The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter II: Pioneering Days

The infant Socialist Labour Party did not have an auspicious start in life. A weak and puny thing, it had hard struggles to survive. The Socialist, begun with a princely capital of £11.13s, swallowed most of the scanty funds. [1] Its circulation, a mere 1400 copies, obstinately refused to rise. In some places sales dropped because the circle of sympathisers diminished. There were people who would buy The Socialist when published by a group of SDFers but refused after it had become the organ of a new party. Likewise some members had difficulty in making a similar adjustment. The SLP thought it would initially have a membership of around 200. This calculation was based on the assumption that, since the left had gained control of the Social Democratic Federation’s Scottish District Council, the membership would transfer its allegiance en bloc. But it failed to occur. The Scottish District Council reflected the more active, more articulate, section of the SDF; the less active, not well acquainted with the causes of the split, tended to keep their traditional loyalty. These people remained in the federation and, along with some branches that had stopped attending the Scottish Divisional Council as long as it stayed under the sway of the left, they succeeded in partially reviving the SDF in Scotland after the split. As a result, instead of having the anticipated 200, the SLP found itself with, at most, only 80 members. [2]

The size of the membership was not the only problem. The SLP faced severe geographical and occupational limitations. Almost entirely, supporters came from engineering trades in Central Scotland. This necessarily meant reaching political conclusions on restricted experience and trying to plot the way ahead for the British working class, with whom contact was highly tenuous. A further handicap was that the SLP membership was young and inexperienced. Few of them possessed any idea of how to build a new political party. Their inexperience and lack of tactical finesse may have been responsible for their reaping such a meagre harvest from three years’ factional struggle in the SDF.

In addition, the SLP was weakened by the absence from its ranks of middle-class intellectuals. At first, this may appear a good thing, making it genuinely a working-class party. This, however, overlooks an important point: the stage of development reached by British socialists at the beginning of the twentieth century. They spent most of their time in propaganda activity, spreading the socialist message, rather than in direct involvement in the class struggle. The talents most required were the abilities to speak and write fluently, qualities more frequently found among middle-class than working-class people. But the deficiency could have had an even more grievous effect on the SLP’s theoretical progress than on its propaganda work. For workers, being compelled to use most of their time and effort on daily toil, were not well placed to study, to formulate new ideas, or to write books like Capital. Karl Marx devoted most of his life to developing socialist theory — a thing workers, because of their position in society, could not do. Neither Marx, originally aspiring to be a lawyer, nor Engels, a mill-owner’s son, was a horny-handed son of toil, and the same was true of most socialist theoreticians. As Lenin, himself a lawyer, acknowledged in his pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, the role of such middle-class intellectuals was to transmit socialist ideas to the proletariat. That the SLP did not have any individuals to perform this function was a severe handicap. It was particularly so in view of the state of the British left at that time. Operating within the empirical tradition, socialists generally shunned theory, spending their time on so-called practical activity, which achieved little. Even those who realised the inadequacy of the prevailing attitude could do little about it: very few of the socialist classics were available in English.

The SLP sought to remedy the situation. It became the distributor for Charles Kerr & Co of Chicago and the New York Labor Publishing Company, which were printing, for the first time in English, large quantities of socialist material. As well as basic texts by Marx and Engels, the writings of Kautsky, Labriola, Plekhanov and many other left-wing thinkers were made available in handy-sized editions. The SLP augmented the flow by printing cheap pamphlets. Their production, given the SLP’s limited resources, involved much sacrifice and ingenuity. Print workers freely gave their labour while materials were begged or, to put it euphemistically, ‘borrowed’. One SLP veteran describes in his memoirs how costs were reduced almost to vanishing point:

I was assured that they really paid for the printing ink; and they went through the motions of paying for their printing-paper, or some of it. If the man in charge of despatch at the paper-warehouse made a mistake and sent 10 reams where only one was invoiced — accidents will happen, and the incident should not necessarily be attributed to the fact that the despatcher and invoice-clerk was a member of the SLP. [3]

The accessibility of theoretical work stimulated educational activity. The SLP took this task exceedingly seriously. The aim was to create worker-intellectuals, socialists able to state their case irrespective of the company in which they found themselves. Through the study of books produced by socialist thinkers elsewhere in the world, the party could overcome, to a large extent, the lack of theoreticians within its own ranks. Ideas were highly mobile. They could be used in Britain even though written in other parts. In a sense, it was international socialists benefitting from their internationalism.

One of the thinkers who had the greatest influence upon the SLP was the American, Daniel De Leon. Although sometimes marred by sectarian rigidity, his works had the advantage of being highly readable and easy to understand. He also needs to be credited, although this is often forgotten, with developing new concepts. One of these was that he understood, far better than most of his contemporaries, the role of social democracy. In a period when socialists belonged to the Second International, De Leon saw that its parties had an essentially stabilising effect on the social system. While they sometimes expressed workers’ grievances, they were careful to do so in a manner that did not challenge the existing power structure; protest movements were diverted into channels that made them harmless, not a threat to the capitalist state. De Leon, who advanced this theory in his pamphlet, Two Pages from Roman History, described the leaders of this kind of organisation as ‘the labour lieutenants of capitalism’. From his analysis, a corollary necessarily followed: if social democratic parties would never establish a socialist society and if a socialist society were to be established, it would first require the creation of a revolutionary party to act as capitalism’s executioner.

De Leon’s vision extended to the question of how the struggle for socialism could be best furthered. He strongly advocated industrial unionism. He saw this as a means of breaking down craft and sectional barriers, which divided worker from worker, and exerting the maximum united pressure upon the capitalists. At the same time, De Leon envisaged industrial unions playing a vital role in the creation of a socialist society. He thought they would be used as the instruments whereby workers not only controlled and ran industry but also saw that the political system operated in their interests. When eventually, in 1919, Lenin read De Leon’s writings for the first time he expressed himself ‘amazed to see how far and how early De Leon pursued the same train of thought as the Russians. His theory that representation should be by industries, not by areas, was already the germ of the Soviet system.’ [4]

The startling percipience of De Leon largely went unrecognised by his contemporaries. The reason was that he remained cut off from the mainstream of socialist politics. The American SLP, to which he belonged, was dominated by émigrés, many of whom did not speak English and therefore had no influence on the average US worker. But De Leon’s ideas had a much greater impact when they were expounded in a different context. What had been of little or no consequence when set forth by German émigrés in America had entirely different consequences when Clydeside engineers proclaimed them in Scotland.

