George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Parties (59)

Systematic ideology points to regularities in political behaviour, one of the more important being that as hostility towards existing society increases, so numbers diminish. At one end of the range, acceptance of existing conditions displayed by thousands of millions. At the other, direct opposition to society as it is, manifested by numbers that approach vanishing point.

Taken in its theoretical purity anarchism holds this second position. In practice however the general anarchist movement, although rarely acting without dissentients, has supported feminism, greenism, the Poll Tax protests, the squatters, CND and many other reformist activities. Full repudiation is exhibited only by the section of the anarchist movement which confusingly calls itself the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This organisation urges abolition of capitalism, of the state, of money and private ownership, declares (and shows) itself ‘determined to wage war against all other political parties,’ maintains that social problems cannot be solved within present society, and has a membership of around five hundred after ninety years. For a terrorist or conspiratorial movement this might not be too serious, but the SPGB tells us that ‘socialism’ (its version would be better known as anarcho-socialism) cannot be achieved until an overwhelming majority, world-wide, has come to understand and accept the case it puts forward. Its condition is even worse than at first appears, for while it has been gaining five hundred the world population has increased by three thousand million. It now stands farther from its majority than when it began.

Progressive purification of class theory has led to this condition. Labour-socialism does not assert any hard opposition between classes. Communism speaks of class struggle and violent revolution, but it is still prepared to work with pro-capitalist organisations for limited objects, and although orthodox anarchists often declare themselves in total opposition yet anarchist practice permits a degree of cooperation. All these movements, although anti-capitalist, are yet prepared to work within this system, and each of them receives numerical support enabling it to produce noticeable effects. Only the (A-)SPGB declares irreconcilable antagonism between the interests of the workers and those of the capitalists, claims to be the only working-class party and refuses any form of compromise. On this ground it expects its arguments to be accepted by the workers, who (on its definition) form the great majority. But it remains so small as to be almost invisible on the political scene and there are no indications that this is about to alter. The theory that economic interests fundamentally govern political attachment, so that the workers, the poor, the oppressed, will support a purely revolutionary movement, has been disproven as thoroughly as any social theory well can be.

It is from this point that the enterprise of systematic ideology takes off, seeking a more adequate explanation for political attachment and finding it to be governed not by class position but by ideology. Finding, also, that the less developed ideologies leading to support of traditionalist movements are functional constituents of any viable society.

By pushing class theory to its logical conclusion the (A-)SPGB has demonstrated its limitations, providing the impetus that led to systematic ideology; it is partly by pushing back against the (A-) SPGB that this undertaking moves forward. Hence this running commentary (squeezed out from the last two issues of IC but now taken up again) on the theories and (to the limited extent that it performs any) also the actions of that party.

UPDATE: In 1991 the Party split on the question whether ‘of Great Britain’ should be retained in its title. We now have two parties, each of them using both the full and abbreviated versions. The one based in Clapham (the larger, and retaining control of headquarters, party funds and the Socialist Standard) tends towards the more flexible position of the general anarchist movement, while that in N12 holds more closely to the hard line set out in the Declaration of Principles, adopted when the party was founded in 1904.

ARE THEY WORKERS? Both Clapham and N12 claim to be distinctively working-class organisations in the sense that their membership consists of workers. Can either of them justify the claim?

They both retain the original Declaration of Principles, and Principle No.8 speaks of calling upon ‘the members of the working class,’ but neither of them accepts this as a restriction upon their propagandist activities. They both call upon anybody, of whatever class, who is willing to listen. The examination to be passed by applicants for membership tests their (anarcho-)socialist knowledge; it does not enquire into their class position. Neither of these parties restricts membership to workers.

Their members are distinguished from those of other parties not by class position but by their beliefs, their ideology. These two parties, like all the others, are best understood not as class organisations but as ideological groups.

