1. A discussion paper
One hundred and six years have elapsed since the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and yet – AS THINGS STAND - it remains a miniscule political entity with little prospect of its membership topping four figures, let alone five or six, in the foreseeable future. The statistics speak for themselves. Those who believe otherwise are deluding themselves, engaging in wishful thinking. They must harbour unexamined expectations that history will somehow compel the working class to adopt - en masse - our Object and Principles, almost independently of the ‘agency’ of the SPGB and its companion parties within the World Socialist Movement. But sadly, history demonstrates only that the working class all over the world continues to succumb to all manner of reformist, nationalistic, or religious causes. This is not a hypothesis; it’s the reality. The capacity for ‘false consciousness’ cannot be underestimated.
Let me make clear what I am not saying: I am most certainly not espousing some sort of vanguardist or Leninist position that workers are incapable of attaining anything more than ‘trade union consciousness’ and must be led by the nose to the lofty heights of socialism. Such a monstrously patronising position ironically displays another variant of ‘false consciousness’ since it implies that the vanguardist asserting this position must consider himself or herself as someone outside the abstract category labelled ‘the working class’. Moreover, it as quite evident that groups advocating some or a few, if not all of the propositions set out by the World Socialist Movement constantly arise, spontaneously and independently, all over the world, though regrettably often wilt in due course like desert flowers. One notable exception appears to be the Zeitgeist Movement.
What I am simply saying is that there must be some sort of synergistic interplay between the ‘agency’ of any socialist party and historical conditions, or events, for there to be progress towards world socialism (which, for reasons of brevity, I’ll refer to as the ‘agency’ and ‘conditional’ factors). Personal reflection on one’s own involvement with the Party ought to bear out the validity of this assertion: Many of us probably began to take an interest in ‘politics’ because trade union activity, because of general dissatisfaction with the hand life had dealt us, because of genuine concerns about all manner of phenomena, from the frightening prospect of nuclear annihilation to the equally horrendous possibility of some sort of ecological holocaust, and so on. Then at some point in time, we were exposed to the arguments of the SPGB. My bet is that in the case of practically everyone who subsequently joined the Party some sort of ‘dialectic’ was initiated, leading eventually to shifts in outlook and assimilation of the socialist tenets. (Although it is also my hunch that, in many who have become party members, assimilation has never been complete. But that is another matter). Clearly, both ‘agency’ and ‘conditional’ factors have accounted for most of us becoming party members.
However, it is my opinion that the Party tends to depend excessively upon the role of ‘conditional’ factors at the expense of the ‘agency’ factors in the march towards socialism. Don’t get me wrong: When I refer to ‘agency’ factors, I am fully aware that the SPGB is unequivocal in its insistence that constant and relentless propaganda is a sine qua non. In other words, it clearly recognises that it needs to perform as an ‘agent’ of change. What I am suggesting, however, is that, underlying this, there may be too great a reliance on ‘conditional’ factors’ delivering the goods. Why so? In part, this may be sort of Marxist reflex resonating with the view that infrastructure exerts a preponderant influence over superstructure. But it could also emanate from hypersensitivity to charges of vanguardism; what with our insistence on taking the democratic road and not following leaders.
One unfortunate consequence of the Party’s apparent tendency to overly emphasise the role of conditional factors in bringing about socialism is a reluctance to fully and comprehensively consider how it appears, how it comes across, to initiates or newcomers. I think this criticism holds whether or not one agrees with my hypothesis that the Party overplays the role of ‘conditional factors’, at the expense of ‘agency factors’, in bringing about socialism. Think back to my reference to the dialectic that ensues when first coming across the Party’s point of view. For the vast majority, this ‘dialectic’ stops dead at the first hurdle. And given that much of what the Party puts across is unlikely to square with how the man in the street perceives political reality, there are numerous hurdles to negotiate. Historical materialism, the labour theory of value; these are by no means easy to grasp. Then there’s this seemingly outlandish notion of a world without money, property, borders, wages etc. What’s the usual response? ‘You’re in cloud cuckoo land, mate’.
Even for those who accept the case, there are further hurdles to overcome: There is the mandatory test that applicants for membership need to undergo and the threat of ‘excommunication’ if one happens to publicly disagree with any of the Principles. This all has a certain Jesuitical resonance, and doesn’t always sit comfortably with those who value free speech – notwithstanding the reasonableness of the Party’s desire to maintain some sort of integrity. But then the new member discovers that the Party itself has a history of splinter groups breaking away or being expelled over some arcane matter and this too affects his or her attitude. How could it not? Rightly or wrongly, it conveys the impression that one should conform, or leave.
