Course of correspondence begins here
Clive Power calls on the far left to unite in order to avoid falling into even greater obscurity (Letters, November 11).
Surely, the lesson the left needs to learn from its consistently dreadful electoral performances is that it needs to stop playing the electoral game and chasing votes. Participating in elections simply validates a corrupt and dysfunctional political system. Instead, sincere revolutionaries should be organising on a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian basis, promoting direct action and mutual aid.
As Pannekoek wrote, “The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working class; therefore we avoid forming a new party - not because we are too few, but because a party is an organisation that aims to lead and control the working class.”Jeff Steel
Jeff Steel’s letter raises an interesting point about the role of political parties or, more accurately, the non-role of them, and he use a quote from Anton Pannekoek to support his argument (November 18). May I counter with another?
Pannekoek, writing in the 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.” But 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 today.”
I would suggest the model in keeping with Pannekoek’s ideal would be the Socialist Party of Great Britain and that it was not parties per se that had failed, but the form all parties had taken as groups of persons seeking power above the worker.
As a matter of political principle, the SPGB holds no secret meetings. All its meetings, including those of its executive committee, are open to the public (all EC minutes are available on the web as proof of our commitment to openness and democracy). In keeping with the tenet that working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership, the SPGB is a leaderless political party, whose executive committee is solely for housekeeping and administrative duties and cannot determine policy or even submit resolutions to conference. 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 just a dogsbody, and despite some very charismatic writers and speakers in the past, no personality has held undue influence over the SPGB.
The SPGB does not ask for power, but exists 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”.
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 to work and carry on as usual.Alan JohnstoneSPGB
Alan Johnstone wants to put us communists out of a job (Letters, November 25). Together with the rest of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, he believes that the working class do not need political leadership to overthrow capitalism.
This puts him and his group on the same level as the anarchists. Dialectically speaking, like the latter, Johnstone and the SPGB can only see the negative side of leadership and authority, never the positive side. Likewise, they only see the positive side of spontaneity, never the negative. Since Johnstone and the group of which he is a member appear to be opposed to all authority and leadership, and not only the counterrevolutionary variety, I fail to see what in essence differentiates the SPGB from the anarchist movement.
While we shouldn't worship authority or leadership, this doesn't mean that these things are all bad or negative. If workers can end capitalism without political leaders, as Johnstone claims, can he and the SPGB give us a convincing explanation why they have not already done so?Tony Clark
The Alan Johnstone quote from Pannekoek is very apposite if applied to the left groups which dominate the British left today. However, a socialist organisation that subordinates the working class to its own leadership clique does not deserve the name of 'party'. 'Sect' is a better description, whatever size it may reach.
I agree with comrade Johnstone that the job of a party is to educate the class to take power in its own name, but his view that the best thinkers in the class (designated as such by their ability to give good advice) should sit on their backsides and view the revolution from the sidelines is bizarre. Surely they have a duty to get involved in the organisation of the revolutionary process in as democratic a manner as the political situation allows and their administrative talents permit.
The SPGB's commitment to openness is admirable in the present circumstances, but in other times they could well be viewing the world through prison bars or from the grave. Can an organisation that cannot give good advice to itself be trusted to give good advice to the class about the essential coerciveness of power?
At the end of the day the Communist Party must organise the class to take and keep power, not just educate it. Possibly under conditions where the SPGB's democratic structure is impossible.
The Communist Party does not ask for power over the working class, but as a part of that class and answerable to it. As CPGBers we would wish to be a part of such a democratic, internationalist, mass party, firmly implanted in the European working class. This, not the SPGB's abstract democratic abstentionism, is the best guarantor of working class power.Phil Kent
Members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain believe that the working class can overthrow capitalism and build socialism without political leadership. Furthermore, they ascribe this anarchistic position to Marx and Engels. Stuart Watkins even suggests that it was Lenin who poisoned the working class with the idea of political leadership (Letters, December 9). This is probably the grossest falsification of Marxist history to date.
According to Watkins, Marx and Engels did not believe in political leadership in their later years because they argued that, “Where the question involves the complete transformation of social organisation, the masses must be consulted, must themselves have already grasped what the struggle is about, and what they stand for”.
