From the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Over the years the word socialism has been used to describe the aims and principles of many different organisations and the policies of numerous governments and regimes. Nowadays, in most people’s minds, socialism is associated with the Labour Party and the small organisations on its left-wing or with countries like Russia. China and Cuba.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always been completely opposed to all the above forms of ‘socialism’ and, alone of all political organisations, has always clearly stated what it means by socialism and how it can be achieved. Throughout its 76 years of existence it has defined socialism as a world-wide democratic moneyless society based on the common ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution in which everyone will have free access to all goods and services according to their self-determined needs. It has maintained that socialism can only be established by people consciously casting their vote in favour of candidates mandated to abolish the present social arrangements and replace them with new, fundamentally different ones. However, before our definition of socialism and the way it is to be achieved can be meaningfully understood, we must explain the views of the Socialist Party on the present system of society and state why we consider that this system has to be abolished.
We call the present system of society capitalism. And by capitalism we mean a society based on the private ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution—a society of buying and selling. This exists all over the world, in Russia, China, Cuba as well as in the West. It has not always existed and will not exist for ever. It is not an evil conspiracy but a type of social order which has been necessary for human progress. It has developed science and technology to an undreamed-of degree, united the world in communications and educated more people than ever before to a high degree of knowledge and adaptability.
But capitalism has not fully applied its advances for the benefit of the majority of the population, and it cannot. It has not united the world politically — wars go on all the time and the threat of a Big War which would wipe us all out remains ever present. It has not used the knowledge and expertise it has created to ensure useful, dignified and happy productive activity. It has put a curse on work; for most people work is equated with what is most unpleasant in life.
What capitalism has done is to create a potential abundance of wealth capable of satisfying human wants on a vast, almost unimaginable, scale but without being able to realise that potential. This is because the capitalist economic system is geared not to distributing wealth freely but to rationing it by means of the market and the wages system. It reacts crazily to the threat of abundance, as can be seen from the enormous problem posed by millions of tons of ‘surplus' food in a world where at least 10 per cent of the population is starving.
And even in those economically advanced countries of the world (like Britain, France, Germany, Sweden USA) which wars have not directly affected for some time and in which the most abject forms of poverty have all but disappeared, capitalism operates, as it has always operated everywhere, by exploiting the majority of the population.
Yes, the majority of people are exploited. And by this we do not mean that they earn starvation wages or live in 19th-century conditions or that employers make “too much” profit. We simply mean that people are a source of wealth which is taken from them; that they produce a greater amount of wealth than they receive. This may seem fairly obvious but it is not difficult for most people, aided by the news media, to see the world as a place in which benign employers or caring governments somehow ‘give’ workers employment. The fact is that the world’s wealth is produced but not owned by that large majority who, in order to live, are obliged to sell their labour power to an employer for a wage or salary. And despite vastly improved conditions of life for that majority over the years, their percentage ownership of the wealth they produce is actually lower than it was in the nineteenth century. In other words wealth is less evenly distributed now than it was 100 years ago. In this country in 1976 (according to the government-appointed Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth) 80 per cent of the population owned only 22 per cent of the wealth and 10 per cent of the population owned 61 per cent of the wealth.
The working class
This large majority of people who own a small minority of the wealth we refer to as the working class. To many people ‘working class’ is defined by occupation or education or even by such things as accent or table manners. These may be useful classifications for some purposes but in fact the working class is composed of those who do not own enough to live off their possessions and therefore have to sell their energies in order to live. The working class is a class of wage slaves and as such includes office workers, doctors, dentists, teachers, as well as manual workers.
Its interests are diametrically opposed to those of the other class in society, the employing or capitalist class, comprising those who own enough to live off their possessions without needing to sell themselves to an employer. Capitalists gain where workers lose and vice versa: the lower the wages the higher the profits, the higher the wages the lower the profits.
We have no personal grudge against capitalists either as individuals or as a class. We simply point out that with all the goodwill in the world their interests cannot be but opposed to those of the people they employ. To put it quite plainly the society we live in is a class-divided society and no number of appeals to ‘common sense’, the ‘national interest’ or ‘fairness’ can change this.
Class struggle and the unions
As long as we have class-divided society we will have class struggle taking in particular the form of go-slows, works-to-rule and strikes. Such action is unpleasant but unavoidable if workers are to defend their living standards and occasionally raise them. Workers do not ask for it and socialists take no pleasure in it. It must be added however that strikes, although necessary for working-class defence, are a severely limited weapon, as the general level of wages is negotiable only within very narrow limits. And it must be stressed above all that trade unions in themselves do nothing to threaten the continued existence of capitalism. On the contrary, as bargaining organisations between employee and employer, they play an essential part in its operation.
