Critically Evaluate the Impact of Socialist Organisations

Eighteenth century industrialisation created a new class of working people, dependent for survival on the wage they earned for their labour. The conditions they endured and toiled under were often of the harshest imaginable and because of this movements grew, from varying quarters, looking to better their lot. British politics, at the time, was dominated by two sets of people: the Tories, essentially landowners, and the Whigs, liberal industrialists who emphasised personal responsibility and individualism, bound up within a general concession towards human equality.

The nineteenth century saw advances towards social change implemented by these parties (the reform acts of 1832 and 1867), but it became clear to some that they could not be relied upon to take things significantly forwards, mainly as it constituted a direct conflict of interests for them to do so. Early working class upheaval, and resentment, was voiced and organised through the chartist movement; and even before that by the influential utopian socialist Robert Owen. Indeed, Engels said of Owen: "Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself onto the name of Robert Owen.

"1 Chartism developed in the middle 1830's to address the shortfalls of the first reform act, which failed to extend the franchise in any radical sense. Chartism therefore, had as its main tenant: '… the call for a representative parliament, largely elected by, composed of and annually accountable to working men. '2 Chartists, however, had fizzled out by the late 1840's due to poor leadership, internal disagreements, and Europe being close to revolution in 1948, which somewhat scared the British movement. Chartism still managed to survive until 1958 in Halifax, a strong working class community.

The relative prosperity of the 1850s suppressed support for radical social politics somewhat, confining it mostly to small groups of migrant Europeans in the capital, Marx et al. The early 1860's again saw calls for social and electoral reforms, which were eventually granted under the Disraelian government. Now for the first time certain constituencies had a majority of working men as potential voters, and to this ends the first working men, with the support of the London's Working Men's Association, sought positions in parliament in the election of 1968.

They were all heavily defeated. After this in 1969 the Labour Representation League, backed by some of the Unions, was formed to promote the working class vote without party influence. The League failed as a consequence of lack of funds; unable to support itself with working class contributions it eventually allied with Gladstone and the liberal party, which in many ways was a coalition of opinion anyway, and would least undermine its aims. This pact led, in 1974, to the first working men in parliament (two miners).

There was further enfranchisement in 1884 giving even more workers the vote, though women were still overlooked. Running parallel to these developments was the emergence of organised labour in the form of the Trade Unions. Initially Trade Unions were only open to skilled workers and craftsmen and they operated as friendly societies, insular and self serving: '… they sought always to come to an agreement with an employer and they kept the members' contributions high to safeguard their friendly benefits. '3 These early Unions were strongly linked to the Liberals and looked down upon non skilled workers.

Any militancy within them was tempered by first Liberal, and then Tory, concessions, which were imperative after the reforms of 1867, with the Trades Unions Acts of '71 and 76, granting them legal status and the right to picket, respectively. In 1868 the Trade Union Council was set up, and from this sprung the Parliamentary Committee in 1871, which worked towards some form of labour representation within Parliament. By 1886 there were nine working men in parliament, led by Henry Broadbent. These men owed their positions to the Liberal party, who by agreement didn't field candidates in certain city centre constituencies.

Consequently they had little independence, and as Engels commentated were little more then "the tail of the Great Liberal Party. " The 1880s saw the 'socialist revival', a renaissance in, and reassessment of socialist ideals. This resurgence had its roots in the growing disenchantment with the liberals as the sole vehicle for labour reforms, and various other new or rediscovered literatures supporting or pertaining to socialism. In 1879 American Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, an attack on landlordism, calling for a land tax.

Although not an avowed socialist, this book was widely read and supported by a series of tours by George himself, which neatly coincided with a period of severe agricultural recession. "George was no socialist; but it was an easy transition from the evils of landlordism, through the gospel of land taxation to socialist ideas. It was in this way that Henry George influenced men and women like Bernard Shaw, H. H. Champion, Keir Hardie, H. M. Hyndman and Beatrice Webb, all in their diverse to become important representatives of the socialist movement of the 1880s.

