Note: In the mid-1950s the Socialist Party of Great Britain published a monthly internal discussion journal named FORUM. Some articles were contributed by members of the World Socialist Party of the US. As many questions discussed in this journal are still relevant today, we reproduce a history of FORUM written in 1995 by two members of the SPGB, followed by links to pdf files containing a complete series of the 43 printed issues.
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 small number of members were beginning to question what might be called “the word”: the idea that the acid test of a socialist was whether he (it was almost always a “he”) agreed in literal terms with the Party’s 1904-drafted Declaration of Principles or not. The disputation spread to a number of other areas, not all of them “internal” because many 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 a wide 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 started with a series of motions tabled at the Executive Committee meeting on March 25 of 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 members concerned 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 a controversial, educational, or informative nature which may be of use to members in relation to the Party’s case and 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 and that 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. They obtained quotes for printing: 1,000 copies of a 4-page issue would be £17; 500 would be £14. The EC cautiously voted 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 was able to report to the EC on October 28, 1952 that 850 copies had been sold. The Committee had gone for a print run of 1,000 against the EC’s instruction because branches had responded well to the invitation to place orders and there were more sales than the pessimists expected. The 11,000 words in the first issue were in rather small type and the EC 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 in the membership of the Committee. There was a concern among some members that FORUM should not be offered for 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 the forums 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—an opinion not confined to one branch. In 1954 Camberwell Branch wanted to suspend publication of FORUM in view of 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.
To read through the nearly half-a-million words published in FORUM is to gain considerable insight into the nature and activities, the problems and the controversies in the SPGB as it reached its first half-century of existence. All socialist life was there: the scholarly and the knockabout, the authoritarian and the libertarian, the declamatory and the 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 complained that Evans often failed to make his meaning clear: his sentences were long, his style varying from the lyrical to the opaque. His critical examination of received Party wisdom was never confrontational, often conciliatory, but ultimately hard-edged. It would lead to his retaining party membership only for a period after the 1955 upheaval, of which more below.
The early and middle issues of FORUM dealt with a variety of more or less contentious matters. Most of them could be construed as connected in some way with putting the case for socialism more effectively to gain new members. The Party had recently bought 52 Clapham High Street and, while its facilities were appreciated by some members, others noted that it was proving costly to run and wanted it sold and the money used to publish more literature, advertise and run meetings, etc.
A disagreement about whether the ballot could or should be used to achieve socialism involved our American comrades, particularly Cantor and Rab. One side insisted that the ballot is the only way; the other allowed that in certain 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 condemning the 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. Trotman got off the mark in the first issue, arguing inter alia that we got better value from small adverts. He received a robust reply in the next issue from Horatio, the pen name preferred by Harry Young (except in the April 1955 issue, when he “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 strong criticism 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 ball rolling 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 and country 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 wanting socialism 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 the working 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 more receptive to socialist propaganda than others.”
Then there was (and still is) the question of whether capitalism produces increasing misery for the working class and the allied question of whether workers have become better off. Horatio (October 1953) argued that things had generally 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 increasing misery of the workers is a linchpin of Socialist economics.” E.W. (Wilmott) joined in the fray in June with a carefully reasoned account of Marxian economics, doubting whether workers’ conditions have worsened or will worsen.
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 Declaration of Principles because they felt it did not adequately express the contemporary case for socialism and those who wanted to preserve that declaration because they saw it as the basis of membership of 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 one aspect 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 social institutions is one process;
RECOGNISING that the development of present (capitalist) society includes the changing of the institutions of 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 an integral part of a freer, more equalitarian and more harmonious society; and
UNDERSTANDING that the purpose of Socialist Party is to urge on the emergence of socialist society by encouraging in the growth of socialist tendencies in attitudes and institutions.
The authors explicitly denied that they put forward those principles “as an ultimatum or as a programme to be now adopted . . . We are concerned only that this alternative statement of socialist principles and policy should be discussed by the membership 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) (May 1954), 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): a struggle 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.
My own view is that the very nature of the question ‘Socialism—what will it look like?’ is an absurdity. You can only 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.
There is nothing wrong with our propaganda—thousands of debates and public meetings have proven that. There is nothing wrong with our Declaration of Principles—years of criticism have been unable to shatter them. The trouble lies in the majority of people who have not heard the Party’s case or, having heard it, do not respond.
If, even now, a majority of the members of the Party will not expel an avowed opponent merely because he was once 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.
By April 1955 the “troubles” had died down and the content of FORUM changed markedly. The controversial 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 now much increased. The new IPJ Committee, notably Bob Coster, proclaimed its editorial policy: “We believe there is scope 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 a series on Marxism and literature by Coster, and hints on public speaking by Ambridge. The August–September 1956 issue had Coster on the meaning of education, E.W. on Do we need the dialectic? (apparently we don’t), and A.W.I, on the novelist 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 were devoted to an annotated survey of the writings and speeches of Marx and Engels and the remaining pages consisted 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. An editorial under the heading THE NEW FORUM stated:
The last Intra-Party Journal, although it published much that was useful and worthwhile, unfortunately degenerated 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 Dylan Thomas, 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 Party membership 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 it announced the intended contents of number 5 (Trade unions, Value re-examined and Let the Party sing). The contents were an excerpt from Engels on the wages system, Trotman still on about rent control, some facts and figures from the USA concerning the old folk—and 12 of the 22 pages on the resurrection of the saga of WB of Upton Park (1910–1911), after 4 pages on that ancient controversy in the previous issue.
