Marxist Ideas in Britain

The first article in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party. We recall this history not only for its own interest, but because today others are making the same mistakes.

The Russian Revolution had a great impact on the thinking of radically-minded workers everywhere. Very few of those who had opposed the War were not enthusiastically swept off their feet by events in Russia. To them it appeared that in one part of the world capitalist rule had been overthrown in favour of a government committed to introducing Socialism. The Bolsheviks themselves were caught up in this enthusiasm as reflected in the speeches of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev (who was in charge of the Communist International). They also encouraged it, calling their regime a “Socialist Republic”. Many outside of Russia took this further than the Bolsheviks intended and devoted their energies to spreading the good news that Socialism had actually been established in Russia.

What sort of people supported the Bolsheviks and heeded Lenin’s call to split the Labour movement and form separate communist parties? Naturally they varied from country to country but nearly all their leaders had been associated either with the Social Democratic or, in a few cases, with the anarcho-syndicalist movements. In Britain they came from the small political parties that claimed to be in the Marxist tradition and from the militant trade unionists who had built up a following as a result of the official unions’ war- time “truce” with the government and employers.

Marxism never caught on in Britain in the way it did on the Continent, and to the extent that it did it was recognisably different. Everywhere the Labour movement grew out of the radical wing of the parties supported by the industrialists and petty capitalists. So it is not surprising that its theory and language tended to reflect its background. On the Continent the radicals were anti-clerical and even insurrectionary, so Marxism with its materialist philosophy was not too radical a departure especially when linked with the rising consciousness amongst industrial workers that they ought not to remain the tail-end of their employers’ political party. But in Britain the Liberals (and the Radicals) were Nonconformist Christians and believers in peaceful political change, features which were inherited by the Labour movement here. In Britain atheism was not popular amongst the workers; nor were appeals to class interest. The Labour leaders preferred to see Socialism as a question of “morality” and as a “faith”, with the result that what passed for theory were the vaguest, sentimental repetitions of the Sermon on the Mount. But even in Britain, and especially London, atheism had a following amongst some Radicals. And where Secularism had been strong there Marxism found a following.

In 1883 a number of working-class Radical clubs in London came together as the Democratic Federation. Later, under the influence of a rich former Tory, H. M. Hyndman, this became the Social Democratic Federation, which proclaimed Socialism as its aim and professed adherence to Marxism. At that time, few of Marx’s works had been translated into English and were only available in French or German. As a result those who couldn’t read these languages had to rely on those who could for a knowledge of Marx’s ideas. Men like Hyndman and the writer and designer William Morris did grasp more or less what Marx was getting at but put it over in a crude form. Hyndman made both Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and his Materialist Conception of History much more rigid than in fact they were. In particular he made Socialism appear as the inevitable outcome of a mechanical operation about which human beings could do very little: sooner or later the capitalist economic machine would break down so Socialists must be prepared to take over when it did. This was Morris’ view too, though in his writings he also touched on problems like that of Reform and Revolution which Marx did not really have to face.

The SDF took over traditional working-class Radical demands and justified them as “stepping stones” to Socialism. Of course they were nothing of the sort and would not have been out of place in the programme of a radical, non-socialist party. Concern about this was one of the reasons why Morris left the SDF and helped to form the Socialist League. The Socialist League did refuse to advocate reforms though this was often obscured by its general anti-parliamentarism.

At the time of the Chartists a group of London artisans had emphasised the importance of mass understanding and support for change. Secularism, too, with its street-corner propaganda meetings exerted an influence in the same direction of educational rather than reform activity. This was to be an issue which was to split English Social Democracy.

So Marxism in Britain tended to play down the workers’ class struggle as the way to Socialism in favour of the mechanical breakdown of capitalism or the equally mechanical build-up of abstract “knowledge”.

When towards the end of the century Marxist writings, of a sophisticated kind, became available in English (mainly from America) this contributed towards the dissatisfaction with the SDF’s whole policy and structure amongst some of its younger members. The critics were dubbed “impossiblists” by the SDF leaders, a word which conveyed two meanings. One, that they were raising “impossible” demands and, two, that they held it was “impossible” to reform capitalism so as to benefit the workers.

The outcome of what has been called the Impossiblist Revolt was the founding in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party and in 1904 of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, both of which -though the SLP a little vaguely -opposed the suggestion that a socialist party should have a programme of immediate demands to be achieved within capitalism. Nevertheless, the SDF did continue to attract those who considered themselves Marxists but wanted reforms.

