Book Review: ‘The Monument’

The Story of the Socialist Party

‘The Monument’, by Robert Barltrop, Pluto Press, £3.90 (see note).

It would be impossible for a Socialist to take up his pen to review the first-ever history of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, without a certain pleasure and sense of occasion. The task of writing such a history has been neglected by friend and foe for far too long. That the seventy-one years spanned have been eventful, interesting and challenging, as well as educational, can be seen from reading The Monument.

One could yield to the temptation to comment upon every point made; this, however, is not the purpose of a review. The task here is to assess the merits of the book and its account of the Party.

It is not easy to capture the mood of an era and to sketch in the many shades and subtleties, to look into personalities and situations and to express their contents and substance. This the author has done with a liberal measure of success. That the era and mood have changed repeatedly since 1904 (all within the context of developing capitalism) is brought out clearly.

The foreword says that the history of the Party

“has been a matter not so much of policies as of the kinds of men, often remarkable, who made it.”

Whilst as Marxists we would not deny that men make history, the Party has an identity represented by its Declaration of Principles and the ideas developed in them. These stand regardless of the coming and going of individuals. That individuals who wanted to go off at a tangent — and take the Party with them — have appeared from time to time has mainly served to highlight the fact that the Party has never wanted to go. But to have tried to tell the story without the characters, would have been a gross error.

All the major (and many minor) milestones in the Party’s history are there. What stands out through everything is the Party’s commitment to its Principles and its objective, Socialism. The thrashing out of attitudes towards trade unions in the very early days, was guided by the determination to avoid opportunism and not to put Socialism into cold storage while other issues were pursued.

With hindsight, we in the Party today might regard the “WB of Upton Park” controversy, as a hypothetical debating point. The Party in practice has never supported any reform, and the possibility of a lone Socialist MP. being elected in isolation is remote, to say the least. This kind of imbalance in the spread of Socialist ideas, does not really add up. The reply to WB (which is reproduced in full) makes this point. What is mildly amazing is that both the Party (in its reply), and the group that left, stressed that there could be NO COMPROMISE. When Harry Martin died in 1951, the Socialist Standard published a tribute to him. Although he had left the Party forty years before, he had remained a staunch advocate of Socialism.

The statement issued at the outbreak of war in 1914 is there in full, and the extreme difficulties suffered by members for standing against the war are well detailed. How, in the course of allegedly fighting for freedom, freedom to dissent is trodden underfoot, often quite literally together with the dissenters. The upheaval of 1917 and the Party’s rejection of its socialist pretensions. The fact that we alone published the Bolshevik statement against the war in March 1915 shows that we considered the Bolsheviks’ evidence before rendering judgement.

The electoral campaigns the Party has fought are dealt with in some detail, from the first contests in Borough Council elections in Battersea and Tooting during 1906 up to the Bethnal Green parliamentary campaign in 1959. The Parliamentary and GLC contests since then are not mentioned but the most important point, namely, our consistent appeal for only Socialist votes, is well registered.

The activities in the years of economic depression between the wars are related with a wealth of colourful anecdotes and description. The second World War, and the controversy over democracy, still has a vital lesson for the working class to learn. The Party had said: “Democracy cannot be defended by fighting for it.” One has only to read the extract from Jacomb’s reply to see how the years since the war have vindicated the position taken by the Party. Jacomb said:

“If democracy cannot be defended by force then the power behind the machine-gun can (unless there is some other way of defending democracy) withdraw all democratic rights at will . . .”

The fact is there are always more machine-guns and wars, but the cemeteries with which they have covered the world make no contribution to democracy.

In chapter twelve, which relates the story of the tribunals for conscientious objectors, there is a reference which says Clause Six of the Declaration of Principles is “a clear statement that the Party aimed at using the armed forces as an ‘agent of emancipation’.” However, that government machinery, including the armed forces must be CONVERTED from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation can be readily checked, as the Declaration of Principles and our Object appear in full on pages nine and ten.

The foreword makes clear that the greater part of the book was written while the author was away from the Party. The final chapter is a strong reaffirmation of his own identification with the Party. The history he has written proves the “anonymous sage” in the foreword was wrong. We are much more a movement.

Harry Baldwin

December 1975 NOTE: The publishers are making copies of “The Monument” available to Party members and readers of the Socialist Standard at the reduced price of £2.60, including postage, until 31st January only. Cash and orders should be sent to the Book Department at Head Office.

An excerpt from ‘The Monument’ can be read at the following link.

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