A couple of months ago the social historian, F. A. Ridley, gave a talk on “English Revolutionaries”. On the publicity material he was advertised as one of the founders of the European socialist movement. Of course, members of the Socialist Party were present to find out how justified this reference to socialism would prove. Sadly, we found that this term had once again been used merely as window-dressing, its direct application being dismissed as unsuited to the current millennium.
The talk began with a survey of revolutionary activity in England over the past 440 years, starting with Cromwell and advancing through Chartism to the two world wars, in which millions of workers were slaughtered in the interests of one capitalist nation or another. Our trip through the tunnels of confusion and disillusion ended with the recent Labour administrations of the profit system, and the current “blue period” of monetarism.
Ridley regarded as most revolutionary those periods in which there had been an apparent upsurge in the cries for reform and mentioned as paramount among these Cromwell’s Barebones Parliament. From the audience we pointed out, firstly, that the socialists of the present century are revolutionary in pointing out the futility of reform. Present social problems can only be removed by a conscious, majority desire to change the basis of society. The, we demonstrated how the Barebones Parliament was a vehicle for reform in the interests of the ascendant capitalist class. The vote was granted only to those possessing over £200 and the real revolutionaries of the period, the Diggers, were routed and even put to the sword by Cromwell’s Roundheads.
At this point, Ridley compared the Diggers with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and said that he would have full support for us if only we would retire from the field of active politics and become a merely educational body. To this the socialists present pointed out that for us, theory and practice cannot be separated in this way. The socialist movement has a function which is practical, political and educational. The Socialist Party enters the political field in order to expose and oppose every party whose policy works against the interests of the working class.
Another speaker from the floor began to defend the record of the Labour Party, referring to the building of “20 million” council houses during their periods of office. At this a cry of “slums” came simultaneously from various members of the audience, and Ridley pointed out quite appropriately how the Tory Party has in principle been equally prepared to endorse reform of this kind in order to ensure the smooth running of capitalism. Another question was raised about the existence of a “different form of society” in Russia, but Ridley again dealt with this pertinently by explaining that what has existed there for the past 67 years is state capitalism.
Clearly, Ridley has an understanding of how capitalism functions. He recognises the limitations of reformism and the inability of state control to serve the working-class interest. But what this meeting demonstrated was the urgent need for him, like the rest of the working class, to join the movement for world socialism without delay. Reformism has not brought us any closer to resolving the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society. Four hundred years of so-called revolutionary history demonstrated this.