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The “Impossibilist Revolt” in Britain

The Origins of the S.L.P. and the S.P.G.B.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2008

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The Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain came into existence as the result of the “impossibilist revolt” of 1900–1904. The “revolt” was a movement of a few hundred socialists within the Social Democratic Federation, itself a social revolutionary party with a membership of only a few thousands. The absence of widespread support for any of these revolutionary movements in a country whose political tradition has remained predominantly constitutional accounts for the fact that the crisis inside the S.D.F., and with it the origins of the S.L.P. and the S.P.G.B. themselves have been consigned to obscurity in the history of British Socialism.

Research Article
Copyright © Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1956


Page 377 note 1 In preparing this article I owe much to Mr. Henry Pelling of Queen's College, Oxford, who gave me, among other things, valuable references, in particular, to the (American) S. L. P. Papers, the New York People, and the Challenge.

Page 378 note 1 Activities or lack of activities of nearly 100 branches were recorded in Justice throughout 1900, though, according to T. A. Jackson, less than a half of these branches would be regarded as “normal”, (Jackson, T. A., Solo Trumpet, London, 1953, p. 54).Google Scholar The S.D.F. claimed to represent a membership of 9,000 at the preliminary conference of the L.R.C. in 1900 (Justice, March 3, 1900). This figure, too, appears to have been greatly exaggerated.

Page 378 note 2 Lee, H. W. and Archbold, E., Social-Democracy in Britain (London, 1935), p. 32.Google Scholar Apart from this volume, no history of the S.D.F. has been written, though something of its development may be gathered from Clayton, J., Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain 1884–1924 (London, 1926)Google Scholar; Beer, Max, History of British Socialism (London, 1940)Google Scholar; and Felling, Henry, Origins of the Labour Party (London, 1954).Google Scholar

Page 378 note 3 The Executive Council of the S.D.F. in 1900 was composed of 24 members, 12 for the London branches and 12 for the Provincial. S.D.F. Rule 15, Report of 20th Annual Conference, 1900, p. 29.

Page 379 note 1 Pelling, op. cit., p. 180.

Page 379 note 2 Quelch, Harry, Twenty Years of Socialist Agitation, in: Social-Democrat vii (1903), p. 8.Google Scholar

Page 379 note 3 Bax, E. B. (ed.), Harry Quelch, Literary Remains (London, 1914), p. 18.Google Scholar

Page 379 note 4 Justice, Aug. 17, 1901.

Page 379 note 5 Hyndman, H. M., Record of an Adventurous Life (London, 1911), p. 341.Google Scholar

Page 379 note 6 Justice, April 27,1901.

Page 379 note 7 Jackson, op. cit., p. 56.

Page 380 note 1 Bernstein, Edward, My Years of Exile (London, 1921), p. 256.Google Scholar

Page 380 note 2 S.D.F., Report of 20th Annual Conference, 1900, p. 10.Google Scholar

Page 380 note 3 Lee and Archbold, op. cit., p. 158.

Page 380 note 4 Justice, Aug. 10, 1901.

Page 380 note 5 Justice, July 26, 1902.

Page 380 note 6 Hyndman, op. cit., p. 14. Engels accused Hyndman of having plagiarised Marx in this work.

Page 380 note 7 Bernstein, op. cit., p. 205.

Page 381 note 1 Jackson, op. cit., p. 68.

Page 381 note 2 Hyndman, op. cit., p. 279.

Page 381 note 3 Justice, April 20, 1900.

Page 381 note 4 Justice, Aug. 11, 1900.

Page 381 note 5 Justice, July 20, 1901.

Page 381 note 6 Justice, Aug. 3, 1901.

Page 381 note 7 Justice, July 27, 1901.

Page 381 note 8 Justice, Aug. 10, 1901.

Page 382 note 1 Justice, Aug. 11, 1900.

Page 382 note 2 Letter from Hyndman to H. Gaylord Wilshire, Aug. 19, 1901, printed in the Challenge, Sept. 11, 1901.

Page 382 note 3 Social-Democrat iv (1900), pp. 167–174.

Page 382 note 4 Social-Democrat iv (1900), pp. 198–202.

Page 382 note 5 Lee and Archbold, op. cit., p. 141.

Page 382 note 6 Justice, Oct. 13,1900.

Page 382 note 7 Justice, June 25 & Sept. 29, 1900.

