Why do we have a Labour Party instead of a socialist Party?

This article originally appeared in Prometheus.  It was also used to facilitate a discussion in a meeting of Talking About Socialism on 12th June 2023 – watch the video here.

What sort of an organisation is the Labour Party? Its dominance of the left in Britain for over a century has produced no shortage of activists who are members, without being very enthusiastic about their membership. Various descriptions have been formulated but while all have an element of truth, none quite tell the whole story. Is Labour, as the membership cards would have it, a “democratic socialist party”? Or perhaps Tony Benn had it right when he said that Labour is “not a socialist party, but a party with socialists in it”? Is it a unique phenomenon, defined by its own special philosophy of “Labourism”?

Arguably all of these descriptions are correct. But none of them are particularly helpful in drawing conclusions about what (if anything) socialists should do in the party. Nor do any of these formulae contain an explanation of how that state of affairs arose in the first place. It would hardly be advisable to try and answer all of these questions in one article, but what follows is a historical argument which may inform those answers.

Although it maintains fraternal ties with them, the Labour Party has a different structure and heritage from the modern Social Democratic parties of continental Europe. Like Labour, these parties have all been through a more than a century of assimilation into the capitalist order, from support for their own ruling classes in the First World War through to their embrace of the neoliberal consensus and attacks on working-class living standards in recent decades. Like Labour, they now adhere more or less to a centrist social-democratic politics of slightly expanded welfare spending within the general neo-liberal framework of privatisation and subordination to the needs of business. But at the time of their birth they adhered to the principles of Marxism. “Social Democracy” was simply the term in use at that time to describe organised socialist politics, and did not have its modern connotation of centre-left parties aiming merely at a “fairer capitalism”.

Socialism is a democratic project by which the working class, the great majority of people who are separated from the means of production and thus forced to sell their labour to survive, will win the battle of democracy and displace the capitalist class as the dominant force in society. They can then use this power to establish common democratic ownership of all society’s resources, building a society in which those resources are allocated to satisfy human need rather than profits for a tiny minority. This is a very simple idea, and yet the idea in itself is not sufficient. It cannot simply be proclaimed like a new sermon on the mount. It must be argued and campaigned for, if the working class are to take it to heart and use it to emancipate themselves. To wage such a campaign to win support for socialist ideas among the working class and for it to then use those ideas to become the dominant class requires the existence of a mass, democratic, socialist party.

To see how this can be done, we can look at some of the earliest Marxists, those who called themselves “Social Democrats” in the late 19th century. Socialism was not a new idea at this point, but thanks to the contribution of Marx and Engels it was now well understood that it would have to be established by a self-conscious working class acting in its own interests, and not by a conspiratorial coup d’etat or as a result of the ruling classes’ benevolence.

Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of Marxism after the deaths of Marx and Engels, described the essential formula of Social Democracy as “the merger of socialism and the worker movement”.1 This “merger formula” was applied with great success by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its predecessor organisations from 1869 to 1914, during which time it became the most popular party in the German Empire, even under conditions of state repression. Millions of German workers were drawn into a mass party that functioned as a “state within a state”, and campaigned for a socialist society as well as immediate reforms to improve the condition of the working class.

In Britain, however, this Social Democratic perspective never became the dominant trend on the left. Minor leftwing organisations such as the Communist Party of Great Britain and the various Trotskyist groups can trace their descent from revolutionary Social Democracy, but at best they resemble only a cheap imitation of the original. These organisations never came close to hegemony over the left or the working class, and the force which did – the Labour Party – was based around a different perspective entirely. This is one reason why the British working class has for over a century been saddled with a compromising Labour Party that serves it so poorly, rather than the mass socialist party it so desperately needs.

Britain’s socialists

Perhaps a good measure of the weakness of the early socialist movement in Britain is the fact that the foremost organisation, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), is today forgotten by all but a handful of scholars and enthusiasts of socialist history. Part of this forgetting is deliberate and convenient – the SDF was an integral partner in the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, an uncomfortable fact for today’s right-wingers who declare that Marxists have no place in the Labour Party.2

To today’s Marxists, the SDF is principally remembered as a useless sect, the object of Friedrich Engels’ unending scorn.3 Socialists would benefit in general from a more nuanced and detailed understanding of our movement’s history, even including flawed organisations such as the SDF.

