Socialist League (UK, 1885)

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Socialist League
LeaderWilliam Morris
SecretaryJohn Lincoln Mahon
Henry Halliday Sparling
Henry Alfred Barker
Fred Charles
Frank Kitz
FoundersWilliam Morris
Eleanor Marx
Ernest Belfort Bax
Edward Aveling
FoundedDecember 27, 1884 (1884-12-27)
Dissolved1901 (1901)
Split fromSocial Democratic Federation
Headquarters24 Great Queen Street, London
Membership (1887)550
Political positionFar-left
International affiliationSecond International

The Socialist League was an early revolutionary socialist organisation in the United Kingdom. The organisation began as a dissident offshoot of the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman at the end of 1884. Never an ideologically harmonious group, by the 1890s the group had turned from socialism to anarchism.[1] The group was finally disbanded in 1901.

Organizational history[edit]


Until March 1884, the members of the Democratic Federation, forerunner of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) worked together in harmony. The new organization had expected to make rapid headway with existing radical workingmen's organisations, but few had chosen to join with the SDF and early enthusiasm gave way to disappointment and introspection. Personal relationships began to loom large among the small group's leading members, with the personal vanity and domineering attitude of organizational founder Henry Hyndman and his nationalism and fixation on parliamentary politics the leading causes of the internal acrimony.[2][3]

The personal distaste of many prominent members of the SDF for Hyndman was palpable. William Morris wrote:

"Hyndman can accept only one position in such a body as the SDF, that of master.... [He] has been acting a politician determined to push his own advantage,... always on the look out for anything which could advertise the party he is supposed to lead: his aim has been to make the movement seem big; to frighten the powers that be with a turnip bogie... [A]ll that insane talk of immediate forcible revolution, when we know that the workers of England are not even touched by the movement."[4]

By the end of 1884, the a group of members of the SDF sought to remove Hyndman from his position as party leader. The decisive meeting of the SDF Executive Council was held 16 December 1884, followed by additional meetings on the 23rd and 27th of that month. Finally, a vote was taken on a resolution of censure of Hyndman, which passed by a vote of 10 to 8.[5]

Immediately after winning their victory in the SDF Executive, the anti-Hyndman dissidents handed in their prepared letter of resignation, which declared:

"Since discord has arisen in this Council owing to the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation contrary to the principles of Socialism, and since it seems to us impossible to heal this discord, we the undersigned think it better in the interests of Socialism to cease to belong to this Council and accordingly hand in our resignation."[6]

The anti-Hyndman members of the Executive Council chose to leave the SDF altogether, abandoning Justice to Hyndman and his allies. Those departing included such leading lights of the SDF organisation as William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Ernest Belfort Bax, Sam Mainwaring, and Edward Aveling.

Eleanor Marx explained the thinking of the anti-Hyndman forces in a letter to her sister Laura written 1 January 1885:

"I am sorry the crisis in the Social D[emocratic] Federation could not be retarded a little longer; Hyndman would have got deeper into the mud, and the personal element would have been thrown into the background. However it could not be helped. The reason why the majority, instead of following up their victory, resigned, and [started] a new organisation was this chiefly, as Morris said to me: the old organisation was not worth having. The London branches are about 300 strong in all and those they hope mostly to get, and as to the provinces, it's all bosh and bogus."[7]

Friedrich Engels, co-worker of the recently deceased Karl Marx and a personal enemy of Hyndman, was jubilant about the split of the SDF. In a letter dated 29 December 1884 to Eduard Bernstein, Engels declared: "I have the satisfaction of having seen through the whole racket from the outset, correctly sized up all the people concerned, and foretold what the end would be..."[8]

The 10 seceding members of the old SDF Executive Council issued a statement To Socialists on 13 January 1885 explaining their perspective:

"We, the members of the Council of the Social-Democratic Federation, who, although a majority, resigned on December 27th, wish to explain our reasons for that retirement, and on our forming a body independent of the Social-Democratic Federation. * * *

"Our view is that such a body [as the SDF] in the present state of things has no function but to educate the people in the principles of Socialism, and to organise such as it can get hold of to take their due places, when the crises shall come which will force action upon us. We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers is delusive and mischievous. For carrying out our aims of education and organisation no over-shadowing and indispensable leader is required, but only a band of instructed men, each of whom can learn to fulfill, 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 of 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..."[9]

Early in 1885, the secessionists established themselves in a new organisation called the Socialist League. Several SDF branches, such as those in East London, Hammersmith, and Leeds, joined the new group.[10] In Scotland the Scottish Land and Labour League severed its connection with the SDF to join the new organisation.[11] Several important individuals in the movement such as author Edward Carpenter and artist Walter Crane also chose to cast their lot with the fledgling Socialist League.

The Commonweal was the official organ of the Socialist League.

