Editorial: Which way forward?
Thanks in large measure to proportional representation, the Scottish Parliament now has 6 (out of 129) MSPs from a left-of-Labour party, Tommy Sheridan’s “Scottish Socialist Party”. The SSP is a direct descendant of Militant and so has a Trotskyist past, and in fact includes the members in Scotland of Militant, the SWP and other such groups.
Many in England who don’t like the profit system look to the SSP as a model, hoping that the “Socialist Alliance” will be able to repeat its success south of the border. However, without proportional representation, they are not making much headway, trailing far behind the BNP as a party of populist protest (the BNP would be a major beneficiary of PR in England, just as the National Front was in France).
So, in England, a rival idea is being canvassed: that of refounding the – or a – Labour Party, as a group of trade-union sponsored MPs pressing for reforms of capitalism in the interest of trade unionists and workers generally.
Yet others, believe it or not, entertain the illusion that, after Blair goes, it will be possible to recapture the Labour Party and turn it back into a party committed to redistributing power and wealth to working people that they believe it once was.
What all three options share is a reformist approach: that what is important is to get people elected to parliament and local councils to pass measures aimed at improving the lot of wage and salary workers within the profit system.
There’s nothing wrong with contesting elections, but if Socialists are going to do this it should be done on a sound basis: getting elected on a straight socialist programme of common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit, with a view to using parliament or the council chamber as a platform from which to spread socialist ideas (while still a minority) and to usher in socialism (when a majority, acting on instructions from a mass democratically-organised and socialist-minded movement outside).
But what is being proposed is quite different: getting elected with non-socialist votes on a programme of attractive-sounding reforms to capitalism. It was on this basis (tinged with a divisive Scottish nationalism: they appear to believe in “socialism in one province”) that the SSP’s MSPs were elected, promising a local income tax, free school meals, a £7.32-an-hour minimum wage, a 35-hour working week, which are reforms of capitalism not socialism. (In fact, neither the SSP, nor the Socialist Alliance, nor the Old Labourites have any clear idea of what socialism means; they hardly ever mention the word and, when they do, it turns out they mean state capitalism – nationalisation, or the wages system under state management.)
It is not as if the workers’ movement hasn’t been here before. This was what the Labour Party in Britain set out to do. On the Continent it was the policy of parties which, on the face of it, were far more radical than Labour in that they claimed to be Marxist and based on the class struggle. In practice, however, they were just as reformist as the Labour Party, and failed just as miserably.
The danger is that the same mistake is going to be made again. While some trade union leaders and activists want to re-found a Labour Party, others such as the SWP see the “Socialist Alliance” as a revival of the left and centre of pre-WWI continental “Marxist” Social Democracy – as an embryonic leftwing party calling itself Marxist but pursuing reforms to capitalism.
This might just be a tactic – another ploy by a vanguard to attract a following. But it’s a bad tactic that can only encourage illusions about what can be achieved under capitalism. It glosses over the fact that capitalism is not a system that can be humanised or reformed or transformed into something better. It is a profit system subject to economic laws which can only work in one way: as a system of profit-making and accumulation of capital in the interest of a tiny minority of profit-takers.
The failure in the course of the 20th century of every single Labour or Social Democratic government, in all of the countries of Europe, to make any progress towards socialism has demonstrated the soundness of the position taken up by the “impossibilists” at the turn of that century: that it is impossible to reform capitalism so as to make it work in the interest of working people. And that, therefore, it is futile and time-wasting and a diversion to try.
What those who want a better society should be doing – should have done – is to campaign to change people’s minds, to get them to realise that they are living in an exploitative, class-divided society and that the only way out is to end capitalism and replace it by a new and different system based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, with production to satisfy people’s needs, and distribution on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
Once a majority have come to this realisation, they will know what to do: organise themselves into a socialist party to democratically win political control and use it to bring about a socialist society. That’s what socialist politics should be about.