George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (30)

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The little group who call themselves the Socialist Party tell us they have no leaders, and this may well be so; after all, if you’re not going anywhere you don’t need a leader. But they are all followers. They follow each other like Fabre’s caterpillars, nose to tail round the rim of a flowerpot.

They follow each other in saying that the Object of the Party gives a definition of socialism when anybody thinking for themselves can see it does nothing of the sort. This is how their Object reads:

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 interest of the whole community.

It says two things. First, that the Party aims to establish a system of society. This does not distinguish socialism from capitalism, for that also is a system of society.

Second, it says what this system of society is to be based on. This is no definition either; you haven’t defined a thing when you have said what it is based on. Any basis can support a variety of structures; looking at the foundation of a building won’t tell you whether it is a hospital or a weapons factory.

The Object of the Party does not provide a definition of socialism, and the claim that it does is an attempt to mislead the workers. Fortunately, the only workers to have been misled so far are the tiny minority who believe what the (A-)SPGB tells them.

On Thursday 2 September 1987 we attended a meeting held by Edmonton Branch on the subject “The Socialist Alternative to Labour,” speaker Pat Deutz.

Don’t let that title raise your hopes, the “socialists” are not offering any alternative to work; under “socialism,” they tell us, everybody capable of doing so will work, even those now relieved of that burden. That “Labour” means the Labour Party; they spend almost as much time and effort criticising this organisation as IC spends criticising them. (But IC manages to provoke more response from them, in relation to their size, than they get from Labour).

The speaker followed the beaten track, claiming that no organisation but hers, and particularly not the Labour Party, could properly be described as socialist. We noted one statement verbatim: “The indictment is that the Labour Party misuses the word ‘socialist.'” Her argument was that Marx had given the term its proper definition, and since her party are (with their companion-parties abroad) the only true Marxists, therefore they alone are entitled to call themselves socialists. But this, of course, will satisfy only people who already believe that the (A-)SPGB are entitled to decide which is the proper definition of the word.

When a speaker undertakes to inform a meeting of the history and proper use of a word one may reasonably expect to be given its original meaning, together with the date of its introduction. For all that was volunteered in the opening talk at this meeting the audience would have been left believing that “socialism” originated with Marx. Only in response to our question was it added that the word had been introduced in the 1830s as a term for the work and ideas of Robert Owen. Owen appealed for support first to the rulers; he did not maintain, as the (A-)SPGB do, that socialism can only be established by the working class, and this knocks the bottom out of the attempt by these anarcho- socialists to appropriate this honourable term for their own exclusive benefit. It was in use, to describe a system very different from theirs, some seventy years before they appeared and several years before the earliest date they themselves claim for the origin of their theory.

If they wish to describe themselves by the term they are entitled to do so. Language is totally democratic, all words are common property and a great many of them carry two or more meanings; it is up to the person or group wishing to use a term in a new sense to get their meaning generally accepted. But, by the same token, nobody is entitled (or in fact able) to deny the use of any word to others in any meaning they choose to give it. So far the Party have failed to get their use of “socialism” accepted far beyond their own narrow borders. The main result of their refusal to describe themselves by the more accurate title of “anarcho-socialists” has been to land them with the constant task of distinguishing between their use of “socialist” and that of the Labour Party.

In responding to our questions the speaker seemed to be saying both that “socialism” could properly be used for systems of ideas other than those of the (A-)SPGB – the ideas of Robert Owen for example – and that only the (A-)SPGB is entitled to call itself socialist. A copy sent, c/o her of this issue of IC is being branch, and we very much hope she will write in clarifying the issue.

Later in the meeting, after the speaker had given the usual radiant account of the beauties and blessings that will accompany “socialism,” the question was raised: Can the speaker offer any direct, observational, empirical or experimental evidence that this system would in fact produce the effects claimed for it? On that one we went round the house till the audience were getting fed up, the speaker not producing any evidence but refusing to admit that there was none.

The Party claims that “socialism” has never existed, anywhere, ever. Agreeing with them on that, we assert that therefore they cannot have any direct evidence that it would be capable of meeting any human needs at all. We invide them to show we are wrong.

On Friday 10 September 1987 we attended a meeting held by Islington Branch, on the subject: “Schools – Who Needs Them?”, speaker Clifford Slapper. The talk was mainly a list of things said to be wrong with capitalist education, some from the speaker’s experience – he is himself a teacher – but most, as usual, from the capitalist press. There was much about corporal punishment, the speaker complaining that it had taken almost a hundred years, from the introduction in Britain of universal compulsory education, to get this banned. He gave this as an example of the limitations of reformist methods, seeing no significance in the fact that the (A-)SPGB, with all its bold revolutionary talk, has been utterly unable to do anything whatever about corporal punishment – or any other social problem either.

Altogether an interesting evening and probably harmless, provided nobody took seriously what the speaker had to say about education in a “socialist” society. If anybody did, then the speaker becomes liable to a charge of misleading the workers, since he had no ground for his statements. “Socialism,” the Party tells us, has never existed; they do not know how its educational system or anything else would be run. In their own words, in a “socialist” society: “All human beings will be social equals, free to run social affairs as they think fit” (“Questions of the Day”, 1969, p.5). That is to say, they would be free to run their educational system in ways quite different from those anticipated by the speaker.

THE CLAIM of the (A-)SPGB to be the only Marxist party is perhaps acceptable, bearing in mind Marx’ statement that he was no Marxist.

They tell us that in capitalism production is carried on for profit, while in a socialist society it would be carried on for use. The sharpness of the contrast drawn is false, for to make a profit out of anything is to make use of it. Their meaning would be more accurately expressed by saying that production should be carried on only for the uses they approve.

from Ideological Commentary 30, November 1987.