Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Socialist Party of Great Britain worth £1,3 million. And?

with 15 comments

Always Readable. 

Long ago, in my North London youth, I learnt a lot of basic Marxism from the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s monthly, The Socialist Standard.

As John Sullivan wrote (see below) the SPGB’s use of the “vernacular” – that is plain English – made these ideas accessible to an ‘orrible well under 15 year old North Londoner in a way that no other leftist publication did.

Like many on the left I have come across SPGB members over the years.

Frankly I am not surprised at this story – which in today’s terms reveals a ‘fortune’ that the average Tory MP would use up putting a deposit down on a one-room holiday flat and beach-hut  in Southwold.

But it shows the SPGB – immortally dubbed the Small Party of Good Boys –  is still there.

Perhaps they will soon have a well-mannered debate with Michael Ezra on how best to spoil your ballot paper (we hear that drawing a picture of “my naughty little mansion” on the slip was his 2015 response).

Socialist Party of Great Britain worth £1.3m, accounts show reports the BBC.

A tiny socialist party which believes in the abolition of money is sitting on a £1.3m cash and property pile, it has emerged.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain, which has 300 members, has cash reserves of £452,250 and property worth £900,000, its latest accounts say.

The party, which was founded in 1904 – making it one of the oldest in the UK – is based in Clapham High Street.

It bought the South London shop premises in 1951 for about £3,000.

But it has benefited from the boom in the capital’s property prices, with the value of its assets increasing by £400,000 in a single year, according to its accounts.

‘Not a charity’

Media spokesman Adam Buick, who joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1962, said he saw no contradiction between its socialist beliefs and its capitalist windfall.

“We live in a capitalist society and you need money to survive in a capitalist society,” he told BBC News.

“We are not a charity, we are not giving it away to the poor, we are using it to propagate the case for socialism.”

The party, which does not have leaders, aims to use the ballot box to build a mass socialist movement and is well-known in left-wing circles for rejecting the Soviet Union as a failed example of “state capitalism”.

It fielded 10 candidates at this year’s general election, all of whom lost their deposits, gaining a total of 899 votes. It also contested 2014’s European elections in the Wales and South East regions, gaining a total of 6,838 votes.

Explaining the party’s stance on money, Mr Buick said: “We don’t want just to ‘abolish money’.

“What we want is to see established a society of common ownership and democratic control in which money, banks, finance etc will be redundant and so disappear, being replaced by ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’. What socialism in its proper sense has always involved.”

Generous bequests

Mr Buick said the party was regularly approached by estate agents and property developers urging them to sell their headquarters, which is flanked by fashionable restaurants and shops.

He said some members were in favour of selling up and moving to a cheaper, less high-profile location and others had argued in favour of putting the party’s money in an investment account, although they drew the line at investing in the stock exchange.

“That would be going too far, although there would be some members who wouldn’t necessarily be against that,” said Mr Buick.

He said the party had only recently begun to have its accounts fully audited, including an estimate of its property wealth, to comply with Electoral Commission rules.

The party had also benefitted in recent years from generous bequests from members who had died, he added.

An even smaller left wing party, the Socialist Alliance, was recently left £101,254 in a will, which it spent on deposits and campaign funds for Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates at May’s general election.

Background: from  John Sullivan  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 noir, 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-cooperation 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 Baltrop, 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 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 from 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 Group, 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 the 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 it goes against its whole tradition. Some of the new wave wish to substitute a plan to transform society gradually through the growth of cooperatives for the party’s traditional programme of an immediate transition to socialism once it has a firm parliamentary majority. It would be sad indeed if a party which fought so long against the Social Democratic theory of gradualism were to succumb to the life-stylism which has destroyed so many of its rivals.

I have omitted the concluding paragraph because it was written before this split in the SPGB.

Socialist Studies

In 1991, the Camden and northwest London branches of the Party were expelled after a party-wide referendum found them to be engaged in persistent undemocratic behaviour. Some of these ex-members, comprising sixteen individuals, refused to recognise the expulsions and attempted to continue operating as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which they claimed to have “reconstituted”. The group’s activity consists primarily of holding occasional propaganda meetings and publishing their journal Socialist Studies, which serves just as much as a forum for socialist philosophy and agitation as it does for polemics against the original SPGB. The Socialist Studies group claims that original SPGB has deviated from the strict anti-reformism principles it established in 1904, to the point of engaging in Trotskyist, Stalinist, and even fascistpolitics.

I am not sure about the last claim.

Socialist Studies comes, sometimes, to the Burston Rally, and he is a polite enough chap who does not look capable of making such wild claims.


15 Responses

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  1. I’ve read the Socialist Standard a couple of times in Manchester public libraries over the years – presumably they just go in and ask to leave it. I’m not aware of other left groups doing that with their theoretical journal.

    Matthew Thompson

    July 14, 2015 at 4:44 pm

  2. Here the New Worker is left, and the Morning Star, and, sometimes, though he’s not very reliable these days, Socialist Worker, International Socialism and Socialist Review is left.

    I read the Socialist Standard in Muswell Hill public library, though my dad had some of their pamphlets – timeless you could say – as well.

    Here is how the act when they have no candidate in a Parliamentary election:

    Andrew Coates

    July 14, 2015 at 5:13 pm

  3. The main danger for the SPGB now is that various malevolent entrists will try to join it, just to try to get their filthy mitts on those assets. The SPGB urgently needs to make its entrance examinations much harder.


    July 14, 2015 at 5:18 pm

  4. Only COBI had really rigorous entrance examinations.

    “An associate of the Communist Organisation in the British Isles becomes a member of the Communist Organisation in the British Isles when he/she has fulfilled the following conditions:

    (a) when he/she has demonstrated a command of the essentials of Marxism-Leninism to the satisfaction of the Organisation (a specific programme of reading will be required).

