One question I’m certain every socialist activist will have been asked is that regarding the “size of the party”. To be honest it’s a question that no member is over happy to answer, because we are, after all, relatively small, minute, compared to the mainstream parties who can count there membership in the hundreds of thousands. You just know the Labour Party member, who has asked you this question, is trying to keep a straight face, but already anticipating telling his friends down the local what he has just learned
Size matters for the general public too: “So how big are you then?” is often asked of us by enquirers. But nowhere is this fixation more apparent than with our dealings with left wing groups, who seem to have that obsession with size you would associate with a class of adolescent boys in a changing room after a sports lesson. The latter (assorted Leninists and Trotsyists) tend to put the question in a manner of contemptible decisiveness, the revelation that they are larger, and therefore ‘far more revolutionary’, being a form of political check-mate that terminates the confrontation: “We’re ten times as large. Get out of that if you can!”
We have nothing to hide! Though some members may feel a slight embarrassed about The Socialist Party being relatively small after such a time in existence, our answer is short and candid. But this is one of the things that distinguish us from organisations like the Labour Party, the SWP or the SLP – we simply have no obsession with size, will not try to hype our numerical strength and will not grovel on our hands and knees to anyone looking our way to fill out a membership form.
The disclosure as to out the size of our membership is often greeted with ridicule from our political opponents. “What, you’re that small?” they’ll exclaim, somewhat jubilantly, “and after 100 years? Just shows your ideas are not working, that no one is listening.” I can’t recall the number of times I’ve found myself in such a situation!
When the manifest logic of this shallow approach is spelled out, our opponent usually relinquishes his or her previously expressed view on size. It must be realised, that if the main criterion of the validity of a political party and its policy is the number of supporters it attracts, then the Labour Party are presently the ‘most right’ and before them the Tories were the ‘most right’ for eighteen years. Moreover, consider this: in the elections to the National Assembly in Germany on 6th June 1920, the Nazis polled 1,918,300 votes, or 6.5 per cent of votes cast. On 12th November 1933 they polled 39,638,800 votes, or 92.2 percent of votes cast and took every one of the 661 seats being contested. Is it sensible then to conclude that Hitler’s repressive, bigoted, militarist and nationalist policies were watertight, totally sound and commonsensical?
Our opponent now allows that neither Blair, Thatcher nor Hitler was “right” and that the support the various political parties enjoy tends to ebb and flow depending on many factors. New parties can come from nowhere – i.e. consider the UKIP’s victories in the 2004 Euro Election - and take support away and win votes from long established ones, which helps to bear out our claim that voters are not automatically inclined to the policies of the party with the largest membership.
It is then obvious that the constraints placed on the Socialist Party for being small are really a snide way of attacking our socialist principles and indeed afford the critic an escape hatch from constructive debate they feel uncomfortable about engaging in: “Why should I argue with you? You are nothing.”
What the size obsessionists fail to grasp is that the key to understanding the ebb and flow of political membership can be found in the materialist conception, or view, of history. New political parties, and the rise and fall of their memberships, arise from new ideas, which in turn stem from changing economic and social conditions.
Consider the ascendancy of the trade union movement in the latter part of the 19th Century. This was directly due to the intensification of industry in the larger towns and cities and the decimation of an agricultural workforce. The concentration of tens of thousands of workers into industrial centres in which poverty was the norm meant that sooner or later they were going to organise in defence of their common interests, whether it be working conditions or the length of the working day. And this in turn led to the creation of reformist labour parties to pursue their further interests via parliament. Again the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the inter-war years was attributable in part to the austere social conditions the country endured after the Treaty of Versailles.
The formation of the Socialist Party in 1904 was also due to changing ideas and changing social conditions – namely the advance of capitalism and the realisation amongst workers that the powers of production had developed to such a stage by then as to make socialism a viable system of society. Furthermore, workers were seeking to establish a political party that had socialism as its only goal; a party not dependent on a leadership for guidance and not out to reform capitalism, but to abolish it.
So changing social conditions give rise to new ideas, but it does not follow that these new ideas spread like wildfire overnight, with a huge majority accepting them in a short space of time. On the contrary, they are only accepted by relatively few people and often for a long time. This relates not simply to political ideas, but all ideas, whether they be political, scientific or religious. The more profound the new idea, the greater it challenges the ideas people had hitherto held and the longer it takes for its appeal to spread. Hence the low appeal of revolutionary socialist ideas. The Socialist Party is not advocating a few slight changes to capitalism, a few minor reforms, like the mainstream and leftwing parties, but demanding an end to the present system and everything associated with it. This, at the moment, is just too radical for many people.
And neither does the Socialist Party, as previously mentioned, pull all manner of stunts to increase its membership and secure votes. Mainstream parties, for instance, are known for signing dead people up as members and for sending their supporters into aged persons homes to get unwitting residents to sign up for membership. The SWP will stop anyone approaching their stall and ask if they want to join – they might even be recruiting BNP and NF members! The Socialist Party, on the other hand, is unique in having a membership test to ascertain the socialist knowledge of the aspiring member on a number of points considered very important to members – i.e. the socialist position on reforms, war, the former USSR and religion. Neither does the Socialist Party overtly ask people for their votes at election times. The Socialist Party makes no pledges, no promises, advocates no grand reforms, but stresses there is nothing it can do for the workers that they are not capable of doing for themselves and urges voters only to cast their vote for socialism if they fully comprehend and agree with the socialist case against capitalism.
So, the membership of The Socialist Party is small, but does this diminish the importance of its ideas or contribution to political theory? Hardly; its ideas are in keeping with social evolution – the future of humanity when capitalism is at last recognised as an outdated and ridiculous way in which to run the affairs of the world. This makes the ideas its members defend so powerful as to be ultimately indisputable. Thus, the Socialist Party’s members feel privileged to be members, convinced they are making a genuine contribution to the struggle for socialism. This is not to suggest the Socialist Party considers itself, as so many Leninist groups do, to be some revolutionary vanguard, blessed with an insight the masses can only dream of, ready to lead them to victory when the final hour comes. On the contrary, Socialist Party members believe a revolutionary class consciousness can be attained by any member of the working class who is prepared to begin thinking for themselves and to start questioning the most prevalent assumptions of the day. The Party may be small, but this is the price it has paid for refusing to compromise any of its revolutionary principles in 101 years and for not offering quick-fix solutions to the problems of capitalism. It remains small because it is not impatient for social change, realising that before you can have a social revolution you need a revolution in the way people think. At this moment in time, although the case for socialism has never been so pressing, it remains a sad fact that too many workers still think capitalism can be made to work in the interests of all if enough tinkering here and there is a carried out.