Erik Grigg: Who Does Own the Means of Production?

This party (with its companion parties abroad) claims to be the only socialist, Marxist, revolutionary movement. It declares that socialism cannot be established until an overwhelming majority has accepted its case and declares war on all other political parties. Since it was founded, in 1904, the world population has increased by thousands of millions while its membership remains in the hundreds (of people, not of millions). Eighty-six years of unremitting struggle has left it farther from its objective than when it started.

Unwilling to accept that socialism is as unlikely of attainment as this experience suggests, IC examines the Party case and finds it consists mainly of truisms and self-contradictions. Also, the stateless society proposed is closer to anarchy than to anything normally described as socialism.

They claim that those who reject their case have failed to understand it, but in fact there are good reasons for rejection; to accept it is to demonstrate a failure of understanding.

IC undertakes to print any statement of up to 1,000 words carrying the approval of this party, or one of its branches and will probably agree to print a longer one, that probability increasing as the statement presents arguments and decreasing as it becomes more rhetorical. IC goes to all the branches, discussion groups listed in the Socialist Standard.

WHO DOES OWN THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION? Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie owned the means of production. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, calling itself the “real” Marxist party, follows the Marxist line by saying that: “Society as at present constituted is based on the ownership of the means of living… by the capitalist or master class.” (Principle No. 1). As IC41 pointed out: “When a Party member or speaker is asked to show that the master class in China or Russia owns the means of living they plunge into confusion.” IC invited its readers to try to clarify this confusion.

In Socialist Principles Explained (SPGB 1975, page 11) the SPGB say that in nationalised industries: “the relationship between workers and State employing bodies does not differ in any way from the relationship between workers and private employees.” Whether the relationship is the same or not fails to answer the question of whether there exists in China and Russia a master class that owns the means of living. In the February issue of the Socialist Standard (the official journal of the SPGB) page 18, the master class was defined as: “Those who monopolise the means of production whether through legal title (as in the West) or effective control through the state (as in Russia).” This is a blatant contradiction of Principle No. 1.

The “Object and Declaration of Principles” of the SPGB was written in 1904, before the creation of nationalised industries. We must not be too hard on the SPGB for not being able to predict the future, but we would be justified in criticising them for not adapting their Principles to a changed society. This begs the question: Why do the SPGB not change Principle No. 1? There are possibly four reasons: 1) They call themselves the “real” Marxist party, so to modify Marx’s ideas would damage such a claim. 2) Only those who agree with the “Object and Declaration of Principles” are allowed to join the SPGB. This means that those who realise the shortfalls of Principle No. 1 are barred from joining the party. 3) The SPGB accept that there have been great changes in society since 1904, but they see the “Object and Declaration of Principles” as a “historical statement.” Tradition makes them cling to the original wording. 4) The SPGB, like many organisations and individuals, hate to admit that they are wrong.

The question for the SPGB now is: Who does own the means of living? In nationalised industries it is the state that is the owner. There are also industries which are owned by many small shareholders. The Socialist Standard (Feb 1990 p. 18) said that: “Owning a few shares no more makes a wage and salary worker a capitalist than being paid for doing some work makes a capitalist a member of the working class.” Since Marx’s death there has been a massive growth in a managerial class and a move away from the situation where each firm was owned and controlled by one person or family Do all these changes mean that there is no longer a master class in control of the means of living? If so then the SPGB need not exist.

Some members of the SPGB have claimed that there is a master class and that they control the access to the means of living. By this defmition the managers of nationalised industries are part of the master class. IC41 claimed that the logic of this argument would mean that the conductor owns the bus (p. 16). This claim by IC is as ridiculous as saying a turnstile owns the football stadium. The bus conductor merely carries out the instructions given to him / her by his / her boss, for example what to charge passengers and how many passengers to let on. As the conductor is merely carrying out the bosses’ instructions it is the boss who controls the access to the bus. (Of course the conductor could disobey the rules, but he / she will be sacked if caught). So, perhaps the SPGB should change Principle No. 1 to read: “… society as at present constituted is based upon the control of access to the means of living?”

