John Crump's resignation letter from the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) in 1973. Written as he left the UK for Japan, he describes and critiques the two main currents (economic determinists and utopians) that existed in the organisation and its failure to respond to events in society.
Resignation letter - John Crump
What is it that prevents the SPGB functioning as a revolutionary organisation?
Very soon I shall be resigning from the SPGB. I should say right at the start that this is a move which is forced on me anyway by the silly rule that lays down that “A member taking up residence abroad shall automatically cease to be a member of the Party” (rule 3). The fact is that if I were not going abroad I would have remained a member in order to support the efforts of those other comrades like myself who are seeking to convert the SPGB into a revolutionary organisation. Since I am forced to leave the Party, however, I have decided to issue a circular explaining my criticisms of the SPGB. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, although rule 3 would give me a good excuse for just drifting out of the Party without any fuss, I believe this would be a politically dishonest thing to do. If I must leave, then I want to explain my disagreements. But there is a second much more important reason than this purely personal consideration. For a considerable period now, a number of revolutionaries within the SPGB have been resisting the sectarian policies of the majority. It is therefore high time that some of their basic criticisms of the SPGB as it functions at present were plainly stated in a single document and if my circular can serve this additional purpose I shall be very pleased.
Now let me make quite clear what I have said here. I – and I alone – am responsible for this circular. It was written solely by me and distributed by me. But no one is pretending either that these are simply the ideas of one isolated and disgruntled member. All of the views expressed in this circular have been developed by means of discussion with other comrades and, whatever the differences which may exist between us in details and points of emphasis, no one should have any doubt that the basic criticism of the SPGB outlined in this statement commands a fair body of support within the Party itself. It is this, which gives it whatever significance, it has and it is for this reason that I would urge all those comrades who are genuinely interested in seeing the SPGB operate as a revolutionary organisation to think hard about the issues raised here.
Part 1: How the SPGB Fails
When one first joins the Party one is unaware of the fact that the long history of the SPGB is very largely an uninterrupted series of missed opportunities. What one is aware of are the considerable achievements of the SPGB and, even as I am about to leave the Party, I am far from denigrating these. The greatest of these achievements is simply that in the long period of the Labour Party and the Communist Party ascendancy it was for all practical purposes the SPGB alone in Britain, which maintained an uncompromising socialist position. Even if today there are others who have come to argue that socialism is a wageless, moneyless, stateless society based in the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, this in no way detracts from the tremendous service which the SPGB performed for the working class movement in Britain throughout those bleak years in keeping alive the idea of what socialism is.
Nor is this the only major contribution of the SPGB. The Party has never deviated from the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. It has consistently denounced leadership and insisted that a socialist society can never be achieved until the majority have clearly understood what socialism is and have taken a conscious decision to establish the new society. The SPGB also pioneered the state capitalist analysis of Russia in the English-speaking world and every member of the Party is rightly proud of the fact that for almost seventy years now the SPGB has unfailingly opposed all of the capitalism’s wars. To repeat, these are considerable achievements – yet any revolutionary can see that by themselves they are nowhere near enough. Much more than this is needed for the SPGB to start operating as a revolutionary organisation and against these achievements we have to set the SPGB’s equally consistent record of constantly failing even to recognise favourable opportunities as they present themselves, let alone to take serious action in them.
Now even among the revolutionaries within the SPGB there might well be less than total unanimity as to just which developments within capitalism over recent years have produced situations which socialists could have turned to their advantage. But any list of those opportunities which have occurred would have to include:
• the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and its repercussions in Britain when the Communist Party lost half of its total membership and thousands of others first had their illusions about state capitalism shattered.
• the period from 1958 into the early sixties when CND was at its peak, when tens of thousands marched against nuclear weapons and when “the campaign made a terrific impact on the British political scene” (Socialist Standard, April 1966, p52.)
• again the period from mid-1966 onwards when the Labour government’s anti-working class actions were becoming increasingly obvious to many workers, when the “Labour governments betrayal of its policies (was causing) increasing disillusionment amongst its supporters” (Socialist Standard, May 1968, p72) and when the SPGB itself was asking “Is Labour Cracking Up?”.
It would be a useful exercise at some time to examine how the SPGB responded (or, rather, failed to respond in any serious way) to each of these events in turn. A common pattern would then be seen to emerge of how in each case the Party acted with unbelievable slowness and lethargy, of how there was next to no serious discussion among the members of what sort of intervention the Party could reasonably hope to mount and how – as a result – there was a total absence of the clear-thinking foresight which socialists should be expected to show at such times. In this section of my circular I shall mainly confine my attention to the period when a Labour government was in power from mid-1966 onwards but at least I want to explode here the myth which has grown up within the SPGB that its handling of CND was one of its success stories! Just what solid evidence does this fairy tale rest on? On nothing more than the fact that in the 1960s the SPGB managed to gain a few new members by its limited propaganda efforts directed at CND, when any objective appraisal of the Party’s role would have to show that – even if we make due allowances for the SPGB’s admittedly meagre resources – its approach to CND was a case if far too little coming far too late.
