The Socialist Party of Great Britain, more popularly known as the SPGB even though, despite Militant, it now prefers Socialist Party is it by far the longest surviving political party in Britain calling itself socialist.
If the SPGB has survived for this length of time it must have been because it filled some need, or at least some niche, in working-class politics in Britain. But what need? The SPGB has been described as being in the tradition of what Eric Hobsbawn once called « Anglo-Marxism ». This would be a Marxism that arose in English-speaking countries, with their well-established conditions of political democracy, and which not only envisaged the working class making some use of existing political institutions to win control of political power but which also emphasised that the main task of a socialist political organisation was in preparation for this « education », or « making Socialists » as one prominent Anglo-Marxist William Morris used to put it. Besides the SPGB, it would cover the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, the De Leonist Socialist Labor Party of America, the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Party of Canada.
The SPGB was one of the products of what Chushichi Tsuzuki, in an article that appeared in the International Review of Social History in 1956, called the « impossibilist revolt » in the SDF (the other product was the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain, founded in Scotland the year before at a meeting chaired by James Connolly and which regarded itself as the exact equivalent in Britain of the SLP of America).
The « impossibilists », as they were dubbed by the leadership of the SDF, were dissatisfied with two things in particular. The domination of the SDF by a clique around H.M. Hyndman who had founded the organisation twenty years previously, and which reflected its lack of internal democracy; and its opportunist concentration on trying to obtain certain reforms of capitalism as supposed « stepping stones » to socialism. Significantly, these were the same two issues over which William Morris and others had broken away from the SDF at the end of 1884 to form the Socialist League.
The SPGB’s inaugural meeting was attended by some 140 people, mainly members and expelled members of the SDF’s London branches. While the SLP could boast of having its inaugural meeting chaired by James Connolly and attended by Tom Bell and Arthur McManus, two future leaders of the early British Communist Party, and by one future Labour MP (Neil Mclean), present at the SPGB’s were two future Labour MPs (Valentine McEntee, who ended up in the House of Lords, and George Hicks, who as the leader of the building workers’ union, had been TUC chairman in 1927), another early Communist Party leader, journalist and writer (T.A. Jackson), as well as a Irish Republican activist (Con Lehane, also known Con O’Lehane and Con O’Lyhane) and a syndicalist pamphleteer who worked with Tom Mann (E.J.B. Allen, whose pamphlets still feature on anarchist websites and anthologies). Whatever else this may or may not indicate and whatever the SPGB thought of their subsequent political trajectory (which wasn’t much of course), this at least shows that the meeting that took place a hundred years ago to found the SPGB was not one that had no relevance to general political developments in England – and Ireland, since both McEntee and Lehane (the SPGB’s first General Secretary and a fluent Irish speaker) had previously been members of the Irish Socialist Republican Party which James Connolly took the lead in forming in 1896 as the equivalent in Ireland of the SDF in Britain.
Although the term « Anglo-Marxist » is not entirely inappropriate, the SPGB was also influenced by Continental Marxism, by (of course) the German Social Democratic Party and its main theorist, Karl Kautsky (three of the SPGB’s first four pamphlets were translations of parts of Kautsky Erfurt Programme, the fourth was by William Morris). But also, perhaps not so obviously, by the French « Guesdists », as the Marxists in France were known after Jules Guesde who had been instrumental in setting up the Parti Ouvrier Français in 1880 (and whose declaration of principles was drafted in Marx’s study). A number of articles translated from Guesdists appeared in the pre-WWI issues of the SPGB’s journal, which is still going, the Socialist Standard.
