1998 Is The Socialist Party Marxist?

The following piece is a transcript of a talk that was given at the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s 1998 Summer School, Marxism Revisited, which was held at Fircroft College in Birmingham, England. It is reproduced from the pamphlet of the same name.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in London on 12th June, 1904. 142 people signed the original document of formation of the party. Of those, not all of them were to remain inside the party. Over the course of more than ninety years, the party has stood for a single object and a set of principles which have made it a unique political organisation. It has been, to answer the question very directly at the outset, guided by a Marxist outlook throughout those nine decades. It is undoubtedly an organisation which, when the history of capitalism comes to be written in those better days when capitalism is a thing of the past, will be seen as the party which has pioneered and stood the ground of Marxist principles throughout its lifetime. But, while we are a Marxist party, we are not bound to Marx as a revolutionary deity, nor to Marxism as a dogmatic, fixed, immutable religion.

The Declaration of Principles of the Party are quintessentially Marxist. The principles start off by declaring that there are two antagonistic classes in society – not a multiplicity of classes, but two classes – those who produce but do not possess and those who possess through their ownership and control of the means of wealth production the power in society but do not have to produce.

The principles argue that only by the self-emancipation of the working class can socialism come about, exactly replicating the words that Marx used in his preamble to the Rules of the First International.

In the analysis of the state, or government, and the armed forces, the Declaration of Principles puts a clearly Marxian position. « They exist, » it says, « only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers. » And therefore the state itself is a property phenomenon. Once you get rid of property society, then you have the immediate abolition of the state.

One area of the declaration of principles which could conceivably be seen as in conflict with Marx’s own outlook about what a revolutionary party should do is the seventh clause of the eight clauses in the Declaration of Principles. « That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party. »

In the final principle, The Socialist Party goes on to say, « The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether allegedly labour or avowedly capitalist. »

Now, this stands in, at least apparent, contradistinction to Marx’s position about the role of communists as stated in the Communist Manifesto, where he said,

« The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They do not set up sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the working class movement. »

There are three readings of this apparent contradiction. One of them is that Marx was right and the Socialist Party is wrong; that you cannot, in fact, as a socialist movement stand outside of and, through your principles, distinct from the working class movement as it develops: the trade unions, the democratic changes or reforms, and so on. The other one is that the Socialist Party in its declaration of hostility to all other working class parties has advanced beyond the thinking of Marx in the 1840s, recognising the importance of an independent, uncompromising organisation that stands separate from those parties of the working class which are of but not for the working class.

There is a third reading of this (what I would suggest is a dialectical reading) that whilst Marx is quite right that it is not the job of socialists to set out sectarian principles, to see itself as separate from and superior to everything that is around it, it is also the case that the Socialist Party is right in the course of experience; that whilst one must avoid such sneering sectarianism (and the Socialist Party hasn’t always avoided it) you have in fact got to avoid the danger of being incorporated into every wrong-headed movement thrown up by a working class not yet conscious of its historical destiny.

The record of the Socialist Party speaks enormously well for the clarity of its commitment to Marxian thought. From the outset it rejected the Labour Party and, indeed, the social democratic parties that grew up in Europe claiming to have a mixture of socialist ultimate vision with immediate working within capitalism and that endless’ sordid quest for power within a system that always sucks the power seeker into the running of the exploitation system.

In relation to allegedly socialist revolutions and rebellions, the Socialist Party has had to take a cool, dispassionate look. As early as the beginning of 1918, in a quite superb and prescient article in the Socialist Standard on the events in Russia, a writer said, « Not unless a mental revolution of a kind never before seen in human history has occurred, could Russia, where the majority of people are illiterate peasants have established a socialist revolution. »

The Socialist Party has an honourable position of opposing all wars: not just opposing them when there isn’t a war, which is very easy, but opposing them during a war, when it is difficult to do; not just opposing some wars, which are manifestly imperialistic, but opposing all wars, even those which have within them elements of justice for one side and manifest tyranny and lack of principle on the other side, such as, for example, the Spanish Civil War, therefore reflecting that position of Marx that socialists, or communists, as he said, must  » . . . point out and bring to the forefront the common interest of the working class independently of all nationalities. » The Socialist Party’s globalist position in doing that is one of immense pride to those people who study its history.

