Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitalism and health care (2009)

Editorial from the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

On both sides of the Atlantic, the last few months have seen various supposedly alternative models for health care inside capitalism being explored. Barack Obama’s review of US health care provision within his first year in office has met a predictably heated response from the paid lobbyists and cheerleaders of the health insurance industry, as well as other sectors of the US capitalist class with something to lose from any change to the status quo.

The costs of individual medical insurance being prohibitive, the poor of this so-called first world nation (46 million of them) are left with Third World levels of care and medical support, and daily “life and debt” decisions.

Whilst there are some differences between the US and UK healthcare system, we shouldn’t over-exaggerate them. Heated though the US v NHS debate may be, it is essentially a phoney war. From a world socialist perspective, these are just alternative capitalist models for rationing healthcare for the working class

The US system places a cash register and swipe card console at the foot of your hospital bed. In terms of the immediacy and impact on the patient, the NHS and similar systems in Europe certainly seem a little more ‘civilised’. But there is of course still a reckoning somewhere down the line. The ‘socialised’ systems just remove that decision from the immediacy of the ward. Instead the decision is made at one remove: by an NHS Trust or the government that allocates its funds. The decision isn’t made for you as an individual patient, but for your class as a whole, the working class who constitute some 90 percent of the population.

The reason the US administration is looking again at how their system is – or isn’t – working, has little to do with how ethical or plain nice it wants its society to be. Instead it is driven by a need to make economies and find the most efficient way to maintain the health of the US workforce. After all, despite the egalitarian claims surrounding it, the introduction of the NHS to the UK had a solid capitalist ‘business case’ behind it and was supported by all main parties. (The cost to the US state per head of population is now approximately twice that in the UK).

The NHS – and the other examples quoted of ‘socialised’ medicine (e.g. Scandinavian countries) – are not socialism, which we would argue means a moneyless and wageless economy as a whole. However at an individual and emotional level (rather than at a political level), it would be churlish of world socialists to dismiss out of hand the strong empathy and support for the NHS that most workers in Britain have. It is after all support for free access, for the idea that healthcare be freely available to all regardless of wealth.

At one level, world socialists entirely empathise with this sentiment. But not to the extent of getting caught up in expressing political support for one type of capitalist healthcare system over another: only a social system based on production for use rather than profit for the few, can truly realise this powerful and fundamentally egalitarian desire.

Impossibilism by Stephen Coleman

The following article on the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its historical roots originally appeared as a chapter in the book 'Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries'.

Edited by Maximilien Rubel and John Crump, and published by Macmillan Press in Britain and St Martin's Press in the United States, this 1987 book has long since been out of print, but because of the continuing relevance of socialism as both a critique and alternative to present day class society, it's important that efforts are made to ensure that this chapter (and other chapters) from the book, are made available on the internet to be discovered and re-discovered by both old and new activists alike.

In the editors own words, the book sought to:

" . . . re-establish the genuine meaning of socialism. We are not arguing that absence of the market is the sole defining feature of socialism. On the contrary, socialism is not merely a marketless society, it is also a stateless society, a classless society, a moneyless society, a wageless society . . ."

As well as the chapter detailing the tradition of impossibilism - best represented by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties - the book also included chapters on other currents within the 'non-market socialist' sector, such as the Council Communists, Anarcho-Communists and, perhaps best known of all, the Situationists.

At the end of the article there is postscript that gives links to the other chapters in the book that have since found a home on the internet.


by Stephen Coleman

Like other terms of political abuse which have been absorbed into our political vocabulary, the term 'impossibilism' tells us as much or more about the labellers as it does about the idea being described. After the French legislative election of October 1881, in which the Fédération du Parti des Travailleurs Socialistes de France won only 60,000 of the 7 million votes cast, a group based around Paul Brousse and Benoît Malon began to advocate a more pragmatic, reformist policy for the Fédération. 'We prefer to abandon the "all-at-once" tactic practised until now', proclaimed those who referred to themselves as Possibilists. 'We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.'[1] The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an 'all-at-once' end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as 'the maximum programme' were labelled as impossibilists.[2]

It did not take very long for the term to find its way into British use. For example, in 1896 Ramsay MacDonald, in urging 'socialists more frequently to put themselves in the position of the man in the street', warned that:

We can talk socialism seriously to him and we will likely disgust him; we may gas sentimentalities to him and we may capture a member who will only be one more impossibilist in our movement.[3]

