To vote or not to vote
In his article on Class War (Socialist Standard, October 1997) Paddy Shannon wrote that “so long as there are revolutionaries out there with the energy to act and the will to think, we want to talk to them”. Unfortunately when talking to revolutionaries, Socialist Party members are usually caught up in the debater’s tricks that have so characterised any debate with anarchist revolutionaries, that is, to wilfully misunderstand what we are saying, and then accuse us of a whole list of things that we have never said or done. Such was the case with a recent exchange with the Anarchist Communist Federation. First we were falsely accused of punishment beatings, and when we strenuously denied this, we were then told we were also guilty of advocating head-shaving, tarring and feathering, tying to posts, sticking notices on front doors, curfews and chasing people out of town. This cheapjack debater’s rhetoric is camouflage for the Socialist Party’s own failure to address the problem of the State, the police and crime.
Are the police merely “workers in uniform”-“not the real enemy” as Paddy Shannon says-who will continue to exist after the Socialist Party has managed to persuade the majority to vote for them and who will carry on doing what they were doing before the Great Socialist Vote? You have never seriously tackled the question of the police, the army and the other forces of repression organised by the State and the ruling class. When others attempt to develop ideas about how we can control our own areas without the police, you readily caricature us as advocates of vigilantism.
The forces of State repression are our enemy just as much as is the boss class. Of course all methods must be used to counter them-not excluding fraternisation, revolutionary propaganda aimed at them etc. But this leads to the dissolution of these forces not their control by some benign Socialist Party administered State.
You seem to think that you are revolutionaries. But you have consistently failed to take part in any mass actions-for example against the Poll Tax-preferring the safe isolation of your own sect. You have consistently argued against revolutionary action on every occasion. In actual fact you are good old-fashioned reformists. Wait till you have an electoral majority to vote in Socialism-of course the boss class and the State won’t lift a finger-and in the meantime do nothing but propagandise! But you can’t even get the votes of most social-democratic parties and you have been trapped in your sterile logic for the good part of a century!
Of course as Paddy Shannon correctly says: “The more violence is involved, the more likely the revolution is to fail outright, or to be blown sideways into a new minority dictatorship.” But most revolutions are remarkably non-violent, in their constructive phases at least. The violence comes when the boss class starts fighting back. That’s when armed self-defence of the Revolution is necessary. You criticise Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine for defending revolutionary gains there. What would you have done there? Call for an election and a vote for the Socialist Party? As White and Bolshevik armies attempt to destroy any revolutionary gains!
There are many fine and decent people in the Socialist Party. But if a real revolutionary movement emerges in Britain, you will be forced as individuals to come to terms with the dead end of electoralism. Then there may well be splits in your Party, as some see the need for revolutionary action and others remain trapped within an irrelevant sect.
RON ALLEN, London E1
1.Perhaps we are doomed to misunderstand each other. You accuse us of caricaturing your position yet immediately go on to caricature ours by talking about “some benign Socialist Party administered State”.
Anyone who knows anything about us knows that we regard the whole idea of a “socialist state” or a “socialist government” as a contradiction in terms and that we envisage the dissolution of the repressive state upon the establishment of socialism.
So let’s start again.
We have thought long and hard about the state and its repressive forces. Our reasoning goes like this. We want the useful majority in society (workers of all kinds) to take over and run the means of production in the interest of all. However, at the moment these are in the hands of a minority of the population whose ownership and control of them is backed up-and, when necessary, enforced-by the state and its repressive forces. The state stands as an obstacle between the useful majority and the means of production because it is at present controlled by the minority owning class. They control the state, not by some conspiracy, but with the consent or acquiescence of the majority of the population, a consent which expresses itself in everyday attitudes towards rich people, leaders, nationalism, money, etc. and, at election times, in voting for parties which support class ownership. In fact it is such majority support expressed through elections that gives their control of the state legitimacy.
In other words, the minority rule with the assent of the majority, which gives them political control. The first step towards taking over the means of production, therefore, must be to take over control of the state, and the easiest way to do this is via elections. But elections are merely a technique, a method. The most important precondition to taking political control out of the hands of the owning class is that the useful majority are no longer prepared to be ruled and exploited by a minority; they must withdraw their consent to capitalism and class rule-they must want and understand a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control.
Alternative ways of dislodging the owning class have been suggested, such as the head-on clashes with the forces of the state by a determined minority that you advocate. This is foolish, not to say suicidal: the state wins every time. The plain fact is that you can’t “smash the state” while it still enjoys majority support-and when those who control it no longer enjoy majority support there is no need to try to “smash” it: the majority can use the power of their numbers to take control of it via the ballot box, so that it is no longer used to uphold class ownership.
To do so they will need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. This is what we advocate. We don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don’t necessary claim that we are that party. What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist group, but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is such a party that will take political control via the ballot box, but since it will in effect be the useful majority organised democratically and politically for socialism it is the useful majority, not the party as such as something separate from that majority, that carries out the socialist transformation of society. They neutralise the state and its repressive forces-there is no question of forming a government-and then proceed to take over the means of production for which they will also have organised themselves at their places of work. This done, the repressive state is disbanded and its remaining administrative and service features, reorganised on a democratic basis, are merged with the organisations which the useful majority will have formed to take over and run production, to form the democratic administrative structure of the stateless society of common ownership that socialism will be.
