George Walford: The (Anarcho-)Socialist Party of Great Britain (31)

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.

THIS LETTER has been sent to the Secretary of the (A-)SPGB; any reply will be reported:

26 Nov 1987

Dear Secretary,

You will see that IC30 (copy enclosed) contains comments on the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its case. Other comments, mostly critical, have appeared in previous issues, each of them sent to all branches of the Party, and each undertaking to print any reply authenticated by the Party or a branch. (A limit of 1,000 words is specified, but that is negotiable). Neither the Party nor any branch has made any reply.

Since the Party is well known for its eagerness to debate, and indeed announces this in its official journal, the Socialist Standard, this silence is puzzling.

In the interests of open discussion, and in order to make sure that neither the Party nor its branches are deprived of an opportunity to answer our attacks by not having heard of them, we should like to advertise IC, and its campaign against the Party, in the Socialist Standard. We appreciate that you have expenses to meet and shall be glad to pay at a commercial rate. Would you please let us know your charge for a quarter-page, both for separate insertions and for a series? (Also your deadlines).

We shall be glad to make available to you, without charge, a quarter-page in IC each time we insert one in the Standard.

Yours etc.

We have received a number of complaints, from individual members or supporters of the (A-)SPGB, of the strength of language used by Harold Walsby, particularly in the article reprinted in IC29. (Nothing has come from the Party attempting to refute his arguments.) To read them you would think this party was itself scrupulous in preserving the decencies of debate, but they hit quite as hard as Walsby ever did, and without the hint of jokiness clinging to his missiles. Here is a selection of the terms they have used:

parasite, two-faced, lacks intellectual honesty, barefaced hypocrisy, simple- minded, childish, tirade, bluster, pseuds, hysterical, elitism, obvious error, naivety, foolishness, dishonesty, confusion, political arrogance, talking nonsense, ignorance, complacent self-satisfaction, empiricism and irrationality. (They missed out theft, murder, mayhem and mopery).

In their Principle No. 8 the Party declare their determination “to wage war against all other political parties”; they do not confine their aggression to parties, and they use strong language as a weapon. But when these gallant warriors find themselves under attack they decide they are really pacifists after all; they discover the value of a calm, rational, courteous exchange of ideas.

The so-called Socialist Party has not taken advantage of the opportunity, regularly offered, to defend itself in IC. But we do have the pleasure of frequent contact with individual members, and they ask why we persist in bothering their party. Why don’t we go away?

One reason is that we enjoy the company of members, both in person and by way of correspondence. Another is more serious. We believe the Party to be attempting to mislead the working class, and we have the example of their own behaviour towards the Labour and Communist parties to convince us that if you believe an organisation to be doing that you must oppose it to the best of your ability.

But we have to admit to yet another motive, and a less worthy one: the Party makes such a tempting target. It is big
(compared with IC), has been stuck in the same position for eighty-four years, and is reluctant to defend itself. A swipe at it helps to relieve the inhibitions that have to be accepted when dealing with more difficult subjects.

We can report with pleasure that our efforts have not been completely fruitless. Admittedly one has to look closely to see any results, but they are there. It used to be routine to accuse us of saying that “socialism” is impossible and that the workers are too stupid to understand the Party’s arguments. Now these charges are more rarely heard. Having got them starting to listen to what we really are saying we shall keep slogging on in the hope of getting them to take the next step: listening critically to what their own party says. That is the big one, because once you start to take the Party “case” seriously you begin to see what is wrong with it.

Since its foundation the (A-)SPGB has been telling the workers they have to choose between the systems which it likes to call capitalism and socialism. The decision of the overwhelming majority, both of the electorate and also of the working class (delivered through its typical representatives, the many thousands of workers who have heard or read the Party case), has been unvaryingly in favour of capitalism. This receives confirmation each time the Party puts up a candidate for Parliament; it has always lost its deposit. The other parties also put proposals forward and sometimes have them rejected. When this happens each of them, from Tory to Communist, accepts the decision. It cooperates in helping to make the chosen alternative work as well as possible while continuing to propagate its own ideas. That is the democratic response, the minority accepting the decision of the majority while working to gain support for its own proposals.