So, stepping back to view ourselves, what do we find? We see a tiny political grouping allied to even smaller political groupings in other parts of the world, resolutely holding to a particular theoretical interpretation (or, as a critical outsider might put it, stubbornly clinging to outmoded dogma), and defining itself not by how it compares itself, but by how it contrasts itself, with other parties. Far greater weight is given to the internal consistency and purity of its thought, which becomes increasingly nuanced with each successive schism, than trying to grapple with the mindset of fellow workers, and ‘Socratically’ demonstrate how their own desires, needs and interests might be met under socialism. Increasingly, ‘positions’ on this or that are sought – witness the current preoccupation with ethics - and the prevailing orthodoxy taken up as party policy. Wholly assured – to the point of smugness – of the correctness of its ‘Impossibilist’ stance, the Party declares itself uniformly hostile towards all who part company with it in terms of ends or means, regardless of whether there is a degree of common ground or not
So that there can no misunderstanding, I’m not taking issue here with anything substantive the Party says, but rather with presentational aspects such as the attitudes, approach, orientation, procedures and emphasis it displays. I have no fundamental quarrel with either the Object of the Party, or any of the Principles (though would maintain that reality is somewhat more complicated and messy than the Declaration as a whole implies, and that caveats might be appropriate in places)
That said, it saddens, frustrates, and angers me, as it must all socialists, that in one hundred and six years, there has been absolutely progress at all in engendering support for the establishment of world socialism. None whatsoever! To my mind, the significance this far outweighs any concerns about the internal consistency of our theoretical output, or the correctness of our economic analyses of, say, inflation; important though these things are. After all, why are we socialists? It is certainly not, in the main, to derive some sense of intellectual satisfaction from having arrived at a coherent, philosophically satisfying worldview. We are not simply a debating society. No, we are socialists principally because we wish to see socialism established, or, more realistically, established within the lifetime of our children or grandchildren.
Thus, we need to think seriously how we might advance our cause without compromising what is essential to our case.
To this end, I should like to put to the Party a number of radical – and possibly shocking - proposals, and ask that members indulge me by deferring any knee-jerk reaction until they have at least given these suggestions some serious consideration.
The first of my proposals is this: I think we need to earnestly weigh up what is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to our existence as a political party, what constitutes our ‘mission statement’ if you like, enshrine the propositions thus identified, and then simply bracket off EVERYTHING
1. What do we want?
2. How do we get it?
3. When do we want it?
In other words, what are our Ends and Means? The answers, of course, are as follows:
1. Socialism/Communism; viz A world-wide system of free access to all goods and services provided entirely by people contributing their services of their free will in which there would be no money, wages, profits, national borders etc, and which would run along democratic lines and would permit the greatest possible degree of personal liberty commensurate with not causing harm to others. And so on.
2. Socialism/Communism requires the consent of the majority. Hence, we should endeavour to gain people’s support by whatever means possible. As a party, we should operate on a wholly democratic basis with complete transparency and without a leadership. Where we can and whenever we can, we should endeavour to gain political power via democratic means. Where it is not possible to vote for a genuine Socialist Party, e.g.
3. The establishment of Socialism/Communism must not be delayed; in other words, we must consciously forego any involvement in reformist activity as this will only sap our energies and resources, and in any case, often prove to be futile (That said, what constitutes ‘reformist activity’ needs to be clarified: See more anon).
In my view, it is imperative that anyone wishing to join the Party must publicly consent to these 3
However, the corollary to this proposal – and I have no doubt that this will alarm many reading this - is that the Party should not insist on a prospective member consenting to ANYTHING
Now before the Witchfinder General dons his hat and gloves, let me explain that this does NOT mean that I myself don’t accept Marxism or have discovered God in my dotage. On the contrary! What actually lies behind this proposal of mine is my profound disquiet at our complete lack of progress in generating any support whatsoever. Allow me therefore to spell out the many reasons for my suggesting this proposal at all:
Fundamentally, and returning to my notion of the ‘dialectic’ set in train when someone comes across the Party’s case, I think the fewer the hoops he or she has to jump through, the easier it will be for the prospective member to join – and therefore the more likely it is that more people will join
The 3 core propositions I’ve set out clearly identifies what the Party as a political entity is all about: it’s ‘Action Plan’, if you like. A Marxist analysis of society does not in itself constitute an action plan. With primordiality being accorded simply to these 3 Core Propositions, one may even see a subtle change in outlook from one of ‘contemplation’ to one more concerned with achieving results. In other words, it would be more conducive to an ‘action-oriented’ approach – as our American cousins would have it.
