Steve Coleman – The Socialist Party of Great Britain

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What is Socialism?

4 April 1985, Debate between the Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Duke of York, London

Steve Coleman – The Socialist Party of Great Britain

Let me begin by presenting you with a clear definition of socialism, because it is a term which is frequently used in a confused and distorted way both by people who claim to be advocating and by those who think they are opposing. Socialism, which does not yet exist in society, will be a worldwide social order in which the resources of the earth are owned in common and controlled democratically by humanity as a whole.

It will be a social system which will produce goods and services solely for use and not for profit and it will be a society of classless equality based upon mutual human co-operation where people will contribute to the social effort according to their efforts and will have free access to take from the common store of wealth according to their own self-determined needs.

And having presenting you with such a definition, I doubt whether there would be anyone in this room this evening who would argue that socialism as I have defined it is infinitely preferable to capitalism as everyone of us here is experiencing it. Socialism has got to be and better and saner and more efficient and more humane than the insanity and inefficiency of capitalism today.

And my opponent from the Labour party could well stand up when his time comes to speak and he can say that he completely agrees with what I have said, it is a very fine definition of socialism. And he has heard everything I have said, he agrees on the whole with it, he may disagree with one point or another and he shall do his utmost to work within the labour party to bring about a socialist society. And the audience could then conclude that generally speaking my opponent from the labour party and we in the socialist party are generally speaking going in the same sort of direction.

We are basically after the same thing. And my opponent can leave the debate tonight and continue to satisfy his ambitions as a Labour politican and there is no reason why my opponent should be any less worthy at doing that than the other people who have succeeded and he enters the House of Commons as he hopes to do and he does all of the dirty work of administering capitalism which is what Labour MPs have been doing since 1906. And I propose to demonstrate that is what Labour MPs always will do because the Labour party is a party committed to the administration of the dirty system of capitalism and not committed to setting up a socialist society.

And if my opponent becomes a successful MP for the Labour party as I am sure he hopes to do just as Neil Kinnock hoped to do when he was a young aspirant Labour MP, many of you might see him on television talking on behalf of the Labour party, you will say my word, that is that bloke we saw in the Duke of York a few years ago agreeing with what everyone was saying about socialism. IT is the same man, of course he is wearing a nicer suit and here he is now sitting in Parliament with that bunch of bloody gangsters administering the dirty work of the exploitiation of the working class. What was he doing when he said that he agreed with. And my opponent might well say well I did agree that socialism was a very fine idea. I like what the socialist party said, in fact I admire you for being idealists but we Labour MPs have to face reality and you see it cannot get socialism overnight. That is what he will tell you . You cannot get socialism straight away, you have got to be pragmatic about these things lads. And after all you have got to compromise a little if you want to get a seat in the Palace of Westminster because if you do not compromise a little you do not get a seat in the Palace of Westminster, you end up standing up in the Duke of York talking about socialism. And this is the persistent story of what happens to Labour politicians, it is nothing personal against my opponent. They agree with the phrases which they take at random out of the socialist vocabulary whilst they are seeking power. They agree with socialism in the same sort of way as the pope agrees with the sermon on the mount. It is a nice idea in theory but you can stuff it when the banquets are on.

Now you might think that I am being a little bit too cynical. After all if the speaker for the Labour party says that he is in favour of socialism, should we not give him the benefit of the doubt, well let me show you why it would be foolish to ever give the Labour party the benefit of the doubt when they talk about socialism and their commitment to achieving it. Let me give you some evidence.

In 1923 an historical thing happened, one hundred and forty three Labour MPs in the House of Commons stood up together, that itself was historically unprecedented incidentally, one hundred and forty three all agreed in supporting a motion moved by Philip Snowden which incidentally they all voted. And it said and I quote ‘this house declares that legislative effort should be directed to the gradual supercession of the capitalist system by an industrial and social order based on the public ownership and control of the instruments of production and distribution,’ in short, by a process of gradual legislation the Labour party committed itself in Parliament to getting rid of production for profit and establishing production for need because that is what getting rid of capitalism means.

