Friday, March 25, 2016

Black Anger (1958)

Theatre Review from the July 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we consider racialism, the image that arises almost invariably is one of white prejudice against coloured people. It is as well to be aware that racial antagonism is not one-sided and prejudice of white against coloured or coloured against white are equally reprehensible.

It is on this account that issue must be taken against an otherwise interesting play by the West Indian writer, Barry Reckord, called “Flesh to a Tiger,” recently produced at the Royal Court theatre.

The majority of West Indians live in a condition of appalling poverty—the corrugated iron barnyard erected on the stage was a fair presentation of the facts. Now it is all too easy to interpret white prejudice, power and opulence as being the origin of black misery, and see hope and salvation in building the white man’s world for themselves.

It is not just that white men oppress black; the cardinal point is that capitalists oppress workers. That the ruling class may happen to be white is not the essential factor. In Mr. Rickard’s philosophy—"to the White man the Black is as flesh to a Tiger and as much as the Deer may look to the Tiger, so the Black to the White—we must build on our own." The European power over the minds and bodies of the West Indians, as depicted in the Christian religion is a monument of evil, in the shadow of which they crawl in awe and fear, under the aegis of a lecherous self-made priest who rules with the white man’s insidious power. Now this is the point: the priest and his stooges are black, but it is the white man's religion that they have absorbed like a virus and use to tyrannize their fellow men.

That Christianity is an enemy of the working class we readily accept; not because the white man originally administered it along with the overseer's whip, but because it is a means of subjugation in the hands of the ruling class no matter what its colour and a barrier to working class emancipation. That the white man brought it is again irrelevant.

Racialism is no solution to the problems of West Indian workers, no more than it would be to us. If anyone gains it is only those who want for themselves the rare fruits of capitalism that a few white men enjoy. Why change the colour of your Masters? 
Ian Jones

Should Socialists vote for Labour candidates. (1928)

From the September 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

At its formation the Communist Party of Great Britain decided by a small majority to seek entrance to the Labour Party. But while willing to sacrifice their independence, they nevertheless denounced the leaders of that Party and ran candidates against MacDonald at Woolwich, and Morgan Jones at Caerphilly. Later they were ordered by those who pay the piper and call the tune to advocate the policy of the “united front." They expressly pointed out that this did not mean unconditional support of the Labour Party, but only a willingness to co-operate in any action against the employing class. At the 1922 Congress of the Communist International, the following statement was issued :—
The tactics of the United Front should by no means imply the forming of electoral combinations of leaders for the pursuit of certain parliamentary aims. The tactics of the United From is the call for the united struggle of Communists and of all other workers, either belonging to other parties and groups, or belonging to no party whatever, for the defence of the elementary and vital interests of the working-class against the bourgeoisie. (Fourth Congress Thesis on Tactics, page 10).
In actual practice, although the Communists have all along strenuously denied that the Labour Party has been engaged in “the defence of the elementary and vital interests of the working-class," they have given them full and unconditional support at election times.

Now Moscow has ordered another volte face, and the Communists are busy trying to prove that the United Front never existed, or alternatively, that it is not inconsistent with opposing Labour candidates.

At the Linlithgow bye-election they first put up a Communist candidate against the Labour candidate (E. Shinwell) and then withdrew him on the plea of shortness of time and told the workers not to vote at all. Their manifesto says:—“We, therefore urge the workers not to waste time and energy in voting for any candidate in the present election."—(Sunday Worker, 25th March.)

A few weeks later, at the Hanley bye-election, the Communist, J. R. Campbell, was speaking in the constituency, billed as the "man who brought down the Labour Government.". After denouncing the Labour candidate at Hanley, Campbell told them to vote for him!—(Daily Telegraph, 19th April, 1928.)

In the Labour Monthly (April, 1928) the Communist Editor, R. Palme Dutt, tries to explain away this confusion, and actually has the temerity to quote with approval the views of Marx on the need to run independent working-class candidates. At Aberdeen the Communists did indeed run their own candidate—but on a programme of reforms!

