Letters to the Editors from the September 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always held that the widest possible discussion of conflicting views is desirable. In this issue we publish, together with our replies, a number of letters we have received arising out of recent articles in the “Socialist Standard.”
If to wish to oppose capitalism and have it replaced by a society run by and for the workers themselves, without bosses or leaders, is “anarcho-syndicalism”, then Solidarity members will confess to that heinous deviation.
But as a member of North West Solidarity, I must beg your allowance of a reply to certain points made in the article "Listen Anarchist” (Socialist Standard, March 1970).
Firstly, workers management cannot be dismissed by saying that under Socialism, “all work should be entirely voluntary”. So it should, but even then, someone, some group, will have to organise society, plan the economy, run the towns, factories and farms. Our advocation is based on the proposition that the .Socialist-conscious working class, once they want to change society, are capable of establishing a Socialist system and running it without any orders from above. In other words, will run society without leaders, bosses, managers or any Party claiming to speak for them or represent "their interests". “Workers Management" means no more elitism!
Secondly, Solidarity is a democratic organisation of people united on certain basic beliefs. We have no "Party line” or “sacred texts”, so to try to lump us all with accepting the more obvious of Cardans faults is either a mistake due to misunderstanding of what Solidarity is, or a cheap way of scoring points.
Thirdly, to put down learning by experience as "claptrap" is to make the same wild generalisations as those who only believe in it. The relationship between experience and ideas is an ever-changing, dialectical one. in which either can alter the other. The worker’s experience within production, of having to act collectively, of “unofficially” regulating speed and amount of production so as to share out work and equalise wages, is such an experience that can produce Socialist ideas, as collective action and control are “fundamentally Socialist in content". After all, where do ideas conic from, not, as you point out yourselves, from the fresh air! But "can" produce Socialist ideas does not equal must. So our task is to spread Socialist ideas to the workers, ideas that correspond to their experience, ideas contributed as much as possible by workers themselves.
The last point explains why Solidarity mags have contained a lot of material on “strikes and other activities”, because these are workers’ activities, and we do believe workers should be able to read the truth about strikes and other anti-boss activities. However if any of your readers would like to buy a copy of North West Solidarity, they’ll find that it does cover more than strikes. If they do, they can get it from: Secretary. 96 Doveleys Road, Salford, 6. Lancs.
Paul A. Harris.
“Workers Management", as Paul Harris describes it here, does not seem to mean much different from what we understand by “democratic control" in our definition of Socialism as a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interests of the whole community. If he only means that, on the basis of common ownership (and the consequent abolition of the wages system, money and buying and selling), free men and women will democratically manage their social affairs including work, then our only objection would be to his choice of words. The word “workers” would be inappropriate since, with common ownership, the working class as well as the capitalist class would have disappeared.
We must say, however, that we had always thought Solidarity to mean something different by this phrase, namely, that a committee elected by the workers should take over the functions (including discipline, fixing wage rates, hiring and firing, price policies) now exercised by managers appointed either by the shareholders or by the government. But, as long as there is production for the market, it will be competition that determines how a factory is run whether the decisions are made by capitalist owners or by a manager he appoints or by an elected workers’ council. It was because we had always thought that Solidarity accepted the continued existence, though maybe temporary, of the wages system (“equal wages”) and production for the market that we said that their "workers management” was “in no way incompatible with capitalist exploitation”. We will stand by this until Paul Harris tells us he accepts our proposition that, on the basis of common ownership, wages and money can be abolished immediately.
We are glad we are not alone in seeing Cardan’s more obvious faults.
What we meant by “‘earning by experience’ claptrap” was, as explained earlier in the article, the view that workers can only learn the futility of reformism or the limitations of trade unionism by their own personal experience. We pointed out that by far the greater part of what people knew came from being taught the experiences of others. Of course, strictly speaking this learning is also experience — but this would not be accepted by the school of thought we were criticizing.
There is enough evidence now, and has been for many years, that only Socialism is the solution to working class problems. The task of a Socialist party is to see that hearing or reading the Socialist case is part of workers’ experience. Hence the vital importance of Socialist propaganda, of spreading Socialist ideas. In fact the ideas set out in our own declaration of principles (that this is a class society, that there is a class struggle, that this can only be ended by conscious majority political action, that a socialist party must be opposed to all other parties) are drawn from the experience of the working class under capitalism.
We must say, however, that Paul Harris’ list of the kind of experience that can, with Socialist propaganda (an important concession on his part to our point of view), lead to Socialist understanding is a bit limited. It is not just experience of factory life (after all many workers do not work in factories), but of generally having to live on a wage or salary and all the problems which lack of money brings in housing, education, health, transport and the rest. It is their general social experience, rather than their narrow experience at the point of production, that can lead workers to Socialist understanding on hearing the Socialist case.
Those who think we might have Solidarity’s position wrong should buy Paul Harris’ magazine and find out for themselves.
