George Walford and Ike Benjamin: The Sad Case of the SPGB
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN claims to be putting forward a “clear” and “logical” case. Since the founding of the Party, nearly eighty years ago, that case has consistently been rejected by the overwhelming majority of those who have heard it, by the overwhelming majority even of those who have heard it repeatedly.
The SPGB say those who reject the case have not understood it; this paper shows it is the SPGB themselves who have not understood their case. They have failed to recognise it for what it is.
The SPGB claims to support its viewpoint with “incontrovertible facts and logical argument.” The facts may well be incontrovertible, but the SPGB can claim little credit for that; almost without exception those facts are taken from non-socialist sources. What the SPGB is responsible for is the interpretation it places on the facts, its “logical argument”. This paper shows that argument to contain a number of self-contradictions.
The SPGB declare themselves “determined to wage war against all other political parties”, and they do not in practice restrict their combativeness to parties. In the SPGB’s chosen military metaphor this paper is an attack upon their case. It concludes with a challenge to them to answer it. (All quotations are from publications issued by the SPGB).
THE SELF-CONTRADICTIONS OF THE SPGB
1. Self-Contradiction Number One: That ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class is and is not the basis of capitalism.
a. It is the basis: “That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living … by the capitalist or master class.” (SPGB Principle No.1, emphasis added).
b. It is not the basis: “The capitalist monopoly over the means of production rests upon their control of political power” (SPGB pamphlet “Questions of the Day” 969 p.52, emphasis added).
Monopoly ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class is basic. It is what society as at present constituted is based upon. Monopoly ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class is not basic. This ownership rests upon political power, so it is that power that is basic.
“Questions of the Day” contradicts Principle Number One. Since both the pamphlet and the principle are statements issued by the SPGB the SPGB contradicts itself on the “basic” issue. While doing this the SPG3 also tells us that the question: What is the basis of capitalism is of crucial importance, for “We know that a social system’s relationship emerge from its basis” (”The Case for Socialism” 1962 p.47).
2. Self-Contradiction Number Two: That in a socialist society human action will and will not be free from social restraints.
a. It will be free: “Socialist Production will be patterned on human need; there will be no restraints on it apart from natural ones (The SPGB journal, Socialist Standard — referred to from now on as SS — Dec 82 p.22)
b. It will not be free: “Socialism will have harmonious foundations from which we will go forth. Let your imagination play for a moment or two on the boundless possibilities that will open up.” (SPGB pamphlet “Trade Unionism” 1980 p.36). “But it should not be assumed that with socialism humanity will enjoy unlimited options about what it might choose to do. At any point in history, the options open to society are given by the actual circumstances of development, and this social framework of options will also exist with socialism.” (SS Dec d2 p.234, emphasis added)
In a socialist society will human action be free from social restraints? To that question the SPGB answers both “Yes” and “No”, and in so doing contradicts itself.
3. Self-Contradiction Number Three: That the conditions are and are not ripe for socialism now.
a. Conditions are ripe: “But the future is in our hands. We have the power worldwide to end capitalism and all its problems. We can have a world of common ownership and free access …“ (SS Sept 82 p.163).
b. Conditions are not ripe: “Now socialism does presuppose a certain level of consciousness: before it can be established there must be a majority that wants and understands it. Such a socialist majority clearly does not exist today and that is why socialism can’t be established straight away.” (SS Sept 82 p.173).
In one and the same issue of the “Socialist Standard” we are told, firstly, that we can have socialism and also that it can’t be established until there is a socialist majority. The conditions are and are not ripe for socialism now.
But if that is not clear enough, look at this pair: “Socialism is ours for the taking.” (“The Case for Socialism” 1962 p.52). “The only remaining barriers against this system of integrated world production (i.e. socialism GW) are the class relations of capitalism, the profit motive and the political division of the world into rival capitalist nations.” (SS Dec 82 p.235).
Socialism is ours for the taking. All we have to do is to overcome the class relations of capitalism, the profit motive and the political division of the world into rival capitalist countries.
Are the conditions ripe for socialism now? To that question the SPGB answers both “Yes” and “No”, and in doing so it contradicts itself.
4. Self-Contradiction Number Four: That the capitalist class does and does not control capitalism.
a. The capitalist class does control: “Both (i.e. the Labour and Conservative parties GW) stand for capitalism and both are used by the capitalists, with the support of the workers, to control the State in the interests of the capitalist class.” (”Questions of the Day” 1969 p.53).
b. The capitalist class does not control: “Practically all the work of controlling the activities of society today is performed by people who depend for their livelihood upon their pay.” (“Questions of the Day” 1969 p.20).
The capitalist class does control capitalism. It does so by controlling the State through the Labour and Conservative parties. What the workers do in this connection is to support this activity.
The capitalist class does not control capitalism. Practically all the work of control is done by the workers.
Does the capitalist class control capitalism? In answer to that question the SPGB says both: “Yes, it does” and “No, practically it does not”. In doing so it contradicts itself.
