Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Future of Leisure (1953)

From the July 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

The phrase “working for a living” suggests a distinction between working and living which most people accept. But if “working occupies five or six days a week and fifty weeks a year, how much “living” is left?

That was the challenging question put to readers of the “Radio Times” some little while ago, in describing a programme on “What is Work?” The question is of particular interest to socialists, who advocate a form of society in which such a distinction between working and living (or the division of living into work and leisure) will no longer be recognised.

The present division which exists for most people between their work and their leisure is the product of historical conditions. Probably the concept of leisure as something apart from and opposed to work was unknown in societies in which there was no privileged class. Some primitive people have no word for “work”—work is for them the expression of living. And even the class-divided Greek civilisation evolved no separate word for leisure—the word they used also meant “school.”

The handicraftsman and artisan received a certain satisfaction from the work they did. They made whole articles, and used their skill and inventiveness to overcome the difficulties which arose. They were really educated by their labour. But the manufacturing division of labour under Capitalism has changed all that. A large proportion of workers are relegated to monotonous machine-minding and office routine, and few are able to gain real satisfaction from their work.

Even those who do make things that are useful to people often do not gain the pleasure of a good job well done, because of the tyranny of clocking-in, speeding-up, and down-to-a-price quality of products. Capitalist and worker alike are dominated by the need to compete successfully with others, since failure means an end to their “living"—yet success is bought only at the price of orienting one's life to goals that are trivial and artificial instead of basic and real.

Leisure Class
The emergence of a class in society that is not compelled to participate in production coincided with the beginning of private ownership. A leisure class was the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, some being considered worthy (“exploit” by the males) and other unworthy (drudgery by the females).
“During the predatory culture labour comes to be associated in men’s habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority and, therefore, comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. By virtue of this tradition labour is felt to be debasing, and this tradition has never died out. . . .  In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence. . . . A life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength and, therefore, of superior force; provided always that the gentleman of leisure can live in manifest ease and comfort.”—(“The Theory of the Leisure ClassVeblen, p. 36-8.)
Yet the fact remains that work is the foundation of any society. Hence, the value of work to society should be its prime consideration. But because, within property society, the dominating ideas arise from people who need not toil, and because a substitute for satisfaction from work must be found for millions who know it only as an evil necessity, leisure becomes the supreme goal.

Employment is a necessity imposed upon all but a privileged few. Consequently there comes to be a divergence between the conditions of working “for a living” and the kind of life which is held out by supporters of the system as desirable. The message preached is that the end of life is idleness and enjoyment. But workers, having absorbed the message, must return to the factory or office to earn the money without which they cannot live.

Machinery of Amusement
The means of mass influence—press, cinema, radio and television—all focus attention on those aspects of our lives that have nothing to do with everyday tasks. People figure in the “news” who are notable only for having money and time to spend. The constant display of wealth and leisure as desirable ends influences the standards of those who seek an outlet to express themselves which the conditions of their work deny them.

Various factors have combined to oust the old family-gathering type of popular leisure—doing has given way to watching and listening. Probably the Victorian party-piece was not as happily endured as many would have us believe, nor is the advent of television the unmitigated evil that some suppose. Nevertheless, leisure has largely taken on the form of a commodity that is passively consumed rather than an experience that is actively enjoyed. As Henry Durant writes in “The Problem of Leisure":
“All forms of leisure have become commercialised, endless devices are offered to the idle person, each to be enjoyed only on condition that he has money to pay. Without money he is condemned, unable to share in the pleasure and pastimes which press on him from all sides. But commercialisation does not merely erect a gate through which only those with the necessary fee can pass. It has a profound effect also on the nature of the fare offered. The ’machinery of amusement’ is run by business men actuated by business motives. Their concern is not primarily with the character of the entertainment or amusement they provide, for it is merely the means to the end of making profits.”
The ways in which leisure is spent are unavoidably influenced by the prevailing conditions of employment. Take, for example, the workers on a belt system in a factory who, in the course of their work, use only a small part of their brain capacity and nervous system. To stave off monotony their off-duty hours are mostly spent in such feverish pleasures as speedway and the more hectic forms of dancing—and their nervous systems inevitably suffer.

When work lacks interest it is either forgotten altogether on “knocking off ” or else it is the subject of grumbling. It is not complimentary to be told that you can never forget your work; and those who do take their socially useless work seriously often develop boring personalities and have few interests outside their daily occupations.