While MacDonald and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) pursued the propaganda of condescension, assured in their own minds that the presentation to workers of the revolutionary alternative to capitalism would cause disgust, th`e majority of the members of the nominally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by the dogmatic capitalist, H.M Hyndman, moved increasingly towards the possibilist policies of parliamentary reformism and opportunist party-building within the trade unions. At the turn of the century a small group within the SDF - some based in Scotland, some in London, but numbering no more than 400 out of the membership of 9000 - began to oppose the Federation's drift towards possibilism. The story of the impossibilist revolt need not be repeated here; it is sufficient to point out that the leadership of the SDF pursued a minor purge against those who insisted that the Federation should stand for clear-cut non-market socialism and nothing less. [4] T.A. Jackson refers to the expulsion of Jack Fitzgerald as a 'trumped up charge', [5] and the obituary of Fitzgerald, published in the Socialist Standard in May 1929, commented upon the fact that he:

was jeered at by the official group, who tried to silence him by the charge of “impossibilism.” He, and the group that was with him, were confronted by a solid wall of opposition, which was the more difficult to get over because the officials held the strings, and meetings were closed to the unauthorised.

The most typically impossibilist and historically enduring product of the split in the SDF emerged in 1904 when the majority of the London impossibilists, having exhausted the possibilities of turning the SDF away from its reformist course formed a new party: the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). Although labelled by opponents as impossibilists (a term which we now use solely for historical reference and not because we have any sympathy with the assumptions upon which it is based), as in the SDF paper Justice. the workers who formed the SPGB rejected the label and its implicit accusation:

At the outset let us insist that we do not believe in impossible political tactics. None the less, our political action must be such as to awaken the workers of this country to full class-consciousness, and to the desire to abolish wage slavery. We therefore feel the necessity of avoiding any action that will endanger or obliterate our socialist identity, or allow us to be swallowed up by a Labour Movement which has yet to learn the real meaning of Class Struggle. [6]

We are not . . . . 'Impossibilists', if Justice's definition be correct, but we doubt its correctness, for we have usually seen what is described as 'Impossibilism' associated with Socialist science, working-class sincerity and correct tactics. 7

In fact, the SPGB contended that the real impossibilists were the self-proclaimed realists who sought to humanise capitalism by means of legislative reform. [8]

Before considering the non-market socialist outlook of the SPGB - and of the parties and individuals in other parts of the world adhering to its principles - there are two other groups which deserve to be examined as examples of impossibilism in Britain.


The Socialist League split from the SDF in December 1884 in circumstances which closely resembled the impossibilist revolt two decades later. [9] Hyndman asserted that the 'antagonism' between the SDF and the League was 'similar to that which existed in France between the Marxists and the Possibilists', and although the arrogant Hyndman cast the SDF in the role of the Marxists, the analogy is, in fact, appropriate insofar as the SDF was comparable to the Possibilists and the League represented impossibilism. [10] The League rejected the idea of having a reform programme, like the 'Stepping Stones' of the SDF. William Morris, who fed the best revolutionary ideas in to the League, declared that 'The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless.' [11] Morris's conception of socialism, which he advocated both in the League and in the years after he left it, was characterised by an awareness - uncommon amongst those claiming to be socialists, both then and now - of the nature of the social transformation which socialism would entail. Socialism would 'put an end for ever to the wage-system'; [12] it would allow everyone to have 'free access to the means of production of wealth'; [13 it would 'not know the meaning of the words rich and poor, or the rights of property, or law or legality or nationality'; [14] and, if News From Nowhere is a guide to Morris's conception of socialism, it will be a moneyless society in which the 'extinct commercial morality of buying and selling relationships will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone but historians. [15] These features of non-market socialism are presented by Morris with a particular clarity of vision and experimental relevance, in a way that makes it hard to understand without at the same time desiring the nature of the social revolution which he is proposing. A particular quality of Morris's conception of socialism, comparable in certain respects with the situationists of the following century, was his eagerness to relate to the down-to-earth concerns of workers. Above all, Morris saw what work could be like in a society which no longer sacrificed creative labour to commercial profit:

all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists. [16]

That Morris was dismissed as a utopian dreamer by many self-styled socialists in his own day and since, tells us more about their conservatism than his vision. As Karl Mannheim commented, with a relevance to the concept of impossibilism of which he was not aware: The representatives of a given order will label as utopian all conceptions of existence which from their point of view can in principle never be realized.' [17]

Unlike the SPGB, which was to accept Morris's general picture of socialism as an immediately realisable objective, Morris himself and the Socialist League asserted that such a system could only be established after a period of transition. Morris's transition period was conceived as being a society in which property would still exist and in 'which currency will still be used as a means of exchange'. [18] Such a transition was not envisaged as being a long-lasting phase, [19] but the idea of a society of property and exchange relationships being defined as socialist - albeit qualified by the adjective 'incomplete' - must be regarded as an abuse of the term. We are not here disputing the fact that such a transition might have been necessary in the last century (Marx certainly considered that it was [20]), but that is no excuse for creating the conceptual confusion of regarding the pre-socialist transition period as the first stage of socialism.


