Part 6: 1894-1900: Socialist party or labour alliance?

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The establishment of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 laid the foundation for the creation of a mass workers’ party in Britain. However, as we showed in the previous article (Part 5, from World Revolution 215), the possibility of realising this potential was severely weakened by the absence of an organised marxist fraction that could provide a clear political analysis and orientation. This gave room for the forces of reformism, which were particularly strong amongst the leadership, to grow and push out many of the scattered marxist and revolutionary elements.

However, this did not mean the automatic triumph of reformism. On the contrary, the ensuing two decades, from 1895 to 1914, saw the working class in Britain struggle alongside its international brothers and sisters against the tide of revisionism and opportunism. Significantly, this struggle took place on two fronts which rarely seemed to relate to each other.

On the one hand, large parts of the workers’ movement were animated by an almost elemental striving towards unity, which manifested itself in major efforts in the late 1890s and 1900s. These, however, were marked both by confusion within the working class, stemming from its lack of political formation, and by the manoeuvres of many of its erstwhile leaders, allowing the right wing to push through its own version of unity.

On the other hand, the small minorities who constituted the left of the existing organisations, principally within the Social Democratic Federation, struggled to create the politically formed marxist minority required by the proletariat. But in doing so, they were deeply scarred by the sectarian legacy of the SDF.

The bourgeoisie benefited greatly from this situation and certainly contributed to it as much as it could, enticing the leaders with the pleasures and privileges of the ruling elite, and granting reforms to fuel the idea of a peaceful transformation of capitalism, whilst showing the occasional flash of steel and gunshot to the rebellious masses.

The dynamic of socialist unity

The goal of unity was a commonplace of the workers’ movement in this period. The Second International called on all socialist organisations to unite in a single party in each country. In Britain, the resurgence of the workers’ movement in the early 1890s began to sweep aside all the sectarian divisions that had riven the movement in the preceding decade. The foundation of the ILP represented a major step towards unity, since it was based on the unification of a whole range of new socialist organisations as well as branches of existing ones. The dynamic continued, with resolutions calling for the unification of all socialist organisations regularly being debated at the annual conference of the ILP. Notably, however, these were supported by the local branches of the ILP rather than the leadership, which became more dominated by the reformists with the disappearance of radical elements like Tom Mann (who had been secretary) and the leaders of the new unions. Over the next few years the National Administrative Council (NAC) became dominated by Hardie, MacDonald, John Bruce Glasier and Phillip Snowden, while its position within the party was strengthened at the expense of the rank and file. All of the ‘big four’, who were to take turns as party chairman up until 1909, had close links with the Fabian Society and were influenced by its politics of gradualism and class collaboration.

In February 1894, the second conference of the ILP voted down a resolution calling for amalgamation with the SDF. In July of that year Robert Blatchford, the editor of the Clarion, who had advocated for the creation of the ILP, launched a campaign for socialist unity. This was opposed by the leaders of both the SDF and the ILP. Quelch for the SDF describing the ILP as “a sort of half way house” and demanding that all real socialists should join the SDF, while Hardie asserted that “As an organisation for uniting all the forces into a solid fighting phalanx the ILP fits the bill” (Quoted in Crick, The History of the Social Democratic Federation, p.86), although he subsequently proposed an annual conference of all socialist organisations, possibly in an attempt to stem the tide which saw many local ILP branches passing resolutions in favour of unity. The fourth ILP conference took up the idea of such a gathering of socialist organisations and passed a resolution instructing the NAC to issue invitations, but the proposal was rejected by the SDF annual conference.

