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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) - Article - Socialism since 1889

What makes a socialist?

During the 20th century, dictators, mass murderers, despots and political thugs referred to themselves, the regimes they controlled and the ideas and beliefs they proclaimed, as “socialist”.

To give these political charlatans a degree of intellectual respectability, so-called left-wing academics, professors of philosophy, sociology, history, economics, anthropology and literature, produced book after book praising these political monsters and their dictatorships to the hilt.

In the production of “fake news” (Russia is ‘socialist’) and “post-truth” fiction writing (Lenin and the Bolsheviks are ‘Marxists’), these ‘professors’ and apologists made alt-right and Donald Trump look like rank amateurs.

A typical example of this regrettable genre is “SoOCIALISM SINCE 1889: A BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY” (1989), written by the late James D. Young who was a lecturer in History at the University of Stirling.

Influenced by Hal Draper’s “TWO SOULS OF SOCIALISM” (1966), Young gives a biographical sketch of a number of politicians, including Lenin and Trotsky, who he believed represented “socialism from above” rather than “socialism from below”. The two expressions are quite bogus. Marx and Engels made this quite clear with reference to the First International:

On the foundation of the (First) International, we expressly formulated the battle cry: the liberation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We consequently cannot go hand-in-hand with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to liberate themselves, and must be liberated from above at the hands of the philanthropic big and petty bourgeois (quoted in Young p.43)

Lenin and Trotsky, (given by Young as examples of ‘socialism from above’), have no ‘socialist’ credentials: quite the reverse if we accept Marx and Engels’s comment on the liberation of the working class being “the work of the working class itself”. Lenin, for example, believed that the working class, without intellectual leaders like himself to lead them, was not cut out for establishing socialism.

In his book “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?” (1902), Lenin discussed the idea that the workers would come to understand socialism. He said that there was a distinction between Social Democratic consciousness and trade union consciousness. He said that socialist ideas could not come from the working class. Socialist ideas could, he believed, only derive from the educated representatives of the propertied class; the “intelligentsia”. The working class could only gain trade union consciousness and that was as far as they could go (see Panther ed. p. 80). And it was Lenin who said:

If Socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not get Socialism for about 500 years”. (Quoted in Ten Days that Shook the World (J. Reed p. 263).

This is contrary to the principle laid down by Marx and Engels in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO.


Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie to-day, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class (The Communist Manifesto and the Last Hundred Years, Socialist Party of great Britain, 1948, p 70)

Socialism can only be established by the working class itself, not from the elitist strategy, tactics and policy of politicians who happen to regard themselves as ‘socialists’.

H. M. Hyndman’s contempt for the Working Class

The only saving feature of Young’s “SOCIALISM SINCE 1889” is the biographical sketch of Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842 – 1921), but only then to highlight why the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain rejected political leadership and why the SPGB urges workers to think and act democratically in their own class interest.

The turning-point of Hyndman’s life came in 1880 when he discovered and read a French edition of volume one of Marx’s CAPITAL and founded the Democratic Federation in 1881 (renamed the Social Democratic Federation in 1883).

Young states that:

…the most interesting aspect of the quality of Hyndman’s socialism was its authoritarian, anti-working class elitism” (p. 41).

Hardly “interesting”! Political leadership has been a drag on the working class in consciously and politically rejecting capitalism and democratically organising for the establishment of socialism.

And Hyndman’s autocratic elitism meant a life-long contempt for the working class. In 1900, for example, Hyndman wrote:

I have often thanked my stars or my forebears that I was not born a working man. Very likely, if I had been I should have grown up just such another as the majority of my “intelligent” working men countrymen around me” (Trade Unions and Progress, Justice, 8th September 1900)

Young gives another quotation showing Hyndman’s contempt for the working class. Following a meeting, sometime in 1909, with Georges Clemenceau, the French politician, Hyndman recalled:

I especially remember two things about this luncheon. Clemenceau would not have it that anything really valuable could come out of the English proletariat. They were incapable of any high ideals for their own class. “In short”, he said, “la class ouvriere en Angleterre est une classe bourgeoise (the working class in England is a bourgeois class)”; and so far, I am compelled to admit, with the deepest regret this caustic appreciation of my toiling countrymen is in the main correct (The Record of an Adventurous Life, 1911).

Hyndman would have known at the time of his meeting with Clemenceau, of the existence of Socialist Party of Great Britain. Many of the founder members had been expelled from or had left the Social Democratic Party in 1904. These workers were able to set-up a socialist party with socialism as its only aim, around a set of socialist principles without the need of leaders like Hyndman. They also agreed with Marx and Engels that: ‘the emancipation of the working class must be brought about by the working class themselves’.

