Marxist theory and the British labour movement

First published: April 1996

Theoretical underdevelopment and the false counterposing of theory to practice has critically weakened the left in Britain. This majority British tradition has historically contrasted with the emphasis on the integration of theory and practice by the most advanced working class political currents internationally. The recomposition and renewal of the socialist left in Britain poses afresh the necessity of theoretical exchange and development.

The historical attitude of the majority tradition of the British labour movement to Marxist theory was established very early in its formation. Thus Ben Tillett, a future leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, went out of his way to condemn ‘hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental Revolutionists’ at the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

Instead he praised as a model the practicality of ‘the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed’ (Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party).

This basic idea that theory is ‘unrealistic’ and that what is needed is ‘to be practical’, was continued into the early Labour Party itself. A questionnaire sent out to Labour and ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs in 1906 revealed that only two out of the 45 who replied had studied any works of socialist theory at all (Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism).

For once Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party at that time, spoke the truth when he said that Marxist theory ‘had little to do with the Labour Party and nothing to do with its policy’ (ibid).

This attitude was not confined only to reformists, however. It also affected even the early revolutionary Communist Party. Harry Wicks, a member of the CP in the 1920s, has described the situation well: ‘The British Communist Party was not rich in theoretical Marxism. In fact, the British movement as a whole for generations was devoid of theory, one could almost say contemptuous of it. What Deutscher termed the “classical Marxism”, those debates that occupied Social Democracy before 1914, scarcely found an echo in this country.

‘So not surprisingly, the Communist Party which was formed in the halcyon days following the October Revolution was equally indifferent to Marxist theory, it was to an extent insular in outlook, and devoted itself to giving a left-wing militant edge to trade union struggle’ (Wicks, ‘British Trotskyism in the 1930s’ in International, Vol 1, No 4).

This situation aided the easy conquest by Stalinism of the British Communist Party. Hugo Dewar had described the process very clearly: ‘The party was almost exclusively proletarian in character (too much so, in fact; with the added disadvantage of ‘anti-intellectualism’); its membership had reached their appreciation of the social order more through their experience of working class life and labour, than from theory.

‘This was their strength, but also their weakness. Constant pre-occupation with agitational activity on a hundred and one issues left little time for study and discussion of political issues that were being fought out in Russia (against Stalin)… the need for such information and discussion was recognised by only a handful; for the rest, with their markedly anti-intellectual bias, theoretical discussion tended to be regarded as time-wasting, holding up the action.

‘There were, of course, good grounds for regarding intellectuals with suspicion, their record in the parliamentary labour movement offered damning evidence of opportunism and careerism, but wariness is one thing, almost total rejection quite another, making it all too easy for the professional functionaries to stifle awkward discussion of policy.

‘This anti-intellectualism of the CPGB, translating itself into impatience with critical discussion, was probably the main reason why opposition to bureaucratisation found so little response among the rank and file’ (Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain).

This basic attitude continued into the later development of most of the revolutionary left in Britain.

This does not mean that everyone considered that nothing could be learnt from Marxism. What was (and is) held was that although individual things could be learnt from Marx, and the ‘spirit’ of his championing of the oppressed could be praised, the Marxist theoretical framework as a whole nevertheless had to be rejected as ‘dogma’.

The young Aneurin Bevan, for example, paid generous tribute to the ‘spirit’ of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: ‘The largeness of its conception, its profound philosophy and its sure grasp of history, its aphorisms and its satire: all these make it a classic of literature, while the note of passionate revolt which pulses through it, no less than its critical appraisements of the forces of revolt, make it for all rebels an inspiration and a weapon.’

But he was careful to add that of course the Manifesto was irrelevant for ‘practical’ purposes: ‘The (Communist) Manifesto is today tactically valueless, except insofar as persistent stress on first principles is of tactical importance’ (Quoted in Foot, Aneurin Bevan, Vol 1).

In this framework Marxism is seen merely as one part of a ‘socialist tradition’ containing many other ‘valid’ currents – Keir Hardie, Christianity, labourism, libertarianism, ‘common sense’ etc. The labour historian E.P. Thompson summed up this view in the argument that it is necessary to see Marxism ‘less as a self-sufficient system, more as a creative influence within a wider socialist tradition’ (Edward Thompson and John Saville, ‘A Communist Salute’, The Left in Britain 19561968, ed. Widgery).

