Editorial: The Futility of Reform
Socialist Standard, Issue 2. October 1904
Editorial: The Futility of Reform
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has often been asked why they have not drawn up a programme of measures for the partial redress of those evils which most immediately affect the position of the working class. “Should we not strive to palliate the existing misery”? “Should we not seek to foster the sectional differences existing among the capitalists so that we may use them in the interests of the working class"? “Should we not temporarily support, or form temporary alliances with, other political parties while working for common ends”? These and other questions of like import are constantly being put to us by non-members of our party. We now propose to answer them.
The basis of modern society is, economically, the holding by one section of the community of the means necessary for producing and distributing the means of living of the whole of the community, i.e., the ownership by a class of the whole wealth of society. As against them there is the vast mass of the people owning nothing but their "labour-power,” their power of working.
The worker being compelled to sell this power of working on the labour market, in return for his means of livelihood, has interests diametrically opposed to those of the employer who buys his activity. Hence two classes with conflicting interests, constantly meeting on the labour market, must necessarily engage in a struggle in which each combatant can gain only at the expense of the other. Such a struggle between classes forms a class war.
Economically, the working class are impotent so long as the employing class has possession of political power. Therefore, the class struggle must manifest itself as a political struggle for class supremacy. The working class can only gain their ends by taking possession of the political machine and using it so as to gain their own economic emancipation. This can be done only by themselves, and the struggle in which they must take part to secure this is a class war—the working class against the employing class.
The basis of a Socialist Party in any country must, therefore, be a recognition of the fact that the material interests of the working class are in entire opposition to those of the employing class, that is, the recognition of the class war. Any party which declares that no class war exists rules itself, by virtue of that declaration, out of court as a Socialist party. It is, necessary, therefore, in forming and organising a Socialist party to have a clearly defined class war basis, and in every action of the party to always keep the class-conscious character of the party clearly to the front. Any action tending to obscure this position, any position keeping the class struggle in the background, is a virtual betrayal of Socialist principles, serving only to confuse the issues in the minds of the workers and to make it more difficult for them to understand their class position and the reasons for it, and to see the road which must be followed if they are to achieve their emancipation—serving only, in brief, to retard the development of their class consciousness.
Any alliance, either permanent or temporary, with a party which does not recognise the class war is therefore out of the question. For does not every such alliance, whether openly avowed or tacitly understood, make less clear the class opposition which exists between the various political parties? How can we claim to be essentially distinct and, in fact, diametrically opposed to all other political parties, if we can find sufficient common objects to make possible any common ground of working? We think that the teaching of our principles is hindered by every such concession to the anti-class war parties, and is, therefore, opposed to the true interests of Socialism. We, therefore, avow ourselves in hostility to all other political parties, and can have nothing in common with them.
And this has been the experience of the Socialist parties of other countries. Wherever those parties have maintained an attitude of open hostility to all other political parties they are strongly organised. Whenever any of those parties, strong or weak, have formed temporary alliances, as they did, for instance, in Belgium, with the Liberal Party, for the purpose of securing universal suffrage, they lost strength, and remain as far from securing their desired reform as ever they were. Thus, then, is our first objection that such action confuses the issues and hinders our success.
Our next objection lies in the fact that any such dependence upon other political parties for their assistance assumes the maintenance of a majority of members on our legislative bodies who are not class conscious representatives of the working class. So long as that remains the case, so long will the legislature be controlled by middle class men, by capitalists. Every such capitalistically controlled legislature secures the control of the administrative and judicial functions by the capitalists.
The result of this is that every measure carried through Parliament is carried through by those whose position makes it necessary that these enactments should be piecemeal and ineffective. They will, therefore, endeavour to reduce every concession to the point of impotency except in cases where they think to maintain their power by greater concessions. In this latter case they know they can depend upon their second line of defence—the administration of those laws which will cause the laws to remain a dead letter.
We have only to study the legislation of the last half of the nineteenth century to find that each of those phases of the economic legislation of the middle class parties plentifully exist. We find that the administration of the law being in the hands of the capitalist class, will be carried on by them in such a way as not to be dangerous to their own class interests.
Any “blue-book” dealing with any phase of working class life, will show instances innumerable of the neglect of the Local Government Board, or of the Borough Councils, or of the County Councils, in applying the laws already in existence. Housing Acts and Public Health Acts and Acts for the prevention of women returning to work at too early a period after child-birth, and Factory and Workshop Acts are not efficiently carried out, while powers vested in governing bodies are hardly ever exercised. Thus we read with regard to the pollution of the atmosphere by smoke, that:
“There are people in Manchester who systematically pollute the air and pay the fine, finding it much cheaper to do so than to put up new plant. The trial of such cases before benches of magistrates composed of manufacturers, or their friends, creates an atmosphere of sympathy for the accused, and it was alleged that magistrates who had sought to give effect to the law encountered the indifference and sometimes the positive opposition of their colleagues."
Just so! And this is only one case which may be cited from among innumerable others which lie before us.
We have to point out further that sometimes it happens that a reform asked for by the working class can be granted them without any serious danger to the capitalist class. In such cases they make graceful concessions and the working class are usually called upon to hail the party granting such a "concession” as their truest friends.
Another case is that sometimes a measure is passed which, while benefiting certain individual workers, proves disastrous to another and larger section. Such was, for example, the Workman's Compensation Act. This Act was passed to benefit those workers in certain selected industries who met with accidents while in the performance of their duties. It is to be observed that the Act was again the minimum of possible concession. It benefited those workers who in consequence of meeting with accidents which disabled them, received compensation where, before the passing of the Act, they would have obtained nothing. But while they were benefited, a larger section of the working class were affected to their detriment. The employing class ever on the watch where their class interests are concerned, immediately claimed that the old men they employed, the men over a certain ago, who were rendered infirm by the hard toil to which they had been subjected, were liable to more accidents than men in their earlier manhood, and that when they met with accidents, such accidents were more likely to prove serious or fatal than if they were younger. These men were in consequence immediately discharged. And what has happened since? A committee, on which was Mr. George N. Barnes, of the A.S.E., has reported:
"That with reference to the employment of aged, infirm, or maimed persons, amendments should be made to enable the employer to offer work to such persons without incurring undue risk of paying compensation." ,
We are, therefore, forced to the conclusion that the trying to secure measures for the palliation of the evils of the existing class-governed society is useless. The men in control of the legislative, administrative, and judicial machinery of the community can always dodge any such partial attacks upon their position, can always find loopholes to escape from any concession appearing to endanger their position.
The only thing which will secure the alleviation of our misery and our wage slavery is the propagation of the principles of Socialism and the building up of a class conscious Socialist party, prepared to wrest at the earliest possible moment the whole powers of government from the hands of those who at present control them.
When a strong Socialist party, fighting directly for the establishment of a Socialist regime, and prepared in their progress to secure any advantage which will act as a new vantage ground in their further fight is organised, then the capitalists will be only too ready to offer and to give each and all of those palliatives as a sop to the growing Socialist forces in the country.
We have, therefore, to recognise all the time that it is only possible to secure any real benefit for the people when the people themselves become class conscious, when behind the Socialists in Parliament and on other bodies there stands a solid phalanx of men clear in their knowledge of Socialism and clear in their knowledge that the only way to secure the Socialist Commonwealth of the future is to depend only upon the efforts of themselves and those who have the same class conscious opinions. Therefore we have no palliative programme. The only palliative we shall ever secure is the Socialist Society of the future gained by fighting uncompromisingly at all times and in every season.