Part 5: The Independent Labour Party and the pressure of reformism

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During the 1890s, the mass workers' parties succeeded in gaining many reforms that improved the living conditions of the working class. While the struggle for such reforms was an important aspect of the class struggle in this period, the winning of reforms brought the danger of nurturing illusions in the possibility of capitalism peacefully evolving into socialism. However, the marxist foundation of most of these parties ensured that, within a minority at least, there was determined opposition to the growth of reformism and opportunism, exemplified by the efforts of Rosa Luxemburg in the German Social Democratic Party. The working class in Britain was confronted by the same situation but with the crucial difference that it sought to create a class party in the face of the reformist tide and without an organised marxist fraction.

Between the late 1880s and the early 1890s the working class in Britain took up the struggle against its exploiters in a decisive and frequently spectacular manner. The previous part 4 of this series traced the development of this movement at both the economic and political level, noting that the latter was characterised above all by a tendency to break from the grip of the Liberal Party, which had traditionally been supported by the majority of working class voters, and to move towards independence. Engels hailed this development as the start of a dynamic that would lead the working class to socialism, brushing aside the pretensions and phrase-mongering of sects like the Social Democratic Federation and other assorted would-be leaders.

The founding of the Independent Labour Party in January 1893 marked an important stage in this dynamic with the working class creating an independent political force for the first time since the Chartists (see the article in WR 214). However, for this nascent organisation to really become an effective weapon in the struggle between the proletariat and the ruling class it had to continue to move forwards politically and organisationally and it was here that the new movement, composed mainly of young proletarians who were relatively inexperienced and politically unformed, immediately faced major difficulties. The preceding years had led to a situation where there was no organised marxist fraction outside the SDF (dominated by the Hyndman clique), leaving the field free to various species of reformism and especially the Fabian Society and the Trade Unions. The nucleus of theoretically-formed militants that Marx had once hoped would develop within the Socialist League had never appeared and those who claimed allegiance to marxism were dispersed in various organisations or were isolated individuals. Thus, the real question facing the working class was whether the dynamic could be deepened and the forces of reformism and opportunism, which were gathering strength throughout the international workers' movement, could be identified and combated, and a party built that was not just socialist but marxist.

In this part we will start by looking at the Fabians before going on to examine the foundation of the ILP and the struggle between the reformist and revolutionary tendencies in the workers' movement.

The Fabians: opposing marxism and the class war

The Fabian Society was founded in 1884 but its roots went back to a group called The Fellowship of the New Life, which was set up two years previously with the aim of establishing a Utopian community, although they could not decide between Bloomsbury and Peru for the location. The membership of the Fabians was originally exclusively composed of the petty bourgeoisie and included anarchists and psychical researchers. The writer Bernard Shaw was an early and influential member. While a number of workers subsequently joined the provincial branches (often combining it with membership of other groups like the SDF and Socialist League), the London leadership remained much the same, with the addition of government civil servants such as Sidney Webb, whom Shaw deliberately sought to recruit to counteract the 'mob'. Hostility to the working class and marxism lay at the heart of both their theoretical and political activity. In Fabian Essays in Socialism published in 1889, the labour theory of value was rejected in favour of the theory of 'final utility', while the analysis of surplus value was opposed with a spurious theory of rent. The role of the class struggle was ridiculed and belittled in order to deny the role of revolutions in history and to bolster the notion of evolution. The practical consequence of this was the strategy of 'permeating' the Liberal party and, thus, opposing the dynamic towards independence that was animating the working class at the time. Engels characterised the Fabians as "a clique of middle class 'Socialists' of diverse calibres from careerists to sentimental Socialists and philanthropists, united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers and doing all in their power to avert this danger by making their own leadership secure..." (Engels to Kautsky 1892, Selected Correspondence, p.423). He was equally scathing about their activity: "The means employed by the Fabian Society are just the same as those of the corrupt parliamentary politicians: money, intrigues and careerism. That is the English way… These people are immersed up to their necks in the intrigues of the Liberal party, hold party jobs, as for instance Sidney Webb, who in general is a genuine British politician. These gentry do everything that the workers have to be warned against" (ibid).

