The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter V: SLP Internal Developments, 1907-1914

Those wanting a quiet life should never join a revolutionary organisation. It makes tremendous demands upon its members, leaving them with little time to pursue their private lives. Complete dedication, wholehearted commitment, ability to withstand pressure — these are the qualities required. Operating as it does in a hostile environment, it must be able to swim against the current. Also, it has to allocate its resources in the most effective manner. Professor Robbins’ definition of economics — ‘human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’ — can, more aptly, be applied to the situation facing a revolutionary organisation. Inevitably, within it, the various pressures build up tension. Capitalist development poses new problems for the organisation, problems that must be solved if new ideas are to be created and the struggle fought effectively. This results in members indulging in intense, often acrimonious, internal discussion. On the road to greater theoretical clarity, expulsions and splits often occur. This is not something uniquely British: the Bolsheviks in Russia had a tortuous history of battles within the ranks. Referring to these, Lenin used to quote Tolstoy, who once saw a man squatting in a doorway, making strange and seemingly idiotic gestures with his arms. On closer inspection, it turned out that he was doing a perfectly sensible thing — sharpening a knife on a stone. The revolutionary party, Lenin tersely remarked, is the knife that has to kill capitalism.

The Socialist Labour Party’s development from 1907 to 1914 was hardly tranquil. This period saw the expulsion of its General Secretary, Neil Maclean, the parting of the ways with its founder and most influential member, James Connolly; an expulsion of the majority of the Edinburgh branch, which set up its own party; and the mass resignation of members, particularly in Lancashire, who disagreed with its electoral policy. Yet, despite these setbacks — or, rather, because of them — the SLP survived and increased its ability to be a fighting proletarian organisation.

The expulsion of Neil Maclean came as a result of the SLP’s campaign on unemployment. From 1907 onwards, the number out of work increased. As the state made no provision to pay unemployment benefit, there was widespread suffering and hardship. In desperation, some of the unemployed approached the SLP for help. ‘They had received a deputation from the unemployed asking what they could do’, reported TH Nelson, of the Bury branch. ‘They were face to face with starving men.’ In this situation, the temptation was merely to point out that unemployment was a product of capitalism, that the ruling class could not impose its industrial discipline without a reserve army of labour:

The danger of losing touch with the working class, of erecting ourselves into a sect of self-righteous scholastics, speaking a language foreign to the average worker, and handing out chunks of undigested Marxism to the starving unemployed, is a very real and very near calamity. [1]

Instead, the SLP saw that the unemployed had to be organised and, in this way, like other sections of the working class, fight to improve their own lot. As one Lancashire comrade pointed out: ‘Organised demonstrations of the unemployed is a necessary work of Socialism if only to acquaint the Belshazzars at the feast of the writing on the wall.’ The usual procedure was to parade the unemployed through the most affluent districts. As the rich beheld the poor gazing over the walls into their stately homes, it created a feeling of unease. Abrasive confrontations were prone to happen. If only to protect their property, the well-to-do were likely to show some concern about the out-of-work. As long ago as 1887, when the unemployed had rioted in Mayfair and other wealthy parts of London, these disturbances had been followed by large sums of money being sent to the Lord Mayor’s relief fund. This tactic was essentially a way of gaining money by menaces.

A variation of the theme came from John McClure of the Glasgow branch, who told delegates to the SLP’s 1909 conference how a deputation to the town council had ‘paraded the most destitute cases before the members, creatures that were once men and women, fainting from starvation, contaminating the atmosphere in those beautiful Municipal Chambers.’ [2] The Lord Provost burst into tears. A fund was immediately started, and 80 investigators appointed to find out the most deserving cases.

Such incidents as this could be regarded triumphantly, but they were of short duration. They did little or nothing to alter the long-term position. Furthermore, the SLP learnt from bitter experience that there was a world of difference between organising a demonstration and organising the unemployed. The former required a few days’ preparation; the latter called for more resources than the party possessed. Yet, there were some SLP members who thought an attempt should be made to form a trade union for the unemployed. This was opposed by John Carstairs Matheson on grounds of priority; they had so far failed to create an industrial union and this should remain the number one task. After much heart-searching, delegates adopted Matheson’s line. It was tantamount to turning one’s back on the problems of unemployment — regretfully, because of insufficient resources — except for holding the occasional protest demonstration.

