The Point
Last updated: 08 October 2017. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Our Last Best Hope?


No one on the Left can fail to have been heartened by the surge of support in recent weeks for Jeremy Corbyn, now the clear frontrunner for the Labour leadership. The sheer enthusiasm for something genuinely progressive and socialist, completely counter-intuitive to the machine politics of spin doctors and focus groups, is palpable. So too has been the bewildered panic of the Establishment, and not only the one in the Labour Party.

This wave of support for change has been accompanied by a degree of hagiography which, while eschewed by the man who is its focus, illustrates the desperation of many to find some relief from the oppression of austerity as well as the seemingly contradictory tendency of collective movements to sometimes place individual leaders on pedestals. Got a problem with Tories? Inequality keeping you awake at night? NHS at risk from predatory capitalism? Just ask JC (which one, you may ask) to lay his hands on it and everything will be put right.

Consequently, his campaign has become something of a repository of hope for all on the progressive side. This has led already to inevitable disappointment for some when #JezWeCan, the White, Red or Green Knight depending on your viewpoint, declared his plans to re-open Welsh coal mines, downplayed his already lukewarm support for electoral reform and argued that there should not be another Scottish independence referendum.

Yet let’s not quibble. Not only is Corbyn himself a patently genuine person, it is what he represents that matters in the longer run. Just weeks ago, the received wisdom of the neoliberal media was that he was a hopeless also-ran. But now, this 68 year old man without a tie, in his Lenin hat and on his bicycle, is the choice of millions, enthusing young people to join Labour and seemingly moving his party to the point where it might finally reject austerity and return to the values of equality, community and public ownership that once sat at its beating heart.  The Left is awash with hopeful speculation and encouragement, while the Right has called time on the contest and instead is busy constructing the Tory story of a spoilt rich kid who is “a threat to national security” according to George Osborne in his most sinister Sith-like mode. (The gutter press has also come up with bizarre non-stories such as one where he was divorced by his first wife because he preferred a night in with a tin of cold baked beans and his cat Harold to going clubbing.  Another relates how he also made a sun-dial when he was 14, which apparently disqualifies him from socialism, according to the Daily Mail.)

We will know the outcome on 12 September. But that will only be the beginning.

What is certain is that whoever wins, what is undoubtedly fantastic news for the broad left throughout these islands is not good news for the Labour Party. However the ballots fall, the slow death of Labour will not be arrested.

Labour has been in the hands of a centrist narrative for at least the 21 years since John Smith died and arguably since before that under Kinnock. Although I was not a socialist at the time, I was baffled by the haste with which the establishment Left across Europe jettisoned even pale pink socialism when the Soviet Bloc collapsed, as if validating the rightwing claim that big state communism was indeed socialism, and vice versa, all along. Of course, an alternative view might be that, with Communism seemingly discredited and out of power, the capitalist states no longer felt the need to pay lip service to the idea of a social democratic choice within their own political systems: as Fukuyama proclaimed, neoliberal capitalism with its deregulated markets and privatised state was the only game in town. The “End of History” had been reached.

So Blair and Co were people of their times, reinforcing the narrative of “modernity”, embracing the effluence of trickledown political economy and forever focussing on a “centre-ground” which was ceaselessly tracking rightwards. Although Labour had already abandoned most plans to renationalise state services privatised under Thatcher and Major, Blair still found a symbolic need for his “Clause 4 Moment”, when he persuaded the party to abandon any commitment to significant public ownership. The End of History indeed and in the years following the neoliberal consensus has seemed embedded irrevocably, even post-crash in 2008.

Yet both dynamic theory and human history show that you can only drive in one direction for so long. For each action comes a reaction. Slowly but surely the disconnect between politicians and people has been building at least since the 2008 crash and 2009 expenses scandal, and maybe as far back as the disdain shown by Blairites to the public opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 – indeed, even in 1997 polls showed the majority of the electorate was well to the left of New Labour on tax and equality. With austerity digging deep now for seven long years, destroying the lives and hopes of millions of ordinary people while the super-rich augmented their already substantial holdings, the desperate attempts at “business as usual” are paying fewer and fewer dividends. Even the elite know the game, if not quite up, is certainly at risk and needless to say they will not go down without a fight of epic proportions.

So if “Corbynism” is the latest stage in a longer movement for change, what was the first? Outside of Scotland, perhaps perversely from a socialist perspective, the earliest significant manifestation was probably the rise of the British National Party back in 2005. The boom years of New Labour did improve services to most parts of society whether in terms of health, education or employment. Yet, as Wilkinson and Pickett so powerfully demonstrated in “The Spirit Level” in 2009, social cohesion and personal happiness are driven far more by equality than by overall prosperity. In such a context, a poor but comparatively egalitarian society such as Cuba rated higher on the Happiness Index than Blair’s Britain, with its “intense relaxation about the filthy rich”. In the UK, as in much of the Western world since 1989, the one compelling consistency has been the relentless widening of the gap between rich and poor. By some indices, Britain is now even less equal than Czarist Russia on the eve of revolution.

Consequently, the BNP and later UKIP deftly drew on the relative poverty and exclusion of poorer white communities to detach them from the Labour Party, whose arrogant electoral strategy was to take their support as a given. They then crystallised their grievances against a range of vulnerable groups, with ethnic minorities the primary but far from sole targets. As Ford and Goodwin’s 2014 book, “Revolt on the Right” showed, what started as an electoral uprising among the blue rinse brigades of the Shire Tories in the form of UKIP was soon transformed into a much wider populist renunciation of the Establishment – even if its leadership’s greatest wish seemed to be to become a new part of it.

This rebellion encompassed Labour as well as the Tories (and hoovered up a good chunk of the disillusioned Lib Dem vote) and its origins explain the evident Teflon quality of UKIP’s support. After the series of dire failures of the current political system, attacking UKIP because some drunk candidate sent offensive tweets or because Farage got his party magazine printed abroad had no effect. And on the main themes of UKIP’s  General Election campaign – immigration and Europe – the mass media and the neoliberal parties had already cravenly contributed to their validation rather than take any stand to oppose them. On other policies, most notably the NHS and PFI, UKIP struck decidedly leftwing stances, pragmatically if cynically reflecting the majority views of their supporters, whom polling showed to be significantly to the left on a range of issues – voters in search of a new home indeed.

And so, in England, we saw Farage’s party top the 2014 European Parliamentary poll nationwide – the first time since 1918 that neither Tory nor Labour was in first place.

In Scotland of course a different narrative has played out. The more democratic voting system for the Scottish Parliament has developed a highly engaged electorate, more than capable knowing how to effectively elect progressives. Since the very first Parliament, Scots have become used to a wider plurality of party representatives than elsewhere in the UK: Scottish Socialists, Solidarity, Greens, Pensioners, Independents and of course the SNP have made the concept of two, three or even four party UK style politics irrelevant.

Though, for a time, Labour’s predominance at Westminster persisted, here too, as we know, things were changing and ultimately far more dramatically so than anything south of the Border. The referendum campaign was clearly the catalyst, drawing progressives together in what must have been the most positively inclusive campaign for national independence in our planet’s history. And of course, as anyone who experienced any stage of it knows, its hallmark, on the Yes side, was its utter enthusiasm and creativity. Unleashed perhaps by the power voters realised they had to make a real decision, it marked a breakthrough in the political zeitgeist, and not only in Scotland. With the Yes vote consolidating into a record high for the SNP in May this year and reducing the neoliberals to just 3 seats between them, the message that ordinary people can force real change, even in an assuredly undemocratic system, was heard across the UK. The reverberations of Syriza and Podemos’ successes on the Continent further reinforced the drive towards a new paradigm.

Post-referendum, in England it was the Green Party that saw its stock rise most: its membership rocketed from under 20,000 in May 2014 to over 65,000 by October (ahead of UKIP and the Lib Dems). Strikingly, just as it was the three “Westminster Parties’” joint attempt to bully Scots over the use of the Pound Sterling that unlocked the drive up to 45% Yes, the main impetus for the Green Surge in England was the avowed refusal of the same three parties to give the Greens a place in the leaders’ debates.

The Greens’ rise was spiked in due course by a combination of bad media and the lack of a democratic voting system, but even now our vote is holding in UK-wide polls at 6% to 8%, a huge advance on the 1% and 2% at the equivalent point in the last Parliament.  By contrast, UKIP is becalmed and the populist right seems to be making little headway. Indeed, while migration is high on the political agenda, the obvious desperation of the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean has perhaps finally shown up the evident inhumanity and self-interest behind UKIP’s agenda, itself rooted in capitalist neoliberalism. There is, it seems, a rare but wide open window of opportunity for socialists.

