2000s >> 2003 >> no-1191-november-2003


Dear Editors,
I have been reading the Socialist Standard for several years and was surprised to find the following statement in the October 2003 issue of your journal: “He [Anton Pannekoek] was optimistic that progress would lead to a great working class movement and political action to create a classless society in which all means of production and resources will be held in common by all people and used solely for needs.”

Despite the fact that Pannekoek was a council communist, there is no mention of any criticisms of his ideas. You will be aware of his statement that: “The so-called political democracy under capitalism was a mock democracy . . . Council organisation is a real democracy, the democracy of labor, making the working people master of their work” (Workers Councils, Part I, Chapter 7).

Anton Pannekoek rejected the use of political parties, and argued that the working class should organise into workers councils for the purpose of capturing power. This is in direct contradiction to the position of Karl Marx and the Socialist Party of Great Britain that the dispossession of the capitalist class can “arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class – or proletariat – organized in a distinct political party” (Marx, Programme of the French Workers Party, 1879).

Dr Pannekoek argued that the parliamentary action favoured by the SPGB was erroneous, and that through the formation of workers councils and a general political strike, Socialism could be obtained. Through the absence of any criticism of this viewpoint, I can gather that the Socialist Party does not oppose such a viewpoint.

That the SPGB is opposed to council-communism is shown in the following. In Questions of the Day, the SPGB showed “how secure is the grip Parliament has upon the armed forces” and how it is “necessary . . . for the workers to obtain control of Parliament before attempting to uproot the existing foundations of society . . . the only way to obtain control is through the legal one of sending delegates to Parliament”. This pamphlet argued against the views held by left-communists and council-communists that “the workers can set up their own machinery of government in opposition to the capitalist state . . . because in practices the capitalist class, controlling the armed forces through the parliamentary majority, will see to it that no hostile armed force comes into being to challenge their supremacy” (Questions Of The Day, SPGB, 1942 edition, pp76-8). The view of the SPGB is that if the working class were to set up councils and were to challenge the rule of the employers through these councils, our masters would have no hesitation in sending their armed forces to destroy such a movement.

It is not enough to agree upon the Object, but it is necessary to agree with the method of obtaining this Object. Thus we cannot hold a sympathetic view towards those whom adhere to the Socialist objective, but argue that this object cannot be obtained through political action in Parliament. If this is untrue, then the question is posed as to why Socialists do not unite with left-communists and council-communists.

Whilst I am quite sure you will agree to some extent as to what I have written, I still find it indispensable that we do not view certain opponents of the SPGB favourably, because of their opposition to Leninism in the case of Pannekoek.

Reply: Your letter suffers from two glaring logical fallacies. First, because someone endorses something someone else says does not mean that they therefore endorse everything they say. Second, because someone doesn’t mention any disagreement they have with someone’s views does not mean that therefore agree with those views. Nor does it follow that to recognise that there are people outside the SPGB who agree with socialism mean that we should therefore unite with them.

So, no, you can’t gather from the fact that we did not mention (in an introduction to a pamphlet on Darwinism) that we disagree with the author’s advocacy of workers councils as the way to socialism that we therefore advocate this ourselves.

It so happens that an article by Pannekoek published in the same year as the SPGB pamphlet you quote gave us a chance to underline that, although we advocate sending delegates to parliaments as the way for the working class to gain control of political power, we are not a “parliamentary” party in the conventional sense.

As an article that appeared in the May 1942 Socialist Standard summarised Pannekoek’s position at that time (when he wrote the pamphlet on Darwin he held a different view, being a member of the German Social Democratic Party; later he was a member of the Dutch Communist Party until he realised that what was being established in Russia was state capitalism not socialism):

“Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch writer on Marxism, states his position in the bluntest of terms. Writing in an American magazine, Modern Socialism, he says: ‘The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working-class . . . Because a party is an organisation that aims to lead and control the workers’. Further on, however, he qualifies this statement: ‘If . . . persons with the same fundamental conceptions (regarding Socialism) unite for the discussion of practical steps and seek clarification through discussion and propagandise their conclusions, such groups might be called parties, but they would be parties in an entirely different sense from those of to-day’. Here Pannekoek himself is not the model of clarity, but he points to a distinction which does exist.”

