Keen on Keynes

In his article ‘Keynes: The great saviour and his leftwinger converts’ (October 18), Jack Conrad raises a number of arguments in relation to Keynesianism.

He says that Keynesianism was not responsible for the long post-war boom. That is true, but it is not the same as Jack’s main contention, which is that Keynesianism doesn’t work. In fact, as Mandel demonstrates in The second slump, there were five recessions during the post-war boom, and the adoption of Keynesian stimulus acted to cut all of them short, compared to similar recessions during the 1920s and 30s.

Jack argues that the long post-war boom was due to the destruction of capital during the war, and the rise of the United States as a new hegemonic power. The facts do not support this theory, and Marxist value theory also contradicts it. If the destruction of capital during the war were responsible for the boom, then why did not the, possibly even greater, destruction of capital during World War I lead to a similar boom? In fact, rather than a boom, the period after WWI was followed by the long-wave downturn that dragged on through the 1920s and 30s. Moreover, Britain had already ceased having economic hegemony by the end of the 19th century, losing out to both Germany and the US, and soon after to Japan. It may have still been militarily dominant, but by the 1920s the US had surpassed it there too.

What is more, by the late 1930s, the long-wave downturn was already coming to an end, and that could not be the result of the war to come. By the late 1930s, new dynamic industries, such as consumer electronics, car production, pharmaceuticals, etc, were developing and in areas such as the Midlands and south-east these new industries were providing employment on relatively high wages. At the same time, the rising living standards and more stable employment of the workers in these areas created new sources of demand for these products, and for the owner-occupied housing that now grew rapidly, itself on the back of new construction techniques. In fact, all of these new dynamic industries were the ones that provided the economic growth of the post-war period.

The idea that the physical destruction of capital facilitates growth is itself actually closer to Keynesian theory than to Marx. It’s reminiscent of the Keynesian idea that growth can be created by destroying things in order to employ people to rebuild them! In fact, one reason that the USSR had difficulty growing its economy in the 1920s was precisely because large amounts of capital had been physically destroyed, and had to be replaced. According to Marxist value theory, what facilitates growth is not the physical destruction of capital, but the destruction of its value, the ability to utilise this devalued capital to produce exchange value and surplus value, and because of the now devalued condition of that capital to make higher rates of profit upon it.

If it were easier to grow economies that lacked capital - because it had been destroyed or did not exist in the first place - then Upper Volta would for years have been able to grow much more quickly than the USA. Any society that has to devote a large proportion of its total social labour time to reproducing its capital will grow more slowly than one that does not, precisely because it will have proportionately less social labour time left over as surplus to devote to growth.

So Jack’s argument for the existence of the long-wave post-war boom is not substantiated, and nor is his argument against the effects of Keynesian demand management during that time. What is more odd is his argument against Keynesianism now. Reading his argument, it is as though he is opposing the use of Keynesian stimulus. Yet in practice the CPGB supports its use as much as anyone else. Jack correctly describes Keynes’s idea as based upon governments running fiscal deficits. But nearly all countries run such deficits already. In fact, the Thatcher and Major governments during the long-wave downturn of the 1980s and 90s ran much larger percentage deficits than did Blair and Brown. The current government too is running a huge deficit. In other words, they’re already using Keynesian demand management. But the CPGB opposes the attempts by the government to reduce that Keynesian deficit spending. So, in practice, the CPGB not only supports Keynesian intervention, but it wants the government to do more, not less, of it. If the CPGB really believes that Keynesianism does not work, it would abandon its opposition to the government’s attempts to reduce the deficit.

Of course, Marxists do not believe that there can be a crisis-free capitalism, which is why Keynesianism cannot solve the problems of capital permanently. But that does not mean that it cannot solve some problems, some of the time, nor that in doing so it creates better conditions for workers to defend their own interests.

Arthur Bough

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Add SAlt

In addition to the discussions between Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, there have also been talks between SAlt and the Socialist Alliance, which is in fact larger than Socialist Alternative, despite what the article in last week’s issue seems to suggest (‘Regroupment in a revolutionary party’, November 8). This is somewhat interesting, as both the RSP and the SA come from the same tradition of Mandelite Trotskyism turned more ‘broad left’, though both groups have taken their politics in uniquely different directions away from even what exists as Mandelite Trotskyism today.

