by STEVE COLEMAN
PhD, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON,1984
CHAPTER VII - THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN 1904-1921: A BRIEF HISTORY
The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed on 12 June 1904. Its origins are to be discovered in the rise of the impossibilists and their split from the SDP; the latter is discussed in detail in chapter- I. This thesis is not primarily concerned with the organisational history of the SPGB., but with its intellectual development and its significance. A brief narrative history is provided so as to place the ideas of the impossibilists within the context of their active existence.
If a movement is to be judged by its membership, then as a proportion of the British population the SPGB was of negligible significance. It would, however, be fair to say that the SPGB made an initial impact- upon the population of London which was far in excess of its recorded strength. There are no reliable membership records which can provide a complete membership history for the period between 1904 and 1921. Three documents containing official statistics have been examined and these give as thorough a picture as can be obtained. Firstly, there are the Reports of the Executive Committees to Annual Conferences and Delegate Meetings. :Copies of EC Reports to- Annual Conferences are available (either in complete or abbreviated forms), but EC Reports; to the quarterly Delegate Meetings are available only for February, August and November- 1914, February, : August and December- 1915 and July 1920. In these Reports can be found details of the number of members joining and leaving. Secondly, there are minutes of EC meetings. Apart from EC minutes for the meetings between 17 August and 12 September 1915 (which are not in the bound volumes of EC minutes, but which did probably exist) and for 2 April 1918 (when the EC possibly did not meet) there are copies of the EC minutes of all meetings within the period under consideration. From these can be derived information concerning applications for membership and details of forms submitted from branches indicating that a member “has left”. A third source can be found in the two Membership Registers for the period which were kept by the General Secretaries of the period. The first of these runs from June 1904 to October 1911 and the second runs from late 1911 to beyond 1921. In these registers are the names, addresses, membership numbers, branches, dates of joining and, where appropriate, leaving of all members.
According to A.E. Jacomb, who was one of the one hundred and forty two founder members of the SPGB, in a letter sent to the EC in November 1938, "In the first ten years of the Party's existence - that is, up to the outbreak af the war - the Party quadrupled its membership ..," On the basis of the available evidence, and of initial research which was carried out by Peter Rollings, it would seem that Jacomb's figure is a correct approximation and that by the outbreak of the war in 1914 the SPGB's membership was about five hundred. The most active period of recruitment seems to have been between 1906 and 1910: in November 1907 The Socialist Standard reported that the quarter ending in September 1907 "saw a record in the number of new members." The report of the fourth Annual Conference, in April 1908, referred to one hundred and seventy new members being recruited in one year. The fifth Annual Conference reported one hundred and fifty five new members over the year. Not only did membership increase, but new branches were formed. At its formation the SPGB's branches were mainly in areas where old SDF branches had been taken over, or where there had been splits from SDP branches. The first non-London branch to be formed was in Watford. The only significant area of growth outside London was in Lancashire: a branch was formed in Manchester in October 1907 which was to be very active. A branch in Burnley was also active, no doubt with the help of Manchester members. The only SPGB existence in Scotland, where the SLP had recruited most of the early impossibilists, was in the small north-eastern fishing town of Fraserburgh; the latter branch existed from August 1910 to May 1911. A few branches were formed outside London as a result of London members moving: for example, an active branch was formed in Gravesend as a result of a dynamic speaker called Dawkins moving there.
The outbreak of war in 1914 led to the disorganisation of branches and a scattering of the membership. In March 1916 The Military Service Act forced most of the youngeir male members to eitheir join the armed forrces or face severe legal penalties. The EC passed a resolution declaring that any member- voluntarily joining the armed forces would be required to resign from party membership. As a result, several members, forced by domestic and other pressures, resigned from the SPGB in order to fight. Most members refused to take up arms: a few remained in prison from 1916 until the end of the war? several members formed 'the flying corps' 'so called because they remained on the run. from the authorities, relying upon the help of other socialists and their-own wits in order to survive. The resignation of members who joined the armed forces, the loss of contact with socialists in prison or on the run, and the. domestic pressures upon older-members and women who were able to retain their-membership resulted in a dramatic fall in official SPGB .membership. In January 1919 there were approximately eighty members. This increased to one hundred and twenty in 1920 and one hundred and ninety seven at the beginning of 1921. So, seventeen years after the formation of the. SPGB its membership was only fifty greater than it had been in June 1904. That comparative statistic, as can be derived from the above information, is deceptive: in 1921 there were several hundred SPGBers who did not hold official membership, but would, in many cases, filter-back into the organisation during the 1920s.
