James Linney’s article on obesity and Covid last week was rather mixed scientifically (‘Worse than useless’, September 3). He asserts that “even if obesity was eradicated tomorrow, this would only reduce a small portion of mortality and morbidity from Covid-19: there are other factors like age, underlying comorbidities and deprivation. You cannot ‘beat’ coronavirus by simply losing weight.”
However, a retrospective cohort study by Italian clinicians of 482 consecutive Covid-19 patients hospitalised between March 1 and April 20 found that among these patients:
- A body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 34.9 kg/m2, defined as severe obesity, significantly increased the risk of respiratory failure.
- A significantly higher risk of death was observed in patients with a BMI above 35 kg/m2, defined as morbid obesity.
The existing medical literature makes it abundantly clear that obesity does significantly worsen the course of Covid-19 in patients. Moreover, besides being vastly more prevalent in socially deprived, working class and minority ethnic populations in the advanced capitalist countries, obesity is known to be strongly associated with other underlying conditions and comorbidities, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that are themselves reliably reported in the medical literature to worsen the course of Covid-19 in patients.
Therefore, while James Linney is correct to observe that there are “other factors like age, underlying comorbidities and deprivation” that worsen Covid outcomes, such factors, far from being independent of obesity, are in fact highly correlated with it. While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and the observed worsening of Covid morbidity and mortality with obesity may in fact reflect the action of some other as yet unknown underlying factors, this is not the argument that James is making.
Indeed, while James appears to accept that obesity does actually worsen the course of Covid-19, he still asserts that “even a genuinely competent attempt at reducing rates of obesity would not be able to reduce them quickly enough to impact the harm from Covid-19”. Does James have any evidence to support this bold claim? Let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that in the absence of an effective vaccine for Covid, society was able to achieve a long-term return to the levels of obesity that were historically seen in western populations in the 1970s (ie, before the introduction of government dietary guidelines and the subsequent explosion in obesity), and that, in line with the Italian study quoted above, such a decline in obesity resulted in a long-term “significant” reduction of a few percentage points in hospitalisations, respiratory failure and deaths due to Covid-19. Surely, given that there is no effective cure or guarantee of a vaccine for this nasty infection on the horizon, even a modest drop in morbidity or death due to the disease would be something that we all should welcome?
In his article James Linney also fell into the trap of using what the palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, termed “just so stories”. Here, James turns reality on its head, seemingly in order to reach a predetermined conclusion. Firstly, hunter-gatherers, and especially pre-Neolithic peoples, had better overall nutritional status (as recorded by the paleo-anthropological record, or pictures of Australian Aborigines from 120 years ago) than modern post-agricultural revolution humans, for whom malnutrition became a serious problem (witness the well documented decline in stature, reduction in brain volume, appearance of dental caries and other chronic diseases of civilisation with the advent of the agricultural revolution).
One may also ask, what survival advantage is there to a hunter-gatherer in an adaptation that causes them to become fat on their natural diet? Surely if eating high-calorie foods such as meat and fat (from, for example, the abundant herds of buffalo that historically roamed the plains of Africa or North America) had caused early humans to become obese, they would have soon lost the ability to hunt and turned into prey themselves. Although obesity does occur in indigenous populations like the Plains Indians or Australian Aborigines today, this is invariably observed as a result of colonisation and the replacement of their historic diets by capitalist commodities.
Secondly, the medical literature considers it debatable whether the metabolic set point posited by James exists, and if it does exist how relevant it is to the question of obesity. In the article, ‘Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?’, Müller, Bosy-Westphal and Heymsfield note that “searching for the genetic background of excess weight gain in a world of abundance is misleading, since the possible biological control is widely overshadowed by the effect of the environment”, and regulation of body weight “may be lost or camouflaged by western diets, suggesting that the failure of biological control is due mainly to external factors”. That is, the primary evolutionary or biological factor that James Linney uses to explain the prevalence of obesity in western societies, and the difficulty in losing weight, may be less important than environmental causes and, in particular, the deleterious effects of modern western and industrial diets on the human metabolism.