Thompson also states that pragmatism, a rejection of any consistent theory and instead a ‘practical rule of thumb’ approach ‘has served the British people a great deal better than most Marxists have been prepared to admit’ (E. P. Thompson and John Saville in The New Reasoner, Vol 1, No 1).

If the answer is to ‘blend’ Marxism with some other approach, then of course virtually any different mixture can exist according to taste. The Labour right can reject the ideas of Marxism outright while the Labour left adds a stronger mixture of Marxism to the other brew – provided, of course, that it never completely contaminates the pot.

Michael Foot spelt out how Bevan, in his most left-wing period, attempted to apply this synthesis of Marxism and ‘British traditions’: ‘The Marxist theory of the state was inescapable, but the liberal criticism of it would re-emerge. Somehow a synthesis must be devised… Britain, and perhaps only Britain could set the example. Here the British democratic tradition, deriving from the Levellers and the Chartists, was grafted onto Bevan’s Marxism’ (Foot, Aneurin Bevan, Vol 2).

This last quotation sums up another part of the ‘Great British Tradition’ in its attitude to Marxist theory. This is its national insularity.

Thus Ben Tillet didn’t merely confine himself to attacking theory in general but specifically went out of his way to denounce ‘continental’ revolutionists. This coupling together of ‘theoretician’ and ‘foreign’ as terms of abuse runs right through the history of the British labour movement.

Since labour reformism spent a greater part of its history accepting the oppression of hundreds of millions of people by the British Empire, and since then has supported countless imperialist aggressions in such places as Vietnam and Ireland, such national insularity is scarcely surprising.

This tradition has penetrated so deeply into the labour movement that it profoundly affects even those attempting to be revolutionaries. The first leader of a Marxist organisation in Britain, H. M. Hyndman, supported a battleship building programme, was anti-semitic, and championed the war against Germany in 1914.

His first Marxist book, England for All, which was also the first well-known Marxist work by anyone in this country, also set the same pattern. While all the theoretical chapters were adapted from Marx’s Capital, Hyndman did not mention the originator of the ideas by name on the grounds that if it was known that they were by a foreigner then people would not accept them!

Even today attacks on ‘Third Worldism’, ‘being enthusiastic about revolutions abroad but not paying attention to the bread and butter issues in Britain’ abound through the left press.

In reality, one per cent of the problems of the British working class derive from excessive internationalism and 99 per cent from concentration on ‘bread and butter questions’.

This, then, is the overwhelming majority tradition of the British working class movement: indifference to theory and its counter-position to ‘practical’ questions; national insularity in relation to international developments and ideas.

But this view is not confined to them, or their class, alone. At the beginning of 1901, for example, the Russian Tsarist secret police drew up a report on the newly exiled dissident Vladimir Ulyanov. They concluded that, while all socialists were undesirable, this one did not present a particularly serious danger to the state. While others were engaged in dangerous activities such as manufacturing bombs and planning assassinations, Ulyanov spent much of his time reading purely theoretical socialist books. He was also ultra-dogmatic in his adherence to every last word of Marx and Engels.

In fact, if anyone had wanted to find a good example of the impractical, abstract revolutionary – this Russian revolutionary would have fitted the bill perfectly.

Whereas the ‘practical’ British working class movement went down to crushing defeat in the General Strike of 1926, and capitalism exists to this day in Britain, the Russian working class liberated one-sixth of the world from the yoke of capitalism in the greatest revolution ever seen in history.

How could the Bolsheviks be so totally practical ‘despite’ such an extraordinary attachment to ‘abstract theory’? Supporters of the British tradition simply cannot understand it. Attempts have therefore been made to portray the Bolsheviks as a sort of party possessing the traditional virtues of British shop stewards writ large.

This corresponds to a view that the revolutionary party which needs to be built in Britain will essentially be a coming together in one organisation of the type of trade union militants that exist at present.

Of course, by carefully sifting through all the evidence – as Tony Cliff does, for example, in his book Lenin – you can find a few facts which, with a bit of distortion, can be made to show that the Bolsheviks were indeed some sort of super shop stewards movement.

