On 12 June 1904, a few ordinary working men women founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain with the sole object of establishing a socialist society. The aim of the party was clearly defined, as was a set of principles which through the years have anchored the Party to its task.
September 1904 saw the production of the first Socialist Standard; our journal has appeared every month since then. Its production has been carried out entirely by the voluntary efforts of members, often under very difficult circumstances. Lack of funds has been the recurring problem over the years.
The first printer, the late Comrade Jacomb, never pressed for payment. Later, and for many years, the Socialist Standard and other Party publications were printed by a sympathetic firm who were prepared to give us credit. Regularly the Treasurer informed the Executive Committee that funds only permitted part payment to the printer. Thanks to some legacies in recent years we have put these problems behind us.
The contents of the Socialist Standard over the years have reflected changing conditions and the reactions of the writers to these changes. So many years later it is not easy to pick out subjects for special mention and the choice must be a personal one.
There is some material which has become part of history. Jacomb’s King Capital’s Coronation in 1912, which in later years patriotic compositors refused to deal with, is one such article. Jack Fitzgerald’s early statement on the Russian revolution, in which we said that economic conditions made it impossible to establish socialism there, is another. Then there is the Manifesto on War in 1914, repeated at the outbreak of the Second World War, and the Manifesto to the proposed international Peace Congress of 1917, in which the Executive Committee restated the socialist viewpoint on war.
The distribution of our literature has always depended on the work of our members. Difficulties were there to be overcome. There was a bad period during the First World War when, as a result of the Military Service Act male members had to scatter and contact was often lost. Women members had to take on the extra work; some members who had been jailed for refusing military service distributed literature in and around the prisons. During October 1916 the War Office banned the despatch of the Socialist Standard overseas on the grounds that part of it might be useful to the enemy.
May Day demonstrations have always provided members with the opportunity of selling literature, and dodging the park regulations became quite an art. CND marches at their peak were always good for literature sales and propaganda in general. Meetings in Trafalgar Square, held by the Party or opponents, find members busy selling literature, arguing with opponents and discussing with enquirers.
The “stump” – or portable platform – was until quite recently the most successful method of propagating political views. In 1905 there were twenty-five known outdoor speaking spots in London alone and many others in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester. For a Party speaker in London, Sunday could be hectic. A speaker who was a keen cyclist would speak at Wood Green, Tottenham in the morning until around midday. After some refreshment, on to Finsbury Park for an afternoon meeting. Here there would usually be plenty of opponents and occasions when the speaker needed the physical protection of other members. After this he might go to West Ham for an evening meeting. This took place outside a pub and he’d make sure the meeting closed well before the pub did. One such speaker, when he got off the platform, found that his bicycle was missing and he had to borrow his fare home.
During the First World War speaking on the outdoor platform became dangerous and some of the speakers were in prison or on the run. There was a recovery between the two wars, and some good meetings were held on Sundays at Victoria Park in East London, Finsbury Park. Brockwell Park, Hyde Park and Beresford Square, Woolwich. During the 1939-45 war there was a drop in activity, although meetings were held successfully on Sundays in Hyde Park. Audiences often consisted of workers in uniform, and the meeting often continued through air raids.
Modern traffic conditions have made street propaganda almost impossible. In London the only major speaking spot left is Hyde Park. At Tower Hill, where we still hold mid-week meetings, the competition was fierce: there was the man who was tattooed from head to foot, the man who for a few pence demonstrated how he could release himself from the tightest of chains; the Irish comedian and one or two others who were classed as “penny snatchers”. Two religious meetings and one Secular Society speaker all competed for an audience. On Monday midday we still put up the platform at the home of the legal profession at Lincoln Inn Fields, but again car parking and traffic have made it very difficult to hold meetings there.
As conditions progressively made the early form of outdoor meetings difficult, the Party looked for other ways of carrying out our work. Elections have been contested in an endeavour to get workers to accept our point of view. 1906 saw the beginning in a small way; probably our most successful venture in elections was in 1945. We still put up candidates as and when we can, but activity today concentrates more on the distribution and sale of our literature, rather than the holding of indoor meetings. Debates with opponents have been, and are still being held – when we can persuade them to take up our challenge.
Over the years the Party has seen hard times and good ones; we have seen many so-called working class parties rise and fall. It is a tribute to our members who have carried on the work that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is still in existence in 1979 and working for its original and only Object.