The SLP, destined to supply some of the leading lights of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was based on the ideas of the American party of the same name led by Daniel De Leon. De Leon had been one of the first Social Democrats to come out against a reform programme declaring that a socialist party should concentrate exclusively on achieving Socialism. But he is more well known for his advocacy of “socialist industrial unionism”, a hybrid of Social Democracy and syndicalism. He was in favour of setting up separate socialist unions opposed to the “pure and simple” trade unions. In the absence of mass support for Socialist ideas these unions were a failure and De Leon eventually turned to the Industrial Workers of the World. In Britain the SLP did have its own industrial union but this never got off the ground so SLP members, though banned by Party rule from holding union office, worked inside the existing unions. The effect, therefore, of De Leonism was to turn their attention to union work, an alteration that was to bear fruit during the war – but at the expense of their original “impossiblism”.

The SPGB was the only party not to be carried away by the Russian revolution, refusing to concede that Socialism was possible in backward Russia or that the Bolsheviks had found a short-cut to Socialism. The SPGB differed from the SLP in not lauding De Leon and in not preaching “socialist industrial unionism”. Members of the SPGB were active trade unionists but had no illusions about it. Because our support, small though it was, was built up as support for’ Socialism alone we were to emerge from the War (which of course we opposed) and the Russian revolution still basically “impossiblist”. The SPGB is important here in that we have been in continuous and active existence, particularly in London, since 1904. We were thus a thorn in the side of the Communist Party’s attempts to palm off Bolshevism as Marxism and state capitalist Russia as Socialism. The SPGB’s mere existence meant that the Communist Party had to meet the arguments of traditional Marxism.

Meanwhile those workers for whom Marxism had no attraction but who still favoured independent Labour politics had been organising with support many times larger than that of the SDF, SLP, and SPGB combined. In 1893 had been founded in Bradford the Independent Labour Party committed to the vague ethical “socialism” discussed earlier. The ILP was weak where the SDF was strong in London. But under Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald they skilfully used trade union disquiet over certain Court decisions to win support for the idea of a “Labour Party”. Their efforts were successful when in 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was set up, a body which, when it had enough MPs, became in 1906 the Labour Party. This was not, and did not claim to be a socialist party. It was basically a trade union parliamentary pressure group. Along with many trade unions the ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party and worked for the election of Labour candidates. The SDF had attended the inaugural conference of the LRC but had later withdrawn. It was not affiliated to the Labour Party but at the same time was not completely opposed to it like the SLP and the SPGB.

The Labour Party presented socialists and Marxists in Britain with a problem: should they oppose or should they work within the Labour Party? As we shall see, this was an issue on which the British Communist Party zigged and zagged. Those who weren’t outright against the Labour Party were put in a more difficult position when in 1918 its new constitution committed it to “socialism”, albeit of the Fabian variety (and therefore really only state capitalism).

The SDF became the Social Democratic Party in 1908 and in 1911, together with a number of dissident ILP branches and others, became the British Socialist Party, the party which was to supply the bulk of the members of the Communist Party when it was formed. Despite opposition from some of the old SDP members, the BSP soon began to move towards affiliation to the Labour Party. A party referendum in 1913 favoured this and in 1914 the party joined with Labour, leaving only the “impossiblists” and some “industrial unionists” and “syndicalists” opposed.

The poor record of the Labour Party as the mere tail-end of the Liberal majority in the House of Commons (it had to be since most of its MP’s had been elected by Liberal votes) helped encourage anti-political and anti-parliamentary ideas in the period of industrial unrest immediately before the war. The subtle difference between the syndicalists and the industrial unionists does not concern us here for on one point they were agreed: that the workers could get more by “direct action” and relying on their own “economic power” than through sending representatives to parliament. It was an argument really not about how to get Socialism but how to get social reforms, though there were those who accepted the full anarcho-syndicalist argument that the way to overthrow capitalism was through a General Strike. Most didn’t go this far and thought that Labour MP’s could play a subsidiary role in getting reforms.

At this time, with the growth of trade unionism, there was a demand for workers’ education to train people to fill the administrative posts in the unions. Ruskin College, Oxford, was originally set up with government support for this purpose but a row soon blew up when the principal wished to teach Marxian economics and sociology alongside the more orthodox versions. He was dismissed and eventually a rival “Labour College” financed mainly by the South Wales miners and the railwaymen was set up. Here a kind of Marxism (in addition to journalism, book-keeping, etc) was taught, but a Marxism tailored to trade unionism. The journal Plebs became the organ of the Labour College movement and its “Marxism”.