This sort of complacent assessment of its own activities, which we can see in relation to CND, is, in fact, all too typical of the SPGB. I well remember how one comrade, who had been out of the Party for several years, wrote to me in 1971 that on rejoining he had found that “a remarkable new growth” had taken place, “a phase of growth, since it involved development where the Party had never looked like developing, outside London…” At the time I replied as follows:
I can well imagine that rejoining in 1970, when – as you say – the Party had been going through a phase of growth over the previous four years or so, was an encouraging experience. But, all the same, I am afraid that I cannot draw the same conclusions as you – probably for the very reason that I was active as a member right through that period of growth. When you rejoined you saw the end result of 4-5 years growth, the handfuls of new members we had recruited, but what you didn’t see were the hundreds the Party failed to attract because of the opportunities it missed.
As you probably know, the five years 1966-71 have been ones of growth for nearly all radical groups in Britain (with a few notable exceptions like the CP – but then, it’s hardly a radical organisation, is it?) and it seems to me that the SPGB too could hardly have failed to attract new blood during such a period. Even by making no great effort, we couldn’t fail to have a modest influx of new members. Looked at in the abstract, I suppose all growth appears like a “healthy sign”, but, once it is placed in a context of fairly wide-spread radicalisation, the degree of growth we achieved in the 1966-71 period starts to look more like a miserable failure.
Reading these lines again two years later, I am more than ever convinced that they are right. The years of the Wilson government presented the SPGB with a real opportunity to advance, as numerous Labour supporters recoiled in dismay and disgust from their party’s policies – and yet it was an opportunity, which was almost totally squandered. Let me explain in some detail, then, why I say it was squandered.
When the first Wilson government came to power in October 1964 its supporters had a ready excuse for what they saw as its failure. How could it take on big business, look after the ordinary working men and women or “take steps towards socialism”, they asked, when it had been elected on such a slim majority? Socialists knew that this Labour government, like any other, would “administer British capitalism in the only way open to them – in the interests of the British capitalist class” (Socialist Standard, November 1964, p175) – but it was common knowledge too that, equipped with the alibi of his small majority in the House of Commons and being the shrewd politician he was, Wilson was temporarily in a strong position and that he would soon call another general election where Labour would be likely to be returned with an increased vote. This, of course, was just what did happen in March 1966 and it should have been no surprise to any socialist that in the new situation, which emerged, then the radicalisation of a section of Labour supporters occurred as they saw their illusions about Wilson wrecked once his alibi had gone. After all, this train of events bore at least certain similarities to what had happened twenty years earlier at the time of the Attlee government, when all sorts of radical groups in Britain had benefited from the growing disillusionment of many of those who supported Labour and when – as part of this process – the membership of the SPGB climbed to around 1000.
Now surely it is reasonable to expect that a socialist party, faced with this developing situation between October 1964 and March 1966, should have been preparing itself to take maximum advantage of the opportunity which was likely to present when the illusions harboured by Labour’s supporters started to wear thin. The fact is, however, that when disillusionment did start to set in among them in the summer of 1966 (“Many who voted the Labour Government into power in 1964 and with a much increased majority earlier this year are wondering if they did the right thing” Socialist Standard, July 1966, p107) the SPGB was caught totally unprepared. The Party had not even taken what should have been the elementary step of producing an up-to-date pamphlet analysing the Labour Party from a socialist standpoint, so that it was left to inexperienced members like myself (I had joined the SPGB in December 1964) to urge belatedly that we do so. What I could not begin to understand at the time – although it is clear enough today – was how it was possible that the bulk of the membership, composed largely of comrades with many years experience behind them, should have been so completely unaware of what the situation demanded.
When I moved the floor resolution “That this Conference calls on the Executive Committee to urgently look into the question of producing a short, moderately priced pamphlet on the Labour Government” at the Party Conference in April 1966 I made what I fondly imagined were obvious points. The SPGB needed such a pamphlet and, above all, it needed it fast. It needed a pamphlet exposing the capitalist orientation of the Labour government, which it could put into the hands of Labour supporters as they started to question Wilson’s policies. Since a purpose-written analysis of the Labour government would take time to publish, and since a pamphlet was needed by the closing stages of 1966 at the very latest, probably the best booklet that could be produced under the circumstances was a collection of some of the articles dealing with the Labour government which had appeared in recent issues of the Socialist Standard.
