The Making of British Socialism

The Making of British Socialism

The Making of British Socialism

The Making of British Socialism


The Making of British Socialism provides a new interpretation of the emergence of British socialism in the late nineteenth century, demonstrating that it was not a working-class movement demanding state action, but a creative campaign of political hope promoting social justice, personal transformation, and radical democracy. Mark Bevir shows that British socialists responded to the dilemmas of economics and faith against a background of diverse traditions, melding new economic theories opposed to capitalism with new theologies which argued that people were bound in divine fellowship.

Bevir utilizes an impressive range of sources to illuminate a number of historical questions: Why did the British Marxists follow a Tory aristocrat who dressed in a frock coat and top hat? Did the Fabians develop a new economic theory? What was the role of Christian theology and idealist philosophy in shaping socialist ideas? He explores debates about capitalism, revolution, the simple life, sexual relations, and utopian communities. He gives detailed accounts of the Marxists, Fabians, and ethical socialists, including famous authors such as William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. And he locates these socialists among a wide cast of colorful characters, including Karl Marx, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Oscar Wilde.

By showing how socialism combined established traditions and new ideas in order to respond to the changing world of the late nineteenth century, The Making of British Socialism turns aside long-held assumptions about the origins of a major movement.


This book has been a long time in the making. I first began working on the history of British socialism in the late 1980s. Back then, Margaret Thatcher’s governments loomed large over my political world. Critics portrayed socialism as a discredited statist ideology. Even socialists sometimes implied that it was an outdated class-based ideology. Yet, I wanted to recapture the diversity of socialism and thereby find inspiration for a radical democratic and transformative politics that rejected market individualism for egalitarian fellowship. I thought British socialists needed a new narrative with which to respond to neoliberalism.

One reason this book has been so long in the making is that in the 1990s the Labour Party provided just such a narrative. New Labour presented itself as adhering to historic socialist “ends” while adopting new “means.” The old socialist “means” had allegedly been made irrelevant by the rise of new times. The advancement of socialism now supposedly required supply-side economics, capacity building, and networks and partnerships delivering services. Although I was impressed by the energy and vigor of the New Labour project, its narrative and politics were not what I had had in mind. I got distracted from the history of British socialism by the desire to come to terms with its present.

The reader will find that this book still echoes my early aim of providing a more diverse portrait of socialism. Socialism has never been just about class-based politics and state intervention. It has never been the caricature depicted by Mrs. Thatcher; nor has it been the preserve of the Labour Party and its leaders. On the contrary, British socialism has always included radical democratic, pluralist, and utopian strands. Many socialists have promoted nongovernmental visions of personal and social transformation. They have envisaged more simple and cooperative ways of life.

I hope this book will help to correct widespread misconceptions about the history and nature of socialism. I also hope that it will contribute, even if only ever-so slightly, to attempts to forge more fulfilling ways of living with one another and the natural world of which we are part.

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