The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter I: The Great Divide

British revolutionary socialism was born in Paris on 27 September 1900. There, at the congress of the Second International, delegates fiercely debated the propriety of Alexandre Millerand and two other French socialists joining the government of Waldeck-Rousseau. It was not merely that the government was pledged to administer capitalism, and would therefore inevitably carry out anti-working-class measures, but the cabinet contained General Gallifet, the butcher of the Paris Commune. Twenty thousand communards had been murdered at his command. This made left-wing delegates even more incensed. They heckled Jean Jaurès, the veteran French socialist, when he put the case for participation in the government. He argued that the public would condemn the French Socialist Party, regarding it as an abdication of responsibility, if they shut the door in Waldeck-Rousseau’s face. Religious and military reactionaries threatened the Republic. The duty of French socialists was to unite with others to defend parliamentary democracy and freedom.

Speeches for and against were made amid cheers and counter-cheers until Karl Kautsky put forward what he hoped would be considered a compromise resolution. It condemned, in general terms, participation by socialists in capitalist governments, but nevertheless argued that in exceptional circumstances this might be necessary. When congress passed the resolution, the left exploded with anger. They taunted the supporters of Millerand with shouts of ‘Vive la Commune’ and ‘Go to Chalons’ — a reference to the place where French soldiers had recently killed strikers. [1]

Among the vociferous opposition stood a solitary member of the British delegation. All the rest had supported Millerand and voted for the Kautsky resolution, but George S Yates quite unequivocally opposed class collaboration. He returned to Britain determined to continue the struggle against all Millerands, be they French, British, or any other nationality. Yates was a talented young man. He spoke fluent French and German, had an impressive knowledge of socialist theory, and was a dedicated internationalist. Indeed, he returned from Paris with the words and music of The Internationale, which he introduced into Britain. [2]

Yates visualised the struggle in a world-wide context: ‘A big wave of opportunism is passing through the ranks of the international socialist party.’ He cited Sweden, where a section of the Social Democrats kept the Liberals in office, as well as Italy and Britain, where socialists dropped their principles to make alliances with non-socialists. Even the conduct of the Second International exemplified this trend. Significantly, he referred to the Kautsky motion in the same terms as Lenin: it was a ‘caoutchouc’ — that is to say, India rubber — resolution that could be stretched in any direction. Most of the pressure, Yates observed, was liable to come from right-wingers, anxious to establish for themselves a cosy niche within capitalism. Hence he thought it necessary to build ‘a new party, as we have no ambition to swim with the tide’. [3]

Like most British Marxists, Yates belonged to the Social Democratic Federation. It was within this organisation that he first unfurled the flag of revolt. The initial task was to establish a nationwide list of contacts. Then they could come together and publish a paper. This would not simply give them an organ for expressing their views; it would act as an organiser, bringing closer contact and regular activity.

In his efforts, Yates received valuable help from James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary, later to be the leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising. For a long time, Connolly had been exasperated by the half-hearted, compromising policies of British socialists. The Paris congress merely served as the final insult. It was not only the Kautsky resolution — Connolly pointed out that since Millerand joined Waldeck-Rousseau’s cabinet 12 strikes had been smashed by the military — but also the attitude adopted towards Ireland. The British delegation had argued that the Irish Socialist Republican Party, of which he was a leader, did not have a right to separate representation at the congress. Ireland was part of Great Britain, not an independent country. While congress did not accept this argument, such conduct simply served to convince him of the extent to which imperialist conceptions had corroded the socialism of the British delegation.

In May 1901, James Connolly sailed to Scotland to help George Yates with his campaign. In a sense, he was just repaying a debt. Four years before, Yates had gone over to Dublin and assisted the ISRP with its demonstrations against Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. When clashes occurred between socialists and loyalists, Yates figured prominently in the mêlée and, as a result, lost his job. Although compelled to return to Scotland, Yates still remained in Connolly’s high esteem and arranged Connolly’s speaking tour for him.

This took place at a time when a quickening interest was being shown in socialist ideas. The presence of Connolly gave the SDF in Scotland a boost, adding to recruitment and attendance at meetings. Very quickly, he acquired a reputation. Typically, the Press Officer of the Leith SDF reported:

Comrade Connolly is certainly one of the best propagandists we have. While his lectures are scientifically accurate, they are at the same time so simple even the biggest dunce of his hearers cannot fail to grasp their meaning. Like our Falkirk comrades, we can recommend the English branches to secure his services. [4]

Wherever Connolly went, he denounced the class-collaborationist policies of Millerand and his English equivalents. Both the success of his meetings and the clarity of his arguments influenced the Scottish SDF District Council, persuading it to support Yates’ policies. But, equally, Connolly’s impact was a reason why the SDF’s national leadership shunned him, not wanting to see his speaking itinerary extended to England, as it would probably exacerbate the discontent rumbling inside the federation. Yet, despite official discouragement, Connolly secured speaking engagements in Lancashire, Oxford, Reading and London.