And so Corbyn is no isolated phenomenon. His exponential rise continues the growing revolt against the Establishment. But it is only one step in a much longer process, and one whose outcome is far from assured.

For, just as the neoliberals closed ranks in Scotland and against the Greens, so too has their local chapter within the Labour Party turned on Corbyn and his supporters. Nearly every day has seen some Labour Big Beast – or maybe more appropriately some Aged Dinosaur – trundled out to explain why the “selectorate” of members, union affiliates and registered supporters are voting the wrong way. Patronising and arrogant by turn, it seems they have no understanding at all of how irrelevant and offensive ordinary voters find them. Like many liberals, their concept of democracy is a four or five yearly voting event where the masses dutifully confirm their inherent right to rule. Like the ancient Roman election rituals that were stopped as soon as the Emperor was acclaimed, our political leaders, extending deep into the corporate and media worlds, perhaps unsurprisingly assume that they will always be there. In this set up, the “modern” Labour Party has become little more than a pressure valve, a tool to undertake a spot of PFI meddling here and Surestart tinkering there, to keep the “core vote” in its place. As we saw just weeks ago, this even led to three of the four leadership candidates abstaining from voting against the Government’s harsh Welfare Bill, supposedly for the most tenuous of procedural reasons.

But, just as it nearly didn’t work in Scotland in 2014, it seems not to be working within Labour ranks now. Party officials have hurried to exclude tens of thousands of applicant voters, the vast majority clearly Corbyn supporters, using the most nefarious methods. This #LabourPurge has included banning longstanding activists and trade union leaders from the vote. It even stooped to asking a schoolboy member to spy on two of his classmates who joined the party. The 1960’s joke line attributed to the old corrupt Glasgow Labour Party –“You cannae join, we’re full up” – is now seemingly a tragi-comical reality.


Brown, Kinnock, Blunkett, Alistair Campbell, David Miliband and of course Blair himself have all denounced Corbyn in the most vituperatively apocalyptic terms. Bridges haven’t been burned – rather they have been nuked. While Brown, bizarrely pacing up and down and gurning wildly at the walls like some captive bear driven insane in a tiny cage, decried Corbyn’s ideas as “not modern”, Blair has emerged from hiding on at least three occasions to warn of the party’s impending “annihilation”. Indeed, in a breath-taking show of how not to win hearts and minds, in his latest proclamation he accused the Islington North MP’s supporters of living “in a parallel universe”.


Regardless of the outcome of the ballot, a political bloodbath will inevitably follow – none of these men will ever be able to work with a Left leadership. Nor shall their craven proxies like Liz Kendall, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, who have already set up a new group with the risibly ridiculous name of “The Resistance” to work against a Corbyn leadership. New Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is similarly hamstrung by her hostile comments and stories circulate of coups by Christmas by overwhelmingly unsupportive MPs, unheard of hubris in a supposedly democratic process.

So, if he wins, Corbyn will likely face civil war leading either to his eventual deposal or to an SDP-style break by the rightwing. If he loses, perhaps topping first preferences but losing out as Burnham, Cooper and Kendall’s second preferences transfer to each other, then in spite of the huge level of support he will have garnered, the vitriolic right will clearly be on a mission of vengeance. In such circumstances, a huge tide of new members and longer-standing leftists is likely to flow out again, once more in search of welcoming harbours.

Where then does that leave the rest of us on the Left, especially the non-Labour Left?

Few people I have come across in the Greens, TUSC, Left Unity or the Scottish Left have anything but goodwill towards Jeremy Corbyn. Both his own integrity – eschewing the favours of the party whip in order to rebel over 200 times in his career (to puppet Burnham’s proudly proclaimed zero) – and the attraction of the policies he is proposing are beyond question. He has worked closely with Green MP Caroline Lucas both inside and outside of Parliament as well as with a range of non-Labour political parties and groups and appears to seek a more pluralist approach. He has acknowledged the need for Labour to co-operate with the SNP, a welcome return to reality compared to his naysaying colleagues. How far this would go without conflict over a second referendum or if there was some revival of Scottish Labour under an anti-austerity UK leader of course remains to be seen, but the tone is far more positive than before.


The challenge for us all will be that perennial one for the Left – of being willing and able to set party aside, to support broad policies as opposed to perfect ones and to see the paradox that the plainly modest and unassuming Corbyn indeed leads “Not A Man, But A Movement” as one over-enthusiastic internet meme declared.

It is also about being generous, imaginative and flexible. We have seen the founding of RISE this last month. And just as the last decade or so has witnessed a maelstrom of political change with new parties rising and old ones fading, the likely fissures in the Labour Party point to both threats and opportunities for the broad left. If the Corbyn phenomenon is the latest step in a long-term political realignment, the question we should be asking is what the next steps beyond are. Sticking rigidly to existing party silos would be to make the same fossilized error as the neoliberals.

No political party is forever – not even Labour which, as Will Self has pointed out, is now too much of a “broad church” to continue in its current form with any real meaning. Parties are simply vehicles for putting ideas into effect. They are not ends in themselves. If we want to transform our society, we need to be ready to work across boundaries, to form new electoral alliances and morph into new parties. Egos will have to be set aside and the collective future prioritised ruthlessly over individual pride and place. Only in this way will we have any hope of the new world we want, of a fairer society, of an economy based on sharing and sustainability and where the generations to come have futures to imagine and make real. The hundreds of thousands of newly engaged citizens will neither understand nor forgive us if we draw lines in the sand over which precise policy sub clauses to include in a programme or fall out over the selection process for joint candidates.

This is the challenge for the Left. Very soon we may have our best chance in a generation to make the change we need. With the global crises increasingly engulfing our world, it may also be our last chance to change in time. We must not fail.



Adrian Cruden

Blogger at Viridis Lumen, Green Party of England & Wales activist & former parliamentary candidate for Dewsbury.

Independence and how to get there - a short essay with a few ideas

What kind of Independent Scotland?

And how do we get it?


There's been some debate on social media recently as regards how to win over NO voters for the next independence referendum, how we should approach the currency question, should we be in Europe after the EU's treatment of Greece and so on.

I think it's important to remember that there will be many visions in people's heads about what an independent Scotland can or should be but that the direction we take can be determined democratically by all of us once we secure independence collectively.

There are some issues and ideas I would like to throw out there for discussion, however.

There are three issues the YES movement needs to do better on in order to win a YES vote and some we should be able to park until after a YES vote.

Let me deal with the three issues we need to do better on first.

Firstly, we need to reassure pensioners that their pensions will be safe.

Scaremongering on this issue by Labour and Better Together was effective, if utterly immoral and dishonest. I would propose that the Scottish Government sends an official letter outlining the facts to every pensioner and potential pensioner as an official guarantee of their pension; that it should contain a helpline number for people to report scaremongering and seek accurate information, and that this is backed by a campaign of billposters and newspaper adverts.

Secondly, we need to deal more effectively with the question of identity.

Like it or not some people see themselves as British as well as Scottish, or even primarily British. Many of these will vote against independence no matter how strong the case or how badly Westminster is actually treating them, but it will be necessary to win some of those votes over.

We need to say more loudly to people that their British cultural identity is not only NOT at risk from independence, but will be guaranteed in an independent Scotland's constitution as part of our national diversity. We need to repeat – again and again – that our movement is a democratic movement, not a national ethnic movement. That anyone who wants to consider themselves British cannot have that taken away from them because the British Isles is a geographical entity, not a political one. Just as someone from Denmark or Norway is Scandinavian despite those countries being independent, someone's Britishness doesn't change just because Scotland becomes independent. Posters in certain parts of the country emphasising these points and the right to continue to hold a UK/duel passport could chip away at the Brit identity vote, particularly if UK Labour continues to abandon traditional social democratic ground.

Thirdly, we need to have a firm position on the currency.

The option I would argue for is a Scottish Pound, backed by a newly created Scottish Central Bank and pegged to a basket of international currencies in the first instance. This could be the case for the first years of independence, with a review after 3 years and a guarantee that other options would be put to the Scottish people if certain key targets weren't met.

And talking of referenda.

Should we be in Europe or out of it?

Should we keep the Monarchy or become a modern democracy?

Should we be in NATO or out of it?

Should public ownership of key sectors like banking, energy, transport be written into our new constitution?

