WILL THE WORKING CLASS SUPPORT THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN?
A Written Debate Between George Walford (Editor of Ideological Commentary) and The Socialist Party of Great Britain
Introducing the Participants
Opening Statement by George Walford
Reply by the Socialist Party of Great Britain
Answer to the Reply by George Walford
Note by George Walford
Background by George Walford
Introducing the Participants
(This section is intended for people unacquainted with the debaters; in any conflict between what is said here and statements made by either party in the debate, the debate has priority).
The Socialist Party of Great Britain
This party was founded in 1904 by people dissatisfied with existing movements claiming to be socialist or communist. It claims to be (with its companion parties abroad) the only socialist or communist movement, the only revolutionary movement, the only Marxist movement and the only movement expressing the interests of the working class.
It maintains that in present society there is an antagonism of interests between the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which does not own the means of production and whose members must therefore sell their labour-power to the capitalists and submit to exploitation if they are to live. Private ownership of the means of production is the root cause of war, poverty, insecurity and oppression; the only solution for these problems is the abolition of existing society and its replacement by a single world-wide system based on common ownership of the means of production by the whole community.
In the course of its development capitalism has produced democracy; under present conditions this is largely a sham but it offers the means, and the only means, for the establishment of socialism. Only when a majority understands and accepts the necessity of socialism will it become possible to establish it, and when that majority does exist then socialism can be established by democratic parliamentary procedure.
George Walford, Editor of Ideological Commentary
An ex-member of the Socialist Party who now accepts the theory, originated and largely developed by the late Harold Walsby, known as systematic ideology. According to this theory the significant division in society is not between classes identified by their economic interests but between groups (some of them very large indeed) holding different ideologies. The major ideologies extend over the whole economic range; in each class the majority inclines to the right and the minority to the left, and the evidence does not indicate that this is going to alter.
The common assumption, that the movements claiming to be socialist or communist are “advanced” in the sense that they occupy a position which the great majority will eventually attain, is an illusion, it is like holding that all plants will eventually become animals. It is by action in accordance with the beliefs and ideas, the ideologies, of the right wing and of the people not interested in politics, that society has been established and is now being maintained, and the evidence indicates that these ideologies, just as much as those of the left, will be necessary functional constituents of any reasonably foreseeable future society.
– – –
Opening Statement by George Walford (previously issued as A Challenge to the SPGB)
Mr.Chairman, friends, good evening. And not only to my friends but to the Socialist Party also, good evening. We may as well start off politely, whatever happens later.
My experience with the Socialist Party will be familiar to many members. You’ve left school and you’ve been at work for a few years. You’ve begun to see that things aren’t as good as they might be, you’ve started to think about war, unemployment, low wages, long working hours, food destroyed while people go hungry. You’ve started to become aware of politics. Then you meet the Socialist Party and they tell you there is an answer to all these things: socialism. A society of peace, plenty and freedom for everybody.
And you say: Goody. That’s what I want. I’ll have some of that.
But the party says: Uh-uh. Mustn’t touch.
Got to get a majority first.
Oh, you say: That’s a disappointment.
Anyway, better get on with it.
So you pass your membership test, join the party, and start working to get that majority. And the months go by, and the years start to go by, and you begin to feel there isn’t much progress being made. It begins to sink in on you that the party has been at work for eighty years and has made no progress that matters. It needs a majority, but it was a tiny minority when it started and it is a tiny minority today. So small it’s almost invisible. You start asking questions about this, and what does the party answer? It answers: Never mind about all that, Comrade; the numbers don’t matter, it’s the validity of the ideas that counts. But you didn’t join the party to get valid ideas. You joined it because you wanted socialism.
The party does not call itself the Valid Ideas Party, it claims to be the Socialist Party. It declares its object to be the establishment of socialism, and it is by their contribution to this object that its ideas must be judged. The Party has failed to establish socialism and there is no reason to expect it to be more successful in future. This means there must be something wrong with its ideas, and I am going to open this debate by showing, at least in part, what that something is. I am going to show that the Socialist Party believes its members to form an intellectual elite, that the case of which it is so proud does not make sense, and that it is ignorant of socialism. And I am going to give evidence for what I say, evidence from the party’s own publications.
Before going any farther, let me emphasise four things I do not say:
First, I do not say that socialism, as defined by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, is impossible; I say two things about it: one, that it is so unlikely as not to be a reasonable objective; the other, that there is no good reason to think it desirable.
Second, I do not say the working class lacks the intelligence to understand the socialist case; I do not know of any evidence suggesting that non-socialists are less intelligent than socialists. I say the working class, having heard the case through its typical representatives, has rejected it, and the party shows no good reason for expecting a different response in future.
Third, I do not say society is not changing; I say the evidence does not show it to be changing toward socialism.
Fourth, I do not say that because the party is small this, alone, shows it to be wrong; I say that when the party itself declares it needs a majority, and fails to make significant progress toward that majority, this shows that its ideas are not making any useful contribution to solving social problems and need reexamining.
That’s the end of the introductory stuff, now let’s get down to business. In what follows every quotation followed by a reference number is taken verbatim from a publication of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; the references are given at the end. The Socialist Party claims that its definition of socialism is the only valid one, that it is the only socialist party and that only people who accept its case are properly called socialists. For the purposes of this debate I accept those usages.
The Socialist Party declares its object to be the establishment of socialism, ‘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.’  It holds that there must be a majority (sometimes it says an overwhelming majority) of people who understand and accept its case before this object can be attained. It has been working since 1904, in a country which now contains some fifty million people, and after eighty years it has some five or six hundred members. In those eighty years hundreds of thousands of workers have heard or read the party case. Many of them have heard it repeatedly. Very few of them have accepted it.
Nearly everybody who hears or reads the party case refuses to accept it, and the party believes that if people do not accept the case that shows they have not understood it. I have had members tell me this directly. They have said, almost in these words: ‘We know these people have not understood the case because if they had understood it they would have accepted it.’
