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Questions of the Day (part 18)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain

THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, which is the only party in this country that stands for Socialism, was formed on 12 June 1904 by a hundred or so members and former members of the Social Democratic Federation who were dissatisfied with the policy and structure of that party.

The SDF had been formed in 1884 as a professed Marxist organisation, although Engels who was living in London at the time would have nothing to do with it. At that time the writings of Marx, Engels and other socialist pioneers were hardly known in the English-speaking countries, except to the few who knew foreign languages. The SDF, however, did have the merit of popularising in Britain the ideas and works of Marx. This was later to bear fruit in demands for an uncompromising, democratically organised socialist party in place of the reformist and undemocratic SDF.

The SDF spent much of its time campaigning for reforms that were supposed to improve working class conditions. H. M. Hyndman, who played the major role in setting up the party, seemed to regard it as his personal possession and reacted to any criticism in a haughty and autocratic manner. The party journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control.

The opportunism and arrogance of Hyndman had already led to a break-away in 1884 when a number of members, including William Morris and Eleanor Marx, set up the Socialist League which however soon unfortunately ceased to be of use when it was dominated by the anarchists.

A second revolt led to the formation in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party, copying the American organisation of that name. At first, along with a programme of 'immediate demands', the SLP declared its object to be the conquest of political power but soon, under the influance of its American parent it subordinated political to industrial action.

Another revolt against the Hyndman group's dominance of the SDF was organised by men and women who had a much firmer grasp of Marxist political and economic theory. For their opposition to opportunism they were contemptuously called 'impossibilists'. At first they tried to use the machinery of the SDF to get the party to reform itself, but they came up against the Hyndman clique who were ready to resort to all kinds of undemocratic practices to maintain their control of the party. Conferences were packed, branches dissolved and members expelled.

Matters came to a head at the 1904 Conference held in Burnley at the beginning of April. At the Conference more expulsions took place. When the delegates of some of the London branches returned they held a special meeting to discuss the situation and approved a statement which, among other things, urged the following:

'The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present, capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection at the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.'

On 12 June most of those who signed this leaflet together with a few others founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The constitution of the Socialist Party was formed in such a manner that what had happened in the SDF would be impossible. The Executive Committee, elected by the
whole of the membership, was to run the day-to-day affairs of the party in accordance with the policy laid down at Conferences and was required to report to the membership twice a year. All its meetings were to be open not only to members but also to non-members. The party journal the Socialist Standard, which first appeared in September 1904 and monthly ever since, is under party control through the Executive Committee. An elaborate appeals procedure — first to the Conference or Delegate Meeting and then to a poll of all the members — was written into the rule-book to protect any member charged with activities warranting expulsion.

The rule-book of the Socialist Party lays down a thoroughly democratic procedure for the conduct of party affairs. Control of policy is in the hands of the members; there are no leaders and never have been. Democratic procedure has been maintained throughout the party's existence and is a practical refutation of those who argue that all organisations must degenerate into bureaucratic rule. In fact a democratic structure without leaders is the necessary form of any socialist party.

At its formation the members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which, without the need for any change, has remained the basis of membership of the party. Within that framework the party has worked consistently to make socialist principles known and to expose the many erroneous and dangerous theories that have attracted support among the workers.


THE SOCIALIST PARTY has a record of being consistantly correct on a number of important issues over its seventy or so years of activity. We warned about the dangers of advocating reforms long before the shameful collapse of European Social Democracy in the first world war. We said in 1918 that the Bolsheviks could not set up Socialism in Russia, and it was we who in this country pioneered the view that Russia was developing State capitalism. We predicted the inevitable failure of Labour governments both as a way to Socialism and as a means of improving workers' living standards. From the start we realised that nationalisation was no solution to the workers' problems. We have always exposed the false and divisive nature of nationalism, racism and religion. In two world wars we declared and kept an attitude of socialist opposition.

The Socialist Party has also made its own contributions to socialist theory, in the light of further developments, going beyond some of the theories of socialist pioneers like Marx and Engels. We set out below a number of these contributions:

1. Solving the Reform or Revolution dilemma, by declaring that a socialist party should not advocate reforms of capitalism and by recognising that political democracy can be used for revolutionary ends (see Gradualism and revolution, p. 25).

2. Realisation of the world-wide (rather than internaticnal character of Socialism. Socialism can only be a united world community without frontiers and not the federation of countries suggested by the word 'international'

3. Recognition that there is no need for a 'transition period' between capitalism and Socialism. The enormous increases in social productivity since the days of Marx and Engels have made superfluous a period, such as they envisaged, in which the productive forces would be developed under State control and in which consumption would have to be rationed. Socialism can be established as soon as a majority of workers want it, with free access.

4. Rejection of any further progressive role for nationalism after capitalism became the dominant world system towards the end of the last century. Industrialisation
under national State capitalism is neither necessary nor economically progressive (see Socialism and the less developed countries, p. 61).

5. For the same reason, rejection of the idea of "progressive wars". Socialists oppose all wars, refusing to take sides.

6. Exposures of leadership as a capitalist political principle, a feature of the revolutions that brought them to power and utterly alien to the socialist revolution. The socialist revolution necessarily involves the active and conscious participation of the great majority of workers thus excluding the role of leadership.

7. Advocating and practising that a socialist party should be organised as an open democratic party, with no leaders and no secret meetings, thus foreshadowing the
society it seeks to establish.

8. Recognition that capitalism will not collapse of its own accord, but will continue from crisis to crisis until the working class consciously organise to abolish it.

We have refused to compromise our socialist principles by uniting with reformist organisatons, and have firmly insisted that the only road to Socialism is through democratic organisation and political action based on class-conscious understanding.

Further Reading
Socialist Standard
June 2004

the Socialist Party of Great Britain - Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party by David Perrin, reviewed here in the Socialist Standard June 2000

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