Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

1. The Birth of Reformism

The Precursors: From Chartism to the Independent Labour Party

IN 1911 Ramsay MacDonald wrote:

The Labour Party ... is the only political form which evolutionary Socialism can take in a country with the political traditions and methods of Great Britain. [1]

This statement is false. At different times British workers have given mass support to political ideas that are in sharp contrast to reformism. Only in the twentieth century were majority won to the reformist position.

Between 1839 and 1848 workers supported Chartism. Unlike the Labour Party this rejected the legal framework of existing society. [The idea of petitioning for the ‘Six Points’ of the Charter was originally mooted by reformists like William Lovett. But once the movement gained a mass basis the idea of appealing to the goodness of the upper classes disappeared. As Thompson puts it: ‘the actual collection of signatures to the petition does not seem to have been a major preoccupation of the new groups ... It is also noticeable that none of the recollections of ex-Chartists mentions the collection of signatures as a remembered form of activity’. [2]] In November 1839, for example, there was an armed rising by several thousand Chartist miners at Newport. Chartism’s most prominent demand was for universal suffrage, but to have granted the vote when the working class was in revolutionary mood would have mortally threatened bourgeois society. The ruling class felt that, in the words of Macaulay to the Commons, universal suffrage was ‘incompatible with the very existence of civilisation’. [3]

The Labour Party operates a strict division between trade union officials, who take care of wages and conditions, and members of parliament, whose concern is ‘politics’. In the Chartist period there was no barrier between political and industrial activity. The Chartist Convention of 1839 made it clear that direct action, not canvassing, was the way forward:

The Convention continues to be unanimously of the opinion that nothing short of a general strike, or suspension of labour through-out the country, will ever suffice to re-establish the rights and liberties of the industrial classes. [4]

In 1842 the general strike became a reality. This was the first such strike in the world and lasted longer than the 1926 General Strike. Half a million workers initially downed tools because of wage cuts, but soon factory after factory declared itself ‘“ready to strike for the Charter, but not for wages.” ... This was the general line.’ [5]

Chartism was unashamedly a class movement. Its demands were of revolutionary significance and it saw workers’ self-activity as the means to winning these demands. But the movement was extinguished after 1848: In the decades that followed social peace and imperial prosperity prevailed. Britain had become ‘the work-shop of the world.’ In the boom workers were able to win a rising standard of living.

The militancy and unity of earlier years broke up and the Chartist idea of strikes as a political weapon was absolutely repudiated. In 1856, for example, the engineers’ leader declared: ‘We do not allow any political matter to be discussed at all nor entertained among us.’ [6] Theodore Rothstein shows how this worked in practice:

the slogan of ‘No Politics’ ... applied only to the organised forms of politics based upon the class struggle. In other words, every individual worker could privately engage in politics ... Naturally, by thus atomising himself politically ... the English worker fell an easy prey to the organised force of bourgeois party ideology and became a Conservative or a Liberal. [7]

A sign of the collapse of class politics since Chartism was the granting of votes to men living in towns and cities in 1867. By this means Disraeli’s Tory government hoped to buy workers’ allegiance. Twenty years earlier a similar move would have meant ‘the end of civilisation’, but now Viscount Halifax reassured the House of Lords of ‘the almost universal reasonableness of the working classes...and their vast improvement of late years’. [8] In 1884 rural male workers were also given the vote since it was judged that they too had an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism: Marx was scathing about British workers at this time:

The English working-class had been gradually becoming more and more deeply demoralised by the period of corruption since 1848 and had at last got to the point when it was nothing more than the tail of the Great Liberal Party, i.e., of its oppressors, the capitalists. [9]

In 1874 ‘the first labour MPs’, Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald, were elected. Both were mining officials who stood as Liberals. Burt opposed a separate workers’ party because: ‘Classes they have, and class distinctions they possibly would always have, but they should not accentuate their class differences.’ [10] Alexander MacDonald told his union conference: ‘he trusted that in their efforts to put down strikes they would accomplish a great work for which posterity would thank them’. [11] These two alone should have been sufficient to expire the myth that the mere fact that workers sit in parliament represents serious progress for the class.

Burt and MacDonald were known as Lib-Labs. This group never grew into a serious force because Liberal voters preferred to elect genuine members of the ruling class rather than union officials who aped them. The Lib-Labs were moved to complain:

We have ever sought to be allied to the great Liberal Party, to which we, by conviction, belong. They have not reciprocated this feeling ... middle-class Liberals preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. [12]

Nevertheless, a few Lib-Labs were elected from time to time. In 1900 there were 11 of them. There was even a union sponsored Tory-Lab candidate, a cotton union official from Lancashire!

However, such MPs depended on the boom conditions that accompanied Britain’s monopoly of world trade. Only in such a situation could workers logically think ‘what is good for my boss is good for me’, and vote for openly capitalist parties. Engels accurately predicted that ‘once America and the joint competition of the other industrial countries make a big enough breach in this monopoly ... you will see a lot of things happen here.’ [13] Between 1870 and 1913 Britain’s share of world trade fell from 30 per cent to 15 per cent [14], and in 1889 Engels was vindicated by the appearance of new unionism, which led to a break with Lib- Labism.

