Practical Socialism: Its Principles and Methods

The concluding chapter of “Practical Socialism — Its Principles and Methods” (2006) by Pieter Lawrence

It has been said that the Capitalist system digs its own grave; it does not! The only way it will be consigned to history is when a majority of people take political action to end it. But what the capitalist system does do, and has no choice about it, is develop a material basis for what could be a new socialist society. These developments are in the global fields of production, distribution, administration and communications. They bring with them the possibility of a different world system with a good life for all people in conditions of peace, cooperation and well being. Paradoxically, these possibilities are driven by the economic forces of the world market system.

Here, we have the great contradiction of modern life. Developments which can be seen as opening up an exciting future for humanity, are in fact propelled by monetary gain and the exploitative policies of great power structures. The economic forces that advance these possibilities are the very forces that stop them being realised. As a consequence, we have a widening gap between the lives we could have and the lives we have got. Instead of one world, one people, we have exploitation, war and poverty. It is truly said, never has there been so much misery whilst the means of creating a better world are so near to hand.

The only reasonable stance a socialist can take is one of criticism and dissociation from the activities of multi national corporations and the economic/military policies of rival capitalist nations. But because the actions of these power structures dominate public discussion, the position of socialist criticism is one of alienation from every day politics; this can lead to alienation from society in general. It brings with it the problem of how to maintain a distance from what is happening in the mainstream of economic and political life, whilst at the same time engaging with developments which hold great potential for a better world.

The answer to this question for the 21st Century is that the socialist analysis of social problems and their causes should be continuously upheld and developed. This clarifies what is happening in the world of economics and politics from the point of view of working people. It searches out the causes of problems and is a pointer to solutions. Without this socialist criticism, clear understanding would be lost, leaving only the ideological fog of state obfuscation which conceals the real interests and motives of dominant power groups.

However, in the developed circumstances of our modern age, criticism is not enough. Given that, globally, we now have to hand the material means of running a world socialist society. Its arguments should be expanded. These should now move forward from the negativity of criticism to the positive work of proposing ways in which a socialist society could be organised.

The method of this positive work is itself a product of development. The great advances we can work with are in the fields of global production, distribution, communications, decision making and administration. As has been outlined, our method is one of identifying the existing parts of this world organisation that could serve the needs of the whole community in a socialist society. Having identified these parts, the work then becomes a question of how they could function together on a social basis of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for need. As a result, the politics of socialism moves from mere criticism to engagement with social, economic and political development. At the same time it sheds its traditional baggage of utopian, sectarian and anarchist tendencies; it becomes the constructive work of practical socialism.

With any significant growth of the World Socialist Movement, proposals will tend to be formalised as an agreed programme of action to be activated with the capture of political control. This positive set of proposals would be in sharp contrast with the poverty of the backward looking ideas that at present can see nothing beyond the management of the capitalist system.

The Background of Practical Socialism

The realisation of progressive ideas can never exceed the practical possibilities given by a particular stage of development. It is in the light of this that practical socialism can be understood as a product of the dynamic change that has been the nature of capitalism over the past two hundred years. Even from its beginning, forward looking thinkers were talking about socialism and publishing pamphlets and books setting out their ideas. However, we do have to say that they were well ahead of their times, which means that their ideas stood no chance of being realised in practice. This applies not just to the utopians of the early 19th Century but also to Marx and Engels. Under the heading “The Myth of Nationalisation” we considered the contribution to socialist ideas in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. This most influential pamphlet, understandably, but also unfortunately, set out a revolutionary programme based mainly on a policy of nationalisation. We may say “understandably” because in 1848 the capitalist system was in an early stage and at that time, had not yet developed the material basis for a new society.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, however, socialist criticism made a great leap forward and this went together with the many changes that marked the second half of the 19th Century. This was at a time when many workers had won the vote, the trade union movement had gained in strength and organisation and when the idea of socialism was being widely discussed amongst the many political parties and groups that were looking forward to the establishment of a new society. It is worth repeating the issues involved in the burning question of reform or revolution because its consequences are with us today.

