The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter XIII: Conclusion

Did the Socialist Labour Party have to die? In the 1920s, there were two courses open to it: either the SLP could join the newly-formed Communist Party of Great Britain or it could endeavour to maintain itself as an independent revolutionary organisation. In a sense, both paths were tried and both failed. Arthur MacManus and a number of other leading members, albeit with only a small section of the rank and file, joined the CPGB. For a time, they held highly influential positions within the CPGB, but gradually they were squeezed out and replaced by apostles of Moscow orthodoxy like Dutt and Pollitt. The second path also led to a dead-end. The task of preserving the SLP as an independent party became increasingly difficult. Support melted away. Only a handful of dedicated socialists remained, ritualistically repeating the slogans of a few years before, which then had inflamed the masses but now did not strike a responsive chord.

Since whichever course it took appeared ill-fated, the question inevitably arises of whether this does not signify the SLP had intrinsic — and fatal — weaknesses. Many historians have arrived at this conclusion. Typical is Walter Kendall. He refers to ‘the SLP’s slavish adherence to De Leon’ stopping ‘the springs of natural creativity’. [1] But closer examination shows this is not a tenable position.

From the outset, the British SLP asserted its independence from its American counterpart, using De Leon’s ideas critically, not obeying them as if they were the holy writ. At the inaugural conference, delegates incorporated immediate demands in the party programme, a step with which De Leon disagreed. A few months later, The Socialist did not hesitate to publish a front page article by James Connolly that attacked De Leon’s ideas on a number of questions. Connolly, who, at various times, was active in both the American and British SLPs, thereby became well placed to judge the extent to which the two parties diverged. In a letter to John Carstairs Matheson, he declared that the British SLP held positions ‘widely different from Dan’s’ — that is, from Daniel De Leon. [2] Indeed, practical proof comes from Connolly’s own experiences in the States. In 1904, he was nearly expelled from the American SLP. The British SLP interceded on his behalf, approaching De Leon as he returned from the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International to ask him for an assurance that Connolly would not be thrown out. This, it appears, was reluctantly given. Although in 1906 Connolly was still in bad odour with leading officials of the American SLP, it did not prevent the British party having a scheme to ask him to return to Britain to be its National Organiser. The project fell through at the last moment due to lack of finance. Two years later, Connolly wrote to the British party for a character reference when he was being accused of disruption. As the forces against him seemed too formidable, he resigned from the American SLP in May 1908 to forestall impending expulsion. Outside the American SLP, Connolly retained his friendly contact with his British comrades. Cooperation after he returned to Ireland was maintained right up to his death in the Easter Uprising.

Allied to his claim that the British SLP had ‘almost a theological devotion to De Leon’, Walter Kendall makes a second charge: he says that ‘the SLP’s sectarian nature’ inhibited growth. [3] This would have been quite true if the British SLP had accepted in its entirety a basic proposition of De Leon. In his pamphlet, Two Pages from Roman History, De Leon argued that the leaders of the established working-class organisations acted as ‘the labour lieutenants of capitalism’. They expressed workers’ grievances, at the same time carefully seeing that all protests did not endanger the existing system. From this, he drew the conclusion that it was necessary to build up genuine revolutionary parties and unions, which would ultimately supplant their reformist counterparts.

It was about how this was to be accomplished that the British SLP disagreed with De Leon. While he lumped together both leaders and led, consigning them to the outer darkness, the British SLP sought to differentiate between the leaders, who were, consciously or unconsciously, agents of capitalism, and the mass of their followers, who had to be won over to true socialist policies. Wanting to win over the workers, the SLP realised it could not remain in splendid isolation:

It [the SLP] is not a cave in the labour movement. It does not stand apart from the rest of the working class in remote isolation, suspending action until such time as we have a majority of adherents. It is in the very middle of the labour movement, in living touch with the working class, giving and receiving blows in every stage of the combat, striving to repel each encroachment of capital or gain some fresh point of vantage. [4]

