Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

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1904 - 2004 A Century of Political Strggle

The Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991)


On June 13 2004, we held a Summer School to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on June 12 1904. The Summer School ran for nine hours (11.00 am to 8 pm) and with audience participation was a stimulating and worthwhile occasion. What follows is a write-up of the contributions made from our platform. Some dates will show that in a few cases more recent examples have been used and some extension of points made have been included. However the issues dealt with - the arguments and the substance - are taken directly from the speakers’ notes.

The span of 100 years has to be seen in its historic perspective. Hard to imagine today but, at the time the Party was founded in 1904, the motor car was a rich man’s toy. Rolls Royce was also started in 1904 and also became a byword for excellence: in their case for the capitalist class, in our case for the working class. Then, in 1907, Ford built the Model T, and by 1915 Ford were producing a million cars a year. The aeroplane was in its infancy. The first power-driven, man-carrying, flying machine was in the air for less than a minute in December 1903. By 1914, they were carrying passengers and the first world war saw their first use in warfare.

Radio did not get going until the 1920s but by 1930 most major countries had regular broadcasting services. The BBC began television broadcasting in 1936 but it did not become common until well after 1945. The Representation of the People Act (1918) gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 and all women over 30. Full adult franchise was not conceded till much later.

The rapid expansion of capitalism can be seen in these and many other areas where growing markets have meant huge profits - the periods of expansion always being interrupted by glut and crises. Against the time-scale of this perspective, the 100 years from 1904 to 2004 has been a century of employment and unemployment, booms and crises, wars and the threat of wars, working-class poverty, insecurity and homelessness, extremes of wealth for a minority owning class, contrasted with work and want for the working class - the non-owners, the majority who work for wages or salaries.

Politically and economically, it was a century of failed reformism where the industrial class struggle frequently erupted into strikes, including the so-called general strike of 1926 and the year-long miners’ strike of 1984. While these and countless thousands of other bitter industrial clashes took place over the effects of the class-ownership of the means of production, demonstrations and protests were also common forms of expressing protests against A-bombs, war, poverty and unemployment.

For instance, in 1936 200 unemployed men from the shipbuilding town of Jarrow organised a ‘hunger march’ to London. Three years later these same hunger marchers, together with other former unemployed workers, were helping to fight the war of British capitalism against the workers of Germany.

It has also been a century of holocausts, although only one is officially recognised as such. War is, itself, a continuous series of holocausts. The firestorm destruction of the undefended city of Dresden, the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are a few examples. Since then Vietnam endured many years of saturation bombing with napalm and Agent Orange at the hand of American capitalism, and many millions more have perished in other such holocausts since the 1939-45 war which was supposed to be the last.

Throughout all this and despite the struggles and setbacks that have confronted the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Party has retained its commitment to Socialism as its one Object and to the Declaration of Principles upon which it was founded. This has meant accepting the responsibility to expound the case for Socialism, and to keep it clear of confusion and compromise.

So – after 100 years - what have we to say for ourselves? After 100 years, can the SPGB reasonably be said to have failed? True, we are still a tiny minority, but Socialism has never been put into practice and found to be unworkable. There has never been a class-conscious majority in favour of Socialism while the Party has always insisted that such a majority must precede the establishment of Socialism. So failure and having not yet succeeded are not the same.

Throughout that same 100 years all the major parties of capitalism, whether alleged Labour or avowedly capitalist, have had millions of votes and long periods in power in this and other countries. Looking at today’s world with millions starving, penury in old-age, terrorism, militarism and war, theirs is the failure!

1904 – the turn of the new century – was seen as a time of hope for humanity and a chance for peace. A 100 years on, with the year 2000 and a whole new millennium, more hope for good things soon became just another day in the rat race. The 21st century has so far been dominated by war, terrorism, ignorance and capitalism. Names that come at once to mind are Bush, Blair, al-Quaeda, Guantanomo, Abu Ghraib, Belmarsh.

Failure also belongs to the Anarchists, Anarcho-Syndicalists, the Left Wing movement. Peace movements and CND: they also have been around in one form or another, for a 100 years. All they had to do was to stop a war – any war. The Peace Pledge Union got 2 million signatures before 1939, pledging no more support for war.

We can’t wait to teach the worker Socialism” has been the common plea. CND had only to achieve the banning of nuclear bombs. Yet fifty years later, nuclear weapons have proliferated. The threat remains.

Anarchists had only to smash the state - majority understanding was not their issue. But not a single example anywhere. Direct Action nowhere! Syndicalists and Leftists had only to occupy the factories – take and hold. Why haven’t they? These were to be the fast-track ways for getting things done.

The false trails followed by all these people and their total lack of achievement serve only to confirm that capitalism is here until a majority of workers organise consciously to end it. The class-ownership of the means of production and distribution remains the central issue to be dealt with. This has always been our case.

The piecemeal bag is not for us, we have always deliberately rejected it. The need to replace capitalism with Socialism is our only reason for existing as a political party. There will always be numerous “worthy” causes but palliation has not worked. Our one success is that we have advocated unalloyed Socialism and continue to do so - something nobody else does.

Socialism does not means capitalism run by the Labour Party with or without the support of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the “Communist” Party. It does not mean nationalisation or a police state capitalist dictatorship, as with the former Soviet Union.

Socialism means a classless world society based upon the common ownership of the means of production, with the abolition of the wages system and the market economy in favour of production solely to meet human needs. Such a revolutionary change must involve the immense majority acting democratically and consciously. Political power will be used to end classes and the power of the owning class will end with their dispossession.

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What Kind of Party?

The concept that everything must always be open to discussion would inexorably lead to the Party becoming a thinly disguised debating society – forever contemplating its navel.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is only as strong as it is coherent, consistent, easily understood, and speaks with one voice. The Party has always depended upon evidence to make its case and should continue so to do.

Conjecture, manufactured and contrived arguments that presume to give details of what future society will be like, or seek to divert the Party into taking joint action for limited objectives with opponents, or promoting “democracy” as an object to be supported separately from Socialism: these do nothing to promote Socialist propaganda.

From the late 1960s, for the Party, internal controversy became the main preoccupation. “Should we support Women’s Lib?” became a major issue in the early 1970s, with nearly half the members in favour of supporting anti-Socialist movements. When asked “which movements the Party should support”, such members blandly replied: “the progressive ones”. It is reasonable to ask where these people, with their anarchist allies and the leftist movement, stand now in face of New Labour’s current pernicious, anti-terror legislation, indefinite detention without charge or trial, curfew and tagging on suspicion - and barely a peep from any of these champions of democracy.

But if everything must always be open for discussion, meaning views for and against, disagreement becomes the norm on every aspect of the Party’s case. Propaganda becomes impossible or at best ambivalent. There can never be an agreed position.

However, the reality of the true nature of the Socialist Party of Great Britain can be seen from the fact that, from day one, 12 June 1904, the Party invited membership only on the basis of agreement with the Declaration of Principles and the single Object - Socialism. This was not from any desire to “shut people up” or to silence opposition but because opposition belongs outside the Party, so that those for Socialism can be distinct from those against it.

After 25 years of Equal Opportunities legislation, women are, on average, still paid 18% less than men, and thousands of women still face dismissal for becoming pregnant. This situation was described as “shocking” by the Equal Opportunities Commission in February 2005. Yet the intrepid campaigners for “progressive” movements have fallen quiet, the economics of the labour market and capitalist wars having defeated them.

