Majority Understanding V. Direct Action
The various public opinion polls are not always a precise guide to what people think and feel, but one thing they establish beyond any question is the very large proportion of the workers who are actively discontented with their conditions of life. No pollster wastes time asking “Are you happy?”; always it is in the form “Which of your many hardships and frustrations upsets you most?” And we welcome the fact that at least the discontented are not generally passive; on the contrary they are impatient to have something done as quickly as possible.
They divide roughly into two groups, the ones who are content to try to change, from within, the leadership and policies of the large political parties and the others, including the so-called left-wing organizations of all kinds, who want to do it themselves and have a go at direct action.
Some of the discontented and disillusioned take a passing glance at the Socialist Party of Great Britain, only — as regards most of them — to write us off as too slow, too theoretical, too narrow, too “unrevolutionary”. Why, they ask, don’t we unite with “the other socialist bodies” to speed the revolution by political strikes, demos, riots, bomb-throwing or guerrilla action, whichever happens to be their favourite tactic? Why, they ask, does the Socialist Party of Great Britain refuse to recognize the achievement of Socialism in Russia, China, Cuba, etc. and stand aside theorizing, while the real battle is being fought by the “revolutionaries”?
The first point to get clear is what constitutes being revolutionary. The Socialist Party of Great Britain is a revolutionary organization because its object is to bring about a complete, revolutionary, change in the structure of society, to replace capitalism by Socialism. Action to bring about changes of the law within capitalism, or to get higher wages, is not revolutionary, and trying to achieve these changes by violence or lawbreaking does not thereby become revolutionary. It is not true that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is just one of a number of organizations having Socialism as their aim, and that what divides us from them is the question of method. Our aim of a socialist system is not their aim. This is not any the less true because some of them carry as a mere piece of decoration the aim of an ultimate socialist objective, which however in no way guides their policies and tactics and will never be achieved by the activities they carry on. Our aim is Socialism, not state capitalism or the reform of capitalism; and we do not want, either in the long or the short term, to see workers wasting time and energy on electing Labour governments to run capitalism or Communist governments to pursue the dead end of a Russian state capitalist system.
Our case is that the problems of the working class — poverty, exploitation, unemployment, wars, etc. — from which the working class suffers in all countries in the world without exception, cannot be solved either by peaceful reformism or by violent direct action, and that the revolutionary principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain are the only way to achieve the socialist solution.
For us the end and the means are in harmony. The future socialist system of society embodying common ownership and democratic control, and operating in the interests of the whole community, will require the understanding and co-operation of the great mass of the population: Socialism cannot be imposed from above. Even if therefore it were theoretically possible for a minority favouring Socialism to come to power, it would be quite unable to introduce Socialism.
It follows therefore that the paramount need before Socialism becomes a practical possibility is that the great majority of the working class must be won over to an understanding of capitalism and Socialism. This is the task facing the socialist movement, a task totally ignored by the reformist and direct-action movements. Their defence has always been that propagating Socialism is useless because the working class cannot understand it. How would they know — for they have never tried? In greater or less degree they all share Lenin’s contemptuous attitude towards the workers’ ability to understand, as reported by John Reed:
“If socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see socialism for at least five hundred years.”
In place of working-class understanding they offer inspired guidance by the leader of the “intellectual minority”, which in practice degenerates into wrangling and feuding about who is the proper leader and how to counteract betrayal by the chosen ones. Their demand is for “good leaders”: ours is for the understanding in which leaders play no part.
When the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed it was recognized that, as Engels wrote in the Preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, “So that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required”. It has been a longer task than Engels or the Socialist Party anticipated, but there is no other way, there are no short cuts. When that task has been completed the socialist working class needs to gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, in order to take away from the capitalist class and their agents the power to dominate society, and thus to clear the way for Socialism.
Having said this, we meet the argument of the defeatists who say: Suppose the capitalists or some minority of them or some military group refused to relinquish their hold — would this not prove the weakness of the Socialist Party argument? In their support they point to examples of ruling-class groups who have in fact defied civil authorities and parliamentary majorities. Their supposed evidence is utterly irrelevant. We are relying on an internationally united working class, something which has never yet been in the world or any part of the world. When the world working class is overwhelmingly socialist, socialists will predominate or at least be in a position of strength throughout capitalist production, distribution and administration, not excluding the armed forces — in the factories and workshops, in transport and communications, in the trade unions, in the government and local-government services. In such a situation any attempt to thwart the will of society would at worst be a nuisance, a futile gesture, not a serious impediment.
It is not the Socialist who is being foolish in seeking to gain democratic control of the machinery of government and the armed forces, but the advocates of direct action. They first tell the workers to place in power political parties like the Labour Party which use their governmental position to perpetuate capitalism, and then tell the workers to take direct action against that government and the armed forces it controls. Even within the narrow framework of their reformist aims the “left wingers” who advocate violence and direct action are short-sighted. History is full of examples of reactionary governments capitalizing on violence and disorder (even on occasion using agents provocateurs to promote it) by proclaiming themselves the protectors of “law and order” and thereby winning the support of sections of the electorate which would otherwise not give much support.
One last word on the discontent about the hardships and evils of modern capitalism. Efforts to improve capitalism either by peaceful reform or by direct action are not new. The present discontents come after a hundred years of such activities. These activities were supposed to remove the evils — from war to unemployment, from poverty to bad housing, from overwork to high prices. Hundreds of struggles have been fought, hundreds of reform measures have been put in the statute books, hundreds of demonstrations for peace and disarmament conferences have been held — and not one of the evils has been removed. In effect we are being asked to waste another hundred years on more of the same.
Correcting Lenin we may say that unless the working class throw overboard their faith in reforms, with or without direct action, and their trust in leadership, and turn their minds to understanding Socialism, capitalism and its discontents will still be with us in five hundred years — unless before then war pushes us back into a new dark age.