This is the complete antithesis of De Leon’s position. Realising this, Connolly explained in a letter to Matheson:

The essence of that difference is that you recognise all the Labour parties and SDF and the rest of the tribe as being part of the working-class movement, and their membership as struggling towards the light. Dan would describe them as fake schemes of the capitalist class to down the SLP. [5]

De Leon’s erroneous theoretical position condemned the American SLP to sterility and dogmatism. Again to quote Connolly:

Chief among those mistakes was its refusal to recognise the growth in the labour movement and its consequent absurd insistence that all working-class movements which fell short of the cleanest were capitalist conspiracies against the SLP. [6]

Had the British SLP accepted the De Leonite line, it would not have been so effective. Probably more than any other political group, it helped to develop and mould the shop-stewards’ movement. Seemingly unpromising material, the aristocracy of labour, was transformed into a movement with revolutionary potential that alarmed Britain’s rulers. Sectarians, standing aloof, simply mouthing phrases from Marx, would have been unable to accomplish this task. Similarly, the SLP’s campaign against the First World War demanded not only courage but flexibility, a preparedness to work with others despite political disagreements. It also could not have been done by a bunch of sectarians.

Yet, nevertheless, there is a need to qualify the above analysis. It views things in a too simplistic, too absolute way. Some of the characteristics of sectarianism were present in the SLP some of the time. In periods of isolation, they were most pronounced. This particularly applied in the first few years of the party’s life as well as the last few. Unlike Kendall and others, I do not consider that the presence of sectarianism was a cause of its decline; rather it was an effect. Clearly, a complex process of interaction occurred: with the waning of the class struggle, revolutionaries became increasingly isolated. Unable to influence the course of events, they developed sectarian traits which, in turn, merely served to reinforce the isolation.

All revolutionary groups in Britain from 1920 to 1970 have, to varying degrees, suffered from sectarianism. On every occasion, it has been for the same reason: objective conditions have made it impossible for them to participate meaningfully in the struggle. They have been condemned to play the role of spectators instead of being combatants. The reason for this has been that two profoundly counter-revolutionary ideologies, social democracy and Stalinism, have had a virtual monopoly of working-class politics in that period. Only now are there signs that the Ice Age is beginning to end.

In a period when the fundamentals of capitalism are again starting to be challenged, the experiences of the SLP acquire a renewed relevance. Among the principles it introduced into the British working-class movement are some which have gained wide currency whereas others need to be rediscovered:

First, the need for serious consistent work within the trade-union movement. Workers inevitably encountered problems in the course of their work. Revolutionaries had to relate to them, placing these problems in a societal context and showing how they formed an integral part of the capitalist process. It also had to indicate the best ways workers could ward off blows from the employers. This necessitated the building of rank-and-file organisations. Moreover, since unity is strength, revolutionaries urged the creation of industrial unions: not only would these be able to mobilise the maximum strength against the employing class, they would as well form the basis for industrial democracy in the future socialist society. The SLP was the first to expound the case for workers’ control.

Second, the need for an independent working-class education movement. The SLP saw a socialist consciousness could only develop along with socialist theory. Therefore, it attempted to make as many as possible of the socialist classics available, either by publishing them on the SLP Press or by importing them from the United States. At the same time, the party realised that, if they were to be utilised to maximum effect, rigorous and hard study was required. The Labour Colleges provided the framework within which this could be done, and had the added advantage of bringing together socialists from diverse groups, a process that helped to break down sectarian mistrust.

Third, the need to create a new type of working-class party, one that could act as a vanguard, providing the most dedicated, self-sacrificing and knowledgeable people for the class battles. This final point is related to the fact that, quite independently, the SLP evolved a Bolshevik approach to politics. The party came to see that the capitalist state could not be gradually transformed into a socialist one; that the capitalist state had to be smashed and replaced by a workers’ state. It also saw that, to accomplish the execution of capitalism, a sharp knife — namely, a revolutionary party — was required. It was equally aware that this could only be done once the majority of the working class found the existing system intolerable and called for a new society to be created. Self-activity of the working class was vital for socialism to be achieved.

