The Socialist Party of Great Britain one of the oldest socialist parties in the world. Accepting the label "Impossiblists" does not denote that we object to the laws of physics and are demanding impossible feats, but the name refers to the split that emerged in the early socialist movement between the "Possiblists" who believed that socialists should aim for easily attainable reforms as stepping stones to the ultimate goal of socialism, and the revolutionaries who demanded socialism as a first premise. It is a divide that has been seen in other movements such as the German Greens, where the group gets into office under present conditions to find that they have been elected to manage capitalism. Impossiblist socialists say if you want socialism, you have to stand for socialism and nothing but no claims to be able to run capitalism better than the capitalist parties, no reforms trying to change capitalism without abolishing it - only the clear and constant call for the abolition of the wages system itself. It is reasonable, only to demand the impossible.
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The Socialist Party introduced a new and important suggestion into the socialist debate. We argued that a socialist party should not have a programme of “immediate demands” – palliative policies. We do not set ourselves up as opposing the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism. We know the limitations of these attempts and the limitations of the unions. Our fellow workers have yet to learn them. But it is one thing to say that socialists should not oppose the non-socialists fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that socialists should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. There are so – called “socialist” organisations which seek to gain leadership over the workers by aiding them to improve their position under the present order, at the same time they know this is a futile struggle. Suppose the Socialist Party were to embark on a campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth. Perhaps we would get a lot of people to join our organisation. On what basis would they join? The same basis on which we appealed to them. We would, in the end, have an organisation consisting of workers who were seeking continual improvement under capitalist methods of production and distribution, under a price, profit, and wage economy. What happens when such an organisation is voted into political power as a majority? It merely uses the power of the state to carry on capitalism under different forms state- ownership or nationalisation. It cannot use the control of the state to abolish capitalism, because its own members who joined on a reforming basis, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism or lose its members to another organisation which advocated remedial measures. We could cite example after example where a party calling itself “socialist,” but advocating immediate demands now and “socialism in the future” came into political power, and instead of abolishing exploitation, merely altered the form of it. Socialists do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put the socialists in a position of educating, or rather mis-educating, the workers to believe that the capitalist state can function in their interests when it is in the final analysis the agency by which the capitalist class maintains its domination over the working class. The Socialist Party is not concerned with reforms under capitalism. This is the concern of the ruling class which uses reforms to bribe off the working class, and the concern of those groups, such as the unions and their political arms, which seek to get all they can out of the present system. Were the socialist movement to vanish from the earth, the capitalist, by the very class nature of the system, would still grant reforms to forestall the development of revolutionary thought among the workers. On the other hand, a rapidly rising socialist movement would force the capitalist class to grant more and more reforms.
We also held that the ballot was the way to political power. Our goal is the emancipation of labour, not the universalisation of enslavement. If we assume a rational free community, then we need not assume even the compulsion of handing out work to everyone, but the simple recognition of necessity by the members of that community. Obviously, we would prefer the banner of conscious socialism to be unfurled. We would prefer a working class armed with concise political knowledge negotiating under terms of a clear understanding of the class struggle. But failing that, we fully acknowledge the class war exists and being fought, whether people know or want it.
The effect of people being involved in politics is to affirm and advance their own interests - and they're going to do this merely by breathing and eating. They have no need for leaders to get them into the struggle nor of followers urging them on to glorious battle. The strength of the Socialist Party case is that the Party clearly and unambiguously does not want to get into and control these types of struggle - housing association struggles are for housing associations. Union struggles are for unions. The Party isn't mother and isn't father. Impossiblism is not standing on the sidelines, it's getting involved and getting dirty, practically, not out of some vain-glorious romanticism that sees leftists cheering any strike and all strikes rather than weighing them up tactically. The organisation for the capture and conversion of political machinery into an agent of emancipation is also involvement. We are living in an age of revolutions, the idea of revolt in the streets is spreading, the boring work of dealing with life after the street battles is becoming part of the accumulated wisdom of the human species. Demanding the impossible means raising the standard of hope, and affirming your own principles, not slavishly looking for yet another battle to join.