In February 1885 the new party established its official journal, a newspaper called Commonweal. This publication was initially published monthly but was soon converted into a weekly.[12] Editor of the publication was William Morris, who paid the paper's operating deficit out of pocket.[13]

William Morris was disappointed by the slow growth of the organisation. After six months, the Socialist League only had eight branches and 230 members. Morris wrote to a friend: "I am in low spirits about the prospects of our party, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don't seem to pick up people."[14]

Development of the organisation[edit]

The Socialist League was a heterogeneous organisation, including Fabians, Christian Socialists, and anarchists, in addition to Marxist revolutionary socialists. While the Marxists were tolerant of the earnest ethical socialists, the anarchists were cause for concern from the earliest days, memories of the role of the anarchists in the First International still fresh in the collective memory. Eleanor Marx was one of the Socialist League leaders who was particularly concerned about the place of the anarchists in the new party:

"[T]here is a small group of them here, mainly Germans, French, etc. but very few English. Unfortunately in our movement there are many people who do not understand the foundations and the theoretical questions of Socialism, good people who see that the world is out of joint, and who imagine that they know what should be done in order that evil should be turned to good. They do not understand what Communism or Anarchism is, and think that whoever spoke last is right. Among these friends the Anarchists try to carry on propaganda..."[15]

Frederick Engels was even more pessimistic than was the daughter of his former co-worker. In a letter of 20 March 1886 to the late Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, he wrote:

"Fortunately the Socialist League is dormant for the time being. Our good Bax and Morris, craving to do something (if only they knew what?), are restrained only by the fact that there is absolutely nothing to do. Moreover they have far more truck with the anarchists than is desirable.... All this will pass, if only because there is absolutely nothing to be done over here [in England] just now. But with Hyndman, who is well versed in political imposture and capable of all sorts of folly when his self-advancement is at stake...on the one hand and our two political babes in arms on the other, prospects are no means bright. Yet now we have socialist papers abroad proclaiming at the top of their voices that socialism in England is marching forward with gigantic strides! I am very glad to say that what passes for socialism here in England is not on the march — far from it."[16]

One field in which the Socialist League did have practical work to do involved the fight for the right of free speech in London during 1885 and 1886. Whereas religious organisations such as the Salvation Army were allowed to preach in the streets, the London Metropolitan Police banned the Socialists from similar activities. Members of the Socialist League and their rivals the SDF simply continued to speak and to incur fines, attracting public attention, until the authorities made the decision that their prosecution was counterproductive and stopped their interference. Thereafter, public interest in the street meetings rapidly evaporated.[17]

While the political contributions of the tiny Socialist League were not measurable, it did have a lasting literary impact. The newspaper of the Socialist League, The Commonweal, provided the venue for first publication of a number of original writings, including the serialized novels of William Morris, Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere.[18]

Britain's economic problems in the 1880s helped to develop some interest in the Socialist League, but the group nevertheless remained minuscule. By January 1887 the membership of the party stood at just 550. Moreover, many members were unemployed and too poor to pay their dues; the treasurer reported that only 280 members were able to contribute to party funds.[citation needed] Furthermore, even this tiny membership was ideologically divided into three factions: anarchists (who sought destruction of the state and its replacement with a free association of producers via revolutionary uprising), parliamentary-oriented socialists (who sought establishment of an egalitarian state through electoral means), and anti-parliamentary socialists (who sought establishment of an egalitarian state through a revolutionary overturn by the mobilized working class).[19]

The divided organization was minuscule and impotent.

Anarchist control[edit]

[obsolete source]

Around the middle of this same year, 1887, anarchists began to outnumber socialists in the Socialist League.[20] The 3rd Annual Conference, held in London on 29 May 1887 marked the change, with a majority of the 24 delegates voting in favor of an anarchist-sponsored resolution declaring that "This conference endorses the policy of abstention from parliamentary action, hitherto pursued by the League, and sees no sufficient reason for altering it."[21]

Frederick Engels, living in London and a very interested observer in the League's affairs, saw the role of William Morris as decisive. He recounted the events of the 3rd Conference to his friend Friedrich Sorge in a 4 June 1887 letter:

"The anarchist elements which had gained admission to [the conference of the Socialist League] were victorious, being supported by Morris, who has a mortal hatred of all things parliamentary... Resolution — in itself quite innocuous as there can after all be no question of parliamentary action here and now — adopted by 17 votes to 11...

"What really clinched the matter was Morris' declaration that he would quit the moment any parliamentary action was accepted in principle. And since Morris makes good the Commonweal's deficit to the tune of £4 a week, this was for many the decisive factor.

