04. The War and the Split in Socialism

Submitted by Steven. on December 19, 2012

After the declaration of War on August 4th, the labour leadership's rhetoric evaporated. The national headquarters of the BSP supported the War; on September 5th its Executive Committee unanimously agreed to a manifesto supporting recruiting.1 The Labour Party and the TUC took a similar position - they actively supported recruiting from August 1914 - while the trade unions declared industrial peace and abandoned strike action for the duration. Later, the Labour Party joined the government and its leader, Arthur Henderson (among others) became a member of the War Cabinet. Sidney Webb - hardly a hostile witness - wrote in 1920:

From the beginning of the War until the end, the Labour Party, alike in all its corporate acts and by the individual efforts of its leading members, stuck at nothing in its determination to help the Government win the war.

Of the trade union side of the movement Webb commented:

From the first to last the whole strength of the movement was thrown into the side of the nation's effort.2

Only the National Council of the ILP came out against the War, their position deeply influenced by the strong pacifist current within the party. However, the attitude of the national leadership of the party was by no means as clear as is generally supposed. Ramsay Macdonald, for example, was opposed to the declaration of war, but he also stated that since the War had begun, 'those who can enlist ought to enlist and those who are working in munitions should do so wholeheartedly.'3

Macdonald was not alone in the ambiguity of his position, which was hardly the principled stance on the War which mythology has ascribed to him.

There was a similar split within the women's movement. Mrs Pankhurst and her followers in the leadership of the Women's Social and Political Union became ardently patriotic; they suspended the militant campaign, and the name of their paper The Suffragette was changed to Britannia. However, many suffragettes took an anti-War position, and created or joined groups like the Women's Peace Crusade which played a considerable part in the struggle against the War and associated social problems like rent and housing, the food question, and the treatment of servicemen's dependants. Those involved in these issues, notably Sylvia Pankhurst and Mrs Despard, moved in an increasingly radical socialist direction.

The situation in North London was similar to the national. For example W. S. Cluse,4 a compositor and leading local member of the BSP and the Islington Trades and Labour Party, was strongly in favour of the War. So were a number of local notables of the ILP; T. E. Naylor5 also a compositor, resigned from the ILP immediately it opposed the War and William (Fire) Brand Parker,6 yet another comp, was also pro- War.

Other leading figures in the local ILP and Islington Trades and Labour Party who supported the War were Messrs McKenna and Mackinlay (the latter was a carpenter), T. G. Fowler,7 and A. Faux, who actually volunteered. With this composition (no pun intended) it is not surprising that the Islington Trades and Labour Party supported both the War and the recruiting drive.

Naylor, Parker, Fowler and Mackinlay went on to play an active part in the recruiting campaign, addressing many mass rallies - for example one in Trafalgar Square in November, 1915. However, all this patriotic fervour did not go unopposed; the main leader of the anti-War group in the Islington Trades and Labour Party was H. G. Coleman,s8 yet another comp!

The situation was that, on the one hand, the national committee of the ILP was opposed to the War while many of its local prominenti were taking an active part in recruiting; and on the other, the 'old guard' of the BSP were taking the patriotic line while many of its local activists were deeply opposed. It is not surprising therefore that the local established socialist movement was - to put it mildly - in a chaotic state in the first months of the War. A very similar situation to that in Islington prevailed in most areas of North London, for example in the Finsbury ILP, where Fenner Brockway became one of the leaders of the No Conscription Fellowship while Ernest Thurtle and Fred Montague,9 who later became the Labour MPs for Shoreditch and West Islington respectively, both volunteered.

As the War progressed, the anti-War tendencies in the political groups began to get stronger, a process perhaps helped by the consider- able numbers of those infected with jingoistic sentiments who had volunteered and thus removed themselves from the political scene;10 A decision which many of them, or their surviving families, were later to regret bitterly. By November 1915, Islington Trades and Labour Party had reversed its decision to support recruiting. This in turn led to the resignation or dropping out of many of the pro- War faction, although it did not stop some of them having long and successful careers in the labour movement. Apart from its decision not to support recruiting I can find no evidence of the Trades and Labour Party playing any part in the anti-War movement.