Those who took a ‘gradualist’ view believed that a new society could only be introduced gradually through programmes of reform. For this, the all important strategy was to capture political control through the ballot box and to form a working class government. It was assumed that such a government would be not just in political control but also economic control. Then, through legislation on such problems as housing, health care and education and pensions, living standards for working people would be raised. Such a government, working in close collaboration with the trade unions, would be able to raise the level of wages for all working people. At the same time, through the nationalisation of industry, and through corporation tax, inheritance tax and death duties, the owning class of capitalists would be removed from all sectors of production and taxed out of existence.

This political programme, which we can describe as the reformist road to socialism, captured the minds of most activists in the Labour Movement. With the founding of the Labour Party in 1906 and the rapid spread of its influence throughout the country, it was this programme that filled manifestos and leaflets, wherever the party was organised. It was believed that the single, all important condition for the success of this programme was the formation of a working class government.

However, the gradualist or reformist way forward was not the only programme being debated. Others took a different view which argued that the condition for the establishment of socialism was not simply the capture of political power. To be successful, political control had to be supported by a majority of socialists, that is, by a majority of people who fully understood the meaning of socialism together with what would be involved in the change from capitalism to socialism. In this view it was held that unless this majority of socialists was achieved, capitalism would continue. The campaigning that arose from this was directed at raising socialist consciousness through meetings, leaflets, pamphlets and a socialist journal. It was also argued that the best way to defend worker’s interests within capitalism was to build up a strong, principled socialist movement. Two years before the Labour Party was founded, these were the ideas of those who formed The Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. As former members of the Social Democratic Federation they had become deeply dissatisfied with its increasingly reformist policies. Given their socialist analysis of problems and their commitment to organise unswervingly for a new society based on common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs, circumstances gave them no option but to form the new Party.

To their great credit, in 1904, the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain did something that neither Marx nor Engels had ever done, or perhaps had never had an opportunity to do. They based their criticism of the reformist way forward not primarily on political theory but on economic theory. This was a crucial difference between what came to be the reformist policy and the revolutionary policy. The reformists began with a political objective which was the capture of political power. The members of the SPGB began with an economic analysis of the capitalist system which set out the limitations of political action within capitalism and therefore the need for a revolutionary change. They understood that no government, however well intentioned, or given to revolutionary aspiration, could direct the course of capitalist economic development simply by the application of political hopes. They argued that the mechanics of the market system are driven by economic laws which are inherent in the system and which are not susceptible to ideological direction or government control. It was accepted that politics could make a marginal difference but ultimately, economic factors would be decisive in setting a framework of constraints on what governments and therefore society can do. In this view, production is both regulated and limited by what can be distributed as commodities for sale at a profit in the markets. The idea that class ownership and the profit system could be subjected to gradual abolished through reform change was an illusion.

It was this application of economic theory to politics that not only defined the limitations of political action within the capitalist system, it clarified the question of reform or revolution. It meant that socialism could not be introduced gradually by reform but only as a result of conscious political action by a majority of socialists. At the time this was deemed by the reformist school to be “impossible.”

In retrospect, the stand taken in 1904 by the members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain was fully justified and we may say this not just with hindsight. Their development of socialist criticism led to a body of theory that came to have predictive value. This has been a most important contribution which is yet to be recognised. If we look back over the 20th Century since 1904 we find that they predicted not just the failure of reform programmes to change society but the long sequence of raised hopes, failure and disillusion that was its continuing political history. They predicted the failure of the Bolshevik revolution stating that society in Russia would develop into a system of state capitalism. This is exactly what happened. They predicted the failure of Labour and Social Democratic Parties throughout Europe to use nationalisation as a means of re-constructing society. Later on, by applying the same method, they predicted the failure of Keynesian policies which were designed to set the capitalist system on a course of steady expansion without the destructive effects of the boom/slump cycle. This record of accurate prediction and principled campaigning can be read in many pamphlets, books and particularly in the columns of the monthly journal, “The Socialist Standard” which has been produced without fail since September 1904.

It is now sad to observe the abandonment of socialist aspiration and principle amongst labour and social democratic parties across the world. Having set out in 1906 on a brave new road of great social change, at the time of writing a Labour Government is in the process of introducing gambling casinos and is now wholly committed to managing the capitalist system. This was always inherent in their mistaken belief that the nature of capitalist society could be abolished through programmes of reform. The only gradualism that took place has been their gradual absorption within the politics of capitalism.

