Socialist Party members circa 1905
The left has been sniggering at us of late. Yes, we in the SPGB have our warts – which organisation has not? Yes, we have our problems, but we have mechanisms to solve them democratically. And from what I know of my 16 years of Party membership the current problem will pass and the Party will emerge stronger. For over a century the SPGB has campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means for producing and distributing wealth – this despite the many internal disputes the Party has weathered. In those 103 years we have not compromised our position once on any issue. We remain the sole true revolutionary organisation in Britain. The WSM remains the sole revolutionary organisation in the world.
Our problems aside, how have we really faired politically? Just what have we achieved? What can we brag about? Well, socialism certainly seems no nearer than it was 103 years ago, though it must be said that the technology needed to establish a world of abundance is by far in advance of that familiar to our founders. Moreover, the working class nowadays are far better educated than the workers the autodidacts of the SPGB 1904 tried to win over to the socialist cause, yet still we admittedly find it difficult to recruit new members.
Our membership remains small, scattered and, let’s be honest, relatively inactive, and whilst we have had some decent election results in recent years we are yet to win a seat in any local or national election. And it is not uncommon for members to despair at the poor results of their efforts and to resign.
Of course we have faced many obstacles to our growth which we could not foresee back in 1904; not least of which was the 1917 Bolshevik coup and the myriad groupings that sprung from the inspiration of the “Russian Revolution” and which, in truth, have caused untold damaged to the true socialist cause.
For many years now, we in the Socialist Party have spent a great deal of time not only trying to rescue the socialist name from the many Leninist and Trotskyist groups who have sullied the image of socialism, but also in exposing the fallacy that socialism was ever established in the former Soviet Union and distancing ourselves from the illusion held by many that socialists advocate violent revolution and that socialism can exist in one country. Though we were in existence a long time before any left wing group in Britain, we find that we have constantly had to compete, for the minds of the workers, with groups like the SWP, RCP, CP, CWO, CPGB and a hundred others, all of whom pedal the politics of confusion, offering the workers fast-track routes to the Promised Land, prepared to recruit anyone capable of signing their membership forms, regardless. Little wonder we have had such a difficult time recruiting.
Moreover, we have watched in dismay the ongoing workers’ support for the Labour Party in Britain - workers’ belief in Labour’s claim to be “socialist”, workers’ belief in the empty promises of New Labour and that party’s continued determination to betray those same workers at every opportunity and lead them down the blind alley of reformism.
It’s fair, also, to mention the impact of the thousands of single-issue groups on the political scene and indeed the collective consciousness of the workers. Groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and CND, though well meaning, focus many a worker’s mind on a single issue or reform, as if this is the most pressing matter of the day. If their combined energy had have been spent on attacking capitalism as a system, instead of campaigning against problems the system throws up, distracting millions of workers, then our task would have been halved.
So in honesty a great amount of our work has been taken up in attempts to rectify the damage done by other political organisations to socialist ideas and in challenging the single-issue mentality of thousands of organisations. Make no mistake about it – we have tried.
Let’s not forget that back in 1904 there was no means of mass communication, bar newspapers. Advances in communication technology were undreamed of in 1904. Now many workers have several televisions in their homes, and access to hundreds of channels. They have computers and access to a world wide web of information and all manner of electronic gadgetry that helps lull them into political apathy. And controlling all of this is the big corporations and the advertising industry, turning those same means of communication largely into idiot boxes that numb the minds of the workers.
Since 1904 there have been vast improvements in health, housing and in the way people live generally and which gives workers the impression that capitalism works for them and that the politicians ‘running the show’ have their best interests at heart. Little do the workers realise that any reforms were really the price the master class had to pay for their continued survival, and were certainly not an act of altruism. And all improvements in living were in general relative. Moreover, it was the workers who produced this wealth the politicians have taken the credit for and which the workers have erringly thanked them for on election day.
Of course we have had our successes over the years. Our monthly journal, The Socialist Standard, has been printed without fail since September 1904, producing sound Marxist analysis of current and international events as they have happened. We now have companion parties and members right across the world and hundreds of thousands access our website. We have our own head office, owned by the party and we produce literature and leaflets on a wide variety of subjects. We hold day schools and summer schools and attend as many events as we can to put forward our arguments to the workers. We contest elections every year — with increased returns in some places — and we regularly have members appearing on TV and radio and in the press arguing our case. We have for 103 years held lectures and debated with scores of political organisations and notable personalities. Many of the latter now exists on audio cassette andc CD and more recently we have produced a popular and much viewed film (Capitalism and other Kids’ Stuff) to highlight our case. In recent years we have been active at almost every major event in Britain—from Glastonbury to Gleneagles—handing out leaflets, putting up speakers and erecting literature stalls; in short, doing our level best with our limited resources to propagate the case for a non violent, democratic transition to socialism. In recent weeks we have had stalls at Tolpuddle and the Durham Miners Gala.