From New Unionism to reformist politics

The roots of the 1889 strike wave were economic. Yet there had been similar economic fluctuations before without any dramatic new departures. A crucial factor in the 1889 explosion was the intervention of socialists who, though tiny in number, played a leading role. [15] Many of them were associated with the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

The most famous incident was the ‘Great London Dock Strike’ led by socialists such as Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillett. Until that time dockers had been, in Engels’ words, ‘the lowest of the outcasts ... a mass of broken-down humanity who are drifting toward total ruination ... this host of utterly despondent men.’ [16] Now 30,000 dockers had paralysed the largest and wealthiest city in the world, the hub of the biggest Empire, and won!

The new unions were based on unskilled or semi-skilled men and women. It had been thought they could not be organised since they lacked the bargaining power of craftsmen. This was proved wrong for the new ‘General Unions’, unlike the old ones, looked to organisation across the class embracing all types of worker. Old unions put their faith in negotiation and conciliation; the new turned to direct action with mass pickets and physical resistance to scabbing.

Instead of tailing bourgeois parties, the most advanced new unionists based themselves on the power of the working class: ‘our cry is still the vehement and bitter cry of labour against capital. While we are still at war we shall hold out no flag of trace to the capitalist until the product of our labour is ours and not his.’ [17] Socialists like Mann coupled the building of union organisation with a demand for the legal eight-hour day, to be forced from the state, thus linking the collective strength of the working class with political demands.

The new unionists thus challenged the institutional separation of politics and economics. It is through this division that the system prevents collective struggle spilling over into a threat to its very survival, because the state faces workers in their capacity as voters only, as atomised individuals. Marx recognised the significance of the campaign for a statutory eight-hour day:

every movement which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement ... the attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc. is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour law is a political movement. [18]

The old unionist leaders fought the new trend bitterly. George Shipton, chairman of the London Trades Council, led the attack. He condemned revolutionary political methods. Instead of mass demonstrations designed to force concessions from the state, they should work through it: ‘When the people were un-enfranchised, were without votes, the only power left to them was the demonstration of numbers. Now, however, the workmen have votes.’ [19] Shipton also opposed introducing politics into union struggles: ‘The “new trade unionists” look to Governments and legislation; the “old” look to self-reliance.’ [20]

Tillett and Mann offered an equally vigorous reply which showed where they differed both from reformist dependence on parliament and the separation of politics and economics. They stressed workers’ self-organisation as the key to progress:

we have been at pains to discredit appeal to the legislature, contending that the political machine will fail into our hands as a matter of course, so soon as the educational work has been done in our labour organisations ... The statement that the “new” trade unionists look to governments and legislation is bunkum; the key-note is to ORGANISE first, and take action ... [21]

The militant industrial activity of this period had nothing in common with parliamentary reformism, yet within a few years this was what it produced. How was the movement transformed?

The heroic phase of new unionism was short-lived. The ruling class fought back using lockouts and mass scabbing to break the weakest groups. This succeeded because British capitalism’s crisis was not so deep that all sections of the working class were stirred up. The hostility of the older unions also obstructed unity. Finally the SDF, the main organisation on the left, was incurably sectarian. It ignored the value of trade union activity and dismissed the dock strike in patronising tones. In September 1889, at the very moment of victory, it published an article entitled ‘The Errors of the Strike’ which said: ‘We congratulate the dockers on the very little modicum of success that has been obtained at so great a cost.’ [22]

Between 1890 and 1892 membership of the new unions fell from 320,000 to 130,000, slipping from a peak of one quarter of the Trades Union Congress to 10 percent in 1900. The Gas Workers, the most politically advanced, dropped from 60,000 in 1890 to 24,000 in 1896. [23] Trade unionism in general suffered a serious setback, membership falling by 40 per cent in just three years.

With union machines to protect, leaders like Will Thorne and Ben Tillett rapidly adopted some of the conservative attitudes they had criticised in the ‘old’ union bureaucrats. In 1893 Tillett blocked a national strike against mass scabbing at Hull docks. In 1894 Thorne ‘exhorted his members to rely on the advice of their officials, declaring that “a firm stand should be made against men coming out on strike, unless oppressed to such an extent that their position is unbearable.”’ [24]

At the start new unionist leaders had understood the need for workers’ political action. Reporting to the Second International in 1891, the Gas-Workers’ delegation declared:

The successful, like the unsuccessful strikes ... all of the hundreds of large and small strikes of the last two years, point to the same moral and adorn the same tale – that Trade Unionism and Strikes alone will not emancipate the working class. [25]

It was one thing to understand the need to challenge capitalism politically, but it was possible to draw either revolutionary or reformist conclusions.

