Brian Pearce

Marxism in Britain 1881–1920

(October 1959)

From Labour Review, Vol. 4 No. 3, October–November 1959, pp. 90–98. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The following survey is based on a feature given at a cadre school of the Socialist Labour League, the material for which was largely drawn from the writings of Ralph Fox, Allen Hutt, Eric Hobsbawm, Henry Pelling and others.

This is not a history of the general Labour movement, nor even one of the broader socialist movement. There were many people besides the Marxists who thought of themselves as socialists and conducted important activities, and we can read about them in Cole and Postgate’s The Common People and other works. But the peculiar problems of developing a Marxist movement and leadership in Britain are not so easily approached, because the systematic study has not yet been completely made. Even our movement today is the linear descendant, the true heir, of the experiences of Marxists since the early 1880s. We have not come out of the blue; we developed from them and their experience. The Communist Party itself was not imported ready made but was formed out of groups which had already existed for some time and had a rich past. Moscow fashioned the Communist Party, and Russian history, as well as British, is needed to explain what has happened to it; but the influence of Moscow did not operate in a vacuum or on a blank sheet. The material of the British Communist Party was already formed, and the process of Stalinization from 1924 onwards operated with certain peculiar features which can only be explained by the characteristics of the British Labour movement. Many of the trends which we can see in the movement today were with us 60 years ago and form part of the general tradition of the whole Labour movement.

Three main periods may be discerned:

  1. 1881 to the middle of the 1890s.
  2. Middle 1890s to 1908.
  3. 1908 to 1920.
  1. This is a period of advance of Marxist influence, of optimism in Marxist circles.
  2. A black period which is very important in explaining what we face today, when an anti-Marxist leadership fastened itself on the Labour movement, when hopes failed, reformism grew and Marxism was treated with discredit and contempt.
  3. New period of advance, but far from a mechanical repetition of the period before 1908, and great difficulties due to the failure of the first advance.

(a) The Turn to Marxism

In the 1870s there was no Labour movement in the real sense in Britain, unlike Germany or France. The trade union movement was confined to the narrow aristocracy of the crafts, and not keen to dilute its privileged numbers by bringing more in. Politically the unions functioned as a tail to the Liberal Party; they saw success for their political aspirations in the success of the Liberal Party; they hoped for some social legislation from it, especially in the direction of protecting their funds and status but, deeper, they really believed that success for the industrial interests was success for them. This was expressed in the slogan ‘A fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage’. Great interest among trade union leaders in social climbing at this stage, and pressure on the Liberal Party to let more working men have seats in Parliament. Very few people thought about independent class politics and there was no socialist movement. However, the ideas were just kept alive in the Rose Street working men’s club in London where German social-democratic exiles met old Chartists who retained their early socialist ideas. This circle was isolated and was significant only for what grew round it at a definite time; we can note how quite small groups can quickly produce big things if they are at the right place at the right time!

In 1879 a much more severe trade depression set in than the short slumps of 1847, 1857 and 1866, and it lasted much longer. We can see now that this marked the end of the thirty years’ period in which British capitalists had had the unchallenged monopoly of the world market in manufactures – the ‘workshop of the world’ which had provided the material basis for the disappearance of the class-struggle ideas of the 1830s and 1840s, the loss of revolutionary content in the workers’ movements and their subordination to seeking relatively minor reforms.

The end of expansion and the rise in unemployment came as a shock to everyone. There were arguments about whether charity corrupted, and reiteration of New Poor Law ideas. All this led to widespread questioning of established mid-Victorian ideas, and came at a time when the needs of industry and the State were developing public education and an intellectual middle class was increasing. With the puncturing of the accepted myth of thrift and progress, there was a new field for the old socialist ideas. Further, the actual success of the German Social-Democrat Party, which was established and thriving and contemptuous of Bismarck’s efforts to corrupt it or repress it, impressed advanced people here.

Frederick Engels had some articles in 1881 in The Labour Standard, the organ of the London Trades Council (these have been reproduced in a small book published by Martin Lawrence), because James Macdonald, the secretary, was impressed by Marxism. These articles drew the lesson of the depression and raised the question of an independent class party.

Another force which attracted some key people to socialism was the turn of the Liberal Party towards imperialism. In 1881-82 a Liberal Coercion Act for Ireland out-Toried the Tories in harshness towards the Irish peasant struggle – regarded as ‘contrary to the Liberal tradition’. This annoyed both the Irish workers in this country and the Radical elements who thought of themselves as the Left wing of Liberalism. Again, there was the imperialist attack on Egypt in 1882, bombardment of Alexandria, forestalling of the French attempt to get control, and involvement in the dirty business of Egyptian rulers’ debts.

The Social Democratic Federation is Founded

Now at last a few people began to read Marx. Hyndman tried to popularize Marx’s ideas as an answer to the new reality. The Democratic Federation was founded in 1881 and quickly evolved from being a Left Radical to a Marxist body and, to copy Germany, openly adopted the name Social Democratic Federation in 1884.

