Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Morris and the Problem of Reform or Revolution (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is now generally accepted that William Morris, the Victorian poet and designer, was for the last thirteen years of his life (he died in 1896 at the age of 62) an active propagandist for “Revolutionary International Socialism”. It is not so well known that for a part of this period his attitude to socialist tactic—summed up in the phrases “Education for Revolution” and “Make Socialists—was in many respects similar to that adopted by the Socialist Party of Great Britain when it was formed only eight years after his death.

When Morris became convinced that socialism was the only solution to the problems facing society—and particularly, as far as he was concerned, to the disappearance of enjoyable work or “popular art” as he called it—he joined the Democratic Federation which H.M. Hyndman had formed from various radical groups and clubs in London. In 1883, the year Morris joined, the Democratic Federation proclaimed Socialism as its aim and changed its name to Social Democratic Federation. It maintained its programme of immediate demands (public housing, free education, eight-hour day, public works, nationalisation of the land) but labelled them “stepping stones” to socialism.

Education for Revolution
Hyndman was a former Tory and carried over his arrogant and jingoist attitudes into the SDF with the result that conflict developed within the organisation and, at the very end of 1884, a split. Morris found himself a leading light in the new organisation, the Socialist League. Unlike the SDF, the Socialist League had no programme of “stepping stones” but concentrated, by means of lectures, street-corner meetings and sales of its journal Commonweal, on propagating socialism (even if the understanding of some of its members was not always that clear).

The Socialist League’s Manifesto, drafted by Morris, began:
  Fellow Citizens, We come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society—a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities. As the civilised world is at present constituted, there are two classes of Society—the one possessing wealth and the instruments of production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments but only by leave and for the use of the possessing classes. These two classes are necessarily in antagonism to one another.
It went on to reject state capitalism as a solution to working class problems:
  No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages still in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.
And said of socialism:
  To the realisation of this change the Socialist League addresses itself with all earnestness. As a means thereto it will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education, so that when the crisis comes, which the march of events is preparing there may be a body of men ready to step into their due places and deal with and direct the irresistible movement.
There are one or two confusions in the statement, not least in the inclusion of “banking” among “all means of production and distribution” which “must be declared and treated as the common property of all” (this is a confusion since Morris was well aware that there would be no banks in socialism), but otherwise is an admirable document considering the early stage of the development of socialist ideas in Britain that it was issued (the Manifesto in full is published as an appendix to E.P. Thompson’s William Morris Romantic to Revolutionary).

This same insistence on “education for revolution” had already been made in a statement issued in January 1885 by the 10 members of the Council of the SDF, including Morris, who had just resigned:
  Our view is that such a body in the present state of things has no function but to educate the people in the principles of socialism, and to organise such as it can get hold of to take their due places, when the crisis shall come which will force action on us. We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous.
In his private letters too Morris made clear this policy of the Socialist League. The League, he wrote in January 1885, “begins at all events with the distinct aim of making Socialists by educating them, and of organizing them to deal with politics in the end” (P. Henderson, The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends, 1950, p.229) and in December 1888 he wrote that his Branch, Hammersmith, “tacitly and instinctively tries to keep up the first idea of the League, the making of genuine convinced Socialists without reference to passing exigencies of tactics” (p.304).

In the last article he wrote in Commonweal on 15 November 1890, Morris again defended the policy of making socialists, against both those who wanted a reform programme and the anarchists:
  This time when people are excited about Socialism, and when many who know nothing about it think themselves Socialists, is the time of all others to put forward the simple principles of Socialism regardless of the policy of the passing hour. I say for us to make Socialists is the business at present, and at present I do not think we can have any other useful business. Those who are not really Socialists—who are Trade Unionists, disturbance-breeders, or what no—will do what they are impelled to do, and we cannot help it. At the worst there will be some good in what they do; but we need not and cannot heartily work with them, when we know that their methods are beside the right way. Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles into practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion? Surely not. . .
  Therefore, I say, make Socialists. We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful, and preaching and teaching is not out of date for that purpose; but rather for those who, like myself, do not believe in State Socialism, it is the only rational means of attaining to the new Order of Things” (Morris’ emphasis).
So, Morris was quite clear: a socialist organisation should not campaign for reforms or “palliatives” but should concentrate exclusively on socialist propaganda and education. In the beginning, in 1885 and 1886, this was based on a belief that capitalism was soon going to collapse (“when the crisis comes”) and the consequent urgent need to have a strong body of socialists to ensure that socialism would be the outcome. But by 1890 this had developed to a full and clear understanding that the establishment of socialism was impossible without there first being a mass of opinion in favour of it. Morris was later to change his policy on campaigning for reforms, but he never wavered on this point.

The Policy of Abstention
Morris tended to identify campaigning for reforms with campaigning to get elected to Parliament. This was understandable enough since those who were advocating parliamentary action at that time did envisage getting elected on a reform programme which they would then try to get Parliament to implement. Thus Morris’s opposition to campaigning for reforms also took the form of opposition to parliamentary action. It would however be inaccurate to describe him as a pure and simple “anti-Parliamentarist”, and certainly not as an anarchist, since he did not absolutely rule out the use of Parliament by socialists in the course of the socialist revolution.

Among those who left the SDF to found the Socialist League were a group who favoured parliamentary action. These included Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling, and had the patronage of Engels. When, early in 1885, the Socialist League was discussing its new constitution, a draft had been rejected which had sought to commit it to “striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Local Governments, School Boards, and other administrative bodies”. The “parliamentarists” (as Morris called them), however, continued to press the issue at the League’s Annual Conferences in 1886 and 1887. On both occasions they were defeated and when they persisted in their views, even going so far as to support SDF candidates in elections to a local Board of Guardians, they had finally to be suspended in 1888 and resigned. It was to Morris that the task of presenting the case against parliamentary action fell. It was he who drafted an official statement issued by the Council of the League in 1888 on the subject (in Commonweal, 9 June 1888). But his views are more fully expressed in a lecture he gave in 1887 entitled “The Policy of Abstention”.

Morris’ arguments against parliamentary action can be summed up as (1) that Parliament was a capitalist institution; (2) that reforms obtained through Parliament would strengthen capitalism and would only be passed with this end in view; and (3) that campaigning for reforms would corrupt a socialist party.