It is not for Socialists to support “plausible sounding/desirable” reforms like equal pay legislation and, in order to do so, suspend working for Socialism. The reformists must realise the futility of their day-to-day commitment to an eternity of capitalism, in their piecemeal missions to nowhere, and join us to work for Socialism.

The agitation for “immediate demands” can really only be aimed at those who are able to legislate such demands into operation. This means that one of the major capitalist parties must adopt these into their programme. They would do this only if capitalism was in no way threatened. Socialists would have to abandon Socialism and urge workers to vote for our opponents, their class enemies, in order to indulge in such worthless practices.

In 1971, by way of example, the Heath government was promoting the Industrial Relations Bill to control trade unions. It was argued at Conference, by the ‘progressive’ faction, that the Party should support the movement to “kill the Bill”. That demand was only narrowly defeated after one of our comrades outlined the history of union legislation, pointing to the fact that its enforcement depended on employers competing for specific kinds of labour being willing to accept workers’ demands, which meant that conditions in the labour-market ultimately decided the issue.

In practice, had the ‘progressive’ faction won, we would have joined forces on May Day 1971 with the Labour Left, the Communist Party and other assorted leftists organised behind the slogan. At a stroke, this would have ended the Party’s independence and destroyed the SPGB as the single-object Party for Socialism. In the event, we held our own meeting arguing the case for Socialism and discussed our views with trade unionists. We also got a mention in THE TIMES in our own right.

Heath’s Bill became law in August 1971. In January 1972 the miners’ strike began. By February, there were large-scale power cuts and 1.5 million workers were laid off.

The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) fined the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) for contempt in March 1972. Dockers imprisoned under the Act were released in August 1972. Heath was forced to call an election in 1974, leading to five chaotic years of minority Labour governments. In July 1974 the Wilson government repealed the Industrial Relations Act of 1971, and the NIRC was abolished.

This period of Labour government ended in the ‘winter of discontent’ with widespread strikes against which the Act would have been useless. We should not forget the earlier period of Wilson’s Labour government, 1964-70, and Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” policy, aimed at stopping unofficial strikes. This was dropped in 1969 when the TUC pledged to deal with such disputes.

In 1979 Thatcher came to power and introduced the Employment Bill on picketing, secret ballot and closed shops. There was going to be legislation attempting to curb union militancy one way or another.

In 1950 some Party members attended a Labour Party meeting in Bermondsey Baths. Aneurin Bevan was speaking in support of the local opportunist, Ben Whittaker (if we remember his name correctly). At that time, the Labour government was prosecuting London dockers under wartime emergency laws. In a hall half-filled with dockers, Bevan refused to comment on the grounds that the matter was sub judice, the case still being before the court.

In all the years since then, there have been strikes. 20 years ago, in 1985, teachers were striking over pay. They are fighting essentially the same struggle today, as are 100,000 civil servants, legislation notwithstanding.

In the first Party pamphlet, THE MANIFESTO OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, first published in 1905, the SPGB stated its case:
To-day the worker goes into the labour market as an article of merchandise, and his wages, that is, his price, is determined, like that of any other article of merchandise, by the cost of production... (1908 edition, p1).

After developing the case, it concludes:
... Socialism alone is based on the facts of working-class existence. Socialism alone can free the worker from the necessity of selling himself for the profit of a master; Socialism alone will strip him of his merchandise character and allow him to become a full social being (p9). This is the revolutionary position - the demand to abolish the wages-system. This is the case the Party has always put to workers, whether in unions or not.

History and Identity

What is it that gives the Socialist Party of Great Britain a history after 100 years? It is its unique identity! If the Party were not instantly recognisable as the one party that rejects everything all the others stand for and condemns them as opportunist, leader-dependent, ignorant and reformist, if we did not insist on the no-compromise advocacy of Socialism - a classless world of production solely for use, not for sale and profit, - we would have no identity. We would have no independent history, and what we do would merge into what all the others do.

In 1904 the founding members of the SPGB got out of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) because it had become opportunist, seeking to “broaden its base”, compromising itself in deals with the Liberal Party, looking for numbers rather than making Socialists.

Then, after about three-quarters of a century, events in the SPGB went full-cycle and, what had been a sound Party, was overtaken by conspiracy and compromise and, in effect, became another SDF. Those concerned in bringing the Party to this impasse had recruited and built their support to the point where those of us subscribing to the original Party case were swamped. Those others still retain control of the SOCIALIST STANDARD but it is far from being the Socialist journal it had been. They stand condemned in their own words after trying to camouflage their infancy. Regarding our members whom they had expelled, they say:
What made the disagreements with this group – and their subsequent expulsion – particularly difficult was that in Hardy, Harry Young, Cyril May and other members it contained some of the Party’s staunchest and most able writers, speakers and activists from earlier periods, in some cases as early as the inter-war years!

For the Socialist Party of Great Britain to have had to be reconstituted after 87 years in order to get back to the 1904 revolutionary position is a clear indication of what the disagreements were about. We continue to present the case for Socialism in our journal, SOCIALIST STUDIES, and in our wide range of Socialist pamphlets.

At the time of the Party’s 50th anniversary, those “staunchest and most able writers” published in the Socialist Standard a list of the Party’s contributions to the Socialist movement. These included the following points:

• We have always insisted upon the capture of political power before any fundamental change in the social system can be accomplished.
• Until the majority understand and want this change Socialism cannot be achieved.
• Opposition to all reform policies and unswerving pursuit of Socialism as the sole objective.
• Opposition to all war, without any distinction between alleged wars of offence, of defence, or against tyranny.
• That, when the workers understand their position and how to change it, they will not require leaders to guide them. Leadership is the bane of the working class movement for Socialism.
• That Socialism is international, involving the participation of workers all over the world. Therefore any suggestion of establishing Socialism in one country alone is anti-Socialist.
• The Socialist Party must be entirely independent of all other political parties entering into no agreement or alliances for any purpose. Compromising this independence for any purpose, however seemingly innocent, will lead to non-Socialists giving support to the Party.

Our own credentials and consistency as the Socialist Party of Great Britain can be seen in the fact that we unreservedly reaffirm our allegiance to those propositions today. It is also worth noting that we have survived the Soviet Union, falsely passed off as Socialism in one country, another major obstacle in the Party’s path for 74 years. This is our history and our identity – working for Socialism.

The whole key to sound Socialist organisation is unified commitment to Socialism. The integrity of the membership and open democratic conduct built upon Socialist knowledge and understanding can be the only foundation for a genuine Socialist Party. When conspiratorial and mutually exclusive cliques develop, this foundation is destroyed and the Socialist character of the Party would be finished. Factions in the Party promoting activities and ideas at odds with the Party’s purpose lead to the alienation of those still supporting the original Party case.

The principle that the Party is controlled by the whole membership on an egalitarian basis means democratic conduct in circulating information, and conducting activities through elected committees which report to the EC, which is elected by the membership and answerable to the membership through Conference.

But this process ceased to be democratic when, behind the scenes, cliques conducted campaigns against individuals as speakers, writers or EC members. Intrigue and manipulation took the place of openness and equality. This was how Party democracy was undermined. Paradoxically, some of the same members who were involved in destroying Party democracy were straining every effort to support - capitalist - democracy for the ruling class in Poland.

