In the great split of 1884, Engels took the side of those who demanded the earliest possible break with the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF’s flaw, as he saw it, was the party’s utter dominance by its leader, HM Hyndman. An aristocrat with a distinguished record of academic publication, Hyndman was a constant intriguer. Hyndman is “petty and hard-faced”, Engels complained, “possessing a vanity in excess of his talent and natural goods”. William Morris agreed, complaining about Hyndman’s habits of “discreditable intrigue and sowing of suspicion among those who are working for the party”. The historian EP Thompson diagnoses a relationship between Hyndman’s patrician upbringing, his sneering personal style, and his determination to create a party of followers, “Supremely self-confident himself himself, he saw the question of leadership as a matter of loyalty to himself and his Executive. If only the workers could be won to follow, he would look after the leading: the workers were the club he would swing.”
To demand an immediate split was to break apart the only socialist party on the British left, at a time when the far left was seemingly better united than it had been at any time since Chartism. The faction should think twice before continuing on a course that will lead them to abandon the SDF, Hyndman and his supporters urged. The SDF was Britain’s largest and only Marxist party, not a negligible acheivement, and one that should not lightly be abandoned. With around 1000 members prior to the break-up, the SDF contained in its ranks all the outstanding individuals of the most recent period of struggle; William Morris, Belfort Bax, HM Hyndman, John Burns, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Plenty of socialists outside the party – George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells – may have looked askance on the day-to-day pronouncements of Hyndman but at just the same time they assumed that in the coming social ferments the SDF would be reinvigorated, and that it would be capable of taking the practical leadership of the mass movement, a role that an individual could never hold but could be played only by a party.
Those who repeatedly and mechanically promise unity on the left are often the most desperate advocates of private intrigue. In public Hyndman may have promised that he would allow a space within the SDF for his critics; in private, he did everything in power to stiffen the resolve of his own partisans against a reconciliation with the faction. Morris was invited to speak at meeting of the SDF in Edinburgh. Hyndman sent eager comrades to break up his meeting, heckling him, by asking him repeatedly if he accepted the party’s line on economics.
While the ground on which the internal struggle rased was the sole question of inner-party democracy, the whole left was shaped by the patriachal culture of British public life. The SDF portrayed the class struggle as the key to creating a system of general equality, it existed in a world structured by sustained gender as well as class oppression. Among the SDF’s early supporters were Annie Besant, who on the break-up of her marriage had lost the custody of her children, the High Court ruling that as a socialist and secularist she was incapable of being a fit mother. A second prominent SDFer Edith Lanchester would be forcibly confined to an asylum after telling her family that she intended to live openly with her lover, without the two of them marrying. Another SDF activist Belfort Bax insisted that an urgent task facing socialists was to refute the feminism (the term not having yet been coined, he wrote instead against”gyneolotry”). Only class, he maintained, had the power to liberate the oppressed: “The real state of the case”, he wrote “is that the condition of women has been determined by that of the men of the class to which they belonged. Women of the privileged class have always been privileged, women of an oppressed class have been oppressed, not as women, but as belonging to an economically inferior section of the population”. Bax’s book on The Legal Subjection of Men justified his approach to his comrades.
After weeks of intrigue and attempted coups and counter-coups, Engels’ and Morris’ factions quit the SDF to launch a new party, the Socialist League, with branches in Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford. There were a preponderance of writers on the SL’s first steering committee – Marx, Aveling, the poet Tom Maguire, and the most talented of them all, not a journalist but an author of alternative imagined futures, William Morris.
The League had certain virtues – an independence of spirit, a hostility to top-down leadership, a youthful membership – but within months these strengths had become the League’s equal weaknesses. Charles Mowbray, another member of the Provisional Council, would drift into anarchism after years as an activist among he unemployed in Norwich. Franz Kitz was rumoured to have previously led a cell of East End bomb-makers. He was an extreme individualist and the an advocate of copying the revolutionary Terror in order to strike fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie. Before long, Engels was expressing his disappointment with the decisions of the steering committee, “The League is passing through a crisis”, Engels wrote, “Morris has fallen headlong over the phrase ‘revolution’ and become a victim of the anarchists.”