So let’s be fair – the lack of socialist consciousness and desire for real change is hardly down to us. It is the lack of success of the class of wage and salary workers in general. It's up to them, not us, to establish socialism. But such have been the distractions – some listed above – that we really have had our work cut out for us.
We can also consider ourselves successful in having developed some quite original and distinctive arguments in response to advances within capitalism. We were, for example, perhaps the first political party in the world to contend that the Russian dictatorship, in the wake of the 1917 coup, was “state capitalist” rather than socialist — an argument since adopted by many others. On other occasions, The Socialist Party has developed new distinctive arguments in that we have effectively blended extant strands of political and economic thought into a entirely new mix. This is most notably the case with our views on the “reform or revolution” question, where two seemingly incompatible theories were entwined into a unique new political position.
There are indeed a number of distinctive arguments The Socialist Party has developed since our formation in 1904 and while socialism has not yet been achieved, we have helped make some serious contributions to the development of socialist political and economic theory – weapons for battles now being fought and yet to come. Here are some of our most noteworthy contributions.
The Socialist Party helped solve the “reform or revolution” predicament which had beset the early labour movement by rejecting reformism but not democratic political action to capture state power – two views that had formerly been associated with one another. An early forerunner of The Socialist Party, The Socialist League of William Morris, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, had been taken over by anarchists in the 1880s largely because it combined opposition to reformism with anti-parliamentarianism, specifically a tendency to view elections as a bourgeois diversion and parliament as merely the “talking shop” of the capitalist class. The founders of The Socialist Party learned from the mistakes of the Socialist League and other groups, and contended that opposition to elections and Parliament did not logically follow on from opposing reformism. We claimed that for a socialist revolution to be as peaceful as possible, the state machine and armed forces would have to be democratically captured from the control of the capitalist class and converted from being “an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation.”
The Socialist Party resolved that modern wars are fought over issues of concern to the owning class and not the workers; specifically being disputes over areas of influence, trade routes, sources of raw materials and sometimes overseas markets or the strategic points from which all of the same can be defended. When war broke out in 1914, The Socialist Party was the only political organisation in Britain to unequivocally oppose the conflict. Many of our members were imprisoned for refusing to join the army. Other parties professing to uphold the interests of the working class took sides, having identified anti-militarism, “national liberation” and other causes as goals worth pursuing before socialism.
Admittedly, in the 19th century, socialists like Marx and Engels supported so-called “progressive wars” against feudal reaction at a time when capitalism had not yet become the dominant world system. They thought that sweeping away feudal regimes like Tsarist Russia would help pave the way for socialist organisation and eventually revolution. Their position in the period of capitalist ascendancy over feudalism was taken by some supporters of war in 1914 as justification for their own action. The Socialist Party maintained that whatever Marx and Engels’ views in the 19th Century, there could be no question of socialists taking sides with any section of the capitalist class once capitalism had become the dominant world system and socialism the pressing alternative to it. When capitalism has advanced far enough to create the material conditions for socialism, the capitalist class becomes socially useless and all nation states reactionary, needing to be swept aside not bolstered.
The Socialist Party, unlike most of the “left wing”, opposed the establishment of the dictatorship in Russia under the guise of “workers control” or “socialism.” The Socialist Party argued that Russia, under Bolshevik rule, would be forced to take the capitalist road as the only one open to it. Socialism in one country (an economically backward one at that) and without majority support was impossible. The Bolshevik “Revolution” was in fact a political coup d’etat by a self-appointed elite of political conspirators with no respect for the wishes of the majority. For decades, The Socialist Party has maintained in distinction to Bolshevism that minority action can never lead to socialism.
Socialists have affirmed that Soviet Russia was capitalist and could only have been so given the nature of its political birth. It exhibited all the principal features of the capitalist mode of production in one form or another, notably wage labour, capital accumulation, commodity production, class division and the exploitation of one class by another.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party (ILP) argued that capitalism was going to collapse, with socialism arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The Socialist Party contended that this was baloney and that capitalism would not pave the way for socialism without majority political action. This contention was repeated in the years after the Second World War to Trotskyists and left-communists who took up afresh the mantle of “capitalist collapse”. In particular, The Socialist Party denied the claim that capitalism would collapse because of an in-built lack of purchasing power, with the workers and capitalists combined unable to buy back the entire product of industry. This claim was based on a erroneous view of the relationship between productive labour and effective demand in capitalism – that somehow there is a permanent mismatch between the value of the mass of commodities produced at any one time and the income derived from this production in the form of surplus value (unpaid labour) and the value of workers’ labour power (unpaid labour). This “deficiency of purchasing power” claim—sometimes called “under-consumptionism” and wrongly credited to Marx—is a myth and has been disproved both in theory and by history. The Socialist Party has argued that enough purchasing power exists in capitalism—it is how it is used that causes difficulties, as its relationship to production is not planned. This is the phenomenon which gives rise to periodic (not permanent) crises and slumps and the trade cycle which has been a characteristic of capitalism since its infancy.