I would also go so far as to say that by paring away at our beliefs to the absolute core of what it is we are all about, far greater weight will be placed on these essentialities, Can one not see that by having just 3 core essentials to accede to rather than a score or more written or unwritten articles of faith, greater clarity and focus will be achieved?
I would submit too that this proposal, far from weakening the Party’s position, would actually strengthen it significantly by given it a more ‘focussed’ presentation.
What this proposal would also do is to greatly lighten the atmosphere within the party, and hence make for significantly improved morale because it would ENABLE PEOPLE TO AGREE TO DIFFER on various matters, whist still holding fast to the absolute essentials. Regrettably, I’ve never attended a Party Conference, so I may be talking off my hat. But I do get a sense that a degree of acrimony can sometimes creep into debates. It is as though the weight of ‘doctrine’ keeps insidiously growing all the time. All because there is no tacit recognition of limits to which conference proposals may be invested with dogmatic significance. This proposal of mine would work in the opposite direction: It would give people ‘permission’ to demur and question within the parameters set by 3 essential and implicitly agreed upon propositions. Consequently, it could also make for better scrutiny of all ‘non-core’ propositions or positions taken up by the Party.
The abovementioned observations are reinforced by the fact that the Party has been periodically plagued by extremely damaging splits and expulsions from time to time. There is nothing to celebrate when these things happen. We are all diminished by such events. Apart from anything else, they cast a pall over proceedings, and if anything, are likely to encourage an introversion and defensiveness, that can subsequently engender yet more dogmatic reactions to anything considered ‘off-message’. One can only surmise how many splits and expulsions could have been avoided had the parties concerned been beholden just to the 3 core propositions outlined above. Incidentally, it is also worth noting that those expelled don’t just go quietly: They often create a lot of bad press, and this too can negatively impact on the growth of the Party.
With regard to there being so many articles of faith which prospective members are obliged to accede to it, it goes without saying that this is bound to affect the growth of the Party; not only in preventing people unable to accede to every one of these from joining, but also in generating a certain amount of animus against the Party by those thus thwarted. Personally, I don’t think there is a lot of logic or science behind some of the exclusion criteria. Take one: The prohibition on anyone with a religious outlook from joining. Now, I don’t have a religious outlook, and I can quite see how religion inculcates an otherworldly outlook that could detract from political engagement with the here and now. It is also true to say that religions tend to provide ideological backing to societal norms, and have historically mired their hands with the blood of the oppressed. However, what this particular prohibition fails to do is to separate the individual from the institution. Is it not conceivable that some lackadaisical Anglican or caring Quaker could concur fully with the three core propositions set out above? I truly believe it is. Sure, his participation in the rituals of an institution that bolsters the operation of capitalism might seem at odds with his desire to see socialism established. But then we don’t bar police officers from joining up, notwithstanding the fact that, inter alia, their job is to ensure the working class complies with the laws of the land. I think the Party needs to develop a more sophisticated approach to the psychology of the political behaviour of individuals. Were we to allow our religiously minded person to join – on the basis that he concurred with the three core propositions, we’d have another keen advocate of socialism within our ranks who might even be instrumental in attracting like-minded people to the Party. As things stand at the moment, of course, he would not stand a snowballs chance in hell of being granted membership. In regard to this idea of allowing religiously minded people into the Party, two things should be noted, Firstly, if it became apparent that he had joined the Party for ulterior motives, or was going to propose things that ran counter to the aforementioned core propositions, then clearly, there would be a case for expulsion. Secondly, allowing religiously minded people membership does not mean that the majority within the Party should therefore tone down or in any way moderate their justifiable critique of religion. This might be problematic for our religiously minded member, who might experience a degree of cognitive dissonance. But in a climate of tolerance in regard to a diversity of views on anything falling outside the scope of the three core propositions, he ought not to feel a pariah, and, who knows, lively debate on any such ‘non-core’ matter could actually be healthy for the Party. It also needs to be pointed out, in any case, that there is always going to be a small number of religiously minded supporters, who will support the Party and vote for it at elections (if given the chance). This being the case, why not have them on board?
