Welcome to this special edition of the Socialist Standard, a commemorative issue marking one hundred years in the political life of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. When our Party was formed on 12th June 1904, in a hall in a little alley off Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, London, the founder members would rightly have viewed the possibility of our existence a century later in something of a negative light. The aim of the Socialist Party has always been ‘socialism and nothing but’ and the founder members conceived the Party as a mechanism through which socialist ideas could be rapidly spread and, potentially, through which the working class of wage and salary earners could come to political power. The subsequent creation of socialism would render the need for a socialist party redundant and so, one hundred years on, the very continued existence of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is indicative of the fact that the system of society the founder members were dedicated to overthrowing – capitalism – is still with us.
To this effect, today, ownership of the means of living (the factories, farms, offices, communication systems and so on) is still in the hands of a minority social class that can live a luxurious existence without having to work.Virtually all the useful work in society is being done by the majority, a class of people forced by economic compulsion to sell their working energies for a wage or a salary that is less in value than what they produce. It is a society characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty, by wars and chaos and by a meanness of spirit that undermines much that is decent about human beings. For the last hundred years the Socialist Party has been waging a war of our own – against capitalism and for socialism. We have waged a war too against all the political parties who have supported capitalism, including those that have done so while paying lip-service to socialism. The achievement of socialism has been our sole objective, because our understanding of capitalist society and its working has told us that it is a system capable of change over time but not change that can abolish its fundamental defects. Capitalism has altered over the last century, but not fundamentally so and all the problems associated with it in 1904 are still present today, with some new and unforeseen ones too.
In one sense, capitalism is the most successful social system that has ever existed in that the working class, through its collective efforts, has been able to develop the powers of production to previously undreamed-of heights, from putting a man on the moon to mapping the human genome. But these powers of production are wasted and distorted by a system that puts profit before needs as a matter of course and where collective effort is destabilised by competition and division. A society that can now send spaceships to Mars but which cannot adequately feed, clothe and house the world’s population despite the massive technological resources at its disposal is a society that is seriously and fundamentally flawed.
One hundred years ago the men and women who founded the Socialist Party came to a significant political conclusion, which is just as important now as it was then. This was that capitalism, through creating an interconnected world-wide division of labour and unparalleled leaps in productivity (whereby ten years in its lifespan is equal to one hundred years and more of previous systems like feudalism), has created the conditions of potential abundance necessary for its own replacement and also a social class of wage and salary earners with the incentive to organise for this. What pioneers of the socialist movement like Marx, Engels and Morris envisaged as socialism or communism, had become a practical possibility and tinkering with an inherently defective system like capitalism a waste of time and energy in the light of it.
The founders of the Socialist Party recognised that the time was ripe for the working class to organise itself consciously and politically to democratically take control of the state machine in countries across the world, dispossessing the owning class of capitalists and socialising production on an international basis. In doing so the working class would consciously create a system where human activity would be carried out solely and directly to meet the needs and desires of the population, and where all the defining categories of capitalism had been abolished: production for profit, money, national frontiers, the class system and – as a result – the enforcer of class society itself, the state.
At the time of our Party’s foundation other politicalactivists agreed that this type of society was possible and desirable, but disagreed about how it could be created. Due to what they took to be the backward intellectual development of the working class, they thought that capitalism would need to be gradually transformed into socialism by a series of reform measures. They labelled the founder members of the Socialist Party and others who thought on similar lines ‘impossibilists’, people who were demanding the impossible when piecemeal and gradual reform was all that was realistic. This was the substance of our break in 1904 with our parent body, the Social Democratic Federation, and the basis for our criticism of other organisations of the time like the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society.
Organisations like the SDF that had a paper commitment to socialism were in practice swamped by people who were attracted by their reform programmes rather than their supposed commitment to abolishing capitalism. In these circumstances, those who viewed reforms as a stepping-stone to socialism were themselves swamped by people for whom reforms were simply an end in themselves, palliating the worst excesses of the system. The history of the Labour Party – formed out of the Labour Representation Committee in 1906 – is a case in point. More than any other organisation in Britain, the Labour Party developed as a body hoping to reform capitalism into something vaguely humane. Today, in 2004, the modern Labour Party stands as an organisation which has instead been turned by capitalism into something rather more than vaguely inhumane. From Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald onwards it has steadily drifted towards where it is today – a party which has abandoned any hope of seriously changing society for the better but which now markets itself as the most efficient managerial team for British Capitalism PLC instead.
