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Keir Hardie – ‘The man who made the Labour Party’

(Summer 1986)

From International Socialism 2 : 32, Summer 1986, pp. 45–79.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There can be few doubts that genuine socialists in Kinnock’s Labour Party are currently under great pressure to conform with the right-wing leadership or to shut up. Many of those who remain in the Labour Party despite these pressures do so in the belief that their party has been fundamentally a socialist party, and that the socialist roots can once again bear socialist flower and fruit. Central to this belief in an earlier golden age is the figure of James Keir Hardie, the leader of the party at its foundation. The conditions then seemed ideal – the party had not been corrupted by the power of government, it had few MPs and even these were not bought off by lavish salaries, since MPs were not paid at the time.

In Hardie the Labour Party had a leader who had risen ‘from pit to parliament’, a man known as the ‘Member for the Unemployed’ and ‘the man with the cloth cap’. He was a tireless and financially incorruptible campaigner for Labour Party politics. Even his exit from this world seemed tinged with socialist martyrdom, since he died broken-hearted at the outset of war. So it is no surprise that the Labour left of today should admire him, and that Militant should write of those years:

The Labour Party was originally founded to represent the interests of ordinary working people in parliament. It was constructed out of the sweat and sacrifice of tens of thousands of workers. These early pioneers were prepared to work without any thought of personal gain, devoting money and energy too building up their party. Of the giants – Keir Hardie [was] perhaps the most famous ... [1]

But the remarkable thing about Hardie is that his memory is revered by the right wing of the Labour Party in equal measure. As a recent biographer has put it:

The very phrase ‘If Keir Hardie were alive today’, was guaranteed to restore even the most fractious delegates [at Labour conferences] to comradeship and unity. Left and Right could be reconciled in recognition of a common tradition ... Hardie served as a touchstone of an earlier, purer tradition ... [2]

When he died, Sylvia Pankhurst, soon to be criticised by Lenin for being wildly ultra-left, called him: ‘the greatest human being of our time’, [3] while Ramsay MacDonald, right-wing party leader of the 1920s, described him as ‘the Moses who led the Children of Labour in this country out of bondage’. [4] Equally Phillip Snowden, who, as Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in MacDonald’s National government, pursued the most orthodox imaginable monetarism fifty years before Healey rediscovered it, said of Hardie: ‘He was not the politician, but the prophet and the seer. Compromise was not in the man’s nature. He was the unsparing iconoclast ...’ [5]

This article will use the example of Keir Hardie to explore four fundamental questions that face socialists in Britain today: (i) Was the Labour Party ever part of a revolutionary tradition, and what was the nature of its early politics? (ii) The Labour Party was always a party with broad working-class support. What did it mean in practice to be a ‘party of the working class’? (iii) Did the Labour Party grow out of working-class struggle and did the class turn to it when they advanced? (iv) What was the position of the left in the party and was it ever likely to seize the leadership?

Mysticism, religion and opportunism

For people used to the scientific analyses of Marxism, Hardie’s political ideals are difficult to grasp, not least because they kept changing. This is the definition he gave in 1894:

  1. Socialism leaves every man free to hold what religious views he pleases, to worship God as his conscience may dictate ...
  2. Socialism is not the abolition of the family life from the home circle. If it was, I would be opposed to it.
      Socialism would leave every man free to spend his earnings as he pleases, only he could not invest them and thereby become a burden on his fellows by living at their expense.
      Socialism would give every opportunity for the development of industry and mechanical invention, as they were found to be necessary for the well-being of the community.
      Socialism would make the land and industrial capital of the nation common instead of private property, and use them in enabling everyone willing to work to earn a living ...
      Socialism, by banishing wealthy competition would give men the chance to grow into the image of God ... [6]

That definition might seem a bit vague. After all the Labour Party has always prided itself on being a practical body, unlike we unrealistic revolutionaries. Hardie explained what socialism meant when he spoke in Perth during 1904:

... in Perth steps had been taken in the direction of socialism, for here they had Corporation tram cars, and he was pleased to see that the Municipality supplied water, gas and electricity ... That was what was meant by socialism. [7]

Given such definitions it is not surprising that academics argue over if and when Hardie became a socialist.

While his conversion to socialism is of an uncertain date, his conversion to Christianity can be precisely dated to 1878. It was indeed a conversion, for Hardie’s parents were committed and active agnostics. The importance of Christianity to Hardie’s politics cannot be too highly stressed. He said ‘time and again that the impetus which drove him first into the Labour Movement and the inspiration which carried him on in it “has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined ...”’ In his Texts for Speakers: A Few Hints, he wrote: ‘As a basis on which to develop a Socialistic system of thought, let me recommend the first four books of the New Testament.’ [9]

This religiosity was no joke. The spiritual world played a direct part in Hardie’s activity! He attended seances with his lifelong companion, an ex-Salvation Army leader, Frank Smith. At one of these, spirits no less eminent than the Scottish Bard, Rabbie Burns, came back from the grave to help him decide how to vote on Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland Bill. Hardie arranged to communicate with Frank Smith after his death, and, according to Frank Smith contact was indeed made.

Hardie’s eccentricity soon attracted the attention of the Daily Mirror reporters, then, as today, always hot on the track of the essential news stories: ‘His most marked characteristic is his love of animals. He is often to be seen stopped to talk to a horse in the street.’ [10] Such behaviour might seem strange until we realise the obvious – Hardie believed in reincarnation and that lost souls might return in the shape of animals.

While the source of Hardie’s socialism seems intangible and its positive arguments obscure, Hardie was absolutely clear on what was not included in his vision: ‘Socialism was not bloody revolution, it was not throwing bombs, not upsetting very seriously the present thoughts of men ...’ [11]

His analysis of capitalism was that ‘capitalism is the product of selfishness.’ From this it follows that ‘selfishness is by no means a monopoly of the rich ...’ [12]

This conclusion led him to demolish the idea of class itself, and above all of class struggle:

The working class is not a class; it is the nation. This being so, it is a degradation of the Socialist movement to drag it down to the level of a mere struggle for supremacy between two contending factions. We don’t want ‘class conscious’ Socialists ... [13]

If there are no classes and no class struggle, but only selfishness, then there is no reason why capitalists should fear socialism. Thus in one speech to businessmen Hardie said:

I would like to say most respectfully that your business and your property are nearly as bad for you as poverty is for the working class. For you as well as for the worker, Socialism comes with its message of hope and emancipation. Why you should want to fight Socialism I do not know. [14]

What a shame Rupert Murdoch did not hear this speech!

Yet Hardie was capable of strong fighting talk. In 1905 he sent a telegram to the unemployed of Manchester who had rioted:

Hearty congratulations. The spirit of the Peterloo massacres is again upon the authorities. So too is the spirit of revolt ... Neither bludgeons nor prison can destroy it. As our fathers won then, we shall win now, if only we have their pluck. Fight on. [15]

Hardie was even prepared to claim Marxism as his own when it suited him, though he also criticised it for lacking ‘human feeling’. Every issue of the Labour Leader, the newspaper he created and edited for ten years, carried a front page article written under the pen-name ‘Marxian’. In 1909 when the Labour left attacked him he wrote: ‘The Labour Party is the only expression of orthodox Marxian socialism in Great Britain’ and quoted someone who saw it as ‘coming up completely to the lines laid down by Marx’. [16]

Clearly we will not get very far if we approach Hardie as a precise political thinker.

But it is all too easy to poke fun at the chief speaker of the National Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Movement who claimed inspiration from Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, Doctor Doolittle and the Ghostbusters, all at the same time. For Hardie was an extremely shrewd politician. He was the central figure in the foundation of three historic parties – the Scottish Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party and the modern Labour Party. After the First World War Labour Party leaders were quick to pay tribute to the cohesion of the organisation he created. On the Continent mass Communist breakaways, inspired by the Russian revolution, shook reformist parties to the roots. In Britain, however, the Labour Party was not only able to ride the revolutionary storm with minimal losses, but provided the organising centre for the new reformist ‘Socialist International’. Part of the credit was indeed due to Hardie. His Labour Party did not depend so much on reasoned political principles around which arguments and splits could easily occur, but on the trade union bureaucracy which was not subject to the same political divisions as Communists and Social Democrats abroad.

Hardie’s total lack of political consistency was no accident. As he put it: ‘The strength of the party largely lies in the fact that no time is wasted in internal wrangling over what the policy shall be.’ [17] A completely unprincipled political flexibility complemented his absolute and total consistency on one issue. He told an interviewer:

You ask me to state what I consider to be the question ... upon which organised labour ought to concentrate ... I reply: in making preparations to increase the number of Labour Members in the House of Commons. This, to me, is the question of questions. [18]

It was this belief in capturing Parliament as the source of all power and progress that drove Hardie on, enthusing him and his audience at the hundreds of meetings to which he trekked tirelessly year after year.

