Some theoretical questions

Through having a formal Declaration of Principles to act as basis for membership and for the control of conduct, and through the use of Marxian economics and explanation of social change, the S.P.G.B. has maintained a continuity of outlook unknown in organisations guided largely by the mood and circumstances of the moment. But continuity has not meant refusal to recognise changes of capitalist trends or the emergence of important new information.

Marxian economic conceptions, in spite of the continuous stream of disparagement from critics, have shown themselves remarkably robust in serving to explain the workings of the capitalist system under modern developments. One illustration is the great rise of .the price level in the last forty years. While reformist parties have offered “explanations” which consist of little more than attributing the rise of prices to the wickedness of capitalists and the cowardice of governments,, Marxism economics enables us to see that the overwhelmingly largest factor has been the devaluation of the currency in terms of gold, in U.S.A., to about one half and in Great Britain to about one-third of the value before World War I.

Examination of current economic problems from the Marxian standpoint enabled the S.P.G.B. to show the absurdity of the periodical waves of currency crankism such as the Douglas Scheme; the truth that rates and taxes, in spite of their deceptive appearance, are a burden on property not on the workers’ wages and that war likewise is paid for by the capitalist class; and that while wages do not merely follow prices—other factors including the workers’ struggles play a part—the belief that lower prices mean prosperity for the workers is a delusion.

In all these matters economic understanding reinforced the S.P.G.B.’s political principles and saved it from floundering in the confusion that fogged the reformists.

Special reference needs to be made to economic crises.

Marx’s valuable material on capitalism’s economic crises was published after his death in Volumes II. and III. of Capital in virtually the incomplete form in which he left it—he had not reached the stage of rounding it off into a comprehensive whole. In the hands of later writers, friendly, critical, and hostile alike, who have overlooked this, Marx’s tentative and piecemeal conclusions have sometimes proved to be dangerous half-knowledge, and many are the explanations of and prophecies about, crises that have not stood up to the test of events; including some by the S.P.G.B. But this has not been of too great importance because the S.P.G.B. was never dependent on crises and crises theories in the way the Communists and some other groups have been. The S.P.G.B. has never been in the position of some reformists of believing that capitalism is only open to condemnation during crises and not during its boom periods; or in the position of Communists of believing that capitalism can only be got rid of through a crisis, a collapse.

This belief has a long history and it has been the S.P.G.B. alone which set itself firmly against it

When Marx and Engels were first approaching the subject of crises they thought, on the evidence then available, that crises happened at shorter and shorter intervals, each one worse than the one before. They soon dropped the first and worked on the supposition that crises happen about every ten years; and they later recognised that it was possible for a relatively acute crisis to be followed by a mild one. It is, however, probable that Marx, and certain that Engels, thought that the general trend was for crises to become worse. This came put most markedly after Marx’s death when we find Engels in 1884, under the influence of the prolonged “Great Depression,” believing that the 10 year cycle had gone and that permanent depression had taken its place; and writing two years later that “we can almost calculate the moment when the unemployed . . . will take their fate into their own hands.”

Just as 30 years earlier, in 1856, he had expected the coming economic crisis to end capitalism, so he now thought in 1886 that unemployment would drive the workers to revolt; and seven years later he was pinning his hopes on the crisis he anticipated from America’s invasion of world markets.

Nobody could hold a theory that crises become worse and worse without being at least strongly tempted to believe that this could not go on indefinitely; a time must come when the crisis would be too great for recovery to be possible. This notion was gratefully taken up by many groups, including the Communists and the I.L.P., for they had dire need of some such theory. How else could they envisage the end of capitalism? The Communists never accepted the S.P.G.B. case that capitalism would be ended by the positive action of a majority understanding Socialism. Instead they trusted in leadership of the discontented masses by an intellectual minority and they welcomed the notion that an economic crisis would provide the opportunity.

The I.L.P. had earlier believed that foe road to emancipation was through Labour Party pressure in Parliament for reforms, especially under Labour government. But by the 1931 crisis, after two Labour Governments, the I.L.P. leaders could no longer be enthusiastic for this and they gladly swallowed the “collapse” theory which promised an easy and early alternative.

The S.P.G.B., which had never needed such a theory, never entertained it and in 1932 marked its opposition to the then popular collapse doctrine by publishing a pamphlet “Why Capitalism will not Collapse,” in which was reaffirmed the Party’s view that “until a sufficient number of workers are prepared to organise politically for the conscious purpose of ending Capitalism, that system will stagger on indefinitely from one crisis to another.”

Because the S.P.G.B. has this firmly based and comprehensive Socialist case against capitalism and is not dependant on particular temporary trends of capitalism, it could view with equanimity unforeseen new developments and reversals of trends that have seriously shaken other organisations. The S.P.G.B. never mixed up State capitalism with Socialism and was therefore able from the start to examine critically the organisation, and finances of nationalisation and expose both the Labour Party propaganda asking working class support for it and the equally fraudulent campaigns against it carried on by sections of the capitalists and by the Tory and Liberal parties. The limited progress made by nationalisation in the U.S.A. and many other countries (contrary to Engels’ expectation 60 years ago), and the present perhaps temporary flow of the tide against nationalisation do not at all affect the S.P.G.B. case though they profoundly disturb the reformists to whom nationalisation meant something different and so much more important

The S.P.G.B., while opposed to building up an organisation on a reform programme, never accepted the two ideas that from time to time have obtained wide acceptance in Labour circles, that the capitalists either would not concede reforms or that they could not afford to do so. So the rise first of unemployment insurance (not foreseen by Engels and others who foretold unemployed revolt) and later of more comprehensive schemes has not in any way affected the basic case of the S.P.G.B. against capitalism.