A general malaise afflicted the SDF, making it highly vulnerable to left criticism. Originally formed as a middle-class radical organisation in 1881, it became avowedly socialist two years later. Since then, its message invariably fell on stony ground. Years of hard work and sacrifice achieved practically nothing. The SDF possessed a few branches and little influence. It recruited new members but proved incapable of holding them. In 1894, Frederick Engels estimated that these birds of passage almost certainly exceeded 100,000. In 1896, delegates to the SDF conference were told the number exceeded a million. [5] While it seems improbable that the figure was that high, there can be no doubt that the membership turnover remained large.

The underlying reason for the weakness of the SDF was the immense might of British capitalism, seemingly invincible and unassailable, which appeared to make any talk of socialism futile nonsense. At the turn of the century, Britain had an empire upon which the sun never set. Britannia ruled the waves, with the biggest navy in the world. Although some other countries had made rapid industrial advances, Britain still remained one of the foremost industrial nations, renowned for the high quality of its engineering products. Also, Britain was the world’s leading trading country, while London had become the most important banking and financial centre of the world. All told, these achievements gave considerable confidence and assurance to the ruling class. The rest of society, enjoying generally rising standards of living, remained inclined to echo the paeans of praise for capitalism, the system from which it appeared all blessings flowed.

As a consequence, it was not surprising that socialists found the general public unreceptive. Jim Connell, who wrote the words to the song ‘The Red Flag’, lugubriously complained: ‘For over 20 years, we have been trying to convert people to Socialism, and we found that to keep them we must re-convert them 365 times each year.’ [6]

Inevitably, the lack of success and isolation left its scars on the SDF: it tended to become dogmatic and sectarian. At the same time as it antagonised workers, the SDF failed to satisfy serious Marxists. This was because the federation’s leaders faced the ever-present pressure to take an illusory short cut to socialism by discarding some of their principles for the sake of immediate gain. Clearly, given the SDF’s small size, they must have been sorely tempted. In 1900, the SDF claimed to have 96 branches and 9000 members. But it was largely on paper. Many of the branches failed to pay their subscription, while membership fees, involving a negligible penny a month, were paid in a haphazard, erratic fashion. Probably in 1900, the federation had about 50 functioning branches with an active membership of about 1000. This could hardly be regarded as a good harvest after almost 20 years of campaigning.

In these disheartening circumstances the SDF shuffled around, looking for possible roads to quick success. One possibility was to woo the trade-union leaders. Admittedly, these gentlemen, ultra-respectable and cautious, were almost all anti-socialist, but perhaps, with gentle persuasion, they could be prevailed upon to drop their prejudices. Then the trade unions, with all their financial and organisational strength, would be at the disposal of the socialist cause. A second possibility was to fuse with the Independent Labour Party. The ILP, formed in 1893, had in its few years’ existence attracted more members and sunk deeper roots into the working class. The problem was that the ILP had a distinctly Nonconformist, anti-Marxist bias. Many of its speakers were like Philip Snowden, who usually ended his address with a ‘Come to Jesus’ appeal that won the ILP new members. As his biographer declared: ‘Snowden and his audiences thought of Socialism as a practical application of the New Testament.’ [7] Naturally, with visions of heavenly harmony, the ILP eschewed the class struggle.

The political disagreements were considerable, but the majority of the SDF did not think they necessarily constituted an insurmountable obstacle to fusion with the ILP. It was thought that unity would greatly enhance the appeal of socialist ideas to the general public. Moreover, within the common organisation, it was hoped that the SDF members would win the ILP members over to more correct positions.

Both the overtures made to the ILP and the trade-union leaders required of the SDF adjustments in its approach. It would have to discard its criticisms of these other bodies since a few misplaced words could endanger unity. As a consequence, SDF propaganda lost what incisiveness it had, and soft-pedalling became the accepted custom. A blind eye was turned to craft prejudices and to union officials betraying their members, while confused and sentimental nonsense uttered by Ramsey MacDonald and other ILPers remained unchallenged — all in the interests of greater unity.

As it fitted in with their conception of politics, the SDF leaders were prepared to make ideological concessions to right-wing forces. For their approach was based on drawing a distinction between practical day-to-day issues and long-term objectives. The SDF leaders saw as their ultimate aim the establishment of a socialist society, but that did not stop them, in the here and now, from entering into alliances that had not the remotest connection with socialism.

The quest for unity created strains within the SDF between the leaders and a section of the rank and file. Members like Yates and Connolly did not like the swamp of compromise into which the SDF was drifting. In contrast, the leaders did not like the leftish statements of Yates and his friends. These constituted an acute embarrassment to the federation at a time when tact and diplomacy were required if unity was to be achieved. The growing incompatibility of the two approaches became increasingly evident, eventually leading to a split.

