Dear Comrade,—I have to thank Mr. F. C. Watts for his clear and courteous reply to my query, “Is Society an Organism?” but I regret to say he has told me nothing I did not know before. The evidence which convinces him has so far had no weight with me, and even were the reasons I gave in my last letter the only ones I could urge against the affirmative position, I should still be unconvinced. I do not here assert positively that Society is not an organism; I merely say that so far I have failed to find sufficient evidence to warrant the statement.

I will as brielly as possible review Mr. Watts’ reply.

In answer to my proposition that “human society to be an organism must be as complex and contain the same organic parts as its individual members,” Mr. Watts refers to the human body. He says : “each individual cell does not reproduce the same complexity, nor does it contain the same organic parts, as the human body in its entirety,”

These words are mostly given in italics, Mr. Watts clinching the matter with “Obviously, then, Mr. Wright is wrong.” Considering that he has clearly supported my proposition, the last quoted sentence looks decidedly funny.

My argument was from the entire organism to the cell; Mr. Watts replies by arguing from the cell to the entire organism. My proposition states in effect that the whole is greater than a part; Mr. Watts replies that a part is not so great as the whole. I said in effect that man must be at least as complex as his liver; Mr. Watts replies that a man’s liver is not so complex as man himself.

Thus we reach the same conclusion, though Mr. Watts appears to be unconscions of the fact. That conclusion is that, man as an entire organism is at least as complex and contains the same organic parts as his individual members. This it would seem is self-evident; at all events, it is a characteristic common to all organisms with which I am acquainted ; yet when I wish to apply the test to Society, as an organism, Mr. Watts assures me I am off my base. If he knows of an organism which is less complex and contains less than its own peculiar organic parts, will he kindly trot it out.

Again Mr. Watts : “though the highest types of human society may be indefinite as compared with the human body, yet they are much more definite than many low forms of organic life.”

That is to say, that while individual cells of the human body go to form the complex and and definite organism, man ; this organism, when in its turn, it stands as an individual cell to another, and presumably, a far mightier organism, can only produce one less definite than itself.

This seems to give a double-handed twist to the statement that the whole is greater than a part, and also appears to be an inversion of the law of evolution.

What I said in reference to the brain, heart, and lungs of Society was based upon the above proposition, and it still appears to me that if Society is an organism, formed by the association of men, it should stand as far above them in organic structure as men do above their individual cells. If it does this, let us have proof ; no theological stretching to make fancy fit with fact, but facts all the way up.

It is all very well to say that “the way Society developes depends upon its own peculiar conditions, internal and external,” but Society, as an organism, can have no conditions which are not common to its individual parts, and both being in organic relationship, they must be similarly affected by these conditions, though, perhaps, in varying degree. If a man is subject to certain conditions, surely it follows that his individual members or cells are subjecl to the same conditions. Society, therefore, can have no conditions apart from its component cells.

Mr. Watts, in common with many others, appears to regard Society as a huge, indefinite abstraction ; an organism possessing neither an organic nor a stimulating impulse ; a dead chunk of intangibility; something apart from, and independent of man.

Mr. Watts asserts, with others, “that the social organism . . adapts itself to the changes in its environment.”

Is there any essential factor in human society, except man, which can adapt itself to changes in its environment ? Does Society, then, mean man in the mass, and nothing else ? If so, then truly, Society, that is, man, can adapt itself to changes in its environment. But is that what Mr. Watts means ? If not, what does he mean ?

If the term “Society” covers man and his environment, then surely it is absurd to say that Society can adapt itself to changes in Society, for that would be equivalent to saying environment can adapt itself to changes in environment.

In my letter I asked, “Where in nature may be found the animal organism in which, say, one third part doing no useful work in the economy of that organism, grows sleek and fat and is able to keep the other two-thirds, which do all the necessary work, unmourished and undeveloped ?”

