1980s >> 1984 >> no-960-august-1984

Telling the difference

If you pay for a bottle of milk and with the first mouthful discover the contents to be whitewash, how would you react? Would the person who sold you the drink convince you that what you were drinking was milk because that was what was on the label of the bottle? Today, many nations around the world describe themselves as “socialist” or “communist” but it is a fact that the present economic and social system operates globally and socialism is yet to be established. If you observe the social arrangements in any region of the world, the hallmarks of a class divided society are evident: the division between the rich and the poor: the minority who own and control the means of life and the majority who produce all the wealth but have to rely on a wage, salary or dole in order to live; the rationing system of money; prisons and police forces to deal with the continuing discontent bred by the competitive commercial rat race, and so on, ad nauseam. If socialism is to have any meaning it must signify something different from capitalism. We would be easily fooled if we took societies like Russia, China or France to be socialist simply because their politicians find it advantageous to use that label. We would be taken in by the whitewash.

Socialists are sometimes challenged with the question: “There are so many varieties of socialism what makes you think your definition is correct? Why do you think your idea is the only one which deserves the label of socialism?” Our response is to invite such a questioner to consider the evidence. Consider the basis of society as it is organised in countries which are described as “capitalist” and “socialist”. What are the principles on which wealth is produced and distributed? What is the basic lifestyle of the majority of the people? What social characteristics do these societies share and what distinguishes them?

Recently there were two interesting programmes on Radio 4 on the subject of socialism. An International Assignment (5 May 1984) examined the question “What is Socialism” by looking at various societies on which this title is commonly stuck. The following month Analysis (6 June 1984) asked “Who wants socialism?”, directing this question to an array, or rather disarray, of Labour Party politicians. In the International Assignment programme we were taken around the world and given commentaries, by BBC local correspondents, on the “socialism” of the area in which they were based.

All of the evidence confirmed the view that these places are really an integrated part of capitalism. Socialists use the word “capitalism” to describe the existing social system in which a minority owns the means of production — the land, factories, mines, offices, transport systems and communications networks — and where the production process is operated to produce commodities for sale at a profit. Under this system a person’s needs can only be met insofar as he or she has the money to pay for them to be satisfied. The commercial system is inherently competitive. Not only do companies rival one another within national boundaries, but nations form into trading blocs which themselves are in competition with each other over new markets and territories to exploit. The real nature of global capitalism can be seen in the trading links between nations which, according to their labels, should be completely hostile to one another. Representatives of the wealth-owners of “Communist” Russia and “Capitalist” South Africa are in regular contact to arrange the pricing of diamonds on the world market. These countries are the main areas of diamond mining and the interests of profit on each side take priority over the rhetoric of their régimes. In an attempt to overcome the effect of the miners’ strike, Mrs. Thatcher’s government negotiated with Poland’s General Jaruzelski to import coal from Poland. There are clear social and economic differences between nations like Britain and Russia, although it is worth remembering that the greater freedoms enjoyed by workers in places like Britain have only been won after long struggles. Socialists describe the Russian Empire and similar nations as “state-capitalist” because the minority who own and control the means of life are the high-level bureaucrats and politicians who control the state machinery.

All of the BBC radio correspondents informed us of the difficulties encountered by governments trying to square their quest for profit with their mouthing of socialist slogans. Class-divided China was aching with problems for the majority whose work keeps them in poverty and their masters in luxury. The government said this hardship was a necessary expedient in building socialism. The correspondent seemed confused about this, and he had good reason to be. The programme sought an opinion from an English politician, that famed Labour Party egalitarian, Dame Judith Hart. She said that nationalisation was not really socialism and that we needed to work for another form of common ownership. Socialists would agree with her on that, but the Labour Party has never stood for anything but the profit system. Common ownership, where everybody owns all social wealth, and where there is therefore no need for government, is not something the Labour Party advocates.

The correspondent in Austria noticed that much of what many left-wingers in Britain advocate as problem-solving reforms already exist in Austria, with no great joy for the workers there. Seventy- five per cent of credit, insurance and financial business is conducted by state-owned banks and institutions. For the last fourteen years the government, describing itself as “socialist”, has implemented a reform programme which would be supported by most left-wing parties. One third of the gross national product is accounted for by companies where the state is the main shareholder. There has even been a Welfare Slate there since before the second World War. But what about the workers? The basic condition of the wealth-producers is still all that it can ever be under capitalism: those who can get employment receive a wage which is worth less than the value of what they have produced. Their problems of poverty and insecurity remain unsolved.

