A World Gone Mad

There was little about European politics in the SOCIALIST STANDARD up to August 1914. The main burden always was the inability of reformers to ease the depression of the working class at home. The arming, marching and entente-making were the thieves’ quarrel of the master class, of scant concern to revolutionaries. Occasionally there were articles denouncing patriotism and exposing the excesses of imperialism, but the threat of war had not taken its place as a paramount problem of the capitalist system. The August issue of the standard in 1914, published three days before war was declared, had articles on wages, Catholicism and colonialism, a debate on Marx’s theory of value, and an editorial celebrating ten years’ continuous publication.

Immediately the war began, a statement was drawn up for publication in the name of the Executive. The Party was not pacifist. THE DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, in its clause on the capture of political power, referred specifically to the need for armed forces to support the revolution:

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 organize 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”.

And in the Standard for March 1914, T. W. Lobb put an argument against anti-militarism:

Until that day arrives – the day when the forces of war, controlled by an enlightened working class, will be used to abolish war and the instruments of war for ever – the workers may accept the fact of increasing expenditure on armaments with philosophic calmness, born of the knowledge that waste is at their masters’ expense, and from the workers’ point of view is good

Nevertheless, the SPGB was to oppose the war with unrivalled vigour. The grounds were set forth in the EC’s statement, which appeared on the front of the September SOCIALIST STANDARD.



Whereas The capitalists of Europe have quarrelled over the question of the control of trade routes and the world’s markets, and are endeavouring to exploit the political ignorance and blind passions of the working class of their respective countries in order to induce the said workers to take up arms in what is solely their masters’ quarrel, and

Whereas further, the pseudo-Socialists and labour “leaders” of this country, in common with their fellows on the Continent, have again betrayed the working class position, either through their ignorance of it, their cowardice or worse, and are assisting the master class in utilising this thieves’ quarrel to confuse the minds of the workers and turn their attention from the Class Struggle

The Socialist party of Great Britain seizes the opportunity to re-affirming the Socialist position, which is as follows:

That Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

That in Society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a CLASS WAR, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

That the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exist only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers.

These armed forces, therefore, will only be set in motion to further the interests of the class who control them – the master class – and as the workers’ interests are not bound up in the struggle for markets wherein their masters may dispose of the wealth they have stolen from them (the workers), but in the struggle to end the system under which they are robbed, they are not concerned with the present European struggle, which is already known as the "BUSINESS" war, for it is their masters’ interests which are involved and not their own.

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.


August 25th 1914 The Executive Committee


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

The Party’s bitterness against the war intensified by the readiness with which most of the labour leaders supported it and gave their service to the recruiting campaign. Before the outbreak an anti-war demonstration staged by the Labour Party, the ILP, the British Socialist Party (a change of name by the SDF) and others, had produced the biggest gathering in Trafalgar Square for many years. As late 6 August the British section of the International Socialist Bureau issued a manifesto against war signed by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson in the Labour Leader. The social-democrats of France and Germany were strong for international working-class unity to resist the preparations for war.

Yet, in the actuality of war, almost all of them put national interest before those of the internationalism they had professed. The German social-democrats voted for the war credits – in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, their party “handed in its political resignation, and on the same date the Socialist international went to pieces”. The labour party joined the Parliamentary Recruiting committee; its offices and resources were put at the Government’s disposal, and Henderson – with Frank Goldstone and J. Parker – became Labour’s official speaker at demonstrations for the war. Hyndman, Blatchford, Thorne, Tillett and the rest were zealous for recruiting. Only the ILP held to its anti-war policy in the Labour Leader, but the SPGB was quick to pounce on compromising statements by the ailing shadow of Keir Hardie (14). In the September STANDARD there was a long and carefully reasoned editorial in which Fitzgerald dealt with the “economic fallacy” in much of the support of war. It was true, as Fitzgerald said, that in many people’s minds “that behind all the cant and slobber about honour and the rest of it, is that the solid practical consideration that the successful issue of the war will cripple a great trade rival and provide increased opportunity of work for British workers.” Arguing from statistics of production, trade and employment in Britain, and taking as an economic law the need for an “industrial reserve army” of unemployed, Fitzgerald predicted (in fact more or less accurately) the situation after the war and laid down the Party’s axiom – that it mattered not for the workers which side won.

Party plans were interrupted. The executive had been holding extra meetings on Sunday mornings to hear and consider the draft of a new pamphlet; this had to be left. There was a scheme to raise funds to put Anderson in full-time employment as a speaker and organiser and this too was inevitably dropped. But there were the lesser inconveniences. The major ones being at public meetings as soon as the war started, and continued until the EC decided it had no choice but to stop all propaganda work for the rest of the war.

If speakers were not hauled from their platform s by angry crowds, they were arrested for incitement to disorder. Kohn was escorted by police through a furious mob at Hyde Park, and other speakers were saved from mauling only by the valour of escorting groups of members. One was rescued by a swell in a car – humiliation indeed, to be saved from one’s class by a hated bourgeois. Another speaker was arrested while condemning the depravities of military life by reading out Lord Robert’s circular to commanding officers in India on the supervision of native prostitutes. In court he protested that he had uttered no inflammatory word, but he was fined if he had.

