The Socialist Labour Party - Then and Now

The world will never be civilised so long as capitalism endures.

SLP, September 1914

Capitalist companies have a whole panoply of laws dealing with copyright, patents and trademarks to prevent competitors from deceiving prospective purchasers. History, regrettably, does not prevent political organisations from working equivalent contricks. For decades the Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist groups confused workers by peddling varieties of state capitalism as “real living socialism” or even “communism”. In Britain, the Scargill-led movement, anxious both to keep their followers within the traditions of Labourism and also to breathe fresh life into the lie that state intervention equals socialism (or at very least the road to socialism) opted for the name, Socialist Labour Party.

Whether by accident or design, Scargill, by choosing that title has perpetrated the type of mislabelling more normally used by the capitalist crooks who own the sweatshops churning out imitation designer clothing. The fact is, and one assumes Scargill or some of his clique are aware of it, that unlike the present project of developing a fraction of the Labour left outside the confines of the official Labour Party, the original bearers of the name Socialist Labour Party were committed to organising to destroy capitalism rather than to administering it more kindly or efficiently.

The First SLP - Part of Our Revolutionary Inheritance

The original SLP (1) was formed in 1903 at a conference called by the former Scottish divisional council of the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF). One of the founding statements of the party, gives a clear indication of the grounds of how the SLP defined itself against the other erstwhile Socialist or Labour parties operating in Britain. As part of a Manifesto to the Working Class one of the founders of the new party, John Carstairs Matheson, defined Socialism in a way which clearly differentiated the SLP, and today’s revolutionaries, from the leaders of the SDF, and Scargill and other brands of leftists. Defining socialism the SLP wrote,

By this we do not mean what is variously called ‘State Socialism’, ‘Public Ownership’ or ‘Municipalism’ - that is, the ownership of certain public utilities by a community in which capitalism is still dominant. A worker is as much exploited by a capitalist state or corporation as by a private employer - as post office or municipal employees can testify. We insist upon the political overthrow of capitalism as an absolutely necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the working class. Otherwise an industry controlled by an individual capitalist state differs from one controlled by an individual capitalist only in the superior powers of the former to rob and oppress those under its thralldom. (2)

It is of interest that the original choice of the name SLP was not without some controversy. There was already in existence a party of the same name in the USA whose positions, particularly the emphasis on working-class struggle rather than electoralism, helped inspire the founders of the SLP. Living links between the US SLP and British socialists had been strengthened the previous year when James Connolly (3) had carried out a speaking tour of the USA. The SDF opponents of the founders of the British SLP attempted to portray them as puppets of the American party but despite that the founding conference adopted the same title as their US counterparts.

Again, the self-definition carried out by the early SLP serves as an example of socialist clarity against the mystifiers and confusionists of both then and now. Separating the three elements of their chosen name they declared their meaning as:

Socialist because through Socialism alone can the workers be emancipated;
Labour because by the labouring classes alone can Socialism be attained;
Party because we are not merely an educational or propagandist body but stand for the political expression of our class interests, for the formation of the Socialist Republic.

Naturally, there are formulations within those definitions which read strangely from our vantage point more than ninety years later. We could question what was meant by “labouring classes which were to attain socialism”. Similarly the question of a “Socialist Republic” may appear vague or even dangerous. However it must be borne in mind that, when considering the question of proletarian political power the comrades in 1903 had only the brief and unique experience of the Paris Commune as an historic reference point against which to refine their theory and practice. The three points above actually stand out like a beacon of clarity when contrasted to the positions adopted by their contemporaries in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) or the Social Democratic Federation (renamed the British Socialist Party following the merger with some ILP branches in 1912).

The First Ten Years - Marxists and Militants

From the party’s creation in 1903 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the SLP built its roots amongst some of the most class conscious workers in a situation where there was a rising tide of industrial militancy. Responding to this militancy and the appearance of new formations such as the shop stewards’ movement the SLP intervened by arguing against the divisiveness of the old craft-based trade unions and in favour of all embracing “Industrial Unionism”. In its journal, The Socialist in June 1907 it explained its position as follows,

Let us then organise industrially as well as politically for our class emancipation. Industrially, to build up within the womb of capitalism the foundations of the future state of society, reared upon the structure of our class interests, marching shoulder to shoulder, steadying up our class in their onward march to economic freedom.
Politically to unseat the capitalist class from the power of government, to remove the legal enactments that today safeguard the rights of private property, to prevent, if possible, the capitalist from using the physical power of the nation against the industrial workers of this or any other nation.