To Neil Maclean, this decision was not satisfactory. A large and amorphous group of political characters — Labour politicians, union leaders and middle-class do-gooders — had formed Right to Work committees up and down the country. The SLP never belonged to this body. It disagreed with the Right to Work committees’ tendency not to see the problem of unemployment as an inevitable consequence of capitalism. It regarded these committees, moreover, as élitist: their aim was to do something for the unemployed, not to get the unemployed to do something for themselves. And then the SLP had a cynical feeling that electoral considerations were behind the Right to Work campaign: its leaders were less concerned about finding jobs for the out-of-work than they were in securing jobs for themselves in Parliament and on local councils.

However, Maclean thought something should be done about the unemployed, and anything was better than nothing. Despite the party line, he joined a Right to Work committee and was on its delegation that met Edinburgh council officials. His action caused a constitutional crisis within the SLP. The National Executive Committee was prepared to overlook his indiscretion. He had worked extremely hard for the SLP addressing public meetings all over Scotland and conscientiously doing the unpaid job of General Secretary for six years. But it was precisely because Maclean was the most prominent person the SLP had that the sub-National Executive Committee thought strong action against him had to be taken. The sub-NEC, made up of members from the Edinburgh and Leith branches, was responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation. No member should be allowed to break the party’s rule, thought the sub-NEC. If discipline was to be enforced in the SLP, then it had to apply to every member, including those in high offices. So the sub-NEC took over the party’s headquarters in Edinburgh and, countermanding the decision of the NEC, expelled Maclean from the SLP for reformist deviations.

A tangled mess confronted delegates who attended the SLP’s seventh annual conference in April 1909. There had been a scene at the party HQ when ‘traitor’ Maclean had been ejected. The NEC, a committee of four members, supposed to be the supreme body within the party, were angry that the sub-NEC had usurped its power and authority. Conference resolved to reinstate the NEC. This decision was merely the assertion of the constitutional principle of the primacy of annual conference and of the NEC as the most important body in the party between conferences. It did not mean, however, that delegates endorsed Maclean’s conduct, or the lenient view taken of it by the NEC. After electing a new NEC, conference allowed Maclean to appeal against his expulsion, and this was turned down. The whole affair did not have any lasting effect on the SLP’s expansion: by 1910 it had 20 branches, four times the number it started with in 1903.

In the same way, the break with James Connolly had no lasting effect, though it must have been a most unpleasant experience for veteran members, who could remember the tireless work of Connolly in creating the party. Dire necessity forced Connolly to emigrate to America in September 1903. In the United States, he flung himself into the political activities of the American SLP, while continuing his contacts with the British SLP and writing occasional articles for its journals.

Over the years, Connolly’s views on a number of issues became increasingly at variance with those of De Leon and the American SLP. The first of these questions was religion. Connolly, a Roman Catholic, did not accept the traditional Marxian attitude that religion was ‘the opium of the people’. At the inaugural meeting of the British SLP, he prevailed upon delegates not to commit the party to an anti-religious stance. After leaving for America, he contributed an article entitled ‘Socialism and Other Things’ in which he argued that socialists should remain neutral about religion; socialism was about life in this world, religion about life in the next. [3] Connolly’s attitude could not be reconciled with that of De Leon, who accepted the traditional materialist stand on the question of God and went out of his way to attack the machinations of the Church of Rome.

