The Socialist Party of Great Britain, also known as the SPGB, is a small Marxist political party within the impossibilist tradition. It is best known for its advocacy of using the ballot box for revolutionary purposes; opposition to reformism; and its early adoption of the theory of state capitalism to describe the USSR. Detractors have been known to mockingly refer to it as Simon Pure's Genuine Brand or the Small Party of Good Boys (both plays on its SPGB initials).
The Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded in 1904 as split from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). It was formed to oppose the SDF's reformism and as part of a response to that organisation's domination by H. M. Hyndman (which also led to the SPGB's aversion to leadership). This split was also partly a reaction to the SDF's involvement in the Labour Representation Committee which went on to found the Labour Party. It mirrored the split that lead to the foundation of the Socialist League, stemming from an ongoing dispute within the socialist movement over tactics and the question of reform or revolution. The founders of the SPGB considered themselves to be part of a wider impossibilist revolt within the Second International. When in 1903 most of SDF members in Scotland broke away to form the Socialist Labour Party, without contacting their fellow impossibilists in London those impossibilists, chiefly in Battersea branch, decided to break away and form their own organisation, which they did the following year. Unlike the Socialist League, however, the SPGB advocated the revolutionary use of the ballot box and parliament.
Debates between the Socialist Party of Great Britain and other groups were of particular importance in bringing the party case to an outside audience without the sometimes off-putting rhetoric of platform speaking, or the one-sidedness of educational talks. A prime instance of this importance for the party is the case of Richard Headicar, a former Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament speaker, won over after debating with the party. Of rather wider historical importance were the debates with the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in the late 1940s. In the course of these Sammy Cash persuaded the RCP’s Jock Haston of the view that the Soviet Union was state capitalist. The idea was then relayed to Tony Cliff, whence (in a somewhat different form) it formed the genesis of today's Socialist Workers Party.
Naturally, in an organisation of critical thinkers that has endured for a century, the existence of some disagreement is inevitable. There have been some event-specific debates, such as over the Party’s precise attitude to the Spanish Civil War in 1936, to the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and then to the movements for political democracy in the Soviet bloc states in the 1980s. On other, far fewer, occasions, small groups of Party members, sometimes concerned by the Party’s pace of growth (or lack of growth in some periods) have developed ideas which have challenged the Party’s basic, core positions more clearly. Having initially agreed with the Party’s principles and analysis they developed a political critique which challenged these positions at a more fundamental level. But even in these instances, only a handful of disputes have been so serious that they have led to organisational breakaways. The most notable of these are the Socialist Propaganda League, Harold Walsby's systematic ideology group, the Movement for Social Integration, and the three groups which published Libertarian Communism, Spanner, and Socialist Studies.
The sort of bloody revolution that introduced capitalism in one country after another is out of date. Four main factors now make it essential to work for a revolution that is peaceful, democratic and which uses the voting system in those countries which have it:
- Most modern capitalist states are now so well-armed, so well informed and so wealthy and powerful that an armed insurrection trying to overthrow an established state machine would be doomed to failure.
- When violence has been used to establish a regime, it can only be maintained by violence or the threat of it (like capitalism). A socialist society cannot be built upon such foundations.
- There is no way of knowing, and showing, that such a violent revolutionary movement represents the wishes of the great majority. Many workers would oppose it simply because it was violent and destructive. Only a vote can prove that the majority insist upon the overthrow of capitalism.
- A sufficiently massive majority vote makes violence unnecessary because it demonstrates that opposition would be pointless.
Thus, they maintain that the only way socialism will come about is for a majority of people, on a worldwide basis, to come to believe in the superiority of this social system. They endorse the theory of impossibilism, and favour achieving this objective through the use of elections, although in the current situation their main function is as a propaganda group to try to raise consciousness. In contrast to Leninists, they believe that it is possible to make the transition from capitalism to the complete abolition of the state immediately that the majority decide to do it.