Except on reforms and on patriotism, the SPGB and the Guesdists’ Parti Socialiste de France (as the POF had become in 1902 before merging in 1905 into a united Social Democratic party in France, and after which the SPGB was probably named in preference to « Social Democratic Party », the other possible name discussed at the inaugural meeting) shared a number of key positions, in particular on the imperative need for the working class to gain control of political power before trying to dispossess the capitalist class (the « political expropriation of the bourgeoisie must precede its economic expropriation », as the Guesdists used to put it). This led both the Guesdists and the SPGB to be quite opposed to anarchist and syndicalist « direct action », and talk of « taking and holding » the means of production by industrial action alone, as counter-productive not to say suicidal. This distinguished both groups from most of the other anti-revisionists, in the « intransigent Marxist » tendency within international Social Democracy with which the early SPGB identified itself, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek who did try to incorporate the « mass strike » into socialist tactics. Despite this, « Red Rosa » received a favourable mention in the Socialist Standard in 1907 which translated and published part of her speech at one of her trials.
« Peaceably if we may »
A distinguishing feature of the SPGB, as compared to the various Leninist parties and groups that have existed in Britain since 1918, has been its typically Anglo-Marxist insistence on the existence, as a precondition for socialism, of a working class imbued with socialist understanding (« You can’t have socialism without socialists ») and that, once a sufficient majority of workers have acquired such understanding, they can, and should, use existing elective political institutions to win control of political power with the sole purpose of abolishing capitalism and ushering in socialism.
This position has been caricatured by the SPGB’s Leninist opponents as meaning that the SPGB has been committed to a mere pacific, constitutional, parliamentary road to socialism, and has led to it being dubbed the « Small Party of Good Boys ». Actually, the position of the founder-members of the SPGB was the same as Marx’s as outlined by Engels in his preface to the English edition of Capital in 1886, i.e. that, although in Britain the working class might well be able to win control of political power « entirely by peaceful and legal means », it would most probably have to use this to suppress a « pro-slavery rebellion » since the capitalist class could be expected to resist their expropriation.
In other words, the socialist revolution – as a complete change in the basis of society – would be legal and constitutional but not necessarily entirely peaceful. In fact, the early members of the SPGB didn’t think that in practice it would be peaceful but that the working class would have to use the state to overcome capitalist resistance. After all, 1904 was only 33 years after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, the anniversary of whose proclamation the SPGB used to celebrate every 18 March until WWI. Today, SPGB members are more inclined to discount the possibility of a violent capitalist opposition to their legal expropriation, but it is not a pacifist organisation, the old Chartist slogan « peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must » still being its official policy.
This rejection of insurrection and civil war as a means of winning political power will probably have been a factor in the SPGB’s continual existence. The working class in Britain, though it has never advanced much if at all beyond a trade unionist and reformist consciousness, has at least understood the importance of the vote and has never seen the idea of a violent insurrection to seize power other than as, to be frank, completely bonkers. Thus, there has been a place for a revolutionary socialist party that agreed with this position and based its policy on it, a place the SPGB has filled.
Ironically, in contrast to the SPGB (which only contests elections on the « maximum programme » of socialism and nothing else, i.e. without any programme of vote-catching reforms to capitalism), when Trotskyist organisations contest elections as they have increasingly from the 1970s on, it has been the SPGB that has had to accuse them of « electoral opportunism » for entering in full into the electoral game of putting themselves forward as a group offering to implement reforms of capitalism (some manifestly impossible) for workers if only workers would elect their candidates.
Against reformism, but not reforms
This refusal to advocate reforms has been the other distinguishing feature of the SPGB, though one that has been less understood by other working-class militants and by the working class generally. Actually, the SPGB is not opposed to reforms as such – how could a party composed of workers and committed to the working-class interest be opposed to any measure that improved, however marginally and temporarily, conditions for workers – but to reformism in the sense of a policy of actively seeking reforms.
