The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Spanish Civil War

In a surf on the internet we came across a web site of "former communists" who spend their time in an echo chamber talking to themselves about "the good old days". A passing reference was made to the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Spanish Civil War. The writer remarked:

"I think it was the Spanish Civil War which caused major debate and controversy within the SPGB over its "sole objective".

A hard core doctrinaire group within the SPGB always opposed any, every and all other demands as "reforms" and distractions from the "sole objective of socialism".

The more open majority within the SPGB (and still is) reasoned that as they advocated the establishment of socialism through democratic parliamentary means (that is a whole other debate), you had to first have democracy and a parliamentary system in order to be able to use it to establish socialism. Given that those fighting to defend the democratic Spanish Republic were indeed fighting for basic democratic rights and a democratic system of government they perhaps should be supported in that endeavour.

The hard liners of course vigorously opposed this but never answered the question of what the role of the SPGB should be in the absence of parliamentary democracy. Hibernate probably.

Some of this was reflected in the SPGB statement on the opening of World War Two when it supported all those fighting against the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships (anathema to the hard liners) and in the splits in the late 80s and 90s which included the breakaway SPGB, the Ashbourne Court Group

Marxism-Leninism (another anathema to the SPGB) of course advocates revolution to establish socialism and in the absence of democratic rights and a system of democracy to fight for such, alongside working class democracy and socialism itself. We have never had any problem fighting for more than one demand at a time!


Unlike the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Party of Great Britain did not encourage any of its members to act as "volunteers" to fight on either side of the Spanish Civil War.

The Republican Government attracted sympathy for being attacked by the army, led by General Franco who wanted to seize power and establish a Fascist regime.

The Result was the Left, with its anti-Fascist position, encouraged by Moscow, recruited volunteers to fight on the side of the Republic and "democracy". However, the Left was split: the Stalin-backed CPGB vs. the wider Left including the ILP, anarchists, and Trotskyists which sent its own volunteers, including Orwell, to form the POUM.

But the CPGB used the war to eliminate many of its unreliable members - in a purge, with snipers and so on targeting many of other volunteers. (See Orwell on this in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA) It was during this Stalinist purge, that led our lade comrade, Harry Young to quit the CPGB and 'disappear' to avoid the same fate as others on Stalin's list.

The Left forms strategic alliances in an opportunistic way, which is disastrous. Marx in his 18THBRUMAIRE -chap 3- argued that with the coalition which formed the Social Democratic Party - "a united front... a coalition" between the petty bourgeois and the workers, the result was a "joint programme" : "The revolutionary point of the socialist demands of the proletariat was blunted, and these demands were given a democratic gloss." (p57-8, - tr. Eden and Cedar Paul, 1926).

At the same time, this alliance enabled "the petty bourgeois demands were made to seem as socialistic as possible. That was the origin of social democracy." Note, Marx was not just warning against such alliances and coalitions, but was clearly predicting the future of, for example, the Labour Party, the German SDP and countless other 'socialist' parties around the world with their reform programmes - better housing, health services, trade union laws and so on. These reform programmes were an abject failure or impossible to implement under capitalism. And he was clearly warning against the disastrous idea - taken up by Lenin and others - that the workers' movement should form such opportunistic alliances.

The position of the SPGB was set out in the Socialist Standard in March, 1937, which was presented as the Party’s official view.

The article said the SPGB was on the side of "the main body of workers" against "those, headed by Franco, who threaten to deprive the workers of the power to organize politically and industrially in their own interests". However, the Party also stated that since it was concerned only with establishing socialism, it "only gives material support to socialist organisations" - of which the Spanish government was not one. And the article ended by referring to the Spanish government's resistance to Franco as the Spaniard's own affair:

"It must be assumed that the Spanish workers weighed up the situation and counted the cost before deciding their course of action, That is a matter upon which their judgement should be better than that of people outside the country"

During the Spanish Civil War: the British Government refused to allow any aid or arms for the Spanish government, and enforced this by a naval blockade. So much for a democratic opposition to Fascism! In fact, Word War Two was far from being a noble cause: the UK government had no problems with Hitler's concentration camps and other repressive measures. The matter only became serious when it seemed that Hitler's forces were about to threaten Britain's own interests, especially the Channel as a trade route and its interests elsewhere in the Empire. But Fascism? No problem.

With regards the Second World War, which was said to be about defending democracy: the British government from 1941 onwards was happy and proud to be allied with Stalin, such a fine defender of freedom and democracy!

Thank goodness the SPGB had the common sense and principles needed at that time, and stayed clear of cheering on the militarists!

As for SPGB members being in the army in WWII: there was conscription and it was very hard to argue for exemption as a Conscientious Objector. For instance, Ken Knight was conscripted but the army found he was a handful so gave him an education job, which for him meant teaching the squaddies about Marxism!

Another of our late comrades, Cyril May spent some time in Wormwood Scrubs while other members of the Party, like Jim D'Arcy followed the example of some members in the First World War and went on the run. Doug Ayres was a CO and because of his geological knowledge, he was given "land work" down the Welsh mines. Heather Williams was conscripted into an armaments factory. Some others argued their cases at the CO tribunals - some got conscripted, others were let off or diverted into, for example, fire fighting (Harry Young was driving a fire engine in the Blitz). Harry Young, when speaking on behalf of the Party at Hyde Park Corner, would sometimes be called "a coward" for not fighting in Capitalism's wars but reminded the heckler how dangerous it was driving through London with bombs being dropped over your head. Would the heckler driven a fire engine during the Blitz? Conscription was an act of state coercion. Except, that is, for members of the Communist Party who willingly joined the armed forces of the capitalist state to "Kill fascists" - that is other members of the working class - once Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

Whatever the case with individual members, the SPGB as a party was united on the position of opposing the Second World War on grounds of class, a position argued back in September 1914. In our WAR MANIFEST, published at the outbreak of the First World War, we wrote:

"THE SOCIALIST PARTY of Great Britain, pledges itself to keep the issue clear by expounding the CLASS STRUGGLE, and whilst placing on record its abhorrence of the latest manifestation of the callous, sordid, and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class, and declaring no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, enters its emphatic protest against the brutal and bloody butchery of our brothers of this and other lands who are being used as food for cannon abroad while suffering and starvation are the lot of their fellows at home. Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.

As for being "Doctrinaire hard liners", if this meant opposition and hostility towards Lenin and his supporters we plead guilty. We joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain in agreement with it's Object and Declaration of Principles. This included taking political action as The Socialist Party of Great Britain. We still do.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as 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.

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 and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.