Socialism or Reform? Two Letters on Tactics


Dear Sir,—I saw the July number of your journal in the local public library and straightway sat down to read it. What struck me most was your vigorous hostility towards the Labor Party. Being an ardent Socialist myself I would much rather the Labor Party in Parliament was Socialist, but if this was so I cannot see how they could have acted any different if a start was to be made at all in bettering the lot of the poorer working class. Socialism is utterly impossible until the people become Socialists, and as the time is very far distant when the people will decide that it is only by Socialism that Society will become a healthy organism it becomes necessary for us to adopt seasonable methods. It surely cannot be urged that to try and obtain immediate relief for those who feel the crushing burden of poverty the most is travelling in a wrong direction.

If a small Socialist party were in Parliament and preached nothing but the doctrines of collective ownership of the land and machinery of production nothing at all would be done towards mitigating existing evils, in fact, if I understand you rightly, nothing else matters, and until the Socialist Government comes along let things go on as they are, as, for instance: working 12 hours a day for £1 a week, children attending school half starved, taxes on food, and the glorious prospect that, at some future time you may occupy a place in the workhouse when a pension of about 10/- a week would obviate it.

It must be admitted that remedies for this lamentable state of affairs are very pressing and I for one think it far better and safer to climb the ladder of progress rather than try and leap to the top, which, perhaps, may be very good exercise but accomplishes nothing.
Yours faithfully,



Dear Sir,— Since I heard a very interesting lecture by Mr. Anderson in Finsbury Park, I have (now and again) been considering the policy of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, and although I have thought myself an out-and-out Socialist for some years, I cannot altogether agree with your doctrines.

I do not love compromises, but I have grown more and more convinced that inconsistent compromises are among the necessary evils of existence.

Nothing in nature is absolute, and it seems impossible that any social or political action can take place that is entirely free from compromise, because no two people could entirely agree as to what is absolutely the best way to promote human welfare.

Then it is, theoretically, impossible for any progress to result from two forces acting in directly opposed directions, unless the party of progress were the stronger. Progress seems to me to be the resultant of the action of different forces which are to some extent inclined towards one another.

This may appear mere fantastic theory to you, at first sight, but really it is merely a way of illustrating a conclusion I had already reached by considering actual experiences.

Another point: the supporting of “palliative” measures. It seems to me that there are cases when it is the obvious duty of every Socialist, and indeed of every kind of humanitarian, to do all they can for such measures. Would it be your policy to refuse to support a measure (on the grounds that it delays the ultimate triumph of Socialism) to better the condition of half-starved children ? It seems to me that if you refused to support such measures, because Socialism might be the ultimate gainer by your opposition, you would be offering blood sacrifices to an idea, and so making an idol of Socialism. Of course I do not believe that, in actual fact, you would oppose measures that might be to the obvious present advantage of the workers as a whole ; but then why pretend that it is possible to be uncompromisingly consistent ?

Finally, you must not think that I think that The Socialist Party of Great Britain is doing harm ; I think it is doing a great deal of good ; but only as one of many forces working towards Socialism


With each of our correspondents we find ourselves at least in partial agreement. Thus, for instance, we agree with Mr. Wilson that “Socialism is utterly impossible until the people become Socialists” and therefore

We are making Socialists.

We also agree with Mr. Simons that “Progress” (given the identity of our conceptions of progress) “is the resultant of different forces which are inclined towards one another,” and that “it is impossible for any progress to result from two forces acting in directly opposed directions unless the party of progress were the stronger.” Precisely. As The Socialist Party we take our stand upon the essential minimum upon which the real interests of all wage-workers are united or inclined towards each other, but these united interests are at the same time directly opposed to those of the capitalist class. Hence on Mr. Simons’ own showing no progress can possibly result from any attempt at compromise between two forces in direct antagonism, and that the workers’ only hope is to become, as indeed they must, the stronger party. Compromises are, therefore, not only inconsistent—they are utterly futile.

Both correspondents tacitly admit that the evils that cry for palliation are the effects of capitalist exploitation and that in reality Socialism alone is the remedy, yet both, curiously enough, consider reform nostrums of greater importance than Socialism. And this attitude we believe is the result of allowing generous sentiment to usurp the place of reason. Knowledge and reason are of far greater importance than sentimental impulse, and the kindest intentions result in the greatest harm where they override truth and logic.

The whole working class (so named because they do the work for which they get a grudging subsistence) have to produce thrice the amount of wealth they get in wages. Millions of men in this country toil for less than a pound a week. Thousands of women have to slave for wages insuflicient to purchase food alone; and many thousands eagerly hunt for employment without success ; while as a result of this

Ruthless Exploitation

thousands of children go to school and millions of men and women go to work insufficiently clothed and insufficiently fed. We know this and we are working to end it. Now who is going about it the better way ?

