Part 2: The role of the Social Democratic Federation

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In the first part of this occasional series (World Revolution 198) we examined the gradual revival of the workers movement in Britain in the early 1880s. We sought to place this in both the general context of the development of the international proletarian movement and the specific conditions prevailing in Britain.

The objective conditions for such a revival, as Engels showed, developed during the 1880s and manifested themselves in an upsurge of class struggle, particularly towards the end of the decade. However, the development of the subjective conditions, the creation of a proletarian organisation able to rally and lead the working class, proved much more difficult. Our article traced the emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884 under the leadership of the adventurer Hyndman and showed how he manoeuvred to build up his position and to defeat those who opposed his dictatorial rule and jingoist attitudes. We ended with the secession of William Morris, Belfort Bax, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling to found the Socialist League at the end of 1884.

We will return to the evolution of the Socialist League in a subsequent part of the series, but in the present article we look more closely at the practice of the SDF in the second half of the 1880s and show how, under the direction of Hyndman, it worked time and again against the development of the working class movement, by strengthening the tendencies towards sectarianism and isolation and by discrediting socialism in the eyes of the working class.

What kind of organisation?

To understand the role played by the SDF, and Hyndman's faction particularly, it is necessary to begin by considering what sort of organisation the proletariat required to defend itself and advance its interests in the late 19th century. These are the criteria against which the role of the SDF must be judged.

The rapid development of capitalism in this period confronted the proletariat with a bourgeoisie that was tending to become stronger and more unified. To struggle effectively, the working class was required to reply in kind, forging an instrument with a clear programmatic and organisational basis, which recognised the link between the class's immediate struggles and its long term goal and which, crucially, saw itself as part of an international movement.

The Social Democratic parties and, above all, the Second International, were the proletariat's answer. These organisations were not imposed from outside the class as the bourgeoisie like to pretend but "only developed and organised a real movement that had existed well before it and developed independently of it. Then, as today, the question has always been the same: how to fight the situation of exploitation in which it finds itself” (International Review 50, “Continuity of the proletariat's political organisations: The class nature of the Social Democracy”). Social Democracy was a weapon created by the proletariat to wage its struggles. It marked a crucial advance over the past in its adherence to marxism and rejection of anarchism, in the distinction it made between the unitary and political organisations of the class and in the setting out of the minimum and maximum programmes.

These gains did not arise spontaneously but were the fruit of hard and prolonged struggles within the workers movement, in which the main responsibility fell repeatedly to the left wing of the movement, first to win the advances and then to defend them against the forces of compromise and reformism which were stimulated by the seemingly limitless advance of capitalism and the reforms that this advance made possible.

The 1885 election: discrediting socialism

The British election of 1885 was the first since the Reform Act of 1884 which, while stopping far short of universal suffrage, considerably extended the vote and, in Engels' view, made it likely that a number of official labour leaders would get elected with the support of the Liberals. Engels felt that this would aid the development of the independent workers movement since these leaders would "quickly show themselves up for what they are" (Engels to Bebel, October 1885, Collected Works Vol.47).

The SDF put up three candidates, two in London and one in Nottingham. The expenses of those in London were paid for by the Tory Party following an agreement reached by Hyndman's clique behind the backs of the body of the SDF. The candidates were deliberately located in strong Liberal constituencies where they were doomed to fail and on polling day they received just 59 votes between them. When news of the deal leaked out, the Liberal press mounted a virulent campaign denouncing the SDF for accepting 'Tory Gold' and for doing the Tory Party's dirty work. Hyndman and his followers claimed that it was irrelevant who they took money from, but in a letter to Bernstein, Engels spelt out the consequences of Hyndman's action: "Hyndman, however, knew that to take money from the Tories would spell nothing less than irreparable moral ruin for the socialists in the eyes of the one and only class from which they could draw recruits, namely the great radical working masses" (Collected Works, Vol.47). Consequently, the hold of the Liberals over the working class was strengthened and the creation of an independent organisation set back.

Engels' criticism, although not his analysis, was shared by the Socialist League, whose executive passed a resolution declaring "That this meeting views with indignation the action of certain members of the Social Democratic Federation in trafficking the honour of the Socialist Party, and it desires to express its sympathy with that section of the Federation which repudiates the tactics of the disreputable gang concerned in the recent proceedings" (Quoted in Lee and Archibold Social Democracy in Britain). One leading member of the League, Adreas Scheu, denounced Hyndman as "a paid agent of the Tories (or liberal-reactionists) for the purpose of bringing Socialism into discredit with the masses" (Quoted in Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary).

