A Century In Print
In September 1904, three months after the founding of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the first edition of the Socialist Standard appeared. It made a modest start with an ambitious declaration of future intent. The first ever editorial commented that:
“We are all members of the working class, and cannot hope that our articles will always be finely phrased, but we shall at least endeavour to lay before you on every occasion a sane and sound pronouncement on all matters affecting the welfare of the working class. What we lack in refinement of style we shall make good by the depth of our sincerity and by the truth of our principles . . . We shall, for the present, content ourselves with a monthly issue, but we are confident that the various demands upon us, by the quantity of matter at our disposal, and by the growth of our party, will necessitate in the near future, a weekly issue of our paper.”
Looking back, the writer certainly need not have been quite so bashful about the Standard’s content as over the period since it has developed a well deserved reputation for a style of political journalism – not dissimilar in many respects to popular science writing as it developed throughout the twentieth century – which has been characterised by clarity of expression and use of vernacular language wherever possible. Whatever disagreements some of our readers may have had with us, misunderstandings based on the style in which we have put across our case have been comparatively few and far between, for while many groups on the political left have chosen to mark themselves out from their competitors more through the invention of their own particular liturgy than through the distinctiveness of their political positions, we have always done our best to say it as it is, in language readily understandable to our readership. Given the propagandistic and educational roles of the Standard, this has been important.
One hundred years on, and 1,200 issues later, we are still a monthly journal (the sought-after transition to weekly publication has so far eluded us) but can legitimately claim to have published without interruption ever since, being Britain’s longest-running socialist political press. Given the financial travails at various points in our history – not to mention two world wars in which many of our members were sent to prison or went ‘on the run’ – this is no small achievement, sometimes brought about through huge personal sacrifice impelled by massive commitment to the cause.
Just as remarkably, considering the forthright and direct use of language by writers for the Standard over the years, we have been sued only once (though admittedly threatened with it on a few more occasions than that). This action was, ironically enough, brought by a trade union – the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants – who objected to an attack on their General Secretary, Richard Bell MP, on the front page of the August 1906 edition. When the case came to court nearly a year later, Bell was awarded a token £2 worth of damages by the Judge after our comrades Fitzgerald and Anderson had stoutly defended the case against the union’s King’s Counsel.
During the two world wars, the Standard’s political stance led it into conflict with the authorities and on both occasions the consequences could have been far more serious than any likely libel action. Throughout the First World War the Standard largely defied the Defence of the Realm Regulations introduced in November 1914 concerning comment prejudicial to the conduct of the war, and on the advice of ‘E’ Branch of MI5, the Standard was prohibited by the Home Office from being sent to any destination outside the United Kingdom. In 1917 the Party’s offices were raided too, with several members questioned about their political activity. The matter had come to a head after an article for the Standard by Adolph Kohn had been sent from America and intercepted by the authorities there. During the Second World War, the Defence Regulations introduced in May 1940 were even more strictly upheld and the Standard’s opposition to the conflict was expressed codedly, with no overtly anti-war articles appearing after 1940.
On only three occasions have outside agencies otherwise directly and deliberately interfered with articles due to be printed in the Standard. In February 1916 a printer refused to print an article on Lloyd George and the Clyde workers that our comrade Jacomb had set into type, leading to a brief explanation and an otherwise blank column. Then in March 1952 an article about the institution of the monarchy and King George VI entitled ‘The King Is Dead’ didn’t appear because the compositors disagreed with its contents. The third occasion was in March 1988 when the printers (without the consent of the Editorial Committee) issued their own disclaimer at the end of an article on sectarian violence in Northern Ireland which had attacked the political gangsters of the IRA in the wake of the Enniskillen atrocity.
A matter of style
Articles in the Standard have always tended to reflect the Socialist Party’s origins in Britain’s movement of self-educated workingmen in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century; written by volunteers, they have exhibited a style which has relied heavily on formal definitions and logic, together with the use of statistics and quotations designed to support an approach that can typically be described as critical and polemical.