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Can Capitalism Be Humanised?

The case for Socialism would be redundant if capitalism had been changed by reforms or by science and technological development, and was able to solve its problems. Has capitalism changed, and can it change in such a way that our condemnation of it is no longer valid?

Capitalism has grown technologically, and expanded politically and geographically. Modern industry and science span the globe. But the fundamental social relations of production, wage labour and capital, remain – as do the effects of those relations of production. Throughout the world of capitalism workers spend their lives as employees on the labour-market while the wealth they alone produce makes those who own the means of production, the capitalist class, wealthy. Extremes of poverty and riches co-exist.

Marx and Engels had a great deal to say about the relations of production. For instance, in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO they wrote:
But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour… Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage-labour.

Dealing with economic crises, they argued:
For many a decade past the history of the revolt of industry and commerce is but the history of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule.

This was written nearly 160 years ago yet, although capitalism is still prone to unemployment, recessions and crises, capitalist economists do not go to the heart of the matter: the incompatibility of modern productive forces with modern conditions of production. Instead they blame government policies, over-spending or under-spending, unfair competition, or too high interest rates.

Marx developed the theory of crises in great depth in Volume III of CAPITAL (CHAPTER XV: III):
It is not a fact that too much wealth is produced. But it is true that there is periodical overproduction of wealth in its capitalistic and self-contradictory form… It comes to a standstill at a point determined by the production and realisation of profit, not by the satisfaction of social needs.

Engels also dealt with crises, e.g. in ANTI-DUHRING (PART III: II): The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and as this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production, the collisions become periodic. Capitalist production has begotten another ‘vicious circle’.

Now let’s look at the world of 21st century capitalism. The once vaunted German and Japanese ‘economic miracles’ are long gone. Japan has been in deep recession for a decade with growth rates of about 1%. Germany, over the year 2003 to 2004, had 4.4 million unemployed, about 10% of its workforce, which rose in early 2005 to 5 million unemployed, a rate of 12.1% - a post-war record. France also had around 10% unemployment.

America saw no fewer than 13 interest rate cuts in as many months during 2001-2002. In the world’s wealthiest country, 9.3 million workers were unemployed in April 2004, 34.6 million were living below the poverty line, and while the 1% of the population who own 40% of the wealth gained 39 % of Bush’s tax cuts, 87% of American families felt no benefit (THE INDEPENDENT, 3 September 2004).

Since then, in his STATE OF THE UNION speech (January 2005), President Bush has said that by 2042 the entire US Social Security system will be bankrupt: pensions cannot be afforded without going to the stock markets. On the same day (3 January 2005), Exxon Mobil announced record profits of $25 billion.

In Britain, the current method for recording unemployment was only adopted in 1984, after massaging the figures had been perfected. Unemployment is masked by excluding various categories for which figures are not publicised, such as people with savings of more than £8,000, those in training schemes, or temporary work placements, and part-time workers who want full-time jobs. In November 2004, 626,300 people were claiming unemployment benefit - those not claiming are not included as unemployed. On 19 January 2005, BBC CEEFAX gave 1.4 million as the unemployed figure.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics were published in mid-September 2004. They said that unemployment had fallen by 16,000 in the three months to July, leaving 1.41 million unemployed (4.7%) but a new category of “economically inactive” appeared which included those “who are sick or disabled”. This category increased by 73,000 to 7.88 million the number of people not looking for work. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said, in January 2005, that manufacturing industry is in long-term decline, job losses having increased at a higher rate in recent months. Three years ago, 146,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the three months to November 2001 (CEEFAX, 16 January 2002). The current Government’s plan to cut 104,000 civil service jobs was branded as “disgraceful butchery” by the boss of the Public and Commercial Services Union in September 2004.

The unemployed and those categories not included in the figures are not the only ones suffering poverty in modern Britain.

Help the Aged says the UK has the highest proportion of excess winter deaths in the EU. In 2002-2003 in England and Wales 21,800 old people died as a direct result of the cold, amounting to more than 330,000 in the last ten years.
ITV TELETEXT, 27 November 2003

Age Concern say that half-a-million pensioners aged over 65 do not eat enough. Another charity, Children In Need, was 25 years old in 2004. Over 100,000 are homeless - this figure has gone up by 135% since 1997. The tenuous nature of employment generally can be seen in the part played by the fear of redundancy on the housing market. The lower-paid workers at the bottom of the heap feel the worst effects of a system that does not cater for human needs.

A report in 2004 by the charity CRISIS highlighted London’s West End police arresting homeless beggars to take fingerprints and DNA, and, in November 2003, Barnados said that 48% of inner London children are in poverty. In the UK, 3.8 million children live in homes below the poverty-line income of £224.00 per week (TELETEXT, 12 November 2003).

At the other extreme of capitalism’s wealth-divide, Roman Abramovich, the highest paid person in the UK, pocketed £564 million in one year.

And, while at least seven million workers worry about the pittance they will get on retirement, RADIO FOUR'S TODAY PROGRAMME (12 May 2003) tells us that the total pensions pot for Britain’s top 100 firms’ executive directors could be as much as £2 billion. Around the same time, multi-billionaire steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, paid £70 million for a 12-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens, the all-time most expensive house. No consolation to the fingerprinted homeless!

Wealth still accumulates in the hands of the minority who are able to command surplus value. A century of reformism and piecemeal “do-gooder” policies have not changed the world of capitalism. Reforms also cut both ways, as legislative power is used to whittle down such limited freedoms of expression as there were. For the first time in 300 years, protests outside Parliament are banned. Massive barriers and heavily armed police stand between the voters and those they elect.

Resulting from the plunder of the world by the richer, more powerful countries, Jack Straw feels constrained to tell us: “the whole world is open to attack by indiscriminate ruthless terrorism” (ITV TELETEXT, 21 November 2003). He did not say whether by official state-terrorism, by freelance unofficial terrorism, or both.

Libya, a long-time ‘pariah-state’ is in from the cold, and ready to raise its oil quota. The Libyan Foreign Minister, Shalqam, said:“We are completely open now, especially regarding the oil sector”. Shell got in with a £1 billion deal very quickly (ITV TELETEXT, 25 March 2004).

The fortunes of other countries are not so rosy. In Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed in 100 days by machetes and clubs when the Hutu tribe slaughtered the Tutsi. The death rate was five times as high as that of the Nazi death camps, yet it has never been called a holocaust! In fact the BBC’s PANORAMA programme said it was “ignored by the world” (4 April 2004). A former UN commander said that Western states were “criminally responsible for genocide” (BBC CEEFAX, 6 April 2004).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil wars have killed between 3 and 4 million people in the last five years: this too is also largely ignored (CHANNEL 4 NEWS, 25 May 2003).

While the American President appoints himself to lecture the world about freedom and democracy and uses such rhetoric to “justify” his war against Iraq, there is no freedom for minorities who oppose him in a system where the two major capitalist parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote presidential candidates. The US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay gives a hollow ring to the politicians’ talk about freedom and democracy.

In Pakistan, General Perez Musharraf toppled the elected President Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and set up a military dictatorship with US support. His regime has nuclear bombs and rocket systems capable of delivering them. Whether the world would be a “safer place” without his regime is a question that is never raised. The whole question as to why the major powers all have nuclear arsenals, and why everywhere capitalism and militarism co-exist, is never openly discussed.

