Which Way to Socialism: Militant Tendency or SPGB?

This debate took place at Ruskin House, Croydon, on 24 February. Bill Sheppard represented the Militant Tendency and Steve Coleman the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Pressure of space has prevented us publishing the debate in full but we welcome comments on this shortened account.

SPGB: According to the press, my opponent is a militant. This is very good. It is important that we should be militant about our political principles. According to the media, my opponent is a Marxist. I have read Marx and I agree with his analysis of capitalism. I agree with Marx that capitalism is based on the legalised exploitation of the wealth producers by those who own and control the means of wealth production and distribution. I agree with Marx that the state only exists to protect the power and privilege of the exploiting class. I agree with Marx when he urged workers to abolish the wages system and establish a classless, moneyless society.

The newspapers tell me that my opponent is nothing less than a social revolutionary who wants to destroy civilisation as the Daily Express has always known it. Well, so do socialists. We want to destroy the “civilisation” of the H-Bomb. We want to destroy a “civilisation” where millions die of starvation while food rots. We want to destroy the “civilisation” which compels the mass of humanity to accept wage slavery. So if the media is accurate—if my opponent and his friends are a bunch of militant, Marxist, social revolutionaries who are committed to getting rid of capitalism and establishing socialism-then my opponent is not my opponent but my friend.

But when we ask where to join this new revolutionary crusade, my opponent points me in the direction of a broad church called the Labour Party and says, “There it is. This is where the revolution’s starting . . .” At election time he will be canvassing for the Labour Party—he will be recruiting workers to join it. More than that: my opponent will be feeding workers with the illusion that by supporting the Labour Party they are contributing to the establishment of socialism. The SPGB argues that if you are a socialist you must oppose all anti-socialist parties; that the policies which the Militant Tendency wants Labour to adopt are inimical to the class interest of the workers; that the place for socialists is in a party which is united by a scientific analysis of capitalism and an obtainable vision of socialism.

Marxists stand in opposition to capitalism, a system of minority power where the productive machinery is possessed by a minority class: 10 per cent of the British population own more than half the accumulated wealth. Under capitalism the vast majority of people own no major stake in the productive machinery—they only own their mental and physical energies which they must sell to capitalists. The working class is in a position of compulsory exploitation, and are only permitted to produce wealth if it can be sold on the market. And it will only be sold on the market if it is profitable for the capitalists. In other words, wealth is produced under capitalism for profit and not for use. If there is no profit there are devastating consequences: food is dumped in the sea while people starve; cars are left standing in fields; homes remain unoccupied; workers are actually paid not to produce wealth.

If you claim to be a Marxist-as my opponent does—you see that these problems are all a necessary part of the system. Unemployment is not caused by wicked Tory governments or Labour leaders who are not carrying out Left wing policies. Marxists seek to end the system, not to re-arrange the furniture within it. The Labour Party is not, and never has been, a Marxist party. At the beginning of the century it decided to work within capitalism and pick up whatever crumbs were available.

The Labour Party has spent the last three quarters of a century showing workers what can be done within capitalism. It has used troops to smash strikes, initiated the production of the Atom bomb, passed racist immigration legislation, acted as recruiting sergeant in two world wars. It can do all of these things and more because it is a party which decided from the beginning that it must work within the narrow limitations of the profit system. At the beginning of the century there were socialists who rejected this narrow, “possibilist” strategy of the Labour Party. They were the militants, the Marxists, the social revolutionaries; they were the men and women who formed the SPGB and its Companion parties in other countries.

But my opponent wants it both ways. He wants to be in the Labour Party. He wants to be part of this great movement which has grown popular by basing itself upon workers’ lack of political understanding . . . but at the same time he wants the Labour Party to act like a Socialist party. It is a nonsensical strategy. The manipulators who imagine that you can spring socialism on to the working class by surprise-that all you have to do is manoeuvre a few Trotskyists into key posts in the Labour bureaucracy and the workers will reward you with their votes—are learning a hard lesson: you cannot have socialism without socialists.

