Parliament: the mother of all deceptions By William Bowles

30 June 2012

wm-morris“There — it sickens one to have to wade through this grimy sea of opportunism. What a spectacle of shuffling, lies, vacillation and imbecility does this Game Political offer to us? I cannot conclude without an earnest appeal to those Socialists, of whatever section, who may be drawn towards the vortex of Parliamentarism, to think better of it while there is yet time.

“If we ally ourselves to any of the presen[t] parties they will only use us as a cat’s-paw; and on the other hand, if by any chance a Socialist slips through into Parliament, he will do so at the expense of leaving his principles behind him; he will certainly not be returned as a Socialist, but as something else; what else is hard to say. As I have written before in these columns, Parliament is going just the way we would have it go. Our masters are feeling very uncomfortable under the awkward burden of GOVERNMENT, and do not know what to do, since their sole aim is to govern from above. Do not let us help them by taking part in their game. Whatever concessions may be necessary to the progress of the Revolution can be wrung out of them at least as easily by extra-Parliamentary pressure, which can be exercised without losing one particle of those principles which are the treasure and hope of Revolutionary Socialists.” — William Morris, the Commonweal, Volume 1, Number 10, November 1885, p. 93.[1]

Commonweal, his statement could have/should have been written today, except of course, not a single person of ‘note’ on the left, would ever have the balls to make such a statement about our ‘hallowed institution’, Parliament. Even less, dare to diss our ‘sainted Parliamentary Socialists’ as being nothing more than fakes who sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage.

Morris’s understated wit and acid sarcasm peppered his weekly observations on the events of late Victorian Britain’s capitalism, just as much a two-party system then as now. Morris’s observations were of course, ignored by the left of his day just as they are still ignored today by what’s left of the Left.

So what does this tell us about our current predicament? First, it’s obvious that we do not have a Left, of any kind. Yes, by all means individuals of various flavours do exist with some idea of what’s going on and why, but by and large we have what remains of a left that was created in Morris’s day and one that still thinks it’s 1885 judging by the apparently blind belief the Left has in the capitalist version of democracy, what Morris called Parliamentarism.

It was around the time that Morris wrote the words above that the leadership of the organised working class chose the route of reforming capitalism, theoretically via the Parliamentary process rather than the revolutionary overthrow of of the capitalist order.

And after all, Morris’s mistrust of a professional political class is well borne out by events of his day and ours; corruption, thievery and fraud on a grand scale let alone the obvious fact that the political class is now well and truly bought and paid for by corporate capitalism. A deal sewn up whilst the populace was busy being turned into ‘property-owning democrats’ during the Thatcher era through privatizing public housing and selling it for a song.

Morris’s vision of Socialism has, for obvious reasons, been dismissed as ‘utopian’ and worse, all but written out Morris’s history as a revolutionary socialist. Instead, he has become ace wallpaper designer and all round Renaissance Man but not someone who also advocated violent revolution, not because he wanted to but as Morris was wont to point out, those who rule will never relinquish their power voluntarily. An observation borne out by events, over and over again.

So what is so ‘utopian’ about Morris’s vision of a small, sustainable, locally based and owned economy? It sounds remarkably like what today we would call a Green vision of the future, television is full of shows advocating just this (but without the Socialist tag or even a nod toward Morris). But mainly it’s Morris’s rejection of State Socialism that got him airbrushed out of our socialist past as well as his nostalgic yearnings for our lost history of creative labour; no less real now as then.

Morris felt that nothing more in the way of governance was needed than a local one administered by the inhabitants (or those hired on their account). Utopian? Well yes in the sense that such an arrangement would never be permitted under capitalism. But is it workable?

As the sustainable ‘movement’ gathers pace, it all the more resembles Morris’s self-administering local commonwealth with its small scale production serving local needs. A process made all the more necessary given the deliberate de-industrialization/de-skilling undertaken by successive governments. All of it predicted by the way, or at least noted as it happened by the very people being laid off.

But for this to happen, the giant cartels that dominate and control the economy in the interests of a few shareholders (that are not even human but instead consist of vast stock portfolios owned by insurance companies and banks), would have to be dismantled.

Of course, it’s an immense task and perhaps one of the reasons (though not the main one) as to why those early socialists opted for the ‘Parliamentary Road to Socialism’. Well, 1945 was as close as we ever got to some kind of half-arsed, reformed capitalism with a socialist face but it wasn’t to last long; by 1980 it was all over. A mere thirty-five years during which time we did make valuable gains in certain areas but the fundamentals haven’t altered: what the Lord giveth, the Lord can take away as we are learning to our collective cost.

