1970s >> 1972 >> no-817-september-1972

Pamphlet Review: Is Socialism Left?

Is Socialism Left? by George Watson. (Unservile State Papers. 15p.)


This is a pamphlet published by the Unservile State Group, a small body of Liberals aiming to foster the growth of Liberal political and economic ideas.


Rather than refer explicitly to aspects of Liberal policy and principles, however, George Watson, lecturer in English at Cambridge and author of books on literary criticism and thesis writing, sets out to show how certain standpoints popularly referred to as Socialist (and therefore, in most people’s minds “left”) have very close parallels in traditionally accepted features of Fascist (and therefore “right”) ideology. The impressive array of evidence he draws upon to support his case includes the setting up of Bolshevik extermination camps in Russia in 1918, the policies of minority violence advocated by left-wingers such as G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells, the undemocratic authoritarianism of the Webbs, the founders of Fabianism, the anti-working class policies practised in Britain by successive Labour governments, the conditions of savage political repression the people of Eastern Europe live under.


Nothing here unfamiliar to the Socialist critique of Labourism and State control masquerading as Socialism. But what a pity that in attempting to clarify terms, Watson adds to the already existing confusion about Socialism by defining it as “. . . a spectrum . . . that stretches from a totalitarian extreme in Stalin and Mao, through diluted forms of the same doctrine in Gomulka and Tito, as far (say) as the Swedish and British Social Democrats.” From this comment and others we can deduce that Socialism for this pamphleteer means State control, which he contrasts unfavourably with the private variety. Yet, at the same time, he shows signs of realising that both are forms of capitalism, for he states: “In the socialist countries beyond the Curtain, the state is the only capitalist, or the only major one” and “The power of a Western or private capitalist is necessarily less than that of a socialist one” (a socialist capitalist therefore — how’s that for semantic confusion?).


What a pity too that Watson, despite his hearteningly unexpected awareness of the existence of State capitalism in Russia, goes on to make the elementary blunder of equating Russian Bolshevism with Marxian Socialism. His uncritical assumption that Lenin’s setting up of a one-party regime of political terror constituted Marxism in action compounds the ignorance or misunderstanding of Marx’s writings inherent in such statements as “Marxian Socialism is little short of bloodthirsty” and “Marx himself certainly believed that socialism could only be created through violence on a world-scale”. Serious students of Marx know that he was never an advocate of mass violence and indeed, in his later writings, was quite clear that where electoral machinery existed a class-conscious majority could use the vote to take over the State preparatory to the changeover from commodity production (capitalism) to a system of common ownership and free access (Socialism). Engels, in his 1895 preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France sums up the Marxist position:


  And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.
For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had essentially changed. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, was to a considerable extent obsolete . . . The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions, carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.


Marx’s writings, therefore, contain no warrant for the politically backward, minority violence of Bolshevism. Any association between Marxism and the events of 1917 and their aftermath turns solely on the dishonest use Lenin made of Marx’s terminology. In particular the terms socialist and communist, which for Marx were interchangeable, came, under Lenins’ distortion, to mean two separate stages of development, while Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, a political condition not a form of government, has nothing in common with the dictatorship over the proletariat established by Lenin.


Watson’s conclusion that the repressive social, political and moral features of Russian society represent conservatism far in excess of anything found in the West is incontrovertible and a view shared by all objective observers. Next to this, however, the question he poses of whether such a set-up can be legitimately referred to as “left” is of little importance. For whatever label a government in the modern world attaches to itself, right, left or centre, its function remains the same — to administer as efficiently as possible a system of production for profit which, come what may, cannot be run in the interests of the working majority. This applies just as rigorously to State capitalism in Russia (and in East Germany, China, Cuba, etc. for that matter) as it does to Watson’s implied favourite, private capitalism in the Western world.


Howard Moss