Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bad commies and good boys

I'm grateful to Mike Beggs for giving my book on EP Thompson a plug in Jacobin, an online journal of left-wing thought founded recently by a group of bright young students and academics in America, Britain, and Oz.

In his contribution to a survey of the reading habits of contributors to Jacobin, Mike confesses not only to consuming The Crisis of Theory, but to reading the excessively annotated selection of Kendrick Smithyman's poems that I brought out last year. EP Thompson always insisted that social scientists should be as interested in literature as they are in statistics, so he'd be delighted that a hardboiled Marxist economist like Mike was reading a notoriously recalcitrant poet like Smithyman.

My study of Thompson also rates a mention in the new issue of the Socialist Standard, the publication of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its sister parties in various parts of the world. I had a bit of a crack at the Socialist Party a year or so ago on this blog, after encountering a wonderfully utopian piece of their propaganda in an old railway station on the bushy edge of Auckland. I objected then, and still object now, to the party's refusal to dirty its hands with involvement with any real-world political issues.

Where other Marxist groups, no matter how tiny and marginalised, tend to join in campaigns against war and imperialism and in favour of workers' wage and salary demands, the SPGB has earned itself the nickname 'the Small Party of Good Boys' by confining itself to calling in completely abstract terms for the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

The party's strategy, which it has pursued without noticeable success for more than a century, is to win workers over one by one to the cause of socialism, and to get them to vote for the SPGB in such numbers that parliament can pass some sort of legislation enabling the 'legal' dissolution of capitalism and the peaceful passing of the economy from the hands of the bosses to the hands of the workers. Any socialist organisation which rejects this rather utopian road to the future, and instead takes to the streets or the picket lines with anti-war demonstrators or striking workers, is denounced by the SPGB for 'reformism'.

During the short debate which followed my earlier crack at the SPGB, I noted that the party's sister organisation in New Zealand had refused to take part in the massive protests against the 1981 Springbok tour of this country. While tens of thousands of New Zealanders were putting their bodies on the line to stop a tour by the sporting representatives of apartheid, and inspiring the people of Soweto and the inmates of Robben Island with their courage, the SPGB's local followers published a denunciation of the 'reformism' of anti-apartheid protests.

The rather sniffy review of my book on Thompson in the new Socialist Standard reflects the same detachment from reality which kept the SPGB away from the action in 1981. The Standard's reviewer concedes that Thompson was a fine historian, but he can't forgive the great man for belonging to the Communist Party between 1942 and 1956:

Thompson's own politics however are less admirable. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and was an active member until 1956 when he resigned as a result of the Russian military invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' which denounced Stalin. To a significant extent, the rest of Thompson's political career can be seen as distancing himself from Stalinism. He later tried to justify his CP membership by claiming it was part of a 'Popular Front' against fascism. But Thompson did not appreciate that his CP membership would lend legitimacy to Stalin's reign of terror. His concern for the lives of ordinary workers did not extend to the Russian working class.

These charges seem to me unjust, because they do not take into account the context in which Thompson joined the Communist Party, and the reasons why he delayed leaving the organisation. Growing up in the 1930s, Thompson had seen the unwillingness of Britain and other Western powers to challenge fascism in Spain and Germany. While Thompson's friends went off to Spain to fight Franco's fascist insurrection, the British government refused even to sell arms to the country's Republican government.

The Soviet Union seemed to Thompson the only ally of anti-fascist fighters. Faith in the Soviet government's anti-fascist credentials might have been shaken by the Hitler-Stalin pact, but it was renewed in 1941, when the Soviet Union became the main front of the Second World War. Thompson fought fascism from the inside of a British tank in the last years of the war, but he knew that the defeat of Hitler was largely the work of the Soviets.

Thompson was disoriented by the beginning of the Cold War, and distressed by the increasingly heavy hand that Soviet bureaucrats laid on the British Communist Party in the late '40s. As he explained later, though, it was hard for him and for thousands of other young men and women to leave the organisation, because the communists seemed the only people in Britain willing to stand up for a range of vital causes.

It's easy to remember the depredations of Stalin in the 1940s and early '50s, but harder to remember that during the same period the British Empire was locking up thousands of political opponents in its far-flung and restive possessions, and fighting half a dozen small but dirty wars against local peoples who wanted to take down the Union Jack. For Thompson and for many other idealistic men and women, the Communist Party's steadfast and - in the imperial homeland at least - very unpopular stand against the British Empire was an inspiration. (For its part, the Communist Party of New Zealand was the only majority-Pakeha organisation to support tino rangatiratanga and Samoan national independence in the 1930s and '40s.) It is perhaps significant that Thompson's departure from the Communist Party came when the Soviet Union showed its own imperial, or at least expansionist, qualities by invading Hungary in 1956.

It is reasonable enough to criticise Thompson for his membership of the Communist Party. We might plausibly ask why he did not learn something from the Hitler-Stalin pact, or why he didn't follow Edward Upward and others out of the party in the late '40s, when Stalin was showing his true colours by purging Tito and the Yugoslavs from the Comintern.

To present Thompson as some sort of unthinking Stalinist simply because of his time in the Communist Party, though, is to miss the complex reasons people became communists, and the equally complex factors that kept them communists. It seems to me that the Socialist Standard's criticism of Thompson is as abstract and pedantic as its supporters' criticisms of the anti-apartheid campaigners of 1981.

The distinguished British historian and old friend of Thompson Penelope Corfield has written a long response to my book which will be published shortly in the online journal Reviews in History.


Blogger Richard said...

Maps some god points here. Good for Dave! I ordered your book through the library but it is out or has been a lot so that shows something. It has just arrived so it was in use by someone for sometime...

I suppose you read Doris Lessing bio? I read bits of it. I found it by chance the other day and she agonizes over leaving the Party, and sends letters to (Edward) Thompson.

10:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I took part in the protests against the Springbok tour in 1981. It was like a civil war. The majority of people were not even socialists. They simply felt that racial separateness and exploitation of black people in South Africa and elsewhere was inherently wrong.

10:52 pm  
Anonymous speaking the truth said...

The usual puerile ranting from enemies of the one true socialist party in Britain. Have you ever wondered why the SPGB has remained unified for more than one hundred years? We have weathered all the tides of reformism, from the Bolehvik 'revolution' to fake socialist 'campaigns' like the one you mention. The ONLY way to socialism and change is through our party. Join us or be irrelevant. Oh. I forgot. You already ARE.

11:18 pm  
Anonymous speaking the truth said...

And as for the anti-apartheid hullabaloo being worthwhile. Well. Let me ask you - is South Africa socialist today?


Well doesn't that show the SPGB was right to refrain from anti-apartheid reformism.

11:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:28 pm  
Anonymous Ted Crawford on the SPGB said...

