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Popular Radicalism and the Socialist Revival in Britain

  • Jon Lawrence


The twentieth century has not been kind to the “Whig interpretation of history” with its emphasis on the inexorable triumph of reason and progress. Mortally wounded on the battlefields of Flanders, the liberal certainties that underpinned it were finally laid to rest in the shadow of the Holocaust. With the Whig interpretation died the tradition of seeing nineteenth-century politics in terms of the gradual, but uninterrupted, evolution of democratic principles and institutions. In its place emerged a new orthodoxy that stressed the discontinuities of popular politics during the nineteenth century and argued for three distinct phases of political development. The first, a phase of militant, semirevolutionary politics, coincided with the “industrial revolution” and led up to the defeat of Chartism in the late 1840s. This, it was argued, was followed by a period of stabilization during the mid-Victorian decades characterized by relative prosperity and political docility among the working classes. The final phase began with the economic downturn of the late 1870s and was said to have witnessed the reemergence of working-class militancy and socialist politics and to have culminated in the formation of the class-based Labour party.

This three-phase model emerged in embryonic form between the wars in the agitprop histories of Marxist writers such as Theodore Rothstein and T. A. Jackson and in the more influential works of G. D. H. Cole and the Hammonds. At the same time, many of the reductionist assumptions that underpinned it were simultaneously finding favor within Britain's emergent school of economic historians.



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1 Butterfield, H., The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931).

2 For instance, see May, T. E., The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 1760–1860, 2 vols. (London, 1861 1863), republished as May's Constitutional History of England, 1760–1911, 3 vols., edited and continued by Holland, Francis (London, 1912). From a different perspective, see Ludlow, J. M. and Jones, L., The Progress of the Working Class, 1832–1867 (London, 1867).

3 See Rothstein, T., From Chartism to Labourism: Historical Sketches of the English Working Class Movement (London, 1929); and Jackson, T. A., Trials of British Freedom: Being Some Studies in the History of the Fight for Democratic Freedom in Britain (London, 1940).

4 Especially Cole, G. D. H., A Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789–1927, 3 vols. (London, 19251927); Hammond, J. and Hammond, B., The Age of the Chartists, 1832–54: A Study of Discontent (London, 1930).

5 For instance in the political speculations of Sir John Clapham. See Johnson, R., “Culture and the Historians,” in Working Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory, ed. Clarke, J., Critcher, C., and Johnson, R. (London, 1979), pp. 44 and 4953, for a discussion along these lines of both Cole and the economic historians.

6 For instance, Thompson, E. P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London, 1955), and The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963); Hobsbawm, E. J., Labour's Turning Point, 1880–1900 (London, 1948), Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London, 1964), chaps. 1–3, 9–12, and 14–16; Hobsbawm, E. J. and Rude, G., Captain Swing (Woking, 1969). See also Saville, J., “Chartism in the Year of Revolution (1848),” Modern Quarterly 8, no. 1 (19521953): 2333, and 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge, 1987), esp. pp. 200229.

7 Hence the title of Harrison's, RoydenBefore the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861–1881 (London, 1965). For its influence on standard textbook histories of the period, see Wood's, A.Nineteenth-Century Britain, 1815–1914 (London, 1960), pp. 334–37. More sophisticated liberal histories such as Clarke's, PeterLancashire and the New Liberalism (Cambridge, 1971) and Vincent's, JohnPollbooks: How Victorians Voted (Cambridge, 1967) are similarly organized around the assumption of a shift from nonclass to class voting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

8 Pelling, H., The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880–1900 (London, 1954), p. 7.

9 For instance, Foster, J., Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns (London, 1974), esp. pp. 203–50; Joyce, P., Work, Society and Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian Britain (Brighton, 1980); Gray, R., The Labour Aristocracy in Victorian Edinburgh (Oxford, 1976), esp. pp. 115–20 and 165–83; Crossick, G., An Artisan Elite in Victorian Society: Kentish London, 1840–1880 (London, 1978), esp. pp. 247–54; and Tholfsen, T., Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian Britain (London, 1976), esp. pp. 197240.

