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Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - More about the reformist Socialist Party

More About the Reformist Socialist Party from Socialist Studies no. 10

As the Socialist Party of Great Britain founded in 1904 did not advocate or support reforms at all while the Clapham-based Socialist Party prides itself on supporting reforms, the latter’s attempts to claim affinity with the principles of the 1904 organisation inevitably rest on specious arguments and misrepresentation.

One of the many clear-cut statements made by the 1904 organisation about its refusal to seek support for or advocate reforms was the following, published in the Socialist Standard in July 1911:

"The Socialist Party of Great Britain as distinguished from every other organisation in this country is the party with Socialism, and nothing but Socialism as its Object. Consequently it cannot seek support for or advocate any policy of reform or anti-reform…such policies might attract those who do not accept the Object of the Party thus weakening its definite aim"

A spokesman for the Socialist party tried to get round this and other plain statements by arguing that you must "make the distinction between opposing all reformism and opposing all individual reforms". (Like arguing that when the 1904 party said that it simply was not in the reform business at all what it really meant was that it was in the retail reform business but not the wholesale). This is dealt with in the article "THE SOCIALIST PARTY'S REFORMIST POLICY PROCLAIMED".

In their journal the Socialist Standard (March 1993) the Socialist Party puts a somewhat different line in an article ("ROBBED BLIND") by Mr. Coleman.

Basically Mr. Coleman's attitude is the same in that he says his party "is opposed to reformism but not reforms" (without defining the terms to show how such an attitude can be justified). But he concedes that at its formation the 1904 Party "was formed to advocate Socialism and nothing but". He argues that the 1904 party's attitude to reforms was changed by the controversy that arose about a reply in the Socialist Standard (February 1910) to a question put by "W.B. of Upton Park".

WB's question was:

"What would be the attitude of a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain elected to Parliament, and how would he maintain our principle of "no compromise"?"

The editorial reply to W.B., published in the same issue, was decidedly non-committal. It included such statements as:-

"The Socialist Party of Great Britain is always ready to consider new facts and phases when they present themselves and therefore the question of whether Socialist representatives should support any such measures in Parliament is one we do not, in January 1910 pretend to answer".

By "such measures" was meant proposals by one or other of the capitalist parties "that may conceivably contain some small advantage for the working class".

The reply also conceded "that there is room for differences of opinion upon a matter that, at the present stage, is only of secondary importance".

This reply met with opposition from some members, who formed "The Provisional Committee for the revocation of the reply given to W.B. of Upton Park in the Socialist Standard February 1910)", and circulated an "open letter" to members dated 13th May 1911.

The Executive Committee sent out a reply to the provisional Committee on 5th August 1911 and the Provisional Committee replied in a further document addressed to the Executive Committee dated 16th August 1911.

In the outcome the Executive Committee's statement was approved by Party Poll and accepted by Conference. Members who supported the Provisional Committee left the Party.

Essential points in the criticism of the executive Committee by the Provisional Committee were:-

"We deny altogether that a member of our Party is elected to Parliament for the purpose of taking party in any kind of legislation whether by voting for it or against it” and “we are unable to agree with the assertion that Socialists are sent to Parliament to assist in legislation, instead of working solely for obtaining control of the political machinery". (Provisional Committee's Open Letter dated 13th May 1911).

They also accused the Executive Committee of introducing a new policy on reforms and implied that the knowledge that a Socialist Member of parliament would act in the way set out by the executive Committee would influence non-socialist electors to support him in elections.

The Executive Committee statement denied that they were departing in any way from past policy, and reminded the Provisional Committee that there was no question whatsoever of Socialist candidates seeking votes on anything else than the demand for Socialism. They also pointed out (Executive Committee Statement 5th August 1911) that the statement objected to, by the Provisional Committee had from the outset been part of the Party's Election Address for Socialist Candidates standing at local elections. To illustrate this that Executive Committee statement quoted from the Socialist Standard (October 1906) as follows:-

"And in the unique election address issued by the Party it is clearly stated that "the candidates of the S.P.G.B., therefore, while quite prepared to use the local powers for such small temporary benefits as may be forced from the capitalists' hands for the workers in those districts, nevertheless do not seek suffrage for this which can only be a secondary business of the political party of the workers' and it went on to point out how little could be obtained short of Socialism"

The Executive Committee summarised the situation by insisting that "The Executive Committee…has simply upheld what has been the policy of the party since its formation".

The Executive Committee Statement carried by Party Poll in 1911 was re-affirmed by Conference 1948 (58-0).

At Conference 1971 an Executive committee Statement which "reaffirms the party attitude on reforms and trade union action in the statement of 1911" was adopted (22-10).

Coming back to Mr Coleman's statement about the Party's attitude to reforms in the Socialist Standard (March 1993) it is interesting to look at his version of the Executive Committee Statement of 5th August 1911. Distinction has to be made between what the Executive Committee Statement said and what Mr Coleman says it said.

This is what the Executive Committee Statement said:

"Any measure that might conceivably benefit the workers would only be dealt with, favourably or otherwise, as dictated by the advancement of pour Object".

This is what Mr. Coleman says that the Executive Committee Statement said:

"The reply given to them was that a single socialist or a minority of socialists elected to Parliament would not vote against all reforms but would vote as instructed by the vast number of socialists outside Parliament on the basis of whether such measures benefited or harmed the working class".

It will be noticed that Mr Coleman’s version has "reforms" instead of "measures" and cuts out the "favourably or otherwisE", so that while the Executive Committee Statement envisaged the possibility of voting against a measure that might contain some advantage to the workers Mr. Coleman's version implies that if it contained some advantage the Socialist M.P. would necessarily vote for it. The Executive Committee Statement made the decision dependent on "the advancement of our object".

All sorts of issues other than reforms can and do arise in Parliament, including war and peace, armaments and conscription. One vital issue that came up every year at the time was the Army Annual Act on which the enforcement of discipline in the armed forces depended. If not passed the crime of disobeying commands would have disappeared. (The Act is not now voted upon each year).

It will be observed that the attitude taken in 1911 by the provisional Committee was that a minority of Socialist Members of Parliament would stand aside on all such issues.

This article was written by E. Hardcastle known as Hardy who was expelled along with other comrades, from the Socialist Party at Clapham. For some reason best known to its political leadership they pretend his expulsion did not occur and have tried togive the impression that he was "one of them".

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