Part 9: The workers’ movement in Britain and the Second International

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The previous part of this series, in WR 225, examined the understanding of internationalism by the working class movement in Britain, concluding that its response to the Boer War showed some serious weaknesses. We continue this work here by considering the role played by the British working class movement in the Second International in the years leading up to the admission of the Labour Party in 1908.

The struggle against anarchism and for a marxist international

In the second part of this series (WR 205) we described the attempt by Hyndman to sabotage the foundation of the Second International by working with the Possibilists and anarchists, an attempt Engels explicitly compared to the efforts of Bakunin in the First International. We also showed that William Morris, despite participating in the marxist congress, failed to grasp its significance and joined the protests against the exclusion of the anarchists (part 3 in WR 208).

Subsequently, the SDF joined the International and Hyndman took an active part in its debates, from its third congress onwards, including supporting the expulsion of the anarchists. In fact the SDF transformed itself into one of the strongest opponents of anarchists, voting to expel then from the SDF at its 1890 congress and beginning a campaign against them during the preparation of Zurich Congress of 1893, with the SDF paper Justice characterising them as “extreme reactionists” (Tsuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism. Original Phd Thesis). At the congress itself and the subsequent one in London in 1896, the SDF actively supported the exclusion of the anarchists. At the latter Hyndman presided over the session that finally settled the debate and definitively excluded them, declaring in his speech “I yield to no man in toleration…but I denounce Anarchy. I denounce disorder, and I stand up for order and organisation of International Social Democracy” (Conference Record, quoted ibid).

This change of face did not mean that Hyndman had abandoned his efforts to dominate the workers’ movement but that rather, in the face of defeat in 1889, he had changed tactics. Thus in changing sides on anarchism he did not abandon his hostility to marxism but sought to distinguish between Social Democratic ‘authority’ and marxist ‘dictation’:“Such self-arrogated dictation…the Anarchists are quite right to protest and revolt against…But to confuse reasonable, necessary and democratically appointed authority with this objectionable, injurious and self-appointed dictation is foolish, and hinders the progress of Socialism generally” (Justice, June 1890, quoted ibid). His enmity towards Engels remained particularly sharp. When an Austrian socialist wrote a book about British Socialism, Justice described it as the first “honest endeavour on the part of a German resident to tell the truth…since January 1881” (quoted ibid). Years later Hyndman attacked The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State as “merely a rehash of Morgan’s doubtful theories with some questionable speculation of Engels’ own” (Justice, quoted in Jackson Solo Trumpet). Following Engels’ death in 1895 Hyndman attempted to move closer to the centre of the international movement by developing links with the German Social Democrats who had previously regarded him with suspicion. Hyndman had earlier shown his bourgeois colours by warning of the threat posed by Germany to British interests and calling for an expansion of the British navy. However, he succeeded in winning over Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the most respected figures in the workers’ movement, and the SPD paper Vorwarts described the SDF as “the solid kernel around which the mightily growing English Social Democracy will crystallise” (quoted in Tsuzuki op.cit). If these efforts did not give Hyndman the domination he wanted, they did contribute significantly to the SDF overcoming the defeat of 1889 and maintaining its position within the workers’ movement. However, an attempt by the SDF to organise a separate, purely ‘socialist’, congress alongside the London congress of 1896, which was presumably calculated by Hyndman to increase his influence (not least because the ILP would have been unlikely to attend such a congress) won no support from the International. An attempt to restrict the next congress to Social Democratic Parties was also defeated.

Many of the leaders of the Independent Labour Party and the TUC, who formed the majority of the British delegations, were resolutely opposed to marxism (see part 6 of this series ‘1894-1900: Socialist party or labour alliance?’, WR 218) and actively opposed the exclusion of the anarchists, although they tended to vote for resolutions which made acceptance of the political struggle a condition of participation. At the London Congress, Hardie and Mann spoke against their exclusion, Hardie arguing to the ILP delegation “It might be alleged that if they supported these people’s claims they were sympathising with Anarchists. For his part, he was more afraid of doing an unfair thing towards a body of Socialists with whom he did not see eye to eye, than he was of being called an Anarchist” (quoted in Wrigley ‘The ILP and the Second International: the Early Years, 1893-1905’ in James et al The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party). In fact Hardie and other ILP leaders associated themselves closely with the anarchists, not only breaking their mandates to vote against their exclusion but also speaking at a public meeting with the likes of Kropotkin, Malatesta and Michel. The TUC elements, who had been given the main responsibility for organising the London Congress, supported this stance and had initially sought to transform the congress into an international trade union conference.

