George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party (61)

MUST remember not to call the SW4 section the Clapham Sect; that was founded back around the 1790s and the (A)-SP have not been failing to get their majority that long.

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CLAIMING to be concerned with social problems, and to offer solutions to them, members of this party accuse IC of indifference. Not so; it’s just that we subscribe to standards more rigorous than theirs. We don’t call it a solution unless it puts an end to the problem, and theirs don’t do this. From their foundation in 1904 they have claimed to have solutions for unemployment, exploitation, insecurity and war, but after ninety years all these things are still with us. By our standards this party doesn’t have solutions, only suggestions.

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WHAT do all these have in common: Spanner, Bulletin of Anarchist Research (now defunct), Anarchist Studies, New Paradigms, Clarity, Factsheet Five, Dumpster Times, Durham University Journal and Anarchy, a Journal of Desire Armed?

They have all reviewed Beyond Politics, published in 1990; Freedom has done so twice. But the Socialist Standard, journal of the (Anarcho)-Socialist Party (Clapham section) so often criticised in IC, has not done so. Declaring themselves at war with all other political parties, complaining that the Socialist Workers Party refuses to debate with them, full of aggression when they can lure some inoffensive, well-meaning Labour Party speaker into their dens, these heroes of intellectual combat come over all delicate and retiring when faced with critical analysis of their own arguments. Their predecessors showed more spirit; when Walsby’s Domain of Ideologies appeared in 1947, the Socialist Standard devoted some 5,000 words to it.

(Socialist Studies, journal of the N12 section of the party, has not reviewed Beyond Politics either, but it does not print reviews at all, while the Socialist Standard does so frequently).

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This party complains that capitalism does not, and cannot, satisfy human needs. By advertising and in other ways it creates wants, but only ‘socialism’ can meet our needs. One obvious fault with this argument is that if you are alive some of your most important needs have been met, and with nearly 6 thousand million people alive today (increasing at some 900 million annually), quite a lot of needs have been satisfied. Deeper than this, however, lies the question of the relation between needs and wants. Standard thinking takes needs as primary, wants as secondary. The classical needs form a trio: food, clothing and shelter; without these we cannot live. Does this make them universal needs?

Nobody can long survive without them, but not everybody wants to survive. People who want to commit suicide need not food, clothing and shelter, but a high window and a hard pavement, or a sleeping pill and a plastic bag. As our wants change, so do our needs. A need is something we have to have in order to satisfy a want. Wants determine needs, rather than vice versa.

One quick-thinking defender of the Party’s case replied that this could easily be incorporated: when the Party asserts a need for adequate food, clothing and shelter we need only assume an addition, unspoken because self-evident, that these things are needed for those who want to survive.

The argument, however, does not end there. Claiming to be Marxist and materialist, this party asserts the primacy of the economic base; this, they maintain, determines the ideological superstructure. So long as we take needs to be primary, this can be sensibly argued, for food, clothing and shelter are indisputably needed to maintain life, and supply of these is the first object of economic activity. If, however, we accept that needs are secondary, being determined by wants, then ideology determines economics, for wants are ideological phenomena, changing as our assumptions alter. People who accept the assumptions of domination, for example, want a certain sort of life and need a competitive economic system if they are to enjoy it. Revolutionaries want a different sort of life and therefore need a different economic structure, a more cooperative, less competitive one. It begins to look as if the Marxist metaphor, of the economic base determining the ideological superstructure, would make better sense inverted.

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FALSE ARGUMENT: ‘We live in a society that makes quite a habit of murdering children. Over two hundred have been killed as victims of the warfare in Ireland over the last quarter of a century.’ (Socialist Standard, May 1993)

That is a fine example – even a double example – of what IC60 proposed to name The One-Legged Argument; reporting truth yet committing deceit by omission. First, it says nothing about the efforts, both official and otherwise, that have been made to end the killing in Ireland, yet this society makes a habit of those as well as of the killings. Second, it does not mention that the only society known to have been without class divisions killed a vastly higher proportion of its children than capitalism has ever done. Marvin Harris, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia: ‘infanticide during the paleolithic period could very well have been as high as 50 percent.’

This society has distinguished itself not by murdering children but by introducing new levels of protection for them; far more now survive than did so previously, and with a terrible irony this new development carries a large part of the responsibility for some of the worst of current horrors; in former centuries, most of the millions who now die prematurely would not have been there at all.

from Ideological Commentary 61, August 1993.