1980s >> 1981 >> no-917-january-1981

Letter: SPGB is self-righteous

Dear Editors,

I have now been reading the Socialist Standard for a year. If it has not “converted” me to socialism, that is because I had already come, independently, to the views of the SPGB before starting to take the paper. I am wondering, however, whether it would have done so had I been only half way committed, and am reluctantly none too sure that it would. Indeed, I have an unhappy feeling, which has been growing on me during recent months and which I’ve been doing my best to ignore, that it might have done the very opposite.

Please don’t misunderstand me: the logic of all you say is impeccable. Its rightness, to me, remains the ultimate rightness. What I find very hard to live with is the tone of the paper. It comes across (yes, all right, to ME it comes across: the view must be subjective) as both smug in its isolationism and sneering towards those outside.

I say “isolationism” because having worked out one’s own fully socialist philosophy of life I think it becomes all too easy, in effect, to wash one’s hands of all the ongoing problems created by capitalism, which have to be coped with HERE AND NOW, and simply declare, as a blanket statement, that “only socialism is the answer” — which it is! I am not disagreeing. Neither am I advocating that we all start playing campaign politics. But still, the ongoing problems exist, and if you’re out of work, for instance, you want to work NOW, even on “their” terms, you don’t need the Standard sneering at the fact that there you are, wearing out your shoe leather with a million others, begging poor fool for the right to be exploited, while what you OUGHT to be doing is seeing the light and fighting the socialist battle. Likewise, it’s all very well adopting this lofty attitude that anti-nuclear marches aren’t going to stop wars, and almost certainly aren’t going to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, either — they aren’t: agreed. But still I don’t think that’s the way to put the message across to ordinary people who haven’t yet come to socialism and in the meantime are justifiably shit-scared of being blown to smithereens. For one thing, unfortunately, socialism is for tomorrow, whilst unemployment and nuclear weapons are with us today; and while the Right to Work marches and the Anti-Nuclear campaigns may indeed be ultimately futile they nevertheless serve an immediate purpose — yelling at authority, voicing one’s anger – which I suspect, alas, that the unveiling of the true meaning of socialism probably wouldn’t, at least for the majority.

Certainly that ought not to stop the message being put across wherever and however possible. I just don’t feel that the attitude adopted by the Standard is likely to achieve that. There is a note of . . . unctuousness? Self-righteousness? An awful air of “we enlightened few standing on our pinnacle” whilst all the rest of the deluded idiots rush to and fro like demented chickens in the capitalist hen coop. I’m perfectly sure that this is not intended, and maybe you’ll say that your harshest strictures are intended only for those who lead (and ought to be presumed to have thought things out rather better) than for those who follow; but since it’s the masses who follow, and the masses who must be convinced if socialism is to succeed . . . I just don’t think people like to feel they’re being GOT at.
Yours in socialism,
Jean Ure
Croydon, Surrey

Discussion about the type of journal the Socialist Party of Great Britain should produce is determined by three principal factors. Firstly, we are a political party publication which exists solely to express the established policy of our membership. What we say is governed by our Declaration of Principles and by democratically agreed party decisions. This makes us unique as a journal: we have no editorial right (or decree) to say things that the membership of the SPGB does not stand for; we have a duty to accurately represent our party’s position on numerous theoretical and practical questions; all those involved in the production of the Standard are subject to democratic criticism or removal from office at any time. This may all sound very restricting but, in fact, it represents the only alternative to the anarchic “individualism” of the Fleet Street press — where the rule of the shareholders constitutes “editorial objectivity” — and the undemocratic control of the party press by the “intellectual vanguard” which prevails in leftist circles. Anyone outside the SPGB who accepts our political principles, but objects to our propaganda methods, should be inside the party using the democratic channels available to push the journal in the direction in which they think it should be going. Secondly, the scope of our publication is limited by both finance and manpower. Ideally two, three or four party journals could be published, each catering for different tastes. But we haven’t got the money (the Standard is run at a loss and we are frequently forced to appeal for funds to keep it going) and we just don’t have the manpower (writers, illustrators, lay-out people, sellers, dispatchers) to make more than one journal viable. Bear in mind that the Standard is entirely produced by voluntary effort. This leads to the third factor: that in producing the Standard we have to balance it so that it will be readable for totally new readers, those who have read it a few times but have not yet joined, and members. To leave out any of these categories of readers would be to ignore a section of our readership. At our last Annual Conference it was democratically decided that the primary aim of the Standard must be to explain our priorities to new readers.

Jean Ure criticises the Standard for what she regards as smugness, self-righteousness and isolationism. Clearly these are seen to be failings. But if for “smug” we substitute “politically confident”, for “self-righteousness” we substitute “a record of being consistently correct” and for “isolationism” we substitute “principled opposition to all anti-working class ideas”, perhaps we would seem less at fault. We are politically confident, though not because we are smugly self-satisfied but because, unlike the defenders of capitalism, we have a political theory capable of showing the working class their potential strength. We do have a record of consistent correctness which is proof of the usefulness of our theory. When we say that we alone have been able to interpret and predict the confused affairs of the capitalist system, we are not intending to be self-righteous, but to invite others to adopt our way of analysing social development. We are hostile to all diversion in the class struggle, including CND and the Right to Work Campaign, and feel that it is our duty to criticise the “campaign politics” of the Left. For, as Jean Ure accepts, these campaigns will not change the nature of the system and participation in them will not alter workers’ political awareness. So, any tones of political pride that occasionally appear in our columns are only the side-effects of having a political position worth bragging about.

The assertion that “socialism is for tomorrow, whilst unemployment and nuclear weapons are with us today sounds like the beginning of a defeatist justification of the “do something now rather than wait for socialism” argument. We in the SPGB do not accept it. We contend that the problems that are with us now are only the consequences of majority consent for capitalism. The idea that the here-and-now problem can be eradicated without removing the here-and-now system is basically false. Only socialism can put an end to unemployment and war and any suggestion that socialism is for the distant future is entirely repudiated by socialists. It is because we want to get rid of them now that we are in the SPGB. But — and this is the big qualification which reformists find unpalatable — we can’t achieve our aims without a social revolution which requires the conscious support of a majority of the working class. Those who can’t wait for the majority to be convinced — or, to be quite accurate, those who won’t help to convince the majority — may well sneer at the principled consistency of the SPGB but they can offer no short-cuts to the working class.

We do not blame workers for not being socialists. If we did, then we would deserve the criticism of Jean Ure. Clearly, the working class is prevented from “seeing the light” (as Ms Ure puts it) partly by all of the manipulative ideological forces of capital — the press, the schools the churches, the political parties. It is our job to counter these powerful forces with the convincing voice of rationality and point out that socialism is the only answer. Jean Ure says that it is “all too easy” to say that; so “easy” that millions of workers have not said it because they do not know it, and unless we continue to say it, loud and clear, they never will know it.

So what is your advice to the SPGB, Jean Ure? Do we stop saying that only socialism is the answer, which you freely admit that it is? Do you advise us to support those who campaign for nuclear disarmament within the profit system when you willingly agree that it will not “stop wars and certainly (isn’t) going to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons”? Do you think that we should encourage people to “yell at authority” in movements which you tell us are “ultimately futile” Do we, in other words, go in for the politics of deceiving our fellow workers that what we know to be a waste of time is energy well spent, for the sake of gaining popularity? Or do we tell them what we must now tell you: that the only place for socialists is a party which stands for socialism and nothing but.