From the February 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The following is from the new 112 page edition of our pamphlet QUESTIONS OF THE DAY which will be available later this month price 50p (65p including postage). There are new chapters on inflation and unemployment, left-wing organizations, the women’s movement and China, together with those on parliament, democracy and dictatorship, revolution, reformism, nationalization and others.
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, which is the only party in this country that stands for Socialism, was formed on 12 June 1904 by a hundred or so members and former members of the Social Democratic Federation who were dissatisfied with the policy and structure of that party.
The SDF had been formed in 1884 as a professed Marxist organization, although Engels who was living in London at the time would have nothing to do with it. At that time the writings of Marx, Engels and other socialist pioneers were hardly known in the English-speaking countries, except to the few who knew foreign languages. The SDF, however, did have the merit of popularizing in Britain the ideas and works of Marx. This was later to bear fruit in demands for an uncompromising, democratically organized socialist party in place of the reformist and undemocratic SDF.
The SDF spent much of its time campaigning for reforms that were supposed to improve working-class conditions. H. M. Hyndman, who played the major role in setting up the party, seemed to regard it as his personal possession and reacted to any criticism in a haughty and autocratic manner. The party journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control.
The opportunism and arrogance of Hyndman had already led to a break-away in 1884 when a number of members, including William Morris and Eleanor Marx, set up the Socialist League which however soon unfortunately ceased to be of use when it was dominated by the anarchists.
A second revolt led to the formation in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party, copying the American organization of that name. At first, along with a programme of ‘immediate demands’, the SLP declared its object to be the conquest of political power but soon, under the influence of its American parent it subordinated political to industrial action.
Another revolt against the Hyndman group’s dominance of the SDF was organized by men and women who had a much firmer grasp of Marxist political and economic theory. For their opposition to opportunism they were contemptuously called ‘impossibilists’. At first they tried to use the machinery of the SDF to get the party to reform itself, but they came up against the Hyndman clique who were ready to resort to all kinds of undemocratic practices to maintain their control of the party. Conferences were packed, branches dissolved and members expelled.
Matters came to a head at the 1904 Conference held in Burnley at the beginning of April. At the Conference more expulsions took place. When the delegates of some of the London branches returned they held a special meeting to discuss the situation and approved a statement which, among other things, urged the following:
‘The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present, capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection of the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.’
On 12 June most of those who signed this leaflet together with a few others founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
The constitution of the Socialist Party was formed in such a manner that what had happened in the SDF would be impossible. The Executive Committee, elected by the whole of the membership, was to run the day-to-day affairs of the party in accordance with the policy laid down at Conferences and was required to report to the membership twice a year. All its meetings were to be open not only to members but also to non-members. The party journal the Socialist Standard, which first appeared in September 1904 and monthly ever since, is under party control through the Executive Committee. An elaborate appeals procedure —first to the Conference or Delegate Meeting and then to a poll of all the members—was written into the rule-book to protect any member charged with activities warranting expulsion.
The rule-book of the Socialist Party lays down a thoroughly democratic procedure for the conduct of party affairs. Control of policy is in the hands of the members; there are no leaders and never have been. Democratic procedure has been maintained throughout the party’s existence and is a practical refutation of those who argue that all organizations must degenerate into bureaucratic rule. In fact a democratic structure without leaders is the necessary form of any socialist party.
At its formation the members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which, without the need for any change, has remained the basis of membership of the party. Within that framework the party has worked consistently to make socialist principles known and to expose the many erroneous and dangerous theories that have attracted support among the workers.