January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
"Socialism's all very well but . . . we've got to start somewhere . . . it's idealistic . . . you can't run before you can walk . . . "
Ever said that? Ever felt like that? Most people do when faced with the arguments for a moneyless, wageless society. They agree completely but still feel that there is something more immediate to do.
It's fairly understandable really. It's an attitude we learn every week on the TV, when Sir Robin Day manages to get his guests through 17 different world events, conflicts and social problems in the space of 60 minutes. Or breakfast telly devotes up to three minutes to Jimmy Greaves' views on thermonuclear war. And every week brings some government spokesperson presenting a new sure-fire solution to what is usually a very old problem. Unemployment? That's easy set up a programme called JobClub! or JobStart! or JobTrain! or TrainStart!, or something like that. Then spend more on full-page ads than you do on the scheme itself, and quietly issue the results of the scheme on a bank holiday or whenever the next royal baby is due.
Or what about a new problem, like AIDS? What's the blinkered response of the politicians to that? Wake up Lord Whitelaw in the House of Lords, tell him how to spell AIDS, and what it is, and get him to head a committee to look into it.
But take a step back from the day-to-day catalogue of initiatives and schemes, of campaigns and committees, to ask the simple question, does it work? The answer can only be no; the same problems remain every year and return every election. And with them come some new ones—AIDS, drug abuse, and so on. Capitalism produces problems as quick as the legislators or campaigners can solve them. The simple point that must be grasped is that the vast majority of social problems have a common cause in capitalism. So if you say "Socialism is fine but it must wait, then be aware of exactly what you are saying. Can you really say that unemployment is just an unfortunate blight on society, or is there a reason why capitalism cannot avoid the dole queues? Is it enough, for example, to condemn heroin as "evil", or is there a reason why people should seek to escape from reality?
To all these problems, socialism (which means the replacement of capitalism by a system of common ownership and democratic control) is a far more relevant and immediate solution than any attempt to keep capitalism but without the nasty bits.
But then, isn't there one issue that overrides everything: "I want socialism but we've got to get rid of the Bomb first . . . " Well, what is being done at the moment to solve this particular and particularly pressing problem: in the last few months thousands of people got together to Link Arms Across Scotland; people around the world donated a Million Minutes of Peace to thinking about peace (as if if we all clap our hands loud enough then Tinkerbell might live); the Pope invited a variety of religious leaders round for a really big pray-in and an appeal for one day of ceasefire (which lasted until lunch-time in Ulster and breakfast-time in Beirut); and Billy Bragg got himself arrested for cutting some fence around an American base (the things people will do to plug a new album).
Meanwhile of course, those supporters of multilateral "disarmament" met in another plush hotel, this time in Reykjavik, where they almost reached agreement on whether to hold another summit. So a lot has been done, there can be no doubt about that. But what has been achieved? Another month of demonstrations that may make the demonstrators feel they are doing something. Another month of Terry Waite flying in. And another month of more warheads being stockpiled while even more destruction is being designed on the drawing-board.
Just because nuclear weapons are the most obvious and most horrific problem that most of us face, does not remove their rationale inside capitalism, it doesn't mean that capitalism suddenly doesn't need them and we need only wish them away. Only a sane society can guarantee freedom from the threat of war.
In socialism, there would be no need for weapons of destruction, because a society based on production for use must remove the conflicts over resources and markets that is inherent within capitalism, whether it's the fishing areas around the Falklands. or the Kharg Island oil terminal. Removing the weapons of war is more than just a question of taking the toys from the boys or banning the bomb, but of denying to the small minority—whose interests weapons are there to defend—the position of having separate interests.
With socialism, the world will no longer be split up into countries, states, super powers, blocs or pacts. Instead we will have to democratically organise around the world to use the earth's resources to produce for the population s needs, and not for markets or economic quotas.
It can be tempting to get caught up in the demos and the marches as an alternative to actually getting anywhere. But just think of all the battles workers have fought this century already — and for what? For the very same things that reformism is still demanding. The only difference now is that the weapons are even more horrific.
So the argument that "socialism is a fine ideal but we must do something now" presents a false choice between socialism and doing something now. The real option is to do something now—buying this paper, selling this paper, joining us—for socialism.