in private on the implications of his work. He was not keen on a fight, and he merely comments that “light will be cast on the origin of man and his history”. Even so, the true significance of the book was clear. A number of reviews of Origin and books such as the Duke of Argyll, George Campbell’s Reign of law (1867) attacked Darwin for undermining the natural basis of class society.

It was Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, Thomas Huxley, who took on the topic of human evolution most directly with his Evidence as to man’s place in nature (1863). Darwin later showed the diversity of his thought in The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (1871). As this was being published, the Parisian working class were ‘storming the heavens’. The Paris Commune was to be the most significant action of the proletariat until 1917. The Times criticised Darwin’s application of evolutionary ideas to humans, which it claimed would lead to “the most murderous revolution”.8


Behind all this lay the struggle between idealism and materialism. Philosophy had become mired in the scepticism of Kant and Hume. A key role played by Hegel was in transcending Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, but Hegel remained an idealist, chasing the Geist through history. Materialism was also troubled, being largely mechanical and contemplative. Darwin’s ideas were powerful ammunition for materialist dialectics.

This explains the reaction of the Marx-Engels team to Darwin’s ideas. To fast-forward somewhat, at Marx’s graveside Engels declared: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”

Marx’s initial reaction to Origin, in a letter to Engels on December 19 1860, was that, although “developed in the crude English style”, Darwin’s argument “contains the basis in natural history for our point of view”. He made similar comments to Lassalle.

A relatively little known affair occurred some time later. Marx greeted the publication of the now largely forgotten Origine et transformations de l’homme et des autres êtres (1865) by Pierre Trémaux with considerable excitement. Trémaux argued that changes in soil chemistry were the primary factor in driving evolution. Marx declared this “a very significant advance over Darwin” and that “for certain questions, such as nationality, etc, only here has a basis in nature been found”.9 Engels bluntly criticised Marx for warming to this crap, and Darwin was re-embraced. Marx was certainly not infallible.

A widespread myth is that Marx asked Darwin if he could dedicate Das Kapital to him. Yet, as has been comprehensively shown, this is false. The letter from Darwin on which it is founded, addressed simply “Dear Sir”, was actually sent to Marx’s soon to be son-in-law, Edward Aveling, who had sent Darwin proof sheets of his The student’s Darwin (1881).

Engels addressed the relationship of Darwinism to the communist project at length in his Anti-Dühring.10 Here we find a defence of the core of Darwinism. To Dühring Darwin had done little more than crudely paste Malthusian political economy onto nature. With the exception of the villain – in this case the megalomaniac professor Dühring rather than the modern creationists – Engels’ exposition of Darwin reads like a contemporary textbook.

Dühring’s words find a modern echo with, for example, ex-Workers Revolutionary Party member Cyril Smith.11 The irony is that, in the end, both Smith and Dühring actually do accept evolution by natural selection, but both complain that it is not the only mechanism by which evolution occurs. Darwin agreed!

Marxists have adopted a plethora of positions on Darwinism. For Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek the essence of Darwinism was valid, but he advocated a somewhat mechanical division whereby Darwinism applies until man appears, and then Marxism takes over. He has a point, but goes too far. While he criticises “bourgeois Darwinists”, his proletarian Darwinism was just as unscientific.12

Trotsky argued that Darwinism was “the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter”.13 Kautsky, on the other hand, moved away from his initial keenness for Darwin and later advocated a “materialist neo-Lamarckism”.14

Today the Socialist Workers Party has an uncomfortable relationship with Darwin. For instance, in former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman’s A people’s history of the world (1999) we find only fleeting reference to him. A recent article by SWP intellectual Alex Callinicos rightly criticises those on the left who are suspicious of Darwin’s ideas.15

But Callinicos implies that anything progressive about Darwinism had been elucidated 150 years ago. The spectacular advances of the 20th century are brushed aside, as crude defences of capitalism. His GCSE level analysis would, in many regards, be better replaced by a few minutes on Wikipedia. The same goes for the 2005 Socialist Worker series by Viren Swami, who chucks in some basic factual errors for good measure.16

Malthus, gradualism and fitness

Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the principle of population went through six editions, and must be seen in its polemical context.17 The anonymously published first edition was a frontal assault on the enlightenment. In later editions the focus was on the Poor Laws and anything else which helped the workers to survive and multiply. Malthus’s ideas boiled down to ‘do nothing’; help for the impoverished workers now would only make things worse later.

Malthus famously claimed that, whilst population increased geometrically (eg, 1, 2, 4, 8 …), resources – primarily food – could only increase arithmetically (eg, 1, 2, 3, 4 …). Both of these assumptions are flawed; contraception and artificial fertilisers, to name just two things, upset his neat schema. In reality his Essay was, as Engels argued in his The condition of the working class in England (1845), the “most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat”.18

Yet how much did Darwin’s theory really owe to Malthus? Darwin had already started work on evolution, and Malthus’s views on humans inspired his views on nature, where the logic of Malthusianism may actually have some bearing. However, as Engels put it in Anti-Dühring, “No Malthusian spectacles are required in order to perceive the struggle for existence in nature”.19

The essence of Darwin’s Origin was the claim that gradual natural selection was the primary mechanism by which evolution occurred. In many cases this is true: for instance, with the detailed mimicry of many butterflies – an example August Weismann used in his defence of Darwinism from attack by the Dutch botanist, Hugo de Vries.

