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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment


The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.


Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.


By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.


This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.


Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.


Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.


It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.


Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.


Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.


Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.


The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.


So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.


Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 


Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 


Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.


Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

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 to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.


There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.


The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.


The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.


The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.


In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

017 (2)

In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).


Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.


The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Armistices of November 1918 and their Aftermath in Central Europe.   Leave a comment

Centrifugal Forces & Rival Nationalisms:


Historical Perspectives & ‘Historic Hungary’:

The armed hostilities of the First World War formally came to an end with the armistice signed between the Entente and Germany at Compiegne on 11 November 1918. However, fighting did not cease everywhere, certainly not along the borders with Hungary, where the seceding nationalities of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire were lending weight to their territorial claims through the force of arms, creating the status quo sanctioned by the victors who assembled in Paris to reconstruct the order of Europe and the wider world on 12 January 1919. It was largely the impossibility of tackling this situation that swept away the ‘pacifist democracy’ which took over in Hungary at the end of the war and thwarted the first the country had obtained for a transition to democracy. A variety of reasons have been given by historians (and politicians) for the dissolution of historic Hungary. Whereas some continue to believe firmly that it was a viable unit dismembered by a combination of rival nationalisms within the region of central Europe with the complicity of western great powers, others believe that it was the product of centrifugal forces in Europe as a whole, while acknowledging that the precise way in which the process took place was fundamentally influenced by the contingencies of the war and the peace that  concluded it. Far from being seen as predictable or inevitable at the time, the outcome shocked even those sharpest contemporary critics of the darker aspects of the pre-1914 social and political establishment in Hungary and its policy towards the national minorities.

Lines of demarcation in historic Hungary – Neutral zones (November 1918 – March 1919)


It was all the more shocking for them because they came largely from the more progressive camp who were well-disposed towards the western liberal democracies, but whose future in Hungary’s political scene was destroyed by the circumstances of peacemaking. The tragedy of the aftermath of the First World War, its armistices and the Paris Peace Treaties, especially – in the case of Hungary – that of Trianon in 1920, was that it contributed towards the survival of reactionary nationalist forces which had steered the country into the abyss of war and all its negative consequences in the first place. President Wilson had ‘decreed’ that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. ‘Self-determination’ was to be the guiding principle; plebiscites would make clear ‘the people’s will’. In Hungary’s case, this was to mean that the new boundaries would be drawn to exclude all but the majority Magyar-peopled areas of the Carpathian basin. Also, the new Hungary soon found itself in the position of having a surplus of wheat which it could market only in a world already overstocked with grain. The collapse in world wheat-prices increased the difficulty in providing funds to buy the timber and other raw materials the country required. Moreover, Budapest had grown to its size as the largest city in central Europe as the capital of a large country which had now been reduced by half and would soon be reduced by two-thirds. Over a third of the Magyar peoples were now living outside the country.

An Assassination on Hallowe’en & The ‘Aster Revolution’ in Hungary:


On 4 November 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with Italy in Padua. Four days earlier, on All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October unidentified soldiers broke into the home of the former Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza (pictured above in a painting by Gyula Benczúr), and shot him dead. Other assailants were also on their way, it was reported, to assassinate the hated count. For four whole years between 1913 and May 1917, when he was dismissed by Charles IV, he had headed the war cabinet. He was a born party leader who possessed such an effective political personality that he had been able to defend the old order with fundamental force. In 1914, he had opposed the declaration of war, not out of principle but because of his belief that the Monarchy was unprepared. By that time, he had already survived one assassination attempt by an MP carrying a revolver. He was the first victim of a revolutionary wave which followed on naturally from the loss of the war, as it did in Germany. However, it was not just the politicians and the political order and system which was affected by this wave. It led to the extensive loss of life and property throughout Hungarian society. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, many thousands of whom still remained there, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army in the civil war that followed. Strikes and mutinies had been on the agenda throughout 1918 and were now also fuelled by these new converts to Bolshevism.