As you can imagine, it takes a good deal to leave me speechless. But that did, the first time I heard it. The blind, unthinking conceit of that answer! If you disagree with the Socialist Party that shows you don’t understand them. They have nothing to learn from anybody. There is no possibility of anybody knowing more than they do and no possibility of them being wrong. They hold the Truth, the whole Truth and the perfect Truth. The only thing the rest of us can do is to sit at their holy feet and hope some of their pearls of wisdom will drop into our hungry little mouths.
They say they understand the case and the rest of us don’t. But, they say, this does not mean they claim to be superior. It does not mean they are claiming to be an elite. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. They say they are just ordinary working people. They say the rest of the working class can understand the party case, it is capitalist propaganda and the conditions of life under capitalism that stop them doing so. ‘Those who have seen through the capitalist con-trick are still very few.’ 
But what does that amount to? It is a claim that the Socialist Party are the only ones who have been bright enough to overcome the effects of capitalist conditions of life and to see through capitalist propaganda. And that claim shows they think of themselves as an intellectual elite.
The second charge I bring against the Socialist Party is of putting forward a set of arguments that, taken together, do not make sense while claiming to be putting a clear and rational case for socialism.
They claim that their case consists of ‘incontrovertible facts and logical arguments,’  I agree their facts are usually sound, but the Socialist Party have no cause to boast of that. Almost without exception those facts are taken from the capitalist press, and if they are incontrovertible it is the capitalist press that deserves the credit, not the Socialist Party, What the Socialist Party is responsible for is what it calls the logic of its case, and that is a long way from being sound. I am going to give four examples, and the first one turns on this question: Do the numbers matter?
The Socialist Party say they need a majority before they can attain their object. According to The Monument, 1975, by Robert Barltrop (the only booklength history of the party), they reached a peak of 1,100 members in 1949. In 1984 they have between five and six hundred. If you comment on this they are likely to tell you: ‘The numbers don’t matter; it’s the validity of the ideas that counts.’ In 1983, when the party was debating with a communist, I asked a question and that was the reply given from the platform by the Socialist Party speaker: ‘The numbers don’t matter, it’s the validity of the ideas that counts’.
But they also say that whether we live in a socialist society or in a capitalist society depends on whether there is or is not a majority of socialists.
Now, it seems to have escaped the attention of the Socialist Party but I’m sure the rest of us can see it: a majority is a matter of numbers.
According to the Socialist Party the numbers are decisive. It is the number of socialists that decides whether we shall have capitalism or socialism. According to the Socialist Party the numbers do matter.
But the Socialist Party also say the numbers don’t matter.
Now the second example of socialist confusion. The party tell us that present society includes political control by the capitalists , They also say, in their Declaration of Principles, that present society is based upon capitalist ownership of the means of production. So the capitalists’ political control (being a part of present society) is based upon their ownership of the means of production. Political power is based upon ownership.
All right so far; the terms are clumsy but there’s nothing confused about it. But what else do the party say?
Speaking of the capitalist class they say: ‘Their ownership and control of industry rests on their control of political power through their political parties.’  And just to prove that really is what they mean, they repeat it:
‘The capitalist monopoly of the means of production rests upon their control of political power.’  Ownership rests on political power.
So the political power is based on the ownership which rests on the political power. That is what the Socialist Party are saying. That is their scientific analysis of present society. The political power is based on the ownership which rests on the political power.
Makes you dizzy, doesn’t it?
When you start thinking about this sort of otherwise you find yourself thinking it’s your it. Or you think the critic drawing attention But it is a confusion created by the Socialist stuff you have to be careful, own fault you can’t make sense of to it must have got it wrong Party.
Now for the third example. The socialists say they accept the Materialist Conception of History, they quote with approval Marx’s statement: ‘The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.’ 
What else do they say? They say that of the workers in Britain today, all of them leading substantially the same social existence, some have socialist consciousness and others capitalist consciousness.
The party say with Marx that social existence determines consciousness that is so then people leading the same social existence will have the same consciousness. But the Party say that people leading substantially the same social existence have substantially different consciousness; some workers are socialist, some anti-socialist.
This is not just a philosophical subtlety. It goes to the heart of the party’s case, it directly concerns the establishment of socialism. The party hold that what is needed for the establishment of socialism is an increase in the number of socialists, an extension of socialist consciousness. This change of consciousness will bring about a change to socialist existence. But they also hold that existence determines consciousness.
They declare their intention to change existence by means of ideas while saying that ideas are determined by existence.
For the fourth example I start by asking: What, according to the Socialist Party, does the capitalist class do? The answer is clear: it owns and it consumes. In the earlier days of capitalism it performed necessary functions but it does so no longer. ‘The owners have now been largely relegated to the position of mere consumers of wealth.’  According to the Socialist Party the class that performs the useful functions, even the functions that are required only under capitalism, is the working class:
The time has long since passed when members of the ruling class could themselves occupy any considerable number of the administrative posts and manage any appreciable part of their activities. From top to bottom all departments are filled by paid or elected officials, and only a very few of these are drawn from the capitalist class itself. Practically all the work of controlling the activities of society today is performed by people who depend for their livelihood upon their pay – members of the working class. The armed forces, including most of the officers, are also recruited from the working class. 
And just to make quite certain:
overwhelmingly it is the working class who perform all the tasks necessary for capitalism to function, including organisation, supply of inventions and discoveries, financial operations, administration and so on. 
Can’t ask for anything clearer than that: ‘overwhelmingly it is the working class who perform all the tasks necessary for capitalism to function.’ The capitalist class does practically nothing but own and consume.
But now that awkward little question I keep asking: What else do the Socialist Party say?
They say this useless class that does nothing but own and consume is the master class. They say this class of idle parasites struggles with the working class. They say this class that depends upon the workers for all products dominates the working class. All those are in the Declaration of Principles.
The Socialist Party present the capitalist relic, they claim that if the workers want to vote against it. They say that practically all by the workers. At the same time they present masterful, dominating class as an obsolete, useless get rid of it they have only to control over society is exercised the capitalist class as powerful. Why do they do this? It isn’t even sensible tactics. Every politician knows that the thing to do is to make your opponent appear weak, and small, and contemptible. I am sure the Socialist Party know that, and in their reply to this (if they do reply) we shall see them trying to do it. But with the capitalist class they do not do it. They land themselves in confusion by presenting this class as useless and parasitic and, at the same time, powerful and dominating. I ask again: Why do they do this?
