George Walford – Work in Progress: The SPGB (Part I)

Newcomers to systematic ideology are often surprised at the amount of attention paid to the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). One reason for it is that in this organisation we find fully developed, set out ready for our inspection, the tendencies (in the jargon of s.i. the “eidodynamic” tendencies) which characterise the Left. One feature of the Left is a discrepancy between what it is and what, according to its own view of itself, it ought to be. It claims to represent the general body of the people (“the workers,” “the masses,” or simply “the people”) against a small minority (“the capitalists,” “the rich,” or “the ruling classes”). If this claim is valid then, at least in the countries where relative political freedom exists, the Left should enjoy the support of an overwhelming majority, but this does not happen. The discrepancy appears most clearly with the SPGB. This party claims to represent the interests of the working class, a class which includes the great majority of the people in Britain, yet after seventy-five years it remains one of the smallest political parties. The present paper sets forward one of the reasons for this gap between claim and reality. It is a draft (modified for its appearance in IC) of one section of a larger study of the SPGB (a study historical as well as analytical) which is now in preparation.

The SPGB has for its declared object the establishment of socialism, which it defines as:

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 declares that the working class must organise “consciously. and politically” if Socialism is to be established , and “calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner.” (Sister parties operate in other countries; the SPGB is the British section of an international movement). That word “consciously” is significant. The SPGB does not want support except from those who understand its arguments. It requires all applicants for membership to demonstrate that they understand its Object and Principles, and when putting candidates up for Parliament emphasises that it wants the votes only of those who understand the socialist case.

The SPGB holds that Socialism is to be established by parliamentary means but it does not equate “parliamentary” with “reformist.” It stands for:

a revolution in the basis of society… this social revolution to be carried out democratically by the use of political power. It is possible for a majority of socialist workers to win power through democratic institutions, by use of the ballot and parliament, for the purpose of carrying out the socialist revolution. (Questions of the Day p. 33)

The SPGB seeks to win a majority of British workers for Socialism. It was founded in 1904, and according to the only book length history of it that has been published it reached a peak of 1,100 members in 1949, falling to the six hundreds by the end of 1955.[The Monument, the story of the Socialist Party of-Great Britain, by Robert Barltrop, 1975, p.154. When reading The Monument it needs to be borne in mind that its account of the Social Science Association (an early movement promoting Harold Walsby’s ideas) is badly wrong; this has been brought to the attention of its author and publishers.] There is no reason to think its membership is significantly greater now. In Britain: there are over fifty million people, most of them workers.

For seventy-five years the SPGB has been expounding the socialist case by every available means: in print, by public meeting indoor and outdoor, by private discussion, by argument at the meetings of other organisations, and latterly by radio. The result, over three-quarters of a century, through peace and war, boom and slump, and whatever the method used, has been consistent: the overwhelming majority of those who have heard the socialist case, even of those who have heard it repeatedly, have not accepted it. Television has not been used, but there is no reason to think it would produce a different result. (If television does, as it is sometimes said to do, exert a non-rational influence then it is an influence the SPGB does not want; it relies on rational exposition of its case).

The SPGB holds that the socialist case has never been refuted. It holds that when workers do not accept the case this is not because they know it to be unsound but because they do not understand it:

The Socialist Party has undertaken that task of providing the workers with socialist understanding… (Family Allowances, a Socialist Analysis p.161)

For some movements this failure, on the part of the great majority, to understand what they were saying, might not be serious. The Communists, for example, would be happy to act as leaders for a mass movement composed of people who did not themselves know very clearly what they were doing. But the SPGB holds that its object can only be achieved, Socialism can only be established, when a majority of the workers have understood the socialist case.

So far the overwhelming majority of those addressed have not accepted that case, and according to the SPGB this shows they have not understood it. What of the rest of the workers, those who have not yet heard the SPGB case? Assuming they do eventually hear it, will they respond in the same way, or differently? Will they understand the case, or not? The answer to this question affects not only the SPGB but the rest of us also. If the majority of the workers come to understand (and therefore according to the SPGB, to accept) the socialist case then it may be that Socialism, as the SPGB conceives of it, will be established. If not, not. And our future will vary accordingly.