In the period leading up to the conference in Bradford that set up the ILP, the leadership of the Fabian Society attempted to block the dynamic. In 1891 Sidney Webb wrote in the Workmen’s Times, "the nature of an Englishman seems to be suited only to a political fight between two parties - the party of order and the party of progress" (Quoted in McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics, p 246). Three months before the conference, when its preparation was actively underway, he wrote again: "What can we do but laugh at your folly... The only vital difference between the Fabian Society and the SDF is that the Fabian wants to grow the plums first and make the pies afterwards, whilst the Federation wants to make the pies first and find the plums afterwards. This is also the idea of the Independent Labour Party, which thus turns out to be nothing but an attempt to begin the SDF over again..." (Quoted in Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party, p.114). This attack provoked a reply from within the Fabian Society by an anonymous individual who signed himself 'Marxian': "If the big guns of the Fabian Society would only spend a little time outside the Liberal club they might see how wrong are their assumptions" (Quoted in McBriar, op.cit. p.248). When it became clear that the ILP was to be founded despite their efforts, the London Fabian Society, which was composed of the 'big guns', agreed to participate only on condition that it could maintain its separate existence, a condition not requested by any of the provincial Fabian societies which took part. On the eve of the conference Shaw made a last effort when he told a meeting of the Fabian delegates that the foundation of a new party was premature.

The founding of the ILP: A step towards the class party

The Bradford Conference brought together some 120 delegates, the vast majority from the newly formed independent labour groups, but also including delegates from Trade Unions and Trades Councils, and from provincial branches of the Fabians and the SDF. The leadership of this last refused to participate in what it described as "another of the many attempts which have from time to time been made to head back the genuine Social-Democratic movement in Great Britain" (Justice, April 1893, quoted in Crick The History of the Social-Democratic Federation p .85). The London Fabians were only admitted by one vote following harsh criticism of their previous behaviour, including one motion moved by the Liverpool Fabian Society.

The conference voted to adopt the name Independent Labour Party over Socialist Labour Party, but then took as its objective "to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" (Quoted in Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, p.294). Its programme included the abolition of overtime, piecework and child labour, the limitation of the working day to 48 hours, support for the sick and elderly, the introduction of progressive income tax and support for "every proposal for extending electoral rights and democratising the system of Government" (Quoted ibid, p.297).

The party organised itself on a federal basis in order to accommodate the disparate groups at the conference, but the SDF and the London Fabians rejected even this, although most of the provincial Fabian societies immediately dissolved themselves into the ILP. It rejected a motion not to allow ILP members to join other organisations (Shaw specifically defending his membership of a Liberal Association), adopting instead the general statement that "no person opposed to the principles of the party shall be eligible for membership" (ibid p.298). In keeping with the federal principle it established a National Advisory Council rather than a more powerful central organ.

The fundamental achievement of the conference was that it drew together many of the disparate forces that had emerged within the working class in the preceding years. If its programme was largely restricted to immediate demands, and if its structure was tentative, the new organisation nonetheless marked a very significant moment in the life of the working class in Britain. From the spontaneous dynamic produced by the intensification of the class struggle, the proletariat had forged an instrument with the potential to impulse and deepen that dynamic in a conscious and organised manner. In short, it had laid the foundation for the class party.

The fundamental weakness of the new organisation was the absence of an organised marxist current within it. Edward Aveling was the most well-known marxist and he was not only relatively isolated, but increasingly distrusted by many in the movement due to his dubious personal behaviour.

Nonetheless Engels' initial assessment of the ILP was positive: "The Social Democratic Federation on the one hand and the Fabians on the other have, because of their sectarian attitude, not been able to absorb the rush towards Socialism in the provinces, so the formation of a third party was quite a good thing. But the rush has now become so great, especially in the industrial areas of the North, that the new party was already at this first Congress stronger than the Social Democratic Federation or the Fabians, if not stronger than the two together. And as the mass of the membership is certainly very good, as the centre of gravity lies in the provinces and not in London, the centre of intrigues, and as the main point of the programme is the same as ours, Aveling was right in joining and in accepting a seat on the Executive. If the petty private ambitions and the intrigues of the London would-be-greats are held somewhat in check here and its tactics do not turn out too wrongheaded, the Independent Labour Party may succeed in detaching the masses from the Social Democratic Federation and in the provinces from the Fabians too, thus forcing them to unite" (Selected Correspondence, p 428).

1893-95: The growth of reformism

In the first two years of its existence the ILP grew rapidly. By 1895 Keir Hardie claimed a membership of 35,000, although analysis of dues paid gives a figure of just under eleven thousand (Howell op.cit, p327-8). It also secured significant votes in various local elections and worked actively to provide relief to the rising numbers of unemployed.

However, this forward momentum did not go unopposed with both the Fabians and the TUC working actively against it.

The initial response of the Fabians seemed to be an acknowledgment of the validity of the decision to form the ILP. In November 1893 Shaw and Sidney Webb wrote an article, “To Your Tents, Oh Israel!”, which attacked the Liberal Party and declared support for independent Labour representation, provoking some Liberal members of the Fabian Society to resign. In reality it was a manoeuvre aimed at maintaining the influence of the Fabians, as Beatrice Webb acknowledged when she wrote of their "fear of being left behind" by the ILP (McBriar op.cit, p.250). Shaw for his part described it as a concession to "the more ardent spirits" in the Fabian Society (Pelling op.cit, p.147). It was followed by a proposal that the TUC establish a fund to support Labour candidates, but, in calling for support for all such candidates and for candidates to be selected by Trades Councils, which were controlled by the Unions, its real aim was to undermine the ILP.