But what about something like a change in the number of chromosomes? This is a ‘digital’ change, a qualitative transition. The same goes for the origin of life from inanimate material. Periodic ‘extinction events’ also scupper the idea of the universality of gradualism; the last one, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, wiped out some 75% of extant species.

The idea of gradualism was thick in the air Darwin breathed. The bourgeoisie wanted ‘progress’ (eg, industrialisation), but it did not want the proletariat to overstep its mark. Archaeologist August Pitt Rivers put things somewhat more honestly than many of his contemporaries when he said the law that nature “makes no jumps” can be taught to the people “in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatterbrained revolutionary suggestions”.20

But gradual change is not necessary for Darwinism. Even Huxley – among many others – was critical of Darwin’s repeated use of the phrase Natura non facit saltum (‘Nature makes no leaps’) in Origin. As Huxley quite rightly suggested, “We believe that nature does make jumps now and then, and a recognition of the fact is of no small importance.”21

This debate has continued in recent years. Those who consider themselves orthodox Darwinists (gradualists), including Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have opposed more dialectical suggestions. This primarily takes the form of the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, initially proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Yet even in Darwin’s lifetime he moved away from the focus on natural selection in Origin. The nature of the fossil record – also the prominent in Gould’s arguments – was an important factor. As was the claim by creationist geologist William Thomson, seemingly supported by ‘scientific evidence’, that the Earth was far too young for natural selection to have taken place.

In response, in the later editions of Origin and in The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868), Darwin sought to speed up evolution by a variety of mechanisms (some of which look suspiciously close to being Lamarckian) and advocated an increasingly multi-causal view of evolution.

The most controversial element of Darwinism for progressively minded people has been the idea of the ‘struggle for existence’, or ‘survival of the fittest’.

Darwin states in Origin that he uses the expression ‘struggle for existence’ in a “large and metaphorical sense”. There can be no simplistic moral application to human society of descriptions of natural processes; we need to remove our anthropomorphic spectacles when looking at nature.

When old oak trees compete for light they are engaged in a struggle for existence. The male peacock, with his cumbersome tail, shows that for this species the struggle largely takes the form of sexual selection. Altruism in no sense contradicts the struggle for existence.

The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ originated with Herbert Spencer, and Darwin used it in later editions of Origin (as a less anthropomorphic alternative to ‘natural selection’). Here we need to understand what the biological term ‘fitness’ means, because it does not refer to one’s capacity for distance running or weightlifting. Fitness refers to the overall suitability of an organism for survival and, crucially, for passing on its genes.

The fitness of an organism reflects its phenotype – the way the genotype is expressed in combination with environmental factors. Fitness is about adaptation to the changing local environment, not some supra-historical schema.

With the rise of the ‘gene-centred view of evolution’, provocatively labelled ‘selfish gene theory’ by Dawkins, the way we understand fitness has changed considerably. What matters is that genes are passed on – an organism can therefore be ‘fit’ either by passing on these genes itself, or by helping another who shares the genes.

Many comrades, not least those in the SWP, have a major problem with the idea of the ‘selfish gene’. Yet their view is based on a crass simplification and an inability to get beyond moral outrage at the name. The ‘selfish gene’ can be taken as support for capitalism, but, on the other hand, by undermining the idea that selection takes place at the level of the individual or social group, it can equally support a progressive world view. Richard Dawkins described himself as “mortified” to discover that The selfish gene was Enron CEO Jeff Skilling’s favourite book and that he took it in a social Darwinist way.22 Dawkins repeats this message in the introduction to the latest edition of The selfish gene.

Social Darwinism

What came to be labelled social Darwinism stems from Herbert Spencer, particularly in his Progress: its law and cause (1857), published two years before Darwin’s Origin. Spencer took little from Darwin; instead his views were more a foul cocktail of the worst of Comte, Lamarck and Malthus; he took the bourgeois yearning for all-embracing natural laws to its logical conclusion.

The idea that the working class was ‘unfit’ was palpable nonsense and owed little to biology. The combining of social Darwinism with the modern idea of ‘races’, as advocated by people such as Ernst Haeckel, was equally unscientific. At heart the ideas of Spencer and Haeckel were largely about attacking the working class and socialism, as well as advocating imperialism, and they are to Darwinism as Stalinism is to Marxism.

The eugenics movement, which sought to ‘improve the human gene pool’, may have reached its zenith in Nazi Germany, but it was heavily influential elsewhere. Supporters ranged from HG Wells to John Maynard Keynes and to the highest echelons of American society. Indeed the second largest eugenics programme was directed by the Swedish social democrats.

The post-war consensus extended into the realms of biology. The ‘modern synthesis’ united Darwinism and genetics, and in its wake Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr and George Simpson largely defined modern biology. As I have briefly discussed, the primary change has been the idea of the gene as the unit of selection. This was initially developed by Bill Hamilton to explain altruistic behaviour, and thus as a minimum communists need to constructively engage with it. Evolution is about changing gene frequencies, not necessarily Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes. This means Darwinism offers, even more than in Marx’s day, “the basis in natural history for our point of view”.

