1960s >> 1968 >> no-765-may-1968

The Socialist Party and the Second International pt.1

    This month we begin a three part serial describing the evolution of the attitude of the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain to the Second (Social Democrat) International in the period 1904-17.

When the Socialists in the Social Democratic Federation broke away to form the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain in June 1904 they did not feel themselves isolated, even though the new organisation numbered less than 150 members. They imagined that their separation from the opportunist majority of the SDF was part of an international confrontation between reformists and revolutionaries. On the face of it, there was evidence to support this. In Germany the fierce polemic between Bernstein’s supporters and those who claimed to oppose revisionism was still being fought with considerable bitterness, while in France the social-democratic movement was split into two hostile sections led by Guesde and Jaures. Even in a backwater like Bulgaria this apparent shake-out between the “impossibilists” or “narrow socialists” and those prepared to compromise (“broad socialists”) was reported to be in full swing. (1)

Most of our original members already had years of experience in the working class movement when the Socialist Party was set up. Their struggle inside the SDF, which they had been trying to swing on to a socialist programme, had left them with absolutely no illusions about men like Hyndman and the other labour leaders in Britain. But on the international level they had to feel their way at first and here it took a certain time before the initial illusions wore out.

One of the first tasks the Socialist Party set itself was to make contact with workers abroad who took up our position. The best way of doing this seemed to be via the Second International and it was therefore agreed at the first meeting of the executive committee, held at the Communist Club in June 1904, to draw up a manifesto addressed to the International. It was also decided to send a delegate to the International Congress, held in Amsterdam in August 1904. The new party was desperately short of cash but, with an effort, it managed to raise the necessary money (£4.10s.) to pay Jack Kent’s fare.  Kent was the official delegate but, as it turned out, another member—Pearson—was also present at the conference. Before they left they were given instructions to “use every endeavour to attain the rescindment of the infamous Kautsky resolution”.(2) A telegram was also sent to the Congress while it was sitting:

    “The Socialist Party of Great Britain sends fraternal greetings while demanding that the Congress take an intransigent stand against revisionism as an indispensable condition for arming itself to bring about the emancipation of the workers.” Lehane, Secretary.(3)

At the Congress, however, Kent and Pearson found it virtually impossible to make themselves heard. Organisation was along national lines and, in the “British section”, our comrades found themselves lumped together with the very people they had been attacking as enemies of Socialism—the leaders of the ILP, SDF and Fabian Society. The undemocratic method of referring questions to select committees for discussion, rather than thrashing them out in open sessions of the Congress, was another effective bar to the Socialist Party’s arguments being heard. But the biggest obstacle of all was simply that the vast majority of the delegates were plainly disinterested in overthrowing capitalism. The general level of the proceedings can be judged by the proposals of the “Socialist” Party of the Argentine Republic which was advocating national and international legislation to restrict immigration.(4) With a busy agenda devoted to items such as this it was little wonder that there was no time to give the case for Socialism a hearing.

When the Socialist Party’s delegates returned from Holland they were closely questioned at a general meeting of the Party in September 1904. Kent reported that, for obvious reasons, he had taken no part in the proceedings of the British section. The main point that the members wanted to clarify what exactly was measures the Congress had adopted to ensure that those attending were genuine Socialists. Kent’s answer—that there was “absolutely no test as to the bona fide Socialist character of the delegates”—seems to have been unexpected and it is doubtful if the comrades present realised just what a massive task they were setting the Party when they passed a resolution “that the Executive Committee . . . carry on an agitation throughout the world for the purpose of clearing the air of confusion regarding the true basis of the Socialist movement”. As yet only the tip of the iceberg was showing.

The Socialist Party has always held that, since the capitalist system is world-wide, only an international organisation of the workers can carry though a successful Socialist revolution. As an early Socialist Standard put it,

    “Those who really desire  . . . economic emancipation must enrol in the Army of International Socialism, the British Section of which is The Socialist Party of Great Britain.” (5)

In these early days the international character of the Party was well in evidence. Articles and speeches by Kautsky and Guesde, Lafargue and Bebel regularly appeared in the Socialist Standard and one of its earliest scoops was an interview with Marx’s son-in-law on the Russo-Japanese war. But, although the Socialist Party continued to publish material by some of the prominent leaders of the social-democratic parties right up till the first world war, it became increasingly critical of these reformist organisations and never failed to expose their compromises.

In November, 1904 a letter arrived from the secretary of the British section at the Amsterdam Congress, asking if the Socialist Party was in favour of a conference being held in Britain with a view to forming a national committee to deal with matters arising out of the Congress, Since this amounted to an invitation to get together with men like Hyndman and Keir Hardie, the Party did not hesitate in refusing to have anything to do with the proposed meeting. The general secretary, Con Lehane, wrote back:

    “As the International Congress is presumably a Socialist Congress, the matters arising from out of its decisions should be the task of the Socialist Party existing in the various countries to deal with . . . the Committee that apparently you propose would consist of men who are in no sense of the word Socialist.”

This was reinforced by a declaration “To the Socialist Working Class” which appeared on the front page of the January 1905 Socialist Standard in the three languages of the International—English, French and German. It finished with the following statement:

    “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 SPGB 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.”

Despite these strong words the Party continued to cooperate with the representatives of the International on other matters. For example, during the upheaval in Russia in 1905 a letter from Roubanovitch—on behalf of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party—asking for money to help those fighting against the Tsar was published in the Socialist Standard at the request of Huysmans of the International Bureau.

(to be continued)

John Crump



1. Socialist Standard. September 1905.

2. At the previous Congress, in 1900, Kautsky had drafted a resolution which stated, in effect, that a Socialist could take a seat in a capitalist cabinet in the case of a national emergency such as war. This became known as “the Kautsky resolution”. (See Socialist Standard – July 1920)


4. See Justice, 27 December 1902

5. Socialist Standard, November 1904

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