George Walford: The (Anarcho-) Socialist Party of Great Britain (24)

Part One
We recently attended an (A-)SPGB branch meeting at which the subject was “How We Can Feed the World.” The method proposed was – of course – that we should establish “socialism.” This would release the productive and distributive potential of modern technology, frustrated under capitalism.

As usual with this party, the speaker was well informed, with masses of facts and figures at his command. There was only one drawback: all his information was about capitalism. He had not one single fact or figure about “socialism.” Plenty of assertions were made; it would do this, that and the other thing, it would work like this and not like that, it would produce every benefit one can think of. But none of this was supported by direct observation. None of it was factual. This is not as surprising as it may sound, for the party holds that “socialism” does not exist and never has existed. So how can they give us any facts about it?

In discussion after the talk we drew attention to this. We also pointed out the consequences. “Socialism,” the party tells us, can only exist as a world-wide system; also, there can be no transition period between capitalism and “socialism.” It follows that there can be no preliminary testing, no experiments and no pilot scheme. The only ground for believing that “socialism” would be an improvement on what we have – or, indeed, that it would work at all – is provided by the thinking, the arguments, the party puts forward.

Nobody working in systematic ideology can be inclined to minimise the value of argument, and in the present context we do not propose to suggest that the arguments of the party are any less valid than those of anybody else; we do not propose, here, to take up the party’s arguments at all. The difficulty to be brought forward lies in the nature of argument itself. Its main value is in the theoretical sphere, it is a means by which fallacies, inconsistencies and contradictions (which are not always immediately obvious) can be brought out and dealt with. It is a tool for constructing rational, coherent theories. But it is not, by itself, a reliable guide to successful practice. For that, facts also are needed.

Since human society first appeared it has been increasing its control over its environment. During the very short period (historically speaking) since the 17th Century this growth has been accelerating at a rate which is difficult to grasp. In three hundred years humanity has developed more effective practical techniques than during the whole period of its previous existence. The jump was due to a number of causes working together, producing a synergetic effect, but one of the most important was the virtual abandonment of argument as a means of obtaining information about the physical world and the adoption, in its place, of experiment and observation. Or, to use more familiar terms, the substitution of science for philosophy.

It came to be recognised that, if there is indeed a pattern in the physical world that corresponds with any possible pattern of human thinking, it is deeply hidden. The physical world as it directly confronts us is not rational, and the attempt to treat it as if it were can produce some nasty surprises. Neither the most rigorous thinking nor the most thorough-going argumentation about sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre will ever show that there is anything particularly dangerous about mixing them together and putting a match to the result. Only experiment can show differently.

This holds good for the social world; here, also, any rationality there may be is deeply hidden. The social world as we directly encounter it is largely governed by contingency and it is common for the results of action to be unexpected; the activity of government consists largely of efforts to make good the consequences of previous attempts at improvement. The “socialists” are no more able to make reliable predictions than their opponents. The outstanding fact about the party is that after 82 years of unremitting effort it remains so small as to be practically invisible; it has never yet managed to save its deposit in an election. To our knowledge the party has never predicted this absence of progress; its announced expectations have been, overwhelmingly, of an imminent upsurge in support for “socialism.”

In social practice, as well as in handling the physical world, argument by itself is an unreliable guide; if it is important to get the result expected then the most careful experimentation, with tests and pilot projects, is also needed. But “socialism,” the party tells us, has to be set up world-wide if at all, and there can be no transition period on the way to it; the move has to be directly from capitalism to “socialism.” There can, therefore, be no preliminary observation of it, no testing, no experiments, no pilot projects. We have to swallow the dose first; only afterwards will we find out whether it was therapeutic or poisonous.

The party has accumulated masses of direct evidence about capitalism, but it has, and can have, none at all about “socialism.” It has to reason from one social system to the other, and although reason is indispensable it is not, by itself, a sufficient guide in practical affairs; direct observation and preliminary testing of what it is proposed to introduce are essential, and with “socialism” this is impossible. We are being asked to scrap a system which, with all its defects, does provide conditions within which five billion people are able to maintain themselves, and adopt in its place a completely untested system, one under which nobody has yet fed a baby.

Part Two
We said this (more or less) at the meeting and the speaker’s response was the one regularly adopted by party speakers faced with a difficult issue; he talked about something else. Asked for facts about “socialism” he spoke at length about capitalism. But the Chairman (also a party member) came up with a surprise. He pointed out that what we had put forward was the sceptical position, the approach, orthodox in conservatism, which emphasises the need for caution when moving forward from the tried and tested into the unknown.

It is almost unheard of for a party member to come as close as that to the realities of social life; the Chairman’s remark leads us to suspect that he has been reading some of the material put out in the early period of what is now systematic ideology, in which great attention was paid to the connection between particular philosophical outlooks and particular political movements, scepticism and conservatism being one such pair.

Unfortunately he had missed the point of the connection. He went on to argue – he almost took it for granted – that because scepticism (in this sense) is linked with conservatism therefore it is a bad thing. He believed that by bringing out this connection he adequately answered what had been said. But whether scepticism is valuable or not depends on the way it is used. Against facts it is powerless, it comes into its own only when confronted with either blind faith or with speculation that makes claims it cannot support. So long as the party can provide only speculation about “socialism,” unsupported by any direct observation of this system, any facts about it, scepticism is the rational response.

Scepticism by itself is not enough for fully rational thinking, and conservatism by itself is not able to provide an adequate society. But rational thinking needs to incorporate scepticism, and any society that is to be an advance beyond the present one needs to incorporate the high valuation of what has proven itself viable that is distinctive of conservatism. The party proposes to “abolish” capitalism (and conservatism with it). It proposes to abolish the only system of society which has shown itself capable of supporting the present world population, and to substitute a system of which it has, and can have, no direct knowledge at all. So long as it continues to do that rational thinkers are bound to meet it with scepticism.

from Ideological Commentary 24, November 1986.