Even amongst all this domestic turmoil, the military situation looked deceptively good until a few months before the end of the war. Austro-Hungarian armies were still deep in enemy lands, with the war aims apparently accomplished. It was only after the last great German offensive on the Western Front had collapsed in August 1918, and the Entente counter-offensive started there as well as in the Balkans, that the Monarchy’s positions on all fronts became untenable. Commenting on the impending surrender of Bulgaria, Foreign Minister István Burián’s evaluation of the situation before the Common Council of Ministers on 28 September was brief and unequivocal: That is the end of it. On 2 October, the Monarchy solicited the Entente for an armistice and peace negotiations, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed to learn from the reply that, having recognised the Czecho-Slovak  and South Slav claims, Wilson was in no position to negotiate on the basis of granting the ethnic minorities autonomy within an empire whose integrity could no longer be maintained. For a century, that empire had been saved from collapse only by the will of its rulers, the Hapsburgs. It had been dominated by its German and Magyar masters, who had failed to come to terms with the Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians living in its peripheries.

By mid-October, all the nationalities had their national councils, which proclaimed their independence, a move which now enjoyed the official sanction of the Entente; on 11 October, the Poles seceded from the Empire. The Hapsburg dynasty had held together a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Middle Basin of the Danube, so that certain economic advantages accrued to its millions of inhabitants. There was free trade within that vast territory; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted imperial trade and commerce. There was a complementary exchange of the products of the plain and the mountains – grain for timber and materials. This ramshackle empire could not withstand the strain of four years of war. The monarchy was collapsing into chaos by this time as Charles IV made a desperate attempt on 16 October to preserve it by announcing the federalisation of Austria, which was to no avail. At the front, the Italians took bloody revenge on the disintegrating army of a state which was breaking apart, launching an offensive in the Valley of Piave on 23 October which left an indelible mark of horror on a generation of men. Between the 28th and the 31st the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats and the Ruthenes also seceded from the Empire.

Within Hungary, the effects of the revolutionary ‘milieu’ were mitigated, to a large extent, by Hungary’s bourgeois revolutionary leader, Count Mihály Károlyi, who as a radical left-wing aristocrat, was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. October 1918 had certainly been a month of dramatic scenes in the Hungarian parliament. In the country, deposed Prime Minister István Tisza was widely held to bear supreme responsibility for all the suffering of the previous four years. He declared:  I agree with … Count Károlyi. We have lost this war. He referred to a speech made on 16 October, the same day that Charles IV had announced the federalisation of Austria, by the leader of the opposition, who had also warned that Hungary might lose the peace as well unless suitable policies were adopted. These ought to have included, in the first place, the appointment of an administration acceptable to the Entente powers as well as to a people whose mood was increasingly revolutionary in order to save the territorial integrity of the country and to prevent it falling into anarchy.

On 23 October, the third cabinet of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle stepped down and on that night Károlyi organised his Hungarian National Council from members of his own Independence Party, the Bourgeois Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and various circles of intellectuals from the capital. Its twelve-point proclamation called for the immediate conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the independence of Hungary, far-reaching democratic reforms and reconciliation with the nationalities, without harm to the territorial integrity of the state. The National Council functioned as a counter-government in the following week since, contrary to expectations and common sense, Charles IV hesitated in calling on Károlyi to form a government. He preferred Count János Hadik, a follower of the younger Count Andrássy who was popular among MPs hostile to Károlyi. But Hadik had no party, and could only count on the demoralised military to maintain order.

On 28 October, a mass of protesters marched from Pest to Buda Castle, the Monarchy’s palace in the capital, to demand Károlyi’s appointment from Archduke Joseph, the monarch’s representative. Three of them were shot dead by the police. Strikes and further protests followed in the next two days, with occasional clashes between the newly organised Soldiers’ Council and leftist Socialists on the one hand and government units on the other, while Károlyi and the National Council advised moderation and awaited the outcome, even though on 30 October troops were ordered to gain control of their headquarters at the Hotel Astoria in the centre of Pest. The soldiers refused, most of them deserting, carried away by the enthusiasm of the civilians who swarmed onto the streets, cheering the National Council. They captured police buildings, railway stations and telephone exchanges. The traditional flower for All Souls’ Day, 2nd November (more important in Hungary than All Saints’ Day as a time to place fresh flowers on the graves of departed relatives) replaced the insignia torn off from uniforms and appeared in the button-holes of civilian suits, hence the name Aster Revolution, which succeeded on Hallowe’en with the appointment of Károlyi as Premier. Later that afternoon, just before the new government took its oath, István Tisza was murdered by a group of unknown soldiers in his own home, no doubt a symbolic act.

