Sunday, December 30, 2007

Are We Armchair Philosophers?

From our magazine, then called the Western Socialist (August 1947)

To the Western Socialist-

The workers want something NOW and you ignore this altogether. Instead of having a program dealing with the everyday problems of the workers, you retreat into an ivory tower. Actually, you are nothing but armchair philosophers, divorced from the needs of the working class. You are concerned with the intricate problems of Marxian economics and the fine points of Marxian philosophy at a time when action is needed.



We agree that the workers want something NOW. But, and that is the point – WHAT do they want? The unpleasant truth is, of course, that they do NOT desire socialism but THAT THE MAJORITY OF WORKERS EVERYWHERE STILL SUPPORT CAPITALISM. They feel that something is wrong. They desire peace and security. In order to get these, they try every political party which promises to give them these things. When they have tried one, and it has failed, as it must fail, they "give the other bloke a go." This may seem a crude analysis of elections, but it is true. At election times up to now, the issue has always been: WHO shall administer capitalism? HOW shall it be administered? The difference between the actual performance of all parties is very small. It is a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The only issue they are really divided on is whether the capitalist system should be administered with a dash of state control or not. The intention of the Labor Party may be the very best – it may desire real improvements for the workers. But the record of all Labor Governments brings home the fundamental point that capitalism simply cannot be administered in the interests of the working class, whatever party is in control.

The issue then, is simple, once we analyze the problem which faces the socialist. On the one hand a party based on a reformist policy, uttering vague socialist phrases, grows quickly and achieves power. On the other hand you have a Socialist Party which appeals on the one demand – Socialism – and which grows very slowly. What then are we to do? Can we not achieve socialism and at the same and at the same time attract a large number of workers on a programme of immediate demands?

This question can only be answered by looking at the fate of those organizations which have tried the policy. Not only have they failed to bring socialism any nearer, but they have even made the way to socialism more difficult. The most outstanding example is surely the pre- Hitler German Labor Movement. One of the strongest "left" parties in the world was the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP). The theoreticians of the Social Democrats – Karl Kautsky, Hilferding, Otto Bauer, etc. – were at times amongst the most brilliant interpreters of Marxist theory. The party had strong trade unions to support it. Yet it collapsed like a house of cards and the Communists did no better. This has been cited as the "failure of Marxism."

What are the facts? If we examine the ACTIONS of the party, if we if we turn from the dazzling flights of theoretical fancy of their monthly organs whose readership was confined to a few, to their popular daily press, read by millions of workers, we can see one of the main causes.

It is the apathy and the cynicism on the part of the rank and file. Where was the difference between the Social Democrats and the avowedly capitalist parties? Did they not ally themselves with the Junker generals, with the Catholic Centre Party, and with the senile militarist Hindenburg? Their "alternative" to capitalism was - capitalism. They had run it, on the only basis it can be run – a capitalist basis. They had not been built up on a policy of demanding socialism, but one of reforms. Six million unemployed in Germany, two million in Britain, ten in the USA, 300,000 in Australia – these were the results of capitalism, not of the particular administration of it by "progressive" or "reactionary" parties.

Yes, the Social Democrats HAD the mass basis. They had not "isolated themselves", they had been "practical". And the result? To the misery of capitalism administered by Social-Democrats, the workers preferred the misery of State-Capitalism administered by the Nazi gangsters – at least they would give them work and bread!

The Social-Democrats had taken a "short cut". Their following consisted of millions of workers, who, on May 1st, listened to revolutionary sounding phrases and shouted: "Workers of the World Unite!" Certainly there were socialists within their ranks who believed that they should "work from within". Whether they have learnt their lesson only the future will show.

"Armchair philosophers" had become "practical politicians" and socialism had been put into cold-storage. One day perhaps - but not now. The more "practical" the party became, the shadier its political opportunism. No wonder their supporters were apathetic. No wonder Hitler could attract so many despairing workers with his promise of Action. (Of course, we are not maintaining that the Social-Democrats caused Nazism. But their activities, and even more those of the Communist Party, helped to pave the way for it.)

Even if the whole German Labor Movement had been in a "United Front", the result would not have been different. As we have seen, the causes of all the evils of capitalism are left untouched. Workers who have joined them also become apathetic and disillusioned. They've "had enough talking." Thus, fronts "against Totalitarianism" make the workers prey for any political charlatan with a glib tongue. In the final analysis, instead of fighting it, they lead workers into a state of mind where they are more susceptible to totalitarian propaganda.

These, then, are the consequences of taking a "short cut". We also would like to take one – but up to now all the alleged royal roads have led away from socialism instead of towards it.

There is simply no alternative to the task of making socialists. This is the most important lesson of the history of all reformist organizations. The charge of being "armchair philosophers" then, really means that we are not opportunist. To this we plead guilty.

But still – is there nothing we can do in the meantime? Are the workers to sit down and have their wages reduced? Are they to starve while capitalism lasts? This, if we believe our opponents, is our attitude. We have already shown that the charge rests on the failure to distinguish between economic and political demands. First of all, it should be obvious, that even if we wished to avoid the day-to-day struggle, we HAVE to take party in it. It is not something created by socialist agitators, or something we can ignore, but part and parcel of capitalism. Socialists take part in every struggle in the economic field to improve conditions. They are as militant as anybody else. But they realize that this struggle can never lead to emancipation of the working class. They point out its limitations. That's why they are member of the Companion Parties of Socialism. The function of the party is to make socialists, to propagate socialism, and to point out to the workers that they must achieve their own emancipation. It does not say: "Follow us! Trust us! We shall emancipate you." No, Socialism must be achieved by the workers acting for themselves.

-H.H. (August 1947)

"Instead of hollering ourselves hoarse about the virtues of mass action that can do something spectacular, and not understand why we do it, let us work in the sphere in which we find ourselves and teach Socialism to others of our class."
-J. A. McDonald (Western Clarion,
November 16, 1920)

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