Page 383 note 1 Bell, Thomas, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p. 36.Google Scholar

Page 383 note 2 Internationaler Sozialisten-Kongress zu Paris (Berlin, 1900), p. 25.Google ScholarCinquième Congrès Socialiste International… Compte Rendu Analytique Official (Paris, 1901), pp. 6061, 89.Google ScholarWeill, George, Histoire du Movement Social en France 1852–1924 (Paris, 1924) 3rd ed., pp. 327329.Google Scholar

Page 383 note 3 Letter from Matthew Maguire to Henry Kuhn, Aug. 2, 1896, S.L.P. Papers, Wisconsin State Historical Society. See also Saniel, Lucien on “An American View of the Congress”, Justice, Aug. 22, 1896.Google Scholar Lucien Saniel and Arthur Keep were cordially welcomed by Hyndman and others (Justice, Aug. 22, 1896), but it was Keep who wrote in the People the first and “most scurrilous article” to abuse the S.D.F. (Justice, Jan. 19, 1901).

Page 383 note 4 Justice, April 6, 1901.

Page 383 note 5 Cinquième Congres Socialiste International, p. 33. Harriman, the American S.D.P. delegate, criticised the S.L.P. trade union policy and voted with the S.D.F. delegates for the Kautsky Resolution. Ibid., pp. 51, 89–90.

Page 384 note 1 Justice, Nov. 24, 1900.

Page 384 note 2 Justice, March 23, 1901.

Page 384 note 3 Justice, Aug. 24, 1901. This report was published soon after the 1901 S.D.F. Annual Conference where Gee heard Quelch denouncing the “impossibilists”.

Page 384 note 4 Jackson, op. cit., p. 80. See also Fox, R. M., James Connolly, the Forerunner (Tralee, 1946), p. 51.Google Scholar

Page 384 note 5 Justice, May 25, 1901.

Page 385 note 1 Workers' Republic, Aug. 27, 1898, reprinted in Desmond, Ryan (ed.), James Connolly's Workers' Republic (Dublin, 1951), p. 50.Google Scholar

Page 385 note 2 Ryan, Desmond, James Connolly (Dublin, 1924), p. 17.Google Scholar

Page 385 note 3 Letter from Connolly to the American S.L.P., March 31, 1899, S.L.P. Papers, Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Page 385 note 4 Labour Leader, May 17, 1917. See also Glasier on “Ireland as a Nation” in the Clarion, March 17, 1900.

Page 385 note 5 Justice, May 4, 1901.

Page 385 note 6 Justice, June 22, 1901.

Page 385 note 7 Justice, July 13, 1901.

Page 386 note 1 Justice, Aug. 24, 1901.

Page 386 note 2 Justice, Aug. 10, 1901. It appears to have been Quelch who used for the first time – in his speech delivered at the 1901 Annual Conference – the term, “impossibilist”, applied to the S.D.F. rebels in Scotland.

Page 386 note 3 Already at the 1899 Annual Conference the Scottish and Lancashire delegates expressed their dissatisfaction with the editor of Justice which they alleged was beyond the control of the Annual Conference. It was mostly the older S.D.F. members who had shares in the T.C.P. which was a limited company.

Page 386 note 4 Justice, Oct. 19, 1901.

Page 386 note 5 Jackson, op. cit., p. 67.

Page 387 note 1 Ibid., p. 61.

Page 387 note 2 Bell, op. cit., pp. 10 & 35.

Page 387 note 3 Justice, March 1, 1902. Socialist, Sept., 1903.

Page 387 note 4 Bell, op. cit., pp. 37–38.

Page 387 note 5 E. R. Hartley letter on his resignation from the I.L.P. candidature appeared in the Clarion, Dec. 13, 1901.

Page 387 note 6 Justice, Feb. 1, 1902.

Page 388 note 1 Justice, April 5, 1902.

Page 388 note 2 Fitzgerald, Jack, “The S.P.G.B. and (the) S.L.P. A statement of difference”, Socialist Standard, Aug., 1906.Google Scholar

Page 388 note 3 Yates, S. G., ‘The Official S.D.F.,’ Socialist, March, 1903.Google ScholarNeil Maclean in the Weekly People, July 11, 1903.Google Scholar Lansbury has been the S.D.F. candidate for Bow and Bromley.

Page 388 note 4 Weekly People, April 15, 1902.

Page 388 note 5 Minutes of the Executive meeting on May 20, 1902, quoted by J. C. Matheson in the Socialist, Sept., 1906.

Page 389 note 1 Jerman, W. S., “The London impossibilist movement and the men who built it up”. Socialist, Dec., 1906.Google Scholar

Page 389 note 2 Justice, March 23, 1901.

Page 389 note 3 Jerman, loc. cit. Fitzgerald, loc. cit.