The same criticism must be levelled against the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which broke away from the SDF a year before the SPGB. This party modelled its ideas on the industrial unionist policy of Daniel DeLeon and the American SLP. Like the Socialist League and the SPGB, the mainly Scottish impossibilists who formed the SLP advanced a conception of non-market socialism which can be seen to fall within the tradition of thought being considered in this book. But, while stating that 'There will be no money under Socialism', the SLP goes on to state that:

With the establishment of a system of production-for-use, labor-time vouchers, which the workers may exchange for goods and services, will take the place of money.

Accordingly, under Socialism the worker will receive a labor-time voucher from his union showing that he has worked a certain number of hours. This time voucher will enable him to withdraw from the social store as much as he contributed to it, after the necessary deductions are made for replacement of wornout equipment, expansion of production, schools, parks, public health etc. [21]

An economy based on labor-vouchers would, in effect, be a non-socialist society: first, because the law of value would still exist, measuring the worth of labour input and allowing certain amounts of goods and services to be used on the basis of equivalent value (no mention is made of those who do not work); second, because the limitations of access to the common store by means of vouchers could easily lead to the circulation of vouchers, which would be in effect monetary circulation; and finally, because the absence of free access on the basis of self-defined needs and self-restraint (where materially necessary) imposes a form of economic alienation which is incompatible with the freedom of a non-exchange society sought by socialists. As early as 1918 the SLP (in Scotland) published Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme under the title of The Socialist Programme. In that work Marx makes the case for the use of labour vouchers in the very early days of socialism, but points out that 'these defects' will be transcended when 'the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly'. [22] The case for the immediate abolition of the law of value and its monetary expression is argued by the SPGB, which rejects the relevance of Marx's ideas about labour vouchers, [23] while the SLP (no longer active in Britain, but still existing in the USA) persists in advocating a form of 'socialism' without free access. It must be emphasised that the SLP's abuse of the concept of socialism is more serious than that of the Socialist League, for in the latter case it was at least proposed that labour vouchers would exist only in the brief transition period, while the SLP sees a need for such a rationing system within the period that Morris might have called 'complete socialism'.

Having criticised the SLP on one crucial point, it can still be said that it and other DeLeonists have made an outstanding contribution during the course of the century to propaganda in favour of the abolition of class monopoly and wage labour. Between 1903 and 1917, in addition to its very limited success in the creation of socialist trade unions, the SLP in Britain did valuable work in providing basic Marxist education for workers. After the Bolshevik coup d'état of 1917 one section of the SLP turned enthusiastically to Bolshevism (even though they were criticised by Lenin for taking Bolshevik propaganda at its face value [24]), while those who rejected the Bolshevik tactics maintained a dwindling party in Britain until quite recently. Today in the USA the DeLeonist movement has split in different directions, with journals like The Socialist Republic and The Industrial Unionist, as well as The People, published by the SLP, providing valuable analyses of the class struggle.


In June 1904 the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which it has not since changed. In September of that year the first issue of the Socialist Standard was published and th Object and Declaration of principles have appeared in every monthly issue since then - not a single month's publication having ever been missed, despite the difficult circumstances of two world wars and frequent financial crises. Consistency has been the hallmark of the SPGB - a persistence of outlook which has infuriated, intrigued and won respect from those aware of it. The ideas of the Party have travelled: parties in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and Ireland, groups in Austria, Sweden and France, and active supporters as far apart as Jamaica, India and Hong Kong hold tight not only to the principles of the Party (which refers to itself internationally as the World Socialist Movement), but also to a certain political style which steers an unsteady course between uncompromising clarity and doctrinaire intolerance.

The Object shared by the SPGB and the other parties and groups of the World Socialist Movement does not tell us in much detail what they stand for:

The establishment of 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.

Nor do the eight principles offer great help in outlining the non-market socialist aim: in Clause 3 the points made in the Object are repeated in different words; Clause 4 makes it clear that socialist emancipation will be 'without distinction of race or sex' (an advanced proposition for 1904); and Clause 8 refers to 'comfort', 'equality' and 'freedom' as being benefits to be gained in socialism. The SPGB has traditionally shaed Marx's caution about devising utopian blueprints for socialism. None the less, much more has been said and written by SPGB-style impossibilists about socialism than is to be found in the Object and Principles. In his 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto, published in 1951, M. J. Panicker explains that:

Socialism is a universal system of society where there will be no buying and selling. Consequently all institutions which are now functioning only for the running of this buying and selling will disappear. Money, banks, insurance companies and several other institutions will disappear. All the resources of the world, the means and instruments of wealth production and social services necessary to the sustenance of mankind will be held in common by the whole people of the community as you and I breathe air or drink water. All the people will happily work and they will have free access to their needs. Each and everyone will determine his own needs. [25]

