The Social Democratic Federation: Does it Deserve the Support of the Working Class?
Sydney Hall, York Road, Battersea, now in the possession of the Battersea Branch of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, was crowded on August 31st, the occasion being a debate upon the question asked above, between Mr. W. H. Humphreys, an accredited lecturer of the S.D.F, and Comrade J. Fitzgerald, representing die Executive Committee of the S.P.G.B.
Mr. George Hicks, O.B.S., presided, and after explaining the object and conditions of the debate, called upon the opener.
Mr. Humphreys said that it mattered little to him whether the workers joined the S.D.F., S.P.G.B., or I.L.P., as long as they joined some Socialist organisation. The members of the Battersea Branch S.P.G.B. had gone to S.D.F. meetings and by their bickerings had undone the good work of the S.D.F. He maintained that the S.D.F. deserved the support of the working-class, although he strongly favoured the formation of a United Socialist Party. The S.D.F. had helped to raise the physical and mental conditions of the workers. He did not always agree with its tactics. Politics was a dirty game and left its marks on those who played it. Years ago, when he joined the Army, he had belonged to the Socialist League, and did not believe in political action. When he left the Army the Socialist League was dead, while the S.D.F. still lived. This fact converted him to political action. The S.D.F. had produced much valuable literature and altogether had done an enormous amount of educational work. By backing up palliatives the S.D.F. kept the flag of Socialism flying. Some reforms might throw things back, hut other reforms were also the means of getting better conditions for the workers and of dispelling superstition. The feeding of the children and secular education would make for the social revolution, as they would physically improve the race and abolish superstition.
If we took political action the electors demanded a certain attitude on all questions. He was an anti-vaccinist because he objected to having his child poisoned. This was not Socialism, but a question of human well-being. He was an Internationalist and therefore considered that it was the business of Socialists to prevent the Capitalists setting the workers of the world against each other. He was glad of the cordial relations existing between the French and English fleets. It seemed to him that The Socialist Party of Great Britain was opposed to the feeding of the children only because some capitalists now advocated this reform. The S.P.G.B. argued that feeding the children meant making better wage slaves of them. The S.D.F. on the other hand held that the children when fed became more physically and intellectually fit. The workers could not at the present time control the political machinery. In order to do that they would first have to abolish plural voting and obtain payment of members and of election expenses. The second ballot would also be of advantage to the Socialists, as in three-cornered fights many would not risk their votes by voting for Socialist candidates as they would much rather back the winner. When the lecturers of the S.P.G.B. alleged that the workers were bought and sold like pieces of merchandise it amounted to backing up the bourgeois political economists. According to Karl Marx the workers only sold their labour-power. He held that material interests did not control all actions, as was easily proved by the action of the Japanese at Port Arthur, the Communards of Paris, and the Socialists who, owing to their revolutionary propaganda, were sent to Siberia. Principles very often controlled man’s actions. Mr. H. M. Hyndman rightly denied that the workers could emancipate themselves, they must be taught and guided by such middle-class men as Marx, Engels, Hyndman and William Morris. They must not place too much reliance in working-class labour representatives. Battersea would have done much better if it had one such middle-class man as its Parliamentary representative instead of John Burns.
Comrade Fitzgerald pointed out that the subject of debate was “Did the S.D.F. deserve the support of the Working-class”, it must be clear that an organisation to deserve the support of the working-class must strenuously work on behalf of that class, and that class alone. The declared object of the S.D.F. was the emancipation of the working-class from the thraldom of capitalism, but in their political action they were going contrary to their principles. If it were true that under capitalism the workers had to sell themselves, their emancipation could surely only lie in becoming free men who could establish and control their own conditions of labour. To do that they must first capture the present political machinery, which was the means of entrenching the capitalist-class so firmly in their citadel of economic domination. He would like Mr. Humphreys to explain how a man could sell his labour-power without selling himself. Man was therefore a commodity, and differed from other commodities only in one respect. In the case of other commodities you could separate the seller from the commodity, whilst the worker was inseparable from his labour-power. And as the worker was bought by the capitalist to produce a profit, he must be robbed. The most important thing in life was to obtain the means of living, and this material fact must of necessity be the dominant factor in human movements. If that were so then the interests of capitalist and labourer must be irreconcilably opposed to one another. And if in order to become economically free the workers must get hold of and control the political machinery, then it stood to reason that any assistance given to the capitalists or their henchmen was decidedly taking antagonistic action to working-class interests.