With the views expressed by Marx on this subject in the Address to the Communist League (1850) we heartily agree. They are in line with our own attitude and directly opposed to that of the Communist party in the past seven years.
Beside the bourgeois democratic candidates there shall be put up everywhere working-class candidates, who, as far as possible, shall be members of the League, and for whose success all must work with every possible means. Even in constituencies where there is no prospect of our candidate being elected, the workers must nevertheless put up candidates in order to maintain their independence, to steel their forces, and to bring their revolutionary attitude and party views before the public. They must not allow themselves to be diverted from this work by the stock argument that to split the vote of the democrats means assisting the reactionary parties. All such talk is but calculated to cheat the proletariat. The advance which the Proletarian Party will make through its independent political attitude is infinitely more important than the disadvantage of having a few more reactionaries in the national representation!!
Now contrast with Marx’s definite and clear-cut attitude the muddled Communist record. At the 1923 election quite a number of Communists were running as official Labour Candidates. Mr. W. Paul went to the poll with his election address graced by a message to the electors from Ramsay Macdonald. The Communists worked and voted for J. H. Thomas and Clynes, and the rest of the Labour defenders of Capitalism and boasted of it. In particular compare Marx’s advice to ignore the “stock argument ” about splitting the democratic vote, with the following words written by Mr. Harry Pollitt after the 1923 election. He said that the Communists, if they had used the information in their possession, could have prevented the election of Mr. Frank Hodges. Instead they supported him. "We did not expose Mr. Hodges during the Election because we did not desire to split the workers’ vote."— (Workers' Weekly, December 21st, 1923.)

As against this tortuous and ineffective Communist policy we commend to Palme Dutt and his fellow Communists the passage he quotes from Marx.
Edgar Hardcastle

Socialism and the free market (1982)

From the December 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

We look forward to a society where buying and selling have no place, to a truly social world where each contributes such work as they are able and all may take freely from the store of wealth created. But capitalism still has many apologists who assert that a socialist system would not work; often they are pie-eyed over the virtues of the market place, where freedom, equality of opportunity and property are supposed to reign supreme. In reality there is nothing equal about the major transaction that most of us have to endure throughout our lives. On the labour market the capitalist confronts the worker and after an average working lifetime of this “equal” transaction, the boss still owns the factory, the office, the shop and the profit made on the goods; while it is a lucky worker who manages to retain a house, a few sticks of furniture and a car through retirement and up to death.

The drive for profits and the capture of markets, which sets people against people, factory against factory and nation against nation, is the force that excludes a majority of the world’s population from the potential abundance of wealth that the modern industrial system is capable of producing. Endless wars and endless famines, with millions of guns and no bread, have been normal someplace in the world throughout this century. Socialists look with horror on this direct effect of the capitalist market and do what they can to make the revolution in consciousness that is needed before a system of free access can be introduced.

Yet there are some who see clearly what capitalism is and what it does, but who say “yes, give us a lot more of that! Let the free market be supreme. Give full and unfettered capitalism a chance!”

Communication among people of different political persuasion is never easy and this is the extreme case. It’s like the rhyme about the convicts:
Two men look through prison bars,
One sees mud, the other sees stars.
Chicken or egg?
Just what is so special about the capitalist market that it makes some people become starry-eyed at the wonders performed when buyers and sellers squabble over the price of a commodity? Because the market is an open place its apologists can see the crafty entrepreneurs shake hands on a price and imagine that something final and necessary is determined in this price formation. By contrast, what takes place in production, in the factory, is hidden and often secret; yet it is to production that you must look to discover the secret of profit making. For the prices realised in the market are determined by what took place earlier, in the closed confines of the shopfloor. Put at its simplest, the value of the bundle of goods produced by a workforce must greatly exceed the value of the bundle of goods they can buy with their wages. The surplus of these two values is the source of capitalist profit to be realised through a price.

At this the free marketeers present us with a chicken-and-egg argument. “To be sure”, they say, ‘‘prices reflect productive efficiency (what you would call levels of exploitation of the workforce) but prices also function as the final measure of productive efficiency. A socialist society without prices would lack any means of evaluating alternative methods for producing the same article. It would be a society where sensible choices about the most economic methods for production could not be made. Therefore a socialist society would be an irrational society”.

