What is the SPGB? (part 4): 1945-2004

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This series of articles has argued that, as a result of its failure to respond adequately to the First World War and the revolutionary wave that followed, the SPGB moved into the political no-man's land between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The third part of this article in WR 274 developed this analysis, showing that the SPGB's inability to make a critique of democracy pushed it into confusion faced with the war in Spain and into a virtual accommodation with the bourgeois state during the Second World War, when it was used by the ruling class as a safe channel for the questioning and anger provoked by the war. This final part takes this analysis up to the present.

Post war decline

Immediately following the war the membership of the SPGB continued to rise, reaching 1,000 in 1948(1) and 1,100 the year afterwards, and it maintained a large number of outdoor speaking pitches. However, in the 1950s the membership began to fall and attendance at its outdoor meetings declined. A resolution adopted at the 1961 Conference deplored "the low level of propaganda in 1960" while subsequent conferences called repeatedly for greater efforts to be made (see Conference Decisions and Party Poll Results 1959-1972 on the Socialist Standard SPGB website: www.worldsocialism.org). Internally, a number of controversies developed in the party, as certain elements questioned the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and argued for a gradualist amelioration of the conditions of humanity as a whole, while speculating on various aspects of the socialist society of tomorrow (see Barltrop, The Monument, chapter 15 and 'Getting Splinters' in the June 2004 centenary issue of the Socialist Standard). Amongst those questioning the SPGB's very foundations was Tony Turner, one of the leading figures of the party, who called for a return to pre-industrial methods of production and rejected the role of the working class, arguing that a socialist party "appeals to mankind, not to capitalists, nor to wage-workers" (quoted in Barltrop, p. 147). These developments were fundamentally an expression of the weight of the defeat suffered by the working class. Physically, millions of workers had been slaughtered while ideologically the proletariat was crushed by the victory of democracy and Stalinism. The lie that the working class had in some way gained from the experience of the war, typified in the propaganda of the post-war Labour government, seemed to erase the true perspective of communism.

The internal crises of the SPGB were an expression of this general loss of perspective; but they were also the price of its wartime accommodation with the bourgeoisie, when it effectively contributed to the ideological victory of the ruling class by suspending its activity. One consequence seems to have been an erosion of the militant and personal conduct of some members. Barltrop recounts how one of the factions, after it had left the SPGB, infiltrated members back into the party to cause disruption. Even worse, he suggests that some developed antipathy towards the working class and engaged in petty crime and fraud while one couple ran a call-girl agency. Although many in the party strongly opposed such conduct a proposal that members' 'private' lives could be investigated was heavily defeated.

The impact of 1968

The end of the counter-revolution, marked by the mass strike in France in 1968, saw the emergence of a new generation questioning capitalism and looking for a revolutionary analysis. "During the 1960s the Party was enthused by a healthy influx of new recruits initially politicised by the CND marches, Vietnam and the May Events of 1968" ('Getting Splinters', Socialist Standard, June 2004, p.40). An analysis of the strikes in France argued that there were "vital lessons" to be learnt from the strike, such as "the complete bankruptcy of the 'Communist' parties" and "the way in which the universities and factories were organised", but rejected the notion that there was any kind of near-revolutionary situation because none of the workers' demands really went beyond the capitalist system. While formally correct, this fails to grasp the historical significance of the strikes: the emergence of a new undefeated generation of workers and the end of the counter-revolution. In short, the SPGB missed the bigger picture, focussing, as it did with regard to Russia in 1917, on immediate aspects of the situation in isolation. Thus it concluded: "If there was a working class committed to Socialism in France the correct method of achieving political power would be to fight a general election on a revolutionary programme without any reforms to attract support from non-socialists" ('How close was France to a Socialist Revolution?' Socialist Standard, July 1968, reprinted in Socialism or your money back, 2004).

Faced with the resurgence of the working class, the SPGB's fixation on democracy and its mechanistic conception of the development of consciousness rendered it blind to the developments taking place and resulted in it increasingly being a radical echo of the ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie

Under pressure from the development of the class struggle

The SPGB was unable to avoid being affected by the intensification of the class struggle that took place in the decades after 1968. The annual conferences in this period repeatedly adopted resolutions that reiterated the SPGB's basic positions on the use of parliament, and the necessity for a majority of the working class to be socialists before the introduction of socialism. Some elements within the SPGB began to question its positions, leading to a number of expulsions, including in the mid-1970s members of the group that produced Libertarian Communism: "This supported the idea of workers' councils. It openly attacked as 'Kautskyite' the Party's traditional conception of the socialist revolution being facilitated through 'bourgeois' democracy and parliament" ('Getting Splinters', Socialist Standard, June 2004, p.40). Elements from this group were subsequently involved in Wildcat and Subversion.

