Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Socialist Party (2000)

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:

  1. Problems arising from the conflict between “scrupulous democracy” and leadership.
  2. The effect of the absence of leaders on the Party's ability “to respond to the demands of the media”.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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.
Michael Gill

America land of the unfree (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The drive from the White House to radio station WAMU takes about 20 minutes and passes from the mansion provided as the presidential residence of a retired millionaire B-movie actor through some of the worst slums I have ever seen. It is hard to believe that human beings inhabit some of the squalid dwellings of downtown Washington DC. There are not supposed to be poor people in America: it said nothing about them in the brochure. This is the land of the affluent workers, isn't it? Richard Montague from Belfast, a city notorious for its slum areas sighed, "Now, this is what I call a ghetto," he said. "Worse than the slums we have at home". Eighty per cent of the population of the US capital city are black workers, mainly employed in the low-wage service industries, mainly housed in the kind of rotten conditions which the tourists do not go to see.

Sitting in the radio studio was Fred Fiske, presenter of Washington's most prestigious phone-in programme. A man given to talking a lot about "the genius of American capitalism", a bully with a reputation for putting callers straight - a bigot with a microphone. For two hours Montague and I debated the case for world socialism, repeatedly confronting the confusion and distortion of our host's capitalist tunnel-vision intellect. It was a good two hours: the man who was going to put us reds in our place was put in his place. At the end of the show, as we were leaving, the news came on: four people dead, 15 injured after a tenement building in the South Bronx of New York collapsed. Ah, the genius of American capitalism.

On the road from Washington to Charlottesville Virginia are dozens of caravans. Holiday homes for American workers seeking a break in the countryside? Not at all. These were the homes of families too poor to live anywhere but in run-down vans on the side of the road. As the recession hits the USA harder and unemployment rises in the cities, this is the fate of many an American worker.

Slums in America? Homeless in America? Can this be possible in the land of the free? Not according to Professor Bornhofen, an economist whom I had the pleasure of debating against in Michigan on the question, "Capitalism versus Socialism". In stating the case against capitalism I referred to workers too poor to afford shelter: 100,000 officially homeless in Britain and who knows how many more in the USA? With all the eloquence and erudition which one would expect from high-salaried apologist for the profit system, Bornhofen responded, "That's a lot of crap. Why, I doubt if there are more than a 1,000 homeless people in America." Well, if ignorance is bliss, Professor Bornhofen should have been one of the happiest men in Michigan that day.

No homeless workers in America —1,000 at the most? Let us turn to the rich oil state of Texas. According to figures published by the National Coalition for the Homeless there are 25,000 homeless people in Houston alone. The city devotes not a single dollar of taxes to building houses or providing for the homeless, the state of Texas is second only to Mississippi at the bottom of the league tables for state provision of social services. One newspaper reports the situation in the following terms:
In the chapel of downtown Houston's Star of Hope Mission sits a Saturday night congregation that is a cross-section of the city's hardcore homeless. Tired old men are here in mix-and-match clothing from the mission closet. While the physically disabled set their sights on lower bunks, the mentally disabled engage in long conversations with no one in particular. Here, too, are groups of lean young men only a few days out of the Texas Department of Corrections maximum security facility . . . A few men in their 30s—new to the streets and ill at ease—talk to no one. All need a meal and a place to sleep . . . The mission director reads from his list of randomly ordered numbers, and those remaining show their numbered bed-tickets and file out towards the 500-bed dorm. It's a place to sleep until breakfast call at 4.30a.m. In the huge converted warehouse the roof leaks and it's cold. Every man sleeps fully dressed. All of this, three meals and a bunk—offered by what is arguably the most generous men's shelter in the state—is provided without the expenditure of a single tax dollar. In Texas the homeless live off the kindness of strangers, not taxpayers. (In These Times, 8 April, 1987)
In Dallas, the city known in this country from the the TV soap opera in which everyone is either rich or very rich, there are 15,000 homeless people out of a population of one million. According to John Fullenwinder, the Dallas chairperson of the National Coalition for the Homeless, there were just under 43,000 forced-entry evictions in Dallas last year: a rate of 165 each working day. And that is just in two cities in one of the 50 states of the USA.

