This week’s question was: “Given that the socialist revolution is not an immediate prospect, how do we balance our moral imperative to help people who are suffering now against the political imperative to end capitalism, the source of all the suffering?”
I remember when I was a lot younger and puritanical in my socialist beliefs. I was selling Socialist Worker on a Saturday afternoon in the high street, and it was the weekend of Children In Need. There were lots of people out in fancy dress collecting money, and one approached me for a donation.
I should have put some money in her bucket and then engaged with her about how terrible it was that good people like her had to collect money for needy children in one of the richest countries in the world. Society was all wrong and we needed to change it. That was why I stood there every Saturday selling my papers and would she like one.
Instead I delivered a self-righteous sermon on how charity was a sticking plaster on the gaping wounds in our society and she should join the fight for socialism instead of propping up capitalism. She went back to her mates, and I could tell from their expression that they all thought I was a bit of a dickhead. And looking back, I tend to agree.
Nowadays I am involved in a couple of charities for personal reasons, and I understand that lots of people do charity work because they see the injustice and want a better world. And if they can motivate and mobilise others so much the better. When the RNLI is attacked by the far right for rescuing refugees in the Channel, donations go up and that can only be a good thing. In my red wall constituency which voted Brexit and then voted Tory in 2019 I am in a local Facebook group for socialists who feel alienated by Starmer. It has about 50 members. The local refugee support group on Facebook has over 500 members! They are the people I want to engage with. I don’t mind supporting their charity fundraisers and buying a few raffle tickets if it means I get to talk with them about opposing the wars that have created the refugee crisis and making the link to Stop the War UK. I might even persuade them to read the Sunday Socialist.
Basically, I help those I can where I can and when I can. To stay sane it’s important to accept that one individual can’t ease all the suffering they are aware of.
I’m past retirement age, and when I stop working I’ll have only my old age pension to rely on. Fortunately at present I can still earn a reasonable self-employed living that affords me more than I need to subsist, so I’m trying to build some sort of a nest-egg as a buffer against that time. My wife and I decided six years ago to move out of rented accommodation and invest what we had scraped together to buy our small flat outright.
Working full-time means I have little time or energy for in-person activism, though I remain an active left-wing anti-war presence on Twitter. I subscribe to the Morning Star, The Canary and Byline Times, and support many organisations like the Peace and Justice Campaign, the Good Law Project and the Open Rights Group with regular financial contributions.
I’ve also become acquainted with a young woman trying to support two kids and get out of debt on benefits. This happened when I responded to a tweet asking for iPads and ‘phones for her and her kids, when I donated some used equipment. As I’ve got to know more about her situation I’ve bought gifts for her kids, and when the Government cut the £20 benefit uplift I’ve started sending a regular £50 a week, which I intend to maintain as long as I’m working or until she no longer needs it. I help out with other contributions for special needs.
I’m opposing the Tories and alleviating some of the misery they’ve created. None of this seems like a lot when facing the mountain of misery the Tories have created, but it’s what I can do. I like to think of it as practical socialism.
There are two issues that need to be addressed in volunteering and charity work. The first is, are you being exploited, taking on levels of responsibility that should be paid for? The second is, are you just helping to prop up the existing system?
Many public sector organisations have been expecting volunteers to take on roles that would previously have been paid roles. In part, this is a response to the austerity budgets of the Government, but it leads to resentment and burn-out and isn’t sustainable.
Working for food banks provides a sticking plaster to an unacceptable system. Whilst it is laudable to help people who currently need help, this should be seen in that context. As above, in the long term, particularly as things get worse for us all, it is unsustainable.
What is more sustainable is helping people understand the current system and how it needs to be radically changed. There is a great deal we can contribute by improving our own and other people’s education and awareness. The current system encourages over-consumption and taking on too much debt. Who gets rich by this? Those who own the debt. Citizen’s Advice need volunteers to reduce the dependence on debt and perhaps this should be part of the advice they give….
Improving literacy increases life chances and allows children and adults to question the circumstances in which they find themselves. SchoolReaders and ReadEasy are a couple of examples of charities which deliver lasting changes through volunteering.
So the question is, do your actions prop up the status quo or work towards long-term change?
The Roman Empire lasted approximately 900 years. In its 900th year it would probably have seemed as secure as in its 90th. Yet, it failed. Nobody living in the Roman Empire would have seen its demise as “an immediate prospect”. Until it collapsed, of course.
Capitalism is approximately 300 years old. Is it at the beginning of a 3000 year epoch, or the middle of a 600 year one or the end of a 300 year one? Frankly, we have no idea.
Rome was destroyed by a combination of factors including both its moral corruption and economic decline. Modern capitalism is a morally bankrupt, corrupt system based on patronage and hierarchies with no right to rule beyond their family ties and an economy which, if not terminal, is in periodic decline.
Such a system has created massive wealth inequalities in which poverty means that millions of people barely have enough to eat each day, and indeed thousands starve to death on a daily basis. Should we put our efforts into alleviating the worst excesses of the system? If we, rather, spend our time building for a revolution that may be hundreds of years away are we not responsible for that daily death toll?
The simple fact is that devoting our time to charity work may make us feel marginally better, whilst ensuring that the system causing the hunger and poverty remains unchallenged. We should, of course, highlight the real issues of poverty but work toward a system that does not require charity to feed the hungry.
I am wondering as I write this whether capitalism is the source ‘of all the suffering’. I think perhaps there are aspects of human nature that will always mean that people will suffer, whatever the political system. But here and now capitalism is causing no end of misery. All the decent people I know are sickened by what is happening in our society and all over the world. But many of us are still uncertain about how best to use our energies.
Charity work does have a certain appeal. It makes us feel we are doing a little bit to alleviate suffering, even though we feel powerless against the corruption of politicians and corporate greed that control our lives. But we should choose our charities wisely. Many have a distinctly corporate flavour. Food banks should be obsolete. They are an affront to a so-called civilised society, they are damaging to people’s dignity, they benefit large food corporations, yet if they mean families eat who would otherwise starve, who are we to criticise?
Local initiatives, small scale charities I think are worth supporting. We may support local hospices for example, but these are something that should be centrally and generously funded, so it grates that they depend on individual people’s generosity. I think we have to compromise. Socialists want change, but we have not achieved unity and we have no clear political programme for the way ahead. And it is not necessarily a question of either/or, but doing something of both, doing a bit to make the lives of people who are struggling a little easier by choosing any charity we support with care and doing what we can to challenge the status quo in the hope of radical transformation.
We promise that if you subscribe we will never take money from your bank account, won’t send you endless emails trying to get you to buy something you never wanted in the first place and we will never share your details with any third party.
What we will do is send you regular newsletters to keep you up to date with what we are doing and give you handy links to the content we create. You can choose which newsletters to receive or unsubscribe at any time.
AND IT’S ALL FREE!!
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.