Thursday, March 21, 2019

From the SDF to the Socialist League

The break with Henry Hyndman, and the Social-Democratic Federation, came on the 27th of December, 1884, at which Morris read out a statement which, in part, read:

"...We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be rung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous. For carrying out our aim of education and organisation no over-shadowing and indispensable leader is required, but only a band of instructed men, each of whom can learn learn to fulfil, as occasion requires it, the simple functions of the leader of a party of principle.

We say that on the other hand there has been in the ranks of the Social-Democratic Federation a tendency to political opportunism, which if developed would have involved us in alliances, however temporary, with one or other of the political factions, and would have weakened our propagandist force by driving us into electioneering, and possibly would have deprived us of the due services of some of our most energetic men, by sending them to our sham parliament, there to become either nonentities, or perhaps our masters, and it may be our betrayers. We say also that among those who favoured these views of political adventure, there was a tendency towards National assertion, the persistent foe of socialism; and it is easy to see how dangerous this might become in times like the present.

Furthermore, these views have led, as they were sure to lead, to attempts at arbitrary rule inside the Federation; for such a policy as above demands a skillful and shifty leader, to whom all persons and opinions must be subordinated, and who must be supported (if necessary) at the expense of fairness and fraternal openness...

....our view of duty to the cause of socialism forbids us to cease spreading its principles or to work as mere individuals. We have, therefore, set on foot an independent organisation, the Socialist League, with no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation, but determined to spread the principles of socialism by the only means we deem effectual."

The Socialist League was formally founded on the 30th of December, 1884. Following the "To Socialists" statement, partly quoted above, "The Manifesto of the Socialist League", which as largely written by William Morris, was published in The Commonweal, which as edited by Morris with Aveling as sub-editor. The Manifesto set out in some detail the ideas of not just Morris, or Eleanor Marx, but the emerging, still contradictory, socialist movement of the 1880s in Britain. Its main arguments and conclusions are worth quoting.

It begins:

"We come before you as a body advocating Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society - a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.

As the civilised world is at present constituted there are two classes in society: the one possessing wealth and the instruments of production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments, but only by the leave and the use of the possessing class.

The two classes are necessarily in antagonism to one another. The possessing class, or non-producers, can only live as a class on the unpaid labour of the producers - the more unpaid labour they can wring out of them, the richer they will be; therefore the producing class - the workers - are driven to strive to better themselves at the expense of the possessing class and the conflict between them is ceaseless."

And the Manifesto of the Socialist League continues:

"All the means of the production of wealth must be declared treated as the common property of all...Nationalisation of land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value under the capitalist system.

No better solution would be State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism

The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation...

...To the realisation of this change the Socialist League addresses itself with all earnestness. As a means thereto will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education...."

At the same time as the Manifesto of the Socialist League was written, a draft constitution was prepared. It committed the Socialist League to "striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Local Governments, School Boards and other administrative bodies". Their draft, however, was rejected by a majority of the membership at the League's first annual conference in July, 1885

Despite the Socialist League's official policy of the working class conquering "political power", and opposition to "palliatives", or what socialists now refer to as "reformism", the organisation soon demonstrated that, among its active members, were anarchists whose main concern was the destruction of the state, and reformers whose policies included the passing of the Eight Hour Bill. Furthermore, the Socialist League was not entirely opposed to the idea of nationalisation; and socialists such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx, and the socialist movement generally, had not, as yet, completely rejected the notion of leadership as a principle, although they were opposed to the "arbitrary" leadership of people like Hyndman; this was partly understandable at the time, and was due to the fact that many workers, including active Trad Unionists, were still illiterate or , at least, only semi-literate. Another weakness of such people as Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Edward Aveling, was that although they had left the Social-Democratic Federation, and formed the Socialist League, they had "no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation". (It was twenty years before socialists realised that a party organised solely for the establishment of socialism would have to oppose other parties, including the SDF.)

The Socialist League appeared to get off to a good start; indeed, just before its founding, Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky that Ernest Belfort Baxand Edward Aveling had "the best intentions and learn a lot too; but everything is confused and by themselves these literary people can do nothing; they are both thoroughly sound, intelligent and sincere although needing great assistance". However, by 1886, Engels noted that Bax was strongly influenced by the anarchists. Indeed, Engels wrote in April, 1886, that "...the anarchists are making rapid progress in the Socialist League". The main arguments were between those who considered that the working class, through a socialist organisation or party, could, or should, use parliament as a means to emancipation, which included Eleanor Marx, and those such as the anarchists, who did not. Morris attempted to reconcile both camps, writing in 1887:

"I am trying to get the League to make peace with each other, and hold together for another year. It is a tough job."

