Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Founding of the Socialist Party. (1931)

From the September 1931 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty years ago books and pamphlets dealing with the fundamental problems of social life were neither so plentiful nor so accessible as they are to-day. The principal writings of Marx, Engels and others were hardly known outside of the few in this country who had a knowledge of languages other than English. Consequently, when the Social Democratic Federation was founded in 1881 as a professed Marxian organisation (though Engels would have nothing to do with it) very few of its members were acquainted with the writings of Marx. The new organisation had the merit, however, of pushing the name and works of Marx before groups of working men. Although the few well-to-do people who were at its head, sought to keep it in their pockets as a private concern of their own, the information they made available bore fruit after a number of years and led to much questioning of principles and finally to an attempt to clarify the basis and policy of the organisation to bring it more into harmony with the political needs of the working class movement.

A good deal of the early policy of the Social Democratic Federation consisted of urging the adoption of measures of reform supposedly designed to ameliorate certain outstanding grievances of sections of the working class. These ameliorative measures were not sufficiently embracing to meet the aspirations of a group of radicals who had become dissatisfied with the Liberal Party, but wanted a programme that would appeal to the so-called “professional classes." This group, therefore, formed the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Still there was a feeling that even the new programme of remedial measures was not nebulous enough to attract the large body of people desired, so the leaders of the new party, assisted by certain trade union officials, took part in forming in 1900 yet another new organisation—the Labour Party (known until 1906 as the Labour Representation Committee). From that time onwards the problem of uniting these three parties occupied a good deal of the time and attention of their respective officials and members, and periodical “Unity Conferences” were held. The idea put forward being that they should present a “United Front” to the “Common Enemy”—an idea that still befogs many who claim to be acting in the interests of the working class.

In the meantime dissatisfaction with the equivocal policy and hero-worship of the Social Democratic Federation had been growing, and a small group of critics developed who determined to try and tie the organisation to class-conscious political action, and induce it to cut away the self-destructive reformist policy.

At the 1903 Conference the discussions were lively, and at the Conferences, during the following two years they were livelier still. On the one side was a small, youthful group endeavouring to keep the class basis of the party clear, and on the other side the official group of older men (mainly well-to-do) who wanted to rule the party and broaden its basis to include all “sympathisers who were against social injustice,” and were straining hard to achieve unity with other non-socialist bodies. Another bone of contention was the equivocal "attitude of the Party Organ, “Justice,” edited by H. Quelch, but owned by a private group over which the party had no control. At one time it opposed the I.L.P. and the Labour Party and their leaders, and at another time it patted them on the back. At one time it denounced Hardie, Snowden, and others, and at another time urged members and branches to help in the election of these people to Parliament. The members who objected to this policy and urged genuine independence were dubbed by Quelch "The Impossibilists.”

In August, 1902, a paper commenced appearing in Scotland published by Scottish members of the Social Democratic Federation, with the title "The Socialist." The third issue contained an attack on the leaders and policy of the S.D.F. signed "Impossibilist.” Subsequently, the attitude of the paper gradually became more hostile, until in 1903 its adherents formed the Socialist Labour Party, copying the American organisation of the same name. This party was crippled at birth, however, with the fatal platform containing "immediate demands.” At first, the new party held to the position that the immediate object should be the conquest of political power, but later, under the influence of its American parent, it was swept away by industrial unionism. In fact, it soon became apparent that the members of this party had really only changed their idols; Hyndman, Quelch and company were deposed, and De Leon and Connolly took their places.

From 1902 until 1904 the columns of "Justice” contained a good deal of correspondence from members criticising the attitude of the party and its leaders, and much impatient denunciation by Hyndman, Quelch, Lee and Max Beer. At the 1902 Conference there were some heated discussions on the political arrangements with Liberals, Tories, Labour, & co. There were also some caustic remarks made about the public banquet to Hyndman to which people of all political persuasions were invited, and at which, they all indulged in back-patting, in spite of previous mutual denunciation as sworn enemies.

During 1902 a member (P. Friedberg) wrote a criticism of the party and its leaders which, as "Justice" did not publish it, he sent on to the American "Weekly People” (the organ of the American Socialist Labour Party). For this action the Executive expelled him and, later, expelled his Branch (Finsbury Park) for supporting his action. The matter came up at the 1903 Conference and, under the influence of the ruling clique, the expulsion was endorsed and another member (G. S. Yates), who supported the action, was also expelled by the Conference on account of articles in the "Socialist” criticising the S.D.F. It is interesting to recall that E. E. Hunter (a member of the present Labour Party) was at that time a fervent supporter of independent class-conscious political action; defended Friedberg, Yates and the others, and wrote articles on similar lines for the "Socialist.” 

Throughout 1903 the volume of criticism against the autocratic attitude of the Executive Committee and its compromising policy grew stronger and more articulate.

