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spgb-history-of-forum-1995

spgb-history-of-forum-1995

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Published by Wirral Socialists
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Published by: Wirral Socialists on Dec 02, 2012
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A Short History of FORUM, the Internal Party Journal,1952-1959
Steve Coleman and Stan Parker 
FORUM's relatively brief life as a Party publication spanned a period of great controversy. In the early 1950s a smallnumber of members were beginning to question what might be called "the word": the idea that the acid test of asocialist was whether he (it was almost always a "he") agreed in literal terms with the Party's 1904-draftedDeclaration of Principles or not. The disputation spread to a number of other areas, not all of them "internal" becausemany of them were concerned with how to "make" socialists more effectively. At that time the spoken forums preceded and ran alongside the printed FORUM. Meetings were held almost every Saturday at Head Office on awide range of subjects such as whether the Party should contest elections, how best to present the Party case, whether there would be mass production or a division between town and country in socialism, and so on.
Rise and fall
The launching of FORUM in October 1952 was by no means a straightforward affair. The formal procedure startedwith a series of motions tabled at the Executive Committee meeting on 25 March that year. The wording and fate of those motions speaks volumes about the atmosphere in which FORUM was born:"That provisionally the IPJ consists of theoretical articles, controversial or otherwise, from Party membersconcerned with the Party's object and policy and that it be for circulation within the Party." Lost 6-7. ,"That the Committee prepare a draft of the letter they propose to send out to branches and submit it to the EC"
Carried 10-4.
"That the terms of reference of the IPJ Committee be as follows, 'To publish a journal containing articles of acontroversial, educational, or informative nature which may be of use to members in relation to the Party's caseand organisation generally'"
Carried
7-6."That a synopsis of the first issue be submitted to the EC prior to publication" Lost 5-7.So by the narrowest of margins the EC decided that it did not need to vet the articles submitted to FORUM andthat the IPJ Committee could be left to carry out its terms of reference more or less unsupervised. Three members— Price, Waite and Parker-—were appointed to the Committee in March, but Price resigned at the end of April, Waters being appointed shortly after. During the next few months the Committee was busy preparing the first issue. Theyobtained quotes for printing: 1,000 copies of a 4-page issue would be £17; 500 would be £14. The EC cautiouslyvoted 6-5 for 500 copies and agreed the price to be 6d (2.5 new pence).The first issue of FORUM appeared in mid-October and aroused much interest in the Party. The Committee wasable to report to the EC on 28 October 1952 that 850 copies had been sold. The Committee had gone for a print runof 1,000 against the EC's instruction because branches had responded well to the invitation to place orders and therewere more sales than the pessimists expected. The 11,000 words in the first issue were in rather small type and theEC agreed to the Committee's proposal that the second issue should be 8 pages in more readable type.After that the EC was called on to deal with only a few matters concerning FORUM. They authorised changes inthe membership of the Committee. There was a concern among some members that FORUM should not be offeredfor sale to non-members and this view was endorsed in a ruling by the EC.It is probably fair to say that the middle Party (the majority view at any given time) was never happy with theforums or with FORUM. The EC minutes record dissatisfaction with the holding of Head Office forums by one branch on the grounds that this took members' time away from propagating socialist ideas amongfworkers—anopinion not confined to one branch. In 1954 Camberwell Branch wanted to suspend publication of FORUM in viewof the Party's "serious financial position". The last and 43rd printed issue of FORUM appeared in May 1957,although four later duplicated issues were published, the last in May 1959.
Content
To read through the nearly half-a-million words published in FORUM is to gain considerable insight into the natureand activities, the problems and the controversies in the SPGB as it reached its first half-century of existence. Allsocialist life was there: the scholarly and the knockabout, the authoritarian and the libertarian, the declamatory andthe defamatory, the clever and the too-clever-by-half.The star of the show for almost the first two years of publication was arguably the intermittent series of articles by Frank Evans under the title 'The Nature of the Socialist Revolution'. In eight parts, some in sections spread over different issues of FORUM, this series was impressive in its historical and imaginative sweep. Critics complainedthat Evans often failed to make his meaning clear: his sentences were long, his style varying from the lyrical to theopaque. His critical examination of received Party wisdom was never confrontational, often conciliatory, butultimately hard-edged. It would lead to his retaining party membership only for a period after the 1955 upheaval, of which more below.1
 