Now in October 1967, forty four years and five labour governments after those Labour MPs voted to gradually get rid of the profit system, Jim Callaghan who was then the Labour chancellor of the exchequer was invited to address the trade union congress. See the TUC has a funny habit, they tend to invite Labour chancellors to address the Trade union congress. It is like during the recent miners strike, inviting Ian MacGregor to come and address a miners rally. But that is what they do, they invite Labour ministers of finance, but this is what Callaghan said, and I quote ‘I want industry to be profitable, it is in your interest that industry should be profitable.’ So here you have a party which when it is in its infancy, when it is in opposition says quite clearly in the House of Commons what we are out to do is to get rid of the profit system. And then when they are in power, they go along to the workers who put them into power at the trade union congress and they say produce more profits, so that the capitalists can get rich.

Let me give you another example of the Labour party’s pseudo-commitment to socialism. In 1935 Clement Attlee wrote a book called The Will and the way to Socialism. He did not have the will and he knew even less about the bloody way. And in it he said, I quote ‘the plain fact is that a socialist party cannot hope to make a success of administering the capitalist system.’ Quite right, Attlee was correct because you cannot run the capitalist slaughterhouse in the interests of the working class cattle. You cannot run a system of exploitation in the interests of the exploited.

And then in April 1967 the Times newspaper reported Douglas Howton the then chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and he said, I quote ‘never has any previous government done so much in so short a time to make modern capitalism work.’ He was referring to the Labour government. So according to his leaders, it is a plain fact that you cannot administer capitalism successfully if you are socialist. And also, it is a plain fact that when the labour government was in office, it not only administered capitalism successfully, it did it even better than the Tories had done. And of course, you do not have to be a master of logic to conclude from that, that the Labour government succeeds in running capitalism precisely to the extent that it is not a socialist party.

In 1944 Herbert Morrison another labour leader said in a speech and I quote ‘socialism is what the Labour party does when in office.’ What a perverse definition of socialism, Socialism is what the labour party does when in office. It always reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s statement that the truth is what the police ask you to tell them. And then no sooner had Morrison said that socialism is whatever a Labour government does, then in the Times newspaper on the 12th February 1944, Herbert Morrison was quoted as saying, I quote ‘more socialism was carried out by the Conservative party which opposed it than by the Labour party which was in favour of it.’

So you see that it will not do at all that speakers on behalf of the Labour party to stand up and say how much they are in favour of socialism and then to simply be taken at their word. After all, Saint Augustine was passionately in favour of chastity, but he did not take up the theory until he was too old to have any choice. The fact is that the Labour party has persistently indulged in the rhetoric of radical change. It has persistently borrowed from the vocabulary of socialism. And it has repeatedly adopted policies required for the efficient administration of the profit system whenever it has been given the power to govern.

And the reason for the inevitable failure of the Labour party to carry out socialist policies is not the one which is usually advanced by the left of the Labour party. According to the Labour left, the long record of Labours betrayal of the working class interest is because the wrong leaders have been in charge. You know talk to members of the Labour party, why did the Wilson government betray the working class, why did the Callaghan government, why will the Kinnock government? Well, we had the wrong leaders, if only we could get the right men in charge. My opponent might have a few ideas even on this matter, if only you could do that.

Let me refer you to the current issue of London Labour Briefing which is the main journal and I might say on the more reasonable journals of the London Labour Left. And in the current issue there is an article headed ‘no amnesty for Kinnock’ in which readers are told by Garth Frankland who is a Leeds city councillor that Neil Kinnock is I quote ‘totally out of touch with political reality’ and he proposes that all members of the Labour party in their branches move a resolution, the opening words of which state ‘Neil Kinnock’s equivocal stand on the miners strike has been a disgrace.’ And it goes on to attack the one time hero of the left for betraying all of the principles of the working class as indeed he did.

