George Walford: The (Anarcho-)Socialist Party of Great Britain (38)

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. Whenever IC notices a meeting of the Party several copies are sent to the branch holding it.

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.

This party set out in 1904 to get a majority for ‘socialism.’ During the 84 years since then the world population has increased by thousands of millions while the number of ‘socialists’ remains in the hundreds – not hundreds of millions but hundreds of people. They have farther to go to reach their majority than when they started. They believe they are making progress.

This is from the Party pamphlet Women and Socialism, published in June 1986. It is speaking of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, for which he drew heavily on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society:

Engels compounded the errors in Morgan’s work by adding some of his own unfounded assumptions about women, most notably about the nature of women’s sexuality. The result is a work that does not stand up to anthropological scrutiny.

This next quotation is from a single sheet issued by the Camden and North West London Branch in January, 1988, eighteen months after that pamphlet had appeared:

Frederick Engels… produced that classic of Marxian sociology, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

IC32 (March 1988) [#33 May 1988] printed a letter from Frank Tutnauer drawing the attention of the branch to the pamphlet and that issue, like all others, was circulated to all branches of the Party. No correction seems to have been issued; certainly they have not told IC of one. So we have a branch of the Party describing as a classic of Marxian sociology a book which the Editorial Committee of the Party condemns as not standing up to anthropological scrutiny. Twelve months after their attention was drawn to the conflict nothing has been done to resolve it.

It is perhaps not for IC to decide whether it is the branch or the Editorial Committee trying to mislead the working class, but it does seem that one of them must be doing so.

Since its foundation in 1904 the Party has printed in almost every one of its publications its Object and Declaration of Principles. In every issue of the SOCIALIST STANDARD since July 1987 there has also appeared, on the inside front cover, a page of text headed “About Socialism” which has not varied. (Except for deletion of the original description of it as an introductory leaflet). There can of course be no objection to the Party’s issuing statements of what it likes to call its case in addition to the original Principles. No objection at all, provided the extra statement agrees with the Principles. Can this be said of “About Socialism”” Let us see.

Principle No. 1 declares “That Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living … by the capitalist or master class…” This assertion has disappeared from “About Socialism”; the nearest approximation to it to be found there is the statement that “the means of production and distribution… are monopolized by a minority, the capitalist class.” (Emphasis added).

The difference may appear to be slight; if the capitalists control the means of production, does it matter whether this control rests on ownership or not? When considering the Principles of this party it matters a great deal. They claim to be materialists, by which they mean that economic activity is fundamental to political and in the last analysis determines it, rather than vice versa. Principle No. 1, in asserting present society to be based upon the ownership of the means of living by one class, holds to this; ownership is an economic factor. But a statement about monopoly does not have the same explicitness. A monopoly may be based on ownership but it may equally well be based upon political power.

Since October 1917 every movement claiming to be communist or socialist has been bedevilled by the question whether the USSR is or is not a socialist state. The SPGB have been emphatic from the first that it was not, but the arrangements in this sixth part of the world have made it difficult for them to maintain that there, also, society was based upon ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class. Their pamphlet “Russia 1917-67” (Preface dated 1967), instead of holding whole-heartedly to the “ownership” line, fudges the issue:

In Russia the ownership of the privileged minority is generally not given formal legal backing, but, as in Britain, they maintain their monopoly through control over the machinery of government. They occupy the top posts in the party, government, industry and the armed forces. Their ownership of the means of production is not individual but collective; they own as a class. (p. 28)

If the Russian rulers maintain their monopoly of the means of production and distribution through control of the machinery of government then their economic power rests upon their political power rather than vice versa. The passage still maintains that the Russian rulers (as a class) own the means of production but it does not attempt to base their control upon that ownership. Indeed, it goes farther, saying that not only in Russia but in Britain also, the monopoly rests upon control of the machinery of governement – that is, economic power rests upon political, the political rather than the economic is fundamental.

In 1986 there was issued a written debate entitled IC versus SP; it included this passage:

The Party tell us that present society includes political control by the capitalists [Questions of the Day, 1969, p. 21]. They also say, in their Declaration of Principles, that present society is based upon capitalist ownership of the means of production. So the capitalists’ political control (being a part of present society) is based upon their ownership of the means of production. Political power is based upon ownership.

All right so far; the terms are clumsy, but there’s nothing confused about it. But what else do the Party say?

Speaking of the capitalist class they say: ‘Their ownership and control of industry rests on their control of political power through their political parties. [Op.cit. p. 13] And just to prove that really is what they mean, they repeat it: ‘The capitalist monopoly of the means of production rests upon their control of political power.’ [Op.cit. p. 52] Ownership rests on political power.

So the political power is based on the ownership which rests on the political power. That is what the Socialist Party are saying. That is their scientific analysis of present society. The political power is based on the ownership which rests on the political power.

Makes you dizzy, doesn’t it? When you start thinking about this sort of stuff you have to be careful, otherwise you find yourself thinking it’s your own fault you can’t make sense of it. Or you think the critic drawing attention to it must have got it wrong. But it is a confusion created by the Socialist Party.

“About Socialism” does nothing to reduce this confusion. There will doubtless be more to say about it in future, but for the present one more point will have to suffice.

In Principle No. 8 the Party declares itself “determined to wage war against all other political parties”, but “About Socialism” says only that “It is a political party, separate from all others.” This is a significant step back from the original combativeness, and may well be read as amounting to a repudiation of it, since it is hardly possible to wage war against anybody while remaining separate from them. This impression is strengthened when reading Principle No. 6, with its bold statement of the intention to use the armed forces of the nation in the overthrow of privilege, and observing that armed force receives not even a mention in “About Socialism.”

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VOLUME ONE NUMBER TWO: SAMIZDAT No. 2 has now appeared. Evidently the designer did intend that “pinko.” No.2 has a pale blue rectangle, so when the two are put together political balance is achieved. Also, and perhaps more important, the new issue gains cohesion by taking the media as its theme; the journal is acquiring direction.

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.