Within the SDF itself, as the League's resolution noted, there was also strong criticism. One of the candidates claimed he had not been informed and wrote to the press denouncing the deal and "the middle class men of our movement" (quoted by Engels in a letter to Paul Lafargue, Collected Works Vol.47). Opposition was especially strong, amongst the provincial branches and, following the failure of an attempt to censure Hyndman at a meeting in London, a large number of militants resigned, including the entire Bristol and Nottingham branches.

Opposing strikes and promoting riots

Under Hyndman's influence, and despite the presence of a number of Trade Unionists, the SDF adopted a very critical, even hostile, attitude to the unions, telling workers that strikes were futile: "There is nothing in strikes themselves, whether for a rise of wages for all, or the enactment of a minimum wage for the lowest grades of labour in any industry, which can emancipate the propertyless workers or render them less dependent upon the owning and employing class... " (quoted in Gould Hyndman: Prophet of Socialism). In contrast, the SDF actively promoted marches and demonstrations of the unemployed, who were treated to revolutionary speeches and urged to pass unrealistic resolutions.

Shortly after the Tory Gold scandal, the SDF called a demonstration of the unemployed in Trafalgar square, nominally in opposition to a Tory 'Fair Trade' gathering in the same location. In reality, according to Karl Kautsky who observed the affair, the SDF demonstration was mainly composed of lumpen-proletarian elements, while most of the genuine workers were at the other meeting. After a number of 'revolutionary' speeches the SDF led their demonstration towards Hyde Park and as they passed through the wealthy streets of Pall Mall and Picadilly rioting broke out with windows smashed and shops ransacked. The SDF and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist League, saw the riot as positive. For the SDF it salvaged their 'revolutionary' credentials after the discredit of the Tory Gold scandal, while Morris commented that "any opposition to law and order is of use to us" (Thompson, op .cit.). Once again, it was Engels who grasped the real implications: "The absence of the police shows that the row was wanted, but that Hyndman and Co. fell into the trap is impardonable and brands them finally as not only helpless fools but also as scamps. They wanted to wash off the disgrace of their electoral manoeuvres and now they have done an irreparable damage to the movement here" (Engels to Laura Lafargue, Collected Works Vol.47). In a letter to Bebel he condemned the SDF for seeking to pre-empt the real development of the working class movement and compared them to anarchists. The ensuing trials for sedition against Hyndman and others were not seriously pursued and eventually came to nothing, but did much to increase Hyndman's standing amongst socialists and radicals.

The beginnings of a mass movement

Throughout 1886 and the winter of 1887 the SDF continued to orchestrate marches and demonstrations of the unemployed. These were frequently held outside London and were well organised. In the absence of any alternative, the SDF began to assume a leading role within parts of the working class.

In the first part of the year Engels had welcomed the lack of impact of the SDF and the Socialist League on the working class, but as the year passed he recognised the change in the situation. In August he wrote to Bebel "The Social Democratic Federation does at least have a programme and a certain amount of discipline, but no backing whatever from the masses" (Collected Works Vol.47). A month later he acknowledged that Hyndman had strengthened his position and by November was arguing that "Thanks to the stupidity of all its rivals and opponents, the Social Democratic Federation is beginning to become a power" (Engels to Laura Lafargue). This was manifested in further demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square during that month, which this time passed off peacefully. The Government again gave a helping hand by first threatening to prevent the demonstrations by force and then backing down. Engels saw in these developments the beginnings of a movement in Britain, but he was very careful to state clearly what he meant: "The Social Democratic Federation is beginning to be something of a power, since the masses have absolutely no other organisation to which they can rally. The facts should therefore be recorded impartially, in particular the most important fact of all, namely that a genuinely socialist labour movement has come into being over here. But one must be very careful to draw a distinction between the masses and their temporary leaders" (Engels to Herman Schluter, Collected Works Vol.47). In short, Engels saw the development of the movement taking place in spite of the manoeuvres of Hyndman.

Against the international unity of the working class

Despite the scorching 'revolutionary' rhetoric of Hyndman's speeches, the SDF internationally allied itself with the reformist wing of the workers movement, since the revolutionary wing was decidedly marxist. In particular, the SDF worked with the Possibilists in France, who defended 'municipal socialism' against the marxist programme of the French Workers Party. In March 1886 Justice carried an article that described the Possibilists as the main socialist organisation in France, ignoring the creation of a workers group in the Chamber of Deputies a few months previously.

