History of British Socialism. Max Beer 1920


Reorganisations of the Socialist Parties

Source: History of British Socialism, Vol. II, Chapter 20, pp. 385-394 published 1920, G. Bell & Sons, (3,089 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
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THE unrest which overtook Labour since 1908, caught also the various socialist bodies. The Social Democratic Federation (S.D.F.) was seething with discontent some years before. In 1903 several Scottish branches seceded, in 1905 some London branches followed suit and formed separate organisations. The leaders of the S.D.F., trying to exorcise the spirit of unrest, changed in 1908 the name of their organisation to Social Demo­cratic Party (S.D.P.). Even in the ranks of the I.L.P. much dissatisfaction was manifested with the alleged complicity of the I.L.P. leaders with the spiritless attitude of the Parliamentary Labour Party towards the Government. Several branches of the I.L.P. seceded and entered into communication with the S.D.P. and other dissatisfied socialists, notably of the Clarion group, and in their confabulations conceived the ides of forming a new socialist party. In 1909 a committee for socialist repre­sentation was formed in Manchester, who gradually succeeded convening a large conference with a view to forming a united socialist party. This conference took place on September 30 and October 1, 1911, in Manchester, and the British Socialist Party (B.S.P.) was called into being. In the last week of May, 1912, the B.S.P. held its first annual conference in Manchester and adopted a programme which was partly social democratic and partly revolutionary trade unionist. The old traditions and the old leaders proved too strong for the new spirit to assert itself. The B.S.P. was substantially the old S.D.F., or the old S.D.P.

When the war came, the B.S.P., like most socialist parties of the belligerent countries, hauled down the red flag. Its policy consisted, at first, of vague affirmations of internationalism, rather more definite denunciations of Prussian militarism, and a quite decided insistence on an immediate policy to ensure the proper supply of food and the alleviation of distress caused by the war. Gradually, however, opinions in the Party consoli­dated into two main groups. One, led by H.M. Hyndman, Dan Irving, H. W. Lee, and the older members, took up a definitely patriotic attitude, affirmed the necessity for national defence and the “will to victory,” while still maintaining a critical attitude towards the Government in ail its dealings. The other section, whose opinions were voiced by E.C. Fairchild, John Maclean, A.A. Watts, and the Secretary, Albert Inkpen, declared for an international agreement between the workers of all lands to end the war at the earliest possible moment. It declared its belief that the war was the inevitable outcome of modern capital­ist development in the mad race for markets, and that all the Powers were equally responsible for its outbreak. In the early part of 1915 a number of divisional conferences were held at which each of the two sections struggled to obtain mastery, but without definite result. But at a National Party Congress, held at Salford at Easter, 1916 (the first since the war), the crisis came to a head. The feeling among the delegates was so obviously and overwhelmingly against the “will to victory” section that, on a minor matter of procedure, about 20 delegates representing that section, including H.M. Hyndman, withdrew from the Conference, and eventually from the Party. It should be said that the Executive of the Party had been acutely divided on main principles right away through 1915, the international­ists being in a majority of one. It had been decided, for instance, much against the wishes of the Hyndman section, to send a delegate to the first Zimmerwald Conference.[1] The proposal fell through, however, owing to the refusal of passports by the Government, but a referendum of the branches subsequently endorsed a resolution expressing the adherence of the B.S.P. to the Zimmerwald platform.

From the Salford Conference onwards; the B.S.P. was definitely ranged with the left wing of what remained of the Socialist International. The secession of Hyndman, Thorne, Bax, and others did not materially affect its strength. They were the better known names, it is true, but not the really virile elements of the Party. Lesser known men stepped into their places. Tom Quelch (son of Harry Quelch) wielded a trenchant pen in the columns of The Call, which had been started as the official organ of the Party, after the defection of the privately-owned Justice to the ranks of the secessionists.

