Link back to the DB site index Back to the September-October 2001 table of contents

Morris, De Leon and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

          We have read in your magazine a letter by Laurens Otter that contains an assertion that Daniel De Leon influenced the founders of the Socialist party of Great Britain. He writes: "... the SPGB was a dissident faction within the De Leonist tradition." (Discussion Bulletin Number 108 July-August 2001 p. 8). A similar claim appears in D. Perrin's book, "The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Political Party, in which the author writes, "The views of the impossibilist American SLP undoubtedly had an influence on both the SPGB and the British SLP" (p. 31.

          Perrin rests his assertion on Stephen Coleman's book; Daniel De Leon (1990) reviewed in the Socialist Standard of May 1990. No supporting primary source or textural evidence is given. With regards the SPGB the assertion that De Leon "influenced" the SPGB in the formation of the Party is factually and historically incorrect.

          The Socialist Standard article in 1990, for example, referred to De Leon as "an American Marxist". It was not made clear which "Marxism" De Leon was supposed to have stood for. "The "Marxism" of the Communist Manifesto with its demand that "The first step in the evolution by the working-class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class to win the battle for democracy". Or the anti-political De Leon policy of the IWW?

          Attempts have been made from time to time to get the Socialist Party of Great Britain to support industrial action as against parliamentary action, not by directly seeking to alter the Party's Declaration of Principles, but by giving it slanted interpretations, or by ignoring it.

          One such attempt suggested that as the Declaration of Principles does not specifically mention Parliament and local councils it was not the intention of the founder members who drafted the D. of P. that the SPGB should aim at controlling Parliament and the local councils.

          Another attempt argued that the SPGB's Declaration of Principles does not preclude "extra- parliamentary" actions for political aims, carried out by trade unions, Lately advocates of industrial action have been held up as models for Socialists, especially Daniel de Leon.

          The aim and intentions of the founder members embodied in the Object and the Declaration of Principles were presented to non-members in the first issue of the Socialist Standard, September 1904, in the article "The Socialist Party of Great Britain" (approved by the Executive Committee before publication), and in the SPGB Manifesto (June 1905). Proposals arising from a series of meetings on trade unions to amend the statements on trade unions made in the Manifesto were defeated by Party Poll (see Socialist Standard, April 1907).

          The statement in the Socialist Standard, September 1904, made several references to the need to gain control of Parliament and local councils.

          One of these statements wrote of "the members of the working class using their political power to return to Parliament and other public bodies only those who are members of the Socialist Party".

          There was no support for the strike as a means to political power or of those who advocated it, such as William Morris.

          The statement emphasised the limited amount the trade unions could do in respect of raising wages. It argued therefore the necessity of political action, but the kind of political action needed by the workers was precisely defined:

          "Such political action, will, however, be quite futile unless carried on by a class-conscious party with definite aims.They must adopt as their basis of action the Socialist position, for in no other way can their ills be redressed".

          In 1907 the SPGB's Executive Committee published as a pamphlet, "Art, Labour and Socialism", an article by William Morris that had appeared in the journal To-day.

          The Executive Committee's Forward to the pamphlet explained that they were not among those "to whom William Morris stands in the relation of Moses to the Israelites". They recognised that Morris was not always a "convincing and consistent instructor of economics" and considered that he was entitled only to "a place in the category of the Utopians". But this article deserved to be rescued from undeserved obscurity because in it Morris had "placed Art in proper perspective" and did effective service by insisting on an active working class revolt against capitalism.

          The members of the Executive Committee would have been familiar with Morris's opposition to parliamentary action and his belief in the general strike as a means to establish Socialism; which alone would have prevented their giving Morris support for his views on socialist policies.

          We now come to De Leon and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

          Founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were familiar with De Leon's theories because, a year before the SPGB was formed, other ex-members of the Social Democratic Federation, mainly in Scotland, founded the SLP in this country, based on the American party of the same name, and used pamphlets and other works by De Leon in their propaganda.

          Right from the start the SPGB opposed De Leon and the SLP. Our Object and Declaration of Principles owed nothing to De Leon and the SLP.

          What the SPGB owed to Marx; his materialist conception of history, his Labour Theory of Value and his political concept of the class struggle, the members obtained direct. Works about Marxism (The Student's Marx by Edward Aveling 1891) and some of Marx's pamphlets notably, "Wage Labour and Capital" had long been available and the first English edition of Capital, the Glaister edition, had been published in 1886. Some members had attended the economic classes run by Dr. Aveling, Marx's son-in-law.

          Among the early issues of the Socialist Standard containing criticisms of De Leon, his theories, and the SLP are the editions of August 1906, October and November 1906, and April 1907. A lengthy criticism was published in the 1911 Preface to the 5th edition of the SPGB Manifesto.

          So what did De Leon stand for? It should present no problem because De Leon often told his devotees what his thoughts were. The trouble was that he contradicted himself. Here is a selection published in a critical review of his works in the Socialist Standard of November 1930.

          In 1895 De Leon helped to form the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance. The Declaration of Principles of this Alliance said:

          "The economic power of the capitalist class, used by that class for the oppression of labour, rests upon institutions essentially political".

          In his pamphlet "What Means This Strike?" De Leon wrote: "Shop organisation alone, unbacked by that political force that threatens the capitalist class with extinction, the working class being the immense majority, leaves the workers wholly unprotected".

          In "Two pages From Roman History" (1903) De Leon was still standing by political organisation. He wrote:

          "Entrenched in the public powers, the capitalist class command the field. None but the political weapon can dislodge the usurpers and enthrone the working-class; that is to say, emancipate the workers and rear the Socialist Republic".

          But when De Leon backed the International Workers of the World, he reversed his position. In his address "The Preambles of the IWW", he said: "It does not lie in a political organisation, that is, a party, "to take hold" of the machinery of production".


          "In the act, however, of taking and holding the Nation's plants of production the political organisation of the working-class can give no help".

          In his speech at the first convention of the IWW, De Leon said: "The situation in America.established the fact that "taking and holding" of the things that labour needs to be free can never depend upon a political party".

          One of the arguments used by De Leon in support of his anti-political policy was the allegation that Karl Marx had said, "Only the Trade Union is capable of setting on foot a true political party of labour and this raises a bulwark against the power of capital".

          Repeatedly challenged to say where and when Marx made this statement neither De Leon nor the SLP could give an answer (See Socialist Standard, January 1930).

          That Marx ever said something so out of keeping with his insistence on the need for the working class to take political action is highly improbable. If he did say it he was plainly wrong, for the SPGB was not formed by trade unions.

          In the past we have asked Mr Otter to show us the evidence he has of the SPGB being influenced by De Leon. Where are his primary sources? He has never produced any proof to support his assertion. The documents of the Party dating from 1904 when the SPGB was established show this not to be the case.

          The claim by Otter, Coleman and now Perrin that De Leon influenced the SPGB founder members implies either the claim that De Leon supported political organisation - the method advocated by the SPGB in its Declaration of Principles (Clauses 6, 7 and 8). Or, alternatively, that the SPGB supported industrial unionism-which clearly is not the case and never has been. Indeed, the Party repeatedly referred to this as an "anarchistic deviation".

Yours for Socialism

Richard Lloyd on behalf of the editorial committee of
Socialist Studies, Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Link back to the DB site index Back to the September-October 2001 table of contents