The SPGB’s policy is not to advocate any reform, but to advocate only socialism. As a corollary of this, it has also always refused to work with any other political party or group but, on the contrary, has expressed « hostility » (as Clause 8 of its declaration of principles puts it) to all other political parties. This has earned it a reputation for « sectarianism » but, in its terms, this position is only logical: the only basis for co-operating with some other party would be in a campaign for some reform but campaigning for reforms as such is precisely a policy that the SPGB rejects. The SPGB in fact argues, as did William Morris in his Socialist League days, that if it’s reforms you want the best way to get them is to go for revolution as, faced with a strong movement demanding socialism, the capitalist class will offer all sorts of reforms in a (futile) bid to buy off this movement.
It is also the official SPGB policy that a minority of Socialists MPs might vote, under certain circumstances, for reform measures proposed by other parties. This policy was adopted in 1911 at a time when many, including SPGB members, thought that socialism was a not too distant likelihood and that the situation of what a minority of Socialist MPs should do was therefore a live issue, not the academic one that the SPGB members had later to reluctantly admit that it was. Today, this position only has symbolic significance in showing that the SPGB is not opposed to reforms as such, a policy that has been challenged from time to time from within the SPGB by those who were and which led to small breakaways in 1911 and again in 1991.
Trade union action on sound lines
Nor is the SPGB opposed to trade unionism, as is sometimes imagined in Trotskyist circles. Many of the early members of the SPGB were active members of craft unions in the London area, such as the Operative Bricklayers Society. Indeed, the SPGB’s rulebook was clearly based on that of a small craft union and its practice of allowing any member to attend meetings of its executive committee was also that of a pre-WWI bus workers’ union (a practice which survives in the SPGB to this day, and in fact applies to any member of the public).
When the SPGB was founded one big issue concerning militant workers was whether or not to replace the « trade » unions by « industrial » unions and how (internal reform or forming a separate union?). The IWW (« Industrial Workers of the World ») was to be founded a year later in Chicago committed to anti-trade-union industrial unionism, and the other impossibilist breakaway from the SDF – the SLP – was soon to embrace the « socialist industrial unionism » of its elder brother in America. SPGB members were not immune to such ideas and a motion was proposed at its first annual conference to set up a « socialist union », in opposition to the existing trade unions, as soon as SPGB membership had attained 5000. This motion was not carried (but even if it had been would still not be operative since SPGB membership has never exceed 1200) and, in the end, the SPGB adopted the policy, which still applies, of its members’ participating in the existing unions and supporting any action of theirs on sound lines (opposition to employers as the class enemy, solidarity with other workers, officials subject to democratic control, non-affiliation to the Labour Party, etc.).
Thus, the SPGB avoided the mistake of the American SLP – and of the CPGB during the « Third Period » after 1929 – of « dual unionism », i.e. of trying to form « revolutionary » unions to rival the existing « reformist » unions, though some SPGB members were involved, on an individual basis, in breakaway unions from TGWU on the buses and in the docks in the 1930s and 1940s (other SPGB members remained in the TGWU).
As a result of these early controversies and of practical common sense, the SPGB officially stands for workers organising both economically (to keep production going during the period of social reorganisation) and politically for socialism and so is not a « pure and simple » parliamentarist party, even by its own standards.
Marxism not Leninism
The SPGB has always regarded itself as being in the Marxist tradition, fully subscribing to the labour theory of value and the materialist conception of history. Right up to the 1950s it used to organise education classes in these subjects – very much in the tradition of Stuart McIntyre’s « proletarian science ». Besides the words of Marx and Engels, the SPGB encouraged its members to read others by Kautsky, Plekhanov, Dietzgen and Lafargue and even, later, works by Bolsheviks such Stekloff’s History of the First International, Lozovsky’s Marx and the Trade Unions and Bogdanov’s A Short Course of Economic Science.
This does not mean, as has sometimes been claimed, that the SPGB’s Marxism can be dismissed as that of the Second International, if only because the SPGB, after attending the 1904 Amsterdam Congress as an affiliated organisation, did not renew its affiliation and by 1910 had completely written off the Second International as of any use to the cause of socialism. So August 1914 came as no surprise to it, as it did to Lenin.
