1990s >> 1996 >> no-1099-march-1996

The Making of History

Contrary to what ill-informed writers on the history of socialist thought and activity invariably say about the Socialist Party being a small, unimportant sect, the history of our party is one of theoretical innovation and politically holiest dedication to the interests of our class

It has become common over the years for political writers and academics to characterise the Socialist Party as an exclusive Marxist club or a moribund sect, that is when they haven’t chosen to ignore us completely. Historian Walter Kendall in his work on the early revolutionary movement in Britain claimed that the SPGB has “retained its political virginity only at the expense of not reproducing anything at all”, and this comment is fairly typical.

That the Socialist Party is a living organism will be obvious to virtually anyone who has been a member of it— furthermore, we do not dogmatically make assertions against the evidence and have shown ourselves capable of making real contributions to the development of political and economic thought. Of course, the Socialist Party has not worked in a vacuum—our core ideas were bequeathed by the early anti-capitalist revolutionary movement, and, in particular, by Marx and Engels who developed a theory of social development and an economic analysis of capitalist society which forms the bedrock of the Socialist Party’s position even now. But this doesn’t mean that real developments have not been made or that the Socialist Party has been repeating an inflexible mantra ever since our formation.

Sometimes the Socialist Party has developed quite original and distinctive arguments in response to developments within capitalism—we were, for instance, possibly the first political party in the world to contend that the Russian dictatorship was “state capitalist” rather than socialist, a contention later taken up by many others. On other occasions the Socialist Party has developed new distinctive arguments in that we have effectively blended existing strands of political and economic thought into a completely new mix. This is most notably the case with our views on the “reform or revolution” question where two seemingly incompatible theories were entwined into a unique new political position.

There are a number of distinctive arguments the Socialist Party has developed since 1904 and while socialism has not yet been achieved, we have helped make some serious contributions to the development of socialist political and economic theory — weapons for battles now being fought and still to come. Here are eight of our most significant contributions:

•  The Socialist Party helped solve the “reform or revolution” dilemma which had plagued the early labour movement by rejecting reformism but not democratic political action to capture state power, two views which had previously been associated with one another. An early forerunner of the Socialist Party, the Socialist League of William Morris, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, had been taken over by anarchists in the 1880’s largely because it combined it opposition to reformism with anti-parliamentarianism, specifically a tendency to view elections as a bourgeois diversion and parliament as merely the “talking-shop” of the capitalist class. The founders of the Socialist Party learned from the mistakes of the Socialist League and other groups, and contended that opposition to elections and Parliament did not logically follow on from opposing reformism. For a socialist revolution to be as peaceful as possible, the state machine and armed forces would have to be democratically captured from the control of the capitalist class and converted from being “an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation”. This would also mean that the capitalists’ appeals to democratic legitimacy would be thwarted by the majoritarian political action of the socialist movement.

•  The Socialist Party resolved that modern wars are fought over issues of concern to the owning class and not the workers; specifically being disputes over spheres of influence, trade routes, sources of raw materials and sometimes markets. When war broke out in 1914 the Socialist Party was the only political organisation in Britain to unequivocally oppose the conflict. Other parties purporting to uphold the interests of the working class took sides, having identified anti-militarism, “national liberation” and other causes as goals worth pursuing before socialism.

•  In the nineteenth century socialists like Marx and Engels supported so-called “progressive” wars against feudal reaction at a time when capitalism had not yet become the dominant world system. They thought that sweeping away feudal restrictions and the power of reactionary regimes like Tsarist Russia would help pave the way for socialist organisation and eventually revolution. Their position in the period of capitalist ascendancy over feudalism was taken by some supporters of war in 1914 as justification for their own actions. The Socialist Party maintained that, whatever Marx and Engels’s views in the nineteenth century, there could be no question of socialists taking sides with any section of the capitalist class once capitalism had become the dominant world system and socialism the pressing alternative to it. When capitalism has advanced far enough to create the material conditions for socialism the capitalist class becomes socially useless and all nation states reactionary, needing to be swept aside and not bolstered.

•  Unlike most of the “left-wing”, the Socialist Party opposed the establishment of the dictatorship in Russia under the guise of “workers’ control” or “socialism”. The Socialist Party argued that Russia under Bolshevik rule would be forced to take the capitalist road as the only one open to it. Socialism in one country (an economically backward one at that) and without popular majority support, was impossible. The Bolshevik “Revolution” was in fact more of a political coup d’etat by a self-appointed elite of political conspirators with no respect for the wishes of the majority. For decades the Socialist Party has maintained in distinction to Bolshevism that minority action can never lead to socialism or anything like it.

Socialists have affirmed that Soviet Russia was capitalist and could only have been so given the nature of its political birth. It exhibited all the principal features of the capitalist mode of production in one form or another, notably wage labour, capital accumulation, commodity production, class division and exploitation of one class by another.