It was not merely a difference of outlook but also of age. Most of those who held official positions had been in the SDF virtually since its inception. They were middle-aged and middle-class, unable to attune themselves to the fresh stirrings among the workers. The person who illustrated this the most clearly was HM Hyndman, the founder and main spokesman of the SDF. Within his bulky frame, Hyndman embodied the contradictions of Victorian society. An aged businessman, he became a socialist after reading Marx’s Capital while sailing back from America. Once the SDF had been formed, he plunged into activity, making many speeches and writing many books. Much of the credit for popularising socialist ideas in Britain must go to Hyndman. But this did not endear him to Marx and Engels, both of whom regarded him as a self-satisfied, garrulous individual, who had grafted a few socialist ideas on to his essentially conservative outlook. Marx’s hostility was aggravated further by Hyndman’s plagiarisms of Capital for his own book, England for All. [8] The reason given by Hyndman for failing to acknowledge his indebtedness was that British people would not accept ideas if they knew these ideas came from foreigners. Proud to be British, Hyndman looked with disdain on all aliens, particularly Jews. He also believed in Britain maintaining strong armed forces.

As the years went by, Hyndman’s bourgeois background asserted itself more and more. Increasingly, he tended to view British workers in the same jaundiced way he had hitherto reserved for foreigners. His outlook was fundamentally élitist. The toiling masses needed distinguished persons, like himself, to guide them, and it was base ingratitude on their part that they did not recognise how lucky they were:

I don’t mind saying that I am utterly disgusted with workers here in general and with our party in particular. Neither deserve to have men of ability from the educated classes to serve them. It is a waste of life. They are not worth the personal sacrifice and continual worry. [9]

Hyndman confided these sentiments to Neil Maclean, Secretary of the Glasgow Clarion Scouts, in a letter dated 3 September 1900. It may have influenced Maclean, who subsequently played a central role in the schism and became the first General Secretary of the Socialist Labour Party.

Through its experience, the left came to understand the widening gulf that separated its politics from those of Hyndman and his colleagues. What started as a dispute on a single issue — how British delegates voted over Millerand at the Paris congress — extended until it covered a gamut of issues. One of the sources of contention was the SDF’s attitude to the Boer War (1899-1902). Although the federation had adopted an anti-war stance, its position was somewhat sullied by racialist remarks. Hyndman and his colleagues were a long way from expressing an international socialist opposition to the war. Connolly criticised the approach of Justice, the organ of the SDF:

Justice, instead of grasping the opportunity to demonstrate the unscrupulous and bloodthirsty methods of the capitalist class, strove to divert the wrath of the advanced workers from the capitalists to the Jews; how its readers were nauseated by denunciations of ‘Jewish millionaires’ and ‘Jewish plots’, ‘Jewish-controlled newspapers’, ‘German Jews’, ‘Israelitish schemes’, and all the stock phrases of the lowest anti-Semitic papers until the paper became positively unreadable to any fair-minded man who recognised the truth, viz, that the war was the child of capitalist greed and inspired by men with whom race or religion were matters of no moment. [10]

Even this equivocal opposition was dropped. In July 1901, Hyndman persuaded the Executive of the SDF that further anti-war agitation was ‘a waste of time and money’. In his opinion, the best outcome of the conflict was a British victory. [11] As this was a period in which humanitarian feelings were being aroused because of Britain’s creation of concentration camps in South Africa, the SDF’s new line met opposition. At least 40,000 women and children died in the camps, and many socialists considered it was not a time to remain quiet. Disregarding the decision of the National Executive, the Scottish District Council continued to oppose British imperialism. Some idea of the tone and approach adopted can be gained from this report of how Falkirk SDF responded to the celebrations of Britain’s final victory:

While on all sides of the street the harlot, Capitalism, was decked in horrible array of all possible and impossible colours, there was projected from the windows of the SDF a transparency of five feet, giving the statistics of deaths in war, deaths in concentration camps, the numbers of paupers, the number of unemployed in Britain, the famine deaths in India, and the famine deaths, emigration and evictions in Ireland. [12]

A subsidiary reason why Hyndman was loath to become involved in opposition to the Boer War was that, if he did, he would have to associate with members of the Liberal Party, and this was something that he did not wish to do. For Hyndman and the rest of the federation’s leaders considered the Liberal Party to be the greatest obstacle to the advancement of socialism. So determined had the SDF been to scupper the Liberals that in 1885 it had accepted money from an agent of the Conservative Party to finance the contesting of constituencies where it was hoped to embarrass the Liberals. The result was that the SDF gained a derisory number of votes and acquired the stigma of having received ‘Tory gold’. While the federation’s policy mellowed slightly, at its 1899 conference it still passed a resolution declaring that socialists should aim to cause ‘the extinction of Liberal candidates by the votes being cast steadily on the Tory side’. The SDF Executive then sought to get branches to organise as many people as possible to vote Conservative. In its report to the SDF conference in 1900, the Executive complained: ‘It is regrettable that the branches of the SDF have, with a few exceptions, shown so little interest in a question of such manifest importance.’ [13]