'The most striking example of this type of behaviour is seen in the Socialist Party of Great Britain,8 a group of a few hundred people, which is rapidly approaching its centenary, and is easily the longest-lived Marxist grouping in this country. Its genesis in 1904 arose out of a split in the Social Democratic Federation, the leading Marxist party in Britain at the time. The basis for the break was an argument over the SDF’s right-wing behaviour. The SDF, like most of the continental social democrats at the time, had essentially two programmes, a minimum one, which was for everyday political struggle and demands, and a maximum one, which was the total socialist programme. There was little relationship between the two, so everyday politics, and the consequent compromises with political allies that seemed inevitable in the circumstances, increasingly took precedence over the long-term objectives. There was one programme for Sunday, and another for every other day of the week. The SPGB simply declared that they would wear their Sunday best programme everyday, and in order not to dirty it they refused to have any immediate programme of everyday demands at all. The participation of their party in anything but the total demand for socialism as a whole was ruled out of court. The objective of socialism in the future increasingly took on the characteristics of a Holy Grail with little to do with mundane events which occurred around them, such as two world wars and the rise of fascism. Such problems could only be resolved by ‘Socialism’. From this initial stance has flowed their behaviour since then.

Like many religious groupings, the SPGB is exclusivist and eschews any allies, so there is a consistent drive for doctrinal purity which certainly cuts across its claims to universality. Membership is determined by tests of doctrinal ability so that, unlike most such groups, members have to pass a formal exam. Levels of activity are much less frenetic than those of other groups. Activity patterns have changed somewhat over the years with the decline of street meetings, for which the old SPGB orators were famous. Television has killed off the open-air preaching tradition, and the party has no access to the mass media. Their paper, Socialist Standard, advertises meetings, and takes up the issues of the day, explaining the Marxist position generally in clear English that is refreshingly devoid of jargon. These meetings and discussions may take place perhaps as often as once a week, and occasionally debates with outsiders are arranged. All meetings are open. The paper is sold in left-wing bookshops and to contacts, but the only party activity apart from this is at elections. The SPGB believes that socialism is impossible unless a socialist government (themselves) is elected. They therefore stand in a few constituencies in every election. The recent sharp rise in candidates’ deposits has meant that the numbers standing in general elections have been cut back, and this reform could be seen as religious discrimination, doubtless unintended, by parliament. Their sectarianism is shown by the fact that members are promptly expelled for going on any demonstration of a political nature not called by the SPGB, or, indeed, joining any pressure group which lobbies MPs. SPGBers may be members of trade unions and support economic strikes, but only as individuals, not as party members, and they never attempt to generate a political position inside a union. Members would refuse to join a political strike. No other political group is recognised as being socialist. Male members are conscientious objectors in both war and peace. There is some limited recruitment of the children of members, or at least this has occurred in the past. Many members are vegetarians, though this has never been a condition of membership. There are a few other very small similar groups, largely in the English-speaking world, most of which derive from British emigrants or returned immigrants as in Jamaica and Austria.'

11:36 pm  
Anonymous Ted Crawford on the SPGB cont. said...


'The socialist future for the SPGB has an otherworldliness about it that is far more marked than in other political tendencies. There is no time limit as to when this desirable state of affairs will come about. The only mechanism posited is via a normal parliamentary election. If members live under an undemocratic government, they might deplore it, but would not see the restoration or achievement of democracy as their task, and they would refuse to combine with anyone else to struggle for democratic rights if the latter had not passed their exam. (A small affiliate of a few individuals existed in prewar Austria. Under Hitler, from 1938 to 1945, they did nothing until after the war, when they were able to stand again in the elections.) The SPGB therefore simply ‘bears witness’ to its doctrinal purity, and expels individuals who are detected in heresy. They do not expel for anything else, however heinous. As an example of their very principled stand here was the case when, during the Second World War, a popular newspaper exposed a call-girl racket run by a couple who were both members.9 Despite the possibility that an organisation that pushed conscientious objection would have been liable to a terrible witch-hunt at that time, its annual conference firmly refused to expel the two members. Even though it could be argued that these two were exploiting working-class women in the vilest manner, the principle of expulsion solely for political reasons could not be watered down. The national newspaper never noticed the procurers’ party membership, and the crisis passed, though few other political groups would have passed such a test. They are not moralists as far as party members are concerned, and do not worry if they have very privileged lifestyles, though most members could be categorised, broadly speaking, as lower-middle-class. The lack of criticism of a lifestyle arises, of course, from the fact that everyday matters cannot be issues taken up by the party. The only thing that concerns them is the formal statement of belief in the socialist future, for only that can be relevant. Other roads lead inevitably to ‘reformism’ and concern for the affairs of this world, together with alliances with the less-than-socialist, the impure if you will.'

11:37 pm  
Anonymous Ted Crawford on the SPGB conclusion said...


'Thus it seems clear that the SPGB would be less likely to be affected by economic, social and political change around it than any other political group known to me. It therefore more closely approximates to the definition of a religious sect than any other, though its members, who have a formal atheist position, would strongly repudiate such a suggestion. There is indeed some overlap of its milieu with that of the Secular Society. Their only activity is propaganda or ‘Witnessing to the Word’, together with a few candidatures at general elections, and these latter are in the style of the conversion activities of the Brethren, formal rather than real; for example, there must be a minimum of 10 members in a constituency to stand a candidate. The SPGB is the nearest thing on the political scene to a passive, quietist ‘sect’ of the ‘introversionist’ type. There are some similarities with the Exclusive Brethren, though these can be exaggerated. As in the Exclusives, there are no full-time professionals, and leadership emerges as the result of the public recognition of doctrinal ability. Like the Brethren, too, there is a certain tension, for doctrine has to be developed if only to take account of changes in society.10 Leading individuals can therefore find themselves squeezed out to only a marginal importance if the developments that they espouse are not recognised by the other members. Consequently, they lose their authority. Quite distinct from the Exclusives, however, the SPGB does make a real effort to convert others to its point of view. If it did not the party would not have lasted as long as it has. Nevertheless, recently there have been reports of considerable changes within the SPGB.11 If so, that suggests that the world outside has created problems for even the quietist type Marxism of the SPGB, and there must be a possibility that great convulsions will occur in future within other Marxist groups if even the SPGB makes a radical change of direction.'

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted Craword sounds like a typical reformist.

8:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Music infiltrates

MAGUS: She will operate under remote control

and needs your whitest and thickest peace

for this astral mission

She's guided by vibrating syllables

that shatter at the wrong frequency

and projected by the dancing electrons of our bodies

which dare not, must not

syncopate a beat

1:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott et al I have done another post on EYELIGHT - have a look

Link here


8:58 pm  
Anonymous eliminate leftism said...

You communistic bastards and haters of the white race (brownnosers indeed) can't hack real arguments...or else you would take up the challenge an show your balls at a conservative site

...you'd be fucking murdered

9:45 pm  
Anonymous eliminate leftism said...

try taking on a real fighter for the white race and civilisation like Crusader Rabbit or Redbaiter or Robert Spencer

9:46 pm  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

From my reasonably extensive reading of biographies and histories of the middle of the twentieth century I get the impression that there was a real hope that communism offered a real alternative.