Across our broad movement there would be disagreement on all of those things. They would be contentious and potentially lose votes if written in, either way, to a second YES prospectus.

Yet these are key issues. I believe that the way to deal with those issues is to say that the Scottish people will have the final say on them in a second, multi-question referendum to take place three years AFTER Scotland becomes an independent country. That would allow plenty of time for people to debate the issues and for them to be well aired on both sides. In the course of the referendum itself it would allow all pro-independence parties to unite while different parties could put their own positions, and everyone could say: the Scottish people will decide on that ONCE we are independent.

What do you think about these modest – but potentially game changing – suggestions. Please let me know, either here on the thread or on our Facebook page.

Steve Arnott July 2015

A New Education System for a New Future


In order to shape for the future we need to start with the people who are the future. These people are school pupils. Secondary school is the place in which majority of us gain our first steps of independence from our parents, where most of us begin to learn the things which will help form our opinions and our lives. As a socialist, I want to see a fair society but in order to achieve a fair society we must look at every issue facing the country and I for one believe tackling the education issue is an important one that must be done sooner rather than later.

Current Situation

As it stands the education system is failing our young people every single day. Their futures hang in the balance due to societies failure to stand up and sort out the mess. Can we allow lives to be thrown on the scrapheap just because some never succeeded in passing tests made up by someone in a room somewhere when they were 16? No, we cannot. It is immoral and must be changed.

1st and 2nd year of Secondary School are used as teaser years as such. They are used to give pupils a taster of all subjects before they go onto choosing their subjects and sitting exams, in essence splitting Secondary School into two parts. Recently education in Scotland went under a slight change. The Curriculum of Excellence has scrapped the use of Intermediate and Standard Grade leading to Highers and replaced them with Nationals which then lead on to Highers. While Highers are one level, Nationals are of multiple levels (I.e National 4, National 5) which may be taken at different times depending on the ability of the pupil. Nationals have attempted to move away from the strict exam system that was in place under Intermediates and Standard Grades. While undertaking National 4, there is no end of year exam as there are tests throughout the year and graded on coursework. National 5 and Highers though are still concentrated around the final end of year exam. National 4 is a step forward though it is not nearly enough.

The end of year exam is futile as - rather than ability - it measures how well someone can remember information and spew it up onto a page. There is also the fact pupils understand that these final exams could be make or break for the rest of their lives which has adverse effects for many. Just as before though, there is a strict curriculum in which pupils must follow with coursework that rarely differs year-to-year. This is set up in order for them to "Learn" the information required for the final exam. The problem with this though is that there is very little room for creativity and pupils learn from textbooks rather than from entertaining ways and using their own initiative. It must be remembered, the blame cannot lay at the feet of teachers as they must try to get their pupils through the exams meaning uninspiring, strict coursework is the only method of doing so most of the time.

Pressure on teachers result in pressure on pupils. Since the formation of School Tables – Measuring how well a school is performing based on exam results – there has been more pressure put on teachers and pupils than ever before. It has not helped improve the education system at all. It has resulted in teachers feeling that they must try to get as many pupils to pass the exams as possible so that they look like they are succeeding in their job. Both Conservatives and Labour have touted the idea of performance related pay for teachers which will then just inflate the problem. It effects pupils as schools will not put pupils through the exam who may not pass as they want to get the highest pass percentage possible, meaning many pupils do not even get the chance to sit exams which are so important to their futures. The idea behind this is that schools compete against each other and so will inspire each to improve. First of all, schools which are located in areas of worst poverty tend to perform "Badly" despite the best efforts of teachers. We also know from experience that competition more often than not harms progress particularly in the public sector, look no further than the setting up of NHS Trusts.

There is a basic failure to understand the needs of pupils. Education is very much academic orientated. This has resulted in many pupils who are not great academically falling through the cracks and leaving school with little or no qualifications. There has been an attempt to combat this through the use of Vocational courses which result in pupils undertaking the courses in which they learn skills that can be applied to hands on jobs such as construction. While this is a positive step, it still fails to meet the needs of the pupils as they still rely on achieving good results in their exams. Employers even for apprenticeships such as joinery ask for a good Maths and English qualification even though the exam proves little of what skills the applicant may have in either of these subjects due to the nature of the exams. Pupils are being churned out to be obedient workers rather than knowledgable people ready to take on the world.

The Solution

"Each according to their ability, to each according to their need"

This quote from Marx is the perfect way to sum up how education should be based. In order to make the most out of education we must tailor it to pupils not tailor it to how "experts" believe it should be. Firstly, we must change the age pupils can leave school from 16 to 17. This will not only benefit pupils of having an extra year to mature and develop. It may also ease unemployment meaning that there are not so many people leaving school and going hunting for full-time work. The school years should also be increased from 6 years to 7. One of the reasons behind this is that many people leave school at the end of their time and still do not know what they would like to do career wise. It will not totally solve that problem but it will help. Secondary school holds the key to the future and we must ensure to act like it does. I believe that secondary school itself should be split into three parts; Junior, Academic and Vocational. There must also be a complete dumping of the School Tables.

The Junior years of school are compulsory for all beginning at 1st year and continuing until the end of 3rd year similar to that of the teaser years (1-2) currently. During these years pupils will undertake a range of subjects with the main aim being not only to educate in all areas useful in everyday life but also to help them develop their own ideas and use their own initiative and to be creative. It is very important that we bring creativity back into schools as it is through this that people come up with world changing ideas and where young people become individuals rather than an army of workers. Stimulating the minds of young people pays off rather than boring them in tedious lessons. If we make lessons more exciting for pupils then they will be more likely to engage in class which will be of massive benefit to those many pupils who find it hard to concentrate or are easily distracted in school. In the figure below you can see an example timetable made up which shows what an average school week may consist of between the years of 1-3.

The first thing you will notice is that the length of the school day is roughly the same as it is now in most schools but the difference is that each class last 2 hours. Having classes for 2 hours is the perfect way of engaging with pupils and having exciting lessons. Pupils will have the time and space to be creative and come up with their own ideas. During these years pupils will be graded although it will be through the use of small tests throughout the year and more importantly, on coursework. The idea that someone cannot remember a handful of quotes to analyse a poem they aren't even interested in during a 2 hour exam should make or break their future is ludicrous. Home Economics classes will help pupils learn about how it is like to take care of themselves and prepare them for the outside world rather than leaving school not knowing how to cook etc. Computing Skills are a vital part of the world today while it is important to learn of politics, ethics and the likes in both Modern Studies and RMPS. Creative Studies will be the class in which pupils can choose to do art, woodwork, music or other creative classes such as that. They will not be graded in this class as the idea of it is to let them free to express themselves and have a bit of fun while doing so. Maths at this early age should be concentrated around dealing with problems that you may run into during your everyday life such as wages etc. although Advanced Maths will also be a subject available to take after 3rd year but I will come to that later. Physical Education is important for every pupil, particularly with the obesity problem facing the population now so there should be 4 hours of PE per week. Having the ability to communicate in more than one Language is becoming all the more important so that too should be undertook compulsory. History and Geography are among the most valuable subjects someone can be knowledgable in and so both should be compulsory and looked into at great depth. Science will cover all the sciences and give pupils an insight into everything from Tesla and Ohms law to the human body and Zinc.

Once Junior years are completed there will be two options facing pupils. They can either choose to go down a more Academic path or a Vocational one. In these years you will choose subjects that you wish to undertake in more depth and that will be your speciality. The subjects will be very much as they are now which include things such as Biology, Physics and Chemistry - rather than just Science - Advanced Mathematics and many others. These subjects taken should have 2 exams per year with both together contributing to 30% of the pupils final grade with the rest made up from coursework. The subjects mentioned above would be taken by those going through the Academic Path although they are not totally limited to those pupils. Academic pupils will choose their subjects when they first start the pathway and it will take them 2 years to complete the subjects. After the 2 years they will have options available; to take more subjects that they wish to do and never did the previous 2 years, to take the subjects they have done previously but at a higher level if possible, to go to college and study for an entrance level certificate, to change over to Vocational 1-2.