At the 1904 Conference at Blackburn matters were brought to a head. The Conference met on Friday, April the 1st, and immediately protests were called forth by references in the E.C. report to "Impossibilists,” and a warm discussion followed. The next day (Saturday) the Conference had hardly assembled when Herbert Burrows asked for and was granted urgency to move that those who were constantly criticising the E.C. be called upon to apologise to the Conference and pledge themselves, without any reservations whatever, to cease such conduct in future. This was carried by 56 votes to 6. The six were then called upon for an explanation or an apology. None of them apologised. After hearing their explanation two of them were summarily expelled and left the Conference. The two expelled members, J. Fitzgerald and H. J. Hawkins, were candidates for the new E.C., and some of the delegates present (who had voted for their expulsion) had been instructed to vote for them to the E.C. In speaking to the expulsion resolution, H. Quelch had accused Fitzgerald of fostering discontent by means of economics classes!

The official group complained that the "Impossibilist” movement was a campaign of calumny and intrigue against old and experienced members and therefore against the entire body. They appealed to the Conference on the sentimental grounds of age, connections and years in the struggle, assuring the members that their experience had justified the necessity of political arrangements, "broadening” the basis of membership, and of supporting political representatives who did not share their basic views. Many of the delegates were members of the E.C., past members of it, and personal friends of E.C. members. It was with the assistance of these delegates that the E.C. secured a vote giving them full powers to expel without appeal any member or Branch who did not fall in with the E.C.'s view. 

The two members expelled were delegates from Branches who had received instructions to vote on certain items on the Agenda dealing with questions of policy, but they were expelled before the items came up. The significant fact was that both had been nominated for the E.C. by several Branches, and therefore constituted a menace to the old official group. In fact, at a subsequent meeting of London members, J. Kent (since Conservative Mayor of Acton!) stated that he was present on the evening when the expulsions were arranged by Hyndman, Quelch and company around the tea-table on the evening of the first day of the Conference.

After the Conference the Watford Branch wrote to the Executive asking why their delegate (Fitzgerald) had been expelled. They were informed, that unless they too complied with the Conference findings on the question of criticism they also would be expelled. This was an example of the method that was being adopted all round. The majority of the members of the S.D.F. were unclear on principles; the Executive deprecated discussion on principles, claiming that "we are all Socialists, we want to get on with the practical details." It was alleged that narrowness had hindered the growth of the S.D.F., which "was no longer a sect surrounded by hostility." It was sought to "broaden the base" and unite all "progressives" on temporary objects. The official group carried a packed Conference with them, and secured a vote giving them power (for three years) to expel members and Branches who were not prepared to give unqualified support to the compromising and reformist policy that was being followed.

After the return of the delegates from the Burnley Conference, a meeting of London members of the S.D.F. was held on Sunday, April 24th, 1904, at Shoreditch Town Hall, to discuss the expulsions and matters arising therefrom. On the plea that they were no longer members of the organisation, Fitzgerald and Hawkins were excluded from the hall.

At this meeting there were two surprises: Jack Jones—now a Labour M.P.—who all through had given indications of supporting the so-called “Impossibilists,” backed down and supported the official group; Jack Kent, who was thought to be hand-in-glove with the Executive (of which he had been a member), gave the game away and told of the machinations to get rid of the more dangerous of the critics.

After several hours of heated discussion, the meeting supported the official attitude by a vote of 119 to 83.

The small group that had been working by means of economics classes, circulars, and discussions, in the endeavour to convince the members of the necessity of class conscious revolutionary political action, saw that the position was hopeless. As the S.L.P. was also in the mire, the only way left was to form an independent political party.

Closely following the Shoreditch meeting, a Protest Committee was formed, which issued a leaflet setting forth the grounds of dissatisfaction with the existing policy of the S.D.F. and was signed by 88 members, though some of these had in the meantime been summarily expelled by the Executive for protesting.

