This pamphlet was originally published around fifteen years ago, since when much has happened, especially the 2008 economic crash and the ensuing effects upon the class struggle globally and now the world pandemic. The author has also had chance to learn much, and I would not write this now precisely as I wrote it then. The historical analysis remains accurate, however, and the political lessons actually even more relevant in the wake of Corbynism and on the precipice of the Covid-triggered world economic downturn. Therefore, we are publishing this pamphlet unchanged, with the exception of the new additional introduction.
Introduction to the original
AS WE COME out of the 1990s, a period of ideological reaction and capitalist triumphalism, capitalism faces economic crisis on a world scale. The looming US recession and world slowdown will have devastating consequences for the toilers of the world as the already exploited are made to pay still further for crises of the system the bourgeois defend. Yet the central feature in most countries today is the yawning gap on the left. The bourgeoisification of the social-democracy on an international basis since the collapse of Stalinism has left the working class, almost without exception globally, lacking mass political representation for the first time in a century or more. For the new workers and students now moving into struggle, it will be vital to learn the lessons of the past. The anti-capitalist “movement” demands answers that can only be found in the arsenal of Marxism, and it is for this reason we provide this work.
Prior to the formation of the Labour Party in 1900-06, Britain had no mass workers’ party. The attempts (or lack thereof) by the nineteenth-century socialists to create such a party hold instructive lessons for the Marxists today. Differences, both subjective and objective, cannot be ignored, yet there are important similarities of situation and lessons of programme and policy to be learned so that the revolutionary party of today is in the best possible position – politically and practically – for the creation of a new mass party of the British working class. In this the Marxists will participate, to win new layers to the forces of revolutionary socialism, and ensure that the working class in the twenty-first century does not suffer the defeats of the previous generations.
THE NINETEENTH century saw British capitalism, via its world monopoly, reach both its apex and the beginning of its long decline. That century saw also the birth of the British working class as a fighting, organised, class-conscious force – “a class for itself and not just of itself’. The first general cycle of struggle took place in the first three decades of the century, culminating in the “Great” Reform Act of 1832.
‘The Old Chartist’
The second general cycle, itself composed of three, was that of the Chartists, on which Trotsky wrote the following: “The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection. … To use a hazardous comparison then, it can be said that the Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future.” (Where Is Britain Going?, p93-4). Although it is outside the scope of this article, as Trotsky remarked, “The clarification of … the revolutionary content of Chartism is one of the most important obligations for British Marxists” (Ibid., 87) – advice which remains incontestable.
Post-Chartism, however, as Engels remarked, “… a real workers’ movement will only come into existence here when the workers are made to feel the fact that England’s world monopoly is broken. Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers. The tail of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly but nevertheless sharing in its advantages, politically they are naturally the tail of the “great Liberal Party”, which for its part pays them small attentions, recognises trade unions and strikes as legitimate factors, has relinquished the fight for an unlimited working day and has given the mass of better placed workers the vote. But once America and the united competition of the other industrial countries have made a decent breach in this monopoly …. you will see something here.” (Engels to Bebel, 30/8/83).
The world monopoly had enabled out of the “better placed workers” to be created a labour aristocracy – a hierarchy rooted in the narrow exclusivity of the old craft unions, of an extreme careerist and opportunist stripe. Engels wrote further: “What is most necessary of all here is that masses of the official labour leaders should get into Parliament. Then things will go finely; they will expose themselves quickly enough. The elections in November  will help a lot towards this. … universal suffrage is the best lever for a proletarian movement at the present time and will prove to be so here.” (Engels to Bebel, 28/10/85). Lastly, “The [socialist sectarian] elements at present active may become important … only if a spontaneous movement breaks out here among the workers and they succeed in getting hold of it. Till then they will remain individual minds, with a hotchpotch of confused sects, remnants of the great [Chartist] movement of the ‘forties, standing behind them and nothing more.” (Engels to Bebel, 30/8/83). The development of these factors – the contradictions of England’s world economic position from the 1880s against that of before, of craft unionism with the objective needs of the non-unionised workers, of the latter with the reformist and liberal bureaucracies, and lastly of the existing sects with the need for a genuine revolutionary party – developments through these contradictions determined the cycle of struggle with which we are concerned: of 1880 to 1914, and which resumed in a certain sense in 1917.
From Genesis to Split (1880-84)
THE SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC Federation was formally constituted in 1883. Its founder and subsequent figurehead until 1916, Henry Meyers Hyndman, had however established its predecessor the Democratic Federation in 1881. Hyndman, a lawyer and journalist by trade, began his political career as a bourgeois Tory radical. His unsuccessful candidature for Marylebone in the 1880 General Election let him to study Lassalle, another adventuring bourgeois radical, with whom Hyndman was reportedly fascinated. Hyndman seems to have entered into the spirit, if not entirely the politics, of Lassalle, of whom Engels was later to describe Hyndman as a “wretched caricature” (Engels to Bebel, 28/10/85). Via Lassalle, Hyndman was introduced to the works of Marx – namely the Communist Manifesto and Capital Volume One – which by 1883 convinced Hyndman of the need for an explicitly socialist organisation. Other factors, though, were equally if not more important. Cole (1954, 384) relates the concurrent development of the land question, in both Ireland and Britain, with the formation of the Land Nationalisation Society in 1881. This was reflected in the demand for land nationalisation in the programme of the Democratic Federation. Moreover, says Cole, the construction of a revolutionary party was not Hyndman’s intention in 1881-2. Instead, “His aim was rather to stimulate a mass- movement of working-class discontent, using as his principal agencies the Radical Working-Men’s Clubs which existed in large numbers in the working-class areas … to weld them together into a movement resembling Chartism but with a better defined social programme. … to create a new working-class party which he hoped to bring over in time to his new-found Socialist faith.” (ibid., 394-6).
Northampton SDF banner, now on display in the Labour History Museum, Manchester
As we see, Hyndman was hazy on the relationship of revolutionaries to a mass party of the workers. The development of the Labour Party and of the Second International was to prove the point that a new party is not an aggregate of existing organisations (whether “Radical” clubs or small sects – a point not to be wasted on today’s advocates of “left regroupment”) and, moreover, the importance of organised revolutionaries to its subsequent evolution. This is a point to which we will return. But in any case, between 1881 and 1883 Hyndman’s hopes were dashed, by the secession of the Radical clubs from the Federation and by the generalised reaction following the Fenian assassinations in Phoenix Park, Dublin, of two English diplomats. Those who remained in the Federation from 1881, and who joined in this period, were those prepared to join a revolutionary party as such, without the smokescreen of bourgeois “Radicalism”. This was reflected in the more socialistic declaration of principles adopted at the 1882 DF Conference, which denounced “the landlord and capitalist parties” as parties opposed to workers’ interests, and called for workers’ independent political organisation: “those whose labour makes the wealth of these islands must rely on themselves alone.” (Quoted in ibid., 397). Those in this period who joined tended, like Hyndman, to be those “‘educated’ elements sprung from the bourgeoisie, who here and there seek contact with the masses” (Engels to Bebel, 18/1/84), such as George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Other leading figures of this period include Eleanor Marx, Ernest Belfort Bax, Edward Aveling, Walter Crane, Henry Hyde Champion and Harry Quelch. Of the ex-bourgeois who joined, Morris gives us a typical example: “… I was on the lookout for joining any body which seemed likely to push forward matters. It must be understood that I always intended to join anybody who distinctly called themselves Socialists, so when last year I was invited to join the Democratic Federation by Mr. Hyndman, I accepted the invitation hoping that it would declare for Socialism.” (Selected Writings and Designs (ed. Asa Briggs), p33). Morris was probably the best of the bourgeois elements in this period – though even he admitted suffering “agonies of confusion over the pure economics of Capital.” (ibid.). Of the others, Shaw lasted only two years; and the bourgeois attitudes of Bax and Hyndman caused no end of difficulties until both left the BSP in 1916. Many of the great revolutionaries in this period (with the exception of Bebel, and a few others), came from the middle classes: Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, De Leon, Plekhanov, Lenin, and Trotsky. This was inevitable. But the crux is the extent to which they tore themselves free from the bourgeois milieu and became in all essentials part of the proletariat. Hulse (1970, 15) says that Hyndman “… looked upon himself as a natural leader, whom others must follow loyally and completely… [and] could never regard himself as one of the working-men whom he had undertaken to liberate. … the fact that he continued to wear his top hat and frock coat as a Socialist propagandist struck many of his colleagues as symbolic.” Wolfe (1975, 301) amplifies the point: “… all came from affluent backgrounds and inherited incomes large enough to enable them to devote their time and energies largely to Socialism.” Many also continued their former careers in the Christian socialist movement (ibid). It is impossible for one aspiring to the role of workers’ leader to maintain a bourgeois lifestyle, bourgeois habits or bourgeois ideas. Hyndman, and Shaw in a much briefer period, all corroborate this in the negative. One of Hyndman’s bourgeois attitudes reigning eternal was his national chauvinism, the source of his 1916 resignation, but which was to have an almost immediate impact on the newly-born SDF.
Hyndman had, after reading Marx, engaged also in discussion with the great man. Marx was not overly impressed, seeing him as both “self-satisfied” and “garrulous” (Letter to Jenny Marx, 11/4/1881). However, Marx continued with discussions, to assist development of the new party. No doubt under the influence of Morris etc., the 1883 conference of the DF voted to rename itself the Social Democratic Federation and adopted a yet more radical, and nominally Marxist, position. As part of the same process, Hyndman published a “popularisation” of socialism – England for All – in 1883. Although generally correct in theoretical terms, this was solely because it was a front-to-back unacknowledged plagiarisation of Marx’s ideas, especially Capital. Marx was furious, writing to Sorge, “… the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so detested, etc.,” …. the man is a “weak” vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – of studying a matter thoroughly. … Many evenings this fellow has pilfered from me, in order – to take me out and to learn in the easiest way.” (Letters to Americans, 130). There can be little doubt that Hyndman’s infamous and overweening arrogant conceit had much to do with the incident – as Marx alluded to Sorge, “the fellow” wanted to make a name for himself on the back of Marx’s intellectual labours. Further, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners” was a blatant lie; the International Working-Men’s Association (IWMA – First International) headed by Marx, had substantial political and literary input on the Chartist movement scarce decades earlier. Marx also gives evidence in the same letter of Marx’s name not being “detested” — but being used on a poster campaign! Marx and Engels broke off personal, though not political contact with Hyndman thereafter. Various bourgeois historians, including Hulse and Cole, have ascribed this to a personal dislike on behalf of Marx and Engels, the latter especially, for Hyndman. There is no doubt that they personally were repelled by Hyndman. Yet, as we have noted, this was the case in 1881 – before any pilfering took place – and had not prevented extensive personal contact in spite of this. The predominant method of bourgeois historians, reducing everything to personal whims and antipathies, merely obscures the real issue: the personal had become political. This is of decisive importance. The personal traits of Hyndman had revealed themselves not merely an incidental irritation but as a reactionary political factor. Not accrediting Marx could only pander to any existing anti-German prejudice. Given the way in which the bourgeois attacked socialism as a “foreign importation”, Hyndman’s thievery could only strengthen bourgeois propaganda and not fight this, as was and is the duty of genuine Marxists, genuine internationalists, throughout the world.