On the other hand, the SPGB never became Leninist. In fact it has always regarded Leninism – as the doctrine embodied in particular in Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and State and Revolution – as a deviation from and a distortion of Marxism. Despite this, at the time, the SPGB expressed a certain admiration for Lenin for the Bolsheviks’ policy of trying to stop the war on the Eastern Front and for his having understood, as against the « Leftwing Communists », that, in the circumstances of an isolated and backward Russia, socialism was out of the question and that therefore Russia could not avoid having to pass through capitalism, even if in the form of a State capitalism (see Lenin’s speech in 1918 and again in 1921 when the NEP, which explicitly recognised this, was adopted ; see the article from the July 1920
Socialist Standard ). It has to be said, however, that today most SPGB members take a less indulgent attitude towards Lenin, seeing him as an architect of the state capitalist regime in Russia that survived until 1991 (« Lenin led to Stalin »).
It was the SPGB – and not Tony Cliff, as the old IS Group and the SWP claimed – that pioneered in Britain the description of the former USSR as state capitalist. This was more on empirical than theoretical grounds: the SPGB simply continued to describe Russia’s economy as state capitalist as Lenin had done, even after Lenin’s successors, Trotsky as much as Stalin, came to describe it as some sort of « Workers State ». The evidence produced for this was the continued existence of the wages system, commodity production, and state bondholders. The latter illustrated what was perhaps a weakness in the SPGB’s original position, of pointing to evidence of the existence of features of private capitalism to argue that Russia was state capitalism.
Credit for developing the theory that a privileged, exploiting class could exist without legal private property rights vested in its individual members, i.e. that it could own and exploit collectively as a class, and that this was actually the case in the USSR, can indeed go to Trotskyist and Trotskyoid dissidents such as Bruno Rizzi, Max Schachtman, James Burnham and Raya Dunayevskaya. Like Cliff, the SPGB was happy to take this on board, though rejecting the view embraced by Cliff that Russia only became capitalist in 1928. In the SPGB’s view, the Russian economy had never ceased to be capitalist, with any change that might have taken place in 1928 being political rather than economic (which of course, ironically is also the orthodix Trotskyist position).
Obviously conditions – and the perspectives of SPGB members – are rather different today from what they were a hundred years ago. Then, the early members (mainly young men in their thirties) clearly expected to see the cause of socialism make rapid progress and emphasised the determinist elements in Marxism that enabled them to see socialism as inevitable. Today, SPGB members (even those in their thirties) are much less sanguine about the inevitably of socialism, regarding it more as a desirable possibility. This of course makes it depend more on human will and humans (workers) making a conscious choice to establish it.
Some might see this as making socialism a « moral » issue rather than an inevitable working-class reaction to capitalist conditions (and from time to time some SPGB members have explicitly argued this), but it is not easy for members of an organisation that has found itself having to campaign for a hundred years for socialism without it happening – implying, as this does, that its early members (as well as Marx) were wrong or at least wildly over-optimistic – to sustain a belief in the inevitability of socialism
A hundred years ago, socialism, however vaguely understood, was seen by millions of workers all over the world as « the hope of humanity ». Today, thanks in large measure to what happened in Russia, millions of workers perceive socialism as something that has been tried and failed. So, today, the SPGB has a much harder time « making Socialists ». Nevertheless, Socialism – as the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, with production solely for use not profit, and distribution on the principle of « from each their ability, to each their needs » – still retains for millions some of its original connection with equality and democracy and still remains, despite current popular opinion, the Hope of Humanity.
To mark its centenary, the SPGB published a book, entitled Socialism or Your Money Back
(a more or less clever pun on the SPGB’s position that socialism necessarily involves the disappearance of money), a collection of 70 articles from the Socialist Standard over the period 1904-2004 on key events and trends in the 20th century.
Adam Buick – New Interventions, Volume 12, No 1, Spring 2005
The Socialist Party of Great Britain Centenary, London, June 2004.