Connolly’s Catholicism led to another area of disagreement. When De Leon translated a book by the veteran Austrian socialist, August Bebel, called Women Under Socialism, Connolly described the book as ‘lewd’ as it was ‘opposed to monogamy’. All, in fact, Bebel’s work did was to restate and amplify the thesis of Engels’ Origin of the Family. By present-day standards, it would not lift an eye-brow. But to Connolly the book was heresy. The religious issue, in Connolly’s mind, was connected to the question of the whole approach of the socialism movement. He thought that it should confine its approach to strictly political and industrial issues, not adopting a line on the more general issues of life:

I have long been of the opinion that the socialist movement elsewhere was to a great extent hampered by the presence in its ranks of faddists and cranks, who were in the movement not for the cause of socialism but because they thought they saw in it a means of ventilating their theories on such questions as sex, religion, vaccination, vegetarianism, etc, and I believe that such ideas had, or ought to have, no place in our programme or our party... We were as a body concerned only with the question of political and economic freedom for our class. We could not claim to have a mission to emancipate the human mind from all errors, for the simple reason that we were not and are not the repositories of all truth. [4]

On a practical level, there can be little doubt that Connolly was right when he said that socialist parties tended to attract eccentrics and faddists. In 1906, for example, WR Stoker, senior, who believed himself to be the rightful heir to the estates and fortunes of the Earl of Derby, joined the Wigan SLP. An alcoholic, in between spells in Prestwick lunatic asylum where he went to dry out, Stoker stood for the local council. Nobody expected him to win a ward that usually returned a Conservative candidate. But to everyone’s surprise, Stoker topped the poll. An attempt was made to stop him taking his seat on the council because he was an atheist. To which he replied: ‘Have you ever heard of a stoker in heaven?’ [5 ]A person with a similar flair for the strange and peculiar was Frank Budgen, a member of the SLP virtually from its inception. After working for a time for the Post Office, when he took over from the expelled Maclean as the party’s General Secretary, he earned his living as an artist’s model. Subsequently, he became a distinguished literary critic and personal friend of the Irish novelist James Joyce, who wrote a poem in his honour, which began: ‘Oh Budgen, boozer, bard and canvas dauber.’ [6] A more dangerous departure from the norm was John S Clarke, the editor of The Socialist from 1913 to 1914 and again during part of the First World War. Besides having periods as a secretary and seaman, he worked in the circus as a lion-tamer, being badly mauled by lions on more than one occasion. [7]

It would be wrong to think of men like Budgen and Clarke simply as eccentrics. They lived in a time when to be a socialist meant being continually in danger of losing one’s job. It gave a certain independence, an ability to order one’s life and find time for politics, if one could fall back on unconventional occupations as a means of earning a livelihood. This does not alter the force of Connolly’s criticism, that the ordinary worker is liable to think such men rather odd and may not give serious consideration to the ideas they express. But Connolly was fundamentally wrong in his endeavour to limit and narrow the force of the socialist critique. Essentially, the theories expounded by Marx constituted a critique of society in its entirety: not a vestige would remain unchanged once the socialist revolution had occurred. The role of the family and the place of women in society were, among many others, legitimate subjects for debate, whatever Connolly might think.

Yet it was not because of his Catholicism or his narrow outlook that Connolly fell foul of the American SLP. Although it disagreed, the party was prepared to tolerate these quirks of Connolly. Indeed, he held for a time leading positions within its ranks. Where the trouble came was on the emphasis placed on industrial and political activity. In 1908, the IWW split. One section took an anarcho-syndicalist position, while those around the SLP still maintained that in the fight against capitalism there had to be political as well as industrial action. Yet the latter line, which was advanced with clarity by De Leon in a series of articles, later published in pamphlet form under the title As To Politics, did not gain universal support within the American SLP. At one stage, De Leon nearly lost his majority on the National Executive — it was three-three with a vacillating member having the final say.

