What is the SPGB?, Part 2

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In the first part of this series we looked at the development of the SPGB from its origins as part of the tendency within the SDF that struggled against the reformism and opportunism of the latter. We showed that in its first years the SPGB was confronted with important questions arising from the development of capitalism, such as the role of the unions and the relationship between the struggle for reforms and the struggle for the revolution. In this second part we look at the vastly more demanding challenges that faced the whole workers' movement in the second decade of the 20th century. A period in which it became clear through the ravages of the First World War that capitalism has entered a new historical period, the period of its decadence, and in which the proletariat launched a wave of struggles, beginning in Russia in 1917, that for the first time threatened the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

The First World war

The SPGB portray themselves as the implacable opponents of war. They say that "the party had no hesitation in declaring total opposition when the first world war came in 1914" (Socialist Principles Explained, 1975, p7) and that "the only political organisation to 'unequivocally' oppose the war was the Socialist Party" (Socialist Standard, no.1110, Feb 1997, p14). In fact the SPGB's opposition in both theory and practice never rose to the historical challenge posed by the new period in capitalism's life.

Barltrop in The Monument states that "There was little about European politics in the Socialist Standard up to 1914" (p.51). There were some general articles denouncing capitalist 'peace' (April 1911 and July 1912), one in November 1912 analysing the background to the Balkan war and another in March 1914 on armaments. The issue for September 1914, the first after the outbreak of the war, printed a statement by the Executive Committee on the war that correctly denounced it as a capitalist war and then proclaimed that the party "seizes the opportunity of reaffirming the socialist position", which it did in very general terms, before concluding by "placing on record its abhorrence of this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class, and declaring that 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...we extend to our fellow workers the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism". In a more detailed article, 'The war and you', it portrayed the war as one for trade and markets: "Behind the covering screen of cant about British honour and German perfidy is the consciousness, frequently voiced, that it is a question, not of German perfidy but of German trade; not of British honour, but of wider markets for the disposal of British surplus products" (p.4). This was the orthodox position of the workers' movement at the time. For example, the Stuttgart congress of the Second International held in 1907 in its Resolution on War and Militarism declared "As a rule, wars between capitalist states are the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones" (quoted in Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Pathfinder Press, 1986, p.33-4).

The SPGB was allowed to continue publishing throughout the war (although it was prevented from sending copies abroad and some libraries refused to take it) and carried articles reiterating their opposition to the war, exposing the propaganda of the bourgeoisie and denouncing the betrayal of those organisations of the working class that supported the war. However they remained at a general level and never expressed the historic significance of the development nor analysed the progress of the war and the strategy of the ruling class in any detail. This failure to analyse the historic significance of the war, in particular, contrasts strongly with the approach taken by the left of the workers movement. Lenin and Luxemburg had both developed analyses that expressed an understanding of the historical evolution of the capitalist system. This understanding was expressed in an early statement by the Bolsheviks: "The growth of armaments, the extreme intensification of the struggle for markets in the latest - the imperialist - stage of capitalist development in the advanced countries, and the dynastic interests of the more backward East-European monarchies were inevitably bound to bring about this war, and have done so" (The war and Russian Social-Democracy in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 21, p.27). Luxemburg also placed the war in the phase of imperialism: "the last phase in the life, and the highest point in the expansion of the world hegemony of capital" ('Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy' in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.330). A similar understanding was also expressed by Gorter: "Times have changed. Capitalism is so developed that it can continue its further development only by massacring the proletariat of every country. A world capital is born, which is turning against the world proletariat. World imperialism threatens the working class of the whole world" (quoted in The Dutch and German Communist Left, p110, published by the ICC, 2001).

The publication of the Socialist Standard quite rapidly became the SPGB's only tool of intervention. In January 1915 it voluntarily stopped holding public meetings after a number had been broken up and some of its militants injured, although it continued to discreetly hold its annual meetings. Despite a few reports about industrial action there is no evidence to suggest that the SPGB played any part in the strikes that broke out during the war. Nor is there any evidence that pamphlets were produced during the war and there is only one reference to the production of a leaflet. In October 1914 the Socialist Standard advised the working class "to stay at home and think" and to join the SPGB. The principle opposition conducted by the SPGB was the individual refusal of its members to join the army. While some chose to disappear, the majority sought to be accepted as conscientious objectors, some even leaving protected jobs in order to do so. While the courage shown by individual militants cannot be doubted, it amounted to no more than that shown by people who objected on religious grounds and only served to further reduce the number of militants free to continue political work. The task for revolutionaries in such a situation is not to make gestures, however great the personal sacrifice, but to struggle to defend the interests of the working class.

