September 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard
This is probably the one question asked most frequently of the Socialist Party. It is usually put with that air of pathetic finality indicating the questioner’s fond belief that this settles the matter and closes the discussion.
The answer is always truthful. Unlike the CP and other parties, the Socialist Party has never tried to cook the books or made any secret of it. Indeed, it has never made a secret of anything. All its proceedings and deliberations are in public; under the constant supervision of the members, and therefore — the working class. The answer, published at every Annual Conference, is less than 1,000. Yes! one thousand.
This answer usually convulses the average Labour Party supporters (including the “lefties”). Holding his shaking sides, he rolls about in uncontrollable mirth and gasps, between hoots of hysterical laughter: “What! One thousand! (or 800 — or 925.5) — in seventy years? !” This is followed by “It doesn’t work,” or “There you are then,” or some similar earth-shattering observation.
Funnily enough, when the inescapable logic of this superficial approach is put to him, he usually quickly renounces his previously-expressed view. It must be realized, by any thinking worker, that if the main criterion of the validity of a policy is the number of supporters it attracts, then the Tories over the past twenty years are the most “right”, with the largest vote.
Now our Labour man is in a cleft stick, for not only can he not concede that the Tories (or Hitler) were “right” because they had a majority; but the number of supporters ebb and flow. New parties arise, which win votes away from old ones. In fact, if this were the only idea that motivated any left-winger, it would be almost impossible to vote at all — so difficult is it today to know which Party will gain the most votes. (This also shows that electors do not automatically vote for majorities.)
It is therefore evident that the strictures on the Socialist Party for being numerically small are really a back-handed way of attacking its Socialist principles. Apart from that, the “criticism” betrays a woeful ignorance of social evolution.
Why do political parties change? If the party with the largest membership is always right, there can never be any change — but there always is. The answer is to be found in the Socialist conception, or view, of history.
New parties arise from new ideas. New ideas arise from new economic, and therefore new social conditions. The rise of trade unions is an example. As soon as the methods of production crammed workers together in thousands, their organization was inevitable; as was the organization of Labour parties to press their case in Parliament. Another example is the changed attitude to black people when they become wage-slaves instead of chattel-slaves.
The founding of an independent Socialist Party is itself the result of advancing capitalism. As Geo. Plekhanov says in In Defence of Materialism: “The psychology of society adapts itself to its economy”. There can be little doubt that Plekhanov was absolutely definite that Socialism required first a change in working-class “psychology”, or outlook:
In essence, this is the very psychological process which the proletariat of Europe is now going through; its psychology is already adapting itself to the new future relations of production.(Ibid.)
The new idea, arising out of the new conditions, rarely if ever seizes a majority (or even a large number) immediately. By its very nature, it only reaches a small handful at the outset. This applies not only to politics but to all thought. The deeper, more fundamental the proposition — the longer it takes to spread.
The left-wing reformist, measuring the growth of the Socialist Party’s membership with a Labour Party yardstick, is bewildered. Not realizing that the whole method of the Labour Party is to get quick votes — at any price — he compares, say, the Labour Party campaigning for old-age pensions (which gets immediate mass support) with the Socialist Party which doesn’t even mention pensions.
Not appreciating the difference between Socialism and social reform, he cannot understand that the very fact that some temporary reform demand shoots into the sky with the flash of a rocket (merely to drop sadly back to earth in a feeble puff of smoke, like the erstwhile CND campaign) betrays its ephemeral, superficial nature. Socialism is not “around the corner”, but at the end of a long straight road. The process of educating workers to adjust correctly to changing capitalism attracts and trains the pioneers of the new society — the Socialists.
Though the actual number on roll is small, the ideas this handful represents are so immensely powerful as to be ultimately invincible. They are in line with social evolution — the future. Every member of the Party is proud to be among those in the very forefront of the organized struggle for Socialism. They know that one Socialist counts for more than thousands of Left confusionists.
Millions waste time and energy on futile reforms, hundreds concentrate on what matters — Socialism. One practical step YOU can take is to join the Socialist Party and work actively for it. But do realize that admission to membership depends on your knowledge of the Party’s case. This keeps the Party temporarily small, but also keeps it right.
You too can become part of that mighty atom the Socialist Party: the tiny forerunner of that countless army which will eventually decide the destiny of humanity.