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political-theory-of-impossibilism-chapter-vii-spgb-1904-1921

political-theory-of-impossibilism-chapter-vii-spgb-1904-1921

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Published by Wirral Socialists
political-theory-of-impossibilism-chapter-vii-spgb-1904-1921
political-theory-of-impossibilism-chapter-vii-spgb-1904-1921

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Published by: Wirral Socialists on Dec 29, 2012
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THE ORIGIN AND MEANINGOF THE POLITICAL THEORYOF IMPOSSIBILISM
 by STEVE COLEMANPhD, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON1984
CHAPTER VII - THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN1904-1921: A BRIEF HISTORY'
The. Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed on 12 June 1904. Its origins are to be discovered inthe rise of the impossibilists and their split from the SDP; the latter is discussed in detail in chapter-I. This thesis is not primarily concerned with the organisational history of the SPGB., but with itsintellectual development and its significance. A brief narrative history is provided so as to place theideas of the impossibilists within the context of their active existence.If a movement is to be judged by its membership, then as a proportion of the British population theSPGB was of negligible significance. It would, however, be fair to say that the SPGB made aninitial impact- upon the population of London which was far in excess of its recorded strength. (1)There are no reliable membership records which can provide a complete membership history for the period between 1904 and 1921. Three documents containing official statistics have been examinedand these give as thorough a picture as can be obtained. Firstly, there are the Reports of theExecutive Committees to Annual Conferences and Delegate Meetings. :Copies of EC Reports to-Annual Conferences are available (either in complete or abbreviated forms), but EC Reports; to thequarterly Delegate Meetings are available only for February, August and November- 1914,February, : August and December- 1915 and July 1920. In these Reports can be found details of thenumber of members joining and leaving. Secondly, there are minutes of EC meetings. Apart fromEC minutes for the meetings between 17 August and 12 September 1915 (which are not in the bound volumes of EC minutes, but which did probably exist) and for 2 April 1918 (when the EC possibly did not meet) there are copies of the EC minutes of all meetings within the period under consideration. From these can be derived information concerning applications for membership anddetails of forms submitted from branches indicating that a member “has left”. A third source can befound in the two Membership Registers for the period which were kept by the General Secretariesof the period. The first of these runs from June 1904 to October 1911 and the second runs from late1911 to beyond 1921. In these registers are the names, addresses, membership numbers, branches,dates of joining and, where appropriate, leaving of all members.According to A.E. Jacomb, who was one of the one hundred and forty two founder members of theSPGB, in a letter sent to the EC in November 1938, "In the first ten years of the Party's existence -that is, up to the outbreak af the war - the Party quadrupled its membership ..," (2) On the basis of the available evidence, and of initial research which was carried out by Peter Rollings (3), it wouldseem that Jacomb's figure is a correct approximation and that by the outbreak of the war in 1914 theSPGB's membership was about five hundred. The most active period of recruitment seems to have
 
 been between 1906 and 1910: in November 1907 The Socialist Standard reported that the quarter ending in September 1907 "saw a record in the number of new members." (4) The report of thefourth Annual Conference, in April 1908, referred to one hundred and seventy new members beingrecruited in one year. (5) The fifth Annual Conference reported one hundred and fifty five newmembers over the year. (6) Not only did membership increase, but new branches were formed. Atits formation the SPGB's branches were mainly in areas where old SDF branches had been takenover, or where there had been splits from SDP branches. The first non-London branch to be formedwas in Watford. The only significant area of growth outside London was in Lancashire: a branchwas formed in Manchester in October 1907 which was to be very active. A branch in Burnley wasalso active, no doubt with the help of Manchester members. The only SPGB existence in Scotland,where the SLP had recruited most of the early impossibilists, was in the small north-eastern fishingtown of Fraserburgh; the latter biranch existed from August 1910 to May 1911. A few brancheswere formed outside London as a result of London members moving: for example, an active branchwas formed in Gravesend as a result of a dynamic speaker called Dawkins moving there.The outbreak of war in 1914 led to the disorganisation of branches and a scattering of themembership. In March 1916 The Military Service Act forced most of the youngeir male members toeitheir join the armed forrces or face severe legal penalties. The EC passed a resolution declaringthat any member- voluntarily joining the armed forces would be required to resign from partymembership. As a result, several members, forced by domestic and other pressures, resigned fromthe SPGB in order to fight. Most members refused to take up arms: a few remained in prison from1916 until the end of the war? several members formed 'the flying corps' 'so called because theyremained on the run. from the authorities, relying upon the help of other socialists and their-ownwits in order to survive. The resignation of members who joined the armed forces, the loss of contact with socialists in prison or on the run, and the. domestic pressures upon older-members andwomen who were able to retain their-membership resulted in a dramatic fall in official SPGB.membership. In January 1919 there were approximately eighty members. This increased to onehundred and twenty in 1920 and one hundred and ninety seven at the beginning of 1921. So,seventeen years after the formation of the. SPGB its membership was only fifty greater than it had been in June 1904. That comparative statistic, as can be derived from the above information, isdeceptive: in 1921 there were several hundred SPGBers who did not hold official membership, butwould, in many cases, filter-back into the organisation during the 1920s.The membership of the SPGB was not marked by any narrow sociological characteristic. Like most political parties, the SPGB had a mainly male membership: only sixteen of the founder memberswere women and, of these, ten were wives, sisters or daughters of male members. There is noevidence of discrimination against women members, when major organisational responsibilitieswere being distributed: Hilda Kohn, the sister of the prominent SPGB speaker- and writer-, AdolphKohn, was the General Secretary during the war years. A number of the early members were of Irishor Jewish origin, but not proportionately more so than in other- 'revolutionary' organisations of the period. A striking feature of the early membership was its age: many of the prominent foundingmembers, were in their twenties - hardly any were over forty. The youth of the impossibilistscounted against their political credibility; these, it was suggested, were the "young men in a hurry".For example, Alex Anderson, the most prominent and successful impossibilist orator of the period,was only twenty three when he took an active part in the formation of the SPGB; in 1926, when hedied of arterio-sclerosis, he had given twenty two years of his life to the SPGB.It is worth giving brief consideration to the biographical details of some of the most typical of theearly members of the SPGB. These sketches are intended to indicate the varied nature of the earlymembership, rather than to provide' exhaustive biographical accounts or" to refer to all of theSPGB's most active or prominent members.
 
