Originally published May 6, 2008
From the SPGB’s 1998 pamphlet, From Capitalism To Socialism… how we live and how we could live (pdf)
Socialism can only be established when a great majority of workers understand and want it. It would be absurd for a minority of conscious socialists to try to take over power and impose the new system on an unwilling majority. Such a strategy would certainly fail, with the armed forces, controlled by the majority-backed government, being used to defeat the rebels. The idea is heroic fantasy at best and would lead to a bloody tragedy at worst. And even if such a method of ‘revolution’ were successful-if a determined minority should seize political power in an attempt to introduce socialism on behalf of the working class-there would be no prospect of it resulting in a socialist society. It would not be possible to run a society in which everybody contributed co-operatively according their abilities and took freely according to their needs unless the great majority of people understood the arrangement and wanted it. It would not be possible to establish and maintain a society based upon conscious democratic control unless the great majority were prepared to exert that democratic control. If the population did not want to participate in social decision-making and were prepared to leave it to a particular minority, that minority would be forced to become the exclusive decision makers themselves and would eventually become a new ruling class. But in the final analysis, the very fact that a minority wanted it would show that they did not understand the full implications of socialism themselves, and so were not really socialists.
A look at the various theories of minority, or minority-led, action to establish ‘socialism’ essentially Lenin’s Bolshevism and its various offshoots, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Castroism, etc confirms that in practice these are the ideologies of would-be national ruling classes aiming to industrialise economically backward parts of the ‘world-‘through a policy of state capitalism misleadingly called ‘socialism’. Their tactics-vanguard party, violent insurrection, ruthless measures against the old rulers and all opponents-are thus quite irrelevant for a genuine socialist movement, though superficially attractive to those who want radical social change, yet despair of ever winning over a currently indifferent or conservative-minded working class. In the unlikely event of them being successful in some highly industrialised country the outcome would be some form of state capitalism, certainly not socialism.
THE POWER OF THE STATE
The establishment of socialism must be the work of a socialist-minded, democratically organised working-class majority. The socialist revolution, in other words, must be a majority revolution. This is because of the power of the state in capitalism.
The state is the machinery for the defence of a system of minority ownership by a ruling class, and also that class’s instrument for administering that system. It follows therefore that before capitalism can be abolished and socialism established the state must be taken over, firstly to prevent it being used to forcibly resist the change, and secondly so as to utilise its administrative facilities within the new system. Any attempt to establish socialism while leaving coercive power in the hands of the capitalist state would meet with brutal resistance. The idea entertained by some that capitalism can be ‘brought to its knees’ by workers organising a general strike through their trade unions but not taking over the state is quite untenable. Trade unions, which are sectional organisations, are no substitute for a political party which has as its clear aim the conquest of state power.
Socialism will not come therefore from minority action aimed at disrupting society and then taking advantage of the resulting social and political instability to seize government power in an armed uprising. Nor will it come from ignoring or trying to bypass the state. Socialism will come from a majority revolution which undertakes the task of gaining control of state power.
Where does the state’s power come from? The power to form a government is invested in the votes of the electorate, where there is an electoral system. In countries like Britain the vast majority of the electorate are members of the working class. It would be impossible for the capitalist minority to appoint a government of its choice within the electoral system unless they persuade a significant number of workers to vote for such a government. It is true – that different sections of the capitalist class favour different styles of government and therefore huge funds are invested by them to influence workers into voting for one party rather than another. But many capitalists are aware that the only real differences between the parties are their marginally different policies for running the system. The whole of the capitalist class, however, has an interest in ensuring that working-class support for capitalism continues, as it is through this support-in the tangible form of votes-that the capitalist class maintains its position.
THE LEARNING PROCESS
Many workers clearly see the vast gulf between the pampered minority who own the world and the rest of us, the propertyless producers, but what can be done about it? Most think the way out is merely through their own individual advancement, not a social revolution. There is nothing particularly wrong with a person wishing to move up within capitalism: it is inevitable that workers will want to do so. But rags to riches stories are rare; that is why they make headlines. Under feudalism the ambition of the early capitalists was to become feudal lords themselves, and some did. But eventually the interests of the capitalists became so much opposed to feudalism that they had to destroy it. In the same way the modern working class will learn — and is learning – that any progress they may make within the confines of capitalism leaves the roots of their problems untouched, and often creates new problems.
Capitalism itself causes workers to learn. It increasingly demands healthy, well educated wage-slaves, trained to think clearly and critically to cope with the technical nature of modern industry and the ever more complex nature of modern society. In many countries, including Britain, it has suited the ruling class to yield to working class pressure for the vote. This means that the democratic machinery for putting an end to capitalism is available to us when we, as a united working class, decide to use it. At present the working class in this country, as in other countries, votes repeatedly for capitalism run by one party or another. Most workers have not yet realised how deeply entrenched are the causes of their problems, and how futile are the patches and tinkerings and minor adjustments to capitalism. As more of them do so the number becoming socialists will increase at a faster rate. This in turn will increase the ability to propagate socialist ideas and information, and more socialist parties will be formed in other countries.