In The Policy of Abstention Morris declared:
  The Communists believe that it would be a waste of time for Socialists to expend their energy in furthering reforms which so far from bringing us nearer to Socialism would rather serve to bolster up the present state of things.
The workers, he went on,
  are asked to vote and send representatives to Parliament (if ‘working men’ so much the better) that they may point out what concessions may be necessary for the ruling class to make in order that the slavery of the workers may last on: in a word that to vote for the continuance of their own slavery is all the parliamentary action they will be allowed to take under the present regime: Liberal Associations, Radical Clubs, working men members are at present, and Socialist members will be in the future, looked on with complacency by the governing classes as serving towards the end of propping up the stability of robber society in the safest and least troublesome manner by beguiling them to take part in their own government.
And, in an excellent statement of the case against socialists seeking to get elected to Parliament on a programme of reforms, Morris wrote referring to those he called “the parliamentary socialists”:
  Starting from the same point as the abstentionists they have to preach an electioneering campaign as an absolute necessity, and to set about it as soon as possible: they will then have to put forward a programme of reforms deduced from the principles of Socialism, which we will admit they will always keep to the front as much as possible; they will necessarily have to appeal for support (i.e. votes) to a great number of people who are not convinced Socialists, and their programme of reforms will be the bait to catch these votes: and to the ordinary voter it will be this bait which will be the matter of interest, and not the principle for whose furtherance they will be intended to act as an instrument: when the voting recruit reads the manifesto of a parliamentary body, he will scarcely notice the statement of principles which heads it, but he will eagerly criticise the proposals of measures to be carried which he finds below it: and yet if he is to be honestly dealt with, he will have to be told that these measures are not put forward as a solution to the social question, but are—in short, ground bait for him so that he may be led at last to search into and accept the real principles of Socialism. So that it will be impossible to deal with him honestly, and the Socialist members when they get into Parliament will represent a heterogeneous body of opinion, ultra-radical, democratic, discontented non-politicals, rather than a body of Socialists; and it will be their opinions and prejudices that will sway the action of the members in Parliament. With these fetters on them the Socialist members will have to be a mere instrument of compromise (May Morris, William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, Supplementary Volume II, 1936).
The 1888 League statement which Morris had drafted also opposed reform-mongering:
  The Socialist League has declared over and over again its sense of the futility of Socialists wasting their time in getting such palliative measures passed, which, if desirable to be passed as temporarily useful, will be passed much more readily if they do not mix themselves up in the matter, and which are at least intended by our masters to hinder Socialism and not to further it. Over and over again it has deprecated Socialists mixing themselves up in political intrigues, and it believes no useful purpose can be served by their running after the votes of those who do not understand the principles of Socialism, and who therefore must be attracted by promises which could not be fulfilled by the candidates if by any chance such candidates were returned to Parliament.
These are clearly arguments against the policy of using Parliament to try to get reforms rather than against socialist parliamentary action as such and in fact, even during his “anti-parliamentary” period, Morris was not opposed to socialists entering Parliament in the course of the socialist revolution, on condition that they went there not to try to get reforms but ”as rebels”.

Thus he wrote to J. Bruce Glasier in December 1886:
 I did not mean that at some time or other it might not be necessary for Socialists to go into Parliament in order to break it up; but again, that could only be when we are very much more advanced than we are now; in short, on the verge of a revolution; so that we might either capture the army, or shake their confidence in the legality of their position (Henderson, The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends, p.263).
And in two letters in 1887 to Dr. J. Glasse:
 I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep ‘Society’ alive. But I fear that many of them will be drawn into error by the corrupting influence of a body professedly hostile to Socialism (May 23). 
  Of course, it’s clearly no use talking of parliamentary action now. I admit, and always have admitted, that at some future period it may be necessary to use parliament mechanically: what I object to is depending on parliamentary agitation. There must be a great party, a great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration whatever goes on in parliament itself. This is in direct opposition to the view of the regular parliamentary section as represented by Shaw, who look upon Parliament as the means; and it seems to me will fall into the error of moving earth and sea to fill the ballot boxes with Socialist votes which will not represent Socialist men (September 23)
(R. Page Arnot, Unpublished Letters of William Morris, 1951, p.5 and p.8).
In his lecture on “The Policy of Abstention” Morris elaborated on this “great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration”:
  The organisation I am thinking of would have a serious point of difference from any that could be formed as a part of a parliamentary plan of action; its aim would be to act directly, whatever was done in it would be done by the people themselves: there would consequently be no possibility of compromise, of the association becoming anything else than it was intended to be; nothing could take its place: before all its members would be put one alternative to complete success, complete failure, namely.
  The workers can form an organisation which without heeding Parliament can force from the ruler what concessions may be necessary in the present and whose aim would be the total abolition of the monopolist classes and rule. The action such an organisation would be compelled to take would educate its members in administration, so that on the morrow of the revolution they would be able, from a thorough knowledge of the wants and capacities of the workers, to carry on affairs with the least possible amount of blunders, and would do almost nothing that would have to be undone, and thereby offer no opportunity to the counter-revolution.
and, in a letter in May 1887 to J .L. Mahon, he wrote that “our work” was:
  getting the workmen to organise genuine revolutionary labour bodies not looking to Parliament at all but to their own pressure (legal or illegal as the times may go) on their employers while the latter lasted (R. Page Arnot, William Morris: The Man and the Myth, 1964, p.66).
In the picture of the socialist revolution painted in Chapter XVII “How the Change Came” of his utopian communist novel News From Nowhere (originally published in serial form in Commonweal in 1890) Morris has these “revolutionary labour bodies” come to clash more and more with the government; eventually, after a short civil war involving a general strike and some violence, capitalist rule is overthrown.

This clearly underestimates the power and solidity of the capitalist state and, if tried, would have led to unnecessary bloodshed. Morris was overlooking the vital necessity for the socialist majority to first gain control of the state machine before trying to establish socialism, but he had been greatly influenced by the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and did not expect the capitalist class to surrender peaceably even if socialists were to win a parliamentary majority. Morris was later to see the validity of this criticism but unfortunately tied this, as we shall see, to a withdrawal of his opposition to campaigning for reforms.

The Use of the Vote
Morris’s allies in the struggle against the “parliamentarists” were for the most part out-and-out anarchists who were opposed to all parliamentary action on principle (even to going there ”as rebels”). These anarchists eventually came to dominate the Socialist League and abandoned its policy of patiently making socialists for appeals to individual acts of violence against the state and its representatives. At the end of 1890 Morris and the branch to which he belonged, Hammersmith, left and, as the Hammersmith Socialist Society, continued the original League policy.

But, after a while, Morris came to question whether his opposition to campaigning for reforms (and campaigning to get elected to Parliament and local bodies on a programme of reforms) was justified. Even during his period of activity in the Socialist League he had continued to regard the Social Democratic Federation and even the Fabians as socialists, even though they were certainly pursuing mistaken policies. With the organisation of the unskilled workers in the 1890s and the formation of the ILP in 1892, it seemed to Morris that the working class had definitely opted for the tactics of the “parliamentary socialists”. He knew that the bulk of the workers involved in this agitation were not conscious socialists but merely wanted some improvement of their condition within capitalism. He interpreted this as meaning that it was all the more important that the socialist case be presented to them and that therefore all those who were “socialists” should unite to do this.

Thus Morris was instrumental in getting the Fabians, the SDF and others to issue a joint Manifesto of English Socialists on May Day 1893. Parts of this were not too bad:
  Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, means of manufacture, the mines, and the land. Thus we look to put an end for ever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism.
The Manifesto, however, also contained a list of immediate demands (an Eight Hour Law, Prohibition of all Child Labour, Equal Pay for Equal Work, a Minimum Wage in State Services, Universal Male and Female Suffrage).

