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Religion and Reform

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There was still no Party office. The Communist Club provided only a room for meeting, and the addresses for communications were members’ own addresses: literature orders to Watts, requests for information to Fitzgerald. In 1905 the more frequent use of a room was obtained at la Caledonian Road; a year later there was another room at 28 Cursitor Street; the next year, the Executive met at 22 Great James Street.
The first premises rented for the Party’s exclusive use were at 10 Sandland Street, Bedford Row, in 1909. They were two rooms above a corner junk-shop, up two flights of rickety stairs. One felt, said a veteran member forty-five years later in the Socialist Standard, that one was entering ‘the heart of deep red revolution’. One room had a desk and a chair and a pile of unsold Standards. The paper was delivered in large flat sheets every month; when the word of its arrival came, members would go and spend evenings or Saturday afternoons folding the copies and arguing economics while they did so.
The other room had a long table and a number of chairs. Here Fitzgerald gave his classes on Marxism and history and on Tuesday nights the Executive Committee met. R. M. Fox has described the scene at one of the meetings in the crowded little room:
‘The war-horses pranced . . . Anderson, his pale face gleaming, flung back his mane of hair and pounded chairs and table. Neumann wore his square-cut frock coat, which he usually reserved for Paris Commune celebrations. He began with Teutonic gravity, but soon worked himself into red-faced incoherence. Fitzgerald, owlish and grim, shot out his fists and nailed his points, with a deep throaty roar.
It should have been a great night. The issue to me was a very momentous one. I saw the lights of the room casting gesticulating shadows on the blinds. The orators thundered on till well after midnight, arguing, pleading, insulting, threatening, asserting. Down in the street passers-by stood looking up at the windows curiously, wondering when the disputants in the brawl would come to blows. ’
In those years, the character of the Party became more firmly established. There was a discipline which softened for nobody: a

member had to conform or go. Each year there were the one or two cases of members weakening towards prohibited doctrines or organizations and their inevitable expulsion (Fox was expelled for sending an appreciative letter to a radical paper). It worked in the reverse ways too, of course. Some decided they would rather go than conform, while some demanded procedures still more authoritarian and resigned in anger with the Party’s laxity. The vital test of this kind of discipline came in 1906, when an entire branch was expelled for . . . for what ? Searching the records, it is hard to say.
The Islington dispute, as it was afterwards called, began as a clumsy attempt to re-orientate the Party towards the SLP and industrial unionism. After approaching the Party Executive for a statement of the differences between the two organizations, a man named Morris formed a branch of the Socialist Party at Bexley Heath in Kent; from this branch came almost at once an item for the agenda of the forthcoming Easter Conference demanding the union of the SLP and the SPGB. In spite of the Executive’s objections the Conference discussed the item. The industrial unionists lost the day, but there was agreement to re-open the question of the trade unions in a special meeting and a poll of the Party.
Immediately after the Conference, the Islington branch questioned the legality of what had taken place. The SLP proposal, being in conflict with the Hostility Clause of the Principles, never should have been admitted to the Conference; the discussion of trade unions, arising as it did from the invalid item, was out of order; the EC — the Executive — must ignore the Conference and make Bexley Heath withdraw its demand. The Executive Committee submitted the question to a referendum, obtained confirmation by a majority of one that the Conference had been wrong, and there would have let the matter rest.
But Islington came back. The Bexley Heath branch must be made to expunge the criminal resolution from its books. But that would be falsifying the records, said the EC. No matter, insisted the Islington members: there is a greater stain on the Party’s purity that must be erased. We can do nothing more, replied the EC. Then, said Islington, the Executive has failed in its duty as the custodian of socialist principle. As a protest the branch would stop all activity until some action was taken and the EC was removed.
A Delegate Meeting in July considered the case. Too many pistols were being held at heads for a reconciliation now and, from the point of view of the discipline the Party desired, both sides were in the right. So the Islington branch was expelled (and, as if to prove that

Islington were right, the Bexley Heath branch too). One of the Islington members was Lehane, the Party Secretary; another, George Bazin, remained a supporter all his life but was never readmitted to membership because he was unwilling to make an act of contrition for 1906. Islington made two parting sallies with pamphlets called Rocks Ahead and Another Political Wreck, but they found no sympathy. A strong precedent had been established: there was to be no nonsense from anyone.
The membership at the time of the Party’s entry to Sandland Street was perhaps 250. There were eighteen branches, thirteen of them in London; one was the Central Branch for scattered members, united only by posted reports, and the others were at Burnley, Manchester, Nottingham and Watford. The zeal and purposefulness were tremendous, however. Every branch held propaganda lectures in the winter and outdoor meetings in the summer. At the height of the season about two dozen speakers would be holding forty or fifty meetings a week in the London area. Thus, the Party’s reputation grew out of proportion to its size; it had to be noticed. In the labour move¬ment it acquired nicknames which were variants on the initials by which it became known: Simon Pure’s Genuine Brand or, a reference to the belief in democratic methods for the revolution, the Small Party of Good Boys.
With great social issues in the air, challenges to public debate were eagerly thrown and often accepted. The least willing organizations were the SDF and other Labour groups, who knew the SPGB well enough to realize there was little to be gained. Liberals, Conservatives, Anti-Socialist Unionists and others were more than willing to debate, however. Some debates were held from rostrums in the parks, but for the more important ones there was always a hall. Party members would travel anywhere to hear Anderson or Fitz browbeating an opponent. There was a great vicarious thrill in the sight of a Member of Parliament or some other public figure, seen as a representative of the mighty master class, quailing before the socialist truth: a lion thrown to the Christians and being torn.
Nor is there any doubt that Fitzgerald and Anderson, as well as others of their time and after in the Socialist Party, were brilliant debaters. To their ability as speakers was added a mental discipline in which facts and figures were the supreme arbiters of all questions. Fitzgerald went everywhere with a bag of books strapped to his cycle; he prepared assiduously for debates, took the platform with a pile of books and papers, quoted endlessly. In 1908 he debated with Lawler Wilson of the Anti-Socialist Union, who himself was demolishing

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