Debate: Socialism or Reformism?

Summary of a debate between the SPGB and the Labour Party Young Socialists —

Greenford Co-op Hall, Greenford Road. Tuesday 2nd December
For SPGB : T. D’Arcy. For LPYS : M. Brooks, Acton Labour Party.

SPGB Opening Statement
The title of the debate is: “Which party should the working class support, the SPGB or LPYS?” Today we live under a system called capitalism. The basis of this society is division into two classes: the working class virtually propertyless, having only their labour-power to sell, and the capitalist class, the tiny minority who own the wealth of society. There exists therefore a class antagonism between wage-labour and capital which is irreconcilable. We say Socialism is in working-class interests and by Socialism we mean our object, contained in all our literature. This is not what exists in Russia and other places and as yet it does not exist. The LPYS do not advocate this system which implies abolition of the wages system, private property and its relationships, banks, trade unions etc. Socialism means a fundamentally different kind of society where the means of production are owned and controlled by society as a whole.

The LPYS make socialist noises but there is a world of difference. They want capitalism run in working-class interests — this is nonsense, capitalism cannot benefit workers; only the capitalist class. One outstanding disagreement is on reforms. The LPYS have a list of reforms: Free Spanish political prisoners, oppose cuts in social services, Rent Act, nationalization, abolition of the House of Lords, etc.

The SPGB is opposed to reformism because: (a) it makes capitalism run more smoothly (b) it is the capitalists who pay for reforms and decide which ones, and (c) we have had them for 150 years and they have not led to Socialism and never will. At most they are a temporary appeasement to some sections of the working class and can be withdrawn, e.g. free milk for schoolchildren. Why do the LPYS need [a] “radical Labour Government” to push a reformist programme? Surely the Tories and Liberals have a better record on that count? Can you imagine the fury of the left if we had a Tory government now with a £6 limit and 1¼ million unemployed?
Nationalization is a main part of the Labour programme but it is irrelevant to the working class. Are workers for British Rail any better off because they are exploited by the state? Nor does nationalization bring Socialism any nearer. Lenin admitted that what existed in Russia was state capitalism. The LPYS have misconceptions about the state. To them it is something which, if you push hard, will do what you want. But it is a coercive body to maintain the rule of law, i.e. protect private property society. I refer you to Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. The LPYS have the idea that with good leadership and 10 million trade unionists you can combat capital and take it over, leading to the promised land. The SPGB rejects leadership and insists on the majority understanding Socialism before it can be established. No need for intellectuals, vanguardists, élitists, Trots etc. Understanding is the key.
The LPYS hold that inflation is caused by rising prices; but a wage is a price. It is caused by the depreciation of the currency — printing paper money. Unemployment is a normal part of capitalism but the LPYS want to fight it. How? It provides a reserve industrial army for when production picks up again, and it tends to keep wages down. Taxation is not a concern of the working class; it is a levy on wealth and the burden of taxation falls on the owners of wealth, the capitalists. LPYS ideas are not new. They should learn the lessons of history. The SPGB holds that Socialism is not only possible but the essential step if mankind is to progress.

LPYS Opening Statement

The SPGB rejects leadership yet goes to some lengths to put forward its ideas — this is playing with words. Leadership means offering a way forward; we have no ability to enchain the working class, only ideas and a political programme to offer them. The Labour government has false policies and is on the wrong course — we try to change these policies within the Labour movement. The LPYS have their own conferences, programmes and policymaking bodies.
The LYPS believe themselves to be socialist. We believe unemployment, rising prices, poverty, can only be solved by a fundamental transformation of society, in the direction of socialism. What’s stopping us? The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself and there is only a minority of socialists. It is absolutely true that the Labour Party has not led to socialism. Nor has the SPGB. It is necessary for the socialist movement to work within the labour movement putting forward the day-to-day interests of the working class, but it is necessary both to build understanding and to relate this to the struggles of workers. The LPYS attempt to do this. We don’t talk of solving unemployment in the framework of capitalism, we explain the need to take over the means of production and run them in the interests of the working class. SPGB history shows they have done service to the labour movement in the field of propaganda if in no other. The method of Marxism shows that during times of capitalist boom (the 1950s) workers aren’t interested in revolution, but they are in desperate economic crisis (e.g. 1848). The present crisis gives some hope of the working class questioning the basis of society but there is no certainty of this.
The SPGB contradicts itself by supporting trade-union action and not reform action. The trade unions are not revolutionary and yet Socialists work in them. In the same way the Labour Party is not revolutionary yet we work within it. Labour Party policies are no different from Tory policies, but radicalization will multiply as the crisis deepens. To cut yourself off from the Labour Party and the trade unions is to cut yourself off from the organized working class.
The SPGB likens reforms to crumbs from the capitalist table; if capitalists had infinite ability to give crumbs, socialism would be forever a dream. Marx hailed the 10-hour-day as a political reform, it was an indication to the working class of how to act. Would the SPGB support the 7-hour-day if brought about by trade-union action and oppose it if legislated? The 7-hour-day would be one of the first steps of a socialist government. The workers should take over industry and run it in their own interests, and this only leads to socialism when workers have control of the state.
The SPGB denies need for transition period but the level of production is not high enough to do away with money, and workers will need a period of training. The SPGB says it wants the democratic way. Who doesn’t? but most workers live under dictatorships and capitalists stop democracy when they want to, e.g. Chile. Capitalists will behave like wild beasts when they see their interests threatened. We must warn workers of the tricks and guiles capitalists will use in a country. As Guthrie says “Take it easy, but take it”.
(Several questions were asked by the audience, for the speakers to answer in summing up).