However, if we take as our starting point the clear failure of the SDF to emulate the German SPD and become hegemonic among the working class by merging its ideas with the worker movement, we must then seek to understand why this failure occurred, as this was a failure not only of a particular organisation but also of the prospects for revolution in Britain.

In contrast to the SPD which overcame its birthing pains to unite around a Marxist programme at its congress in Erfurt in 1891, the SDF never reached this level of political coherence.4 The party was deeply divided even on such basic questions as whether socialists should support trade unions, or whether they were in fact useless to the cause of socialism.5

Furthermore, the organisation was from its inception under the authoritarian grip of its founder, Henry Hyndman, described by Engels as “an arch-conservative and an extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist”.6 A businessman who provided much of the organisation’s initial funding, Hyndman’s careerist aspirations and bureaucratic manoeuvres, including taking money from the Tories to finance two election campaigns, severely retarded the SDF’s development.7 He was also vociferously hostile to trade unions, which meant that the best of the Marxists in the SDF were hamstrung in any attempts to adopt and apply the “merger formula”.

Marx and Engels’ justifiable hostility to Hyndman translated into scorn for the SDF, and meant that even though the two founders of scientific socialism were based in England rather than their native Germany, the SDF and its genuine socialists who were clearly groping towards the “merger formula” were woefully under-resourced in terms of political and ideological support. It took decades before the key texts of Marxism were translated into English, and thus the opportunist leaders of the SDF were able to write their own derivative but corrupted theory to fill the vacuum.8

Britain’s worker movement

While the forces of socialism which should have made up one half of the “merger” equation were so weak and deformed, Britain’s worker movement was going from strength to strength during this period. Trade unions had been acknowledged as legal entities from 1871 onwards by the state.9 This was followed in the 1880s by an upsurge in “new unionism” – what today would be called ‘organising the unorganised’ – which blew away some of the cobwebs of ‘craft’ trade unionism as a force by which skilled workers had defended their privileges.10

In contrast, at this time in Germany both socialists and the trade unions were going through an intense period of state repression, semi-outlawed by the Anti-Socialist Laws of Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire. This repression, and the recognition that political liberty was absolutely essential to the existence of both the socialist and trade union movements, helped drive the two halves of the “merger” required for Social Democracy closer together, and acted as a catalyst for their merger.

An unbalanced equation

The effective absence of a mass Social Democratic party in Britain did not destroy the inherent desire of the worker movement for political representation, but instead meant that the increasingly powerful trade unions looked elsewhere for partners and schemes to fulfil this desire. Right-wing elements in the movement such as the Fabian Society, which sought to neuter the transformational potential of the socialist movement in favour of gradual reform, found a receptive audience among these union leaders, who also favoured class collaboration and caution in order to safeguard their positions and the apparatus that put them there. The same partnerships emerged in Germany between trade union leaders and so-called ‘Revisionists’ in the SPD who rejected the ultimate goal of a classless society and emphasised the immediate goals of the movement.

In Britain, the trade unions had increasingly outgrown the meagre representation conceded to them by supporting “Liberal Labour” candidates, but Britain’s Marxists were either incapable or unwilling to take advantage of the opportunity which presented itself to them.

Into this void stepped the forces of what would become the Independent Labour Party. Formed at a conference in 1893, the ILP committed itself to socialism, but in vague terms that left its politics broad and nebulous. Indeed, for many years its first leader Keir Hardie advertised the party to prospective members in the following terms: “It is sometimes charged against the I.L.P. that it has never formulated its theory of Socialism. That is true, and therein lies its strength.11 Delegates at the ILP’s founding conference adopted the party name in preference to “Socialist Labour Party”, with one activist remarking that he “would sooner have the solid, progressive, matter of fact, fighting Trades’ Unionism of England than all the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists.12 The political influences at play within the ILP were diverse, but the trend which was to win out was that which favoured political compromise in the interests of increasing working class representation, rather than a principled socialist politics.

Different fortunes

To return briefly to the experience of the German socialists, within two years of the first Social Democratic party’s founding in 1869, had succeeded in electing two of its members to the imperial assembly or Reichstag, one of them being August Bebel, the celebrated working-class woodworker who educated himself in Marxism. This served as a springboard from which Social Democracy acquired an ever greater voice in the politics of the country, increasing its number of seats at successive general elections despite unfair electoral laws, and – crucially – symbiotically supporting the trade union movement against state crackdowns.