Thirdly, James seems here to subscribe to the conventional ‘calorie in, calorie out’ model for weight gain. As Gary Taubes has noted, explaining weight gain as being a result of taking in more energy than is expended is nothing more than a tautology - rather like explaining global warming as being due to the Earth absorbing more solar energy than it re-radiates into space. Similarly, a foetus or a tumour grows because it takes in more energy from its environment than it expends. As scientific explanations, none of those statements are very enlightening, are they?
Apart from the above scientific differences, I agree with James politically that the UK government will only continue to grossly mismanage all aspects of public health, from Covid to obesity.
The concordat between the international Marxist or Trotskyite and the international capitalist is well documented, and illustrated by the tolerance shown by the international Marxist to the four freedoms of movement that are the substantive basis of neoliberalism: of capital, goods, people and services.
The neoliberalism phenomenon that we seek to challenge from our respective ideological and ideational points of the spectrum is a philosophy that has been demonstrated by technical assessment and academic analysis to be the primary creation of the machinations of the international finance institutions. But not even a fraction of the objectives of the long-stated aims of the communist will ever come to fruition whilst their theoreticians remain grounded in confrontational and oppositional modes of thought.
The internationalisation of global trade and the accompanying reduction in trade barriers has been one of the long-term policies and regulatory objectives of the transnational capitalist class for one reason: profit. It is a falsehood to presume that that by opposing tariffs the Marxist left is opposing capitalism. In fact it actually strengthens the power of the capitalist, who exploits the differential between high-wage and low-wage countries through voluntarily providing them with the ability to have goods manufactured in low-cost countries and then as a consequence of trade globalisation have those same goods imported into high-wage economies. The working classes also benefit from these goods, but those workers are often maintained on social security subsistence in order to redistribute the windfall from lower consumer prices to the higher-income groups.
How can it be in the interest of the workers of the western hemisphere to be thrown onto the scrapheap of social security by the tolerance afforded to international capitalists exploiting the workers of the eastern hemisphere? How can tolerating that disequilibrium through opposing tariffs be conducive to empowering the proletariat of the world?
In the eastern hemisphere those goods are produced by low-wage labour. Wage-slavery is further entrenched by the fact that those workers are denied their right to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions. Their ability to collectivise as trade unions is denied them very often through state-sanctioned intimidation and violence, as in China.
If the philosophical belief in ‘Workers of the world, unite’ is so prevalent among Marxists, why is it that they have not articulated a case for tariffs and trade protectionism as an instrument of coercing those states in the eastern hemisphere into affording workers their inalienable right to collectively organise and bargain for better pay and working conditions?
Freedom of movement of people across territorial borders is another of those contemporary discourses that has been left critically unchallenged by the Marxist left. There is a Marxist case for limiting the freedom of movement of people not on the basis of racial or cultural origins, but on the grounds of limiting the use of economic instruments of coercion and control.
The theory of the reserve army of unemployed labour that was developed by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx was not based on immigration - though at the time immigration was used by the governing classes to undercut the subsistence pay levels enjoyed by English workers by, for example, Irish labourers, who could be hired for less than what English workers would accept for the same job.
Marx wrote: “Big industry constantly requires a reserve army of unemployed workers for times of overproduction. The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it ... Overpopulation is therefore in the interest of the bourgeoisie” (‘Wages’, December 1847).
Now with that substantive argumentation in place, there is a Marxist case for the limitation of immigration that would restrict another of those fundamental freedoms that neoliberalism and the transnational capitalist class have come to rely upon to a much greater extent than in previous epochs. Immigration is simply the rich and powerful way of expanding the reserve army of the unemployed or underemployed in order to suppress the ability of workers to bargain for far higher pay, especially when there is a shortage of labour in any given employment occupation. If those laws of supply and demand were tilted in favour of restricting immigration and the actual enforcement of existing laws controlling immigration, there would be more ability of the organised worker and the individual worker to bargain with employers much better pay and conditions.
