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International Socialism, Mid-December 1973


James Hinton

Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.65, Mid-December 1973, p.27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism: The Struggle for a New Consciousness
Stanley Pierson
Cornell, £3.85.

THIS IS a coherent summary of the literature on British socialism in the 1880s and ’90s and will be valuable as an introduction to the subject. By placing Marxism at the centre of the stage, Pierson provides a useful corrective to the grosser distortions of the Christ-not-Marx school of sentimental labour historiography. But his own non-Marxist standpoint seriously detracts from the value of the book.

Pierson argues that in its interaction with the native British intellectual traditions of utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill and Owen) and romanticism (Carlyle and Ruskin) the Marxist synthesis disintegrated. Rival groups of intellectuals carried off and pecked over its component parts. Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation started the process of disintegration, reducing Marxism to a mechanical materialism devoid of the dialectic of will and necessity. The Fabians carried on where Hyndman left off, abandoning all of Marx apart from those elements of ‘scientism’ which served to reinforce their own blind alley of elitist collectivist utilitarianism. Meanwhile Morris and the Socialist League, reacting against Hyndman’s materialism, used Marxism to reinvigorate the romantic idealism of Carlyle and Ruskin. (Pierson certainly underestimates Morris: see the forthcoming Pluto book on Morris by Montague and Wilson.)

More important than any of these groupings however for the actual development of British socialism in the ILP were two indirect products of the disintegration of Marxism. The first Pierson calls the ‘practical Marxists’ – H.H. Champion and F.L. Mahon – who, with Engels’ blessing, left the SDF and the Socialist League respectively in order to concentrate on building up working class organisation, believing that the struggle would itself spontaneously lead to the growth of a socialist consciousness.

The second trend, arising from the interaction between the disciples of Morris (not Morris himself) and the moralistic Nonconformity of (particularly) the Northern workers, Pierson calls the Ethical Socialists – personified by Bruce Glasier. It was the marriage (never entirely a compatible one) of these two trends, personified in different ways by Tom Mann and Keir Hardie, that enabled socialism, in the early 1890s, briefly to capture the imagination of significant sections of the working class.

Subsequently the decline of popular socialist enthusiasm from the mid-90s enabled Ramsay MacDonald to consolidate mainstream British socialism into its characteristic combination of political opportunism (and, one might add, trade union economism) and utopian socialism, seeped in ethical sentimentality.

This account is not altogether unconvincing – but Pierson’s treatment inevitably begs too many questions. Pierson believes that the Marxist dialectic – the attempt to suppress the philosophical antithesis of idealism and materialism – is always bound to disintegrate into its component parts when confronted with the problems of political practice. The impact of Marxism is thus to be measured not on its own terms, but by the spin-off from its disintegration. Because Pierson denies its possibility, he is not concerned to investigate the extent to which the dialectic was in fact realised in working class consciousness.

For Pierson popular socialism had nothing to do with class consciousness: rather the role of socialism was to ‘introduce its working-class adherents to a century-long dialogue about the meaning of industrial society which transcended class limits.’ That is a coherent non-Marxist standpoint. But it results in a failure to penetrate realistically or imaginatively into the mental world of the working class.

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