SPGB Second Speech
My opponent says he agrees that he wants Socialism as I defined it, yet LPYS propaganda is full only of “real issues”. If you don’t take Socialism seriously, of course it will seem years away. The SPGB is not prepared to water down its case by pushing reform programmes as the LPYS do. If we did this we could increase our membership with the support of non-socialists. On trade unions I refer you to Value, Price and Profit, where Marx calls for the abolition of the wages system. Workers organize under capitalism to try to safeguard their wages whether or not the SPGB urges them to.
A Socialist party must maintain independence and have no compromise with capitalism. It neither supports nor opposes reforms even if they appear to benefit workers at some time. Personally I have no objection to free milk for schoolchildren but it is not the task of a Socialist party to advocate such things.
The transition to Socialism takes place in capitalist society whilst men’s ideas are changing. The LPYS do not talk of abolishing the wages system, they talk of a £40 minimum wage.
Aim must be linked to method. Socialists in countries like Spain put forward the Socialist case as best they can alongside propaganda for political democracy for Socialism and not anything else. Socialist ideas, when they start spreading, will go to all parts of the world. Democracy will realize its true meaning in Socialist society. Capitalists cannot stop a vast social movement when it gets going, especially as the working class run capitalism from top to bottom.
The policy of boring from within is dishonest. I submit that the LPYS have no separate identity from the Labour Party and that they carry out their own rule “to secure the support of young people for the principles and policy of the Labour Party.”

LPYS Second Speech

We try to relate our programme to the day-to-day needs of working people. The SPGB reacted against the split in the 19th century socialist movement by resorting to preaching the final end without involving themselves in the mass movement.
On the question of taxation when VAT was introduced the retail price index did go up and this obviously would cause hardship to workers who could not get increases in wages. You have to support the working class on such issues.
The LPYS demand ‘“Work Or Full Pay” is not achievable within capitalism. It requires a transformation of society, but it is a reform attractive to workers who have no conception of Socialism. We base ourselves on not forming a party away from the main movement. Otherwise, no-one listens to you.
We agree that nationalization is state capitalism and that capitalists get their income in the same way as if they owned shares, but if the commanding heights of the economy were taken over that situation would be transformed. We would be prepared to give a better deal at the Social Security to poor workers with a few shares, say in ICI, to supplement their income. Nationalization is a necessary first step. There are just not enough resources available to immediately abolish money, and there will have to be a transition period with certain inequalities.
With the deepening economic crisis the working class is going to move to the left, and you have to be there explaining the need for the transformation of society. If not then you’re writing off the working-class movement.
As regards boring from within, the Labour Party has capitalist-minded leaders but the working class don’t regard it as such and that will be the cause of the radicalization of that party. During elections we don’t stress the bad points of Labour Party policy but instead put the LPYS programme and ask workers to get involved.
It is an admission of failure to say that the SPGB could not exist in Spain. Most workers live under dictatorships. It’s all very well to talk of taking over the state but what if the generals etc. don’t let you? The need to change society will not be realized in a flash of light. You must prepare against the reactionary violence the ruling class are likely to use in defence of their privilege and profits.
Tony D’Arcy