Harry Quelch March 1910

The Present Position of the Socialist Movement in England

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIV, No. 3, March 15, 1910, pp.97-105;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The present moment is one in which it may be advisable to take a look round upon the position of the Socialist movement in this country, to take stock as it were, and to seriously consider where we have arrived at and where we are going.

In taking such a review I am bound to admit that there are grounds for the disappointment which finds expression in some quarters, while at the same time it does seem to me that there is no occasion for dis­couragement or despair.

We have just emerged from an election in which we have failed to win a single seat "off our own bat," and this fact seems to have led some of our friends to the conclusion that our policy, our methods, and our teaching have been wrong, that our work has been wasted, that we have utterly failed, and that we should adopt some other policy, apply other methods, and work in other directions. I am bound to say that I do not at all share that view.

What had we to hope from the recent election? I have already dealt, in a previous article, with the election and its lessons, and, therefore, do not intend to go all over the ground again here. Shortly, how­ever, it seems to me that we could not have hoped to do much better than we did. We must have known beforehand that with the popular cry the Liberals had, with only the single ballot, with the fear of "letting in the Tory" and supporting "the Dukes;" with the whole Labour Party backing the Liberals and many prominent and avowed Socialists doing likewise, the defeat of our candidates, even in the places where our agitation and propaganda had been most successful - indeed, especially in those places - was, with one exception, practically a foregone conclusion. That what, in the circumstances, was inevitable and expected should have happened appears to me to be no occasion for dismay, even if the circumstances them­selves afford no particular ground for encouragement.

But, it may be said, these very circumstances are in themselves evidences of our failure. That is true. We have failed. I do not deny that. We have failed. It cannot be too strongly insisted upon, or too deeply impressed upon our minds that we have failed. But failed how? And in what? We have failed precisely in that wherein, it seems to me, no one with a clear appreciation of the work we had to do, the object we set out to achieve, the task we had to accomplish, and the material with which we had to work, could have reasonably anticipated any greater success.

What are we out for? Nothing less than a Social Revolution, a complete transformation of human society from its base. That is not a little thing. It is about the biggest job that any body of men have ever set their hands to. And what are the means at our disposal, the material with which we have to work? We have no other material than people like unto ourselves and no other means than they can be induced to supply. Apart from the tremendous forces set in motion by the economic development - forces which are hastening the revolution more rapidly every day, and which make it, as we believe, inevitable - the revolutionary instrument we have been essaying to forge is a proletarian political party, conscious alike of its present class subjection and of its future possibilities. So far, our efforts in this direction have not been pre-eminently successful. Indeed, it is just here that we have failed. But what of it? Didn't we know, when we started, that that was the most difficult part of our task? Didn't we know it would take years and years? Didn't we know that we should meet with failure on failure? Didn't we know that many of our prophets, seers and leaders would close their eyes in their last sleep and go down to forgotten graves without even being gladdened by a glimpse of that free and glorious co-operative com­monwealth of which they were unquestioningly assured, and which, even in their lifetime, seemed so near? How many years ago is it since Morris wrote the words: "Only three little words to speak: We will it!"? And the people do not will it yet! But the numbers grow of those who do; and slow as is the work, it is none the less sure. And bitter as may be the failures, every one brings us nearer to the goal.

The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working-class themselves. There is no other way. We need all the help we can get from recruits from other classes - the intellectuals, the wealthy, the powerful - socially and economically. In the main, however, these classes are, and must be, arrayed against us. Even were it otherwise, the dominant classes cannot "let the people go," even if they desired to do so. The Socialist movement is fundamentally a movement for the emancipation of the working-class, they cannot be emancipated against their will, and so far we have not succeeded in inspiring them with that consciousness of their present enslaved condition, that passionate desire for their own emancipation, which is essential to an active, aggressive revolutionary move­ment on their part. That is where we have failed. But is the failure due to our own fault, or should it cause us discouragement and despair? I think not. If we saw others succeeding where we have failed we might conclude that the fault was ours. We have been frequently and constantly derided by candid friends and critics, nevertheless, we do not see that they have succeeded any better than we have. More than 20 years ago, Mr. H.H. Champion, in his paper "Common Sense," which was started to crush us out of existence, wrote an article on the "Future of Socialism in England" in which he essayed to show what a poor, hopeless lot of ineffectual cranks we of the S.D.F. were, and to map out a "more excellent way" for the realisation of Socialism. Mr. Champion rallied a number of active spirits around him: disaffected ex-members of the S.D.F.; "intellectuals" and others; he set on foot the Labour Electoral Association, and got a good deal of "kudos" for himself and his Association out of the London dock strike. That was the right road to travel, we were then told. But it is all, ancient and forgotten history now.