In signing this Manifesto Morris supported campaigning for reforms. Thus, interviewed in the SDF journal Justice in January 1894, he repudiated his previous policy:
  Present circumstances go to prove the wisdom of the SDF in drawing up palliative measures. . . Mean and paltry as it seemed to me—and does still as compared with the whole thing—something of the kind is absolutely necessary.
In this same interview he recognised the necessity for socialists to gain control of political power before trying to establish socialism:
  We must try. . . and get at the butt end of the machine gun and rifle, and then force is much less likely to be necessary and much more sure to be successful.
The way to “get at the butt end” was through the ballot box, Morris argued in an unpublished lecture on “Communism”:
  I confess I am no great lover of political tactics, the sordid squabble of an election is unpleasant enough for a straight-forward man to deal in: yet I cannot fail to see that it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country, however that may be done and that by means of the ballot-box will, to say the least of it, be little indeed compared with what would be necessary to effect it by open revolt; besides that the change effected by peaceful means would be done more completely and with little chance, indeed with no chance of counter-revolution. On the other hand I feel sure that some action is even now demanded by the growth of Socialism, and will be more and more imperatively demanded as time goes on. In short I do not believe in the possible success of revolt until the Socialist party has grown so powerful in numbers that it can gain its end by peaceful means, and that therefore what is called violence will never be needed, unless indeed the reactionaries were to refuse the decision of the ballot-box and try the matter by arms; which after all I am pretty sure they could not attempt by the time things had gone as far as that. As to the attempt of a small minority to terrify a vast majority into accepting something which they do not understand, by spasmodic acts of violence, mostly involving the death or mutilation of non-combatants, I can call that nothing else than sheer madness (May Morris, Supplementary Volume II, pp.350-1).
And, in an article in Labour Prophet in January 1894, Morris commented:
 The workers have started to claim new conditions of life which they can only obtain at the expense of the possessing classes; and they must therefore force their claims on the latter. The means by which they will attempt this are not doubtful. To speak plainly, there are only two methods of bringing the necessary force to bear; open armed insurrection on the one hand; the use of the vote, to get hold of the executive on the other. Of the first method they are not even thinking; but the second they are growing more determined to use day by day; and it is practically the only direct means. And it must be said that, if they are defeated in their attempt, it means the present defeat of Socialism, though its ultimate defeat is impossible.
In a lecture “What we have to look for” given in the spring of 1895 Morris explained his earlier attitude:
  It must be admitted that behind this propaganda of preaching lay the thought that the change we advocated would be brought about by insurrection; and this was supposed even by those who were most averse to violence; no other means seemed conceivable for lifting the intolerable load which lay upon us. We thought that every step towards Socialism would be resisted by the reactionaries who would use against it the legal executive force which was, and is, let me say, wholly in the power of the possessing classes, that the wider the movement grew the more rigorously the authorities would repress it.
  Almost everyone has ceased to believe in the change coming by catastrophe. To state the position shortly, as a means to the realization of the new society Socialists hope so far as to conquer public opinion, that at last a majority of the Parliament shall be sent to sit in the house as avowed Socialists and the delegates of Socialists, and on that should follow what legislation might be necessary; and moreover, though the time for this may be very far ahead, yet most people would now think that the hope of doing it is by no means unreasonable.
And, in the same lecture, returning to his theme of the need for a single, united socialist party, he declared that until such a party is formed:
  We had better confine ourselves to the old teaching and preaching of Socialism pure and simple, which is I fear more or less neglected amidst the said futile attempt to act as a party when we have no party (May Morris, Volume II).
Thus to the end Morris insisted on the need for socialist propaganda to help achieve the socialist majority necessary before socialism could be established but he now believed this should be combined with campaigning for reforms. In other words, he had reached the position held by European Social Democracy, represented in Britain by the SDF. Although he never rejoined the SDF he co-operated closely with it. It is significant that he chose to identify himself with the SDF rather than the Fabians or the ILP, for the SDF proclaimed itself Marxist and was thus nearer to Morris’s general theoretical position as an advocate of “Revolutionary International Socialism”. The SDF, despite its many shortcomings, was at this time the nearest thing in Britain to a Marxian organisation and it was from its ranks that in 1904 was to emerge the Socialist Party of Great Britain whose founding members, like those of the Socialist League twenty years previously, fed up with its opportunism and Hyndman’s authoritarianism, left to found a genuine Socialist Party on sound principles, committed to “making Socialists” rather than campaigning for reforms.

Morris’s Dilemma Solved
The problem which Morris had been grappling with was the problem of reform and revolution. In his Socialist League days he had clearly seen the futility—and dangers—of  campaigning for reforms, but had linked this with a virtual rejection of parliamentary action. This was because in his mind parliamentary action and campaigning for reforms were virtually inseparable. Thus, later, when he came to recognise the need to gain control of political power through the ballot box and Parliament before trying to establish socialism, this was coupled with an acceptance of the policy of campaigning for reforms.

It was left to the Socialist Party of Great Britain to end this dilemma. Our founding members in 1904 agreed both with Morris’s later insistence that “it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country” (or, more dramatically, to “get at the butt end of the machine gun and rifle”) and that the only sure way to do this was through the ballot box and with his earlier rejection of campaigning for reforms. They adopted the policy of trying to gain control of the machinery of government through the ballot box by campaigning on an exclusively socialist programme without seeking support on a policy of reforms; while supporting parliamentary action they refused to advocate reforms. This has remained our policy to this day and, as the solution to the problem of reform and revolution, represents our specific contribution to socialist theory.

Morris grappled with this problem, but failed to solve it. In the beginning he veered towards anti-parliamentarism and in the end towards reformism, but he can nevertheless be said to have made one original contribution to the discussion (even though he later came to abandon it): the danger for a socialist party of seeking to get elected to Parliament on a programme of reforms. As he explained in the passage we quoted form his 1887 lecture “The Policy of Abstention”, socialists elected to Parliament on such a programme of reforms would be prisoners of the reform-minded non-socialists who had elected them and would inevitably have to compromise any socialist principles they might once have had. The subsequent evolution of the European Social Democratic parties into mere instruments of capitalist administration and reform showed how correct Morris was on this point. It is a pity that he himself did not remember his words of 1887 when, in the 1896 General Election (held the year he died), he helped try to get Hyndman, the SDF leader, elected to Parliament for Burnley on a programme of reforms.
Adam Buick

The Practical Socialism of William Morris (1984)

Party News from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We reproduce below an extract from Morris's 1885 pamphlet Useful Work versus Useless Toil which summarises his general position rather well as well as illustrating his style of writing.
There is a certain amount of natural material and of natural forces in the world, and a certain amount of labour-power inherent in the persons of the men that inhabit it. Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete. And, looking backwards to the time when history first began, we note that the progress of that victory has been far swifter and more startling within the last two hundred years than ever before. Surely, therefore, we moderns ought to be in all ways vastly better off than any who have gone before us. Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.

But what is the real fact? Who will dare to deny that the great mass of civilized men are poor? So poor are they that it is mere childishness troubling ourselves to discuss whether perhaps they are in some ways a little better off than their forefathers. They are poor; nor can their poverty be measured by the poverty of a resourceless savage, for he knows of nothing else than his poverty; that he should be cold, hungry, houseless, dirty, ignorant, all that is to him as natural as that he should have a skin. But for us. for the most of us, civilization has bred desires which she forbids us to satisfy, and so is not merely a niggard but a torturer also.

Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us, thus has compulsion by Nature to labour in hope of rest, gain, and pleasure been turned into compulsion by man to labour in hope — of living to labour!

What shall we do then, can we mend it?

Well, remember once more that it is not our remote ancestors who achieved the victory over Nature, but our fathers, nay, our very selves. For us to sit hopeless and helpless then would be a strange folly indeed: be sure that we can amend it. What, then, is the first thing to be done?

We have seen that modern society is divided into two classes, one of which is privileged to be kept by the labour of the other — that is, it forces the other to work for it and takes from this inferior class everything that it can take from it, and uses the wealth so taken to keep its own members in a superior position, to make them beings of a higher order than the others: longer lived, more beautiful, more honoured, more refined than those of the other class. I do not say that it troubles itself about its members being positively long lived, beautiful or refined, but merely insists that they shall be so relatively to the inferior class. As also it cannot use the labour-power of the inferior class fairly in producing real wealth, it wastes it wholesale in the production of rubbish.

It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor; if it could be shown that it is necessary for the preservation of society that this should be submitted to, little more could be said on the matter, save that the despair of the oppressed majority would probably at some time or other destroy Society. But it has been shown, on the contrary, even by such incomplete experiments, for instance, as Co-operation (so called) that the existence of a privileged class is by no means necessary for the production of wealth, but rather for the ‘government’ of the producers of wealth, or, in other words, for the upholding of privilege.

The first step to be taken then is to abolish a class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men. thus forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability, and so produce what they consume — that is, each man should work as well as he can for his own livelihood, and his livelihood should be assured to him: that is to say, all the advantages which society would provide for each and all of its members.

Thus, at last, would true Society be founded. It would rest on equality of condition. No man would be tormented for the benefit of another — nay, no one man would be tormented for the benefit of Society. Nor, indeed, can that order be called Society which is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members

But since men live now, badly as they live, when so many people do not produce at all, and when so much work is wasted, it is clear that under conditions where all produced and no work was wasted, not only would everyone work with the certain hope of gaining a due share of wealth by his work, but also he could not miss his due share of rest. Here, then, are two out of the three kinds of hope mentioned above as an essential part of worthy work assured to the worker. When class robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest — leisure, that is. Some Socialists might say we need not go any further than this; it is enough that the worker should get the full produce of his work, and that his rest should be abundant. But though the compulsion of man’s tyranny is thus abolished, I yet demand compensation for the compulsion of Nature’s necessity. As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.

Morris’s vision of socialism (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Yes, we agree that capitalism stinks; but what are we going to put in its place?" It is a question which socialists have heard often and, if our revolution is to amount to more than a grand act of demolition, we who want to create a new system of society must have our answers. Of course, only the majority who create the new social order will be able to decide what sort of a society socialism will be and even then, such decisions will be determined largely by the restraints of historical continuity and material necessity. Those who are lucky enough to live in socialist society will have recognised from the start that socialism will not be an ideal world, freed entirely from all problems. Unlike under capitalism, however, the inhabitants of socialist society will not allow themselves to be obstructed in the task of solving social problems by the artificial, historically obsolete features of the capitalist system.

William Morris well understood that the poverty and ugliness of what is called “civilisation" will not be eradicated until the whole “commercial”, or capitalist, system is destroyed. Unlike many of the self-styled socialists of his day — and the many more who advocate the propaganda of class confusion today — Morris was not interested in “socialistic” measures within capitalism, which amounted to no more than the robbers throwing crumbs to the robbed from the loaves that they have accumulated. Morris stood not for vaguely defined “socialist change" but for a new' social order which was the sole end of socialist activity. It was because Morris stood for socialism that his speeches and writings were filled with a sense of urgency about that alternative. For him, socialism was not some millenium; neither was it a pious ideal, to which occasional lip-service could be paid. What is to come after the revolution was, for Morris, at least as important, if not more so, than the propaganda against the system of the present. It was this awareness of the question posed at the beginning of this article — “What are we going to put in its place?” that led Morris to speak and write in ways which surpassed both the imaginary and historically predictive skills of most others in the movement, both before his day and since.

There are three main sources from which an insight into Morris’s vision of socialism can be gained. Firstly, and perhaps most popularly, there is his literary masterpiece, News from Nowhere, described by its author as "a utopian romance" and. published originally in serial form, between January and October 1890, in the Socialist League's journal, The Commonweal. The story is about a man who returns one night, tired after a heated discussion at the Socialist League about "the future of the fully-developed new society". He falls asleep and wakes up in the midst of a “fully-developed new society” - socialism. In the course of thirty-two fascinating chapters the reader observes this “guest” in a socialist society; he asks the questions which might be asked by one who wants to know more about socialism, and so Morris uses what is on the surface a futuristic fiction (written in the nineteenth century and set in the twenty-first) as a speculative socialist vision.

Secondly, there are the published speeches and writings of William Morris, most of which have been described as “political” works and which are stimulating in theme and embracing in style. Morris's “political" works are not about matters of factional intrigue or theoretical jargon, but present arguments for revolution which touch the feelings and class experiences of ordinary men and women who, without pretensions to scholarship, are sickened by the squalid lifestyle which the market system imposes on them. Thirdly, there is A Dream of John Ball, written in 1886: a visionary story about the desire for common ownership which pre-dates capitalism.

To begin, let us quickly explode the myths which those who have not taken the bother to understand Morris’s outlook have concocted about his conception of socialism. As an affluent poet and artist — a man who was much admired for his creative genius and was even offered the Poet Laureateship when Tennyson died in 1892 — Morris was highly vulnerable to accusations that his socialist ideas were merely quaint ideals — a poet’s fad, the dreams of a political utopian. Such labels were stuck on Morris, despite his well-formulated and practicable ideas. Repeatedly it has been asserted, more often than not by "scholars" who prefer to comment on what Morris almost said than on what he actually did say, that Morris was an opponent of modern machinery. Indeed, so often is the myth recited that when one reads the contrary in Morris’s writings one is almost tempted to chastise Morris for contradicting his interpreters! Morris made clear that his opposition was not to machinery, which he thought could be used in a socialist society to do some of the work which capitalism finds it more profitable to have done manually; his opposition was to the social nature of industrial mass production under capitalism:
  I do not mean . . . that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery that are now done by hand, and many other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us. (Art And Its Producers)
In A Factory as It Might Be Morris points out that socialism will put an end to "the manufacture of useless goods, whether harmful luxuries for the rich or disgraceful makeshifts for the poor". Only then will the community as a whole be “. . . in possession of the machines once used for mere profit-grinding, but now used for saving human labour”. Again, in As to Bribing Excellence, written a year before his death. Morris wrote:
 What are the said machines about now that the mass of the people should toil and toil without pleasure? They are making profits for their owners, and have no time to save the people from drudgery. When the people are the owners — then we shall see.
In short, Morris's objection was not to development in the productive forces. He realised that machinery will liberate human energies from many wasteful labours once machinery is used for need and not profit. Under capitalism the wage slave becomes the appendage of the machine, the impotent victim of a production line which travels to the uncompromising rhythm of profitability. Socialism with its crucial transformation in the objective of production from profit to use, will turn machinery into a useful device for saving labour. In a socialist society we could well imagine printers, who now fear automation as a threat to their highly-priced labour power, welcoming such machinery as a means of freeing them from needless toil. But — and this was Morris’s point — once production is for use and human beings are in control of their own labour, perhaps people will decide that the pleasure of creative work will be preferable to industrialised mass production. In some cases this will probably be so; maybe the skilled printers will prefer to print using methods which take longer, but provide greater creative enjoyment. In News from Nowhere Morris writes of farmers who, having done away with much of the big machinery of agriculture, enjoy working on the land. Of course, material conditions will determine the choices which will be made in socialist society: perhaps Morris’s agricultural picture would not be fitting if a massive increase in agricultural productivity was needed. As socialism develops production priorities will change and Morris is right to point out that once an abundance of wealth has been produced there will be every opportunity to experiment with human lifestyles.