If a pupil decides to do Vocational then they would have the ability to do the likes of Advanced Maths should they wish. There would be room in the timetable for this to ensure that they do not miss out on academic studies. They would also be encouraged to take academic classes that would compliment their Vocational Studies (They may look to be becoming a Civil Engineer in which Vocational along with Advanced Maths would suit them for example). During their time in Vocational the pupils would undertake a range of activities in the first 2 years such as construction, bricklaying, plumbing, forestry and other subjects. Every school would have good working links with their local colleges so that in the pupils final 2 years they would be able to have spells of doing beginner level certificates in specialised subjects at college (Civil Engineering, Welding etc) which would mean they would not need to leave school and have achieved good exam results to get into college. The schools should build up relations with local businesses so that during the final 2 years pupils could also do work experience with local tradesmen. Also, during these final 2 years they should be coming back to the school to continue with studies that will only be done within the school. Together this would see a three pronged approach in the final 2 years of the Vocational path which will give pupils a good knowledge and understanding of a trade etc. they may wish to make a career in. If desired, pupils could also move from Vocational to Academic once they have completed the first 2 years and although this would mean a wide ranging knowledge, it would mean that it would not be so in depth. This could help pupils who are still unsure of what they would like to do as a career path as it will leave more doors open when looking to go to college/university when they have finished school.

In the figure below you can see the pathways available to pupils

Schools have been under funded and mismanaged for too long. While to some this idea may seen far fetched and not possible, I believe that it is very much possible. It just takes time, effort and the confidence to make such change. We have failed to see change in the class room for so long because politicians are too scared in case a mess is made of it and they do not wish to direct more funds that they feel is necessary. You cannot put a price on the future and so we shouldn't try. Anything spent over what the current education budget currently is could be repaid double if it is done correctly and the pupils are given the chance to reach their full potential. Schools cannot be behind new trends. Classes must be created in order to meet the demands of new jobs and careers. Coding for example is fast becoming an important part of our world yet schools are still to have Coding and Programming as subjects to take in.

While not perfect, I have set out what I believe will give pupils more options and help mould them into the people that they want to be without putting needless obstacles their way. As someone who only left secondary school a few years ago, I have experienced first hand how the modern education system works and believe me, it does not work. There is much work needed though it is this basic idea which could hold the key to improving the lives of thousands which if works, will also improve the country in many, many more areas. One of my key arguements behind this is that keeping secondary school so academically orientated not only damages pupils but infact our society and economy. If pupils who are better with their hands than with their minds do not get the change to use them, we will have thousands of possible joiners, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers etc sitting either on their couches at home, a till in a shopping market or at a phone in a call centre. Lets open up the future. 



P.s Apologies for the figures above, my skills on Paint leave a lot to be desired!

Should socialists vote tactically for the SNP in May?

Tommy Sheridan makes an eloquent and impassioned argument for all YES voters to give/lend their vote to the SNP this May.


This post recently received 177, 000 views and nearly 1700 shares on our facebook page.

Do you agree, or disagree? Let us know what you think.

Carrying Ourselves Forward

In an important and thought provoking article for The Point Robin McAlpine attempts to frame the key questions everyone on the left has to answer if we are to carry forward the success of the YES grass roots campaign beyond the referendum
It is often believed that it is how you react to failure that defines your ability to succeed. It's the Nietzschian 'that which does not destroy me makes me stronger' idea of the truth of character being seen in adversity. In Scotland a parade of calamities from deindustrialisation to our football team has almost written this concept into our constitution. It's how you carry yourself when you lose that counts.
This is a big issue for left Scotland right now. Our losses over the last three decades have been innumerable and our responses (or how they are perceived) very varied. I actually think we responded to failing to prevent the Iraq war effectively, continuing to draw people's attention to those who should be blamed. I don't think many people would argue that that the UK left's response to austerity has been particularly impressive. No-one could find much merit in some of the domestic political feuds in Scottish left politics. But if nothing else, no-one could doubt our doggedness.
But this really is a loser mentality. It's not how you carry yourself in failure that counts, it's just plain-old how you carry yourself. At this moment in Scotland's history, the left is winning.

Eyes on the Prize - Building a new left for the post-referendum Scottish Parliament

Gary Fraser looks at Scotland after the referendum and where next for a ‘new’ Scottish Left?




I apologise for the cliché but this truly is an exciting time to be living in Scotland, and I say that as someone not typically prone to bouts of political excitement. Something is happening and unlike the character Mr Jones in Bob Dylan’s memorable song, we in Scotland know what it is – it is called the Yes campaign.

In less than a year, Yes has morphed from being a top down centralised campaign into the biggest grassroots popular movement Scotland has ever seen. Irvine Welsh, in a recent article, captures this well when he writes:

Something strange and beautiful is happening in Scotland. The country is reinventing itself from the inside out. People are talking about their futures as if they actually have them. It’s that exhilarating, intoxicating and occasionally exasperating phenomenon at work: welcome back participatory democracy. How these islands have missed you.

Radical Independence Declaration

The Radical Independence Declaration, in full. First read to the world by David Hayman, at the Radical Independence Conference, the Marriot Hotel Glasgow, 2013.


"A community, a society and a nation. An economy, an environment and a home. These are not objects that exist because they are measured and weighed and counted. They are not commodities. They are not someone's gift.

They are the footprints each of us leave. They are the sum total of our actions and our will. Scotland wills itself to be a better nation, one we rebuild with our own hands. Who then will tell us our will is not big enough? Who then will tell us our hands are not strong enough?

Must the hope of the Scots for a better Scotland be the hope of the beaten for a less painful defeat? Must the will of the Scots once again come second to greed and privilege? This despair has a name. Its name is NO. It is a despair that believes poverty inevitable and the decline of public service necessary. It is the cry of people who believe that wealth should belong to whoever has the sharpest claws. Our poverty, our decline, their wealth, their NO.

For 30 years we have waited for Britain's rulers to live up to our hopes. They either didn't notice or didn't care. But now they notice. Now they see the chance for working men and working women to take back a nation. Now they tremble at the thought that we might really do it. Because what drives NO forward is the fear of those who stand to lose their privilege. They fear that in a land beyond Westminster we will rediscover hope.

That hope has a name. Its name is YES.

It is a hope fashioned from knowledge. We know a better economy is possible because we have seen it in other nations. We know greater equality among citizens is possible because we have seen that in other nations. We know that ending poverty, reviving democracy and respecting our environment are possible because we have seen these things too.

And we know how to bring these things to Scotland. We must abandon 30 years of the politics of exploitation, the damning corrosive exploitation that makes a few rich from what the many lose. We must replace it with the politics of sharing, where we all gain from the riches of our land and the fruits of our labour.

It is a fine Scottish tradition to find what works, to find out how it works and to make it work better. For centuries Scotland's ingenuity has been a gift to the world. Now let be also a gift to ourselves. Let us gift ourselves an economy where we make and create. Let our creativity make working people prosperous. Let prosperous people sustain a great welfare state. Let that state end the fear that comes with insecurity. Let us gift ourselves that Scotland.

Look at the forces that stand behind NO. Look at the forces that stand behind YES. Choose your side.

Together we can raise up our heads and work for a Scotland yet to come, but visible already.

A Scotland of the Common Weal, of shared wealth and shared wellbeing.

Our Scotland. All of us first."


Never hate your enemies: it affects your judgement...


Gary Fraser reviews Unhitched -The Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour


Christopher Hitchens was one of the most talented writers of his generation and also one of the most provocative thinkers. He is a political thinker who is difficult to pin down politically – akin to trying to nail jelly to a wall. For some, like Salman Rushdie, he was a leftist, for others, like Unhitched author Richard Seymour, an apostate, who became a neo-conservative. For Richard Dawkins, Hitchens was too complex to be either left or right, whilst more mainstream commentators usually refer to Hitchens as an ‘iconoclast’, or in that ubiquitous term, a ‘public intellectual’. If we must to label people’s politics then perhaps we should go by how they define themselves, and to his dying day Christopher Hitchens, despite a decade of quarrel with the left continued to describe himself as a Marxist.

The Ragged Trousered Comic Book

“Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it's not caused by machinery; it's not caused by "over-production"; it's not caused by drink or laziness; and it's not caused by "over-population". It's caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe.”
 Robert Tressell (Noonan) – The Ragged The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
It is doubtful if there has been a more influential book for socialists in Britain than The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Published three years after the premature death of its author Robert Tressell (real name Noonan) the novel has been a source of inspiration for generations for those fighting against capitalism, poverty and injustice.

Darwin, Marx and the Conspiracy of Doves

Republishing the first of a major series of articles, Steve Arnott argues for a new left prospectus based on a synthesis of Marxist and Darwinist ideas, and that in the field of biology and human nature, the left needs to abandon some cherished myths and shibboleths for a greater degree of scientific understanding.


"Origin of man now proved - Metaphysic must flourish - He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke."