Militant Tendency has the same political problem as Ramsey MacDonald and Lenin (whom they much admire): they do not believe that workers are capable of becoming conscious socialists. They do not accept the Marxist principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. They think that we need leaders. They think that we need a Leninist vanguard-a workers’ state presided over by a bureaucracy. This always leads to state capitalist dictatorship.

Socialists do not have contempt for the working class. Our message is quite clear: abandon the broad church; reject the high priests of the Labour Party and their self-appointed vanguards; dismiss the archaic dogma of reformism. When workers understand socialism they will consciously and democratically organise their own emancipation.


MILITANT TENDENCY: No socialist —certainly no supporter of the Militant—would deny for a second that a socialist order is a world order that knows no national boundaries and in which commodity production has been superseded by a system of free access to material wealth produced popularly and communally. That was the programme of Marx and it is the programme of the Militant Tendency.

However, it is an essential point that you don’t get a mass movement to establish a socialist society simply by counter-posing—in a necessarily vague and abstract way—the political economy of capitalism to the possibilities inherent in a world socialist order. It is necessary to win workers to a “transitional programme”. It is necessary to fight for such a policy in the mass organisations of the movement. And these organisations aren’t all that we’d like them to be. You have to accept them because they reflect the existing level of consciousness of the working class.

The Labour Party was created by the trade unions. It’s also necessary for Marxists to intervene in the bread and butter issues of the working class … It’s necessary to be involved in the way that the class struggle plays itself out on a day-to-day basis, because it’s precisely out of that struggle that socialist consciousness will develop. Up and down the country you’ll find Militant supporters at the forefront of the struggle to defend jobs, to defend the social services against the vicious cut-backs that we’ve seen at the present time.

The point of the transitional approach is to be active in the Labour Party and call upon a Labour Government to implement Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution which calls for the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Any attempt to implement Clause Four will be met by the utmost fierce resistance of the capitalist class themselves. They will use economic sabotage and furthermore they’ll try to use the House of Lords, the Monarchy and, in the last resort, they’ll try to use the army-as Chile so recently showed-to crush any attempt by a socialist government to introduce a socialist order.

For Militant, the struggle in parliament is an essential part of the struggle, but the immediate need is to establish a workers’ state. The SPGB has no concept of a workers’ state at all. But a workers’ state is simply where the revolutionary majority still has a need for a certain amount of coercion, a certain amount of repression, in order to defend the gains of the revolution against the counter – revolutionary forces. To imagine that they will simply disappear is totally naive.

The SPGB mistakenly believes that all countries are following the classic path of the establishment of “bourgeois democracy”. In the developing countries the working class, with the support of the peasantry, have to carry out the historic tasks which were once the preserves of the bourgeois in Britain, Germany and France. The role of the Bolsheviks was to carry out this mission. It’s absolutely ludicrous to characterise Eastern Europe and the developments in China and Cuba and other nations in Africa as state capitalist regimes. They should be characterised as degenerate workers’ states. State planning of production on an international basis must be the immediate aim. What nationalism shows is how rotten ripe the world is for genuine socialism.



QUESTION: Does the SPGB propose to achieve social change by using the means which are available within the system?

SPGB: You cannot get social change in the interest of the majority of the people unless the majority of the people want it. If the state is not used by the working class it is going to be used against the working class. So a socialist majority must gain control of the state machine. The socialist majority will elect delegates to do what the workers want, not leaders to act on our behalf.

QUESTION: The Generals, judges and other defenders of capitalism are all drawn from a small net of public school people. Powerful Tories will not be loyal to a democratic socialist majority. A new state is needed to replace the capitalist state. The Militant tendency is not elitist, but the SPGB is because it will only allow socialists to join. SPGB is never present on mass demonstrations. The capitalist press does not attack the SPGB, but it does attack the Militant Tendency. Therefore, Militant represents a real threat to capitalism.

SPGB: The ruling class cannot rule without the acquiescence of the working class. Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the socialist revolution will be unlike all previous revolutions because it will be a revolution of the majority. It is true that SPGB does not support demonstrations demanding capitalist reform. Unlike Militant, we do not kid workers that the system can be humanised. The capitalist press might attack the Militant Tendency, but what does this prove? Since when has the capitalist press even been correct about its political analysis?