In the course of this faction fight, in which Connolly led the opposition to De Leon, the question of his attitude to other issues, like religion and sex, were brought in. But they were not central to the case against Connolly. In essence, this stemmed from his failure to see the full import of the political struggle in the fight for socialism. By giving this a secondary, subordinate role, Connolly, it was claimed, had made an inexcusable concession to anarcho-syndicalism and undervalued the role to be played by the revolutionary party. Typical of Connolly’s line is the following:

The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is the battle being fought out every day for the power to control industry and the gauge of the progress of the battle is not to be found in the number of voters making a cross beneath the symbol of the political party, but in the number of workers who enrol themselves in an industrial organisation with the definite purpose of making themselves masters of the industrial equipment of society in general. [8]

The break between Connolly and the American SLP placed the British SLP in a difficult position. It had published one of Connolly’s articles, arguing that the need for industrial organisation was paramount, without making any comment. [9] Initially, it was hoped to maintain neutrality in the Connolly–De Leon dispute. Indeed, no directly critical piece was ever written about Connolly, and the British SLP succeeded in maintaining friendly cooperation with him right up to the Easter Uprising of 1916. But this should not conceal the fact that the British SLP had a rather different view of the role of politics. Its struggle with EJB Allen and his supporters in the Advocates of Industrial Unionism attested, quite clearly, to its belief that a revolutionary party was required for capitalism’s overthrow.

In one vital respect, however, the influence of Connolly and Maclean persisted even after they had severed their links with the party: the importance the SLP attached to political education. From the party’s inception, it treated the question of inculcating socialist ideas with great seriousness. Tom Bell described in his autobiography how they began:

These classes, I believe, were the first of their kind in Great Britain. The leader of these classes was an exceptionally clever worker — George Yates by name. By trade an engineer, while in Edinburgh Yates got employment with some professor at the University, attending to scientific instruments. He utilised his opportunities to study and became an expert mathematician, draughtsman and designer. He worked in Glasgow as a draughtsman and designer for the Central Station and railway bridge that spans the Trongate, and it was then that he conducted these classes and addressed public meetings in his spare time. A fluent speaker, he was well informed on Marxism, economics, history, philosophy, logic and literature. [10]

From Yates’ classes, a new crop of lectures grew up:

These SLP classes, apart from the social and economic conditions, played an important part in gaining the Clydeside its reputation for being ‘Red’. Every year produced new worker-tutors. Classes sprang up in a number of the shipyards and engineering shops. In the great majority of these classes the tutors had come through the SLP parent groups. Among the most outstanding in the West of Scotland were William Paul, T Clark, JW Muir, J McClure, Arthur MacManus, John Wilson and John McBain. [11]

Bell went on to describe how the classes were run:

Our method in the classes was to open with an inaugural survey of the whole field we proposed to traverse, and make the workers familiar with the subject as a whole; the textbooks, etc, which included Wage Labour and Capital; Value, Price and Profit; Capital and H de B Gibbins’ Industry in England and Buckle’s History of Civilisation.

Each student was given a series of definitions of terms used by Marx. These had to be studied, memorised and discussed thoroughly, for perhaps the first four weeks. The student would study Wage Labour and Capital at home. At the class we would read it over paragraph by paragraph. This practice aimed at helping students to speak fluently and grammatically. At the following class meetings questions would be put and answered, and the points raised thoroughly understood by everyone, the results of each lesson being summarised by the leader. This method was applied in the same way to industrial history. Later on, simple lessons in historical materialism and formal logic were added. [12]

These education courses were taken with earnest dedication. While there would be slight variations from class to class — and, obviously, those held inside factories would be much shorter — it is interesting to note what happened at a typical Sunday afternoon class:

We had two and a half hours’ tuition; reading out aloud; questions and answers to last week’s lessons; short discussions and examination of homework; after which tea was made and for another hour we talked and discussed freely on all manner of political and educational subjects. An hour’s respite and we would repair to Buchanan Street, corner of Argyle Street, or to Glasgow Green, to hold forth on socialist propaganda to large audiences who collected there every Sunday night. [13]

For those who could not attend classes, correspondence courses were available. The examination paper of the SLP’s Advanced Economics courses had questions such as: ‘What is the fetishism of commodities?’ and ‘Describe the development of exchange’.

It was not long before these efforts began to bear fruit. In 1906, John Maclean, a teacher in the Social Democratic Federation from Pollockshaw, began lecturing on economics to large audiences. While he did not go into the subject to the same depth as SLP tutors, he brought the message to a much greater number of people. Marxist ideas were becoming widely known and accepted around industrial Scotland. As it was a time of rising industrial unrest, this was especially valuable. The cadres who could lead the future struggles were being trained.

