Pieter Lawrence

Socialism and the Left

Source: Socialist Standard, January 1986.
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 Socialist Party is opposed to "left wing" movements because they are reformist organisations which, if they achieved political power, would enforce the basic features of capitalism through the repressive machinery of state. They distort the language of socialism, obscuring all its objectives, and they are conspiratorial and authoritarian in ways which leave no doubt that work for socialism would come under serious threat should they ever realise their aims.

There is a proliferation of such groups sharing a general outlook, distinguished from each other only by points of detail and varying loyalties to different leading personalities. Since they are all given to frequent use of the word "socialism", it is useful clearly to define what the Socialist Party means by the word. This can be summarised under three main headings — common ownership of the means of life; democratic control of society; and production solely for human need.

Common ownership means a relationship where the means of producing goods and services, and the earth's resources, are held in common by the whole community. This is distinguished from minority class ownership of the means of production under capitalism, in either its privately owned or state monopoly forms.

By democratic control we mean a system of administration through which the whole community would be able to make democratic decisions about the use of productive resources, the general arrangement of social affairs and the immediate priorities and long term objectives of social action. This is distinguished from the operation of systems of government which impose decisions on the wider community through the enforcement of law. By their nature, governments express class interests.

By production solely for human need we mean direct co-operation between people in producing goods and maintaining services directly for need. This requires the abolition of the market, including that for labour power in socialism, production would not begin with an economic exchange of labour time for wages and salaries, but would arise as social co-operation in direct response to community requirements. Free access by the community to available goods and services would replace the present restricted access to goods based on buying and selling, and the use of money as a means of exchange.

This is what socialism means and the Socialist Party has consistently held this as its sole object since its formation in 1904. It was not, however, originated by the Socialist Party but taken up from the struggles and ferment of ideas of the nineteenth century, when there was more common agreement about the meaning of socialism than now. The clarification of the meaning of socialism was not, unfortunately, an end to the debates between those who wished to replace capitalism with the new system. On the contrary, it opened up a new debate about how to get from one society to the other, an argument at the heart of the matter of reformism versus revolutionary socialism and one which is highly relevant to the socialist criticism of the various left wing movements today.

The stand taken by the Socialist Party arose from a Marxian analysis of capitalist society and the limitations of political action within capitalism. It worked on the self-evident assumption that any means which were inconsistent with the socialist objective would in effect be hostile to it. It is impossible to establish socialism by seeking to form a government to run capitalism of any kind; to abolish the domination of society by capital by retaining it and accepting all the economic consequences; to abolish the wages system by continuing its operation. Similarly, it is impossible to establish production solely for need and free access to what is produced by retaining the market system of buying and selling which has the sole objective of realising profit.

Each and every one of the so called left wing governments which have come to power in the name of socialism from the British Labour Party to the Russian Bolsheviks, have retained and further developed the basic features of capitalist society. They share the common aim of working for a system of state capitalism, though they dress this up in the language of socialism. Perhaps they retain some remote thought that political power would enable them to manage capitalism and control the direction of its development - presumably towards socialism. No credible theory of such political management has ever been produced; on the contrary, it is a fallacious idea which is now thoroughly discredited by experience.

It was argued at the beginning of the century, for example by some of those who helped form the Labour Party, that a "working class government" could be formed to run capitalist society in the interests of the working class and to carry out measures which would gradually change the structure of society. First of all, it was argued that such a government would immediately enact a programme of reforms to improve conditions of work, create shorter working hours, and continuously expand health and education services. There would be a massive programme of house building and generous pensions for the aged, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Unemployment would be abolished and the production of required goods and services would be continuously increased. At the same time nationalisation would be the beginning of common ownership of the means of production. Tax measures would ensure that the rich would be taxed out of existence. All this was to be carried through by an alliance of working-class political organisations in control of the state and unions operating on the industrial front.

When this put forward at the beginning of the century the early members of the Socialist Party said that it was completely impractical, a very dangerous illusion. They pointed out that these left wing reformists had failed to take into account the lessons of the Marxian economic analysis of capitalism. Then it was a matter of theoretical debate, now it is also a matter of bitter experience. The fallacy of its general theory has been acted out by left wing reformists themselves time and again, both in this country with the Labour Party, in Russia following the Bolshevik take-over, and in many other places.