The article went on to say that it was not parties as such that had failed, but the form all parties (save the SPGB) had taken “as groups of persons seeking power above the worker” and continued:

“Only Socialism can guarantee the conditions of a life worth living for all. Because its establishment depends upon an understanding of the necessary social changes by a majority of the population, these changes cannot be left to parties acting apart from or above the workers. The workers cannot vote for Socialism as they do for reformist parties and then go home or go to work and carry on as usual. To put the matter in this way is to show its absurdity . . . The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its fellow parties therefore reject all comparison with other political parties. We do not ask for power; we help to educate the working-class itself into taking it”.

An article on “left communists”, including Pannekoek, is being prepared for the January 2004 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the death of Lenin.—Editors.

Dear Editors,
The anti-war stance of the Socialist Party is well-known, also its long-term view of how to remove the causes of war, but what would be its short-term strategy in a situation of international aggression? To put it, bluntly, what should socialists do if their country is invaded.

The vast majority of people in the world think that faced with the threat of invasion there are only two alternatives, to resist by military means or simply give in. There is, however, a third alternative, non-violent resistance, but while billions of pounds are spent annually on military methods, not even one penny is spent on research into the theory and practice of this third way.

Non-violent resistance could not prevent an invasion. It would operate from the beginning of the occupation and would include the following tactics: complete non-collaboration, the setting-up of parallel government (this would have been planned before the invasion, making use of the network of existing local structures such as trade unions, sports clubs, professional and cultural associations, etc), underground newspapers, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and civil disobedience. All this would be accompanied by constant appeals to individual members of the occupying forces to question why they are there and why it would not be better for all concerned if they went home.

Those of us who were affected by the period of conscription had to think hard about tough questions. What do you “youngsters” think?
BRYAN FAIR, Dorchester, Dorset.

Reply: We are not quite sure why you think we’re all youngsters as some of our members are old enough to have known the period of conscription, which didn’t end till 1960. They, too, had to face the same tough questions as you. Those who were Socialist Party members opted not to be trained as killers for British capitalism and so were conscientious objectors (those who, for personal reasons, were unable to take this option resigned from the party). Having said this, members of the armed forces, being overwhelmingly recruited from the wage and salary working class, are also open to socialist ideas, and in fact a few of our younger members are former (volunteer) members of the armed forces.

While we are not absolute pacifists (we would be prepared to countenance counter-violence as a last resort to deal with any pro-capitalist minority that might have recourse to violence to try to prevent the implementation of the democratically-expressed will of a majority for socialism), some of the non-violent tactics you mention might be useful in the other hypothetical event of the last capitalist government trying to abolish political democracy when faced with a growing or majority movement for socialism. But we do have a serious problem with your particular proposal for “non-violent resistance”: it is put forward as an alternative to military action to deal with an invasion of “the country”. But “the country” is just another name for the established ruling class there; the workers have no country and it is not up to socialists to advise the ruling class how to defend itself in the face of an attempt by the ruling class of some other “country” to dislodge or replace them.—Editors.

Dear Editors,
In dealing with the ongoing spat between the government and the BBC, Pik Smeet (Socialist Standard, September) is of course, absolutely correct in stating that the elite control the media through structural predispositions than an automatic chain of command.

Nevertheless, government does directly invoke its powers of veto over BBC programmes when it thinks fit: for instance its suppression of programme material on Northern Ireland in the shape of the omission of the speech track on TV coverage of legally elected members of a legitimate party – Sinn Fein – in 1988.

These powers of government control over programme content, originally spelled out in the 1927 BBC Charter, appear also in the latest Charter renewal of 1996. and as before, BBC is not even required to publicise the fact when government so instructs it.

In any case, it would be difficult to envisage an institution, set up and operating under government licence, and being government funded, which could escape some level of complicity, however subliminal, with government, however vacillating and unclear the government line may be. For as Lord Annan pointed out in that section of his 1974 Committee on Broadcasting Report, headed “External Pressures”, which dealt with the compromising dependence of journalists on political sources for information, “the constitutional authority of radio and TV to function at all stems from an organ that political parties control”.

