George Walford: The Anarcho-Socialists

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is a small organisation which repudiates the gradualism and reformism commonly associated with the term ‘socialist.’ It declares itself ‘determined to wage war against all other political parties,’ but there is one political movement which is not a party and cannot become one. How does the Socialist Party relate to anarchism? (In what follows ‘socialism’ refers to the ideas of the SPGB).

There is one strong similarity between socialism and anarchism: the distinctive feature of anarchism is repudiation of authoritarian government, of the state, and this is found also in socialism. No movement other than these two has elimination of the state as an immediate objective; when communists speak of the ‘withering-away’ of the state it is to take place in the indefinite future, it has little or no effect upon their political actions today. But anarchism derives its very name from this feature, and the Socialist Party also is directly committed to it. As it is put in the Socialist Standard (journal of the SPGB) for October, 1984:

There will be no socialist state. The government over people will give way to the democratically organised administration of things.

The socialists do not explain how they reconcile this firm commitment with their statement that the people living in socialist society will be ‘free to run social affairs as they think fit,’ but let that pass. Agreeing with the anarchists on the abolition of the state they still maintain that they are right and the anarchists wrong, and there are two principal reasons for this attitude. First, the Socialist Party proposes to use Parliament for the establishment of socialism while the anarchists regard Parliament as one of the barriers to be overcome before anarchism can be established. Second, the Socialist Party claims to possess a coherent case on which all socialists are agreed, while the anarchists devise each of them their own theories.

The socialists accept that they are not going to jump to control of Parliament at one election; at the most optimistic view there will be a period when their MPs are in a minority, and during that period they will have to accept authoritarian government. But that period will be a part of capitalism; once they have a parliamentary majority there will be no transition period and no question of using Parliament to govern socialism; the establishment of socialism and the abolition of Parliament would be the same act.

The anarchists do not seek parliamentary representation, they would abolish all government and authority here and now. But they cannot do this, there are not enough of them, and if there ever are enough anarchists to be able to do it then there will be enough of them to establish anarchy. The establishment of anarchy and the abolition of government, Parliament with it, would be the same act.

When this apparent difference between socialism and anarchism, the one pro- and the other anti-parliamentarian, is examined, it proves to be insubstantial; the most that can be said is that socialism would abolish Parliament immediately after the revolution and anarchism immediately before it, and they are agreed that ‘the revolution’ would be an event, not a period. Much the same is true of the other major apparent difference between socialists and anarchists: the anarchists are not as divided, or the socialists as united, as they think themselves to be.

Anarchists are divided into a number of small groups (some claim they can only be spoken of as separate people, not as groups at all) and the differences between these are important to them, sometimes becoming. their prime concern.  But they are all anarchists, they are all committed to the abolition of authoritarian government, and compared with this feature, common to them all, the differences between them are minor.

As the anarchists are less divided than appears, so the Socialist Party are less united than they sometimes claim. To this it may seem a sufficient answer for the party to point out that all prospective members are required to demonstrate their understanding and acceptance of the Object and Declaration of Principles; it may be thought that this establishes the claimed unity among the members. Unfortunately for this argument, the party itself has said that understanding and acceptance of the Object and Declaration is not a sufficient qualification for membership. Speaking of the document applicants are required to sign confirming their understanding and acceptance it has said:

It is more than a formal declaration and applicants must show that they understand the implications of what they sign. (“Socialist Principles Explained,” 1975, p.5, emphasis added).

To understand and accept the Object and Declaration is one thing; to understand their implications is something else. The party has issued the Object and Declaration, and when reprinting them (as it does in every printed item it issues), it holds rigidly to the set wording. But the party has not specified what their implications are; all members are free to work these out for themselves, and in doing so they inevitably follow divergent lines of thought; different members of the Socialist Party, like different anarchists, put forward different arguments.

The Socialist Party agrees with the anarchists that a society meeting human needs would be stateless, and when the principal apparent differences between the party and the anarchists are examined they melt in the hand; socialists and anarchists are not as different as each side likes to think. The difference between them is little more than one of emphasis, they are putting forward substantially the same set of assumptions. Certainly the Socialist Party are closer to the anarchists than to those non-Socialist Party, non-anarchist groups and movements of the left who also call themselves socialist, and if their title is to express this it should change from “socialist” to “anarcho-socialist.”

from Ideological Commentary 14, October 1984.