Part 1: From Chartism to the Socialist League

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The development of the organisation of the working class

In the Inaugural Address of the International Workingmen's Association in 1864, Marx wrote of the working class "One element of success they possess - numbers; but numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge". In this he summarised the fundamental requirements for the success of the proletariat's struggle. The primary task of the working class was stated equally succinctly: "To conquer political power has ... become the great duty of the working classes" (Inaugural Address).

From the time of its origin the proletariat struggled to defend its interests, initially in dispersed outbursts, but increasingly realising its strength through combination in unions and political organisations. This was its first task and was also the fundamental objective of the First International, within whose ranks many varied and opposing organisations took their place (see “The First International and the fight against sectarianism”, International Review 84).

In the latter part of the century a very different situation arose. The economy grew with a vigour unseen before and the bourgeoisie grew richer. This situation tended to favour the struggle of the proletariat and it saw real improvements in its living conditions and political rights: "The proletariat affirmed itself as a social force within society, even outside moments of open struggle. The working class had a life of its own within society: there were the trade unions (which were 'schools of communism'), but also clubs where workers talked politics and 'workers' universities', where one might learn marxism as well as how to read and write (Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek were both teachers in the German social democracy); there were working class songs, and working class fetes where one sang, danced and talked of communism" (International Review 50 “Continuity of the proletariat's political organisations: The class nature of social democracy”).

The social democratic parties and the trade unions were "the products and the instruments of the combats of this period" (ibid). Social democracy "only developed and organised a real movement that had existed well before it, and developed independently of it" (ibid). Thus the activity of the social democratic parties did not constitute a concession to the bourgeoisie, even if reformist tendencies emerged, but rather the activity necessary for the proletariat in this stage of its struggle (for a fuller account see the article in IR 50 quoted above). Practically, the strategy of the working class was expressed in the concept of the 'minimum' and 'maximum' programmes, the link between which Rosa Luxemburg explained: " ... the proletariat, through its experience of the trade union and political struggle, arrives at the conviction that its situation cannot be transformed from top to bottom by means of this struggle, and that the seizure of power is unavoidable" (quoted ibid).

Britain: birthplace of the working class movement

To what extent does the situation that existed in Britain fit in with the framework we have sketched?

Britain's position as the first industrial country gave it an economic advantage that lasted many decades. It also made it the birthplace of the workers' movement and, most importantly, of what Marx and Engels described as the first political party of the working class: Chartism. The Chartists represented the first conscious attempt by the working class to assert itself on the political terrain. They saw the struggle for universal suffrage as a means through which the working class could come to power, which was an expression of the immaturity of the struggle at that stage. However, Chartism was effectively finished after 1848 and, while the unions remained strong in Britain, they increasingly tended to turn towards reformism and did not spread far beyond the skilled workers. No independent political organisation arose to take the place of the Chartists and the working class movement became, in Engels' famous phrase, "the tail of the 'Great liberal Party'" ("A Working Men's Party", Collected works vol.24), its leaders "rascals", "in the pay of the bourgeoisie" (Engels to Sorge and Engels to Wilhelm Liebknecht, Collected Works Vol.45).

The revival of the workers' movement

"After the cyclical crises of growth which had hit the system about every ten years between 1825 and 1873, for almost 30 years until 1900 capitalism experienced an almost interrupted prosperity" (IR 50). However, within this prosperity there were signs of major changes in the economy, notably in Britain where a slowdown of growth led to difficulties for the capitalists and hardship for parts of the working class. Engels traced this in some detail and concluded that Britain's industrial monopoly was ending with serious consequences for the working class. However, within this, he also perceived the development of conditions which would require the working class to take up the work of its Chartist forebears: "The truth is this: during the period of England's industrial monopoly the English working class have to a certain extent shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had at least a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why since the dying-out of Owenism there has been no socialism in England. With the breakdown of that monopoly the English working class will lose that privileged position; it will find itself generally - the privileged and leading minority not excepted - on a level with its fellow workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be Socialism again in England" (“England in 1845 and 1885”, Collected Works Vol.26). Engels sought to influence this revival with a series of articles in the Labour Standard in which he defended the importance of the unions, but also showed their limitations and argued for the creation of an independent working class party. A decade later, after watching the May Day celebration in London, he declared "on May 4, 1890, the English proletariat, rousing itself from forty years of hibernation, rejoined the movement of its class" (“May 4 in London”, Collected Works Vol.27).