Despite, as Engels that year instructed Bebel, “Do not on any account whatever let yourself be deluded into thinking there is a real proletarian movement going on here. …. it is not the case” (Engels to Bebel, 30/8/83), the SDF as an organisation was from 1883 printing both its weekly paper Justice, and monthly journal Today. Unavoidably at this time a small propaganda group, the SDF could with a genuine Marxist leadership have been able to consolidate its modest gains, educate a cadre core, work out a perspective which if broadly correct would have foreseen the stormy events of the late 1880s at least in outline and adjusted its strategy and tactics accordingly. Formulation of perspectives was being undertaken by Engels, with remarkable accuracy and clarity throughout this time. However, as always, the problems of the SDF lay at the top. Shaw jumped ship in May 1884 and was in any case no great loss. Indeed, it was typical of this petty-bourgeois dilettante that the organisation to which he jumped was the Fabian League (later Fabian Society). Foster (1955, 146) elaborates on the Fabian raison d’étre: “The political line of the employers and of their agents, the conservative labour bureaucrats, was to keep the working class under the tutelage of the Liberal Party; but [following the formation of the SDF] the bourgeois had to shift its political policy a bit. This was made manifest by the formation in 1884 of the Fabian League, headed by Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and other petty-bourgeois radical intellectuals. The main purpose of this organisation was to castrate Marxism and to render innocuous independent political action of the working class, all of which was of great service to the capitalists. Preaching a vague, evolutionary socialism, the Fabians attacked every principle of revolutionary Marxism. … the Fabians were openly anti-Marxist. Pearse, the Fabian historian, says that the first achievements of the Society was to break the spell of Marxism in England.” The Fabians were to furnish the labour movement with many yellow traitors; their ideology was that of Ramsay MacDonald, strike-breaker in 1926 and open deserter in 1931.
The Fabians have been unimportant ever since. Even in the 1880s, they were not a significant force. However, the SDF split of December 1884 did damage the incipient Marxist movement in Britain, for the nominal Marxist minority remaining in the SDF and for the ex-majority which broke away.
THE SPLIT TOOK place at the SDF executive meeting on 27 December 1884. Those who left resigned after the meeting voted 10:8 of no confidence in Hyndman, who nonetheless refused to resign. Those who broke away founded the Socialist League immediately after, with the journal Commonweal as its central organ. The ex-majority included, on the SDF executive, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Belfort Bax, Edward Aveling, Andres Scheu, and W. Clarke.
In the ranks they were supported by cadres such as Edward Carpenter, Walter Crane, and the outstanding Tom Maguire. From outside the SDF, Engels gave his support, having recently described Hyndman as “an arch-conservative and an extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx” (Engels to Bebel, 30/8/83). Engels’ view was undoubtedly shared by the ex-majority, especially Morris and Eleanor Marx who denounced Hyndman’s chauvinism. Formally, all the majority charged Hyndman with “dictatorial and undemocratic control of the Federation’s affairs and ‘political opportunism’.” (Cole 1954, 401).
There were other, more specific issues as well. A question mark hung over whether the (non-Marxist) Scottish crofters’ movement should be affiliated to the SDF, or be one of its sections which would imply accepting and practising as would a local branch. Hyndman wanted the latter; the émigré Andres Scheu preferred the looser affiliation arrangement and was denounced by Hyndman as an anarchist to be expelled along with other Executive member W. J. Clarke (ibid, 400 & 401). Here the issue of Hyndman and the SDF’s relationship to other organisations comes into the open, dragging with it the role of anarchism. Hyndman’s tendency to expulsion, as in this case, of members with whom he disagreed was unsurprisingly deeply unpopular. The attitude of Marxists towards the expulsion of dissidents is framed by circumstance, and is not to be resorted to lightly. Expulsion is an organisational measure which, as with all organisational questions, is determined by political considerations and is a step to be taken only after a full education of the Party on the political issues at stake. This was not the method of Hyndman. Anarchism in the socialist movement was, at the time, a serious difficulty. In light of this, had Hyndman agreed to an internal debate over the role of anarchism it would at the very least have helped to educate the cadres of the SDF against anarchism, and for Marxism. However, this was not done, and numbers of those who joined the Socialist League from the SDF were anarchists or “Anarchist-Communists”, a development to which we will return.
Lastly, there was the question of revolutionaries and electoral work, especially parliamentary elections. Cole (ibid) summarises: “The Anarchists and Anarchist-Communists in the SDF were hostile to Parliamentary action in any circumstances [as was Morris at this point – HC], whereas the Hyndmanites were definitely setting out to establish a political party with parliamentary ambitions. Between these groups was a third, which without opposing political [i.e. electoral – HC] action on principle, considered that the time was not ripe for it, and that the Socialists would only make their cause ridiculous if they put up candidates without a great deal of preliminary educational work to convert the active section of the working class to Socialism. The majority which voted against Hyndman on the executive was made up of this group…” The anarchists, as subsequent developments were to show, had merely the destructive intention of making Marxist organisations into Anarchist ones. For the socialists though, the question of parliamentary elections was not, and is not, simple and final. In regards to opportunists, or even with bourgeois parties perceived as Left or radical, e.g. Blair’s New Labour in May 1997, achieving power can be a favourable objective development in educating the masses. As we quoted Engels before, the necessity in this period was for “masses” of the opportunists to get elected, in order that through betrayal they would “expose themselves quickly enough”. Educating the masses, through their own experience, of the role played by “the labour lieutenants of capital” once in power can speed up workers’ radicalisation toward revolutionary awareness.
The question of Marxists standing for, and taking positions in, bourgeois Parliaments and councils is less straightforward. It is ultra-left to dismiss election campaigning in general; the way in which these are to be utilised by Marxists depends on the class-consciousness of workers. Lenin, in ‘Left-wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder, cites “… one successful and correct (1905) and one incorrect (1906) example of the application of the [Duma, i.e. Russian Parliament – HC] boycott by the Bolsheviks.” (p57). In 1905, a revolutionary situation had developed; the task of the Bolsheviks was to build the revolution, the direct armed seizure of power by the masses, and not to engender illusions in the Duma. In 1906 the boycott was ultra-left and wrong; the revolutionary temper of the masses was declining as the counter-revolution gained pace. It would have been correct for the Bolsheviks then to stand as Duma candidates in order to expose the Duma and capitalism openly in front of the masses, giving a revolutionary lesson. In Britain in the 1880s, it would be totally ultra-left, totally wrong, to abstain from elections and pass up the opportunity of using bourgeois elections as a tribune from which to educate the masses. Morris, in his sincere naivete opposing election work until the 1890s, is answered on every score by Lenin’s classic pamphlet. Finally, the question of whether to stand such a candidate in such and such a place in 1884 is a matter of tactics, determined by the immediate situation and short-term perspectives, and not by simple a priori “Yes” / “No” solutions.
Following Hyndman’s stubborn refusal to resign, the majority did so instead, “rather than use their majority to claim from a Conference of the Federation the right to the name and control. They did this on Morris’ advice; for he thought it preferable not to engage in a wrangle for the control of the organisation under the eyes of the press which would have made the most of it to discredit Socialism, and he also wished to be rid of a number of prominent members of the SDF whose good faith he mistrusted, and hoped to make a new start with a group of colleagues animated by principles more akin to his own.” (Cole 1954, 400). Engels gives us a damning condemnation of the minority: “The adventurer Hyndman, who had gotten control of the whole thing, was exposed as having incited the members against one another, intercepted correspondence for the council [i.e., the SDF executive — HC], and founded bogus branches in the provinces to plant his creatures … the whole thing is nothing but a swindle.” (Engels to Sorge 31/12/84 — original emphasis; Letters to Americans, 143).
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing and it would be unfair to overly condemn those who resigned. Moreover, as remarked previously, many of the local cadres left with the Majority: in London, in Yorkshire, in Glasgow, and in Scotland generally where the Land and Labour League – which seceded with the SL’ers – was strong. (Cole 1954, 414). The Labour Emancipation League, mostly composed of anarchists, also disaffiliated and joined with the Socialist League. However, Lancashire SDF remained largely untouched and was to become in the mid-1890s the SDF’s largest, and in certain respects most important, region. It is difficult to tell whether a factional struggle by the majority would have further influenced SDF localities. Engels raised in the letter quoted above the question of “so far as [the SDF] follows him [Hyndman] … will be apparent in about a week”. Nonetheless, it is wrong to take notice of bourgeois media slanders when engaged in principled factional dispute; moreover, by resigning the ex-majority strengthened Hyndman in the SDF, and anarchists and ultra-leftists in the SL. Thus double blows were struck at the weak forces of Marxism (probably less than 1000 in the whole country). There was an urgent need for a genuinely Marxist party, free of both Hyndmanism and anarchism, but in the long run this was generated from the SDF and its direct successors, and not from the forces in the SL which in the main ultimately returned to the SDF or dissolved into Kropotkin’s anarchist circle. This was not at all predetermined, but arose out of the subjective developments within the SL which determined its form and orientation in the years when it could have superseded the SDF. These developments, the rise and fall of the Socialist League, are the content of the next section.
The Socialist League (1885-95)
THE FIRST TWO years of the Socialist League looked promising for the development of a genuine Marxist party. Having secured some, though as we said by no means all, of ex-SDF cadres, the League held also the confidence of Engels initially, who in commenting on developments in the broad workers’ movement of 1885, said: “That is why it is so important to break up the Social Democratic Federation as quickly as possible, its leaders being nothing but careerists, adventurers and literary people. Hyndman … in his chase after success discredits himself more every day.” (Engels to Bebel, 28/10/85). With the workers’ movement slowly but surely gathering pace, and without the hindrance of SDF sectarians, the small cadre in the SL could with a correct orientation have consolidated a larger organisation in the short-term. This appears to have been the perspective of Engels, and was partially fulfilled as we see below.