To simplify a huge field considerably, it is reasonable to argue that much of what passed for Marxism in the 20th century, as articulated by Lukács, Gramsci and others, fundamentally downplayed the role of dialectics in relation to nature.The materialist dialectic was reinvigorated by people like Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins and Steven Jay Gould.23

Clearly ideas on evolution have reflected what is going on in society as well as ‘scientific evidence’. This is certainly the case with things like the ‘worship of the gradual’, which was in many senses a key element of Darwin’s ideas. It is not, however, essential to them.

The role of communists is to disentangle the science from the reactionary politics. We must take scientific questions seriously – not merely because they are ‘interesting’, but because to change the world we need to understand them. As Engels put it, “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests and aspirations of the workers”24

Weekly Worker February 26 2009.


1. See K Malik Man, beast and zombie London 2000, p55.

2. C Darwin The autobiography of Charles Darwin London 1887.

3. C Darwin Voyage of the Beagle London 1989, pp173, 358.

4. There are a number of biographies of Darwin. The principal one here is A Desmond, J Moore Darwin London 1991, p288.

5. Ibid p297.

6. Ibid p314.

7. Ibid p354.

8. See J Moore, A Desmond, introduction to C Darwin The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex London 2004.

9. F Wheen Karl Marx London 1999, pp 364-65.

10. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch05.htm

11. C Smith Marx at the millennium London 1996, pp118-22.

12. http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1912/marxism-darwinism.htm

13. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm

14. For example, compare http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1906/ethics/ch04.htm; and http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1929/12/naturesoc.htm

15. Socialist Worker February 14 2009.

16. See, for example, Socialist Worker October 29 2005.

17. See JB Foster Marx’s ecology; materialism and nature New York 2000, pp 87-102.

18. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch13.htm

19. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch05.htm

20. See R Dennell (1990), ‘Progressive gradualism, imperialism and academic fashion: lower Palaeolithic archaeology in the 20th century’ Antiquity 64: 549-558.

21. Quoted in JB Foster Marx’s ecology, materialism and nature New York 2000, p192.

22. R Dawkins The god delusion London 2006, p246n.

23. For example, R Levins, R Lewontin The dialectical biologist Harvard 1985.

24. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm

March 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Single Bullet

Ted North explores the background to unrest against a state regarded as endemically corrupt

Recent explosive events in Greece were not a revolution. Nor were they a half-revolution. But they were in their own way a quarter-revolution. And all sparked by a single bullet.

On December 6 2008 a police ‘special guard’ shot and killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the infamous Exarcheia area of Athens. The 15-year-old was the son of a bank manager, attended a private school and lived in the pleasant suburb of Psychiko.

Within minutes protests had erupted in Athens. Pitched battles with riot police, combined with attacks on banks, police stations and other buildings, quickly spread to other Greek cities over the following days. Solidarity demonstrations across Europe and beyond frequently ended in confrontations with the police.

During the week following Grigoropoulos’s death the Greek police used close to 5,000 canisters of tear gas, almost exhausting their supplies. TV screens across Europe projected images of hooded youths lobbing petrol bombs and the remains of burnt out cars and buildings. Hundreds of people were arrested, dozens injured and damage costing billions of euros inflicted.

Yet the riots are not the totality of what has occurred. Greece has also seen hundreds of demonstrations, school walkouts and occupations, which have received, unsurprisingly, less attention in the bourgeois press. It was only in the closing days of December, for example, that the occupation of university buildings in Athens and Thessaloniki came to an end.

On December 16 protestors stormed a state-owned TV channel and were shown on air for around a minute holding a banner which urged, “Stop watching – get out into the streets”. The following day two huge banners were hung on the iconic Acropolis reading: “Thursday 18/12: demonstrations in all Europe” and proclaiming the message of “resistance” in Greek, English, Italian and German. A number of other TV and radio stations were subsequently occupied.


The most recent major demonstration, on January 9, followed the same basic course as those before it. Sixty people were arrested – including 14 lawyers, who claimed to have nothing to do with the protestors. The familiar pattern of police brutality was repeated, with several people seriously injured.

The trade unions adopted an ambiguous position throughout. Nevertheless, because of the sympathy and feelings of solidarity below, at a rank and file level, for the youth and student movements, a one-day general strike was staged on December 10. Originally it was intended as a protest against the government’s fiscal policies, coinciding with strike action by air traffic controllers, teachers and lecturers. But the union leaderships needed a safety valve and had December 10 at hand. This and similar token gestures did little to build unity between the students’ and workers’ movements, and not much either to pressure the government into granting positive concessions.

Understandably there is frustration with the role of the labour bureaucracy. Hence, on December 17 protestors occupied the offices of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which is traditionally close to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The confederation’s president, Giannis Panagopoulos, pleaded that “GSEE does not govern this country”.1 But what the protesters wanted was decisive action. Not another 24-hour holiday.

On December 17, Giorgos Paplomatas, a 16-year-old member of the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) – one of those involved in organising the protests and the son of a prominent KKE and Greek Teachers Federation member – was shot. Fortunately for Paplomatas the bullet hit him in the hand, rather than inflicting life-threatening injuries.

Bullets have been flying in the other direction too. In the early hours of December 22 several shots from something like an AK47 hit a police riot van, having been fired from the grounds of the University of Athens. No police were hit in the attack, for which a new organisation called Popular Action apparently claimed responsibility. This group seems to be a splinter of Revolutionary Struggle, itself an offshoot of the now defunct Revolutionary Organisation 17 November.

