2000s >> 2004 >> no-1198-june-2004

As others have seen us

“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a young organisation and an offshoot from the  Social Democratic Party, is spreading about London and challenging the older organisations in such districts as Battersea and Tottenham. The members are Marxians and revolutionaries, preaching the Class War. The catechumens of the party are put through a rigid course of training in the principles of their creed, which they must be prepared to defend at the risk of their liberty. What is most remarkable and disquieting about this dangerous organisation is the fact that the members are unquestionably higher-grade working-men of great intelligence, respectability, and energy. They are, as a whole, the best informed Socialists in the country, and would make incomparable soldiers, or desperate barricadists. As revolutionaries they deserve no mercy : as men they command respect.”

W. Lawler Wilson, The Menace of Socialism, 1909, p.316.

“The split in the SDF was followed, two years later, by another. In 1905, a section of the members, chiefly in London, broke away under the leadership of Fitzgerald, and formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Equally with the SLP, this body denounced the compromising tactics of the SDF; but it drew a rather different moral. In its eyes, political action as practised by the other Socialist bodies was mere reformism, but it was also of the opinion that Trade Union action was doomed to futility as long as the capitalist system remained in being. Strictly revolutionary political action alone would help the workers and the only activity that was justifiable under existing conditions was the persistent education of the working class for its revolutionary task. As there were no candidates worth voting for, the slogan of the SPGB was ‘Don’t Vote’”

GDH Cole, Working Class Politics, 1832-1914, 1941, p. 177.


“It is difficult to integrate the Socialist Party of Great Britain into any account of wider working-class politics because its policy of hostility to all other political groups, and rejection as an organisation of participation in any partial economic or social struggles, effectively excluded it from association with other tendencies. But no account would be complete without some reference to them. Before the War, they were a substantial presence in the area. Their Tottenham Branch had over 100 members, and there were also effective branches in Islington and Hackney. The SPGB also had a very high proportion of the ablest open-air speakers, notably Alex Anderson of Tottenham, who by common consent was the best socialist orator of his day. The SPGB’s principled Marxism had perhaps a wider influence than it would like to admit”.

Ken Weller, ‘Don’t be a Soldier!’ The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, 1985.

“The Russian debacle is rather appalling but quite explicable. Lenin and Trotsky appear to me to be of the SPGB type or the wilder types of the SDP.” 

Clement Attlee in a letter to his brother Tom, 20 March 1918(quoted in , Clem Attlee. A Biography by Francis Beckett, 2001).

“The Socialist Party of Great Britain . . . denounced the Russian Revolution as state-capitalist within hours of hearing of it”.

David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968, 1976.

“Another pre-1914 organisation with influence on Socialist thought in Battersea, particularly in the building trade unions, was the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It was the Battersea branch of the SDF which had become the springboard for the attack on the Hyndman leadership that resulted in the SPGB being formed. From 1904-05 Sydney Hall in York Road became the centre of their activity and propaganda. It was from amongst the bricklayers that several powerful and erudite speakers and debaters came to the fore. The Irish bricklayer, Jack Fitzgerald, was one outstanding example, fearless in debate, he was so confident in his own party case that he would take on anyone, be they small fry or big cheese. His style as a debater was to treat his opponent, from whatever party – Tory, Liberal, Labour, ILP or Communist – as the exponent of the policy of their party. He invariably knew more about the programme and published material of his opponents’ party than did his actual adversary. To get to grips, not with a brilliant speech but with the written word, was his method, the apt quotation to clinch an argument. If challenged, he would dive into his trunk of books to produce the evidence. His audience loved it. Undoubtedly ‘Fitz’ was the star, but there were others too, bricklayers and impressive SPGBers (Sloan, Cadman, Foan and others). I believe each of them, in their day, taught their craft at the Ferndale School of Building, then sited in Brixton. Here, they pioneered or upheld extremely high standards of craftsmanship. Direct labour, too, was seen as upholding standards”.

Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head: Memoirs of a British Bolshevik, 1992.


