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The Failure of Socialist Unity in Britain c. 1893–1914

  • Keith Laybourn (a1)

SOCIALIST unity became an issue for the British left with in a year of the formation of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1884. The secession of William Morris and his supporters from the SDF and the formation of the Socialist League in reaction to the autocratic leadership of Henry Mayers Hyndman brought about a fundamental division within British socialism. Subsequently the creation of other socialist parties, most particularly the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led to further disunity within die British socialist movement. Nevertheless, notwidistanding die proliferation of British socialist societies with their distinctive socialist credentials, diere were several attempts to form a united socialist party between 1893 and 1914. They were normally encouraged, on the one hand, by advocates of the ‘religion of socialism’ such as William Morris, Robert Blatchford and Victor Grayson, and, on the other, by Hyndman and the SDF. The aim of these efforts was to strengdien socialist organisation in times of both political failure and success, but in every instance diey failed due to the intractable problem of bringing together socialists of distinctively different persuasions under the umbrella of one party. These failures have led recent historians to debate two major questions connected with socialist unity. First, diey have asked at what point did socialist unity cease to be a viable alternative to the Labour Alliance between the ILP and the trade unions? Stephen Yeo feels that socialist unity became impossible after die mid 1890s, David Howell suggests that this ‘suppressed alternative’ became unlikely about five to ten years later, as die leaders of die Independent Labour Party opted for the trade union rather than socialist alliance,

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1 Howell, D., British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1888–1906 (1984), 389–97; Yeo, S., ‘A New Life; The Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883–1896’, History Workshops Journal, IV (Autumn, 1977), 556; Crick, M., ‘A Call to Arms'; the Struggle for Socialist Unity in Britain, 1883–1914’, in The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party (eds.) James, D., Jowitt, T. and Laybourn, K. (1992), 181204.

2 Howell, , British Workers and the ILP, 389. This is a view which Martin Crick challenges in his article ‘A Call to Arms’.

3 Moore, R., The Labour Party 1880–1924 (1978), 53, quoting Beatrice Webb's Diary, 10 July 1895.

1 Howell, , British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 393–7.

5 Hill, J., ‘Social Democracy and the Labour Movement: the Social Democratic Federation in Lancashire’, North West Labour History Society, Bulletin 8, 1982–83.

6 Clarion, 4 August 1911.

7 Ibid., 11 August 1911.

8 Ibid., 6 October 1911.

9 Ibid., 18 August 1911.

10 Ibid., 22 December 1894.

11 Thompson, E. P., William Morris, Romantic and Revolutionary (1971), 605–10.

12 Clarion, 22 December 1894 and subsequent issues indicate the nature of the response.

13 NAC of the ILP, minute book M.890/1/1, Coll. Misc. 464, meetings for 1894, deposited in the British Library of Political Science.

14 Bradford Observer, 12 November 1896.

15 Howell, , British Workers and the ILP, 118.

16 Their hostility had been nurtured further in 1895 when Hardie supported John Lister, Treasurer of the ILP, against the local criticism of the Halifax ILP which had been nurtured by both Montague and Robert Blatchford.

17 Crick, M., ‘A Call to Aims‘, 184.

18 Justice, 7 August 1897.

19 ILP News, August 1897.

20 ILP Annual Conference Report, 1898, 8.

21 Justice, 27 August 1898.

22 Clarion, 3 December 1898.

23 Hill, , ‘Social-Democracy’, 47, and Justice, 14 September 1889.

24 Watmough, P. A., ‘The Membership of the Social Democratic Foundation 1885–1902’, Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, (Spring 1977), 3540.

25 Hill, , ‘Social Democracy’, 51.

26 ILP Conference Report, 1899.

27 Reports in the NAC Minute book, 16 June, 16 June–15 july and throughout August—September and November to December 1898. Abo quoted in Hill, J., ‘The ILP in Lancashire’;, in The Centennial History of the ILP, 50.

28 Hill, , ‘The ILP in Lancashire’, 50 and ILP Conference Report, 1899.

29 ILP News, June 1897.

30 Ibid., September and October 1898 and March 1899.

31 Crick, M., ‘A Collection of Oddities': The Bradford Branch of the Social-Democratic Federation’, The Bradford Antiquary, Third Series, number 5, 27.

