Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Socialist Party's Past

The Monument: The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain 
by Robert Barltrop

Robert Barltrop's 'The Monument' is an insider's history of the SPGB, albeit "heavily anecdotal" as the Socialist Standard editorial rightly has it. The title of the book, 'The Monument' reflects a "sneer" often directed toward the SPGB by those at other latitudes of the 'workers' parties' and 'labour movement' who see the Socialist Party as a sterile political party without tangible achievement. The Socialist Party, these critics say, is more like a monument to doctrinal purity than a real movement. The Socialist Party's case for socialism is refreshingly clear. If the book has a message, it is that while political success might not have been achieved, a life of principle in a worthy cause is not wasted.

Chapter 8: Hard Times

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 of 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 a 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 socially 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 revoutionary 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 than 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 bounds; 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 al1.    Some of the revolutionists were unemployable through their perversity, their arrogance against all authority; but the whole vast army employed 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 own 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 'hard 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 supporter, 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 those who sought change in more moderate terms saw the Labour , emergent as a new power in 1918, as the means to eventual economic and social sanity.
Instead of a surge for the true socialism which the Party preached were new heresies to be condemned and fresh anathemas to be pronounced, and a membership which settled at about three hundred.
The little trickle of recruits only balanced the losses from death, loss of interest and expulsion — for every year saw its little crop of members who defected. Robert McLoughlin was expelled for supporting the Red Trade Union International (he returned, blind and deaf, many years afterwards). Even W.E.Hutchins — 'Old Hutch' — was threatened with expulsion for advertizing capitalist politicians: a sandwich-board by profession, he had been sent out carrying placards for a Liberal meeting. And a little group of Manchester members, led by two brothers named Marks, raised yet another of the strange abstracted arguments on unlikely hypotheses that made martyrs to the formulation of Party theory.
The Marks's contention was designed not to alter the Party case but to strengthen it. They claimed that the class struggle in society did not exist until it was being waged politically. No one but the SPGB did this; therefore, the struggle had no other or prior expression. Enticing as the idea was, the Party had to declare the absurdity of proposing that the class struggle was born only in 1904 and writing-off Marx's 'all hitherto existing history'. The brothers resigned, convinced that socialism had been betrayed; one of their supporters, Joe Cohen, still attended the Party thirty years later but would never re-join.
The least clear case was that of the NUWM, the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. Its cause was a worthy one, and its supporters argued that its function was the same as that of any trade union: to gain improvements in pay and conditions. It was known that many of the NUWM organizers leading the demonstrations for more pay and 'toke' were Communists. But many were not: Crease, for example, led a successful local campaign, in which several hundred men convinced the Guardians of their desperate need by barricading themselves in the public baths. Repeatedly, members of the SPGB were disciplined for association with the NUWM, and their defence was always that only other political parties were proscribed, not occupational unions.
The point was considered, but the SPGB's machinery was never hasty. The matter was brought to a question of theory — what constituted a political party ? An acceptable definition was not produced until the mid-thirties, and by that time the NUWM's life was over. No matter: the Executive Committee decided that the NUWM was not, after all, a political party — but added, without giving reasons, that it was nevertheless barred to members of the SPGB. That this odd decision was never challenged brings forth again the dualism in the members outlook. There was political theory, which had been considered and clarified; but there was also the revolutionary attitude of mind which knew that no real socialist was going to belong to anything else at all. In this case the Executive stated both and the conflict was, apparently, unobserved.