The answer is short and simple: They do it to excuse their own failure.
For eighty years the Socialist Party have been proclaiming socialism. During that time we have had the two biggest wars ever. Generations of socialists have died under capitalism, millions of people have starved to death and other millions have led lives of deprivation. You will find many of the details in socialist literature. These things have happened while the Socialist Party have been at work and they have been able to do nothing to prevent them. When the Socialist Party list the crimes and horrors of capitalism since 1904 they are detailing their own failure. They scorn the Labour Party because it has not established socialism but they have done no better themselves. They have not got their majority. They have not made any practical contribution to solving the problems they talk so much about. They have failed. Solid, unbroken failure over eighty years.
This has to be explained somehow, and in order to explain it they invent a scapegoat. They take the capitalist class, which they themselves say is obsolete, and they inflate it into a presence that dominates the world. They say this class, that according to them does not manage any appreciable part of its own affairs and does not man or control either the army or the police force, this class that according to them performs practically no necessary function, this class that according to them does not produce any of the means of propaganda, this class that according to them trains nobody, teaches nobody, conditions nobody, yet manages in some mysterious way to dominate the thinking of the great majority.
They present the capitalist class as a useless hangover that can simply be voted out of existence. They also say it is so powerful it is able to prevent the working class accepting socialism.
The four issues I have put forward are not the only ones on which the Socialist Party’s case does not make sense. Here is a selection of others:
They hold that the workers own nothing and that the unemployed suffer greater deprivation than the employed.
That because the objective of the peace movement remains vague and undefined therefore that movement can possess unity only of emotion, not of aim and that although their own objective remains vague and undefined (only people living in a socialist society can decide what it shall be like) the Socialist Party possesses unity of aim.
That the workers have an interest in opposing capitalism not only because they suffer under it but because it does not provide them with the best of everything and that they have an interest in supporting Socialism although it will not be able to provide them with the best of everything.
That their Declaration of Principles must be taken as a whole and that each clauses must be considered separately.
That the conditions are and are not ripe for socialism now. If you can’t believe they say that then look at this extraordinary pair of statements:
Socialism is ours for the taking. 
The only remaining barriers against this system of integrated world production (i.e. socialism GW) are the class relations of capitalism, the profit motive and the political division of the world into rival capitalist nations. 
Socialism, the party tell us, is ours for the taking; all we have to do is overcome the barriers that stop us taking it, and even so they omit the biggest barrier of all. On their own showing they have still to get their majority.
I have accused the Socialist Party of imagining themselves to be an elite and of putting forward a case that does not make sense. I have given evidence to support each of these charges. Now for the big one. I accuse the Socialist Party of Great Britain of ignorance of socialism.
If you ask party members what a socialist society would be like, they will tell you. Oh, yes, they will tell you. They will tell you everything about it down to the colour of your harp. But if you ask what evidence they have to support what they say, it all dissolves. What they are saying is nothing but guesswork and personal preference. Individual members may speculate but the Socialist Party, as a party, do not know what a socialist society would be like.
Oh, yes we do, they will say. Why, it says in the Declaration of Principles what it will be like. So you look at the Declaration, and you find that a socialist society would be based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. Clause Eight speaks of freedom, comfort and equality but those are not descriptive statements, they are aspirations. The only firm statement about socialism in the Declaration is that it would be based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by, and in the interests of, the whole community.
There you are, they will say. That’s it. You can’t ask for a better definition than that.
That is socialism.
But I do ask for a better definition than that. When I ask what something is, or what it would be if it were to exist, I am not satisfied to be told what it would be based on.
The Socialist Party quote Engels:
according to the materialist conception of history the factor which is in the last instance decisive in history is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor myself ever claimed. If now someone has distorted the meaning in such a way that the economic factor is the only decisive one this man has changed the above proposition into an abstract, absurd phrase that says nothing. 
According to this Socialist Party pamphlet, if the Socialist Party say that in a socialist society the economic factor would be the only decisive one they are putting forward an abstract, absurd phrase which says nothing. According to their own pamphlet the economic factor is not the only one; there would be other factors affecting socialist society. Do they tell us about those other factors? They do not. Do they claim to know about them? They do not. They call that
‘constructing blueprints,’ and they say it is a ‘futile game’ which they have always refused to play. 
They say themselves they don’t know what a socialist society would be like:
‘In a socialist society all human beings will be social equals, free to run social affairs as they think fit.’  If this is so then the people living in a socialist society would be free to run it in ways the Socialist Party have never thought of. The Socialist Party themselves are saying they do not know and cannot know what a socialist society would be like. Only the people living in such a society can know that.
And having said that, do you know what they go on to do? Oh, come on; you must be expecting it by now. Having said that they do not know and cannot know what a socialist society would be like they go on to list sixteen features such a society would possess.
If you find that incredible, I can sympathise. I can hardly believe it myself. But it’s all in the first few pages of their pamphlet ‘Questions of the Day’.
There is one thing socialists are supremely sure of.
They are certain that socialism would be better than capitalism. But they say themselves they cannot know that. All they can know is that socialism would be different from capitalism. It would have a different basis so it wouldn’t have the same problems. But it would have its own problems, and for all they know those might be worse than the problems of capitalism.
The evidence from eighty years of experience goes to indicate that socialism is an unattainable objective. Even worse than that, there is no good reason to think it a desirable one; for all the Socialist Party know it might turn out worse than what we have.
I have shown, with examples, that when you take different parts of the Socialist Party case and put them together they do not make sense. Why do the party put forward such a case?
The reason begins to appear when you notice an oddity in their attitude toward socialism. Another party will try to prove the practicability of its preferred system of society by demonstrating that it, or some approximation to it, has existed and functioned. The communists, for example, used to claim, and some of them still do claim, that the system of the USSR is if not communism at least the halfway stage toward it. The Socialist Party make no such claim. They insist that socialism has never existed anywhere and that it never can exist until it is instituted, without any transitional period, as a world-wide system. 