This object is:
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Unlike similar formulations, as in the Labour Party's Clause IV, it deliberately excludes the means of exchange. This highlights a central characteristic of the party as remaining advocates of socialism as a society in which the need for money is eliminated. As such it rejects that the economic calculation problem is a barrier to such a society.
They claim this can be achieved through calculation in kind (i.e. technical planning based on real physical units of demand), a system of regulated stock control - much like that used in supermarkets - to ensure goods are replenished after they are taken and used by members of the community satisfying their self-defined needs, and the principle of the law of the minimum. This was formally set out in the 1980s in their pamphlet Socialism as a Practical Alternative
Contrary to popular misconception, the SPGB did not "denounce the Russian revolution as state capitalist within hours of hearing of it". They initially praised the Bolsheviks, for pulling Russia out of the Great War, but warned that, given the development of political consciousness in the largely ill-educated peasant based society, it could not be a socialist revolution: "the franchise presents to the workers the way to their emancipation. Until the workers learn to use this instrument properly, they are not fit or ready for socialism. Their first reference to state capitalism was in fact a quote from Lenin himself describing the state of affairs in Russia. The theory developed over time, emphasising the continued existence of wages and money in the Soviet Union to indicate that capitalism had not been abolished.
The major controversy within the party was over who constituted the capitalist class in Russia and the Eastern Bloc - with some taking the view that there were private capitalists and that capitalism in those countries was not distinct from its Western counterpart. Whereas others held that the state bureaucracy themselves were the capitalist class. This latter view won the day in a conference resolution in 1969:
This Conference recognises that the ruling class in state capitalist Russia stands in the same relationship to the means of production as does the ruling class in any other capitalist country, viz. it has a monopoly of those means of production and is therefore a capitalist class.
The party's theory made the working class the politically decisive class: thus if the working class supported fascism then fascism would prevail. Answers to letters in the Socialist Standard in the 1930s repeatedly made this point. Early writers noted what Mussolini was able to do with the power of the state on his side, a part of a vindication of the SPGB's approach of the workers seizing control of the state. The SPGB, hence, declined to join anti-fascist fronts or to make a particular issue of anti-fascism, arguing that the pro-socialist case was the necessary remedy for fascism.
Before almost all else we Socialists are internationalists. We belong to the international working class. Our grievance is international; our only hope is international, and our enemy is international also.
Unlike leftists, the SPGB extendeds this internationalism to a rejection of national liberation struggles, as futile wastes of workers' lives while world capitalism remains unscathed. For instance, they condemned the Irish Easter Uprising and the struggle for liberation in Ireland.
Arguments such as these were used to oppose the suffragettes and, further, that the precise reform that they called for meant the extension of the existing franchise to women, along with the then property qualifications. This, the SPGB argued, would increase the size and weight of the capitalist class vote without advantage to the working class.
Into the 1920s and 1930s, however, the party did begin to argue that it was essential for workers to have sufficient elbow room in which to organise for socialist revolution - and so they favoured workers struggling for democracy and basic liberties. They did this, however, with the proviso that socialists should not align themselves with any pro-capitalist factions to that end.
In the 1980s this principle was extended to supporting the struggle for democracy in Eastern Europe, and particular Solidarity's struggle in Poland. The group of members who would go on to form the Socialist Studies group opposed this stance as a capitulation to reformism.
At the second conference of the party, a resolution was passed forbidding members from holding office in trade unions - although this was overturned by the EC as ultra vires and contrary to the declaration of principles. E. J. B. Allen continued to write articles attacking trade unions and supporting De Leonist style Socialist Industrial Unions. Such arguments were ultimately rejected, on the grounds that a socialist union would have a tiny number of members so long as socialists remained in a minority; but when socialists attained a majority all unions would become socialist unions by having socialists members.
The agreed position, then, was to work within trade unions, but to also accept that they had different interests to political parties and to not try and take them over. Later, disputes arose as to whether trade union struggle could result in positive gains for the working class, or whether their role was purely defensive - the former view being taken by some members of the Ashbourne Court Group.
