Historical Fragment: Notes on the Impossibilists

Another interest I have, besides the rise of political Islam/Islamic fascism, has been to develop a better understanding of the history of Canada and the history of socialism and communism in Canada. I would like to note that by Canada I do not mean the history of the First Nations, whose history is deeply linked the history of Canada but also maintains its own autonomy, however does include the history of Quebec. What follows are notes that I took on the Impossibilists. Please, note that again this is not a developed position, but just some preliminary remarks. The focus is on DeLeon and the American experience, rather than the Canadian one. There is a long section on the Scottish Marxist, James Maclean, because these were notes were originally made when the Scottish referendum was going on last Fall.

Impossibilism – DeLeonism – Socialist Labour Party (USA), Socialist Labour Party (UK)

The Impossibilists (especially the Socialist Labour Parties in the USA, UK and Canada) argued that communism cannot be established through the winning of immediate political or economic demands. Instead they completely focused on political action, most notably propaganda, complemented by industrial syndicalism. Indeed, the SLP and Daniel DeLeon, its key theorist and leader, understood the existing trade unions as reactionary bureaucratic organisations, and argued that the working class needed to be organised on a completely different basis.This resulted in a split where the section, in favour of “boring within” the existing trade union structure and using simply the means of propaganda to radicalise workers, split from the SLP and formed the Socialist Party (the left-wing faction of this would go onto form the CPUSA). The SLP’s trade union activities in turn helped form the IWW in 1905, however, DeLeon was subsequently kicked out of the IWW for sectarianism and the debate on the role of the party. Where DeLeon was correct in the debate with the IWW was his argument for the the need of a disciplined socialist party that would complement the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW. The SLP itself never joined the CPUSA and slowly withered away. The IWW on the other hand would produce a number of key militants of the CPUSA, including John Reed, who argued that the Comintern adopt the IWW as the official trade union in the USA rather, than the bureaucratically run AFL. Unfortunately, Reed lost the debate to Lenin, who attacked such ideas in “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”. The three contributions that DeLeonism and Impossibilism made was: 1) an understanding that gradualism would not lead to communism; 2) a militant attitude against the economism of the IWW through an understanding of the need for a revolutionary party; and 3) a correct recognition that communism needed to be based in the formation of militant trade unions.

In Scotland, England and Ireland, the influence of DeLeon allowed for the Socialist Labour Party (they ran the Glasgow Socialist Press) to split from the reformist Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF). Indeed, this newly formed party included such luminaries as James Connolly (Ireland) and briefly James MacLean (Scotland). MacLean had earlier been a member of the British Socialist Party (which itself was a left split from the SDF after the formation of the SLP). Indeed, Connolly would recognise the importance of the IWW and revolutionary syndicalism and upon returning to Ireland connected with the revolutionary syndicalist James Larkin. Unlike DeLeon, Connolly abandoned the role of the party and became occupied with revolutionary syndicalism and the union-based Irish Citizen Army. Connolly’s influenced is marked for the Scottish communist James MacLean. MacLean is important because he recognised, in contradistinction to his former comrades in the BSP, that Lenin’s theses on the colonial question applied to the situation in Scotland and argued that Lenin had been misinformed about the situation in Scotland by Willie Gallacher (who subsequently led the CPGB) thus causing Lenin to argue that the Scottish socialists should join the Unionist CPGB (which had been formed by the majority of the SLP, a section of the Stewards Movement led by Jack Murphy, Sylvia Pankhursts’ WSF and the BSP). MacLean in turn helped form the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party which fought for communism and Scottish independence, but remained aloof of the CPGB because of their continued Unionist position. He also remained in touch with Sylvia Pankurst who had by then left the CPGB because of her principled anti-parliamentarian stance had formed the Communist Workers’ Party. From MacLean we of course recognise the need for self-determination and the choice of any nation to seek its self-determination unto and including secession (it ought to be noted that any given nation can opt for themselves for the kind of self-determination that they want and thus may choose not to opt for secession). It ought to be noted that there is no such thing as MacLeanism or Connollyism, however, both MacLean and Connolly put into effect, to varying degrees, Marxism-Leninist theories into practice.


6 thoughts on “Historical Fragment: Notes on the Impossibilists

    1. Neither a lapse nor a purposeful omission, more like a lack research about the history of the current SPGB. If you can recommend a good history of the SPGB I would be more than happy to read it and dedicate a post to the SPGB. If there has indeed been a lapse is that I have not posted a review of the book on the Canadian impossibilists that I recently read by Newell.

      1. David Perrin’s book on the SPGB
        Robert Barltrop’s more anecdotal history

        But these online articles are probably more accessible for you

        Another on Socialist Party of Canada with the same title by Larry Gambone to complement the Newell book

        Since your blog is entitled the Workers Dreadnought you will see that a couple of the Sylvia Pankhurst articles on the Marxist Archive was posted by the SPGB.
        We do acknowlege similarity of objectives.
        the Workers Council advocates Pannekoek and Mattick also non-members wrote articles, mostly book reviews for the Western Socialist, the WSPUS journal. John Keracher of the defunct Proletarian Party has had his pamphlet on religion published by the SPGB and his economics pamphlet, recommended.

      2. Thanks for the links. I will definitely check out the 2 books you recommended on the SPGB (I am not a big fan of articles, especially if a book exists on a given topic. I am sure that my university library has a copy of them). I was wondering what was your impression of the Newell book? Given that you regard the Gambone book to be complementary to the Newell book, I was wondering what you thought was gained/lost in either book?

      3. Been a while since i read Newell’s book and no longer have my library to re-read it but even though he is critical of the current SPC i recall thinking Larry Gambone is the better of the two because he is standing outside and looking in so has a slightly better perspective.

        The SPC and the OBU is the real book waiting to be written, imho. Much has been written on the IWW, very little on the OBU which had a very different structure and politics.

        It should be remembered that a determined coalition of the government, employers, the official trade union leaders and the Communist Party put the knives into any chance of the OBU succeeding.

        Even though you don’t like articles, a couple of more on Canada



        The SPGB and the SPC and the WSPUS all have websites with valuable many contemporary articles in their archives.

  1. I don’t believe MacLean was ever a member of the early SLP, though he made have had a brief membership – or at least a working relationship with the SLP – in the post 1918 period before he formed the SWRP.

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