A Short Story from the September 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
The inexperienced young speaker had been on the Socialist Party platform for about ten minutes. Most of that time had been spent talking to thin air, and he was becoming disheartened. In desperation he called out to someone of about the same age who was passing by.
“Excuse me, do you mind coming over here and chatting for a bit? I’m getting rather lonely up here. 1 shan’t keep you long—I only want to talk to you till I’ve got an audience, anyway.” Surprisingly, the passer-by obliged.
"Who's this mob you're speaking for?” he asked.
"The Socialist Party of Great Britain,” replied the speaker, “not to be confused with cheap imitations.”
“Well, you're wasting your time with me. I'm not interested in politics.”
“That’s O.K. Neither am I.”
“What are you doing up there, then?”
“I’ll explain. I’m up here because I happen to think life’s pretty scabby.”
"You sound very bitter. What makes you say that?"
“Well, certain things I think we might agree about. Work’s the biggest moan for a start. I don’t suppose I’ve been going to work any longer than you, but I'm fed up already with the way my life revolves around it.
"Up we get at some uncivilised hour when the alarm clock goes off, and after that the whole day is regulated. Some stuffy office till the best hours of the day arc gone—in winter you don’t even see daylight except through the window. I spend the majority of my waking hours doing something I'm not interested in, and my own life can only begin in the few hours when I’m not at my job. Even then my activities are limited because I'm constantly aware that I must be up in time to go back to work the following day.
“And that’s not the worst of it. You and I are going to have to do this five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for the next 40 years or so. And if you want to know what the result of the process is just look round at our parents. I sometimes look at my own father and wonder what he's got to show for a lifetime’s hard work. Answer: a mortgage round his neck, callouses on his hands, and me—hardly a great accumulation. You might as well say he's ended up with what he started out with—nothing.
"But on the other hand he's been through two world wars and a slump, so a whippersnapper like me can't tell him anything. Whether our generation ends lip with this big-headed attitude remains to be seen."
"Well, you haven't told me anything yet. I do agree that life’s pretty rotten in the ways you’ve said. But that doesn’t explain what you’re doing up on that platform. I thought you would consider your time too precious to waste.”
“I’d like to explain, but I don't want to keep you out late. I expect you’ve got to go to work tomorrow yourself.”
“Of course I have. So has everyone else.”
“Well not quite everyone; Some of those people who are so wealthy they don’t need to work, probably won’t for a start.”
“You mean the bosses?”
“Yes. Not the managers, who probably put in more hours, unpaid worry included, than you or me. 1 mean the people who actually own all the industries in the country. They are few in number—about 10 per cent of the population— and for that reason are very rich.
“Now don’t you feel slightly peeved that there are people in this privileged position? They don’t have to put up with the same dull routine as we do.”
“I suppose so, but I can’t do anything about it, can I? And anyway, good luck to them, they must have worked some time to have got what they have."
“No. First, it’s not strictly true that members of this privileged class must have necessarily worked to own all they do. A great deal of their wealth is inherited. But in any case, let’s ask ourselves how these fortunes are made in the first place. After all, they’re so huge it seems unlikely that they are made simply by living a frugal life.”
“You tell me then."
“Well, what I want to suggest is that these fortunes are made out of mugs like you and me.
“In any industry, the workers produce more in terms of wealth than they receive as wages—because they are not paid for what they produce, but just enough for them to live at a certain standard of living. This is then used up and then back we go to work again the following week. In other words, it’s because wages, on an average, only provide us with enough to keep alive and healthy—plus enough to reproduce sufficient offspring to carry on the job of piling up more wealth than we ever see—that we have to perpetuate the agony in the way I've described. And it is the difference between this amount and the amount actually produced by workers which accounts for the profits of the owners. So we also perpetuate our compulsory generosity at the same time.”
“But even if all this is true, it doesn't get us very far. After all. these people do own everything, and even if I agree that their position depends on exploiting us, we can’t do anything about it by shouting our heads off on a soap-box."
“This is the other point you made a moment ago, and I must say I disagree with you. For a start it depends on how many people listen to what you say on the soap-box.
“Now the present system, and the way it is run. depends entirely on the effort of people like us, who have to work. We run the whole show from, lop to bottom. For that reason, if all of us united together, it would be in our power to set up a system where there would not be the rat-race that exists at present.”
“What do you suggest—shooting all the owners or something!"
“No. Even if that were a practical possibility it would only result in other people taking over their privileged position. What I do seriously suggest is a complete and fundamental change in the way we run our lives at present. I suggest that we set up a system where we all co-operate to make necessary work as pleasant as possible and our conditions of life the best possible, too. This, in turn, I suggest, can be done by establishing a society where all wealth is owned in common.”
“It sounds marvellous. How are you going to do it?"
“No. How are YOU going to do it. 1 can’t do a thing on my own, and neither can the Socialist Party. What is needed is a majority of people like us to do something.
“And this brings me back to what 1 said about not being interested in politics. 1 joined this party only because I realised that my own interests are identical with the interests of 90 per cent of people in society; and that all of us can only achieve an appreciable improvement in our position by political action.
“This doesn’t mean going into Parliament and forming a government. Rather it means going into Parliament to end the need for a Parliament at all! As far as the hours spent there by the professionals concerned, I find it about as boring as you do. But for all that it’s very important. It is from Parliament, you see, that the system of private ownership is ultimately run. The government of the day deals with affairs which affect the owners of industry as a class rather than as individuals. Hence all the time spent on finance, influence and control over whole industries, and so on. All this will go when private ownership goes.
“Now one day, we hope, this is a task for which the Socialist Party can be used. It doesn’t run for office, as all the other political parties do, since they clearly don’t want to abolish property society. It exists as a vehicle which the population can use for ending property society, if it decides to, by sending the party’s delegates to Parliament for that purpose.
“This is the reason, and the only reason, the Socialist Party contests elections. We always lose, but that doesn’t mean to say we’re wasting our time. We expect to lose elections until enough people have accepted the arguments for the radical change I’ve been talking about. And by contesting elections we help to propagate these ideas. So at this stage we are mainly a propaganda organisation; that explains what I’m doing on this platform.”
“But your party can’t be very powerful. I hadn’t even heard of it before tonight."
“Well, we’d be very fortunate if that was all that was wrong! But I find myself in the following position, and I suggest that whether you realise it or not, so are you. I can see that there can only be a radical change in the way I must lead my life if there is a corresponding radical change in society. I recognise that this must be done ultimately by a majority of the population bringing about the kind of change I’ve indicated.
“Now I agree with you that the task seems almost hopeless. But there is a slim chance, and so far as I'm aware the only organisation which gives voice to these ideas is the Socialist Party of Great Britain.”