One principal job which it undertook was to campaign in defence of the oppressed Irish, and this was rather like defending the people of Kenya or Cyprus more recently; the same impression was made on the general public by the terrorism of the oppressed. Despite the unpopularity incurred among British workers it had a big success with Irish workers in Britain. Herein lay a source of weakness. The fortunate chance that it started off with this good campaigning appeal to one section of the working class gave the SDF the illusion that it had a much bigger mass following than was really the case. For in 1886 the Liberal Party split on the Irish question, and the declaration for Irish Home Rule took the Irish voters back into the Liberal camp, and actually raised antagonism in their minds against people who appeared by their independent class politics to be weakening the Liberal vote in face of the Tories.

Hyndman, it must be said, was always very dubious about the political possibilities of the great mass of British workers; he was, indeed, as a successful business man, contemptuous of them, impatient to get results and play a political role, and socially remote from workers’ lives. He thought British workers must inevitably remain stodgy and inert until some great catastrophe hit them. This explains both why he gave currency to the idea that Marxism teaches that there will be one final crisis into which capitalism will sink without hope of recovery (a completely non-Marxist and mechanistic idea), and his constant efforts to find some short cut to leadership of some particular militant section of the Labour movement. After the Irish, the SDF built its hopes on the unemployed movement. In the middle and later 1880s there were indeed large unemployed demonstrations all over the country, ending in big struggles in 1888-89.

Engels was very cautious in evaluating the SDF. He welcomed it as a sign of the times but he warned the German social democrats not to be over-impressed or to expect too much. The people who had turned to Marxism (e.g. Belfort Bax) were mostly of bourgeois origin; Bax was also of foreign origin. They needed first and foremost to find roots in the British working class. Hyndman tended to exaggerate his support and successes, hoping that this would bring in more people, for there was as yet no solid foundation under the SDF. Hence his opportunism.

Note that the same people can be sectarian at one moment and opportunist at another, because they do not see reality clearly and therefore tend all the time to both sectarianism and opportunism. One trend comes predominantly to the top, but the other is always there latent. We shall see these two aspects of the SDF together, one or another uppermost, but both present, constantly through the whole period. For instance, steps were taken to start in a modest and realistic way a monthly journal to be called Today. Bax was to edit it, and it was advertised as a journal of scientific socialism, with the aim of becoming a weekly when it had a good enough basis. Engels thought this a reasonable possibility. However, Hyndman insisted on floating a weekly, Justice, which he could finance and control, right away. Catering for a limited readership, they harmed each other by competing, and in the end Hyndman bought up Today. His money exaggerated his influence.

Engels thought that the real test of the SDF would come when the economic reaction of the working class to the unfavourable changes in their general pattern of life, due to the changes in British capitalism, were deeply felt; for instance the mechanization of engineering and loss of status by craftsmen, which would bring big new forces into battle. He conceived of a party to win the leadership of this movement, having already established itself and developed roots in the working class, with a cadre of theoretically developed people independent of Hyndman and his personal weaknesses. The SDF did not succeed in rising to this historic task. For instance, in 1884 it issued a manifesto on trade unionism in which it took the position that trade unions were a useless diversion of effort from the main task, the struggle for power. This – just on the eve of the gigantic battles of the working class for the ‘New Unionism’!

So when a capable worker like Torn Mann found his way into the SDF he left it in search of something better. He could not find it on his own, and turned to syndicalism, which looked better that the SDF, which, as he said, ‘antagonized the trade unionists without drawing over any considerable percentage to socialism’.

Hyndman showed his general characteristics precisely in relation to trade unions – he suspected them because he could not control them. He ran the SDF in a bureaucratic way and took advantage of the inevitable shortage of funds, a common problem at this stage. He tried to dominate its internal life, creating phony branches to influence conference decisions, and generally poisoned the political life around him.

He displayed very marked British chauvinism just because he was contemptuous of the workers. When he published a popularization of Marxism, England for All, he did not mention any debt to Marx because, as he said, Englishmen would not be willing to learn from Germans. Engels was very annoyed on Marx’s behalf, no less because of the personal ambition, egotism and chauvinism which this betrayed. This also came out in 1884–85 when the public was very interested in the aggression in the Sudan – Justice defended the aggression on the ground that it was bringing civilization to the natives! This antagonized Radical people who had been attracted by Marxist opposition to Liberal imperialism.

There is also no doubt that Hyndman made arrangements with Tory party managers to split Liberal votes by putting up SDF candidates in parliamentary elections. He got money in return, but few votes, and was quite genuinely puzzled at the wild indignation with which this kind of thing was received in the Radical movement. He did not see in this policy of manoeuvre a danger for a young organization. In general the Left wing of Liberalism would naturally and immediately reject anything that seemed connected with the Tories, and this helped to cut off the SDF from the workers trying to develop towards socialism from the Radical wing of Liberalism. Hyndman saw simply the ‘workers’ backwardness’ when they objected to his intrigues with Joseph Chamberlain.