The meetings did not involve just facing hostile audiences. To declare publicly one’s opposition to the war was to risk one’s livelihood as well. Everyone was expected to make a show of patriotism, and it was damaging to an employer’s repute to keep a known subversionary. One member was arrested while speaking in the provinces on a Sunday and detained overnight. Back in London, he telephoned his firm to tell a story about his absence, but he was too late – a newspaper report of his case was in his office, and his dismissal had already taken effect. The executive took the happening to heart and proposed a fund for this man, whose zeal had taken his income away, but similar claimants came forward at once to stake claims of “hardship payments” – there is more than a touch of irritability in the minutes to these questions.

The situation was described in the STANDARD in January of 1915:

Our object was not to bid defiance to a world gone mad, but to place on record the fact that in this country the Socialist position was faithfully maintained by Socialists. With this object we placed our backs against the wall and fought. Our platforms were smashed up and our members injured by mobs egged on by bourgeois cowards who, as usual, had not the spunk to do their own fighting for themselves. Not this only: one of our speakers was arrested and imprisoned, while others were dragged before the magistrates and “bound over to keep the peace”. In some instances the proceedings were rounded off by the victims being discharged from their employment by their “good, kind masters” for daring to hold political opinions of their own.

However, this was the preface – with the heading UNDER MARTIAL LAW – to the announcement that the SPGB had decided to close down its meetings. The defence of the realm Regulations issued in November 1914, made clear that there would be more serious trouble if they continued:

No person shall by word of mouth or in writing or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publications spread false reports or make false statements or reports or statements likely to cause disaffection to His majesty or to interfere with the success of His majesty’s forces by land or sea or to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with foreign powers, or spread statements or make reports likely to prejudice the recruitment, training, discipline, or administration of any of His majesty’s forces, and if any person contravenes this provision he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations”.

The SOCIALIST STANDARD was tolerated, probably because its circulation was small; however, several public libraries refused to continue having it, and in 1916 the War office forbade its being sent abroad. Only one article was excluded in the four years of war, when a printer refused to machine what Jacomb had put into type. The Standard had instead a blank column headed:


The firm who machines this paper has refused to print the article which was set up to appear under the above heading. We are therefore compelled to withdraw the article. We congratulate the Government on the success of their efforts to preserve the “freedom of the press”.

At the outset of war, the Executive Committee passed a resolution that any member who joined the armed forces was unfit to remain in the Socialist Party. For some time recruitment continued to seek only volunteers. The social pressures to enlist were highly compulsive, however; besides the vigour of the official recruiting campaign, a man was fortunate whose employer, relations and friends did not hope to shame him into going. In an article called “Conscripts or Volunteers”, the standard drew attention to “the part played by strident women” and suggested that the suffragettes saw their chance of power with the male population in the trenches. Nor can there be such doubt that many employers were glad to embrace a national duty which meant replacing men of military age with women at cheaper rates of pay.

The members did not enlist, of course – or those who did either through change of heart or through inability to resist the pressures, left the Party first. The only expulsion for enlisting was of a woman member who joined one of the female auxiliary services. But obviously there was to be conscription sooner or later. Members with connections in neutral countries took advantage of them. One or two made for Ireland, and Kohn and Baritz for America. Kohn lay low, sending occasional articles to the STANDARD and conducting his classes in scientific socialism. Baritz, however, was incapable of self-effacement, and was imprisoned as an agitator as soon as America entered the war.

When conscription began, the situation became more diffuse. The compulsion of economic circumstances was part of the Party’s case against capitalism; allowance had to be made, therefore, for men with families who could not accept the consequences of resisting conscription. Though they were looked-down on, the few members who did their military service were not expelled. But the majority were determined to do nothing of the kind. Most of them applied without success to the tribunals which were set up to consider applicants for exemption, and then made their own arrangements.

The tribunals were composed 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 was enough of them in court, sing a chorus of The Red Flag before the constables removed them. There were facilities for appealing against the tribunal decisions, but what was virtually the only kind of exemption given – permission to do non-combatant service in the army – was not acceptable to the members anyway.

The next step for a conscientious objector (the term had originated in controversy over religious education in schools, but now took a new meaning) was, when the calling-up papers were received, to go to the regimental centre and refuse the issue of his soldier’s badge. The trial and sentence were then an Army matter, and the objectors who persisted this spent the remainder of the war in military prisons (one Tom West, was in the Tower of London). Some broke down, less from hardship than from the incessant humiliation. One member was put to work in the open for a time, so that passing parties could see a conscientious objector in the flesh. Others described afterwards how they were locked in huts at night without toilet facilities and had to use their boots.

