History of socialism in Great Britain

History of socialism in Great Britain

The History of socialism in Great Britain is generally thought to stretch back to the 19th century. Starting to arise in the aftermath of the English Civil War notions of socialism in Great Britain have taken many different forms from the utopian philanthropism of Robert Owen through to the reformist electoral project enshrined in the birth of the Labour Party.


The Reformation occurred later in Britain than in most of mainland Europe. As in the rest of Europe, various liberal thinkers such as Thomas More became prominent, but another important current was the emergence of the radical Puritans who wanted to reform both religion and the nation. The Puritans were oppressed by both the monarchy and by the established church. Eventually these pressures exploded in the violent social revolution known as the English Civil War, which many Marxists see as the world's first successful bourgeois revolution.

After the war several proto-socialist groups emerged. The most important of these groups were the Levellers, who advocated electoral reform, universal trial by jury, progressive taxation and the abolition of the monarchy and aristocracy and of censorship. This was strongly opposed by Oliver Cromwell's government, who also persecuted the moderate reformist group the Fifth Monarchy Men and the radical utopian group the Diggers.

The 19th century

The Industrial Revolution and Robert Owen

The Industrial Revolution, the transition from a farming economy to an industrial one, began in the UK over 30 years before the rest of the world.Textile mills and coal mines sprang up across the whole country and peasants were taken from the fields to work down the mines, or into the "Dark, Satanic Mills", the chimneys of which blacked the sky over Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Appalling conditions for workers, combined with support for the French Revolution turned some intellectuals to socialism.

The pioneering work of Robert Owen, a Welsh radical, at New Lanark in Scotland, is sometimes credited as being the birth of British Socialism. He stopped employing Children under the age of 10, and instead arranged for their education, and improved the working and living conditions of all his workers. He also lobbied Parliament over child labour, and helped to create the co-operative movement, before attempting to create a utopian community at New Harmony.

Trade unions

The trade union movement in Britain gradually developed from the Mediaeval guild system. Unions were subject to often severe repression until 1824, but were already widespread in cities such as London. Workplace militancy had also manifested itself as Luddism and had been prominent in struggles such as the 1820 Rising in Scotland where 60,000 workers went on a general strike, which was soon crushed.

From 1830 on, attempts were made to set up national general unions, most notably Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, which attracted a range of socialists from Owenites to revolutionaries. It played a part in the protests after the Tolpuddle Martyrs' case, but soon collapsed.

Militants turned to Chartism, the aims of which were supported by most socialists, although none appear to have played leading roles.

More permanent trade unions were established from the 1850s, better resourced but often less radical. The London Trades Council was founded in 1860, and the Sheffield Outrages spurred the establishment of the Trades Union Congress in 1868. Union membership grew as unskilled and women workers were unionised, and socialists such as Tom Mann played an increasingly prominent role.

Ethical socialism

The rise of non-conformist religions, in particular Methodism, played a large role in the development of trade unions and of British Socialism. The influence of the radical chapels was strongly felt among some industrial workers, especially miners and those in the north of England.

Many ethical socialists grouped themselves around Robert Blatchford's newspaper "The Clarion", and some set up a socialist church movement which can be seen as a forerunner of later Christian socialism in the labour movement. A strand with less of a base in the unions became the Fabian Society and began to work to get the Liberal Party to adopt reformist socialist policies.

The first group calling itself Christian Socialists formed in 1848 under the leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice. Its membership mainly consisted of Chartists (see below). The group became dormant after only six years, but there was a considerable revival of Christian socialism in the 1880s, and a number of groups sprang up. Ultimately, Christian socialists dominated the leadership of the Independent Labour Party, including James Keir Hardie.

The Chartist movement

The Chartist movement of 1830s and 1840s was the first mass revolutionary movement of the British working class. Mass meetings and demonstrations involving millions of proletariat and petty-bourgeois were held throughout the country for years.