People forget today that the traditional ruling elites were regarded as completely discredited in the aftermath of the disaster of the Great War, a conflict the aristocratic and wealthy classes both irresponsibly fostered and then ineptly prosecuted. The post war slump, followed by the great depression was seen as finally discrediting capitalism as an economic system well. Many fled to fascism, many on the left deserted democracy and capitalism for communism. I am not sure if we can comprehend today the appeal of fresh, untried fascism and communism back then and the threat they posed to "failed" democracy. In such an environment, it wasn't hard for the USSR to hide the true evil of Stalinism. The West's left wing intellectuals it seems to me wanted to believe in the communist utopian dream, and were desperate enough in this emotional rather than intellectual desire to simply not see what they didn't want to see, or to cling on with their hearts long after their heads told them Soviet style communism was just another totalitarianism made worse by the lights of a perverted science.

As an aside, there is one aspect of all this that I saw Niall Ferguson on the telly banging on about with his claim that the great twentieth century conflicts were not primarily or even partially ideological, but basically racist in origin and drivers. Now, I give you his argument was well made and had some truth to it. But I've seen and read enough of Niall Ferguson's work to treat his claims as entertaining and worth a bit of chin wag but also recognise he is an arch-conservative whose agenda is well suited by de-fanging ideology as a player in the 20th century - Maybe some comments from you maps on this, and how it may have also influenced western intellectuals long love affair with Stalinist Russia?

9:41 am  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

Ted Crawford being a Trotskyist will not be a friend of the SPGB and of course a spit of a split of a split...cannot justifiable accuse the SPGB of sectarianism,can they?

The SPGB can be faulted for some things but not for standing by their principles, regardless of the flavour of the day in the compromise world of capitalist apologists and the Left see-saw.


5:15 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I'm not sure whether principles are always a good thing, Alan. Self-proclaimed socialists who use appeals to principles to abstain from a massive real-life campaign against an injustice like apartheid probably need to question the value of their principles.

In the same way, the SPGB of the 1930s would have done well to drop its principles and offer support to the Spanish forces fighting against Franco's fascist uprising, rather than simply advising the Spaniards to vote for socialism in some election in a distant post-Franco future.

You might try to differentiate the SPGB from the excesses that are sometimes part of other ideological currents on the left like Trotskyism, let alone Stalinism, but there are important methodological similarities which connect dogmatic Marxists, no matter what interpretation of Marx they subscribe to.

The notion that Marx's works constitute a complete and consistent whole, and that these works can be used in a cooker cutter fashion to analyse tidily any contemporary event, separating progressive from regressive forces and leaving the analyst always on the side of the angels, is a mistake which can be found in a variety of Marxist groups. With the lifting of the intellectual atmosphere of the Cold War and the first publication or reconsideration of some of Marx's previously marginalised works, particularly his later works, the dogmatic approach is becoming untenable, but it persists on the left.

(In the magazine I mention at the top of my post Mike Beggs has analysed the 'Zombie Marxism' which tries to set itself against intellectual creativity:
I've gad a crack at the 'zombie Marxists' in this part of the world:

The piece about my book in Socialist Standard actually resembles a much longer text on Thompson and the New Left produced a few years ago by Paul Blackledge, a scholar connected to the Socialist Workers Party.

I criticised Blackledge's take on Thompson not because it contained some negative judgments of the great man - my own book contains many negative judgments - but because it saw the whole world through the lens of the SWP's self-righteousness:

Like your reviewer, Blackledge simply ignores bits of evidence which don't fit with his too-tidy view of politics and history.
Blackledge's argument can be summarised as 'Thompson was a great historian, but he never joined my group, and he behaved in ways inconsistent with our ideology; how he could be so clueless?' Your reviewer offers the same modus operandi. I'd much prefer a thoughtful right-wing critique of Thompson than this sort of sectarian approach to intellectual history.

7:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,
You make some good points, though your understanding of the SPGB's politics is something of a caricature I'm afraid. It's a shame because one of the SPGB's contributions has been to try to keep alive on the left the ideas of William Morris – something EP Thompson would surely have approved of, even if he probably didn't approve of us.
Stuart (SPGB)

9:59 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I don't mean to rule out the possibility of good intellectual work coming from SPGB members, Stuart - and I've heard that the Socialist Standard carries some accessible explications of Marxist economic concepts. If the Standard is keeping Morris' thought in circulation then that is all for the good.

I criticised Paul Blackledge's piece on Thompson, but other SWP members have produced some creative intellectual work - Alex Callinicos, for instance, wrote a very interesting book about Marxism and modern philosophy.

I do think, though, that the 'one true sect' tendency I criticised in my previous comment can to the sort of dogmatic texts Blackledge and the Standard's reviewer have produced. And I think that the SPGB, with its apparent refusal to engage in any of the sort of real-life political movements which Marx himself regarded as foundations of socialism, is probably one of the most severely afflicted of the victims of the one true sect mentality.

10:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
Thanks for your reply. It's true that you do sadly find the ridiculous "one true sect" attitude in the SPGB, but then, is there a sect in which you don't find it? In my (admittedly limited) experience, the SPGB is actually rather sensible and admirable on this score when compared with other left sects.

As for not engaging with real-life political movements, that's where you misunderstand us. As individuals, we do participate in these – in unions, going along to picket lines, attending demonstrations, etc, etc. As an organisation, we engage, in the sense of attempting dialogue. What we do not do is try to take over or lead such movements, nor merge with them and compromise our independence. We do this for what we think are very good reasons – reasons made even more powerful by the experience of the labour movment in the 20th century than they were when we first formulated them, in our not so humble opinion.


10:40 pm  
Anonymous Stephen Shenfield said...

The descriptions of the SPGB are somewhat caricatured in ignoring a certain evolution toward less sectarian positions. Nowadays, for example, the SPGB does express support for movements to establish political democracy in countries where it does not exist, and there is recognition of common ground with tendencies such as anarcho-communism and council communism (though not with Bolshevism). This evolution led to the breakaway of a group of purists. I would also note that the World Socialist Movement of which the SPGB forms part has a broader geographical spread than these commentators realize. Apart from the North American companion parties, there are groups in India and several African countries (former British colonies).

Regarding E.P. Thompson, I think it is fair to say that he (and many like him) did not know or care very much about the plight of workers in Russia and other "communist" countries. The reasons why so many progressive people in the West joined the CP were understandable but also often parochial, focused on the problems they faced in their own countries. It was the same logic that led so many people in the "communist" countries to take the side of the West.

10:53 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Stuart,

take the case of the SPGB's sister group here in New Zeakand, which I think trades under the name of the World Socialist Party. I'm not sure about the state of this outfit now, but ten years ago it had dozens of members (most of them, admittedly, elderly), owned a building which it used as a headquarters, and ran a show on community radio.

During the early years of the so-called 'War on Terror' I helped organise a socialist-led United Front which acted as a sort of pole within the wider anti-war movement in Auckland. We used to hold public meetings, organise debates, hold pickets, take part in the marches of the general anti-war movement, and so on. A lot of Auckland's small socialist groups were involved with us.

I made an effort to get the World Socialist outfit involved in our United Front, and in the anti-war movement generally, but they seemed completely uninterested. They wouldn't join the huge anti-war marches of the time, let alone come along to an organising meeting or a debate.

