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International Socialism, Autumn 2000


Keith Flett

Socialists and the origins of Labour

Some other perspectives


From International Socialism 2:88, Autumn 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


While Mark O’Brien, in International Socialism 87, provides a useful account of the early history of labour representation in Britain and the attitude that socialists took to this, there are other ways of looking at the issue. With hindsight we know how the history of the British left and its attitude towards change from above through parliament, or change from below through revolution, has turned out. However, this was not clear to the participants as they struggled to make sense of capitalism and organise against it 100 years ago. In particular on the question of socialists, elections and parliament the real polarisation was not between the sectarianism of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the parliamentarism of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), but between a majority of syndicalists who did not bother much, if at all, with elections and a minority of radicals and socialists who did. Between this polarity Victor Grayson of the ILP, who stood as an independent socialist to become MP for Colne Valley against the wishes of the national party, represented a sort of third way, as did a few others such as John S. Clarke [1*] and Sylvia Pankhurst. At least until 1918, and perhaps rather later, the debate about the most effective way to change society was not settled in the British labour movement.

Neither the SDF nor the ILP had the settled allegiance of the majority of advanced workers 100 years ago, although many passed through the ranks of either or both organisations. In fact syndicalist ideas were a leading feature of working class thought at that time, and of necessity these led workers to play down the importance of any parliamentary route to change. Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution was adopted in 1918 as a necessary concession to syndicalist ideas. It was a recognition that anti-parliamentary thought, based on workers’ control of industry, was the predominant way of viewing how change should come about in the early 20th century British working class. Indeed, according to Ray Challinor, talking about the election of the revolutionary Victor Grayson to parliament:

Grayson’s importance lies in his expression of opinions that were widely held in left wing circles. Where some workers parted company with him was in the conclusion he drew from his analysis: he wanted to see the formation of a revolutionary party; they, on the other hand, considered that the failure of the Labour Party, and the futility of parliament proved that political activity itself was wrong. They drew syndicalist conclusions. [1]

Barrow and Bullock, in a recent book on socialism and democratic ideas in the early British labour movement [2], suggest that the real debate in the labour movement at the turn of the century was about a commitment to strong or weak democracy. Those who preferred ‘weak’ democracy were those who were content to follow some form of parliamentary road. Those who wanted strong democracy developed a critique of the lack of democracy of the British state in general.

Even here, however, the position was fluid. The SDF had walked out of the Labour Representation Committee and were certainly supporters of strong democracy. However, at their 1906 conference they passed a commitment to rejoin if the LRC itself would publicly commit to socialist principles. On the other hand other adherents of strong democracy, such as the authors of The Miners Next Step [3] in 1912 were opposed to what was called leadermania and were suspicious of any structure that threw up the need for leaders.

Mark O’Brien does not explicitly refer to the model of socialist parliamentary activity to which he compares the British example, but two obvious ones from the time are that of the German SPD and the Russian Bolsheviks. Care needs to be taken not to introduce a model of British exceptionalism through the back door, the idea that Britain was somehow uniquely different and worse than other countries, which Trotsky took pains to argue against in Where is Britain Going? Trotsky, writing during the period of the first British Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald, was adamant that the real tradition of British labour was not that of MacDonald but that of the revolutionary elements of Chartism. Trotsky argued:

The Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past, but also its future. As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of ‘moral force’ aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution, so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn. [4]

The labourism of the British Labour Party certainly stands in poor comparison with the German SPD, but ultimately the politics were of the same genre. The revolutionary politics of the Bolsheviks perhaps had more appeal to the British working class than is sometimes allowed for. The leaders of the British Labour Party had to work hard to close off this road, aided of course by the sectarianism and political mistakes of those who advocated it. In fact Lenin had to argue with British socialists that they must try to relate to the Labour Party and to work around elections. In doing so he himself bent the stick to argue that the structure of the Labour Party was exceptional in a positive sense. He argued:

The members of the Labour Party are all members of trade unions. The structure of this party is a very peculiar one and is unlike that in any other country. This organisation embraces from six to seven million workers belonging to all the trade unions. The members are not asked what political convictions they adhere to. [5]

The reality was that while there were sectarian and opportunist positions to be found in the SDF and the ILP, and amongst syndicalists who often saw a positive virtue in belonging to no party, some socialists who opposed the parliamentary road to reform sought unity around a different model altogether, one that in 1920 led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Here the debate on how revolutionary socialists should relate to elections and to parliament continued.


1. R. Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (London 1977), p. 94.

2. L. Barrow and I. Bullock, Democratic Ideas in the British Labour Movement 1880–1914 (Cambridge 1996).

3. South Wales Miners Unofficial Reform Committee, The Miners Next Step (1912, reprinted London 1973).

4. L. Trotsky, Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 2 (London, 1977), p. 94.

5. See R. Challinor, op. cit., p. 277, for the full argument.

Note by ETOL

1*. In the printed version of this article the name was incorrectly given as “Henry S.Clarke”.

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