Naturally, the left opposed these electoral manoeuvres. Almost instinctively, it rebelled against the notion of voting Tory. Underlying this was often an attitude of disgust towards conventional political processes. Too often electioneering degenerated into unprincipled vote-catching. When George Lansbury, the SDF candidate at Bow, deliberately played down his socialist commitment so that he could make an electoral alliance with non-socialists, the left accused him of ‘cow-trading’, making sordid deals ‘to obtain some of the fleshpots of office and influence’. [14]

But then, Hyndman and the rest of the SDF leadership placed much more store by conventional political institutions than did their left-wing critics. When, in 1902, Edward VII’s coronation took place, the SDF seized the opportunity to send an ‘Open Letter to the King’. This declared that the ‘great and growing popularity of the king is not undeserved’. It asked His Majesty to use his position ‘to improve the well-being of Englishmen at home and to save from utter ruin their greatest dependency abroad’. Thereby the king could secure for himself ‘a name in history which mankind will look back to with admiration and respect’. [15] In a rather different vein, the statement of the Scottish left wing referred to ‘the little corpulent man who is the legal head of the capitalist state of Great Britain’, and ended: ‘Away, kinglet. Hie you home and set your house in order. Soon we, the workers, shall come to visit your palace and on the topmost turret we shall raise the red flag of the Socialist Republic.’ [16]

Such contrasting attitudes inevitably led towards a split in the SDF, the culmination of a process of growing internal friction. It started, as we have seen, with Yates attending the Paris Congress in 1900. By March 1901, largely due to Connolly’s efforts, the Scottish District Committee had been captured by the left. The Committee resolved as soon as possible to publish its own journal. This, presumably, was because it was dissatisfied with Justice, the official organ of the SDF, which rejected left-wing articles. But without wealthy backers, it was difficult to start a paper. While they slowly and painfully raised the money, left-wingers had to look elsewhere to find a vehicle for their views. The American Socialist Labour Party provided the assistance, opening the columns of its Weekly People to British contributions.

Links between Scottish and American socialists were first established by JP Doull. He visited the United States in 1898 and brought back some American SLP literature. Some of the Scottish SDF were attracted by the simple and clear way in which socialist ideas were expressed, especially in the writings of Daniel De Leon. They were also interested by the way the American SLP attached greater importance to the industrial than to the purely electoral struggle. William Walker of the Edinburgh branch wrote to De Leon for advice, and on 3 February 1898 De Leon replied to him, outlining what he thought the correct line on trade unionism happened to be. [17] A band of Scottish socialists quickly fell under the influence of De Leon. By 1900, his pamphlets and the Weekly People were quite extensively sold by left-wingers. Quite understandably, they sought help from the American SLP when other channels of expression had been denied them.

Another source of outside assistance came from Ireland. As far as he could, Connolly used the Workers Republic, organ of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, to assist his Scottish comrades. He appears to have counselled them not to be pushed out of the SDF prematurely. He seems to have thought that, given the opportunity, many English members of the SDF could be won over to a left standpoint. [18] The Scottish left tried to follow his advice.

As a consequence, the SDF’s twenty-first annual conference, held at Birmingham Town Hall, on 4-5 August 1901, turned out to be a stormy affair. George Yates, the delegate from Leith, challenged the official policy on the Kautsky motion at the Paris congress. A resolution from Leith on this issue had been excluded from the agenda by the Executive. Nevertheless, Leonard Cotton of the Oxford branch managed to bypass this obstacle. He moved an amendment from the floor that, in effect, repudiated the action of the SDF delegates at the Paris congress and declared that opposition to the entry of socialists into capitalist governments was a question of principle, not of tactics. Besides being supported by Yates, Cotton’s amendment was backed by William Gee, the SDF’s Scottish Organiser, and by John Carstairs Matheson, a Falkirk schoolmaster who had previously been described by Justice as ‘one of the best-educated and best-informed men in the whole movement’. [19]

Cotton’s manoeuvre angered the SDF leaders. When Harry Quelch replied upon their behalf, he was obviously shaken by this challenge to official policy:

He [Quelch] maintained strenuously that we were not impossibilists, and circumstances must determine our policy. We must adopt any and every means to realise Social Democracy. He himself was in favour of any means, from the ballot box to the bomb, from political action to assassination. (Cheers) Oh, yes, the movers of the resolution cheered assassination, but they would not allow a socialist to enter a Ministry. [20]

There was no evidence that Quelch’s critics favoured acts of individual terrorism any more than Quelch himself was prepared to adopt any means to secure socialism. Yet his speech, with a tinge of extremist phraseology, had the required effect. Cotton’s amendment was lost by 37 votes to eight.