But the British SLP did not learn De Leon’s writings by rote and apply them mechanically; rather they were used as a tool of analysis, to be improved and developed wherever possible. On his first point, the role of the Labour leadership, the SLP found little difficulty in furnishing British examples to illustrate De Leon’s argument. The Socialist inveighed against Arthur Henderson, the opponent of the eight-hour day, Will Thorne, the advocate of using soldiers against strikers in Ireland, David Shackleton, the supporter of child labour, and countless others. These were easy targets for the SLP because of the ideological weakness of the Labour Party. What was more difficult was to expose the apostasy of other social democratic parties, which tried to conceal their backslidings beneath a fog of socialist rhetoric. The SLP had no inhibitions about attacking the inadequacies of the leaders of the French Socialist Party in general and adding a caustic comment about Jean Longuet in particular:

Mr Longuet is a thoroughly self-satisfied gentleman, who evidently has some vague notion in his cerebellum that he is entitled to rank as Caliph of the International Socialist Movement in virtue of his descent from Karl Marx. The descent is tremendously precipitous, in fact. [5]

Nor did the German Social Democratic Party emerge unscathed. The SLP remained unimpressed when it secured three million votes in the 1903 general election. ‘Their mere mass of constantly increasing support at the polls’, The Socialist declared, ‘is the most dangerous ground that a revolutionary party can accept: the lumping of opinion and diversity of interest is, to our mind, the beginning of the undoing of German Socialism.’ Observing the presence at SDP congresses of ‘a large and seemingly growing section who have declared in favour of the most moderate and bourgeois-like minds amongst them’, the journal reached the conclusion that ‘the party has become a ghost of its former self... the German Socialist Party has ceased to be revolutionary and has become reformatory.’ [6]

Interestingly, The Socialist’s criticism aroused a response from Dr Robert Michels, who wrote:

The need for a revolutionary spirit in the German party is great. I and others are striving to create that spirit; the parliamentarianism of the party and the tactics of the past have so tied its hands that one feels its energy is being to a great extent run to earth and wasted. [7]

Of course, Dr Michels ultimately despaired of transforming the German SDP into a revolutionary party. He expressed his demoralisation in his famous book Political Parties, where he enunciated the iron law of oligarchy. [8]

The overwhelming majority of socialists in the world, blinded by the high prestige in which the German SDP was held, failed to accept the diagnosis of the SLP and Dr Michels. This was not surprising. Frederick Engels had written in glowing terms about the German SDP’s progress; Rosa Luxemburg had described ‘the organisational jewel of the class-conscious proletariat'; Lenin said it had been the foremost party of the Second International, the organisation that socialist parties in other countries attempted to model themselves on. [9] The traumatic moment of truth came on 4 August 1914, when German Social Democratic deputies voted in the Reichstag for war credits. So distressed by this was Rosa Luxemburg that for a while she contemplated committing suicide. Such was Lenin’s confidence in the German SDP that he thought the issue of the party journal, Vorwärts, was a forgery, produced by the German general staff.

By contrast, the SLP’s understanding was superior. It would have thought Vorwärts a forgery had it not reported the Social Democrats supporting the German ruling class in the conflict. Likewise, when the less well-publicised event occurred in the British Parliament on 6 August 1914, where pacifist Members of Parliament and Will Thorne, the solitary MP claiming to be a Marxist, did nothing to oppose the government’s legislation for war expenditure, again it came as no surprise to the SLP:

The failure of the International Socialist Movement is the direct outcome of its leaders and thinkers having forsaken the revolutionary traditions of Socialism. Revisionism has eaten out the heart and softened the brain of the movement. Men of the type of Hardie and MacDonald had gained a controlling influence. [10]

Clearly, the SLP was among the first to see the need for an organisational and ideological split from social democracy. Of course, once the various sections of the Second International had supported their respective capitalist classes, Lenin too saw the bankruptcy of social democracy and called for the building of a new international.

Although there were obvious differences, the British SLP and the Bolsheviks shared many characteristics in common. Both of them had an avowedly revolutionary outlook, believing that socialism could only come after the capitalist state had been smashed. And both realised that this could only be done once a revolutionary party had been created. Although the SLP did not use the term ‘the vanguard party’, it envisaged this as being the role the party would play. Spokesmen emphasised the need for members to gain the experience and knowledge so they could lead, when the time came, workers in the class struggle:

In all revolutionary movements, as in the storming of fortresses, the thing depends upon the head of the column — upon the minority that is so intense in its convictions, so soundly based on its principles, so determined in its action, that it carries the masses with it, storms the breastwork and captures the fort. [11]

Likening itself to a crack fighting unit, the SLP saw there would be dangers in accumulating large numbers of members, people with scanty knowledge who only partially agreed with the party’s principle. To adopt that path might lead in the short run to more influence; at the same time, it would make the party fat and flabby, incapable of functioning as the vanguard. As one SLPer put it, milk does not improve by dilution. So, frankly, the SLP did not attempt to hide its minuteness:

The SLP has never sought to exaggerate its numbers. Numerically, it is probably the smallest political organisation in Great Britain. In point of principle, tactics, knowledge of goal, and the way to reach it, it is the strongest. [12]

Other left organisations, like the Independent Labour Party and SDF, might have more members, yet, lacking firm theoretical foundations, they offered ‘a spectacle of internal bickering in comparison with which Donnybrook Fair and the Kilkenny cats would be a picture of sweet harmony and concord’.

But the SLP, as it stated in its declaration, The SLP: Its Aims and Method, understood that nothing of lasting significance could be accomplished by groups torn with internal strife:

A party which has undertaken the work of revolutionising society must be dominated not only by a common purpose but also a common plan of action. Artemus Ward, writing at the time of the American Civil War, talked about organising a regiment for the field of conflict in which every soldier was a Brigadier General. A revolutionary socialist party, which is engaged in a much more serious conflict, must present not only the appearance but the reality of an intelligent disciplined unity. [13]

How did the SLP seek to attain this objective? It maintained that decisions had to be reached by the normal democratic processes, so power ultimately rested with the membership. However, once a decision had been reached, every party member’s duty was to see to it being carried out. Anybody who did not do this, irrespective of the position he might hold, was certain to be expelled. Membership, regarded as an honour and a privilege, could easily be lost through failure to keep the exacting standards expected. The SLP’s history is strewn with instances of discipline being imposed: Douall, the Edinburgh engineer, although responsible for first establishing links with De Leon, was not permitted to join the SLP because he was a drunkard; Neil Maclean, the General Secretary, was expelled in 1908 when he failed to abide by the party policy on unemployment; and George Yates, despite playing such an important part in forming the SLP, was expelled when he fell behind with his subscriptions. (Actually, this was caused by his moving from Glasgow to Teesside, and he rejoined once he had settled down in Middlesbrough.) [14] Nevertheless, these examples reveal that the rules were applied with strict impartiality to all members.

In many respects, the SLP employed methods similar to the Bolsheviks. Both were striving to build groups of professional revolutionaries. Like Lenin, the SLP insisted it carried no passengers: everyone, as a condition of membership, had to be active with the organisation. When, for example, one of the founder-members, William Walker, took a job where he would be unable to participate in SLP activities, he was immediately thrown out. High subscription rates, plus frequent levies, also tended to drive away those who did not have a 100 per cent commitment.

To outsiders, not understanding the rigorous requirements involved in building a revolutionary party, the conduct of the SLP — expelling members right, left and centre when it had so few already — appeared the height of stupidity. Equally wrong seemed the SLP’s expectation of such a considerable intellectual grasp of socialist principles before it would permit a person to join, and cynics suggested that as a consequence the party adopted the attitude expressed in the Calvinist hymn:

We are the pure, selected few,
And all the rest are damned!
There’s room enough in Hell for you —
We don’t want heaven crammed!

