George Walford: Breakaway!

SPANNER, a New Journal for New Thinking
Issue No. 1
[address], 52 pages, occasional illustrations, £1

SPANNER claims to be A New Journal for New Thinking; the list of contents runs: The Green Wave, Common Ownership, That Frame of Mind (discussing the principles of a socialist society), Neo-Connectionism (on artificial intelligence), The Road to Socialism, Standing Marx on his Head, Pure Anarchism in Japan, The Tyranny of Economics. New thinking possibly – the title of a piece does not tell everything about its contents – but evidently not unconnected with old. The Introduction strengthens this feeling of familiarity, presenting the journal as “a forum for discussing the creation of a new society free from domination by the market.” In 1848 Marx was already blaming the market system for increasingly extensive and destructive crises.

With self-proclaimed socialist countries, big and small, moving closer to orthodox capitalism, and no other part of the anti-market movement doing much better, one can see plenty of room for new thinking. Has Spanner in fact stepped into the gap?

Howard Moss, in The Green Wave, offers a brief, competent, orthodox account of greenism, going on to suggest that as politicians are finding themselves compelled to take account of this so, perhaps, they will be obliged to accept a limited form of the society of free access and democratic cooperation.

Ken Smith, writing on Common Ownership, suggests that many cooperatives found within current society would continue, unchanged, in what he (with other members of the (A-) SPGB), likes to call socialism. This amounts to saying that you can have bits of “socialism” within capitalism, and if that is now accepted by this party perhaps they would confirm it. Ken Smith wrote Free is Cheaper (noticed in IC 41) and his article here retains the spiky vigour making that book so readable.

John Crump writes on Pure Anarchism in Japan prior to the Second World War, showing that Spanner‘s new thinking does not exclude the critical attention to the past characteristic of communism and anarchism. As Crump more or less says, anarchism in Japan followed much the same course as elsewhere, getting tangled in doctrinal disputes. There as elsewhere these remain of hardly more than theoretical interest since the numbers required to carry any of the ideas into effect have not been available and still give little sign that they ever will be.

Robin Cox presents The Tyranny of Economics (Part One), criticising tendencies towards economic determinism. In the words of the introductory paragraph: “he traces the historical development of this tendency and its association with an individualistic bourgeois outlook – in contradistinction to the ‘holism’ of traditional societies”; Part Two is to relate these enquiries to classical marxism and draw consequences. This first part has its attention firmly turned to the past; it finds economic determinism in Adam Smith and others who “set the stage for a more illustrious successor: marxism,” and from the account given Part Two will also deal mainly with established lines of thought. Perhaps the promised novelty will appear in the consequences to be drawn.

Robin Cox is, I believe, an ex-member of the (A-) SPGB, and the sophistication shown in this article may well account for the “ex-“; a party claiming to put forward a simple case which everybody can understand could hardly allow itself sentences like: “By universalising its own categories of thought, the social order renders them transcendent and impervious to historical development.”

The impression of a connection between this journal and the (A-) SPGB strengthens on encountering Gareth Thomas’ That Frame of Mind, identifying socialism with a moneyless world, free from nationalism, poverty and war. He goes a little beyond the Party’s usual degree of frankness in admitting that since “socialism” has never existed the arguments in its favour cannot be supported with direct evidence (“We cannot show socialism in action”), but stays closer than Ken Smith to the Party line by not speaking of activities to be carried over unchanged from capitalism into “socialism” but only of “activities that are more in tune with the
principles of a socialist society than the accepted values of present society”, “stepping stones” which will, he hopes, “progressively” help to make the idea of socialism more acceptable. He speaks carefully of ‘socialistic” rather than socialist activities taking place within capitalism, and certainly does not say that socialism is possible within one country. Yet if the activities he speaks of are not in the full sense socialist, if they do not constitute a socialist system, they can provide no evidence for the practicality of full socialism; with the remaining traces of non-socialism removed they might well cease to be viable. He does not speak of collaborating with the Labour Party, or of opposing it either, yet it would be very difficult to practice “socialistic” activities on any scale within present society without taking up a definite attitude towards other parties. What would that attitude be?

Gareth Thomas goes on to speak of a need for open-mindedness, willingness to consider new ideas, careful avoidance of rigidity in thinking and authoritarian attitudes that tend to discourage enquirers. I was beginning to think that he, at least, really was prepared to consider some new ideas, but growing optimism took its death-blow from the sentence: “We should always welcome new and critical thinking because it is this process itself that will result in socialist ideas.” He seems unable to conceive that new thinking might lead to conclusions other than those of
(anarcho-) socialism.

One article does take up some relatively new thinking: Harvey Harwood’s Neo Connectionism, drawing attention to some of the recent work on artificial intelligence. Restricted to one page of text, this can hardly help being perfunctory; it is the shortest article in the journal, and seems to have been put in so that not quite all the contents should be about “socialism.”

A review of a book on Anti-Parliamentary Communism and a piece entitled Standing Marx on his Head, reprinted from Solidarity for Workers Power, end the issue. That slightly bemused air carried by portraits of Marx, and of Hegel too, must come from being so often bounced from their heads to their feet and back again.

