SPGB Socialist Opposition To War - Not Forgotten: The Socialists Who Refused to Fight

The 11th November 2008 was the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the media has been full of stories of “lost youth” who gave their lives “for King and Country”. The programmes and articles were predictable; not one analysed the conflict from a Socialist point of view.

There was one documentary on the First World War which looked promising. This was Ian Hislop’s documentary about conscientious objectors, NOT FORGOTTEN - THE MEN WHO WOULDN'T FIGHT.

The idea of “consciousness objection” was enshrined in the 1916 Military Services Act, and more than 16,000 men argued a case in front of tribunals to be exempt from fighting either on the grounds of religion or morality.

The programme dealt with the “alternatives” who would not fight but help in the war effort and the “absolutists” who would have nothing to do with the war at all.

Those who were forgotten in the programme were socialists - socialists from the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB had opposed the war on grounds of class as soon as the war broke out in 1914 and a Manifesto was published on the front page of the 1914 September SOCIALIST STANDARD under the heading “The War and The Socialist Position”.

The SPGB was absolutist in its opposition to the war; not on religious or moral grounds but because the war was not fought in the interests of the working class. Workers owned only their ability to work. Workers had more in common with workers elsewhere in the world than they did with the capitalist class who owned the means of production. It was a capitalist war fought over trade routes, spheres of influence and raw materials.

The outbreak of war in 1914 highlighted the weakness of the Social Democratic parties who sacrificed the class struggle for Socialism to discussions to whether the war was offensive or defensive. All over the world alleged Socialists sided with their respective governments. Only The Socialist Party of Great Britain remained opposed to the war on the ground that the workers had nothing to gain or lose in victory or defeat.

Immediately the war broke out its (the SPGB’s) Executive Committee passed a resolution declaring that anyone who supported the war was unfit for membership of a Socialist Party...” (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Centenary Edition of the SPGB published 1948 and republished by the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain in 2007)

Most of the SPGB membership who were conscripted applied to the tribunals set up to consider applicants for exemption, but mostly without success:

The tribunals were composed usually of local notabilities and councillors, with a labour specialist and a military representative. In towns where the SPGB had been active the notabilities often were people who had smarted for years under the members’ taunts, and the tribunal hearings were simply displays of defiance against the inevitable judgement. Their application dismissed, the members would shout “long live Socialism!” and, if there were enough of them in court, sing a chorus of The Red Flag before the constables removed them…” THE MONUMENT: THE STORY OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, R. Baltrop, page 56

Socialists were imprisoned for taking a Socialist line against the War. One member, Hardy (son of a founder member and an active Socialist through many decades) retained the lifelong habit he had formed in jail, of pacing to and fro to a set number of steps determined by the size of his prison cell. Post-war, such men found it hard to get jobs, and were denied the vote.

These Socialists are not forgotten. They and their other comrades took a courageous and principled stand against world capitalism with its wars, poverty and class exploitation.

As we wrote at the time:

Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good will and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism
August 25th 1914, The Executive Committee

You have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win! – Marx.

(September SOCIALIST STANDARD 1914 and republished in the pamphlet WAR AND CAPITALISM by the reconstituted Socialist party of Great Britain February 2005 3rd ed.).

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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.