The Socialist Party v. The Communist Party – A Debate
About four hundred people were present at Chalmers Street, Clydebank, on Wednesday, May 27th, to hear a debate between the Communist Party of Great Britain and the S.P.G.B. The subject for debate was, “Which Policy should the working class support at the Present Period of Crisis, that of the C.P.G.B. or that of the S.P.G.B.” Mr. J. Cunningham occupied the chair.
The Chairman intimated that the conditions of debate would be: first speech twenty minutes, second speech fifteen minutes, and a closing speech of five minutes. All “personalities” barred.
A. Shaw, on behalf of the S.P.G.B., opened the debate by defining terms. By working class was meant those who had to sell their labour-power to the capitalist class in order to live. By capitalist class was meant those who bought the labour-power of the workers. Capital was that portion of wealth used with a view to profit. The working class desired to sell their labour power at as high a figure as they could possibly obtain, while the capitalist endeavoured to purchase as low as possible. The private ownership of the means of living provided the basis for a struggle which Socialists termed the class struggle.
The class struggle had two aspects—economic and political. Workers form organisations on the economic field (Trade Unions) in order to make organised resistance to capitalist attacks on wages and working conditions, but in spite of all efforts put forth by them on this field their conditions tend to become worse. The class struggle would go on so long as the capitalist system of society existed.
Under such conditions the workers are doomed to a life of poverty, degradation and misery. The means of production are developed to such an extent at the present time, that all kinds of goods could be produced almost as plentifully as water. Yet we had the absurd state of affairs of workers starving in the midst of plenty. In America, in the State of Ohio, wheat was being burned in order to keep up prices. Around us the factories and granaries were bursting with the necessities of life while the producers went ill-clad, ill-nourished and ill-housed. This being the state of affairs, workers organised on the political field in order to better their conditions. Lacking knowledge of the cause of their terrible plight, the workers fell easy victims to smooth-tongued orators who enlisted their support for any and every policy but that which would free them from their poverty-stricken condition.
The I.L.P., the Labour Party, and the Communist Party had programmes which they claimed would benefit the working class. The Socialist Party of Great Britain also had a programme, but unlike the programmes of the Parties mentioned, which wish to reform the present order in certain details, the Socialist programme was one of Social Revolution. Nothing short of the complete abolition of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism would serve the interest of the working class.
The Communist Party spread confusion among the workers by advocating such nostrums as a £4 minimum wage and a six-hour working day, abolition of the House of Lords, &c. Their policy changed so often that it was difficult at times to know where they stood. As an example of this, his (Shaw’s) opponent and others, as Communist candidates in Glasgow, recently advocated a £3 minimum and a seven-hour day. Having failed to get working class support for their reforms at previous elections the Communist Party had reduced this particular reform from £4 to £3 a week. There was no difference between tactics such as these and of those used by Labour politicians to whom Communists professed to be opposed.
For years the Communist Party had been telling the workers that Socialism was in being in Russia. This was false. The workers in that country were at the present time producing commodities for sale and being exploited as in other capitalist countries. Capitalism, not Socialism, was developing in Russia. The social relations of wage-labour and capital were the order of the day in Russia and were developing under the name of the Five Year Plan.
The Five Year Plan (much boosted by Communists) was merely a step taken in the Industrialising of Russia, and Industrialisation would develop in Russia as it had done in any other country—at the expense of the worker.
The majority of the population of Russia were peasants, with the peasant individualistic outlook, and largely illiterate. It was difficult enough to get the workers of western capitalist countries to understand Socialism (where all the conditions were favourable and reflected this idea) but how much more difficult would it be in such a backward country as Russia?
Russia held out no example to the workers of Britain or any other capitalist country of how to establish Socialism. On the contrary, as Marx had pointed out many years ago in the preface to his work “ Capital,” the more highly developed country held out to the lesser developed the image of its own future.
The position of the Socialist Party was that Socialism could only come about by the intelligent action of an enlightened working class, organised in a Revolutionary Socialist organisation to get control of the State machine for that purpose. No reforms or palliative measures could be advocated by such a Party to side-track the workers, therefore he (Shaw) would ask, the workers present to support such a policy and reject the reformist and muddled policy of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
THE COMMUNIST PARTY’S CASE
Peter Kerrigan, on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain, stated that he agreed with his opponent that the abolition of capitalism was the only hope of the workers. At the present stage of capitalist development we were in a period of permanent crisis. The policy of the Communist Party was framed to apply to conditions as they were at present. The Communist Party took part in all the struggles of the working class, hence their programme had to be broad enough to cover all details of working class life. The representative of the S.P.G.B. was in error when he referred to the programme of the Communist Party as a programme of reforms. Since capitalism, to-day, was at the stage where it could not grant the demands of the workers, those so-called reforms were revolutionary in character. The immediate needs of the workers were of more importance than the abstract theories of the S.P.G.B. By lining up with the workers in every struggle we would ultimately arrive at unity. We could get unity only by preaching what the workers wanted. A seven-hour day was a need of our class; therefore we ought to advocate it and organise the workers for it. The masters were lowering wages; therefore we should strive with the workers in order that wage-cuts be resisted. Marx in “Value, Price and Profit ” made this quite clear. In the day to day struggle of the workers the S.P.G.B. were of no assistance.
