Letter to the Editors from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard
Reform or Revolution
In connexion with Socialism it seems pertinent to consider three situations: the current capitalist-situation, the future Socialist-situation and the change-over-situation when capitalism changes to Socialism. Many people claim Socialism infeasible, usually on the grounds that human-nature would not allow Socialism to operate. To this the Socialist Party of Great Britain replies that those elements of human-nature that would harm Socialism are merely a product of capitalism and that under Socialism human-nature would adjust accordingly. Such an adjustment would surely take generations, certainly many years, to come about, and this in itself surely renders the sudden onset of Socialism an impossibility? The Socialist Party demands that Socialists should not vote for reformist parties such as the Labour Party and apparently forgets that by condemning reformism an increasing public sympathy towards the Socialist Party will technically be followed by an increasingly “Right Wing” government. Indeed, as soon as the Socialist Party became a threat to the status-quo
, repressive government measures would be taken to destroy it. In fact we could see politics moving backwards. It appears that Socialists must become involved in reformism, or cry for ever to the wind. This makes the unsympathetic attitude taken by the Socialist Party towards the Labour Party all the more difficult to understand.
R. E. Shimmin,
Port St. Mary, Isle of Man.
Mr. Shimmin’s argument might have some validity if it really was the aim and policy of the Labour Party to achieve Socialism by a gradual process of reform. But Labour has always firmly stood for capitalism (even if we concede that a tiny handful of its members may have wanted Socialism). Its constitution commits it to wholesale nationalisation or state capitalism, while in practice it accepts capitalism in Britain more or less as it is, a mixture of private and state enterprise. The only party in this country to stand for Socialism is the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Class ownership of the means of production causes workers’ problems and any government, be it Labour or “right-wing”, which takes power within capitalism cannot solve these problems and must come into conflict with the workers. It must run capitalism in the only way it can be, as a profit-making system in the interests of the privileged few who live off rent, interest and profit, and to the detriment of the workers. As socialists, we are not particularly concerned whether the capitalist government is Labour, Tory, Liberal or a coalition of them all. They are all anti-working class.
We fail to see Mr. Shimmin’s point about the growth of the Socialist Party “technically” being followed by a reactionary government. We presume that this is the old hoary one about splitting the anti-Tory vote. But it is not the Tories that are the main enemy. It is capitalism and we are equally opposed to all parties that support it, Labour as well as Tory. We would also remind Mr. Shimmin that in many countries, and especially in pre-war Germany, it was the failure of democratic reformism that paved the way for the rise of parties favouring dictatorship.
We are given no reason as to why the growth of the Socialist Party should be at the expense of the Labour Party. No doubt when the socialist movement grows those who support capitalism, fearful of splitting the anti-socialist vole, will rally around one or other of the large capitalist parties. It may be the Tories or it may be Labour or they both may form an anti-socialist electoral alliance. It does not really worry us what they do. That is their problem and that of the class they represent, the capitalists. We assure of one thing, though. Going by the record of the two post-war Labour governments, if there are any repressive measures to be taken against socialists and workers generally Labour will be only too pleased to oblige.
Which brings us to another of Mr. Shimmin’s points. He suggests that when the Socialist Party grows the government will take steps to try to crush it. Maybe, but we doubt it. For as the socialist movement grows so the power of the capitalists is weakened. The balance of class power shifts in favour of the workers. Any government, be it Labour or Tory, which tried to crush the socialist movement would be biting off too much. By the time the socialist movement has grown so as to be a threat to capitalist power then it will be too late to crush it.
Nor has our correspondent really understood our view of human nature. We are not out to change it. We merely assert that human beings behave in different ways under different social conditions and that they can change themselves by changing these conditions. The change from capitalism to Socialism will not be made by us on behalf of the people, but by the immense majority of workers who want Socialism and are fully aware of what is involved in establishing and running such a society. Once workers are socialist-minded Socialism can be established fairly quickly. When the workers have political power it won’t take long to use it to convert the means of production from class to common ownership. This done, then production for use, to meet human needs can begin. Socialism will have been set up.
Democracy and Socialism
A member of your party who saw me leaving Hyde Park on a march on Sunday 25 August claimed that because anarchists consider parliamentary democracy to be a farce we have no reason to object to the suppression of the minimal democratic liberties that the Czechs have so far won.
Indeed we consider that parliament is manipulated undemocratically, though in point of fact the Czechs anyway have at no time claimed to have achieved a "free parliament” so this is rather a red herring. If they did they would no doubt have the danger that their “gains” would be rendered nugatory by making such parliament powerless as our own is in fact, if not in Tory constitutional theory. We would then surely warn that the achievement of parliament is the achievement of the shadow of democracy not the reality, and that to allow one’s self to be hamstrung by the rules of parliamentarian politics, when the ruling class never accepts such a limitation, would be to shackle the working class and hand it over bound hand and foot to exploitation.