Looking around me now with imperialism on the literal warpath around the planet, wielding weapons that likely would have made Morris’s blood run cold, he would nevertheless recognise our world as it once again most closely resembles his own. A world of rampant imperialist capitalism, unrestrained by a powerful counter force with the end of the Soviet Period and once again falling apart at the seams as its internal contradictions spin it out of control.

Strikingly, Morris would have also instantly recognised the financial speculators who have caused such havoc in the pursuit of filthy lucre, as his own age was littered with these self-same parasites.

But I contend that Morris’ vision of self-sustaining local communities is even more doable today than it was in his time, not that it can be done overnight, it would have to be an ongoing process of transformation. For example, let’s start with the banks by busting them up and creating a network of local banks designed to finance local development and serve the community. What’s so difficult about this? And why, when our ‘publicly-owned’ media alleges to debate the economic crisis are such ideas never entertained?

There are unfortunately other, even larger obstacles in our path. The step advocated above would never be allowed by global capital. Busting up Barclays Bank for example, would incur the wrath of the US/UK financial cartel and threaten to undermine the credibility not only of the ‘austerity’ drive but of the illusory importance that the banks play in preserving civilization as we know it. Worse still, we’d have to bust them all up and only the State can do this thus we are back where started: taking over state power (only to abolish it once the reign of capital is removed according to Morris).

So goes on merrily the political disruption of our present system. Far more grim than this bad joke of Parliament and representation is the process of its economical breakup. All over the country an attempt is being made to stimulate trade by the huge advertisements called exhibitions; and royalty is playing its due part in a commercial country be opening these, and so killing, if possible, two birds with one stone — exciting loyalty on the one hand, and trying to to get it to spend money on the other. The success on the commercial side is not yet great, and trade is still ‘dull’ — a word which covers something of the same suffering as the conventional phrases used in describing a battle do. ‘The enemy annoyed our advance much:’ we all know, if we choose to think, the kind of misery that such phrases cover, and in our commercial war it is, I repeat, much the same. — Notes on Passing Events, Volume 2, Number 21, 5 June 1886, p. 73.

Again, I suppose it should not need repeating that Morris’s experience of capitalism was almost exactly the same as ours; that crises, small, large and cataclysmic, are intrinsic to capitalism and occur with monotonous regularity, the latest being perhaps the last hurrah of a system so devastating in its technological power that it now threatens the very existence of the ecosystem that keeps us all alive. That it persists at all is some kind of miracle made possible only by persuading us that there is no alternative.

In any case it would seem to me that we have reached a critical juncture in the (d)evolution of Representational Parliamentary democracy and the role it has played in maintaining capitalism. A vision inherited by successive generations of socialists as an alternative path to socialism. A juncture moreover that has been entirely overlooked by the Left. A Left that still behaves as though it were still 1885 never mind 1945.

However, the ruling political class and its allies in the media, have realised just how bankrupt the system is but without signing their own metaphorical death warrants, there is nothing much they can or want to do about it except tinker and of course repress all those who oppose our very English Fascism by one means or another.

Clearly it’s not possible to reform Parliament and the democratic process from within. We need only view the attempts that have been made by the same people who need ‘reforming’. Our entrenched political class will never relinquish power voluntarily, there’s too much at stake.

Increasingly, it looks like the only way forward is community by community given that we have neither trade unions or political parties around which to unite and with which to project our demands, at least at present. Not that trade unions aren’t an important voice but they no longer occupy a central role in the majority of workers’ lives.

This is the dilemma and why the Left is bereft of ideas and of any kind of legitimacy, for the Left is also a product of the same thinking that has created our professional, political class and one that has its roots in a no longer existent industrial working class. It sees the way forward through utilising the same mechanisms and the same centralising powers as those it would seek to replace.

If a significant minority have lost all faith in the political process and clearly they have, why should they put their trust in a Left that operates in the same manner, even if with a different end in mind?

The seeds of change already exist within our local communities and have always existed in some form or other but as discrete endeavours, disconnected from the wider issues. But focusing them around a community, a geographical location contextualizes the issues and makes it possible to share experiences with other communities. It’s where we live and work; where we entertain and educate ourselves and cure our illnesses and where ‘austerity’ plays itself out on a daily basis.