On January 5 masked gunmen fired multiple shots with automatic weapons and threw a grenade at police guarding the culture ministry in Athens. A policeman was hit in the leg and chest. Presumably, the aim is to kill a cop in a symbolic show of revenge. But such acts of terrorism allow the state to increase repression and hardly offer a viable strategy for the working class.

The kidnapping of shipping tycoon Pericles Panagopoulos on January 13, and the reported demand for a €40 million ransom, may be the work of people from the same milieu. A mistaken response to the use of Greek-owned ships to deliver US weaponry to Israel, as well as a cash-making exercise.

Clearly, if we start at the most obvious level, the tragic death of Grigoropoulos was the spark which initiated the outburst of anger. Whether special guard Epaminondas Korkoneas deliberately killed the young man, or, as he claims, fired a warning shot which ricocheted into him, misses the point. Greece was ready.


Rodney King provided a similar spark for the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were only suppressed by the army and the arrest of 10,000 people. The death of two Paris teenagers, who were apparently trying to evade the police in 2005, likewise acted as a catalyst. In Greece itself the deaths of Michalis Kaltezas and Christos Tsoutsouvis led to extensive rioting in 1985.

Over the last few years ordinary Greeks have faced rising economic hardship, even before the start of the current recession. For those with a job the rising cost of living, combined with low salaries, has led to widespread dissatisfaction. The ‘700 euro generation’ – so called for the salary the young can expect to earn each month and because the last two governments have considered this an ample sum – has come of age. Things are even worse for the increasing numbers of young people who are unemployed and for migrant workers.

The Greek version of Keynesian stimulus has consisted of a government gift of €28 billion to the banking sector. In that sense the Greek state is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. It is one of those that is both sanctioned by a hegemonic US capital to provide ailing financial institutions with fiscal medicine and is actually in a position to do so. Keynesian solutions take a national form; if applied globally they would quickly lead to spiralling inflation. For an example of an ‘unlucky’ country look at Pakistan, which must stick with the IMF’s neoliberal plans.

To produce profound political change, economic factors must be, as they always are, filtered through political and social reality. Police brutality against demonstrations and other protest events leads to a recognition of the state as an ‘armed body of men’. A frequently heard chant on the December demonstrations was: “Cops – pigs, murderers”. Yet to get anywhere this anger must be channelled into conscious opposition to the bourgeois state as a whole and given organisational coherence.

For many young Greeks the state is rightly regarded as endemically corrupt and official society has been shaken by a whole series of scandals. One example was in 2005, when the Greek Orthodox Church was rocked by reports of several significant clerical figures, including a senior bishop, bribing judges (Greek Orthodoxy is described by the constitution as the “prevailing” religion, the church is heavily funded by the state and its creed is taught to children in schools). Other scandals have involved tapped telephones (eg, the 2006 Vodafone episode) and the deliberately started huge forest fires of 2007.

Yet parliamentary opposition to Kostas Karamanlis’s rightwing New Democracy party has been weak and ineffective. All the major players are loyal to the existing state and accept the rules of the game. The main opposition party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), has been in power for most of the time since 1981. It is a typical social democratic organisation and its leader, George Papandreou, is also president of the Socialist International, whose other members include our own Labour Party.

The next most important opposition party is the KKE. Always fervently pro-Moscow, it won 8.15% of the vote in the 2007 elections. To the left of the KKE lies the usual competing shoal of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist sects.

Because there is no effective left alternative, KKE was able to take a lead in organising some of December’s biggest demonstrations in order to keep them safe and attempt to bring anti-state sentiments back under control. Naturally it condemned the anarchist rioters. Three days after Grigoropoulos’s death KKE released a statement claiming that things were increasingly taking the “form of open provocations against the growing wave of protest”. The rioters were “trying to prevent the emergence of an organised and mighty mass movement”.2

In a speech at a demonstration in Athens KKE general secretary Aleka Papariga attacked the “blind rage of the hooded people”. On the same day its central committee issued a statement calling for a “broad popular alliance, the sole hope and guarantee for a genuine popular power”.3 In that spirit Papariga visited the presidential mansion for talks with president Papoulias this week.

Clearly KKE has played a role in some senses analogous to the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1968, albeit at a lower level. KKE, and its historically connected trade union confederation, have attempted to stop the fusing of the students’ and workers’ movements. As a result, the anger of the youth has failed to find an effective outlet.

The role of KKE is recognised by the thinking sections of the Greek bourgeoisie and the state. For instance, the rightwing Avriani newspaper ran an article headlined, “Either citizens or the KKE should take it upon themselves to restore public order and protection of the democratic system.” It described KKE as the “only organised political power which dared to denounce publicly the ‘hoodies’ and to reveal their dirty role”.4


Why have these events occurred? It is not simply the killing of Grigoropoulos and the recurrent scandals. As we have shown, there are deep-rooted socio-economic factors at work.

Whilst ‘the weakest link in the EU chain’ might be something of a cliché, there is a certain truth about such a description at the level not only of economics, but politics and history too. Greece experienced a two-phase civil war from 1942 to 44 and from 1946 to 49, which pitted the pro-monarchist right against the KKE and its allies. The right won with the help of British and US aid and because of Stalin’s betrayal. This left permanent scars and Greek society remained deeply divided.

