As soon as this pub closes…
The oldest socialist party, the SPGB, was founded in 1904, when the left wing of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) rejected the opportunist politics of Hyndman, Marx’s bête noire, the leader of their parent group, which culminated in congratulating King Edward on his accession to the throne. The original Left faction was a confused amalgam which included some people in London and a number of Scots comrades influenced by the American Marxist/Syndicalist Daniel De Leon. Unfortunately De Leon’s ideas came to them through the agency of the Edinburgh adventurer James Connolly who ended his career as an Irish nationalist and Catholic martyr. Instead of fighting to win the SDF to a Marxist policy the Scots broke away in 1903 to form the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), leaving the London SDF members compromised and isolated. The following year they themselves split from the SDF and formed the SPGB.
The double dealing of the faction which formed the SLP made the SPGB an angry and suspicious group from the beginning. That was demonstrated by the Declaration of Principles (D of P), carried in the first issue of its journal, the Socialist Standard. The key part of the document is Clause 7, the famous ‘hostility clause’ which states: “That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party which seeks working class emancipation, must be hostile to every other party”.
The ‘hostility clause’ was a stroke of genius which expresses the essence of the SPGB and achieved a simple formula for achieving isolation and non co-operation which the party’s rivals try to obtain through confused and inconsistent dialectical contortions. Religious sects achieve the same effect by shaving their heads or wearing distinctive clothes. The hostility to other groups was reciprocated from the beginning as the SPGB’s insistence on writing in plain English caused great offence: most Left groups consider that a church must have its own language and liturgy, and have laboriously constructed a jargon comprehensible only to the initiated. The SPGB’s insistence on using the vernacular has provoked much the same response as that of the Papacy towards those who translated the Bible into the common tongue. The D of P has never been seriously challenged and the party has never looked back. It has been fortunate in finding a biographer in Robert Barltrop, whose book The Monument is a truthful and warmly affectionate account of a group whose aggression and cantankerousness have placed a strain on the tolerance of most people who encounter them. People have the impression that a group bound to a doctrine first enunciated in 1904 must be composed of dogmatic robots. Nothing could be further from the truth! The SPGB was, until recently, full of the most delightful and varied eccentrics one could hope to meet. The reason for this is that although the D of P is sacrosanct it covers only the question of how the socialist society will be brought about. The party, in contrast to many other sects, does not try to regulate its members domestic lives, eating habits, or personal relationships.
The party’s formula for achieving socialism is beautifully simple: the workers are to become individually convinced of the socialist case and when that has been done they will vote in a government which will decree socialism at a stroke. No attention is given to the boring questions of tactics or strategy. The SPGB, thus, achieves the unique distinction of being both constitutional and revolutionary. Through this formula the SPGB avoids the strains which drive other socialists to drink or revisionism. The very simplicity of the formula might seem to rule out the possibility of discussion. However,the D of P, inflexible as it is in the area which it covers, does not specify what the society of the future will be like. Consequently,SPGB meetings, whatever the ostensible topic, quickly tend to gravitate towards discussion on precisely this theme. Under socialism will we be vegetarian? Monogamous or not? Will we still live in cities? Will we use more or less water, and will goods still be mass produced? Visitors to SPGB meetings, expecting to hear solemn Marxists discussing how to overthrow the bourgeoisie, are usually surprised and charmed. No speculation is forbidden by the D of P, so imaginations can soar, unfettered by the tedious discussions on tactics and strategy which form the content of most socialist theory. Even the least imaginative of the speculations are more appealing than descriptions of the
Christians’ dreary, male chauvinist, heaven.
It is accepted sociological wisdom that any organisation which has existed for three generations should have achieved a measure of family continuity, and so be relieved of the constant necessity to win converts from the outside world. As the SPGB is the only political sect which has been around long enough to test the theory on it has attracted more attention from sociologists than students of politics. In fact, the SPGB’s achievement there has, not yet, equalled that of any established religious sect. What does happen, according to Barltrop, is that new members join because of social relationships rather than formal propaganda, which serves as a diversion for the members rather than as a source of recruitment. The party is, apart from the Discussion Groups, the only socialist organisation which is at all difficult to join. Members have to satisfy a committee that they understand the SPGB’s case: in contrast, the vanguard groups will accept anyone who does as she is told.
In the 1950s the SPGB seemed like a survivor of the Edwardian era, rather like the Secular Society with whose cultural milieu it overlaps. However, just as that scene was rejuvenated by a revival of interest in the Universities so, to a lesser extent, was the SPGB. This has changed the internal atmosphere, in ways which are sometimes worrying. Discipline, once draconian, has become very lax: some of the younger members interpretation of the ‘hostility clause’ is frankly alarming. They argue that while the D of P enjoins hostility to rival organisations, this need not be extended to the members of such organisations. On a strictly legalistic reading of the D of P this is perhaps allowable, but it would severely weaken the social effect of the hostility clause. It would never have been accepted by the stalwarts who built the party, and goes against its whole tradition. . .
As we reach the fag end of the 20th century, thoughts inevitably turn towards the centenary celebrations in 2004. Conway Hall has been looking a bit dowdy in recent years, but it is a central spot with many associations for socialists, so it might well be the site for the festivities. A committee will be set up to determine the precise form which these will take, as the party does not believe in arbitrary decisions by authoritarian leaders. It can look forward with quiet confidence. Membership has grown from a mere 100 founders to nearly 700. In contrast, most of its early rivals have passed into history, and later competitors are in disarray. The Communist Party is splintered and in apparently terminal decline, while the Labour Party has abandoned whatever socialist rhetoric it once employed to deceive the masses. The Socialist Workers Party no longer attracts intelligent young people as it did in the early 1970s, so the SPGB can look forward to having the field to itself. The apolitical sociologists asking boring questions about the party’s social composition are a nuisance, but the D of P has nothing to say about them.