Getting Splinters

Since our foundation in 1904, membership of the Socialist Party of Great Britain has been conditional on acceptance of the Party’s Object and Declaration of Principles. All applicants for membership are required to undertake a short written or verbal ‘test’ designed to enable them to demonstrate an understanding of – and agreement with – this Object and Principles and also of the Party’s basic political positions not otherwise directly covered in the Declaration. There has been a sound reason for this as all members, once admitted, have full democratic rights and stand in basic equality to one another. This kind of political democracy can only work on the basis of agreement around fundamental principles and there would be no point in a socialist organisation giving full democratic rights to those who, in any significant way, disagreed with the socialist case. The outcome of that would be entirely predictable.

Naturally, in an organisation of critical thinkers that has endured for a century, the existence of some disagreement is inevitable. Indeed, it would be true to say that a fair number of internal debates and  disagreements have arisen in the Socialist Party concerning issues not covered by the Declaration of Principles and not addressed in the initial membership test  – in other words, issues which are  somewhat peripheral or incidental rather than core and fundamental. These issues have included the Party’s exact attitude to trade unionism, its view of capitalist economic crises, and – in more recent years – whether something akin to law will exist in socialist society.

There have been some event-specific debates too – such as over the Party’s precise attitude to the Spanish Civil War in 1936, to the Hungarian Uprising in1956 and then to the movements for political democracy in the Soviet-bloc states in the 1980s.

On other, far fewer, occasions, small groups of Party members, sometimes concerned by the Party’s pace of growth (or lack of growth in some periods) have developed ideas which have challenged the Party’s basic, core positions more clearly. Having initially agreed with the Party’s principles and analysis they developed a political critique which challenged these positions at a more fundamental level. But even in these instances, only a handful of disputes have been so serious that they have led to organisational breakaways, and for a political body that has seen thousands of members join over a century of activity, this is remarkable. While sometimes damaging to the Party, these have always involved very small numbers of dissidents who have either left the organisation voluntarily or who have been expelled by a Party Poll. In each case they have been more an instance of splintering than splitting. For the historical record, six splinters of the various kinds discussed above can be readily identified. They are detailed below in chronological order.

The Socialist Propaganda League
The early dispute in the Socialist Party which led to the formation of the tiny Socialist Propaganda League was the product of the optimistic belief of the Party’s founder members that the socialist revolution was near. A group of members around Harry Martin and Augustus Snellgrove wanted the Party to take a definitive stand on the attitude socialist delegates elected to parliament or local councils would take towards reform measures proposed by one or more of the capitalist parties.

In February 1910 a letter from “W.B. (Upton Park)” was sent to the Socialist Standard asking “What would be the attitude of a member of the SPGB if elected to Parliament, and how would he maintain the principle of ‘No Compromise’?” The perspective of this small group of members was that no reform of capitalism could ever be supported by the party claiming to represent working class interests as it was not the job of socialists to take part in the running of capitalism. Any attempt to do so would run counter to the famous ‘hostility clause’ of the Declaration of Principles.

The Standard ’s reply on the matter,backed by the Party’s Executive Committee, stated that each issue would have to be looked at on its merits and the course to be pursued decided democratically. This did not satisfy the members who had raised the question, who formed a ‘Provisional Committee’ aimed at overturning the position espoused in the Standard’s reply and who set their case out in an ‘Open Letter’ to Party members, arguing that socialists were required to oppose measures introduced by capitalist parties on each and every occasion. This was again rebutted firmly by the EC who contended that it would be ridiculous for socialists, by way of example, to oppose a measure designed to stop a war in which the working class was being butchered.

Believing this approach to be a violation of the principle of ‘no compromise’ several members resigned over this issue during 1911, a small number going on to found the Socialist Propaganda League. The SPL’s principal speaker and writer was Harry Martin, Snellgrove having been one of those from the Provisional Committee later to rejoin. Though Martin was sympathetic to the Party in all other respects, he continued to denounce the SPGB’s willingness to engage in ‘political trading’ in pamphlets and on the outdoor platform until his death in 1951. One of the SPL’s pamphlets, From Slavery To Freedom, was critically reviewed in the Socialist Standard in November 1932.

Harold Walsby and ‘Systematic Ideology’
The group that formed around Harold Walsby and his ideas probably represents the most unusual breakaway from the Socialist Party in its entire history. During the Second World War this group developed a fascination with perceived impediments to mass socialist consciousness among the working class. The theory they developed was expressed by Walsby himself in his 1947 book The  Domain of Ideologies and those involved in the group set up an organisation to propagate their views called the Social Science Association, which existed from 1944 until 1956, attracting a number of new recruits during the ‘Turner controversy’ (see below). It was later succeeded by the Walsby Society and the journal which emerged from it called Ideological Commentary. This survived until the death of its editor (and the former secretary of the SSA), George Walford, in 1994. Today, barely a handful of its exponents still survive.

