1960s >> 1965 >> no-726-february-1965

Letter: Friendly Criticism From Holland

There are no objections on my part to the aims of the S.P.G.B. as laid down in your Declaration of Principles; my difficulty concerns the contradiction there is between some of those principles, whose values are being defended and advocated in your party’s literature, and the fact that your party contests in the general election for exclusive political power, with the only possible result of one day being sent to the Houses of Parliament. There they would either share the responsibilities of that “time-honoured” institution or, in the case of your party’s representatives not yielding to the temptations carried along with these responsibilities, they would not be allowed to enter, on the grounds that they want to change the status quo. And rightly so, since Parliament, as indeed all institutions, are only there for the purpose of maintaining the order of things as they are, allowing minor reforms only so as to adapt the system to newly arisen situations, and by doing so keep the control in the hands of the ruling class. All that might change is the composition of the privileged few.


However, these are mere side-reflections. The arguments against parliamentary action are based on a Marxist analysis of the present-day class struggle.


In the past the antagonisms of the capitalist way of organising the means of production called up such appalling conditions that universal suffrage and its consequence—parliamentary reform—became the means of the working class improving their general conditions. It is a different picture today. Now the workers sharply distinguish between bringing out their vote for a particular party and fighting the class struggle. The former they do according to their political notions, the latter as a result of their being exploited. The latter is more interesting because it concerns the whole class. Since the trade-unions, and their political extensions the social democratic parties, have integrated in modern capitalism, the workers have had to fight them as much as the traditional institutions. Their memory of the days when they fought side by side with union leaders and social democrats for improvements, leads them as yet to believe that corruption is the cause; other, more active and radical men must take the place of the capitalist stooges!


In true fact it is not, of course, the corruption of the leaders which has caused the at-one-time working class organisations to turn into a boomerang, but the vested interests these organisations have in the existing order.


Born from social conditions that no longer prevail, they have grown into mighty organisations with the task of maintaining and expanding their rule over the working class. Pre-eminently they are the exponents of State-Capitalism and as time goes on they will more and more prove to be far more ruthless than any established institution so far.


I have tried to show that reformism has not come about because various political parties lacked, or lack, firmness of principles but because their very form and nature belong to State-Capitalism. At a rapid speed they are swallowing the old private capitalist, for whom no one needs to feel sorry, leaving themselves as the sole rulers of the world. Contrary to the more backward countries, Western Europe and the United States were in no need of a revolution to bring to power the new class of bureaucrats,—the joint stock company of intellectuals, professionals and the most dangerous of all the managers—they had already attained sufficient power within private capitalism that a smooth take-over seems preferable with a view to the danger of rousing too much enthusiasm on the side of the working class!


If then political parties, trade unions and other bodies of professional rulers are a sign, a token of class-rule, we must try to find out what forces there are that oppose all of them equally vigorously.


This leads us to the working class themselves. They bear in themselves the means to organise socialism, they are numerous and all of them are engaged in producing the wealth of the world, and last but not least: they possess an enormous storehouse of hardly touched creative drive.


As-yet the working class hesitate. Their actions are universally denounced as avaricious, subversive, unlawful and even anti-socialist. Their enemies are stronger than ever before, much better organised and have at their disposal an unequalled propaganda apparatus. Those who are conscious of what is taking place; who, stirred by the absymal wretchedness of the working class all over the world and of all people in general, have come to the conclusion that there is one remedy only: Socialism. And nothing less will do.


The SPGB stand for Socialism. Why should it uphold and advocate the idea that the working class can vote for socialism, while at the same time telling them that it’s their task to build it? Moreover it supports the prevalent view as it is of the possibility to shun their responsibilities, with the effect that they keep on voting for the Labour party on the argument that it is bigger and more powerful!

Jos Van Oerns




We have had to make some minor alterations to this letter, but only to cut out what Mr. van Oerns called “any errors of style and usage.” The sense of the letter remains completely unchanged.


Editorial Committee.




First of all, we take it we are agreed on the aim: Socialism, a system of society in which all have free access to the means of production, a self-controlling world community in which the principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” prevails.


