Why do so many members of the working class find it difficult to understand the Socialist case? Certainly not because of its complications. On the contrary, it must be because of its simplicity. So accustomed are they to having placed before them the complicated plans, programmes and policies of other political organisations that the simplicity of the Socialist proposition makes them suspect that there must be a flaw somewhere.
The detailed plans of reformist labour parties, the hotch-potch of incomprehensible “immediate demands” of the communists, the cunningly conceived schemes of currency reform cranks and the elaborate domestic and foreign policies of all kinds of governments gives them the idea that politics is a most profound business. Then to be told that all their problems have a common origin in the capitalist system of society and that the solutions lie in the abolition of capitalism, leaves them somewhat bewildered and suspicious. Like a woman who, on entering a shop to buy a certain commodity, finds it on sale at a price so much below her anticipations that she suspects that it must be faulty and refuses to buy.
The socialist declares that the workers have it in their power to build a society wherein the wealth produced shall be freely available to everyone without the need to buy, sell or exchange everything that is required. To imagine themselves having access to the goods that they have worked to produce without having to ask “How much?” or "Can I afford it?” makes many workers smile and shake their heads. They recognise everything as the property of some person or persons. They accept without question the fact that goods are only available to them when they can afford to buy. The proposal that there can be a condition of things where the institution of buying and selling does not exist, makes them look for a flaw.
One can well imagine children, having grown accustomed to the practice of producing a ration book, a coupon or a permit before a purchase can be made, looking askance at any proposal that may suggest that such coupons and permits be no longer necessary. All the arguments advanced in support of a rationing system when it was introduced would then be trotted out against those who advocated its abolition, and by the very people who stood to gain by the change.
But one cannot imagine adults of today opposing the abolition of a rationing system. They have recent recollections of the days before rationing and a return to those conditions would not seem at all strange to them. Having experienced a certain condition they would know that it is practicable.
A number of those workers who pooh-pooh the idea of making the wealth produced available to the producers, are men and women who have served in the army, navy or air force. At socialist meetings they will ask in a surprised tone, “Do you mean that we can just walk into a place and eat without paying?”, “Do you mean that we don’t have to pay rent? ”, “Are you suggesting that we can go into a shop and get a suit of clothes and walk out without paying?”, "How will the boot repairer or the bus driver or the canteen waitress live if we do not pay for the goods that we have?”
Yet, quite recently, these ex-service people have lived in conditions wherein they did not have to put their hands in their pockets and produce money in order to eat, dress and sleep.
What happens when the soldier wants his boots repaired? He takes them to the unit cobbler. And when the unit cobbler wants a meal he goes to the cookhouse. Does he pay for his dinner? Of course not. Neither does the cook pay for the battle dress suit that he gets from the quartermaster’s stores. The army lorry driver does not pay for the petrol that he draws from the petrol depot or for the spares and tools that he uses. And when he drives his truck on a recreational journey, do his passengers pay a fare? Not likely. The storeman does not charge for the blankets that he issues, neither does the medical officer charge for his services. If the service man was asked to pay rent for his billet, barrack room or bunk he would regard the idea as preposterous. Despite this "non-payment” arrangement, or because of it, the whole military organisation is effective. Men do not eat greedily when they do not have to pay for their meals. Soldiers do not obtain umpteen pairs of boots just because they do not have to pay for them. In fact they often regard one of the two pairs with which they are issued as an encumbrance. Requirements are satisfied as far as stocks and stores allow.
We are not suggesting that the army form of distribution is an example of socialism in operation. Far from it. The goods that are available to the soldier have been bought. They were produced, as are all goods where the capitalist mode of production prevails, for the purpose of being sold or exchanged with a view to a profit being made. Having been through the buying and selling process they are finally placed at the disposal of the army and made accessible to the troops. All things are not freely available. In fact army life is notorious for its lack of variety and its uniformity. We use the illustration to show to those who are unable to appreciate the possibility, how goods produced for use could be distributed without having to pass through a market as far as the actual consumer is concerned.