In his reply Mr. Watts quotes a hive of bees. I asked for an organism, he gives me a colony of organisms, which is extremely liberal of him. But even then, the analogy is not sound. In human society the drones hold and control the means of life ; in a hive of bees they do not. In bee society the drones perform a useful function ; in human society they do not. There are other points of dissimilarity, but I cannot dwell upon them now.

I think Mr. Watts rather unkind when he refers to me as being “professedly revolutionary.” While the majority of the present members of the S.P. were enthusiastically working for the S.D.F., with its long, palliative programme, I stood outside, and told every member with whom I came in contact that palliatives should have no place on the programme of a revolutionary Socialist party.

One of the prominent members of the P. and D. Branch, who is now an active member of the Peckham Branch of the S.P., spent some time in proving—to his, not my satisfaction—that the position I held was illogical. Though now holding the view I then expounded, he has never yet apologised.

When I first realised that the revolutionary position was the right one, I believe, though I am not absolutely certain, that there was not a Socialist organisation in existence without a palliative programme. Subject to the above qualification, therefore, I claim, at least, so far as organisations are concerned, to have been in thought, though unfortunately not in action, the first revolutionary Socialist in the world. Selah !

As I am very busy and as doubtless your space is as valuable as ever, I cannot now touch upon the other points raised by Mr. Watts. Still asking for logical evidence that Society is an organism, I will conclude by wishing the party every success during the coming year.

Yours fraternally, H. PHILPOTT WRIGHT.


Calle Capua 23 entresuelo, Gijon, Spain, 2/11/06.

Dear Sir,—Your use of my name in the last two numbers of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, in a manner calculated to mislead, must constitute my excuse for begging the insertion of these lines in your paper.

You say that I served as official correspondent between the London “Impossiblists” and the Scotch Socialists now organised in the S.L.P. The facts in the case are as follows : At the Blackburn Conference of the S.D.F. in 1902, Comrades Yates and Matheson left me their addresses in order that might acquaint them with what went on in London. I was not appointed by any section and corresponded on my own. The said correspondence treated chiefly of the position brought about by my expulsion, and of the bringing out of the Socialist. When I left England I asked Fitzgerald to keep in touch with the Scotch comrades. Neither Fitzgerald nor myself represented any section.

I write because you make use of this to build up a case that the S.P.G.B. has sprung out of a London “Impossiblist” section, which is most emphatically untrue, several of your leading members, such as Kent and Neumann, having been at open enmity with the London “Impossiblists” up to and after the London S.D.F. Conference of 1903. These latter, up to the time I left London, recognised the Socialist as their organ, and did their best to push its sale, showing conclusively that they endorsed the attitude now associated with the S.L.P.
Yours faithfully,

[To save continually reiterating portions of the article that appeared in our August issue, may we suggest to future would-be critics that it would be well for all concerned if they took the trouble to read that article before rushing into correspondence. In the letter above it is stated that we said that Friedberg was the “official correspondent between the London and Scotch sections.” The article says :

“At the Blackburn Conference . . . the so-called ‘Impossiblist’ delegates from Scotland and London met. . . . Friendly relations were established and the understanding arrived at that the London members would work in conjunction with the Scotch members for the adoption of an uncompromising policy by the S.D.F., Friedberg agreeing to act as correspondent.”

Not only is there no use of the word “official,” but it is distinctly stated in the article that in London there was no special plan or organisation among the “Impossiblists,” arid therefore there could be no “official” representative in any capacity. So far as his letter goes, Friedberg substantiates the statement in the article, but he omits one important point, that is, that in addition to Yates and Mutheson, he corresponded with Anderson, who had been elected on the Provincial Executive of the S.D.F., and this on matters other than his (Friedberg’s) expulsion.

