George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (40)

IC undertakes 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 offering to reciprocate. 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.

One of the proudest boasts of this party, a feature that (in their opinion) distinguishes them from all other organisations claiming to be revolutionary, is the absence from their scenario of any transition period between capitalism and the new society.

In communist theory the revolution is to be followed not by communism but by a dictatorship of the proletariat, and in its headiest days the USSR did not claim to have achieved communism but only socialism, “the half-way stage.” The need for such an interim period has been used to justify every muddle and failure in Soviet Russia, and even the horrors of Stalinism; one can see why the (A-)SPGB are so keen to claim that their proposals are different. But we have learnt that when considering any assertion from this source it is well to ask what else they say, and this one is no exception.

Questioners at their meetings frequently draw attention to the difficulty of crossing the gap between present society and the new, suggesting for example that as the growing Party came to present an increasingly active threat the state would use its powers to suppress the movement. To this the standard Party answer is that with a large minority of the working class supporting the (A-)SPGB the state would be unable to suppress it. Questions about difficulties of other kinds meet similar answers; although there may now be a gap, as the number of people accepting the Party arguments increases it will dose; a society containing a large minority of Party supporters would not work in the same way as one in which the domination of capitalism remained virtually unchallenged.

Given the assumption that Party numbers will increase the argument is reasonable. And, given the necessary assumptions, so are the arguments for the absence of a transition period. The difficulties begin, in this instance as in others, when you bring these parts of the Party “case” together, because their account of what will happen as the number of “socialists” increases amounts to saying that there will be a transition period – but before the “socialist” revolution instead of after it.

Islington Branch recently debated, with Michael Ivens from the right-wing organisation Aims of Industry, the question whether the profit system would ever be able to serve the interests of the majority. It was surprising to find a right-wing speaker allowing himself to be trapped in this war, the question takes it for granted that the profit system has not yet served these interests, and for the right wing to accept that is to throw away most of their case.

The Party speaker gave instance after instance of harm done by the profit system; people undernourished or starving, food destroyed, production restricted. The facts – all of them provided by the capitalist press – were valid enough, but they were not to the point. Each of them concerned a minority, while the question for debate spoke of the majority. During this century practically everybody in the world has lived under the profit system and the outcome, after all the starvation, malnutrition, wars, epidemics, accidents and disasters, has been an abundance of human life never known before. For the first time, the number of human beings threatens to overwhelm the resources of the planet, and although this raises new difficulties, it is incontrovertible evidence that the profit system is not only capable of serving the interests of the majority but has in fact been doing so. Under this system more people live longer lives than ever before.

A conservative member of Brent Council recently debated with the Party; the announced subject of debate hardly matters since most of the meeting was spent arguing about the meaning of “socialism.” The councillor took it to mean something close to what the Labour Party stands for and one can understand that in Brent, perhaps more than elsewhere, this arouses not merely opposition but resentment. When the (A-)SPGB speaker announced that his party were quite as much opposed to the Labour Party as to conservatism, that they could in fact see little to choose between the two, the conservative and his supporters found’ themselves off balance; they had taken a mighty swipe at an opponent who wasn’t there.

For the confusion at thii meeting, and at many others they have held over the years, the “Socialist” Party of Great Britain carry full responsibility; they have created it by using a fnmiliar term in an unusual sense.

The issue is not one of morals, or even of linguistics, but of convenience and clear thinking. We are all entitled to use words as we choose; in this way language kept flexible and adapted to new developments. In departing from generally accepted usage, however, we risk being misunderstood; anybody seeking to convey a message to a wide audience is well advised to use words as far as possible in their standard meanings. The Party seeks world-wide majority support for its ideas, and the richness of the English language already provides an accurate title for its enterprise.

The (A-)SPGB stands for common ownership of the means of production, and this earns it the title of socialist. It also possesses another feature of comparable importance, one distinguishing it from other socialist movements. In its favoured society there would be no government, and a society without government (and not ruled by custom and convention) is an anarchy. This organisation is socialist, yes, but of a special sort. Its repudiation of government marks it as anarchist socialist, or anarcho-socialist. By revising its title accordingly it will spare its audiences much frustration and itself much wasted effort. (It will also enable IC to remove the brackets when speaking of the [A- ]SPGB).

from Ideological Commentary 40, July 1989.