By putting the socialist case to the workers the SPGB imply that they are capable of understanding it. This is sometimes directly stated; the pamphlet The Case for Socialism is described (at the back of The Socialist Party and War) as “a concise exposition of the subject in language all can understand.” But the SPGB has been putting this case since 1904, the great majority of those to whom it has been put, even of those to whom it has been put repeatedly, have not accepted it, and according to the SPGB this shows they have not understood it. We are obliged to consider the possibility that the SPGB may be under a misapprehension, that it may have misjudged either the intelligence of the working class or the difficulty of understanding the socialist case.

By SPGB definition the working class is composed of those who, because they do not own the means of production, are obliged to sell their labour power:

For the purpose of this definition a worker is not distinguished by the way he dresses, talks, by where he lives or the job he does, but by how he gets a living. Anybody who has to work for wages is a worker. [And the following paragraph shows that here “wages” includes salaries, GW]. (Questions of the Day p.11)

The working class, as the SPGB uses that term and as we shall use it here, therefore includes a great many of those commonly called “middle-class,” or “intellectuals:” managers, scientists, teachers, technicians, professors, journalists, lawyers, doctors, politicians, salesmen, administrators. The evidence the SPGB brings forward, to show that this class is intelligent, is direct, massive and conclusive. We summarise the main part of it in a phrase: it is the working class that operates capitalism. The working class (defined as above) operates not only the mills, mines, factories, transportation, distribution and communication systems, but also the offices, computers and laboratories, the research institutes, the universities, and the greater part of administration both local and national. We have to accept that the point has been made. A class able to do these things cannot be considered unintelligent. It is not because the workers are stupid that they do not understand Socialism.

The other factor in the problem is the socialist case. Does this present difficulties of which the SPGB is unaware?

What, in this connection, is meant by “the socialist case?” The SPGB has published a number of pamphlets; there are ten of them in front of me as I write. These all present the socialist case, but they do not present the whole of it. There is also a monthly journal, the Socialist Standard, this has been appearing since 1904 and it, also, sets out the socialist case. It has included articles on the Peloponnesian wars, the labour theory of value, the materialist conception of history, Einsteinian relativity, and a wide variety of other topics, some of them abstruse and recondite. If “the socialist case” be taken to mean the totality of the printed matter issued by the Party since its foundation then it is extensive, complex and difficult. It is not something “all can understand.”

The would-be Socialist, however, is not required to understand all this material. The minimum requirement for the establishment of Socialism is that a majority of the workers should understand the Object and Principles of the Party. In this connection these constitute “the socialist case,” and it is to these that we now turn our attention. They are reproduced at the end of this paper, and it will be seen that they are not simple in the sense that, for example, a comic book is simple; they require study and application. Yet they are not, at first sight, more difficult than much of the material the working class copes with in its daily activities; they contain no words that cannot be found almost every week in the newspapers of large circulation.

We have noted that the working class, as defined by the SPGB, includes scientists, doctors, lawyers; any layman who encounters the specialised literature of these professions will find it harder reading than the Object and Principles. Common occupations, not considered particularly intellectual, also have their specialised literature which it is difficult for the outsider to understand. A manual of motorcar maintenance, for example, or a television repair handbook. Even the literature of pastimes and entertainments presents difficulties; each has its specialised vocabulary, its esoteric features. The working class overcomes all these difficulties but it does not understand the socialist case.

The reason (as we shall see) is not exactly described by saying the socialist case presents difficulties greater than those presented by these other bodies of material. It is better expressed by saying the socialist case presents difficulties of a different type, The difference is not obvious; if it were, the SPGB would have seen it before now. Difficult to see, it is still harder to put into words. We have to ask the reader for even more thoughtful attention than does the SPGB.

