George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (42)

IC42 Sent In by Reader

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.

They claim that those who reject their ‘case’ have failed to understand it, but in fact there are good reasons for rejection; to accept it is to demonstrate a failure of understanding.

In order to make their case this party have to show two things:

First: That the capitalist class controls this society.
(Because if it doesn’t, there is little to be gained by overthrowing it).

Second: That the capitalist class does not control this society.
(Because if it does, this leaves them with no evidence that the workers are capable of running a society without capitalist control).

One difficulty facing the critic of this party is the risk of getting tangled up in their contradictions; IC40 fell into this trap in trying to sort out whether there would or would not be a transition period between capitalism and ‘socialism.’ Self-contradiction is inherent in the Party case, and according to which side one starts from it follows that there will, or will not, be a transition period. Within the Party case there is no way out of this difficulty, it can be resolved only by moving forward to a different position, a different way of thinking.

In the course of private discussion one of the more thoughtful Party members recently tried to resolve the difficulties surrounding the assertion that ‘socialism’ must be established without a transition period. He suggested that it was no more than a tactical move, intended to distinguish the Party from the communists, who used this concept to excuse the horrors of Stalinism and the absence of communism from the USSR. Of course, he said, there would have to be a transition period, but (for this reason) the Party don’t call it that.

This argument does not stand up. ‘Socialism’ would have, as one of its main features, (the Party says as its base) a system of production and distribution using common ownership and democratic control instead of private ownership and exploitation. The two methods are incompatible, and the Party assures us that the ‘socialist’ one cannot exist in isolated bits; it can only function as one world-wide system. This means there can be no in-between stage either before or after the ‘socialist’ revolution. Neither can there be any dry runs or pilot projects. There has to be a single act of transference, from one world-wide system to another.

The Party point out that if the number of people accepting their views were to be substantial, though short of the required majority, capitalism would not be able to operate as it now does. Granted this very hypothetical increase in numbers, doubtless so, but this period of ‘socialist’ influence upon capitalism would neither hover between the two systems nor spread over both of them. The system of production and the relations of production would still be capitalist ones; those large numbers in agreement with the Party, much as they might resent it, would still be operating capitalism and ‘socialism’ would remain untested.

Under these imaginary conditions there would, doubtless, be a great deal more thinking about the proposed new system, but the whole of human history goes to show that attempts to apply the results of thinking, without test in at least small-scale practice, are apt to produce results that are unexpected and sometimes disastrous. The claim that the Party use a scientific approach, so that their predictions would be reliable, does not help. Science does not rely upon untested thinking but insists on the need for verification by observation or experiment; it is, indeed, largely this feature that distinguishes science from philosophy.

IC does not hold ‘socialism’ to be impossible; only extremely improbable and without any evidence to show it desirable. If it is to come it will have to abolish capitalism and arrive as a whole, at one time and untested. We shall have to plunge in at the deep end, finding out afterwards whether it was water or acid, to swallow the dose whole, finding out afterwards whether it was medicine or poison. Thinking that would gamble the lives of five thousand million people on such a chance hardly deserves further criticism; it condemns itself.

IC to West London Branch, SPGB, 28 Sept:
At the West London Branch meeting on Friday September 22 the Party speaker, replying to the charge that his organisation had made no noticeable progress in over eighty years, said this period was too short to be significant. He had a point; when set against the hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps millions of years, for which humanity has been on the planet, eighty years is nothing much.

But if we are going to disregard a period we must disregard the whole of it, not just one selected feature. If this past eighty years is not to be counted against the Party it must not be counted against capitalism either.

Most of the evidence against capitalism put forward by this speaker on that evening, by other Party speakers on other occasions, and in Party literature, has been drawn from the past eighty years. If these years are to be disregarded then all this evidence goes out with them.

Would the Branch or the speaker care to comment?

The West London Branch to IC, 1 October:
Thank you for your letter of 28th September. Our speaker said, as you state, that in the context of historical development 80 years is an insignificant period of time. He most certainly neither said or implied that it should be disregarded. Therefore the conclusion you draw, on which you ask us to comment, is irrelevant.

IC to the West London Branch, 5 October:
I regret having to contradict the Branch, but the speaker did imply that the past eighty years should be disregarded. He did so by saying, as you confirm, that in the context of historical development this period is insignificant.

The issue raised in my letter is both relevant and significant.

(To October 25, nothing further from the Branch)

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.