George Walford: The Effect of Nothing

In our continuing study of the (anarcho-) Socialist Party we have come to see that its case amounts to nothing. Its facts are taken, almost without exception, from the capitalist press, so in putting them forward it is adding nothing to knowledge, and when its arguments are brought together they cancel out; these also amount to nothing. The party has been working since 1904 and its work consists entirely of “putting the case for socialism.” The suggestion, that the case to which so much enthusiasm, effort and sacrifice has been devoted amounts to nothing, must be expected to raise some eyebrows, particularly among party members. Can it be supported?

The party claims that all members understand and accept the case. If this is so and the case does possess content, then the members have a basis for common action. They will not always be in agreement on everything, but on the big issues they will know where they stand: and will be able to act in unison without further discussion. They will not need to argue out every question as it arises but will be able to “read off” some of the answers from their case.

But how do they in fact behave? They pride themselves on being fully democratic, and by this they mean they take no action of importance without a debate and a vote. On every issue of substance (and on many issues that other parties regard as trivial, leaving them to officials to deal with) the members of the (anarcho-) Socialist Party find themselves not united but divided between those who support a proposed line of action and those (often further divided among themselves) who are against it.

They are not able to derive agreed answers from their case; it does not provide them with a useful guide to action. They have to argue out afresh each issue as it arises; this is how the branches and the Executive Committee are occupied at their weekly meetings, this is what the annual Conference does. The party operates as if its members did not hold any substantial body of ideas, any “case,” in common, it behaves as if they were quite independent of one another in their thinking. When a question arises the members are not able to turn to the case which they all accept and find an answer there, they have to thrash it out, and they are able to act as a body only by finding out which is the majority opinion, to which the minority then submit.

If one thinks of their case as substantial such behaviour is incomprehensible, but if one sees it as a set of phrases which on examination turn out to possess no meaning and can therefore provide them with no guidance then their conduct becomes exactly what is to be expected.

from Ideological Commentary 16, January 1985.