The problem IC and the SPGB have with Principle No. 1 is defining the meaning of the word “ownership.” Both have fallen into the trap of using the state’s definition of the word. The old cliche that possession is nine-tenths of the law could be applied here. A company owned by many small shareholders is not legally owned by the manager of that company, but to all purposes the manager has so much control over the company that he / she is the de facto owner. British Rail is under the de facto ownership of the Chairman of the Board of British Rail and the Minister of Transport. The party bureaucrats who control the nationalised industries in the Eastern Bloc are, in all but name, the owners of those nationalised industries. If we take ownership to mean control, and not just legal title, of industry then there is no reason to change Principle No. 1. If the SPGB do not accept this definition of ownership then they must change Principle No.1. I hope this clears up the confusion IC was having with Principle No.1.

Yours etc. Erik Grigg, Canterbury.

Erik Grigg is in some danger of getting himself (and IC too if we are not careful) tangled up in the Party’s self-contradictions. IC shows the difficulties arising when some of the Party’s various statements on Russia, ownership and other matters are brought together and set against its Principles; this does not have to indicate approval of the sense in which they use “ownership” or any other term.

Sound logic, starting from unsound premisses, can lead to absurd conclusions, and this is the point about our bus-conductor. (The control which the conductor exercises is certainly conditional, but so is that exercised by the Chairman of the Board and the Minister of Transport). IC does not claim that the conductor owns the bus, only that this conclusion follows by simple logic from the proposition that those who control access are the owners. If those controlling access are the owners then the conductor owns the bus. It is a straightforward syllogism:

Every controller of access owns what he or she controls access to.

The bus-conductor controls access to the bus. Therefore the bus-conductor owns the bus.

The conclusion is certainly absurd, but this does not show any unsoundness in the argument; it only reveals the absurdity latent in the premiss. IC develops the argument as a way of showing that those who control access are not thereby shown to be the owners.

Party speakers do sometimes claim that the Object and Principles are a historical document, implying that they are not to be taken seriously any more. Yet every applicant for membership is required to declare acceptance of them.

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The Party proposes to vote capitalism out of existence.

Opponents of the Party will never be able to vote it out of existence since it allows them no vote in its affairs.

Which is the more democratic, capitalism or the Party?

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MONGOLIA has deprived the Communist Party of the leadership formerly enjoyed under the constitution; in future voting will play a larger part. But only those supporting socialism will be entitled to vote. (Observer 25 Mar 90, emphasis added).

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Political society as at present constituted exhibits two classes, one that consumes without producing and another that produces without consuming. The product is the degree of freedom and security that enables those opposed to present society to function, those who produce it are all the parties and movements the (A-) SPGB condemns for reformism, and the class consuming this product without producing it is the Party itself.

The producers include the Liberal Party, the Labour Party, the humanist, freethought and anarchist movements, the groups working against censorship and official secrecy and even, sometimes, the Conservative Party and the Communist Party. All of these have helped to produce the degree of freedom and security that enables the Party to function, and they do this not just as individual people but as organisations.

The “Socialist” Party condemns all this activity as mere reformism and refuses to take part. It enjoys the freedom and security but refuses to join in the work of producing them. It consumes but it does not produce. It plays, in political life, the part it accuses the capitalists of playing in economic life.

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This party holds (Principle No. 5) ‘That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.’ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom Woodcock calls the first of the anarchists, edited various newspapers, and ‘One of the constant themes of Proudhon’s articles during 1848 was that ‘the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government.’ (Woodcock G. 1963 Anarchism, a history of libertarian ideas and movements 116).

“On Mediterranean shores… the worker is to be found. But not in great number and not stretched out on his back.”

That is from a Party pamphlet entitled The Capitalist, the Worker… Politics. The immediate response: Have they never seen a photo of a Spanish beach in August? would be unfair, since it was issued in 1962. (Though wasn’t the annual invasion of Spain by the Brits underway by then?) What the quotation does make clear is the Party’s failure to realise how far this society is capable of

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from Ideological Commentary 45, May 1990.