The early and middle issues of FORUM dealt with a variety of more-or-less contentious matters. Most of themcould be construed as connected in some way with putting the case for socialism more effectively to gain newmembers. The Party had recently bought 52 Clapham High Street and, while its facilities were appreciated by somemembers, others noted that it was proving costly to run and wanted it sold and the money used to publish moreliterature, advertise and run meetings, etc.A disagreement about whether the ballot could or should be used to achieve socialism involved our Americancomrades, particularly Cantor and Rab. One side insisted that the ballot is the only way; the other allowed that incertain conditions "the majority will use whatever other means are at hand to introduce socialism" (October 1952).Differences about the Party's attitude to trade unions emerged when the
Standard 
 published an editorial condemningthe workers at D.C. Thomson for refusing to print an article supporting the employer's side in a trade dispute.Contributors to FORUM supported and opposed the views expressed in that editorial (October, November 1952).Another early controversy was whether the Party should contest elections. This one would run and run. Trotmangot off the mark in the first issue, arguing
inter alia
that we got better value from small adverts. He received a robustreply in the next issue from Horatio, the pen name preferred by Harry Young (except in the April 1955 issue, whenhe "outed" himself). In January 1954 Paddington Branch criticised as negative the by-election address sent out by the party. In June the branch offered its own draft address for the general election, and in July D'Arcy wrote a strongcriticism of that address.The topic of what socialism will be like really involved two controversies: should we talk about it all and, if so,what should we say? The topic had featured in several Head Office forums, but S.R.P. (Stan Parker) started the ballrolling in FORUM in December 1952 by asking Will There Be Mass Production? and answering in the affirmative.Tony Turner replied in February 1953 disagreeing, and arguing that with socialism the distinction between town andcountry would be abolished. In March S.R.P. came back on both issues, and in April J.M. Roe made his case for socialist mass production. On the wider question of whether we should in our propaganda try to give some idea of what socialism will be like, Peter Newell (July) agreed with this and accused some members of not wantingsocialism at all but only a glorified capitalism.The question of whether socialist propaganda should be selective or not was aired in FORUM. Turner claimed(March 1953) that "it is untrue that there are people who have little or nothing to gain by the establishment of socialism" and that consequently we should not be selective in our propaganda, for example by addressing theworking class alone. In the next issue John McGregor didn't directly attack that position but did make the point that"differing environmental backgrounds make for differences of viewpoint among people, which render some morereceptive to socialist propaganda than others".Then there was (and still is) the question of whether capitalism produces increasing misery for the working classand the allied question of whether workers have become better off. Horatio (October 1953) argued that things hadgenerally got worse for workers; a mysterious writer called H. (November) countered those arguments in a style bearing a close resemblance to that of Hardy. Horatio had another go in May 1954, asserting that "The increasingmisery of the workers is a linchpin of Socialist economics." E.W. (Wilmott) joined in the fray in June with acarefully reasoned account of Marxian economics, doubting whether workers' conditions have worsened or willworsen.This brief review of FORUM controversies cannot end without reference to the mother and father of them all:that between those who wanted to change the D of P because they felt it did not adequately express the contemporarycase for socialism and those who wanted to preserve that declaration because they saw it as the basis of membershipof the Party and disagreement with it as grounds for expulsion. A full account of this controversy would take more pages than we have allocated for the whole of this historical review. At least 20 members wrote to FORUM on oneaspect or another of the controversy and more attended the Saturday forums which dealt with it. Here, by way of summary, we reproduce the main points from the joint statement (April 1955) by Evans, Parker, Rowan and Turner which led to the latter three leaving in the Party after threat of expulsion, together with statements by four representatives of the Party status quo at that time:"We suggest that the basis of membership could be agreement on principles somewhat as follows:UNDERSTANDING that social change in continuous, and that change in men's attitudes and their socialinstitutions is one process;RECOGNISING that the development of present (capitalist) society includes the changing of the institutionsof property and authority (the institutions of class and power and privilege) in the direction of socialism;RECOGNISING AND DESIRING socialism as a way of life characterised by production solely for use as anintegral part of a freer, more equalitarian and more harmonious society; andUNDERSTANDING that the purpose of Socialist Party is to urge on the emergence of socialist society byencouraging in the growth of socialist tendencies in attitudes and institutions." The authors explicitly deniedthat they put forward those principles 'as an ultimatum or as a programme to be now adopted . . . We areconcerned only that this alternative statement of socialist principles and policy should be discussed by themembership as a whole, without haste, and for so long as it takes to bring out all that it implies.'"
 
