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John G. Wright

A Party and Its Book

(July 1935)

From New International, vol.2 No.7, July 1935, p.142.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socializing Our Democracy
By Harry W. Laidler.
330+x pp. New York. Harper & Bros. $3.00.

It is polite, I imagine, to begin by noticing virtues. Of these, there are three that are considerable. In the first place, Socialising Our Democracy is a useful handbook for supplying material for lectures, popular essays, and conversation. Its analysis of contemporary United States capitalism is neither profound nor exhaustive. It does not pretend to compete with, for example, Lewis Corey’s The Decline of American Capitalism. It does, however, bring together a variety of facts and statistics which, apart from any interpretation, are revealing. These cover such matters as income distribution, ownership, public enterprise, cooperatives, etc. There is nothing surprising, but it is well to have these things made concrete and specific. They demonstrate once more, and again conclusively, how ready the potential economic organization of this country is for socialism.

Second, Laidler must be praised for having in a single volume posed so many of the essential problems. These include not merely the usual questions involved in the seizure of power, the transfer of ownership, the nature of the workers’ state. Laidler is especially interested in certain of the great issues that will confront the new society. He has chapters, for example, on Incentives and a Socialized Society, Guarantees of Security, A New Political Structure, The Family, etc. The chapter Making Industry Pay under Socialism, though confused as usual by the failure to make a distinction between the period of working class dictatorship and the actual socialist society, is valuable, particularly in its survey of methods of accounting and management used in the Soviet Union.

It is true that discussion of issues of this kind is often no more than idle day-dreaming, the sign of a failure to face the revolutionary tasks of the day. In Laidler’s case, this is to a large extent so. Nevertheless, they are real problems, and they will not be met successfully by the workers’ state unless some preparation has been made. The discussion of them has likewise an agitational value in suggesting the kinds of achievement that will be possible under a workers’ regime. Socialization of industry will not be gained by mere fiat of the revolutionary government, no matter how politically powerful it may be in the initial stages. And it will not continue to hold power if its own ineptness in technical and administrative matters causes the breakdown of industry during the first years. The baffling intricacies of money and bookkeeping will, unfortunately, remain to plague the workers’ state long after the counter-revolution has been thoroughly suppressed.

The third virtue worth mentioning is Laidler’s constant realization of the human and cultural problems involved in the revolution. He does well to include sections on education, art, recreation. We cannot be too often reminded that politics, too, is an undertaking of man.

So much for the virtues. They are, it will be noticed, the typical virtues of the enlightened social democrat. And they are amply, very amply, compensated by every one of the typical faults. Here is a socialist of some standing, a socialist with an accredited bourgeois Ph.D. to boot, writing with the experience of the war, the crisis, the NRA, the rise of Fascism, behind him. And what has he learned from these rich lessons of history? He has learned – and Laidler is a fair enough representative of official social democracy – precisely nothing. A review does not provide space enough for detailed analysis. I shall, however, list briefly a few of the more glaring indications:

1. On the question of war, the question now imminently confronting the working class of the world, Laidler has ... nothing whatever to say. Apparently war is not a serious problem for the revolutionary movement. The fight for socialism can be planned quite independently of war. If war comes, it will be, no doubt, an “exceptional event”, and we will then decide what to do about it. The omission is not accidental. The war of 1914-1918 was also an “exceptional event”, not allowed for in the progress toward socialism. And we know what social democracy did about it.

2. The Soviet Union is many times referred to in this book. In the discussions of the problems that will confront the new “cooperative” (the currently favorite socialist adjective) society, the experience of the Soviet Union is heavily drawn on. This is as it should be; and the Soviet Union should always be looked at by Marxists as the central laboratory of revolutionary experience. But not once does Laidler touch on a single fundamental issue involved in Soviet policy and practise. It is not that he presents incorrect views on these matters; he presents no views on them at all. Of course, this in itself is, in the long run, a view, and a fatal one.

3. In spite of occasional parentheses to the contrary, Laidler systematically confuses the distinction between “public ownership” under capitalism and socialized ownership under a workers’ state. This, too, is not accidental. By the confusion, the gradualist, reformist notion of the transition to a socialist society is reinforced. Socialist society is made to appear merely the quantitative extension of the “public ownership” features of capitalist society, instead of a qualitatively new form of society, in which public ownership as we know it as well as private ownership will be radically changed in kind.

4. I have already mentioned the failure to distinguish between the period of working class dictatorship and the socialist society. Since, however, Laidler is against “dictatorships” of all kinds, and in favor of “democracy” – without, of course, making any critical distinctions between kinds of dictatorship and kinds of democracy – this is hardly surprising.

5. This last matter is closely linked to Laidler’s treatment of the subject – so fragile in the hands of a social democrat – of the conquest of power. It is here that we see the fine flower of neo-socialist Centrism. After Germany, Austria and Spain, the old-fashioned simple reformism won’t quite do. It must be dressed up in new ambiguities and equivocations, new brave talk about what the socialist government would do if, once in power, the electorally defeated capitalists should take up a counter-revolutionary offensive (which, Laidler hastens to assure us, is most unlikely in this country, where the capitalists are intelligent and will see that they have no chance). Even the verbal possibility that some crisis (war, Fascism) might force the socialists to take power even though they did not hold an electoral majority, must now be “conceded”. But the real juice of the doctrine comes out in the final paragraph from Chapter V:

“Thus, while it is impossible to prophesy with certainty whether the change from capitalism to socialism will be a peaceful or a violent one, there are many forces at work which point to a genuine possibility of peaceful change in this country, and the revolutionary movement should strive with might and main to make this possibility an increasing probability as time goes on.” (My italics – JW)

What does this last phrase actually mean when translated into the language of politics? It means exactly this:

“... and the revolutionary movement should strive with might and main to prevent the workers from taking steps to defend and advance their rights, it must be sure to keep them from ever possessing the means for gaining power, it must carefully deceive them about the nature of their struggle, it must tie them up to hand them ‘peacefully’ over to Fascism; and if it does let them fight, as in Austria or Spain, it must be certain that they fight when it is too late, when their cause is already lost, and when the only possible result will be the bloody, useless sacrifice of its finest members.”

Socialising Our Democracy, in short should be made a compulsory text for all those, within the socialist parties or outside them, who are now busy spinning illusions about what may be expected from the author of this book and his political companions.


Last updated: 23.4.2005