Narrow vision

Hannah Sell 'Socialism in the 21st century - the way forward for anti-capitalism' Socialist Party, 2002, pp92, £5 Ian Mahoney looks at a recent booklet published by the Socialist Party in England and Wales and considers its limitations

This booklet has the same small feel to it as most Socialist Party 'programmatic' documents. Most of it consists of facile observations about the iniquitous nature of modern capitalism - material that could be gleaned from an afternoon's trawl through charity websites such as War on Want, Child Poverty Action or - frankly - various UN agencies. If this depresses you, do not despair, as interspersed throughout we get heart-warming, consolatory passages that tell us that the "ideas traditionally associated with the left [like state control of industry under capitalism, for instance - IM], are increasingly popular" and that, "broadly speaking", the consciousness of the masses is "moving in a socialist direction" (p1). Of course, this publication is not intended for hoary old hacks like myself and, as an introduction for someone very fresh to socialist politics, it perhaps does not do too much harm. In particular, the SP does have the merit of having not come over all gushy at the ephemeral 'anti-capitalist movement'. In its own way, the organisation has been at pains to counterpose what it perceives of as a working class programme to the flights of anarchist fancy that other ostensible Marxist groups have fallen prey to. This laudable aim is bluntly stated on page one: "This book argues the case for socialism." The problem is - what sort of socialism? Genuine democratic, proletarian socialism, characterised by control from below - or a variant of state socialism? The answer is given obliquely in the passages that describe the dynamic of the revolution itself. Presumably workers will have a supporting role to the benevolent actions of a "socialist government". The working class itself is not perceived of - apart from rhetorically - as an independent, active agent of revolutionary change. Thus, discussing the possibilities of peaceful revolution, comrade Sell reminds readers of the bloody example of Chile in 1973 - "time and time again the capitalists have been prepared to use violence to protect their rule" (p52). Her answer? ""¦ this resistance could be nullified by mobilising the mass of working class people in support of a socialist government "¦ A socialist government could only defend itself if it mobilised the active support of the working class" (my emphasis). The clear implication of this passage - confirmed by the practice of Militant-SP historically - is that the working class has a secondary role to its "socialist government". Presumably, the scenario goes something like this. A left government is elected which implements 'socialist' policies (see below for a taste of these). Stiff resistance from the bosses threatens these achievements and the working class is mobilised "in support" of the government. In other words, 'Vote for us and we'll set you free - we'll give you a shout if we need your help.' The "battle of Liverpool city council and the mass campaign against the poll tax" - led by the SP in its Militant incarnation - are cited as models of the type of working class struggle that opens the road to socialist advance (p75). In Liverpool, we are told, the monuments to the leadership of the movement by socialists "still stand in bricks and mortar". "Some of main achievements" of the council are given as - 5,000 new council houses built, "all with front and back gardens and their own private entrance"; six new nurseries opened and 500 extra education staff employed; six new sports centres; 800 extra council workers employed and 16,489 jobs created by the house-building programme (p76). In other words, fairly 'bog-standard' left social democratic measures carried out from above by a council on behalf of the working class. In fact, revolutionaries do not measure their successes in "bricks and mortar", but in the fighting ability of the working class, the politicisation of its organisations and its level of consciousness. Judged from these - genuinely Marxist - criteria, Militant-SP's leadership of Liverpool council and the anti-poll movement were failures, despite the damage the latter inflicted on Thatcher. Thus, despite comrade Sell's correct call for "a Bolshevik-type party" (p68), the SP is clearly a very different type of organisation. For instance, discussing the degeneration of the USSR, Hannah tells us that Lenin "laid out four safeguards to protect a fledgling workers' state" from bureaucratic distortion, including "no standing army or police force, but the armed people" (p69). But the Bolsheviks did not propose to arm the working class only after such a state was established. The call for the dissolution of the army and the arming of the people was part of the minimum programme of Lenin's party - ie, those demands theoretically realisable under capitalism. At moments of heightened class struggle, the Bolsheviks actively agitated for workers' defence militias against the tsarist state forces. They stood by the socialist principle of 'not a penny, not a person' for the armed forces of the enemy class. By contrast, the SP calls for a "drastic cut in military spending" - that is, not so many people, not so much money to be made available to the military might of the bourgeois army (p87). This is not Bolshevism: it is left reformism. Lastly, a shocking example of the SP's dismally narrow, cramped vision for our class is proudly displayed on page 83, in the form of the photo and caption we reproduce here. This is priceless. The hackneyed phrase about a good picture and a thousand words suddenly seems profoundly inadequate. This - a characterless council house on a nondescript Liverpool housing estate - is a "glimpse at what is possible"! Thanks, but no thanks. Revolutionaries have a rather more ambitious programme for our class than this 'two-up, two-down' municipal socialism. We want not what is 'possible', but what is necessary for our class. Yes, we will fight for decent housing for our class, for a myriad of reforms under existing social conditions. But what distinguishes Marxists from reformists is the integration of those individual demands into a programme designed to equip our class to become the rulers of society. In other words, it is not a question of mobilising the workers "in support" of a future socialist government: they will be the government. That, or it won't be socialism, will it?