But ferment spread south of the border. As the strike wave grew, new problems arose. Old concepts seemed inadequate to solve them. A fresh generation of young militants was emerging, thirsting for knowledge and prepared to discard the dogmas of capitalist orthodoxy. The conflict turned out to be as much an ideological battle as an economic one. In 1909, Ruskin College, Oxford, became the storm-centre in this struggle. Students went on strike, complaining that courses were deliberately biased in favour of the status quo. Most of the young men who took part in the rebellion came from areas and occupations where there was mounting discontent. Instead of helping them to discover what was wrong with society, the Ruskin establishment sought to destroy the socialist heresy. Greater emphasis was placed on the traditional approach to economics and sociology, in the hope it would finally gain acceptance. Then students would go back into the outside world as a stabilising influence, perhaps taking trade-union posts to counteract the influence of militancy. The student strike showed this was not to be. [14]

What happened at Ruskin College in 1909 played a vital part in helping to spread Marxist ideas in Britain. In February of that year, the students established their own journal, Plebs, whose contributors discussed socialist theory in a serious way. But the journal was not only a vehicle for increasing proletarian clarity and understanding; it sought to organise education nationally. One of the reasons why capitalist society continued to exist, perpetuating itself from generation to generation, was because it possessed the means of indoctrination — schools and universities that taught their victims to accept the basic tenets of capitalism. In order to combat these insidious influences, a new force had to be developed — independent working-class education, and the Plebs League was formed to encourage workers to get down to serious study. This appeal, on the whole, received an encouraging response. Thousands began systematic study of society’s problems. Historians Edward and Ruth Frow, who have analysed the early days of the Plebs League in Lancashire, show how popular these classes were: for example, in Rochdale there were classes held seven times a week, from October to April 1911, which were attended by a total of 150 students. Elsewhere numbers were smaller, but classes existed in almost every town in the country. Besides these local groups, the Plebs League established a Central Labour College. There, students, usually with union scholarships, could attend year or two-year courses. Many later took classes themselves in their own localities. Others used the skill and knowledge they had acquired to take a more prominent part in the big industrial battles that raged in the pre-1914 period.

In an article entitled ‘Brains Behind the Labour Revolt’, Rowland Kenny said in the English Review (March 1912): ‘During the railway strike of 1911, the chief agitators in the most militant districts were ex-Ruskin students, who are now Central Labour College propagandists.’ The same applied to the coal industry. One of the leading and most talented figures in the Ruskin strike was Noah Ablett, who was one of the editors of Plebs. A talented writer, he not only produced a readable outline of Marxist economics but was also part-author of the famous pamphlet The MinersNext Step. Helping him write this work, which had a big influence in spreading militancy throughout the coal industry, was Noah Rees, another ex-Ruskin student. And then the South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee, the organisation that led the miners in the bitter battle against the Cambrian Combine in 1911, was dominated by supporters of the Plebs League. Besides Ablett and Rees, there were WF Hay, Will Mainwaring, George Daggar and AJ Cook, who later became General Secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain. To a slightly lesser degree, the same picture was true of the north-east coalfields. Will Lawther, who was then a militant and personal friend of John Maclean, had been to the Central Labour College in 1911-12. He was the leading figure in the Durham ‘red’ mining village of Chopwell, while George Harvey, an outstanding worker-intellectual, and also ex-Ruskin, was checkweighman at Follonsby colliery, a few miles away.