Consider this sentence from Wireless World:

The second resistor chain biases the op-amps to the best point for a symmetrically-clipped sine-wave output on overdrive. (February 1980, p. 37)

This journal is to be found on most bookstalls and in most newsagents; most readers will have encountered it; few will have encountered the Socialist Standard. There can be little doubt that the monthly circulation of Wireless World is many times greater than the monthly circulation of SPGB publications, pamphlets and Socialist Standard together.

The sentence quoted has not been selected for its difficulty, there are many like it in the same issue; but to me at least. it is quite incomprehensible. The words it uses are not common currency, they relate to an area of experience alien to most of us. Our world does not include either “op-amps” or “resistor chains” by which they may be “biased.” This sentence is more difficult reading than the Object and Principles, than the statement, for instance, that “there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.” The Object and Principles include no word that is not familiar to every moderately literate person, yet the indications are that the working class is better able to understand the technicalities of electronics (if that is what the Wireless World sentence refers to) than the apparent simplicities of Socialism. The working class is able to design, construct and operate the devices presented in Wireless World; it has not shown itself able to design, construct or operate a socialist society.

This is the core of our problem, and the main outline of the answer to it can be briefly stated. It is that an understanding of electronics requires an extension of knowledge and understanding; we retain all that we already know and understand and add other things to it. Understanding of Socialism is the result of a different process. lire are already familiar with the concepts involved, with “antagonism,” “interests,” “manifestation,” “class” and “struggle.” In order to understand Socialism we do not have to extend our present understanding, we have to repudiate it. We have to understand, interpret, in a different way the knowledge we already possess.

The two mental activities respectively require, from those undertaking them, different attitudes toward experience. Knowledge of electronics requires an attitude of acceptance, of receptivity. Understanding of Socialism requires an attitude of criticism, an analytical approach.

Daily life, for the great majority, does not include experience of “op-amps,” but when observation is focused in a certain direction, toward the results of certain experiments, it goes to confirm their existence. It is by accepting what is seen, heard and felt that the existence of “op-amps” is established.

Daily life, for people within modern industrial society, does include the experiences of which the SPGB speaks, the facts that makeup most of its propaganda. But (as we are about to see) it goes to contradict what the SPGB says about them. Experience of daily life goes to confirm the present non-socialist understanding of the majority. In order to achieve socialist understanding they would need to repudiate as unreal and misleading this daily experience, with its vital power of conviction, to accept in its place certain remote, abstract, generalised concepts. They would have to regard these as more real, more enduring and more significant than what they see happening around them.

One proposition integral to the socialist case is that it is by the labour of the workers alone that wealth is produced. Those who are to accept this must be willing to go against their own sensory experience; and not merely against first impressions but against tested, scientifically verified experience. They have to accept that what is, according to the evidence of their senses and every scientific test, a crane, is not that at all: it is labour in the form of a material object. It is when they can accept this, and not before, that they can understand the saying that it is by the labour of the workers alone that wealth is produced. So long as they continue to believe that what they see before them is, as all the evidence shows it to be, a crane, they have to believe that it is not by the labour of the workers alone that wealth is produced. A crane also is required, and that crane is provided by the capitalist.

An understanding of the SPGB concept of “class” requires a similar willingness to repudiate experience and direct evidence in favour of theoretical abstractions. It is not possible, and it never will be possible to see, hear or feel the working class, the capitalist class, or any constituent of either of them. We can see, hear or feel people, but that is not the same thing; all living people are distinguished from others by the way they dress and talk, by where they live and the jobs they do, but we have heard the SPGB saying explicitly (in Questions of the Day) that the workers of whom it speaks are not distinguished in any of these ways. They are distinguished only by the fact that they sell their labour power. No living person is distinguished in that way and no other; the workers of whom the SPGB speaks are not the living people we see around us, they are abstractions, constituents of a theoretical construction. The working class is not composed of butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers but of those who, because they do not own the means of production, are obliged to sell their labour power. If we think of the working class in other terms, if we think of it as composed of people, each with a particular character and status that affect his or her actions, then (according to the SPGB) we shall fail to understand its behaviour.