The second of my proposals has links to the first: I would like to suggest that we place far more emphasis on the empirical case for socialism, on the Gradgrindian facts that bear out the case for socialism. I don’t thereby mean to imply that Marxist theory should be abandoned; merely that it be accorded a more adjunctive/supportive function (and not be viewed as ‘sacred text’). To this end, I’ve recently created an online database (See http://andycox1953.webs.com/database.htm ) with precisely this in mind, and which I very much hope will become a collaborative venture involving party members/others. Basically, I’ve argued that the empirical case breaks down into 3 modalities; viz:
o The feasibility of socialism
o The desirability of socialism
o The human nature question
-and that a wealth of evidence can be garnered from all sorts of sources in support of the socialist position in relation to each of these modalities. In my opinion, it would be a more fruitful approach to presenting our case. As the saying goes, ‘facts speak for themselves’.
The third proposal I should like to submit is that, rather than shying away from a detailed discussion of what socialism may be like because we currently have no mandate to be prescriptive and, in any case, technology and other aspects of our existence could change drastically in the interim, we actually do the very opposite: I suggest that we should be considering in great detail how a socialist society might operate, and perhaps convene ad hoc meetings to consider this question or devote a summer school to the subject. Why so? I think a number of reasons can be cited:
Firstly, it could enable us to come up with a number of options from which to select when the big day finally arrives and we find ourselves in the majority. Thus, far from tying us down, such an exercise could help us to clarify our choices concerning the specific arrangements we’d like to put in place when we are in a position to do so.
It would also enable us to anticipate problems we might encounter with the establishment of socialism and give us ample time to address these
Engaging in such an exercise may in due course - perhaps when we have a membership of several million in this country alone - lead to serious research projects being set up to consider the viability of specific ideas being generated
The whole project could indeed have an animating effect on the membership. Because what we would be summoning forth is a concrete idea of what socialism might be like. The interest generated could quite plausibly extend to outsiders too, thus creating a sort of centripetal effect, with more and more people being drawn into this alternative ‘Big Conversation’. I think part of the allure of the Zeitgeist Movement, for all of its faults, is the clean-lined imagery it conjures up in presenting its Venus Project. One can see how this bold modern architectural vision might answer to some deeply felt aesthetic in some people (not me, I’m afraid). But we too could engender such excitement by creating a credible, concrete picture of what life could be like under socialism.
Another good reason for considering in detail what socialism might be like, how it might operate, and so on, is that this would logically follow on from pursuing an empirical approach in our propaganda efforts. For example, if we argue that the feasibility of socialism is borne out by the fact that thousands of job categories (bank workers, tax inspectors, ticket collectors etc) would no longer exist once socialism is established, then it might be useful even at this stage to consider how and what skills might be transferable to the new reality, and what might be done with the billions of square metres of office space that would become vacant. Or we could consider in detail various socialistic models of distribution, contrasting these all the while with the various marketing systems that obtain in capitalism, in order to demonstrate that socialism would eliminate the numerous categories of waste intrinsic to capitalism’s operation.
Please note that in advocating that we consider in detail how socialism might operate, I am NOT suggesting that we specify right now exactly what will be implemented when the majority vote for socialism. I am merely suggesting that we conduct detailed speculative exercises into various aspects of a future socialist society in order to identify possible OPTIONS and PROBLEMS. When through growing support socialism becomes imminent, then, of course, we shall need to begin to consider an actionable manifesto.
Just as I feel it worthwhile to spell out in detail what our ‘end’ might look like, I think that, fourthly, we ought to be more detailed about our ‘means’; specifically, that we should spell out more clearly our approach to reforms and reformism. Because there are ‘reforms’ and there are ‘reforms’, and moreover, we need to distinguish the actions/decisions of the Party qua a political party from those of individual members qua individuals. Generally speaking, the argument that reforming capitalism is a futile exercise and that the Party itself should not waste time and effort on such a doomed approach is sound. Here we are talking of ‘reformism’ (a systematic approach intended to keep capitalism as a whole ticking over, as it were), rather than specific ‘reforms’. The focus of the latter would be on specific and limited areas of social life. The approach of the Party appears to be more varied in relation to the gamut of specific reforms, but clearly sometimes entails rejection. But does our opposition to either reformism or some specific reforms extend to political decision-making other than within the hallowed confines of the highest legislative body in the land? Does this opposition extend to local government? Or even, dare I say, to your local parish council? Can the SPGB have a position on the decaying Chestnut tree at the end of
Incidentally, in the matter of how we arrive at socialism, I feel that serious consideration needs to be given to the issue of ‘staggering’, to the certainty that socialism will NOT literally be established simultaneously in every country around the world. It obviously remains desirable that socialism should be universally implemented as quickly as possible, that the whole process should not be a long, drawn out affair. However, we ought not to simply rely upon some sort of ‘domino effect’ to kick in. We ought to be planning – even if tentatively at this stage – various ‘synchronisation’ strategies and tactics. For example, Socialist Parties across the world might want to consider active collaboration on the propaganda front; financial assistance and propaganda material could be transferred from one Socialist Party to another; comrades from one Party might assist those in another Party with elections; and a World Socialist Movement Forum could be set up with a gradually increasing remit. All of this harks back to my earlier references to ‘agency’ and ‘conditional’ factors: Both will have a role in the establishment of socialism.
