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English Social Democratic Parties Part One

 Neither Marx, who died in 1883, nor Engels, who died in 1895. were impressed by the early efforts made in England to advance the Socialist movement. Social Democratic Parties did not make their appearance until the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In the eighties the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society, and the Socialist League, made their appearance, and in the nineties the Independent Labour Party. Of these parties the Socialist Democratic Federation and the Socialist League claimed to be based upon Marxism but the other two spurned “ imported ” ideas and based their “Socialism” upon “reason,” “justice,” John Stuart Mill and Stanley Jevons, liberally mixed with religion and out-of-date philosophical ideas. All of them, however, had three common characteristics; they had programmes of immediate demands that were similar, they took their starting points from the class division in society, and, although they fought each other with considerable vigour and vituperation they exchanged writers and lecturers impartially and combined for various purposes such as mass celebrations and protests against particular acts of Capitalist tyranny.

 The movement that led up to the formation of these organisations was the offspring of a number of different organisations centred in Liberal-Radical clubs, groups of. freethinkers, land reformers, and admirers of Thomas Davidson—the American advocate of communities to “live the Higher Life.” who delivered some lectures in England about that time. An acute trade depression in 1879-1880 and another in 1884 contributed to the growth of these movements as also did the propaganda of Henry George, whose book, “ Progress and Poverty,” was published in 1880. Some of those who took part in founding the new parties had come into personal contact with Marx and Engels although the latter, who were not greatly interested in them, were engrossed with the progress of the movement abroad.

 Looking at the literature with which the Social Democratic movement commenced one is struck by its general lack of punch and lack of concentration upon essentials. The single-mindedness, the passion, and the vigour of the Chartist movement had not been recovered. The people who were in the van[guard] of the new movement appeared to speak and write in a condescending manner, as if from outside the working class; some of them became prominent in art, literature, science, diplomacy, and spiritualism. Among these were William Morris. Walter Crane, Bernard Shaw, William Archer, Frank Harris, Havelock Ellis, Sydney Olivier and Annie Besant, although the most outstanding figures, from a theoretical standpoint, were H. M. Hyndman. Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling (the son-in-law of Marx). Frederick Lessner, an old member of the Communist League, and the International, also took a leading part in the movement although he tells us that Engels poked fun at him for his activities.

 The real beginning of the movement appears to have been the formation of the Democratic Federation in 1881, although the Labour Emancipation League founded about the same time under the influence of Joseph Lane, had a clearer outlook and a more definitely working class basis. The Democratic Federation was founded by a group of radicals whose leading spirit was H. M. Hyndman, a man in a comfortable social position who had read Marx’s “Capital” on a journey to the United States in 1880 and was later an occasional visitor to Marx's house. Hyndman published the results of his reading in a little book under the tide of “England for All” in 1881. In the preface to this book he made a reference to the fact that he was indebted to the work of Marx but did not mention Marx’s name, and neither Marx nor Engels ever forgave him for this omission. It appears to us that they were unduly sensitive and suspicious. The actual wording of the paragraph of which they had complained was as follows:

    "For the ideas and much of the matter contained in Chapters II and III I am indebted to the work of a great thinker and original writer, which will, I trust, shortly be made accessible to the majority of my countrymen.”

 Marx looked upon Hyndman as one who had pillaged his writings, and done so badly, for the purpose of his own aggrandisement. The last sentence of the above quotation, however, does not bear this out as he called attention to, and anticipated the publication of, the work upon which he had drawn. Whatever may be said against much of Hyndman’s practical activity he certainly did more than any other writer and lecturer to popularise both Marx’s name and his theoretical ideas when they were little known in England, and he got little but scorn for his work.

 As the Democratic Federation became more outspoken in its opposition to the Capitalistic basis of society it frightened away more and more of its Liberal- Radical support. At a conference in August, 1884, the name of the Federation was changed to the Social Democratic Federation and at the same time it adopted, with some modifications, the Object and most of the programme of the Labour Emancipation League, which joined forces with it. The object of the Federation was now proclaimed to be “The Establishment of a Free Condition of Society based on the Principle of Political Equality, with Equal Social Rights for All, and the Complete Emancipation of Labour"; a vague and unsatisfactory Object that left room for different interpretations and marked the limited political understanding of those who adhered to it. Attached to the Object was a nine point programme, and a list of palliatives for immediate attention. The programme was apparently intended to be a picture of the shape of future society, as the list of palliatives are preceded by the phrase “as measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society the Social Democratic Federation urges for immediate adoption,” etc., and then follows a number of reforms such as the extinction of the National Debt. State ownership of the railways, national banks, cumulative taxation upon all incomes above a certain level, and so on. Two items in the part defined as the programme arc a striking example of the confusion in the minds of the founders of the Federation. Here are the two items: “All officers or administrators to be elected by Equal Direct Adult Suffrage, and to be paid by the Community” and “The Means of Production Distribution and Exchange to be declared and treated as Collective or Common Property.” Thus the founders of the Federation had in their minds a society in which common ownership of the means of production would exist side by side with an exchange of products through the medium of money. In spite of the acceptance of theoretical statements and arguments derived from Marx’s work they had not grasped the fact that money is only required where exchange exists, and exchange only exists where there is private ownership of property.

 To-day we are witnessing some of the fruits of this false and dangerous conception when State Capitalism, with all the paraphernalia of buying and selling, wage slavery, profits, and millionaires, is propagated by labour parties as an example of Socialism in being. When the means of production are commonly owned by the whole of society there will be neither the place nor the need for the exchange of products, they will simply be distributed according to the needs of people, and therefore money will disappear as it will have no function to perform. It appears to us that the confusion has arisen partly from a failure to grasp the implications of common ownership and partly from the occasional use by Marx and Engels, in some of their writings, of the expression "means of exchange ” to denote means of distribution like transport, centres of distribution, and so forth. Unfortunately, the
Social Democratic Federation retained the reference to the common ownership of the “means of exchange” throughout the whole of its existence and thus helped to fortify the nonsensical views of numerous currency cranks. It may be added that if all the reforms advocated by the Federation had been accomplished the fundamental condition of the workers would have remained unchanged and yet, although 60 years have passed since they were framed, most of them are still the subject of wasted agitation.

 Another booklet written by Hyndman, “Socialism Made Plain” which had been adopted by the 1883 Conference of the Democratic Federation, was now published as the official Manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation. Tacked on to this Manifesto were proposals for the State organisation of the unemployed, one item of which is a specimen of the feebleness of the rest. The first proposal is: “That no Government servant be employed at his or her present wages for a longer period than eight hours in each day. This alone would give room for many now out of work, seeing that the ordinary hours of work in the Post Office and other State Establishments are from ten to twelve hours, or more, in the day.” If the framers of this proposal had looked back over the previous 20 or 30 years they would have seen that, although hours of work were gradually being reduced, unemployed figures were steadily going up. What they overlooked was that as long as a system of production exists that is rooted in buying and selling for the purpose of profit, unemployment is one of its essential and permanent features. Under Capitalism unemployment can neither be abolished nor even reduced to small dimensions permanently. If there were no unemployed to threaten the security of the employed there would be nothing to stop wage demands of the workers from eventually reaching a point that would threaten the existence of the profit upon which the Capitalist lives. While the Capitalists retain control of the political machinery and the workers remain politically ignorant such a threat to the basis of the system will not be allowed to become operative. It is true that during and since the last war the workers have been in a strong position, which they have only used to a limited extent, but these times will pass away, as the experience after the first Great War demonstrated.


(To be continued)