Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The SPGB - World Socialists

The Socialist Party of Great Britain are not the socialist "party" that Marx (or even our Declaration of Principles) envisages, ie the working class as a whole organised politically for socialism. That will come later. At the moment, the SPGB can be described as only a socialist propaganda or socialist education organisation and can't be anything else (and nor would it try to be , at the moment ). Possibly , we might be the embryo of the future mass "socialist party" but there's no guarantee that we will be ( more likely jusdt a contributing element). But who cares? As long as such a party does eventually emerges .At some stage, for whatever reason, socialist consciousness will reach a "critical mass" , at which point it will just snowball and carry people along with it. It may even come about without people actually giving it the label of socialism.

In 1904 the SPGB raised the banner for such a single, mass socialist party and proclaimed itself as the basis of such a party . Not only did the working class in general not "muster under its banner" but neither did all socialists. So although with a long history as a political party based on agreed goals, methods and organisational principles we were left as a small propagandist group, but still committed to the tenets set out in our Declaration of Principles. But we have never been so arrogant as to claim that we're the only socialists and that anybody not in the SPGB is not a socialist. There are socialists outside the SPGB, and some of them are organised in different groups. That doesn't mean that we are not opposed to the organisations they have formed, but we are not opposed to them because we think they represent some section of the capitalist class. We are opposed to them because we disagree with what they are proposing the working class should do to get socialism -- and of course the opposite is the case too : they're opposed to what we propose. Nearly all the others who stand for a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society are anti-parliamentary ( the old Socialist Labour Party being an exception). For the SPGB , using the existing historically-evolved mechanism of political democracy (the ballot box and parliament) is the best and safest way for a socialist-minded working class majority to get to socialism. For them, it's anathema. For the SPGB , some of the alternatives they suggest (armed insurrection or a general strike) are anathema. We all present our respective proposals for working-class action to get socialism and, while criticising each other's proposals, not challenging each other's socialist credentials .

The SPGB is the oldest existing socialist party in the UK and has been propagating the alternative to capitalism since 1904. A Marxist-based ( but perhaps a William Morris - Peter Kropotkin amalgam , some may say might be a better description ) organisation . It is a non-Social Democrat 2nd Internationalist , non-Leninist 3rd Internationalist , non-Trotskyist 4th Internationalist political organisation that is a formally structured yet leader-less political party ( under UK electoral law , a registered political party , which we are, has to name its leader and to comply the SPGB simply drew a name out of a hat and it is doubtful if any member recollects who it was ). We were in pre-1914 accusing the 2nd International of being non-socialist , and while we were throwing cold water on the 2nd International , the Lenins of the world were still adhering to the mistaken strategies and tactics .The SPGB never had to leave the Second International because we were never in.
The failures of post -1917 has only confirmed the SPGB case that understanding is a necessary condition for socialism , not desperation and despair . There is no easier road to socialism than the education of the workers in socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic methods. Shortcuts have proved to be cul de sacs.

We share in common with the Industrial Workers of the World the view that unions should not be used as a vehicle for political parties . The SPGB have always insisted that there will be a separation and that no political party should , or can successfully use , unions as an economic wing , until a time very much closer to the revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers . And thats not in the foreseeable future . It is NOT the SPGB's task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants' associations or whatever , because we believe that class conscious workers and socialists are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. For the Lenininist , all activity should be mediated by the Party (union activity, neighbourhood community struggles or whatever .) , whereas for us, the Party is just one mode of activity available to the working class to use in their struggles.
Even when the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness, the Socialist Party acknowledges that it is still necessary to engage in the non-revolutionary struggle of every-day life . But it is advocating the idea that THROUGH a policy or programme of reforms that the workers' situation can somehow be intrinsically improved or that it can progress towards the establishment of a socialist society that the SPGB adamantly refuses to recognise.The existence of the wage-workers depends upon their wages and it is not determined by legal law, but by the economic law of supply and demand. The condition of existence of the wage-workers is determined by the progress of the development of machinery, the concentration of capital, the proportion of the unemployed industrial reserve army. Social realities that are outside parliaments. Although the bettering of the conditions of existence by way of political reform is impossible, it is not the same as regards the conditions of fighting. To distinguish between the conditions of fighting and the conditions of existence is not to split hairs. There is a real difference. Some reforms would render the struggle of the proletariat more powerful, weakening capitalism - the right to strike and the right to picket, for instance.
The SPGB reject ALL forms of minority action to attempt to establish socialism, which can only be established by the working class when the immense majority have come to want and understand it. This is why we advocate using parliament. Not to try to reform capitalism but for the single revolutionary purpose of abolishing capitalism.What our capitalist opponents consequently do when the majority prevail will determine our subsequent actions. If they accept defeat, well and good. If they choose not to accept the verdict of the majority which is given through the their own institutions and contest that verdict by physical force, then the workers will respond in kind , with the legitimacy and the authority of a democratic mandate.