“The course of the SPGB is more interesting, for it maintained a more or less constant membership of two or three hundred throughout the inter-war years, the same number as belonged before the First World War. Like the SLP, the SPGB had split from the SDF at the turn of the century over the parent body’s reformism. Its membership was concentrated in London with a handful of branches in Manchester, Glasgow and a few other large conurbations. In both theory and practice the SPGB was an extreme manifestation of the pre-1917 Marxist tradition. Its function was to educate the workers in the intractability of capitalism and the hopelessness of all trade union action or reform: its medium was the streetcorner pitch where speakers would harangue passers-by and sell the Socialist Standard. Since prospective members were examined for their knowledge of Marxism and ability to speak in public, and since they prided themselves on their ‘scientific socialism’, propagandists of the SPGB enjoyed a reputation as formidable Marxist purists.”

Stuart Macintyre, A Proletarian Science, Marxism in Britain 1917-1933, 1980.

“The 1922 general election saw a fierce political contest in North Battersea, where Saklatvala, the Indian Communist, was chosen, with national Labour Party approval, to be the Labour candidate . . . This brought my first election experience. Delivering leaflets, one day on the Burns estate, I chanced upon a friendly SPGBer I had met previously at the Marx class. He was short, somewhat bow-legged, always wore a bowler hat and sold the Socialist Standard. Maybe I was overexcited by the election, because in a kindly manner he set about deflating my high hopes. ‘You are wasting your time and energy young man,’ he said, ‘Socialism, not reforms, is what is necessary.’ To complete the shock, he told me that he intended to write across his ballot paper in the election one word: ‘Socialism’”.

Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head: Memoirs of a British Bolshevik, 1992.

“When I first began to question the CP line I still sold the Daily Worker, but at Marble Arch I came into contact with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and a guy who was then the Secretary of the SPGB called [K]ohn. He gave me a terrible hammering one night on my ‘Leninism’, and I spent the whole night reading, and when I went back the following night he gave me a bigger hammering. For some months after that I used to attend SPGB meetings, and learned a great deal from the SPGB over the course of the next eight or nine months. But then I came across Trotsky’s pamphlet What Next for Germany? . . . ”

Jock Haston, future leader of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, talking about 1934 in Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain  1924-38 by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, 1986

“But it should be noted that Marx and Engels and Lenin did use the words Socialism and Communism interchangeably, at other times making a distinction between  Communism as the highest stage of Socialism. For an able study on the use of the words at different times by Marx, Engels and Lenin see The Socialist Standard, August, 1936”.

CLR James, World Revolution 1917-1936, chapter 5, footnote 4, 1937.

 “Of all the sights and sounds which attracted me on my first arrival to live in London in the mid-thirties, one combined operation left a lingering, individual spell. I naturally went to Hyde Park to hear the orators, the best of the many free entertainments on offer in the capital. I heard the purest milk of the world flowing, then as now, from the platform of the Socialist Party of Great Britain .”

Michael Foot, Debts of Honour, 1980.

“Why Socialism? As Pandit Jauraharlal Nehru sees it. Hindustan Publishing Co., Ltd, Rajahmundry (Andra), S. India. This pamplet was evidently issued under the  influence of the small body of Socialist sympathizers within the Indian Nationalist movement. We are by no means convinced that its contents give expression to the views of the Indian Nationalists, for the pamphlet consists of six articles reproduced from working class periodicals, four of which originally appeared in the Western Socialist. The two others were taken from the Socialist Call (Chicago) and the Socialist Standard (London) ”.

Western Socialist, journal of the Socialist Party of Canada, March 1939.

“The Communist Party has NO dealings with murderers, liars, renegades, or assassins. The SPGB, which associates itself with followers of Trotsky, the friend of Hess, has always followed a policy which would mean disaster for the British working class. They have consistently poured vile slanders on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, told filthy lies about the Red Army, the Soviet people and its leaders, gloated over the assassination of Kirov and other Soviet leaders, applauded the wrecking activities of Trotskyist saboteurs in the Soviet Union. They have worked to split the British working class, and are in short agents of Fascism in Great Britain. The CPGB refuses with disgust to deal with such renegades. We treat them as vipers, to be destroyed”.