But the SLP would defend itself by turning to history:

In previous revolutions the party which engineered the transition, which carried through the revolution at its crucial state, was often, though not always, the smallest of the revolutionary parties in its origin. In no case do we find the faction that effected the transformation of society to have predominated in numbers until the very eve of the revolution. [15]

A subsidiary reason was that the party had the concept of the long haul. Not believing that socialism would come overnight, introduced by parliamentary legislation or some miraculous change of heart, the SLP envisaged a lengthy preparatory period. James Connolly sometimes compared its position to that of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Messiah he never expected to see. [16] Anticipating a slow tempo of development, the SLP realised it would be some time before there was much hope of influencing events; what was required in this initial stage was to make the preliminary preparations, laying the basis upon which the struggle for socialism could be successfully carried out at some future date.

In the SLP’s opinion, the immediate need was for educational and propaganda work. It was to these ends that the party directed its energy. The typical branch, consisting of a handful of dedicated individuals, would spend its time on the three Ss of socialist campaigning — studying, selling the paper and soapbox oratory. Let us examine how these were done.

Studying: Education took a number of forms. Connolly used to like to give students newspaper cuttings. They had to comment on them, analysing them from a socialist viewpoint without having much time for thought. This, it was hoped, promoted the ability in arguments with political opponents to deal, off the cuff, with any new points that were introduced. The same knack might also be encouraged by another technique of Connolly’s — getting members to make mock-speeches in front of other members, who would be expected to heckle. [17]

Besides these, classes of a much more theoretical kind would take place as well. In a series of weekly meetings, a subject would be studied in a serious and systematic manner, differing from the average university course only in the general outlook adopted. A detailed account of how the classes were run is contained in Chapter V, where Tom Bell’s description of the SLP’s educational activities in Glasgow is quoted. [18] Clearly students took their studies seriously. Attendance registers reveal remarkably few absences. Students purchased impressive quantities of literature, as surviving records of class literature secretaries show, so that they could continue their studies at home. [19] Frequently, at the end of a course students were expected to sit a written examination, which could contain formidable questions.

But however esoteric the concepts learnt, the SLP tried to relate them to practice. Every effort was made to translate them into language understandable to other workers. Knowledge was not acquired for its own sake; it was for use as a weapon in the class struggle. The Glasgow class applied this principle by holding regular open-air public meetings after it had finished its studies. [20]

Soapbox Oratory: Before the First World War was the Golden Age of Soapbox Oratory. Workers normally had little money to spend. The tub-thumping orator provided light relief in Britain before the mass entertainment industry developed.

Recognising that this situation gave the party an opportunity to put its message to large numbers of people, the SLP encouraged all its branches to hold regular outdoor meetings. It issued advice, some of which now seems rather comical, on how they should be organised. First, the branch should form a propaganda committee. Then it should find a site ‘wherever wage slaves congregate’, although the proviso was added that ‘it was useless going to slum districts as the people there seem to be hopeless’. The meeting could be opened by a song, but it hastened to add, somewhat ominously, that ‘unless the singers have a knowledge of harmony, it is not good’. Then the chairman should open the meeting, give the name of the branch, call upon the speaker, and then draw attention to the literature available. Next should come the collection, followed by questions, which should be answered courteously. ‘But should any “fakir, freak or fool” dare to cast ridicule on our party or our principles, then the speaker should wade in and annihilate him, as a street crowd always like to see a “smart” chap get taken down.’ [21]

Street-corner oratory could have its problems. Sometimes difficulties were experienced in getting the initial crowd to stop and listen. One speaker in Liverpool used to overcome this by shouting, at the top of his voice: ‘I've been robbed! I've been robbed!’ Quickly, an inquisitive audience would assemble, and he would explain how the thieves were the capitalists. [22] But, even after acquiring a crowd, there was still the question of holding it, particularly if an amateur comedian decided to set up in competition. In his organiser’s report, William Paul cited an instance where this happened:

At Accrington on Wednesday, I addressed an audience of about 800 for about 40 minutes. This splendid meeting was broken up by the opening of another meeting under the auspices of an individual known as Peter Pan. By dint of continuing speaking, we gradually won our audience back by question-time.[23]

The secret of street-corner oratory was to speak in an attractive, clear and simple manner. An old campaigner explained this to Frank Budgen after he had made his first faltering attempt on a soapbox:

‘For Christ sake’, he said, ‘next time you give ‘em the blood and the shot of the working class, lay off all that stuff about emancipation and alienation. Any word ending in — ation (unless it’s fornication) makes ‘em glassy-eyed and very sad. Make a joke about Joe Chamberlain’s orchid or Chaplin’s three acres and a cow for everybody.’ [24]

Public speaking could be a hazardous occupation. At any moment, violent interruptions could come from the police, rival political groups or from hecklers. Knowing how to deal with these threats, learning how to express political opinions with forceful clarity, was a hard, but nevertheless necessary, process in the development of revolutionary leaders.

Many of those who led the revolt on the Clyde graduated through this tough university of the streets. Whatever the opposition, they remained cool and effective.

In dealing with such people, the authorities frequently discovered they had taken on more than they had bargained for. Take, for example, the case of Muir and Mitchell, charged with holding an illegal meeting at Bridgeton Cross. The prosecutor, expecting it to be an easy case to win, called no witnesses except policemen. But he had not reckoned with Johnny Muir who, as The Socialist said, wished to prove the truth of WS Gilbert’s assertion that a policeman’s lot is not a happy one:

Comrade Muir opened the defence for the SLP by asking to be permitted to examine the fiscal. This demand scandalised the legal gentlemen in court, who informed the audacious requester that such a preposterous proceeding would be illegal. Unabashed, Comrade Muir addressed the court in a speech as logical as it was eloquent, which admitted that the SLP caused their opponents some annoyance. ‘Hundreds of meetings were held there. Why had the promoters of these meetings not been arrested for obstruction? Why during the election times were men who perchance were now seated on the magistrates’ benches allowed to hold large public meetings and, aye, with police protection?’

