Harold Walsby: Either Black or White

Like the rest of their pseudo-scientific tribe, that four-legged combination of two S.P.G.B.-ers writing under the name of “Philoren” (in your correspondence, Feb 11) avowedly repudiate the “long term view of social evolution” and, along with it, the whole historical labour and working-class movement. (A movement, by the way, in which the I.L.P. has played no little part.) Any “preliminary transitional period” promoted and supported by the broad working-class movement “does not” – to quote them – “merit the support of socialist!”

To these pompous, self-styled “scientific socialists” (who cannot think in any terms other than “black or white”) the long growth and evolution of this historical movement is just one ghastly series of mistakes. If only, they tell us, the Labour movement had not, for half a century, “misled” the workers, if only the workers had not been “duped” by “labour-fakirs” and “labour-leaders” the task of the S.P.G.B. would be nearer fulfilment, and socialism nearer at hand. This is like the fatuous anarchist notion that at some point in social evolution, through thoughtless error and miscalculation, the human race stupidly took the wrong turning and instead of developing along anarchist lines, found itself in “authoritarian society.” Or like the common notion of history, which Marx and Engels spent a life-time combating, as composed simply of a chaotic chain of avoidable human stupidities, accidents and senseless deeds of violence.

Let’s have a closer look at this anti-dialectical “black-or-white” thinking so typical of “Philoren” and their S.P.G.B. brethren.

“True,” they say, “the change to socialism is a ‘drastic’ one and ‘to be effective must be simultaneous’ throughout the world. But who can deny that throughout the capitalist world, socialism is a necessity now? There is no need for a ‘long term view of social evolution.’ Capitalism has already served its purpose in developing the means of production and distribution to the point where a world of plenty is possible. Whatever ‘preliminary transition period’ (as suggested by the writer) [meaning the Socialist Leader writer, for clearly they accept no responsibility for the term] may intervene, does not merit the support of socialists. The alternatives are not socialism or transition period but socialism or capitalism.

You see? It is either “black or white” for these so-called “scientific” socialists – with nothing of significance in between. “There’s no half-way house to socialism.” One moment, world capitalism – the next, world socialism! There is obviously no transitional period worthy of “scientific socialist” thought or recognition!

Look at history. You see how it supports these scientific socialists? There was no “half-way house” from feudalism to capitalism. We had feudalism one moment and capitalism the next! No “interpenetration of opposites” there – was there? Oh no – Hey Presto! capitalism was switched on by the capitalists like the Almighty creating his blessed firmament. Look at pre-history. There was, of course, no long growth from primitive communism to class society, no transition from one to the other! Oh no – we had primitive communism one moment, and the next, chattel-slavery! Just like that. “You cannot have bits of common ownership existing inside capitalism” says the S.P.G.B. organ, the Socialist Standard.

You can’t have socialism side by side with, or within, capitalism. Put like that it sounds plausible. But one might equally argue that you can’t have bits of capitalism inside feudalism, or that you can’t have bits of class society inside primitive communism. Yet the study of social evolution forces us (and also our “scientific socialists”) to accept the view that capitalism grew up within feudalism and that chattel slavery developed within primitive communism.

Ah! comrade, the change from capitalism to socialism will be different, say our S.P.G.B-ers. On what evidence, pray? Certainly on no historical evidence, no evidence of social or economic history, no facts of social evolution, and certainly not on any facts of working-class political development (which they view as a mistaken path of development anyway and repudiate as “having nothing to do with socialism”, being unworthy of support by scientific socialists).

In short, they base this “black-or-white” notion (of the complete and utter mutual exclusiveness of capitalism and socialism, of their absolute antithesis and absolutely irreconcilable nature on no positive factual evidence whatever.

No wonder “Philoren” (who, because their view is “identical with” the S.P.G.B object to the S.P.G.B. view and their own being called “similar”), no wonder these S.P.G.B-ers tell us “there is no need” for a long term view of social evolution! It sounds like a bit from “Alice”, doesn’t it? – “There’s no such thing as grey snapped the S.P.G.B., “It’s either black or white – but it can’t be ANY shade of grey, because there’s no such thing.

“There’s no such thing as grey,” repeated the Philoren sadly, squatting on its hind legs, “We object to being called ‘similar to.’ We must be absolutely ‘identical with’ because, you see, there’s No Such Thing as Grey! Here is the syllogism: We are either black or white; We are not black; Therefore we must be white. You see how simple it makes everything? It’s the same between capitalism and socialism. There is no ‘half-way houseĀ°, there is no such thing as grey.”

“But,” said Alice, was it the same between feudalism and capitalism, between primitive communism and class society?”

“How stupid you are!” snapped the S.P.G.B. “That was in the past. We didn’t say there WAS no such thing as grey.”

If there is no rational basis in social and economic evolution for their “black-or- white” sociological thinking, whence does it come? How does it arise? It may be thought that, owing to the insignificant size and influence of the S.P.G.B. such a question is not worth considering. It certainly wouldn’t be worth pursuing if we were solely concerned with the S.P.G.B. It is, however, theoretically important in so far as it provides an excellent starting point for the study of the growth of such ideological notions and the development of human social consciousness in general – a much neglected study.

It is no coincidence that the Social Science Association, which lays special emphasis on this study, was founded by ex-members – and supporters – of the S.P.G.B. “These people”, states an S.S.A. pamphlet [S.S.A. Versus S.P.G.B. Bulletin Number 1], “in the recent past, have been either Party members (of the S.P.G.B.), Party speakers, Party writers, Party supporters, or even members of its Executive Committee… Some of them were founder-members of the Social Science Association in October, 1944; others came over later; others still are now in the process of coming over, though formally retaining, for the time being, their S.P.G.B. membership.” Some of your readers will know that the S.S.A. has produced a pamphlet (that I wrote myself) which presents a detailed critical analysis of the S.P.G.B.’s position and which, a year after its issue, still remains completely unanswered. [And now, thirty-seven years later, still remains completely unanswered. – GW]

Though the S.P.G.B. sometimes pays lip-service to “dialectics” the fact is they still retain what Marx and Engels called (after Hegel) the oldĀ “metaphysical” – the “black-or-white” mode of thinking. In fact most S.P.G.B.-ers who claim to be dialecticians do no more than mouth their familiar “black-or-white” irreconcilable antitheses and call it “dialectics”!

The S.P.G.B.-er, to use Marx’s phrase, “in spite of all the trouble he has taken to scale the heights of the system of contradictions, has never been able to raise himself above the first two rungs of thesis and antithesis” – and then, like Proudhon, he falls over backwards!

Engels might well have been writing of “Philoren” and the S.P.G.B. in Anti-Duehring when he said:

For the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each others, are objects of investigation, fixed, rigid, asserted once for all. He thinks in purely irreconcilable antitheses: His dictum is yea, yea; nay, nay, whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. For him a thing exists or it does not exist; a thing can never simultaneously be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another. This mode of thinking appears to us, at first sight, to be extremely plausible, because it is in accordance with so-called sound common-sense. But sound common-sense, however respectable a fellow he is within the homely realm of his own four walls, experiences very wonderful adventures as soon as he explores the wide world of research.

One has only to read the literature of the S.P.G.B. (and that of our comic pantomime quadruped “Philoren”) to realise that the above description fits as if it were made-to-measure.

– Harold Walsby, Hampstead

Reprinted from the Readers’ Letters columns of the Socialist Leader, journal of the Independent Labour Party, for 25 Feb 1950, copy supplied by Ellis Hillman.

from Ideological Commentary 28, July 1987.