The Socialist Party has refused to identify itself with reform programmes to adjust the system of wage labour and capital. With Marx, it has said, let us not fight against effects; let us eradicate the cause. So, from the ‘Right to Work’ campaigns, which are effectively ‘right to be exploited’ campaigns to constitutional campaigns to set up an assembly here and a new voting system here, an act of parliament there that will release a few documents to people, the Socialist Party has maintained a clear-cut position: that this is not enough. Whether they may benefit sections of the working class or not, it is the working class interest as a whole that lies in one objective and one only, and that is the socialist replacement of society for the capitalist system.

But I want, in the remainder of the time I have available, to suggest to you that the Socialist Party’s thought is not rooted solely in Karl Marx. I want to suggest, although it is a hypothesis so historically fanciful that I don’t think we want to elaborate upon it very seriously, that if Karl Marx had never existed there would still be a socialist party. It would still have clear-cut socialist ideas, and we would have to – by a much more laborious and painful process – arrive at some of the clarity of theoretical vision that Marx has given us. But within the history of the working class, independent of those great philosophers and that great mind of Karl Marx, there is an embryonic socialist tradition, always there, putatively putting forward this idea of socialist liberation, which cannot be ignored and cannot be reduced to a mere off-shoot of Marxism.

So I am going to deal briefly with the utopian strand, the radical democratic strand, and the early socialist movement. First of all, Utopia. Utopia has a very bad name, not least of all because Marx and Engels in asserting the clear scientificity of their position made a point of emphasising and dismissing and, frankly, sneering at the significance of utopian vision, the mere utopian thinkers who had fanciful thoughts about the future. Having said that, Marx and Engels, in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, gave the respect that was right to those utopian socialists who had influenced them.

But it goes back a lot further than that. You go back to the fourteenth century in England. You had a tradition of utopian vision, the first utopian poem was published, The Land of Cockaygne, a wonderful poem about a society where everybody had free access to food. In fact, the geese fly around ready roasted, shouting out, « Geese, all hot! All hot! » They even ask you if you want a particular kind of sauce poured on them. « Every man takes what he will/ As of right to eat his fill/ All is common to young and old/ To stout and strong, to meek and bold. »

It is a tremendous vision of how things could be. Why did it arise? Because, during the course of the fourteenth century you had one of the greatest dislocations of European society that we have ever seen. There were the bubonic plagues of 1349, 1361, 1369, 1375, wiping out more than a third of the population of this country, the largest single devastation of the population that occurred. As a result of the plague, you had the landlord class, the feudal parasites, increasing peasant rent and making the feudal dues that were exacted higher and higher upon those who managed to survive on the land that was now left. In 1380, this culminated in the king introducing a tax of one shilling per head to pay for the cost of his war against France. And there was an uprising, the first peasants’ uprising in England of 1381.

Here again, we see primitive socialist ideas starting to form. The peasants’ leader, John Ball, advocated the idea of common ownership. From a contemporary account, we have these words:

« My good friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. »

150 years after the peasants’ revolt, Thomas More, in his book Utopia (which is, of course, based on a pun. One meaning of the word utopia is ‘no place’. Another spelling of the same word ‘utopia’ means ‘the good place’. Perhaps the good place, then, had to be no place at all) envisaged a society where:

« The head of each household looks for what he or his family needs and carries off what he wants without any sort of payment or compensation. Why should anything be refused him? There is plenty of everything and no reason to fear that anyone will claim more than he needs. »

