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Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - The Case of 'WB' of Upton Park, 1911

Socialist Party of Great Britain's Position On Reforms”.

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 (see appendix 1) 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.

(From Socialist Studies No.10)








The circumstances of members of the party by the means of an “Open Letter” by a self-constituted committee, could only be justified if the ordinary channels of Party discussion were closed; but the “committee” cannot even pretend that such is the case. They do, however, imply that the suggestion is not true. Apart from two Conference discussions, there have been a Party meeting, several divisional meetings, and numerous branch meetings specially convened in their duty to report the discussion to the branch members.

Ample opportunity existed, and still exists, for discussion, and the only apparent reason for the use of the “Open Letter” by the “committee” is the crushing defeat their attempts at argument have always sustained in the course of open discussion in the ordinary way.

Apart, therefore, from the errors and misrepresentations of the “Open Letter” (which injure the Party and make it necessary to point out the unsoundness of some of our own members) its promoters are guilty of attempting to form an organisation within the Party, directed against the Party’s position, and thus initiating a policy of sectionalism and disruption.

The self-styled committee demand the revocation of the afore-mentioned reply because, they say, it contradicts our declaration of principles. But neither in their circular nor in the course of the whole discussion have they been able to point out this so-called contradiction. And the reason is a simple one. It is because no such contradiction exists.

They maintain that the “reply” contains matter of a “speculative character”. Yet it is actually a most cautious statement based on positive knowledge and experience. It contains nothing more speculative than an implication that historic laws will continue to be operative –than which few things are more certain. On the other hand, it may be of interest to note that the “committee” make the highly speculative statement that the capitalist class “are compelled to open up ever new avenues of education to the proletariat!”

It is said that we should simply refer enquirers to the declaration of principles. It may be necessary for the “committee” to fob off questioners in some such way, but a reasonable query by a genuine enquirer should be frankly met. It is, moreover, the height of absurdity to refer the enquirer to the declaration of principles for information it does not contain.

It is entirely untrue that we are not prepared to give such replies (as that to W.B.) from our Press and platform. The reply in question appeared in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, and similar statements have been repeatedly been made in the “S.S.” and from our platform. Indeed, the inability to reply to such a query could only indicate an ignorance of the socialist position or an incapacity for propaganda work. “Several members”, it is alleged by the “committee”, maintain that we have, besides a “primary object” a “secondary object” which we “keep in the background2. After being challenged the “committee” endeavoured to foster these statements on various members, but, of course, without success. The statements are sheer inventions.

“No member of the Party”, we next learn, “is elected to Parliament for the purpose of taking part in any kind of legislation, whether by voting for or against it”. On this point members of the “committee” have had curious changes of front, but of the fatuity of their present statement it need only be pointed out that it even excludes voting for Socialism!

And what of their further assertion that the S.P.G.B. advocates Parliamentary action “as one of the possible means” of obtaining control of the political machinery? The members who make that statement have signed the declaration of principles which distinctly states in par. 6 :-

“That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation”.

Comment is superfluous.

The “committee” admit, in emphatic italics, that the capitalist class “are compelled to dig their own graves” but they do not quite realise that in saying so they have riddled their own case, and conceded much more than was claimed in the Feb., 1910 “SS”.

The majority of the Party are next accused of dividing the “capitalist measures” to be supported under four different heads. Unfortunately for the “committee”, however, the only members known to so divide “capitalist measures”, or any other measures, are the writers of the “open Letter”.

And regarding the measures thus conveniently divided we are treated to some most original “Socialist” teaching. While they correctly say that haggling for better conditions “by the workers with their masters are inevitable expressions of the class struggle”, they go on to make the astounding assertion that this nevertheless and emphatically “constitutes action apart from the Socialist position”. In fact, they go on to say: “attempts at mending such conditions are unquestionably detrimental to our object”. All of which is, to use the language of the “committee” emphatically and “unquestionably” nonsense. It is in flat contradiction with the Party position as laid down in the Manifesto. And as Karl Marx says in “Value, Price and Profit”: “such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvements? If they did, they would be degraded to one level of broken wretches past salvation…By giving cowardly giving way in their every-day conflict with capital they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement”. The “committee” have not yet shown where Marx was wrong in this.

In the same par, they claim from our “stand point” it is absurd to admit that “legislation can also play a part in determining the conditions of wage-slave labour”. From the “committee’s” standpoint, of course, anything may be absurd, but they have no right to speak for the Party, for the veriest tyro in economic history is aware that legislation has practically from its origin “played a part in determining the conditions of wage-slave labour”. Hundreds of instances, from Thomas Wolsey to Asquith, might be given, but the matter is too obvious to require them.

We are then told that the Socialist party has no mandate “to stand for the saving of life and limb of the workers”. Yet the declaration of principles shows that the Party is the expression of the material interest of the working class. Further, the attainment of socialism is dependent on the preservation of the workers in general, and the question of proletarian life and limb may have a very important bearing on the great issue.

