I must be getting touchy in my old age, cantankerous even. Someone uses the word “socialism” out of term and it’s like a red rag to a bull. I can’t help it – the word means something definite to me.
I’ll be talking to someone in the street, a Labour Party member for instance, and he’ll say something like: “We socialists should stick together,” and I’m off on my high horse. Or someone on the letters page of the local paper will advocate some policy which he or she thinks is ‘socialist’, like “let’s renationalise the railways”, and that’s it!
I’m not being an awkward git, confrontational for the hell of it. It’s just that to me if socialism means anything then it is the antithesis of capitalism. If capitalism means commodity production, production for profit, wage slavery, then socialism as a competing political ideology (I hate that bloody word) must stand for something else. And it does. It is everything capitalism is not and everything every mainstream political party does not stand for. The Labour Party certainly has nothing to do with socialism. As Tony Benn said, writing in The Independent not to many years ago: “Labour is not now nor ever has been a socialist party. Individual members do not decide its policy and neither are its election promises meant to be taken seriously.”
Socialism to me means a global system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s natural and industrial resources. It means a world in which each person has a free and equal say in how their society is run. It means a world without borders or frontiers, social class or leaders, states or governments, force or coercion. It means abolishing the money system, releasing production from the artificial constraints of profit and establishing a world of free access to the benefits of civilisation. It means a world in which people give freely to society whatever skills or abilities they have, for the betterment of society, and taking in return whatever they need, according to their own self-defined needs, from the stockpile of communal wealth. And I keep referring to “a world” because socialism can only exist on a global scale, just as capitalism, does. It can’t exist in one country, in isolation.
Socialism, you hear!? Not bloody capitalism. Show me when the Labour Party has ever advocated any of the above and I’ll eat this keyboard!
I’ve came across dozens of organisations claiming the socialist title and spreading all manner of reformist gobbledygook. I have a decent collection of their leaflets and publications. I’m damned right to be livid. They spread nothing but confusion and make the job of genuine socialists all that more difficult when it comes to untangling the mess of ideas they have created in people’s minds. I mean, I’ll meet someone who’ll buy a pamphlet from me, or who’ll take a leaflet, and who will then tell you his ‘socialist’ ideas about pulling Britain out of Europe, saying ‘no’ the Euro or nationalising the top one-hundred-and-fifty companies, and when you ask him where he gets these ideas he’ll say, “Oh, the Socialist Party of England and Wales” or “the Socialist Labour Party,” as if there are a set of policies on which all socialists, of whatever hue, agree are‘socialist policies’ - and you wince!
And it’s at this stage you get to realise just what a sisyphean task being a socialist really is.
Put it this way: Back in 1997, we were contesting the Jarrow Parliamentary Seat at the General Election. We had a stall up in Jarrow shopping centre, with a banner attached to the front of it. We were handing out leaflets, selling the Socialist Standard and generally engaging the public in quite friendly discussion as they stopped by our stall. The people of Jarrow are generally affable. We were doing okay and then along come the SWP. They set up a stall 20 feet in front of ours, attach a banner to the front of it advocating support for the Labour Party and then start selling the Socialist Worker, which is also promoting the Blairite cause.
Christ! In 1997 Tony Blair had stolen Thatcher’s clothes and left her stark staring naked. Labour was moving to the right of the Tories and there was this allegedly socialist group urging the workers to vote for Labour, urging them to acquiesce in their own exploitation.
I went across and challenged them. I showed them the editorial of the Socialist Review they were selling – it’s their monthly magazine – which says: “We urge our readers to support socialists wherever they are standing and the Labour Party where they are not.” And I ask what the bloody hell they are playing at.
“Don’t you realise we’re trying to put the socialist case to the workers in this town and that you’re undermining our efforts by urging them to support capitalism?”
The only reply I get is that I am an “abstract propagandist.”