Panicker has spent years advocating these ideas in India. It is accepted by all SPGB-impossibilists that socialism will entail the immediate ending of the capital/wage-labour relationship:

there can be no wages system. Wages, of course, mean that somebody is working for somebody else - they imply rich and poor, two classes. To talk of wages under socialism is ridiculous. [26]

Similarly, it is seen as being ridiculous to speak of the existence of money in a society of common ownership. In 1943 two chemists by the name of Phillips and Renson (writing under the name of Philoren) wrote an excellent book introducing the idea of socialism (without using the term socialism) entitled Money Must Go; in it they argued that:

What I do propose is, that the whole system of money and exchange, buying and selling, profit-making and wage-earning should be entirely abolished and that instead, the community as a whole should organise and administer the production of goods for use only, and the free distribution of these goods to all the members of the community according to each person's needs. [27]

What about the state? Long before widespread nationalisation took place in Britain, the SPGB had pointed out 'how little difference there is from the workers' point of view between State capitalism and private capitalism, whether under a Conservative or a Labour government'. [28] According to the SPGB, socialism will be a stateless society:

The State, which is an organisation composed of soldiers, policemen, judges, and gaolers charged with enforcing the law, is only needed in class society, for in such societies there is no community of interest, only class conflict. The purpose of government is to maintain law and order in the interests of the dominant class. It is in fact an instrument of class oppression. In Socialism there will be no classes and no in-built class conflicts . . . . The phrase 'socialist government' is a contradiction in terms. Where there is Socialism there is no government and where there is government there is no Socialism. [29]

A distinction between government and democratic administration is made. The SPGB has tended to refrain from extensive speculation about the precise organisation of the stateless society, pointing out that such decisions must be made by those establishing socialism, in accordance, no doubt, with ideas and plans formulated in the course of the revolutionary process. Many different kinds of bodies might be used by the inhabitants of socialist society:

there is intrinsically nothing wrong with institutions where delegates assemble to parley (Parliaments, congresses, diets or even so-called soviets). What is wrong with them today is that such parliaments are controlled by the capitalist class. Remove class society and the assemblies will function in the interest of the whole people> [30]

Advocates of soviets or council communism will note that their insistence upon how socialism would have to be organised is not ruled out by the SPGB. The point emphasised is that those establishing socialism will be free to determine the nature of its administration. Of course, such a decision will not be based upon utopian fancy, but will have to accord with the historical circumstances existing at the time of the revolution:

The basis of industrial organisation and administration will start from the arrangements existing under Capitalism at the time of the transformation, and this will present no difficulties because the Socialist movement will already be thoroughly international, both in outlook and practical organisation. As far as the machinery of organisation and administration is concerned, it will be local, regional, national and international, evolvong out of existing forms. [31]

The quotations given demonstrate clearly that the essential features of non-market socialism are advocated unequivocally by the SPGB and those sharing its principles. One does not have to search long to find within such literature clear and simple statements of what socialism means. Indeed, one strength of impossibilist literature is its tendency to get to the point. Perhaps at the cost of being repetitive - and after eighty years that is forgivable - the SPGB remembers (usually at least) to address itself to the uninitiated who do not want to read about one hundred new positions before they have been told the facts of life. Poets write stirring poetry and philosophers polemicise well, but it takes a straight talker to deliver a plain and urgent message; even its enemies have never accused the SPGB of being other than straight talkers.


Two political terms which are important in explaining the SPGB position are Consciousness and Democracy. This is because of the particular emphasis placed by the impossibilists upon the inseparability of means and ends. If socialism is to be a society in which the conditions of life 'hitherto dominating humanity now pass under the dominion and control of humanity, which now the first time becomes the real conscious master of its own social organization', [32] then such a system is not to be created by minority imposition. The SPGB insists, therefore, that majority socialist consciousness is a prerequisite for socialism. The task of spreading socialist understanding and desire is not to be evaded, even though:

the faint-hearted may shy away, aghast at the prospect of trying to convince the world's workers of the need for Socialism. It may seem an enormous task but there is no choice in the matter. Socialism . . . depends upon the conscious support of its people. Unless people understand Socialism and want it, they will nevr establish it. [33]

This socialist consciousness requires workers to experience 'a process of complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.' [34] Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind - but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation. Two points can be made here about the SPGB and the recruitment of members - a subject about which there are more than a few myths. First, while it is true that the SPGB will not allow a person to join it until the applicant has convinced the branch applied to that she or he is a conscious socialist, this does not mean that the SPGB has set itself up as an intellectual elite into which only those well versed in Marxist scholarship may enter. The SPGB has good reason to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Second, the SPGB does not claim that socialist consciousness will come to dominate the working-class outlook simply, or even largely, as a result of the activity of socialists. As the Socialist Party of Australia puts it:

if we hoped to achive Socialism ONLY by our propaganda, the outlook would indeed be bad. But it is capitalism itself, unable to solve crises, unemployment and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars, which is digging its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning very slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process. [35]

This contrasts with those who seek to substitute he party for the class or who see the party as a vanguard which must undertake alone the sectarian task of leading the witless masses forward into the next stage of history.

