– The Socialist Unity conference of 1911 and the formation of the British Socialist Party.
In the previous episode I wrote about Victor Grayson’s success as an ‘Independent Socialist’ in the Colne Valley by-election of 1907 and how he was taken up by the Clarion becoming part of their editorial team. Whether or not he was paid for this work I don’t know, but given that his brief stint as an MP took place (just) before the introduction of payment of MPs in 1911 he may have been.
By this time the Labour Party’s contingent in the Commons had grown to around 40 – partly as a result of the miners’ unions deciding to instruct their existing or prospective former ‘LibLab’ MPs to transfer their support from the Liberals to Labour. Of course this did little to change the mind-set of such MPs and a common complaint was that they only spoke in parliamentary debates when something that affected their union was at issue. Certainly all the leading figures, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and – by far the best of the lot in my view – Fred Jowett, were all ILPers who in all the cases just mentioned were founder members and -apart from their parliamentary duties active mainly in the ILP. Bear in mind that until the new 1918 Labour Party constitution there were no constituency parties and the way most people expressed their Labour commitment was by participating in the local ILP. Please also note that contrary to the impression given by some accounts the Labour Party didn’t have a formal leader until the early 1920s.
As ever in Left wing parties expectations and ambitions of Labour Party members greatly exceeded what it was possible to accomplish with what was still a small contingent of MPs – or so most of the leadership of the ILP which also doubled as the Labour leadership argued. But discontent continued with the Clarion very much taking part in this. The cause célèbre of 1910 was the publication of a pamphlet, known as ‘the green manifesto’ from the colour of its cover, with the title Let Us Reform the Labour Party. It was by four members of the ILP’s national body, its National Administrative Council or NAC.
What the ‘manifesto’ denounced, like so many ILPers in later years, as ‘Reformism’ then amounted to supporting the Liberal Government – the last one to date – in return for some concessions on matters of special interest to – largely – the unions. The manifestists wanted this abandoned in favour of Jowett’s policy of ‘voting on the merits of the question …regardless of consequences ‘ – what later became known as the famous ‘Bradford Policy’
This the four authors of Let Us Reform the Labour Party grandiloquently labelled ‘Revolutionist’ which even many who agreed with their general argumentative thrust thought a bit of an over-statement.
Unfortunately from the standpoint of getting their arguments seriously considered the authors made the fatal error of referring to themselves as members of the NAC – which they were,of course – on the title page of the pamphlet. The result was that their opponents in the ILP were able to divert the argument – what is known today as the ‘dead cat strategy’ – away from the substance of the issues to a debate lasting for many weeks on the democratic propriety, or lack thereof, of seeming to claim NAC approval when that body hadn’t even discussed, let along approved, the publication of the document. One of the authors, Leonard Hall, who often wrote for the Clarion, should have known better since only the year before he had made a big fuss and vehemently protested against the ILP putting out Keir Hardie’s My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance as an official publication of the ILP. The ILP’s official paper Labour Leader still somewhat resented by those who ran the Clarion, took the lead in expressing indignation with the manifestists while the Clarion did what it could to defend them and get the debate back onto the issues of substance
The scene was now set for the Unity Conference of 1911. The Social-Democratic Federation (always, please note, with a hyphen) had been the original organisation in the ‘Socialist Revival’ of the early 1880s. It had changed its name from ‘Federation’ to ‘Party’ in 1907 As we saw in an earlier episode of this series (16) the SDF in the ’90s had been keen to unite with the ILP and form a united socialist party. This had been thwarted largely by Hardie and the ILP leadership. As noted last time the SDF had made the fatal mistake of taking a ‘purist’ line and leaving the LRC in 1901. The new party formed in 1911 did not agree to affiliate to Labour until 1914
This party was the British Socialist Party (BSP) formed at the Unity Conference in 1911. In retrospect this was the second big mistake of the Social-Democrats. Most ILP branches did not join the new BSP though some did as did a lot of – mainly – younger people inspired by the the syndicalism advocated by the likes of Tom Mann and to a lesser extent by the ‘direct action’ of the militant suffragettes. As things turned out the BSP not only failed to unite the entire Left but from the start there were serious divisions within it over the attitude of what often called itself the ‘Old Guard of the SDF’ and many of the most active of the new recruits . Most of this was focussed on Hyndman, the virtual leader of the SDF since its very beginnings and his warnings about ‘the German menace.’ Once the war started the division between those who called themselves ‘internationalist’ and those who took the label ‘Pro-Ally’ and supported the war as a necessary evil naturally increased leading to a split in 1916. The majority of the BSP – the ‘internationalists’ – eventually formed the main ingredient of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 while the ‘Old Guard’ became the most unequivocally opposed to the Bolsheviks of the entire British Left But I’m shooting on too far ahead.
The Clarion Cycling Club took part in the Unity Conference of 1911. In the 1930s when E Archbold completed the history of the SDF by H W Lee, its long-time general secretary, he included this passage about the conference.
Tom Groom, of the National Clarion Cycling Club, said that he and those who thought with him were anxious to avoid the use of phrases which might mean a great deal to those who used them, but had another meaning to others. Many people were not clear as to what “class war” in the resolution meant, and he did not recognise it exactly.
I need hardly say that Groom got very little support for this proposition. Later after the First World War had broken out he reflected on the failure from the Clarion standpoint of all the political organisations it had supported
Some of us once joined the I.L.P. and thought that that was the movement. But the I.L.P. joined the Labour Party and the Labour Party joined the Liberals; so we came out. Then
we joined the B.S.P, and thought that this was the Movement right enough. But the B.S.P. headed straight for the morass of politics, wasted a lot of time in ‘perfecting the irregular
verb,’ passed a lot of impossible resolutions; and we came out of that.
Groom then went on to give a succinct summary of the distinctly Clarion approach to socialism. .The work of ‘the Movement’ was ‘to convert thousands and then still thousands more’ to a desire to live in a socialist society.. ’When that desire is great enough the professional politician will supply the goods, whether he calls himself Liberal, Tory or Labour Man. Our work is to create that desire.’
Ian Next time. The Clarion and the outbreak of war in 1914