Is The SPGB sectarian?

Socialist Studies Issue 40 (Summer 2001)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was established in 1904 following the expulsion of socialists from the Social Democratic Federation.

The SPGB adopted a Socialist OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES to guide the Party in the political class struggle against “all other parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist”. This included, at the time, the Fabians, the Independent Labour Party, the latter who hoped to build “a golden bridge of palliatives” between themselves and the Liberals: “a true line of the progressive apostolic succession” (MacDonald and Hardy, NINETEENTH CENTURY, January 1899, pages 25-27).

The SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES were informed by the experience of class politics by the founder members, particularly around the question of accountability and democratic practice within the Party, the dangers of leadership and the issue of social reforms, which had been pursued by the SDF and ILP. The theoretical background of the DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES is influenced by Marx’s materialist conception of history, the labour theory of value and the political concept of the class struggle.

In this respect the SPGB is the only Party in Britain who has a Socialist programme and a Socialist objective.

We have, of course, stressed that if our analysis of capitalism can be shown to be wrong, or if the political programme to achieve Socialism is flawed, or that the Socialist objective is defective then we will look at what our critics say is wrong with our case and study any better solutions for furthering the political interests of the working class towards Socialism. We are not dogmatists but reasonable men and women. To date no refutation of the SPGB’s case has been forthcoming.

Obviously, many of our political opponents were under the illusion that they too were Socialists struggling for Socialism. They did not like the SPGB demonstrating to them and their supporters that their own political objective was not Socialism since it would either retain the wages system and class exploitation or lead to unnecessary violence and bloodshed through direct action.

The Party’s critics had no reasonable answer to the SPGB’s insistence on the necessity for a working class majority to first secure the machinery of government before establishing Socialism, that a Socialist Party must have Socialism as its sole objective and that Socialists must be hostile to those who confuse workers and direct them away from understanding Socialism and acting in their class interests.

It became clear to Socialists that the capitalist Left had no case to offer the working class in as much as they refused to have their theories, policies and political activity tested in open debate. They were reduced to hurling political abuse at us particularly the accusation that we were sectarian. Yet the SPGB, from the start, has been an autonomous political party. We have not splintered into hundreds of factions like the Trotskyists or the Libertarian Left. “Sectarian” comes from a whole list of readily available insults used by capitalist politicians – especially those on the Left – and which serve them as a poor substitute for critical analysis and reasoned argument.

So is the accusation of “Sectarianism” levelled against the SPGB justified? We believe not.

Here is a typical argument made against Socialists by the Socialist Workers Party:-


Quote:
The root cause of sectarianism…is the isolation of the socialists from effective and influential participation in mass struggles…its negative effects – the exacerbation of secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into matter of principle, the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development, the theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality – all these persist

” (D. Hallas: Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party” in PARTY AND CLASS, 1968, p. 55).

Of the insult, just what does it mean to be “semi-religious”? It is as daft a statement as being “half-pregnant”. What are “unwelcome aspects of reality”? This would presumably include the SPGB’s unique, class-based opposition to Lenin and his Party in stating that their coup d’etat could not bring about Socialism since the preconditions for a Socialist Revolution did not exist at the time. The SPGB in the 1920’s and 1930’s, unlike the parties of the Left, denounced the Stalinist show trials and dictatorship of the Party over the proletariat. And what is “theoretical conservatism”? Presumably, the SPGB’s refusal to accept the anti-working class policies of Lenin and Trotsky.

A similar passage accusing the SPGB of sectarianism can be found in the 1974 internal Party document “REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISTS - WHAT DOES IT MEAN TODAY?” published by a group of “Libertarian Communists”- They wrote:-


Quote:
“The isolation which follows from rejecting all existing social trends and movements as useless and diversionary has self-defeating consequences on the attitude of Socialists”.

In the above paragraph the view is put that the result of rejecting all existing social trends and movements as useless and diversionary means that Socialists become isolated and sectarian. They say that “sectarian socialists” can offer “no reason why socialist understanding should spread on a wide scale in the future”, and therefore Socialism appears to be “a possibility for the indefinite future rather than an immediate practical alternative”.

This is precisely the argument put forward long ago by Keir Hardy and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) including the use of the epithet “sectarian” about the position of the SPGB to other political parties. The ILP pursued every social reform it felt to be to its political advantage. Where is the ILP today?

Those who deride the SPGB as “sectarian” do not support their assertion in any way. The SPGB has always been entitled to claim that relatively few members leave; of those who do remain supporters and a number re-join. It is the reformist parties following the policies of supporting all existing “social trends and movements” that have produced disillusionment and pessimism on a large scale. What our critics fail to understand is that there is no “quick fix” to speed up socialist consciousness with the working class.

To be politically small does not mean to be “sectarian”. What is does mean is that the vast majority of the working class still support capitalism. We do not overestimate how fast society is changing nor do we underestimate the barriers to revolutionary change. The task at hand is not to be worried about the insults thrown at us by our opponents but to get on with the very real and urgent job of making Socialists.

Comments

R Totale
Nov 8 2018 16:12

Dunno why you're posting this now, but this bit:

"the SPGB is the only Party in Britain who has a Socialist programme and a Socialist objective.
...
Obviously, many of our political opponents were under the illusion that they too were Socialists struggling for Socialism. They did not like the SPGB demonstrating to them and their supporters that their own political objective was not Socialism since it would either retain the wages system and class exploitation or lead to unnecessary violence and bloodshed through direct action.

