Monday, August 18, 2008

Questions of the Day - Parliament

Originally posted on the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist blog

This excerpt was originally published in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, Questions of the Day.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the necessity for the workers to gain control of the machinery of government before trying to set up Socialism.

The State is the public power of coercion. It arose out of the early division of society into classes, and developed with the development of class conflicts. It is the result of the desire to 'keep order': order, that is, in the interests of the class that is supreme; order to allow the ruling class to protect its property ownership and exploit the rest of the population. Through the ages the State has been controlled, as a rule, by the class that has been economically the most important. Through its control of the State and its power to levy taxes a class that has outgrown its economic importance can often continue for a time to control social affairs. As the State grew in size and complexity it became more burdensome, and the taxes grew with it. This led to quarrels among property owners over the amount of their contributions. Much of the apparent cleavage between parties in modern States is at bottom only indicative of a struggle as to which section of the property owners shall take the weight of taxation.

In the development of the State the modern parliamentary system emerged as the most appropriate means for securing the domination of the capitalist class, the last class to obtain social control. Parliaments were subjected to modification in the course of time and the modern product ensures to the capitalist class their ownership of the means of production and the right legally to exploit the working class.

As the production and distribution of wealth developed on a tremendous scale social affairs have become correspondingly burdensome and complicated. In order to run the State smoothly and secure the peaceable flow of profit, it became necessary to alter parliamentary procedure so that the voice of the mass of the people could be heard; but only in so far as such alterations did not, in the opinion of their leading thinkers, jeopardise the rule of the capitalists. Thus, in due course, helped on by the rivalries of political parties representing sectional propertied interests, each trying to attract working class support and take the edge off working class discontent, the electoral machinery was modified until suffrage became the rule worldwide.

Subject to certain specific commitments to the European Economic Community, Parliament is the centre of power in Britain. It makes the laws and provides for their enforcement Regional and local bodies have certain law-making and enforcing powers but these are subservient to the central body which is supreme and which, where required, supplies the local body with any extra force necessary.

The instruments of power are the army, navy, air and police forces. The final word for setting these forces in motion rests with Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet is the executive council which carries out the will of Parliament. Its members belong to the majority group, or by arrange¬ment are allowed to function through a coalition of parties. In other words, the group that has an absolute majority in Parliament can put into operation whatever decree it wishes by means of its control of the executive — the Cabinet. In theory the Prime Minister is appointed by the Crown (though the selection is confined within narrow limits) and has a free choice in the selection of his ministers; but in fact no Cabinet could survive without a parliamentary majority to sanction its proposals.

Members of Parliament are elected by adult suffrage, and the vast majority of the voters are members of the working class. The result is near enough democratic to ensure that when the mass of the working class understand and want Socialism they have the means to bring it into being through parliamentary action.

Up to the present, the mass of the workers have lacked this political knowledge and have voted for people instead of principles. They have given their votes to those poli¬ticians who made the most alluring promises. As time proved the hollowness of those promises, the workers turned in disgust from one group of political leaders to another, and then back again, as the memory of the previous disappointments faded.

This fact has led some to question the usefulness of Parliament and to advocate industrial action. But those who have done this have forgotten that the workers have been as readily betrayed on the industrial field as they have on the political. They have forgotten that whenever the workers have placed their trust in leaders they have almost always been let down. This has not been due to the field of combat, but to the method adopted. When the workers cease to regard certain individuals as endowed with some special capacity of leadership, they will adopt the method of issuing to delegates instructions that are to be carried out regardless of the delegates' own views or wishes. The ground will then be cut from under the feet of those who prosper out of leadership, and such people will no longer have a saleable article for the capitalist in the shape of a blind following.

There has not yet been a parliamentary test of the power of delegates acting on instructions given them by a large body of workers knowing exactly what they are after and how to get it. In fact outside of the Socialist Party (and our allied parties abroad) the method has never really been applied. Time after time the specious words of some acknowledged leader have diverted groups of workers from their original aims, generally on the plea of expediency. Expediency has for generations acted as a useful pretext to cover the compromising activities of leaders. The foolish belief in leadership has been a considerable barrier to working class knowledge and progress. The power and wealth leaders acquire induce them to fortify their positions and insist on the necessity of leadership as a permanent institution, accompanied by appropriate means of wire-pulling and mutual bargaining for position.