The Party's hostility hardened. As far as the objects of hostility, the organizations and institutions of the capitalist world, were concerned, there could only be a transfer of attack — Communists savaged instead of the SDF, Labour ministers in place of Liberals. But there was a in bitterness now. It was twenty years since the formation of the Party and the belief that soon socialism would be the crucial question in society. Now, socialism was the question . . . but; not the socialism for which the SPGB stood. It was a socialism which meant either Bolshevik government over regimented masses, or council housing, state insurance and operative shops.
To maintain a correct definition of socialism was no new thing, for the SPGB, but the task now was infinitely more difficult. Indeed, there is reason to feel that many of the SPGB never understood its real nature. The Socialist Standard and the Party speakers treated any interpretation of socialism other than their own as 'misrepresentation' and 'confusion-spreading'. Neither would have been as hopeless for the Party as what was actually happening. Misrepresentation would have meant some wilful, more or less careful distortion, to be met on its own terms. In fact, socialism had become separated almost completely In everyday use from ideas of precise definition. Instead it represented now a general tendency and set of attitudes, iin the same way as Conservatism or Liberalism. Moreover, within the broad movement conditioned In these attitudes the SPGB was, to its chagrin, accepted. When Fitzgerald debated with James Maxton in 1928, Maxton expressed appreciation of the SPGB equally with the Communists, the Fabians and his own party the ILP.
With hostility, then, went bitterness that a huge movement, embracing every pernicious policy of reform had appropriated the name of socialism. More and more, the Party's: propaganda was preoccupied with 'exposing' the 'so-called socialists' of all the other parties. Old Knight behind his counter roared that he would sooner shake Winston Churchill's hand than any Labour rogue's. (That did not stop him and his group hauling a canvassing Conservative baronet into the shop one day for three hours' intellectual bullyragging: 'most interesting, most clever men', he said, determined never to be caught like that again.)
The hardest blows of all to the SPGB, in the nineteen-twenties, however, were the deaths within a short period of Anderson and Fitzgerald. Both were relatively young men — Anderson was 48 when he died of arterio-sclerosis in 1926. Worn out, Anderson had long since lost his fine Byronic look. A photograph taken the year before his death shows him puffy-faced, bearing the same lifeless expression as that of Jack London's last photograph: the look that Charmian London said should have been on the face of no erect human being.
Hundreds went to Anderson's funeral at the Tottenham cemetery, Members of the Party or not, they knew they would not see or hear his like again. Yet it was not simply an orator they mourned: it was a figure who, more than any other, expressed the spirit of the Impossibilists of 1904. A.E. Jacomb, writing of Anderson in the Socialist Standard, said that 'in the Party councils he was a force of the first magnitude', remarked also that Anderson did not possess 'what is called in the ordinary way a lovable nature' — and the two statements were by no means unrelated.
Fitzgerald was in many ways different. His personality had a warmth and depth that Anderson's never knew. He was unaccepting of the reckless poverty in which Anderson lived — he often spoke of the importance of finding a 'niche', a secure spot in the capitalist system (though his death at 57 from kidney trouble was said to have been accelerated by an unvaried diet of hard-boiled eggs). True, Fitzgerald could not have played his part in the making of the Socialist Party if he had not been aggressive, intolerant and unsentimental. Even his humour had a dire sound. Maggie Hallard recalls as a young woman being beside him when a Conference speaker was urging that wives be brought along more often. Maggie whispered: 'I don't like the members wives'; and Fitz responded grimly: 'Nor do the members, comrade.' Nevertheless, he was dedicated rather than fanatical, and in his shaping of the Party's theories there was always the chance of flexibility. Who took their places in the Party ? They were the giants of 1904 generation, and if they had not died prematurely their active and their personal influence would have continued until the second world war. Thus, no-one replaced them or modified the influence of their generation until the 1930-39 era produced its own type of revolutionist. In the field which was supremely important, outdoor speaking, the Party was bereft all through the 'twenties. There was no lack of quantity, and there was quality of its kind in the eager band of unwavering, well-taught speakers: none, however, was an Anderson or even the shadow of one.