Probably the most significant figure in the formation of the SPGB was Jack Fitzgerald. He was a bricklayer and was actively involved in the 'Operative Bricklayers' union; he sat on the ExecutiveCommittee of the union and acted as one of their delegates to the Trades Union Congress at leasttwice. After an introduction to atheist and republican ideas as a supporter of Bradlaugh, he becamedisenchanted with the latter when he failed "to meet fairly the issues raised in his debate onSocialism with H.M. Hyndman." (7) He joined the SDP in the 1890s when he was in his earlytwenties. At that time the Socialist League was in the hands of the anarchists, sor whatever doubtshe might have had about the strategy of the SDF, Fitzgerald had no other avowedly Marxist body towhich he could turn. Why did Fitzgerald become an impossibilist? Four main influences seem tohave led to his decision to reject the possibilist position. Firstly, study led him to repudiateHyndman's dismissal of Marx. It must be remembered that when Fitzgerald joined the SDP it wasthe organisation's official policy to refer to Hyndman's analysis of capitalism rather than Marx's.Fitzgerald attended economics classes, run. much to the irritation and suspicion of the Hyndmanclique by Marx's son-in-law, Edward Aveling. Indeed, as a young, Irish genuinely working-classsocialist,. Fitzgerald must have been precisely the sort of recruit whom Engels was so eager to winto Marxist theory. There is much evidence to show that. Fitzgerald took his study of Marxisteconomics and historical theory with the utmost seriousness; T.A. Jackson, who studied Marx'sCapital at the economics classes which were conducted by Fitzgerald, described him as "very nearlythe best-read man I have ever met." (8) Subsequent debaters against Fitzgerald were to- testify tothat fact. Fitzgerald ran unofficial economics classes in the SDF in" the first years of the twentiethcentury. These classes won him a considerable following and led to two new ideas filtering into the-SDF's London membership : firstly, by explaining that Marx's economic theory was at odds with'the iron law of wages' Fitzgerald helped to demonstrate that the trade union struggle over the valueof labour-power was worth waging; secondly, by pointing to the indisputably revolutionaryimplications of Marx's critique of capitalism as a system of commodity production,. Fitzgerald lefthis students in no doubt that the politics, of economic reform were utterly futile..In addition to Marx's thought, the second influence upon Fitzgerald must have been his knowledgeof William Morris's revolutionary outlook. As was mentioned in the last chapter, Fitzgerald attendedlectures given by Morris and these clearly had a major impact upon his conception of the socialistfuture.A third influence upon.Fitzgerald were the ideas of Daniel De-Leon. In the 1890s. he began readingThe Weekly People, the official journal of the American SLP. According to T.A. Jackson, whosubscribed to the journal on Fitzgerald's recommendation, "This was, he (Fitzgerald) thought, the best Socialist journal published in English ..." (9) This introduction to impossibilism did not preventFitzgerald from providing a detailed Marxist critique of De Leonism in the early years of the SPGB.Fitzgerald was of the view that the pre-1904 American SLP was of a far higher political quality thanthe post-1903 Scottish SLP.A further influence upon Fitzgerald was James Connolly, whom he met and providedaccommodation for while the latter was on a speaking tour in North London. One of Fitzgerald'sclosest comrades in the SDF was Con Lehane who had been the secretary of the Cork branch of Connolly's Irish Republican Socialist Party. Although Lehane became personally opposed toConnolly after moving to London (10), there is no doubt that through him Fitzgerald becameacquainted with many of the impossibilist ideas which Connolly held.As an impossibilist, Fitzgerald became concerned about the leadership of the Hyndmanites withinthe SDF. When Percy Freidberg moved to Spain Fitzgerald co-ordinated with the Scottishimpossibilists, but, as explained in chapter I the impossibilist split was to produce two wings: one inScotland and one in London. An example of the authoritarianism of the SDF leadership which led

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