Apart from the vastly increased destructive capacity of today’s world military power, the hypocrisy, poverty and human suffering would be instantly familiar to the workers of 1904. The case of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is therefore as valid now in 2004 as it was in 1904. Capitalism does not work for humanity, it works for profits.

Only a conscious, working-class majority revolution, to establish common ownership and democratic control of the earth and its resources, will rid mankind of the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

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Democracy and The Workers

In a letter to Theodor Cuno, dated January 24 1872, Frederick Engels deals with Anarchism and the conspiratorial ethics of Bakunin. Engels says: “It is in all sects to stick together and intrigue” (SELECTED WORKS, VOLUME II, p429).

Dealing with Bakunin’s theory of the primacy of the state over capital, he wrote:

Bakunin... does not regard capital, and therefore the class contradiction between capitalists and wage earners... as the main evil to be abolished – instead he regards the state as the main evil... As, therefore, the state is the chief evil, it is above all the state which must be done away with and then capitalism will go to blazes of itself. We, on the contrary, say: Do away with capital, the concentration of all means of production in the hands of the few, and the state will fall away of itself. The difference is an essential one: Without a previous social revolution the abolition of the state is nonsense; the abolition of capital is in itself the social revolution and involves a change in the whole mode of production.

Joseph Schumpeter was highly regarded as a bourgeois academic. In his book CAPITALISM, SOCIALISM AND DEMOCRACY (first published in the UK in 1943, with 12 reprints up to 2000), he made the case that:

historically, the modern democracy rose along with capitalism and in causal connection with it. But the same holds true for democratic practice; democracy in the sense of our theory of competitive leadership presided over the process of political and institutional change by which the bourgeoisie reshaped, and from its own point of view rationalised, the social and political structure that preceded its ascendancy: the democratic method was the political tool of the reconstruction. We have seen that the democratic method works, particularly well, also in certain extra- and pre-capitalist societies. But modern democracy is a product of the capitalist process (pp 296/297).

In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels argued that: “Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class”.

Schumpeter makes the point that:

No monarch or dictator or group of oligarchs is ever absolute. They rule not only subject to the data of the national situation but also subject to the necessity of acting with some people, of getting along with others, of neutralising still others and of subduing the rest (p 245).

Both Hitler and Stalin had to maintain a constant outpouring of propaganda to persuade and subdue, their power ultimately resting upon the acquiescence of the working class.

Some of us predicted that the highly centralised dictatorship of Russia would have to give way if modern capitalism was to grow in Russia. This was in the late 1970s, when the revisionists in Clapham were urging support for “democracy” in Poland. When state-capitalism did give way to a more western version of capitalism in 1991, it was found that the strait-jacket of political and economic dictatorship had failed to keep up with western capitalism, and the begging-bowl was used to bail them out. Twelve years later, poverty-stricken Poland still had 18.8% unemployment. And the Polish government, having swapped the Warsaw Pact for NATO and the EU, was buying 48 US F16 jet fighters in 2003 for £2.2 billion, the biggest former Soviet bloc contract (ITV TELETEXT, 18 April 2003). How these killing machines are supposed to advance “democracy” remains shrouded in mystery.

In all situations, democracy must be functional. Under capitalism, it serves to facilitate the rule of the capitalist class who own and control the media together with the rest of the means of production. Vagueness of meaning serves the purposes of capitalism very well, nowhere more so than with “freedom” and “democracy”. The more vague the better.

Democracy and freedom have been used in propaganda to send workers to war; they have never been the real issues involved - these have always been the sordid economic interests of rival capitalists.

Venezuela is the fourth largest exporter of oil to the US and the elected President was swept out of office by a US-favoured coup - the CIA was concerned for oil as Venezuela challenged what was seen as globalisation. Popular opinion reinstated the President, which seemed of little concern to workers whose average earnings had been static for ten years. However, in this confused situation in the capital, Caracas, there are two Mayoral Buildings facing each other: one in support of the President, the other against him. In the Town Hall opposed to the President, a reporter asked a man: “But what about democracy?” He replied: “People are elected democratically but they rule autocratically” (CHANNEL FOUR, 13 May 2004).

The point here is that, if someone in Caracas knows this, we should. The workers of Britain and other advanced industrial countries have had long experience of capitalist power politics. Government by the people in practice is government of the people - the rule of one class by another. All the modern powers that we are taught to regard as democracies are, in fact, oligarchies. They all have small groups of people like Blair, Hoon, Prescott, Straw and Brown who rule over the majority in the interest of the few.

Discussing freedom in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels say:

In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour... And the abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so… By freedom is meant, under present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying.

In March of the year he died, 1895, Engels wrote an INTRODUCTION to Marx’s book, THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE. The decisive point about the whole issue of democracy as it concerns the working class is made here. After several pages advocating universal suffrage and explaining its merits, Engels says:

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions, carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.

Apart from his over-optimism, this is the case of The Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Engels’s reference to “the last fifty years” goes back to THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and the need “… to win the battle of democracy”. More than 100 years later, and leftist vanguardists, among others, have still to learn from history.

When Socialist ideas take hold among growing numbers of workers, democracy will take on a new significance. No longer a means of securing the rule of one class over another, it will become the means of ending classes for ever, the conscious movement of the great majority for emancipation.

This enlightened conduct through which Socialism will be established will continue into the new society as the organisation of production geared to needs, replaces privilege and profits.

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Class Consciousness and Political Action

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded 100 years ago, with just one purpose, one aim in life. This is to help the working class to come to a clear understanding of how we are exploited by the capitalist class, through the wages system, and using this knowledge, to become class-conscious, a revolutionary class “in itself and for itself”, in Marx’s phrase; and going on from this to help them become organised democratically, on the political field, in order to overthrow the class system and establish Socialism.

A hundred years ago, I think the founders of this Party would have been astonished to see this Party still here. They would probably ask: surely to goodness, hasn’t Socialism been established yet, a whole century later? How long does it take to get a simple message through to people? And if it had been established, certainly there would no longer be an SPGB - since once we’ve achieved Socialism, there’s no need for a Socialist political party.

Let us all hope that that day, when Socialism is achieved, will not be another 100 years on. But it would be very foolish to make any predictions about when Socialism can be achieved. It doesn’t depend entirely on us. All we can do is the best we can - to get the message over. The development of class consciousness among the working class is not something that Socialists can achieve by our own efforts. It does takes two to tango! As Marx noted, in THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE “Men make their own history, but not just as they please”.

If you look back at the history of this party, it has had its ups and owns. Before World War I, there was pretty steady growth although from a small beginning. There was a lot of activity and the organisation was really getting going.

But then the War hit them. Some members went abroad: to Australia, America, Canada... anywhere to escape conscription to the trenches. Others found themselves conscripted and caught up in that bloodbath. There were members who were jailed as conscientious objectors, some in solitary confinement. And some were never seen again.

What happened to the Party in that war? Although they kept going, and heroically managed to continue publishing the SOCIALIST STANDARD, month after month, and keep most of their branches going, the War was a major setback for this Party. For instance, if you look at the list of pamphlets published by the SPGB, there were quite a few pamphlets published before the 1914 war. But after the war, in the 1920s, this dried up to a trickle.

