Some Black Sheep
What have a Labour member of the House of Lords, a President of the TUC, a member of the Army Council of the IRA, a Communist Party journalist, a Syndicalist pamphleteer, and a Tory mayor and magistrate have in common?
Answer: this was the subsequent fate of six of the 140 or so present at the meeting on 12 June 1904 which set up the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Obviously, we are not proud of what these particular founding members became, but it does at least show that the meeting did have some significance even from a non-socialist point of view. And, since more is known about the lives of these six individuals than for most of the others who set up the SPGB, their political trajectory before and after 1904 can give some idea of the sort of people involved and of political developments in the first half of the last century
The Labour Lord
The future Labour Lord was Valentine McEntee. Born in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) south of Dublin in 1871, the son of a doctor from the Protestant minority, he was orphaned at an early age and was apprenticed as a carpenter. He was an early member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party which had been founded, largely on the initiative of James Connolly, in 1896 as the Irish equivalent of the SDF. In 1899, like many Irish workers, he emigrated to America, to New York, but within a year returned to Europe, but to London not Dublin. He joined the SDF and was also the secretary and chairman of the Walthamstow branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.
At the inaugural meeting of the SPGB he moved that the name of the new party be “The Socialist Party of Great Britain and Ireland” but his motion only obtained six votes, presumably because the others felt that workers in Ireland should organise their own socialist party. His membership was not to last long since in December 1904 he was nominated by his union as a potential parliamentary candidate, which would have meant him standing for the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Called to account for this, which would of course have been contrary to the SPGB’s principles, he was eventually asked to resign and did so in February 1905.
After that he rejoined the SDF and began his career as a budding Labour politician. In 1908 he was an (unsuccessful) candidate for Walthamstow council. In 1909 he self-published a short pamphlet entitled Socialism Explained. This was a general criticism of capitalism but went out of its way to claim that socialism “is neither pro nor anti-Christian” and was supposedly supported by “ministers of the Gospel of all denominations”.
In 1920 he was finally elected to Walthamstow Council and in 1922 as Labour MP for Walthamstow West. Defeated in 1924 he was re-elected in 1929 and remained an MP till he retired in 1950. In 1951 he was made Baron McEntee of Walthamstow. He died in 1953.
The leftwing Trade Union leader
George Hicks was also to become a Labour MP, for East Woolwich from 1931 to 1950, but it was as a leftwing trade union leader at the time of the 1926 General Strike that he has a place in working-class history.
He was born in 1879 in Venham Dean, near Andover, in Hampshire where his father was a builder. In 1904 he was working as a bricklayer and (like a number of other founder-members) an active member of the Operative Bricklayers Society. The records show that he resigned in March 1905 but rejoined in December 1908, resigning again a few years later as his trade union career took off. In 1912 he was appointed a national organiser of the OBS. By 1919 he was its General Secretary and President of the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives. In 1921, having successfully seen through the amalgamation of this federation into a single union, he became the first general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, a post he was to occupy for the next twenty years. As such he was elected a member of the General Council of the TUC.
In 1925 he was one of a group of leftwing trade union leaders who went to Moscow where they agreed to set up an Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. Stalin and the Russian government had an interest in this as they wanted to build up mass support in countries like Britain against military action to invade Russia, but it is difficult to see what was the advantage for the trade union movement; no doubt the trade union leaders involved, including Hicks, mistakenly felt that what existed in Russia was some sort of workers’ regime. When the general strike occurred in Britain the following year, the leftwing trade union leaders on the Anglo-Russian Committee were unable to prevent the majority on the TUC General Council betraying the miners. Trotsky saw this as a heaven-sent stick with which to try to beat Stalin for relying on “left lackeys of imperialism” such as “Purcell, Hicks and other traitors”. But Trotsky, who by this time was on his way out, had clearly lost touch with reality, wanting to “orient the working class toward a general strike and an armed insurrection in the course of a war”. Hicks, whose turn it was to be to be TUC President in 1927-28, survived. Trotsky did not.
Hicks rejoined the reconstituted SDF, now affiliated to the Labour Party, and in 1931, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding, was invited to give the keynote address. This was later published as a pamphlet Poverty from Plenty. The Industrial Depression: Its Cause and Cure. He began: “its cause is capitalism: its cure is Socialism”. Although his analysis was rather too underconsumptionist, it did show some evidence of his passage through the SPGB.
In 1941 he became a junior minister – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Works – in the war-time coalition government, with as his parliamentary private secretary none other than the future Lord McEntee. He died in 1954.
