George Walford: The (Anarcho-)Socialist Party (33)

IC holds out a continuing invitation: We undertake to print any statement of up to 1,000 words carrying the approval of this party, or one of its branches. Letters from individual members will appear if they are cogent, interesting and concise, and if space permits. If you want your letter to appear unedited or not at all, please say so. Each issue of IC is sent to all the branches, discussion groups and “For Information” addresses listed in the Socialist Standard.

Several copies of this issue are being sent to the Secretary of each branch whose meeting has been noticed, for distribution among the members. A copy will be sent to any member writing in.

IC31 gave the text of a letter sent on 26 November 1987 to the Secretary of the Party, asking for the terms on which they would accept paid notices for the SOCIALIST STANDARD drawing the attention of their members to IC‘s comments on the Party and its case. The letter offered them a free quarter-page in IC for each one inserted, paid, in the STANDARD. So far (12 April 88) no reply has been received, and this has to be borne in mind when reading their complaints that their capitalist opponents refuse them free access to the media.

At the Islington Branch meeting of Thursday 11 February Mr. E. Hardy demonstrated that capitalism has not solved all social problems and nobody challenged him. Why should they? Supporters of capitalism are well aware that it has unsolved problems; it was the capitalist press that supplied the information Mr. Hardy put forward. Had he devoted his time to proving that in England it sometimes rains he might have been on even safer ground, but not by much.

After Mr. Hardy had told us about capitalism Mr. Donelly told us about ‘socialism,’ and nobody challenged him, either. How could they? The Party agrees that ‘socialism’ has never existed, so nobody could bring evidence to show that he was wrong. Equally, of course, he could not show that he was right. He spoke as if he did possess well-founded knowledge, saying ‘socialism’ ‘will’ do this, that and the other, and this might seem to lay him open to criticism, but he had safeguarded himself by slipping in near the beginning a statement to the effect that what he had to say would be speculative. If anybody was open to criticism it was the Party members in the audience. These people, who pride themselves on being scientific ‘socialists,’ lapped up these fairy tales as if they had been valuable information – even after being warned by the speaker that they were nothing but speculation.

To reduce all the multifarious activities of a sophisticated society to the solution of problems is at best an inadequate approach, but in order to maintain contact with the (A-)SPGB we often use their terms. Using this approach, then, capitalism has not solved all social problems and may well be unable to do so, but it has solved a great many; otherwise it would not have endured and grown over centuries. There is no direct evidence that ‘socialism’ would be able to solve a single problem. All assertions of its ability to do so are, as Mr. Donelly said, speculative.

On reading, under the heading ‘Ancient Theories,’ your report [in IC32] on a lecture given at a recent meeting of the SPGB I was surprised that the theories of Lewis Henry Morgan were expounded. It appears that the lecturer was either not acquainted with the SPGB’s present views on the subject-matter of his lecture or disagrees with them.

The following is stated on page 14 of the pamphlet Women and Socialism, published by the SPGB in June 1986:

Unfortunately Engels [in his work Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State F.T.] drew heavily for his anthropological evidence on the work of Lewis Henry Morgan (particularly Ancient Society, published in 1877). Morgan’s work has since been found to contain serious errors… Also, most of the evidence that Morgan used to support his arguments was drawn from his observations of the Iroquois Indians, and more recent anthropological work has suggested that in many ways this was an exceptional culture, and not one from which it is possible to make universal generalisations.

Engels compounded the.errors in Morgan’s work by adding some of his own unfounded assumptions, mostly about the nature of women’s sexuality. The result is a work that does not stand up to anthropological scrutiny.

We print the above letter with mixed feelings. Having entered an argument one wants to win it, but against the case of the opponent, not against his lack of knowledge of it. When the (A-)SPGB fall over their own feet we have to report it, but would rather confront their arguments in the strongest form they can give them. Unfortunately they are reluctant to meet criticism from IC with arguments.

In a section of IC32 which is devoted to an anarchist organisation of which I have no knowledge; I am referred to as a spokesman for something called The (Anarcho-)Socialist Party of Great Britain. This is a lie. I belong to no such organisation and I am, in fact, a socialist, not an anarchist. The intellectual clarity of IC (which I receive unsolicitedly on a regular basis, along with other fanatical outpourings such as Plain Truth and a broadsheet devoted to the-exposure of the ‘Communist-Zionist conspiracy’ which runs the BBC) is a feature which experience has taught me to treat with amused scepticism. I must insist that in future you refrain from stating or implying that I am a member or spokesman for a party to which I do not belong and have never encountered.

