Sunday, June 5, 2016

Why do we become Socialists? (1951)

From the January 1951 issue of the Socialist Standard

It has often been suggested to us by our opponents that socialists constitute a group (though they emphasize it is a microscopic one) apart from the rest of society. The path has been made easy for propagating this idea because it is one of the few points on which they are unanimous. They are all prepared to agree that to work for socialism is out of the question as far as that famous nonentity, the average man-in-the-street is concerned.

Even those among our critics who claim that socialism is their ultimate aim insist that other so-called practical measures must come first These always take the form of actual or proposed alterations to certain unpopular features of the present system, whilst leaving untouched the basis which determines these features.

This economic basis of ownership and control of the means of production by a privileged few, and wage-labour by the majority, defies all the efforts of politicians to abolish poverty, war and other social ills. To the extent that their reformist measures gain misguided support from the working class capitalism is strengthened by virtue of the lack of interest shown in its supersession by socialism.

It must not be thought that we insist upon the understanding of socialism, as a necessary pre-requisite to its establishment, for the sake of being academic or exclusive. If we could have achieved our object by other means we should have adopted them long ago.

We hold that it is just as necessary to show why the ideas and policies of our opponents fail to solve social problems as it is to explain the socialist solution. We do not under-estimate the factors which work against die spread of socialist ideas, but we maintain that these factors arise out of contemporary conditions and lose their potency as the workers become conscious of the source of their troubles. Disregard of this is evidenced by the claim that wage-workers will never agree to work in a society in which no wages are paid.. The fact that they will lose all the disadvantages, such as enforced unemployment, as well as the dubious advantages of the wages system, is completely ignored.

To socialists it is not only the keeping of an idle class in luxury that is irksome about employment. A cogent objection is the large number of unproductive jobs—advertising, insurance, banking, soldiering, in fact every activity which produces nothing useful, and is often positively harmful to mankind.

The only reason for all this is one which is never mentioned except by socialists. It is simply to keep the present system going—to separate the workers as a whole from the products of their labour, to determine their meagre ration of the world’s wealth, and to get them to fight their master's battles over possession of the remainder.

The development of the techniques of production means that an ever-decreasing proportion of the worker's time need be spent in producing and distributing a given amount of wealth. It is reasonable to suppose that there will be an increasing tendency to question the burdensome complexity of life at present. Even assuming that the majority of people were content with their conditions of work the consequences of producing goods which cannot be sold are disastrous. Recurring unemployment and war and perpetual poverty in relation to what they produce is the lot of those who do not live by owning the means of production.

Those members of the working class who are rather less gluttonous for punishment than their fellows are thus impelled to seek the cause of their unhappy condition. Unfortunately most of them find it easier to blame individuals or sets of individuals, such as Stalin or the Jews, probably because scapegoats are easy to hurl abuse at, and relieve outraged feelings.

It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that most of what is said to-day about Stalin is merely a re-hash of what was said about Hitler not so long ago. Similarly the substitution of a gentile for a jewish boss does not make the sack any more acceptable to the worker.

In time all such prejudices will cancel each other out. The idea will be grasped that it is the social system itself, in which the majority acquiesce, that is the root of the trouble. Inseparable from this will be the understanding that new social relations will replace the present capitalist ones.

One of the biggest obstacles to the acceptance of socialist ideas is the under-estimation of the influence of environment on all thoughts and conduct. Most of us, joining the party did not have nearly as clear an understanding of socialism as we have since gained. It may be compared to learning French. More progress can often be made in a week by living in France than in a year by studying textbooks. In the same way, points that present difficulties to those who are accustomed only to contemporary capitalist ideas find the socialist case hard to accept, until mental barriers of prejudice and conservatism are removed.

It is on the whole true to say that the ideas of men evolve slowly, but eventually society is more or less quickly revolutionized. Although the spread of socialist knowledge may appear to be slow, the development of the present world set-up must eventually lead to a point when all other “ practical" cures for our social ills will have been tried and failed.

There are contradictions within capitalism itself which tend to become greater and are not capable of being resolved, except by a fundamental change. The contradiction of poverty in the midst of actual or potential plenty is still with us, despite the efforts of reformist politicians of all parties. Capitalism decrees that the workers receive on average just sufficient to keep them in working order from week to week (or month to month).

Our opponents often point out individual exceptions to it, such as the occasional worker who makes good by thrift or industry. They forget that these comparatively fortunate ones are counterbalanced by some who cannot even afford enough food to keep their families from illness. That a few workers can escape into the capitalist class (the football pools are a “ popular" way) does not make any difference to those who have to continue the struggle along on £5 or £6 a week. The capitalists naturally seek to maintain their dominance and employ members of the working class—journalists, script writers, teachers, to do most of the routine work connected with stuffing the “right” ideas into the workers’ heads. Capitalism not only gives us poverty, but a way of looking at it so that it appears to become, as Mr. Morrison would put it, not-poverty.

Nevertheless many of the false notions of men about past and present society are being displaced by the growth of all branches of scientific knowledge. This must lead to a realisation of the opportunities of a better life opened up, but held back by ignorance of how to achieve it.

To non-socialists there appears to be no practical alternative to capitalism, but it must be emphasised that this is only so because of the acceptance of its institutions by the majority of those outside the socialist parties of the world. These institutions—private property, money, wage-labour, etc.,—are not permanent features of human life. They evolved from other forms such as primitive communism, and chattel slave-labour. There is no reason to doubt that from them will evolve a new set in keeping with the new basis of society, i.e. common ownership of the means of production.

It is up to you at present outside the party to join us in the work of bringing Socialism into being—no special attributes, virtues or sacrifices are necessary.

One thing we would particularly ask of you. Do not make objections to socialism which rest upon projecting present conditions into the future. When we first heard the socialist case most of us looked for all the possible snags. We found that there are none except in the minds of non-socialists, who mostly do not connect the necessity of changing the present system with the solution of their common problems.

We are confident that the failure of all other political parties to make any worthwhile improvement in the condition of the exploited masses will lead the latter to the realisation that the answer—socialism—lies in nobody’s hands but their own. What we, as a party, do is to propagate the knowledge of how it can be brought about. We are certain that man, having come so far since descending from the trees, will continue the conquest of his environment, and will not find the achievement of socialism beyond his powers.
Stan Parker

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