My fifth proposal is that we need to radically rethink some of the ‘methods’ or ‘tools’ we utilise, whether (a) in the field of propaganda (i.e. vis-à-vis others) or (b) internally (i.e. vis-à-vis ourselves), I’m convinced that a good brain-storming session could yield all sorts of imaginative ideas which may greatly facilitate the growth of the Party. Over the years, I have submitted a couple of ideas to the Party myself, but none was taken up. In the context of this discussion paper, it may be worth my while reiterating two such ideas:
With reference to (a), I did many years ago try out sponsoring and running my own free trial of the Socialist Standard campaign, which involved selecting 3 names from a local telephone directory, and sending them without charge a copy of the Standard over 3 consecutive months, along with a covering letter each time. Once one cycle had been completed, I began another, selecting another 3 names and so on. The costs of the stamps, Standards, paper and envelopes, I bore myself. (It came to less than £10 pm) I don’t know how effective this campaign was, but the thought occurs to me that with perhaps just 300 Party members doing something like this, we could be engaging at quite an intense level with several thousand people a year. Moreover, if we urged in our covering letters that the recipient passed the Standard on to someone else, this number could be considerably higher. And with someone actually co-ordinating the whole thing – allocating address lists to volunteer sponsors to avoid overlap (perhaps arranging for a particular geographical area to be ‘blitzed’ in order to create a ‘viral’ effect), emailing volunteer sponsors pre-formatted covering letters, and providing them with feedback ( e.g. that they had been successful in eliciting a positive response from one of their contacts, or that another wished not to receive any more free copies of the Standard – quite a sophisticated propaganda tool could be developed. If just 1% of the, say, 5000 people contacted in this manner became Party members, that would still constitute quite a jump in our numbers. Moreover, with the economies of scale coming in to play, the Socialist Standard would benefit too.
Another tactic in the propaganda war that might yield results is what one that might call ‘blog raiding’; the concerted participation of a number of Party members in various political and other blogs (There are literally thousands to choose from), with Party contributors backing each other up, and inviting readers to view the various Party links.
With reference to (b), another idea I’ve mooted in the past is using video conferencing as a platform for communication, both internally and externally. It may sound a bit daunting but, generally speaking, there are video conferencing products around that are remarkably simple to use. The major drawback is the cost. But this could be mitigated somewhat by levying a subscription cost on users (which could come to around £20 per annum). Think, though, of the benefits:
My sixth proposal will stick in the craw of many no doubt, but I think that when it comes to elections, we should consider making common cause with any political group AGREEING FULLY WITH THE 3
My seventh and final proposal is one that, unlike the others, I can offer only tentatively as I am not certain how much may be gained from it. Nevertheless, I feel the issue it concerns does merit serious consideration because it has huge significance to our fortune as a political party. I’m talking here of the nomenclature we apply to ourselves. Despite the fact that the labels, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, have become altogether degraded through misuse (‘socialism’ has become almost a profanity in the US), one is tempted to say that we should not surrender our claim on them, not least because to do so would be to condone the mendacity and distortion exercised by entities as diverse as the North Korean Politburo and sundry ‘Christian Socialists’ aligning themselves to the Labour Party. However, semantic drift is something that we, as a very small political party, have not been able to prevent and cannot now reverse. So we ought to wise up to this (I’ve attempted in vain to explain that Obama is not a socialist or that ‘quantitative easing’ has nothing to do with socialism on a number of backwater American blogs. So I do appreciate the problem) This being the case, I wonder whether we ought not to begin thinking about a wholly new and fresh terminology with which to describe ourselves; preferably one that marks us out for what we uniquely are. Why not call ourselves, for example, the ‘Free Access Party’ or ‘Free Access movement’’. Something that appeals to me is the label ‘Impossibilist’, which, apart from being intriguing, could work in the same way that the abusive terms ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ have been brilliantly and paradoxically ‘re-claimed’ by blacks and gays respectively as proud assertions of identity. A thorough discussion of this issue, followed by a poll in order to select the appropriate nomenclature which to describe the Party and its activities could be the way to go.
