From the March-April 1955 issue of the Western Socialist.
To the Editors:
I read your magazine regularly and find it interesting, informative and also puzzling. What puzzles me is that you advocate socialism and at the same time oppose social reforms. I always thought that socialists saw nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of socialism while at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands.
I believe democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order. But I rather doubt that I shall see socialism in my time. In fact I doubt if the generations, old and young, living today will see socialism in their time.
Meanwhile people must live in the world as it is here and now. By nature most people desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children; they want to live in decent homes equipped with modern conveniences; to wear fairly good clothes, to eat wholesome food and to offer their kids better advantages. This is why working people turn to politics. That’s why I vote for Democratic Party candidates endorsed by labor. I work in an automobile factory in Michigan. I also belong to a union and my union fights for better wages, hours and working conditions for me and my fellow workers.
Because I worked in the shop before we had a union. I know that the gains we made through our Union have been considerable and I expect we shall continue to make more gains in the future.
But there are groups in Michigan – mainly corporations and their Republican allies in the state legislature – who want to pass anti-union labor laws which would seriously weaken the union. Seventeen other states have already Passed “Right to Scab” bills and as a result the workers in those states cannot improve their wages and working conditions nearly as much as they might if those bills had been defeated.
Should workers in Michigan ignore attempts by big business and the Republican politicians to pass a similar bill in this state? Or should the workers support labor-back candidates in the Democratic Party pledged to do all in their power to defeat anti-union legislation?
Another example. During the last year there has been much unemployment and part-time employment in Michigan; consequently thousands of workers and their families suffered hardship, especially those workers who remained jobless long after their unemployment benefits were exhausted.
Currently auto factories are rehiring workers by the thousands in order to step the tempo of production for the next months or until new 1955 models flood their market faster than they can be sold. ‘Til once again there will be mass layoffs.
If labor had enough friends in the state legislature they would press for unemployment compensation amendments to increase, weekly jobless benefits and to extend duration of payments. Similarly, if labor-supported legislators were in the majority they could push through other important reforms, such as a public works program for more jobs and better schools, hospitals, improved roads, etc.
Yet you say that in the area of politics workers should strive only for socialism and should spurn reform measures designed to make their lives and the lives of their children a little better while they still live. Somehow this reminds me of those religious groups who admonish us to spurn the day-to-day life of this world and think only of a future in heaven.
Or do I misinterpret your position on political action? If so, please clarify.
An Auto Worker Replies
[Editorial note: The task of answering this letter has been turned over to a worker in a Detroit automobile plant. inasmuch as, being “on the spot” he is in a position to deal familiarly and directly with the issues raised by “Interested Reader.”]
Dear Fellow Worker:
During the many years I have spent in the auto plants of Detroit, I have come into contact with literally thousands of workers organized in the United Automobile Workers (CIO) who believe, in part, as you do: that to improve their lot in life they must work not only through ‘the unions on the job, but also through Labor-endorsed candidates for political offices who presumably will pass legislation in favor of the workers.
The encouraging, refreshing – and challenging – part of your letter is that it goes much further than this limited union thinking. The question you raise is whether or not this fighting for immediate demands or social reform legislation conflicts with the movement to establish socialism.
The 99%, and more, of the auto workers who favor union-sponsored and union-controlled political action have not reached the stage where socialism enters into their thinking at all. They believe they can find a solution to their problems of living costs, unemployment, old age security and the like within the framework of the capitalist system.
To be sure, they gripe and bitch over high prices, short work weeks, inadequate income, long layoffs, and so forth, but when someone at a union meeting dares to take the floor and suggest that perhaps socialism is the answer to their problems, they greet him with cries of “throw him out,” “sit down,” or “send him back to Russia.”
The auto workers, like the rest of their fellow workers, want capitalism today, and capitalism tomorrow. You, Interested Reader, believe in working to get the good things of life under capitalism today, and postponing socialism to the indefinite future.
Convincing the Majority
You admit that “democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order.” Thus, we are in agreement on the ultimate goal: socialism, and since you do not question our definition of socialism- common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution- we assume that you are in agreement with this also. What separates us is this one point: What do socialists do in the meantime, until the majority become convinced of their case? In a word: will the socialists win over the majority of people to their case by fighting to improve their lives under capitalism – as you advocate – or by spending all their energies in educating the workers to the necessity of eliminating capitalism and establishing socialism?
Just as you cannot see why there is nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of a socialist society at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands, we from our viewpoint can see nothing consistent in advocating a complete overthrow of the capitalistic conditions of life, at the same time offering programs to make , these conditions more tolerable to the workers, or in brief, to fight for reforms.
All through your letter you state that “workers” should fight for more unemployment compensation, against “right to work” legislation, for better roads, and other reforms. You do indeed misinterpret our position on political action, if you believe we, as socialists, are opposed to workers going after ‘these reforms. We do not set ourselves up as opposing the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism. We know the limitations of these attempts, and the limitations of the unions. Our fellow workers have yet to learn them.
But it is one thing to say that socialists should not oppose the non-socialists fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that socialists should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. There are so – called “socialist” organizations which seek to gain leadership over the workers by aiding them to improve their position under the present order, at the same time they know this is a futile struggle. We hope you have not confused us with these “socialists,” when you admit being bewildered at our policy of advocating socialism, and not fighting for reforms.
Not only is it inconsistent, in our opinion, for socialists to seek to solve problems for the workers under a system which they say cannot solve these problems, but in a practical sense, such a two-directional approach would never bring about socialism. And the latter, we recall, is our goal, as well as yours.