Morris, and Bax as the leading theoretician, wrote and published in 1885 as a pamphlet The Manifesto of the Socialist League. It began: “Fellow Citizens, We come before you as a body advocating the principles of revolutionary international socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of society, a change which would destroy the distinction of class and nationalities.” Eleanor Marx, as an outstanding orator within the movement, helped in the same year to organise the International Socialist Congress in Paris (a precursor to the 1889 Congress which established the mass Second International). Against the stormy background of Europe and the USA (where Eleanor Marx later toured as a speaker) the socialist movement in England was very small. By mid-1885 the League had but eight branches and 230 members. The SDF was by comparison, claiming three times the size. Morris’ frustration was evident: “Men listen respectfully to socialism, but are perfectly supine and not in the least inclined to move except along the lines of radicalism and trade unionism.” (Quoted in Wolfe 1975, 108). He remarked, “I am in such low spirits about the prospects of our party, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people.” There is a grain of truth in this; though not “supine” the working class was in the main on the industrial front, i.e. engaged in trade union action. The as yet low development of this found its political complement in workers’ support for Radicals and for Lib-Labs – i.e. bourgeois and pro-bourgeois candidates.
Nevertheless, a correct approach to the industrial question by Marxists can win respect and support from workers, which can re-emerge in a higher, i.e. more generally revolutionary, form when the class switches to the political plane and seeks a political organisation with which they identify and are acquainted. By January 1887 League membership stood at 550, with 280 paying dues (many were unemployed or too poor to afford these). Two areas of the SL saw substantial growth before internal problems became critical: Glasgow and Leeds. Both were ex-SDF localities which had seceded en bloc. Glasgow, under the direction of Glasier (later a Fabian) formed a branch in 1887 which grew to 53 members in a few months. An open-air meeting attracted 20,000 to speeches on socialism. Leeds reflected the ability of Marxists to successfully intervene in the broad labour movement. Tom Maguire, who had formed the Leeds SDF branch in September 1884, in the following February launched the Leeds SL. In 1887-90 the branch published a manifesto for a Socialist Labour Party (i.e. a broad workers’ party); organised and led the Jewish tailors in strike action – subsequently setting up a co-operative together; organised and led the Building Labourers’ union in a successful strike; organised both the Gasworkers’ and General Labourers’ Union and the tailoresses’ union – the latter struck one month later (October 1888). In 1890 the Leeds SL formed a new Yorkshire Labour Council, and a Labour Electoral League for workers’ candidates. In 1890 the SL-organised General Labourers’ Union struck three times. However, 1890 was also the absolute end of the League as a Marxist organisation; Leeds SL lost Maguire – its finest cadre – to the general labour movement.
In purely numerical terms, the League is claimed to have had over 10,700 members in 1895, and 6,000 in 1901 – the year of its formal dissolution which had taken place de facto from the early 1890s. Cole (1954) however says the SL was always “small, and never united by any clear community of purpose” (414), “… there was never a national movement of any real significance” (415).
But whatever the numerical size of the organisation, what is incontestable is that there existed an anarchist wing opposed to the Marxist wing, with Morris in the middle. Morris was associated more politically with the Marxists until their resignation, except on the issue of election campaigns on which he took the ultra-left position of the anarchists. According to Cole, the anarchist element was strongest in London, which was the League’s strongest area, and place of production for their journal Commonweal, edited by Morris. Engels, in a series of letters to Sorge provides us with almost a running commentary of increasing anarchist dominance; and of increasing impatience between early 1886 and spring 1887 by the Marxists with both the anarchists and the Morris-Bax leadership (See Letters to Americans, 156, 162, 165). Finally, Engels declared: “Let’s hope that the position of the Socialist League is also cleared up at Whitsuntide; the anarchists must be expelled or we’ll drop the whole mess.’ Engels to Sorge 4/5/87, Letters to Americans, 185). Morris, while not wholly agreeing with the anarchists, nonetheless associated with their mentor, Kropotkin, from 1886, and in October of that year allowed the anarchist figurehead and his co-worker Wilson (also a Fabian!) the use of the Commonweal press for their journal (Hulse 1970, 91). Moreover, his anti-election position pushed him objectively closer to the anarchists. In March 1887, Morris expressed satisfaction at Kropotkin’s visit to the Glasgow branch of the League, which “turned them a little in the Anarchist direction, which gives them an agreeable air of toleration, and they are at present quite innocent of any parliamentary designs.” (Ibid., 95 — my emphasis). In the same year, Morris’ alliance with the anarchist faction inside the League won it to a formally anti-electoral position, at which both Marxists and opportunists resigned. As Cole comments, “(Morris] became more and more isolated, though respected by almost everyone.” Morris struggled on, editing the journal and even writing a play to raise funds for publishing costs. In 1889 the anarchist faction won a majority on the League Executive Council, and as A. L. Morton comments, “the position of Morris was becoming impossible.” Morris’ initial mistake on the election question had pitted him with the anarchists against the Marxists, but by 1889-90 the League was almost in all but name anarchistic. Morris, in his article Anarchism and Socialism, stood his ground: “I call myself a communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it… I join issue with our anarchist-communist friends, who are somewhat authoritative on the matter of authority, and not a little vague also… If individuals are not to coerce others, there must somewhere be an authority which is prepared to coerce them not to coerce… Any community conceivable will sometimes determine on collective action which, without being in itself immoral or oppressive, would give pain to some of its members… Would the small minority have to give way or the large majority… Clearly we should have to submit to authority – not any form of arbitrary or unreasonable authority, but for a public conscience as a rule of action: and by all means let us have the least possible exercise of authority.”
Morris, attempting in a very genuine but not very scientific way to formulate the transitional forms of state after the socialist revolution and leading to communism (in which the state ‘withers away’) struck a blow at the fundamental (and we might add, metaphysical) tenet of anarchism: “No to the State!”. As Morris realised the extent of the anarchists’ penetration, including into the Commonweal he edited, funded, and contributed to, he resigned from the League. Founding and taking part in the Hammersmith Socialist Society, Morris continued to write and speak for socialism until his death from overwork in 1895. Of the League itself, Engels commented in 1890 that it “…looks down on everything which is not directly revolutionary (which means making phrases and otherwise doing nothing)”. It had indeed become a sect, and increasingly an anarchist sect until its merger with the Kropotkinites in 1895 – the final death knell. Morris after his League resignation appears to have admitted the possibility of utilising Parliamentary elections, and also participated in the 1892-93 Socialist Unity negotiations, and even wrote for the SDF journal Justice (e.g., the article Why I Became a Socialist). Nonetheless, Morris played a not inconsiderable role in the rise of anarchism within the SL. We should have an all-sided view of Morris, on his considerable strengths and qualities for which he deserves praise, but we must see also his weaknesses. It does appear that Morris never fully grasped the Marxist analysis of class society, especially the role of the state. This is critical, and was the source of Morris’ mistakes in simply writing off the state as an “oppressor” – which under capitalism is entirely true – but without seeing the possibility of utilising this as a platform to build the revolution, and also the role of the state as a democratic workers’ organisation after the revolution.
It is one thing to say what we’ve said. It is quite another to “make phrases” as do the Australian DSP: “Engels was perhaps a little too harsh in dismissing Morris as a ‘sentimental socialist’. Perhaps ‘medieval’ is a better word to describe his socialism [which had] … an all too ready utopian view of the future without confronting the means by which it could be achieved.” The reader may ask, does this not “perhaps” illustrate the DSP’s utter poverty of understanding? Mealy-mouthed phrases like “We cannot hold it against Morris for preferring filigree to red flags or a hammer and sickle” only dishonour the actual record of Morris (who, as the hammer and sickle was drawn up in post-October 1917 Russia, didn’t have the option of preferring it in the 1880s!) Morris’ beliefs attempted to bridge the gap between the ‘moral force’ faith of the original ‘sentimental socialists’ and the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels. Morris had advanced well beyond the early utopians who sought to appeal to all classes, including the bourgeois. Morris understood well enough that the workers had to make the revolution; his failing was not scientifically understanding how the revolution would be achieved. This led him to the position of falling back to his “emotional socialism’: his socialism depending on his fine qualities of optimism, honesty, integrity, and limitless faith in human possibility, rather than a worked-out and sound scientific grounding. Morris’ non-comprehension of scientific socialism, expressed in the world view of dialectical materialism, was his real failing (and not some feeble-minded twaddle about “filigree”); it is a lesson not to be obscured but to be used in the education of those now coming fresh to Marxism as an instructive example of the need for deep-rooted theoretical understanding.
Lastly, on the League: of those who resigned in the late 1880s Bax returned immediately to the SDF (in 1888). Others, for example Eleanor Marx and Aveling, took longer – until the mid 1890s – to begin contributing to the SDF journal. The reasons for this are part of the next chapter, in which we look at the evolution of the SDF through the workers’ movement of 1885-1900.
The SDF 1885-1899
We commented in the introduction that the contradiction “of the existing sects with the need for a genuine revolutionary party” was one of the determining factors for the course taken by workers’ struggles in these years. But the influence of this contradiction, embodied in the SDF, made itself felt not only on the objective situation, i.e. the class struggle, but also on subjective developments within the SDF. The course the SDF charted in 1885-99 (and after) was determined in part of course by objective conditions, but also by the contradiction precisely of what the SDF was — a sect as embodied by Hyndman and his cohorts – and what the SDF needed objectively to be: a Leninist proletarian party. This was represented, to varying degrees of conscious effort, by those who challenged Hyndman from left and right in this period.
Moreover, the character of the SDF was shaped by these contradictions. The SL was, largely by dint of its increasingly anarchistic element, incapable in the mid- and late-1880s of attracting those workers seeking a Marxist party where the SDF offered an alternative. Without any effective competition from the League – a point to which we will soon return – the SDF in its provincial localities (i.e. furthest from the pernicious effects of Hyndman) contained solid workers’ cadres. These instinctively opposed Hyndman’s sectarianism and at points steadied the organisation from dissolution, and prevented extremes (although not severe waverings in c.1889-91) of ultra-leftism and opportunism which would otherwise assuredly have wrecked the SDF.
In this sense the SDF was quite unlike the petty-bourgeois sects from the time of Lenin to this day. Those sects which trace their lineage to the break-up of the Fourth International have veered sharply away from the proletariat and towards the petty-bourgeois, in both thinking and in composition. The SDF, however, was a different form of sect, and this difference is entirely owed to the absence of a genuine Marxist party at any point of the SDF’s existence. In a sense, although it originated from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements such as Hyndman, Bax and Morris, under the pressure of the worker-Marxists, the SDF was impelled from the petty-bourgeois (and against the grain of this layer, hence the bitter internal fights) toward the proletariat. This is the fundamental difference, and the reason why the SDF survived to its BSP and CPGB mergers and furnished in the process nearly two generations of workers’ leaders.