What seems to be overlooked is the glaringly obvious doublethink involved in appeals to government to preserve BBC independence. If government action can affect its alleged independence, then BBC is clearly not independent.
W. ROBERTSON, Brighton

Dear Editors,
In the Socialist Standard of September last year John Bissett kindly reviewed my free booklet Question Everything in which I speak of the benefits that would accrue from living in a world without money. He pointed out that it required more emphasis on how the free and class conscious decisions of the majority would be attained. He was right, for the narrow pragmatisms, the wastes, inefficiencies and limitations of a capitalism that defeats itself by making people too poor to buy its goods, seems to have become entrenched, making it impossible that we could ever get back to those heady days after the second world war when socialism gave us hope for a better world. Even the higher standards of living that it brought, only increased the number of those who became better off and in turn became seduced by the temptations of the system. Socialism, like capitalism, tends to become a self-defeating process.

The money system that is the source of power and the root cause of all our problems, has ceased to have a purpose or any excuse for being retained now that science and technology enable us to produce anything – and in any quantity – that we want. There is enough food in the world already to feed the entire population, yet millions die of starvation, and manufacturers do not complain that they cannot increase production, only that people do not buy – mainly because they cannot afford to. It is the money system based upon the concept of scarcity that limits growth, because money has to be limited in order to maintain its value – which is why politicians fear inflation!

We spend our lives deciding what to spend, what to deny ourselves, what to save or borrow. Money dominates every facet of our existence, so that it is little wonder that, however poor we are, we imagine that a moneyless system would deprive us of the little we have.

My problem has been that 1 have been unable to think of any argument against a moneyless society other than that, since only a minority of us actually produce or distribute anything useful, everybody else being employed in manipulating money in one way or another, in sales promotion, in estimating cost and profit, in taxation and investment – and in making and selling arms! – that there would be so much freedom that for those accustomed to having to work to live, once they had tired of perpetual holidays and entertainment they would not know what to do with themselves. Since no healthy person could be idle for long, they would become desperate to make and do things, indeed anything, that would keep their minds and bodies active.

There would be nothing to be gained by theft or dishonesty, no advantage in pushing drugs, no more worries about which firm was reliable or about insuring against loss, so that there would be little need for police or lawyers. There would be little to quarrel or fight over, no advantage in limiting the effect of new ideas by taking out patents. Science and technology would be free to pursue imaginative ideas without having to concern themselves with their commercial significance. With few office workers commuting and public transport free and plentiful, there would be no traffic congestion.

In fact there would be plenty for idle hands and brains to do, in converting all the millions of redundant offices into homes, in bringing the third world up to civilised standards, in conjuring up and carrying out imaginative projects to enhance our lives, and in seeking activities, such as learning, research or woodwork, that they found satisfying.

Above all, no longer would we be treated as units, disposable in our millions in wars to satisfy the egos or ambitions of a few leaders.

But it would require that we learn to adapt, to free ourselves from the pragmatisms, complexities and temptations, the economic and political straightjackets of economic and party political systems, to limit ourselves to simple principles of justice, to policies that are irrefutable and incontrovertible; that we reject opinion, controversy and argument that was not supported by fact or reason, seeing ourselves as both learners and teachers instead of competitors, and recognising the overriding importance of the individual.

Because we all are conditioned by our genes and environments, to criticise or blame others for conforming to the world in which they have been conditioned and so take for granted, or to try to deprive them of that which in consequence they assume to be theirs by right, can only invite indignation, hatred, violence and cruelty – and make them cling ever closer to their possessions and beliefs.

Societies have changed little in 3000 years, but if we allow the limitations and confrontations of money and party politics, the ambitions of our leaders and governments, to play upon our defensive cowardice so that they can develop ever more sophisticated nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, we will surely extinguish ourselves.

We are not free just because we live in a so-called democracy that allows us one vote among 40 million or so every five years, enabling dictatorial leaders and governments to do virtually what they like. If we are to be free and to maximise our influence as individuals in those affairs that affect us without infringing the freedom of others, we need a system in which we can get together with our neighbours to decide what we want in our localities, a system in which those neighbourhood units in turn can commune with each other and so on in an ascending tier of decision-making that eventually develops global consensus.

A free and egalitarian society can evolve only by using reason and logic, by thinking independently of the terms and narrow pragmatisms to which we have been conditioned, and by recognising that people can be changed only if we can convince them that our criticisms are directed at the system, not the person.

To rescue humanity from its primitive pragmatisms, its intellectual stagnation its inherited greed, selfishness and aggression, seems impossible in a society in which even the most obvious and modest proposals for reform become derided, but to sit back and do nothing is to invite species extinction.

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