Edward Aveling had already resigned as sub-editor of Commonweal early in 1886. He had been encouraged in this by Eleanor, who, by 1887, was calling the League "a swindle". And Bax, whom Engels had accused of being influenced by the anarchists, and who had succeeded Aveling as sub-editor of Commonweal also resigned, and supported the policy of the League contesting elections. William Morris was concerned with "making socialists", and considered that the only time that socialists should enter parliament was when a majority had become socialists and parliament should be abolished or "broken up". Morris was also opposed to the Socialist League advocating palliatives [he changed his mind some time later]

By the time of the 1888 conference, the various factions within the League had grown even more irreconcilable. However, while the various factions were tearing the League apart, working-class discontent was growing. John Quail comments:

"In the Trade Unions a sharper, more militant note was being struck. At the TUC conference the young Keir Hardie clashed with the Liberal's lap-dog, Broadhurst. A determined attempt to get an Eight Hour campaign under way in the Engineering Union and the TUC was made. John Burns and Tom Mann were active in this campaign. New organisations in the provinces, the Labour Federation on Tyneside and the Knights of Labour in the Midlands, proved surprisingly effective and grew rapidly. New organisational attempts also met with some success among the seamen. This new militancy was both spread by socialists and proved responsive to them" (The Slow Burning Fuse)

Not surprisingly, this included Eleanor Marx.

In 1883, in his The Historical Basis of Socialism, Hyndman explained his, and to some extent the SDF's, view of Trade Unions. He wrote:

"The waste of the Trade Union funds on strikes or petty benefits to the individuals who compose them is deplorable. Enormous sums have been lost, directly, or indirectly, in consequence of strikes which, if applied by Unionists to active propaganda against the existing system...would long since have produced a serious effect."

However, others, including Eleanor Marx, held a view that workers should resist the attempts by employers to depress their standards of living and, here circumstances were favourable, improve them, yet at the same time they should, through a political organisation or party, strive for the abolition of the system, capitalism, which exploits them.

Nevertheless, a "new" unionism was beginning to take over from the "old" unionism; the general from the craft. In 1888, the mainly female workers of the match factory of Bryant and May went on strike, which was largely successful. The dock strike of 1889 was probably the most dramatic conflict of th period, as it was a struggle of the most depressed section of the working-class who, hitherto, were considered unorganisable. The victory of the dockers was a victory for elementary Trade Union rights which led to a vast movement among both skilled and unskilled workers. The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union was formed out of the strilke. Even agricultural workers revived their unions.

During the dock strike of 1889, writes Tom Mann,

"Offers of clerical help were numerous during the strike. One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a most capable woman. Possessing a complete masterly of economics, she was able alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by doing so she could help the movement" (Tom Mann Memoirs)

The Gasworkers and General Labourers Union was the first of the "new" unions for mainly unskilled workers. Formed in 1889, by sheer eight of numbers, the union exchanged their twelve-hour shifts for an eight hour day without a strike. Although, they subsequently lost it again, the old hours were never resumed. Shortly after the union's founding, Eleanor Marx became a member and, later, as a member of its first women's branch became a member of its Executive. Will Thorne, the union's general secretary, had no education as a child; and he recounted who Eleanor helped him to improve his reading and writing, "which was very bad at the time"

In 1892, a Preamble To The Rules of the GGLU as drafted by Eleanor Marx and probably Edward Aveling. It reads:

"Trade Unionism has done excellent work in the past, and in it lies the hope of the workers for the future; that is the Trade Unionism which clearly recognises that today there are only two classes, the producing working-class and the possessing Master class. The interests of these two classes are opposed to each other. The Masters have known this a long time; the workers are beginning to see it, and so thay are forming Trade Unions to protect themselves, and to get as much as they can of the product of their labour. They are beginning to understand that their only hope lies in themselves, and that from the masters as a class they can expect no hope; that divided they fall, united they stand...the interests of all workers are one, and a wrong done to any kind of labour is a wrong done to the whole of the Working Class, and that victory or defeat of any portion of the Army of Labour is a gain or a loss to whole Army, which by its organisation and Union is marching steadily and irresistibly forward to its ultimate goal - the Emancipation of the Working Class - that Emancipation can only be brought about by the strenuous and united efforts of the Working Class itself. Workers Unite!”

Eleanor Marx was not, however, blind to the limitations of trade unionism; nor to the necessity of workers studying the economics of the system that exploited them. Far from it.

From the 16th of August, 1856, to the 1st of April, 1857, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles, under the title of "Revelations of Diplomatic History of the 18th Century" for the Free Press. These articles were later edited by Eleanor Marx in a book, "Secret Diplomatic History of the 18th Century" was published in 1899. Eleanor also published, under the title of the "Eastern Question", a series of articles Marx wrote in 1855 for the New York Tribune.

More importantly, from the working-class viewpoint however, was the debate that Karl Marx had with John Weston, a member of the General Council of the First International, in 1865, in which he read a paper on wages, profit, prices, value, labour and labour-power, and the production of surplus value. At the time, Marx did not agree to its publication, as he had not finished his studies on Capital. The manuscript was then forgotten until after Engel's death in 1895, when it was discovered by Eleanor Marx, who edited it, with assistance from Edward Aveling, under the title of Value, Price and Profit; and it was published early in 1899.

It was in the ultimate paragraph, and well-known to Eleanor, that Marx had expounded his view on Trade Unions, wherein he wrote:

"Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the
encroachments of capital. They fail from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces a a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system"

Adapted and Abridged from

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