1960s >> 1969 >> no-782-october-1969

Letters: More on Squatting

My letter, (July Socialist Standard), was written in order to find out whether you have a coherent party line on reformism. Your reply suggests that you have not, and reveals a deep confusion as to how you think a worker should behave under capitalism.

 

You say that you “support the efforts of workers to improve their housing conditions under capitalism—even by squatting”, and yet you are “opposed to all reformist movements.” Your reason for thinking there is no inconsistency in this position is that “squatting is no more a reform than stealing.”

 

But it is. For example, although the East London Squatters encourage homeless people to occupy empty dwellings they do this as a means to the reformist end of persuading local authorities to change their housing policy. It just so happens that there you have a reformist movement which uses direct action instead of the orthodox political channels. So if you support people squatting then you support their engaging in reformist activities. This, I agree, is not the same as supporting a reformist movement, but since when did the SPGB support the workers in being reformists? To put your dilemma another way, if you support people in squatting but are opposed to all reformist movements would you allow a member of the East London Squatters to join your party?

 

You ought to, of course. For what is the difference between getting what you can out of capitalism by joining a trade union and doing the same by joining the Squatters or a Tenants’ Association? The only difference I can think of is that possibly Marx would have approved of the first of these but not the other two. But I am sure you will agree as scientific socialists that this fact on its own is worthless (After all, Marx approved of support for bourgeois revolutions).

 

To sum up: it would be convenient if you could simply register opposition to all attempts at reform, right across the board. But apart from the sheer inhumanity of such a position, you are precluded from adopting it because of your views on trade unions and the vote. To draw the line here looks suspiciously arbitrary and anyway from what you say about squatting it looks as if you don’t draw it here. So where do you draw it? You think that workers should get what they can out of capitalism. So suppose a man could do this by joining the British Humanist Association (because this would give him contacts for a job offering more pay for less labour-power). You would then, prevent him from adopting it because of your views on something of which you approve.

 

W. Warwick, 
Oxford.

 

Sir,

 

I am intrigued by your reasoning in your reply to Mr. Warwick. I pass over the use of somewhat ill-chosen emotive terms to compare squatting with stealing, for there is no certainty that stealing will lead to greater equality of wealth, and in most workers’ minds the term suggests the bank robber carrying off not the bank’s wealth but the workers’ savings.

 

When you say that in supporting squatting you are not supporting reforms — is this because you give generalised support, but do not intend to take part in any attempt to help squatters do the squatting?As besides the workers involved a number of politicoes are there to help, redecorate the house, hand out leaflets explaining the case, print those leaflets, argue with and resist bailiffs and police and so forth. The family who squat, are certainly engaged in a day to day struggle to defend their living conditions, but what of their sympathisers and supporters?

 

In Ilford as in many other instances part of the support has meant that leaflets have been distributed explaining that as an immediate possibility such and such houses are empty, will be empty for some years as the council has not yet permission to undertake the scheme under which they are to be pulled down and does not anyway intend to tackle this part of Ilford until 76 and so on . . . Arguments are put that lack of housing is the product of the profit motive and not any intrinsic impossibility as to building; but specific demands are made for the here and now.

 

Some years back one of your members in an article condemning anarchists argued that syndicalism was reformist—reformism by blows, but reformism nevertheless — this would appear to be the case of squatting; I would prefer to use the phrase gradualist revolution, but if the argument is true of the one then it is true of both.
Laurens Otter, 

 

Thornton Heath

 

Reply:

 

Our coherent policy on reforms and reformism is set out briefly here:

 

  1. We are opposed to reformism, or the futile policy of trying to make capitalism work for the good of all.
  2. We are opposed to political groups which pursue reformist policies.
  3. We are not opposed to all reforms of capitalism.
  4. We do not advocate or propose reforms. .
  5. Reforms will be offered by capitalist governments when the Socialist Party grows stronger.
  6. We urge workers to resist the downward pressures capitalism always exerts on their living standards.

 

Since it is this last point which worries Mr. Warwick let us go into it further. We appreciate that as long as workers are not socialists, this resistance will often be carried on in a disorganised and ineffective way usually involving support for reformist policies and parties. As long as socialist numbers are small (as now) there is little we can do to remedy this save urging workers to recognise the futility of reformism and to become socialists and wage the class struggle in an organised and conscious way.

 

There is a difference, which we are sure Mr. Warwick can see, between giving support to the general aim of working class resistance to capitalism and giving support to any and every specific method a non-socialist working class might use. We only endorse those methods which we consider to be in the interests of the working class, e.g., some aspects of trade unionism. We oppose those methods which we consider do not measure up to this standard, e.g., reformism.

 

Now, where does squatting come in? Obviously we should have made it more clear what we meant by ’’squatting” when we said it was the kind of action a worker could take to improve his housing conditions under capitalism.

 

Originally the word meant to occupy land without title and has come to refer also to occupying empty houses. When we referred to ’’squatting” in the April Socialist Standard and in our July reply to Mr. Warwick we meant the simple act of a homeless family moving into an empty house, i.e., the act of an individual, family trying to get better housing. We are not opposed to, and will not criticise, workers for doing this. We did emphasise also that this was not the way to solve or even palliate the working class housing problem.

 

However, it is true that ’’squatting” also has a broader meaning: the sort of policy outlined by Mr. Otter with the aim, as Mr. Warwick says, of ’’persuading local authorities to change their housing policy”. This we are opposed to and to organisations like the “East London Squatters” whose reformist policy Mr. Otter was outlining.

 

Mr. Warwick is obviously unaware that SPGB members are in tenants associations, student unions, parent-teacher groups as well as in trade unions. This is not part of their Party activity but part of their activity as workers, who are tenants or students or parents and who are trying to resist capitalist pressure. This has long been our attitude. We refer Mr. Warwick to the Socialist Standard of January 1932 where a correspondent was told that “members of the SPGB are permitted to belong to certain of the organisations of the unemployed”. The emphasis was put on certain because some of these and other organisations are merely fronts for reformist groups. We would say this is true for the various so-called Squatters campaigns which serve the ulterior motives of assorted anarchist and trotskyist groups. Obviously an SPGB member could not join an organisation of this type.

 

Our policy on trade unions has been worked out in the light of modern industrial and political conditions. While we recognise that the socialist movement owes a great debt to Marx who first put its theory onto a scientific basis, we have registered our disagreement with the attitude he took up on a number of points (war, nationalism and even reforms).

 

Finally, we only drew a parallel between squatting and stealing to show that we were not worried that squatting was illegal. The law only exists to protect private property and who are we to respect it?

 

Editorial Committee