The SPGB argues that it is about engaging people with the vision of socialism. There is nothing automatic about social change, it has to be struggled for. The Left relies upon a notion of the inherently revolutionary nature of the working class and that through the class struggle this inherently revolutionary character will show itself. Although, it hasn’t. It's also flawed because it shows no reason why, due to the failure of reform, the workers should turn to socialism. Why, since it was people calling themselves socialists who advocated that reform, don’t they turn against it, or even to fascism? Under the model of revolution presented by the Trotskyists the only way the working class could come to socialist consciousness is through a revolution is made by the minority with themselves as its leaders.This, then, explains their insistance about needing to “be” where the mass of the working class is. It is the reason why a supposedly revolutionary party should change its mind to be with the masses, rather than trying to get the masses to change their minds and be with it. They do not want workers to change their minds, merely to become followers. Their efforts are not geared towards changing minds, or raising revolutionary class consciousness.
To repeat, we see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that bring essential improvements and enhance the quality of their lives, and some reforms do indeed make a difference to the lives of millions and can be viewed as “successful”. There are examples of this in such fields as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. Socialists have to acknowledge that the “welfare” state, the NHS and so on, made living standards for some sections of the working class better than they had been under rampant capitalism and its early ideology of laissez faire, although these ends should never be confused with socialism. However, in this regard we also recognise that such “successes” have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families in efficient working order and, while it has taken the edge of the problem, it has rarely managed to remove the problem completely. Socialists do not oppose reformism because it is against improvements in workers’ lives lest they dampen their revolutionary ardour; nor, because it thinks that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as propertyless wage slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms. Our objection to reformism is that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the workings of the wages system. All that effort, skill, energy, all those tools could be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing struggle. What we are opposed to is the whole culture of reformism, the idea that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable with the right reforms.
If the view remains that the struggle for reforms is worthwhile then imagine just how many palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain ownership rights if the working class were demanding the maximum socialist programme of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. Reforms now derided as utopian will become two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers. Perhaps, even, capitalism will provide a batch of free services, on the understanding that this is “the beginning” of a free society, but,of course real socialists will not be taken in.
What is at stake here is not a question of tactics or strategy but principle. We believe, to paraphrase Lenin’s words but reverse their meaning, that workers, exclusively by their own efforts, are capable of a socialist consciousness. Workers are human beings and individuals in themselves; they are not dumb masses to be tricked, led, deceived, and lied to, for the greater good. That’s why, actually, we are not sectarian and the Left are. We join workers struggles as workers. We take part in the democratic process as equals with our fellows. We do not join for purposes of our own; we have no programme of demands hidden up our sleeves to be produced at a later date, nor a one-party dictatorship to produce as a nasty surprise at an even later date. That’s why, when we join workers struggles as individuals and not as a leadership party, and reject the Left, we are not being sectarian — quite the opposite. We are being principled socialists.
What genuinely puzzles Socialist Party members is why the Left cannot (or refuses to) comprehend our position. We understand theirs perfectly well, one in which workers generally will not become socialists all by themselves, but will, at times, engage in struggle to protect their own interests. Therefore, socialists should organise into political parties that also engage in these struggles with the view of leading the workers to victory, in the first instance, and into support for the party in the second. As the party builds up such support, it will then be in a position to seize power on behalf of the working class and put in place ‘socialist’ (actually, state capitalist) measures. Now, as a broad brush and short statement, is this true or false?
A similarly simple and broad brush statement of our position is that fellow-workers do not need any advice or leadership from socialists when it comes to struggling to defend their own interests within capitalism. They do it all by themselves all the time. However, such struggles have their limits within capitalism: they cannot go beyond the law of value, and the combined forces of the capitalists and the state can almost always defeat them if they put their mind to it. Workers who realise this tend to become socialists. As they become socialists, they see the necessity for going beyond such day to day struggles (these unavoidable and incessant guerilla battles, as Marx put it) and the need for a political party aimed solely for socialism. This political party must not advocate reforms, not because it is against reforms (how on earth could a working class party be against reforms in the working class interest?), but because it wants to build support for socialism, and not for reforms. Simple, isn't it?
