Monday, April 24, 2017

What is social democracy?

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is part of the World Socialist Movement (more an aspiration rather than the reality, sadly) and was founded in 1904, having emerged from the 19th social democracy political parties. The structure of the Socialist Party is democratic, fore-shadowing the future society we advocate. We have no leaders or controlling cliques. Our affairs are run according to the decisions of the entire membership through instructed delegates at Annual Conference, its decisions ratified by an all-member poll. Our officials are elected annually, again by the entire membership. Our Executive Committee is for basic Party house-keeping administration, unable to propose or decide policy matters. The General Secretary is a dogs-body. Any organisation can claim to be in favour of democracy. We are to be judged not on what we claim but on what we do. Having nothing to fear from the presence of non-members (welcoming them, in fact), we have never held a closed meeting in our entire history. That is completely in keeping with our conviction that the revolution to establish the socialist democracy will not be ours; it will be a revolution itself decided upon by a majority of humanity. We oppose the practices of so many so-called revolutionary organisations down the years who expect to bring democracy to the masses while unwilling to practice it internally. As a matter of political principle, the Socialist Party's internal records (except, understandably, for the current membership names and addresses which remain confidential) are open to public consultation. In keeping with the tenet that working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership, the Socialist Party is a leader-free political party. The Socialist Party is free of any hierarchy and all members are constitutionally equal. Despite some very charismatic members, no personality has exercised undue influence over the Party. Under UK electoral law, a registered political party has to name its leader and to comply the Socialist Party simply drew a name out of a hat and it is doubtful if any member recollects who it was. The same practice will occur at this year's annual conference.

When someone comes across the Socialist Party for the first time, a common reaction is to consider us as just another left-wing political organisation. The Left use similar terminology to us, talking of socialism, class struggle, exploitation, etc, and invoking Karl Marx. But digging a little deeper will show that our political position is very different from that of the left-wing. The Socialist Party is not on the Left. The left-wing like to act as though they are Moses, and lay down the commandments in stone for followers to obey. Left-wing propaganda offering leadership adds to the impression that the worker is an inferior being who is incapable of thinking, organising and acting and imbues further the master-and-servant mentality of the worker. As already stated all Left organisations start from the premise that workers are too stupid to understand or want socialism by their own volition. Therefore, revolutionary ideas have to be introduced from outside the working class by all-knowing "professional revolutionaries" who will lead workers to the promised land. We are not and never have been connected with the ideas of Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin.

The Socialist Party engages in the parliamentary process not to form a government but for the purpose of seizing control of the state for its abolishment. We insist on the necessity of majority understanding behind socialist delegates with a mandate for socialism, merely using the state and parliament for one revolutionary act, after which the Socialist Party has no further existence. The State is the centralised organised power of the capitalist class. In the interests of that class, it performs a dual function – administers the property affairs of the various sections comprising the class, and takes whatever steps are considered necessary to keep the working class in order. It is the latter coercive function of the State that has concerned us here. It controls every department of the armed forces, all the way from the policemen’s clubs up to the colossal force of the atomic bomb. So long as the capitalist class is allowed to remain in control of the military, there would be no chance of dispossessing the capitalists or abolishing their system. The primary move on the part of a revolutionary working class entails gaining control of the armed forces. The House of Commons, Reichstag, Congress or Dail, these so-called popular assemblies control the armed forces. Every bill presented, and every law passed, regarding every phase of military expenditure, reduction, or increase, has to go through the parliamentary channels. There is no possibility of the workers successfully engaging the capitalist class on the basis of brute force or violence. The tremendous and destructive nature of military weapons in society today preclude the possibility of successful competition. The owning class has a supreme and invincible weapon within its grasp: political power, – control of the military and the police.