This argument often comes dressed up in a mathematical form as the von Mises supreme objection to socialism. Yet on examination it is easy to show that it is not an argument at all — just a series of assertions, comprising:
1. prices allow sensible choices to be made;
2. choices made without prices would be non-sensible;
3. socialist production would be non- sensible or irrational;
4. capitalist production is the only rational system.
The slide from no prices, to the non- sensible, to the irrational is an amusing ideological subterfuge. For, of course, any production system not using capitalism’s criterion must be non-sensible by that same criterion; it would not be a different society otherwise. So the von Mises argument has to assume what it needs to prove.

Overproduction everywhere
The thing which strikes socialists as being funny is how anyone can assume that the price system is rational in any super-social sense. When American grain growers face a world glut of wheat and a famine in Africa or Asia, it is rational for them to burn their surplus and maintain prices and profits. It would also be rational for them to allow the price of grain to fall to what production conditions dictate — providing they can persuade their government to subsidise production to the extent of the lost profit. What would not be rational for capitalist grain-growers is to allow the free distribution of grain wherever it is needed. Such free distribution of unlimited production is precisely what would be rational about a socialist society.

On another level it is absurd to imagine that only prices allow sensible choices to be made over alternative production processes. The most famous illustration of this absurdity is the public inquiry into the Cow Green reservoir in Cumbria over a decade ago.

Further water supplies for north east coast industries could have been taken from rivers or reservoir sites (pumped storage or catchment). Official choice fell on a catchment reservoir at the Cow Green site—the economically sensible choice. At the inquiry water authority officials and environmentalists clashed in mutual incomprehension, for the site of Cow Green was an ecological relic from the Ice Ages. It was a basin with powdery slopes of sugar-limestone covered with inter-glacial flora in unique combinations. Despite vociferous protest the sugar-limestone site was flooded. A society where economic efficiency and price-effectiveness reign supreme must discount scientific interest, beauty and uniqueness of habitat, because none of these last factors will bear an economic quantification,

Making use of it
The myopia of capitalist decision-making impoverishes the full natural and human complexities involved over alternative production processes. By contrast a socialist society would make its production choices on the bases of usefulness, desirability and the needs of the population. Productive efficiency in units of direct output can be weighed and ranged alongside usefulness, desirability, needs, beauty and scientific interest. The factors that will govern production in a socialist society are commensurable factors; and it is the similarities between material, aesthetic and scientific needs which will allow socialist society to compare them directly and make sensible choices about alternative production processes, based on overall needs. In a capitalist society the “sensible”choice is made by cost-evaluation, economic efficiency predictions and profitability; such choices seem obviously rational because this society grants those factors the highest place anyway.

If anyone doubts the wisdom of allowing non-economic factors full play in production decisions they need only consider the subsequent history of Cow Green reservoir. Capitalism went into a slump and industry had little need of the extra water. Any other decision than the economic one actually taken would have been more sensible. As an amenity the reservoir is useless; the fishing is neglected and those who use the new road to Cow Green go only to see the waterfall of Cauldron Snout, now despoiled by the huge concrete dam above it.

Reductio ad absurdum
So just what do capitalist costs and prices represent? The explanations put forward by economists are versions of an abstinence theory, where the cost of any goods produced from invested capital is equal to the cost of what could best have been produced otherwise. Now this is useless, both as an explanation of costs and as a means of making a choice over alternative production processes. Most environmentalists object very strongly to paying 30 per cent of their electricity bills (by conventional accounting) for the funding of nuclear-powered electricity generating, when nuclear installations provide only 8 per cent of the electricity. They say that 30 per cent of their bills would be better used to fund the 30 per cent of electricity which could be generated from wind, wave, solar and geothermal power. But apologists for the nuclear power investment programme, while agreeing that their baby is over-capitalised compared to its net electricity contribution, still argue that when fossil fuels run out the contribution of nuclear power will exceed its capitalisation by as much as it now falls short of it. Thus, both environmentalists and fissionists use the same theory of costs to arrive at “sensible” yet contradictory conclusions.

In brief, costs cannot be calculated without regard for the social system they are related to. No major nation may give up nuclear generating without cost to its independence in providing armed forces with weapons-grade plutonium. Such considerations apply, in a different way, to the whole of capitalist production. For all goods must realise sufficient surplus value to enable a government to tax profits and provide the armed forces which ultimately will be used to secure the markets where the profits may be realised. In addition the capitalist system has built into it an incredible set of socially necessary costs, including the entire range of fiscal activities that ensure the circulation of commodities over the globe; to a socialist, treasuries, mints, banks, underwriters and vast armies of cashiers, ticket issuers/collectors and accountants, constitute just one great big unproductive drain down which capitalism pours the suprabundant energies of the working class.