So, according to the SPGB, grasping what the struggle is about and what they stand for in general terms, means that the masses don’t need political leadership. The SPGB has read into the above passage a repudiation of political leadership where none was intended. It’s even possible to argue that reference to the masses needing to be consulted seems rather patronising coming from Marx and Engels, although this would have been unintended.
The theory that the working class can end capitalism and start socialism without political leadership has nothing to do with Marxism. Even if Marx had argued this, he would have been wrong. Those who suggest that he held such a view need to explain why Marx sought to exclude anarchists from the International Working Men’s Association.
If the supporters of the SPGB choose to believe this nonsense, they should at least be consistent and dissolve their organisation immediately. If the working class does not need a political leadership, what use have they for a party? Why can’t the functions of, say, the SPGB be performed by other ad hoc bodies?Tony Clark
The complaints of the many splinter groups of the left arise from disappointments and discouragements at their lack of results, despite their sincere and dedicated activism. One important factor is their feeling of being ‘leaders’ and ‘professional revolutionaries’. The careerists and cadres are forever taking credit for organising the workers. It is as though they were taking credit for the rising of the sun, forgetting their basic Marxism that it is not ideas that make material conditions, but material conditions that give rise to ideas.
Tony Clark and his ilk, instead of standing clearly for socialism, have aped official Labourism, seeking to influence non-socialist workers through tactical manipulation rather than convince them to change their minds. They argue that the ‘united front’ provides an opportunity for ‘revolutionaries’ to discuss and convert reformists and that the immediate aim of the ‘united front’ is to provide the most effective fighting organisation for both reformists and revolutionaries. Vanguardists accept the notion that the workers are incapable of developing socialist consciousness, and so the ‘revolutionaries’ have to work with reformists in order to influence them and draw off the active workers into their own ranks. That there is an ‘uneven consciousness’ among workers that necessitates the need for leaders and for an organisation that can bring it together with non-socialist workers in the name of immediate given ends, be those organisations trade unions or anti-cuts alliances.
The reality is that any sort of success involves hiding the disagreements between their constituent organisations, specifically about means and motives. They succeed by making demands that are supported by significant numbers of workers, meaning that any ‘revolutionary’ content will be buried into the need for immediate victory. As such, it is small ‘c’ conservative, taking political consciousness as it is found and seeking to manipulate rather than change it. Such a tactic, however, affords the ‘left’ an opportunity to extend their influence. As a tiny minority, they get to work with organisations which can more easily attract members and can thus be part of campaigns and struggles that reach out well beyond the tiny numbers of political activists in any given situation. But the relevant fact remains that, despite providing all this assistance, the ‘revolutionaries’ are incapable of taking these campaigns further than the bulk of the members are willing to accept.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, however, argue that minorities cannot simply take control of movements and mould and wield them to their own ends. Without agreement about what it is and where it is going, leaders and led will invariably split off in different directions. We say that since we are capable, as workers, of understanding and wanting socialism, we cannot see any reason why our fellow workers cannot do likewise. The job of socialists in the here and now is to openly and honestly state the case rather than trying to wheedle and manoeuvre to win a supposed ‘influence’ that is more illusory than real.
Marx believed that, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves. The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be ‘spontaneous’ in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about. Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary, but would come to be carried out by workers themselves, whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist manifesto, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
One of the great strengths of the SPGB is our opposition to leadership and our commitment to democratic practices, so, whatever weaknesses or mistaken views we hold or get accused of by Tony Clarke, they cannot be imposed upon others with possible worse consequences. Can he claim the same for his own political pedigree? The validity of the SPGB’s ideas will either be accepted or rejected by discussion and debate, verified by actual concrete developments on the ground. The SPGB are not going to take the workers to where they neither know where they are going nor, most likely, want to go. 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 task of leading the witless masses forward.Alan JohnstoneSPGB
By their own admission, the Socialist Party of Great Britain is not and cannot become the political leadership of the working class in the struggle for socialism in Britain.
In complete opposition to Alan Johnstone and Stuart Watkins (Letters, January 6), I will put forward what can be called the ‘iron law of leadership’, as far as the struggle for socialism is concerned. This law simply states that leadership is inevitable and cannot be abolished or circumvented. The inevitability of leadership arises from there being different levels of political understanding, ability, motivation and commitment in the working class.