The ritual of meeting and debating is useful, it helps us learn new facts as well as hearing and countering counter arguments. Sects are useful for keeping a flame alive and concentrating minds on certain ideas and notion. We can't build that movement unless some people stand up and act differently. The choice is between the possiblism of a Labour vote, and the impossiblism of standing up and being counted.
The Socialist Party has campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means for producing and distributing wealth. We have not compromised our position once on any issue. So how have we fared? Just what have we achieved? What can we brag about? Well, socialism certainly seems no nearer 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 men and women the autodidacts of the SPGB tried to win over to the socialist cause, yet still, we admittedly find it difficult to recruit new members.
The formation of the Socialist Party in 1904 was due to the changing ideas and changing social conditions – namely the advance of capitalism and the realisation amongst workers that the powers of production had developed to such a stage by then as to make socialism a viable system of society. Furthermore, workers were seeking to establish a political party that had socialism as its only goal; a party not dependent on a leadership for guidance and not out to reform capitalism but to abolish it.
So changing social conditions give rise to new ideas, but it does not follow that these new ideas spread like wildfire overnight, with a huge majority accepting them in a short space of time. On the contrary, they are only accepted by relatively few people and often for a long time. This relates not simply to political ideas, but all ideas, whether they be political, scientific or religious. The more profound the new idea, the greater it challenges the ideas people had hitherto held and the longer it takes for its appeal to spread. Hence the low appeal of revolutionary socialist ideas. The Socialist Party is not advocating a few slight changes to capitalism, a few minor reforms, like the mainstream and leftwing parties, but demanding an end to the present system and everything associated with it. This, at the moment, is just too radical for many people.
And neither does the Socialist Party, as previously mentioned, pull all manner of stunts to increase its membership and secure votes. The Socialist Party is unique in having a membership test to ascertain the socialist knowledge of the aspiring member on a number of points considered very important to members – i.e. the socialist position on reforms, war, the former USSR and religion. Neither does the Socialist Party overtly ask people for their votes at election times. The Socialist Party makes no pledges, no promises, advocates no grand reforms, but stresses there is nothing it can do for the workers that they are not capable of doing for themselves and urges voters only to cast their vote for socialism if they fully comprehend and agree with the socialist case against capitalism.
So, the membership of The Socialist Party is small, but does this diminish the importance of its ideas or contribution to political theory? Hardly; its ideas are in keeping with social evolution – the future of humanity when capitalism is at last recognised as an outdated and ridiculous way in which to run the affairs of the world. This makes the ideas its members defend so powerful as to be ultimately indisputable. Thus, the Socialist Party’s members feel privileged to be members, convinced they are making a genuine contribution to the struggle for socialism. This is not to suggest the Socialist Party considers itself, as so many Leninist groups do, to be some revolutionary vanguard, blessed with an insight the masses can only dream of, ready to lead them to victory when the final hour comes. On the contrary, Socialist Party members believe a revolutionary class consciousness can be attained by any member of the working class who is prepared to begin thinking for themselves and to start questioning the most prevalent assumptions of the day. The Party may be small, but this is the price it has paid for refusing to compromise any of its revolutionary principles in 101 years and for not offering quick-fix solutions to the problems of capitalism. It remains small because it is not impatient for social change, realising that before you can have a social revolution you need a revolution in the way people think. At this moment in time, although the case for socialism has never been so pressing, it remains a sad fact that too many workers still think capitalism can be made to work in the interests of all if enough tinkering here and there is a carried out.
Our membership remains small, scattered and, let’s be honest, relatively inactive compared to all those marching, protesting and demonstrating, and we are yet to win a seat in any local or national election. And so 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, SPEW, and AWL, 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 workers' minds 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 over 100 years held lectures and debated with scores of political organisations and notable personalities. Many of the latter now exists on audio cassette and cds and more recently we have begun producing videoes to highlight our case. We try to be present at almost every political event in Britain—we even did Glastonbury a few years—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.
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 an 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 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 a socialist revolution. 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 an 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. tons, 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 to join us – and help us make history. Let’s make sure that this coming century sees the end of the profit system.