When I looked at some back issues of the publication of the SPGB's sister group, I realised that it had abstained from every single important political and social struggle in modern New Zealand history, believing them to be 'reformist' distractions from the battle for socialism - a battle which appeared to consist of running the odd candidate in general elections and winning a derisory vote. As I noted earlier, the party's literature positively sneered at socialists who took part in the anti-Springbok protests of 1981, which saw tens of thousands of Kiwis putting their bodies on the line and humiliating the regime in Pretoria.

The late Roger Fox, who was a friend of mine in the anti-war movement, explained the extreme reluctance of the SPGB's sister group to involve itself in politics by arguing that it was essentially a religious outfit, which was designed to give its members the warm glow of being members of the elect - or of the one true sect.

Whether or not Roger's analysis was correct I don't know, because I never encountered enough members of the World Socialist Party to confirm or disprove it. They were, and remain, utterly irrelevant to the left-wing political scene here. And when I read about the SPGB refusing to dirty its hands by getting involved with the Aid to Spain movement in the '30s and similar causes in the past I don't find it hard to see a parallel with the behaviour of the World Socialists here.

11:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
OK, that's your experience. As you say, the New Zealand party was a very tiny group of elderly people, so maybe that explains and excuses it, maybe not.

My experience of members is that, although they adhere to our policies on reformism and so on, nevertheless are active in their communities and workplaces in all kinds of ways: in their unions, on housing association committees, etc, etc. Historically, our members have been involved in significant ways in major class struggles. Just last year in Britain, our members were involved in organising the demonstrations of students and lecturers' unions. In a relatively small and insignificant way? Well, of course, that's because we're a relatively small and insignificant party. But we're there, doing our bit, despite a common perception on the left to the contrary. I mean, just look at what happenened on this picket line!


I'll leave it there. I look forward to reading your book!
All the best

11:42 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Stephen, I hope you read my book on Thompson, so that you can see how untenable it is to argue that the man had mainly 'parochial' reasons for joining the Communist Party. Thompson grew up in what must have been one of the least parochial households in Britain - his parents, who had spent much of their lives overseas, were constantly in touch with India's national liberation movement, and Nehru and Gandhi were sometimes house guests. In his memoir about his father's relationship with Tagore Thompson remembers the continual debates about imperialism and international affairs in general that accompanied his childhood and adolescence.

As a teenager Thompson watched his friends and neighbours the Carritt brothers go off to fight in Spain; one of them would not come back. Thompson became preoccupied with the struggle of Spain against fascism. While he was still at school he was secretly distributing material on the situation in Spain and on the anti-fascist cause in general to his peers.

Thompson's older brother Frank joined the Communist Party and the army because he wanted to fight fascism, and Edward followed this example as soon as he could. During his war service in Italy Edward fraternised with local communists whenever he could, and after the war he joined an international labour brigade which helped build a railway across Yugoslavia. In the (rather indifferent) poems Thompson turned out in the '40s he continually concerns himself with events outside Britain, commenting on the new 'people's democracies' of the East and also the war in Korea. He was also, naturally enough, very concerned with the efforts of the Indians to free themselves from British rule.

As I noted in my post, the Communist Party for all its sins was one of the very few British organisations which dared to give its support to the national liberation struggles of the peoples colonised by the British. I doubt whether the SPGB spent a lot of time building solidarity with the Indians or Cypriots or Burmese in the postwar years.

It is hard to see how Thompson and the many other young idealists who joined the Communist Party in the
'30s and '40s were prompted by 'parochial' concerns. The relative weakness of the Communist Party in Britain and the persecution of communists by public sector employers meant that the organisation was hardly an attractive vehicle for careerist localists.

Thompson et al were not indifferent to the plight of Eastern bloc workers - they were misinformed about the situation of those workers. To varying degrees, they fell for the line that the Soviet Union was a workers' paradise. It is reasonable to condemn them for credulity, but not for indifference.

My basic point, though, is that serious intellectual history is not about point-scoring on behalf of one or another political organisation, but about understanding and explaining. To understand the contradictions of Thompson's political career in the '40s and early '50s - the insights and the serious oversights, the heroism and the dogmatism - we need context, not ahistorical condemnation.

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Fair enough Stuart. Just out of interest, while I've got your ear: what is the SPGB's view of the possibility of building socialism in a mostly pre-capitalist country?

I was curious about this, because the party seems to come from a nineteenth century, fairly Eurocentric tradition - I suppose that Hyndman and Kautsky were important influences? - and yet you mention being keen on Morris, whom I associate with a more positive view towards the possibility of a semi-agrarian socialism. I'm keen on Marx's late stuff on pre-capitalist societies and their potential application in nations on the periphery of capitalism today:

I'd also be curious to have a look at anything you've produced on the Pacific and the peculiar modes of production which are sometimes found down (or up!) here...

11:50 pm  



11:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The smaller the group, the bigger the personalities. The more splits

12:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Fair enough Stuart. Just out of interest, while I've got your ear: what is the SPGB's view of the possibility of building socialism in a mostly pre-capitalist country?

"I was curious about this, because the party seems to come from a nineteenth century, fairly Eurocentric tradition - I suppose that Hyndman and Kautsky were important influences?"

Yes, as you say, the SPGB has tended to take the line you say, and Kautsky certainly was an important influence. The SPGB agreed with Lenin that there was no prospect of building socialism in Russia in 1917 unless the revolution there was accompanied by a European socialist revolution (and then, of course, a worldwide one).

" - and yet you mention being keen on Morris, whom I associate with a more positive view towards the possibility of a semi-agrarian socialism"

Hmm, not sure about that. You mean a non-industrial socialism? Morris was I think a pretty standard Marxist on this. People tend to think of Morris's socialism as being against industry and machines and so on, but this is not true, as I'm sure EP points out in his biography (and even if not, Morris does in various places spell out his attitude to industry and machines, which is not straightforwardly "anti", but Marxist).

" I'm keen on Marx's late stuff on pre-capitalist societies and their potential application in nations on the periphery of capitalism today:

I'm interested too, though haven't read Marx's materials. I shall check out your link just as soon as I'm done here...

"I'd also be curious to have a look at anything you've produced on the Pacific and the peculiar modes of production which are sometimes found down (or up!) here..."

Er, not sure what we've said or where or when. I'll have a look round and get back to you if I find anything.

By the way, I hope you enjoyed the outburst of capital letters above. Very amusing, if you enjoy the insanity and absurdities of sectariana.


12:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, don't think we've done anything substantial on the weird economies of the Pacific (weird from the point of view of western political economy, of course, not from a historical view!), though that may change soon when I get round to reviewing David Graeber's new book on debt, which is almost certain to go into it. The book sounds very good:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnOqanbHZi4

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5c5mZhDs4U

2:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:14 am  
Anonymous SussexSocialist said...