Similarly with the capitalist class. This is not composed of fat men who love their wives, or thin women who like ice-cream. It is composed of those who own the means of production, and if we think of it or its constituents in other terms we shall fail to understand its behaviour. A capitalist possesses this distinguishing feature and no other. A capitalist is as much an abstraction as is a worker.

The non-socialist majority are able to interpret their experience, and to do so intelligently, without using the SPGB concept of “class.” Every single item of all that they see, hear or read can be understood as the behaviour of individual people, each of them, in status, income or property, above some and below others in a continuous gradation.

There are people below me, earning smaller wages than mine; having an older car and being less respected by the neighbours. There are others whom I usually accept as level with myself, but even these turn out to be above or below me if I stop to think about them. There are also people who are clearly above me. The foreman gets more money than I do; the salesmen wear smart suits for their work and drive up-to-date cars; the department manager has a house in the suburbs and the managing director comes to the factory (when he does come) in a Rolls Royce. In the newspaper I read about people who are really rich, who own yachts and racehorses, even their own aircraft.

It may well be true that the capitalists have interests opposed to mine, but so does the fellow at the next bench; there’s a promotion coming up and only one of us can have it. And this idea that the people who own the factories and so on get all the best of it, I know that is nonsense. The people who own these things are the share-holders, and my wife’s mother is one of them. With her dividends and her old age pension she doesn’t go cold or hungry, but she hasn’t had a holiday in twenty years. She’s not nearly as well off as I am with my wages.

The workers see goods in the shops and the advertisements, and they think of them as intended for use. They think food is produced to be eaten, cars to be driven, houses to be lived in. The SPGB deny this. They say that only under Socialism will goods be produced for use; under capitalism they are produced not for use but for sale and profit. But the workers know from observation that under capitalism goods are produced for use. If they have no use, if they do not satisfy some requirement, no profit is made from them.

When the socialist case is put to the workers a common response is to reject it because if does not accord with their experience. There is justification for this response. It is true that the interests of individual workers often conflict. It is true that capitalists and workers sometimes have interests in common. It is true that some capitalists are worse off than some workers. It is true that the good produced under capitalism are intended to be used. And these facts that contradict the socialist case are not true merely in a logical or academic sense; they are the facts of experience, with all the power of conviction that implies. The workers know these things, they have seen them happening. When the Party asks them to accept that society is divided, into two classes, one that possesses but does not produce, another that produces but does not possess, it is asking them to reject their vivid and valid experience in favour of a remote intellectual abstraction.

The SPGB declares in its first Principal that the working class is enslaved, but the workers know themselves to be free. They can quit their jobs at any time. They are, it is true, supposed to give notice, but even if they don’t nothing much will happen to them. They are not compelled to stay in one district, if the boss dares touch them they will have the law on him, and they are not bought or sold. All these things, too, they know from experience. When the Party tells them they are enslaved it is asking them to overlook their own vivid and valid experience in favour of a remote intellectual abstraction.

Similar considerations apply to all other parts of the socialist case. Every one of the eight Principles, and the Object too, requires for its understanding the willingness and the ability to disregard one’s own experience and to accept in its place a high-order abstraction. An abstraction, often, which contradicts experience. The mental operations involved are of a different type from those required of anybody setting out to learn about “op-amps,” “resistor chains” and “sine-wave outputs” – or medicine, the law, physical science, or any of the other fields of knowledge required for the operation of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are, as the SPGB says, radically different, and the intelligence undoubtedly possessed by the working class, the intelligence that enables them to operate capitalism, does not, the evidence shows, equip them to understand Socialism.