Charles Darwin- Notebooks


“The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.”

Karl Marx 

marxdarwin/darwinmarx; montage by the author


 What has Darwin ever done for us?

If the work of Charles Darwin, its implications, development and modern synthesis, have traditionally been neglected by the media, then, six years ago, the year of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, more than made up for it. 

Particularly in the television sphere (and most notably from public sector broadcasters) there was a plethora of programming on Darwin. Almost everything was covered, from the voyage of the Beagle and his observations in the Galapagos Islands to the vital and imaginative experiments he carried out at his country house to prove aspects of natural selection; from his family life and his gradual retreat from religion (he begun early adulthood with the ambition to be a country pastor) to analysis after analysis on the great debates and distortions his key work has engendered since publication.

The comedian Harry Hill quipped on his Saturday night family show TV Burp at the time ‘too many Darwin programmes on the telly at the moment’ – and got a good laugh from his live audience. It was back handed compliment – the old naturalist and his work had impinged on the realm of mass consciousness in a way rarely seen before. 

The evolutionist intensity has barely receded. Given the brutal honesty with which the BBC has shown to its audience since then, particularly as a partisan cheerleader for the British State, perhaps we should also be suspicious of the crowning of Charles Darwin as a great champion of scientific reason?

Maybe we could? Some siren voices will suggest we should.

But that would be completely wrong.


From all these ‘too many’ Darwin programmes a consistent picture of Charles Darwin emerged.

He was a thorough and industrious intellect, but no natural self promoter and certainly not an instinctive polemicist like his contemporary, Marx. He was diffident, and careful, in parsing his conclusions. As a middle class English country gentleman of means and an already established naturalist of note, he was almost painfully aware of what publication of his ideas on the origin of species would mean in terms of its challenge to the cultural paradigms of the day - the religious explanation of creation, human exceptionalism and, arguably, West European white exceptionalism (though, of course, Darwin would not have thought of it in precisely these modern terms.)

The Origin of Species was published in 1859. It concentrated on presenting Darwin’s accumulated evidence for evolution by natural selection (and sexual selection) in the animal and plant kingdom, but one animal was notably absent from the discussion – homo sapiens. Darwin referred to natural selection and humankind only once in hundreds of pages of text in the splendidly isolated sentence ‘Light will be thrown on man and his history.’

Could Darwin have had any idea just how all-encompassing his ‘dangerous idea’ – to use philosopher Daniel Dennett’s now celebrated phrase – would become in the sphere of human discourse and history, not just in science, but in psychology, politics, sociology and economics? Sitting in his garden at Down house on a drowsy summer’s day, halfway through the nineteenth century, perhaps jotting down notes from his latest experiments, could he possibly have had even a glimmer of either the predictive power or political potency of the simple, elegant idea he was shortly to unleash on the world?

We can never know, of course, but I open this series of articles on Darwinism, Marxism, their connections and possible synthesis, with the quote that heads up this chapter for a very good reason. I want to indicate that at least once - perhaps in the passing - Charles Darwin entertained the idea that the explanatory power of his new approach to the natural world was a thoroughly revolutionary one for human ideas and philosophy.

Similarly, I want to indicate from Marx’s own words in the second quote, that, if we are to take his own careful language ‘literally’, then Marx was well aware of humankind’s biological status and origins, and of the multiply thirled dialectic that is the human animal given by nature and the human animal within society: our ‘species-being’ and social being.

Two long human lifetimes have passed since these words – the quotes from the two Charles’ that head up this chapter - were written. The distortions of Social Darwinism and the evils of Nazi eugenics did the same kind of damage to Darwin as Stalinist and state totalitarianism did to Marx. Nevertheless, particularly since the discovery of genetics, the ideas of Darwin have proven to be one of the most enduring and powerful scientific paradigms in the history of human cultural achievement. The huge majority of biologists and commentators now routinely make the point that Darwin’s theory of adaptive evolution through natural selection has such a weight of evidence to support it, from biology, the fossil record, and the expanding libraries of decoded genomes of increasing numbers of species, that it long since made the qualitative leap from theory to established and undisputed scientific fact.

Yet the key memes of Darwinism, particularly in its modern developed form, its synthesis with the science of genetics and emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology, remain largely misunderstood – or perhaps, at best, only selectively understood – by the left. It will be the purpose of the first chapter in this series to show why this is the case and to begin to supply the necessary corrective.

A statement of intent

It will be the ambition of the piece as a whole – probably stretching over a number of issues of The Point magazine - to argue that a Marxism fit for the 21st century and capable of appealing to the mass of humanity after the scars of the 20th must be completed by a thorough understanding of human nature and psychology. And I will argue that that is best and most readily supplied by the rich, powerful, thoroughly dialectical and materialist picture of human consciousness and psychology that has emerged from the neo-Darwinian syntheses of the last twenty to thirty years.

My method will be to argue, stage by stage and topic by topic, that

a) the left has nothing to fear and a world to gain by abandoning its historically half baked approach to modern Darwinism, particularly the tired and redundant nature versus nurture debate. It should be prepared to revisit with open minds, study (and critique) key modern evolutionary thinkers such as Dawkins, Dennett, Ridley and Pinker, and the work of the neuroscientists, Gerald Edelman and others

b) socialism can only make a claim to be scientific if it is prepared to integrate the secure findings of science into its world view

c) the findings of modern Darwinian science have much to commend themselves to the left, particularly the discovery of evolutionary strategies for co-operation in species, including homo sapiens

d) one of the key reasons both revolutionary and social democratic movements of the left failed in the twentieth century was that they lacked an accurate understanding of human psychology – both individual and social – from evolutionary biology

e) Marx’s great elucidation and analysis of the labour theory of value, surplus production, class society, and how the particular mode of appropriation and exploitation within capitalist class society both produces the social power of capital and perpetuates humanity’s alienation from its ‘species-being’ meets/joins/collides with the modern Darwinian syntheses at three junctures: the division of labour, modern neuroscience, and an evolutionary science-led understanding of the balance in human nature between the social instincts of co-operation, empathy and sympathy, and human individuality and ego

f) consequently, for the first time in history a unified Theory of Persons becomes possible that has explanatory and predictive power (within limits) for the behaviour of individual conscious beings, both as individuals and in their social life, and for the social and economic development of the aggregate bodies (societies) in which those individuals have their collective social being

g) if the historic goal of ending the social power of capital over humankind is to be realised in the century ahead, and we are to create a united, progressive international society ‘that harnesses our collective energies, talents and wealth for the benefit of all our citizens while safeguarding and respecting individual freedom in all its aspects’, then such a Theory of Persons - a Darwinist/Marxist synthesis - will not only be necessary, it will be indispensable. Such a theory would not wholly replace existing critiques from the left of Stalinism, Leninism or Social Democracy.   It would view such critiques as necessary but insufficient and offer the possibility of modifying or completing them.

I should perhaps pause here and reassure readers of a deconstructionist or post-modernist bent. I am absolutely not calling here for a new ‘totalising’ or foundationalist theory (in the language of that oeuvre) to replace those of the past. It is my hope and intent that any Theory of Persons that emerges from this work, subsequent work, or work of others will be open, dynamic, non-dogmatic and embedded in the scientific method. That is, I propose theses, not dogma.

Similiarly, I should recognise that by this point, that there may be readers from an academic, philosophical or scientific background who will already fear I am well on the way down the road to two gargantuan errors. Firstly, the conflation of a scientific theory (Darwinism) with a social and philosophical but non-scientific theory (Marxism). Secondly, that I have committed the dreaded ‘naturalistic fallacy’ exposed by David Hume and am deriving my moral ‘oughts’ from my scientific ‘is’s’.

On the first point I intend to take on Karl Popper and others and show that the key propositions in Marx are scientific propositions about the world in any meaningful sense of the word, but that will require a whole chapter in itself in a future issue. Secondly, I am aware of the dangers of the naturalistic fallacy. Part of my own argument in the following section - that the left should stop wasting its time poking the straw man of biological determinism - will be that it has acquired a habit of falling into naturalistically fallacious thinking on certain scientific issues. It will be up to me to couch my arguments carefully over this and the other forthcoming chapters to convince my readers that I haven’t made the same mistake.

There will be a third category of sceptic, more than likely: the dyed-in-the-wool, self-titled ‘Bolshevik’ who will already either be dismissing me as a petit-bourgeois academic or shaking her or his head in disbelief that someone could be so ignorant as to consider Marxist theory to be incomplete. Or probably both.

