Letters: Many tragic aspects of SLP history
Many tragic aspects of SLP history
In reviewing the TV series 1914-18, DAP asserts that the Socialist Labour Party “wavered before coming out against the conflict” (Socialist Standard, December). I presume by Socialist Labour Party DAP means those in the SDF who broke away in 1903 in opposition to Hyndman’s reformism, chauvinism and authoritarianism rather than the American organisation headed by DeLeon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can find no evidence to support DAP’s allegation. Indeed, the SLP’s paper The Socialist for September 1914 stated that the SLP was neither pro-British nor pro-German and that its enemy was the capitalists. As the slaughter progressed, a number of SLPers found themselves behind bars for opposing the war, while the police destroyed the SLP’s printing press.
There were many tragic aspects to the SLP’s history but its position on WWI was not one of them. What was tragic in my view was the failure of those who broke away from the SDF in 1903 to unite with those who broke away in 1904 for much the same reasons. True enough there were differences—the SLP emphasised the industrial struggle while the SPGB emphasised the political. But there were a host of similarities— opposition to reformism, the need for a democratic organisation, making and educating Socialists.
Tragic too was the hypnotic effect of Bolshevism on many SLPers which resulted in their joining the Communist Party where they quickly came under the iron rule of those who slavishly implemented the line laid down by Moscow. However, SLPers did make some important contributions to Marxist theory in particular the work of William Paul and Len Cotton on the state.
The Socialist Party is right to criticise any other organisation calling itself Socialist but if it does so on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations it risks falling into the trap of using the type of methods its opponents, particularly Leninists, use against it.
The review did not make “unsubstantiated allegations” about the SLP. It stated that the SLP “wavered” before fully coming out against the war, which meant that the only political organisation to “unequivocally” oppose the war was the Socialist Party. This is not a loose or unsubstantiated allegation—it is a matter of historical record, noted with dismay by us at the time and chronicled by historians since.
The Socialist in the early months of the war contained a number of contradictory statements which reflected the different political positions held by members of the SLP, both pro- and anti-war. One section of the SLP membership looked favourably on the idea of a war of “national defence” against German militarism. This was the view expressed both by leading SLPer Arthur MacManus and by the then editor of The Socialist, Johnny Muir. The resultant doubts about the SLP’s exact position on the war were expressed by Muir himself in the December 1914 issue of the paper where he wrote about the two factions in his party:
“I have not been able to find out what support each side has, and consequently I cannot say definitely what the official attitude of the Party is.”
We may add that both before the conflict and during it the SLP worked with pro-capitalist organisations for temporary purposes e g. in anti-militarism campaigns. Eventually the SLP allied itself with elements in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and British Socialist Party (BSP) who opposed the war but nevertheless supported state-run capitalism.
This was a disastrous policy which played no small part in encouraging the “hypnotic” politics of Bolshevism Terry Liddle refers to. The other factor in this was the leadership-orientated, anti-democratic nature of the SLP, a characteristic of course shared by the SLP’s American partner body of the same name as well as by the Russian Bolsheviks themselves. Indeed, the very idea that the SLP—like the SPGB—recognised “the need for democratic organisation” is at variance with any serious knowledge of that organisation. The SLP was a highly authoritarian body like its US counterpart and Terry Liddle would do well to read the rule books of either if he doubts this. Because of factors like these it was no surprise to us that the SLP was split asunder in 1920 when a large portion of its membership left to found the Communist Party of Great Britain along with members of organisations like the ILP, BSP and others that the SLP had been courting for years.
What about the electorate?
While in agreement with R. Montague’s article in the November issue of the Socialist Standard in which he criticises the role of the media in contemporary society, he fails to mention the recipient of media propaganda, i.e., the electorate. and the influence which it in turn has upon society.
Take, for example, the current demise of socialism within the Labour Party. Some people would argue that it is all the fault of the leadership; but the Labour Party can only be the kind of party that public opinion will allow it to be; and public opinion is, for the most part, determined by the media. The Labour Party knows full that if it started to espouse socialism between now and the next election. it would have no chance of being elected, because the media has succeeded in turning socialism into a dirty word and/ or an anachronism.