The Socialist Party of Great Britain - One Hundred Years - Red and Black Notes

Red and Black Notes critically look back on the history of the SPGB at the time of the 100 year anniversary.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 10, 2009

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 from the Red and Black Notes website.



15 years ago

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Submitted by petey on July 11, 2009

many of these critiques have also been made about the US SLP. their positions about electoralism are similar, but i don't know how far their other political positions overlap.


15 years ago

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Submitted by ajjohnstone on July 11, 2009

How the SPGB views itself can be read here ,

But to clarify some positions , the difference between socialists and anarchists is not over the aim of abolishing the State but over how to do this.

Anarchists say that the first objective of the workers' revolution against capitalism should be to abolish the State. Socialists say that, to abolish the State, the socialist working class majority must first win control of it and, if necessary, retain it (in a suitably very modified form to the extent that its functions are administrative and not governmental which can and will be used to co-ordinate the immediate measures to transform society when Socialism is established . ) but for a very short while , just in case , any pro-capitalist recalcitrant minority should try to resist the establishment of socialism. Once socialism, as the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by the whole people, has been established (which the SPGB has always claimed can be done almost immediately ), the State is dismantled, and dissolved completely . We are not talking years or decades or generations here (such as advocating the Trotskyist 'transitional period' or ’workers state’ ), but as a continuation of the immediate revolutionary phase of the over throw of capitalism .
Perhaps , as the article claims , the SPGB is stuck in a timewarp yet contrary to the article’s the SPGB position is consistent with Marx's presuppositions to recognise parliament as an institution geared to the needs of capitalism, and therefore inappropriate as the vehicle for a fundamental transformation of society , but that its connected electoral practices coincide with the principles involved in that transformation which creates the possibility of a peaceful transition to a new society . The vote is a gain, a potential class weapon, a potential "instrument of emancipation" as Marx put it. Despite Lenin's distortions , Marx and Engels always held that the bourgeois democratic republic was the best political framework for the development and triumph of the socialist movement. This is a pre-1914 socialist position we see no reason to abandon - so perhaps , yes , we are caught in a time-warp as accused , but it is one that is no accident .

Because in the SPGB's view the establishment of socialism depends upon an understanding of the necessary social changes by a majority of the population, these changes cannot be left to political parties acting apart from or above the workers. The workers cannot vote for Socialism , as they do for reformist parties , and then go home or go to work and carry on as usual. The SPGB has never held that a merely formal majority at the polls will give the workers power to achieve Socialism. We have always emphasised that such a majority must be educated in the essentials of Socialist principles and it is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, will be decisive. The vote is merely the legitimate stamp which will allow for the dismantling of the repressive apparatus of the States and the end of bourgeois democracy and the establishment of real democracy. It is the Achilles heel of capitalism and makes a non-violent revolution possible. What matters is a conscious socialist majority outside parliament, ready and organised to take over and run industry and society; electing a socialist majority in parliament is essentially just a reflection of this. It is not parliament that establishes socialism, but the socialist working-class majority outside parliament and they do this, not by their votes, but by their active participating beyond this in the transformation of society.

This is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain therefore reject all comparison with other political parties nor accepts the label parliamentarian and also its emphasis that there must not be any leaderships or vanguard . We do not ask for power; we help to educate the working-class itself into taking it. For the Trotskyist Lenininist Left, all activity should be mediated by The Party (union activity, community struggles , etc.) , whereas for us, The Party is just one mode of activity available to the working class to use in their struggles, a tail to be wagged by the dog. The first step towards taking over the means of production must be to take over control of the state, and the easiest way to do this is via elections. But elections are merely a technique, a method. The most important precondition to taking political control out of the hands of the owning class is that the majority are no longer prepared to be ruled and exploited by a minority; they must withdraw their consent to capitalism and class rule-they must want and understand a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control. We need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. We don't suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don't necessary claim that we are that party ( or , more accurately , no longer make that claim when founding members optimism became replaced by realism ). What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist group such as ourselves , but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is such a party that will take political control via the ballot box, but since it will in effect be the majority organised democratically and politically for socialism and it is the majority, not the party as such as something separate from that majority, that carries out the socialist transformation of society.

the SPGB claim that its actual belief is that "socialist consciousness develops out of the workers' class experience of capitalism and its problems . . . the party's propaganda suggests the necessity of educating workers about the virtues of socialism. "

This is a fair view of how we do see the situation , but to put it another way , people become socialists from their experiences and meeting socialists is part of that experience. Acquiring socialist consciousness involves understanding socialism which means talking about it, sharing ideas about it - in short educating ourselves and our fellow workers about it. We can say that socialist consciousness comes from life experience, but then that automatically implies that every worker should achieve it, it should have happened. It leads to a belief of the old "historical inevitability" of Socialism . This is the mechanistic theory that a socialist consciousness can somehow materialise by circumventing the realm of ideology. We come to a socialist view of the world by interacting directly or indirectly with others, exchanging ideas with them. Socialist consciousness emerges through discussion and analysis. And that is perhaps the role of the revolutionary group as being - as a catalyst in the process of changing consciousness. Most current members of the SPGB doubt their organisation will be the sole agent of the socialist transformation. Socialist consciousness on a wide scale is not going to emerge from mere abstract propagandizing or proselytizing . All we are doing in the SPGB is trying to help the emergence of majority socialist consciousness, but even if the sort of activities we engage in can't be the main thing that will bring this consciousness about , it is still nevertheless essential . People can, and do, come to socialist conclusions without the SPGB, but we feel they can come to this quicker if they hear it from an organised group dedicated exclusively to putting over the case for socialism. We can't force or brainwash people into wanting to be free , they can only learn this from their own experience .We see majority socialist consciousness emerging from people's experiences of capitalism coupled with them hearing the case for socialism (but not necessarily from us, although it sometimes seems we are the only group that takes doing this seriously). We have yet to hear a convincing argument how you are supposed to become a "revolutionary" without engaging - and eventually agreeing - at some point with the IDEA of what such a revolution would entail. There is no logical imperative embedded in the material circumstances of capitalism that dictates that we must necessarily become revolutionary socialists . Our experience of these circumstances could just as easily turn us into Fascists , Tories or whatever . In other words, our engagement with the world around us is always mediated by the ideas we hold in our heads; we cannot apprehend this world except through these ideas .

We agree the majority will not understand Socialism from the campaigning and educational effort of the SPGB , but from the potential effect of the social practice particularly of the class struggle.

“If we hoped to achieve Socialism ONLY by our propaganda , the outlook would indeed be bad .But it is Capitalism itself unable to solve crises , unemployment , and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars , which is digging its own grave . Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own . They are learning slowly. Our job is to shorten the time , to speed up the process” Socialism or Chaos ,Socialist Party of Australia

The over lap of ideas between the (British) SLP of William Paul and the SPGB can be read here and also in a 1918 review of his book on The State here also