This letter relies on bluster and debating tricks. It tries to establish guilt by association; what has Plain Truth to do with the intellectual clarity of IC? It pretends ignorance; the writer knows that IC uses ‘(Anarcho-) Socialist Party’ for the group calling itself the Socialist Party of Great Britain and he knows why we do this. To support this statement we call a witness: Steve Coleman.

IC13 printed a letter from E. Hardy; IC15 printed one from Steve Coleman saying we had not answered it. In order to say that, Mr. Coleman must have read IC14, which contained an article explaining why, as a descriptive name for his party,
‘anarcho-socialist’ is an improvement on ‘socialist.’ We suggest that the writer of the above letter should get, in touch with Steve Coleman and ask him to explain the position.

Scoring points can be good fun for both contestants, but it seldom advances the argument; let us turn to the issue of substance raised in this present letter. The writer declares himself a socialist and not an anarchist. In making this rigid distinction he validates the charge repeatedly brought by Harold Walsby, in the articles we have been reprinting, that the (A-)SPGB holds a ‘black-or-white‘ position, but we do not propose to repeat Walsby’s arguments. Instead we take up the words ‘socialist’ and ‘anarchist.’ The Oxford English Dictionary, after some remarks about the use of ‘socialism’ in French in the early 1830s, quotes the Encyclopedia Britannica as saying it originated in 1835 in the discussions of a society founded by Robert Owen. We have the authority of Marx and Engels for regarding Owen, Fourier and Saint Simon as socialists, and OED speaks of the Christian Socialism of F. D. Maurice and others. The Penguin English Dictionary (1971) defines socialism as the theory that the means of production should be owned ‘by the nation.’ In the run-up to the General Election of 1987 Roy Hattersley, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, announced its object to be ‘democratic socialism.’ In the 1930s a noble Lord, his name now forgotten, won himself an instant reputation by declaring ‘We are all socialists now.’ In early 1988 Islington Branch debated with SERA, and the first letter of that acronym stands for ‘socialist.’ There is a Socialist Workers’ Party. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union claims (or used to claim) that Russia, being at the half-way stage towards communism, was a socialist country. The Century Dictionary, after saying (among other things) that ‘socialism’ means a system of common ownership, adds: ‘The name is used to include a great variety of social theories and reforms which have more or less of this character.’

Every one of these usages has been advanced by a person, group or institution possessing at least as much right to define the term as the (A-)SPGB and better able to win acceptance for its definition. But this organisation not only uses ‘socialism’ in a sense peculiar to itself, it also claims its usage to be the only correct one.

‘They’re all out of step but our Joe.’ This party of some 600 members, with its companions abroad, has landed itself with the task of trying to impose the meaning it chooses to give the word (and its equivalents in other languages) against the determined preferences of thousands of millions. It has not succeeded. On 10 March 1988 Islington Branch debated with Chris Pryce, an Islington Councillor, and even he, with 18 years of membership in the Labour Party, an active politician in the same borough as the (A-)SPGB’s biggest branch, showed himself unaware of the special sense in which they use the term.

In most meanings of ‘socialism’ other than that preferred by this party the term indicates a system of society incorporating a govermnent. The (A-)SPGB reject this, declaring that in their system there would be administration of things but no government of people. One thing that remains fairly clear, among all the confusion of political terminology, is that movements advocating the abolition of government are to be termed anarchist. Some people calling themselves anarchists, such as those belonging to the Libertarian Alliance, favour the continuance of private property, but the (A-)SPGB do not, and in order to make this clear we call them not simply anarchist but anarcho-socialist.
We do not say they are wrong to call themselves socialists. Words are common property and anybody can use them as they choose. It is up to the speaker to select words which convey the intended meaning, the penalty for not doing so being to find oneself misunderstood. For over eighty years this party have been complaining that most of their hearers do not understand what they are saying, and their peculiar use of ‘socialism’ bears some of the responsibility for this. In the name of clear thinking and effective communication we have begun to call them by a title which conveys their meaning more accurately than the one chosen by themselves, and we recommend that they adopt this improvement.

– – –

Readers of IC who would like to subscribe are invited to do so. The standard subscription for 1988 is £5, and new standard subscribers during the year will receive the six issues for 1988.

Smaller subscriptions for 1988 are also welcome; on these, delivery will start with the current issue.

We intend to continue sending IC when no subscription has been paid, particularly to readers who, by responding with criticism, comment or contributions, show themselves interested, and of course to the (A-)SPGB All back issues from No. 1 (October 1979) to No. 31 (November 1987) are still available. (The early issues are smaller and thinner than the later and less elegantly presented). Complete set £10 pf.

We reserve the right to refuse any subscription, or to terminate one accepted, without explanation. On termination, the total subscription paid for the year will be refunded. If your name on the envelope is followed by “X” this shows that your current subscription has been paid.

from Ideological Commentary 33, May 1988.