On the outbreak of the second Russian revolution (November, 1917), which brought Lenin and Trotsky into power, the B,S.P. definitely ranged itself on the side of the revolutionary working class and peasantry in Russia, organised under the banner of the Bolsheviks. From that attitude it never swerved. At its Easter Conference in 1918 a message of appreciation was read from M. Litvinoff, at that time acting as Bolshevik plenipoten­tiary in Britain, and the whole Conference was solidly behind the new regime. Later in the year, John Maclean, an Executive member, who had already served a sentence of eighteen months’ imprisonment for anti-war propaganda, was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, largely because of his enthusiastic advo­cacy of the Bolshevik cause. The 1919 conference at Sheffield still further emphasised the pro-Bolshevik attitude of the B.S.P. It declared that “the world war is bound to give birth to a world revolution, in which the hitherto exploited and oppressed classes in all countries would seize the reins of power, overthrow the rule of the capitalist and landlord classes, establish the direct rule of the workers and peasants by means of Soviets, and wind up the capitalist order of society.” A referendum of the Party was taken on the question of adhesion to the Third (Communist) International, established at Moscow. By an overwhelming majority (only four brandies dissenting) it was decided to secede from the Second and join up with the Third International. The B.S.P. is definitely in favour of Sovietism as a form of government to supersede capitalist parliamentary democracy, But it adheres to the parliamentary weapon in its prosecution of the class struggle. It is prepared, indeed, to use any weapon available as occasion demands or exigencies determine. It does not expect the social revolution through Parliament, but regards it as a point of vantage from which to attack the capitalist system.

Just before the outbreak of the war, the B.S.P., which for over twelve years, under various names, had remained outside the Labour Party, decided to reaffiliate to that body. This affiliation took actual effect at the Annual Conference of the Labour Party in Manchester in 1917, and since that time the B.S.P., with the assistance of many local trader councils and labour parties, has constituted the revolutionary left wing of the Labour Party. At the General Election of November, 1918, the B.S.P. had some twenty-five parliamentary candidates running under Labour Party auspices. None were successful, but all polled as well as, and some of them considerably better than, the average Labour Party candidate.

It is, however, doubtful whether the B.S.P. has definitely shed those fissiparous tendencies which marked the career of its predecessors, the S.D.F. and the S.D.P., for it can hardly be assumed that the whole Party is in favour of the Soviet system.


Upon the secession from the B.S.P., Hyndman, William Thorne, Dan Irving, Hunter Watts, H.W. Lee, J. Jones, John Stokes, and Joseph Burgess (formerly I.L.P.), formed the National Socialist Party. Their organ is the old weekly Justice. Hyndman, who, as Parliamentary candidate, had for so many years nursed Burnley, had the satisfaction to see his friend and disciple, Dan elected as member for that constituency at the general election in December, 1918. Also “Colonel” William Thorne and J. Jones were successful, so that the young and small Party was represented in the House of Commons by three members. The Party is affiliated to the Labour Party.


In the years of unrest, the I.L.P. went through a severe crisis. In 1913 the Party appeared to have weathered the storm. Its “Coming of Age” conference at Bradford, April, 1914, was attended by fraternal delegates from abroad as well as by dele­gates of the Labour Party, the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress, the Co-operative Societies, the Fabian Society, and the British Socialist Party, as a recognition of the work of the I.L.P. At that time, seven of its nominees, J. R. Clynes, Keir Hardie, F.W. Jowett, Ramsay MacDonald, James Parker, Tom Richardson, and Philip Snowden sat in Parliament as part of the thirty-nine members constituting the Parlia­mentary Labour Party. It was a well-merited tribute to the achievements and inspiration of the I.L.P.

During the first years of the last war, the Party, owing to its pacifist attitude, suffered an eclipse, the effects of which mani­fested themselves in the general election in December, 1918, when even its most prominent members, Philip Snowden, J. Ramsay MacDonald, and F.W. Jowett, lost their seats. As a compensation for the lasses, the Party gained four new Parlia­mentary representatives, Ben G. Spoor (Bishop Auckland), Neil Maclean (Govan), W. Graham (Edinburgh), and Tom Myers (Spen Valley). Since 1918 the membership increased to a very considerable extent, the Party having become the refuge of all those men and women of influence, reputation, and learning, who had lost faith in the Liberal Party and who would like to see humanity and righteousness the foundation stones of government.

