“Those who opposed it on ‘principle’ [the tactic of seeking affiliation with the Labour Party]—(in reality because they just cannot stand the Hendersons and Macdonalds . . .) —who prefer to carry on their ‘revolutionary activities’ far from the madding crowd . . . are happily not in our ranks. On their banners the word ‘purity’ is writ in large letters, and over it a dainty broom as a warning. Alas, they have failed to understand that only the newly-born are pure; that in order to become pure again, we must go through purgatory. … If the present trade unions are hells we have simply got to go through it—not save our souls by running away to start unions of our own. If the local labour party is a hell we have got to go through it, and so with the National Labour Party.” (The Communist).
The supreme desire of the Socialist is for the triumph of his cause. His heart is “scared with the knowledge of preventable human woe” ; his dreams are bright with the possibilities of the future commonwealth. His ambitions are no longer individual, nor are his joys and sorrows. He is glad and downcast with the flow and ebb of the movement. He views events in their relation to the revolution; he asks of institutions whether they can assist or only obstruct it. The needs of the cause are imperative calls, the advantage of the cause is his highest expediency.
He knows that the revolution is no one’s business but the workers ; and therefore asks himself, “Is our class to-day, generally speaking, ready for such a step ?” It is not. We are not even capable of fighting with any degree of success the everyday battles of industry. In the perennial struggle around conditions of livelihood we suffer defeat on defeat; worse, we combat one another. We allow ourselves to be divided on all manner of pretexts. We have not learned to unite even in defence of the meagre things we have. As to completely re-organising social life, we should call the suggestion madness. Send our masters packing—why, who would pay our wages ? Produce and distribute by democratic arrangement—the work would never get done. Claim and receive what we need from the common store—why, we do not even laugh at the idea. It lies outside our imagination.
The present order of things suits us very well; only we should all like to be kept in work, draw higher wages, and pay less rent.
Such being the state of mind of those whose mission it is to overthrow capitalism, the Socialist and his comrades buckle down to their task. They may do one of two things : lead, the workers or teach them. That is to say, they may select a non-revolutionary political party which at the moment has the favour of the workers, and associate themselves with it, regardless of whether its activities are in themselves an advance to ward revolution. By zeal and devotion they may aim at acquiring a strong influence with the members, so that when decisions are to be taken their advice will be asked and followed, even though the members are not convinced Socialists. This does not mean that they will neglect to teach socialism, but that they are prepared to attempt a revolution, relying for support on people who better understand the efficiency of Socialists than the full meaning of Socialism. On the other hand, they may devote all their energies to education, assisting no reformist activity, but rather making clear the worthlessness of such endeavours, and the true remedy for the distress which gave rise to them. In this case the minimum prerequisite of a seizure of political power would be a majority of Socialists. That is not to say that the majority need be profound Marxian scholars , but they must (1) understand well the basic principles of capitalist and socialist society respectively; (2) have freely decided to destroy the one and set up the other; and consequently be able (3) intelligently to exercise the right of recall, if any of those whom they depute to give effect to their will shall seek to play them false; or (4) to appoint suitable successors if chance should remove some of their delegates, so that the direction of the revolution is in nowise accidental.
In other words, Socialists may either act for their fellow-workers, making all efforts meanwhile to bring them into line, or they may concentrate on making them capable of acting for themselves. The method of leadership recommends itself to some, because it appears at first sight to be the quicker. Naturally no Socialist is willing to defer the revolution a year—a day—beyond what is necessary. In face of capitalism’s terrible daily waste of human life and happiness; with men and women dying every hour, worn out at an age when they ought to be enjoying their full powers of mind and body; with babies born every hour into such conditions that they can only be come grotesque caricatures of humanity; what Socialist would not be impatient ? Walk round Bermondsey, look out as your train runs into Bristol, or make a tour of a Lancashire mill, and see whether you can feel patient about the last years of capitalism ! It is all too easy to understand men like Martin Nexø‘s anarchist character, who was so obsessed by the suffering of his neighbours that he threw away his life in a futile attempt to effect an immediate remedy. There is not a Socialist who does not desire the transformation to morrow, if that were possible.
But what would be the outcome of a revolutionary venture employing the method of leadership —such an attempt as Engels criticised— “carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses ?”
To count on the support of people who do not understand your purpose is to build your house on the sand. At your most need they may desert you. If they can be influenced by you, they may be by your enemies too; and, in the hardships and uncertainties of the transition period, will they not be fruitful ground for the seeds of counter-revolution ? Moreover, if you surmount the first dangers, are these the men and women successfully to work a socialist system of industry ? Accustomed to leaders, how shall they show the qualities necessary for democratic control—the independence, the responsibility ? Not understanding how the system should develop, where is the safeguard against their wrecking it by unsound decisions ? And if to prevent that you must govern your fellow-workers after all, what is it you have established ? Not a co-operative commonwealth, but a bureaucratic state —a sorry achievement of leadership, which leaves the task of education still before you.
For this reason, believing that no genuine and enduring transformation of society is possible until the majority of the workers have embraced socialist principles, the S.P.G.B. directs all its actions towards organising an evergrowing body of socialist conviction. It takes no part in reformist agitation, but calls on the workers to come together for the one action that can help them. Nor does it by keeping its independence lack opportunities of reaching the workers. Men and women are not confined to barracks labelled Labour Party, National Unemployed Workers’ Committee, and so on, and only approachable through those doors. They may be members of these organisations, yet none the less exposed to our socialist bombardment, in the workshop, the trade union branch, at the street corner, in the parks. We do not lack opportunities for propaganda; but we do avoid confusing our message, as we should confuse it by advocating socialist principles with our lips and supporting reformist programmes by our actions. We seek to ensure that new comrades join us with their eyes wide open— knowing the road without need of a leader. Such a party is framed to triumph, because the fabric is sound all through. Say in time of revolution a man is entrusted with a great task. He fails or he dies; it is but to supply his place with another. The revolution will not fail or die with him. All are not equally gifted, but the field of selection is as wide as the party, not limited to a small vanguard.
Leaders, however strong and courageous, cannot guarantee victory, and a defeated insurrection would sow despair and defer what it sought to hasten. But a resolute majority, equipped with knowledge, is invincible.
Specific comment on the paragraph at the head of this article is almost redundant. We might perhaps advise our Communist friend not to be mistrustful of principle. It’s a good thing to have. Without it he will be only a ship without a helm. Nor be too guilty-conscious of his own fall from grace. However little he may look like a pure revolutionist at present, there is hope for him, though for a member of a relatively “newly-born” party it’s rather sad to feel that urgent need of purification. Since he seems to have a fondness for scriptural allusion, we counsel him to strive to become again as a little child in the movement, by discarding the opportunism that has sent him astray. If he must have a taste of purgatory, why the preference for the Labour Party ? There are the Liberal and Conservative parties too, also supported by the workers, who hoped from each in turn sympathetic attention to their interests. They sent these parties to power in the hope of something being done for them; they now bid fair to send the Labour Party for no better reason—certainly not because they are determined at last to think and act for themselves.
We like the device of the broom which he inscribes on our banners. We accept and shall use it to sweep the dry leaves from our revolutionary path—daintily for such as he, for that is all that is necessary ; but for our enemies, with a stroke that shall hum across the world.
(Socialist Standard, October 1922)