Part 1: How the SPGB Fails

Submitted by jondwhite on December 27, 2014

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.