The struggle against revisionism

After the struggle to establish the International on a marxist basis, the congresses in 1900 in Paris and 1904 in Amsterdam were dominated by the fight to defend marxism as the revolutionary tool of the proletariat against the errors and betrayals of revisionism and reformism. If this arose first within the German Social Democracy, the same tendencies were seen throughout the workers’ movement: “fundamentally, reformism was the product of the pressures emanating from bourgeois society in a period of impressive economic growth and prosperity in which the perspective of capitalist collapse and the proletarian revolution seemed to be receding into a remote horizon. …Social democracy was gradually being transformed from an organ geared essentially towards a revolutionary future to one fixed on the present, on the gaining of immediate improvements in the working class’ living standards” (‘The revolutionary perspective obscured by Parliamentary illusions’, IR 88).

At the Paris congress debates focused on the participation of the French socialist Millerand in the bourgeois government that included General Gallifet, who had led the massacre of the Communards in 1871. Kautsky attempted to reach a compromise by proposing a resolution that effectively opposed such participation in principle while accepting it in practice: “The entry of a single socialist into a bourgeois ministry cannot be considered as the normal beginning for winning political power: it can never be anything but a temporary and exceptional makeshift in an emergency situation” (quoted in Cole A history of socialist thought, Vol. III). The Bolshevik paper Iskra denounced this as an ‘india-rubber’ resolution, but at the congress it was carried by a majority of 29 to 9.

Of the British delegation, it was inevitable that the ILP, the Fabians and the Trade Unionists would support the resolution since their whole orientation was towards participation in and collaboration with the bourgeois parliament. However, the SDF also supported it, despite its publicised opposition to revisionism (Bax even called for Bernstein, the ‘architect’ of revisionism, to be tried before a ‘court of heresy’ and expelled), showing once again the reformism beneath its radical rhetoric: “We of the SDF have always acted upon the principle that Socialists are not only justified in entering into conflicts which arise from time to time between bourgeois parties, but that it is frequently their duty to do so in the interests of justice and humanity and in defence of such political liberties as we at present possess […] We held it to be the duty of French Socialists to support the Waldeck-Rousseau Ministry against the clerico-military reaction” (Justice, September 1899, quoted in Tsuzuki, op.cit.). Under pressure from Liebknecht and the opposition provoked within parts of the SDF, Hyndman subsequently backtracked in an effort to maintain his leadership.

The Amsterdam Congress dealt directly with the question of revisionism, taking up a resolution passed at the SPD’s congress in Dresden in 1903 that explicitly condemned it: “The Revisionists wish to substitute for the conquest of political power through the overcoming of our enemies a policy of meeting the existing order of things half way” (quoted in Cole, op.cit.). An attempt to amend the resolution into a compromise acceptable to all was not supported and the Dresden resolution, with only minor changes, was passed by 25 to 5 with 12 abstentions.

On this occasion the British delegation divided, casting one for and one against. The ILP strongly opposed the resolution, Bruce Glasier opening a campaign against the ‘class war’ that was to last several years, one of whose aims was to isolate the SDF. Of the debate at the congress he commented: “all of the speakers, with the exception of Bebel, seemed to rant away at the phantom enemy ‘Capitalisme’ and I less than ever felt drawn to the typical ‘continental socialist’. Hyndman and Quelch as usual did the British serio-comic turn – nay I am wroth when I think of the ineptitude of it all” (quoted James et al, op.cit). The SDF given its previous opposition to revisionism and its stance as the defender of marxist orthodoxy, threw its support behind the resolution. That this also kept it in line with the majority of the Social Democracy, including Kautsky, was undoubtedly important in Hyndman’s calculations as well.

Opposing the tide of militarism

As we showed in the last part, the struggle against the rising tide of militarism began to preoccupy the International from the Paris Congress of 1900 onwards. At the Stuttgart Congress of 1907, the debate showed that the response to this question was intimately connected to the debate on revisionism, with the left of the International ensuring that the final resolution made clear that “the struggle must consist…not simply in replacing war by peace, but in replacing capitalism by socialism” (Lenin, “The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart”, Collected Works Vol.13). This resolution was adopted virtually unanimously. However, the length and complexity of the debate showed that there was a dangerous lack of understanding of the question. Four different resolutions were submitted, including one which advocated national defence if a country were attacked and another which called for a general strike and uprising if war were threatened. In general, the growing weight of the reformist vision of the peaceful transformation of capitalism, which had not been curtailed by the resolution of 1904, stood in open contradiction to the idea of the Stuttgart resolution that war was inherent to capitalism and peace required its forceful overthrow. The debate on colonialism also expressed the weight of bourgeois ideology with the proposed resolution ignoring the question of imperialism and arguing that under socialism colonial policy could play a civilising role, a view echoing that of the Fabians. This was only narrowly defeated, leading Lenin to conclude that “it revealed a negative feature in the European labour movement” (ibid, p77). The British delegation voted unanimously for the resolution on militarism but divided over the question of a ‘socialist’ foreign policy.

The affiliation of the Labour Party

The International’s understanding of the working class movement in Britain can be seen from the debate on the affiliation of the Labour Party that took place in the International Socialist Bureau in 1908. A small minority, but, significantly, one led by the SDF, opposed affiliation altogether unless the Labour Party explicitly recognised the class struggle. The main resolution, proposed by Kautsky, whilst acknowledging that the Labour Party did not so recognise the class struggle, nonetheless concluded that it should be admitted since “in practice the Labour Party conducts this struggle and adopts its standpoint, inasmuch as the Party is organised independently of the bourgeois parties” (quoted by Lenin in “Meeting of the International Socialist Bureau”, Collected Works Vol.15). Lenin, while supporting the admission of the Labour Party, opposed this formulation since “in practice the Labour Party is not really independent of the Liberals and does not pursue a fully independent class policy” and proposed that the grounds for affiliation should be amended to read “because it represents the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party” (ibid). Lenin’s amendment was lost, but in recognising both the potential of the workers’ movement in Britain and the threat it still faced from the bourgeoisie and its own opportunist leaders, he recognised the continuing dilemma facing the working class’ movement; a dilemma that would become sharper in the following years.


The involvement of the workers’ movement in Britain in the Second International offered the possibility of a counter-weight to the prevalent insularity of the movement, but this opportunity was rarely grasped and instead it further revealed the weaknesses of the movement, which frequently aligned itself with the opportunists and reformists.

The response to the question of organisation revealed that the working class in this country still lacked a solid marxist foundation. In the ILP this incomprehension was a consequence of its reformism and opportunism, while within the SDF it was created by the parasitic manoeuvrings of the dominant Hyndman clique. The debate over revisionism showed the opportunism of both organisations. The leadership of the ILP were the natural allies of Bernstein and Jaures while the leadership of the SDF switched allegiance as and when they felt it would advance their interests. On militarism, the opposition to the Boer war had already exposed the weaknesses of the movement on this question, while Hyndman’s nationalism and anti-Semitism utterly contradicted the SDF’s support for the anti-militarist resolutions.

However, none of this meant that the working class movement in Britain was defeated and that the struggle for the class party was over. The growth of the Labour Party expressed, as Lenin recognised, the continued movement towards socialism of the British working class while the opportunism of the main organisations increasingly provoked opposition from their left wings. The task facing these minorities was how to maintain the combat against opportunism without isolating themselves from the mass working class movement, particularly faced with the massive development of the class struggle in the years leading up to the First World War. This was a task they shared with the whole of the left wing of social democracy. In the next part we begin to trace this effort by looking at the opposition that developed within the SDF in the first years of the century.


First published in World Revolution 226 (July/August 1999)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914