Here we can do no more than touch upon the various ways in which people search today for something different, something outside of their own drab existence. The cinema is an obvious example that springs to mind, but there are others that are not so often considered. All the preparations, the plans, the excitements and the ballyhoo that surrounded the recent Coronation surely demonstrate the emptiness of most people's everyday lives. And what of the weekly football pool coupon that excites study and comment out of all proportion to its importance? The punters are members of a Happy Circle, so they are told—and the atmosphere of mock geniality is shattered only when a court action is brought over winnings. Then it is admitted that the “Happy Circle" is just an advertising circular.

Some imagine that the socialist revolution either will or ought to bring a state of affairs where all will spend their leisure as the wealthy do now. Certainly the atmosphere in which they move is one to which the adjective “drab" hardly applies. Yet if you ask those who minister to the “needs" of the élite whether the latter really have the control over their environment that is the mark of free men, then the answer may surprise you. According to one writer, for instance, the rich take up gambling more or less because they are driven to it—they find they are “out of it" unless they join in roulette or whatever happens to be in vogue. And so they drift from one aimless diversion to another . . .

Whilst the first onset of mechanisation has taken all the joy from work, it may be predicted that its final result will be to return to human activities a freedom that is absent today. Man will then possess the machines and use them selectively, thus restoring dignity to all human occupations. Labour, in Marx's words, will be not merely a means to live, but itself the primary necessity of life.
Stan Parker

A Letter From Ireland (1949)

From the January 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our "Friend from Across the Water” (as the Otoe, Indian tribe of "native Americans" rechristened Eamon De Valera, during his recent tour of the U.S.) has indeed been at all times only too anxious to prove himself a “friend in need, a friend indeed” for the industrial-capitalist class of Eire. And now he’s off again, campaigning against the Partition of Ireland, but still in the service of his same old masters. This man who, as you well know, is boosted as the indefatigable opponent of everything anti-Republican in Ireland; this man who resolutely stood out against the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921 and, when all else failed, took “arms against a sea of troubles” ; this man who tenaciously stuck to his guns and his Republican principles—this man is actually non-existent, he’s a figment of the imagination.

Wasn’t it “Dev." who declared fearlessly at Newry, "north of the border,’’ in 1918, that he was “ready to blast the North out of his path”? And, again, in 1919, to an American newspaper correspondent:
“If the Paris Conference fails to take steps to extend self-determination to Ireland, violence will he the only alternative left to Irish patriots. This will mean something like continued revolution until Ireland’s rights are recognised.” (Times, London, March 13th, 1919.)
"Fighting words," you say? Perhaps. Though let me remind you that those were “fighting days.” However, let’s skip, for the moment, all that happened afterwards and come to the year 1946. In that year, in our parliament, “An Dail,” a certain man made a speech. Among other things, he said:
“The Border can only be done away with when the majority in the North decide of their own free will to come in and join us, without any coercion or compulsion whatever, and if any coercion or compulsion was used to bring them in I would he the first to oppose it.”
Yes, it was—" Dev.” When you’re in, you’re in; when you’re out, it’s another story. See? And now that “Dev’s.” out he’s been telling another story—the Newry story. To an audience in Chicago during his recent American tour, he said:
“If we get assistance the day will not be far off when we will have not twenty-six counties (Eire) but thirty-two.” (Press, March 21st, 1948.)
Now I ask you—can you beat it?

For sixteen years, remember, he wielded the power of a continental political dictator—he commanded the whole forces of the Irish State—and for sixteen years this great man, who was destined (“they’’ said) to fulfill the "1916 dream" of Irish Republicans, sat on his backside and lifted not a finger to bring any nearer that “glorious day.” What a man ! And what a game !

And now, in Britain, no less than the U.S. and Ireland, he’s once more donned the cloak of the Irish Republican Moses, and is rearing to storm the Stormont citadel in the North and lead his people to the wonderful Promised Land, “the Republic.” However, the above statements surely show, if nothing else, the utter disregard of principles which characterises this much-inflated personality, Eamon De Valera.

“For the Irish Republic! For national independence!”—remember the inspiring phrases which so intoxicated the Irish working man and woman? In the meantime, though, De Valera and his crowd were getting on with the real, down-to-earth job of attempting to establish the supremacy of the Irish manufacturers and industrialists. That was their goal.

