Source: Socialist Standard, January 1923.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.
"The time for words is past: now is the time for action." This is an indispensable aid to the Labour speaker. Introduced with fervour at an appropriate moment by one of the "Billy Sundays" of the movement it never fails to bring the roof down. Any novice at a loss for something useful to say, on any Labour platform, in any quarter of the globe, can depend upon it for "loud and prolonged applause." The effect of its delivery to an open-mouthed audience of several thousands in the Albert Hall, by that platform acrobat, Tom Mann, is truly wonderful. Don't imagine, however, that it is something new. George Lansbury has been saying it as regularly as clockwork for twenty years for more; Tom Mann is now over seventy, and it must have been a commonplace with him in his early twenties; and no doubt Moses, by whom he sets his course, was hurling it at the murmuring Israelites in Egypt and in the Desert. Throughout the ages, and in any place where glib tongues have had foolish listeners, this shabby half-truth has been doing service.
Its very use is a denial of its accuracy; for if words were valueless these orators should not orate, and Tom Mann ought to give his gymnastic displays without marring them with speech. Again, to be precise, speech is a form of action. However, let us consider what is intended by those who use this phrase.
Do they mean that any action, just action itself is desirable? Obviously not, for the "actionists" are particularly loud and wordy in their denunciation of those workers, who as police and soldiers, under Government instruction, break the heads and scatter the brains of unemployed demonstrators. Clearly the kind of action is important, and we immediately find that the "actionists," apart from numerous subdivisions, are divided by a theoretical difference into two main groups. On the one hand are the "realists," the painstaking, sane and safe plodders of the Labour Party, whose "action" takes the form of administering capitalist laws on national and local governing bodies. They are oppressed with a sense of their responsibility and the need to go slow. They have heaps of fine ideals, but relegate them to the distant future, and devote themselves entirely to "practical" politics.
The other group are the Communists. They are in a hell of a hurry. They are incurably romantic, and aim at living dangerously. They scan the political horizon anxiously, searching for a cloud "the size of a man's hand" which shall be the sign of the revolutionary crisis. They are like the Adventists, living in momentary expectation of the second coming of Christ; and they have some hopes. They resemble the other group only in this, that both of them are believers in doing things, and are infinitely contemptuous of mere theorising. Their actions, judged by results, are not brilliantly successful. They are always "turning over new leaves," "formulating new programmes," "moving with the times," and "learning from past mistakes." The second of their immutable principles is summed up in another misleading saying, that "people who never make mistakes never make anything."
The chief activity of the reactionary actionists, between 1914 and 1919, was supporting the war. They didn't want the workers to have knowledge of Socialism, they wanted them to have practical skill in bayonet thrusts and the like; but there was a curious unwillingness to lead on the part of the hot-air leaders. Almost without exception, they were busy telling the workers to go and fight; but were not able to go themselves. Perhaps, this was due to their modesty.
In fact, on closer examination, the activities of this school appear to be mainly talk. They talk on Parish Councils, on Borough Councils, on County Councils, and in the House of Commons. The Labour leaders talk war in war-time, and peace in peacetime ; they talk big to their office staffs and they talk small at the King's Garden Parties, they talk slop at brotherhood meetings and wildly at Congress. They never talk Socialism.
The other actionists took the field in earnest when the Russian upheaval occurred. They saw red revolution everywhere. They talked about it, and urged other people to begin it; except when they were run in. Then they assured his honour that there was a mistake somewhere, and appeared to be trying to give the impression that they were only collecting souls for Jesus, or something equally harmless. This they call tactics. Some people believe that the workers will be emancipated by tactics.
There was a constant stream of them travelling to Moscow to tell Lenin that England was hovering on the brink of revolution: none of them ever thought of doing a good deed by pushing her over. This may have been more tactics.
In those days they used to tell the tale about Communism in Russia. As this didn't quite square with theory, and although they don't believe in theories, they condescended sufficiently to try to show how Russia unaided could jump from Feudalism to Socialism. They did this in order to explain the fact. Of course, the fact never existed, and in due course Moscow permitted them to say so. Then they laid the blame on the apathy of the workers in West Europe, but Zinoviev has now unkindly exploded. this. A correspondent of the Observer writes (November 19th, 1922) :—
Very significant also was Zinoviev's speech at Petrograd at the opening of the Congress, which contradicted the popular Bolshevik theory that the New Economic Policy is due chiefly to the postponement of world-revolution. 'We are now aware,' said Zinoviev, 'that the New Economic Policy was inevitable for Russia, even despite a successful world-revolution.'
Nevertheless, these actionists are still "proving" their unsound theory.
In practice, all the actionists talk and write just as we do. They do not act, because the capitalists won't let them. They have, however, two distinct ways of looking at this fact. The Communists pretend not to see it, and by keeping up a terrific clamour of words they succeed for a time in persuading those who don't know, even many of the master class, that they are making things hum.
The Labour Party, somewhat wiser in its generation, only chooses to do those things the capitalists permit. This keeps them frightfully busy, and although the products of their activity are nil, because the concessions they get are only those the capitalists would give anyway, they appear to be getting somewhere. This kind of people, now in the Labour Party, and previously as Liberals, have been doing their practical work for half a century, and except that the workers' position is getting steadily worse, they don't seem to have reached anywhere in particular.
The capitalist class are able to prevent any action useful to the workers and dangerous to themselves, because they control the force which is the deciding factor. The Army and Navy, the police and the law are at their disposal. The power to control these forces is theirs, because their agents are elected to the House of Commons, the central governing body. These agents are elected by the workers. The workers elect capitalist agents because they want Capitalism and not Socialism. They do not want Socialism because they do not understand it. Conditions produced by capitalist developments are preparing the minds of the workers, but they will not obtain an intelligent grasp of socialist principles except through the spoken and written word.
We, and both schools of actionists, are engaged mainly in talking and writing; but we talk Socialism, they do not.
When the workers understand Socialism they will take the direct and simple steps necessary to give them control of the political machinery of society for the purpose of introducing Socialism. Until that time, the only useful action possible is the act of speaking and writing about Socialism.
We are Socialists.
We preach Socialism.