Harold Walsby: What Makes the Socialist Tick?

(Here we continue reprinting the articles Walsby contributed to the SOCIALIST LEADER, from copy supplied by Ellis Hillman. This one appeared in the issue of January 5, 1952 – GW.)

How do people become socialists? What is it that enables some people to see with striking clarity that capitalism cannot function in the interest of the working class and that it is doomed by its very nature to give rise to a new social system based on the democratic common ownership of the productive forces? How is it that only a few actually grasp this, with all its revolutionary implications, while the vast majority of the workers do not – and apparently couldn’t care less?

You would think, on the face of things, that these would be burning questions inside the socialist movement at the present time. Here we are, six years after the biggest blood-bath in history, trembling on the brink of an even bigger one which, with the crazy science of mass destruction, now threatens not only hundreds of millions of human lives but the virtual existence of civilised society itself.

Capitalism can now – indeed, does – threaten to obliterate and blast out of existence whole countries and nations within the space of a few hours; but it still continues its failure to provide adequate food and standards of life for the ordinary peoples of the world. Millions of working men and women know this – yet their only solution is to put it out of their minds. How often have we not heard them say ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? Let’s talk about something a bit more cheerful!’

Or again, when socialists ask them to face up to the problem: ‘I don’t want to listen to that dismal stuff. I’ve got enough troubles of my own without worrying about other people’s. It won’t get you anywhere even if you do. That’s the politicians’ job. What do we pay them for, anyway?’ These are typical reactions, as most socialists will know from painfully direct experience.

An Important Distinction
Yet this failure of the vast majority of people to face up to the ghastly problems of capitalism is matched by another and related failure inside the socialist movement itself. This latter failure is that of the movement clearly to distinguish its own fundamental problems and to ask just those very questions that would lead to those problems being better understood and resolved.

The problem of capitalism itself is not the issue so far as the workers are concerned. The social problems which actually confront the workers are the immediate problems bound up with the functioning, the social reform and development of capitalism.

And even these immediate problems are treated by the vast mass of the workers with but scant attention or the most superficial interest. It is only the minority which accords them very serious or passionate consideration. Serious interest in any kind of politics whatever, reformist or socialist, is confined to the few. We must make, then, an important distinction between social problems as they exist for socialists and social problems as they exist for the workers. For the socialist, all the well-known social evils of poverty, unemployment, crime, prostitution, wars, etc., etc., are caused by, and are inherent in, the very nature of capitalism itself. The fundamental problem for socialists, therefore, is the problem of the economic basis of capitalism – how to get rid of it and replace it with common ownership. The solutions of all other social problems are regarded as subordinate to and dependent upon the solution of this one central, dominating and fundamental problem.

The Historical Basis
But the solution of this basic problem is itself dependent on certain conditions – conditions which as yet do not exist. It is dependent, firstly, on the socialist movement transforming itself from a mere handful into a mass movement. Wthout a mass movement increasingly supported and sustained by the working class, democratic socialism is impossible. And this, for the socialist, is indeed a major problem – and a major social problem at that.

If the problem of getting rid of capitalism is itself dependent upon solving another problem, without which the solution of the first is impossible, then the more important and decisive problem is not the first but the second. And just because the solution of the first – the ‘fundamental’ problem – is dependent on solving the second, the first cannot be so fundamental after all! The second, in fact, must be basic to the first.

In order that we may regard the abolition of capitalism itself as the fundamental problem at issue here and now, we must do one of two things. Either we must regard the solution of the problem as independent of any conditions – i.e. we must ignore the conditions and view it in the abstract: or we must regard the conditions for its solution as already fulfilled – that is we must regard the socialist movement as having already transformed itself into a mass movement, growing at the mass rate which would ensure its enveloping the vast ma jority of the working class.

In other words, when we assert that capitalism is now the fundamental issue before us, we make the mistake referred to above. We are viewing the problem outside of its present social context, out of the setting of contemporary society, and we are once again identifying the existing working class with the socialist movement.

We are, in fact, regardng the problem as abstracted from present world conditions and viewing it, either completely in the abstract, independent of all conditions, or else as pro jected into the social setting of a distant future.

Having clearly grasped our error, however, we can look at the cotemporary situation of the socialist movement from a new point of view. We can see that, at the present time, the problem of getting rid of the socialist movement as a tiny minority movement is much more inportant and fundamental than the problem of getting rid of capitalism. In short, for socialists, here and now in 1952, the transformation of the socialist movement and establishment of it on a mass basis is more fundamental than the establishment of socialism – for the latter is dependent for its existence on the former.