Page 389 note 4 Jackson, op. cit., p. 65.

Page 389 note 5 Justice, Aug. 30, 1902.

Page 389 note 6 Justice, June 21, 1902. The “Open Letter” was published on June 16.

Page 390 note 1 Glasgow Herald, June 19, 1902.

Page 390 note 2 Socialist, Aug., 1902.

Page 390 note 3 Lansbury's letter dated Feb. 23rd, 1902, to the Executive of the S.D.F. was later published in the Socialist, May, 1905. Lansbury wrote in this letter: “I don't agree with the policy of fighting independently”.

Page 390 note 4 Beer, Max, “The Politics of Marxism”, Justice, Aug. 9, 1902.Google Scholar See also Beer, on “My experience in the S.L.P.”, Justice, Oct. 19, 1901.Google Scholar Beer was in the S.L.P. from Oct., 1998, to Oct., 1899. “Max Beer”, Social-Democrat vi (1902), pp. 227228.Google ScholarBeer, , Fifty Years of International Socialism (London, 1935), pp. 108, 111, 116.Google ScholarBeer, , History of British Socialism, p. 355.Google Scholar

Page 391 note 1 J. C. Matheson in Socialist, Sept., 1906.

Page 391 note 2 Ibid.

Page 391 note 3 Fitzgerald seems to have played an active part at the T.C.P. shareholders meetings. Justice, June 25, 1904.Google Scholar

Page 391 note 4 Socialist, March, 1903.

Page 391 note 5 Socialist, Jan., 1903.

Page 392 note 1 Socialist, Aug., 1903.

Page 392 note 2 Fitzgerald, loc. cit.

Page 392 note 3 Jackson, op. cit., p. 65.

Page 393 note 1 Jerman, loc. cit.

Page 393 note 2 S.D.F., Report of 23rd Annual Conference, 1903.

Page 393 note 3 Jerman, loc. cit.

Page 393 note 4 Fitzgerald, loc. cit.

Page 393 note 5 Jerman, loc. cit.

Page 394 note 1 Bell, op. cit., pp. 40–41.

Page 394 note 2 Socialist, May, 1903. The manifesto was separately printed as a part of Platform of the Socialist Labour Party (1903?).Google Scholar

Page 394 note 3 Platform of the Socialist Labour Party. The Platform was also published in the Socialist, Nov., 1905.Google Scholar The immediate measures of the S.L.P. tally with the palliatives of the S.D.F. programme.

Page 394 note 4 Maclean had been secretary of the Glasgow Clarion Scouts and came over to the impossibilists' ranks. After a few years' devoted work, he was expelled from the S.L.P. Bell, op. cit., pp. 45–46.

Page 394 note 5 Socialist, Nov., 1903.

Page 394 note 6 The S.L.P. delegates to the 1904 Amsterdam International Socialist Congress reported its membership at a little over 200. Socialist, Sept., 1904.

Page 395 note 1 Justice, July 18, etseqq.

Page 395 note 2 In this speech, Quelch seems to have animadverted on the disruptive influence Hawkins had exerted upon the S.D.F. London District Council (that had been reorganised in October, 1903 – Justice, Oct. 10, 1903), though the fact did not appear in the Conference Report and the District Council later protested against Quelch for his exaggerated view of Hawkins” influence (Justice, May 14, 1904). “The impossibilist section of West Ham Social-Democrats, as personified by H. J. Hawkins of the Central Branch”, had been accused of having held aloof from the borough council elections (Justice, Nov. 14, 1903). H. J. Hawkins had been a member of the Executive of the London Trades Council early in 1904 (45th Annual Report of the L.T.C., p. 27). He became one of the Executive members of the S.P.G.B. when it was formed, but was expelled from the new party early in 1905. He applied for a membership of the S.L.P. without success (Socialist Standard, May, 1905). Later he emigrated to Australia where he was involved in industrial unionism (Socialist, Jan., 1909).

Page 395 note 3 S.D.F., Report of 24th Annual Conference, 1904, p. 13.Google Scholar

Page 396 note 1 S.P.G.B., Questions of the Day, p. 120.

Page 396 note 2 Socialist Standard, Sept., 1904.

Page 396 note 3 Socialist Standard, Oct., 1904. Lehane resigned his position in 1905 and emigrated to the United States. T. A. Jackson, who was elected General Secretary in 1906, resigned from the S.P.G.B. early in 1909.

Page 396 note 4 Socialist, June, 1904.

Page 396 note 5 Socialist Standard, May, 1905.

Page 396 note 6 Socialist Standard, July, 1906.

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