Editorial from the September 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The next general election, like those before, will be regarded by most people as a contest between the Labour and Conservative parties, even at times as a clash between the personalities of Callaghan and Thatcher. The working class are likely to make their choice of government on that basis — which will mean that once again they will not be facing the real issues involved.
Much of the campaign will turn on the record of this Labour government, which has been running British capitalism for so long without a parliamentary majority. In what is a familiar process, the workers gradually lose confidence in a government they have elected and this one has suffered some typically severe setbacks at by-elections. Whatever those results did to the Labour Party, there was no comfort in them for socialists; the workers were voting against Labour candidates for the same basically unenlightened reasons that they originally voted for them.
Although on most occasions those voters who reject the Labour Party are content to switch their support at least for a time, to the Conservatives there is another group which, seeing the impotence of both the big capitalist parties, becomes disillusioned with politics as a whole. The reasoning behind this disillusionment is that since both Labour and Tory are useless and the other parties offer nothing fundamentally different, there is no point in working for political solutions to society’s problems.
Other aspects of this theory are — that all politicians are corrupt and self-seeking (which may or may not be true but which is beside the point) and that Parliament is powerless (which is most definitely to the point but absolutely untrue). This cynical, if understandable, abandonment of politics does not help the situation, since it is based on a misinterpretation; the failure of Labour and Tory parties, and the fact that others like the Liberals can offer no hope of doing any better, says something about them and about their policies; but it does not say anything about political action as such.
If we were consistently governed by incorruptible, vastly knowledgeable, inhumanly efficient, politicians the result would be very little, if any, different from what we know and endure today. Politicians may set out to control and modify capitalism — at election time they promise to do just that — but in the event it is capitalism which controls them and modifies their policies. This is the reason for the disreputable history of broken pledges which every party tries to live down and it is something which afflicts them all, whether their leaders they are corrupt, honest, clever or foolish.
Where does the Socialist Party of Great Britain stand on this? Do we claim to be able to do a better job than our opponents? To be more competent or more honest? We are, first of all, a political party because the road to socialism must be a political one; it must be through the winning of political power. We do not say we are more trustworthy than the others, only that we have a theory of politics which is valid because it fits in with the facts of society as we experience them. We urge workers to examine this theory and put their trust in themselves and not in leaders’ promises.
Socialists struggle for a social revolution — a majority, democratic, peaceful act by a working class who do not need leaders because they understand socialism and will consciously vote for it. Which leaves us with the question — why, when there is a majority of conscious socialists among the world working class, should they need to vote for socialist delegates to attend Parliament before the revolution can happen?
One short answer is that there is no other way. Under capitalism, Parliament — or Congress, or the Bundestag, or the Diet — is the seat of power. It is Parliament which controls, and wields, the state machine, which is used against those who seek to disrupt or to overthrow capitalism by other than parliamentary means.
For any policy to succeed, then — even a policy which aims at reforming capitalism — the first step must be to capture control of the state machine through Parliament. Socialists aim to do this not in order to push through measures of capitalist reform but to use the state machine in the revolution — in the words of our declaration of Principles as an ‘‘agent of emancipation”.
One essential for this — in fact the only essential which is now lacking — is a majority of conscious socialists. Among the tasks of the Socialist Party, then, is to propagate the ideas of socialism as widely and as deeply as possible among the working class. We must not be diverted into campaigns for anything less than socialism and we must remain exclusively a political organisation, the tool which a socialist working class will use to take the political act of the revolution to establish the new society.
For these reasons, the Socialist Party of Great Britain contests elections. It is unusual for us to put up more than one or two candidates but we do not restrict ourselves in this way through crankishness or because we regard elections as some sort of game. As present we are a tiny organisation, with resources to match our size.
The number of votes cast for socialist candidates usually reflects the level of socialist consciousness but it says nothing about the validity of our case. We shall continue to put the case for socialism before the working class and whenever and wherever we can, we shall point out the real issue at an election — capitalism or socialism — and the real alternative to the corrupt impotence of capitalism’s politics.
Each set we contest, every vote for socialism, is part of the historical process towards a new social order when human beings will stand in equality because they will possess the world in unity.