(Reply to http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Newint/Ted.html)
It was with a real sense of disbelief that I read the article 'Political and Religious Sects' in your Summer 1997 edition. Perhaps I am just not reading as widely as I used to, but it seems some time since I last came across such a badly-researched and ill-informed piece as this.
It is obvious that the writer of this article, Ted Crawford, who attempted to liken the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Workers Revolutionary Party to religious sects, has far more knowledge and experience of the second organisation than the first. It is not my purpose to defend the SPGB unconditionally at every point throughout its history against the charge of sectarianism, but if Ted Crawford really wants to make a charge like this stick he is going to have to make a better effort than he did in New Interventions.
He lists a number of characteristics identifiable in religious sects, and attempts to match these up with some supposed characteristics of the SPGB and WRP. He claims that the WRP exhibits nearly all of these sectarian characteristics, the SPGB six of them (over half). I find it instructive to look at these alleged examples of the SPGB's sectarianism individually.
The first such characteristic is that 'the SPGB is voluntary'. So, he concedes, are tennis clubs, therefore this is the 'least distinctive' characteristic of sectarian organisations. But quite why it is a characteristic at all is never explained. Are we to assume that if the SPGB press-ganged people into becoming members and didn't allow them to leave, then this would constitute open-mindedness and aversion to sectarianism in all its forms? And is he aware that many religious sects, including some of the worst, are not voluntary in any real sense?
Secondly, he writes that SPGB membership 'is by knowledge of doctrine'. This, for the most part at least, is merely an example of the coloured, pejorative terminology deployed throughout the piece. Another — and rather more accurate — way of putting it might be simply to state that SPGB membership is conditional on agreement with its basic views. Plenty of people have knowledge of all sorts of aspects of the SPGB's politics. This does not qualify them for membership, only agreement with the SPGB's fundamental core principles does that. Furthermore, how many political organisations let people join who disagree with their core views about society? The few who do end up driving out or expelling whole sections of their membership because they will not agree with the dominant ideology.
The third of the SPGB's allegedly 'sectarian' characteristics is indeed the charge that 'deviants are expelled'. But where is the evidence that the SPGB is more likely to expel members than other 'non-sectarian' political groups? All we are told is that the SPGB has recently suffered a 'serious split'. This is presumably a reference to the fact that in 1991, 24 members of the SPGB membership of about 550 were charged and expelled from the party after a poll of all the members. What is not stated is that this is by far the largest group of members ever to be expelled from the party in its 93-year history. Since this event in 1991, not a single member of the SPGB has been expelled, and only one was expelled in the 10 years previous to that. Indeed, given its long and sometimes colourful history, one of the most noticeable characteristics of the SPGB is how few members have been expelled since its foundation in 1904, not how many. Ted Crawford goes on to decry the SPGB for only expelling members on political grounds, citing the non-expulsion of two party members charged with running a call-girl racket in the late 1940s. But beyond the far right, how many political organisations expel members because they don't like their lifestyles? The Tory and Labour parties may refuse positions of influence to those who have criminal convictions, for instance (or at least sometimes they do), but they are not in the business of generally excluding them from membership. The SPGB is no different in this respect, except that whereas the Tory and Labour leaderships may make rulings from high about office-holders who bring their parties into disrepute, in the SPGB this is done via the internal political culture of the organisation, expressed democratically.
Fourthly, it is claimed that the SPGB 'has no formal hierarchy and all members are constitutionally equal'. Now this much at least is true, but how this can be reasonably construed as being evidence of sectarianism is a mystery with which even Arthur C Clarke would have struggled. Again, are we to understand that an organisation which does have an entrenched hierarchy and where members are not constitutionally equal, is not sectarian? And if so, and as the WRP fits both criteria, is this a prime reason for regarding it as a non-sectarian organisation? If Ted Crawford really believes this, why doesn't he say so? He might also like to ask himself whether religious sects are organised on a non-hierarchical and equal basis. If he truthfully thinks they are, then it is most certainly vital that he extends his reading beyond its obviously limited boundaries.
Ted Crawford's fifth example of the SPGB's sectarianism, however, is the pièce de résistance. He claims that the SPGB is sectarian because 'it is hostile to the state and present social order'. You must forgive me, but at this point I seriously began to think I had put down New Interventions and mistakenly picked up the Daily Mail instead. After all, this is a statement which tells us that revolutionary organisations are by definition sectarian. Organisations which support the state and uphold the present social order are by the same token non-sectarian. The grounds on which this amazing statement is justified are conspicuous by their absence. But yet again, if Ted Crawford's purpose is to equate the SPGB with religious sects — and it clearly is — how many does he know of that oppose the state and the present social order? The Moonies, the Natural Law Party, the Mormons, the myriad evangelical sects? Some of the latter oppose certain political panics and government structures (for example, in the USA), but that is clearly not the same thing. Contrary to Ted Crawford's assertion, nearly all religious sects support the existing system and social structure, not oppose it.