Central to Morris’s conception of socialism is the theme of work. Under capitalism most people are slaves to the commercial interests of a small minority. Morris draws the all-important distinction between employment, which is life-destroying, and work. In a socialist society men and women would have more than what is now called “the right to work’’:
  It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which is worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious. (Art and Socialism)
In short, the present barrier between work (what you do for Them) and leisure (being creative) will be broken down in a society where working is both creative and serving your own interests. Of course, there will be unpleasant tasks to be carried out by people in a socialist society but, unlike now, the incentive to do them will be the common understanding that all physical and mental contributions to society will be for the benefit of all members of society.

In News From Nowhere the guest asks Old Hammond “how you get people to work when there is no reward for labour, and especially how you get them to work strenuously”. Old Hammond replied that there is a “reward for labour", although wages and salaries have been abolished. So. what will the “reward” be in a socialist society? Work, says Old Hammond, has become "a pleasure which we are afraid of losing, not a pain". Work as pleasure; let Old Hammond explain:
  . . . all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly, and most of our work is of this kind, because there is conscious. sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists.
The pleasure of work, according to Morris, arises out of the transformation of work from useless toil and drudgery to creative art. How different this is from the nature of work and art under capitalism. Wage slaves alienated from social power over the produce of their own labour, are far from being artists, not because they are talentless, but because capitalist production stifles the creativity of the class which exists only to create surplus value.

Morris’s critique of art under capitalism was not an incidental feature of his conception of socialism; it was crucial to it. Before Morris there were others who despised the ugliness of the ever-expanding capitalist edifice, with its blinkered regard for profit at the expense of happiness and beauty. In 1860 John Ruskin declared that:
  Our cities are a wilderness of spinning wheels instead of palaces; yet the people have not clothes. We have blackened every leaf of English greenwood with ashes, and the people die of cold; our harbours are a forest of merchant ships, and the people die of hunger. 
Ruskin, Rossetti and the other Romantics dreamed of a return to an idealised natural past, uncontaminated by the filth of industrialism. It is an understandable misreading of Morris — and one which has been repeated often by the scholarly distorters — to assume that he too sought a Utopia by means of returning to the past. Indeed. Morris did write that:
  Anyone who wants beauty to be produced at the present day in any branch of the fine arts, I care not what, must be always crying out "Look back! Look back!"
But, as the scholars choose not to see, Morris was a materialist in his understanding of history, and thus it was not backwards that he wanted to go. Morris knew that:
  We cannot turn our people back into Catholic English peasants and Guild craftsmen, or into heathen Norse bonders, much as may be said for such conditions of life. (Morris’s letters, p.206)
And again:
  It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to an original fullness as it is to believe that with this present emptiness history has come to a standstill.
This was the crucial point, which made Morris a revolutionary as well as a dreamer: his vision was to be realised within real material conditions.

Chapter VI of News From Nowhere describes “shopping” in a socialist society: goods are available freely; there is no money. In this propertyless society of which Morris writes (and for which socialists aim) there can be no exchange, for that which is owned in common cannot be bought or sold. The stranger in Morris’s imagined land feels the urge to put his hand in his pocket and pay for goods and services — but, to the people of socialism, this seems as curious as it would be under capitalism for a homeless family to demand a suite in the Ritz. Need it be asked which system has the more humane priorities?

On meeting a group of children the “stranger" in socialism is surprised to learn that they are not forced to go to school. Why should they be, asks his guide Dick, when learning is a natural human process and the children will come to it soon enough? Marriage, we are told, is not a legal contract, but a mutually entered bond of love. There are no laws or prisons, for the causes of most anti-social behaviour, which are to be found in property relationships. do not exist in Morris's socialism. That is not to say that there are never acts of violence arising out of anger, and Morris is wise enough to include a reference to a case of homicide in News from Nowhere showing how, in a co-operative society, such problems would be likely to be dealt with. News From Nowhere is a novel which any student of socialist ideas should not be without, and there is no doubt that its image of the socialist future played a major part in influencing the thought of subsequent socialists, particularly in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The portrait of a moneyless, stateless, classless society based on production for use is of immense importance to those who want not only to destroy capitalism, but to create socialism. But News From Nowhere is not — and was not intended to be — a blueprint for socialism, or anything like one, Marx, in his day, refused to “write recipes for the cook books of the future" and Morris was not attempting to impose his conception of socialism, but to offer it to the working class as a vision of what might be.
  I want to tell you what it is I desire of the Society of the Future, just as if I were going to be reborn into it; I daresay that you will find some of my visions strange enough. (The Society Of The Future)
Of course, it will be up to those who establish the new system (ourselves, if we establish it soon) to decide democratically how we are going to use the material resources which are owned and controlled in common for our greatest mutual benefit. To move beyond capitalism — to remove the social features which seem today to be eternal. but are not any less transitory than any earlier social relation — is not a fantasy. If Morris could envisage such as change, as have many socialists since, there is no reason why our fellow workers cannot see beyond the narrow walls of the capitalist present. As Morris rightly concluded. “If others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream”.
Steve Coleman

Bad Night for Olga (1984)

Party News from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lady Olga Maitland, who is famed as an Express gossip columnist, did not gild her reputation when she came to Islington last month to debate with the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the question: Is Britain Worth Dying For? Her supporters came too; they gathered in a tight knot and clapped loudly when she was introduced from the platform. By the end of the evening, with some help from socialist speaker Steve Coleman, she had reduced them to a demoralised silence.

She had, let us be fair, a pretty difficult job with the Orwellian logic that workers should be ready to die to protect their masters’ fortunes, that bombs are needed for peace, that social problems may be eased by squandering vast resources on war machines. As a diversion she proclaimed a ringing pride in her British passport although she confessed to being an impure specimen of British womanhood because her mother came from Yugoslavia. Being British means having something called Tommy grit, otherwise known as moral fibre, which is just the stuff to beat the Russians with. It may just be that the evil men in the Kremlin are not deterred by Tommy grit, even supposing that they have ever heard of it. So to make sure we must have armed forces, guns and shells and bombers and nuclear weapons.

