Thursday, January 31, 2013

Against Gradualism

The Road to Socialism

The Socialist Party’s conception of revolution is often criticised for its lack of credibility since it is assumed that people have to wait for the overwhelming majority necessary to “enact” socialism before doing something about their immediate problems. The Party does argue that the work for socialism must be the building up of a majority of socialists who will then be in a position to remove the capitalist features from production as a conscious political act and that until a socialist majority is achieved, the class monopoly of the means of production, the wage-labour/capital relationship, commodity production, the operation of the market, and the state, will continue to be both the form of social production and its administration by governments. The Party’s theory of revolution  insists that socialism can only be established by the democratic, conscious political actions of a majority of socialists and it is not just any theory culled from a textbook of bourgeois sociology. The theory is based both on the class struggle as the motor of social change and on an understanding of the economics of capitalism and the limits it places on what can be done within the framework of the capitalist system.

Members of the Left reject the Party’s theory of revolution as “impossible”. Their argument was that without a majority of socialists, and prior to the formal enactment of common ownership, a working class government could set society on a course of change in the direction of socialism. In control of the state and all legal processes, such a government would grant the widest freedom of action to the trade unions and thus set up a partnership with the trade unions pursuing working class interests on the industrial field and a government doing the same on the political field.

The unions would maximise the workers’ share of the social product at the point of production. The government would provide housing, health care and education, etc. At the same time, such a working class government would begin the process of establishing common ownership through the nationalisation of the means of production and through “taxing the rich out of existence”.

The Party rejected this gradualist policy at the beginning of the century and this rejection has been vindicated by experience and has led to the Party’s traditional case for abolishing class ownership by one short, sharp political act.
 The Socialist Party is well aware that revolution and evolution are dialectically inseparable processes: the former is the outcome of the latter. With a growing socialist majority the class struggle will take new forms, not least because the ruling class will become ever more cunning and ruthless as its hegemony is more and more threatened. Critics have accused the Socialist Party with some foolish ideas which we do not hold such as the use of Parliament alone. The Party is aware that the use of parliament by a socialist majority is just one part of a much broader movement for change in which the revolutionised ideas and activities of millions of class-conscious workers will be rather more important than the actions of delegates in parliament. Nor does  the Socialist Party rely simply upon the agency of ‘abstract propaganda’. Our propaganda is not abstract: we relate to the real experiences of workers today, constantly making clear in our speaking and writing that socialism is the immediately practical solution to workers’ so-called “short-term interests”.

We present our objective as an immediate solution to the problems of the present and not as a futuristic utopia. All serious socialists do this. What on earth would be the point of proposing an alternative to capitalism which will only be capable of liberating workers after they are dead?  Our appeal to workers is upon the basis of class interest and our appeal will be successful because the class struggle generates class consciousness in workers. Most people who like socialism as a “nice idea” but despair about its achievements are utopians, and as such they lack a sense of liberation as an historical phenomenon—a product of victory in the class war.

There is no doubt that socialists, as active participants in the making of history, must be aware of the way in which capitalism evolves. We need to monitor the dynamics of working-class consciousness which is changing all the time. The ideas of revolution will only grow out of the ideas evolving now. It is quite right to say that ideas developing within capitalism (even if they are not socialist ideas) “prefigure” the ideas which will lead to revolution. As social ideas move further away from the domination of the capitalist system we can expect there to be some flexibility in human relations. For example, attitudes to the family are not now as subservient to the norms of capitalism as they used to be, and therefore workers’ living arrangements have changed. It is difficult to know just how much  room capitalism can allow for flexible relationships, i. e. ones not in line with its norms and best interests. What can be asserted is that capitalism cannot allow more than the slightest and most insignificant room for relationships which transcend wage labour and capital.