Hungary’s ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’ Government of November 1918:


The new government’s programme was virtually the same as the twelve points published a week earlier, and Károlyi’s cabinet was also recruited from the same forces as the National Council, with members of his own party obtaining most of the seats. The crumbling of the whole edifice of the old Monarchy changed Hungary beyond recognition. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of the historic Kingdom, one of the greatest shocks the country suffered and survived, also created the opportunity for a new beginning. But whereas the collapse of the dualist system cleared important obstacles from the way to democratic transition, the lack of new forms of government was symptomatic of the belatedness of this development, seriously limiting its scope for action. Between them, the parties of the National Council represented a small minority of the aristocracy and lesser nobility, some of the bourgeoisie, diverse circles of the intelligentsia, skilled workers and the trade unions. Missing were the influential haute bourgeoisie, indeed most of the middle classes. The involvement of their highest strata in the war-related business identified them closely with the old régime, and events in Russia turned them off revolution completely, whatever the label. In addition, the truly generous terms offered to the leaders of the Slav and Romanian national parties might have been snapped up in 1914, but the external situation made them almost impossible to achieve in 1918. The attempt to draw them into the Hungarian National Council failed.

Nevertheless, the internal situation in Hungary still held out the promise of overhauling the ossified social and political institutions which bore some responsibility for the disaster of dissolution. It was hoped that a proper, consistently pursued policy towards the minorities, combined with the good relations Károlyi had developed with the Entente powers might Hungary from the consequences of the secret agreements those powers had concluded with the Slavs and Romanians during the war. The first indications in these respects were rather disappointing: the western allies seemed more ready to satisfy their partners in the region, even at the expense of departing from Wilson’s principles, than to reward the political changes in Hungary, and not even full autonomy could keep the Slovaks and the Romanians within ‘historic Hungary’. Croat claims were considered justified by practically everyone in Hungary, and the Serbs did not even consider negotiating over their demands. Wider international developments soon determined that the potential for internal democratic transformation would not materialise. On 3rd-4th November, an Armistice was signed in Padova (Padua) at Villa Giusti between Italy and what was left of Austria-Hungary and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments.


The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Following the armistice with Italy, the empire took only a week to unravel. Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and the former territories fell apart into seven divisions, with both Austria and Hungary being reduced to the status of minor states. Worse was to follow for Hungary, as the terms of the armistice signed at Padova were not accepted by the commander of the French forces in the Balkans, General d’Esperey, and his forces crossed the Sava into Hungarian territory. Károlyi, hoping that the occupation would only be a temporary measure, was forced to sign, on 13 November in Belgrade, an armistice requiring the withdrawal of the Hungarian army beyond the Drava-Maros line, its severe reduction and the right to free passage for Entente troops across Hungary. What was held by many people to be the failure of the Károlyi government in not averting the greatest national humiliation Hungary had faced since the Ottoman invasion nearly four centuries earlier could do otherwise but prejudice its chances to cope with its domestic difficulties. It undermined the confidence which had previously built up in the ability of the new government to maintain order at home, the tasks it had to cope with were immense.


Above & below: The election of Mihály Károlyi as President of the Republic on 16 November 1918 and the Proclamation of the Republic. He was ‘leader of the nation’ during the transitional period after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was inaugurated as President in January 1919.

In the initial hope that the new government would be able to secure Hungary’s old borders as well as law, order and property, the old élite accepted, following the abdication of Charles IV, the dissolution of parliament, the investing of the National Council with provisional legislative authority, and the proclamation of the republic on 16 November. They were also, for a short while, impressed by the relatively little violence which had attended the revolution, especially in the urban centres. But Károlyi had received his very limited power from the Habsburgs, and though elected as President of the Republic on 16 November (though he was not inaugurated until January 1919), his gradual shift to the left in order to enable a democratic, constitutional evolution to take place alienated the ‘old guard’. He embarked upon the social and political reforms announced in his programme, which were badly needed in view of the explosive atmosphere in the country. But he soon proved himself too weak for the post of trusteeship in bankruptcy that he had to fill as head of the nation.