Obviously we cannot understand Hardie’s ideas nor the central role he played in the British labour movement if we look upon him simply as a well-meaning crank. His religiosity, distaste for clear political thinking, and his fudging of class divisions, reflected deep currents in British history. In the 1920s Trotsky gave a brilliant explanation of the trends that dominated the intellectual make-up of the British labour movement for much of the time. At the root of everything was the early, but very gradual growth of capitalism. As a result ‘the Reformation and the bourgeois revolution happened close together in time [which] held back the work of critical thought in relation to the church.’ [19] So the first revolutionary movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers expressed their ideas in religious form. The absence of a clear break with religion meant that the mixing of social movements and the churches continued right into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hardie was not the only labour leader to have religious leanings. Tom Mann almost joined the priesthood at one stage. A.J. Cook began as a lay preacher, as did Arthur Horner, the leading Communist miner of the 1920s. Even today we find Tony Benn talking of ‘Christian socialism’ and see Heffer and Kinnock in attendance at church services.

By the same token, sharp class divisions have been systematically smoothed over and blunted through much of British history. After Cromwell’s revolution the bourgeoisie merged itself with the aristocrats it had risen against: ‘The revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century were profoundly forgotten. In this consists what is called the British tradition. More than anything else the British bourgeoisie is proud that it has not destroyed old houses and old beliefs, but has gradually adapted the old royal and noble castle to the requirements of the business firm ... and it laid down from above upon its proletariat the heavy lid of cultural conservation.’ [20]

Trotsky sums up his argument like this: ‘the richer, stronger, mightier, cleverer, firmer a bourgeoisie has proved to be, the more it has succeeded in holding back the ideological and consequently the revolutionary development of the proletariat.’ [21]

But this hold on workers’ development was not unbreakable. Despite the weight of ‘the British tradition’, genuine class struggle could break through the veil of superstition and political vagueness. This is clear from the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Chartism grew up after the industrial revolution had disturbed Britain’s ideological slumber. It generated a number of powerful revolutionary thinkers, whose arguments foreshadowed many of Marx’s. The most outstanding of these leaders was Bronterre O’Brien, the ‘Chartist schoolmaster’.

Compare his political outlook with that of Hardie’s a full half century later. On religion O’Brien wrote: ‘no rich man believes in religion of any sort except as a political engine to keep the useful classes in subjection.’ While Hardie believed the root of capitalism was personal selfishness, O’Brien had this to say:

We do not accuse the moneyed capitalists of intentional robbery ... These spoliations they commit, not from sinister design, but from accidental position in society; or rather the spoliations are committed for them by the silent operation of causes over which they have no control under the existing arrangements of society.

On the idea that rich and poor have a common interest O’Brien replied:

Don’t you believe those who tell you that the middle [i.e. capitalist] and working classes have one and the same interest. Hell is not more remote from heaven, nor fire more averse to water, than are the interests of the middle from those of the productive classes.

Finally, O’Brien repudiated the belief that the government was the seat of all power:

Everybody seems to think that the Government makes itself what it is, when the real fact is, that the Government is made by the profit-men to protect them ... Is it the Government who make the laws, or is it not, on the contrary, the great profit-men who make them to enrich themselves and then have the Government to execute them? [22]

In spite of the great quality of Chartist ideas and of its movement, the sustained expansion of British capitalism after the 1840s killed off the workers’ political party. All the ideas that O’Brien and later Marx put forward seemed to be confounded. Many British workers, though by no means all, shared to some degree the wealth created when this country was ‘the workshop of the world’. The idea that the state was the tool of capitalists, or that workers and bosses had opposing interests did not seem to accord with reality, and many British workers could boast of secure employment and a comfortable existence when their more revolutionary-minded counterparts on the Continent fared rather worse.

The period from 1850 to the 1880s saw the complete divorce of politics and economics in workers’ minds. Workers who had the vote usually backed the Liberals, who openly stood for free enterprise and big business above all else. Yet economically many workers were organised into strong craft unions. The division of politics and economics has never been challenged by the Labour Party. Nevertheless, we shall see how Hardie’s politics represented a partial break with the total class collaboration in political affairs that had existed since the demise of Chartism. But, alas, Hardie did not return to the Chartist tradition. The Labour Party he founded rejected the Liberal Party as a vehicle for change. Yet Hardie’s ideas were still indelibly marked by the conservative trends that Trotsky described in the British labour movement, of religiosity and the blurring of class conflict.

To understand the roots of Hardie’s politics we must look at his early life.

From union bureaucrat to Labour MP

James Keir Hardie was born illegitimate in the tiny Lanarkshire village of Legbrannock in 1856. He grew up in grinding poverty, starting work at the age of eight and going down the pit two years later. There he worked for 16 years, during which he taught himself to write on slates blackened with smoke. He had at least one very narrow escape from death when a pit shaft closed up above him. At 17 Hardie joined the religious temperance movement of the ‘Good Templars’. Soon, however, rank-and-file miners at his pit chose this sober and articulate youngster to represent their demands to management. The result was dismissal: ‘We’ll hae no damned Hardies here’ was the manager’s comment. He was not able to work in the mines again.

So far what has been described could be applied with minor variations to any number of rank-and-file pit militants before and since. But now something happened that radically broke the pattern. Hardie became a full-time official. Alexander MacDonald, hardworking but thoroughly ‘moderate’ leader of the Scots miners was on the look-out for level-headed teetotallers to hold responsible posts in the union he was rebuilding. He picked Hardie to organise the Hamilton area of Lanarkshire.

At the time there were two fundamental approaches to trade unionism. Even across the distance of a century they are easily recognisable as ‘new realism’ (which is in fact a very old and tired form of class collaboration) and the path of mass militancy. Hardie’s policy for Scottish mining fitted firmly into the former. It went by the name of the ‘wee darg’, which meant restriction of output. By selecting well-organised pits for such action it was hoped to raise the local price of coal and so, by increasing individual coalowners’ revenues, to reach agreement on the raising of wages. This selective action, by encouraging one employer to negotiate concessions, might lead others to follow suit. Hardie’s vision of trade unionism was summed up in the rules of the Ayrshire Miners’ Association which he drafted. In them he looked forward to: ‘that good time when Capital and Labour shall meet together under one roof tree, to smoke the pipe of peace, and as the smoke slowly ascends it shall carry with it into oblivion all the sense of discord that ever existed.’ [23]

But two factors meant that the policy of the ‘wee darg’ was doomed to failure. Scottish coalowners combined together to defeat the workers, and railway transportation of coal obliterated local price differences. So Hardie’s policy could neither force the separate coalowners to negotiate, nor affect local prices. The obvious alternative was a general strike offensive. Though difficult to accomplish, mass action stood the only real chance of success.

At the end of 1879 Hardie was drawn into a stoppage by Lanarkshire miners. He proposed a plan of limited strikes to a mass meeting but was greeted with jeers and derision:

In vain he pleaded that only one week of strike action had cost the district union four hundred and fifty pounds in strike pay. The men shouted back their defiance. They would stay out till the grass grew on the pit winding gear. In the end the meeting voted to carry on the strike ... and to pay no more financial contributions to the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union ... [24]

From the first Hardie was a wily tactician, and when he saw the way the wind was blowing he threw his energies into regaining the men’s confidence by energetically leading the strike. Hardie was now found at the head of a vigorous picketing campaign, and arranging for potatoes on credit from local shopkeepers. Ultimately the union lost, though this episode was long remembered as the ‘tattie strike’.

Within a year of defeat Hardie was again actively discouraging strikes. Unionism would be built by peaceful methods and sober behaviour. Its weakness was, according to him, that too many lacked morality: ‘Why is it that there is so much bare poverty still in the land ... To my mind the answer is clear as the noonday sun. The people are pouring [money] down their throats in intoxicating drink.’ [25] But Hardie’s drift to the right was checked by his position as a full-time union official. As such he had to both keep at the head of, and control, workers’ agitation. This aspect was well demonstrated in the Scottish Miners’ Federation which he set up in 1886. Within a year it was dragged into a major strike movement. But as fast as Hardie sent one section back to work another came out. Riots occurred at Blantyre. Again Hardie quickly moved in to organise mass pickets against the large-scale scabbing that threatened not only the livelihoods of the miners, but the future of the union apparatus itself. Right-wing union bureaucrats may often be so divorced from rank-and-file agitation that it slips from their control. The left-wing official, such as Hardie, may be no less a bureaucrat; but he or she will do everything to keep workers within the ‘proper’ channels. When militancy bursts out of these, they lead the fight in order to keep it within the bounds of official methods.

