Against the Left pt.4
I.V. SECTARIANISM AND PRINCIPLES
That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party (Socialist Party of Great Britain Declaration of Principles, Clause 7)
The first articles in this series charted the history of the main currents of the British Left: the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the Trotskyists. We have tried to show how each of these movements has failed to represent the true interest of the working class; that however well intentioned a particular group of leaders may have been, their policies led to the continued exploitation of the working class. The only party in Britain with a principled commitment to socialism is the Socialist Party of Great Britain. To understand why this is so we need to examine its origin.
The founders of the Socialist Party in June 1904 were former members of the Social Democratic Federation. They had learnt their Marxism from the SDF which at least paid lip service to the ideas developed by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. The SDF programme aimed at
“The Establishment of a free condition of society, with equal social rights for all, and the complete emancipation of labour.”
Its revolutionary object was subordinated, however, to a programme of palliatives (a minimum programme) to be enacted while the long-term aim was realised. This dual programme was the reason for the SDF’s failure as a workers’ party. Advocacy of social revolution and demands for social reform cannot go hand in hand. Once you begin to sacrifice immediate abolition of capitalism for immediate amelioration of its evils and socialism is rejected. A ‘reformist revolutionary’ party is like a team of workers sent to demolish a building who set about their work by painting over the cracks in the wall and mending the holes in the ceiling. The women and men who left the SDF to form the SPGB were the first to learn this lesson; in doing so they even rejected Marx’s lifelong belief that socialists should give their support to certain legislative reforms.
These women and men began to make their voices heard within the SDF but were dismissed as Impossibilists and a number were expelled. Early in 1904 they formed a Protest Committee and held a conference at Shoreditch Town Hall to fully discuss their disagreements with the SDF. They issued a leaflet on their disagreements which was signed by eighty eight members and ex-members of the SDF. In May a meeting in Battersea resolved to form a new party committed solely to socialism. On Sunday 12 June, at the Printers’ Hall in Bartlett’s Passage, off Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, the inaugural meeting of the new party was held, at which was adopted the Declaration of Principles still adhered to today. A leaflet issued in 1905 (reproduced in the June 1974 Socialist Standard) gives a clear indication of the position taken by the new party:
“NO COMPROMISE! NO VOTE SNATCHING! NO POLITICAL TRADING! Not so-called reforms. Not alleged half-loaves. These are of no serious account from a working class standpoint. The parties that are endeavouring to secure support for “reforms” and “half loaves” are deluding the working class, wasting its strength, delaying its development. They are all working class enemies, however they call themselves — Liberal party, Social Democratic Party, Tory Party, Independent Labour Party, Labour Church or what not.
SOCIALISM and socialism alone, offers a way of escape from the insecurity and penury and misery that result from the robbery of the working class. Nothing else will avail.”
For three quarters of a century that has been the position of the SPGB. The Left have advocated reforms, they have advised workers to accept ‘compromise’ with their class enemies and to vote for Labour.
The Left have bitterly opposed the consistent principles of the SPGB. We have been called ‘Utopians’ for envisaging a future based upon an entirely new set of social relationships; we have been called ‘armchair philosophers’ for advising workers to think and not merely to follow; and we have been called ‘sectarians’ for refusing to join in the various reformist campaigns of the Left. Let us examine this term, sectarianism.
Shortly before the formation of the SPGB Lenin was writing his What Is To Be Done? in which he stated that only through professional leadership by the educated intelligentsia could the working class develop the consciousness required for socialism. Thus, Lenin saw the revolutionary party as a vanguard, possessing the knowledge which would emancipate the politically ignorant proletariat. This concept of the party was inherited from the nineteenth century Russian Narodniks whom Plekhanov and Engels, as Marxists, had opposed. The Leninist concept of the revolutionary vanguard has been a common characteristic of Left wing parties.
The SPGB’s view of the party is radically different. Our role is not to lead, but to be used as an instrument to establish socialism by a politically conscious working class. It must be democratic, without leaders; it must consist of conscious socialists, not sheep-like followers; it must be principled, not opportunist. However, the function of the Socialist Party is not that of a sect. Party members must not stand outside the affairs of society like an enlightened elite but must put the socialist case to fellow workers in every possible situation. A trade unionist who explains the exploitation inherent in the wages system, a member of a tenants association who argues that local councils are powerless to solve the shortage and inadequacy of housing within the profit system, the member of a debating society who puts forward the case for revolution, these are the true revolutionaries, not the “men of action” who are always running and never leaving the same spot.
The SPGB is not a sect, but a revolutionary party which adheres rigidly to principles. This, the Left mistake for sectarianism. How many times in our history have we been asked to join this or that campaign for one or another urgent reform. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’, we are told. ‘Let’s forget our differences. We all want the same end. If we all join together think how effective we could be’.
To those who don’t understand the nature of capitalism there are no end of urgent problems demanding immediate solutions. Let us consider one which is currently fashionable: The Right To Work Campaign which has mainly been organised by the super-opportunist Socialist Workers’ Party. Capitalism is in a crisis. There are 1 1/2 million unemployed workers. Life for the unemployed is tough. So … demand the right to work, to be exploited by a capitalist. To the non-Marxist the logic and the urgency of this demand are beyond challenge. “How can the SPGB be so pessimistic as to tell us that capitalism only employs workers when it’s profitable. At least we’re trying to do something about the unemployed” cry our indignant opponents. What they fail to recognise is that we are doing something about unemployment — the only thing which Socialists can do; advocating the abolition of wage labour. “But”, retorts our employment-lover, “that will take far too long to achieve. In the meantime . . .” But, we remind our opponents on the Left, reform legislation has not eradicated one single working class problem in the last seventy years. Instead of fighting for what is impossible, why not join us and make the achievement of Socialism an immediate practicality? “You’re just sectarians”, reply the Left, “More interested in your party than in the unemployed”. And then we’re back to square one. Can it be that the Left have turned language upside down so that those who support sections of the working class in futile reformist campaigns often setting worker against worker, are revolutionaries, while those who stand for the unity of ail workers are sectarians? Marx, in The Communist Manifesto distinguishes Communists (or Socialists) from other parties supported by the working class in that
“1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”
If we will not join specific reform campaigns, why, we are asked, will we not bury our differences with the ‘other’ Left parties and form a single mass organisation. The question is based on a misunderstanding, as the SPGB is not Left wing. Why should we, a Socialist party with a clear object of destroying capitalism, unite with those who want to make the system work effectively? We might just as well be asked to unite with the Tories and the National Front. When the policies of our opponents are scrutinised it can be seen that Left and Right are united in a fundamental acceptance of the wages system, profits, class property and government.
We reject any offers from the Left to join with us on any issue. Certainly, we are in favour of continuous political debate between all political parties and groups but there can be no question of a united platform. Only those workers who share our understanding of Socialism, including the democratic method of its establishment, will be admitted to membership of this party.
Capitalism is not a system of society which depends upon human beings acting in accordance with honest principles. On the contrary, politics under capitalism is associated with elitism, deception and criminality. Political principles are to be nominally subscribed to and then tossed aside in the name of pragmatism. Only the movement for Socialism depends absolutely upon a rigid acceptance of political principles. Examine the record of the parties of the Left and then consider that of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It will then be clear why the SPGB maintains its hostility to all other parties.