Is the S.P.G.B. the Party of the Workers?
[Report of a debate between J. Fitzgerald, S.P.G.B. (affirmative) and E. J. B. Allen, S.L.P. (negative) at the Engineers’ Institute, Plumstead, January 20th, 1907.]
Fitzgerald, in opening, said that to decide which was the workers’ Party it was necessary to describe the worker’s position. To-day he was an article of merchandise, for he had no access to the means of existence save by selling his energy on the labour market. The means of existence and the wealth produced were owned and controlled by the capitalist class, and this economic cleavage between the two classes resulted in an antagonism of interests. The ruling class were numerically small; how then were they able to retain control over the means of existence and the lives of the workers? When the workers showed signs of revolt, police, judicial, military and naval forces were brought against them. But these forces could not exist on air. The supplies necessary to keep and arm these forces are provided for out of revenue and voted for in parliaments. Thus the control of the political machinery enables the capitalist class to retain their position. The Party of the workers must therefore have for its object the control of the means of existence and the capture of political power as chief means to this end.
The ruling class keep employed a specially trained section for this political work and trickery, but the workers have not the wealth, leisure, or opportunity to acquire the same proficiency in trickery (even if it were defensible). Consequently the only method remaining to the workers is an open and above-board organisation for the capture of political power. Fitzgerald then proceeded to examine various political parties such as the Liberal, Tory, and Labour parties and the I.L.P. and S.D.F. from the above basis, and showed how hopeless they were from the point of view of working-class emancipation. He then dealt with the S.L.P., which while claiming to accept the position already laid down, denied this practically by forming their organisation in an underhand way. This organisation, like the S.P.G.B., grew out of the so-called “Impossibilist” movement in the S.D.F. The movement manifested itself at the West Ham and Birmingham conferences of the S.D.F., and at Blackburn the London and Scottish sections agreed to work together. The London section abided this, but just before the next conference news came that instead of working for alteration of the policy of the S.D.F, the Scottish section had been secretly organising a new party. The London section, recognising that the workers must consciously work out their own emancipation, refused to blindly follow either superior persons from Queen Anne’s Gate or self-styled geniuses from Scotland, and continuing their work converted so many that after the Burnley conference the S.P.G.B. was formed in an open and straightforward manner. The S.L.P. had a palliative programme when first formed, while the S.P.G.B. ignored these confusing items. The S.L.P. merely adopted parrot-like the actions and phrases of the American S.L.P. without considering whether they were applicable to conditions here.
E. J. B. Allen in reply said that he had attended the meeting of the London “Impossibilists’ after the Shoreditch conference, and Fitzgerald had said nothing about having been deceived, but only that he was not going to help form a party with two dozen. Fitzgerald had said that workers must get control of the political machinery, but had not shown how this was to be done. Marx had shown that it was those who had economic power that controlled in Society, the political and other factors being based in the economic. Engels had pointed out that with the establishment of Socialism politics would be abolished. The workers must have an economic organisation to enforce their expressions on the political field. A political movement without force behind it was a farce. How were they going to get the economic organisation of the working class which would be a real power? One way was to convert the existing class-unconscious organisations. The other ay was to build up a class-conscious organisation themselves.
With regards to the S.L.P. in England adopting methods from America, why did not the S.P.G.B. produce an economic system of its own instead of taking that of Marx? In America the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance had failed, while in the West there grew up the American Labour Union. This and other organisations met in Chicago in 1905 and formed the “Industrial Workers of the World.” This was the union they were endeavouring to establish here. In it the workers would be organised to take and hold the means of existence against the capitalist class. It would furnish the might necessary to enforce the political right, and was therefore the most important. How was the S.P.G.B. going to make the trade unions take up the Socialist position? The S.L.P. intended to form an I.W.W. as soon as they had the strength. They admitted members of various political parties into the Advocates of Industrial Unionism.
He challenged Fitzgerald to show where the S.L.P. had violated the Unity Programme as printed in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD. While preaching the principles of unity the S.P.G.B. denied them for the purpose of keeping their little Party alive. With reference to the straight and above-board position of the S.P.G.B., he had read two pamphlets issued by the Islington Branch, and so far as he could see they had made out their case against the E.C. of the S.P.G.B.
Fitzgerald then said that he had insisted so much on the swindling of the Scotsmen at the “Impossibilist” meeting that one present had tried to minimise Yates’ admission that the Scotsmen had been building up a new party during two years.
