Pioneers and others

If The Socialist Party of Great Britain did not already exist, there would be urgent need for it. Yet it is more than 70 years since the Party was formed with the uncompromising aim of “Socialism and Socialism alone”. It did not happen in a vacuum with the founding members inventing the definition of Socialism. The group of men and women who in 1904 formed the SPGB had been members of the Social Democratic Federation, but left because they objected to its programme of reforms and making alliances with capitalist parties. “For all purposes of effective propaganda they [the SDF] have ceased to exist, and are surely developing into a mere reform party, seeking to obtain the provision of Free Maintenance for school children.” (Socialist Standard, Sept. 1904.) It was their knowledge of Marxian economics and working-class history and their experience in the SDF that guided them when drawing up the Object and Declaration of Principles (see inside front cover) for the new Party. Today we find no reason to change the uncompromising attitude taken by our early comrades. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the growth of socialist ideas. Here we can only be brief.


Early utopian and co-operative ideas of land reform and self-help were a reaction to the changes as capitalism consolidated its victory over feudalism. They are easily understood in the context of the times. The answer to the terrible conditions imposed by capitalist farming and the rapidly developing factory system was seen in terms of maintaining small-scale production. The forerunners of socialist thought looked at conditions from a moral standpoint. They saw the suffering of workers who produced wealth but lived in poverty; their view can be expressed as “the right of the workers to the whole produce of labour”. In The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels showed the solution to be political action by the proletariat based upon the class struggle. (At that time they pictured an immature working class taking political power before capitalism was fully developed.) Marx investigated from a scientific standpoint and disclosed the production of surplus-value as an economic fact.

Though the 1832 Reform Bill left working men outside political reform, their attention became focussed on political action to redress their grievances. They provided mass support for the Chartist movement. Following the collapse of the 1848 and Chartist movements there was a decline in working-class activities. Marx retired to his studies and his Critique of Political Economy appeared in 1859.

By the 1860s Benefit Societies were giving way to new unions prepared to use the strike as a weapon. More active trade-union leaders looked to parliamentary action to obtain reforms and put unions on a legal basis. A group of these leaders (“the Junta”) formed the London Trades Council, which sought contact with continental groups. In July 1864, at a meeting to protest about the suppression of a Polish nationalist revolt, some Parisian workers expressed the desire for an international union of workers. English TU leaders favoured the idea as they wished to restrict the import of foreign workers, who were used as strike-breakers. A fraternal address was sent to French workers; in September 1864, at a meeting arranged to welcome the French delegation with their fraternal reply, the International Working Men’s Association was born. It was agreed to have a Central Council (later named the General Council) in London and a provisional committee to work out details. Marx, who had been invited to the meeting, was appointed to both of these and also to the subcommittee formed to prepare an Address and Draft Rules.

The Address, written by Marx, gives a picture of conditions in England. The progressive accumulation of wealth by the propertied classes between 1848 and 1864 is contrasted with the poverty of the working class. It points out that the emancipation of labour is not a local or a national but a social problem; that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class themselves; and that they must conquer political power. However the Address had to be acceptable to people holding a wide range of views, and this is its weakness. In a letter to Engels dated 4th November 1864 Marx outlined the difficulty: “only I was obliged to insert two phrases about ‘duty’ and ‘right’ into the preamble to the statutes, ditto ‘truth, morality and justice’, but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm”. And: “It was difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ movement.”

Though a valuable experience in working-class co-operation, the IWMA was formed by people with different ends in view as well as different policies to reach them. English TU leaders were not interested in Communist ideas but took part only to promote their narrow TU interests. They left allegedly as a reaction to the Commune 1871, but its usefulness to them was at an end. The 1867 Reform Bill had introduced Household Suffrage (on a limited basis). Their own Congress began in 1868, and trade unions were made legal in 1871. What TU leaders saw as the purpose of the International was for Marx and Engels only the beginning. Their concern was the development of class-consciousness, which they expected to come from combined action and mutual discussion in the struggle against capital. They were optimistic about the imminence of the social revolution and thought the time was ripe for another uprising (“the re-awakened movement”).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a new kind of union, organized on the basis of industry rather than special skill or craft, with relatively small contributions. Unskilled workers were becoming organized. These unions offered no benefits, concentrating instead on strike pay. They were concerned with wages and conditions of work and looked to the state to replace the welfare work formerly carried out by Benefit Societies.

