J. T. Murphy

The Conference of the Socialist League


Source: The Aldelphi, July 1933, Vol. 6, No. 4
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.


WHATEVER else the first annual Conference of the Socialist League succeeded or failed in doing, it has certainly thrust into the forefront of the Labour Movement the principal question of the day, i.e., shall the Labour Movement continue in the crisis with the policy of "gradualism" or face the crisis with decisive socialist measures and policy.

The last conference of the Labour Party was emphatic in its condemnation of “gradualism.” Its overwhelming demonstration of support for Trevelyan, its resolution in favour of the next Labour Government promptly nationalising the banks, its bolting of the door against the possible return of MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, the principal custodians of gradualism who had followed that policy to its logical conclusion, demonstrated what the movement felt about “gradualism” and the record of the Labour Government.

For a time those whose faith in the “old policy” was not yet shaken, remained comparatively quiet waiting for the workers to forget. In recent months the situation has changed once more. The Fascist revolution in Germany has stirred the whole working class movement in this country. The new Police Bill based upon the Trenchard proposals served to demonstrate the advance of fascism here. It appeared to be generally appreciated that politics in this country had now been transformed into a race between socialism and fascism. I think this is still the case and will continue until one or the other is triumphant.

But the new situation has called forth in the ranks of the Labour Movement the voice of fear. The joint manifesto of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and the Executive of the Labour Party on democracy was not the voice of challenging socialism. It was the voice of Nineteenth Century Liberalism crying for the restoration of the past. This manifesto has been reinforced by articles in the Labour Magazine (June) which are introduced as follows:—

“For many months past a singularly untimely and politically inept propaganda has been carried on by a non-official group with the object, it would seem, of convincing the Labour Movement that the accomplishment of socialism will probably be preceded by revolutionary violence, and will certainly require the exercise of powers of dictatorship by a Socialist Government which means business.

“Lip service is paid to the ideals of democracy and the free institutions it has created, but they are regarded as milestones which have been passed on the road to freedom, and we need not trouble to go back to defend them.

“A Socialist Government (they contend) will have to be set up, and it will have no more use for free speech and a free press, for the right of public assembly and the right of combination, for free elections and a free Parliament, than a Right dictatorship will have for them; in fact, as one of the spokesmen of the group put it, free speech is one more one of the eternal verities than free trade.”

This article is more than a challenge to the Socialist League. It is a challenge to socialism within the Labour Party. At the same time it forces the Socialist League into the forefront of the struggle for socialism in the Labour Party. It is this fact which gives the recent conference of the League added importance and significance.

Did the Conference say that a Socialist Government “will have no more use for free speech and a free press, for the right of public assembly and the right of combination, for free elections and a free Parliament”? There was not one word uttered about these questions nor was there a resolution on the agenda which refers to them. As a matter of fact the “Programme of Action,” which consists of six resolutions defining what the next Labour Government should do immediately on its return to power, confines itself entirely to the question of securing the necessary constitutional powers in order that the Socialist Government can take the first steps towards socialism and defend itself.

But it is time a few questions were asked of the defenders of “this freedom.” Presuming that we get a socialist Government, is it proposed to allow the millionaire press with its circulations of millions per day to conduct a raging anti-socialist campaign for the overthrow of the Government? Is it proposed to allow in the name of the “right of combination” the organisation of armed fascist forces of counter-revolution? Is it proposed in the name of “free election” and “free Parliament” that voting shall continue on a property basis, that a 150 nomination fee shall still be demanded, that dual voting shall continue, and the House of Lords remain free to reject every socialist measure and to organise an anti-socialist Curragh Camp?

There can be no question of the duty of every socialist to defend every democratic right won in the course of the long years of struggle. There can be no question of the duty of every socialist to defend everything within the constitution of this country which will facilitate a peaceful revolution on the basis of popular consent to majority rule. But does this mean that the similarity of socialist and capitalist constitutions is such that there is no difference? That capitalist and socialist democracy are the same? Such a claim means one of two things. Either the defenders of capitalist democracy don’t want socialism and don’t mean to have it or they know nothing of socialism.

The franchise of capitalist democracy is a property franchise. The franchise of socialism is a social service franchise. The Government of capitalism is the Government of capitalist politicians backed by the finance capitalists in the interests of profit making. The Government of socialism is the Government of the workers by the workers for the workers, a government based upon the social ownership of the means of production and a higher form of democracy in which social service supplants profit making as the motive force of society and the basis of all representation of the people. Only then will there be “free institutions” of democracy. But according to the quotations from the leader of the Labour Magazine it appears that the “free institutions” belong to capitalism and the Socialist Government will simply carry on the “democracy” of capitalism.