After the war, Socialists were confronted by a new political scene. The Russian Revolution had happened, the Communist Party was set up, and all sorts of people who called themselves socialists were now sneering at the SPGB, and trying in various unscrupulous ways to prevent Party speakers being heard by the workers. We called them the ‘red fascists’, compared with the black fascists of the Mosleyite variety.

The party didn’t have an easy time of it in the Twenties or the Thirties. Members individually were suffering considerable hardships, with massive unemployment. You would have had great difficulty keeping a job if you were known to be a socialist. In his memoirs, Lorenzo Quelch (an SDF member and trade union activist) described how, working in a foundry in Reading, he found that local employers were not prepared to keep him on, once they knew of his political activity. If he was spotted on an outdoor platform, someone would tell the foreman or the boss, and sooner or later they would find a pretext for sacking him. In due course, leaving his wife and children behind, he migrated to London - the only place he could find work.

There were many other workers in that situation. Such conditions help explain why the party grew best and fastest in the London metropolis: there, at least, employers could not so easily keep tabs on their wage-slaves and discover which of their workers were actually socialists. That may have been one reason why the party’s growth in the provinces was so slow compared with what happened in the major cities.

However, with World War Two, it was a different ballgame altogether. The party grew, and grew fast. It acquired lots of eager-beaver socialists but, somehow, after the war ended, and the risk of conscription gone, many of these lost their enthusiasm for socialism, and by the late 1950s, the Party was not recruiting very many members of the post-war generation.

Later, in the 1960s, those who joined the Party were not the same sort that the Party had previously been recruiting. In the past, Party members tended to come from a trade union background but this later intake typically had a university background. They tended to have rather unusual ideas which were not exactly straight SPGB ideas – libertarianism/anarchism for instance.

And from then on there developed the serious disagreements which were tearing the Party apart through the 1970s and 1980s, and which finally ended in us going our way, and them going their, very different, way.

Marx wrote that:

Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them.

There is a belief that a few people – great men or whatever - can change the world. That’s surely very naive. A French journal recently carried an obituary article about Ronald Reagan, an ex-president of the United States who, having been senile for quite a while, had finally died. The writer described him as “the president who changed the world”! But no one man can change the world.

We can and should question the sanity of someone making such a claim, even about an ex-president of the all-powerful USA. So clearly it would be nonsense to make such a claim for a small party like the SPGB, a small party of workers, with no celebrities to attract media attention. And yet we claim that this small party is a great party, a unique party, with the seeds of greatness, and huge potential.

Now, today, just as 100 years ago, this party is unique in Britain where there are no other parties that work for Socialism and only for Socialism. We aim to enable the working class to take over the whole bakery, not just to try to get a larger slice of the loaf. That is the difference between the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and all other parties which claim to be socialist.

This party is, we argue, the only party which clearly sees and exposes the futility of reforms. In the first bound volume of the SPGB’s monthly journal, THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, the editorial of the 2nd issue was headed “The Futility of Reforms”. To get that message over was a priority then, as it is today.

We are also unique in arguing, as Marx did, that the class struggle has to be fought on the political field, and explaining why this has to be so: “every class struggle is a political struggle”.

Our case is that it is only by taking control of “the machinery of government” (the entire state apparatus including the coercive forces of the state such as the police, the judiciary and armed forces, etc.), i.e. by gaining control of Parliament and similar institutions: only by doing this will it be a feasible proposition, will it be at all possible for a Socialist working class, organised as a class-conscious political party (“for Socialism and only for Socialism”), to end the capitalist class system, to dispossess the capitalist class, and so deprive them of their “ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing wealth”.

But the capitalists are not going to give all that up easily. So it is no good talking of direct action, urging workers to do a sit-in or occupation strikes in factories, or to organise a general strike, or going out on the street, as a mob, confronted by the police and the armed forces. We know what happens when workers do that. There has been enough experience.

For instance, in the 19th century, the ruthless defeat of the Paris Commune showed what the capitalist class are capable of when they think their interests are threatened. Consider the General Strike in the 1920s: the state and the capitalist and ‘Labour’ politicians did not sit idly by, and just watch events unfold. The government took action to defend the interests of the capitalist class. In the 1940s, Attlee’s government – a Labour government – used troops to smash the docks strike. At any point, even if it’s a relatively minor issue such as the firemen’s dispute, when the firemen came out on strike last year over their wages, what did the government do? They got the army to take over so that nobody would be seriously inconvenienced.

So this is something that has happened again and again. It happened with the miners in the 1984 Scargill strike, under a Conservative government. It happened again more recently with the firemen’s strike, under a Labour government. Workers should know this lesson by now: they have banged their heads against that brick wall too many times.

This is a pretty obvious point. And yet still this issue is one that has been, and still is, hotly contested by various opponents of our party: some of them advocating ‘direct action’, or ‘socialist industrial unionism’, some a general strike. Others even rant of civil war – and that is really suicidal!

The SPGB has always warned workers against confronting the forces of the state. It is simply not worth it. We do not advocate workers getting themselves involved in something suicidal which would hurt them more than it would hurt the capitalists. Without first gaining control of Parliament (and similar institutions in other countries), a workers’ movement would be crushed by the forces of the state because the state is not neutral.

If trade unions representing key workers and affecting key industries or services came out on strike, the government of the day, doing their duty and defending the so-called ‘national interest’, i.e. the capitalist class interest, will bring out the armed forces or the police to cushion the impact of the strike and, if necessary, defeat it. Much more so if they believe their entire situation and status as a class is threatened, as happened in the Paris Commune. Then they would be really ruthless. They would not mind how many people were murdered and buried alive in mass graves, as happened in Paris.

This explains why the SPGB insists on the need for political organisation to take control of the forces of the state: to ensure that these forces cannot be used against the working class.

Another key point in the SPGB’s case is the party’s stubborn insistence on refusing to ally ourselves with any other political parties. We have often been called ‘sectarian’ because of this. In fact, we go further than merely refusing such alliances. In the last two clauses of our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, we say emphatically that we are opposed to all such parties:

... as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist...

It has always been clearly stated that the SPGB rejects the principle of leadership, and moreover that all its meetings are, as far as possible, open to the public. “We don’t have any skeletons in the cupboard” was one of the common phrases used by Party members.

If you take those 3 points together: opposition to all other parties and being prepared to “wage war” on them, rejection of any principle of leadership or leadership group, and the openness of all our meetings and proceedings - all these added together could explain why this party did not go the way of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Co-operative Party, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF/SDP), and a great many other small parties, getting swallowed up by the omnivorous Labour Party.

All of those so-called ‘socialist’ parties and labour parties - they all of them merged into that ‘Great Big Labour Movement’ of which Labour politicians talk with such pride.

The fact is that since Party members, as a whole, decide Party policy, this would help to make the party unattractive to entryists, to anyone wanting to take it over. Think of how they would have to convince the members, up and down the country, in open meetings, in an organisation fiercely opposed to the idea of leadership, and, in addition, the fact that all Socialists were and are committed, on principle, to being opposed to all other parties and “waging war” on all other parties. It would be a very daunting proposition, to put it mildly.

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Political Action of the Working Class

There is another point about the need for the Socialist Party to be independent of and opposed to all other parties. This point, like several others in the SPGB’s DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, is clearly derived from Marx.

