I read with interest the letter from David Pepper, and your reply, in the May issue. A few questions and comments occurred to me when reading them, so I would like to throw them into the debate if I may.
1. On the question about an attempted reactionary coup, history lends weight to your reply, I think. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936- 1939, many ordinary regular soldiers, and some of their junior officers, chose to defend the elected Republican government, despite the fact that the majority of their most senior commanders were either involved in organizing the coup, or quickly declared for the rebels. And that was despite the lack of a coherent exposition of socialist policies or principles by the motley collection of opportunists who made up the pro-Government coalition—just think what could be achieved with a concerted socialist propaganda effort!
Having said that, the Government was defeated in that conflict. It would be wrong to underestimate the power of the capitalists—they would not need a majority outside of Parliament to create an effective armed force to be used to suppress the socialist movement. Less than 20 percent of the electorate might well suffice.
2. On the subject of the MP/electorate relationship, how would you anticipate making that work? Would you foresee regular constituency conferences, mandating each MP?
3. At present, a party—as we have seen—can form a government which has actually only received a minority of the vote. In that case, the SPGB could quite possibly find itself in the invidious position of holding office having not convinced the majority of the electorate of the need for socialism. Might this not compromise the Party’s efforts to move towards a socialist society, (particularly if the scenario referred to at 1. above arose)? Would the Party use its constitutional powers to alter the electoral system even though that might mean, in the short term, relinquishing office?
4. Equally, under the present system—which the Party would not be in a position to alter until it actually had a majority of MPs in the Commons—each MP is responsible to a constituency. How soon can we say that we could move to a situation where the MP was directed by the members of that constituency rather than by the Party conference, given that many of those electors may not be socialists themselves?
5. Finally, supposing that the SPGB had just won a majority in Parliament (yes, 1 do realize that this is. at present, speculation—verging on fantasy—but I do not think it idle!) and was therefore the only Party capable of forming a government—one particularly knotty problem must be how far can the Party go given that the rest of the world is by no means in the same position? Socialism can only be, as you have rightly said, a worldwide system. I know that you have said before that it is inconceivable that the World Socialist Movement could be so far advanced in one country without some developments having taken place elsewhere. This may be so—but the fact remains that many countries do not currently have a Socialist Party (or indeed any democracy); and even if they did, different electoral practices might well preclude anything like a simultaneous transition. What could the SPGB do in these circumstances?
Batley, W. Yorks
One point must be cleared up right away: we repudiate any idea of a socialist party "holding office" or "forming a government".
The establishment of socialism will not be like a change of government, with the socialist party winning an election, forming a government and using its parliamentary majority to legislate socialism into being.
We do not say to workers "vote for us and we’ll introduce socialism for you". What we say is: "If you want socialism, this is something you will have to do for yourselves; only you can establish socialism, not some party on your behalf".
What we are talking about is not a change of government nor a change to be achieved by a government, but a change in the basis of society—a social revolution, to be carried out by the actions of the immense majority.
Certainly, we advocate that this social revolution should be accomplished by democratic political means; so contesting elections, going into parliaments, etc will be involved, but the mechanics of electoral systems in particular countries are mere technical details. The important element is the socialist consciousness and democratic self-organisation of the working class who, as those excluded from ownership and control of the means of production, are the immense majority.
When the socialist movement has reached the stage your questions presuppose—when it is near to winning control of political power—the socialist political party really will be the majority working class organised politically for socialism. This means that it will be up to the socialist-minded majority itself to decide how to handle the sort of tactical issues you raise as hypothetical problems.
All we can say now is that whatever is decided will be decided democratically, in the light of the fact that socialism cannot be established unless and until a majority want it, and in accordance with the socialist principle that under no circumstances should socialists take on any responsibility for running capitalism.
The change-over to the situation you mention where a person elected for a locality would be the mandated delegate of the people of that locality won’t be able to take place until a classless society has been established. This, along with the procedures and practices it implies—report-back meetings, mandating conferences, referendums, right of recall, rotation of posts, etc— will in fact be the basis of the democratic decision-making structure of the new society.