Clause 7 of our principles does commit the SPGB to "there can only be one socialist party" in any country in the sense of only one party aiming at the winning of control of political power by the working class to establish socialism. How could there be more than one socialist party in any country trying to win political power for socialism? It just doesn't make sense. If this situation were to arise then unity and fusion would be the order of the day.

Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership referendums are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organisation control that organisation – and as such key procedures in any organisation genuinely seeking socialism. Socialism can only be a fully democratic society in which everybody will have an equal say in the ways things are run. This means that it can only come about democratically, both in the sense of being the expressed will of the working class and in the sense of the working class being organised democratically – without leaders, but with mandated delegates – to achieve it. In rejecting these procedures what is being declared is that the working class should not organise itself democratically.

Those who know of the SPGB have noticed that we don't go out of our way to recruit members. Some would in fact say we do just the opposite. At first sight, we seem to have an odd approach to recruitment of any political party in existence - we actually have a test for membership.The SPGB will not allow a person to join it until the applicant has convinced the branch applied to that she or he is a conscious socialist. Surely it must put some people off? Well, that may be, but it can't be helped. There would be no point in a socialist organisation giving full democratic rights to those who, in any significant way, disagreed with the socialist case. The outcome of that would be entirely predictable.
This does not mean that the SPGB has set itself up as an intellectual elite into which only those well versed in Marxist scholarship may enter. The SPGB has good reason to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Once a member, s/he have the same rights as the oldest member to sit on any committee, vote, speak, and have access to all information. Thanks to the test all members are conscious socialists and there is genuine internal democracy, and of that we are fiercely proud.
Consider for a moment what happens when people join other groups which don't have this test.The new applicant has to be approved as being "all right". The individual is therefore judged by the group according to a range of what might be called "credential indicators". Hard work (often, paper selling) and obedience by new members is the main criterion of trustworthiness in the organisation. In these hierarchical, "top-down" groups the leaders strive at all costs to remain as the leadership , and reward only those with proven commitment to the "party line" with preferential treatment, more responsibility and more say. New members who present the wrong indicators remain peripheral to the party structure, and finding themselves unable to influence decision-making at any level, eventually give up and leave, often embittered by the hard work they put in and the hollowness of the party's claims of equality and democracy.

The SPGB hostility clause ,"to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist" is certainly unique and even within the SPGB it has always been subject to regular debate. Concerning the hostility clause, it is one issue that can justifiably put down to the 19th century social democrat roots of the SPGB since it stems from the early members experience of the SDF and the Socialist League. William Morris together with Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax and other members of the SDF, resigned and issued a statement giving their reasons, for "a body independent of the Social Democratic Federation". Yet they added : "We have therefore set on foot an independent organisation, the Socialist League, with no intention of acting in hostility to the Social Democratic Federation” . The main weakness, as some saw it, of the Socialist League was that it "had no intention of acting in hostility" to the SDF. When the Socialist Party was formed, its members made certain that their Declaration of Principles would include a hostility clause against all other parties (such as the SDF) who advocated palliatives, not socialism. Given the context when it was drawn up that the early members of the SPGB envisaged the party developing fairly rapidly into a mass party, not remaining the small educational group that it has done up to the present ), what it says is that when the working class form a socialist party this party is not going to do any election or parliamentary deals with any other political party, either to get elected or to get reforms. Basically, the hostility clause applies to political parties, organisations aiming at winning control of political power. In fact, in the eyes of those who drew it up, it was about the attitude that a mass socialist party (such as along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party was then seen to be albeit with its warts and all ) should take towards other political parties.
Importantly , the hostility clause doesn't mean that we are hostile to everything . There are a whole range of non-socialist organisations out there, ranging from trade unions to claimants unions to community and tenants associations to which we are not opposed. Clause 7 does not mean that "if you are not with the SPGB, somehow you are automatically anti-socialist". Of course, there are, and always, have been socialists outside the party in the sense of people who want to see established, like us, a classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless society based on common ownership and democratic control with production solely for use not profit. The party has in fact always recognised this, right from the start, seeing some other groups as socialists with a mistaken view of how to get there. Clearly, such people and such groups are not in the same category as openly pro-capitalist groups . What about some of the anarchists, the original SLP? Of course there are socialists outside the SPGB, and some of them are organised in different groups, some (like us) even calling themselves a "party". That doesn't mean that we are not opposed to the organisations they have formed, but we are not opposed to them because we think they represent some section of the capitalist class. We are opposed to them because we disagree with their proposed method of getting rid of capitalism rather than because of the hostility clause. That opposition doesn't have to go as far as hostility. Our attitude to them is to try to convince them that the tactic they propose to get socialism is mistaken and to join with us in building up a strong socialist party. Of course, if we think that the tactic they advocate (such as minority action or armed uprising or a general strike by non-socialists) is dangerous to the working-class interest then we say so and oppose them. We are opposed to them because we disagree with what they are proposing the working class should do to get socialism -- and , of course , the opposite is the case too , they are opposed to what we propose. We agree to disagree . Comradely disagreements. We cannot see any alternative to the present situation of each of us going our own way, putting forward our respective proposals for working-class action to get socialism and, while criticising each other's proposals, not challenging each other's socialist credentials. In the end, anyway, it's the working class itself who will decide what to do. For the moment, "our sector" , the thin red line, is condemned to remain an amorphous current. At a later stage, when more and more people are coming to want socialism, a mass socialist movement will emerge to dwarf all the small groups and grouplets that exist today. If this situation were to arise then unity and fusion would be the order of the day.

