George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (23)


It is tempting in politics to see things in stark black and white terms: if a regime is obviously “bad” then those who oppose it are necessarily “good.” This tendency to reduce complex situations to simplistic terms has nowhere been more evident in recent times than in the Philippines: Marcos was so evidently “bad” that Aquino must be “good.” (Socialist Standard, April 1986)

For an even clearer example of the tendency to reduce complex situations to simplistic terms may we draw the attention of the party to their own repeated statements that there is one single and simple solution to all the multifarious problems of capitalism: replace it with “socialism.”

THE “Socialist” Party proudly claim to be completely democratic. They base this claim on the fact that the party is controlled by its members by majority vote. We have questioned whether this justifies the claim, pointing out that full democracy requires not only that decisions should be made by voting but also that the whole constituency, all those claimed to be represented, should have the vote. The party claims to represent the interests of the working class, so if it is to he democratic then every member of the working class should have an equal vote in its affairs.

That number of IC (like the others) was sent to every branch of the party, to Head Office and to the Editorial Committee. None of them responded, we have to take it that the argument did not impress them. But will they be impressed by a direct statement in the Socialist Standard, their own official journal, confirming what we say? This is a verbatim quotation from the issue of March 1986 (p.52):

Democracy, if it is to have any real meaning, if it is to be anything more than a propaganda buzz word for politicians, must, at the very least, include the following:
Equal opportunity for everyone to participate in decision making.

The party do not allow everyone to participate in decision making. They do not even allow everyone whose interests they claim to represent to participate in it. They reserve that privilege for their members. By their own definition, therefore, the democracy they claim to enjoy does not have any real meaning, it is nothing more than a propaganda buzz word.

The same page of the Socialist Standard goes on to drive the point home, saying of MPs that:

They decide which way to vote, not on the basis of the wishes of the constituents who they claim to be representing but in accordance with the wishes of their party as dictated by the party whips.

In order to apply that statement to the “Socialist” Party only one small change is needed:

They decide which way to vote, not on the basis of the wishes of the constituents who they claim to be representing but in accordance with the wishes of their party as dictated by the majority of members.

The (A-)SPGB maintain that the workers do not own a country or any part of one and therefore ought not speak of “our country.” They say:

From the time when we are first shown an atlas or a globe we are given a false image of the world. The map is divided into over 150 separate countries and we are indoctrinated with the idea that it is only right and proper to develop an allegiance to “our” country. We are taught that we should use possessive vocabulary in relation to the country although we own nothing of it. We are taught to have respect and admiration for a sterile stately-home culture of which we have no part and most importantly we are taught to accept the possibility that one day we might be called on to fight and kill strangers (who will have been similarly misled) in furthering the cause of our bosses…” (Socialist Standard No.962, page 186, emphasis added).

They tell us that to use “our” of something you don’t own is false and misleading. They then go on to speak of “our bosses” although they do not own these bosses. On their own statement their own practice is false and misleading.

Is IC not justified in saying that this party destroys its own ‘case,’ leaving its opponents nothing to do but point out what it is doing?

The “Socialist” Party rarely respond to our criticisms; as they have declared in IC versus SP, for the most part they ignore us. But when they do reply they do not deny what we say. They hardly can do so, since it consists for the most part of quotations from their own publications with explanatory comments. But one would expect them to try, and we have to admit that in our own case this expectation has been so strong that we took it for granted they were vigorously denying the charges we bring against them. But they are not doing this. Their standard response is to accuse us of quibbling and this is not a denial of our charges, only a claim that they are not substantial.

We have no doubt that the party are sincere when they say that to them our charges seem to be nothing more than nitpicking and logic-chopping. They believe they are working to abolish capitalism, and against that our demonstration that their arguments lack logical coherence may well seem unimportant. But even if the discrepancies we point to are in fact trivial, this would not be the first time that a triviality turned out to have momentous implications; one modern example is that discrepancies (between Newtonian prediction and the results of observation) that could barely be detected by the finest instruments, were sufficient to validate the Einsteinian conception of the universe, leading through the famous equation to atomic power and nuclear weaponry. One thing that distinguishes science from everyday thinking is that science devotes enormous amounts of time, thought, energy and resources to the investigation of the tiniest trifles that can be thought of as having material existence, the fundamental particles of matter. If the (A-)SPGB claim to be scientific socialists, and if by that they mean that they apply to social affairs the scrupulously precise thinking that physical scientists apply to the material world, then they are not entitled to dismiss our criticism on the ground that it is concerned with small points. Physical science has demonstrated, conclusively, that minute discrepancies can be crucial.

Following out our own prescription, we attend closely to the dismissal they offer and find, on examination, that the triviality they ascribe to our arguments is of a particular type. In Steve Coleman’s words (letter in IC[15]) what we put forward is not merely quibbles but logical quibbles. They accuse us, in effect, of intruding bare, abstract, pointless and futile intellectuality into practical politics.