The membership of the SPGB was not marked by any narrow sociological characteristic. Like most political parties, the SPGB had a mainly male membership: only sixteen of the founder members were women and, of these, ten were wives, sisters or daughters of male members. There is no evidence of discrimination against women members, when major organisational responsibilities were being distributed: Hilda Kohn, the sister of the prominent SPGB speaker- and writer-, Adolph Kohn, was the General Secretary during the war years. A number of the early members were of Irish or Jewish origin, but not proportionately more so than in other- 'revolutionary' organisations of the period. A striking feature of the early membership was its age: many of the prominent founding members, were in their twenties - hardly any were over forty. The youth of the impossibilists counted against their political credibility; these, it was suggested, were the "young men in a hurry". For example, Alex Anderson, the most prominent and successful impossibilist orator of the period, was only twenty three when he took an active part in the formation of the SPGB; in 1926, when he died of arterio-sclerosis, he had given twenty two years of his life to the SPGB.
It is worth giving brief consideration to the biographical details of some of the most typical of the early members of the SPGB. These sketches are intended to indicate the varied nature of the early membership, rather than to provide' exhaustive biographical accounts or to refer to all of the SPGB's most active or prominent members.
Probably the most significant figure in the formation of the SPGB was Jack Fitzgerald. He was a bricklayer and was actively involved in the 'Operative Bricklayers' union; he sat on the Executive Committee of the union and acted as one of their delegates to the Trades Union Congress at least twice. After an introduction to atheist and republican ideas as a supporter of Bradlaugh, he became disenchanted with the latter when he failed "to meet fairly the issues raised in his debate on Socialism with H.M. Hyndman." He joined the SDP in the 1890s when he was in his early twenties. At that time the Socialist League was in the hands of the anarchists, sor whatever doubts he might have had about the strategy of the SDF, Fitzgerald had no other avowedly Marxist body to which he could turn. Why did Fitzgerald become an impossibilist? Four main influences seem to have led to his decision to reject the possibilist position. Firstly, study led him to repudiate Hyndman's dismissal of Marx. It must be remembered that when Fitzgerald joined the SDP it was the organisation's official policy to refer to Hyndman's analysis of capitalism rather than Marx's. Fitzgerald attended economics classes, run. much to the irritation and suspicion of the Hyndman clique by Marx's son-in-law, Edward Aveling. Indeed, as a young, Irish genuinely working-class socialist,. Fitzgerald must have been precisely the sort of recruit whom Engels was so eager to win to Marxist theory. There is much evidence to show that. Fitzgerald took his study of Marxist economics and historical theory with the utmost seriousness; T.A. Jackson, who studied Marx's Capital at the economics classes which were conducted by Fitzgerald, described him as "very nearly the best-read man I have ever met." Subsequent debaters against Fitzgerald were to testify to that fact. Fitzgerald ran unofficial economics classes in the SDF in the first years of the twentieth century. These classes won him a considerable following and led to two new ideas filtering into the- SDF's London membership : firstly, by explaining that Marx's economic theory was at odds with 'the iron law of wages' Fitzgerald helped to demonstrate that the trade union struggle over the value of labour-power was worth waging; secondly, by pointing to the indisputably revolutionary implications of Marx's critique of capitalism as a system of commodity production,. Fitzgerald left his students in no doubt that the politics of economic reform were utterly futile..
In addition to Marx's thought, the second influence upon Fitzgerald must have been his knowledge of William Morris's revolutionary outlook. As was mentioned in the last chapter, Fitzgerald attended lectures given by Morris and these clearly had a major impact upon his conception of the socialist future.
A third influence upon. Fitzgerald were the ideas of Daniel De-Leon. In the 1890s. he began reading The Weekly People, the official journal of the American SLP. According to T.A. Jackson, who subscribed to the journal on Fitzgerald's recommendation, "This was, he (Fitzgerald) thought, the best Socialist journal published in English ..." This introduction to impossibilism did not prevent Fitzgerald from providing a detailed Marxist critique of De Leonism in the early years of the SPGB. Fitzgerald was of the view that the pre-1904 American SLP was of a far higher political quality than the post-1903 Scottish SLP.
A further influence upon Fitzgerald was James Connolly, whom he met and provided accommodation for while the latter was on a speaking tour in North London. One of Fitzgerald's closest comrades in the SDF was Con Lehane who had been the secretary of the Cork branch of Connolly's Irish Republican Socialist Party. Although Lehane became personally opposed to Connolly after moving to London, there is no doubt that through him Fitzgerald became acquainted with many of the impossibilist ideas which Connolly held.
