Monday, September 5, 2016

Socialist understanding is the key (1980)

From the June 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

It cannot be stressed enough, that without a widespread and clear idea among workers of what a socialist society entails, it will he unattainable. The reason is simple. The very nature of socialism—a moneyless, wageless world of unrestricted access to the goods and services provided by voluntary cooperative effort—necessitates understanding. There is absolutely no way in which such a sweeping fundamental transformation of social relationships could be thrust upon an unwilling, unknowing majority by some minority, however enlightened or well meaning.

In the first place such a minority would not have the power to do this against the might of the state, which is at present directed towards securing the continuation and the smooth and orderly functioning of capitalism in one form or another. The point to note though is that the state is able to do this because of the active or passive consent of the overwhelming majority. Being imbued with a capitalist ideology this majority continues to elect capitalist parties to power or, in places like Russia, to acquiesce in state capitalist dictatorship. Only by supplanting this capitalist ideology with a socialist outlook can majority support be gained to accomplish the necessary act of capturing state power to ensure that it cannot be used against the socialist transformation of society.

Secondly and most importantly, even if it were possible for a socialist minority to capture power, the majority would still need to participate in the complex process of modem socialised production, which has given rise to the possibility of socialism and which socialism will inherit. In socialism individuals would not be compelled to cooperate through the economic coercion of a wages system or the political tyranny of a state. It would not be socialism otherwise. How then could individuals be persuaded to participate in running a socialist society?

The answer is that people would have to want to do this in the first place out of “enlightened self interest”, in basic harmony with the interests of society as a whole and recognised as such. This means that people would have to know why socialism was in their own best interest and for that they would need to know what socialism was.

But given that for socialism to work people would have to cooperate it seems reasonable to suppose that the self-interest which drove them to establish socialism would compel them to participate in the required manner. Cooperative behaviour would spring from the realisation of self interest made one with social interests by the conversion of the means of production into the common property of all.

In practical terms this means people will need to know that with free access to the abundance of wealth modern industry could so easily provide (a potential imprisoned within the structure of the capitalist market economy) there will be no need to take more than they require which would, indeed, bring about social chaos.

Furthermore, to satisfy their needs in socialism they themselves will have to produce the things they require. They will assume a sense of creative responsibility; they will sited the slave mentality that craves the direction of leaders, a mentality that is reinforced by the insidious notion perpetrated by the left, of a “vanguard party” to lead the workers. That such a reactionary notion can have no place in the socialist revolution (though it certainly did in the case of capitalist revolutions such as the Bolshevik bourgeois revolution of 1917 which still provides inspiration for many leftists) was pointed out by Frederick Engels:
The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. (1895 Introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France)
Having argued that majority understanding of socialism is indispensable to its establishment let us see how this may be brought about. One suggestion put forward by those who pay lip service to socialism is that it can be achieved through “raising consciousness" by a more rigorous prosecution of the day to day struggles of the workers.

The absurdity of this notion is apparent when we take a look at the very people who propound it—organisations like the “Socialist Workers Party” These are the people who presumably have had their “consciousness raised” and who therefore know how it is done—yet where are the indications that they know what socialism means? Certainly there is nothing in their literature in between the endless procession of pictures of banner bearing demos and inch-high expletives about “stuffing” this or “smashing” that. If anything it is more concerned with striking postures than conveying understanding, with sensationalism rather than socialism, moralism rather than Marxism.

Romantic militants
What these romantic militants want is not socialism but more of the same struggle, whereby they supposedly had their “consciousness raised", on the pretext that it leads somewhere. As they don’t want socialism they cannot possibly want to do away with capitalism. True the occasional reference is made to “smashing capitalism” but “capitalism" in this context is just a vague pigeonhole within which to deposit blame for social problems without need for further explanation. The correct analysis of the root cause of those social problems (capitalism) and their solution (socialism) are mutually interdependent. You cannot have one without the other and the left have neither.

If they did understand what capitalism was about, the left would not waste their time advancing daft ideas about “advocating policies beneficial to working people" (Socialist Worker 21.4.79) within a system which cannot possibly be run in the interests of "working people". Instead of dissipating their energies grappling with all the manifest absurdities and injustices thrown up by capitalism, they would concentrate on exposing that system as the cause of poverty, strife, pollution, racism. It is not possible to agitate for reforms which can only work to perpetuate the system, and at the same time claim to want to abolish it. By advocating reforms, the left imply the problems concerned are capable of solution within capitalism—a direct contradiction of the socialist view. The sterile prospect the left hold out is of struggle for its own sake, a vicious circle, for all they have "learnt from struggle" is that they must struggle in order to learn from it.