Undaunted by defeat, Yates went on to challenge the SDF leadership over control of the journal Justice. Although it acted as the official voice of the SDF, Justice was privately owned. It belonged to the Twentieth Century Press, a company in which Hyndman and his friends held a majority holding and thereby could see to it that the journal was slanted their way. Yates’ resolution to get the SDF to take over Justice was defeated by 41 votes to 17. His motion opposing further unity negotiations with the ILP was also lost.

The left made tangible progress at the Birmingham conference, extending its influence to England. Contacts there arranged a speaking tour for Connolly. Wherever he went, he tried to explain what he meant by revolutionary socialism. ‘The necessity for the revolution in England’, he told workers in Salford, ‘was demonstrated by the fact that the industrial supremacy of this country was fast disappearing.’ Confronted by mounting discontent, the capitalists would concede reforms. At a London meeting, Connolly predicted that: ‘If the workers ask for the capitalist baker’s shop, he will throw the loaves at them to keep them out.’ Connolly told them not to be content with a few more slices of bread — what they wanted was the entire bakery. [21] But to achieve such an immense transformation, he said, a much greater level of socialist consciousness needed to be attained. For this reason, he always encouraged his listeners to read the Weekly People, buy the Marxist classics being published by the New York Labor News Company, and start economics classes to get down to serious study. In this way, Connolly hoped not merely to make converts, but also to have workers who, being more knowledgeable and trained, were likely to be of greater effectiveness in the struggle.

Connolly’s activities, stimulating the growth of centres of opposition within the SDF, could not fail to arouse mutual hostility between the Hyndman leadership and himself. This was further aggravated in January 1902 when Justice failed to publish the manifesto of the ISRP. The ISRP suspected this was because the editor, Harry Quelch, was contesting the Dewsbury by-election and thought publication might lose him votes. Later, Quelch denied that this was the case but Connolly did not accept this explanation, saying it had been done ‘on obvious grounds of opportunism’. He added that: ‘But for the loss to the socialist cause, he would have been glad Quelch lost.’ [22] The Irish manifesto appeared in American, French and German working-class papers before Justice was prodded into printing it.

By March 1902, when the SDF’s annual conference was held at Blackburn, the official leadership was confronted by a much strengthened opposition, which conducted a running battle throughout the proceedings. First, Anderson (Edinburgh) and T Fraser (Glasgow) moved that a verbatim report of conference be made. This, an attempt to counteract the tendentious reporting of previous conference, was defeated by 41 votes to 11. Next Yates (Leith) and J Fitzgerald (Burnbank) sought to oppose the continued unity negotiations with the ILP. Supported by J Kent (West Ham Central) and JT Cox (Southampton), their resolution was lost by 54 votes to 22. Similar fates awaited numerous other motions, which sought to establish trade unions with a definite socialist orientation, to prevent SDFers from also belonging to other political organisations, and to obtain more clear-cut policies. Usually they gained about 20 votes against about 50 for the platform. The official report stated:

At the conclusion of the conference, and in the midst of the somewhat acrimonious turn which the discussion had taken, H Quelch, on behalf of the Executive, proposed that the thanks of the conference be given to the Blackburn comrades... He thought that conference was one of the best and most successful that had been held. There had been exhibited wide and deep differences, but it had been made abundantly manifest that these differences were only due to a small knot of extremists.

He ended with the threat the extremists ‘must either fall into line or fall out altogether’. [23]

The magnitude of the disagreements at the Blackburn conference probably made the SDF leaders decide to perform an act of drastic surgery. Their first expulsion was Percy Friedberg of the Finsbury Park branch. A letter he wrote to Justice, correcting inaccuracies in its Blackburn conference report, remained unpublished so he submitted it to the Weekly People. When Friedberg’s branch resolved to stand by him, the Executive made it plain that all would be expelled unless the expulsion was implemented. This placed the left-wingers in a quandary. Some of the London comrades, led by Jack Fitzgerald and Con Lehane, believed it was vital to stay inside the Federation. At the Blackburn conference, they had won three seats on the Executive. More gains might accrue from remaining within the SDF and exposing the weaknesses of the Hyndman group. Equally cautious advice came from the ISRP, but the Finsbury Park branch did not heed it. Not being prepared to expel Friedberg, all its members were thrown out.

Meanwhile, in Scotland the left continued to acquire strength. Supporters and money increased in modest amounts. Even so, it became clear that they were within reach of accomplishing the aim they set themselves in March 1901 — the publication of their own paper. Connolly agreed to arrange for its publication by the Workers Publishing Co, Dublin. The first issue of The Socialist, organ of the SDF Scottish District Council, was shipped over from Ireland and appeared on sale in August 1902.