The Communist Party hack
When the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded in July 1920 among the founding members was Thomas (T. A.) Jackson. Born in Clerkenwell, North London, in 1879, he left school at 13 to be apprenticed as, like his father, a compositor. He joined the SDF in 1900. In his autobiography Solo Trumpet, published in 1953, he claimed to have been only marginally involved with the SPGB, which he doesn’t mention by name simply referring to some mysterious “impossibilist” (in his original manuscript he had written “leftist”) group. The records show, however, that he was a very active member for nearly five years, being on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Principles, speaking outdoors and indoors, writing articles, serving on the executive committee and even acting for a short while as General Secretary (and he married another founder member, “Miss K. Hawkins”).
These activities resulted in him having difficulty in finding a job in his trade and, in 1909, as he frankly told some Party members at the time, he decided to sell his speaking abilities to other propagandist groups in order to survive. He thus ended up joining the ILP but without really believing in what they stood for. When he moved to Leeds he got a job speaking for the Secularists. Later he was a freelance speaker, depending on his audience putting money in his hat.
During the war he was able to find employment as a storeman. By its end he had joined the SLP and it was as a member of its pro-Bolshevik wing, which was one of the constituent organisations that set up the CPGB, that he became a founder of that party. For the rest of his life he was a paid writer and journalist for the CP and its papers the Sunday Worker and then the Daily Worker. In the 1920s he was in fact one of the leading figures in the CP, editing its first weekly journal, The Communist, and a member of its central committee and executive committee. In 1929, when Stalin ordered the parties in the Comintern to “turn left”, he was one of the leaders who were removed as “rightists”. He remained a CP member, but only as a journalist and writer. As such he wrote numerous articles and a number of books, but none of them showed the slightest evidence of anything he had learned while in the SPGB, not surprising for someone who declared that he had come “to see Marx and Engels through the spectacles provided by Lenin and Leninism”. Quite the worst was a long turgid book on Dialectics (1936), pretentiously subtitled “The logic of Marxism, and its critics: an essay in exploration”, which regurgitated Lenin’s ideas on philosophy. He wrote a nationalist history of Ireland, Ireland Her Own, for which he dishonestly allowed himself to be billed as a “Protestant Nationalist” (when his connection with Ireland was very tenuous). He also wrote a book on Dickens and other literary subjects. He died in 1955.
The Tory Mayor
The strangest case is that of Jack Kent. Prior to joining the SPGB, he had been a prominent member of the SDF, serving on its national executive, writing in its journal Justice and organising its activities. As such he was probably the most high-profile SDF member to have gone over to the SPGB. Born in Lambeth, in South London, in 1870, in 1904 he was working as a clerk at the head office of Whitbreads, the brewers. In the elections for the Party’s 1905 Executive Committee he topped the poll; he was an outdoor speaker and indoor lecturer, wrote a regular column in the Socialist Standard, organised speakers’ classes, and in 1907 was the Party’s treasurer. He resigned in 1908. He had been promoted at work to departmental manager and was able to afford to move to the then up-market west London suburb of Acton. Here he turned his coat completely, helping to form an organisation called the “Constitutionalists” whose aims were “to uphold the Constitution, advocate a Consolidated Empire, to oppose Socialistic legislation, to propagate Tariff Reform, and to contest Municipal elections”. As this outfit ran street-corner meetings, no doubt the skills he had acquired in the SDF and the SPGB proved invaluable. In 1912, after sitting on the local Coronation Committee, he was elected a member of Acton Council. From then on it was downhill all the way. Joining the Acton Volunteers to serve British capitalism (if only on the streets of Acton rather than in the trenches of Northern France), he was chairman of the local Conservative and Unionist Association in 1918, a magistrate in 1920, Mayor of Acton in 1922-23, and a Middlesex County Councillor. At the time of his death in 1945 he was chairman of the local magistrates bench as well as of the local Tory Party. Why did he turn? Initially at least, probably for the same reason as Jackson: to earn a better living. Yet further proof of how unfree workers are under capitalism and its wages system, forced by economic circumstances to compromise their views.
The Syndicalist pamphleteer
One of the youngest founder members of the SPGB was Ernest Allen, or E. J. B. Allen as he was known. Born near Oxford in 1884 the son of a butcher, he had joined the SDF there when only 16, later moving to London where he played an active role in the “impossibilist revolt” within the SDF. A speaker and writer, he was particularly interested in the trade union question. The early SPGB had not yet worked out a fixed policy on this and Allen was one of those who favoured the setting up of a socialist union in opposition to the existing trade unions based on the sectional interests of their members. At the party’s first annual conference in 1905 he moved that as soon as the party had attained 5000 members it should set up a socialist union. There was no seconder.