A century later, in the revolutionary upheaval of the mid seventeenth century, when the ascendant capitalist robbers were fighting their class war against the declining aristocratic muggers, there you also saw a small voice of the propertyless, expressed through the movement called the Diggers, who attempted to take over areas of land and run them on the basis of communism. And in the work of 1652 by the Diggers’ leader, Gerard Winstanley, he says:

« If any want food or victuals, they may either go to the butcher’s shop and receive what they want without money or else go to the flocks of sheep or herds of cattle and take and kill what meat is needful for their families without buying or selling. »

I want to put in a word for this utopian vision. Utopias, on their own, don’t change society. They are imaginative excursions into a possible future. But I also want to suggest that, without such imaginative excursions, the future will always seem remote, unknowable, perhaps even unappealing to travel to.

The second strand of rootedness for The Socialist Party is the working class movement itself because, where there is a working class, which is the dispossessed majority, it is quite understandable that workers will seek to have the right to assemble, the right to combine. The very first concern, of course, is the right to be able to sell your labour power at a negotiated price on an organised basis. Up until 1824 trade unions were illegal; but as early as 1710 the English miners up in the north-east went out on their first strike. In 1771 they burned the stocks of coal. All of this was a movement towards the creation of a trade union movement that could show working class people uniting together, combining as a force, showing that, through numbers, they were at least a force to be reckoned with.

More importantly, perhaps, than this economic battle, this incessant fight for the crumbs of capitalism, there was the embryonic political movement for the radical, democratic transformation of capitalism; and there are those who may say seeking democratic changes is something that capitalism will bring about anyway: that capitalism inherently has a logic that will make this happen and make that happen. This is not so: historical change comes through struggle. On 25th January, 1792, the London Corresponding Society was set up by just eight men. We, by comparison, are a mass movement in this room today. They met in The Bell Tavern in London and they stood for the apparently utopian aim of winning votes for everyone, and most of their fellow workers laughed at them. By the end of 1792 the London Corresponding Society had three thousand members, mainly working class men, not many women, and they demanded the vote. They argued for the alternative to a system where they were completely cast out from an influence upon political power, and at his trial for sedition up in the city of Sheffield, one of them described the objectives of the London Corresponding Society as being:

« To enlighten the people; to show the people the reason, the ground of all their complaints and sufferings, when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours a day the week through and is not able to maintain his family. That is what I understand of it: to show the people the ground of this: why they are not able. »

And then, in the early 1830s, there was the movement of the Chartists, and the Chartists stood for the vote at least for all men. They had not advanced enough to speak about the vote for women. On three occasions the Chartists had mass petitions and they took them to parliament in 1839 and 1842 and, finally, in 1848. When they went to parliament in 1842, Macaulay, the Liberal, Whig, expressed the fear of the ruling class towards this democratic vision within the working class. He said:

« I am opposed to universal suffrage. I can see that civilisation rests on the security of property. Therefore we can never, with our absolute danger, entrust the supreme government of the country to any class which would, to a moral certainty, commit great and systematic inroads against the security of property. »

In short, capital and democracy were seen from the outset to be incompatible, just as capital and the freedom of communication is seen to be incompatible within the monopolistic media system of today.

Out of the failure of the Chartist movement at the end of the 1840s there came another movement, not as big a movement but, in embryonic form, a very important one for laying down the roots of the tradition of which socialists today are a part. This was the movement known as The Charter and Something More. And there were (and this is a very important point, I suggest) a number of very significant individual activists who gave huge amounts of time to this movement: Bronterre O’Brien, Julian Harney, Ernest Jones – working class men, people who didn’t have huge fortunes to spend on any of this, gave time, thought, an enormous amount of intelligence to the proposal that democracy and, indeed, the widest form of democracy was necessary.

