Harry Quelch 1908
Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XII., No. 10, October, 1908, pp. 433-440;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
It is a far cry from the old mediaeval town of Nuremberg – the jewel-casket of the German Empire as it is called – to that centre of modern industrialism Newcastle-on-Tyne. Yet, during the past few weeks the same issue, from a Socialist standpoint, has been fought out in both places.
In Nuremberg the question of supreme interest in the Annual Congress of the Social-Democratic Party held there in the third week of September, was that of the Budgetbewilligung – the voting of the Budget by the Socialist groups in the National Parliaments of Baden, Bavaria, Hesse and Würtemberg. These groups claimed that the work they had done in the direction of social reform in their respective Parliaments justified them in voting for the Ministerial Budget. It was illogical, they contended, to press forward certain reforms and then refuse to vote the Budget which included the amounts necessary to pay for these reforms.
They were opposed by the North Germans, including the Executive of the party, on the ground that to vote the Budget in any Parliament was contrary to the principles and policy of the whole party; therefore those groups which had adopted that course had, in the first place, been guilty of a breach of discipline, and, secondly, by so doing had surrendered the uncompromising revolutionary standpoint of the party by taking part in the administration of the existing regime.
On the other hand it was contended that the national groups should exercise a certain amount of autonomy; that in the places where they had voted the Budget they had acquired a power and influence which imposed a responsibility upon them which did not attach to those who, as in Prussia, had not been able to attain such a position. Therefore, they could not allow themselves to be dictated to by these others. Party discipline and party loyalty must be maintained, certainly; but it was idle to make these too rigid in their application, as then they could not be enforced.
And so in this way the discussion, frequently heated and sometimes bitter, went on for nearly four days, and then a vote was taken on a resolution upholding the rule of the party, submitted by the Executive, which was carried by 258 votes to 119. The minority agreed to accept the decision of the majority – instead of resigning as they at first threatened to do – while at the same time maintaining their right to do as they like, independent of the decision of the Congress, in any such case as that under consideration.
Much has been made in the capitalist press of the personalities, the heat and bitterness which sometimes characterised the debate. But neither these manifestations nor the rejoicings of our enemies over them are to be wondered at. It is a great mistake to suppose that Socialism involves the suppression of all individuality and the elimination of all differences of opinion. Most Socialists are persons of strong individuality, who have been first impelled to Socialism by a recognition of the impossibility of the development of full individuality except through Socialism; and differences of opinion, especially on questions of tactics and policy, are bound to arise, and are essential in a party such as ours. Such differences of opinion, too, among people who are in earnest are bound to excite considerable personal feeling, as this or that point of view comes to be identified with a particular individual. And this question of the Budgetbewilligung was, on the face of it, one of tactics and policy. At bottom, however, it was much more than that. In itself the question whether, in given circumstances, the Social-Democratic Party should vote supplies for the Government in a class State might be regarded as one of tactics. Really, however, it involves a vital question of principle – the question whether the party stands for revolution or mere reform: whether participation in the Government of the capitalist State is to be the rule for a professedly Socialist Party.
It is precisely the same question which embittered the division in the French Party, and occupied much of the time of the Paris International Congress in 1900 in relation to the Millerand affair. It was this question also which was at issue in the International Congress at Stuttgart in the debate on Colonial Policy. And the same question was the real point at issue when the Labour Party declined to contest Newcastle in the recent bye-election, and local Socialists and trade unionists stepped into the breach.
The question is whether the working-class movement is to be a movement of revolt against the existing social order, scorning all alliances and working along the lines of political organisation, and with all available means, for the emancipation of the working class and the abolition of capitalism, or whether it is to have for its object such ameliorations and palliations of capitalism as will make the capitalist system tolerable, and to work for that object by participating in every possible way in the function of organising and administering the Government in a capitalist State.
Those who adopt the latter view assert that the former is sheer impossibilisrn and leads logically to anti-Parliamentarism and Anarchism. To this it may be replied that almost any argument carried to its logical conclusion leads to an absurdity. The advocates of the revolutionary Socialist principle and policy are neither Impossiblists nor Anarchists; neither are they opposed to political action nor palliative reforms. But to them these things – Parliamentarism and reforms – are but means to an end, and they do not magnify the means to the exclusion of the end. They do not admit the necessity of being drowned in the maelstrom of Revisionism or shattered on the rocks of Impossibilism. There is a middle course. It may not be always easy to follow it; but undoubtedly it is the right course to take. On the one hand we have the Revisionists who seem to think that the highest aim of a working-class party is to play a part in a capitalist Government. On the other hand, we have the Impossibilists, who declare that no circumstances can justify any participation, no matter how temporary, in a capitalist administration, and that no reforms, however revolutionary in their scope or character, are worth voting for. As between the two, we say that a Socialist Party cannot, as a rule, take part in a capitalist Government. That, that is, and should be, the rule; but that circumstances may arise to make it the duty of the party to so participate; the party, as a whole, to determine when such participation is necessary and when it shall cease. In the meantime, we take all the reforms we can force from the Government of our enemies, but we must recognise that in obtaining these reforms they may be the result of the pressure we have been able to bring to bear upon the Government, but, after all, they are conceded by our enemies, not granted by ourselves, seeing that we are everywhere in a minority; that therefore they are bound to have the defects of their source, and we cannot accept any responsibility for them.