The statement is put in quotation marks that “members of our Party” say that “As Socialists we are compelled to support such political measures as universal suffrage and the Referendum”. No names are given, and the statement is a misrepresentation.

In the fourteenth paragraph it is said that “to admit the capitalist class to be the benefactors of the working class because they are compelled by the economic development to weaken their stronghold can only tend to efface the bitter hostility”, etc. This insinuates either that the reply to “W.B.” Upton Park, “admits” the capitalists to be full of kind intentions towards the workers – which is absolutely false – or that the weakening of the capitalists’ stronghold is not of benefit to the workers – which is utterly stupid.

The “committee” next ask, how can Socialists support measures they cannot enforce. They would prevent us even supporting Socialism until it is here, because we cannot now enforce it! The “committee” should ask themselves how they can vote for a candidate if they are not numerous enough to elect him, or why they should use the vote at all –then they might find out just where they are.

And what an original picture they paint of the capitalists dividing themselves into faction to keep us busy backing up their legislation! As applied to the S.P.G.B., however, the picture implies a mis-representation of the Party position and an insult to the membership.

We have, nevertheless, at least one opportunity of agreeing with the “committee”. It is absurd to insist that there is necessarily “a suspension of hostility to the capitalist class by supporting some of their measures”. Do we not learn from their “Open Letter” that the capitalists are compelled to dig their own graves” and weaken their own stronghold”? Obviously, then, according to the committee’s” statements, the support of certain “capitalist” measures may be consistent with the most bitter hostility to that class.

The complexity of the capitalist system was never given to the Conference as the reason for supporting capitalist measures. Nor was it said that “Socialists were sent to parliament to assist in legislation”.

While the upholders of the Party’s position in the matter have never tired of pointing out the progressive crushing of the workers in economic development, they have, nevertheless, pointed to the whole of the facts, and not to a mere mutilated formula. It is suicide to deny the facts as the “committee” would have us do. Sectional benefits to the workers have occurred and do occur. And as Marx shows, working class action does put the break on capitalism’s downward trend, and is so far a benefit to workers. Finally, it is in every case a positive benefit to the whole of the working class when they gain a new and effective weapon or fresh coign of vantage in their fight for Socialism.

Before taking leave of the “Open Letter” we may note one or two of the strange inconsistencies which illustrate the incoherence of the “committee’s” position.

They say that “the capitalist class are as powerless to interfere with economic development as the working class”, and that they are “compelled to open up ever new avenues of education to the proletariat”, and are also compelled by economic development to weaken their stronghold”.

The reply the “committee” wish to revoke correctly interprets the declaration of principles. It insists on the attitude of the representative being the expression of the Party’s position in view of the full facts then to hand. And it frankly faces the eventualities of the situation in the light of working-class interests. As the party has repeatedly stated, in the course of our fight we are prepared to take all we can get that will help our class.

The reasons we do not advocate reforms have been stated again and again in our Press and from our platform and need no repeating here, while any measure that might conceivably benefit the workers would only be dealt with, favourably or otherwise, as dictated by the advancement of our object. Therefore it is absurd for the “committee” to suggest that we should have a programme of “reforms and palliatives”. Even with regard to a useful proposal the complete measure would first have to be drawn up to avoid our being held responsible for, or expected to help, any fraudulent measure. Moreover, even if useful in one set of circumstances it might be harmful in the other, and would often have to be sacrificed to the main issue which is our guiding star. Consequently a programme of the sort suggested is impossible to us, and in making the suggestion the “committee” either do not understand, or they misrepresent, the position of the Party in this matter.

As the first E.C. said in the editorial to the second number of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, so we say now:-

“When a strong Socialist party, fighting directly for the establishment of a Socialist regime and prepared in their progress to secure any advantage that will act as a new vantage ground in their further fight, is organised, then the capitalists will be only too ready to offer and to give each and all of those palliatives as a sop to the growing Socialist forces in the country.

“We have, therefore, to recognise all the time that it is only possible to secure any real benefit when the people themselves become class-conscious; when behind the Socialists in Parliament and on other bodies there stands a solid phalanx of men clear in their knowledge of socialism and clear in their knowledge that the only way to secure the Socialist Commonwealth of the future is to depend only on the efforts of themselves and those who have the same class conscious opinions”.

And in the unique election address issued by the Party it clearly stated that “the candidates of the S.P.G.B., therefore, while quite prepared to use 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 E. C., therefore, has simply upheld what has been the Policy of the Party since its formation. To do otherwise, indeed, would be to stultify the Party and to sacrifice the working class to half-understood phrases.

The self-styled committee itself is not of one mind on the matter, and one of their numbers has already recognised that his position is inconsistent with adhesion to the declaration of principles. The hollowness of their pretended arguments has again been shown, and it remains a fact that during the whole discussion not a single point has been successfully urged against the accepted position of the Party as laid down in the E.C.’s reply to W.B. of Upton Park.

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