1990s >> 1995 >> no-1091-july-1995

Book Review: ‘The History of the Social Democratic Federation’

Refusing support for lost causes

‘The History of the Social Democratic Federation’, by Martin Crick. Ryburn Publishing. Keele University Press.

A good history of the SDF has long been needed. This is not a good history, but neither is it useless; indeed, the author has clearly spent some time with the archives of the Federation, particularly investigating its local activities in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and there is much within the 300-plus pages which is educative.

Unlike Tsuzuki, whose book ‘Hyndman and British Socialism’ was published in 1961, this study recognises that the SDF was more than just Hyndman, much as the latter failed to understand this himself. Hyndman was a racist who had no place in a socialist organisation (the 1900 conference had to pass a resolution condemning his anti-Semitism) and an arrogant authoritarian who could not have survived outside of a small political sect which he controlled. Hyndman has been given too generous a place in the historical record of the socialist movement in Britain.

There are eight references to the SPGB in this book, each of them mean and disparaging. This is par for the course: Crick is clearly the kind of historian for whom the repetition of cliched prejudice comes easier than objective analysis. Otherwise he would have surely pointed out that unlike the SDF, which first sucked into the embryonic Labour Party and subsequently into the formation of the Communist Party, the SPGB resisted support for lost causes and stuck to its revolutionary principles.

Of more detailed historical significance, the few pages devoted to the departure from the SDF of the so-called impossibilists, who were to form the SPGB in 1904, is badly confused. Briefly, Crick suggests that there were three positions within the SDF in the early 1900s: the impossibilists who opposed working in capitalist trade unions; the SDF Left, led by Quelch, who supported activity in the unions but wanted political independence; and the SDF Right (mainly from the north of England) who wanted the SDF to become a trade-union party. Now, it is quite correct that there were SDF members who wanted the SDF to join a trade-union-based alliance, and the Federation did end up joining the Labour Representative Committee for a while together with the Fabians and the rest, but the description of the “impossibilists” is far from accurate.

For a start, the so-called impossibilists were divided between the De Leonists in Scotland, who theoretically at least adopted the position of opposing the existing unions and seeking the formation of socialist unions. In reality, even these people who were to form the British SLP in 1903, realised that times were not propitious for the establishment of separate socialist unions and many of them were active and militant trade unionists in Scotland. As for the London “impossibilists”, who were to be active in the formation of the SPGB, it is pure nonsense to state that they were against working in the unions. For example, Jack Fitzgerald and H. J. Hawkins, the two London impossibilists whose expulsion from the SDF helped precipitate the formation of the SPGB, were respectively members of the Builders’ Union and a delegate to the TUC three times, and a member of the London Trades Council. Indeed, those who have taken the trouble to research seriously the early history of the SPGB are aware that many of its founder members were militant union members. True, there was an early debate within the party about the need for socialist industrial unions, in which E. J. B. Allen was their greatest advocate (he subsequently became a close friend and comrade of Tom Mann, the syndicalist), but, despite the considerable respect which many early SPGBers, including Fitzgerald, had for De Leon’s ideas, the party was committed to a recognition of the class struggle and this necessitated, at least until the political movement was bigger, working within the existing trade unions.

Incidentally, Crick makes much of the SDF’s Marxism, but he should remember that Hyndman preferred his own writings to be studied rather than Marx’s and there was actually a ban on Marxian economic education within the SDF: Fitzgerald was thrown out partly for running just such study classes. As a lesson for socialists, the history of the SDF, which ended its existence in the 1940s as a pathetic right-wing dinner club for Labour MPs, is that its greatest moment came in 1904 when the real socialists transcended it.

Steve Coleman

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