As an impossibilist, Fitzgerald became concerned about the leadership of the Hyndmanites within the SDF. When Percy Freidberg moved to Spain Fitzgerald co-ordinated with the Scottish impossibilists, but, as explained in chapter I the impossibilist split was to produce two wings: one in Scotland and one in London. An example of the authoritarianism of the SDF leadership which led Fitzgerald to oppose it is given by T.A. Jackson in his autobiography:
"Quelch, it appeared, being eager to keep the TCP busy, and to have something useful to sell, had translated The Poverty of Philosophy because it was written originally in French, which Quelch had taught himself to read. It was quite a remarkable feat in a self-taught proletarian to have learned French so well, and turned out so good a translation. Instead, however, of the praise he had honestly earned, all Harry Quelch got from his "boss" was abuse. Coming into the TCP one day Hyndman looked at one of the sheets then coming from the press and discovered what it was they were turning out. He was enraged. Happening to call upon Harry in his office just after Hyndman had left, Fitzgerald found poor Quelch almost in tears."
Fitzgerald's response to such autocratic control was to campaign amongst the membership to convert the SDF "into a fitting instrument for the inauguration of Socialism." His method of doing this and the obstacles faced are described in his obituary:
"He urged the formation of economics and other classes to further the education of the workers, but was jeered at by the official group, who tried to silence him by the charge of "impossibilism". He, and the group that was with him were confronted by a solid wall of opposition, which was the more difficult to get over because the officials held the strings, and meetings were closed to the unauthorised."
Together with his fellow impossibilist, H.J. Hawkins of the London Trades Council, Fitzgerald was- expelled at the 1904 SDF Conference on the basis of what T.A. Jackson referred to as "a trumped up charge of 'conducting a campaign against the leaders of the SDF' ". Describing the expulsion, Jackson states that
"Challenged to produce evidence, Harry Quelch replied (in my hearing - I was a delegate) "I've got no evidence - but Fitzgerald runs economics classes and these are all centres of intrigue -! "
I told Harry Quelch in conversation, afterwards that the economics class I had attended under Fitzgerald's tuition, was a bona fide economics class, and in no sense an "intrigue". As for "calumny" I never heard a word of the kind from Fitzgerald. Another comrade testified to the same effect about the class he had attended. All Harry could say was - "That's different from what I've been told." "
Fitzgerald was still only thirty two when the SPGB was formed. He became the most prominent theoretician of the new organisation; on both of the key theoretical questions of the party's early years (trade unionism and palliatives) Fitzgerald played a major role in guiding the SPGB to a settled position. He was a regular contributor of articles to The Socialist Standard throughout the period under consideration and was a regular/outdoor- speaker at several North London speaking spots. As a member of The Socialist Standard editorial committee from 1904 until his death in St. Peter's Hospital, Covent Garden on 16 April 1929, at the early age of fifty seven, Fitzgerald was able to ensure a consistency of theoretical approach to socialist propaganda which was both politically and stylistically distinct. He was regarded as a first-class debater: two of his debates (against the Liberal and Tory pairties) were published by the SPGB as pamphlets. His debate against Lawler Wilson of the Anti-Socialist Union made such an impression upon the latter-that in his book, The Menace of Socialism, Lawler Wilson wrote that
"The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a young organisation and an offshoot from the Social Democratic Party, is spreading about London and challenging the older-organisations in such districts as Batterrsea and Tottenham. The members are Marxians and Revolutionaries, preaching the Class War. The catechumens of the party are put through a rigid course of training in the principles of their creed, which they must be prepared to defend at the risk of their liberty. What is most remarkable and disquieting about this dangerous organisation is that the members are unquestionably higher-grade working-men of great intelligence, respectability and energy. They are, as a whole, the best-informed Socialists in the country ... As revolutionaries, they deserve no mercy; as men they command respect."
In 1910 Fitzgerald became a lecturer at the LCC School of Building in Brixton. When he died The Socialist Standard published in full a tribute sent by his colleagues at the school. In their obituary of him, his SPGB comrades pointed out that "We are not hero-worshippers, and we are keenly conscious of human frailty", and concluded by commenting that “Those who have worked with him. for years know his value, and the keenness, penetration, and power of the brain that is gone. The working class movement is poorer today by the loss of one of its worthiest-champions."
