The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter VII: Socialists in Transition

The First World War had an immense impact on British society. Socialist organisations were transformed by the heat of conflict, and greater unity and disunity came simultaneously into being. The unity stemmed from an unparalleled persecution which tended to make real left-wingers forget doctrinal differences and become brothers in misfortune. Comradeship grew and mutual help was given, regardless of political affiliation. Old animosities and distrust were swept aside by socialists who realised that the fundamentals they agreed upon, opposition to the war and the need for industrial militancy, were of more importance than those that divided them. Reinforcing this attitude was an appreciation of the fact that the tensions created by world war would probably produce glittering opportunities. No longer need socialists remain spectators, commenting on events from the side-lines; they now had a chance to mould events and have a say in the writing of history. Yet, if this was to be done, they had to learn to cooperate with each other in the struggle for the common goal.

The greater disunity arose because, by action and utterance, Labour politicians revealed that they did not share this common goal. The meaning of social democracy was spelt out in practice: support for the war, speeches at recruiting rallies, endorsement of the government’s harsh industrial code, persecution of left-wingers. When Labour leaders actually joined the government, becoming personally responsible for anti-working-class measures, it merely served to emphasise their role. Arthur Henderson’s hostile reception at the Glasgow meeting, described in the last chapter, was indicative of this growing distrust. Besides being responsible for keeping wages down and strike-breaking, as a member of the Inner Cabinet Henderson had direct complicity in the brutal way the British government crushed the Easter Uprising in 1916. When news reached Parliament that the army had summarily executed James Connolly, Henderson led Labour MPs in spontaneous applause. [1]

Two trade-union officials, George Barnes, of the engineers, and William Brace, of the miners, also belonged to the Coalition Government. At the Home Office, Brace helped in the enforcement of repressive industrial regulations as well as the employment of agents provocateurs and spies. But it was in rather another fashion that Brace drew attention to himself, as the Sunday Chronicle pointed out:

Who is the greatest ‘swell’ in the House of Commons? Who wears the most carefully cut overcoat, the most shiny silk hat (and at the most jaunty angle), and who walks with the most subdued consciousness of the fact that he is shiny and well-dressed and that no speck is ever upon his clothes? His name is William Brace, a miner. He worked down on the coal-face when a boy. Now, although not in the Cabinet, he is a Minister, a member of the government, and he adorns the Treasury Bench. [2]

Doubtless workers, more worried about the effect of rising prices upon the pay packets, were unimpressed by Brace’s sartorial splendour.

From the outset of the war, the Socialist Labour Party had much graver matters to concern itself with than the cut of a minister’s overcoat. Its most pressing problem was a minuscule membership, an inadequacy making it impossible to function effectively. Although actual numbers were not given, it seems probably that they were around 200: in 1915 the SLP’s annual conference shows the party possessed only eight branches, exactly the number it had in 1904. What had changed in those intervening 11 years was the size of the periphery. Thousands of workers had bought SLP pamphlets, often Marxist classics published at the exceedingly low price of a penny, in addition to reading the SLP’s journal. Therefore, the party’s influence depended upon its being able to influence its sympathisers, drawing them into joint activity.

While there was almost complete unity within the SLP in 1914, the party’s contacts, more susceptible to outside pressures, were initially hesitant. So the case for and against the war was openly debated in the columns of The Socialist. The journal sought patiently to explain, winning people over to an opposition stance. Unlike other socialist groups who sought to breathe life again into the Second International, the SLP saw, in the orgy of patriotism indulged in by the labour leaders of the various belligerents, a vindication of its analysis.

For this reason, the SLP immediately endorsed the call for the formation of a new International. In November 1914, it reprinted an article from the Berner Tagwacht, organ of the Swiss Social-Democratic Party, by the Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek. The article stated that the growth of giant trusts had led to the development of imperialism; that parliamentarianism and bureaucracy had enfeebled the Second International; that just as capital’s power had become more concentrated, so, with the burdens of militarism and taxation, ‘the power of the proletariat grows too'; and, fourth, that the current crisis demanded the creation of a new International. [3]

Throughout discussions on regroupment, the SLP reiterated that all organisation had to be built on sound socialist principles. Without this, however spectacular early successes might be, the project would be doomed to failure. By 1916, as workers became more and more war-weary, the SLP’s membership had doubled and the circulation of its journal trebled. But Tom Bell, who chaired the SLP’s annual conference that year, declared that this expansion was fraught with danger: ‘In his judgement, it was not desirable to promote the formation of branches of mushroom growth...’ New recruits ‘should understand the principles of the party thoroughly first’. [4] Theoretical clarity remained the precondition for sound progress.

Bell went on to review the growing rank-and-file resistance within the trade unions, and cited the mounting militancy among railwaymen, building workers and miners:

This new spirit, this change of front, this revolt against leaders, was mainly due to the SLP. For example, the powerful minority amongst the Welsh miners, who defied their leaders and brought on a strike during the war, was composed of men who had been in touch with the SLP literature and Marxism.

Although the SLP appears to have had very few members in South Wales, its publications were widely read and studied there. A few months after Bell’s Chairman’s address, The Socialist listed 35 Marxist Social Science classes, many in South Wales, and advised members to attend. Among the class secretaries were Noah Ablett at Mardy and Arthur Horner (later Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers) at Yashir.

