George Walford: Full Circle

IC 12, 13, 14 and the Challenge have had a good deal to say about the “Socialist” (more accurately, anarcho-socialist) Party of Great Britain. We expect to have more to say about it in the future but the material now on the table enables us to show the reason for our interest.

As far as its declared object, the establishment of socialism, goes, this party is a futility. It does, and claims to do, nothing but put forward what it calls “the case for socialism,” and that case, when examined, turns out to be nothing. The party says its case consists of “incontrovertible facts and logical arguments.” The facts are taken, almost without exception, from the capitalist press; so far as facts go the party is merely repeating things which capitalism has already said about itself, it is adding nothing. This leaves only its “logical arguments” and we have shown, in IC and in the Challenge, that on the big issues the party takes both sides, with the result that when its arguments are put together they cancel out, they add up to nothing. The “Socialist” Party’s case consists of incontrovertible nothing and logical nothing, and nothing added to nothing makes nothing.

In order to explain how thoughtful and intelligent people get themselves into this position we must run over, very briefly, the course of ideological development.

Development through the series of major ideologies entails, among other things, progressive sharpening of the distinction between what is and what (it is assumed) ought to be. In political terms, as one moves from right towards extreme left so the form of society becomes increasingly different from the one which exists. That is familiar enough; it is less generally recognized that as this happens so the desired society becomes increasingly unspecific.

Toward the right-hand end of the range the changes thought necessary are minimal; the form of society sought is, one can almost say, the present one without its disadvantages, and consequently the features of that society can be specified in exhausting detail; the exercise entails only listing the features of present society with modifications.

Approaching the centre of the range, with liberalism and the Social Democratic Party, extensive changes are called for and it is accepted that the details of these will have to be worked out in practice when the movement has the power to do so; in these respects the features of the society sought cannot be specified. But it is still a society where the means of production are to be owned by individuals (whether these be groups or people), and the social and political structure is still to be hierarchic; in these massively important areas the features of the society sought, being those of the one we know, are definite.

With the transition to the eidodynamic ideologies this changes; the society which (it is assumed) ought to be, now ceases to be a variation upon what is known and becomes something new. And with that change it ceases to be specific, it becomes something known only in principle. No society with the means of production commonly owned by the whole community is known to history, sociology, archaeology or anthropology, and nobody knows how such a society would function; those who try to work out its structure and operation disagree – William Morris, Karl Marx and Bakunin for examples. When right-wing political thinkers disagree this hardly matters; one need only look around to see how a right-wing society operates. But there is only theory to show what socialist, communist or anarchist society would be like, and the theory is a confusion; the form of society for which these movements are working, so far as it is not a modification of present society, is nothing definite.

The socialist and communist movements largely escape the consequences of this by directing most of their attention to bringing about changes in the society they know. Anarchism, with its repudiation of authority, cannot do this, but the greater part of the anarchist movement persuades itself it has some connection with definite reality by claiming that anarchism came close to being realised in Spain. The claim is mistaken (see The Anarchist Police Force in IC 14) but it lends anarchism an appearance of specific reality.

With that full development anarchism which calls itself the Socialist Party of Great Britain things are different. This group is emphatic that what it calls “socialism” has never existed anywhere and it is unable to say what such a society would be like. Its official definition, laid down in the party’s “Objectives,” is:

a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

This tells us only what the society would be based on, and to say what something is based on is not to say what it is. This definition does not even say whether socialism would be autocratic or democratic; it applies “democratic control” only to the base, not to the society resting on that base.

Unlike the communists, and the socialists of the Labour Party, the anarcho-socialists of the “Socialist” Party of Great Britain are not prepared to undertake modification of present society. They condemn it in toto, insisting that the only useful social action is it abolition and replacement by “socialism.” And since they cannot specify what they mean by “socialism” the result is that they are proposing nothing at all. They put forward no facts of their own, their arguments add up to nothing and the society they propose has no features. To understand the “Socialist” Party for what it is is to repudiate it and return to the real people and real problems of a real society.

But the “Socialist” Party does, in spite of itself, make a positive contribution. Unlike the socialists of the Labour Party, the communists and the anarchist groups, it insists that the crucial condition for the establishment of “socialism” is the presence of a majority who understand and accept the need for it. All other conditions (the party says) are satisfied; only this remains to be achieved. The persistent attachment of the overwhelming majority to existing society is, the party says, the barrier to “socialism” and this is a matter of ideas, an ideological factor. The contribution the party makes is to draw attention to the crucial significance of ideology in social affairs. It does this in spite of itself, for what it tries to show is that “material conditions” are finally decisive, but it does do it. To understand – and therefore to repudiate – the “Socialist” Party (and it is not necessary to join the party to achieve this) is one take-off point for an understanding of systematic ideology.

from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.