Following the split, the organisation was seriously weakened. If, as Engels suggests, the dues-paying membership numbered less than 400 before the split, simple arithmetic suggests around half the paying members remained. One source suggests that in 1885 the SDF had 700 members; this seems unlikely and may well have been inflated by Hyndman. In any case, the SDF – now led chiefly by Hyndman and Champion, with Burns a third and provincial leader-activist – made an incredibly crass, opportunistic blunder in 1885, the blame for which must rest most heavily on Hyndman and Champion. Opportunism is often a result of failures or lack of success (though sometimes the reverse, a surfeit of “easy” success) and the damaging split of late-1884 may well have pushed that brace of sectarians into their opportunism of 1885.
The general election of November 1885 saw a group of Lib-Labs – the “official labour leaders” – sent into Parliament as Engels had predicted. It also saw the SDF contest their first General Election; one seat in Nottingham by Burns, who Cole (1954, 403) says polled “quite well”. He certainly polled better than Hyndman and Champion. The Tories saw that workers voted for Liberals or for socialists, and that to win the election themselves a split in the workers’ vote was essential. Meanwhile the SDF, in which as always with sects, ultra-leftism combines with opportunism, stood two candidates in London: Hyndman and Champion. Engels remarked to Bebel (15/2/86): “As they had not even got any members in these constituencies the way they would discredit themselves was to be foreseen (one got 27, the other 32 votes out of 4000-5000 respectively!)”. This sort of adventure was pointless and in itself bad enough, but precisely because Hyndman had no funds to stand himself and Champion, he ultra-opportunistically cast around for ways to get this money. And, as Hyndman was too impatient to wait for the next election when both the SDF and the workers’ movement would have advanced, he used the conduit of Champion, who in turn used the renegade and police-agent Barty to gain money from the Tory Party to finance the campaign! This affair, we have seen, did not gain the SDF votes. Rather, it caused a tremendous ruckus in the SDF, and alienated the SDF still further from the workers who did differentiate Liberal from Tory. This idiocy was then worsened further by Hyndman who, as Engels puts it, “had no sooner got the Tory money than his head began violently to swell and he immediately set off to Birmingham to Chamberlain, the present Minister, and offered him his “support” (which does not total 1000 votes in all England) if Chamberlain would guarantee him a seat in Birmingham by the help of the Liberals and would bring in an Eight Hour Bill” (15/2/86). Engels remarks wryly that “Chamberlain is no fool and showed him the door. Despite all attempts to hush it up, a great row [blew up] about this in the Federation and threatened dissolution.” (Ibid.). From left, to right, to left and back right again. This crazed sectarian dance might well have finished the SDF – which had alienated the workers, its membership capable of thought, and made a public fool of itself into the bargain – if there hadn’t been “something … in order to get the thing going again” (Ibid.). That is to say, the SDF required an impulse from objective events to resuscitate itself. This occurred in the form of the unemployed workers’ movement of 1886, which met repeated repression by the state against the unemployed and the socialists.
Cole (1954, 404) outlines the background: “Throughout 1885 the numbers unemployed had continued to mount; and the SDF, largely thanks to John Burns, managed to put itself effectively at the head of the unemployed agitation, especially in London. At the same time – and no doubt in close connection with the growth of demonstrations by and on behalf of the unemployed – a struggle began over the right of public meeting and procession; and in this field too the SDF was able to play a considerable, though not in its own person the leading, part.” The issues of civil liberties and the right to work on which the SDF agitated, combined in February 1886. Engels wrote to Bebel (15/2/86): “A workers’ organisation [as well as Tories — HC] also exists which believes mainly in retaliatory tariffs [and] summoned the meeting in Trafalgar Square on February 8. In the meantime the SDF had not been idle either, had already held some small demonstrations and now wanted to utilise this meeting. Two meetings accordingly took place; the “fair traders” were round the Nelson Column while the SDF people spoke at the north end of the Square… Kautsky told me that the mass of the real workers had been around the “fair traders,” whilst Hyndman and co. had a mixed audience of people looking for a lark, some of them already merry… when everybody already seemed to be scattering, they proceeded to carry out a favourite old idea of Hyndman’s, namely a procession of “unemployed” through Pall Mall, the street of the big political, aristocratic and high-capitalist clubs, the centres of English political intrigue. The unemployed who followed them in order to hold a fresh meeting in Hyde Park, were mostly the types who do not want work anyhow: hawkers, loafers, police spies, pickpockets. When the aristocrats at the club windows sneered at them they broke the said windows, ditto the shop windows; they looted the wine dealers’ shops and immediately set up a consumers’ association for the contents in the street, so that in Hyde Park Hyndman and Co. had hastily to pocket their blood-thirsty phrases and go in for pacification. But the thing had now got going. During the procession, during this second little meeting and afterwards, the masses of the lumpenproletariat, whom Hyndman had taken for the unemployed, streamed through some fashionable streets nearby, looted jewellers’ and other shops, used the loaves and legs of mutton which they had looted solely to break windows with, and dispersed without meeting with any resistance… we were not alone in being compelled to think [the absence of police] intentional.”
Hyndman, Champion and Burns – the SDF triumvirate – were hauled into court for “incitement to riot”. Their acquittal by the jury however, following a speech by Burns, strengthened the SDF and their continued work among the unemployed. By November, Engels could write that:
“…the lack of any competition [from the SL – HC], on the one hand, and the government’s stupidity, on the other, has enabled the gentlemen of the Social Democratic Federation to occupy a position which they did not dare to dream of three months ago. … [they held] a very ordinary meeting at last on the 21st, without empty rodomontades [i.e. without rhetorical shouting – HC] and pseudo-revolutionary obligato mob accompaniment – and the philistines suddenly gained respect for the people who had stirred up such a fuss and yet behaved so respectably. And since, except for the SDF, nobody concerns himself with the unemployed… the SDF has the game won in advance. The labour movement is beginning here and no mistake and… the SDF is the first to reap the harvest … [but] how long Hyndman and Co will persist in their present, comparatively rational mode of thought is problematical. I expect they will soon commit colossal blunders again; they’re in too much of a hurry. And then they will see that this can’t be done in a serious movement” (Letters to Americans, 164-5).
Engels’ prediction on the “hurry” of the Hyndmanites – their ultra-leftism – was borne out in the trade union argument 1889-90. Its converse – their opportunism — was demonstrated in the same period over the row in the Second International between the Marxists and the possiblists. In England the leader of the Marxist wing was Engels, and of the possiblist wing the leader was Hyndman.
The trade union movement as a whole took off in 1888 with the Bryant & Mays matchmakers’ strike. There were notable precedents though, between 1886 and 1888, in which the SDF played a positive role. The SDF, as part of its agitation among the unemployed, had already been leading demonstrations of up to 100,000 against factory closures. Of those workers still employed, the Northampton branch illustrated a correct intervention – an example unfortunately lost on the national leadership. Hunt (1996, 241) relates that the branch “was formed in 1886 as a small branch of no more than ten members. It soon grew as a result of the struggle to unionise the dominant local industry of boot and shoe making, to become one of the strongest branches of the party. It could sustain its own club, institute and newspaper as well as contest several general elections” and municipal elections also. While Justice (5/7/84) and (15/5/86) put forward a good Marxist critique of philanthropy, as a mere palliative of workers’ ills, and that the class must rely on its own power and not the generosity of the bourgeois (Waters 1990, 72), positive involvement in the labour movement, in the unionisation of non-union workers in the ‘New Unions’ (i.e. industrial and not craft unions), was sadly lacking in an organised national form. Individual SDF members or branches were involved with, led and were recruited from the strike waves of this period (for instance in Northampton). This intervention in principle contradicted the sectarian and totally un-Marxist position of Hyndman.
The year of 1887 was a year of quantitative growth in the workers movement, preparing for the explosion of 1888. Eleanor Marx and Aveling, for example, began their tour of lectures at the Radical Clubs in London’s East End. This, commented Engels, was a “very useful and probably successful campaign… If he [Aveling] succeeds, he will get both Socialist Associations [i.e. SL and SDF – HC] into his wake; for here he gets hold of the real spontaneous working organisations and gets at the heart of the working class.” (Lapides 1987, 221). In the SDF, the Rochdale branch (of significance in 1890s) was formed (Hunt 1996, 221); and the Northampton branch began printing its newspaper, the Northampton Socialist (Ibid., 241). 1887 was also the year of Bloody Sunday – the Trafalgar Square demonstration by the SDF which, although banned by the police was carried out and violently assaulted by state forces. At least one worker was killed and others injured by charging police horses. Arrests of matchers were made; two leaders, including Burns, served six weeks in jail. This prepared the ground for the following years in two ways. Firstly, it illustrated blatantly the role of the state in its agents of force, the police, and its political agents – the bureaucrats – in the labour movement. Engels wrote on 22 February 1888 (Letters to Americans, 197) that, owing to this whip of counter-revolution, “things go slowly but well… The police brutalities in Trafalgar Square have done wonders in helping to widen the gap between the working-men Radicals and the middle-class Liberals and Radicals; the latter have behaved cowardly in and out of Parliament. … The working-class element is getting more and more exasperated, through the stupid Tory [Government – HC] provocations, is getting daily more conscious of its strength at the ballot-box, and more penetrated by the Socialist leaven.” Symptomatic of the Radicals’ separation on class lines was the development of the Law and Liberty League – a civil rights organisation – in which openly Socialist delegates sat beside Radicals, and from which the SDF recruited Annie Besant who played a notable role in the matchgirls’ strike of 1888.
Secondly, the movement on the political plane had reached a high point, incidentally exposing the Fabians who opposed all socialist demands and called for national service to alleviate unemployment (!), before the 1888 turn to the industrial plane which focussed politicised workers on workplace demands.
In 1888, the “New Unionism” was bitterly opposed by the state and by bourgeois parties; for example the miners – attacked by the police and deserted by the Liberals. This had an important effect on workers’ consciousness; the same year saw the creation of the Scottish Labour Party by the miner Keir Hardie. In England, SDF member Will Thorne led the gasworkers to achieve the eight hour day. The SDF were also practically involved in the matchgirls’ strike, via Annie Besant who helped organise the strike. The matchgirls, typical of those drawn into the new unions, were half “children under thirteen, and young persons under eighteen… ragged, half-starved, untaught children” (Capital: Vol. 1, 236; quoted in Lapides 1987, 215-16). Though Besant left the SDF one year later, she was in 1888 elected as an SDF member to the London School Board. Engels in September 1888 said, “I am entirely pleased with the progress of socialism and the labour movement in England; however this progress exists chiefly in the development of proletarian consciousness in the masses. [However] the official labour organisations … here and there are threatening to become reactionary … [and] lag behind…” (Ibid., 147). Symbolically, 1889 was the year in which Jim Connell, an SDF member, wrote The Red Flag – which was part inspired by the Great Docks Strike of 1889 – and was the year in which the great Irish Marxist and Labour leader, James Connolly, joined the SDF. The English trade unions, by way of empirical indication, organised in 1889 1.5 million workers.
