The Socialist Party versus the I.L.P.

(Our Debate with James Maxton, M.P.)

On Wednesday, May 23rd, a well-attended debate was held at the Memorial Hall between J. Maxton, M.P., representing the I.L.P., and J. Fitzgerald, representing the S.P.G.B. Mr. Chapman Cohen, Editor of Freethinker, took the chair. The subject was “Which Party Should the Working Class Support, the I.L.P. or the S P.G.B.?”

J. Fitzgerald spoke for the first half-hour. He began by defining terms. By working class is meant those who depend m the sale of their services for their living. By the capitalist class is meant those persons who buy the services of the workers. Capital does not mean merely wealth used for the production of further wealth, but wealth invested for the purpose of obtaining a nett surplus, called interest. This is the view not only of a Socialist, Marx, but also of capitalist economists like Bohm-Bawerk. Wealth is the product of the application of human energies to Nature-given material. The capitalist purchases the mental and physical energies of the workers, and after the payment of all expenses, he retains the nett surplus. The workers may not use the machinery of production – land, railways, factories, etc. – without the permission of the capitalists who own these things. The lives of the workers are under the control the capitalists who own their means of living. The workers are a slave class – wage-slaves.


The armed forces of society – the police, the army, the air force, the navy, etc. – are under the control of the capitalist class. These armed forces are provided for annually by Parliament. Those who control Parliament control the armed forces by which they retain control of the means of wealth production. The capitalists and their agents are voted into Parliament at each election by the workers, who form the bulk of the electors. The only way to secure the “emancipation of the workers” is, first, to obtain control of the political machinery. When the workers want Socialism they can, through the vote, secure this control.


It is not true that the means of wealth production are inadequate. In spite of a million or more unemployed and of the waste of capitalist production, markets are overstocked, and combines are compelled to limit production in almost every industry. Five firms are reported by an American Government report to control half of the food supply of the world. In face of this, little reforms of capitalism are futile. The social ownership of the means of wealth production is the only remedy and can be secured only by the workers taking control of the political machinery.


I.L.P. leaders, at times, deny the existence of the class struggle. Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald both did this.



J. Maxton said that he was disappointed because he felt that he entirely agreed with the case put forward by his opponent. This statement of Socialist first principles was unassailable. The definitions were clear and correct. He accepted absolutely the diagnosis given. The workers accept capitalism and believe that the capitalists are a superior and necessary class. The only remedy is for the workers to awaken to the loss they suffer in being deprived of the necessities and luxuries of life. The problem before the Socialist is to awaken the worker to his subject position in society. The justification for this debate is that it may help towards this awakening and also that it may help towards achieving unity of working-class forces.


He had great difficulty in finding points of difference. Mr. J. Fitzgerald had quoted certain leaders of the I.L.P., but he, Mr. Maxton, held that he is the present leader of the I.L.P. and could speak on their behalf. It was not fair to quote against him statements made by someone else in 1902. He did not believe in those statements quoted. He fully accepted the theory of the class struggle and the necessity of basing Socialist tactics on that theory. He definitely repudiated the application of biological theories to politics and social questions.

The first necessity of an effective working-class organisation is the possession of a clear aim and policy. He and his opponent are equally doing the necessary propaganda. He denied that any Socialist organisation had done propaganda work equal in quality and quantity to the I.L.P.


Socialist propaganda must be delivered in a way understandable by the average worker. This the I.L.P. had done. It must be related to the circumstances of the ordinary worker’s life. The I.L.P. had pointed out to the workers the outstanding evils which are the effects of capitalism, but they did not believe that by these means they were abolishing capitalism. Psychologically that is the sounder method of approach to the workers, to awaken them to the realities of capitalism. But propaganda is not enough. The way to freedom is by the capture of political power. He and his opponent agreed on this also. He, however, thought there might be a point of difference. The I.L.P. said that it was necessary to start now capturing political power. It was needful to gather together into one great organisation – the Labour Party – all working-class organisations. To this end the I.L.P. fought elections challenging all capitalist candidates. Year by year they had increased in representation in the House of Commons. To-day there are far more representatives of the working class than ever before. He challenged contradiction on that. He agreed that a working-class party must have no other object than the establishment of Socialism. The I.L.P. seeks to induce the Labour Party to accept Socialism as its object. They wanted to give the Labour Party a clear majority in the House. All of this kind of work went on side by side in the: I.L.P.


The I.L.P. has formed the Labour Party and got it to accept Socialism. It was now the task of the I.L.P. to lay down these steps to be taken to secure Socialism. This was the purpose of its “Socialism in Our Time” policy.

He cast no reflection on any working class organisation. He appreciated the Fabians, the S.P.G.B., and also the Communist Party.



He pointed out that while Mr. MacDonald applied the theory of uninterrupted evolution to society, the son of Charles Darwin had shown that the Marxian view of social development by revolution is correct.

