An excerpt from Robert Barltrop's The Monument: Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (1975)
I first knew the SPGB when I was a boy, in old Knight's boot-repair shop. My father stabled his carthorse in the yard next to the shop; when he went in to pay the rent he always lingered to listen to the talk, fascinated by the erudition and vehemence of the men who seemed to stand there all their lives. His admiration for them was so obvious that when in my teens I was drawn to their revolutionary creed I assumed it would give him pleasure. Instead, he was angry and fearful for my welfare: those men would not go to work, he said.
The charge was half just, half unjust. If it had been made directly to Crease, Allsopp and the others who thumped endlessly on old Knight's counter with their fists, they would have replied at once that there was no work to be had. This was in the depressed age between the wars; a million men were desperate for work, walked the months and years away for work, grovelled for work. The hopeless crowds at the Labour Exchange were as much part of the life of our town as the street market or the rackety silent picture palaces. There were beggars, barrel-organ players, kerb singers and pavement artists wherever one went, half of them war-maimed and with placards which said: 'No Pension, No Work.'
There was no doubt, on the other hand, that these same conditions had produced a small class of men unprepared to make the show of seeking work that self-respect demanded. The revolutionary socialists cared little for respectability, or for the difference between outdoor relief and the meagre wages a desperate search might bring. A man with a family might get thirty-five shillings a week from the Board of Guardians when a labourer's wage was not much more. And if he were thoroughly contemptuous of the system and its authority, the Guardians and the Labour Exchange might be swindled out of more — except that it was no swindle, but mere partial restitution.
The shifts and subterfuges born of those circumstances and that frame of mind were remarkable. It might be unwise even now to explain the flaw in the system of franking unemployed men's cards that was first discovered by a supremely scientific socialist. It became common knowledge in the SPGB, and the knowledge meant simply that anyone bold enough could draw dole from two Labour Exchanges instead of one. Indeed, it could have been drawn from twenty a week by the same procedure, but the limitation was that 'signing-on' times were too nearly universal to give much time for travel.
James did this for a long time. A severe-looking man who always wore a stiff white collar and dark clothes, he was a passionate revolutionary to whom work meant self-abasement before the capitalist class. He had come to the neighbourhood from another district, where he had lately bought a quantity of furniture on hire-purchase and immediately sold it (a relatively easy practice for a respectably-dressed man then, when hire-purchase was less efficiently organized then it has become). He and another socialist would draw their dole at half-past ten each Friday, and rush for a tram to be in the next town and present their cards again at eleven. James's enthusiasm for the scheme knew no bound; he was for hiring a taxi to a third Exchange, but the other man thought it tempting Providence too far.
The Public Assistance system was squeezed for all the small allowances and extras it gave. Once a relieving officer said to James: 'Your wife is claimed to be an invalid, but I see her regularly in the queue for the fivepennies at the cinema'; and James replied indignantly 'You are a liar, sir — my wife pays never less than eightpence.' Many of the out-of-pocket expenses of living were passed by, too. No-one paid fares; everyone knew the geography of all the railway stations, and a member who was a tram-conductor let his comrades know his time-table to provide a free service up and down East London. If a likely windfall appeared, members wrote letters of recommendation for one another, signing them with the names of bishops, lords and well-known public men.
To see all this as either reprehensible or comic would be to miss the bitter taste of the time. There was little conscious drollery about it all. Some of the revolutionists were unemployable through their perversity, their arrogance against all authority; but the whole vast army of unemployed was unemployable through the chronic depression of the capitalist system. The frauds, tricks and perjuries were the only alternative to acquiescence — the fight was an unfair one anyway. Moreover, every issue of the Socialist Standard quoted instances culled from newspapers of the cynicism of the rich and powerful. There were always reports of luxurious dinners and conspicuously wasteful parties in 'society', and always speeches by incredible public figures who thought the poor deserved no pity. If the upper class had no conscience, how could the unemployed afford one?
This was the temper of the men who used to stand in old Knight's shop. Knight himself was a former member of the SLP; a revolutionary, but at variance with the SPGB over the subject of industrial unionism. He was an impressive man, with a great white moustache and a voice like thunder. He did little work in the shop — most men in those hard times mended their own and their families' boots — but lived mainly on the rents of the stables. His passion was for philosophy; he refused to mend the boots of a local schoolmaster because the master said he had never heard of Socrates.
The talk, the marvellous talk that flowed unceasingly in that dingy little shop! There seemed nothing those men did not know, no book or theory they could not quote and criticize. Nor is this merely an illusion preserved from boyhood. Groups of this kind were the real equivalent, in the hungry years in Britain, of the American socialist circles which Jack London described in Martin Eden. But whereas London's contentious oracles, pictured from his associates in San Francisco, were Bohemians touched by travel and aesthetic experience, these socialist talkers were down-at-heel working men whose knowledge rarely came from any other source than a lifetime of self-instruction.
The exception, and the dominant figure in the little group, was Arthur Crease. A man of sixty, he had been well-to-do; he had been an actor, and was said to be an accomplished musician. He would never tell the reason for his fall in fortune, except in vague phrases about 'bad times'; but his family blamed his socialism, and it was more than likely. He sometimes came to our house for an evening, and would fascinate us with music and Shakespeare as well as with savage commentary on the capitalist system.
Crease had joined the SPGB in its early days, left in one of the controversies, and became one of the band of perpetual supporters who were scarcely distinguishable from members. Often, though it was strictly forbidden by the SPGB's rules, he took the platform at street-corner meetings for the local members. His power of rhetoric alone was enough to command respect, and — though most of them understood probably not a word of it — his audiences would stand spellbound as he quoted pages of Marx, Spencer, Darwin, Nietszche, Morris and, it seemed, everybody else. On the other hand, he loved to be in the crowd at a Communist or Labour meeting and roar ridicule at the speaker.
The Party itself was in low water in the nineteen-twenties. The Russian revolution had excited radicals as nothing before, and the angry discontent of the post-war years found its outlet in the belief that here at last were a signal and a hope for the oppressed working people of the world. Thus, the energy of those who wanted sweeping change now went into the building of the Communist Party and its offshoots. The members of the British Socialist Party — the SDF had changed its name in 1911 — and the SLP, who in disillusionment might have been ready to listen to the SPGB, became Communists instead. And, at the same time, those who sought change in more moderate terms saw the Labour Party, emergent as a new power in 1918, as the means to eventual economic and social sanity.