Is that Ted Crawford piece for real? What the hell is all that bit at the end about some members are vegetarians and some recruit their children, etc.? What a terrible party they must be eating their greens and sharing their beliefs with their off-spring! It's unnatural! Better to eat meat, uncooked if you can and beat your children with sticks....

And Annonymous, please STOP SHOUTING about the 'one true' party. A, you look mental and b, nobody listens just because you shout louder.

9:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Socialists should eat meat. Vegetarianism is for namby pamby greenie lifestylists.

10:34 am  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

The SPGB is often accused of non-involvement but as Stuart has said,it is not an entryist party that wishes to to substitute party for class.

I think everyone who has worked in actual struggles with the CP or the Trotskyist groups will have come across the problem of the party line thwarting the efforts of many of their worthy individual members.

It is also often very conveniently over-looked that it was the fellow Impossiblists in the SPC were active participants in the Canadian One Big Union which once more puts paid to the disinformation that we remain aloof. And one of the main reasons for its lack of growth was Moscow-Comintern support for the mainstream reformist unions.

In regards to the Spanish Revolution the 1937 statement produced after much internal debate and discussion (since it is not our Executive Council that decides policy)explains much of our approach to reformism.

"Socialists are on the side of the exploited in their struggles against the landed and monied classes. This is true whether the workers concerned are Socialist or
not, organised or unorganised, and whether the struggle is a strike or a lock-out, or whether it is concerned with gaining "elbow room" for the working class movement, ie, the right to organise, to carry on propaganda, to secure the franchise and parliamentary government. These struggles are all expressions of the class struggle and are in the line of development towards Socialism. It is the plain duty of the organised workers in the more advanced countries to support and encourage such struggles, both at home and in the less advanced countries. But here a difference emerges between the SPGB and non-Socialist workers' organisations. While our members individually take part in
struggles for objects other than Socialism the SPGB as a party does not. It exists and seeks support solely for Socialism, i. e., for activities which the non-Socialist organisations, including the reformist political parties, do not and cannot undertake. Therefore the SPGB only gives material support to Socialist organisations. Also, while the SPGB is on the side of the exploited in their struggles, it does not necessarily approve of the way in which every struggle is carried on. Reckless and ill-timed action often defeats its object. It is desirable that every action be as democratically controlled and carefully considered as possible. Actions based on mere emotion and trust in leaders in disregard of the magnitude of the obstacles to be overcome are bad for the working class movement. This is particularly true when the action is one which involves grave and lasting consequences, such as thedecision of the Austrians in February, 1934, and the Spaniards in July, 1936, to resist suppressionby taking up arms. We are opposed to the theory that it is in every case better to strike or fight when the propertied class throws down the gauntlet, without counting the cost or the consequences...Whether the Spanish workers were wise in participating in a struggle so costly in human lives may be debatable, but as they have decided to take the plunge, and as they have the most violent partisans of capitalism against them, Socialists are, of course, on their side. It must be assumed that the Spanish workers weighed up the situation and counted the cost before deciding their course of action. That is a matter upon which their judgement should be better than that of people outside the


3:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what unbelievable shite

'We are opposed to the theory that it is in every case better to strike or fight when the propertied class throws down the gauntlet, without counting the cost or the consequences...Whether the Spanish workers were wise in participating in a struggle so costly in human lives may be debatable'

so...what was desirable?? being slaughtered by franco?

what exactly did the spgb do to help defeat franco eh???

4:57 pm  
Anonymous Young Dennis said...

Good God !!!, they've got Socialists in Sussex of all places !!!

5:13 pm  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

Re-Anonymous, Well, The SPGB never machine-gunned the anarchists in the back !

The urge to action is more emotional than rational. Think about it, doing nothing is often the right thing to do. Jumping into any action before all the facts are in, or failing to allow events to unfold before fixing on a way to interpret them, is both foolish and irrational.

“Wait and see” risks credibility and reputation, even where it can be shown to be the optimal course, but that is part and parcel of the consequence of a principled stand that the SPGB accepts.

And, as an aside, my shop steward used to say the most effective strike action was the one we never had to take!

10:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

erm, you can't wait and see if you're dead.

franco was killing socialists in spain. he killed them even in places where his coup was quickly successful. so what the hell is there to do but fight him?

seriously. what would the spgb do in spain? 'wait and see' = quietism of the suicidal kind.

12:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

did the spgb accept the right of the vietnamese people to fight to rid their country of colonialists?

12:45 am  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

"franco was killing socialists in spain."

And are you deliberately ignoring the fact that the "communist" comrades-in-arms were killing socialists and anarchists in Spain, too !

But for those who read the earlier re-posting of Ted Crawford's attempted critique of the SPGB on this blog comments, the rebuttal to it is here:-


A more accurate description of the SPGB can be read at:


And also here:


12:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

are you seriously saying pro- and anti-franco forces were as bad as one another? even if stalinists killed some other socialists...what does this have to do with the obvious fact that franco was knocking off socialists from the very beginning and they had to do something to defend themselves...yet the spgb never lifted a finger to help...unlike say orwell who fought fascism without being a stalinist...

2:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and again the question -

'did the spgb accept the right of the vietnamese people to fight to rid their country of colonialists?'

if you can't answer that in the affirmative then for all intents and purposes you align with the imperialistic right - which is what the spgb did by the sound of it when it refused to lift a finger for spanisg socialists fighting franco...

2:40 am  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

"unlike say orwell who fought fascism without being a stalinist..."

Having learned and witnessed what the "Communist" Party were doing he went off and wrote Animal Farm.

Are you justifying the executions of CNT militants and Poumists? Or simply classifying them as irrelevancies - collateral damage? Do you honestly think if the Stalinists had prevailed they would not have rivalled Franco in the numbers they would have murdered to maintain their Party dominance.

From 1968

3 million dead Vietnamese so that the Party bureaucrats can vye with one another for the most exploitative sweat-shop. How does it feel to support the national bourgeoisie who now eat in Ho Chi Minh City's McDonalds while the workers toil to stitch your Adidas tee-shirt? And you dare call it national liberation.

A Marxist critique of the empty slogan anti-imperialism can be read here.


6:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but orwell never regretted fighting fascism in spain

he recognised that the fascists had to be defeated...whereas the spgb seems to have sat on its hands

and the spgb can't even say that it supported the right of oppressed peoples to national independence!

the question is did the vietnamese have the RIGHT not was ho chi minh a nice guy?

ajohnstone just hides behind criticisms of stalinists instead of admitting that his politics leave no room for supprot for the right to fight fascism and imperialism.

the root of this is english chauvinism. the spgb evidently can't understand societies where everyone doesn't get the chance to vote and stand on soapboxes preaching. societies where there is no choice but armed resistance.

12:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

basically the spgb reading their ocument on spain seems to have said 'the fight for socialism is impossible in spain at the moment because democracy doesn't exist - therefore all that can be done is wait for a better historical opportunity, ie wait for the chance to vote for socialism. but how does that help the people franco began attacking in 1936? are they supposed to lie down and die?

12:05 pm  
Anonymous danny said...

I have to take my hat off to Anonymous, how he finds the time to post his critique of the SPGB while chasing all over the globe fighting murderous tyrants I'll never know.

2:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This SPGB "stance" is fundamentally reactionary.

They are like someone who sees a child drowning and says "Well if we try to rescue the child, we will get the child out and save him, but Socialism or Communism won’t or may not result from it. So we'll let the child drown."

Or "We won’t worry about the Holocaust; as if the Nazis are defeated, or whatever, and Britain and the rest of the world is overrun by Nazi Germany, and millions are killed, it won’t matter a toss, as if that DIDNT happen, Socialism would take longer to happen. And that would be disastrous. So, anyone who fights Hitler, or even thinks of such a thing is worse than a Nazi or vile a maggot and should be executed. Remit passed. Next business. We have this all worked out in our Marxist formulae."

In Scott Hamilton’s book which I have finally got, and which is a great read, and a brilliant book by the way: E. P. Thompson's brother goes to fight in the war, against the advice of Iris Murdoch who quotes the official policy of the Communist Party (which changed when Russia joined in the war), but he goes because (as is clear in a poem he writes to her), that, as well as his understanding of political issues and ideas, he feels it in his gut.

Why is this SPGB so reactionary? Why are so many of the Communist Parties and so-called communists actually more right wing than most others who have never heard of Marx?

Firstly they don’t really understand the role and methods of using of theory and practice, and how it constantly changes (theory modifies practice and visa versa) and how it modulates and interacts in complex ways. They are thus rule bound and inflexible. They say: "This has to happen, and then, and only then, can we do this." They fear innovation and creativity or even the role of chance in human affairs. They will forever consult a rule book or an "authority" (Marx, Trotsky, Mao, Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, John Key, or even the wonderful Margaret Thatcher (you name him or her) before they act.

Secondly they are just "members of a cozy club". They don't WANT anything to actually happen, ever. If so, they would no longer have their nice positions in these parties. They might have to work a bit, lose some place of power, or make another decision or two.
God forbid that an actual revolution might happen anywhere! We might lose control of it! The Natives might not follow procedures! They might not become pure and perfect socialists!

Thirdly: they fear failure. Anyone who refuses to take an action (to, say, protest the Vietnam war, fight against fascism in Spain, protest Apartheid), could well be making A Big Mistake. Anything you do in life can be a "mistake”. You could fail, whatever you do. But from "failure" if that happens people learn. (Thus in a sense there is no irremediable failure and mostly no "wrong" decisions). And in fact human "progress is not linear, it is complex and fraught. But that is no real reason to NOT take action. If a doctor sees someone seriously ill, he or she won’t, or hopefully won’t, ask if that someone, surviving, might or might not be a factor in bringing about the SPGB’s Revolution or whatever. They will, with bourgeois incorrectness, actually try to save that person's life.

Four: In many cases they are in fact cynical agents of the Government and are steering the revolution AWAY from any possible success. That is a major reason for such passivity and apparent cowardice. They are being paid to make sure nothing happens and to put out confusing and complex committee rules and pass resolutions etc ad infinitum so that nothing happens.

And in fact they achieve nothing. Which is what in fact they want to change or achieve. Nothing

4:17 pm  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

"If a doctor sees someone seriously ill, he or she won’t, or hopefully won’t, ask if that someone, surviving, might or might not be a factor in bringing about the SPGB’s Revolution or whatever. They will, with bourgeois incorrectness, actually try to save that person's life."

You forget the main principle of medical ethics "it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good."

Your example is historically wrong. No one went to war to stop the Holocaust. Nor did Hitler have a plan to over-run Britain. It was Britain and France who declared war on Germany over Poland which in 1945 was delivered lock stock and barrel to Stalin!

"They will forever consult a rule book or an "authority""

The SPGB actually rejected the authority of Marx when it comes to national liberation or reformism.

The SPGB was indeed innovative and made their own contributions to Marxism and rejected following the herd mentality so beloved of the Left and liberals. See http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/Edinburgh/o8ocmt.html

See how the SPGB are different here

We are not offering a political choice that means more of the same, that is the real passivity and cowardice !! Of the myriad of social problems that exist , socialists will not engage in pix and mix reformism but direct attention to removing the cause. We dont advocate compromise or offer up band-aids palliatives.

Some are so determined to be part of any movement even if it happens to be a roundabout.

So wrong, so much, so often, so sad !

9:56 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"You forget the main principle of medical ethics "it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good."

Yes, in some cases. But your SPGB is arguing that a person dying of appendicitis should not be given antibiotics or operated on in a severe case. Your general "quietism" as Thompson might have called it is the cancer in your own thinking. Spain. You are saying do nothing in Spain? Do nothing about he war? Nothing about Apartheid? Nonsense...it sounds as though this SPGB is a group of ancient fusty theorists sitting around drinking tea and muttering...like something from meeting of the Pickwick Society... Have the honesty to simply stop being in politics, become a nihilist, dive into Romantic despair and anarchism (great stuff), but don't bullshit us and yourself that you are a communist or a socialist or even "politically progressive".

"Your example is historically wrong. No one went to war to stop the Holocaust."

I know that, I'm not a fool, I am not involving history I am saying that is what a YOU lot would do if we were to go to war to stop the Holocaust. You wouldn't go because you would, whatever was because, another committee meeting...

"Nor did Hitler have a plan to over-run Britain."

Nor did I say that...but who was to know that in any case in 1940 say? You wouldn't even join the Home a gaurd that even Orwell was in? (From Scott Hamilton's book)

"It was Britain and France who declared war on Germany over Poland which in 1945 was delivered lock stock and barrel to Stalin!"

Yes, so they were the aggressors? So my English uncle wasted his time in the RAF bombing France and Germany? What is the answer, invite Hitler over for a cuppa? For God sake, your all in your sixth years!!

1:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in catalonia the working class and peasants responded to franco's coup by seizing the means of production by force. they took up arms and overturned capitalism. bosses were replaced by workers' committees in the factories.

but the spgb thinks this was a waste of time. because socialism can only come through voting for the spgb.

what a joke.

the spgb can't provide any clue as to what should be done by workers who find themselves attacked by the capitalist state. apparently they have to lie down and die rather than defend themselves.


1:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

O.k. "cowardice" is not the right term.

I have had a brief look the manifesto of SPGB.

Yes it makes sense but NOT (all of) these two:

"5. For the same reason, rejection of the idea of "progressive wars". Socialists oppose all wars, refusing to take sides."

Sure war is something I would want to see go away, but you cant mean here that there is no case where war is necessary? How were the Vietnamese to respond to the US Invasion or for that matter that of the Japanese and then the British and the French and then the US. (And what do the Iraqis, the Palestinians and Afghanistanis etc do..? Sit around brewing tea and bending over for the Great White Yankee men?)
And if Hitler and the Japs had won, you wouldn't have been able to form a Socialist Party! You'd all be turned in fertiliser! if you were lucky...come on!!

Of course "winning" wars (even wonderfully "progressive" wars) doesn't mean Socialism happens next week. But people have to survive! have a look at the 'Guernica' by Picasso

"6. Exposures of leadership as a capitalist political principle, a feature of the revolutions that brought them to power, and utterly alien to the socialist revolution. The socialist revolution necessarily involves the active and conscious participation of the great majority of workers, thus excluding the role of leadership."