To regard ‘capitalism-or-socialism’ as the immediate fundamental problem is to put the cart before the horse. The mass movement is logically prior to socialism as well as prior in time. It is the, necessary historical basis for the emergence of socialism.

Mass Movement
Looked at from this point of view, a new type of question comes to the fore. Questions that have hitherto remained vaguely in the the background, having only an academic significance, now take on a new importance. But what is even more noteworthy is that the old stock answers to some of these questions are seen to fail because the questions have been considered abstractly and outside the social context of the present state of the socialist movment. Let us dig out one of these to show what I mean.

For example: what causes workers to become socialists? The old stock answer to this question is that, since man is the product of his material environment, it is experience of the material and economic conditions of capitalism that causes workers to become socialist.

Now first of all, it is obvious that both the question and answer ignore the plain fact that, at present, workers generally do not become socialists. The question can only apply to a very few workers indeed.

In the second place, it is clear that, in industrial Britain for instance, millions and millions of working people are exposed to material and economic conditions which do not differ in any significant way from those to which most socialists have been exposed. Yet the vast mass of these millions of workers remain non-socialists. Nor is there any sign that they are not likely to remain non-socialist.

How, then, can we assert the cause of a certain effect is that which, generally, does not produce the effect? We obviously cannot – except by ignoring the evidence of the existing state of the socialist movement, by abstracting the whole question from these present conditions and projecting it into a social context where they no longer obtain; we can only do so by assuming that the overwhelming mass of workers is already socialist and that the socialist movement has already become what it is not, a vast, mass movement.

The Error
Now, if it is not valid to assert that socialists are made by the material and economic conditions of capitalism, what is it that does cause the few to become socialist? How are we to account for the difference between those few workers who become socialists and the rest who do not?

Can we account for it by asserting, as socialists sometimes do, that material conditions alone are insufficient and that the significant difference is that those who have become socialists have come into contact with socialist ideas and propaganda? I’m afraid not. For this answer is in no wise better than the previous one. There are many thousands of workers who have been exposed both to the material conditions of capitalism and to socialist propaganda, and yet who have remained non-socialist. And these workers greatly outnumber the total number of those who have become socialists.

Once again we should be making the mistake of asserting that the cause of a certain effect is that which, generally, does not produce the effect.

It should be obvious that in rejecting these old explanations, we do not, of course, deny that both material conditions and socialist propaganda play their due part. They are both necessary and essential. Without either there would be no socialist movement at all. But to acknowledge necessary and essential conditions for the existence of an effect is not to acknowledge them as causal. Space and time are both necessary condtions for the happening of, say, railway accidents. But we do not therefore assert that railway accidents are caused by space and time!

If neither the impact of the material conditions of capitalism nor the impact of socialist propaganda, nor yet both together, can be regarded as the effective cause, then what can? You will notice that the material conditions and the propaganda are both influences from the environment, are both impacts from the external world outside the individual. So far, we have concentrated on the environment but ignored that which is environed: i.e. we have overlooked the workers, the development of the individuals themselves. We have ignored the psychological and ideological development of people. Here, then, is the kernel of our error.

The Task
Space does not permit pursuing the matter beyond this point and it must be left for another article. But enough has been said, I think, to warrant the view that some aspects, at least, of the socialist outlook are sadly in need of overhaul and bringing up to date.

Some of the most important of the many questions which would emerge in such a review would be those concerning the conditions necessary for the growth of the socialist movement into a mass movement. What are those necessary conditions? And, further, do they yet exist? If they do not exist, then the creation of a mass movement for socialism cannot be the basic problem which now confronts us. The fundamental problem would be the establishment of the necessary conditions, the essential prerequisites and basis for the future mass growth.

I think it is pretty clear that these basic conditions do not yet exist. They are conditions which, on the one hand, are undoubtedly bound up with the further material and economic development of capitalism and, on the other hand, with the further development of socialist ideas and knowledge – especially in the field of psychology, ideology and propaganda. This means that, apart from aiding the speed-up of capitalist development, the first necessity for the socialist movement is a theoretical revision and development of those of its ideas which, because they are hopelessly behind the times, tend to retard its further growth.

The socialist outlook cannot remain static. If anyone thinks that it suffices in its present state as the already completed and finished theoretical instrument for the colossal task which still lies far ahead – then he had better think again! It would be absurd to think that, in a changing world, the socialist view is a finished and final product.

The job of the socialist movement is to change the world. Part and parcel of this is the task of changing and adapting the outlook upon which the achievement of the ultimate aim so largely depends. Nothing is so practical as sound theory. And if socialists won’t get down to the task, then who will?

from Ideological Commentary 34, July 1988.