There was nothing exhibitionistic about this: nobody could see except the sergeants, nobody could be told until long afterwards. Members accepted and endured it only from the depth of their conviction. One or two practically volunteered for it by leaving reserved occupations in order to make their protest known. But not all socialists were disposed to martyrdom. A good many, unwilling to offer themselves without a struggle for unpredictable periods in military prisons, joined the “flying corps” – the brotherhood of men on the move, relying on their own resourcefulness and others’ loyalty to keep away from the authorities.

A few hit on subterfuges which were lucky. One took driving instruction in the name of a serving officer, and retained the man’s identity unquestioned all through the war. At least two had official documents on which their ages had been mis-stated, and took the advantage accordingly. Most of these members, however, were continual fugitives. Legally they were deserters, and there were plenty of people willing – indeed, duty bound in their own right – to give them away. They rarely left London, and rarely lost touch with the Party; often a group would stay in a member’s house until some circumstances made it no longer safe. And often a member’s wife or sister kept the police at the front door long enough for him to climb the back fence and run.

The coffee-shop man next door to the Party offices was helpful, too. He cleaned the windows and looked for strange men; more than once, the shop itself was a refuge when the offices were dangerous. In 1917, however, the Head office was raided. Kohn had sent an article which was intercepted; the contents sent the American police looking for Kohn and the London police to Grays Inn Road. There was nothing incriminating in the office. All the Party records had been taken elsewhere. The police questioned Kohn’s sister, Hilda, but – a curious blind-spot, this – never considered that a woman might herself be in the Party; she was in fact Party Secretary at the time, and kept the current minutes-book in her handbag.

Fitzgerald was taken to Scotland Yard for questioning, and spent the night in a cell. Nothing emerged concerning Kohn’s whereabouts, but the police had in their hands that night the means to round up the entire “flying corps”. The methodical-minded Fitz – always hyper-critical of other people’s carelessness – had everyone’s whereabouts written in his pocket book. The police found the book when they searched him, but apparently failed to grasp the significance of the lists of names and addresses, and let Fitzgerald go. The matter was dropped; Kohn was not discovered, but he sent no more articles.

There were even half-surreptitious organized reunions of members during the war. The Party Conference took place every Easter at the Fairfax Hall in Haringey, with the customary Saturday-night social. And in one wartime June the STANDARD printed a cautionary worded notice that to commemorate the foundation of the Party in 1904 there would be a ramble in the country, particulars to be had from the secretary of the committee. The outing took place, and about 120 members joined it – and everybody, in fact, for whom it was humanly possible. There is a photograph of this remarkable gathering in Epping Forest: respectable-looking people in dull clothes, half of them wanted by the authorities, all of them bent on the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the new society.

Without activity other than the efforts to keep the organization going, the Party sank to a low water as the war progressed. The restricted sale of the Standard and the absence of meetings confined income to the members’ own subscriptions, and a few were able to donate more. The modest rent of the offices in Grays Inn Road had become a difficult burden, and when the lease ran out in early 1918 the Party took two rooms above a sweetshop at 28 Union Street, near Oxford Street. Here again the shopkeeper was helpful. If anything was amiss, he had a standing card: a card in his window was turned upside down, and members knew they must go in the shop instead of upstairs.

To fight the depletion of funds, the SOCIALIST STANDARD was reduced to four pages and an appeal for a thousand pounds was launched by the 1918 Conference. Members took subscription lists, and the details and donors were printed each month in the STANDARD The first results were encouraging though, but the income quickly dwindled and the thousand pounds were never obtained as a sum for use, though the lists appeared until 1925. Part of the original aim was to have enough money to contest an election at the end of the war, but this did not come until a generation – and a war – later.

The end of the war was not celebrated in the SOCIALIST STANDARD. The errant membership reassembled. Much of the building of the ten years after 1904 had been shattered; members had been lost (Hans Neumann, who had been in Germany when the war began, was never seen again and was later heard to have been killed in the Spartacus Rising); money and offices were gone. More and more, the SPGB felt it stood alone. The four years’ madness had shown the so-called socialists of the world in their true colours: Kautsky, Jack London, the advocates of international brotherhood everywhere had chosen nationalism and militarism in the hour of trial. The ILP in Britain had rejected the war, but its association with the Labour party deprived it of all credit in the eyes of the SPGB. The members who had come through the war were confirmed as never before in the belief that they, and no-one else, held the truth and menaced the system.


14. “I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting; I know too well al that there is at stake…If I can get the recruiting figures for Merthyr week by week, which I find is a very difficult job, I hope by another week to prove that whereas our Rink meeting gave a stimulus to recruiting, those meetings at the Drill Hall at which the Liberal member or the Liberal candidate spoke had exactly the opposite effect”. Keir Hardie, in the Merthyr Pioneer, 27 November1914.

From the MONUMENT: THE STORY OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, Robert Barltrop, chapter 6 pp 51 to 59, “The World Gone Mad”, Pluto Press, 1975. With thanks to Richard Juper for giving us permission to publish this chapter in SOCIALIST STUDIES and on our Web Site).

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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.