The case was dismissed. [25]

On another occasion in Glasgow, the Conservatives unwisely held a meeting, ‘The Fallacies of Socialism’, but did not permit any questions. An SLPer mounted the rostrum:

After having failed to throw the SLPer off the platform, they put the lights out, thus compelling the large audience to leave the hall. Outside the hall, a large and enthusiastic audience, numbering about a thousand, was addressed by the SLPer who had been refused discussion. [26]

Customarily, however, the disruption of meetings was the other way round — it was socialist meetings that were attacked by people who disagreed with them. In 1901, Connolly was unable to continue speaking in Oxford, when assailed by a band of undergraduates and unemployed. Then they pursued Connolly through the town, throwing stones at him while he retaliated by laying four of them out with the flagpole to which the red flag had been attached. The police intervened. [27] One consequence was that Leonard Cotton, Connolly’s main supporter, lost his job as a gardener. He had already served a month’s imprisonment because he broke Manchester Corporation’s bye-law relating to public meetings, and his employer, Oxford Botanical Gardens, refused to tolerate the new bout of unwelcome publicity.[28]

The Oxford incident was far from being isolated. According to TA Jackson, whose political activities were largely centred on London, meetings were frequently disrupted. He claimed, perhaps with some exaggeration, that ‘it was often necessary for the “chairman” to silence rowdy interrupters by laying-out one or two per meeting’. [29] But most of the trouble was caused by left-wingers belonging to rival groups. Of these Moses Baritz, for a long time a member — indeed, the only member — of the Manchester branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, could undoubtedly claim to be the supreme genius at the art of wrecking meetings. Although his appearance resembled that of a dirty, disreputable tramp, fallen upon hard times, he was actually the distinguished music critic of the Manchester Guardian. His technique was disconcertingly simple. Placing himself near the rostrum, Moses waited for the speaker to make a point. Then, as if talking to himself, he would shout: ‘Tripe! Rotten Tripe! Bloody awful stinking tripe!’ And then he would spit on the floor. ‘A few repetitions of this’, according to Jackson, ‘would shake the nerve of all but the very stoutest; and in the discussion which followed Moses would say it all over again with a volubility matched only by his dogmatism and his total disregard for the feelings of everybody.’

Moses Baritz’s greatest triumph was the wrecking of a meeting of HM Hyndman. The Manchester and Salford SDF had hoped it would be a splendid occasion. The federation’s new hall, to be known as the Hyndman Hall, was to be officially opened by the great man himself and, to prevent unseemly incidents, undesirables were barred from the proceedings. But the SDF had not calculated for the resourcefulness of Moses:

There was a ventilating shaft which opened just above the platform, where the speaker stood. Unperceived Moses climbed to the roof, and to the ventilator, so that when Old Man Hyndman — who had been rapturously received — rose to speak, Moses put his clarinet to his lips and provided an obligato-accompaniment to the oratory.

‘Mr Chairman!’, said Hyndman — and ‘Squark, squark!’ came down the ventilator.

The old man was puzzled, but tried to get going. Moses responded with a succession of the most obscenely bestial noises ever emitted by a musical instrument. And, in short, in two minutes a deputation was offering Moses a front seat, if only he'd shut up and come down! [30]

There may have been only one Moses Baritz, but many others possessed similar qualities of dogmatism, crankiness and intolerance. Abuse was liberally sprinkled around on the left. Keir Hardie was called ‘Queer Hardie’, HM Hyndman became ‘Hairy M Hyndman’, and Philip Snowden was ‘the self-styled Saint Paul of the Labour Movement’. Occasionally, mutual animosity spilled over into violence. [31]

Hostility arose because the various parties were competing fiercely with each other. In that period, very few workers were attracted by left-wing ideas. When one group made a member, it robbed the rest of a potential recruit. As a consequence, the rivals tended to emphasise their differences, extolling their own virtues while denigrating the efforts of the others.

Selling: The sale of the various socialist journals, which took up such a large amount of the time of left-wingers in those days, simply served to reinforce divisive tendencies. Each group had its own periodical. Production often involved members in considerable personal sacrifices, and so it was important to believe that your particular journal was making a unique contribution. The SLP required from its members a levy of 18 shillings in the year 1907 to cover the deficit arising from the press fund. [32] When it is remembered that many unskilled workers then only received 16 shillings a week, and SLP members were expected to pay the levy on top of a hefty monthly subscription of one shilling and sixpence, the size of the expected commitment can be judged. It is an indication of the great store placed upon maintaining the journal because it functioned as an organiser. Neil Maclean, in one sales drive, declared: ‘Everyone who purchases The Socialist is a prospective member of the SLP.’ The average branch would be out selling on a door-to-door basis at least once a week, as well as at work and in trade unions. One of the main places where they could be sold was at public meetings, both of the SLP and of other parties. In this manner, The Socialist’s circulation rose slowly and with expenditure of much effort. By 1907 it had reached 3000 copies a month and two years later had gone up to 4000. [33]

These figures may appear unimpressive, but it should be remembered that other literature was sold as well. The American Weekly People, bigger and appearing more frequently than The Socialist, devoted much space to British affairs. Most SLP members and supporters read it regularly. Then there was the SLP’s production of pamphlets, which had a big impact on the political scene. For the first time, Marxist ideas reached a sizeable section of the British working class. Usually produced in editions of 10,000 copies and sold for a penny, these pamphlets had considerable influence. In his Chairman’s address to the 1916 SLP conference, Tom Bell rightly told delegates:

There had been a change in the attitude of the movement towards scientific socialism and its founders. The name of Karl Marx was no longer derided nor his teaching despised. The terms ‘class consciousness’, ‘class struggle’, ‘price of labour power’, etc, were no longer treated with contempt... The SLP was entitled to credit for this. [34]

In a country with a strong empirical tradition, where people were prone to eschew theoretical questions, this was no mean achievement. It was accomplished against tremendous odds.

From the outset, the SLP possessed inadequate resources, making it impossible to function effectively. Lack of funds compelled the party to dispense with its full-time organiser. This was a grievous loss. In an organisation composed almost entirely of youngsters, Connolly provided valuable knowledge and experience. Indeed, as Bell explained in his memoirs, it was built by him and around him:

Connolly never demurred to speak anywhere or at any time. In this connection, I think he was shamelessly exploited by us. We had not yet trained many speakers — that was to come — and I have known him to do as many as twelve meetings in one week apart from his literary work. [35]

For many weeks, Connolly failed to receive his full wage. Party members would have a whip-round, collecting coppers and sixpenny bits to hand to him. But he could not hope to keep his wife and six children on what he received. He decided, therefore, to emigrate to the United States.

In the same month as Connolly sailed from Glasgow — September 1904 — the SLP suffered a second setback. George S Yates resigned from the editorship of The Socialist. He had found the job quite a strain for some time, since he had been doing it on top of his full-time professional job as a designer, which frequently involved his working well into the night. Combining the two tasks, however, became an impossibility when the Glasgow contract was completed and his firm moved him to Teesside. Unable to keep in close, regular contact with what was happening nationally inside the SLP, he necessarily dropped out of the leadership. [36]

As a result of Connolly and Yates leaving Glasgow, control of the organisation devolved upon younger, more inexperienced members, also working in their spare time. The most important of these were Neil Maclean, an engineer at Singer’s Clydebank factory, who became General Secretary, and John Carstairs Matheson, the Falkirk schoolteacher, who edited The Socialist. They were helped by an Executive Committee selected from members of the Edinburgh and Leith branches in order to save travelling expenses. When the SLP membership grew, this body was augmented by a National Executive Committee, which had four members and met quarterly. In theory, the EC was supposed to deal with day-to-day matters and to be subordinate to the NEC, which determined broad, general issues of policy. These arrangements proved to be unsatisfactory. At critical times, the party lacked firm leadership. The Edinburgh branch, probably the most sectarian and least representative, was liable to come into conflict with the NEC, particularly as the roles of the EC and the NEC had not been clearly defined. Problems arose from having to operate on a shoe-string.

