Account for the limited influence of Marxism in Britain
Before examining the extent of the influence of Marxism in the British Labour movement it is worth defining what is meant by Marxism. There are many possible definitions, but for the purposes of this essay only two will be employed; firstly, at its simplest level Marxism is an attempt to provide a materialist explanation of history, showing how human society has developed alongside the development of productive forces, and how the struggle between the classes act as the motor of history, and as a deconstruction and critique of the industrial capitalism which Marx considered as the latest, and last, form of class society. British Marxist organisations were from the first, educators and disseminators of this form of Marxism.
The second definition of Marxism is as a panoptic political movement, which aimed to embrace its members in a movement that would provide for them every aspect of their lives while the party itself would subsume and eventually replace the state itself. The template for this form of Marxism was the mighty German SPD.
The pre war Marxist sects and parties of Britain always remained numerically small but their membership was in constant flux; the rapid turnover of members meant that there were always a far greater proportion of Marxist educated workers at large in the British Labour movement than can be gleaned through exclusive attention to the subs lists of individual branches.
It is thus an understandable mistake to see the difference in size between organised Marxism in Britain, whether in its pre Bolshevik, or later communist incarnations, and the mass Social Democratic and Communist Parties of the continent as an indication that Marxism has had only limited influence inside the British Labour Movement. Size, as they say, doesn’t (always) matter. The British Marxists were an integral part of the British labour movement which even if it didn’t always agree with them or even found them uncomfortable bedfellows recognised them as a part of the larger whole.
The nature of the Marxism that was taught within British Marxist groups should also be examined; the pejorative “crude” is almost universally applied when considering the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation and its splits and successors, but this is an unfair one justified only by the Leninist conviction that their extension of Marxism as an overarching world view, makes it more sophisticated. In reality the pretention that Marxism can provide the answers to every question of Human existence transforms it into a quasi- religion, with its own priesthood and readymade sets of anathema, witch hunts and heretics.
Hyndman’s role, as founder of the SDF, is a major part of the argument for the crudity of early British Marxism, while it is true that he often allowed his old Tory prejudices to colour his interpretation of socialism Hyndman was not ‘the’ SDF and was often challenged and overturned from within the federation. Debates within the SDF often came to conclusions that pre-empted the debates within the wider socialist International, but were often ignored and others would be become associated with the concepts; notably, the bitter arguments that took place after the outbreak of the Boer war, in which Hyndman’s attempts to oppose the war within a overall pro- imperial standpoint led him to assess it nakedly anti Semitic terms whilst his opponents developed an internationalist approach which directly associated the Boers with the interests of the working class, and pre-empted later development of the theory of imperialism undertaken by the Second International and even Lenin’s evocation of ‘revolutionary defeatism’.
The vitality of pre war socialism is often overlooked; Ken Weller describes how in one borough of North London no fewer than a dozen different groups and organisations were operating, with their own public meetings, literature and educational classes.
The British Labour movement predates all others in the world, it was born in the ‘blood and filth’ of Industrial capitalism’s own birth and its formative years, well described by Thompson, were tumultuous and violent as Capital attempted to impose ‘the tyranny of measured time’ and the factory system on the new proletariat. The new working class built its organisation without benefit of the advice of Marxist Intellectual and ‘professional revolutionary’.
Marx and, especially Engels took a rather dim view of the proletariat of their adopted country. After the waning of the Chartist movement both Marx and Engels became increasingly critical of the ‘conservative’ nature of the British Trades unionists. The unions gained strength in the conditions of the long boom in British industry and were able to win for their highly skilled membership real material advantages, which ran counter to Marx’s insistence that Capitalist development would inevitably result in the immiserization of the proletariat. These unionists found that in the conditions of economic growth there was real advantage in supporting free trade economics and freedom in collective bargaining, but found it necessary to seek international solidarity in order to defend their members’ conditions. Even as the same trades’ unionists were creating the International Working men’s Association which would provide Marx with a political platform from which to propagate his views, Engels was condemning them as labour aristocrats. After Marx had destroyed the International to prevent it falling into the hands of his Bakuninite opponents, their interest in the British working class dried up altogether, to the extent of not even bothering to have their writings published in English.
The publication of England for all annoyed Marx for not acknowledging him by name, and instilled a lifelong animosity for Hyndman in Engels, who extended this enmity to the SDF, encouraging the Socialist League’s split, and exulting at the mistaken prospect that the split would destroy the federation and in the last years of his life providing support to the foundation of the ILP. Kendall argues that Engels’ hostility to the SDF, in isolating Engels from the British socialist movement, prevented Marxism from taking proper root in the labour movement. This is rather overplaying the influence of one individual, even if that individual is Engels, but Kendall is undoubtedly correct in arguing that by precipitately splitting from the federation the Socialist League left Hyndman and his supporters in complete control, and that the democratic and federal composition of the SDF, meant that a split was unnecessary and set an example which became common for oppositions, and ensured that Hyndman’s control continued till the Great War.
