1930s >> 1930 >> no-307-march-1930

Answer to a Correspondent: What is Socialism?

A New Reader’s Difficulties.
A correspondent writes telling us that he is a relatively new reader of the Socialist Standard, but finds himself agreeing wholeheartedly with our description of the anomalies of Capitalism. He is nevertheless, he says, somewhat confused on the question of our programme of action when everybody thinks as we do and political control has been achieved.

When the machinery of government is in the hands of the Socialist Party what use is going to be made of it? In what way does the policy of Socialists differ from that of the Labour Government? What is the essential difference between Nationalisation and Municipalisation on the one hand, and Socialism on the other? Our correspondent goes on to say that he realises the “hollowness of the Labour Government’s pretensions, if not their hypocrisy, together with the efforts of organised religion to keep things as they are.”

Clearing the ground.
Let us, before coming to the main question, clear away one or two possible misunderstandings indicated in our questioner’s last remark. It is not hypocrisy nor the activities of the Churches which are the main obstacles on the road to Socialism. Hypocrisy, the dictionary tells us, consists in “feigning to be what one is not.” Now it may be said that some members and leaders in the Labour Party “feign” to be Socialists. But it must be remembered that for the most part the persons concerned do not mean or say that they want what we want, i.e., common ownership of the means of production and distribution. Generally speaking, they make it perfectly clear that when they use the word Socialism they mean something quite different, for example, Nationalisation as applied in the Post Office. It is unfortunate that they should use the word loosely and unscientifically, but that is not hypocrisy. More often than not it denotes loose thinking and muddled ideas, and the practice has grown up very largely because the Liberals and Tories have made a habit of calling the Labour Party socialist as a term of abuse.

The essence of the difference between us and the Labour Party is that they claim Nationalisation and other schemes of reform to be means of solving the problems of poverty and unemployment, whereas we claim that common ownership—a quite different thing—and nothing but common ownership will be of use. People who vote for Labour candidates do not imagine that they are voting for common ownership, even if those candidates sometimes describe their programme as Socialism. The main obstacle to the conquest of political power for the purpose of establishing a system of society based upon common ownership of the means of production and distribution is the lack of political knowledge among the workers. The loose thinking and talking of Labour Party leaders is largely a reflection of that lack of knowledge.

As for the Church, it has to be recognised that the great majority of the electorate, including the majority of the workers, would continue to vote for Capitalism even if there were no churches. They would do so because they are satisfied with things as they are, or because their dissatisfaction is not directed against Capitalism but merely against the administration of Capitalism by a particular party or particular persons. Capitalism remains because the political machinery is in the hands of people who have no wish, and no mandate from the electors, to replace it by Socialism. Parliament, the centre of power, is controlled by Capitalist agents because the electors vote them there, either because they find Capitalism good or because they are not convinced that there is a practical alternative. Organised religion plays its part in moulding the opinions of voters, but it is a relatively small part and probably one which is decreasing in importance.

Some terms explained.
Capitalism is a system of society in which the means of producing and distributing food, clothing, and shelter, in fact all the so-called necessaries and luxuries of human existence, are owned and controlled by only a part of the population. The land, the factories, the railways, steamships, aeroplanes, and so forth, are owned by a minority of people, who are correctly described as “Capitalists,” i.e., persons who possess sufficient property to be able, if they so desire, to live on the income derived therefrom without the necessity of working. A minority are in this privileged position. The great majority are not in this position but have to work for their living. They have to sell their labour-power, their mental and physical energies, to the Capitalists. Capitalism has been summed up by an anti-Socialist economist, Professor Edwin Cannan, in the following terms :—

  “The majority of workers work as they are directed to work by persons and bodies of persons who employ them in order to make a profit by getting more than they pay for all expenses, and who reckon the profit as a percentage on their capital. The greater part of the property is also in the hands of such persons and institutions. (“Wealth,” page 104.)

That is Capitalism, a system under which one section of the population lives by owning property, while the other section— the working class—carry on all the work of wealth production but do not own either the means of production or the products. They work for someone else and live on the wages and salaries paid to them for the sale of their labour-power. In the words of our Declaration of Principles, which our correspondent and all new readers should carefully study (see back page), Capitalist society is composed of two classes—”those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess.”