Over the weekend of 12/13 June 2004 the Socialist Party of Great Britain marked a hundred years of political activity. A political and social event on the Saturday evening – a hundred years to the day since it was formed – in Regents College in Regents Park, London, was attended by some 150 members and sympathizers. On the Sunday those who had come from outside London for the event visited parts of the City of London and Clerkenwell associated with the SPGB, such as the site of the old Printers’ Hall, Bartlett’s Passage, off Fetter Lane, where the founding meeting had taken place. Most of the party’s successive head offices were situated in that area before the party moved in 1951 to its present offices in South London. Also visited were places of general working-class historical interest such as Farringdon Hall where the Labour Representation Committee was formed and the house where Keir Hardie lived next door to the one-time head office of the now defunct ILP.
From a historical-studies point of view, being a still extant political party has not been an advantage. Most labour historians have their own – leftwing – political views which are opposed to those held by the SPGB. If the SPGB had gone out of existence, this would not present a problem, but the fact that it has continued as an active political organization and has never been bashful about expressing its opposition to the political views held by most labour historians – whether they be Labour Party, Communist Party, or Trotskyist – has made an objective approach difficult.
This may explain why the first objective study of the origins of the SPGB – the first even to get the date of its formation correct (for years labour historians just repeated G. D. H. Cole’s error of putting this as 1905 , whereas the real date could easily have been verified)– was written by somebody not involved in working-class politics in Britain: Chushichi Tsuzuki from Japan, whose ‘The Impossibilist Revolt in Britain’ appeared in the International Review of Social History in 1956. The other historical studies have in fact been written by SPGB members and so could be open to the charge of being biased in an opposite direction .
The SPGB, however, provides an interesting subject for purely historical study. For instance, among the 140 or so participants at the inaugural meeting of 12 June 1904 were one who subsequently became a Labour MP and member of the House of Lords (Valentine McEntee), another a future President of the Trades Union Congress, Labour MP and junior minister (George Hicks), another an Irish Republican activist (Con Lehane). Also present were T. A. Jackson, who went on to be a leading Communist Party journalist and writer, E. J. B. Allen, who became a syndicalist pamphleteer and whose pamphlets are still quoted in anarchist anthologies and websites, and, last and perhaps least, Jack Kent, who, as a member of the Social Democratic Federation’s executive committee, was the most prominent SDF member to go over to the SPGB and who ended up as a Tory county councillor and mayor of Acton in London. In other words, here were gathered people whose subsequent trajectory could serve to illustrate the various trends of working-class political thinking in the fifty or so years that followed.
Also present of course were those who were to stay in the SPGB and contribute to the elaboration of its distinct political position, such as Jack Fitzgerald, Alex Anderson, F. C. Watts, A. E. Jacomb and Hans Neumann. These were all able thinkers and writers – and interesting persons in their own right – but the SPGB, as a matter of political principle, actively opposed leaders and leadership in favour of collective, democratic decision-making, and would in fact have fiercely protested had Fitzgerald been described as its leader (even if this was the perception of its political rivals at the time).
Although the SPGB put a distinctive view of the same problems discussed at the same time by ‘names’ such as Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly and John MacLean, whose views are still studied, the fact that its views cannot be identified as the work of a single individual has probably also contributed to the SPGB’s being neglected. Nevertheless, there has been some movement on this since the 1980s, with discussions of the SPGB’s position on the welfare state, ecology, and state capitalism in Russia, even if these have been by non labour historians .
McEntee and Lehane (a fluent Irish-speaker who was the SPGB’s first General Secretary and who later called himself O’Lehane and O’Lyhane) were both former members of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which Connolly had been instrumental in setting up as the equivalent in Ireland of the SDF. So too would other SPGB founder members have been, yet nobody has done any research on this connection. Nor has any research been done on placing the formation of the SPGB in 1904 in a wider international context.
