From the July 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Occasionally we are told: yes, socialism is a great idea, I go along with your critique of capitalism, but sorry. Can’t join you. The problems we face today are just too compelling, too urgent to be ignored. Let’s tackle these first. Then we can get round to establishing socialism. If we don’t, if we allow them to overwhelm us, this could rule out your socialist alternative altogether. How for instance could it take root in the barren landscape of a world devastated by the bomb?
Such a response is at least understandable: who could doubt the gravity of the problems around us? Regrettably however, and without imputing dishonesty to our sympathiser, it does not convey acceptance of our “critique of capitalism". In a nutshell, that critique yields the conclusion that the reformist approach to politics, however sincere, however well-intentioned, is doomed to failure.
What is reformism? Quite simply, political action designed to alleviate specific social problems arising within the framework of the capitalist system which thus precludes the revolutionary aim of abolishing capitalism. These problems, we argue, are a direct manifestation of the way the system operates and has to operate. They are an essential by-product of its economic conflicts, its remorseless search for profit necessarily at the majority’s expense. They will not disappear until the system itself, of which they are an organic part, has been scrapped by making the means of producing and distributing wealth the common property of everyone in society. It means therefore ending the exchange relationships of buyer and seller with their conflicting interests, in social affairs. As an attempt to doctor the symptoms of the disease while keeping intact its cause, reformism has all the efficacy of a band-aid covering a malignant growth.
To postpone socialism because certain problems present themselves which we should “in the meantime” try to resolve, not only contradicts all this. It makes the vital task of socialist propaganda that much more difficult. It implies that such problems can be solved within capitalism, that they do not derive from the capitalist basis of society.
War, for example, is seen perhaps as an act of god or some perverse politician aping the genuine article; pollution as a product of the malicious desires of greedy manufacturers. Neither is seen as the direct outcome of the competitive pressures capitalism exerts on both politician and manufacturer alike, constraining them to act in the way they do or removing them if they don’t. As Margaret Thatcher rightly observed, there is no political capital to be gained from a poor record in office. Politicians competing for votes would give the voters all they wished to remain in power—if they could. They fail to do so in spite of, not because of, their efforts.
Further, to propose action “in the meantime” to remedy such problems as war, poverty and social strife, is to invite us to believe the incredible: that these had mushroomed into existence just yesterday, or alternatively that nothing had ever been done “in the meantime” about them. On the contrary, it is precisely because such problems have survived all manner of attempted remedies throughout capitalism’s history, that the futility of reformism is evident. And it is precisely because of this that the need for socialism is specially urgent, in this age of potential plenty, in which the technology and productive powers at our disposal have long outgrown the social relationships that have brought them to this point and now work to straitjacket them. Socialism then must entail an unequivocal rejection of reformism for all its will-o’-the-wisp attractions. It must entail an awareness that the divergent aims of reform and revolution cannot be harmonised, that one cannot at the same time help patch up and perpetuate the very system one intends to overthrow.
This is where our sympathiser goes wrong. He does not grasp that to see socialism as an ultimate and long term aim pending the solution of existing social problems is in effect to forsake it altogether: capitalism will never present the opportunity to convert that ultimate aim into something immediate. Still less does he appreciate that propaganda for socialism can extract from capitalism, within the limits possible, more than any amount of reformist agitation.
There is a saying in socialist circles which sums this up: if you want more crumbs from the capitalist table then organise to take over the bakery. As socialism draws nearer the pressure on capitalist parties to contain by bribery the growth of socialist consciousness will correspondingly increase. Given this growth, the effectiveness of trade unions would be enhanced. The ability of workers to improve their lot depends on the respective strengths of the combatants in the class struggle. To the extent that more workers become socialist their collective strength will grow, through greater class unity and a knowledge of capitalism. Trade unions that now display their political ignorance of the role and nature of the Labour Party by affiliating to it, allowing that party when in power to exploit this tie in the course of demanding further sacrifices from workers in the interests of profit, will sever completely all such connections.
But this does not exhaust the matter. Obviously, socialists do not put forward their ideas in a vacuum but in a political environment already charged with prejudice. Resistance to socialist propaganda is not something innate but is conditioned by that environment. To the extent that socialist ideas penetrate popular consciousness, the efficacy of capitalist conditioning must weaken and so also must resistance to those ideas. Capitalist and socialist ideas rooted in the opposing interests of the capitalist and working class are fundamentally opposed: the one can only prosper to the detriment of the other.