What the Czechs have tried to achieve, however, is freedom of expression, the right to publish their own views. Here again, if the ruling class has the state to finance its press, and anyway through the ownership of industry is able to afford a preponderant share of the press, we would say that such equality of the press and freedom of expression is a myth, the shadow of the substance only.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain stood aside from what was the most significant demonstration on the issue, a demonstration which had as its basis solely the two principles that the Czechs should have the right to decide their own system of society —whether or not our demonstrators might like their choice—and that the demonstration should be confined to those who make the same demand for the Vietnamese.
I cannot believe that the Socialist Party is still really so foolish as to deny any value to opposition to a dictatorship. You rest such enormous claims on the validity of British parliamentary democracy as a road to Socialism, that one might have expected you to support any struggle to win such basic liberties as freedom of expression—saying of course at the same time that these gains would not solve everything and that more needed to be won to make this valid.
No doubt as the bombs begin to fall in a nuclear war, you will still be saying you cannot associate yourselves with protest embracing anyone but members of your own party. You will of course be right in saying that there is no permanent cure short of Socialism, but you will be wrong, a million times wrong, in refusing to attempt to get a short respite so as the further to work for Socialism by joining with others who do not share every jot and title of your faith.
The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on democracy is well set out in Chapter Four of our pamphlet Questions of the Day
“Under Democracy, the workers are allowed to form their own political and economic organisations, and within limits, freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press is permitted as well as the possibility of the electorate choosing between contending political parties. “Now, unlike many people intoxicated with a newly-found love for democracy, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the democratic nature of Socialism, and on the value that the widest possible discussion of conflicting political views has for the working class. When we refuse to unite with non-socialist organisations for the purpose of defending democracy, it is most certainly not because we in any way minimise or underestimate the importance of democracy for the working class or the socialist movement It is simply because we are convinced that democracy cannot be defended in such a manner.
“Democracy, in itself, cannot solve the problems of the working class. Unemployment, poverty, insecurity, and other evil effects of capitalism remain, no matter whether the form of its political administration be democratic or dictatorial. Freedom to cry working class misery from the house-tops will not, in itself, abolish the misery. Democracy is a weapon, potentially invaluable, it. is true; but like every other weapon, it can be used either for self-preservation or for self-destruction.
“As long as the working class supports capitalism and capitalist policies, it will be tempted ultimately to give its support to that policy best calculated to meet the political and economic needs of capitalism —even though that policy may be one of dictatorship.
“Democracy for the working class can only be consolidated and expanded to the extent that the workers adopt the socialist standpoint. To renounce Socialism so that democracy may be defended, means ultimately the renunciation of both Socialism and democracy”.
and, in our manifesto on the Second World War, reproduced in our pamphlet The Socialist Party and War
“The Socialist Party of Great is fully aware of the sufferings of German workers under Nazi rule, and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights against the powers of suppression, but the history of the past decades shows the futility of war as a means of safeguarding democracy”.
Thus, we do, and always have, held that democracy is of value both to the working class and to the Socialist movement, but we do not think that it should, and in the end can, be defended by uniting with non-socialists or by war. So we are not "so foolish as to deny any value to opposition to dictatorship”. We welcome the break-up of dictatorships and the coming of democracy, however limited. But we do not support democracy in the abstract, but as a means to an end: Socialism.
Otter’s case is based on a fallacy. Because we refuse to join in demonstrations with non-socialists, in favour of democracy, he says that therefore we are not in favour of democracy. This conclusion is quite unwarranted as the reason we will not join with non-socialists is because we do not think this is the way to defend democracy. Besides, with the pro-Vietcong elements on his demonstration we are sure there were many there who couldn’t care two hoots about democracy.
In his last paragraph Otter begs the whole question as he assumes that our joining with non-socialists would "get a short respite so as the further to work for Socialism” (we shall ignore the jibe about faith). But this is precisely what we deny. As we said above: experience shows that to renounce Socialism so that democracy may be defended means in the end to renounce both Socialism and democracy.
"British parliamentary democracy" is not the road to Socialism. Socialism can only be established by the democratic political action of a working class convinced of the need for it. In Britain universal suffrage and parliament (and the local councils) can be used to win political power. But there is nothing special about the British constitution. Other states have different arrangements but as long as they allow a majority to get its way they can be used to establish Socialism.
It is quite true that in Czechoslovakia there was no struggle for a “free parliament”. Technically, there was already a national assembly elected by universal suffrage but these really did conform to the anarchist image of being a fraud, a facade and a farce. Real power lay elsewhere: in the top ranks of the Communist Party. Electors had no choice but to vote for (or if they dared against) a list of pro-government candidates. Opposition parties and journals were suppressed. It is nice to see, however, that some anarchists are learning that there is a difference between dictatorship and democracy as far as the workers are concerned.