There was a colonel’s coup in April 1967 which claimed to be saving the country from the threat of communism. The military regime was initially supported by Constantine II and ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974 when it collapsed amid student protests, foreign policy blunders and corruption charges. Other factors which contribute to instability are the regional tensions. Greece and Turkey are bitterly divided over Cyprus and exploitation of the Aegean Sea. Then there is the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia which is seen as having ambitions over Greek Macedonia.

It is reasonable to assume that a spark in Italy or Spain could perhaps ignite a similar flame in the very near future. However, for real progress to be made the workers must establish parties which really represent their historic interest in superseding capitalism and abolishing private property and social classes. Halfway house projects such as Die Linke in Germany, Refoundation in Italy, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity and Respect in Britain and the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece are doomed to disapoint and fail.

Objective circumstances cry out for genuine communist parties and the formation of a Communist Party of the European Union. Militant class fighters, not least those in the KKE, have every reason to fight for such a perspective. We have already seen indications that the frightened bourgeoisie sees the Stalinist misleaders of the KKE as a potential ally against their common foe, the ‘hooded people’.

But anarchism, riot after riot and ‘propaganda by deed’ do not offer a realistic line of advance. Whilst Marxists will struggle alongside anarchists whenever our interests coincide, we have no illusions where anarchism leads – to futile gestures and eventually defeat. Nonetheless we ought to engage them in serious debate. They too hate capitalism and yearn for human liberation.

Ted North. (Published in Weekly Worker 752)

Notes 1. Kathimerini December 18 2008.

2. inter.kke.gr/News/2008news/2008-information

3. inter.kke.gr/News/2008news/2008-15-cc-resolution-xrono

4. Avriani December 12 2008.

March 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dan Iles – Despite the onset of globalisation, does the state remain a dominant actor in world politics?

With globalisation the boarders of the world are becoming increasingly blurred. This new web of interconnectedness between territories means the state has lost absolute control over the local area it used to govern. Global institutions are seizing control over economic policy, intergovernmental organisations are annexing legislative organs and Trans-national Corporations are accumulating vast amounts of capital to challenge even the largest economy. It seems that the traditional state, in order to become a competitive entity, has been forced to enter into the world economy by selling off its assets through privatisation, relinquishing its control over the market and trusting the invisible hand of international capitalism. However, has the process of turning into the competitive state meant losing dominance over world politics? The recent financial crisis has demonstrated how dependent the corporations are with the states abilities to harness collective action and to create a secure environment in which they can extract capital. It is also clear that the US state still wields immense coercive influence with its global monopoly of organised violence. This essay will critique the absolutist view of Hyperglobalists by looking closely at the relationship between the state and free flowing financial capital. What will be established is a differential view of the state, on the one side, the dominant western state that devolves its power to corporations, in order to exploit the weaker state by breaking down their borders. It will become clear that instead of fading into a system of global governance, the US state and the Western Bloc are benefiting from the spread of globalisation.

Hyperglobalists believe that the state has lost most if not all of its sovereignty during globalisation. They see the how “increasing economic and cultural connections reduce the power and effectiveness of governments at the nation-state level” (Waters, 1995, 97). The state is seen to be losing vast amounts of power to a civil society of states represented by institutions which do not govern nations but control states through a system of governance. In this process all states, but especially developing ones have surrendered sovereignty to larger supranational political units such as the EU, NATO, WTO, IMF and the World Bank. These “international financial institutions are involved in significant aspects of the economic policy making process of most countries in the developing world” (Bierstecker, 1992, 116). Their Structural Adjustment Programmes have been able to deconstruct the Keynesian state. Through the initiative of economic development; industries and banks were privatised, taxes were reduced and trade was liberalised. This meant that the state had lost direct control over the profits from its resources, manufactured goods and its currency (Willets, 2001, 430). Corporations are being able to maximise capital extraction particularly over the poorer countries. This means that many TNCs are now economically larger than most governments (Willets, 2001, 428), giving them huge financial coercive strength. Through this Hyperglobalists see a system of global governance is appearing, whereby the borders between states are disappearing.

However it is clear that the power of a state within this globalised system is highly dependent on it stage of development. On the one side matured western states, which are host to most of the biggest transnational corporation’s headquarters (Willets, 2001, 429) are able to benefit from the spread of free market capital. Their “commercial policy institutionalised the monopolising tendencies of merchant capital as a means of enlarging national wealth” (McMichael, 2000, 103). In this way the G8 states have invested in the IMF and WTO to open up the financial markets of the developing world so they can extract their cheap primary goods and unregulated labour and generate profit from out-competing their local industries. On the other side, states inside the global South have had to surrender their economic sovereignty in a desperate attempt to alleviate their international debt and boost their economy (Shah, 2008). The US and the Western Bloc have forced a globalised free trade market with the intention of undermining the economies of other states so they can build national profits. In this sense the powerful states have created globalisation to break down the resistance of developing states and open their economies to western exploitation. Thus the states of the global South have been imprisoned into export economies and debt service payments that serve both US and corporate domination. Whilst the ‘superpower’ states still remain to be dominant actors in world politics but only through a mutual relationship with capitalist forces.

