Retrospect: the Socialist Standard 1904

Seventy-five years ago, the first issue of the Socialist Standard was published—a clear statement of the unique socialist case, of uncompromising opposition to the expediencies of reformism:

    “The greatest problem awaiting solution in the world to-day is the existence in every commercial country of extreme poverty side by side with extreme wealth . . . It is the producer of wealth who is poor, the non-producer who is rich. How comes it that the men and women who till the soil, who dig the mine, who manipulate the machine, who build the factory and the home, and, in a word, who create the whole of the wealth, receive only sufficient to maintain themselves and their families on the border line of bare physical efficiency, while those who do not aid in production – the employing class – obtain more than is enough to supply their every necessity, comfort, and luxury?”

All the attempted improvements and reforms of governments since then—be they Tory, Labour, Liberal or coalition—have not made any difference. Society is still divided into classes, the haves and the have-nots:

    “. . .  the life condition of the workers is one of penury and of misery. The only saleable commodity they possess  – their power of working – they are compelled to take to the labour market and sell for a bare subsistence wage. The food they eat, the clothing they wear, the houses in which they live are of the shoddiest kind, and these together with the mockery of an education which their children receive, primarily determine the purchasing price of their labour-power.”

Today, three-quarters of a century later, these observations are still true. Now we eat soya-bean substitutes in place of meat; we accept that new clothes will fall to bits rapidly or need mending soon after purchase. Some even rely on jumble sales and thrift shops to clothe their children in second-hand reach-me-downs; working-class housing is built on the cheap and nasty principle, heedless of comfort and of a most unappealing ugliness; while the schools our children are compelled by law to attend are no more able to educate them than a battery farm can be said to educate its hens.

That first article went on to demonstrate how profit, interest and rent derive from “the unpaid labour of the working-class”.

    “So long as this lasts – and it will last as long as the capitalist system of society – it will not be possible for the workers by any Trades Union organisation to more than slightly modify their condition, and their power in this direction is becoming every day more limited by the combinations among employers to defeat the aims of the working class.”

The socialists of 1904 would find their description of the capitalist system in British applies just as aptly to 1979 as when that sentence first appeared in print. Now the trade unions are opposed by the Confederation of British Industry, Aims of Industry and the Institute of Directors, as well as by combinations of employers within various branches of industry. During these seventy-five years, we have seen and learnt from many bitter experiences just how limited is the power of trade union action. In 1926, all the efforts of the coalminers solidly united in their union and supported by other trade unionists could not prevent a reduction in their wages. In recent years, currency inflation combined with rising levels of unemployment have brought about similar falls in the real purchasing power of workers’ wages. Even in 1904, the Socialist Standard reported that “the real wage of the worker as measured by its purchasing power has, since 1900, been reduced by ten per cent.” Experience tells us that we cannot expect lasting improvements from trade union action, only temporary gains which are wiped out when market conditions alter.

What, then, can we do? The answer given by the Socialist Party in 1904 is the same as we would give today, not because we are blinkered slaves to tradition but because the conditions and problems we are dealing with are essentially the same. Our task is

    “… to show the workers that while their organisation in trades will prove an invaluable aid in the transformation of society by facilitating industrial reorganisation, yet at present they can best help to emancipate themselves from the thraldom of wage-slavery by recognising that in their class struggle with their exploiters they can be most certain of success in the political sphere of action.”

Then, as now, socialists had to expose the non-revolutionary parties—whether allegedly labour or avowedly capitalist—as opposed to socialism. That first article proceeds to sum up the Conservatives and the Liberals as parties “interested in maintaining the present class society”, which “cannot, therefore, be expected to help in its transformation from capitalism to Socialism.”

The Labour Representative Committee, which later spawned the Labour Party, was described as

    “also to be avoided . . . [It] has no programme whatsoever, and its members possess no principles in common save the name “Labour.” . . . Unity is only possible among those who possess common principles. Unity can not, therefore, be secured for any length of time by the members of the Labour Representation Committee, but even if it could, the body is not based upon Socialist principles and should not receive the adhesion of working men.”

History has shown that unity can be achieved in the absence of common principles, but only by those prepared to elevate vote-catching and expediency. The Labour Party today, perpetually threatened with splits, develops its politics mainly with a view to the popularity polls when out of power, and when in government never fails to disappoint its faithful rank and file by its concern for capitalist class interests, under the cover name of the ‘national interest’.

What was needed, we said in 1904, was a socialist party. There was then the Independent Labour Party but, being a ‘halfway house to socialism’, founded on compromise, was doomed:

    “Having neither the courage to proclaim themselves Socialists nor to disavow Socialism, they are to-day coquetting with that working-class wing of the Liberal Party – the Labour Representation Committee.”

As we have so often seen with the Labour Party, the LRC’s reaction to the question of socialism was that “that was neither the time nor the place for such discussion”. It is doubtful if the question of socialism—the abolition of the wages system—has ever been thought proper for discussion or been on the agenda at any Labour, ILP or LRC meeting.

The other party claiming to be socialist in 1904 was the Social Democratic Federation, from which the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain had seceded earlier that year. It was following a ‘compromising policy’ like that of the ILP, so much so that it was “surely developing into a mere reform party, seeking to obtain the provision of Free Maintenance for school children”. Like the ILP, the SDF was drawn into the orbit of the Labour Party and is long since defunct. The SPGB, scoffed at as ‘Impossibilists’, has however survived, and has developed its case in response to historical change. Since 1904 we have stated the socialist attitude on war, on the Russian Revolution, the General Strike, the theory mooted in the Depression that capitalism was about to collapse, and many other issues.

As in 1904, the SPGB is “a party determined to use its every effort in the furtherance of Socialist ideas and Socialist principles”. We continue to work “gain the confidence and support of the working-class . . . by consistently advocating . . . a clearly defined body of principles”. Then, as now, we assert that “the first duty of The Socialist Party is the teaching of its principles and the organisation of a political party on a Socialist basis”. The first message of the first socialist political party to the working class, with an optimism now embarrassing, concluded:

    “Men and women of the working-class, it is to you we appeal! To-day we are a small party, strong only in the truth of our principles, the sincerity of our motives, and the determination and enthusiasm of our members. To-morrow we shall be strong in our numbers, for the economic development of capitalist society fights for us, and as, through the merging of free competition in monopoly and the simplification of industry, the personal capitalist gives place to the impersonal trust as your employer, you will be forced to see that the welfare of the people can best be guaranteed by the holding of all material wealth in common.

    We ask you, therefore, to study the principles upon which our party is based, to find out for yourselves what Socialism is and how Socialism and Socialism alone can abolish class society and establish in its stead a society based upon social equality. When you have done this we know that you will come with us and, by enrolling yourself a member of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, help to speed the time when we shall herald in for ourselves and for our children, a brighter, a happier and a nobler society than any the world has yet witnessed.”

C. Skelton

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