If the practical curtailment of the power of monopoly capitalism and international capitalism is to be achieved, then the Marxist must commence setting out the case against the maintenance of those four freedoms that underpin the operation of neoliberalism and transnational capitalism.
SWP is right
I agree with John Masters in congratulating the organisers of Communist University (Letters, September 3). I took part in the first six sessions, but had to stop after my brain became overloaded by concentrating on my small laptop screen for each of the two-and-a-half-hour sessions. However, I have since watched the rest on YouTube.
Like John, I too watched the session from Jack Conrad on the origin of the CPGB with interest, especially its lessons for the work of communists in 2020. I agree with John that there is an elephant in the room - doesn’t winning the vanguard entail winning new members to that vanguard? I also agree with John when he writes: “There is a younger generation out there drowning in the trap of identity politics, cancel culture, environmentalist doomsday-mongering and the failure of Corbyn.”
In my opinion the CPGB (PCC) has lost its way. It is bogged down in what is known as ‘revolutionary socialism’, so beloved by the Militant Tendency and its successor organisation, the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The presenting of resolutions to meetings of the Labour Left Alliance doesn’t advance the communist movement one bit. This comes from the CPGB’s mistaken idea that the Labour Party can be won to Marxism, instead of building a communist party independent of the Labour Party, but orientated to it at the same time.
The CPGB through Labour Party Marxists wants to convert the middle-class liberals so common in Labour Party branches and CLPs to Marxism. To do so is like trying to build a house on chicken legs: in the end the whole structure will collapse. Lenin often used the expression, “An ounce of experience, is worth a tonne of theory.” He was also fond of the Russian proverb, “Life teaches.” The experience of Corbynism was a laboratory experiment in left Labourism. It ended in complete failure. This is something the CPGB (PCC) has yet to learn from.
It is interesting that this month is the 50th anniversary of the Allende Popular Unity government coming to power in Chile. Three years later Allende’s government was overthrown by general Pinochet in a US-backed coup. The result was that 30,000 socialists and communists were murdered, and thousands more disappeared, were tortured or forced into exile. Given the warning by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo about “push back” if Corbyn had been elected as British prime minister, it is probably best for our safety that Labour lost the December election.
Since the December election debacle, I have had time to think about what communists should do next. After much thought I have concluded that the Socialist Workers Party has the correct position when it comes to the Labour Party. As Socialist Worker says each week in its ‘What we stand for’ column, “Socialism cannot come through parliament”. At the same time, I agree with the SWP that real power lies on the streets and, more importantly, in the workplaces. Hence why the SWP is currently concentrating on recruiting amongst the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protestors and activists. This example of recruiting the vanguard and building the vanguard at the same time is something the CPGB (PCC) can learn from.
There is also much that communists can learn from the experience of James P Cannon, founder of the US Socialist Workers Party, in building the revolutionary party, starting with a small group of dedicated cadres and activists. I highly recommend that communists read James P Cannon’s The history of American Trotskyism. When Cannon was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928, he and two other comrades started a weekly newspaper, The Militant. This was the scaffolding around which the then Communist League of America was able to get recruits across the vast continent of the United States.
This is why in 2020 the Weekly Worker is so important in building the revolutionary party. Both online and in hard copy, it is a precious resource. It is also our main weapon in combating identity politics and left Labourism. James P Cannon often told his comrades, “In any activity in the working class movement, it is a matter of what you give, and what you get.” Given the CPGB’s current emphasis on work in the Labour Party, including the Labour Left Alliance, the success of such work should be seen by the number of new recruits it is getting and the increase in visitors to the Weekly Worker website. Otherwise such work in the Labour Party is a waste of activists’ time and money.
I am glad that the Weekly Worker will shortly be available in hard-copy printed form again, now that the national lockdown has been eased somewhat. Apart from the Weekly Worker, I also subscribe to Socialist Worker, Socialist Review, and International Socialism - the weekly paper, monthly magazine and quarterly journal, respectively, of the SWP. Unlike the Weekly Worker the SWP because of its size has been able to continue producing hard copies of these three publications during the lockdown.