In combining its intervention in the industrial organisations of the working-class with the Marxist understanding of the struggle for political power, the SLP also defined itself against the syndicalists who believed that industrial unionism could replace the political struggle and particularly the need for a revolutionary party.

Syndicalism was, nevertheless, able to attract a layer of workers who were repelled by the day-to-day practices of those, such as the early Labour M.P.s who sat in Parliament - described by Ben Tillett, a leader of the London dockers, in 1908 as “These unctuous weaklings [who] will go on prattling their nonsense while thousands are dying of starvation”. In the same year the struggle between the SLP and the “pure” syndicalists became particularly critical with a split in the organisation, the Advocates of Industrial Unionism which the SLP had helped launch 12 months previously.

Marxist Educational Circles

The SLP, from its inception, demanded a high degree of clarity and political agreement from its members. In its Aims and Methods it described how:

A party which has undertaken the work of revolutionising society must be dominated not only by a common purpose but also a common plan of action. A revolutionary socialist party… must present not only the appearance but the reality of an intelligent disciplined unity.

In line with its understanding of the need for revolutionary theory, the early SLP also made a major contribution to the working class through its institution of educational circles. Classes were started in many working-class areas particularly in Scotland. The classes were organised rigorously with a formal structure ensuring that worker militants were equipped with a thorough grasp of basic Marxism.

As well as formal classes and examinations the SLP also organised correspondence courses for isolated militants. In their educational activities the SLP were soon joined by others such as John Maclean of the SDF and the Plebs League which originated in 1909 amongst radical socialist students at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Up to 1914 the overall experience of the SLP was certainly a positive one. The historic tests for its claim to stand as part of the revolutionary working-class movement came with the outbreak of war and in November, 1917, with their response to the outbreak of proletarian revolution in Russia.

A Socialist Response to Imperialist War

In common with the rest of the European socialist movement, the majority of erstwhile socialists in Britain collapsed into social chauvinism, siding with their “own” national ruling class, at the outbreak of the First World War. In contrast the SLP opposed the war from the position of proletarian internationalism. The SLP’s journal, The Socialist wrote in September 1914,

Our attitude is neither pro-German nor pro-British, but anticapitalist and all that it stands for in every country of the world. The capitalist class of all nations are our real enemies, and it is against them that we direct all our attacks.

In the same edition the leading article poured scorn on those who talked nonsense about fighting to preserve civilisation,

No explanation is offered as to what civilisation has done for the workers that they should fight for it. To the majority, civilisation means 10 or 12 hours a day in a factory or on a railway, or 8 hours in a coal mine, with a hovel to sleep in and the prospect of being clubbed by the police or shot down by the military if they make too much fuss about it… A class that can contemplate unmoved the sufferings of the workers, their wretched conditions and pauper deaths, is not civilised. A class that can callously consign millions of their fellow creatures to mutilation and death for the furtherance of their own ends is not civilised. The world will never be civilised so long as capitalism endures.

The Socialist also printed in November, 1914, an article from the Berner Tagwacht by the Dutch revolutionist, Anton Pannekoek, calling for the creation of a new International.

Although, as an organisation, the SLP clearly stood against social chauvinism there are a number of issues where questions need to be raised. Firstly, at least one prominent member, John Muir, the editor of The Socialist, was initially in favour of certain defencist positions. Secondly, the position taken by their conference in April 1915 seems to reflect a position nearer to social pacifism than to revolutionary defeatism. Leading from that resolution many SLP militants were to become conscientious objectors rather than fighting for internationalism alongside their fellow workers.

If the latter positions would tend to place the SLP in an equivalent position to the right rather than left-wing of the International Socialist Conference held at Zimmerwald the SLP’s revolutionary credentials were reconfirmed by their response to the Russian October revolution.