In 1910, under the auspices of the Party, a printing and publishing agency, the National Labour Press, Ltd., was established in Manchester, which has proved a growing and profitable concern. The Labour Press publishes the Labour Leader, the official weekly organ of the party. It is also responsible for the publication of the Socialist Review (quarterly), edited by J.R. MacDonald. In 1905 the party inaugurated the publication of a socialist library, which includes the following volumes: Ferri, Socialism and Positive Science; MacDonald, Socialism and Society; Jaures, Studies in Socialism; Oliver, White Capital and Coloured Labour; Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism; Mac­Millan, The Child and the State; K. Kautsky, Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Bruce Glasier, Meaning of Socialism. Various party writers, notably Sir Leo Money and E. D. Morel, have been publishing, from time to time, instructive pamphlets on the questions of the day.

The questions of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet form of government, which have been agitating some portions of British Labour and socialism, occupied the attention of the I.L.P. at the end of 1919, and it dealt with them in a Memorandum, explaining its attitude towards them. The party had to record a decline of the authority of Parliament in Great Britain, owing—

“(a) To the fact that the Conservative reactionaries supported the threatened rebellion in Ulster against Parliament in 1913-14

“(b) To the deterioration of politics in Great Britain under the influence of Mr. Lloyd George, as was seen at the election in December, 1918;

“(c) To the predominance of the Executive, especially since the war, and the corresponding refusal of the House of Commons to discuss important questions concerning the welfare of the country;

“(d) From the point of view of democracy, the most serious result is that the House of Commons is now felt to respond too slowly to the real needs and wishes of the nation, and some of the more hasty spirits amongst the working class, which in its workshops and at its firesides continues to experience its economic and other grievances, are disposed to turn to “direct action and other forms of extra-Parliamentary pressure for protection.”

The real cause of the decline of Parliamentary government or democracy was to be looked for not in any inherent weakness of Parliamentarism, but in the insufficient education of the people and the imperfect state of socialist propaganda. The efforts of the socialist must therefore be directed towards removing that cause. Given persistent and systematic education and propa­ganda, democracy would work well, even in the transition time from capitalism to socialism. A revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, therefore, need not be necessary, “;but whether it has to be resorted to or not depends solely upon the policy of the capitalists themselves and not upon the political necessities of Socialism. Socialists ought not to allow capitalist interests and designs to divert Socialist propaganda and methods. That in most politically democratic countries will only strengthen the bands of the reaction, and in countries well equipped with modern military weapons will only lead to massacre not to revolution.”

The party rejected, likewise, the Soviet system, for the con­ditions under which it had been established in Russia were abnormal and the system itself had not reached yet any finality. Therefore, the party saw no reason for departing from its old position that until socialist propaganda influenced public opinion and until socialists were chosen as representatives on public bodies, no secure foundation for the socialist State could be laid.

As to “direct action,” the party was of opinion that neither economic action nor parliamentary action alone could do the work which socialism demanded; both were necessary, and each must be given its proper place in a full attack all along the line by democracy upon capitalism. The party was of opinion “that direct action for political purposes is essentially different in its nature from direct action for industrial purposes, and that the risks of failure of the former are so great that its political practic­ability is slight. The threats and fears of direct action, taken along with a general state of working class unsettlement such as exists to-day, do, however, contribute materially to the influ­ences which curb the policy of reactionary governments. The party, therefore, rejects direct action as a substitute for Parliamentary action, but considers it as one of the several weapons which the reaction may compel the working classes to use. Thus used it may be regarded as a means of restoring representative government and not of destroying it.”


