The Time For Action: A Letter to a Young Socialist
You say that you like our theory but you cannot understand our seeming indifference to action. You are mystified that a party with so firm a grasp of principles should appear to have no capacity—or no stomach—for applying them in the practical way that appeals to the workers. You say that we leave all the active struggle to other parties with only half our insight into the social problem. You ask, “What is the good of all the S.P.G.B.’s lucid explanations of the failure of capitalism if they do not lead somewhere? Is it not time something was done, something drastic and exciting, right in the line of march towards Socialism?” You end with a warning: “If the S.P.G.B. will not, then someone else must.”
You put your question bluntly. We will give you a candid answer. But first a word about yourself. You are a newcomer to the Socialist movement and for that reason we are not surprised at your impatience. You have just had your eyes opened to the problem that confronts the workers. At first you did not know that there is a problem. Then you found the problem and were baffled by it. Now you see the solution, and on being told that you cannot get there at once you want to know the reason why.
There is no need to stop long over a re-statement of the problem. We live in a world marvellously equipped for producing all the things the human race needs. Yet so faultily is society organised to deal with the present situation that half of the equipment is out of gear and far more than half of the population is forcibly prevented from using up the goods already produced, and from using the equipment to produce more goods. This is absurd and indefensible. Almost every interested person sees this and says that it is absurd, from the Prince of Wales and the Leaders of the Churches to the professional politicians and their millions of followers. Yet it has remained for the socialist to perceive what it is that paralyses even the well-meant plans of reformers. The means of producing and distributing wealth are the private property of individuals and are under their legal control. The rest of the population—representing more than 90 out of every 100—may not use the means of production or consume the products unless they can first obtain the permission of the minority or their paid agents. The workers may not eat the food they grew and prepared, wear the clothes they made, dwell in the houses they built, or travel in the trains they constructed except by leave of the capitalists. Unless and until the masters say “you may now go in and work,” the workers have no right to set foot in the mills, mines, and factories. While this situation continues the working class, who form the great majority of the population, may not live except by permission of the propertied minority.
The way out of the economic labyrinth is simple and obvious. The majority, acting in an organised and orderly fashion, must assume possession of the means of life in the name of society as a whole. Society must take them over from the few whose private ownership stands in the way of the general welfare. That is where we want to get. But how? And where do we begin?
There are plenty of people telling the workers what to do, but for our present purpose it is not necessary to examine what most of them say. The advice of nine out of ten of them consists of recommending actions which would leave the cause of the trouble quite untouched. So we need not bother our heads on this occasion with the schemes which only tinker with capitalism and leave the capitalists still in possession. There are, however, other advisers who profess to agree about the need for Socialism, but who advocate immediate action. They say, “Let us demonstrate about the Means Test. Let us send deputations to the Public Assistance Committees and to Ministers of the Crown. Let us hold meetings of protest outside the Japanese Embassy as the I.L.P. and the Communists tried to do on May Day. “Let us distribute anti-war leaflets. Let us organise to stop the transport of munitions in the event of war. Let us demand higher wages, shorter hours, holidays with pay, more unemployment benefit, lower rents, etc., etc. Let us back up all these demands with demonstrations and deputations, and with strikes, local, national and international. ”
The people who are the loudest with this sort of talk call it “direct action” or “mass action.” And the strange thing is, that that is just what it isn’t. It is not direct action. Much of it is not “action ” at all in the popular sense of the word. Much of it is just talk. Much of it—strikes, for example— is inaction, the sometimes useful but very negative state of refraining from work. If we socialists were free agents, able to do what we like, we would not do any of these things. We would not waste a moment on things so hopelessly indirect and roundabout. We would—if we could—take direct action and advise the workers to do the same. Indeed, the workers would not need anybody’s advice. If it were not for a something that stands in the way the workers could walk into the shops and warehouses where the food and clothing is and take what they want. Then they could occupy the land, the factories and the workshops, and use them to produce more goods, no longer for the employing class but for society as a whole. That would be direct action. That is what we would advocate if it could be done. It cannot be done, so we say that it cannot be done. The so-called direct actionists and mass actionists say differently. They say that direct action is possible, but they know that it is not. That is why the one thing they never advocate is direct action, and why the things they call direct action are always anything but that. Could anything be more indirect than for workers who produced too many goods for the market and thus threw themselves out of work to go cap-in-hand to the Public Assistance Committee for permission to have a small portion of the unsaleable surplus?
The something that stands in the way of direct action is the control by the capitalist class of the machinery of government, including the police, the army, navy and air force. Because of that, the so-called actionists, just like the Socialist Party of Great Britain, must confine their activities to those things permitted by the capitalists. For practical purposes all that any of us can do is to propagate our ideas and organise to apply them eventually. The “actionists” are muddled in their ideas and are organising for a kind of action that can never succeed. Our ideas are clear and we organise for the only action which can eventually command success—action to gain control of the machinery of government and the armed forces. Socialists are at present a small minority of the working class. The majority of the workers are not yet with us. Until they are won over they will continue to vote the capitalists and their agents into control. It is the non-socialist workers who periodically at elections give the capitalists the power to say to the socialist minority: “If you take any action against our interests, and in defiance of our laws and our wishes, we will crush you.”
These are the facts of the situation. You will have to give heed to them and curb your impatience, for you will ignore these facts at your peril. There are really only two courses open to you. You may learn from the experience and observation of others as we have done, or you will learn more slowly and painfully by frittering away your energy and enthusiasm on the senseless activities miscalled direct action.