Debate – Socialism or Anarchism?

Report of a Public Debate held at Bethnal Green Library on Friday, 16th May.

Donald Rooum for the London Anarchist Group, and R. Coster for the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Chairman George Plume (P.P.U.)

The Socialist speaker opened by referring to the title of the debate. It would perhaps sound cryptic to non-Socialists and non-Anarchists; the subject of the debate, fully stated, was whether it was the Socialist case or Anarchist arguments that held the solution to the problems of mankind.

The Socialist case was against Capitalism and for Socialism. Capitalism was the latest stage in man’s social development; from his beginnings man had organized socially for survival and for the satisfaction of his needs. We had no knowledge of man as an individual, only as a social being in a social context.

All societies—primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism—were founded upon the manner in which man set about organizing to produce for the satisfaction of his needs: what Marx had termed the mode of production. On the different bases of different modes of production, he had found necessary different institutions, different mores, different religions, different laws, different attitudes and concepts, and different kinds of government. Always, however, the distinguishing feature between societies was none of these by itself, but the mode of production which gave rise to them all.

Capitalist society was based on the ownership of all of the means of life by a small class. The remainder, the majority, had to be wage-workers, all more or less poorly paid. This basic class-structure had never changed within Capitalism; the techniques of production might have altered, but not the basis.

The consequences of Capitalism in the form of social troubles were innumerable. War and its horrifying weapons, economic crises, poverty and its results, disease, bad housing, crime: all these and countless other problems were direct results of the system which was concerned only with sale and profit. The only standard by which a society could be judged was whether it satisfied the needs of the people living within it, and by this measure Capitalism—for all its spectacular achievements —failed completely.

The speaker referred also to attempts to reform Capitalism. If it were true that social problems were the outcome of the system itself, and not of mismanagement of it then it followed that all policies of reform were useless, since they aimed to abolish effects while retaining the cause.

The capitalist class, however, did not rule by their own strength. Many of them had never seen, had little knowledge of, the factories, land, workshops and enterprises which they owned. Their ownership was maintained and protected by the State, which had no other function. It was in this coercive agency, with its fighting forces and penal systems, that capitalist power resided.

It followed, therefore, that any body of people wishing to change the ownership basis of society must go to the place where ownership was kept: that is, it could only seek to take hold of the powers of government as the means of taking away capitalist ownership. This was the aim of the Socialist Party. Its policy was to make Socialists, for a conscious and politically organized working class to go to the State and make the ownership of the means of life common to everybody.

In the Socialist society, thus based on common ownership, the competition which led to wars, crises and chaos, would have ended. So would poverty; there would be no wages, no money barrier to the satisfaction of needs. The aim of society would be simply for all people to share, according to their needs, in all that the earth produced.

It might be thought that this was the common objective of Socialists and Anarchists, and that they differed only as to the means of achieving it. This was not so. The Anarchists had only the nebulous aim of overthrowing “authority,” and all their proposals were founded on complete misunderstanding of the nature of society. Indeed, by ignoring the role of the State and urging people to “direct action” against it, they sought to harm the interests of working people. The Socialist Party aimed at making Socialists; the Anarchist movement could make only martyrs.

Donald Rooum, opening for the Anarchists, said that in stating their case he would repeat much of what the Socialist speaker had said. The Socialist was completely mistaken about the idea of Anarchy, however. He would say that though Socialists and Anarchists had the same professed aim. Socialists did not mean what they said, whereas the Anarchists wanted people to act on their ideas. All factions but the Anarchists wanted people on their knees before some authority, and in the end would only swindle their followers.

“Anarchy” came from the Greek and meant “without government.” Until the eighteen-eighties Anarchists had called themselves Anarchist-Socialists. They abandoned this because of confusion of thought among Socialists, as they had later to abandon the name Anarchist-Communists. The basis of Anarchist ideas was that society existed for the benefit of individuals, and the aim of Anarchist society would be to increase individual opportunities. There were two kinds of social relationships—free and coercive; Anarchy meant a society founded on free co-operation.

Our society was dominated by coercion. We hated work because we were forced by employers, police and money; we were all in danger of being bombed because mentally unhealthy politicians insisted on continuing with bomb tests. We suffered from having such people in power, with the right to do such things; they were insane and irresponsible—only delinquent lunatics could be politicians. Even if perfect beings formed a government, they would soon be imperfect.

Governments kept going by violence and the threat of it from bombs, police and possible poverty and unemployment. Thus, the world was made unpleasant for individuals. The alternative was for society to be based not on government, but on co-operative relationships: “common ownership” if you liked to call it that. In such a society workers would control the factories, land and so on themselves.

