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The Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - Withering Away of the State

Engels and the Withering Away of the State

In a letter to Philip van Patten, Engels made several comments on the state that have a bearing on Socialist theory and the attitude of socialists to the machinery of government. Engels wrote:

"Marx and I, ever since 1845, have held the view that one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution will be the gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance of that political organisation called the State; an organisation the main object of which has been to secure, by armed force, the economical subjection of the working majority to the wealthy minority. At the same time we have always held that in order to arrive at this and the other, far more important ends of the social revolution of the future, the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the state and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the capitalist class and re-organise society. This is already stated in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO of 1847, end of Chapter II.

"The anarchists reverse the matter. They say, that the proletarian revolution has to begin by abolishing the political organisation of the state. But after the victory of the proletariat, the only organisation the victorious working-class finds ready- made for use is that of the State. It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious working class can exert its newly conquered power, keep down its capitalist enemies and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in defeat and massacre of the working class like that after the Paris Commune" (MARX-ENGELS CORRESPONDENCE Moscow 1975 p. 340-341).

The socialist proposition regarding the withering away of the State was first put forward by Engels in ANTI-DUHRING and then in "SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC" (p. 71 in the Kerr edition).

Engels wrote:

"State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of the processes of production. The State is not "abolished" it dies out".

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Withering Away of the State

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always shared this view and it is incorporated in the sixth principle of the Party's Declaration of Principles published in each edition of SOCIALIST STUDIES as a living document on which a principled socialist politics takes place. From time to time Engels' view of the State was reaffirmed in the SOCIALIST STANDARD.

Here is a selection

i).The issuing of orders, the appointment and control of officials, and everything else connected with the operation of the armed forces, is in the hands of the group in Parliament that for the time constitutes the Government, i.e. has the majority…The armed forces are a part of the governmental machine, the whole of which depends for its efficiency upon co-ordination. If the co-ordination breaks down the machinery becomes useless, or anarchy sets in. The co-ordination comes from the centre - Parliament (Parliament or Soviet SOCIALIST STANDARD Dec. 1930 p 58).

ii). The Socialist Party of Great Britainholds that in order to achieve Socialism the socialist majority will have to gain control of the political machinery. Our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES covers this point in the clause which follows:-

"That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exist only to conserve the monopoly of the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic".

We know that this is the road to Socialism, and the only road to Socialism, because our every-day experience of the workings of capitalism shows this beyond the possibility of doubt. Given the other requisite for the building up of Socialism, a majority of socialists politically organised, conquest of the powers of government will be the deciding factor. Without it the working class will still be unable to impose the form of social organisation they desire. Every movement that has ignored this truth and has acted on the assumption, whether explicit or implied, that the state power can be disregarded, has come to disaster. This is true, whether the movement had Socialism as its objective or any other (Marx and the Political Machinery, SOCIALIST STANDARD, Nov, 1934 pp 36-37).

iii). When the majority of the workers in a particular country understand Socialism and, therefore, what it implies, they will proceed to introduce it once they have captured political power. To do so it will be essential to allow to all the means to express their views freely and, owing to the understanding of the majority, there will be nothing to fear from this free expression of opinion. As the majority will have control of power, any minority that is foolish enough to try to thwart the wishes of the majority will lack the means to make effective any destructive intentions.

Once Socialism is in the process of being introduced the coercive sides of the present parliamentary form will become obsolete. There will be no need to "crush" (the parliamentary, democratic form of the state referred to in the letter to the Party) as they will just disappear (Dictatorship and Parliament SOCIALIST STANDARD, Dec. 1936 p. 191).

iv).The Socialist Party of Great Britain agrees with Marx and Engels that, with the disappearances of classes, there "also disappears the necessity for the power of armed oppression or state power"…The State will, therefore, in due course "wither away"…(Socialists and the State, SOCIALIST STANDARD Oct. 1937 p. 150).

v). Socialists from Marx and Engels onwards have always held that with the establishment of Socialism the State will disappear. The State which exists where society is divided into an owning class and a propertyless class, and is a coercive institution through control of which the dominant class, would lose its function when society ceases to be divided into classes (the Withering way of the state: From Marx to Stalin, SOCIALIST STANDARD, March, 1946, p. 22).