One possible direction was to use the fight for reforms, including placing demands on parliament, as a means of mobilising the working class and through this experience preparing the final, revolutionary, struggle for socialism. But the reformist attitude to parliament was a means of demobilising the class, asking it to rely on leaders who avoid confrontation and work within the system. Their negotiating skills substitute for mass activity.

Alas, the sectarian attitude of the SDF meant that in the 1890s only the latter alternative was presented, and it triumphed across the board. Even the minority who would have accepted the revolutionary arguments were not organised into a permanent force, and the most advanced ideas of new unionism disappeared without trace.

Tom Mann was one of the last to leave the field. In June 1891 he could still write: ‘the belief is quite sincerely held ... that parliamentary action is desirable as a substitute for unionism ... how absurd.’ [26] But a new attitude soon emerged. Its most public manifestation was Tillett’s parliamentary candidature in Bradford. In 1889 and 1890 he had turned down offers to stand. ‘Never mind party politics, to hell with them’, was his comment. [27] Yet in September 1891 he accepted the candidature. The tenor of his campaign was significant:

An avowed socialist, Tillett did not once mention the word ‘socialism’ during the run-up to the election ... He also reprinted in his campaign literature the commendation he had received from the elders of the Congregational Church: ‘We have reason devoutly to thank God that our Leader of undisciplined labour is a man like Tillett, a good soldier of Jesus Christ, and not a Marat’ ... He seems to have consciously refrained from envisioning the socialist millennium, remarking on at least three separate occasions that he would not do so. [28]

Tillett’s campaign symbolised a general trend among thousands of workers. For Bradford was the clearest example of how industrial defeat led to reformist politics. It was here that the ILP – the Independent Labour Party – held its 1893 founding conference. This city alone provided one sixth of the ILP’s affiliation fees, while the West Yorkshire woollen district, of which it was the heart, sent a third of the conference delegates. [29]

Bradford was ideal ground for reformism because it had briefly enjoyed a new unionist upsurge which had been crippled. The turning point was the fight at Manningham Mills against wage cuts of up to 33 per cent. It lasted for six months, involved 3,000 workers and included pitched battles in the town centre. [30] Eventually the workers were starved back. After this Bradford became, in the words of Ben Turner, the union organiser, ‘the most heart-breaking district for Trade Union organisation that ever I came across’. [31] [Leeds, just eight miles away from Bradford, provides a fascinating contrast: ‘the first authentic ILP councillor in Leeds was not elected until 1906, when Jowett had already done fourteen magnificent years of service on the Bradford Council ... But if we note the social and industrial contrasts, some of the reasons become apparent... The unskilled male workers were in general successful in improving their conditions is a result of new unionism, and some of their discontent was dispersed: the gas strike was short, sharp and victorious where that at Manningham Mills was long, humiliating and a defeat.’ [32]]

Against this background the Independent Labour Party was founded on 14 January 1893. What had happened since 1889 to make such a reformist party possible? First there were the economic troubles accompanying foreign competition. Secondly there was mass industrial struggle given a coherence by socialist leadership. Without these there could have been no serious break with the politics of Lib-Labism.

If industrial militancy had not been repulsed, a strong political movement based on confidence and self-activity could have emerged. As it was, in 1893 there was the correct combination of circumstances for reformism: workers’ struggles had built up organisation but defeats had pushed it into bureaucratic channels. On both the industrial and political fronts leaders had been raised into prominence by the fight, but now they substituted for the movement of the mass. The ILP was not the child of new unionism, but of its defeat. Here in a microcosm was the relationship between reformism and the working class.

The Independent Labour Party

The ILP marked a limited breach with the ‘great Liberal Party’. In Bradford a characteristic debate took place around the party’s name. The proposal to call it the ‘Socialist Labour Party’ was lost to the alternative title of ‘Independent Labour Party’ on the grounds that ‘they had to appeal to the vast mass of workers outside, and not only to Socialists.’ [33]

The issue was fundamental. If the aim was to build an active opposition to capitalism, then what mattered most was not the number of votes, but the number committed to working for socialism. But near unanimous backing for the name Independent Labour Party showed the delegates put electoral success first. As Keir Hardie, the ILP’s undisputed leader, put it: ‘The number of Labour Members in the House of Commons. This, to me, is the question of questions.’ [34]

However the title ‘Independent’ was insufficient to guarantee the party’s future. After all, the Lib-Labs, such as miners’ MP Charles Fenwick, talked like the ILP about ‘the imperative necessity of returning to Parliament ... workmen who should be able to speak with authority on all questions affecting the working classes.’ They too promoted ‘a policy of reform, and not of revolution’. [35] The ILP had to distinguish itself from Lib-Labism and so adopted as its object: ‘the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.’

This was not a cynical ploy. It reflected the after-glow of new unionist struggles. Later attempts to dilute or deviate from what the ILP rank and file considered the fundamentals of socialism led to massive fights which in 1932 tore the party apart. In this sense the ILP was very different from the Labour Party at its formation. It was formed of individual activists whose ideas had developed through class struggle, even if they retreated into reformist politics. The Labour Party itself began without individual membership, through a process of union affiliation and bureaucratic manipulation.