Many Leftists think that the Socialist Party seems unconcerned with “short term interests within capitalism”  and offer the example of our failure to be directly involved in trade unions. The reason for this is that as socialists we are engaged in a necessarily contradictory struggle: on the one hand we propose the abolition of the wages system as an immediately practical alternative, but on the other we recognise the need of workers to fight the wages struggle within capitalism. But, as socialists, our main energies must be directed towards the former objective. We could, of course, remove this distinction between the trade union struggle within capitalism and the socialist struggle against capitalism by adopting the ideas of the DeLeonists, who at one time advocated that socialists should form their own socialist unions. This would be an example of breaking  down the false dichotomy between short and long term interests. But the result proved an utter failure when DeLeonist trade unions which were set up in the USA and, to a lesser extent, in Scotland. Indeed, the failure of  “socialist industrial unionism”  is a very important case study of the danger of imagining that capitalist institutions such as trade unions can be easily converted into socialist bodies. They demonstrate that capitalism cannot be transcended from within.

The reasons why the Party rejected this gradualist theory and policy is that the Party’s theory of revolution was formulated from an application of Marxian economic theory to the workings of capitalism on the one hand, and from the nature of socialism on the other. This established a framework of limitations and possibilities of what could be achieved by the working class acting in its interests. From this work, it became a political premise that the economic operation of capitalism could not be controlled in a manner which would allow for any gradual realisation of working class interests amounting to the gradual establishment of socialism. Moreover, a society which would be consciously and democratically controlled by its members in the interests of all its members could only be established by the conscious political act of a majority. This is what the Left reject—thoroughly and out of hand—even in face of the fact that the force of the Party’s arguments has not diminished with the passing of time; on the contrary, as capitalism has continued to develop as a world system, it has become more compelling.

For Marx, the basic social relationships in any society are how the members of that society are organised to produce and distribute wealth, what he called interchangeably “the economic structure of society” and “the mode of production”. These basic economic relationships have two distinct aspects: who does what in the context of the technical division of labour but, essentially, who controls access to the means of production and the distribution of the products. In Marx’s view, to a particular structure of economic relationships there corresponds a particular superstructure of non-economic social institutions—the State, law, religion, family, etc—and a particular body of ideas motivating social behaviour.
The economic relationships of any society are, according to Marx, determined by “the material conditions of production”, by which he meant the geography and natural physical characteristics of the area in which the society was operating and, above all, the instruments of production and productive skills at its disposal. Marx refers to these two factors also as “the material forces of production”.
In class-divided societies the class which controls access to the means of production and the distribution of the products is the group which, due to the nature of the material conditions of production, plays, or originally played, a key technical role in the organisation of production. In times of social stability state power will also be controlled by this class and it is precisely this control of the public power of coercion that allows a class to continue to control production and distribution even after its original technical role has disappeared.
 Social change is provoked, according to Marx, by some change in the material conditions of production, in particular—since geography and natural physical conditions change only rarely—by changes in the nature and productive power of the instruments of production at the disposal of society brought about by technological development.
Technological change does lead to social change but not automatically since it is humans that make history. The social change made necessary by some change in technology has to be struggled for by some group of humans, pursuing their class interest. The group which, due to the technological change, has come to play the key organising role in the new productive methods will tend to emerge as the new dominant class, but it will have to struggle for this. This will involve it becoming conscious of its class interest and then organising both to further its economic interests and to capture control of political power from the old dominant class.
So, for Marx, the course of social change is as follows: (i) change in material conditions of production; (ii) emergence of new class playing key role in production; (iii) growing class consciousness and organisation as a class; (iv) capture of political power by this class; (v) transformation of the economic structure (i.e., class relations) of society.

 Applied to the coming of socialism this gives: the material conditions of production which originally gave rise to capitalism change, abolishing the key technical role which the class of capitalist entrepreneurs once played in production. Production becomes more and more interconnected and the key organising role in production passes from the entrepreneurial class to the class of wage and salary workers as a whole. This was what Marx meant when he talked of modern industry being operated by a “collective labourer” of which individual workers, whatever the nature of their job, were organs, and it is what we mean when we say that the working class now run industry from top to bottom and that the capitalist class has long since become redundant as far as playing any necessary technical role in production is concerned.