From early in the war, the SLP learnt to collaborate with socialists who had similar, but not identical, views. When Lansbury’s Daily Herald refused to publish accounts of its anti-war activities, the Daily Herald League sent them to the SLP. Ralph Fox, one of its leading members, became a regular contributor to The Socialist. In 1915, the Glasgow branch cooperated with members of the SLP and the British Socialist Party to hold a highly successful week of socialist propaganda. John Maclean and former SLP members, like Neil Maclean, spoke from the same platform as Bell, MacManus and others. This growing unity continued when the authorities began to resort to repression. A Free Speech Defence Campaign was launched on the Clyde, supported by a wide spectrum of left opinion. In a slightly different guise it continued when militants were arrested. The committee led the protests, calling for their release. Likewise, with the increasing number and influence of shop stewards throughout British industry, it was SLPers who saw the need to form a national organisation to coordinate their activities. The party learnt to emphasise points of agreement, to call for united action, and to state differences only when absolutely necessary.

One of the first targets of the government were the socialist newspapers that spread ideas contrary to official policy. To counter this threat, the SLP realised it was vital to support journals under attack, even where policy disagreements existed:

How insane, therefore, is the jubilation of the Aberdeen BSPers, who have actually written to the local papers congratulating the government for suppressing the Labour Leader. No doubt these fellows disagree with the Labour Leader. So do we; but it is not a matter of the publication of the Labour Leader that is at stake — it is the right of all of us to state our views under any circumstances. If the Labour Leader goes under, then it will be child’s play to suppress the organ of the BSP, Justice.

When an issue of a journal was seized, the SLP usually registered a protest and, to underline it, reprinted the article that had led to the suppression in the columns of its own paper. As a result, The Socialist over the years contained many reprints. In 1912, the ‘Don’t Shoot’ leaflet, for which Tom Mann and others were imprisoned, appeared in its columns. Similarly, the account of Lloyd George’s visit to Glasgow that appeared in the Forward was published in The Socialist, as did articles from The Worker when it was banned. The SLP carried this policy of defiance to considerable lengths: extracts from banned issues of satirical journals and Tolstoyan pacifist papers were reprinted — simply to hit back at the government.

Where it was not merely one issue that was being suppressed but the journal itself, then the SLP was prepared to place its printing facilities at the disposal of those who were under attack:

When the government threatened to prosecute those who dared to print The Suffragette, the Socialist Labour Press at once offered to print the paper, despite the fact that as an organisation we had little in common with principles propagated by that journal. The same thing happened when the police of Ireland attempted to victimise the paper published by the Irish Transport Union. The paper was printed by the SLP and, in order to guarantee its safe arrival in Dublin, a member was sent with the printed copies to dupe the police, who had intimated their intention of seizing the issue when it reached Dublin. In this manner we have upheld the freedom of the press as a principle to be jealously guarded. [5]

Many have criticised the SLP as sectarian. True, in the period before the First World War, a time of isolation, tendencies of this character did exist within the party. All organisations of revolutionaries, operating in times not conducive to their ideas, develop the same tendency. It was as true of the 1950s and 1960s as it was of the pre-1914 period. But it is often worthwhile to investigate further precisely who are those people who fling the accusation of sectarianism. Usually they are people who are unsympathetic to left-wing politics. When they attach the label of ‘sectarian’ to an organisation, they are really criticising its revolutionary essence, its preparedness, indeed determination, to adopt a principled stand.

The main objection that can be levelled at the SLP during the First World War was not sectarianism but the failure on occasions to put forward sound theoretical principles because it might endanger unity in the immediate struggle. Far from being too narrow, too rigid, the party failed to make distinctions that should have been made, regardless of the unpleasant scenes that might have ensued. Probably the reason for this is that, conscious of breaking down the barriers that had divided socialists in the past, the SLP swung too far in the opposite direction, tacitly making concessions to achieve united action with other groups that were in the long run damaging.

Take the important issue of membership of the SLP. In the past, every potential member had to sign a declaration stating that he accepted a number of basic propositions of Marxism. By 1916, however, a person could quite easily be made a member. TA Jackson describes in his autobiography how he was told he was presenting the case for the SLP in a debate at Leeds. When he protested that he did not belong to the SLP, he was told that he had been made a member the previous evening. [6] While there may have been little harm in this, since Jackson had moved on so many issues so close to the party’s policies, there is nevertheless a case for obtaining a firm commitment, both as to conduct and finance, before admitting somebody to the ranks.

But the slackness did not end at this point. There are definite signs that the SLP’s attitude to belonging to its ranks, the conduct and commitment expected from a member, strayed well below the standards of democratic centralism. This can be shown by comparing three accounts, those of Tom Bell, Willie Gallacher and David Kirkwood, of the discussions that occurred in 1914 about the attitude socialists should adopt to the war. Bell writes:

A special party meeting was called to discuss the war situation. A keen debate ensued, in which three lines were taken. The first line, led by MacManus and myself, was definite, open hostility to the war; the second, led by the late John W Muir, was that in the event of invasion we should be prepared for National Defence; the third line was to look upon the war with an academic interest, as an event of world importance that would hasten the inevitable collapse of capitalism. [7]

Bell goes on to say that practice resolved this theoretical problem. When members experienced what war really meant, and when angry mobs of jingoists strived to smash SLP public meetings, even Johnny Muir changed his mind and became as hostile to the war as the rest of the membership.