While items have always been characterised by a clarity and directness of approach, they have nevertheless evolved over the last century to reflect wider changes in the use of language and in writing style. Early articles sometimes seemed written with the intent of bludgeoning the sceptical reader into submission, and correspondents – for the Standard has enthusiastically opened up its correspondence pages to friend and foe alike from the outset – had to tread warily lest they incurred the wrath of a hawk-eyed Editorial Committee on the look-out for ‘unsound’ or ‘unscientific’ arguments.
The pages of the Standard were replete with attacks on ‘capitalist cant’, ‘quack remedies’, ‘currency cranks’, ‘labour fakirs’ and ‘apologists for reformism’ though these rhetorical and polemical pieces were typically intermingled with theoretical articles (some reprinted from Engels, Kautsky, Guesde and others) involving eloquent explanations of complex issues. Whether it was Fitzgerald on the intricacies of Marxian economics, Housley on the materialist conception of history, or Freddie Watts waxing forth like the best popular science writer in pieces like ‘Is Society An Organism?’, contributors to the Standard were able to translate complex arguments into accounts and propositions that were readily understandable to the readers.
This is a tradition that has been continued in the years since, both in general, theoretical articles and in pieces which have sought to apply Marxian theory to specific conditions and developments within capitalism. In the first category, various theoretical articles – particularly in the 1920s and 30s – by Robert Reynolds (‘Robertus’) and Gilbert McClatchie (‘Gilmac’) on history and the evolution of society, by Raspbridge (B.S.) on the nature of the banking system and Goldstein on the labour theory of value are amongst the finest of their kind; eloquent interpretations and expositions of complex analysis and argumentation made comprehensible to the man or woman in the street. This was a tradition which was sustained after the Second World War, but with the field of engagement widened to include ecology, psychology and discussion of theories relevant to the refutation of ‘human nature’ arguments against socialism.
Where writers for the Standard perhaps had most to contribute was in the practical application of Marxist theory to political and economic issues facing the working class. This had been a hallmark of the journal since the early days when, through applications of Marxian economics, writers had expounded on the reasons why taxation is not ultimately a burden on the working class but on capital, on the irrelevance of tariff reform or the concealed dangers in proposals for free maintenance for schoolchildren. Similarly, the Standard’s analysis of the development of state capitalism in Russia and the rise of Nazism in Germany were excellent examples of the application of Marx’s materialist conception of history to new issues and developments within capitalism as they confronted the working class.
Particularly with the advent of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the various political and economic proposals of the reformers of the time to tackle it, the Standard came into its own. Hardy (‘H’) analysed the economic crisis from the Marxian standpoint and derided the arguments of the capitalist reformers who desperately sought to save the system they supported: from the ‘social credit’ acolytes of Major Douglas through to the Gold Standard abolitionists, the advocates of higher prices and the tax reformers.
Similarly, after the war the Standard spent much time debunking the arguments and proposals of the supporters of John Maynard Keynes, who developed the main economic theory which underpinned the reformist political intent of the period. In a masterly series of articles over the years, Hardy and others demonstrated the flaws of Keynesian economic theory and how it would never be able to put any lasting end to unemployment and poverty within capitalism, instead merely resulting in persistently rising prices because of the excess issue of inconvertible paper currency it typically involved. These articles were not formulated solely at a theoretical level – Hardy, in particular, was an empiricist as much as a theoretician, and the attack on the dominant economic theories and practices of the post-war world was supported by detailed empirical evidence to supplement contentions borne out of Marxian theory. This was equally the case with the spread in influence of the so-called ‘monetarist’ economic doctrine from the mid 1970s when it replaced Keynesianism as the dominant theory; the Standard was not taken in by the elaborate claims made on its behalf and through detailed argumentation dismissed it primarily as a return to the discredited old ‘bank deposit theory of prices’ masquerading under a new name.