Both in tone and content The Socialist was at variance with official SDF policy. Precisely the politicians Hyndman and his supporters wished to court were denounced in its columns each month. The second issue contained an editorial by Yates entitled ‘The Labour Lieutenants of Capital’. It espoused what he regarded as the revolutionary attitude to existing labour leaders:

He sees the labour leader as the political agent of capital among the workers, carefully extinguishing every spark of class-consciousness as it arises, betraying and misleading his class at every juncture, and where independent class action cannot be hindered, capturing it and rendering it futile and worthless.

To underline his opinion, elsewhere in the same issue Yates had another article, headed ‘Capitalist Stoolpigeons’, in which he denounced the ILP for not supporting the recent carters’ strike and for making no statements against the monarchy during the coronation of Edward VII.

In following months, The Socialist subjected many other working-class leaders to critical scrutiny. Robert Blatchford, editor of the widely-circulated Clarion, was castigated not only for supporting rearmament and the Boer War, and remaining silent about United States’ aggression against Cuba, but also for not adopting a proper class line on domestic issues. In his book, Britain for the British, he declared: ‘I do not wish to stir up class hatred.’ This aroused The Socialist to riposte: ‘No, we ought to love the class who send miners to die in the pits from firedamp and workers in the workshop, in the pottery, and in the chemical works.’ [24]

Robert Smillie, the Scottish miners’ leader, was another target. As parliamentary candidate at North-East Lanarkshire in 1901, he promised to support ‘every item’ of the Liberal programme. [25] What angered The Socialist even more was when Smillie used ‘the most contemptible of all dodges... his exploitation of race-hatred in his attack upon the Polish miners of Lanarkshire’. He advocated new legislation to keep them out. [26]

Also singled out for chastisement was Keir Hardie. Socialism to him was ‘the kingdom of God upon earth’. Having such vague and confused ideas, Hardie possessed the advantage of pliancy, an ability to disregard political disagreements, and to make alliances that involved discarding political principles. In February 1903, he told the third annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee:

They all, Liberal, Tory and Socialist alike, rejoiced at the magnificent conference got together in this hall. What was the principle that enabled them all to come together and discuss this matter? Independence. If they, the Socialists, had insisted that all should be Socialists, there would be no such gathering. Had the Liberals insisted that all should be Liberals, they would have had a like result. They had fixed upon a common denominator that, when acting in the House of Commons, they would neither be Socialists, Liberals, nor Tories, but a Labour Party. [27]

With disarming frankness in the same debate, John Ward, of the Navvies’ Union, expressed the prevalent view. He declared: ‘They wanted to get their feet well planted in the House of Commons, and he believed they should not be a bit particular about the way in which they did it.’

The formation of the LRC launched a tidal wave of opportunism. Will Crook, its successful candidate at the Woolwich by-election in March 1903, confessed himself to be a man of ‘robust imperialism’, ‘an opponent of the claptrap of Socialism’. [28] Yet the ILP, along with the Liberal Party, supported him. His election was greeted with enthusiasm by leading industrialists, as well as by members of the aristocracy, as Crook was proud to point out. [29]

The fact that the ILP supported candidates like Crook, participating in their election campaigns without attempting to spread the ILP’s own distinctive socialist policies, could not fail to have an effect on the party’s whole outlook. When its representatives won a seat, they had become so inured to back-pedalling, to expressing consensus politics, that they rarely, if ever, used their positions to campaign for socialism. Joe Burgess, one of the leaders of the Glasgow ILP, admitted the swing to the right:

The recent record of the ILP had shown that, whatever it might have been at its early stages, whatever pugnacity it might have shown, and whatever its policy had been, it was now manifesting a desire to sink itself into, or be absorbed by, the great labour forces of the country. [30]

The drift of the ILP rightwards had repercussions on the SDF. Whatever appeal unity once possessed had now vanished. Insofar as the ILP looked for political allies, it sought them inside the LRC. At the same time, trade-union officials also tended to turn their attention to the LRC, and consequently had become less susceptible to the blandishments of the SDF. Clearly, the tactic of Hyndman and the rest of the SDF leaders, of seeking unity with the ILP and union leaders, lay in ruins. While it would be wrong to blame the left-wingers inside the federation for the débâcle, they could at least be said to have contributed to it. To Hyndman and his followers, they were ‘Impossibilists’. By their doctrinal insistence on socialist purity, they made it utterly impossible for the SDF either to win elections or even to secure worthwhile allies. Obviously, they would have to be expelled.