Lenin, in fact, had some very ‘British’ virtues of the type sometimes held up as the last word in revolutionary Marxism by left tradition. He was an extremely good writer of short and simple agitational articles for workers. He was a highly skilled and efficient organiser with a tremendous ‘nose’ for the mood of the working class.

But such description is rather like trying to deal with Marx’s activities by concentrating on his links with the British trade unions and omitting to mention that he made a few ‘small’ contributions to economic, political and philosophical theory and wrote Capital and the Communist Manifesto!

The pleasantly efficient habits of the Bolsheviks had nothing to do with the fact that Lenin had the chance to study the virtues of the British labour movement at first hand while living in London. They had everything to do with the conditions under which the Russian revolutionaries worked. As Lenin wrote: ‘During those fifteen years (to 1917), no other country (than Russia) knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement – legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society’ (Collected Works, Vol 31).

Second, and more important, the Bolshevik leadership displayed characteristics very far removed from those typical of the British trade union movement and which are generally urged on the British revolutionary left. Lenin himself, in the famous introduction to Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, described the creation of a party like the Bolsheviks: ‘Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory… For about half a century… progressive thought in Russia, oppressed by a most brutal and reactionary Tsarism, sought eagerly for a correct revolutionary theory, and followed with the utmost diligence each and every “last word” in this sphere in Europe and America.

‘Russia achieved Marxism – the only correct revolutionary theory – through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience.

‘Thanks to the political emigrations caused by Tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed’ (Collected Works, Vol 31).

The approach of the working class and party which showed beyond all dispute that it was ‘practical’ by overthrowing capitalism in Russia could not have been more different from the majority traditions of the British labour movement.

Lenin’s description was no idle statement. Essays written by Engels even before he became a Marxist were already known to Russian revolutionaries by the mid-1840s. The first translation of Capital into any language was into Russian in 1872.

The Bolshevik leadership itself showed these characteristics to an even greater degree. Lenin spoke five other languages and could read two others. He had read almost every living writer on economics and politics and studied the classical works of bourgeois philosophy.

As to fear of excessive theory, we need only to look at Lenin’s reading to see how he occupied himself. For Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin read 232 articles, 49 periodicals and 148 books.

And what about the other Bolshevik leaders? Trotsky was even more of an ‘abstract internationalist’; when he wasn’t engaged in impractical activities such as leading the Russian revolution or organising five million people into an army to win the civil war, he spent most of his life wandering from one country to another writing on virtually every single international and national question under the sun.

Bukharin spent much of his life attending to the latest developments in economic theory and writing long books against bourgeois theorists.

Zinoviev, by comparison, was a veritable ignoramus, speaking only two or three other languages; he was only useful for mundane tasks such as delivering a four-hour speech in a foreign language (German) to win 300,000 people from the German Independent Socialist Party to the Communist International.

In fact only one leading Bolshevik showed the true British labour movement characteristic of disdain for ‘unrealistic theory’, rejection of ‘abstract internationalism’, and belief that day-to-day organisational questions were the real meat of politics. His name was Stalin.

The rest of the Bolshevik leadership, however, were only following in the path of all the really great practical working class leaders. Marx himself read or spoke every major West European language in addition to Russian. He formed his theories from German philosophy, French socialism and British economics.

Marx’s positions, by their very origin and nature, were international right from the start. Both he and Engels never founded a purely national revolutionary party. In every case their organisations were international.

This tradition was carried over into the early part of the 20th century by such as Rosa Luxemburg. This great Polish revolutionary was a militant in the German socialist party and wrote her first great contribution against the entry of the Frenchman Millerand into his country’s government. She was active simultaneously in the Polish, Russian and German parties as well as in the International.

The Russian working class and its leadership simply possessed these authentic practical revolutionary traditions to an even greater degree than any other proletariat. But nothing could be more remote from that than the dominant historical characteristics of the British working class movement.

People who can simultaneously wage a civil war and insist on being experts on Hegel, Marx and bourgeois economics simply don’t exist in the British tradition, and would seem an absurd paradox if they did.

Such comparisons are necessary for a very elementary reason. The Russian movement, historically characterised by its extreme interest in what Lenin referred to as the ‘last word’ in international revolutionary theory, overthrew capitalism in one-sixth of the world. The British movement, characterised by its national insularity, disregard of Marxist theory, and obsession with ‘bread and butter’ questions, remains very far from overthrowing capitalism.

