From the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is a habit of mine to write to all sorts of people including those odd people who are called celebrities. Sometimes they even reply. Gorbachov didn't when I asked for his definition of socialism. The same question to Tony Benn elicited an advertisement for his books. Neil Kinnock, dealing with the same question, sent me a brochure that he obviously thought had something to do with socialism. Dennis Skinner telephoned me and agreed that the Party he represented in parliament had nothing to do with socialism. Prominent Trotskyites and Gerry Adams never replied and Mitterrand, then President of France thanked me for putting the question to him but did not offer an answer.
I thought I had kicked the habit but, when someone who knows how much I like Dick Gaughan, the Scottish singer/songwriter, sent me his website address, I found the challenge irresistible. Gaughan writes and sings working class songs in a most evocative way and claimed to be a socialist. Word was that he had politically regressed to Scottish nationalism but, whatever he was, he has talents that I think could serve socialism so I decided to drop him an email which is set out hereunder.
Sent: December 16, 2003 9.57PM Subject: Revolutionary Change at the Base of Society
I have just now learned of your interesting website. What I know about you is that you made a tape with others, when poor Arthur Scargill was playing Canute against the background of the inevitable logic of capitalism. I liked that tape; I played it over and over and I wept for those who were suffering the brutalities of the system, the women especially, making their sad stand against the inhuman rationale of the market system. I liked your singing and your songs because you were trying to apply salve to the hurt and indignity that some members of my class were enduring. Your heart was, and probably still is, in the right place; so many hearts are but, unfortunately, that is not true of so many heads.
In a rational world we would have been trying to close down coal mining because men should not be unnecessarily exposed to the hard and dangerous conditions that coal mining involves and because, like all fossil fuels, coal is a major pollutant. But, in a rational world, closing mines would be a progressive move in the interests of miners and society as a whole and there would be no victims.
Like all of the other social problems that affect our class, mere want and destitution, the economic murder of millions of people by price-fixing starvation, wars, violence and crime, the miner's problems arose out of capitalism. I think you will agree that is a system of social organisation driven by the expectation of profit and based on the exploitation of the working class whose labour is the source of all social wealth.
The core question here must be is there a viable alternative to capitalism. If there is, why does the working class, the overwhelming majority of the population, armed with the franchise and the power of its numbers, not end that system and institute this alternative form of social organisation? Obviously these questions assume that that capitalism, in spite of its wars, its built-in necessity for scarcity within the world of potential abundance it has created, and all its other gross contradictions, is accepted by the working class who vote for it and fight for it and without whose support it could not exist. If this assumption is right, and I challenge contradiction, then the problem must lie in the fact that the working class deliberately rejects the socialist alternative to capitalism or is largely ignorant of the fact that such an alternative exists.
Of course we know that the very small minority of capitalists who control our lives through there monopoly of the means of life also own the means of opinion formation which they operate by economic bribery and which is the conditioning medium in the lives of our class. A more indirect weapon of the capitalists are the churches, teaching a class-based morality, and the money oriented political industry that is capitalism's nearest approach to democracy.
What have we in our arsenal? We have the enlightening logic of the material conditions of capitalism which inexorably demonstrates that meaningful social change within that system is impossible. That a system based on our exploitation, never did, does not and can not function in our interests. Additionally, we have socialism on offer, the vision of a world-wide society of common ownership and production solely for use in a community of free access democracy.
Given this, what is the strategy of the Left? Historically, it has given us Kautsky and Bernstein, Keir Hardie and the Fabians, Lenin and Trotsky. They have offered us for socialism the idea that capitalism can be run in our interests, which is like suggesting that the slaughterhouse can be run in the interests of the cattle; they have given us totalitarian state capitalism with its absolute colossus of brutality; they have given us Blair and "the stakeholder society"; they have established the justification for capitalism's "philosophers" to assert that we have reached the end of history and that henceforth there can be no hope of a revolutionary change at the base of society.
And the "Old Left"? It, in its internecine diversity, still defends the old forms, still defends the old concepts and blames failure on the myriad of people who, over the decades, it nominated to "lead" the working class.'Forward to the Past' is its slogan as it strives for new ideas to have its people running capitalism. They are all socialists, of course, but none of them are prepared to say what they mean by socialism or communism, both of which terms were used interchangeably by the pioneers of the socialist movement.
Capitalism has gained immeasurably from the confusion of the working class; from the nationalism and patriotic bullshit indulged by the Left; by the promoted notion that we can have capitalism without exploitation and its kindred evils. That confusion has largely been the gift of well-intentioned Left reformers chasing the multitude of separate issues that capitalism throws up, like a mad dog chasing leaves in a November forest.
I believe that the liberal arts, poetry, music, song, the play, the film, can all be used to create a cultural ambience which helps people to question the values of capitalism and build an appetite for real social change. I believe that you are among those who have a talent for such work. Go on! Tell the workers that they are wasting their time when they struggle to make some aspect of capitalism better, to make capitalism more acceptable! Use your undoubted talent to define real socialism in ways that may move those who would disdain a political tract.
I hope that you will consider such a course or, alternatively, that you will accept my challenge to show the flaws in my argument. Especially, I hope that you will not be offended by my remarks; if giving offence was my purpose I would do so in different language and, anyway, I have insulted many who deem themselves a lot more important than you or me!