The free society
Free market advocates may object to some of the examples used above because they are culled from the real capitalist world and not from some imaginary state where the government does not levy taxes, where cartels are not formed, where state investment does not exist and where laissez faire is triumphant. Yet the market is not and never can be “free”, for the simple reason that the capitalist class is divided itself; each part of the class tries to enforce the trading conditions it prefers and the whole class only unites against the working class, or when threatened by another national capitalism. The peculiarity of the position held by the free marketeers is that they accuse socialists of “copping-out” and having no world to defend; yet they themselves do not defend capitalism as it is, but only as it might be, in their auctioneering dreams.

Socialist society is not a dream, but something for which the development of capitalism has prepared production. Remove the vast unproductive apparatus referred to above and you can see what a flood of labour power and resources would be available for useful production in a socialist society. Socialist freedom means the ability to accommodate all the many and varied styles of living, production systems, special and overall concerns that grab people in their interactions with the social and physical environment. Without the drag of private property and the market an abundant future is secure anyway.
B. K. McNeeney

Notes on production for use (1982)

From the December 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

An example of the way in which the class relations of capitalist production are in conflict with the development of the forces of production is the division of the world into approximately 150 rival nations. Across the world, each national frontier is a dividing line behind which a ruling class strives to accumulate capital. It is rightly said that capitalism is not essentially a system of production but a system of capital accumulation. Every capitalist hope is production, profit, capital accumulation, but because all this hinges on market capacity, which is limited, a good deal of the time it is no profit, no capital accumulation, no production; and this is an obvious constraint on the development of the productive forces.

Another factor which prevents the full use of the world as a single productive unit results from national economic divisions. Each national capitalist class has to attempt to balance its books as a national enterprise, so the pattern of trade, imports, exports and therefore the order of world production is constrained by the problem that governments face about the balance of payments.

A further factor is economic vulnerability in the face of precarious markets. Even though a particular capitalist country may enjoy advantageous conditions for the production of a particular commodity, it is very dangerous to rely too much on a narrow production field. For example the price of sugar fell from 42 US cents a lb in October 1980 to 13.5 cents a lb in September 1981. In these circumstances, any national ruling class which relied heavily on the sale of sugar would have to consider hedging their bets with diversification.

Also there are political, military and strategic factors. At the moment the American government is trying to prevent the building of the natural gas pipe line from Siberia to Western Europe. They feel that in the face of these trade links between state capitalist Russia and Western Europe, their own political influence will weaken. One of the penalties they are threatening to impose on Western European capitalism is the withholding of technical expertise. Such attempts at the national monopoly of techniques through secrecy and the patent laws, particularly where these techniques also have military uses, is a further example of how the division of the world into rival capitalist nations prevents the full use of the world productive forces for human use.

Paradoxically, the possibilities of organising the world as a single productive unit have been given historically by the spread of capitalism and the development of trade and a world division of labour. But all the present political, economic and war mongering chaos is now part of a redundant system which forms an unnecessary barrier against the organisation of the world in line with human need. To continue with it is madness. By establishing the world as a commonly held resource operated with co-operation all these absurd national divisions can be swept aside.

The material advantages that production for use would gain by developing the world as a single productive unit are many, and it is important to remember that production for use will be required to organise itself under the pressure of necessity. A great deal has been made of the way in which socialism would make its social decisions and there is no doubt that those determining the direction of social policy would be the result of a universal democratic procedure in which everyone would participate. The development of the means of world communication allow this to be a technically easy, and therefore practical, procedure which can be organised along with the widest distribution of relevant information.

But it should not be assumed that with socialism, humanity will enjoy unlimited options about what it might choose to do. At any point in history, the options open to society are given by the actual circumstances of development, and this social framework of options will also exist with socialism. However socialism, by sweeping aside the economic shackles of capitalism, will widen the possibilities of social action with the objective of satisfying human need. It is also self evident that since we now suffer a shortage of wealth in relation to human need, production for use will be required by necessity to increase production as quickly as possible.