We will now consider the connection between the two different traditions of these labour movements and their historical fates.

The basic attitude of the Russian revolutionary movement to Marxist theory was well illustrated in a story told by the Bolshevik Nadezhda Krupskaya in her book Memories of Lenin: ‘Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] and I recalled a simile that L. Tolstoy used somewhere: Once when walking, he spotted in the distance the figure of a man squatting on his haunches and moving his hands about in an absurd way; a madman, he thought – but on drawing nearer, he saw that it was a man sharpening his knife on the paving-stone.’

‘It is the same thing with theoretical controversies. Heard from aside, they do not seem worth quarrelling about, but once the gist is grasped, it is realised that the matter is of the utmost importance.’

This little story captures two things which rapidly become apparent to anyone coming into contact with Marxism.

At first glance, Marxist theory does frequently sound like mere abstract squabbling. ‘United front’, ‘popular front’, ‘economism’, ‘revisionism’, ‘labour and labour power’, and innumerable other pieces of apparently incomprehensible jargon dot the pages of Marxist works.

Yet any knowledge of the history of the working class movement shows that these ‘abstract’ questions have in fact had tremendous importance.

Take the dispute between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in Russia – between what became the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary wings of the working class movement. This first appeared in the form of a difference around a single phrase in their party rules concerning whether a member was one engaged in ‘personal participation in one of the party organisations’ or one who ‘renders it personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations’.

Similarly, the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin assumed its fundamental form on the apparently ultra-abstract question of whether it was possible to build socialism in one country or not.

So why have the most tremendously important struggles in the working class movement been inseparably bound up with questions of ‘abstract theory’? To answer that it is necessary to go back and look at the nature of revolutionary theory itself.

When Marx and Engels first developed their positions, they adopted the term ‘Scientific Socialism’ to describe their theories. This was not merely a grand phrase but exactly expressed the relation of their theories to material reality. As Engels explained in criticising the German theorist Karl Heinzen: ‘Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds from a definitive theoretical principle as its core and draws further conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken. Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts’ (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol 6).

A socialist system basing itself on the facts of reality. That was what Marx and Engels meant by scientific socialism.

Yet while they based their positions on facts, Marx and Engels obviously brought about a tremendous revolution in social theory – as anyone who has tried to read Capital or any other major work of Marxism will rapidly find out.

For the British tradition, technically known as ‘empiricism’, this relation of facts and theory is an insuperable problem. That tradition counterposes facts and theories. In reality, however, there is no contradiction between facts and theories. Theory is precisely something which reflects, or if false fails to reflect, the real forces and facts of reality. As Marx put it, ‘the ideal [theory] is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought’ (Capital, Vol 1).

Or in the words of the Communist Manifesto: ‘The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would -be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes’ (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol 6).

Compared with the forces analysed by Marxism, the ‘common sense’ approach loved in Britain is the height of impracticality.

This can be seen in one of the most famous theoretical ‘debates’ in the history of the workers’ movement – that on the state.

The position of Marxism, put forward in Marx’s The Civil War in France and given its classical restatement in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, is that the state apparatus of capitalism must be smashed. The German Social Democratic leader Kautsky, however, argued that the state machine must be ‘taken over’ or ‘transformed’.

‘Smash’ or ‘transform’? It might seem an obscure quibble over words. But if we look at the realities reflected in these terms, it rapidly becomes obvious that something far more is involved.

The concept of ‘the state’ reflects the reality of a force of hundreds of thousands of people with tanks, guns, atomic bombs, law courts, the army, the police etc. The debate about ‘transforming’ or ‘smashing’ the state is not about words but about how that tremendous armed force and apparatus will act in reality.

When the socialist positions of the working class achieve a majority, will the army quietly dissolve? Will the capitalists surrender their wealth? Will Prince Charming meekly pack his bags and leave Buckingham Palace?

Or, on the contrary, will every single weapon which the bourgeois class has at its disposal be turned against the oppressed in one final violent attempt to maintain the power and wealth of the capitalist class?

That is far from being an abstract debate about words. It is literally a life and death question for millions of people.

