H.N. Hyndman Oct. 1897

Social Democrat or Socialist

Source: The Social-Democrat, Oct. 1897, pp. 227-31;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Names and terms have frequently given rise to bitter and sometimes to bloody disputes among civilised men. This may be very unphilosophic and unwise, but we do not need to go so far back as the history of Alexandria and Constantinople to discover evidence of its truth. And it will be found that behind the name, or modification of a name, which occasions the heated or even murderous discussion, there is generally some conflicting idea which has sunk deep into the minds of the disputants – little as this may be recognised in after ages. We have all smiled over the petty change in a vowel which deluged great cities with blood in theological conflicts, and have marvelled that human beings should have been so senseless as to cut one another’s throats on such a trifling metaphysical issue as to the like nature or the same nature being the more correct description of the incomprehensible persons of an incomprehensible Trinity. Yet there can be no doubt that to the Greeks of those days the difference represented something which went to the root of their common Christianity. It meant as much to them as the red or white rose to partisans of York and Lancaster in the past; and was quite as tangible as the colour distinction between green and orange to Irishmen to-day.

Undoubtedly, it is very foolish to allow mere names to draw us aside from the consideration of things, and to permit the past to influence the present and the future, merely because we have become accustomed and attached to certain forms of speech. But where such names express and cover the assertion of definite principles of religion, morals, art, or politics, men can scarcely be blamed for attaching great importance to a slight change of terms which may easily betoken a complete change of meaning. A Roman Catholic, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a member of the Greek Church claim to be Catholics, and undoubtedly are Christians. But they would all be astonished indeed if they were asked to act in common accord as “Followers of the Lamb”; on the ground that this was a fine comprehensive name, and that really such points as the immaculate conception and divinity of the Virgin Mother, the worship of images as against the worship of pictures, the celibacy or otherwise of the priesthood, and the infallibility of the Pope, were matters of no moment in comparison with the common belief in the Crucifixion and the general acceptance of the Lord’s Prayer as a method of invoking the deity. They would truly say that the differences of principle began immediately at the point where the narrow common ground ended, and that such a title as that proposed would lead to misapprehension. Other illustrations might easily be drawn from politics. But it needs no elaborate exercitation to prove that when men and women have adopted and long used a distinctive name, which to their minds fully expresses a definite set of principles, they are very reluctant to part with it in favour of a more vague appellation; which may even give the impression that they have abandoned those principles when they have done nothing of the sort. These few remarks lead me to the immediate subject of this paper, which, of course, has a direct bearing on the Socialist movement in Great Britain at the present time.


The general impression is that the terms Social-Democrat and Social-Democracy, like a good many other things nowadays, were imported from Germany into this country. This is a mistake. The composite name Social-Democrat was first used, and made to a certain extent popular, by the famous Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien, in his People’s Guardian, nearly sixty years ago – that is to say, some time before Marx, Engels, and Lassalle were heard of. O’Brien was a Catholic and a paper-currency man, but he was in some respects the ablest and most far-seeing of the Chartists. He held the opinion, for example, that trade onions, being composed of what he called “the aristocrats of labour,” with all sorts of rules for restricting the number of apprentices in the skilled trades, and possessed with a distinct desire to constitute a privileged class among the workers, would inevitably develop into a more or less reactionary force as against the interests of the mass of the labouring population. Can anyone deny that his fears have been to a large extent justified? He also declared vehemently against Free Trade as being any panacea for working-class wrongs, and pointed out clearly that such free trade as was proposed by Fox and Villiers, Cobden and Bright, was distinctly a capitalist measure. No good, or very little, could come of it for the people unless land were nationalised and machinery socialised beforehand. His predictions have been amply fulfilled. In short, O’Brien, with all his drawbacks, was what we should ourselves call a Social-Democrat to-day, and he proclaimed the class war as inevitable with quite as much vigour as any Continental Socialist either before or after him. His religious and economic errors did not affect the main truths which he set forth.

A Social-Democrat, then, according to O’Brien, was a man who regarded social questions as of paramount importance, and desired to solve them by collectivist and democratic action. Democratic action might not by any means necessarily be collectivist; and collectivist action might not by any means necessarily be democratic. For the questions which arose at the beginning of the Queen’s reign were not very different from those which press for a solution at the end of it; though the great economic development of the past two generations renders our task easy indeed compared with that of the Chartists who held Socialist views. And, moreover, in the ranks of the advanced party, then as now, were men who wanted to substitute personal dictation from above, for voluntary democratic discipline on the same level; and other men who resented anything like interference on the part of a majority with the somewhat conceited display of what they were pleased to call their own individuality, as a direct attack upon personal freedom. O’Brien took and used the term Social-Democrat to express the views of those who wished to bring about a complete social reconstruction under democratic forms.

Of course, much has happened since O’Brien’s day. Social-Democrats and Social-Democracy represent now a series of much more clearly defined opinions and a far greater array of disciplined forces than it was possible that they should in 1839. Yet the ideas which those words represent are not much changed from what they were when they first saw the light. The great and growing Social-Democratic parties of Germany and Austria, the Social-Democratic parties of Denmark and Holland, the increasing numbers who demand the democratic and social Republic for France, as well as the Social-Democratic Federation of Great Britain, all tell the same story and all mean the same thing. The work of Marx and Engels, and in less degree of Lassalle, systematised and formulated the ideas which prevailed at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century throughout Europe, and gave a scientific and historical basis to the teachings of St. Simon, Robert Owen, and the socialistic Chartists. Their theories are now being extended, adapted, modified, and applied by Social-Democrats in every civilised country. But much of the original conception remains, and at this hour a Social-Democrat means a man or a woman: –

1. Who recognises the class war between the proletariat and the possessing class as the inevitable historic outcome of the capitalist system and of the direct economic and social antagonisms which it has engendered and fostered.