What form it would take is still not clear in my mind let alone how individual communities could work together but I assume that a revolutionized local council could eventually form the basis for the transformation. Whatever, it’s obvious, especially to the political class that the current setup is irretrievably broken, let alone totally compromised, hence the endless and vain exhortations in our complicit media to ‘restore legitimacy to the political order’.

And, to be a little more realistic, such a project is one that will have to be built over time and crucially, it’s identifying the starting point. Somehow, I get the feeling that it’s the notion of community that’s at the heart of my vision. What is the idea of ‘community’ based upon if not that there exists a communality of interests; shared goals and aspirations as well as needs. And for many, increasingly where they live is often the only place they feel that they are, or could be, a part of something larger than themselves.[2] It’s an idea that Tory halfwit Cameron has tried to exploit with his ‘Big Society’ PR stunt, knowing full well that as a people, we have no control over our rulers actions but yearn desperately to belong to something that we are a part of and have some control over. Ultimately the Shopping Mall just doesn’t cut it, especially when you’re broke.

Notes

1. The book, ‘Journalism – Contributions to the Common Weal 1885-1890’ by William Morris, edited by Nicholas Salmon is published as part of the William Morris Library by Thoemmes Press, 1996. It’s a fascinating, weekly account of events as viewed by Morris over a six year period. Find it secondhand online for about £14. Also, check out the late Nicholas Salmon’s Morris Archive housed on Marxist.org

2. I’ve explored this idea elsewhere, noting that television has exploited this need through its endless programmes on ‘heritage’, ancestry, history, roots, family, do-it-yourself, green living, ecology, crafts, archeology, recreating the past, back to the land, the list goes on and on, and many hark to a past that corporate capitalism has ruthlessly annihilated, whether it be your local bakery or driving a six-lane freeway through an area of outstanding natural beauty [sic]. It’s the feeling that we have been cheated, sold a bill of goods of no particular value. That ultimately capitalism has failed to deliver on its promises and perhaps even more importantly, forced us (and the world) to pay too high a price for its baubles.

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7 thoughts on “Parliament: the mother of all deceptions By William Bowles

    • InI says:

      Hi Alan,
      Thanks for this, I think it compliments my precis of Morris’s ideas about socialism perfectly. However, if in Morris’s day, he considered parliament a waste of time and effort for socialists to (attempt) entering, I can only say that today, parliament is even less relevant! And given that we no longer have trade unions or political parties as our collective means of political expression, things look decidedly grim for us.

      We need only consider the millions of people who have been plunged into poverty by the so-called austerity programme, all of it hidden from our view. It has no voice, no organisation, nothing. The media ignores it, the ‘left’ is still talking about an organised working class when the entire point is that the working class is NOT organised, except for what’s left of the labour aristocracy, most of whom work for the government! It’s a bizarre and unique situation.

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  1. Jerry Spring says:

    On a point of clarification, when Morris referred to State Socialism, I think he was referring to a ‘Socialism’ confined within the state of capitalism. I am sure he concurred with concept of a transitional State of Socialism as the lower phase of communism.

    On the question of community, we need to recognise that local communities can only be part of wider technological developments and, in that sense, will be “discrete endeavours, disconnected from the wider issues” and, historically, it is not “geographical” location that contextualised the issues but the work that was made possible by the particularity of the location.

    Also, as a consequence of the changes and expansion of transport and communication, we no longer both live and work in the same community and there is no reason to think that our ‘Parliamentary’ councils can be “revolutionised” any more than our national Parliament.

    No – the vision of local, community councils, presumably founded on the outlook of revolutionary social democracy, will need to be politically organised firstly on the present organisation of our health and education services, as the basis for further advance in the areas of environment and leisure, work and housing.

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  2. alan says:

    William Morris is very interesting. His politics were always evolving. We can bandy around various quotations from various time-lines. His critique of parliamentarianism is often over-simplified. One has to be reminded that he was in constant dispute with various anarchists within the Socialist League and then at other times in conflict with reformists of the Social Democratic Federation. It would be a bit inaccurate to describe him as a pure and simple “anti-Parliamentarist”, and he certainly was not an anarchist. Morris’ arguments against parliamentary action can be summed up as (1) that Parliament was a capitalist institution; (2) that reforms obtained through Parliament would strengthen capitalism and would only be passed with this end in view; and (3) that campaigning for reforms would corrupt a socialist party. In The Policy of Abstention Morris declared:

    “The Communists believe that it would be a waste of time for Socialists to expend their energy in furthering reforms which so far from bringing us nearer to Socialism would rather serve to bolster up the present state of things.”