The Kirkwood memoirs confirm much of what Bell wrote:

In September 1914 I was still a member of the Socialist Labour Party. At a meeting of the Glasgow Branch a discussion took place as to our attitude towards the war. I moved that as a branch we should declare our opposition to the war and start agitation for the purpose of stopping it. An amendment was moved that we support the war. The mover was John W Muir, then editor of our paper, The Socialist, a quiet, thoughtful man of fine character and much respected. My motion was carried. Muir resigned his position as editor. [8]

Gallacher’s version of the meeting is rather different:

Another outstanding figure was David Kirkwood, who finished with the SLP early in the war. Johnny Muir, who was editor of The Socialist, the SLP organ, was trying to argue a case for a socialist defending ‘his own’ country, at a special meeting in their hall in Renfrew Street. In the midst of the discussion, and while Johnny was arguing a certain point, Davy jumped up and shouted, ‘Naw, naw, Joanie, that'll do nae, the workers have nae country. Ah'm feenished wi’ ye.’ He shook the dirt of Renfrew Street from his feet and found a new haven and ultimately an empire in the ILP. [9]

A small, intriguing point: Gallacher writes his account as if he attended the meeting he describes. If this happens to be the case, then it makes it difficult to reconcile the fact that Gallacher, a member of a rival political party, the BSP, could be privy to internal debates of the SLP with the frequently-given picture of the SLP as a highly exclusive, rigidly sectarian organisation. Far from wanting to keep workers who disagreed with it at arm’s length, the SLP sought to establish a dialogue and convince them.

Two important issues help to explain how the party functioned and the extent to which it controlled the activities of its members. The first is the relationship between Kirkwood and the SLP and raises the question of when he actually left the party. The second is the conduct of Muir, the only leading SLPer to succumb to social patriotism.

So far as Kirkwood is concerned, it would appear that he was still a member of the SLP in May 1916. The Socialist of that month carried an account of the imprisonment and deportation of militants, many of whom were party members. The paper published the following entry:

SLP Roll of Honour: William Holliday, John W Muir, Walter Bell, David Kirkwood, Arthur MacManus, Thomas Clark.

The above comrades fought valiantly for the working class and conducted themselves in a manner revealing heroism and determination. The SLP is proud that comrades of such sterling merit were drilled and disciplined beneath its banner.

The SLP contains many such fighters who will not flinch in the struggle before them.

From that, it would appear as if Kirkwood must have been a member of the SLP in May 1916 and therefore must also have been an SLPer in December 1915, when Lloyd George visited Glasgow. At that time, the decision of the Clyde Workers Committee was that they would only see the Minister of Munitions as a collective body, not individually. All factories except Parkhead Forge, where Kirkwood was convener, obeyed this decision. In a similar manner, Parkhead disregarded the CWC policy on dilution of labour. Quite unilaterally, Parkhead broke ranks. Kirkwood states he got John Wheatley to draft the proposals, which were broadly accepted by the management. [10] An historian, Dr James Hinton, gave his opinion of the harmful effect this had on the whole struggle:

From the standpoint of the SLP leadership of the Clyde Workers Committee the Parkhead agreement represented a resounding defeat for ‘the principle of workers’ control’. It involved the abandonment of their dilution policy, the collapse of the committee’s attempt to force the commissioners to recognise and negotiate with the committee as a whole, and it engendered a bitterness against Parkhead in the other strongholds of militancy that was to be instrumental in the defeat of the movement two months later. [11]

Whatever the bitterness against Kirkwood on the floors of Clydeside factories, there is no indication that it extended to the SLP leadership. No criticism of him appeared in the columns of The Socialist. When, along with other militants, Kirkwood was deported from Glasgow and compelled to live elsewhere, the SLP staunchly backed him. Even after he had left the party, The Socialist continued to take a favourable line. At the 1917 Labour Party conference, Kirkwood, still a deportee, launched a full-blooded attack on the government’s industrial policy and Henderson’s membership of the Cabinet. In detail, The Socialist reported the scene at the Labour Party conference, adding ‘ILPers deserve every credit’ for it. [12] It also sprung to his defence in June 1917, when Lloyd George sought to buy off Kirkwood with the offer of a well-paid government job. ‘It is simply amazing’, said The Socialist,how many people judge others from their own standards.’

Such magnanimity is rarely exhibited among left-wing organisations towards a member who leaves and decides to join a rival. That the SLP did praise Kirkwood, though he had quit its ranks, is a sign of fair-mindedness and of the unsectarian approach that characterised the party in this period. But the episodes also reveal a weakness in the SLP’s approach. It appears that the party merely expected agreement on questions of fundamental political principle — the objectives to be attained — but never imposed a discipline on its members so far as tactical issues were concerned. As a consequence, Kirkwood was free to take his own line on dilution, disregarding the CWC’s policy, despite its having been drawn up by a fellow SLPer, Johnny Muir. Such conduct would not, or at least should not, be permitted in a revolutionary organisation today.