Between Nuremberg and Newcastle there is this difference, that whereas in Nuremberg it was the local people who stood for revisionism against the rest of the party, and the party Executive which stood for the old revolutionary principle, in Newcastle it was the local people who were in revolt against the compromise to which they were committed by the Labour Party Executive. That, however, is not strange, but is quite in keeping with the general circumstances. The German Party against whose ordinances the South Germans were in revolt, is a Social-Democratic Party; pledged to maintain the principles and traditions of Social-Democracy. The British party, against whose ruling the stalwarts of Newcastle were in revolt, is merely a “Labour Party” without principles or programme, and with nothing but a somewhat doubtful independence as its single article of belief.
In the one case as in the other, however, it seems to me, the party Executive was bound to insist, as far as possible, upon the maintenance of discipline. It is probable that some of my friends will not agree with me; but in the fact that it is the duty of the Labour Party to enforce discipline in its own ranks I see the justification of the position taken up by the Social-Democratic Party in this country. The Labour Party is essentially and fundamentally a compromise, an alliance for a specific object between Socialists and non-Socialists. That specific object is not Socialism, the Social Revolution, the abolition of wage-slavery, nor even labour legislation of a Radical character. The specific object of the Labour Party alliance is to get as many representatives of the affiliated bodies as possible into the House of Commons. There, it is true, they are supposed to form a separate and independent group, but as none of them can say to what end this independence is to be exercised, and as the raison d’être of their party has been achieved by their own election, the independence itself is of a rather nebulous quality. At any rate, it is quite clear that the all-important thing – seats in the House of Commons being the one object of the party – is to take care not to jeopardise any of those which have been won. Thus at Newcastle, Mr. Walter Hudson. a member of the Labour Party, but not a Socialist, was at the last election returned at the head of the poll by the gracious permission of the Liberals. A vacancy occurs and the Socialists of Newcastle are eager to fight for the seat. Naturally, the leaders and statesmen of the party were opposed to doing anything of the sort. And from their standpoint they were right. They owed it to Mr. Hudson to do nothing to injure his position or to risk his defeat at the next election.
The object of a Socialist Party is Socialism. To that end the education and organisation of the proletariat and their conversion to Socialist principles is essential. We cannot have Socialism without Socialists. Therefore, the first duty of a Socialist party is propaganda, in order to make Socialists. In doing this a Socialist Party should also champion every movement of the working class towards improving its condition – even in present circumstances – or in defence of its interests; so that the Socialist Party may come to be constituted as the head and centre and rallying point of the whole working-class movement.
The constitution of a Parliamentary Party and the winning of seats in Parliament may well serve as useful, and indeed the best, means of serving these objects; but they are only means, and not the only means, and they must certainly not be permitted to supersede the objects themselves. No Socialist will deny that it is a help to the movement to win a Parliamentary seat for Socialism; but it is a hindrance rather than a help if the seat is won by a sacrifice of principle or by any sort of compromise which restricts the liberty of action of the Socialist elected. When our men go to Parliament they want to go with a direct Socialist mandate, and if they cannot go with that they had better stay outside. It is of no moment to us that this, that, or the other individual should be elected to the House of Commons. It is of importance however, that a Socialist should be elected and a seat won for Socialism. From this standpoint, therefore, it is better for a Socialist to fight and be beaten as a Socialist than to fight and win under any other flag. However successful we may be at the polls we must necessarily be in a small minority for some time to come in the legislature, because we are in a small minority in the constituencies. While that remains the case our most important work is to be done, not in Parliament but in the country at large. Even the chief utility of a Parliamentary Group in its work in the House of Commons will be not in its direct influence on legislation, but in its effect in the constituencies. Its value will be rather agitational than legislative. That is a very different conception of the function of such a group from that held by the present Labour members in the House of Commons. These gentlemen, all highly respectable, honourable men, regard themselves as statesmen and legislators, elected to take part in the government of their country. They would scorn to use the House of Commons as a platform for agitation. Even when they feel that an appeal to the people outside should be made, they threaten to do it outside, oblivious of the fact that by their election they have been placed on the best platform in the Kingdom, and that the most effective appeal to the country can be made from within. All this marks the essential difference between the Labour Party and ourselves. And it is precisely this fundamental difference which justified the Labour Party in refusing to fight Newcastle. Allied to non-Socialists, and with no common Socialist aim as a party, the Socialists in the Labour Party have no right to take any action which will jeopardise the position of any of their non-Socialist allies. If we of the S.D.P. were in the combination we should be loyally bound in the same way. We might vote for a change of policy, for the adoption of a more aggressive line of action, but, being in the minority, we should be out-voted every time, and being out-voted it would be an act of disloyalty to give it no harsher name – if we refused to abide by the decision of the majority.
The leaders, and most of the members of the Labour, Party, to some extent recognise this and accept the position, but there is a rebel minority. It may be that when the majority recognise it as clearly as does this minority they will not be prepared to accept it so readily.