At the same time it also felt the pressure of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces. In 1974 it declared that "membership of Women's Liberation Organisations is incompatible with membership of the party" (Conference Resolutions 1973-1988, SPGB, Socialist Standard, website).

While it was able to resist these more obvious challenges, it seems that there were other developments taking place that led to increasing conflict within the party. For example, the 1980 Conference adopted a resolution that stated "this conference views with displeasure the abusing of members by other members that has been a feature of the Party in the last three years. It considers that letters, circulars and other statements naming members as liars and rogues, denying their right to be members, disparaging and interfering with Party activity, have caused and still cause grave harm to the Party" (ibid). In 1991 a substantial minority of members were expelled for 'undemocratic behaviour'. The expelled members promptly 'reconstituted' the SPGB, resulting in a legal battle over the name and accusations from the expelled minority of attempts at sabotage.

The reconstituted SPGB, which publishes the journal Socialist Studies, accuses the Socialist Standard SPGB, or what it calls the "Clapham-based Socialist Party", of reformism and anarchism. They trace the dispute back to the difficulties faced by the SPGB in the 1950s and argue that there were "20 or more years of endless disputes against factions determined to take over the Party" (SPGB - Socialist Studies, 2002, Preface to Socialist Policies and Principles - Setting the Record Straight). The struggle became more acute in the early 1970s with the appearance of critical factions as described above. One of these factions produced a manifesto, Where We Stand, in 1973, amongst whose signatories was A. Buick, one of the current leading figures in the Socialist Standard SPGB (ibid, p3). The Socialist Standard centenary issue only seems to hint at this when it notes "Members whose disagreements with the Party were less serious and fundamental stayed in, working for the creation of what they hoped would be a more tolerant, and in their view, less 'sectarian' organisation" (Socialist Standard, June 2004, p.40). Around the time of the split in the early 90s a member of the SPGB was reported as saying "most of the break-away group were 'in their eighties and nineties' and tended to be dismissive of feminist, gay and black issues the party had increasingly taken up in recent years" (The Socialist of March 1992, quoted in Socialist Studies, no.5, p.14). This suggestion of a change in the SPGB gains some support from a Conference Resolution of 1994, rescinding the resolution taken 20 years ago opposing membership of women's liberation organisations (Conference resolutions 1989-1994 and Party Poll results 1986-1991, SPGB website); from the willingness of figures like Buick and Coleman to participate in joint publications (2); and, most recently and clearly from Perrin's The Socialist Party of Great Britain, which contains direct criticism of the traditional positions of the SPGB (3).

Democracy and democratism

There is thus some truth in the Socialist Studies group's accusation that the Socialist Standard group has moved away from the SPGB's original positions. But the problem goes deeper than this. What lies behind this evolution is the contradictory position that the SPGB has occupied since the First World War and, in particular, its accommodation to bourgeois ideology. While the Socialist Studies group remains a stalwart of democracy in its most obvious parliamentary form, the Socialist Standard group has adapted to the weight of a more pervasive and 'flexible' democratism that has developed since 1968.

One expression of this was the declaration of support by the SPGB for the growth of Solidarity in Poland in 1980. For Socialist Studies this amounted to a betrayal of principles because they classified Solidarity as a reformist movement rather than simply a union. In fact, the expression of support was a logical consequence of the SPGB's position that democratic rights, including the right to organise in trade unions, are a precondition for socialism.