The same applies to the second issue, the conduct of Muir. It is clear that Bell’s version, quoted above, is too generous. An article which appeared in December 1914, quite definitely shows Muir took a pro-war line at the time. He may afterwards have changed, although there is no evidence for this as he confined his writings mainly to industrial affairs. Undoubtedly, he played a major role in Clydeside struggles. As we have already seen, it was Muir who stood up at Lloyd George’s meeting to put the workers’ case; it was Muir who drafted the CWC policy on dilution; it was Muir who edited the CWC’s journal, The Worker, which reached the impressive circulation of 15,000. [13] Yet when Muir, along with Gallacher, was arrested, he made a pitiful spectacle. Instead of hurling defiance at his persecutors, as SLPers usually did in court, he attempted to dissemble. He told the judge he had done nothing to impede the progress of the war effort; at work he had striven to smooth out differences that arose between management and men; and he had been opposed to every strike. A director of Barr and Stroud testified on his behalf. But this did not save him: Muir and Gallacher, who behaved in precisely the same way, received prison sentences of a year. [14] Referring to their poor performance in court, Gallacher retrospectively wrote: ‘If Maclean held high the banner of revolutionary struggle, we dragged it, or allowed it to be dragged, in the mire. Even now it is hard to think of it without a feeling of shame.’ [15]

Such behaviour not only reflects upon the individual but also the organisation to which he belongs. It shows a deficiency in the SLP, the weakness of its discipline, that it failed to repudiate Muir publicly. The only extenuating circumstance appears to have been that he was being prosecuted for an article that appeared in The Worker which he did not write. Had he divulged the authorship, then a man with a large family might have gone to jail in his place.

Although no direct evidence has appeared to support this conjecture, what happened in court may have been influenced by the title of the article and the date of the proceedings. The offending piece was headed ‘Should the Workers Arm?’ and the trial took place in April 1916, the same month as the Easter Uprising in Dublin. Clearly, it has been firmly established that the SLP knew about the military preparations secretly taking place in Ireland and maintained close contact with Connolly. Walter Kendall, the historian, goes so far as to declare that the SLP was ‘involved in the preliminaries to the Easter Rising of 1916’. [16] Were that so, then the accused may well have been afraid that much more weighty evidence and a much more severe charge could come if they tried to make things difficult for the prosecution.

However, a more plausible explanation for the behaviour of Muir and Gallacher at the trial can be found elsewhere. Perhaps they were overwhelmed, knocked off balance, by the ferocity with which the authorities clamped down on Clydeside militants. They appear to have sought advice from John Wheatley who, though he was in the ILP, was frequently consulted by socialists of every political grouping. It was he who acquired for them the services of Rosslyn Mitchell, the solicitor, and of a barrister. Feeling the intense pressure of state repression, Muir and Gallacher seem to have agreed with their counsel to make an orthodox defence.

The fact is that this kind of backsliding is more likely to occur in organisations that do not keep effective control of their membership, and this, in turn, depends upon the formulation of policies on tactical issues, a thing which the SLP did not do. The reasons for this failure seems to have been threefold: first, there was the acute problem of resources, the inability to create and maintain a strong centre, capable of directing day-to-day activities; second, there was the fragmentation of industry, the existence of widely divergent levels of development, that made the formulation of common tactics exceedingly difficult; and, third, there seems to have been an attitude of fatalistic determination, a belief in the therapeutic properties of struggle as such, that merely bringing workers into action gave them a fresh insight into the way capitalism operates — and into their own power as a class. Whatever the outcome of a particular battle, workers would be brought closer to the SLP.

Having this attitude necessarily lessened the importance of tactics. The SLP’s emphasis was placed on building rank-and-file organisations, the vehicle for struggle, without being too finicky about theoretical disagreements. Naturally, the party viewpoint was put forward. Yet it was never pushed to the extent that it led to splits because, it was believed, life itself would eventually vindicate the SLP’s position. This approach had numerous practical consequences. When the first conference of workers committees was held in Manchester on 5-6 November 1916, the SLP would have liked to have seen a strong and powerful executive, leading the shop stewards’ movement. [17] However, the majority of delegates, their ideas moulded by prewar syndicalism, favoured a federal-type structure, leaving autonomy in the hands of the local groups. The conference was poorly attended, with London, Manchester and Barrow the only English committees represented. If further growth was to occur in England, then militants, many of whom had syndicalist ideas, had first to be attracted to the movement and then, gradually, weaned away from their erroneous ideas. Therefore, the SLP did not press its views. The same approach was made to the CWC, in which SLP members played the leading role. While openly revolutionary themselves, SLPers recognised that most of the CWC’s membership was not: ‘It must not be thought that the rank-and-file are socialists. The Committee was formed to stem the onslaught on the privilege won by organised labour in the past.’ [18] Most of the militancy on Clydeside existed among skilled engineers in the munitions factories. To John Maclean, this was entirely wrong. He criticised SLPers for not struggling within the CWC to get it to adopt a clear, all-out anti-war line. He went on to point out that if the committee achieved its declared aim, nationalisation with workers’ participation in management, then it would involve the CWC in direct complicity with the war. The workers in management would be trying to produce more shells for France. [19]

Almost certainly, if Maclean’s proposal had been accepted and fought for vigorously with the committee, it would have led to a split and probably the end of the CWC. To the SLPers, this appeared as an appalling prospect. They wanted the CWC to continue and flourish. Not only was it an organisation with revolutionary potential, but it also provided SLPers with a base from which they could attempt to form a national organisation of shop stewards. Maclean, on the other hand, appears in practice to have been preoccupied with local problems at this time. Significantly, in view of his subsequent leanings towards a brand of Scottish nationalist socialism, he does not seem to have thought of the consequences for Britain as a whole. To enlighten a few workers, to create a greater socialist consciousness among them, was more important than keeping the CWC intact so that it could play a leading role in the formation of a national rank-and-file movement.

