As others see us
Working class history, or Labour History at it has come to be known, has had something of a boom in recent years especially as to the origins of the Labour Party, a period during which the Socialist Party also came into existence. Yet in this boom literature references to the Socialist Party, other than footnotes as to its formation, arc surprisingly sparse. There is hardly any discussion as to why those who founded our party felt obliged to leave the Social Democratic Federation. It is always a temptation for small groups like ourselves to see behind such things a “conspiracy of silence” so we must be wary of drawing any rash conclusions.
Yet this consideration alone does not seem adequate to explain the lack of any serious study of the Socialist Party by British Labour historians. Most of those who go into this field do so because they have political leanings in this direction; most are members of the Labour Party and a not inconsiderable minority arc associated with the so-called Communist Party. Nearly all of them must be aware of the Socialist Party and of its criticisms of these two parties which are at the same time criticisms of their own political positions. Here perhaps we can find the source of the unorganised, but still very real, bias against the Socialist Party in this quarter, a bias which becomes obvious when they do condescend to mention us. It is more than an accident that the only historian so far to have done a scholarly study of our party comes not from Britain but from Japan.
Max Beer and G. D. H. Cole were pioneers in this field of Labour history and it is interesting to compare what they said with later writers. Beer wrote in 1919 that the members of the Socialist Party “with much perseverance and self-sacrifice have been disseminating Marx’s views on economics and political class warfare”. The Socialist Party, he wrote, “was very active in spreading Marxist theories and it opposed all other political parties, whether they were calling themselves Socialist or Labour. It emphasised the importance of proletarian political action on strictly revolutionary lines”.
Cole wrote that in the eyes of the Socialist Party
political action as practised by the other Socialist bodies was mere reformism, but it was also of the opinion that Trade Union action was doomed to futility as long as the capitalist system remained in being. Strictly revolutionary political action alone would help the workers and the only activity that was justifiable under existing conditions was the persistent education of the working class for its revolutionary task.
Compare these honest and more or less correct attempts to explain our views with the following offered by the “communist” historians. Morton and Tate, in their The British Labour Movement. 1770-1920 (1956):
In I905 another split took place in the SDF, when part of the membership this time mainly centred in London formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a body so sectarian that it adjured both politics and trade union action, believing that socialism would come when everyone was converted. Fifty years later it was still a tiny sect, mainly concerned with echoing propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union.
This view of us as a socialist sect trying to convert the world to a particular brand of socialism has been deliberately fostered by the so-called Communist Party. One of the first to refer to the Socialist Party as a sect was the leading “communist” Tom Bell in his autobiography Pioneering Days (1941). Hobsbawm provides a variation on the same theme in his Labouring Men (1965) where the Socialist Party is a “conventicle”. T. A. Jackson in his autobiography Solo Trumpet (1953), refused to mention the Socialist Party by name despite his being one of the original members. But the mysterious “Imperialist” group he mentions be was associated with was in fact the Socialist Party.
The one scholarly examination of the founding of the Socialist Party is by C. Tsuzuki in an article, “The Impossibiist Revolt in Britain”, in the International Review of Social History (1956). Those who left the SDF to form the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party were called Impossiblists because they were said to have held that any improvement of the lot of the working class under capitalism was “impossible”. Tsuzuki’s article is mainly historical but does to a certain extent discuss the issues involved. He also mentions that the Socialist Party still exists As he wrote in another of his works, H. M. Hyndman and British Socialism (1961), the Socialist Party “refused to accept any programme of palliatives and was thus in the strictest tense ‘impossiblist’—as indeed it remains today”. Tsuzuki, unlike Morton, Tate and Hobsbawm, at least tries to keep his own views and the facts apart. No asides about “sects” and “conventicles” appear in his writings.
Unfortunately the view of the Socialist Party as a sect out to convert the world has spread from “communist” books to other fields. Thus H. G. Nicolas in The British General Election of 1950 (1951) at which we contested two seats wrote:
Less sullied even than the ILP by the contamination of practical politics was the “SPGB”—the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This was a group of non-violent Marxists, who preached an undiluted gospel of class struggle and poured an equal contempt on every other party, including Labour and the Communists . . . Their propaganda had the austere purity of perfectionism, offering, as they truly said, no vote-catching promises Their candidates had the self-effacing devotion of members of a monastic order.
and again J. P. M. Millar in The Nature of Politics (1962):
Small parties, and parties in their early stages of growth, are often lofty in their aims and united in purpose. Some remain so; these we may call sectarian or interest parties, maintaining a narrow but consistent concern, from which they are not deflected by electoral considerations The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and its associated parties in other countries provide a clear example. Such parties put doctrinal considerations above all others They insist that the gospel must not be diluted by considering other peoples opinions. They are not daunted by smallness and ineffectiveness, arguing either that everyone will come round to their views in the end. or that mankind is, in general, too stupid to see what is good for it. In this they are very much akin to minor Christian sects.