The debate was not between two individuals but between two parties. Mr. MacDonald only this year had written that poverty is largely the result of the pressure of population on the means of subsistence. This was untrue when Malthus said it in the eighteenth century, and is untrue to-day.

Right from its inception the I.L.P. urged the workers to put political power into the hands of the capitalist class.

In the New Leader for April 13th Mr. Maxton said that he wanted to narrow the gulf between rich and poor. The Socialist wanted to abolish the gulf, not narrow it. The I.L.P. wanted to abolish the conception of master and servant, so do the Liberals. Capital – admitted by Mr. Maxton to be the means of robbing the workers – cannot be “communally-owned,” as is the object of the I.L.P. For 35 years, in Mr. Maxton’s words, the I.L.P. had fought for the living wage – and had not secured it.


The I.L.P. had recently run a competition for a Labour programme in the columns of the New Leader. One part was a minimum wage low enough not to bring Press opposition. This programme did not even refer to Socialism. It proposed nationalisation with compensation.


The War in 1914 brought to a focus the difference between the I.L.P. and the Socialist Party. In August, 1914, the S.P.G.B. declared plainly that the War was a capitalist war, in no way involving interests of the working class.

In August, 1914, in the Labour Leader Keir Hardie spoke of “our interests as a nation” being at stake. We, the workers, had no interest. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald in Parliament offered to support the War if the nation were in danger.



He could this time say that he faced points of difference, but he would repeat that he looked to the future, not the past. The statements quoted did not controvert the statement that the I.L.P. stood definitely against the War. He would challenge anyone to question his attitude or statements during the War. He was prepared to defend his own position. It must be common knowledge that Ramsay MacDonald is just as critical of the I.L.P. as Fitzgerald is, and the points he criticises are just the same. The I.L.P. wants Socialism, but what the workers want is a living wage. The fact that capitalism cannot provide this is the biggest propaganda point against capitalism.


In speaking of the narrowing of the gulf between rich and poor, he said, “narrowing to vanishing point “ – this was not reported in the New Leader. He denied that the Liberal Report asked for the abolition of the status implied by the terms master and servant. In Socialism, as the I.L.P. understood it, there would be no exploitation. He admitted that the word capital was carelessly used in the declaration of the objects of the I.L.P., but the workers are not interested in the splitting of hairs. He, Mr. Maxton, had himself carelessly talked of the public ownership of capital when he should have said the public ownership of the means of wealth production. But it is of no importance in the real work of Socialist education.


The I.L.P. devotes its time to the practical work of building up an effective machine for the establishment of Socialism. The S.P.G.B., in laying down its general principles, was only saying something which would be agreed with by every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party from MacDonald downwards. The difference only begins when it is a question of practical work. The S.P.G.B. refuses to face up to its responsibilities. Socialism is a question of human will and human organisation. Socialism can be attained by violence or by the “inevitability of gradualness.” All depends on human will and human intelligence. It depends not on any god or other power outside ourselves.



He was not responsible for incorrect passages of Mr. Maxton’s speech quoted in the New Leader. The S.P.G.B. expelled those of its members who supported the War. The I.L.P. did not deal with its leading members who supported the War. When the I.L.P. misuses the word “capital” it misleads the working class. Of the 154 Labour M.P.s, 106 are members of the I.L.P., and the I.L.P. cannot therefore condemn the Labour Party without at the same time condemning itself. Under Socialism there is no question of remuneration. Money is a feature of private property systems. With Socialism it will not be needed. Where there is plenty for all there is no question of remuneration, equal or otherwise.

The final point was that any Party which urges the workers to place power in the hands of the master class is betraying the interests of the workers.



Mr. Maxton gave a blank denial to the charge that the I.L.P. has supported, or is supporting, the enemies of the working class. Never has the Party supported other than Labour and Socialist candidates. He gave that on his personal word of honour. He had heard that there had been friendly understandings between Labour and Liberal candidates, but he had also heard the denial of these statements.

But again he would urge that stirring up garbage was no work for Socialists. Since 1911, when he commenced his active work, there had never been any bargaining.

He agreed that the I.L.P. had not expelled dissentient minorities except in one or two very extreme cases. But there must be immense toleration if we are to succeed in organising the working class. There must be give and take. In view of the time it takes to make a Socialist, we must not fling a man out for his first mistake. It was the choice between being a narrow sect and being an effective organisation. When Mr. Maxton made mistakes he wanted to be treated tolerantly and he would give others the same toleration. Expulsion must be used only in the most extreme cases. The greatest problem is not to get a few men with a narrow view of Socialism, but to get millions with a great determination and as much knowledge as can be given in the time available. He believed that the time is short before the majority make up their minds to have Socialism. The work rendered by the I.L.P. in the past has been a good and valuable contribution to the building up of the Socialist movement. The I.L.P. will play an important part in achieving Socialism, a work not for the I.L.P. or the S.P.G.B., but for the workers of the world.

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