According to the SPGB, the revolution must be a democratic act. Political action must be taken by the conscious majoirty, without depending upon leadership:

it is upon the working class that the working class must rely for their emancipation. Valuable work may be done by individuals, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to individuals, either of the working class or of the capitalist class, that the toilers must look. The movement for freedom must be a working class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation for them. [36]

This brings us to the controversial question of how the independent, conscious, democratically organised working class will establish socialism. To say - as many superficial critics and vague advocates of the SPGB have - that the SPGB stands for 'socialism through parliament' or 'parliamentary socialism' is misleadingly incomplete. When Alex Anderson, the great orator of the SPGB's first years, was tackled by a syndicalist with the question, 'Does the SPGB really propose to establish socialism through the ballot box?', his reply was 'Yes, but more importantly we must win it through the brain box.' This linking of the conquest of state power with the concept of a consciously and democratically organised working-class majority, even if regarded as strategically incorrect, must be distinguished from the reformist parliamentarianism of those who, in the name of 'socialism', seek to enter parliament for other purposes than to express the majority mandate formally to abolish class rule. Engels rightly points out that the conquest of state power will be the final act of the working class; [37] the significance of such political action may be ignored by those within the 'anarchist tradition', but in the historical future it might be ignored at a tragic cost. Whatever may be thought of the SPGB's case for the working class, in the course of the socialist revolution, sending mandated delegates to parliament as well as organising industrially to keep production going, it is clearly those who insist that ballot boxes and parliaments can play no part in the establishment of socialism and assert that socialism can only be established via industrial organisation alone, who are being dogmatic and historically fetishised in their thinking about revolution.

The non-dogmatic impossibilist position on the relationship between parliament and the socialist revolution was best summed up by William Morris:

I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep 'Society' alive. [38]


In considering the strengths and weaknesses of the SPGB's impossibilism, one is forced to conclude that these characteristics are not politically separable: that which in one sense manifests itself as a strength appears from another angle as a weakness. Therefore, the temptation to list the 'good' and 'bad' points of impossibilism will be avoided and this chapter will conclude with general observations which are intended to assist the readers in deciding the strengths and weaknesses of impossibilism.

The first feature which distinguishes the SPGB from other non-market socialist traditions considered in other chapters is its endurance over eighty years in a single organisation. In short, we are not just examining an intellectual tradition, but can observe the tradition as being contained within an essentially unchanged political party for a far longer period than any other concept of non-market socialism has survived organisationally. Thousands of workers in Britain have at some time been members of the SPGB and today, with a membership of 600, the Party has quite tangible support from many more workers than that. If one turns to the Socialist Standard of 1904 one can read basically the same analysis of capitalism and statements about socialism as would be found in 1934 or 1984. There are some who would see such consistency as a strength and others who would regard such a record of unaltered social perception as a serious weakness. As an example of the former, the SPGB propagandist of the late 1970s, arguing against the reformism of the 'Right to Work' Campaign and pointing out that full employment cannot be created by governments and even if it could such a condition amounts tto no more than the right to be exploited, is able to argue with even greater credibility when he or she can point to the Socialist Standard editorial of November 1904 in which precisely the same argument is presented. Having existed long enough to have seen the possibilists' 'somethings now' burst to life and vanish into disillusion more times than the reformists care to remember, the SPGB has served as an observation post, charting the failed short-cuts of reformist history and storing them up for reference when the next possibilist rushes into the capitalist slaughter-house loaded with promises for the cattle.

The record of accurate prediction and sound analysis for which the SPGB can claim credit is an impressive one. Before 1906, when the Labour Party was founded, the reformist nature of that political movement was predicted. In 1914, when 'socialists' across the world succumbed to the temptation of national chauvinism and supported the imperialist war, the SPGB stood out in unqualified opposition to the war, producing at the time probably the finest anti-war manifesto ever to be published in English. [39] In 1918, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized state power in Russia, the SPGB presented a Marxist analysis of the 'revolution' which foresaw its state capitalist outcome. [40] In the 1920s, the SPGB was virtually the only British contender for the theory of Marxism against its Leninist distorters within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In 1926, the SPGB predicted that syndicalism, or trade-union militancy without conscious political action, was doomed to failure. In 1939, another world capitalist war was exposed as being nothing like a 'war for democracy' and was opposed[41] and, subsequently, the bogus socialism of Labour government nationalisation and welfare reform policies was predicted and charted.[42] It has been, in one sense, an impressive record of predicting historical failures: national liberation, CND, environmentalism, charities - the SPGB warned them all that, even on their own terms, these possibilist movements would end up faced with frustration.

