1930s >> 1931 >> no-325-september-1931

The Founding of The Socialist Party

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 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 to appear 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.