George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (32)

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IC31 gave the text of a letter sent on 26 November 1987 to the Secretary of the Party, asking for the terms on which they would accept paid notices for the SOCIALIST STANDARD drawing the attention of their members to IC‘s comments on the Party and its case. The letter offered them a free quarter-page in IC for each one inserted, paid, in the STANDARD. So far (4 Feb 88) no reply has been received, and this has to be borne in mind when reading their complaints that their capitalist opponents refuse them free access to the media.

The Party assure us that “socialism” offers a solution to social problems and, like so much else they say, this sounds fine until you begin to think about it. Then you realise that most of the worst problems facing us arise from the solutions to previous social problems. Nuclear weaponry results from solutions to problems in particle physics, destruction of the environment from solutions to problems of technology, population pressure from solutions to problems in medicine and public health. Do we really want still more solutions? (It is a point Austin Meredith made in IC31, when recommending dawdling as an alternative more viable than pressing ahead).

On Sunday 24 January 1988 we attended a meeting, organised by the Camden and North West London Branches, at which J. D’Arcy spoke on “Theories of Ancient Society; Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels,” basing himself closely on Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1881), and Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877). He claimed, on the authority of these two works, that the societies which preceded the introduction of agriculture enjoyed primitive communism with group marriage.

Most of the work on the hunter gatherers has been done since the 1920s, so we asked why the speaker had chosen to discuss theories formulated over a century ago and to do so without making any reference to later investigations. The reply was lengthy and we did not find it clear; it seemed to amount to saying that Morgan’s work had been ignored. It included a mention of Eleanor Leacock, an anthropologist, who was claimed to support what had been said. Having gone armed, we were able to quote in reply a statement by Richard Lee, joint editor with Leacock of Politics and History in Band Societies (1982) that the communism found among foraging peoples:

does not extend, as far as we know, to include the institution of “group marriage” as Engels, following Morgan, (1877) originally believed.

Lee finds himself obliged to dismiss Engels’ ideas on group marriage even though he and Leacock both favour Marxist views, and we do not know of any recent work supporting Engels on this.

Leacock and Lee support the view that foraging societies exhibit primitive communism, but the evidence (including that presented in their own Politics and History in Band Societies) provides little support for it. Elman R.Service, in The Hunters (1966) calls it a superficial view which on closer examination proves to be mistaken, and Graham Clarke, in Mesolithic Prelude (1983) goes so far as to call it an illusion produced by Victorian pseudo-anthropology.

The concept of common ownership, which lies at the heart of both communism and what the (A-)SPGB like to call socialism, concerns not personal effects but the means of production; it is, the Marxists maintain, from private ownership of these that the problems of modern society arise; when they ascribe primitive communism to the foragers they are crediting them with common ownership of their means of production. This is not so much wrong as not applicable, for these people did not produce their own means of subsistence and, accordingly, can hardly be said to have possessed, either communally or privately, any means of production.

They made and possessed tools, weapons, clothes, dwellings and sometimes canoes or the equivalents, but these things were means of living, of gathering, of hunting, of fishing, activities which do not constitute production. The possessions of the foragers did not serve the function of the factory, the plough or the hoe, but rather that of the twig stripped of its leaves that a chimpanzee may use to “fish” for termites. To speak of the earliest human communities in terms of production is to remain blind to one of the principal features distinguishing them from the societies which were to follow: that they lived not by producing but by collecting what grew naturally. Information on the way the early peoples lived comes mainly from study of foragers of modern times, and among them tools, weapons, dwellings and clothes were all privately owned. There was often an obligation to share food with people from whom reciprocation (either ‘balanced’ or ‘general’) might be expected. Trees bearing favourite crops were often reserved to one family, and even the territory over which they ranged was largely restricted to members of one band.

The early hunter-gatherer communities did take part in the development of systems, of ownership, but in order to appreciate their contribution we need to look at them in their developmental context for, slowly though they changed, they yet formed one stage in the evolution of society. The preceding stage was the animal world, in which systems of ownership are hardly an issue, and the succeeding one a society in which private ownership was well developed. The foragers came between these two, and we suggest that what they had is best described as the beginnings of private ownership.

