The need for socialism
It is true that material deprivation – at least in this part of the world – is less than it was when the Socialist Party was formed in 1904. But it is also true that since then there has been a tremendous development of the forces of production – the technical means of producing enough for all – so that, despite the increase in world population in the meantime, no man, woman or child in any part of the world need today go without decent food, clothing, shelter or any of the other amenities of life. The fact that most of the world’s population do is a damning indictment of the present social order, capitalism.
The case against capitalism and for socialism has always been simple. With the division of labour resulting from the use of more and more sophisticated machines and techniques, humans already cooperate to produce what is needed to sustain life and social activity, but what is produced does not belong to those who produced it – the working class, those who are obliged to sell their mental and physical energies for a living and who make up the overwhelming majority of society – but to a tiny minority of privileged people who, through historical circumstances, happen to own and control the means of wealth production.
As a result what is produced belongs to this minority and so is not available to the members of society to take and use to satisfy their needs. It is only made available to them against payment but what we of the working class can afford is limited by the size of our wage packet or salary cheque, which is always less than the new value incorporated in what we produce. The difference is profit – the source of the privileged income of the owning minority and the over-riding aim of production. So, not only is free access to what is produced denied to those who, collectively, produced it, but what gets to be produced is dictated not by what people want and need but by what is most profitable.
This contradiction between cooperative, collective production and the private appropriation of the product, arising from the means of production being monopolised by a minority, is the root-cause of the problems faced by the working class majority in all fields of life.
Promises to solve these problems, as over housing, transport, the environment, food safety, are the stuff of politics but the parties and politicians people vote for never solve them. Not because they are dishonest or not determined enough or mere self-seekers but because they cannot. The problems they promise to solve are caused by capitalism and so can never be solved as long as capitalism is allowed to continue.
Capitalism cannot work for all
Capitalism, as a profit system based on the class ownership of the means of production, can never be made to work in the interests of all. It always puts profits first. That’s its nature, which cannot be changed by any government or any other form of activity within the context of class ownership and production for profit.
This is why reformism, as the attempt to make capitalism work in the interest of all, is ultimately futile. At most it can only smooth off some of the rougher edges a little, at least for some people and for a while, but it can never solve the problems facing wage and salary workers.
This being the case, what the working class, as the class that suffers most from the problems caused by capitalism, should be aiming at is bringing an end to the contradiction between cooperation in production and private appropriation of the products. This can only be done by bringing ownership into line with productive reality, by bringing about a situation where what is produced collectively is also owned collectively; which is only possible when the means for producing wealth have become the common property of all the members of society.
The socialist solution
This – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interest of society as a whole – is socialism and it is the only political goal worth striving for. Only it can provide the framework within which production can be re-oriented away from making profits for an owning class to providing what people want and need. On the basis of common ownership and democratic control, enough food, clothing, housing, transport, energy and the other necessaries and amenities of life could, should and would be produced to ensure that nobody, in any part of the world, went without what they needed. Material deprivation, and worries about satisfying material needs – around which most people’s lives revolve today – will no longer exist.
But socialism is not just about satisfying people’s material needs. That will just be routine in socialism, something taken for granted. It is also about allowing human beings to behave as the social animals that, biologically, we are. We are not just dependent on each other materially – on cooperating to produce what we need – but psychologically and culturally too. We evolved through cooperation and we need to cooperate and to feel part of a community with other human beings, but capitalism denies us this. Built-in to it is competition not cooperation. Competition not only between the owning class and the excluded majority – the class struggle – but also between members of the owning class to make profits – which, on a world scale, leads to wars and preparation for war, as over sources of raw materials, trade routes, markets and investment outlets – and between members of the excluded majority for jobs and housing, fuelling nationalism, racism and xenophobia.
Socialism, by ending the division of society into antagonistic classes, and by ensuring that every human being has their material needs met as a matter of course, will stop the rat-race we are forced to participate in under capitalism and create a real community and a real sense of community. People will no longer be alienated from their social nature and from other human beings.
Which way to socialism?
Those who set up the Socialist Party had a clear idea of how they thought socialism should come about: through the majority working class coming to understand that they were an exploited class to whom capitalism had nothing to offer and organising on the political field, to pursue uncompromisingly the single aim of wresting control of political power from the capitalist class and using it to end the monopoly exercised by the capitalist minority over the means of wealth production. This political and then economic expropriation was seen as being a conscious, democratic, political act.