Over decades, millions of workers the world over have invested their hopes in so-called ‘practical’, ‘possibilist’ organisations like the Labour Party, hoping against hope that they would be able to neuter the market economy when, in reality, the market economy has successfully neutered them. As such, the damage these organisations have done the socialist movement is colossal. That they turned out to be the real ‘impossibilists’ – demanding an unattainable humanised capitalism – is one of the greatest tragedies of the last century, made all the greater because it was so utterly predictable.
Unfortunately for the socialist movement, the reformist distraction has not been the only one, however. Another political tendency emerged, principally out of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917, claiming that they had found another route to socialism. However sincere some of their number may have been at the outset – and whatever their laudable success at curtailing Russia’s part in the First World War – Lenin’s Bolsheviks proved to be a political tendency that set the clock back for socialism at least as much as reformism did. In claiming that socialism could be created by a political minority without the will and participation of the majority of the population, and through their wilful confusion of socialism with nationalisation and state-run capitalism generally (a type of opportunism also shared – over time – by the reformists), they shamelessly distorted the socialist political programme.
The Socialist Party was the first organisation in Britain (and possibly the world) to foresee the disastrous state capitalist outcome of the Bolshevik takeover but we gained no satisfaction in doing so. Even now, years after the collapse of the Kremlin’s empire, the association of socialist and communist ideas with state capitalism, minority action and political dictatorship is one of the greatest barriers to socialist understanding. Today, both reformism and Bolshevik-style vanguardism stand discredited. As ostensible attempts to create socialism they didn’t just fail, they were positively injurious to the one strategy that could have brought about a better society during the last century. The modern far left – by combining the two elements together in an unfortunate mix – have opted for the worst of both worlds and rightly are politically marginalized because of it.
From our standpoint in 2004, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our companion parties abroad in the World Socialist Movement regard our situation with both pride and sadness. Sadness because two political currents we warned against most vehemently – reformism and vanguardism – succeeded in derailing the socialist project so spectacularly, but pride because of the part we have played in keeping the alternative vision alive.
The political positions of the Socialist Party were not handed down on tablets of stone in 1904. With the Object and Declaration of Principles as our guide we have developed our own analysis and political viewpoints as the last hundred years have worn on. Occasionally we may have made mistakes, but we are confident that our record over the last century stands for itself – of propagating the case for real socialism, in exposing the promises and trickery of the reformists and the vanguardists, in opposing the senseless butchery of the working class in two world wars and countless others, and in presenting a clear analysis of capitalism in language readily understandable to those whose interest lies in socialism.
In the pages of this special issue you will read about the remarkable men and women who have been members of our Party over the last hundred years and about the political input they have had to make. Without doubt, their contribution has been an immense one and we pay public tribute to them for it, but there is a lot more work still to be done.
Capitalism today stands as a social system that bears with it little by way of a positive perspective for humanity. In the major industrial centres of the system, significant rises in productivity coupled with trade union action by workers to win a half-decent share of the gains, have led to rising purchasing power for many. But capitalism and insecurity continue to go hand in hand and in the so-called ‘Third World’ millions starve every year while literally billions now live in disgusting conditions with no hope in sight for them. Everywhere on the planet capitalism has spread its malignant influence: creating a society where everything (and everyone) can be bought and sold, where an ‘every man for himself’ culture leads to escalating brutality, crime and violence and where the social codes built up during the system’s formative years have been undermined by a rampant drive to commercialisation, fostered by a distorted and ruthless individualism. In 2004, nationalism, political gangsterism, religious fundamentalism and terrorist atrocities are the order of the day in a system that neither knows or cares where it is heading.
In the first edition of the Socialist Standard we called upon our readership to “help speed the time when we shall herald in for ourselves and for our children, a brighter, a happier, and a nobler society than any the world has yet witnessed”. One hundred years later we are still here, and make the same plea, with the same force and urgency. No matter how inconvenient it may be for our political opponents, we are not going away until our job is done.
That day will come when the working class has seen through the lies and false promises that have proved such a distraction this last one hundred years. And it will come when the supposedly incredible idea of creating a world without wars and worries, money and markets is accepted as not only necessary for the sake of humanity, but recognised for being just as realisable as other once ‘impossible’ projects are today . . . like a man on the moon,or a spaceship to Mars.