The Great Docks Strike broke out in the summer of 1889, against their casual exploitation and for the “dockers’ tanner” of 6d an hour. Engels enthused: “It is a matter of paramount importance to us… this strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers – not of the steady, strong, experienced, comparatively well-paid and regularly employed ones – but of those whom chance has dumped on the docks, those who are always down on their luck, those who have not managed to get along in any other trade, people who have become professional starvelings, a mass of broken-down humanity who are drifting towards total ruination… this motley crowd has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the might dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day! If this stratum can be organised, that is a fact of great import. … This will serve as an example for the provinces.” (Ibid, 147-8). In October, after the strike won: “These new Trades Unions of unskilled men and women are totally different from the old organisations of the working-class aristocracy and cannot fall into the same conservative ways; they are too poor, too shaky and too much composed of unstable elements, for anyone of these unskilled people may change his trade any day.
And they are organised under quite different circumstances – all the leading men and women are Socialists, and socialist agitators too. In them I see the real beginning of the movement here.” (Ibid., 149-50).
And lastly, in December: “The movement has now got going at last and I believe for good. But it is not directly Socialist, and those English who have understood our theory best remain outside it: Hyndman because he is incurably jealous and intriguing, Bax because he is only a bookworm. Formally the movement is. at the moment, a trade union movement, but utterly different from that of the old trade unions: the skilled labourers, the aristocracy of labour. … [The new unions] are drawing far greater masses into the struggle, shaking up society far more profoundly, and putting forward much more far-reaching demands: the eight-hour day, a general federation of all organisations, and complete solidarity. … [They] look on their immediate demands themselves as only provisional, although they themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working. But this vague idea is strongly enough rooted in them to make them elect as leaders only openly declared Socialists. Like everyone else, they must learn from their own experiences by drawing the conclusions from their own mistakes. But since, unlike the old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of the identity of interest between capital and labour with scornful laughter, this will not take very long.” (Letters to Americans, p220).
In these letters Engels draws four main themes: the new unionism; the crystallisation of an advanced layer; the influence of individual Marxists; the total lack of influence by so-called ’Marxist’ organisations. These we shall look at below, in the context of the trade union debate within the SDF which these points engendered.
The new unions were a mass movement of the proletariat in general: those layers hitherto un-unionised, down-trodden and so forth as Engels describes; a movement independent of, and in part against, the narrow craft union form of organisation. In the context of 1889-90, the crystallisation of an advanced layer made fertile soil for the ideas of socialism and Marxism; the best of these workers were involved in the construction of the Labour Party, and Tom Mann was also a founder of the. Communist Party in 1920. The politicised nature of the dockers (not atypical of the new unions) is evidenced by their elected leaders: “only openly declared Socialists.” It raises the question, what forces of Marxism intervened? Indeed, as Engels remarked of the dockers, “this strike is worked and led by our people, by Burns and Mann, and the Hyndmanites are nowhere in it.” (Lapides 1987, 148). In “our people” Engels of course included “Tussy” – Eleanor Marx – who as a member of the docks’ strike committee worked closely with the dockers and under Engels’ tutelage. The influence of the pair cannot be underestimated; they were crucial, for instance, in averting the catastrophe that would have resulted from the dockers’ premature and wrongly applied use of the general strike slogan (see Ibid., 149).
Burns was characterised by Engels as although “the only really honest fellow among the leaders”, he also “allowed the Liberals … to lead him a bit too much by the nose.” (Ibid, 216). The latter proved unfortunately true. Mann was seen by Engels as “soft”, though “the best of the lot” (Ibid., 217); likewise, his syndicalist wanderings testify to his “softness”, but his founding of the CP to his strength as “the best”.
It was with Burns and Mann that the official leaders of the SDF entered into controversy. The official view of the SDF, that is, the view expressed by Hyndman and shared with varying degrees of diminution by the SDF ranks, on the trade unions was expressed in an 1883 pamphlet: “Trade unionists are, all told, but a small fraction of the total working population. They constitute in fact, an aristocracy of labour who, in view of the bitter struggle now drawing nearer and nearer, cannot be said to be other than a hindrance to that complete organisation of the proletariat which alone can obtain for the workers their proper control over their own labour. …. Being also fundamentally unsectarian [i.e. politically broad – HC] and unpolitical, they prevent any organised attempt being made by the workers as a class to form a definite party of their own [!!]. … The waste of the Trade Union funds on strikes or petty benefits to the individuals who compose them is still more deplorable. Enormous sums have been … lost, directly or indirectly, in consequence of strikes which, if applied by Unionists to active propaganda against the existing system … would have long since produced a serious effect.” (The Historical Basis of Socialism in England, quoted in ibid., 218).
Unsurprisingly, Mann and Burns took issue with this sectarian rubbish. Hyndman, though outnumbered, refused to change the strategic line of the SDF towards the unions, and after he in 1890 described strikes as a “diversion” from the socialist struggle Mann, Burns, and many others left the organisation.
So what of Hyndman’s statement? It is gibberish from start to finish. That unions constitute a minority of workers under capitalism is generally true, with the exception of certain European countries which in the post-war upswing achieved well over 50% unionisation. Nonetheless, this neither adds nor detracts from the unions’ essence as the industrial organisations of the proletariat, which are also its most basic line of defence. “An aristocracy of labour” is untrue; we need only look at the new unionism cited above. The phrase is, moreover, ill-used given the very real labour aristocracy then prevalent in the craft unions. “… a hindrance to that complete organisation ..”; the only complete organisation of the workers is a workers’ state composed of workers’ councils – which is, in effect, a trade union that has conquered power – and this is the nub: it is after the revolution (and even then unions retain two-fold use, supporting a workers’ state, and defending the working class against excesses and the degeneration of a workers’ state).
Before this fortunate event, unions provide workers with a valuable school in the ABC of the class struggle. This is not a hindrance, but an advance. The “unpolitical” nature of unions is the cry of union bureaucrats everywhere – themselves playing the political role of throwing sand in workers’ eyes and thereby serving the bourgeois.
Not for nothing did Marx describe every strike as political: it raises basic questions of workers’ organisation, of workers’ control, of the bourgeois class and the capitalist state, and of the means by which workers can win immediate and general victory. What is this if not political? The claim of unions preventing workers forming a party of their own is given the lie by precisely the opposite: delivering the birth of the Labour Party less than two decades after Hyndman penned these sorry lines. The support of organised labour for a workers’ party is indispensable and, whichever one forms the other (continental trade unions were often formed by the social-democracy, i.e. the reverse of the British experience) was the case throughout the Second International and in large parts of the Comintern. Hyndman’s remarks on the waste of union funds on “strikes and petty benefits” are “deplorable” given that union funds are meant precisely for the defence of workers, foremost through strike funds. It is correct to win workers’ industrial organisations to support workers’ political organisation – this is ABC for any Marxist – but how? Not by stealing strike funds! Rather, by winning the affiliation of unions to the given party and levying a charge, i.e., the political levy as was done in the Labour Party formed by the trade unions – without any help and against all the worthless mumbo-jumbo of Henry Meyers Hyndman.
The false line of Hyndman not only drove the outstanding trade unionists (apart from Will Thorne) out of the SDF precisely when they were most needed, but also wrecked the possibility of a fruitful intervention by organised Marxism into the emerging mass movement. To reiterate, again in this period it was only the sense and capabilities of the rank-and-file worker-Marxists, e.g. the Northampton and Rochdale branches, which saved the SDF. Nonetheless, a huge opportunity passed by the SDF, and this was entirely the fault of the sectarian Hyndman.
We mentioned at the start of this chapter the “serious waverings’ of ultra-leftism and opportunism in 1889-91. The trade union issue brought out the ultra-leftism of the SDF’s official leaders in dismissing all union activity. We look now at the dialectical complement to this extreme, with its opposite – the alliance of the Hyndmanites with the possiblists.
Lapides summarises the possiblists as: “Rightwing socialists, opponents of revolution and advocates of gradualism, of a ‘politique des possibilites’. They were sometimes called Broussists, after their leader, Paul Brousse” (1987, 221). In a word, they were opportunists, reformists, and in the words of Bernstein (who at this point opposed opportunism, though later becoming its principal “theoretician”), “the aim is nothing, the movement everything”.
Possiblism stemmed from the reformist split in 1882 away from the French Marxist party. On their refusal to participate in the united action of the other French socialist parties in 1886, Engels commented, “Only the miserable possiblists kept apart, and consequently they are disintegrating more and more every day.” (Letters to Americans, 155). Typical of right-wing reformists (as distinct from the best of left- reformists) they were quite literally in the pay of the bourgeois, who in France by the late 1880s were supporting the possiblist journal via the French government. (ibid, 208). This, incidentally, shows the possiblists’ lack of support among the workers. Engels furthermore characterised their “selling of principles to the bourgeoisie for small-scale concessions, especially in return for well paid jobs for the leaders (city council, labour exchange, etc.).” (Ibid., 215)
The formation of the Second International brought the possiblists out into the open. The battle between Marxism and opportunism is well illustrated by Engels in his correspondence of the time, and who was one of the most active participants – as Lenin commented “he was then sixty-five years old [but] flings himself into the battle like a young man.” (quoted in Ibid. 278). The battle found Hyndman on what should have been, for a “Marxist”, entirely the wrong side.
The possiblists, “were hunting for electoral victories, repudiated the party programme, restricting themselves in their agitation solely to “realisable” demands; they fought against party discipline, demanding autonomy for the local organisations in the question of the election platform and in the tactic of blocs with other parties.” (Note to Engels’ 1892 preface of The Civil War in France).
