Chris Harman

In Perspective

Socialists in dispute

(December 2007)

From Socialist Review, December 2007.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Divisions within the left, such as that which has occurred in Respect, always have their basis in political disagreements. Socialists must always fight for their principles to take the movement forward

Few things are so distressing for the socialist left as the bitter internal disputes marked by personal diatribes. Such disputes are not unique to the left. Witness the interminable rows within the Tory party, or the decade long feud within New Labour between bomber Tony Blair and bomber Gordon Brown. But the socialist left is based on principles very different from today’s mainstream parties, and people expect better from it.

For this reason, Socialist Review, Socialist Worker and International Socialism have always avoided allowing necessary arguments among socialists to degenerate into the name calling some sects engage in. But now, as articles elsewhere in this issue explain, a very nasty dispute has broken out in the ranks of Respect, with a small group of notables around George Galloway breaking away as they denounced the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and counterposed their public rally to the Respect conference of elected delegates.

The SWP faced a Catch 22. If we did not answer the allegations against us people would believe we might be guilty. If we did we were then going to be accused of provoking the row.

This is not the first time such developments have occurred in the socialist movement.

Revolutionary socialists operate in a capitalist society which exerts all sorts of pressures on individuals who set out to fight against it. There is the pressure to quietly abandon principles to have an easier life, the demoralisation and defeatism that afflict people when struggles do not achieve the expected success, or the tendency of the media to build up individuals until egomania takes over.

Socialist organisations have always had to try to resist the impact of these pressures. In 1860 Karl Marx had to defend himself against slanders used by moderate liberal critics of the Prussian monarchy to discredit the socialist left. They relied on claims by a certain Herr Vogt that Marx was extorting money by threatening to report people to the political police. Marx had to take a whole year off from writing Capital to prove that Vogt was a paid agent of the French emperor Louis Bonaparte.

In 1903 Russian socialists gathered in London for the first real attempt to build a nationwide united organisation. Things seemed to be going very well until suddenly the delegates split over the character of membership in the organisation.

The ferocity of the arguments bewildered observers and even some participants. Vladimir Lenin was accused of being “dictatorial” for saying those who won the democratic vote should control the organisation’s paper. It was 14 years before Leon Trotsky realised that what was involved was a division between those who wanted a serious revolutionary socialist organisation and those whose softness would lead to conciliation with capitalism.

The early days of the socialist movement in Britain were marked by equally rancorous disputes, although without anything like as clear a final outcome. In the early 1880s the founding figures of the first organisation, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), was a rich barrister and former Tory, Henry Hyndman. He was a British nationalist who saw trade unionism as an obstacle to socialism and would tolerate no opposition to his views.

A group including William Morris and Eleanor Marx obtained a majority on the SDF’s executive against Hyndman, but, out of exasperation, gave up the fight to oust him, splitting away to form a revolutionary socialist rival, the Socialist League. But it fell apart just as the biggest strike wave of a generation erupted at the end of the 1880s.

Revolutionaries like Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann played an important role in the League, but could not build an organisational alternative to the SDF.

Further bitter polemics marked the emergence of a rather different alternative to the SDF with the founding of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) by Keir Hardie in 1893. The SDF claimed it stood on socialist principles, but continued to stand aside from the immediate struggles of workers, while the ILP had more understanding of the importance of the trade unions, but downgraded its principles to seek votes and gain the support of union leaders.

There was an attempt to broker unity between the two organisations after a maverick socialist, Victor Grayson, won a shock election victory in Colne Valley in Lancashire in 1907.

The years 1910-14 saw what was known as the Great Unrest, a huge upswell of working class struggle, and unity could have provided a focus for this. But attempts made little progress as the rival parties’ leaders used their papers to denounce each other. Grayson, described by Lenin as “a fiery socialist, without many principles and given to mere phrases”, soon abandoned socialist politics to campaign in favour of the First World War, ending up writing for an extreme right wing magazine.

It’s easy to see these disputes among British socialists as a terrible waste of time and energy better applied to fighting capitalism. But the real waste was in consistent socialists being unable for 30 years to win the arguments for building a substantial organisation that was both principled and active in day to day struggles. This did not come into being until after Hyndman was expelled by the members of his own organisation in 1916 for also supporting the First World War.

Disputes like that in Respect are wearing for all concerned and can seem bewildering to even sympathetic observers. But not fighting for a principled outcome can be much more damaging than the disputes themselves.

Last updated on 27 December 2009