The aggressive tradition was, if anything, accentuated. More than one man introduced to the Party in the inter-war years would never forget the response to his first show of interest. 'I asked Kohn a question, just for information,' a member recalled one day in 1954, 'and he abused and pilloried me as if I were Socialism's worst enemy. Occasionally some member — usually a new one — would wonder if this were not a wrong policy and would propose to his branch or the Party Conference that the speakers be asked to show some courtesy, but this was always dismissed as truckling to the system.
Perhaps the most devoted of all the Party speakers was a little man named Alf Jacobs. His delivery was neither elegant nor compelling but he stated the SPGB's case in simple, forthright terms every Sunday morning and afternoon in Victoria Park, Hackney, for more than thirty years. A member of the SDF who had gone over soon after the SPGB's formation, Jacobs was also a militant trade unionist all his life. He was on the Executive of the cigar-makers' union, and had been tried in 1906 — his defending counsel was J.W.Reynolds — for breach of the peace in an agitation at Liverpool Street Station over workmen's trains.
Jacobs was given a gold watch by the East London members to commemorate his thirty years in the Park. The fact of such a presentation was unique. It was generally accepted that the Party had no room for sentiment. Indeed, as the older members began to die off in the nineteen-thirties and 'forties there was more than one complaint over the publication of tributes to them in the Standard: the space was needed for socialist propaganda, and eulogies of men dead or alive were an affront to the socialist outlook. Nevertheless, Alf Jacobs had his watch. He was, too, the model for the unquenchable Flaxman in William Cameron's novel The Day is Coming — leaning on his platform, sadly remarking the follies of his fellow men:
‘I've seen saviours come an'go, an' I've seen 'eroes an'geniuses come an' go. I've seen thousands of people get frantic over reforms: what was goin' to make a revolution unnecessary — an' where are they. all now ? Gorn an' forgotten: a flash in the pan. But me — I go on sayin' the same things today as I used to say thirty-five years ago on the old League platform on the Waste.'
The 'star' speaker for debates and big-hall meetings was Robert Reynolds, who also wrote as 'Robertus' in the Socialist Standard. Small and sharp and savage-tongued, Reynolds illustrated perfectly the mixture of high passion and gritty erudition that was the Party.  He was indeed, over-typical: the Party's other attribute of fierce independence  was too strongly developed for him ever to be a good Party man, and his individuality was a source of continual conflict with other members. To an extent Reynolds despised most of his comrades, and did not conceal it.
His posture of intellectual superiority was by no means unjustified, but it caused irritation and more. The SPGB's arguments and attitudes rested on the assumption that all people were mental equals, differing only in class-consciousness or the lack of it. The answer to critics who could not envisage the working class en masse taking up socialist logic was always to point to the Party membership. And among the members differences in ability were not considered: it was often claimed even that there were no good or bad speakers but only speakers.
But for this, Reynolds might have stepped into Fitzgerald's shoes, He had admired Fitz; he was an outstanding writer and speaker, respected for his knowledge of theory, and had run Party classes for a number of years. But he was suspect for his unwillingness to identify himself absolutely with the Party, and it was Hardy instead who slipped into the shoes and in the nineteen-thirties became the undisputed eminence. In the early 'twenties Hardy had become one of the editors of the Socialist Standard and began to show his capacity — greater probably than Fitzgerald's — for marshalling statistics and facts in support of the socialist case. Under him, the control of the Standard became the key-point in the Party, until eventually policies and doctrines appeared to rest almost wholly with the editorial committe.
There was much about Hardy that should not have been acceptable to the Party as it was. He had been to a minor public school and had a degree in economics, qualifications which were wholeheartedly deprecated in the Party. He was well-spoken and restrained in manner Frank Dawe, possessor of a gift for descriptive epithets, called him 'the man of gentle nurture'. These things were made insignificant, however, by Hardy's complete dedication to the cause. The son of one of the Party's founders, he said once that he had always known what what he was going to do. At eighteen, in the war, he had left an exempted occupation to submit voluntarily to a conscientious objector's punishment and spent a year and a half in military prisons. The war over, he committed himself to the Party with almost religious intensity. During the second world war he debated in London with Mrs Barbara Wootton, and was asked by the chairman about his position in the Party. 'A nondescript member', Hardy replied. The Party liked that.

1 comment:

Darren said...

I've just become aware of this. Thanks for uploading it.