From the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Down the centuries upholders of privilege have recognised and feared the power of the masses to overthrow the rulers of society; but it took a poet to flip the coin of fear and turn it into a joke:
If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don't make it in ghastly seriousness,
don't do it in deadly earnest . . .
do it just to spit in their eye.
(D. H. Lawrence, A Sane Revolution.)
Fear, irony and humour characterise the responses of many who contemplate for long the oddity that rulers are few and the ruled are many. Plato thought about it a lot:
The third group is the mass of the people, who earn their own living, take little interest in politics, and aren't very well off. They are the largest class in a democracy, and once assembled are supreme.
(Plato, The Republic, p.385, Penguin, 1975)
His ironic response was to spin out an analogy between society and a bee-hive. He wanted all drones cleared out of the hive and replaced by three brainwashed classes of people, presided over by a philosopher-king, who alone stung everyone into submission with a venomous dialectic.
The fearful response to popular power sometimes contains a magical incantation, as when Edmund Burke tried to ward off the evil influence of the French Revolution from his English readers:
We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.
(Revolutions 1775-1830. (ed) M. Williams, Penguin, 1971, pp. 108-9.)
It is indeed a heathenish thing for the masses to rise up and bite the hand that whips them!
Goodbye To All That
Fear is creeping into Margaret Thatcher's voice now; with unemployment rising to three million and bankruptcies soaring, and yet insists she's doing us good. Presumably she'll get booted out at the next election and replaced by an earnest Labourite, or a smarmy Liberal-Social Democrat, who'll play at ruling capitalism for a further five years.
What potential for revolution remains among the workers now that parliamentary democracy has made the barricade and the guillotine decadent, even absurd, as a way of removing and chastising Thatcher?
One person, one vote: the implication of this democratic slogan is that there is a revolutionary use for the cube of black-japanned metal — the ballot box. It would not have amused Lawrence, would have puzzled Plato and infuriated Burke; but is something Thatcher and the working class could come to terms with. The ballot can dictate the shape of society. Provided Thatcher displays only the usual amount of incompetence over the next two years, then not the fulminations of Foot, not the hysteria of left-wingers and not the self-starvation of all terrorists will remove her from office. Yet sometime in 1984 she will meekly accept the probable dictate of the ballot box and cease to rule with her usual bad grace. Capitalism could be deposed throughout the world in just the same way; after all, how could an "ism" fight back?
Individuals are the bearers or agents of ideologies. When you vote, you put a cross against the name of someone and the sum total of ideologies borne by the successful names yields the style of society around you — give or take a nuclear hiccup or two. Putting a cross on a ballot for revolution would be much the same — give or take a capitalist or two. What about a world-wide referendum, where the ballot paper reads "capitalism or socialism: place a cross against your choice"?
Hello New World
But the simplest revolutionary use of the ballot box would be to nominate and vote for individuals as bearers of the ideology of the masses — the working class. Theirs is a beautifully simple ideology, well-fitted for revolution. It goes something like this:
Politicians never do the workers any good.
If you want something done, do it yourself.
Labour is the source of wealth and only a fool says otherwise.
You'll never change the world until you get the vast majority to agree.
The political programme to fit this goes as follows:
One person, one vote;
therefore the last thing we need are politicians and leaders;
therefore if anything is to be done to the world all must do their bit;
therefore away with all that nonsense about banks,
advertising and invisible earnings creating wealth — it's brain and brawn that will do it all;
therefore you can stick your United Nations, your summit meetings, your social security plans and all the rest;
we've got to talk it out like we do down the pub — then pick our team.
Strange that a colossal social system like capitalism can be toppled by something as ordinary as the process used by a darts club to choose team members; by the method an angling club uses to select venues for a season; by the way the local women's institute decides who'll make the sausage rolls, make the cakes and cut the sandwiches for the next whist drive. Yet all socialism requires is that workers put their heads together and decide about society, stick their men and women in the parliaments of the world and stick their fingers up at all those who said it couldn't be done.
B. K. McNeeney