The Myth of the Golden Age

The ILP believed the working class could be freed through the institutions of the capitalist nation state. This has been proved wrong by the failure of successive Labour governments to challenge capitalism. But in 1893 there were no practical examples to refute the reformist argument. The compromises required to get a Labour government had only just begun and would take forty years to work through. Only at the end, in 1932, was the ILP made to face up to the consequences of the position it adopted at Bradford, and the result was its complete collapse.

It is because the logic of reformism unfolded so gradually that there arose the myth of Labour’s golden age, a myth as old as Labour itself. In later years those who had descended the parliamentary road, that road upon which workers’ interests are exchanged for electoral advantage, would look back on the group who started out from the top of the hill. Inevitably these pioneers appeared to be more elevated and inspired by lofty ideals. As early as 1921 a disillusioned Labour supporter could write:

between those early days of ardent faith and heroic self-sacrifice, those days of Keir Hardie’s cloth cap in the House of Commons, and these days of the political machine with its seeking of votes and place, there is a great gulf fixed. [36]

The gulf was an illusion. Labour’s politics have never changed in essentials. The difference between old and new lies in the external conditions in which this reformism operates. Labour has no pure workers’ tradition to return to. If we might abuse Shakespeare: some parties are born rotten, some parties achieve rottenness, and some have rottenness thrust upon them. There have been examples of each. The Russian Communists had their degeneration thrust upon them by the defeat of the German revolution, the isolation of Russia, its invasion by 16 foreign armies and a civil war. The German Social Democrats (SPD) achieved opportunism over a long period and with much effort from people like Kautsky and Bernstein. But the Labour Party, even at its origins, has never been anything but reformist.

The Dependent Labour Party

Despite the drawbacks, the foundation of the ILP had a very positive side. In 1886 Engels had pointed to the need for a separate workers’ political organisation, whatever its limitations:

The first great step in a country which enters the movement for the first time is to constitute the workers as an independent Labour party, no matter in what way, so long as it is a distinct Labour party ... as long as it is their own movement – [the workers] will be driven forward by their own mistakes, and acquire wisdom by their failures. [37]

Though wisdom through failure has been a long time coming, Engels was right to recognise in the formation of the ILP a genuine step forward for the class.

Yet it is one of the ironies of history that the Independent Labour Party should have been one of the most dependent organisations ever created. It was totally reliant on groupings outside the working class for its theory. This was notwithstanding the fact that, as Philip Snowden said: ‘... the branches were composed almost exclusively of working people.’ [38]

Theory is a perennial problem for reformists. The tradition of bourgeois thought, and that of the working class – which is Marxism – are each based on the lives of the two contending classes of society. Through philosophers, historians, politicians and economists the capitalists create an intellectual culture to justify their existence. Marxism draws upon the international history of working class struggle. But reformists have no independent tradition. They limit themselves to working through established institutions, and so pursue an uneasy theoretical path, seeking to channel working class aspirations in an ideological framework set by the system.

None of this can gainsay the dedication of the ILP’s membership. As Keir Hardie put it:

Few of the casual passers-by who halt for a few minutes to listen to a Socialist speaker standing on an upturned soap box under a lamp post at the corner of a noisy street are like to carry away a religious impression ... But get to know the man and his work; how he leaves home night after night, undergoing fatigue and inconvenience after a day’s laborious toil, how he spends Sunday in visiting some neighbouring town for propaganda purposes, or is hard at work all day in his own town aiding in the arrangements for the two Sunday meetings, and how he continues to do this year in and year out without any hope of fee or reward, and then the truth begins to dawn upon you that the man is at bottom a religious enthusiast lured on by his vision of a Kingdom of God up Earth. [39]

Compare this with a later description of the Conservative temperament from the pen of Lord Hailsham:

Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most im-portant thing in life. In this they differ from ... most members of the British Labour Party. The simplest among them prefer fox-hunting – the wisest, religion. [40]

In life-style the gulf between the working class soap-box orator and the fox-hunter could hardly be greater. What they share is religion. The ILP’s Nonconformist religious fervour was the clearest proof of its intellectual dependence. Truee, the Chapel tradition was not, like the Anglican Church, associated with land-owning interests. But its stress on the idea of employer and workman worshipping together emphasised a feeling of common interest and common ideology. To Trotsky this was clear proof that the British bourgeois had ‘laid down from above up its proletariat the heavy lid of cultural conservatism.’ [41]

The ILP’s greatest propagandist was Philip Snowden, who earned his reputation by a recruiting technique known as ‘Philip’s Come to Jesus’. To a background of singing, converts were ushered forward while Snowden declared in ringing tones:

there are signs on every hand of a great and righteous power at work in the world. The Sun of Righteousness is rising with healing in its wings. The Christ that is to be appears. A new and brighter social order will arise. It is the promised New Jerusalem. [42]

