April 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard
Mr. Ramsay McDonald recently gave it out that the Party of which he is ‘Leader “Fights for Divine Justice.” The question of divinity need not detain us, but one of the things which clearly mark off the Socialists from the Labour Party is, that we do not fight for justice; we fight for Socialism. Lest it be thought that the one is as vague and unsatisfactory as the other, let me add that we also define our aim :
“The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”
We deal with facts, they live in a world of abstractions. We see a system of society, in which a small minority, the capitalist class, own the means of producing wealth. We see that this class no longer takes an active part in the production of the wealth which they own, and of which they retain a large part after paying wages to the workers, the real producers. We see that the capitalist class have ceased to be socially useful, and that the organisation of society which they built up, and which was in its time and place necessary and an advance on previous systems, has become a hindrance to further progress. We see that the capitalists maintain their position by their control of the machinery of Government, and we know they will not willingly abdicate their privileged position. Because of this we ask the worker to organise for the conquest of power so that they may wrest from the ruling class their hold on the means, of life, and may rebuild society on the basis of common ownership and democratic control.
We fight for something definite and material; the Labour Party fights for “Justice.” What is Justice?
Imagine an unknown speaker, betrayed by no Party label, addressing a mixed crowd at any street corner, and saying: “I fight for justice.” If he is anything of an orator he is sure to strike an answering note in the minds of his audience, and they will all agree, with more or less enthusiasm, but complete harmony, that they also fight for justice. But let the speaker begin to explain what he means by justice, and he will soon discover that his conception is his own, and that his audience, in complete discord with each other, will agree only on one thing, that the speaker is a liar, a rogue, or a fool.
“Justice” for the big capitalist means State support in breaking strikes and in keeping control of foreign markets and areas of raw material: he fights for "justice,’’ or more usually he pays workers to do it for him. “ Justice” for the Judge means the body of laws which the ruling class want enforced at a particular time in his particular.country. “Justice” for.the small capitalist means protection against his monopolist rivals, State legislation against trusts, and 1s. off the income tax: he also fights for “justice.” “Justice” for the Russian peasant is the right to possess as much land as he can till and to live free from taxation and State interference. “Justice” for the trade unionist means the right to organise. There are as many conceptions of justice as there are sectional interests (real or imagined). All these sections fight for “ justice,” and also of necessity, they fight each other.
Socialism is born of the class struggle that goes on unceasingly owing to the private property basis of society. Socialism will arise out of the material conditions that exist in the capitalist organisation in which we live. We fight for the possession of the world’s wealth. Our aims are clear and we have no need to hide them under the figments of men’s minds, whether these be God’s or idealistic conceptions of justice and equity. The Labour Party, on the other hand, is the product of the “spirit of progress,” which “never dies,” says Mr. MacDonald (“Daily Herald,” 12th February, 1923). They have come “flaming with spirit,” and have won their way “into the hearts and intelligence of the great mass of the people.” Apart from a slight exaggeration, the "great mass” having been shown at the election to be about a quarter of the electors, this is all nonsense.
The origin of political movements is not to be explained by vague references to the “spirit of progress,” and, of course, parties, even if they are as woolly in their notions as the Labour Party, do in fact fight for concrete ends.
It may be true that many who have taken part in great historical movements have not understood their real meaning; and have been content to give up their lives for a phrase or a creed. Possibly the great majority who have borne the brunt of the fighting in past revolutions have been in this position, but it is nevertheless true that those old battle cries of the revolutionaries have not been mere myths; they have but idealised a more material conflict. "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” sounds fine, and Napoleon’s army fired by an idea and later by loyalty to the man who embodied it was an incomparable army, but as Marx says: “Infantry, cavalry and artillery” was much more to the point than brotherhood in furthering the interests of the rising capitalist class of France. For the bourgeois owners of the new machinery of production, liberty from the exactions of the now useless and effete feudal aristocracy; equality before the code of new capitalist laws, and fratenity in the exploitation of the proletariat: these were the gods of the philosophers, the soldiers and the statesmen of the revolution. The Guillotine taught the Paris workers that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were not for them. The workers may have been misled, but Napoleon and his advisers were under no illusion. The French capitalists fought through Napoleon for the political and economic dominance of Europe. They and their British rivals saw that the race for industrial supremacy lay between them. Napoleon encouraged the development of machine production in the French wool and cotton industries to outstrip England; he fought for access to the raw material for these industries, and Britain fought to prevent him; he fought for the capture of the European markets, and Britain fought in naval engagements, and by the smuggling trade to retain those markets. Needless to say, both Britain and France fought for “justice,” the British variety being “divine” and the French belonging to the new school of “Reason.”
At that time the landed aristocracy still kept a firm hand on the government of this country, and the commercial and manufacturing classes had to play second fiddle socially and politically to the fox-hunting squirearchy.
But as the textile, iron and coal trades grew in importance with the coming of machinery and the rapidly increasing foreign trade, the position of the traditional rulers was challenged. The manufacturers wanted free trade and no government interference, and by a choice use of catchphrases and the promise of the franchise the new prophets, typified by Cobden and Bright, won the workers to their side.
The class which had arisen with the new factory production were successful, and came into power as the Liberal Party. They fought out their political battle, now all but brought to a close, with the granting of partial women’s suffrage, but by habit the advanced sections of the working class have continued to stand by the side of the Liberal Party, when this has long since ceased to be any more progressive than its former opponents. Now, there is no real line of cleavage between industrial capitalists and landowners, and the interests of both is summed up in the endeavour to maintain things as they are.
But, says Mr. MacDonald, “Parties have died, but the spirit of progress never dies . . . The Labour Movement stands to-day as the inheritance of the Liberal tradition.” In other words, while the Socialist Party fights for Socialism, that is, for the interests of the working class, Mr. MacDonald and his Party fight for “justice,” “Liberal justice.” What do we find the Labour Party standing for, as shown in its programme and in its actions? For free trade—that is, for access to cheap raw materials—because in the past the interests of the dominant section of the British capitalist class were best served by free trade. On the other hand, most Continental and Colonial Labour Parties, who also fight for “Justice,” are protectionist because their capitalist governments have always been protectionist.
They fight for the “League of Nations” because some sections of the international capitalists wish to avoid the expense of war and the danger it threatens to the stability of their governments. We know that class and international conflicts are part of the nature of capitalism, and can be removed only with the destruction of the present system.
They want a capital levy (that is, a levy on capitalists individually, to lessen their collective State indebtedness) in order to stabilise the currency. They want international loans to improve the disturbed foreign exchanges, revision of the Peace Treaty, and some remission of reparations, all in order to revive capitalist trade.
We want to abolish Capitalism.
They want Nationalisation : that is, private ownership by the capitalists collectively through the State, instead of Individually. We want common ownership.
They want industrial peace; they propose to deal “fairly” and “impartially” as between robbers and robbed; to limit the proceeds of the robbery to a “just” rate of profit, and give the robbed a “just” proportion of the wealth they alone have produced. We stand for the destruction of wage slavery and the profit-making system.
In short, they stand for the abstraction “Justice,” which interpreted means the stabilisation, by reform, of the capitalist system, in the interests of the capitalist class. We, on the other hand, propose to deprive the capitalists of their private ownership of the means of life. Their right to own has been quite legally acquired, and our aim is therefore necessarily from their point of view a most unjust proceeding. We are, however, not governed by that consideration, and are prepared to stand for the concrete objective Socialism, because in that alone lies the hope of the working class.