The 1887 strike was a far greater defeat than the ‘tattie strike’ and for Hardie it represented a turning point. Within two weeks of its termination he wrote: ‘We want a new party – a Labour Party pure and simple.’ [26] Hardie’s idea of the Labour Party was born at this time not as a result of workers’ rising self-confidence, but as a result of a lack of self-confidence because a broad movement had suffered defeat. As we shall see later, Hardie’s personal experience and political evolution in 1887 would be mirrored by a whole generation in the 1890s.

The relationship of Labour politics to working-class struggle was expressed in Hardie’s attitude to the demand for the 8-hour day – the major industrial issue of the time. He had no hope that the miners could win this by their own struggle. This lack of faith in the working class led him to look to the bourgeois state for remedies:

... it has become necessary to protect men against themselves. They have not the sense to know when their day’s work is over ... The miner finds it next to, if not quite, impossible to continue an 8-hour day without outside help and he therefore looks with confidence to Parliament ...’ [27]

In the late 1880s Hardie adopted that diluted form of socialism which equated workers’ emancipation with state nationalisation and which the Labour Party came to espouse in time. Although ‘co-operative production under state management’ was the goal, Hardie, as we saw, set little store by political clarity. Indeed it was an obstacle, because the aim was to grab votes from any source and by any means. The Labour Party he wanted to see: ‘will be Conservative enough to preserve everything that is good, Liberal enough to reform what is capable of being reformed; and Radical enough to uproot and destroy whatever is altogether wrong ...’ [28] The message was clear and would be hammered home again and again. Never mind the politics – get workers’ representatives into Parliament and all would be well. Hardie was developing from a trade union bureaucrat into a reformist politician.

In 1888 he stood at the Mid-Lanark bye-election as an independent workers’ candidate. Hardie had not planned it that way. He had tried strenuously to get the Liberal nomination but failed. This failure convinced him that the Liberal Party was an unreliable instrument for promoting the interests of trade union officials like himself. He refused to withdraw his candidature despite hefty bribes and offers of alternative constituencies, because he did not want to appear a pawn of the Liberal Party, which only accepted workers’ representatives on sufferance. Hardie polled 8% of the vote at Mid-Lanark. The same year he founded the Scottish Labour Party. Although this meant an organisational separation from the Liberals, apart from the small print in the constitution, the Scottish Labour Party did not represent a break with Liberal policies in general. It meant adding a number of limited reforms, such as the 8-hour day, to the list of Liberal demands which in no way challenged the existence of capitalism.

In 1892 he did succeed in becoming MP for West Ham South. Here we can detect the hand of divine providence. If Hardie had had to run against both Liberals and Tories he would doubtless have failed. But the Liberal candidate was kind enough to commit suicide, so Hardie had a straight fight against the Tories, and by attracting the Liberal vote, he got in.

Now came his greatest feat of political shrewdness. He turned up at Westminster not wearing the customary silk hat and black suit, but ordinary clothes! The press was in uproar. It matters little that on his head was a deerstalker hat, the ‘legend of the cloth cap’ was born. Hardie had discovered how to attract workers’ admiration, and appear to be striking a blow for the class, without making a single political commitment, or in this case uttering one syllable. He was later to polish this technique and it became a hallmark of his style. It was at this time he also acquired the reputation as ‘Member for the Unemployed’, by his persistent questions on the issue in the House of Commons. In fact he was only asking for the establishment of ‘land colonies’ where the unemployed would be set to work and not be a burden on the community, but that aspect did not attract so much attention as his criticisms of the government.

The ‘new unionism’, the ILP and the origins of Labourism

‘New unionism’ In 1893 Hardie chaired the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party. Its origins paralleled his own career. In 1889 the comparative peace spread by years of capitalist growth and the old ‘realism’ of trade union officials was shattered. A movement known as ‘new unionism’ sprang up. It represented every tactic that the old unionists feared. The match-girls’ strike, the organisation of gasworkers and above all the 1889 London dock strike symbolised the movement. The latter used the mass self-activity of previously unorganised workers to drive the class forward. The hallmarks of the new unionism were mass picketing and the spreading of action as widely as possible, both geographically and across industries. The prominent demand for the 8-hour day showed that the movement was not just concerned with wages but the quality of daily life for the workers. Its leaders often came from the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In 1890 the attitude of Mann and Tillett, two of the most prominent leaders of new unionism, towards parliament was crystal clear:

all our public utterances, all our talks to our members, have been directed towards cultivating a sturdy spirit of independence ... In fact, we have been at pains to discredit appeals to the legislature ... The statement that the ‘new’ trade unionists look to governments and legislation is bunkum; the key-note is to ORGANISE first, and take action, in the most effective way ... instead of specially looking to Government. [29]

Neither Mann nor Tillett were political theorists and their ideas were very fluid. But at the height of the new unionism they were clearly groping towards a form of revolutionary syndicalism in which parliament was not of importance. They even hinted at a sort of workers’ council organisation centred on the Trades Council. This would become:

London’s Labour Parliament, nothing less, where every affiliated union having a difficulty could turn to for, and obtain, real and substantial help ... Our contention is that at least 500,000 of London’s workers might be organised in bona fide labour organisations, that these might be affiliated to the London Trades Council, and that if this were so an enormous change for the better would soon come about ... if London properly sets the pace in true labour matters, Britain generally will soon follow on, and when Britain leads the way, Europe and America won’t be far behind. [30]

Soon, however, the wave of new unionism, which had swept the entire country in 1889 and 1890, was being driven back. The bosses used lockouts and organised scabbing to recover their ground. New union membership plummeted, and as it did so the officials sought to keep their organisations alive by the bureaucratic method of negotiation and avoidance of strikes so common to the old unions. As defeat followed defeat many workers, and the new unionist leaders, began to lose faith in the policy of ‘sturdy independence’ in working-class struggle. The route taken was very much on the same lines as the post mortem after the 1984–5 miners’ strike. Can the forces of the state be beaten? Can trade unions afford to defy laws passed by parliament? In our time a small minority, including the SWP, have concluded that defeat came because there were not enough mass pickets, that the bosses’ law and order was not fought on a broad enough basis. But that small minority did not exist in Britain in the 1890s. The two principal revolutionary groups – the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League – were too sectarian to get involved in union struggles or help the mass of workers learn the lessons.

The shift in the thinking of new unionist leaders like Mann and Tillett can be precisely dated. They repeatedly turned down offers to stand for parliament in the summer of 1891. In June Mann wrote: ‘the belief is quite sincerely held ... that Parliamentary action is desirable as a substitute for unionism . . . how absurd this view is.’ [31] But in September Tillett willingly accepted nomination for Bradford. Without the intervention of a revolutionary party the growing numbers of workers looking for a solution to their problems turned to the capitalist state rather than to struggle against it. The logic of the parliamentary road also made sense to those trade union officials who had been touched by the excitement of ‘new unionism’ but lost faith in mass self-activity. One example of this mood was the President of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Reflecting on his union’s strike for shorter working hours a few years before, he wrote:

When you consider the enormous amount of money expended and the suffering such a strike must bring ... also the ever recurring enormous expense to maintain those men ... I still think that had the Legislature passed an enactment for the nine hours’ day, the whole of that misery and expenditure would have been saved the worker and his union. [32]

The turn from workers’ direct struggle towards the path of parliamentary change was the basis for the formation of the reformist Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893. Mann, the anti-parliamentarian of 1889 soon became its Secretary. He and thousands of new unionists with him had shared the same experience as Hardie. If the working class had not shaken its chains there would have been no basis for the new party. But it was only when the class lost confidence in its ability to break those chains by its own efforts that it looked to some outside agency for salvation.

The new unions were the first mass organisation to back independent labour representation in parliament. But this institution was not to be used as a propaganda platform from which to denounce the system and encourage extra-parliamentary action. It was a substitute. For in the words of H.H. Champion, who preceded even Hardie in campaigning for a Labour Party: ‘If we can get what we want through Parliament, it is folly to wave the red flag in Trafalgar Square’. [33]

The relationship of reformist politics to workers’ struggle was revealed clearly in West Yorkshire where the ILP held its founding congress. This area provided one third of the delegates to that congress. A brief wave of new unionism had swept through the hitherto unorganised woollen workers, but it was driven back by a vicious 5-month lockout at the Manningham Mills in Bradford. Union organisation was smashed. But when a bye-election came along in late 1891 the Liberal candidate was Illingworth, Bradford’s largest employer and close friend of the owner of the Manningham Mills. A number of workers organised together and stood Ben Tillett as a Labour candidate. They were enraged to see leading TUC members campaigning for the big businessman Illingworth. A strong movement for workers standing on an independent Labour ticket for parliament was born as a result of this combination of struggle followed by defeat of self-activity.

The origins of Labourism It is essential to understand the context in which Hardie’s grand plan worked itself out. Since Chartism the British working class had had no political organisation to call its own. In the period after 1850, workers had come to accept bourgeois values so thoroughly that the ruling class was prepared to give them the vote – first to the better off workmen in 1867 and then to all male householders in 1884. These workers were quite willing to see local businessmen, even their own bosses, speaking for them in parliament. In an expanding capitalism it was easy to imagine that what was good for your boss must be good for you.