The importance of religion in the ILP and the early Labour Party was immense. Even Tom Mann, who went on to lead the syndicalist movement of 1911-14 and eventually joined the Communist Party, thought of joining the priesthood at about the same time as he was ILP Secretary. A fascinating survey was conducted into the books that most shaped the ideas of the Labour MPs who sat in the 1906–1910 parliament. Twenty-five of the forty include religious texts (sixteen specified the Bible). Only two mentioned Marx or Engels. [43] [Other authors mentioned included John Ruskin (sixteen replies), whose critique of capitalism was moulded by a belief in a feudal golden age. Next came Henry George, popular advocate of land taxation, whom Engels described as ‘a colossal fraud' (eleven replies). Shakespeare earned five and Robbie Burns and Charles Dickens, not noted for their political insights, each scored twice as many as Marx and Engels.]

The ILP consistently talked of smoothing over class conflict, stressing the common interest of employers and workers. Hardie wrote: ‘it is a degradation of the Socialist movement to drag it down to the level of a mere struggle for supremacy between two contending factions. We don’t want “class conscious” Socialists.’ [44] Ramsay MacDonald, whom Hardie acknowledged as the ILP’s ‘greatest intellectual asset’, added: ‘I reject what seems to be the crude notion of a class war, because class consciousness leads nowhere ... The watchword of socialism is not class consciousness but community consciousness’. [45] Philip Snowden, who as the party’s economic expert would be expected to know the blunt realities of capitalist society, went even further: ‘the rich man ... cannot enjoy his riches in the knowledge of the misery of the men and women and children around him ... It is to the cultured and leisured class that Socialism makes, perhaps, its strongest appeal.’ [46]

If class struggle annoyed the ILP it can be imagined what visions revolution conjured up. In 1895, for example, the Labour Leader warned that:

‘The shadow of coming Revolution ... looms dark and huge over the Continent of Europe. Should an outbreak occur there is nothing save a narrow strip of sea betwixt us and what would then be the theatre of a great human tragedy.’ [47]

Although the ILP was never revolutionary it was progressive in comparison to the Tories and Liberals. It recognised and indeed owed its existence to working class organisations such as the new unions, but rather than leading a confrontation with capitalism, it demanded that workers be given a place in the national set-up.

The impossibility of formulating an independent reformist theory has already been touched on. For Hardie ignorance was indeed bliss: ‘the ILP ... has never formulated its theory of Socialism. That is true, and therein lies its strength’. [48] This had devastating effects. It made the ILP incapable of any analysis of society, or even of its own place in history. Listen to Hardie’s description of his party’s birth: ‘How did the ILP originate? Who shall say? Why do buds begin to unfold in spring? I am convinced there are spring tides connected with the affairs of man governed by laws of which we know next to nothing.’ [49] The ILP was therefore defenceless against the ideas of capitalism which surrounded it. As ILP Chairman, Bruce Glasier declared: ‘I am able to speak and work for Socialism without feeling that I belong to a different cast of beings from that of the ordinary Liberal or Tory.’ [50]

This was the nub of the matter. The ILP channelled ideas into the working class that were drawn straight from the well of capitalism, and in particular from the Liberals and the Fabians. Both Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald turned to Labour politics only when they were rejected as Liberal candidates. Even then they repeatedly and publicly paid homage to Liberalism. In later years Keir Hardie claimed that his election as MP for South West Ham in 1892 made him the first socialist MP. It is true his enthusiastic supporters actually carried him to parliament in a carriage complete with trumpeter to announce the dawning of a new age, [51] hut his manifesto declared: ‘I have all my life given an independent support to the Liberal Party ... I am in agreement with the present programme of the Liberal Party.’ [52]

Snowden reassured voters that he ‘was cradled and nurtured in Liberalism.’ [53] Robert Smillie, miners’ leader and the ILP’s most important industrial figure, claimed to be a better Liberal than the Literal candidate himself when he ran for North East Lanarkshire. [54] When MacDonald became Labour Party Secretary, the flirtation with Liberalism became almost obscene. An important article he and Hardie wrote 1899 twice declared the ILP linked to Liberalism through ‘the true line of the progressive apostolic succession’. [55] They hoped to build ‘a golden bridge of palliatives’ between the two parties. [56]

There were, however, definite limits placed on the ILP’s adoption of Liberal politics. An organisation which wanted to be an alternative to the Liberal Party needed to differentiate itself to some extent. To do this, the ILP leaned heavily on the Fabians.