Notwithstanding Hyndman, British Marxism developed in a peculiarly working class fashion, a part of, and extension of, the self improvement and autodidactic impulse which has been such a feature of British working class life. Within Socialist education classes Marxism was taught not as a totality but as a part of gaining a wider understanding of the society in which they lived and was studied alongside sciences, literature and history. In 1909 Marxist education became more organised and expanded with the formation of the Central Labour College and the Plebs’ League. Formed following a dispute between the working class students and the traditionalist tutors of Ruskin College the League brought together tutors and students from across the Labour movement, teaching an explicitly Marxist and socialist curriculum. The Plebs’ League produced educational material of an extremely high quality, some of which are still of value today.
It is interesting to note the similarity between these circles of autodidactic workers in Britain and the early Russian workers study circles that were so disliked by Lenin for their habit of knowing more about Marxism than the young revolutionary intellectuals who sought to use them as “cannon fodder”.
It is clear that there was an enormous gulf between this Marxism; “ultra democratic, opposed to leadership in principle (and) opposed to professionalism of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.” And the all encompassing European movements: While the British labour movement, in both industrial and political forms had been largely the creation of workers themselves, who were suspicious in the extreme of those few Intellectuals and other members of the middle classes who supported the cause of the workers, across Europe the later industrialisation meant that the intellectuals were, more often than not, the instigators of the socialist parties and the unions were the creation of the parties. The European intelligencia; educated and trained for the role of managing a Industrialised Capitalist society but excluded from any say in the running of that state, they adopted Marxism as an ideology for a highly state centred and bureaucratised Socialism, in which the Educated and managerial Classes would take their rightful place as rulers. The German SPD formed the most fully formed of these parties, creating a parallel society of clubs, unions, papers entertainment and education for its members, and a parallel bureaucracy to run that parallel society, while at the top of the party Marxist intellectuals adorned the party like a crown, with Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism”, as their chief jewel. Kautsky and the other Intellectuals produced Marxist literature which promised much for the coming socialist Nirvana, whilst simultaneously preaching passivity and the inevitability of socialism. Among Kautsky’s many international disciples Lenin was the most devoted and committed in applying Kautsky’s Marxism.
In Britain the democratic reforms of the nineteenth century and the needs of Imperial administration provided for the emerging educated and managerial class opportunities for both representation within the established political system and employment and advancement across the globe. There was no major involvement by the educated managerial class in the British Labour and socialist movement until the 1950s as the needs of the Welfarist state led to the rapid growth of highly educated people who were expected to fit into increasingly limited and frustratingly mundane roles.
The Russian Revolution galvanised and united the bulk of British Marxism into the new communist party around support for Lenin’s very different version of Marxism, however the CPGB unlike it’s continental sister parties was not born of a bitter, and all too often, blood soaked, split, but instead from the unification of most of the old ‘revolutionary’ parties, an aspiration which had long existed within the British left. British communism’s relationship with the wider British left also did not change markedly; Local activists were still the same, whether as members of the BSP or CPGB, and the Party remained essentially within the wider labour fold; Harry Wickes in his autobiography described the early years of the communist party in Battersea where the close cooperation between Communist and Labour was extemporised by the election of Indian communist ‘Sak’ Saklatvala as the Labour MP in 1922. The efforts of the Communist International to ‘Bolshevise’ the party, whether organisationally, educationally and, finally, through the hothouse education of a new cadre of leaders in the Lenin school in Moscow, and the parallel efforts of the Labour leadership to proscribe the Communists and the Minority Movement inside the Labour Party that supported them, largely failed to breach the continuity of relationships between Communists and Labour.
On aspect of the Communist International attempts to break the CPGB’s peculiar relationship with the larger movement was in its approach to Marxist Education. Wicks described the nature and breadth of the Plebs’ classes in the early 1920’s;
“Bill Ryder a foundation member of the communist party introduced us to Marx’s Capital...
Frank Horrabin on Economic geography made use of maps to bring alive how continents were divided in the search for markets and raw materials. ...
Raymond Postgate attracted a wide audience with his series of 12 lectures on revolution from 1789 to 1905. His class was held at the lavender hill labour club and coincided with the attack by Morrison and Macdonald on the presence of communists in the labour party. Its central issue- parliamentary road or revolutionary road? - was then live...
Those classes were widely attended and enjoyed by young and old- apprentices, skilled workers, Cooperative Guildswomen. From there emerged a group of people who became the backbone of the left wing of the Labour party. Historical materialism, Industrial unionism and elements of Daniel Deleon constituted the Marxism in that period of Plebs’ education in the 1920s...”
