Editorial – Ends and means

When the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded 120 years ago this month there was widespread agreement amongst those who were against capitalism as to what the alternative would be. Socialism was seen as a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means for producing wealth, with production for use not profit. For instance, a Manifesto of English Socialists issued in 1893 stated:

‘On this point all Socialists agree. Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines and the land. Thus we look to put an end for ever to the wage system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis’ (tinyurl.com/4tnwz822 ).

This was signed not only by Marxian socialists such as H. M. Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation (from which we broke away eleven years later) and William Morris, but also by Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb.

There were of course disagreements over how to get there. Some favoured parliamentary action, others were anti-parliamentarians; some favoured an insurrection or a general strike, others a policy of gradual reform, but there was agreement on the nature of the society to replace capitalism.

After the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia this gradually changed. They claimed – although we disputed this even in 1918 – to be constructing socialism in Russia and in 1936 proclaimed that socialism had actually been established there. However, what existed there bore no relation to what had previously been regarded as socialism. The means of living did not belong to the whole community under their democratic control. They belonged to the state controlled by a single, dictatorial party. The wages system continued to exist. Society there was a form of state capitalism.

This re-definition of socialism as state capitalism, propagated by the Russian government and Communist parties, meant that the disagreements in the working class movement came to be about the objective to be achieved — what socialism meant — and not just about the means of achieving it. A step backwards as it obliged us to spend time explaining what socialism was not at the expense of explaining what it was.

Although the Russian rulers had changed the definition of socialism they still claimed that their eventual aim was a classless, stateless society of common ownership without money or wages, only they called it ‘communism’. A small but growing number of those who want to get rid of capitalism are coming to define post-capitalist society in these terms. We can only welcome this as it is shifting the arguments back from being about the goal to being about the means to achieve it.

Disagreements still exist on how to get there — the same ones as before — and here we still defend, as we did in 1904, democratic revolutionary political action, including the use of the ballot box, by a socialist-minded working class.

Next article: Pathfinders – A walk in the woods ⮞

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