Introducing the WSM
Thank you very much for Introducing the World Socialist Movement and the accompanying literature you sent in response to my e-mail. Having read through it, it seems that our goals and assessments of the global situation are virtually identical.
I was pleased to see that you tackle the “human nature” argument in the “Objections to Socialism Answered” section of the booklet. It’s an argument I’ve come up against on numerous occasions and I have some thoughts of my own on what “human nature” is (as distinct from “animal nature”, derived from the genetic imperative to breed);
- We’re gregarious; humanity is obviously a social species
- We’re sentient; not to say that all animals aren’t, but we know for a fact that humans are capable of complex abstract analyses
- We’re communicative; we’ve developed intricate languages to express our thoughts and feelings to each other
- We’re compassionate; our capacity to empathise with others is nothing short of amazing and is surely the key to our unity and social order. Why would we do things to others that we wouldn’t want done to us? If our so-called “leaders” rediscovered their empathy, imagine the impact on their treatment of refugees and their policies allowing people to starve while food rots in warehouses. (Have you ever noticed, whenever “our” politicians are asked “why don’t we just ship our food surpluses to the people who need it?”, they always seem to reply “it’s not that simple”? It is that simple—people are dying . . .)
If the above points are true, why on earth would they present a barrier to socialism? If anything, they suggest that we’d be good at it. It’s not like we’re stupid—if we can do capitalism, we can do socialism and we’d all be a lot better off for it, I’m sure. Even our former plutocrats would learn to live in a world where human achievement in science and technology were unfettered by competition, profit margin and political expediency.
Like some other members of the Socialist Party, I am also a member of a local LETS group so my curiosity was aroused on coming across the article on LETS by Kaz in the July issue. Though interesting and informative, I did not find its line of argument altogether convincing.
Kaz appears to lump LETS together with various other “reformist schemes” which he condemns not so much because they are inherently ineffectual but because of the (unrealisable) “hope attached to them by often desperate members of the working class”. “Alternative currencies,” argues Kaz, “like experimental communities and a dozen other half-baked schemes have been tried before, more than once, as a solution to the problems of capitalism and each time have been found wanting.” There are two points I would like to make in response.
Firstly, it would be quite wrong to brand LETS as a “reformist” type of activity for it is no more reformist than, for example, trade unionism. By “reformism”, the Socialist Party means, quite specifically, policies enacted by the state which seek (futilely) to modify the economic behaviour of the capitalist system in such a way as to eliminate or alleviate certain problems that are inextricably part of that very system itself. In no sense does LETS fit this definition.
For one thing, it is simply a form of mutual aid at the grassroots level. Essentially, it does not involve the state at all—even if, sometimes (for example, in the USA) the state may choose to involve itself for its own reasons by providing funding for some LETS-type organisation. But this does not mean such organisation should be shunned anymore than we should shun trade unions because of their formal links with the Labour Party. For another, LETS constitute a particular kind of micro-economy qualitative different and separate from the capitalist macro-economy—the real focus or object of reformist activity. LETS are an essentially non-exploitative, egalitarian and voluntaristic arrangement which, like Marx’s “labour-time” vouchers, do not involve the use of money at all—one of the defining features of a capitalist economy.
Secondly, as a socialist I have no illusions that LETS offer any real solution to the problems of capitalism. Indeed, I doubt whether many members of the LETS movement would think any differently. LETS are essentially a way of coping with life under capitalism and are particularly beneficial for people on a low income, like myself, or the unemployed. Moreover, the range of activities involved is vastly more expansive and diverse than the caricature that Kaz paints (“giving lifts to old lades and trading organic lentils”). My local LETS group, for example, publishes a fairly substantial directory each year which lists literally hundreds of different kinds of services (and goods) offered or requested—from plumbing and house painting to holiday accommodation and computer repairs—which enables our members to a limited extent to circumvent the capitalist money-based economy to meet our own personal needs. Granted this is never going to be more that a rather limited circumvention but, for someone like myself, it is by no means insignificant.
It is highly regrettable that the title of Kaz’s article (“LETS not make the same mistakes again”) should convey the impression that workers should not become involved in LETS groups. This is emphatically not the view of the Socialist Party and it would be utter folly if it ever were to become that. LETS do not represent an alternative to the absolutely essential task of organising politically to establish socialism and just because enthusiasts like Dave Boyle entertain fantasies about what can be achieved through the LETS movement, this does not mean that we should then proceed to shoot down in flames the very idea of LETS itself.
The significance of LETS to the working class is not that they will provide any real and lasting solution to the problems we face under capitalism; it is that they offer a practical instance of what Kaz rightly calls a “form of voluntary labour for the good of the community, surely the basis of work in socialism”. If they, along with experimental communities etc. have been “found wanting” in this respect then so too, it has to be said, has the purely “propagandistic” or political approach adopted by the Socialist Party. For after nearly a hundred years of consistently applying this approach we have unfortunately made very little discernible progress.
The answer is surely not to reject one approach in favour of the other but to embrace both. While it is not the business of the Socialist Party to directly involve itself (in a practical sense) in the development of the LETS movement, it will certainly benefit by adopting a more explicitly sympathetic approach to this movement. Yes, let us recognise its limitations but let us also recognise that by involving ourselves as individuals in this movement we can each help in a small way to nudge the consciousness of our fellow workers in the direction we desire.
We don’t presume to tell workers (including our own members) what strategy to adopt to survive under capitalism—beyond, that is, urging them to fight back against downward pressures via trade unions, tenants associations and the like. So if people want to join LETS schemes, we have no objection. Our criticism of them (as of trade unions) is that they are not the solution—there is no solution to workers’ problems within capitalism—nor are they somehow “stepping stones to Socialism”. When people make such claims as Dave Boyle did in his book on Funny Money we criticise them. LETS schemes are not socialist or a step towards socialism. They are, as you put it, “essentially a way of coping with life under capitalism”.