 The continuation of class ownership of already socially-interconnected and collectively-operated means of production is the basic contradiction of modern capitalist society and can only be solved by the replacement of class ownership by the ownership and control of the means of production by society as a whole, i. e. by socialism. The class that has an interest in struggling for this is precisely the class that already collectively operates the means of production: the working class in the broad sense of the term. To end the contradiction between class ownership and socially-interconnected, collective production, this class must become conscious of its interest in establishing socialism and organise both to pursue its economic interests and to win control of political power and transform the economic structure of society by abolishing class ownership.

What we  say is that the material conditions of production have already changed so as to create the material basis for socialism (socially-interconnected production carried out by a collective workforce) and that this will be followed—is being followed to a certain extent—by gradual change in political and social consciousness  which will go on until there is a sufficient majority organised to win political power and revolutionise the economic structure of society by abolishing its class basis.  Abolishing a class structure which the evolution of the material conditions of production has rendered anachronistic is something that can  be done in one go or at least in a very short period of time.

The Left’s  basic mistake here is to confuse the material conditions of production (which are technical) with the economic structure of society (which is concerned with class relations). The former can indeed not be changed in one go but can only change through a process of gradual evolution, but the latter can. Thus the feudal property rights of the French aristocracy were abolished in one go in 1789 just as were those of the Russian aristocracy in 1917. Now that the material conditions for their abolition have evolved (since the end of the last century in fact) capitalist property rights can similarly be abolished in one go. Changes do not always proceed, neither in nature nor in society, at a slow uniform pace.

Goods and services are socially produced and result from a world-wide technical division of labour. Production today is a complex social process. Even the simplest item like a pencil requires the direct and indirect labour of thousands of workers. Production today is a tremendously complicated social process: the production of any one item is intricately bound up with the production of all other items. Autonomous production unit is impossible.

Together with the working-up of materials and final products throughout the world-wide network of productive links, given capitalism, what also takes place throughout this structure is the circulation of capital, its expansion through the exploitation of workers and the realisation of surplus value in the markets. The structure of useful production can only be activated by the deployment of capital with the object of its accumulation. This accumulation depends on each and every part of production and distribution being regulated by buying and selling and it is impossible for any unit to be exempted from this economic process. This means that the mining of raw materials cannot take place unless in the final sequence of production and distribution goods are being sold at a profit. The sale price of any final product must include the profits made in every sequence of production, and without this production and distribution breaks down throughout the structure. In combination these factors operate as a constant pressure of economic selection through which the structure of production is maintained as an exclusively capitalist structure.

Whether or not a production unit or distribution unit or service takes the form of a workers’ co-operative can have no bearing whatsoever on the pressures which compel it to meet the economic conditions for its existence. Nor do the details of how a unit runs its affairs matter. It can be a kibbutz or a co-operative taking decisions collectively; it can be a monastery producing pottery, honey or herbs; it can be a conventional business; in whatever way they are internally structured, authoritarian or democratic, and in whatever scale they may operate, as a part of social production they are a link in the economic circuits of capitalism and can only operate within the pattern of buying and selling.

In buying in its machinery, equipment, materials, premises, transport etc., and in paying its rates etc, any unit, including any workers’ co-operative, must pay all these costs. How could any imagined “socialistic” unit operate without power supplies? In its application of socialist principles in production and consumption, is it going to persuade the Central Electricity Generating Board to provide electricity free? It is on this point alone—the question of how these units will get their electricity, without which it is impossible to switch on a light, let alone run an autonomous socialistic enterprise.

It should be emphasised that the running costs of any unit include the profits made by all the other units previously involved in the production of the materials, machinery, power supplies, etc, which are being bought in. If it fails to meet these costs, which include these profits, then the unit will not be supplied, and the funds for these costs must be derived from its own sales income. In addition to this income, the individuals working in the unit must have income to cover personal living costs such as rent or mortgage repayments, food, clothes, leisure activities, and so on and on. This is inescapable.

