Everybody knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line: a simple, unanswerable, self-evident proposition. Who, then, could fail to think and act on it? Well, in the matter of getting Socialism almost everybody acted otherwise. It remained for small bodies of Socialists, like those who formed the S.P.G.B., to insist that the straight line from capitalism to Socialism is the shortest way and the only way. This takes us back to old arguments that have largely been forgotten but which ought to be remembered and studied by all who want Socialism.
What was needed ?
In the earlier days of the Socialist movement there were men and women who had the Socialist idea and knew what was needed, but who rejected the S.P.G.B. They did so for reasons that seemed to them convincing. They agreed that, for the fundamental social change, there must be a Socialist majority, politically organised, gaining democratic control by taking the machinery of government out of the hands of the capitalists. But when they looked at the workers who had to be won over to Socialism they were dismayed. They saw millions of men and women, ignorant of Socialist principles, harassed with problems of getting a living, supporting the Liberal and Tory parties, dazzled by monarchy, loving a Lord, and awed by the power, wealth and knowledge of the rich. It would, they said, take half a century to turn this depressing human material into a political army for Socialism. What was needed was a quicker way. Something must be done immediately to ease the hardships of the poor and improve capitalism, and in the course of doing this the grateful workers would turn readily to Socialism. So they said to the S.P.G.B.: “You mean well and your case is logical, but logic is not enough. The slow, hard progress on the direct, uphill road to Socialism is theoretically right, but impossible in practice. Human beings being what they are we must leave the straight road and come back later on.”
The Bye-ways of Social Reform
So they laid their plans and revised their programmes. They undertook to keep the great Socialist objective before their eyes, though rather a long way off, but would, for the moment, concentrate on the day-to-day practical things, like minimum wages, old age pensions, abolishing war, getting rid of the Monarchy and the House of Lords. Naturally this would take a lot of energy away from propagating Socialism, and meant turning aside from the main road to go into bye-ways; but only for a time, they said. Then, with an invigorated working class behind them, happier and freed from the worry of war, they would come back to the high road and prove to the S.P.G.B. that the roundabout way was the quickest in the end.
Time to take stock
Now the temporary turning aside into the bye-ways has gone on for half a century and we can examine it again in the light of experience. What do we find? The promised reforms we have in plenty, contributed by Liberal, Tory and Labour Governments in profusion, though without weakening capitalism. But something has gone wrong with the plan. Instead of being freed to come back to the main job of getting Socialism, the Labour Party is now wholly absorbed in trying to win still more reforms, many of them the same ones that they promised to introduce quickly at the beginning. Now they are arguing about which kind of reformed House of Lords we are to have; about ways of modernising the monarchy; about further plans for getting the trade unions under Labour Government to accept “wage restraint”; about whether to fight wars with or without the H bomb.
If they had been the Tory Party, aiming to keep capitalism going as long as possible and willing to make concessions in the shape of social reforms to dissuade the workers from demanding Socialism, it could be said that the original plan had worked very well indeed. But some of the early supporters of the Labour Party genuinely did not look at it in that way. They really did aim at Socialism. But the attractive side roads or social reform led only into the morass of capitalist politics and now they are hopelessly bogged down in it. They have not come back to the high road that leads to Socialism. They have forgotten all about the road and the objective at the end of it.
A striking case in point is the fate of what was perhaps their best proposal, to get good, cheap houses for the workers. The intention was admirable and it seemed especially attractive because many Liberals and Tories were prepared in the interest of efficiency to support it, too; at least they appeared to be willing. Indeed it was a Liberal-Tory government that first introduced rent control and the Labour Party was glad to support it. Then the Labour Party found that the purpose of that Coalition government measure in 1915 had a snag: it was not intended to be low rents with high wages, but low rents to make it possible to keep wages down. Such an idea had not entered the heads of the early Labour Party advocates of rent control, but when the Labour Government came to administer capitalism in 1945 they convinced themselves that the “economic situation” (that is, the economic situation of British capitalism) left them no alternative but to link rent control with the late Sir Sir Stafford Cripps’ “wage restraint." That was one bitter pill that they swallowed. Now events have forced them to swallow another, for they have discovered that rent control, by keeping rents below an “ economic level" makes it not worth while for landlords to keep homes in repair, so that slums have been produced in the past 12 years at a rate faster than when the Labour Party began. They have, therefore, like the Tories, abandoned rent control. As the Manchester Guardian rightly says:—
“Rent control—the freezing of the rents paid to private landlords for house property—has no serious defenders as a policy for present application. Notwithstanding its rash promise to 'repeal' the Rent Act, the Labour Party has long recognised that the need to conserve our decaying stock of houses makes a change of policy imperative, and that whether the new policy be Conservative or Socialist, rents must go up." —(Manchester Guardian, 5/12/57).Now the Labour Party is back where it started, looking for another cure for the housing problem within capitalism. But it is not just the housing reform that has misfiled, it is the whole theory of social reform as a means of getting Socialism. Capitalism nullifies them all and thwarts the reformers' intentions. The reformist policy has not brought Socialism nearer and it has destroyed what socialist interest there was originally in the minds of those who joined the Labour Party to get Socialism. The Party that was to show the S.P.G.B. how to reach Socialism quickly has become merely Her Majesty's Official Opposition, an alternative government for capitalism. Even for the purpose of getting concessions from the propertied class they were wrong. As the S.P.G.B. maintained at the time, if the energy devoted to reforms had been used instead to build up a militant Socialist movement the propertied class would have hurried forward with reforms in the hope, though a vain one, of buying it off.
The shortest distance between two points is still a straight line.