The Transition to Socialism: A Reply to Mr. Fred Montague, M.P.
Mr. Montague, Labour M.P. and editor of the “Social-Democrat,” asks us a number of questions in the June issue of that journal. By an oversight our reply was omitted from the July Socialist Standard. We give below in full the paragraphs which explain Mr. Montague’s point of view.
(1) QUESTIONS FOR “THE SOCIALIST STANDARD.”
Discussing the subject of Communist doctrine, “The Socialist Standard” describes the statement that “The workers must destroy the capitalist state and set up their own workers’ state” as dangerous romanticism, leading not to Socialism but to the shambles. We agree. And we agree also with “The Socialist Standard” that it is nonsense to say that Marx and Engels gave support to the advocacy of violence beyond what appears in a purple passage or two to “round off an occasional peroration.” But if the idea of the destroying of the capitalist state and setting up a workers’ state is dangerous romanticism, what is the idea of leaving transitional politics alone ? Of two things one, surely ! Either revolutionary overthrow, which seems to agree with the Communist position, or transformation of such a character that at no point is the stability of society threatened. As a matter of interest and not of mere debate we invite “The Socialist Standard” to examine this point.
(2) THE LOGIC OF IT.
Does any Socialist worthy of the appellation “scientific” imagine that capitalism will end one Saturday night and Socialism begin one Monday morning? Members of the S.P.G.B. are strong on logic. Will any responsible member answer the following points? Suppose it is agreed, as we agree, that nationalisation is only another form of capitalism, and that social reform, as we do not altogether agree, is not worth troubling about. Imagine that a satisfactory majority of class-conscious Socialists are one day returned to Parliament. Socialism is declared by the representatives of the working class. What then? Do the workers carry on and, if so, where and how? For instance, will goods be made for export and trade carried on in automatic continuation of the old machinery until Parliament creates an entirely new organisation? Is it seriously contended that no period of transition will be required, and if it is not so contended is it unreasonable to ask what is to guarantee the efficiency of that diminishing area of production still in the hands of none too sympathetic capitalists during that period?
(3) WHAT THE CHANGE MEANS.
Nationalisation is only another form of capitalism, but transition means the same thing whoever may be in charge of Parliament. It is not a question of whether the change from one system to another is to be slow or rapid. If the machinery of production, distribution, and foreign exchange is to be taken over as a going concern with a view to socialisation an enormous amount of complicated administrative work will have to be done afterwards, involving, for one thing, tremendous displacement of labour in the closing down of parasitical trades. It may seem a small point, but are shopkeepers, small as well as large, to carry on as private capitalists until a Socialist system of co-operative distribution has been created? Or is it proposed to have the plans for socialisation ready beforehand ? Who will have these plans, and how can they be prepared beforehand without participation in and knowledge of pre-Socialist administration? It is not to the point that workers run the capitalist system now. That might be an argument for syndicalists, but it is not one for Socialists. Scientific Socialism means, besides economic and historical theory, Socialism scientifically applied, otherwise we might as well leave the workers to run the capitalist system. And as this tremendous piece of work is being done, are capitalists going to oblige by running things for our convenience whilst awaiting execution?
(4) WEALTH OF A KIND.
One point that came out of the Maxton-Fitzgerald debate is also worth a little extra consideration. “Under Socialism” wealth will be so plentiful that monetary system will be unnecessary and would be absurd, therefore Socialism cannot mean equal remuneration or socialisation of the means of exchange. We have no quarrel with that, but go easy about the plentiful supply. Plentiful supply of what? Iron girders, aluminium pots, baby’s basinettes, or Brummagem idols for Ballabaloo? All these things come into the term “wealth,” and are included in potential production. Have we a likely plentiful supply of food? Do necessary raw materials materialise like the famous Katie King? Are cotton, wool, leather, wood and tobacco available “like water” ? With more countries in the world than ever producing what they want for themselves this repudiation of “exchange“ may acquire a sinister meaning. The fact is, the “plentiful supply” of means of enjoyment is child’s talk unless we are sure of exchanging our goods for the food and raw materials we want. There is plenty in the world, we know, but is non-transitional Socialism possible the world over at the same moment? If not, what allowances and modifications are admissible, and if capitalistic exceptions are to be made in any way, what logical objection is there to nationalisation? “
What is the Transition Period?
(1) Although Mr. Montague asks a number of questions, most of the points of difference between him and us can be traced back to his use of the term “transition period.” What is the transition period? We live now in a capitalist economic system with the capitalist class in control of the political machinery and the armed forces of society. They make laws and enforce them, laws which are always framed within the limits imposed by the nature of capitalism and (so far as these limits permit) always directly in their interests as capitalists. When, and not before, the working-class, organised for Socialism, have gained control of the political machinery, the transition period will begin. The working-class cannot begin the work of abolishing the present private property basis of society until they have obtained political control from the capitalist class.
Mr. Montague holds a fundamentally different, and as we consider, a fundamentally false view. He asks (paragraph 1) : “What is the idea of leaving transitional politics alone?”
Our answer is plain. We shall not leave “transitional politics” alone, but what Mr. Montague has in mind as “transitional politics” are merely the politics of capitalist reform now carried on by him and his party. We are not in the “transition period,” the workers have not obtained political control, and the advocacy of nationalisation and other reforms is not work towards Socialism or towards the capture of political control for Socialism.
Mr. Montague here agrees that “nationalisation is only another form of capitalism.” It is then for him to justify his support of nationalisation. He must be quite familiar with our opposition based on the contention that it will not benefit the working-class under capitalism.
(2) Mr. Montague’s further questions about foreign trade are presumably based on the assumption that Socialism can be established in Great Britain alone. It certainly cannot. Socialism will be international, and cannot be other than international.
(3) Most of the points in this paragraph depend on Mr. Montague’s view of “transitional politics,“ and are answered above in my reply to his first paragraph. We deny his statement that “transition means the same thing whoever may be in charge of Parliament.” Socialists do not deny or underestimate the difficulties of the economic transformation to Socialism, but the difficulties of the period after the conquest of power have no relation to the policy of supporting capitalist reforms before the conquest of power.
(4) Here Mr. Montague deals further with the economic problems which will face the workers after they have obtained political control. They will, for instance, have to cease the production of articles no longer required, and produce instead larger quantities of certain goods the supply of which is at present too small. Similar problems were solved in 1914. Mr. Montague (who actively participated as private, as First Lieutenant and as recruiting agent) will know how the Government withdrew men from industrial production in order to build up a great machine for slaughtering their fellow-workers in other countries. They also solved the problem of turning out munitions and then, in 1919, they reversed the process when the weapons of destruction were no longer needed in such huge quantities.
Krupp did not personally conduct the similar change-over in Germany from howitzers to harvesters in the factories bearing his name; the change-over, like capitalist production and distribution in general, was carried through by workers. We cannot, therefore, see why Mr. Montague should doubt our ability to do for ourselves what we now do for the capitalists.
Mr. Montague’s other difficulties arise again out of his two misconceptions : first, that the transition to Socialism is already going on while the capitalists are still in power, and secondly, that Socialism can be introduced on a national basis, requiring capitalist trade to continue between the national groups. Under Socialism there will be no trade, home or foreign, individual or collective.
(Socialist Standard, August 1928)