Book Review from the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party by David A. Perrin. Bridge Books, Wrexham, 2000.
By any standards, a key publication in the long history of the Socialist Party. It attempts to correct some of the “glaring errors [made] by serious analysts”, to illuminate the SPGB's “unique analysis of events in the 20th century¸ and to record the development of “distinctive arguments on a wide range of subjects”. It succeeds quite admirably in all these enterprises.
The focus is not so much a history of the SPGB, as “a history of ideas which members used to debate and orate”. The book's elegantly written 200-odd pages are thus not a record of the SPGB as a political organisation, nor yet are they about party members per se. Rather Perrin has written about the key ideas that underpinned the Party's formation in 1904, and the way these ideas have been elaborated and extended in the light of Marxian theory across the best part of 100 years. The book is also written from the perspective of a professional political scientist who is also a Party member. Not surprisingly therefore the assembled evidence which is quoted in support of its analysis is impressive, and this lends persuasive weight and authority to its conclusions. As someone who recently found himself writing a modest project on the history of the Second World War, I can confirm that historians have, for whatever reason, largely ignored the Party's distinctive contribution to ideas. This book will help to put the record straight.
All but one of the chapters examine the “genesis of eight specific contributions that it [the SPGB] has made to the development of Marxian theory”. There are chapters on: Reform or Revolution?; The First World War; Russia and State Capitalism; Economic Crises and the “Collapse of Capitalism”; Fascism, Democracy and the Second World War; The Welfare State; Keynes and Inflation; and Socialist Planning.
Each chapter follows the same essential, easy-to-follow format. The nature of the challenge is described, the SPGB's position is established and compared with that of other conflicting political positions, and the development of the Party's position over time in the light of Marxian theory is described. The writing is informed, as all good history writing should be, with the feeling that the author was present at the time and as such is able to describe events sensitively and accurately. I found the narrative thread always easy to follow, the nature of the discourse persuasive, and the conclusions reached compelling. But the text is demanding. This is not the kind of book you can skip through. On the contrary its seriousness and attention to detail demand the kind of close scrutiny which is, necessarily, typical of an academic text. I found myself reading only one chapter at a sitting, and then spending a lot of time afterwards reflecting about what I had read. But the rewards are immense, and they are also profound. Some, at least, deserve elaboration.
First, although familiar with the Party's position on reformism, war, state capitalism, the Welfare State, and so on, I wasn't as clear as I now am about how these positions had been established. I now see more comprehensively how, through time, the Party's unique stance has been slowly refined and extended in the light of experience, and by reference to Marxian theory. Reading the book has been a powerful and enriching educational experience.
Second, it is a hugely reassuring experience. At the end of each chapter I was left with the warm and comfortable feeling that the position taken by the Party was in a very substantial sense “right”. True, the rightness might not be absolute,. It might—as perhaps the Party's attitude as to why post-war governments resorted to currency inflation seems to suggest—be in need of further refining. But then this is in the nature of things. Scientific explanations, as someone once put it, are like Ford Model Ts. In time they wear out, and need updating.
Third, I am filled with admiration for the writers and speakers, the Conference delegates and the membership generally, who have collectively demonstrated that Marx provided us with more than just a body of material evidence and theoretical propositions. That, crucially, he also left us with a methodology—a methodology which allows us to go on refining our knowledge of the world in the light of new evidence, and adjusting our explanations accordingly. Each of the eight chapters demonstrates the extent of the Party's admirable responsiveness to change, and the way it has, in general, successfully used Marxian theory to develop intellectual and practical positions which were not anticipated by Marx, and occasionally—as, for example, in its attitude to “progressive” wars—actually ran counter to Marx's beliefs. This is not a picture—as some of the Party's opponents would have people believe—of a political party whose stance is dated and set in stone, but quite the reverse. The evidence shows that the SPGB has remained for the most part dynamic and alive, and true to its materialist, scientific lights, across the best part of 100 years. As I read the book I found myself feeling proud to belong to an organisation whose members have remained—in spite of all the many disappointments and difficulties, to say nothing of the personal dangers and social disadvantages—so dedicated to the continuing cause of socialism. I suspect that nothing is likely to fire younger members of the Party with resolve and personal commitment than this inspiring testament to the hard work, wit and wisdom of comrades, most long since dead.
Fourth, I was struck by the many occasions when the Party's position was articulated in authoritative articles in the Socialist Standard, and the way in which the Party's internal democracy, albeit frequently based upon no more than informal contacts and discussion, ensured that only very rarely were such statements out of kilter with what the membership as a whole thought and believed. For example “the first detailed analysis of the Russian situation appeared in the August 1918 Socialist Standard under the heading “The Revolution in Russia, Where it Fails”. Imagine. A considered response which the whole Party found acceptable in but a year. And again, in an elegant article in August 1933 Hardy showed that the “Collapse of Capitalism” theory was based on a failure to differentiate between markets for “consumer” and “producer” goods, although this distinction had not previously been the subject of public comment by the Party.
The last chapter is different. In it Perrin offers a series of measured conclusions about the Party's present stance, and details some “potential difficulties looming for the SPGB and its revolutionary strategy”. The style at this point, as elsewhere, is critical in the best Marxist tradition. The author is a member of the Socialist Party but he is not going to compromise his historical insights with an unquestioning loyalty to the Party. He concludes that:
"The main purpose of this work has been to demonstrate what became ever more apparent during the research, that far from being a moribund sect obsessed with political minutiae, bygone theories and traditions, the SPGB is rather more of a living organism than many of its detractors have assumed. Above all, it has proved capable of responding to events in an imaginative and distinctive measure while still holding true to its fundamental principles, derived in large part from classical Marxism of the nineteenth century."
Few members of the Socialist Party would probably criticise this, even if some might want to celebrate the Party's achievements more fulsomely, but the rest of the chapter is, of its nature, potentially much more contentious. In it Perrin notes that after a hundred years the Party seems “no nearer achieving socialism that it was in 1904”. He wonders why this is so, and he then enumerates some of the challenges which the Party is likely to have to face in the future if it is to be successful. He mentions:
- Problems arising from the conflict between “scrupulous democracy” and leadership.
- The effect of the absence of leaders on the Party's ability “to respond to the demands of the media”.
- The failure of the Party to address “why the working class hasn't yet mustered under its banner in any great numbers, or the related issue of what real incentive there is for them to do so”.
- The fact that the “SPGB often seems unsure about the precise role of the material interests of the working class in promoting a revolutionary outlook amongst workers”.
- The belief that the Party has work to do “on how future socialist society could be organised”. He mentions three matters of major concern: the problem of distribution; socialism and models of democracy; and “social compliance within socialism and how socialist society could deal with anti-social minorities in a fair and democratic manner”.
Some may find all this overly threatening. I find it richly stimulating. I don't see the challenges that face the Party entirely as Perrin does, and I also think he has neglected others that are arguably relevant. But I think it is quite marvellous that he should finish the book in this kind of open, discursive way. It seems entirely true to the traditions of the SPGB. The future calls and we must respond to it openly, honestly and seriously, using those insights and perspectives which the author has shown have served the Party so well over nearly a century.