Monday, April 25, 2016

The value of discontent (1966)

Editorial from the June 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Private property society is a class-divided society. Because of this, it inevitably fosters hatreds and discontent. Take a look at any social system from primitive slavery onwards, and at some stage or another the signs of unrest appear as the under-privileged try to fight against the weight of oppression and misery heaped on their shoulders.

Modern capitalism is certainly no exception. It is based upon the ownership of the means of life by a small minority. The rest of the population work for them and produce the wealth on which the capitalist class can live in ease and comfort without the need themselves to work. For the majority, such a set up spells a life of drabness and insecurity, and a constant struggle to make both ends meet, so that it is little wonder that discontent is more or less a permanent feature of their existence.

In the early days of capitalism, the cruelties and excesses of the master class towards their workers was a big factor in the formation of trade unions and the agitation for reform that was so prominent a feature of 18th century history in England. The story of protest and struggle in those years makes bitter reading, and there are some who would say that we’ve come a long way since then. So we have. Yet who can honestly say even in the face of many hard won gains, that the need to fight is any the less?

The outward appearance of capitalism changes, but its basic constituents are unchanged, and just as surely because of this, it is very much a system of conflict and oppression. The hypocrisy and honeyed words of the Labour Government cannot mask this uncomfortable fact, which shows itself in so many ways, for example, the continuing struggle over wages and the horrifying threat of a nuclear war. In such a world of worry and strain, it would be surprising if the voices of discontent were never heard; indeed, it is precisely this dissatisfaction on which the politicians so cynically rely to get them to power and then try to get us to forget between elections. And after all, if workers were to sit down quietly and take all that capitalism dishes out to them, the prospect for the future would certainly be gloomy.

So the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not spurn discontent; in fact, discontent does at least show that workers are thinking about their problems and are groping for an answer. Unfortunately, however, such is the lack of Socialist understanding amongst the working class that the cries of protest take on a negative form of expression, and at times are channelled into support of ideas which are very harmful to workers’ interests—such as racialism, “national independence”, etc. Other protest movements suffer from the same failure to realise that the problems they want to solve are part of the bigger problem that is capitalism itself, and cannot be dealt with in isolation.

It is the Socialist who understands the severe limitations of the protest movements of today, and who, however much he may have sympathy with the feelings of their supporters, knows that they can never be really effective, because they ignore the cause of the ills they are trying to remove. At all times, Socialists put forward the case for a new world of common ownership and democratic control, trying to get workers to see their problems from this standpoint. Only when they do this will their discontent flow into constructive channels and the ultimate protest—that against capitalism itself—be lodged.

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