So these then are my proposals, which I would ask you to carefully consider. Severe as they may seem, I have put them forward because I sincerely wish to see the Party go from strength to strength. No matter what else it may mean to us, in the final analysis, the Party must be considered the vehicle that will get us to the only Promised Land that has any basis in reality.
If, after due consideration, you find yourself unable to agree with much or anything of what I’ve suggested, let me ask you this: what do YOU suggest we do to attract fellow workers to the cause? Our present course of action is clearly NOT working. So, do we merely play the fiddle while Rome burns?
2. The Way Ahead
The notion of a moneyless world in which the Marxist slogan, ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his need’, would be realised is one that has an old lineage. Yet it is a notion that elicits almost universal incredulity, and consistently fails to establish any sort of presence in mainstream political consciousness. Why is this, and what can be done to ratchet up its credibility and salience? To my mind, the urgency of this project has never been greater: On the one hand, technology is increasingly rendering feasible the prospect of a veritable ‘heaven on earth’. On the other hand, humanity’s depredation of the planet is leading us down the road to hell. How these tendencies will play out is anyone’s guess; nothing is pre-ordained. For, barring some irreversible tipping point being reached leading to a runaway natural calamity (and I don’t for one moment discount this possibility), it is still within our gift as a species to broadly determine our future. However, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated in my Point of View essay, if we choose to stick with our existing mode of producing the things we need in order to exist at all, then the outlook will be bleak. Because there is remorseless logic in the manner in which this capitalistic system operates. The driver behind it is the need to realise a profit, and this has all sorts of bizarre and adverse consequences: For example; despite there being something like 18 million empty homes in the US, there are probably around a million homeless Americans. Despite millions going hungry, agricultural ‘set-aside’ policies are implemented and ‘excess’ produce is often junked rather than given away. Despite global awareness of the many deleterious effects of destroying virgin rainforests, such destruction proceeds ineluctably apace. These contradictions stem directly from the fact we live in a world of commodity production where goods and services are produced almost exclusively in order to be sold so as to realise a profit, and if there is no prospect of this happening, then, of course, they’ll not find their way to the market. Capitalism’s weird logic fails to acknowledge the need of the hungry for food, for instance, because their lack of purchasing power means that their hunger cannot adequately manifest itself as ‘demand’.
It is not my intention here to embark upon another critique of capitalism. Rather, I would like to consider why it is that the sane, rational alternative, communism; which incidentally, has nothing to do with state capitalist regimes such as Cuba or North Korea; fails lamentably to grab the imagination of the vast majority of people. I would also like to consider what might be done to rectify this situation, and what might facilitate the uptake of this ‘utopian’ idea.
Undoubtedly, a major obstacle to widespread acceptance of this idea is what has been termed ‘ideology’; in my understanding, a disparate set of notions that is foisted upon the ‘masses’ by various agencies – such as religion, schools and the media – which promotes ways of thinking, feeling, and believing conducive to the continued existence of the current social system. Thus, religion may serve to ameliorate social discontent by encouraging people to focus rather upon otherworldly (and therefore necessarily non-collectivistic) concerns, schools may promote social conformity by extolling civic responsibility and encouraging youngsters to gear themselves up for a life of wage slavery, and the media, with their flag-waving, sanctimonious editorials about the need for everyone to ‘pull together’, may obscure or play down the divisive nature of society. Obviously, the situation is more complicated than this: Ideological agencies don’t all sing from the same song sheet, and the individuals involved in their operations may well baulk at the thought that they are somehow helping to preserve the status quo. Moreover, to describe these agencies in terms of an assumed opposition to communism is absurd. This is a notion well below the radar for them (though I suspect some of these agencies may well decide to train their big guns on proponents of resourced based living when/if this idea gains more ground). For all this, however, ideology does play a part – sometimes unwittingly and indirectly in so-called democracies and sometimes more directly in more authoritarian regimes – in the formation of social attitudes not exactly inimical to the status quo. Typically, ideology obfuscates the fault lines running through society; promoting instead the model of a patriotic citizenry and encouraging various degrees of disdain towards elements within the country perceived to be ‘rocking the boat’, as well as towards assorted foreigners beyond its borders for other reasons.
