Book Review: ‘The Origins of British Bolshevism’

The Origins of British Bolshevism, by Raymond Challinor (Croom Helm Ltd.)

This useful addition to the library of working-class political history gives a reasonable account of the movements which established the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain, and the Communist Party of Gt. Britain. The chapters describing the effect of the Russian Revolution on the SLP are particularly enlightening.

Starting out, in 1903, under the influence of the American orator Daniel De Leon, the SLP was anti-parliamentarian and advocated Industrial Unionism by means of which the workers would “take and hold”. With the establishment of the Leninist dictatorship, the SLP swallowed (with some hesitancy) the Russian pill. Its paper, The Socialist, declared: “The theories of Lenin . . . are similar to those advocated by the SLP”, and: “For years the SLP has been sneered at, but now Russia, in the transition towards the Socialist Republic, shows the SLP is right”. (The Socialist, March 1918)

As his book deals only with what he calls British Bolshevism, perhaps Prof. Challinor may be excused his complete omission of any mention of the SPGB’s stance on the Russian upheaval which was the opposite of the SLP’s: from the beginning we said there will be no Socialism in Russia.

The subsequent revelations of the intrigues and manoeuvres of Bell, MacManus and Paul to wheel the entire SLP into the new Communist Party; the exposure of the lavish distribution of Russian funds by Theodore Rothstein, in 1920 a Comintern agent but in 1907 a Menshevik (who wrote in Justice, the SDF paper: “Is there any sane man who doubts that the present Russian Revolution cannot lead to Socialism?”) Willie Gallacher, returning from Moscow to break up SLP meetings and economics classes of those who would not join the CP (Yes, they were doing it in 1921!) terminating in the utter and complete failure of the CP (using Leninist tactics) to capture the Labour Party—all these make pretty gruesome reading. By 1923 the original SLP contingent were ousted and pensioned off and replaced by Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt.

The sorry truth of the ignominious failure of the CP now finally exposed, its ridiculously inflated membership figures (for Russian consumption) admitted by Klugman (the party’s official historian) never to have exceeded 2/3,000 – but making much noise with 2/3,000 paid organizers, speakers, writers and agitators and numerous “front” organizations. Most pathetic of all is Prof. Challinor’s conclusion. Seeking to teach others, he has learned absolutely nothing himself from the SLP’s destruction in the Russian disaster. Bemoaning the passing of a party which started out in rebellion against the reformism of the Social Democratic Federation as a group of worker-stalwarts trying to master and teach Marxism as they saw it, but getting caught up and destroyed by Bolshevik intrigues, our Prof. actually repeats word for word the same dreary rubbish the Trotskyists of various shades have regurgitated for years: “Smashing the State”, “Soviets”, “Build the Vanguard” etc etc.

The lessons are, he says: “Work with the Trade Unions for Workers’ Control”; “Build the movement for independent working class education” and “The need for a new type of working class party to act as a vanguard” because the SLP evolved the Bolshevik approach independently of the Russians (p. 281) – despite the fact that his whole book is just an obituary of the SLP which actually took this line. But it’s quite a good read.


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