Shaw had stated that capitalism was the order of the day in Russia. Such a statement showed that his opponent did not understand the Russian situation. Socialism was being built in Russia. A workers’ government was in control there, and there was no unemployment. The workers being in control of their own affairs were better off.
There were three systems of economy in Russia : 1 Handicraft in backward areas, 2 Concessions (under control of the Workers’ State), 3 Socialist economy. The Socialist economy was fast ousting the Concessionaires and abolishing handicraft. The workers granted concessions to outside capitalists, only in order to develop Russian industry.
Lenin had shown that the workers here could learn many valuable lessons from Russia, and, while learning those lessons, they should give Russia every assistance possible.
The S.P.G.B. wanted the workers to get control of the State. Marx said that the State machine must be broken and replaced by a Workers’ State. So much for the Marxism of the S.P.G.B. !
Did the S.P.G.B. think that the masters would allow them to peacefully achieve their goal? He (Kerrigan) did not think so. The whole of the past history was against such a theory. The workers must be armed and establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This meant a new form of the State and would be the fullest Democracy.
The programme, as outlined by the speaker, was. the correct policy for a revolutionary workers’ party, and he would ask the workers present to support it.
SOCIALIST PARTY REPLY
Shaw, for the next fifteen minutes, dealt with the points raised by the Communist speaker. First of all, he said, Kerrigan seemed to think that by merely asserting a proposition, it was so. He would remind his opponent, that he who puts forward a proposition must back it up with evidence.
His opponent had stated that the programme of the Communist Party was framed to deal with the immediate needs of the workers. This plea had been put forward by reformers of all shades of opinion. Conservatives, Liberals and Labourites had used this plea with disastrous effect on the workers who accepted it. If the workers accepted the Communist plea the effect would be no less disastrous. His opponent had failed to show how any of the planks of the Communist programme could alter the position of the workers, if any, or all of them, were put on the Statute Book. The workers would still be in poverty, would still be slaves to those who own the means of life. If unity could be achieved by this method, it certainly would not be unity for Socialism.
So far as wages disputes were concerned, the S.P.G.B., being of the working class, had of necessity to take part in this every-day struggle. Who could avoid it if they be workers. The columns of the official organ of the Socialist Party, the “Socialist Standard,” were used to point out the correct tactics to be adopted, as conditions determined, in such struggles. At the same time the limitations of such struggles were pointed out.
There was nothing revolutionary in fighting a wages battle with the employers. People holding all kinds of political opinions, from the die-hard Tory to the blow-hard Labourite, took part in such fights and did not desire Socialism; many, on the contrary, were strongly opposed to anything suggestive of Socialism.
His opponent had made the assertion that Socialism was being built in Russia, but had failed to submit any evidence of his assertion. When such evidence was produced it would be dealt with.
Arming the workers to smash the State had been put forward by his opponent as a means of Social Revolution, but he had not informed us where the workers were to obtain arms, and who was to train them. And did he think the masters in the meantime would stand idly by, perhaps putting a donation into their collection boxes in order to assist them? The advocacy of physical force was a suicidal policy. The workers were no match for the trained disciplined forces of the State. If the workers in Clydebank were to attempt to defy the State forces in the manner advocated by the Communist Party it would mean an early grave for them. A couple of battleships on the Clyde could turn Clydebank into a cemetery in the twinkling of an eye, and would do so if the workers there ever attempted to put into practice the nonsense taught by the Communist Party. This policy would lead to the shambles, not to emancipation. Engels, in his preface to Marx’s “Class Struggles in France,” had pointed out, over thirty years ago, that he who would advocate street fighting and violent uprisings was an idiot, yet hero we had the Communist Party advocating that workers should fight the State forces. The development of the technique of modern warfare itself was sufficient to fender this method obsolete and impossible.
The only sane, safe and sure method of overthrowing capitalism was, as Engels pointed out, to control the armed forces by getting control of the State machine. This was the Marxian method, the method of the S.P.G.B.
