Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Uselessness of "Practical Politics" (1934)

From the February 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most Socialists are familiar with the type of criticism which consists of arguing that Socialism is a vague proposal for general change, whereas what is needed is a series of definite, practical reforms. Bertrand Russell, in the Sunday Referee for November 5th, reproduces this argument with a variation which is new, at any rate, to the present writer. This is the opening paragraph, which provides the key to the entire article, entitled “The age of stagnation”:—
"The nineteenth century, judged by any definite test, was a period of solid progress, in comparison with which the present is an age of stagnation. This not because there were, in those days, more people who desired change, but because reformers worked patiently for definite objects without any thought of altering the entire social order.” 
He then goes on to specify the particular types of reform he has in mind, such as Parliamentary reform legal reform, sex reform and prison reform.

This attitude embodies two fairly obvious errors. In the first place the present, century has witnessed social reforms, such as National Health and Unemployment Insurance, Old Age Pensions, etc., and political reforms, such as the enfranchisement of women. One would have expected the latter, at any rate, to have held a special appeal for Mr. Russell. In the second place it is obvious that the present National Government have no “thought of altering the entire social order.” On the contrary, they obtained power for “ definite objects.”

At the last election they obtained support by promises of certain immediate reforms. Even the Bolsheviks, who do profess to have Socialism as their ultimate aim, secured power by promising peace, land for the peasants and bread for the workers.

It is no part of the Socialist case that reforms are unnecessary. Capitalist society produces such a crop of evils that the need for reforms is constant and urgent; but it is a necessity which imposes itself upon the master class, who alone possess the power to introduce them. Hence we find arising from this class (in the words of Marx and Engels), “Economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, and hole and comer reformers of every imaginable kind.” (Communist Manifesto.)

Mr. Russell belongs to this type of person. He is superficial enough to think that by concentrating attention upon the details of capitalist administration he will avoid facing the fundamental problem which the very existence of capitalism involves. In this he resembles most defenders of capitalism to-day. Indeed, this is the only safe line for such people to take, since the moment the workers begin to think about fundamentals the game of bluff will be nearly up.

No one need worry that they will not have enough to do if they become revolutionary. Even a small organisation like the S.P.G.B. is not maintained by meeting to pass revolutionary resolutions. Practical details have to be attended to, and will become more numerous as the Party grows. The revolution will change the class of details that need dealing with. The working class in power will find its administrative capacity amply taxed. Mr. Russell, however, wishes us to ignore the need for revolution. He offers us the barren prospect of becoming mere busybodies on behalf of our masters.

Various sections of the ruling class at present are preoccupied with what they describe as ”preventing war.” Not having finished paying for the last they do not relish incurring a still greater burden of debt by having another. Mr. Russell proposes, in a further article in the same paper (November 19th), international agreement to take the armament industry out of private hands. It is, of course, only to be expected that armament firms will support policies suited to their interests, but it by no means follows that Mr. Russell’s proposal is any solution to the war problem.

In the first place, Governments do not increase their debts merely to oblige the armament firms. Control of trade routes, markets and sources of raw materials is essential to any powerful group of capitalists, and conflicts over this control are the prime cause of modern wars. Secondly, Mr. Russell’s idea implies a degree of harmony of interests among the national groups which is simply non-existent. If they cannot agree about the division of the plunder derived from the exploitation of the workers of the world they are hardly likely to trust one another not to obtain arms except from Government arsenals. In fact, the armament industry is not a separate, watertight, economic department, it is inextricably bound up with other industries.

In order to carry out Mr. Russell’s proposal each Government would either have to confiscate or purchase industrial concerns normally used for other purposes or leave them outside its control, thus losing valuable sources of supply in time of need. Mr. Russell might just as usefully suggest an international agreement between Governments not to employ civilians in war time. Experience shows that armies can, in a few months, be increased from a few hundreds of thousands to several millions, and similarly all kinds of factories become sources of war supplies, including arms and munitions, when the emergency arises. Mr. Russell, with his passion for attention to detail, should pay a certain amount of respect to details such as these. Deeper than this he can hardly be expected to go, but of all utopian schemes that of establishing peace under capitalism is the most fantastic. Capitalism is founded upon robbery—the robbery in the workshops, mines, farms, etc., of the producers, by the possessors of these means of living. The proceeds of robbery require to be protected, both from the robbed and from, rival gangs of robbers. Hence the existence of armed forces. For the international capitalist class to get rid of these forces would be equivalent to abandoning the most important guarantee of its own conditions of existence; in other words, it would be equivalent to, economic and political suicide.

Disarmament in any real sense of the term is the task of the international working class. They can accomplish it only by getting control of the armed forces through consciously organised political action. That is the essential preliminary act in the drama of social revolution, whereby the means of living will be converted into the common property of all. Nothing less than the determination to emancipate themselves will provide the workers with a motive equal to the task. So long as they are prepared for slavery in the factories they will be ready for sacrifice on the battlefield at the behest of their masters.

Mr. Russell fears that much of the stagnation of which he complains is due to the fear of war. This only demonstrates the urgent need for the workers to concentrate their attention upon the revolutionary task. For them no essential change for the better can come within the limits of a system which inevitably generates wars and the fear of war. Our masters may alternately slacken or tighten our chains as circumstances dictate, but the chains will still be there until the workers as a class deliberately break them.

To any worker who is fully alive to his slave position emancipation is his supreme specific need. Compared with this the petty details of day-to-day adjustments within capitalism sink into relative unimportance. Certainly they can form no basis for a workers' party. Such a party can have for its object nothing less than Socialism.
Eric Boden

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