"Our people now intend to get the provinces organised, which they are at present well on the way to doing, and to call an extraordinary conference in about three or four months' time with a view to quashing the above. But it's unlikely to succeed; in the fabrication of voting sections, the anarchists are vastly superior to ourselves and can make eight enfranchised sections out of seven men.... The anarchists, by the way, may shortly throw our people out, and that might be all to the good."[22]

As the tenor of the organisation became increasingly clear, a steady attrition of many of the group's international socialists began to take place. In August 1888, the London branch of the Socialist League to which Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling belonged seceded in favor of establishing itself as an independent organization, the Bloomsbury Socialist Society.[23] By the end of 1888 many other parliamentary-oriented individuals had exited the Socialist League to return to the SDF, with others who remained hostile to the SDF's parliamentary emphasis choosing to involve themselves in the burgeoning movement for so-called "New Unionism."[20] As the socialist factions left, the anarchist faction solidified its hold on the organisation.

By 1889, the anarchist wing had completely captured the organisation. William Morris was stripped of the editorship of Commonweal in favor of Frank Kitz, an anarchist workman. Morris was left to foot the ongoing operating deficit of the publication, some £4 per week [20] — this at a time when £150 per year was the average annual family income in the kingdom.[24] By the autumn of 1890, Morris had had enough and he, too, withdrew from the Socialist League.

Despite the loss of its leading socialist intellectuals, the Socialist League went forward. In 1895 the organisation somewhat dubiously claimed a membership of over 10,700.[citation needed]


The party remained active until it was disbanded in 1901, at which point it still claimed over 6,000 members.[citation needed]

The anarchist movement had newspapers of its own, including the journals Liberty and Freedom.[25]

The William Morris Society "reformed" the Hammersmith branch for one day on the TUC March for the Alternative on 26 March 2011.[26] The banner was paraded again on 20 October 2012.

Notable members[edit]


1885: John Lincoln Mahon
1885: Henry Halliday Sparling
1886: Henry Alfred Barker
1888: Fred Charles
1888: Frank Kitz
1890: ?

Other members[edit]

Conferences of the Socialist League[edit]

Year Name Location Dates Delegates
1885 1st Annual Conference Farringdon Hall, London 5 July
1886 Semi-Annual Conference 25 January
1886 2nd Annual Conference 13 June
1887 3rd Annual Conference 13 Faringdon Road, London 29 May 24
1888 4th Annual Conference 13 Faringdon Road, London 20 May
1889 5th Annual Conference June
1890 6th Annual Conference Communist Club, Tottenham Court Road, London 25 May 14

Data from International Institute of Social History, "Finding Aid for the Socialist League Archive," supplemented by Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, passim and Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 48, passim.


  1. ^ James C. Docherty. Historical dictionary of socialism. The Scarecrow Press Inc. London 1997. pg. 174
  2. ^ M. Beer, A History of British Socialism. In Two Volumes. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1929; vol. 2, pp. 252–253.
  3. ^ Historian Yvonne Kapp put matters this way: "A vain, obstinate and contentious man who could not endure opposition from his colleagues, [Hyndman's] mistakes, which were not few, appeared to them gigantic, while the value of his contribution, by no means negligible, was dwarfed." Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, Pantheon edition, pg. 55.
  4. ^ William Morris to J.L. Joynes, 25 December 1884, in M. Morris, William Morris, vol. 2, pg. 590. Cited in John Callaghan, Socialism in Britain Since 1884. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990; pg. 16.
  5. ^ Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976; pg. 59.
  6. ^ Quoted in Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, pp. 59–60.
  7. ^ Quoted in Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, pg. 61.
  8. ^ "Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein," 29 December 1884. Reprinted in Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 47. New York: International Publishers, 1995; pg. 238.
  9. ^ Quoted in Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, pp. 63–64.
  10. ^ The leading figure in Leeds was Tom Maguire (1860–95), regarded as the pioneer Socialist in that city. Joseph Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, 1884–1924. London: Faber and Gwyer, 1926; pg. 31.
  11. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 31.
  12. ^ Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 255.
  13. ^ Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pp. 255–256.
  14. ^ William Morris in The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends. Further citation details needed.
  15. ^ Eleanor Marx letter to Petr Lavrov, 9 March 1886. Quoted in Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Volume 2, pp. 68–69.
  16. ^ Frederick Engles to Paul Lafargue, 20 March 1886. Reprinted in Marx-Engels Collected Works: Vol. 47, pp. 431–432.
  17. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 33.
  18. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 39.
  19. ^ Irina Shikanyan, Notes to Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 47, pg. 595, fn. 346.
  20. ^ a b c Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 256.
  21. ^ Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 48. New York: International Publishers, 2001; pg. 538, fn. 95.
  22. ^ Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 4 June 1887. Reprinted in Marx-Engles Collected Works: Volume 48, pg. 70.
  23. ^ Marx-Engels Collected Works: Vol. 48, pg. 611, fn. 642.
  24. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 44.
  25. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 68.
  26. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 November 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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