No Compromise – 75 years for Socialism

The history of popular political movements is a story of the abandonment of political principles for the sake of mass appeal. A vote in the ballot box is worth two thoughts in the head. What would have happened to the Tory party if Peel hadn’t tossed principles to the wind and issued the Tamworth Manifesto in 1836? Who would have bothered about Lenin if he’d have recognised the February revolution as Russia’s 1789, instead of resorting to the Blanquist fantasy, the consequences of which have been far from anything resembling socialism? In recent letters to the Guardian members of the Labour Party have pointed out that commitment to Clause Four of their own constitution at election time would be inexpedient, as it loses votes. Kids at school are taught that to hold ideas strongly is ‘extremism’; whereas to conform passively is euphemistically referred to as ‘moderation’. This is the age of pragmatism—of treading carefully along thin lines. So far the political leaders have held their balance, but where has it got their followers?

Consistency of principle is one merit which even its greatest enemies grant the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It was founded in 1904 by men and women who opposed the minimum reform programme of the Social Democratic Federation and held that only socialist revolution would be in the immediate political interest of the working class. They were called ‘The Impossibilists’ by their opponents in the SDF because they refused to tread the political tightrope. The Declaration of Principles adopted by the Party’s founders has remained unchanged for seventy-five years. An indication of dogmatism, sectarianism and sterility? Many have accused the SPGB of these things and hoped that, like shouting ‘Nazi scum’ at National Front processions, it should take offence and go away. But the criticism is an unjustified one, for what the Socialist Party said about capitalism in 1904 is no less true today.

There are still classes: ‘those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess’. This antagonism can only be abolished by ‘the conversion into the common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.” This ’emancipation must be the work of the working class itself’ and will ‘involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.’ The necessary action is for the working class to ‘organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government . . . ‘ so that the State ‘may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation . . . ‘ The Party standing for socialism must still ‘wage war against all other political parties, whether allegedly labour or avowedly capitalist . . .’ That, in a nutshell, is what the SPGB has said for seventy-five years. Apologists for capitalism tells us that such Marxist principles are hopelessly outdated. Meanwhile they cling to the depressing and ahistorical belief that social relations have never changed in any fundamental sense and that they will never change. Theirs is the obsolete philosophy of a stagnating, medieval world.

Hostility towards the SPGB from the Right has been because we understand their system better than they do. The Left’s objection has been that we know what socialism is and refuse to accept phoney models. From the very start the Labour Party’s reformism was shown to be contrary to the political interest of the wealth producing class. Six Labour Governments later the idea’s beginning to catch on. The Socialist Standard was the first British publication to provide a serious critique of Russian state capitalism. The Party exposed Stalinism in the thirties, at the expense of meetings being broken up by members of the Communist Party—acting on official policy. No support was given to CND or any other ‘reform capitalism—change the world tomorrow’ campaign.

The Left has always cared more movement than direction. Building the party has always meant more than spreading ideas. In the early days of the International Socialism journal there were articles showing a real understanding of capitalism. But it was in the nature of the Leninist urge to let the vanguard do the thinking while the masses do the marching that IS became the SWP; demands for full employment have overtaken any thoughts of abolishing class society; and the conservative motto of ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ is well inscribed upon their banners, rather than the revolutionary slogan, ‘Abolition of the wage system!’ In the last election they advised their supporters to vote for Callaghan—who they said was as bad as Thatcher—in order to keep out Thatcher. After all this time one is entitled to ask, has all the expedient abandonment of principles, has the wider circulation of Socialist Worker on the basis that people think they’re buying the Sun, has the descent to comic strip communism, been really worthwhile?

To a member of the Socialist Party the answer is clear. There may not be many of us, but at least we’re in the party because we want socialism. Anyone who joins a branch of the SPGB must show such political understanding. It is only in this way that the retention of principles can be ensured. Some will respond, ‘So what? You’re very principled, but destined to be no more than a footnote in history.’ It’s true enough that there’s nothing inevitable about socialism. Maybe the world will be annihilated in the struggle for market domination before workers see that the means of wealth production and distribution is there for the taking. Capitalism will not collapse of its own accord. The world’s workers will probably be persuaded to support the system which oppresses them for some years to come. But the fact that a theory has not been put into practice does not mean that it is impracticable. The fact that human beings have the unique ability to think rationally does not mean that they will do so at all times. ‘You can have the truth, but you’ve got to choose it’ as Bob Dylan wrote. One day the moderation of today will be seen for what it is. And the impossibilists will be seen to have been the ones who spoke about reality.

Steve Coleman

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