The Split in the SDF

By 1885 a majority of the executive committee of the SDF, including Morris, Bax and Aveling, whom Engels and Eleanor Marx regarded as the only honest socialist intellectuals in Britain, though also as unpractical people, separated themselves from Hyndman and tried to start a movement free from Hyndmanism.

Only about 500 of the 1,500 members of the SDF joined the Socialist League, partly because Hyndman had carefully ensured that the party paper Justice was his personal property and did not go with the split, and also because many of the rank and file regarded Hyndman as at least an efficient and businesslike individual, as indeed he was, who inspired workers with more confidence than artists and bookish people did.

Aveling was a Bohemian to the extreme, irresponsible in his attitude both to money and women. Though of great intellectual ability he, like Hyndman in his way, helped to turn people away by his personal characteristics, which can play such a big role in a small movement. ‘In a sect everything turns to scandal-mongering’, remarked Engels. The Socialist League never extended its organization beyond London, but of course influenced individuals who were active in their own spheres in the provinces, for instance Tom Maguire in Leeds. But the SDF did get roots in Lancashire and Yorkshire and Engels saw this as a bad sign for the Socialist League.

The Socialist League predominantly attracted clerical workers and lumpen-proletarians. It had the advantage of being free of Hyndman, but it reacted too strongly from his ideas; it over-corrected his opportunism with sectarianism. For instance it repudiated parliamentarism entirely. Its internal organization was ultra-loose as a reaction against Hyndman’s centralization of the SDF round himself. Thirdly, the Socialist League turned away from the industrial struggle for immediate demands to emphasize street corner meetings and sale of papers. Its entire collective work was propaganda, though its members as individuals took part in other activities. Morris had the idea that it should be a political club embracing all shades of socialist opinion, and without political discipline.

It was therefore wide open, and when Kropotkin, the eminent Russian anarchist, came to Britain in 1886 and formed a group they entered the Socialist League and took it over, all the more easily because of the unpracticality of its leading members, and paralysed it with an internal fight. So much so that in 1887 Engels wrote the Socialist League off and advised Eleanor Marx and Aveling to turn away from it.

The SDF, having lost its adventitious basis among the Irish, tried to turn towards the unemployed, but because of its lack of realism it found contact with the lumpenproletariat, not at all people of the kind of whom a stable socialist body can be built. It led a big demonstration of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1886, which ended with the windows of the clubs in St James’s being broken, but this in the long run did nothing to build the organization.

Engels had in mind always the aim of building a theoretically trained grouping of people capable of establishing roots in the mass movement, so that when political developments in the masses of the people came there would be a Marxist leadership capable of battling against all corners to guide it.

Eleanor and Aveling turned to the proletarian Left wing of Liberalism as expressed in the Radical working men’s clubs in the East End, and Eleanor especially began to work to build trade unions of the unskilled, the gasworkers and match girls. The East End clubs contained some of the most thoughtful working men and this gave Marxists some links with the industrial struggles which were beginning, to develop.

At the same time socialist immigrants into the USA were making considerable strides, and their successes made perhaps an even bigger impact in Britain than those of the German social democrats.

Eleanor and Aveling found some contacts in the East End, and a basis in the fight for free speech. The police had begun to interfere with speakers at traditional open-air sites and it was necessary to find people prepared to go to jail, to organize support at meetings, raise funds, etc. This led to the Law and Liberty League for free speech, in which the ranks of the Socialist League and the SDF got a bit closer to the Radical working men. It called a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square in 1887, under the slogans of ‘Home Rule for Ireland and for London’. This was not the same as the unemployed demonstration of the previous year with which it is often confused; it was indeed a very different affair. Police and soldiers were called out to deal with it. A lot of people got hurt, two people were killed, and the workers, unprepared for that kind of struggle, were scattered. The two demonstrations got mixed up in people’s minds and the bad features of adventurism and stunt-mongering of the first one gave a bad taste to the second one; a sample of the harm done by adventurism.

The Trafalgar Square ‘Bloody Sunday’ affair sharply sorted out the leading figures in the socialist groups. Engels, who was quite used to this sort of thing from his Continental experience of 1848, and Eleanor were not put off. But a lot of people who later had big names were scared off at that time. For instance, Bernard Shaw became convinced of the impossibility of the workers taking on the capitalist State, and his plays thereafter portray workers as feckless lumpen-proletarians mouthing revolutionary phrases (e.g. Doolittle in Pygmalion). Many others, each along his own road, drew away from the socialist movement. Ernest Rhys, the later editor of the Everyman Series of books, wrote the next day: ‘The Fabians for me’.

The bourgeoisie sought to combat Marxist influence among the workers in three ways. First, by terror and repression, which had a big effect on inexperienced workers who were seeing their trade unions grow, and who, wanted steady and reliable people to run them, and no legal upheavals. Secondly, by putting systematic pressure on the workers’ leaders with the aim of making them careerists. Thirdly, by injecting patriotic propaganda, chauvinism, imperialist ideas into the workers.

The withdrawal of Shaw and others left the whole ‘New Unionism’ field almost clear for the anti-Marxists. Eleanor did her best; she actually taught Will Thorne to read and write, and spared no effort on tasks however humble which would help to give Marxism a basis in the real workers’ movement. But many of the small group of people round the SDF and Socialist League, having unrealistically over-estimated the revolutionary possibilities of the workers as they then were, turned to the other extreme. Eleanor transformed the Law and Liberty League into the Eight Hours League, which caught public interest. The Socialist League had disappeared from the scene by now, and the SDF sabotaged the Eight Hours’ League. In the May Day demonstration of 1890, the officials of the London Trades Council conspired with Hyndman to exclude the Eight Hours’ League – so can sectarians and opportunists form a united front against Marxism.

About this time the Marxists also had hopes in a man called H.H. Champion, who published a paper called the Labour Elector with the line of calling for an independent party of the working class. His money proved to come from Tory sources and his attacks on the Star, then a radical Liberal paper which gave the Marxists a chance in its columns, raised suspicions of him – after exposure he departed to Australia.

All these events helped to make difficulties for, and to estrange the Marxists from, the more advanced layers of the working class turning to the New Unionism (organization of the unskilled, small benefits and big strikes). The basic difficulty was that the best Marxists were so few in number; the real movement developed largely outside contact with, let alone control by Marxists. In short, Marxism was unable to build a cadre of revolutionaries before the big movement came.

When the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893 a few leading Marxists got positions in it, e.g., Aveling on its leading committee, but were isolated. The SDF put an ultimatum to it and withdrew.

For all these reasons Marxism was now leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the people it wanted to approach, and Engels was very disgusted with its banner-bearers in Britain; in the USA also the Marxists remained as a German-American sect.

Hyndman apparently had the idea that the SDF could never expect to hold people anyway, that it would be something that people went through; they would learn there a few ideas which they would later disseminate. He did not aim to build a solid revolutionary party.

The ILP was easily the largest group in the field, and Engels noted with interest that it had real roots in the industrial north, especially in Bradford and Lancashire. The dominant intellectual forces were anti-Marxist, repudiated the class struggle and sought constitutional methods. The positive side of this was a fear of adventures and a desire to exploit to the full the possibilities arising when in 1884 miners and agricultural workers were given votes. But it also opened the door to the middle-class do-gooders (especially middle-class women, teachers, etc.). Engels wanted the SDF and the ILP to fuse, but Hyndman would not. In addition, the nonconformist tradition in the provinces proved then, as it has proved since, to be a very tough obstacle to Marxist ideas, capable of being overcome only by experience in action of the need for these ideas. This tradition was skilfully exploited by ‘emotional’ socialists of the Keir Hardie stamp.

(b) The Difficult Period – 1895–1908

Two heavy blows struck Marxism. First, Engels died in 1895. This robbed Marxism of an international guiding centre and accumulation of experience. Until after the Revolution in Russia in 1917 there was no authoritative international centre except that of German social democracy, later centred around Kautsky, a weak vessel. Secondly, with the end of the depression, imperialism was sold to the British workers. Economic revival and the fall of unemployment was not on a basis of revival of British trade in manufactured consumer goods, the traditional Victorian exports, but of the rise of heavy industrial exports, railway materials and the like, which depended on foreign loans, concessions, colonization, heavy financing from groups joining banks to heavy industry, and the support of the British State and British arms. ‘Jobs follow the flag’, and an important section of workers actually could share personally in the new flow of colonial wealth. For instance, how many of us know of whole families where there is a tradition of entering the forces as regulars and retiring with bits of pensions? The organized injection of jingoism into the working class was expressed by Cecil Rhodes among others – a parallel to the do-gooding of the Mayfair ladies in the East End. The Boy Scout movement and the Boys’ Brigade arose.

In the absence of a tradition of genuine Marxist analysis of the preceding crisis the recovery completed the job of driving people away from Marxism, started by the events of Bloody Sunday. Hyndman had preached a vulgarized conception of Marxism: that no recovery was possible and that the crisis would get worse and worse until capitalism slid into the abyss. When recovery came the Marxists often left politics or joined the Fabians. Just as prolonged depression had produced a crop of Marxists, so the recovery shook them, and just as later in 1945, the boom led a lot of people to revive their old ideas on the basis of their impressions, which in turn were overthrown by later changes.

But by 1895 the Fabians had established themselves as a powerful and sinister force in the Labour movement, working against the idea of independent Labour representation and keeping the movement in tow behind the Liberals. Whatever they may say today this is a fact proved by recent investigations. Consequently the New Unions quickly became like the old unions, riddled with careerism and bureaucracy. The ILP was dominated by anti-Marxist Christian-socialist ideas. It is necessary to stress that there is no inevitable law of history that the British workers have got to be led by fakers. The way the fakers got control is clear, and in the struggle against Marxism they were substantially victorious.

Too late, in 1897, the SDF accepted the idea of entering the unions, but even then only some did so. In 1898 Eleanor Marx and Aveling died, she in tragic circumstances and he of an incurable disease. Thus the original Marxist cadre was finished.

The employers’ offensive against the New Unionism forced the trade union leaders to react. In the later 1890s the unions suffered some heavy defeats, and finally in the Taff Vale decision it looked as if the whole basis of their funds was gone. This forced the move to an independent working-class party, but it sought alliance with the ILP (Hyndman again abstaining) in a movement without Marxist aim in the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and the Labour Party in 1906. The people who started it had no expectation or intention that it would ever become an independent movement big enough to challenge the Liberals, and the recent publication of the letters between Ramsay MacDonald and the Liberal leaders shows that the leaders were up to the neck in unprincipled bargaining to get a few seats for trade union leaders with Liberal support.

Opportunism and the Decline of the SDF

The SDF further disgraced itself by a silly appeal to the new king, Edward VII, and by appeals to the workers to vote Tory against the Liberals. Left sectarianism leads to tailism and tailism to opportunism. When in France, Millerand, a socialist, not only accepted a seat in a bourgeois government but also sat side by side with General Gallifet, who had been responsible for murdering many of the fighters for the Paris Commune in 1871, Hyndman defended Millerand. He went on to advocate the idea of a ‘Big Navy’ to fight the Germans. Naturally such ideas might make it easy to get votes from backward workers in Sheffield or Barrow, but they did not help to build a Marxist movement.

The SDF suffered two important splits. First, in 1903 the Socialist Labour Party was formed, based mainly in Glasgow. It was composed of anti-politicals – working-class trade union militants who recognized the corrupting effect of careerism in the movement and rejected both the use of parliamentary struggle ‘on principle’, and acceptance of any official jobs in the unions. They welcomed the ideas of De Leon from the USA, which stressed the need for replacing the bourgeois State with proletarian democratic organs of administration, workers’ councils, as well as the basic social character of the industrial struggle. In 1905 the Socialist Party of Great Britain broke off from the SDF. It was largely a London grouping, rejecting both industrial as well as political action, and was purely propagandist.

The SDF was seriously weakened by these breakaways but it survived right through until the Communist Party was founded, when its main cadre entered the new party. How did it survive? Not merely thanks to Hyndman’s cash. Its members did carry the torch for Marxism as they saw it. They made regular party study of Marxist writings a duty, and this welded their small number of activists together. Lenin had many criticisms of the SDF, but when Harry Quelch died in 1913 Lenin wrote a very warm obituary of him. Quelch had been Hyndman’s right-hand man, but Lenin hailed ‘the great historical service which he and his friends have rendered’ in keeping up the propaganda for Marxist ideas, despite their distortions of them.

An attitude of the SDF which has survived and infected the movement is its contempt for the workers as too backward to be able to solve their own problems, expressed in the ‘superman’ idea – that there must be clever manipulators at the top. But it should be remembered that Marxist literature then available at all in English was very limited. From America, the publications of the Charles Kerr house in Chicago were an important contribution, as were International Socialist Review and the weekly People. Then there were publications of the SLP, especially Historical Materialism and Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science, taken from Anti-Dühring. These helped to lay a solid foundation of Marxist ideas pending the new developments towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. The SDF influenced many leaders, John Burns, Will Thorne, Tom Mann, but the agents of capitalism like Cardinal Manning and A.J. Mundella got after them. The dockers’ leaders especially were smothered with personal attentions.

Bourgeois Ideology in the Labour Movement

In this period the lack of a sizable, stable Marxist cadre with roots in the Labour movement meant that there was no effective resistance in the New Unionism and the independent working-class political movement to the deliberate injection of bourgeois influence. We can list some of the more obvious forms this took:

This made life difficult for those who were prepared to sacrifice and go to jail, because this itself was used to isolate them.

But none of this was able to obliterate Marxism, and none of it was able to stave off the recovery in the period from 1908 to 1914 from the success of the employers’ counter-attacks on the unions from 1895 onwards. All this shows very clearly that a conscious Marxist leadership is very far from being an automatic or spontaneous product of the workers’ movement; Marxist ideas are not the direct product or reflection in the minds of the participants in the class struggle of their experiences. They have to be brought in from outside, from the whole of ‘bourgeois’ knowledge and science interpreted in the light of Marxist method. Weakening Marxism opened the way to bourgeois ideas. Lenin saw this very clearly and said so in What Is To Be Done? Just after he had translated Webb’s Industrial Democracy into Russian.

How could Lenin talk about Quelch and the SDF as he did in spite of all their opportunism, sectarianism, jingoism and the non-Boshevik internal regime of their organizations? Partly because he recognized the dogged and devoted propaganda for socialist ideas in their very difficult environment. Partly because, in any case, the effects of imperialism on the Labour movement only began about 1900 and were not immediately recognized or felt in the corrupting form they took later. The questions were. still differences between comrades, none of whom had any immediate prospect of getting into power either with the aid of the bourgeoisie or thanks to revolution. Especially on the war question all sorts of illusions were possible. Engels had always stressed the division of wars into progressive and reactionary. While a war between countries of about equal development such as France and Germany might be reactionary on both sides, a war between Germany and Russia in this period could be regarded as progressive on the German side. There was no difficulty about supporting the ‘progressive’ side as an orthodox Marxist. In any case no one had yet seen how a social-patriotic position opened the way to bourgeois infection; the wholesale corruption of Labour patriots was still to come.

(c) The Years of Struggle – 1908–1920

In 1908 there was a short sharp crisis, a break in the imperialist expansion of British trade and employment. Moreover, the first Russian revolution had taken place in 1905–07 and it greatly impressed the world, and not only narrow circles, by its impact on and shaking of tsarism. Finally, throughout the period 1900 to 1914 the cost of living was rising, owing in part to the development of monopoly, in part to the unplanned and unconscious effects of exploitation of new gold supplies from South Africa and Australia working through the gold standard, so that more gold meant more money and credit and therefore a tendency to inflation.

Hence there was a new vast wave of industrial disputes, fought with great solidarity, and stubbornness by the rank and file, who came sharply up against the entrenched bureaucratic leaders. The forms of struggle were already affected by cynicism about politics due to the weakness of the Labour Party in Parliament – never daring to put any pressure on the Liberals and bought off by the Trade Union Act of 1906, which safeguarded for a while the all-important funds. But among the militants, anti-parliamentarism was the vogue, with rejection of all politics and emphasis on industrial struggle. The SDF was quite unable to penetrate these new developments, but the groups which arose lived a life full of internal disputes and intellectual activity – any suggestion of banning factions would have been received with amazement. Torn Mann went to syndicalism saying: ‘You get on with your politics and we’ll get on with the real work.’ Thus the very genuine and healthy desire to tap the mainsprings of spontaneous and creative mass action in industrial struggles and to get away from the debilitating influence of reformist and Hyndman politics became in practice a short cut and an illusory one, because it did not lead to the building of a conscious leadership aiming at overthrowing the bourgeois State. A fetish was made of ‘the movement’, in which the rank and file and the bureaucrats are all lumped together; loyalty to the ‘movement’ easily becomes equated with acceptance of the bureaucracy. Jack Tanner came from just this environment. Nevertheless these people did raise the important question of industrial unionism, of trade union amalgamations to get rid of the barriers erected between crafts by sectional interests and self-seeking bureaucrats.

The revolt at the trade unions’ Ruskin College in 1909 over the question of whether Marxism was to be taught along with other ideas, was an important event in the training of the new leading people. The Fabians moved in and sacked the principal, Dennis Hird, so the Left-wing students broke away with great daring and set up on their own. Hence the Central Labour College, the Plebs League and the National Council of Labour Colleges. Most of them thereby forfeited the grants which their union executives had been making to keep them at Ruskin – in only one or two cases were the students allowed to keep the money. They tried at first to settle at Oxford and to keep themselves going by sharing the housework and getting lectures from sympathetic Oxford teachers. Then they set up the Central Labour College in Penywern Road in London. Theirs was a rather mechanical Marxism; they knew little of the dialectic and were rather inclined to thinking that ‘the workers movement’ was going to do the job. This is understandable, since in the most petty-bourgeois of all working classes, the British, they had to insist over and over again on the historical task of the working class as a class, as against the Fabian conceptions of class collaboration. The Leninist conception of a leadership consciously organized within the working class had not yet been developed in English or proved in experience. The best that they could insist on was the spontaneous movement of the masses.

What they had seen of ‘leaderships’ had been the Lib-Lab trade union leaders, or Ramsay MacDonald or Hyndman; no wonder that at that stage of development, with a big trade union rank-and-file movement for union amalgamations developing under them and driving them forward against the bureaucrats of the craft unions, they took the path of underestimating discipline or organized leadership. This did severe damage to the Marxist cause a few years later when the Labour-College-trained people become either bureaucrats themselves or NCLC tutors, with a vested interest in disguising the role of leadership, of pretending that what the bureaucrats impose on the masses of the people is what the masses themselves want, hiding the machinations by which the bureaucracy bases itself on the penetration of the movement by bourgeois ideas and cynicism, instead of fighting bourgeois ideas.

The term ‘Plebs’ itself comes from a pamphlet by Daniel De Leon, Two Pages from Roman History, in which De Leon makes some rather daring comparisons between the ancient plebs and the modern proletariat. But for the reasons given above the Plebs League, started to support the Labour College movement, to finance the College, to build local classes up and down the country and to organize a basis of Marxist ‘independent working-class education’, on the one hand doing a very important job of permeating the mass movement with Marxism and on the other, giving something of a platform to semi-anarchist ideas and a number of curious fads.

Formation of the British Socialist Party

In the later 1900s there were great trade union battles for wage advances, and for trade union amalgamations to undermine the bureaucracies of the craft unions, though these struggles were distorted by the idea that ‘industrial unions’ as such could do the job, and had a non-political or anti-political flavour. The established TUC leaders were hostile, the Labour Party indifferent and involved in petty chicanery with the Liberals. The ranks of the ILP, however, were deeply involved and the industrial struggle itself provoked the development of a Left wing in the ILP. The important result was that in 1912 the Left wing of the ILP fused with the SDF and formed the British Socialist Party. The BSP then had about 40,000 members (the SLP numbered about 10,000).

Despite great fluctuations of membership and all the other difficulties this new accession of working-class blood transformed the SDF, to the great annoyance of Hyndman and his immediate circle.

Members actively and seriously discussed very important questions, and there was no effective prohibition of factions or internal papers and platforms. A sustained struggle took place inside the BSP against Hyndman’s ‘Big Navy’ policy and his jingoism. This was drawn by Hyndman from his general approach and was especially aimed at catching working-class votes in Barrow and Sheffield, where employment depended, in the short run, on armaments orders – a typical sectional approach, contemptuous of the ultimate interests of the movement.

But meanwhile in the Second International the necessary conclusions regarding the development of imperialism were being drawn, and Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg raised the question of a clear class opposition to imperialist war. At the BSP congresses from 1912 to 1914 there was strong opposition to Hyndman. Zelda Kahan and Theodore Rothstein led it and were attacked by the Hyndmanites as ‘foreigners’ who knew nothing of British conditions.

On the then very current question of votes for women the movement also engaged in discussion, but here it allowed itself to be placed in a sectarian position which suited Right-wing parliamentarians like Ramsay MacDonald. Because the women’s suffrage movement was both in leadership and content largely a middle-class or even upper-class movement of women who wanted careers and recognition in the bourgeois world, because it did not do much to reach down to the oppressed and exploited proletarian women of the East End or the industrial north, and allowing for the fact that some men even then had still not got the vote, socialists tended to take the view that this was ‘not a class question’. Thus a theoretically ‘correct’ position, that the women’s suffrage struggle merely diverted energy from the general struggle for socialism, was allowed in practice to play into the hands of the Labour MPs who wanted their hands free to support the Liberals who did not want to give women the vote. George Lansbury was an honourable exception, and he got into a lot of trouble for being associated with the suffragettes. A parallel may be drawn here with the current Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

On the question of the attitude of the BSP to the Labour Party, Hyndman opposed affiliation because he could see that the leadership would then slip completely out of his control, and he used the usual sectarian arguments. Zelda Kahan pointed out the great opportunities that were open and were being missed, given the then loose structure of the Labour Party, a federation with independence of propaganda and activity for the affiliated bodies. In May 1914 the BSP decided to seek affiliation to the Labour Party for the specific aim of facilitating its work for socialism among the trade unionists.

Socialists and the War

The outbreak of the war in 1914 at first fostered jingoism and confused the Left. Even the Basle resolution, which was the best that the Left in the Second International had been able to get, did not make the attitude of the socialists clear, because it merely said ‘bring the war to a speedy conclusion’, leaving open the question whether this would be done by negotiation, by the victory of ‘one’s own side’ or by revolution. It was a formula actually drafted by Kautsky specifically to bridge the difference between the Left and Centre and the Right.

Both in Britain and Germany the outbreak of the war caused confusion – to the BSP and to Karl Liebknecht. We find Liebknecht at the beginning of the war voting with the Reichstag fraction, ‘under discipline’, for the war credits. But experience quickly cleared a number of heads. The first war was not run by the Fabians; it took the bourgeoisie a year or two to realize that the Fabians had to be brought in to devise rationing schemes, controls and propaganda, and that the bourgeoisie could not expect to run a world war on the basis of ‘business as usual’. The first war imposed very serious burdens on the workers. The official trade union leaders were transformed overnight into recruiting agents and production chasers. Many people in the socialist movement saw which way this course would take them and, after at first supporting Hyndman’s original call for recruits to the army, changed their position for the better.

A great contribution came from the USA, long before many had heard of Lenin, in the book Socialism and War, by Louis Boudin. The BSP Left felt that this gave them a materialist explanation of what the war was about. They had always wanted to oppose the British bourgeoisie in war as in peace because that was their background; but, as later, they came up against the problem of ‘What alternative?’. The best answer they could find was peace by negotiation, and this brought them closer to the pacifists of the ILP and the Quakers. The whole Left movement was permeated by the individual resistance idea, so that the opponents of war felt themselves pushed into the position of being conscientious objectors and going to jail. This had the very serious effect that many capable people were isolated from contact with the armed forces, and when movements of sailors and soldiers developed at the end of the war they found no experienced political leadership; sailors turned to a welfare officer and soldiers turned to – Horatio Bottomley.

Even the BSP did not raise the question of revolutionary defeatism, but, like the SLP, their industrial militants found a big basis in industrial struggles, especially in Glasgow and Sheffield. This brought the socialists closer to the shop stewards’ movement and also drew syndicalist and non-political militants to think more about their political requirements.

The Vanguardcame out as the paper of the anti-war trend, followed in 1916 by The Call, and later in the same year the opponents of the war won a majority in the BSP and drove Hyndman and his circle out, to form his rabidly patriotic National Socialist Party, which, even though it took Justice with it, speedily faded away.

The BSP, thus transformed, and still affiliated to the Labour Party without friction from that side, not merely opposed Labour Party policy – which the ILP often did, and did during the war as pacifists – but actually opposed the trade union leaders in their own organizations on the whole question of the attitude of the working class to the war. It proved a forcing house of revolutionary leaders in face of the united front of the trade union leaders and capitalist State – the position being wide open for the Left owing to the high cost of living. The rank-and-file trade union movement, including people up to district committee level like Murphy and Gallacher, had willy-nilly to take over the leadership of the rank and file against the top bureaucrats. Towards the end of the war the success of such works as Murphy’s pamphlets on workers’ councils, which expressed very widespread sentiments against the bureaucrats, spurred the latter into making all kinds of Left gestures and talking very ‘red’ to recover their position. Even so a lot of old Right-wingers were cleared out in bitter battles inside the unions (e.g., the Amalgamated Society of Engineers). Wide union amalgamations were secured and the Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers was formed for mutual defence.

Impact of the Russian Revolution

A decisive stage was marked by the first Russian revolution of February-March 1917. This was widely welcomed, not only by the Left, who welcomed the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, but also by the patriots, who did not expect that the Russian working class would be serious about pulling out of the imperialist war and expected a more strenuous war effort under a more respectable ‘democratic’ leadership. The details of what went on in Russia were not clear, but everyone recognized that here was something very important. Even the Labour Party bureaucracy, under the leadership of the Webbs and Henderson, adopted the socialist aim in their 1918 constitution (’Securing for the workers by hand and brain the full product of their labour’) which has been such an embarrassment to them in subsequent years. But at the same time these shrewd manipulators took advantage of the demand for a tighter Labour Party organization to cut the ground from under the feet of the affiliated organizations. They introduced the category of individual membership on the model of the local electoral machines built for example by Henderson himself.

The pressure from below was forcing the BSP and the ILP closer despite the secession of Left-wing branches from the ILP in 1912. Meanwhile there had also been developments outside the Labour Party. In South Wales, the South Wales Socialist Society united the syndicalists of the former Miners’ Reform Movement (which had first raised the question of nationalization in The Miners’ Next Step). The question ‘What is it really divides us?’ came up in the ‘Hands Off Russia’ movement. It was also raised by Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation and the East End paper, Workers’ Dreadnought.

But it still took three years of prodding from Lenin and the Russian leaders to get them together in the Communist Party.

In these three years from 1917 to 1920 the Right wing obtained and used its chance to recover the leadership and to head off the big growth of an industrial and political movement in the short post-war boom of full employment and inflation.

Quite apart from personal difficulties and conflicts among Left leaders, many of which went back years into the past of small sects, the main political differences were on:

The Birth of the Communist Party

The Communist Party did not come into being until August 1920 (some Marxist groups did not come in until 1921). The period now opening, with the end of the post-war boom and the missing of the revolutionary boat, was one of demoralization and defeats. The mere declaration that there existed a Communist Party was even then only one step along the road towards a real Communist Party. It had 4,000 to 5,000 members to start with. The BSP contributed most of these, though the SLP contributed a majority of the leaders (Tom Bell, Arthur MacManus, J.R. Campbell). The BSP gave Inkpin, the first secretary, and Pollitt; the Left wing of the ILP gave Murphy and Saklatvala. The BSP was not organized on a factory basis, and had a tradition of federalism, meaning that members of the executive committee tended to think of themselves as representing different localities and not as the leadership of the whole movement nationally. But the party was from the first, as it always has been since, largely working-class in social composition, though still trained more for street corner propaganda than for campaigning in industry.

Most of the Marxist groupings, and certainly the best elements of them, converged in the Communist Party. But those which remained outside, while still claiming to be Marxist, in some cases played a role later.

Those members of the SLP who did not join the Communist Party dwindled into a little group in Scotland which kept up the publication of certain basic pamphlets, e.g.. Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science.

John Maclean, a BSP member who had played an outstanding part in the anti-war struggle on the Clyde, had a fad about Scottish workers, whom he believed to be far in advance of and superior to English workers, and he kept outside the Communist Party and formed the Scottish Republican Socialist Party.

The Plebs League, the Central Labour College and later the NCLC drew towards the trade union apparatus but did not succumb to it until the 1940s, largely because such Labour and trade union leaders as Ellen Wilkinson, John Jagger and Coppock wanted the NCLC as a Left cover. Much pseudo-Marxist nonsense prevailed in this circle, but it remained free from the subsequent process of Stalinization of the Communist Party and discussed Trotsky’s writings with some pretence at objectivity. Some of those who, via the ILP, joined a group expelled from the Communist Party to form the first British Trotskyist organization in the 1930s had learnt their Marxism through the Plebs and Labour College movement.

Footnote by ETOL

1. This short essay was one of the first objective studies of this important period of British working-class history. Although the general analysis stands up well in the light of the numerous later studies undertaken during the period of political upsurge after 1968 and since, there are inevitably a number of controversial judgements, e.g. the dismissal of John Maclean’s reasons for not joining the CPGB in the second-last paragraph, and minor inaccuracies, e.g. Belfort Bax was not of foreign origin as claimed in section a).

Last updated on 13.10.2011