The theory of the group developed over time and was re-christened ‘systematic ideology’ by Walford in 1976. Its basic premise was that people’s assumptions and identifications (the factors making up their ‘ideology’) are not explicable in terms of material conditions in general and their relationship to the means of production in particular – and are never likely to be. Instead, there are persistent and distinct ideological groups in society, cutting across social classes and forming a series, with the largest groups being most typically guided in their thoughts and actions by a preference for family, authority, familiarity and tradition. Politically, these preferences find predominant expression in the ideas of the large number of so-called ‘non-politicals’ in society, and in Conservatism and then Liberalism (the strength of these preferences gradually weakening through the series).

As the series progresses further, the next, progressively smaller, ideological groups seek to repress these identifications and preferences in favour of dynamism, social change, logical thought and the pursuit of theory as a guide to decision-making, these being expressed politically in Labourism, more overtly still in Communism and then, in an ultimate and extreme form, in Anarchism (or ‘Anarchosocialism’, the purist variety of it allegedly expounded by the SPGB). The more an ideology represses the preferences for family, tradition, etc in favour of social change, dynamism and the pursuit of theory as a guide to action, the fewer in number its adherents are likely to be, with anarchists (or ‘anarcho-socialists’) being the smallest of all. Those seeking radical social change, so the theory contends, will always be hampered and restrained by the enduring preferences of the largest ideological groups.

Systematic ideology itself was rather hampered by the fact that even if the ideological series it posits is a historically accurate one (which is highly contentious in itself), it has always been unable to adequately explain why this should be so. More precisely, what it is that influences some people and not others to gravitate through the series towards an ideology such as that supposedly represented by the Socialist Party? If some can do it but not others, systematic ideology has yet to coherently articulate why.

Walsby’s early version of the theory was clearly hierarchical (with those understanding the theory being the smallest group of all, metaphorically positioned at the apex of a pyramid, just above the Socialist Party) and it lent itself to criticism on the grounds that it was merely a particularly convoluted type of ‘human nature’ argument. This was essentially the response outlined in the Socialist Standard’s April 1949 review of Walsby’s book, called ‘The Domain of Sterilities’. From the 1980s onwards, George  Walford, an inveterate attender at Socialist Party meetings and a logic chopper extraordinaire, watered down some of thetheory’s more obviously elitist elements and even left the SPGB money at the time of his death. He did this on the grounds that although in his view the Party would never help achieve socialism it did perform a valuable function by demonstrating through its application of critical analysis, logical thought and theory the limitations of other political groups that valued these less highly (a perspective which had informed Harold Walsby’s decision in 1950 to surreptitiously rejoin the Party through its postal branch and write articles for the Standard under the pseudonym H.W.S.Bee).

Walsby, Walford and their group produced a large number of leaflets, pamphlets and other literature over time, a fair chunk of it dealing with the SPGB, even if a lot of it was highly abstract and sometimes downright silly. The most readable expressions of systematic ideology are probably Walford’s book Beyond Politics, published in 1990, and the pamphlet Socialist Understanding, published ten years earlier.

The ‘Turner Controversy’
Throughout its history, the Socialist Party has been known for the high calibre of its outdoor speakers and public debaters and Tony Turner was one of the Party’s most effective – indeed, many who heard him (both inside and outside the Party) claimed he was the finest outdoor orator of the twentieth century. When membership and activity was at a peak in the period after the Second World War, Turner began giving lectures for the Party on what socialism would be like. The content of these lectures led him to develop a position that caused enormous controversy in the Party by the early-to-mid 1950s and which was elaborated by Turner and his supporters in articles in the Party’s internal discussion journal of the  time, Forum.

Three interlocking propositions underpinned the ‘Turnerite’ viewpoint:

(i) that the society of mass consumerism and automated labour which capitalism had become had to be swept away in its entirety if alienation was to be abolished and a truly human community created. This meant a return to pre-industrial methods of production, on lines inspired by Tolstoy and William Morris’s News From Nowhere.
(ii) that the creation of the new socialist society was not simply in the interests of the working class but was in the interests of the whole of humanity, irrespective of class, a proposition they thought it essential for the Party to recognise in its everyday propaganda, and
(iii) the means of creating the new peaceful and cooperative society had to be entirely peaceful, indeed pacifist (and in the view of some, possibly even gradual).