Leaving aside the question whether there is anything very practical about their own politics, we point out that they are not the only group to condemn opponents on these grounds. The non-political people condemn all politics as being (when it is not merely self-interest) a lot of argument over nothing. The conservatives complain that the liberals are so bound to intellectual consistency that they lose essential pragmatic flexibility, the liberals in turn condemn the Labour Party as impractical theoreticians, labour condemns the communists for damaging the socialist movement in their pursuit of a theoretical ideal, and the communists tend to regard the (A-)SPGB as very good on theory but useless in practice. Each movement regards itself as practical and the one beyond it as suffering from an excessive commitment to logic, theory, and intellectuality, the things of which the “Socialist” Party accuses IC.

The converse also holds: each movement regards the one before it as unprincipled, pursuing short-term advantage to the exclusion of the rational consistency which alone can produce an enduring improvement in the human condition. In particular, the (A-)SPGB condemns both the communists and the Labour Party for claiming to be socialist while in practice supporting capitalism. And, in the same way, IC condemns the (A-)SPGB for claiming to he advancing a rational, coherent and logical case while in practice using any argument that seems likely to win an immediate, short-term victory. (For examples, see IC passim and IC versus SP).

The commitment to rationality professed by members of the (A-)SPGB obliges them, if they take it seriously, to move along toward the position held by IC.

Whether, when there, they will be able to provide what their former party likes to call “a solution for social problems” is something they will then decide for themselves. Those who have accepted the commitment to rationality are not permitted to escape from it on the ground that rationality does not seem to be producing the results expected.


Socialists would never claim that the establishment of a society based on common ownership and production for use will see an end to all of the world’s problems. (Socialist Standard, November 1985, p. 205).

One expects it to continue with something about the social problems that will continue in socialism, but not so; it ducks away, saying:

There will still be events over which we cannot possibly have any control – such as earthquakes.

This leaves us still asking: In a socialist society would there be any social problems and, if so, does the party know what they will be?

The Socialist Standard (Nov 85 p. 205) informs us:

The wages system is really a form of institutionalised robbery whereby the rich get rich by paying the wealth producers less than the value of what they produce.

We are told elsewhere in party literature (“Questions of the Day” 1978 p. 5) that what the workers produce does not belong to them. How is it possible to rob people by paying them less than the value of something that doesn’t belong to them?

The Socialist Standard is the official journal of the (A-)SPGB; it uses pictorial covers, and these would provide material for a thesis, one of its themes being the extent to which they are influenced by fashion and technology. For many years they were produced in plain letterpress, like the front page of the Times of the period (and like it, also, in their magnificent dullness). Speaking from memory, the covers were plain white from the beginning in 1904 up to the late 1930s, when a marketing genius managed to convince the Editorial Committee of the, time that the use of colour would bring them the majority they needed, and for a time the covers were printed on a remarkably ugly yellow paper.

Later came pictorial covers. Our favourite among these is the one which proclaims, in the biggest lettering the cover would hold: AGAINST ALL WAR. Inside appeared, as usual, the declaration, in Principle No.8, that the party is “determined to wage war against all other political movements.” That is one of the neater instances of their determination to deny their own statements.

The cover for November 1985 opens wider issues. It shows a Russian (identified by a large hammer-and-sickle badge) performing that remarkable dance in which, from a squatting position, the legs are alternately shot straight forward. Beside this is the bold lettering: “Yes, very clever, Ivan. BUT WHAT ABOUT SOCIALISM?”

What, indeed? The Russian in question (accepting the party’s assumption that he really is a Russian, and not just a model) shows every sign of thoroughly enjoying life under state capitalism. He is smiling, well dressed, well fed, and fit enough to perform antics of which the human body hardly seems capable. There is nothing in the picture which directly shows his class position and it is no good looking to the party for help on that point (the party assumes that class position can be deduced from appearances while maintaining that this cannot be done). But the numerical chances are strongly in favour of his being a worker. If so, he is not the sort of worker the party talks about. There is nothing here of that starving misery beloved of the Socialist Standard. If this man is being oppressed and exploited he seems to be heartily enjoying it.

The (A-)SPGB assert, endlessly, that the workers are miserable, unhealthy, underfed, oppressed and exploited. They maintain that these things are equally true of Russian workers. But, so far as a picture of one person can have any bearing on the matter, the picture they have selected for their own journal gives them the lie.

The Socialist Standard of July 1984 says, of some claims made by the government:

These are obviously examples of manipulating statistics, viewing movements from a base figure which is convenient so that changes always seem to be as you want them.

The remark suggests disapproval of the practice; one would not expect, after reading it, to find the Socialist Party themselves doing what they accuse the government of doing. But our merry “socialist” friends are chock full of surprises.

The same issue of the SS includes a “Funds Appeal” which tells us: “Socialist activity is expanding; so is membership.” That was in 1984, and in December of that year the party claimed a membership between 600 and 700, an increase of nearly 100 from 1982 (letter from Steve Coleman in IC[15]). If the figure for 1980 be taken as the baseline their claim that membership was. expanding was justified. But Robert Barltrop’s history of the party, The Monument, gives the membership in 1949 as 1,100, so if that be taken as the baseline the party has shrunk.

