Letters: Green debate
I think the Socialist Standard production committee and the other members concerned are to be congratulated on the interview with Jonathon Porritt which appeared in the August Socialist Standard. It was topical, interesting and, above all, reasonable in tone.
I agree entirely with the member of the Green Party who wrote to you the following month to say he was impressed by it for its lack of any “we have an answer to everything” boast. I have sometimes heard members boast that a Party speaker has “wiped the floor” with an opponent in debate. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that if you want people to join you in a difficult task of creating revolutionary consciousness you probably won’t have much success if you first wipe with the floor with them.
Socialist propaganda can be put without aggression, arrogance, condescension or abuse. The contents of most copies of the Socialist Standard these days prove that. More power to your (our) elbow.
Does human nature exist?
I particularly enjoyed the September issue of the Socialist Standard but was astounded to read, in the very last column, the emphatic assertion “Human nature does not exist”. Unquestionably it does exist, in both physical and psychological terms. To assume otherwise would surely imply that, uniquely in the animal kingdom, no human activity could ever be deemed natural. Including, of course, “our rational desire for comfort and welfare”
Obviously however, the way that human nature manifests itself through our behaviour is significantly affected by environmental, social and cultural conditioning. The relative influence of nature or nurture in this process remains a matter for legitimate debate but I have great respect for what I always considered to be the socialist position. Succinctly stated on the first page of the same issue.
Does Steve Colborn really believe that it is as unnatural to make love as it is to make war? And do other socialists agree with him?
It is nice to know that Richard Headicar enjoyed the September Socialist Standard; we hope he will go along to his local branch of The Socialist Party to discuss his opinions about socialism.
As Richard Headicar points out, our behaviour varies under the influence of our conditions, yet human behaviour is what our opponents are really referring to when they say that “human nature” would make socialism unworkable The problem is in deciding what is natural to human beings; to begin with, whatever is natural must be fixed, which counts out human behaviour which changes with its conditioning.
This leaves us with very little which can be properly called human nature. As far as the case for socialism goes, it is so insignificant as to justify the phrase that it does not exist.
After reading your journal for a few months now, I find myself in broad agreement with most of your aims. However, there are one or two points.
In particular, you advocate a socialist society mainly for material reasons: for houses and general consumer goods. The criticisms you make of our present society are normally only ones of material deprivation. You do not seem to consider the point that man has inner, non-material, needs. I do not mean religious or spiritual needs, but man as a social animal needs to feel at one with his surroundings. his work and his fellow human beings. These yearnings come from inside man and need a harmonious society externally to be satisfied. By often ignoring these inner and social needs of men you seem to be denying that there is a psychological and emotional basis for socialism as well as a material basis. Or perhaps the SPGB claims that our present society has no effect on our inner stability?
One other point of criticism. The language of your paper is surely dated. Whether we like it or not, people today do not generally use terminology such as “capitalist class”, “class struggles” and “surplus value”. Instead of using language that you talk to yourselves in, shouldn’t you choose words and terms that ordinary non-socialists use. They are, after all, the people whom you have to convince. Your Declaration of Principles uses terms that it needs a dictionary to make sense of.
The Socialist Party is most certainly a “materialist” party in the sense that we argue that to understand society fully we must look first at the ways in which people are organised to meet their material needs, how the goods and services that are necessary for life are produced. In capitalist society that production takes place only for profit and people are divided into two classes — the capitalist class which owns the means of producing and distributing goods and services, and the working class which owns nothing except their ability to work. These two classes have opposing interests which cannot be reconciled within the capitalist system. The effects of this class division — and the conflict which it entails — are both material, in the sense that workers never receive the full benefit of their labour, and non-material in the sense that capitalism also engenders insecurity, conflict and division.
We do indeed recognise that people have what Simon Pearson refers to as “inner needs” — to live in harmony and cooperation with each other — but would argue that the material conditions created by capitalism frustrate the meeting of those needs. Socialism, by contrast, will ensure not only that people’s needs for a decent standard of material life are met. but will also create a society in which people can live in peace with each other.
On the question of the language used in the Socialist Standard, we accept that the language of the Declaration of Principles is dated — they were after all drawn up in 1904. Nevertheless, as a statement of what the Socialist Party stands for they are as relevant today as when they were drafted. The language may have changed but the basic features of capitalism still exist. And it is the ideas contained within the Declaration of Principles which are the basis for the analysis of society and contemporary events presented in the Standard. Although we do at all times try to use ordinary language in the articles we print, it is not always easy to find words and expressions which carry the same meaning as “capitalist class” and “class struggles”.
Socialism and democracy
Let me commence by saying that I’m in broad agreement with your analysis of socialism; what it is. how it can be achieved and the absoluteness of its necessity.
However I do have one query. One of your prerequisites for socialism is that it must be on a worldwide basis. Does this infer that the development of a universal socialist consciousness will arise uniformly? If so, is this not an unrealistic assertion?
My point is that it is quite possible and even probable that a realisation of the need for socialism will gain uneven support between the various nations of the world. For instance how is it possible for socialist thought to take seed in the state capitalist regimes where dissension is not tolerated and a parliamentary process is non-existent. Ditto for right wing dictatorships. Thus it would seem inevitable that socialist thought is more likely to advance in the partially democratic nations of the West, over the aforementioned totalitarian regimes.
If a socialist majority should arise in these Western nations whilst socialist awareness remained hindered in other countries, what route then for socialism? Would such a problem be irretractable? I should hope not!
I await with interest your reply
This is a vital question, which often bothers people who are in “broad agreement” with our case.
Socialism must be a worldwide social system because a stateless, moneyless, classless set-up could not exist, as a separate enclave, amid a capitalist world of nations, wars, class division, commodity production and so on. It follows that socialism must be established at pretty well the same time throughout the world but this does not imply that workers develop socialist consciousness at exactly the same rate everywhere. Inevitably, there is some unevenness but in terms of social movement this is so slight as to be insignificant.
Ideas mirror material conditions. At present workers all over the world support capitalism and this support takes just about the same form wherever we look. The same false ideas help to keep capitalism in being on both sides of the Atlantic, on both sides of the Iron Curtain . . .
The development of socialist ideas faces many problems and political dictatorship is one of them. An absence of democracy reflects a low state of development of workers’ consciousness; its presence is one of the fruits of a flourishing consciousness. That is the direction in which society is moving, as workers’ ideas react to capitalism’s contradictions.
We hope James Ryan will feel able to assert his own political awareness by joining in the work for socialism.
Who runs the world?
I am not a member of the SPGB but I must say that the letter from Reg Otter in the October issue annoyed me immensely. Obviously he has contempt for the great mass of people forgetting that they run the world.
I have no doubt that when Mr Otter is in trouble he sends for the plumber or the doctor or seeks the attention of a dentist; when he travels he may well fly in an aircraft made, serviced and flown by working people. Every day “miracles” are happening throughout the world carried out by working people. These people are not socialists neither are they dumb or stupid, were Reg Otter not so cynical and bigoted he would see that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill and sacrifice in the community in spite of the pressures of capitalism.
I have lived for nearly 65 years and know that the main political parties have nothing to offer but division and delusion. Socialism appears to be the answer when people are prepared to listen and act.