The simultaneous negotiations of the Minister for Minorities, Oszkár Jászi, with the Romanian leaders at Arad, were also of no avail. On 20 November, the Romanians seceded and by the end of the month, their army had advanced to the demarcation line, and even beyond that, as far as Kolozsvár after the Romanians of Transylvania proclaimed their union with the Kingdom of Romania at a meeting in Gyulafehérvár on 1 December. Then the provisional assembly in Vienna also declared that Austria was an independent state. Although the Slovak leader was inclined to accept autonomy as a provisional solution until the peace treaty was signed, the Czechs would not, and fighting broke out along the Slovak border. The Hungarians received a memorandum from the Entente requiring them to withdraw beyond a line which later became the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Ruthenians were the only nationality who, as the unification of all Ukrainian land seemed unlikely at the time, accepted the autonomy offered to them. By the time the Paris peace conference convened on 12 January 1919, Hungary had already lost more than half of the territory and population it had comprised before the war broke out.

Jászi’s idea of the Danubian United States, which he had detailed extensively in a book, was to remain the stuff of dreams. The Károlyi government has been harshly judged and blamed ever since for not resisting, in particular, the ‘land-grabbing’ Romanians, but the armed forces at its disposal would hardly have been a match for the hostile forces ranged against them, backed by the French. More importantly, its legitimacy was based on its supposedly good relations with the Entente powers, so it felt it could ill afford to discard ‘Wilsonianism’, even when they did. The contemporary maps below illustrate the areas, ‘races’, population and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions.


As winter of 1918-19 set in, the economic blockade by the western Allies was still in force, trading ties with Austria were seriously disrupted, and territories of crucial economic importance in the north, east and south of Hungary were under occupation, leading to shortages of raw materials, fuel which caused chaos in production. Additionally, the most fundamental means of subsistence were unavailable to millions in a country inundated by demobilised soldiers, the continuing stream of returning prisoners of war, and refugees from beyond the demarcation lines. Urban dwellers suspected landowners and smallholding peasants of hoarding grain and holding back deliveries of other agricultural produce; many were leaving their land uncultivated because of impending land reform, which the rural proletariat urged on the government ever more impatiently. There was probably no political force in Hungary at this turbulent time that would have been able to satisfy all of these competing interests and expectations; Károlyi and the democratic politicians around him, whose undoubtedly considerable talents were suited to relatively peaceful and stable conditions but not to national emergencies, were certainly unable to provide such a forceful administration. Even had he not been assassinated, it is unlikely that István Tisza could have done better.

There were already, waiting in the wings on both the left and the right, those who were willing to provide a more authoritarian administration. On the radical Right, there were groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös and the Association of Awakening Hungarians who impatiently urged the armed defence of the country from November 1918 on. They had their strongest base among the many thousands of demobilised officers and dismissed public servants, many of the latter being refugees from the occupied territories of historic Hungary. In their view, the dissolution of the country was largely the responsibility of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend by authoritarian government and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the Christian provincial middle classes at the expense of the, ‘predominantly Jewish’, metropolitan bourgeoisie.

But for the time being the streets belonged more to the political Left. Appeals to workers and soldiers from moderate Social Democratic ministers to patience and order seemed to alienate the disaffected masses. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Like many other former prisoners of war, Kun became convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets on the Russian model to that of parliamentary democracy, and communist propaganda also promised international stability arising from the fraternity of Soviet republics whose triumph throughout Europe the Communists saw as inevitable. Within a few weeks of the party’s formation, this attractive utopia and its accompanying populist demagogy earned it a membership of around forty thousand, and several times as many supporters whom they could mobilise, mainly among the urban proletariat and the young intelligentsia susceptible to revolutionary romanticism.

Blunders or Back-Stabbing? – The Collapse of Germany:

Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, and with greater meaning, in his War Memoirs of 1933, Lloyd George admitted that there had been little cause for the victory celebrations in western Europe:

… It is true that the World War ended, as I still believe, in a victory for Right. But it was won not on the merits of the case, but on a balance of resources and blunders. The reserves of manpower, of material and of money at the command of the victorious Powers were overwhelmingly greater than those possessed by the vanquished. They were thus better able to maintain a prolonged struggle. Both sides blundered badly, but the mistakes committed by the Central Powers were more fatal, inasmuch as they did not possess the necessary resources to recover from their errors of judgement. … The Allied mistake prolonged the War. The German mistake lost them the War.