Occasionally trade union leaders were elected to parliament, but most of them ran on a Liberal ticket and so were known as Lib-Labs. (Tory MPs who were trade union officials were not unknown.) Such people hated the idea of solidarity on the industrial field, and their hostility to even the most mild of parties standing independently of the two major capitalist parties was equally great. As the Webbs put it:

The leaders, indeed, did not really care about Trade Union influence in the House of Commons ... In national politics they were mostly Liberals with the strongest possible admiration for Gladstone and Bright; or else (as in Lancashire) convinced Conservatives, concerned to defend the Church of England or Roman Catholic elementary schools in which their children were being educated or carried away by the glamour of an Imperialist foreign policy. They asked for nothing more than a few working-class members in the House of Commons, belonging to one or other of the ‘respectable’ parties. [34]

These trade union leaders were a reflection of the post–1850 period. Even the campaign for forcing an 8-hour day from parliament was opposed by leading ‘old unionists’ on the grounds that this ‘would be a wrench which trade and commerce could not possibly bear ...’ [35] The same attitude went for wider representation of Labour in parliament. At the founding conference of the Labour Party, John Burns, once leader of the 1889 dock strike but now a firm Lib-Lab, declared himself against such a party because ‘he was tired of working-class boots, working-class trams, working-class houses and working-class margarine’. [36]

The stranglehold of such characters over the TUC and labour politics was broken in the last two decades of the century by the deepening crisis of capitalism. British employers now had to face formidable competition from rival capitalists in Germany and America. They were forced to attack their own workforces to a greater degree than before. The illusion that the interests of the worker and his or her immediate boss were identical was put under strain. This did not mean that workers immediately generalised from that feeling to say that the whole state apparatus, nationalism, and the rest of the baggage of capitalist ideas were now to be discarded. But the idea that the local representative to parliament should remain the leading employer in the area lost its attraction. Had local Liberal parties adapted to the changing mood, the ILP and Labour Party might never have come into being. But Liberal machines were too bound up with local self-interest and ‘jobs for the boys’ to adopt what they saw as scruffy workmen for candidates, even if these scruffy workmen agreed with most Liberal policies. Ramsay MacDonald, like Hardie, was converted to Labourism when his Liberal candidature was snubbed. Many workers who had supported the Liberals noted this sort of occurrence becoming more frequent.

Clearly the idea that Labour should have its own representatives was an advance for the British working class. The Lib-Labs represented complete identification of workers and the employing class. The Labour Party idea stood for a public break with this tradition. It would be totally ultra-left and sectarian to ignore the great importance of this development. Reformism is not the same as reaction. Equally, there is no sense in arguing that Keir Hardie blocked some kind of pristine Leninist alternative that might have existed in Britain at the turn of the century. The only revolutionary organisation that did exist at that time – the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) – was dominated by H.N. Hyndman, whose sectarian and anti-union attitudes meant that the revolutionary movement was in no position to attract a mass following, even if conditions had been less unfavourable.

With these qualifications in mind we must still recognise the early Labour Party for what it was. The fight for independent labour representation was certainly a hard and bitter struggle against Lib-Lab backwoodsmen. But it was not a struggle for socialism, which, if it means anything, involves challenging the capitalist system of society. It was a campaign within the terms set down by the system when it granted the vote to workers.

Hardie revealed as much at the ILP Conference of 1893. He readily accepted the long-term aim of the party being ‘common ownership’ of production, yet at the same time fought very hard to prevent the new organisation being called a Socialist Labour Party. Soon he was battling with all his might, and using every trick in the bureaucratic book to prevent unity with the openly socialist Social Democratic Federation in ‘One Socialist Party’. Wasn’t his position hopelessly contradictory?

For genuine socialists it was: they do not think you can achieve socialism by mentioning it in the small print but doing everything possible to exclude it from daily practice. But the opportunist faces no such problem. Socialism may be the final aim; but pretending to be merely ‘Independent’ is a much better vote-catcher. Hardie was proud of his opportunism:

[The ILP] is avowedly a Socialistic organisation and has been so from the first. But a great merit it possesses is that of enlisting to its aid at election time men who though not yet Socialists themselves agree with the Independent political action of the ILP on Labour questions ... They are in most cases men with no strong bias for or against Socialism, and do not trouble themselves much about it ... [37]

Hardie’s ‘independence’ was a sham. In reality he was attempting to combine two hostile political trends. To understand what he was doing it would be useful to remember two very important statements by Marx; first that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself, and second, that ‘the prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class’. There are three possible attitudes that can be taken in regard to these statements. One would be to conform entirely to the prevailing ideology. This is the position of the Tory worker who shows deference to the boss. Another would be to fight for the emancipation of the working class and against the ideas of capitalism (especially in regard to the state). This is the position of the revolutionary. The third approach, which Hardie adopted, was to mix elements from both sides. Thus he called for a separate party of workers but fought against a straight commitment to fighting for socialism. He set bourgeois parliament above all else, but denounced the capitalist system and the unemployment it created.

At the 1895 general election Hardie lost West Ham South. The ILP generally found its progress checked and entered a period of demoralisation and decline, yet just five years later the Labour Representation Committee was set up. This became the Labour Party in 1906 with an established parliamentary base. What had brought about the change? Working-class activity had very little to do with it. As historians of the trade union movement have noted:

From 1899 to 1907 there was a period of industrial peace unparalleled between 1891, when strike statistics started, and 1933, when a comparable period began ... The annual average of working days lost through disputes was less than three millions, and in no years was the total as large as five millions. By contrast ... from 1908 to 1932 there were only six years scattered over the whole period, showing a figure less than five millions, and the annual average (excluding 1926) was fourteen millions. [38]

Again it was a retreat of the working-class movement that forms the background to the growth of Labour politics. It is also in such periods that the power of the trade union bureaucracy is greatest vis-a-vis the rank and file. Changes at the bureaucratic level explain the emergence of the Labour Party itself. It was a shift of opinion within the TUC that gave Hardie the basis for his political initiative. The prospects did not appear favourable until the very end of the century.

Hardie first attended a Trades Union Congress as a miners’ official in 1887 and was soon embroiled in a flaming row with its Secretary – Henry Broadhurst, old unionist and Liberal MP. The dispute centred on the 8-hour day. Hardie proposed that the TUC undertake a political campaign in favour of having parliament pass a Bill. The old guard wanted such political issues kept out of the industrial arena. For Hardie to raise politics in the TUC was a daring and progressive step. But the manner in which he did this is significant. He did not argue in favour of building up the workers’ collective strength, but actually played upon its weakness as a point in his favour: ‘He wanted to put this plain question to those who opposed the Parliamentary action proposed – “What do you propose to do instead?” If they said “Organise”, he replied, “You have tried it for 40 years, and what have you got? You have done your best and you have not secured ... even a respectable minority of the people of this country”.’ [39]

At the time Hardie and his supporters made little headway. In fact the old guard soon reorganised the TUC in such a way that from 1895 political representatives (such as Hardie had now become) along with Trades Councils, were excluded from its meetings. The block vote was also introduced to give the large reactionary unions of coal and cotton greater power in the Congress. Yet Hardie’s arguments were soon victorious.

Defeats such as the catastrophic Scottish miners’ strike of 1894, the boot and shoe lockout a year later and the engineers’ lockout of 1897–8 explain why the TUC was prepared to promote a parliamentary party in 1899. The period was rounded off by a number of legal attacks on the unions which showed the extraordinary confidence of the ruling class in the face of a quiescent workforce. The Taff Vale judgement is the best-known of these. By making unions responsible for damages incurred on employers during a stoppage it became virtually impossible to strike without jeopardising union funds. With the Liberals refusing to recognise the urgency of the unions’ plight, Hardie was able to use this period to win over a substantial portion of the union bureaucracy.

But his arguments had a popular appeal too. The following extract from his ‘Friendly Chat with the Scottish Miners’, written after 70,000 of them had been literally starved into submission in 1894, shows his remarkable skill in using workers’ aspirations for changing their situation, and yet playing on their feeling of impotence after a defeat:


... before you can bring this state of things to pass you first have to do something you have not yet done ... During your strike the Tory workmen and the Liberal workmen stood shoulder to shoulder. Why? Because their interests were the same ... Why should these two be found in opposition camps at election time?


