What is the SPGB?, part 1

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The Socialist Party of Great Britain is 100 years old this year. Formed in June 1904 it has maintained the same platform through wars, revolution and recession, it continues to attract the interest of people who are looking for an alternative to capitalism and who have rejected the distortions of socialism offered by bourgeois currents like Stalinism and Trotskyism. The question we have to ask, however, is whether this group genuinely offers a positive way forward for those proletarian minorities searching for a revolutionary critique of the present system. In order to provide a serious answer to this question, we need to place the SPGB in its historical context - to understand its place in the history of the workers' movement and to provide an analysis of what it represents today.


The origins of the SPGB lie in the struggle that took place within the Second International between the revisionist and revolutionary tendencies in the years around the start of the twentieth century. This struggle was taken up by the left of the workers' movement and is particularly associated with Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. At the Paris Congress of the International, held in 1900, the majority of the British delegation supported a resolution proposed by Kautsky which, while opposing the participation of socialists in bourgeois governments in principle, allowed the participation of the French socialist Millerand in the government of Waldeck-Rousseau in practice. This government included General Gallifet who had been responsible for the massacre of 20,000 communards after the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1870. The resolution, which Iskra called the 'india-rubber resolution', was opposed by the representatives of the left of Social Democracy, including a single British delegate, George Yates, a member of the Social Democratic Federation. Following the congress Yates took a leading role in the struggle within the SDF between the leadership and the faction that was dubbed the 'impossibilists'.

The particular situation in Britain was marked by the failure of attempts over the preceding twenty years to create a real proletarian party (note 1). Engels had analysed the development of conditions in Britain in some detail and argued that the deterioration of Britain's economic supremacy, and the consequent worsening of the situation of the working class, would produce conditions favourable for the return of socialism, and a socialist political organisation, to Britain. However, while a number of organisations were created none was able to accomplish this task.

The SDF and the Socialist League that split from it were never able to overcome the stage of circle functioning. The SDF, under the leadership of the adventurer H. M. Hyndeman (more than one revolutionary suggested he might actually be an agent of the state) sought to control and manipulate the workers' movement and opposed the spread of marxism, despite Hyndeman's fiery verbal adherence to it. It was frequently hostile to strikes, which it denounced as futile, and preferred to orchestrate demonstrations and riots of the unemployed. At the international level it supported the possibilist congress against the marxist one that established the Second International(note 2). Hyndeman conducted a campaign of slander against Marx, whose work he had plagiarised, and attacked Engels and made accusations against Eleanor Marx and others in the internal struggle that led to the split which produced the Socialist League. He also spread nationalist, anti-German and anti-Semitic poison within the workers movement.

The Socialist League rejected nationalism and supported the creation of the International. It initially received the support of Engels and included Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax, William Morris and other marxists in its membership. However, under the weight of a strong anarchist element, it was unable to escape from a sterile purism that rejected participation in parliament and the struggle for reforms. No decisive combat was waged against the anarchists, partly because they were already so strong, but also because some of the leaders, notably William Morris, didn't understand the danger they posed until too late. By the early 1890s the League had been destroyed, and was used by the anarchists, with the assistance of police spies and agent provocateurs, to throw discredit on the revolutionary movement.

The Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893, seemed to be based on much more solid foundations and was hailed by Engels as the basis for the creation of a genuine workers' party. Again, marxists took an active part in its early years (Aveling was on the executive), but this time confronted not the anarchists, but the reformist weight of the unions, assisted by the Fabians, which eventually emptied it of all revolutionary content, turning it simply into the seed-bed for the Labour Party.

Thus, by the turn of the century, the working class movement in Britain was divided between a small revolutionary current, trapped in dogmatism and weakened by the parasitic manoeuvres of Hyndeman, and a far larger reformist current, dominated by active anti-marxists in the unions and the Fabian Society and increasingly led by careerists such as Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden. For the revolutionary current to fight effectively against reformism it would first have to break from the circle and sectarian mode of functioning inculcated by the SDF.