The question, then, is how to achieve this aim.


(1) Who is to implement it? A study of present-day society reveals that the class in whose interest it is to establish Socialism is the working class. This class, brought into being and trained by capitalism, now runs industry from top to bottom. It has no need of the superfluous owning class which lives off its unpaid labour. At present, however, the working class does not realise this. The present task of the SPGB is to help them to come to such an understanding.


(2) What grounds have we for assuming that such understanding is possible? According to the materialist conception of history the basic social relations are those of property, ultimately dependent on the development of technology. They give rise to classes and to class conflict. Social change comes about in the following way: a change in technology changes the mode of production and shifts the centre of industrial control, causing a new class to come to prominence. At first the struggle of this new class against the institutions and values of the old order will be purely an economic one. Later, as the new class becomes conscious of itself it will begin to organise itself politically. This organisation will be completed when the class achieves political power. The class conflicts generated by the economic structure of society always ultimately become political, i.e. conscious class, conflicts. The prize in all the class conflicts in history has always been, in the end, political power. This is the thesis of the materialist conception of history.


(3) Is this analysis applicable to present-day society? Certainly. The development of technology which was the Industrial Revolution and what has followed ever since has developed a new class. The economically important class today is the working class. The property relations of capitalist society give rise to a conflict between this class and the privileged owning class. Up till now this class struggle has been unconscious and purely economic. The working class have been forced to organise in trade unions to use in the struggle over the division of the product of their labour. Insofar as they are used for this purpose these trade unions have the support of the .SPGB. (Your comments seem to suggest that trade unions are wholly anti-working class organisations. In our view this is a dangerous oversimplification.)


(4) What of the future? Trade union action, the economic phase of the class struggle, precisely because of its unconscious nature, has its limitations. The history of class societies shows that the economic actions of any rising class have had a defensive character. To win they have had to organise consciously and politically. The same applies to the working class today. If they are to win, they must wage the class struggle consciously. This involves organising as a political party with a view to capturing political power. This is the case of the SPGB for political action.


(5) This view is based on a study of history and in particular of the role of the State, the seat of political power and the centre of social control. In the advanced capitalist countries, in order to ensure the smooth functioning of their system, in order to avoid interruptions of work by political conditions, the capitalist class have been forced (or, in some cases, found it convenient) to institute peaceful ways of sounding opinion and settling disputes. Disputes have been institutionalized in the voting and, for want of a better word, parliamentary system. It is our view that it is possible for the working class to use these institutions to settle their class struggle with the owning class. The vote is thus a potential class weapon. But the vote, like other weapons, can be used properly or improperly. Because at present the workers use it to elect demagogues and careerists of one kind or another is no argument against its potentialities.


(6) As far as we are concerned, what is important is not so much the vote as the understanding behind it. Thus, when we contest elections we do all we can to make sure that only convinced Socialists vote for us. A vote won on other grounds is worse than useless as the history of the Social Democrats of Europe has shown. The vote is just a possible means to political power—the goal of a class conscious working class.

(7) Clearly then our conception of political action differs from that of other parties and the reformists in particular. They perform any tricks and engage in all kinds of demagogy in order to get elected. Without a Socialist working class behind them, what can they do? Nothing save maintain the status quo. Hence the phenomena of “sell-out” and “betrayal.” It is completely irrelevant to judge the usefulness of political action on how the reformists have used it, not least because they operate on a different assumption, namely, that you can substantially improve the lot of the working class without Socialist understanding . When delegates of the SPGB are sent to the centre of political power they will be the delegates of the working class because the SPGB will be the working class organised consciously and politically.

(8) The point is that we are not a political party in the conventional sense of the term, we are not a group of politicians trying to get elected to do something for the working class, to pass a Socialism in Great Britain Act and legislate the new society into being. Far from it, in our view a Socialist party should not be a vanguard but an instrument. We conceive ourselves as an instrument which the working class can use to achieve political power, a necessary prerequisite for the establishment of Socialism.

Editorial Committee.