Harold Walsby: What is the Answer?

The other day, on the television, Lord Boyd Orr told us that the world’s population is now expanding at the terrific rate of some 23 millions a year. In more concrete terms it means that, when you woke up this morning, there were 63,000 more human beings to feed, clothe and shelter and educate than there were yesterday morning: It means that in one hour after you have read these lines, the human race will have increased by over 2,625 persons. And this goes on hour after hour, day in and day out, without any let-up. Lord Boyd Orr further told us that when malaria has been, as it is being, cleared from places like South-Eastern Europe, Asia, India and Latin America, the rate of human expansion will rapidly rise to still greater proportions!

To those of us who are socialists, looking forward to a world-society of common ownership and democratic control, it is a sobering thought. It is sobering because, though human beings are born, socialists are not. They’re made. Human beings are born by the million, but, by comparison, socialists are not even made by the thousand.

It should be obvious to all but the most parochially-minded among us, that the rate at which socialists are being made to-day is infinitesimally small compared to the rate of human increase indicated by the figures quoted above. In short, socialists are not only made, but they are made on a scale which we can only describe as ‘hand-made’ in relation to the colossal ‘mass production’ of the working population.

Yawning Gap
Take Britain, for instance, one of the most industrialised, densely populated and advanced capitalist countries in the world. In Britain, the political groups which advocate socialism (as something radically distinct from nationalisation or state capitalism) are so tiny they hardly count at all in the practical political life of the country. The vast mass of the electorate knows little or nothing of their existence, let alone their ideas; Some of these groups have been going for many years (one or two for nearly half-a-century) yet their rate of growth to-day amounts to no more than a few dozens per year. The picture is very much the same in other democratic countries, and there is no reason to believe it is any better in the pseudo-socialist paradises of totalitarian rule.

It is a far cry from a mere handful of libertarian socialists, growing by ones and twos, to a world socialist commonwealth of over 2,000 millions; growing at the fantastic rate of 23 millions every year. Somehow or other, if democratic common ownership of the means of life (and all it implies) is to become a reality, that ‘handmade’ handful must grow at an ever-increasing rate until it catches up with, and overtakes, the 23 millions-a-year of mass reproduction.

This means that sooner or later – the sooner the better – libertarian socialists will have to be mass produced at a rate of well over 2,625 per hour! That’s more in every hour of every day than twice the total membership attained by one British socialist party in nearly half-a-century of existence!

At the present time anyway, the outlook seems rather dim for all who strive for common ownership. It may well be the case, indeed, that the present tendency is for our tiny numbers, despite the addition of ones and twos here and there, actually to decrease as a relative proportion of the total population.

Whether this is so or not, the fact is that the gap between the ‘handicraft’ method of making socialists and the ‘mass production’ of human beings, makes the arrival of common ownership seem a prospect of the very remote future.

How Do We Know?
Does the clear recognition of this situation provide any warrant for pessimism? I think it can only do so for the ‘purist’ socialist – who tends to dismiss the popular political issues and trends going on in the world today as of no concern or consequence to the socialist movement. By claiming that the outcome of capitalism’s popular issues is of no practical interest to him, the ‘purist’ socialist effectively cuts himself off from all but the remote future.

The mistake which the purist makes is that he assumes all the material conditions and prerequisites for socialism are present. All that is now required, he claims, are socialist ideas on the part of the working populace Рa rapidly increasing population, as we have seen, of 2,000 million or more! Now, says the purist, socialists are made not only by the impact of socialist ideas and propaganda, but also by the material conditions of capitalism, in the sense that these conditions predispose workers to the acceptance of socialist ideas. If all the material conditions are present for socialism, he goes on to reason, then socialists will be forthcoming without the necessity of further development and advancement of capitalism. We should not, therefore, support the further development of present conditions; on the contrary, we should oppose, tooth and nail, all those who support capitalist development.

