Part 3: The Socialist League and the fight against sectarianism

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Throughout the history of the Social Democratic Federation (see the second part of this series in World Revolution 205) opposition regularly developed to the policies and practices of the dominant Hyndman clique. At times this just resulted in the resignation of individual members - throughout its history many thousands passed through the SDF and it is clear that many of these were simply lost to the workers' cause. At other times organised left-wing factions emerged and were either expelled or left to found new organisations. In the 1880s the Socialist League and the lesser-known Socialist Union were formed, while in the first years of the 20th century the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party were created. These splits are often presented as the consequence of personality clashes with the dictatorial manner of Hyndman but, in reality, they were a response to the needs of the workers' movement at the time. Thus, if we have characterised these organisations as the left-wing of the movement, this does not imply that they were simply more 'radical' than the SDF. In the 1880s the prerequisite was to go beyond the narrow sectarianism of the SDF and build a mass workers movement. The Socialist Union, which left after the 'Tory Gold' scandal, placed its emphasis on constitutional means, particularly Parliament, to achieve this. In the 1900s the primary task had become the combat against the growth of opportunism within the Second International, with both the SPGB and SLP defending the necessity for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism against the illusions of reformism. If all of these organisations had serious weaknesses and confusions, it is nonetheless essential to grasp the dynamic underpinning them. Such a grasp makes it clear that the workers' movement in Britain was not something peculiar to this country, the product of its 'unique' history as we are so often told, but is irrefutably part of the international workers movement. In Germany, France and Russia it is possible to trace the same fundamental struggle to first go beyond the phase of sects and circles and then to defend the marxist and revolutionary nature of the workers' movement against opportunism and reformism. An examination of the history of the Socialist League, which is the focus of this third part of our series, of the struggles that took place within it and its ultimate collapse, confirms this analysis with precise detail.

The potential of the Socialist League

In August 1885, a few months after the foundation of the Socialist League, Engels wrote to Kautsky, "After the elections ... the basis for a socialist movement here will become broader and firmer. And therefore I am glad to see that the Hyndmanite movement will not take serious roots anywhere and that the simple, clumsy, wonderfully blundering, but sincere movement of the Socialist League is slowly and apparently surely gaining ground" (Collected Works Vol.47, p.320-1). At the start of the following year, in a letter to Sorge, after criticising the electoral manoeuvrings of the SDF, he concluded "but should it prove possible to educate within the Socialist League a nucleus with an understanding of theoretical matters, considerable progress will have been made towards the eruption, which cannot be long in coming, of a genuine mass movement" (ibid, p.394). This understanding of the potential arising from the evolution of the objective conditions is the fundamental reason why Engels gave his support to the creation of the Socialist League, giving advice to Morris, Bax and the Avelings, helping to write its draft constitution and contributing an article to Commonweal, the League's paper. In this last, he underlined that it was the deteriorating economic position of Britain that would lay the foundation for the revival of socialism, the implicit message in this being that socialists must work with this process, advancing with the workers and seeking to push them forwards, rather than seeking to impose a pure doctrine from outside.

The policy and organisation of the League

This strategy was clearly set out in the draft constitution, drawn up by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling with Engels' guidance, which called for participation in elections and support for trade unions and for other socialist bodies. The overriding aim was "to form a National and International Socialist Labour Party" (quoted in Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary p.381). This was adopted by the provisional council, formed immediately after the split, but then overthrown, with Morris' support, at the first conference of the League in July 1885 in favour of an anti-electoral position.

In a number of areas the League took important steps forward. At the programmatic level, the Manifesto of the Socialist League emphasised the revolutionary overthrow of society by a class conscious proletariat, rejecting "certain incomplete schemes of social reform", and firmly declaring its internationalism: “for us there are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends, whose mutual sympathies are checked or perverted by groups of masters and fleecers whose interest it is to stir up rivalries and hatreds between the dwellers in different lands". At the organisational level, and in direct contrast to the SDF, the League's paper was seen as expressing the views and being under the control of the organisation: "the Editor and Sub-Editor [Morris and Edward Aveling respectively] ... are acting as delegates of the Socialist League, and under its direct control: any slip in principles, therefore, and misstatement of the aims or tactics of the League, are liable to correction from that body" (introduction to Commonweal issue 1, vol.1). At a more general level, the League generally adopted a marxist approach to history. This was seen most clearly in the series “Socialism from the Root up”, written jointly by Morris and Bax, and published in the Commonweal between May 1886 and May 1888. The greater part of the series was devoted to an exposition of 'scientific socialism', including a precis of the economic analysis of Capital.