If the working class does prepare itself beforehand, if it makes propaganda and organisation among the rank and file soldiers against the officers, if it arms and organises the ranks of the working class, then historical experience shows that the capitalist state can be smashed and defeated.

But if the working class is not prepared beforehand, then examples such as Chile under Pinochet and Germany under Hitler show only too clearly what will happen.

In Chile, a country with a population one-fifth that of Britain, over 20,000 people were murdered by the army within six months of the military takeover of September 1973. That is equivalent to 100,000 people being executed in Britain.

In Germany, the fascist takeover of power led to the murder of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and socialist activists, and the unleashing of a world war in which 50 million people were killed. The people who led the working class to those terrible slaughters precisely prepared these catastrophes by rejecting armed resistance to the ruling class under the banner that the capitalist state could be ‘transformed’.

This is what is involved in the ‘quibble’ over whether the state apparatus of the capitalist class must be smashed or whether it can be ‘taken over’.


That is a far bigger and more powerful reality than the day-to-day ‘practical’ questions which dominate the majority tradition of the British labour movement.

That is why the ‘theoretical’ Russians were able to lead the working class to power while the ‘practical’ British achieved only defeats. The Russians, in their obsession with what Lenin called the ‘last word’ in revolutionary theory, were not turning away from reality but towards it. The concentration on ‘day-to-day’ questions was and is totally unrealistic because it ignores the really fundamental and powerful forces which shape reality.

We now turn to the root cause of the specific characteristics of the British labour movement. They are due to the historical strength of British imperialism.

The truth of this assertion can be most easily demonstrated by examining the workers’ movement in Britain prior to the rise of imperialism, when it was not backward but the most advanced in the world.

The Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s was characterised by the exact opposite of the so-called ‘virtues’ of the British labour movement. Its focus was not economic but political. Right from the beginning it was not only ideologically but organisationally international in character.

Looked at 160 years later, the six demands put forward by the Chartists – universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, payment of MPs, secret ballot and no property qualification for MPs – appear reformist and inadequate (not to mention sexist). But at the time they were revolutionary.

The conditions demanded did not exist in any country in Europe. Moreover there was no mass conservative stratum within the working class, no stable reformist party, which could have confined the struggle to such a programme. Victory on the six points would have unleashed open class war.

The bourgeoisie certainly understood this. The government’s response to the last great Chartist demonstration in 1848 was to blockade London with troops, fortify buildings, place the marines on alert and recruit 170,000 ‘special constables’.

In addition there were wholesale arrests and deportations. Confronted by this massive repression, the Chartists had to develop new forms of struggle or turn to arms.

In November 1839, John Frost led 4,000 Chartists, mainly miners, in an armed attack on Newport in South Wales.

More importantly, in 1842, the Chartists developed a new and uniquely working class form of struggle for the first time anywhere in the world – the political general strike. The idea developed from plans for a ‘sacred month’, but the implications of what actually happened in the North West went a great deal further than this.

The strike was spread by mass agitation – Oldham, for example, was brought out by the physical arrival of several thousand striking cotton workers from Ashton-under-Lyme. The general strike was wholly political in character – there would be no return to work until the Charter was granted in full.

It was amid this agitation that the key question of an independent working class political party was finally taken up.

Thus, already in the 1840s, the Association for the Protection of Labour, formed out of the Chartist agitation, was discussing the idea of forming a working class political party based on the trade unions. If such a party had been established at the time it would have been vastly different from the later Labour Party.

Mass action with politics to the fore, the political general strike, the integration of politics and trade unionism, the need for a working class political party – these were the clear elements of working class activity in the mid-1840s.

Given another decade to develop, the working class in Britain would have emerged with traditions twenty years in advance of developments in Europe.

It was the massive rise of British imperialism from the late 1840s which succeeded in diverting the working class movement into the safer channels of trade unionism and the ‘day-to-day’ issues.

This emphasis on politics, prior to imperialism, was also true of international questions. The 1830s and 1840s saw the first sustained attempts to create international working class political organisations throughout Europe. For example, German and French revolutionaries, organised in the international League of the Just, participated in Blanqui’s 1839 attempt to overthrow the French monarchy.

These international organisations rapidly spread. In 1840 the German Workers’ Educational Association was formed in London. This became an international organisation under the name of the Communist Workers’ Educational Society. It had Scandinavian, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, and Russian as well as German members.