In those early days, the SLP continued propaganda work — the three Ss of speaking, studying and selling — which brought in small, modest returns. Rarely did anything happen to enliven the routine. In 1904, a speaking tour of De Leon heightened interest. He addressed three well-attended meetings in Scotland, at Falkirk, Edinburgh and Glasgow. His London meeting was marred by an unpleasant incident. When De Leon criticised ‘the Labour lieutenants of capitalism’, Jim Connell, author of the ‘Red Flag’, charged the platform and had to be restrained by Cotton, Geis, Jerman and Pope. [37] Notwithstanding this interruption, the audience was generally impressed by De Leon’s ‘rare talent of being able to expound Marxist doctrine in the language of the market-place’. [38]

De Leon’s visit came as he was returning from the Second International Congress at Amsterdam, where the main issue remained the controversy over the Kautsky resolution passed by the Paris Congress four years earlier. Backed by Rosa Luxemburg, Plekhanov and others, De Leon attempted to get delegates to rescind their previous decision. The German Social Democrats, the most influential delegation, propounded a formula that combined verbal opposition to joining coalition governments with the underlying principles of acceptance. De Leon likened the Germans’ attitude to that of a priest who, confronted by a wife, badly beaten by her husband, agreed that the husband has a right to hit his wife but thought he had taken it too far. [39] Despite his reservations, once his own resolution had been defeated, De Leon voted for the German resolution. He argued that this was the lesser evil: the alternative to the German resolution of verbal condemnation of Millerandism was no criticism at all.

The British SLP sent a delegation to the Amsterdam Congress consisting of Thomas Drummond, Charles Geddes, Andrew Ferrier, JC Matheson and Charles Haddow. They operated within the conference until the third day. Then the International Bureau introduced a new method of verifying credentials: each national group had to determine precisely who would be its representatives, entitled to cast its two votes, which were given to each national group regardless of size. As the new ruling would have meant the British SLP being submerged within the much larger British delegation, it decided not to submit to the new procedure. Instead, it issued a public statement to gain maximum publicity for its own policies. The SLP declared that it was farcical for the British delegation to have men like Shackleton, an advocate of child labour and avowedly anti-socialist, sitting as accredited delegates. For congress to permit this to happen was a sign of the lack of serious socialist commitment: non-socialists were determining socialist policy.

Also at the Amsterdam Congress, and taking the same attitude as the SLP, were representatives of the other wing of the Impossibilist movement. Although resolving to remain in the SDF and fight the Hyndmanite leadership, they had discovered that the federation’s leadership would not tolerate such conduct. After two leading members of the tendency — J Fitzgerald and H Hawkins — had been expelled, it was decided that the other critics should leave the SDF to form their own party. The Socialist Party of Great Britain held its inaugural meeting at the Printers’ Hall, Fetter Lane, London, on 12 June 1904. It denounced the SDF as undemocratic and riddled with reformism. [40]

Many of the criticisms levelled at the SDF by the SPGB were the same as those of the SLP, and it may appear strange that this other wing of the Impossibilists felt the need to create their own independent organisation. There were, however, disagreements. Personal feuds, which in small groups sometimes assume disproportionate importance, had embittered relations. As we have already seen in Chapter I, most of the London groups were angered by the Scottish group’s failure to keep them fully informed during the factional dispute inside the SDF in 1902-03. But the Scottish group also had criticisms of leading personalities in the London group. According to Matheson, before Alex Anderson absconded from Edinburgh with all the funds of The Socialist, he put the ‘poor, little Pearson girl’ in the maternity hospital. [41] Connolly had been equally scathing about Con Lehane, who was appointed General Secretary of the SPGB. According to Connolly, he left Ireland after the Bishop of Cork had denounced him. When Connolly accused him of being a deserter, Lehane replied that he could change his residence whenever he liked. ‘I answered’, Connolly told Matheson, ‘that he had, but when a man at the head of a regiment made up his mind to change his residence at the moment the enemy attacked, he was usually called by a very ugly name.’ [42]

Underlying this personal animosity lay disagreements about fundamental principles. The SPGB was not attracted by the ideas of James Connolly or Daniel De Leon. It believed that greater attention should be paid to electoral activity, whereas the SLP related itself primarily to the industrial struggle. Also, the SPGB thought a socialist programme should contain no immediate demands: rather than try to improve conditions under the existing system, all energies should be devoted to its overthrow.

Among the SLP’s ranks, there were those who supported the SPGB line on immediate demands. At the inaugural conference, the Edinburgh branch tried unsuccessfully to move the deletion of all immediate demands from the programme. It tried again at the next conference, only to be beaten by eight votes to four. The majority of members believed in making a distinction between reforms and palliatives. Palliatives were defined as legislative measures introduced by the government to give greater stability to capitalism, and therefore should be opposed. Reforms, on the other hand, helped to improve the lot for workers under capitalism, and therefore should be supported:

Reforms are like patching a worn-out boot. Nevertheless, the SLP recognises and always makes clear that by whatever measures the workers may be able, even temporarily and in a small degree, to resist the inevitably increasing powers of exploitation of their masters, such measures have the full and wholehearted support of the SLP. [43]

Encapsulated within the SLP attitude was confusion that subsequently led to theoretical dispute. The distinction between palliatives and reforms frequently cannot be made. Legislation may be introduced which not only improves the workers’ lot but also gives greater stability to the existing system.

But there is no doubt that the SLP’s attitude to reforms gave it a relevance, as well as a socialist content, that other parties lacked. In local government elections, SPGB candidates monotonously intoned that the answer to each and every problem was the introduction of socialism. The SLP candidates, while arguing for socialism, still put forward demands with immediate relevance. The 1903 election manifesto began by stating the limitations of local councils:

Fellow workers, we do not expect to be able, within the limits of a single municipality, to stamp out the cause of your poverty and toilsome life; all we can expect to do is to ease the pressure of wage-slavery, pending the entire overthrow of capitalism. Our candidate, therefore, if elected, would press forward in the teeth of all opposition such measures as would tend to brighten the existence of the army of toilers. [44]

It went on to give the SLP’s policy: Council houses ‘to be let at the cost of construction and maintenance'; a minimum wage for council employees of 30 shillings; the right of all council employees to an eight-hour day and to appoint their immediate superiors; the provision of free school meals; public works programme to relieve local unemployment; and the provision of relief for workers involved in industrial disputes.

These are the kinds of demands the SLP advanced annually at local elections. It provided a platform from which to express the party’s programme, an opportunity to show that its policies were different from those of other political organisations. The SLP measured its success not by the number of votes for its candidates but in terms of members made and increased circulation for The Socialist.

