2000s >> 2004 >> no-1198-june-2004

Some internal debates

The Socialist Party has always had a lively internal intellectual life, though ‘internal’ is not quite the right word since, although the debates have been confined to Party members, they have taken place in public. All our meetings, including even those of our executive committee are open to the public; so that anybody is entitled to listen in to these debates and to have access to the written record of them. We reproduce here three debates as recorded in the reports of the proceedings of annual conference: one from 1946 on the transition period; one from 1969 on the nature of the Russian ruling class; and one from 1990 on  socialists and political democracy. We could have chosen other interesting debates – on trade unions, on violence, on reforms – but the three we have chosen will have to suffice to illustrate democracy in action within the Socialist Party.

The Party’s attitude to the transition period (1946)

A Manchester delegate said that the views expressed by party members on this matter ought to be conditional, and that it was wrong to hold hard and fast views. Some thought that capitalism would go on under normal conditions with an ever-increasing number of workers supporting socialism and then taking over. It was quite possible that when the workers did take over things would not be easy and comfortable. No definite answer could be given to those who wanted to know precisely what was going to take place, because the conditions that would exist at the time could not be known now.
A member of the Editorial Committee said that there could be no useful discussion unless the delegates took account of the position the Party has always taken, what Manchester disagreed with in this, and what suggestions they could make. An article in the January Socialist Standard on the subject  had not put the view that there would be an abrupt transition without giving an explanation. The change would be abrupt in the sense that one day the workers would be without control of the machinery of government for socialism and the next day with it. The general view outside the party was that the transition period was something prior to the establishment of socialism. This was the Labour Party attitude, and they held that the transition period was actually taking place now. It was difficult to satisfy outside workers on the question of what would be done after the capture of governmental power, but party speakers did not usually have any difficulty over the subject. As a number of members were  probably not familiar with past party discussion and statements in the Socialist Standard on the subject, it might be as well for Manchester branch to discuss the Socialist Standard article referred to and circulate a memorandum to branches if they disagreed with it.

A SW London delegate said that there would be no transitional period, but economic changes resulting from the emancipation of the working class. A non-delegate said that the phrase ‘transitional period’ should not be used, the period would be one of reconstruction on a socialist basis. Leeds delegate raised the question of the possibility of workers in one country gaining power with workers in other  countries lagging behind. A West Ham delegate said that socialists elected in a majority to Parliament could not continue the wages system. When there was a majority of socialists in one country there would be large minorities in the others.
Glasgow claimed that development all over the world was more or less similar and example in one country would act as a spur abroad. An Ealing delegate stated that it was now necessary to conceive of socialism taking place at a time of world depression and shortage, and that it was no longer possible to tell enquirers that there was always plenty and that there was no need for anyone to go without what they needed.
A Glasgow delegate said that even if socialism was established immediately after a war, the agricultural resources would be largely untapped and production and distribution would be the least of our troubles.
A non-delegate from Manchester thought that the party attitude on the question was not clearly stated. The January Socialist Standard said that we agreed with Marx and Engels on the subject. If so we must also agree with the transitional period described in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. There could be no basis for the claim that there would be no dictatorship of the proletariat. The problems of the workers were not the same all over the world. There was an unequal economic development and the next economic crisis would leave one set of workers less well off than the others. The political level of the American working class was lower than that of the British. Our propagandists were not