In the 1980s the issue of trade unionism was at the heart of the decision to support Solidarity in Poland in their party's literature. Likewise, during the Miner's Strike of 1984-5, the party walked a line between supporting the miners whilst simultaneously suggesting that they couldn't and wouldn't win: It is our job as socialists, then, to stand with our fellow workers in their necessary battles to defend themselves, but to point out at all times that the real victory to be achieved is the abolition of the wages system.
In 1914 the banner headline of the Socialist Standard invited workers to join up - for the class war - as the only way of bringing peace and security. That magazine featured on a government drawn up list of publications which could not be sent to the front-line..
The party came close to expressing support for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War - on grounds of supporting defence of democracy (some writers initially took Spain as an example of what could happen if the capitalists class tried to use force to overturn the result of a socialist electoral revolution). This led to a debate within the party and resulted in an official statement that fell short of supporting the pro-capitalist republican government but offering general support to workers in their struggle for democracy.
A similar dispute arose over the Second World War, some members arguing that it was a war fought between totalitarian and democratic governments, while many writers in the Socialist Standard sought to prove it was another trade based war bred by the conditions of capitalism that socialists ought to oppose. This latter view won out. The party laid out three criteria by which it would support a policy:
Due to press censorship during that war, the Socialist Standard was not able to publish articles directly critical of the war. Instead, they published articles discussing ancient history, including the Peloponnesian War as veiled allegories of the contemporary conflict. The Socialist Standard noted that "while we deeply regret having to adopt this course, we cannot see any workable alternative to it.
Since the Party opposed nationalism and national liberation struggles, it has persistently refused to take sides in such wars as the Vietnam war, and currently does not support the resistance in the Iraq war.
Its stance is one of immediate peace, irrespective of national boundaries or other such outcomes. Party speakers do emphasise, though, that the SPGB is not a pacifist party, and would countenance force being used to defend a socialist revolution.. They have been critical, also, of opponents of nuclear weapons such as CND on the grounds that opposing one type of weapon is insufficient compared to opposing the system that causes war.
Since it puts a premium on conscious understanding of the case, the party restricts membership to those who can pass a membership test on the party's policies and principles. For example, the satirist John Bird is quoted as saying, I was a member of something called the Socialist Party of Great Britain at school for a while. You had to pass an exam, you know. You could not just join.
Although the SPGB claim to follow Marx's precepts, they claim to follow them simply because they are correct in their own right, not because Marx was a special individual, sometimes quoting his own contention that Je ne suis pas un Marxiste (I am not a Marxist). They do, however, often challenge the use of the term Marxist in the media, specifically when used to describe guerrilla and terrorist movements that have nothing to do with what the SPGB considers to be working-class socialist emancipation.
The party is one of the oldest political parties in the UK, founded in 1904 as a split from the Social Democratic Federation. It consistently argues against vanguardism, and denies the possibility of reforming capitalism in the interests of the working class. It refuses to engage in direct action or to co-operate with political parties that do not agree with the ideas set out in its founding document, the Object and Declaration of Principles. The SPGB and its companion parties in other countries constitute the World Socialist Movement.
One of the reasons the party split from the SDF was over the issue of leadership. Since its establishment in 1904, the Socialist Party has existed without any leader. The Party has a ten-person executive committee, which is elected annually by a ballot of the whole membership and is charged with the day-to-day administration of the organisation. Its decision-making powers are tightly restricted. All substantial decisions are taken at the Annual Conference held each year at Easter.
The SPGB is vehemently anti-Leninist and currently fights to protect its identity against Socialist Party of England and Wales, the relatively new name of the Trotskyist former Militant tendency (in propaganda and publicity material the SPGB often styles itself simply The Socialist Party whilst SPEW uses Socialist Party (without the definite article) and contests elections as Socialist Alternative).
The party was founded at an inaugural meeting of 142 members. In 2000 the membership of the party stood at around 500 members (although there are some indications that the figure may be lower now). Currently around 150 members regularly take part in party elections and polls.
In 2005, the party produced a film called Capitalism and Other Kids' Stuff.