The Scottish members of the S.D.F., who seceded in 1903, formed, after the model of the American Socialist Party, an organisation of their own which was practically but a branch of the American Party. For the first eight years its activities were mainly propagandist and limited to spreading the class war doctrines of Marx, according to the interpretation of Daniel De Leon. They denounced, in the style of their master, ail other working class organisations, both socialist and trade union, as “non-militant” and “non-class-conscious,” and their leaders as “fakirs”; they refused to be mixed up with those bulwarks of capitalism; they indicted industrialism from the point of view of the Labour theory of value. It was an abstract agitation which had little relation to the actual conditions in Great Britain. After 1911 its members, caught by the general unrest and militant tactics of Labour, began to be active in strikes and thus to grapple with realities; they mixed with the trade unions and deviated from the rigidity of their earlier views. During the first year of the war, several of their members, knowing the theory of direct action, became shop stewards in the engineering industry, and to them must largely be credited the Clyde strike in February, 1915, the strike in March, 1916, when several shop stewards were deported from the Clyde, finally, the great engi­neering turn-out in May, 1917.

The S.L.P., well versed in Marx’s materialist conception of history, had no difficulty in recognising the economic motives of the last war and regarding it as the extreme expression of the industrial and maritime competition between Great Britain and Germany. Their members were all anti-war. At the general election in December, 1918, three candidates were put forward­ — Arthur MacManus, J. T. Murphy, and William Paul — and each polled several thousand votes.

The S.L.P. theories came nearest to those of Lenin and Trotsky. The triumphs of the Bolshevik revolution gave, naturally, much encouragement to the S.L.P. Its organ is the Socialist, and its views dominate more or less such papers as the Worker, Solidarity, and the East London Workers’ Dreadnought, while the Central Labour College shows much affinity with the S.L.P., and there is hardly any difference between the latter, and the B.S.P.


The London secessionists from the S.D.F. in 1905, with Fitz­gerald at the head, formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It was very active in spreading Marxist theories and it opposed au other political parties, no matter whether they were calling themselves socialist or Labour. It emphasised the importance of proletarian political action on strictly social revolutionary lines. Its organ is the Socialist Standard.

The Socialist Sunday School movement, for which A.P. Hazell, one of die oldest members of the S.D.F. and one of the best students of Marxist economics in England, had done much, contributed a good deal towards the propaganda of socialism. The Young Socialist, founded by Archibald Russell at Glasgow, was the special organ of the Socialist Sunday schools.

The youngest socialist organisation is the National Guilds League. It was founded in 1915, with William Mellor as secre­tary. It is mainly a propagandist body and looks less for numbers than for effective writers and speakers in sympathy with guild socialism. Among its several members may be mentioned Bertrand Russell, R.H. Tawney, Clifford Allen, George Lansbury, W.N. Ewer, Mrs. Townshend, H.J. Gillespie. The League has published a number of ably written pamphlets on the guild idea, based on Marxist economics, the best among them being A Catechism of National Guilds.

On the whole, the educational activities of the socialist, industrial unionists, and guildsmen immediately before the war and in 1918 and 1919, were on an unprecedented scale. More­over, they were able to reach the organised working classes. The formation of the Labour Party in 1900 by trade unionists and socialists rendered it possible for intellectuals to come in touch with the mass of trade unionists. Something like an alliance between Labour and social knowledge was estab­lished. These activities and developments, combined with the effects of the war, the Russian revolution, and the Representa­tion of the People Act, led to a recasting of the Labour Party constitution and to a revision of its aims and objects.


1. The first International Conference of Revolutionary Socialists during the war took place in the first week of September, 1915, at Zimmerwald (Switzerland). Delegates were present from Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway, Holland, and Switzerland, The most prominent among them were Lenin, Ledebour, Bourderon, Merrheim, Modigliani, Lazzari, Racovski, and Höglund. They declared themselves for an imme­diate peace without annexations and indemnities, for the self-determination of the nationalities, against the industrial truce, and for the revolutionary class war.