V. I.   Lenin

Conference of the British Social-Democratic Party

Published: Zvezda, No. 18, April 16, 1911. Signed: V. Ilyin. Published according to the Zvezda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 173-178.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

Many European socialist parties have taken advantage of the Easter holidays (April 16, N. S.) to hold their conferences: the French, Belgian, Dutch (its opportunist section), the British Social-Democratic Party, and the British Independent Labour Party. We propose to draw the attention of our readers to some items discussed at the conferences of the two last-mentioned parties.

The 31st Annual Conference of the British Social-Democratic Party (S.D.P.) was held in Coventry. The most interesting item discussed was that of “armaments and foreign policy”. It is well known that Britain and Germany have been arming very intensively during the past few years. Competition between these two countries in the world market is becoming increasingly acute. The danger of a military conflict is approaching more and more formidably. The bourgeois jingoist press of both countries is raining millions upon millions of inflammatory articles upon the masses, inciting them against the “enemy”, howling about the inevitable danger of a “German invasion” or of a “British attack” and clamouring for increased armaments. The socialists of Britain and Germany, and also of France (whom Britain would be particularly glad to drag into war in order to have a continental land army against Germany) are devoting much attention to the threatening war, fighting with might and main against bourgeois chauvinism and armaments, and doing all they can to explain to the most backward sections of the proletariat and of the petty bourgeoisie what misfortunes ensue from a war which serves exclusively the interests of the bourgeoisie.

There were sad exceptions to this among the socialists, several of whom were prominent leaders of the British S.D.P., among them Hyndman. The latter allowed himself to be scared by the screams of the British bourgeois press about the “German menace”, and went so far as to assert that Britain had to arm for defence, that she had to have a powerful navy, that Wilhelm was the aggressive party.

True, Hyndman encountered opposition, in fact very strong opposition, within the S.D.P. itself. A number of resolutions from the branches were emphatically against him.

The Coventry Congress, or Conference—to use the English term, which does not correspond in meaning to the Russian “konferentsia”—had to settle the issue. A resolution emphatically opposing any kind of jingoist point of view was proposed by the Central Hackney branch (Hackney, a district in North-East London). In its report on the Conference, Justice, the central organ of the S.D.P., quotes only the end of what it terms a “lengthy” resolution, calling for a determined struggle against all increases in armaments, and opposing all colonial and financial aggression. Zelda Kahan, in supporting the resolution, emphasised that during the last forty years Britain had been the aggressor, that Germany would not gain by making Britain a German province; and that no such danger existed. “The British Navy,” she said, “is kept to maintain the Empire. Never had the S.D.P. made a bigger and more terrible mistake than in identifying the Party with the jingoist warmongers. As a consequence of this mistake,” said Kahan, “the British Social-Democrats have placed themselves outside the inter national movement.”

The entire Party Executive Committee, including Harry Quelch—we have to confess with shame—supported Hyndman. The “amendment” they moved declared no more nor less than the following: “This Conference holds that the maintenance of an adequate navy for national defence” is an “immediate object”!... Then, of course, it goes on to repeat all the “good old words”—about combating imperialist policy, about war against capitalism, etc. All this honey, of course, was spoiled by a spoonful of tar, by the phrase recognising the need for an “adequate” navy, a phrase that is   bourgeois both in its evasiveness and in its pure chauvinism. This is in 1911, a time when the British naval budget clearly reveals a tendency to unlimited growth; this is in a country whose navy “defends and protects the Empire”, i.e., India included, with its population of nearly 300,000,000 that is being plundered and outraged by British bureaucrats, where “enlightened” British statesmen, like the liberal and “radical” Morley, sentence natives to transportation or inflict corporal punishment for political offences!

The miserable sophistry Quelch had to resort to may be seen from the following passage in his speech (as reported in Justice, which defends Hyndman)!... “If we believe in national autonomy, we must have national defence and that defence must be adequate, or it is useless. We are opposed to imperialism, whether British or German; the small nationalities under Prussian rule hate her despotism, and the small nations threatened by her regard the British Navy and German Social-Democracy as their only hope....”

How quickly those who step on the slippery slope of opportunism slide to the bottom! The British Navy, which helps to enslave India (not a very “small” nation), is placed on a par with German Social-Democracy as a champion of national liberty.... Zelda Kahan was right when she said that never yet had British Social-Democracy so disgraced itself. Its sectarian character, noted and condemned long ago by Engels,[1] had never before been so clearly revealed as it was by the ease with which even men like Quelch can go over to the chauvinists.

The voting on the resolution was evenly divided: 28 for the Executive Committee and 28 against. In order to win a deplorable victory—Hyndman and Quelch had to demand a branch vote, which secured them 47 votes against 33.

