Of all the sights and sounds which attracted me on my first arrival to live in London in the mid-thirties, one combined operation left a lingering, individual spell. I naturally went to Hyde Park to hear the orators, the best of the many free entertainments on offer in the capital. I heard the purest milk of the world flowing, then as now, from the platform of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
In both theory and practice the SPGB was an extreme manifestation of the pre-1917 Marxist tradition. Its function was to educate the workers in the intractability of capitalism and the hopelessness of all trade union action or reform: its medium was the streetcorner pitch where speakers would harangue passers-by and sell the Socialist Standard. Since prospective members were examined for their knowledge of Marxism and ability to speak in public, and since they prided themselves on their ‘scientific socialism’, propagandists of the SPGB enjoyed a reputation as formidable Marxist purists.
Robert Lynn revelled in the forums, which he called the University of Life. They certainly had their moments. I remember one exemplary SPGB graduate speaking mounting the platform, drawing a ten-shilling note from his pocket and holding it dangling from his thumb and forefinger for a quarter of an hour or so while delivering a devastatingly witty attack on money. The audience of thirty or so were spellbound. There was not a single heckler, until he set fire to it.
The SPGB has neither a leader nor a hierarchy of committees, and it repudiates the principle of leadership. Organised as local branches, the members of each electing their own officers independently of Head Office (which serves as hardly more than a clearing-house) and sending delegates to the annual Conference, it works throughout on one person one vote and simple majorities. Subject to a minimum of procedural rules any branch can bring any issue before Conference and Conference decisions bind the Executive Committee (which, like the Party Officers, is elected annually by vote of the whole Party). Any six branches can call a Party poll, and any member expelled can appeal to the annual Conference. All meetings of the Executive Committee and the branches, Delegate Meetings and Conference, are open to all members (and in fact to the public). These are not just aspirations or entries in the Rule Book; unlike other parties the SPGB really does function in this way. A majority of the members controls the organisation and its officers.
It is difficult to integrate the Socialist Party of Great Britain into any account of wider working-class politics because its policy of hostility to all other political groups, and rejection as an organisation of participation in any partial economic or social struggles, effectively excluded it from association with other tendencies. But no account would be complete without some reference to them. Before the War, they were a substantial presence in the area. Their Tottenham Branch had over 100 members, and there were also effective branches in Islington and Hackney. The SPGB also had a very high proportion of the ablest open-air speakers, notably Alex Anderson of Tottenham, who by common consent was the best socialist orator of his day. The SPGB’s principled Marxism had perhaps a wider influence than it would like to admit.
Ken Weller, Don’t be a Soldier! The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914–1918, 1985.
The Russian debacle is rather appalling but quite explicable. Lenin and Trotsky appear to me to be of the SPGB type or the wilder types of the SDP.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a young organisation and an offshoot from the Social Democratic Party, is spreading about London and challenging the older organisations in such districts as Battersea and Tottenham. The members are Marxians and revolutionaries, preaching the Class War. The catechumens of the party are put through a rigid course of training in the principles of their creed, which they must be prepared to defend at the risk of their liberty. What is most remarkable and disquieting about this dangerous organisation is the fact that the members are unquestionably higher-grade working-men of great intelligence, respectability, and energy. They are, as a whole, the best informed Socialists in the country, and would make incomparable soldiers, or desperate barricadists. As revolutionaries they deserve no mercy: as men they command respect.
The Communist Party has no dealings with murderers, liars, renegades, or assassins. The SPGB, which associates itself with followers of Trotsky, the friend of Hess, has always followed a policy which would mean disaster for the British working class. They have consistently poured vile slanders on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, told filthy lies about the Red Army, the Soviet people and its leaders, gloated over the assassination of Kirov and other Soviet leaders, applauded the wrecking activities of Trotskyist saboteurs in the Soviet Union. They have worked to split the British working class, and are in short agents of Fascism in Great Britain. The CPGB refuses with disgust to deal with such renegades. We treat them as vipers, to be destroyed.
letter from Secretary of the West Ham branch of the Communist Party, 23 February 1943.
reproduced in Socialist Standard, May 1943.
In 1905 another split took place in the SDF, when part of the membership this time mainly centred in London formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a body so sectarian that it adjured both politics and trade union action, believing that socialism would come when everyone was converted. Fifty years later it was still a tiny sect, mainly concerned with echoing propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union.
In this country, the ultra-orthodox Marxists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain advocate the abolition of the wages system, free access to the means of production, the abolition of the state as anarchists do. But and an important but, they want to abolish the state by capturing the state through putting an X on a ballot paper. So it would seem they are anarchists in bad health.
The Clapham-based Socialist Party has a three-tiered structure. At the top are the godfathers who run the party, make the decisions and plot the strategy. The second tier are the students who usually last until they graduate or find a safe academic job. Then there is the lower tier—those who have buried their heads in the sand for the best part of 20 years, thinking that the political struggle in the old SPGB and the split into two separate organisations was just a bad dream.