1980s >> 1984 >> no-956-april-1984

Socialism or Reformism?

When it comes down to it there is no real choice between reform and revolution. These are not two alternative ways of reaching the same goal. Certainly people can try to reform capitalism to make it work in the interest of all, but they can never succeed. All their efforts are wasted. The only way forward is social revolution, in the sense of rapidly abolishing present-day society by a political act and establishing a new and different society in its place.

The reason for this is clear. Capitalism is an economic system which operates according to economic laws which cannot be changed by human action, and which human beings have to accept and submit to in the same way as they do to natural forces like the weather and the tides. But there is a difference between the economic forces of capitalism and the tides in that the former only operate because humans chose to keep in being the system of production for sale on a market with a view to profit. If people decided to end this system, then these forces would cease to operate. But, as we have explained, there is no point in accepting to work within this system and then trying to stop these economic forces operating. It can’t be done. As long as capitalism remains its economic laws will continue to function roughly like the tides.

Essentially we are talking about people being in charge of the production of the wealth they must have to survive. This is what socialism is about: subjecting production to conscious human control so that it can be directed to the single purpose of turning out goods and services to satisfy human needs. Why should this not be possible? After all, production for use — production to satisfy human needs — is the logical purpose of producing wealth.

Production to satisfy human needs is possible, but it requires a fundamental social change to make it a reality. Basically, all that is in and on the earth must become the common property of everyone. In other words, there must no longer be any territorial rights or any private property rights over any part of the globe. The farms, factories, mines and all other places where wealth is produced will not belong to anybody. This means that a section only of society would no longer stand between the rest of society and the means of production. Social classes would cease to exist and all men and women would stand in equal relationship to the means of production as free and equal members of a classless community.

Naturally, in order to use the commonly owned means of wealth production, people would have to organise themselves and devise procedures for allowing them to be put in motion. This brings us to the second basic feature of production: democratic control. A certain degree of democratic control exists in some capitalist countries today, but it is very limited and only applies to the operation of certain political institutions at local and national level. In a socialist society democratic control will extend to all aspects of social life, including — and in fact in particular — decisions about the production of wealth. This is what production is about: bringing the production and distribution of wealth under conscious human control which, in a classless community of free and equal men and women, can only be democratic control. Otherwise society would no longer be classless: access to. and control over, the means of production would then remain in the hands of the minority. This is why democracy and socialism are inseparable. There is no choice about the matter. An undemocratic socialism is a contradiction in terms. Socialism is democratic or it is not socialism.

The third feature of socialism is production for use, and in a sense follows from the other two. If the means of production are commonly owned and democratically controlled, there is only one end for which they can and will be used: to produce wealth to satisfy the needs, individual and collective, of the classless community. But another way, common ownership and democratic control is the only framework in which this natural, logical object of production satisfying human needs can be achieved.

When we say production for use we mean production solely for use. In socialism wealth no longer will be produced for sale; buying and selling and all that goes with it money, prices, wages, profits, banks, and so on — will have no place; they will, in fact, have no sense in socialism. Since the means of production will be commonly owned, it follows that what is produced will also be commonly owned — that is, by the classless community of free men and women who will have produced it. In these circumstances the question of selling what has been produced just would not — could not — arise. For how can what is commonly owned be sold to those who commonly own it?

The problem (if that is the right word) that will arise will be of a quite different nature. It will be how to distribute what has been produced among members of the community. Advocates of common ownership have argued about this from ancient times but until the end of the last century this argument was always — and inevitably — conducted in terms of sharing out a limited amount. The suggestions for doing this were many and various. Some suggested equal sharing, others a points system based on a hierarchy of needs; others wanted to link what people received to what they had contributed to production in terms of hours of work. Any of these systems would have been immensely more equal than what happens under capitalism, but nowadays we need no longer think in terms of having to share out fairly a limited amount. Since the turn of the century, we have left the Age of Scarcity and entered the Age of Abundance — potential abundance. that is. To the extent that scarcity survives today, as of course it very much does, this is an artificial scarcity maintained by the economic laws of capitalism, and particularly its basic principle of “No Profit, No Production”.

On the basis of common ownership and democratic control, the artificial barrier to the production of abundance (that is, the profit motive) will be removed and we shall be able to produce an abundance of the basic things — food, clothing, shelter — which people need to enjoy life. Material wants and poverty can be banished for ever. Technologically speaking, there is no reason why any man, woman or child in any part of the world should starve or go without proper shelter. Socialism will allow this technological possibility to be realised, which will no doubt have to be one of the first priorities of socialism when it is established.

How to distribute this abundance of basic necessities? The answer is simple. Let people come and take what they need. Wealth could be produced in such abundance today that there is no need to ration access to it. The free access to consumer goods and services which was always the long-term aim of the nineteenth century socialists and communists can now be instituted with the establishment of socialism. Free access — which we can list as the fourth basic feature of socialism after common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use — means exactly what it says. People will be able to come to the places where the basic necessities of life will be stored and freely take away what they consider they need. They themselves will judge what they need; individuals will determine their own needs. In conditions of permanent abundance people will have no reason to take more than they need. To do so would be pointless. People won’t hoard basic necessities in a socialist society any more than they hoard the water which they draw freely from their taps today. They will simply take what they need from the stores as and when they need it. Ensuring that these stores are always stocked with what people need will be no problem given the technological possibility of producing in abundance. This will essentially be a question of stock control.

So common ownership, democratic control, production for use. free access; these are the essential features of the society which must replace capitalism if the problems facing people today are to be solved. Clearly it is not the sort of society that can be introduced gradually within capitalism. We either have common ownership or some sort of class ownership, private or state. We either have production for use or production for sale. In both cases the one excludes the other.

Certainly, claims have been made to introduce elements of “socialism” into capitalism as a way of gradually transforming society, but they have never worked. In the early days of the Labour Party nationalisation was seen as a step towards common ownership. In fact, nationalisation never even superseded private ownership. In Britain the private owners were merely transformed from shareholders into government bondholders and continued to receive a property income as interest on their bonds rather than dividends on their shares, and the nationalised industries have always been profit-seeking enterprises. In fact, it was a Labour government — under Harold Wilson in 1967 — which laid down that nationalised industries should seek to achieve the same rate of profit on their new investment projects as any equivalent private enterprise. Nationalisation, far from being a step towards socialism, has merely meant state capitalism. Similarly, “planning” was originally seen as an attempt to impose production for use instead of for profit. In practice however planning has either been a complete failure because capitalism is an anarchic, unplannable system, or else has been the planned exploitation of the wage and salary earning class in countries like Russia and China.

So once again we arrive at the same conclusion. Reformism cannot succeed in making capitalism work in the interest of the workers, the majority. Neither can it succeed in gradually transforming capitalism into socialism. The only way forward is social revolution — not in the sense of barricades, street battles and executions, but of a rapid change in the basis of society.

This is what socialists are working for, but it is not we who are going to establish socialism. We could not do it. No minority can. By its very nature as a democratic, responsible society, socialism can only be established by a majority who understand and want it. After all, how could a minority force people to establish a society based on voluntary co-operation and democratic decision-making?

This is why all the efforts of socialists are directed towards helping to spread the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism with its artificial scarcity, organised waste, wars and threats of war. insecurity and anxiety. Our role is to inform people about this and get people to want to change society and to organise to do this.

Adam Buick