I want to see you together ... If you want to abolish strikes you will join the ILP. [40]

The Machiavellian quality of his logic stands out well when contrasted with this cruder, but more honest version of reformist politics in the following week’s Labour Leader:

The Scotch coal strike which to all appearances has ended in the utter rout of the men, has nevertheless been a great victory. For whom? For the Labour movement ... The result of the bitter experiences of the last 18 weeks has been the decision of many miners to ... throw in their lot with the ILP ... [41]

In the following year came the defeat of the boot and shoe workers centred in Leicester. This helped Ramsay MacDonald become the local MP shortly afterwards, since it channelled votes towards reformist politics. At the time the Labour Leader drew this conclusion: ‘The men have been defeated. That is the long and the short of it ... [But] the municipal election the other day in Leicester shows that the men have learnt their lesson well.’ [42]

This does not mean that Hardie’s politics were in opposition to the trade unions. He was a reformist, not a reactionary. The ILP, like the Labour Party that followed, depended on a living labour movement to provide it with votes. That is why Hardie always insisted on the need for trade unionism, but in a moderate form that would not compete with the parliamentary process. In many strikes he argued that ILP members take collections. During the engineers’ lockout he went so far as to suggest a general strike to defend the existence of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, a most important union. But this strike was not intended as an alternative to reformist politics. It was to be officially controlled and kept within narrow economic bounds. In this as in all else Hardie was sincere and consistent in his policies – but these were thoroughly reformist.

For Hardie the trade unions were invaluable as defensive economic organisations. But they should never attempt to be offensive political bodies. Trade unionism could defend wages, it was not to challenge property rights. Thus he insisted that ‘the workman who robs his “master” is robbing himself of that which even his “master” could never take from him – his manhood.’ [43]

The relationship that Hardie sought with the trade union movement, and which was later achieved, was described by Trotsky: The Labour Party and the trade unions – these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour.’ [44]

The union leaders and independent Labour representation

The period in which the Labour Party was formed was one in which the union bureaucrats called the tune in the movement. And in even greater numbers they chose the path offered them by Keir Hardie, of reversing Taff Vale not by direct action but via the parliamentary road. To finally win them over Hardie had to prove that the new party would be perfectly safe for them.

First he routed the ILP rank and file. The membership accepted that change must come by reformist methods, but they were also keen that change should be in a socialist direction. In other words they took the ILP constitution and left rhetoric of Hardie and his like seriously. They therefore clamoured for unity of the left (including the Marxist SDF) and for the ILP to stand as an openly socialist organisation with its programme of collective ownership of production to the fore.

ILP conferences had decided time after time for socialist unity. The results of a ballot announced in 1899 showed 2,397 votes in favour of unity by federation, and 1,695 for unity by direct fusion with the SDF. It had not even been considered worthwhile to ask if anyone was against unity. Keir Hardie and the rest of the ILP National Administrative Council ignored this decision until the prospect of the alternative alliance with the trade union bureaucracy could be held out as a carrot to the membership. Once this was in prospect he wrote:

The work of bringing ... trade unionists into line is no child’s play. Great tact and forbearance are both needed, and care has to be taken not to give the opponents of the movement any real reason for continuing to oppose it ... [Unity with the SDF] would speedily make shipwreck of the ILP ... [45]

Hardie’s delivery of the ILP’s muddled but sincere socialists into an alliance dominated by the needs of the trade union bureaucracy was one of the high points of his career. When this arrangement was challenged by the ILP in 1909 it provoked his most vigorous political statement – My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance.

The impotence of the rank and file within the ILP was inevitable once the majority accepted the parliamentary road to socialism. The weakness of the left in both the ILP and the Labour Party had little to do with its numerical strength. David Howell, historian of the ILP, has explained how the ILP leaders imposed their will on the rank and file, the majority of whom were far to the left of the National Administrative Committee (NAC). The source of the NAC’s power was acceptance of the electoral road:

When seats were contested, the results were often disappointing and financially damaging. One legacy ... was to strengthen NAC insistence on its own control of such contests ... The NAC responded by proposing that one of its representatives take sole charge of financial matters during any by-election, that if the original grant had to be supplemented then authorisation of the Parliamentary Committee was required, and that any by-election agents should be appointed by the same committee. [46]

Even if finance had not been a problem for running candidates, the NAC would still have a stranglehold over the rank and file. Since even the most left ILP members agreed that the road to socialism lay through the nationalisation of the means of production via Acts of Parliament, the parliamentarians of the party could dictate to the rest. On 23 April 1901 at 11.30 pm Keir Hardie put a motion proposing the complete takeover of production and distribution before the House of Commons. Alas the emancipation of the working class had only half an hour, since proceedings ended at midnight and so the motion fell. Keir Hardie said he would be back to try again! This was perhaps a joke to the Tory party who had a safe majority in the House. But to the ILP membership, who set such store by parliament, such procedures were of central importance.

The means to getting Hardie’s motion passed had to be by obtaining the votes of a majority of workers at election time. Under capitalism the majority of workers are influenced by capitalist ideas. Only through their own struggle and by an agenda set by workers’ self-confidence rather than the parliamentary order book, can they change their ideas and society as well. However, if you accept the timing as decided by parliament, and the terrain to be the constituency ballot, which is so far removed from the direct class struggle, then you accept that winning votes takes first place. In other words, the socialists in the ILP were hostages of the backward ideas held by the majority of the working class. That was why Hardie won over the choice of name for the ILP, on socialist unity and so on. Furthermore, as long as Hardie made a show of earnestness towards the goal of socialism through the House of Commons, he kept the idea of the parliamentary road alive. In a period of working-class passivity the illusion was all too easily maintained.

The founding of the Labour Representation Committee The establishment of the Labour Representation Committee was not the result of mass activity but of a resolution passed at the 1899 Plymouth Congress of the TUC. The resolution showed that Hardie had convinced a substantial section of the union bureaucracy that the socialist elements in a new party would pose no threat to their wheeling and dealing. The motion Hardie put at the founding conference of the Labour Representation stated his attitude clearly. The intention was to establish:

a distinct Labour Group in Parliament ... which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency. [47]

This wording was carefully chosen. No specific political programme was suggested beyond advancing the cause of labour. The SDF delegates, who wanted a political commitment to class struggle mentioned in the LRC’s programme, were thus neatly brushed aside. At the same time Hardie’s motion blocked the right-wing officials who wanted to limit any new body to the single issue of fighting Taff Vale, and once this had been achieved, re-entering the Liberal fold. This was why a ‘distinct Labour Group’ was specifically mentioned.

In addition to this non-committal resolution, Hardie built in a union bureaucrat majority on the LRC’s National Executive Committee. The ILP, SDF and Fabian ‘Socialist Societies’ had only five of the 12 seats. The Marxist SDF soon quit the new organisation in disgust.

Affiliation to the LRC began with the ‘new unions’ which had long been committed to parliamentary representation although they accounted for only one-tenth of TUC members at the time. With them came the Boot and Shoe Union, still shaken by its defeat, and the Railway Servants, who were the first to feel the effects of the Taff Vale judgement on their funds. Other unions soon followed.

It might be argued that the trade union bureaucracy could have formed its own party, but linking up with the political force around Keir Hardie had one great attraction. It had nothing to do with the ILP’s socialist programme which the majority of union officials disagreed with. It was simply that the unions were organised sectionally into trades. The ILP offered the proposed Labour Party a leadership which transcended separate groups and therefore could attract the votes of all the different workers.

Evidence that many affiliations to the Labour Party were determined by electoral expediency rather than political convictions comes from the two major industrial groups – coal and cotton. The Miners’ Federation was by far the most important union at the turn of the century, in terms of membership, influence and electoral power. It was the last big union to affiliate. The rejection of the Labour Party until 1909 was on purely pragmatic grounds. Because miners were geographically concentrated, they could elect their own MPs without depending on any broad alliance appealing for workers’ votes. The cotton unions were if anything to the right of the miners in politics. In Lancashire there was a strong working-class Tory tradition and James Mawdsley, a cotton union leader, had been a Conservative MP. Yet the cotton unions affiliated before the miners because they lacked the electoral weight of the pit villages. As the Cotton Factory Times put it: ‘no single branch ... is numerically strong enough of itself to elect a member of Parliament. The aim of the [Labour Representation Committee] is to combine the whole of the Labour forces. This will add strength to candidates.’ [48]

The LRC and later the Labour Party served as the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. This may seem paradoxical, for in one sense the TUC bureaucrats wanted to ‘keep politics out of the unions’. They wished to be free to do their jobs of negotiating workers’ pay and conditions. Politics were an unwelcome intrusion, whether they came from the left or the right. Left-wing militancy was feared because the rank and file might unite across sectional union boundaries and fight for something more than the better wages which bureaucrats promised. Equally, right-wing intervention from the state was feared since this disturbed free collective bargaining. In 1900 this right-wing threat was paramount in the shape of the Taff Vale decision, which made the work of the union bureaucracy well-nigh impossible. So it is no exaggeration to say that the union officials accepted Hardie’s plan for a party to fight state intervention in unions, because this would keep politics away from their affairs. The aim was to keep politics and economics separate.