Lawler (Manchester) Conference 1994

dealing adequately with the question on the platform.
A Bloomsbury delegate claimed that after the capture of power there would be a number of problems to solve. There might be a period of greed and it might be necessary for the State to issue orders for a time.
SW London delegate said that the word ‘transition’ had been confused with ‘transformation’. The State would not exist to coerce. Exploitation was common to every capitalist country and in the course of time this would produce a similar reaction. A non-delegate said that the whole question was not one of party policy as had been urged, although it was a matter of interesting speculation and discussion. Party policy was aimed at capturing the machinery of government for socialism, and once this had taken place the task of the Socialist Party was finished. The job of reconstructing society on its new basis would then devolve on the workers. The discussion on the uneven development of capitalism failed to take into account the international character of the socialist movement. We already had the beginnings of this and in the future the working class would act internationally although restricted by capitalist national barriers. The varying levels of understanding of the workers of different countries was considerably exaggerated.
A Marylebone delegate asked for more debates of this kind. These problems were not as easy as they seemed. Our object was as much economic as political. We did not exist just for the purpose of capturing
political power, but we were a political party because class struggles were political. It had been said that no principle was involved, but party speakers were sayingthat there would be no transitional period and claiming it to be the party position.
A member of the Editorial Committee said that while Manchester had emphasised that the transition period was after the workers had taken power, other contributors had dwelt largely on the difficulties of getting political power. It was obvious that the statements made in the Socialist Standard over a number of years were not known to all contributors. Our view was that it was a waste of time to worry about what was going to happen after power had been obtained. When dealing with the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as put forward by Marx we referred to Engels’ preface to The Civil War in France. A West Ham delegate pointed out that the capitalist class was becoming more and more international in character.
A non-delegate suggested that the unequal rate of national capitalist development was offset by the equalrate at which socialist ideas gained acceptance. When other parties referred to ‘transition’ they meant merely a change in capitalism itself and not the change from capitalism to socialism.
A Camberwell delegate said that if there was a depression when socialism was established there would have to be readjustments to deal with it. A second member of the Editorial Committee
said that it had never been suggested that the change from capitalism to socialism would be a smooth one, but that intelligent workers would know how to deal with the problems of distribution, etc. Even to-day the working class did all the necessary work of society.
A Manchester delegate in winding-up said that it appeared that the party position was that there was no ‘transition period’. Some members took an oversimplified view of every problem and this made our propaganda seem unconvincing. He could not agree that there would be a change over-night in society. The development of capitalism would lead to greater crises.

The nature of the Russian ruling class (1969)
Resolution: “This Conference recognises that the ruling class in state capitalist Russia stands in the same relationship to the means of production as does the ruling class in any other capitalist country (viz. it has a monopoly of those means of production and extracts surplus value from the working class) and is therefore a capitalist class.”
Comrade Crump (Manchester) said the issue here was not whether or not Russia was state capitalist – all members agreed on that – but is the ruling class in Russia a capitalist class. His Branch felt that the way the Party tended to speak about the Russian ruling class reflected a weakness in our theory of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘social class’: it seemed that we were not prepared to face up to calling the ruling class in Russia capitalist. Those who were against this had argued that ‘capitalist’ has come to have a more or less definite meaning in socialist discussion over the years – those who were direct employers or investors in shares or government bonds. But this was not necessarily so. The capitalist class were those who monopolised the means of production and accumulated capital. It was irrelevant that the Russian rulers may have led Spartan lives. They were a capitalist class, even though they were not direct employers, because they monopolised the means of production and accumulated capital.
Comrade Hardy urged the Conference to go slow on the Manchester resolution that seemed to say that in Russia the top political and managerial people were the capitalist class because they were the rulers. Marx held that a capitalist was a person who owned enough money and commodities to have a business employing hired labour. There were various types of capitalist – the small working capitalist, the larger one carrying out purely capitalist functions, shareholders in joint stock companies, state bondholders, directors. All these made up the capitalist class. Manchester’s view was at variance  with that put forward by Engels in Socialism Utopian and Scientific on the evolution of state capitalism.  Engels held that when the state took over industry the capitalists would be forced out of control in favour of salaried employees. He took this to be the end of capitalism, but he was wrong on this.
Private enterprise and investment in Russia were not unimportant and Russian factory managers were themselves involved in it. Millar estimated in 1963 that about a quarter of all industrial (i. e.,  non-agricultural) investment in Russia went through private or nonofficial channels.Manchester Branch had suggested that bondholding in Russia was disappearing. It was true that the old forced loans had gone but they had been replaced by savings bonds. The Russian government had been very successful in building up private savings in this way and paid 3 per cent tax free. Engels had argued that the capitalist class being thrown out of both joint stock companies and state enterprises in favour of salaried employees meant the capitalists never were entirely replaced and have come back in increasing numbers. One reason for this has been the effect of inflation of workers’ incomes. In order to combat this they have enrolled some as directors for the big salaries, pension funds, golden handshakes etc, and other perks. It was not true that in Britain the typical director was a salaried  employee: he was a wealthy capitalist. What was the ambition of salaried people in Britain and Russia? To become wealthy capitalists in their own right. They had not only the ambition but also the opportunities. This applied to politicians and even trade union leaders as well. It is certain that in Russia, in addition to the one quarter of private capitalism, managers and Party officials were using the set-up to make money on the side. Russia was going through great changes. The question was in what direction? He would suggest tentatively towards the mixed state/private set-up – as in Britain.