Yes, history does record that De Valera was indeed the leader of the anti-Treatyites when the so-called split took place in the Irish Republican movement (Sinn Fein) over the signing of the Treaty in ’21. But did this division arise over some fundamental difference between those for and against that Treaty? Did it divide those involved into “for the Republic” and “against it”? And was there, from now on, an impassable gulf between these two sections? To all three questions the answer is a very simple “no”! The split over the Treaty was, in fact, no more than a fake split It didn't occur because the terms of that Treaty were such as to make manifest two irreconcilable principles within Sinn Fein. All that took place then was merely a disagreement between two sections of one negotiating side over the terms of the bargain struck, but, as a matter of fact, neither of these two sections were opposed to the conclusion of such a Treaty. Both accepted the basic conditions laid down by Lloyd George for the British Government.

From the official correspondence between the British Government, and Sinn Fein which preceded the actual Treaty conference of 1921 (published by the British Government, Command Paper 1470, 1921), I quote the following:
September 12, 1921. De Valera to Lloyd George: declaring Sinn Fein’s willingness “to enter a conference to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations.”
(“Reconciled,” mark you! The Republican virgin was going to lie down with the Imperialist profligate . . Kathleen ni Houlihan!)
September, 29,1921. Lloyd George to De Valera: ‘‘There is no purpose to be served by any further interchange of explanatory and argumentative communications upon the subject. The position taken up by H.M. Government is fundamental to the existence of the British Empire, and they cannot alter it.”
September 30, 1921. De Valera accepts : "Our respective positions have been stated and are understood. . .”
So much for the alleged Republicanism of De Valera. But the whole tragedy was that this fiction was a not unimportant contributory cause of the Civil War which followed the signing of the Treaty. For the best part of that following two years, brother slayed brother. You well know all that. And what did these men and women—the men and women who did the fighting—get out of it? But need I ask you that? You know they got nothing. Why, even the victors got little more than the vanquished: a pittance and some medals. They weren’t invited to the “Irish Free State banquet” which followed, although it was they who provided all the good things that were spread on the table. That historic banquet is now celebrated annually by a few, at functions known as “annual company meetings.” But those who were once the soldiers at the front are now no more than the wage slaves in the rear. Some of these soldiers, as you may be aware, are lying in the re-named Dublin Workhouse, St. Kevins, as I write, and—perhaps—are fondling their medals and certificates of ‘‘I was there.”

After the Civil War, Fianna Fail was formed, in 1926, with “Dev.” at its head. Yes, he forgave and forgot, accepted and recognised the Government that derived its legitimate authority from the 1921 Treaty, and prepared to battle for political power. During the years that preceded his 1932 victory he and his party were always ready and willing to barter, to sell their support and the votes they commanded for a share in the governing and administering of the new, up-and-coming Irish capitalist exploitation of the Irish people. And they were not loath to offer their allegiance to their “bitterest enemies” either, the so-called pro-Treatyites. Shortly before the 1927 elections, when the leader of the “pro-Treaty Government” in power then; Cosgrave, declared: “I am prepared to forgive and forget,” Sean Lemass, for “Dev’s ” party, replied:
“We are prepared to forgive . . .  If he wants a political truce with Fianna Fail he can have it tomorrow.” (The Republic, September 17th, 1927.) 
See how they trick you!

The wide gulf that separated the “friends of the Republic” from the “enemies of the Republic” wasn’t so very wide after all. In point of fact, it just didn’t exist. It was as imaginary .as “Dev’s” compact morroco-bound, Oxford dictionary, Republic or his own “100 per cent. Republicanism.” One side was as wide awake as the other on the desirability, and resulting advantages, of building-up a native capitalism. That is the plain fact. They merely differed as to the means to employ to achieve that end. In such conflicts the workers have nothing at stake. The interest of the worker is to dispense with his chains, not fight over who shall rivet them.

Today, Irish working men and women are in the same old boat. Yes, the old tramp, the coffin-ship of millions, capitalism; the only difference being that now, in Ireland, there’s a Republican master at the helm. But wage-slavery for the majority continues—now, in the Republic, as much as before it. De Valera or Costello—either name spells capitalism and exploitation of the mass of the Irish people!

Let me quote once more. From an old article on the Sinn Fein movement in the Socialist Standard:
“What part can the Irish workers, devoid of capital, take in the Industrial Revival except the toiling part? All those revivals are useless to the worker until he owns the product of his toil, then he will be able to enjoy to the full all the advantages to be obtained. So long as private property is the order of the day it matters little to the property less Irish worker (the vast mass of the Irish population) who rules Ireland.” (June, 1917.) 
It’s a far cry from 1948 to 1917 but the foregoing is every bit as applicable now as it was then.