2. Who sees that those antagonisms can only be resolved by the complete control over all the great means of production, distribution, and exchange, by the whole people, thus abolishing the class State and the wages system, and constituting a Co-operative Commonwealth or a Social-Democracy.[1]

3. Who observes that the preliminary changes which must bring about this social revolution are already being made, unconsciously, by the capitalists themselves, and is anxious to use political institutions and forms to educate the people and to prepare, as far as possible, peacefully for the social revolution which must result in national and international Communism.

4. Who holds that the methods of giving legal expression to this great Socialist change should be completely democratic in every respect; such democracy, however, not excluding, but rendering essential, thorough voluntary discipline.

5. Who, lastly, is of opinion that close international understandings and agreements between the various national Social-Democratic parties, in order eventually to weld them into one great whole, are to be carefully fostered.

This, I think, is a fair description of the opinions held by a conscious Social-Democrat at the present time in every country.


The terms Socialist and Socialism were, I believe, first used by Robert Owen to describe the views of those who, like himself, were in favour of the substitution of universal and ordered co-operation for universal and anarchical competition. At any rate, the names are at least forty years older than that of Social-Democrat, and always have been, as they are to-day, of much wider signification. They embrace practically, now, all those who, being discontented with the present state of society, are anxious to re-organise it on a co-operative or communist basis. Thus we have the Christian Socialists, the Socialists of the Chair and Arm Chair (Professors and Fabians), Municipal Socialists, Radical Socialists, Socialists of the type of those who found the so-called Socialist Colonies of Paraguay, Topolobampo, & c., Shaker Socialists, Free Love Socialists, and so on, and so on. Indeed, I believe many Anarchists now call themselves Socialists; while Social-Democrats also, who are the consistent and steady opponents of Anarchism in all its forms, come under this wide designation of Socialists, too.

The drawback to the term Socialist is, therefore, that it is not sufficiently definite. Nobody could reasonably say that Christian Socialists, as Christians, Municipal Socialists, and Free Love Socialists have the same ends in view as, Social-Democrats, or anything at all like them. The differences are manifest without further discussion. But more than this, useful as the word Socialist may be as a rough generic popular name, it does not necessarily carry with it the notion of democrat as well. Far from it. Socialists are, indeed, frequently accused of wishing to impose their arbitrary will on the whole population. This is not true, as I believe, of the great majority of them, whether they are Social-Democrats or not. But nobody can truly say that State or Bureaucratic Socialism is not a danger of the immediate future in more than one country. Nobody, I think, also, can question that the experiment of a Caesarist Socialism – a perfectly possible temporary solution of the politico-economic difficulty in the transition stage – might meet with acceptance from the mass of the people crushed, as they are to-day, under the monopolist tyranny of a set of unscrupulous capitalists. The general, vague term, Socialist, therefore, charitable and Catholic as it may be, can be used to cover too many schools of thought to constitute a proper appellation for a well-organised, disciplined array of class-conscious revolutionaries, who are confident of victory for their party in the near future.


Now the obstacles to the constitution of a consolidated party of the people in Great Britain on a Socialist basis seem to be narrowed down to this one point of difference between Social-Democrat and Socialist. The Social-Democratic Federation, which has just held its Seventeenth Annual Congress, and which has had the title “Social-Democratic” since 1884 – having in those sixteen or seventeen years beyond all question done the bulk of the work, the uphill, dangerous, depressing work of Socialist propaganda in Great Britain – contends that, whatever be the name of the combined Socialist organisations, the word Social-Democratic must appear in it. As a matter of fact, our main difficulty has been to teach the English workers how to be democratic. Our task has been to show them “democratic” does not mean servility to a vigorous personality on the one hand, or petty endeavours to pull everybody down to a low general level on the other: to prove also by experiment that democracy does not lead to anarchy or go-as-you-please, but that it brings with it thorough voluntary discipline, and the choice of leaders absolutely controlled by the organisation. This the S.D.F. has done, and a more Socialist or a more Democratic body cannot exist. The discipline to-day is enforced by the whole of the members, who sometimes go in this direction beyond what the older men in the organisation would have thought of suggesting.

It is easy to understand, therefore, that a body with such a record and such an organisation does not wish, and indeed cannot, cut itself off wholly from its past by giving up its distinctive appellation of “Social-Democratic” any more than it could abandon the principles which underlie that name. Short of that, I believe our members will be willing to do anything to come to an amalgamation with the members of the I.L.P., as we have already come to a political understanding with them. The word Socialist is too vague. But it can hardly be contended that the term Social-Democratic (modified by any prefix or appendage that may be desired) is too exclusive to form a portion of the title of what must eventually be the United Social-Democratic Party of Great Britain. And the hopeless incapacity of the Liberal and Radical factions at the present time, their entire inability to rouse anything like enthusiasm among themselves or the people at large, renders it quite possible that ere many years have passed the whole of the advanced political sections in this island may be found fighting side by side with us in such a party for a complete social transformation on democratic and republican lines.


1. Kropotkin, with that curious disregard for the truth which all Anarchists show in controversy, has repeatedly stated that Social-Democrats wish to retain the system of paying wages. He knows perfectly well that this is not, and never has been, so, and he has been often told as much. But it suits him to misrepresent us, and of course he never stops to consider whether it is right or fair that he should. This is anarchical morality or individualist ethic, I suppose.