The advent of the ‘consumer society’ in the 1950s saw some changing attitudes within capitalist society and the development of a new type of article in the Standard in response to it. This was the informed Marxist social commentary, focusing on lifestyle changes affecting the working class. The comprehensive education system, modern advertising, consumer credit, immigration, the growth of television and popular music were all phenomena analysed from the Marxist materialist standpoint and stylishly too, by Coster, Critchfield and others. Looking back on them now, it is hard to not be impressed by their elegance as pieces of social comment, and by their prescience and foresight at a time of rapid social change and uncertainty.
As single issue-campaigners came to the fore from the 1960s onwards (CND, squatters, feminists, Welsh and Scottish nationalists) so the Standard turned its attention to them and their limited visions and definitions of political success. At times it regained some of its old feistiness, but with obvious concessions to the style and language of the burgeoning youth culture of the times. Many have seen the mid-60s to early 70s as one of the Standard’s many ‘golden periods’, with well-crafted articles on galloping inflation and the return of economic crisis from specialists in Marxian economics like Hardy, sitting alongside biting social comment and polemics against the ‘new left’ from Steele, Crump and other sixties firebrands who had been attracted to the libertarian socialist politics of the SPGB.
The modern Standard
From the late sixties onwards, the Standard has noticeably sought to increase its coverage of events outside Great Britain, in response to the ever more interconnected nature of capitalism and its development as a ‘global village’ with issues such as globalisation, environmentalism and capitalism’s now constant state of warfare looming large for writers, particularly. The sardonic wit of contributors like Weidberg (‘workers of the world – wake up!’) and Coleman has also been a prominent feature and has ensured that serious socialist comment has often been supplemented by generally well-chosen humorous observations and asides.
Today’s articles tend almost exclusively to have a contemporary news focus, with even theoretical pieces being linked to current events and issues within capitalist society. As in previous years, there is a balance between those that are commissioned by the editors and those that are sent in by individual writers as and when they can contribute pieces. It is pleasing to note than in recent times a number of new writers have appeared to complement those who have been contributing over long periods, often decades.
Indeed, on this note, it would be remiss of us not to comment here on the remarkable contribution that a great many Socialist Party members have made to the Standard over the years, whether as designers, writers or editors. The journal’s production has been helped hugely in this respect by a certain continuity of service – by way of example, when McClatchie and Hardy retired from the Editorial Committee at the end of 1959, they had each put in just over, and just under, forty years continual service respectively. And today, two of our writers have been regularly contributing to the Standard for over fifty years, our comrades Alwyn Edgar (A.W.E.) and Ralph Critchfield (‘Ivan’), the latter also with prolonged spells on the editorial committee. The three members of the present editorial committee have been writing for the Standard for around ninety years in total too!
To mark the one hundredth anniversary of our journal, the Socialist Party has recently published a special book. Entitled ‘Socialism Or Your Money Back – Articles From the Socialist Standard 1904-2004’, it is an anthology of 70 articles (with period commentaries) from the Standard, analysing events within capitalism over the last one hundred years as they unfolded. It is in part a tribute to the men and women who have done so much to ensure that the Socialist Party has been able to make a regular and uninterrupted political intervention through our press during this time, and also an important repository of insightful commentary and socialist analysis, on issues and events from the sinking of the Titanic to the Iraq war.
The Standard has evolved over time and will no doubt continue to do so. It never stays still and to this end we always welcome new writers that can help us sustain and grow Britain’s longest running socialist political paper. We have an important job to do, in keeping the socialist analysis of capitalism and the alternative vision of a genuinely better world before the working class, and we are always keen to encourage those who wish to help us in our fight for a better world by writing for our journal.
Finally though, a gentle warning to readers. From the January 1920 issue, but just as relevant now as then:
“Be careful how you handle the Socialist Standard. It is powerful stuff and is fatal to working-class political ignorance.”