QUESTION: How does a socialist revolution come about through using the State? Or do they advocate the destruction of the State?

MILITANT: The working class constitutes a minority in most of the globe. We cannot wait for a unified capitalist order to be established. Every workers’ revolution has shown that workers must establish Soviets that they must establish their own state. Thousands of workers have died in Chile, Spain, in the liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, fighting against the military police state. No, the state cannot be used.

SPGB: The fact is that the mass of the people are in the working class. We run society from top to bottom; workers produce all the wealth. It is the working class which possesses the power to determine the future. Any attempt to establish socialism which left power in the hands of a parliament committed to the running of capitalism and armed forces committed to the defence of capitalism would be bound to fail. The present system survives because of minority power. Any conception of revolution or social change which is based on working class followers placing their faith in an enlightened vanguard is fundamentally anti-socialist. Where access to the state does not exist, workers must establish political democracy. The SPGB wants socialism without leaders or followers. We don’t need shepherds because we’re not sheep.

QUESTION: How many of the candidates of both parties in the next election will be women?


SPGB: It depends on how many women are available and able to do it. The SPGB is not interested in the sex of the candidate, but their political principles.

QUESTION: This discussion has been too intellectual and too bookish. The average worker in a trade union would not understand what we are talking about. The trouble with the SPGB is that it concentrates on theory. Everyone present should read Marx’s Communist Manifesto which states that socialists should be involved in the class struggle, leading the way. The SPGB spends time talking about socialism to foreign workers in Hyde Park. At an anti-cuts demonstration in Hyde Park a few years ago—under the Callaghan government—an SPGB speaker said that the demonstration was a complete waste of time. The biggest barrier to socialism is the current leadership of’ the labour movement. If you oppose all leadership it means that you refuse to struggle against the leadership of Callaghan, Healey and Murray. If you don’t work for a socialist leadership you turn your back on socialism.

SPGB: It is claimed that the average worker cannot understand a debate which he and everyone else here has understood. He says that we are too bookish and then in his next breath he recommends us to read a book by Marx. It is elitism to imagine that workers cannot understand what we can understand. The SPGB relates theory to experience in all our propaganda: we talk about and analyse capitalism and socialism. Yes, the SPGB does say that anti-cuts demonstrations are a waste of time. But, unlike the Militant Tendency, the SPGB did not tell workers to vote for that Labour government which introduced those cuts. Unlike Militant, the SPGB did not urge workers to re-elect a Callaghan government in 1979. Socialists will not participate in struggles to appoint new leaders because we are not followers.



MILITANT: I learnt many of the ideas of Marx from the SPGB, but when I went along to a strike in Manchester and told the convenor to abolish the wages system he told me that that was what his boss was trying to do—abolish his wages. The very fact that people have to sign a piece of paper to get into the SPGB illustrates that it is an elitist party. How elitist it is to sneer at anti-cuts demonstrators for voting Labour. It is out of these contradictions that working class consciousness will come. All leaders of the labour movement should be immediately recalled if they do not carry out the wishes of the workers. The election of Scargill as President of the NUM was an important part of the class struggle. When workers see the limitations of Scargill and Benn a seizure of power will be possible.

SPGB: This debate is not about tactics, but about where we are heading. The SPGB has a clear analysis of capitalism and our case against what exists is based on a clear idea of the future socialist system. Militant admires Lenin, but Lenin’s idea of a new system was state capitalism. He wrote that if state capitalism could be established in Russia, socialism would not be far off.

Because Militant puts forward unprincipled, undemocratic tactics it has to defend all kinds of absurdities, such as state capitalist regimes and Labour governments. The way ahead does not depend on the Labour Party or the Militant Tendency. It does not depend on the SPGB either. The difference is that the Militant Tendency claims that it must provide the revolutionary leadership; the SPGB says that it all depends on the ideas of the working class which must emancipate itself.

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