A record of being right about the futility of other people's hopes and energetic actions has led to the conclusion on the part of many reformists that the SPGB is somehow opposed to improvements within capitalism. It would not be unfair to state that this misconception has been accepted by a few SPGBers themselves. A. E. Jacomb, writing in the October 1905 Socialist Standard, explains well the position of the impossibilist worker:

I claim it as a fundamental truth that the object of every Socialist, as a Socialist, is the realisation of Socialism alone. As a husband, as a father, as a human animal, he has many other interests . . . but in his Socialist position none. As a man he may favour palliatives, the feeding and clothing and comforting of the destitute and suffering, but as a Socialist such matters are of interest only so far as they affect the attainment of his objective.

This distinction cannot be more than 'an abstract separation' (as Jacomb goes on to concede), but it is a necessary one for those less interested in short-term concessions than fundamental transformation. The SPGB states that it is opposed to reformism, but not to reforms.

The price of long-term persistence and validity of argument has had to be paid by the SPGB. Although many possibilists have a definite respect for the endurance and soundness of their impossibilists rivals, whom they would regard as being theoretically correct but practically unrealistic (an absurdly illogical conclusion), there are other possibilists who find few labels more contemptible than SPGB. This hostility was not unknown before the 1920s, when parties like the SDF and ILP devoted more words to attacking the SPGB than the Party's small size deserved. But it was in the 1920s, when the CPGB's Leninist mission began, that the organised attacks upon the SPGB commenced. By the 1930s, CPGB policy was to break up SPGB public meetings and CPGB members were actually instructed by their leaders not to speak to SPGBers lest they be tempted to believe the SPGB's 'propaganda' about the state capitalist tyranny of the Stalinist regime. When, in the 1940s, the West Ham branch of the SPGB invited the local CPGB to engage in a debate, they were told that 'The Communist Party has NO dealings with murderers, liars, renegades or assassins' who must be treated as 'vipers, to be destroyed'. [43] After the Second World War. CPGB union bureaucrats conducted a vicious campaign to oust from trade union positions SPGBers who had refused to do their 'patriotic duty' in the war. The legacy of anti-SPGB slander has been slow to die, and it is common to meet Leninists even today who will repeat their intellectual predecessors' resentful attacks upon the party that would not fall in line with Stalinism; such prejudice is all the more tragic/comic when it is considered that many of the anti-impossibilist young Leninists of today are Trotskyists who are repeating - now that it is fashionable to do so - many of the arguments against Stalinism which were put by the SPGB half a century ago.

One does not want to paint a picture of the SPGB as the offended innocent, treated with hostility without cause. It must be remembered that the SPGB's Principles commit it 'to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist'. [44] This it has done without compromise and, at times, without making the necessary distinction between hostility of principle and of style. The SPGB has made clear that it is opposed to those so-called socialists, communist, Marxists and radicals who would appear to be its allies, and in so doing it has gained a reputation - largely, but not wholly undeserved - for a certain sectarianism. This latter characteristic has been stronger at different times in the Party's history, depending largely upon the outlooks of the most active organisers and propagandists in a particular period.

Another problem arising from the SPGB's longevity is that of credibility. After more than three-quarters of a century, a party calling upon the working class 'to muster under its banner to the ned that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system' [45] is open to the accusation that, as the workers have not yet mustered and the termination has thus far been less than speedy, there must be something wrong with its policy. Of course, the reasonable historical answer to this is that lack of numerical support does not disprove the validity of a proposition. But, as the years have passed, cynics and empiricists have been able to contemplate with complacency the negative historical confirmation of their lack of hope for the SPGB's success.

