1980s >> 1988 >> no-1012-december-1988

Letter: A “normal observer” amazed

Dear Editors.

I recently had occasion to see a list of the General Election results of the Socialist Party of Great Britain since 1945. I must confess to being shocked. The conclusion I draw from seeing that in 18 parliamentary elections the Party has barely achieved an average of one per cent of the vote is that your dogmatic attachment to the “principles” formulated in 1904 has made you into a kind of religious sect, perhaps a more sectarian one than any other and even less successful in winning people to its point of view.

Being “sectarian” doesn’t necessarily mean having a short-sighted attitude or a wrong view of things. It’s possible for you, a tiny minority, to be right and almost everyone else, the vast majority, to be wrong. But what has never ceased to amaze me in my regular reading of the Socialist Standard is the total lack of consideration by the SPGB of the causes and reasons for the absence of a “socialist”‘ movement in the sense that you understand the term. I’m also amazed by your failure to try and analyse your total lack of success over the years. After 40 years of participating in elections on behalf of democratic parliamentary socialism, you’ve got absolutely nowhere. And this after the cataclysm of 1939-1945 and after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. (1 don’t of course know what electoral success’ your Party had between 1904 and 1945.)

As for the efforts of the Socialist Standard in trying to reach the working class, you are labouring under delusions about your chances of success. If the capitalist dailies average circulations of several million what chance is there for the spread of socialist ideas without a mass circulation working- class daily?

Marx had a clear theory about the “transition” from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist-communist one. He also had knowledge of what was required for the creation of a “communist consciousness” in terms of the psychology and social development of workers and bourgeois intellectuals — what you might call the “ethical” side of things. This consciousness was supposed to be created spontaneously under the weight of ever worsening material and moral conditions. This idea of Marx has given rise to controversies between the various different schools of Marxism about so-called “increasing misery” among the workers. According to the idea, the resistance and opposition of the workers to an employing class that was becoming smaller and smaller in number yet increasingly richer and more oppressive would intensify until it finally brought about the famous reversal of roles as to which class dominates — the “negation of the negation” — with the period of transition having the form of a “dictatorship” of the immense majority who would cleanse society of its capitalist institutions. But much has happened since the disappearance of Marx and Engels which should cause us to “reconsider” the materialist . . .

If we look at the result of your “activities”, which consist of trying to ‘make’ socialists before the objective circumstances favourable to the establishment of socialism appear; if we consider the fact that four-fifths of the world’s population are ruled by economic, political and ideological dictatorships with methods of terror and brainwashing which are increasingly more efficient and sophisticated, then we must be tempted to question not only your methods but also all so-called “socialist” strategies in the whole of the so-called “”free” world. And we must also ask the question whether it wouldn’t be more reasonable to abandon the traditional terminology which has done nothing but mislead people since the capitalist empires of the East have managed to usurp the names of “socialism” and “communism”.

Reading your replies to readers” questions in the Socialist Standard, your extreme sectarianism becomes apparent. Under cover of rejecting “reformism”, you throw cold water on all participation in movements of protest and opposition not carrying the “socialist” label as defined by yourselves. In a context of limitless barbarism wherever one looks in the world, you reject out of hand the imperative need to put aside ideological disputes and join hands with radical pacifist, ecological and feminist movements. Not once in the Socialist Standard have I read a serious study of the uniqueness of the present crisis which for the first time ever raises the question of the very survival of the human species. To the question. “If that’s the point we’re at, whose fault is it?” the SPGB will reply: “It’s capitalism that’s to blame But of course, one could equally well reply: “It’s the workers who are to blame”. Your French-language journal, Socialism Mondiale, in reviewing a book by Serge Kolm (No.2. 1985). criticises the author’s thesis according to which to arrive at relations of economic equality people must behave in an altruistic not a selfish fashion. While we would all reject the notion of “human nature”, we must nevertheless admit that to behave like a socialist (in the SPGB sense) means to behave in an opposite way to the majority of workers. And are we not in actual fact being “altruistic” in aspiring to a community of conscious human solidarity without seeking either power or wealth for ourselves? Unfortunately, the problem of today’s world is precisely one of “altruism”: that of the workers who sacrifice themselves to ensure the wellbeing and the continued authority of the ruling class.

To return to another aspect of the verbal “fetishism” tirelessly cultivated in the Socialist Standard, may I mention: (1) your condemnation of money in the name of an abstract principle which the average worker will certainly find difficult to grasp; (2) your advocacy of “voluntary work”; and (3) your insistence on “free access”. Kolm, in the book I’ve mentioned, suggests a form of “money” which has nothing in common with money as a source of profit but is used as a “general unit of accounting” in the tradition of utopian thinkers such as Owen and Proudhon, and indeed as advocated by Marx himself. Anyone who is in the slightest bit receptive to the reality of daily life, where money is more and more subject to the ups and downs of the finance market, will inevitably, when confronted with the fine phrases of the SPGB, ask questions about the virtues of “voluntary co-operation” and the principle of the “gift economy” and will in particular want a precise, detailed explanation concerning the transition from a capitalist mode of work to a socialist mode of work. Such an explanation will of course have to include a plan of organisation for the countless jobs and occupations in which today’s millions of wage workers are involved and enslaved as they carry out tasks which are overwhelmingly useless and alienating inasmuch as they are producing goods or services for the exclusive profit of the master class (excuse my over-stark terminology — I am trying to make my point absolutely clear).

