Part 10: The development of the left in the Social Democratic Federation

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The struggle that took place within the international workers’ movement in the first years of the twentieth century can only be understood in its historical context. While the foundation of this struggle lay in the clash between the reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement, the latter, in seeking to defend marxism, the necessity for revolution and the revolutionary potential of the working class, was also forced to confront a number of new questions that were being posed as capitalism moved into its period of decadence. These concerned the nature of the period, the form of the class struggle and, most importantly from the point of view of this series, the implications for the role and functioning of the revolutionary organisation. Both Lenin and Luxemburg devoted major works to the first, while the second was addressed through the debate on the mass strike and the lessons of the 1905 revolution in Russia. The most significant contribution on the third was made by the Bolsheviks who, in insisting on the need for a revolutionary organisation to be composed of committed and disciplined militants, moved towards the understanding that the era of the mass party, formed around the minimum programme, was coming to an end and that the organisation capable of struggling for the maximum programme, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, would necessarily regroup only a minority of the proletariat. The developments in the revolutionary movement in Britain in the first years of this century can only be properly understood in this context.

By the turn of the century the tendency towards a division in the movement in Britain between a mass reformist organisation, under the control of the right wing, and much smaller revolutionary currents, was becoming increasingly marked. This followed the defeat of attempts to unite the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation in the later 1890s by the leadership of these two organisations and was consolidated by the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and the Labour Party in 1906. One lasting consequence of this has been to reinforce the myth, actively peddled by the bourgeoisie, that the working class in Britain is inherently conservative and under the sway of illusions in bourgeois democracy. While this partly reflects the reality of the situation, resulting from the historic power of British capitalism, it ignores the equally important existence of a persistent revolutionary current within the working class of this country. Furthermore, as the dominance of British capitalism within the global market ebbed away under pressure from its younger rivals, the resurgence of the class struggle began to challenge the reformism and opportunism of the right wing and offered an historic opportunity to the left wing.

The left of the ILP and the SDF

In 1900 the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation were the two main socialist organisations in Britain, although they had recently seen a decline in membership. In both, the right wing dominated the leadership. However, both also contained a left wing struggling against this domination.

The defeat of the demands for unity greatly strengthened the grip of the right wing of the ILP. The leadership effectively rotated within a small group, consisting of professional politicians like MacDonald, Snowden and Hardie. Although they might refer to Marx, and even claim to be the embodiment of marxism, in practice they were anti-marxist, opposing the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat in favour of manoeuvres and deals with the bourgeoisie to gain seats in Parliament. They controlled every aspect of the ILP, from its finances through to its congresses. The left wing, in contrast, was even more weak and fragmented than at the time of the unity negotiations, not least because a significant number of militants had left to join the SDF. They seem to have had no clear organisational form, their existence mainly being expressed through the resolutions calling for unity with the SDF that were still quite frequently sent to the ILP annual conference.

In contrast, the left wing of the SDF became highly organised, with its own meetings and publication. In part this reflected the greater weight of the left of the SDF since there was no organisation further left to which they could go, but it also arose in response to the strength of the leadership, which frequently used its position to expel troublesome elements. One of the tactics used to maintain this position was the reserving of half of the seats of the executive for London, where the Hyndman clique was based.

The left of the SDF itself included a number of different factions. The strongest was located in Scotland where there had been a growth in membership in the 1890s, leading to the creation of a Scottish District Council on which the left had a majority. Within London there were some elements who largely shared the critique developed by the grouping in Scotland and who subsequently shared the name ‘impossibilists’. Both groupings, but especially the one in Scotland, were influenced by the Socialist Labor Party in America, led by Daniel DeLeon, who strongly attacked the socialists he felt were compromising with capitalism. He advocated replacing the traditional craft unions with industrial unions that organised all workers in a particular industry rather than just one particular craft or skill. A second grouping in London centred around Andrew Rothstein and was particularly active in opposing the anti-Semitic analysis of the Boer war presented by Hyndman and others in Justice.

The critique of the left in the SDF

The two currents on the left of the SDF shared some positions, notably opposition to the official stance of the SDF on the Boer war, but they were sharply opposed on the direction the SDF should take. Rothstein argued that for the SDF to break from being a mere sect it had to be involved in the everyday struggles of the working class and emphasised the importance of the minimum programme alongside the maximum one: “Political and civil freedom, cheap justice, wide and sound education, aesthetic culture, and innumerable minor things which, despite our professed programmes, very frequently leave us indifferent, are of the utmost importance to the proletarian class and should concern us as much as its material wellbeing” (Social Democrat [theoretical journal of the SDF] 1900, quoted in Kendall, The revolutionary movement in Britain 1900-1921, p12).

The impossibilists, in contrast, attacked the SDF for making concessions to reformism. In the debate over the participation of socialists in a bourgeois government at the Paris Congress of the International, the only member of the British delegation to oppose the Kautsky resolution, which took a centrist position by rejecting participation in principle while allowing it in practice, was George Yates, a member of the Scottish District Council. The impossibilists linked this to an attack on the Hyndman clique, not only opposing their domination of the party, but also what they saw as the dissolute habits of the leadership. In seeking to defend the revolutionary goal they tended to play down the struggle for immediate reforms, a significant proportion opposing them altogether. One practical consequence was that they violently opposed any move towards unity with the ILP.