"4 Other important literature at the time came from Carlyle and Ruskin, who both outlined the ugliness the present system of capitalism was inflicting upon the workers, and the appalling indifference, quite often through ignorance, most employers exhibited towards them. H. Pelling has acknowledged their influence thus: "It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory. "5

There was also the success of the German Social Democratic Party in the German Reichstag, polling nearly half a million votes and securing thirteen seats. 6 This showed what was possible. Two main socialist organisations sprang up from this rejuvenation, the first of which was the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1884 by H. M. Hyndman. Hyndman himself was from the English upper classes, capable of funding the cause, more instinctively Tory in outlook by rights, and consequently disregarded feminist politics: '[he was] quite content to bear the reproach of chauvinism.

'7 He drew heavily, though without credit, from Marx and the party had strong revolutionary tendencies, but the main tenant was the need for a socialist organisation opposed on all levels to the Liberal party; the party was initially born from the Democratic Federation which had contained left wing Liberals. The SDF was at grass roots a working class party, with a small but dedicated membership that held rallies and distributed socialist pamphlets, in order to convert their colleagues to the cause. It was dismissive of the craft Trade Unions because of their links to the Liberal party. The party's leadership included H.

H. Champion, another 'gentlemen'; working men Tom Mann and John Burns; and Eleanor Marx (Marx's daughter), Belfort Bax and William Morris, all three who quickly split to form the Socialist League, because of differences with Hyndman. Champion too, later split from the party, over its commitment to violent revolution, determining instead support labour representatives, independent of the Liberals, at elections; most notably Kier Hardie, unsuccessfully, in the mid – Lanark by election of 1888. Champion wrote the weekly journal of the SDF, Justice, which was well read in London, and took it with him when he left

The breakaway Socialist League, co-founded by William Morris, wanted to concentrate more on propaganda. Morris espoused the concern that profit mongering is inevitably flawed in its application to the quality of work, as cheap skimping methods are naturally taken to achieve this; this is in contradiction with most people's real work ethic, which is to work to the best of ones abilities. Another important member, Eleanor Marx, became a leading figure in the formation, and consequent strike action, of London's new unions in the later 1880s.

The Socialist League eventually tore itself apart, as the anarchists tugged one way and the parliamentarians pulled the other. This quote from a collaborative essay, Socialism: its growth and outcome, by Morris and Belfort Bax in 1893, shows the spiritual nature many socialists gained from their beliefs: "Socialistic Ethics would be the guide of our daily habit of life; socialistic religion would be that higher form of conscience that would impel us to actions on behalf of a future of the race, such as no man could command in his ordinary moods.

"8 The SDF never gained a large membership; its revolutionary policies were always at odds with the British working class, and Hyndman's lead was too rigid in stance for it to have any real contribution to the formation of the Labour Party. But it was fundamentally important in shaping the minds of many radical working class politicians, and in the events surrounding the creation of the New Trade Unions in East London that culminated in the growth of the Trade Union movement and introduced it to socialist doctrines.

Hobsbawm identifies the SDF as a stepping-stone for the dissatisfied working class; giving them the means to realise their class consciousness, and begin to do something about it: "its greatest achievement was to provide an introduction to the labour movement and a training-school for a succession of the most gifted working-class militants"9 The other major socialist movement to emerge around this time was the Fabians, a group of, initially London based, middle class intellectuals, who excepted Marx's arguments on the economic structuring of society, but differed on his theory of the inevitability of a proletarian revolution.

The Fabians grew out of the Fellowship of the New Life. Leading figures included, initially E. R. Pease, Hubert Bland and Frank Podmore; and later on genius Irish playwright G. B. Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Annie Besant. They instead wished for gradual social reforms, which they presumed once were initiated couldn't be stopped. Take for example this quote of Sidney Webb's, one of Fabianisms leading lights, from his 1890 essay Socialism in England: "No nation having once nationalised or municipalised any industry has ever retraced its steps or reversed its actions.

No failure of any experiment in such 'collectivisation' is anywhere recorded. "10 This has turned out to be a false prediction, with the fall of the U. S. S. R. and the re-privatisation programmes carried out in this country – even under a labour government. But at the time it was supported by many of the most well respected socialist thinkers. The Fabians were committed to 'permeation' of the existing political parties, encouraged by the reform acts and franchise increase, which they believed demonstrated societies gradual ongoing metamorphosis into a more ethical reorganisation.