The (A-)SPGB behave differently; they do not accept the majority decision. As a party they reject the system chosen by the majority and refuse to take part in its operation. They condemn the Labour and Communist parties for helping to operate it. It is as if one of their own branches, having had a motion rejected at the annual Conference, were to refuse to take any further part in party activities until its proposal had been accepted.

When the (Anarcho-)Socialist Party of Great Britain claim to be democratic they are using the word in a sense of their own. In its usual meaning they are undemocratic, and by omitting to make the distinction clear they are attempting to mislead the workers.

The tiny group (some 600 in a country of 50-odd million) who trick themselves out in the resounding (and misleading) title Socialist Party of Great Britain, have begun to go even beyond that, claiming that they, with a few similar groups abroad, constitute the World Socialist Movement. They make no attempt to present themselves as matching up to these verbal splendours. On the contrary, they emphasise their smallness and isolation, insisting on the absence of connection between themselves and any other firm trading under the name of socialism. Their smallness they ascribe to hostility from the capitalists, who will not allow them free access to the media to make their case publicly known. Capitalism, they say, can tolerate all other movements. Communism, Trotskyism, labourism, conservationism, the ecology movement and all Marxisms other than their own (they are a bit undecided about anarchism) offer nothing but variations on the theme of exploitation and this is why they flourish; capitalism has nothing to fear from them.

You see what follows? If their being true socialists is what keeps them small, then their smallness becomes evidence of their truth. This carries the consequence that any substantial growth would call the validity of their doctrine in question, discouraging potential members.

The smallness of the Party, and its consequent inability to do anything useful about the social problems it goes on about, might be thought to render it vulnerable, but things don’t work out like that. On the contrary; its helplessness provides its members with immunity from criticism. Consider, for example, the remark by their speaker Clifford Slapper, that the reformers who managed to get corporal punishment banned in British schools took long time about it. No such criticism can be levelled at the Party. It cannot be charged with having taken a long time to improve the condition of school-children since it has never improved it at all. If you don’t achieve anything your achievements can’t be criticised.

So long as the Party remains small enough to exercise no practical influence it can maintain its position of intellectual superiority, criticising the achievements of all other parties while offering no hostages to criticism itself. Were it to grow large enough so that changes in social practice could be ascribed to its influence, then it could no longer offer its members and supporters the immunity they now enjoy and would lose its attraction for them. It has built-in negative feedback, its growth is self-limiting.

Systematic ideology deals as yet only in relative magnitudes (and may always do so; that is one of the many things we don’t yet know). We cannot yet provide theory to support any suggestion of one or another maximum number for (A-)SPGB membership. But for the reasonably foreseeable future observation suggests, surprisingly low though this may seem, a figure of around 1,000. We do not maintain that what has been must always be, but we do hold that serious thinking has to take seriously into account what has consistently been, and we apply this to the present question. Over the eighty-four years of its life, while the world population has grown by thousands of millions, through all the changes of war and peace, boom and slump, through the advent of radio, cinema, television and computers, through the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution and the disappearance of the British Empire, under liberal, conservative, labour and national governments, through nationalisation and privatisation, the Party membership has never much exceeded one thousand (it has never reached twelve hundred). This does not prove it never will do so, but it is a weighty piece of evidence against any expectation of a great increase in its size. If the Party claims to have any evidence with which to counter it we shall be glad to hear.

1. “Overwhelmingly it is the working class who perform all the tasks necessary for capitalism to function including organisation, supply of inventions and discoveries, financial operations, administration and so on.” Object and Declaration of Principles; Socialist Principles Explained (SPGB pamphlet) p. 10.
2. “On the other hand investment – the sinking of capital into an industry, buying land, materials, machinery, buildings, labour power in order to make profit – is the exclusive function of the capitalist class.” Socialist Standard (SPGB official journal) Jan 1987 p. 239.