32 Ibid., 28–9 and Clarion, 20 December 1901.

33 Bradford Labour Echo, 11 April 1896.

34 Labour Leader, 6 October 1894.

35 Hill, , ‘Social Democracy’, 53.

36 Lee, H. W. and Archbold, E., Social Democracy in Britain, 159 quoted in Crick, ‘A Call to Arms’, 187.

37 Howell, D., ‘Was the Labour Party Inevitable?’, The Bulletin of the North-West Labour History Society, (1984), 17.

38 Clarion, 7 December 1901.

39 Ibid., 7 February 1902.

40 Justice, 4 January 1902.

41 Crick, M., ‘Labour Alliance or Socialist Unity? The Independent Labour Party in the Heavy Woollen Areas of West Yorkshire, c. 1893–1902’, in ‘The Rising Sun of Socialism’: The Independent Labour Part in the Textile District of the West Riding of Yorkshire between 1890 and 1914, (eds.) Laybourn, K. and James, D. (1991), 38.

42 ILP News, October 1901.

43 Laybourn, K. and Reynolds, J., Liberalism and the Rise of Labour 1890–1918 (1984), 153. Ben Turner obtained 21.3 per cent of the vote in the 1906 general election and 20.2 per cent in the parliamentary by-election of April 1908.

44 Quoted in Kendall, W., The Revolutionary Movement in Britain (1971), 37.

45 McLachlan, J. M. and Hartley, E., Should Socialists Join the Labour Party—A verbatim report of the debate (1909).

46 Clarion,7 July 1911.

47 Ibid., 13 October 1911.

48 Ibid., 11 August and 22 September 1911.

49 Clarion, 8 December 1911.

50 Laybourn, , ‘A Story of Buried Talents and Wasted Opportunities’, 22.

51 M. Crick presented this percentage in a lecture at the Conference on the Centennial History of the ILP held at the University of Bradford, 30 January 1993 but some hint of diis level is also indicated in Morris, D., ‘The Origins of the British Socialist Party’, North West Labour History Society, Bulletin 8, 19821983, 34–5.

52 Thompson, L., The Enthusiasts: A Biography of John and Katherine Bruce Glasier (1971), 169.

53 Clarion, 11 August 1911.

55 Ibid., 5 January 1912, in an article written jointly by Tom Groom and Victor Grayson.

56 Justice, 2 March 1912, and 9 December 1911.

57 Conference BSP, 1912, 8.

58 Ibid., 8.

59 Clarion, 26 April 1912.

60 Justice, 10 November 1912.

61 The Socialist Annual, 1913, annual report of Fred Knee.

61 Laybourn, , ‘A Story of Buried Talents and Wasted Opportunities’, 25.

63 A. Gardiner Scrap Book. The source of the newspapers quotation is not indicated.

64 BSP Papers 1910–1914 (Birmingham), in the British Library or Political and Economic Science, Coll. Misc. 155, M228, collected by H. B. Williams. Note particularly item 48/49/5,, and item 46, the letter from Wintringham to Williams.

65 Look at Kahan's, Zelda article ‘Peace and its Perils’ in British Socialists, I, 1912, 5668 and Justice from December 1912 to March 1913.

66 Justice, 15 March 1913.

67 Bradford Pioneer, 11 April 1913.

68 Justice, 8 February 1913.

69 The Clarion, 21 June 1912 referred to the BSP decision to go for five million members during the next five years but in the same issue a report on the first annual conference of the BSP refers to H. Russell Smart stating the objective of raising 500,000 Socialists and £10,000. Also look at the ‘Enrol a Million Socialist Campaign’; report in Justice, 31 August 1913.

70 Justice, 31 August and 7 September 1912; Kendall, , Revolutionary Movement, 312.

71 Justice, 9 November 1912.

72 Ibid., 9 August 1913.

73 Ibid., 6 September 1913.

74 Ibid., 16 April 1914.

75 Ibid., 28 May 1914.

76 Marquand, D., Ramsay MacDonald (1977), 200, 208–9.

77 Yeo, , ‘Religion of Socialism’, 31.

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