T.A. Jackson, who also was a member of the SPGB at the time of its formation, was last referred to in The Soeialist Standard under quite different circumstances. As a student of Fitzgerald, Jackson fell under the influence of what he referred to retrospectively as "Daniel De Leon's brand of doctrinaire Marxism.". He regarded Con Lehane, who was to become the General Secretary of the SPGB in June 1904, as his "closest friend" and so, when the split took place, Jackson joined the London impossibilists, serving on the Executive Committee of the SPGB. He wrote occasionally far The Socialist Standard and was one of the most popular outdoor" speakers, often addressing several meetings each week. It is interesting, therefore, that, despite substantial references to his comrades in the SPGB and to events; which happened while he was an impossibilist, Jackson makes no reference in his autobiography to his membership of the SPGB. The most obvious reason for this sinister omission is that the book was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1953 when Jackson was one of the leading members of the Communist Party: to have referred explicitly to his active membership of the SPGB would have been damaging to his reputation within the ranks of British Stalinism, especially at that time. A further reason for Jackson's omission of his SPGB membership must be connected with the circumstances of his departure from it. At the beginning of 1909 Jackson resigned from the SPGB, explaining in a letter that he was still in agreement with the principles and policies of the party, but that personal poverty forced him to join an organisation which would pay him for his services as an outdoor orator. According to an account of the matter in the August 1909 Socialist Standard, "Knowing the man's particularly bad circumstances, generous sympathy and pity came uppermost ... we contemplated no action against him." When Jackson attacked the SPGB as an insignificant organisation at an outdoor meeting of the ILP in North London the EC was moved to publish a letter from him stating that “I will join the SDP, ILP and 'Clarion' mobs and peg away — bleed the swines - till I am expelled.” Jackson was not the last worker who, driven by poverty, chose the path of opportunism. A recent account of Jackson's life does make reference to his membership: of the SPGB.
The most prominent, and probably the most active, member of the SPGB in the north of England was Moses Baritz. He had been secretary of the Cheetham branch of the SDP in 1906, prior to supporting the formation of the Manchester branch of the SPGB in the early autumn of 1907- Although only twenty three years old and relatively inexperienced in working-elass politics (he had been a Conservative in the early 1900s), Baritz was regarded as one of the most dynamic political figures in Lancashire politics. Baritz was a scholarly Marxist and a highly-esteemed musician ; (he played, the clarinet, was an expert an the works of Beethoven and contributed as a music critic to The Manchester Guardian), but these factors did not prevent him from having a reputation as an unsparingly voluble and hostile heckler. Indeed, it was partly as a result of Baritz's assaults from the audience at possibilist speakers that many workers were won to the cause of Manchester impossibilism. Baritz played a leading role in the Workers' Musical Association and played a key part in the initiation of Harry Pollitt into working-class politics. Together with Jim Brough and J.W. Marsh, Baritz helped to organise some of the most active SPGB propaganda in the pre-war years. In November 1909 Manchester branch engaged in a major public debate against Tom Swann of the ILP and in the first three weeks of December they were able to report that three hundred copies of The Socialist Standard had been sold. By July 1908 The Socialist Standard was able to report the formation of a Burnley branch.
Detailed accounts of several other prominent members of the early SPGB could be given: Adolph Kohn, who was one of the ablest contributors to The Socialist Standard; Alex Anderson, whose wit and caustic humour was to-be used on the outdoor platform in a way that made even the boldest of opponents fear him; Jack Kent, who had been an impossibilist on the Executive Council of the SDF before becoming a regular writer for The Socialist Standard; A.E. Jacomb, who printed The Soaialist Standard on his own small printing press, despite the financial problems which such an undertaking caused him; F.C. Watts, whose articles in The Socialist Standard were second only to Fitzgerald's in their theoretical substance and political clarity - it was Watts who wrote the party pamphlet, Socialism And Religion and it was he, as one of the only SPGB members to speak French, who translated articles from the French impossibilists for publication in The Socialist Standard and was the party's main expert on international affairs. None of these men set themselves up as 'leaders' and, it seems, the price to be paid for this has been an omission of their existences from most conventional labour- histories. Rather less is known of SPGB members during the period under consideration who did not write for The Socialist Standard, address meetings or serve on party, committees. In the early 1960s Peter Rollings recorded some interviews with early members of the SPGB (no founder members are still alive; the last one, Tom King, died in the late 1960s); these tapes have been used by the present writer in order to gain an impression of the atmosphere and activities of the early SPGB, but, as an analysis of them would constitute a research project in itself, it is to be hoped that future use will be made of that oral history.