The 'impossibilists' in the SDF

The authoritarianism of Hyndeman and the sectarianism of the SDF's programme and practice ensured that it never really made contact with the working class and produced dissension and, more frequently, demoralisation within the membership. Although the SDF never had more than a few thousand members (and these figures were frequently inflated), vast numbers of people passed through its ranks (Bernstein gives a figure of over a hundred thousand; Hyndeman himself spoke of a million - Kendall, The revolutionary movement in Britain 1900-21, p323). While some may have gained an education in socialism as Hyndeman claimed, the vast majority were more likely to have been lost to the revolutionary cause and driven into the arms of reformism or complete inactivity.

The minority who attempted to fight the control of the Hyndeman clique frequently tended to take up even more absolutist positions than the official policy, for example opposing the unity discussions with the ILP in the mid to late 1890s, although they also attacked the personal control exercised by Hyndeman through his domination of the Executive and the SDF's publications (they were produced by a private publishing company owned by Hyndeman). They also challenged the xenophobic and anti-Semitic way in which the SDF initially opposed the Boer war and its subsequent tacit support for a British victory.

From the late 1890s on, the opposition, who were dubbed 'impossibilists', gained ground in Scotland, taking control of the Scottish Executive Council, and to a lesser extent in London.

The elements in Scotland and London both opposed the negotiations with the ILP, the support given to the Kautsky Resolution and Hyndeman's control of the press. However, those in Scotland were distinguished by their more internationalist orientation and greater concern for the organisational question. Specifically, they were strongly influenced by De Leon and the American Socialist Labor Party, whose paper Weekly People was widely sold, and by James Connolly. They stressed the central role of the industrial struggle and the necessity for a strong revolutionary organisation to act as the vanguard of the class struggle.

Attempts by the impossibilists to develop the debate in the SDF's journal Justice were suppressed by the Executive, leading the Scottish elements first to have their positions published in the Weekly People and subsequently to launch their own paper The Socialist. The struggle developed at the SDF conferences between 1901 and 1903. In 1901 the impossibilists were defeated in attempts to repudiate the delegation's support for the Kautsky resolution, to remove Justice from Hyndeman's control and to abandon discussions with the ILP. The following year attempts to have a verbatim report of the conference, to end talks with the ILP and to create socialist trade unions were also defeated. At the 1903 conference Yates and other Scottish delegates were expelled. Immediately afterwards the Scottish Divisional Council disaffiliated from the SDF and two months later (June 1903) the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was created.

The impossibilists in London refused to join those in Scotland, preferring to continue to try to change the SDF from within and accusing the Scottish elements of not informing them of their plans and of provoking the expulsions with attacks on the Executive. They also opposed the emphasis on industrial action, giving central importance to the electoral struggle. Alongside this were personal animosities and feuds. The London impossibilists accused their Scottish comrades of being undemocratic and their leading figure, Fitzgerald, was unwilling to give up his pre-eminent position. However, after the expulsion of Fitzgerald and another London impossibilist a few months later, they too left the SDF to set up their own organisation, founding The Socialist Party of Great Britain in June 1904.

The two new parties emerged in a particularly demanding period. At the global level, capitalism was entering the transition from its period of ascendance to its decadence. This presented the entire workers' movement with immense theoretical and practical challenges. One response to this was the theoretical works of Lenin and Luxemburg and the fight they led against various forms of opportunism. It is not possible to present our analysis of these developments here and we refer readers to the various publications of the ICC (for example, the articles in the series "Communism is not just a 'nice idea'" in IR 86 and 88). The SPGB and SLP also faced the particular situation in Britain with its legacy of the failures of the previous decades and the enormous weight of reformism on the movement in Britain. At the heart of the problems they faced was a failure to fully grasp the marxist understanding of how consciousness develops in the working class. The same difficulty could be seen in the Socialist League, which opposed any support for reforms and opposed participation in elections, thereby failing to understand the relationship between the immediate struggles of the working class and its ultimate perspective. Indeed, as suggested above, it is possible to encapsulate the problem in Britain as being a result of a failure to unite these two elements. The result was the separation between the minority of revolutionaries, who tended towards a sectarian approach to other organisations and the day to day struggle of the working class, in order to defend their revolutionary integrity, and the majority of reformists who were increasingly drawn towards tacit support for the bourgeoisie and hostility to the proletariat. The challenge that faced the SPGB and SLP was precisely to overcome this separation.