The Party’s critics had no reasonable answer to the SPGB’s insistence on the necessity for a working class majority to first secure the machinery of government before establishing Socialism, that a Socialist Party must have Socialism as its sole objective and that Socialists must be hostile to those who confuse workers and direct them away from understanding Socialism and acting in their class interests."

Doesn't really make the whole "not trying to stir up trouble, just innocently asking questions about how comrades in other organizations are getting on" bit much more convincing.

Spikymike
Nov 8 2018 16:27

The real Socialist Party of Great Britain has tried more recently with limited success to be non-sectarian towards other socialists/communists found in a variety of groups (mostly not claiming party status) unlike the 'Socialist Studies' group. This is not about different attitudes to reforms and reformism.

R Totale
Nov 8 2018 16:48

Yeah, when I posted the comment above I'd not noticed that it was from Socialist Studies, and assumed it was from the SPGB - still confused as to why an SPGBer posted it though.

jondwhite
Nov 8 2018 22:48

When I posted the article above, I'd not noticed the replies to http://libcom.org/forums/anarchist-federation/newish-af-website-29102018#comment-610008 such as http://libcom.org/forums/anarchist-federation/newish-af-website-29102018#comment-610170
so it is not a response to AFed or ACG or any group in particular.
In general, I also don't agree with derailing discussion topics. I think it can be unproductive and sometimes in bad faith.

How is the SPGB (or Socialist Studies) 'sectarian' in any meaningful sense? Please don't say because other political groups are criticised as irredeemably wrong and opposed as such (this is not the proper definition!). I don't hate other groups, if I thought they were right I would join them. This article is the best riposte to the misconception of 'sectarianism'. Unfortunately this accusation (that I normally mainly hear from Leninists) has appeared in other comments on other similar material posted here.

R Totale
Nov 9 2018 07:27

Do you think that anarchists/libertarian communists who believe in direct action over the SPGB's parliamentary route are socialists? If yes, then this article would seem to be wrong; but if you agree with this article's position that people who aren't convinced of the "SPGB’s insistence on the necessity for a working class majority to first secure the machinery of government before establishing Socialism" are among "those who confuse workers and direct them away from understanding Socialism and acting in their class interests", and so it's your job to be hostile to us, then any interest you take in what anarchists are up to looks decidedly more suspicious.
Do the socialist studies lot apply the hostility clause to your lot, btw?

jondwhite
Nov 9 2018 11:46

No I don't think anarchists or libcoms in favour of direct action are the same as socialists who don't. I don't even think the description 'the thin red line' is as meaningful as others seem to think. And if you want to call that 'hostility', then no that doesn't mean an interest in anarchist groups (or any other groups) is decidedly suspicious or that I can't ask sincerely how other organisations are going. I can't speak for Socialist Studies but in my experience they are not interested in politically supporting the SPGB or any other political party.

People like to say there is too much infighting between revolutionaries or that groups are too dogmatic, and even that this is the biggest problem holding 'us' back. I think the premises of this are false.

R Totale
Nov 9 2018 13:29
jondwhite wrote:
No I don't think anarchists or libcoms in favour of direct action are the same as socialists who don't. I don't even think the description 'the thin red line' is as meaningful as others seem to think. And if you want to call that 'hostility', then no that doesn't mean an interest in anarchist groups (or any other groups) is decidedly suspicious or that I can't ask sincerely how other organisations are going.

Hostility isn't my word, it's the article's:
"Socialists must be hostile to those who confuse workers and direct them away from understanding Socialism and acting in their class interests."
I'm trying to work out if you include anarchists and other lincoms in this category. If you don't, then fair enough, but that would seem to suggest the article is wrong; if you do, then again that's up to you, but surely you can see why anarchists might not be particularly receptive to your questions.

Quote:
I can't speak for Socialist Studies but in my experience they are not interested in politically supporting the SPGB or any other political party.

So am I right in thinking that the people who wrote this article, writing in the name of the SPGB (which is the bit that confused me) are including your SPGB when they say that no-one else is actually socialist? Surely you can see how that comes across as, if not sectarian as such, then at least kind of weird and cranky?

jondwhite
Nov 9 2018 14:01

I understand 'hostile' isn't your terminology here, it's the articles, but what do you understand by 'hostile' in this context, and does it apply to asking how the AF and ACG are getting on or any agenda behind the question?
Where the article says 'those that confuse workers', I take this to include all other parties purporting to be in the interests of the working-class, Labour, Leninists and Anarchists etc. Doesn't mean I hate members of these groups or are out to get them, or can only parrot party lines at them.
As for an accurate definition of 'sectarian' I don't think it means simply anyone who says our group is right, and everyone else no matter how similar is wrong or less right.

R Totale
Nov 11 2018 16:02

I'm not a huge fan of the term sectarian, partly because it's one of those words that I always automatically hear in a "SWP voice", but also because it's so entirely in the eye of the beholder (that's why I prefer objective, scientific terminology like "weird as hell" or "honestly kind of messed up"), but for a definition, how about the kind of mindset where, instead of seeing other groups as pursing other strategies and priorities in pursuit of a shared goal, you can only see people who "confuse workers and direct them away from understanding Socialism"?
And again, if you think "Labour, Leninists and Anarchists" is a useful categorisation, so the interest you take in how anarchists are doing is the same as you'd take in the fortunes of Labour or the Communist Party, then again that's not entirely reassuring.