The article then went on to quote Engels' comment in SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, about the State dying out or withering away.

vi). Finally, a whole section on Parliament is to be found in QUESTIONS OF THE DAY (various editions). Here is an important conclusion:

When the majority of workers have become socialist there is no need for an armed uprising. They withdraw their support from capitalist parties and support the socialist party so that Parliament, which controls the armed forces, will be composed of socialist delegates. If some capitalists did try to organise resistance they would reveal themselves as a small minority, lacking popular support, trying to create chaos in the furtherance of their sectional interest against the declared will of society; they would bound to fail (p. 12 1978 edition).

The Anarchism of "Where We Stand": 1974

In 1974 a group of the Socialist Party of Great Britain members signed a manifesto "WHERE WE STAND" which, if accepted by the membership, would have displaced the original DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the Party and aligned it with outside organisations. Half a dozen members including Crump and Buick signed the document.

The text contained no reference to the need for the working class to gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces before establishing Socialism. The authors also argued that there was no need to oppose "national liberation movements".

There was also a clause about the Socialist Party of Great Britain having to be a "free association of people". Camden Branch accepted without qualification the Object and Declaration of principles and the need for a Socialist majority to gain control of the machinery of government before establishing Socialism. They said that this clause meant not restricting membership to those who accepted the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. Buick denied this but couldn't tell the Branch what the clause meant if not this.

The Anarchism of "Non-Market Socialism in the 19th and 20th Centuries":1986

Like most political writing written by academics, the would-be theorists who produced NON-MARKET SOCIALISM IN THE 19TH and 20TH CENTURIES (ed. M. Rubel and J. Crump), wallow in a woolly jargon that never commits the authors to anything concrete. Compare the political manifesto in the book, "THE THIN RED LINE: NON MARKET SOCIALISM IN THE 20TH CENTURY", edited by the anarchist, John Crump and the Council Communist, Maxamillian Rubel, to the Socialist Party of Great Britain own OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES written by working class men and women in 1904. The difference is one between chalk and cheese.
An illustration of the book's political opportunism centres around Crump's argument about the differences between "the core" and "the periphery" between what unites or distances the political organisations cited in the book. What does it mean in relation to the Socialist Party of Great Britain? Why didn't Coleman, in his section on Impossibilism, which dealt with the Party, name which of the clauses in the Socialist Party of Great Britain DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES is one or the other, core periphery

Crump is quite clear in asserting that the various groups could unite on the basis of a shared aim (the "core") even while differing on the question of means, a matter which he regards as secondary, i.e. peripheral. The implications are obvious: the Socialist Party of Great Britain should get into bed with anarchists, vanguardists, situationists etc; all of them holding a view of the State incompatible with Clause 6 of the Party. And there was no dissention from Buick or Coleman in their own contributions from Crump's central argument in his article sets the tone for the rest of book.

It is also instructive to note how Crump and Coleman deal with the question of the State.

Here is Crump in the sixth section of the Manifesto: "Capitalism can be transcended only by immediately being replaced by Socialism" (p. 54). No mention is made of the working class taking conscious and political action to gain control of the machinery of government. There is no mention of the machinery of government being converted into an agent of emancipation.

Coleman is equally evasive. He attacks: "many superficial critics and vague advocates of the Socialist Party of Great Britain/i>" who claim: "that the Socialist Party of Great Britain stands for "Socialism through parliament" as being "misleadingly incomplete" (p. 94). We are not told by Coleman what the complete picture is.

Yet in the same breath he writes:

"Whatever may be thought of the Socialist Party of Great Britain case for the working class, in the course of the socialist revolution, sending mandated delegates to parliament as well as organising industrially to keep production going, it is clearly those who insist that ballot boxes and parliaments can play no part in the establishment of socialism and assert that socialism can only be established via industrial organisation alone, who are being dogmatic and historically fetished in their thinking about the revolution" (p. 94).

Finally, it is interesting to note that in his piece on the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Coleman nowhere quotes the Party's Object and Declaration of principles, neither in a footnote, nor in the notes nor in the postscript.

This was the last article Hardy (Edwin Hardcastle) was to write for the Socialist Party of Great Britain before his death in 1995 taken from a letter and notes found in his papers. He had been expelled, along with others from Camden and North West London Branches, for continuing to take political action in the full name of the Party. He remained active, as a writer and speaker, working for Socialism in the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain

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