Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

On the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

with 22 comments

Any Room for a Small Party?

 

It is well-known fact that many of us on the left learnt some of our Marxism from reading the excellent, clear, introductions to Historical Materialism in the SPGB’s journals and pamphlets.

Stuart Watkins  makes a good point in the must-read Weekly Worker (Letters Page, from here).

The SPGB understands that working class people are quite capable of making up their own minds about their struggles and actions, and making their own decisions. Once workers have realised that they must take political action to end capitalism and establish socialism, then they will have to organise as a political party to do this for themselves. In other words, “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.”

This used to be a commonly understood Marxian socialist principle until Leninism came along and converted it into: ‘The emancipation of the working class cannot possibly be the act of the working class itself, which is why we need a leadership of professional revolutionaries to act on its behalf.’

Call us old-fashioned, but we prefer the Marxian original to the Leninist distortion.

Unfortunately one has to ask, what exactly has the SPGB done politically to advance the cause of socialism?

Or how it proposes to help fulfil the  “work of the working class itself.”

They have been around for, er, a long time.

1904 to be exact.

True they have spawned an interesting array of ‘breakaway groups’ which contribute to the charm and  attraction of the left.

 

As yet we await the breakthrough.

 

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Written by Andrew Coates

January 7, 2011 at 11:59 am

Posted in European Left, Left, Marxism

Tagged with ,

22 Responses

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  1. “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.”

    If that’s the case then there is no need for a political party that is for the working class. Of course as I believe the best thing for everybody is the destruction of the British class system I believe that there is no need for a political party that is for the working class anyway.

    ariversideview

    January 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  2. The SPGB used to have a book shop in Stanford le Hope of all places down in Essex. I forget the guys name but he was a charming fellow although he treated me as if I was infected with the black death. To be fair his politics seemed fine, but! for all their fine ideas about “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.” Beyond the odd conversation they rarely interrelated with us, a bit like the cpgb today, always there to say “you don’t want to do it like that,” but very little heavy lifting done.

    Still as they did not actively seek members in the style of some of the sects, I doubt they did any harm, probably the reverse is true as at times they opened up socialist debate.

    Mick Hall

    January 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

  3. I like the SPGB. I went to a meeting of theirs recently in Norwich. Very well educated marxists, and very comradely. Hard to define what it is they do exactly on the political front,
    apart from educate! They are definitely not leninists. I’m not sure who their political antecedents are…Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation? I doubt it…Do they like William Morris?
    I’m not sure…Engels (who didn’t like William Morris’ politics)?
    Undoubtedly.

    I regard them as a fundamentalist marxist group:
    basically everything since 1895, the year of Engels’ death, has been a deviation!

    jacobbauthumley

    January 8, 2011 at 8:34 am

  4. Mick they harmless. That is the origin of their nickname, Small Party of Good Boys.

    Jacob, their history is given on Wikipedia. The main book on them is called The Monument (a bit out of date now).

    They were the “Impossibilist” tendancy of the Second International.

    Post Engels btw.

    A close friend of mine, who now lives back in Ireland, was a member.

    I introduced him to the delights of Belgium Beer.

    I cannot recall him ever doing anything non-SPGB politically, even in his union (he was a railworker).

    Andrew Coates

    January 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm

  5. the SPGB-type of Impossibilism (there were others: SLP/De Leon, Connolly, Guesde’s group in the SFIO) was always a sterile and abstract propagandist way of doing politics which is only thinkable in a stable bourgeois society with a relatively low level of repression, … no wonder that the “SPGB’s international” never had significant sections (apart from some Austrian weirdos around a former SPÖ MP from Carinthia) on the continent and outside the english-speaking parliamentary “democracies”

    entdinglichung

    January 9, 2011 at 11:22 am

  6. Yes Enty, they are also fundamentally odd.

    I can’t exactly put my finger on why.

    Andrew Coates

    January 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

  7. they are still culturally in the Victorian or Edwardian era and deeply influenced by the evangelical culture of that period: pamphlet sales, sopebox sermons, moralistic appeals … but they are very nice people, unlike with many other groups on the left, I am not afraid that they become vicious when they “take power”

    entdinglichung

    January 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm

  8. hmmmm?? So the concensus seems to be we are a bit like Harry Enfield’s “Tim nice-but-dim”

    But of course the real question is, have any on the Left actually done any better than the SPGB with their means and methods?

    And much is made about the age of the SPGB, well, the years are rolling on for those other parties too without any fruitful result. In fact, some such as Freedom newspaper can claim to be older having their origins in Victorian age.
    As for the trots and leninists they continue to harp on about the Russian Revolution (when the real lesson from it was not what to do.)
    And then the new breed who regurgitate the dead-end strategies of proven failures as defunct parties such as the ILP in different form.

    But you are right,there remains one socialist party committed to democracy – that’s the SPGB.

    ajohnstone

    January 12, 2011 at 5:16 am

  9. A good short summary of the history and background of the SPGB can be read here

    http://mailstrom.blogspot.com/2007/07/anglo-marxism-spgb.html

    ajohnstone

    January 12, 2011 at 5:29 am

  10. “Mick they harmless. That is the origin of their nickname, Small Party of Good Boys.”

    Andrew,

    that’s factually incorrect.

    That particular gibe arose out of the SPGB’s commitment to democratic revolution, with its commitment to campaigning for socialism and nothing but. (‘Simon Pure’s Good Brand’ was the other moniker bestowed on the SPGB at the time for the same reason.)