This eclecticism could not be allowed to stand for the recently Bolshevised CPGB and from 1922 onwards attempts were made to take over the movement and impose a curriculum with the intention of; “correcting defective (non communist) understandings of Marxism and turning the plebs league and labour colleges into adjuncts of party activity”
This failed takeover led to a exodus of some of the CPGBs most able and talented educators, Raymond Postgate, Frank Horrabin, Mark Starr and Morgan Philips- Price all left the party and a great deal of damage was done to its standing.
The final breach between organised Marxism and the Labour movement was the Third Period; This was a new revolutionary offensive decreed from Moscow, in which the only force that was holding back the revolutionary impulses of the workers was the reformist parties and unions, who it was claimed, had become as firm supporters of reaction as the fascists, and should be therefore denounced as social fascists, shattered the relationship between the Marxists and the wider labour movement, that organic continuity was lost and never again regained. When the communists again looked for unity, in the cause of the popular front, it was as an outside organisation, appealing or condemning in turn the leadership of the Labour Party and trades unions, moreover, the assumption that the Communists and the wider movement had the same interests, and the same loyalties could never again be made.
As an integral part of the Labour movement, Britain’s Marxists gained a wide audience, however this was a very different form of Marxism than that pursued by the mass socialist parties of the continent. The introduction of such politics after 1917 caused the steady collapse of the influence of British Marxism.
Barrot, Jean The renegade Kautsky and his disciple Lenin Paris 1977 translated by Wildcat 1987 on http://libcom.org/library/renegade-kautsky-disciple-lenin-dauve accessed 25/02/09
Cliff, Tony Lenin Volume 1: Building The Party, 1893-1905 London 1975
Crick, Martin The History of the Social Democratic Federation Keele 1994
Jones, G.S. Some Notes on Karl Marx and the English Labour Movement History Workshop Journal 1984
Kendall, W the revolutionary movement in Britain: 1900-1921 London 1969
Miles, A workers education: The Communist Party and the Plebs league in the 1920s History workshop Journal 1984 18 (1)
Post, Charlie The Labor (sic) aristocracy myth International Viewpoint 381 September 2006 accessed at
Shatz, Marshall S. Jan Waclaw Machajski A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligensia And Socialism Pittsburgh 1989
Stekloff, G.M. history of the First International London 1928 Ch. 3 accessed at http://www.marxists.org/archive/steklov/history-first-international/ch03.htm on 25/02/09
Thompson, E.P. Making of the English working class London 1968
Weller, Ken Don’t be a Soldier, radical Anti war movement in North London 1914-1918 London 1985
Wicks, Harry Keeping my head; memoirs of a British Bolshevik London 1992
 Crick, Martin The History of the Social Democratic Federation Keele 1994 pp. 158-163
 Weller, Ken Don’t be a Soldier, radical Anti war movement in North London 1914-1918 London 1985
 Thompson, E.P. Making of the English working class London 1968
 Stekloff, G.M. history of the First International London 1928 Ch. 3 accessed at http://www.marxists.org/archive/steklov/history-first-international/ch03.htm on 25/02/09
 Post, Charlie The Labor (sic) aristocracy myth International Viewpoint 381 September 2006 accessed at
Jones, G.S. Some Notes on Karl Marx and the English Labour Movement History Workshop Journal 1984 18 p. 128
 Crick, M 1994 p. 39
 Kendall, W the revolutionary movement in Britain: 1900-1921 London 1969 pp.6-7
 Kendall, W 1969 p.5
 Kendall, W 1969 p.7 and p.21
 Kendall, w 1969 p.69
 See specially Starr, Mark A worker looks at history London 1917
 Cliff, Tony Lenin Volume 1: Building The Party, 1893-1905 Ch.2 on http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap02.htm accessed 25/02/09
 Kendall, W 1969 p.300
 Bakunin was probably the earliest critic of Marxism to identify its tendency to become an ideology for a state bureaucracy, for the first fully formed critique see the work of the Polish revolutionary Jan Machajski in Marshall S. Shatz
Jan Waclaw Machajski A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligensia And Socialism Pittsburgh 1989 accessed at
http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/cont.html on the 26/02/09
 Barrot, Jean The renegade Kautsky and his disciple Lenin Paris 1977 translated by Wildcat 1987 on http://libcom.org/library/renegade-kautsky-disciple-lenin-dauve accessed 25/02/09
 Wicks, Harry Keeping my head; memoirs of a British Bolshevik London 1992 Ch.1- 3
 Miles, A workers education: The Communist Party and the Plebs league in the 1920s History workshop Journal 1984 18 (1) p. 107.