A Short Story from the September 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard
He assures me with expansive worldliness that he is not interested in politics, and continues to instruct me that “. . . it’s a dirty business . . . a racket!” So he is not interested in what my dictionary tells me is “the science of government” With great temerity I inquire whether or not he casts his vote at elections. Yes, he votes at elections. Why? Well, according to him, there is a principle involved: “. . . The right to vote! Lose that and where will you be? ” He launches into a diatribe about Hitlers and Stalins, and tells me about totalitarianism, finishing, as he began, with: “Lose the right to vote, and where will you be? ”
In order to ascertain where we will be if we lose the right to vote, I wish to know where we are now: this I convey to him.
His rhetoric overwhelms me, and his knowledge of history . . .! With calculated erudition he turns the pages of the past, telling graphically of the struggles of our forbears to win for us (“the common people") the right to choose our own form of government; he reminds me that “universal suffrage” is the strongest weapon in the arsenal of “the people.” He leaves no gainsaying the truth of his instruction—truly have our forefathers won for us out of their blood, sweat and tears a great thing: the right to choose for ourselves, in defiance of any oligarchy, how we shall run our world.
He rests after this, and I take advantage of his silence to ask a few more questions. I confess first that he has proven his point, but that in so doing raises the gravest suspicion that we, “the common people,” are ill-deserving the prize our forefathers paid so dearly for; that in fact we are downright unworthy of our democratic heritage, using it as we do. Did not he himself declare politics to be “a racket”? What names should we apply to ourselves, we who permit the bright path to freedom, so hardly won for us by those who went before, to become the toll-road of racketeers?
Misuse of the Vote
We have the power to control our own destinies, and how have we used this power? Have we not poverty —oh yes. organised and catalogued in the bureaus of a “welfare state,” but still poverty? Do we not still fear the boss will sack us, and us with next year's wages mortgaged for this year’s necessities? Are we oblivious to the fact that we possess the measure of full employment; we do only because we make weapons of the most staggering potency with which to destroy one another? Is this the way we control our own destinies?
We have partly succeeded in relegating Nature to the role of the servant; invented the most complicated devices to ease our toils; developed the most intricate electronic marvels capable of working out formulae at the press of a button that would normally require weeks of concentration by an army of mathematicians. We have conquered the gods and devils of our forefathers; are capable of providing a plethora of all the things needed by humanity; we CAN control our destinies, and yet we permit an archaic condition of social relationships to maintain conditions of want, misery and destruction. We are asked to fight totalitarianism which denies us the right to vote and choose our way of life: yet, given that right, we allow this terrible economic despotism to prevail!
He looks dejected. Lamely he agrees that this is the terrible truth—in fact, he assures me it is things being as I claim they are that forces on him the conviction that politics are a swindle: he had always been aware that the Tories and the Liberals could do nothing about this sort of thing, but the Labour Party ...? They had PLEDGED themselves to destroy these evils, yet when they got the political reins the old Band Wagon just acquired new faces and rumbled on as before.
They don’t love the Tories
It would appear, according to him, that there is just nothing we can do about it. With a knowledge of events that belies his alleged disinterest he illustrates for me the dismal failure of the Labour Party in their efforts to change the lot of the worker. Interpreting a gesture from me as an attempt to interject on behalf of that Party, he anticipates with: "And don’t tell me they didn’t get a chance; the people may not be very politically conscious, but they are not so stupid as not to know when they ARE well off—if they were why’d they sack the Labour Party? Don’t tell me it was out of sentiment for the Tories!”
This, of course, is logic with a vengeance; no hairsplitting, nor playing with dubious statistics: the workers withdrew their allegiance from the Labour Party at the polls, in spite of the fact that that Party was allegedly the Party of Peace, Prosperity and Plenty. Either Labour had not delivered the goods, or the mass of the people had gone mad. On reflection it does seem peculiar— rather like the organised workers consciously and voluntarily cutting their living standards for the poor rich!
I have not told him yet that I do not support the Labour Party, and I am very happy that I do not, for I am a poor hand at political apologetics!
And he knows about the Communist Party too. As he indicts he seems to postulate my support for that which is indicted: accusingly he asks me why he should struggle to bring the British "Commies" to power. (Not knowing aught of political alchemy, I am incapable of giving, in the language of serious discussion, a reply.) He speaks of prison-type social security and the probable fate of bell-ringing shop stewards under a Soviet system.
And now again this pessimism pervades his talk: the utter futility of politics, the uselessness of trying. The sombre philosophy of disinterest—and despair.
I inquire whether or not society can afford the luxury of disinterest. If he was a fire-fighter whose fire-fighting activities had been unsuccessful in the past, could he morally justify this as a reason for refusing to deal with his next fire? Would not the unsuccessful fireman, troubled by his lack of success, demand of himself a complete re-approachment to the whole question of HIS UNDERSTANDING of the nature of fire and, accordingly, of the most successful method of combating it?
Angrily he accuses me of considering him an utter fool. I am insinuating, he accuses, that he does not understand that the poverty of the overwhelming mass of the people, the soul-destroying insecurity with which we are faced, and the horror of stock-piled H-bombs arise from the existence in the world of a system of economic organisation that has long since outlived its usefulness- Capitalism.
Hopefully I suggest that if Capitalism, with its private ownership of the machinery of wealth production is the basic cause of our problems, then is not the solution to be found in a system where these means of production are owned by society as a whole? No. I do not mean nationalisation. I reply to the unspoken criticism that shows in his eyes; I mean exactly what the word “owned” means, when not used in its political context by Labour or Communist politicians. Owned by the people in a way similar to that in which the family unit own a chair or the food in the cupboard—to be used by all in accordance with their self-determined needs, and abused by none. Poverty would be eliminated, for in such a society the keystone of production would be the satisfaction of human needs. Wages would cease to exist, for the old capitalist relationship of owner buying the labour-power of workers would no longer obtain: and since there would be no competition between rival groups of trade-seeking capitalists for markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials or cheap labour, workers would no longer be called upon to indulge mass murder on the battlefields of the world, and our H-bombs could take their rightful place (rendered duly harmless) in the museums of the world, with the other barbarous weapons of class-society.
Has he not said that the right to vote is the right to choose for ourselves the manner in which we shall run our world? It is exactly that right! We have wrung from the hands of the Master class a blank cheque on which we can write: "Socialism” and achieve a sane world! What stays our hands? Apathy, ignorance, and the confusion created by reformist political parties, like the Labour and Communist Parties, who tell us we should devote our lives to struggling for the apple, when we can win the orchard with less trouble!
* * *
He is a cautious man and is not yet convinced that the way of the Socialist Party is the only way forward for the working class; but now he is asking questions! We welcome questions, for we are not a Party of sheep being led into the pens of confusion and disillusionment by "leaders.” We welcome questions because we are confident that if our fellow-workers face up to the reality of existence under Capitalism, made even more terrible today by the threat of atomic war, and "plague” us with questions, they, too, will join us in the struggle and bring nearer the dawn of Socialism.