Suppose the World Socialist Party were to embark on a high-powered Campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth. Perhaps we would get a lot of people to Join our organization. On what basis would they Join? The same basis on which we appealed to them. We would in the end have an organization consisting of workers who were seeking continUal improvement under capitalist methods of production and distribution, under a price, profit, and wage economy. What happens when such an organization is voted into political power as a majority? It merely uses the power of the state to carry on capitalism under different forms state- ownership or ‘nationalization. It cannot use the control of the state to abolish capitalism, because its own members who Joined on a reform basis, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism, or lose its members to another organization which advocated remedial measures.
Is this a theoretical approach? Not at all. If space permitted, we could cite example after example where a party calling itself “socialist,” but advocating immediate demands now and “socialism in the future” came into political power, and instead of abolishing exploitation, merely altered the form of it. For five years, the British Labor Party was in power in England, but it made no attempt to establish socialism. History proved once more that the means sought social reforms – were identical with the ends sought – a state capitalist society. For another important illustration, we recommend Integer’s introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution, in which he proves that the social reforms advocated by the German Social Democratic Party before Hitler were inseparable from their ultimate goal – more reforms under state control.
Methods of the Socialists
Now let us turn to the method advocated by the socialists. They appeal for members on the one plank of obtaining state power for the purpose of abolishing capitalism. Whereas, if elected to office, we would not oppose social reforms, at the same time we would not advocate them. By the same token, by putting forth a program of immediate demands, we would not be educating any workers to the necessity for socialism. We would instead be educating on the need to get all they can under the capitalist system. This latter type of education has never produced socialists from among the workers, altho it has contributed more than its share of members to the trade union officialdom. If you but take a glance around you in our union, the UAW-CIO, you would see many union officials who started out in the unions with your idea of “reforms today, socialism tomorrow.” They originally viewed reforms as a means to an end, but reforms became ends in themselves.
The socialists, where they are employed in shops which are organized, do not spurn the day to day struggle, as you put it. By the very nature of the fact that they are workers they participate in the fight for better Wages and working conditions. But with two qualifications, which qualifications arise from the fact that they are socialists first, and members of unions second. First, socialists understand that this economic struggle against the capitalists is merely a defensive struggle, to keep capital from beating the working class living standards down. For this reason they couple their struggle on the economic front with political education of the workers in the shops. They point out the limitations of wage increases.
Socialists point out the limitations of the latest union demand, the guaranteed annual wage, in that it would prove an annual wage, at best, for those who have enough seniority to remain on the job, and that it will merely stimulate employers to introduce new methods so that they will have fewer workers for which they will have to guarantee.
No Legislative Reform
Second, socialists in unions do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put the socialists in a position, not only of advocating reforms – which is opposed to socialist thinking – but also of educating, or rather miseducating, the workers to believe that the capitalist state can function in their interests, when it is in the final analysis the agency by which the capitalist class maintains its domination over the working class.
So the socialist is involved in the economic struggle by the fact that he is a member of the working class which naturally resists capital. But this is not the same thing as stating that the socialist party engages in activity for higher wages and better conditions. This is not the function of the socialist party. Its task is to fight for socialism, and the method it employs is education of the majority. The socialist party is not concerned with reforms under capitalism.
This is the concern of the ruling class which uses reforms to bribe off the working class, and the concern of those groups, such as the unions and their political arms, which seek to get all they can out of the present system. Were the socialist movement to vanish from the earth, the capitalist, by the very class nature of the system, would still grant reforms to forestall the development of revolutionary thought among the workers. On the other hand, a rapidly rising socialist movement would force the capitalist class to grant more and more reforms.
It is not true that the socialists “spurn the day to day life of this world and think only of the future in heaven.” Rather it is those who postpone socialism to the unlimited generations ahead who are spurning day to day life. By this we mean that socialism today is a practical proposition. As you know yourself from working in the automobile plants and living in the industrial area of Detroit, modern technology has reached the point where people can receive what they need for themselves and their children – today, and on this earth. It is the profit system which prevents workers from obtaining decent homes, clothes, education – all the things you say the union is fighting for, but which we say they cannot obtain because it is limited by its support of the profit system.
Those who call themselves realists, and call the socialists dreamers and utopians, are in truth unrealistic themselves in believing they can gain the good things of life under capitalism. By the way, if the latter be true, then why fight for socialism at all?
As a final point, we would like to suggest a contradiction in your approach. You believe in socialism, but because it is so far in the future, you think it best to spend your energies in the reform movement. Multiply yourself by thousands upon thousands who have thought, and do think; in the same way. Had all these people spent one tenth of the time for socialism that they spent in fighting for reforms, the socialist movement today would indeed be a large one, and as you yourself implied, the bigger the socialist organization gets, the closer we are to socialism.
Only if people see the need for socialism, and work actively for it, will we ever obtain socialism. On the other hand, if everyone who reaches a socialist understanding comes to the conclusion that socialism will never come about in his lifetime, this is this the best guarantee that we will never see socialism. Indeed, workers who admit they believe in socialism and then fight for reforms under the excuse the workers are not ready for socialism, are in an unexplainable contradiction. They really mean to say that they themselves are not ready for socialism.
At Least on the Road
In not fighting for reforms but in expending all our energy in educating workers to socialism, we know we are at least on the road to socialism.
This is our case for not advocating reforms at the same time we advocate socialism. We ask that you consider it.
Detroit Auto Worker