They believed educated men, particularly on the left wing of the Liberal party, could be won over by intelligent argument: 'The primary aim of the society was to convince men, and especially men of influence, of the truth of the socialist case. '11 Because of this the Fabians saw no reason for independent labour men in parliament at this time, believing moreover, that it could cause damage by taking votes away from Liberals and consequently handing victory over to the Tories.

Their dedication to permeation also meant they were at odds with the Trade Union movement. The Fabians, have over time, seen the analysis of their part in the creation of the Labour Party decline. A. McBriar, for instance, concludes: 'No major political development can be attributed with certainty to Fabian influence'12, and Hobsbawm states 'they must be seen not as an essential part of the socialist and labour movement'.

13 These statements might sound a little harsh but Fabian influence didn't really stretch beyond the insular circles in which it operated, mainly due to its dedication to a form of transitional socialism – and a method of realising it, through permeation – that failed to materialise in the real world; but nevertheless cemented its opposition to the creation of the ILP, and later left it with only a minor role in the formation of the LRC.

The late 1880s saw a newer more radical form of Unionism emerging, with the old Unions failing to make any real political or social impact and the socialist revival awakening some of the working class to their plight. As well as this, increased mechanisation of all aspects industrial work had created a great many newer, unskilled workers without any organisations to which they might have joined. SDF members, such as Annie Besant, initiated the first steps in this new movement in East London, where a new Union was formed at the Bryant & May match factory, specifically to improve working conditions.

A strike was called and their demands quickly met. This Union differed from those that had gone before because it was inclusive of everybody. The setting up of the Gasworks Union in early 1889, which managed to secure a maximum working day of eight hours for its members, without having to take strike action, quickly followed this. The Gasworks Union was organised and run by SDF member Will Thorne, who worked as a stoker. Helping him were other SDF members Ben Tillett, J. Burns and T. Mann, as well as E. Marx from the socialist league.

East London was again the scene for industrial action later on in the same year as dockers sought an improvement in pay to sixpence an hour, 'the Dockers' tanner', and improved working conditions. The refusal to meet these simple requests swelled the numbers of B. Tillett's newly created Labourers Union, and all dockers went on strike, including the skilled workers from their separate Unions. This conflict was not resolved as quickly the previous two; the dock owners took a strong stance and refused to negotiate.

The dockers may have failed to win but for two important factors: the support of the Australian Trade Union movement, to the sum of thirty thousand pounds, and the widespread support of both the general public and the media. 14 The Success of the Great Dock Strike stimulated growth of new unskilled unions across the country, but by 1893 Unions were again enduring a phase of decline. This wane in numbers can be attributed to economic factors: depression causing greater periods of unemployment, which severed the links between many men and their Unions, and especially in the unskilled and their new Unions.

But there was also something of a fight back by employers, who began using police protected scab labour to break strikes. Although the rise and fall of new Unionism was short it had the lasting effect of making all unions more susceptible to socialist ideas & influences. And by 1890 socialists had secured nearly a quarter of the votes in the TUC, culminating in congresses acceptance of the eight-hour day. Ben Tillett neatly sums up the real political importance of new unionism – it was:

"The beginning of that close alliance in thought and purpose between the Trade Union Movement and the Socialist Movement which produced in due time the Labour Party. "15 The old unionists fought back, led by the Lib-Lab M. P. s in Westminster, and pushed the socialist element back towards the fringes of congress in 1895. This was done by excluding Trade Council delegates (more inclined towards socialism) and introducing the block vote to give the larger established unions greater control.

Outside of London working class socialism in the north of England got something of a boost with the surge of new unionism. Areas involved in the wool industry, and particularly Bradford, were going through a bout of industrial disputes over wage cuts and job losses. This saw the proliferation of small socialist organisations and labour clubs, encouraged by new leftwing press: John Burgesses Workman's Times and Robert Blatchford's Clarion, which sold as many as 90,000 copies a week.

16 Blatchford also wrote a socialist best seller in Merrie England (1893). Blatchford's socialism attracted a lot of working class support, it was utopian but in some ways nationalistic believing Britain could be fairly self-sufficient. At this time Keir Hardie had already formed the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 after his defeat in the mid – Lanark by election of 1887, and by 1892 he had secured the first seat in parliament for an independent working man.