The major concern of the SPGB was to "make socialists" and, like Morris's Socialist League, the most effective means of doing this involved educational propaganda. This took five main forms: the production and sale of The Socialist Standard, which, from September 1904, was one of the chief activities of party members; the running of outdoor meetings, which, in an age of local soapbox oratory, was of crucial importance for recruitment; the organisation of indoor meetings - these were run on special occasions, such as the annual rally to commemorate the Paris Commune in March; the organisation of public debates - an excellent opportunity to "expose the enemy" and win recruits, from the ranks of the possibilists; finally, the SPGB produced several pamphlets during the period.
Unfortunately, there are no complete records of activity for any one party branch for the period under consideration. By referring to reports of activity in The Socialist Standard, EC and conference minutes and copies of the monthly 'lecture lists' for the period, it has been possible to piece together a fragmentary history of one SPGB branch - in Islington - between 1904 and 1914. This brief history should help to illustrate what the SPGB was doing, in terms of local activity. Three preliminary points need to be made: firstly, Islington branch was not entirely typical of SPGB branches because the majority of its members were expelled in 1906; however, controversy was by no means strange to SPGB branches during this period and, even if few branches had members expelled, most seemed to be engaged in internal disputes with an intensity which seems to have been destructive to immediate growth, if not to long-term stability; secondly, this history does not go further than 1914 because, like most branches, Islington ceased public activity as a branch after the war began and was not restored ta active existence until after 1921; thirdly, in the absence of official branch minutes, a history of this sort must be based upon the published statements by the branch about its activities, rather than upon internal branch records which, being intended only for the scrutiny of the membership, might have been more candid.
Within two days of the formation of the SPGB the Islington branch was established. It comprised twenty members, mainly recruited from the Finsbury Park branch of the SDP and the North London Socialist Club. Its secretary was J. McNicol of 179, Isledon Road, Finsbury Park and the branch met each Wednesday at 8.30 p.m. at the Co-operative Stores at 79, Grove Road, Holloway. (Between November 1904 and February 1905 the branch meeting place changed to the Hope Coffee Tavern in Fonthill Road, Finsbury Park but this was only temporary and for the rest of the period the branch met in Co-operative halls.) At the weekly business meetings the members would discuss the running of the party and, more importantly, plan propaganda activities. In addition to the branch meetings, the Islington branch ran two weekly outdoor meetings: one at Finsbury Park on Sundays and one at Highbury Corner on Wednesday evenings. In an age in which soapbox propaganda is regarded as eccentric it is hard to comprehend the importance of these outdoor-meetings to a growing movement: within any locality the party which won the battle of outdoor oratory, i.e. which attracted the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds and sold the most literature, would be likely to win the battle of local recruitment. On 19 June the Islington branch ran what they referred to in advance with some confidence, considering that the SPGB had only been in existence for one week - as a "mass meeting". Their confidence was well-founded; an audience of two thousand listened to Con Lehane address them. T.A. Jackson gives an account of Lehane as a soapbox orator:
“I was very fond of listening to my friend Lehane on a Sunday morning in Finsbury Park ... Lehane was a first-class speaker with a vein of real Irish eloquence. He was a fine, upstanding man only a shade less than six-foot high and, having been drilled as a Fenian in his youth, carried himself well ... These Sunday-morning meetings were often the peak-point of Socialist activity in those years. The proletarians would be virtually turned out of their homes while the Sunday dinner was being prepared; and as the pubs didn't open till 1 p.m. they would be glad of anything to help pass the time.”
Similarly, at the evening meetings at Highbury Corner the branch was able to report that "we meet with an appreciative hearing from an intelligent audience." The extent to which outdoor meetings provided popular entertainment during the pre-war-period is rarely referred to, but there can be little doubt that the wit of Alex Anderson or one of the other soapbox orators destroying the arguments of an opponent on a street corner must have attracted hundreds of workers who had little concern about the finer points of political polemic involved.
By October the branch was selling nearly seven dozen Socialist Standards at its outdoor meetings. Indeed, the branch's report in The Socialist Standard for October 1904 exhibited a sense of optimism which could only have been self-fulfilling:
"Since our formation we have had the best mass meetings, the best ordinary propaganda meetings, our list of guarantees for the Press Fund is highest, we have accounted for 247 copies of the. paper, and we believe that by the end of the season our number of recruits will be the greatest of all branches. To put it briefly, the Islington branch of the SPGB promises to be 'the greatest thing on the earth"
For a party which was opposed fundamentally to competition these were remarkable boasts.
