The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Obscurities Discover'd

'I vote Labour, always with the same deep misgivings. My life has been entirely lacking in excitement or incident apart from the time I attached a PAVEMENTS ARE FOR PEDESTRIANS sticker to the windscreen of a scarlet Ford Sierra illegally parked on the footway of Walker's Way, Penge, and my seven years as a Maoist guerilla in Peru.'

- Ellis Sharp, The Aleppo Button

(This is by way of a (partial) reply to SIAW. It isn't point-by-point - not that I think there's anything wrong with that, and I may yet do it, but I've become wearied by years of doing that sort of thing on Usenet, and for now at least I'd much rather point people to the argument in question to read for themselves, and then get on with whatever positive responses it brings to mind.)

Explaining a joke or an allusion kills it; but if the joke is so laboured, or the allusion so obscure, that explanation is needed then it didn't deserve to live in the first place. My immediately preceding post is a sack full of such kittens.

So here, in no particular order, I drown them one by one.

The back room of Collett's (a left-wing bookshop in Central London) was, in the 1970s and 1980s, stocked with the pamphlets and papers of every socialist sect that bothered to place them there. I attribute no virtue to the place, other than that it was more comprehensive than any other I've come across, and that I browsed my way around the lot. (To the point where the staff wondered if I was an agent of some secret service, using the back room for intelligence gathering; a former agent of BOSS having recently written an autobiographical admission of doing just that.)

The SPGB and B&ICO are two of the most diametrically opposed socialist sects imaginable. My suggestion that SIAW seemed to draw on something of both was meant, not as a smear by association, but as a compliment. The SPGB (est. 1903) is famous for upholding a strong distinction between socialism ('a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community') and anything and everything else, most especially the state ownership and bureaucratic control of the means and instruments, etc. It's notable for its recognition that on its definition, socialism has never existed; that socialism's original (or at least its Marxian) meaning has been traduced by its identification with both totalitarian and liberal, or complete and partial, instances of state capitalism, and furthermore that the number of people who 'understand and want' unfalsified and untried socialism is tiny. I think the comrades of SIAW would agree with the aim, the distinction, and the recognition.

If the SPGB is notable for its radicalism, the B&ICO (now defunct, but its former members trade as the very different and less intriguing Bevin Society) was notorious for its iconoclasm. By the odd expedients of proclaiming themselves Stalinist, and claiming that much of Mao's critique of Soviet revisionism had been anticipated in a slender pamphlet by an anonymous Irishman while the Great Helmsman was still being comradely to Khruschev, they cleared their minds of a great deal of leftist clutter and Leninist piety, and turned themselves into one of the most free-thinking and contrarian groups on the British left. What did they think about nuclear power? NATO? Immigration control? Northern Ireland? Ted Heath? Imperialism? Pornography? Zionism? The Falklands War? Solzhenitsyn? You can save yourself the research (though you'd miss the entertainment) by taking the standard far left position on any of them, and turning it on its head. All of this while being fairly solid Labour and trade union activists, and calling themselves communists. They thought in terms of practical politics, as if asking themselves: if you were the Cabinet, now, this minute, what would you do? The SPGB scorns 'the meantime', the clamour for 'something now', the question: 'What would you do?'; the B&ICO insisted upon it; any measure that couldn't be argued for as in the working-class interest and realistic in the present circumstances was for them a waste of breath.

I don't endorse much of what they wrote, and I doubt SIAW would either, but in a left where policy was too often concocted from an unstable mix of passing fad and historical precedent, in isolation from the actually existing working class, there was something enormously refreshing in their 'grubbing about in reality'. I suspect their influence was far greater than their present obscurity suggests; and that their dogged concentration on the feasible, their insistence on reasoned argument, and their scepticism toward the shibboleths of the left, was (in its impulse if not always its results) admirable.

OK. Radicalism of the goal, realism of the means. That's all. That's all I find interesting and inspiring in the record of two obscure and opposite sects, and all that I was, too obliquely, ascribing to SIAW.

A dash of genetic modification from the RCP (and its successors, currently trading as Spiked) refers solely to that group's defence of science, technology, liberty, and progress, and not at all to their more narrowly political positions.

Having said that, I should explain, if it isn't obvious already, that my own position is far from Marxism, much as I think there is to learn from Marx and other Marxists, and oft though I've defended them from the endlessly-recycled slanders of the right and distortions of the left. Bakunin, Mill and Spencer (among others) saw Stalin coming, and they read him between the lines of Marx, or of the Marxists; and Mises saw him, and Gorbachev and Yeltsin too, latent in the legislation of Lenin; and I wish I could say they were wrong.

What I mean by socialism is a working life without bosses and gaffers, a condition I've fleetingly experienced often enough to know it's possible and productive, and the generalisation of that to the extent (and only to the extent) that more people come to 'understand and want' it. Alec Nove's 'feasible socialism' may be its most realisable (though still no doubt historically distant) beginning, Proudhon's 'federalism' its prospect, and Marx's 'association in which the free development of each is the free development of all' its farthest horizon.

'There are times when we slide into envying the monochrome certainty of people like MacLeod, but we quickly recover. As for 'confusing strong writing with solid reasoning', pot and kettle, Mr MacLeod, pot and kettle.'

It was my own pot's blackness I was pointing at. Whether the accumulated deposits amount to a monochrome certainty is for others to judge.


Dear Mr. MacLeod,
You mentioned the B&ICO, and you may be interested to know there were
two organisations that split off
from them.
The first was the Cork Communist
Organisation, which rejected the
B&ICO's stance on the NI question
and split in the early 1970s.Their
leader was the noted Irish
leftist Jim Lane (not related
to B&ICO's Jack Lane).
They later became the Cork Workers' Club and published some excellent pamphlets,such as
"The Connolly-Walker Controversy".

The other split was the
Edinburgh-based Communist Organisation in the British
Isles, which broke off in 1974. This organisation rejected
the idea that there was
a parliamentary way to socialism.
Paul Cockshott was involved in it.
Later the COBI changed their name
to Communist Formation. Eventually
they broke up,some of them joining
the Scottish Socialist Party or
the Socialist Unity coalition.

There's an interesting book about
B&ICO and its various offshoots
(CWC,COBI, the Aubane Historical
Society etc.) waiting to be written.

Dear Mr Anonymous

I quite agree. If you don't mind, commenting on old posts is perhaps best done by emailing me, and I'd like to hear from you.

Dear Mr Anonymous

I quite agree. If you don't mind, commenting on old posts is perhaps best done by emailing me, and I'd like to hear from you.

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