The British Chartists took part in these organisations. They had strong links with the struggle in Ireland. The left-wing Chartist leaders, Harney and Ernest Jones, helped set up a ‘Democratic Committee for the Regeneration of Poland’ in solidarity with the Polish liberation struggle. This had the support of the Communist Workers’ Educational Society, the Union of French Democrats, and the left wing of the Polish Democratic Society.

Political solidarity action of this kind posed the need for international organisation – the modern prejudice that national organisations had to be built before international ones did not exist.

The first international organisation grew out of a London meeting in 1844, held to honour the German Communist leader Weitling. It was addressed by English, French and German speakers, and was probably the first major international socialist public meeting in history.

The Society of Democratic Friends of All Nations was set up from this gathering and involved the Chartist Lovett plus Polish, German and French revolutionaries.

The next initiative came directly from the left wing of the British Chartists. George Harney helped to establish the Society of Fraternal Democrats. Its executive committee included prominent members of the Charter Association together with Schaper from Germany, and representatives for France, Scandinavia, Hungary, Switzerland and Poland.

In 1848 Harney explained the ideals of the Society to a meeting of German Communists:

‘I appeal to the oppressed classes in every country to unite for the common cause… the cause of labour, of labour enslaved and exploited. Do not the workers of all nations have the same reasons for complaint and the same causes of distress? Have they not, therefore, the same just cause?’

In pursuit of these ideals the Society tried to create a wider and more authoritative international organisation. It was in contact with the Democratic Association in Belgium which at that time was led by Marx.

These two organisations jointly decided to call an international congress for a ‘union of all democrats of all nations in the great struggle for political and social equality’.

The defeat of the European revolutions, and of the Chartists, in 1848 was a severe blow to the Society of Fraternal Democrats. The force of the combined defeats led to its disintegration – but this was not the end of attempts to form an international organisation.

In April 1850, Harney, Marx, Engels, and the French revolutionaries Vidil and Adam took the initiative in forming the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries.

Harney himself survived the defeats of 1848 – his paper, The Red Republican, published the first translation of the Communist Manifesto in November 1850. But, like the majority of the old militants, Harney became demoralised and turned to open reformism in the period of prosperity of the 1850s. The first development of modern British imperialism created unfavourable conditions for the development of a revolutionary workers’ movement in this country.

But the most left-wing forces in the old Chartist movement tried to keep up the pre-imperialist traditions even into the 1850s. Ernest Jones, one of the greatest figures of the English workers’ movement, used all his energy and money in founding a new Chartist People’s Paper, and trying to unite the Chartist, trade union and co-operative organisations into one Parliament of Labour. Marx was one of the contributors.

Out of this activity Jones set up the International Committee in 1855 together with French, German and Polish groups. Its first meeting was addressed by the Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, the French socialist Talandier, the Chartist leader Holyoake, and messages were read from Victor Hugo and Blanqui’s supporter Barbès.

Its aims were outlined as: ‘to protest against alliances with tyrants… to help the oppressed nationalities win their freedom; to proclaim and promote the sovereign rights of Labour, that uncrowned but only legitimate monarch of the world…

‘For us, nation is nothing, man is all. For us the oppressed nationalities form but one: the universal poor of every land, that struggle for life against the nation of the rich…

‘We begin tonight no mere crusade against an aristocracy. We are not here to pull one tyranny down only that another may live the stronger. We are against the tyranny of capital as well.’

The International Committee held weekly meetings, and in August 1856 it joined with the French Communist Revolutionaries, the German Communist Workers’ Educational Association, and the Union of Polish Socialists to form an enlarged International Association. Its manifesto ‘To the Republicans, Democrats and Socialists of Europe’ rejected all alliances with the bourgeoisie in the name of ‘national liberation’ and called on workers to refuse to participate in the predatory war between France and Austria in 1859.

It was these overtly political and organisationally internationalist traditions of the Chartists which formed the progressive current in the British workers’ movement.

The retreat on these aspects within the dominant tradition of the British workers’ movement, towards national insularity and stress on ‘bread and butter’ issues, came about as a result of the pressure of imperialism.

The choice facing those seeking to renew the socialist left in this country is well summed up by the choice between these two traditions: the tradition of the Chartists or the tradition imposed by British imperialism.