Are We Armchair Socialists?
The charge is one of indifference, of detachment, of sectarianism. of refusing to join the blood-and-earth struggles for the betterment, the dignity and the survival of the human race. It is, in other words, a charge of being talkers, theorists—armchair Socialists.
We plead not guilty.
We have only one witness to call and that is History, whether it is the history of our early days or of more recent times.
During our sixty-odd years of life, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has seen two World Wars and many other periods when politics was a violent business. At such times, if we had truly been armchair theorists, we could have packed up our platforms, forgotten all had we ever said about capitalism and Socialism and quietly slunk away.
In fact, we intensified our activity. In wartime we stood out against the official propaganda. We exposed the lies which were being used to persuade British workers to take arms against their brothers abroad. Our members went to gaol rather than join in the slaughter. More than once our speakers were assaulted, our meetings broken up. In London’s Hyde Park, during the Second World War, we spoke out for Socialism with anti-aircraft guns banging away across the grass; often ours was the only meeting there at such times.
In fact, whatever restriction—official or unofficial—we have met we have persisted in our propaganda and our attitude has never wavered. This can hardly be described as politics from the armchair; there were no soft seats in Wormwood Scrubs, nor in the Serpentine.
If there is any excitement in the politics of the power-hungry parties, then we have none of it. There are no throngs, no massive marches for us. If we ever came out on to a balcony the only living things to mark our presence there would be the pigeons. As far as excitement and glamour of that sort is concerned, we live a politically abstemious life.
In case anyone is looking for it, there is a massive compensation for this. The politicians who feed on glamour and public acclaim may find it an agreeable diet, but there is a bill to pay for it: they must have a hard time convincing themselves that their theories are in any way relevant to modern society. Perhaps there is glamour in appearing at the door of Number Ten to announce that your policy is in ruins. Perhaps there is excitement in getting up in the House and promoting something which is in direct contradiction to what you have always said you stood for. This may suit some all-too-famous temperaments. But even they must wonder, in the wee small hours, at the meaning of self-respect.
This is a problem which Socialists do not have. We have never had to go back on our policy, we have never had to betray our principles, we have never had to compromise. Our analysis of capitalism remains valid. The capitalist social system still produces a mass of terrible problems; human beings still suffer, are still deprived, suppressed, degraded and killed—because of capitalism. And the solution to it all is, still, the setting up of a Socialist commonwealth.
To this, to say it, to read it or hear it, may not quicken the heart beat. But the facts, the facts of History and the evidence of the world we live, say that it is correct and in that there is more satisfaction—more inspiration even—than all the mass rallies and the demonstrations of the vote-catching political parties.
Perhaps this seems smug. There are many protest movements which have no formal connection with the big parties. although in fact most of them in the end come down to an attempt at influencing the policies of one of the two parties which are likely to get into power. We have no part in these protests. Although we refused to fight in the 1914/18 War, we did not join the demonstrations against the war. (Apart from anything else, we knew that many of the demonstrators would soon be enthusiastically rolling on their puttees. And in 1939 the political descendants of those 1914 demonstrators were gathering again in Trafalgar Square—but this time they were in favour of war.)
We did not join the Hunger Marchers, nor the anti-fascists, nor the CND, nor the Freedom From Hunger demonstrators. Of course, we have left out a lot of other protests which are, or have been, popular—Second Front Now, Movement For Colonial Freedom, Victory for the Vietcong. If we brought them into the argument we might be facing another charge; of selecting our evidence.
Why didn’t we join? First, we must be clear that we do not stand aloof from lack of sympathy with the motives which may lurk somewhere in the depths of the protests. We, too, are affected by capitalism, and we do not like it. Our members were out of work and hungry in the Thirties. We didn’t relish the prospect of a dictatorship. The Bomb would wipe us out along with the rest. We are moved and indignant when we see photographs of starving children.
We don’t join for the simple reason that the demonstrations are a waste of time. The first thing which is clear is that, after decades of protest about the effects of capitalism, the system goes on throwing up the very problems which the protest industry exists on. In all this time, a few problems may have been suppressed—although the demonstrators would have a hard job to prove that they were responsible for this—but in their place more have appeared.
Anti-Fascist protests have not made democracy any more secure—especially as many of the protesters were themselves anything but democrats. Pacifist marches have not removed war. After some ten years of CND, nuclear weapons are spreading all over the world and in this country the government of which unilateralists once had such high hopes has coolly gone back on all it ever said about abandoning the independent British Bomb.
Hunger, disease, poverty, fear, crime—capitalism, which can produce scarcity in the essentials of life, has them all in abundance. The demonstrators have marched and shouted, scuffled with the police, shown up in court and paid their fines. The things they protested about are still there, waiting for the next outburst. These problems have seen off many generations of protesters, some of whom have grown old and become part of the Establishment against which the protests break their fists.
It is impossible to separate the problems of capitalism from the system itself. Capitalism cannot exist without war. It cannot function unless the mass of its people are condemned to live in poverty. It is a system without a system—an anarchic society which will not be planned or controlled. It inexorably produces glaring anomalies and contradictions. It has millions of people starving while it destroys the food which would keep them alive. It wastes a huge part of its knowledge and resources on destruction, while it admits that it desperately needs to create and construct. It condemns its people to compete against each other when they need, and long, to co-operate.
The only effective protest against the effects of capitalism is to protest against the system itself. How to do this? What keeps capitalism there? The fact is that capitalism’s people themselves keep the system in existence. Although they may hate and fear what it does to their lives, they give it their unwavering support. When they think about it, they decide that capitalism is the best of all possible societies; they work for it year in and year out and every so often, when called upon to do so, they give capitalism’s political figure-heads another lease of power to continue running society in the interests of a small minority of parasites.
There is only one way in which this can be changed. To strike at the ideas which keep capitalism in existence is to strike at its heart. But we cannot strike at those ideas by suggesting that capitalism can be altered so that it need not produce the problems which are in fact inherent in it. We do not, for example, strike at them by complaining about nuclear weapons while we support a political party standing for the social system which has bred those weapons. We do not, in other words, strike at capitalism’s heart by compromising and by confusing the issue.
For the issue is plain. We can have capitalism, with its problems and its never-ending parade of protests. Or we can build a new society in which men stand equally about the world’s wealth—a society of freedom and dignity. We can have capitalism or Socialism.
But we won’t have Socialism by urging people to keep up their support for capitalism. We won’t have it by protesting that capitalism can be tamed by the right reforms, or by the right leaders, or by the right sort of demonstration. All of these have been tried and in the end it has been capitalism which has done the taming.
It is because the demonstrators are confused and contradictory that Socialists will not join them. This does not remove us from the struggle; we are committed to attack capitalism at its roots—to attack the ideas which feed and nurture the system. We stand—and we protest and we demonstrate—for the new, better, saner world.
And we who are called Armchair Socialists will not rest until we have got it.