(Letter from Secretary of the West Ham branch of the Communist Party, 23 February 1943, reproduced in Socialist Standard, May 1943).

“In 1905 another split took place in the SDF, when part of the membership this time mainly centred in London formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a body so sectarian that it adjured both politics and trade union action, believing that socialism would come when everyone was converted. Fifty years later it was still a tiny sect, mainly concerned with echoing propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union”.

AL Morton and G Tate, The British Labour Movement, 1770-1920, 1956, p. 218).

“. . . those honest and genuine revolutionaries, the Socialist League and the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which broke away from the left of the Social Democratic Federation . . . ”

Herbert Morrison, Lord President of the Council and later Home Secretary in the post-war Labour government, in Forward from Victory! Labour’s Plan, 1946.

“In the forties and fifties, Turner was the star turn of a cuddly little organisation grandly named the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Its approach was Marxist, but it believed there could be no real change until enough people had seen the light. It was Tony’s job to show them the light, and he blinded them daily with the brilliance of his wit. His technique, though simple, demanded an IQ of near-genius level. He would serve up 15 or 20 minutes of glorious knock-about humour, in which hecklers were crucial. Once he had drawn a large enough crowd from neighbouring meetings, he would sock the socialism to his admiring audience for five minutes or so. But he rarely went on much longer. Soon he would return to the fun, alternating laughter and sermons for up to 90 minutes or more. I don’t know how many converts he made—my guess is quite a lot. But he provided better entertainment than most professional comics.”

Ian Aitken, Guardian, 26 February 1992.

“The Brussels International Conference (25-26 May 1947): The Communistbond Spartacus excluded the bordigist Partito Communista Internazionalista of Italy, which took part in elections . . . It invited, nevertheless, also the SPGB, as ‘witnesses’, one week before the conference, with a view to the formation of an International Contact Bureau, even though this last participated in the British elections of 1945, perhaps because it rejected the October revolution as ‘nonproletarian’. The Executive Committee of the SPGB did not send delegates, but only a statement. The SPGB mentioned the invitation to the Conference during meetings of its Executive Committee. Some members wished to send  representatives to Brussels.”

Philippe Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900-1968), p. 400 and p. 403

“In the English-speaking world – since Mattick’s Living Marxism ceased – there is no other organ that in criticising all the Labor and socialist ‘reformers’ (really defenders of capitalism) at the same time could show the positive aims of pure class fight. For in England the most radical socialism is the S.P.G.B., that believes in ‘pure’ parliamentarism, and Left, that thinks a United Socialist Europe should be the slogan.”

Anton Pannekoek (Letter to J. A. Dawson, 12 October 1947)

“Less sullied even than the ILP by the contamination of practical politics was the ‘SPGB’ – the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This was a group of non-violent Marxists, who preached an undiluted gospel of class struggle and poured an equal contempt on every other party, including Labour and the Communists. They put up two candidates, one in North Paddington (where they had previously fought in 1945 and at a 1947 by-election) and the other in East Ham South. Their propaganda had the austere purity of perfectionism, offering, as they truly said, no vote-catching promises. Their candidates had the self-effacing devotion of members of a monastic order. ‘One thing we must warn you about’, they told their followers, ‘Do not trust in leaders, trust in yourselves alone. Unless you understand the cause and the solution of your miserable condition no leader can help you, no matter how honest and sincere he may be; if you do understand, then you do not require leaders; you will know what you want and how to instruct your delegates to get you what you want’. Their 1950  intervention can hardly have accelerated the revolution of their dreams. In East Ham South they won 256 votes. In North Paddington the 1945 figure of 472 was more than halved, and reduced to a mere 192”.

H. G. Nicholas, The British General Election of 1950, 1951, pp. 253-4.

“It was in the 1960s, and a by-election was being fought in Glasgow Woodside constituency. In those days, parties too poor to afford posters still used the city’s traditional political medium: chalk on the pavement: One day, walking up Lynedoch Street, I found beneath my feet the following slogan, written in large, precise white capital letters:


For sheer integrity, that slogan cannot be beaten. Its authors, the SPGB, were and still are an austere Marxist sect founded well before the Russian Revolution”.