In response to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, The Socialist Party resolved that bourgeois democracy, with elementary political rights, is the most favourable condition for the overthrow of capitalism. In addition, we maintained that workers living under dictatorships should struggle to establish basic political rights, though without ever giving support to capitalist organisations, including those professing bourgeois democracy as their aim. This is not only because of the general reformist and anti-socialist nature of such organisations, but because these organisations in government are compelled to use the might of the state machine against the working class in the interests of capital.
For similar reasons, The Socialist Party resolved that socialists cannot support allegedly “democratic” countries fighting wars against dictatorships. Socialists are aware that wars are never fought over such lofty ideals and that history has proved that “democratic” states will prop up and assist dictatorships if it is in their interests to do so. The Socialist Party position was vindicated after the second World War when the allies carved up Europe in such a way as to hand half of it to the Stalinist dictatorship while leaving Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, among others, as neo-fascist regimes.
In the late 1940s, we argued that the setting up of the “welfare state” in Britain and other countries after the war would not solve the problems of the working class, which are integral to capitalism. To the extent that the welfare state represented a gain for some workers on the previous arrangements, we noted that it was always dependent on the maintenance of a low level of unemployment and destitution—a situation capitalism is incapable of sustaining for long. In recent decades unemployment, the rise of the so-called “underclass” and demographic change have undermined welfare provision as it came to be built up.
Over time the burdens on the welfare state have increased just as the capitalist class finds it increasingly difficult to finance it through taxation of profits. These increased burdens have led to a squeeze on the rate of profit after tax—the bottom line for the capitalists—which is the main factor determining the pace of future investment and growth, and also whether firms or entire nation states sink or swim in the competitive world economy.
In distinction to the main political parties, The Socialist Party was never taken in by claims of Keynesian economics, which promised low unemployment, steady growth and stable prices for the post-war period on the basis of government borrowing, “easy money” and redistributive taxation, especially when slump threatened. Unlike most of capitalism’s economists, socialists argued that Keynesian policies could not prevent unemployment and crises as the major determinants of these—production for profit, the anarchy of production and capitalism’s antagonistic system of income distribution, are integral features of the market economy.
Sure enough, everywhere Keynesianism was attempted it proved disastrous and eventually provoked the return to “laissez-faire” economics in the 1980s. Its lasting legacy—still with most of the capitalist world—has been persistently rising prices. This has been brought about by the mistaken belief—exposed by The Socialist Party from the standpoint of Marxian economics—that an excess issue of inconvertible paper currency would act as a stimulus to production and trade.
In Anti-Duhring, Friedrich Engels had written of production in socialism being guided “on the basis of one single vast plan”, but given the complexity of modern society, this is not possible. The Socialist Party realised that socialism could not be built on the basis of a centralised allocative plan which would be, by definition, antithetical to local decision-making, and which would be unresponsive to changing needs. Instead, The Socialist Party suggested that socialism would operate a system of production solely for use, operating in direct response to needs, these needs arising in local communities. The operational basis for this system would be calculation in kind (e.g. tones, kilos, litres etc.) instead of monetary calculation, combined with the responsive system of stock-control outlined in our pamphlet Socialism as Practical Alternative. Such a system would be able to allocate resources much more efficiently, responsively and democratically than a pre-determined allocative plan which had proved next to useless for state capitalist regimes, and is no model for a real socialist democracy.
If anything, the aforementioned contributions to political and economic theory should reveal that The Socialist Party is no unsuccessful, sterile organisation full of utopian dogmatists. Socialists are not content to sit on the sidelines of history – we are original thinkers and are open to innovation and new ideas – providing, that is, that they are sound. We are willing and able to cooperate with men and women the world over to bring about a better society, and we are proud of the small contribution we have already made to the movement that will one day sweep away capitalism once and for all.
We remain small in size for numerous reasons outside of our control, not least because we refuse to compromise our position and pursue reforms and single issues that the myriad reform groups like the SWP do to the detriment of revolutionary struggle.
Our message to those who can see no future so long as the market economy remains is join us – and help us make history. Let’s make sure that this coming century sees the end of the profit system.