At the London Conference of the First International (1871), an important resolution on working-class political action was drafted by Marx, in which he declared that:

Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;
That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes;...

Marx was very emphatic about this point. Earlier, for instance in the INAUGURAL ADDRESS OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL (1864), he argued that:

... the lords of land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economical monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labour...
To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes

(ibid., p80).

But it was not until the 1871 resolution that he took the next step, and declared that the party must be “distinct from and opposed to all old parties formed by the propertied classes”.

There can be only one Socialist party, only one working-class party, and that must be clearly distinguished from and opposed to all other parties. This is where the founders of the SPGB got that particular concept - it comes straight from Marx.

In a speech made on the seventh anniversary of the International in 1871, Marx declared that:

What was new in the International was that it was established by the working men themselves and for themselves
(ibid., p271).

By themselves and for themselves” – that essentially describes how the SPGB was formed and still operates. Clearly this is very far from Lenin’s vanguardism.

If we consider the circumstances when this party was founded, a hundred years ago, in the late 19th century the franchise had been extended to the point where most voters were working class.

That does not mean that most of the working class were voters. Women, to start with, did not have a vote, any of them, and quite a lot of the men did not either because they did not have enough property.

But the fact of the matter remains that the majority of votes cast in an election, 100 years ago, were working-class votes, just as they are now.

Near the end of the 19th century, there had been a long and serious depression, with much unemployment in many different industries, and in different regions of the country too. The unemployed mobilised in protests and demonstrations.

About that time, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was established. It had its own press and it was apparently committed to Socialism, and to Marxist theory.

But it had a ‘middle-class’ leadership and the leadership was, by the end of the century, busily making opportunistic deals with each of the capitalist parties: voting Tory to smash the Liberal Party, and voting Liberal to smash the Tory Party. There was no consistency in it at all.

Moreover, policy was decided by the leadership, over the heads of the members, without the members being involved in such decisions.

Any self-respecting Socialist in such an organisation would sooner or later have had to quit such a shambolic organisation, such a fraud perpetrated on the workers. Certainly we can easily see the sort of things the founders of the SPGB did not want in the new party.

In the circular adopted at a meeting in Battersea (23 May 1904) which a group of founder-members sent to members of the SDF before the Inaugural Meeting of our Party (June 1904), they declared as their aim that they wanted to join “in forming a straight, uncompromising Socialist party”:

We appeal to all members ... who believe that the emancipation of the working class can only be obtained by the combined action of the members of that class, consciously organised in a Socialist Party, and who recognise that the Class-Struggle alone can be the basis of such a party; ... and who realise that the SDF has ceased to merit the name of such a party, to throw in your lot with us and to help us in building up a strong and healthy fighting party, organised on definite class lines for the emancipation of the working class from the wage-slavery under which they exist.
[For the full text see: SPGB CENTENARY BULLETIN: POLICY AND PRINCIPLE 1904-2004]

That statement made it very clear what they were after. There is no compromise in that statement – none at all. To this day it is the class struggle which is always the central plank of our platform. Firstly, because class struggle is the inevitable outcome of the fact that there are two classes in society with conflicting economic interests: the class of capital and the class of labour, those who buy and those who sell labour power. It follows that there is an inevitable conflict of interest between these classes. As Marx pointed out in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, every class struggle is a political struggle.

This means that, whichever part of the SPGB’s DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES you look at, whether you are looking at the first clauses which are simply analytic, or the final four clauses which outline our theory of revolution, it is class struggle which is the unifying theme throughout. This is the theme which runs right through all our literature, and all our speaking. You will not hear an SPGB speaker who is not consciously putting this message over.

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The Class-Struggle Theory of Revolution

In clause 5, the SPGB asserts “That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself”. That is the shortest and bluntest clause in our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. In this - the first of the four clauses that deal with how Socialism is to be achieved, i.e. how the emancipation of the workers is to be achieved, the Party threw down a challenge to all who thought the working class by themselves did not have the know-how and ability to set up and run a political party. “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves”: that is a principle which Marx held by, and that is a principle which this party holds by still.

Those in Britain like Hyndman, or the Webbs, and Shaw (George Bernard Shaw the playwright, the Fabian, a man not known for his modesty, and with a very clear liking for dictators!): these people all held that the ‘rank and file’ were pretty futile.

Around 1900 Hyndman, the leader of the SDF, is said to have declared that the SDF members were “destitute of political aptitude”. (This statement was quoted in the SPGB’s first MANIFESTO.) The Webbs around 1930 had a similar contempt for the Labour Party’s members, and the following remark by Sidney Webb was quoted (with approval incidentally) by the Labour politician Denis Healey in his autobiography:

The constituency parties are frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists; if the block vote of the Trade Unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences.
THE TIME OF MY LIFE, 1989, pp 156-7

The Webbs should have known the Labour Party pretty well by then. Labour was the party they helped to build - they must have known it very well.

It is worth asking: was this patronising, contemptuous elitism just a matter of England or Britain? The answer is no, since in Europe there was the same elitist arrogance to be found among the leaders of various Social Democratic parties. Lenin’s is the most obvious name that comes to mind. With his book, WHAT IS TO BE DONE? (1901), he rejected Marx’s argument that class struggle, deriving from the exploitative relationships of capitalism, produces class consciousness, and that the working class can build a revolutionary political organisation.

Lenin’s view was very different, summed up in this sweeping statement:

The history of all countries shows that by its own forces the working class can only arrive at a trade union consciousness.

But what did he know of “the history of all countries”? Even a brief look at the history of Russia could have told him that this statement was not true. Already in the 1870s, there had been a politically conscious, working-class movement in St Petersburg, and also in other parts of Russia, e.g. in Southern Russia. These were workers who were both class-conscious and politically conscious, not just “trade union conscious”(see Franco Venturi, ROOTS OF REVOLUTION, revised edn. 2001, chapter 19: The Working Class Movement).

What did Lenin say about how workers can acquire political class consciousness? He asserted that it could only be brought to the workers:

... from the outside, that is, outside of the economic struggle, outside of the orbit of relations existing between all classes and social strata and the State, that is, in the sphere of relations existing among all classes.

To be honest, you can read that passage over and over again. It just does not make sense! “Outside of” any relationships we have in this sort of society, “outside of” the relations existing between classes? Now that is as far as you can possibly get from what Marx had in mind about class struggle and class consciousness.

But there were others, too, who took a similar line.

In 1891, a good ten years before Lenin, Axelrod (a Russian living in Switzerland) had written:

The labour movement cannot leave the narrow course of pure economic conflict between the workers and the entrepreneurs. In general, it is quite devoid of a political character. In the struggle for political freedom... the advanced sections of the proletariat follow the revolutionary circles and the fractions of the so-called intelligentsia.
Quoted by R Sprenger, BOLSHEVISM, p34

Here you find the same idea that Lenin developed later of the masses tagging along behind the intellectuals. Likewise Karl Kautsky, effectively the theoretical leader of the German Social Democrat Party, wrote in 1901: “The modern socialist consciousness can only arise on the basis of profound scientific insight”. The implication of this is that if you were working in a foundry or a factory or sweeping the streets, you were not going to get time to do that. “Profound scientific insight”? That was for the leaders, the intellectuals.

