1980s >> 1986 >> no-980-april-1986

Letter: Left is not right

Dear Editors.

I am interested in the view of the Socialist Party on violence as a means of achieving socialism. The SWP supports numerous violent groups and says “socialists ought to support them”. The PLO, the ANC and the IRA are the usual groups which use violence and the SWP advocate “fighting back” against Israeli oppression. British occupation of Ulster, and white apartheid.

When the PLO claimed responsibility for the massacres in Rome and Vienna airports in December, the SWP published an article (9 January) on the PLO and the IRA. It was an apologist article for terrorism, and argued that Palestinians resolved to fight back after the massacres at Sabra and Chetila, and some chose terrorism. I could not see how the massacres of innocent people, and injuring many more, can undo all the tragedies that have happened at Sabra and Chatila.

I am concerned that even a world socialist revolution would become a dictatorship if established by violence. In all countries that have experienced socialist revolutions there has ended up being a one-party state that allows no independent trade unions, imprisons people because of their views, and does not have fair trial procedures. The logic behind this is that opposition parties and organisations must not be allowed, to safeguard against counter-revolution. These countries justify this on the grounds that the workers run things—examples are USSR, China, Cuba, Libya, Vietnam,, Laos, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, North Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan, etc. I have a suspicion that even a world socialist revolution, where foreign aggression would not be a threat, would still be a repressive dictatorship in order to prevent counter-revolution.

If a majority supported socialism then it would be possible to bring it about, but there is still the risk of disappropriated big businessmen trying to reverse the revolution by violent means and a world wide civil war would result. I therefore don’t think socialism would end wars. Later on the system might degenerate into state capitalism — a world state capitalist system.

Various sci-fi novels, such as A. E. van Vogt’s Future Glitter depict world dictatorships founded on socialist ideas.

If the system is to be democratic and everyone takes what they need and works voluntarily, I don’t know what would happen if people didn’t do the unpleasant but necessary work such as mining or working on oil rigs — the goods would not be produced and people would not be able to take what they needed because resources are not being used.

It would take at least thirty years for a majority in rich as well as poor countries to develop the necessary consciousness to want socialism, and in the meantime we have got to keep our fingers crossed that the bomb isn’t used for all those decades. Once it is dropped, there’ll be no socialism because everyone will be burnt, irradiated, starved or frozen to death in the war or the nuclear winter. But you say only socialism will avert the nuclear threat.

In the 19th century when workers lived in appalling misery there was no socialist revolution in Britain, Germany, France or the USA. What chance is there now of a socialist revolution when workers have social security, free health care, television, videos, records, radio, holidays . . . They feel that they have too much to lose and may gain a repressive Soviet-type society, and may lose their lives, their loved ones or their freedom in the state repression of a revolutionary movement, or be tortured and maimed by the forces of the state.

How can there be a revolution when the revolutionary Left is all in splinter groups: Militant, SWP, Revolutionary Communist Party, Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the Communist Party — with many of these putting workers off by advocating hideous policies such as supporting the IRA, PLO or ANC when these people often kill innocent people with pub bombings (Ireland) or attacks on airports (PLO) or burning alive (South Africa)? Other groups advocate supporting the Soviet Union and its satellites — in the USSR prisoners are almost starved — and workers are forced to work for inadequate rewards due to lack of union power, and when the Soviet Union finances wars and kills women and children in Afghanistan, and in most of these countries women work sixteen hours a day and there is no creche provision when children are sick, but no paid leave for mothers either. Some socialists think this is the pinnacle of socialist achievement.

The SWP has asked teachers to strike for one day every week — this means a loss of 20 per cent of pay! My boyfriend is a teacher and we spend about two-thirds of our income as rent, debts and electricity. This also affects children, with no-one at home, who will be wandering the streets in the cold. The SWP and the other revolutionaries also support DHSS strikes which could cause unemployed people, pensioners and single mothers to be hungry, cold and even evicted from their private rented hovels. Apparently the end justifies the means! Socialists subscribing to this maxim have put me off socialism.

The end result of endless suffering for socialism (if we are not all incinerated by H- bombs first!) could be a society like the Soviet Union on a world scale, with enforced “modernisation”, abolishing the extended family but with no welfare state pension to replace it, as has happened in the Soviet Union after 1917. Socialism seems to offer no hope, just like all the other dreary religions and capitalism. We are still born to suffer and die and wonder why.

