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Freethinking logic

The Times of 12 November 1977 carried an interview with the pop artist Peter Sedgley in which he stated that he was “formerly a member of the wholly unmilitant Socialist Party of Great Britain”. We asked him if he would like to contribute something to this issue on why he joined the SPGB and his attitude to it now.

I was born in 1930 in Peckham, South London, son of Frank Sedgley and Violet, maiden name Dickey. Frank served in France in World War One and on demobilisation became trained as an electrical  engineer in Southern Railway. I grew up with three elder brothers. My early years were very unremarkable leading up to the Second World War but quite a happy childhood living in stable working-class  circumstances. The only political knowledge I had at that time was limited to the fact that my father paid  his union subscriptions regularly every week to a man who came to collect them.

My class-consciousness was slowly developed in the war observing how accessibility to food, goods  and comforts varied with different sections of the community, privileges that seemed to be arbitrarily granted. The war increased this distinction where money and the black market flourished and benefited a
privileged few in the community. Bombs were generally targeted on manufacturing and industrial plants where the density of the working population was much higher than in the rural areas.

I had a Christian upbringing in the broadest sense and learned the basic ethics of Christianity at home and in school. Our family were not regular churchgoers, which seemed to be the preoccupation of the  slightly better off people. I did however join the Boy Scouts, which was associated with the local Church.  My mother spoke more about the ethics of living and, during the war, since she had three sons in the  military, took comfort in associating with a spiritualists group who claimed to converse with the “other  world” as they put it.

Religion, philosophy, sex and politics are usually subjects that are raised in young people’s minds with a
basic curiosity of what life is about and how one should orientate oneself to the conditions in which we live. So it was in my case. It wasn’t until after completing my military service in Egypt that I began thinking that there must be a logical relationship between philosophy and religion and politics, a sort of scientific view that would satisfy our quest for knowledge. For example where we came from and what progress can we expect to experience as we continue to follow our fate as humans.

In 1954, I was working as an architectural assistant in Theobalds Road and lunchtimes were spent wandering in the charismatic quarter of the Inns of London, Fleet Street, Leather Lane, etc. It was here in
Lincolns Inn Fields that I had my first experience of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and it was from their platform that new ideas began to invigorate my thirst for knowledge. A revelation in freethinking and
analytical logic. I became a regular visitor to the platform and whenever I had an opportunity to hear the message and the teaching I would be present. One political orator that stands out in my mind was Tony
Turner whose wit and sharp repertory was an inspiration.

I am by nature fairly shy but on one occasion I plucked up enough courage to ask Turner more about the  Party and its constitution. He invited me to go along to Clapham High Street on one of the meeting nights and introduce myself. That I decided to do and so transpired my first meeting at Clapham High Street. I had learnt that the Party was generally agnostic or atheistic and knew sufficient about the subject to argue the point. I was interested to join the party and as a result was required to answer some informal questions in the manner of a test as a noviciate.

There were usual questions of my role in society as a wage slave and to whether I saw the contradictions in the society between those who work for a living but own nothing and those who possess the means by which the former are obliged to work. There were no problems for me here. Then came the burning   question of whether I believed in God.

I had at one time believed in the existence of god, that is until I began to question the evidence for such a belief. Already the answer is in the belief. What does God mean? Until one has a definitive description of  it there is no way to measure this concept against our experience or to know whether God is likely to  exist. Without it I could not logically declare my acceptance of such a concept as objective reality. The  question surely should be whether I believe in god as an equation similar to that of the square root of  minus one. An operator intended to act as a catalyst.

I counted myself as an agnostic, the ‘not-knower’, the unbeliever, a principle which in general most people hold in many aspects of life applying caution until a principle is tried and found to function  correctly and dependably. This was seen as a denial of the apriori conditions of atheism (not an easy  option with life after death). One cannot apply the same tests. One unforeseen ally to my cause came in  the form of an ageing gentleman who seemed to be a member of the Committee on the podium, who, I  discovered later, was one of the members of the early Party. ‘Blind Mac’, I think his real name was McLaughlin. He interjected against the assertions held against me.

