Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Letters: Civil servants (1983)

Letters to the Editors from the September 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Civil servants

Dear Editors

Now a regular reader, I find myself in broad agreement with your views. Particularly. I see people’s faith in the money system as being capitalism’s jugular vein. Your position on Right to Work campaigns is also sound. If this were not so, armaments production could be justified as it provides jobs.

However. I found your April article on the power of the Civil Service's permanent officials to be unconvincing. You say that "the ease with which different governments adopt different policies, and the same government goes in for U-turns, shows that government policies are not determined by the permanent officials." Well, as you have pointed out, how “different” are the policies of Labour and Conservative governments? Secondly: surely, U-turns are more likely to be precipitated by the permanent officials, who remain anonymous while government officials face the music.
A. Beckett 
Great Boughton, Chester

Mr. Beckett holds that it is the Permanent Officials who determine government policies and reversals of policies; which, he thinks, explains why there is no real difference between the policies of Tory and Labour governments.

However it is a basic error to suppose that the capitalist class is a monolithic body having only one interest, that of defending capitalism and opposing socialism, for within that general framework different groups have sectional interests, absolutely vital to themselves. These lead to conflicts fought out with all the resources at their disposal, including stirring up the workers to support one side or the other.

This aspect of capitalism was already noted by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, 1848:
The bourgeoisie finds itself in a constant battle. At first against the aristocracy; later on with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries.
The struggle for the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 was not a sham fight. The factory owners wanted cheap food imports as the way to reduce wages, but the agricultural interests saw in it their own near-ruin.

Other struggles between sections with conflicting interests have been between those favouring the gold standard and those opposing it; (in America the anti-gold campaign by Eugene Debs, with his slogan “Shall mankind be crucified upon a cross of gold?” was backed by the silver mining companies); over a low pound exchange rate good for exporters and a high rate good for importers; over entry to the EEC; over Keynesian doctrines and “monetarism”; and between capitalists supporting the nationalisation of particular industries and those opposing it.

According to Mr. Beckett’s theory it was the permanent officials who made the 1945 Labour government nationalise steel; then made the Tories denationalise it; renationalised it under the 1964 Labour Government and made the Thatcher government get a mandate to denationalise all or part of it. (The Labour Party pledged itself to maintain nationalisation in its 1983 programme.)

But this is quite wrong. Labour Party demands for nationalisation all originated in resolutions passed by their conferences and embodied in election programmes. Likewise, all the Tory demands for denationalisation were, first, items in their election programmes. There can be no explanation why permanent officials should behave in this very peculiar way, giving contradictory advice to successive governments.

Of course the permanent officials have not advised governments to introduce socialism but no government has ever wanted, or would have accepted, such advice. If by chance one of them gave that advice a Tory government or a Labour government, both being firmly committed to capitalism, would get rid of that official or, as has happened in some instances when the advice ran completely counter to government policy, transfer the person concerned to a department in which they would no longer be involved in such policy questions.

Crackpot Colonels

Dear Editors,

How is the neutralisation of state power to be made effective? In your publications, you say that with the advent of socialism, socialists will predominate throughout society, including the armed forces, which is fair enough as far as it goes. If the armed forces are for the most part socialists, then they will hardly oppose the new order.

But how will the armed forces first become socialists, in the main? Often the workers mistakenly joining the armed forces will be those who wish to preserve the existing social set up. But that’s not the point, after all, most workers, if not actually desiring the status quo. grudgingly accept it as a fact of nature, and I don’t consider that a barrier! The workers in the army etc. will be subject to more intensive indoctrination and greater isolation than the rest of us. This can only impede the spreading of socialist knowledge, so how do they become socialists? Through their families or acquaintances on the outside? Or perhaps socialists (when in sufficient numbers) will overcome their revulsion at being the boot-boys of capital, and enlist to propagate socialist ideas? Though as I understand it. being a member of the SPGB precludes membership of the armed forces (at least it will with a large socialist movement, hence aware capitalist politicians) and certainly vice versa.

Whatever the outcome, the non-socialists will be in a small minority. Fair enough, we will have abolished the state, and as military geezers are taught to obey orders, they should accept the change with no more trouble than a bit of flag-waving which most people wouldn’t particularly care for. But if there is a comparatively large anti-socialist faction remaining in the armed forces, mightn't some crackpot colonel take it into his head to attempt a disruption of the new society?
H T Muirhead
Dymock, Glos. 

(This letter has been slightly shortened — Editors.)

Let us be quite clear, that a socialist society will not submit to any efforts on the part of a minority to frustrate the will of the majority. Crackpot colonels will be suppressed with whatever persuasion, or force, is necessary.

But how will a minority be able to resist the revolutionary majority? How will they persuade people who have opted for socialism to turn back the clock to the society of war, famine, poverty, the Bomb? What point of social reference will they have, in a society without classes and class privilege? In whose interests will they advocate the abandonment of socialism?

The argument, of course, is that they will try to win their point not through persuasion but through violence. What instruments will be at hand for them to use in this? If violence is to have any hope against the wishes of the majority it must be a social effort, with popular support in its conception, organisation and carrying out. But the act of setting up socialism, by a conscious majority, will deprive it of these very essentials. The armed forces, for example, do not exist in isolation but rely in all senses on the sanction of the rest of society; deprived of that they cannot exist in any effective sense.

Workers join the armed forces for a variety of reasons; nowadays, probably because they are unable to find a job anywhere else. The armed and police forces are not peculiar in their requirement that their members act against working class interests; this happens in many other jobs as well. Although it is impossible to say why workers take up one job or another, we do know that the growth and the spread of socialist ideas affects them all; none of them are immune. The developing strength of the movement to socialism, then, will enfeeble the coercive state forces and finally the revolutionary act of establishing socialism will entail the working class taking over the state machine as the only public power of coercion. No minority will endure against that.

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