Hardie realised the need for creating a socialist party in England, entirely independent of the Liberals and set about trying to achieve this. Using the Working Man's Times as his organ he called for a conference of interested socialist organisations and labour clubs to be held in Bradford. This conference was held early in 1893 and attended by 120 people; representatives came from labour clubs, Trade Unions, the Scottish Labour Party and both the SDF and the Fabians, although the demographic was predominantly Northern, and Yorkshire at that.

From this the Independent Labour Party was founded, constituting a commitment to socialism: 'to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange'17 but purposefully emitting the word from its title, so as not to scare off the unions, still, on the whole, sceptical of such radical policy. The Independent Labour Party struggled in its early days. The SDF and the Fabians had refused to affiliate for the same old reasons: SDF leadership refused to believe it would act entirely dependant of the Liberal Party and the Fabian leadership in London were still committed to permeration.

There was a lack of funds and it was difficult co-ordinating all of the small groups across the country. The ILP never had a particularly large membership, up to around 10,000 paying contributions in 1895 (and maybe up to 50,000 in total), dropping to around half this level by1901; but this is still significantly larger than the other socialist organisations had ever managed to muster, the SDF by comparison having 1,700 members in 1902, and never much more throughout its history, than 3,000. The ILP was strongest outside of London, especially in the Yorkshire area from whence it originated.

They managed to field 28 candidates in the general election of 1895, without winning a seat, but polling on average a reasonably respectful figure of 1,500 votes each. 18 Over the course of the 1890s various changes in the political scene helped shift the Unions, still at the time concordant in many ways with the Liberal Party, over towards supporting the need for a separate labour orientated party. Union numbers had swelled over the decade. Doubling over the four years 1888 – 1892, with the added impetus new unionism brought, from a start of 750,000, and then steadily increasing up to 2,000,000 by 1900.

This coincided with a number of other factors, which gradually convinced the Union movement to adopt a shift in direction. Firstly they found themselves increasingly under attack from employers beginning to co-operate more effectively in beating strikes, and secondly from court decisions which went against them; including the deterioration of picketing rights, and making it illegal for workers to strike to support workers in separate disputes. There were also more industrialists and employers entering parliament at this time, who for obvious reasons were perceived as a potential threat.

Gladstone's retirement in 1894 left the liberal party fractious, and consequently out of power in 1895, with a new Conservative/Liberal Unionist coalition heading the country. This left the Trade Unions without an ally to rely on in the government. There was also an increasing Socialist presence in the Unions as the 1890s drew to a close, despite the TUC's actions of 1895. Socialist activists were becoming more prominent in the movement, because they more than anyone were concerned with the issues of the day. They were also, on the whole intelligent and driven, striving for positions of leadership:

"so that by the late 1890s there were few major Unions which did not at least have a handful of socialists on their executives. In several cases, the chief officers could be claimed for the faith. " 19 It was also becoming apparent that the number of working men the Liberal Party would permit to stand for them was limited, not by the party leadership so much but by the members at constituency level; predominantly middle class they preferred men from their own background, who as well as addressing their needs more sympathetically could raise the capital to finance their own election campaigns.

This led Ramsey McDonald, after failing to be nominated as a Liberal candidate in 1894, to comment upon: 'a national policy which is compelling what was once the advanced wing of Liberalism to sever itself from an old alliance and form itself into an independent Labour party. '20

Taking all of these things into consideration, as well as the damaging effect of 'Lib – Lab' candidates standing against the already created ILP, and splitting the progressive vote in certain areas, the TUC passed its resolution to form the Labour Representation Committee in 1899, to which socialist organisations would be allowed to join; thereby committing in principal for the first time, to the supporting of independent parliamentary candidates acting on behalf of labour concerns.

This was an important step, but it didn't ask a great deal of the Unions, leaving the decision to affiliate up to the individual Unions and requiring no formal monetary contributions. The LRC, the Labour Parties direct precursor, got off the ground in Feb 1900. Its first two years were difficult and it had made few gains by the general election in 1902, when it won two seats from 15 candidates; and Keir Hardie was still the only truly independent MP in parliament.