Lastly, he claims that the commitment of the members of the SPGB to their organisation is greater than that of most political activists, this again constituting sectarianism. If he had even bothered to interview a handful of SPGB members, he would have found out soon enough that this, too, is nonsense: accuse the SPGB of this, and most of its members wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. An idea of the number of highly active members in the SPGB can be gleaned from the size of its conferences, delegate meetings, and the number attending branch meetings. Has Ted Crawford looked at any of this? Evidently not. I have, and I can tell him that the ratio of active members of the SPGB to inactive ones is little different to the Labour Party; it is certainly far removed from the WRP, the Socialist Workers Party, Militant or any of the other Leninist groups.
So none of the six reasons given for labelling the SPGB a 'sectarian' organisation can be justified. The main problem is that Ted Crawford has quite obviously taken a deep-seated prejudice against the SPGB, and has tried to justify it by fitting the party into a preconceived schema which it quite evidently doesn't fit. His arguments, as a result, are at best stretched, and at worst wholly flawed. His article could stand as an example of the importance of thorough research and an open mind, and of the inevitable pitfalls when neither are present.
The article relies for its information on the SPGB on one main source: Robert Barltrop's book about the party published in 1975, The Monument. Though this book is extremely well written and contains reasonably accurate information relating to the SPGB's foundation and early history, much of the rest of the book is both highly anecdotal and highly coloured, conceived and largely written when the author was an opponent of the party. It is a pity that Ted Crawford did not have access to (or perhaps know about) the two serious academic studies of the SPGB, the first a doctoral thesis written by Stephen Coleman in 1984 (University of London), the second a doctoral thesis written by myself in 1993 (University of Liverpool). Even so, he most certainly should have made the effort to read the book Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Rubel and Crump (Macmillan, 1988) which contains a chapter on the SPGB that is far more accurate and balanced than The Monument.
But I am afraid that lack of research into the secondary material on the SPGB is not the only problem with Ted Crawford's article. He seems to have little if any knowledge of the primary literature either. To put it bluntly, you do not need a PhD to know that the SPGB thinks a 'socialist government' is a contradiction in terms, and yet Ted Crawford still writes that 'the SPGB believes that socialism is impossible unless a socialist government (themselves) is elected'. He could have found this out just by reading the party's introductory pamphlet From Capitalism to Socialism, let alone any of the other more detailed literature.
If I could just mention a few of the other howlers cited as facts, you will begin to get the picture:
We are told that SPGB members would 'never attempt to generate a political position inside a union'. Exactly what this means is difficult to tell, but is Ted Crawford unaware that the SPGB and its members within unions agitate for the fullest democracy, oppose all leadership, and work at every available opportunity to expose the Labour Party and its followers, also refusing to pay the political levy? If he is saying (as I suspect) that the SPGB does not attempt to use trade unions for its own narrow political ends in the manner Trotskyist groups attempt to, then he should say so, though why he didn't is self-evident. To do this would have been to let the charge of sectarianism wither on yet another vine.
He claims that 'if members live under an undemocratic government, they might deplore it, but would not see the restoration or achievement of democracy as their task', citing the SPGB's opposition to the Second World War as evidence. But the SPGB's statement at the outbreak of the war made clear that the party 'wholeheartedly supports the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights against the powers of suppression' (Socialist Standard, October 1939). While the SPGB — for a whole variety of reasons — always counsels the working class away from supporting those capitalist parties and groups that advocate parliamentary democracy against dictatorship, it calls on workers living under dictatorships to agitate independently for basic political, civil and trade union rights under capitalism, as well as agitate for socialism. This was a position overwhelming reaffirmed as recently as the SPGB's 1990 Conference.
Ted Crawford writes sarcastically that the SPGB stand 'in a few constituencies in every election. The recent sharp rise in candidates' deposits has meant that the numbers standing in general elections have been cut back, and this reform could be seen as religious discrimination.' In reality, the SPGB stood more candidates in the May 1997 general election than in any other general election, and more in 1997 than in 1992, 1987, 1983 and 1979 combined! Evidently Ted Crawford's library doesn't extend to including copies of The Times Guide to the House of Commons either.
He says 'there must be a minimum of 10 members in a constituency to sign a candidate', he writes. What relevance this has is again not stated — perhaps it is meant to indicate that the party is so sectarian it only allows its own members to sign nomination forms for its candidates. Whatever, it is still wrong. The party's rulebook states under Electoral Action (rule 28) 'that any constituent may sign the nomination paper'.
Given all this, it is tempting to ask whether there is anything in this article about the SPGB that is correct. The sad answer, beyond a few of the initial sentences about the party's formation, is very little. That Ted Crawford decided to try and get this farrago of nonsense published frankly beggars belief. If he wants to attack the SPGB's political views, let him do so, and let them reply. Until then he should be more careful about what he writes lest he makes another fool of himself, and New Interventions should be equally careful about what it publishes lest it appear malevolent, plain daft, or an unedifying mixture of the two.
(Letter in New Interventions, Volumr 8, Nº 2, Winter 1997/98)