The First of The Few
On the 15th, 16th and 17th of this mouth we shall be holding in London, our 45th Annual Conference. This means that the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed forty-five years ago. In 1904, some members of the Social Democratic Federation, having done their damnedest to steer that compromising, reformist organisation on to the Socialist road, were expelled from it. With others, they set about creating a political party with which they could work for Socialism. The meeting at which it was decided to launch the S.P.G.B. was held at Battersea on May 15th, 1904, and the meeting to formally constitute the new party was held just off Fetter Lane, London, on the following 12th of June.
The first issue of the Socialist Standard appeared in September, 1904. The first Annual Conference was held at the old (now non-existent) Communist Club in London on April 20th and 21st, 1905, with twenty-one delegates attending, representing thirteen branches. The Party membership was then 150.
The founders of the Party were under no illusions. They knew the task that lay ahead when they gave up the Social Democratic Federation as hopeless. The issue of the Socialist Standard for June, 1905, carried an editorial reviewing the first year’s work. It said:
“The founders were fully alive to the fact that much spade work had to be performed; that there could be no mushroom growth for the new party; that its ranks could only he recruited steadily and, at first, slowly.”
It is true that these early members had ambitions that have not yet been realised. They hoped that the Socialist Standard would soon be a weekly, or maybe, even a daily paper. That is something we still hope for.
Our Declaration of Principles was laid down when the Party was founded. Acceptance of these principles is demanded of every applicant for membership, in the interest of the Party and the applicant. We do not want, within our ranks, those who do not subscribe to the principles. Neither would it be honest for workers to be drawn into our organisation without fully realising the implications of the principles and the nature of the Party they were joining. So, our Party has been kept on a straight course since its formation.
It has maintained its opposition to Capitalist wars during two major world conflicts, and although the first of these conflicts was a bad setback for the Party, it did not destroy it. The Socialist Standard has appeared without fail every month since the first issue and every issue stands as a record of the Party’s soundness and consistency.
The report of our 45th Executive Committee to this year’s Conference carries the statement that membership on the 31st of December, 1918, stood at 1,036. Some of our critics will point to that figure and say, “What, after forty-five years you have only just over a thousand members?” We are not satisfied with our numerical strength, but we are certainly not ashamed of it. Of one thing we are extremely proud. That is the quality of our membership. It is the quality—the understanding and determination—of the members, that gives an organisation its strength. We have seen a number of so-called working-class political parties grow into mass organisations — then wither away to nothing. We remember the days when the Independent Labour Party claimed to have over two hundred of its members elected to parliament. Where is the I.L.P. now? Where is the Social Democratic Federation, later called the Social Democratic Party, from which the S.P.G.B. was born? It had numbers, but it did not have a sound Socialist membership. Quantity, but no quality. With the outbreak of the 1914-18 war it just disintegrated. Our growth is slow, painfully slow, but it is a steady, sound, reliable, healthy growth. A graph of our membership will not show any high peaks with following deep declines. The Labour Party and the Communist Party now have numbers and sneer at us because of our size, but their members are recruited from workers who have insufficient understanding of their class interests and have not the knowledge how to replace Capitalism by Socialism, which is essential to a revolutionary Socialist Party. We shall see the day of their decline. In the interim we shall go on steadily and surely making Socialists and enlisting them to our ranks. The process will not always be as slow as it has been during the past forty-five years. The development towards Social Revolution is not to be measured strictly by the growth of the Revolutionary organisation. The workers have been, and are, throwing off the capitalist ideas that have been instilled into them. Many of the arguments against Socialism that the founders of our Party had to answer are seldom heard today. The Socialist case, although it is not widely accepted, receives tolerant attention now-a-days. The days when members of our Party had to defend their speakers from the fury of a jingoistic audience are past. The process of discarding old ideas and accumulating new ones goes on all the time, and the numerical strength of the Party that gives expression to the new ideas can only be taken as an indication and not as a measure of the progress made.
“Who can say whether even the humblest of us will not sooner or later become the medium for quickening the pace of progress and find his hands strengthened and forced by events.”
Thus wrote an early member of our Party to our 1948 Conference. Who can say? Hang weights on the end of a piece of string. Continue adding one weight after another. A superficial observer will see little change up to a given point. The final addition of the smallest increase in weight and the string will snap. Close observation would have revealed that with the addition of each successive weight the strands of the string twisted, writhed and stretched, but held together until they could take the strain no longer. So it is with society. Men’s ideas are not to be emptied from, or crammed into their heads as one empties a sack of potatoes and refills it. Old and unsound ideas can only be removed when new ones drive them out. New ideas are continuously being accumulated until the equivalent of that breaking point is reached. Not until a man’s mind has been cleared of its Capitalist notions by the introduction of Socialist ideas does he embrace the Socialist Party. The minds of all workers in the Capitalist world are undergoing this process and are progressing, in varying degrees, towards a Socialist understanding. Our task is to assist the process.
We are not alone in the task. The undertaker and the midwife are our allies. One carries away those who are so imbued with Capitalist ideas that they can only with great difficulty assimilate any others. The other brings in a new generation, as yet unsullied by the bilge that flows from the pulpits, the radio sets, the film studios and from Fleet Street. The development of Capitalism, including the work of Socialists, will mould them in the right shape.
We are proud of our Party. With all its limitations, its small numbers and its smaller funds, we are proud to be members of it. Forty years ago, Mr. Lawler Wilson, a prominent anti-Socialist, wrote a book entitled, “The Menace of Socialism,” in which he said, referring to the S.P.G.B.:
“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 organisation is the fact 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, and would make incomparable soldiers, or desperate barricadists. As revolutionaries they deserve no mercy; as men they command respect.”
That is certainly spreading it on thick. We are not higher-grade or more intelligent than other workers, we do not wish to become soldiers and we do not intend to be barricadists. But we are gratified to be members of a Party that drew such comments from its opponents, for our organisation stands as sound now as it did when that was written.
These reflections into the past and the future remind us of the words of William Morris:
“One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman. Two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad. Ten men sharing an idea begin to act. A hundred draw attention as fanatics. A thousand and society begins to tremble. A hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories, tangible and real. And why only a hundred thousand? Why not a hundred million and peace on earth? You and I who agree together, if is we who have to answer this question.