Reply to the SPGB's review of ‘The British Communist Left’

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The SPGB in its review of the British Communist Left (Socialist Standard 1213, September 2005) shows that it has understood nothing of the question of revolutionary organisation, even after 100 years of existence. Less than half of the review actually deals with the book, the rest is an attack on the ICC. The article as a whole seeks to dismiss the communist left, yesterday and today, as irrelevant.

The book is judged to be “a largely accurate account of those identified with the left-wing of Bolshevik politics in this era”. However, the notion that the communist left was simply the left of the Bolsheviks ignores the reality that it was the continuation of the tradition of the left in the workers’ movement; a tradition that included but pre-dated the Bolsheviks. This ‘mistake’ allows the SPGB to attribute all evil to the Bolsheviks. Thus the communist left “struggled towards taking up socialist positions” but “made some serious errors during its political evolution too – and continues to do so, largely because of its adherence to the vanguard politics of Leninism”. All the debates in the communist movement, including the differences with the Bolsheviks and the criticism of Lenin’s positions count for nothing. After this the British Communist Left is easily dismissed as being composed merely of “elements in the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party” and the Workers’ Socialist Federation, which was little more than “a one woman show”. There is no mention of the struggle of the working class itself, of which the communist left was a part and in whose struggles they played an active role. There is no reference to the anti-war activity of John Maclean, which recognised the link between the working class’ defence of its immediate interests and the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism. There is nothing about the discussions on the unions, parliament and Labour Party. This should be no surprise, because in all of the writings of the SPGB there is no real attempt to understand the working class as a class with a history of its own and positions to defend. Its role is simply to imbibe socialism from the SPGB and to “muster under its banner” (SPGB Declaration of Principles).

The attack on the ICC repeats the same themes. It had “interesting beginnings” but is now “a paranoid sect[1] that is Leninist and sectarian. Above all, the SPGB is offended by the book’s criticism of its supposed “impeccable record of actively opposing both world wars” and argues that the ICC’s activity is actually the same as the SPGB’s - “i.e denounce it as a capitalist conflict not worth the shedding of a drop of blood”.

The SPGB certainly criticised the war, but Maclean and the “elements in the SLP and BSP” sought to mobilise the working class against it, not through denunciations in the abstract but through intervention into the actual struggle of the working class. This was because they understood that when the class defends its interests, even at the immediate economic level, it opposes the bourgeoisie and stands in the way of the war machine.

The SPGB’s criticism reveals an interesting vision of what it means to be a revolutionary. It is only able to see in the slogan “turn the imperialist war into a world wide civil war against capitalism” a “suicidal slogan”: “if the ICC was ever crazy enough to put its own tactic into operation it would soon cease to exist organisationally”. This is a vision of revolutionaries as something separate from the working class. The whole point of Lenin’s slogan was not for revolutionaries to hurl themselves into kamikaze raids on the capitalist state, but to take part in a growing movement of the class which would - and did - inevitably lead to a general confrontation with the bourgeoisie. As The British Communist Left shows, one of the strengths of the communist left was its criticism of the substitutionist vision which ends up replacing mass activity with the intrigues of a minority. Substitutionism, however, remains a good description of the theory and practice of the SPGB. This can be seen in its central strategy of “the conquest of the powers of government”; that is, the winning of an SPGB majority in parliament “in order that this machinery…may be converted from an instrument of oppression into an instrument of emancipation” (SPGB Declaration of Principles). This means participation in the bourgeoisie’s democratic game and the sending of representatives to parliament ‘on behalf of’ the working class with the aim of the SPGB actually taking power. In practice it is much less than that. It means the SPGB standing token candidates completely separate from the struggles of the working class.

Where the SPGB is notable for its loyalty to parliamentary democracy, the communist left in Britain has been distinguished for its opposition to the parliamentary circus of our exploiters. NA 5/11/5



[1] It seems, in its desire to ‘deal’ with the ICC, the SPGB has no concern about the company it keeps. It is quite happy to spread the gossip and slander which is the speciality of a number of parasitic groups and embittered individuals, without making the least effort to verify its sources or ask us for our views. The November 2005 Socialist Standard contains an article which claims that it has “documented evidence” that we are a “cult”, just like the leftists of the Spartacist League and Lutte Ouvrière or any bizarre religious sect. We will come back to this tawdry effort at a later date.