The first British Marxists

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 5:50 Author: Cathy Nugent
Eleanor Marx

Continuing a series on the politics of the early modern British socialist movement with a brief assessment of the politics of the socialists in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century.

“Do not on any account whatever let yourself be deluded into thinking there is a real proletarian movement going on here. I know Liebknecht tries to delude himself and all the world about this, but it is not the case. The elements at present active may become important since they have accepted our theoretical programme and so acquired a basis, but only if a spontaneous movement breaks out here among the workers and they succeed in getting control of it. Till then they will remain individual minds, with a hotch-potch of confused sects, remnants of the great movement of the 'forties, standing behind them and nothing more.”

Engels to August Bebel, 30 August 1883.

So Engels more or less dismissed the Social Democratic Federation at its inception. Engels never essentially changed that view, despite his closest political associates Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling joining the SDF not once, but twice, with the years in between being spent in William Morris’s Socialist League (a 1884 split from the SDF).

For Engels the problem with the SDF was in good part the role of its organiser, leading light and patron, Henry Hyndman. Hyndman’s ideas are very confused, said Engels, and moreover, he has an unhealthy desire to dictate all that the group thinks and does. Was Engels right? Partly, but I believe it is important to balance Engel’s assessment of both Hyndman and the SDF.

Hyndman started his adult political life as a well-heeled Tory. His way into socialism was by way of “reactionary socialism” as Marx and Engels called it in the Communist Manifesto. He admired the Benjamin Disraeli who set up Young England, a group of people who despised the avarice and destructiveness of the new bourgeois order but favoured an alliance of the new working class with the aristocracy. Once he got the socialist bug, Hyndman never let it go. What Hyndman retained of his Tory roots, his hatred of the Liberal Party for instance, was quirky, but secondary.

Hyndman did have some important weaknesses: shocking anti-semitism — unfortunately not uncommon in the socialist movement — and inconsistent chauvinism was the worst of it. But his basic socialist propaganda is not bad. A summary of the principles of socialism, for instance, written with William Morris in 1884, is an interesting description of the historical development of the British working class.

The SDF was not a monolith. There were always differences and tendencies. Hyndman was domineering and proprietorial, but also often on the losing side of political debates. SDF branches would often go their own way, blurring the differences between the views of local members and the official policies of the SDF.

Hyndman also had a well-known lack of enthusiasm for trade union struggle. In the beginning this it founded on justifiable revulsion at the conservatism of the old craft-based, unions of the 1870s. If it was difficult for him to see the importance of trade unionism for socialists, he was not alone. The Socialist League (which split from the SDF at the very end of 1884) also emphasised the limitations of trade unionism in their 1885 Address to Trade Unions. Both groups thought and said that because big political struggles were on the horizon, day-to-day trade union struggle would soon be superseded.

The SDF (and later on the Socialist League) can be forgiven a lot because what they were trying to do was important — re-establish socialism as an organised force. They inspire admiration because they had such limited intellectual material to hand.

The early SDF was based not on extensive written works by Marx and Engels, because they didn’t have access to them, but on the most extreme views circulating in working-class Radical clubs of London of the time. Stan Shipley in his history of those clubs describes the context:

“It was the discussion of the theories of Bronterre O’Brien, Robert Owen and, more occasionally, Karl Marx [only the Communist Manifesto and one or two other works were available] in the metropolitan clubs... which produced the atmosphere in which an avowedly socialist movement could emerge. The working men of the Manhood Suffrage League termed themselves Radical, but when the matter of “Communism” was under debate a majority of them seem to have been predisposed in its favour.”

Bronterre O’Brien was a leader of the Chartist movement. In the 1880s his followers were based in the Manhood Suffrage League in west London and believed, among other things, that political reform — through universal suffrage — was the key to social change. They saw society as a natural order which had been corrupted by property and class. They abhorred monopolies of all kinds — of political power, the means of production and land. Breaking up land monopolies occupied a special place in their political programme.

It took many years for the work of Marx and Engels to be circulated in Britain.

The Communist Manifesto had been published in 1850, in a workers’ newspaper, the Red Republican, that is, in an ephemeral form. The International Working Men’s Association (the First International) in which Marx and Engels were heavily involved was reported in a workers’ paper, the Bee Hive. Marx’s “lessons of the Paris Commune”, The Civil War in France, was translated into English and published by the IWMA.