In sharp contrast to the SPGB the Bolsheviks did not see the war as a time to reduce activity or to accept the dictates of the bourgeoisie, but as a time to increase the struggle: "The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan it has been dictated by all the conditions of an imperialist war between highly developed bourgeois countries. However difficult that transformation may seem at any given moment, socialists will never relinquish systematic, persistent and undeviating preparatory work in this direction now that war has become a fact" (Lenin, op. cit. p.34). The Bolsheviks called for illegal organisation and propaganda within the army, participated in workers' struggles and maintained the publication and distribution of its papers despite the efforts of the Tsarist repression. In Britain the approach of the SLP also contrasts with that of the SPGB. The SPGB has made much of the fact that the SLP 'wavered' at the outbreak of the war as proof of their superiority. It is true that at a meeting of the SLP after the declaration of war, one faction supported national defence in the event of invasion but, according to one of its militants, this position was rapidly reversed (Tom Bell, Pioneering Days, p102). Its attitude, while not free of errors, in particular the call for class-conscious workers to sign up in order to get training in the use of weapons, was to try and use the war to develop the class struggle. It continued to hold public meetings and to publish The Socialist even when its presses were attacked. Its militants, many of whom went on the run in order to be able to continue their work, played a central role in the strikes on the Clyde, working with militants from other organisations, such as John Maclean, who continued to defend a proletarian position on the war.

The revolutionary wave

As a result of its failure to understand the qualitative change in the life of capitalism expressed by the First World War, the SPGB was unable to recognise, understand or participate in the revolutionary response of the proletariat. As with its understanding of the war the SPGB remained trapped in the framework of the Second International in its approach to the revolutionary wave that began in Russia. Its consistent identification of the revolution in Russia as bourgeois is based on the orthodox view of social democracy that the bourgeois revolution must be completed before a proletarian one is possible. In April 1917, in possibly its first reference to the Russian Revolution, the SPGB stated "Far from heralding the dawn of freedom in Russia, it is simply the completion of the emancipation of the capitalist class in Russia which started in the 'emancipation' of the serfs some seventy years ago - in order that they might become factory slaves. The revolution's greatest importance from the working-class view-point is that it brings the workers face to face with their final exploiters". The same argument was repeated in the following months. In an article 'Russia and ourselves' they cite the election of Kerensky as evidence that "the Russian capitalist class still hold the field" (Socialist Standard, July 1917), failing to see the class struggle taking place, and conclude by calling for the working class to educate itself, effectively giving up the real struggle going on: "Only through class-conscious organisation on political lines can the Russian proletariat emerge from their long-endured bondage. In this they resemble the workers of all other countries, and to the work of education necessary to achieve such organisation I commend all Russian Socialists" (ibid). The concessions to bourgeois democratic ideology implicit in this argument were made much more explicit in a later article entitled 'The Revolution in Russia - Where it Fails': "Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for socialism? Are the hunters of the North, the struggling peasant proprietors of the South, the agricultural wage slaves of the Central Provinces, and the industrial wage-slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity, and equipped with the knowledge requisite, for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life?

"Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is 'No'. What justification is there, then, for terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution? None whatever beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claim to be Marxian Socialists" (quoted in Perrin (1), The Socialist Party of Great Britain, p.60).

Underpinning this analysis is a view of the revolution in Russia as a purely national phenomenon. If such an error was understandable at the time, given both the limited information available and the weight of the view of the necessity for every nation to complete the bourgeois stage before beginning the proletarian one, this is not the case today. However, Perrin's recent history of the SPGB does precisely this, failing completely to acknowledge Lenin's repeated insistence that the working class could not hold power in Russia unless the proletariat of the other major capitalist countries, and Germany above all others, also seized power. The ability to see the worldwide nature of the proletarian revolution was the corollary of understanding that capitalism had encompassed the globe. It was the position reached in various ways and with various degrees of clarity by the greatest of revolutionaries, by the likes of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. It was this that allowed Luxemburg to conclude her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution with the famous words: "In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to 'bolshevism'" (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.395).


In failing to grasp the changes in capitalism, specifically its entry into its period of decadence, and the consequent changes in the class struggle, with the proletarian revolution becoming a material possibility for the first time in history, the SPGB was unable to rise to the challenge of the period and so could not be part of the proletariat's forces. However, nor did it betray the working class and become part of the bourgeoisie. As a result it came to occupy a position between the two great classes and has remained there ever since.

North, 25/03/04.


  • Perrin has asked us to point out that his book is not a publication of the SPGB. For our part we note that Perrin is a member of the SPGB and his book was sold through the Socialist Standard.

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