10 Reid, A., “Politics and Economics in the Formation of the British Working Class: A Response to H. F. Moorhouse,” Social History 3, no. 3 (1978): 347–61, and Intelligent Artisans and Aristocrats of Labour: The Essays of Thomas Wright,” in The Working Class in Modern British History: Essays in Honour of Henry Pelling, ed. Winter, J. (Cambridge, 1983).

11 Jones, G. Stedman, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 90178.

12 For instance, Howell, D., British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888–1906 (Manchester, 1983), esp. pp. 277–82 and 363–73; Clarke, P., Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge, 1978); and many of the contributions in Biagini, E. and Reid, A., eds., Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organized Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850–1914 (Cambridge, 1991). See also Wolfe, W., From Radicalism to Socialism: Men and Ideas in the Formation of Fabian Socialist Doctrines, 1881–1889 (New Haven, Conn., 1975), which, though much neglected, provides many important insights into these continuities.

13 See Biagini and Reid, eds., Currents of Radicalism; and Taylor, M., “Radicalism and Patriotism, 1848–1859” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1989). There are currently also a considerable number of British “theses in progress” on this topic. Though dated, Gillespie, F. E., Labor and Politics in England, 1850–1867 (Durham, N.C., 1927), remains a useful survey of Radicalism during this period.

14 Hobsbawm, E., Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (London, 1984), p. 182.

15 Marx, K., “The Poverty of Philosophy” in Collected Works Volume 6, 1845–48, by Marx, K. and Engels, F. (London, 1976), pp. 210–11.

16 Thompson, E. P. and Yeo, E., The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle, 1849–50 (London, 1971), p. 404. For a detailed picture of this Radical subculture, see Prothero, I., Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London: John Gast and His Times (London, 1979).

17 Jones, G. Stedman, Languages of Class, pp. 90178.

18 Ibid., pp. 102–3 and 176–78.

19 See Kirk, N., “In Defence of Class: A Critique of Recent Revisionist Writings upon the Nineteenth-Century English Working Class,” International Review of Social History 32 (1987): 247, esp. 43–47; and Saville, 1848 (n. 6 above), pp. 200–229.

20 For an interesting discussion of the impact of European nationalists on British Radicalism in the 1850s, see Claeys, G., “Mazzini, Kossuth and British Radicalism, 1848–1854,” Journal of British Studies 28, no. 3 (1989): 225–26.

21 Northern Star (November 15, 1851).

22 See Taylor (n. 13 above), esp. chaps. 2, 5, and 6, and conclusion.

23 Ibid.; and Matthew, H. C. G., “Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Politics of Mid-Victorian Budgets,” Historical Journal 22, no. 3 (1979): 615–43.

24 See Biagini, E. F., “British Trade Unions and Popular Political Economy, 1860–1880,” Historical Journal 30 (1987): 811–40; Matthew; and Jones, G. Stedman, “Some Notes on Karl Marx and the English Labour Movement,” History Workshop Journal 18 (Autumn 1984): 124–37, esp. 130–36.

25 Bee-Hive (April 10, 1864). The Northern Star (November 8, 1851) notes that Kossuth's London reception was attended by “few names of celebrity from the ranks of the ‘Liberal Party.”’

26 Tholfsen (n. 9 above), p. 320. See also Harrison (n. 7 above), pp. 78–136, esp. p. 81. These arguments tend to mistake the urge to refute Robert Lowe's claim that the working classes were “venal, ignorant and drunken” with special pleading on behalf of a respectable elite.

27 Bee-Hive (September 14, 1867) (original emphasis).

28 Reynolds's Newspaper (September 1, 1867). This argument was standard fare for Reynolds's, see November 10, 1867: “class legislation is the curse of the English working classes and the crime of their rulers” or December 15, 1867: “the English working classes have been systematically robbed and starved by act of Parliament.”

29 Republican (October 1, 1870).

30 Reynolds's Newspaper (December 15, 1867).

31 Leventhal, F. M., Respectable Radical: George Howell and Victorian Working Class Politics (London, 1971), pp. 7189.

32 Harrison p. 116.

33 Wright, T., “The press and the people,” in his Own New Masters (London, 1873), pp. 334–35 and 346. See also The Dictionary of Labour Biography, 1st ed. (London, 1976), s.v. George Reynolds,” 3:149.