Then there came the I.L.P. In formulating the proposal for this new venture, our good friend Joseph Burgess had in view the formation of a federation of the S.D.F., the new trade union movement, and the mass of unattached Socialists or others disaffected with the orthodox capitalist parties. In this he was not successful, and the I.L.P., which, in its inception, was the forerunner of the present Labour Party, developed into a rival organisation to the S.D.F. But the I.L.P. did not rally the workers to an enormously greater extent than the S.D.F. had done, and only achieved greater success in this direction in so far as its Socialism was more hazy and less definite.

Then came the Labour Party. Here, it appeared, was the opportunity of ranging the organised workers behind the Red Flag of Social-Democracy. We of the S.D.F. certainly thought so ten years ago, and sought to give effect to our opinion. We did not succeed, although there is little doubt that but for the opposition of the I.L.P. delegates the conference at which the new party was formed would have adopted the Socialist objective. Whether, if it had done so, it would have secured so large a number of adherents as it did can only be a matter of conjecture. Certain it is that the Labour Party has not succeeded in doing that which the S.D.F. tried and failed to accomplish, i.e., organise a working-class political party, independent of, and hostile to, all capitalist parties, as an instrument for the political, economic and social emancipation of the working-class.

It has been contended that the S.D.F. was wrong in seceding from the Labour Party; that inside that combination it might have exercised an influence in the right direction and made of the Labour Party that powerful political instrument which we all wished to see it. That was impossible. The S.D.F. would have been outvoted every time, and would have been corn­mitted to and compromised by the unqualified support and approbation given by the Labour Party to the Liberal Government during the past four years, and would have thus been dragged into the dismal slough of bourgeois Liberalism in which the Labour Party is now hopelessly floundering. Whether by pursuing a more independent and Socialist policy the Labour Party could have achieved greater success is an open question. I think it could. The point here, however, is that it has not done so; that it has failed as completely as the S.D.F. in rallying the general body of the workers - even the organised workers - for Socialist indepen­dent action, or even for independent "Labourism"; for in the recent election its candidates failed quite as badly as ours where they were opposed by both Liberals and Tories - the main force of their followers going bodily into the Liberal camp.

It is not pleasing to dwell upon these failures to organise a definite Socialist working-class political party, and I do not recall them in any spirit of exultation. On the contrary I, and I imagine every other Social-Democrat, would have been delighted had any one of them suc­ceeded. We could then have heartily joined with them in their work, rejoicing in their success, or could have joyfully sung our "Nunc Dimittis." I refer to them here, however, as evidence that the cause of our failure must be sought for deeper down than in our own errors or blunders, and because the present position of the Socialist movement in England is not a matter solely of the admitted and obvious failure of the S.D.P. to rally the workers into a class-conscious political party, but the failure of all bodies which have essayed the task.

That is not to say that our methods are perfect; that we have never made mistakes; that there is no occasion for self-examination, or for revision of tactics or methods. We have no occasion for complacent self-righteousness. But I do claim that the road we have marked out is the right road, and that no other body has, as yet, discovered a "more excellent way," and that whatever may be the sins of omission or commission with which we have to reproach ourselves, it is scarcely a fault to be laid to our charge if those to whom we appeal deliberately refuse to take the road we point out to them, and persist in continually marching up and down a blind alley.