Labour Party policy had been defined by Hardie in this simple phrase: ‘Our party is neutral ground.’ [49] If the road to power was electoral, and the majority of workers currently voted Liberal or Tory – then the Party must not repel any worker who held Tory or Liberal views! Thus in 1906 Hardie described the Labour Party as ‘a new platform on which both Liberals and Conservatives could meet to fight together on exactly the same lines as they were fighting in a strike.’ [50] There is one big difference between a strike and a ballot box. The former is the direct activity of workers for their own interests. Through struggles workers learn about the system and their own power to change it. The ballot box is used by reformists as a substitute for self-activity, and thus serves to maintain the hold of capitalist ideas. When Hardie talked of his party being ‘neutral ground’ he was talking nonsense. There is no neutral ground in capitalist class society, and to suggest that there is means in practice capitulating to ruling-class ideas.

This was soon borne out by the LRC. Its very first annual conference took place during national mourning for the death of Queen Victoria. Here was a woman at whose behest armies had smashed and plundered their way across half the surface of the globe. Yet to show respect for her the two-day conference was cut to one day and a planned demonstration in support of the LRC was abandoned. Keir Hardie, who had long identified himself as a republican and acquired a useful notoriety as a result, again managed to blur the issue. His attack on the fuss made about Queen Victoria consisted of deploring the presence of soldiers at the funeral: ‘I enter my protest against the barbarous display of the bloodthirsty implements of war, amidst which the remains of a peace-loving woman will today be laid to rest.’ [51]

The Hardie technique was used with effect during the Boer War. All his biographers point out that he opposed the war. He even denounced it as a fight deliberately engineered to boost capitalist profits. But every bold statement had to be compromised lest it release emotions the Labour bureaucracy could not contain: ‘... the war ... would result in our losing South Africa (a cry of “Good Job”). No; it would not be a good job. He did not want to see one bit of British territory lost, for he believed that by a strong federation of free people the British Empire could be an immense power for good.’ [52]

When Hardie went on a world tour the British press was filled with reports that he was spreading sedition in the colonies. Again his position was paradoxical. He denounced the racism he met in South Africa and was nearly assaulted by a mob for his pains. Yet when he arrived in Australia he declared that: ‘The experiment in keeping Australia white is a great one ...’ [53] In India he appeared on platforms chanting the nationalist slogan of ‘Bande Mataram!’ But when he got back home he explained why he criticised British methods of rule. Along with his obnoxious and patronising tone, his motives were clear:

Those natives were kindly, affectioned, well-meaning, responsive to sympathy, having no higher ambition than to live loyal under the British Flag, were being treated as pariahs ... The people there would be loyal if they felt that their grievances were being acknowledged and redressed, but repression ... would produce that feeling of hopeless despair which bred discontent and disloyalty and menaced the safety of the Indian Empire ... [54]

The glaring contradictions in Hardie’s position were not the aberration of one man; they reflected, and still today reflect the contradictory politics of the party he created.

At the 1900 General Election Hardie was desperate to win a parliamentary seat, so desperate in fact that he stood in two places at once! He was successful in Merthyr where votes came to him because of the open support of the Liberals. Once in parliament the notion that ‘being a party of the working class’ would somehow guarantee any progress towards socialism was shown to be fictional. The idea of an electorally successful party which therefore had to be ‘neutral ground’, left the Labour Party in many respects indistinguishable from the left wing of the Liberals.

Hardie fully accepted this position. Indeed, while protesting the independence of his party he pleaded with prominent Liberals, who might be better vote-pullers than his own crew, to come and take the lead. At one point he appealed to the prominent Liberal, John Morley. Then to a number of left Liberals (or Radicals as they were known at the time) – Sir Charles Dilke, and others. The most pathetic and fawning plea went out to David Lloyd George. Aware of this man’s well-known and practically unbounded personal ambition, Hardie held out the prospect of attracting great numbers of workers’ votes, if only he would come over to the leadership position in a Labour/left Liberal alliance: ‘Here is a leadership sufficient to gratify the loftiest aspirations and it is within your reach; it is yours for the taking. You have but to stand firm ... and you will become a leader with a following greater than any politician has yet known.’ [55] Hardie’s hopes of a Labour/Radical alliance came to nothing.

Manipulating the membership

Lenin was later to write of the Labour Party:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that ... It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers ... [56]

The most graphic illustration of this assertion was unknown to Lenin when he made that comment in 1920. But Keir Hardie had his hand in the secret electoral pact cooked up by Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone of the Liberals. This was systematic duping indeed. Liberal and Labour differed little in policy. Both parties looked for votes from the working class: so it was logical that they should contrive not to run against each other in elections. This deal had to be made in the utmost secrecy. MacDonald carefully vetted meeting-places for his discussions, since discovery would completely prejudice the image of Labour independence. Despite his later prominence, Ramsay MacDonald was a relatively new face. Without Hardie’s assistance he could never have carried the deal off when the inevitable questions came rolling in from the constituencies about why they were to run in one area but not in another. Keir Hardie, this most Christian of politicians, went around the country crossing his heart and swearing that:

Although there has been no definite arrangement made at the Liberal Headquarters and no compact entered into ... where a Labour candidate is in the field you can rest assured there will be no new Liberal candidate introduced ... [57]

It was a mark of Hardie’s tremendous popularity that such obvious deception should be swallowed whole.

This cynical manipulation of rank-and-file Labour supporters was not only shown in these secret dealings. Hardie was able to flaunt ILP and Labour Conference decisions on any number of occasions, and to do so openly. The first time this happened was over women’s suffrage. The ILP’s position was totally clear. At that time there was a property qualification which meant that only certain men had the vote. The ILP called for the franchise to be extended to all adults, men and women, irrespective of property. Hardie had made his name as a strong campaigner for women’s suffrage. But he, along with the bourgeois feminists argued that the change should be in line with the current franchise, ie that the vote for women householders must be the immediate demand, which meant that only middle- and upper-class women would see any change. Conflict became open when Hardie lost his position at the 1907 Labour Conference. He then resorted to blackmail to get his way, declaring: ‘... if the motion they had carried was intended to limit the action of the Party in the House of Commons, he should have seriously to consider whether he could remain a Member ...’ [58]

In a party where principles came first he would have been thanked for his services and shown the nearest exit. In a party where parliamentary success was paramount the loss of such a well-known and prestigious figure was almost unthinkable. Keir Hardie had his way and as a result a ‘Conscience Clause’ was introduced which allowed Labour MPs to vote how they wanted when ‘matters of conscience’ were at stake. It had another long-term effect which is still with us today. The ‘1907 formula’ meant, in the words of one right-wing biographer:

that party conferences could not bind the party in parliament. Labour leaders from Ramsay MacDonald to Harold Wilson [and beyond] continued to treat conference decisions, often the product of unrealistic euphoria conceived in the heady atmosphere of delegates assembled for an annual safety-valve of oratory, as statements of opinion, but not as mandates. Harold Wilson ... like Keir Hardie, viewed government by annual conferences as incompatible with the working of a democratic system. [59]

For a revolutionary party, a member who gets to parliament is there to use that body as a platform for socialist propaganda, and so Hardie’s position would not be accepted for one minute. In the Labour Party the relationship is the other way around. The Party in the country and its local organisations exist to make propaganda for the return of the parliamentary group. The latter have therefore almost always had the whip hand in any disagreement.

The first witch-hunt Proof of this state of affairs came with the election of Victory Grayson as an ‘Independent Socialist’ candidate in the Colne Valley bye-election of 1907. His success followed the 1906 General Election in which the Liberals came to power and the Labour Party increased its MPs from 2 to 29 (largely thanks to the MacDonald-Gladstone pact). Although the Labour Party claimed credit for the passing of the Trades Disputes Act which reversed Taff Vale, much of this success was due to the Liberals’ willingness to make concessions. Indeed the Labour MPs were more than a little peeved that the TUC frequently went direct to the government when negotiating the Trades Disputes Act rather than using their good offices. However, once the Act had passed along with a few other minor reforms, the Labour Party resumed its natural position as the wagging tail of the Liberals.

Grayson’s election represented a challenge to the Labour Party. He was selected and run in open opposition to the party machine and declared himself the true bearer of ILP politics – in other words he was going to argue as a socialist in the House of Commons, and use it as a platform for raising the masses. He expected nothing from parliament since:

The ancient Chamber is swaddled in the medieval vestments of pompous and now meaningless procedure. The legislative machine is exquisitely devised to prevent, or at least render difficult any change in stereotyped institutions ... [The] impression is one of hopelessness and futility ... For myself, as a conscious Socialist, I have no hope for the House of Commons, constituted as it is. [60]

For Grayson the struggle in parliament was subordinate to the movement outside. He was more than prepared to be thrown out of the House if making his propaganda inside it offended, and this was what happened.