Lynn Stabler
London N22

The criticisms Lynn Stabler makes of left-wing parties like the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) are both clear and correct. We do not think, though, that the understandable rejection by many workers of these bogus ideas has discredited the idea of real socialism permanently. Labels like “socialist” and phrases like “the class struggle” are used by a variety of organisations whose opposition to the profit system ranges from the incredibly modest and futile (the aims, for instance, of the Campaign Against Plastic Bullets) to the violent and futile (like the Red Brigade and the IRA). It is true that socialists who are advocating a social revolution are often faced with obstacles of prejudice which have arisen in society because of the repressive and misnamed “socialist states” and because of the great frustrations which have come from the predictable failure of organisations like the Labour Party to make capitalism run in the interests of the majority. But experience is stronger than words. The idea of a classless society with production exclusively for human use arises from its opposite: class-divided society based on production for profit and all its consequent misery. Socialism neither originated from the writings of Karl Marx nor from the columns of the Socialist Standard and it cannot be extinguished by the misleading double-talk of people like Paul Foot. Neil Kinnock, Mikael Gorbachev or their right-wing opponents. The wages-system breeds discontent and workers cannot be persuaded indefinitely that we should not organise to establish production for use.

To consider Lynn Stabler’s points in more detail:

The Socialist Party is completely opposed to the use of violence to achieve socialism. The women and men who between them own and control the means of life across the world, taken together with all of their police, judges, prison warders, armed forces and senior civil servants number only a tiny fraction of the world’s population. They occupy their positions of social parasitism with the general consent of the majority. They are high and mighty because their subjects are kneeling.

Capitalism is not kept in business because the minority threaten the majority with violence. Isolated acts of legal violence are, of course, used against workers or groups of workers who refuse to conform to the dictates of the profit system. But this use of occasional force relies on it being generally endorsed by the majority, otherwise they would never get away with it. The capitalist class relies on the support of something much more powerful than rifles or tanks to keep them where they are — opinion. They are more secure on top of conventional wisdom than they are on top of a conventional weapon. Socialists realise that it is this prejudice about the need for a ruling class and a wages system which needs to be attacked, and not other workers. The only way to establish a reasonable society is to use reason to convince people. The debris and shrapnel of terrorist bombs will never leave a peaceful society in their wake. The rifle is an inadequate substitute for reason and workers who think that killing their fellow workers in pub bombings or machine-gun attacks will solve any of their poverty-caused problems are tragically mistaken.

Counter revolutions
Will socialism need to use the state machine to combat a counter-revolution, begun perhaps, by former members of the ruling class? The answer, in a word, is “no.” But how can we be confident of this? If a majority of women and men has decided to abolish the social relations of capitalism and establish a classless society (and the only way that it can be established is by the democratic action of the majority), then a bloody-minded contingent of financiers, aristocrats or factory owners who refused to yield up to society what they once jealously guarded as theirs could be very easily immobilised without violence. In order to be effective, any counter-revolutionary force would need a variety of resources which the majority of us would have to make sure it did not get. It would need electricity, petrol, food, drink and most essentially workers who are soldiers. Is it a reasonably foreseeable prospect that after the factories, offices, media, transport systems and so forth have been taken by the community, a significantly large number of soldiers will still be willing to turn their backs on their fellow workers and engage in violence to wrest the factories from the community and put them back into the hands of a minority? When a “revolution” is nothing more than a change of president or regime (because some murderous bandit or junta of professional killers has violently ousted the last lot in a coup) then you can see why, from the point of view of the would-be leaders, a counter-revolution would make sense. Counter-revolutions can be enacted in this way without the majority of workers even getting the chance to discover the original revolution. In socialism, anyone who seriously entertained the idea of dissuading the majority from operating the means of life in the interests of all and giving back the farms, factories. offices and media to a minority to operate for profit would certainly have their work cut out, probably for the first time in their life.

