Part 13: Socialist organisations and the ‘industrial’ struggles of 1908-14

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In the previous part of this series, in WR 232, we began our examination of the impact of the wave of industrial unrest that swept across Britain in the years before the First World War by analysing the development of syndicalism and industrial unionism, showing how its militancy challenged the dominant reformism of the workers’ movement in Britain. In this part we continue this work by looking at the response of the main political organisations of the working class.

The defeat of the attempts to unite the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in the late 1890s and the creation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, marked the victory of the right wing of the British working class movement (see part 6 of this series in WR 218). However, it was not a permanent victory and did not mark the end of the dynamic towards unity on a socialist rather than a trade unionist basis. In particular, local branches of the ILP and SDF continued to work closely together, often with overlapping memberships. Resolutions calling for unification with the SDF were regularly proposed at the ILP’s annual conference but the leadership of the ILP was able to either avoid discussing the resolutions at all or to ensure that they were defeated. The leadership also attacked those pushing for unity and dismissed the SDF as a nonentity “out to revive its ebbing existence by engrafting itself upon the ILP” (ILP News, April 1902, quoted in Crick The History of the Social Democratic Federation). Despite such efforts, the minority supporting unity remained significant, the resolution to the 1906 conference receiving 58 votes for and 108 against.

The annual conferences of the SDF also saw regular calls for unity and, since they had the backing of Hyndman and the rest of the leadership, were passed every year between 1904 and 1911. In 1907, the SDF wrote to the ILP inviting them to nominate delegates to join a unity sub-committee it had set up. The ILP’s response to this request, and others that followed in 1909 and 1910, was to call on the SDF to rejoin the Labour Party (the Labour Representation Committee had changed its name to the Labour Party after the 1906 general election), which it had left in 1902, knowing this would be rejected. These developments, while showing that unity remained an issue, were unable to break through the manoeuvres of the leadership of the two organisations. The SDF’s proposals to the ILP and the condition imposed by the ILP were tactics in the struggle to dominate the workers’ movement. The ILP had taken over from the SDF as the largest organisation and in the 1906 election a considerable number of its candidates were elected (see part 7, WR 222). Hyndman was now coming to regret the hasty decision to leave the LRC, since this meant he had lost any real chance of election and he was keen to find a way to regain lost ground. One consequence of this was the decision in 1904 to allow local socialist societies to affiliate to the SDF.

In the second decade of the 20th century, as in the last decade of the 19th, it was the development of the class struggle that brought together and pushed forward the existing tendencies within the working class to create a powerful dynamic for socialist unity.

The impact of the industrial unrest

Faced with the strike wave of 1908 to 1914, the SDF and the ILP were unable to respond to the challenge posed to their traditional positions by the scale and militancy of the strikes and by the advance in the class consciousness of the proletariat.

The SDF, while giving platonic support to strikes once they had started, continued to dismiss them as useless. In 1903 Hyndman wrote in the SDF’s paper Justice: “We are opposed to strikes altogether. They never were a powerful weapon and now they are quite out of date” (quoted in Kendal, The revolutionary movement in Britain 1900 to 1921, p28). Faced with the mass strike of 1905 in Russia, the SDF failed to understand its role in developing the consciousness of the working class, arguing that if the working class was capable of organising such a strike then it was capable of taking hold of power without it. A similar view was put forward in 1907, as the first strikes on the railways heralded the onset of the strike wave: "we of the Social Democratic Party and Justice are opposed to strikes on principle... Political action is far safer, far better and less costly” (Ibid. The SDF took the name Social Democratic Party in 1906 but we have used the old name throughout this series to avoid confusion). The party’s official publication on the strikes of 1911 argued that “industrial struggles such as we have been passing through…inconvenience the general public…add to the bitterness felt…towards the working class by the middle and upper class…engender similar feeling among a considerable section of the public whose sympathies have hitherto been on the side of the men” (ibid, p29). The strike wave as a whole was seen as a massive waste of energy, which should have been spent getting candidates elected to parliament. This position ensured that the SDF did not benefit from the strikes as much as it should. While the first part of the strike wave saw a significant increase in membership, rising from 6,000 in 1907 to 17,000 in 1909, it fell over the next two years to somewhere between 8-12,000 (the figures for these years are imprecise).

The ILP remained preoccupied with parliament. In the two elections of 1910 the agreement reached in secret with the Liberals in 1906 again ensured that a significant number of Labour candidates were elected. While the ILP did not expel members who supported syndicalism or industrial unionism, as the SDF did, Snowden and MacDonald both wrote books attacking such views. The former, after arguing that Marx saw the transition to socialism as an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary act, dismissed the idea of a general strike as impractical since it was based on an assumption “of working class unity for which there is no support either in experience or probability” (Snowden, Socialism and Syndicalism, p235). While it remained the largest socialist organisation, it saw a decline in membership as the strike wave grew.