Much the same applies when we consider them in relation to government and the state. Murray Bookchin has put it vigorously:

The Paleolithic shaman, regaled in reindeer skins and horns, is the predecessor of the Pharaoh, the institutionalised Buddha, and, in more recent times, a Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini. (“Social Ecology versus ‘Deep Ecology'” in The Raven, Anarchist Quarterly, Volume I No. 3, November 1987, p. 229).

Although only slightly institutionalised their communities were more so than the animal flocks, herds and so on that preceded them. As the foragers were in the early stages of private ownership so also they were in process of developing the state.

The reason why this party, in thinking about ancient society, prefers to confine itself to Morgan and Engels, now becomes clear; in the work of these pioneers they find support for their theories that has been largely withdrawn as later investigators have come to know more ahout the subject. (One thing we did gain from the meeting; the speaker remarked that in Morgan’s time the term “anthropology” had not been invented, and as far as we knew this was so, but on checking afterwards we found SOED dating the first use of this term, to mean “the science of man, or of mankind, in the widest sense” as 1593).

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At the Islington Branch meeting of 14 January 1988 a questioner, asking about the number of “socialists,” was slapped down by the speaker for ‘playing the numbers game.’ We objected, saying that you can’t announce, as the Party does, that you need a majority and also claim that the numbers don’t matter.

We were wrong. You obviously can do this, indeed the speaker had just done it. What we should have said was that you can’t do this and expect reasonable people to take you seriously.

This party claims to represent the interests of the vast majority. After working for 84 years in a country which now has some fifty million people, it has about 600 members, and there is no reason to expect rapid growth or to think that its companion-parties abroad are doing any better. As the years and the decades go by it becomes increasingly hard to resist the conclusion that there must be something wrong with its theories.

Support for this conclusion appeared at a meeting, organised by South West London Branch, held at the Party Headquarters and addressed by Peter Lawrence, on Monday 25 January 1988. The talk was entitled “Reform or Revolution.” As usual with this party, it was carefully prepared, well delivered, and packed solid with information about capitalism. Its theme was that capitalism, in spite of all the efforts of the reformers, is not capable of solving social problems. This assertion, that capitalism is incapable of solving social problems, is a standard item in the Party repertoire, and its sweeping vagueness may well be one of the reasons for their lack of success. In order to render the proposition precise enough to be testable we have to specify whether it refers to all, some, or none, and on attempting to do this it immediately becomes evident that capitalism does not solve all social problems but does solve some of them.

Discussion after the talk grew quite lively; at times it even seemed about to drop below the very high standards of free speech and toleration which this party almost invariably maintains at its meetings. We were charged with holding values widely different from those of the Party, and the answer to that is the one regularly given, by the finest orator they ever had, each time a heckler accused him of being an agitator: ‘You’re beginning to get the idea, comrade.’ (But we failed to think of it in time).

The argument tended to centre around homelessness. Applying to this the question: all, some or none? we find that although in Britain today tens of thousands are homeless, millions do have homes. The problems of providing homes for the homeless have not been solved, but the problems of providing them for the others have been. Similarly with unemployment. Capitalism solves some problems though not all.

In more general terms, there are five thousand million people now alive, nearly all of them living under capitalism, and if you are alive then quite a lot of your problems have been solved. If the Party were to accept that although capitalism does not solve all social problems it does solve some of them, this would constitute a move from emotive rhetoric to factual statement and bring their arguments a little nearer to the experience of their hearers. They might then find themselves meeting a better reception. It would, of course, mean abandoning their black-or- white stance, admitting that capitalism not only did great things in the past but still possesses valuable features today.

One incidental addition: In IC31 (p. 17) we remarked that the invective hurled against us by this party had not included accusations of theft, murder, mayhem or mopery. At this meeting one of those omissions came close to being rectified, a member of the audience (we don’t know whether he belongs to the Party or not) remarking that it was people like ourselves who used to condemn their opponents to execution.

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from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.