Red and Black Notes critically look back on the history of the SPGB at the time of the 100 year anniversary.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain celebrated its centenary in June 2004. The party was founded by former members of H.M Hyndeman's Social Democratic Federation after a struggle in that organization. The founding conference adopted a declaration of principles (which still appears in every issue of its journal) and began to publish the Socialist Standard two months later.
From its inception, the SPGB was determined to forge its own course. The new party refused to join the Second International on the grounds that it admitted reformist parties. While it had some relationship with the British followers of Daniel DeLeon in the Socialist Labour Party (the SLP was also founded by ex-SDFers), the SPGB regarded every other political organization as an enemy to be fought. Often referred to as imposssiblists, the SPGB and its companion parties have steadfastly preached the gospel of socialism for the last hundred years.
And yet, the SPGB resembles nothing so much as the proverbial stopped clock that is right twice a day. While they offer some socialist truths about the nature of socialism and the futility of reformist struggles, their politics appear to be frozen: An example of its conception of how capitalism has remained unchanged and the tactics of a socialist organization.
The SPGB holds that socialism will involve electing a socialist government and allow for the machinery of government to be "converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation." (Declaration of Principles). The election of a socialist government however is premised upon the vast majority of the population coming to accept, presumably, the party's position. While the SPGB claim that its actual belief is that "socialist consciousness develops out of the workers' class experience of capitalism and its problems" (Socialist Standard August 2004), the party's propaganda suggests the necessity of educating workers about the virtues of socialism. A cartoon on the SPGB web site had a party representative sighing that socialism was such a good idea, but it was a shame no one believed it.
Using parliament to establish socialism when it serves as "the executive committee of the bourgeoisie"; reducing socialism to an ideal which reality will have to accept rather than "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things"; educating the workers when it is "essential to educate the educator." The disappearance of permanent opposition organizations of the working class over the last century in the face of the deepening of the real domination of capital seems to have gone unnoticed by the party.
As Marx noted in The German Ideology:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alternation of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alternation which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution.
For a socialist organization to survive for a century is impressive; however, to refuse to see how capitalism has changed in that century certainly cheapens the achievement.
First Published in Red and Black Notes #20, Autumn 2004, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.