Socialist Appeal is the Marxist voice of the Labour Party. Although our paper was only launched in 1992, the traditions of Marxism have a long history within the British labour movement.
Although not as influential as on the Continent, where Marxist ideas became a mass force, they nevertheless had an impact on the British Labour movement. It is no accident that the decision to write the Communist Manifesto was taken in London, and that Marx and Engels spent most of their lives here.
“Its adherents [of Marxism in Britain] showed immense courage at a time when socialist propagandists were often met with physical force,” explained Labour leader Clement Attlee, before the war. “It lived adventurously, and its members took a prominent part in the industrial struggles of the eighties and nineties. Its pioneer work was invaluable…” (The Labour Party in Perspective)
Marxism predates the foundation of the Labour Party. In fact, one of the first working class parties in Britain was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). It was established in 1881 as an openly (if somewhat sectarian) Marxist party, almost 20 years before the Labour Party.
Its members played a central role in building mass trade unions in Britain. "The most prominent leaders were members of the Social Democratic Party," again writes Attlee, "and it is perhaps in this field that the Federation did its greatest service to the British Socialist movement".
Eleanor Marx was instrumental in building the Gas Worker's Union. Together with Will Thorne, it's first General Secretary, and Tom Mann as president, all were members of the SDF. Ben Tilllett was key in building the National Transport Union and was also a member of the SDF. These unions were forerunners of today's biggest unions, the GMB and Unite.
When the Independent Labour Party was established in Bradford in 1892, Marxists played an important role in its leadership. Its founding members included Edward Averling, who was a member of the Executive Committee and was a close associate of Engels. Tom Mann was one of its early general secretaries.
When the Labour Party was formed in 1900, the SDF was granted two reserved seats on its National Executive Committee, such was its importance at that time.
Unfortunately, the SDF left the Labour Party in 1901, when the party failed to adopt a resolution advocating the nationalisation of the means of production. This was a sectarian blunder which abandoned the field to the right wing. Nevertheless, SDF members still attended party conferences as Union delegates.
In 1907, the Labour Party became affiliated to the Second International, which was an openly international Marxist organisation and brought together the socialist parties of the world.
In 1916, the SDF had evolved into the British Socialist Party, a Marxist organisation that became affiliated to the Labour Party. It's most well-known figure was John MacLean.
In 1918, the Labour Party, under the impact of the Russian Revolution, adopted a socialist constitution containing the famous Clause 4, pledging the party to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Although framed by Sidney Webb, it nevertheless reflected the socialist demands that the British Marxists had always fought for.
Threat to the right
Again, under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the ILP voted to leave the Second International and entered into negotiations with the Third International. While the Labour Party voted to remain in the Second International, more than half the delegates abstained in the vote.
The newly-formed British Communist Party voted to affiliate to the Labour Party, but this was turned down, in part by the stupid way the request was formulated. Communist Party members could still be individual members of the Labour Party up to the Liverpool conference in 1925.
The Labour Party's right wing always considered the left a threat to capitalism. They proceeded to introduce bans and proscriptions against the left in the party, who were expelled for their views. Stafford Cripps was expelled at the Labour Party conference in 1938. Aneurin Bevan had the whip withdrawn, as did Michael Foot and Sydney Silverman. Others were also expelled and left wing papers proscribed.
Despite these attacks, the Labour Party was influenced in many ways by Marxism. In 1948, the Labour Party even published a special centenary edition of the Communist Manifesto. In the foreword by the Labour Party, it states, “the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working-class movement”.
However, the right wing of the Labour Party have always done the bidding of big business. Their role has been to keep the party safe for capitalism, usually with the support of the right-wing trade union leaders. They introduced a long list of proscribed organisations, which was scrapped in the early 1970s.
This explains why the right wing, backed by the capitalist press, attacked Militant in the 1980s. The Militant had been the most successful Marxist tendency in the Labour Party. This success resulted in a shameful witch-hunt, where a number of Militant’s supporters were expelled, including its editorial board.
Tony Benn, who was not a Marxist, rose to Militant’s defence. “I believe that no mature tradition of political democracy today can survive if it does not open itself to the influence of Marx and Marxism,” stated Benn.
“The Communist Manifesto, and many other works of Marxist philosophy, have always profoundly influenced the British labour movement and the British Labour Party, and have strengthened our understanding and enriched our thinking.
"It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx as it would be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously.”
Benn concluded: “...I am profoundly opposed to any attempt to outlaw, expel or excommunicate the followers of Leon Trotsky from the Labour Party.”
The heritage we defend
The witch-hunt continued under Kinnock (now Lord Kinnock), and Labour lost the 1983 and 1987 general elections.
Unfortunately, as with the SDF ninety years earlier, the majority of the leaders of Militant drew pessimistic and ultra-left conclusions, and walked out of the Labour Party into the wilderness.
Around this time, the Socialist Appeal was launched to keep the forces of Marxism together in the Labour Party. Of course, under Tony Blair and New Labour, conditions in the Labour Party were very unfavourable for socialists. We nevertheless always held the perspective that the Labour Party would eventually move to the left, as has happened in the past.
This has now shown to be correct with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the growth of a mass left-wing membership. Now we have leaders in Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell who - while not Marxists - recognise the great contribution of Karl Marx and Marxism, as did Tony Benn.
This is very important, as it serves to underline (in spite of the howls of the right wing) that Marxism is a legitimate tendency within the Labour Party. This is the proud heritage that Socialist Appeal defends today.
As internationalists, our comrades are supporters of the International Marxist Tendency, which promotes the ideas of Marxism internationally and links together groups of Marxists on a world scale. This is a concrete expression of socialist internationalism and the slogan workers of the world unite!