Let us see what this means in more concrete terms. The purpose of capitalist ideology is to persuade workers to identify with ruling class interests. This is the function of capitalist ideology—to distort social reality, to draw a smokescreen over the basic class cleavage of society; rather than to get workers to see themselves as a class united by common interests against their exploiters.
Thus phoney classes are invented like lower middle or upper lower based upon some specious difference of occupation, dress or speech. Even in jest, the mock “Battle of the Sexes" has a serious underlying intention—the age old tactic of divide and rule. Workers with a darker skin are held to be the cause of problems from housing shortages to unemployment, against whom white workers vent their frustration.
If racism, sexism and nationalism serve the interests of capitalism by setting worker against worker, then only socialist propaganda with its appeal to class unity can effectively combat them. It alone unmasks the myths they feed on, reveals their hidden motive and attacks them at their source. Socialism, to paraphrase Aneurin Bevin, is the sword pointed at the heart of capitalist ideology.
There are those who, despite their sympathy, refrain from joining the struggle for socialism because of the urgency, as they see it, of warding off the dreaded prospect of nuclear war. Like those who join such organisations as the ANL to fight racism—or rather, racists—their viewpoint is a mistaken one. Firstly, their concern is doomed because it is confined to the effects of the problem and not its cause. Secondly, because of the incorrect assumption that since socialists have only socialism as their objective, they cannot have any impact on the issue of war.
This matter merits closer examination in view of the recent upsurge of interest in the CND. Not that we wish to deprecate the concern members of CND express—which indeed, we share. But they should be asked to explain some simple facts.
One fact is that there is hardly a political leader—the people CND urge us to put pressure on to disarm—who has not declared themselves earnestly in favour of world peace. Indeed, organisations like the UN have been set up with that as an ostensible aim while its member states busily thrust daggers into one another. Literally hundreds of disarmament talks have been held down the decades but to no end. The slaughter continues and with it, the unabated accumulation of increasing destructive weaponry.
Another fact is the CND itself, now rising phoenix-like from the ashes of its recent past. Once an organisation that claimed at its peak the support of hundreds of thousands, it plummeted towards virtual extinction. But the very fact that mass support—which we are now urged to rebuild—was achieved only to result in abysmal failure is cause for suspicion. If it is not for any lack of support that CND failed it must follow that their approach is fundamentally wrong.
War is the result of the economic rivalries inherent in capitalism. Certainly, very little can be done about the developments in capitalism that lead to war: the contraction of markets, conflict over resources and so on. But wars don’t just happen out of the blue. They depend for their successful prosecution on a considerable measure of support among the population. To this end governments are able to contribute, through their propaganda machines, to a sustained build-up of a war frenzy by skilfully and systematically exploiting the nationalist sentiments of their subjects.
Socialist propaganda can blunt any such build-up. Indeed only it can do this to any effect for it alone can answer the nationalist justification that wars require. When it came to the crunch, many who left the CND in the sixties went on to join the Vietnam Solidarity campaign in support of Vietcong nationalism. Their interpretation of war being founded on the shifting sands of moralistic idealism, it is not surprising they so easily abandoned their anti-war sentiments to support a “just” war.
Paradoxically, it is the Socialist Party of Great Britain, refusing to lend its support to the great anti-war, anti-bomb campaigns of this century, that has stood out consistently against all wars, declaring them not to be worth the shedding of a single drop of working class blood. Socialist opposition to nationalism and capitalist butchery is anchored firmly to a coherent analysis of society. Workers have no country in the possessive sense and therefore none to die for; a small minority of the population own the means of life, throughout the world. It is in the interests of competing groups within that minority that wars are fought. Whoever wins, it is the workers—who die in the battlefields—who lose on the shop- floors.
The CND failed in spite of its mass support. That could only mean, we said, that its views are mistaken. The socialist movement has achieved nowhere near the same support so far. But it is something altogether different that we ask you to consider. We are out in the cold now but just as the fire grows by the addition of twigs so our movement can become a conflagration.