The organisation of production for use then is bound to aim at the most rapid increase in the production of wealth and the expansion of necessary services. This is particularly the case with food production and medical care. Also, in line with this, production for use would have an interest in using resources in the most speedy and efficient way. With food production, the advantages of organising the world as a single productive unit is that it is possible to organise a more intensive growth of crops in those places where they grow easiest and best.

If this necessarily involves the specialised use of a particular region there is no reason why, in the interests of maximum output, this should be considered undesirable. Most of the objections to monoculture arise from the economic insecurities of capitalist trade, and the vulnerability of national economies which are too specialised in their production. But with production for use, this is not a consideration. Particularly with food, specialised area production does have the advantage of maximum output in relation to inputs of social labour. It also allows for the concentration of production equipment, storage facilities and ancillary factors.

With the formulation of a world plan, each part of world production can be kept in balance, especially the question of relating local production for local needs to area specialisation, with a wider distribution. Although we might speak of local production, in fact, with the complex elaboration of all the interdependent parts of the modern division of labour, no single item of wealth can be isolated from total world production. It is impossible to produce any food anywhere without calling on the products of different parts of the division of labour, be it fertillisers, tractors, or even hand tools. Quality seed production is a specialised area of agriculture. There would be no point in producing tractor engines if this was not in balance with the production of tyres for the vehicle. Engines and tyres involve different parts of total world production and the production of all these factors has to be kept in balance.

Not all social decisions will be given automatically by necessity, and some issues would undoubtedly raise controversy. For example, some people like to drink coffee, which is not produced in the areas where it is mainly consumed, but strictly from the point of view of calorie production from existing land resources it is a nutritional waste. Recovering from capitalism’s chronic calorie shortage, does production for use go on producing 6 million tons of coffee on land resources which almost immediately could be used for, say, the production of cereals or soya beans? The anti-smoking lobby would delight in citing the current production of 5 million tons of tobacco on very useful soil, as a similar example.

Production for use would have to consider what most productive steps could be taken in the short term alongside longer term projects. With food production, the most easily cultivated and fertile soil has already been taken up, but there is no doubt that these resources could be exploited far more intensely. This could be achieved in two ways, each of which takes a different time period. The speediest way is with an increase in the numbers of people working the land, using simple tools and equipment. The other way is to go in for more mechanisation, which takes longer because it first requires an expansion of manufacturing and all that this necessarily involves.

The most immediate advantage that production for use will enjoy will be a vast increase in the numbers of people available for the production of useful wealth. With the redundancy of all the useless functions of capitalism and with the elimination of the waste of unemployment, the numbers of productive people would increase enormously. Many of these could begin work on food production immediately. In the longer term there are extensive land areas which production for use could bring into food production, but they require a considerable input of social labour before they can be brought under cultivation. Typical examples are the semi-arid zones of Africa and Australia. These zones require some re-structuring of the soil components to give them the necessary plant nutrients. Most importantly they require irrigation schemes which can only be brought into operation after the completion of extensive engineering projects. The time required for the completion of such projects may be measured in years rather than months.

Most agriculturalists agree that the key to increasing world food supplies is with increased cereal production such as rice, wheat and barley, and the rich oil seeds such as soy beans, sunflower seeds, ground nuts, rape seed and olives. An increase in the supply of these foods correspondingly widens the options on the production of other food forms, such as animal protein. The semi-arid land areas are at present barely used, yet they have an enormous potential for the production of cereals and oil seeds. Production for use, simultaneous with the short term steps that it could take to increase food supplies, could commence the longer term projects of bringing such potential resources into use.

The size of productive units must be considered in relation to the development of the means of communication. Feudal production was mainly confined to the manor. Mercantilism opened up primitive world markets. With the canal, railway and shipping systems of the industrial revolution it was possible to speak of a world division of labour. Further developments such as air transport and giant sea carriers, and above all electronic technology, mean now that there can be very few finished products which do not embody additions of labour from all goods over the world. The result of this is not only an ability to move goods around the world; the development also has its impact on consciousness. Production for use will be the historical outcome of these developments.

The co-ordination of the world division of labour for production for use can be achieved by modern information and communication systems without the need for centralised control. A complete monitoring of world production is now technically possible at any level throughout the entire system. With a shared and equal interest between all people in world production, control can be maintained by a system of decentralised co-operation.

