Today in London’s rebel history: The Call launched as the voice of the British Socialist Party anti-war faction, 1916.

The Call was a socialist newspaper, founded as voice of the British Socialist Party’s anti-war faction, and launched on February 24th 1916.

The British Socialist Party had been founded in 1912 as a merger of the Social Democratic Federation and a number of small groups. Although it initially grew to as larger size than previous socialist groups in Britain, it carried within it the fatal flaws that had crippled much of the life of the SDF – deep splits over patriotism and militarism, a domination from the centre by HM Hyndman, the SDF founder, whose uneasy mix of rightwing ideas and Marxist orthodoxy had alienated large numbers and caused numerous splits.

The BSP did benefit from some involvement in the brief upsurge of workers struggles that some call the syndicalist revolt (1910-14). But the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 exposed the fundamental divisions that broke the party apart.

After the declaration of War on August 4th, the national headquarters of the BSP supported the War; in line with the Labour Party and the memberships and leaderships of most trade unions. On September 5th its Executive Committee unanimously agreed to a manifesto supporting recruiting. The ‘old guard’ of the BSP were taking the patriotic line – however many of its local activists were deeply opposed to the War on internationalist grounds.

The result was chaos in the BSP. As with other parts of the workers, socialist, and anarchist movements there were battles on the question of the War. Views could even change rapidly within local branches. 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; still later, it took a strongly anti-War position!

Nor were the fights restricted to verbals – a public meeting of the Socialist National Defence Committee. (including the most rabid war-mongers of the BSP) ended in tears after EC Fairchild of the internationalist faction suggested that, considering the aimless and endless slaughter on the Western Front, a negotiated peace might be a good idea. Violence erupted and Albert Inkpin, secretary of the BSP, was ejected with blood streaming down his face.

In February 1916 a group of the party’s active members founded the newspaper The Call, which played an important part in uniting the internationalists.

From 1916 onwards, The Call, edited by Fred Willis of Willesden (and later Inkpin) became the paper official journal of the British Socialist Party, replacing Justice, which had been the paper of the SDF/BSP since the mid-1880s. . The Call was produced between 24 February 1916 until the 29 July 1920, when it became the Communist the organ of the Communist party of Great Britain.

The Call was started in anticipation of a split in the BSP which eventuated two months later at Easter 1916 – at the 24-25 April national conference. 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.

“Despite the success of the split from Hyndman, since the slaughter of the war went on and the mood of Britain was still very patriotic, the mood of the paper is gloomy, indeed the battle of the Somme started in July 1916 while the Irish rebellion was crushed during its opening conference. One has the impression that an immense change in optimism occurred after the first Russian Revolution which was warmly greeted in the paper on the 22 March 1917. There was a huge growth in all the Marxist currents in Britain without much direct Russian involvement through instructions or money. Still the BSP, as in the pre-Hyndman era, up to the end of 1918 though its members were often exceedingly active in the Trade Unions did not try to organise their members in groups and develop a line therein in the Bolshevik style.

Walter Kendall in his book, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-21: the Origins of British Communism, 1969, deals with The Call, the BSP and its evolution into the Communist party. Most of his material about The Call is in Chapters 6 and 9. Kendall’s thesis seems to be that there was an organic growth until some point between early 1918 and early in 1919 when the changes that occurred were increasingly pushed through with Russian money and agents and did not arise out of British conditions and so were, in a sense, artificial, all of which is dealt with in great detail in the Part 2 of the book. Studies since the archives have been opened up have tended to confirm Kendall’s thesis as regards the amounts and frequency of Russian subventions though whether the CP was simply an artificial creation of the Russians is a much more debatable point.

A number of the leading members wrote articles for the paper, Dora Montefiore for instance, the other prominent woman is Zelda Kahan and apart from these two there is Fairchild, the editor, Walton Newbold MP, Fineburg, Dukes, Watson, Ward, Tom Quelch, and last but not least Theo Rothstein who also writes under the name John Bryan and the initials W.A.M.M. Many articles and editorials are anonymous.”
(Ted Crawford)

The British Socialist Party played a leading role in the “Hands off Russia” movement founded 18th January 1919, a campaign launched to stop British Government intervention (British troops landed in Murmansk, Archangel, Baku and Vladivostock in the summer of 1918) and aid to the “White” and “Czarist” Russians during the Civil War. The Campaign was famous for the “blacking” of the ship the “Jolly George” bound with armaments for the White Russians.

The BSP entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form the CPGB, and formed the largest consitutent bloc in the new party’s membership. Effective with the merger, the BSP and its newspaper, The Call, was terminated, replaced by the new party with its new weekly publication published in London called The Communist.

An index of some articles published in the Call can be read at:
https://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/call/index.htm

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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