Men and women in the armed forces produce a variety of services. They cook and cut hair, repair boots, drive trucks and lorries and sweep out barrack rooms, etc. Each in turn takes advantage of the service provided by others without thought of making payment. It should not be difficult to visualise a society where such procedure prevailed. Goods and services would be produced as they are today. The difference being that many who now are engaged in socially useless tasks and those who are not engaged in production in any shape or form, would then contribute their share of effort, thus making the task lighter for all. All the things produced, food, clothing, houses, transport facilities, entertainment, furniture, etc., all the things necessary to make life comfortable, would then be at the disposal of everyone, according to their requirements.
People could eat by entering the appropriate building, sitting down, and being supplied with food just as the soldier is supplied in his cookhouse. Or they might prefer to collect their foodstuffs and take them to their dwelling place to prepare and eat them. Such details as how people will prefer to eat, in public halls or in private dwellings, we are unable to forecast. We cannot attempt to map out in advance the detailed plans of organisation of a future society. Society is not a piece of architecture, it grows like an organism, and organs develop as the need for them arises. The prevailing conditions will determine such details in a socialist community.
The same applies to the distribution of other goods. Just how clothing will be distributed we cannot say. It may be in like manner to the quartermaster’s issue or it may be by mail order or by distribution from shops as today except that the payment business will no longer exist.
With travel it is easier still to visualise. It should not be difficult of comprehension to realise that one could board a bus, a train, a coach or an aeroplane, travel to one's destination and alight without the necessity of paying a fare. In all these instances the collectors of money will he freed from those jobs and made available for a more useful contribution to the social effort. They can be free to assist in the production of more goods or the rendering of more and better services.
The socialist does not advocate such a system of society just because it would be nice to live that way. He recognises that the present system of producing things in order that they may be sold, and that someone may make a profit out of the process, is the cause of all working class problems. From this root cause arises the poverty of the workers with its attendant problems of housing, malnutrition, overwork and unemployment, economic insecurity, crime, etc. Also from the same source comes the greatest of all catastrophes, War. To eliminate these evils it is necessary to remove the cause. So what must we do? If the cause is private ownership with its production for sale, what stands in the way of abolishing this condition? Private ownership. Only things that are owned by someone can be sold or exchanged. When goods are produced they are not made available to the producers. They remain in the hands of those who own the tools and machinery which are used to make them. By virtue of their ownership these people have the right to say what shall be produced, how much shall be produced and how the goods and services shall be distributed. The whole of the structure of present day society is directed towards maintaining this order of things. The majority of the workers accept this system, governments administer it, police, judges and jailers enforce it, soldiers, sailors and airmen fight for it, and the owners of the land, mines, factories, transport systems, workshops, etc., thrive on it. Only the socialist challenges it
Many workers try to find ways and means of remedying the evil effects of this system without even realising the fundamental cause of these evils. To them it seems a very complicated affair, requiring complicated plans. To them the simple socialist proposition of converting the means of production from private or state ownership to common ownership, and thus making all the wealth produced freely available to everyone according to their needs, is difficult of comprehension. But there is no problem thrown up by society that does not have its solution portrayed in that society. If we seek an example, a lesson or an illustration of a future social development we can always find it in our present circumstances.
To those who boggle at the idea of having the needs, comforts and luxuries of life made available to them; to those who take fright at the idea of a society without goods for sale, we would say this: Our proposals are not the result of a dream. They are the product of a scientific study of social development and a recognition that socialism is the next stage in that development, not merely because we wish it but because it is inevitable if society is to continue. There is nothing difficult or incomprehensible about socialism once you cease to regard it as too simple to be true or as an idea of men who seek to trick you. All that is necessary is for you to give up seeking arguments in favour of maintaining the system that keeps you in subjection. Give a little earnest thought to the socialist case in a sympathetic manner. We know what the result will be. Then bring your actions into line with your ideas and the job of establishing Socialism is as good as done.
The above article appeared in the February 1948 edition of the Socialist Standard.