To be generous to those who followed this course we could say they became the victims of a seductive but politically deadly process. Because it is impossible for the capitalist system to serve the interests of the whole community it constantly throws up issues that demand action by those who are socially concerned and by many people who think of themselves as socialists. The great danger in being diverted from campaigning for socialism into campaigns to “Ban the Bomb”, “End the poll tax”, “Stop the War in Iraq”, “Cancel Poor Nation’s Debt,” etc., etc., is that this becomes not just a diversion but an end in itself. Inevitably, it becomes a campaign for an “improved” kind of Capitalism. It is in this process of campaigning for a different or a reformed form of capitalism that the work for socialism tends to become lost. Those who in the past felt that action should be limited to making capitalism a better system, have contributed, albeit unwittingly, to the present state of things. A sane society cannot be postponed without accepting the consequences of the postponement.

It is inherent in the capitalist system that it generates discontent and protest but it has also been unfortunate that the long history of protest has been empty of political action that could end the system. Inevitably, the causes of problems are left intact and lead on to a further need for protest. This reduces protest to political theatre in which each demonstration helps to set a stage for further demonstration. Though the scripts may vary and the actors may change the message is the same, “we demand that governments do this, that or the other!” The spectacle of thousands, demanding that governments act on their behalf is a most reassuring signal to those in power that their positions of control are secure. Repeated demonstrations do little more than confirm the continuity of the system. It is in this sense that mostly, protest is a permanent feature of the status quo. The point should be to change society not to appeal to the doubtful better nature of its power structures.

Having attended demonstrations over many years I was also present when the European Social Forum demonstrated in Trafalgar Square in October 2004. On that day thousands of supporters, having marched through London, demonstrated in angry protest, mainly against the war in Iraq. But anyone with a sound socialist view and a memory of many such demonstrations would have been depressed by the superficial sloganeering and the displays of futile anger which came from the platform and which stood not the slightest chance of making a difference. Speaker after speaker from various groups, some in opposition to each other, demanded a world of “Peace, Security and Justice for All.”

But if we listen to politicians either in government or in so called “opposition”, we find that they also represent their aims under such slogans as “Peace, Security and Justice for All.” It is a slogan much beloved of the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States. So here we have protestors sharing the same meaningless language as those in power and to whom they seem so vigorously opposed. Instead of clearly defined objectives argued in clear and consistent language we have the politics of linguistic fog in which communication and reasoned debate is difficult if not impossible.

In 1904, the work that clarified the question of revolution or reform was not widely accepted. Instead, in increasing numbers, working people gave their support to reformist policies and in particular, those of the Labour Party. Consequently, socialist analysis and criticism became not only a criticism of the capitalist system, it also became a criticism of the activities of most working people. However true may have been its analysis of problems, the political action required for their solution and the building of a better world, it nevertheless failed to become an influence in the every day thinking of the majority of people. There it has remained, in a state of isolation from the main stream of day to day politics and surviving as a mostly ignored light of hope in a world of ongoing disaster.

Engagement With Change

To move socialist ideas to the centre of popular politics they must be developed as a positive and practical alternative to the present system, argued in association with forward looking change. As has been emphasised, we live in a world of rapid change which includes the world of ideas. This means that the differences between socialist ideas and popular politics are neither static nor fixed in time. Sadly, not all developments in ideas are progressive. It would appear that the consensual body of ideas which make up popular culture moves sometimes forward but sometimes backwards in cycles. The present lurch towards extreme religious nationalism, neo conservatism and the politics of hate is regressive and can only bring more misery. But this is not the whole story. However divided the world may seem to be, all people share common needs which can only be served, ultimately by cooperation. These needs arise from our human make up, are expressed in the best ways to live, and are inescapable. They rise above national divisions or differences of race, culture and language. Throughout the world, all people share a common need to live in peace and material security and to be at friendly ease with their communities and with other peoples in other countries.

Under the clamour of conflict and the divisive politics that prevent people of all countries from coming together as a united humanity there is the unspoken voice of a common need which is always present. Whilst the oft shouted slogan of “peace, security and justice” may lack systematic thought and down the years has been empty of any practical means of bringing change, it does express a yearning for a different and better world. So when socialists argue for a world of cooperation organised solely for needs, in which all citizens will stand in equal relation with each other, this does express the universal interests of all people; it is therefore true for all time.

