1930s >> 1931 >> no-326-october-1931

The Founding of the Socialist Party – Part 2

(Continued from September Issue.)
After the return of the delegates from the Burnley Conference, a meeting of London members of the S.D.F. was held on Sunday, April 24th, 1904, at Shoreditch Town Hall, to discuss the expulsions and matters arising therefrom. On the plea that they were no longer members of the organisation, Fitzgerald and Hawkins were excluded from the hall.

At this meeting there were two surprises: Jack Jones—now a Labour M.P.—who all through had given indications of supporting the so-called “Impossibilists,” backed down and supported the official group; Jack Kent, who was thought to be hand-in-glove with the Executive (of which he had been a member), gave the game away and told of the machinations to get rid of the more dangerous of the critics.

After several hours of heated discussion, the meeting supported the official attitude by a vote of 119 to 83.

The small group that had been working by means of economics classes, circulars, and discussions, in the endeavour to convince the members of the necessity of class conscious revolutionary political action, saw that the position was hopeless. As the S.L.P. was also in the mire, the only way left was to form an independent political party.

Closely following the Shoreditch meeting, a Protest Committee was formed, which issued a leaflet setting forth the grounds of dissatisfaction with the existing policy of the S.D.F. and was signed by 88 members, though some of these had in the meantime been summarily expelled by the Executive for protesting.

Summarised, the criticisms and proposals were as follows :—

   The expulsions were an attempt to gag or expel members who had been bold enough to criticise inside the organisation the policy pursued by representative men and more particularly by the late Executive of the S.D.F.
It was a question of determining whether the tactics and policy in future should interpret Socialist principles, or whether the Party was prepared to resort to measures that would tend to sterilise the Socialist propaganda of past years of plodding exertion and self-sacrifice.
The protestors do not believe in impossible political tactics, but assert that political action must be such as to awaken the workers of this country to full class-consciousness, and to the desire to abolish wage-slavery. They therefore feel the necessity of avoiding any action that would endanger or obliterate their Socialist identity or allow them to be swallowed up by a labour movement that has yet to learn the real meaning of a class struggle.
The policy of permeating the Trade Unions had resulted in prominent members getting official jobs that precluded them preaching the class struggle. The policy adopted of voting Tory to dish the Liberals, and vice-versa, confused the workers and rendered propaganda difficult.
The basis of the Party was undemocratic. It had been dominated for years by certain leaders over whom there was no real or effective control. The final clothing of the Executive with autocratic authority to expel without appeal showed it was no longer an administrative body, but, according to rules which can only be revised every three years, it is empowered to decide and entirely control the electoral policy of the Party. A man in his capacity of a Trade Union official is allowed to do what would render other members liable to expulsion.
The Party has neither ownership nor control of the Party organ, Justice, which was mortgaged to the Trade Unions. The Party was called upon to officially endorse candidatures of non-Socialist Trade Unionists. Questions of policy could be, and were, decided in secret. Conference amendments on serious questions of organisation were not even discussed.
Opposition to the official policy was denied free expression, and members were called upon to apologise for actions of which they were not guilty and which only existed in the imagination of their accusers, the climax of which was the unconstitutional manner of the expulsion of Fitzgerald and Hawkins. Many of those who voted for the expulsions did so in direct contravention of their instructions to vote for these members in the election to the new Executive. All who voted for the expulsions did so without any instruction whatsoever, thus violating the rules of the S.D.F. The vague charges made against the two members were only put forward to cover the intentions of the old clique to get rid of those who wanted the Party to adopt an uncompromising revolutionary policy, and were carrying on the agitation quite constitutionally within, the organisation.

The signatories to the leaflet then urged:—

  The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection of the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.

Such was the position put forward by those who eventually founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Subsequent events made plain the correctness of the view of these pioneers. The Party they sought to clarify and were finally compelled to leave in disgust was afterwards swallowed up in the opportunist movement, and on the outbreak of war in 1914 sided with the capitalists and helped to drive English working men to slaughter their German brethren on the battlefields in the interests of the capitalists. Leading members of it, through the Labour party, became capitalist Cabinet Ministers, and it has finally taken its place as a warning and a lesson to working men of the fate reserved for those who give adherence to numbers in place of clarity of thought.
After the issue of the above-mentioned leaflet, events moved rapidly. The autocratic official group continued their expulsions from the S.D.F. A meeting of sympathisers with the policy outlined in the leaflet was held at Sidney Hall, Battersea, on May 15th, 1904, and at that meeting it was decided to launch a Party based upon Socialist principles and opposed to all other political parties. A meeting to formally constitute the Party was held at the Painters’ Hall, Bartlett’s Passage, Fetter Lane, E.C., on Sunday, June 12th, 1904. Such was the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
The new Party was forced into existence without literature, offices, printing facilities or funds, apart from the contributions of the 120 members who took part in its formation. Its early Executive meetings were held in the bedroom of one of the members, his bed providing the main seating accommodation. However, they entered with enthusiasm and energy into the work of building up an organisation, and, with considerable personal sacrifice, had the satisfaction of seeing the first number of The Socialist Standard appear on September 3rd, 1904, containing on its seventh page the Object and Declaration of Principles that has guided the Party ever since.
The first Annual Conference was held at the Communist Club (now defunct), 107, Charlotte Street, London, on April 29th, 1905. The membership had by then reached 150.
From its formation the Party has been controlled entirely by its members, and many lengthy and stimulating discussions have been held on questions; of policy and detail work. All its meetings and discussions, apart from the period of martial law during the War, have been open to any who cared to attend and listen.
The soundness of the Party’s principles as a sheet anchor was particularly demonstrated on the outbreak of the War in 1914. While all the other alleged working-class parties (including the Socialist Labour Party) were entirely at sea as to what line to follow, and were gradually consumed by the war fever, the S.P.G.B., from the declaration of war to the armistice, never deviated from opposition to it as a capitalist war involving no interest worth the shedding of a single drop of working-class blood, and laying it down as a principle that any man who voluntarily joined the Army was unworthy of membership of a Socialist Party. The September, 1914, issue of The Socialist Standard contained our War Manifesto, and subsequent issues, brought out under overwhelming difficulties and in spite of Governmental raids on the Central Office, continued to oppose the War as no concern of the workers of any country. As far as our knowledge goes, it was alone in the belligerent countries in taking up that stand.
The result of this policy brought devastation for a time. Its members were scattered and some of them were hunted over the world. A good deal of the work at the Head Office was done by women members who ably carried out work the men were precluded from doing. When the Armistice enabled the members to gather together once more, it was a much decimated Party that emerged. But, in spite of the knocks it had received, the Party was sound, and the members proceeded with enthusiasm to rebuild the broken organisation, with such good results that it is now stronger and more firmly established than ever and has been the means of developing young organisations on a similar basis in other countries.
In the foregoing way was built up the organisation that is now attracting more and more of those who give serious thought to the problems that confront the working class.