If anyone gets killed as a result, well Olga is very sympathetic. Should we have felt better, knowing that last November she was at the cenotaph for the annual outpouring of cant about the workers who were misguided enough to die for capitalism? Well, we didn’t; someone was unkind enough to ask about the people who had not yet managed to die for Britain and who are now being denied the chance to work for it. This was Olga's chance to show off her knowledge of economics but the best she could manage was to wonder about the true level of unemployment, based on a little difficulty she is having in finding a skivvy to clean her windows.

Not a wet eye in the place and a restless, bewildered audience of more than three hundred wondered if this was the best the defenders of patriotism could do. Well yes, actually it is. Olga Maitland sounded silly and empty because she was trying to put a silly, empty argument. It was as well that it was so clearly exposed.

From the opposite end of the table Steve Coleman pointed out that workers have no country to die for; it all belongs to their masters, in whose interests wars are fought. Patriotism is a garbage reserved for the working class, for capitalism’s trade is not allowed to be hampered by any such ideological nonsense. We should not fall into the trap of supporting one lot of bandits against the other; workers everywhere have an interest in common against capitalists everywhere.

Olga's arguments were in tatters. There was little for her to smile about but bravely she managed it. A living example of Tommy grit.

Election Fund (1984)

Party News from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the Autumn Delegate Meeting last year a resolution was passed recommending the establishment of an Election Fund. The object of the Fund is to build up financial resources to help the Party to contest elections — local, national and European. Support for the Fund is now being sought from all members of the Party and also from others who recognise and value the Party's work. We particularly appeal to those who understand the necessity for the Socialist Party to undertake electoral activity and are willing to contribute on a regular, committed basis.

The cost of contesting the one seat where we stood in the UK Parliamentary Election last June was around £1,200. and our campaign was conducted responsibly and prudently. Taking into account the prospect of a substantial increase in the deposit called for, and the hope that at the next General Election we shall be strong and confident enough to put forward perhaps more candidates, the Party needs to be thinking in terms of having several thousands of pounds in hand when the opportunity comes. This may well be the European Election in June, 1984. The next UK General Election may be as far off as 1988, within the next few weeks, or at any time between; so, the sooner we start saving and planning, the better.

The Fund will be controlled by the Executive Committee, subject to Party Rules on Electoral Activity and to Conference and Delegate Meeting Resolutions. Contributions will be acknowledged, if requested, and regular contributors will be kept informed of the Fund's progress. We have available Bankers’ Standing Order Forms in the hope that as many as possible will use this method. Please write or telephone Head Office if you would like us to send one. We realise not everyone operates a bank account, either on principle or for other reasons, and we have prepared a similar form of commitment for those members who wish to make a regular contribution through their Branch Treasurer. Of course, many members and sympathisers will wish to make an occasional contribution to the Fund as and when they are able, rather than undertake a regular commitment, and all such contributions will be equally welcome.

We ask you to reflect seriously on how best you can respond to this call, and then let us know what you intend to do. We have already had an encouraging response.
Parliamentary Committee

50 Years Ago: Collapse of the Opposition to Hitler (1984)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

A special correspondent of the Manchester Guardian contributed two articles recently (Jan. 12th and 13th) on the collapse of the opposition to the Nazis and on the prospects of a new opposition. His estimate, based on a detailed knowledge of the facts, fully bears out our criticisms of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party.

"Nothing is now left." he says, "of the apparently big and powerful Social Democratic and Communist parties, and the Hitlerite government is more solidly established than ever. It has gained many voluntary supporters among the urban working class, particularly among the younger generation."

Of the Social Democrats he says:
  Although they professed Marxist principles. they were not Marxist. . . They were essentially conservative.
He thinks that the old party is discredited beyond recovery, but this, even if true, does not mean that the old illusions cannot be taken up by new organisations.

The views he holds about the Communists in Germany are particularly deserving of notice:
  The German Communist Party has always been over-rated, chiefly because of its great numerical strength, which was always out of proportion to its real strength. Indeed, so great was this disproportion that the German Communist movement came perilously near to being a colossal piece of bluff. There is not. and there never was. a “Communist danger” in Germany. . .
  The German Communists never fought a single successful action, they never even began an action that could conceivably be successful . They were never able to call a general strike, or even any partial strike beyond ineffectual, desultory, local stoppages. .
  Although full of revolutionary dogma, they were not revolutionaries, and never had the slightest conception of what a revolution is. . . Each of the so-called “revolutionary risings” (such as the central German insurrection of 1921 and the Hamburg insurrection of 1923) was a cruel farce from beginning to end.
The correspondent rightly points out that the German Communists, like the German Social Democrats, talked about "Marxist logic." but were "neither Marxist nor logical". They were "for illegality above everything, and preferred illegal defeat to legal victory”.

Although their membership at the time of the collapse was probably about 100,000, and they had had five or six million votes cast for them not long before, "they collapsed without resistance” and "just as ingloriously" as the Social Democrats.

The correspondent is right when he says: "it is probable that Marx would have repudiated Social Democrats and Communists with equal indignation”. 
(From an editorial "The German Situation", Socialist Standard, February 1934)

From William Morris (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

From a letter of October 1883
Among the discontented, discontent unlighted by hope is in many places taking the form of a passionate desire for mere anarchy, so that it becomes a pressing duty for those who, not believing in the stability of the present system, have any hopes for the future, to lay before the world those hopes founded on constructive revolution.

From “Four Letters on Socialism" (1894) 
This claim for the abolition of the monopoly in the means of production is made by all socialists of every shade; it forms the political platform of the party, and nothing short of this is a definite socialist claim. It is true that some of us (myself amongst others) look further than this, as the first part of my paper indicates; but we are all prepared to accept whatever consequences may follow the realisation of this claim; and for my part I believe that whatever struggle or violence there may be in the realisation of socialism will all take place in the carrying out of this initial step.

From “How we live and how we might live" 
The word Revolution, which we socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s cars, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.

We can clear our eyes to the signs of the times, and we shall then see that the attainment of a good condition of life is being made possible for us, and that it is now our business to stretch out our hands to take it.

And how? chiefly, I think, by educating people to a sense of their real capacities as men. so that they may be able to use to their own good the political power which is rapidly being thrust upon them; to get them to see that the old system of organising labour for industrial profit is becoming unmanageable, and that the whole people have now got to choose between the confusion resulting from the break-up of that system and the determination to take in hand the labour now organised for profit, and use its organisation for the livelihood of the community.

Funds Appeal (1984)

Party News from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Even with our very moderate programme, expenditure last year exceeded income by more than £15,000. Unless we drastically curtail spending we will run out of money within the next twelve months. To help us carry on propaganda for socialism, please send a donation NOW to: The Treasurer, SPGB, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN.

“Uncle Sam is wicked” (1970)

Book Review from the February 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

This collection of essays (American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky, Penguin, 40p.) towers above the majority of polemics arising out of the Vietnam war. It is a withering exposure both of the scholars who use their abilities to expedite mass murder, and of those who criticise them on grounds of mere expediency. It deserves to be read with some of the care, honesty and clarity of thought which evidently went into writing it. For all that, its strength is mainly destructive. When it comes to Chomsky’s alternatives, the weaknesses emerge.

