The Origins of British Bolshevism
Those interested in revolutionary history will be pleased to know that one of the most important works by the late, great socialist historian Raymond Challinor is now being put online at the Marxists Internet Archive. The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977), a history of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP - formed in 1903), was reviewed here at the time in International Socialism, and John McIlroy notes the following:
The militancy of the 1960s and 1970s impelled labour historians searching for useable pasts to look at the years between 1910 and 1926 which witnessed a growth in class combativity and consciousness and intensifying conflict with the state. The Origins of British Bolshevism filled a gap left by earlier work, notably Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain and James Hinton’s First Shop Stewards’ Movement. These books discussed the tiny Manichean SLP and its role in the unrest. British Bolshevism’s unquestionable achievement was to present a fully-fledged, meticulously-researched history of the party, its policies and practice, from its formation in 1903 to its split over the creation of the CP and its decomposition in the 1920s. Its significance was acknowledged even by those who felt labour history devoted too much time to revolutionary marginalia.
The problems stemmed from its under-development of its central thesis: that SLP members were British Bolsheviks. Russian Bolshevism was a phenomenon both the SLP and even British historians of the 1970s knew too little about. Hinton had insisted that what was primary in the trajectory of the shop stewards’ movement was not so much the issues of war and internationalism as the interaction between socialist groups and industrial militancy. Distilled in the arguments of J.T. Murphy prioritising workers’ councils, and personified in his enrolment in the SLP, this led key stewards towards sovietism. British Bolshevism’s expansion on the SLP’s determination to smash the state, its ‘democratic centralism’, its stress on Marxist education and opposition to the war did not satisfactorily establish with sufficient specificity that the SLP had developed on Bolshevik lines. As distinct from embracing 1917 and, on the part of some, a Russian model. Far from fully internalising Bolshevism, many SLP members recoiled from it as it was then understood when they were faced with the practical consequences in the form of the CP.
The SLP’s economic reductionism and what Ray described elsewhere as its ‘dull and fatalistic Marxism’ arguably had more in common with the Second International than the infant Third. His conclusion that Lenin was less than infallible about British labour was justified. On the key question of the Labour Party, his criticism of Lenin’s stance was contentious. The assertion of an SLP Bolshevism which flowed into the CP, only to be sidelined by ‘bureaucracy’ and then Stalinism, was under-argued. Some former SLPers, notably MacManus and Murphy, espoused, and others such as William Paul accepted, most of the changes in the CP’s line through the 1920s. The political path of most of them is difficult to distinguish from that of many comrades who joined the CP from the British Socialist Party or the ILP. The conclusion that the SLP was a model for revolutionaries was questionable...