In the meantime, the best thing we in the SPGB can do, is to carry on campaigning for a world community based on the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth's natural and industrial resources in the interests of all humanity. We in the SPGB will continue to propose that this be established by democratic, majority political action. Other groups will no doubt continue to propose your own way to get there. And , in the end, we'll see which proposal the majority working class takes up. When the socialist idea catches on we'll then have our united movement .
The SPGB does not claim that socialist consciousness will come to dominate the working-class outlook simply as a result of the activity of socialists. The movement for socialism must be a working class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation. The SPGB's job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process - to act as a catalyst. This contrasts with those who seek to substitute the party for the class or who see the party as a vanguard which must undertake alone the sectarian task of leading the witless masses forward.
As a matter of political principle the SPGB holds no secret meetings, all its meetings including those of its executive committee being open to the public. This means that all its internal records (except, understandably , for the current membership names and addresses which remains confidential ) are open to public consultation. In keeping with the tenet that working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership , the SPGB is a leader-less political party where its executive committee is solely for housekeeping admin duties and cannot determine policy or even submit resolutions to conference (and all the EC minutes are available for public scrutiny with access on the web as proof of our commitment to openness and democracy ). All conference decisions have to be ratified by a referendum of the whole membership. The General Secretary has no position of power or authority over any other member being a dogsbody. Despite some very charismatic writers and speakers in the past , no personality has held undue influence over the the SPGB.

We need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. We don't suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don't necessary claim that we are that party. What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist group such as ourselves, but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is all about understanding limitations and they will be subject to change when conditions change. The main purpose of the SPGB at the moment is to (a) argue for socialism, and (b) put up candidates to measure how many socialist voters there are. The SPGB doesn't go around creating myths of false hopes and false dawns at every walk-out or laying down of tools but will remind workers of the reality of the class struggle and its constraints within capitalism and as a party unfortunately suffers the negative consequence of this political honesty.

Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch writer on Marxism, writing in an American magazine, Modern Socialism, said: "The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working-class . . . Because a party is an organisation that aims to lead and control the workers". He qualified this statement. "If . . . persons with the same fundamental conceptions (regarding Socialism) unite for the discussion of practical steps and seek clarification through discussion and propagandise their conclusions, such groups might be called parties, but they would be parties in an entirely different sense from those of to-day"
The SPGB position is that it was not parties as such that had failed, but the form all parties ( except the SPGB) had taken as groups of persons seeking power above the worker. Because the establishment of socialism depends upon an understanding of the necessary social changes by a majority of the population, these changes cannot be left to parties acting apart from or above the workers. The workers cannot vote for socialism as they do for reformist parties and then go home or go to work and carry on as usual. To put the matter in this way is to show its absurdity. The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its fellow parties therefore reject all comparison with other political parties. We do not ask for power; we help to educate the working-class itself into taking it.
Pannekoek wished workers' political parties to be “organs of the self-enlightenment of the working class by means of which the workers find their way to freedom” and “means of propaganda and enlightenment”.
Which is almost exactly the role and purpose hoped for by the Socialist Party of Great Britain's present members .

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