Comments On Revolution In NLR 3 we published the final Chapter from Out of Apathy, E. P. Thompson’s “Revolution”. This article discussed the new antagonisms bred by capitalism, and suggested that Britain was “overripe” for socialism: it also raised the question of the “transition to socialism” and the nature of revolution in modern society. We have asked four contributors to comment on the Chapter.
Edward Thompson’s “Revolution” is an important beginning. It represents a way out of the stalemate of the Clause 4 debate in the Labour Movement.
The debate between Left and Right has been one long agonising series of cross-purposes. The real difference is a total divergence of aim. The Left has focussed attention on the need for some kind of qualitative change of life and society. The Right, at its best, has been taken up with piecemeal improvements. This is not just to say that the Right was interested in changes of lesser scale. They were interested in changes of a different kind. The important point is that they were willing to accept certain basic features of the framework of our society, and with this as starting point, cast about for possible improvements.
The Labour Right is fundamentally empiricist. It will not consider any change where it can not be argued for in terms of what people can obviously be seen to want. But if one bases a programme on what people are choosing at the moment, then one will never get to the point of discussing an important qualitative change in society as a whole. For what people choose, depends very much on the framework of the society in which they are living and the range of choices open to them. With this yardstick, one can see that it is a good idea to spend more on the schools, for instance—and it certainly is—but one cannot ever go on to consider the quality of what is taught in them, or the whole role of education in society. The present Labour leadership is so immured within its own empiricist assumptions, that it does not even understand what people are talking about when they raise questions of this latter kind. Their only reply is to ask for a detailed programme. But this, too, misses the point, because the really important changes cannot be effected simply by devising the right legislation. Left and Right pass each other by like ships in the night.
What would an important qualitative change in society in a Socialist direction be like? There are three examples, which, I think, are among the most important, and which illustrate the points made in Edward Thompson’s article. A society qualitatively different from our present one would be one in which, for instance, the criterion of need was more important than that of profit; where the values of social solidarity replaced those of the Poor Law, and where control over the conditions of life was exercised by people rather than Forces.
Much has been said recently about the criterion of need as against profit. After the orgy of self-congratulation on the supposed achievements of the Labour Government, more and more people are beginning to realise the shocking conditions of many welfare services. But it is not a good enough answer just to say: let us spend more money on these things. The problem of priorities goes deeper. We shouldn’t have to live in a society where it is perpetually an uphill struggle to bring these services up to a decent standard, where increases in welfare are carefully and grudgingly scrutinised, but where money can be found, and plenty of it, for really “essential” things like bombs and rockets, advertising, packaging, speculative building, gadgetry, and so on. Why can’t we live in a society where full literacy is as urgently essential as “defence” is considered nowadays?
But the pressures and the demands of a “free enterprise” economy are all the other way. So much so that it even cramps our imagination, and confines our aspirations. Why should we restrict our interest to the traditional forms of welfare? Why should we put up with a cultural apparatus so largely run for profit? Why should artists be employed by or dependent on speculators? Why shouldn’t we automate backbreaking or monotonous jobs? But these things don’t even come up for consideration. They appear wildly Utopian in the context of our present society; where it is a hard fight to get a decent wage for railwaymen, and to slow down pit closures, it seems irrelevant to speak of doing away with work at the coal-face. Yet this is the field in which the USSR is beginning to make progress; and even slow changes in our own society have played havoc with the tawdry excuse that certain levels of skill and creativity were fixed and unalterable.