George Walford – Socialism and "Socialism"

In IC14 we spoke of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the anarchists as being less different from one another than each of them likes to think; we showed reason to believe that they both express the same , major ideology, that those calling themselves the Socialist Party of Great Britain would be better known as anarcho-socialists. Following through on this we have made it a practice to refer to them either as anarcho-socialists or as “socialists.”

We do not propose to get into a yes/no argument over the use of a word; if this party find they can convey their meaning by using “socialist” in their sense then that is a proper use of the term. But this does not mean it cannot properly be used in other ways, also; one has only to look into any fair-sized dictionary – the Shorter Oxford for example – to find that a great many words carry more than one meaning, and “socialism” is one of these; it carries not only the meaning intended by the party but another one also. The full Oxford supports the party, as does the Shorter, but there are other reputable dictionaries beside these, and this is the definition of “socialism” given by the Century Dictionary:

Any theory or system of social organization which would abolish, entirely or in great part, the individual effort and competition on which modern society rests, and substitute for it co-operative action; would introduce a more perfect and equal distribution of the products of labor; and would make land and capital, as the instruments and means of production, the joint possession of the members of community…

The definition is followed by this note:

The name is used to include a great variety of social theories and reforms which have more or less of this character.

That meaning of the term, with its reservations, its “more or less,” its “entirely or in great part,” is a meaning the party repudiates, but it is one supported by the authority of a reputable dictionary. If the party continue to describe themselves as socialist they incur the risk of having the term understood in this other sense, and their own practice shows that this does in fact happen; they are engaged in a continuing struggle to impose their own meaning against the more popular one. The effort has met with little success; after eighty years they still have to explain that they are not the Labour Party.

If we look to the history of the term “socialist” we again find that the party has no exclusive right to it. According to Gertrude Himmelfarb (The Idea of Poverty 1984) the term was coined in 1827 to apply specifically to Owenism, and its use in this sense became so well established that when Marx and Engels came to write the Manifesto of 1848 they were obliged (as Engels explained in his Preface to the English edition of 1888) to call it “Communist,” rather than “Socialist.” Himmelfarb concludes: “Whatever latter-day socialists might think of the merits of Owenism, there is no question of its historic right to that title.”

IC will continue to refer to the group calling themselves the Socialist Party of Great Britain (and their companion groups abroad) as (anarcho-) socialists, or for the sake of variety and brevity as “socialists,” the quotation marks indicating that the word is being used in a special sense. These terms are more accurately descriptive, and less likely to produce misunderstanding, than the word they use themselves.

from Ideological Commentary 17, March 1985.