Socialism will not be possible until the mass of the workers understand it and are prepared to vote for it. When the workers understand Socialism they will know what to expect and what will be involved in putting it into operation.

Two other theories, both of them dangerous and impractical have been put forward by those who deny the usefulness of parliamentary action to achieve Socialism. One is that the workers can gain control of the State without the vote by means of an armed uprising. The other is that the workers can set up their own machinery of government in opposition to the capitalist State. The two theories converge because in practice the capitalist class, controlling the armed forces through their parliamentary majority, will see to it that no hostile armed force comes into being to challenge their supremacy.

When the majority of workers have become socialist there is no need for an armed uprising. They withdraw their support from capitalist parties and support the socialist party so that Parliament, which controls the armed forces, will be composed of socialist delegates. If some capitalists did try to organise resistance they would reveal themselves as a small minority, lacking popular support, trying to create chaos in the furtherance of their sectional interest against the declared will of society: they would be bound to fail.

However this is not the situation the advocates of armed uprising or the setting up of a rival State machine ask us to face. It is not majority action resisted by a capitalist minority they have in mind but a minority action against the capitalist State, with the mass of the workers still not socialist-minded and at most only moved by discontent. This is an altogether different state of affairs. The capitalist government would be in a much stronger position, politically as well as militarily, than the insurgent minority. With the passive backing of most workers, who after all would have voted them to power in a previous election, they would be able to denounce the insurrectionists as opponents of democracy and would-be dictators. Militarily they would have the armed forces and police to crush the uprising.

Minority action is suicidal folly and could not lead to Socialism even if successful. For unless the immense majority of workers want Socialism there is no possibility of it being established. Even if an insurrectionist minority managed to get control of political power, it could not alter the basic problems and processes of capitalism. It would have to contend with the anti-socialist prejudices of the majority and it might be overthrown in another insurrection.

Historically, minority action has been a feature of revolutions which Marx called 'bourgeois', that is, of revolutions which swept away barriers to the development of capitalism and led to the rule of the capitalist class. By the end of the nineteenth century, under the influence of Marx and Engels, minority action was being rejected as a socialist tactic. But after 1917 the Bolsheviks used the great prestige of the Russian revolution to put the clock back. A tactic which merely led to a change of rulers in Russia came to be popularised as the only way for the workers to win their freedom. But armed uprisings, led by a 'vanguard' party, are a method of a would-be capitalist ruling class and cannot be used by the workers. The workers' method can only be democratic political action based on socialist understanding.

In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure grip upon the armed forces, and government interventions in the strikes and disturbances of past years have shown on whose side they act. These were a forceful illustration of how necessary it is for the workers to obtain control of Parliament before attempting to uproot the existing foundations of society. They further show that the only way to obtain control is by sending socialist delegates to Parliament.

It has been suggested that when the socialist movement was large enough to challenge the position of the capitalists, the latter would abolish Parliament. The abolition or suspension of Parliament would, in the first instance, end the right of workers to combine, and would thus make illegal all forms of working-class combination, trade union as well as political. But the cost to the capitalists of the abolition of Parliament would be the end of their rule nd the beginning of chaos. The State machine would be unable to function, owing to the conflicting views among civil and military employees of the government.

The size and complexity of a modern nation is so great that the time has long since passed when members of the ruling class could themselves occupy any considerable number of the administrative posts and manage any appreciable part of their activities. From top to bottom all departments are filled by paid or elected officials, and only a very few of these officials are drawn from the capitalist class itself. Practically all the work of controlling the activities of society today is performed by peopfe who depend for their livelihood upon their pay — members of the working class. The armed forces, including most of the officers, are also recruited from the working class.

Thousands of functions have had to be delegated to subsidiary bodies like local councils, statutory boards and tribunals. Year by year this delegation of function grows.

Circumstances, therefore, have compelled the capitalists to place administration in the hands of elected or appointed bodies. If they were to attempt to end this in the face of a determined socialist majority, they would bring their house down about their ears.

The importance of Parliament is quite plainly recognised by the capitalists, and they give clear evidence of this at election times by the amount of wealth they spend and the inconvenience they suffer in order to ensure their control of it.

The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. We hold the same view as Marx as to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. We also hold Marx's view that in the industrially advanced capitalist countries the vote will give that control. The one way to prevent the capitalists from using political power against the workers is to refrain from voting them and their agents into political power. Accordingly we have always urged the workers not to vote for any candidate who is a supporter of capitalism.