Linked to the critique of reformism was a critique of the ideology of ‘state socialism’, which associated an increase in the powers of the state with a move towards socialism. The Fabians were to the fore in this since they openly opposed the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, but it was prevalent also in the ILP and the SDF. After leaving the SDF, that fraction of the impossibilists who formed the Socialist Labour Party set out their definition of socialism: “By this we do not mean what is variously called ‘State Socialism’, ‘Public Ownership’ or ‘Municipalism’ – that is, the ownership of certain public utilities by a community in which capitalism is still dominant. A worker is as much exploited by a capitalist state or corporation as by a private employer… We insist upon the political overthrow of capitalism as a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the working class” (quoted in Challinor, The origins of British Bolshevism).

The struggle in the SDF

The struggle between the leadership of the SDF and its left wing was centred around the SDF’s annual conferences between 1901 and 1904. In 1901, the impossibilists opened the struggle with a resolution condemning the vote on the Kautsky resolution and a call for the organisation rather than Hyndman to control Justice. Both were lost but closer links were established between the impossibilists in London and Scotland. The fruits of this were seen at the conference in 1902 with the two groups meeting before the conference and working together during it. Although their specific resolutions were lost, particularly one calling for the formation of socialist trade unions, they increased their share of the vote (Challinor states that on average they got 40%) and won three places on the executive. Subsequently the impossibilists sought to further strengthen their position, establishing a liaison committee and launching their own paper, The Socialist.

The SDF leadership now moved against the left, taking advantage of the differences within it. In particular they had the support of the faction led by Rothstein who described the impossibilists as ‘traitors’. Amongst the impossibilists there were also tensions, both over political positions but also arising from personal animosity. Above all, there was a division between those who thought it necessary to form a new party and those who called for a continued struggle within the SDF. In particular, the issue of The Socialist prior to the 1903 conference contained a very strong attack on ‘the official SDF’ which had not been submitted to the London faction for their approval before publication.

The conference itself was held in London, the centre of the Hyndman clique (Hyndman himself had resigned from the executive in 1901 but his acolytes still controlled it; the move was purely formal). George Yates, the author of the article was expelled and the earlier expulsion of the Finsbury branch was confirmed. The impossibilists lost their seats on the executive and the new one gave itself powers to expel without appeal any individual or branch that opposed it.

At a joint meeting of the impossibilists after his expulsion, Yates called for the formation of a new party. The majority of the London impossibilists opposed this as premature but in May 1903 the Socialist Labour Party was founded. The result was that the left was now divided between the Rothstein faction, which had rallied to the leadership, the group which had formed the SLP and another still within the SDF. This last now had no chance of effectively combating the leadership and its leading militants were expelled at the 1904 conference. In June they formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Balance sheet of the struggle

The struggle that took place within the SDF in the first years of the century confirmed not only the existence of a left wing within the revolutionary movement in Britain, but also that it had a significant weight and was seeking to take up the questions posed to the working class by the new period that was opening up.

On the method of the class struggle, the SLP began to pose the need to go beyond the educational and parliamentary struggles that dominated the movement in Britain. However, while industrial unionism implied a criticism of reformism in the existing trade unions it did not open a perspective towards identifying the form of the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle in the way the experience of the soviets in the 1905 revolution did. Before long, the DeLeonist notion of industrial unionism became another sterile, sectarian dogma which discounted the real experience of the working class. Of the other parts of the left, Rothstein’s emphasis on relating to the actual struggles and concerns of the working class was essentially a restatement of a fundamental orientation of marxism in the face of its distortion by the leaders of the SDF and the ILP and the Fabians. The SPGB, for its part, quite rapidly made ‘education’ and elections their only spheres of activity. An early debate on the Trade Unions, whilst rightly seeing them as reformist, showed that they had failed to grasp the political aspect of economic struggles, in particular their role in the development of class consciousness.

On the question of the nature of the organisation, while Rothstein’s positions rightly defended the necessity for revolutionary organisations to relate to the actual state of the class struggle, this tended to still be within the framework of building a mass party. The SLP, and to a lesser extent the SPGB, recognised the necessity for revolutionary organisations to be disciplined and theoretically formed, but did so at the cost of a sectarian attitude towards the larger working class movement. Both organisations refused to work within the Second International and denounced the socialist parties of other countries as reformist, failing to see the struggles going on within them.

The question of how to struggle within an organisation was also posed. Rothstein’s strategy was to struggle within the SDF. If his criticism of the impossibilists was understandable given this, his readiness to defend the SDF, and even Hyndman personally, suggests a centrist position towards the struggle within the SDF. The SLP on the other hand split from the SDF prematurely, ignoring the advice of James Connolly who was a major influence on them. The SPGB showed a greater reluctance to abandon the SDF but were given no choice.

Overall, no single organisation was able to make a sufficient analysis of the weakness of the movement in Britain in their practice, let alone their theory. All of them carried a lot of baggage from the SDF. Rothstein refused to work with other parts of the left while the SLP and SPGB carried the sectarianism learnt within the SDF into the new organisations. In the years that followed these developments the working class in Britain mounted a strike wave of a size and seriousness unseen since the Chartists and showed once again the strength and potential of the British working class. It is to these developments and the challenge they posed to the working class movement that the next part in this series will turn.


First published in World Revolution 228 (October 1999)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914