What sickens him is not just the American action in Vietnam, and the arguments for it — but the arguments against. These are often to the effect that the war is a costly blunder, in opposition to America’s long-term interest, that America has no hope of winning, or that more stress should be placed on aid. less on military means. Chomsky is even suspicious of anti-war arguments based on the suffering involved:
  The primary reason for opposition to the war is its cost to us. A second cause is the feeling that the cost to its victims is too great. At first glance this reaction seems to be at a higher moral level than the first, but this is questionable. The principle that we should retract our claws when the victim bleeds too much is hardly an elevated one. What about opposition to the war on grounds that we have no right to stabilise or restructure Vietnamese society . . .
Yet there is a curious discrepancy between his argument and his conclusions. [1] A piece like The Logic of Withdrawal takes up every cudgel available against US involvement in Vietnam, including the “national interest’’ and horror at the brutality of the war (both arguments which the author elsewhere declares to be unsatisfactory). He adds that the US is transgressing international law, and that the Vietcong has mass support in South Vietnam whereas the government does not. But here again, one can infer that Chomsky is not basing his case on these points. Occasional remarks scattered throughout the book make it clear that what really disgusts him is the arrogance of the US in presuming to intervene in far-flung lands as it sees fit, whatever the circumstances: America “has no unilateral right to determine by force the course of development of the nations of the Third World.’’

In short, he mobilises all the conventional arguments for American withdrawal, with great force and eloquence, whilst stating that these arguments won’t do, and offering tantalising hints of a much more radical indictment. But when we try to assemble from these hints what this radical critique amounts to, we find it to be preposterous:
  These scholars designate themselves as ‘the moderate segment of the academic community.’ The designation is accurate; they stand midway between the two varieties of extremism, one which demands that we destroy everyone who stands in our path, the other, that we adopt the principles of international behaviour we require of every other world power.
That is a good example of Chomsky’s bitter irony, but though the second form of “extremism”, which he embraces, might be expected to disturb some, it is patently so unrealistic as to be merely pious. Chomsky is more aware of this than most, for he has gone to great pains to draw parallels between the American Empire and its predecessors, notably Japan and Britain. The similarities are often startlingly close. After all, a nation’s foreign policy flows largely from its economic structure and its relationship, economic, political and military, with other countries. To make appeals to the most rich and powerful nation in history to behave decently is surely a waste of breath. The US did not attain its dominant position by a request for the rights of other nations, and could not maintain it by adopting such a principle. Yet Chomsky even goes so far as to speculate about “massive capital gifts” (from the US!) “to Cuba and China.”

True, domestic reaction against the war might conceivably help to hasten its end, but the great majority of American workers will not be prepared to subordinate what they imagine to be “their” national interest to some form of arbitrary morality. The major reason why dissent from the war effort has become so large (as Chomsky sadly indicates) is that there has been so much “responsible” criticism, i.e. criticism founded on costs, expediency and national interest.

In a recent interview (New Left Review, No. 57) Chomsky gave the following explanation of why America is in Vietnam:
  The United States fought the Second World War, in the Pacific theatre, primarily in order to prevent Japan from constructing its own independent, integrated imperial system which would be closed to America. That was the basic issue which lay behind the Japanese-American war. Well, the United States won. The result is that now it must develop a system in which Japan can function effectively as a junior partner. That means the United States has to grant Japan what it needs as a partner, namely markets and access to raw materials, which for Japan, unlike the United States, are desperate necessities. Now the United States can very well survive without South East Asia. But Japan cannot. So if the United States wants to keep Japan securely embedded within the American system, then it has to preserve South East Asia for Japan. Otherwise Japan has other alternatives. It would turn to China or to Siberia, but that would mean the United States had lost the Second World War, in its Pacific phase. Once again a substantial industrial power would be carving itself out an independent space which, taken to its logical conclusion, would be separate and partially sealed off from the American world system.
So the Vietnam war would seem to be in America’s economic interest. True, Chomsky gave other causes for America's continuing the war, including its “investment in error”, and in his review of Schlesinger’s Bitter Heritage he points out that whilst ideology has its roots in real or perceived interests it can have a life of its own that may sometimes conflict with the interests from which it arose (e.g. US policy towards Cuba, and arguably, Vietnam).

However, an argument on the basis of national interest is what Chomsky set out, quite rightly, to avoid. He is outraged at the notion that any calculation can justify America’s part in the Vietnam carnage, yet apparently feels unable to say: “To hell with the national interest.” It might of course be a useful exercise to examine all the arguments just to show that the case for the war will not hold water even within he terms of reference assumed by its advocates. But it is not at all clear that the Vietnam slaughter is, on balance, against the interest of American capitalism. And in any case, Chomsky fails to think through his own really rock-bottom case. What sort of a world would it be in which powerful nations were bound by the same rules of conduct as weaker nations; That is altogether absurd. Nations embody antagonism of interest: their very existence is a sign of that. [2]

Chomsky’s extreme radicalism has thus led him into a hopeless muddle, but if he became more extreme and more radical still, his inconsistency could be resolved. For a coherent, logically sound and morally acceptable indictment of war can be based only on a thoroughgoing anti-nationalism and anti-patriotism. This must entail a recognition that “the national interest” means the interest of the owning and ruling class, that the nation should not be equated with the people. “The national interest” is a term used to conceal the class division between employers and workers by superimposing a geographical division. It is waved in the face of striking workers at home, as well as foreign enemies.

Revolution can wait ?
What is the explanation for this core of confusion within the shell of Chomsky’s glittering erudition? In part it is due to his overpowering abhorrence of the war, and the sense of urgency he feels about it. Everything must be subjugated to the task of stopping the war. He is sympathetic to the idea of social revolution but :
  If the Vietnamese have to wait until we build a serious political movement against all forms of capitalist repression in the United States, then they are all going to be dead . . . we cannot delay on the Vietnam issue in order to build a movement on more long-term issues. . . . Principled opposition to the war will lead directly to principled opposition to imperialism and to the causes of imperialism and hence to the formation of a principled anti-capitalist movement. (NLR interview)
Now this is manifestly wishful thinking. Not any kind of principled opposition to war leads to opposition to capitalism. A pacifist, for example, taking the view that all physical violence is an unqualified evil in all circumstances, would certainly be opposed on principle to the Vietnam war, but there have been such people for generations, and many of them in other respects still support the capitalist system. Again, someone might oppose the US action in Vietnam on the principle that, whilst war itself must be tolerated, the US is at fault by the Geneva agreement. Or that killing soldiers is permissible whilst killing women and children is not. These are all “principles” but they do not, in historical fact, automatically lead to opposition to capitalism. So it all depends what Chomsky means by “principled opposition.” What principles?

