The Socialist League was a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was established in the 1880s by William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and other pioneering socialists. However its confused position on parliament and the ballot box despite its correct opposition to campaigning for reforms led to it being overrun by anarchists and to the resignation of socialists such as Morris.
The strategy of Morris and the others was the “making” of socialists who understood and wanted an end to capitalism and wanted the establishment of a socialist society. This ran counter to the object both of anarchists who simply wanted to destroy the state, and of those “socialists” who wanted to concentrate on building a large party with its roots in the trade unions which could somehow reform capitalism out of existence. Some fourteen years after the Socialist League was overrun by anarchists in 1890, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded. Like the League, it was a breakaway from the SDF but, while echoing the League’s call for revolution and nothing less, addressed the issues which had led to the League’s failure.
Revolution not Reform
The Socialist League was founded in 1884 after the resignation of a number of socialists from the SDF which had taken the position of working gradually for socialism through the winning of reforms, so-called stepping stones to socialism. Disgruntled with the undemocratic nature of H.M. Hyndman’s leadership and seeing the absurdity and inevitable failure of trying to change capitalism and its essential profit-making drive through legal changes, William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Belfort Bax and others established a separate body committed to socialism and nothing less. Morris wrote:
“The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt to bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side.”
The Manifesto of the Socialist League, drafted by Morris and Bax and adopted in 1885, stated firmly the stance of the League against reformism and for social revolution and nothing else:
“As to mere politics, Absolutism, Constitutionalism, Republicanism. All have been tried in our day and under our present system, and all have failed in dealing with the real evils of life.
Nor, on the other hand, will certain incomplete schemes of social reform now before the public solve the question.
Co-operation so-called—that is, competitive co-operation for profit—would merely increase the number of small joint-stock capitalists, under the mask of creating an aristocracy of labour, while it would intensify the severity of labour by its temptations to overwork.
Nationalisation of the land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value inevitable under the Capitalist system.
No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes; until the workers are in a possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.
The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation.”
After a century and more of failed attempts at reforming capitalism, the position of Morris and the League has been proved correct, as has its position against what they called “state socialism” (more accurately described as state capitalism) which has only succeeded in dividing the working class.
The Ballot Box
The League, however, was opposed to the idea of achieving socialism via the ballot box and parliament. This was not on the grounds of wanting to lead the working class to revolution in the belief that a socialist majority could never exist, but on the grounds that campaigning for election to parliament inevitably meant advocating reforms of the present system. This mistaken conclusion was drawn due to the number of so-called socialists in this period who were turning away from social revolution and towards gradualism. Parliament, according to the League, was a capitalist institution which would only be strengthened by reformist policies and which would subvert a socialist party from a body which campaigned for social revolution to a corrupt body which would inevitably campaign for election on a reformist programme. Even so, Morris did envisage that, at some stage, socialists would enter parliament as rebels to dissolve capitalist power:
“I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared to pass palliative measures to keep Society alive.”
It was its opposition to the use of elections by connecting them to the policy of reformism which was the weak link in the League’s armour. Opposition to parliament and elections led to the increasing membership of anarchists, who saw the problems of society not as connected to capitalism but to the institution of the state itself. They did not seek to remove capitalism (the disease) by making socialists but sought to destroy the state and authority (the symptom) by acts of violence. It was this section of the League which grew in strength and eventually displaced the genuine pioneer socialists who had established an organisation and produced literature which still remain an inspiration to socialists today. It has to be said, however, that many of these pioneer socialists were beginning to turn to gradualism themselves, as the working class seemingly turned to this course (but in reality only opting for small improvements now rather than any conscious socialist idea).
The Socialist League collapsed in the early 1890s with the departure of William Morris in 1890 (who formed the Hammersmith Socialist Society). After this its publication Commonweal, with the party in general, declined to an ignominious mess after control passed to the anarchists whose squabbles were an irrelevance to the working class.
Thus, the voice of socialism (despite the League’s few inconsistencies) was lost until the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 and its solving of the problems of earlier socialists. Formed after a group of socialists grew disillusioned with the reformist stance of the SDF (as the League pioneers had been twenty years earlier), the Socialist Party solved the problem of reform or revolution by a unique commitment to the use of the ballot box and the democratic sending of socialists to parliament with the sole aim of abolishing the profit system; a possible socialist minority in parliament being committed to opposition to all policies that would help prolong capitalism.
The Socialist Party has stood for socialism and nothing but ever since. A bastion of socialist consciousness in a political wilderness of capitalist party against capitalist party; free market or nationalisation, private ownership or state ownership, left or right, tweedledum or tweedledee. Capitalism is capitalism whichever mask it is attempting to wear and the Socialist Party is the only party to have stood for socialism throughout the twentieth century despite the diversions of Lenin, Keynesians and a host of others attempting to change capitalism without a socialist majority that understands and desires it. Capitalism’s appearance may have changed in the last hundred years but no amount of tinkering can change the essential labour-fleecing and profit-seeking which makes it tick and which socialists understand must be removed before socialism can exist.