Members of the SL began a discussion on the merits or otherwise of “Communist Anarchism”. The League should not become a party it was argued but should restrict itself to a “centre of relations and statistics” without initiative, or leadership. Morris himself cease to play a day-to-day role within the League. His critique of the increasingly anarchist direction taken by the League was expressed in a coded passage in his greatest novel, during which the inhabitants of the future considered the individualist anarchist ideal, “To wit, that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”. The citizens of the future “burst out laughing very heartily” at the idea.
As for the SDF, beyond the undoubted accomplishment of maintaining any organisation after a bitter split, it became a shrunken memory of the party that it once was. Besides losing members in the formal split, it also shed activists towards careers in the trade unions and the Liberal party (John Burns). It retained an industrial cadre of very senior trade unionists who continued in office, increasingly elderly and indifferent or hostile to struggle. While on paper such figures as Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, General Secretaries of the boiler makers and dockers’ unions, were still members of the SDF and therefore Marxist revolutionaries, they argued for immigration controls and against strikes, and took seats in Parliament on the centre-right and far-right of the Labour spectrum (and this in a party which had the corruptible Ramsay MacDonald at its centre).
Hyndman was in private contemptuous of the class which his party supposedly existed to represent, “our working men are so ignorant and depressed by a hundred years of capitalist tyranny that it is hard to rouse them”, he told William Liebknecht, “the Trade Unions … stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”.
While Morris battled with the Socialist League ultra-left, a second group ex-SDFers (the ones closest to Engels’ heart) also drifted away but without in any way giving up on activity. At the 1888 conference of the Socialist League, Eleanor Marx’s Bloomsbury branch unsuccessfully moved motions called on the League to stand candidates for Parliament and to work to this end with others on the left. On the defeat of its motions, the Bloomsbury branch quit the League. Rather than give up on politics, they then attempted to work out a way of being revolutionaries that would be principled and effective and which would contribute to the renewal of the working class. In 1889, a revolt of unskilled workers began – with strikes among Beckton gas workers and East End dockers. Ex-SDFers such as Eleanor Marx in London and Tom Maguire in Leeds ignored both the SDF and the SL and threw themselves into participation in this nascent movement. In spring 1890, the boilermaker’s union, with Eleanor Marx on its executive, attempted to bring about a practical alliance of the unions and the socialist parties through a campaign for the 8-hour day. Tens of thousands of workers demonstrated jointly in Britain’s first May Day. Marx herself spoke twice a day at strike rallies. For the next four years, she would speak across Britain and internationally as a socialist but with no organised position beyond her seat on the executive of the boilermakers’ union.
At the end of the upturn of 1889-90, the remaining SLers split in three directions. A number became anarchists of the deed, while others dropped out of the movement. A third group moved rapidly in the direction of parliamentary politics. The League’s members in Leeds and Bradford swung one way and back between plans for incendiary devices to be used against local business owners and projects for standing for municipal office. A group around Maguire helped to choose the venue for the first conference of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford, while other ex-SDfers provided several of the office-holders (John Burns, Tom Mann) of the new electoral movement. A good case could be made that without the Socialist League there would have been no ILP. The League’s ultra-leftism in 1889 gave way surprisingly quickly to a longer future of mild reformism.
Morris, isolated and increasingly wooed by Hyndman, declined to write for his paper but admitted that the League was doomed, “I want to pull myself together after what has been, to me at least, a defeat”. Various branches of the SL (Hammersmith, North Kensington) defected from the increasingly anarchist parent, and attempted to hold a middle line thereafter between the SL and SDF. Their independence was at least facilitated by a healthy culture on the left of the 1890s where it was not unusual for socialists of whatever tradition (Fabian, SDF, ILP, ex-SL) to speak wherever they were invited, irrespective of the national politics of the group that was now providing their platform.
As for the Engels faction, after 10 years of independence they largely returned to the SDF, with little enthusiasm, with no belief that Hyndman would ever change, but from a conviction that the only real alternative (the ILP) was headed in a direction which was even further from the revolutionary politics which they espoused. In this way the SDF ultimately reasserted itself and eventually passed on to its eventual child (the Communist Party of Great Britain) the old patterns of sectarianism and top-down leadership against which Morris, Engels and others had once raged. They would have done better, in 1895, to have retained their independence. And between 1884 and 1895 Morris, Maguire and all the others who had a vision of the League as a principled and democratic party of revolutionaries would have done better to have carried on working with them.