Socialist Worker

Why you should be a socialist

Inspirational socialist Paul Foot died last week. Socialist Worker reprints two of his articles here. The first is taken from Why You Should Be a Socialist, first published in 1977. It quickly became a phenomenal seller and helped recruit many to the n

Issue No. 1912

What would you put in its place?

The capitalist disaster is all around us, clear to see. But for most people capitalism is “the best system we’ve got”. Before they destroy capitalism, they want to know—what can they put in its place?

There is an alternative way of running society which is worth fighting for. It is called socialism. Socialism is built on three principles, all vital to one another.

The first is the social ownership of the means of production. Many people take this to mean the ownership of all property by some Big Brother state. They look around in their homes and see a few treasured possessions.

Furniture, a television set, a washing machine, perhaps a car or some books. They do not see why they should give these things up to some bureaucratic state, or to anyone else for that matter.

Nor should they. And here is the first big misunderstanding, carefully nurtured by the supporters of capitalism. They deliberately ignore the obvious difference between people’s possessions and the means of producing these possessions.

If you own a washing machine, you do not get richer because you own it. On the contrary, you probably pay out large sums every month in hire purchase commitments.

Even when you’ve finished buying it, there’s no extra income to you from having that washing machine. But if you own shares in Hoover, you grow richer because other people are buying washing machines.

The means of production are the factories, the machines, the chemical plants, the printing presses, the pits, the building materials—all the things which produce wealth.

It is the ownership of all these by a small handful of people—or by a state which is run on behalf of that small handful of people—which leads to the inequalities and the chaos of capitalist society.

If the means of production are owned by society as a whole, then it becomes impossible for one group of people to grow rich from other people’s work.

It removes the compulsion for industries and services to compete with one another for the general wealth. It makes it possible to plan the resources of society according to their needs.

The problem which dogs all businessmen: “who is going to buy back the goods”, and the slumps which that creates no longer arise. If, by mistake, too many goods are made or too many services are provided, then they can be given away or slowed down, and something else started.

But there is no question of throwing millions of people out of work, or leaving machinery idle, or throwing food down mineshafts. These could not be possible, because the driving force of the production plan is human need.

Under socialism there is no stock exchange, no moneylenders, no property speculators, no landlords—no one getting rich out of someone else’s needs. All these are replaced by plans which are drawn up to meet the means of production with people’s needs.

The second principle of socialism is equality. The principle is ridiculed by rich men and their newspapers on the grounds that people are not the same. Of course people are not the same. They have different abilities, different likes and dislikes, different characters.

But equality is the opposite of sameness. Equality means that the rewards which people get out of society for what they do should not differ just because their abilities differ.

Two years ago, the Economist magazine estimated that if all the income in Britain were shared out evenly, every family would end up with £80 a week [today’s figure is £603 a week]. It was trying to show how little difference income equality would make.

Well, £80 a week per family at 1974 prices is enough to be getting on with.

Any socialist government would fix a firm maximum income and stop all rights of inheritance. But that is only a start. For socialism depends on the control of society through the social ownership of the means of production.

And the shortest road to equality is to provide for everyone’s basic human needs free of charge.

The services in today’s society which have been fought for and won by trade unionists and Labour supporters for a hundred years, and which are now being shattered, are sometimes known as “the social wage”. Under socialism, the “social wage” takes on a new importance.

A free education service, founded on the principle that all children’s abilities are to be encouraged; a free public transport system; the absolute guarantee that old people will live in warmth, and light and comfort; a free health service and free housing for all—with security of tenure; free meals for children at school; free basic foods for every family; free day nurseries for all children—these basic needs of society become the top priorities of socialism.

As we’ve seen already, they are all possible even with existing resources. Under a new system of production which employs everyone and does not stutter from boom to slump, they can be made more readily available.

And the more available they become, the more rapidly and enthusiastically society will produce for other, less obvious and more various human needs and desires.

The third pillar of socialism is workers’ democracy. Many people have a vision of socialism as state bureaucracy, run by masses of officials, who stamp their prejudices and favouritisms on society with secret police forces and torture chambers.

This caricature of socialism is played up by wealthy businessmen whose enterprises are run from top to bottom by unaccountable officials, stamping their prejudices and favouritisms on the people who do the work.

While the productive workforce declines, foremen and time-study men proliferate. Every tightening of a screw, every visit to the toilet is timed and disciplined. Nor are workers safe when they leave the factory.

Each corporation employs bands of security guards and experts, who not only keep guard on property but also check on the “affiliations” of stewards and militants.

It is a central principle of socialism that the people who make decisions should be accountable to the people who are affected by them. Socialism and democracy, in other words, are indispensable to one another.

You can’t have socialism without democracy, and, more importantly, you can’t have democracy without socialism.

When people use the word democracy, they usually mean parliamentary democracy—a democracy limited to a vote at long, often irregular intervals: the sort of democracy which exists in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and America.

But this is an extremely limited democracy. It works on geographic lines—that is, people vote according to where they live. It operates only in a small corner of society.

In the areas which matter—in industry, finance, the civil service, the law courts, the police force, the army—there is no democracy at all. Power is held by people because they have wealth or are part of a class which has wealth, and parliament does not challenge that power. The “mass of officials” therefore, whether they work for multinational companies or the civil service or the law courts, are completely unaccountable.

They operate, not on behalf of society, but on behalf of one class, and there is no democratic machinery to control them.

By contrast, the fundamental unit of workers’ democracy is the workers’ council. Because people come together and cooperate most at work, because production of wealth takes place at work, not at home, the workplace is a far better base unit for a democratic system than the home.

The workers’ councils run through each part of industry and the services, but they do not operate as individual units competing with one another. They operate within the structure of an overall plan, drawn up by the government.

The government is also made up of workers’ representatives, elected through the councils, grouped this time on a regional basis, to a national Congress of Councils, which then elects its executive or government.

The workers’ councils form the core of socialist democracy, but they are not the only organs of democracy or of power. They cooperate and coexist with a whole number of other democratic organisations, such as tenants’ and consumers’ cooperatives.

To be genuinely democratic their membership must be open to all working people who are not working—in particular to old workers or disabled workers or sick workers or workers who are caring for very young children.

The precise detail of these structures can’t and shouldn’t be laid down in advance. In all revolutions, or attempted revolutions, workers have found different patterns of workers’ councils and congresses.

But the basic principle is common to all revolutions—and vital. It is the accountability of the representative to the represented.

Accountability means election—far more elections than there are at present, and at many different levels. It means discussion and argument between different workers’ parties around those elections.

Accountability means paying representatives no more and no less than the average pay of the represented. It means subjecting the representative to the instant recall by the people, or council, or cooperative, which elected them.

Our parliamentary democracy ignores all these principles. MPs are always asking for more money, though most Labour MPs earn twice as much as the people they represent. They are not subject to instant recall.

The principle of elected controllers extends into every area of workers’ democracy. In the armed forces there are no appointed officers who are paid more than the people they order about.

Instead, officers are elected and subject to control. In the law courts, there are no unelected judges interpreting and laying down the law.

The jury system, a profoundly democratic method of making decisions about justice, can be extended into the area of law interpretation and of laying down punishment.

In hospitals and schools, top administrators are also elected and accountable. There, as elsewhere, the “mass of officials” in every walk of life are strictly accountable to the elected bodies.


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