This is nonsense. There will always be leaders. (if we don't have Prime Ministers etc but at various levels of society there will (virtually) always be leaders (I don't mean they are permanent or be paid more than others, or have privileges; they may just be people suited to leadership in a certain areas of expertise etc) and the struggle even after socialism is attained will continue between groups and ideologies and much else (even for hundreds or thousands of years.)* This is in fact covered by Lenin and Mao tse Tung in their philosophical writings on dialectical materialism. (But you don't need to invoke them or any others, this is more or less common sense.) There is some postulated "vanishing point" in the future were there are no leaders; but that is theoretical only and probably will never happen and wont (or may not be) be desirable.

This needs to be discussed and analysed more deeply.

I believe you are sincere...but:

"For God's sake your all in your sixth years!!

*If the human species lasts that long, or if it lasts at all.

1:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

spgb now says the whole of the anti-hitler war was wrong.

and no one went to war against the holocaust?

what of the anti-nazi resistance in continentla europe? does the spgb deign toa dmit that this resistance was worthy of support? if so, how can they deny support for the raf pilots who dropped supplied to the resistance in various countries?

of course the raf wasn't always acting honourably - there's bomber ahhris and all that.

but the spgb's refusal to admit that people attacked byfascism have the right to armed self-defence leads it to deny the obvious fact that ww2 was in part a struggle by partisans against fascist occupation...

1:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol and the spgbers STILL can't bring themselves to say that colonised peoples have the RIGHT to try to throw out their colonisers with arms.

very revealing...

1:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'And what do the Iraqis, the Palestinians and Afghanistanis etc do..?'

whatever they do they can't resist. they have to wait for the coloniser to give them a chance to vote for the spgb at the ballot box. well...in africa britain had a number of colonies that waited a century or more and never got an election...until AFTER armed struggles for decolonisation.

hey...i guess the africans should have waited...and of course the kenyans and zambians and the rest had leaders...so their struggles were invalid...

1:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I see you say "leadership" as Capitalist principle...

But who is going to set the ball rolling?

I agree that, for example,one of the problems with the USSR and China (and why ultimately they revisioned or "failed" (as I predicted China would in 1970 [discussion with some Australian Communists]) (but overall nothing fails) and other socialist countries etc was the fact that certain leaders became synonymous with these events...ideally it is the people who make history.

Now that was also urged by Mao ste Tung (regardless of how you might see him historically, the idea is right as are certain of Lenin's ideas etc)

But one of the drives by many enlightened socialists and others was to make sure that it was the people who took charge (this was part of the struggle in Spain's intra the Left, as I see it via Orwell's (very good book) 'Homage to Catalonia')...

...and indeed decisions where possible should be collective. But you cant short circuit leaders. While we can change, we don't change that quickly... These points (5 and 6) are not clear. You want to go from c to g without going through d and f ...

2:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why bother with critiquing a party of a few dozen Brits which has never had any impact on the world?

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol here's something else for the spgb to tut tut

the nerve of these egyptian revolutionaries! supporting national liberation movements! haven't they read the spgb?

Egypt declared a state of alert early this morning after a group of 30
protesters broke into the Israeli embassy in Cairo last night and dumped
hundreds of documents out of the windows.

The storming of the building came after a day of demonstrations outside
where crowds swinging sledgehammers and using their bare hands tore apart
the embassy's security wall. Hundreds of people converged on the embassy
throughout the afternoon and into the night, tearing down large sections of
the graffiti-covered security wall outside the 21-storey building. For
hours, security forces made no attempt to intervene.

A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because not
authorised to speak to the media, said that one group of protesters reached
a room on one of the embassy's floors at the top of the building just before
midnight and began dumping Hebrew-language documents from the windows.

The prime minister, Essam Sharif, summoned a crisis cabinet meeting to
discuss the situation. In Jerusalem, an Israeli official confirmed the
embassy had been broken into, saying it appeared that the group reached a
waiting room. In Cairo, officials at the capital's airport said the Israeli
ambassador was there waiting for a military plane to evacuate him, and other
Israelis were also waiting for the flight to take them back to

4:29 pm  
Anonymous SPGB - party of solid rock said...

You pathetic carping critics.

Usually the SPGB chooses to treat the likes of you with 'the critique of silence'. You must have created great theoretical and pratical errors to part company so dramatically from the one true socialist party in Britain.

For my part I will just repeat the words I always reserve for wreckers and cynics:

When all the middlebrow reformist-dross of our time has eroded away to its constituent molecules, The SPGB will stand tall, isolated and magnificent, like Kubrick's black monolith. Any other 'socialist' party that survives from now till then will by comparison probably resemble 2001's grunting apes.

Thanks. You can close this wretched thread now.

4:36 pm  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

Richard,i appreciate you took the time to follow up on the links and just see where the SPGB are coming from and modified your view a little, even if you still do not agree with the SPGB arguments.

i cannot say the same for Anonymous who is not really adding anything of merit to the discussion.

It is NOT the SPGB's task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions or whatever , because we believe that class conscious workers are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. For the Lenininist, all activity should be mediated by the Party

The Socialist Party acknowledges that it is still necessary to engage in the non-revolutionary struggle of every-day life . But it is advocating the idea that THROUGH a policy or programme of reforms that the workers' situation can somehow be intrinsically improved or that it can progress towards the establishment of a socialist society that the SPGB adamantly refuses to recognise. We need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. We don't suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don't necessary claim that we are that party. What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist group such as ourselves, but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is all about understanding limitations and they will be subject to change when conditions change. The main purpose of the SPGB at the moment is to argue for socialism. The SPGB doesn't go around creating myths of false hopes but will remind workers of the reality of the class struggle and its constraints within capitalism.As a party we suffer the negative consequence of this political honesty.

The SPGB view its function to be to make socialists, to propagate socialism.The act of abolition of capitalist society requires a primary prerequisite and that's knowledge on the part of the individual as to what it is that is responsible for his or her enslavement. Without that knowledge we can only blunder and make mistakes that leave ourselves still enslaved.
The SPGB tries to guard against appearing to be the sole agent of the socialist transformation. Our main task is to find better ways of expressing our message to as many workers as possible, to evolve a strategy so that we use our resources well and to retain our confidence in the face of the immense frustration and pessimism which socialists often encounter.

I don't want this contribution to appear that the SPGB are without faults. We are only too aware of them as Marx was about the boils on his bum. We are more or less invisible to the working class because too often we are an organisation on the outside looking in. We look upon workers' self-organisation (for reforms, for wage rises, or whatever) and we say "It doesn't go far enough! They're not advocating socialism. Don't they understand that socialism is the solution?" and then we step back from the real struggle in front of our us for fear that either we will be tainted with the smudge of reformism or that somehow will recreate the interventionism of the Leninists. Perhaps a grain of truth in that but i would assert that it is to be with the approach and attitude which requires addressing and not the content or validity of SPGB thought. Where we as a political party and movement often fail is in our own activism, in not "being there" with the working class, alongside them, when it is fighting its battles. One cannot talk with workers unless one is WITH them. It is not enough to be one OF them. What we have to be is the movement the group which points out the way, which "pushes forward". With the SPGB by focussing mainly only on the "end aim", the role of the "movement" itself has been neglected. I hold my hands up and plead guilty. But if the revolution is a process, the SPGB is going to be part of the process and will certainly not be the unmoving monument it's made out to be, since it too evolves and has done so and will again.