The way in which this was different from traditional Marxism was in its emphasis on “economic power”. Traditional Marxism had pointed out the necessity of winning political power, arguing that when a particular social class had become parasitic it was able to hang on to and preserve its privileges through its control of political power. Thus in effect that class had economic power because it was the ruling class (that is, the class that controlled the State). Labour College Marx- ism reversed this, arguing on the contrary that the capitalist class was the ruling class because it had economic power (of course they genuinely thought this was Marx’s view). This was economic determination rather than historical materialism. But it implied that the struggle at the “point of production” was more significant than the political struggle, a doctrine that was attractive for militant trade unionists and in keeping with their anti-parliamentary mood at that time.

This view that the capitalist class rule because they own rather than own because they rule came to be accepted as “Marxism” by the Communist Party, which is not surprising since anti-parliamentarians like the South Wales (formerly Rhonddha) Socialist Society were amongst the founding groups of the British Communist Party. The SWSS also had links with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Socialist Workers’ Federation, another anti-parliamentary body. In addition, this version of Marxism was attractive to the SLP who were able to use the loose organization of the Labour College movement to get in some of their members as lecturers and to get some of their views published under its auspices.

The SLP arguing for “socialist industrial unions” as the main weapon to overthrow capitalism naturally tended to the view that economic power was more important than political power.

Soon after the war began the trade unions concluded an industrial truce with the employers. However, the war with full employment and speed-up put pressure on the workers and at the same time put them in a strong position to resist it. It was inevitable that the workers would find a way of fighting back, if not through the official unions, then outside them. This is what happened. Unofficial bodies like the Clyde Workers’ Committee in which members of the SLP and BSP were prominent took up the struggle. By the end of the war there was a fully-fledged and fairly influential Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement. The end of the war and industrial truce, together with growing unemployment, meant that this movement rapidly declined in influence but, before and while it did, its leaders transferred their allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Those who supported Lenin in Britain were thus drawn from two groups. First, left wing Social Democrats, mainly from the BSP but with some from the ILP (the pro-war section of the BSP under Hyndman had split off at the beginning of the war) and, second, militant trade unionists and their supporters who regarded the economic struggle as paramount.

The bulk of the members of the CPGB set up in 1920 were from the first group, ex-members of the BSP. The Communist Party thus did not evolve out of the intransigent Marxist trend in English Social Democracy but rather from its pro-reform trend. And the SLP members who went over had already abandoned their Impossiblism, the prisoners of the non-socialist support they had won as prominent labour agitators. But the SPGB was opposed to the CPGB from the start knowing from past experience the reformism of the BSP and its members.

The manoeuvring which eventually led to unity amongst the pro-Bolshevik groups in Britain has been described elsewhere and we need not repeat it here. Suffice it to set out what were the conditions for unity: support for

1. the soviets, or workers’ councils, as the way to power and then to control society;

2. the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to crush all opposition to the introduction of Socialism;

3. the Third (Communist) International. This left unsettled two important issues on which the pro-Bolsheviks were divided -the attitude of the new party towards the Labour Party and towards parliament. The BSP had been affiliated to the Labour Party and had always been committed to using parliament to get reforms. The ex-SLP members were opposed to the Labour Party but not to parliamentary action, while the others from the Workers Commit- tees, the SWSS and the SWF were opposed to both the Labour Party and parliament,

As most of the members had come from the BSP a party referendum would have gone in favour of both. But another factor helped secure this result. Lenin favoured it. He argued that the Labour Party was not so much a Social Democratic party as a federation of workers’ political and industrial organisations, which the Communist Party ought to join while retaining full freedom of thought and action.

The pro-Labour decision meant (though this is hardly what Lenin intended) that the Communist Party was destined to be the tail-end of the Labour Party, its extreme left wing rather than a Leninist party in its own right. The reformists who had come from the BSP did not appreciate Lenin’s subtle pro-Labour arguments. For them this was not just a “tactic”; they remained reformists who really believed that a Labour government was the way to Socialism and would help solve the workers’ problems. This reformist trend in the CPGB was strengthened in 1921 when the Communist International adopted the “united front” tactic.

The question of parliamentary action was easily settled: the workers could only win power through the workers’ councils so that the role of parliament could only be subsidiary, a sounding board for revolutionary propaganda.

When the Communist Party applied for affiliation in 1920 the Labour Party turned them down. However, undismayed, the Communists joined local Labour parties and as such were delegates to the Labour conferences, Labour candidates, councillors and even MP’s.


As we shall see, except for a few years between 1929 and 1933, it has been Communist policy to work for or within the Labour Party (as far as that party has allowed them). For most of its existence it has thus been a left wing ginger group encouraging, and sharing, illusions about some form of Labour government as the way to Socialism.

Next month: The effect of Stalin’s “left” turn in 1928 on the British party.

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