George Walford: Are They Not Anarchists? (53)

Anarchism seeks recruits and an intake of six hundred would noticeably strengthen the British movement. Yet an organised group of this size remains detached and receives no encouragement to come closer. “The solution to repressive laws is not better government but no government.” Does that not sound like anarchism? It comes from the Socialist Standard, official journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Consider these propositions:

* The social revolution must not lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat but to the abolition of classes.
* All institutions and parties based on regulation of social change by governmental action are counter-revolutionary.
* Reformism (the belief that society can be substantially changed by piecemeal measures) has to be attacked.
* There can be no transitional period between existing society and the society aimed at.

Good anarchist views every one of them; they appear, for example, in the Prologue to George Woodcock’s Anarchism, a history of libertarian ideas and movements 1963. The SPGB has been propagating them since 1904.

Woodcock reports Proudhon (the first person to claim the title of anarchist) as holding that “the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government.” The SPGB does not accept Proudhon as a comrade (we shall shortly see why) but it, also, declares that the emancipation of the working class “must be the work of the working class itself.” (Principle No.5).

At most meetings of this party the speaker reminds the audience that the socialist revolution will only be possible when there are enough convinced socialists who want it. Raven, the anarchist quarterly, tells us: “The anarchist revolution will only be possible when there are enough convinced anarchists who want it.” (Editorial in the issue of July-Sept 1990).

Prominent among the themes of the SPGB comes the assertion that they do not belong to the left wing. For them the left does not differ significantly from the right; both support capitalism:

Superficially, socialism is a movement of the Left, but this is not strictly so, since it implies being part of the political spectrum. Socialists reject this, asserting that there is more in common between Right and Left political parties (including the struggle for power) than between even extreme Left political groups and the socialists.

Another principal theme has it that mere belief in the case will not do; socialists must understand what they profess: “The socialist movement cannot content itself with making believers; it must above all aim to convince, that its converts may know what they believe, that the arguments with which they have been furnished may have struck home, that they may have weighed, discussed and considered the value of these for themselves… ” The quoted passages offer straightforward statements of these parts of the party case. But they come from Freedom, the first from the issue of 10 March 1990, the second from that of 19 May, and where “socialist(ism)” appears above the original has “anarchist(ism).”

The SPGB ascribes present conditions, in which (it holds) great numbers undergo unnecessary deprivation, to private ownership of the means of production. The state, the executive committee of the ruling class, exists to maintain this condition; replace private with common ownership and the state, losing its function, will disappear. People will work freely together to produce what they need, the productive power of modern technology enabling free access without the restrictions imposed by money or exchange.

Some approaches to anarchism follow other routes – Proudhon’s workshops for one example – but on the point anarchists regard as central, on elimination of the state and its coercive force, SPGB socialism would satisfy anarchist criteria. In order to reconcile the two movements one need do little more than read the SPGB’s ” socialism” as “anarchism.” Why does neither side accept this?

Anarchists repudiate parties, and taking the term in its normal meaning they have good reason for doing so. In standard practice a party comes with a Leader and organisational hierarchy, a Central Committee, Politburo or the equivalent laying down policy with which local branches and individual members must conform on pain of expulsion. An annual conference may retain formal power, but this seldom presents the leadership with much of an obstacle; it usually does little but confirm decisions taken by a dominant few beforehand.

The SPGB does not fit this pattern. It has neither a leader nor a hierarchy of committees, and it repudiates the principle of leadership. Organised as local branches, the members of each electing their own officers independently of Head Office (which serves as hardly more than a clearing-house) and sending delegates to the annual Conference, it works throughout on one person one vote and simple majorities. Subject to a minimum of procedural rules any branch can bring any issue before Conference and Conference decisions bind the Executive Committee (which, like the Party officers, is elected annually by vote of the whole Party). Any six branches can call a Party poll, and any member expelled can appeal to the annual Conference. All meetings of the Executive Committee and the branches, Delegate Meetings and Conference, are open to members (and in fact to the public). These are not just aspirations or entries in the Rule Book; unlike other parties the SPGB really does function in this way. A majority of the members controls the organisation and its officers.

The SPGB proclaims itself the only truly Marxist organisation. Like every other group competing for this title it makes its own selection from Karl’s abundant works, and it selects the parts consonant with anarchism, rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership implied (for example) in Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” of the Communist Manifesto. It emphasises that socialists must think for themselves and control their own affairs, stressing that the society intended, being classless would also be stateless.