These conditions of life are only possible in a socialist society. This means that whilst socialist ideas may seem, on the present face of things, to be estranged from popular politics, they are in harmony with the real hopes of all people. It is when socialist ideas become the conscious political expression of these hopes that socialism will become an irresistible force for change. We live in a time when change brings more disillusion than hope. This is in great contrast to the outlook of many in Victorian times. For example, then, Karl Marx seemed very hopeful of the revolutionary possibilities of change. He said in the Communist Manifesto:

“Modern industry has established the world market . . . This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land . . . The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newly formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

It is possible that Marx was somewhat carried away by his own magnificent prose, but what comes through from this passage is the sense of excitement that both he and Frederick Engels felt about the great changes that were taking place in their day. Others too, seeing the great advances in knowledge in every branch of science and technology, which brought increased powers of production and the promise of an end to poverty, were optimistic that social problems would be solved. They did not foresee that technology would be applied to weapons of mass destruction with the result that the 20th Century inflicted more killings than in any previous century. They did not foresee that between 1975 and the year 2000, the number of starving people would double from 450 million to 820 million.

However, the fact still remains that although society, for reasons we have outlined, has been unable to use the great advances in science and technology for the solution of social problems, since the 19th Century, as we have also emphasised, development has not only continued, it has gathered pace and now represents an immense accumulation of our powers of production and social organisation. It is this fact than now provides opportunities to be more positively engaged with modern development. When we say that capitalism has established the basis of socialist society it means we have a structure of world production; we have the communications; we have abundant labour with every necessary skill and talent; we have decision making bodies; we have means of administration at local, regional and world levels; all of which could be swiftly adapted, re-organised and developed so as to concentrate all these resources on providing directly for needs. It is the work of practical socialism to propose how these basic means of life could be combined in the practical organisation of democratic decision making, administration and production in socialism.

In the past, lack of social development meant that socialist arguments had a difficulty in proceeding beyond economic analysis and political criticism. This was well expressed by Frederick Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific where, in criticising the utopian thinkers he said, “The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain.” Now of course, almost 150 years further on, the solution of social problems is no longer hidden in undeveloped conditions. On the contrary, the material means of solving problems are all around us. In the developed conditions of modern global capitalism, whilst critical analysis constitutes the theoretical basis of socialist argument, it is now a starting point from which we should set out how socialism could be organised using the methods that have been outlined.

Practical Socialism as a Political Campaign

In this volume, the chapters headed “Democratic Organisation”, “Organisation of Production”, “Information, Planning and Decision Making”, and “Advantages of Production Solely for Use”, have suggested ways in which the work on Practical socialism can be developed. The proposals outlined in these chapters should in no way be taken as narrowly prescriptive or in any way the last words on either the method or content of Practical socialism. These demonstrate the methods of the work and are put forward simply as proposals in the ordinary meaning of the word; to offer for consideration or acceptance. The aim is to suggest that the campaign for socialism should now take a more positive direction which could bring it closer to the centre stage of popular politics.

Despite the fact that many thousands of people in such organisations as OXFAM are battling against worsening problems with their efforts bringing little success, the indignation they feel and their willingness to act is a most important signpost towards a better world. Socialists do not hold a monopoly on social concern but share the hopes and intentions of thousands in many organisations. The work on Practical socialism would draw their attention more directly to the need to alter the present economic and political framework which is so destructive of their efforts. This again would project what concerned people in many voluntary organisations are trying to do into a different social context in which their work would be more successful. This would urge that action to solve such problems as world hunger must include action to bring about a society where individuals and communities will be able to act more effectively. The action to solve problems and the work of creating the conditions in which they can be solved, cannot be separated; these go together.

Given a socialist movement that was growing on the basis of its campaigns for Practical socialism, there would be no question of demonstrations “demanding”, from a position of weakness, that governments take action to deal with this or that problem. There would of course be demonstrations but only to demonstrate, from a position of gathering strength, a democratic movement with developing plans for a new society; plans that could be activated with the capture of political control. This would demonstrate the beginnings of socialist organisation within the heart of capitalism.

The Scale of the Task

The challenge of building a new world society may appear to be a daunting task. Indeed, it would involve great change and a re-organisation of the way we live. However, when we speak of a “new world society”, the word “new” should be qualified because there would be nothing in socialist society that would be outside age old human experience. In this sense very little would be new.