Anarchy could be brought about by making people Anarchists. Anarchists did not seek, as the Russian Communists had done, to take power dishonestly. They said that the way to get rid of coercion was to stop letting oneself be coerced. The Russian Communists had said the State would wither away, but they retained the police and the armies, like all other governments; the fact was that power corrupted all those who took it. Thirty centuries of grinding-down by governments proved this.

The solution, then, was for everybody to co-operate with his equals, and refuse to allow anybody to take power over him.

R. Coster, making the second speech for the Socialist Party, said the Anarchist speaker had not met the point that governmental power and coercion were founded on the private ownership of the means of production.

The Socialist case was that the problems of the present-day world originated in the capitalist economic system, and that a co-operative world could only be established on a different ownership basis. While private ownership existed, politicians—delinquent or otherwise —could only when they were in power carry out the requirements of capitalism. He instanced the recent history of the Labour Party, which had once had a strong pacifist strain, but when in office had instituted military conscription and begun the biggest armaments drive in history. Its members were not drunk with power, but were simply having to prepare for war because they had undertaken running the system which led to war.

The proposition that wars were caused by delinquent politicians was, in fact, capitalist nonsense; people had gone to war precisely because they had been told that the wars were begun by irresponsible and wicked rulers who must be opposed. It was equally silly to say that people were coerced to work by police and armies; they went to work because, having no ownership of the means of life, they could only live by selling their labour-power.

To change society there must be a body of people who knew what was needed and how it was to be done. It ill became the Anarchists to speak of “different kinds of Socialists,” for they had little or no agreement Mr. Rooum had said he wanted the abolition of the wages system; many Anarchists were unsure about this, however, and some appeared to love the wages system. The means proposed were varied, too, though they were equally futile. Some thought Anarchy would be established by the practice of mutual aid within Capitalism: but it had already been shown that man was prevented from acting co-operatively by Capitalism. Others wanted to force Anarchist reforms until Capitalism turned into Anarchy; but reformism was the antithesis of revolution. And others still proposed a “social general strike”— that is, they wanted workers to do the most foolish thing of all, to throw themselves under the Juggernaut of the State.

Donald Rooum began his second speech by complaining of the nature of the debate; he had not wanted to continue making speeches, but to have the audience participate in questions and discussion.

He denied what the Socialist speaker had said of Anarchists and the wages system. The statement that some Anarchists were unsure about and even thought they would keep the wages system, showed Coster to be, if he was not a liar, daft in the head. As for Capitalism preventing cooperative relationships, people were coerced simply because they allowed other people to coerce them; if they refused to allow the capitalist into the factory, he could not be there. Working-class power existed only in the factories—the vote was useless as a means to change.

Clause Six of the Socialist Party’s Principles said that the working class must organize to conquer the powers of government to convert them “from an instrument of oppression into an agent of emancipation clear proof that the Socialist Party wanted not to change society, but to become the government. The Bolsheviks had done this—they were Socialists, they had been benevolent, but their good intentions faded when they had taken power.

Everyone was taught to revere authority from childhood; the authority might come from Capitalism, but whether or not it did so it was still authority. The Socialists asked people to surrender themselves to a body of people, and were either deceiving the people or deceiving themselves. The methods mentioned for establishing Anarchy were the only ones possible; the alternative to them was putting somebody else in power.

Before making his summing-up speech, Donald Rooum again said he did not like the form of the debate. He thought that Socialists regarded Anarchists as namby-pamby middle-class people, and had understood from the platform this evening that the Socialist Party was going to usher in Socialism in a very short time.

At this point the Anarchist speaker said he had nothing further to say and would let his opponent have any remaining time.

Summing-up for the Socialist Party, R. Coster replied to various points which had been made for Anarchism. He read quotations from Anarchist papers and from Berkman’s ABC of Anarchism to show the varied views of Anarchists on the wages system, from those who advocated a complicated system of credit and currency under Anarchy to those who proposed simply equalization of incomes and a standard working week.

The allegation that the Socialist Party wanted to govern could not be supported by a single word from fifty-three years of party literature. Comparison with Russia was meaningless, but the Anarchists, lacking in scientific analysis, had groped in the dark over the Russian Revolution: a quotation described how prominent Anarchists had supported the Bolshevik Revolution and become “disillusioned.” To be disillusioned one had to have illusions first.

The Anarchist speaker had said it did not matter where authority came from. This was the most extraordinary statement of all. The Anarchists were concerned solely with authority—its abolition was the only aim upon which they agreed—yet they were unconcerned and did not wish to know whence it came. To the Socialist, causes had always to be sought. The whole of history showed that, so far from the nature of government being unimportant, every class which had aspired to change society in its own interests had had to gain control of the powers of government This was the real lesson from countless centuries of political history; this was the aim of Socialists, who sought to replace Capitalism with Socialism and to do so by going to the seat of capitalist power.          

C. R.

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