Kautsky made this very clear:

The bearer of this science is... not the worker but the bourgeois intellectual. Modern socialism originated among members of this stratum of society, by whom it was transmitted to culturally outstanding proletarians wherever ... Socialist consciousness is therefore something injected into the class struggle, and is not native to it.
Neue Zeit, quoted by Sprenger, p34

So around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, these fine gentlemen all thought alike: the ignorant masses needed to be organised and led. The ‘unconscious masses’: this is the myth that dominated 20th century thinking, especially after Lenin’s revolution in 1917.

It was believed, incredibly, by workers, that they were too dumb and too stupid to understand the class struggle, and that some bourgeois intellectual would understand it better and explain it to them.

But if class consciousness and Socialist consciousness comes from anything, it comes from experience of life as a proletarian, as a member of the working class, as someone who has to endure the insecurity and the hardships that go with being a member of the working class, but which bring too that sense of solidarity and comradeship which leads workers to develop trade unions and to organise against the employers.

One of the things that has held this party back has been repeatedly having to explain that what we meant by Socialism was not what was going on in Russia; that Socialism or Communism - whatever you like to call it - had not

been achieved in Russia or anywhere; that the Russian workers were working for wages, the same as Western workers were; and that consequently they were exploited, just as Western workers are.

At most of our meetings, even now, this point is raised with us. Over the decades, we have, over and over again, dealt with what was going on in Russia. We have published pamphlets on the subject of Russia. RUSSIA SINCE 1917 (published in 1948) was particularly useful: a compilation of articles from the SOCIALIST STANDARD, going back to before the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In our CENTENARY BULLETIN (June 2004), we reprinted a statement about the Russian Revolution from the November 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard. In this it was clearly stated, based on the materialist conception of history, where we stood regarding the possibility of achieving Socialism in a country as backward as Russia was:

Russia... lags behind; and her economic backwardness is reflected in her medieval system of government...
...the Socialist Republic cannot be the outcome of the defeat of autocracy in Russia because the economic elements are insufficiently developed... The industrial development of Russia is still in its infancy...


After the 1917 Revolution, very much the same argument was put by the SPGB: i.e. that Russia had not got the economic, or the political, development necessary to achieve Socialism.

Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is ‘No!’
SOCIALIST STANDARD, August 1918 (v. RUSSIA SINCE 1917, p13)

There was no way Socialism could have been achieved in Russia at that time. That was this party’s position at the time, and still is. There has been no ‘collapse of communism’ since communism was never established, in Russia or anywhere else.

However, Socialists are still having to deal with Lenin’s legacy. Most Left historians leave the SPGB right out of the picture or, if they mention this party, what they write is inaccurate.

For instance, G D H Cole with Raymond Postgate wrote THE COMMON PEOPLE - 1746-1946. In that book’s index, several ‘Socialist’ parties were cited, some long since defunct, but not a single mention of the, still active, Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm who has written innumerable books: he was a Communist Party supporter, a staunch Stalinist, who declared he never felt ashamed of having supported Stalin. In his books, Hobsbawm too makes no mention of the SPGB: in particular, never any mention of the heroic record of this party, the principled stand of the SPGB in the 1914 war – the only political party in this country to take that stand throughout the war, on principle, on grounds of class internationalism.

Yet this party does exist, is active, and means something for the working class in the 21st century, as it did through the 20th century.

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There was one organisation, the Socialist League, which some claim influenced the early SPGB. But although the Socialist League’s MANIFESTO was very clear about capitalism, the class struggle, the wages system and wage-slavery, it was silent – utterly silent – on the subject of how to end this system and how to establish Socialism.

William Morris was the man behind the Socialist League: he funded it, supported it, and he was the main personality associated with it. He could draw a crowd to a meeting - he was very popular as a speaker, as well as being an artist, a poet, and a good many other things. Morris himself was opposed to political action, especially to the use of Parliament. The result was that the League, having nothing to say about how to achieve Socialism, found itself quickly taken over by anarchists, including terrorists.

But, while it was still in existence, there was one useful achievement: THE MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS, 1893. It was signed by (among others) Hyndman and H Quelch on behalf of the SDF, by Morris on behalf of the Socialist League, and by Shaw and Webb on behalf of the Fabians. (Later, Shaw declared that he never intended to sign up to the statement.) This MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS gave a very clear definition of what was meant by ‘Socialism’, over 10 years before the SPGB was founded. It indicated what the idea of Socialism actually meant, around 1893, to those active in organisations which at the time claimed to be Socialist.

On this point all Socialists agree. Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines, and the land. Thus we look to put an end forever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.

This statement was circulated, as a pamphlet, and would have been known to the founding members of the SPGB.

It is very clear that Socialism means common ownership and not state ownership. This point became very important in the 20th century, both with reference to the Labour Party’s nationalisation policy, and with reference to the Communists. Socialism was obviously nothing to do with state capitalism, the Leninist version, and likewise nothing to do with nationalisation, as per the Labour Party.

Regarding the other parties around in 1904, such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led by Keir Hardie, the early SPGB had tremendous contempt for them:

The so-called Independent Labour Party is independent only in that it is free to sell to the highest bidder. The ILP is, in reality, run by a set of job-hunters whose only apparent political principle is to catch votes on varying pretexts and by still more varying means. They openly repudiate the class struggle, the basis of Socialism, but nevertheless seek admission to the International Socialist Congresses...
The Independent Labour Party is evidently not a party of the workers

In the SPGB’s MANIFESTO, the Party drew attention to the ILP’s pacts with the Liberals. The SPGB also opposed the ILP for its betrayal of working-class interests in its dealings with the trade unions:

The members of the ILP were... to give special attention to the trade unions, which they did by sinking the principles of Socialism for the sake of the financial and political support of the unions.

They noted, incidentally, that the ILP had something of a mystery about its election expenses. Later, after the war, when the SPGB’s MANIFESTO was re-published, they drew attention to this matter still being a mystery (sixth edition, 1920, p15).

Like New Labour today, the ILP was happy to accept donations with strings attached from anonymous, wealthy individuals. Keir Hardie was quite blatant about this: “those who pay the piper call the tune”. No doubt Tony Blair would say the same today.

In comparison to the ILP and the Labour Party, the early members of the SPGB argued consistently on the basis of the class struggle, the labour theory of value, the materialist conception of history, and Marx’s class theory of the state’s function as a public power of coercion, defending property class interests.

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The Second International and The War

In 1904, the SPGB approached the 2nd International and sent 2 delegates to the Hague Congress. But these delegates came back appalled to find that SPGB delegates could not sit independently, vote independently, act independently, and could not put forward motions or amendments independently: they had to sit as part of the British delegation.

The ‘British delegation’ was of course dominated by non-class struggle, non-Socialist organisations - the SDF, the ILP, the Fabians, the trade unions, and so on. The Party then wrote to the International Socialist Bureau, the committee responsible for organising these Congresses, and urged them to set up a system whereby only Socialist parties could be admitted to the Congresses of the International. After all, these were supposed to be Socialist Congresses.

The Second International had laid down as a principle that, where there was more than one Socialist organisation in a country, these organisations should get together in a ‘Unity Conference’ and somehow unify. Easier said than done.

Daniel de Leon’s Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in the United States tried to ‘unify’ with the, reformist, Socialist Party of America but, although there were three different Unity Conferences, none of these came to anything in the end.

The SPGB however refused even to attempt this, and declared:

We are all for unity. We believe that unity of party organisation based upon unity of purpose, unity of principle, and unity of method is the one thing desirable...

[But] in the field of Socialist thought and Socialist action there are today two distinct tendencies to be found: the revolutionary and the revisionist... today the Socialist movement has been overtaken by a wave of revisionism. In every country where there is anything in the nature of a Socialist party we have a struggle for supremacy between these two opposing tendencies. And these tendencies manifest themselves in opposing groups...

... Unity is an important factor in the growth of a party, but it is not the most important. Better far to have a party, however small, with common principles and a common end, than a party, however large, which is bound by no tie save party interest. We, therefore, who differ from these other parties in essential principles – inasmuch as we accept the principle of the class struggle while they do not – cannot consent to unite our forces with theirs

A few years later, in an article on The Lessons of the German Elections (SOCIALIST STANDARD, March 1907 – see SPGB CENTENARY BULLETIN), the SPGB noted the result of the German elections. The German Social Democrat Party was huge, in terms of millions of votes.

Yet it was weak from the Socialist point of view, since it was:

pursuing a policy which resulted in conveying a false impression as to the real extent of class-consciousness among the German proletariat. The first great blunder of the German party is in retaining. the revisionists, men who were, and still are, working for the fusion of bourgeois democrats with Socialist wage-workers.

Another source of weakness was the items of purely bourgeois reform on the program of the German Party. This attracted pro-capitalist voters and unreliable supporters, whereas a straightforward declaration of their revolutionary principles would have kept away those who could only be a cause of confusion and weakness...

And last but by no means least we have to condemn the efforts of the German Socialist Press for threatening the workers with a possible increase in rates and taxes, if they supported certain sections of the capitalist class. Seeing that rates and taxes form part of the surplus value robbed from the workers, that the workers during the most prosperous periods can obtain only a subsistence, it is nothing short of a crime to make the wage-workers believe that the question of rates and taxes can have any bearing on their position as wage-slaves.

Incidentally, already there was a clear statement of the way Socialists, then and now, argue that the question of rates and taxes is nothing whatever to do with making the workers better off or worse off: we remain wage-workers, whatever the taxes may be.

Tax changes make little difference even in the short term, and in the long term none at all. Wages are driven up when the workers’ cost of living goes up, for whatever reason. Moreover, organised workers will press for a wage rise if taxes or rates impinge on their quality of life. Whether taxes are high or low makes no difference to the situation of the working class as to “their position as wage-slaves”.

That 1907 SOCIALIST STANDARD article went on to argue that:

We should only be able to gauge the extent of class consciousness among the German workers if the Party [i.e. the German SDP] would throw overboard all reforms and compromise and, organising the workers in the political and economic fields on the lines of the class struggle alone, would offer a united front of revolutionary hostility to the possessing class...

Again, it is very clear where the SPGB stood, emphasising class consciousness and the class struggle. Also, it is not surprising that, when 1914 came, the reformist parties of the Second International discovered that they were more passionately concerned about the so-called ‘national interest’ than the interest of the international working class. In the case of British and French workers, they were betrayed by these parties and urged to fight Prussian militarism, while German workers were urged to fight in defence of the German State. As a result, thousands and thousands of workers needlessly lost their lives in the battlefields and the trenches.

Was the SPGB unfair to the German party in saying that this was simply a reform party? Not according to the revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, one of its leading members. Writing in 1899, Bernstein declared that the SDP was in reality “a democratic socialistic party of reform”:

But is social democracy today anything beyond a party that strives after the socialist transformation of society by the means of democratic and economic reform?
ed. F Mecklenburg and M Stassen, New York, 1990]

So to Bernstein it was possible to reform capitalism out of capitalism, and so reform it into Socialism. In Britain too, the Fabian Society, the ILP, the early Labour Party and others also had similar ideas about measures of municipalisation and nationalisation as a gradual, relatively painless, way of achieving Socialism.

The day must come surely when the workers will no longer want to switch their votes at elections between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the parties of capitalism, when such votes after all never make a blind bit of difference. Parties of capitalism are not in business to promote the interests of the working class. Even if they were, the realities of the capitalist system would sooner or later stop any quixotic, romantic impulses on the part of politicians. Their reforms would be watered down or made ineffective, and the capitalist system would continue to exploit its wage slaves.

We have seen this before, when Labour governments were elected. With hindsight, Labour Party supporters looked back and heaved a great sigh: “that leader betrayed us”. Socialists say they betrayed themselves! Likewise, the trade unions: these are supposed to represent workers’ interests but, in fact, they all too often betray their members. Whenever they arrive at consensual, ‘partnership’ deals with employers, they betray the working class in acting for one group of workers to the detriment of other sections of the working class.

Trade union leaders who defend their members’ interests often do so to the detriment of other groups of workers. Scargill did this in 1984: coal miners’ jobs were at risk because coal was not able to compete against gas and nuclear power in supplying the electricity power stations. It followed that if Scargill’s NUM strike had been successful, the result would have been that members of another union, GMBATU, who worked in nuclear power stations, would have been very likely to have lost their jobs.

The fact is that the capitalist system divides the working class, setting us in competition with one another. Also, it provides ideologies which keep our minds mixed up. Workers who are not class-conscious have a variety of illusory belief-systems: conflicting ideologies such as nationalism, racism and religion.

All of these are used to divide the working class, and obscure the reality of the class struggle and our common interest in ending the class system.

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The SPGB and the Working Class

In the long run, Socialists are confident that Socialism can and will be achieved. But, so far, this party’s small size shows its weakness. Let us bear in mind the strengths and achievements of the SPGB, and take the long view.

This party has faced huge challenges before. Our party looks to get support from class-conscious workers. But we operate in a society where our fellow workers are obsessed with sport and trivia. It is not the fault of the members of this party that our message falls all too often on deaf ears. We are working in historical circumstances which are “not of our choosing”.

The SPGB has a proud legacy, a record second to none on all the important issues of the last century; a record of Socialist theory and policy on many issues, not only on political action and class consciousness, for instance:

* our principled opposition to capitalism’s wars;
* our rejection of religion;
* the futility of reforms;
* the ‘welfare state’ as merely a redistribution of misery;
* the Russian Revolution as being unable to achieve Socialism;
* rejection of the need for a ‘transition stage’ between capitalism and Socialism;
* nationalisation and state capitalism as being simply other ways of managing capitalism, and so nothing to do with Socialism.

What is still a unique feature of the SPGB is that we have no leaders: we reject the principle of leadership since we argue that intelligent, thoughtful, class-conscious workers, organising themselves politically to establish Socialism, simply do not need leaders. Only sheep need leaders: a mature, class-conscious working class do not.

For this reason, the SPGB does not see itself as any sort of vanguard party. Its role is simply that of a tool or instrument that the class-conscious working class can use to achieve the political control necessary to end the wages system and the whole system of class exploitation.

The working class, who run this system of society from top to bottom, who make everything, who invent everything, who manage everything: we are quite capable establishing on sound footings a new society which will work in the interest of the whole community. What is still lacking is revolutionary Socialist class-consciousness, and to help develop that is the main task of the SPGB now, as it was a hundred years ago.

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Socialist Studies

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