The SLP approach clashed with those generally held on the left. The Independent Labour Party looked to Parliament for salvation whereas the SLP thought no fundamental changes could be enacted through an establishment whose function was to assist the smooth running of the existing system. Similarly, the ILP and British Socialist Party placed great store by the piecemeal extension of public ownership through nationalisation and municipalisation. In contrast, the SLP thought these hopes were illusory: piecemeal measures did not alter the economic laws that operated in capitalism. Nationalisation did not constitute a step towards socialism. Since the industry was placed in the hands of the state, which represented the employing class as a whole, it would still essentially function in the same way as before. The first nationalisation to be brought before the British Parliament was introduced by a diehard Tory, Lord Palmerston. It was to nationalise the Indian railways. This was done not in the interests of the Indian masses but because the authorities discovered in the mutiny of 1857 that the existence of a number of railway companies, with a variety of gauges, made it difficult to move troops swiftly from one place to another. Nationalisation of the railways was introduced to make exploitation more secure in India; to eliminate exploitation there would need to be a different type of state in India and industries would have to be under workers’ control.

In Britain, the gradualist approach was the traditional one since the decline of Chartism. All sections of society had become inured to accepting capitalist institutions and values. The growth of a comparatively large-scale trade-union movement and the election of some of its number to Parliament as Lib-Lab MPs helped to reveal more clearly than in other countries the limits inherent in this approach. Therefore, the British SLP had practical experience of the nature of reformism. The SLP, unlike Lenin, was not surprised when, at the outbreak of the First World War, the various social democratic parties aligned themselves with their respective bourgeoisies. The SLP could also see more clearly their essentially imperialist role: the close proximity of Ireland did not only show how imperialism exploits colonial people, it revealed as well how Labour politicians connived at this exploitation. The close ties the SLP maintained with Irish revolutionaries did not happen accidentally.

Yet, at the same time as the SLP had vision, it did not have power. The economic forces which enabled the ruling class to grant concessions, giving reformists the milieu in which to thrive, simultaneously barred the road to revolutionaries. No enduring discontent prevailed. No opportunity existed for the building of a large-scale revolutionary party.

It is important to realise the handicaps under which the SLP worked. Conditions were far less favourable to them than they are to their counterparts of the present day. The last 50 years has seen the erosion of the faith that workers once possessed in the efficacy of parliamentary action. Few people now believe that the Labour Party will introduce the New Jerusalem. Among militants there is a much greater awareness of the class-collaborationist role of union leaders, even when they decorate their betrayals with left rhetoric. While at the present time the obstacles facing the descendants of the SLP are less, the opportunities are far greater. This is because: first, revolutionary groups are much bigger and have more influence; second, the dissemination of Marxist ideas has gone on to a far greater extent; and, third, that rank-and-file organisations within industry operate more extensively and with greater power.

More than 70 years have elapsed since the SLP was formed. In that period a lot has happened. The efforts of Connolly, Yates and the others in 1903 can be likened to those of pioneers in a different sphere of activity: in 1902 the Wright Brothers were responsible for the first man-made flight. The aeroplane they built was a flimsy, rickety thing, looking as if Heath Robinson had been its designer. Nevertheless, the Wright Brothers’ discovery laid the basis for the development of air transport that has led to the super-jets of the present age. In the same way, the principles first enunciated by the SLP still have relevance to socialists involved in current struggles.


1. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 301.

2. James Connolly to JC Matheson, letter dated April 1908 (National Library of Ireland, Dublin).

3. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 75.

4. The Socialist, September 1912.

5. James Connolly to JC Matheson, letter dated April 1908.

6. James Connolly to JC Matheson, letter dated 7 May 1908.