And now “Dev.” and Costello, and the other “great Irish leaders,” are hitting the headlines with speeches railing against Partition in Ireland. Well, in conclusion, let me say that we Socialists in Ireland equally desire, and ceaselessly work for, the ending of Partition, also—but we never get any headlines in the Press. Oh, no; for the Partition we speak against is not a geographical one but an economic one. The Partition we oppose is that between the rich and poor, between the capitalist class and the working class. That is the Partition, a universal one, which Socialists everywhere seek to abolish, and that I suggest, is the only Partition which you, and all other workers, ought to concentrate on and bend all your efforts towards removing.

National boundaries may be altered—may even disappear—but such re-arrangements of things geographical can in no way abolish, or even lessen, the poverty of the many. The solution to that problem will not be found by struggling for Empires or Republics (whether of the 26- or 32-County variety), but by striving for the World Socialist Commonwealth.
So—Yours for Socialism,
(Dublin Socialist Group.)

The Tribune Group: Organized Hypocrisy (1975)

From the September 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Circus provides many political analogies. There are the clowns, of course; balancing and tightrope acts; tamed lions and dogs walking on hind legs; fire-eaters, who all give it up because it harms their mastication.

One other which should not be overlooked is the anti-circus freaks. Wherever a show appears, comes an earnest lady or two with a placard saying Stop the circus — it's cruel. Like the old men carrying religious texts on Derby Day, they are part of the attractions; and their political counterpart is the Tribune group. While Healey swings on a trapeze and Wilson cracks his whip, the Tribunites parade the ground crying woe and disapproval. And then go home to tea.

Tribune began in 1937. It was founded by a group including Bevan, Jennie Lee, Cripps and George Strauss, to advocate support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and to oppose rearmament. These original aims established the fatuousness which has been Tribune's hallmark. It demanded on one hand that the British government should stop making arms to fight dictators; on the other, it wanted Britain to give military help against dictatorship in Spain.

Its overt purpose has always been to sustain a “left wing” inside the Parliamentary Labour Party and protest against “betrayals” which, sadly for it, occur day by day in labour politics. In the postwar years the Tribune supporters were known generally as “Bevanites”. Bevan having died, after the Labour victory of 1964 the left-wing faction formed an organized group using Tribune as their platform. The principal figure of the group — until recently, at any rate -— has been Michael Foot; but his remaining a member of the crisis-bound Wilson government has reduced the left’s enthusiasm for him.

The conviction hanging round the Tribune group is that they are would-be revolutionaries, probably Marxists, bent on prosecuting the class struggle. The Observer, in an article on 13th July, remarked as evidence of Tribune's being “plebeian” that its appearance is inelegant and its offices are behind Smithfield meat market. That is mendacious nonsense which Tribune has fostered, like an intellectual wearing hobnail boots in the hope that they will lead to his being mistaken for a rat-catcher. In fact throughout its lifetime Tribune has been financed by well-to-do Labourites. Cripps and Strauss provided £20,000 to launch it in 1937; in the Bevan days it was supported by the millionaire Howard Samuel, and on one occasion was got out of trouble by Lord Beaverbrook.

Tribune has always attacked inequality, the profit motive and the horrors of capitalism. Its standpoint is not that of the class struggle, however, but of moral indignation. And like most moralists it is a hypocrite. Before the war it propagandized for the Soviet Union and — so as not to alienate Communist support for a “united front” — ignored the barbaric Russian purges. Today it excels at being frank when the appropriate time has passed, neglecting to mention at election-times what it will assert afterwards: that Labour is being led by untrustworthy and incompetent people — whom, nevertheless, it campaigned to get elected. Earlier this year Foot described a Labour minister, Reg Prentice, as an “economic illiterate”. His remark was capped by Sydney Bidwell, chairman of the Tribune group, who said Prentice was a “political illiterate” too. No doubt each thought of his phrase while looking in a mirror; but why did not Tribune make Prentice’s condition known at election-time last year?

