From the November 1931 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Practical Importance of Theory.
It is no uncommon thing for Socialists to be met with the charge that they are only mystics, airy philosophers destitute of any practical notions of how to carry on the society which they propose to establish. The present writer readily confesses to having been struck dumb in his youth by a querulous critic who demanded to know, “Who is going to get the best joints of meat under Socialism?” and proceeded to hint darkly at the possible fate, under such a system, of obstinate wives who refused to sleep with their husbands. What struck me dumb was my amazement that such questions should seriously worry one whose choice of the food he consumed at cheap restaurants during the week was practically nil, and who, as a result of his closely-confined occupation, looked as capable of healthy sex relationships as of knocking out Carnera.
The charge of mysticism was recently made against Socialists by a contributor to a discussion on the Russian Five-Year Plan in the economics section of the (British Association Conference. The suggestion is not new. Max Eastman made it in his “Marx, Lenin and Revolution.” H. G. Wells put it forward in the first volume of “William Clissold"; and Marx himself had to meet similar attempts at criticism after the publication of his work on “Capital.” His reply to this is contained in his preface to the second edition.
Marx owed a debt to the German philosopher, Hegel, which he readily admitted; but he frankly abandoned Hegel’s idealistic standpoint and treated material conditions as the real basis of human society. He saw that these conditions changed and new forms of society arose as a result. He criticised capitalist society from this point of view, and demonstrated that it must give way to Socialism; but he never spent his time in mystical contemplation of the future. He left to others the task of writing out the menus for the Utopian equivalent of Lyons’ cafés.
It is, of course, not surprising that this critical and revolutionary attitude fails to appeal to professional builders of “New Worlds for Old.” They get their living partly by writing about plans for the future, which are pushed aside by events which they fail to foresee. It is only to be expected that they should fall foul of a scientifically cautious mind, and remain apparently unconscious of the absurdity of denouncing Marx for mysticism in one breath and for failing to act as a prophet in the next. Such critics can be left to stew in their own juice.
Of more concern to us are those of our readers who allow themselves to be impressed by such bombast, and write to us complaining of our “destructive criticism” and our failure to propose “measures of reconstruction.” One reader, for example, wants a “Ten Years’ Plan formulated now! in order that the workers can be familiarised with Socialism as a practical rather than a theoretical proposition.” Our correspondent then proceeds to outline in quite a general way the “immediate measures” he considers necessary, and to propose certain “new departments” of administration, including one of “Co-ordination.” This proposal shows how easy it is to allow oneself to be hypnotised by important sounding words. Co-ordination is the special function of a general administrative body and not of a department.
The establishment of Socialism is essentially a practical proposition. It is the definite object of the Socialist Party, the goal of our activity. If the workers do not show any enthusiasm for this object that is not because it is "theoretical," but because they do not understand the need for it. They are quite prepared to accept their slave-status (are indeed unaware that they are slaves), and gladly leave planning to their leaders and masters.
The Socialist Party is not in any doubt as to what it has to do when it has conquered political power. Its job will be to convert the means of living into the common property of Society.
To be sure, that is only a brief statement of our "general, line," and our critic wants details. To his mind it is shirking the question to suggest that particular measures depend upon particular conditions. "Most of us," he says, "do not like to buy a pig in a poke.” Who does he mean by us? Unfortunately the majority of the workers are only too ready to buy a political pig in a poke. Any general election provides ample proof. What political party has ever tied itself down to matters of detail before election? The National Government asks for a "free hand" and cannot tell us even a month ahead what it proposes to do. Leading members of the Labour Party disagree considerably as to the form their measures of nationalisation or "public control" are going to take.
The Communist Party, it is true, has an elaborately detailed programme—which has not a ghost of a chance of securing political victory for the Communist Party. If the S.P.G.B. is still out in the cold, therefore, it is certainly not because the Party’s object is too vague for the practical disposition of the workers.
The political actions of the workers may, as our correspondent suggests, be "more powerfully affected by the emotions than by the intellect,” but that does them no good. The people who benefit are the ones who use their intellects to play upon the workers’ emotions, i.e., the master class. Our correspondent confesses that his "imagination reels" when he contemplates the possibilities of planning. Can the Socialist Party afford to enter the political arena with a reeling mind? On the contrary, we need all the concentration of which we are capable to think out the most effective way of getting our "destructive criticism" into the minds of our fellow-workers here and now. They need it.
When they wake up to the fact that they are slaves and that a change in the basis of .society is necessary, they will also realise that in future they have got to do the planning as they march along the road to their emancipation. They will not look to leaders to plan for them. On the other hand, there is no necessity for a small minority of the working class (such as the Socialist Party is at the moment) to anticipate the decisions of the majority which it will one day become. Certainly "there is no harm in speculation,” so long as it is recognised as such, and so long as the speculators do not attempt to force their speculations upon us as a necessary programme. Discuss, by all means (if and when you have nothing better to do) just what is going to happen in twenty or thirty years' time; but do not forget the fate of the practical programme drawn up by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto eighty-three years ago. In twenty-five years it had, in its authors' own words, become somewhat "antiquated” owing to the rapid pace of industrial development. The pace is even more rapid to-day. That is the main reason why the Socialist Party steers clear of so-called plans and programmes.
A further reason is that outsiders have a fatal knack of confusing a programme which, at its best, can only be a means to an end, with the end itself; or, to put it another way, the "programme" and not the object (i.e., Socialism) occupies first place in their minds. The result can be seen in the fate of the old Social Democratic Parties in this and other countries. Numbers were attracted into these organisations by the immediate programme, the sound Socialist element was swamped, and these parties eventually degenerated into step-ladders for political job-hunters, who in turn operated as tools for the master-class. The preference of the Socialist Party for scientific principles rather than for speculative programmes is thus not a mere foible, it is based upon bitter experience.
No substitute has yet been discovered for Socialist education. It is a slow job and not so exciting or remunerative as that of sweeping the un-class-conscious workers off their feet with stirring "practical measures”; but it has its compensations. There is a certain element of humour in the spectacle of the most practical politicians taking hedges in faultless style, only to land in the mud on the other side. The workers who have prided themselves on their practical commonsense, their superiority to the theorists of the S.P.G.B., are apt to view the situation rather tragically at the moment, having put their savings upon these much-advertised hurdle-jumpers in quite a literal sense. We have confidence that they will recover their balance and treat Socialist principles a little more respectfully in future.
When they have eventually overcome their prejudices in this direction the time will then arrive for practical programmes to take on a new and revolutionary character. Informed with the necessary fundamental knowledge derived from an effort to understand their experience, the workers will address themselves, with much greater energy and immensely superior organisation, to the necessary task of social reconstruction. We may guess at the plans they will make and some of our guesses may turn out to be accurate, but it is more satisfactory and immediately profitable to get on with the job of making Socialists.