The TUC adopted a more overtly hostile attitude. In response to the efforts of the ILP to develop a socialist bloc within the TUC, which had led to the passing of a motion to establish a fund to support independent Labour candidates, the TUC Parliamentary Committee proposed a number of measures to counter the influence of socialists. These included the introduction of card votes based on union membership, the exclusion of trades councils (where the ILP had a lot of representatives) and the restriction of participation to working trade unionists or union officials. These were passed by one vote in the committee and passed to the 1895 Congress, while the previous motion was allowed to lapse.

More generally, the ILP was confronted by the tide of reformism that was rising throughout the workers' movement, with the struggle for socialism being reduced to the winning of reforms or confused with the strengthening of the state. In Britain such illusions were spread by popular journalists such as Robert Blatchford, the editor of the Clarion, whose book Merrie England, published in 1894, sold three-quarters of a million copies in its first year. It distinguished between 'Practical' socialism, which it presented as anything which strengthened the hand of the state (including the Post Office and compulsory education), and 'Ideal' socialism when money and exchange would be abolished, which was put off into the distant future. Socialism was presented as arising naturally out of capitalism: "Socialism will not come by means of a sudden coup. It will grow naturally out of our surroundings and will develop naturally and by degrees.... it is too late to ask when we are going to begin. We have begun… Nearly all law is more or less Socialistic, for nearly all law implies the right of the State to control individuals for the benefit of the nation." (Merrie England, 1908 edition, p.128). This was accompanied by a wide range of Clarion Clubs - cycling, camera, glee-singing and scouts - which dissipated the class's militant energy while sowing dangerous confusion.

The ILP itself was far from immune to the tide, not least in seeing elections as the primary area of its activity. Petty-bourgeois careerists also began to be drawn to it, such as Ramsey Macdonald who left his position as a paid Liberal Party agent when they refused to accept him as a candidate. At the second conference in 1894 Keir Hardie was elected president, grandly telling the ILP that he had now decided to give up his preference to work as a freelancer. Above all, no marxist grouping had yet developed. Aveling, who opposed Hardie, not only failed to be re-elected to the Administrative Council, but was actually expelled from the ILP in May 1894.

Engels was now far less confident of the capacity of the ILP to rise to the challenge: "The Independent Labour Party is extremely vague in its tactics, and its leader, Keir Hardie, is a super-cunning Scot, whose demagogic tricks cannot be trusted for a minute". However, he still asserted that "there are very good elements both in the Social Democratic Federation and in the Independent Labour Party, especially in the provinces, but they are scattered..." (Engels to Sorge, November 1894, Selected Correspondence p.449). A few months later he went further, writing that there was "nothing but sects and no party" but still insisting that "The socialist instinct is getting stronger and stronger amongst the masses" whilst pointing out that "so-called 'democracy' here is very much restricted by indirect barriers", such as the cost of political periodicals, the expense of contesting elections and the dominance of the existing parties (Engels to Hermann Schluter, January 1898. Selected Correspondence p.452).

Both tendencies could be seen at the second conference: on the one hand the changes in the membership of the NAC produced a lot of back-stage wheeling and dealing; on the other a number of measures were taken to strengthen the organisation. The federal structure was replaced by a unified one, a development which simply reflected reality, a draft constitution was prepared and a national Manifesto was adopted.

1895: Towards the next stage of the struggle

The election of 1895 gave an insight into what the ILP had accomplished in its first two years. Superficially it suffered a setback with no seats being gained and Hardie losing his. The Fabians celebrated this: "...the result is not altogether unsatisfactory... the field had to be cleared. . . the ILP has completed its suicide. . . So long as the ILP existed as an unknown force of irreconcilables, the more reasonable policy of permeation and levelling-up was utterly checkmated" Beatrice Webb quoted in McBriar op.cit, p.252).

However, in winning some 40,000 votes for the 28 candidates it ran (it should be recalled that the electorate was much smaller at this time) and in exposing in practice the hostility of the Liberal Party to Labour representation, it had affirmed the necessity and the fact of its existence as an independent political force. If it had not moved decisively towards becoming the class party, neither had it relapsed into a sect, contrary to Engels' comments. It still remained a vigorous expression of the advancing political life of the working class and was still the main arena in which the struggle between the different tendencies within the workers' movement in Britain was fought. In the years immediately following the election the focus of this struggle shifted to the issue of socialist unity. This will be the subject of the next part in our series.


First published in World Revolution 215 (June 1998)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914