Hyndman's hostility to the creation of a marxist working class movement and his effective defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie, reached a high point in his attempt to sabotage the founding of the Second International. In this he was aided by the French Possibilists who, having split the working class movement in France, hoped to do the same internationally.

In October 1887 the congress of the German Social Democratic Party passed a resolution calling for an international congress "But since around this time the Trade Unions had summoned the London Congress, the German party was prepared to drop its congress, on condition that it would be allowed to participate - simply to participate!", however "The conditions of participation formulated by the union committee amounted to the exclusion of all German delegates" (Engels/Bernstein The International Workers Congress of 1889). Paul Brousse, the leader of the Possibilists, with a number of others attended the conference and won its support for their proposal to hold an international congress in 1889, which would exclude the other French workers' parties.

Despite this the SPD and Engels initially maintained their efforts to bring together a single international congress. A conference at the Hague in February 1889 proposed conditions for a single congress but was boycotted by the Possibilists (while Engels criticised the failure to invite the SDF). The Possibilists then issued invitations to their congress while Hyndman publicly attacked the Hague Conference as "a sort of private caucus" which would repeat "the wretched intrigues that broke up the old international" (Justice quoted in Tsuzuki, The Life of Eleanor Marx). These slanders made the stakes of the situation and the course of action clear to Engels, as he wrote in a letter to Sorge in June: "it is again the old split in the international that comes to light here, the old Battle of the Hague. The adversaries are the same, but the banner of the Anarchists has been replaced by the banner of the Possibilists... And the tactics are exactly the same. The manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation, obviously written by Brousse, is a new edition of the Sonvillier circular[1]" (Selected Correspondence).

Engels now pushed resolutely for a separate congress, working to win over the leaders of the SPD and transmit the lessons won with such difficulty in the struggle against Bakunin in the First International. In July the Marxist and Possibilist congresses were held in Paris. The former brought together 400 delegates from 20 countries while the latter regrouped a disparate gathering of Trade Unionists (a number of whom were drawn to the Marxist congress), Possibilists, Hyndman's clique and anarchists united solely by their opposition to marxism. The Marxist congress succeeded in resisting the attempts to disrupt it by the anarchists and ensured that the Second International was founded on the organisational advances made by the First.

Attempting to split the movement in Britain

Defeated at the international level, Hyndman nonetheless maintained his offensive against the unity of the working class movement by endeavouring to divide it in Britain. However, whereas in the past he had frequently been able to dominate the isolated and weak stirrings of the workers, he was now going against the rising tide of a movement that was gathering strength at home and drawing inspiration internationally.

Amongst a number of resolutions passed by the founding congress of the Second International, was one calling for international workers' demonstrations on May Day. This was enthusiastically supported by the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union which through a successful struggle to win the eight hour day for gas workers had gathered some 100,000 members. Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling had actively worked with the union and their achievement was such that Hyndman felt it necessary to publicly slander them with accusations of taking money from the union. The Union now called for a mass demonstration in Hyde Park, to be held not on May 1st but on Sunday 4th, since this would enable more workers to attend. This was opposed by the London Trade's Council, which represented the old conservative unionists who excluded the unskilled workers. The Council made common cause with the SDF and they sought to pre-empt the Gas Workers proposal by booking Hyde Park for the 4th with the aim of preventing a demonstration dominated by the radical working class and the marxists. However, Aveling pushed the authorities to allow the original demonstration so that on 4th May two rival demonstrations were held. The result was another defeat for Hyndman and his allies. Engels, who watched the demonstrations, wrote a vivid account which clearly draws out the significance of the event: "On the one side we find conservative workers, whose horizons do not extend beyond the wage labour-system, and next to them a feeble but power hungry socialist sect; on the other side,the great bulk of workers who had recently joined the movement and who want no more to do with the Manchesterism[2] of the old Trade Unions, preferring to win their complete emancipation themselves, with allies of their own choice, and not with those imposed by a tiny socialist clique (...) The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the front line. For eight years the broad masses have been moving into action, now here, now there. Socialist groups have emerged, but none has been able to transcend the bounds of a sect; agitators and would-be party leaders, mere speculators and careerists among them, they have remained officers without an army... The tremendous movement of the masses will put an end to all these little sects and little groupings by absorbing the men and showing the officers their proper places" (Collected Works Vol .27). As if to confirm this last point, Engels noted that three entire branches of the SDF took part in the marxist demonstration, rather than that organised by their leaders.