Comrade Zucconi said that, as Djilas had pointed out in his The New Class, the Russian ruling class had a different background to that in America or Britain. In 1917 most of the capitalists left Russia so that the Bolsheviks had to develop state capitalism, raising some of the capital through state bonds. It was not correct to say that only those who owned industry or employed labour were capitalists. The bureaucrats in Russia were privileged in that they could use their control of capital to channel surplus value in their own interests. In this there was no difference between them and Paul Getty. In Russia there was a class enjoying the fruits of the labour of the Russian workers. A capitalist was a capitalist whether he got his surplus value from direct ownership or political control.
Comrade Knight said the top managerial strata were a significant part of the capitalist class in Russia.
They had a vested interest in exploiting the workers and accumulating capital, not for themselves but also for the state.
Comrade D’Arcy said the resolution was premature. The Party had always avoided saying there was a capitalist class in Russia. We asked not who got the surplus value but where did it come from. It was confusing to say that the bureaucracy were the ruling class because of their nepotism and money- making sidelines. They may be becoming capitalists, but it was wrong to speak as if this had already happened. In Russia the monopoly of the social capital was exercised not by private individuals but by the state. Private enterprise was still illegal in Russia and so could not be carried on properly. The capitalist class had not yet emerged. All we could speak of was an embryonic capitalist class which at some later stage would plunder the state industries. Bureaucracy would break down into private wealthy

Comrade Baldwin: Engels had pointed out in his Origin of the Family that the state was not only an instrument of class oppression but also that with the development of industry it tended to become the ideal personification of the capitalist class. In Russia in the absence of private capitalists the state had taken over their function. This was why we spoke of state capitalism there.
Comrade Buick said there were private capitalists in Russia but were they the ruling class? They were not and we might need a new name to describe those who exploited the workers through political control. The Party had already accepted that a class could own collectively and a chapter in our pamphlet Russia 1917- 1967 explains how this was so in Russia. In Russia the individuals who made up this class got an income not as direct employers or as bondholders but from the bloated salaries, perks, bonuses, etc that went with their jobs.
Comrade Cook: This was the old argument of where you draw the line between ownership and control. The bureaucrats were using their control to become owners. When control was legalised it then became ownership. The question was would what was now illegal in Russia become legalised so that the bureaucrats turned their control into ownership. The situation was fluid.
Comrade Young quoted Tony Cliff about Trotsky’s mistake in equating state ownership with socialism which prevented him realising the state capitalist nature of Russia. The ‘official persons’ in Russia were a capitalist class eating up surplus value.
Comrade Lawrence said it was not a question of the size of a person’s income or of whether capital was in private or state form. We should look at the historical background of the capitalist class in Russia. Clearly those who monopolised the means of production and accumulated capital were the Russian capitalist class. It had been argued that development in Russia would make capitalism there more like that in Britain. But there was no reason why it should. Capitalism in Russia had a different historical background. The state had always dominated and control had always been centralised there. Whereas in Britain the rising bourgeoisie had broken the power of the autocratic state. This had never happened in Russia. Thus we would expect the state to play a dominant role in the development of capitalism there.
The resolution was carried 30-3, with 10 abstentions.

Political democracy (1990)

Resolution: “This Conference re-affirms the stand taken in the September [actually October] 1939 Socialist Standard and repeated in the September 1989 Socialist Standard that the Socialist Party of Great Britain wholeheartedly supports the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights against the powers of suppression. Whilst we avoid any association with parties or political groups seeking to adminster capitalism we emphasise that freedom of movement and expression, the freedom to organise in trade unions, to organise politically and to participate in elections, are of great importance to all workers and are vital to the success of the socialist movement.”