We will need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party, a mass workers' party that has yet to emerge, not the small educational and propagandist group such as we in the Socialist Party are at present. This future party will neutralise the state and its repressive forces but there is no question of forming a government and "taking office", It will proceed to take over the means of production for which the working class has also already organised themselves to do at their places of work. This done, the repressive state is disbanded and its remaining administrative and service features, reorganised on a democratic basis, are merged with the organisations which the majority will have formed (workers councils or city/town communes or whatever) to take over and run production, to form the democratic administrative structure of the stateless society of common ownership that socialism will be. By gaining control of the powers of the state, the socialist majority are in a position to transfer the means of living from the parasites, who own them, to society, where they belong. This is the only function or needs the working class has of the state/government. As soon as the revolution has accomplished this task, the state is replaced by the socialist administration of affairs. There is no government in a socialist society. “Capturing” Parliament is only a measure of acceptance of socialism and a coup de grace to capitalist rule. The real revolution in social relations will be made in our lives and by ourselves, not Parliament. What really matters is a conscious socialist majority outside parliament, ready and organised, to take over and run industry and society. Electing a socialist majority in parliament is essentially just a reflection of this. It is not parliament that establishes socialism, but the socialist working-class majority outside parliament and they do this, not by their votes, but by their active participating beyond this in the transformation of society.

One of the driving forces for the creation of the party was the view that democracy was integral to the establishment of socialism and thus a party with that object needs to be a reflection of the democratic principle. So although with a long history as a political party based on agreed goals, methods and organisational principles we still remain a small propagandist group. Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership referendums are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organisation control that organisation – and as such key procedures in any organisation genuinely seeking socialism. Socialism can only be a fully democratic society in which everybody will have an equal say in the ways things are run. This means that it can only come about democratically, both in the sense of being the expressed will of the working class and in the sense of the working class being organised democratically – without leaders, but with mandated delegates – to achieve it. In rejecting these procedures what is being declared is that the working class should not organise itself democratically.

We actually have a test before someone can become a member. Our Party will not allow a person to join it until the applicant has convinced the branch applied to that she or he is a conscious socialist. Surely it must put some people off? Well, that may be, but it can't be helped. There would be no point in a socialist organisation giving full democratic rights to those who, in any significant way, disagreed with the socialist case. The outcome of that would be entirely predictable. This does not mean that the Socialist Party has set itself up as an intellectual elite into which only those well versed in Marxist scholarship may enter. The reason is to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Once a member, s/he have the same rights as the oldest member to sit on any committee, vote, speak, and have access to all information. Thanks to the test all members are conscious socialists and there is a genuine internal democracy, and of that, we are fiercely proud. Consider what happens when people join other groups which don't have this test. The new applicant has to be approved as being "all right". The individual is therefore judged by the group according to a range of what might be called "credential indicators". Hard work (often, paper selling) and obedience by new members is the main criterion of trustworthiness in the organisation. In these hierarchical, "top-down" groups the leaders strive at all costs to remain as the leadership , and reward only those with proven commitment to the "party line" with preferential treatment, more responsibility, and more say. New members who present the wrong indicators remain peripheral to the party structure and finding themselves unable to influence decision-making at any level, eventually give up and leave, often embittered by the hard work they put in and the hollowness of the party's claims of equality and democracy.

We share in common with the Industrial Workers of the World the view that unions should not be used as a vehicle for political parties. The Socialist Party have always insisted that there will be a separation and that no political party should, or can successfully use , unions as an economic wing until a time very much closer to the revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers. And that's not in the foreseeable future. It is NOT the our task in the Socialist Party to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants' associations or whatever, because we believe that workers are quite capable of making decisions for themselves and creating their own flexible means of resisting the encroachments of capitalism, depending on situations and circumstances. For the Leninist, of course, all activity should be mediated by the Party (union activity, neighbourhood community struggles or whatever.)