Reference is made in the above quotation to "the season", by which was meant the period of the year in which the weather was suitable for outdoor propaganda. Wind, rain and snow were serious obstacles to propaganda work: indeed in the summer of 1905 there is a report in The Socialist Standard stating that many SDF members were predicting/ hoping that the SPGB would not survive the winter. (Presumably the winter period allowed more time for internal feuding to develop.) In December 1904 Islington branch reported a dropping off of activity due to bad weather. An additional difficulty for the branch was that a number of our members are working in enforced overtime.
In April 1905, at the start of "the new season", Thorpe became branch secretary. On 5 May, at a well-attended outdoor meeting in Finsbury Park, the party was challenged to debate by Percy Alden, the Liberal/Labour" candidate for Tottenham. This debate took place on the outdoor platform at Finsbury Park on 24 May. Branch reports for this period refer, almost evangelically, to members of the audience "coming forward to join our party" from the audiences at outdoor meetings. With Anderson as a regular speaker- at Finsbury Park, together with Lehane, who was a member of Islington branch, other organisations running meetings in the park were reported as being unable to- attract audiences. The opponents "have had to quit the field" reports the August 1905 Socialist Standard. During the summer of 1905, according to the official report, Islington outdoor meetings were attracting audiences of between two and eight hundred; for this to be happening on a weekly basis shows two things: firstly, that there was at the time a degree of interest in political oratory (from speakers who were not 'celebrities') which has never been witnessed since; secondly, that the vast majority of those hearing SPGB speakers, however attracted they might have been, did not join the SPGB, despite listening to or, at least, hearing its case.. Within one month of the publication of the SPGB Manifesto in August 1905 Islington branch sold three hundred and ten copies. In September 1905 the branch broke its own literature-selling record, selling three hundred and thirty eight copies of The Socialist Standard and two hundred and nineteen copies of the Manifesto.
In addition to outdoor meetings the branch ran classes. For the first year of the party's existence dozens of members attended classes, mainly on economics, given by Fitzgerald and F.C. Watts. Islington branch was particularly keen on the speaking of Tommy (T.A.) Jackson, who was a regular speaker on the outdoor platform for them. In November 1905 they announced that Jackson would be giving a series of thirteen classes on "The Philosophy of Socialism":
"The course will differ from the usual style of economics class, as it is the intention,of the lecturer to approach the science of Socialism by easy political, sociological and historical studies,, illustrated by examples from geology and biology.":
The classes did not take place, or, if they did, they were neither advertised nor reported upon. In February 1906 T. Bennett became branch secretary. In July, shortly before the majority of branch members were to be expelled, it is reported by the General Secretary that 'The Islington branch deserve a few words mention of their literature sales during the quarter of The Socialist Standard. They have taken 156 copies of the April issue, 377. copies of May and 533 of June'.
In the same period the branch took six hundred and fifty copies of the SPGB manifesto.
The next reference to Islington branch in The Socialist Standard concerns the expulsion of several of its members. The reason for this expulsion is considered in chapter IV. In answer to a correspondent in the December 1906 Socialist Standard, it is stated that
"The matter stands thus: a number of members of the Islington branch, were found guilty by a party vote of action detrimental to the interests of the organisation and injurious to the cause of Socialism, and they were expelled therefore."
The expelled members at first refused to accept their expulsion and continued to act as the official Islington branch. Amongst them was Con Lehane. Two pamphlets were published by the expelled members: Rocks Ahead and Another Political Wreck; in these they accused the SPGB of betraying its firm principles. Looking back at the incident, one is struck by the lack of political tact with which the matter was dealt. The affair was without doubt embarrassing to the local members and encouraging to their opponents. In October Anderson debated against J. Davies of the Liberal Party in Finsbury Park, and throughout the affair Anderson, Fitzgerald and others maintained the party's speaking presence on the streets of Islington, but there is no-further reference to Islington branch in party records until March 1908 when the branch held its first indoor meeting at the Grovedale Hall, Holloway. This was a debate between Anderson and a local councillor (Freeman) on the question, "Would Socialism Be Detrimental To the People?". The hall was packed full and some people had to be. refused admission for reasons of safety. After this success indoor meetings were held each week at the same venue.
Branch activity was not, it seems, without its lighter side: in October 1908 a branch "Grand Social and Dance" was advertised in The Socialist Standard and readers were informed that "The North London boys (and girls) have a reputation for quality in entertainment of this description, and Islington may be relied upon to keep their end up adequately." -
In June 1909 the branch meeting place changed to the Co-operative Hall at 144, Seven Sisters Road, Holloway. By this time the branch seems to have recovered from the 1906 expulsions: it was reported that Fitzgerald and Anderson were running well-attended meetings on most Sundays in Finsbury Park, that an increase in members was expected and that literature sales have been "phenomenal" .