During this period there is bound to be a growing amount of discussion about the working of the future socialist society. Not only will there be private conversations and public meetings, but newspapers, radio and television will find the topic impossible to ignore. More and more people will become clear about what is at stake and what are the steps necessary to make the change from capitalism. Socialists may well be organising planning conferences so that all the problems of expanding production and distribution to cater for everybody can be foreseen and dealt with as soon as society is free to do it. This is probably also the period when the governments will make strenuous efforts to maintain support for the existing social structure. Large numbers of workers will have become able to resist appeals to illusions such as ‘the national interest’ or ‘our traditional way of life’ because they will have seen through them. Governments will: think twice about using repressive measures because these can arouse stronger and more determined opposition. It is more likely that they will begin to offer reforms which would be thought impossible today, in an attempt to fob off the working class. The capitalist parties may at this point decide to sink their differences and work closely together, much as religions are doing today in the face of the growing number of unbelievers. They will perhaps try to manipulate capitalism to provide a batch of free services (gas, electricity, transport, etc.) with the claim that this heralds the ‘beginning’ of the free society. But socialists will not be so easily deceived.
THE SOCIALIST MAJORITY
With a majority of socialists and large socialist parties in all the main countries, we shall be in a position to establish socialism. In the unlikely event of there being a country without some form of political democracy at this time, socialists could apply pressure from all over the world to insist upon its introduction.
The parties formed by socialists will be thoroughly democratic: their policy and all their activities will be under the active control of their members; they will have no leaders. In this they will be completely different from existing parliamentary parties or Leninist ‘vanguard’ parties. Being the actual movement of the working class to establish socialism they will reflect, as far as is possible under capitalism, the organisational forms of socialism, namely democratic control and popular participation. And far from being parties which seek to lead workers with attractive slogans, they will merely be the instrument workers can use to win political power once a majority of them have become socialists. Such parties will of course have to elect candidates to contest the elections for public offices. But those appointed will simply be mandated delegates from the working-class socialist majority. The position will be the exact reverse of that in existing parliamentary parties. Instead of the party outside parliament being essentially vote-catchers for the parliamentary leadership, socialist MPs and councillors will merely be the messengers of the socialist working class outside parliament, democratically organised in their socialist political parties and economic organisations. And, naturally, the aim of sending socialist delegates to parliament will not be to form a ‘socialist government’ (a contradiction in terms) but to abolish capitalism as smoothly and peacefully as possible.
The task of socialist delegates, when elected in every country, will be: firstly, to take over the state machine in the name of the great majority of the population, the working class; secondly, to enact legislation making the means of production and distribution the common property of the whole community under the democratic control of all the people; and thirdly, as a consequence, to abolish the state itself along with those coercive powers and agencies necessary to the maintenance of class society but superfluous in socialism. The remaining administrative institutions (such as health services, education, communications and state-run industries) may be temporarily maintained in their existing form, but fully democratised, as will be the case with the entire organisation of production and distribution. All useful regulations will also be maintained and adapted to the requirements of socialist society.
Some political theorists think it possible that the police and armed forces would be used to resist such a democratic socialist revolution. In practice it is extremely unlikely, since those who make up these forces of repression are workers, not capitalists. When socialist understanding is widespread among the working class they cannot fail to be influenced by it. Once they see which way the social wind is blowing, not very many of them are likely to want to risk their lives for their masters’ wealth, power and privileges. And, in the final analysis, the police and armed forces are supported, supplied, housed and fed by society as a whole. They cannot continue as organised bodies if society decides they shall not.
Once socialism is established, there will be a rapid growth in the amount and quality of useful goods produced. As there will no longer be any patents or industrial secrets, all productive units will have access to the most advanced technical processes. There will no longer be any banks, stock exchanges, wages offices, advertising agencies, and although some of the workers previously in these fields may continue to be concerned with statistics relating to production and distribution, many millions of them will be released to involve themselves in socially useful activities such as house building, food production and other rapidly expanding sectors.
It is reasonable to suppose that, since the revolution will not take anyone by surprise, many workers will have been, within capitalism, preparing themselves for new occupations in socialism. Trade unions and other workers’ organisations will probably have been adapting themselves to help the growing socialist movement to prepare for the future running society on the basis of production for use. Resources and manpower invested in armaments production will be switched to the satisfying of human needs. Onslaughts will be made on any centres of backwardness and destitution. These will not be given the kind of Cinderella treatment now awarded to ‘community development’ but instead the top priority now enjoyed by ‘defence’. In fact, since socialism will grow directly out of capitalism, the present organisational machinery of the armed forces could be used for this end, since they are the most efficient means capitalism has developed for moving men and materials fast. Think of the implications for famine victims in, say, Ethiopia, or the Sudan, if the full system of communications, transport and services available for military purposes were available for the distribution of relief supplies.
The socialist revolution will be unlike all previous revolutions because, instead of one minority seizing power from another, it will be the majority taking power to establish a classless, stateless, moneyless, democratic society. And it will be a society consciously organised directly for human need, in which planning will play an important part-but in a completely different way from the so-called ‘planned’ economies of the ex-state capitalist countries-Russia, China, Albania, etc. Production and distribution will be planned because the vast majority of men and women will be actively and democratically co-operating to provide themselves with what they want, where and when they want it. This will put an end to the anarchy of production and haphazard distribution–‘domination of the product over the producer’-which exists in capitalism.
THE WORLD SOCIALIST MOVEMENT
The revolutionary task of the movement for world socialism is therefore twofold: it is firstly to persuade our fellow members of the working class to reject capitalism and to aim for nothing less than socialism; and secondly to engage in political action for the purpose of measuring the growth of the socialist movement and, when the majority join us, of achieving our objective of bringing into being a new, exciting stage of human existence.
For more information about the World Socialist Movement, contact: