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Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - Did Herbert Spencer Influence the Socialist Party of Great Britain?

In universities an often sterile game is played by second rate academics (Isaiah Berlin was a prime example). Unable to think for themselves they waste their lives tracing the influence of philosophical and political ideas or styles of painting and architecture from the dead to the living. Doctorates and academic careers depend on this game and it keeps the book industry alive, for example there are hundreds and hundreds of books claiming to show Marx was "influenced" by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Vico, Kant, Hegel and Feurerbach.

None of these academic authors have ever contributed anything useful to Socialist theory and activity. Not one has pointed out that Marx was influenced by observing the class struggle between workers and capitalists. These sterile academic tracts remain either within the circulation of second hand booksellers or unread in a university vault of forgotten PhD's.

Not so for Marx and Engels. Their works endure because they have a profound bearing on the class struggle and revolutionary Socialism. They did not write for academics but for the working class. They understood class interest and class conflict. "Certain historical facts occurred which led to a decisive change in the conception of history," wrote Engels in SOCIALISM, UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC. "In 1831 the first working-class rising had taken place at Lyons; between 1838 and 1848 the first national workers' movement, that of the English Chartists reached its height. The class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie came to the front…"

From this situation, Engels continued, it became clear "that all past history was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes are always the product of conditions of production and exchange, in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that therefore the economic structure of society always forms the real basis from which, in the last analysis, is always to be explained the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions, as well as of the religious, philosophical and other conceptions of each historical period"

And what was the basis of the class struggle? The clash of material interests of the contending classes; the incompatibility between the forces and the relations of production. Socialism was the necessary outcome of the development of capitalism and of the working class struggle to replace the profit system with socialism.

The influence of Marx and Engels on Socialists was not academic but revolutionary. They demonstrated to the working class that capitalism could never be made to work in the interests of all society and showed that it was based upon the exploitation by one class over another. They showed that it was impossible to abolish capitalism without conscious political action, that the establishment of Socialism had to be the work of the working class itself-perhaps the most important political idea in human history. And they showed that in order to free itself from the capitalist class, the working class had to take conscious political action in a Socialist political Party. And this is precisely what a class conscious section of the working class did in 1904.
Increasingly some academics have whittled away their time trying to see who influenced the OBJECT AND PRINCIPLES of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. We have had, among others, Herbert Spencer as an "influence" on the Party.

Why the obsession? Partly it was to do with intellectual insecurity. Academics unable to think for themselves have to use the intellectual crutches provided by the likes of Pannekoek and Bordiga -a failed 19th century politics of "direct action through Workers Councils" - to be able to hobble from one academic book to the next. Partly it was an attempt to push the Party in a direction towards other political organisations. And partly it was an intellectual arrogance which assumed that anyone without a degree cannot produce political ideas for themselves.

In September 1980, Camden Branch published a reply to the Educational Committee, on "THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIALIST THEORY". This is an abridged and edited version in relation to Herbert Spencer and his alleged influence on the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Comments on "THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIALIST THEORY" September 1980. Camden Branch.

Some of the conclusions of the circular are purely speculative, without real evidence. This applies particularly to the supposed influence of Herbert Spencer on the S.P.G.B.

What critics overlook is that the founder members of the S.P.G.B. gained their experience in the Social Democratic Federation (formed out of the Democratic Federation in 1883) where the predominant influence was not Spencer but Marx.

G. B. Shaw, writing in 1889 (FABIAN ESSAYS p. 186) noted the swing away from Spencer as a result of Hyndman's popularisation of Marx in this country.

"The Democratic Federation and Mr. H. M. Hyndman appeared in the field. Numbers of young men, pupils of Mill, Spencer, Comte and Darwin, roused by Mr Henry George's Progress and Poverty, left aside evolution and free thought; took to insurrectionary economics; studied Karl Marx…"

David Thompson (ENGLAND IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Pelican edition p. 106), took a similar view of the declining influence of Spencer: "Spencer's main publication Man Versus the State (1884) and The principles of Ethics (1891-3), belong to the last decades of the century and he remained an almost lone figure championing the most extreme doctrines of laissez-faire long after more serious thinkers had abandoned them".

It is true that some of the founder members were familiar with Spencer's works but many of them were very widely read in history, economics, philosophy and politics and were familiar with the writings of Marx, Engels, Morris, Kautsky, Morgan etc. Critics single out Spencer and assume, without evidence, that founder members were influenced by him rather than others.

It is only is only necessary to look at the articles in the early years to see that this is without foundation; the articles show clearly what was in their minds -reforms, Marxian economics, the materialist conception of history, political experience in the S.D.F. , gradualism, leadership, revisionism, trade unions and syndicalism. There were articles about Darwin (with no mention of Spencer), on Bernstein and Bebel but no article on Spencer.

The Party published or sold pamphlets by Marx, Kautsky and Morris but nothing by Spencer. Nor was any work by Spencer included in lists of recommended books.

When an article in the SOCIALIST STANDARD made use of Spencer's concept of society as an organism (S.S. Dec. 1906), the writer, F.C. watts, explained that this did not mean that "society must develop in the same way as a human body". Society has its own "laws of development peculiar to it", and the revolutionary socialist case is based on our analysis of society, its history and economics, in accordance with those laws.

There were quotations from Spencer along with quotations from Marx and Engels (and many others) in the pamphlet "SOCIALISM AND RELIGION" but these quotations were about his theories on ancestor worship, ethics etc.

The idea of Social Evolution

Some have claimed that the influence of Spencer is seen in our Principle 4, on the "order of social evolution"

The idea of social evolution was held by Spencer but he was only one among others, including Marx and Engels.

Sidney Webb in his "SOCIALISM IN ENGLAND" (1890) had a section on "The influence of the evolution hypothesises". He made the point that the "statical" view of society held by the Utopians had been replaced by "the idea of the evolution of society". While acknowledging the influence of Comte, Darwin and Spencer he also acknowledged the influence of Marx.

The term "new social order" was used in the MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS (1890) and the term "order of society" in S.D.F. publications.

The term "social evolution" was used in FABIAN ESSAYS (1889).

Founder members of the Party will have been familiar with these works but the source from which they obtained their view of the evolution of society was Marx and Engels (and Morgan's ANCIENT SOCIETY).

An article in the SOCIALIST STANDARD (May 1905) quotes from Marx's CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY:

"We may in wide outlines characterise the Asiatic, the Antique, the feudal and the modern capitalistic methods of production as a series of progressive episodes in the evolution of society"

Another source with which the founder members were familiar was Engels' 1888 Preface to the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO which anticipated the idea of "order of social evolution" in our Clause 4:

"The whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of the primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploited and exploiters, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles form a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class -the proletariat-cannot attain its emancipation from the way of the exploiting and ruling class -the bourgeoisie-without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles".

The concept of social evolution was described in the Socialist League MANIFESTO (1888):-

"As chattel-slavery passed into serfdom, and serfdom into the so-called free labour system, so most surely will this latter pass into social order".

In the notes which Morris and Befort Bax added to the MANIFESTO they used the term "social evolution":-

"the economical change which we advocate…would not be stable unless accompanied by a corresponding revolution in ethics, which, however, is certain to accompany it, since the two things are inseparable elements of one whole, to wit, social evolution".

The second part of our Clause 4, that socialism would involve the emancipation of all mankind, was inherent in Marx's view of social evolution. It owed nothing to Spencer. In 1864 before Spencer had published anything and before Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES Marx had written:-

"It follows from the relation between alienated labour and private property, that the emancipation of society from private property, from servitude, takes the political form of the emancipation of the working class, not in the sense that only the latter's emancipation is involved, but because this emancipation includes the emancipation of humanity as a whole. For all human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all the types of servitude are only modifications or consequences of this relation" (ECONOMIC AND PHILOSOPHICAL DOCUMENTS).

Spencer on Reforms and Taxes

It has been claimed that the S.P.G.B. took up several of Spencer's arguments.

Our critics give no evidence for this except the coincidences of real or apparent similarity.

One example which is given is a quotation from Spencer about the Speenhamland system, under which low rural wages were supplemented out of poor relief.

According to our critics the S.P.G.B. learned from this that governing parties and employers use social reforms and welfare measures in order to depress wages.

The Speenhamland was described in every economic history, including de Gibbins INDUSTRIAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND (1890) which was widely circulated among Party members. It was also dealt with by Marx in CAPITAL (vol. 1 chap. XXIV in the Kerr edition).

In fact members reached their conclusions on this from Marx's Labour theory of value and from seeing it actually happen before their eyes.

Our critic's second example of Spencer's arguments supposed to have been taken up by the Party is Spencer's view that "Among the costs of production have to be reckoned taxes, general and local". It is stated that this is the basis of our view that "rates and taxes fall upon the capitalist class"

The view that the burden of taxes on wages or on workers' necessaries falls on to one or other section of the propertied class was put forward by Adam Smith and Ricardo long before Spencer, but they had their own theoretical explanation of how it came about.

The issue of rates and taxes was dealt with fully in the SOCIALIST STANDARD from October 1904.

It did not quote from or refer to Spencer, or use his argument (or the arguments of Adam Smith and Ricardo).

On the contrary, it argued that "the capitalist always sells at the highest price the market will bear". It gave examples of taxes which did not affect prices at all; of rates being raised without affecting rents; of rents rising while rates were falling. Its conclusion was that taxes were paid out of the surplus wealth extracted from the workers.

The article was based wholly on Marx's labour theory of value and is evidence that the Party was not influenced by Spencer.

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