This became much clearer and of greater significance after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The SPGB saw the collapse as wholly positive: "The Socialist Party welcomes the collapse of Russian-style 'communism' as a significant step in clearing the way for genuine communism to which it has been a serious obstacle for over 70 years" ('The end of utopia?', Socialist Standard, December 1991). It echoed the bourgeoisie's talk of popular 'revolution': "In Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania despite the intimidation, the workers took courage into their hands, came into the streets and openly defied their oppressors. When we see these oppressive structures collapsing what is being demonstrated is the power and force of popular consciousness" ('The Lessons of East Europe', Socialist Standard, February 1990). It agreed with the superiority of western bourgeois democracy: "Unquestionably it is better to live in a society where there is some degree of democracy than in one where opposition to the regime is not tolerated" ('What price democracy', Socialist Standard, September 1992). Even if imperfect the democratic freedoms granted by the bourgeoisie make socialism possible and should be supported: "to establish the majority socialist consciousness that must necessarily underpin Socialism, it is important to struggle for our voice to be heard; for the limping democracy of capitalism to become more than a mere numbers game for pollsters and politicians" (ibid). And it contributed to the bourgeoisie's campaign against communism, which always insists that the October 1917 revolution led directly to Stalinism: "A state-managed economy, one-man management at work, and the political dictatorship of a single party which imprisons its members who oppose its leadership, what is that if not Stalinism? Yes, Lenin did lead to Stalin. Both were opponents of the self-emancipation of the working class" (SPGB leaflet). For the SPGB, it was a chance to grow and gain influence: "the fact that ours is a movement with a clean and honest record where Leninism and dictatorship are concerned - our critical stance maintained over many decades has been shown to be right - will surely open many doors for us in Eastern Europe and Russia at this time of change" ('From privilege to profits', Socialist Standard, March 1990).

Socialist principles explained and changed

The changes made by the Socialist Standard group can also be seen by comparing different issues of one of its key documents, Socialist Principles Explained, which aims to clarify the Object and Declaration of Principles:

  • In describing the future socialist society the 1975 edition states "Socialist society can only be world-wide; humanity will not be segregated behind national frontiers". A quarter of a century later, the 2000 edition, reflecting current anti-globalisation or alternative world ideology, makes similar points but also adds that "Groups of people may well preserve their languages, customs and traditions".
  • In explaining clause 2 on the class struggle, the 1975 edition uses basic marxist phrases to describe workers as "sellers of their mental and physical energies, their 'labour power'". For the 2000 edition the working class are "the great majority of people in society" who are condemned to "an insecure and demeaning life of drudgery".
  • In explaining "the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex", the 1975 edition puts it in the context of the common ownership of the means of production and distribution but a quarter of century later the emphasis is on "the rejection of racism and sexism".

Conclusion - living with capitalism

In 1981, the ICC criticised the SPGB's inability to see the significance of the mass strike of the Polish workers: "The significance of their fight is, for the SPGB, not that they have placed themselves in the advance guard of the international workers' struggle with self-organisation and generalised strikes outside of the unions. Rather they have shown that they are a rearguard - having just obtained trade union rights" 'SPGB salutes trade unionism', WR 37, April 1981). This has been the case in 1917, 1968 and 1980. Always the working class is seen statically, as not containing the right quantity of consciousness because it has not mustered under the SPGB's banner. The result is to push the revolution ever further over the horizon.

The SPGB's position places consciousness outside the working class. It is not a process but an accomplished fact embodied in the SPGB. The SPGB has been right for 100 years - it's just that the working class can't or won't see it. The SPGB rejects 'vanguardism' but its position places it outside and above the working class as its self-appointed educator.

This attitude will certainly prevent the SPGB as a body from participating in any future massive struggles of the working class. But its palpable concessions to bourgeois ideology - above all, to the central capitalist myth of democracy - could lead it to side directly with the bourgeoisie when the working class is concretely faced with the necessity to destroy the whole apparatus of the capitalist state, not least its parliamentary façade.




  • In part three of this article we multiplied the wartime membership of the SPGB by ten. The true figure was 800 rather than 8,000!
  • Buick and Coleman contributed chapters to Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, without acknowledging their membership of the SPGB.
  • "In much of its propaganda the SPGB has hitherto paid a disproportionate amount of attention to the legalistic process of socialist change rather than how a revolutionary movement can transform itself from a propagandist function to a transformative one, at the social and economic as well as the political levels. Not only has this held back thinking in the SPGB on the mechanics of revolutionary change, but its rigid defence of the totem of formal expropriation of the capitalists through parliament has won it few friends among those who might otherwise have been sympathetic to its other ideas, on for instance, the self-organisation of the working class and on the future society. As the Party enters the new millennium it does now at last seem that the SPGB has begun to consistently assert the democratic, majoritarian aspect of its case rather than the mechanistic legalism of the 'parliamentary road', so evident in Party propaganda until recent years" (p. 194-5).

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