This entails two consequences. First, it means there can be no preliminary experiments with socialism, no pilot project; until it has been instituted there can be no direct evidence, from experience or experiment, that it will be an improvement on capitalism or, indeed, that it will work at all. Second, any opposition there may be to the Socialist Party cannot be supported by experience of socialism. The Socialist Party accept the first of these consequences for the sake of the second.
Every system of society which has been tested in practice has revealed defects. Socialism, never having been more than a vision, retains its immaculate purity The fact that it is merely a mental construct, with no direct evidence that it would in fact be viable, appears to the Socialist Party not as a drawback but as an advantage. It leaves them free to present it as possessing every desirable feature and no undesirable ones (while also holding, as we have seen, that they do not know and cannot know what its features would be). This is not the behaviour of people striving toward a real, working, three-dimensional society, it is the behaviour of people trying to establish an invulnerable theoretical position, one which cannot be defeated in argument.
That is the solution to the puzzle presented by the Socialist Party. That is why they put forward the case they do. They are not seeking to establish a different system of society, they are seeking victory in argument.
I have shown that on each of four big issues the Socialist Party say two things which when put together do not make sense, (and I have listed other examples). By doing this they achieve two things. First, they get the argument they need. Whatever an outsider says to a socialist, the socialist can contradict it and start an argument. If the outsider says the capitalists run society the socialist will say no, they don’t, the workers perform all necessary functions. If the outsider says the workers run society the socialist will say no, they don’t, the capitalist class dominates. I have shown you the party saying both these things in their pamphlets. Second, with a two-headed case the party can hop from side to side as convenient. They are able to avoid getting committed to a single specific statement and thereby risking defeat in argument.
The party declare that a majority is necessary for socialism. When confronted with their failure to make any significant progress toward that majority they hop to the other side, saying: ‘The numbers don’t matter; it’s the validity of the ideas that counts.’
When arguing with the party, terms to look out for are ‘fundamentally,’ ‘in the last analysis,’ ‘basically,’ and their equivalents. These often signal the hop from one side to the other.
The party say it is the working class which operates capitalism. When you point out that if so then it is the working class we must blame for exploitation, war and the rest, they hop to the other side. They say that although the workers operate capitalism yet ‘fundamentally,’ or ‘basically,’ or ‘in the last analysis’ they do so under capitalist domination.
The party hold that social existence determines consciousness, and if that statement means anything it means that consciousness does not determine consciousness, ideas do not determine ideas. If this is so then for the party to apply their own consciousness directly to that of the working class, to ‘put the party case,’ to attempt to change ideas by the use of ideas, is futile. When this is pointed out to them they hop to the other side, saying that although ‘fundamentally’ (etc.) existence determines consciousness, yet immediately, in practice, ideas can change consciousness.
If you think of the Socialist Party as working to establish socialism then their behaviour is absurd and their case does not make sense, but once you see that the purpose of their behaviour, and the function of their case, is to demonstrate intellectual superiority by winning arguments, then everything falls into place. People with a serious concern for social problems sometimes join, but they don’t stay long; with a few transient exceptions members of the Socialist Party are people looking for argument. The party provides them with an unending flow of arguments they can usually win (sometimes in person, sometimes by proxy, through a party speaker or writer). It gives them what they want, and that is why they are members. They themselves declare that their interest is in argument. They just call it by a different name: ‘putting the party case.’
There are not many people willing to devote themselves to winning arguments; that is why the party is tiny and, from all the evidence, will remain so.
Now, in conclusion. I have charged the Socialist Party with thinking themselves an elite. I have charged them with putting forward a case that does not make sense and claiming it to be clear and logical, I have shown them falling over their own feet, scoring in their own goal, and punching themselves in the eye. I have charged them with ignorance of socialism. And I have given evidence for each one of these charges, evidence from the party’s own publications.
These are not trivialities. This is not nit-picking. These charges cut to the heart of the party case. If the party are to continue claiming to have a rational case they must answer these charges, and I want to hear those answers. But I don’t expect we will hear them. If the Socialist Party are running true to form they will not seriously attempt to defend their case. Their reply, if they make one, will be an attempt to distract our attention by talking about something else.
The subject of this debate is:
WILL THE WORKING CLASS SUPPORT THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN?
If you think about what I have been saying you will come to the only possible answer. Will the working class support the Socialist Party? Not if they’ve got any sense, they won’t. And so far, on that question, the working class have shown very good sense indeed.
The Socialist Standard is the official journal of the Socialist Party. The other titles given below are those of Socialist Party pamphlets.
1. The Object of the party, printed in all its publications.
2. The Socialist Standard, May 1981, p.82.
3. ‘The Socialist Party and Historical Materialism, 1975, inside back cover.
4. ‘Questions of the Day,’ 1969, p.21
5. Ibid p.13.
6. Ibid p.52.
7. ‘The Socialist Party and Historical Materialism’ p.60
8. Ibid p.60
9. Ibid p.46
10. ‘Questions of the Day’ pp.20/21.
11. ‘Object and Declaration of Principles; Explained,’ 1975, p. 10 Socialist Principles
12. ‘The Case for Socialism’ p.52.
13. The Socialist Standard, December 1982, p.23S.
14. ‘The Socialist Party and Historical Materialism,’ p.63.
15. ‘Questions of the Day,’ p.5.
16 Ibid p.S. 17. Ibid p.86.
Replyby The Socialist Party
In case you don’t know why George Walford issues challenges to the S.P.G.B. you should realise the special relationship that exists between us. We give meaning to the existence of Walford and to the tiny Walsby Society of which he is a member. For, on his own admission, the members of the Walsby Society do nothing but argue among themselves and he is engagingly frank about the uselessness of his own organization:
It is wholly negative. It is, as nearly as it is possible for any group to be so, wholly without positive influence upon society. (“From NIAT to PSI and Beyond,” G. W. Walford, May 1978, p.2)
Small wonder then that he clings to the S.P.G.B. like a parasite and deludes himself into thinking he is doing us a service with his criticism.