Some members of the Social-Democratic Party have voiced a most emphatic protest against chauvinism in their ranks; there has emerged a very strong minority ready to wage a serious struggle. The situation in the Independent Labour Party is worse: there opportunism is no rarity. There the question of whether socialists and the workers should support armaments is debated quite calmly in “discussion” articles in the official organ of the Party, The Labour Leader (No. 16, April 21, 1911).

The London correspondent of Vorwärts justly remarked that the best criticism of the position of the S.D.P. was an article in the extremely jingoist Daily Mail which praised the wisdom of the Social-Democratic leaders. He quotes the beginning of the article in that newspaper as saying: “It is encouraging to learn that, however extravagant some of the fallacies and impossible some of the ideals of the Social-Democratic Party in this country, there is at least one supremely important question on which that Party is guided by reason and common sense.

The really gratifying feature of the Birmingham Conference of the I.L.P. was that from its ranks firm and determined voices were heard protesting against the opportunist policy, the policy of dependence upon the Liberals pursued by this party in general, and by the party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, in particular. In reply to the reproach that the Labour members say little about socialism in the House of Commons, MacDonald said with virginal opportunist innocence that Parliament was hardly the place for “propaganda speeches”. “The great function of the House of Commons,” he said, “is to translate into legislation the socialism that is preached in the country.” The speaker forgot all about the difference between bourgeois social reform and socialism! He was prepared to expect socialism from a bourgeois Parliament....

Leonard Hall pointed out in his speech that the I.L.P. had been formed in 1892 for the purpose of killing the old Labour Electoral Association which was merely a wing of liberalism. They had buried the corpse (after killing the Association), but it seemed to have revived in the Labour Party. He added that the leader of the Party was pursuing this policy in his speeches, letters and books.

Another I.L.P. member, George Lansbury, M. P., sharply criticised the policy of the Parliamentary Labour Party for its dependence upon the Liberals and its fear of “endangering” the Liberal government. Lansbury said that more than once he had been so ashamed of the conduct of the Labour members that he had nearly resigned. He went on to say that all the time the Liberals tried to keep the House busy with minor questions and that Labour members were unable to win independence for themselves. “I have never   known a time,” said Lansbury, “when both Liberals and Tories had not some great question to hide the poverty question. I am in the House of Commons with the picture before me of those men and women, who night after night toiled in the slums of Bow and Bromley [poor districts in the East End of London] to send me there. They worked for me because they thought I was different from the Liberals and Tories.... They sent me to face the question of poverty, poverty, poverty.... I appeal to you,” he said, addressing the Conference, “to keep a solid party in the House of Commons absolutely distinct, from the convenience of Liberals and Tories. We must show no more mercy to the Liberals when they do wrong than to the Tories.... The men and women who toil and suffer have nothing to hope for from either Liberals or Tories; their only hope lies in, and salvation can come from, their organised effort....” Let us “make it clear to the men and women of the slums that even in Parliament we are true to what we say outside, namely, that Liberals and Tories are the enemies of the people and socialism their only hope”.

Lansbury’s speech was interrupted by thunders of applause, and when he finished he received a real ovation. In Germany such speeches are an everyday occurrence. In Britain they are a novelty. And when such speeches are beginning to be delivered, when worker delegates at the Conference of the Independent Labour Party (unfortunately, very frequently independent of socialism, but dependent upon the Liberals) applaud such speeches, then we have the right to conclude that in Britain, too, the spirit of proletarian struggle is gaining the upper hand over the diplomacy of opportunist parliamentarians like MacDonald. (Let us add in parenthesis that this MacDonald recently sent the Italian reformists an expression of his complete sympathy with their readiness to join a bourgeois Cabinet, and his dislike for “dry theory”.)

The speeches of Hall, Lansbury, and others have not changed the policy of the I.L.P. MacDonald remains at the head of the Party, and its policy will continue to be opportunist. The bourgeois influence upon the proletariat is strong—especially in democratic countries. But these speeches do not pass without leaving a trace, they undermine the influence   of the bourgeoisie and of the opportunists. When the British people get a daily newspaper going (and both parties are seriously thinking about this), such and only such speeches will reach the minds and hearts of the working class. The Liberals of all countries, Russia included, are rejoicing and laughing now at the sight of the predominance of opportunism in the British labour movement. But “he laughs best who laughs last”.


[1] Engels frequently referred to the sectarian nature of British Social-Democracy in letters to F. A. Sorge (see, for example, Engels’s letters to Sorge on June 10, 1891, on March 18, 1893, on May 21, 1894 and November 10, 1894; an English translation of the last letter is to be found in: Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, p. 556).

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