In order to claim that its membership is expanding the “Socialist” Party has to do what it accuses the government of doing. It has to view the movement from abase figure which is convenient, so that changes seem to be as it wants them.

What was that bit again, about “manipulating statistics”?

When the (A-) SPGB declares that the capitalists own all or most of the wealth, at what capital value is it reckoning the labour-power which, it asserts, is owned by the workers?

The last time we explained the grounds for regarding the “Socialist” Party as anarcho-socialists was in IC14. The matter is important enough to stand re-stating.

If this party be accepted at their own valuation they are quite independent of any other political movement; they declare themselves “determined to wage war against all other political parties.” It is clear enough that they are distinct both from the right wing and from the Labour Party. And, since they deny that Russia is a socialist country and repudiate support from all except those who understand and accept their case, we can also take it they are distinct from the communist movement. But whether their movement is in any similar sense distinct from anarchism is more doubtful.

When the question comes up in discussion members of the party deny that there is any substantial identity between their own movement and anarchism and they name two major grounds of distinction. First, that they propose to work through Parliament and the anarchists do not. Second, that socialists are united in their common pursuit of socialism as defined in the Object and Declaration of Principles, while anarchists are free to select their own objectives.

The anarchists (or most of them) reject parliamentary action on the ground that it entails a commitment to reformism, they maintain that if the “Socialist” Party is parliamentarian then it is ipso facto reformist. The party, on the other hand, denies that its support of parliamentary methods commits it to reformism, insisting that its purpose is to effect a revolution by means of Parliament; if the achievement of the socialist revolution (as envisaged by the party) can be pinned down to one act it would be the abolition of the bourgeois state and Parliament with it by an act of Parliament.

Both anarchism and the “Socialist” Party see the desirable society as stateless. Both deny that any transition period would be necessary, holding that the material conditions for the necessary revolution are already present.

For anarchists, Parliament is a part of the state apparatus which is delaying the revolution; for the party also it is a part of the state apparatus, but a part that can be used to effect the revolution. For anarchists the demolition of the state (and of Parliament with it) would constitute the establishment of anarchism. For the party the establishment of socialism by an act of Parliament would constitute the abolition of the state and of Parliament with it. The one movement would abolish Parliament immediately before the revolution, the other immediately after it – and they agree that the revolution would be an act rather than a process; in principle at least it would not require time. Their respective attitudes towards Parliament do not establish a substantial difference between them.

The second major difference the Socialist Party believe to exist between themselves and the anarchists is that socialists are united in acceptance of the definition of socialism laid down in the Object and Declaration of Principles of their party while anarchists are free to formulate their objectives for themselves.

The belief that their Object and Declaration of Principles include a definition of socialism is a delusion from which members of the party suffer. Taking the eight clauses of the Declaration first, these do not include any attempt at a definition. They are almost entirely taken up with capitalism and the way to get rid of it; they do not mention the word “socialism,” and the nearest they come to providing any definition of it is to urge the workers of this country to muster under the party’s banner “that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.” Worthy aspirations, but not by any means a definition of socialism.

When asked for a definition of socialism the party points to its Object:

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

But this is no definition at all. It says what socialism would be based on, but makes no attempt to say what it is other than “a system of society” – which does not distinguish it from capitalism. It does not even specify that socialism would be politically democratic, saying only that the means of production would be democratically controlled. It can certainly be argued, and the party do argue, that this would entail political democracy, but that argument depends upon a particular theory of the nature, structure and development of society, a theory not set out in either the Object or the Declaration. So far as these go the members of the “Socialist” Party are not committed to any specific view of the nature, structure or functioning of socialism. The Object and Principles do not define socialism at all, only the base upon which it is to rest, and upon any base different superstructures can be erected. In their pamphlet “Questions of the Day” the party confirm this, explaining that the people living in a socialist society will be “free to run social affairs as they think fit.” If that is so, then evidently the base does not determine the superstructure; if it did, the people would not be free to run the society as they thought fit.

The definition of socialism has to be left to the people living in a socialist society; people, even socialist people, living under capitalism can only speculate about what socialism might be like. Members of the party are just as free as the anarchists to form their own ideas about the sort of society they are trying to establish. The party themselves tell us this is so; in their “Reply” in IC versus SP they speak of “several outline sketches of socialist production and distribution” circulating within the party. In this respect also party members are in the same position as the anarchists.

There are two things that hold the party together. The first is emotional identification, a common vision of themselves as socialists and revolutionaries; the anarchists also possess this type of unity. The second is their common acceptance of certain assumptions. They are unaware of this, believing themselves to hold only ideas which have been consciously adopted and precisely formulated, but it is their assumptions that incline them to adopt the particular ideas they hold. Prominent among them are the assumptions of political individualism and economic collectivism, and these the party hold in common with the anarchists.

There is, in fact, no substantial difference between the “Socialist” Party of Great Britain and the common-ownership anarchist movement. It is for this reason we have re-christened it the (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain.

from Ideological Commentary 23, July 1986.