Also, it is important to recognise that leadership may have deeper psychological roots. Human beings have always followed leaders, be it in politics, religion, scientific ideas or even fashion. So I am not going to place any bets on the wiseacres of the SPGB being able to get rid of it in the working class.
Those who are fighting against the idea of leadership in the working class are seeking to behead the proletariat, with a guillotine operated by the SPGB. However, Johnstone is right to point out that the validity of any idea can only be determined by practice, or “concrete developments on the ground”. Defending the scientific method may indicate that he is upholding the SPGB’s anti-leadership theory in a less dogmatic manner. The problem for Johnstone is that historical experience has already dismissed his anti-leadership ideas.
Finally, people who are fighting to destroy leadership in the working class are really opposing formal leadership structures where the leadership is open and accountable, as far as this is made possible by political conditions. While concealing themselves behind anti-leadership rhetoric, they replace open leadership with informal, secret and unaccountable leadership cliques. Unable to escape the iron law of leadership, they opt for informal leadership, behind the backs of the working class.Tony Clark
Tony Clark writes that “people who are fighting to destroy leadership in the working class are really opposing formal leadership structures where the leadership is open and accountable, as far as this is made possible by political conditions.While concealing themselves behind anti-leadership rhetoric, they replace open leadership with informal, secret and unaccountable leadership cliques. Unable to escape the iron law of leadership, they opt for informal leadership, behind the backs of the working class” (Letters, January 13).
Surely, Tony is not accusing the Socialist Party of Great Britain of such practices. The SPGB expects any working class organisation to possess democratic self-organisation, involving formal rules and structures, to prevent the emergence of unaccountable, self-appointed elites, who may become the de facto leaders making decisions; and the SPGB endorses Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of structurelessness (libcom.org/library/tyranny-structurelessness-jo-freeman). We’re not talking about the sort of structures advocated and practised by Leninist organisations, which are designed to enshrine control by a self-perpetuating elite. We are talking about structures that place decision-making power in the hands of the group as a whole, along the lines of the seven “principles of democratic structuring” listed by Freeman. 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 - to achieve it.
The crucial part of the SPGB case is that understanding is a necessary condition for socialism and we see the SPGB’s job as to shorten the time, to speed up the process - to act as a catalyst. The SPGB views its function to be to make socialists, to propagate socialism, and to point out to the workers that they must achieve their own emancipation. To “make socialism an immediacy” for the working class, something of importance and value to people’s lives now, rather than a singular ‘end’. We await the mass ‘socialist party’. Possibly, the SPGB might be the seed or the embryo of the future mass ‘socialist party’ but there’s no guarantee that we will be (more likely just a contributing element, in my humble opinion). But who cares, as long as such a party does eventually emerge?
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. At the 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. When the idea of socialism catches on, we’ll then have our united movement. With the spread of socialist ideas, all organisations will change and take on a participatory-democratic and socialist character, so that the majority organisation for socialism will not be just political and economic, but will also embrace all aspects of social life, as well as inter-personal relationships. We’re talking about a radical social revolution.
We actually have a knowledge test for membership. The SPGB will not allow a person to join until the applicant has convinced the party that s/he understands and accepts the party case for socialism. This does not mean that we have set ourselves 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 we are fiercely proud of that. Consider what happens when people join other groups which don’t have such a test. The new applicant has to be approved as being ‘an okay comrade’. The individual is therefore judged by the group according to a range of what might be called ‘credential indicators’. Hard work (more often than not, paper selling) and obedience and compliance by new members are the main criteria 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 their ‘party line’ with preferential treatment, more responsibility and more say. New members who present the wrong indicators remain peripheral to the party structure, finding themselves unable to influence decision-making, eventually resigning, often embittered by all the hard work they had put in and the hollowness of the claims of equality and democracy. (Does that sound familiar?)
The longevity of the SPGB as a political organisation based on agreed goals, methods and organisational principles and which has produced without interruption a monthly magazine for over a hundred years, through two world wars, is an achievement that most socialist organisations can only aspire towards. Tony Clark should be envious rather than dismissive. Meantime, the best thing we in the SPGB can do is carry on campaigning for a world based on the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s resources in the interests of all. 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 their own way to get there. And, in the end, we’ll see which proposal the majority working class takes up.Alan JohnstoneSPGB
Watch this space but i may not over-stay my welcome at the Weekly Worker's letter page and might not answer any replies to the above