The workers’ greatest difficulty would not be to get a parliamentary majority but to get control of the positions of the permanent officials. Regarding Engels’ statement that the political state would die out, Engels had defined the political state as the expression of the ruling class; but so important did he consider the capture of political power that he italicised the sentence “The Proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.”
The political machinery was the means whereby the businesses and collective needs of Society were co-ordinated, and which would under Socialism become their co-ordination for the benefit of all. The economic organisation could not take and hold the factories, etc. while the capitalist class controlled the armed forces, for by these the workers could easily be dispossessed.
They accepted any scientific truth or discovery, whether it originated in America or Germany, but a thing was not necessarily correct because it was adopted in America, while we should probably learn as much from the mistakes of other countries as from their truths. From the time of the formation of the S.T. & L.A. right up to 1904 the position of the S.L.P. was that the political arm must dominate the economic: but with the formation of the I.W.W. a complete change occurred, for it is now said that the economic arm must dominate the political. If this were true why form a political organisation at all? If economic organisation furnishes the might and the method why do not the advocates of I.W.W-ism proclaim themselves the Anarchists they are and give all their attention to the economic organisation? We could not make the trade unions do anything; we could only educate them until sufficient had been converted to make possible the action we desired. The S.L.P. had violated THE SOCIALIST STANDARD unity programme by their violation of the principle that the workers must consciously emancipate themselves at the very formation of their Party. With reference to the two Islington pamphlets, he had challenged and was prepared to meet Lehane.
Allen then said regarding the economic organisation “taking and holding,” the Government were once unable to hold the naval manoeuvres because the South Wales miners were on strike. Under the industrial form of organisation the workers could prevent the transport of troops. If the workers refused to make the weapons, etc., there would be none for the soldiers to use against the workers. Fitzgerald’s definition of the political machinery under Socialism was merely the federal council to supervise the economic departments. While he himself and all other Socialists that he knew had been educated from the political side, Allen considered it easier to teach the mass through the economic organisation. They were not Anarchists because the Anarchists denied the need for organisation. The occurrence at Portsmouth showed the shaky position of the capitalist class regarding the armed forces.
The workers had often to migrate for purposes of their employment, and this disenfranchised a large number: he was therefore not sure the workers had a voting majority. Fitzgerald had asked how a man could claim to accept the revolutionary position and yet remain in the I.L.P., but Fitzgerald was not born a member of the S.P.G.B., he had to develop. They of the S.L.P. had never said “We alone are the holy ones. No one can be a Socialist who does not join us.” The difference between the S.L.P. and the S.P. was a difference between theorisers and men prepared to join hands with the working class and get them to take united action. No matter what organisation a man belonged to, if he accepted the revolutionary position as laid down by the A.I.U. he was welcomed.
Fitzgerald in his last speech said, as the workers refusing to supply the soldiers with arms and ammunition, that town could give a significant answer. In Woolwich Arsenal seven years’ war stores were supposed to be kept, and visitors could see that great stocks were there. Against these years of supply the workers had only empty pockets and empty cupboards. In Italy the places of striking railway men were taken by armed soldiers, by whom such transport as was essential was carried on. He denied that it was easier to teach the workers from the economic side, for there the petty interests arising from the daily struggle hinder the recognition of the class position. We stood upon the correct basis of continuing the education of the workers inside and outside their unions so that the Socialist political and economic organisations may be built up that will accomplish their emancipation.
Allen in his closing speech said the railway strike in Italy was a not a general strike, nor were the men revolutionists, so that what happened there did not disprove his case. If, as Fitzgerald maintained, the capitalists controlled all these stores, how were you going to vote them out? The statement that the political organisation was not concerned with the petty details of the workers affairs showed the error of the position of the S.P.G.B. Such a party degenerated into a side show of word spinners and logic choppers and will inevitably be split into fragments as it was doing now. All the world over Industrial Unionism was growing with Socialism. You must have economic unity before political unity. He knew it was a longer road to organise the workers economically for their emancipation, but they were prepared to face the difficulties and were going on with the work.
The Chairman, H. Stiff (S.P.G.B.), said in closing the meeting it was the first time that revolutionary Socialism had been preached in that hall.
There was a good attendance and the literature of both parties was on sale.