The only remaining barriers against this completed system of integrated world production are the class relations of capitalism, the profit motive, and the political division of the world into rival capitalist nations.
Pieter Lawrence

Disunited nations (1997)

Book Review from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World by K. Rupesinghe & V. Tishkov (eds), United Nations Publications.

Intra-national conflicts, such as those in the former Yugoslavia and USSR recently, have often been described in the media as the "boiling over" of “ethnic tension". Yet we see little, if any, analysis as to what this "ethnicity" actually is and what really caused these conflicts. The value of this book is that it raises these issues and questions the over-simplistic, "cultural" or "ethnicity’’-based answers. As Assefa puts it. in a a chapter about the Horn of Africa:
“It is true that the region's ethnic groups have their own prejudices and stereotypes about each other. But these attitudes hove not normally turned into conflict at the peoplc-to-people level unless maniuplated and organized by political leaders." (P. 39)
Studies of states in the former USSR and Yugoslavia point to economic backwardness as another more fundamental cause of these conflicts. A substantial part of this survey is, unsurpisingly, concerned with creating new laws and mechanisms that the writers hope will help end such civil wars. While these plans seem to fly in the face of what they show to be the real causes of the problem, the United Nations remain a useful information source for socialists, if not a particularly successful global peacekeper.
Dan Greenwood

Class down under (1997)

Book Review from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Class and Class Conflict in Australia, edited by Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln, Longman, Melbourne, 1996.

This is a collection of chapters written by a dozen "left" Australian intellectuals and is edited by two of them. The editors describe the "immediate goal" of the book as “to demonstrate the power of class analysis in explaining and criticising contemporary Australian society". They speak for all the contributors in claiming to draw on the Marxist traditions of the old and new left. They reject Stalinism, but a chapter on labour leadership and reference in another chapter to the challenge of building "alternative leaderships" suggest a leaning towards Trotskyism.

The contributors to this book parade the usual reformist lines with which we have unfortunately become too familiar. Points are made that don't sound too bad in themselves, but still leave us with capitalism and its problems and no nearer socialism: "the experience of oppression shapes the self- understanding of very large numbers of people", “the continuing relevance of class analysis to the struggles of today". At best such statements pave the way for delivering a socialist message: at worst they disguise a diversion from, and an alternative to. that message.

Two chapters in particular deserve attention. One is on intellectuals and the new social movements, the other on class analysis and the left in Australian history. Burgmann and Milner are in the uneasy position of being self-styled professional intellectuals who really don’t think much of intellectuals. They tell us they are products of the Sixties, they were "into" politics, yet "we were substantially mistaken".

After three decades of misguided reformism and single-issue activism-anti-war campaigns, homosexual liberation movements, first and second wave feminism, and so on-they admit that “the new social movements have clearly not challenged the fundamentally class-divided nature of societies such as ours". They are forced to concede that "capitalism today is much more consistently capitalist in its social relations than thirty years ago . . .  this regenerative process has been significantly facilitated by the interventions of the radical intelligentsia".

Co-editor Kuhn is no pushover for capitalist propaganda. He knows, for instance, that the Accord (the Australian version of a prices and incomes policy) was simply “an attempt to solve capital’s problems at the expense of the working class". Yet he seems to have learned nothing about how reforms frustrate the efforts to achieve the goal he professes to support, that is, “the workers’ struggle for their own emancipation”. Then applauds early Australian “socialist" analyses which advocated nationalisation. He believes that in the 1990s "it was possible to get a wider hearing for genuine socialist ideas" and he quotes as examples Socialist Review and Reconstruction.

We certainly agree with Kuhn in wanting a wider hearing for genuine socialist ideas. But the journals he names have hindered rather than helped that aim. If you doubt that last point just have a look at Unfinished Business: 20 Years of Socialist Review. Verso. 1991). It’s full of statements like "the (French) Socialist Party has clearly given up on socialism” and "state socialism” in the Soviet Union has been a disaster". It never seems to occur to these intellectuals that such people and parties that call themselves socialist and support reforms of capitalism aren’t socialist at all. and that genuine socialism hasn't been tried anywhere because there simply haven’t been enough socialists to make the change.
Stan Parker

How many members have you got? (1974)

From the September 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

This is probably the one question asked most frequently of the Socialist Party. It is usually put with that air of pathetic finality indicating the questioner’s fond belief that this settles the matter and closes the discussion.