In 1894, Mr. H. M. Hyndman said that Socialists must not bend their knees to any capitalist party. In 1897, when there was a slump in the Socialist Movement, the S.D.F. at their Conference resolved that no candidates should be run unless there was proof of their command of at least 10% of the votes. In 1898 their Annual Conference empowered the E.C. to decide the policy of the organisation, subject to ratification by the branches. In 1899 the Conference decided that the members of the S.D.F. vote Tory, in order to smash the Liberal Party, in 1900, when the Boer War was on, they considered that they could not very well support the Tories; so they passed a resolution to support several Liberal candidates, viz., Labouchère at Northampton, Philip Stanhope at Burnley (Hyndman’s candidature being withdrawn), Lionel Holland at Ilford, and John Burns at Battersea—a member of the E.C. of the S.D.F. working for Burns on his election day. In 1897 the S.D.F. ran W. G. Pearson for the London School Board and he polled 12,000 votes. After the death of Pearson they again contested the seat, with George Hewitt as the candidate, in 1900. The largest branch in the district. Bow and Bromley, fell out and so disrupted two other branches, viz., Whitechapel and Poplar, that they also fell out and subsequently collapsed. The Mile End Branch alone was left to carry on the campaign. All that disloyalty and disruption were due to the fact that Hewitt stood for Secular Education, which, G. Lansbury and his followers complained, would lose Lansbury the Nonconformist support for his Parliamentary candidature fur Bow and Bromley.
Mr. Cluse, an S.D.F. lecturer, stated that supporting capitalist candidates was not supporting the capitalist party, as the issue in 1900 was the Boer War. But he (Fitzgerald) would like to point out that this excuse could not hold water as the total casualties in the Boer War were less than 60,000, while the official returns for one year in four trades in the United Kingdom showed over 100,000 victims. Moreover, after the War was over, J. Hunter Watts supported Masterman, the Liberal candidate at Dulwich, and Will Thorne supported Percy Alden at Tottenham against the wish of the local Branch of the S.D.F. This labour leader also signed the Free Trade Manifesto of the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress. If Socialists held that the cleavage between Capital and Labour was growing wider and that the workers could only obtain their emancipation by means of capturing the political machinery it was worse than madness to support capitalists or their nominees. The rank and file of the S.D.F. could obtain no information as to the doings of the E.C., as that body claimed that the members ought to have confidence in the elected men and trust them implicitly. Because some members of the S.D.F. had kicked against the Kautsky Resolution at the Paris International Congress they were accused of having inspired the letters that appeared in the New York People on that subject. When at the S.D.F. Conference at Blackburn, H. W. Lee and H. Quelch were accused of withholding from the Organisation a certain letter Lansbury had addressed to the E.C., both denied having done so. When, later, the letter was published and could no longer be denied as in existence, Quelch stated that he was not present when it was read although the E.C. minutes stated he was present at the meeting where the letter was read, and if he came in late, it was absurd to suppose that so important a letter was not shown to him. At Shoreditch, H. W. Lee admitted having told a lie and in justification said that under similar circumstances he would so again. Lansbury’s letter had announced his resignation as S.D.F. Parliamentary candidate for Bow and Bromley because lie could see no good coming of it unless the S.D.F. made common cause with the Liberals. When Socialists fight straight their political game is clean, when they back up Liberal hacks it becomes a dirty game. It was on account of their not fighting straight that a great number of members, some of the oldest members among them, came out of the S.D.F. and formed the S.P.G.B. The facts mentioned showed clearly that the S.D.F. was neither Socialist nor Democratic and therefore did not deserve the confidence of the working-class.