Summarised, the criticisms and proposals were as follows :—

   The expulsions were an attempt to gag or expel members who had been bold enough to criticise inside the organisation the policy pursued by representative men and more particularly by the late Executive of the S.D.F.
  It was a question of determining whether the tactics and policy in future should interpret Socialist principles, or whether the Party was prepared to resort to measures that would tend to sterilise the Socialist propaganda of past years of plodding exertion and self-sacrifice.
  The protestors do not believe in impossible political tactics, but assert that political action must be such as to awaken the workers of this country to full class-consciousness, and to the desire to abolish wage-slavery. They therefore feel the necessity of avoiding any action that would endanger or obliterate their Socialist identity or allow them to be swallowed up by a labour movement that has yet to learn the real meaning of a class struggle.
   The policy of permeating the Trade Unions had resulted in prominent members getting official jobs that precluded them preaching the class struggle. The policy adopted of voting Tory to dish the Liberals, and vice-versa, confused the workers and rendered propaganda difficult.
   The basis of the Party was undemocratic. It had been dominated for years by certain leaders over whom there was no real or effective control. The final clothing of the Executive with autocratic authority to expel without appeal showed it was no longer an administrative body, but, according to rules which can only be revised every three years, it is empowered to decide and entirely control the electoral policy of the Party. A man in his capacity of a Trade Union official is allowed to do what would render other members liable to expulsion.
  The Party has neither ownership nor control of the Party organ, Justice, which was mortgaged to the Trade Unions. The Party was called upon to officially endorse candidatures of non-Socialist Trade Unionists. Questions of policy could be, and were, decided in secret. Conference amendments on serious questions of organisation were not even discussed.
  Opposition to the official policy was denied free expression, and members were called upon to apologise for actions of which they were not guilty and which only existed in the imagination of their accusers, the climax of which was the unconstitutional manner of the expulsion of Fitzgerald and Hawkins. Many of those who voted for the expulsions did so in direct contravention of their instructions to vote for these members in the election to the new Executive. All who voted for the expulsions did so without any instruction whatsoever, thus violating the rules of the S.D.F. The vague charges made against the two members were only put forward to cover the intentions of the old clique to get rid of those who wanted the Party to adopt an uncompromising revolutionary policy, and were carrying on the agitation quite constitutionally within, the organisation.
The signatories to the leaflet then urged:—
  The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection of the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.
Such was the position put forward by those who eventually founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Subsequent events made plain the correctness of the view of these pioneers. The Party they sought to clarify and were finally compelled to leave in disgust was afterward swallowed up in the opportunist movement, and on the outbreak of war in 1914 sided with the capitalists and helped to drive English working men to slaughter their German brethren on the battlefields in the interests of the capitalists. Leading members of it, through the Labour party, became capitalist Cabinet Ministers, and it has finally taken its place as a warning and a lesson to working men of the fate reserved for those who give adherence to numbers in place of clarity of thought.

After the issue of the above-mentioned leaflet, events moved rapidly. The autocratic official group continued their expulsions from the S.D.F. A meeting of sympathisers with the policy outlined in the leaflet was held at Sidney Hall, Battersea, on May 15th, 1904, and at that meeting, it was decided to launch a Party based upon Socialist principles and opposed to all other political parties. A meeting to formally constitute the Party was held at the Painters’ Hall, Bartlett’s Passage, Fetter Lane, E.C., on Sunday, June 12th, 1904. Such was the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The new Party was forced into existence without literature, offices, printing facilities or funds, apart from the contributions of the 120 members who took part in its formation. Its early Executive meetings were held in the bedroom of one of the members, his bed providing the main seating accommodation. However, they entered with enthusiasm and energy into the work of building up an organisation, and, with considerable personal sacrifice, had the satisfaction of seeing the first number of The Socialist Standard appear on September 3rd, 1904, containing on its seventh page the Object and Declaration of Principles that has guided the Party ever since.

The first Annual Conference was held at the Communist Club (now defunct), 107, Charlotte Street, London, on April 29th, 1905. The membership had by then reached 150.

From its formation, the Party has been controlled entirely by its members, and many lengthy and stimulating discussions have been held on questions; of policy and detail work. All its meetings and discussions, apart from the period of martial law during the War, have been open to any who cared to attend and listen.

The soundness of the Party’s principles as a sheet anchor was particularly demonstrated on the outbreak of the War in 1914. While all the other alleged working-class parties (including the Socialist Labour Party) were entirely at sea as to what line to follow, and were gradually consumed by the war fever, the S.P.G.B., from the declaration of war to the armistice, never deviated from opposition to it as a capitalist war involving no interest worth the shedding of a single drop of working-class blood, and laying it down as a principle that any man who voluntarily joined the Army was unworthy of membership of a Socialist Party. The September, 1914, issue of The Socialist Standard contained our War Manifesto, and subsequent issues, brought out under overwhelming difficulties and in spite of Governmental raids on the Central Office, continued to oppose the War as no concern of the workers of any country. As far as our knowledge goes, it was alone in the belligerent countries in taking up that stand.

The result of this policy brought devastation for a time. Its members were scattered and some of them were hunted over the world. A good deal of the work at the Head Office was done by women members who ably carried out work the men were precluded from doing. When the Armistice enabled the members to gather together once more, it was a much decimated Party that emerged. But, in spite of the knocks it had received, the Party was sound, and the members proceeded with enthusiasm to rebuild the broken organisation, with such good results that it is now stronger and more firmly established than ever and has been the means of developing young organisations on a similar basis in other countries.

In the foregoing way was built up the organisation that is now attracting more and more of those who give serious thought to the problems that confront the working class.

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