If you find that a rather harsh judgment remember that Walford considers himself to sit upon the metadynamic peak of an ideological pyramid, with the S.P.G.B. occupying the paradynamic section just below him. It is only as a parasite that:
the metadynamic… becomes able to make available to each of the other groups… information about itself and the other groups that form its social environment. Information that helps it to solve some of the problems facing it… (Ideologies and their Functions, G. W. Walford, 1979, p.149)
Considering the time wasted over the years in answering the stuff by Harold Walsby (see “Background” GW) and his successor Walford, statements like that make us shout with laughter. He thinks he’s helping us!
Not much in this reply of ours is new, it has mostly been said before, written about in the “Socialist Standard” or in [[?]] replies to Walford. We concluded in 1949 that the purpose of Walsby was the same as that of the organised hecklers who sometimes come to our platforms – to waste our time and prevent us from putting the socialist case. Most of what needs to be said about Walsby was said in a review of his book in the “Socialist Standard” of April 1949. The review was one of the longest articles ever to appear in our columns. Walsby’s friends sent us a 4,000 word reply. Their strategy was obvious. To fill the columns of our journal with convoluted, reflexive wrangling on ideology and crowd out the socialist case. So we adopted an attitude to Walsby and company of ignoring them for the most part, but taking up the challenge occasionally just for the record. Long-standing members groan when they receive Walford’s tracts, as do whole branches when he visits them. It may not be an essential feature of being a Walsbyite, but we find Walford boring.
An axiom of Walford is that you should belittle your political opponents. Following this he diminishes the S.P.G.B.’s use of incontrovertible facts and logical argument by asserting that we take our cues from other sources and if our facts are incontrovertible “it is the capitalist press that deserves the credit, not the Socialist Party.” (Challenge, p.4). But (echoing our opponent) what else does he say? When Walford is trying to patch over the holes in his own ideological theory about “communism” he puts a very different construction upon the same matter – witness the following:
Since the revolution the Socialist Party of Great Britain have been demonstrating, with evidence, that the Russian system was very different from communism as it was understood by the founders of the movement – (“PSI Circular” 2, Feb 1979, p.3).
Here there is no attempt to diminish our facts or arguments, just a straightforward statement which suits Walford’s purposes at the time. The conclusion we draw is that Walford lacks intellectual honesty.
But this duality on Walford’s part goes further, for he charges the S.P.G.B. with having a two-sided case, where the switching-point is indicated by the use of terms like “in the last analysis” (Challenge, p.12). Once again, what else does Walford say? When trying to explain the behaviour of liberal ideologists he is forced to admit that his own “theory does not agree with observation,” (“Assumptions,” No.3, May 1977, p.44). He follows this with a long argument, concluding triumphantly that:
The facts, which at first sight seemed to contradict theory, are on closer examination seen to support it. (Ibid, p.47).
Now that is obviously a “last analysis” type of reasoning, which indicates, on his own argument, Walford’s switching-point from “superficial” reality to ideological appearances. However that may be, we think it is bare-faced hypocrisy for Walford to deny us this construction when he uses it himself.
This two-facedness derives from the huge vacant hole in Walford’s theory about society. For Walford is a simple-minded functionalist. He holds that a certain range of political positions are essential for the functioning of any modern society. And refuses to situate his theory of functions within any theory on the structure of society. What this means in practice is that Walford uses terms like working class and capitalist class, refers to pressing social problems in need of solution, talks about the capitalist press, the starving millions and the threat of nuclear annihilation without ever needing to explain the context in which such categories arise. When challenged to do so he may say “for the purposes of this debate I accept those usages.” (Challenge p.3). The real social world therefore only intrudes into Walford’s ideological discourse as an aside provided by his opponents of the day. It is a childish mode of analysis, organised for the purpose of being able to say you can’t catch me.
Does Walford understand the party case? You might imagine that after all the contact with members and polemics over the years, Walford must have a good grasp of the socialist position. At least the aforementioned example where he clearly distinguishes between socialist society and state capitalism, seems to suggest that he “understands.” Yet look at the tirade we provoke in him when we assert that those who understand the socialist case will accept it. He is left “speechless” at the “blind, unthinking, elitist conceit” of our attitude. Bluster of that kind indicates a deep and fundamental point is being touched upon; because when it suits Walford’s purposes he chooses not to understand the socialist case. See what you think of this illustration – Walford is quoting Nick Bradley, then of the Labour Party NEC:
“The introduction of an Enabling Act in Parliament to take over the commanding heights of the economy… would render the capitalist class impotent… ” (“Guardian,” 26.1.77) Mr.Bradley sees how easy it would be for the workers to establish socialism. All he needs now is to understand why they don’t do it. (“Assumptions” No.2, Feb.1977, p.30).
“An Enabling Act… the commanding heights of the economy… ” these are the nostrums of trotskyites, who are always trying to get labour leaders to nationalize the top 200 companies and all that. Walford knows this rubric means only nationalization, yet he identifies it as socialism.
But what does Walford’s understanding matter? His kind will say anything to win a point. After all, an organisation which can claim that the unique, outstanding an [[?]] confirmation of their ideological theory is the description of a family meal as a meeting called “to destroy objects in the most complete way available” (“The Ideology of Everyday Life,” G. W. Walford, p.6) has just got to be a bunch of pseuds.
Some parts of Walford’s criticism of the S.P.G.B. case are bizzare. As when he swoons over the circular appearance of our analysis of capitalism, where:
(P)olitical power is based on the ownership which rests on the political power. (Challenge, p.5).
What is the problem here? Any theory on this subject must squarely confront the stable distribution of most wealth and influence among minorities throughout the world. You do not need much savvy to realise that the only theories able to explain such matters are those which deal with the reciprocal interactions between the ownership of wealth and the control of political power, where the one reinforces the other, to produce a hegemonic effect. Marxism is such a theory.
