The Founding of the Labour Party and the Far Left

Understanding the past is not a guide to the future, but without it, we have little option but to keep repeating mistakes. In the first of three articles on the role of the far left, broadcaster and author, Martin Plaut looks at the origins of the Labour Party.

The founding of the Labour Party at a conference on 27 – 28 February 1900 was the culmination of years of negotiations. The meeting at Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street brought together Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress, the Fabian Society and delegates of the Social Democratic Federation.  The founders had very mixed reasons for establishing the party. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) wanted a viable parliamentary presence, as did the unions and the Fabian Society. The unions had pushed for representation in Parliament for years, working with sympathetic Liberals: now they saw the need for their own party.

Keir Hardie was anything but an ideologue. Born in dire poverty, and having spent his early years down the mines, he wanted to improve the lot of the working class. As he later admitted, ‘the object of the conference was not to discuss first principles but to endeavour to ascertain whether organisation representing different ideals could find an immediate and practical common ground.’

The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by Henry Hyndman, son of a wealthy businessman with plantations in Barbados, was rather different.  A Marxist, he believed (like his fellow SDF member, William Morris) in the creative power of destruction. “I despair of a peaceful solution to the inevitable class struggle even in England” he wrote, “and I fear that we must pass through the fiery furnace of ‘some fatal natural catastrophe’ to the goal of full economic freedom and organised work for all.”

This view came from a rather simplified view of Marxism and a belief that electing members of parliament was really only a step on the road to revolution.

The SDF proposed that the “representatives of the working class movement in the House of Commons shall form there a distinct party based on the recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” The ILP opposed this with a resolution “in favour of establishing a distinct Labour Group in Parliament who shall have their own whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour.”

The ILP motion was carried by 53 votes to 39. The ILP’s position’s willingness to co-operate was designed to reach out to pro-Labour Liberals, whose support had helped the ILP win seats in the past. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, and soon the cracks began to show.

A division opened up between the SDF and the groups that formed the Labour Alliance – the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the ILP and the Fabians. Some in the SDF called for a ‘vanguardist’ position – requiring their party leave Labour. ‘Should we mix with the slow moving crowd…or should we rather dash forward, place ourselves in front and explain to the crowd the meaning and the significance of the road…’ Marxism – these comrades believe – provided them with an exclusive insight into the necessary crisis of Capitalism and all that was required was to enlighten the working class and the revolution would be under way. As one SDF member put it: the party should be the “head of the lance.”

The SDF were only members of the Labour Party (or Labour Representation Committee, as it was then called) for a short period. The committee included two members from the SDF and the ILP, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists. The SDF felt they had little control over policy and gradually broke away. 

Yet soon members of the SDF were regretting the split. “We have to capture rather than oppose it,” declared a London SDF member. “It is the only material, however resistant at present, which we can hope to shape to our purpose, that of bringing about a Socialist Commonwealth.” By no means all SDF members were in favour of this view, and in 1911 they formed the British Socialist Party, sealing the division.

The division between the SDF hard-left and the pragmatic socialism of the Labour Party – backed by the Fabians and the majority of the TUC – goes back to the very birth of the party. Ever since Marxist factions have bitterly regretted leaving the party and attempting to go on their own – with negligible success. Instead, they have attempted to “capture rather than oppose” the Labour Party. How they did this in the 1980’s with Militant and in recent years, with Corbyn, will be the subject of the next two articles.

Martin Plaut is a South African/British journalist and historian, who worked for the BBC World Service for 27 years. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

He tweets at @martinplaut

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