While the SLP’s aim was to raise class consciousness, the vast majority of Labour and socialist councillors saw their role in an entirely different light. They acted with propriety, doing nothing to stir up discontent, but showing that they could be relied upon to behave responsibly when administering a small segment of capitalism. To the SLP, this approach was anathema. It denounced George Lansbury when, at London East End Board of Guardians, he moved that a trade-union delegation be not received because it was trying to intimidate the board. Similarly, the SLP attacked AT Wrampliney, another SDF London councillor, for opposing the suggestion that all council workmen should have a minimum wage of 30 shillings a week on the grounds that it would send the local authorities’ estimates awry. It also criticised ILPers on Musselburgh council, who did not support a strike by council workmen for higher pay. Corporation employees, they argued, should not have 25 shillings but make do with 21. One ILP councillor went so far as to argue that twopence an hour was the right rate for scavengers. [45]

Involvement in local politics loomed larger while the SLP was in its initial phase. The tempo of the class struggle remained slow, and there was little else to do. So long as industrial peace prevailed, the SLP could have no impact within factories. Even so, two events happened in 1905 that confirmed the correctness of emphasising industrial work. Although neither occurred in Britain, they still served as guidelines for British socialists. The first was the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in America; the other was the 1905 Russian Revolution.

From the Russian experience, the SLP gained two lessons. First, it confirmed its views on the vital necessity of having strong cadres, capable of giving a lead at the decisive moment. The Socialist declared: ‘Revolutionaries must be the greatest self-sacrificers — witness Russia.’ [46] And, second, the profound difficulty encountered by Tsarism in recapturing control showed what an important part industrial organisation could play in the conquest of power.

The formation of the Industrial Workers of the World, ‘the Wobblies’, showed how a new type of organisation could liberate dormant class forces, unleashing a new form of struggle against the capitalists and for a new society. The IWW broke down craft barriers, recruiting workers from any and every industry, regardless of skill, sex or race, into one big industrial union. It was, to a large extent, a reaction to the long-established American Federation of Labour, which only organised the better paid and more highly skilled. Besides rebelling against the AFL’s aristocratic exclusiveness, the Wobblies disagreed with its deeply-ingrained conservatism: to the Wobblies, the fight for better conditions was inextricably linked to the fight for revolution. At its inaugural conference, 200 delegates adopted a constitution which began with the declaration:

There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among the millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have the good things of life. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.

Among the well-known figures attending the conference were Big Bill Haywood, the miners’ leader; Lucy Parsons, widow of the Haymarket martyr; Mother Jones, the militant feminist; and socialists like Debs and De Leon. They represented about 150,000 workers. This included the powerful Western Federation of Miners which, in the great strike of 1902, had demonstrated what a deadly weapon industrial unionism could be.

To many British SLPers, weak and isolated from the working class, the formation of the IWW was viewed with envy. What had been accomplished in America today, they wanted to do tomorrow. But it would have to remain a dream. As The Socialist’s editorial observed, the stage of development reached in Britain was less advanced than in the United States:

In this country we stand in a more unfortunate position. Politically and economically Great Britain, if not so far advanced as America, is far ahead of the Continent. And yet the day when the British counterpart of the Chicago Convention will be summoned is in the indefinite future.

So the Executive Committee of the British SLP contented itself with sending congratulations on the formation of the IWW and expressing the wish that, at some time in the future, a similar organisation might be created in this country.

Such a statement represented a shift in SLP policy, however, and aroused hostility in the ranks. Richard Dalgleish, of Glasgow SLP, published a pamphlet, The Decadence of the Socialist Labour Party. [47] This pointed out, correctly, that policy had been changed without reference to the membership. Up till then, it had been SLP policy to advocate socialist industrial unions. But the IWW was not a genuine socialist union because members did not have to accept a given set of political principles before being enrolled into membership. This meant that non-socialists could belong to it. The pamphlet went on to complain about the American SLP supporting a non-member — Big Bill Haywood — standing for the governorship of Colorado. This infringed the rule contained in both the British and American SLP’s constitutions saying that candidates at elections would only be endorsed if they belonged to the SLP and stood on the party’s platform. If the IWW were truly socialist, the pamphlet claimed, then it would affiliate to the SLP instead of having no declared political affiliation.

The Dalgleish pamphlet, essentially a reaction from those favouring the status quo, gained considerable support. Six members of the Glasgow branch, including Bell, agreed with its conclusions, as well as leading English SLPers, like Budgen and Cotton. The magnitude of the dissent merely served to underline the charge that the decision had been taken by a small, unrepresentative group: the Executive at that time contained only members of the Edinburgh branch.

Faced with the crisis, the party resolved to encourage full and frank discussion. Everyone was at liberty to express his views in The Socialist. This was done without acrimony. And, by power of persuasion, the critics were eventually won round. Most of them rejoined the party after little over a year; the last to be readmitted was Bell, by the Newcastle conference in 1908. [48] The breach was healed and a new policy emerged.

But once SLPers were convinced that the IWW was a good thing, another issue arose — the question of to what degree the same type of organisation could (and should) be built in Britain. This became the major debate at the SLP’s fourth annual conference, held in Edinburgh on 14-15 April 1906. For the Executive, Neil Maclean argued that a propaganda body, the Advocates of Industrial Unionism, should be formed to spread the ideas that would ultimately make it possible for a socialist industrial union to be built. Tom Clarke, a Glasgow engineer and later AEU Executive member, thought this would dissipate resources: ‘It would be a waste of energy to endeavour to form industrial union clubs.’ He pointed out that the SLP remained weak; all efforts should be devoted to strengthening it. Moreover, Clarke maintained that even without an Advocates of Industrial Unionism exerting pressure from without, many trade unions were already becoming less craft-conscious as a result of internal pressures. Thomas Drummond, of the Executive, replied to this last point. He said that nobody objected to members working within existing unions to expose the treachery of union leaders, but something more was required. The majority of delegates agreed with him. Conference felt that discontent with union leaders needed to be backed by organised expression. The Glasgow and Edinburgh branches’ opposition to the proposal — namely, that it would impose too great a strain on limited resources and distract members from other activities — was outweighed by the conviction that, once an industrial organisation had been started, the SLP would tap fresh seams of support. By 10 votes to four, conference agreed to take the preliminary steps necessary to form the AIU.

Heightened activity followed the Edinburgh conference. Wherever it had members or contacts, the SLP held meetings and distributed leaflets, explaining the inadequacies of existing unions. Party propaganda argued that something akin to the IWW was needed. This could be built, the SLP claimed, if all workers who wanted militant policies would unite. For this to happen, the AIU would have to be entirely independent of the SLP and accept members irrespective of their political affiliations. The criteria for belonging to the AIU would be agreement with a set of industrial, not political, principles. Only in this way could the widest possible unity be achieved in the fight against Capital.

The call for industrial unity came at an opportune time. Disenchantment among the working class with existing organisations was growing. In April 1906 The Socialist carried the headline ‘Dundee Labour War — Biggest Strike in Ten Years a Women’s Strike’. Dundee, known as a ‘she town’, had a labour force predominantly composed of women. Pay and conditions were bad. Employers sought to make it even worse by imposing a wage cut and threatened that unless the workers accepted, they would be locked out. The Factory Operatives Union, led by the Rev Henry Williamson, advised its members to go to work while the union continued negotiations. But tempers flared and the women, in no mood to compromise, demanded an increase and stayed out until they secured a five per cent rise.