The dirty work
A discussion about this very often depends on what you mean by “dirty work”. It could mean the dirty work of capitalism: the highly trained professional murderers in the armed forces, people who are expert in killing others they have never met; the policemen and women who have to spend some of their time arresting their fellows for stealing and protecting the tycoon thieves who employ them; prison warders, bailiffs, lawyers, debt collectors. social security snoopers and others. Clearly there will be no need for any of these unpleasant contributions in a socialist society. On the other hand there will undoubtedly be the need for the performance of some work which many people would not find agreeable. Surgery, for instance. is a service not renowned for its pleasant sights and smells. Similarly, work on oil rigs, in sewers and down mines would need to be continued. Why should anyone want to do these jobs in a socialist society? There are a number of points to consider. First, they will not be jobs that the same people have to do indefinitely or “for life” as now. Secondly, they will not be conducted in conditions which have been determined more by profitability than welfare and safety. Thirdly, some workers are, of course, genuinely interested in the sort of work that is carried out on oil rigs or the civil engineering involved in the sewer system but hate the pressure and routine of work under the profit system. Motivation in a socialist society — having your skills and social usefulness appreciated by the community — will be of the highest kind, the sort which has been the inspiration behind the greatest inventions, discoveries and developments in all fields of endeavour. The responsibility required to establish socialism is not compatible with the situation where no-one is prepared to work on an oil-rig and we have to reintroduce the wages-system to impel people to work under the threat of going hungry.
Thirty years and the bomb
Why speculate on the need for at least thirty years to pass before social consciousness is developed enough for a social revolution? Lenin once estimated that, left to their own devices, workers would take at least 500 years to establish socialism (from which he concluded that they would therefore need a leadership vanguard to do all the important thinking and acting for them). The Socialist Party considers that socialism is immediately practicable — we are aiming, along with our companion parties in other parts of the world, at getting socialism today and not in three decades from now. With the means of communication and transport being as highly-developed as they are today ideas, if they are in tune with people’s experience and in their interests, spread very rapidly. The rate at which socialist ideas will spread will be greatly accelerated after they have reached a certain level of social acceptance and popularity: like the snowball rolling down the snow-covered mountain. The only way to eliminate the danger of the nuclear bomb is to remove the root causes of war — economic rivalry between competing owning-class interests. If we retain a society which is prone to erupt periodically into war then workers will be powerless to instruct the governments of nations what weapons they may and may not use, even if this sort of refinement to the machinery of mass murder was realistic. It is also worth considering that the disaster many CND supporters are so desperate to avoid (even at the expense of an indefinite postponement of working for socialism) is, in many ways, here today: millions of people starving to death, millions of homeless people and rootless refugees, widespread civil disturbances, riots and rebellions and thousands of people dying in military conflict every month.
Too much to lose?
Today many workers have televisions or personal stereos whereas their ancestors did not. But that is not really the point. If it was you could say that the monstrous conditions of early capitalism were beneficial to those early wage-slaves because they could enjoy better access to pubs and pianos than their forefathers. The telling contrast is not what we’ve got now set against what we had fifty years ago, but what we’ve got now compared to what we could have. For the tens of millions of workers with boring dead-end jobs and relentless debts or the millions of people without work, for the millions of workers neglected because they are old or disabled, or picked on as scapegoats because they have the wrong colour skin or religion; and for everyone who is insecure or scared about the likelihood of nuclear war; for all of these people, it is improbable that the pleasures of a Ford Escort and a 22-inch colour television will forever forestall the creation of a society which can produce abundant wealth for all to share.
The splintered Left
It is right to say that there are many organisations, described generally as “the left-wing parties”, which are at odds with each other and which are propounding policies which many workers treat with disdain. Eamonn McCann, a spokesman for the Socialist Workers’ Party, said in a recent television programme:

  Labour is incapable of bringing about fundamental social change and Labour’s pursuit of election victory is a trap for socialists committed to changing the system. They should leave the Labour Party now and build a radical alternative  (Diverse Reports, C4. January 1986)

Curious then that it is SWP policy to urge their supporters to vote for the Labour Party at election times in constituencies where there is no SWP candidate.


The various other groups who support the totalitarian state-capitalist nations like the Russian empire are no better. Another consequence of not opposing capitalism as a social system is that groups may often get bogged down in arguing about the best way for workers, like teachers or DHSS staff, to deal with industrial disputes created by the wages system. The only solution to the problem, as many painful decades of industrial conflict have demonstrated, is the abolition of the employer-employee relationship.


One final point: Lynn Stabler rather pessimistically concludes that “we are still born to suffer and die, and wonder why . . .” Think what state we would be in now if the pioneers of working class organisation in the early trade unions had concurred with that view. Our world is not predestined. Tomorrow is what we make it and we’ve got a world to win . . .