The Chartists published several petitions to the British Parliament (ranging from 1,280,000 to 3,000,000 signatures), the most famous of which was called the People's Charter (hence their name) in 1842, which demanded:
# Universal suffrage for men.
# The secret ballot.
# Removal of property qualifications for Members of Parliament.
# Salaries for Members of Parliament.
# Electoral districts representing equal numbers of people.
# Annually elected parliaments.

The government subsequently subjected the Chartists to brutal reprisals and arrested their leaders. The remaining party then split as a result of a divide in tactics: the "Moral Force Party" believed in bureaucratic reformism, while the "Physical Force Party" believed in workers' reformism (through strikes, etc).

The Chartist movement's reformist goals, although not immediately and directly attained, were gradually achieved. In the same year as the People's Charter was created, the British Parliament instead responded by passing the 1842 Mining Act. Carefully valving the steam of the working class movement, British Parliament reduced the working day to ten hours in 1847.

Source: Encyclopedia of Marxism, available under the terms of GFDL. [http://www.marxists.org/glossary/orgs/c/h.htm#chartist]

Marx and early Marxism

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked in England, and they influenced small émigré groups including the Communist League. Engel's "Condition of the Working Class in England" [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/index.htm] became a popular expose of conditions for workers, but initially Marxism had little impact among Britain's working class.

The first nominally Marxist organisation was the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1882. Engels refused to support the organisation, although Marx's daughter Eleanor joined.

The party soon split, with the Socialist League of William Morris becoming divided between anarchists and Marxists such as Morris and Eleanor Marx. A much later split produced the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Britain's oldest existing socialist party, and the Socialist Labour Party.

Although Marxism had some impact in Britain, it was far less than in many other European countries, with philosophers such as John Ruskin and John Stuart Mill having much greater influence. Some non-Marxists theorise that this was because Britain was amongst the most democratic countries of Europe of the period, the ballot box provided an instrument for change, so a parliamentary, reformist socialism seemed a more promising route than elsewhere.

Lib-Labs and the ILP

The 1867 Reform Act finally enfranchised the majority of the male working class, who made up a majority of the electorate. The Liberal Party was worried about the possibility of a socialist party taking the bulk of the working class vote, while their great rivals the Conservatives initiated occasional intrigues to encourage socialist candidates to stand against the Liberals.

In 1874, the Liberals agreed not to put candidates against Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, two miners leaders who were standing for Parliament. Both were elected and became known as Liberal-Labour or Lib-Labs for short. Other miner’s leaders entered Parliament via the same route.

In 1888 Robert Cunninghame-Graham the MP for Lanarkshire North-West since the 1886 general election left the Liberals and formed his own, independent, Scottish Labour Party, becoming the first socialist MP in the United Kingdom Parliament.

In the 1892 general election Keir Hardie, another Liberal politician who had joined Cunninghame-Graham in the Scottish Labour Party, was elected as an Independent Labour MP, and this gave him the spur to found a UK-wide Independent Labour Party in 1893.

The 20th century

The birth of the Labour Party

In 1900, representatives of various trade unions and of the Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society and Social Democratic Federation agreed to form a Labour Party backed by the unions and with its own whips. The Labour Representation Committee was founded with Keir Hardie as its leader. At the 1900 election the LRC won only two seats, and the SDF disaffiliated, but more unions signed up.

The LRC affiliated to the Socialist International and in 1906 changed its name to Labour Party. It formed an electoral pact with the Liberals, intending to cause maximum damage to the Unionist Government in the forthcoming election. This was successful, and in the process, 29 Labour MPs were elected.

