First Way Marxists
Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third Way by Peter Campbell, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, pp.303, 1999.
Peter Campbell discusses, and focuses on, the lives of four individuals—Ernest Winch, William Prichard, Arthur Mould and Robert Russell, all of whom originally came from Britain and from religious backgrounds. The title and the phrase, “a Third Way”, is something of a misnomer, as the author himself admits, writing:
“The description requires explanation, because these socialists might more accurately be called Marxists of the first way. Their guiding philosophy is to be found in the provisional rules of the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in London, England, September 1864 . . .”
Campbell’s definition of a Marxist, and on occasion a socialist, is somewhat more wide than ours, although less so than that of many writers and commentators. His introduction is as important, and revealing, as his four pen-portraits.
The author uses the phrase “third way” in order to differentiate his subjects—and the organisations to which they belonged—from mass social democratic parties, such as the German Social Democratic Party, and later the so-called Communist parties. In that sense, he feels that they were Marxists of a “third way”, opposing the idea of leadership, and advocating mass understanding as the only way to working-class emancipation. Education was, and is, everything. “Challenging the wages system meant educating the workers, and education became the key concern of Marxists of the third way”, says Campbell. “The overthrow of capitalism and the eradication of the wages system were the responsibility of the workers themselves”, although in practice, education was seen as a predominately male realm, as few women in such parties as the Socialist Party of Canada became public speakers or lecturers.
Nevertheless, Campbell shows that the early “third way” socialists, and particularly members of the SPC, were largely free of sexist and racist prejudices. Indeed, their close ties to the Jewish community became very important during the general strike, in Winnipeg, in 1919. Interestingly, although socialists like Bill Prichard came from predominately religious backgrounds, they put the scientific method to the fore, with much emphasis on evolution.
Except for Arthur Mould (of whom more later), they were not pacifists. They considered violence a possible, if not unavoidable, outcome of revolutionary change; but they argued that the more that the workers understood, the more educated they became in socialist ideas, the less likelihood there would be of violence. Bill Prichard saw “revolutionary violence” as a sign of weakness in the working class. Says Campbell: “The assumption was that significant numbers of capitalists would see the futility of resisting a well-educated, well-organised working-class majority and go over to the winning side.”
Inevitably, not all “third way” socialists remained consistent in their views or beliefs. A few joined the Communist Party; others embraced the reformism of the Social Democrat and Labour parties. And a few, like Bill Prichard, embraced reformist politics for a few years, only to return to revolutionary socialism, and membership of the Socialist Party of Canada or the World Socialist Party of the United States, later.
Between 1910 and 1940, Ernest Winch was successively a leading member of the Social Democratic Party, secretary of the International Longshoremen’s Association in British Columbia, president of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, for a time a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, an organiser of the Independent Labour Party, secretary and organiser of the “bogus” SPC in the early 1930s and, lastly, a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member of the British Columbia provincial legislature for almost twenty-five years. Yet he considered himself, and was considered by many others, to be a Marxist and defender of “third way” Marxism.
Winch was renowned for his fiery, revolutionary phraseology, defending Marxism and “scientific socialism”; yet in practice his politics led to reform, not revolution. And during the late 1920s and through much of the 1930s Winch co-operated with the Canadian Communist Party. Of him, Campbell says: “While Winch’s rhetoric continued to be revolutionary, many of his thoughts were confused and contradictory.”
Bill Prichard, however, was far more consistent except for a period during the 1930s.
On 21 May 1911, he arrived in Vancouver, from England. Two days later he applied for membership of the Socialist Party of Canada, and was admitted a week later. He became an avid reader of socialist and scientific literature. From December of that year, he wrote regularly for the Western Clarion, the paper of the SPC, and was its editor from 1914 to 1917. Despite his religious background, Prichard became a materialist and atheist “believing religion was irrational”. Although not mentioned by Campbell, Prichard was largely responsible for the SPC reprinting the SPGB pamphlet Socialism and Religion. He accepted, and propounded, the materialist conception of history, the class struggle, the labour theory of value, and the necessity for workers, in a majority and without leaders, to abolish the wages system. As Campbell notes, there was no shortcut to emancipation—”nothing less than class conscious effort and class conscious knowledge”. But he was no mere theorist. He travelled over vast areas of Canada, and British Columbia in particular, speaking at SPC meetings, often under horrendous conditions. And for many years, he was actively involved in various trade and industrial unions.
This, almost inevitably, led to his arrest and imprisonment following the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. His two-day speech at the trial in January 1920 is part of Canadian working-class history. During his imprisonment, Prichard was visited by Adolph Kohn, a member of the SPGB, who brought him three volumes of Marx’s Capital, which he was able to pass through the bars to him! During this period, Bill Prichard, unlike some of his comrades, was very critical of the Communist Party and its undemocratic tactics.
