50 Years Ago: The birth of the Socialist Party
In the early days of the Working Class Movement, when advocates of better conditions were treated as felons, there was some ground for engaging in secret societies and for defending internal deliberations from prying eyes. Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century the fetters upon revolutionary activity had been so considerably loosened in England, and the path to power opened by means of electoral action, that secrecy was no longer necessary and only became an obstacle to progress.
But the tradition of secrecy still persisted in the social democratic parties, and, along with the fetish of leadership, placed in the hands of small groups of leaders power to influence the policy of parties in the directions they wished. The result of this was that policy was decided by a few people in prominent positions. This had a retarding influence upon the growth of the workers’ understanding and upon the real progress of the working class movement. Those in the forefront of the movement felt that they were the nature-designed leaders of a great cause, and they were impatient to build up a large following, believing that this in itself would bring about the emancipation of the workers; the familiar picture of leaders selling out for pelf and place only existed in outline. Moreover, those who were at that time determining the policy of the movement in different directions were tied to reformist programmes; some of them denied the existence of the class struggle and saw in Socialism nothing more than the establishment of eternal principles of justice and morality.
Inside the Social Democratic Federation, the most advanced of the English radical parties, dissatisfaction with the reformist programmes and the temporary agreements with capitalist parties was growing and had already been responsible for an illfated breakaway led by William Morris, Belfort Bax, Frederick Lessner, and Marx’s daughter Eleanor at the end of the eighties. They had formed the Socialist League which had the blessing of Frederick Engels. Unfortunately the “League” went to the other
extreme and abandoned parliamentary action, eventually coming under the control of anarchists.
During the early days of the present century a group of young people began to form which aimed at clarifying the position and transforming the Social Democratic Federation into a genuine Socialist organisation, free from the fetters of reformism. They made fierce protests against reformism, leadership, private agreements and political trading at meetings and conferences.
Their efforts, however were paralysed by the power, influences and secret arrangements of the official leaders, who dubbed the militant group “Impossiblists” on the ground that their proposals were unpractical, unsound, and would make the movement impotent. About the same time the ideas of the American Socialist Labour Party, headed by a very able speaker and writer, Daniel De Leon, were making some headway amongst youthful radicals in England and Scotland in spite of the fact that this organisation was also crippled by a reformist bias and by a leaning towards industrial unionism.
In 1903 and 1904 the “Impossiblist” group made desperate efforts by “boring from within” tactics to head off the reformist policy of the leaders, but without success. The latter became so incensed at the attacks upon them that they finally arranged at a private meeting to deal with the opposition by persuading conference to give them power to expel those militants who would not toe the line laid down by the Executive. The militants refused to withdraw from the position they had taken up, in favour of revolutionary political action on the class struggle basis, and the expulsions by the Executive then commenced. One section of the militants, in Scotland, had actually formed themselves into a section of the Socialist Labour Party in 1903; accepting all that was stultifying in S.L.P. policy.
This secret action was not revealed by them to the rest of the militants until 1904. The other section held a meeting in London at which it was agreed that any further attempts to bring the Social Democratic Federation in line with a genuine class struggle policy would be fruitless, and the only alternative was to form a new political organisation.tent. At a meeting in London on June 12th, 1904, this new organisation was formed – The Socialist Party of Great Britain. The new party was forced into existence without premises, a party journal, literature or funds. The members immediately set about framing a Declaration of Principles and a set of rules to guide them, and also collecting funds to publish a monthly journal.
In September, 1904, the first number of the new journal, the Socialist Standard, appeared and the editorial column contained the following statement. “In the past two bodies of men have put forward the claim to be Socialist parties, viz., the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation. We who have for many years taken a share in the work of the latter organisation, and who have watched the progress of the former from its initiation, have been forced to the conclusion that through neither of them can the Social Revolution at which we aim be achieved, and that from neither of them can the working class secure redress from the ills they suffer.”
This first number of the Socialist Standard also contained the Object and Declaration of Principles that had been drawn up and agreed upon by the membership. The last paragraph of the Principles, in particular, was opposed to the practice of all the social democratic parties of the time, and yet the accuracy of this Principle should be obvious. There cannot be more than one Socialist party in any country because, if it is a genuine Socialist party, any other parties that are formed must increase the confusion in the minds of the workers and therefore retard the march to Socialism.
In spite of this obvious truth many, who claimed to be Socialists, were members of more than one organisation; some were members of the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, as well as, later, the Labour Party. It was their mutual adherence to reform policies that enabled members of these parties to do this without finding anything contradictory in their conduct. When the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed its members were so conscious of this weakness that they declined to accept anybody to membership who belonged to any other political party and refused to permit its members to speak on any other political platform except in opposition.
Owing to the bitter experience of the undemocratic methods of the Social Democratic Federation the new party framed rules that gave the whole of the membership complete control of the organisation, and, in order that workers could be under no delusion about the aims and activities of the Party, all meetings,
whether Branch Meetings, Executive Meetings, or Conferences, were open to the public; anyone was free to enter these meetings and listen to the discussions.
This was a revolutionary departure from custom and a severe blow to the cult of leadership, as well as eliminating any suspicion that the Party was engaged in any secret or conspiratorial activities. This policy of open meetings the Party has adhered to ever since.
Such were the circumstances that gave birth to the party that this year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary; fifty years of the consistent advocacy of Socialism without turning aside for anything.