Mr. Humphreys in continuing the debate again asserted that the capitalist did not buy the worker but only his labour-power. If he bought the worker he would look after him, as, however, he did not purchase him he let him go to the devil. In spite of the bad conditions of the workers they could revolt against brutality. The desire to do good induced Hyndman, William Morris and others to fight for the working-class. It does not matter what class men are born in but what class they fight for. Henderson, Bell, and similar men were as bad as Liberal Capitalist candidates. It was an important matter to obtain better conditions for the workers as for instance free feeding of the children and secular education. Mr. Straus, the late Liberal candidate for Mile End declared himself in favour of Socialism. Socialists accepting the co-operation of capitalists in obtaining reforms must make sure that these capitalists were earnest in helping forward those palliatives and there were some who were earnest. One must judge candidates on personal grounds. If the Tory candidate in Battersea declared in favour of feeding the children he would support him against Bums.
Mr. Hunter Watts supported Masterman because Rutherfoord Harris had the blood of the South African farmers on his hands and it was not a question of mere numbers of victims; but Hunter Watts was wrong in supporting the Liberal candidate because that candidate was not in favour of the S.D.F. palliatives. That was a great mistake. All parties make mistakes. It was not in the material interests of the working-class in 1897 to have displayed their great loyalty to the Royal family. He had looked up Hansard and had found that in 1900 eight Radical members had voted against supplies for the Boer war. If they supported these men individually they did not support the Capitalist Party. It was true that a member of the E.C. of the S.D.F. supported and worked for Burns during the election in 1900. This was, however, done in conjunction and with somebody, who is now a member of the S.P.G.B. Will Thorne was called over the coals by the E.C. for supporting Percy Alden. If the rank and file of the S.D.F. did not get to know anything of the doings of their E.C. it was due to the fact that their organisation was poor and their full E.C. met only once a quarter. Their organisation had no money to waste and therefore were wise in deciding to run candidates only when they were sure of 10 per cent. of the vote in a constituency. Their expenses were heavy as it was. Golden sovereigns were hard to get. It was better to spend money on literature than on hopeless candidatures.
Comrade Fitzgerald in replying said that be had taken 25 minutes to bring the facts, points and arguments to show that the S.D.F. was acting against the interests of the working-class, but Mr. Humphreys had made no attempt at refuting his statements. The capitalist buys the worker’s Labour power bit by bit, hence had to buy his body. Under chattel slavery he bought the slave right out, but to-day he only bought the wage slave piecemeal, and owing to the number seeking sale was able to disregard their welfare. If some of the capitalist class act contrary to the interests of that class that does not prove that that class fights for the interests of the working-class. Mr. Hyndman had said that no slave class had brought about its own emancipation — the class above it had emancipated it. Therefore the middle-class would emancipate the working-class. Those who voted for individual capitalist candidates supported the capitalist party in the most effective manner, viz., politically. Capitalists were all in one camp, and must be the enemies of the working-class, if Socialist principles were true. Mr. Hunter Watts’ defence for voting for Masterman was absurd. If Rutherfoord Harris had the blood of the South African farmers on his hands, Masterman, as a Liberal, had the blood of the murdered Featherstone miners on his, which was worse. Two and two were four, even if the accountant made a mistake in adding up.
Apparently the S.D.F. did not mean to learn by all their blunders and mistakes of the past. H. W. Lee, their Secretary, said in the current number of the Social Democrat that twenty years ago the Radical advocated payment of Members of Parliament, now the S.D.F. must do that work. The E.C. of the S.D.F. not only make mistakes but deceived the workers in regard to their tactics, which were not Socialist but Radical. At the last Annual Conference of the S.D.F., at Northampton, Mr. Dan Irving threatened to leave the Conference if his motion were not carried. When L. Cotton, at the Shoreditch Conference, insisted that his vote had been falsified, Mr. Irving refused to go into the matter. Mr. J. P. Lloyd had moved that some scheme should be devised to let the members know more of the work of the E.C. Members of the S.D.F. were kept in ignorance of things, and when information came to them and they revolted they were at once branded as impossible. He (Fitzgerald) was described as a danger. At Burnley when he called for evidence, Quelch declared he had none. The S.D.F. having broken its pledges by backing up the capitalist position, directly and indirectly, did certainly not deserve the support of the working-class.