Hyndman and the Old Guard nominated the twenty-third SDF annual conference, at Shoreditch Town Hall, on 10-12 April 1903, as the place of the execution. Before proceedings began, Yates was informed that he was to be thrown out. Indeed, some of the Impossibilists, believing it might be forcibly done, brought along a contingent of Scottish workers, who sat at the back of the hall, silent and watchful, lest the gathering turn violent. [31] Yates was accused of obstructing left unity, failing to sell Justice, and writing an editorial for The Socialist which said that within the SDF there was ‘a distinct tendency to alter the centre of their former revolutionary attitude over to opportunist tactics of the worst kind’. [32] Delegates thought this conduct inadmissible. They agreed to expulsion by 56 votes to six. The resolution also empowered the Executive to expel, without the right of appeal, anybody endorsing Yates’ views. For good measure, the conference went on to condemn the tone and content of The Socialist. [33]

Faced with this new situation, the left wingers held a series of private meetings. These revealed the existence of disagreements within their ranks. Most of the London group, distrustful of their Scottish brethren, had failed to back Yates at the Shoreditch conference. They claimed that the Scots had too often acted without consulting them, had been openly provocative to the SDF leadership, and largely had themselves to blame for the expulsions. Most of the London group, active in an area where many SDFers still remained to be persuaded of the validity of their policies, favoured continuing to work inside the SDF. On the other hand, the Impossibilists in Scotland had virtually captured the entire SDF organisation, such as it was, and they could see nothing would be gained from staying within the federation. Each side failed to understand the other. Consequently, only a tiny fraction of the London comrades left the SDF along with the group around Yates. [34]

Back in Glasgow, preparations were quickly underway to form a new party. At meetings on 15 and 31 April 1903, the Scottish Divisional Council voted to disaffiliate from the SDF and hold the inaugural conference of the new party on 7 June 1903. In the meantime, much spadework needed to be done, holding public meetings, persuading people to support the new venture, and increasing the circulation of The Socialist.

Two important statements of policy were made. The first, the Socialist Labour Party: A Manifesto to the Working Class, was written by John Carstairs Matheson and subsequently endorsed as a statement of official policy. He endeavoured to situate the new party in the political scene as well as providing it with a perspective. The manifesto made four central points: first, that the working class was becoming increasingly disenchanted with existing political parties; second, that this arose because of their failure to do anything effectively to repel the ruthless attacks of the ruling class upon the workers; third, that consequently there was a need for a party to represent the working class; and, fourth, that for this to be successful the party had to favour socialism.

Matheson went on to say what he meant by socialism, giving a definition at variance with the one customarily coming from ILP and SDF circles:

By this we do not mean what is variously called ‘State Socialism’, ‘Public Ownership’ or ‘Municipalism’ — that is, the ownership of certain public utilities by a community in which capitalism is still dominant. A worker is as much exploited by a capitalist state or corporation as by a private employer — as Post Office or municipal employees can testify. We insist upon the political overthrow of capitalism as an absolutely necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the working class. Otherwise an industry controlled by an individual capitalist state differs from one controlled by an individual capitalist only in the superior powers of the former to rob and oppress those under its thraldom. [35]

The second important pronouncement came from Connolly. In the autumn of 1902, he went on a speaking tour of the United States. [36] From his experiences, he wrote an article, ‘The American Socialist Labour Party of America and the London SDF’, where he compared the two organisations to the detriment of the latter. Connolly began by upbraiding Justice for racialism: it had expressed ‘much satisfaction’ at the recent Shoreditch SDF conference for ‘dealing effectually with those malcontents who are bent upon following the lead of the German-Venezuelan Jew Loeb (or De Leon) to the pit of infamy and disgrace’. This remark, retorted Connolly, was merely a continuation of the anti-Semitism displayed by Justice during the Boer War. Far from being a pit of infamy and disgrace, De Leon led a party that had achieved many things which the SDF had failed to do. The American SLP had its own printing press, whereas the SDF had to rely upon one which was privately owned. The American SLP had gained 53,000 votes in a recent election while the SDF vote was invariably minute. Yet the SDF, purporting to be independent, solicited support from the ILP in parliamentary elections and pandered to the radicals. Moreover, the SDF, reluctant to attack Labour politicians, had asked its branches to refrain from criticising the LRC. All told, it was clear that for Connolly the American SLP provided the paradigm for what needed to be built in Britain. [37]

Disappointments met him when he returned to Britain. In the course of the summer of 1903, one of the worst summers on record, Connolly relentlessly trekked around Scotland, addressing dozens of meetings each week. But his efforts yielded poor results. The inaugural conference was sparsely attended. Delegates came from Kirkcaldy, Dundee, Edinburgh, Leith, Falkirk, Dunfermline and Glasgow. The lack of support gave grounds for disquiet. As the business manager of The Socialist pointed out, the journal did not pay its way. From March 1903, it had been printed on their own press in Edinburgh. Despite the resultant cost savings, The Socialist’s financial position was critical. Delegates agreed to a levy of each branch according to its membership.

Controversy at conference arose over the question of whether immediate demands should be included in the party programme. One reason why the majority of London Impossibilists remained within the SDF had been that they disagreed with the majority of the Scottish comrades on this subject. To the Londoners, the struggle for better educational facilities and welfare provisions were examples of an unfortunate lapse into reformism and had no place in a fully-fledged socialist programme. The Edinburgh comrades had the same view. They tried to convince conference, but most delegates realised the importance of the new party relating itself to the needs of the working class. Immediate demands had to be included if progress was to be made.