Women's suffrage

The campaign for women's suffrage in Britain began in the mid-nineteenth century, with many early campaigners including Eleanor Marx being socialists, but many established socialists, including Robert Blatchford and Ernest Bax opposed or ignored the movement. By the early twentieth century, the campaign had become more militant, but some of its leaders were reluctant to involve working class women in it. Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned for enfranchisement among women in the East End of London and eventually built up the Workers Socialist Federation.

yndicalism and World War I

Supporters of Daniel De Leon in the Social Democratic Federation chiefly in Scotland split to form the Socialist Labour Party. Their fellow impossibilists in London split from the SDF the following year to form the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB, still in existence). The remainder of the SDF attempted to form a broader Marxist party, the British Socialist Party. The SLP and BSP parties came to influence the shop steward movement, which became particularly prominent in what became known as Red Clydeside. Socialists such as John Maclean led strikes and demonstrations for better working conditions and a forty-hour working week.

This activity took place against the background of the First World War. The Labour Party, like almost all the Socialist International, enthusiastically supported their country's leadership in the war, as did the leadership of the British Socialist Party. This split the BSP, and a new anti-war leadership emerging.

Bolshevism and the CPGB

The shop steward movement worried many right-wingers, who believed that socialists were fomenting a Bolshevik revolution in Britain. A Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was founded, but it attracted only existing left-wing militants, with the British Socialist Party and Workers Socialist Federation joining many Socialist Labour Party activists in it.

The CPGB soon became known for its loyalty to the line of the Comintern, and proposed the motion to expel Leon Trotsky from the international. Under the leadership of Harry Pollitt, it finally gained its first MP, and began to expel Trotskyists.

Labour and the General Strike

The Labour Party continued to grow as more unions affiliated and more Labour MPs were elected. In 1918, a new constitution was agreed, which laid out several aims of the party. These included Clause IV, calling for nationalisation of industry. With their success in the 1924 UK general election, Labour were able to form their first minority government, led by Ramsay MacDonald. This government was undermined by the infamous Zinoviev Letter, which was used as evidence of Labour's links with the Soviet Union. It was later shown to be a hoax.

In 1926, Welsh miners went on strike over their appalling working conditions. The situation soon escalated into the General Strike, but the Trade Union Congress, ostensibly worried about reports of starvation in the pit villages, called the strike off. The miners tried to continue alone, but without TUC support had eventually to give in.

Labour won a minority government in 1929 again under MacDonald, but following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Great Depression engulfed the country. The government split over its response to the crisis. MacDonald and a few supporters agreed to form a National Government with the Liberals and the Conservatives. The majority of the Labour Party regarded this as a betrayal and expelled them, whereupon they founded National Labour.

The Great Depression devastated the industrial areas of Northern England, Wales and Central Scotland, and the Jarrow March of unemployed workers from the North East to London to demand jobs defined the period.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II

The Independent Labour Party disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932, in protest at an erosion of their MPs' independence. For a time, they became a significant left-of-Labour force.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War was viewed by many socialists as a contest against the rise of fascism which it was vital to win. Many CPGB and Independent Labour Party members went to fight for the Republic and with the Stalinist led International Brigades and the POUM anti-fascistforces, including George Orwell who wrote about his experiences in "Homage to Catalonia".

The Labour Party leadership always supported World War II, and they joined a national government with the Conservative Party and the Liberals, and agreed a non-contest pact in elections. The CPGB at first supported the war, but after Joseph Stalin signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler, opposed it. After the fascist invasion of the Soviet Union, they again supported the war, joined the non-contest pact, and did all in their power to prevent strikes. But strikes did occur, and they were supported by the anti-war Independent Labour Party and the newly-formed Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party.

The 1945 Labour victory

To widespread surprise, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee won a landslide victory over popular war leader Winston Churchill in the 1945 UK general election, and implemented their social democratic programme. They established the National Health Services, nationalised some industries (for instance, coal mining), and created a welfare state.

The CPGB also grew on the back of Stalinist successes in Eastern Europe and China, and recorded their best-ever result, with two MPs elected (one in London and one in Fife). The Revolutionary Communist Party collapsed, their perspectives falsified and unable to deal with the ensuing factional discord clarifyy.

Labour lost office in 1951 (despite polling 200,000 more votes than the Conservatives), and after Clement Attlee retired as leader in 1955, he was succeeded by the figurehead of the "right-establishment" Hugh Gaitskell, against Aneurin Bevan.

Although there were some disputes between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites, these disputes were more about personality than ideology, and the rift was healed when Harold Wilson, a Bevanite, was elected leader after Gaitskell's death.

The 1960s and 1970s

The Vietnam War, given lukewarm support by Harold Wilson, radicalised a new generation. Massive anti-war protests were organised. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Trotskyist groups like the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists came to prominence, particularly due to high-profile members like the IMG's Tariq Ali.

The CPGB became increasingly divided between Stalinists and Eurocommunists when they voted to disapprove of the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The party suffered a series of splits. Various Maoist inclined elements left, the most significant forming the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Later in 1977 other traditionalist pro-Russian elements left to form the New Communist Party.

Throughout most of the rest of the twentieth century, Labour alternated in office with the Conservatives, most notably in the Wilson-Heath years (1964-1976). During this period, Labour introduced "In Place of Strife", a plan designed to circumvent strikes by imposing compulsory arbitration. Opposed by many socialists and trade unionists, it had little success as union militants, many close to the CPGB, led the successful 1974 UK miners' strike, the well-supported but ultimately unsuccessful Grunwick dispute, and the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.

The Labour leadership's inability to work with trade unions, coupled with a world recession, resulted in the election in 1979 of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher.

The 1980s

After the 1979 Labour defeat, Jim Callaghan tried in vain to keep the left of the party (in which Tony Benn was prominent) and the right (in which Roy Jenkins was prominent) together. In 1980, the party conference was dominated by factional disputes and what Callaghan regarded as Bennite motions. Callaghan resigned as party leader, and was replaced by Michael Foot, a left-winger who distanced himself from Benn but failed to transmit this to the media or the voters. Benn only lost the deputy leadership narrowly to Denis Healey.

In 1981 the right-wing split from the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party. In the 1983 UK general election, Thatcher rode a wave of nationalism brought about by the Falklands War and compounded by a the Labour leadership's failure to campaign on their manifesto, their most left-wing for many years (famously described by the right-wing Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history"). Labour suffered their worst election defeat since 1918 with eight and a half million votes, over three million votes down on the previous general election. Many former Labour voters voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance instead. During this period, the Labour Party was split between the right, including Healey and Roy Hattersley, a "soft left" associated with the Tribune group, and a "hard left" associated with Benn and the Campaign Group.

The Trotskyist Militant tendency, working in the Labour Party, had gradually increased their support. By 1982, they controlled Liverpool City Council, and took the lead in opposing Conservative budget cuts. However, after a fight, many of their councillors were surcharged and thrown out of office. The Labour leadership followed this by expelling Militant members from the party. Thatcher's other chief opponent in local government, Ken Livingstone of the Greater London Council, was left powerless when she abolished the metropolitan county councils and GLC in 1986. The term municipal socialism is used to describe the control of some urban local authorities by the Labour left in this period.

The defining event of the 1980s for British socialists was the 1984-5 miners' strike. Miners in the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, struck against the closure of collieries. Despite widespread support, including alliances forged with students, campaigners for gay rights and the prominent role of many miners' wives in Women Against Pit Closures, the strike was eventually lost. This increased the Tories' confidence, and they undertook massive privatisations and other neo-liberal legislation.

After the 1983 election, the right-winger Neil Kinnock was chosen as the new leader of Labour. He attempted to reform the party by expelling revolutionaries and dropping many socialist policies. In the process the party beat off the challenge from the SDP. However, Labour lost the 1987 UK general election by a wide margin.