Many things flow from that condition. Workers may only work how and when and where the Capitalists choose to permit them to work. When the Capitalists do not permit, unemployment is the consequence. The goods produced belong to the owners of the means of production and not to society as a whole, hence the mere existence of great quantities of useful articles, or the existence of workers able and willing to produce them, does not give a guarantee that those who need the articles shall have them. The rule of Capitalism is that goods are accessible not to those who need them but to those who can afford to pay for them, goods are produced for sale not for use, and when the Capitalist cannot sell his goods he prevents the workers from continuing to produce them by the simple process of giving his workers the “sack.” Under Socialism the means of production and distribution will be owned and controlled by society as a whole and the goods produced by all the able-bodied members of society will be produced not for sale to those who can afford to pay, but directly for the use of all. The guiding principle which Socialist society will apply to production will be to organise for the manufacture of different kinds of articles in the proportions and total quantities which society under given powers of production decides upon. Contrast that with the principle which rules under Capitalism. It was stated by Lord Cowdray in a memorandum which he drew up to show his son how to be a successful Capitalist:—

  Every problem that presents itself has to be viewed and analysed from two standpoints: the first what I can make out of the enterprise; the second, what 1 can lose by the enterprise. (See Daily News, 22 February, 1930.)

Where does the Labour Party stand?

Socialism means a system in which articles are produced for use, not for sale. There will be no privileged class living by owning property. People will not have their “right to live” dependent upon their ability to get an employer to employ them, that is upon the employer’s hopes of selling at a profit, or his willingness to spend his surplus wealth on all kinds of luxuries out of the reach of nine-tenths of the population.

But Nationalisation and Municipalisation do not involve the abolition of these features of Capitalism. The L.C.C. municipal tramways and the Government-owned Post Office are not forms of Socialism, but forms of Capitalism. Nominally “owned by the community” they are in fact owned and controlled by the Capitalist class and do not in any way alter the subject position of the working class. The services they render are not for “use” but for “sale.” They are financed in just the same way as the ordinary Capitalist company. The Government receives investments of capital to finance services controlled by the Post Office, and pays interest on those investments. Similarly with the L.C.C. tramways. But even if they were not run on invested capital, and even if they were run free of charge and paid for out of rates and taxes, the position of the working class would be just what it is now. If the cost of travelling and the cost of correspondence were removed from the cost of living of the working class the result would merely be that wages—that is, the cost of keeping the workers in a fit condition to work and bring up their families—would fall correspondingly. You cannot have “Socialist” institutions inside Capitalism. Socialism is itself a system of society.

“Individualism” versus “State Ownership.”
The Labour Party claims to believe that “State ownership” is preferable to Individualism.” The Socialist denies that it makes any difference to the working class, and he is not the least interested in that conflict of opinions about forms of organising Capitalist industry. We say that it makes no difference to the working class whether the railways, for example, are owned by railway shareholders, or whether the shareholders have their railway shares taken away and replaced by holdings of Government stock. That is the essence of the Labour Party’s programme of Nationalisation and Municipalisation. The same privileged class are to go on drawing property incomes (that is living on wealth produced by the working class) but are to receive those incomes from the Government which becomes the employer, instead of receiving their incomes direct. The Labour Party’s programme “Labour and the Nation,” promises that the Labour Government will give “full publicity” to profits: the Socialist Party aims at the abolition of the whole system of profit making.

The Labour Party is now trying to make British Capitalist industry more efficient so that it can compete with foreign Capitalists. One of the ways of improving efficiency is, in the opinion of that party, to extend Nationalisation.
The Socialist Party does not want to increase the competitive power of one section of the Capitalist class against another. We are not concerned with the troubles of Capitalists in the geographical area of the United Kingdom or the Empire, but with troubles of the working class everywhere. We are aiming at dispossessing the Capitalist class and the establishment of Socialism which will necessarily be international. The method is by way of securing control of the machinery of government. We cannot get political power for the purpose of establishing Socialism until a majority are in favour of that step. The Labour Government is in office but was not elected by Socialists, and therefore has no choice but to try to administer Capitalism.

Editorial Committee