These superpowers have made a rational decision to enter into the global market in order to boost the economies that were failing under Keynesianism. In order to adapt to the ‘offshore’ economy states had to enter into the private sphere by “gradual withdrawal from the direct ownership of the means of production,…curtailment of union power [and] lower[ing] regulatory barriers to both domestic and international investment”(Cameron et al, 2004, 18). This is not as a sign of the disappearance of state power, but a shift in the strategy of state based power. “international competitiveness, counts for more in terms of domestic economic growth and prosperity than maintaining an autonomous, self sufficient national economy” (Cerny, 2000, 27). The nature of global capitalist development has meant that by entering into the international institutions, states gain a lot more benefits than by opting out. Indeed “governments are bigger than ever, but under neoliberalism they have far less pretence to being concerned with addressing non-corporate interests” (McChesney, 1998, 13). This neoliberal tactic is allowing large states particularly the US to maintain the position of metropolis and preserve the dependent status of the developing world thereby ensuring there global dominance.

However not every barrier to US hegemony and capitalist profit can be tackled financially. Iraq is an example of a state where financial capital relied on the US Empire to militarily intervene. By invading, the US could control the Middle East oil spigot and use that to advance its economic and military global hegemony. But Halliburton stood “to gain a billion dollars in contracts for oil services” (Harvey, 2003, 18). The capitalists required the military might of the US Empire to conquer Iraq but the US had required the corporate capital accumulation of the private sphere in order to afford its huge military budget. In terms of global interests, it is clear that states and corporations have shared goals. By uniting with globalised capital the US Empire has been able to “extend the fruits of its hegemony by using multilateral enforcement mechanisms to institute a global free trade regime” (McMichael, 2000, 107). The US Empire invests heavily in the international civil society of global institutions in order to achieve economic dominance over the world. However at the same time its actions are underlined with the expansion of free market capital which settles in countries after neoliberal intervention. Through this “an unholy alliance between state powers and the predatory aspects of financial capital form the cutting edge of a ‘vulture capitalism’” (Harvey, 2003, 136) It is this symbiosis of territorially bound state power and free flowing capitalist influence that makes it very difficult to identify the dominant actor in world politics.

Nevertheless, despite this alliance the state is still a big player in world politics. “Unlike economic markets…where firms are constantly the object of successful predation or bankruptcy, states have an impressive record of survival and endurance” (Holsti, 1992, 31). Indeed the recent collapse of financial markets in 2008 has demonstrated the sheer strength of tax payers’ money that the state’s governments can wield. It was the state that controlled the power to save international capitalism, not the financial institutions or the corporations. “The problem with the European Union is that it was an institution designed to manage prosperity. When it confronted serious adversity, however, it froze, devolving power to the component states.” (Friedman, 2008). US and European central banks were able to pump billions of dollars into the failing private banking system, saving global capitalism from near collapse. While suddenly big business yearned for state intervention to stop bankruptcies. Corporations can only extract their capital from forced exploitation, states; however have been able to create complex relationship with their citizens that allow them to extract revenue through taxation. This “structured coherence usually extends well beyond pure economic exchanges, fundamental though these may be, for it typically encompasses attitudes, cultural values, beliefs and even religious and political affiliations among capitalists and those whom they employ” (Harvey, 2003, 102). The multifaceted superstructure that holds a state together generates consent from its citizens and allows it to direct their efforts in directions that international institutions and corporations would struggle. Indeed when things are going well and economic development is occurring states are happy to enter into the favourable conditions of the market. Nevertheless when things go wrong the sheer power of the state in world politics is demonstrated.

It is not only through financial backing that States prop up Corporations. Their ability to protect them from social movements and provide an institutional framework with which to be able to extract capital is vital for capitalist survival. “capital accumulation through price-fixing market exchange flourishes best in the midst of certain institutional structures of law, private property, contract and security of the money form”(Harvey, 2003, 89). The states’ coercive power invested in the police and the armed forces guarantee these public goods and legitimise them within a social contract (ibid). (example of how a corporation was aided by the states public goods needed). The protection that business pays in the form of corporation taxes is in return for these public goods that the state provides and without them they would find it hard to maintain dominance over the workforce. Thus corporations do not operate socioeconomic dominance over the world system because they lack “the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains dominance but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules”(Gramsci 1971, 244). Consequently the state relationship with its citizens along political, administrative and judicial lines makes it able to construct social consent not just military or economic coercion. Therefore in order to achieve uncontested global hegemony, free flowing market forces would have to get “the successful mobilisation and reproduction of ‘active consent’ of…through their exercise of intellectual, moral and political leadership” without the protection of the state (Jessop, 1982, 148). In global terms, this is clearly a long way off.

Indeed globalisation is a process that rather than threatening the hegemonic state’s powers it is intentionally being pursued. It is true that some states in the global system are losing vast amounts of sovereignty from external influence. However the more developed states inside the western bloc have entered into an international capitalist market in order to be able to effectively dominate other states within a modernised world. Just as feudal states formed alliances with religious forces to be able to wield more influence so to have capitalist states allianced themselves with multinational corporations. The US in particular dominates the developed world not only through military means, bought from its extracted capital, but through its institutionalised economic dominance over a dependent developing world. The state, however, has proved that it does not solely depend on the market for its strength but also it’s coercive and legitimate power over its people. It is this that corporations are dependent upon for their ability to survive and participate within as well as beyond the state system. As well as this, globalised international organisations that Hyperglobalists claim to have appropriated state power are dependent on state funding to exist and easily become useless when states reclaim their sovereignty to follow internal interests. The symbiotic relationship between the state and the globalised capitalist market makes it very difficult to say that the state is the only dominant force in world politics. However the hegemonic state has effectively evolved to fit into the competitive capitalist system so that it can remain to be the dominant actor in a globalised world.