The resolution was indeed passed by the Conference and went to the Executive Committee and its Pamphlets Sub-Committee – but what happened then? A specially produced pamphlet on Labour Government or Socialism? Was laboriously written and was finally issued… two years later, in February 1968! Surely there was something a trifle pathetic about a publication which in 1968 took 28 out of its total 30 pages “to expose the uselessness of Labour Government” (Labour Government or Socialism? p29) at a time when it had already become painfully obvious to those workers likely to read it just how useless that government was. By then any thoughtful worker could see that the Wilson government was pursuing anti-working class policies and the last thing he needed was for the SPGB to point out to him that his wages had been frozen in the second half of 1967 (Labour Government or Socialism? pp 19-20). If he bothered even to read such a pamphlet his most likely conclusion must have been that the SPGB was simply out of touch.
One important effect of the relatively widespread radicalisation which, as we have already mentioned, accompanied the decline in fortunes of the Wilson government was that many who had previously supported the Labour party became receptive to new ideas. An important tendency developed (especially among young numbers of young workers) to think their ideas about socialism and in order to do this many of them wanted to read the classic works of marxism and leninism, including books which had often been out of print for years. Thus it was no accident that book companies suddenly republished several major works, which had been unavailable for decades, in the second half of the 1960s as commercial propositions with an eye on the market.
It was against this background that in 1968 some of us suggested that the SPGB should take steps to have Julius Martov’s The State and Socialist Revolution republished, on principal grounds that it does a brilliant job on Lenin’s State and Revolution and that the amount of work which this would have entailed for the Party would have been small since an acceptable translation already existed. There is no point now in resurrecting all the arguments and counter-arguments which were make for and against this proposal in the interminable wrangling it gave rise to at to Delegate Meetings and two Annual Conferences. All that I wish to do here is to mention a couple of the more ridiculous arguments, which were used by the sectarians within the SPGB in order to defeat this suggestion. By restating them again we can illustrate once more just how out of touch the majority of SPGB members were with the opportunities, which existed.
The Executive Committee – via its Pamphlets Sub-Committee – claimed that The State and the Socialist Revolution was “not a work that would attract a wide general sale; it is of most use to a more limited range of reader” (Report of the 46th Meeting of the 65th Executive Committee of the SPGB, 1968) and their spokesman repeated this at the 1969 Delegate Meeting (“it would have a limited appeal – this is what you are asking the Party to take on.") Quite apart from the fact that the dubious comment that it was “not a work that would attract a wide general sale” was meaningless from the SPGB point of view anyway (which pamphlet produced by the SPGB ever has attracted “a wide general sale”?), these remarks showed an amazing degree of unfamiliarity with developments which were taking place in the late 1960s. One just has to run one’s eyes along one’s bookshelves to see the books which companies like Penguin were bringing out at this time (the first ever paperback editions of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World in 1966, or Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in 1967, of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism in 1969 etc, etc) in order to realise how hollow such conclusions were.
But this was not all. Anyone with even a modicum of sense should have been able to see that, since Martov is relatively well known, a booklet carrying his name was likely to be an infinitely more effective vehicle for socialist ideas that a pamphlet written by an anonymous SPGBer. Who else but a member of the SPGB’s Executive Committee, then, could have declared: “It is not good enough that we should push pamphlets written by other people. ‘Principles and Policy’ [the title of an SPGB pamphlet] is far more important and we should get our priorities right”? (Report of the Proceedings of the 66th SPGB Delegate Meeting, 1969, p12).
In case anyone objects that the real barrier to the SPGB’s taking steps to make Martov’s The State and the Socialist Revolution available was the work it would have required or the expense it would have involved, I want to emphasise here that there is a recognised method which revolutionaries should adopt for meeting such a challenge. The sort of approach which is needed on such occasions is the issuing of a report by those comrades responsible (and ultimately this means the Executive Committee) which clearly states the amount of work and costs which the project under consideration is likely to involve and which gives a realistic estimate of the benefits likely to accrue from seeing it through. The facts can then me laid before the membership in this way and it is then up to them to decide whether or not they have the necessary commitment to tackle this additional task. This was never done at the time when The State and the Socialist Revolution was being discussed – and neither was it done when a resolution was passed at the 1969 Party Conference that “This Conference calls on the Executive Committee to set up a Committee to report to the 1969 Delegate Meeting with details of costs and probable advantage of employing a member full-time at Head Office”.
Again it should have been obvious to anyone who had given any thought at all to the opportunities which existed during this period that the first necessity for the SPGB was an efficient organisation. Efficiency was clearly impossible, however, so long as the Party did not have even a single full-time worker acting as co-ordinator from Head Office. It was with this in mind that some of us moved the above resolution and saw it passed at the 1969 Party Conference – only to find that the SPGB Executive Committee “allowed the matter to lapse” (Report of the Proceedings of the 66th SPGB Delegate Meeting, 1969, p8). It was announced at that Delegate Meeting that the “Executive Committee’s attitude is that because of the Party’s financial difficulties they will not set up a Committee at the moment.” Nor was a committee ever subsequently appointed, a majority of the SPGB membership being prepared to accept this decision of their Executive Committee.
