“A History of English Socialism.” by George Benson (New Leader, 1928)
Most of our readers, no doubt, have heard of the I.L.P. summer school. One of the schoolboys, apparently, has written an essay entitled “A History of English Socialism.” The “New Leader,” Ltd-, have had the temerity to charge a shilling for it.
It contains very little that is new, and that little is false. Several items which are also false lack even the dubious merit of novelty.
Consisting of about 130 pages, two-thirds of the booklet is occupied with an account of Utopianism and Chartism. Throughout this portion the author maintains a tolerable degree of accuracy, mainly because he has simply cribbed from previous writers on the subject, such as Beer.
In Chapter VIII. he devotes ten pages to “Karl Marx and the International.” He commences by patting Marx on the back as the Darwin of Sociology, and quotes the well-known passage from the Preface to the “Critique of Political Economy” wherein is stated Marx’s view of history. It is important to notice that this includes his definition of the social revolution, i.e., the conflict between the forces of production of society and the forms of property, which control, and, at certain stages, hamper the development of those forces. The author soon shows us how little he has grasped the meaning of this passage when he commences to refer to Marx’s “inconsistencies.”
As an example, he refers to the Communist Manifesto. “In part II. we find that the proletariat are to use political power to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, while part IV. concludes by stating that the aim of the Communists can only be attained by the forcible overthrow of existing social conditions; two entirely incompatible methods of transition ” (p. 99). Our schoolboy author is thus evidently ignorant of the fact that the political machinery includes the armed forces of the nation, and would be of precious little value to the party of revolution if it didn’t. Seemingly, also, he has never heard that Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was at once a Parliamentarian and a military commander (I mention this specifically English historical character as the author, like most of his ilk, is fond of pretending that “revolution ” is an alien product).
In dealing with the S.D.F., the author once more allows his I.L.P. prejudices to obliterate any regard for accuracy which he may possess. Writing of Morris, he says: “Marx’s theories made no appeal to him” (p.105). Possibly this is why Morris collaborated with Belfort Bax in “Socialism; its growth and outcome,” in which the Marxist viewpoint is definitely expounded. He refers to the secession of several Scottish and London branches, and the subsequent formation of the S.L.P. and the S.P.G.B. He gets mixed in his dates, sneers at these bodies as “doctrinaire and impossible,” but makes no attempt to deal with the position or history of either body.
The Fabian Society, with its policy of permeation and its frank rejection of Marxism, is next dealt with. “Its influence on public opinion has been profound,” we are told. We have yet to notice any advantages accruing to the workers, however. “The gravamen of the Fabian criticism of capitalism was not that the worker was robbed of his surplus value ”— (oh ! dear, no!)— “but that the community was robbed of socially created differential wealth ” (p. 110). Just what is meant by this the author wisely leaves to the imagination of his readers.
“The Independent Labour Party was largely influenced by the Fabian social philosophy,” we are next informed, which helps to account for its confusing propaganda, no doubt. “The I.L.P. has never accepted the economic system of Marx . . . and as the literature and periodicals of the party have been mainly written by such non-Marxian Socialists as McDonald, Snowden, Glasier and Hardie, Marx’s system is practically unknown in the English Socialist Movement” (p. 121). The reason soon becomes obvious. As the author shows, the I.L.P. were concerned with numbers rather than with education. Hence they bent all their energies to wean the Trade Unions from their allegiance to the official Liberals, and constructed “a party built up of trade unions where members with passive consent are affiliated in blocks of hundreds of thousands at a time ” (p. 119).
The author omits to mention the intrigues of McDonald, Snowden, Hardie, and others with the Liberals, and the joint candidatures of the two parties in “double-barrelled” constituencies such as Leicester, Blackburn and Merthyr Tydfil. These facts show that the I.L.P. has developed by exploiting Trade Union support, both financially and politically, without any advance of working-class interests.
The author refers to the “very definite pacifist attitude” of the I.L.P. during the war, but makes no attempt to explain the activities of its members on recruiting platforms or the building of cruisers, etc., during the Labour Party’s term of office. Although “the I.L.P. is the socialist leaven within the Labour Movement,” the decision of the Labour Party to form local branches raised the question as to whether the I.L.P. has any further justification for its existence, and one of its most prominent leaders, Philip Snowden, has recently concluded that it has not. It has served as a useful ladder for political climbers, who, having reached the goal of their ambitions, are quite prepared to kick it down. So much for the value of non-Marxian “Socialism.”
The tit-bit of the whole book, however, is reserved for the brief appendix purporting to deal with the Communist Party.
We are told that this body was formed “by the fusion of the bulk of the branches of the B.S.P. with one or two small and insignificant groups bearing such grandiloquent names as the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.” The S.L.P. (since defunct) expelled the bunch of intriguers who tried to drag it into the C.P. The S.P.G.B., still very much alive and kicking, has consistently and successfully opposed the C.P. since its inception. This cannot be said for the I.L.P. So much for the “historian’s ” respect for facts.