George Walford: Tightening the Nuts

A Letter to the Editor.

George Walford in his review (IC 46) of Spanner (Issue No. 1) is misinformed. There is no such thing as a “Spanner group” – at least not in any formal sense of the word – and, consequently, the title of his review of the same organisation from which he implies Spanner purportedly “broke away”: The Socialist Party of Great Britain.

To put the record straight, Spanner is simply a forum for an exchange of ideas primarily about the way to achieve a non-market society. The range of individuals involved in this project is quite diverse. Some are members of the SPGB, some are ex-members of the SPGB and some have never had any connection with the SPGB whatsoever. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of readers fall into this last category as well as a growing proportion of contributors. Maybe, in due course a formal structure might emerge though there are strong grounds for opposing such a move.

One realises that the prospect of a pluralistic socialist politics rather upsets the neat symmetry of Walford’s hypothesis – i.e,. that “so long as the Spanner group (sic) continue to aim at ‘socialism’ conceiving of it as a system exclusively of common ownership with its members politically and intellectually autonomous, they will be driven towards the rigidity and dismissiveness characteristic of the Party.” But perhaps it is he who is being rather dismissive and rigid here. By the way, it should be pointed out that it is quite untrue that all those involved in the Spanner project envisage socialism exclusively, in terms of a system of common ownership. Some of us, at least, see an important role for productive relationships that cannot meaningfully be said to be grounded in common ownership of the means of wealth production. Hence the reference in Issue No. 1 to the concept of a “Gift Economy.” Hence also the reference in our letterhead to common ownership of the vital means of wealth production (leaving open the question of what would happen to “non vital” means of wealth production).

Next, George Walford avers that he can find nothing to really substantiate Spanner‘s claim to be a “New Journal for New Thinking.” One might retort that such a subtitle is intended to be more prescriptive than descriptive (though it is the nature of a forum that one cannot impose, but one can certainly invite, “new thinking”). Spanner does not claim that the ideas it contains are necessarily new in themselves. The novelty hoped for lies in the direction of its thinking, in the emphasis given to certain ideas.

All the same, one is inclined to think that Walford is a little too gung-ho in his criticism. For example, he says that his “strengthening impression of an intimate connection between Spanner and the party hardened into conviction on reading the definition of socialism (given in the Debate Forum, The Road to Socialism).” Granted that this definition is similar to that used by the Party, what is so astounding about this statement is that George Walford utterly fails to grasp the significance of this document as a radical departure from the traditional Party approach on how to achieve socialism. In its renunciation of the Big Bang theory it is quite clearly at variance with the views of the conservative and neo-conservative wings of the Party which constitute the great majority of party members. That is why the ideas contained in the document were vigorously rejected by the Party in the late 80s at its annual conference.

Where Walford does deal with these ideas in another context he shows himself to have far more in common with the Party, or rather its conservative majority, than he possibly realises. This is evident in his attack on Gareth Thomas’ reference to the development of “socialistic” activities which progressively help to make the idea of socialism more acceptable in the absence of any direct evidence of “socialism in action.” This gradualist (which is not the same as reformist) approach to the evolution of social relationships prefiguring socialism itself, suggests that these relationships will incresmingly take on the quality of those what will exist in socialism as the latter becomes more imminent. For example, the market economy may well be increasingly circumvented as writers like Andre Gorz have suggested. Direct production for use, albeit still partly dependent on the market for inputs etc, may become more widespread due to the expanding realm of mutual aid. Yet, disappointingly, the only conclusion which Walford can draw from all this is that if such activities are “not in the full sense socialist, if they do not constitute a socialist system, they can provide no evidence for the practicality of full socialism.” No evidence? Not even partial or indirect evidence? This is typical of the black-or-white thinking which he so often accuses the Party of engaging in.

It would seem that George Walford simply cannot bring himself to acknowledge the possibility that socialists can differ significantly among themselves even in respect of the very nature of socialism itself. It may be that, such is his tunnel vision fixation with the Party, he cannot do otherwise.

Editors, Spanner

Reply from George Walford
This letter does not consist entirely of agreement presented as if it were contradiction, it also contains a little argument; this can be quickly dealt with.

The Spanner editors speak of people involved with the project and that involvement constitutes these people a group. The issue of formality is a red herring introduced by the editors.

The editors cannot, sensibly, both object to my calling Spanner a breakaway and accuse me of failing to recognise it as a radical departure.

The demonstrated viability of a society containing socialist activities provides no evidence for the practicality of one in which all the means of production, without exception, are commonly owned and democratically controlled. In terms of abstract logic the distinction here is between some and all; what is true of some may or may not be true of all.

It is acceptance of the purist conception that sets up a rigid black-or-white division- between one system that is socialist and all others that are not. Spanner No. 1 committed itself to that purist conception: “As far as Spanner is concerned it [socialism] may be defined as a system of society in which the means of wealth production – the factories, farms, offices etc.- are owned and democratically controlled by the community … ” If this is “quite untrue” it is Spanner, not IC , that needs correction. If Spanner, or some of the people involved with it, also hold another conception, the resulting tangles are for Spanner, not IC , to sort out.

Suggestions that the market economy, and direct production for use, “may” do this or that, are adequately dealt with by adding that they may not.

These editors misrepresent their own writer. Gareth Thomas does not refer to “the development of ‘socialistic’ activities which progressively help to make the idea of socialism more acceptable”; he writes more carefully than that, speaking of this as something which may happen, using “if” and “hopefully.”

Rather than resolving or transcending the Party’s self-contradictions, Spanner has tried to draw back from them. Its editors at least have failed in the attempt, retaining the rigid exclusiveness which marks Party thinking and produces the self-contradictions. They demonstrate this by describing Spanner as “a forum for the exchange of ideas primarily about the way to achieve a non-market society.” Not a society in which the market plays a smaller or less harmful part, but one from which it is excluded, a non-market society.

– – –

Beyond Politics, an outline of systematic ideology, by George Walford, will be published on 1 September. For details see p. 16 below.

– – –

Braziers Adult College, with which Harold Walsby was at one time associated, is to run a weekend course on HEGEL AND COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS.  The date will be November 30 to December 2, the Tutor Glynn Faithful BA, PHD and the fee is £60.50.

“In spite of the Eighteenth Century’s preoccupation with individual subjectivity, Hegel’s philosophy has a collective basis.  He says: ‘In the history of the world, the individuals we have to do with are peoples:  totalities that are states.’  Moreover his concept of Geist is based on a divine mind whose ‘Providence is wisdom, endowed with infinite power, which realises its aim, namedly the absolute rational design of the world.’ We will examine this aspect of his ‘absolute idealism’ and its relationship to modern theories of the evolution of consciousness and psycho-social phenomena.  A useful introduction to this subject is P. Singer’s Hegel, OUP 1983, Past Masters Series, £3.96.”

from Ideological Commentary 47, September 1990.