George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (34)

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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 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.

In the SOCIALIST STANDARD for May 1988 Howard Moss reports an encounter between sellers of that journal and supporters of Militant. The experience leads him to ask:

What would happen to [the(A-)SPGB] if Militant… had the whip hand? Would we be tolerated – or silenced – when we continued to oppose all forms of state and private ownership and advocated instead complete common ownership of all the earth’s resources and products?

The (A-)SPGB tell us that ‘socialism’ will be established when a majority understand what it means and vote for it. Sometimes they say an overwhelming majority, but in any case we shall not have to wait for that last Hottentot; a majority will be enough. There will, therefore, be a minority of non-‘socialists’ in the ‘socialist’ society. We ask the (A-)SPGB to answer their own question:

What would happen to the non-‘socialists’ if the ‘socialists’ had the whip hand? Would they be tolerated – or silenced – when they continued to support private ownership? And – more important than verbal support – would they be allowed to practice their chosen way of life, with private ownership, employment and religion, or would they be suppressed under the tyranny of the majority?

We have put this question to several Party members privately, and also raised it at meetings of two branches, without getting an intelligible answer. Will they face up to the issue now they have raised it themselves?

IC26 reported a talk by Harry Young (an accredited Party speaker) and his statement, in reply to a question, that the power of the Russian rulers was politically based; it questioned the compatibility of this with the assertion, in Principle No. 1, that ‘Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist or master class…’

IC27 printed a letter from Mr. Young in which he maintained his position and added that the officials who rule in Russia do so on behalf of their employers, the owners of wealth; in reply we quoted from the Party pamphlet “Russia 1917-67,” which contradicts this, telling us that the Russian rulers themselves own the means of production: ‘Their ownership of the means of production is not individual but collective; they own as a class.’ (p. 28)

The North-West London branch considered the issue worth devoting a meeting to. On 12th May 1988 Adam Buick, another accredited Party representative, maintained against Harry Young that the Russian rulers do, as a class, own the means of production. The meeting did not end in a clear decision in favour of either view.

Mr. Young claimed that, while the Russian rulers are not capitalists (his evidence for this being mainly that they can be sacked) there are private capitalists in Russia. We asked for evidence of their presence but received only more unsupported assertions. It was stated that exotic tropical flowers are sold in Moscow in winter, and that a few Russian women wear expensive fur coats, but this hardly proves the purchasers to be capitalists; many a young English stockbroker owns his Porsche (or did, until October 87), but the Party emphasises that this does not make him a capitalist. It was stated that there are shareholders in Russia, and millions of roubles invested but, again, the Party insists that owning a few shares does not make you a capitalist, and with a population in the hundreds of millions, a few roubles invested by a small percentage. of workers soon amounts to millions. No solid evidence was presented to support the statement that private capitalists exist in Russia.

Mr. Buick maintained that the legal concept of ownership tends to confuse the issue; he held the crucial fact to be that the members of the ‘Nomenklatura‘ (defined by Mr. Young as the promotions-list of the CPSU) constitute the class in effective control and possession of the means of production, whether they have legal ownership or not. He held that they enjoy this control by virtue of their political position, not vice versa.

The SOCIALIST STANDARD (official organ of the Party) adds to the muddle. The issue of June 1988 assures us that in Russia as elsewhere ‘the means of production and distribution… are monopolised by the capitalist class.’ (Our emphasis). It carefully refrains from maintaining the bold assertion, in Principle No. 1, that the means of living are owned by that class.

These disagreements indicate that the Party’s understanding of the USSR is less clear than they would like us to believe. In the Preface to “Russia 1917-67” they speak of ‘the soundness of the attitude adopted [towards the USSR] by the Socialist Party of Great Britain from the outset,’ yet here they, are, having had seventy years to make up their minds, unable to agree among themselves whether the Russian rulers own the means of production. What sort of soundness is this?

Since their attempts to explain events in the USSR in terms of ownership and class have led them into this confusion, we suggest they should examine more carefully than they have yet done, the explanation offered by systematic ideology.

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from Ideological Commentary 34, July 1988.