Grayson’s victory, his magnetic personality and speaking skills made him a terrible threat to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Hardie, who well knew the value of propaganda stunts, had always made sure that they served, rather than hindered, the parliamentary path. Hardie at first sought to bring Grayson under control and professed sympathy for him. But when Grayson rightly accused the Party of paying more attention to supporting the Liberal licensing regulations than fighting over unemployment the ILP ‘Big Four’ – Hardie, MacDonald, Snowden and Glasier – decided he must be witch-hunted. MacDonald’s attitude to Grayson’s supporters almost outdid Kinnock’s ‘maggots’ speech: ‘your members . . . care nothing about the unemployed, but prefer to gas copiously about them . . . [those] who degrade the consideration of the unemployment problem as Mr Grayson did last week in the House of Commons must be regarded as the greatest enemies which the unemployed have ...’ Again the question of using parliament or fighting for socialism was put sharply. MacDonald told the ILP: ‘We ask you to find money for the establishment and maintenance of men who use the House of Commons in order that they may work through it, not merely demonstrate through it ...’ [61]

The 1909 ILP Conference saw a showdown between Grayson and the ILP Big Four. The Conference opened with a thinly-veiled attack on Grayson for his energetic raising of the issue of unemployment. In his Chairman’s address, MacDonald said:

I sometimes receive resolutions beginning in this way: ‘Seeing that the Unemployed are of more importance than the rules of the House of Commons’ – You know the rest ... The unemployed can never be treated by any Parliament except one which has rules of procedure and these rules must prescribe majority responsibility. Every facility given to a minority to impose its will upon the majority is a facility which any minority can use, and not merely a Labour or a Socialist minority. To protect the conditions and the existing democratic government is just as essential to the building up of the Socialist State as is the solution of the problem of unemployment. The Party which proposes to strike at the heart of democratic government in order to make a show of earnestness about unemployment will not only not be tolerated by the country, but does not deserve to be.

After this appalling statement Keir Hardie leapt to his feet to say that Ramsay MacDonald was ‘the biggest intellectual asset which the Socialist movement has’ and then led prolonged cheering.

In spite of this stage management the Conference voted by a majority to back Grayson’s political stance of making a bold show of socialism instead of tailing the Liberals. But once again Hardie and the others were to blackmail the left into submission. The Big Four simply resigned from office. The conference thereupon reversed its tone and pleaded, begged and voted by all but 10 votes for them to stay. But Hardie wanted nothing less than a total witch-hunt of the ILP left. He said: ‘In almost every branch there is this snarling disruptive element. You have got to fight it down and fight it out.’ [62] To prove they were complete masters of the situation, Hardie, MacDonald, Snowden and Glasier, let their resignations stand for two full years. Yet their power over the ILP was in no way diminished. Fortunately for them the problem of Grayson himself declined when Colne Valley fell at the next election. Grayson eventually left the ILP with a number of left-wing branches to form the British Socialist Party along with the Social Democratic Federation (by then called the Social Democratic Party).

The ‘Labour Unrest’ and the First World War

Hardie’s strategy always consisted of balancing the class struggle with the prevailing ideas of capitalism, particularly belief in the nation and change through parliament. After 1910 this balancing act became very precarious as the scales were upset, first by a dramatic assertion of direct industrial muscle from militant workers, and then by an equally powerful upsurge of undiluted nationalism at the outbreak of the First World War.

The class struggle 1910–1914 The years 1910–14 were known as the period of ‘Labour Unrest’ and involved class struggle which put even the period of ‘new unionism’ into the shade. Since 1891 challenges to Hardie’s type of reformist politics had always been overcome quite easily because they had occurred within the precincts of reformist parties. An appeal to the need for success through parliament had seen off all attacks. But this new threat was far more dangerous, for it came from the mass of workers themselves. Until 1910 things had mostly gone Hardie’s way. The working class had created a labour movement, but it had been circumscribed in such a way that the trade union bureaucracy had succeeded in channelling workers’ energies in reformist directions.

After 1910 this was no longer true. The rank and file burst the bonds of bureaucracy and compromise to assert both its practical contempt for the plodding Labour parliamentarians and its faith in mass direct action as the real means to progress. Massive strikes exploded in the docks, railways, mines and elsewhere. When the working class moved into action the last place they looked was to Labour or parliament. The President of the Board of Trade reported:

the almost complete collapse of the Labour Party in the House as an effective influence in labour disputes. They were not consulted with regard to, and had no share in the Seamen’s or Transport Workers’ movement last summer. During the railway strike, they attempted to act as a go-between for the men and the Government. But they had very little influence over the actions of the men, or on the result. During the Miners’ Strike ... the Labour Party exercised no influence at all. [63]

The fear of this situation must have haunted Hardie ever since his humiliation at the hands of militant miners in the 1880s. His instincts were sharper than MacDonald who led the party in the House of Commons but had had little direct experience of workers’ struggle. Hardie did not react with open horror at the sight of a self-confident working class as his close friends did.

MacDonald’s reaction to the syndicalists who led this new movement was that:

The hospitality which the Socialist movement has offered so generously to all kinds of cranks and scoundrels because they professed to be in revolt against the existing order has already done our movement much harm. Let it not add Syndicalism to the already too numerous vipers ... [64]

Bruce Glasier was equally horrified by the spate of strikes:

How, then is the nation to deal with a menace of such almost incredible coercion – a coercion which is altogether apart ... from the question of the justifiability of the claims of the workers on strike ... [65]

Hardie was, compared to them, a wily old fox. He knew, as he had done back at the outbreak of the ‘tattie strike’ long before, that at times abrupt left turns were needed to reimpose one’s influence. Indeed he had become increasingly disaffected with MacDonald’s style and the resultant utter disregard shown by workers, bosses and other political parties for Labour at that time.

So he mounted a vigorous verbal attack on the use of troops and police in the South Wales coalfield. He denounced the government for taking the side of the employers and so on. At the ILP Conference of 1912 he made the following remarkable speech:

The ILP ... is not a reform organisation; it is revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. The ILP does not exist to patch up the present order of society so that it may be made a little more tolerable; it exists to overthrow the present order and to build up the Socialist humanitarian state in its stead ...

Comrades of the working class, we do not want Parliament to give us reforms. We are not asking Parliament to do things for us. We are going to Parliament ourselves to master Parliament ... [66]

A year later he introduced a motion to ILP Council saying, ‘that only by the overthrow of the existing order and the creation of a Socialist State can the working class be emancipated.’ [67] Was this a transformation? Had Hardie really exchanged Jesus Christ for a full-blooded revolutionary Karl Marx? To think this would be to misjudge the great depth of his opportunism.

At that time Lenin referred to reformists such as Hardie as opportunists. This description was quite apt. Hardie was able to utter the most revolutionary of phrases if he thought this would bring the mass movement to heel. The real reasoning behind his left rhetoric was revealed when he wrote for the obscure theoretical journal of the ILP – the Socialist Review. His aim was to turn mass action towards safe parliamentary channels. In doing so he exploited the limitations of trade union action which applied even to the Labour Unrest. In Hardie’s hands every concept of class struggle, such as the idea of workers’ control, was stood on its head. Left was made to appear right, direct action more conservative than parliamentary methods which he called ‘political action’:

The experience of the strike, however, of late has shown conclusively the imperative need for workers to control Parliament ... The action of the strike can at most be only ameliorative; it never can be revolutionary. That belongs to the sphere of [parliamentary] politics. A strike can secure the adoption of the principle of a minimum wage, but only Parliament can nationalise the mines, or the railways, or other industrial undertakings. And so political action is revolutionary, whereas direct action is but palliative. The strike can be used to supplement, but not to supplant political action ... Parliament is therefore the citadel upon which the forces of democracy must concentrate their attack. A general strike against Liberalism and Toryism [i.e. voting Labour] is the need of the hour. The industrial strike, even when successful settles nothing ... The political strike is the only form of strike which is all gain and no toss ... [68]

War and death Hardie’s opportunist genius did live beyond the grave, even as he hoped his soul would do. Practically all his biographers explain his demise in the autumn of 1915 as a result of a broken heart following the outbreak of the First World War. As we shall see, with Hardie appearances were deceptive to the very end. Like other leaders of the Second International Hardie had strongly denounced the rising war fever that gripped Europe in its imperialist years before 1914. He proposed a very radical sounding scheme of an international general strike against the war. But closer inspection shows his intention was to use threats of a general strike more as a bluff to prevent war than a serious agitational goal. Still, Hardie’s opposition seems to have survived the general abandonment of internationalism that followed the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914. His meetings were disrupted, he was abused on all sides, and his health was already failing.

But there are any number of quotations showing that Hardie did not oppose the war, only the manner with which it began and the particularly vindictive war aim of absolutely crushing Germany. He wanted more negotiation, a bit less aggression and so on. Here are a few quotations which demonstrate the point:

A nation at war must be united, especially when its existence is at stake ... We must see the war through, but we must also make ourselves so familiar with the facts as to be able to intervene at the earliest possible moment in the interests of peace ...