But in Marx’s lifetime, there were no other English translations of his (or Engels’) writings. In 1885 Hyndman got published a serialisation of the first ten chapters of Capital. The SDF issued a cheap edition in 1897. In 1886 SDFer JL Joynes translated Wage Labour and Capital. In 1887 the first volume of Capital appeared, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, and edited by Engels. It was very popular, going through four printings in four years. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonarparte appeared in 1898, The Poverty of Philosophy in 1900 and the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1904.

Hyndman was more educated than most in “Marxist” ideas. But he seems to have taken some things from the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, who had a “statist” or “reformist” conception of socialism. The founding programme (1883) of the SDF took its opening sentence (“Labour is the source of all wealth”) straight from the Gotha programme, the founding document of a united German socialist movement. Marx had criticised that sentence, and the whole programme, harshly in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).

Hyndman also adopted the “the iron law of wages” popularised by Lassalle. This stated that wage rises are only ever temporary and will always be pushed back to the physical minimum on which a worker can subsist. Such barminess propped up Hyndman’s lack of enthusiasm for trade unions.

But despite it’s limited beginnings the SDF did develop as a political organisation. By the end of the 1880s the O’Brienite influence had faded. With the advent of New Unionism, and the involvement of so many of its members in trade unions, the SDF had to explicitly reassess trade union struggle. By the end of the 19th century the SDF had taken over the London Trades Council. In 1897 the Executive recommended that all members join their trade union and local co-operative society.

For me both the SDF and the Socialist League had an important strength: they fundamentally understood, firmly grasped and entirely felt, that to make a better world, the workers must take economic, social and political power. This contrasts very sharply with many socialists today.

However on the question of how the workers would take power the socialists were a lot more vague. Detailed thought about how the workers would take power, the necessity or otherwise of insurrection, whether insurrection would be violent, how the workers would take over and run the economy, was not absent, but does not seem to have been a great concern.

Socialists of the time (everywhere) thought socialism was inevitable, and achievable within a short time span. They thought a workers’ revolution would arise out of a tremendous social crisis. All further questions would work themselves out in the course of time. Although it may look to us as if the socialists were stumbling and grasping at political culture, they may not have seen it that way. The socialism they preached was often repetitive, simple and focussed on basics about class exploitation. Since they were not able to read the subtle, concrete analysis of Marx and Engels, how would else would they conceive of the socialist project?

William Morris is always well worth reading, though sometimes plain wrong (right up until the end of his life, he thought “Parliamentary action”, i.e. socialists standing in elections and advocating reforms, was opportunistic). Much of the writing his available on the Internet. Socialism from the root up by Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax ( morris/works/1888/sru) is good. Together with News From Nowhere it describes how (these) socialists imagined a socialist society would look like.

“We ask our readers to imagine the new society in its political aspect as an organised body of communities, each carrying on its own affairs, but united by a delegated federal body, whose function would be the guardianship of the acknowledged principles of society; it being understood that these two bodies, the township or community and the Federal Power, would be the two extremities between which there would be other expressions of the Federal principle — as in districts that were linked together by natural circumstances, such as language, climate, or the divisions of physical geography.”

Both the SDF and the Socialist League emphasised a political revolution. And both emphasised winning converts to the socialist doctrine so that the workers knew they needed to take power. Once the workers were in power the socialist transformation could take place.

Marx and Engels saw workers’ revolutions in less narrowly political terms. For them the political revolution was always the culmination of social and economic struggles. The political heritage of the British socialists — the Chartists and O’Brienites — must have a great deal to do with their emphasis.

Tom Mann knew instinctively that it was possible to transform the union movement with a socialist intervention, and that would help build the base for a revolution. But Mann never integrated his idea of developing workers’ struggles with an overall revolutionary strategy. In The Student’s Marx Edward Aveling takes an unusual view by describing how political movements could be a way to promote and develop (rather than to solve) social questions. Expropriation in factories, he says, would be backed up by the workers in government.

What would the SDF’s political revolution look like?