I can only appeal to readers who come from a vanguardist tradition and who will undoubtedly – at least at first – consider some of my propositions to be heretical, to stick with it; to follow the arguments and evidence in the pages and chapters ahead; to allow that marvelous evolutionary organ, your own brain, not some central committee, to do your thinking for you; and to make up your mind at the end (which admittedly, given the scope of this undertaking, will be several Point issues down the line). Even if you end up completely disagreeing with me I would argue you owe it to yourself to wrestle with serious challenges to your accepted world view.

Investigating, considering or appropriating critical elements of Darwinian thought for political purposes - of course - has dangers. However, I will neither be the first person or the last to do so. As Gillian Beer notes in her introduction to the Oxford University Press 1996 edition of The Origin of Species

Different readers can find their hopes and fears confirmed by extending the implications of Darwin’s thought in one direction or another; and, it would later prove, those readers might be individualists, Fascists, Marxists, imperialists or anarchists – or indeed quietists. There is something fascinating and perturbing in a text that, while pursuing, in Darwin’s words ‘one long argument’,

ballasted by multiple evidences, can generate such a variety of ideological potentialities…

Darwin himself insisted always on constraining the extra scientific implications of his work and resisted any overt politicisation (itself, of course, a political position).

Darwin, of course, was not a socialist, and while Marx was an admirer of Darwin and sent him an autographed copy of Capital Part One, there is no evidence of reciprocation. Indeed, it would seem highly unlikely that the canny Victorian gentleman scientist, concerned as he was about the scandals generated by his own work, would have given a second thought to corresponding with a revolutionary German émigré promoting his own very unique and dangerous idea.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and Gerald Edelman, upon whose writings important parts of this work is based, are no Marxist revolutionaries either – though my educated guess would be that they are all socially progressive liberals of various political shadings. The precise political stance of individual figures, living or dead, however, is not the issue. The science, how it relates to our understanding of persons and their societies, and how, clearly understood, it can help the left correct its historic errors, is very much the issue.

For that science I am indebted. The political conclusions – and any scientific errors or misunderstandings – are very much my own.

Towards a Theory of Persons?

A debate still stuck in the 70’s and 80’s

In 1994 I attended a weekend school organised by SML (Scottish Militant Labour) in a hostel in Strathpeffer, in Ross-shire. Attending the event along with me were many others who are still active in politics and are scattered across the various organisations of the left in Scotland, including Solidarity, the SSP, the CWI (Committee for a Worker’s International), as well as supporters of what is now The Point online magazine. It was an excellent event in many ways and though many that were there have now parted ways I suspect all who participated will have fond memories of it. One of the most anticipated and well attended sessions of the weekend was a ‘debate’ on nature vs. nurture, led off by Bruce Wallace (a good friend, theoretical pugilist, and someone to whom I will always be grateful for my early Marxist education).

The word debate above is in speech marks intentionally, however. There was no serious debate at all, but much agreeing with one another around the following basic propositions

That in the nature vs. nurture debate, nurture clearly won out. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was accepted in some vague, limited sense, Human beings and their consciousness were essentially malleable and would be thoroughly changed in a socialist society. Bad things about human beings could be wholly attributed to their existing in a class society.

Genes could be used to explain inherited characteristics like height, eye colour and so on, but played no part in intelligence, personality, learning etc. Marx’s oft paraphrased dictum ‘conditions determine consciousness’ was to be understood purely in social/environmentalist terms. Once society changed, human beings would change fundamentally too.

‘Good’ evolutionary biologists were people with clear left credentials like Steven Rose and Stephen Jay Gould; ‘bad’ evolutionary biologists were ‘reactionary reductionists’ like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Not in our Genes by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin was the bible on all things nature and nurture related.

evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins

 Almost everyone there held these views and I was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of them. The phrase ‘There is no such thing as human nature’ was heard more than once. To accept that human beings had a nature was to cede ground to the capitalist ideologues’ argument that socialism was impossible because human beings were essentially greedy and selfish.

There was just one dissenting voice. Another good friend of mine, Tommy Paterson, had actually read what Dawkins had written instead of just other people’s commentaries on what he had written. He pointed out that it was silly to argue that there was such a thing as orang-utan nature or wolf nature, but not human nature, or that genes had some influence over the body but not the brain and its capacities (as if the brain were not part of the body). He argued that far from the work of Dawkins leading to reactionary conclusions it could be seen as strengthening the case for universal health care and quality education for all, and the eradication of poverty.

His voice was a voice in the wilderness, however. The terms of the nature vs. nurture debate had been set on the left in the 70’s and 80’s and it was the sea in which we all swam. Our collective but malleable mind had settled on a fixed idea and we were having none of it. The evil doctrine of biological reductionism had to be resisted with all our revolutionary fervour.

But ‘facts are chiels that winna ding’ as Burns wrote, and even then the scientific evidence was mounting that there was such a thing as human nature, that far from that nature being irredeemably greedy or selfish, human beings had genes that were strongly selected for cooperation, altruism and reciprocation, that innate mechanisms existed in the brain – evolved by natural selection – for learning, language acquisition and behaviour modification (from the work of Chomsky, Pinker, Edelman and many others) and it was precisely those innate mechanisms that allowed us to develop, grow and interact with our environment as individuals in a social and cultural context

Tommy Paterson was right and we were wrong. The ‘biological reductionism’ we were determined to reject was a straw man, even then. It rested on a misunderstanding – and at times even a wilful misrepresentation - of what our ‘opponents’ were saying.

Looking back, we did not even seem to see some of the contradictions in our own positions. Freud was the subject of much informal and enthusiastic discussion at our Highland Summer retreat in 1994 – but surely Freud’s great insight into human nature - the existence of the sub-conscious and its hidden sway over our conscious selves - rests on an understanding that the brain is an evolved organ with an evolutionary history, and innate, inherent and universal workings? Without Darwin, no Freud. And though Freud had no access to the techniques that allow for the mapping of brain function and it’s correlations to reported subjective experience, and therefore had to develop a psychological, non-physicalist approach to the human psyche, surely his key assumption – that the animal sexual drive underpins all human behaviour – is the mother of all evolutionary psychology theses?

At the time, I had just started work on my undergraduate dissertation on human consciousness and was basing it on the neuroscience of Edelman – this would take me to a lifelong interest in this and related fields which would eventually lead to the position I take today. Back then however, there was a line – conceptually, philosophically, and politically – that we were not equipped or ready, or indeed, encouraged, to cross. That line has hobbled the left both theoretically and in terms of its practice for decades. I don’t just want to cross that line or encourage others to jump over it. I want to rub it out entirely.

I want to show that modern Darwinism and neuroscience renders the nature vs. nurture debate as we’ve known it redundant.

I want to show that Marx’s dictum ‘conditions determine consciousness’ is best understood thus: not only our social environment and society acting upon our brains to produce our consciousness, individually and socially, but also, as natural selection having responded to the environment over evolutionary time to produce the structures of a human brain capable of sensible and conscious interaction with its environment, and with a repertoire of adaptive innate behaviours and modes of perception, understanding and interaction that may broadly be termed ‘human nature’.

And I want to show that the gene centred view of Darwin evolutionary thinking is not just compatible with a democratic, libertarian and thoroughgoing socialism, but encouraging, even inspiring, for socialists and social progressives.

The need to promote new thinking and a new discussion around these ideas gathers even greater urgency when we realise that, despite the scientific debate having moved on leaps and bounds since the entrenched positions of the seventies and eighties, tragically, nearly twenty years on from the events I describe above, the left is still mired in those simplistic terms of debate, still tilting at illusory windmills, still poking with a burning stick at the straw man of ‘biological reductionism’; a biological reductionism that no serious evolutionary thinker actually believes in these days (if they ever did).

To show that the left hasn’t moved forward in its thinking on these issues at all I have picked out two quotations from left publications below, taken from around the time of the Darwin bicentenary. This is not to have a pop particularly at either the authors or the particular publications. Both articles contained much reasonable comment and pedagogy on Darwin, but both are also typical exemplars of the kind of misleading articles written on the left recently on this subject; that is both contain basic scientific errors and demonstrate a misplaced political ideology that generates confusion and misunderstanding. The first quotation is from Socialist Worker.

But Darwin is also suspected by many on the left. They fear that his ideas have served to legitimise a succession of reactionary ideologies.

These start with “Social Darwinism” in the 19th century – the attempt by various ideologues to prove that biological evolution justifies capitalist competition and the imperialist domination of “inferior” races.