When it became clear that two congresses were to be held in Paris in 1889, the Marxists immediately took up the fight. Bernstein and Engels co-authored two pamphlets – Engels in London directing his fire at the SDF. Engels wrote to Sorge on 11 May, “Our pamphlet struck home like a thunderbolt, proving that Hyndman and Co. were liars and swindlers; everything was in our favour…” (Letters to Americans, p213). Had Liebknecht, the conciliator, taken a more resolute line “… the masses would have flocked to us, and the Social Democratic Federation would have deserted Hyndman” (ibid., my emphasis). The italicised sentence here suggests Hyndman was to the right of the SDF, in that Engels is suggesting that if told the truth, the SDF ranks would have en bloc gone over to the Marxists. This bears out our point on the SDF ranks being better Marxists than the figureheads. Partly in testament to this, and despite Liebknecht’s mistake, Engels again wrote to Sorge on June 8th, stating “… we have everything outside the Social Democratic Federation (which has fallen to very low estate), and morally a part of those still belonging to it. [My emphasis – HC] … With the exception of the SDF, the possiblists haven’t a single socialist organisation in all Europe [emphasis in original – HC]. They are therefore falling back on the non-socialist trade unions … The adversaries are the same [as the Bakunists in the First International – HC], with the anarchist flag merely exchanged for the possiblist one … And the tactics are exactly the same. The manifesto of the SDF, obviously written by Brousse, is a new edition of the Sonvilliers circular [Bakunist slanders against Marx in 1872 – HC]. And Brousse knows it too; he continues to attack le Marxisme autoritare [authoritarian Marxism] with the same lies and slanders, and Hyndman is imitating him … The alliance of the possiblists and the SDF was to constitute the nucleus of the new International…” (Ibid., 215). By July 17th though, “… the intrigue of the possiblists and the Social Democratic Federation to obtain the position of leadership in France and England by stealth has miscarried completely, and their pretensions to international leadership even more so.” (To Sorge; quoted in Ibid, 218). Within three days, the possiblists dropped their hypocritical mask of pleas for unity: “The reconciliation bubble in Paris has burst. How lucky that the possiblists and the SDF, recognising their true position, preferred to give our people a kick, which puts an end to the fraud.” (To Sorge, 20 July; quoted in Ibid., 218). Engels wryly adds it did the conciliators good to “get this stiff kick in their tenderest spot” (ibid., 219). Engels commented in February 1890, presumably owing to the possiblist affair, that Hyndman was “done for” (Ibid., 226). This however, took two to three years in which to mature.
In the meanwhile, Engels wrote, “The movement here is getting along very well … systematically, step by step, but surely …” (Letter to Sorge 10/6/91; quoted in Ibid., 234). The 1890 May Day demonstration, wrote Engels, showed “England at last is stirring, and no mistake” (Lapides 1987, 153). Despite the manoeuvres of the London Trades Council bureaucrats, with whom were allied the SDF intriguers, who were “hoping to shut us out and being able to command … they attempted at once to bully us down” (ibid.), the work of Aveling and Eleanor Marx ensured seven platforms for the Marxists and the advanced workers. Engels wrote, “The progress made in England these last 10-15 months is immense. Last May the 8 hours working day would not have brought as many thousands as we had hundreds of thousands.” (ibid, 153-4). As with all genuine workers’ movements, especially with the intervention of Marxists – in this case the untiring work of Eleanor Marx and Aveling – a “representative body” of workers was formed by the workers.
This body, the May Day Committee, wrote Engels, “will serve as the nucleus for the movement, regardless of sect; the Central Committee consisting of delegates of the Gas Workers and numerous other Unions – mostly small, unskilled Unions… – and of the Radical clubs worked for the last two years by Tussy. Edward [Aveling] is chairman of this Committee. This Committee will continue to act and invite all other trade, political and Socialist societies to send delegates and gradually expand into a central body not only for the 8 hour bill but for all other demands … The Committee is strong enough numerically not to be swamped by any fresh accessions, and thus the sects will soon be put before the dilemma either to merge in it and in the general movement or to die out. It is the East End which now commands the movement and these fresh elements … will not have any but Socialist leaders.” (ibid., 154). “Around the seven platforms of the Central Committee were dense, immense crowds, marching with music and banners, over a hundred thousand in the procession, reinforced by almost as many who had come severally; everywhere was harmony and enthusiasm, and yet order and organisation. The membership of the very same unions [whose leaders rallied to the reactionary London Trades Council – HC] – in fact, four entire branches of the Social Democratic Federation – marched with the Central Committee. … The English proletariat[‘s] … long slumber … is finally broken. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the line of battle.” (ibid., 158). This was is the proletarian movement in action.
It is from this that swathes of revolutionary workers can be won to the Marxist party. Once again, elements of the SDF, “four entire branches”, understood this – yet Hyndman and his cohorts isolated the organisation as a whole in the worst possible manner. It was left to the individual Marxists to play the role of what by rights was that of a party. The May Day Committee in July 1890 held a conference at which, under guidance by Engels, Eleanor Marx and Aveling played leading roles. The conference, of over 70 delegates, formed the Legal Eight Hours and International Labour League. The statutes, drawn up by the three Marxists, committed the League to an eight-hour working day in law, and the formation of a labour, i.e. mass workers’, party. (ibid, 220-21). The TUC, at its 1890 congress, voted for the resolution to establish a legal eight-hour day: “… the time has arrived when steps should be taken to reduce the working hours in all trades to eight per day, or to a maximum of forty-eight per week. … the speediest and best method to obtain this reduction for the workers generally is by Parliamentary Committee to take immediate steps …” (resolution quoted in Ibid, 224). The attempt the following year by the reactionary craft unions and bureaucrats to overthrow this “failed, and have won only a very small temporary concession. That is decisive. … things are irresistibly on the move…” (Engels to Sorge 14/9/91; quoted in Ibid. 162). The same year Will Thorne, SDF member and secretary of the Canning Town branch, was elected to the borough council and held the post until 1910. (In 1894 he became a member of the TUC Parliamentary Committee).
With hindsight we can see that the workers’ movement of the 1890s was proceeding empirically, learning from its mistakes, towards its logical conclusion in the formation of the Labour Party the following decade. Those ultra-lefts who in the past dismissed the LP as “bourgeois” forget that it was formed, like a tree from an acorn, by the developments of the 1890s. The industrial movement strengthened the political confidence and organisation of the workers (see, for example, Engels’ preface to the 1892 English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, p36-7; quoted in ibid., 162-3). This was reflected on the political plane with the election of Burns to the Labour Coordinating Committee in 1892, and the formation of Independent Labour Party branches in 1892 (e.g. Rochdale) and in 1893, the year of its national formation on January 13-14 in Bradford. Engels wrote of “… the rush towards socialism in the provinces, so that the foundation of a third party was quite good. But the rush has now become so great, especially in the industrial districts of the north, that this new party makes its appearance at this very first congress already stronger than the SDF or the Fabians, if not stronger than both of them together. And as the mass of the membership is definitely very good, as the centre of gravity lies into the provinces and not in London, the home of cliques, and as the program is ours in the main points, Aveling was right in joining and accepting a seat on the Executive.” (To Sorge 18/1/93; quoted to ‘Letters to Americans’, 246).
Another founding member of the ILP was John Lincoln Mahon, formerly of the SDF executive and of the SL. The success of the Eight Hours Campaign of the May Day Committee undoubtedly influenced this, spearheaded as they were by Marxists and armed with Marxist transitional demands. The state forces also, as the violent whip of counter-revolution, forced the pace of this political consolidation. Yet the question arises, and this returns to our immediate subject, where were the SDF? Engels wrote (in Ibid.) that the SDF “with their sectarian attitude” had been incapable of “absorb[ing] the rush” and moreover that “the Independent Labour Party may succeed in detaching the masses from the Social Democratic Federation, and in the provinces from the Fabians, too, and thus force unity.”
This perspective proved generally correct. Hunt tells us the SDF “… was certainly not large, numbering 2-3,000 at any one time, with quite a high turnover of membership. Indeed the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein estimated that the SDF had over 100,000 temporary recruits. Walter Kendall [a historian; The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21, 322-23 – HC] believes even this to be an underestimate while Hyndman suggested in 1896 that a million men (sic) had already been members of the party.” (1996, 9). She qualifies this (Ibid, 204 & 204n1) saying “… its membership seems to have been no more than 4500 at any one time. [The historian Watmough] suggested a membership peaking in 1897 at over 3,000 with an average over the 1890s of nearly 2,000. But he warns that his figures are likely to be conservative. Therefore the SDF’s claim at their 1894 Conference of a membership of 4,500, which was based on the party’s return sheets, seems fairly accurate…”. This is quite possible – that the SDF could attract tens of thousands on a temporary basis and retain, by comparison, only a handful.
Hyndman’s claim is almost certainly nonsense; if it were true it would be not a compliment, but a massive condemnation of the SDF for repelling nearly a million. A certain degree of turnover is normal in the revolutionary party. However, the nature of this turnover is the crucial point, and the SDF undoubtedly repelled some of the best elements. This, though, had repercussions in the SDF ranks, as we indicated culminating in 1893-4. Engels had written to Sorge that “Hyndman has pushed the SDF completely into the background. It has done so badly under his policy of intrigue [e.g., the possiblist debacle – HC] that [Hyndman] has fallen into complete disrepute with his own people, under the pressure of the provincial delegates. [My emphasis – HC]. … [The] SDF relies solely on its seniority as the oldest socialist organisation here, but otherwise it has become much more tolerant of others. It has ceased its abuse, and in general it feels much more like it is, viz., much smaller than it pretended to be.” (18/1/93; in Letters to Americans, 246). Exactly three months later, Engels recorded Hyndman as “actually deposed” by the SDF, “his own people have found him out.” (To Sorge, 18/3/93; quoted in Ibid., 248). Engels remarked in 1894 that although the “very good elements … especially in the provinces … are scattered”, nonetheless they “at least managed to foil all the efforts of the leaders to incite the two organisations [Hyndman in the SDF; Hardie in the ILP – HC] against each other.” (To Sorge 10/11/94; quoted in Ibid., 264). The influence of the SDF branches is evidenced in a number of ways tallying with Engels’ analysis. The Socialist Unity conference of 1893, in which both the Fabians and the SDF, and William Morris as an arbiter, participated is linked dialectically to the SDF ranks, the ILP and the developing workers’ political movement.
Likewise, the invitations to Eleanor Marx and Morris in 1893 and after, were part of the growing tolerance of others to which Engels referred. Lastly, from this point on, Hyndman appears much less as the personification of the SDF; other theoreticians and leaders such as the scholar Bax, Hobart, Quelch, Burrows, etc., becoming more prominent. Lenin, in Harry Quelch, suggests also that Quelch was the leader of the SDF from c. 1902, as well as editor of both Justice and Social-Democrat. This is not to say that the influence of Hyndman both past and present, was not evident on the SDF executive. This is also an impression, one of the form of the SDF. Still, it tallies with Engels recording that “[Hyndman] is allowed to grumble and complain a bit about international politics here and there in Justice” (Ibid., 246) – but nothing more – and the predictable development that the dialectic of Hyndman would at a certain point determine his absolute sway into its opposite, i.e. his deposal.