Dundee presaged the pattern of things to come, an industrial storm where timorous trade-union officials confronted an irate rank and file, where the lack of fight at the top was paralleled by a combative eagerness on the shop floor. Spontaneously, workers, many of whom had never held a union card, seized the initiative. Into the Dundee dispute, the SLP flung all available resources. It held as many as seven crowded meetings a week, where speakers like William Paul sought to draw the political lessons from the strike as well as helping to secure victory. By the end of the dispute, the SLP had formed a Dundee branch. This showed that socialists could not only participate meaningfully in an industrial dispute but also make converts at the same time.

But none of the other left-wing organisations were prepared to join the fray. The SDF persisted in its belief that strikes were an extravagance, a waste of resources involving unnecessary suffering because the same ends could more easily be attained through legislation. For the ILP and Labour Representation Committee, involvement in industrial disputes would damage that image of respectability they were sedulously trying to cultivate. It would alienate their Liberal colleagues, making cooperation more difficult. Significantly, journals like the Labour Leader and Clarion did not dwell on the poor wages and bad conditions prevailing in Dundee.

Naturally, some socialists disagreed with this approach, of turning one’s back on workers involved in the class struggle. Yet, their opposition did not stop the official attitude becoming more pronounced. The success of the LRC at the 1906 general election — it changed its name to the Labour Party immediately afterwards — simply served to reinforce the trend towards opportunism because 25 out of the 29 constituencies won by Labour had been secured with tacit Liberal support. Typically, at Ince in Lancashire, the reactionary local paper, the Wigan Observer, had backed the Labour candidate, Stephen Walsh; Liberals had spoken from his election platforms; Winston Churchill had sent him a letter of encouragement. [49] Likewise when Ramsay MacDonald, the Secretary of the Labour Party, was returned as MP for Leicester, the complete identity of his views with those of the Liberals led GK Chesterton to remark:

It would not have made the slightest difference for good or ill, to the future of anything or anybody, if a tiger had eaten him. There would have been a Liberal Member for Leicester instead, who would have made the same speeches, given exactly the same votes; and, if he were the usual successful soap-boiler, would have eclipsed Mr MacDonald in everything except good looks. [50]

Even Keir Hardie, who did occasionally make the odd socialist remark, still felt the need to extol the virtues of the Liberal Prime Minister: ‘Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman has earned and fully deserves all the praise that is being heaped upon him.’ [51]

But the bestowing of compliments was a two-way process. Liberals felt constrained to utter a few flattering phrases about their junior partner, the Labour Party. Winston Churchill declared that the Parliamentary Labour Party was ‘a stable and not an unstable element’, which had ‘added greatly to the wisdom and the earnestness and consequently the dignity of the House’. [52] Government ministers sought to assuage any lingering doubts their supporters might have about the Liberal alliance with the Labour Party. Lloyd George remarked:

Even the socialists, though some of them might make very wild speeches outside, in the House of Commons were thoroughly tame. He had never heard them propose a resolution in favour of upsetting society; he had never heard a revolutionary statement emerging from them. [53]

Harmony between Labour and Liberal politicians inevitably created some anger among working people as industrial strife began to grow. For instance, in the Belfast strike of 1907, when troops fired on the workers, killing three and injuring many others, the Parliamentary Labour Party had to choose between supporting the government or siding with the strikers. As The Socialist pointed out, Labour MPs did not utter a word of protest:

Beyond asking a couple of questions, they did nothing. Like the other capitalist members, they accepted the butchery of a few workers as a trifling incident, not worthy of special comment. From Shackleton to Will Thorne, they have become silent accomplices of capitalist murder. [54]

Such conduct obviously could not escape notice or criticism from some rank-and-file socialists. Yet, even had they wanted to, the official socialist journals were inhibited from denouncing the Belfast shooting. Had the SDF denounced the Parliamentary Labour Party’s silence, then by implication they would also be denouncing Will Thorne, an MP who belonged to the SDF. Likewise, were the ILP to be critical of the Parliamentary Labour Party, then it would find itself at odds with some of its most influential leaders. Philip Snowden MP had come out strongly in favour of the government over Belfast, saying ‘every sensible person would agree that the employment of the military to quell disorder was not only defensible but necessary’. [55]

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that there were some misgivings among socialists in the ILP and SDF. This largely expressed itself within these organisations, although a few did leave to join the SLP. Among these were a group in Wigan which included WR Stoker, senior, and Jim Cannon, the father of Les Cannon (Electrical Trades Union President, 1963-70). They objected to the SDF supporting the anti-socialist candidates, Thornley Smith and Stephen Walsh, at the 1906 general election. But even in Wigan, most of the critics stayed inside, hoping to change the organisation to which they belonged from within. Among the criticisms frequently made was that undue emphasis was placed on electoral activity, that greater importance should be attached to industrial work and efforts to coordinate militant activity in the unions. It was primarily to people making such comments, particularly as the strike wave grew in dimension, that the AIU appealed.

While larger socialist groups succeeded in withstanding the strain of internal dissension, the issue of industrial unionism plunged the SPGB into a severe crisis. Probably the party’s bleak prospects aggravated the situation: while the SPGB placed overriding emphasis on parliamentary politics, its chance of securing a seat remained non-existent. Opponents of official policy, led by EJB Allen, argued that industry provided a more fruitful field for activity. He attacked the SPGB’s equivocal attitude towards trade unions, claiming that the party did little or nothing inside trade unions to attack the class-collaborationist line of the leaders. Allen was a powerful, persuasive speaker, and for four evenings the SPGB 1906 conference debated his views of industrial unionism before eventually turning them down by 110 votes to 81. By the end of the year, Allen and his supporters had either left the SPGB or been expelled, most of them drifting into the SLP.

At first, the SDF tried to adopt the same tactics. When one of its members, JE Clark, became General Secretary of the AIU at its inaugural conference, he was promptly expelled. His branch, Marylebone SDF, did not even permit him to speak in his defence. In the opinion of the SDF, as Quelch said: ‘Industrial unionism was a ridiculous attempt to enter into rivalry with existing unions.’ [56] Yet, however much Quelch may have wanted to expel others who accepted Clark’s views, the numbers rapidly grew so the task became too formidable. Bloodletting on such a colossal scale could easily have endangered the SDF’s existence. Similarly with the ILP: support within its ranks for industrial unionism grew and, in a party not famous for its discipline, the leadership learned to live with it. This does not mean that politicians like Ramsay MacDonald and Snowden did not criticise or even write books against it, but they were too preoccupied with parliamentary manoeuvrings to spend time on the unpleasant task of expelling those who disagreed with their industrial policy. To belong to the AIU and be a member of the ILP was not a hanging matter.