Biersteker, T. J. 1992 ‘The ‘Triumph of Neoclassical Economics in the Developing World: Policy Convergence and bases of governance in the International Economic Order’ in ‘Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics’, J. Rosenau, N. Czempiel, E. (eds), (Cambridge University Press)

Cameron, A. Palan, R. 2004, ‘The Imagined Economies of Globalization’ (Sage)

Cerny, P. G. 2000, ‘Structuring the Political Arena- Public Goods, States and Governance in a Globalising World’ in ‘Global Political Economy’, Palan, R. (eds) (Routledge)
Freidman, G. 2008 ‘2008 and the Return of the Nation-State’ on http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20081027_2008_and_return_nation_state, Date Accessed: 18th December 2008
Gramsci, A. 1971 ‘Selections from Prison Notebooks’, Hoare, Q. Smith, G. N. (eds, translation) (Lawrence and Wishart)
Harvey, D. 2003 ‘The New Imperialism’ (Oxford University Press)

Holsti, K. J. 1992 ‘Governance without government: polyarchy in nineteenth- century European international politics’ in ‘Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics’, J. Rosenau, N. Czempiel, E. (eds), (Cambridge University Press)
Jessop, B. 1982 ‘The Capitalist State’ (Martin Robertson & Company Ltd)
McChesney, R. 1998 ‘Introduction’ in ‘Profit over people – Neoliberalism and Global Order’ Chomsky, N. (eds) (Seven Stories Press)

McMichael, P. 2000 ‘Globalisation: trend or project’ in ‘Global Political Economy’, Palan, R. (eds) (Routledge)

Shah, A. 2008 ‘Structural Adjustment—a Major Cause of Poverty’, http://www.globalissues.org/article/3/structural-adjustment-a-major-cause-of-poverty Date accessed: 18th January 2009

Waters, M. 1995 ‘Globalisation’ (Routledge)
Willets, P. 2001 ‘Transnational actors and international organizations in global politics’ in ‘The Globalization of World Politics- An introduction to international relations’, third edition Baylis, J. Smith, S. (Oxford University Press)

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Q: What’s the reason for inequality of opportunity? A: It’s private.

Life seems peppered with complaints these days. A major tut-inducer was the snow – fine for your long weekend in Val de Bourgeois, but bad for shuffling to uni in Ugg boots like Bambi on ice. More vexing was the incontrovertible annoyance of having one’s seminar room CHANGED due to the hitherto alien concept of student activism. And those Palestinians thought they had it bad! Grave and pressing as these issues evidently are, one student gripe I have never understood is the animosity between those who have paid for their education and those who have not. The stereotype of a fee-paying, Our-Lady-of-the-League-Tables-type student is not always accurate, and moaning about it is futile and misdirected. We should stop worrying about whether someone’s school shapes people who fit into fashion clique A or clique B. Private schools accessible only to the rich or intelligent do produce a real social carcinogen but it is not one of such minor trivialities. No, this national disease is the widening of an educatio-class divide that is so entrenched, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has recently deemed it equivalent to a caste society.

Many social groups exist within the university. Perhaps most numerous are the white-plimsoled, Noel-Fielding-a-likes? Equally abundant are those who stop wearing LU sports tracksuit bottoms just long enough to down a few pints of each other’s urine. Similarly, a distinct, cosy coterie is formed by a proportion of those who paid for their education (and some who didn’t) . And why not? Who are we to say that straight hair is better than meticulously styled frizz? Why should we not challenge those who originally decreed that pyjamas must be confined to bedtime hours? (Hell, I may even decide to go to the library in my dressing gown this week!). The clichéd groups seen in American teen movies (jocks, rich kids, geeks) ring truer than ever in university.

Of course, anyone who says that the type of school you attended has no bearing on your social grouping is as deluded as those who deny anthropogenic climate change. However, surely we should let people dress, talk and holiday in San Tropez however they want? For in bemoaning this divide students are misdirecting their ire. The problem is far more serious. Much like a fag to his fag-master, the government’s capitulation to the cane-wielding might of the private school is one of the greatest factors affecting the UK’s current massive inequality of opportunity. What follows are few reasons why we should concentrate our attentions on the categorical discontents of the fee-paying system, rather than the social differences of our peers who attended them.

The biggest and perhaps most covert crime committed by private schools is one which costs us £100m in tax. The Charities Commission provide numerous escape clauses and loopholes to preserve private schools’ status as charities. The definition of charity is ‘generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering’. It is hard to think of an institution which fails to meet this definition quite as triumphantly as the private school. However, with seven of the Commission’s nine board members being privately educated, it’s also hard to see why this would matter. The Charities Commission allows schools to keep their taxes if they can show that they do good by giving places to bright children from poor areas. It’s not enough that they deny the Exchequer £100m in tax. The twisted ‘philanthropy’ of the do-gooding private schools, aside from separating rich from poor, also abducts many poorer children who could have helped to save failing comprehensives.