In parts of the movement there were bitter see-saw battles on the question of the War. North Islington BSP for example took a pro- recruiting position in June 1915; by November the same year it had reversed this stance, yet in May 1916 it elected H. M. Hyndman, 'grand old man' of the BSP and leader of the pro-War tendency, as its delegate to the BSP Annual Conference;11 still later, it took a strongly anti-War position!

These internal conflicts within the established socialist groups perhaps explain why they played such a little part as groups, at least in North London, in the struggles which developed as the War continued. As one participant in these struggles put it, these parties '. . . with all their national prestige - virtually shut up shop during the War',12 although it must be stated that many individual members of these same parties made major contributions to the anti-War struggle.

  • 1 Among the signatories of this manifesto along with the 'old guard' were E. C. Fairchild and Albert Inkpin, both of whom became leaders of the BSP's left wing; incidentally both were also members of Hackney BSP. Inkpin was General Secretary of the BSP and went on to become the first General Secretary of the Communist Party. This perhaps illustrates just how disoriented some parts of the socialist movement were in the first months of the War. See H. W. Lee and E. Archbold, Social-Democracy in Britain, 1935, p. 225.
  • 2 Beatrice and Sidney Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, 1920 edn, quoted by Hannington, op cit, p. 24.
  • 3 See Macdonald's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Macdonald was not the only one who had an ambiguous attitude to the War. George Lansbury wrote an article in the Women's Dreadnought on August 21st, 1915, which included, 'The women of East London have sent their men to fight. Those of us who hate and detest war know that these men must be armed and fed, and while the War lasts we shall do our best to see that this is done.'
  • 4 William Sampson Cluse, 1875-1955, Secretary of West Islington ILP 1896, joined the SDP - forerunner of the BSP - in 1900; he held joint membership. Joined the army in 1916; Islington Borough Councillor 1919, and served for about 9 years; Labour MP for South Islington 1923-31, and again 1935-50; held minor government office.
  • 5 T. E. Naylor, President of Islington Trades and Labour Party, General Secretary of the London Society of Compositors 1906-1938, one of the founders of the Daily Herald; after the war he was Chairman of London Labour Party; Labour MP for Southwark from 1920. However, while Naylor supported the War he campaigned strongly against the introduction of conscription.
  • 6 For W. B. Parker see previous note (note 6 on page 18 in PDF version). The prominence of compositors in Islington Labour politics was no accident; the London Society of Compositors had about 2,000 members in the borough, and while several prominent local camps were pro-War, it is worth recalling that the local committee of the LSC refused to support the recruiting campaign in February 1915.
  • 7 Mackinlay had been Chairman, and T. G. Fowler Secretary, of Islington Trades and Labour Party. Fowler was also secretary of South Islington Socialist Sunday School.
  • 8 H. G. Coleman 1878-1955, was conscripted later in the War; in 1919 he was elected a Labour councillor, and he was Secretary of the Islington Strike Committee during the General Strike. He was thrice Mayor of Islington.
  • 9 Fred Montague, 1876-1966, was London Organiser of the ILP at the outbreak of War. He joined the army, served in France, and was later commissioned in the Army education department. He became a familiar figure locally, address- ing recruiting meetings in his lieutenant's uniform. He was MP for West Islington 1923-1931 and from 1935 to 1947; he was created Lord Amwell in 1947.
  • 10 I have no figures for 'socialist' volunteers in Islington but they were pretty numerous. In Leeds 120 BSP members volunteered and this was by no means unique
  • 11 This Conference reversed the BSP's pro-War policy. This decision led to a walkout by the 'patriots', who took Justice, the party's paper, and most of its assets with them. This faction then created its own organisation called - perhaps unfortunately - the National Socialist Party. The NSP later changed its name back to the Social Democratic Federation and they took a violently patriotic line. After the War the new SDF had its National Headquarters at 54 Colebrooke Row, Islington. It had a strong Islington Branch which included among its members W. S. Cluse and Fred Montague. The SDF finally went out of existence in 1939.
  • 12 Letter to the author from Edward Hennem dated February 4th, 1980.