This view was in direct contradiction to the Declaration of Principles, which identifies socialism as being the product of the class struggle and which states that the socialist movement will organise for the capture of political power, including power over the state’s coercive machinery, should it need to be used against a recalcitrant anti-socialist minority.

A series of acrimonious disputes between the ‘Turnerites’ and the majority of the Party culminated in a Party Poll decision and then a resolution being carried at the 1955 Party Conference to the effect that all members not in agreement with the Declaration of Principles be asked to resign. Turner, having survived a previous attempt to expel him, promptly did so, along with a number of other members including Joan Lestor (later to become a Labour minister) and the psychologist John Rowan. Some of these ex-members formed a short-lived Movement for Social Integration, though, ironically enough, the impact the dispute had on the Party as a whole was almost entirely disruptive and negative. Indeed, it didn’t  recover its vitality for some years, until the wave of radicalisation that grew up in the 1960s.

‘Libertarian Communism’
During the 1960s the Party was enthused by a healthy influx of new recruits initially politicised by the CND marches, Vietnam and the May Events of 1968 and who sought to make a more genuinely revolutionary stand than those of their generation who joined the so-called ‘new left’. The boost to Party membership and activity at this time was considerable.

Influenced by the prevailing political climate, some members who joined in this period wanted to change the emphasis of the Party’s propaganda efforts towards taking a more positive attitude to industrial  struggles, claimants unions and tenants associations but also to women’s liberation and squatting,  arguing that the Party had developed a somewhat idealist conception of how socialist consciousness arises, being divorced from the day-to-day struggles of workers. To this effect 15 activists from the ‘sixties generation’ signed a mini-manifesto in 1973 entitled “Where We Stand” which was circulated inside the Party. Although these ‘rebels’ in the Party were never a homogenous group, many more long-standing and traditional Party members felt uncomfortable with their line of argument.

One particular group of these activists published an internal discussion bulletin, which, in 1974,  converted itself into an externally-oriented journal called Libertarian Communism. This was produced  with the aid of nonmembers and supported the idea of workers’ councils. It openly attacked as  ‘Kautskyite’ the Party’s traditional conception of the socialist revolution being facilitated through  ‘bourgeois’ democracy and parliament. At the same time another group of younger members, based  mainly in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, was keen that the Party express support for such things as higher student grants (on the grounds that the Socialist Party was always prepared to support demands for higher wages) but the arguments of this group found no more favour with the majority in the Party than those put by the group around Libertarian Communism. Indeed, both of these groups were to be charged and then expelled for issuing literature that contradicted official Party policy.

Some – though certainly not all – of the members who came into dispute with the Party during this period appeared to be genuinely swept along with the activism and student radicalism of the time and  developed some reformist viewpoints which were unlikely to be palatable to the membership of a  genuinely revolutionary organisation. Members whose disagreements with the Party were less serious and fundamental stayed in, working for the creation of what they hoped would be a more tolerant, and in  their view, less ‘sectarian’ organisation.

The prominent activists of the time who were either expelled or left of their own volition typically became involved in single-issue campaigns or the radical feminist movement. However, one network of former members – those based around Libertarian Communism, who were critical of the Party’s revolutionary strategy and attracted by ‘council communist’ ideas – created an organisation called Social Revolution and others became involved in the Solidarity group. Some years later a number of these activists were  also involved in the foundation of the Wildcat council communist group and one of its successors, Subversion.

The Guildford ‘Road To Socialism’
In October 1987 the Party’s Guildford Branch circulated a discussion document around the Party which was to create controversy. It arose from discussions within the Party as to how socialist society could be organised to most effectively solve the problems left by capitalism. The document, entitled “The Road To Socialism”, questioned at a fundamental level the Socialist Party’s established view of how socialism is likely to come about, labelling it the “Big Bang” theory of revolution. It argued that the Party needed to develop “a more sophisticated multi-dimensional model of socialist transformation which nevertheless incorporates the more useful insights of the old theory”, but it was precisely what was meant by “multi-dimensional” that was to cause difficulties.

What Guildford had in mind was that the growing socialist movement would have a profound economic impact on the operation of capitalism before the overthrow of the capitalist class and the formal establishment of socialism. They claimed that socialists would use their influence politically (through parliament and local councils) to adjust patterns of state income and expenditure in ‘socialistic’  directions, including the provision of free services. Drawing inspiration from writers like Andre Gorz, they also claimed that socialists would be encouraging the growth of the non-monetary, voluntary sector of the economy and should be instrumental in developing support networks for co-operatives and LETS schemes.