The Socialist Labour Party

The subsequent development of the SLP is significant for the advances it made at the organisational level and its determined defence of class interests during the First World War and after 1917. It provides an important comparison with the SPGB.

It struggled to become a militant, centralised organisation capable of being the vanguard of the working class. It demanded commitment and discipline from its members, reacting strongly to failure to pay dues or carry out the work of the organisation. It recognised that the working class would have to seize political power and overthrow the bourgeois state. While it gave priority to the industrial struggle, founding the Advocates of Industrial Unionism in 1907, it also participated in elections and, while it saw the struggle for the revolution as its main task, it also (despite the opposition of part of the membership) recognised the need to win reforms to improve the immediate position of the working class. These developments expressed its greater openness to the real life and experiences of the proletariat and were a counterweight to the sectarianism of its origins. However, it did not entirely overcome this sectarianism. It condemned the German Social Democratic Party as reformist, showing a failure to understand the struggle going on within it and also to fully grasp the relationship between the minimum and maximum programme. At the Amsterdam Congress of the International in 1904 it refused to be part of a single British delegation that included non-socialists and reformers and demanded separate representation. When this was denied it refused to take part in the Congress.

In 1914 it took an internationalist position against the war and sought to continue the class struggle, taking a central part in the industrial struggles that developed in Clydeside in 1915-16. It continued to publish The Socialist, despite its presses being seized, and despite the fact that many members had been conscripted or were on the run, in prison or exiled to other parts of the country. It printed various articles by Lenin as well as Liebknecht's speech at his court-martial.

In 1917, almost alone amongst the socialist organisations in Britain (the Workers Socialist Federation led by Sylvia Pankhurst was the other), it hailed the October Revolution and declared complete solidarity with the Bolsheviks. It saw the revolution as confirmation of the correctness of its positions and in 1918 proclaimed "We are the British Bolsheviks". It not only defended the revolution but also participated actively in the struggles of 1918-19, seeking to link the struggles in the various parts of the country together. Between 1919 and 1921 the SLP participated in the discussions that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Part of the SLP joined the CPGB while another part tried to carry on independently, but saw a rapid decline in numbers and sales of publications, leading to the effective closure of The Socialist in 1922 and the disappearance of the SLP.

The SPGB in its early years

Both the SLP and SPGB sought to oppose the tide of reformism, to defend marxism and the necessity for revolution. Both were expressions of the working class, but while the SLP struggled to overcome the sectarianism of the SDF, the SPGB remained trapped.

This was shown in the Declaration of Principles and the first discussions in the SPGB. The former, which is still printed unaltered in every issue of the Socialist Standard, sets out the opposed class interests of the proletariat and bourgeoisie, declares that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the class itself and that it is necessary for it to organise itself politically to achieve this. But within the Declaration can also be seen the basis of the democratic mystification and sectarianism that condemned the SPGB to sterility. Clause six called for the transformation of the machinery of government and the armed forces "from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation". The lessons learnt from the bloody experience of the Paris Commune on the necessity to overthrow the bourgeois state are ignored (note 3). Clause 8 declared the SPGB to be the one true church of the revolution and declared war "against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist". They see no genuine expressions of the working class beyond themselves, making no distinction between organisations of the bourgeoisie and those of the proletariat. They will debate with anyone, but the marxist conception of the confrontation of positions as a necessary part of the advance of the workers movement is alien. The SPGB's positions are correct and invariant: the task of the working class is simply to "muster under its banner".