We are not and nor are the working class fooled by rhetoric of a re-hash of transitional programme. Nor are we taken in by the claims of party democracy, one that is based upon Leninist “democratic centralist” lines in which the executive committee are the policy-making leadership, upon a hierarchy where each layer of leadership has power over the levels below it, with the party’s national leadership – the members of its central committee – at the top. Power in the hands of the leaders and in practice reduces the rank-and-file members to a mere consultative role. The welfare state – most particularly its health service component – originally represented an advance for many workers, though it was certainly not introduced with benevolence in mind. We have never said that all reforms are doomed to failure and do not really make a difference to workers’ lives? There are many examples of ‘successful’ reforms in such fields as education, housing, child employment, conditions of work and social security. The Socialist Party does not oppose all reforms as such, only the futile and dangerous attempt to seek power to administer capitalism on the basis of a reform programme – reformism.
It seems unlikely that the working class and its organisations are strong enough to stop austerity measures being imposed, let alone imposing their own demands. But we must start from where we are. Boris Johnson and the new government will be expecting that we'll just take whatever’s coming to us. We must try to prove them wrong. Where socialists have their most vital contribution to make – a clear idea about alternatives is not mere utopianism, but an important ingredient in inspiring successful struggle. An upturn in class war is the only basis on which socialism can begin to make sense and seem like a credible and possible alternative to capitalism for the working class as a whole.
We welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class. But we also know, from bitter experience, that work of an altogether quieter, patient, more political kind is also needed. The skirmishes in the class war must be fought if we are not to be reduced to beasts of burden. But as human animals capable of rational thought and long-term planning, we must also seek to stop the skirmishes by winning the class war, and thereby ending it. As revolutionaries, we do not advocate reforms, that is, changes in the way capitalism runs, such as alterations to the tax system. Reforms, no matter how‘radical’, can never make capitalism run in the interests of the workers. Nor should supporting reforms be some kind of tactic pursued by socialists to gain support from workers, for workers who joined a socialist party because they admired its reformist tactics would turn it into a reformist organisation pure and simple. To attract support on the basis of reformist policies but really aim at revolution would be quite dishonest to get workers’ support on the basis of saying one thing while really wanting something quite different. History showed us the fate of the social democratic parties, which despite a formal commitment to socialism as an “ultimate goal”, admitted the non-socialist to their ranks and sought non-socialist support for a reform programme of capitalism rather than a socialist platform. In order to maintain their non-socialist support, they were themselves forced to drop all talk of socialism and become even more openly reformist. Today the social democratic parties are firmly wedded to capitalism in theory and in practice. We say that this was the inevitable result of the admission of non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. That is why we have always advocated socialism and never called for the reform of capitalism. We are not saying that all reforms are anti–working class, but as a socialist party advocating reforms, it would be its first step towards its transformation into a reformist party. Regardless of why or how the reforms are advocated, the result is the same: confusion in the minds of the working class instead of growth of socialist consciousness.
The institution of government does not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues – even if those appeals take the form of mass public protests. On the contrary, government only feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognise it as the supreme authority to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues they are remaining committed to supporting the system as a whole. But government will take quite a different view when large numbers of people confront it not to plead from a position of weakness for this or that change or addition to the statute book, but to challenge the whole basis of the way we live – in other words to question the inevitability of buying and selling and production for profit, and to actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative. In such circumstances, the governments aim will be to buy off the growing socialist consciousness of workers. In other words, reforms will be much more readily granted to a large and growing socialist movement than to reformers campaigning over individual issues within the present system. Not of course that the growing movement will be content with the reforms the old system hands out. To those who still say that, while they ultimately want socialism, it is a long way off and we must have reforms in the meantime, we would reply that socialism need not be a long way off and there need not be a meantime. If all the immense dedication and energy that have been channelled into reform activity over the past 200 years had been directed towards achieving socialism, then socialism would have been established long ago and the problems the reformists are still grappling with (income inequality, unemployment, health, housing, education, war. etc.) would all be history. It is only when people leave reformism behind altogether that socialism will begin to appear to them not as a vague distant prospect, something for others to achieve, but as a clear, immediate alternative which they themselves can – and must – help to bring about.
We do not require lectures on political unity from those on the Left who are well-deserved of the title 57 Varieties, having mostly been made up out of splits of splits of splits. Why should we join a host of other political non-starters that have come and gone in the past.