The letter says “it is emphatically untrue” that, the S.P.G.B. “has sprung out of a London ‘Impossiblist’ section,” but, unfortunately, does not attempt to state whence it sprang, if not from the London “Impnssiblists.” Nor is the statement substantiated by the reference to several of our “leading members, such as Kent and Neumann,” being opposed to the “Impossiblists.” “Several” is not well taken when only two names are given, for in the first case Kent was well known for years for his advocacy of what he called the “Ishmailitish” policy, and was in fact referred to by Friedberg in the letter sent to the New York People as the one “Impossiblist” returned to the London E.C. at the Blackburn Conference. Neumann is certainly a case in point, but his conversion to our view later on—ending in his expulsion from the S.D.F.— was evidence of the success of our efforts while in the S.D.F., to bring the truth of the situation in front of the members.

Above all is the fact that such well-known “Impossiblists” as Elrick, Fitzgerald, Alec and Margaret Pearson, Woodhouse, etc. refused to join the S.L.P., and helped to build up the S.P.G.B., while the most active member in forming the London S.L.P. was E. E. Hunter, who had been an opponent up to the Blackburn Conference.

The last point Friedberg attempts to make is that the London “Impossiblists” recognised the Socialist as their organ “and did their best to push its sale, thereby showing conclusively that they endorsed the attitude now associated with the S.L.P.” which it will be easily seen is an endeavour to build up a case on two different tenses. Firstly the article proves the position “now associated with the S.L.P.” is very different to that associated with it previously in certain particulars. Secondly, though it may be said that the tone of the Socialist was different then to what it is now, yet protests were made from London quite early in its existence against its tone. Thirdly, and most important, the pushing of the Socialist was dropped by those “Impossiblists” who refused to be led by the nose as soon as the attempt to swindle them was discovered. Ed. S.S.]

One Reply to “Correspondence”

  1. Sadly I’m not sure of the exact date, but I remember that Steve Coleman did a talk on the History of Islington Branch in (maybe) the early 1990s, where he went into some detail about Percy Friedberg. Before moving to Spain, Friedberg lived in North London and was active in the Finsbury branch of the SDF. According to Challinor, he was the first to be expelled by the SDF leadership during the impossibilist revolt. I’ve only heard a recording of the Coleman’s meeting, and the last time I asked there wasn’t a copy of it at the SPGB’s Head Office. Maybe a copy will turn up one day.

    The Matheson mentioned in the correspondence is John Carstairs Matheson, who was a schoolmaster from Falkirk. If you search his name online, it will throw up extensive correspondence between him and James Connolly.

    “. . . Kent was well known for years for his advocacy of what he called the “Ishmailitish” policy . . .” If you’re wondering what the “Ishmailitish policy” is, this Socialist Standard article from May 1905 might throw some light on it.

    “. . . Elrick, Fitzgerald, Alec and Margaret Pearson, Woodhouse, etc. refused to join the S.L.P., and helped to build up the S.P.G.B . . .” Elrick was one of the first editors of the Socialist Standard; Alec Pearson, alongside Jack Kent, attended the Amsterdam Congress of Second International in August 1904 as an SPGB delegate; Margaret Pearson was the sister of Alec (Alex) Pearson, and was married to Alex Anderson; William Woodhouse had been the secretary of the SDF Poplar Branch from 1901-03, and was a member of the East London Branch of the SPGB. He resigned from the SPGB in November 1904 as he was emigrating to the United States.

    “. . . while the most active member in forming the London S.L.P. was E. E. Hunter . . . ” Hunter’s an interesting character, not only because of his subsequent career in the ILP and as a Labour Movement journalist, but because Robert Barltrop mentions him in his biography of Jack London. According to Barltrop, Hunter was one of a handful of SDFers who knew of London’s true purpose for being in England, and provided him with information and guidance during his trip which led to London’s book, The People of the Abyss. Barltrop mentions that another SDFer, by the name of Edward Fairbrother, also assisted London during this trip. Though Barltrop doesn’t mention it, there’s a very strong possibility that this Edward Fairbrother is the same Edward Fairbrother who was a founder member of the SPGB. Interestingly, there’s no mention of Hunter’s impossibilism on his wiki page. In fact, Challinor doesn’t even mention Hunter in his book on the Socialist Labour Party.

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