Posts Tagged ‘ICC’

World Revolution – The SPGB: Parliamentary Cretins

February 1, 2011 5 comments

J. Sinclair, ‘The SPGB: Parliamentary Cretins’, World Revolution, No. 7 (July 1976), pp. 28-29

A relevant article by the SPGB can be found at this link.

Stolen without permission.


In 1929 Lenin published What Is To Be Done?, an argument for argument for revolutionary organization to be just that, a centralized organization of revolutionaries. His ideas won majority agreement at the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party in opposition to the conception of a party as a body embracing many divergent opinions. In the same years the British Social Democratic Federation was rent by a debate over the proposal of its leadership to open the Federation’s doors to all “sympathizers who were against social injustice”. The critics of this proposal stood for revolution and against compromises with the reformists of the trade unions, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party. They were dubbed the “impossibilists”and those of them who were expelled from the SDF in 1904 formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The subsequent histories of the Bolshevik Party and the SPGB, however, are as different as they could possibly be. The former organization, for all its errors and misconceptions, was a living part of the struggles of the working class in the years that followed. Able to learn and express the lessons of the new epoch of capitalism, it rose to the needs of the world proletariat in its first great revolutionary attempt. Even in its degeneration with the defeat of the
revolutionary wave, the Bolshevik Party gave birth to revolutionaries who could carry the lessons of the period into the future. The Bolsheviks were, and remain, an inspiration to revolutionary workers the world over.In contrast, the story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the subject of a recently published book by Robert Barltrop, is no more than the history of a sclerotic organization and its membership. (1) Coming out of the underdeveloped British marxist tradition, the SPGB took up a position of parliamentarism, reinforced by its own sectarianism, which confined it to a local British perspective and effectively isolated it from the real movement of the working class during and immediately after the 1914-18 war -a movement which expressed itself in the form of the workers councils and against the decaying vestiges of parliament. The SPGB’s sectarianism was derived with irresistible illogic from the Declaration of Principles adopted at its founding conference: that “as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party”. If there could be only one such party, that by definition had to be the SPGB! The principles of the SPGB have remained unaltered despite the subsequent experience of fifty years of capitalism in decadence. Their ‘marxist’ terminology has always been combined with a practice entirely irrelevant to the needs of the class struggle in this historic period.


The SPGB claims for itself the honour of being one of the few organizations which were against both world wars.
Theirs was not, however, the revolutionary opposition of the Bolsheviks who called on the workers to turn the
imperialist war into civil war. The SPGB merely stated in 1914 that the workers were “not concerned with the present European struggle” and then chose to sit out the war until normality returned. There was no conception that World War I was only a foretaste of the future of the capitalist system and that there could be no going back to the old methods of struggle.

In 1914 the SPGB’s internationalism extended only to stating that they had “no quarrel with the working
class of any country”. (2) At the beginning of World War II, the editors of the Socialist Standard objected to this milk and water statement on the grounds that the party did have a quarrel, “a big one”, with workers stupid enough to be led into another war by the bourgeoisie, instead of following the example of the SPGB and educating themselves for socialism. (3)


One of the main expressions of the SPGB’s pedagogic view of the working class is the party’s conception of parliament as the means to revolution. In the past, parliamentarism in the workers’ movement has meant, first, the use of parliament to gain reforms for the proletariat within the nation state when, in the ascendant period, the bourgeoisie could grant lasting improvements. Secondly, it has meant the use of parliament as a tribune for the parties of the working class. It was in the latter sense that the Communist International imposed on its members parties, participation in parliament as part of the 21 conditions of membership in the Third International. Against this tactic the ‘ultra-left’ took up what is now the communist position of anti-parliamentatism. In the words of the Communist Workers’ Party of Sylvia Pankhurst, it was necessary: “To take no part in elections to parliament and the local governing bodies, to expose their futility to protect, or to emancipate the workers, or to administer Communism.” (4)

