Labour history uncut: Labour’s original hard left – the social democratic federation

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal continue their stroll through the organisations that set up the Labour representation committee (LRC) in 1900. Today, it’s the turn of the social democratic federation (SDF)

The SDF was founded in June 1881 by Henry M Hyndman, a journalist and world traveller. On reading the communist manifesto, rather than just agreeing with everything then going back to watching X-Factor, he decided that he was the very man to form Britain’s first socialist party and transform the nation into a socialist idyll.

Very sure of himself was Henry M Hyndman.

Initially, many socialists were sceptical. Hyndman had a history of opposing democracy (including home rule in Ireland) and, worse, he was the son of a wealthy businessman.

Still, after some time, a selection of socialist thinkers and luminaries came around and joined the organisation. This was because Hyndman managed to convince them of the heartfelt sincerity of his beliefs. Also he was the son of a wealthy businessman.

Well, socialist clubs need funds too.

Thus began the long and honourable tradition within the labour movement of taking much-needed funds from a friendly businessman, hoping there are no strings attached.

Henry Hyndman supported the SDF with the proceeds of his work as a shopping centre Santa

Members of this new organisation included ex-circus acrobat and union man Ben Tillett (lots more to come from him later), Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl and bona fide socialist royalty (a paradox she learned to live with as it came with invitations to all the best socialist parties), and utopian idealist and wallpaper-fancier, William Morris.

The SDF were the most left wing of the Labour party’s predecessor organisations and adopted an explicitly socialist platform. They were not at all keen on the Liberals, who at that time were claiming to represent the working man. The SDF wanted more, calling for such hard-left lunacy as a 48-hour working week, the abolition of child labour, compulsory and free and secular education, equality for women, and the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange by a democratic state.

To work towards this, they had meetings, published a newspaper, helped organised demonstrations and got jolly cross about injustice.

By 1885, the SDF was growing strongly for a new socialist party and had over 700 members in drawing rooms throughout Hampstead and Islington, and some even beyond.

The robust growth in membership was fortunate because, as soon as things started to take off, Hyndman embarked on a programme of annoying as many of his members as possible.

As a result of his high-handed and authoritarian ways, in December 1884, the SDF executive passed a vote of no confidence in Hyndman. Hyndman reacted with his trademark tact and diplomacy and simply ignored it.

This caused various members to quit– Eleanor Marx departed leaving Friedrich Engels, who had refused to have anything to do with the SDF chanting “I told you so”. William Morris left as well, to concentrate on his burgeoning painting and decorating business.

Alice Fone, SDF candidate (bottom row, 2nd from right), wished she’d gone with the stick-on moustache after all

Hyndman wasn’t done with the self-sabotage yet though. He then accepted a £340 donation to run campaigns in Hampstead and Kensington at the 1885 general election.

Although campaign donations were not a new thing at that time, this funding was particularly unconventional, coming as it did from the Tory party. They hoped an SDF candidate would split the Liberal vote, enabling the Conservative to romp to victory.

Needless to say, Hyndman had omitted to mention the source of the funds to his comrades in the SDF. Or even to tell them about the donation at all. Go team.

In a rare moment of natural justice, all of the players in this sorry affair lost out. The 2 SDF candidates, one of whom was, surprise, surprise, Hyndman himself, polled just 57 votes between them, presumably from friends and family.

This paltry showing meant the Tories got no benefit whatsoever from their dirty tricks money and Hyndman’s reputation was severely tarnished when it emerged that he had accepted “Tory gold.”

But Hyndman was not about to let a few minor bumps in the road change his leadership style. He ploughed on with his no-nonsense, nothing-learned approach, stirring the pot once again in 1890. This time he clashed with SDF members including John Burns and Tom Mann over his organisation’s relations with the trades unions.

John Burns became a committed socialist after failing the audition for the Bradford and Bingley adverts

Burns and Mann were both engineers and unionists who had joined the SDF following their personal experience of the harsh realities of the Victorian world of work.

They wanted to work more closely with the unions, seeing this as a practical route to improve the lives of the working classes.

Hyndman, on the other hand, unencumbered by anything resembling practical experience of working life wanted to skip straight to the end -  a socialist revolution. He felt any progress that might be made to improve the workers’ lot in the meantime was likely to delay that happy day.

This type of gap between the personal experience of the leadership of the Labour movement and the lives of working men and women would, of course, never happen today.

Burns, Mann and Hyndman discussed the issue. Burns and Mann put forward their view. They listed the pros and cons therein. Hyndman, for his part, stuck his fingers in his ears and sang “la la la. I’m not listening. We’re going to wait for the revolution ‘cos this is my club. La la la.”

Burns and Mann left the party.

Many of the deserters from the SDF landed in the open arms of the Independent Labour Party – who, in comparison seemed like an oasis of political rationality; which says it all about the state of the labour movement in the 1890s.

But politics is a comparative business and the ILP did not suffer from the key failing of the SDF – one H M Hyndman. It also offered many of the benefits including decent funding and, in Keir Hardie, a leader who was not only an MP but had a beard every bit as bushy and splendid as Hyndman’s.

Despite this loss of key figures to the more-prominent ILP and a marked slowdown in the growth of the SDF, Hyndman continued to have some influence on the left.

Hence Hyndman and his gang still got their invitation to the fateful Farringdon get-together that saw the formation of the Labour representation committee.

Which meant, in 1900, Hyndman now had a whole new organisation with which he could argue and fall out.

Happy days.

Next: The Fabians – don’t get mad, get pamphleting

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal are not historians


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3 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour’s original hard left – the social democratic federation”

  1. uglyfatbloke says:

    Loved it!

  2. paul barker says:

    Atonishing how much of that was to be repeated in a sucsession of communist sects, most recently Respect.

  3. swatantra says:

    Excellent series! You may be interested to know that ‘Labour Heritage’ organises events and lectures around the history, and there is ‘The Bishopsgate Institute’ in London holding a lot of the archives.

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