Henry Hyndman May 1903

Laborism, Impossibilism and Socialism

Source: International Socialist Journal (United States) May 1903, Vol. III no. 11, pp. 653-656;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In Great Britain we are only just now entering upon the daily, practical work of a Socialist party. The reasons why we are so far behind all other civilized nations, including even the United States, I gave at length in the first number of the INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW of Chicago, and there is no need to repeat them here. It is enough for us to know that not only are the English and Scotch workers behindhand in education, but that they still, for the most part, look at their own questions from the point of view of the dominant class; confine their attention to maintaining or increasing their rate of wages; refuse to work out the facts before them to their logical conclusion; and are as a rule incapable of conceiving or working for the attainment of any ideal. It has taken us, consequently, two and twenty years of assiduous propaganda to get as far as we have, and if we gauge our progress not by the actual numbers of enrolled Socialists – the only safe test, I admit, for actual working capacity – but by the spread of our ideas, we have got a great deal farther than many of us think. I do not doubt myself, either, that the near future will witness the consolidation of a definite working-class Social-Democratic party in the House of Commons. We are at the moment in a period of transition when, having rendered ourselves more or less formidable, it is worth the while of existing political factions, and especially worth the while of the capitalist-Liberal political faction to try to take advantage of the enthusiasm we can arouse without in any way committing themselves to the principles which constitute the basis of our propaganda. That was to be expected. It was natural. But it is not at all dangerous if genuine Socialists are true to themselves. For when once any body of politicians get on to the inclined plane which leads to Socialism, they will discover that it is a well-greased declivity on which they cannot stop till they reach the bottom. They may occasion us a little temporary annoyance, and postpone our triumphant progress for a short time but this will not last long. When for instance, the leaders of the Liberal faction clamor for the expropriation of Lord Penrhyn in order to meet and satisfy in some degree the demands of their “Labor” nominee, they do us excellent service. For if Penthyrn is to be expropriated, why not Furness, why not Cadbury, why not the Railway boards who monopolize our railways? Why indeed? It is a fine educative word that “expropriation,” and the idea is still more enlightening than its method of expression. In fact, we owe our best thanks to the owner of Bethesda for his staunch upholding of his “right to do what he likes with his own,” sorry as we are for the men who suffer. Of course, Bannerman and his set don’t mean business in the Penrhyn matter. But what of that? They never do. All the same, however, the proposal has been made, and it is for us to push it a great deal further than the mere political tricksters intend.

No, the difficulty at present is not so much, it seems to me, with outsiders or with the general course of events. Things are coming our way as fast as they can. Everywhere, in all civilized countries, it is obvious that Socialism is the power of the near future. The anxiety of the landlords and capitalists to “dish” us is a testimony to our growing strength. Their desire to bring about splits and schisms in our ranks is evidence of fear. Their dodgery of putting forward trade union barristers, who sell their tongues for money in the courts during the day, and for position in the House of Commons at night, with others of the like kidney, as “Labor Members,” is part of a careful scheme to cajole the workers, and head back the Socialists, which serves at the same time as clear proof that they feel very uneasy. Their steady refusal to discuss the existing position in public, and the determination of their corrupt press to boycott our meetings tell the same story. So, I say, the outlook generally is not unsatisfactory, especially when taken in conjunction with the desperate eagerness of the Tories to crush trade unions and to wreck as they think the only chance of real national education. Our enemies know we are gaining ground daily, and that they are unable to meet us in fair fight. Consequently, suppression of working-class organizations, and the fostering of ignorance, hypocritical sympathy, and pretended co-operation are the order of the day.

Now is the time, therefore, when we might take advantage of the opportunities which the economic and social development and our own propaganda have created for us. But we are prevented, I repeat, not so much by the dextrous action of our opponents as by the lack of consolidation on our own side. There are the deliberate opportunists and hand-to-mouthers, the half-loaf men who are hungry for political sawdust, and who imagine that they can help to carry Socialism by forswearing all its principles, on the one hand; and there are the furious impossibilists with their anarchical absurdities, partly engendered by the surrenderers themselves, on the other. The latter are the more annoying: the former the more injurious.

As to the impossibilists, they are many of them at bottom anarchists, who honestly believe that all political action is harmful. They are justified in holding that opinion, if they so believe; but they are certainly out of place in a political Socialist party. There are others who know as well as we do that political action is unavoidable, but then it must be conducted wholly in the way which they approve. They refuse to accept the ruling of the majority of the organizations they belong to, they vilify everybody who differs from them, and they say what they know perfectly well to be untrue about the men with whom they claim to be working. De Leon, who was a man of ability, and did good work in his time, is the worst specimen of this type, and he has carefully destroyed his own party and driven away all its best men. Even Socialists like Guesde and Lafargue, whose services to the Socialist cause in France are universally recognized, have gone too far in the same direction, with the result that they have played into the hands of their opponents and have lost their hold on great cities where the Parti Ouvrier was formerly supreme. At present, impossibilism in Great Britain is represented by small knots of men, here and there, who without the slightest claim to have shared in the heavy work of the past, most of which was done before they were born, think they can improve the situation by declaring that the S.D.F. does not preach the class-war, as Kropotkin always used to say we clung to the wages system, and by pretending that the “officials” of the party prevent the development of their genius. Criticism all expect and are the wiser for, but mere lying and slander are much better got rid of and dealt with outside.

The impossibilists are thus to a large extent the excuse for the trimmers. The latter can point to the others as hopeless people, with whom none can possibly work who has the slightest respect for the movement or for himself. They strengthen the position of such a man as Millerand, for instance, by misrepresenting the action taken by the great majority of Socialists at the International Congress who never approved of Millerand’s action at all, and by affirming that never, under any conceivable set of circumstances, not even with the approval of the overwhelming majority of Socialists, can a Socialist join a transition government for a temporary object. More than this, people of this sort are never happy unless they are endeavoring to reduce all organized action to an absurdity by insisting upon everything which is done being made public at the time.

Who can wonder that, the tendency to trimming and compromise in this country being what it is, those who do not thoroughly understand Socialism, or who are convinced that it is not even partially realizable in our day, should be confirmed in their bootless opportunism by this sort of folly, little as there may by of it? Obviously, we have to work in the world as we find it and, although we must retain our definite class-war principles and organization, it is as ridiculous to say that we must never co-operate with people who partly agree with us, as it is ruinous to sink ourselves in a flabby sort of Laborism which has no principles that it can or dare formulate, and no policy which ii is willing to avow. “Laborism,” with or without Liberalism, is not Socialism, nor anything approaching to it. Impossibilism with or without Anarchism, is not Socialism, nor anything approaching to it. The soundest exponent of active political Socialism in our time was old Wilhelm Liebknecht. He made mistakes like the rest of us, or he would never have made anything at all; but he kept throughout to the main road of practical, determined, class-war propaganda, using all the means which came to his hand to help on the great cause. It seems to me that we have reached a period in the English Socialist movement when we have to emulate his readiness to combine with all Socialists who are genuinely determined to obtain possession of the great means of production and distribution for the whole people, and to push aside relentlessly, as he did, the cranks and impossibilists who think that they must be right because they never agree with the mass of their fellows. – H.M. Hyndman, in London “Justice.”