Yet when Walford is trying to explain everything as ideology he is pleased to present circular arguments and does not expect us to get dizzy over them. Consider his explanation for the existence of the S.P.G.B. (he is writing of psychoanalysis and left-wing politics, but includes the S.P.G.B. in all that):
It is the fact that, in these spheres, people do not comply that produces the need for these occupations. (“The Ideology of Everyday Life,” ibid, p.6).
Examine this statement carefully and you will find it purports to be both an explanation for behaviour in established spheres and a theory on the genesis of occupations arising in those spheres. In full Walford is asserting the fact that people do not comply over socialist politics as the defining characteristic of an established party and also leaning upon the same assertion to explain why the Socialist Party came into existence. Such a circular redescription tells you nothing about the world.
Walford is quite candid about why he has to rely on this vacuous form of reasoning, he wants to explain everything with ideology and nothing anyone can do or say will stop him:
For if it be once allowed that there is an area of volitional behaviour within which the writ of ideology does not run… then we have surrendered the castle. (Ibid, p. 1).
Argumentation and Society
Coming to Walford’s proffered subject for debate: “Will the working class support the Socialist Party of Great Britain?” He offers as a reason for his negative reply Walsby’s notion that the socialist case is designed for winning arguments, concluding:
There are not many people willing to devote themselves to winning arguments; that is why the party is tiny… (Challenge p.12).
Excuse us if we seem to be inhabiting a different world, but we can think of many. Here are a few million.
All scientists and academics at the research fronts of their subjects. All workers at their morning tea breaks, rehashing last night’s television. The same workers at their afternoon tea breaks on the interminable argument over who was the better football player – Stanley Matthews or George Best. At dinner break it might be who won the Grand National in 1950; the best bait to use when carp fishing; or the quickest way through London to the Old Kent Road. At work we are always arguing with the chargehand or foreman when our set ups have to be broken down for a rush job and over the best way to set it up anyway. To say nothing of the perennial arguments about the state of the toilets, the food in the canteen, the poor heating or cooling of the factory, and so on. When they get home husband and wife are always arguing about who will cook, wash up, whether to stay in, watch telly, make love or go out; to say nothing of how to make ends meet. Moreover we are living in a competitive society and for the workers who service and manage the commercial side of capitalist concerns this involves them in winning contracts, tendering bids, fighting for orders and bargaining over tons of commodities in the market place of international trade.
Arguments? – theoretical or practical – workers thrive on them.
But leaving aside the irrelevancies introduced by Walford the question remains: Will the workers take up the socialist position? Now both the S.P.G.B. and Walford agree that the potential is there, they can do it. Yet from our point of view capitalism could continue stumbling from one crisis to the next, or until all possibility of complex social existence was destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. So the considered socialist answer is a qualified yes. Walford concedes that socialism is a remote theoretical possibility, so his considered answer is a qualified no. The difference between the two of us being a matter of emphasis at last.
In such conditions of uncertainty the best that can be done is to compare the objectives in question. The object of the S.P.G.B. is a socialist society as defined in all our literature. Walford rails on at us for not specifying all the details of the society we want, yet there are currently circulating within the S.P.G.B. several outline sketches of socialist production and distribution. Our ambivalence towards these sketches stems from our unwillingness as a minority to impose upon a future which the majority must achieve.
Walford is in a similar position with respect to his utopia:
It is beyond the scope of this book to work out the arrangements, the institutions and methods by which such a society might function. (Ideologies and their Functions p.161).
Perhaps the description may appear in a later book, you might think. No, for Walford next uses one of those arguments he professes to despise us for using. He asserts that those who have understood his theory will accept that a blueprint is unnecessary:
… to expect, either now or in the future, a working blueprint from systematic ideology would be to show a failure of comprehension. (Ibid, p.161).
The Parasite’s Conception of History
Should the Socialist Party carryon as before or should it disband because of the criticisms of Walford? To us the question sounds hysterical yet familiar, like the writings of Walford, which reflect the socialist case as seen through a distorting mirror. Yet we cannot disband, for then the parasite Walford would lack a host; the most he can hope for is that some of our members will go over to his side; and we remain as an essential but tiny ideological component of society.
In the end you have to ask yourself how best may the interests of the working class be served? By striving for a society which directly means their emancipation as a class; or by striving for a society where full representation for all ideologies (and for whatever classes there are) is achieved, in the hopes that out of the battle of contending reforms as the only means of getting such a society, some permanent gains might be made by the working class? It is an ages old choice: revolution or reform?
In conclusion we challenge Walford by denying him the living space that he purports to inhabit. There is no metadynamic ideological space for anyone to occupy and this is obvious when you inspect the published object of Walford:
The establishment of a society which shall ensure full development and free expression, both in theory and in practice, for all ideologies… (Ibid p.162).
Any attempt to turn that into action with a set of reforming measures is bound to result in a typically English liberal round of compromises, with everything
remaining as before to the benefit of the capitalist class. Therefore the core content of Walford’s position does not fall within any supposed metadynamic category, but squarely in the parastatic or liberal tradition. We conclude that systematic ideology is just a very convoluted expression of the interests of the capitalist class, and wish that Walford would get off our backs.