All of the other obscenities of working class poverty exist in the illusory land of the free, Even the so-called affluent American workers are now caught in the trap of unemployment. The US Department of Education has reported that 51 per cent of high school graduates not entering university are without a full-time job three years after graduation. Among 18-24 year-olds, the US Census Bureau has recorded a 50 per cent increase of those living in official poverty in the five years between 1979 and 1984. Not only are the poor becoming poorer but young workers who have been regarded as economically secure are moving ever more rapidly into the ranks of the officially poor.

Poverty in the USA breeds its own problems, not least of which is racism. When workers are being squeezed extra-hard so that the rich can get richer they soon turn on one another. Violence against American blacks has been on the increase, at the beginning of this year a gang of racists beat up three black men in the white suburb of New York called Howard Beach —one of the victims was murdered. In one area of New Orleans a sheriff has become a popular racist hero for threatening to arrest any blacks caught walking or riding through the white folks' town over which he presides. ("A New Racism", The Nation, 10 January 1987).

In the USA one per cent of the population own 40 per cent of all marketable wealth. That is 20 per cent more than they owned 20 years ago. In short, the super-rich are owning and controlling more and more and more. What they possess the overwhelming majority of Americans are excluded from possessing. The power of the capitalist majority is at the expense of the freedom of the wealth-producing majority to own and control the wealth which surrounds them. That is what capitalist freedom means: they own; we don't —they are few, we are many —they have privilege, we work like horses producing profits to feed that privilege. That is the freedom offered by "the land of the free".
Steve Coleman

Whatever happened to . . . the Socialist Workers' Republic? (1995)

From the January 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Up until a few years ago the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein placed considerable emphasis on the achievement of a "Socialist Workers' Republic", which nonsensical contradiction-in-terms they claimed as their objective. In Eira Nua (New Ireland), their policy document of 1971, they showed a remarkable ignorance of simple arithmetic by adding one form of capitalism to another form of capitalism and concluding that the answer was Socialism. Thus:

"In the drafting of this programme our aim has been to outline a social and economic system which would strike a balance between Western individualistic capitalism with its poor and hungry amid plenty on the right and Eastern Soviet state capitalism (or any of its variations) with its denial of freedom and human rights on the left." (Eira Nua, 1971, p4)

The reader of this nonsense, which was to be based on "Christian principles" of course, might construe it to mean that Sinn Fein/IRA, if it was victorious, intended to reward the working class of Ireland with a continuation of the "poor and hungry amid plenty" welded to a "denial of freedom and human rights'". Whatever it was supposed to mean, it had no association whatsoever  with Socialism.

In fact the republicans simply misused the term "socialist" as an emotive expression of their alleged concern for the working class - in imitation, it could said, of their hero, James Connolly, who while phrase-mongering about "socialism" became a military leader, a "General" no less, and led three hundred deprived and deceived workers out to fight for Irish capitalism.

The gun, the bomb and the "Socialist Workers' Republic" was ideological milk and honey to the armchair revolutionaries of the Left, especially in Britain. To the disparate groups of revolutionary romantics the IRA were "doers". The fact the volunteers were slaughtering other members of the working class and outdoing the Unionists in driving a wedge between workers - and all to reinforce the miserable capitalism we have including its eastern state form - was just another of the things that never occurred to the Left.

Enter Hume, the darling of the clergy and beloved of reactionary American capitalist politicians, bring in Reynolds and the southern gombeens. Even with bad arithmetic it is easy to see that this genteel gathering wields influence and power. New vistas! New drawing rooms where even the misuse of the term "socialist" would be somewhat . . . well . . . out of place.

With the same mental dexterity as the Armalite was abandoned in favour of politicking, so, too, has the nonsense about Socialism been abandoned in the interests of new friendships. The Left might feel betrayed - it's a cause hazard with them - but the feeling will not be as acute as it will be for those unfortunates who hoped that the Republican movement might do something to alleviate their working-class problems.
Richard Montague