And in the same issue of London Labour Briefing, another one of the old heroes of the Labour party is attacked, another one of the great heroes of the Labour left. One of the people who only a matter of weeks was regarded as one of the three most principled men in the Labour party, Ken Livingstone. And in an article headed ‘sold down the river’ Ken Livingstone is for being an opportunist and a tactical manoeuvrer because of his opportunist tactical manoeuvring over the rate capping issue.

But the hard fact which supporters of the Labour party must face if they want to bring about socialism is that the failure of Labour to carry out socialist policies and to do anything towards the achievement of socialism is not because there are the wrong leaders but because the entire strategy of the Labour party is one which must be abandoned, because there are two political strategies which people who want real change in society have to choose from, only two. And they are reformism or revolution. And that it seems to me should be at the centre of this debate.

The reformist strategy is at the very root of the Labour party. It is a strategy for eradicating the effects of capitalism which is based upon gradual legislative reform which will humanise the capitalist system. It is based on the belief that by patching up the wounds of the market you will finally eradicate the wounds, regulate the market and turn capitalism into an acceptable social order from the point of the view of the working class. That is the essence of the reformist strategy. And that is what the Labour party is out to do.

Now as an alternative to that, there is the revolutionary strategy and that is the one on behalf of which I speak. Because it is based upon the claim that capitalism cannot ever under any circumstances be run in the interest of the working class. It cannot be successfully reformed from the angle of the people who are important in society, the wealth producers. And therefore, the only strategy that revolutionary socialists can adopt is for the total abolition of capitalist relationships in society. For us, socialism does not mean welfare capitalism, it does not mean state capitalism, it means a socialist world community where there is no relationship between wage labour and capital.

Now you may ask why does the Socialist party reject the reformist strategy and stand for revolution. We do so for a very simple reason, because we reject the reformist belief that the suffering and the deprivation and the threat of annihilation which capitalism creates is somehow an accident, is somehow capitalism not operating properly. On the contrary, capitalism is only ever operating properly when it is producing suffering and deprivation and war. That is in the natural course of the profit system. And the reason for this is that under capitalism the means of producing and distributing wealth, the factories, the farms, the media, the offices, the means of life, are monopolised by a small class which exists as a class of parasites upon labour in society, upon the working class. In Britain the richest one per cent of the population possesses between them more of the accumulated wealth than the poorer eighty per cent put together, that is the extent of the inequality and disparity of power which is built into capitalism.

And under capitalism the object of production of wealth is not to satisfy human needs, it is not to satisfy human needs, it is to create profits for those who own the means of life. And if you examine for a moment the social problems which face us today and which I have no doubt my opponent in this debate is every bit as concerned about as I am, if you examine those problems you will see very clearly, that they are a direct and inevitable result of the profit system. Thousands of workers in this borough, a Labour controlled borough are living in homes which are slums, unfit for human habitation. Many, many people in this borough are on the housing waiting list and they cannot get homes which are decent to live in because it is not profitable to let them live in them.

In the recent cold spell thousands and thousands of people died of the cold, they died of hypothermia, at a time when the government was closing down coal mines producing potential energy to keep them warm in precisely the same way as the previous Labour government closed down forty eight pits in South Wales devastating the mining community in that area. And all of this is logical under capitalism, mass starvation where millions of people die every year, unemployment, slum housing and homelessness. They are not accidents, they are necessities. And according to the reformist argument, what you need is a good government to get hold of capitalism by the scruff of the neck and put it straight. This is really the argument of the reformists, you know, you send Neil Kinnock down to the stock exchange and he gives them all a good talking to. And they collapse under the moral impact of what he says, and they say well that is it, go down the jobcentres, give the workers jobs even if they are unemployed, doesn’t matter if we can get any profit out of them, send the food over to the hungry we have got to stop them dying, never mind about the multinational food company’s profits. That is the reformist fantasy.