SECOND SPEECH FOR THE COMMUN1ST PARTY
Peter Kerrigan, in his next fifteen minutes contribution, stated that he was surprised that Shaw, instead of wasting time by accusing his opponent of making baseless assertions about Russia, had not given the audience some data from authoritative sources to show, that Russia was a capitalist country. Shaw’s accusations on this score also applied to himself.
Russia, to-day, was in a period of transition to Socialism. The State industries there are Socialist forms and are developing. There is no unemployment. He would like to know where the industries are, in Russia, owned by capitalists. Shaw could not tell us, because there are none owned by capitalists. All industries there are owned by the people. The Constitution in Russia was the most Democratic that had ever been established. This Constitution gave the workers full control.
Surplus-Value in Russia goes back to the people via the channel of Social Services, and was used to better the conditions of the worker all round. Hours of labour were shortened and wages were increased. It was only a matter of time before the workers of this country realised the great changes that had taken place in Russia, that one-sixth of the globe were establishing Socialism in spite of world opposition.
His opponent was opposed to the idea of workers fighting the armed forces of the nation, but he would assure them that this job was not so ghastly as it appeared to be. The Communist Party was carrying on a campaign of propaganda among the troops which was very successful.
Shaw’s reference to Engels’s preface in no way assisted him, as it had been proven, since that preface had been written, that the manuscript had been altered in some details by Bernstein. . Bernstein himself had admitted that he had altered Engels’s work.
On the question of a country struggling for the rights of nationality, he would remind his opponent that Marx had supported the Germans against the French in 1870. Then, again, Marx had enthused for workers using physical force whilst writing for the “New Rhenish Gazette.”
The workers could not get their emancipation through Parliament. Before allowing the workers to do so the ruling class would abolish this institution. When the workers of Ireland had voted solid for Home Rule they were ignored. The same thing happened in Egypt and other countries. The workers here would have to do as the workers of Ireland had to do —take up arms.
LAST SPEECH FOR THE S.P.G.B.
Shaw, in his closing speech of five minutes, reviewed the ground covered by him and his opponent. The time allotted to both speakers was inadequate for them to deal in detail with the differences which existed between the S.P.G.B. and the C.P.G.B. Both speakers had to deal with the positions of their respective organisations in a general way. However, enough had been said to make it clear that only by workers becoming class-conscious, organising for control of political power as advocated by the Socialist Party of Great Britain could they win their emancipation. Any other method was doomed to failure. Socialism was the only hope of the workers, hence the ‘ Socialist Party would go on advocating and organising for it, refusing to be side-tracked and refusing to follow the Will-o’-the-wisp of Social Reform as the Communists were doing.
LAST SPEECH OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY
Kerrigan, in winding up the debate, wished to emphasize the fact that fighting for “immediate demands ” was in no sense of the word reformist. The development of capitalism had made reforms a thing of the past. The I.L.P. and the Labour Movement promised the workers reforms but were not delivering the goods, and could not. The Communist Party, on the other hand, recognised the revolutionary significance of pressing forward with their programme of “immediate demands,” as by this method they would go forward to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was only by paying attention to the details of working class life and framing our programme accordingly that we would go forward to Communism. Mr. Cunningham, the chairman, after a few remarks on the able manner in which the participants in the debate had put forward their positions, threw the meeting open for questions, a large number of which were answered by the two speakers.
This was the first time the position of the S.P.G.B. was put before a Clydebank audience, many of whom had never even heard of the Party’s existence, and on hearing the position for the first time received it in a manner which could only be described as “enthusiastic.” Many of them expressed a wish to hear more of the Socialist Party case, as they had become disgusted with the Labour Party and considered that the Communist Party was no better. At the request of several workers, we decided to remain in Clydebank until evening and hold a propaganda meeting. This meeting was held and was so successful that Glasgow Branch decided, to continue holding meetings in Clydebank during the summer.
Since the debate, we have held another meeting in Clydebank and our literature sales there have doubled. With persistent effort we hope to, in the near future, put Clydebank on the Socialist map, by forming a Branch of the Party there.
Glasgow Branch Organiser.
Note.—In order not to allow inaccurate statements to gain currency we deal briefly with four assertions made by the representative of the Communist Party which our representative did not have time to deal with fully. (1) P. Kerrigan said :—
“The S.P.G.B. wanted the workers to get control of the State. Marx said that the State machine must be broken and replaced by a Workers’ State. So much for the Marxism of the S.P.G.B.”