The answer is always truthful. Unlike the CP and other parties, the Socialist Party has never tried to cook the books or made any secret of it. Indeed, it has never made a secret of anything. All its proceedings and deliberations are in public; under the constant supervision of the members, and therefore — the working class. The answer, published at every Annual Conference, is less than 1,000. Yes! one thousand.

This answer usually convulses the average Labour Party supporters (including the “lefties”). Holding his shaking sides, he rolls about in uncontrollable mirth and gasps, between hoots of hysterical laughter: “What! One thousand! (or 800 — or 925.5) — in seventy years? !” This is followed by “It doesn’t work,” or “There you are then,” or some similar earth-shattering observation.

Funnily enough, when the inescapable logic of this superficial approach is put to him, he usually quickly renounces his previously-expressed view. It must be realized, by any thinking worker, that if the main criterion of the validity of a policy is the number of supporters it attracts, then the Tories over the past twenty years are the most “right”, with the largest vote.

Now our Labour man is in a cleft stick, for not only can he not concede that the Tories (or Hitler) were “right” because they had a majority; but the number of supporters ebb and flow. New parties arise, which win votes away from old ones. In fact, if this were the only idea that motivated any left-winger, it would be almost impossible to vote at all — so difficult is it today to know which Party will gain the most votes. (This also shows that electors do not automatically vote for majorities.)

It is therefore evident that the strictures on the Socialist Party for being numerically small are really a back-handed way of attacking its Socialist principles. Apart from that, the “criticism” betrays a woeful ignorance of social evolution.

Why do political parties change? If the party with the largest membership is always right, there can never be any change — but there always is. The answer is to be found in the Socialist conception, or view, of history.

New parties arise from new ideas. New ideas arise from new economic, and therefore new social conditions. The rise of trade unions is an example. As soon as the methods of production crammed workers together in thousands, their organization was inevitable; as was the organization of Labour parties to press their case in Parliament. Another example is the changed attitude to black people when they become wage-slaves instead of chattel-slaves.

The founding of an independent Socialist Party is itself the result of advancing capitalism. As Geo. Plekhanov says in In Defence of Materialism: “The psychology of society adapts itself to its economy”. There can be little doubt that Plekhanov was absolutely definite that Socialism required first a change in working-class “psychology”, or outlook:
In essence, this is the very psychological process which the proletariat of Europe is now going through; its psychology is already adapting itself to the new future relations of production.
The new idea, arising out of the new conditions, rarely if ever seizes a majority (or even a large number) immediately. By its very nature, it only reaches a small handful at the outset. This applies not only to politics but to all thought. The deeper, more fundamental the proposition — the longer it takes to spread.

The left-wing reformist, measuring the growth of the Socialist Party’s membership with a Labour Party yardstick, is bewildered. Not realizing that the whole method of the Labour Party is to get quick votes — at any price — he compares, say, the Labour Party campaigning for old-age pensions (which gets immediate mass support) with the Socialist Party which doesn’t even mention pensions.

Not appreciating the difference between Socialism and social reform, he cannot understand that the very fact that some temporary reform demand shoots into the sky with the flash of a rocket (merely to drop sadly back to earth in a feeble puff of smoke, like the erstwhile CND campaign) betrays its ephemeral, superficial nature. Socialism is not “around the corner”, but at the end of a long straight road. The process of educating workers to adjust correctly to changing capitalism attracts and trains the pioneers of the new society — the Socialists.

Though the actual number on roll is small, the ideas this handful represents are so immensely powerful as to be ultimately invincible. They are in line with social evolution — the future. Every member of the Party is proud to be among those in the very forefront of the organized struggle for Socialism. They know that one Socialist counts for more than thousands of Left confusionists.

Millions waste time and energy on futile reforms, hundreds concentrate on what matters — Socialism. One practical step YOU can take is to join the Socialist Party and work actively for it. But do realize that admission to membership depends on your knowledge of the Party’s case. This keeps the Party temporarily small, but also keeps it right.

You too can become part of that mighty atom the Socialist Party: the tiny forerunner of that countless army which will eventually decide the destiny of humanity.