The publicized aims of the Tribune group in 1975 (besides its anti-Common Market campaign) have been to oppose government policies of wage restraint, and to have Labour return to policies of nationalization and “soaking the rich”. During July newspaper headlines spoke of a threatened “big revolt” against the government’s Anti-Inflation Bill. On its introduction the revolt turned out to be no more than protest, with divisions among the Tribunites themselves. That could have been anticipated: the bright idea at the head of the government measures, the £6 limit on pay increases, was first proposed by the TGWU leader Jack Jones — who is one of the directors of Tribune.

Thus, the Tribune group’s impotence is now as widely commented on as, a short while back, was its clamorousness. The Guardian on 17th July had an article headed “Tribune’s opposition pales to a shadow”. The Observer article already quoted said: “Not so long ago, the group seemed to be capturing the whole party. Now, despite its successful campaigning in the trade unions, in the local constituencies, and on the National Executive, the group’s influence on Government policy appears to be nil.” What this amounts to is that the group was able to disport itself, “capture” and be “successful” as long as the contest was not too serious. When the mucking-about stopped the wretched little creature was found — as always — boo-hooing that its ball had been taken away.

The impossibility of the Tribunites’ position is in the fact that each is a Labour MP, and therefore committed to administering the capitalist system. The basic situations and problems created by capitalism are parts of its structure, and simply cannot be altered while it exists. The members of any governing party find themselves with no choice against the necessities of what they have taken on. The pre-war “disarmament” Tribune group supported the war which broke out two years later, and served in the wartime government under Churchill; just as Labour leaders in Britain and other countries urged the workers to war in 1914, after swearing in concert that they would not.

“Reluctance” is meaningless. A kick from a reluctant person hurts the same as a kick from a willing one. The Guardian article spoke of Tribunites’ giving Wilson “grudging and qualified support in the lobbies” — but whatever its frame of mind, a vote is a vote. But these are, in any case, marginal matters. The Tribune group has no idea of abolishing capitalism; it wants it managed in a different way from which, it hopes, results will be better. Its proposed alternatives to the government’s anti-inflation policy included a price freeze, import controls, cuts in arms spending, and “an extension of public ownership and accountability”.

In addition to this rag-bag of reforms the group called for a wealth tax to achieve a “fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people”. It is difficult to visualize a mind which can put such twaddle into lofty-sounding words. Does it mean the rich are to go on making riches so that they can be taken away? If so, how can they make riches without exploiting the workers who must therefore be kept poor? Or is it to be transferred from one address to another, so that we all have a turn at being rich and being taxed and then being poor again?

It is unlikely that any Tribunite would be able to explain or, if he could, that his explanation would resemble any other Tribunite’s. But Socialists can always shed light on these questions. First, the proposal to shift wealth towards working people accompanies a list of other measures which are all aimed to get capitalism in Britain out of its difficulties and keep Labour in power. It is, in other words, a carrot on a stick: help us over this hill, and then see what we’ll give you.

Second, whatever form the “shift” was intended to take, it would not envisage actually giving more wages. The whole of Labour history is against that. Every Labour government has made its special business to try to keep wages down. Let the working class have money? Not likely. The shifting would be a hypothetical arrangement known as a “social wage”, a notional benefit, etc. It would most likely take the form of subsidies and rebates, be accompanied by a heightening of the housing problem, and lead to the indignant discovery by a Tribune group ten years later that the workers were no better off.

As for a “fundamental shift of power in favour of working people’’, the Tribunites either do not comprehend or are happy to misrepresent the nature of political power. It means the control of the state, and while capitalism exists that can only be to conserve the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. The working class can and one day will take control of the powers of government — to replace capitalist ownership with common ownership; but it can do that only when the majority have become conscious of the need for Socialism.

To speak of redistributing power as a social reform under capitalism is absurd. If the Tribunites desired that the working class should acquire Socialist consciousness and aim for control of the state machine, there are two steps their group could take. One is, of course, to say so and stop preaching reforms which patch up capitalism. The other is to remove themselves from the posture of leaders and make known that the working class is able to emancipate itself; which would involve also giving up the secrecy to which Tribune and its group are addicted.

Failing that, the Tribune group goes on doing harm. If its influence on the Parliamentary Labour Party is negligible, it exercises a more dire one on the voters. In particular, many are persuaded that a Socialist purpose is to be found in the Labour Party — that if instead of “betrayers” the opportunity is given to men of good will, they can produce a change in society. There are large numbers of people who express themselves as disillusioned with Socialism. They mean they have believed these buffoons, or a previous generation of them. With their rejection of the means for their emancipation, the Tribune group stands charged.
Robert Barltrop

Land and liberty (2007)

Book Review from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
Zapata of Mexico, by Peter E. Newell (Freedom Press, £9.50)
The Mexican Revolutionary War which began in 1910 saw political power transferred from a reactionary military dictatorship allied to foreign capital to the liberal constitutionalists of the rising national bourgeoisie. Zapata supported the overthrow of dictatorship but once this was achieved his Liberation Army of the South refused to disband until their primary objective had been fulfilled. That objective was the return of communal lands that had been appropriated by plantation owners during the period of dictatorship.
The new government refused to redistribute land and so fighting continued for the rest of the decade until Zapata's peasant forces, a people in arms, could no longer maintain a guerrilla war against the larger and better armed government forces.
Zapata resisted entering the politics of the national government, though he encouraged the tradition of direct democracy in the communities he fought for. At the height of Zapatista military success they conquered the country's capital. When Zapata was invited to sit in the presidential chair in the National Palace, he is quoted as saying 'It would be better to burn it, for I have seen that everybody who has sat in this chair has become an enemy of the people'.
Despite opportunity and popular support Zapata refused to install himself as national president. Though Zapata's political writings and speeches are restricted to the aims of the revolutionary peasant army it is thought that he was influenced by the ideas of Ricardo Flores Magón, a Mexican anarchist who was then publishing a newspaper from the USA. The Zapatista slogan of tierra y libertad - land and liberty - was taken from Magón.
However, the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of World Workers), an anarcho-syndicalist industrial union founded originally by Magón, considered Zapatismo to be reactionary. They opposed the peasants politically and militarily until increasing industrial action led to the new liberal government proscribing the union. Many members subsequently switched sides. Zapata did use the examples of the new government’s repression of industrial workers as evidence of the counterrevolutionary nature of Mexico's new political leadership.
Zapata is not thought to have been religious, in fact he is said to have written 'ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny', but he deplored the anticlerical violence of the new liberal government which aimed to reduce the power of the churches. The banner of his 'Death Legion' depicted 'Our Lady of Guadalupe', a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary, above a skull and crossed bones.
Since the revolutionary war, inspired by the popular image of Zapata's heroism and virtue as a leader, rhetoric from anarchists to governments promising reforms have invoked the name of Zapata. Zapata has even appeared on banknotes. Newell's respected biography does not dwell on personality traits, military aptitude or leadership skills but describes the material history that produced Zapata, the revolutionary war and its outcome.
This republication of Newell's book of 1979 begins with a new introduction which relates Zapata to the contemporary Zapatista movement, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. The book contains a list of sources, references, bibliography and internet links and an appendix which discusses the land question in greater detail.
Piers Hobson

Reformist Roundabout (1980)

From the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The reformist roundabout never stops. Once you climb upon it the circular road ahead is endless. Bombs to be banned, “houses for all” to be built, “jobs for all” to be provided, pollution of the atmosphere to be legislated against, begging bowls for the starving millions to be handed around, battered wives to protect, police powers to be kept in check. The reformist’s work is never done, not for lack of energetic effort, but because the problems to be abolished bit by bit invariably multiply faster than reform measures. Like a nightmare in which the more you run the longer is the road ahead, the never-ceasing production of social distress caused by the present system leaves the reformist running faster and faster in order to stay in the same place. Read any copy of Socialist Worker or Newsline and you will be out of breath by the third page—Fight this, Smash that, Campaign against this, Demand that—the energy of the exercise is staggering. But add together the results of all this fighting and smashing and campaigning and demanding and the effect is rather less breathtaking: fifty policemen's hats knocked off, a number of jolly marches to Hyde Park and back and a few new recruits for the Labour Party. Is this really the way to change society?

In popular parlance, the reformer is the advocate of change, while the conservative stands for stability. In fact, most conservatives advocate some degree of change, as long as it does not alter the basis of the social system, and all reformists are conservative insofar as they only seek change within the structure of the present social system. Socialists do not oppose reformists because the latter want change, but because the change which we advocate is of a broader character.

Socialists oppose capitalism as a network of social relationships based upon the private ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing wealth. The system is one in which there are two classes: those who own the means of life, but have no need to work (the capitalist class) and those who, because they do not own the machinery of production, must sell themselves for a wage or salary in order to live (the working class). Capitalism is a system of exploitation whereby the profits accumulated by the capitalists are obtained by paying workers less than the value of the wealth they produce. This legalised robbery means that the wealth producers do not have access to what they produce, but must buy it from the exploiting class by spending their wages and salaries. As production under capitalism is for profit before need, if the capitalists cannot sell their commodities on the market people who need them must go without.