However, the weaknesses which played a large part in the eventual disintegration of the League were also present. Programmatically it failed to grasp the link between the struggle for immediate reforms and the goal of revolution, rejecting all palliatives, and particularly participation in elections, in favour of "the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism". Organisationally, despite the existence of an Executive Council and the holding of annual conferences, the structure was very informal, with the branches retaining a high degree of autonomy.

The result was that the League stood apart from the workers own struggles. If it preached the importance of a general strike, it failed to grasp the potential within the actual strikes going on under its nose, being content with an all-purpose leaflet which told workers that a strike just over wages "will be useless as a means of permanently bettering your condition and a waste of time and energy, and will entail a large amount of suffering on yourselves, your wives and families in the meantime" (quoted Thompson, op.cit. p.435-6). A similar approach was adopted towards the electoral struggle, with another all-purpose leaflet simply calling on workers not to participate. Consequently, the League placed the greatest emphasis on education, Morris arguing that "Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be..." (“Our Policy”, Commonweal Vol.2, No.14). The members of the League devoted their efforts to spreading the word, by mouth and in print, participating in the free-speech struggles that marked the mid 1880s, often showing extraordinary levels of courage, commitment and self-sacrifice for the cause, but nonetheless failing to respond to the workers’ movement growing around them, even when the workers showed their willingness to move towards socialism, as during the miners strikes in Scotland in 1887 when workers attended meetings in their tens of thousands.

Marxism versus anarchism

The isolation of the League from the real life of the working class, despite the sincerity and efforts of very many of its members, stemmed from its failure to grasp the tasks of the period and to build an organisation capable of carrying them out. This failure was not inevitable but was, fundamentally, the result of the struggle between the marxist and anarchist factions within the League.

These factions were present from the start. The anarchists were headed by Joseph Lane and Frank Kitz, who emerged from the ultra-radical milieu in London in the late 1870s and founded the Labour Emancipation League in 1881. Its programme united various traditional radical and Chartist demands with calls for the collectivisation of the means of production, while its activity, which focused on its base in the East End of London, included a call for a rent strike. In the same year, at the invitation of Hyndman, it participated in the conference that founded the Democratic Federation, the forerunner of the SDF, seeking to "set them up with the most advanced programme we could force on them" (Lane, quoted in Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists, p.25). The LEL affiliated to the SDF, but did not join in order to maintain its 'autonomy'. It took little part in the activities of the SDF until the split in 1884 when it sided with the seceders, although it had been asked to participate in the decisive-meeting by Hyndman who, presumably, thought he could rely on it a second time. Subsequently the LEL affiliated to the League. This time its members were to play a much more significant role, Lane and Kitz initially taking places on the provisional council and then on the Executive Council, where they formed the nucleus around which the anarchist faction developed within the League.

The marxist faction, which included Bax, Aveling, Morris and Eleanor Marx, suffered its first setback with the rejection of the draft constitution, although a proposal by Lane to transform the League into a federation of independent branches was defeated. Many of the faction, and Morris above all others, completely underestimated the danger posed by the anarchists and opened the door to their destructive influence. Only Eleanor Marx grasped the danger, writing to her sister Laura shortly after the establishment of the League "the Anarchists here will be our chief difficulty. We have many on our Council, and by and by it will be the devil to pay. Neither Morris, nor Bax nor any of our people know really what these Anarchists are: till they do find out is a hard struggle to make head against them - the more that many of our English men taken in by the foreign anarchists (half of whom I suspect to be police agents) are unquestionably the best men we have" (quoted in Tsuzuki The Life of Eleanor Marx, p.129). Her predictions were rapidly borne out. In April 1886 Engels wrote to Laura Lafargue "Here all is muddle. Bax and Morris are getting deeper and deeper into the hands of a few anarchist phraseurs, and write nonsense with increasing intensity" (Collected Works, Vol.47, p.438). In May Aveling resigned as Sub-editor of Commonweal (Bax replacing him) and shortly afterwards Eleanor Marx stopped writing her column of “International Notes”. By August Engels noted that "the League is going through a crisis" (Engels to Bebel, Collected Works Vol 47, p.471).