This shows, as John Masters points out in his letter, along with Mike Macnair, the need to build the CPGB and the circulation of the Weekly Worker through an orientation to the organised left and the rest of the population at the same time.
So who poisoned Alexei Navalny? The obvious answer is Russian military intelligence (GRU) or the internal agency (FSB) under the direction of Putin. There’s no great reason to doubt this: like most national leaders he’s perfectly capable of ordering severe damage to opponents, as he showed in Chechnya and in the razing of its capital, Grozny. He also has a motive, since Navalny has been an energetic, popular and determined opponent of Putin for some time. This may be a way to neutralise him and/or warn anyone else off - though it does seem to be a particularly stupid way to do it.
But was it so simple? The cry goes up that it was novichok that was used, and only the Russians have that. But if only the Russians have novichok how can anyone else know that this is what it was? This is not a plea for Putin’s innocence - there are no grounds for that on the face of it. It is just that his accusers, the usual suspects, have no great record of truth telling.
Pretty much as soon as the accusation was made, the call has come for the construction of a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany to be cancelled, and I think that we can be confident that the ‘leaders of the free world’ are a good deal more concerned about the pipeline than they are about a Russian dissident and his family - though, as usual, no doubt, ‘Our thoughts are with …’ No, they’re not.
Western leaders bend over backwards to deny their own crimes. British prime ministers see no reason why British troops should be made to pay for war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ireland or anywhere else. The US and Israeli leaders, to name but a few, are more than happy to assassinate political opponents - by plane or drone, for instance. This may mean, unfortunately, that relatives and other civilians may get killed too, or instead, but, hey, ‘shit happens’. So, in other words, a fair bit of ‘pot and kettle’ name-calling goes on.
Maybe the treatment of dissidents by the US and its satraps is more nuanced? Take Julian Assange, for example: currently, and for many years now, he’s been undergoing torture in the UK according to the UN rapporteur. Or Chelsea Manning - in and out of prison while suffering regular physical, mental and financial pain. Their crime? Annoying the powers that be by pointing to their crimes. And then we have the Black Panthers suffering decades of solitary confinement for, er, being Black Panthers. Let’s leave Guantanamo with just a passing mention this time.
The Guardian led on September 3 on the developments in the Navalny story, but in its ‘The long read’ of the very same day we find “The death squads of Operation Condor” - who let that through? Eight south American countries in the 70s and 80s - especially Argentina, but also including Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and others - had interconnected death squads, which could freely travel from country to country, capturing, kidnapping, torturing, raping and killing opponents of each other’s regimes.
The Guardian is a little coy about some of the details, but it says: “Condor effectively integrated and expanded the state terror unleashed across South America during the cold war, after successive rightwing military coups, often encouraged by the US, erased democracy across the continent.” And, “Although many of the men who carried out Operation Condor were alumni of the US army’s School of the Americas - a training camp in Panama for military from allied regimes across the continent - this was not a US-led operation.”
Well that’s a relief: it wasn’t US-led. There could be a book - and in fact there are several - about US backing for, and involvement in, coups and military dictatorships in South America and they go on to this day: Honduras, Bolivia … and Venezuela, they hope. The main thrust of the article is that at long last, after a few decades, one or two geriatrics are being brought to trial and even punishment.
However, also noted in this ‘long read’ is the arrest in Britain of general Pinochet of Chile. But “Pinochet was held for 17 months, while Britain’s law lords twice approved extradition to Spain. Labour Party home secretary Jack Straw stymied the extradition, instead sending Pinochet home to Chile on health grounds.” A hard act to follow, but I’m sure Sir Keir will do his best.
A leading light in the repression of democracy in South America was, of course, Henry Kissinger. And, as Tom Lehrer put it, “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.” Things have progressed since then, of course - Barack Obama has won the prize, and he got it before he even had a chance to show that he didn’t deserve it!
Did Russian intelligence poison Navalny? Probably. Did Putin order it? Maybe - or at least he might have had a ‘Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ moment like Henry II. Have Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and other upholders of ‘western values’ the honesty and integrity to condemn the crime? Of course not.