But how do we know when the material conditions are ripe for socialism? How does one tell whether or not all the prerequisites for socialism are present? What is the test – the acid test – for the ripeness of the conditions? There is only one such objective test. It is, as Marx implied in The German Ideology, the alteration of people on a mass scale, such as to predispose them to accept socialist ideas and facilitate the mass production of the socialist consciousness.

In short, the material conditions are ripe only when they have developed to that stage which makes possible the change-over from the production of socialists by ‘ones and twos’ to mass production of socialists. Judged by this objective test, can we say that the material conditions are ripe now? We certainly cannot. If they were ripe, the immediate problem would simply be the subjective one of making socialists on a large scale.

The Problem
What the purist does not grasp is that the difference between the ‘handicraft’ method of making socialists and their production on a mass scale, is not simply a matter of subjective propaganda¬†effort and education. The problem is not how to get more socialist propaganda but how to get more response from existing propaganda and education – or rather, how to get a mass response. By ‘mass response’ I mean a high rate of conversion relative to the propaganda effort. Given the possibility of mass response, the problem of more propaganda and education would soon be solved.

The very lack of an adequate response, proportionate to the amount of propaganda, clearly shows that capitalism has not developed to the point where we can say that all the material conditions are present for socialism, and that all we now need is the mass response.

Our direct and most immediate need is obviously that change in the conditions that will make possible a mass response to the socialist message. Prevailing capitalist conditions do not make it possible. The changeover from ‘hand-made’ production of socialists to ‘mass production’ would actually start – the greatest political revolution in history.

The question arises then: What are the changes in the material conditions that will make the practical beginning of this political revolution a possibility? They are changes sorely needed by the socialist movement; and they are clearly changes involved in the further development of capitalism. It is clear, moreover, that capitalism is developing more and more towards nationalisation and state ownership of industry – towards state capitalism on a world scale.

Greatest Opponents
In writing of this development, Engels says in Anti-Duhring:

State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but it conceals within it the formal means for the solution of the problem. And this can only come about by society taking possession of the forces of production which have outgrown every other form of management except that of society itself.

The lesson is surely plain. Mature socialists cannot stand aside ‘from the outcome of political issues of nationalisation and other world trends. To scream ‘stinking fish!’ to all and sundry from the isolation of an ivory tower of purism is to ignore our greatest need. For socialists to oppose all and sundry without discrimination, including those who stand for the further development of capitalist conditions, is to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

The socialists’ greatest opponents are those who would retard the speed-up of capitalist development: namely, those who stand pat for the status quo or who aim to put the political and economic clock back as far as they can. The socialists’ greatest friends, on the other hand, must be those who strive to bring about the very material condition which will make possible the production of socialists on a mass scale. To remain, like the purist, blind to this distinction, is to remain politically immature. To repudiate and actively oppose the distinction is sheer folly – for, if anything, it can only help in retarding the arrival of those very conditions from which alone it will be possible to build a real movement for the common ownership of all the means of wealth production throughout the world.

Louder Voices
The purist, assuming all the material requisites for socialism are already present, must find the future pretty bleak indeed. For if no further changes are necessary in capitalist conditions, what on earth is to bring about the colossal revolutionary change needed to turn a tiny handful into a mighty movement growing, not by ones and twos, but by scores of millions a year? Louder voices? More repudiation? More isolation? Nothing, it seems, but a miracle.

Practical politics is largely confined, for the purists, to their vociferously explaining why they will have nothing to do with practical politics! Thus they wait for the remote future, like political Micawbers, hoping something – they know not what – will eventually turn up to convert the millions to socialism. Meanwhile, they spend their time damning reaction and reform alike, reserving their rudest political raspberries for the workers who are actually helping to change conditions to their advantage.

This may give them personal satisfaction – but does it do anything else? Do the purists, in their political innocence, really fulfil any useful role at all for the working-class movement? I think perhaps they do. The perennial failure of the purists to make any real progress does, after all, furnish the broad socialist movement with a kind of litmus paper for proving the immaturity both of the material conditions and of purism.

Reprinted from the Socialist Leader December 1951; copy supplied by Ellis Hillman.

from Ideological Commentary 27, May 1987.