Assumptions about human nature, however derived, can also act as formidable deterrents to embracing the idea of a free access society. Ideology itself is often the font of many such contentious suppositions, or at least disposes people to such ways of thinking. One widespread assumption about human nature is the belief that people are inherently lazy and can only be goaded into ‘work’ by some form of financial inducement. This obviously goes to the very crux of the communist case, challenging as it does the idea that people might selflessly and voluntarily contribute towards the common good. However, such cynicism is almost certainly informed by the reality of work and employment in contemporary society, where there is an intrinsic conflict of interests between workers and bosses over what is expected of the former and the remuneration workers receive in return. Additionally, for most people, attitudes towards work as such are often coloured by disagreeable ‘conditions of employment’ that can render the whole experience deeply stultifying and stressful. One has only to contrast the frisson of pleasure and release felt by most as the weekend beckons with the gloom that awaits them when Monday inevitably comes around to comprehend the depressing reality of this observation. Moreover, the ‘inherent laziness’ assumption begs question about the value attaching to work: Rather than revering the braggadocio of bankers and brokers simply because they make wads of money, a future communist society will undoubtedly witness a completely different sort of value system in which status, insofar as it has significance, will most likely correlate with one’s actual contribution towards society, with those undertaking the most difficult or onerous work being highly regarded. Many other arguments can be marshalled against the disparaging assumption that human beings are inherently lazy (and by implication unsuited to resource-based living); to wit, the fact that only a fraction of the global workforce today would be required to produce the goods and services actually needed in a communist society (and hence the ‘goodwill’ required of people to contribute would be minimal), the fact that present day capitalism is unbelievably wasteful in the manner in which it operates, the fact that millions of people around the world actually engage in voluntary unpaid work even in today’s avaricious social climate, and the fact that in a truly communistic society technology could be deployed without restraint to automate nearly all jobs considered dangerous or ‘undesirable’. Collectively, these arguments simply eat away at the ‘inherent laziness’ objection.
Another very questionable assumption that prevents people from accepting the idea of communism– in many ways the terrible twin of the afore-mentioned assumption that human beings are inherently lazy - is the view that people are inherently greedy, and would take all they could get if goods and services were freely available. Again, such a view is very much entrenched in the consumerist zeitgeist of modern capitalism, which incessantly bombards people with prompts to buy things regardless of whether these things are really needed. Moreover, status often attaches to the acquisition of certain categories of goods and services – such as the luxurious or fashionable – creating powerful secondary reasons to purchase such goods and services. No doubt, given that capitalism is concerned only with maximising profits and not with meeting human needs, a massive surge in demand for all sorts goods and services would accompany the initial establishment of communism. But it is wholly reasonable to expect that once the deficits of capitalism had been made good that ‘demand’ – in this instance, genuine demand, unmediated by money – would ‘plateau’ out. After all, there are only so many punnets of strawberries you can eat in a day. Certainly, there will be shortages from time to time. But these will be dealt with in a rational, consensual manner. What would disappear altogether is the intractable grinding poverty found all around the world today, along with homelessness, hunger, and much else that characterises a society based on commodity production.
A third factor that seemingly impedes uptake of communism is what I might call censorship. By this, I don’t mean that this idea is formally suppressed (although it’s possible that this does/could occur in some parts of the world). What I mean is that the idea is often dismissed as a legitimate topic of discussion or not allowed an airing, simply because it is considered too quirky and eccentric, too lacking in support, to merit attention. Much of the accompanying critique of capitalism informed by this perspective therefore fails to penetrate political discourse. We are left instead with the tedious spectacle of career politicians spouting the same old crap, constantly thinking wholly within the box, recycling the same old formulae. It’s no wonder that people feel alienated, indifferent, or even hostile towards anything of a political nature. Unfortunately, such attitudes may then also be directed at the free access proposition because it too is packaged as a political idea. Some consolation may, however, be had from the near certainty that were this idea to take off, it would do so exponentially: the more people accepted it, the more people would accept it, and the rate of increase in adherents would dramatically rise; a tendency that would facilitated, no doubt, by the sheer novelty value of this radically different idea, One might speculate that a sort of ‘resonance effect’ would come into play as more and more people spoke out for a world of free access, and did so with increasing confidence and without fear of being considered eccentric. Simultaneously, the ‘message’ would become richer as it became increasingly backed up by serious research and academic study of the subject. Material support would grow too. Additionally, the critique of contemporary society that inevitably accompanies advocacy of free access would encourage people to increasingly relate the woes they face in their everyday life to the manner in which society is organised as acceptance of the free access proposition spread, and this too would help to engender support
Fourthly, there’s probably an element of not wanting to stray too far from one’s intellectual comfort zone in all of this. The very notion of a moneyless, propertyless world is, after all, one that’s often likely to elicit derision and scorn. Moreover, taking on board such a notion is likely to call into question a whole host of existing assumptions. Mind shifting can be an exceedingly tall order.
