The Socialist Party of Great Britain is often asked how it reconciles its claim to be Marxist with certain attitudes and statements of Marx and Engels. Many of these criticisms are based on misunderstandings. The critics have not noticed that, as Marx and Engels gained in knowledge and experience, they themselves rejected or modified views they had held at the beginning of their long years of political activity.
One example of this is the statement made by Engels in 1895 in his Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France 1848-50:
The rebellion of the old style, the street fight behind barricades, which up to 1848 gave the final decision, has become antiquated
The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But so that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required, and it is this work that we are now performing with results that drive our enemies to despair.
But Engels, as is shown by his unjustifiably optimistic concluding statement, was far from having realised just how “long and persistent” that work had to be, and how it had to be conducted. He based it on the growing membership of the European Social Democratic parties, particularly the German party. Most of those parties claimed to be Marxist and all claimed to have socialism as their objective, but they all had in their programme a long list of immediate demands. The German Party’s list ran into dozens, including such items as legal recognition of trade unions, abolition of child labour, no government support for religion, and — a very significant one — “Training in universal military duty. A people’s army in place of the standing armies”. This appeared, too, in the 1895 programme of the British Social Democratic Federation in the form: “The abolition of Standing armies, and the establishment of National Citizen Forces; the People to decide on Peace or War”.
As later events were to show, the Social Democratic parties owed their growing membership and electoral support not to any socialist objective but to their reform programmes. The parties all paid lip-service to the idea of international socialist unity and opposition to war, but most of their members and supporters in all countries were strongly nationalist in their outlook.
When the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1904 by breakaway members of the Social Democratic Federation it made a clear break with the practice of having programmes of immediate demands and of entering into pacts with openly capitalist parties which the reform programmes encouraged. A statement issued by those members of the Social Democratic Federation who were about to form the Socialist Party of Great Britain contained the following: “The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits of any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class struggle as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. Opposition to all who were not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy“. The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed on the basis of having only socialism as its objective, as set out in our Declaration of Principles, the seventh clause of which embodies the statement of hostility to every other party in this country. That Declaration of Principles became the sole basis of membership.
How right the SPGB was in dissenting from the belief that the growth of the social democratic parties was evidence of growing support for socialism, was to be shown with the outbreak of war in 1914. In spite of having subscribed to resolutions at international conferences opposing participation in war, nearly all the Social Democratic parties rallied in support of their governments in waging war. It was left to the SPGB in this country to issue a statement of total opposition to the war: “Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism“.
Among other things this meant rejecting the attitude of Marx and Engels in favour of supporting a “defensive war” and their attitude towards war with Russia. As late as 1891 Engels, in a letter to Bebel had written:
Between a Socialist France and a ditto Germany an Alsace-Lorraine problem has no existence at all. Hence there is no reason whatsoever for a war on account of Alsace-Lorraine. If, however, the French bourgeoisie begins a war themselves, and for this purpose place themselves in the service of the Russian Tsar, who is also the enemy of the bourgeoisie of the whole of western Europe, this will be the renunciation of France’s revolutionary mission. We German Socialists, on the other hand, have the duty of maintaining, not only against the internal but against the external foe. If Russia is victorious we shall be crushed. Therefore if Russia begins war go for her! Go for the Russians and their allies, whoever they may be.
The same letter contained two other statements foreshadowing the new departure of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Engels, with the German Social Democratic Party in mind, wrote — “We have the almost absolute certainty of coming to power within ten years” and then wrote: “If a war brings us to power prematurely, the technicians will be our chief enemies: they will deceive and destroy us wherever they can and we shall have to use terror against them.”
The SPGB rejects outright any idea of the working class taking power for socialism “prematurely”. It will be noticed that Engels talked of using “terror” against a section of the working class described by him as “people with technical training”. Such people are members of the working class just like any other wage and salary earners. We take literally, as Engels did not, his own statement that “the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they must act”. It is of course an enormous task to win over the working class to an understanding of socialism, but the “technicians” are no more slow to accept it than any other workers.
While there was a Social Democratic Federation in this country proclaiming itself Marxist the course of development was different from that in Germany and other continental countries. The SDF, formed in 1884, gained only a few votes at elections. This was duly noted by J. Keir Hardie. He ascribed it to the “narrowness” of the SDF’s appeal to the workers and argued that the road to socialism had to be by broadening the appeal, especially to trade unions, so that a mass party could be built up and the membership then won over to socialism. It was on this basis that Hardie founded the Independent Labour Party in 1893. (He had already been elected to Parliament as an “independent socialist” on such a broad programme.) He and the ILP were active in the formation of the Labour Party in 1906 and he was its first Chairman. Hardie insisted that the Labour Party was a Marxist party, and. in effect, the Labour Party became the British equivalent of the German Social Democratic Party, the supposed socialist victories of which had misled Engels.
It is therefore against the policies and development of the Labour Party that the line taken by the SPGB can be assessed. In 1907. while Hardie was Chairman of the Labour Party, he published two works From Serfdom to Socialism and My confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance. In the first he stated his socialist objective:
State Socialism, with all its drawbacks, and these I frankly admit, will prepare the way for free Communism in which . . . the rule of life will be — From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
(By “State Socialism” of course he meant nationalisation, or “State capitalism”).
In his Confession of Faith Hardie made several statements about Marx and Marxism:
The Labour Party is the only expression of orthodox Marxian Socialism in Great Britain.
(Hardie knew all about the SPGB but chose to ignore it.)
The Labour Party practices the Marxian policy of the class struggle, and is blamed by its critics for doing so.
The founders of the ILP, and even more so, of the Labour Party were, if I may use the expression, in the direct line of apostolic succession from Marx and the other great master minds of Socialist theory and policy.
Hardie made much of the argument that the Labour Party was a party of workers, “working out their own emancipation”, and delivered a telling blow against H.M. Hyndman, a leading member of the SDF: “It is a favourite saying of Mr. H.M. Hyndman that ‘no slave class ever emancipated itself.”
He also boasted of the unprecedented success of the Labour Party in already having thirty members in Parliament. This “success” was to continue until, in 1945, with 393 MPs, they had a clear majority and still claimed that their objective was Socialism (by which they meant State Capitalism) though by then, the claim to be Marxist had disappeared. The Labour Party had gone the way of the German Social Democratic Party, supported British capitalism in two world wars and had become simply an alternative to the Tories in running capitalism. Keir Hardie’s belief that a socialist minority would win over the non-socialist trade union members to socialism had sunk without trace in the Labour Party, dependent on trade union money and dominated by the affiliated trade unions.
Keir Hardie. in his Confession of Faith, had already seen one aspect of the development, the infiltration of “men who act as though their principal reason for being in the ILP is that they may get returned to Parliament”.
With the collapse of the Liberal Party after World War I there was a flood of ex-Liberal MPs and members into the Labour Party, who did not even pretend to have any interest in socialism. They were to the fore in winning over the Labour Party and trade unions to the view that Marx was out of date and that the way ahead was the improvement of capitalism on the lines of the doctrines of J.M. Keynes.
It has been left to the SPGB to keep alive the socialist ideas of Marx in this country, vindicating the position taken up at our formation in 1904.