The LRC suffered from a lack of pecuniary weight as the Union numbers were initially small and their contributions nominal. The Unions chose to support their own candidates directly without going through the LRC. The SDF disassociated itself with the LRC in 1901 and again began to field its own candidates. The LRC was at this time run by moderate socialist and politically ambitious Trade Unionists. The fortunes of the LRC drastically improved, with a massive increase in membership from the Trade Unions, following the Taff Vale judgement, occurring after the election, in Dec 1902.

The House of Lords declared the Railway Servants Union liable for the loss of profit their employers suffered during a strike, and ordered them to pay a sum of 23,000 pounds. Ramsey McDonald, now a prominent figure in the LRC, skilfully capitalised on this verdict, convincing the unions that through supporting the LRC was the best way to oppose such a decision; in a letter to the TUC, he wrote: "The recent decisions of The House of Lords … should convince the unions that a labour party in party is an immediate necessity. "21

Immediately after the Taff Vale judgement, Union members swelled the ranks of the LRC, all anxious to prevent further action by other employers, which would seriously curtail their bargaining power. Membership rose from 350,000 in 1901 to 861,000 by the end of 1902, and of those Union members composed 847,000. The number of affiliated Unions also rose in the same spell, to 127 from 65. 22 This increase in numbers gave much more clout to the executive of the LRC, who then used it to substantially increase the financial contribution of each Union.

This boost in funding meant LRC candidates could be fully supported for future election campaigns. In 1903 R. McDonald further improved the position of the LRC in a secret deal with the Liberal Party, securing their promise not to field opposition candidates in seats where the labour man (including 'Lib-Lab' men) had a strong chance of winning. The fact that the Liberal party were willing to do this shows the extent that their regard for the LRC had now reached, but it also made sense for them to concede when out of power and seeking to limit Tory votes.

The Liberals were also inclined to compromise because the LRC was Union dominated, unlike the ILP before it. Furthermore since 1902 the LRC had increased its numbers in parliament through by-elections to 5, with A. Henderson triumphing over both a Liberal and a Tory candidate. At the 1906 election the LRC stood up 50 candidates, 29 of which won, getting an average vote of nearly 7,500 each. It is significant out the 29 successful candidates that ran only 5 were up against Liberal opposition.

In addition one other MP, elected separately, defected to their ranks after the election. At this time the party changed its name to the Labour Party. It was a primarily working class party, not staunchly socialist, but prepared to accept some of its shibboleths at least. Its main focus was the improvement, and restoration of, Trade Union rights, and to campaign for improved working conditions and security for the working people.

The early socialists struggled to win any widespread support from the people they were attempting to help; they were often missionary like, seeking to almost convert their contemporaries; this sanctimonious character coupled to the fact that their ideas were hard to grasp for uneducated people, who were living at a time when every one was meant to know their place and except it, meant hostility and contempt for them was the norm. The real muscle behind the creation of the LRC, and therefore the Labour Party, was the Unions; they provided the money and mass of supporters that were necessary for its survival and success.

The impact of socialism on the Unions was initially small, but it was socialist thinkers and activists that fired the New Union Movement, ultimately leading to the augmentation of all the Unions, and consequently an urge for greater representation in parliament that would befit their advanced status. It was socialists, most importantly Keir Hardie, who realised how crucial the Unions would be in forwarding a workingman's party, and the ILP was formed with these intentions.

The early labour party owes much to socialists, if not socialism, because without their visions of, and subsequent drive for and commitment to, an independent party for labour concerns, it would have failed to materialise. Nevertheless, the majority of those involved with unionism still had many links with the Liberals; and had the Liberals been more accommodating to their wishes they would have no doubt been able to count upon their continuing support. R. McDonald said words to this effect in 1895: "We didn't leave the Liberals. They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces. "


* P. Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945 (Longman 1972)

* F. Bealey & H. Pelling, Labour and Politics 1900-1906 (Oxford 1958)

* F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Progress 1968)

* E. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men (Weidenfield & Nicholson 1968)

* H. Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (Oxford 1965)

* G. Phillips, The Rise of the Labour Party 1893- 1931 (Routledge 1992)

* B. Tillett, Memories and Reflections (John Long 1931)

* R. Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Flamingo 1993), intro. G. Day

* The Chartist Experience, edited by J. Epstein & D. Thompson (MacMillan 1982)