A fifth factor, one that has exerted a pernicious influence on the uptake of communism, is the lure of reformism, the temptation to go for the quick fix and put the entire communist project on the back boiler. What this approach signally fails to take into account is the complex, interconnected, shifting nature of capitalism, in which attempting to resolve one problem can lead to unintended problems cropping up elsewhere. For example, attaining improved wages and working conditions in one country may result in a flight of capital to some other country less fastidious about the plight of its working class, and thus may lead to lay-offs and factory closures in the former. This is not to say that certain reforms are not desirable in themselves – the attainment of democracy and the right to free expression, for example, must surely be counted as desirable ends. However, reformism has its limitations, and where it runs counter to the first principle of capitalism; viz that nothing should stand in the way of maximising profit, it is ultimately doomed to failure, or, at most, negligible success. It should also be noted that, given the right set of circumstances, the powers that be may choose to back-peddle in regard to some hard-won reforms. Yet those advocating specific reforms sometimes go further and contend that capitalism as a system can be reformed to the extent that can be somehow made to work in the interests of the working class. This is pure fantasy: Such a belief completely overlooks the fact capitalism is about profit. However, this is precisely what various groupings on the left – from neo-Fabians to Trotskyites – advocate in their tireless campaigns to up the ante in the conflict between labour and capital. Why they don’t just call for the immediate abolition of the wages system instead of insisting upon the chasing the Holy Grail of a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ is beyond comprehension, particularly as even modest movements in this direction can be undone by the economy suddenly lurching into recession.
Finally, we come to the Orwellian manner in which the very language of discourse about the idea of ‘communism’ has been warped out of all recognition. It goes without saying that the terms ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ have come to signify something very different from the moneyless, stateless, propertyless society of free access and common ownership of the means of production envisaged by Marx and Engels. ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ states the position concisely. (See Wikipedia for more on this). Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, regimes of various hues have attempted to cloak themselves in communist or socialist raiment to enhance their standing and legitimise themselves internally and externally. Should we therefore pragmatically relinquish this older terminology, and search for some new form of words? Whilst it might it may be tempting to do so, I think this should be resisted for two reasons: Firstly, to do so would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater as the case for Marxian communism goes hand in hand with an insightful Marxist critique of capitalism and it would be foolhardy to jettison this simply for the sake of having an untarnished label. Part of the approach to presenting the communist case is to demonstrate how and why certain undesirable phenomena happen in our world today, and thereby show that these would not occur in communist society. Take a trivial example: The printer I use does not enable cartridge re-cycling and barely tolerates compatibles. Yet it wastes an inordinate amount of ink, and each cartridge costs a fortune. In a communist society, or what is sometimes called a society of ‘resourced based living’, there would be absolutely no need at all to design printers simply in order to commit customers to forking out for expensive cartridge replacements. The phenomenon of planned obsolescence in general, from batteries to toasters, is something that only makes sense in a society geared to selling things, and would have no place in a future communist society. A second reason for not abandoning the old nomenclature is that to do so is to implicitly acknowledge that regimes which describe themselves as communist or socialist are precisely that. This is the Big Lie. Whilst there is any political mileage in the terms at all, to become complicit in this lie will simply add to the confusion and set the cause back for generations.
To conclude this essay, I would likely to briefly consider what can be done about this sorry state of affairs. How can like-minded people around the world push the agenda for revolutionary change? Much has already been suggested in the foregoing. But it may be helpful to tie everything up and end with a concisely worded list of proposals. So here they are:
I’m not suggesting that this is an exhaustive list of proposals, and anyone with other ideas on how to promote communism ought really to make them known, However, I do think that just giving all of this some thought is an important first step in dragging the communist project from out of the political backwater to which it has been assigned.