In our league-table-obsessed climate, where one would be forgiven for believing that pigs are indeed fattened by monitoring their weight, the link between these failing schools and poor pupils is hardly esoteric. Private schools segregate bright, rich, middle class children, skimming the top layer and leaving the poorer ones to plummet. The Commission’s stipulation that private schools must also educate – and therefore extract from the state system – bright, poor kids merely extinguishes any chance of a slight re-tipping of the scales. In addition, many of the best teachers get siphoned off into fee-paying schools. The nation is effectively investing in training a teaching resource which is enjoyed by the privileged few. It’s about as fair as pushing in the dinner queue for the last jacket potato when your Mum’s already made you packed lunch.

The current model can only exacerbate existing inequalities. The rich or gifted continue to dominate Oxbridge and the Russell Group, while the poor and underprivileged must enter less revered institutions. However, don’t think that this two tier system is the fault of the majority of parents. Many families feel forced to choose the private route because acceptable state-alternatives do not exist in many areas . The crux of the problem is the government’s insistence on rewarding the vastly-advantaged paying schools. Something must be done if equality of opportunity is to become anywhere near realised.

The Liberal Democrats have recently made tackling this social immobility their new focus by proposing an extra £2bn in education spending. Although this would immediately match private school funding, for many parents figures alone may not be enough to dismantle the preconception and stigma attached to comprehensives. Guardian columnist Peter Wilby has come up with the fantastic solution of awarding university places equally to each of the country’s top sixth forms regardless of absolute results. This would encourage parents to send their children to less successful schools and balance the scales relatively quickly. Unfortunately, change seems unlikely.

Although things have improved since John Major’s ‘classless’ cabinet (in which 16 of the 20 male members were privately educated), the government still does not buck the trend of influential institutions being dominated by the alumni of private schools. Like any elite, Westminster politicians are unlikely to sign their death warrant (see Labour’s curious shift on proportional representation). Schools like Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and Eton have existed in their current form since the nobility deceitfully seized them from the paupers in the 1400s. Unless the government takes an unprecedented moral stance, the educational revolution we desperately need is still a long way off.

February 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s party (and educate our children) like it’s 1859!

In last week’s Leeds Student, Jono Hall argued that creationism should form part of the curriculum for both religion and science (Creationism in a School Near You, November 21st). I would like to follow his argument to it’s logical conclusion and propose that another religious doctrine based on faith rather than evidence should be taught in schools. I call it Earth-Flatism.

I am of the belief – contrary to every piece of relevant, empirical fact – that the earth is flat. What’s that? There’s overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise, you say? No, you see, anything you may have heard from these troublesome fellows called ‘scientists’ who have an annoying desire to look at something called ‘evidence’ (basic trigonometry etc) is merely a product of a grand illusion. A trick conjured – just as the Christian God is cleverly duping us about all that believable carbon dated stuff – by the great Earth-Flatist God. The creationist line (pandered to perfectly in the article) is that people believe in both evolution and creationism and thus, both must be reflected in the education system. I believe that the Earth is flat, so should my views not also be represented?

According to Jono, creationism and evolution ‘evidently overlap’ the school subjects of religious education and science. Like creationism, Earth-Flatism is not concerned with the trivialities of scientific testing. It cherry-picks its way through mythology and wild inferences in a very similar way. I, like Jono, see no reason why theories such as mine and creationism should be taught only in religious education. Why are the ideas presented by Witchcraft or The Jedi similarly left out of scientific discussion? In doing so we, as Jono states, risk alienating people who “hold different points of view”.

The principle that we must not offend people who do not subscribe to Darwinism leads inevitably to these preposterous conclusions. I am not saying that children should not learn about world religions. Without religious education, they would not be able to decide what to believe. However, matters of faith have no place in the science classroom. The idea that we must assess ‘perceived truths in a critical manner’ is all well and good. However, it would be negligent to present children with creationism as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. The former is unproven. The latter is supported by mountains of evidence and has withstood 146 years of critical bombardment,.

Perhaps Jono’s article shows how the ideologies of the Christian-right are now bleeding from the US into the UK? Some readers might argue that gaps in evolutionary fossil data invalidate Darwinism. But people who believe in creationism select their facts carefully. Given carefully selected facts, I could construct an argument stating that the Earth is not round. Although evolutionary theorists cannot explain every detail, they are working to fill the ever smaller cracks in their knowledge. For example, the recent COBE experiment (mapping the cosmic microwave radiation left over from the creation of the universe) has all but proved the big bang theory. It seems strange that the return to archaic ideas gathers momentum despite all the evidence.

Darwin’s theory of evolution argues that we are not divine creations, but inconsequential and accidental. Complex life is just arrangements of DNA, mutated by chance and prolonged through a process of competitive survival. This may sound bleak, but most of the world’s scientific minds accept it.

Creationists are worried about the implications of these ideas for our view of life and death. However, any cult based on faith and not facts has no right to criticise the origin of species. To teach a religious view as part of the scientific curriculum would be as sinister a crime as indoctrination carried out by an authoritarian regime. If we do not actively oppose this erosion of empirical thought and critical thinking, our children may soon read about fantastical deities in their science books, including (if I have my way) the Earth-flatist God.

December 5, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment