E. Sylvia Pankhurst. 1921

The forgotten Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie

Source: Workers’ Liberty, No.62, April 2000.

Keir Hardie (1856-1915) was first elected to Parliament as a labour and socialist MP in 1892. A year later he helped to set up the Independent Labour Party, which was to form one of the strands of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. This year the Blairite-run New Labour celebrated the formation of the LRC, and honoured Keir Hardie in the Party’s magazine. But Keir Hardie does not deserve to be regarded as a folk-hero by the likes of Tony Blair. In his lifetime he was not always well regarded by contemporary socialists, particuarly those in the Social Democratic Federation. After his death labour movement biographers, keen to make Labour respectable, tried to play down his socialist credentials and stressed his religious and temperance background. The historical Hardie has been a matter of controversy in and around the labour movement ever since – in 1955 for example The Economist urged, the newly installed leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, to turn his back on the “age of Keir Hardie.”

This article by Sylvia Pankhurst, written in 1921 is a rejoinder to an appreciation by long-standing British Marxist and early member of the Communist Party, John B Askew. Sylvia argues that Hardie was always a class struggle politician and more influenced by Marx than many would have credited. Certainly her view is supported by a recent biography by Fred Reid (Keir Hardie: the Making of a Socialist) who shows that Hardie’s early battles as an organiser for the Scottish miners convinced him of the centrality of class struggle and made him receptive to Marxist ideas.

John B Askew, in the Call, referring to an appreciation of Keir Hardie which has appeared in that Räte-Korrespondenz, an organ of the German Communist Party, says that Keir Hardie, “the man who set out to found an Independent Labour Party, and yet was resolutely determined to ignore the class struggle or the Marxist theories which alone could give such a party a firm foundation, presents a contradiction which is none too easy to unravel.”

Strange that Keir Hardie’s real opinions should be so little known by British socialists. We have before us a pamphlet containing reprints of three articles written by Keir Hardie in 1910, and entitled: Karl Marx: The Man and His Message. This pamphlet shows how absurd are the stories that Keir Hardie ignored or was opposed to the Marxian doctrine, or, as we have sometimes seen it said, he had never read a line of Marx. The fact is that Keir Hardie was much too big a man to make a parade of knowledge. But here are some extracts from Keir Hardie’s pamphlet:

“Marx had by this time broken with the past in regard to both religion and politics, and had already entered upon that career which was destined so mightily to influence the course of history, and which will continue to be felt so long as the race endures.”

“Because this man, despite the most tempting offers, refused to prostitute his talents in the service of the ruling caste, he was hounded as a felon, and branded as an enemy of the race.”

“The last quarter of the Eighteenth, and the first half of the Nineteenth Century were stirring times. Revolution, grim and bloody, stalked abroad all over Europe. Feudalism was in its death-throes. The middle, or capitalist class, was fighting for power, and on its side, naturally, the working class rallied. In the closing years of the French Revolution, over the atrocities of which so many crocodile tears have been shed by smug, callous hypocrites, and when it was over, one fair land had set its face sunward. But it was a middle-class triumph... Everywhere on the Continent the revolutionary movement had a political objective. Commercialism and feudalism were at grips for the control of the state.”

“Here, at home, the middle-class also had its political movement, but, owing to the more developed state of the capitalist system, there was also, and concurrently, a very definite movement of the working-class. The workmen realised that they were being ground to dust by the unregulated operation of a competitive system over which they had no control, and so trade unionism had, early in the Nineteenth Century, already taken a firm hold. There were Luddite riots and outrages in Yorkshire, bread riots in Scotland, and similar outbreaks elsewhere.”

“A revolutionary outbreak occurred in Paris, in December, 1847, which was continued through January and crowned with final success in February... Given this example, the revolutionary forces of Germany and Austria followed suit, and Vienna, Cologne, and other cities were soon in the hands of the insurgents. Nowhere in the volume before us does Mr Spargo touch such height of graphic descriptive power as in his bloodstirring accounts of the glorious happenings of those momentous days, when Kings and Emperors were compelled to pay homage to our common manhood, alive and dead. The spirit of revolt swept across the English Channel, and for a time it almost looked as though the hour of a British Republic had struck. When the news came that the Paris workmen were behind the barricades, it sent a thrill through these islands. Four days later, Trafalgar Square was packed by a mob of London citizens... rioting took place in various provincial cities. Thousands of hunger-maddened unemployed operatives marched though the streets of Glasgow, sacking shops and singing Chartist songs, and shouting, “Bread or Revolution.” The troops were called out and several persons shot down in the streets... There were riots also in England... It is astounding to think that all this happened in England only 62 years ago...”

“Marx had not only been a keen observer of the risings, but had also been an active participator, first in Paris, and then in Cologne. He, however, was not under any illusion as to what was happening. He knew that, so soon as the demands of the capitalist class were met, and themselves established in power, they would turn upon and rend the working-class if it attempted to carry the Revolution forward in its own interest. But he knew also, that the experience thus gained would be invaluable in guiding the workers into a genuine movement of their own, without which, he realised, their own freedom could never be won...”

The above passages, written in review of Spargo’s Life of Marx, are typical of Keir Hardie’s thought, for on the one hand he was by no means the tame, sentimental pacifist that some would make him out to be, and, on the other hand, he was always most emphatic on the importance of an independent working-class movement, the ideal to which his whole life was devoted. But now we have, quite concisely put, Hardie’s opinion of Marx:

“The famous Communist Manifesto is the most fateful document ever written in the whole history of the working-class movement. It was the birth certificate of the modern Socialist movement. It had a two-fold purpose – to define clearly the nature of the struggle in which the Communists were engaged on behalf of the working-class – and the attitude of the League to the working-class movement outside its own ranks.”

“Marx’s real title to greatness, and certainly his greatest claim upon the gratitude of the working-class, rests upon his discovery – for such it practically was – of the truth that history is but the record of class struggles, and that they are always the outcome of the economic system of the time resisting a change which its own workings has made inevitable. This is what has come to be known as the Economic or Materialist interpretation of history. All that means is this: That Marx supplied the same explanation of human progress in civilisation and towards freedom, which Darwin subsequently did of the evolution of animal and plant life towards the stage of perfection now attained. The existence of a ruling class is only a proof of a successful revolutionary struggle waged by that class at some former period of its history. With each succeeding class struggle the bounds of human freedom have been enlarged until, with the advent of the capitalist system of wealth production, we have society, in the main, divided into two great antagonistic classes – the owners of property and the producers of property.”

“Socialism will abolish the landlord class, the capitalist class, and the working-class. That is revolution; that the working-class, by its actions, will one day abolish class distinctions.”

“And it was the inspired version of Karl Marx which first formulated as a cold, scientific fact the inevitable coming of that glorious time. Little wonder that his memory is a consecrated treasure enshrined in the hearts of millions of the best men and women of all lands.”

That Keir Hardie endorsed the class struggle from a theoretical standpoint cannot be denied by any who will take the trouble to study his actual writings: the extracts we have quoted prove it and are typical of the rest. His realisation of the class struggle was, moreover, his guiding rule of conduct. In the House of Commons he was alone, ringed round by a barrier of reserve impassable by any of the bourgeois members whom he regarded as his political and class enemies. He associated with no one at Westminster till the Labour Members came there to join him.

He had conceived the Labour Party as a sturdy, determined body of fighters, irreconcilably hostile to both the capitalist parties, attacking the employing class in Parliament as though engaged in a strike and giving no quarter. Though he knew that at least the majority of the men chosen as Labour’s Parliamentary representatives were not class conscious Socialists, yet he thought they would keep together as a class, and that the Parliamentary conflict would increase their fighting spirit. He was often bitterly disappointed. Soon after the opening of the Session the new Party gave a dinner at the House to celebrate its victory. Already the Labour Members had begun to fraternise with the Liberals and the Tories, and to show a desire to win their praise for being moderate and level-headed.

Already J.R. MacDonald was earning the reputation of being “always on the doorstep of Cabinet Ministers.” At that first dinner Hardie voiced his disapproval. He declared that he wanted to form an “anti-guzzling league” and that the Labour Members should not accept the hospitality of the capitalist representatives whose only desire was to neutralise the hostility of the Labour Members in order to undermine their fighting qualities and influence with the workers outside. “We are only puppets to them,” he said. We well remember his words.

Hardie was often reproached, by those who were impatient with the Labour Party’s opportunism, for giving way to the reactionaries in the Party. As a matter of fact he was dominated by the determination to be loyal to the Labour Party because he regarded it as the Party of the working class. He was always anxious to show a united front to the capitalist class and, having fought reaction in the Party Executive, he usually accepted the decision of the majority without making any public criticism of the reactionaries who so often gained the day. He was, as we think, handicapped by an overwhelming desire to keep the Party together, and in this cause suffered much unhappiness. He chafed under the Party discipline; but submitted to it from a sense of loyalty and in the belief that in the end socialism would win the Party.

Askew says that Hardie “always had to cave in to MacDonald’s greater knowledge”. The statement is absolutely incorrect. MacDonald, the reformist-opportunist, had the majority of the Party with him; for the majority was not socialist. Keir Hardie, the class conscious socialist, had either to split the Party or wait and work in patience saying, as he so often did: “Our day will come.”