I once considered joining the SPGB but having read your post “election” coverage I’m very glad I didn’t.
First and most obvious, about 37 percent of the possible electors in Holborn & St Pancras saw fit not to bother to vote. In fact more people didn’t vote than voted for the winner, so your 0.4 percent is reduced to 0.2 percent. Your £500 deposit plus expenses would possibly have been better spent on building “socialism" in those areas where people are so disaffected with the system that they don't bother to vote.
Secondly, I appreciate you will rebuff my first point because you are so totally sold on a “parliamentary road” for socialism. I imagine this is because you take literally what Marx said about capitalism creating the means to its own downfall. You seem to think that parliament was made to do away with capitalism, which would be a laughable slogan if you didn't take it so seriously. If the ruling classes thought that parliament was the means by which their wealth would be confiscated they’d abolish it. They are after all busy reducing the effectiveness of trade unions so workers can’t make “unreasonable” demands on their wealth.
Thirdly, even if it was possible to elect a majority of SPGB MPs into parliament that wouldn’t mean a majority in the country as anybody who knows anything about electoral reform will know. I also find it hard to see the socialist majority telling the MPs “this is what we want” and then the MPs passing some law telling us to do it.
Fourthly, your naivety concerning parliament. If you only got a minority of SPGB MPs I fear it would be nigh on impossible for them not to sell-out. The logic of parliament demands it. No matter how well-meaning they are, they will end up as “good parliamentarians”.
Fifthly, I was somewhat shocked by the apparent tone of your “Socialists and Parliament” letter reply when you talk of “material forces and events”. Do I take it you rub your hands with glee at the prospect of nuclear war or an ecological disaster so you can ride into Parliament on the back of the discontent? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so keen to close nuclear power stations. Imagine the benefits of one blowing up.
The Natural Law Party may appear to be the work of a “crank cult” but the organisation that backs it, the Transcendental Meditation movement, has all the makings of a mind control cult. In fact advertisements for the “teachings” of the cult are banned from many newspapers because of this, doubtless explaining their keenness to expend money on a national election/advertising campaign.
Lastly, in your open letter to the director general of the BBC (they don’t call themselves great either) you say “we leave it to the good sense of the workers whose ancestors fought for the vote . . . ”. Were not those workers listening to the voice of pointless reformism instead of a “socialist" message?
I didn’t join your party. I became an Anarchist.
There was no need to say you became an anarchist since only an anarchist could dismiss the Chartists’ demand for an extension of the vote to workers as a pointless reform. And hadn't you noticed that we contested the election under the shortened version of our name? Your misconceptions about the Socialist Party riding into power, passing laws telling people what to do, etc are dealt with in our reply to the previous letter.
We don’t want power; we want the majority to take power into their own hands. This in fact is the aim of the socialist revolution: to bring the means of production under the democratic control of all the people. But if this is the case why not organise just to take over the means of production? Why bother to also organise to win control of parliament and the state? This has been the main difference between us and those anarchists (by no means a majority, by a long way) who agree that common ownership can only come about through the majority organising themselves consciously and democratically.
We favour the socialist majority taking electoral action, as well as organising at their places of work, because we see this as the best way for them to ensure that the socialist revolution proceeds as smoothly and peaceably as possible. To try to ignore the state, whose role today is to uphold and protect capitalist property rights, would be a completely irresponsible policy as this would be to increase rather than minimise the risk of violence.
Given the existence of a socialist majority, the sensible way to proceed would be to use the vote to take the control of parliament out of the hands of the supporters of capitalism, so neutralising the state while at the same time giving the socialist revolution an unchallengeable democratic legitimacy.
You say that if the socialist majority sent mandated delegates into parliament these would inevitably sell out. But why? Unless you subscribe to the so-called “iron law of oligarchy" which says that elected representatives will always sell out, you have to explain why the socialist majority would be able to control the delegates it might send to some such extra-parliamentary body as a congress of workplace committees or a conference of neighbourhood councils (or whatever else it is you see as the alternative to parliament) but not those it sent into parliament. We say that, if they can do it in the one case, they can do it in the other too.