the social democratic federation has long been the problem-child of labour historians, especially marxist ones or those anxious to “place“ it rather than merely to chronicle its erratic development. It cannot simply be approved. It cannot be simply condemned. It certainly cannot be dismissed. The least subtle student of its affairs is forced into unaccustomed complexities, contradictions and nuances. What precisely is its contribution to the evolution of the modern British labour movement?
It cannot be dismissed for it was, after all, the first modern socialist organisation of national importance in Britain; a pioneering achievement not diminished by Dr. Tsuzuki’s demonstration that its marxism was shaky and slow to develop, nor by the claims to priority of forgotten local men and groups. For the point about the SDF is not only that it was first in the field, but that it lasted. Through splits, crises, wild fluctuations of membership and activity there shines the inextinguishable light of continuity, and what is more, of national political presence. It was the main British representative of Marxism from the early 1880s until 1920, when it contributed to the infant Communist Party the largest bloc of its original members and leaders. Marx disliked it; Engels opposed it; William Morris left it, together with most of its brilliant members. It survived. The dissidents who broke away from time to time disappeared in a few years like the Socialist League of the 1880s, remained wholly unimportant conventicles like the SPGB (1906) or became at best bodies of regional influence like the Socialist Labour Party on Clydeside (1903). Even its founder and paternalist chief, H. M. Hyndman, was jettisoned when he attempted to impose his imperialism on it during the first world war. (The Hyndmanites, a body of no further importance, withered away until finally ending the formal history of the SDF in the first months of World War II).
Time and again former dissidents return to it, like Aveling or Tom Mann, or rebels against the reformism of other groups joined it or merged with it, for want of any other lasting marxist organisation of national scope. Time and again its sheer staying-power allowed it to recover from the consequences of its gigantic political errors, compounded of a mixture of sec- tarianism and opportunism. What is more, time and
Nor should we overlook its achievements. Though it never elected an MP independently, and was much less successful than the Independent Labour Party in winning local councillors, it established itself as the major socialist organisation in several areas, notably in London where the provincial nonconformist tradition of the ILP never made much appeal, while the SDF took over the strong local heritage of secularist radicalism which stratched from Tom Paine via the Owenites to Charles Bradlaugh. (Nowhere is it less true that British socialism is descended from Wesley rather than from Marx). It is no accident that the London Trades Council was a stronghold of the SDF, as later of the Communist Party, until dissolved by official Labour, nor that the first labour majority on a local council (in West Ham, 1898) was a coalition of Radicals, the Irish and the SDF. But its greatest achievement was to provide an introduction to the labour movement and a training-school for a succession of the most gifted working-class militants: for John Burns, Tom Mann and Will Thorne, for George Lansbury and even for Ernest Bevin. Consequently also, in spite of its frequent neglect of trade unionism, its members or those formed in its school were at their most effective as trade union leaders.
Its achievements deserve attention if only because they have so often been overlooked by its critics, who comprise practically the entire body of the modern labour movement, including the Communists, whose official attitude towards their lineal ancestor has in the past been in general determined by the hostility of Marx and Engels and the much-merited criticisms of Lenin. (Only an a priori bias against the SDF could explain the attempts made to pretend that the Socialist League of William Morris and his colleagues was anything but an abject and almost immediate failure in politics: wrecked within five years by the very internal bickerings and splits to which the SDF proved so resistant). But of course the errors and failures of the SDF were so titanic that critics can be pardoned for dwelling on them. It showed a lack of political realism unparalleled by any other contemporary group of socialists, except Sidney and Beatrice Webb between the Boer War and the 1906 Election. In the middle of 1880s it made itself not only ridiculous but unpopular by accepting Tory help for parliamentary candidatures which then gained merely a few dozen votes. It was flatly hostile to the trade unions, and but for the sound instinct of its militants, would have taken no part in the great union revival of 1889. Though it had sense enough to join in forming the Labour Representation Committee, it deliberately left the future Labour Party in 1901 to retire into sectarian isolation. It played no important part in the great swing to the left before world war I, even though this took the ideological form of a return to revolutionary socialism, or even formal marxism. It was, in fact, as Marx, Engels and Lenin were never tired of repeating, a sect rather than a serious political organisation.