But let there be no misunderstanding on this score. The need to struggle in the industrial field is created by the antagonistic class interests inherent in capitalism. Nevertheless the purpose of a socialist cannot be to prolong this struggle but to bring it to a speedy end through political action. Our concern is not whether workers “learn from struggle" but what they learn and what use they put this knowledge to in the political field, where the decisive act in the emancipation of the working class will occur. Encouraging a hopelessly optimistic faith in the efficacy of industrial struggle cannot aid an understanding of capitalism. To the extent that it is shattered against the enduring reality of capitalism's economic laws, the outcome is more often than not one of despair, disillusionment and distrust for those who foster such a faith. Trade union activity is essentially defensive and limited as is explained in Marx's Value, Price and Profit.

The argument that “socialist understanding" develops out of class struggle is true enough. However the left then behave as if class struggle was something they conceived in their minds and they therefore feel obliged to go out into the world and initiate it. The idea of class struggle derives from the demonstrable fact that it exists irrespective of the knowledge or wishes of its participants. It exists because of the way society is at present organised into two classes whose interests are antagonistic. The need, then, is not to initiate it but to clarify it.

How then do socialists propose to bring about the understanding necessary for socialism? From what has been said we can identify at least two principles that define the work of a socialist party and are readily apparent in the way the Socialist Party of Great Britain conducts its propaganda. The first is total opposition to reformism because of its fundamental incompatibility with revolution. The second is to clarify, to directly transmit or embody in propaganda, what is meant by socialism. This should not be done in isolation but rather as an integral part of a coherent and comprehensive analysis of the world we live in. Analysis without a solution would be as sterile as a solution without the supporting analysis.

Shared experience
An understanding of socialism will not come by the spontaneous and automatic blossoming of this knowledge in the bosoms of millions of isolated workers. Feudal peasants could not effect a revolution in their own interests because the material conditions of their existence tended to "atomise” them, whereas capitalism, by bringing workers together in production, compelling them to organise and combine in trade unions, has willy-nilly brought into existence its own grave-digger. Mass socialist consciousness will develop out of the common experiences of workers and the interaction of ideas drawn from those experiences and through unity on the basis of socialist knowledge.

This means the growth of socialist parties around the world, armed with the strength that comes from unity, able to meet and vanquish the divisive ideology of capitalism by clearing away the smokescreen it creates between the worker and the recognition of his real real interests.

Already several such parties exist around the world but our effectiveness is limited. The spread of socialist knowledge will add to our effectiveness so that eventually we shall be able to break through the vicious circle that tends to keep us small simply because we are small. Indeed it is precisely because we are small that there is a greater significance in joining us now, rather than when we are numbered by tens of thousands.

Unlike the labour Party we do not solicit any support other than that of genuine socialists. It may keep us small but it has kept us socialist. That is the reason for what might on the face of it seem to some as an almost perverse and quixotic form of behaviour in resolutely refusing to place popularity before principles. That is why we screen applicants for membership just to ensure that they basically understand what we are about. This ties in with our opposition to the principle of leadership: leaders, in order to lead, have first to be accepted by those whom they wish to lead and that means getting support for the wrong reasons, pandering, and thus being ensnared by, the reformist aspirations of the majority. "The movement . . . will be shaped by the people it has tried to assimilate and not the people by the movement”. (On Spontaneity and organisation. M. Bookchin).

A favoured tactic of the left is that you should do the opposite of what you say you want, which means getting support for the wrong reasons. What this abandonment of principles is supposed to bring about is the gradual acceptance of your point of view by inviting people—urging them, in fact — to ram their heads firmly against a brick wall with consequences of which you were presumably aware. Thus you say, if you are in the SWP, “vote Labour" to workers and, sensing their reluctance, add a little incentive such as "W'ell at least they are not as bad as the Tories”. One can only wonder at the strange mental process whereby hatred for the brick wall is to be converted into faith in the conman who spurred you on to rush headlong into it.

Socialists see no merit at all in having working class heads rammed against brick walls. What we need is a class conscious working class, not a concussed one. It is the power of knowledge that is the weapon the working class must forge; for example, knowing the severe limitations within which trade unions work is not a weakness or an admission of defeat but a source of strength allowing workers to struggle to greatest effect within those limitations. Likewise socialist understanding is the most effective means to combat racism, nationalism and sexism. As a systematic attack upon the ideological props of capitalism, it is not only the key to the future but also a guide to practical struggle and the transformation of the social outlook.
Robin Cox

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