The push for unity continued to move forwards nonetheless, with pressure coming from the branches of both the ILP and the SDF. In July 1897 an informal conference of the two organisations led to the creation of a joint committee to agree the details of unity. In the referendum that followed, the joint membership voted by 5,158 to 886 in favour of fusion. The leadership of the ILP immediately began a campaign against the result. Hardie, who at the informal conference had proposed the resolution which declared the union of the SDF and ILP was “in the interests of the socialist movement”, now wrote in the ILP NewsIt may be that there is something in the methods of propaganda, if not the principles of the SDF, that not only render it somewhat antipathetic to our members, but out of touch and harmony with the feelings and ideals of the mass of the people… It might be, therefore, that the introduction of its spirit and methods of attack would check rather than help forward our movement” (Crick, op.cit. p88-89). The NAC refused to accept the result on the grounds that the turnout had been too low and stated that the issue would have to be discussed again at the annual conference. This gave the leadership time to mount a campaign in favour of federation rather than fusion. At the conference, despite criticism and resistance from the floor, they openly manoeuvred to get the result they wanted, first denouncing the SDF and then proposing that the vote be taken again. The resolution on the NAC’s proposals was carefully worded so that delegates had to decide immediately for federation or to refer the matter back to the branches for the members to vote “whether they are in favour of a federation, or dissolution of the ILP, and fusion with the SDF” (Quoted in Howell, British workers and the Independent Labour Party, p.315. Our emphasis). However, it was indicative both of the domination of the leadership and of the political and organisational weakness of the pro-unity elements that their opposition went no further.

The Labour Representation Committee – a victory for the right wing

With the immediate threat of socialist unity blocked, the right wing of the British workers’ movement was able to realise its goal of labour unity, in which the trades unions would dominate.

The right wing was composed of a number of elements, most notably the leaders of the ILP, the trades unions and the Fabian Society.

Many of the leading members of the ILP persistently opposed marxism, which they tended to associate with Hyndman and the dominant faction of the SDF. At the founding conference Ben Tillett, one of the leaders of the London Dock’s strike of 1889, declared that “he thought English trades unionism was the best sort of socialism and labourism. He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform… With his experience of unions he was glad to say that if there were fifty such red revolutionary parties as there was in Germany, he would sooner have the solid, progressive, matter-of-fact fighting trade unionism of England than all the harebrained chatterers and magpies of continental revolutionaries” (quoted in Wrigley “The ILP and the Second International” in James et al [eds] The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party, p299). Hardie had long campaigned for a ‘Labour Alliance’ and, despite the mythology of his commitment to socialism, was always ready to give prominence to his radical and liberal beliefs if it was likely to gain him more votes. The NAC pursued this while the struggle for unity was being waged, using the authority of the 1896 conference’s debates to contact the secretaries of the SDF, the Fabians and the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee. This last refused to act without approval from the TUC and the NAC’s first attempt to get a resolution proposed by a sympathetic union failed for technical reasons. After the defeat of the move for fusion, the NAC had no trouble in getting the 1899 Conference to pass a resolution “That the NAC use every means at its command, consistent with the constitution, to bring about joint action with the Trade Union, Co-operative and Socialist Societies in both Municipal and Parliamentary elections” (Howell, op.cit. p317). This allowed the ILP leaders to become involved in preparations leading up to the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and was used by the delegates to the conference to justify their opposition to attempts to commit the LRC to socialism since it did not specifically require them to do so.

The trade unions had shown their hostility to socialism frequently in the past, notably in the changes made to TUC rules at the 1895 Congress in order to exclude socialists (see part 5 of this series, also in WR 215). The majority of union leaders continued to support the Liberals who in return allowed the election of a small number of ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs. The change in attitude that led a majority to support the foundation of the LRC can be attributed to two factors: the need to defend the unions against the attacks of the ruling class and the need to prevent the movement becoming too ‘extreme’.

The tide of class struggle that developed from the late 1880s to the early 1990s prompted the bourgeoisie to mount a counter-offensive. The employers in various industries established organisations to strengthen their fight against the unions through common action and financial assistance and the provision of blacklegs. Alongside this the courts passed a series of judgements to limit strike activity, initially by curtailing the activities of pickets, then going on to threaten unions’ funds. In this the employers in Britain received the active assistance of their American counterparts.

The politicisation of a considerable part of the working class, that went alongside the growth in combativity, also posed a threat to the union leadership. If the dynamic of socialist unity proved successful it might create a body that would challenge the unions’ authority, since this body would bring the political struggle to change, or even overthrow, capitalism to the fore, in place of the unions’ efforts to improve the economic position of the working class within capitalism. In the face of these threats the 1899 Congress passed a resolution calling on “all Co-operative, Socialistic, Trade Unions and other working class organisations” to send delegates to a conference “To devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of Labour members to the next Parliament” (quoted in Roberts The Trades Union Congress 1868-1921, p166).