PURELY STATISTICAL: The issue of the Socialist Standard for June 1992 contains an article calculated to stagger the most experienced (A-)SPwatcher. Accepting that since the Second World War the real incomes of the wage- and salary-earners in the advanced countries have risen the writer, ALB, comments: ‘This had the effect of reducing the share of the rich, but this is the only effect it has had and it is purely statistical’.

As a result largely of their higher incomes these workers are better fed, better clothed, better housed and healthier than previous generations; they work and live under better conditions, they can expect longer lives and fewer of their children die in infancy. To ALB and the Socialist Standard these things have no importance. The ‘only’ effect of rising real wages and salaries has been to reduce the share of the rich; it is ‘purely statistical’.

HORATIO, a member of the N12 party, has criticized the article. Recalling that the Party pamphlet, Socialism as a Practical Alternative claims (he says mistakenly) that ‘the rich get richer and the poor poorer,’ he dismisses ALB’s argument as a desperate attempt to maintain this against the evidence, and advances his own version of the future course of events: ‘Socialism will not be established by famished, threadbare paupers desperate for a warm bed, but by highly qualified sophisticated operators of modern technical marvels, who have to be properly fed, clothed and housed in order to do their jobs. ‘Certainly it is hard to imagine the Socialist Standard‘s ragged starvelings getting down to a study of Capital, or even the Party pamphlets, but should we expect HORATIO’s comfortable technicians to do so either? So far, of the workers meeting his description, only a tiny minority have accepted ‘socialism’; he offers us no reason for expecting this to change.

REPRINTED FROM DISCUSSION BULLETIN #55 This is one instance… of their method. On big issues they assert both sides, jumping from on to the other in order to win the argument.

Dear Editor, The letter in DB 54, from Adam Buick of the Socialist Party based in Clapham, reveals the technique of argument routinely used by this party. Their theory asserts an antagonism of interests between the working class, enslaved and exploited, and the capitalist master class. On which side of this division do the pension fund managers stand?

Are they capitalists? Adam says they may become capitalists in future, so they are not so now, and on his party’s definition that makes them workers. The size of their salary does not alter this, and neither does their opportunity of becoming capitalists; many workers have done so. These workers, Adam tells us, pay themselves ‘enormous’ salaries, and that means they have control of these funds which they do not own. He shows that these workers control this substantial part of capitalism.

But he then says the pension funds ‘are not controlled by workers’ ( emphasis added), and his party also says the capitalists, not the workers, control this society.

This is one instance, though an unusually clear one, of their method. On big issues they assert both sides, jumping from one to the other in order to win the argument. Here Adam has been forced by the trend of discussion to let both sides appear in the one letter; he shows that the pension fund managers are workers (on his party’s definition) but says they are not. Yours etc. George Walford

COLOURS NAILED TO THE FENCE: In order to make (anarcho-)socialism sound practical the (A-)SPGB have to show that the workers are capable of operating a sophisticated productive and distributive system without the capitalists. So they tell us the workers run present society from top to bottom. Unfortunately that makes the workers responsible for everything that now goes wrong.

So they tell us the capitalists exercise overall control. Unfortunately, that means the workers have not shown themselves capable of running a society without masters over them.

They end up head over heels in absurdity, saying that the workers run this society from top to bottom AND that the capitalists control it.

LOYAL PROLETARIANS: Clapham issue the SS and so do N12, although the first is the Socialist Standard and the second Socialist Studies. In the course of attacking Clapham, Studies No.3 brings up ‘Marx’s statement in the New York Tribune 25 August 1852 about the carrying of universal suffrage in Great Britain that it would inevitably be “the political supremacy of the working class.”‘ (On the original Marxist definition, still accepted by this party, the working class includes all who live on their wage or salary, and these make up about 90% of the population).

We now have virtually universal suffrage, and the voting figures show that in the working class as in the capitalist class, the majority stands towards the base of the ideological pyramid, accepting or supporting the government and capitalism. Almost a century and a half after Marx wrote that article, the bulk of the ‘proletarians’ still do not support what he liked to call the proletarian movement, and show no intention of doing so. The Party offer no good reason for expecting this to change.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.