The decision showed how false the accusation of Hyndman and other critics happened to be. They depicted the Impossibilists as mere shadows of the American SLP, slavishly repeating whatever De Leon said. In fact, right from the outset Connolly and his comrades thought for themselves and asserted their political independence. The American SLP strongly proclaimed its opposition to immediate demands; this had no effect on the inaugural conference. Deviations from the American line often happened subsequently.

Delegates at the Edinburgh conference wished to dissociate themselves from the American SLP and hoped to indicate this by the title of the new party. But, as so frequently occurs in politics, they found themselves stuck with the name given by their opponents. Tom Bell, who attended the inaugural meeting, described in his autobiography how this happened:

The question of the name of the new party required a little thought. We were anxious not to create the impression which the official SDF was trying to encourage, that we were only the tools of the American SLP. We thought of ‘Republican Socialist Party’, etc, etc. It was Connolly who with characteristic directness proposed ‘The Socialist Labour Party’. ‘It doesn’t matter what you call yourself’, he declared, ‘you'll be dubbed the SLP anyway.’ And SLP we became. [38]

On reflection, the choice did not seem too bad. They came to realise that it encapsulated their aims:

Socialist because through Socialism alone can the workers be emancipated;

Labour because by the labouring classes alone can Socialism be attained;

Party because we are not merely an educational or propagandist body but stand for the political expression of our class interests, for the formation of the Socialist Republic. [39]

As one wag at the conference said: ‘Every man for the SLP and the De'il tak’ the Hyndman.’ [40]


1. Chuchichi Tsuzuki, ‘The Impossibilist Revolt in Britain’, International Review of Social History (1956), p 383; James Joll, The Second International (London, 1955), pp 94-98.

2. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 36-37.

3. Edinburgh Evening News, 4 May 1903.

4. Justice, 13 July 1901.

5. Engels’ letter to Sorge, 12 May 1894, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Britain (London, 1953), p 356. Also SDF, Conference Report (1896), p 18.

6. The Socialist, October 1904.

7. Colin Cross, Philip Snowden (London, 1966), pp 36-37.

8. Marx to Sorge, 15 December 1881, Marx Engels Selected Correspondence (Moscow, 1975), pp 325-26; Chuchichi Tsuzuki, HM Hyndman and British Socialism (Oxford, 1961), pp 42-44.

9. Letter from Hyndman quoted in The Socialist, December 1904.

10. The Socialist, May 1903.

11. Justice, 20 July 1901; Chuchichi Tsuzuki, HM Hyndman and British Socialism (Oxford, 1961), pp 128-29; Bill Baker, ‘The Social Democratic Federation and the Boer War’, Our History, Summer 1974, pp 10-11.

12. The Socialist, September 1902.

13. SDF, Conference Report (1900), p 13.

14. The Socialist, January 1903.

15. Justice, 21 June 1902. The SDF Executive sent an illuminated address to Edward VII.

16. The Socialist, August 1902.

17. Daniel De Leon’s letter to W Walker, 3 February 1898, in my possession.

18. James Connolly to the Secretary, Edinburgh SDF, 1 November 1901, published in Socialist Standard, October 1973.

19. Justice, 24 January 1901.

20. Justice, 10 August 1901.

21. C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London, 1961), pp 108-09; Samuel Levenson, James Connolly (London, 1973), pp 77-78.

22. C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London, 1961), p 112.

23. SDF, Conference Report (1903), p 25.

24. The Socialist, October 1902; Robert Blatchford, Britain for the British (London, 1902), p 42.

25. Manchester Guardian, 23 September 1901.

26. The Socialist, January 1903.

27. Labour Representation Committee, Report of Third Annual Conference, Newcastle upon Tyne, 19 February 1903, p 30.

28. Quoted The Socialist, April 1903.

29. George Haw, The Life Story of Will Crooks MP (London, 1907), p 195.

30. Dunfermline Press, 28 March 1903.

31. Leonard Cotton, ‘The Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain: A Historical Sketch’, Weekly People, 29 April 1950.

32. SDF, Conference Report (1903).

33. SDF, Conference Report (1903).

34. WS Jerman, ‘The London Impossibilist Movement and the Men Who Built It Up’, The Socialist, December 1906; Jack Fitzgerald, ‘The SPGB: A Statement of Difference’, Socialist Standard, August 1906.

35. The Socialist, May 1903;The Socialist Labour Party: A Manifesto to the Working Class’ was reprinted later as a leaflet.

36. Manus O'Riordan, Connolly in America (Belfast, nd), published by the Irish Communist Organisation, contains a good account of Connolly’s activities in the United States.

37. The Socialist, May 1903.

38. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 40-41.

39. The Socialist, May 1903.

40. The Socialist, August 1903.