P. Lawrence (SW London), opening, said that democracy does affect us both as workers and as socialists. The existence of political democracy was important because (i) it allowed workers to pursue their material interests within capitalism, as through trade unions; (ii) with the absence of political tyranny people were free from arbitrary arrest; and (iii) it was absolutely crucial for the establishment of socialism. Our attitude towards actions to establish democracy was the same as our attitude towards trade union action: support when it was on sound lines, i. e. not involving nationalism, racism or support for other political parties. This had always been the Party position and should now be formalised.
J. Krause (Camden): his branch wholeheartedly opposed the resolution. The 1939 Manifesto which was referred to was not about workers securing democratic rights but about the futility of war as a way of defending them. The resolution gave the impression that we had a two-stage theory: that workers in countries without democracy should struggle first for democracy and then for socialism, instead of struggling directly for socialism. The Socialist Standard talked of workers winning a victory on the streets of Rumania, but democracy there was vital to the success of capitalism not socialism. Though some form of democratic action was needed to get socialism, the existence of political democracy was not: workers had organised to establish trade unions without democracy first existing, so they could do the same for socialism.
T. D’Arcy (NW London): his branch was also opposed. SW London had distorted the October (not September) 1939 Socialist Standard. Our position was that we opposed all other parties, not just that we should “avoid any association” with them as the resolution put it. What was happening in East Europe was detrimental to the interests of the workers as it was leading to the consolidation of capitalism. We were in favour of democracy but only as a way to socialism, not for its own sake.
C. Slapper (Islington): the position taken by the NW London delegate was disgraceful and unbelievable: was he saying that what existed in East Europe was better than what now exists there? We wanted democracy because we wanted workers to enjoy its benefits and we were in favour of pluralism, i. e. competing political ideas and parties. It was sad and pitiful to see that some members were not inspired by the events of the last few months. Dictatorships had fallen, the Berlin Wall had come down, political prisoners had been released, and workers were rightly celebrating this.
C. Pinel (Manchester): we were here discussing freely at our Conference because workers in Britain had democratic rights. We needed these to propagate socialist ideas, and so should support the struggle of workers who didn’t have them to get them.

J. D’Arcy (Camden): The resolution made us have two policies, one for workers in Britain, who we told to struggle for socialism, and one for workers abroad, to whom we said “go and get democracy”. As a  change in a country’s constitution democracy was a reform and socialists should not get involved in  reform struggles even if other workers did. It wasn’t true that you couldn’t carry out socialist propaganda unless certain formal democratic rights existed. Nothing had happened in East Europe. We had always told workers not to confront the forces of the state on the streets and didn’t support struggles for constitutional reform.
J. Bradley (Enfield and Haringey): even if individuals could carry out isolated acts of socialist propaganda in a dictatorship, a socialist party could not exist in such conditions as a socialist party could only function as an open democratic organisation. In so far as a socialist party was a necessary instrument for establishing socialism, so too was the existence of democracy.
V. Vanni (Glasgow): this debate had confirmed that some members actually believed that “anything that happens that isn’t socialism wasn’t worth happening”. The idea that you could carry on socialist propaganda in an authoritarian dictatorship just as easily as you could in a political democracy was absurd. Comrade D’Arcy had said that the workers in East Europe were stupid to have gone out onto the streets but this was ridiculous since, if you hadn’t got democracy, what else could you do to get it?
D. Gluck (non-delegate): he had recently asked for help from comrades to go from Hamburg where he lived to Leipzig in East Germany to carry out some socialist propaganda, but this wouldn’t have been possible before, so obviously the coming of democracy to East Europe was an advantage. OK, it wasn’t socialism but it wasn’t really realistic to say you could go straight from dictatorship to socialism; you had to have democracy first.
F. Simkins (SW London), winding up, said it was inconceivable that socialists should not make a value judgement about democracy. Democracy was better than dictatorship. We couldn’t be indifferent to this issue just as we couldn’t be indifferent to the release of political prisoners when dictatorships were
overthrown. It was ridiculous to suggest that democracy was something that came automatically under capitalism without any struggle. The establishment of democracy involved workers struggling and we should welcome such measures brought about by workers’ struggles.

The resolution was carried 102-35

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