Let’s take, for example, the large number of people (civil servants, office workers, manual workers, technicians, experts, etc.) involved in producing armaments for the “killing industry” or involved in work aimed at intoxicating people through the advertising industry or through foisting the latest fashions on them. These workers will not be able to be “recycled” from one day to the next to carry out tasks and occupations useful to the new community and will consequently have to be fed, clothed and housed “for free” by their “productive” fellow workers. This in fact presupposes a different kind of “altruism” from the present masochistic sacrifices of the world’s workers.

Marx himself came to reflect on the problem of the “transition” and outlined his project for it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The SPGB rejects this “heresy”, replacing it with phraseology it calls “materialist” but behind which is concealed a quite unjustified confidence in the feelings of solidarity which would be shown by those workers who had been transformed into “socialists” even before the Great Moment of Liberation (excuse the irony but I’m trying to stress how unrealistically vast are the Socialist Party’s expectations of the mass of workers).

Hoping that your election results and my observations will cause you to reflect seriously on the conclusion any normal observer (and I count myself as one) is driven to when faced with your unrelenting and continuous lack of progress.

Maximilien Rubel



These criticisms range over a very wide field — our failure at elections, the restriction of membership to those who accept our principles, the content of our propaganda, our refusal to join up with non-socialist organisations and, finally, the usefulness of our socialist objective. Maximilien Rubel clearly thinks his criticisms are his own original work. He is quite unaware that they are not only very old but that all the things he tells us we ought to do were put into practice long ago by self-styled socialist organisations; with disastrous results for the socialist movement.

Lack of success

Why does the Socialist Party regularly achieve such a low percentage poll when it contests elections? Is it our dogmatic “sectarianism”, our refusal to “join hands” with other groups, (anti-war, ecologist, feminist)? Frankly we don’t think so since, despite the enormous efforts of such groups, they have — both separately and joint — had very little more success than we have. And, more importantly, although we would not want to deny the goodwill and sincerity of these groups in seeking to improve living conditions and solve social problems, we would not want to merge with them to try and bring about reforms of the capitalist system. This is not sectarianism either. It is merely a way of keeping our objective clear and not being sidetracked into activity which has nothing to do with the work of building a movement to advocate and achieve a society of common ownership and democratic control. In fact, M. Rubel is himself not prepared to argue that restricting membership to those who accept a Declaration of Principles is necessarily unjustified. “Being ‘sectarian’ doesn’t necessarily mean having a short-sighted or a wrong view of things.” Indeed he concedes that perhaps we might be right, and the others were wrong.

In Britain we have had a party which was formed on the basis of precisely the theory and strategy he lays down. It was the Independent Labour Party, formed to rescue the socialist movement from the “dogmatic” and sectarian attachment to principles shown by the existing Social Democratic Federation (Later on the ILP made the same criticisms of us.) Keir Hardie. its chairman, pointed to the overall votes SDF candidates got and their consequent failure to be elected and said it was due to the SDF “wooing the electors on what they allege to be a pure socialist ticket.”. The only way to get elected, the ILP said, was for socialists to interest themselves more in the workers’ day-to- day struggle and take up whatever issues the workers happen to be concerned with from time to time. There was to be no “dogmatic” adherence to a rigid set of principles. Here are Keir Hardie’s words: “a broad tolerant catholicity has always been a leading characteristic of the ILP. It has never had a hard and dry creed of membership”. The ILP and the SDF have now both vanished from the political scene. We have no intention of accepting Maximilien Rubel’s advice and meeting the same fate.

We are of course always keen to discuss and debate with other groups and parties, hold forums with them, carry their views in the letter column of the Socialist Standard, and indeed learn from them where they have knowledge that we do not have. At the same time, we would point out that literally thousands of such organisations have come and gone this century without managing to stem the barbarity and horrors which Professor Rubel points to and which appall us as much as they do him. There can be no doubt that had the Socialist Party joined forces with any such organisations, we would have gone too As it is, we have at least had success in keeping the socialist idea alive — perhaps no mean feat considering the obstacles we have constantly had to overcome.

Increasing misery

We agree with Professor Rubel that Marx’s concept of “increasing misery” is open to interpretation, as is much else Marx wrote. But we don’t think that what has happened since Marx’s time negates the essence of that idea. Workers are increasingly worse off. if not in absolute terms, then in terms of the proportion of wealth they actually consume. In mentioning Auschwitz. Hiroshima and the “limitless barbarism” of the modern world. Professor Rubel himself surely points to a worsening of what he calls “moral conditions”. But we don’t think that such conditions, material and “moral”, give cause for hopelessness. What they do in fact is to create an increasing likelihood that people will turn to the solution that socialism offers to their problems. Our own small voice trying to point people in that direction is one which has been born of those conditions and has seen a way out of them.

