The Impermanence of Reform
The Socialist Party supports Trade Union organisation; so does the Labour Party. Yet there is a world of difference between the two attitudes. On the political field the Socialist Party does not deny that a particular piece of legislation may, for a time, relieve extreme hardship to workers affected by some outrageous failure of the capitalist system; yet the Socialist Party logically and consistently opposes reformism, the policy of building up a political party on a programme of demands for legislation to relieve all the separate evils. The difference is rather like that between the attitude of the A.R.P. expert and the attitude of the Socialist. The man whose efforts are devoted to studying the problem of defence against air raids is not required to have any knowledge of the ultimate causes of war. He may simply take war for granted, one of those things that happen. So the Trade Unionist, for the most part, and the advocate of reform, takes capitalism for granted. His aim is to improve wages or to help the old-age pensioner, or reduce the special hardship of the low-wage earner who has a large family. For him capitalism, the wages system and the comprehensive, problem of poverty are things in which he is only remotely interested, if at all.
That does not mean that the Trade Unionist or the reformer is satisfied with the results of his efforts. He sees that they are not achieving what he wants, but he does not know why. He is usually able to lay the blame on other shoulders than his own. He blames the non-Unionist, the apathetic, the members of other Unions, or the advocates of other reforms. He asks why all the workers cannot get together and act unitedly; but what he really means is, why will not other workers forget their sectional interest and pet reform and back me up in my sectional interest and the reform which, for the moment, seems to me to be the really vital one. He does not see that Trade Unionism and reformism have the limitation that they encourage and provoke sectional activity and all the friction arising from it. The skilled craftsman necessarily gets into the habit of mind of trying to enlarge what he calls the “value” of his work against that of the unskilled or semi-skilled grades. The woman worker asking for “equal pay for men and women” is always in danger of blaming male workers for her plight, and, like the craftsman, is equally indifferent to the problems of other groups of workers. The advocate of family allowances is blind to the real cause of working-class poverty, and bolsters up his argument with the claim that poverty is due to the number of children the working-class father has to support.
True there has been progress in the outlook of the workers as a whole. It is an advance that after the organisation of workers in Trade Unions had got beyond the individual factory to all the factories in a neighbourhood it has gone to whole industries, whole countries, and, in many cases, beyond national frontiers. But still the sectional outlook and inter-union rivalries remain, as can be seen in the preoccupation of the Trades Union Congress with inter-union disputes and its tacit acceptance of the fact that it must not interfere with the self-interested policies of its bigger affiliated unions.
War shows up as nothing else does the limited usefulness of all non-Socialist activities. War brings with it increased prices, but because in war-time the war industries are working at pressure while other industries are curtailed, it is only in the former group that wages advance in anything like the same proportion as the cost of living. Other workers find the purchasing power of their wages drastically curtailed without even the possibility of making up the difference by working overtime.
Pensioners are equally badly hit. At a stroke war destroys the work of a generation. Trade Unions have to struggle hopelessly behind rising prices, and all the work of the reformers has to begin over again. The post-war years will be devoted to trying to regain what little had been achieved in the 20 years after the last war. And still there will be no permanence. If it is not war it will be one of capitalism’s recurring industrial crises, which blast away those jerry-built structures of the social reformers.
The question for the workers is what to do about it. For the non-Socialist it will be another effort to build up what war has destroyed. For the Socialist the question is not whether capitalism can be reformed, can wages keep up with prices, can pensions be increased, but how to end the capitalist system of society. With the replacement of capitalism by Socialism, the problem becomes how to handle the economic problems of a system based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution. Production being then solely for use there are no profits, interest or rents to be considered, no problems of prices or wages, no insurance or old-age pensions or workmen’s compensation. All members of society will be provided for as a matter of course, not in accordance with the present absurd system based on piecemeal legislation for each particular sub-division of poverty.
Mankind’s efforts will be given a new direction, helped on by the vast release of thought and energy.