Julian Harney, who edited a journal called The Red Republican, wrote, on 12th October, 1850:

« It is not any amelioration of the conditions of the most miserable that will satisfy us; it is justice to all that we demand. It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek; but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling of the present system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of the system and the substitution, in its stead, of an order of things in which all shall labour and all shall enjoy, and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community. »

What is important is that those words which, in many respects, sum up what the Socialist Party today stands for, were written before the works of Marx were at all available in most cases, and certainly widely circulated in this country. They came from within working class experience. In his Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth, William Thompson – never read Marx; never heard of Marx – wrote:

« The idle possessor of the inanimate instruments of production not only secures to himself by their possession as much enjoyment as the most diligent and skilful of the real efficient producers but in proportion to the amount of his accumulation, by whatever means acquired, he procures ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times as much of the articles of wealth, the products of labour, the means of enjoyment as the utmost labour of such efficient producers can procure for them. »

So you see (and this is all I want to say about this): it was there; the thoughts were growing; the seeds were planted – not by Marx, not by great thinkers on their own, but by capitalism itself. That was the soil in which these revolutionary ideas were bound to develop.

Thirdly and finally, I want to move on to the socialist movement as it originated in this country, in Britain. At the beginning of the last quarter of the last century, it would be very hard to suggest that there were more than a couple of dozen people in the whole of Britain who would call themselves socialists. In 1874 there were two main radical clubs in London where socialism was talked about. One of them met in Rupert Street, and it consisted of about two hundred non-socialist radicals, the majority of whom were refugees, mainly from Germany, some from the Paris Commune.

The other, which met in the Blue Post pub in Newman Street, was made up entirely of German refugees. About forty of them would attend on a good night, and most of them would claim to be socialists. They met – no doubt a very curious sight, these refugee Germans, speaking in a foreign tongue – about the need for socialist revolution, while all around them the workers of London not only could not understand their ideas but even the language in which they spoke.

A few British workers started to join these clubs and started to obtain a socialist education from some of the regulars, such as Herman Jung, who introduced Belfort Bax to Marx’s writings; and Bax was to become the first person in Britain to publish an exposition of Marx’s works. There were people like Frederick Lesner who liaised with the few English trade unionists who had anything to do with The First International and who was subsequently to become an active member of the Hammersmith Branch of William Morris’s Socialist League.

In general, the refugees sitting in their pubs didn’t make a lot of difference and, as Engels – rather sour, very often, towards small groups of people struggling against difficult forces – wrote to Becker on 1st April, 1880:

« So far as the course of the world is concerned it is more or less indifferent whether a hundred German workers in London declare themselves for one side or the other. »

The first socialist organisation in Britain to consist of workers was formed, in Birmingham, by John Sketchley, so it is appropriate that we are in Birmingham to talk about it. He was a worker who had been taught about socialism as a young boy by advocates of The Charter and Something More campaign. He had met Bronterre O’Brien; he had read the works of Julian Harney.

He first came across the Communist Manifesto in The Red Republican. The opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, which some of you will recall were translated in a very odd way in The Red Republican. Instead of « A spectre is haunting Europe . . . » it said, « A giant hobgoblin is stalking all over Europe » (If only we had stuck to those words, perhaps more people would have read it), and in 1878 Sketchley founded the Midland Social Democratic Association.

It existed as an organisation with socialist ideas mixed with all kinds of other radical ideas before 1878; but it was in 1878 that it was to develop a socialist programme. And there were a number of other organisations – some of them in London, some of them in parts of the country that were really quite accidentally affected by all of this – that grew up in the course of the 1870s.

Sketchley not only founded the first socialist organisation in Britain, but he wrote the first book in English by a member of the working class which advocated the case for socialism. It is called The Principles of Social Democracy published in 1879 and, although it might owe a certain amount to the land nationalisation ideas of Henry George, it owes a great deal to the kind of ideas which have subsequently lived on in the thinking of The Socialist Party.