In the same way that Maclean related himself to industrial struggles in Scotland, he eschewed playing a leading part in the internal fight inside the BSP to rid the party of Hyndman and his clique. His line was not to battle to win the BSP from Hyndman, but to create his own embryonic organisation in Glasgow around the journal Vanguard. This may have made sense in a Scottish context. The BSP was very weak in Scotland. Where it did exist, it almost entirely accepted the Maclean line, and since the BSP leadership, ensconced in London and primarily concerned with political intrigues in the metropolis, left the Scottish branches alone, there may have appeared little reason why Scots should attempt to interfere with the BSP leadership. Maclean contented himself with a letter to Justice early in the war, dissociating himself from the jingoistic pronouncements of Belfort Bax. He did not make any further intervention. [20]

From the outset of the war, the BSP’s position could be characterised as ‘chauvinistic Marxism’. Unlike the German Social Democrats and many in Britain who succumbed to patriotic fervour in the early days of the war, the BSP had already decided its duty was to King and Country. The party’s conference in 1911 passed a resolution that called for the strengthening of the Royal Navy. This stimulated Vorwärts, organ of the German Social Democratic Party, to exclaim that the BSP ‘had taken up a position on armaments diametrically opposed to that of the Socialist parties of the World’. [21] The BSP’s line in 1914 followed logically on from what it had said in 1911. Its Executive Committee declared:

Recognising that national freedom and independence of this country are threatened by Prussian militarism, the party naturally desires to see the prosecution of the war to a successful issue.

To that end, the Executive Committee instructed branches to speak from public platforms with representatives of other political parties whenever the national interests of Britain were being furthered. [22] As ‘good’ Marxists, the BSP sought to unite theory with practice: besides supporting the war, it urged its own members to flock to the colours. A special ‘Comradeship Company’ of socialists, recruited under the guidance of Hunter Watts, served in the trenches. [23]

Opposition within the BSP began in a half-hearted manner. Speakers were at pains to make it clear that what they wanted to see was an Allied victory before they went on to criticise the party’s line on subordinate issues, such as its support for army recruitment campaigns. But this lack of fire did not save the opposition from the wrath of the Hyndman leadership. Because they appeared not to be completely behind the BSP’s policy on the war, they were accused of being German agents. This was Hyndman’s political style: a preparedness to smear anybody who did not share his frenetic patriotism. While proud of the BSP’s stand on the war, he was ashamed of the pacifism of the ILP. Writing in the French journal, Le Canard Enchainé, Hyndman railed against ‘the Scotch clique of peace-at-any-price, which for many years had dominated and held the leading strings of the Independent Labour Party’. His venom spilled forth enveloping some politicians who supported the war, albeit with less enthusiasm than displayed by himself:

I would very much like Messrs Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie and WC Anderson to go and talk to all these men [British troops on active service] and try and whiten, even slightly, the executioners of civilians and women and children in Belgium and France. [24]

As the war continued, the BSP’s attitude became even more vehement. The ILP was accused of being in the pay of Prussian militarism. Any socialists who favoured ending the war were described as being guilty of ‘villainy’. Germany was denounced as ‘the enemy not only of the democracy and Socialism but of the entire human race’. [25] The BSP leaders resolved to create a broad organisation within the working class, the Socialist National Defence Committee, to ‘resist the anti-British, pro-German pacifist elements in this country’ and ‘to insist that the war must be pursued to a complete triumph’. [26]

The SNDC held its first public meeting in London on 21 July 1915. The speakers, who included Hyndman and Thorne, mostly made highly emotional orations. Ben Tillett had just returned from visiting British troops in France, where he had remarked: ‘I felt ashamed of being a civilian. I felt ashamed at the knowledge that everyone at home was not working as well as he could work. There shan’t be a slacker left when I get back.’ [27] Naturally, his speech consisted of an attack on strikes and a call for increased productivity. John Hodge, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, welcomed the formation of the Coalition Government, little more than a month old. But the speech that did the most to stir patriotic hearts came from a Frenchman, Marcel Cachin, who subsequently was prominent in the French Communist Party and editor of its journal, L'Humanité. He told his audience: ‘So long as a single German soldier remained in France or Belgium, there could be no compromise; it was the sacred duty of every socialist to help in driving out the invader.’ [28]

A few of the BSP opposition had decided to attend the SNDC meeting. One of them, EC Fairchild, rose to his feet and suggested that British socialists should write to their German opposite numbers. He favoured a negotiated peace, a peace without annexations. His contribution, however, angered the patriots. Soldiers in uniform were brought in to the meeting. Fights broke out, and many of the BSP opposition were badly mauled. Among them was Albert Inkpin, the party Secretary, who was ‘thrown out with blood streaming down his face and neck’. [29]