The ILP’s early track record was, by comparison, a disappointing failure. With Hardie having won a seat in parliament as an independent prior to the founding of the ILP, the party’s prospects going into its first general election in 1895 might have appeared hopeful. In the event, none of its twenty-eight candidates succeeded, and Hardie lost his own seat.13

Utterly demoralised by the experience, the ILP followed the lead of those figures who argued that to have any prospect of winning elections and increasing independent working-class representation, it should look to gain the support of the trade unions rather than waste any more time on pursuing unity with other socialists such as the SDF.14 This formula was described as the “Labour alliance”. As well as Hardie, leading figures pushing this perspective included Ramsay McDonald and Philip Snowden, who decades later would end up forming a cross-class “National Government” with the Conservatives and splitting the Labour Party.

As we have seen, Social Democracy consists of “the merger of socialism and the worker movement”. On the face of it therefore, a turn by socialists towards the organised forces of that movement, the trade unions, could have been a key step towards the establishment of a true Social Democratic or mass socialist party. However, in this case, the model of co-operation pursued was not a merger, but something quite different.

The “merger” or the “alliance”

The proposal for a “Labour alliance” gathered steam and led to the establishment in 1900 of the Labour Representation Committee, which in turn became the Labour Party in 1906. The LRC included the ILP, the SDF, various trade unions and the Fabian Society. Although present at its birth, the SDF quit in confusion within eighteen months, and were denied reaffiliation once the more principled elements within it had finally won control and sought to rectify their mistake. The non-socialist character of the LRC was evident and acknowledged at the time by Hardie.15 What followed, as has been made plain by a century of history, were countless capitulations and accommodations by the Labour Party to capitalism. The Labour Party in national and local government has tended to act as a brake on the working-class movement, and on many occasions actively attacked the living standards of the working class unless pressured to do otherwise by a mass movement from below.

Hardie defended the “Labour alliance” to the end of his life and sought to assert that his approach was the authentic application of socialist orthodoxy, as well as the more pragmatic. In his 1910 pamphlet “My confession of faith in the Labour alliance”, he disparaged those who regarded the ILP and the Labour Representation Committee as insufficiently socialist, with well-aimed barbs directed at the SDF which chime with the analysis in this article. But the seeds of his downfall are illustrated in one of his boasts:The conversion to socialism and the political organisation of the working class is no light task. The forces arrayed against us are powerful and unscrupulous. We have thus far achieved a very gratifying success, but much still remains to be done. The secret of our success has been our ability to unite men of diverse gifts, giving each an outlet for his special talent; by opening the way for the chiefs of the great Labour organisations to join with us without loss of self-respect or sacrifice of principle on side; by magnifying points of agreement, and minimising points difference, and by the exercise of a wise toleration.16 Any strategy which involves an unprincipled alliance with ‘labour chiefs’ (of a type still familiar to us today), to obtain their practical support without challenging their politics, is doomed to failure. It is completely different to the original Social Democratic perspective of seeking to merge principled socialist politics with the forces of the workers’ movement.

Moreover, the ‘pragmatic’ approach of avoiding thorny questions of political principle appears to have blinded the relatively leftist Hardie to the real character of the other ILP leaders like McDonald who would act so unscrupulously once they led the “Labour alliance” into government and to near destruction.

The political consequences of the “Labour alliance” approach endure to this day. Hardie frequently noted with satisfaction how the programme of the Labour Party had always refrained from making “political” demands on matters such as constitutional reform.17 This was of course part and parcel of the party’s enduring loyalty to the British state, as described by Ralph Miliband in his “Parliamentary Socialism”. But the roots of this misguided loyalty lie not so much in the backwards political opinions held by this or that Labour leader, but in the form of the “Labour alliance” itself. By squandering the historic potential of merging its socialist politics with the worker movement, and instead deferring to the politics of the short-termist and defensive trade union bureaucracy, the ILP foreclosed the possibility that the Labour Party might be established as a vehicle for the socialist transformation of society.

Long diversion

So much, then, for the past.

Could things have turned out differently? It seems likely that a serious factional struggle to transform the ILP into a politically coherent socialist organisation could have stood some chance of success. Despite thousands of activists being members of both the SDF and the ILP around the turn of the century in a general atmosphere of non-sectarian co-operation, the SDF was unable to give a lead to such a struggle, focusing instead on fruitless initiatives to unify the two organisations from above rather than focusing on establishing firm political leadership.18

Conducting a thought experiment in which the SPD had been established not as a Marxist party but as a non-socialist or apolitical labour party, Kautsky asserted thatOnce an independent worker party has been formed, it will with natural necessity sooner or later adopt a socialist outlook – if it has not been filled with such an outlook from the very beginning – and finally it must become a socialist worker party, that is, Social Democracy.19

Needless to say, this perspective in regard to Britain was either wrong, or is yet to be proved right by events. Over a century since its founding, the Labour Party has not become a socialist party, and in some ways is further from this goal than before.