My strengthening impression of an intimate connection between Spanner and the Party hardened into conviction on reading its definition of socialism (given in the Debate Forum, The Road to Socialism): “a system of society in which the means of wealth production – the factories, farms, offices etc – are owned and democratically controlled by the community.”

Compare that with the Party definition, given in its Object: “a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”

The Spanner definition continues for another eight lines, but it contains nothing that has not been said, repeatedly, by speakers at Party meetings.

Spanner, in short, shows strong indications of having been produced by people dissatisfied with the (A-) SPGB’s lack of success. One of them I understand to be already an ex- member, and a gambler would do well to put a little money on any who are still members soon earning the prefix; if they carry on like this they won’t be in the Party much longer.

To judge from this first issue their alienation from the Party remains, so far, superficial rather than substantial. They cling to the illusion that some cosmetic change – greater encouragement and less dismissiveness, more openness and flexibility, a warmer welcome for enquirers, a wider range of reference – would overcome the limitations encountered. This belief assumes the manner and the matter of a political position (ethos and eidos if we want to get technical) to be independent of each other, when in fact they are two aspects of one whole. The increase in aggressiveness of approach that appears as one looks along the range from labour-socialism, through communism and “orthodox” anarchism to the (A-) SPGB is inseparably linked with the corresponding increase in purism. (And diminution in numerical support is another feature of the same syndrome). So long as the Spanner group continue to aim at “socialism”, conceiving it as a system exclusively of common ownership with its members politic- ally and intellectually autonomous, they will find themselves driven towards the rigidity and dismissiveness characteristic of the Party. Substantial flexibility and inclusiveness will appear to them as corruption of the pure ideal at which they aim.

Contact with a good many ex-members of the Party over the years has shown that most of them do not succeed in working their way through and out of the limitations its thinking imposes. They fall back into a grumbling acceptance of the society around them, made uncomfortable by recollection of the aspirations they once held. The other way out is more strenuous; it entails something much like the psychoanalysts’ “return of repressed material,” and this is deeply disturbing in intellectual matters as in emotional. Here only one aspect of it can be briefly sketched.

The Party claims to be a working-class organisation, not only in the sense of expressing the interests of this class but also in being composed of people belonging to it. Principle No. 5 declares that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself, and speakers routinely describe the members as “ordinary working men and women.” But when we look at their practice in this respect, something strange appears.

Applicants for membership have to pass a test in “socialist understanding,” but they are not required to state their class position. According to the Party features such as dress, manners and accent do not reliably indicate class, so this absence of inquiry means they do not know the class status of their own members. This does not bother them. They are not in fact concerned to know which class their members belong to, only whether they accept the set of beliefs, ideas, assumptions and so on to which they give the name “socialist understanding.”

This indifference to class appears also in other connections. According to Principle No. 8 the Party “call upon the working class of this country,” but in fact they put their case to anybody willing to listen, capitalist or worker as they may be. Claiming to be putting forward a class analysis, the Party show themselves to be taking as the really significant distinction the one between those who do and those who do not accept “socialist” ideas, irrespective of the class to which they belong.

In this the (A-) SPGB, claiming to be radically different from all other political movements, behaves in the same way as they do. If you want to join a political movement, whether it be tory, liberal, labour-socialist, communist or anarchist, the one thing you must do is indicate agreement with its ideas. Your income, accent, dress, manners, drinking habits, educational history or relation to the means of production will do little more than decide which of the groups within the movement will most readily accept you. And in all these movements the largest group consists of people the Party defines as workers. The significant difference between political movements, even between the (A-) SPGB and the others, is not one of class membership or class interests, but one of ideas, of ideology. We have seen above that the Party accept this in their practice, and one way out of the frustrations of “socialism” starts by bringing theory into line.

This is more difficult than it may sound, for although this analysis does not in fact derive from idealism as that appears in the idealist-materialist dichotomy, it does have a superficial resemblance to it, one close enough to produce revulsion in people who have come to pride themselves on their materialism. Nonetheless, only as the principle is accepted, and the task undertaken of finding out just how the ideology of one movement differs from that of another, and how this difference comes about, do the frustrations imposed by acceptance of the “socialist” ideology begin to dissolve.

In conclusion, let me return to Spanner. On pages 34-35 appears a cartoon symbolising the Party’s persistence in the face of all evidence that its theories do not work. It presents the skeleton of a dinosaur, with the caption: “Adapt or die. A monument to certainty.” (The only book-length history of the (A-) SPGB is entitled The Monument)

Welcoming the new arrival, and looking forward to the next issue, I still have to admit some puzzlement on two points. Why the editorial anonymity? There is nothing here to be ashamed of and nothing, either, that might conceivably provoke the authorities. Material more likely to give offence appears frequently in Freedom. And the title: Spanner – is it for reaching across gaps or for throwing into works? An instrument suitable for one purpose will be of little use for the other.

from Ideological Commentary 46, July 1990.