In 1920, Hyndman finally wrote-off the working class altogether:

So true is it that all history up to the present time has to be rewritten, and all the terrible facts of the past of the human race revealed in their true proportion, before we can hope to master the truth about the long martyrdom of man, from the break-up of the gentile and communal period, onwards, to the forms of private property production and exchange. In all this, for the most part, ethic has no say; human sympathy plays little or no part. For the mass of the people it is ever the same. Each generation in turn enters upon its mournful heritage of suffering, and passes on its burden of never-ending sorrow to the next, and the next, and the next (The Evolution of Revolution, 1920)

Hyndman, unlike the workers of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, supported British capitalism in the First World War.

Despite Hyndman’s conservatism and authoritarianism, he still wrote useful articles on Marxian economics. THE ECONOMICS OF SOCIALISM (1898) is still worth reading, particularly his argument against Jevon’s utility theory of value, then being popularised by the Fabians in opposition to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. In the lecture: The Final Utility of Final Utility

, Hyndman noted against Jevons: Professor Jevons himself, I may note, made no distinction whatever between labour-power and labour. Yet labour-power is the value-creating commodity, which the capitalist buys, like other commodities on the market, and pays for in the form of money wages; and labour is the measure of the value of the commodities produced, in exchange with other commodities.

And he concluded:

Professor Jevons is markedly deficient. His analysis is absolutely worthless; his induction is loose and useless; his working hypothesis is “conspicuous by its absence”; having nothing to verify, his verification is unattempted; while forecast on his lines is utterly hopeless. The school of economists which has followed closely in his footsteps has been as barren of improvement or discovery as he was himself. Only when they have abandoned his crude and ill-digested commonplaces in favour of a widely different method, have his pupils done any good work whatever. The Final Futility of Final Utility is conclusively proved by the utter incapacity of any thorough-going Jevonian to give a reasoning explanation of the daily working of the capitalist system of production and exchange. Surely it is high time that, at whatever expense to individual reputations, this involved and bootless theory should be generally recognised as the jumble of confusion which it is.
www.marxists.org/archive/hyndman/1896/economics/

However, in publishing the pamphlet WHY CAPITALISM WILL NOT COLLAPSE (1932), the SPGB repudiated Hyndman’s prophecy of capitalism’s cataclysmic end. Capitalism would not collapse. Likewise the hope Hyndman held all his adult life that he would become “the first Socialist Prime Minister” came to nothing.

Pretending the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not exist

One glaring omission in Young’s book is any reference to the Socialist Party of Great Britain. He cites all the other parties in existence at the turn of the nineteenth century and who described themselves as ‘socialist’ but not the SPGB. This is curious since he spends many pages in the chapter on Hyndman giving details of the ‘impossiblist’ Socialist Labour Party. However, he has to admit that “‘the impossiblist revolt’ was initiated and supported by working-class members of the SDF…” (p. 47), some of whom went on to establish the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

This did not stop Young from attacking founding members of the SPGB by lumping them together with the leadership of the SDF. He correctly attacks the SDF elitism:

From 1883, when the SDF became committed to socialist principles, down to 1921 the members of the SDF adopted an elitist position which was out of alignment with Marx’s fundemental thesis that the workers had to emancipate themselves

” (p. 445) However, he chooses not to make it known that some members in the SDF did not think this way, certainly not those members who, from the turn of the twentieth century, began to criticise Hyndman and the SDF leadership both for their reformism and elitism. These former SDF members clearly agreed with Marx that the workers had to emancipate themselves and this is clearly seen in the following two clauses of the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES:

4. That as in in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.


This leaves Mr Young with an uncomfortable truth. In this country, the case for socialism has only been argued by those workers agreeing with and defending the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES has remained a clear, straightforward and concise statement setting out the working class position under capitalism, explaining why workers must organise into a socialist party, with only socialism, as its object in order to capture political power.

Mr Young might lament that by 1986 “…international socialism was weaker than it had been during the heyday of the Second International between 1889 and 1914” (p.236), but the rot had already set long before 1914 when most of the political parties associated with the Second International actively supported their respective countries in the First World War.

We agree with Young only that there is no need to write a collective obituary for socialists and socialism. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never ‘failed’ and has survived despite all the political obstacles it has faced – the establishment and then failure of the reformist Labour Party and the rise and fall of the Bolshevik dictatorship, to name but two.

The failures of the Labour Party are obvious: its sticking-plaster reforms to alleviate workers ‘poverty, its opportunistic political alliances, its nationalisation and support for capitalism’s wars. So too are the failures of those who supposed Lenin and Stalin’s party had established socialism in state capitalist Russia. The Socialist Party of Great Britain remains the only socialist party in this country which has never supported capitalism’s wars and never posed as “leaders” of the working class. After well over a century, the SPGB’s sound socialist record deserves to be widely known and respected.

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