The second concluding observation to be made about impossibilism, which can be seen either as a strength or a weakness, depending upon one's perspective, is that it has held tight to the basic tenets of Marxist theory. Indeed, two comments are made frequently about the SPGB: first, that if nothing else it possesses a fine knowledge of Marxism and plays a major role in spreading such knowledge; second, that the SPGB represents an orthodox, purist version of Marxism which has remained remarkably close to that which was revolutionary in the thinking of the theory's founders. The study of Marx's writings was frowned upon in Hyndman's SDF - the ex-Etonian demagogue thought that SDF members would do better to study his books - and it was partly as a result of organising unauthorised Marxist economics classes that the young Jack Fitzgerald was hounded out of the SDF. From its inception the SPGB placed great emphasis upon the study and propagation of political economy. Indeed, it is the political link between the Marxist theory of value and profit and the revolutionary implication that class exploitation can only be ended by the abolition of wage labour which provided the most forceful theoretical justification of the SPGB's aim. SPGB propagandists, especially in the early years , placed great emphasis upon the concept of legalised robbery: the robber class and the robbed. Possibilists were forced to defend their palliative policies in terms of adjusting the operation of class robbers. In recent years, since many 'Marxists' have rejected economic determinism ( a dogma which Marx and Engels were at pains to dismiss), it has become fashionable for 'Marxist humanists' to understate the significance of Marxist political economy. The SPGB has not followed this trend; it is still expected that official SPGB speakers should have a comprehensive knowledge of Marxist economic theory before they take the platform on behalf of the Party.

Whilst the SPGB has not failed to make clear those matters upon which it disagrees with Marx, some of which are far from peripheral, [46] its presentation of its ideas as Marxist has led to many difficulties. These are mainly difficulties faced by any Marxist in the twentieth century who does not want to be associated with the opportunists and tyrants who claim to be following in the Marxist tradition. The extent to which modern Marxists can rescue themselves from such awkward intellectual associations depends to a great extent upon whether Leninism can be regarded as part of, or in opposition to, the essential principles of Marxism. The impossibilists have devoted much energy to demonstrating the extent to which Marxism and Leninism are opposed to each other. [47] If such an interpretation is accepted, then the state ideologies of the modern 'communist' police states can be seen as Leninist, but not Marxist.

Like any theory, Marxism is open to dogmatic abuse, and, although impossibilist writers and speakers have tended generally to treat Marxist theory with a proper degree of critical reasoning, examples of Marxist dogmatism are certainly to be found sprinkled throughout the recorded history of impossibilist propaganda. But, despite the very real dangers of theoretical dogmatism, a distinction must be observed between the intellectual conviction which is a product of a theoretically defensible Marxist positivism, and the religious adjustment of social perception to fit in which dogma which is the product of a mind which has descended from reason to belief.

The third noteworthy point about the impossibilists - which is not unrelated to the origin of the SPGB within the English autodidactic tradition - is their tendency to argue in accordance with the strict standards of formal logic and empirical proof. Although such an admission would be regarded by certain European 'Marxists' as a confession of philosophical deficiency, impossibilists have always been suspicious of philosophical formulae and have never been impressed by the dialectical gymnastics of the fluid logicians, whose sophistication of thought is usually regarded as a refined front for evasion and confusion. [48] The impossibilists have always preferred clear-cut definitions, quotations, statistics, and logically comprehensible deductions to the methodological abstractions against which E.P. Thompson has written persuasively. [49]

Of course, it may be commented by critics that the price of impossibilist simplicity has been over-simplification. Faced with the choice between abstruse detail and simplification which may lack theoretical refinement, the impossibilists have erred in the right direction by opting in general for comprehensibility, even if it is occasionally at the expense of sophistication.

This concern for comprehensible propagandism is at the very root of the impossibilists' conception of their revolutionary mission. Always identifying their role within an activist, rather than contemplative, context, the impossibilists have seen their purpose, in the words of William Morris, as being 'to make socialists'. And when all the grandness of revolutionary rhetoric is brushed aside, it is, at the end of the day, the worker putting the case for the abolition of wage labour to her mates during the lunch break, the man on the soapbox who is cultivating new social visions in the imaginations of his listeners, the man who is known in his local pub as the fellow who is always talking about a world without money - it is these who are doing the real work of giving their fellow workers a taste of the impossible. When the taste turns into a hunger it will be time for those who need socialism to show, in ways which will ultimately be determined by them, that they posses the 'courage and strength to realise the impossible. [50]


[1] Prolétaire 19 November 1881 (emphasis in the original).

[2] Aaron Noland, The Founding of the French Socialist Party, 1893-1905 (New York: Fertig, 1970) p. 13. I would not regard Guesde, Lafargue and the other French 'impossibilists' as impossibilists in the sense in which the term is used in this chapter.

[3] Rochdale Labour News, October 1896.

[4] Stephen Coleman, 'The Origin and Meaning of the Political Theory of Impossibilism', unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1984). See also Chushichi Tsuzuki, 'The Impossibilist Revolt in Britain', International Review of Social History, 1 (1956). Tsuzuki's article, whilst being very acceptable as a work of narrative scholarship, places less emphasis upon the intellectual conflict between possibilism and impossibilism than does my own study.

[5] T.A Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1953) p.66.

[6] Circular statement issued by impossibilists within the SDF in May 1904. I possess a copy of this document.