The March 1970 Socialist Standard deals with Solidarity and Paul Cardan in an article entitled “Listen Anarchist!” Since my own beliefs have been rather similar to yours for years and now tend to approximate Solidarity’s much more closely, I read the article with interest. Unfortunately, when a group makes “some advances in understanding and on a number of issues (comes) round to views pioneered by” you, as you so patronizingly put it, you seem to exhibit great hostility and defensiveness. An attitude of empathy and open-minded evaluation would seem to be more useful, particularly in the ease of Solidarity which has evidently gone through a period of careful re-examination and whose works exhibit considerable scholarship. They have predicted that they would be attacked as anarchists by Marxists and as Marxists by anarchists. You seem to have fulfilled your half of the prophecy a little too readily.
Much of your critique consists of setting up straw men by exaggerating stated positions and then demolishing them. For example, Cardan criticizes “Marxists” who revise Marx “at their convenience.” You then ignore the clause “at their convenience” and state that Cardan claims that it is wrong to amend a theory. You follow this by satirical remarks re heinous crimes and fiendish tricks. When Solidarity rejects the propagandists approach of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (your wholly educational technique without participation), you make the irrelevant remark that Solidarity and the SPGB are equally concerned with propaganda, “but its propaganda consists overwhelmingly of reports on strikes and other activities (other activities!, a charge that could be levelled against National Geographic magazine), whereas ours consists of posing an alternative form of society and explaining how it can be achieved.” Actually both Solidarity and the SPGB report on “strikes and other activities” although there are deferences on emphasis (and analysis), and both pose an alternative form of society. The real difference is that Solidarity does offer a plausible mechanism for achieving socialism where you rely essentially on pure education although no historic examples of the successful unaided use of this approach exist. Your penchant for exaggerating an opponent’s position shows up in your reference to the “ ‘learning by experience’ clap-trap.” The SPGB of course must feel that experience in the class struggle will cause the workers to give credence to a socialist programme unless it takes the incredible view that unaided SPGB propaganda alone will turn the trick. That Solidarity doesn’t really believe that “learning by experience" is the whole answer is shown first by its existence and second by such statements as, “Many French workers who lived through the events of 1936 are still alive. But how many of them today draw the same lesson from that experience as would a revolutionary organization?” (Cardan, Modern Capitalism and Revolution.)
Mere exaggeration cannot condone your fantastic allegation that the “workers management” programme for socialism “is in no way incompatible with Capitalist exploitation." "Workers Management” means the total participation and control by the people in the making of all decisions regarding production and other areas of life affecting their common interests. This programme specifically rejects hierarchical and leadership concepts. Your statement “that in terms of genuine human freedom, how work is managed is a side issue” represents a serious blind spot. Any form of coercion in production (or elsewhere), or division of the producers into order-takers and order-givers is obviously wholly antithetical to human freedom, and the workers ought to start thinking about it now and not after the revolution. The picture that could be drawn (hopefully unintended) from your remark here, is that socialist production could consist of “voluntary” producers operating without knowledge of or control over orders sent down from socialist bureaucrats belonging to some parliament which has been taken over by socialist ballot.
I am not a member of Solidarity and have no authority to speak officially on their behalf. However, their influence is growing here as well as in Britain and any serious attempt at refutation is going to require a much greater knowledge and much more serious analysis of their views than was demonstrated in your article.
member, Socialist Committee of Correspondence
Most of the points Benson Perry raises have been covered in the previous reply to Paul Harris. So we will here spell out in more detail our own position.
The idea of Socialism as a solution to working class problems arises out of capitalism partly because it is the solution and partly because people’s experience of capitalism teaches them that it is. The role of a socialist party, at the present time, is to put socialist ideas before the working class to ensure that hearing the socialist ease is a part of their experience. This is our participation, as a party, in the class struggle. Later the socialist party will be the instrument which the working class can use to win power for Socialism and will disappear as soon as Socialism has been established.
Members of the Socialist Party, as workers, are engaged in the day-to-day struggle to live under capitalism. They could not avoid this even if they wanted to. In so far as this struggle is organised our members are active mainly in the trade unions but also in unofficial workers committees, tenants associations and students unions. The real difference between us and organisations like Solidarity is how we assess this day-to-day struggle. We see it as having the practical aim of protecting workers’ living and working conditions under capitalism. The effectiveness of this struggle, we might add, is limited not only by the economic workings of capitalism but also by the ideas of the workers involved (which is why the spread of socialist ideas, in which we are engaged, helps the day-to-day struggle). Solidarity, on the other hand, sees these struggles as “fundamentally socialist in content”. This we deny. The only struggle that warrants this description is the conscious political struggle for Socialism.
We also say that it is not the task of a socialist party to propose reforms of capitalism. In this way we avoid attracting the support of non-socialists and so being turned into a reformist party.
Finally, a word on management. Under capitalism production is not just a technical question; it is also a question of exploitation. Thus, in varying proportions, a manager’s function is partly technical and partly disciplinary (“order-giving”, as Benson Perry puts it). In socialist society production will just be a technical question; there will be no “discipline”. Work will be voluntary and democratically-controlled — though of course we cannot now give a blueprint of the way this will be done.
The division between “order-givers” and “order-takers” arises out of the capitalist exploitation of the workers through the wages system. This is why genuine democratic control of work demands the abolition of the market and working for wages. To retain these is to retain the same economic pressures on the workers even if exercised through a workers’ management committee rather than a capitalist-appointed manager. We throw out the same challenge to Benson Perry as to Paul Harris: Does he accept our proposition that, on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, wages and money can be abolished immediately?