This period saw the formation of social-democratic parties in England. In the ’eighties the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society and the Socialist League; in the ’nineties the Independent Labour Party. The SDF and the Socialist League claimed their basis as Marxism, while the Fabians and the ILP spurned “imported ideas”. They saw the basis of Socialism as “reason” and “justice” mixed with religion. All took their starting-point as the class division in society, All had programmes of immediate demands. They fought one another but combined for celebrations and protests, and exchanged lecturers and writers. By 1890 the Socialist League had turned anarchist, opposing parliamentary action, and fallen to pieces. Union leaders were influenced by Socialist ideas. During the long periods of depression the unions could not defend workers against the erosion of gains made in better times. In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed by leaders of the ILP and trade-union officials, to give unions an independent political voice. (In 1906 it became the Labour Party.)

The inspiration for the founding of the Second International was an International Exhibition to be held in Paris in July 1889, to mark the centenary of the French Revolution. French radicals saw it as a good time to express their antagonisms to Capitalism by rival demonstrations of international organizations of labour. The Provisional Agenda agreed for the Paris Congress included international labour legislation, regulation of the working day, inspection of factories, and means to obtain those demands. In other words, the International was founded with reformist aims. Reform policies were part of the programmes of all of the social-democratic parties: the part which gained them support. The German SDF polled a million and a half votes in the 1890 election. (Despite the Anti-Socialist Laws—which then came to an end!) The Erfurt Programme adopted by the German party in 1891 gave a correct analysis of existing society. It pointed out that the way to the emancipation of the proletariat and the entire human race was for “the conversion of capitalistic private property in the means for production into social property with socialistic production”, and recognized that this could “only be the work of the labouring class”. But the preamble to the rules concluded with the intention to struggle “in the present society, not only against exploitation and oppression of the wageworkers, but against every kind of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against class, party, sex, or race”.


Having a programme of reforms inevitably means finding a way to implement it. The question of compromise was brought to a head when Millerand, a leader of the United French Socialist Party, was invited to join the French Liberal Cabinet. Some felt it was “not right”, but others like Jaurès argued that in office Millerand could ameliorate working-class conditions. He took office in 1899 as Minister of Commerce and Industry, and later became President of France. During his first period of office Millerand appealed for time to put reforms into operation, and for workers to exercise patience and respect “law and order”. When the workers lost patience, this “socialist” Minister used the forces of law and order against them.

At each Congress of the International theoretical assertions were made and practical reform programmes discussed. The subject of war came up at every Congress, and the attitudes expressed were in line with the compromising attitude to reform. Resolutions were regularly passed which in part recognised that war will only disappear with the abolition of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism. But the fraternal associates argued the necessity to resist aggression and defend national achievements against interference from without: views reminiscent of the pronouncements on “offensive and defensive wars” during the 1870 Franco-German war. Marx called attention to the fact that the German government was no longer fighting a “defensive war”—it had annexed Alsace-Lorraine.

The SPGB sent delegates to the 1904 Congress in Amsterdam but withdrew from the International when it was realized that the level of Socialist understanding in the Continental Social Democratic Parties was no better than in the English parties. Respect for the theoretical exponents of Socialism received a blow in 1906 when Bebel and Lafargue hailed the election of a Liberal government as a victory for International Socialism. When war came in 1914 the Second International collapsed. Ignoring the class struggle, the SDPS in each country gave patriotic support to their national governments. The SPGB immediately declared opposition to the “Business War”, and has opposed all subsequent wars. Since the working class has no country how can it be defended?

The SPGB case is based on Marxian economics and the materialist view of history, but takes into account that Marx and Engels were pioneers and early attempts at working-class organization are seen in the context of their times. Today we underline the vital lesson learned that the issue of Socialism must be kept clear.

Pat Deutz