The dynamic of unity

Co-operation between militants and local branches of the SDF and ILP grew during this period. There was growing criticism of the existing leadership and, alongside this, a growth of independent local socialist organisations, often under the influence of the Clarion newspaper, edited by Blatchford, who had played a role in the previous push for unity.

In 1904 the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International passed a resolution calling on the socialist organisations in each country to unite in a single organisation. In the wake of this an International Socialist Council for Great Britain was established but it rapidly became another forum for the rivalry of the ILP and SDF. However, the International’s call found an echo amongst some socialists and the strike wave began to turn such efforts into a serious dynamic towards socialist unity. In the same year, the Derby Socialist Society called on the SDF to change its name to the British Socialist Party. In Bury the local branches of the ILP and SDF merged into the Bury Socialist Society. On a greater scale the following year saw a whole range of branches and small organisations come together in the South-East Federation of Socialist Societies, which set itself the goal of a United Socialist Party. However, these organisations were generally short-lived, not least because they faced determined opposition from the ILP. It was able to split the North-Eastern Socialist Federation and MacDonald announced his intention to do the same to the South Eastern Federation.

The tradition of Clarion Vans, touring the country to spread socialism, was also revived by Blatchford and the Clarion movement and was subsequently copied by the SDF.

The campaigns for unity

The election of Victor Grayson in 1907 as a ‘pure’ socialist, sympathetic to industrial unionism and socialist unity, in the face of opposition from the LRC and the ILP, was seen as a powerful expression of the new dynamic. He was also to play a pivotal role in changing the dynamic for unity into a definite campaign. Throughout 1908 Grayson toured Britain speaking at meetings, where he called for unity and a socialist policy. He was made political editor of the Clarion and received support from the SDF. In 1909 he launched a campaign with Hyndman and Blatchford, leading the ILP to cancel all his future speaking engagements. At the ILP conference that year he won support against the National Advisory Council, prompting its four leading figures, Hardie, Snowden, Glasier and MacDonald to resign in an attempt to put pressure on the conference. The opportunism of the ILP leaders came under increasing attack, a number of its leading members signing a manifesto entitled Let us Reform the Labour Party, while the membership began to decline (between 1909 and 1911 46 branches collapsed). The SDF leadership took the opportunity to join the campaign, its conference of April 1911 instructing the executive to call a national conference of unity. Grayson resigned from the ILP in August 1911 and launched a campaign calling for Socialist Representation Committees to be set up as a prelude to founding a British socialist party.

There were in effect two campaigns. That led by Grayson and Blatchford, largely through the pages of the Clarion, and that led by Hyndman through the SDF. While the Clarion campaign sought to create a new organisation on the basis of individual membership, the SDF sought to base it on the fusion of existing organisations, seeing in this a way to assert itself against the ILP. A number of Socialist Representation Committees were created, some through a fusion of SDF and ILP branches and others as new local organisations, while several prominent members of the ILP joined the campaign. Following his resignation from the ILP Grayson launched a speaking campaign to build momentum for a conference the following month.

The British Socialist Party

The Unity Conference of September 1911 that established the British Socialist Party (BSP) was hailed by Grayson and Hyndman as a historic moment in the development of the workers’ movement. It brought together SDF and ILP branches, Clarion Clubs, local Socialist Societies and other organisations with a total membership of about 35,000. The conference received greetings from continental Socialist Parties and from individuals, including Rosa Luxemburg. The new executive seemed to suggest that the SDF did not aim to dominate the new organisation, since only four of the ten members belonged to the Federation. The discussions on the role and aims of the BSP showed that many divisions remained. The founding resolution proposed by the SDF defined the socialist party as “the political expression of the working class movement” which “is not a reformist but a revolutionary party, which recognises that social freedom and equality can only be won by fighting the class war through to the finish” (quoted in Crick, op.cit. p241). The reference to the class war was opposed by a minority but supported by the majority. There were also disagreements over the question of reforms, with the party rejecting any such struggles, and over industrial unionism, with an amendment committing the BSP to “revolutionary industrial tactics” being defeated by 92 votes to 62 (Tsuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism).