‘The worst enemies of social revolution’

These are the words of Beatrice Webb [57], a key figure in the Fabian Society. This organisation shaped both the ILP and later the Labour Party. As one historian put it: ‘The Fabians gave modern British socialism its doctrine.’ [58] It is surprising that such a tiny organisation could play so large a role. When it affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 it had 861 members, after seventeen years. However the theoretical incapacity of the ILP gave the Fabians a pivotal role. Almost from the first two thirds of the ILP’s ruling National Administrative Council (NAC), were Fabians, and they included Hardie, MacDonald, Mann – who was the ILP’s secretary –, Tillett and Lansbury. [59] [It is evidence of the disregard for theory and looseness of organisation that it was quite possible for activists to retain membership of rival organisations with conflicting politics. Thus Mann moved quickly from the SDF to the Fabians. Without leaving the Fabians, he then led the ILP. Lansbury seems to have held membership of the SDF, Fabians and ILP all at the same time. Thorne while still in the SDF, became a Labour MP five years after the SDF had repudiated the Labour Раrty. And so on.]

The Fabians’ leaders – the Webb ‘Partnership’ of Beatrice and Sidney, along with George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, were not afraid to admit: ‘we personally belong to the ruling class’. [60] For a long time the society had only one working class member, a house-painter, whom they regarded as an ‘exhibit’. [61] The Fabian Society was actually more interested in influencing the upper class by a policy of ‘permeating’ the Liberal and Tory Parties and only turned to Labour as a poor third. In 1891 the Liberals’ Newcastle conference adopted in entirety a policy which had been drafted by Sidney Webb – whom Beatrice described as ‘the chief instigator of policies, the source of Liberal doctrine.’ [62] As late as 1910, she confided in her diary that while the Tories had certain attractions, so too did the Liberals: ‘So really I don’t know from what party we shall get the most. We may have, in the end, to establish a real socialist party if we want rapid progress.’ [63]

The Fabians had the utmost contempt for the working class: ‘What can we hope from these myriads of deficient minds and deformed bodies that swarm our great cities – what can we hope but brutality, meanness and crime.’ [64] A quarter of a century later, the tone remained unchanged. Beatrice talked of ‘the colossal stupidity of the trade union rank and file’, ‘those underbred and undertrained workmen’. [65] There was not even a grain of human sympathy. Beatrice Webb castigated the Liberals’ for providing health insurance for workers. In 1911 she wrote that it:

is wholly bad, and I cannot see how malingering can be staved off... What the government shirk is the extension of treatment and disciplinary supervision – they want merely some mechanical way of increasing the money income of the wage-earning class ... No attempt is made to secure an advance in conduct for the increased income. [66]

[It might be surprising that with such attitudes, the Webbs were able to write their excellent books on The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy. But their meticulous research served a dual purpose – to train the budding union leaders in the arts of behaving responsibly, and to show the ruling class that trade unions were a force to be treated with, rather than to be repressed or given in to. In Beatrice Webb’s words, they offered ‘a criticism of the trade unions (for the good of the unionists!) ... an apology for, or defence of trade unions (for the enlightenment of the middle class and economists)’. [67]]

The Fabian Tract of 1896 entitled The Moral Aspects of Socialism declared:

The Socialist policy, so far from favouring the weak, favours the strong ... it is a process of conscious social selection by which the industrial residuum is naturally sifted and made manageable for some kind of restorative, disciplinary, or it may be, ‘surgical treatment’ ... In this way it not only favours the growth of the fittest within the group, but also the fittest group in the world competition of societies. [68]

Long before Hitler, Bernard Shaw toyed with the breeding of a master race and a ‘superman’, while advocating ‘sterilization of the failures’.

Only if we understand their thoroughly ruling-class outlook can we intelligently approach the Fabians’ outrageous misuse of the English language when they talked of ‘socialism’ or more usually ‘collectivism’. (The latter had less unpleasant foreign connotations for these rabid racialists).

Two influences formed the background to Fabian politics. The first was Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘gospel of ransom’. Chamberlain gave the Liberals their national federation and believed that social services and improved working conditions were a necessary ‘ransom’ to pay to avoid the dangers of social unrest. According to Beatrice: ‘We dare not neglect the sullen discontent now spreading ... if only for the sake of the rest of the Empire.’ [69]

Secondly, the Fabians were conscious of changes in the capitalist economy: For much of the nineteenth century ruling-class policy was known as laissez-faire. The French phrase captured the needs of the system well. Units of capital were small and foreign competition minimal. So businessmen demanded free trade and the unrestricted play of market forces. They wanted the minimum of state intervention in the process of capital accumulation. But as Germany and America became commercial threats it seemed to sections of the ruling class that the state should be more interventionist in its support of capitalism. One wing saw imperialism as a means of consolidating markets and sources of raw materials. Another looked to the state to increase capitalist efficiency at home. The latter was the policy of the Fabians.

The first complete statement of policy appeared in Fabian Essays of December 1889. Though issued three months after the dock strike victory it avoided mentioning trade unions entirely.

Most notable was the idea that state action equals socialism. Sidney Webb, a former high civil servant, had a positively nauseous admiration for government bureaucrats: ‘in their every act they worked to bring about the very Socialism they despised.’ [70] Therefore ‘the Post Office ... is now a purely Socialistic institution.’ If such was socialism, then, as Shaw proudly boasted, the Fabian programme had:

not one new item in it. All are applications of principles already admitted, and extensions of practices already in full activity. All have on them that stamp of the vestry which is so congenial to the British mind. None of them compel the use of the words Socialism or Revolution...or anything...un-English. [71]

So it was that Sir William Harcourt, Gladstone’s successor in the Liberal leadership, declared: ‘We are all socialists nowadays.’