But what was the state of the SPGB’s finances at this time? I am not disputing that in 1969 the Party’s bank account stood at a low figure but what I do want to spotlight is the fact that the membership dues stood then at 1/- per week. In other words, translated into hard cash, the average member of the SPGB’s commitment to the revolution stood at 5p per week. This was what lay behind the shameful argument that a Party of more than 600 members could not support a single full-time worker. By way of comparison (and this was pointed out in a related discussion at the SPGB Conference the same year) at the relevant time groups like IS and the SLL were levying themselves at the rates of 2/6 (12.5p) per week and 10/- (50p) per week respectively – and as a result were far outstripping the SPGB both in organisational efficiency and in their impact on the working class. I said it then and I say it again now that if the majority of the members of the SPGB are not prepared to more than match the dedication shown by these rival organisations they can never hope to turn the sort of opportunity which presented during the period of the second Wilson government to the advantage of the socialist movement. What is more, in the absence of such revolutionary commitment, neither does the SPGB deserve to be taken seriously by the working class.
Part 2: The Theoretical Roots of This Failure
So far this circular has broken very little new ground. Although stated in perhaps more extreme terms that usual, the type of criticism outlined in Part 1 – or at least that part of it, which concerns itself with the level of activity, achieved by the Party – is quite common even among the sectarians within the SPGB. Where such criticism normally stops, however, is at a point far short of any serious examination of the body of theory from which the SPGB’s practice is derived. This in itself is highly significant, of course, because it shows a widespread reluctance (or inability) among a majority of the members of the SPGB to apply the Marxian method of analysis to the Party itself. How else can one explain this failure to trace back the deficiencies in the SPGB’s practice to deficiencies in its theory?
Many examples of this could be given but here I will mention only one. A statement drawn up by one of the members of the present Executive Committee of the SPGB in May 1968 (Some Reflections on the Present Political Situation and the Condition of the Socialist Party) contained forthright criticism of the Party. It pointed out that “the Socialist Party and its members are living in a political vacuum”, and that there was “no apparent point of contact with life and Politics”, merely “apathy and indifference” and so on. Yet – incredibly – having said all this, it refrained from any analysis of the
SPGB’s theory and even when it mentioned the possibility that faulty practice might just conceivably stem from theoretical inadequacy this was clearly for rhetorical purposes only and was instantly dismissed (“all experience shows this is NOT the case”). Since on the contrary – as we have shown in Part 1 – the experience of the SPGB shows nothing of the sort it is now time to consider the theoretical roots of the Party’s failure.
The ‘Marxism’ of the SPGB
“Behind the inflexibility of theoretical formulas with which your excellent Comrade Kautsky will supply you until the end of his days, you conceal… your inability to act.” (Jaures speaking to Bebel at the Amsterdam Congress of the Iind International, August 1904)
Even an SPGBer can see that there was something slightly bizarre about a tiny group with little more than a hundred members at its formation in June 1904 assuming the grandiose title of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Part of the explanation for this readiness of the founder members of the SPGB to dub their group ‘The Socialist Party’ lies in the fact that they saw themselves as but one section of an international socialist movement (“Those who really desire … economic emancipation must enrol in the Army of International Socialism, the British section of which is The Socialist Party of Great Britain.” Socialist Standard, November 1904). But the original membership of the SPGB believed that there was far more than simply the solidarity they expected to forge with “those abroad who occupy our position” (Report of the 3rd Annual Conference of the SPGB, 1907 – see the Socialist Standard, June 1968, p97). Besides this there was ‘history’ too. It was ‘history’ which would force the working class to become revolutionary (one could still hear echoes of this within the SPGB even during recent years – “sooner or later the mass of the population, those who are compelled to work for a living, will be driven by their material interests to set about abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and replacing it by the common ownership of the means of production… And this will be in accordance with the Materialist Conception of History’s own decree” (!) Socialist Comment, 1956, p40) and history too which would make the SPGB ‘The Socialist Party’ in more than name alone.