The next port of call was France. More twisted doublethink. Since President Mitterrand and his “socialist” government came to power three years ago, France has perfected the technology for the neutron bomb; commissioned a new nuclear submarine and developed its own land-based missile system. Another difficulty which the correspondent observed was that the government justified its expansion of the death services — the military machine — by explaining that this created much needed employment. Those groups who campaign simply for more exploitation within capitalism, “jobs for all”, have to answer for this.

The political travelogue continued. The locations were different but the tales were similar. In Portugal, where the radio journalist said that the reddest thing about “socialist” Portugal is its bank balance. With inflation running at over 30 per cent the government is hugely in debt and is inflicting a series of austerity measures against the workers, complying with an instruction from the International Monetary Fund. In Spain the government is blaming the severity of its anti-working-class policies on the trouble created by the previous government. Then to Africa, where a variety of grimly anti-working-class, autocratic regimes had adopted the name and vocabulary of socialism as titles of convenience. often as part of a strategy to attract military assistance from the Russian Empire.

Diluting the truth

Since its formation in 1906, the Labour Party has always sought political power to run the profit system. Its manifestoes have always been crammed with policies on the military forces, the financial and taxation systems, and a variety of ways in which wage-slavery should be controlled. Even the Labour Party’s declaration of intent to establish “socialism” is clear on this point: Clause 4 of its objects refers to the “common ownership of the means of production. distribution and exchange”. What does this mean? If there is common ownership, so that everyone owns everything, then there is no need for a means of exchange, there is no need for money. It is clear that what is intended by this object is another variant of state-capitalism — a social system with money and banks and working for wages and therefore with exploitation. Listening to the politicians speak on the programme Analysis, some of the reasons the Labour Party had its most catastrophic general election result for half a century became apparent. It is confused. Robin Cook, for instance, who was Neil Kinnock’s leadership campaign manager, stated that Neil was popular because he was articulating a vision of socialism and a set of priorities which is shared by the vast majority of mainstream activists. What vision of socialism was that? It must have been uttered surreptitiously between making dance videos with Tracey Ullman and trying to match the national chauvinism of Winston Churchill:

We must show that we have positive policies which are based upon the implacable requirement that the interests of the British people must predominate. (Leadership election manifesto 1983.)

Later on in the programme, Roy Hattersley, the Deputy Labour leader, was speaking about the need for Labour to build a new set of ideas:

We’ve rejected what the newspapers call Marxism or extremism by an immobilise position. We’ve decided that the best thing is not to have any ideas unless the ideas turn out to be too dangerous.

No political party can have no ideas, although the SDP/Liberal Alliance seems to be making a good attempt. Quite what Hattersley means by this remark is puzzling to say the least. John Golding, another prominent Labour politician, was more direct. He admitted:

I don’t think there is any point in arguing about ideology or what is socialism. My own experience tells me that that takes you nowhere.

There can be no denying that the arguments John Golding has engaged in have taken him nowhere, nor that, so far as socialism is concerned, nowhere is the place the working class has been led to by the Labour Party. Discussion and debate and an understanding of what socialism is and how to get it are, however, indispensable preconditions for the democratic establishment of a socialist society. There is no point in simply spending energy “doing things” and “getting involved in activity” if you have no clear idea of your political objective. If you have a clear idea of what you want to cook and how to cook it. the result will he a success. There would be little sense in shovelling all the ingredients together and mixing them on the basis that at least you are doing something.

Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Grimsby, himself speaking in culinary terms, unashamedly expressed the role of the politician:

The job of the politician is to take the truth and dilute it with flavouring and colouring matter to make it saleable to a wider electorate.

There are many supporters of the Labour Party who want social equality, an end to competitive society and a peaceful, prosperous world. But they are not supporting a party which can ever bring about such a social system. Labour’s record of managing capitalism is riddled with all of the anti-working class actions to which any government is forced by the economics of the profit-system. It has broken strikes, frozen wages, cut already low grade social services, closed schools and hospitals and acted as a recruiting sergeant for the bosses in times of war.

John Lennon’s song Imagine is about a socialist society:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

Whether or not it was opportunism which prompted the Labour Party to use this song on a recent Party Political Broadcast (29 May 1984), it is scarcely a fitting anthem for a party whose leader had pronounced three days before:

We are committed entirely to the security and defence of our own country and full participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. (Guardian, 26 May 1984.)

Working class experience of mistitled “socialist” nations and misleading parties like the Labour Party will rub away their credibility, but that in itself is not enough. For socialism we need a majority of socialists ready to run the world in the most productive, creative and enjoyable way possible. It’s a good idea but it needs to be made more than that.

Gary Jay