The Fabians set out to be elitist social engineers, working entirely within the framework of the system to increase efficiency and avoid the dangers of revolution.

The ultimate aim of Fabian collectivism was capitalist production organised on a national scale by the state. In the 1930s many were astounded when the Webbs returned from visiting Stalin’s Russia, a state capitalist society, to announce that it ‘almost exactly corresponds to our constitution ... [the] trade union is placed in exactly the same position of subordination as we suggested’. [72] Commentators should not have been shocked for this had always been the logic of Fabianism. The working class was to play no active role in creating the new society. In 1889, in one of the few essays which deigned to mention workers, the Fabians told them to cease ‘fearing [the state] as an actual enemy, [and] come to look to it as a Potential saviour.’ [73] Engels rightly described the Fabians as ‘a clique ... united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers and doing all in their power to avert this danger.’ [74]

These were the people who ‘gave Labour its doctrine’. The ILP and later the Labour Party gave such ideas a working-class veneer and credibility which they would otherwise have lacked. Fabian ideas turned up, for example, in the work of Robert Blatchford, a key figure in the founding of the ILP. His newspaper the Clarion and his book Merrie England, which sold three quarters of a million copies, popularised Fabian ideas in vulgar form:

nearly all law is more or less Socialistic, for nearly all law implies the right of the State to control individuals for the benefit of the nation ... The abolition of toll bars and bridge tolls was Socialistic action, for it made the roads and bridges common property. [75]

The identification of working class interests with the state also brought with it the idea of nation and nationalism. Blatchford’s next masterpiece was entitled Britain for the British, and its contents may be imagined. His memoirs recall that at the founding of the ILP: ‘we were Britons first and Socialists next.’ [76]

Keir Hardie’s one attempt at socialist theory, From Serfdom to Socialism, also verged on the same nonsense:

The policeman and the soldier ... exist by the will and under the express authority of those same tenants and workmen, who constitute a prepondering majority in the State, and without whose consent neither soldier nor policeman could continue to exist.

Hardie’s economic theory bore the pernicious stamp of Fabianism:

Socialism does not propose to abolish land or capital [only] capitalism and landlordism. The capital would remain; the engineers, architects, organisers, and managers who carry on the businesses would all remain also, and could just as well and as profitably be employed by society as they now are by the private capitalist. [77]

MacDonald probably put this idea best when he said: ‘Capitalism is now finding fulfilment, and that fulfilment is this new organisation – Socialism.’ [78] [The Fabians’ attitude to their devotees in the ILP was one of disapproval. There was, according to Beatrice Webb, ‘no chance of it being more than a wrecking party’ [79], for independent workers’ politics interfered with permeation of the Liberals and Tories. Furthermore even the mild ILP was too radical for the Fabians. Thus she welcomed its defeat in the 1895 election campaign because: ‘No class of Englishmen can long tolerate the simple wrecker.’ [80]]

The ideas that have dominated the Labour Party from the start have not come from the working class. Lenin was absolutely correct when he said that from this point of view ‘the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party’. [Beatrice Webb described the difference between the Fabians and ILP as a choice between the following propositions: ‘To bring about the maximum amount of public control in public administration do we want to organising the unthinking persons into Socialist societies, or to make the thinking persons socialistic? We believe in the latter process’. [81]]


1. J.R. MacDonald, The Socialist Movement (London no date), p. 235.

2. D. Thompson, The Chartists (Aldershot 1984), p. 60.

3. Quoted in Thompson, The Chartists, p. 237.

4. Quoted in M. Jenkins, The General Strike of 1842 (London 1980), p. 37.

5. Thompson, The Chartists, pp. 284–85.

6. Quoted in J.B. Jeffreys, The Story of the Engineers (London 1945), p. 33.

7. T. Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism (London 1983), p. 202.

8. Hansard, House of Lords, 16 July 1867.

9. Marx and Engels, On Britain (Moscow 1953), p. 509.

10. Quoted in F. Bealey and and H. Pelling, Labour and Politics 1900–1906 (London 1958), p. 148.

11. G.M. Wilson, Alexander MacDonald, Leader of the Miners (Aberdeen 1982), p. 175.

12. G.D.H. Cole, Working Class Politics (London 1941), p. 72.

13. Cole, Working Class Politics, p. 72.

14. J. Hinton, Labour and Socialism (Brighton 1983), p. 25.

15. For substantiation of this argument see H.A. Clegg, A. Fox and A.F. Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889 (Oxford 1964), p. 89.

16. Marx and Engels, On Britain, p. 520.

17. F. Hammill, in Murray’s Magazine, volume 8 (1890), p. 124.

18. Marx to F. Bolte, 23 November 1871, in Marx/Engels/Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (USSR 1972), p. 57.