On this view, history was a mechanical process remorselessly grinding on towards its inevitable destination – socialism. And when I use the term ‘inevitable’, this is no caricature either. For the early members of the SPGB (and even for a few of the current ones: “South West London Branch consider that socialism is inevitable – that is the Party’s case”. Report of the Proceedings of the 65th SPGB Annual Conference 1969, p9) socialism really was preordained. According to their understanding of Marx, “Society … moved … under the pressure of growing economic forces making a change in social forms inevitable” (Socialist Standard, March 1913, pp49-50, my emphasis). This was a doctrine of economic determinism and, even though the founder members of the SPGB might have avoided the crudest of the conclusions, which many of the social democrats of the Second International drew from the same brand of ‘marxism’, their own conclusions were only marginally less crude. To give the Party its due, the SPGB never subscribed to the belief which was popular among so many social democrats before the 1st World War that ‘history’ would bring capitalism to the point where it would be forced to collapse, but it did insist that ‘history’ would bring the working class to the point where it would be forced to become socialist. In other words, the SPGB maintained a commitment to the need for consciousness, but only by reducing consciousness to a level where it was conceived as something which emerged more or less mechanically.
There is nothing surprising about this fact that the ‘marxism’ of the early SPGB was basically the ‘marxism’ of the Second International. Indeed it is hard to imagine how it could have been anything else when one remembers that the SPGB originated as a breakaway from the old Social Democratic Federation. If anything ever was ‘inevitable’, it was that the SPGB’s ‘marxism’ was bound to be “the mongrel child of Engels, Kautsky, Hyndman and De Leon” (as one comrade recently put it) and of these four it was Engels and Kautsky who without any doubt were the major influence.
Engels, of course, had been the leading populariser and most authoritative interpreter of Marx’s ideas in the years after Marx’s physical decline and then death – that is during the very period when ‘marxism’ was emerging as a major political and intellectual force in Europe – and it was under his guidance that the ‘marxists’ of Kautsky’s generation grew up. Even a well-informed biographer of Marx and Engels such as David Riazanov never fully grasped the extent of Engels’ influence on these younger men. Writing about Anti-Duhring, he says: “It was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second, half of the seventies learned that was scientific socialism, what were its philosophic premises, what was its method…. For the dissemination of Marxism as a special method and a special system, no book except Capital itself has done as much as Anti-Duhring. All the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early eighties – Bernstein, Karl Kautsky … George Plekhavov. – were brought up on this book” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, D. Riazanov, 1927, p210.) Yet even this appraisal of Engels’ major work underestimates its real impact. Instead of “no book EXCEPT Capital” Riazanov ought to have written no book INCLUDING Capital”. As Kautsky himself made clear: “…. Judging by the influence that Anti-Duhring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Duhring that we learnt to understand Capital and read it properly” (F. Engels’ Briefwechsel mit K. Kautsky quoted in Engels and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Gareth Stedman Jone. New Left Review 79, p. 19, my emphasis).
Now what was the essential feature of this interpretation of Marx’s ideas which social democrats like Kautsky obtained from Anti-Duhring and Engels’ other writings and which enabled them to “understand Capital and read it properly”? It was a rendering of Marx where ‘marxism’, instead of being a critical theory serving as a means to revolutionary practice, tended to be narrowed down until it was reduced to a system of schematically applied ‘laws’. It was not that Engels’ took his friend’s ideas and twisted them into a different doctrine altogether, nor even that he superimposed certain notions of his own which were fundamentally at odds with the original and authentic ‘marxism’ of Marx. The answer to the riddle was simply that, as Engels himself often said, “Marx was a genius. We others were at best talented”. The result of Engels being a less gifted thinker than Marx was that, as he applied himself to the job of popularising his dead comrade’s theories, so he was simplifying them and unconsciously debasing them. It would be decidedly unfair to say that Engels in his later writings abandoned his own and Marx’s concept that it was the revolutionary act of the working class which would introduce socialism but what he did do was to emphasise one-sidedly the determinist element in Marx’s thinking. Many examples of this could be given but Engels’ letter to Bloch (21-22 September 1890) will be sufficient to illustrate the point here. Although Engels assures Bloch that “We make our history ourselves”, even if “under very definite assumptions and conditions”, this becomes so heavily qualified (“This (the historical event) may again be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion.”) That it is for all practical purposes drained of its revolutionary implications and turned into an abstract formula. What we are left with is a causally determined historical process, which calls to mind the Darwinian scheme of evolution.
This, in fact, was just what made ‘marxism’ so acceptable to the followers of Darwin such as Kautsky in Germany (in the appendix on Kautsky to Luise Kautsky’s Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (1925) she mentions how Darwin “exercised a great influence upon him” and that Kautsky was “a disciple of Darwin in his student days in Vienna”) and Hyndman in Britain (“Marx is the Darwin of modern sociology….” Historical basis of socialism in England. H.M. Hyndman, 1883, p435). After Engels’ death in 1895 the prestige which went with editing Marx’s unpublished manuscripts was transferred from Engels to Kautsky and to this was added the aura of orthodoxy as he defended ‘marxism’ from its revisionist critics such as Bernstein. Kautsky’s influence on the SPD and the whole of the Second International was enormous – and he was much admired by the members of the early SPGB too. In fact, his reputation within the SPGB was so high that of the first five pamphlets it produced no fewer than three were translations of Kautsky’s works. Thus we can see that although the SPGB was hostile right from the start to the reformist policies pursued by the social democratic parties, its ‘marxist’ theory had much more in common with that of the Second International than later generations of Party member have ever cared to admit.
