George Walford: The (Anarcho- ) Socialist Party (56)

Readers will recall that in 1991 the (A-)SPGB, following standard procedure for extreme eidodynamic groups, split in two. They had done this often enough before, but this time both fractions were large enough to survive. We now have two (anarcho-) socialist parties, each of them repudiating the other. IC55, differentiating them as SW4 and N12, announced that in future we would call them the SP and the SPGB, but that won’t work; the SW4 party claims both titles and it is not for IC to determine the allocation. Until something better turns up we shall continue to use their postal codes.

The (A-)SPGB BS (Before the Split) claimed a substantial difference between itself and those calling themselves anarchists: it used democratic methods, they did not. Now SW4 continues to maintain this, and to the best of IC‘s knowledge so does N12. But what do the anarchists say? Well, Discussion Bulletin No. 51 reports that the Russian ones have just set up the Anarchist Democratic Union.

At a meeting of the SW4 party, held in Camden Town on Wednesday 25 January, Stephen Coleman debated with Terry Liddle of the Labour Party the question: Should Workers Vote Labour? The debate announced can hardly be said to have taken place since Liddle virtually disowned his own organisation, saying he preferred the (A-)SP position and remained in the Labour Party only because it offered action, limited in value though this might be. The ‘socialist’ speaker claimed that his own party, repudiating present society, carried (unlike the Labour Party) no responsibility for its misdeeds and failures. With the tunnel vision characteristic of anarcho-socialists he failed to see that the claim cuts his movement off from any share in the successes, which greatly outweigh the failures and disasters.

The abstract, esoteric and purist nature of anarcho-socialist thinking appeared in three contentions, all of them maintained by the, Party BS and all reaffirmed by the official SW4 speaker at this meeting:

  • Socialism and capitalism cannot exist alongside each other. You cannot have a society partly socialist and partly capitalist.
  • There will be no transition period between capitalism and socialism .
  • The Party speaks with scientific accuracy. (So these propositions are to be taken literally).

Taken with reference to concrete society, these contentions present only one difficulty: Are they best described as ludicrous or absurd?

Five thousand million people, engaged in all the endless complexities of operating post-industrial capitalism, and depending on it for their lives, are going to transfer, totally, to (anarcho-) socialism. They are going to make the change without having tested this new system, without any experience of it, and they are going to do this without any transition period. Blinking our eyes we shall find ourselves in a radically different world-wide society, by some unspecified magic already completely functional.

How can sensible people say such things? The answer appears only when one accepts that they are not talking about concrete society, or living people and their problems. They are setting up a system of propositions designed to enable them to win arguments. On Aristotelian logic everything is either X or non-X; nothing can be both X and non-X. The (anarcho-)socialists present capitalism as X, socialism as non-X and from that the rest (if you accept the limitations of Aristotelian logic) follows inevitably: society must be either capitalist or socialist; it cannot combine the two systems and there can be no in-between stage.

The fact that actual societies do not operate within the limits of Aristotelian logic does not bother them. Repudiating the society they live in, they are not worried by their near-total inability to influence it. Devoted to argument (among themselves, at public meetings, on election platforms), all they want is a way of winning. These propositions allow them to do that in most cases and they ask no more.

In recent years SW4 have been turning increasingly towards William Morris. In his well-known article “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” Morris speaks of a time when exploitation shall be ended, when men will no longer be such fools as to allow the capitalists to steal part of the product of their labour.

Who, reading that, would expect to find Morris himself among the thieves? Yet he lived on the exploitation of workers in the mines. His biographer E. P. Thompson, not inclined to present Morris in a bad light, puts it like this: ‘The toil, under appalling conditions, of the workers in the tin and copper mines of Devon and Cornwall shielded him from poverty, and gave him his freedom of choice… ‘ Morris seems to have been as good at misleading rhetoric, and as skilled in slipping round awkward realities, as this party themselves.

And what of the Siamese twin, so recently separated? Well, N12 prefer Marx to Monis, but this hardly puts them in a more comfortable position; Marx lived partly on subsidies from Engels, which is to say on the exploitation of his mill-hands. He also favoured exploitation of children, claiming that a general prohibition of child labour would be reactionary, while a continuation of it, with education, would help to transform society. (‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ in Feuer, L.S.1978 Marx and Engels, Basic writings).

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.