It was also seen as being a revolutionary act, not in the sense of street-fighting and bloodshed – even if some violent incidents might not to be able to be entirely avoided – but in the sense of a decisive break, a rupture, involving the rapid conversion of the means of production from the class monopoly of a minority into the common property of all the people. In other words, a social revolution as a rapid and abrupt change in the basis of society carried out by political means.
At the time there were others who called themselves socialists who put forward a different approach: the gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism through a series of social reforms which would improve conditions for the working class by supplementing their wages with state benefits and which would convert individual industries, one after the other, into public services producing what people needed not for profit. This went under various names: gradualism, Fabianism, revisionism (when put forward by former Marxian revolutionaries), reformism. In Britain, at the time the Socialist Party was formed, it was represented by the now defunct Independent Labour Party, which was one of the constituent parts of the Labour Party and then, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1918, by the Labour Party itself, at least by those of its members and leaders who had any long-term perspective.
This strategy denied the need for a consciously socialist majority as a preliminary condition for establishing socialism. According to its proponents, all that was required was a parliamentary majority acquired on the basis of votes for a programme of reforms to be achieved within capitalism. It was a strategy that was put to the test, in Britain, in 1945 when the Labour Party won a landslide election victory giving them a huge parliamentary majority.
But it didn’t work. Labour, having taken on responsibility for governing capitalism found, as it had as a minority government in 1924 and 1929-1931, that capitalism had to be governed on its terms: priority had to be given to profit-making not social improvements for workers; in fact, even wages had to be restrained. The Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s fared no better at reforming capitalism in the interest of wage and salary workers. They, too, ended up administering capitalism on its terms, i.e., in the interest of profit-making and against the interests of the wage and salary earning majority. As did all similar government in other parts of the world.
The experience of the 20th century proved the gradualists wrong. Instead of such parties gradually changing capitalism, it was capitalism that gradually changed them. Nowadays, they don’t even claim to be aiming at socialism, only to be able to manage capitalism in a more efficient way.
The Socialist Party in Britain were not the only critics of gradualist reformism. Indeed, the early members initially saw themselves as part of the wing of the international Social Democratic movement that was opposed to the revisionism and opportunism that was spreading within the movement. However, most of the other pre-WWI opponents of gradualism, including Rosa Luxemburg, author of a pamphlet with the title of Reform or Revolution?, did not see the danger, in terms of attracting non-socialist support and becoming its prisoner, of a socialist party advocating reforms. After the ignominious collapse of the international Social Democratic movement when the war broke out, many of the other anti-gradualists turned to Lenin’s Bolshevism for an alternative strategy.
Minority action fails too
Whereas the gradualists had still been committed to democratic methods and majority action even though only by non-socialists, Lenin argued that under capitalism only a minority would ever be able to reach socialist understanding and that it was therefore up to this minority to organise itself as a vanguard party to seize power on behalf of the majority.
In other words, the Leninists’ alternative strategy to gradualist reformism was not the consciously socialist, majority political action advocated by the Socialist Party in Britain, but minority socialist action: socialism was to be introduced by a dictatorship exercised by a minority of socialists. This was how the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in the course of the 1917 Russian revolution was presented. This was never going to work as a way to socialism since socialism can only exist on a democratic basis with majority participation in decision-making. And it didn’t. Instead of the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia leading to socialism, it led to state capitalism with the members of the “socialist” vanguard evolving into a new ruling class exercising a brutal dictatorship over the workers of Russia.
The 20th century confirmed that minority dictatorship was no more a route to socialism than parliamentary reformism. The worst thing about it was that the Russian dictatorship claimed to be socialist, with the result that millions of workers all over the world were put off the whole idea of socialism. To tell the truth, socialism is still suffering from this unwelcome legacy, with the view that “socialism has been tried (in Russia) and failed” being widely held.
In fact, of course, socialism has not been tried. What has been tried are two strategies – gradualist reformism and Leninist minority dictatorship – for supposedly progressing towards socialism. Both failed. But what has not been tried is the strategy proposed by the founding members of the Socialist Party in 1904: conscious, majority, revolutionary political action.
Just as socialism remains as relevant today as it was in 1904, so too does this strategy. “No socialism without socialists” remains as true today as it was then. And “making socialists”, as a step towards the emergence of a majority desire for socialism, remains the task of those who want to see established a socialist world of common ownership, democratic control, production to meet people’s needs and free distribution on the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”.