Some conclusions on Hyndman and the SDF

Engels' analysis of the socialist sects can be seen to be confirmed in the case of the SDF. From its formation and until the last years of the 1880s, the SDF maintained its position as the largest socialist organisation in Britain and so was able to place itself at the head of the working class movement when it began to grow. This was the time when Hyndman's manoeuvres were generally successful, both in maintaining his own dominance and in ensuring that the movement remained small enough for him to manipulate. This was why he allowed the Tory Gold scandal to discredit socialism in the eyes of the working masses and why he preferred to direct marches of the unemployed rather than participate in unionism and strikes.

The rise of a mass workers movement inevitably began to weaken Hyndman's position and the establishment of the Second International on a marxist foundation was a serious setback, not only for Hyndman but for all like him who thrived on the weakness and division of the proletariat. The May Day demonstration not only expressed the growth of the workers' movement in Britain, but was also testimony to the international nature of the proletariat, since the victory of 1889 at the international level paved the way for the victory of 1890 at the national level.

These defeats did not mean the end for Hyndman, on the contrary he continued to work against the unity of the workers movement, particularly by seeking to introduce the poison of nationalism into the socialist movement by waging a campaign against `Hohenzollen militarism' and for an increase in the British Navy, which we will return to later. Above all, the lasting legacy of Hyndman's domination of the SDF was to inculcate a purist, 'revolutionary', attitude amongst successive generations of working class militants, including many of those who opposed Hyndman. The British revolutionary movement was dogged by confusion and even opposition to trade unionism and the winning of immediate reforms, which contributed to a situation where the minimum and maximum programmes of the working class were embodied in separate and opposing organisations, to the severe detriment of both, and resulting in the long-term weakening of the workers movement in Britain.

How then are we to understand Hyndman and the SDF? In the first part we identified Hyndman as an adventurer who put his personal advancement above the movement he claimed to support. In fact, his actions went beyond his own self-interest since they also objectively coincided with the aims of the bourgeoisie which, time and again, has sought to destroy the revolutionary movement from within. Moreover, his contacts with the bourgeoisie, from his meeting with Disraeli in 1880 to the deal with the Tories in 1885 poses questions about his relationship to the state. While we are not in a position to give a definitive answer today, we can note that on more than one occasion his contemporaries accused him of being an agent of the bourgeoisie. Engels, for his part, showed that Hyndman stood in continuity with Bakunin, that beyond their differences they were united in hatred of marxism and opposition to the development of a revolutionary movement based on the principles of centralisation and internationalism. Both were parasites on the workers' movement, opposing their dictatorial authority, based on affinity, sectarianism and intrigue, to the collective, formalised functioning of the proletariat. Just as Engels drew on the experience of the First International[3] to arm the Second, so today revolutionaries have again to learn from the past in waging the continuing battle against political parasitism and all who would destroy the revolutionary organisation.

If we have identified Hyndman as being opposed to the advancement of the proletariat and hostile to marxism, what of the Federation as a whole? Can it be considered to be a proletarian organisation? The answer to this is yes, and it is Engels who gives us the reasons for such an answer: specifically in his insistence on distinguishing between the leadership and the body of the organisation and, more generally, in his analysis of how the dynamic of the working class can take hold of organisations and transform them. This was why he advised Bernstein at the end of 1887 to deal with the SDF differently than before, and why, in a letter to Sorge, he criticised those who only look at the surface and see "only confusion and personal squabbles" when "under the surface the movement is going on [and] is embracing ever wider sections" (Selected Correspondence).

While the origins of the SDF were in a plethora of largely non-proletarian groupings and while it never went beyond being a sect it would be a serious mistake to see just this. Despite its origins the SDF was a socialist organisation and, in many of its parts, firmly marxist, even if the leadership was equally firmly hostile to marxism. The proletarian life within the SDF was expressed in the collaboration of members, especially outside London, with other socialists and in their participation in the life and struggles of the class. The contradiction within the organisation resulted in recurring opposition to Hyndman and the regular formation and departure of left-wing minorities. It is to this opposition, and particularly one of its most significant expressions, the Socialist League, that we will turn in the next part of this series.


First published in World Revolution 205 (June 1997)


[1] The Sonvillier circular was an attack by Bakunin's Alliance on the First International. See International Review 85 “The 1st International Against Bakunin's Alliance”.

[2] The 'Manchesterism of the old trade unions' is a reference to their adherence to the 'Free Trade' policies of a group of bourgeois economists

[3] For more on the struggle in the First International see the articles in International Review nos. 84, 85, 87 & 88.


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914