If people are homeless while houses stand empty, there is not in fact a housing shortage, but a shortage of money on the part of the workers needing accommodation; when millions starve, it is true that malnutrition could be eradicated tomorrow but for the need for food companies to make a profit; as the weapons of murder are set in readiness for the next war, this is not because people are inherently aggressive, but because under capitalism the protection of property is more important than life; whenever self-created tragedy afflicts the human race, the socialist is not to be found weeping in mournful despair, but ever more determined to convince the working class that the reason for the bloody mess is capitalism.

Such analysis is not to be found in the heads of the furniture re-arrangers of the capitalist system. Hopping from one problem to another, the reformist attends to the symptoms while leaving the cause intact. Cause and effect are terms of little meaning to the reformist. Not understanding what the system is all about, the reformist cannot understand just what sort of perverse game he is indulging in: pleading with the robber class to throw back to the robbed a few crumbs of wealth. Asking for a “fairer” slice of the cake, while leaving the bakery in the hands of those who do no baking is a game for mugs.

“Better something now than everything tomorrow”, says the defensive reformist. But can capitalism fulfil even the limited and second-rate “short-term” objectives that reformists have? The record of more than a century of reformism provides the answer. They were promising full or near-full employment in 1945, but we have not got it. Charities have been passing round collection boxes for a century, yet a main British charity, Oxfam, has recently had to admit that there are more starving people today than when they started. Decent homes for all workers has been on the agenda of every political party for a hundred years, yet in 1979 the Department of the Environment stated that there were 53,000 homeless families in Britain. (This is widely believed to be an underestimation.) Millions of decent people have chanted their wish to “Ban the Bomb”, but bombs are still very much with us. The so-called Welfare State, not a great provision at the best of times, is today being whittled away by cuts in state expenditure. True enough, children no longer go down the mines and the work- houses are less obvious institutions than they once were, but after a century of social reform, during a period when the capacity for producing wealth has increased considerably, is the present standard of life the best that we could have achieved?

The provision of legislative reforms is both limited and fragile. Furthermore, they serve an important political service for the capitalists who provide them. Reforms can secure social stability: when the rule of capital appears to be under threat the ruling class is “only too glad to buy a prolonged armistice at the price of ever-repeated concessions to the working people” (Engels). In short, reforms are often a means of buying off the working class. That is why, as working class consciousness grows, so the offer of reforms by the capitalist class will increase. When the working class, armed with the knowledge that all social wealth can belong to the community, are offered reforms they will tell the capitalists that half-loaves are not enough.

But what of the so-called revolutionary reformers, like the Socialist Workers’ Party, who claim that they only advocate reforms to demonstrate to the working class that capitalism cannot provide them? Like a muddle-headed driving instructor who teaches someone to drive by showing them how to crash into a brick wall and then says, “Now that I’ve shown you how not to do it, you will have no trouble knowing the correct way”. Demand the Right to Work, the SWP proclaims, in order to prove that there is no such right under capitalism. Then, according to the crackpot theorists, the unemployed will realise what is wrong with capitalism and start to organise for revolution. In fact, workers who support these daft tactical reform campaigns usually believe that they will get what they are demanding. The result is that capitalism is either reformed to their satisfaction (for the time being) and they become acquiescent wage slaves or else the reform campaign fails, they become disillusioned with politics and apathetic or, in some cases, turn to more sinister reform gangs like the National Front.

Socialists are not against reforms which improve the material existence of all or some workers. Indeed, socialists are neither for nor against particular reforms, but are uncompromisingly opposed to reformism. If, for instance, a reform could be passed making it easier for socialists to have access to the media we would be pleased; in that sense we would approve of the reform. What we would not do is join a campaign with non-socialists to ensure the legislation of such a reform, for by doing so we would be forced to support whichever capitalist party agreed to grant the reform to us. Reformism is a capitulation to the power of the capitalist class.

Those who want to re-arrange the furniture of capitalism tell us that it is utopian to seek change which is not slow and gradual. We reply that we are in a hurry; we are not content with the way in which capitalism has been reformed and there are no reforms which could be offered that will distract us from the clear road ahead; we have a world to win and those who will not join us stand in our way.
Steve Coleman