Effective opposition to war must be based on revolutionary. Socialist principles. In this case, opposition to war does not “lead to” opposition to capitalism, but principled opposition to capitalism necessarily gives rise to principled opposition to war, which (this should always be made clear) means hostility to both “sides” in every war. [3]

The plea that we cannot delay on some vital topical issue in order to build up a movement to abolish capitalism is a cruel deception. Its unspoken premise is that a total change in society is very distant and somewhat airy-fairy, whereas something like stopping a particular war is hard, real, practical and down- to-earth. In actuality though, it is the attempt to adjust capitalism according to humane criteria which is Utopian, and the call for social revolution which is the only practical solution. For decades sincere people like Chomsky have been hypnotized by some “immediate” issue, and have fallen like him into the habit of talking as if, that issue once removed, the decks will be cleared at last, and some serious attention can then be paid to the task of abolishing capitalism. The fallacy is obvious: capitalism provides an unending procession of such immediate issues, and with each one a crop of new “realists” who argue that this pressing problem must be tackled first, and then, ultimately . . .

When the Vietnam war is over, new horrors of similar magnitude are in store for us. as long as capitalism lasts. [4] If the human species has to wait until all the Chomskys have sorted out all the Vietnams, then we are all going to be dead. One of the consequences of this relegation of revolution to the realm of the “ultimate” is that here is felt to be no need to argue for it in urgent and consistent terms. Thus, when the people who adopt this posture do mention social revolution, they usually discredit it, reinforcing the popular attitude that it is irrelevant to the here and now.

Guilty patriotism
But the real source of Chomsky’s muddles is his patriotism. The word may seem odd in this connection, conjuring up Curtis LeMay and his “Bomb them back to the Stone Age.” Chomsky’s however, is a guilty patriotism, the patriotism of the flagellant. His personal identification with the American nation is overwhelming. That is why his revulsion at the Vietnam butchery finds its expression in demands that the US reform itself.

Time and again he uses the expressions “we" and “us” to mean “America” or even “the American government.” It is alarming that one so sensitive to the implications of words should notice nothing strange about this:
  Like the German Kaiser we believe that everything must be put to fire and sword, so that the war will be more quickly finished — and we act on this belief. Unlike the German Kaiser, our soul is not torn. We manage a relative calm, as we continue, today, to write new chapters of history with the blood of the helpless and innocent.
Because he feels responsible for the actions of the American government he is paralysed when it comes to criticism of America’s antagonists. Thus, in an article on the Pacific war, he draws a convincing parallel between Japanese policy in China and subsequent US policy in Vietnam, but arriving at the subject of Japanese bombing of civilians in Nanking he merely states:
  For an American today to describe these events in the manner they deserve would be the ultimate in hypocrisy. For this reason I will say very little about them.
And that is presumably why he also says very little, in fact nothing, against the North Vietnamese regime or the Vietcong. Every conceivable argument, sound or not, must be mobilised against the American colossus. Therefore, when US policy is under attack, the idea that Chinese expansion might be a threat is vigorously pooh-poohed, but in another context, when it is necessary to stress the independence of Hanoi, the view that “the principle raison d’etre of such a powerful army in North Vietnam today is to protect North Vietnam against possible Chinese aggression” is quoted with approval.

This is dangerous because governments always try to make out that those who oppose their wars, are supporters of the enemy. There is no point in providing them with convincing evidence for their accusation. Chomsky is well aware that state capitalist Russia and China are only less brutal than the US to the extent (if at all) that they are less powerful. He knows that Victnam-style atrocities do not spring from any peculiarity of the American nation, except that it is on top. He knows too that North Vietnam is no paradise (to put it mildly), that it is dependent upon aid from Russia and China, and that an American withdrawal will amount to an extension of the Russian and/or Chinese spheres of influence. A call for American withdrawal is simply a call for a slightly different carve-up of the world by the big powers. It is time Chomsky faced up to the implications of these facts.

Where now
The bulk of this book, in its dissection of mainstream American ideology, is excellent. The deceptions and self-deceptions of this school often read like self-parodies, for instance the solemn warning from one expert that a pacification programme requires survivors to be pacified. Or the reminder, addressed to an American commander bragging of the latest US “victories”, that the victories seemed to be getting closer to Saigon.

Yet “there is no particular merit in being more reasonable than a lunatic,” as Chomsky himself remarks. He must therefore be judged primarily on his recommendations for political action. He could sometimes be more explicit in his references to social revolution, though some of these are promising:
  A democratic revolution would take place when it is supported by the great mass of the people, when they know what they are doing and they know why they are doing it and they know what they want to see come into existence. Maybe not in detail but at least in some manner. A revolution is something that great masses of people have to understand and be personally committed to. (NLR interview).
This view is as alien to the anarchist tradition as to the bolshevik — though it is certainly a corollary of Marx’s assertion that the emancipation of the working-class must be the work of the workers themselves. All the more unfortunate that Chomsky is attracted to anarchism, and has apparently been put off Marxism by its misrepresentations. He quotes Bakunin's summary (which is all lies) of Marx’s doctrine with every indication that he believes it to be an accurate account.

His observations on Spain are (so far as the knowledge of this reviewer extends) substantially correct, but whatever the possibilities of the popular movement before it was crushed by the “Communists” it was undoubtedly (like the Makhno revolt in Russia, another prize exhibit in the anarchist pantheon) a product of backward agrarian conditions. consequently haunted by scarcity and doomed by the march of industry. This in no way belittles the heroism of many of those involved: it simply indicates the limited relevance of such events to the problems of an increasingly white-collar proletariat in vast conurbations during the second half of the century.

It is not likely that the evolution of Chomsky’s ideas has stopped. Hopefully, future writings may contain a more serious approach to the urgent need of today: worldwide social revolution. For all its flaws, even the present volume can be expected to put serious questions into many thousands of minds, and is therefore, with reservations, welcome.

[1] Not to be resolved by taking into account the dates of the separate articles, though this does reveal a trend towards greater clarity.
[2] A similar lack of realism is displayed by those who imagine the UN could ever cease to be in the pockets of the big powers.
[3] The double think of the US government is unsurpassed, but some elements of the "peace movement” have a good try, e.g. the sleight-of-tongue by which support for a pro-war demand (Viet- cong victory) is represented as “antiwar." See Why Socialist oppose the Vietcong in the Socialist Standard, October 68. Also useful is the pamphlet Rape of Vietnam by Bob Potter, though this writer is disturbed to find himself approaching the position of hostility to both sides, and evades it with the remark “One can’t be ‘neutral’ while aircraft are flying over one’s home dropping bombs.” an announcement for which both the German and British governments in the last war might well have commended him.
[4] When there is a Socialist movement of more than derisory strength it will of course unite across frontiers to use its influence to try and stop particular wars within capitalism. But its approaches would be made not to the governments, requesting them each to capitulate. but to the workers called upon to fight, pointing out that only their masters’ interests are at stake in the war. This has been the message of the Socialist Party in two World Wars and during Korea and Vietnam though with no expectation of achieving anything towards preventing these conflicts, given the solid support for capitalism of the great majority of workers. A situation where a massive Socialist movement, not yet a majority, was confronted with a war, might never arise. Firstly, because the rate of the spread of Socialist ideas might at that stage be expected to increase, so that world revolution would be imminent, with it the abolition of war. Secondly, because governments might be deterred from the initiation of wars by the knowledge that very substantial proportions of their populations could be relied upon to sabotage the war effort.