I would treat both developments with a cautiously positive attitude, though it’s worth looking into the differences between the two statements. On the one hand, the statement on the proposed SAlt/RSP merger, a fair amount of historical and international context is brought into the discussion, and it at least briefly touches on points that seem positive for CPGB supporters, such as the need for a Marxist party and a rejection of the textbook definitions of Leninism. On the other hand, in the statement on cooperation between SAlt and the Socialist Alliance places much more emphasis on current struggles in Australia and, to my eyes at least, reads as more diplomatic than the first statement.

Unfortunately, I am neither a participant nor an expert watcher of the Australian far left, so it’s difficult for me to say what these apparent differences of focus in unity discussions that are being engaged in by the same group may mean. Nevertheless, it seems like there are important enough differences (probably relating to the respective groups’ evolutions) that watching the progression of further talks may help shine light on what those differences actually are. As the article noted, hopefully there are Australian comrades reading who can give more insight into these respective cooperation talks.

Peter Moody
New Jersey

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Not opposed

The RSP does not oppose electoral intervention. Indeed it has run candidates in the past.

There is more at www.directaction.org.au and www.sa.org.au.

I especially recommened:

Ben Reid

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I only just noticed Eddie Ford’s article, ‘Endlessly plundering the earth’ (July 1 2010). It has been a long time.

When I first joined the Young Communist League, I was taken up with the idea of abundance; of a society where the state would wither away, because we would create a society where there would be no scarcity in the world, and people would go to work because they wanted to, not because they were forced to. Production and consumption would match one another perfectly. People would work at what they wanted to work at. Education and practical experience would be supreme. There would be no need for an executive, armed services, a police force, a judiciary, a prison service and such coercive forces. Our country - nay, our world - would be a bit like William Morris’s News from nowhere.

Then along came ‘planned obsolescence’. Should consumer goods last forever, or would it be better to plan, say, a washing machine to last 10 years? And all the parts break down at the same time, or randomly. Should computers last forever, or should they too suffer from obsolescence, planned or otherwise?

Marx never had a fundamental ecological outlook. If I am wrong, perhaps you can refer me to it. He had a human outlook, though he believed in abundance too, as a way of freeing the worker from his/her chains. Is there anything wrong with increasing the use of energy? Surely, that is not the critique. Even if you were not to agree with such a concept, it is going to happen. The influence comes in on how we produce that energy, how we harness it, how we conserve it and how we become more efficient at using it.

I have no doubt that we are in the process of destroying our lifestyle on the planet, unnecessarily, but we are after all mortal human beings. Sooner or later our species will collapse - some catastrophe will happen and huge change will take place, just like the dinosaurs, or the hot and cold periods. Personally, I do not accept the argument that anything we do on the planet, with the exception of polluting the atmosphere with fluorescence, is going to make a blind bit of difference to what happens. The forces of Gaia are far too great, far too powerful and very unknowable, compared with our own tiny knowledge.

It is interesting how capitalism is blamed, as if it is a thing in itself, rather than a process. Human beings invented capitalism, and they operate the system. We all play our part in it, to a greater or lesser extent: we all make our compromises with it, so we are all responsible for its outcome. My question is, have you got something better? Not an idle or derogatory question, by the way. I would be interested to know because I have been seeking such answers since I left the Communist Party and threw off the chains of democratic centralism and party discipline.

Doug Rankine

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Phil Kent’s discussion of rape seems confused (Letters, November 8). Leaving aside his reliance on Chris Knight’s ‘just so’ story about human origins, I will focus on contemporary issues deriving from the Assange case.

Phil suggests that Swedish law relies on penetration as the defining aspect of rape and correctly identifies this as a problem originating in the historic position of women’s role as producers of legitimate heirs. Swedish law has progressed to some extent and now penetration includes vagina, anus or mouth. It does not have to be with a penis, unlike the UK, where penetration with anything else is classed as sexual assault. It is not the case that Swedish law recognises nothing except penetration as potentially constituting an offence. Having criticised the Swedes for their limited definition of rape, Phil later suggests their definition is so wide it devalues the concept of rape. In Sweden both rapist and victim can be of either biological sex; it is questionable whether such gender-blindness is realistic or helpful, but Phil’s criticism does not mention that; he concentrates on trivialising the experiences of the two women.