The opportunities for the viable existence of any production or service unit are uniquely determined under capitalism by the sales opportunities presented by the market. This was outlined by Marx in Chapter 51, Volume 3 of Capital, under the heading “Distribution Relations and Production Relations”, and in other places. “They [distribution relations] determine the entire character and the entire movement of production.” This involves the fact that sales in the market determine the distribution of necessary income in the form of profits, rent, wages, etc, and thereby the conditions of production. The idea that a production unit can be set up in accordance with “socialistic” principles, as an act of free choice against the economic forces of what Marx called distribution relations, is pure nonsense.

The pressure of economic selection determining the existence and operation of all production units exerts itself as this matter of daily book-keeping. Regardless of their make-up, production or service units can only continue their existence whilst they are economically viable; that is, where income exceeds expenditure. If expenditure exceeds income, then inevitably they disappear, as the constant number of bankruptcies well attests. This is how the structure of production is maintained as an exclusively capitalist structure. These pressures of economic selection cannot be set aside within the capitalist framework, even if circumstances where there may be a substantial growth of the socialist movement.

In certain parts of the world pre-capitalist property relationships exist (although they should not forget the fact that most peasants are affected by the wage labour relationship and do exist under the influence of the capitalist world market). But some  go on to ask why it is that, as certain pre-capitalist relationships exist in parts of the capitalist world, post-capitalist (i.e. socialist) relationships cannot exist within capitalism. The answer is quite simple. Capitalism is a system of property society and, as such, can co-exist with other forms of property society, such as feudalism and even slavery. We are not concerned here with the peripheral activities of subsistence farmers in Africa who may be in the process of being absorbed within the world-wide wage labour/capital relationship, but who still retain residual tribal practices, co-operating to produce food for their own consumption. The reason is that they are barely yet a part of social production, but even in these cases it will not be found that they are entirely free of the need for cash. In a similar sense, neither are we concerned with the example of a British worker who digs his own allotment.

On the face of it, millions of hours of housework are carried in as unpaid labour on a voluntary basis, but every person engaged in housework depends upon an income. Housewives and others live from that part of the social product which is distributed to the working class in the form of wages, salaries or perhaps doles. Vital industries which are nationalised can be continued for long periods with a trading loss, but only as a result of being subsidised within definite limits from other profitable parts of production.

The irresistible mechanisms which can only allow particular production units to exist on the basis of economic viability rule out any possibility of combining in production and distribution the productive relations of class monopoly, wage labour/capital, commodity production and the operation of the market with the relations of common ownership, democratic control, production for use and free access. These are mutually exclusive relations of social production. It is on this basic proposition and the theory which underpins it, that the Party has formulated its revolutionary objective: that socialism can only be established by the politically conscious act of a socialist majority.

Socialism is a non-property system, and systems which accept and reject property cannot co-exist. However critics they state that  “socialistic” relationships will invadethe capitalist economy. The main example of such an invasion which is sometimes presented are co-operatives economic units. It is proposed that as socialist consciousness develops these co-ops will be gradually be gutted of their capitalist content. They will be run eventually upon the basis of “free production” and ultimately they will link together and evolve “towards a totally socialist society” .

This projection of revolutionary change is incompatible with what capitalism can allow. Relationships are being envisaged as developing within capitalism which the system dooms to failure. Where is the financing of these co-ops to come from? Presumably not from workers’ savings: as long ago as 1904 the Socialist Party dismissed the fallacy that the workers can “buy out” the bosses. If capitalist banks are to provide loans to finance these co-ops is it not certain that they will make demands upon them which will undermine their “socialistic” nature? Existing within the cut-throat environment of the world market, is it not inevitable that the economic goodwill of the co-operators will be swamped by the iron laws of the profit system, with all of the exploitative demands which it places upon enterprises? Indeed, far from being able to “demonstrate a better life to workers trapped in the remaining units of capitalism” , the workers making an inevitable failure of running “free production” under capitalism would provide an ideal case study for the anti-socialist propagandists—even more so if such enterprises failed with the backing of the Socialist Party.

How do these co-ops locked into the nexus of capitalist relations evolve towards a totally socialist society?  Even given the well-known power of dialectical logic to resolve contradictions, it seems incredible to think that institutions which are locked into capitalism are going to evolve out of it. If developing the new within the kernel of the old alternative scenario is an example of  revolutionary realism can the in contrast  the Party’s theory of revolution  be accused of lacking credibility and naivity?!