The thought of working alongside ILPers and SDFers did not dismay the SLP so long as it was on the basis of a militant policy. Unity had to be forged through struggle. It had to come not by discarding principles, or forgetting they existed, but by mutual activity to translate them into practice. The SLP thought the AIU could provide the means in the short run for breaking down sectarian barriers that divided socialist from socialist and in the long run could play a vital role in the attainment of socialism:

The industrial unionism will constitute a body of men and women at once intensely practical and uncompromisingly revolutionary. It can never degenerate into a sect, which is the danger to which political organisations representing a revolutionary position had hitherto been exposed, but will palpitate with the daily and hourly pulsations of the class struggle as it manifests itself in the workshop. And when it forms its own political party and moves into the political field as it surely will, in that act superseding or absorbing the Socialist Labour Party and all other socialist or labour parties, its campaign will indeed be the expression of the needs, the hopes, the aspirations and the will of the working classes, and not the dreams and theories of a few unselfish enthusiasts or the ambitions of political schemers... Finally, having overthrown the class state, the united Industrial Unions will furnish the administrative machinery for directing industry in the Socialist Commonwealth. [57]

The AIU held its inaugural conference at Birmingham on 3-4 August 1907. An indication that the SLP had been the prime force behind its creation was that WF Holliday and Johnny Muir, both party members, acted as Chairman and Secretary respectively. It is significant that they were replaced by JE Clark and WO Anguilly. Although the SLP had a majority of conference delegates, they took neither of the leading positions. Since it was intended that the AIU would be broadly based, the SLP did not want to be accused of dominating it.

The AIU represented a fresh departure, a journey into uncharted seas. Never before in Britain had a movement been formed to challenge the union leaders. Without historical experience as guidance, the Birmingham conference naturally expressed many confused and contradictory points of view. Some delegates wanted the AIU to confine itself to propaganda work. Others thought it should strive to become a socialist trade union, competing with existing unions. Still others saw its role as a militant rival to the TUC, a body to which militant unions could affiliate and which, ultimately, would replace the TUC as British workers moved leftwards.

These disagreements, while important, were not disastrous. Whatever vision of the future delegates possessed, they were reasonably agreed at the next step forward. The first requirement was to spread the ideas of industrial unionism. It was therefore decided to publish a monthly, The Industrial Unionist, as well as leaflets and pamphlets. A small band of zealous workers, scattered in many different industries, quickly began to distribute its literature. By March 1908, EJB Allen boasted: ‘Without exaggeration, we can safely say there is hardly a body of class-conscious workers in Great Britain who have not heard of industrial unionism.’ [58] While Allen, despite his assurance, may well have been overstating the position, a great deal of progress had undoubtedly been made.

Indirectly, this had a considerable influence on the fortunes of the SLP. As it justifiably claimed in its report to the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International (August 1907), the SLP ‘has been the pioneer of revolutionary unionism in Great Britain’. Playing that role, its circle of contacts and the influence of its publications had greatly extended. For the first time, it had gained significance in terms of the class struggle. What was more, it had developed a small, hard group of cadres, capable of playing a leading part in the struggle ahead as well as developing a firmer theoretical grasp of reality. From being in 1903 a weak and puny babe, after four years’ growth the SLP had grown into a small, but nevertheless healthy and robust, child with considerable potentiality.


1. The Socialist, July 1906.

2. Interview with Archie Henry, 9 August 1972. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 314, gives the same estimate.

3. TA Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London, 1953), pp 147-48.

4. Reports of Lenin’s flattering references to De Leon can be found in the New York World, 2 January 1919; Arthur Ransome, Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 (London, 1919), p 147; John Reed’s report, Weekly People, 11 May 1919; and William Paul’s article, The Worker, 26 March 1921.

5. The Socialist, March 1906.

6. The Socialist, July 1903.

7. The Socialist, July 1905.

8. Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, first published 1911. It was translated into English by Eden and Cedar Paul, two British socialists, who also translated the Everyman edition of Karl Marx’s Capital.

9. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Junius Pamphlet’, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York, 1970), pp 263-64; VI Lenin, ‘Dead Chauvinism and Living Socialism’, December 1914; Engels’ introduction to The Class Struggles in France, Marx–Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1951), pp 124-25.

10. The Socialist, September 1914.

11. Daniel De Leon, Reform or Revolution (New York, 1961 edition), pp 22-23.

12. The Socialist, August 1905.

13. The Socialist, April 1908.

14. The Socialist, September 1903; letter from John Carstairs Matheson to James Connolly, 9 November 1905. The Connolly–Matheson correspondence is deposited in the National Library of Ireland.

15. The Socialist, April 1908.

16. JT Murphy, New Horizons (London, 1941), p 42.

17. Samuel Levenson, James Connolly (London, 1973), p 105.

18. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 36.

19. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 55. In my possession are the Glasgow branch educational classes book for the 1910-11 session and the Bridgeton class literature account book.

20. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 38-39.

21. The Socialist, October 1904.

22. Wilf Braddock’s reminiscences, Socialist Review, October 1958.

23. The Socialist, August 1911.

24. Frank Budgen, Myselves When Young (Oxford, 1970), p 84.

25. The Socialist, July 1908.

26. The Socialist, April 1908.

27. C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London, 1961), p 109.

28. Interview with Miss Jean Budgen, 11 October 1973.

29. TA Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London, 1953), p 55.

30. TA Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London, 1953), pp 84-85.

31. The Socialist, May 1905, describes a fight between N Maclean (SLP) and T Kennedy (SDF).

32. SLP Executive Committee, 8 September 1907. The Socialist Labour Party Executive Committee minutes 1903-07 are deposited in the British Museum.

33. The Socialist, October 1909, SLP Executive Committee 13 January 1907.

34. The Socialist, May 1916.

35. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 48-49.

36. Letter from John Carstairs Matheson to James Connolly, 12 March 1906, mentioning George Yates, claimed that: ‘He is sadly changed... Another good man gone stale!’

37. The Socialist, October 1904.

38. Frank Budgen, Myselves When Young (Oxford, 1970), p 86. Also, John Carstairs Matheson’s letter to James Connolly, 7 October 1904, described De Leon’s tour as ‘first rate’.

39. Daniel De Leon, Flashlights of the Amsterdam Congress (New York, 1929), pp 64-65.

40. Socialist Party of Great Britain, Questions of the Day (London, 1932 edition), pp 11-14; Robert Barltrop, The Monument (London, 1975) is a history of the SPGB.

41. John Carstairs Matheson, letter to James Connolly, 7 June 1904.

42. James Connolly, letter to John Carstairs Matheson, March 1903.

43. The Socialist, April 1906.

44. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 53-55, reprints in full Thomas Clark’s election address when he stood as an SLP candidate in Glasgow in 1903.

45. The Socialist, March 1906.

46. The Socialist, November 1907.

47. Besides Richard Dalgleish and the other members of Glasgow SLP, Mitchell and Robertson of Edinburgh also resigned.

48. In his autobiography, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), Bell made no mention of the fact that he was for a time expelled from the SLP.

49. Wigan Observer, 15 December 1905, 13 January 1906.

50. GK Chesterton, quoted by GDH Cole and R Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968 edition), p 486.

51. Labour Leader, 4 January 1907.

52. Quoted by Donald Read, Edwardian England (London, 1972), pp 77-78.

53. Lloyd George’s speech at Madeley, Staffordshire, 1 November 1907.

54. The Socialist, September 1907.

55. Sheffield Guardian, 23 August 1907.

56. Thomas Quelch, letter to AJ Hibbert, 13 March 1907.

57. The Socialist, April 1908.

58. The Socialist, March 1908.