Part 8: The need for internationalism in the face of the Boer War

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Throughout this series we have sought to show that the working class movement in Britain has always been part of the international movement, confronted by the same fundamental issues and struggling towards the same goals. We have also shown the specific difficulties that set back its efforts to create a strong class party. In the next two parts we examine its understanding of internationalism and its relationship to the Second International.

The importance of internationalism

Internationalism is the bedrock of the working class movement. This is not a matter of sentiment but a practical necessity. Capitalism can only be overthrown and communism established on a global scale, and the struggle against the bourgeoisie can only be successful if the working class is united across national boundaries.

The foundation of the First International in 1864 was a decisive moment in this task. It sought above all to lay the foundations of the proletarian revolutionary organisation by overcoming the weight of petty-bourgeois and reformist ideology and sects. Its greatest achievement was the defeat of the attempt by Bakunin and his followers to sabotage this work (see the articles in International Review 84, 85 and 87).

The first task of the Second International was to reappropriate these lessons, a task in which Engels played a central role (see part 2 of this series in WR 205). The main work of its first four congresses between 1889 and 1896 was to defeat the anarchists and establish itself on a firm marxist basis. Subsequently its congresses dealt with two fundamental questions that arose from the historical development of capitalism. On the one hand, the struggle against revisionism and opportunism, which grew from the illusions created by the last great expansionary thrusts of ascendant capitalism and, on the other, the attempt to oppose the threat of war that presaged capitalism’s slide into decadence.

The British working class movement took part in all of these struggles. Its organisations sent large delegations to all of the congresses and its delegates, including many of its leading figures, were active in the commissions, and in chairing sessions and proposing resolutions. However, while the likes of Hardie and Hyndman readily talked of fraternity and internationalism, behind those words lay not only confusion about the nature of internationalism but also hostility towards marxism and, especially in the case of Hyndman, a strong dose of nationalism and other bourgeois prejudices.

The understanding of internationalism

The subjective understanding of the meaning of internationalism within the political organisations in Britain was often very poor. Over and above any grand statements about peace and international brotherhood, the movement tended towards a localist and insular attitude that frequently slid into outright nationalism.

This was directly expressed by Robert Blatchford, the editor of the Clarion newspaper and in books such as Merrie England and Britain for the British that sold in their thousands. He set out a reformist and nationalist version of socialism, arguing for example that Britain should produce all its own food as a safeguard against war and that socialism would reverse the decline in the country’s trading status.

The Independent Labour Party appeared more internationalist in attitude, its conferences in 1894, for instance, calling for “disarmament and universal peace” (quoted in Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party). In 1898 the ILP declared its opposition to conscription and a year later argued that peace could only be achieved when “the workers of all countries recognise their solidarity of interest and unite on a co-operative basis of production and exchange” (ibid). However, these sentiments had little or no practical consequences. The ILP remained focused on immediate and local issues and in the International opposed the exclusion of anarchists and sided with the revisionists. Some of its leading figures, such as Tom Mann, were more concerned with developing international trade union organisations.

Of all the organisations, the Social Democratic Federation seemed the most concerned with international matters. One third of the pamphlet announcing the formation of the SDF, England for All written by Hyndman dealt with foreign matters and Hyndman regularly attacked British colonial policy and called for workers to intervene. In 1886, in the face of possible military action between Germany and France over the Balkans, he called for international action by the working class if war broke out, effectively raising the possibility of revolution to prevent war. Similarly, in 1896, during the Fashoda incident, when Britain and France clashed in Africa, the SDF joined calls for working class unity made by Jean Jaures of the French Socialists. However, such arguments were totally contradicted by the SDF’s defence of the British navy. Following the Jameson Raid of 1896 an SDF manifesto supported “the adequate increase of our navy” (quoted in Tsuzuki H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism). During the Fashoda incident Hyndman argued for the maintenance of a large naval fleet, stating that “Such a fleet is a luxury for France: for us it is a necessity” (ibid).

These contradictions expressed the weight of bourgeois ideology within the working class movement in Britain. Events at the turn of the century began to increasingly highlight these contradictions and to indicate how opportunism could lead to the betrayal of the working class, as was to happen with such terrible consequences in 1914.

Opposing war: rhetoric and practice

From 1900 on, when the Paris Congress of the Second International discussed a resolution on militarism moved by Rosa Luxemburg, the question of war and the response of the workers’ movement steadily gained in importance as the tensions between the great powers intensified. In his last days Engels had warned of the danger of a generalised war arising from the acceleration of imperialist rivalries. Luxemburg’s resolution made the same analysis and called on the socialist movement to begin a struggle against militarism by pursuing the class struggle, voting against military expenditure and organising demonstrations and protests against militarism. The resolution was carried unanimously.

The outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 had already tested such sentiments. Initially, the majority of organisations seen as part of the working class movement opposed the war, with even the Fabian Society discussing a resolution criticising it. The main exception was Robert Blatchford, who openly rallied to the side of the bourgeoisie and contributed to the wave of jingoism that affected much of the population. However, opposition to the war, even if sometimes determined, was fundamentally flawed because its lack of a marxist method rendered it incapable of making a class analysis. All of the opposition made serious concessions to the bourgeoisie.