And the idea of reformism is that you make those who are the legalised robbers accountable to those who are robbed. This is the definition of socialism advocated by no less a Labour theoretician than Tony Benn. Let me quote from his interview with Eric Hobsbawm in Marxism Today in October 1980 when Tony Benn said ‘the concept of democratic socialism is that by diffusion of power there will be a change in the relationships between capital and labour because in the first instance capital has to be made accountable to the people it employs.’ So according to the reformist conception of socialism the capitalists who live by legally robbing the working class must be made democratically accountable to the working class. This is equivalent to setting up a scheme whereby the muggers of Islington are made democratically accountable to their victims. It is a nonsense and a fantasy because you are dealing with irreconcilable class interests. So the socialist party has to reject reformism and stand for social revolution because we regard reformism as being based upon an ignorance and confusion about what can be done with capitalism and the Labour party argues it is true that at least you can get a little something out of capitalism.

Well I would argue that the Labour party has even failed to do that. Let me refer you to just one example and there are many more I could refer to. When they began the Labour party said that they were going to abolish the housing problem in Britain. In their 1924 election manifesto, the Labour party said and I quote ‘the Labour government will abolish all slums and promptly build an adequate supply of decent homes.’ Well so prompt were the first two Labour governments in doing this, that in 1945 when the next Labour government came into office there were still slums, there were still homeless people. And on the 20th July 1946 Aneurin Bevan speaking in Durham he announced, and I quote ‘when the next election occurs there will be no housing problem for the British working-class.’

Well the fact of the matter is that Labour governments have come and gone and the housing waiting lists have grown longer and longer and those who make profits out of building houses have grown richer and richer. And even where there are Labour administrations in local councils, the fact of the matter is, those very Labour councils have adopted the same callous disregard towards the housing needs of workers as capitalism requires of any administration. In Lambeth last year, Ted Knight’s Labour council sent police with dogs into the homes of workers who are in arrears of rent to evict them from the property.

So socialists are not after getting a little bit now for two reasons. Firstly because we do not want a little bit we want the lot. We do not want the crumbs we want the bakery. And secondly because the Labour party and its reformist strategy does not even succeed in getting the little bit. It does not have any effect. And that is why if you are a socialist, and if you are not a socialist then you are stuck with capitalism and all of its consequences, if you are a socialist you have to stand for revolution. But when I use the term revolution and say that socialism must be achieved this way I am open to misunderstanding because there are great number of misconceptions about revolution knocking about.

So let me be very clear about what I mean by socialist revolution. Socialism can only be achieved when a majority of workers understand and want socialism. In short it must be a democratic revolution enacted by conscious people who know what they are doing. We are not talking about a revolution carried out by followers. I know that there are some people on the left who think that the political function of the working class is to be heroic and obedient followers who are going to go out and fight some sort of battle against all of the odds and be slaughtered in the interest of socialism - re-enact the French Revolution. That is not what revolution involves, it involves democratic conscious majority action, because you cannot impose liberation on those who are to be liberated. And that is why as socialists we say very clearly that the chief task facing socialists today – and if you go away with nothing else do not lose this – is that of persuasion and education, persuasion and education. Or as William Morris put it, it is to go out and make socialists. That is what we have to do today.

And clearly the way that you do that, the way that you persuade, the way that you educate is by relating to the class war that is going on in society. By relating every strike, every struggle, every single worker who suffers or is threatened, or is dying as a result of capitalism, relate that to a system as a whole. To recognise that an injury to one is an injury to all, that we have a world working class interest at stake. And that means abandoning the reformist strategy of trying to squeeze a little bit more out of capitalism. It means abandoning the idea that nationalisation or state capitalism or robbery by committee as it is more properly called is somehow an alternative to robbery by a board of directors of a multi-national company.

So what we need if we are to achieve socialism is a movement first of thousands and then of tens and hundreds of thousands of people and then millions of people. And it has to be a worldwide movement which recognises that the interests of the worker in Gdansk is the same of the interest of the worker in Soweto or in Islington here. A worldwide movement based upon the capture of political power so that the capitalist class can be dispossessed of their minority parasitical power in society and the community can take power into its own hands through the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life and it is to this end that the Socialist Party is involved in building up a world socialist movement. A movement which we urge you to join and a movement which we contend the labour party stands as a mighty and stubborn obstacle towards.

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