    However his arguments were against the policy of using Parliament to try to get reforms rather than against socialist parliamentary action as such and in fact, even during his “anti-parliamentary” period, Morris was not opposed to socialists entering Parliament in the course of the socialist revolution, on condition that they went there not to try to get reforms but ”as rebels”.

    “I did not mean that at some time or other it might not be necessary for Socialists to go into Parliament in order to break it up; but again, that could only be when we are very much more advanced than we are now; in short, on the verge of a revolution; so that we might either capture the army, or shake their confidence in the legality of their position”

    “I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep ‘Society’ alive. ”

    “I admit, and always have admitted, that at some future period it may be necessary to use parliament mechanically: what I object to is *depending* on parliamentary agitation. There *must* be a great party, a great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration whatever goes on in parliament itself. This is in direct opposition to the view of the regular parliamentary section as represented by Shaw, who look upon Parliament as *the* means…” (His emphases)

    He recognised the necessity for socialists to gain control of political power before trying to establish socialism: “We must try. . . and get at the butt end of the machine gun and rifle, and then force is much less likely to be necessary and much more sure to be successful.” and that “it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country”

    In later life he reviews his early ideas – “We thought that every step towards Socialism would be resisted by the reactionaries who would use against it the legal executive force which was, and is, let me say, wholly in the power of the possessing classes, that the wider the movement grew the more rigorously the authorities would repress it. Almost everyone has ceased to believe in the change coming by catastrophe. To state the position shortly, as a means to the realization of the new society Socialists hope so far as to conquer public opinion, that at last a majority of the Parliament shall be sent to sit in the house as avowed Socialists and the delegates of Socialists, and on that should follow what legislation might be necessary; and moreover, though the time for this may be very far ahead, yet most people would now think that the hope of doing it is by no means unreasonable.”

    He describes his vision of a socialist organisation “The organisation I am thinking of would have a serious point of difference from any that could be formed as a part of a parliamentary plan of action; its aim would be to act directly, whatever was done in it would be done by the people themselves: there would consequently be no possibility of compromise, of the association becoming anything else than it was intended to be; nothing could take its place: before all its members would be put one alternative to complete success, complete failure, namely. The workers can form an organisation which without heeding Parliament can force from the ruler what concessions may be necessary in the present and whose aim would be the total abolition of the monopolist classes and rule.”

    Elsewhere he states “getting the workmen to organise genuine revolutionary labour bodies not looking to Parliament at all but to their own pressure (legal or illegal as the times may go) on their employers while the latter lasted”

    An outline that obviously is not reflected by the run of the mill workers organisations of his time.

    Morris clearly understood that a change in society could only be brought about with a change in the consciousness of the majority of people. “Practical socialism”, as he called revolutionary socialism, was a question of “making socialists” and therefore it was necessary to “educate the people in the principles of socialism”. Which clearly separates him from the Leninist vanguard concept of The Party. leading the workers. Nor was he proponent of state ownership as you so rightly point out – “No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called”.

    Morris, although not opposed to using Parliament as such, believed that concentrating on these elections would have directed the League away from the essential task of “making socialists” and instead into advocating reforms. The differences led to the Parliamentarists breaking away, leaving Morris and his associates at the mercy of anarchists, who soon dominated the League. When this happened Morris and his socialist friends withdrew to form the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

    Morris was quite clear: a socialist organisation should not campaign for reforms or “palliatives” but should concentrate exclusively on socialist propaganda and education. In the beginning, in 1885 and 1886, this was based on a belief that capitalism was soon going to collapse (“when the crisis comes”) and the consequent urgent need to have a strong body of socialists to ensure that socialism would be the outcome. But, after a while, Morris came to question whether his opposition to campaigning for reforms (and campaigning to get elected to Parliament and local bodies on a programme of reforms) was justified. By 1890 this had developed to a full and clear understanding that the establishment of socialism was impossible without there first being a mass of opinion in favour of it and he never wavered on this crucial point.

    The problem which Morris had been grappling with was the problem of reform and revolution. In his Socialist League days he had clearly seen the futility and danger of campaigning for reforms, but had linked this with a virtual rejection of parliamentary action. This was because in his mind parliamentary action and campaigning for reforms were inseparable. So, later, when he came to recognise the need to gain control of political power through the ballot box and Parliament before trying to establish socialism, this was coupled with an acceptance of the policy of campaigning for reforms.

