Orwell and the Socialist Party of Great Britain
Orwell was a keen collector of political pamphlets which included several published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The pamphlets are held in catalogued boxes by the British Museum and date from between 1915 - 1945 https://www.bl.uk/pdf/orwell-pamphlets-inventory-final.pdf.
Orwell wrote an essay on pamphlets in the NEW STATESMAN AND NATION. He was not particularly keen on political pamphlets because:
"The normal way of publishing a pamphlet is through a political party, and the party will see to it that any 'deviation' - and hence any literary value - is kept out" (January 9th, 1943)
Orwell believed that editors in a political party would empty the pamphlet of any literary merit by making sure the contents accorded with and conformed to Party policy. Why this was so, he gave no examples. And did the "literary value" of Orwell's own writing suffer from the censors when he produced his war propaganda during the Second World War?
It can only be assumed, although not proven, that Orwell actually read the pamphlets published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It seems incomprehensible that Orwell would not go out of his way and buy the pamphlets and then not read them. After all, he had a political interest in the content of the pamphlets: questions around socialism, war, trade unions and current political events.
Here are the SPGB pamphlets listed in the Orwell collection:
* 'Should Socialist Support the Federal Union? Report of the Debate between Barbara Wooten & E Hardy' (1940 edition and 1943 edition)
* 'War and the working Class' (1936)
* 'The Next Step for Trade Unionists' (1939)
* 'Socialism' (1941).
* 'The Socialist Party Expose Mr Chamberlain and his Labour Critics' (1938)
* 'The Socialist Party: Its Principles and Policy' (1934).
* 'Family allowances Socialist Analysis' (1943)
Orwell, therefore, knew of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And if he had read the pamphlets he would have known the SPGB's case for socialism.
If we take as, an example, the SPGB's pamphlet "Socialism: Its Principles and Policy", the pamphlet sets out the basis of capitalism, why the class struggle takes place, the need for common ownership, that socialism would entail the emancipation of all mankind, the necessity for the conquest of political power by a socialist majority through parliament and the control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces and why, for socialists, there must be no compromise of the socialist position in relation to other political parties.
Orwell would not have seen this unique socialist argument in the pamphlets of the Labour Party, Independent Labour Party, of which he was a member for a short time, and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Another pamphlet which would have aided Orwell's understanding of socialism was the debate between Barbara Wootton of the Federal Union and E. Hardy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain held at Conway Hall, London on the 6th May, 1940. During the debate, Hardy said this:
"I might add that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is, and always has been, democratic. We have always aimed at achieving Socialism by the one way in which it can be done, that is, first, by making socialists, and then by gaining control of the political machinery of society. But it is, of course, a very important point that we do not believe we can get socialism by short cuts, by accumulation of reforms, by pacts with other organisations: in short, we shall never get socialism until we have socialists. Also, we have never toyed with dictatorship, either Nazi or Communist, and we have never adopted the pernicious view of merely aiming at power. We have never supposed that socialism was a question of getting rid of one ruling class in order to put another ruling class in its place. We have always aimed at building a better world for the people who live in it, and we have never supposed that socialism was something that could be forced on the world against the wishes of the inhabitants of the world" (p.15).
If Orwell actually had read the pamphlets published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain he either ignored their socialist content or dismissed what was written as either irrelevant or against his own politics. In particular, the SPGB would have been written off by Orwell during the Second World War as "pacifists" for not supporting the war. Orwell did support the Second World War and was an active propagandist for the British State by working at the BBC to broadcast war propaganda to India. He also gave the Attlee government names of those who he considered were "Communist fellow-travellers".
The charge of pacifism against the SPGB was wholly unwarranted. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never been a pacifist organisation. The sixth clause of the Declaration of Principles stands as a clear statement that the SPGB believed that a working class majority of socialists must aim at converting the armed forces "from an instrument of oppression" into the "agent of emancipation". The SPGB opposed the First and Second World War on the grounds of working class interests not pacifism. Workers had no interest in killing each other in capitalismâ€™s war when the war was a direct result of the clash of interests between rival capitalists and their politicians.
One SPGB pamphlet Orwell did not have in his possession was QUESTIONS OF THE DAY published in 1942. There he would have found a political critique of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party (ch. v) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (ch. Xi). And he would have found a chapter on "The Russian Dictatorship" where he would have read the following:
"If inside Russia the dictatorship has failed - as Socialists knew it must - to impose Socialism on an unready population, so outside Russia the scorn which Communists poured on parliamentary democratic institutions and methods played a considerable part in helping other opponents of democracy - the Nazis - to power".
The whole of chapter xi can be read at:
Yet in his article "Pamphlet Literature" he dismissed political pamphlet writing with the following put-down: "the circulation of any pamphlet which is 'party line' (any party) is likely to be spurious" (NEW STATESMAN loc cit). Clearly, this is evidence of a dogmatic and conservative closed mind. For the only politics that mattered to Orwell was his own.
Sometimes Orwell almost gets on the right track. Here is a passage from HOMAGE TO CATALONIA:
"In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all".
Orwell is almost there in understanding that nationalisation is state capitalism, but not quite. In 1937 this "vast majority of people" supposedly attracted to "socialism" was a fiction. Two years later most of the working class in Britain supported the war against Germany. A clear understanding of socialism during the 1930's was only held by small minority of the working class in and around the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And it did not include those in the various left-wing and anarchist militias in Spain "killing fascists".
Although Orwell attacked Stalinism at a time when it was not fashionable to do so, the Socialist Party of Great Britain had seen through Stalin much earlier. From 1918 onwards, the SPGB had rejected the claim that socialism had been established in Russia and later went on to describe the economic system there as state capitalism.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain had criticised the Soviet Union long before Orwell came along to the political scene. Orwell chose to ignore the historical position of the SPGB in relation to Russian state capitalism for his own political reasons even though this fact was available in Party pamphlets he had collected. Orwell, like the capitalist Left, pretended we did not exist.
There is no mention of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in any of his major political writings which is strange since he wrote at length on virtually every other political organisation that claimed to be "socialist". Nevertheless, Orwell's contribution to socialism and the advance of socialism was nothing to write home about. In short. In reality, it amounted to absolutely nothing.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by 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.
7. That 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.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.