Socialism will depend on voluntary cooperation and there would be nothing new about this. Cooperation is a vital part of any society, even capitalism. Looking back to the long period of the Palaeolithic it was through social cooperation that humanity emerged as modern man. Countless generations of early people could only survive in groups based on cooperation and in doing so we became a social, thinking, tool making species with increased powers of providing the means of life. In looking forward to a society organised through cooperation we do not imagine anything new, on the contrary, we recall age old relationships which have always been in harmony with our basic human make up. It is for this reason that every person is capable of cooperating with others to the benefit of all. Cooperation is not simply a moral choice, it is a relationship that enhances our lives and is in every person’s material interest. In setting out the practical ways in which society could be organised through cooperation we are proposing that cooperation be brought back to the activity that matters most, that is, in the entire organisation of our lives.

The need for cooperation is also a response to the growing contradictions that arise from the hot house pace of technical development which the market system can never freely use for the benefit of people; the economic forces that drive technology forward prevent us from using it to solve problems. At our present stage of advanced technology we have a potential for abundance which is in contrast with the economics of scarcity on which the market system depends. As this gap between possible production and actual production widens, the capitalist system becomes more anachronistic, a straight jacket on our powers of action and historically redundant. The campaign for practical socialism will find growing support from these deepening failures of the capitalist system.

Finally, we come to the name of socialism itself. From its use by well intentioned social reformers to cynical dictators such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, it has been a tragic story that the word has suffered misuse, confusion and distortion. But there is no intention here to in any way denigrate the activities of millions of concerned people for whom socialism meant an end to privilege and exploitation, and in place of these evils, the building of a new world. There can be no doubt that generations of working people who were moved by their own problems and by their indignation at the plight of others, dedicated their political lives to a vision of a better society; for reasons stated they did not achieve their aims.

Now is a time for looking at the past, learning from its mistakes and for carrying the hopes of past activists forward in a more effective, sound way. The fact that the capitalist system is stronger and more extensive than ever is disappointing by it should also give fresh impetus to the work for socialism. We now have the advantage of global development in all spheres of life, enabling us to propose practical ways it could be organised.

This has the prospect of creating a body of political ideas, based on socialist principles and the methods of practical socialism, presented more in the everyday language of description rather than the higher abstractions of socialist theory. Instead of the aims of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use being asserted as great abstract concepts, practical socialism translates them into what they could mean in the everyday lives of people. This not only makes the meaning of socialism more readily understood it projects life styles with which people can identify. It gives individuals a view of their greater possibilities, seeing themselves not just in the dreary, problem ridden role of wage or salary workers in a world in which they have little say, but as people in cooperation in a society organised solely for the well being of all citizens.

This would also make it clear that the values of a socialist society would centre on freedom. Common ownership will mean the freedom to place production and resources at the disposal of the whole community; democratic control will mean freedom for every person to relate to others on equal terms when making social decisions; production solely for use will mean the freedom to use production directly for needs. Above all, its social relations will empower every person with the freedom to control their own lives, to decide on what skills to have and what part to play in the community’s programmes of action. This will be the freedom of self determined individuality.

The appeal of freedom extends to more than those whose loyalties are to radical politics. It appeals to all those, of whatever political complexion, who value freedom of choice, responsibility and the interests of the whole community. In this sense, although socialism has to be clearly defined and systematically argued as a distinct political choice, it rises above the traditional political differences that have existed between radical, conservative and liberal views. The various creeds that divide people into separate parties can be seen as motivated by aims which have many things in common.

To argue and organise for a world in which each person would be responsible for their own lives and by working in cooperation, for the lives of other citizens; a world where this is made possible by the use of all resources, solely and directly for the interests of communities, is not an objective that should runs counter to the basic hopes of anyone. Whilst a work on politics cannot avoid the use of political labels it is all too often the case that labels act as a barrier to communication. I would therefore ask any reader of this work to look beyond its unavoidable labels and to simply consider its proposals, and its supportive arguments, strictly on their practical merits in terms of the world it seeks to establish.

Just as these proposals for a changed world are argued as a response to needs that are universal, so are they in accord with the basic hopes and aims of all reasonable people, who may at present, appear to be divided by separate political identities. In this view, the ideas that could unite humanity in a changed society are the ideas that could unite a majority of people in working for it.

A better world need not wait on future events. Even as individuals, one way of participating in a better world is to work for it. The more people that work for it the better the world shall be.

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