The coming Labour Party Conference and Trade Union Congress will have to face these issues and the Socialist League will have to be ready with its answer. Up to now, however, the Socialist League has stopped short with its consideration of this question. So far it stands for the defence of all democratic gains won in the course of the class struggle. It recognises that Nineteenth Century Parliamentarism can no longer work, in fact has vanished. It insists that emergency measures must be adopted by a Socialist Government. It has published pamphlets which discuss “workers’ control” under a Socialist Government—a parliamentary government! It has not yet discussed the fundamental difference between the capitalist State and the Socialist State. Nor did the Conference attempt to discuss this question.

Indeed one of the big weaknesses of the Socialist League is that it has not, as yet, a clearly defined programme which explains its philosophy and outlook on social evolution. Resolutions containing contradictory principles were passed by the Conference. The political outlook and policy of the League had to be gathered from the potted politics of resolutions prepared with an eye to the Labour Party agenda. It had no analysis of the economic and political situation before it. The League has not yet produced one fundamental socialist document and we are not aware to what others it subscribes. Some of its leaders subscribe to Marxism, others to we know not what, apart from the declaration in the Socialist League constitution.

This criticism is largely recognised in the resolution of the Holborn branch of the League when moving the reference back of the political resolutions presented to the Conference by the National Council. The Council retreated before the criticism and instead of standing firmly by its resolutions it asked for them to receive “a second reading” and defer final decision to the next conference. Unless the new Council drafts a programme giving its analysis of the economic and political situation in process of development, the progress of the class struggle especially in this country, and the situation within the working class movement itself; unless it defines the task before the working class and the socialist movement on the basis of such an analysis; then the League will flounder along and be totally incapable of the tasks which it is really called upon to perform. If it is to be a revolutionary vanguard, it must prove itself worthy of being recognised as such by the clarity of its outlook, the soundness of its revolutionary socialist principles and theory, and its capacity to win the backing of the great majority, of the Labour Movement. Without a programme such as I have described it can never do this.

The Conference itself demonstrated its backwardness in this respect. Practically every resolution before it was based on the assumption that we are near to a majority Socialist Government. What reasons were advanced to justify such an assumption? None whatever. Yet is there not a possibility of the “National” Government hastening the development of fascism, or of a general election returning Labour as the largest party but without a majority in Parliament? These are possibilities and the working class movement can only be prepared for them if the leadership is constantly analysing the changing relations of class forces and adapting itself to meet the changing situation. Such considerations have not been undertaken by the Socialist League. But they must be if the League is to function as a vanguard.

Two things the Conference did achieve. It focussed the fundamental question before the Labour Movement, namely, the abandonment of “gradualism” and the fight for socialism. It succeeded in making clear to itself and others that the Socialist League is not merely the rump of the old I.L.P. carrying on, but the organisation of revolutionary socialists who are an integral part of the Labour Movement for the purpose of winning it completely for revolutionary socialism.

That the League has rid itself of all defects or has yet developed to the full stature of its purpose no one would be so foolish as to assert. Indeed an organisation that clings to the referendum, that holds a conference of mandated delegates, that accepts the principle of the election of leaders by the Conference at one moment and the next reverts to the principle of election by ballot in the districts, can hardly lay claim to be more than in its early stages of development.

More serious still was the introduction of the “emergency” resolutions on war and fascism. Why were they “emergency” resolutions? Simply because there were no political theses before the Conference. For no analysis of the present situation could have been made without recognising that these two phenomena characterise and dominate the politics of the present situation. Hence the haste to make up for the omission by “emergency” resolutions. Hence also once more the potted politics of the resolutions which try to say everything in half a dozen lines.

The anti-war pledge put forward by the National Council is merely a pacifist resolution, reminding us of the Ponsonby pledge of the last war, and is just about as valuable. Recognising its inadequacy the Conference went further and supported the proposition of a general strike against war and the utilisation of such a situation for the overthrow of capitalism. With the revolutionary spirit of the resolutions of the conference there can be no quarrel. But have we not had similar resolutions many many times, from many organisations? Did not the Rome Conference of the International Federation of Trade Unions pass such a resolution immediately after the last war? And nothing has happened to prepare the workers to give effect to such resolutions.

A general strike that is not prepared is doomed to defeat. A movement that is caught napping by the outbreak of war cannot call a general strike. A number of resolutions have been passed by local Labour Parties and Trades Councils calling on the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and the Executive of the Labour Party and the Co-operative leadership to meet and prepare plans. Such demands should certainly be increased. But that is not enough. Such action of the masses must be prepared in every, city and town and village if it is to be effective. The obligation and duty of every Trades Council and local Labour Party is to take the initiative now and not wait patiently content to hand over the question to the central leadership. It is characteristic of the latter in this country to move in an anti-capitalist direction only when it is pushed.