    Later proponents of the “Impossiblist” tradition such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted a policy of trying to gain control of the machinery of government through the ballot box by campaigning on an exclusively socialist programme without seeking support on a policy of reforms; while supporting parliamentary action they refused to advocate reforms.

    Apologies for this wordy comment but the views of William Morris is worth debating for its relevance for today.

    I think we can all accept Morris’s caustic opinion of politicians when he said, “the business of a statesman is to balance the greed and fears of the proprietary classes against the necessities and demands of the working class. This is a sorry business, and leads to all kinds of trickery and evasion; so that it is more than doubtful whether a statesman can be a moderately honest man.”

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  3. Jerry Spring says:

    Morris did not come “to recognise the need to gain control of political power through the ballot box and Parliament before trying to establish socialism” as asserted by Alan. There was no u-turn on his part, although Morris did, reluctantly, come to recognise that supporting reforms through Parliament was a necessary compromise.

    As he himself put it, ‘Perhaps we Leaguers have become too stiff in our refusal to compromise. I have always felt that it was rather a matter of temperament rather than of principal: that some transition was of course inevitable, I mean a transition involving State Socialism and pretty stiff at that.’

    He was right to be sceptical about reformism for, In 1945, the reformist Labour Party under the leadership of the Tony Blair of his day, Clement Attlee, won a Parliamentary ‘majority’ resulting in a Conservative/Labour governmental coalition of the UK which launched the post-war, modernisation of industry and the introduction of a welfare state while, at the same time, creating the imperialist NATO.

    Certainly Morris was right in understanding that, “the establishment of socialism was impossible without there first being a mass of opinion in favour of it”, but that begs the question of how do you measure mass opinion?

    For me, finding the ways to develop revolutionary social democracy in the here and now is the way to win the mass of working class opinion in favour of socialism beyond capitalism.

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  4. InI says:

    Hmmm… all interesting stuff here but I think the core aspect, namely the relevance (or not) of the parliamentary process in the struggle for socialism is still the key issue here. We can argue the toss about Morris’s ‘changing’ views’ on the subject and after all, his age, just like ours, was infused with the reformist view of things. Morris was pretty much a lone voice, never mind that the Anarchists took over ‘his’ Socialist League (largely because he was essentially alone on the left).

    Morris’s comment:

    “Whatever concessions may be necessary to the progress of the Revolution can be wrung out of them at least as easily by extra-Parliamentary pressure, which can be exercised without losing one particle of those principles which are the treasure and hope of Revolutionary Socialists.”

    It rings true today. Just think on all the turnarounds the govt has made recently. Admittedly not over the fundamentals of their neoliberal agenda but they happened because Parliament is supine and peopled with professional politicos of the ‘left’ and right who no more represent the great British Public than I do.

    I think the election of George Galloway demonstrates the futility of Parliament perfectly. He can do his Galloway thing til the cows come home but it’ll make not one jot of a difference except make a few on the left feel good for a few minutes. Would those on the ‘left’ of the Labour Party in parliament side with Galloway? Not if they want to keep their seats. In fact the Labour Party has a long history of red-baiting and Cold-War-mongering including banning real lefties from membership and even banning associating with those on the left over issues.

    Thus, the issue hinges on whether or not a progressive party (or coalition) could win a majority in Parliament and form a real socialist government? How long would it last I wonder? More to the point; how do we get to there from here?

    Bill

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  5. Jerry Spring says:

    Bill

    In my first comment on your article, I was not “arguing the toss about Morris’s ‘changing views’ on the subject”, I was seeking some clarification on your statement that “it’s Morris’s rejection of State Socialism that got him airbrushed out of our socialist past” and in my second comment I took up the question of your views on “local communities”.

    In my next intervention, I differed with Alan on the question of Morris’s attitude towards ‘State Socialism‘ and then I referred to the question of “mass opinion” and, also, socialism beyond capitalism.

    Those last words now seem particularly apt when you noted that, “the issue hinges on whether or not a progressive party (or coalition) could win a majority in Parliament and form a real socialist government?”

    As the only ‘real socialism’ possible is that beyond capitalism, any ‘socialist’ government formed within the constitutional framework of capitalist society cannot be anything other than ‘reformist’.

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