Monday, December 30, 2019

Letter: Socialist Aims and Strategies (1966)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

An open-minded discussion of socialist aims and strategies seems to be badly needed in these days. The present impotence of the socialist movement in the western countries cannot possibly be overcome unless at least some unity in purpose and action is achieved.

There is already agreement on “common ownership and democratic control” of the means of production and distribution, but it still remains to be agreed upon the proper meaning of these words. Should they be understood as referring to a centralised economic system, administered by state-appointed officials, or rather to a decentralised system with scope for local initiatives?

In my opinion the latter alternative is more in accordance with the idea of democracy. State socialism inevitably leads to concentration of power in the hands of state or party bureaucrats, and there does not seem to be much sense in substituting one kind of privileged class for another.

A certain amount of central planning may be indispensable in a socialist society, but then it should be only structural, i.e., provide the general framework of the economy. If central planning is allowed to interfere with ordinary production and distribution, local initiatives will be paralyzed and democracy endangered.

To create a democratic socialist society it will be better to turn most companies into producers’ co-operatives rather than into state-owned property. This kind of decentralisation is especially valuable since it is based on the active participation of ordinary employees, while limiting the powers of company managers.

Workers’ control or self-management is the only remedy for the frustration and “alienation” felt by many workers in factories and offices today. In producers’ cooperatives they would be able to discuss matters of common interest, such as changes of working conditions, investment policies, etc., on the basis of personal experiences and preferences. Being entitled to participate when decisions concerning them are arrived at they would no longer be merely the hired tools of others but human beings with dignity and self-respect.

Abolition of capitalist privileges and introduction of a democratic socialist society could probably not be achieved at one stroke, least of all in countries where the press and other mass media are controlled by a handful of capitalists. A gradualist approach, however, requires a clear-cut parliamentary strategy.

As a first step on the road to socialism it will be necessary to confiscate the large private fortunes by means of death duties and a once-for-all capital levy. All property holdings above, say, £100,000 should be taxed one hundred per cent, and the confiscated assets used for nationalisation of the commercial banks.

The next step should be a transfer of the powers of the shareholders in all major companies to the employees. The latter should be given a majority representation in newly established Works Councils, responsible for the appointment of managers, control of management, disposal of capital assets, fixation of wages, etc.

The third step should be abolition of all unearned income and elimination of the enormous income gap now existing between highly salaried officials and under-paid wage-earners.

By adopting a radical and well defined strategy like this western socialists would leave nobody in doubt concerning their practical recommendations for the achievement of socialism. This is just as important as a clear definition of the ultimate aim: an economic system based on fair distribution and co-operation for mutual benefit instead of exploitation and accumulation of power in the hands of a few.
Sune Hjorth, 
Sundovall, Sweden

Mr. Hjorth bases his argument on the assumption that there is some common ground where the Socialist Party of Great Britain and other political parties (what he calls “the socialist movement in the western countries") can discuss aims and strategies.

In fact, the Socialist Party stands for something which is completely opposed to what the rest want. We alone advocate common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution; the other parties, whatever some of them may call themselves, support the capitalist social system of private ownership and control.

The Labour Party, for example, are now the government of Britain, for the second time since the war. Nothing they have done, or intend to do, has had any effect on society. The capitalist class are still in possession of the means of production; the Labour Party’s part in this has been to attack the living standards of the working class.

None of this has been caused by defects of Labour ministers, or a lack of discussion of aims. The Labour Party know perfectly well what they are doing. It is simply the inescapable result of running capitalism.

The great fault with the proposals put forward by Mr. Hjorth—producers’ cooperatives, workers’ control and so on—is that they are something less than Socialism. Co-operatives still produce for the market and it is the market that in the end rules. Many organisations (including the Labour Party) have dabbled in similar ideas. They have all come to nothing.

Socialists stand outside all this. The only way Socialism can be established is for the working class consciously to opt for it. When they have the necessary knowledge, they will end the privileges of capitalism and set up the new society in which men will stand as equals about the world’s wealth.

The Socialist Party exists to help in this process; it is our job to help the working class come to an understanding of Socialist ideas. Above all, this requires a clear, uncompromising stand. The worst thing we could do would be to confuse the issue by claiming to be a Socialist Party while getting involved in trifling reforms of capitalism—what Mr. Hjorth mentions as “changes of working conditions, investment policies . . . nationalisation of the commercial banks . . . death duty and capital levy . . ."

One final point. Mr. Hjorth mentions “State Socialism”. This is a contradiction in terms. There will be no state machine in a Socialist society; it will disappear along with the other organs of capitalist privilege and coercion. A better way of describing the policies our correspondent has in mind would be state capitalism—which is what the Labour Party and many other organisations stand for, and mean when they talk about Socialism.
Editorial Committee

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