In 1909 the branch played an active part in the local municipal election, although it did not put up a candidate, H.A. Young's report of the branch's activity in the campaign provides an interesting description of the SPGB's abstentionist politics and the manner in which such electoral propaganda was conducted:
"We arranged a week's mission to place before the working class the Socialist position, and urged them to abstain from voting. The first night two good meetings were held, but rain prevented further meetings until Friday, when we had a fine meeting at Highbury Corner. It was on Saturday evening the strength of the Party in the neighbourhood was felt. Just prior to opening our meeting at Highbury Corner the Islington Labour Party arrived with band and banners. Several speeches were made from a cart, but not a single educational sentence was uttered. Nothing but sentimental twaddle was heard. After about fifteen minutes they departed amid cries of "labour fakers", "labour bleeders". Commencing our meeting about 8, we had from the outset an audience of several hundreds, who listened to our speakers with marked attention. Presently we were disturbed by the arrival of a van containing the Progressive Labour Party's candidates, one of whom instructed the driver to drive right into our audience. Some of the comrades immediately seized the horse and backed the van, and the PLP candidate came very near being precipitated in a most undignified manner into the gutter. Ten minutes convinced them that Highbury Corner that evening was no place for them, and as they were about to leave us in possession of that spot, one of their candidates, Mr. Roberts, again gave instructions to drive into our platform. But our audience, by this time numbering about a thousand, seized the van, and but for the timely interference of the police the result might have been disastrous to the PLP candidates. Vociferous cheers were given for Socialism … Our indoor-propaganda meetings have been even more successful than we dared anticipate, the hall being packed on each occasion, and undoubtedly they will prove a means of enlarging our-ever-increasing membership."
It was perhaps because of the impact of the branch's activity during the municipal election that, in 1910, the council began to take offensive action against the local SPGB.. In January 1910 a notice in The Socialist Standard stated that the branch had booked the "eight-hundred seat public hall in the Caledonian Road Baths for 21 March in order to hold a "mass meeting" to commemorate the Paris Commune. This meeting took place and was reported as being "largely attended and enthusiastic". Prior to the meeting a deputation of 'ratepayers' went to the council and demanded that the meeting should be cancelled (the council owned the hall) on the grounds that the SPGB was a disruptive, revolutionary body. In 1911 the hall was booked again and a notice for the "mass meeting" appeared in The Socialist Standard. Then, in March, the following notice appeared:
“News comes to hand as we go to press that the Islington Borough Council have declared their sympathy with and fellow feeling for the bourgeois murderers of 30,000 Parisian men, women and children. They have suppressed the Commune Celebration, meeting which our Islington branch were arranging for 20 March at the Caledonian Road Baths. The Commemoration will now be held at 8 p.m. ... at the Myddleton Hall, Almeida Street, Upper Islington. All workers should come and listen to what your masters say you shall not: hear. Nothing to pay."
A full report of the "attempted suppression of free speech in Islington" appears in the April 1911 Socialist Standard."
From 1911 until the outbreak of war regular indoor and outdoor meetings were held in Islington. On 12 March 1912 F. Vickers of the SPGB debated against A.E. Moise of the Christian Evidence League on the motion "That the policy of the SPGB is superior to the Christian religion as a remedy for social evils." One thousand people attended the debate in which Vickers argued the SPGB position that socialist consciousness and religion are incompatible.
Without doubt, the SPGB did make its presence felt as a propagandist organisation during the first ten year's of its existence. During that decade the party's distinctive message became known to many thousands of workers and, even though most did not join the party and many were strongly opposed to it, it won a degree of respect which helped to save it from demise in the post-war years when its anti-Leninist message was treated with respect, however irritating it must have been to many possibilists. .
The account of the SPGB activity, both local and national, is complete without any reference to industrial activity. As has been explained in chapter- IV, the SPGB's rejection of industrial unionism left it without any commitment to build its own unions or to activate support specifically in the industrial field. In the propaganda reports in The Socialist Standard of the period there are no references to SPGB involvement in strikes. This is explained partly by the fact that the SPGB was a mainly London-based organisation at this time and was, unlike the SLP not close to the major areas of industrial unrest in the immediate pre-war- years. That alone does not explain the SPGB's non-participation in these struggles: as a party, the SPGB regarded involvement in short-term campaigns as being less useful than persistent efforts to explain its general case to workers within a particular area. Although it might seem that such a policy would have led to a lower level of recruitment, according to Raymond Challinor's history of the SLP the latter party did not achieve as many new members in the pre-war years as a result of its industrial activity as the SPGB did as a result of its more generalised propagandising. That the SPGB did not organisationally take an active part in trade union activities does not mean that individual members failed to perform what they regarded as their trade union duties: the example of Fitzgerald has been referred to and many other instances of militant trade unionists within the SPGB could be cited.