The reality is that in any system of commodity production and capital accumulation, irrespective of whether it is privately managed or run by the state, there is an irreconcilable conflict between the value factors and the socially useful factors of production, in which the value factors must always predominate. The driving force is capitalist accumulation and this works within a set of constraints which limit time action in every social, economic and political sphere. Whatever may be done in any of these spheres is conditional on the governing factor that capital should accumulate through the economic exploitation of workers involved in the exchange of labour time for wages. Workers generate value over and above the value of their own labour power and this surplus value is realised through the sale of commodities in the market. In this way the original capital investment is expanded and realised in its money form. It makes no difference whether it is state capital operating through a state enterprise or private capital operating through private enterprise, the profit motive and the conditions of the world capitalist market limit the social possibilities of society under capitalism. In the light of this hard economic reality, the reformist dreams of left wing movements are shown to be completely impractical.

In addition to the false ideas about what a "working class government" could do, there is the survival of a further article of faith arising from Leninism — the belief that socialism would emerge in some generally unspecified way from the class struggle in a time of acute crisis when capitalism breaks down in chaos. In this situation, it is said, a "revolutionary vanguard" could take political control and then form a "working class government". The logic of this idea is that left wing movements should intensify the disruptions of the class struggle with a view to bringing this acute crisis about. So we see all about us, Trotskyite groups attempting to use industrial conflict for their political ends.

This is another dangerous misconception made all the more so because it is founded on an element of truth. It is obviously true that socialism arises from the class division of capitalism and will be the outcome of the class struggle. It is also true that because it is based on class antagonisms capitalism will continuously produce chaos in the form of strikes and other disruptions such as riots. But the task of the revolutionary socialist is to show by analysis and persuasive argument that whatever form such struggles may take they arise continuously from one basic cause, which is capitalist society. The positive socialist role is to clarify the cause of struggle, equip it with socialist consciousness and thus direct it on a course of practical political action aimed at dispossessing the capitalist class of their ownership of the means of life and establishing common ownership.

Without socialist knowledge, working-class struggles will always be fought on a battle ground where the forces of capitalism will always win. A crucial factor is the power of the state. While capital retains control of the state and commands the forces of repression — the police and the armed forces backed by the law — workers must always face ultimate defeat. On the other hand a socialist majority would win because it would, in the most determined democratic manner, take political power and bring all the powers of government under its own control. It would then enact common ownership and replace the state with a system of democratic administration, concerned solely with the organisation of production for use. A socialist society can only be established and operated by a majority of men and women who have decided that a world organised solely for human needs is the world they want and prepared to act on that basis. Therefore socialism can only be established by a majority of conscious socialists.

If in some time of acute economic and political crisis a left wing movement was able to take control of the state, nothing would alter except a change of political bosses. It would be state capitalism with the forces of capital still dominating the lives of workers and confining the life of society within the demands of profit as against need. All that would change would be the individuals in the governing positions of power and privilege. In power, as we have seen over and over again, a left wing regime would mean the now entirely discredited policies of nationalisation, the retention of capital, the wages system, commodity production, the market and the profit motive. It would mean all the sectional privileges arising from this, imposed on the working class by the forces of the state.

In their present state, despite their illusory pretensions about acting in the interests of workers, the left wingers wait in the political wings of capitalism, ready to pounce on any opportunity for the continuation of capitalism on the basis of their own control. While they remain contained they are a political gift to the capitalist class, tending to stabilise the exploitative pattern of capitalist relationships by providing a sterile refuge for the frustrations of class society. In this way they are useful to capitalism because they channel working class struggle into a political dead end.

The idea of a revolutionary vanguard mirrors the elitism of those in power positions of capitalism, who justify their privilege with an inflated self-image based on the view that workers are incapable of running society. This is the inverted prejudice of the left that workers can only ever be the tools of change, never the democratically organised and politically conscious agents of it. Acting on the Leninist belief that workers can never go beyond trade unionism, the left wing elitists see themselves as the political manipulators able to convert industrial disruption into political change.

The fact is that everywhere about us we see workers running every useful part of production and necessary services. In the modern world the knowledge required for this is certainly no less than the socialist knowledge required to run the entire structure of industrial organisation and administration in their own interests and through their direct co-operation. Throughout the world there exists a highly developed structure of useful production which is available to be developed solely for human needs.