To grasp the SPGB concept of “class” is to do something different from learning another fact. We may learn, say, the name of a plant we had not met before, its properties and its uses, and this extra information has little effect upon our pre-existing knowledge and understanding. It is an addition, as a climber may add another stone to a cairn. But an understanding of the concept of “class” produces radical changes in our existing knowledge and understanding of social affairs and of much else besides. It does not operate as a mere addition but rather as a catalyst, producing startling effects upon the mixture to which it is introduced.

People who have been supportive of the society in which they live, upon coming to understand the concept of class become, often quite suddenly, convinced that the only thing to do is to abolish that society and establish a quite different one in its place. Activities formerly considered indifferent, or judged on their own terms – art, religion, philosophy for example – come to be seen as manifestations of class interests. Work ceases to be a matter of performing certain activities in return for a certain amount of money; it becomes a process whereby the worker is exploited. The actions involved may remain exactly what they were, and although the person concerned may have learnt additional facts this is not a necessary part of the change. The core of it, the event which by itself can produce these results, is the re-interpretation of knowledge already possessed, the adoption of a different mode of thinking.

The Party does not restrict itself to declaiming the Declaration of Principles and reciting the case for Socialism. It strives to establish a connection between these and the daily experience of the workers. When one listens to a Party speaker, or reads Party literature, what one encounters is for the most part not abstract principles but solid fact, facts no harder to understand than those in many of the publications the workers use in operating capitalism. But between those facts and an understanding of Socialism there lies a gap. It is a gap which cannot be bridged by listing any number of facts or by establishing, however irrefutably, the deficiencies of capitalism. It is a gap which can be bridged only by a transition, on the part of the person addressed, from one type of thinking to another.

Consider the pamphlet entitled Nationalisation or Socialism? The body of it is occupied by a historical account of the nationalised industries. It is direct, vigorous and factual, containing more information to the square inch than many more pretentious works. But what has this to do with Socialism? Let the pamphlet answer:

The socialist solution is to abolish capitalism and establish a system of society in which the means of production and distribution are owned and democratically controlled by the community… (p.67)

The gap mentioned above can be pinned down precisely, to the word. It comes at “abolished.” All the foregoing facts, constituting the bulk of the work, are the facts of capitalism. On the penultimate page we are told that capitalism is to be abolished and all these facts with it. A new system of society is to be established, and this is not spoken of in terms of facts, but in general principles. In the body of the pamphlet we are told, for example, that in 1890 the capital of United Alkali was £6,000,000. In the account of Socialism given on the last two pages there are no figures at all. Instead we find, for example “the interest of the individual is the interest of the whole community.” Knowledge of the facts of Capitalism is not sufficient to make a Socialist. In order to become a Socialist it is necessary to accept, and become able to handle, not merely facts and figures but remote abstractions, such as an identity of interests between the individual and the community. Nor is that all. It is also necessary to guide one’s political behavior by a regard for these abstractions, rather than by a concern with more immediate experiences, although these latter carry the sharper vividness and the more direct power of conviction.

When asked for details of Socialism as a system of society the SPGB reply that they cannot be given since it does not yet exist:

Drawing up a detailed blueprint for Socialism is premature, since the exact form will depend upon the technical conditions and preferences of those who set up and live in Socialism. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always refused to play the futile game of constructing blueprints of future society… (Questions of the Day p.5)

The paragraph concludes:

but we can broadly define the essential features of Socialism.

It is of course true that the SPGB can broadly define the essential features of Socialism, and in fact they go on to do so. It may seem that when these essential features have been broadly defined then the working class have been enabled to decide for Socialism, and to do so without displaying any mental powers other than those we already know they possess – the intelligence, memory and so on needed for the operation of capitalism. It may appear that the necessary knowledge has been put at their disposal, that they are henceforward in a position to handle the essential features of Socialism in the same way as they now handle the facts of capitalism. A little reflection, however, shows this is not so.