The struggle came to a head at the third conference in 1887 when the Marxists sought to overturn the anti-electoral and sectarian policy of the League. The main resolution, proposed by J.L Mahon, essentially reiterated the strategy of the draft constitution. It is possible that Engels helped to draft this resolution since, despite his reservations about the capacity of the League, he saw that the development of a broad workers' movement in Britain was imminent. During the preparation of the Conference the anarchists busily mobilised their forces whereas the Marxists were silent and inactive. At the Conference Morris played a decisive role, first seeking to put off a decision and then swinging behind the anarchists to defeat the Marxist resolution and restate the policy of abstention. Subsequently the Marxists attempted to work as a fraction within the League, establishing themselves in the Bloomsbury Branch and, paradoxically, within the Hoxton branch of the Labour Emancipation League, in which they were now in the majority. This work seems to have been done badly (the anarchists portraying it as a plot to stage a coup within the League) and at the fourth conference the attempt to change the League's policy resulted not only in defeat, but in the expulsion of the Bloomsbury Branch and the disaffiliation of the Hoxton LEL. Henceforth the League was in the hands of the anarchists.

Morris, although firmly declaring himself a marxist and opposed to anarchism, continued to underestimate the threat posed by the anarchists. At the founding conference of the Second International he joined with the others in the League delegation in protesting at the handling of the anarchists' attempt to disrupt the meeting. He also revealed his poor understanding of the organisation question in his report on the congress, when he concluded "such gatherings are not favourable for the dispatch of business and their real use is as demonstrations, is better to organise them as such" (“Impressions of the Paris Congress II”, Commonweal, Vol.5, No.186). It was not until 1890 that he finally broke with the League and only in the few remaining years of his life that he began to grasp the dynamic of the real movement.

The anarchists gradually reduced the League to nothing, seeking to outdo each other in radical posturing, using Commonweal to advocate terrorism and assassination while breaking up the branches. If at this stage the presence of police spies and agents provocateurs became obvious (even to the anarchists), the decisive period was that of the confrontation between the marxists and anarchists. The potential of the League when it began ensured that the state paid close attention to it. We have seen already that Eleanor Marx suspected the presence of police agents amongst the foreign anarchists but, given the experience of the British state, it is impossible to rule out the likelihood that amongst the native anarchists was a smattering of state agents.

Towards the mass workers' movement

The degeneration of the Socialist League, as with the manoeuvrings of the SDF before it, prompted significant minorities to attempt to go beyond its limitations. This took various forms. Branches of the League, especially those in the provinces, developed links with other local socialist bodies, including the SDF, as well as with the trade unions. For example, in 1888 branches in Scotland supported the formation of the Scottish Labour Party. J.L Mahon, at one time Secretary of the League and stalwart of the anti-parliamentarians, changed his position and left the League to establish the Northern Socialist Federation and to work with the Scottish Land and Labour League, both organisations supporting participation in elections and unions. However, as we will see later in this series, many militants, in their eagerness to break from sectarianism, veered the other way and tended to see parliament as the only road to socialism, thereby succumbing to the arguments of reformism and opportunism. Again, this tendency arose from the objective situation, where the continuing expansion of capitalism enabled the workers movement to extract concessions from the bourgeoisie.

The promise of the Socialist League was not fulfilled. It failed to discharge the tasks demanded of it. However, along the way, through the struggle to spread the message to the class and through the confrontation with the anarchists a significant number of militants began to understand why and how to be part of the mass movement. The great weakness was that along the way much time and energy had been wasted. While the socialists were locked in their sects, the working class movement in Britain began to develop and leave them behind. This situation meant that the non-socialist and anti-socialist elements, with a helping hand from the state, had a disproportionate weight within the new movement. In the next part of our series we will look more closely at the beginnings of this movement, as a prelude to consideration of the place and role of the Independent Labour Party.


First published in World Revolution 208 (October 1997)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914