Apart from the continual battle between employee and employer over pay and working conditions, capitalism produces a host of other problems, big and small, which it cannot solve. Among the bigger ones are war, unemployment, bad housing, shoddy goods, anxiety, loneliness, boring work, all of which add up to a society of strife and dissatisfaction and a generally insecure and frustrated existence for the majority. Suggestions for improving things come continually from the political parties involved in running the system. The reforms they advocate are often called ‘innovatory’, ‘dynamic’ or even ‘revolutionary’. But once on the statute book they rarely benefit the working class to anything like the extent claimed and, on close examination, can usually be seen to be designed for the smoother, more efficient management of capitalism and its profit machine. A prime example of this is the Labour Party’s post-war ‘show-pieces’, nationalisation (often mistaken for socialism), which has been of no tangible benefit to the working class, and the National Health Service which was, and still' is, a shoddy, back-to-work service designed to keep workers in efficient order for the task of creating profits for their employers.
Well-meaning individuals often say that you can favour socialism in the long term but still campaign for reforms in the meantime. We say that this is merely putting off the day and channelling energies that could be usefully employed in bringing socialism nearer into activities whose results are uncertain and which anyway are more likely to help bolster capitalism than get rid of it. In any case it is not the function of a socialist organisation to campaign for reforms or seek support on the basis of reforms.
So far it has been comparatively easy for the dissatisfaction of workers to be channelled in a reformist rather than a socialist direction. What most people want is a quiet, secure life for themselves and their families, but capitalism does not allow them this. They are constantly denied it by wars, crises, job reorganisation, government economics, day-to-day violence and all the perpetual agitation and change of the dynamic competitive system that is capitalism. They react apathetically to all this because they are used to decisions being made for them, arbitrarily, by ‘higher authority’ and feel powerless to do anything themselves. They may take refuge in television, drugs, working for charities, feverish pursuit of ‘success’, and delude themselves and others into thinking they are ‘happy’ in this. Yet things will not get better and, ultimately, they will have to tackle the problem at its source and take collective action to establish socialism.
Socialism comes from capitalism
What makes us think they will ever do this? Well there is certainly no guarantee, but certain long-term trends in capitalism do make it increasingly likely. Capitalism has already created a large, organised, highly trained working class which carries out by itself all essential productive, administrative and educative activity throughout the world and which is inexorably driven because of its subordinate social position and its conditions of work, to challenge the status quo. Capitalism has also produced, and carries on producing, the material conditions necessary for the establishment and the practical organisation of a united world-wide society rapid world-wide communications and a potential abundance of goods and services. Furthermore many of the problems of modern capitalism (pollution, threat of nuclear war, terrorism) are world problems which can only be approached on a world scale and which therefore spread among workers a consciousness of the need for global solutions.
How to get socialism
Because socialism will be a fully democratic society in which the majority will get its way, with full rights of dissent for minorities, it follows that it can only be set up democratically. That is to say socialism cannot be handed to a majority of people by an elite which thinks it knows what is good for them. The result of minority revolution could only be minority rule under capitalism as in Russia, China and so on. And being a majority concept socialism excludes the idea of violence. The street fights and barricades vision of revolution so typical of today’s romantic Left is pure nineteenth-century. Today no barricades could possibly stand up to the might of the modern state and, in any case, there is no need, for in the economically advanced countries of the world, where workers are most numerous and highly trained, capitalism has been forced to give them certain elementary political rights, in particular the vote. So when a majority decide they want socialism they can organise themselves as a leaderless democratic political party (just as socialists at present have organised themselves in The Socialist Party) and use the ballot box to send their delegates to parliament with a mandate for abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism.
Sceptics often ask: ‘Will the capitalist class allow this to happen?’ Our reply is: ‘What can they do against a politically conscious majority from all sections (police, army included) of the working class?
What socialism will be like
What will socialism be like once established? Well we obviously cannot provide a blueprint as the precise details of its organisation will be democratically decided by the majority who in the future will establish that society and live in it. But we can make certain general statements about its nature.
We can say that it will mean the end of buying and selling, the end of money and the wages system.
We can say that, with the disappearance of such factors as cost and competition, it will mean people planning production democratically according to their wants and taking what they need to consume from the abundance of resources made available by modern technology.
We can say that it will mean voluntary cooperation, work as pleasure not toil, and all men and women as social equals.
We can say that it will mean complete democracy in all departments of life with freedom to choose one’s activities and occupations without being pushed around by decisions from above or by any kind of arbitrary authority.
We can say that socialism will be world-wide—it cannot be anything else; ‘British Socialism’ is a contradiction in terms and anyway the world is now so closely united in terms of communications, fashions and the rapid flow of ideas that if people in one place were ready for socialism the rest of the world could not be far behind.