Neal Ascherson, Independent on Sunday, 22 September 1996.

“Some claim that the tiny Socialist Party of Great Britain is anarchist in inspiration”.

(Demanding the Impossible:A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall, 1992,p.495).

“In this country, the ultra-orthodox Marxists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain advocate the abolition of the wages system, free access to the means of production, the abolition of the state as anarchists do. But and an important but, they want to abolish the state by capturing the state through putting an X on a ballot paper. So it would seem they are anarchists in bad health”.

Robert Lynn, Vote: What for?, 1991.

“Robert Lynn revelled in the forums, which he called the University of Life. They certainly had their moments. I remember one exemplary SPGB graduate speaking mounting the platform, drawing a ten-shilling note from his pocket and holding it dangling from his thumb and forefinger for a quarter of an hour or so while delivering a devastatingly witty attack on money. The audience of thirty or so were spellbound. There was not a single heckler, until he set fire to it”.

Stuart Christie, My Granny Made Me An Anarchist: 1946-1964, 2003, p. 157.

“The Labour Party, Trades Council and the STUC . . . were largely responsible for securing the biggest postwar demonstration in Glasgow till then, at the start of the 1960s. Incidentally, that was the demonstration that produced the sectarian slogan to end all sectarian slogans. Just as we were turning round the corner of Sauchiehall Street two grim stalwarts of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were standing heralding the march with a huge banner and slogan which read: ‘This demonstration is useless – You must first destroy capitalism.”

Janet and Norman Buchan, “The Campaign in Scotland”, in The CND Story, edited by Hohn Minnion and Philip Bolsover, 1983, p. 53.

“Actually,” Bird says, “I was a member of something called the Socialist Party of Great Britain at school for a while. You had to pass an exam, you know. You could not just join”.

John Bird interviewed in Evening Standard, 3 December 1997.

“Those who taunt the so called‘abstenstionists’ with SPGBism . . . ”

Contribution to internal debate on the Common Market within IS, forerunner of the SWP, IS Bulletin, July 1971, p. 60.

“In the coming revolutionary confrontations between the working class and the bourgeoisie the role of the SPGB will be indistinguishable from that of any of the other bourgeois parties”.

(World Revolution, organ of the International Communist Current, July 1976).

 “The SPGB has survived since 1904 as a proletarian organisation. While its rigid sectarianism from the beginning tended to inhibit any real contribution to the clarification of the tasks of the working class, it nonetheless stood against both world wars, attacking them as capitalist wars in which the working class had no interest, denouncing anti-fascism for the anti-working class movement it was. The SPGB also recognises Russia and China as state capitalist, and sees parties of the left and extreme left as parties of state capitalism.”

(World Revolution, April 1977)

“The fact of the matter is that the credit for this particular form of state capitalism should go back to the Socialist Party of Great Britain who taught Jock Haston his Marxism in the first place and had promulgated the theory as far back as 1918. For it was Haston who first raised the question of state capitalism within the Revolutionary Communist Party, not only as a purely Russian phenomenon but in global terms, both in the group’s internal bulletin (War and the International, pp. 182-5) and in a series of articles in Socialist Appeal (mid-August to mid-September 1947). In fact Cliff’s remit from Mandel when he first came to Britain was specifically to argue against these incipient ‘state capitalist’ heresies, and what happened was that in the course of the dispute the contestants changed sides. Anyone who wishes to make a serious investigation of the whole topic should consult the above sources, as well as the SPGB’s position, which was reissued as a pamphlet in the same year as Cliff first published his own, though we have to admit that Cliff’s logic is inferior to theirs, since they dated Russia’s capitalist revolution back to 1917.”

Revolutionary History, Autumn 1991, reviewing of SWP member Alex Callinicos’s book ‘Trotskyism’.

