Why I Joined the SPGB
During the nineteen-thirties it was commonplace for meetings to be held at street corners. Many sites became well-known. There were fewer cars and no TV. The audiences were attentive, asked questions and took part in discussion. Many workers became interested in politics at such meetings. I was an example. Apart from a critical attitude to Religion, as a youth, I took most things for granted.
It was in 1933 that I first stopped to listed to a meeting. I was eighteen years old. When I heard the speaker say we were “slaves” I stayed to hear more. I may have heard words like “capitalism”, “socialism”, “wage-labour” before but never thought much about them. The speaker urged workers to organize themselves as a class and end the system that exploited them and was the cause of their poverty”. This impressed me as I had often wondered what gave other people the right to order me about, so I was in the right frame of mind. I stayed until the end. I bought a pamphlet for 1d called From Slavery to Freedom and that title suited me fine. I could use a bit of freedom. It gave me an inkling as to what Socialism was all about. I went back to Rushcroft Road time and again. Meetings began to act like a magnet. I was drawn to them. I was out every night listening and learning. I was soon familiar with the various parties. Amongst them the SPGB and I listened to their speakers. It was one of them that I heard the first time. I had become a “Political Animal”.
However, if there was a wrong turning, I took it. I was going to have to learn the hard way. I was attracted by the rallies in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square which were always “Against Fascism”. I got the idea that this was helping Socialism. This was unfortunate as I was going off at a tangent. But I wanted action. I wanted to be in the middle of things.
At the time of the Spanish Civil War, whilst crossing Westminster Bridge, our long rambling columns were confronted by arm-raised lines of BUF (Mosleyite) supporters. There were thousands in our demonstration and we outnumbered and out-shouted the “Blackshirts”. We held up clenched fists in reply to the “Hitler salute”. With our chanting and banners proclaiming “Arms for Spain” we felt we had won a victory for the forces of “peace and socialism”.
In 1936 I joined the Labour Party because I considered it “the mass party of the working class”. I was not sure what they meant, but it sounded fine at the time. Anyway I was only joining to help turn it into a genuine socialist party. My fellow members were reformists and I was going to win them over to socialism. I now regarded myself as a sound revolutionary. I did not entertain any doubts on that score.
I soon found myself engaged in other activities. Soon after becoming a member of the LP I came into contact with the “Militant Labour League” and joined. They were one of several Trotskyist factions. I was in fact a member of a party within another party. The atmosphere was very conspiratorial. Secret meetings were held regularly to decide strategy. The object was to try and get control of local Labour Party Branches. The so-called Communist Party was playing a similar game. According to the MLL the basis of socialism had been laid in Russia in 1917 by the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky, but Stalin had betrayed the October Revolution, usurped power and built up his bureaucracy. The USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state”. The object of the League was to defend the basis of this “workers’ state”, build up a fourth International, work for world revolution and overthrow Stalin, at the same fighting against the Labour leadership in Britain. We sure had plenty to get on with. But we were not deterred: we were Bolsheviks ready for any task. With the “deepening of the crisis of world capitalism” the working class would rally to the Vanguard of the Masses. That was us. We were all set to win the “leadership” stakes.
We did not bother to explain to other workers what socialism was. That was a waste of time. The workers would trust and follow us. We would raise the right slogans at the right time and we were the right leaders. Had not the mantle of Lenin and Trotsky fallen on us? The tasks in the “coming period” was immense. Programmes dealing with “perspectives” were constantly issued. We would be dealing with world-shattering events. Hitler came to power because of false leadership of the German workers. Victory for the world working class would come, under the Banner of the Fourth International. Each of us saw himself as a potential Trotsky directing Red Armies all over the world. We did not have long to wait for events to start moving. “The death agony of capitalism” started getting under way, or so we thought, when World War Two began in 1939.
During the war, at a conference, all the groups united to form the “Revolutionary Communist Party”. We listened to a recording of Trotsky’s voice. Delegates were overcome and had tears in their eyes as they heard the “Old Man’s” voice. We, the self-appointed leaders, then all shook hands and sang the Internationale. The ruling class did not have time to tremble, however, for this new party sank soon after this emotional launching. All the “perspectives” were wrong. None of the forecasts of world revolution materialized. It was the RCP that collapsed and not capitalism. There was no turning of the masses to the vanguard, and there was no death agony of capitalism.
Disillusioned, it came to me in 1945 that the workers of the world were not class-conscious. They did not want Socialism. I had to adjust my thinking. After the dust settled it was clear the post-war world was not going to be different. The working class supported capitalism and it was going to continue. At the end of the war it was “back to work” as usual for wages. The only crisis that occurred was if workers could not get their old jobs back.
My pipe-dreams were coming to an end. I could not agree with the Trotskyist slogan “For a Third Labour Government”. I refused to vote for it at the 1945 General Election. I left the Labour Party and, at the same time, broke with Bolshevism although this was regarded as “impossible”. It was like breaking out of a stifling prison and coming back into the real world.
I avidly started reading the SOCIALIST STANDARD again. In the light of bitter experience, I had to re-learn all the fundamentals of Socialism. I listened again to what the SPGB had to say. Hearing their speakers was like a breath of fresh air. I went to their lectures and classes. I was thoroughly routed in arguments about Russia. I felt confused when members of the SPGB asked me what a “workers’ state” was; why did the Russian workers pay themselves wages? Did Karl Marx write a book called Capital or a book called “Dialectical Materialism”? And much else besides. Understanding, at last, the materialist conception of history I was able to refute the “workers’ state” nonsense, and beginning to see the Trotskyite so-called “theories” were ridiculous.
I never met one Trotskyite who advocated the abolition of the wages system or understood its implications. No-one ever spoke about production solely for use. They do not know the difference between the common ownership of the tools of production with democratic control by the whole of society and what they call “nationalization under workers’ control”. The followers of Trotsky are anti-working class because they distort the meaning of Socialism. They hinder the spread of genuine Socialist knowledge.
I could see now how wrong I had been, and I had much to learn. Despite my mistakes I had not turned sour about Socialism. I applied to join the SPGB and was accepted in 1946. Socialist understanding expands when you become a member. I recall meeting again in the Camberwell branch our late Comrade Frank Dawe, whom I had known very slightly over the years. He had asked me what I had been up to, and I told him. He gave me a quizzical smile and said: “You have been doing what I call ‘boring’ in the Labour Party. All you do in fact is to ‘bore’ in at one end and then ‘bore’ out again at the other, without achieving anything. Put it down to experience!” That just about sums it all up.
J. C. Gormley