Today in London’s socialist history: a meeting of radical clubs forms the Democratic Federation, 1881.

On March 2nd 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman, a stockbroker recently converted to socialist ideas, and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This meeting (which took place at the Rose Street or Social Democratic Club, an organisation primarily of German socialists) proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation. This grouping would become the Social Democratic Federation, considered the first Marxist organisation in Britain.

The moving factor in the Federation’s birth was the disillusionment of Radicals with the Liberal government, and the growing need for a separate organisation to represent working class interests. Members of a number of London radical clubs had for some months been urging the need for “a labour party which should be independent of the Liberal party”. The idea was for “a non-Ministerial Radical party” to be led by Joseph Cowen, the radical M.P. for Newcastle. But the gathering would probably not have happened without Hyndman.

A man of independent means, widely travelled, a Cambridge graduate aged nearly 40, Hyndman was by nature a radical imperialist Tory in the tradition of Disraeli. He had been converted to the Marxist standpoint by reading a French translation of Capital in 1880, and was to become an undaunted propagandist of English socialism for the next forty years – as well as a major impediment to its development.

The March 2nd meeting was the first of a series of conferences which resulted in the formation of the Democratic Federation. At the next meeting, on March 5th, Joseph Cowen, a radical MP, presided over a large number of delegates from London Radical clubs, meeting at the Westminster Palace Hotel. The proposal to create a new organisation based on a federation of Radical clubs was made plainer and a sub-committee formed to draft its political program.

The official founding conference of the Democratic Federation took place at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, on 8 June the same year.

Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism was reflected in the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, land nationalisation, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, on the objection of Hyndman, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and similar political reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title was a foretaste of the nationalism which was to dog the SDF for the rest of its life.

Within a year or so most of the Radicals had been scared off, mainly by the DF’s complete opposition to the Liberals. After this the DF seemed little more than a middle class think tank. A fair number of such intellectuals were attracted, however most of the 500 or so members were working class radicals. Many of these early working class members were former disciples of ‘Chartist socialist’ Bronterre O’Brien (whose ideas roughly came down to Chartism plus land reform). Gradually socialist ideas began to dominate in the organisation.

But the DF/SDF’s entire existence was to be overshadowed or tainted, as some saw it, by HM Hyndman’s mix of dogmatic Marxism and jingoistic Little Englander nationalism. “A natural gambler and adventurer who delighted in political crisis, he totally lacked the personal tact and strategic skill which a successful politician needs. He made numberless enemies, pissing off Marx and Engels, William Morris, and the trade unionist socialist pioneers John Burns and Tom Mann. He opposed the campaign for an Eight Hour Day as a diversion, and denounced the idea of the First of May as  workers day. He saw trade unions as politically unimportant and their leaders as “the most stodgy-brained dull-witted and slow going time-servers in the country”. He opposed both the syndicalists and the suffragists in the 1900s, and suggested that women who struggled for their emancipation as a sex question “ought to be sent to an island by themselves”. He was a persistent anti-semite, became a violent anti-German, supported Carson and the Ulster Protestants and backed allied intervention against the Russian revolution.’

At first the Federation was a negligible force, with only two branches in 1881-2. It quickly lost the support of the radical clubs when Hyndman’s hostility to “capitalist radicalism” was made apparent.

Paul Thompson argues in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967) that it was the publication of the book, Progress and Povery by Henry George that increased the popularity of the SDF: “The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness.” The new atmosphere brought important recruits to the Democratic Federation in 1883 and 1884: William Morris, Dr. Edward Aveling, a Darwinian chemist and secularist leader, Harry Quelch, a packer in a city warehouse, H. H. Champion, a former army officer, and John Burns, born in Battersea of Scots parents, a temperance enthusiast who had been influenced by an old French communard in his engineering workshop. By 1885 the organisation had over 700 members.

Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman’s dictorial style and his pro-imperialist and jingoist bollocks. In December 1884 a group including William Morris and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League… of which more elsewhere…

In the 1885 General Election, Hyndman and Champion, without consulting their colleagues, accepted £340 from the Conservative Party to run parliamentary candidates in Hampstead and Kensington. The objective being to split the Liberal vote and therefore enable the Conservative candidate to win. This strategy did not work and the two SDF’s candidates only won 59 votes between them. The story leaked out and the political reputation of both men suffered from the idea that they were willing to accept “Tory Gold”.

In 1886 the SDF became involved in organizing demonstrations against low wages and unemployment. After one demonstration that led to a riot in London, three of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The SDF was doomed to remain a sect. It participated in the founding of the Labour Party, but withdrew within a year. It suffered continual splits as members attempted to alter its direction or loosen Hyndman’s control and failed; and it failed to significantly gain or keep members during periods of intense class struggle, hampered by its narrow sectarian dogmatism. The racist nationalism of Hyndman and his main support remained as the SDF reformed itself as the British Socialist Party, an organisation which was to be riven by the outbreak of World War 1. Hyndman and a significant minority supported the war; the majority opposed the conflict on internationalist grounds It too them two years to expel the jingoists. The BSP was to form the largest constituent element of the new Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.


Some of the above was shamelessly nicked from writings by Keith Scholey, and

An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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