Support for the Russian Revolution

During 1917 the SLP journal consistently argued for and then welcomed a specifically working class revolution in Russia. Its support for and agreement with those working to that end is shown by the articles written by Lenin which appeared in its June and September issues. Indeed The Socialist claimed the Russian Revolution as vindication of the SLP’s own political method. Following a further article from Lenin in the edition of February, 1918 the March edition carried the comment that,

The SLP is the only party in this country which has compelled the ILP and the BSP to realise that socialist tactics do not mean how to juggle men into Parliament. Socialist tactics mean the education of the proletariat and the organisation of the political weapon to destroy capitalism, backed by the industrial unions taking over the means of production.
For years the SLP has been sneered at and jeered at, but now Russia, in the transition towards the Socialist Republic, shows the SLP is right.

By December, 1918 The Socialist was declaring,

We are denounced as ‘British Bolsheviks’. We do not seek to conceal our views. We are proud of the title. The SLP is the only political organisation that stands wholeheartedly and uncompromisingly for the Soviet idea. Let it be known: We are the British Bolsheviks.

SLP and the Founding of the CPGB

Although the Russian revolution could be fairly claimed to vindicate the SLP against the evolutionism and parliamentary cretinism of many of their opponents it is ironic that it was the tortuous, and sometimes Byzantine, moves to establish a section of the Comintern in Britain which marked the end of the SLP as a serious political force.

It was no coincidence that internationally the conferences and negotiations which took place during 1920 took place as the revolutionary wave which had swept Europe (and other parts of the world) was already ebbing. Indeed, during 1920, at the same time as British delegates were arguing against affiliation to the Labour Party at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern Lenin’s Left Wing Communism appeared in Britain.

The appearance of Lenin’s ill-informed and politically unhelpful document together with direct interference from the Comintern produced a situation where only a small minority of the SLP entered into the embryonic CP (heavily dominated by ex-BSPers) in the summer of 1920. A more substantial element led by Gallacher (who had supported the abstentionist and anti-Labour position when departing for Moscow but arrived back accepting Lenin’s positions “as a child takes the rebuke of a father”) fused with the CP at a second Unity Conference early in 1921.

Although the SLP retained a formal existence after traumas of 1920-21 it was not able to effectively compete with the CPGB. One of its few remaining roles was to act as a temporary stopping place for John Maclean on his way to the Scottish Workers Republican Party and Scottish nationalism.

Failings and Shortcomings

Like any Marxist organisation the history of the SLP should not be seen as a balance sheet where every figure is positive. Only idealist scenario mongers with no connection to the living development of the working class prefer to rewrite history to force it into the straitjacket of their own conceptions (and misconceptions).

Certainly, we can with the benefit of hindsight consider the tactics taken in 1920-21. We could also explore further the exact nuances of the SLP’s attitude to Industrial Unionism and the Shop Stewards Movement. There were certainly debates within the party about the precise attitude to elections and the acceptance of elected office. There is also evidence that the party’s original emphasis on the importance of full political agreement and commitment from its own members may not have been fully adhered to in later years. The presence of pacifist strands in the SLP’s opposition to the war has been mentioned earlier. On balance, though, these mistakes and omissions appear primarily as honest failings by sincere, committed and serious revolutionaries who had a real presence within the class struggles of their times. As such the history of the real SLP is part of our revolutionary heritage which does not deserve to be desmirched by those who now choose to use the name.

Scargill Steals Our History

Writing about the early years of the original SLP, Challinor commented that,

The SLP encouraged all its branches to hold regular outdoor meetings… Sometimes difficulties were experienced in getting the initial crowd to stop and listen. One speaker in Liverpool used to overcome this by shouting, at the top of his voice: ‘I’ve been robbed! I’ve been robbed!’ Quickly an inquisitive audience would assemble, and he would explain how the thieves were the capitalists.

Some ninety years later our old comrade’s party name has been robbed by Scargill’s worshippers of state capitalism.

We will leave Scargill and Co. to disappear into political oblivion dragging the misappropriated name with them. For revolutionary Marxists the essence of the old SLP’s politics, the struggle for working-class self-emancipation and opposition to all reformism and nationalism, lives on in our programme and the struggle for a communist future.



(1) From this point onwards all references to Socialist Labour Party (SLP), except where stated otherwise, refer to the revolutionary proletarian party of earlier this century.

(2) This and all subsequent quotes from SLP literature, except where stated, are taken from The Origins of British Bolshevism by Ray Challinor.

(3) Connolly was later to move to Ireland where he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party whose politics attempted to combine elements of Marxism with Irish nationalism. Connolly was executed by British imperialism following the defeat of the Nationalist Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

Friday, March 1, 1996

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.