As the SPGB can broadly define the essential features of Socialism so I can define the “resistor chain” we encountered in Wireless World, It is a chain, with a handle on its lower end, which hangs from a lever projecting from the side of a tank which holds about two gallons of water; when you pull the chain there is resistance (hence the name “resistor chain”), but if you pull harder this is overcome and the water then rushes out of the tank and down a pipe into a glazed earthenware bowl below. I can also, if required, define the essential features of a hippogriff. Anybody can define anything. When confronted with a definition we have to ask: On what is it based? How was it arrived at? The broad definition of the essential features of Socialism offered by the SPGB rests on a different ground, and is arrived at by different means, from the definitions of the facts of capitalism, the definitions with which the workers have shown themselves able to operate.

As the workers operate capitalism they encounter definitions (more or less formal) of many things, among them my definition of a “resistor chain” and also another definition of the same object. They are able to test both of these definitions, and they will probably find that while my definition does not work the other one does, that if they operate on the assumption that a resistor chain is what that definition says it to be then the desired effect will be produced, the “op-amps” will be “biased.” They are able (in person or by proxy) to test the various definitions offered, to test them in practice, by experiment, and so to discover which is the correct one. Having discovered that then they are able, and entitled, to accept that definition with confidence. But they cannot do this with the broad definitions of the essential features of Socialism offered by the SPGB, since (as the SPGB emphasises) there is no Socialist society against which they can be tested. The only basis for accepting these definitions is confidence in the end-product of a long chain of reasoning. Indeed, since the SPGB insist that the workers must not accept results handed down to them but must understand Socialism for themselves, more than that is required. The workers have to be able to perform this reasoning for themselves, and we have seen that socialist reasoning requires, very often, repudiation of the knowledge and understanding gained from daily experience. This is something not required in thinking needed for the operation of capitalism. No amount of demonstration that the workers are intelligent, or resourceful, or literate, or efficient, or scientific is to the point when the question is whether they possess the specialised ability to manipulate abstractions of the type required for the understanding of Socialism.

Those who work to bring Socialism into existence do so without having any direct or experimental or factual evidence that such a system is even viable, much less that it would be in any way better than capitalism. Their belief in it arises wholly and solely from confidence in their own reasoning. It is upon this ground alone that they urge the working class to destroy a system of society which has endured for centuries and under which some of the workers have achieved a standard of living higher, and an expectation of life longer, than was enjoyed by Alexander or Julius Caesar.

I do not say their reasoning is false or their confidence in it unjustified; that may or may not be so but it is not our concern here. I say that to adopt this approach is to use a method of thinking, to exhibit a commitment to reason in preference to experience which differs not merely in degree but in kind from anything the workers are required to exhibit in operating capitalism (or in any other connection either). The working class, as a class, does not have this commitment and has given no indication that it is likely to develop it. (And we may add that the capitalist class has not done so either; ability or inability to understand Socialism is not class-linked). Those who have understood Socialism are not a class as the SPGB uses that term, and they are not representative of a class. They are a small group, highly exceptional in their commitment to intellectuality, in their preference for being guided, in their political behaviour, by reasoning rather than by experience.

This is not something that can be expected to change. It is connected with the nature of what Socialists are required to under stand, with the nature of the Socialist case. The SPGB have misjudged the nature of that case. It is not Something “all can understand;” the difficulties it presents are not of the same type as those the workers overcome in operating capitalism. Acceptance of it requires a willingness to govern one’s political behaviour by the results of reasoning alone, unsupported by any direct, experimental or factual evidence. The SPGB does, certainly, bring forward masses of evidence, but it is not evidence for Socialism; it is evidence against capitalism. Between acceptance of this evidence and understanding of the socialist case there lies a gap which can only be overcome by the transition to a different type of thinking. Those who have effected that transition are a small, exceptional minority and there is no reason to expect any significant increase in their number.

This conclusion may be unwelcome but it has the advantage over the claim of the SPGB that “all can understand” the case for Socialism, of being in accordance with the evidence provided by seventy-five years of socialist propaganda.

from Ideological Commentary 7, April 1980.

External link: World Socialist Movement, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Our Object and Declaration of Principles.