5:49 pm  
Blogger ajohnstone said...

These articles might be of interest

William Morris http://mailstrom.blogspot.com/2008/10/william-morris-revolutionary-socialist.html

Luxemburg on the National Question http://www.worldsocialism.org/articles/luxemburg_and_the_national.php

Luxemburg on Reform or Revolution http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/archive/luxemburg%281939%29.pdf

10:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm in general agreement with Beggs, Maps and Crawford. But I'll look at the links. I am currently reading Scott's 'The Crisis of Theory' and finding it very interesting.

I recall debates in the 70s when I was pretty "politicised" ad there were in those days similar conflicts between or among left wing groups. (Whether to bother with theory, when it was right to act, was violence ever justified and so on.

I didn't ever quite join any "Party" (I nearly did, it had the excitement and allure of a kind of religious conversion)

I have never had much knowledge of the Spanish war. But it seemed clear to me that those fighting apartheid would (peaceful means failing) need to resort to direct action. Similarly you cant expect people to sit around waiting for revolution. There is nothing necessary of preordained about socialism.

Some years ago I read Thompson's book and I had also read about about the English Civil War (which seems to me to be the English Revolution as in fact there were people involved in that called The Levellers...)

But if you feel there is a possible change to some more egalitarian society you have to do things! And those many actions are to seen in Thompson's famous book.
Thompson "kept the faith" so to speak (with some lapses I believe, I haven't finished Scott's book!)

This is not to say that pacifism is not a valid way. Clearly (unnecessary war or "murder") is not something any sane person wants.

Potentially if no one joined armies there would be no wars...but such an enlightened populace is not (or may not easily) happen. But most (in general all) anti-war movements have the potential to stop wars and are good.

But it seems that human beings are inherently warlike. Yes they need to cooperate but in nature all animals including humans compete. IS there any guarantees? Any real hope? I think it all hangs in the balance...

That said, for me, what nearly convinced me totally, was reading in 1969 'Rape of Vietnam' by Harold Slingby. That book changed my life (not reading Karl Marx or Lenin or whoever). (I read it, copied it out completely by hand and returned it. Given me to read by CP Party member, now that was positive action by him.) Now it is books of actual events involving my reading of Vietnamese history, the Chinese Revolution (and also 'To the Finland Station', Malcolm X's book, a book about the Black Panthers, and Fanon's book etc) and a book about Chu Teh by Agnes Smedley ...these "real" (who knows how totally real or accurate and who cares that much?) and exciting events convinced me much more than theory. (I did read Marx and Engels. I liked Engels on Britain. Also and quite lot of das Kapital but it still seems to me to all be rather abstract (or impersonal).) But useful.

1:02 am  
Blogger Richard said...

But "reality" or the recorded reality by Jack Belden ("China Sakes the World" [A more recent example is "Peekskill USA" by Howard Fast]

It seems you have some fixated theory and not much going on...no real revolutions. The Trotskyists* were also much like that.

They could criticise Mao etc but the question was "Where is your Revolution?" Did if disappear down a hole?" Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and others were in real struggles (as well as being theorists)...

There is talk of Chile. But Allende failed to get support of the majority of the people, including the peasantry. Nor did he fully appreciate that "political power comes out of the barrel of a gun".

His enemies did though and they won in the gun battles.

And the German Communist Party needed to fight with guns and whatever it took, street by street. They might have won and sved the world from its most terrible war (Socialism or no socialism). They could have saved millions of lives. They had the numbers. They were, before the war, a strong party in Germany. They needed strong action and propaganda and "camps" (interesting, useful, exciting, socially responsible, and creative activities etc) etc.

But the Nazis gained the initiative. Then they slaughtered the trade unionists, communists and many others. And we know about The Holocaust. So that is the result of quietism and too much theory without practice and action.

* But the tendency to stall or form hierarchies, to hug power, or hold onto fixed theories I saw really in all Left wing groups I was associated with. But there we good people in all the left wing groups, of whatever ilk.

1:03 am  
Anonymous SPGB - party of solid rock said...

This week in 1936 saw the start of the Spanish Civil War. The Socialist Party position then and now is opposition to all of capitalism's wars:

"Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to the work for the overthrow of capitalism and triumph of Socialism." (August 25th 1914)

3:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a member of the SPGB and a shop steward in my workplace. Most of my colleagues do not know my political affiliations, and I would consider it plain wrong - and counterproductive - to link the two. The union is a very different business.

I do meet interesting people in the course of union work and get to discuss issues with them: inevitably your actual politics will out, on a you-show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine basis.

The local Trots, on the other hand, have recently launched a disastrous attempt to subvert our union, and are loathed as a result. Their motives were merely opportunistic, and have cost the actual workers' movement - the *union* - a great deal. They didn't give their affiliations either, mostly, but it was obvious from their behaviour who they were. Worse to deal with than bloody management.

The antics of the Left are for their own consumption and counterproductive to the business of getting people on board with progressive politics. They are a *barrier* to engagement by most working people. Students reading Che and trying to get laid on the back of it. Then the cadres trying to relive their experiences with a fresh-faced young intake.

That's why I think the SPGB strategy is the right one, even though it doesn't make the papers and our numbers are small. We don't con anyone. We don't tithe them. We don't make them sell our papers - or, you know, read them. We don't work for or support this-or-that state because it's supposedly a socialist state (a socialist state merely being a capitalist state with no capital). And we don't burn them. For every fanatic Left cadre there are a hundred former paper sellers who now believe Churchill's maxim that a thirty year old radical is a fool, and it was merely their youthful days.

We talk to those who are interested. We keep those who want to stay. We enter into discussions with workers not as cadres but as *fellow workers*, and do not expect them to buy our particular brand of soap powder in order to discuss the affairs of the day. We don't pretend to have more power than we have, and we certainly don't take genuine and independent worker's action on a progressive issue and try and unfurl our banner over it.

Because we don't intend to lead the class. We *are* the class. That's the strategy. And that's why we're not Left, and look like surly overeducated proles to the Left elite. And it's why the rise of the Left, associating socialism falsely with defence of this or that corner of capitalism, was poison to us; and the Left's demise is necessary to the resurgence not necessarily of us, but the politics of a total self-willed revolution of the mass of workers against capitalism.

Or why are you so small that you're now talking about us?

We're the long game.


4:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'We *are* the class'

Where have we heard that before? We are the One True Church, all the others are alien splitters in the midst of the class...give it a rest...how about some common sense and a recognition that other groups might have something to contribute?

1:54 am  

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