Then, much more recently, there has been the development of sociobiology. This involves reducing the behaviour of human beings in society to the demands supposedly put on them by their genes.

The reactionary implications of this kind of approach are well brought out by Richard Dawkins’ portrayal of people as “lumbering robots” driven unconsciously by the “selfish genes” that use them as means for their reproduction.

None of this has much to do with Darwin.

                              Alex Callinicos, Socialist Worker 14th Feb 2009

The first two paragraphs here might be fair comment in another context. Indeed, we’ll return to the very theme of the fears the left have of some of Darwin’s ideas at various points in this extended narrative. However, look at how ‘Social Darwinism’ – a mistaken 19th century distortion of Darwin’s real ideas that reached its apotheosis with the Nazis and has been in the dustbin of history ever since – is here immediately associated with a wholly different conception, socio-biology, which, we are told, ‘involves reducing the behaviour of human beings in society to the demands supposedly put on them by their genes.’ Further ‘the reactionary implications’ are exemplified by ‘Richard Dawkins portrayal of people as ‘lumbering robots’ etc etc.

‘None of this has much to do with Darwin’ the writer then tells us, and he is absolutely right. Unfortunately for Alex Callinicos (and his readers) none of this has much to with Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson, the author of socio-biology, either!

No-one who has actually read Sociobiology or The Selfish Gene, or any subsequent work with an open mind and an unjaundiced eye would conclude that either author believes for a minute that human behaviour, in all its rich complexity, can be reduced solely to the action of genes or that we are simply ‘lumbering robots’ at the mercy of a ruthless genetic determinism. In an otherwise readable and informative article what we have here is either genuine ignorance of the real scientific discourse taking place, or wilful misrepresentation for ideological reasons. The result is that neither politics nor science is well-served

Our second quote is from a bit closer to home and is a variation on the same refrain

Wilson’s new synthesis purported to apply evolutionary theory to social behaviour, both in animals and in human beings – and to explain a large range of behaviours in terms of Darwinian fitness and evolutionary advantage. The sociobiological idea reached a much larger audience the following year with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976).

The “big idea” of the sociobiologists was to attempt to explain supposedly “altruistic” behaviour in animals and humans with reference to evolutionary advantage. The first attempt was termed kin selection, an idea seemingly based on some off-hand remarks by British Marxist biologist JBS Haldane and formalised into a mathematical model by William Hamilton in 1964...

Of course it is necessary to make some assumptions in order for this idea to be taken seriously as way to explain aspects of animal and human behaviour. Primarily it requires the gene-centred view of evolution, later popularised by Dawkins, to be accepted as absolute. That is, selection occurs only at the level of the gene, and that individual organisms (whether human beings, animals, plants or bacteria) are simply “lumbering robots” or “survival machines”, whose only purpose is to serve as transient vehicles for the “selfish replicators” that are our individual genes.

The conceptual leap necessary to accept this argument does a great disservice both to the study of evolutionary theory and the richness and diversity of the way the living world has evolved. Genes do not, and cannot, function in isolation. They are not, as some popular-science writers would describe them, controlling “Master Molecules”. Rather genes and their protein and RNA products only work in the context of the cellular environment – which includes the products of all the other genes of the organism, working in concert. Selective pressures can act a variety of different levels, including individual genes, groups of genes, the entire genome of an organism, the living organism itself (remember genes can only exert their influence via the organism, and the whole organism is the only thing in nature that can really be said to be capable of “self-replication”), as well as groups of organism, populations and entire species. While genes are the basic units of inheritance, they are not the basic units of evolution – as there is no such thing. (my emphasis)

Moreover, an organism’s behavioural characteristics and other qualities are determined by more than just their genes.

                                              - Neil Bennett, Frontline Dec 2008

Once again, the sound of straw men being rapidly set up and enthusiastically thumped to the ground is deafening. In order to invite us not to take the work of these bad evolutionary scientists ‘seriously’ Neil Bennett produces a ridiculous and simplistic distortion of their ideas. Case proved! In fact, Dawkins and his followers would have no problem with much of the last two paragraphs outlining the various levels at which genes operate and the complex cellular and developmental environment they operate in– except for the line I have highlighted above because, tellingly, it is a basic scientific error. Of course, genes are the basic units of inheritance – and since natural selection can only work through inheritance or non-inheritance (favourable adaptations give organisms a survival advantage which allows them to live long enough to pass those adaptations onto descendants), reductio ad absurdum, the gene is the basic unit of evolution.

Once again, I’m not picking on either of these two writers. Fifteen years ago I would have probably written the same kind of thing. They are simply swimming in the same misinformed sea that a handful of us managed to evolve from by actually reading the list of disapproved works and achieving at least a reasonable understanding of what, in reality, these terrible genetic determinists were getting at.

Far from being the new Nazi party in disguise, E.O. Wilson was on the liberal wing of the Democratic party in the States, was a social progressive, and even talked about the inevitability of large scale public ownership in the one chapter of Sociobiology in which he discussed homo sapiens, yet everywhere he went after the book’s publication in the seventies he was met by left wing demonstrators and cries of ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’.

This treatment didn’t extend to him alone but to the scientists, William Hamilton and Robert Trivers, whose research into the evolutionary behaviour of altruism in the animal kingdom he had drawn upon in the book. As Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate

As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became the target of picketers…The insinuation that Trivers was a tool of racism was particularly galling because Trivers was himself a political radical, a supporter of the Black Panthers, and a scholarly collaborator of Huey Newton’s.

Trivers had argued that socio-biology, is, if anything, a force for political progress. It…subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as females and the younger generation. Also, by finding an evolutionary basis for altruism, socio-biology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people’s minds and need not run against our organic nature.

No-one has been more sinned against in the misrepresentation stakes by our own left in our own country than Richard Dawkins, however. Recently his atheist bestseller The God Delusion and a number of television programmes he has made on modern Darwinism and its implications have opened up some on the left to the realisation that he’s not some wild eyed Thatcherite determinist after all. Dawkins often complains that many of his critics get no further than the title of The Selfish Gene and assume it’s a polemic in favour or ego and self-interested social or economic behaviour in scientific guise. In the preface to the 30th edition he muses that he now wishes he had called the book The Immortal Gene instead and points out that the title makes a scientific – not a social or political - argument

Emphasise ‘selfish’ and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism. The correct word of the title to stress is ‘gene’ and let me explain why. A central debate within Darwinism concerns the unit that is actually selected: what kind of entity is it that survives, or does not survive, as a consequence of natural selection.

One of the more recent developments in this debate has been around the new and exciting science of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of genes within an organism that change in response to environmental stimuli and then are passed on to successive generations. For instance, studies of rats by the Twin Studies unit at St.Thomas’s Hospital have shown that mothers who lick their babies more can produce a change in rat brain structure associated with less stress, which in turn is reflected in a change in the baby rat’s genes associated with that structure. Those genes are passed on when the rat becomes adult and breeds.

Epigenetics and its study are a truly thrilling development – one which may conceivably in the future open the door to a whole new world of gene therapies that eradicate congenital disease and infirmity. But there are more than a few on the left, sensing the traditional boogieman of biological reductionism gaining ground, who have grasped upon epigenetics as a fortress for their last stand. After all doesn’t this prove that environment triumphs over the innate; that nurture, after all, wins out over nature?

I will say more about epigenetics further down the line in this series of articles, but for now I would simply wish to say that such attitudes, again, are really a product of misunderstanding the fundamental propositions of modern Darwinism in the first place.

All genes in all organisms that ever existed are a product of their environment.

It’s worth saying again. This time I will add another couple of words for emphasis.

All genes in all organisms that have ever existed are an adaptive product of their historic environment.

We were already well on the way away from a static notion of genes in any case. We already realised that many genes act upon other genes. The discovery of epigenetic features now allows us to complete our statement.

All genes in all organism that have ever existed are an adaptive product of their historic or somatic environment.

This does NOT mean that Trofim Lysenko was right, and that wheat can be trained to grow better. Epigenetic effects have only been shown (so far) to apply to a small number of genes in a small number of organisms. The majority of your genes will stay unchanged throughout your life. Nevertheless, epigenetics is an important addition to our picture, but one that exists within, and is complementary to, the genetic paradigm - not one that surpasses or replaces it.

It is simply yet another proof – they seem to arrive now almost by the week - that evolution by natural selection is even more powerful than we previously conceived.

We shall find this in even greater evidence, when in a few chapters time, we come to look at the brain, but we can see that plasticity within organisms itself is a powerful adaptation for survival.

