Friday, August 4, 2017

Boring from Within (1967)

From the August 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among members of the Labour Party are some who, while admitting that Labour is not Socialist and cannot be an instrument for Socialism, still say that it is the party which, at the present time, Socialists should join. One particular group of such people is centred on the quarterly journal International Socialism. Their argument is well summarised in an article by P. Mansell "Work in the Labour Party’’ in their publication Socialist Review:
   Reformist illusions in the working class go very deep. They can be shattered only by experience. Reformism must be tried and found wanting.
   What must, at all costs, be avoided, is isolation from the mass of the workers and the development of their political consciousness.
   The Labour Party commands the allegiance—even if it is the pretty passive allegiance—of the great majority of the workers.
So, Socialists should join the Labour Party.

Let us concede that this argument is quite logical. What we are challenging in this article is not its logic but the assumptions on which it is based.

Who, first of all, are the working class? This is a basic question for all who claim to accept that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself’. There is, in Britain, a social group which is regarded and regards itself as “the working class” or “the working classes”. This group is made up of urban, industrial workers, the men and women who operate the machines and do the unskilled manual work in factories, mines, docks, railways and the like. However, it is not the method of the materialist conception of society to accept what people say about themselves. And, in fact, the class properly called the working class takes in many more than this. A class is made up of people who have a common economic interest because they stand in the same relation to the means of production. In Britain the social status group known as the “middle class” stands in exactly the same relation to the means of production as the so-called working class. Clerks, civil servants, technicians and managers all too have to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer to live. So the working class in Britain make up over ninety per cent of the people.

If this point is conceded and this broader concept of the working class accepted, then difficulties arise at a later stage in the argument. For it is just not true that “the great majority of the workers” support the Labour Party or look on it as theirs. The political allegiance of the working class is at present about evenly split between Labour and Tory with a substantial minority backing the Liberals. This means that if Socialists should be where the working class are they should be in the Tory and Liberal parties as well as in the Labour Party.

In fact International Socialism avoids this difficulty by assuming that the working class is confined to industrial workers. So they are saying the agent of social revolution is not to be the working class as a whole but only a section of it — a significant departure from the Marxian position and one which the Socialist Party rejects.

Secondly, what is meant by “experience”? It is of course quite true that the experience of workers under capitalism will, in the end, lead them to want to change society since all ideas arise from social and material conditions. However, in the argument, the word seems to have the special restricted meaning of direct, immediate experience. People, however, learn not only from their own experiences but also from the experience of others. Indeed the greater part of everybody's knowledge is that of others, inherited from the past and handed down by oral and written tradition. What distinguishes man from the other animals is his ability to generalise, to think abstractly. Lower animals do only learn from their own experiences, like Pavlov's dogs and circus animals. If you argue that the working class can learn "only by experience" you are reducing their intelligence to a very low level Lenin, whose ideas greatly influence boring-from-within groups, himself did not think much of the working class's intellectual capacities. He wrote in 1902 in his pamphlet What is To be Done?
The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.
T. Cliff, writing in International Socialism for Autumn 1960, employs an even more revealing analogy:
The role of the Marxists is to generalize the living, evolving experience of the class struggle, to give a conscious expression to the instinctive drive of the working class to reorganize society on a socialist basis.
Instinctive drive! The Socialist Party rejects this view which implies that the working class is a simple tool to be used by Socialists as a mass basis for their capture of power. The change from capitalism to Socialism can only be carried out consciously, as the conscious act of the great majority of the working class.

Finally, what is so special about Socialists? To argue that they should strive to avoid "isolation from the mass of the workers" is to assume that Socialists are not members of the working class; that they are people, whose ideas have evolved outside of the working class, who must strive to get into the working class and to impart to them Socialist consciousness.

The origin of this peculiar view of the role of Socialists is pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia and is outlined by Lenin in the above-mentioned pamphlet. In Tsarist Russia the bulk of the anti-Tsarist revolutionaries were members of "the intelligentsia". Intelligentsia is a Russian word and defined a peculiarly Russian social group composed of qualified, technical personnel of non-noble origin employed by the central and local government At one time, the revolutionary intelligentsia looked to the peasants as the mass basis for their insurrection. Later, some turned to the working class and dabbled in Marxist ideas. They were thus faced with the problem of how to get the working class to play the role they had allotted them. They did have the problem of how to make contact with the working class. Lenin refurbished an old Russian revolutionary idea of a party of professional revolutionaries which was to be the so-called vanguard of the working class.

Boring-from-within groups still seem to see Socialists as if they were Bolshevik professional revolutionaries trying to latch on to the working class. Socialists are not a special type of being whose ideas are formed in a different way from the rest of the working class. They are simply members of the working class who want and understand Socialism, faced with the problem of how to get their ideas over to the rest of the working class. To do this, they need take no special steps to be with the working class. They are already there.

What is the view of the Socialist Party? The Social revolution from capitalism to Socialism must be carried out by conscious democratic, political action. In other words, those who make the change must know what they are doing; must be in a majority; and must employ political means.

The task of Socialists at present, when they are a tiny minority, is to organise themselves in as effective a way as possible to put over the case for Socialism and to help the evolution of Socialist understanding. For this an independent political organisation and propaganda agency is best suited. This is the only organizational form which allows Socialists to express their views fully and freely, openly and honestly. If they were part of an organisation whose aims they did not share, Socialists would have to waste their time on the problems of that organisation, And besides, they would be associated with it and its failures.

This is not to lead an isolated existence. As already said, Socialists are members of the working class. In Britain there are many ways of getting ideas across to other workers; through your own journal, pamphlets and leaflets; through meetings indoor and outdoor; through canvassing and discussion. This is what the work of the Socialist Party is at the present time.

Further, we are a political party and as such contest elections in opposition to the other parties. Elections are about who shall control the state. At present, because the great majority of workers don't know what Socialism is or don't see it as a real alternative, they elect to office people pledged to run capitalism. Socialist Party members, however, vote only for Socialist candidates. We play no part in handing over political power to the capitalist class. Not so groups like International Socialism. In campaigning for Labour they are campaigning for one of the major parties committed to defending the interests of the capitalist class. They play their part, however little, in handing over power to political agents of the capitalist class to oppress and intimidate the working class with wage freezes and the like. For this reason alone, they forfeit the right to be called Socialists.
Adam Buick

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