Letters to the Editors from the October 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
Is socialism practical?
Your principles are excellent but their implementation in the foreseeable future is, I’m afraid, impracticable. May I make two points in this regard?
First, you say that goods will be distributed according to needs. How would that need be assessed? Or would assessment not be necessary because goods would be available in any quantity, at any time, to anybody? If that were the case, then an increased production of goods would be imperative, which raises the question of "to what level?" From which follows the setting of a standard of living throughout the world. The task of satisfying such a high demand would be unimaginable and would surely be impossible at the level of the Western industrial states, or anything like it. What would the people in those countries do when they found that their standard of living was reduced?
My second point concerns the increased production necessary under my first point. We already complain, with every justification, that growth (i.e. increased production) involves ever-increasing pollution. There seems to be no readily available solution of that problem which, surely, your actions would make worse. How would you solve it?
W. F. Whitehead,
In socialism, a society of production for use with free access to the means of life, an individual's needs will be determined by individuals themselves. They are, after all, best placed to do so!
The revolutionary change to socialism will require a majority of workers consciously and democratically deciding that this is in their interest as a class. They will appreciate that plans and preparations need to be made before the change-over from capitalism to socialism to ensure a smooth transition to production for use and free access. Capitalism is run from top to bottom by the working class (the employing class having long ago become economically redundant). As workers we have the knowledge and skills, and have developed the means of production to the level needed for the implementation of socialism. All that is lacking is political consciousness and the determination to win control of the machinery of the state to convert the means of life from private and state ownership to common ownership by the whole of society.
The gathering of information and projections of likely demand for goods and services should present few difficulties. For example, the development of the "bar code” system in retailing could easily be adapted to measure trends and facilitate distribution and to assess likely future needs. The larger the number covered by such estimates the smaller the effects of any sudden or unforeseen fluctuations.
Certainly, it would be one of the first tasks of a socialist society to increase the amount of goods produced to ensure enough for all. You doubt whether this can be achieved. We think your doubts are unjustified. A report by the World Commission on Environment and Development was published in 1987 entitled Our Common Future (the Brundtland report). In it were quoted the UN Industrial Development Organisation estimates that, for the consumption of manufactured goods in developing countries (the "Third World") to be raised to current industrial country levels, world industrial output would have to be increased by 2.6 times. But even under capitalism, with its production restricted to what can be sold at a profit, the output of goods increased by seven times between 1950 and 1987. Freed from the constraints of the profit motive and with the ending of the waste of the world's resources represented by armaments, banking, buying and selling and other such activities, socialism will have little difficulty in producing sufficient wealth to enable the whole of the world's people to live in comfort and decency.
Nor is your fear well-founded that the increased production necessary to do this will result in increasing pollution. Manufacturing industry is already implementing pollution control measures where it pays it to do so. A 1984 OECD survey concluded that expenditure on environmental measures over a period of twenty years had positive effects on the capitalist economy. According to the Brundtland report, "the benefits, including health, property and ecosystem damage avoided . . . have generally exceeded costs”. Clearly we have the knowledge and techniques to avoid environmental pollution—only capitalism's drive for profit prevents their immediate implementation. However, if in socialism it can be demonstrated that a productive process cannot be operated without unacceptable damage to the environment (for example, nuclear fission energy production) then it will have to be abandoned and alternatives developed in its place.
Finally, you ask how would we solve this problem. We do not exist as a political party to try to solve within capitalism the problems that it generates. We exist as a party to be used by the working class to win control of political power for the sole purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism. We cannot by minority, or "vanguard", action do it for you. If you agree with our principles then we invite you to join with us in the urgently necessary task of spreading socialist ideas. Your efforts can then help bring socialism into the "foreseeable future”.
Work and waste
You believe that in a future socialist society work will be shared. Yet no system will be so efficient as to train everyone to master every skill needed to keep a technological society running—it takes a half-lifetime to master only one profession!
Even if it were possible, the laws of the division of labour hold that someone is still going to have to do boring shop floor work and that will mean that they will have a low status. Such inequality can hardly be described as a socialist ideal.
In addition, even you now agree with the opposition to nuclear power. But just as you now believe that it's impossible to have nuclear power without poisonous nuclear waste, so it's impossible to have industry without poisonous industrial waste. De-industrialisation will be an answer to our main solution: the pursuit for human happiness.
The skills necessary for running a highly complex industrial society are collective not individual or personal. It will be for socialist society to choose how far to automate production in order to remove drudgery and danger. If they cannot be eliminated then the danger and drudgery will have to be shared by a society that will understand that the work needs to be done if socialism is to continue functioning effectively. It is in this sense that we say work will be shared. No-one will be expected to do the same repetitive and dangerous work for a lifetime.
We do not envisage socialist society as one in which everyone will have all the skills to do everything ("It's your turn to be the brain surgeon this week, George!"). What we do look forward to is a situation where skills and talents currently trapped and distorted by capitalism are given the opportunity of full and free expression according to personal taste and inclination to do "useful work not useless toil", to use the words of William Morris.
Socialism before anything else will be a society of equals. Status and inequality will be meaningless concepts recalled only as hateful features of class society.
Waste is not inevitable—it is only a by-product of production which cannot be reused profitably and disposed of without incurring a loss.
De-industrialisation is not an option for the human race. Who would wish to do without the means now available to provide comfort and sufficiency for all? At a more prosaic level, would our correspondent wish to have dental treatment in the absence of a pain-killer administered by a hypodermic syringe?