However, in 1932, Prichard joined the recently-formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and became heavily involved in its activities. In 1938, he left Canada for California. And some time later “he returned to Marxism of the third way by joining the World Socialist Party of the United States (WSPUS) a sister party of the Socialist Party of Canada”. He continued to propound revolutionary socialism until his death in 1981.
Arthur Mould is, at least to his reviewer, a far less interesting figure; and whether he could be described as a Marxist “of the third way” is highly problematical.
He was never a member of the pre-1919 Socialist Party of Canada; indeed, he began as a Methodist Church lay preacher in England. He was not as well read in Marx’s writings as Prichard or even Winch. Although he was a forthright critic of organised religions, he was not opposed to religion as such. Although opposed to war, at least until the Second World War, Mould was more a pacifist and admirer of Leo Tolstoy than an opponent in the Marxist tradition of the SPC. In fact, he was particularly upset when Moses Baritz, a member of the SPGB who was speaking on behalf of the SPC, defended the use violence in a lecture on the French Revolution in 1916. At about this time, Mould became active in the Independent Labour Party, in London, Ontario. Although remaining a committed Christian, during the 1920s he became increasingly sympathetic towards the Communist Party and joined it in 1943. And in 1961, still a member of the CCP, though a critical one, Arthur Mould died.
Robert Boyd Russell was an active member of the US Socialist Party, a key figure in the Winnipeg general strike, a leading organiser of the Railway Machinists during the First World War, a ceaseless advocate of industrial unions, in which he emphasised the necessity of waging the class war from a position of strength, and an active member of the One Big Union which had been formed in the aftermath of the Winnipeg strike in 1919. He, like Prichard, was imprisoned. In 1922 he dropped out of the Socialist Party, but continued as general secretary of the OBU and, later, editor of the OBU Bulletin following the resignation of Charles Lestor, until the OBU became part of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1956. He died in 1964.
Although this reviewer has some strong reservations about some of the views expressed by Peter Campbell, this is an important book, detailing as it does, much information on the Canadian labour and socialist movement. It is well worth reading.
The Socialist Party
The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Politics, Economics and Britain’s Oldest Socialist Party by David A. Perrin. Bridge Books, Wrexham, 2000.
By any standards, a key publication in the long history of the Socialist Party. It attempts to correct some of the “glaring errors [made] by serious analysts”, to illuminate the SPGB’s “unique analysis of events in the 20th century¸ and to record the development of “distinctive arguments on a wide range of subjects”. It succeeds quite admirably in all these enterprises.
The focus is not so much a history of the SPGB, as “a history of ideas which members used to debate and orate”. The book’s elegantly written 200-odd pages are thus not a record of the SPGB as a political organisation, nor yet are they about party members per se. Rather Perrin has written about the key ideas that underpinned the Party’s formation in 1904, and the way these ideas have been elaborated and extended in the light of Marxian theory across the best part of 100 years. The book is also written from the perspective of a professional political scientist who is also a Party member. Not surprisingly therefore the assembled evidence which is quoted in support of its analysis is impressive, and this lends persuasive weight and authority to its conclusions. As someone who recently found himself writing a modest project on the history of the Second World War, I can confirm that historians have, for whatever reason, largely ignored the Party’s distinctive contribution to ideas. This book will help to put the record straight.
All but one of the chapters examine the “genesis of eight specific contributions that it [the SPGB] has made to the development of Marxian theory”. There are chapters on: Reform or Revolution?; The First World War; Russia and State Capitalism; Economic Crises and the “Collapse of Capitalism”; Fascism, Democracy and the Second World War; The Welfare State; Keynes and Inflation; and Socialist Planning.
Each chapter follows the same essential, easy-to-follow format. The nature of the challenge is described, the SPGB’s position is established and compared with that of other conflicting political positions, and the development of the Party’s position over time in the light of Marxian theory is described. The writing is informed, as all good history writing should be, with the feeling that the author was present at the time and as such is able to describe events sensitively and accurately. I found the narrative thread always easy to follow, the nature of the discourse persuasive, and the conclusions reached compelling. But the text is demanding. This is not the kind of book you can skip through. On the contrary its seriousness and attention to detail demand the kind of close scrutiny which is, necessarily, typical of an academic text. I found myself reading only one chapter at a sitting, and then spending a lot of time afterwards reflecting about what I had read. But the rewards are immense, and they are also profound. Some, at least, deserve elaboration.
First, although familiar with the Party’s position on reformism, war, state capitalism, the Welfare State, and so on, I wasn’t as clear as I now am about how these positions had been established. I now see more comprehensively how, through time, the Party’s unique stance has been slowly refined and extended in the light of experience, and by reference to Marxian theory. Reading the book has been a powerful and enriching educational experience.