More problematic is Swedish law’s reliance on requiring violence (albeit minor) to be used or the exploitation of a ‘helpless state’, which can apply to sleep or intoxication, but more commonly the use of physical force - eg, being pinned down by the assailant’s body weight. This was described by one of the Swedish women. It would also be an offence in Britain.

Nobody has suggested that the victim must be asleep during the entire assault from initiation to completion, only that she is not conscious when the attacker first attempts to penetrate her, the point being that she would initially be unaware of what was happening, so unable to refuse or consent. In British law, rape is defined by lack of consent and the onus of proof is on the defendant to demonstrate his reasonable belief that the complainant actively consented. This cannot be repeated too often, given the confusion about this issue shown even by otherwise well-informed people.

Phil repeats the story that the Swedish women “were not raped in their opinion”. Probably not in the opinion of a great many people who are ignorant of the law and believe the (literally) mediaeval attitude that rape victims run to the police, screaming and covered in blood. Such dramatic behaviour is rarely the case. Phil repeats that the women wanted paternity tests; I have never read this anywhere else; only that they wanted Assange to take an HIV test. There is no reason to assume that they were “treated like children” by being informed of the law and their rights.

Heather Downs

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US coalitions

Someone on the radio last week said that, unlike Europeans, Americans don’t do coalitions. Actually, they always do coalitions - that’s what ‘separation of powers’ means.

In Washington, the eye of each branch is on the other: Congress can obstruct presidents, presidents can veto Congress. Each house needs the other for a majority and the nine bourgeois of the supreme court can halt anything they deem unconstitutional. The effect of all this line drawing is to keep politics out of government, as opposed to horse-trading.

Obama won the swing states because he was a ‘moderate’ and ‘got’ Osama bin Laden and helped the banks and a key car factory. Ninety-five percent of African-Americans only vote for Democrats anyway, while the ‘undecided’ probably trusted the slippery Mitt even less.

In any case, it takes a great deal of funding to stay in the two-party beauty contest - $3 billion for TV ads this season alone.

Mike Belbin

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Zigs and zags

You are in danger of becoming the far-left mouthpiece of European Union neoliberalism (‘“Official communists” welcome Miliband’s conversion to austerity’, November 8). You are the zig to the zag of the left-sectarian and Stalinist version of Little Englandism and this right deviation comes a week after you did an ultra-left, third period zag on the US elections. It’s all looking a bit centrist.

You simply put forward the antithesis to the isolationism and British roadism of the Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Party in England and Wales and No2EU, and go all out for reforming - supporting - the basically ‘good’ EU. A proper transcendent synthesis of these two opposed and incorrect positions - their unity - would be a policy of renegotiating the founding treaties of the EU in accordance with socialist principles and that is the policy you should be trying to get the labour movement to adopt.

Set up a campaign for such a thing to push for this and to democratically work out what a socialist EU would look like and what it would do. Make it clear that such a campaign would not actively seek an in-out referendum, but in the event of one taking place that it could not vote positively for the EU as currently constituted and nor can it support the imposition of any anti-working class EU measures by any government.

Time to get dialectical if you are to live up to your claim to be the torchbearers of Marxism in Britain and not just another zig-zagging, centrist sect.

David Ellis
Readers group

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Tell the truth!

Sarah McDonald writes an article on Scottish nationalism, saying that Marxists should vote ‘no’ in the referendum on independence, while supporting the democratic right to self-determination (‘Joining the nationalist bandwagon’, November 8). But she ends up joining the nationalist bandwagon herself by calling for a federal republic of Scotland, England and Wales (what happens to Northern Ireland is anybody’s guess).

Clearly Sarah has missed Marx’s correct statement that the working class has no country; and she also ignores his most famous slogan, ‘Workers of the world, unite’. Our duty as Marxists is to build a worldwide movement - a federal republic has nothing to do with communism. It will just be another capitalist state, run in the interests of a minority. Why would communists call for that?

It is capitalism that must go, not the monarchy. Rather than take a pro- or anti-independence stance, why not just tell the truth? That workers would be exploited in an independent Scottish state, just as they would be in a federal republic.

Steven Johnston

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