I had considered myself a socialist for a dozen years before I understood what socialism was, and why on earth anyone should possibly want it. Oddly enough, that wasn’t for lack of opportunity. When I was a student in the early 1970s I took vacation work as a street-sweeper, and used to spend most of my lunchtimes in the reading room of the Greenock public library. My first encounter with Marxist ideas had come via the International Socialists (the SWP’s more evolved ancestors) and my head was full of a notion of revolution and socialism that was much more excited about process – workers’ councils, workers’ control, general strike, insurrection – than product. Nothing quite so thrilling was on offer in that reading room, but Tribune and the Morning Star and the Socialist Standard were. For want of anything else I devoured them all.
When I read the Socialist Standard, however, all I could see was that it advocated a parliamentary road to socialism, and addressed itself to “the workers of this country” at that. Parliamentary socialism? You mean, like Labour? Socialism in one country? You mean, like the Communists? Nobody was there to tell me otherwise, and I didn’t read enough to learn better. The Declaration of Principles struck me as some quaint, gaslit precursor of The British Road to Socialism.
This was a stupid mistake, but hey – I was a left-wing student. What do you expect? As some wag has said: “The experience of every country has shown that the left-wing intelligentsia, solely by its own efforts, can raise itself only to a vanguardist level of consciousness.”
For me, the idea of a classless, moneyless, (etc-less) society was something for the far future, after we’d waded through centuries of workers’ states and workers’ control. These centuries didn’t seem terribly attractive, but they were a sight better than the common ruin of the contending classes, so I reckoned we’d just have to thole it until the automation came on line.
Then, in the 1980s in another library, I came across a little book called Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Rubel and Crump. At the time I (like the rest of the pack) was obsessed with ‘market’ socialism, so I wasn’t hoping for much from it. Actually, it was like finding the map. Perhaps it was because I was now a wage-slave myself, and living in a council flat, travelling to work on the Underground, working for London Electricity, and shopping at the Coop – I knew very well that reforms could ameliorate, but not abolish, that condition. For the first time I could imagine it abolished, and what an emancipation that could be. At last I understood what the SPGB was on about. At last I understood what socialism was and why anyone would actually want it on its merits, and soon; instead of as something better than a nuclear war, and eventually.
Here is what I understood that case to be. From space you can see no borders. We, and previous generations, have built up a productive capacity that is more than sufficient to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and amuse everyone on the planet. The only barrier to its use for that purpose is that it exists as capital. The only basis for its continuing existence as capital is our continuing acceptance of capitalist and state property rights. From below, at the sharp end, in the worker’s-eye view, these look as obsolete and obscene as property rights in people. Without those rights, capital would just be machinery, that we all together already operate and improve upon every day, every minute, collectively and globally. The only way in which these rights can be permanently abolished is consciously, politically, collectively and globally, at one fell swoop. Not on the same day all over the world of course, but in the space of a few years, in one historical moment. And why not? Slavery and feudalism were in the end abolished, with a stroke of the pen followed if necessary by a stroke of the sword.
Why should we not think, then, of the abolition of capitalism? We can’t reform it out of existence. Long experience, as well as theory and common sense, tell us this.
Neither ‘socialist’ governments nor ‘communist’ regimes have ever brought society a day nearer socialism or communism. There are many reasons why not, but the basic reason is simple. Production for exchange can’t be gradually reformed into production directly for use. Nor, in a world where almost everything is produced as part of a global division of labour, can it be abolished locally in one community, or one country, or one continent. It’s all or nothing.
Closely related to that reason is another. A society of conscious and voluntary co-operation can’t be established unconsciously or unwillingly. It can’t be imposed from above or from outside or from behind our backs. Many will agree, if pressed, that the world cooperative commonwealth can be thus established eventually, but not now. In the meantime, they want something else: a society called socialism which retains wages, price, and profit but keeps them in the hands of the state and the state, they hope, in the hands of the workers, which all too often means the hands of the workers’ party, which all too often means in the hands of the correct leaders of the workers’ party. They want that, or they want steps in that direction. The cooperative commonwealth itself is, they insist, for the distant future.
Why not now? We don’t need to wait for capitalism to increase productive capacity to the point where the co-operative commonwealth is possible, because it’s already done so, and it’s already the greatest barrier to the use and expansion of the productive capacity that exists. Why then should we vote for reforming governments to manage it, or ‘progressive’ regimes to develop it further? Especially when these reforming governments and these ‘progressive’ regimes waste so much of production, and so many of us, in war and slump.
We have to make up our minds, once and for all, that we want rid of this system, for good and all. Let those who want to keep it reform it and improve it and expand it. It’s their job while it lasts. The job of those who want to end it is to give such people not a vote, not a gun, not a penny, not a person, not an inch, not an ounce of support. No political contender who is not a wage slavery abolitionist, nobody who advocates in word and deed anything less than, and anything other than, the speedy end of this system, and the consequent emancipation of the working class, deserves another minute of our time. To everyone who claims to want such an end eventually, but advocates something other or something less in the meantime, we can say we’ve lived already a long time in that meantime, and we’re still no nearer.
All it would take to do away with this system and establish the world co-operative commonwealth is for most people in the world to agree to do it. It’s no news that most people don’t. The number who understand and want the commonwealth is tiny. The only revolutionary action worth the name is working to increase that number. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will do.
So, yes, I’ve understood it. I’ve even voted for it, once. And I’ve put the SPGB, and the co-operative commonwealth, in a couple of books. So why am I not in the Socialist Party? One reason is that I don’t entirely understand how non-market socialism could work. And while I agree that the Party’s conception of socialism is the same as that of Marx and Engels, I can’t really square its conception of how to get there with what seem to me their well-founded views on history and politics. But I wish it well.