We are asked to practically withdraw our energies from what is admittedly the only thing that can put an end to the evils it is sought to palliate and to devote ourselves to inducing the capitalist class to provide meals for school-children and old age pensions. In other words we, and the workers generally, are urged to confine ourselves to begging the ruling class to treat certain of its victims more gently rather than that the workers organise and concentrate upon taking the power to make victims away from the ruling class. But so long as the people confine themselves to crumb begging and do not threaten his supremacy, what more does the capitalist demand ?

The class that lives by profit controls the state administratively, judicially and politically, and it is incontestible that any measure of so-called reform that is granted will only go to serve the interests of the ruling class. Thus any miserable measure that may be passed for the feeding of school children would be passed whether we supported or not, while it could only result in paltry soup kitchens for a few—nothing adequate in any sense—and would be used as an instrument for beating down wages. It is indeed futile to oppose such a measure, and no part of our policy, but it is equally futile to abandon work for the removal of the cause in favour of a thing that would not decrease the sum total of working class misery. We seek to own and control collectively the product of our labour, so that our children should not be degraded as profit-producing larvae, but nourished and clothed as they should be.

The old age pension scheme of Mr. Barnes, M.P., Labour misleader, would give the few workers so unfortunate as to survive the age of 65 a pension of 5s. per week, which could only operate as a bribe to encourage them to starve slowly outside rather than enter the workhouse, where they would be better off. Indeed, whatever paltry pension may ultimately be granted will be to relieve poor rates of the growing burden of the workers who are discharged in favour of younger men, and will also operate like the pensions of soldiers, police, etc., as

A Premium on the Acceptance of Low Wages.

as many workers know to their cost.

Any genuine reform that takes a bite out of capitalist interests (and no reform can be genuine that does not) can only be obtained in opposition to the capitalist class by the workers capturing political power. Thus to obtain even reforms would require what is essentially a revolution. But the working class cannot be united upon a measure that can only doubtfully benefit a small number of them ; while the number of evil effects of capitalism is so vast that scarcely any two workers can be united upon all the innumerable palliatives called for, and as to which are the most pressing. By having their attention directed to effects only the efforts of the workers are made mutually antagonistic, and are scattered and nullified by being directed to all points of the compass upon the myriad effects of capitalism, instead of being focussed on the cause.

For the workers to do anything in their interests they must first obtain the power to do it; the next step, therefore, upon which all workers can be united is the capture of political power for the inauguration of industrial democracy. Whether for genuine reform or for Socialism the substitution of working class control for capitalist control—the revolution—is essential, and it alone can stop what is admittedly the cause of misery and poverty—the exploitation of the workers for profit—and can convert the machinery of production from the means of profit for a handful into the means of life and happiness for a people.

To put, as is done in many instances, a long list of “palliatives” before the workers not only excites division and scatters the workers’ energies, but leaves the cause of evil unchecked, confines the workers’ attention to

Fruitless Efforts at Reform

within the present system, serves capitalist interests and starves and hinders the only forward movement, thus postponing indefinitely both the removal of the cause and the healing of the wounds.

The workers, we believe, can only be united upon broad and elementary fundamental principles, since even transitional measures are conditional on working-class supremacy and can only be determined by the state of industry and the needs of democracy at the revolution. These principles are given in our Declaration of Principles and may be resumed briefly as:—

Firstly : that the poverty and slavery of the workers and all that flows therefrom is due to their robbery by the class owning the means of production and distribution.

Secondly : that to remove the ills under which they labour the workers must themselves own and use collectively the means of producing wealth.

Thirdly : that the workers cannot use or own the political and industrial machinery in their interests or gain any real advantage until they capture the supremacy, therefore the essential step is the revolutionary step, the

Control of Society by the Working Class

organised as a class party for Socialism. Upon such essentials the workers as a whole can be united, for all who live by labour stand to gain.

The alternative before us is not, then, as Mr. Wilson would have it, between climbing a ladder and jumping to the top, no metaphor was ever more unfortunate ; but the alternative is between marching surely and always toward Socialism as we are doing toward the only remedy by the only road—or marching, as are the reformers, in circles within capitalism with much shouting and capitalist applause but no advance whatever.

Finally, even regarding such inadequate and restricted measures of alleviation that may be possible within the capitalist system, and even supposing the ruling class could be induced to grant them, we direct attention to the following incontrovertible proposition: That the only effective way to induce the ruling class to attempt to palliate the evils of their system is to organise the workers for the overthrow of that system.


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