Press and Media myths

But it would be wrong toblame the left solely in isolation for the confusion that exists on the genetics issue. Of course, there have been political reactionaries who have seized and used the work of biological scientists to justify their own political agenda. The media too are often very unhelpful, distorting carefully worded scientific press releases into claims that give a misleading impression to the general public ‘gene found for colon cancer’, ‘gene for homosexuality’, ‘gene for baldness’, ‘gene for journalistic licence’ and so forth.

Of course, what scientists mean when they speak colloquially about a gene or set of genes being ‘for’ something they mean a gene that is associated statistically with certain feature, or predisposes us to a certain illness, condition or behaviour. In each and every case, genes require an environment in which to express themselves. No-one who has genes associated with predisposition to certain cancers has an automatic death sentence. Yet the simplistic genetic determinism often expressed by the press compounds the difficulty genetic scientists and evolutionary psychologists have in getting the balance and complexity of their ideas across

Similarly, exaggerated claims are often made for the triumph of the environment over heredity, or nurture over nature. When the Human Genome was first mapped one newspaper gleefully parsed Craig Venter, whose private company had been the first to complete the genome mapping. ‘Environment, not genes, key to our acts’. The basis for this epoch-making claim was that only 30,000 genes had been found in the Human Genome – too few to account for the diversity of human behaviour, according to Venter. Of course, no-one ever had argued that genes alone could account for the diversity of human behaviour. Matt Ridley, in his own excellent deconstruction of the sterile nature vs. nurture debate (Nature via Nurture) quickly points out the sheer absurdity of the argument 

In truth, the number of human genes changed nothing. Venter’s remarks concealed two massive non sequiturs: first, that fewer genes implied more environmental influences, and second, that 30, 000 genes were ‘too few’ to explain human nature where 100, 000 would have been enough. As Sir John Sulston, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project put it to me just a few weeks later, just 33 genes, each coming in just 2 varieties (such as on or off) would be enough to make every human being in the world unique. There are more than 10 billion ways of flipping a coin 33 times. So 30, 000 does not look such a small number after all. Two multiplied by itself 30, 000 times produces a number larger than the number of the particles in the known universe.

Besides, if fewer genes meant more free will, that made fruit flies freer than people, bacteria freer still, and viruses the John Stuart Mills of biology.     


                                                           (my emphasis)


Ridley, in the same book, goes on to explain that there is no simplistic one to one correspondence of genes with body features. That some genes encode for other genes, that some act as ‘transcription factors’ telling genes when to switch on and off, or limiting the period of time in which a gene operate in the development of the organism. The skulls of chimpanzees and the skulls of humans, for instance, are grown by the same gene, but in the case of human beings the gene is switched on for longer during development of the foetus.

To make grand changes in the body plans of animals, there is no need to invent new genes, just as there is no need to invent new words to write an original novel (unless your name is Joyce). All you need to do is switch the same ones on and off in different patterns…here is a mechanism for creating large and small evolutionary changes from small genetic differences…These changes might be sufficient to create a wholly new species without changing the genes themselves at all.

And to reiterate, there is no Chinese Wall separating genes from brains. Genes don’t tell us what to think, our how to think, or what to learn or believe, but they do encode for the development of the human brain and its various innate systems for learning from the world. A supposedly ‘dialectical materialist’ argument that says genes encode for every bodily feature we are born with except our brains is neither Darwinist nor Marxist. It is unscientific human exceptionalism, and a return to 17th century Cartesian Dualism by the back door. Pinker, once again, from The Blank Slate notes just a few discoveries and studies in genetic science that have confounded any notion that genes have no effect on human consciousness or behaviour.

(There is compelling) evidence that differences in mind can come from differences in genes. A single wayward nucleotide in a gene called FOXP2 causes a hereditary disorder in speech and language. A gene on the same chromosome, LIMkinase1, produces a protein found in growing neurons that helps install the faculty of spatial cognition: when the gene is deleted, the person has normal intelligence but cannot assemble objects, arrange blocks or copy shapes. One version of the gene IGF2R is associated with high general intelligence, accounting for as many as four IQ points and two percent of the variation in intelligence among normal individuals. If you have a longer than average version of the D4DR dopamine receptor you are more likely to be a thrill seeker, the kind of person who jumps out of airplanes, clambers up frozen waterfalls or who has sex with strangers. If you have a shorter version of the stretch of DNA that inhibits the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17, you are more likely to neurotic and anxious, the kind of person who can barely function at social gatherings for fear of offending someone or acting like a fool.

More recently, Professor Franck Polleux and his team at the Scripps Institute in California, researching human specific neuronal development made what could be a very important discovery. It had long being known that human neurons tend to have 40-50% more connectivity than our closest cousins, the chimpanzee. What they found was that a specific gene associated with the development of neural connectivity called SRgap2 which exists in our chromosome number one, and which all mammals have one copy of, is duplicated in that chromosome a further three times – for humans and only for humans.

Strong empirical evidence for the theory that these additional copies of SRgap2 was obtained when they spliced an additional copy of the SRgap2 gene into the chromosomes of mice. The mice showed massively increased neuronal connectivity compared to their unspliced control group.

Further, as the Polleux Lab website points out:

The group of Dr Evan Eichler has dated the emergence of these human-specific gene duplications to approximately 3.4 and 2.4 million years ago respectively (Dennis et al., 2012) (Figure 1A-B). Of particular interest, the second duplication that gave rise to SRGAP2C arose 2.4 mya which corresponds approximately to the time during evolution where the Australopithecus and Homo lineages diverged and in the fossil record corresponds to the beginning of brain expansion characterizing the Homo lineage (Dennis et al., 2012).

This research is at any early stage, and it’s probably not the whole story, but if we believe that the human brain is an adaptive organ, and that human consciousness and intelligence is an adaptive feature in the evolutionary sense, then it is not a huge leap to see that minor differences in the efficacy of SRgap2 (x4) may account for heritable differences in cognitive skills, intelligence, personality and so on. At the very least it would be an interesting path of research to follow.

I should probably pause here. The very mention of genes ‘coding’ for intelligence (though the claims made by Pinker, for instance, are very modest) will be enough to send certain readers into a moral apoplexy, and they will need to catch their breath.

Isn’t this just the kind of thing we should be combating? If we allow that some difference in some forms of intelligence may be heritable through genes doesn’t that open up the argument that it’s a waste of time educating some people, or that there is no point in egalitarianism, because some people are born superior? And what about the vexed questions of race and gender?

In the next chapter I shall attempt to show that such fears are groundless, that they stem from the left’s own mirror image of Hume’s naturalistic fallacy – that we determine what we allow as the scientific ‘is’s’ about the natural world from our moral ‘ought’s’. I will argue that a rich view of Darwinism that places both nurture and nature as central and essential to the development and well-being of human beings and human societies, is both possible and desirable.

In the meantime let me reiterate, modern evolutionary biology, far from being determinist or reductionist, is showing us in ever more complex and fascinating detail the dialectical interaction between nature and nurture, the innate and the imbibed, the species-specific and the culturally specific, our human nature and our social being.

This concept is both fundamental and undeniably, biologically true, but I accept it is a big leap for some who will be reading this, (though I hope there will be others who understand it as blindingly obvious), and I accept I have more work to do in forthcoming chapters.

But let us at least consign the straw men of biological determinism and reductionism to the flames of history. Leftist theorists on nature and nurture unite; you have nothing to lose but your polemical chains, and a world of understanding to win.

From his own inspiring –perhaps even revolutionary – words that close The Selfish Gene, let’s finish with the very non-determinist promise of ‘lumbering robot’ Richard Dawkins:

We have…the mental equipment to foster our long term selfish interests rather than merely our short term selfish interests. We can see the long term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

(End of Chapter One)

Steve Arnott.

An earlier and less detailed version of this article appeared in Democratic Green Socialist and Socialist Unity

A comprehensive bibliography will be appended to the final chapter of this series. Meantime, I will suggest some useful reading material to accompany each chapter.

Some of the books mentioned in this introductory chapter are good places to start

Not in our Genes by Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leo Kamin present the traditional left view and should be read from that standpoint.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins presents the majority scientific view. (the thirtieth anniversary edition is best)

Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley and The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker are essential for anyone who wants to get a grip on both the up-to-date science and the political philosophical discourse.

Finally, as a bonus, this documentary from BBC Horizon What makes us Human is very good, particularly from about 40.20 mins in.