    If you’re going to recycle the old gibes, at least get them right.

    I always preferred the latter nickname bestowed on some Scottish comrades in the 20s and 30s: the Small Party of Glesga Bookies. 😉

    Self-explanatory, apparently.

    With regards to entdinglichung comments of:

    “the SPGB-type of Impossibilism (there were others: SLP/De Leon, Connolly, Guesde’s group in the SFIO) was always a sterile and abstract propagandist way of doing politics which is only thinkable in a stable bourgeois society with a relatively low level of repression”?

    I guess that sort of raises of wry smile for anyone with a passing knowledge of the early history of the SPGB and the SLP. The notion that such groups operated without their members being blacklisted, victimised and – when the First World War kicked off – jailed or forced to go on the run for the political beliefs betrays a lack of knowledge of their histories.

    What are they teaching at Essex University these days?

    You’re right; we aren’t vicious but we are heavy with the sarcasm. 😉

    Darren

    January 12, 2011 at 6:52 am

  11. fwiw: the SPGB’s comrades in Canada were quite influential in the Working Class revolts during the 1910-1924 period. They functioned as a mass party and helped organize the One Big Union in Canada and the US. In the US our comrades were active in founding the United Auto Workers. In New Zealand our comrades were important participants in the Red Fed general strike. So yeah, our Parties can participate in the class struggle and our ideas can be placed into action.

    FNBrill

    January 12, 2011 at 9:31 am

  12. […] Just a few examples that could be massively extended… From here. […]

  13. Darren I heard that ‘jibe’ from a member of Solidarity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity_(UK) ) in Coventry in the 1970s.

    Perhaps its meaning has altered over time.

    Having spent last night in a real sectarian barney with the SP, I must say the SPGB have some good points.

    When I defended anarchists in the pub afterwards and mentioned that my dad had been a Glaswegian anarchist in the ‘thirties, a leading (that is nationally leading) SP member said,

    “That was his problem“.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  14. Andrew,

    I first heard the small party of good boys gibe from my A Level teacher whose dad was an exiled German Anarchist who ran the Progressive Bookshop, in Red Lion Square in London in the 1920s. 😉

    Darren

    January 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  15. Okay topped.

    But my dad had a little bundle of SPGB pamphlets from his Glasgow days.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  16. “But my dad had a little bundle of SPGB pamphlets from his Glasgow days.”

    Hey, my dad once came home pissed from the pub with a copy of Newsline. (This would have been the early 80s.) He was a Sun and Daily Star reader, usually.

    That trumps the lot. 😉

    Darren

    January 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm

  17. Not exactly, my dad went to one of the Glasgow Socialist Sunday Schools.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Sunday_Schools

    He could still recite their ‘commandments’:

    There were also ‘ten commandments’ to be followed which were printed in some of the editions of the hymn book.

    Love your schoolfellows, who will be your fellow workmen in life.
    Love learning, which is the food of the mind; be as grateful to your teacher as to your parents.
    Make every day holy by good and useful deeds and kindly actions.
    Honour good men, be courteous to all men, bow down to none.
    Do not hate or speak evil of anyone. Do not be revengeful but stand up for your right and resist oppression.
    Do not be cowardly. Be a friend to the weak and love justice.
    Remember that all good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.
    Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason and never deceive yourself or others.
    Do not think that he who loves his own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.
    Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one fatherland and live together as brothers and sisters in peace and righteousness.

    Which rather trumps some bloke who bought Newsline.

    Now we could argue on such points, and Terry Liddle will point out that his grandad was a member of the SDF and had until recently original copies of (http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/h/y.htm#hyndman-henry )Records of an Adventurous Life.

    My upbringing is not too far off a democratic socialist version of Alexis Sayles, Stalin Ate My Homework.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stalin-Ate-Homework-Alexei-Sayle/dp/0340919574

    And btw: Darren this site is mainly about European Left.

    I’m afraid that the SPGB figures very small in this array.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm

  18. Course it trumps it, Andrew. Your Dad was growing in Glasgow in the 30s. In those days in Glasgow if they weren’t attending Socialist Sunday School meetings, they were chalking up United Socialist Movement meeting notices on the pavements of Buchanan Street.

    A bloke who reads the Sun and the Daily Star suddenly turns up with a copy of Newsline? I bet that WRP paper seller was walking on cloud nine for a week.

    It’d be like you stumbling across another Pabloite in Suffolk.

    “And btw: Darren this site is mainly about European Left.

    I’m afraid that the SPGB figures very small in this array.”

    Point taken but if you will insist on writing a post about the SPGB and then adding some erroneous information, you can’t be too surprised when a couple of us rise from our shared armchair.

    Best wishes. 😉

    Darren

    January 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  19. It’d be like you stumbling across another Pabloite in Suffolk.

    Or indeed in England!

    Andrew Coates

    January 13, 2011 at 11:57 am

  20. there are far more comrades called Pabloite by Non-Pabloites in England without being one

    entdinglichung

    January 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm

  21. Actually Enty there were attempts by the TMR to set up British groups.

    The last one was in the early 1990s when I had just come back to the UK.

    A group, and my good self, were active in the Socialist Society Steering Committee.

    It failed, because as I argued at that time, as true liquidiationists we had to liquidate into the Labour Party.

    The relevant debate is in a short-lived magazine called Socialist Alternatives.

    Andrew Coates

    January 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm


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