Strangely enough in the first few years of the Party’s existence this doctrine of economic determinism which went under the name of ‘marxism’ – and which provided the justification for the quietist policies for which the SPD became notorious – did not prevent the SPGB from maintaining a high level of activity. This appears as less of a paradox than it seems at first if we ask ourselves exactly what the founder members of the SPGB were trying to achieve in the decade before the 1st World War. There is plenty of evidence (even the name chosen for the Party’s journal is significant here) that they saw their role as one of raising aloft the standard of socialism so that the working class would have a focus which it could group itself around as it became socialist. The early members of the SPGB threw themselves into their activity because, as they saw it, there was only a limited amount of time to construct the nucleus of an organisation into which the workers were expected to flock as soon as ‘history’ endowed them with socialist consciousness. There was a great deal of enthusiasm within the SPGB during those first year because ‘history’ really did seem to be moving in their direction. Real wages, which may have risen by as much as 50 per cent between 1880 and 1900, had stagnated ever since 1900 and there was a wave of radicalisation affecting considerable numbers of workers (the emergence of groups such as the SLP in 1903 and the SPGB itself in 1904 being just some of the sign of this). Even the growth of the SPGB, less than spectacular thought it was, seemed to confirm that ‘history’ was steadily doing its work of making the working class socialist because it was after all no mean achievement for the Party to quadruple its membership during its fist ten years.
The 1st World War and the Russian Revolution between them proved to be a traumatic experience for the economic determinists with the SPGB, however. Well over half the membership fell away – presumably disillusioned because ‘history’ seemed to have let them down — and although the other stuck to their determinist faith, the time scale to which they were operation that to be drastically revised. Socialism receded into the distant future and there was no longer seen to be any need for a high level of activity. The basic work of setting up the organisation skeleton of a socialist party and of establishing a viable journal, which the members had busied themselves with prior to 1914, had already been accomplished and it now became a case of simply maintaining these in existence and waiting.
From this time on the main characteristic of the economic determinists was to be an attitude of exaggerated caution towards taking any initiative and there were very definite reasons why this was so. The familiar claim was still heard that (in the end) ‘history’ would create the conditions which would bring about the development of socialist consciousness among the working class and that when that time came the SPGB would be recognised by the workers as the core around which they could construct a suitable organisation for liberating themselves. But, in addition to this, the assertion was also made that in order that the workers should be able to recognise the SPGB in this way, it had to guard its reputation above all else. A number of valid arguments were then used to back up this line of reasoning – there must be no compromises, principles were more important than a mass membership and so on – but to these was added an entirely spurious one. This was that the SPGB had also to be able to demonstrate that it had never made any mistakes! The more intelligent economic determinists at least qualified this and said no important mistakes but there were plenty of others (and still are among the decreasing number of economic determinists within the Party today) who insisted that the SPGB had never made any mistakes at all! The really crippling effect of this ‘argument’ was that it became yet another excellent reason for abstaining from activity. After all, if you don’t do anything you are unlikely to commit many mistakes. This was why we can say with Jaures that behind the inflexibility of their theoretical formulae the economic determinists concealed their inability to act.
The Utopianism of the SPGB
However sharply the revolutionaries within the SPGB might criticise the economic determinists, the fact is that they stand a great deal closer to them than they do to the utopians who today comprise an increasingly large percentage of the SPGB’s membership. This is not merely because the economic determinists are at least ‘marxists’ of a sort, in the sense that they have been greatly influenced by Marx even though their understanding of his theories remains the inadequate interpretation provided by Engels and Kautsky. It is also due to the fact that, however mechanically they saw it as happening in practice, the economic determinists still realised that socialist consciousness would arise out of the experiences of the working class in its day-to-day struggles. The utopians, on the other hand, are not ‘marxists’ in any meaningful sense of the word at all. Even though they might still from sheer force of habit decorate their arguments with quotations from Marx’s writings, their basic ideas and methods represent a return to the utopian socialism of the early nineteenth century.