This, in my opinion, is the chief difficulty and cause of our non-success - the innate conservatism of the people themselves. And this, it should be borne in mind, is "played up to," all the time, by the political parties of the dominant class - "the most astute governing class in the world," as old Liebknecht once truly described them. That is what we have in this country - on the one hand the most astute, diplomatic and adept governing class in the world, and on the other the most conservative, most servile and least class-conscious subject class. The English working class is not less able, less intelligent, less capable, more ignorant or more stupid than the working class in other European countries; but it is certainly more com­pletely imbued with bourgeois ideas; less conscious of its own subject position as a class; less conscious of the essential class antagonism of the capitalist social order, and much more reverential towards the master class than any other working class I know. When all this is taken into account, together with the soft pliability - the velvet glove - of the ruling class, it is easy to see how difficult is the task of organising a political class-conscious working-class party. And that difficulty is sufficient to account for our failure. But it ought not to overwhelm us with despair. For we knew it all before. It is a quite common mistake on the part of young, ardent, enthusiastic recruits to our movement to imagine the working class as in a state of active dis­content, of seething, latent revolt, only waiting for a strong lead to spring into vigorous aggressive action. Such ardent spirits soon, as a rule, become discouraged by disillusionment. But we know better - have always known better. How often has Hyndman reiterated the opinion that the English working-class is "une classe bourgeoise"? How long ago and how often have we all recognised the truth which Father Adderley expresses so well in his little book "The Parson in Socialism," that the masses do not really "want to be worried about anything." "They are intensely conserva­tive." In this conservatism of the masses, added to the readiness of the ruling class to adopt - and to adapt to their own ends - any ameliorative measures, I see the chief cause and abundant explanation of such failure as is manifested by the present position of the Socialist movement in England.

For it has not been all failure. Not by any manner of means. Bourgeois as still are the ideas and ideals of the working class of this country, they are, thanks to our propaganda and the irresistible pressure of the economic development, miles ahead of what they were only a few years ago. If we sometimes fail to see how far they have travelled it is mainly because all parties have also been forced forward. The universal outlook and standpoint has changed. Measures of social reform which we first formulated as stepping-stones to­wards a complete revolution, in the teeth of the bitterest opposition from all quarters, have been in many cases adopted in a modified form, and even where that is not the case they are no longer opposed but are generally admitted to be necessary and beneficial. Beyond this, the fundamental principles, the economic bases of Social-Democracy, are almost generally accepted or, at least, acquiesced in, by the organised working-class. That, at any rate, we have done. In that direction we have been pre-eminently successful, and if we cannot claim this change of attitude towards Socialist theories and principles as the result of our agitation and propa­ganda, we can, at least, point to it as evidence that our teaching and propaganda have been in the line, and in accord with the trend, of material and psychological development. Where we have failed is in organising and concentrating the conscious application of the new ideas and conceptions; and the chief cause and reason of that failure I think I have already shown. But even here, taking due account of that cause, there is no reason to be cast down and discouraged. Even here it behoves us not to weary in well-doing, for here, too, "we shall reap if we faint not."

It is in that direction - in the direction of building up a class-conscious working-class Socialist Party - that we have still to bend our efforts with renewed energy. Agitate, Educate, Organise! And above all, Organise! Let us look to and eliminate the faults and defects of our own organisation, for it is not free from them. The causes which have operated to prevent our success in rallying the whole working-class to our banner do not supply the reasons for the fact that so many avowed, earnest and active Socialists are outside our ranks. Let us enquire into these reasons and if possible remedy them. In some cases, doubtless, they are purely accidental, but this is not universally, or even generally, the case. Are we, as is sometimes alleged, too narrow, too sectarian, too intolerant? Are we too discourteous, not to enemies, but to would-be friends and allies? Do we seek to antagonise people rather than to win them? These are searching questions to which it may be worth while to give some considera­tion. There must be discipline, and loyalty to the party must be enforced, but disciplinary rules should not be too rigid, nor too rigorously enforced. We do not want anyone inside our ranks who is not prepared to give loyal, whole-hearted service to the cause we are organised - and organising - to serve; but there should be room within those ranks for every honest and sin­cere Socialist. There should be no heresy-hunting; no nosing out of non-essential points of difference;. but rather a seeking for essential points of agreement - In things doubtful, liberty; in things essential, unity; and in all things, charity. Order, promptitude, and urbanity in the conduct of our business meetings; punctuality in beginning and closing public meetings - the lack of punctuality in these respects has meant the loss of many a good worker to the movement; courtesy and forbear­ance to each other; good comradeship - as among a body which is organised to fight a world in arms against it; to have the word "comrade" less frequently on our lips and its spirit more constantly in our hearts. These may be little matters; but their due observance would, I am sure, do much to strengthen our organisation; to win recruits to our flag; to disarm hostility and to bring together all comrades and friends into a united Socialist Party, a live, active, vigorous instrument for the realisation of Social-Democracy - the emancipation of humanity!