More Words

Since it first published its Manifesto in 1905, the Socialist Party has produced dozens of pamphlets, as these give the chance to expound on questions at greater length than an article in the Socialist Standard. Pamphlets have ranged from discussions of contemporary issues to more substantial considerations of matters of theory and practice. Here we will look, in chronological order, at five which are of particular significance, dealing with religion, nationalisation and other reforms, Bolshevism and the nature of socialist society, briefly placing each of these in their political context.
    In 1910, when Socialism and Religion was published, socialist ideas were mainly spread by outdoor meetings, the same places where religious speakers were peddling their nonsense. Hence the need for an extended statement of the materialist case against religion. It was also a time when some supposedly Marxist parties were declaring religion a private matter, on which their members could take different views. In contrast, this pamphlet stated unequivocally that socialism and religion were incompatible, first by explaining how religious ideas arose. The idea of gods developed as people worshipped a dead chief and turned his grave into a temple. Christianity grew gradually out of various other faiths: it is neatly described as “a cemetery of dead religions”. Whereas science, by developing its understanding of the world, becomes more complete and systematic, religion consistently retreats in its claims as it is confronted with the real world. So many tenets once viewed as central to Christianity have come to be viewed by adherents as merely allegorical. Further, religion serves the interest of the ruling class by helping to make workers meek and submissive; by offering them salvation in the next world, it renders them more prepared to accept suffering in this. On the other hand, the religious question is secondary to the wider battle for working-class emancipation, and abolishing religion would not abolish exploitation.
    The 1943 pamphlet Family Allowances: A Socialist Analysis was remarkable in its demonstration that an aspect of the much-vaunted welfare state would not be “an entirely unmixed blessing for the working population”. The Beveridge Report had recommended the payment of family allowances and the government had accepted this proposal. It was widely felt that this would bolster living standards and put an end to the worst aspects of poverty, but the Party was able to show that this would not happen. This was partly on the basis that wages are the price of labour power, and, together with whatever state handouts are available, provide workers with just enough to keep their heads above water. But remarkably, a large part of the evidence for this position was taken from the words of the reformers themselves. Independent MP Eleanor Rathbone had long been a campaigner for family allowances, and the pamphlet quotes her as saying that they would involve “simply redistributing the available resources for the remuneration of the workers and so effecting a reasonable revolution”. The aim, then, was to keep the workers quiet without costing the capitalists much at all. Sixty percent of men had no dependent children, and the employers were in effect paying them for the upkeep of children they did not have, rather than just paying for the worker and their partner if any. Rathbone’s solution was to fund family allowances by reducing wages in general – a very different picture from the philanthropic one usually depicted.
    Among other policies for which many had high hopes in the immediate post-war period was nationalisation: the 1945 pamphlet Nationalisation or Socialism? argued that this idea had no connection with socialism and would do little to change the way society was run. Much space was devoted to explaining why industries were nationalised and how this suited the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. It was undertaken, for instance, when an industry that was necessary for capitalism was insufficiently profitable for its private owners, or when some group of capitalists had a monopoly and could charge exorbitant prices to their capitalist customers. Winston Churchill, for one, is quoted as follows: “There is a broadening field for State ownership and enterprise, especially in relation to monopolies of all kinds.” While some earlier supporters of nationalisation had advocated simple confiscation of capitalist property by the state, the general view in the 1940s was that compensation would be paid. It was even assumed that capitalists would be given government bonds or stock and so would continue to receive a healthy rate of interest. The capitalist would thus be deprived of control of industry, whereas the Socialist Party had always emphasised the importance of ownership (as in the first clause of our Declaration of Principles). The community would not control the means of production until they were owned in common.
    Russia Since 1917 (published in 1948) was unusual in consisting solely of reprints from the Socialist Standard rather than original material. As the preface noted, some points of detail would have been phrased differently with the benefit of hindsight, but on the whole the articles demonstrated the soundness of the Party position on Russia and Bolshevism. The earliest post-Revolution articles are remarkably cautious, noting the lack of available information (partly owing to the censorship operating under the Defence of the Realm Act). Due credit is paid to the Bolsheviks, for stopping the slaughter on the Russian front and conducting negotiations in public. Allegations of massacres by the Bolsheviks were dismissed as a tissue of lies. On the other hand, there was no mincing of words when it came to criticising them. A lengthy article from August 1918 made it clear that the Russian people were not convinced of the necessity of Socialism, though it also stated that “members of the working class took control of affairs in Russia” (note: not the working class as a whole). The analysis of Russia as state capitalist was first broached in July 1920, citing Lenin’s support for state capitalism. Later articles endorsed the analysis of Russia as capitalist, and a remarkable review of The Soviet Union Year-Book (from September 1930) emphasised the staggering profits made, e.g. an average of 96 percent profit on capital invested in 1927-8. The existence of Soviet millionaires was noted, and party officials were seen as part of a privileged section of the population, though not explicitly described as a capitalist class.
    The publication of Socialism as a Practical Alternative in 1987 reflected a feeling within the Party that more needed to be done to fill in some of the details of how a Socialist society could function, though naturally what was said was seen as a set of proposals only, and not in any way laying down the law for the future. One significant point made was the importance of decision-making in local communities. Co-operation at higher levels would also be needed, perhaps with some existing organisations being adapted to the new Socialist world. The expertise of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, for instance, could be taken over to co-ordinate world food production. But it was envisaged that, after a while, global and regional levels of organisation might give way to more local administration, though the very idea of “local” becomes harder to define in a global village. A particularly intriguing idea that is broached is that of “conservation production”, which would involve the conservation of raw materials, with most being recycled and re-used. Parts of goods that were not subject to wear and tear could be made from durable materials, and only a small fraction of the materials used would be permanently lost. A useful comparison is made with gold: because it is a “precious” metal, it is hardly ever discarded, so gold mined by the early Egyptians is still in use. While this is an unusual case in commodity-based society, it could certainly be extended in a system of production for use. This pamphlet contains many other valuable ideas about how socialism could be organised.

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