Although the subject matter of the previous section made a semi-historical approach necessary, this circular makes no pretence of being a history of the SPGB. This is why I do not intend to trace here the process by which the economic determinists (who at one time formed the overwhelming bulk of the SPGB’s membership) started to lose control of the Party to the utopians. Suffice it to say that – starting in the 1930s, and at an increasing pace in the 40s and 50s – a new type of member began to join the SPGB. If the economic determinists could be criticised on the grounds that they were more interested in interpreting the world than in changing it, the utopians who now came into the SPGB were barely interested in what was happening in the real world at all. For them, capitalism was just “the passing show” (the title of a column which was featured in the Socialist Standard for many years) and if it warranted any comment whatsoever it was simply to show what a stupid and unpleasant social system it was compared with the sane and orderly society of socialism. The actual struggles which workers were engaged in were dismissed out of hand (“these utterly useless activities” says an article in the July 1973 Socialist Standard) because there was not seen to be any connection between these struggles and the attainment of socialist consciousness by the working class. Instead the implicit assumption of the utopians was that socialism was to be established only when a majority of people had been made convinced of its desirability… by the propaganda efforts of the SPGB and its associated parties! In other words, they conceived of the development of socialist consciousness as being essentially a matter of education, of the workers being taught socialist ideas by the Party.
It was natural enough that when this utopian doctrine was stated in a particularly frank and unambiguous style by a member called Turner and his supporters within the SPGB in the early 1950s, it should have provoked a fierce reaction not only from the economic determinists but from other utopians too. The Party’s discussion journal was full of charges of “Revisionism and Renegades in the SPGB” (Forum, February 1954) and so on because in a tradition-bound organisation such as the SPGB any frontal attack not so much on its principles as on the verbal formulae it employs to express those principles was bound to evoke a hostile response. The irony of that particular episode which led to Turner – who had by this time gone over to gradualism – resigning from the SPGB in 1955 was, however, that (as one comrade wrote in a letter to me recently) the utopians “lost the battle but are winning the war” with the economic determinists. A direct frontal attack was never mounted by the utopians again but gradually – by sheer weight of numbers – their approach is becoming the dominant one within the SPGB, although in many cases this partially obscured by the compromises which have been struck with the economic determinists. An obvious example of this sort of compromise is the fact that even today the SPGB maintains a purely verbal commitment to support the trade unions in their efforts to improve workers’ conditions – even though this so-called “support” never takes any concrete form and even though all other types of working class struggle (“protests against the Government’s pricing policy, squatting, and demands for higher pensions, lower rents, higher Social Security payments, etc” as the July 1973 Socialist Standard details them) are rejected as a waste of time. Anyone who has any doubts about the real nature of this supposed “support” for trade unions would do well to remember the remark blurted out by one member of the Executive Committee of the SPGB at the 1972 Delegate Meeting (a remark which, by the way, was not recorded in the official Report of the Proceeding of the 1972 Delegate Meeting): “We don’t support trade unions; we just say they are necessary”!
We can say that the ideas and methods of the utopians within the SPGB represent a return to the pre-Marxian socialism of the early nineteenth century for a number of reasons. Firstly because – just like the classical utopian socialists such as Robert Owen, St. Simon and Fourier – their tendency is to present socialism as a universal panacea to which they hope to convert people by sheer force of argument. As one comrade put it in a document published last year (Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice October 1972, pp. 2-3): “When you get right down to it they’re trying to convince the workers of the need for Socialism via moral persuasion. ‘Socialism’ (like syrup of figs) is good for you.” Since for them socialist consciousness does not develop out of the struggles in which workers are involved, they have nothing to fall back on except the hope that sooner or later the “unthinking majority” (Report of the Proceedings of the 1972 SPGB Delegate Meeting, p8) will wake up – that the “revolution of the human mind” (Robert Owen) which the classical utopians longer for will take place.
The result of this is that socialism is projected as an ideal (and usually) remote system of society. Only a half-hearted effort is made to connect it with the actual problems which confront the working class and what is more important is that scarcely any attempt at all is made to relate the concept of socialism to the idea circulating among workers which have been thrown up as they grapple with these problems and search for answers to them. No one doubts the good intentions of the utopians when they declare that “Socialists put forward the case for a new world of common ownership and democratic control, trying to get workers to see their problems from this stand point (Socialist Standard, June 1966 p83). Any objective examination of their methods, however, can only reveal their total inability to form bridges between what workers are thinking now and what the utopians hope they start thinking in the future. Even when a virtually tailor-made issue such as “free transport” presents itself the utopians are incapable of recognising the opportunities it offers. For them it is just another aspect of the “the passing show” so that the suggestion that it could be used in order to encourage some workers to think beyond the ideas of abolishing certain prices, which has already aroused their interest, in the direction of a society of completely free access to all products is met with blank incomprehension. (“If we are going to publish anything during the course of an election let it be the terms of our condemnation of the whole system, not of some detail of it” – from the discussion on the proposed pamphlet on free transport in the Report of the Proceedings of the 1972 Delegate Meting, p5).
