1920s >> 1929 >> no-304-december-1929

Letter: Need The Workers Understand Socialism?

A correspondent (whose name we unfortunately cannot make out) writes from Stepney, expressing his views on several points and asking for our comments and reply.


The first point relates to the struggle of the workers against wage reductions and for wage increases.


This was fully dealt with in the October “Socialist Standard,” to which we would refer him.


Our correspondent is mistaken in thinking that we oppose such struggles.


His second point is the following:—


  Seeing that the dominant class, the capitalists, control the Press, which moulds to a great extent opinion (especially in rural districts), the churches, also the cinema, an excellent propaganda weapon, besides other channels of influencing thought. That the workers, despite the rottenness of their conditions, cannot understand “scientific Socialism,” will it not be that as capitalist crises occur—the workers—will eventually gravitate to a united organised resistance to their conditions?
This only after bitter struggles, strikes, lockouts, brutality of the authorities, after such a process the climax will come. On one side will be the workers; on the other, the lackeys of capitalism, managers, high officials, ignorant police, and soldiers, who are kept in mental darkness, but for one thing, obedience. Nothing but violent struggle in my opinion.


What our correspondent overlooks is that while a politically ignorant working class may unite for some purposes they will not unite together and replace Capitalism by Socialism. They may unite to resist a wage reduction, but such resistance, whether successful or not does not bring Socialism. Quite apart from the question of the conquest of power, Socialism as a working system of society is impossible without a Socialist working class to carry it on. Resistance to some effects of Capitalism might temporarily result in reducing the Capitalist system to a greater or less degree of chaos (with consequent aggravated suffering for the working class), but the bringing of chaos is not the bringing of Socialism.


In any event, the outcome of such resistance depends always on the Capitalist class themselves. They have the choice either to give way to the particular demand which unites the workers, or to resist. The discontent of people who want only some reform of Capitalism, or any thing less than Socialism, can be bought off by granting what they want, and thus destroying the very platform on which this non-Socialist working class is united. The Capitalist class are not so blind or foolish that they will in the long run endanger their system by withholding the concessions necessary from time to time to bring off or side-track working class discontent.


Our correspondent also forgets one very important thing. Soldiers may be politically ignorant, but they are not ignorant of the science and art of organised coercion by violent means. After the politically ignorant workers have voted control of the machinery of government and the armed forces into the hands of the Capitalist class and their agents, it is nothing but madness to talk of waging a “violent struggle” against those who have a monopoly of the weapons and forces of violence.


Our correspondent’s third point concerns resistance to war :—


  If, as a result of national economic rivalry, war occurred in the course of which spontaneous opposition is given by the workers (though not intellectually understanding Socialism) and a change is desired by them, could not the situation culminate in the overthrow of the dominant class and the laying of the “ foundation for the sway of the proletariat,” if the mass feeling is correctly led?


This point is really a particular aspect of point Number two. Resistance to war is not resistance to Capitalism, and can always be removed in the last resort by stopping the war, leaving Capitalism intact. Furthermore, we suggest that instead of considering some hypothetical situation arising out of a hypothetical war, it would be more instructive to consider the war of 1914. In August, 1914, far from there being “spontaneous opposition,” the working class in the overwhelming majority, owing to their political ignorance, were enthusiastic supporters of their respective sections of the Capitalist class, and if they had been otherwise there were Capitalist politicians (e.g., Lloyd George, Lord Morley, John Burns) ready and willing to lead the opposition to war. Our correspondent talks about “correctly leading” the “mass feeling” of the workers, but does not tell us how workers who still accept Capitalism and Capitalist leaders are to be induced to forsake them and follow people, whose general principles they reject, into a struggle for Socialism which they do not understand and do not want.


It is true that towards the end of the war the workers were becoming war-weary. But did they in fact do what our correspondent suggests? Did they overthrow Capitalism? On the contrary, in every country, not excepting Russia, the great majority of votes were cast at the first general elections not for Socialism, but for Capitalist parties of one kind or another. These are facts which show our correspondent’s hypothesis to be fantastic.


Finally, our correspondent writes about workers not “understanding Socialism,” but laying the “foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” Does he really believe that workers who still vote for Capitalism are capable of acting as a ruling class? You do not change the character of the workers by changing the labels of their leaders.


The fourth point concerns democratic methods. Our correspondent writes :—

  Is not democracy being superseded when capitalist crises occur—by capitalist force; witness events after the war. Hungary, Italy, etc. At present the threatening coup d’état by the Weim-wehr in Austria.


Our correspondent asks, “Is not democracy being superseded . . . by Capitalist force?” His question shows that he has failed to understand what is the meaning of democracy, and what is the Socialist argument in favour of democratic methods. The use of force by the Capitalists who have been placed in power by the electors is not a supersession of democracy; it is as democratic as any other use of their power. It is not peculiar to the after-war period. Has our correspondent forgotten the brutal crushing of the Commune of Paris, in 1871, or the use of armed forces against the workers at Tonypandy and elsewhere?


The Socialist’s argument is that it is control of the machinery of Government which puts the Capitalist class in a position to compel obedience from any section of society. Those who control the political machinery, including the armed forces, are in a dominant position and literally their word is law, which they can enforce if need be by the methods of armed force. While the working class continue to be politically ignorant they will continue to vote into control of the political machinery parties which will use their power for the maintenance of Capitalism. The workers will not act differently until they become Socialists. Then they will use their votes to secure political control for themselves instead of handing it to the Capitalists and their agents. There is no other way under the conditions of modern Capitalism by which the workers can gain political control. Attempts to organise armed attacks on the Capitalist-controlled armed forces are foredoomed to failure. Therefore Socialists oppose them.


When our correspondent refers to Hungary, Italy, Austria, etc., he fails to see that these cases bear out our statement, that control of the political machinery is the deciding factor, enabling the Capitalists to coerce their opponents. For example, as has often been pointed out in these columns, Mussolini’s forces were financed, armed, and allowed to organise by successive Governments democratically elected to power by the votes of the Italian electorate. Far from crushing him, as they easily could have done, they deliberately chose to place him at the head of the State.


In Austria now the Heimwehr have no power or importance except to the extent that they are aided by the forces of the Government. If they are now placed in charge it will be by the deliberate act of the present Government, which owes its position to having been voted into political control. To repeat our main argument: those in control of the political machinery are able to impose their will and alter the constitution as they may think fit. That is why the workers must gain political control which they can only do in the advanced capitalist countries by means of the vote.


Editorial Committee