01. Prelude: The Boer War and the Crisis of Socialism

Submitted by Steven. on December 18, 2012

For socialists the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a prefiguration of their experiences in the First World War, and in many ways the similarities are quite marked. Jingoism had been growing for years, imperialism was at its height, the 'rush for Africa' - of which the Boer War was the culmination - all had contributed to a climate of the most extreme chauvinism.

War finally came on October 9th, 1899; on October 22nd, the local socialist movement had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing 'Rule Britannia' and 'We are Soldiers of the Queen'. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.

But the meetings, and the attacks, continued. On March 5th, 1900, a 'pro-Boer' meeting at Highbury Corner was attacked by a mob which had gathered in response to leaflets calling on 'all loyal Englishmen' to turn up and oppose it. On March 11th and 19th there were further socialist meetings at the same venue, both of which were broken up by the police after there had been serious fighting. It was probably one of these meetings which is described in W. S. Cluse's entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. I

Will Cluse with other socialists was on one occasion holding a meeting at Highbury Corner, and the crowd were becoming hostile. The socialists decided it was time to go, if they wanted to escape manhandling. Making a sudden rush, they boarded a horse-bus at the junction of Holloway Road and Upper Street, with the crowd at their heels. They climbed the steep ladder to the top deck, and kept their opponents at bay by stamping on their fingers as they reached the top rung. Finally they were able to put themselves into protective custody at the police station in Upper Street.

T. A. Jackson, in his autobiography Solo Trumpet, described another of this series of Highbury Corner meetings which had a rather different outcome:

The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up; the radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club [Newington Green] to act as 'stewards'. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local SDF, who when the fight started were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting the socialists, led bv their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them with 'great slaughter'. 2

The active participation of the Mildmay Club in the agitation against the Boer War was no accident. The Club was one of the few remaining working mens' political clubs which retained some remnants of the spirit they had embodied in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular these working-class radicals had a formidable record of anti-imperialism.; The regular and systematic attacks on 'pro-Boer' meetings were an ominous foretaste of the World War, as was the fact that, as far as I have been able to discover, there was not a single arrest of those who attacked the anti-War meetings in North London. Another parallel with future events was the split in the 'socialist' movement. Both the Fabians and the Clarion supported the War. Robert Blatchford, the editor of the latter, which had by far the largest circulation of any of the movement's journals, wrote in its October 1899 issue:

I cannot go with those socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British Troops. . . until the war is over I am for the Government.

After the Boer War the socialist movement underwent a whole series of convulsions which reflected widely different approaches as to what socialism was and how it would be achieved. These divisions had deep roots, going back to and even beyond the formal emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) all shared - although there were countervailing forces within all of them - a vision of socialism in which the main emphasis was on taking over the commanding heights of the economy by the state or municipal authorities.

In the early part of the century it was quite common for socialist lecturers to describe the Incas of Peru as being quasi-socialist" because they concentrated all economic power in that society into the hands of the ruling elite; or that the building of the Panama Canal by the American Army was an example of socialism in action. Later, massive state intervention during the 1914-18 war was welcomed by some as being socialist in content. It was a logical consequence of these attitudes to concentrate on municipal and parliamentary politics and the permeation of social institutions.

Side by side and overlapping- sometimes in the same individuals - with the dominating state-socialist current, was a direct action oriented libertarian tendency, and it was from this side of the movement, with all its multitudinous facets, that the 'rebel' milieu described in this text drew much of its inspiration. The pre-War radical industrial movement shared these influences, and had in the period before the War been influenced by the socialist industrial unionism of Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labour Party,-' the practice of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA, and the ideas of continental syndicalism.

The terms 'syndicalism' and 'industrial unionism' covered a wide range of different nuances and meanings - from the amalgamation of existing unions to the belief that industrial unions organising all the workers in an industry were a more effective weapon of struggle; to seeing the industrial organisation of workers as not only being the vehicle of revolutionary transformation, but also as a prefiguration of the socialist society of the future.

Tom .Mann expressed mainstream syndicalist ideas at a large meet- ing at the Caledonian Baths on February 27th, 1911, when in a speech called 'Revolutionary versus State Socialism' he said: Parliament is a class institution which merely prevents any real legislation for the people. This character will not be democratised by a few Labour men, I do not believe that a bit of nationalisation here and there is progress. Trifling concessions only serve to keep back socialism. The ruling classes are not powerful because they have captured political institutions, but because they possess economic power. (Applause.) I believe not in parliamentary representation but in more effective in- dustrial organisation. It is in the seat of the trouble - the workshops and factories where the trouble is - where we should act. Direct action is the only way. Mann went on to denounce 'the fooling away' of time by Labour men in Parliament. And in a vigorous appeal he called for the reorganisation of trade unionism on a broader and more complete base, not on sectional lines and not merely as 'ring fences' to keep out non-unionists, but for mass action by the whole workforce in any industry.