5. Self-Contradiction Number Five: That the workers do and do not learn from their experience under capitalism.
a. They do learn “Marx was quite correct in realising that only experience of conscious solidarity can produce workers with the kind of self-awareness necessary to turn them into a revolutionary class … Marx and Engels … realised that only from their experience of self-defence could workers learn to take political action to end exploitation itself.” (SS Sept 82 p.167). “Capitalism cannot shield them from the problems which class society throws up. No amount of clever talk and trickery can deny experience.” (SS Sept 82 p.166). “Experience of exploitation teaches workers elementary lessons about self—defence, the first usually being the value of combination … The moment that workers combine for the purpose of looking after their interests the long journey to emancipation has begun.” (SS Sept 82 p.166). “… trade unions mark the recognition on the part of the workers that they produce the wealth of society …“ (SS Sept 82 p.166). “as Bronterre O’Brien wrote in 1834: ‘The advantage of a strike is that it increases the enmity between labourers and capitalists, and compels workmen to reflect and investigate the causes of their sufferings.” (SS Sept 82 p.16?). “It was a period when, especially after the two General Elections of 1910, workers lost interest in the abilities of government to solve their problems. As one witness put it: “Nothing was more noticeable about the last two General Elections than the rapidity with which the mass of the electorate has become disillusioned as to the worth of the vote.” (SS Sept 82 p.165).
b. They do not learn: (On demonstrations against unemployment): “These movements, based on the uninstructed discontent of non- Socialists, simply peter out and leave nothing behind.” (SS Nov 1932 reprinted in SS Nov 82 p.207). “Even among those whose proclaimed radicalism “prevents them from accepting Brandt, there is a blind acceptance of the capitalist principles which generate poverty as the cornerstone of class division. (SS Sept 82 p.169). “At the moment, contrary to all the bogus talk about ‘selfishness’, workers willingly accept inferior lifestyles, die to protect their bosses’ markets and generally regard exploitation as inevitable.” (SS Sept 82 p.166). “The Conservatives came through the 30s strong and united, apparently entrenched in power for ever. At election time the workers gave them a hearty vote of confidence.” (SS Sept 82 p.162). “Their (the government GW) resolve to ease the path of British capitalism by forcing down workers’ living standards will not easily waver. And if the election results be any guide there is small prospect of the workers reacting against this. The same patience and optimism which was so effectively exploited by politicians like Baldwin and MacMillan — as well as by Labour leaders — is still there, still pulling in the votes, still keeping capitalism in being.” (Utopi Nov 82 p.216).
The workers do learn from experience. From experience in trade unions they learn self-defence end that it is they who produce the wealth. A strike compels them to reflect and investigate the cause of their sufferings. By 1910 they had learnt enough to become disillusioned as to the worth of the vote.
The workers do not learn from experience. Their protests against unemployment peter out and leave nothing behind. They continue blindly to accept capitalist principles and inferior lifestyles, to die in protesting their employers’ interests and to regard exploitation as inevitable. In the 1930s they gave the Tories a hearty vote of confidence, and in 1982 their patience and optimism are still pulling in the votes.
Do the workers learn from experience? To that question the SPGB answers both “Yes” and “No”, and in doing this it contradicts itself.
THE CULMINATING ONE
6. Self-Contradiction Number Six: The culminating self-contradiction, the self-contradiction to end all self-contradiction, is that the SPGB, in putting forward this confusion of self-contradictions as their “case”, claim it to be something “all can understand”. They claim it is “clear”. They even claim — Marx help us all — that it is “logical”.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CONTRADICTION
The SPGB, claiming to represent the interests of the overwhelming majority, remains one of the smallest political parties. There are well over forty million people in Great Britain, most of them workers; in 1948 the SPOB claimed a membership of about one thousand; now, in 1983, I understand it claims about five hundred. They attempt to explain this by claiming that the working class, as a class, has not yet heard their case. That claim is false, Harold Walsby showed in “S.P.G.B. – UTOPIAN OR SCIENTIFIC”, 1948. Most of the hundreds of thousands who, since the Party’s foundation in 1904, have heard its case, have been workers. The working class, through its typical representatives, has heard the Party cane and has overwhelmingly rejected it.
The SPGB find this rejection difficult to understand, but now we have seen the true nature of their case rejection of it presents no problem. Rejection of a self-contradictory argument is easily understood. What now needs explaining is that as many as five hundred sane, honest, intelligent people should be found willing to say they accept this self-contradictory case and consider it “clear” and “logical”.
In the preceding pages we have shown the SPGB falling over its own feet, scoring in its own goal, and punching itself in the eye. This has not required any deep study or extensive research; only a little of that thoughtful attention the Party urges us to give its case. A few Party pamphlets and the last four issues of the “Socialist Standard’ have produced this crop of self-contradictions in the Party’s main arguments.
The vaunted case of the SPGB is a sad case. It contains a tangle of self-contradictions. We challenge the Socialist Party of Great Britain to answer, in writing, this written criticism of its case.