Second, it is a hugely reassuring experience. At the end of each chapter I was left with the warm and comfortable feeling that the position taken by the Party was in a very substantial sense “right”. True, the rightness might not be absolute,. It might—as perhaps the Party’s attitude as to why post-war governments resorted to currency inflation seems to suggest—be in need of further refining. But then this is in the nature of things. Scientific explanations, as someone once put it, are like Ford Model Ts. In time they wear out, and need updating.
Third, I am filled with admiration for the writers and speakers, the Conference delegates and the membership generally, who have collectively demonstrated that Marx provided us with more than just a body of material evidence and theoretical propositions. That, crucially, he also left us with a methodology—a methodology which allows us to go on refining our knowledge of the world in the light of new evidence, and adjusting our explanations accordingly. Each of the eight chapters demonstrates the extent of the Party’s admirable responsiveness to change, and the way it has, in general, successfully used Marxian theory to develop intellectual and practical positions which were not anticipated by Marx, and occasionally—as, for example, in its attitude to “progressive” wars—actually ran counter to Marx’s beliefs. This is not a picture—as some of the Party’s opponents would have people believe—of a political party whose stance is dated and set in stone, but quite the reverse. The evidence shows that the SPGB has remained for the most part dynamic and alive, and true to its materialist, scientific lights, across the best part of 100 years. As I read the book I found myself feeling proud to belong to an organisation whose members have remained—in spite of all the many disappointments and difficulties, to say nothing of the personal dangers and social disadvantages—so dedicated to the continuing cause of socialism. I suspect that nothing is likely to fire younger members of the Party with resolve and personal commitment than this inspiring testament to the hard work, wit and wisdom of comrades, most long since dead.
Fourth, I was struck by the many occasions when the Party’s position was articulated in authoritative articles in the Socialist Standard, and the way in which the Party’s internal democracy, albeit frequently based upon no more than informal contacts and discussion, ensured that only very rarely were such statements out of kilter with what the membership as a whole thought and believed. For example “the first detailed analysis of the Russian situation appeared in the August 1918 Socialist Standard under the heading “The Revolution in Russia, Where it Fails”. Imagine. A considered response which the whole Party found acceptable in but a year. And again, in an elegant article in August 1933 Hardy showed that the “Collapse of Capitalism” theory was based on a failure to differentiate between markets for “consumer” and “producer” goods, although this distinction had not previously been the subject of public comment by the Party.
The last chapter is different. In it Perrin offers a series of measured conclusions about the Party’s present stance, and details some “potential difficulties looming for the SPGB and its revolutionary strategy”. The style at this point, as elsewhere, is critical in the best Marxist tradition. The author is a member of the Socialist Party but he is not going to compromise his historical insights with an unquestioning loyalty to the Party. He concludes that:
“The main purpose of this work has been to demonstrate what became ever more apparent during the research, that far from being a moribund sect obsessed with political minutiae, bygone theories and traditions, the SPGB is rather more of a living organism than many of its detractors have assumed. Above all, it has proved capable of responding to events in an imaginative and distinctive measure while still holding true to its fundamental principles, derived in large part from classical Marxism of the nineteenth century.”
Few members of the Socialist Party would probably criticise this, even if some might want to celebrate the Party’s achievements more fulsomely, but the rest of the chapter is, of its nature, potentially much more contentious. In it Perrin notes that after a hundred years the Party seems “no nearer achieving socialism that it was in 1904”. He wonders why this is so, and he then enumerates some of the challenges which the Party is likely to have to face in the future if it is to be successful. He mentions:
- Problems arising from the conflict between “scrupulous democracy” and leadership.
- The effect of the absence of leaders on the Party’s ability “to respond to the demands of the media”.
- The failure of the Party to address “why the working class hasn’t yet mustered under its banner in any great numbers, or the related issue of what real incentive there is for them to do so”.
- The fact that the “SPGB often seems unsure about the precise role of the material interests of the working class in promoting a revolutionary outlook amongst workers”.
- The belief that the Party has work to do “on how future socialist society could be organised”. He mentions three matters of major concern: the problem of distribution; socialism and models of democracy; and “social compliance within socialism and how socialist society could deal with anti-social minorities in a fair and democratic manner”.
Some may find all this overly threatening. I find it richly stimulating. I don’t see the challenges that face the Party entirely as Perrin does, and I also think he has neglected others that are arguably relevant. But I think it is quite marvellous that he should finish the book in this kind of open, discursive way. It seems entirely true to the traditions of the SPGB. The future calls and we must respond to it openly, honestly and seriously, using those insights and perspectives which the author has shown have served the Party so well over nearly a century.