What have we achieved
There are probably worse ways of perceiving history than as a continuous process of ironies.
Consider, for example, the history of parliamentary reform in this country. From the first stirrings of agitation for popular suffrage, to the Act which gave woman the vote in 1918, the reformers were bitterly resisted. Brutality, and sometimes death, were part of the battle; the name of Peterloo has its place in working class history and there are still plenty of people alive who endured imprisonment and violence as Suffragettes.
The more intelligent representatives of the ruling class always knew that reform was inevitable. There were certainly some indefensible theories held by the opposition. The young Gladstone, a Tory, when at Oxford in 1831, thought that the Reform Bill would destroy the foundations of the social order not only in this country but also in the rest of the civilised world. In 1866, when. Gladstone was on the other side, introducing his own Reform Bill, John Lowe opposed the measure in a speech which described the working class as the last repository of venality, ignorance, drunkenness and violence.
The opponents of female suffrage also held some ideas which are now generally regarded as ludicrous. In The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage (1913), Sir Almroth E. Wright wrote:
The woman voter would be pernicious to the State not only because she could not back her vote by physical force, but also by reason of her intellectual defects.
These seemingly quaint notions conceal the suspicion—perhaps the conviction—of the ruling class that universal suffrage would mean the end of their dominance; would mean, in other words, a popular revolution in which the people would take power.
Now the irony in this is that they need not have worried. The murders at Peterloo, the Chartist riots, were all unnecessary. John Lowe was an ass. The people have got the vote now—some of them even use it and others go to the lengths of finding out which parties their candidates represent so that they use the vote as they want to. Yet no political earthquake disturbs the foundations of the Stock Exchange, nor of Buckingham Palace, nor of any of the gracious possessions which are the badges of the master class.
The workers are happy to use the vote to keep capitalism going, which shows how silly were all those 19th Century politicians, who thought that unrestricted voting rights would bring Red Ruin upon them all.
It can even be argued that the popular vote has made capitalism more secure. Most big companies know that if their employees are convinced they have a say in running things— if they have someone to grumble at, if they think they are in the directors’ confidence—they are contented employees. They work harder. They are less susceptible to the seduction of what are called agitators.
In the same way, it seems, a working class which has the parliamentary vote is that much less discontented with capitalism. They will suffer its humiliation, its poverty, its wars, provided they can have a say every so often in which party governs them. The workers will absorb any amount of punishment, if only their bruises are occasionally salved by a politician’s handshake. It is all rather jolly, in a way—even the politicians sometimes seem to enjoy it.
Within this universal contentment, the voters may in theory change their allegiance between any one of several political parties whose policies are almost indistinguishable. In practice they make things even easier for capitalism by shuffling their support between just the Labour and Conservative Parties.
Why do they change from one to the other? The reasons are rather puzzling. The Labour Party lost a lot of favour in 1950 because they pulled out of Abadan, although the overwhelming majority of the voters had no interests in the oilfields there, and anyway the Tories would almost certainly have got out of Abadan as well. The Conservatives now appear to be losing support not so much for anything they have done (and some of their actions deserved to finish them off for good) but because the British voter thinks that government is like a game of Snakes and Ladders, in which everyone should have a turn.
These changes in support sometimes happen with surprising rapidity. The public opinion polls, for what they are worth, often record almost weekly fluctuations. This is to some extent backed up by the results of local elections, in which councils change their political balance from year to year. It is natural to muse upon what manner of upheaval can be responsible for such vacillations. And it is reasonable to conclude that the working class hold their voting rights, won by so much hardship, in frivolous contempt.
It is against this sombre background that we must assess the progress of the Socialist movement. For we have always refused to join in the razzle-dazzle of the political fairground. We do not lure voters with specious promises of more houses, higher wages, and—to be up to date—better schools, faster roads.
We have always said that programmes like that attract the people who want the houses, wages, schools, roads, but who also want the social and economic conditions which make worthwhile social change well nigh impossible. There is abundant evidence to support this attitude. After a century and more of “reform,” capitalism’s problems are still here— the slums grow apace, workers still have to fight over wages, schools and roads still need urgent attention.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted upon two things. Socialism is the only final solution to the problems of modern society. And Socialism can be established only by a working class who consciously opt for it because they understand it.
This insistence, apart from earning us some nicknames, has doubtless hampered our numerical growth. How many applicants have we turned away because, on examination, we have discovered that they were religious, or wanted to ban the Bomb, or thought that everyone should have joined up in 1939?
It might make it easier—that is, we might get more support —if our attitude were more flexible; if we campaigned for higher pensions, if we paraded to get someone out of prison or someone else locked up. Easier, perhaps; but futile beyond a doubt.
In any case, there are enough organisations in that game already. Our big achievement, in political terms, is that we have kept out of it. We have kept the only worthwhile issue clear: Socialism versus Capitalism. Our opponents have sneered at us. We have been dubbed the Small Party of Good Boys; a recent issue of Young Guard, the Young Socialists’ paper, referred to us as “ revolutionary virgins.”
Well, alright; let’s agree. While those who sneer at us have prostituted themselves in countless ways, we have kept our political honour. We have not urged workers out to slaughter each other on battlefields. We have not broken strikes, nor planned the production of nuclear weapons. We still want now what we wanted when we were formed in 1904—Socialism, simple and, yes, pure.
This consistency has borne fruit in our analysis of capitalism. We have seen many upheavals in our time—two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the General Strike, the rise of Fascism, the downfall of the mighty British Empire. Look back on what we said about these events. Our analysis has not faltered and in every basic requirement has been proved correct
This is not to say that we have not made mistakes. In minor detail we misjudged events in Russia; we did not dream of what the Nazis did to the Jews; as can be seen from our reproduction of the front page of the first Socialist Standard, we started off with our optimism too high, thinking Socialism nearer than it was.
Such mistakes are inevitable. Our proud achievement is in the basic accuracy of our case, which has kept the road to Socialism open while the others have been stuck in their various dead ends. This is worth more than anything the other parties have; it is worth much more than the millions who vote Conservative because their father does, and the other millions who vote Labour because of Mr. Wilson’s Gannex raincoat.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain is rich in its membership—men and women who are politically mature and who have worked long and hard to establish and to nurture the Socialist movement They have kept our propaganda constant amid some desperate ups and downs. It is thanks to them that we celebrate our sixtieth anniversary.
Their reward is the satisfaction of working for a world of plenty, freedom and dignity. Men climb a mountain because it is there. People work for Socialism because it is right.