In 1906 a series of special party meetings were held at which the matter was thrashed out. Many members were hostile to the existing unions because of their non-socialist nature and their association with moves to set up a reformist Labour party. In the event no agreement could be reached and the position was left as it had been before: that SPGB members could be members of the existing ones (as many of the founder-members had been, McEntee and Hicks for instance), supporting any action of theirs on sound class lines and opposing all actions on unsound lines. Although the votes were close, and despite the subsequent myth put about by later opponents (starting with the Labour activist and historian G. D. H. Cole), the SPGB never took up an anti trade union position. Ironically, the SLP, which Allen was to join for a while, accused the SPGB of being pro-trade union! Before the debate within the SPGB on the trade union question was over, Allen had joined an organisation called the “Advocate of Industrial Unionism”, whose aim was to set up in Britain the equivalent of the IWW in North America. As the SPGB did not regard the IWW as a socialist organisation he resigned. In the years that followed Allen passed through all the variant positions associated with those who advocated “socialist industrial unionism” to overthrow capitalism: from holding that this should be complemented by political action at the ballot box (the SLP position), through arguing that industrial action alone to “take and hold” the means of production would be sufficient (the anarcho-syndicalist position, expressed in his 1909 pamphlet Revolutionary Unionism), and then ending up as a propagandist for Tom Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist Education League which advocated industrial action for reformist ends too.
In 1912 he emigrated to New Zealand where he continued his syndicalist activity. His pamphlet was reprinted, and for a while he was president of the General Labourers Union in Auckland. When the war came he supported it, including conscription. This destroyed for ever his reputation as any sort of revolutionary. After the war he ended up as a supporter of the NZ Labour Party and later of the leftwing breakaway party set up by ex-Labour MP John A. Lee for whose Weekly he wrote articles. He also wrote and spoke for the NZ Rationalist Association. He died in1945.
The IRA man ***
Con (Cornelius) Lehane, who was the Party’s General Secretary for the first two years of its existence, was born in Cork and, like Valentine McEntee, had been a member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party before moving to England and transferring to the SDF. He worked as a clerk and later trained to be, and became, a solicitor. In school, as part of the Gaelic revival, he had learnt Irish which he spoke fluently, ending one of his contributions to the Socialist Standard, in the Irish spelling of the time, “Saoghal fada dho! – Conchubhar”. It was in fact through militant Irish nationalism that he came to socialism. However, it was not this that led to him leaving the SPGB. Yet again, it was an issue related to the trade union question.
Lehane was on the wing of the Party which (unlike another former ISRP member, James Connolly, who was a founder member of the SLP in Britain) didn’t think much of the so-called “economic power” of the working class and insisted that socialists should concentrate on getting the working class to first win control of political power, i.e. to expropriate the capitalist class politically so as to be in a position to then expropriate them economically. He fell out with the Party because he felt that the Executive Committee was not taking a tough enough attitude towards industrial unionists who had joined the Party. To protest against this, in 1906, the Islington branch, of which he was a member, suspended all propaganda activities and got itself expelled for dereliction of duty. After his explusion Lehane published a couple of pamphlets attacking the SPGB for having gone off the rails.
Ironically, he was next heard of as a supporter of Jim Larkin, the leader of the ITGWU who favoured syndicalist tactics. It is not clear when he reverted to his original Irish republicanism, perhaps when he was in America during the First World War. In any event, during the 1930s he was a member of the Army Council of the IRA, which earned him an 18-month jail sentence in 1935 for sedition after the Council issued a statement promising “maximum support” for a strike of Dublin transport workers. After his release he left the IRA and, together with former IRA Chief of Staff, Sean MacBride, and others was of a founder-member in 1940 of the leftwing republican party, Clann na Poblachta. In 1948 he was elected a Clann member of the Dail for Dublin. Following this election, in which it had won 10 seats, the CnP joined in an anti-Fianna Fail coalition government. So, ironically for a one-time “impossiblist” who had advocated political power for the sole purpose of achieving socialism, he ended up as a supporter of an openly capitalist government. He lost his seat in the 1951 general election.
Con Lehane: A Correction
In the September Socialist Standard we stated that Con Lehane, who was a founder member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, went on to become in the 1930s and 40s a member of the IRA and a Republican member of the Irish parliament. This was not the case and was due to a confusion with someone else with the same name.
The Con Lehane who was a founder member was born in Cork in 1878 was indeed an Irish Republican but he died in New York in 1919, shortly after being released from prison where he had been detained for his political activities. In 1916 he had published a pamphlet entitled The Irish Republic arguing that the so-called Easter Rising in Dublin that year had been a workers’ revolution.
The other Con Lehane, who was on the Army Council of the IRA in the 1930s and a Clann na Poblachta deputy from 1948 to 1951, was born in Belfast in 1912 and died in 1983 (see Irish Times, 27 September 1983).
The original source of the error was an article which appeared in the anarchist paper Freedom on 8 February 1992. Our apologies for not having first checked this thoroughly enough –Editors.
(from Socialist Standard, December 2004)