Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867-1974

By James Hinton | Go to book overview

3
Socialism and the New Unionism, 1884-95

I

The emergence of socialist organisation and ideas in. Britain during the 1880s presents a confusing history of sectarian wrangling and utopian hopes. In June 1881 H.M. Hyndman -- company promoter, journalist, ex-Tory Radical and author of a popular exposition of Marxism -- took the initiative in establishing a Democratic Federation among some of the London Radical Clubs. The original purpose of the Federation was to campaign against government repression in Ireland, for land nationalisation, democratic reforms along Chartist lines, and increased working-class representation in Parliament. Many of the original supporters left when it became clear that Hyndman intended to oppose the Liberals at elections. Subsequently the Federation adopted a socialist programme and, early in 1884, renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

Ireland and the land question did much to promote socialist ideas in the early 1880s. Michael Davitt, leader of the Irish Land League and a firm believer that social revolution in England was the precondition of Irish freedom, worked to promote the land nationalisation cause among British workers. Simultaneously, the agricultural depression and the unparalleled urban unemployment of 1879 encouraged the revival of many of the themes of the Land and Labour League. By the time Henry George, the eloquent American advocate of the 'Single Tax' on land, arrived In England in 1882, a Land Nationalisation Society was conducting a vigorous propaganda. Henry George's popular lecture tours in 1882 and 1883 led many of his listeners to socialism. George himself was not a socialist, but his passionate challenge to the 'invisible hand' of orthodox political economy opened the way for the socialist affirmation that economic life could be regulated to meet human needs.

Hyndman dominated the SDF from the outset. Around him gathered other middle-class recruits, notably William Morris, who

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