The transition

We can understand that our use of terms like “voluntary co-operation”, “moneyless society” and “free access ‘ should seem like “word fetishism” to Professor Rubel. But all we are trying to do is to describe the kind of society we are aiming at. While we can accept that to many people these terms may seem over-abstract, we’d certainly be selling ourselves and others short if we didn’t make it absolutely clear what our objective was. If there are other and better ways of putting across the same idea, we’d be genuinely pleased to know about them. Indeed that’s what we re constantly looking for and we’re as aware as Professor Rubel that the word “socialism” itself often leads to confusion and misunderstanding. The only thing we don’t want to do is to conceal, or appear to want to conceal, the true nature of our objective. Nor do we want to claim that we can provide a detailed scenario for the transition from capitalism to socialism or for the organisation of socialism. We can’t. It’s true that many people, in order to feel that socialism is a tangible objective, want an explanation about how it s going to come about and then be organised. But it’s an explanation we can only give in a general not in an exact and detailed way. We cannot, for example — small number that we are now — know exactly how the millions of people involved in socially useless work under capitalism will switch to socially useful work in socialism. We can, and do, speculate on this to a certain extent and this is one of the things we have tried to do in our recent pamphlet, Socialism as a Practical Alternative. But the kind of thing we can be fairly sure of is that as the socialist movement grows within capitalism, those in the movement will be developing plans as to how work will be organised in socialism and will be ready to put those plans into operation once the political changeover from one system to another takes place. Of course, as Professor Rubel suggests, this new organisation of work will not be an overnight process — nothing important in human affairs ever is — but at least the social basis for it will be there. Nor will “human nature” be in any sense an obstacle since making socialism work will be in the practical interest of each member of the community and will therefore not involve an “altruism” that some may find it over-optimistic to expect from the human species.


Maximilien Rubel started by noting the slow progress towards working-class acceptance of socialism as defined by us. Then it transpires that he isn’t really sure that our objective is worthwhile anyway! He raises supposed big difficulties in the operation of socialism and suggests, instead of free access, a money system which, he says, “has nothing in common with money as a source of profit but is used as a general unit of accounting”. Other supposed difficulties are getting the workers to accept the idea of “voluntary work” (that is, the abolition of the wages system) and the problem of moving over to useful work all the great army of people at present producing armaments or doing other work necessary only to capitalism. He also says that we condemn money “in the name of an abstract principle which the average worker will certainly find difficult to grasp”.

Taking the last point first, we do not “condemn money” on an abstract principle but on the basis that with the inauguration of production solely for consumption there is no useful function for money to perform. However, M. Rubel then proceeds to invent a supposed use for money in socialist society. How useless it is can easily be seen.

In socialist society it will be necessary to know how many tons of each kind of coal come from each coal mine, how many kilowatts of electricity from each power station, how many yards of each kind of cloth from each textile factory, and so on. This is easy to calculate and done already. And in precisely the form in which the consumer in socialist society will want the information. Maximilien Rubel wants to stick a price label on everything so that there will be a combined total of £x, covering prices of all the different kinds of products. For what purpose? It won’t be wanted by the consumer and M. Rubel tells us it won t be a source of profit to anyone. So why waste effort doing it? And in M. Rubel’s “socialism’. who will fix all the prices, including wages, the price of labour power? And on what basis? When M. Rubel says that the average worker finds it difficult to grasp the idea of abolishing buying and selling, has he considered the difficulty that workers will have in grasping his money that is not money and a price system that serves no apparent purpose?

These would indeed be real, in fact, insoluble problems for muddled bureaucrats who envisage operating socialism with a non-socialist working class, either by leadership, exhortation or by imposing it through dictatorship. But the essence of our case is that there can be no thought of achieving power to establish socialism until a majority, politically organised, have come to understand and accept the socialist case with all the responsibilities that socialism will entail.

Another issue he reuses is that four-fifths of the world’s population are ruled by dictatorships and that, consequently, we are “trying to “make” socialists before the objective circumstances favourable to the establishment of socialism appear” We do not accept the implication of M. Rubel’s statement, which is that it is impossible for four-fifths of the world s population ever to have heard of the socialist idea and impossible for them to reason out for themselves where working class interests lie. How does he suppose ideas of socialism developed in the first place and were propagated in Britain, at a time when all industrial political organisation and propaganda were illegal and savagely suppressed? And it can hardly have escaped M. Rubel’s notice that the supposedly monolithic and impregnable capitalist dictatorships in Russia and elsewhere are beginning to be removed, as they were long ago in industrially advanced countries like Britain. France. Germany and Japan.

The future

We too would like to see a mass-circulation working-class daily and agree that a small-circulation monthly publication can’t hope to make a great impact. But luckily the development of socialist consciousness does not depend solely on the Socialist Party and its publications but more generally on the conditions people live under in capitalism and the need to change those conditions. Having said that, we’d like the Socialist Standard to be as effective, wide-ranging and wide-circulating a vehicle of socialist ideas as possible; so the more people who have already arrived at a socialist consciousness become part of the organisation propagating those ideas, the more members and the more resources this will give us to increase our circulation and move towards weekly and then daily publication.