In short, Guildford’s vision was a gradualist one in which the materialist conception of history as applied to the coming of socialism was turned on its head: the economic structure of society would be essentially transformed before the socialist capture of political power, rather than afterwards. In the Guildford  scenario, the capturing of political power would merely be a mopping-up exercise, designed to dispense with the remaining capitalist areas of the economy. This critique of the Party’s revolutionary strategy was vigorously rebutted in other circulars from branches and members and at Party conference, the Guildford perspective only receiving limited support from outside the branch itself. While most members readily  acknowledged that the growth of the socialist movement would have profound and perhaps unpredictable impacts, and while it was the already established Party position that socialists would be organised on the economic front as well as the political front to ensure the smooth changeover of production and distribution from capitalism to socialism, this did not equate with seeking to mould capitalism into socialism from within, in a gradual way. As the Party had long attacked co-operatives and the idea that the state could increasingly give away services for ‘free’, the Guildford perspective made little headway and its critique was largely dismissed as a caricature of the Party’s conception of socialist revolution.

Nobody was expelled over the matter, though a small number of members resigned. They published a journal called Spanner for a time, so-called because it aimed to ‘span’ opinion across the non-market socialist sector of political thought, and in recent years some have been instrumental in founding the small World In Common group.

The Socialist Studies Group
The most recent splinter from the SPGB occurred in 1991 when, following requests from six branches and after two polls of the entire membership, two dozen members from the Party’s Camden and North West London branches were expelled for persistently undemocratic behaviour.

The expulsions occurred because the branches repeatedly refused to abide by Conference resolutions stipulating that in most instances the Party should refer to itself as “The Socialist Party” for publicity purposes. Being more traditionally-minded than most, this group claimed that to discourage use of the Party’s full name for publicity purposes was to effectively take the Socialist Party of Great Britain out of the field of political action altogether. Underlying this particular issue, however, were others. The majority of members of the two branches had long been inclined to claim that the Party’s principles were being diluted and that social democratic and reformist elements had taken over the Party.

The group levied a long list of charges at the Party and the majority of its membership. The Socialist Standard’s qualified expression of support for the democratic organisation of trade unionists and workers in Polish Solidarity in 1981 was deemed evidence of reformism by the group and to this end they also opposed a motion at the 1990 Conference on the fall of the Russian empire which had repeated a  Party declaration from the Second World War supporting the independent efforts of workers everywhere  struggling against  dictatorship.

Over time, the group veered towards a fundamentalist position whereby the Party’s historic distinction between opposing all reformism (the political advocacy of reform measures designed to win support), rather than all proposed individual reforms per se, became completely blurred. Indeed, echoing the  1910-11 controversy, the group was later to explicitly state that socialist MPs in parliament should even vote against reform measures that are in the interests of the working class (Socialist Studies, 43).

n addition to their claims about ‘reformism’, the group argued that the Party no longer sufficiently emphasised the parliamentary aspect of the socialist revolution. It accused the Party of falling into the hands of anarchists, contending that it was not the established Party position that the state would be abolished immediately upon the overthrow of class society, but that the state would “gradually wither away” instead.

Many Party members had mixed feelings about these controversies, though a common reaction was that the expelled group had seemed to replace political analysis with knee-jerk sectarianism, possibly the product of a mindset that can sometimes come with lifelong membership of a fringe political movement. What made the disagreements with this group – and their subsequent expulsion – particularly difficult was that in Hardy, Harry Young, Cyril May and other members it contained some of the Party’s staunchest and most able writers, speakers and activists from earlier periods, in some cases as early as the inter-war years. The Party made an important judgment, however, that no member or group of members could consider themselves above Party democracy: for if that was allowed to happen, the SPGB would no longer be a democratic organisation and would cease to be socialist on its own terms. If some of the other disagreements being aired were possibly containable, deliberate and persistent flouting of the Party’s democratic decisions was most certainly not.

In June 1991, 16 members of the expelled group – rather bizarrely it may be thought – ‘reconstituted’ the SPGB on their exclusion from the Party. Their remaining members, along with a handful of sympathisers, still publish their journal Socialist Studies and occasional pamphlets. These publications today give the unmistakable impression of a small group of rather disgruntled ex-members choosing to cast   themselves in the mould of latter-day Fitzgeralds and Andersons making a principled break with an  organisation beyond political redemption, when the true comparison is more akin to the aforementioned “W.B of Upton Park” and the Socialist Propaganda League.


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