The movement for independent working-class education provided the SLP with an excellent opportunity. A new and expanding market existed for its literature. Comparatively large numbers of workers suddenly appeared to be receptive to its ideas. The possibility of recruiting some of them, or of influencing them, seemed promising. Even from the outset in the Ruskin strike, the SLP’s role was quite disproportionate to its strength. A small branch of the party operated in Oxford. George Harvey joined it in June 1908. Before going to Ruskin, he had been a not particularly left-wing member of the Independent Labour Party, and in February 1907 had written an article for its north-eastern organ, The Northern Democrat, advocating conciliation boards. However, under pressure from his fellow students, with WW Craik and Ablett being probably the most influential, his views swung dramatically to the left. Although a small man, and not an impressive speaker, Harvey was able to convince people by the strength of his arguments. He wrote a number of well-researched and documented studies: Industrial Unionism and The Mining Industry (1911), Does Dr John Wilson Serve the Working Class? (1912) and The Mighty Coal Kings of Northern England (1918), which he employed as weapons in his struggle to build a rank-and-file movement in the coal industry. [15]

Undoubtedly, Harvey sought to push the Ruskin strikers in an SLP direction, exerting a sway much greater than his solitary voice might suggest. Many of the students had already read SLP pamphlets and had been favourably impressed. Perhaps they were not prepared to join the SLP, but they were convinced of the need for industrial unionism and militancy. They were, moreover, largely in agreement with the SLP’s idea that the union leaders acted as ‘the labour lieutenants of capitalism’. Significantly, and it may be taken as a sign of the SLP’s influence, the Ruskin strikers decided to adopt the term ‘Plebs’ for their journal and educational body. [16] It is taken from De Leon’s pamphlet Two Pages from Roman History, which draws an analogy between antiquity and contemporary capitalism: the tribunes, while articulating some of the grievances of the Plebian masses, continued to accept the basic principles on which Roman society was founded and saw to it that any protests were kept within limits that did not endanger the system. In the same way, argued De Leon, Labour politicians and union leaders today serve merely as a safety-valve, permitting workers’ grievances against capitalism to gain expression in a manner not threatening the existence of capitalism.

That so many activists accepted this cornerstone of SLP theory could not fail to come as an encouragement. A milieu existed within the working-class movement that would listen sympathetically to the party’s ideas. In was, moreover, a two-way process: animosity that had prevailed for so long on the left, the sectarian bitchiness that marred so many socialist journals in the first few years of this century, began to wane. This was, in part, due to the growing movement for independent working-class education. When socialists belonging to rival groups attended a Plebs League class, they would study together and exchange ideas. This lessened suspicion, creating the conditions on which future cooperation could be based.

In these favourable conditions, the SLP sought to modify its approach, making it more receptive to working-class needs. The 1910 conference cut the high subscription rate from ninepence to fourpence. An influx of members followed. From 20 branches in 1910, it grew to 25 in 1911 and 28 in 1912. While increased membership only partially compensated financially for the reduction in dues, the party tried to raise the difference by appealing to the goodwill of its expanding circle of sympathisers. In many towns, groups of socialists met and, although not formally committed to the SLP, generally followed its line. On the whole, the new financial arrangements functioned successfully. Still the SLP was unable to afford a full-time organiser or increase the frequency of The Socialist. But it was able to publish a stream of pamphlets, many of them Marxist classics. Sold very cheaply, these provided the intellectual nourishment of the new militants.

A further way in which the SLP changed was in shedding many of its sectarian practices. The siege mentality gradually vanished. Members were no longer forbidden to address outside bodies or to hold trade-union office. How this latter change of policy was reached is instructive: it reveals how life itself pushed the party in the direction of modification. In the north-east coalfields, where the SLP had considerable influence, contacts would have had to relinquish their offices in miners’ lodges to join the party. This they refused to do. Yet, when it came to selling socialist literature, it was precisely those lodges where officials were sympathetic that had the greatest sales. It seemed that holding a union post provided an opportunity to spread propaganda and increased one’s influence in the struggle against the union leadership. As Harvey, a supporter of the change in policy, argued: ‘I ask why should not the SLP fight for points of vantage and spread the light? Why should not the SLP fight for every inch of ground both within and without?’ [17] But it was not always a question of fighting for position; the force of argument may sometimes convince others who already held union positions of the correctness of the SLP’s line. In the same issue of The Socialist that printed Harvey’s remark, a letter appeared from George Barker, of Abertillery, stating that he and two other members of the Executive Committee of the Miners Federation of Great Britain agreed with SLP policy.