New Unionism

The fundamental reason for this change lay in a resurgence of class struggle, marked especially by a series of successful strikes amongst unskilled workers. These strikes succeeded not only in increasing pay but also in significantly reducing the length of the working day. Engels attached particular importance to the participation of the workers of London's East End in these strikes: "If these downtrodden men, the dregs of the proletariat, these odds and ends of all trades, fighting every morning at the dock gates for an engagement, if they can combine and terrify by their resolution the mighty Dock Companies, truly then we need not despair of any section of the working class" (“Apropos of the London Dockers' Strike”, Collected Works Vol.26).

The New Unions that these workers created to wage their battles were heavily influenced by socialists like Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling and by members of the Social Democratic Federation such as Will Thorne and, as such, differed markedly from the old unions of skilled workers whose leaders were still tied to the Liberal Party.

The first marxist organisation: the SDF

At the start of the 1880s no significant revolutionary organisations existed in Britain. A few survivors of Chartism and Owenism continued to meet, small local groups of socialists came and went, while in London exiled revolutionaries from Germany and Austria regrouped and even managed to publish a weekly journal, Freiheit.

In 1881 a meeting of various radical groups, led to the foundation of the Democratic Federation under the direction of Henry Meyers Hyndman, who considered himself to be a socialist. The Federation gradually expanded and drew in new members, such as William Morris, Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Ernest Belfort Box who sought to push it further towards socialism. In 1884 these efforts led to the federation being renamed as the Social Democratic Federation.

The programme of the Federation called for "The socialisation of the Means of production, Distribution and Exchange, to be controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the sexes". Particular points called for reforms in working hours, in the employment of children, for free education and for a citizen army. A weekly newspaper, Justice, was launched and weekly public meetings held. Engels saw the former as opportunist, launched with neither sufficient financial or literary preparation and written by people "who take in hand the task of instructing the world about matters of which they themselves are ignorant..." (Engels to Laura Lafargue, Feb. 1884, Collected Works Vol.47). Above all Engels criticised the SDF for failing to understand or relate to the working class. This was exemplified in Hyndman's attitude to trade unions and strikes which he described as "varying forms of restless working class ignorance, or despairing revolts against endurable oppression... [which] do but serve to rivet the chains of economic slavery, possibly a trifle gilded, more firmly on their limbs" (quoted in F.J. Gould, Hyndman: Prophet of Socialism). That there is no recognition of the role of the trade unions in developing the consciousness and self organisation of the working class, which Engels had set out in the articles in the Labour Standard, reflects Hyndman's conception of the working class as an inert mass which might respond to events but which required the guidance of leaders like himself to achieve anything constructive. This was to be accomplished through propaganda and, above all, participation in elections.

Hyndman: an adventurer in the workers' movement

If other socialists of the time shared his schematism, Hyndman's efforts to manipulate the workers' movement to further his own career and, above all, to realise his place in history as 'the father of British socialism', marked him out as an adventurer.

