Changes in the political scene

In 1925, Joseph Clayton, in his Rise and Decline of Socialism wrote that “The Socialist Party of Great Britain, which was the Marx, the whole Marx and nothing but Marx . . . never had any luck.” His single test for all political parties was ‘how many members have they?’ If their membership was small he wasn’t interested. Indeed he admitted, in correspondence, that he had not even troubled to find out if the SPGB and the fading Social Democratic Federation were still in existence. So he did not have to examine the proposition that only socialism will solve the problems of the working class, or attempt to show that the big membership parties could either solve the problems within capitalism or could establish socialism.But the scene constantly changes. Parties, both the openly capitalist ones and those claiming to have a different and quicker policy for achieving socialism, rise and decline and new party names—if not new policies—come along.

During the 19th Century and up to 1914 power was in the hands of Liberals and Tories alternately with, towards the end, the Liberals being supported in Parliament by their allies the growing Labour party. The last Liberal victory was in 1910. Then their decline set in and after World War 1 the Liberal vote at general elections never reached that of the Labour party. By 1951 it was only about 2½ per cent. Since then, owing to voters’ dissatisfaction with Labour and Tory governments, it climbed to 18 per cent in 1974 but fell back to 13.8 per cent in 1979.

Among the smaller parties claiming to be socialist the first “success” as measured by Mr Clayton, went to the Social Democratic Federation, which in 1892 claimed 7,400 members. Thereafter, with various changes of name, regroupings, and the loss of many members to the Labour party in 1920, it faded away and disappeared in 1939. Its first rivals had been the Fabian Society which still exists, though with diminished influence on the Labour party, and the Independent Labour Party, the greatest “success” of all. In 1925 it had 50,000 members, and at the general election in 1929 more than 200 Labour MPs were members of the ILP. But as the Labour party attracted Liberal voters, and many Liberal politicians joined its ranks, it had no further use for the ILP, which broke away and ceased to count. It finally wound up in 1975, telling its members to join the Labour party.

Next on the scene was the Communist Party of Great Britain. It followed the unsuccessful policy of street fighting, armed revolt and “heavy civil war”. Now it has become an ordinary reformist political party, its earlier policies being taken over by several new ‘left-wing’ organisations.

The Labour party too has changed. In its early days, though some of its leaders like Phillip Snowden tried to play it down in order not to offend the Liberals, it represented its prime aim as the abolition of capitalism and establishment of socialism. In debates, the Labour speakers would usually declare their full acceptance of socialism as defined by the SPGB, and maintain that the difference was only about how to get socialism. As late as 1925 Attlee, who became Labour Prime Minister in 1945, declared that the Labour party believed “in the abolition of classes and in an equalitarian society”. (The Will and the Way to Socialism). There were to be no rich and no poor, no cramped dwellings and no luxury mansions. All were to be ‘equal’. It is ironic in view of the efforts of his own, and succeeding, Labour governments to hold down wages that, according to Attlee, a Labour government would seek to achieve the equalising process by a policy of “wage increases”. In 1945 the Labour party election programme declared “The Labour Party is a socialist party, and proud of it”. Nowadays, in spite of some feeble efforts of Callaghan and Michael Foot during the recent campaign to resuscitate the “socialist” appeal for the benefit of the “faithful”, Labour Party propaganda and policies are openly directed to proving that the Labour party is better at handling capitalism’s problems than is the Tory Party. In a recent interview Callaghan said

  Socialism has always been a matter of controversy in the Labour Party and there are millions of Labour Party supporters who aren’t socialists and never have been.

(Observer 3 December 1978)

It was a different story when the Labour Party took office in 1929. The Labour Daily Herald (1 June 1929) said

  This great appeal to the public has shown that socialism has no terrors for millions of men and women in this country of all classes and callings. The magnificent results we record today are an earnest that at no very distant date the banners of socialism will be carried to that final victory of which the present triumph is only a prelude.

So the Socialist Party of Great Britain has still, by Clayton’s standard, “never had any luck”, but the parties which said they knew how to humanise capitalism have failed, and the parties which thought they had discovered short cuts to socialism have come and gone and the socialist proposition still holds the field.

Edgar Hardcastle