•   In the 1920’s and 30’s the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party (ILP) argued that capitalism was going to collapse, with socialism arising phoenix-like from the ashes. The Socialist Party contended that this was nonsense and that capitalism would not pave the way for socialism without majority political action. This contention was repeated in the years after the Second World War to Trotskyists and Left Communists who took up afresh the mantle of “capitalist collapse”. In particular, the Socialist Party denied the claim that capitalism would collapse because of an in-built lack of purchasing power, with the workers and capitalists combined unable to buy back the entire product of industry. This claim was based on an entirely fallacious view of the relationship between productive labour and effective demand in capitalism — that somehow there is a permanent mismatch between the value of the mass of commodities produced at any one time and the income derived from this production in the form of surplus value (unpaid labour) and the value of workers’ labour power (paid labour). This “deficiency of purchasing power” claim, sometimes called “underconsumptionism” and wrongly credited to Marx, is a myth and has been disproved both on a theoretical level and by history. The Socialist Party has argued that enough purchasing power exists in capitalism—it is how it is used which causes difficulties, as its relationship to production is not planned. This is the phenomenon which gives rise to periodic (not permanent) crises and slumps and the trade cycle which has been a characteristic of capitalism since its infancy.

•  The Socialist Party, in response to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, resolved that bourgeois democracy, with elementary political rights, is the most favourable condition for the overthrow of capitalism. In addition, we maintained that workers living under dictatorships should struggle to establish basic political rights, though without ever giving support to capitalist organisations, including those professing bourgeois democracy as their aim. This is not only because of the general reformist and anti-socialist nature of such organisations, but because these organisations in government are compelled to use the might of the state machine against the working class in the interests of capital.

For similar reasons, the Socialist Party resolved that socialists cannot support allegedly “democratic” countries fighting wars against dictatorships. In addition, socialists are aware that wars are never fought over such lofty ideals and that history has proved that “democratic” states will prop up and assist dictatorships if it is in their interests to do so. The Socialist Party position was vindicated after the Second World War when the Allies carved up Europe in such a way as to hand half of it to the wretched Stalinist dictatorship while leaving Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, among others, to persist as neo-fascist regimes.

•  The Socialist Party argued that the setting-up of the “welfare state” in Britain and other countries after the war would not solve the problems of the working class, which are integral to capitalism. To the extent that the welfare state represented a gain for some workers on the previous arrangements, we noted that it was always dependent on the maintenance of a low level of unemployment and destitution—a situation capitalism is incapable of sustaining for long. In recent decades unemployment, the rise of the so-called “underclass” and demographic change have undermined welfare provision as it came to be  built up.

Over time the burdens on the welfare state have increased just as the capitalist class finds it increasingly difficult to finance it through taxation of profits. These increased burdens have led to a squeeze on the rate of profit after tax—the bottom line for the capitalists—which is the main factor determining the pace of future investment and growth, and also whether firms or entire nation states sink or swim in the competitive world economy.

•  In distinction to the main political parties, the Socialist Party was never taken in by the claims of Keynesian economics, which promised low unemployment, steady growth and stable prices for the post-war period on the basis of government borrowing, “easy money” and redistributive taxation, especially when slump threatened. Unlike most of capitalism’s economists, socialists argued that Keynesian policies could not prevent unemployment and crises as the major determinants of these—production for profit, the anarchy of production and capitalism’s antagonistic system of income distribution, are integral features of the market economy.

Sure enough, everywhere Keynesianism was attempted it proved disastrous and eventually provoked the return to “laissez-faire” economics in the 1980s Its lasting legacy—still with most of the capitalist world—has been persistently rising prices. This has been brought about by the mistaken belief—exposed by the Socialist Party from the standpoint ofMarxian economics—that an excess issue of inconvertible paper currency would act as a stimulus to production and trade.

•  In Anti-Duhring Friedrich Engels had written of production in socialism being guided “on the basis of one single vast plan”, but given the complexity of modem society, this is not possible. The Socialist Party realised that socialism could not be built on the basis of a centralised allocative plan which would be, by definition, antithetical to local decision-making, and which would be unresponsive to changing needs. Instead the Socialist Party suggested that socialism would operate a system of production for use operating in direct response to needs, these needs arising in local communities. The operational basis for this system would be calculation in kind (e.g. tonnes, kilos, litres, etc.) instead of monetary calculation, combined with the responsive system of stock-control outlined in our pamphlet Socialism As A Practical AItentative. Such a system would be able to allocate resources much more efficiently, responsively and democratically than a pre-determined allocative plan which has proved next to useless for state capitalist regimes and is no model for a real social democracy.

That the Socialist Party is no sterile, unthinking organisation full of dogmatists should now be clear. Socialists are not content to sit on the sidelines of history—we are original thinkers and are open to innovation and new ideas—providing, that is, that they are sound. We are willing and able to co-operate with men and women the world over to bring about a better society, and we are proud of the small contribution we have already made to the movement that will sweep away capitalism once and for all. Our message to those who can see no future so long as the market economy remains is join us— and help make history.

Dave Perrin