What is the SPGB?, Part 3: Support for democracy undermines internationalism

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The second part of this article in last month's World Revolution concluded that the failure of the SPGB to rise to the challenge of the First World War and the revolutionary wave meant that it "could not be part of the proletariat's forces". However, nor did it pass into the camp of the bourgeoisie. As a result "it came to occupy a position between the two great classes". What this meant became clear in the following decades and above all during the war in Spain and in the Second World War. Spain

The impact of the war in Spain in the late 1930s was such that "for one of the few occasions in its political lifetime the SPGB was split on a fundamental issue" (Perrin, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, p.111). One part of the party called for the defence of democracy, basing itself on the SPGB's own position that the revolution would be won through the democratic process: "Democracy opens up a new vista to the working class. Socialist parties can precede democracy, but they cannot have the character demanded by working class interests when the workers have attained political power...It is only because all necessary reforms have been won by reformers, and democracy has in consequence become a perfect political instrument for working-class political ends, that it is possible to organise the workers in a political party on non-reform, independent, hostile, class lines" (leaflet by Jacomb of the minority, quoted in Barltrop, The Monument, p.98). The majority, although proclaiming support for "the main body of the workers" against "those headed by Franco, who threaten to deprive the workers of the power to organise politically and industrially in their own interests" (Socialist Standard, March 1937, quoted ibid) took the position that "Democracy cannot be defended by fighting for it" (ibid, p99) and refused to support the republican side in the war. While Perrin describes this position as "circumspect" (p.111) and refers to "a marked attempt to steer a steady course between two incompatible positions" (ibid), Barltrop is more critical: "No stand was made or decision taken that would have rendered anyone's position untenable in the party�the Party had said it was on the side of the Spanish government and it had also said it would not support the Spanish government" (p.99). What this contradictory position really expressed was the contradictory position of the SPGB itself. On the one hand, its support for democracy was a fundamental concession to bourgeois ideology, while the call to defend democracy, which, as the minority pointed out, was consistent with the stated position of the party, opened the door to the betrayal of the working class. On the other hand, the refusal of the majority to follow this logic expressed a recognition, all confusions notwithstanding, that the war was really a capitalist one and so prevented the SPGB from supporting the war and betraying the working class.

The need to understand democracy

One of the founding principles of the SPGB was that the democratic process provided the most effective means for the struggle for socialism. Basing itself on the correct position that the emancipation of the working class "must be the work of the working class itself" (Point 5 of the SPGB's Declaration of Principles) and that the struggle is a political one, the SPGB concluded that this meant that it was necessary for there to be an absolute majority of socialists before the revolution, and that this majority could be measured through the bourgeois electoral system. This view, for all the SPGB's vigorous criticism of reformism, showed the continuing weight of the one of the main reformist weaknesses of the Second International: its concessions to bourgeois democracy. It failed to recognise the nature of bourgeois democracy or to take account of how consciousness actually develops. The SPGB has recognised that the democratic bourgeoisie does not practice what it preaches but this has led it to a defence of the principle of democracy rather than a critique of it, such as was developed by the Italian Communist Left.

In 'The democratic principle' (1) written in 1922, the Italian communist Bordiga showed the class nature of democracy: "Communism demonstrates that the formal juridical and political application of the democratic and majority principle to all citizens while society is divided into opposed classes in relation to the economy is incapable of making the state an organisational unit of the whole society or the whole nation. Officially that is what political democracy claims to be, whereas in reality it is the form suited to the power of the capitalist class, to the dictatorship of this particular class, for the purpose of preserving its privileges". The very form of democracy, in that it reduces the proletariat to a mass of isolated individuals, is an expression of bourgeois ideology since it denies the existence and primacy of classes - a denial that is necessarily in the interests of the dominant class.

The class nature of democracy was exposed in practice by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left in its journal Bilan when it dealt with the events in Spain in the 1930s. Far from being a step forward for the working class in Spain, the Republican government was introduced as the most effective means of combating it: "the Republic has appeared as the specific form for anti-working class repression, the form which best corresponds to the interests of capitalism, because as well as being able to resort to bloody repression it can count on the support of the UGT and the Socialist Party" (Bilan no.33, 1936, republished in International Review no.4, 1976). Time and again the governments of the republic, whether 'left' or 'right', did not hesitate to massacre the workers, as for example, after the Asturian insurrection of 1934. Following the putsch by Franco in 1936 and the start of the war in Spain the majority of the Fraction recognised that it was an imperialist war in which the ideology of democracy was used to enrol the working class.