Hans Neumann, who was a German working in London in a travel agency, kept in touch with what was going on in the German Social Democratic Party and translated the first three parts of Kautsky’s Erfurt Programme which the SPGB published as pamphlets in 1906 and 1908. Watts, a wood carver, was a fluent French-speaker and kept in touch with trends in the French labour movement, particularly the ‘Guesdists’ some of whose positions the SPGB shared (a number of translations from the Guesdist paper Le Socialisme appeared in the SPGB organ, Socialist Standard, before the first World War). The SPGB was, and saw itself as, part of the more general anti-revisionist, intransigently Marxist trend within the international Social Democratic movement. The cross-fertilization of ideas with English-speaking ‘intransigent Marxists’ on the other side of the Atlantic – Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party in the US and the British Columbia-based Socialist Party of Canada – is fairly obvious, but no comparative study has been done between the views of the SPGB and those of similar groups on the Continent, perhaps because, unlike them, the SPGB did not go over to the Communist Party after 1917 and so does not have a place as they do (and as does the Socialist Labour Party, the other product of the ‘impossibilist revolt’ within the SDF) in the pre-history of some Communist Party.
As a political organization that has survived with a basically similar policy for a number of generations, the SPGB has also been the object of study by sociologists. One of these, perhaps following the lead of the Communist Party historians A. L. Morton and Eric Hobsbawm (the former described the SPGB as ‘a tiny sect, mainly concerned with echoing propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union’  and the latter called it a ‘conventicle’ ), likened it to a religious sect. The other study, based on recorded interviews with members and ex-members carried out in the 1960s (which still exist and might interest oral historians), looked as if it might be more innovative but was never completed .
Having been in continual existence for a hundred years has its upside, however. The SPGB library has a collection of books, journals and pamphlets, inherited on the death of members, which reflect the reading of Marxist-oriented working-class activists – Stuart Macintyre’s ‘proletarian science’. They range over the whole period, from issues of Justice, the SLP’s The Socialist and the International Socialist Review, and books by Herbert Spencer, Edward Aveling and Belfort Bax from the pre-WWI period, through Labour, ILP, Communist Party and Plebs League publications of the 1920s and 1930s and copies of now largely-forgotten ‘left-of-Communist’ journals such as the American International Review, Guy Aldred’s The Word, and Left, to post-war Trotskyist material. There is also material on the socialist movement in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are in the process of being properly catalogued and can be consulted on the spot (52 Clapham High Street, London SW4) by fixing an appointment with the party’s archives department. As a matter of political principle the SPGB holds no secret meetings, all its meetings including those of its executive committee being open to the public. This means that all its internal records (except for the current membership list) are open to public consultation…
Adam Buick – History Workshop Journal No 50 of Spring 2005
1 G. D. H. Cole, Working Class Politics 1832-1914, 1941, p. 177.
2 Robert Barltrop, The Monument, 1976; Stephen Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’, in Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. M. Rubel and J. Crump, 1987; David A. Perrin, The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Economics, Politics and Britain’s Oldest Socialist Party, 2000.
3 John Clarke, Allan Cochrane and Carol Smart, Ideologies of Welfare: From Dreams to Disillusion, 1987, pp. 110-4; David Pepper, Eco-socialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice, 1997; Neil Fernandez, Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR: a Marxist Theory, 1997, pp. 45-8.
4 A. L. Morton and G. Tate, The British Labour Movement 1770-1920, 1956, p. 218. The year the SPGB was formed is erroneously given as 1905.
5 Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men, 1965, p. 231. Hobsbawm erroneously put the date of the SPGB’s formation as 1906.
6 R. Kenneth Jones, ‘The Organization and Structure of a Secular Value-oriented Sect: the Socialist Party of Great Britain’ in Ideological Groups: Similarities of Structure and Organization, 1984; P. J. Rollings, ‘The Maintenance of an Idea-system: the Case of the Socialist Party of Great Britain’, Paper read to a seminar at the Politics Department of the University of Reading, February 1968.