Nor has the S.P.G.B. case needed to be modified because of the growth in trade union membership and changes in structure and activities. Members of the S.P.G.B. could be and were keenly interested in discussing trade union trends, forms of organisation, strike tactics, etc., but all of these aspects were secondary ones viewed in the light of the recognition that trade union action cannot end capitalism and establish Socialism. The “general strike” of 1926 was for the S.P.G.B. a complete confirmation of views long before thought out and discussed by members. The “general strike,” that is to say united action to hold up industry as a whole, had been advocated in the Socialist Standard four years before (Apr. 1922) as the only means of meeting the general attack on wages. The three guiding conditions then insisted upon were that the stoppage should not be prolonged, it would succeed in its object quickly or not at all; that it should be carried out peacefully for its limited objective with no encouragement of riot or destruction to give excuse for the use of the armed forces; and that the decisions to come out and go back should be in the hands of the rank and file and not entrusted to leaders. In the event it was misguided trust in leadership that made the strike of 1926 less impressive and effective than it could have been, though the S.P.G.B. certainly had never encouraged illusions as to what could be hoped for from such a strike.

On war there has been some development in the Party’s attitude due to events stimulating deeper consideration. In 1904 it seemed sufficient to explain war between capitalist powers (and their wars of colonial expansion) and to insist that the workers had no interest in the issues behind war; rounding this off with denunciation of capitalist greed and capitalist cruelty. Little was said of the attitude of Marx half a century earlier of being prepared to support one side in war either on the ground that the outcome would be an advantage for the democratic and working class movements (e.g. the defeat of reactionary Russia), or that the workers should resist aggression against the country they live in. Had this question been raised as a live issue in 1904 there can be no doubt that the Party would have decided then (as it did nearly 30 years later) that Marx was mistaken in thinking that results worth while for the working class or for the speeding up of the introduction of Socialism could result from waging war. That the S.P.G.B. should have reached a conclusion different from his was due partly to the fact that, looking back, we could see that his hoped for beneficial results did not happen; partly to realisation of the tremendous barrier to Socialism presented by nationalism; partly to the much greater magnitude and destructiveness of the weapons and organisations of war; but basically to the S.P.G.B.’s unique appreciation of the importance of understanding in the achievement of Socialism. For us it was unthinkable that lack of understanding could be compensated for by use of force. Hence the affirmation in a lengthy statement on war formally adopted by the Party that “war is not an instrument that can be used by Socialists or supported by Socialists.”

The Party’s original condemnation of unscientific emotionalism and insistence on the need to understand the causes and methods of social and ideological change and of the emergence of new forms has stood every test. The early issues of the Socialist Standard contained many articles and answers to correspondents on this issue and the article “Unscientific Emotionalism” in the issue for December, 1914, will show how adequately the problems were understood by that time. The following are extracts;—

“When our method of reasoning is applied back through history, we find that man’s thoughts have always been governed by his inherited notions and the material conditions surrounding him; and as these conditions have centred round the obtaining of food, clothing and shelter, so at each period of social history the more or less clear relations that were built up on this basis (the particular relations that existed at the particular time between the various producers and distributors of the social wealth) have been reflected in the mind in a correspondingly more or less clear manner. After the break up of the early tribal communities society was split into various classes, and history since then has been the record of the struggles of each class in its turn to control society for its own advantage. When the progress of the method of producing wealth had reached a certain point the class in society that, was taking the principal part in production found the old laws (that were suitable to the old governing class) placed a restriction on their further development. The problem of the removal of all these restrictions therefore constantly occupied them, and it is then forced home to their minds that the only solution to the problem of the removal of these restrictions is the control of society by themselves, and the alteration of the existing laws to suit the new conditions. Just so at present the spectacle of the workers doing all the work of the world forces home to the minds of men the socialist view that if the workers produce and distribute all the wealth of society they therefore should own it, and reap the benefit of their work themselves, instead of supporting a group of idlers and good-for-nothings. The solution of the problem is contained within the problem itself. ‘Therefore mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve’ (Marx).”

The article showed how the ideas of equality that had lain dormant in the minds of men since the break up of tribal Communism, had been exploited in the past by particular propertied classes struggling for supremacy and wanting the support of the oppressed, and were being exploited now by reformist bodies that did not understand the nature of the problem. The following further extract is a fitting note on which to end this brief survey of some aspects of Socialist theories.

“The socialist reasons from the practical affairs of everyday life to general conclusions, while the emotionalists set out with a plan formed in accordance with certain abstract ideas true for all time (!) without taking account of the historical development of society. They try to organise society according to the idea instead of recognising that the shape their particular ideas take has been formed by society.”


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