Letter to the Editors from the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
While the commitment to socialism underlying your beliefs is entirely admirable you must see that the revolutionary action you advocate would end in inevitable failure. A socialist system can be put into place only by popular consent, and consent necessitates gradual change because people live within the current system and cannot be forced to accept something that is wholly alien to them. In the present climate there is, unfortunately, a general indifference to socialism even among the poorer elements of society: and as you point out little can be achieved without the support of the working classes.
Socialism can therefore be achieved by education and by gradual—though ever-increasing—social change. The 1997 general election broke the hold of Conservatism on the population, but it will take much longer to break the hold of (small c) conservatism so that real and lasting change can be brought about. The violent—or at least revolutionary—uprising predicted by Marxism will therefore be self-defeating as well as unjust because it will collapse from lack of popular support. This is where Marxists and more realistic socialists part company.
As for a socialist state being a contradiction in terms, how do you suggest that the growth in public ownership and worker control be organised? Current government apparatus is over-centralised, but that can be remedied by a generous return of power to local government and the creation of a new tier of regional administration. Without some central institutions such as parliament, the banks and the legal system society would descend into chaos. Liberty is not only the right to be free but the responsibility to live in a way that respects the freedom of others, and a society without organisation is no society at all.
We sympathise with your disillusionment and your concern at the state of society, but your magazine seems to be full of nothing but criticism. Until you have something constructive to say we suggest you stop preaching to others whose commitment to socialism is just as strong as yours, but who have a great deal more sense.
Alex Ismail & Shehnoor Ahmed.
We agree that socialism can only come by popular consent. It cannot be imposed on people who don't want or don't understand it. and any uprising to try to do this would fail (fail to achieve socialism that is, though it might succeed in installing the uprising’s leaders as the new rulers).
This is why we have always said that socialism can only come about democratically, when a majority want it and organise democratically, using existing institutions such as Parliament and local councils, to get it.
It is not this that is the point at issue between you and us. The disagreement is about whether or not socialism could come about gradually as a result of an accumulation of social reforms. You say it could, despite all the evidence to the contrary that has accumulated this century.
Some of the early members of the Labour Party understood more or less what socialism was (a society of common ownership and democratic control, with production for use and distribution according to need) but rejected the view we put forward (we were founded in 1904, about the same time as Labour) that you needed to have a majority that wanted socialism before socialism could be established.
They argued that all you needed was to elect a majority of Labour MPs to Parliament, not on a straight socialist programme but on a programme of social reforms. Once in power. Labour would begin the process of transition to socialism "by education and by gradual— though ever increasing—social change", as you advocate again today.
What happened? Including the present one, there have been six Labour governments, but who will dare claim that we are any nearer to socialism? All previous Labour governments failed to make any progress towards socialism (and the present one doesn’t even aspire to). All of them left office—or rather were booted out by a dissatisfied electorate—with unemployment higher than when they entered it. Some of them brought in some social reforms but many of these have since been whittled away by successive governments. Labour as well as Tory (free prescription charges, free higher education, for instance).
Instead of Labour gradually transforming capitalism, it has been the other way round. Labour’s experience of governing capitalism gradually reconciled it more and more openly to capitalism, its market system and its profit motive.The end product of this process has been Blair and New Labour.
Labour governments did not fail because Labour Ministers were self-serving or traitors or weak or incompetent (even though some were) but because capitalism cannot be gradually reformed into socialism.
Capitalism is a system, not a chance collection of good and bad features whose bad ones can be lopped off piecemeal. It is an economic system of production for profit which runs, and can only run, as a system whose economic laws dictate that priority be given to profits and profit-making over all other considerations. including improving people’s lot by social reform measures.
Further, where social reforms and profits come into conflict it is the reforms that have to give way. This is what has been happening since the post-war boom came to an end in the early 1970s. Since then there haven’t been any social reforms. Just the opposite in fact: there has been a whittling away of those that existed at the time.
This is why we advocate a policy of "revolution" rather than gradual reform. By revolution we mean a rapid and complete change in the basis of society—from class ownership to common ownership and democratic control—and not street-fighting and civil war with an armed minority trying to seize control of political power. We are for a democratic, majority revolution which makes a once-for-all clean break with capitalism.
Capitalism cannot be abolished gradually. It has to be abolished in one go. What is gradual, though hopefully at an ever-increasing pace, is the emergence of a socialist majority. This does indeed build up over time, as more and more people come to realise that capitalism can never be made to work in their interests. We are trying to accelerate this process so, sorry, we are not going to stop criticising reformists who mistakenly preach that capitalism can be gradually reformed into a socialist society.
As to the term "socialist state", our objection is based on the definition of the state as a institution having a monopoly in the use of force within a given area which serves to maintain the rule of one class over the rest of society. As a classless society, socialism has no need of such an instrument of coercion. This does not mean that there will be no administration or organisation in socialism. Of course there will be (as you point out. without this there would be no society), but this will be democratic and unarmed and so not a state in the above sense of the term.