34 Wright, p. 346.

35 Berridge, V., “Popular Sunday Papers and Mid-Victorian Society,” in Newspaper History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day, ed. Boyce, G., Curran, J., and Wingates, P. (London, 1978), p. 259. See also Humpherys, A., “Popular Narrative and Political Discourse in Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper,” in Investigating Victorian Journalism, ed. Blake, L., Jones, A., and Madden, L. (Basingstoke, 1990).

36 Berridge, p. 256.

37 Ibid.

38 Jones, A., “Workmen's Advocates: Ideology and Class in a Mid-Victorian Newspaper System” in The Victorian Periodical Press: Soundings and Samplings, ed. Shattock, J. and Wolff, M. (Leicester, 1982), pp. 297316, quotes on pp. 310 and 313.

39 Review of Reviews (June 1906), p. 579. Seldon was born in 1868, and so his exposure to Chartist politics and the popular Radical tradition was very much a late-Victorian one.

40 Lee, H. W. and Archibald, E., Social Democracy in Britain (London, 1935), p. 30.

41 Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. “The Democracy.” The earliest reference given is to GeneralThompson's, ThomasExercises, Political and Others (London, 1842).

42 Duncan, W., Life of Joseph Cowen (London, 1904), pp. 161–62. See also Baylen, J. and Gossman, N., eds., Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals (Brighton, 1984), s.v. Joseph Cowen,” 2:159–64.

43 Bee-Hive (August 12, 1876). See also Industrial Review (November 2, 1878) for hostile reactions from George Howell and others to Potter's rejection by the local Liberal Hundred at the Peterborough by-election.

44 Reynolds's Newspaper (December 19, 1886).

45 Reynolds's Newspaper (November 29, 1885).

46 Pelling, H., America and the British Left: From Bright to Bevan (London, 1956), chap. 3. See also Joyce (n. 9 above), pp. 293 and 318–19, which notes the striking absence of labor leaders from “the Liberal party apparatus” in Blackburn.

47 Dalley, W. A., The Life Story of W. J. Davis, J.P. (Birmingham, 1914), pp. 4464; and Briggs, A., History of Birmingham, Vol. II: Borough and City, 1865–1938 (London, 1952), pp. 192–94.

48 Green, C., “Birmingham Politics, 1873–1891: The Local Basis of Change,” Midland History 2, no. 2 (1973): 8498.

49 Waller, P. J., Democracy and Sectarianism: A Political and Social History of Liverpool, 1868–1939 (Liverpool, 1981), chaps. 8–11; Jeyes, S. H. and How, F. D., The Life of Sir Howard Vincent (London, 1912); and Lawrence, J., “Party Politics and the People: Continuity and Change in the Political History of Wolverhampton, 1815–1914” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1989), chap. 3.

50 Reynolds's Newspaper (February 12 and September 24, 1893).

51 Reynolds's Newspaper (December 3, 1899).

52 See Wilkins, M. S., “The Non-Socialist Origins of England's First Important Socialist Organization,” International Review of Social History 4 (1959): 199207.

53 Soutter, F. W., Recollections of a Labour Pioneer (London, 1923), pp. 128–56; and Justice (May 26, 1888). See Justice (June 2, 1888) for Quelch's editorial on the need for cooperation, but not compromise, with “advanced” (by which he meant collectivism Radicalism.

54 Reynolds's Newspaper (December 19, 1886, and November 3, 1889).

55 Reynolds's Newspaper (May 14, 1893).

56 See Reynolds's Newspaper (January 25 and July 26, 1891) for examples of this attitude.

57 H. Pelling, America and the British Left (n. 46 above), chap. 4. For examples of disillusionment with republican-democracy abroad, see Justice (May 19, 1888); and Lee and Archibald (n. 40 above), p. 30.

58 Justice, “Socialism and the Suffrage” (October 21, 1893).

59 Justice (May 30, 1885) and almost weekly thereafter. See also Hyndman, H. M., England for All: The Text Book of Democracy (reprint, Brighton: Harvester, 1973), chap. 4.