The rigidity with which the SPGB interprets marxism changes it from an incisive method for analysing the world from the perspective of the working class into a dogma to be blindly followed. In the SPGB's own recent history, The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party, they try to link their rejection of reforms with Rosa Luxemburg's position, giving a quotation from Reform or Revolution? (p26). But Luxemburg's critique of reformism was part of her broader analysis of the relationship between the minimum and the maximum programme: "From the viewpoint of a movement for socialism, the trade union struggle and our parliamentary practice are vastly important insofar as they make socialistic the awareness, the consciousness, of the proletariat and help to organise it as a class" ("Reform or Revolution" in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.58). Barltrop, in his account of the SPGB, offers an interesting perspective on the method of the SPGB: "It is true to say, however, that the dialectic was never embraced in any real sense by the Socialist Party. Historical materialism, Marx's demonstration of social superstructures standing on economic bases and the drive to change arising from the compulsion for every class to pursue its interests, was advanced as confidently as the labour theory of value. For the dialectic no such confidence existed. It carried a tinge of mysticism from its philosophical origins" (The Monument, p.11). However, such avoidance did not allow the new party to completely escape the challenges confronting the proletariat.

The first discussion in the new organisation concerned the attitude towards the trade unions. A minority, supported by the Executive, dismissed the unions because they sought to win reforms and did not share the positions of the SPGB. They were defeated by the majority who portrayed the unions as simply a means to defend the economic interests of the working class. Neither saw the unions in a dynamic way, as part of the process of the class coming to consciousness. The 1907 manifesto noted that the industrial equivalent of the SPGB did not yet exist, but nothing was done to create such an organisation. The struggle to defend the economic interests of the working class was separated from the political struggle of the proletariat, showing that the leaders of the SPGB, some of whom had been taught by Marx's son-in-law Aveling, had not understood Marx's analysis of the development of the class struggle and class consciousness (note 4). Instead, the democratic process became the universal panacea, with the road to socialism reduced to the level of the consciousness of the individual worker (note 5).

A second dispute arose over the attitude that socialist Members of Parliament would adopt towards possible reforms. The Executive essentially argued that while the party opposed reformism it could not oppose measures that would benefit the working class, declaring that "the attainment of socialism is dependent on the preservation of the workers in general" (Perrin, p.34). This led to a split with those who opposed support for any reforms since such support would "tend to efface the bitter hostility against the capitalist class required from the working class to finally vanquish their most deadly enemy" (Barltrop, p.38).

At the same time the SPGB gradually detached itself from the international working class movement, declaring the Second International lost to reformism and breaking contact with the leaders of the workers' movement in various countries. They stopped printing the writings and speeches of these leaders and in 1910 wrote in the Socialist Standard, "It is a sad reflection that, except the SPGB, every body that contained the germ of Socialist existence has been swallowed up by...compromise and confusion" (quoted in Baltorp, p35).

In the second part of this article we will look at the response of the SPGB to the challenges posed by capitalism's entry into its decadent period - in particular, to the wars and revolutions which characterised this new epoch.


  1. See the series "The struggle for the class party in Britain" in WR nos 198, 205, 208, 213, 215, 218, 222, 225, 226, 228, 230, 232, 233 and 237. Back
  2. The Second International was founded in July 1889. At the same time the French 'Possibilist' party held a seprate conference bringing together an assortment of opportunists, reformists and anarchists united only by their opposition to marxism. See the second part of the series on the class party in WR 205. Back
  3. In The Socialist Party of Great Brtain: Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party, published by the SPGB they claim Marx's support for this position "This passage from the Declaration of Principles closely resembles a phrase used by Marx himself in the preamble to the 1880 programme of the Guesdist 'Federation of the Party of the Socialist Workers in France', where it was stated that socialism 'must be pursued by all the means which the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery which it has been till now into an instrument of emancipation'" (p.28). Apart from the detail that this quotation in no way supports the SPGB position, since it sees the vote as only one means amongst many, there is also the fact that Marx stated his position quite explicitly in the 1872 introduction to the Communist Manifesto: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes". The un-marxist position of the SPGB on this is expressed quite clearly in their own publications: In From Capitalism to Socialism, published in 1986, they ask "Where does the state's power come from?" and answer, "The power to form a government is invested in the votes of the electorate" (p44). Back
  4. A 1980 publication, Socialism and the Trade Unions, describes the industrial struggle as "innevitable but…only a rearguard action" (p.21), and warns workers of the fact that "any increase of pay that might eventually be gained has to be set against the loss of wages during the strike" (p.26). Back
  5. In their 1975 text, Socialist Principles Explained, the SPGB tell us that "workers who will not vote for socialism certainly will not strike for it" (p.20). Back