The statements upholding the 1904 D of P and attacking its critics included those by H.B. (Harry Baldwin) (May1954), D'Arcy (June 1954), J.G. Grisley (January 1955) and Harry Young (April 1955):"... since the working class is that last subject class in history, it alone can dispossess the capitalist parasites (or are they going to abdicate?), this dispossession will be the final act of class struggle (the act to end classes): astruggle carried on unceasingly throughout the life of capitalism. The capitalist class is a reactionary class of  plunderers: the working class is alone the revolutionary class." (Baldwin.)"My own view is that the very nature of the question 'Socialism—what will it look like?' is an absurdity. You canonly describe social systems, including Capitalism and Socialism, from their economic basis, the relations of  people to the means of production. In short, the description contained in our object." (D'Arcy.) "There is nothingwrong with our propaganda—thousands of debates and public meetings have proven that. There is nothing wrongwith our Declaration of Principles—years of criticism have been unable to shatter them. The trouble lies in themajority of people who have not heard the Party's case or, having heard it, do not respond." (Grisley.)"If, even now, a majority of the members of the Party will not expel an avowed opponent merely because he wasonce a good speaker, those who do support the Declaration of Principles, and are not concerned with personalities, will have to seriously consider the formation of a Socialist Party." (Young.)After April 1955 and the "troubles" had died down, the content of FORUM changed markedly. Thecontroversial issues that had taken up so much space virtually disappeared. The pre-purge FORUM had contained"educational" material (for example, a series of five "Notes on crises" by E.W. but the proportion of this was nowmuch increased. The new IPJ Committee, notably Bob Coster, proclaimed its editorial policy: "We believe there isscope for FORUM as a medium for Socialist education, information and instructive discussion" (July 1955,emphasis in original). That issue contained a long article on economics by E. W., an even longer one as part 3 of aseries on Marxism and literature by Coster, and hints on public speaking by Ambridge. The Aug-Sep 1956 issue hadCoster on The meaning of education, E.W. on Do we need the dialectic? (Apparently we don't), and A.W.I, on thenovelist John Steinbeck ("always interesting, and sometimes rings the bell").The last printed issue of FORUM was still subtitled "Socialist Discussion Journal". But 6'/
2
of its 8 pages weredevoted to an annotated survey of the writings and speeches of Marx and Engels and the remaining 1
 A
 pagesconsisted of an extract from Engels's pamphlet
 Principles of Communism,
1847.After a gap of 15 months the first number of volume 2 of FORUM was published in duplicated form. Aneditorial under the heading THE NEW FORUM stated:"The last Inter-Party Journal, although it published much that was useful and worthwhile, unfortunatelydegenerated into an organ that was largely concerned with anti-party polemics and recrimination. In the later issues of the journal this trend was stopped but the damage had been done, and FORUM foundered for lack of worthwhile material."The issue contained Evans's lecture notes on a Socialist Approach to History, Willmott on value, Jarvis on DylanThomas, and two controversial pieces, Trotman on the Party's attitude to rent control and Hackney Branch on the
Socialist Standard 
("We claim that the
Socialist Standard 
is an inferior paper today, and we appeal to the Partymembership to do something about it... We are not offering positive proposals here: that is not our point.")The last gasp of FORUM was in May 1959. It could be argued that FORUM didn't want to die, because itannounced the intended contents of number 5 (Trade unions, Value re-examined and Let the Party sing). Thecontents were an excerpt from Engels and the wages system, Trotman still on about rent control, some facts andfigures from the USA concerning the old folk—and 12 of the 22 pages on the resurrection of the saga of WB of Upton Park (1910-11), after 4 pages on that ancient controversy in the previous issue.WB of Upton Park wrote to the
Standard 
in 1910 asking "What would be the action of a member of the SPGBelected to Parliament, and how would he maintain our principle of 'no compromise'?" The items reprinted inFORUM consisted of the Executive Committee's reply to WB, an open letter by 7 members (the "ProvisionalCommittee for advocating the revocation of the reply given to WB"), the EC's reply to that open letter (August 1911)and finally the Provisional Committee's reply. The editors of FORUM justified their republication of thesedocuments by stating their belief "that the documents relating to this controversy have a very real bearing on similar,though fortunately slighter, controversies in the Party today. In any event, they are of historic interest and definewhat has been the Party's position on reforms and reformism since its inception".The Provisional Committee opposed the idea that democracy is essential to the establishment of socialism ("..-.the workers if once revolutionary class-conscious would and could under any form of Government, even if autocratic, bureaucratic, or plutocratic seize the political machinery, thereby becoming the dominating class insociety." —Emphasis in original). FORUM's last Editorial Committee gave the last word (and incidentally more than10 of the 16 pages) to the Provisional Committee. They didn't take sides for or against that Committee and the EC.They didn't say in what ways they thought the 1910-11 controversy had "a very real bearing" on the controversies atthe time they were writing.Our view is that WB raised a question that we still haven't satisfactorily answered today: do we reject capitalist(partial) democracy as a reform to be opposed, or do we see (full) democracy as an essential ingredient of socialism?

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