This was inevitably the case with the Fabian Society since, as we have shown previously, it was a bourgeois organisation. Both the pro and anti war resolutions were framed in the interests of British imperialism. That opposing the war, after denouncing ‘imperialism’ nonetheless pledged “to support the expansion of Empire only in so far as that may be compatible with the expansion of that higher social organisation which this society was founded to promote” (quoted in McBriar Fabian Socialism and English Politics). After a pretence of equivocation, the Fabians sided with the ruling class and offered it advice on what to do after the war ended. The Paris Congress of 1900 censured these attitudes and several leading figures of the ILP resigned from the Fabian Society.

The leaders of both the ILP and the SDF attacked the war as a capitalist war. In 1900 Hardie wrote in the Labour LeaderThe war is a capitalist war. The British merchant hopes to secure markets for his goods, the investor an outlay for his capital, the speculator more fools out of whom to make money and the mining companies cheaper labour and increased dividends” (Hughes (ed) Keir Hardie’s speeches and writings). In common with many radicals Hardie openly sympathised with the Boers, even presenting them as defending the interests of the working class: “President Kruger and his Government would not permit the introduction of this system of slavery [of bondage contracts] into the gold mines of Transvaal. He is also opposed to the mines being worked on Sunday…and…actually had introduced an Eight-Hours Bill for all workers […] As socialists our sympathies are bound to be with the Boers. Their Republican form of Government bespeaks freedom, and is thus hateful to tyrants, whilst their methods of production for use are much nearer our ideal than any form of exploitation for profit” (ibid). In their agitation the ILP worked very closely with radical Liberals opposed to the war and their arguments were fundamentally the same, focussing on the wickedness, greed and undemocratic practices of individual capitalists and administrators. Hardie, for example, revelled in denouncing Joseph Chamberlain as a dissolute drunkard.

The SDF denounced the war in similar terms to the ILP and some of its members, such as Bax, were as open as Hardie in their support for the Boers. However, Hyndman, not only took up the denunciation of individual capitalists but went even further from a class analysis by introducing a strong element of anti-Semitism. An editorial in Justice was entitled “The Jews’ war on the Transvaal” and presented both the British ruling class and its press as being controlled by “their masters, the capitalist Jews” (Baker, The Social Democratic Federation and the Boer War. Our History Pamphlet 59, Summer 1974). Hyndman was not alone in this, the ILP News declaring at one point “it is no exaggeration to say that the Jew financier controls the policy of Europe” (quoted in James op.cit.). As the war progressed Hyndman returned increasingly to the nationalism that underpinned his whole attitude to international affairs, writing in 1901 “I begin to doubt whether we shall win this South African War; whether in fact it will turn out the beginning of the downfall of the British empire” (quoted in Baker op.cit.). He declared his intention to withdraw from agitation against the war, writing in a letter to Justice that it was “a struggle between two burglars” and that “if I am going to agitate for the independence of anybody, it is for the independence of the splendid native tribes who are being crushed by the Boers and ourselves together” (quoted in Tsuzuki op.cit.). The SDF executive supporting this, stated in a resolution that continued opposition was “a waste of time and money” (ibid).

Both Hyndman’s anti-Semitism and his switch to supporting the war (the comments about supporting the native tribes being just rhetoric) provoked opposition from a minority within the SDF, leading eventually to splits and the temporary resignation of Hyndman from the Executive. We will return to this in the future.


The questions of internationalism and war are closely linked, with the latter providing the fiercest test of any revolutionary organisation’s understanding and capacity to defend the internationalist position.

None of the organisations of the working class in Britain clearly understood the question of internationalism. The SDF’s attitude, as to most issues, was fundamentally dictated by Hyndman’s personal ambitions to dominate the workers’ movement and his opposition to the formation of a real marxist revolutionary organisation. His radical language was used to hide the fact that his final loyalty was to the interests of the British bourgeoisie. England’s colonial policy was presented as an aberration rather than the inevitable consequence of the development of capitalism. The ILP, caught between the tendency to see internationalism as an ideal and the tendency to see it as an extension of trade unionism, was unable to recognise it an irreplaceable political and practical weapon in the proletariat’s struggle against its exploiters.

Confronted with war, neither organisation was capable of providing a class analysis. The opposition they mounted, for all the courage and spirit shown by individuals, actually contributed to the blurring of class lines. Further, if the majority of the working class movement was blind to the dangers of this situation, parts of the bourgeoisie were becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities it offered to them. The more intelligent parts of the ruling class were beginning to believe that accommodating the reformist wing of the workers’ movement could actually reinforce the capitalist system. It was this understanding that lay behind the secret deal between the Liberals and the Labour Representation Committee which allowed the latter to gain a number of seats in the 1906 election (see part 7 of this series in WR 222).

In the next part of this series we will examine the participation of the British working class movement in the activities and debates of the Second International.


First published in World Revolution 225 (June 1999)



The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914