We have no objection to workers and socialists gettting involved in fights for partial demands but don’t believe the party should do that. We regard the strategy of transitional demands as elitist and manipulative, as well as just downright silly. The party’s task is NOT to “lead the workers in struggle” or even to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants’ associations or whatever, because we believe that socialists and class-conscious workers have the capacity of making decisions for themselves. If this sounds difficult to understand, it’s because you haven’t risen beyond a Leninist level of consciousness. To the question of a united class we hold that within trade unions for practical reasons for unions, in order to be effective, must recruit all workers in a particular industry or trade regardless of political or philosophical views. A union, regardless of type, to be effective today must depend primarily on numbers rather than understanding. We dismissed the chances of large numbers of workers, pragmatic proletarians, resigning from established unions for small radical organisations that can show no evidence of power, which is an immediate question for them. We were castigated for such a position by the so-called radicals of the syndicalist movement who liked to call us the sectarians. As the current recession within capitalism continues, squeezing and stamping down upon the working class ever more relentlessly, alongside the growing realisation of the failure of all forms of running the system; then there is definitely a growing POTENTIAL for the escalation of struggle towards the overthrow of the system. However, how many times has the potential been there in past moments of escalated struggle and capitalist crisis only to disappear or to be channelled into reformist, pro-capitalist directions? Discontent over wages or conditions can be a catalyst for socialist understanding but so can many other things such as concern about the environment or war or the threat of war or bad housing or the just the general culture of capitalism. The SPGB does not minimise the necessity or importance of the workers keeping up the struggle to maintain wage-levels and resisting cuts, etc. If they always yielded to the demands of their exploiters without resistance they would not be worth their salt, nor be fit for waging the class struggle to put an end to exploitation. Successes through such actions as striking and protests may well encourage other workers to stand up for their rights more but the reality remains that the workers’ strength is determined by their position within the capitalist economy, and their victories will always be partial ones within the market system. Only by looking to the political situation, the reality of class ownership and power within capitalism, and organising to make themselves a party to the political battle in the name of common ownership for their mutual needs, will a general gain come to workers, and an end to these sectional battles. Otherwise, the ultimate result of the strikes will be the need to strike or demonstrate again in the future.The never-ending treadmill of the class struggle. Workers can never win the class struggle while it is confined simply to the level of trade union militancy. It requires to be transformed into socialist consciousness. I see little evidence of the Left engaging with worker on the question of socialism but find ample proof that leftists feeds the working class with false illusions. Our general position is well known; we oppose all restrictions imposed by decaying and outmoded capitalism. We oppose passports, we oppose the attempt to restrict the free movement of labour, the capitalists idea of “Fortress Europe” etc. But truth is concrete and on this issue we have to take account of the different levels of consciousness of the proletariat. We cannot put forward, in the manner of the sects, the bald slogan of “open borders” or of “no to immigration controls” or a variant of this, things to all people thats supposed to be a principled position.
Our Party rules are openly published for all to see. Thinking is not and never has been a violation of socialist discipline. Marx believed that, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves. The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be ‘spontaneous’ in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about. Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary, but would come to be carried out by workers themselves, whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist manifesto, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” This is not the same analysis advocated by Lenin or Trotsky. The Left put forward a whole raft of reformist demands that on paper might seem to be appealing. The only problem is that there is no plan to actually achieve these demands – they are “pretend” demands. Trotsky himself called these kind of demands “transitional demands” – the idea being to look at everybody else’s demands and make bigger demands so they sound great.
Occasionally, they might achieve a demand which will make them seem sincere, however the idea isn’t to achieve these demands – it is to not achieve them! This is the Troskyists’ grand master plan to make workers dissatisfied, so the latter will become revolutionary and flock behind their political leadership. In other words, the workers are to be the infantry led by the Trotskyist generals. The Left have real aims quite different to the reform programme they peddle. In this they are being as dishonest as any other politician, from the left or right. The ultimate result of this is disillusionment with the possibility of radical change. Genuine socialists get tarred with the same brush. When someone comes across the Socialist Party for the first time, a common reaction is to consider us as just another left-wing political organisation. The Left use similar terminology to us, talking of socialism, class struggle, exploitation, etc, and invoking Karl Marx. But digging a little deeper will show that our political position is very different from that of the Left. The Socialist Party is not on the Left. There is so much manipulation, dishonesty, and downright erroneous thinking connected with the Left that we would not wish to be associated with them in any way.