The disastrous defeats and capitulations of the Social Democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere in the twentieth century show that the victory of a Social Democratic perspective over the “Labour alliance” in Britain would certainly not have solved all of the left’s problems. However, the existence of such a mass party, based in the working class, committed to a socialist transformation of society and with a clear programmatic perspective of how to bring this about, would be a significant step forwards for the working class of any country, including Britain. The road to the establishment of a mass socialist party has been through many twists, turns and unexpected diversions. Doubtless it has more to come in the future. But the first and most obvious step in order to make it a reality is for socialists to unite and organise around this strategic vision.

1Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 41.

2‘Chris Leslie on Twitter: “Marxism Should Have No Place in a Modern Labour Party’.

3The Social-Democratic Federation here shares with your German-American Socialists the distinction of being the only parties who have contrived to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. This theory is to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development as articles of faith, instead of making the workers raise themselves to its level by dint of their own class instinct. That is why both remain mere sects and, as Hegel says, come from nothing through nothing to nothing.’ ‘Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1894’.

4‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 by Engels’.

5Crick, ‘“To Make Twelve o’clock at Eleven”: The History of the Social-Democratic Federation’, 883–84.

6‘Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1883’.

7Crick, ‘“To Make Twelve o’clock at Eleven”: The History of the Social-Democratic Federation’, 75.

8Crick, 889.

9‘The TUC’s First Victories’.

10‘The History of the T&G – Unite The Union’.

11Hardie, The I.L.P. and All about It.

12Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906, 293.

13‘1895 United Kingdom General Election’.

14Laybourn, ‘The Failure of Socialist Unity in Britain c. 1893–1914’, 158.

15Hardie, Federated Labor as a New Factor in British Politics, 238.

16Hardie, My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance.


18Laybourn, ‘The Failure of Socialist Unity in Britain c. 1893–1914’.

19Kautsky, ‘Die Arbeiterpartei’.


‘1895 United Kingdom General Election’. In Wikipedia, 31 January 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1895_United_Kingdom_general_election&oldid=938501223.

‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 by Engels’, 23 July 2010. http://web.archive.org/web/20100723052307/https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm.

Twitter. ‘Chris Leslie on Twitter: “Marxism Should Have No Place in a Modern Labour Party’. Accessed 23 May 2020. https://twitter.com/chrisleslieuk/status/917299445863247872.

Crick, John. ‘“To Make Twelve o’clock at Eleven”: The History of the Social-Democratic Federation’, n.d., 742.

Hardie, J. Keir. Federated Labor as a New Factor in British Politics. The North American Review, 1903. http://archive.org/details/jstor-25119435.

Hardie, James Keir. My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance, 1910.

———. The I.L.P. and All about It. London : Published by the Independent Labour Party, 1909. http://archive.org/details/ilpallaboutit307hard.

Howell, David. British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906. Manchester (Greater Manchester) : Manchester University Press ; New York, NY : St. Martin’s Press, 1983. http://archive.org/details/britishworkersi00howe.

Kautsky, Karl. ‘Die Arbeiterpartei’. In Das Erfurter Programm in Seinem Grundsätzlichen Teil Erläutert. Accessed 23 May 2020. https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/kautsky/1892/erfurter/5-klassenkampf.htm.

Laybourn, Keith. ‘The Failure of Socialist Unity in Britain c. 1893–1914’. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4 (December 1994): 153–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/3679219.

‘Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1883’. Accessed 22 May 2020. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/letters/83_08_30.htm.

‘Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1894’. Accessed 22 May 2020. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/letters/94_05_12.htm.

Lih, Lars T. Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context. Historical Materialism Book Series. Chicago, Ill. : [Minneapolis, Minn.]: Haymarket Books ; Distributed by Consortium Book Sales, 2008.

‘The History of the T&G – Unite The Union’. Accessed 23 May 2020. https://unitetheunion.org/who-we-are/history/the-history-of-the-tg/.

‘The TUC’s First Victories’. Accessed 23 May 2020. https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/section-tucs-first-victories.

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