Hyndman had previously been an entrepreneur, engaging in journalism in Australia, tourism in Polynesia and financial speculation in America. At the start of 1880 he was in Britain looking for a foothold in politics, promoting a `Tory-Radical' revival to Disraeli and standing as an independent Tory in the election of March that year, during which he declared his opposition to Irish home rule, his support for the colonies (“the special heritage of our working class” - Quoted in E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary) and for an increase in the size of the navy. He became 'converted' to marxism after reading Marx's Capital on a voyage to America following the failure of these efforts. On his return, he sought out Marx and, in Marx's words, "intruded himself into my house" (Marx to Sorge, December 1881, Collected Works Vol.46). At the launch of the Democratic Federation, the platform of the organisation, entitled "England for All" and written by Hyndman, was distributed to all the participants. Large parts of this were lifted from Capital without Marx's knowledge or consent and contained errors and imprecisions. Faced with Marx's criticism, Hyndman excused himself on the grounds that "Englishmen have a dread of being taught by a foreigner" and that "many have an horror of Socialism and that name" (Marx to Hyndman, July 1881, Collected Works Vol.46). Rebuffed by Marx, Hyndman tried to cultivate Engels, but the latter refused to have any contact until the situation with Marx had been settled and subsequently remained strongly critical of Hyndman. This attitude is often presented as one of personal animosity, stemming from Engels' defence of his friend. In reality it stemmed from a political analysis that both Marx and Engels shared. Marx summed up his view in the letter to Sorge we have already quoted: "All these amiable middle-class writers...have an itching to make money or name or political capital immediately out of any new thoughts they may have got at by any favourable windfall. Many evenings this fellow has pilfered from me, in order to take me out and learn in the easiest way". Engels, with the benefit of further knowledge in the ensuing years, was able to identify Hyndman quite precisely as a careerist and an adventurer (Engels to Bernstein, Dec. 1884, Collected Works Vol.47).

The birth of the Socialist League

From the outset there were tensions within the SDF, stemming largely from Hyndman's dictatorial manner, but also from differences over policy, particularly the exclusive focus on parliament and Hyndman's continuing nationalism.

The tensions broke into open struggle when Hyndman's manoeuvres in Scotland were uncovered. These included attempts to defame Andreas Scheu, one of Hyndman's most implacable opponents, and the sending of letters in the name of the Executive which were not sanctioned by the Executive and which actually went against its decisions. Hyndman also circulated gossip that Eleanor Marx and Laura Lafargue (Marx's second daughter) had plotted against him. At a meeting of the Executive the evidence against Hyndman was presented and a motion of censure was passed. The majority, which included Morris, Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Bax, then resigned from the Executive to form the Socialist League, stating that "since it seems to us impossible to heal this discord, we ... think it better in the interests of Socialism to cease to belong to the council" (Quoted, Thompson, op.cit). Engels gave two further reasons: the possibility that Hyndman would reverse the decision at a subsequent conference by packing it with fictitious delegates and "because the entire Federation was, after all, no better than a racket". However, the consequence was that Hyndman was left secure on the Executive and in control of the paper and all the branches of the SDF.

This placed the Socialist League in a weak position from the outset, but nonetheless it marked a significant advance on the SDF in a number of areas:

  • it rejected all nationalism and Jingoism, declaring firmly the necessity of internationalism: "The Socialist League ... aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilization" (Manifesto of the Socialist League, in: Thompson, op.cit);
  • it defended the active, conscious, participation of the working class in the revolution: "Discontent is not enough ... The discontented must know what they are aiming at_ [it] should be, not an ignorant, but an intelligent revolution" (William Morris, quoted Thompson op.cit);
  • it took a more realistic view of the work ahead, publishing its paper, The Commonweal, monthly rather weekly: "At last they are going to operate modestly and in accordance with their powers, and not go on pretending that the English proletariat must instantly jump to it the moment the trumpet is sounded by a few literary converts to socialism" (Engels to Bernstein, Dec.1884, Collected Works Vo1.47).

However, the League was also marked by some important weaknesses, that sprang essentially from its failure to link the struggle for the revolution to the immediate demands of the working class. This had been the case with the SDF but, if anything, the Socialist League went further, eventually rejecting all reforms, and particularly participation in elections, in the name of a pure, untainted, revolution. In part this can be attributed to the disgust of the founders at the manoeuvres of Hyndman but, more fundamentally it reflected their isolation and lack of understanding of the working class. Engels pointed to this when he described Aveling, Bax and Morris as "three as unpractical men - two poets and a philosopher -as it is possible to find" (ibid).

The second part will look at the development of the SDF and the Socialist League in the late 1880s and their relationship to the wider working class movement.


First published in World Revolution 198 (October 1996)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914