[7] Socialist Standard, September 1907.

[8] See 'Who Are the Impossibilists?', Socialist Standard, November 1912.

[9] Coleman, 1984, ch. 6. See also Stephen Coleman, 'What Can We Learn From William Morris?', Journal of the William Morris Society, VI (summer 1985) pp. 12-15.

[10] H. M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (London: Macmillan, 1912) p. 2.

[11] 'Art and Socialism', in Collected Works of William Morris, vol. XXIII (London: Longman, 1910-15) p. 208.

[12] Manifesto of the Socialist League, reproduced in E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977) appendix 1. Also reproduced in Socialist Standard, July 1985.

[13] True and False Society (Socialist League, 1888) pp. 16-17.

[14] 'The Society of the Future', in A. L. Morton, Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973) p. 201.

[15] William Morris, News From Nowhere (London: Routledge, 1970) p. 31.

[16] Ibid, p. 78 (emphasis in the original).

[17] Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge, 1936) pp. 176-7 (emphasis in the original).

[18] See Morris's and E. Belfort Bax's Notes on the Manifesto of the Socialist League, in Thompson, 1977, p. 738.

[19] See Adam Buick, 'William Morris and Incomplete Communism: a Critique of Paul Meier's Thesis', Journal of the William Morris Society III (summer 1976) pp. 16-32.

[20] See his Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. III (Moscow: Progress, 1970) pp. 9-30; and proposed policies listed at the end of the second section of The Communist Manifesto, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. VI (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976) p. 505.

[21] Socialism: Questions Most Frequently Asked and Their Answers (New York: Socialist Labor Party, 1975) p. 20.

[22] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. III, p. 19.

[23] See the articles by A. Buick and P. Lawrence in The World Socialist, 2 (autumn 1984).

[24] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. XXXI (Moscow: Progress, 1966) pp. 77ff.

[25] M. J. Panicker, 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto (London: Panicker, 1951) p. 66.

[26] Socialism or Chaos (Melbourne/Sydney: Socialist Party of Australia, no date) p. 19

[27] Philoren, Money Must Go (London: J. Phillips, 1943) p. 16.

[28] Socialist Standard, April 1930. See also Nationalisation or Socialism? (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1945).

[29] Questions of the Day (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1978) pp. 97-98.

[30] Socialist Principles Explained (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) p. 15.

[31] Socialist Standard, February 1939.

[32] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Language press, 1976) p. 366.

[33] The Case For Socialism (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1962) p. 42.

[34] Socialist Standard, September 1980.

[35] Socialism or Chaos, p. 35.

[36] The Socialist Party - Its Principles and Policy (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1934) pp. 22-3.

[37] Engles, Anti-Dühring p. 362

[38] Letter to Dr J. Glasse, 23 May 1887, in R. Page Arnot, William Morris: the Man and the Myth (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964) p. 82.

[39] Reprinted in The Socialist Party and War (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1970) pp. 60-2.

[40] See Socialist Standard, August 1918. For detailed analysis of the SPGB's response to the Bolshevik coup, see Coleman, 1984, ch. 5.

[41] The SPGB's statement on the Second World War is reprinted in The Socialist Party and War, pp. 62-4.

[42] See Beveridge Re-Organises Poverty (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943), and Family Allowances: a Socialist Analysis (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943).

[43] Socialist Standard, May 1943.

[44] Declaration of Principles, clause 8.

[45] Ibid, clause 8.

[46] For example, the SPGB does not endorse Marx's ideas regarding struggles for national liberation, minimum reform programmes, labour vouchers, the lower stage of communism. On some of these points, the SPGB does not reject what Marx advocated in his own time, but rejects their applicability to revolutionaries now; on the other points, the SPGB approaches social problems from a different angle from adopted by Marx. There are, of course, other issues (not listed above) upon which the SPGB might appear to be at variance with Marx, but is in fact only disputing distortions of Marx's thinking.

[47] See Lenin Distorts Marx (Victoria: Socialist Party of Canada, 1979).

[48] See The Socialist Party of Great Britain and Historical Materialism {London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) ch. 7 on 'Dialectical Materialism', pp. 39-48.

[49] E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory London: Merlin, 1978). See title essay.

[50] A quotation from the anabaptist Thomas Müntzer in Mannheim, 1936, p. 192.


Many of the Socialist Party of the Great Britain pamphlets and Socialist Standard articles that are cited in the article can be found at the following link.

The following chapters from Rubel and Crump's book can be found on the internet:

  • Anarcho-Communism by Alain Pengam (this version of the article does not include the end notes that appeared in Rubel and Crump's book).
  • Council Communism by Mark Shipway
  • Bordigism by Adam Buick