The harassment of the BSP opposition did not end there. One evening, HW Alexander returned home to find two detectives waiting in his sitting-room. He believed that leading members of the BSP were responsible: they had informed the police about his activities and those of others who disagreed with the official party line. Probably the accusation was true. On 23 December 1915, Justice published an article headed: ‘Who and What is Peter Petroff?’, which incited the authorities to arrest him. This was a particularly cruel move since Petroff, a veteran of the 1905 Russian Revolution who had been active in the BSP since 1908, could have been in grave trouble. Government officials were aware that Petroff would be quickly disposed of by the Tsarist regime, and for this reason one of them recommended to the ministry that he be returned to Russia:

Peter Petroff, a Russian Socialist of a very dangerous type. The easiest thing to do with Petroff is to have him repatriated, when, from all that I am told, he will be shot within 24 hours of landing in Russia. [30]

This was the proposal that was being considered by the authorities in January 1916. Petroff had been arrested the month before, only a few hours after the publication of the article in Justice. Also arrested was his German-born wife, who was put in Aylesbury jail. There she was forced to take a bath and use utensils just after they had been used by a prostitute with advanced venereal disease. The Liberal Peer Lord Sheffield, raising the question of Mrs Petroff’s treatment in Parliament, said: ‘This matter is felt to be an outrage and is causing immense bitterness.’

The viciousness with which the Hyndman leadership dealt with them tended to arouse support for critics inside the party. Yet, if they were unwittingly helped by Hyndman, they were hindered by themselves. Their own indecisiveness and lack of clarity were obstacles to success. They failed to see the international implications of the collapse of European social democracy in 1914, as the Bolsheviks and SLP had done. Having faith in traditional forms of organisation, the BSP confined its mental horizon to what could be achieved under the aegis of the Second International. It regarded the International Socialist Bureau as the potential saviour of the situation, the force that would pull the working class of Europe back from Armageddon. At the BSP’s 1915 annual conference a resolution was passed ‘that every effort should be made to maintain the status of the International Socialist Bureau in order that its influence may be used in the direction of peace at the earliest opportunity’. [31] However noble and idealist such sentiments were, they were without a spark of realism. They overlooked the fact that Vandervelde, Chairman of the ISB, belonged to the Belgian Cabinet and had made it clear that he had no intention of convening a meeting of the ISB so long as a single German soldier remained on Belgian soil.

This impractical policy had practical results. As a consequence of its veneration of the ISB, the BSP shut its ears to the growing volume of working-class opposition to the war. When, in September 1915, delegates from 12 countries, representing workers living on both sides of the battlefields, met at Zimmerwald, the line of the BSP was downright equivocal. Justice reported the proceedings at Zimmerwald; underneath it carried a report that ‘80 German spies had been arrested and are now in prison in Berne’ — a definite attempt by HW Lee, Justice’s editor, to smear Zimmerwald as an enemy plot. The Executive Committee of the BSP, however, was more generous. Although not adopting any stand on the Zimmerwald manifesto, it expressed the hope that the conference would prompt the ISB into taking speedy action. Later, the Executive Committee’s attitude to Zimmerwald hardened: in December 1915, it said it was ‘not in favour of any move to form a new international organisation apart from or in opposition to the International Socialist Bureau’. [32] Since the ISB did not function, this meant doing nothing.

Yet, even had there been the remotest chance of action, it is unclear what the BSP would have wanted the ISB to do. The Hyndmanite right wing, of course, were wholeheartedly behind the war effort. On the other hand, the left-wing critics were diffident about adopting an unequivocal anti-war stance. One of the most prominent spokesmen, Fairchild, moved a motion in October 1915, declaring that the ‘continuation of the war... imperils the future of socialism’. This statement, however, was prefaced with: ‘Whilst all action should be rigorously avoided, calculated to endanger national defence...’ [33] Likewise, another outspoken left-winger, Joe Fineberg, attacked ‘This capitalist war’, yet added the rider: ‘It would be a disaster for Europe if Germany were victorious.’ In the same vein, a further critic of Hyndman, HW Alexander, claimed to be an internationalist but went on to say: ‘But that did not prevent him being a nationalist, prepared to defend his own country.’ [34]

The opposition within the BSP suffered from another limitation. It saw the path to peace as coming through an agreement of socialist parties to work in unity for this objective, and made its own adoption of an anti-war campaign contingent upon such an agreement. Before being prepared to take a stand, the BSP thought all troops should withdraw from occupied territories — a demand that placed the onus upon German Social Democrats to force the German government to make the first move. Then the BSP critics saw peace being reached through international negotiation; this did not have the remotest similarity with the revolutionary position of the Bolsheviks and the SLP, who saw that the roots of the war were to be found in capitalism and only through an overthrow of capitalism could a lasting peace be secured.