What this constituted was a major change of orientation, a turn to the class, on the part of the SLP, and obviously it could not be accomplished without difficulties arising. Some members, inured to the old routines, unable or unwilling to adapt themselves, began to grumble. This led to two large-scale revolts: the first by those who favoured sectarianism, the other by people who strayed in a more anarcho-syndicalist direction.

The first sign of trouble came in 1910. Critics did not go so far as to challenge the general policies of the party, they simply chafed at the move towards democratic centralism. They asserted the need for local autonomy, which would allow time to pick and choose which conference decisions to apply. What they objected to was the party’s attempt to build up its own leadership, which they described as ‘bossism’, and the fact that so much of the SLP’s resources went into the industrial struggle. In a pamphlet, putting forward the dissidents’ views, R McCraig described the changes with which they disagreed, especially with those who had gained leading positions within the party:

This was the element that had captured the SLP. Their cry was: ‘Let us have a big party as soon as possible!’ At first the SLP bid fair to develop into a sound working-class movement but, alas, the party had allowed itself to be dominated by an official gang. A large number of members had only a dim conception of what the party stood for. Suffice it to say that fully three-fourths of the party consisted of members who were connected with shop-stewardism. [18]

To have so many shop stewards among the membership was a bad thing, in these critics’ opinion. It was a sign that ‘the party had been well-diluted ideologically by kowtowing to trade unionism’. They only wanted those who were doctrinally pure, who had mastered the intricacies of Marxist theory, to have the privilege of belonging to a party.

Clearly, two different conceptions of the way forward existed within the SLP, and the issue was resolved at the NEC meeting on 17 December 1911, which expelled Robert Gillespie and the Edinburgh branch. Initially, Edinburgh sought to reverse the decision. It wrote to other branches, appealing to them to support a referendum of the membership to decide whether the NEC had majority support. But Edinburgh gained only limited backing. In June 1912, it decided to set up its own organisation, the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party, which issued its own journal, The Proletariat, and came to hold the view that strikers were inherently bad and anti-revolutionary. [19]

The second split, of a more serious and damaging character, arose out of the ambiguous policy the SLP had towards its members securing seats on local councils and in Parliament. Originally, the question arose as a result of a query from a Liverpool reader named Murphy, who asked what the SLP’s representatives would do if ever they were elected. Budgen was then General Secretary, and he replied:

The party’s attitude has been that in the event of a candidate being returned and any measure of a repressive character being proposed, he should not only criticise it but should try to force a division on it and logically register his vote against it.

In the event of any measure of a constructive nature, which makes for the social well-being, such as improvements in the postal, telegraph and telephone services — lines of development which will continue in socialist as well as capitalist society — being introduced, and containing more advantages than disadvantages, either to society or the working class, he should be free to record his vote for it.

This letter, which became known as the Budgen–Murphy letter, aroused objections from readers of The Socialist. In March 1912, the editor, George Harvey, replied to some of these critics. He freely admitted that attempting to reform capitalism was a futile task, ‘like trying to get the wrinkles out of the tripe’, but nevertheless they should try to improve the lot of the working class. This could be best done by Labour politicians, who adopted a ‘modest, beggar-like attitude’ that only got them despised: ‘The revolutionary party is the best way to get reforms.’

Harvey’s line was far from gaining universal acceptance within the party. At the 1912 Manchester conference, Ashton branch moved a resolution saying that ‘to support reforms... is inconsistent with the revolutionary character of the SLP’. Birmingham, Croydon and Sheffield branches supported Ashton’s stand — ‘... to vote is to participate in capitalist legislation and administration.’ Before long, claimed Walmsley of Croydon, this would lead to the party sliding down the slippery slope of compromise, ending up like the ILP, with parliamentary seats but no principles. In reply, Symington (Glasgow) argued that it would be ludicrous for an SLP councillor not to vote when, as had recently happened in Glasgow, the local council was debating whether to give extra money to the unemployed. Another Scotsman, Johnny Muir, also thought it important that the party have a line on immediate issues. When a strike of corporation employees occurred, it was vital that an SLP councillor should both speak and vote. He did not claim it was possible for them to control the capitalist state but they could have a say in it.

