The Fallacies of Opportunism
Opportunism has been the grave of many a movement that commenced blessed with the brightest hopes. It has an old and disastrous history in the annals of the working class, and yet it flourishes still, alluring with bright but treacherous promises myriads of workers whose energy and enthusiasm is wasted on fleeting and harmful objects instead of being directed towards the abolition of wage slavery.
Opportunism takes two main roads, one the road that is very, very long but has flowers to be picked by the way; the other the road along which emancipation is to come like a thief in the night—ushered in by a handful of “leaders” behind the backs of the people.
But the wayside flowers wither rapidly, and in like manner the “benefits” that are obtained with much labour and misery wither and become burdens in a very short time. Such are Old Age Pensions, Unemployment Insurance, and the like.
The quick road is full of pitfalls and quagmires, and the travellers along it are brought to ruin by the ignorance of the masses, the duplicity of the leaders, and the power of the masters. Along this road secrecy is one of the watchwords, and one after another secret movements have collapsed through betrayal by some of those taking part.
There was one secret movement, however, nearly 100 years ago, which, from one point of view, worked out in an ideal manner until it came to the final plunge—and then its very secrecy sealed its doom. This was the Barbés insurrection in France in 1839. So well was the secret kept that the main body of those taking part knew neither the leaders nor the plan of action until the day appointed for the rising, and when the leaders turned up nobody recognised them and squabbles and disorganisation resulted.
The opportunist brings his panaceas on to the historical stage then bows and vanishes, only to return again with a fresh one or an old one in a new dress. One by one these panaceas fail to accomplish their purpose and are cast aside.
The question arises, how is it that people are so ready to try false paths when the real remedy for their troubles is so simple and lies ready to hand ? There are two principal reasons. First, leadership offers rich prizes to those who covet an easy life, and inflates the vanity of those who seek popular applause. Secondly, when someone offers to do the work and relieve others of the thinking and worrying those others are inclined to support the saviour.
Many of those who profess a desire for a change in the social system and contend that they aim at the same object as we do, yet fall out with us for our methods as being either “unpractical” or “too long.”
We urge that the workers must first understand before they act—understand Socialism before any attempt is made to introduce it.
The difference in method leads to a fundamental difference in propaganda We are all the time engaged in disseminating knowledge of society, in the past and present, among our fellow workers, whilst the opportunists are a great part of the time engaged in disseminating rallying cries, enthusiastic phrases, and heaping abuse upon great men who occasionally play them false.
The results of the opportunists’ methods are plain to be seen by those who care to study history. The Co-operative, the Labour Party, the Industrial Unionist Movement, and the Communist Movement, to name only four, are illustrations to the point. The first two have been netted by the Capitalists, the second is dead, and the third is truly “evolutionary”—in a state of constant change !
The “evolution” of the Reformists becomes more interesting as time passes. After years spent impressing upon the workers the necessity of achieving “something now” and not worrying about “the dim and distant future,” events seem to be bringing the I.L.P. up with a jerk, if the editorial columns of the “New Leader” are anything to go by.
The Editorial of 12th February, commenting on Snowden’s recent speech, runs as follows :—
“Sir John Simon, in his reply, narrowed down our case to ‘gas and water Socialism.’ To gas and water one may add electricity and even, as Mr. Churchill once proposed, the railways. Such changes, conceived in this spirit, would leave the fabric of Capitalism intact, and even the nationalisation of the land would be no more than the last blow at Feudalism.” (Italics ours.)
Well! Well ! So all the pother was simply about seeing the back seams of feudalism’s breeches !
The step by step “evolutionary” method of reaching Socialism has not been a success. Brailsford already made that admission by inference in an article entitled “Socialism in our Generation” in the “New Leader” on January 1st, 1926. The article opens up with the suggestion that the I.L.P. are turning over a new leaf. The opening is so interesting that we cannot refrain from quoting it at length :—
“From its earliest days the Socialist movement has drafted its programme in two chapters. In the first it set out demands attainable here and now. In the second it states its ultimate aim. The first chapter varied, as time went on, with the circumstances of each country : sometimes stress was laid on the Parliamentary vote ; sometimes on the Eight Hours’ Day ; or, again, upon reforms in education and housing, or on the needs of the unemployed. This was the “practical” minimum programme. The second chapter was much less modest: it called for nothing less than the ending of the capitalist system, and the public ownership of all the means of production and distribution.
There were good reasons for this division. Every Labour movement grew as it showed tangible results. It had to interest men and women who cared nothing for theories and Utopias. It could not ignore the needs and wrongs of the moment for the sake of the distant transformation. But the method has its evils : when once you have separated the two chapters it is not easy to bring them together again. You draw a line, you print your Chapter II, in bold capital letters, and straightway you have jumped from the humdrum world of Parliamentary debates and general elections into the millennium. As the pioneers passed away and the second generation of experienced Parliamentarians took their place, the consequences became everywhere apparent. More and more it is the detail of the “practical” programme which absorbs us ; the faith in a hazy, Utopia survives, but the will to realise it is no longer the driving force. Strangers who watch our movement often liken it to a “religion.” The analogy is dangerously true. We have our week-day creed and our Sunday visions. We make ourselves at home in the City of Destruction, and from time to time, with warm hearts, and uplifted eyes, we sing of the New Jerusalem.”
Surely the above is a damaging admission from the side of the “practical” men if ever there was one ! While picking the withering flowers they have forgotten the object they set out to seek. Verily out of their own mouths are they convicted !
If they did but forget the object it were bad enough, but they did worse and it is their leaders who furnish us with the information.
We have already had occasion to comment upon the South African Labour Partv, but a little further comment will do no harm, and will illustrate how the “practical” programme of Labour Parties leads them to take action diametrically opposed to the interests of the workers.
“The Bill which enforces the “colour bar” in all the industries of South Africa has passed its third reading in the Lower House. It applies to Indians and to Kaffirs, though not to half-castes. It reserves to men of the white races every skilled or semi-skilled trade, and in effect forbids a native to manage a machine. His place henceforth is fixed by law as a mere labourer. He may contrive to educate himself, but the law forbids him to use his sharpened intelligence in the preserves of the white man.
This Bill, one of the most inhuman in the records of the white race, represents the joint policy of the more Conservative Boers and the South African Labour Party. It aims at preserving the wage standards of white labour against native and Indian competition. (New Leader, 12/2/26.)
Such is the way of the opportunist. To the class conscious Revolutionist the workers of the world are one as against the International Capitalist Class, whatever be the race, the colour, or the creed.
The many workers who support the opportunist parties must eventually come to the conclusion that short cuts and “practical” programmes are worthless. If they would emancipate themselves from the present sordid struggle for bread then they must accept and struggle for the Socialist solution to their troubles, which involves the avoidance of both the shambles and the sheepfold.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, May 1926)