Of course there is logic in the SWP approach. The idea is that: 1) you urge the workers to support Labour; 2) The workers support Labour as asked; 3) Labour gets into power, fucks up and can make no improvements to capitalism; 4) The workers then get disillusioned and turn away from support of Labour’s brand of capitalism and turn to the SWP 5) Who also support capitalism, albeit state capitalism in which the revolutionary hierarchy will manage the exploitation of the workers instead of private capitalists, shooting anyone who will not comply for being a counter-revolutionary.
And you wonder why I get vexed over the use of the word ‘socialism’? Okay, I’ll relate another situation.I’ll be standing at the Party pitch at the Annual Durham Miners’ Gala – we’ll have the Gazebo up and a display with literature and banners - and around the field there’ll be half a dozen lefty groups in attendance. I’ll be talking to a visitor to the stall who is querying the number of different ‘socialist’ groups at the event and she’ll say “Why don’t you socialists all get together and form one big Socialist Party?” And I just want to cry.
So you spend quarter of an hour explaining that there are not just little differences that separate, say, ourselves from the SWP, or the SPEW or the SLP or the WRP or the CPB or the RCP or the AWL or the RP, and which stop us from joining forces, but an unbridgeable ocean. They defend capitalism and we support socialism. They all want to reform the system, to ameliorate the harsher effects of capitalism. We are alone in wanting to abolish it. It’s like asking why we don’t get together with the Conservative Party – we, after all, all breathe oxygen. And the poor woman will walk away totally bewildered; under her arm half a dozen newspapers from the various stalls she has visited and which you know she is just not going to read.
This may lay me open to the charge of sectarianism. But we, the SPGB, have been around for 101 years and are the oldest existing socialist organisation in Britain. Most of the leftist groups out there are the result of a split from a split from a split, Johnny-come-lately. We have not compromised out position in those 101 years. Our standpoint is as it was in 1904 - the abolition of the wages system - whereas many leftist groups change their policies more times than they change their underpants, as if the generals of capitalism are forever changing their battle plan prompting them to retreat, regroup and attack again in a different formation. In truth, Capitalism has not changed – it is still the same social system it was 100 years ago and to which the time-honoured Marxian critique still applies.
And yet another anecdote. You’ll be out spreading the message, so to speak, and someone will turn on you and call you an “opportunist” and lambast you for jumping on every bandwagon going. “You’re all the bloody same,” they’ll snap, infuriated at having been offered a leaflet. And, before you get a chance to ask them to explain their criticism, they are off. But you know what it is based on – its based on their experience of having been asked to sign a thousand petitions outside of Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning, in support of everything from a ban on fox hunting and the lifting of immigration restrictions to the legitimisation of cannabis and bringing the troops home. Moreover, they will have seen a hundred demonstrations in which the usual suspects march along holding aloft the same old placards in one hand and their party paper in their other, led by others with loudspeakers through which they encourage the faithful to chant the mantra of the day.
Once more, you are the victim of the confusionists who have sullied the socialist title, guilty by virtue of the fact you call yourself a socialist and to whom some rule-of-thumb syllogism can be applied: socialists latch on to any lost cause; this man is a socialist, therefore he must have latched on to some lost cause.
So I think I’ve a right to be vexed. Your average genuine socialist spends more time explaining who he or she is not than the message he or she set out to impart in the first place:
“No, I’m nothing to do with New Labour….No, I have no petition for you to sign… No, I’m not asking for money from you…No, I’ve no leaflets in support of abolishing student fees….No, I don’t think Che Guevara was the bees knees….No….”
And all of this before you have to regurgitate your explanation of how Lenin and Stalin never established socialism in the Soviet Union and how human nature is not a barrier to a communistic system of society.
Being a socialist means you become a myth shatterer – because you spend the greatest portion of your activity shattering myths, dispelling illusions, setting the record straight. And sometimes its like trying to sweep up leaves in a park on a windy autumn day – sweeping them into a nice pile which is then scattered a moment later – because you go along carefully trying to show people the insanity of capitalism, explaining how a different world can come about and what it might be like, and behind you this whirl-wind of leftist confusion is on its path of destruction, undoing your work.
So forgive me if you hear me scream now and again.