Despite Hyndman and Grayson’s claims, it rapidly became apparent that no real unification had been achieved because the vast majority of the ILP remained outside. Grayson claimed at the time that 30% of the ILP membership had joined the BSP. The ILP put the figure at just 5%. Certainly, in some areas, such as Lancashire, the ILP was greatly reduced, but in other parts of the country it was barely affected. Within the international socialist movement the new organisation was seen as a failure because it had not brought together the ILP and SDF into a single organisation, which was understood to be the only way to achieve the goal of a single united socialist party in Britain.

The splintering of the BSP

The BSP grew rapidly after its founding. At its official Founding Conference, in May 1912, it was reported that some 370 branches had been formed, with a total membership of about 40,000. In 1909 the SDF had claimed a membership of 17,000. However, even before then the new organisation had begun to break apart with growing conflict between the Clarion and SDF factions. Following the unity conference the rivalry between the Clarion-Grayson faction and the SDF meant that each maintained a separate office. The second meeting of the Provisional Executive Committee of the BSP decided to transfer the executive to the existing SDF office. Since the Unity Conference had also agreed that the SDF should maintain its separate existence until the Founding Conference, this meant that the SDF became the dominant force in the BSP. In short, Hyndman had out-manoeuvred Grayson. Although Grayson attacked the decision as exceeding the authority of the executive he did not attempt to organise any opposition to Hyndman, failing to attend the Founding Conference and ceasing any involvement by 1913.

The conference itself was marked by a new confrontation, this time between the SDF leadership and the supporters of syndicalism and industrial unionism. Initially it had seemed that the BSP would be able to respond to the industrial militancy of the proletariat. In November 1911, 50,000 copies of a Manifesto to the Railway Workers were distributed, followed at the start of 1912 by 150,000 copies of a manifesto to striking miners. The conference adopted a constitution that seemed to compromise between the different factions within the party, declaring as its methods both “the advocacy of industrial unionism of all workers” and also “the establishment of a militant Socialist Party in Parliament”. However, the debate at the conference showed that this masked a sharp division between the old leadership of the SDF, who wanted to keep the industrial and political struggles separate, and those sympathetic to industrial unionism who wanted to give a greater emphasis to the industrial struggles. Leonard Hall, one of the leading supporters of industrial unionism within the BSP, declared that “It was up to the British Socialist Party to declare identity with the new industrial movement” and that “industrial action and political action should be a case of plus not versus” (quoted Kendal op.cit p42). Quelch, Hyndmans’s closest ally, attacked this as a “gross impertinence” to the Trades Union Congress and an intervention by Hyndman helped to defeat the resolution proposed by Hall by 100 votes to 46.

Prior to the first Annual Conference Justice had already attacked syndicalism and industrial unionism as “A recrudescence of the parasitical anarchism which infected the socialist movement in this country some twenty years ago” (quoted in Crick, op.cit. p246).  Following the conference, Hyndman launched a direct campaign against the industrial unionists. In October the Executive issued a manifesto on Political Action and Direct Action which repeated the attacks on industrial unionism. Two members of the Executive, Hall and Smart not only stated that they had not signed the manifesto, but also claimed that it had been altered without their knowledge. Hall and Smart resigned from the Executive, neither attended the 1913 conference and Smart left the BSP with other supporters of industrial unionism, some of whom joined the Socialist Labour Party (SLP).


The impact on the BSP was dramatic. By its second conference membership had collapsed to just over 15,000, less than the membership previously claimed by the SDF. In fact, by 1913, the potential which had existed, not only for uniting the socialist organisations but also for linking the political and industrial struggles into a coherent whole, had been destroyed. While the manoeuvres of Hyndman played a central role in this, in keeping with the parasitic and destructive role he had played within the workers’ movement for the last three decades, the fundamental reason was the overall state of the workers’ movement in Britain. This was a legacy of the past failures of the movement that we have traced in this series. These failures had led to a situation where the movement was defined on the one hand by the opportunism, reformism and class collaboration of the ILP and the Labour Party and, on the other, by the sectarianism of the SDF, which was perpetuated in the groups that split from it, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the SLP. When the working class launched its militant struggles to defend its interests, its efforts were also marked by a tendency to reject political action, embodied in the growth of syndicalism. One particular factor was the repeated failure of opposition elements to put up a fight against Hyndman. The SLP was a premature split. Grayson gave up when his personal ambitions were thwarted. The syndicalist and industrial unionist faction in the BSP similarly failed to struggle, possibly reflecting their own underestimation of the need for organisation. However, the opposition elements remained within the BSP, grouped particularly around Theodore Rothstein and Zelda Kahan, who defended an internationalist position against the militarism and chauvinism of the Hyndman leadership. They were to play a significant role as the First World War developed. It is to the war and its impact on the workers’ movement that we will turn in the next part of this series.


First published in World Revolution 233 (April 2000)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914