When the utopians within the SPGB reject many of the efforts of the working class to improve their conditions they are following in the long tradition which extends all the way back to the classical utopian socialists. As Marx pointed out, the Owenites opposed the Chartists and Fourier’s supporters were against the Reformistes because they too could not understand the crucial importance of the workers’ attempts at democratic self-organisation (today this means in a whole range of organisations – tenants’ associations, claimants unions, parent-teacher associations and student unions to name but a few). The SPGB’s Declaration of Principles announces bravely that the emancipation of the working class “must be the work of the working class itself” but the utopians can not begin to see that it is only by engaging in a wide range of day to day struggles that the working class can possibly obtain the confidence in its own ability and the degree of understanding necessary for it to overthrow capitalism. Recognising this, a revolutionary socialist party would be duty bound to intervene in the workers’ struggles by means of sympathetic propaganda material, which aimed at speeding the growth of socialist consciousness and the democratic self-activity of the working class. But instead of this the utopians in the SPGB actually call for abstention from these struggles! They are utopians because, as Marx caustically remarked about their nineteenth century predecessors, they “want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society which they have prepared for them with so much foresight” (The Poverty of Philosophy).
The economic determinists have made a fetish out of inaction but not so the utopians. Their calls for a higher level of activity within the Party have often been among the most strident but, leaving aside for the moment the fact that their words have rarely been matched by their deeds, what they fail to realise is that their activity is totally irrelevant to the workers anyway. This is why there can be no solution to the SPGB’s inadequacy as long as they exert such an influence on the Party. The brutal truth is that if their practice does not relate to the workers’ struggles it cannot solve the major problem confronting the working class, which is capitalism. If their activity is irrelevant to the workers, then more activity simply means more irrelevance.
A Way Forward?
If a way forward exists for the SPGB it lies with the revolutionary minority. In this circular I have identified the three tendencies, which at present uneasily co-exist within the Party. The economic determinists at one time formed the bulk of the membership but are now shrinking into a minority, even though their influence is still considerable. Then there are the utopians, who are well on the way to establishing themselves as the majority and are thus able to compensate for their theoretical poverty by their numbers.
Finally there is a minority of revolutionaries. The revolutionary minority started to crystallise in the late 1960s, a development which was not unconnected with the revival of interest in revolutionary politics which occurred at about this time and which made itself felt in much wider circles than the narrow confines of the SPGB. There are, of course, important differences in both their theory and practice between each of the three tendencies, even between the economic determinists and the utopians, although such differences have tended to be obscured both by the verbal compromises which have been struck between these two currents and by the fact that quite a few of the more eclectic members of the SPGB have a foot in both these camps. But, whatever the differences which exist between the utopians and the economic determinists, they are firmly united by one thing – their sectarianism. Both deserve to be called sectarians since both stand aside from the workers’ struggles, the utopians because they dismiss them as irrelevant, the economic determinists because they are resigned to waiting for ‘history’ to breathe life into the skeleton of their Party. Only the revolutionaries reject this sectarianism and this is why, whatever the distinctions they can draw between the utopians and the economic determinists, they regard themselves as being opposed by a unified sectarian majority.
Whether or not we revolutionaries can eventually convert the SPGB into a revolutionary organisation is naturally open to question and I am just stating a personal opinion when I express my doubts about this. My own view is that the sectarian rot has gone too far for us to be able to do this in any reasonable period of time but I am not opposed to those comrades who are determined to try. As I explained at the beginning of this document, circumstances over which I have no control are forcing me to resign from the Party and what I am doing now it to use the opportunity this offers to issue this statement outlining the basic criticism which the revolutionaries within the SPGB direct at the sectarian majority. Naturally, even after I have ceased to be a member of the Party I shall continue to co-operate with those comrades who will remain in the SPGB to continue the struggle there and I am hopeful that they themselves will go no to form strong links with revolutionary socialists active outside the SPGB. In this way, the revolutionary organisation which we are all working to establish will be built, possibly as a revitalized SPGB but more likely independently of it.
Note on quotations: In this circular I have scrupulously avoided referring by name to any present members of the SPGB. I have, however, frequently quoted from articles, which have appeared in the Socialist Standard and elsewhere, and from statement made during discussions at SPGB conferences and delegate meetings. Where a member of the SPGB is quoted in connection with the ideas of the economic determinist, utopian or revolutionary tendencies within the Party this should not be taken to imply that I personally regard that member as an economic determinist, a utopian or a revolutionary. This analysis of the SPGB was more interested in identifying the major currents, which exists within the SPGB than in personal attacks on individuals. It is also necessary to point out that, given the wide-ranging compromises, which have been struck between the economic determinists and the utopians, it is often possible to use quotations from one to illustrate the views of the other.