Source: Socialist Standard, August 1977.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: D. Whitehead
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The IMG, CP, SWP, the WRP and the rest of the motley odds and ends of the so-called "left" have much in common. None of them has anything to do with Socialism and they all cherish the illusion that, by taking up every transient issue produced by capitalism and submerging themselves in the day-to-day incidents of the system, they are fighting the class struggle. Capitalism obligingly swamps them with an endless deluge of such issues and, armed with their bottomless buckets called "immediate demands", or reforms, they attempt to empty the oceans.
If they would look at the history of Labour and Social Democratic parties in Britain and Europe, they would see that the path of the "day-to-day struggle" is in fact a blind alley. It is the pathway to despair and apathy, littered with discarded slogans and forgotten causes. Capitalism produced crises and unemployment a century ago, when the Social Democrats first set out on the rotten road of reformism, and to-day still creates world-wide unemployment, social turmoil and commercial conflict. During those hundred years the productive powers of society have not only multiplied and spread over most of the earth, they have undergone continuous technological refinement through the application of scientific knowledge. With the capacity for abundance ever extending, capitalism with its market economy, class ownership and profit motivation, continues as always to generate crises, poverty, starvation and wars. Within the framework of the wage-labour-and-capital relations of production there can be no other outcome.
This is the simple lesson which the IMG, SWP and CP etc. find so hard to learn. They throw themselves mindlessly into the morass, as though reforms had just been invented. They do untold damage to the cause of Socialism by fraudulently calling their latest catch-phrase a "socialist" policy and helping to sustain the myth that nationalization is a Socialist idea. The manifest failure of a century of reforms and nationalization to alter the fundamentally subject position of the working class or to solve a single major social problem, seems never to register on their muddled minds. The exploitation of wage-labour by state or private capital remains the foundation upon which all the outrages and contradictions are built, yet the reformist left resolutely pursue the effects and ignore the cause. Theirs is a thoroughly irrational and unscientific approach. They cling to failed and futile methods, treasuring above all else their slogans and illusions.
For young workers to be ensnared and waste their precious lives chasing the elusive will-o'-the-wisp nostrums of these groups is a great tragedy. To the extent that they syphon off the discontent and unrest which workers naturally feel towards the conditions of capitalism and channel it up the cul-de-sac of "demonstrations anonymous" and "dial-a-slogan", they help draw the sting of workers’ resentments and thereby to prolong capitalism.
Limited objectives do not lead to an ever-widening circle of more ambitious demands. They lead to more and more limited objectives, to frustration, disillusionment and apathy.
The task of doctoring the daily ills and woes of capitalism is one for those who believe that the worst effects of the system can be mitigated without removing the system. This is the classic assumption of all political parties with limited objectives. Socialists hold the opposite view; that running capitalism is for the capitalists and supporters of capitalism. A Socialist, by definition, is one who seeks as the immediate issue the removal of the system, precisely because only Socialism can end the social problems engendered by it.
Whether the irony of their situation ever strikes the various leftist groups is hard to say; they never get a look-in at running capitalism, they act in a purely advisory capacity. They do much of the donkey work of drumming-up support, sounding out the latest bellyache, keeping the pot boiling and counselling the major parties as to what promises it might be wise to make at the next election. Then, without so much as a "thank you", those parties incorporate the latest whims into their programmes and the plums of office go to them. This has been the end result of all their frothing and fuming about Women’s Lib, abortion, equal pay and workers' control. Whether the actual legislation reflects the muddled aspirations of the agitators, and whether the carrying into practice of such legislation meets what was hoped for, are other matters. The workers have been placated and another battle won—for capitalism. Exactly the opposite result of what the agitators claimed was their purpose. So it has been, over the whole spectrum of reforms. The pitfalls, loopholes and snags that were "unforeseen" last time will be good for another ride on the merry-go-round and waste another decade by prolonging capitalism.
It is at least possible that some of the propaganda pundits of the ruling class are aware of the entirely tame and harmless nature of the leftists, but see an advantage in playing them up as wild and dangerous elements. Clearly, if the media openly embraced them as kindred spirits of the ruling class, it might tip the workers off and impel them to examine their own interest more carefully. A villain is a good thing to have around. He is a knock-about fellow that nobody likes and a very useful scapegoat. The skilful use of newspapers, radio and TV can convince a lot of people that strikes are never really warranted; there are no real grievances, it is the lefties making trouble, costing “the country” money and losing the company business. Those sensationalist rags published by the Left with their countless photographs of demo's and banner-bearing workers, think this is a marvellous and jolly good revolution. Next week or next month another strike and another demo.
They regard the working class as a simple giant that needs taking by the hand and leading into the class struggle. Their concept of the class struggle is whatever miscellaneous issues happen to be floating at any given time. The fact that they apply themselves to this unending profusion of issues, with no apparent result, does not prompt them to re-examine their assumption. They airily dismiss the Socialist case that only the direct propagating of Socialist ideas is relevant to the struggle for Socialism. The crystallizing of class-consciousness in the minds of workers means articulating the need to abolish the wages system and the class society of capitalism itself. Class-consciousness involves organized political action with the single aim of making the means of production and distribution the common property of society, this, necessarily on a world-wide basis.
Political action for Socialism means the complete abandonment of reformism. The two ends. Socialism and reforms, are irreconcilable opposites. It is political action to secure reforms which has led to the discrediting of Parliament as a means of changing society. Logic is not the strong point of leftist opponents of Parliamentary action. They have been guilty of advocating the use of Parliament for a task which is impossible, namely the passing of reforms to solve capitalism’s inherent problems. Then, in their folly, they blame the machine for their lack of knowledge as to its real use for workers. Parliament has never been used by a conscious working class to get rid of capitalism. Only the SPGB, from its inception, has argued the need to use Parliament in this way.
In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels elaborate the lesson from history in the principle "that all class struggles are political". The working class of the world cannot end the political power of the capitalist class without gaining control of the centres of political power themselves. What is at issue is the ownership of all the means of production. This cannot be settled at the factory gate by industrial action and it cannot be settled on the street from behind barricades. These methods leave the coercive state in the hands of the capitalist class and can only lead to anarchy and defeat. It is quite absurd to pretend, as leftists do, that millions of workers will carry on a violent struggle against the state and sacrifice life and limb, but will be unwilling to co-operate in the democratic process of voting. The advocates of "direct action" never expect a majority of workers to understand their position and act rationally. It is only desperate minorities without the backing of Socialist ideas who see revolution in terms of barricades and blood. Socialism is not possible without majority understanding.
Leftist methods are alien to the Socialist objective. The argument that members of the armed forces, police and civil service would side with the capitalists only weakens their already very feeble case. Control over these state agencies is in the hands of the majority party in Parliament. If a violent minority challenge the state, the coercive machine will act under the orders of those voted into power. It will be seen to be doing the will of the majority. Any violent minority would be seen to be acting against a great consensus. They could not win. While a majority of workers support capitalism (as now), their attitudes are reflected, in the armed forces and police. The personnel in these outfits, apart from a few wealthy professionals, are members of the working class. Their families, parents and friends are also members of the working class; they cannot be isolated from the general ideas of society. When millions of workers are opting for Socialism, every section of society will reflect their attitudes and ideas.
As a self-styled vanguard, the left reject the ballot-box because they are contemptuous of those they expect to blindly follow them and whose blood they would shed to gain power themselves. The SPGB has been patiently explaining Socialist principles since 1904; leftists are still groping in the dark.