Socialism and nationalism

Scottish and Welsh nationalism have been the concern of many socialists. Having been raised in the nineteenth century by Liberals also calling for Irish Home Rule, Scottish Home Rule became the official policy of the ILP, and of the Labour Party until 1958. John Maclean campaigned for a separate Communist Party in Scotland in the 1920s, and when the CPGB refused to support Scottish independence, he formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a Communist, was also an early member of the National Party of Scotland. The CPGB eventually changed their position in the 1940s.

The early nationalist parties had little connection with socialism, but by the 1980s they had become increasingly identified with the left, and in the 1990s Plaid Cymru declared itself to be a socialist party.

Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, both the Scottish National Party and Plaid have been challenged by socialists in recent years. The Scottish Socialist Party, who include an independent Scotland in their programme, has had successes including the election of six MSPs. Forward Wales, with a less militant programme, are aiming to replicate this success.

Irish nationalism and sometimes Irish republicanism came to be supported by socialists in Britain. Labour's election manifesto's for 1983, 1987 and 1992 included a commitment to Irish unification by consent.

The 1990s

In 1989 and 1990, the Conservatives introduced the deeply unpopular poll tax. For the first time in the decade, socialists were able to organise effective opposition, culminating in the "Poll tax riot". Margaret Thatcher's own party compelled her to step down, and she was replaced by John Major, who abolished the charge.

The CPGB finally disintegrated in 1991, although their former newspaper, "The Morning Star", continues to be published by the Communist Party of Britain. The Eurocommunists, who had controlled the party's magazine "Marxism Today" formed the Democratic Left

In the run-up to the 1992 general election, polling showed that there might be a hung parliament, but possibly a small Labour majority. In the event, Major got in again with a majority of 21. This has been attributed to both triumphalism of the Labour Party (in particular the infamous Sheffield Rally) and the Tories' "Tax Bombshell" advertising campaign.

After the brief stewardship of John Smith, Tony Blair was elected leader. He immediately decided to re-write Clause IV, dropping Labour's commitment to workers' control. Many members of the party were unhappy with the proposed changes and several unions considered using their block vote to kill the motion, but in the end their leaderships backed down and settled for a new clause declaring the Labour Party a "Democratic Socialist Party".

Several party members, such as Arthur Scargill regarded this as a betrayal of Labour's ideology and left Labour in disgust. Scargill formed the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) which initially attracted some support, much of which transferred to the Socialist Alliance on its formation, but the SA has since been wound up and the SLP has become marginalised. The Scottish Socialist Party have proven much more successful, while Ken Livingstone became the Mayor of London, standing against an official Labour Party candidate. Livingtone was re-admitted into the Labour party in time for his re-election in 2004.

Under Blair, Labour launched a massive PR campaign to rebrand as "New Labour", introduced women-only shortlists in certain seats and central vetting of Parliamentary candidates, to ensure that its candidates were seen as on-message. Labour won the 1997 UK general election with a large majority, and have been in power ever since. However, they have not reversed many Tory policies, and have disappointed many socialists.

The 21st century

The international anti-globalisation movement, while difficult to define, has become a focus for other socialists in the 21st century, and many see a reflection of it in the opposition of large sections of the population to the 2003 Iraq War.

George Galloway after his expulsion from the Labour Party in October 2003 (following controversial statements about the war in Iraq) joined with some far-left groups, mainly the Socialist Workers Party, then the largest left-of-Labour grouping, and independents, including leading figures from the Muslim Association of Britain, to form RESPECT The Unity Coalition. Galloway succeeded in being elected as a Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 UK general election. Respect hopes to take over the left-wing space they see as having been deserted by New Labour and start to pull disaffected labour grass-roots members.

Other socialists place their hopes in a trade union revival, perhaps around the "Awkward Squad" of the more leftist trade union leaders, many of whom have joined the Labour Representation Committee. Others have turned to more community-based politics. Yet others believe they can reclaim the Labour Party.

See also

*Liberalism in the United Kingdom
*Politics of the United Kingdom
*History of Socialism

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