60 Justice (October 25, 1884).

61 See Mann, T., Why I Joined the National Democratic League (London, 1900), p. 2; and Thompson, P., Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885–1914 (London, 1967), p. 108.

62 From its inception in 1851 Reynolds's carried a regular column by “Gracchus,” the pseudonym used by Babeuf and the sansculottes, and made frequent appeals to “the Democracy” to “take matters into their own hands” as the French had done in 1789, 1848, and later 1871 (e.g., January 25, 1891).

63 The Republican (June 1, 1871): Reynolds's Newspaper (October 3, 1886); and Justice (September 14, 1889).

64 Justice (May 3, 1890), cited in Collins, H., “The Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation,” in Essays in Labour History, 1886–1923, ed. Briggs, A. and Saville, J. (London, 1971), p. 55.

65 Justice (September 14, 1889).

66 Circular of May 20, 1890, Fabian Society Archives (FSA), Nuffield College, Oxford, Harvester microfilm (HM) part 4, reel 11 F21/1.

67 “The Report on the Lancashire Campaign,” FSA, HM part 2, reel 9 63/3. See also Pease, E. R., The History of the Fabian Society (London, 1918), pp. 95100.

68 Thompson, E. P., “Homage to Tom Maguire,” in Briggs, and Saville, , eds., 1:310. See also Hobsbawm, E. J., “The Fabians Reconsidered,” in Labouring Men (n. 6 above), pp. 253–54.

69 Fabian Tract No. 6: The True Radical Programme (London, 1887) 9. See also Fabian Tract No. 41: The Fabian Society: What it has Done and How it has Done It (London, 1892).

70 “Report,” FSA, HM part 2, reel 9 63/3.

71 McBriar, A. M., Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884–1918 (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 179–80; also Pugh, P., Educate, Agitate, Organize: 100 Years of Fabian Socialism (London, 1984), pp. 3839.

72 See Clarke, , Liberals and Social Democrats (n. 12 above), p. 34, where he cites Shaw's comment that “for years past every Sunday evening of mine has been spent on some more or less squalid platform, lecturing, lecturing, and lecturing.”

73 Thompson, , “Homage to Tom Maguire,” pp. 301–2 and 310.

74 Lawrence, “Party Politics (n. 49 above), chap. 4.

75 Hobsbawm, , “The Fabians Reconsidered,” pp. 253–54.

76 Wolfe, , From Radicalism to Socialism (n. 12 above), esp. pp. 151–81 and 251–91.

77 Wolverhampton Express and Star (April 10, 1891).

78 By October 1893 the society claimed to have printed 55,000 copies of Sidney Webb's, Facts for Socialists (London, 1887); 20,000 copies of Webb's, The Workers' Political Programme (London, 1890) (both sold for one penny); and 180,000 copies of Phillips's, W. L.Why are the many poor? (London, 1884), and C. M. Wilson's What Socialism Is, both free pamphlets. See Fabian Tract No. 47: The Unemployed (London, 1893), p. 20.

79 McBriar, , Fabian Socialism, pp. 2947.

80 Fabian Tract No. 5: Facts for Socialists, 3d ed. (London, 1890), p. 15. This tract went through many revisions, but its fundamentally Radical economic analysis was never abandoned.

81 Ibid., pp. 7–8.

82 Facts for Socialists, p. 12 (my emphasis). Of course, for most socialists competition, of whatever sort, represented the negation of socialism.

83 See Jones, Stedman, Languages of Class (n. 11 above), pp. 120–25 and 132–61.

84 Fabian Tract No. 13: What Socialism Is (London, 1890), p. 3 (my emphasis).

85 Fabian Tract No. 11: The Workers' Political Programme (London, 1890), p. 8.

86 Ibid., p. 11.

87 What Socialism Is, p. 2.

88 Yeo, S., “A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883–1896,” History Workshop Journal 4 (Autumn 1977): 556.

89 For instance, his A Policy for the Labour Party (London, 1920), esp. chaps. 3 and 10, and Socialism: Critical and Constructive (London, 1921), esp. chap. 7 (“Socialist Society”).

90 Lawrence, “Party Politics and the People” (n. 49 above).

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Journal of British Studies
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