This is perhaps a less romantic idea of the socialist revolution than yours but a thousand times more realistic. Which is why we think this is the way it will happen. When the time comes the socialist majority will use the ballot box since it will be the obvious thing to do, and nobody will be able to prevent them or persuade them not to. At that time it will be anti-electoralists like you who will be irrelevant. Presumably you’ll be there on the sidelines (except, that is, for those who will have split off and joined the socialist majority) chanting “Don’t Vote”. It is doubtful if anyone will be listening.
2. Our differences on this point lead to different conceptions as to what is “revolutionary action”. Since you favour head-on clashes with the forces of the state, it is such actions that you regard as “revolutionary”, irrespective of what the clashes are about.
This is the only basis on which you can make the preposterous claim that the campaign against the old Poll Tax was “revolutionary”. After all, this was a campaign to reform the tax structure of the capitalist state. It is true that it did contain elements of resisting some people’s standard of living being reduced, but that still didn’t make it revolutionary but merely a defensive action within the capitalist system (and a sectionalist one in that not all workers were worse off with the Poll Tax compared to the previous system of paying rates).
Our individual members made up their own minds as to whether or not to pay the Poll Tax (some did, some didn’t) and it is true that, as a party, we didn’t try to jump on the anti-Poll Tax bandwagon and hijack it for some supposedly “revolutionary” end by trying to provoke confrontations with the police. A reformist campaign does not cease to be a reformist campaign because its partisans, or some of them, resort to riots and grappling with the police. Violence no more equates with revolution than non-violence does with reformism. It is the end not the means that decides.
At the moment it is the peaceful activity of undermining people’s support for capitalist ideas that is the most revolutionary and subversive activity that opponents of capitalism can engage in because it is precisely people’s pro-capitalist ideas, not the repressive forces of the state, that maintain capitalism in being. Yet you consistently dismiss such revolutionary activity as mere propagandising.
3. Finally, to return to your idea of forming a “real neighbourhood watch” to deal with “anti-social elements” in place of the police, we don’t think you’ve thought this through either. People resort to drug-dealing, mugging and burglary, not because they are evil, but because to live in a capitalist society you need money and this is one option that is open for workers to acquire some.
Chasing the police off some housing estate or out of some neighbourhood won’t change this reality; it then becomes someone else’s problem. You then take on the responsibility for trying to suppress what is undoubtedly anti-social behaviour but which some people will always resort to as long as capitalism exists-and your “no go” areas will continue to exist within the framework of capitalism.
We don’t think that we are being unfair in putting you on the spot over this. How precisely are you going to deal with drug-pushers, muggers and burglars? No doubt you would begin by warning them off, but if that didn’t work what would you then do? OK, you could bring popular pressure to bear on them-boycott them, “send them to Coventry”-but, if that didn’t work you’d have to resort to physical force in the end, to chase them away (not that that would solve the problem; it would be a typical not-in-my-backyard reaction; they would merely move to some other area and continue their anti-social activities there).
We find it strange that people calling themselves anarchists should want to get involved in trying to maintain “order” under capitalism, to in effect try to do the state’s job for it. It won’t work anyway since crime, being endemic to capitalism, cannot be suppressed by the police, or by vigilantes or by your vague “real neighbourhood watch”. It will always exist under capitalism and to get involved in trying to suppress it is dangerous for revolutionaries as it is to take on responsibility for running capitalism, which, as we know from experience, always ends in tears. A self-policed neighbourhood under capitalism is no more revolutionary than a self-managed firm producing for the market-which is another mistaken idea from the same stable.-Editors.
Thank you for publishing your review of my book To End Poverty (Socialist Standard, November). It was very good and would give your readers a clear idea of what it was, and is, all about.
I was only a little disappointed that you did not mention the key factor-the disproof of the Theory of Division of Labour. This theory says that all members of a firm benefit with higher wages if the firm succeeds. I say that the lowest paid don’t benefit because the unemployed outside are prepared to work for less. Conventional economic wisdom used to say that theoretically there can be no unemployment because production creates its own demand (Say’s Law), so theoretically there are no unemployed outside to depress wages. Say’s Law has now been junked by Keynes, and everyone else, so the Theory of Division of Labour has been disproved; so industrialisation impoverishes.
RICHARD HUNT, Oxford
We don’t understand the point you are trying to make. The Theory of the Division of Labour says that more can be produced by people specialising in what they are best at than by everybody having to produce everything they need. It applies equally in an agricultural, and even a hunter-gatherer, context as in an industrial one. For instance, in a tribe of hunters, it is more efficient if some members concentrate on making arrows while others concentrate on actual hunting than if every hunter has to make his own arrows.
This is a technical point which has nothing to do with Say’s Law which is an erroneous (as Marx pointed out long before Keynes) theory about markets.
What your example shows is not that the industrial division of labour as such causes poverty but that it only does so where the means of industrial production are owned by one class for whom the rest have to work for wages. If the means of production were owned in common and used to produce what people require, as socialists advocate, there would be no need for anybody to go without adequate food, clothing, shelter and the other amenities of life. We don’t need to abolish industry to get rid of poverty, only the ownership of industry by a minority, privileged class.-Editors.
(To John Williams, Kimberly Ellis, John Loomes and Ian Synclere: we will be replying to your letters in coming issues.)