George Walford: Letter from Steve Coleman

Dear George Walford,

As a socialist, it is necessary for me to consider reasonably and critically any points of view which are supposed to challenge my own. So, as you know, I have done my best to get to grips with your argument and I have read a considerable amount of your material on “systematic ideology.” One point which strikes me clearly is that most of your logical quibbles about the Socialist Party’s position are based upon misreadings which bother you, but which are unlikely to be shared by most readers of socialist literature: for example, your claim that there is a contradiction between workers running society from top to bottom and workers being exploited by capitalists is little more than a failure on your part to understand that these two processes are going on at the same time in capitalist society.

You seem to be concerned to explain to socialists that we are wasting our time in trying to convince a majority of workers to become socialists. When all of the philosophical bullshitting is cut through, the basis of your argument is that it won’t happen because it ain’t happened. Do you know how young capitalism is as a social system? It is hardly scientific to try to base a “can’t” upon so short a period. History is full of people who established “can’ts” based upon past experience and were made to look foolish by future experience.

There is only one good argument against socialism, and that involves an act of faith if you want to support it, for there is no scientific evidence. This is the human nature argument. It is held by all sorts of conditioned anti-socialists, from religionists to “Marxists” who think that they can change anything except the present system. As I understand the theory of “systematic ideology,” it claims that there are and always will be a number of distinct intellectual types, only some of which can understand the case for socialism. Am I right in drawing that conclusion about your theory? (If I’m not, then you’d better re-write the lot, because that’s the conclusion which everyone I know who has read it has drawn). If I am right, could you tell me how – if at all – this theory differs from others based upon the fiction of human nature as an inevitable social determinant?

Unfortunately, you did not reply to the recent letter to you by Hardy. It’s a pity that you are not more clear about what you want socialists to do once we have been taught the error of our ways. Perhaps you are not sufficiently convinced that we are in error to spend your time working out a course of action for ex-socialists to follow. But let us suppose that all 600-plus members of the Socialist Party were convinced by the validity of your criticism. (This 600-plus would include nearly 100 who have been persuaded to become socialists since 1982 when you last wrote to the Party telling us that we were wasting our time trying to persuade people). What would the 600-plus do with our intellectual and physical energies? Clearly, it would be a waste of time directing missives at the Socialist Party because it would be finished and we would derive no satisfaction from tempting them to debate with clever polemics. So, what would we do, once we have discovered the futility of being socialists? Sit back and wait to be blown up in a war? Watch the kids standing in the dole queues, looking for jobs which will only be there when it’s profitable to invest in them? Hope that we won’t contract a serious illness which we’re too poor to have treated in the best way? Wait for old age under capitalism, where most workers have to survive in poverty on a pittance of a pension? OR HAVE YOU GOT A REAL ALTERNATIVE, MR.WALFORD? Yours, Steve Coleman

Reply from IC

Mr. Coleman’s letter does not quote from any publications on systematic ideology or refer directly to any particular passages. It speaks of what we seem to him to be concerned with, and of systematic ideology as he understands it. It is, and says it is, a statement of Mr.Coleman’s views, not of ours, and the account it gives of systematic ideology is like saying socialism means everybody ought to be equal.

We have pointed out that if – as the (anarcho-)Socialist Party has stated – exploitation is a major feature of capitalism and the workers run capitalism from top to bottom, then it must be the workers who do the exploiting. That “from top to bottom” leaves no room for the capitalists to perform any significant function.

This letter claims that the workers run society from top to bottom and that the capitalists do the exploiting. It is a claim that shows the (anarcho-)Socialist Party to be operating by a logic of its own, and this is not the only instance in which it does so. Consider this pair:

The party holds that under capitalism all producing is done for profit.

It also holds that all the producing is done by one class – the class which doesn’t get any profit.

Move over, Lewis Carroll!

We do not hold, of (anarcho-)socialism, that it won’t happen because it hasn’t happened. We observe that, contrary to the expectations of the (anarcho-)socialist party, it shows no sign of happening, seek a reason for this and find it in the ideological structure of society.

Mr. Coleman tells us it is hardly scientific to try to base a “can’t” upon so short a period as that for which capitalism has existed. If he is right then the “Socialist” Party is being unscientific when it asserts that capitalism “can’t” function without exploitation.

This letter speaks of “conditioned anti-socialists.” The party holds that all workers live in much the same way; it also says that some of them are socialists and some anti-socialists. When, of a number of people living in the same way, some become socialists and some anti-socialists, it cannot be the way they live that determines their behaviour. (What the party in fact holds is that all workers live under substantially the same conditions, but the argument we are meeting speaks of ‘conditioning,’ and to use the same word in another sense when replying would introduce confusion).

The idea that systematic ideology classifies people into “types” is a misunderstanding that has been repudiated. The matter is discussed, for example, on pages 159 to 160 of Ideologies and their Functions 1979, where it is made clear firstly, that ideological classification of individual people would require a depth and extent of knowledge about their behaviour that is rarely if ever obtainable, and secondly that people sometimes move from one ideological group to another; this movement, for any one person, is unpredictable. To assert that society is constituted of a number of ideological groups is not to assert the existence of different intellectual types. Perhaps Mr. Coleman will be good enough to bring the passage to the attention of the people he knows who are unaware of it. (The book has already been sent, without charge, to each branch of the party; we will send one to any member who sends 34p stamps).

It is the “Socialist” Party which holds that those who do not accept the case have not understood it. If Mr.Coleman is right in saying that the anti-socialists are conditioned into that belief then it follows that they can’t understand “socialism” – their conditioning prevents them doing so.

The letter tells us the party has grown by nearly 100 since 1982. The movement to which it belongs needs a world-wide majority (sometimes the party says an overwhelming majority). If, since that movement began, the number of adults in the world has grown by more than twice the number of accessions to the movement, then the movement is now farther from its requirement than when it began. Our understanding is that this has in fact been happening, that the number of adults in the world has been increasing many times faster than the membership of the (anarcho-)socialist movement, with the result that the movement is now farther from the majority it needs than it has ever been before. (We do not ourselves place importance on number-juggling, holding it enough to know the movement remains a tiny minority; but the claim that the party is growing needed to be put into context).

The letter lists some details of the failure of the “Socialist” Party – war, unemployment and others – and ends by demanding to know what alternative to socialism we propose. As we have replied (above) to Mr.Hardy: Until the “socialists” have decided what their case is it is not possible for them to know whether anything put forward is an alternative to it.

What do we want the “socialists” to do? It is not our own practice, when discussing social affairs, to speak in terms of what we want, but let us meet the question squarely: We want them to continue doing what they have been doing. We want them to continue expounding “the case for socialism” and thus demonstrating its absurdity. We want them to continue drawing attention to the defects of existing society. We want them to continue opposing systematic ideology and criticising it as severely as they can; there can be no better stimulus to its development. And we want a few of them to recognise (as a few of them have recognised in the past) that systematic ideology offers a way past the sterility of “socialism” and to join with us in developing that theory and increasing its practical utility.

The “Socialist” Party is a functional part of what it calls capitalism (while also saying the workers run it from top to bottom); its members just haven’t realised this yet. The function it performs (together with the other anarchist groups) is to demonstrate the futility and absurdity of attempts to abolish existing society.

from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.