Which Way for the PD?
After the police brutality in Derry on the night of October 5, a group of Belfast university students met and set up a militant civil rights body, the People’s Democracy. In the recent election PD put up eleven candidates and did surprisingly well, nearly winning a seat from the Nationalists. As a new movement, without any clear aims or theory, PD is wide open to two dangers: evolution into a reform party or take-over by those who would put the clock back by leading them into the dead-end of Republicanism.
No-one, least of of all socialists, can object to PD’s professed aim of a genuine democracy in which all the people would have a free and equal say in the conduct of political, economic, and social affairs. That, more or less, is our aim too. But we say it can be achieved only on the basis of the common ownership of the means of life. For as long as the means by which society must live belong to a class there will be the exploitation, oppression, and social inequality that frustrate democratic control today.
The class ownership of the means of production and their use to make profits is the basis of modern, capitalist society. It means there are two opposed classes: those who own and those who because they don’t own must work for those who do. Mere democratic reform that leaves untouched this class basis of society is not nearly enough.
We are not really surprised that many who want a new and better society should tend to steer clear of the word ‘socialism’. We ourselves are only too painfully aware of what it means to many people—the oppressive regimes of East Europe, the discredited Labour parties, the swindle of nationalisation. The World Socialist Party has always tried to keep alive the real meaning of Socialism as a democratic world community based on the common ownership of the means of life where the one aim of production will be to satisfy human needs. With the end of class ownership everybody will be socially equal and free to take part in the running of social affairs. The oppressive government machine, which is needed only to maintain ‘law and order’ in class society, will be dismantled and replaced by the democratic administration of industry. With common ownership and production for use, the barriers to abundance will have been removed so that society can rapidly go over to “from each his best, to each his need”. People will work as best they are able and then take from the common store whatever they need. This is Socialism.
Because full democracy can be achieved only through Socialism it is futile to separate the pursuit of the one from the pursuit of the other. To fight for democracy alone, as PD does, could mean the achievement of neither Socialism nor democracy. Efforts should be concentrated on the struggle for Socialism.
Of course ‘one man, one vote’ is a desirable, though, minor, democratic reform (since it already applies in Stormont and Westminster elections and even without it workers still make up the vast majority of the electors). Of course socialists are against the Special Powers Act—we have ourselves been victims of police intimidation. But in adding social reforms— an emergency housing drive, rural co-operatives, direct state investment, non-sectarian comprehensive education — to its programme PD has embarked on an even more dangerous course than struggling for democracy alone. It has taken the first step towards becoming just another reform party. A new, non-sectarian radical party is indeed what some civil rights leaders, and even some Unionists, would like to see emerge out of the current agitation. But many in PD arc anxious to avoid this.
They argue that the way to do this is to build up their movement as a militant opposition outside parliament and imply that it is contesting elections and getting into parliament that leads to reformism. This is why PD was so apologetic about contesting the recent elections. This was, they said, only a tactic to keep civil rights in the public eye; PD had no wish to win any seats (they nearly failed in that aim!). But there was no need to apologise. It is not from contesting elections, but from advocating reforms, that the danger comes.
Power of the vote
People who have been beaten and bullied by the police should have a good idea of the nature of the state machine as a coercive instrument for maintaining ‘order’. At present, its main job is to keep the private property basis of modern society though the RUC is also used by the Unionists to crush any threat to their link with Britain. The state, for whatever purpose it is used, is nothing but an organisation of armed men. In Northern Ireland, as in Britain and Eire, it is controlled by a cabinet responsible to an elected parliament. The RUC takes its orders from the Home Affairs Minister. The Special Powers Act is on the statute book only because at one time a majority of MPs voted for it and it will be repealed only when the MPs vote against it. Again, the Public Order Act will be strengthened only if the newly-elected MPs vote for the proposed amendments. Parliament, which makes the laws the police enforce, is a body those who want to reform capitalism, let alone replace it by Socialism, must capture. A socialist majority outside parliament, using their votes to elect a socialist majority inside parliament, could use political power to institute the common ownership of the means of production. That in fact is WSP policy and we have ourselves had candidates in the past.
So, it’s not elections in themselves that are dangerous. Far from it. It is vitally important that those who want to change society should take part in elections. The danger comes from fighting for reforms of capitalism, outside as well as inside parliament.
Socialism, as a democratic community based on the voluntary co-operation of its members, can be set up and run only by people who are fully aware of its implications. It can be set up only when a majority understand and want it. Support built up for reforms cannot be turned into support for Socialism, for most of those who want the reforms will have illusions about what present-day society can offer. They will assume that all that is needed is the will to do something—end the housing scandal, stop unemployment — and that implementing this is just a simple administrative matter. Capitalism, however, is not a rationally-organised community, but a class society subject to its own economic laws. Because it is based on the profit motive and on the exclusion of the workers from ownership it cannot be made to serve human needs and can never solve the housing or health or education or employment problems of the workers. Capitalism is a class system that can work only one way: as a profit-making system in the interest of the class that lives off profits.
PD is in error in campaigning for democracy apart from Socialism but is even more in error in campaigning for reforms as well.
We would, however, commend PD for declaring that they “regard the border as irrelevant”. Since, up to now, the Border has been the great dividing issue in Northern Ireland politics this is a great advance. The Border was put up in 1921 as a tariff barrier between the British market, to which the big industrialists of the North wanted free access, and the Irish Home market, which the small businessmen of the South wanted to protect from British competition. Stripped of all emotion a tariff barrier, whose removal would make no difference to the workers’ problems, is all the Border has ever been. The WSP pioneered this view declaring in our 1949 Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Ireland:
The removal of ‘the Border’ will not remove one social evil from which the working class suffer; and so, it is obviously not a problem which concerns the working class.
Unfortunately, the two rival sections of the Irish owning class, whose vital interests were at stake, were able to rally behind them the workers whose interests were not affected at all. In order to prevent their incorporation behind the tariff barriers of a Home Rule Ireland the industrialists of the North deliberately stirred up religious animosity between Protestants and Catholics. Now, especially since the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement of 1966, the split has to a certain extent been healed and the Northern industrialists (and titled landowners!) are embarrassed by the Protestant extremism which not so long age they did so much to encourage.
The legacy of the split between the two sections of the Irish owning class has been the Nationalist/Unionist split among the workers of Northern Ireland, a split which does not and never did have any meaning from their point of view. Unionism was the ideology of the Northern industrialists and Nationalism (and Republicanism) the ideology if the up-and-coming Southern businessmen. It is high time both were discarded by the working class and replaced by unity for Socialism.