Some Notes On Party History pt.1

The meetings of the Provisional Executive Committee were concerned with all the arduous spade work involved in starting an organisation literally from scratch. The Party members had nothing but knowledge and enthusiasm; no office, no literature, no meeting places, no organisational system and no funds. All the plans had to be made and the bricks gathered to build a structure that would serve as a jumping-off ground. There were few members with time to do the work; all committees and sub-committees were made up by ringing the changes on members from the same small group. In the circumstances what they accomplished was astonishing, and a tribute to their energy.

For a long time there was no central office and the E.C. used to meet fortnightly in a room at the Communist Club in Charlotte Street.

At the first meeting of the Executive Committee, after the Inaugural Meeting, it was reported that the following branches had been formed: Islington, Battersea, Wood Green and Paddington. A committee of four was appointed to organise the membership into branches, and another committee of three to consider and report on the question of a Party journal.

As the new party had come into existence without literature of its own a list of pamphlets was drawn up and sent to branches with the recommendation that they confine themselves to this literature for the present.

The E. C. were not happy about some of the pamphlets on the list but they had a limited choice. Members and speakers were complaining about how frustrating it was to hold meetings and have no literature to distribute explaining the Party’s views. The titles of some of these pamphlets sound rather curious now. Here is the list: —

    “Socialism and the Worker,” George.

    “Wage, Labour and Capital,” Marx.

    “Socialism and Radicalism,” Aveling.

    “No Compromise,” Liebknecht.

    “The Social Revolution”, Kautsky.

    “How I became a Socialist,” Morris

    “Jones Boy, ” Spokeshave.

    “Commune of Paris,” Marx.

    “Socialism and Drink,” Russell Smart.

    “The Meaning of Socialism,” Widdup.

A Committee was appointed to draw up a Manifesto to the working class of Great Britain and a Manifesto to the Second International; Reeves were to be approached to see if they would dispose of the copyright of the Communist Manifesto. In due course Reeves replied that the Communist Manifesto was still in print and they had no intention of selling the copyright.

It was decided that Party letter headings must have the Object of the Party printed on them but the selection of address to be used as Central Office was left to the General Secretary. The latter decision was unavoidable because the address had to be wherever the General Secretary was lodging for the time being. As he was almost penniless he had a habit of moving frequently.

Finally Kautsky was to be approached about permission to translate the Erfurt Programme. We will have more to say about this later.

At the second meeting of the Executive, on the 25th June, arrangements were made for a series of mass meetings to be held in different parts of London for the purpose of raising funds and making the Party known. The General Secretary was further instructed to write for delegates credentials for the forthcoming Congress of the Second International to be held in Amsterdam. It was taken for granted that the Party would automatically affiliate to this body. Later developments brought about a reversal of this attitude.

A Resolution was also carried at this meeting that the special meeting of members to discuss the attitude to trade unions to be held on Saturday, July 9th, and that only those who had signed the Party’s Declaration of principles be admitted to the meeting. The Special Meeting was held at the Food Reform Restaurant, Furnival Street, E.C. There was a considerable conflict of views on the attitude to be adopted towards trade unions, and the meeting adjourned without coming to any definite decision. The E.C. was requested to arrange a further meeting. As the trade union question was a thorny subject for the first two subject for the first two years of the Party’s history, before a definite attitude was agreed upon, we will consider it at some length in later notes.

The International Socialist Bureau was the body that conducted the business of the Second International between Congresses. As the Bureau declined to recognise the Party a letter was sent to H. M. Hyndman and H. Quelch, as representatives of that body in this country, requesting them to use their influence in the direction of securing due recognition of the Party by the International Congress.

Eventually the Credential Forms arrived, and then the fun began; the problem of finding members who could make the journey, and raising money for expenses. J. Kent was approached to represent the Party, on the understanding that all or part of his expenses would be paid. He replied that he was willing if part of his expenses was paid. Money was collected and sent on to him, but he subsequently wrote that he could not travel as the amount subscribed did not help much. This letter came before the Executive meeting of the 15ht August. Lehane (the General Secretary) reported that immediately he received Ken’s letter he proceeded to the address of the Party Treasurer, R. Elrick, who advanced the sum necessary to cover the expenses. Lehane made an appointment by wire with Kent for the following day, Friday the 12th August, and handed him £2 18s. which, with the sum of £1 11s. 4d. previously collected, made up £4 10s. in all. Kent then undertook to proceed to Amsterdam the following morning, The state of Party finance may be gathered from the difficulty in raising such a small amount as 4 10s. Part of it came from a collection at the Special Meeting of members.

A few days later Kent notified the Executive that he had arrived in Amsterdam and that A. Pearson, who was paying his own expenses, had turned up and joined him as a delegate of the Party.

The report the two delegates brought back from the Congress was a shock to the members and fundamentally altered the Party’s attitude to the Second International. At first attempts were made by correspondence with the Bureau to get our views on the unsatisfactory state of affairs put before the parties affiliated to the Congress. The basis of the complaints was (1) That representation at the Congress was chaotic and (2) That delegates from organisation with no socialist basis were admitted to Congress.

At the first General Meeting of the Party on the 18th September the following resolution was carried unanimously:

    “That the E. C. be instructed to prepare a statement of the position in Great Britain, go into the whole question of representation at the International Socialist Congress and carry on an agitation throughout the world for the purpose of clearing the air of confusion regarding the true basis of the Socialist Movement.”

The E. C. carried out the instructions contained in this resolution as far as they could. The January 1905 number of the SOCIALIST STANDARD contained copies of correspondence with the Bureau. The front page had a message “To the Socialist Working-class” in English, French and German which, after a general criticism of past Congresses, contained the following:

    “The Socialist Party of Great Britain is strengthened in this opinion by facts well known here which show clearly the principles animating many who took part in the recent congress at Amsterdam. Our delegates thereto found such organisations as the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee, the Social-Democratic Federation, and the Fabian Society claiming and obtaining admission as Socialist organisations. Thus were seen the defenders of capitalism, the upholders of Child-slavery, the friends of Compromise and Reform, and the catspaw of the Bourgeois reaction generally masquerading as Revolutionists, prostituting the name and spirit of Socialism, and confusing the workers on questions of vital importance”

    “With the object of placing future International Congresses on a definite Socialist basis, and securing proper and proportionate representation of all bona fide Socialist Parties thereat, the S.P.G.B. is preparing a memorandum for the consideration of the International Bureau and the Socialist Parties affiliated in the hope that measures will be adopted to as far as possible prevent the recurrence of past confusions and place the working-class of the world on a united and revolutionary platform.”

The Executive Committee reported on their efforts to the first Conference in April 1905. The Conference then passed the following resolution:—

    “That only Socialist Organisations recognising the class struggle in theory and practice should be represented at the International Socialist Congress.

    “That disputes between the various parties in each country as to the genuineness of their respective organisations be settled by Congress itself.”

After further correspondence with the Bureau we eventually withdrew from the International as our points were not conceded. From that time on a critical attitude developed towards prominent champions of social democracy and we had, at times, to dissociate ourselves from some of their actions. In 1906 we called A. Bebel to book for a telegram he sent to “Reynolds” hailing the Liberal victory as a triumph for the progressive forces. Bebel, along with Karl Liebknecht, had been an outstanding figure in the German Social Democratic Party during the last quarter of the 19th century. The correspondence we had with him on the subject occupied six columns of the SOCIALIST STANDARD in 1906. The STANDARD was then double its present size.

In the next contribution we will come to an important landmark in the Party’s history; the production of the first number of the SOCIALIST STANDARD in September 1904.


(To be continued.)

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