Blog 2: WRITING DEMOCRATIC IDEAS AND THE BRITISH LABOUR MOVEMENT, 1880-1914
In 2020 I finished my latest, and possibly my last, study of the early British socialist movement. As I explained earlier (see Blog 2) when I did my D Phil research in the second half of the 1970s I was inspired by a wish to test out the contention made at the end of Walter Kendall's The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1920.
The revolutionary movement, before the transformation took place had been ultra democratic, opposed to leadership on principle, opposed to the professionalisation of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.
I already knew, thanks to reading Logie Barrow's thesis that Blatchford and The Clarion had been very much in this camp but I was totally surprised to find that to a very large extent the same was true of the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF). It has been so misrepresented that it is tempting to suspect a plot covering several generations dedicated to carrying this out deliberately. But an investigation of this, even in the unlikely event of its turning up any persuasive evidence, would still leave the question of the nature of the SDF and what it stood for unanswered. Much better to address this than to worry about why historians have served the SDF appallingly badly' as Martin Crick said citing a lecture by John Foster back in 1984.
The title of my study is still to be finalised but it will certainly include 'Social-Democracy with a Hyphen.' Social Democracy – without a hyphen - came for much of the 20th century to be synonymous with middle-of-the road 'moderation' But, as I've tried to show, this was far from true of the SDF – above all of those who referred to themselves as its 'Old Guard' who are the subject of my study.
I show that there was from the earliest days of the SDF a commitment to the most radical
change imaginable. Nothing less than the ideal of the 'Co-operative Commonwealth' could satisfy the aspirations of the 'Old Guard'. But crucially this was to be achieved by political persuasion – inevitably a gradual process – and certainly not by trying to impose a supposedly socialist regime.
Hyndman, the single most influential member of the SDF 'Old Guard' insisted that Social-Democrats were the true heirs of the Chartists and that the term Social-Democrat had been introduced by Bronterre O'Brien who had 'used the term Social-Democrat to express the views of those who wished to bring about a complete social reconstruction under democratic forms.'
When the SDF was founded in the early 1880s the state of affairs in Britain was anything but democratic. About a third of men and all women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections, but while the situation fell far short of the democratic ideal and nothing resembling a 'level playing field' existed in British politics it was at least possible to advocate far-reaching political change without being suppressed.
Political demands – universal suffrage, proportional representation, the initiative and referendum – were always at the forefront of the SDF programme.
Then in 1911 the party attempted to achieve the longed-for 'socialist unity' but ended up with a British Socialist Party which included many people influenced by syndicalism but still left the ILP as the main socialist party of the country.
Available in UK from https://www.waterstones.com/author/ian-bullock/167331
ISBN 13; 178-1-5272-6126-6
Hyndman, and also the Clarion's Blatchford, were much criticised for warning of the 'German menace' years before the war broke out but when did a gulf opened in the BSP between the 'Old Guard' who still controlled the old SDF, now BSP, paper Justice and the largely much younger people who by 1916 had become the BSP majority. A split followed
with Justice and the 'Old Guard' becoming the most outspoken and unequivocal critics and opponents of the Bolsheviks while the rest of the BSP went on to form – eventually – the British Communist Party in 1920. I had discussed this polarisation in Romancing the Revolution but in the new study I follow the 'Old Guard' into the post-world war period,
One thing is perfectly clear. While much of the British socialist movement - where it did not throw in its lot completely with Lenin and the Bolsheviks - was inclined to view their activities through rose-tinted spectacles members of the revived SDF – which sadly gradually petered out in the 'twenties and 'thirties - rejected Leninism – even of the 'watered-down' sort typical of the British Left outside the CP – both as a revolutionary theory and as an oppressive practice more completely and insisted on pursuing democracy more consistently than any other part of the British Left.