    (b) when he/she has produced theoretical work to a standard regarded as satisfactory by the Organisation (while the development of theory remains the primary task).
    (c) when he/she has been in contact with the Organisation for sufficient time for his/her style of work to be known to the Organisation.
    (d) when he/she undertakes a continuing programme of study and research satisfactory to the Organisation.
    (e) when he/she has learned or undertakes to learn at least one foreign language and undertakes to familiarise himself/herself with one branch of natural science.
    (f) when he/she undertakes to master the skills necessary to the physical functioning of the Organisation (e.g. typing, duplicating, etc.).
    (g) when he/she undertakes to maintain himself/herself in a state of mental and physical fitness and preparedness.

    Note: “The Communist Organisation in the British Isles (COBI) was founded in 1974 by former members of the British and Irish Communist Organisation who disagreed with a range of that group’s policies and analysis. Cover COBI was an unorthodox anti-revisionist organization, drawing inspiration from the old De Leonist Socialist Labor Party as well as Mao zedong. COBI published four issues of a journal called Proletarian, as well as a number of pamphlets and flyers. In 1977, the group changed its name to Communist Formation and produced one issue of a journal by the same name. It disbanded several years later.”


    I have this material…..

    Andrew Coates

    July 14, 2015 at 5:27 pm

  5. …and you became a Trotskyist after you failed the COBI exam? 😉


    July 14, 2015 at 5:55 pm

  6. Yup, the natural science O level that I never had…..

    Andrew Coates

    July 14, 2015 at 5:57 pm

  7. Someone told me once that the IMG had an entrance exam, no idea how rigorous it was.

    Matthew Thompson

    July 14, 2015 at 6:01 pm

  8. I did an induction course, a bit like seminars, and we had to present basic texts, like State and Revolution, Transitional Programme etc (the one I remember most was Lenin’s Imperialism as I had to do it). Plus practical stuff about organising meetings, writing leaflets.

    This was held at the HQ in the Cally circa 1974/5.

    There was no formal exam, but some people present it as such.

    As some of the people in my Central London student cell who did this are still active on the left they could probably supply further details.

    Andrew Coates

    July 14, 2015 at 6:08 pm

  9. I bet the upmarket shop and restaurant proprietors just love having a socialist hq in their midst.
    All other issues aside, that thought has cheered me up.

    Mick O

    July 14, 2015 at 7:27 pm

  10. Last time I was at the SPGB HQ, you got free tea and cake, too. Of course, you had to sit through a debate first, though…


    July 14, 2015 at 9:23 pm

  11. One of my close friends in the 1970s (now back in Ireland) joined the SPGB with a group of other Irish people.

    They were great fans of J.P Donleavy such as The Ginger Man.

    The SPGB are a good lot, though as Francis indicates, the “debates” they have are not everyone’s taste, including mine.

    Andrew Coates

    July 15, 2015 at 11:39 am

  12. I know the ‘examination’ is not to everyone’s taste but surely it’s preferable to the practice of a ‘probationary’ period that a number of vanguardist groups would employ before admitting a person to full membership.

    And even after that, more often than not, the newly minted member of said Trot group had less ‘real rights’ than the permanent (usually co-opted) leadership.


    July 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm

  13. Concerning the knowledge test. We don’t expect any PhDs in Marxology and seek to be some sort of intellectual elite.

    One purpose of it is to place all members on an even basis. The Socialist Party’s reason is to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding.

    Once a member, s/he have the same rights as the oldest member to sit on any committee, vote, speak, and have access to all information. Thanks to this test all members are conscious socialists and there is genuine internal democracy, and of that we are fiercely proud.

    Consider what happens when people join other groups which don’t have this test. The new applicant has to be approved as being “all right”. The individual is therefore judged by the group according to a range of what might be called “credential indicators”. Hard work (often, paper selling) and obedience by new members is the main criterion of trustworthiness in the organisation. In these hierarchical, “top-down” groups the leaders strive at all costs to remain as the leadership, and reward only those with proven commitment to the “party line” with preferential treatment, more responsibility and more say. New members who present the wrong indicators remain peripheral to the party structure, and finding themselves unable to influence decision-making at any level, eventually give up and leave, often embittered by the hard work they put in and the hollowness of the party’s claims of equality and democracy.

    The Socialist Party is a leader-less political party where its executive committee is solely for housekeeping admin duties and cannot determine policy. An EC that is not even permitted to submit resolutions to conference. All conference decisions have to be ratified by a referendum of the whole membership. The General Secretary has no position of power or authority over any other member being simply a dogsbody. Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership referendums are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organisation control that organisation – and as such key procedures in any organisation genuinely seeking socialism.

    Socialism can only be a fully democratic society in which everybody will have an equal say in the ways things are run. This means that it can only come about democratically, both in the sense of being the expressed will of the working class and in the sense of the working class being organised democratically – without leaders, but with mandated delegates – to achieve it. In rejecting these procedures what is being declared is that the working class should not organise itself democratically.


    July 16, 2015 at 2:09 am

  14. you could ask the same question about many small groups. Like, how the hell do the CPGB manage to put out a weekly paper? Where do they get their money from? I heard it was from Sketchley’s or something like that, and Jack Conrad was a relative of Joseph Conrad and got some of his inheritance.

    where do the AWL get their money from? Was George Soros funding Occupy?


    July 16, 2015 at 2:39 am

  15. I wouldn’t have thought there’s much mystery about the SPGB’s wealth. They bought a run-down shop in Clapham for not very much, years ago when property was relatively cheap. Now it’s worth rather a lot.


    July 16, 2015 at 11:35 am

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