In 1881, the first organisation to call itself socialist, which had more than a dozen members, was formed. It was the Labour Emancipation League, founded by Joseph Lane. And in 1880 Henry Myers Hyndman read Das Kapital by Marx, agreed with its analysis of the system, decided to write his own version called England For All, in which he did not mention Karl Marx because he said the English would not listen to someone who was a German, less still a Jew, and said that they should look at his Marxist version first. And Hyndman was responsible, in 1883, for the adoption of a socialist programme, Socialism Made Plain, by the Social Democratic Federation, a federation of clubs that had got together, first of all in 1881.

In June 1884 the SDF launched a journal called Justice, which was the first Marxist journal in British history. The Social Democratic Federation existed on the basis of a queer mixture between, on the one hand, clear-cut socialist ideas no different in their terminology and certainly in their vision of an alternative society from those propagated by The Socialist Party and, at the same time, a list of immediate reforms of capitalism, what were called ‘stepping stones’ to socialism.

The SDF attracted hundreds of workers to its side; but this rift between the revolutionary objective of socialism and the reform programme tore it apart, as did the profound arrogance and leadership ambitions of Hyndman, who, essentially, saw himself as the new socialist prime minister. In fact, he described himself as a future socialist prime minister of a revolutionary Britain.

The movement against these contradictions in the SDF was pushed for by a number of people who, at the end of 1884 – in fact, on New Year’s Eve, 1884 – split away from the SDF and formed their own organisation, the Socialist League. Amongst these people, William Morris, arguably the greatest of socialist thinkers to have been produced in this country, Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, her husband, Edward Aveling, and a number of others who left the SDF formed the Socialist League.

The Socialist League, I would suggest, was the nearest thing, the nearest model you can find, to a party that was doing the kind of thing that The Socialist Party does today: making socialists, as William Morris put it. As Morris rightly argued, on the issue of reformism:

« The palliatives, or reforms over which many worthy people are busying themselves now, are useless because they are but organised, partial revolts against a vast, widespreading organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the condition of the people with an attack on a fresh side. »

Morris was saying that in the 1880s. Over a hundred years later, how right he was! Every effort, every huge organisation for reform, for amelioration, for greater humanisation of capitalism, and how the system has fought back, making two new problems for every one that appears to have gone away. Well, the Socialist League initially prospered. It started off with a membership in July, 1885 of 230. By October, it had nearly 400 members. At the beginning of 1886, 500. Six hundred, by the summer of 1886, and 700 at its peak in 1887. It was, undoubtedly, an embryonic socialist movement.

What happened to those socialists who stayed in the SDF was that the contradictions between its reformist, minimum programme and its lip-service to socialism became more and more apparent. Hyndman accepted money from the Tory party in order to stand against Liberal MPs. The SDF was manifestly undemocratic in its behaviour. The reading and teaching of works by Karl Marx within the SDF was actually forbidden by one of its rules. And then one of its members, Jack Fitzgerald, started to run education classes based upon the teachings of Marx. He decided to defy the rules, and at the conference of the SDF in 1904 Fitzgerald and another socialist called Hawkins were called upon to apologise for disobeying the leadership of the party. They refused to apologise. Instead, they and a number of others produced a document—and I suspect most of you won’t have seen this document so, as I move rapidly to a conclusion, I will show it to you. This was the circular that was produced inside the Social Democratic Federation by ‘the Impossiblists’, as they were called, the true revolutionaries, who sought, still, to try to turn the SDF into a real Marxist, socialist organisation. It is interesting to see what they were advocating:

« We advocate the only policy which we believe to be consistent with our principles: that is the adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party or of those supporting any section of the capitalist party nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. In advocating this policy, we recognise that, in the political field, there are only two parties: one, for the retention of the present system; and the other, the social democratic, organised for its overthrow. Therefore, all entering into political action must join either one side or the other. »

They were thrown out of the SDF; and still, all entering into political action have to join either one side or the other: the capitalist party – be it New Labour, old Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Communist – or The Socialist Party.

And so, in June 1904, The Socialist Party was formed. I have completed the circle. Is it a Marxist Party? Yes, it is, but perhaps a Marxist Party and something more.

Steve Coleman

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