While work-place democracy is unquestioningly a pre-requisite for socialist administration, the real democratic safeguard is when no-one can deprive another of the means for life - food clothing and shelter - through sectional ownership of them, regardless of how internally democratic their enterprise might be. This constitutes part of the Socialist Party argument against syndicalism, industrial unionism, and co-operatives. Since socialism is based on the social ownership (= ownership by society as a whole, common ownership) of the means of production, the trade union ownership proposed by the syndicalists (the mines for the miners, railways for the railmen) was not socialism at all but a modified form of sectional ownership. A society run by syndicates/ industrial unions would be a society which would perpetuate the occupational divisions which capitalism imposed on workers. Such a form of organisation would divide the workers on the basis of the industries in which they were engaged, with the inevitable consequence that the industrial interest must triumph over the social interest which socialism so fundamentally demands. In addition, the relations between the separate union-run industries, it has been argued, would have to be regulated either by some central administration, which would amount to a government and so give rise to a new ruling class or by some form of commercial exchange transaction (even if conducted in labour-time vouchers rather than money as many syndicalists proposed.) In other words, a syndicalist society would be a sort of capitalism run by the unions. 

Socialism aims not to establish "workers power" but the abolition of all classes including the working class. It is thus misleading to speak of socialism as workers ownership and control of production. In socialist society, there would simply be people, free and equal men and women forming a classless community. So it would be more accurate to define socialism/communism in terms of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interest of the whole people. "Workers council" would have been a misnomer since socialism, being a classless society, involves the disappearance of the working class just as much as of the capitalist class. "Democratic councils" would have been a more appropriate term. A society where the means of production belong to everybody and run by democratic councils, that's socialism.

The threat of the bureaucracy assuming a new class in socialism cannot arise. Free access to goods and services denies to any group or individuals the political leverage with which to dominate others, a feature intrinsic to all private-property or class based systems through control and rationing of the means of life. The notion of status and hierarchy based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services. This will work to ensure that a socialist society is run on the basis of democratic consensus. Decisions will be made at different levels of organisation: global, regional and local with the bulk of decision-making being made at the local level. A socialist economy would be free access to the common treasury with no monopoly of ownership, and not even the actual producers who in the past have called for ownership of their own product, as promoted by mutualism and syndicalism, can deprive individuals in society to the common ownership of the means of production and distribution.

 A socialist society will be one in which all people will be free to participate fully in the process of making and implementing policy. Whether decisions about constructing a new playground, the need to improve fish stocks in the North Sea, or if we should use nanobots to improve our lives, everyone everywhere will be able to voice their opinion and cast their vote. However, the practical ramifications of this democratic principle could be enormous. If people feel obliged to opine and vote on every matter of policy they would have little time to do anything else. The traditional image of huge crowds with their hands up in council meetings, or queues of people lining up to put a piece of paper in a box, is obviously becoming old-fashioned, even in capitalism. 

On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected executive groups or councils could be seen as going against the principle of fully participatory democracy. If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making which does not put big decisions in the hands of small groups but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required, and it seems that capitalism may have produced one in the form of 'collaborative filtering' (CF) software. This technology is currently used on the internet where a crisis of choice already exists. Faced with a superabundance of products and services, CF helps consumers choose what to buy and navigate the huge numbers of options. It starts off by collecting data on an individual's preferences, extrapolates patterns from this and then produces recommendations based on that person's likes and dislikes. With suitable modification, this technology could be of use to socialism - not to help people decide what to consume, but which matters of policy to get involved in. A person's tastes, interests, skills, and academic achievements, rather than their shopping traits, could be put through the CF process and matched to appropriate areas of policy in the resulting list of recommendations. A farmer, for example, may be recommended to vote upon matters which affect him/her, and members of the local community, directly, or of which s/he is likely to have some knowledge, such as increasing yields of a particular crop, the use of GM technology, or the responsible use of land by ramblers.

 The technology would also put them in touch with other people of similar interests so that issues can be thrashed out more fully, and may even inform them that "People who voted on this issue also voted on…" The question is, would a person be free to ignore the recommendations and vote on matters s/he has little knowledge of, or indeed not vote at all? Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but any system, computer software or not, which helps reduce the potential burden of decision making to manageable levels would. How could too much voting be bad for you.

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