The assessment of Walter Kendall of the BSP in this period is undoubtedly correct:

Lenin classified socialists into the following three groups, according to their attitude to the war. There were open chauvinists; those ‘capable of leading revolutionary work in the direction of civil war'; and ‘the confused and vacillating elements’ in between. By the terms of Lenin’s division, Hyndman and his allies represented the open chauvinists, John Maclean and his followers the revolutionaries, leaving the ‘confused and vacillating elements’ as the majority of the BSP. [35]

Whatever the ideological quibblings of the majority of the BSP, merely to express doubts was sufficient to arouse the anger of Hyndman and his group. When it was decided in February 1916 to publish a journal, The Call, in which these reservations would be stated, it was too much for the chauvinists within the party to countenance. They accused those who made pleas for peace as ‘acting under instructions from Berlin’. As the Executive failed to endorse the Hyndman line completely, it, too, was said to be gaining its inspiration from Germany. Leading members of the BSP, opponents of Hyndman, found themselves being shadowed by police agents, and suspected that it was fellow party members who had acted as informers. [36]

The position inside the BSP was untenable. The split occurred at the Salford conference on 23-24 April 1916. Held in an atmosphere of intimidation, a move was made early on in the proceedings to hold the conference in private, allowing delegates a greater opportunity to express their views. Hyndman and his followers objected to this proposal. Amid attempts to reach a compromise, tempers became frayed. A speech from the National Treasurer, HW Alexander, brought uproar. Pointing at Hyndman, Dan Irvine and Jack Jones, he declared: ‘Colleagues of these men are responsible for Scotland Yard dogging the footsteps of men like myself.’ Pandemonium followed. Hyndman strove to gain a hearing, but ‘snarling cheers drowned everything he had to say’. ‘Stewards began to move menacingly forward’, attempting to restore order so Hyndman could be heard. They were met with boos. Apparently shocked by the scene, Fairchild tried to persuade delegates to give Hyndman a hearing. But it was futile. When the resolution was eventually put, conference carried it by 76 votes to 28. Whereupon Hyndman and his supporters withdrew from the conference. [37] In June 1916, he formed his own party, known as the National Socialist Party.

The opposition, led by Alexander and Fairchild, acquired control of the BSP. It did not possess the journal, Justice, which belonged to the Twentieth Century Press, most of whose shareholders were supporters of Hyndman. So The Call became the official weekly organ of the BSP. In its columns, the plea was repeatedly made for peace through negotiations. Emphasis was placed on the spurious nature of the Allied war aims and on the huge profits being made by arms and manufacturers. Yet The Call was careful not to oppose the war openly. Nor did it raise the demand for socialist revolution as a necessity if capitalist wars were to be ended forever.

The BSP’s failure to adopt a position similar to the Bolsheviks limited the amount of cooperation that revolutionary socialists could have with it. A further restricting factor arose from the nature of the party and the outlook of its members. Although no definite figures exist on the social composition of the BSP, the observations of JT Walton Newbold probably are not without significance:

The BSP contains a fairly numerous lower-middle-class element, a small shopkeeper and craftsman element, with little industrial resistant force and no economic indispensability. These do not altogether harmonise with the workers in big industry, and there has become apparent inside the BSP as inside the ILP a wistful disappointment, a sorrowful discontent, with the industrial proletariat. [38]

Newbold, himself an ILPer, appreciated the importance of industrial work and therefore collaborated with the SLP. He became a frequent contributor to The Socialist, writing articles which embodied painstaking research. His long piece ‘Capitalism on the Tyne’, with a detailed account of the ownership and profits of north-eastern companies, caused a sensation because it revealed many of them had links with enemy firms and had even supplied the torpedoes with which British vessels had been sunk. Mass-produced by the SLP, Newbold’s article appeared in a leaflet, sold at six shillings for a thousand copies.

An invaluable contributor to The Socialist from the BSP’s ranks was Alexander Sirnis. Little is known of him yet he played a vital part as a link man, spreading the news about the anti-war struggle in other countries. It was he who made The Socialist’s coverage of the international working-class movement better than that of any other journal, giving, for instance, the verbatim speech of Karl Liebknecht before his court martial in 1916, and translating Lenin’s articles for the first time into English. Sirnis did this despite being in the throes of a terminal illness. Indeed, in some sense, his personal tragedy may have helped. Suffering from tuberculosis, he went to a Davos sanatorium for treatment. There is no evidence that he met Lenin while staying in Switzerland, but his press reports clearly show that he had close links with both the German Spartacists and the Russian Bolsheviks. When he died in November 1918, he was engaged in translating Lenin’s pamphlet, The Collapse of the Second International into English. [39]

In September 1917, Sirnis decided to leave the BSP, giving as his reason that it was ‘floundering in the bog of political opportunism’. He cited the way the BSP’s Executive called for the Allies to be saved from the treachery of the Tsar and the way in which The Call had contrasted Lloyd George, the despotic dictator, with Asquith, the previous Prime Minister, who was ‘benevolent and meek’, instead of realising it was the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Sirnis’ final criticism was of the BSP’s failure to take the struggle for industrial unionism seriously.

This latter point was a big barrier to cooperation between the SLP and the BSP, at least on a party-to-party basis. Yet, individually, cooperation could, and did, occur. The BSP did have some talented trade-union militants within its ranks, even if they failed to play a big part in the BSP’s decision-making process. Many of them came into contact with SLPers through the shop-stewards’ movement and the links forged in industrial conflicts transcended party differences. For instance, FH Peet, Chairman of the shop-stewards’ movement nationally, acted as Arthur MacManus’ election agent at Halifax in the 1918 general election.