Keir Hardie was always distrustful of middle-class people who offered to join the ILP, though he did not wish to bar them out if they were really convinced socialists. He thought it healthiest for a Socialist Party to be mainly composed of the working class. Some of those middle-class people who have recently joined the ILP and the Labour Party had actually approached Keir Hardie with a view to joining the ILP in the days of the Labour Party’s first successes. His answer was in each case something like this: “Stay in the Liberal Party; that is where you belong. You are dissatisfied with the Liberal Party on this or that question, just now, but you are not a socialist, and you would be out of your element with us.” He constantly endeavoured to keep the Labour Party and the ILP away from co-operation with the bourgeoisie on any pretext. He would not accept membership of any of those composite committees of labour and bourgeois representatives which in this country are habitually formed to push reforms, or to repeal injustices. He rarely consented even to speak for such bodies. The suffrage movement was the only non-Socialist non-working class movement with which he was ever actively associated, and even in that case he never joined a suffrage organisation or sat on a suffrage committee.

Keir Hardie’s Defence of the Labour and Socialist Alliance

This pamphlet on Marx contains, like so many of Hardie’s writings, a defence of the Labour Party; and a plea that though not yet a class-conscious Socialist organisation, it would become so. He says: “The Trade Union movement is the real movement of the working class, and the ILP is the advanced wing... that was what Marx intended the Socialist section of the working-class to be... He did not ask the working-class to unite as class-conscious Socialists, but only as working men. He knew the class-consciousness would come in good time.”

Hardie’s view was bitterly attacked by the British Socialist Party, which on this question has now come round to his standpoint, for it declares in defence of its affiliation to the Labour Party, that the Party is “the mass organisation of the working class”.

But since the creation of the Labour Party new horizons have appeared. The workers’ committees have proved in this country that in times of crisis they can become a power able to act more swiftly, more decisively, than the trade union organisations. Both Russia and Germany have shown us that these Committees are the mass organisations which will be the rallying centre and administrative machinery of the revolution. We have entered the revolutionary epoch. Has it occurred to the BSP members that perhaps Keir Hardie was right in holding to the Labour Party in his generation, whilst they are mistaken in doing so in theirs?

Hardie seems, on the whole, to have been of opinion that socialism would be achieved by means of the Labour Party securing a Parliamentary majority, and then taking over “by degrees” the instruments of production. Whether he regarded this merely as a preliminary to more revolutionary happenings; whether he believed that a violent clash with the capitalists might, or would, result from this; or whether he thought that the entire change from capitalism to socialism would take place peacefully, I do not know. He did not think that a revolution of a small conscious minority at the head of unconscious masses could succeed; but it is quite certain that he had no theoretical shrinking from a violent seizure of power by the proletariat, on pacifist, or democratic grounds. The possibility of success was his only pre-occupation on this question.

It must be remembered that Keir Hardie died before the Russian Revolution, that he lived in the period of stagnant reformism, and died during the early clash of the great war, when the working-class movement of Europe was submerged in a riot of patriotism, and no glimmer of international solidarity showed on the horizon. His hope that the great war might be postponed till the international general strike of the workers could prevent it had been dashed to the ground. He had worked for this strike both nationally and in the International.

As to the future, he believed that society would pass through state socialism to communism.

Some may argue that his conception of the coming passage from capitalism to socialism was utopian, that he under-rated the strength of the capitalist system, that perhaps he failed to realise that the workers could never overthrow it except under the pressure of an overwhelming economic necessity. His theoretical conceptions may easily be misrepresented, because he lived too strenuous a life of practical labour for the working-class movement to write more than short pamphlets and articles. But whatever may be said of him as a theorist, it is absurd to say he was not class-conscious.

The extreme poverty of his early life had bitten deeply into his mind, and was never forgotten. His earliest conscious memory was that of his mother’s tears falling on his face. The home of his grandparents was so poor that they could not afford any light, and sat in the dark after sunset. As a little child he stood with his mother and her younger children in the road with their household goods piled up beside them, and saw the coal-owner who had evicted them come riding up, and tell his mother that she could re-enter the cottage if her husband would apologise for his part in a strike. His mother answered: “Nay, nay, he’ll ne’er do that!”

When he was only eight years of age, Hardie was called before the well-spread breakfast table of his master, a baker, and dismissed, without wages, for being unpunctual, after he had sat up all night waiting on his mother. A baby was born in the early morning. Hardie’s stepfather was away looking for work, and there was no food in the house save a little flour and water.