For Thursday Dec 3 87 Enfield and Haringey Branch announced an informal discussion on “The Principles of Socialism”. We had visited the branch before, always bringing up in discussion one or more of the principles of what the Party calls socialism, and although modesty forbade the thought that this might have been arranged specially to attract us, we did anticipate being expected. Certainly we anticipated a welcome, for the Socialist Standard announces that visitors are welcome at all meetings, and it does not specify that they must be uncritical. But one face fell noticeably as we entered, and its owner later said that although on this occasion our presence was acceptable, he sometimes felt that his branch had more important things to do than to discuss the sort of question we tend to raise. On asking whether we were being banned from meetings of Haringey and Enfield Branch we were assured this was not so, that only one personal opinion had been expressed. (We shall return to this later).

Discussion turned on two issues, both raised by ourselves. (We repeatedly expressed willingness to shut up and listen if the meeting preferred to discuss other things, but the offers were not taken up). The first was the absence of evidence that “socialism” would be capable of providing conditions within which five thousand million people would be able to maintain themselves. Capitalism, for all its failures, has succeeded in doing this, but “socialism,” never having existed, can provide no evidence of its own capacity for doing so. To this it was replied that the transition to “socialism” would not require destruction of the methods of production developed by capitalism; these would remain available, to be used at first, later improved and perfected.

Replying, we pointed out that capitalism consists not only of material means of production but also of specific relations of production. It needs a working class and a capitalist class. These class relations certainly would be destroyed by the advent of the new system, and since the party has told us repeatedly that capitalism cannot be operated without them, it follows that the capitalist system of production would be destroyed: There is no evidence that “socialism” would suffice as a replacement.

The belief that “socialism” would provide conditions within which the present world population would be able to maintain itself does not rest upon evidence, for this system has never existed. It is the outcome of reasoning, and the whole history of science goes to show that essential as reasoning is, by itself it is not capable of reliable prediction; observation and experiment are also required. The nature of “socialism” makes preliminary observation and experiment impossible; it must, the Party tells us, be installed without any transition period and it must be installed world-wide; anything less than that is not “socialism.” The lives of five thousand million people are to be made dependent upon a system whose installation entails destruction of the productive relations on which they had previously depended, a system which cannot be tested in advance. Our conclusion is that the people who seriously recommend this are following out abstract arguments without trying to envisage the concrete consequences of their proposals.

The other principal subject discussed was democracy. The normal conception of democratic behaviour requires that the supporters of a proposal which gets voted down should thereafter co-operate with the majority in operating the chosen system while trying to gain greater support for their own proposals. All other political parties do this. When the Labour Party, for instance, has its proposals (for what the (A-)SPGB like to call state capitalism) rejected at a general election it continues (as the Party keeps telling us) to operate the existing form of capitalism, hoping to da better next time.

The (A-)SPGB follows this pattern in its internal affairs, but not in general politics. Turned down in a general election it refuses to help in operating the system preferred by the majority, scorning the parties which do help to operate capitalism. It is as though a Branch, having had its motion rejected by Conference, were to refuse to take part in Party affairs until it had been accepted.

The reply to this was that the Party does not take part in operating capitalism because it is not a truly democratic system. But this only provides a reason why the Party does not, in relation to capitalism, follow normal democratic procedures, it does not constitute a denial of the fact.

If the Haringey and Enfield Branch were to pass a resolution banning us from their meetings we would co-operate in making the decision effective while trying to get it reversed. That is normal democratic behaviour. The Party does not, in its relations with capitalism, follow this pattern. It says, in effect: “Yes, we will be fully democratic – after we have become a majority.” In claiming to be fully democratic, and not making it clear that they use the word in this very special sense, they are attempting to mislead the workers.

from Ideological Commentary 31, January 1988.