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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Jules Townshend

The Monument


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Monument: The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain
Robert Barltrop
Pluto Press, Price £3.90

The book gets its title from a comment made about the SPGB, that ‘it was not so much a movement as a monument’. A monument to what? The author, who was himself for many years a leading member of the Party, lets us guess. It could be what he regards as the SPGB’s ultimate justification for existence, as ‘the only custodian of the vision of socialism’. But Barltrop’s narrative honesty allows the reader to draw less charitable conclusions. Indeed it could be seen as a monument to that sectarian purity which leads some revolutionaries to remember everything and learn nothing, and to uphold doctrinal rigour to the point of political rigor mortis.

An offshoot of the Social Democratic Federation, the SPGB began in 1904, and has remained true to its founding Declaration of Principles. It emerged out of the reform versus revolution debate that rocked the Second International at the turn of the century. In political terms it saw this choice; either a minimum programme of immediate demands, or the maximum programme, the demand for socialism. It chose the maximum programme. It was ‘Impossibilist’. Absent was any notion of transitional politics, of relating reform to revolution, as Rosa Luxemburg had argued. For the SPGB reform meant compromise. Reforms were seen in terms of their objective consequences, as a sop to the working class, thereby delaying the revolution. The struggle for them was not seen in terms of its subjective effects on class consciousness. Thus the Party had (and has) no conception of building a movement through agitation over immediate demands that could make the maximum programme a reality. Activity was confined to propaganda, to enlightening the working class about the need for a socialist society. The Party saw no way of connecting the future with present, except through talking about the future. Struggle as a class educator was ignored.

Not only did this aspect of its political orientation prevent it growing beyond its high-point of 1,100 in 1949, but the war it declared on other parties as a result of its conclusion that, since the SPGB alone represented the true interests of the working class, all other parties must represent interests hostile to the working class, prevented it doing any united front work.

The book itself is written in an easy straightforward manner, and contains some interesting and amusing anecdotes, such as expulsion of a member for signing a petition to a Liberal MP, or a member who thought vegetarianism was a capitalist plot to get the working class to eat grass. And members of the SPGB come across as extremely pleasant if politically ineffectual people. But it is not an exciting book, probably because the SPGB’s politics prevented it getting involved in struggle. The book will interest students of left exotica. It is a Document about a Monument.

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