1980s >> 1986 >> no-982-june-1986

Socialist Party under attack

It’s not much fun being lumped together with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Society of the New Church, the Catholic Apostolics, Recovery inc. and Neurotics Nomine. But that’s what’s happened to the Socialist Party in a recent book. Ideological Groups: Similarities of Structure and Organisation by R. Kenneth Jones (Gower. Aldershot. 1984) claims that the Socialist Party is like those other groups in being “sectarian”, that is in exhibiting certain characteristics which cut its members off from the outside world and make them hostile towards it.
Some of the author’s information, he tells us, is from an unpublished study of the Socialist Party by a fellow sociologist called Peter Rollings. In addition he visited the Party’s head office in London looking at methods of organisation and interviewing members. Finally he read a sample (quite a small one by the looks of it) of Socialist Party literature. So he made an effort to get to know about the party. But was it enough? Well, whether it is or not, something went badly wrong somewhere, because his picture of the organisation is a travesty.
For a start a lot of the small details about Party organisation are wrong. It’s not true, for example, that “branches have their secretaries on the Executive Committee and the Conference” or “that membership in each of these branches will not amount to thirty at the most”. It’s not true either that the Party is or ever was “reconciled to a policy of non-recruitment”. On the contrary it’s never stopped recruiting and the influx, especially in recent years, of many new young members is causing it to grow and to make an impact far out of proportion to its numbers. As for the sociologist’s analysis of party members’ occupations, it brought one of the biggest smiles of the year. According to Jones, we are mainly “skilled workers and in particular building workers” with “little evidence of any young intellectual element drawn from the universities” and we are “more likely to be primary school teachers with a non-university background”. Anyone who is a member of. or closely associated with the Socialist Party will be smiling too because they’ll know that the membership comes from an extraordinary diversity of backgrounds, educations and occupations and none predominates. In other words just about anyone can understand and want socialism — an encouraging thing for the spread of socialist ideas.
The impression is that mistakes like these have come mainly from Rollings. He says at one point that Rollings’ work, done in the sixties. is. “still as accurate today as it was 17 years ago”, whereas if the bits he quotes directly from Rolling are anything to go by that work was inaccurate then and still is today. But not all the mistakes can come from Rollings. The interviews he quotes with Party members are his own original material and they too give a false impression. They make the average Party member an elitist, a dogmatist and a person who never thinks to question the ideas of the Party. They also make it seem that members are likely to be in the Party for personal therapeutic reasons. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how many members Jones has interviewed and how selective he’s been in quoting from his interviews, no person with a good knowledge of the party will agree that this picture accords with their experience of the outlook and attitudes of the membership as a whole. As an old long-dead member used to say with a touch of exaggeration, on the subject of our questioning our own ideas: “Do we have to disagree with one another on absolutely everything?”.
Is Jones therefore deliberately out to distort? What has probably happened is that he’s approached the party with a fixed idea. That idea, of the party’s “sectarianism”, was perhaps in the first place transmitted to him by Rollings but at any rate it fitted in with the theory which he was trying to prove and which is the main thesis of his whole book — that non-religious or anti-religious groups can and do share certain characteristics with religious groups. This theory may or may not be valid — it probably is — but the Socialist Party doesn’t provide an example of it and Jones shouldn’t have given in to the academic’s temptation of making the evidence fit the theory.
Without suggesting that Jones has done this at a conscious, calculating level, more evidence that this is what’s happened can be seen in the way he finds, on the flimsiest of impressions, that the Socialist Party is one of those organisations that goes in for the “socialisation” of its members. They are in the business, according to the author of “managing the identity of their members with a relative totality which which permeates their social lives”. If Jones looks a little more closely at the Socialist Party, he’ll find that this, more than anything else he writes, is just daft. And as for Jones’s suggestion of “the member being seeped in the ideology of the movement”, the democratic structure of the SPGB means that there’s no mechanism to do any “seeping”. People join freely and participate as they themselves see fit. They’re not subject to any kind of pressure. This isn’t of course to say that when human beings have a common interest and get together to promote it in a group they don’t form an emotional attachment to the group and that this doesn’t happen in the Socialist Party. It does, just as it happens in darts clubs, writers’ circles and Gingerbread groups. But so what? It doesn’t exclude contact outside the group and. unless you can show it does, it’s not fair to say there’s anything “religious” or “sectarian” about it.
Perhaps at bottom Jones has doubts too because in his chapter on the Socialist Party he keeps repeating that we show features of “transcendental sects” and these repetitions suggest that he’s not fully convinced himself. It’s as though repeating it will somehow make it come true. Also, though his language is on the whole sociological jargon and the general tone pure condescension (it’s good to know that “members certainly do not appear to be aggressive or misfits or in any way eccentric”), the terminology he uses to link the party with religious groups does not shrink from the emotive “priesthood of all believers”, “moral elitism”. “fundamental creedal devotion”. Nor does he deny himself the old cheap “Small party for good boys” sneer. The fact that he needs to bolster his arguments in this way can’t help making you think that somewhere deep down he himself recognises the fragility of his own case.
And if his analysis of the Socialist Party is anything to go by, it makes you wonder about the accuracy of his work on the other organisations. After all the Catholic Apostolic Church deserve to have the truth told about them just as much as anyone else. And how must they feel being lumped together with the Socialist Party of Great Britain?
Howard Moss