“Students at the London School of Economics last night voted strongly to apologize to Professor H. J. Eysenck for the incident on Tuesday during which he was punched and kicked as he started to address the school’s Social Science Society. But although voting was about five to one at a mass meeting attended by about 600 of the school’s students, a later motion attacked Professor Eysenck’s views on race, heredity and intelligence and said that those responsible for the attack should be actively defended against any disciplinary action . . . Moving the successful motion to apologize to Professor Eysenck, Mr D. Zucconi, who said he was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the World Socialist Society, said: ‘An issue like this in general cuts across political differences. The events on Tuesday were a disgrace and discredit to socialism and a blow for fascism’. Responsibility for the attack on Professor Eysenck has been attributed to the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist).”

Times, 11 and 17 May 1973.

“Sir Keith Joseph, the Conservative Party’s policy overlord, used a debate in Streatham, London, yesterday on ‘The Case for Capitalism’ to attack Mr Wedgewood Benn’s plans to channel pension and insurance funds to government-approved investment projects. In the lunchtime debate in the crowded hall of the Philippa Fawcett teacher training college, Sir Keith said there were broadly three main ways of organizing society: by mutual agreement, a family type of agreement suitable for a large kibbutz; by a market system, with supply and demand regulated by profit and loss under the pressure of competition framed within humane social laws; and by the command system adopted by all centralised societies and dictatorships, in which prices were laid down by a bureaucracy. Sir Keith was challenged by an idealistic member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Mr Edgar Hardy, aged 75. Mr Hardy believes that Marx got his economics right and that Maynard Keynes diverted attention with his ‘disastrously mistaken theories’”.

Times, 25 April 1975.

“At the Barras market in Glasgow about 25 years ago open air political meetings were not uncommon, and the best were conducted by a fiery brand of working-class revolutionaries called the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Founded about a hundred years ago (and still going, I’m glad to say) and proudly hostile to all other allegedly socialist or communist political parties, they had several fine speakers and in those less apathetic days could always raise a fair crowd of the starvelings whom they hoped to rouse from their slumber. Scorn for their hearers’ meek acceptance of poverty and satire upon the quality of goods and services supplied to the workers were prominent in their arguments, as when the speaker would draw our attention to an evil-looking greasyspoon caff and recite parts of the horrible menu, concluding with Stomach pump free of charge. Once, when challenged by a wee bauchle with scarce a backside to his trousers on the grounds that ‘under socialism we widnae be individuals’, the agitator on the soapbox paused from his remarks on the rival attraction of ‘Jehovah’s Jazzband’ (a Salvation Army ensemble) just down the street, fixed him with a baleful eye, and loosed a withering tirade about how the questioner was obviously a proud specimen of individuality, with your individual Giro and your individual manky shirt and your individual football scarf and your individual council flat and your individual Scotch pie for your individual dinner . . . It went on for ages, a tour de force of flyting”.

Kenneth Wright, Herald (Glasgow), 13 February 2001.

“The Socialist Party has reiterated its ban on people with religious beliefs; it says they cannot share the materialist philosophy of true socialists. The latest edition of the party’s journal, The Socialist Standard, concludes a twopage debate on the ban by saying that not even Jesus could have joined. ‘We can’t think of a single thing [Christianity’s] mythological founder is supposed to have taught and done that would qualify him as a socialist.’ Labour supporters are also refused.”

Church Times, 12 April 1996.

“The SPGB has neither a leader nor a hierarchy of committees, and it repudiates the principle of leadership. Organised as local branches, the members of each electing their own officers independently of Head Office (which serves as hardly more than a clearing-house) and sending delegates to the annual Conference, it works throughout on one person one vote and simple majorities. Subject to a minimum of procedural rules any branch can bring any issue before Conference and Conference decisions bind the Executive Committee (which, like the Party Officers, is elected annually by vote of the whole Party). Any six branches can call a Party poll, and any member expelled can appeal to the annual Conference. All meetings of the Executive Committee and the branches, Delegate Meetings and Conference, are open to all members (and in fact to the public). These are not just aspirations or entries in the Rule Book; unlike other parties the SPGB really does function in this way. A majority of the members controls the organisation and its officers.”

George Walford, Angles on Anarchism, 1991, p. 53.

Photos in this section from SPGB rally, Metropolitan Theatre, Paddington 1946

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