The established SDF practice of a decade, from its inception, could not change overnight. Engels wrote with some irritation to Sorge on May 17 1893 that “The narrow-mindedness of the Trades Council and of the Socialist sects – Fabians and the SDF – again compelled us to hold two demonstrations, but everything went off as we desired and we – the Eight-Hour Committee – had many more people than the opposition. …. there was a total of 240,000 in the park, of which we had 140,000 and the opposition at most 100,000.” (Lapides 1987, 164). In an interview with the Daily Chronicle in June 1893, Engels commented, “Our programme is very nearly identical with that of the Social-Democratic Federation … although our policy is very different. …. [The SDF] is, and acts, only like a small sect. It is an exclusive body. It has not understood how to take the lead of the working class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy.” Engels expressed similar sentiments to Sorge in May and in November 1894 (Letters to Americans, 263). To Schlueter in January 1895, Engels summarised the situation as “a lot of sects and no party”; “Some join the Social-Democratic Federation, others the Independent Labour Party, still others stay in the Trades Union organisation, etc., etc.” (ibid., 268).
Nonetheless, as we have said, the “very good provincial elements” were the saving grace. We shall give two examples of SDF localities carrying out united front work: Rochdale; and West Ham, the constituency for which Keir Hardie had been an “Independent” MP since 1892.
Waters writes: “Labour pressure on the West Ham borough council grew rapidly in the 1890s. Moreover, it was an independent presence, and not part of a general Progressive Alliance. A strong trade union and socialist movement under the leadership of the SDF had worked hard with the ILP and various Christian Socialist bodies to secure representation on the council. In 1896 they gained seven of the 36 council seats and two years later, after the division of the borough into 12 wards, they secured ten of the twelve new seats and also managed to elect several aldermen.” (1990, 142 — my emphases).
Hunt in writing on the SDF’s women’s section states that these “were formed from 1894 to 1895. This was at the height of the boom in socialist politics in Lancashire and was a period of great optimism. In 1894 Lancashire had almost half the membership of the entire party and was at its greatest strength.” (1996, 223). Singling out the Rochdale branch, Hunt gives its active size as around 60 at weekly meetings, even more at monthly meetings, and 40 on the women’s circle books. (ibid). The total membership in 1895 was over 200, with a local headquarters with lecture and discussion rooms and a canteen (ibid., 222). These were the benefits reaped from a correct intervention in a favourable situation.
Hunt tells us, “‘… both the SDF and the ILP were able to organise successfully. Rochdale SDF had been formed in 1887 and was not eclipsed by the formation of a local branch of the ILP in 1892. Indeed, the two bodies worked closely together, running joint slates of candidates for local elections from 1897.” (Ibid, 221). “Rochdale SDF was therefore highly involved in the politics of the town, both in electoral work in tandem with the ILP, and also in the labour politics of trying to win the Lib-Lab Trades Council for socialism. … By  the branch had been contesting municipal elections since 1890, as yet unsuccessfully. In 1895, the SDF also supported the ILP candidate for Rochdale, George Barnes, in the general election. His intervention deeply unsettled the local Liberals as it resulted in the unexpected defeat of their candidate by the Conservative.” (Ibid, 222). In 1896 a local workers’ paper, The Rochdale Labour News, was founded which carried reports of SDF branch meetings, as well as those branch advertisements carried in the local bourgeois press. (Ibid., 223). Hunt summarises Rochdale SDF at the close of the nineteenth century: “…the branch actually espoused and promoted Socialist Unity in its local practice and through campaigns within the party. In the 1900s it was to oppose the withdrawal of the SDF from the LRC and urge the party’s reaffiliation. … It was not an isolated sect.” (ibid., 222).
This is not the place for a full exposition of united front tactics. Trotsky’s theses on the united front and Lenin’s “Left-wing” Communism both deal amply with the subject. Nonetheless, both West Ham and Rochdale SDF were able to intervene in the workers’ industrial and political movement, and work with other groups without dissolving their identity and without being sectarian. Consequently they reaped the benefits of electoral and recruitment successes. We are now brought chronologically to what we referred to before as the logical development of the 1890s workers’ movement: the formation of a politically independent mass workers’ party, in the guise of the LRC-Labour Party.
First fourteen years of the Labour Party
THE LABOUR PARTY, as it was named in 1906, was one of the most important gains of the British working class in the twentieth century. Not just one act, with one cause, the development of the Labour Party in its formative years 1900-14 holds instructive lessons for Marxists today: on the construction of a mass workers’ party; and on the role of organised Marxists. We sketch first the initial fourteen years of Labour, before analysing its political importance and the response of the SDF.
The LRC in 1900
The direct, i.e., immediate, cause of the LP’s formation was the 1899 TUC, at which a resolution from the Doncaster railway workers’ union (ASRS) branch was passed, calling for a conference of the TUC and socialist organisations. The conference, meeting 27th February 1900, had 129 delegates, representing the ILP, SDF, Fabians, TUC Parliamentary Committee, and 67 trade unions. In establishing the Labour Representation Committee, the conference defined it as “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which at the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour.” (This last hinted heavily at “cooperation” with the Liberal party, as was the intention of the opportunist author — Keir Hardie). Around half the TUC and all three socialist groups affiliated, each paying a levy of 50p per thousand members. On the committee itself sat one apiece from each of the socialist organisations, and seven trade unionists. The LRC stood fifteen candidates in the 1900 General Election, winning 63,304 votes and two MPs: Hardie in Merthyr Bell, and Richard Bell (ASRS Secretary) in Derby. As stated, only half the TUC had affiliated at formation. The bourgeois, seeing both an incipient political movement and a growing industrial struggle — but understanding nothing of the dynamics of this — counter-attacked by sequestrating the ASRS as “compensation” for profits lost during an ASRS strike on the Taff Vale railway line. Approved by the House of Lords, this set an extremely dangerous precedent for trade unions, effectively and intentionally abolishing the right to strike. This was a major challenge to the workers’ movement — the unions responded en masse by switching their energies to the political plane, affiliating to the LRC. By 1909 the vast majority of unions, including the powerful miners’ union (MFGB), had affiliated. This without doubt illustrates the role of the capitalist state — i.e. defending the profits of the bourgeois — and the correct workers’ response. If seriously explained to the British working class this would politically have enormously strengthened Labour. Symptomatic was that in both 1902 and 1903 the LRC won by-elections; the pro-LRC mood was growing. Symptomatic of the leaders of the LRC was that in both cases an informal pact was made with the Liberals that the latter would not contest these seats. Instead of relying on their own strength, and exposing the Liberals to the workers, the opportunists preferred backroom deals with the bourgeois. The LRC-Liberal pact was formalised in 1903, reinforcing LRC cross-class dependence. In 1906, the LRC was renamed the Labour Party. It had 904,492 trade unions affiliated and 73 constituency parties. Of 50 seats contested in the General Election, 29 were won without a Lib-Lab pact (only one Lib-Lab being elected); in total the LP got 323,195 votes. In 1909, the LP held 82 council seats, and was in the main funded by the union political levy. Clearly scared by this, the bourgeois used a lackey in the ASRS, named Osborne, to rule the political levy illegal. Named after this scab, the “Osborne Judgement” caused serious funding difficulties. Nonetheless, as with Taff Vale from which the bourgeois had learnt nothing, this spurred the workers on. In 1910 union membership stood at 2.5 million; LP membership at 1.4 million. The January General Election gained Labour 40 MP’s and 505,657 votes; in December 42 MP’s and 371,772 votes. (The drop in votes in December is owed to Labour contesting 56 seats, 22 less in January). In 1913 Labour held 171 municipal seats; in 1914 500 — of a total 8000. The depth of support can be gauged by, for example, the 42% Labour vote in Bradford 1913. These empirical facts testify to the explosion of support for Labour in its first fourteen years. The process was not uniform, nor in a straight line; but all the same was in ascension. Critically, it was the massive support by workers’ organisations which boosted the LP vote and membership, and despite the opportunist founding statement in 1900, committed the Patty in 1908 to socialising the means of production. International events also affected developments; as Trotsky remarks: “… the Russian Revolution of 1905 immediately strengthened [the workers’ movement]. As a result of the 1906 General Election the Labour Party formed for the first time a strong parliamentary group of 42 members. In this the influence of the 1905 revolution was clear!” (Where is Britain Going?, p26).
Despite affiliating at the LRC’s formation in February 1900, the SDF disaffiliated seventeen months later in August 1901. For an empiricist this might be expected in the months before Taff Vale fully manifested itself. However, for those claiming to be Marxists this was an incredible blunder. To highlight this, it is worth recounting briefly the arguments of Marx and Engels on the question of a workers’ party. For instance, Engels paraphrased a resolution of the First International thus: “… demands the formation, in every country, of a distinct working class party, opposed to all middle class [i.e., bourgeois — HC] parties. … it calls here in England upon the working class … to form an independent party of their own, as they did in the glorious time of the great Chartist movement’. (Lapides 1987, 85-6). In relation to the sectarian German émigrés in America, Engels wrote: “To expect that the Americans will start with the full [revolutionary — HC] consciousness is to expect the impossible. What the Germans [the émigrés — HC] ought to do is … to go in for any real general working-class movement, accept its actual starting point as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical orders in the original program. …. But above all give the movement time to consolidate … A million or two of workingmen’s votes next November for a bona fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform. … anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the workingmen’s party — on no matter what platform — I should consider a great mistake…” (Letter to Mrs Waschnewetzky, 28/12/86, in Letters to Americans p166). This, almost word for word, can be applied to the ultra-left adventure of the SDF in 1901. It can also be applied to those sectarians today who, in all seriousness (and all stupidity) proclaim: “We want not a mass workers’ party, but a mass revolutionary party!” It is one thing to want, and quite another to have. As if mass parties (or any parties) of any kind fall from the sky! Mass revolutionary parties do not develop from a sect recruiting one today, two tomorrow, and three the day after etc ad infinitum. Revolutionary consciousness is the highest stage of class consciousness; it is only reached after lengthy experience by the class of its own mistakes and successes. The length of this education is determined by the quality of Marxist party existing, and by objective developments; nonetheless a mass workers’ party “on no matter what platform” is a crucial development in the class consciousness of the proletariat. The task of genuine Marxists is to participate in the party from inception and to guide it, as Engels iterates in ABC language, toward revolutionary consciousness. Tactics and strategy in relation to this vary with objective conditions — e.g., entrism, united front, affiliation — nonetheless Marxists must join in the workers’ party as it develops class awareness among the proletariat or — remain a sect. That the best of the SDF understood this is evidenced by Hunt’s comment on Rochdale SDF which, as suggested previously, was one of the politically strongest and non-sectarian branches. Hunt notes that Rochdale SDF in the 1900s did “‘oppose the withdrawal of the SDF from the LRC and urge the party’s reaffiliation.” (1996, 222). Conclusion THE SDF’S 1901 disaffiliation — which was permanent — cost the workers’ movement doubly. With the loss of the SDF position on the LRC executive, the leadership was entirely opportunist — a combination of ILP, Fabian and non-Marxist trade unionists. This allowed the proponents of “gradualism” — reformism — total dominance. The sway of MacDonald, Thomas etc. proved a treacherous brake henceforth. Although the LP ranks were almost entirely proletarian, those at the top were closer to the bosses and the government, hence Lenin’s famous formula of a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Secondly, the Marxists in the SDF were isolated from the mass movement; and thus the Marxist head was dissevered from the mass body. Although Lenin urged affiliation by the young CP to the LP — with which limited progress was made — the subsequent Stalinist degeneration of the CP and the implosion of the Fourth International post-1945 meant a Marxist presence worthy of the name inside the LP was not established until the 1960’s by supporters of our forerunner, Militant, and did not become a sizeable force until the late 1970’s. We cannot throw all the blame for all the deficiencies of the labour movement since 1901 entirely on the shoulders of the SDF. But it must be said: the surrendering of an extremely valuable position for sectarian isolation was a massive mistake, for the revolutionary party and for the broad workers’ movement.