None of [the ILP’s pamphlets] clamour for immediately stopping the war. That would be foolish in the extreme, until, at least, the Germans had been driven back across their own frontier ...

But surely, whilst supporting and upholding our gallant defenders both by land and sea, it is our duty to find out what we are fighting for. I am not pro-German, still less am I pro-Russian, I am simply pro-British. [69]

Yet a broken heart was the root cause of his decline. But the heartbreak was that of a Labour bureaucrat whose organisation was being torn apart before his very eyes. The idea of independent Labour representation being a viable ‘neutral ground’ had survived the Labour Unrest battered and bruised. The balancing act of class and nation completely fell apart in the nationalist hysteria of the early months of war. This was symbolised by events in the House of Commons, where Hardie’s guarded criticisms of military policy were ridiculed and, worst of all, a Labour MP – Will Crooks – closed the parliamentary session by leading the House in a passionate rendering of God Save the King. As the record of the proceedings noted: ‘All the Members joined in singing the National Anthem’.

To Hardie it must have seemed that the ‘distinct’ Labour Party for which he had dedicated his life, was damaged beyond repair. Very soon the Labour Party was absorbed into Lloyd George’s coalition government which included Tories and Liberals. Thus the Labour Party’s first taste of real power was to be over the corpses of British, German and other workers killed in an imperialist war. It took some very skilful manoeuvring by Ramsay MacDonald to restore Labour to an independent organisation after the war.

Hardie had spent his life trying to square the circle – adapting working-class aspirations to ruling-class ideology, denouncing ruling-class ideology so as to make room for workers’ aspirations, and so on. When the capitalist system was not in deep crisis and the working class was not fighting for itself, he enjoyed dramatic success. But when either of the two sides fought for real, his synthesis was shown to be the hollow illusion it had always been. The real choice was either a struggle for socialism against the state, or working through the state for the maintenance of capitalism.


The secret of Keir Hardie’s magical attraction for Labour’s left and right is now clear. In the days when the Labour idea was little more than a one-man band, Hardie had to play all the parts – right, left and centre. But the central tenets of his method were straightforward. First came a quasi-religious identification of the working class, the nation and the state. He liked to paraphrase Louis XIV’s famous dictum when he said ‘the state – ’tis us’. This led directly to ‘the question of questions’ – the winning of votes.

In 1909 he wrote that Party policy ‘will be guided by one sole consideration – how to increase its strength in the next Parliament.’ For ‘Upon our success in this depends the ratio to which the improvement of the condition of the people will proceed’. [70] Hardie’s sincerity as an opportunist is unquestionable. He refused any number of bribes on his path towards power through parliament. He was also very skilled in this form of politics. The secret of forming a well-established workers’ party was to encourage a feeling of political antipathy towards the openly bourgeois parties of Liberals and Tories without challenging the basic ideology of the system. If the labour movement was to lift Hardie and his supporters into power it had to be encouraged and kept alive when weak, but reined in when strong and confident.

The creation of the Labour Party was certainly a step forward on the old Liberal/Tory division. It represented a step away from total mental subordination to the boss and his representatives. It brought the arena of political debate into the working class itself and thus made possible a sharp separation of reformists and revolutionaries. However, the early years of the Labour Party were no socialist golden age. If it had been possible, these years – in which the pressure of office were absent, where there were very few votes to lose and a world to win – should have yielded a picture of struggle and challenge. Instead we find a reality that is with us today – total opportunism among the leadership and a left wing battering its head fruitlessly against the brick wall of parliamentary politics.

Hardie built his structure well and made it durable. The trade union bureaucracy was built into its base. Their money and influence guaranteed them a decisive voice in Party affairs. Even more important, he created an organisation which was thoroughly parliamentary in its outlook, and which would therefore always be impregnable to defeat from within by the revolutionary left. Since parliament was supposed to be the origin and fount of all progress through the passing of socialist legislation, every phase of the Party had to yield to this ultimate aim. The national organisation of the Party was subordinated to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Organisation in the constituencies was subordinate to the Party’s national organisation and so on. Opportunist control was not centred in the winning of conference debates but on the reformist premise which left, right and centre shared.

Rosa Luxemburg was writing about German reformists when in the year of the Labour Party’s birth she wrote her pamphlet on Reform or Revolution. Yet she foresaw its future, because she understood its political basis:

people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradiction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal ... If we follow the political conceptions of [reformism] our programme becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism. [71]

* * *


1. Militant, 13 December 1985.

2. K.O. Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist, London 1975, p. 1.

3. Ibid., p. 290.

4. W. Stewart, James Keir Hardie, London 1921, with an introduction by James Ramsay MacDonald, p. xxi.

5. From an article by Snowden in the National Library of Scotland, Dep 176, Box 25.

6. British Weekly (date unreadable). National Library of Scotland, Dep 176, Box 2.

7. Perthshire Courier, 2 August 1904.

8. F. Johnson, Keir Hardie’s Socialism, London 1922, p. 4.

9. Note 9 is missing in the printed version.

10. Daily Mirror, 18 May 1906.

11. Quoted in Eastern Evening News, 10 June 1896.

12. E. Hughes (ed.), Keir Hardie’s Speeches and Writings, Glasgow 1927, p. 119.

13. Ibid., p. 120.

14. F. Johnson, op. cit., p. 12.

15. Daily Mirror, 2 August 1905.

16. J. Keir Hardie, My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance, London 1909, emphasis in the original.

17. Labour Leader, 22 December 1894.

18. Press cutting from the Hardie Collection in the National Library of Scotland, Dep 176 (2) 5.

19. L Trotsky, Writings on Britain, London 1974, vol. 1, p. 20.

20. Ibid., p. 20.

21. Ibid., p. 23.

22. Quoted in T. Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism, London 1983, pp. 114, 103, 109–10, 107.

23. F. Johnson, op. cit., p. 4.

24. F. Reid, Keir Hardie – The Making of a Socialist, London 1978, pp. 48–49.

25. Quoted in ibid., p. 84.

26. The Miner, April 1887.

27. The Miner, January 1887.

28. The Miner, July 1887.

29. The ‘New’ Trades Unionism, London 1890, pp. 4–5.

30. Ibid., pp. 12–13.

31. The Trade Unionist, 20 June 1891.

32. The Trade Unionist, 11 April 1891.

33. Quoted in Labour Elector, 15 March 1890.

34. S. & B. Webb, History of British Trade Unionism, London 1920, pp. 680–681.

35. G Howell, Trade Unionism New and Old, London 1907, p. 201.

36. Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Conference Reports 1900–1905, Hassocks 1967, p. 16.

37. Labour Leader, 6 October 1894.

38. Clegg, Fox and Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, Oxford 1964, vol. 1, p. 326.

39. TUC Congress Report, Liverpool 1980, p. 53.

40. Labour Leader, 20 October 1894.

41. Labour Leader, 27 October 1894.

42. Labour Leader, 24 April 1895.

43. Hughes, op. cit., p. 79.

44. Trotsky, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 248.

45. Labour Leader, 25 April 1899.

46. D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, Manchester 1983, p. 313.

47. Quoted in C.F. Brand, The British Labour Party, London 1965, p. 11.

48. Quoted in Clegg, Fox and Thompson, p. 376n.

49. Hardie’s Speeches and Writings, p. 60.

50. Evening Swindon Advertiser, 3 June 1905.

51. Quoted in Stewart, op. cit., p. 255.

52. Labour Leader, 9 March 1901.

53. Quoted in Stewart, op. cit., p. 255.

54. J. Keir Hardie, Indian Budget Speech, London 1908.

55. Labour Leader, 1 March 1903.

56. V.I. Lenin, On Britain, Moscow 1979, pp. 460–61.

57. Unattributed press cutting from Hardie Collection, dated 3 December 1904 and proceeding from Barrow, in National Library of Scotland, Dep 176 2 (5).

58. Quoted in Morgan, op. cit., p. 169.

59. Ibid., p. 169.

60. V. Grayson, The Appeal for Socialism (no date or place) p. 10.

61. Quoted in B. Tillett, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure?, London, no date, pp. 6–7.

62. ILP Conference Report 1909, pp. 47–48, 80.

63. Quoted in J.M. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War, London 1974, p. 25.

64. Socialist Review, vol. 8, p. 124.

65. Socialist Review, vol. 9, p. 103.

66. Labour Leader, 31 May 1912.

67. Labour Leader, 27 March 1913.

68. Socialist Review, vol. 9, pp. 215–16.

69. Merthyr Pioneer, 15 August 1914, 28 November 1914, 5 September 1914.

70. Socialist Review, November 1909.

71. Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York 1970, pp. 77–78.

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