Harold Walsby: ‘Purist’ Socialists are Inverted Tories

(Reprinted from the Socialist Leader 10 November 1951. Copy supplied by Ellis Hillman. – GW)

In the cloud of emotional dust raised by Len Collier there is still left, when the dust has settled, a very real and vital problem for all socialists to consider. The problem is not new, but it is of vital importance in that it continues to divide socialists the world over. In practice, the problem presents itself in such issues as we have just seen in the recent election: whether or not, in the absence of socialist candidates, we can usefully distinguish between Labour and Tory by giving ‘critical support’ to the Labour Party and voting for it. What is the answer?

If socialists hold firmly and steadfastly to their principles, they must refuse to compromise with capitalism in any shape or form. Whatever the difference between Labour and Tory, it is not a basic one. To support in any way – however ‘critically’ – the lesser of two evils when both are fundamentally capitalist, is logically inconsistent for those who are fundamentally opposed to capitalism. Let us therefore show our independence by denouncing both Labour and Tory and refusing to take part in the election. Either we compromise our principles or we stick to them.

That is one answer, simple and straightforward – the ‘purist’ answer. Upon analysis, however, its simplicity is more apparent than real. We live in a world which is not only changing, but changing according to a complex pattern we call evolution. This pattern of change embraces not only the external world but also the ideas, the principles and the logic by which we grasp the changing world.

There are many who pay lip-service to the notion of ‘a changing world’ and to the principles of growth and evolution, yet who fondly regard these notions and principles as themselves unchanging and immutable!
‘Purist’ socialists belong to this ilk. For them, socialist principles are fixed, immutable – and logical consistency demands that their unchanging, unmodifiable principles must not be tainted with compromising, practical reality. Principles and practice are thus effectively divorced: the external world may shift and change but Socialist Principles must not shift and change. It is a kind of inverted Toryism, a Toryism of the mind. And its watchword is
‘We refuse to take part!’

There is another answer to the problem. It starts from the proposition that nothing is changeless, absolute and eternal – not even socialist principles! From this viewpoint, all ideas, principles, etc. are relative, are continually undergoing modification and development and are continually being, compromised and expanded to meet new changes in experience.

It is true even when people fondly imagine their principles to be unchanging. In such people, the change may be slow, due to their unconscious fixation – but the fixation is never complete and absolute. However hard they try, they can thus never ‘stick’ completely to their principles – even though they may pride themselves they can.

Seen from this point of view, purism is an illusion. The difference between all political parties (including the purists is seen as fundamentally relative. The policy of critical or qualified support becomes rational and intelligent – implying, as it does qualified opposition. Support, in brief, becomes relative – relative to the difference, however small or large, between the issues actually presented to us, and relative to the particular conditions in which they are presented. Thus, in the absence of anything more advanced than the Labour Party actually standing for election, the non-purist socialist will have voted, and will continue to vote, Labour.

This may not satisfy the purists’ illusory idea of absolute logical consistency – but then, practical life and action never will.

– – –

AS CHRISTMAS becomes increasingly secularised one begins to wonder how long it will be before the churches start to close for the holiday.

“PIECES OF HATE, a treasury of invective and abuse,” by Phillip Norman (Elm Tree), includes one entry deserving immortalisation in our pages: Although W. H. Auden was a Christian, it could hardly be said that he loved God. Fancied Him, perhaps.

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.