Another departure from the Marxian materialist approach in another important respect too: they do not see the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class as the basis of the struggle for socialism. In this scenario involves workers not staying in socially-interconnected industry where the bulk of social wealth is still produced  and fighting the class struggle there, but withdrawing from what they frankly admit to be “the more technically complex capitalist concerns” and setting up small-scale, and inevitably technically more backward, co-operative concerns. As supposed practical examples of the benefits of socialism, such co-operatives-—in which  workers could well be materially worse off would probably put more workers off than they would attract.

The economic laws of capitalism will continue to operate, essentially unaltered until the very eve of socialism. The Left hold that, on the contrary, the growth of socialist consciousness and organisation will enable workers to withstand and in the end overcome the “iron laws of capitalism”. Actually, “iron laws” is perhaps over-stating it since the economic laws of capitalism (as Marx pointed out with regard to the so-called “iron law of wages”) are not completely rigid; their operation does allow those affected by them a limited margin for manoeuvre. However, this margin is not very wide and these economic laws really do act as a coercive external force constraining those engaged in the production and distribution of wealth to act in certain ways. The growth of socialist consciousness and organisation will allow workers to prosecute the class struggle more effectively  and to this extent the limited freedom of manoeuvre which the economic laws of capitalism allow the employing class will be limited even more. But the suggestion that a “socialistic” co-operative sector of the economy would be able to defy the economic laws of capitalism to the extent of being able “to disengage from the market and operate on the principle of free production” goes way beyond this. It amounts to asserting that the economic laws of capitalism can be overcome by a mere act of will.

 To accept this assertion would be to abandon the whole case against reformism. For if the economic laws of capitalism can be overcome by an act of socialist will on the economic field, two questions immediately arise: Why could they not also be overcome by acts of will inspired by other motives than socialist ones, for instance by acts of nationalist or religious will? And if the economic laws of capitalism can be overcome by action on the economic field, why can they not also be overcome by political action, which is more powerful than economic action since it can rely on coercive force as well as on consciousness and will? How, in other words, could we refute arguments in favour of  “socialism in one country” and arguments in favour of a gradualist evolution to socialism under a series of successive “socialist” governments?
As a matter of fact the classical gradualists, such as the Fabians in Britain, could make out a better case for their gradualist road to socialism . For what is being proposed is  small-scale and technically-backward co-operatives, acting purely on the economic field and without any governmental support, as a suitable medium through which the invasion of socialistic relationships within the capitalist economy may be effected . The Fabians, on the other hand, saw this suitable means as being the state enterprise (the nationalised industry) and these state enterprises as enjoying the active support of the government in their struggle to restrict and reduce the capitalist sector of the economy.

 If the gradualist and voluntarist approach was possible, why, given the same growth of socialist consciousness they introduce to underwrite their co-operatives, could not state enterprises just as much as workers’ co-operatives be progressively gutted of their capitalist content and converted into socialistic institutions run as free public servicing producing for use not profit at the expense of a dwindling profit-motivated and market-oriented capitalist sector of the economy? Such a scenario is much more credible than the one outlined by proponents of co-ops and many would probably  join the Labour Party or Left state-cqpitalist parties to work towards making it come true. How would the apologists for co-ops  refute such an alternative gradualist model of social evolution? And why do they reject state intervention and aid in favour of their workers’ co-operatives in their struggle against the capitalist sector?

If we were to accept (contrary to all the evidence from the functioning of capitalism to date) that the economic laws of capitalism could be overcome in the voluntarist way then we undermine the whole case against governments’ not being able to make capitalism serve human interests and so against reformist action aimed at gradually transforming capitalism into socialism. We would deny all we have ever said about capitalism not being able to be reformed, about governments being changed by capitalism rather than changing capitalism, about profits having to come before needs. 


It is useful to look at how the Socialist Party’s position and its theory have fared in the test of time and of experience. Over the years, the Party’s theory has led to the formation of a body of knowledge which has been consistently capable of accurate political and economic predictions.