Supporters of the Ashton position, on the other hand, made it clear that they did not want to have ‘a say’ in capitalist decision-making, since it compromised the party’s principles without gaining it extra power. They also doubted the value placed by the Glasgow comrades on casting one’s vote. Important issues, those which were vital to capitalism’s existence, would not be decided by majority votes. Ultimately, the determining factor was the relationship of class forces.

At the end of the debate, conference supported the Glasgow position by a narrow 16 votes to 14. The Ashton branch and four other Lancashire branches, the majority of the membership in the country, resigned on the grounds that the party had become reformist. The consequence was debilitating. The issue had not truly been settled, and differences were expressed right up to the outbreak of war.

In fact, the period immediately before the First World War was very depressing. First, there was the ebbing of the tide of industrial discontent, giving militants less opportunity for meaningful activity. Syndicalism as a movement faded out of existence. The defeat of the Dublin strike of 1913 spread temporary disillusionment. And the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, having been crushed at Singers and Argyle Motors, prudently decided not to attempt to form active branches inside factories but merely to do propaganda work. Second, there was a fall in the membership of all socialist organisations. In 1912, the Social Democratic Federation had merged with a few ILP branches and changed its name to the British Socialist Party. In 1912, it claimed its membership was 40,000; by 1914 it was down to 13,755, with the majority merely card-holders. [20] Similarly with the SLP: its branches dropped from 28 in 1912 to 15 in 1914, probably representing a total membership of around 300. [21] And, of course, a third source of depression was the approaching war — a force socialists were powerless to prevent.


1. The Socialist, May 1909.

2. The Socialist, May 1909.

3. The Socialist, May 1904.

4. The Socialist, May 1904.

5. Information from Lester Hutchinson, 8 May 1972. WR Stoker, a small businessman, helped the SLP financially and, along with Richard Hutchinson and George Yates, helped to keep the party solvent.

6. James Joyce’s verse is entitled ‘To Budgen Raughty Tinker’ — a reference to a randy sailor’s ballad Budgen once sung to the delight of Joyce and his friends.

7. John S Clarke’s experiences as a lion-tamer are re-told in his book, Circus Parade (London, 1936).

8. The Socialist, June 1908. It is interesting to note that JT Murphy wrongly takes Connolly’s line to be the official position of the SLP, see Preparing for Power (London, 1934), p 65. It would seem that Murphy only joined the SLP in 1913 after visiting Connolly during the Dublin strike of that year. He was not fully conversant with the party’s history, and many of his statements about it are suspect.

9. The Socialist, June 1908.

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

11. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 55.

12. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 38.

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

14. For accounts of the Ruskin strike see WW Craik, The Central Labour College (London, 1964), pp 72-83; JF and Winifred Horrabin, Working-Class Education (London, 1924), pp 44-47. See also IW Hamilton, The Plebs League and the Labour College Movement (MA thesis, Warwick, 1972), passim.

15. John Wilson was a Lib-Lab MP and leader of the Durham miners. He prosecuted George Harvey for publishing the pamphlet about him. He won £200 damages but had his reputation tarnished by admissions made under cross-examination. Harvey used the court case further to expose the right-wing leadership.

16. WW Craik, The Central Labour College (London, 1964), p 62.

17. The Socialist, December 1911.

18. R McCaig, Report on the Decline and Fall of the SLP (Airdrie, nd), p 5.

19. DM Chewter, History of the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain 1902-1921 With Special Reference to the Development of its Ideas (BLitt thesis, Oxford, 1965), p 114.

20. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 310.

21. Helen R Vernon, The Socialist Labour Party and the Working-Class Movement on the Clyde 1903-1921 (MPhil Thesis, Leeds, 1967) also makes the same estimate.