The implication of Kerrigan’s assertion is that Marx did not urge the workers to get control of the State machinery. This is quite incorrect. Two brief quotations will suffice to show that the Marxian position is that held by the. S.P.G.B., i.e. that the workers must use the vote to obtain control of the political machinery.
Marx, in an article on the Chartist Movement, published by the “New York Tribune,” on 25th August, 1852, wrote:—
“The six points of the Charter which they contend for contain nothing but the demand of universal suffrage. . . . But universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat form the large majority of the population. . . . Its inevitable result here, is the political supremacy of the working class.”—(Republished in the “Labour Monthly,” December, 1929.)
Engels, Marx’s intimate friend, wrote in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific ” (Sonnenshein edition, 1892, p. 86):—
The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialised means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property.
It may be remarked here that Lenin, in his “The State and Revolution” (B.S.P. and S.L.P. Edition, October, 1919, page 30) gave support to this policy. He wrote:—
“The proletariat needs the State, the centralised organisation of force and violence, both for the purpose of crushing the resistance of the exploiters and for the purpose of guiding the great mass of the population . . . in the work of economic Socialist reconstruction.”
(2) Kerrigan claimed that in Russia there are no industries “owned by capitalists. All industries there are owned by the people.” He was not referring to the concession companies (which he admitted are capitalist owned) but to the so-called “Socialist ” State industries and collective farms. What Kerrigan overlooks is that the State industries in Russia, like the Post Office in this country, are financed on borrowed capital; they are a source from which the investor draws interest on his investment, out of the product of the worker’s labour. The original estimates of the Russian Government were for the raising of 6,000 million roubles (£600 million) for the Five Year Plan. This; with loans already outstanding would have increased the national debt to £750 millions at the end of the financial year 1932-33. (See Review of Bank for Russian Trade, June, 1929.) Actually the original estimates will be greatly exceeded. The above figures do not include credits obtained outside Russia and estimated at about £100 millions. Nor do they include investments of capital in the Russian Co-operatives, or the capital brought into the collective farms, by the peasants in the form of animals and machinery.
The interest paid on State loans is 10% or more. The interest on tens of millions of pounds of co-operative capital is 8%. The interest paid to farmers on their capital brought into the collective farms is 5%. (See “ Manchester Guardian,” 4th March, 1931. Article by the Moscow correspondent.)
(3) Kerrigan further claimed that Engels preface to Marx’s “Class Struggles in France 1848-1850 ” had been “altered in some details by Bernstein,” and that ” Bernstein himself had admitted that he had altered Engels’s work.” The mention of Bernstein is puzzling. Kerrigan’s probably here thinking not of Bernstein but of a statement made by Engels himself in a letter to Kautsky to the effect that he had exercised restraint in the phrasing of his preface because of the possibility of the German Government re-enacting the anti-socialist laws. But the deduction drawn by some Communists is absurd. To suppose that Engels would avoid provocative phrases in the existing circumstances is reasonable; but it is not reasonable to suppose that Engels would categorically and in detail analyse and reject the idea of armed revolt as lunacy, and explicitly assert on the contrary that “bourgeoisie and Government feared far more the legal than the illegal action of the workers’ party, more the successes of the elections than those of rebellion,” if in fact he held precisely the opposite view. There is no foundation whatever for the view that Marx and Engels favoured the suicidal Communist policy of unarmed workers throwing themselves against the State and its armed forces. Such a policy is now even more impracticable than it was when Engels wrote in 1895.
(4) The assertion that Marx supported the Germans against the French in 1870 has no foundation in fact. In the first Manifesto of the International on that war he wrote:
“On the German side, the war is a war of defence; but who put Germany to the necessity of defending itself? Who enabled Louis Bonaparte to wage war upon her? Prussia! It was Bismarck who conspired with that very same Louis Bonaparte for the purpose of crushing popular opposition at home, and annexing Germany to the Hohenzollen dynasty. If the battle of Sadowa had been lost instead of being won, French battalions would have over-run Germany as allies of Prussia. After her victory did Prussia dream one moment of opposing a free Germany to an enslaved France? Just the contrary. While carefully preserving all the native beauties of her old system, she super added all the tricks of the Second Empire, its real despotism, and its mock democratism, its political shams, and its financial jobs, its high-flown talk and its low legerdemains. The Bonapartist régime, which till then only flourished on one side of the Rhine, had now got its counterfeit on the other. From such a state of things, what else could result but war? . . . . . . . . The very fact that while official France and Germany are rushing into a fratricidal feud, the workmen of France and Germany send other messages of peace and good will; this great fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future.”
The above is dated “London, July 23rd, 1870.”