For example, in 1917, the Bolsheviks were convinced that they were setting society in Russia on a course of change towards socialism. The Party argued that socialism was not being established in Russia. What followed was the horrendous misery of the Stalinist years. The Party put forward the same view of events in China in 1949. What is happening in Russia and China now? The rulers of these state-capitalist regimes introduced free-market capitalism.
In the post-war euphoria of 1945, when the Labour Party was elected with the objective of establishing a “socialist” Britain, the Party, again arguing from its theory, insisted that there would be no new social order. In fact, that Labour Government steered capitalism in Britain through the post-war crisis, enabling it to be massively expanded in the boom years of the 1950s. What is happening in the Labour Party now? Confused and directionless, it stands utterly bankrupt of ideas. The Labour Party even abandoned its adherence to Keynesian theories which the Party always insisted could never provide policies which would remove the anarchy of capitalism. Clause 4 and the introduction of “socialism” are now only a distant memory.

In all these movements of the 20th century, all based in one form or another on the idea of a gradual change towards socialism, the energies of millions of workers have been diverted and channelled into fruitless or self-destructive actions. During this time, capitalism with all its consequences has continued to develop to the point where it has now built up a world-wide structure embracing countless millions of additional population in Asia, India, Africa and South America.

The Socialist Party exists at present as a co-operative, voluntary organisation; all of our literature is written, and much of it is now printed, by co-operative effort. It is very probable that as more socialists come into the socialist movement many of them will have involvements in all kinds of areas of the class struggle, ranging from strike committees to anti-racist or anti-sexist  groups to community and neighbourhood associations, people’s theatre projects to libertarian education projects. The sooner we win over more such members with practical, consciousness-raising involvements in the activities of the working class the better it will be for the Party. Those members who can spare any time from the enormous pressures of Party work should do their best to be involved in such activities now, although it is not easy for members whose free time is devoted to a great extent to Party work to adopt these other activities.

However involved individual members may or may not be in what is going on outside the Socialist Party, we certainly need to be aware that workers are doing things which, often unknowingly, are contributing to the evolution of class consciousness. Not everything has to have the stamp of approval of the Party for it to be non-reformist and contributory to the evolution which precedes revolution. The Socialist Party must guard against appearing to be the sole agent of the socialist transformation; in general we do avoid the well-known sectarian error of giving that appearance. Our main task is to find better ways of expressing our message to as many workers as possible, to evolve a strategy so that we use our resources well and to retain our confidence in the face of the immense frustration which socialists often encounter.

The Left’s difficulty appears to be that they can’t see how workers who have become socialists can be expected to sit back and wait for a majority to join them before being able to do something constructive. But no-one’s asking them to do this. There will be a whole series of “practical” actions, apart from socialist propaganda activity, that will become possible when once there is a substantial minority of socialists (as opposed to the tiny minority we are today). For instance:

1) the practice of democracy within the socialist political party, and the broader socialist movement generally, so demonstrating that democratic self-administration is possible;
2) the drawing up of plans to reorganise decision-making on a fully democratic basis and to reorient production towards the satisfaction of needs once class ownership and the operation of capitalism’s economic laws have been ended
3) work inside Parliament and local councils by the minority (and, in the case of some local councils, maybe even a majority) of elected Socialist members and the branches of the socialist party to which they are responsible;
4) work within the trade unions to prosecute the class struggle on the economic front in a more class-conscious and democratic way as well as drawing up plans for keeping production going during the period of social revolution while political action is being taken to end the monopoly exercised by the capitalist class over the means of production;
5) work within the numerous socialist associations, social clubs and mutual aid groups that will flourish at this time, to discuss and prepare the implementation of plans in such fields as town planning, education and culture both after and to a certain extent even before the establishment of socialism.

The socialist movement cannot control whether or not workers become socialists. What we can provide, and what we have continuously provided, is a theory of revolution which would, if taken up by workers, have prevented the incalculable misery of billions of people in wars, famines, and the poverty and degradation of economic exploitation.

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