The fact was that the SLP realised its strength lay in the soundness of its organisation and the correctness of its policies. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of making corrections to those policies whenever mistakes became discernible:

By other sections of the labour movement, we have been blamed for the ferocity of our criticism. But the average SLP member is also an unsparing critic of his own party and its policy. We have always retained the right to criticise other organisations because our members have always retained the right to criticise their own organisations. [40]

While attaching such great importance to ideas, the SLP seized every opportunity in the course of the First World War for joint activity. In a sense, it was merely an extension of the united action in the shop-stewards’ movement. Regarding industry as so important, it was natural that the kind of working arrangements between socialists established on the shop floor should be extended elsewhere.

The organisation with which the SLP had the greatest kinship was Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, a predominantly women’s organisation based on working-class support, primarily in the East End of London. Starting as campaigners for female suffrage, Pankhurst and her supporters came to see that women’s liberation required more than the vote; it needed the overthrow of capitalist society. They fought an unrelenting struggle, often coming into conflict with the forces of law and order. With the WSF, there were none of the inhibitions prevalent in the BSP. When the authorities clamped down on the SLP press in November 1918 for publishing reports about British intervention in Russia, the WSF, although its own press had twice been raided by the police and the Workers Dreadnought confiscated, did not flinch in offering assistance. The SLP was grateful: ‘This offer was the only assistance offered us by an organised section of the socialist movement.’ [41]

In the supreme test — that of its attitude to revolution — the WSF acquitted itself well. Of all the currents in the British left-wing movement, the WSF came out by far the most strongly in support of the Irish Easter Uprising. [42] Not content with simply stating its line in the Workers Dreadnought, a daring attempt was successfully made to gain — and then publicise — eye-witness accounts of the savagery of British repression in Ireland. An 18-year-old girl, Patricia Lynch, set off for Dublin. Somehow, she had evaded the watchful eyes of the authorities, who were determined to maintain a news black-out and arrest all who sympathised with the Irish rebels. Fortunately, on the train Patricia Lynch had the good luck to meet a sympathetic army officer, who allowed her to pose as his sister. In this way, she reached Dublin and saw what was happening for herself. When she returned to London, her reports appeared in the Workers Dreadnought under the title ‘Scenes from the Irish Rebellion’. They excited such interest, both in Britain and abroad, that the paper sold out. Several more editions had to be produced. Subsequently, her account was printed as a pamphlet, Rebel Ireland, with a preface by Pankhurst.

The significance of Lynch’s reports is perhaps best conveyed by Ralph Fox: ‘We hailed the Irish Uprising as the first crack in the as yet undisputed rule of the imperialists.’ [43] Of much greater importance was the second crack, the one that plunged Tsarism to its doom. The Russian Revolution and its very considerable influence in Britain will be considered in the next chapter. It is important to realise that it was under the pressures generated by these two events — the Easter Uprising and the Russian Revolution — that new outlooks and fresh opportunities began to emerge for the socialist movement in Britain.


1. For a time, Arthur Henderson tried to deny he cheered Connolly’s execution in Parliament. However, after the Glasgow Forward for 25 September 1920 contained a description of the scene, he made no further denials.

2. Sunday Chronicle, 29 October 1916.

3. The Socialist, November 1914.

4. The Socialist, May 1916.

5. The Socialist, March 1916.

6. TA Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London, 1953), p 128.

7. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 102.

8. David Kirkwood, My Life of Struggle (London, 1935), p 86.

9. William Gallacher, The Last Memoirs (London, 1966), p 27.

10. David Kirkwood, My Life of Struggle (London, 1935), p 118.

11. James Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement (London, 1974), p 151.

12. The Socialist, February 1917.

13. Glasgow Evening News, 30 March 1915.

14. Daily Record and Mail, 14 April 1916.

15. William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde (London, 1949), p 119.

16. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 373.

17. 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 167. Also Branko Pribićević, The Shop Stewards Movement and WorkersControl 1910-1922 (Oxford, 1959), p 99.

18. The Socialist, April 1916.

19. Vanguard, 30 December 1915,

20. Justice, 17 September 1914.

21. Justice, 17 September 1914.

22. Justice, 1 October 1914 and 22 October 1914.

23. Justice, 22 April 1915.

24. Le Canard Enchainé, 7 March 1915. Also FJ Gould, Hyndman: Prophet of Socialism, 1842-1921 (London, 1928), p 202.

25. Justice, 27 May 1915.

26. Justice, 24 June 1915.

27. Reynolds News, 20 June 1915.

28. Justice, 5 August 1915.

29. Justice, 27 September 1915.

30. Letter of Patterson to Lewellyn Smith, 17 January 1916, in Beveridge Collection, Volume 3, p 111.

31. BSP Conference Report, 1915, pp 38-41.

32. BSP Conference Report, 1916, pp 44-45.

33. Justice, 28 October 1915.

34. BSP Conference Report, 1916, p 7.

35. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 97.

36. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 99.

37. BSP Conference Report, 1916, p 3.

38. The Socialist, August 1918.

39. The Socialist, December 1918.

40. The Socialist, January 1919.

41. The Socialist, October 1918.

42. Workers Dreadnought, 6 May 1916.

43. RM Fox, Smoky Crusade (London, 1938), p 216.