Two other points are worth amplifying given their relevance to perspectives today. First, the LRC-LP did not fall from the sky, nor can it be traced as quantitative development from sect to mass party. A host of “preformations” formed, developed and dissolved before a mass party was firmly established: the Eight-Hours League and ILP, two Socialist Unity debates in the early and the late 1890s, two “Marxist” sects, the Fabians, not least the workers’ practical experience of the 1890s, and the Taff Vale case to decisively force the issue. Many dead-ends and transitory organisations contributed to this process. History does not repeat itself exactly; nevertheless, in the coming movements of British workers organisations will be thrown up of which some (or none) can and will develop into mass formations. The same applies to existing alliances and broad parties such as the SSP. What is constant is the Marxist party which can guide the movement to an extent, and which is crucial before, during and after the existence of all other formations whatever their specific social weight. Second, the LRC was not an amalgamated aggregate of existing sects and parties. The ILP was important, the SDF potentially much more so had it fulfilled its duty. But the crux was the massive swell of workers through union structures en bloc, into the LRC and LP. This, we repeat, should not be lost on those advocates of “left regroupment”. Important as the latter may (or may not) be in specific situations, it is not the determining factor in the creation of a mass party. The latter is a mass movement of the working class, which in turn is not whistled up by a sect but driven into potential existence by the objective developments of capitalism, by crises and by the intensification of the class struggle. Whether this becomes “teal”, comes into existence in what form, and is maintained at critical points, depends on the Marxist party. The task of Marxists is to participate in all genuine workers’ formations, and in all “Socialist Unity” formations playing a progressive role (i.e. ones which advance the class struggle), at all times putting a clear Marxist position and not succumbing to the twin pressures of ultra-leftism and opportunism, and maintaining a Leninist democratic-centralist organisation. This is what the SDF should have done, and is and will be the method of the Marxist party today. In this way the political and industrial, broad and revolutionary, organisations of the working class will give birth to the mass revolutionary party capable of leading the workers to power in the socialist revolution.
On the background to the 1883 formation of the SDF, we quoted Trotsky commenting that Chartism “gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle’. In a certain sense, the development of the SDF-BSP over four decades gives us a diagram of the struggle for a genuine revolutionary party. Here are rich lessons on how and how not to form and build a combat party, to intervene in the movement, to construct and participate in broad formations, etc. In short, all the tactical, strategical, political and organisational questions of Marxist organisation find some reflection in the SDF’s evolution — whether positive or negative. We should not fall into unwary comparisons — that our decade is that of the 1880s, 1890s, etc. Much is different — especially the experience of the British working class gained from a century of the Labour Party, for 90 years of which it was a workers’ party; and by extension the experience gained by the workers’ vanguard. In the objective situation there are some similarities: the absence of a mass (or even sizeable) workers’ party; and the continuing decline of British capitalism as a world force. Formally, both apply now as then; yet are not the same. The negation of Labour as a workers’ formation, and of British capitalism as a healthy or even strong imperialist power — on a yet higher level after the post-war upswing; these factors inevitably sharpen the situation. With the collapse of Stalinism, this impact has been made not solely, but for our immediate subject most importantly, on the workers’ industrial organisations. Of the organised labour movement, we must crucially note that the summits and the bureaucracy of today are not those of Engels’ time. They are far more separated from the union ranks; equally, far closer to the bourgeois and the bourgeois state. More akin to the worst of the craft union careerists, Jackson, Mortis, Edmonds and the rest, are tied by a thousand strings to their bourgeois puppet-masters. Moreover, the TUC of 2001 will not play the role of 1900 and create a new party, no matter how hard the Labour Party attacks. Indeed, the bureaucracy will fight tooth and nail to retain the link. The initiative and action must come from the masses and the fighting sections of the unions, and from the Marxist party. The bourgeois influence has extended further, channelled through the bureaucracy into sections even of the stewards’ committees — as we noted in the Peugeot dispute. This is course not fixed and final. The mood of the most militant Peugeot workers was to “Reclaim Our Union”, a mood that in an upturn of struggle will gain wider currency. But, with the stranglehold exerted by the utterly bourgeoisified union bureaucracy, we cannot rule out fissures, splits, even new unions formed, from the existing organisations. Workers roused to mass struggle will not stand for petty rules, legal eagles, and intrigues. The flood will burst the dam. Quantities of form are nigh impossible to accurately predict. However, the most important single lesson we can learn from the 1880s and 1890s is that the Marxist party must be ready for the movement of the masses, not only ready but also armed with ideas and capable of giving a lead. This was the dismal failing of the SDF organisation in regard to the New Unions.
Unchanged, even strengthened, is workers’ internationalism. The impending storms in Ireland, in Scotland, and across the world, cannot fail to find their reflection in the political rousing of the British workers. This too will be important in reclaiming and rebuilding the official labour movement as a serious fighting force, and in replenishing the revolutionary ranks. The subjective situation, the character of the Marxist patty, is not comparable. Our party is not the SDF. That being said, the SDF was, as we said, not simple; Marxism teaches us to look at the process, the dynamic, and not fixed categories. Formally the SDF was a sect. This was expressed in the Hyndmanites and in their list of calamitous errors. Yet the pressure of objective need, and of the worker-Marxist ranks and cadres, could not help but fight against sectarianism, for an unwaveringly revolutionary course. This contradiction was the driving dynamic of the SDF’s evolution. It is important we note this. Yet this is not the case with the Marxist party, our Party, today. Though small, we are not a sect, not even of the SDF form. Indeed, we are engaged in mass work – by rights the work of a much larger party. We do not and will not make the ultra-leftist swings — as did the SDF — against the unions, against elections, and against broad and mass work. Equally, we do not make opportunist compromises with | Liberals, reformists, bureaucrats, and social-patriotism — as did the Hyndmanites. The mistakes of the SDF show us what not to do; they show us the pitfalls to avoid.
We stand in the best traditions of the genuinely Marxist SDF cadres, who stood against Hyndmanism. Those SDF localities we cited, and of course the Marxists outside the SDF — Engels, Eleanor Marx, and Aveling — are our real Marxist forebears. The most important lesson we can draw from this is that at all points the Leninist party must be rooted in Marxist theory and practise, and in the working class. The SDF advanced when they adhered to this, and suffered reverses when they did not.
Of our tasks, certain are the same as of the SDF: as we noted in Genesis to Split, the SDF needed to “consolidate its modest gains, educate a cadre core, work out a perspective … and adjust its strategy and tactics accordingly.” Our task now is to prepare, not by sitting on our hands, but by carrying out what the SDF failed to do: formulate a perspective around which to recruit, consolidate and educate a new layer of cadres. In this way will we be ready for the future — whatever it holds. Once more, we should be wary of formal analogies. Yet in the coming period we will see mass battles of the class which may well explode from below, as did the movement from 1889. For this reason, it is worth remembering the crucial role of the three Marxists before, during and after the Docks Strike, in the May Day Committee, in the Eight Hours League, and so on. Moreover, just as these and other “pre- formations” paved the way for the rise of Labour, so will the coming events prepare for a new workers’ party. This is already accepted by a layer of trade union and community activists, and by some of the anti-capitalist and socialist movement. Yet, for the objective reasons we iterated, construction of a new party will be far more dependent on the revolutionary party than it was in 1900. Our ideas and intervention will be decisive. Lest there be any doubt as to the crucial importance of the workers’ party project, let us quote Engels one more time: “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the struggle is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party … no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement — in which they are driven further by their one mistakes and learn through their mistakes.” (To Sorge, 29/11/86 — original emphasis; quoted in Letters to Americans, 163). As the SDF’s mistakes showed, our ideas and methods will be vital inside the new formation — vital in the education of fresh layers in the traditions of Marxism and against all reformist and cross-class treachery. “Progressivism’’, and “Lib-Lab” pacts, are old tricks of the bourgeois that they will use again to ensnare the workers’ leaders. This will be the case not only in Britain but across the world, as the masses move into action. The Marxist programme is the only guarantee against bourgeois tricks succeeding, and in solving the “crisis of leadership” for leading the world working-class to victory and to socialism. In this our Party, our International, will be crucial. As Trotsky once remarked, it is not enough to have a sword, one must also know how to wield it and to give it an edge. It is to sharpen our theoretical swords for the impending events that we should study the British Marxists of 1880-1899. Bibliography Briggs, A. (ed). (1977) – William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs. Pelican Original: London. Cole, G. D. H. (1954) Socialist Thought Volume Two. MacMillan & Co Ltd: London. Foster, W. Z. (1955) History of the Three Internationals. International Publishers: New York. Hulse, J. W. (1970) Revolutionists in London. Clarendon Press: London. Hunt, K. (1996) Equivocal Feminists: The Social-Democratic Federation and the Woman Question 1884- 1917. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Lapides, K. (ed). (1987) Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions. Praeger Publishers: New York.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1953) Letters to Americans 1848-1895 A Selection. International Publishers: New York. Waters, C. (1990) British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture 1884-1914. Manchester University Press: Manchester. Wolfe, W. (1975) From Radicalism to Socialism. Yale University Press: London. (Main Internet sources and archives used) www.marxists.org – Marxists Internet Archive www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk – Spartacus Online Encyclopedia www. bigwig.net/history6/maguire_biog.htm – on Tom Maguire http://jinx.sistm.unsw.edu.au/~greenlft/1995/182/182p23.htm — DSP on William Morris http://gate.crzio.com/~marx2mao.htm – From Marx to Mao [archive]
Find more events local to you on our branches' Facebook pages