The Fabian society had largely disappeared after the foundation of the ILP, being left with only a handful of branches and a few hundred members, but the consequence of this was to strengthen rather than weaken its influence in the workers’ movement. In the absence of a body capable of defending and deepening marxism (Hyndman’s grip on the SDF tending to ensure that it could make no coherent contribution), the Fabians effectively became the theoreticians of the movement in Britain. By 1897, some 75 Tracts had been published arguing for this or that reform (municipalisation of gas, the role of Parish Councils, reform of the poor law etc). Its lecturers now targeted socialist and labour organisations rather than radical and liberal bodies as previously. Following the defeat of the movement for socialist unity, the Fabians proposed a joint committee with the ILP to pool electoral experience. This became a permanent body bringing together leading figures from both organisations. The Fabians readily supported the creation of the LRC, since they had called for just such a party, dominated by the unions rather than socialists, in 1893.

The conference called by the TUC met in February 1900 with 129 delegates from the unions, the ILP, the SDF and the Fabians. A resolution moved by the SDF, calling for the creation of “a distinct party, based on the recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” (quoted in Lee and Archibold Social Democracy in Britain, p158) was defeated, as was another by the TUC Parliamentary Committee which simply proposed a Labour Platform of “four or five planks embracing questions upon which the vast majority of workers in the country are agreed” (quoted in Roberts op.cit. p168). The conference adopted that proposed by Hardie which called for “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 for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any Party opposing measures having an opposite tendency” (quoted in Pelling The origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900, p209). An executive was created composed of seven trade unionists, two representatives from the ILP and the SDF and one from the Fabian Society. Much is made by bourgeois historians, such as Pelling, that socialists actually dominated this body, since some of the unions representatives were socialists. In reality it was the forces of reformism and opportunism that dominated.

The significance of the LRC

Contrary to the propaganda of the bourgeoisie, the LRC did not constitute the inevitable destination of the working class in Britain, asserting its true national character of ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’ over the unrealistic posturing of the ‘continental revolutionaries’. But it was a real reflection of the powerful illusions that held sway over the majority of proletarians at this time, as well as the theoretical weaknesses of the proletarian political organisations of the day. We have repeatedly shown in this series that the working class movement in Britain was engaged in the same struggle and faced the same tasks as the proletariat throughout the developed capitalist world. We have gone on to show how this was affected by the particular circumstances of the movement in Britain, and most significantly by the absence of an organised marxist fraction.

The working class was pushed to struggle by the sharpening class antagonisms of the last decade of the 19th century, due both to the drawing to an end of capitalism’s period of ascendancy and, more particularly, to the erosion of Britain’s previous economic dominance. The working class in Britain already had a long history of struggle, having created first the chartists, then the unions and the creation of a mass revolutionary party was a real possibility. However, there were also tendencies that went in the other direction, arising from the legacy of Britain’s economic strength, which had allowed part of the working class to benefit, and from the weight of bourgeois ideology, which the skilled ruling class was learning to manipulate.

At the level of the political expressions of the working class, marxism was not able to implant itself in a coherent, organised and dynamic way. The pretensions of the SDF to be the true defenders of marxism tended to drive many workers away since, in the hands of people like Hyndman, it was reduced to an empty dogma and the resurgent working class was forced to look elsewhere for its political and theoretical weapons. The practical result was that instead of creating the mass party that the period required, in which the struggle for the minimum and maximum demands of the proletariat could be unified, the working class ended up rallying to a mass reformist party which could see no further than the minimum programme of immediate reforms and became increasingly hostile to the maximum programme of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. In turn, those elements which attempted to defend the maximum programme tended to completely reject the struggle for reforms, seeing this as simply a betrayal of socialism. The significance of the foundation of the LRC is above all that it consolidated the separation of the maximum and minimum aspects of the proletariat’s political programme in different organisations to the immense detriment of both parts. In the next part we will examine the development of the LRC and its transformation into the Labour Party.


First published in World Revolution 218 (October 1998)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914