Anarchists often think it sufficient, for disposing of any claims made on behalf of this party, to point out that it proposes to work through Parliament; this, they will say, means accepting the state. But the SPGB accept the state only in the sense that anybody, even anarchists, living under it has to accept it. They would use Parliament to do away with both Parliament and the state, carrying out the change from government of people to administration of things by majority vote. Claiming to be the only party seeking working-class emancipation, and therefore hostile to every other party (Principle No.7) they do not vote for any of them or recommend that others do so; unable so far to put up more than one candidate at general elections (and consistently losing their deposit) they advise their supporters in other constituencies to mark their ballot paper: SOCIALISM. Having won a minority of seats they would use these as a base for propaganda pending the majority needed to establish socialism. This hardly amounts to taking part in government.

Anarchists often repudiate the SPGB because of its commitment to democracy; they oppose subordination of the individual to mere numbers. But adoption of a formally democratic system does not introduce the power of numbers; that has been with us since society began, and it operates even within anarchism. When the general body of any anarchist collective decides to follow a certain course, dissidents have the choice between compliance or departure. Democracy in the SPGB sense does not impose the power of numbers but rather restrains it, by ensuring to the minority a right of protest and propaganda.

Anarchists pride themselves on the independence of their thinking; the SPGB require, as a condition of membership, a signed acceptance of the Declaration of Principles. But investigation shows anarchism less unbounded, and the party less restrictive, than at first appears. Those who would continue as anarchists have to remain within certain limits, while the SPGB does not demand that its members confine their political thinking within the limits of the Declaration. Just the contrary; it says, in Socialist Principles Explained, that ” applicants must show that they understand the implications of what they sign” (emphasis added). The party has not specified all these implications; members have to work them out for themselves.

The SPGB advocate socialism. Most who use this term understand by it a society which may (and usually does) include a coercive state, but the SPGB intend a society without the state. “The achievement of state power has never had any place within socialist thought. The state could never exist within socialist society” (Socialist Standard). Using words in their ordinary senses the system they propose would be more accurately known as anarcho-socialism, something anarchists can very well support.

When we take the propositions advanced by the SPGB as they intend them to be taken, without imposing the more familiar Labour-Party or communist interpretations, the grounds on which anarchists disown this party mostly disappear. But why do the SPGB hold themselves apart from the anarchists?

The answer lies in their black-or-white approach. They see modern society divided into two antagonistic classes, workers and capitalists (“middle class” gets dismissed as merely some of the better-paid workers giving themselves airs), and carry this dichotomy into politics. On one side the SPGB, representing the interests of the working class; against them everybody else, all supporting capitalism whether they know it or not. This attitude sometimes appears among anarchists but many of them take a more flexible view. The anarchist movement supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War while the Party discussed the issue at length but decided not to take sides in a quarrel between supporters of capitalism; members maintaining that it ought to do so resigned. Large parts of the anarchist movement have actively supported the Poll Tax agitation but the Party, while not condemning it, has taken no part. Many anarchist groups take an active part in the ecological movement but the Party, while recognising the need for control of industry, holds that it can only be achieved under (anarcho-)socialism; those engaging in ecological activities within capitalism divert energy and attention from the crucial issue. Since its foundation in 1904 it has never allied itself with any political movement except its companion-parties abroad.

Anarchism holds a stateless condition as its great objective, but many anarchist groups believe in the value of efforts to improve life substantially while still under the state. The SPGB condemn this as reformism. Except for trade union activity, accepted as defending workers against capitalists, they take a purist approach, holding strictly to the revolutionary principle. They hold apart from the general anarchist movement because they believe themselves to have reached the truth which anarchism has only begun to see.

In early summer of 1991 the Party followed the common practice of anarchist and other groups towards the revolutionary end of the political-ideological spectrum; it split, and over an issue which outsiders might think trivial. One part of the membership wanted to use for all except formal and legal purposes simply “The Socialist Party,” while another held to the full original version: “… of Great Britain.” After long argument a party poll was taken; it favoured the innovators and the minority of traditionalists, persisting in their practice, were expelled for refusal to comply with a democratic decision. Splits have occurred often enough before, over other issues, with the expelled or resigning minority moving away; this time they are standing their ground. We now have two organisations: the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (1904). A bystander commenting on a family dispute must be ready to duck, but it seems fair to say (as a personal judgement authenticated by neither side) that the people constituting the (1904) party have been holding to the “hard” line adopted at the original foundation in 1904, while those in the undated twin (which retains control of Head Office, the Socialist Standard and most of the funds) have been moving towards the more flexible and inclusive attitude of the general anarchist movement.

from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.