Answerby George Walford
The question being debated is not: How long was the letter Harold Walsby wrote in 1949? and it is not: Does the Socialist Party enjoy being criticised? It is: WILL THE WORKING CLASS SUPPORT THE SOCIALIST PARTY? The Challenge set out to show, with evidence from Socialist Party literature, that what the party likes to call “the case for socialism” is such a muddle that the workers, being sensible people, are most unlikely to accept it. Readers now have before them the Challenge and the Reply; they will need to overlook the socialists’ intemperate language in order to see their arguments, but having done that they can decide for themselves whether the Reply defeats the Challenge.The Socialist Party were charged with thinking themselves an intellectual elite, with putting forward a case that does not make sense, and with being ignorant of socialism. Does the Reply show that they do not think of themselves as an elite? Or that their case, on the issues raised in the Challenge, does make sense? Or that they do know what a socialist society would be like? Does the Reply do anything at all to make the socialist case seem more sensible or the coming of socialism more likely?I would be happy to let the debate rest where it is, but the record also has to be considered; some statements in the Reply are misleading and what follows is mainly correction of these; it is necessary but not, I fear, very interesting except to anybody who may want to pursue the issues in detail. (I don’t suggest the Socialist Party have been intentionally misleading; it seems to be just that they are not very good at getting things right).Taking the main points in order as they appear in the Reply: It says I am a member of the Walsby Society. I am not, and never was; while I was associated with the WS it was an unconstituted group with no distinct membership; opponents were as welcome as supporters. The paper from which the Reply quotes emphasises this and is careful to use the word “members” only within inverted commas – a standard way of indicating that a word is not being used in its normal sense. The Socialist Party is evidently not acquainted with this usage.The description of negative activity as “useless” is the Socialist Party’s, not mine. It is a condemnation of their own effort to abolish capitalism, for that also is a negative activity – but we are now familiar with their practice of punching themselves in the eye.Yes, I do claim to be helping the Socialist Party; apart from anything else I do more to bring them and their case to public notice than do most of their members.In 1977 I explained, in a letter to the “Socialist Standard,” that the “ideological pyramid” is only one of the ways in which the ideological structure of society can be diagrammatically represented. It can also be pictured as an inverted pyramid with the metadynamic at the bottom, as a circle, as a spiral, as a continuum with nodal points and in other ways. The “Socialist Standard” did not print that letter; had it done so the Reply might have been better informed.
In the “Foreword” to the original issue of the Challenge (ie. the opening statement in this debate) I said the Socialist Party prefer to avoid criticism stemming from Harold Walsby’s work, that I was having to provoke them into replying. Correspondents have told me privately that this was unfair, that of course the party are always willing to meet criticism. Now the Reply says they have “adopted an attitude to Walsby and company of ignoring them for the most part, but taking up the challenge occasionally just for the record.” My “Foreword” was fully justified.
Readers have before them the Challenge and the Reply, Which tries harder to belittle its opponent?
For Soviet Russia, as for every other subject on which it speaks, the Socialist Party is indebted to the capitalist press for almost the whole of the evidence it uses.
To start with facts which seem to contradict a theory and to find, on closer examination, that they support it, is a normal process of thinking. The Socialist Party does something else; it states two propositions which taken together do not make sense and continues to maintain both of them. Examples were given in the Challenge.
I do not claim that “a certain range of political positions are essential for the functioning of any modern society.” Each of the major ideologies is a functional necessity, yes, but the political positions, philosophies, religions, theories and so forth which express them are much affected by circumstance, they are largely accidental and transient.
The theory of systematic ideology is a theory of the structure of society; it is in an ideological context that social behaviour arises. My “ideological discourse” includes a good deal about the Socialist Party; it appears from the Reply that the Party does not consider itself a part of the “real social world” and I am tempted to agree. I use the terminology and concepts of the Socialist Party because it is hardly possible to discuss with them without doing so, and I am glad to see them using some of the terms of systematic ideology even if not always with adequate understanding.
The Socialist Party cannot quote a phrase of three words without getting it wrong; I did not speak of “blind, unthinking, elitist conceit.” I am glad to have written confirmation that the party do “assert that those who understand the socialist case will accept it,” for this is the Socialist Party claiming to be The Few Who Have Understood, this is them claiming to be an intellectual elite.
Not being a party member I am not bound to use “socialism” (or any other term) in the woolly sense given it by the Socialist Party. In commenting on Mr. Bradley’s remark I was using “socialism” in the more precise sense in which it is used, for example, by Labour Party supporters. The Socialist Party’s attempt to dictate how certain words may be used is one of its more absurd features.
The paragraph beginning “But what…” is so badly wrong that it is difficult to know how to correct it. I shall content myself with saying that the paper made no such claim, that no organisation is in any way responsible for any claims the paper does make, and that these things are made clear in the paper. It is still available and I shall be glad to send a copy to anybody wishing to confirm this for themselves.
The Socialist Party has put forward two propositions: (a) that political power is based upon ownership and (b) that ownership rests on political power; when these two are put together they do not make sense. The Reply says ownership and political power are reciprocally related; if so, then neither of them “is based” or “rests” on the other. The Reply is saying that both of these propositions put forward by the Socialist Party are unsound.
Yes, non-compliant people associate to form a party which then asserts this non-compliance. What is circular about that?
I am not sure it is possible to hold useful discussion with people who take “volitional behaviour” to be the equivalent of “everything.”
Walsby is not here to speak for himself so it is up to me to defend him from the Socialist Party’s disregard for accuracy. I think the perception, that the socialist case is designed for winning arguments, is implied in Walsby’s work, but he did not put it forward himself. I did that.
I said the Socialist Party devotes itself to winning arguments and not many people are willing to do this, that is why the party is tiny. The Reply spends almost one page of its ten showing that non-socialists also argue. Of course they do, but unlike the party they do not make this their main activity, they are not “devoted” to it. Argument – what they call “putting the socialist case” – is the chosen and central activity of socialists; anything else the party does is in support of this. No other political movement behaves in this way (except the Anarchists, and they do it only to a lesser extent). The depth of the Socialist Party’s commitment to argument is indicated by their belief, expressed in the Reply, that commercial competition is conducted by this means; every successful salesman knows better, he understands that to win an argument is to lose an order.
Yes, socialism is a possibility – in the sense that it is possible for a kettle on the fire to freeze instead of boiling. The question, for sensible people, is not: Is it possible? But: Does consideration of the evidence show it to be reasonably probable? and the answer, for socialism, is “No.”
The Reply speaks as if the Socialist Party were uncertain about the coming of socialism, but the “Socialist Standard” regularly speaks of it as a certainty, using “will” and “when;” the issue of October 1984 calls it “a dead cert” (p.184). These people who claim to understand society and its development cannot make up their minds whether socialism is a possibility (the Reply) or a certainty (the “Socialist Standard“).