In the early years there was popular saying among the socialists — “gunpowder against feudalism, dynamite against capitalism”. Many accepted that the social crisis out of which the workers would grasp power might get violent — the bourgeoisie might fight back

However, in general SDFers wanted to temper that idea: “Gunpowder helped to sweep away feudalism when new forms arose from the decay of the old; now far stronger explosives [dynamite] are arrayed against capitalism, whilst the ideas of the time are rife with revolution as they were when feudalism fell. To obviate anarchy we must organise.”

But the question of violence or non-violence, was never the central issue for Marx and Engels. The SDF’s concern was to educate the workers so that they would be fit to take power without “anarchy”. Marx and Engels wanted to promote and develop the social processes that gave birth to a revolutionary class.

One question of controversy between the Socialist League and the SDF was over whether or not the workers needed a transitional state, to reorganise society and guide socialist transformation. The Socialist League, in their founding programme were talking about the SDF when they condemned as “no… solution” “State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages still in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.”

It was not a fair representation of the SDF as a whole. The SDF were revolutionaries in the sense that they wanted to overturn the existing order of things — they wanted the workers to take over the capitalist means of production. But the SDF, or Hyndman at least, does seem to have conflated the idea of a transitional state with the final goal. “To get complete control of the state departments for the people was the main object, in order to democratise them entirely, and thus do away with the State as class domination for ever.” said Hyndman (Justice, 19 January 1884).

On the other hand the SDF was clear enough on the role of the existing state in perpetuating bourgeois class rule. The growth of the British state, its bureaucracy and its repressive forces left them in no doubt about that. In 1907 Harry Quelch concluded “the ruling class will not be made to submit to law and order which is not their law and order, except by overwhelming superior force.”

At the same time, the SDF did envision Parliament or perhaps other institutions of the state being democratised. They had no clear idea of a radical break between the existing capitalist state and a workers’ state. The old institutions were not going to be “smashed” as revolutionaries would say today.

The Socialist League’s accusation of state socialism was partly tied up with their hostility to the SDF’s comprehensive programme of reforms for the here and now, which they would expound on at times of election.

Electoral activity was always very important for the SDF. If there was universal male suffrage, as there was more or less after 1885, why not use it? They were encouraged in this by the examples of electoral activities of their sister parties in the Second International. Bit by bit, standing in elections came to be less about “soap boxing” socialist propaganda, and more about wanting to be in a position to implement reforms, even small ones.

In the early years many in the SDF were ambivalent about reforms — palliatives, as they were known. Such things could be injurious if they stripped away a feeling of rebellion among the workers.

But eclectic lists of reforms were standard artefacts of the movement. And the reform demands were sincere. The SDF believed that the conditions of life for working class people had to be raised somewhat, or socialism would not necessarily be the outcome of the capitalist crisis. They wanted to “raise the physical, moral and mental status of the working class and to better fit them for the struggle for their emancipation.” (Bax and Quelch, New Catechism)

They also felt reforms had a certain value in exposing the bourgeoisie, i.e. when the capitalists refused to reform the workers would see “what the masses have to expect from the governing class.”

By the twentieth century the SDF were firmly committed to palliatives. They were, said Justice: “the stepping stones to cross the stream, from the wild disorder of private search for gain to the regulated industry of the Socialist Commonwealth… The palliative is the means of arousing that discontent by consideration, which shall finally change the basis of the social structure and proclaim freedom by ending man’s power to exploit his fellow man.”

After some years, and some experience of trade union amd social struggles, the SDF began to tailor their reform proposals to the concrete needs of workers.

For the unemployed they proposed work creation, farm colonies on nationalised land; they agitated for, in essence, full employment.

When two SDFers were elected to the school board in Reading at the end of the 19th century they advocated such things as improvements in heating and ventilation, smaller classes, pianos, swimming, visits to museums, woodwork, housewifery [!], abolition of corporal punishment, an increase in teachers’ salaries and reduction in the difference between the salaries of masters and mistresses.

In such activity, and in their development of a more sophisticated reform programme, we see, once again, the SDF’s keenness on political action — how they emphasised it over trade union action, strike support work and so on.

By the end of the nineteenth century SDF branches in the north and in London were heavily involved in trades councils. It was an opportunity to bring together economic class activity and politics, a key arena for the new activity of working class political representation and the attempts at socialist unity.

I’ll deal with these in the next article, and return to my original theme of Tom Mann’s role in the movement.

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