The parliamentary activities of the ‘marxists’ of the SPGB fly in the face of all previous and present proletarian positions on the subject. “Parliament gives legal sanction and protection to capitalist ownership. Once that political power passes into the hands of a conscious working class, capitalism can be abolished and socialism established immediately.” (5) Such a conception was explicitly refuted by Marx in his writings on the Paris Commune. Because the bourgeois state is organically adapted to the needs of capital, it cannot possibly serve as an instrument of socialist transformation. “The working class cannot just lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” (6) The old state apparatus must be entirely smashed and replaces with new revolutionary organs of power. But despite the fact that the SPGB used to celebrate the anniversary of the Commune every year during the first decade of the party’s existence, it showed itself entirely unable to grasp the importance for the proletariat of the heroic weeks of the Commune.

It is apparent from all this that the SPGB sees the working class only as a collection of atomized individuals who cannot understand capitalism, and who are only able to be united for the overthrow of capitalism through the ballot box, thanks to the untiring educational work of the SPGB. In the present period, the fact that the SPGB talks about some aspects of the communist programme, such as the abolition of wage labour, can enable it to serve as a source of confusion for militants emerging from the new upsurges of the class struggle. But in the coming revolutionary confrontations between the working class and the bourgeoisie the role of the SPGB will be indistinguishable from that of any other bourgeois parties. They will wash their hands of the real movement of the class, as they have in the past, and join in the call for elections which act as a means by which the bourgeoisie can mystify the class and divert its struggle into the safe channel of bourgeois democracy.

In 1947, comrades of the left communist group, Internationalisme, in France (a fore-runner of the ICC) criticized the reactionary conceptions of the SPGB and its ‘companion’ parties in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (Internationalisme, no.17, January 1947). Internationalisme pointed out, for example, that the parliamentary vision of the SPGB meant that if the SPGB came to power it would inevitably have ot manage a decadent capitalist state in which all the reactionary institutions of capital would be pitted against the working class. It saw that the reformist, pacifist, and gradualist conceptions of the SPGB were a legacy of the period of decline in the Second International. And it noted that it wasn’t accidental that parliamentary mystifications had proved so effective a weapon of capitalism against the workers’ councils in Central Europe in 1918-19.

Barltrop mentions that in 1947 the Dutch Spartacus group ‘invited’ the SPGB to an international conference of revolutionaries, comprising groups from France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. If such an ‘invitation’ was ever sent, it was unknown to the other groups which attended the conference (among them Internationalisme); the SPGB, in fact, was not even mentioned at the conference. In any case, one Hardy of the SPGB is reported as saying that “the initiators of this conference were not plain-minded socialists looking for a way out of chaos, . . . but hardened politicos.” Balrtop adds: “Thus in the end the Party agreed that it had nothing to declare but its hostility to the European revolutionaries.” (p.129). The SPGB has consistently behaved in this manner towards the working class and its revolutionary minorities. A recent offshoot of the SPGB, the Social Revolution group, follows faithfully in its progenitor’s footsteps. Lost in a whirlwind of confusion, this pathetic collection of ‘libertarians’ is doomed to sterility and disintegration – a fitting tribute to its parent organization, the SPGB.

Barltrop has unintentionally done a service for the new generation of revolutionaries by making it apparent though his book, the role the SPGB is destined to play in the future. We can be confident, however, that in the next revolutionary upsurge (unlike the last one following the first world war) the Socialist Party of Great Britain will at last be swept into the dustbin of history.

John Sinclair

1. Robert Barltrop, The Monument: the story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, (Pluto Press, 1976). Barltrop is himself a member of the SPGB.
2. The Socialist Party and War, 1970, p.61.
3. Barltrop, p.79.
4. The Workers’ Dreadnought, Febuary 11 1922.
5. Socialism SPGB Library no.9, 1941, p.41.
6. ‘The Civil War in France’ in Marx, The First International and After, (Penguin, 1975), p.206.

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