The view of the Socialist Party as a sect persists to such an extent that it is worth looking into the matter in more detail. In the early days of the socialist movement the phrase “socialist sect” was used to refer to groups of Utopian socialists like the followers of Saint Simon and Robert Owen. These groups did resemble religious sects in that they set out to convert people to their ideal system; they had no understanding of the social world and tended to ignore politics and the struggle of the working class. What Marx did was to turn the theory of socialism from such Utopianism into a science: socialism was the next stage in the evolution of human society and would be realised as a result of the struggle of the working class to free itself from wage-slavery. The Socialist Party has always accepted Marxian, or scientific, socialism so that it is only by distortion that we can be likened to the old Utopian socialist sects. We do not “adjure politics and trade union action” as Morton and Tate claim. On the contrary we hold that all such actions should be based on a recognition of the class struggle. We argue that at the present time all that socialists can do is to help the working class come to see that only through socialism can their social problems be solved or, as G. D. H. Cole put our position, the only activity that is justifiable under existing conditions is “the persistent education of the working class for its revolutionary task”.
“Sectarian” is a “communist” swear word. Lenin held that the function of a party of socialists was to try to lead the working class; to take up any demand that happened to be popular and to try to win power with the support of such discontented workers. This view, though quite at variance with the view of scientific socialism that the workers must free themselves, does provide a new definition of “sectarian”, namely a group of socialists who stand aside from the so-called day-to-day struggle and thus give up all chance of using popular discontent to get political power. Since we have never had this as our aim, considering ourselves not as a “vanguard” but rather as an instrument which the working class can use, this reproach is pointless. We are not Leninists or Bolsheviks and it doesn’t matter to us if we are criticized for not acting as such! The term “sectarian” is a red-herring and a convenient excuse for not considering the real issue: can capitalism be made to benefit the working class?
As an organisation which contests elections we qualify as a minor political party and so are subject to study from this angle too In the Political Quarterly (July-Sept., 1962) Nicolas Harman discusses the Socialist Party in an article, “Minor Political Parties in Britain”. This article, though a genuine attempt to examine our views, still misunderstands them. For some reason, perhaps because of his own views, Harman tries to express our aim not in terms of the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism but rather of “the dissolution of the State” which gives our views an anarchist slant. Thus Harman says we argue that the Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution because “it preserved the structure of the State in the form of state capitalism”.
Again, “all leadership leads to dictatorship; only by persuasion and education can the abolition of the State he brought about”. The Socialist Party, he says, “continues its uncompromising path, not advocating any reforms short of the establishment of socialism by persuasion of a majority of the people”. George Thayer in his very superficial book, The British Political Fringe (1965), also puts over our views as if we think that socialism will come purely because of our educational efforts. The Socialist Party, he writes. believes that
only through the education of the working classes will pure Marxist Socialism be achieved. It does not imply that capitalism and the parliamentary system can he reformed. Capitalism must be destroyed, it believes. but only when the working classes have a “conscious understanding and desire for Socialism”. At that time, capitalism will peacefully disappear and Socialism will take its place . . . They keep on struggling . . . secure in the belief that when their brand of Socialism arrives they will have properly educated the working classes not only to accept its arrival but to welcome it as well.
Both Harman and Thayer misunderstand our position and make us out to hold views which would justly lay us open to the charge of being a mere sect—that we are out to convert the world to our “brand of Socialism”. Perhaps some of our activities might suggest, to a superficial observer, such an interpretation. Still those who fancy themselves fit to write books should take the trouble to go beyond mere appearances. They have no real excuse for misunderstanding us especially as they are given literature to read which clearly explains the theory behind our practice. As Marxists, we accept the validity of historical materialism and do not subscribe to any facile theory of social change.
Before summing up, we must mention the not unfriendly reference to us in A Faith to Fight For (1964) by Eric Deakins. The author, a member of the Labour Party, does discuss our view that “socialism will only come about when the workers recognise that it is in their economic interest to create a Socialist society”. What is important about this book is that it represents a breakthrough: our views are actually discussed in a serious book on politics. We can only hope that Deakins has set a precedent.