The SPGB was formed at a time when the Second International was in the course of deciding the extent to which socialism and reformism were compatible. The International's tacit approval of Millerand's acceptance of a Ministerial post in the French government can be seen as one of the principal causes of the rise of British impossibilism on an organised level. In September 1904 the first issue of The Socialist Standard carried a report from the two SPGB delegates at the Amsterdam Congress of the International: Jack Kent and Alex Pearson. With the help of Jack Kent, who was still able to obtain some favours from the Hyndman clique, Kent and Pearson obtained credentials as representatives of a genuine British socialist party. In their first report they were clearly able to recognise that the Congress was divided between two wings, but had not yet identified which, if any, of the international socialist parties could be relied upon as fellow impossibilists.
The second day of the third Annual Conference of the SPGB in March 1907 was devoted to "a discussion upon the International Congress at Stuttgart, which revolved about the question of whether The Socialist Party of Great Britain should seek representation at that congress and the best means of entering into communication with the known representatives of that uncompromising policy of which the SPGB are the exponents in Great Britain." A resolution, moved by Blewett and Witcher, was carried, stating that no representatives should be sent (this was decided on grounds of cost apart from other considerations), but "that the EC use their best endeavour to get in touch with those abroad who occupy our position." By December of that year an article in The Socialist Standard indicated that the search for European impossibilists seemed almost useless:
“But this confusion and opportunism is not ... only rampant among the organisations that form the British Section of this unhappy International."
There then follows a detailed account of the dominant possibilist tendencies within the German and French socialist movements. The article concludes that
A similar state of things is reflected in the delegations of almost every country, and the truth forces itself upon us that the International Socialist Congress is, as far as the majority is concerned, Socialists in name only, many repudiating even the name. In The Socialist Standard of October 1910, in an article by H.J.N, entitled Confusion in Conference - So-Called Socialists Meet At Copenhagen, the SPGB's hostility to the reformist International is confirmed:
“Confusion was the keynote of the proceedings at the International Socialist (!) Congress held recently in Copenhagen. A Babel of tongues spoke every language but that of Socialism. The "impracticable theory" of rallying the workers to the fight for emancipation has been deliberately discarded in favour of the "saner and more practicable policy" of devising ways and means of begging, coaxing, threatening reforms and palliatives out of the capitalist class,."
In 1914 the SPGB's condemnation of the reformism of the Second International was vindicated. Three related matters served to change the position of the SPGB in the second decade of the century: firstly, its growing realisation of its political isolation; within the world 'socialist' movement; secondly, its unique position in Britain of being totally opposed to the world war; thirdly, its rejection of Bolshevism after 1917. Before these occurrences the SPGB still, retained hope that, even though tactically mistaken, the so-called socialists around them would be won over to the strategy of impossibilism. Prior to the war the SPGB was more prepared to give qualified recognition to 'other socialists' than was the case in the period of its post-war isolation. This isolation hardened the SPGB and led it to become more suspicious than it had been of 'friends' whose principles it had not tested. By 1921, when the Communist Party of Great Britain proclaimed itself as the Marxist party in Britain, the SPGB was somewhat less enthusiastic than it had been in the excited days of early recruitment, but it was also more certain of itself and confident in the necessity of remaining loyal to its principles. The absence of these principles, according to the SPGB, had led others to be deluded by the reformism of the Second International, to support national chauvinism and to believe that socialism had been established in Russia, The unpopularity which came with not entertaining these illusions led to a period of limited political impact and growth which makes the beginning of the 1920s a convenient point at which to end this consideration of early SPGB impossibilism.
It is interesting to speculate about what might have happened to the SPGB had it taken the more popular course adopted by the possibilists. In all probability it would have grown, although the SLP, which wavered on the question of support for the war and gave unequivocal support to Bolshevism, did not achieve much independent organisational growth and in 1921 the majority of its members were absorbed into the Communist Party. The answer to the speculative question raised is expressed by the facts that The Socialist Standard has continued monthly publication without interruption from September 1904 until the present day, making it the oldest socialist journal in Britain which is still in existence (the only one, according to the SPGB) and that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is still alive as an active political movement eighty years after its formation.