Part 2: The Theoretical Roots of This Failure

Submitted by jondwhite on December 27, 2014

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.