The SPGB has never made any such critique of democracy and, in fact, through its defence of the democratic principle it actually reinforces one of the greatest obstacles facing the working class. Reflecting and in turn strengthening this is the SPGB's conception of the development of consciousness as an accumulation of individual socialists rather than a class process. As an accumulation it becomes a matter of sufficient number, hence the fixation on getting a majority of the working class "to muster under its banner" (Declaration of Principles, point 8). As a process it is above all a question of a class dynamic, hence there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative aspect. The development of consciousness as a class process has two aspects - its breadth and also its depth. The communist organisation forms the vanguard the SPGB so objects to because of the depth of its consciousness and its will to struggle. The communist vanguard is not outside the working class but merely at the head of the movement of the whole class. The revolution certainly requires the spread of socialist or communist consciousness within the working class and it has to reach a certain maturity before the revolution is possible. The overthrow of capitalism requires a political force greater than that of the bourgeoisie and the strength of this force depends above all on its consciousness; but it is the consciousness of a class, not a mass of individuals and, as such, the class may achieve this decisive force before the mathematical majority of proletarians have each fully developed their individual consciousness. The communist revolution is about the transformation of human relations and this is not something that can be decreed when, in parliamentary fashion, the winning majority is assembled.

The outcome of the SPGB's individualist approach was to leave the Spanish proletariat to its own devices: "It must be assumed that the Spanish workers weighed up the situation and counted the cost before deciding their course of action. This is a matter upon which their judgement should be better than that of people outside the country" (Socialist Standard, March 1937, quoted Barltrop, p98-9).

The Second World War

In 1936 the SPGB produced a pamphlet War and the Working Class, in which it declared war to be an inevitable product of capitalism and opposed any participation by the working class: "There is only one safe rule for the working class to follow when urged by the capitalists to support capitalist wars. No matter what form the appeal may take, they should examine the question in the light of working class interests. Ask yourself the question: 'have the working class of one nation any interest in slaughtering (and being slaughtered by) the workers of another?'...'Have they any interest in supporting one national section of the capitalist world against another'"; "War...solves no problem of the working class. Victory and defeat alike leave them in the same position...They have no interest at stake which justifies giving support to war" (quoted in War and Capitalism, SPGB (2), 1996). In the issue of Socialist Standard following the declaration of war the Executive Committee printed a statement which reiterated the position that the war was a product of capitalism and denounced both sides in the war. It expressed its concern at the "sufferings of the German workers under Nazi rule", declared its wholehearted support for "the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights" but repeated its position on "the futility of war as a means of safeguarding democracy". It called on workers to refuse to accept the prospect of war and "to recognise that only Socialism will end war". It concluded by repeating the expression of "goodwill and socialist fraternity" to all workers that it had made in 1914.

However, as a result of its failure to understand the issues of democracy and consciousness, that is, to understand the real historical context of the class struggle, the SPGB's opposition to the war remained trapped in the individualist and essentially pacifist refusal to participate in the war and, hence, within the framework of bourgeois ideology.

In June 1940, faced with the threat of prosecution under the Defence Regulations the party voluntarily censored itself, the Executive deciding not to publish anti-war material in the Socialist Standard, while plans to republish War and Socialism were dropped. As a consequence the Socialist Standard continued to appear throughout the war, filled with 'historical' and 'theoretical' articles. The government allowed a number of other papers to continue, including Peace News, the ILP's paper New Leader, and the anarchist War Commentary. Further, unlike during the previous war, the party was also able to continue holding public meetings, often attracting large audiences. Both Barltrop and Perrin, in their histories of the SPGB, underline the difference between the response of the working class in 1914 and 1939 towards those expressing anti-war views.

As in the First World War the party's main form of opposition was the individual conscientious objection of its militants. But here again the situation was different: the government created a legal process for conscientious objectors, including the grounds that would be accepted. The party saw an influx of members, reaching 8,000 at its peak; and it is clear that many saw membership as a way to increase their chances of being accepted as a conscientious objector since numbers declined rapidly after the war. The status of conscientious objector was not presented with such hostility as in the last war and Barltrop comments that "The treatment of conscientious objectors by the government in wartime was surprisingly reasonable" (p.113).

What this suggests is that the state understood what it was doing: it was using various organisations, including the SPGB, as a way of containing the opposition to the war that it knew would develop in the working class. Its method was to channel any such opposition into an individual and pacifist form that neither threatened the state practically, by encouraging workers to organise on a class basis, nor theoretically, by deepening class consciousness.

This contrasts sharply with elements of the left communist milieu who, despite their dispersal and the exceptionally difficult conditions in which they worked in Europe, maintained an intervention against the war, risking their lives for example to produce and distribute leaflets denouncing the war. Even more importantly, as we show in our book The Italian Communist Left, they were able to make important theoretical advances on such issues as the nature of the USSR and the role of war in capitalism. Thus while the left communists had no significance at a quantitative level they made a vital contribution at the qualitative level through the deepening of class consciousness. Their personal sacrifices were not aimed at setting an individual example but at the collective defence of the class. As a result, even in the midst of the most terrible imperialist war in history, at the time of the physical and ideological defeat of the working class, they struck a real blow against the rule of the bourgeoisie.

North, 1/5/04. Notes

  • This text is available from www.sinistra.net
  • This is the group that produces Socialist Studies following a split in 1991.