Discussions in the Party were septic with marvellous debate some with so-called fellow travellers, CP members, anarchist group and the like. Always the Party members seemed to hold the ground on the Marxist dialectic. During this time my wife and I made some very good friends in the Party, friends whom  we entertained at home, that is prior to being kicked out from our apartment by the landlords. We banded  together for a short time to ground a cooperative of artists intent on developing design and construction at its grassroots level. It survived for a short unparalleled six months in all. We were definitely misfits in the society searching for a new identity. Memorable, humane but sometimes sad times, being in the shadow of a nuclear threat.

And then came the rise of CND which began to take precedence over many political and ethical movements. Taking part in the Aldermaston march, the first of what one may call citizens’ initiative in  Britain, heralded the awakening of the population to the potential of personal political activation as a  deviation from our passive role and what I saw as the apathy of Party members. I suppose this was a  parting of the way for me with the SPGB.

Here I recall an ironical turn of fate. It came about that I was at one time required to apply for work as architectural assistant at the Atomic Research Establishment at Aldermaston. I reluctantly went for an interview with the Chief Architect who accepted me for the post subject to security clearance by the British and US authorities. I explained to him that I was a Marxist and a member of the SPGB and had been awarded a Discharge with Ignominy from the RAF, and I was therefore unlikely to pass their scrutiny. He was undeterred, and 3 months later I received confirmation that I had got the job including back pay. I  was disappointed at the news and refused the job anyway. Nothing dangerous about the SPGB I  discovered. Socialist Party of Good Boys, it had been said.

The image the Party propagates is that socialism will be capitalism with the depletion of all the  unpleasant features it contains. The manifestos proposing classless society, the abolition of cash nexus, to each and from each, sexual freedom, withering away of the state, all wonderful Utopia ideas worthy of any Hollywood Oscar for a science fiction adventure. But its mission is driven in negative terms.  The reality for most people of the working-class is the struggle to get and maintain a roof over one’s head so that they had a reasonable chance of surviving in a hostile environment. The time when work will be held as a privilege is a long way off.

The SPGB was, and I imagine still is, the keeper of the flame of Marxist purity. Quite right, but as Joan Lestor once said, this is an elitist attitude which refuses to take part in the reforms of capitalism because, as we say, it helps capitalism to survive and makes it more acceptable. If the Party aims will only be  fulfilled when the conditions are right for the establishment of socialism it will by that time be redundant  since its justification will no longer exist. We are not even sawing the branch on which we are sitting. We  suppose that somehow, somebody else will be doing that for us.

The proclamation that capitalism and the contradictions it precipitates will give rise to the circumstances for a socialist order has yet to be explained. Are they perhaps the contradictions which capitalism  satisfactorily solves for itself? Or would the contradictions that might destroy capitalism therefore leave a  vacuum for socialism to fill. My feeling is that the metaphor “in the womb of the old society are the seeds of its own destruction” is part of the perennial philosophy and that socialism arises out of the sophistication of a capitalist society. Marx said that with understanding we may lessen the birth pains.  Where and what are those birth pangs that Marx referred to, are we as socialists able to identify them? If  so, how can we help to alleviate the pain?

Consider for instance the change in attitude towards money. Credit and club cards, hire purchase, internet banking and purchasing, all introducing anonymity into the handling of money. This change in attitude towards the cash nexus and the nullity of money has been encouraged to avoid robbery or to make rapid money transactions, aiding commerce and facilitating banking. This tends to make ready cash unnecessary, changing the relationship of the individual to money and engendering a new concept for the public where money is now being considered in an abstract way (from each, to each?). It is in facts such as these where I perceive a metamorphosis in western capitalism/materialism. A reflection on the  phrase “the administration of things”.

We must review what features in capitalist society might be maintained or preserved in a socialist  society, continue the analytical approach of Marx in relation to the reformed ideas of capitalist society that are worthy of adoption. The formation of a ‘Marxist Think Tank’ with a view to designing, as it were, a  blueprint working policy for a socialist society and pointing to developments and changes in attitudes of a
contemporary public for the kind of world we would elect to live in.

And, should we as socialists make prognosis on how global capitalism might develop into an  international matrix of socialism that at present appears as Utopia, with ethical but non-moralistic conditions, new behaviour and codes of practice, accepting the need for a revision of taboos and  relinquishing the old codes, and propagating the notion of the depersonalisation of property? These and many other factors led me to assess that my contribution to live politics is best served in a personal attempt to behave in accordance with my social ideas and conscience and in relation to this future human condition. A condition towards which I was attracted through my good fortune to meet with
the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

PETER SEDGLEY