WB of Upton Park had written to the Standard in 1910 asking “What would be the action of a member of the SPGB elected to Parliament, and how would he maintain our principle of ‘no compromise’?” The items reprinted in FORUM consisted of the Executive Committee’s reply to WB, an open letter by 7 members (the “Provisional Committee 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 these documents 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 define what 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 in society (emphasis in original).
FORUM‘s last Editorial Committee gave the last word (and incidentally more than 10 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 1910–1911 controversy had “a very real bearing” on the controversies at the 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?
Retrospect and Prospect
FORUM was published during years that were arguably the most turbulent in the Party’s existence. Historically, controversy has never been absent from the socialist movement (remember William Morris’s wry reference to six different opinions among six members of the Socialist League) and it is not absent today. Indeed, the existence of differing views is a sign of political health. But in the FORUM era controversy (or, if you like, introversy) was probably more widespread and virulent than before or since. Why was that?
The party had grown rapidly after the Second World War. The political “left”—a vague and unsatisfactory term but still with some meaning—was stronger than the “right”, which had to wait until the advent of Thatcher in 1979 to assert itself. Before the FORUM years few inside or outside the Party would have denied that it was part of the “left”. And then a strange thing happened. The Party that up to then had been one started to split into two. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t part of the usual left-right split because all, the participants wanted and were working for socialism as their sole object, even though some on one side denied the socialist credentials of some on the other.
In retrospect the disputants might be conceived of as the “narrows” and the “broads”. We say “in retrospect” because these two terms weren’t actually coined (by Eddie Grant) and used in the Party until developments in the 1980s led to the expulsion of two branches and the formation of the Ashbourne Court group. “Narrows” are primarily concerned with narrowly confining what the Party stands for, and with who socialists are in contrast to non-socialists. “Broads” are more aware of movement than of stability; they tend to recognise shades of gray within the movement of history.
In the FORUM era the narrows and the broads somehow forsook common ground for battleground—they each developed extreme wings. The extreme narrows and the extreme broads couldn’t live together long-term in the same party, though they did for a hectic time. The extreme narrows convinced a majority of the Party to take action to get the extreme broads out, either by expulsion or by more subtle pressures. The extreme broads (generally but not always) more confrontational and less diplomatic than mainstream broads—responded by increasingly sharp attacks on what the narrows regarded as their proudest possession, the 1904 D of P. (In fact, only the literal-fundamentalist sanctity of the D of P was in dispute, not its essence.) The narrows won the 1955 battle. The extreme broads left the Party and after their departure FORUM lost most of its controversial bite. The Party settled in to a not very remarkable period of relative calm, even of doldrums and dwindling membership (it had reached 1200 in the 1950s). But another controversy was brewing between the extreme narrows and the rest of the Party. The details of that are beyond the scope of this history of FORUM. Suffice it to say here that this time the rest of the Party won the day.
What happened to the extreme broads who left the Party in 1955? Some have since died, others decided they could pursue their life goals without Party membership—and a few, seeing the Party no longer dominated by extremely narrow and intolerant people and outlooks, have rejoined what they see as a fully democratic as well as a fully socialist party. These former extreme broads have in effect become mainstream broads, in a Party which also has few visible extreme narrows.
Two questions remain to be discussed. The first is whether the effort put into publishing FORUM could have been better directed to “propaganda”—making more socialists. Underlying this question is a belief that effort directed inwards is less healthy than effort directed outwards. If the people writing for, editing and distributing FORUM had changed from being active propagandists to being less active or even inactive, then there would be something in that argument. But there is no evidence that this was the case. FORUM was given birth and kept alive by those who were active in the Party. The defeat of the extreme broads confined FORUM to its educational and instructive function, a laudable aim but in the end an insufficient one.
The second question is whether we can expect to see another FORUM-type publication in the foreseeable future. There was no enthusiasm for it when it came up as an item for discussion at the 1995 ADM. Who knows? We rather doubt it. Certainly we can look forward to having enough members and resources to produce a periodic publication in addition to the Standard. But this doesn’t have to be an Internal Party journal. Hopefully we have got past the stage when we want to hide from non-members the fact that socialists don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. We—the authors of this paper—believe that the Party today contains some members who incline to being somewhat authoritarian and others who incline to being somewhat libertarian. We don’t expect all members to agree with this analysis, but we don’t want those who disagree to be out of the Party.
The Socialist Party is not a monument; it is part of the socialist movement. A forum, or a FORUM, an exchange of information and views as part of the democratic process, is consistent with a movement, not a monument. Even though we don’t have FORUM today we must surely believe in forums as an important way of helping the socialist movement to grow.