I charged the Socialist Party with proclaiming socialism as the only answer to the problems of society while also saying that they do not know what it would be like or how it would operate. The Reply attempts to answer this by saying “there are currently circulating within the SPGB several outline sketches of socialist production and distribution.” Certainly there are; these are the speculations by individual members (and groups) mentioned in the Challenge. The Reply goes on to speak of “our ambivalence” towards these and this, put plainly, means the party has adopted none of them, they do not form part of the party case. The party, as a party, holds that it does not and cannot know how socialism would operate or what socialist life would be like; only people living in a socialist society can decide that.
I do not say the Socialist Party should disband; if it were to do so it would be replaced by some close ideological equivalent. That some members of the party should “come over to the side” of systematic ideology is more than a hope; it has already happened.
The Reply repudiates the idea of “a society which shall ensure full development and free expression, both in theory and in practice, for all ideologies.” In this, at least, it is consistent with other statements by the party. The party claims that all thinking about social affairs, other than its own, is false, and it seeks to eliminate non-socialist thinking. It is compelled to do this, for a socialist society could only function on the condition that all ideologies other than that of the Socialist Party were rigidly excluded; should any of them appear the society would have a choice between two alternatives: It could suppress them and thereby cease to be a socialist society or it could permit them expression, in theory and in practice, and thereby cease to be a socialist society. Fortunately for us all, including the socialists, this difficulty is unlikely to arise; the ideologies have so far been well able to maintain themselves against the Socialist Party and the party has shown no good reason for believing that this will not continue. The evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the people, workers and capitalists alike, will not support the Socialist Party.
The terms proposed to the Socialist Party for this debate included their sending a concluding statement; on 25 February 1985 (some three months after the Answer had been sent them) this had not arrived and a reminder was sent. By January 1986 their concluding statement had still not come, so the debate is issued without it.
It is the practice of the SPGB, when holding a verbal debate, to have in the hall a table on which literature is displayed for sale, giving their general viewpoint. Here this brief addendum will have to serve the same purpose on behalf of their opponent.
The theory behind the contributions of George Walford to this debate is known as systematic ideology. It was originated, and largely developed, by the late Harold Walsby. The left wing claims to express the interests of the working class (who are the great majority), but the workers have never, anywhere, supported any movement claiming to be socialist or communist to an extent that enabled it to establish its principles in social practice. Sometimes – in Russia, China and elsewhere – it has seemed that this was happening but always, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the old ways have returned. Walsby’s theory offers an explanation for this and many other puzzling features of our society.
For most of the left wing the restrictions imposed by their inability to win the large, secure and enduring majority that their theory predicts, is not fatal. They name socialism or communism as their ultimate objective, but they also strive to improve conditions under capitalism. They engage in the day-to-day struggle and they pursue reforms; pending the arrival of socialism or communism they work to render present society more humane.
The SPGB does not do this. It rejects reformist activity, declaring its only objective to be the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. It also declares that in order to achieve this there must be a majority of voters who understand and accept socialism, so that the change may be effected democratically through Parliament. But over eighty years it has failed to get that majority or even to make any substantial progress towards it. Unable to establish socialism, and refusing to take part in reforms, it is restricted entirely to theoretical activity, to trying to change people’s ideas, to doing what it calls “putting the party case.”
The reader may reasonably ask why we should bother with a party of six hundred, almost invisible to the naked eye in a country of fifty million and a world of nearly five billion. The answer is that this group displays, clearly set out where it can easily be studied, a tendency running through all political movements. It is the tendency for theory to become detached from practical social life.
In order to show this without long preliminaries we place the different distinct attitudes towards social affairs (as they appear in Britain), in this order: non-political, conservatism, liberalism, labour-socialism, communism, the SPGB. (There is a weight of evidence showing this to be their logical order, some of it given in the publications listed below; these also discuss the appearance of these same movements in other countries, and the principal movements not included in the list given here). We then find that as we move along the range in this order, so the conception of what society ought in theory to be becomes increasingly distant from what it actually is.
The people who take no interest in politics thereby show themselves to be accepting society as it is; they are not setting up any theory of what it ought to be. The conservatives accept its main features but would correct the ways in which it has departed from (what they regard as) its traditional and proper form and the liberals, while retaining the present main structure, would undertake extensive reforms; their idea of what society ought to be is farther removed from what it now is than is that of the conservatives. Moving on to the left wing something new appears. The labour-socialists still work for reforms, but (unlike the liberals) they do not confine themselves to these; their conception is not merely of present society improved, but of a new form of society: socialism. With the communists the ideal becomes even more different from present reality, so much so that they believe it can only be established by revolution. The last movement named in the series was the SPGB, and with this the extreme is reached. In order to establish socialism in their meaning of the term it is not enough to reform present society or even to revolutionise it. Their conception of what ought to be is so different from what actually is that the only way to reach it is to abolish (a word they often use) society as we know it.
At each stage the ideal becomes farther removed from present reality, and as this happens so interest comes to be more directed towards theorising and less towards actual life. At one end of the range the nonpolitical people take no interest in political theory; they are concerned only with living. Towards the middle the liberals do a lot of thinking about the ways in which social life can be improved, and at the extreme the SPGB, as a party, take no part at all in the practical details of improving life under capitalism; their activity is entirely theoretical. Their only solution for any problem is socialism and socialism, in the sense they give the term, exists only as a theory.
This may be found interesting yet not important. But there is one thing more: The groups listed as forming this range are of different sizes. The largest of them is the nonpolitical and the smallest the SPGB. To say the intervening movements become smaller as they are closer to the SPGB end of the range would be to oversimplify, but there is a strong tendency in this direction. Harold Walsby was able to show that this range of political movements is the appearance, on the surface of social life, of an underlying structure of ideological groups. Each of the political movements is the expression, in the field of party politics, of the ideology held by one of these groups, and there is good reason to believe that the ideological groups do become consistently smaller as one moves along the range. The number of potential recruits for each movement diminishes as one moves from nonpolitical through the right, the centre, the moderate and then the extreme left, and on to the SPGB. As the gap between the conception of what society ought to be and what it is becomes wider, so the movement holding that conception tends to become smaller and, consequently, less influential in practical social life. The importance of the SPGB, and the reason for our interest in it, lies in the clarity with which it illustrates this relationship (and, it must be added, also other features of political and ideological development).