George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party (60)

Attendance at lecture-and-discussion meetings of this party often turns out less of a penance than might have been expected. Sometimes a plodding repetition of the same narrow arguments reveals unimagined vistas of boredom, but other speakers display a wit, and rhetorical ability, that turn the occasion into entertainment; one of them used to define truth as ‘What the police want you to tell them.’ IC recently had the privilege of contributing to the fun.

Having attended the Chiswick branch a good many times, pointing out the gaps, self-contradictions and sheer absurdities in the Party’s ‘case,’ we felt the time had come to offer an alternative. In the course of discussion following the lecture we drew attention once more to the Party’s position. Proclaiming that it needs an overwhelming, worldwide majority in order to achieve its object, it has persisted over three generations as a tiny minority, so small as to be almost invisible on the scene of party politics. It consists mainly of people it defines as workers, holding ideas opposed to those held by the great majority of the same class. Class theory cannot account for this radical and enduring division within one of its major categories. Systematic ideology, on the other hand, does so readily. It presents the Party as one outcome of a concern with theory that grows through a number of stages (represented, on the political scene, by the other movements) with numbers falling off along the way. The outcome of this process s.i. represents diagrammatically as the ideological pyramid. This is of course a metaphor or, as IC 59 put it (page 10), ‘a crude graphical memnonic for an immensely complex developmental process,’ but in what follows here we hold to it, following the metaphor through.

The Party speaker of the Chiswick evening raised a laugh with the comment that IC itself claimed to be floating above the pyramid; merriment increased when the chair added ‘as a sort of halo.’ (Apologies if that now seems hardly worth repeating; the humour of meetings, like that of Parliament and the law courts, often falls flat when taken out of context. It was found to be funny at the time). Although intended as a joke, the comment in fact raised a serious issue. The attempt to achieve a free society, with peace and plenty for all, has led to the (A)-SPGB, a political movement which offers its members and supporters nothing to do but endlessly reiterate the same sterile arguments. How can they escape? Having attained the peak of the ideological pyramid, where can they go from there?

There is no inescapable need to go anywhere; of the few who join the Party a small number remain there for the rest of their lives, finding the altitude and isolation enjoyable.

Any who do not wish to stay can simply retreat. Of the few who join the Party nearly all drop away after a few years or even months, joining instead a movement offering more positive activity, or losing interest in public affairs.

For those not satisfied to remain perched on the barren tip, yet unwilling to retreat, there is a third option: to investigate the pyramid. What is this structure? How did it come about? Should we expect it to persist? What limitations does it impose? What opportunities does it offer? This also entails a movement to the lower levels, for from the top of a pyramid there is nowhere to go but down. But this return is made in a spirit of enquiry.

(Fortunately, it is not necessary to ascend to the top before beginning to study the pyramid; you don’t have to be an ex-member of the (A)-SPGB in order to take up systematic ideology).

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CORRECTION: G.R.Russell has written in to point out that the statement in IC 59, saying both sections of the (Anarcho-)Socialist Party now use both the full and abbreviated versions of the title, is even less absolutely true than most things appearing in IC. Clapham uses ‘The Socialist Party’ for most purposes, adding ‘of Great Britain’ when circumstances require this. When making the remark we had it in mind that although N12 made a practice of terming itself ‘The Socialist Party of Great Britain’ it sometimes relaxed into the shorter version, but on checking back through their literature find that they consistently use the full title. Apologies to the SPGB.

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IN the Socialist Standard for January, (article A Seller’s Life by ‘SRP’ p.6), we are informed that the working class constitutes ‘about 98% of the population.’ This means that whenever the figures show anything much over 2% enjoying some benefit or possession, some of them must be members of the working class. ‘By 1989 the share [of post-tax income] of the poorest fifth had fallen to 7%, while the share of the richest fifth had risen to 43%. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.’ (Ian Gilmour, Dancing with Dogma). If 98% are workers, then many members of that richest fifth, who got even richer, must be workers.

When Nothing Is Absolutely True, every statement must be in some sense, to some extent, untrue; this applies even to things said in IC (see above). The question is: When significant error has been demonstrated, will the speaker acknowledge this and move closer to complete truth? Will the Socialist Party now admit that some workers do enjoy substantial wealth? Alternatively, will they now admit that the Socialist Standard has given a substantially mistaken figure for the percentage of workers?

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IN the Socialist Standard for April 1993 ‘Scorpion’ informs us that: ‘In socialism cars will be produced for use instead of for sale.’

The Party refuses to draw up ‘blueprints’ of ‘socialism’ or to specify its ‘nuts and bolts’; the people living under the new system will be free to organise it as they wish. So how does ‘Scorpion’ know that it would be a car-using society?

The importance of the question goes beyond this example. If the (anarcho-)socialists do not know how ‘socialism’ would operate they have to accept that it might depart radically from their expectations. Each new form of society so far has produced unforeseen consequences, some of them unpleasant. Nobody, for example, predicted the horrors of capitalism (or its achievements either). We have to expect that ‘socialism’ too, in the unlikely event of its ever being established, would produce results very different from any anticipated by its supporters.

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.