19. G. Shipton, Trade Unionism, New and Old, in Murray’s Magazine (June 1890), p. 725.

20. Shipton, in Murray’s Magazine, p. 731.

21. T. Mann and B. Tillett, The New Unionism (London 1890), pp. 4–5.

22. Justice, 21 September 1889.

23. E. and G. Radice, Thorne (London 1974), p. 44. For a full account of this process see E. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men (London 1964), pp. 179–203.

24. Quoted in Radices, Thorne, p. 46.

25. Report from Great Britain and Ireland to the Delegates of the Brussels International Congress, 1891, Presented by the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union; the Royal Eight Hours and International Labour League; the Bloomsbury Socialist Society; and the Battersea Labour League (London 1891), p. 13.

26. The Trade Unionist, 20 June 1891.

27. Quoted in J. Schneer, Ben Tillett (Kent 1982), p. 62.

28. Schneer, Ben Tillett, p. 62.

29. D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party (Manchester 1983), pp. 174 and 290.

30. For details, see Workman’s Times, 27 February 1891 and 14 January 1893.

31. Quoted in Clegg and others, p. 184

32. E.P. Thompson, Homage to Tom Maguire, in A. Briggs and J. Saville (editors), Essays in Labour History (London 1960), pp. 302–3.

33. ILP 1893 Conference Report, p. 3.

34. Undated press cutting from the Hardie Collection in the National Library of Scotland, Dep 176(2).

35. 1887 TUC Congress Report, p. 31.

36. S. Desmond, Labour – Giant with Feet of Clay (London 1921), pp. 55.

37. Quoted in Rothstein, p. 281.

38. P. Snowden, Autobiography, volume 1 (London 1934), p. 80.

39. K. Hardie, After Twenty Years: All about the ILP (no place of publication given 1913), p. 6.

40. Quoted in H.M. Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos of the Labour Party (London 1979), p. 24.

41. L. Trotsky, Writings on Britain (London 1974), volume 1, p. 20.

42. P. Snowden, The Christ that is to Be, quoted in C. Cross, Philip Snowden (London 1966), p. 36.

43. The Labour Party and the books that helped to make it, in Review of Reviews, June 1906.

44. E. Hughes (editor), Keir Hardie’s Speeches and Writings (Glasgow 1927), p. 119.

45. J.R. MacDonald, Socialism and Society (London 1905), p. 128.

46. P. Snowden, Socialism and Syndicalism (London no date), pp. 15–16.

47. Labour Leader, 26 January 1895.

48. Hardie, After Twenty Years, p. 6.

49. Hardie, After Twenty Years, p. 950; L. Thompson, The Enthusiasts (London 1971), p. 132.

50. L. Thompson, The Enthusiasts (London 1971), p. 132.

51. K Hardie, My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance (London 1909), p. 112.

52. Quoted in Forward, 19 March 1927 (his emphasis).

53. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, p. 218.

54. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, p. 164.

55. Nineteenth Century, January 1899, p. 25.

56. Nineteenth Century, January 1899, p. 27.

57. B. Webb, Diaries, volume 2 (London 1986) p. 66 (entry for 23 January 1895).

58. F. Williams, Fifty Years’ March (London 1950), p. 84.

59. A.M. McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics (Cambridge 1962), p. 290.

60. B. Webb, Diaries, volume 3, p. 269.

61. M. Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (London 1961), p. 6.

62. B. Webb, Diaries, volume 2, p. 23.

63. B. Webb, Diaries, volume 3, p. 146.

64. B. Webb, Our Partnership (London 1948), pp. 83–84.

65. B. Webb, Diaries, volume 3, pp. 258 and 195.

66. B. Webb, Diaries, pp. 151–52.

67. B. Webb, Our Partnership, p. 45.

68. Sidney Ball, Fabian Tract number 72, page 5, quoted in G, Stedman Jones, Outcast London (Oxford 1971), p. 333.

69. B. Webb, Our Partnership, p. 51.

70. G.B. Shaw (editor), Fabian Essays (London 1889), p. 50.

71. Shaw (ed.), Fabian Essays, p. 200.

72. Radices, Thorne, p. 295. This argument is the Webbs’ massive work, Soviet Communism, A New Civilisation? (London 1935).

73. Shaw (ed.) Fabian Essays, p. 209.

74. Marx and Engels, On Reformism (Moscow 1984), p. 320.

75. R. Blatchford, Merrie England (London 1908), p. 128.

76. R. Blatchford, My Eighty Years (London 1931), p. 196.

77. K. Hardie, Socialism, which is an extract from a larger work – From Serfdom to Socialism (no place no date), pp. 6–7.

78. J.R. MacDonald, Socialism for Business Men, a speech to Liverpool Rotarians, 1 October 1925 (no date or place) p. 5

79. B. Webb, Our Partnership, p. 117.

80. B. Webb, Our Partnership, p. 72.

81. B. Webb, Our Partnership, p. 132.

Last updated on 17 October 2016