Letter to the Editors from the May 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
Having listened to many of your SPGB discussion tapes I think I broadly understand the Socialist Party perspective. However I still feel very unclear about the vexed question of social change and the agents by which the SPGB sees it coming about. I would be grateful if you could clarify matters for me.
The SPGB apparently favours a parliamentary road, but not a reformist one. It will be a revolution, through the mass vote of the people, which will install a majority of Socialist Party MPs. They will pass a single act which will restore ownership and control of the means of production to the people, and replace parliament by a body of delegates— presumably from communities and regions. They will be mandated to carry out the general will, which will be to establish socialism thereby abolishing classes. Is this broadly correct? If so, several questions come to mind:
1. Isn’t the SPGB position somewhat vanguardist, despite its ostensible rejection of vanguardism? I ask, because it seems that the Party sees its role as educational: to work out and communicate a theory and practice which the majority can learn and apply when they are ready to call for profound social change. At this time, would not the Party, in practice, have a leading position, showing people what to do: thus making it difficult to carry out its declared aim of disbanding and fading into the ranks?
2. How does this parliamentary revolution scenario stand up to the critique of such scenarios implicit in Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup? In that novel (as distinct from the more optimistic film version), I recall that the radical Labour Party was frustrated at every twist and turn by an international and national conspiracy on the part of the owners of the means of production, distribution and exchange. They used their economic and military power effectively to emasculate the nominal, political power of the elected government. In effect, nothing changed from what obtains today, except that the real power was more nakedly and forcefully exerted to put down revolution. And this is surely what would happen. Has the SPGB contemplated what would have to be done then to complete the transition to socialism? Does it envisage that the revolution would very quickly have to become extra-parliamentary, and possibly involve aggressive takeover of all the apparatus of real power? I can quite see the logic in the if-they-won’t-vote-for-it-they-won’t-fight- for-it maxim. But if they vote for it, will they then go on to fight for it if this becomes necessary?
3. Does the SPGB envisage any transitional stage when there might be some members elected as MPs, but not enough to form a majority? What would the strategy be? Would MPs have to behave strictly as delegates, or would they have latitude to develop a united parliamentary line for more effective opposition (effectively a whip)?
4. What is the view on how a mass desire for socialism will arise? I, myself, do not have much faith in a steady process of education and consciousness-raising as a trigger for social change. It will surely be material forces and events— perhaps a series of massive ecological disruptions, coupled with an immiseration of the third world proletariat beyond the point where they are willing to continue to be exploited by a first world bourgeoisie. (But the problem with this particular scenario, according to development expert Michael Redclift, is that third world people are already immiserated beyond the point where they would be likely to achieve revolutionary consciousness and take action). What do you think?
DAVID PEPPER, Oxford
1. We do indeed say that the working class should use Parliament in the course of establishing socialism. But your summary of our position is not entirely accurate as it gives the impression that we think it will be the Socialist MPs who will establish socialism on behalf of an essentially passive even if socialist-minded majority outside Parliament. In actual fact our position is the reverse: it will be the socialist-minded and democratically self-organised working class outside Parliament who will establish socialism with the Socialist MPs as their passive instruments. The working class establishes socialism; the Socialist MPs are merely their delegates charged with carrying out certain formalities to try to ensure that the social revolution takes place in as coordinated and as peaceable a way as possible.
Similarly, although at present when there are so few socialists the role of a socialist party is essentially educational, when a majority or even a substantial minority come to want socialism its role will be transformed. There will be no separation between it and the working class since the socialist political party will be the working class organised politically for socialism.
2. Your question about a possible pro-capitalist coup is highly speculative but, yes, we have considered this. Basically, we think that such a coup would have no chance whatsoever of succeeding. Consider what an impending or actual socialist victory at the polls would mean. This would be a reflection of a desire for socialism but not by people who were prepared to do no more to get it than put an X on a ballot paper. It would reflect the determination to achieve socialism of an active majority, who would be organised at their places of work as well as on the political field.
In fact the existence of such a determined majority in itself could be expected to be a deterrent to any pro-capitalist putsch being attempted. But if such a putsch were to be staged then, clearly, the socialist majority would have to take steps to counter it. Obviously they could not, and would not, allow a usurping minority to thwart the majority will for socialism. How precisely to react would be up to the socialist movement to decide at the time in the light of the precise circumstances, but—since anyway we are in the realm of speculation here—it can be imagined that strikes and demonstrations would be organised and that in the armed forces (whose personnel would also have been influenced by the spread of socialist ideas) widespread defections and refusals to obey the usurping government would occur. The position of the putschists would be hopeless and would rapidly become untenable. The only way-out would be the very thing they sought to impede: the establishment of socialism. For once a majority want socialism nothing can prevent its establishment.
3. We have also considered the question of what a minority of Socialist MPs should do. In our view, their main task in Parliament would be to use it as a tribune to propagate socialist ideas; under no circumstances should they do deals or form alliances with non-socialist MPs; nor should they propose any reforms to capitalism. However, this need not preclude them voting for certain measures proposed by other MPs if the socialist movement outside Parliament judged doing so to be in the interest of the working class (safety and heath legislation, for instance). The Socialist MPs would at all times be answerable to the socialist working-class movement outside Parliament and be strictly mandated by it.
4. We agree with you that the "mass desire for socialism" is unlikely to arise solely from “a steady process of education and consciousness-raising”. What we say is that such campaigning for socialism will be an essential clement in the process of the emergence of majority socialist understanding. The other element will be the working-class discontent that is endemic to capitalism, and this is where “material forces and events” come in. You may be right that this could be a series of massive ecological disruptions. Or it could be a nuclear war. Or the growing dehumanization and break-down of social ties that capitalism is bringing about. Or even a particularly severe economic slump. Who knows? Who can know ?
Will the mass movement for socialism start amongst the working class in the so-called Third World? Maybe, but if it did it would not be able to succeed without spreading to the working class in the developed capitalist parts of the world. This is where the main productive resources which will allow humanity to overcome the problem of material scarcity and eliminate world hunger, poverty and disease are situated. The fate of the working class in the “Third World" is indissolubly tied to that of the working class in the "First World”.