For their part, in the years following the end of the war many Germans, especially those on the right, came to blame socialists and Jews for ‘stabbing in the back’ the military and, by extension, the Fatherland, and so losing the war. The power and resolve of the Allied offensives and the blunders and exhaustion of the German Army were discounted. The events of the autumn of 1918 were to become shrouded in myth and lies. Many Germans convinced themselves that they had been tricked into signing the armistice by the Allies and that they could have fought on and would certainly have done so had they known of the harshness of the treaty that was to be offered them in 1919. A widespread belief developed in the army that Germany had indeed been stabbed in the back by revolutionaries and strikers. Jews were said to have played a major part in this, a view held by the Kaiser himself, and of course, subsequently propagated by Hitler and the Nazis. It was convenient for many, not least those in the military who had lost their nerve in 1918, to blame the defeat on a nebulous conspiracy of ‘reds’, foreigners and politicians, those who were later popularly described as the November Criminals.

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The truth was that by the end of September 1918, Germany’s military leaders realised that they faced defeat and sought a way to end the war.  They paved the way for the democratisation of the country by handing over power to civilian ministers. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in negotiations. On 3 October he requested the US President to take in hand the restoration of peace but in the exchange of notes that followed it was clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Ludendorff then changed his mind and wished to fight on, but growing popular unrest showed that the German people were in no mood for this, and neither was the new Government. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 people on one day (15 October) in Berlin, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised them victory and brought defeat. Ludendorff was dismissed and steps were taken to transfer real power to the Reichstag, since Wilson had, in any case, refused to enter into negotiations with “monarchical autocrats”.

By the end of October, a civil war was threatening because the Kaiser was refusing to abdicate, despite the relentless pressure being put upon him. He left Berlin on the 29th for the army headquarters at Spa,  where Hindenburg told him that the army would not support him against the people. On the same day mutiny broke out in the navy, the sailors refusing the order to put to sea. By 4 November the mutiny was general, with Kiel falling into the hands of the mutineers. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian Armistice with Italy exposed Bavaria to attack. A few days later the mutineers had occupied the main cities of north-west Germany, and insurrection had also broken out in Munich. On 7 November, the German civilian delegates passed through the Allied lines to receive the Armistice terms drawn up by the Allied commanders. On 9 November, revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was appointed Chancellor and a republic was declared from the steps of the Reichstag. The armistice terms imposed by the Allies on 11 November were severe and left Germany prostrate. It surrendered its guns and fleet and withdrew its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted the terms because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which President Wilson had set out in his Fourteen Points should form the basis of the peace settlement which was to follow. By the end of November 1918, Germany had been transformed into a democratic republic, led by the largest political movement in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.

Certainly, the First World War had created the conditions that shaped the later development and ambitions of Hitler’s ‘Reich’. The conflict generated a great deal of physical hardship on the home front with severe shortages of food and steadily deteriorating social conditions. By the end of the war, four years of privation had created a widespread hostility which erupted at the end of the war in a wave of revolutionary violence. Organised labour did better than other groups because of shortages of men for the arms factories, but this exacerbated tensions between and within classes. Many associated the new republic with national humiliation and the downfall of the monarchy. Neither the traditional social forces who lost out in 1918 nor the forces of the populist-nationalist right liked the new government, which they identified with the triumph of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The political transition in 1918-19 created a sharp polarisation in German society which existed down to 1933, but it was not responsible for the military blunders which had led to Germany’s defeat, nor was it responsible for the opening of negotiations leading to an armistice. The military leadership under Ludendorff had already effectively surrendered, allowing the Allies to dictate terms.

The First World War also ended Germany’s long period of economic and trade growth and her pretensions to great power status. German defeat in 1918 left the economy with a war debt far beyond anything the government could afford to repay. This was before the victorious allies seized German economic resources and presented Germany with a bill for 132 billion gold marks as the final schedule of reparation payment, which it would take until 2010 for them to finally clear. Most importantly, the ‘Coupon Election’ was to weaken the authority of Britain in the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in such a way as to undermine Lloyd George’s instinct to treat Germany as an important trading partner which needed to be able to rebuild its economy. The British delegation alone among the European victors could exercise a moderating and healing influence, both from the authority which the War had given her and from her detachment from old European jealousies. But the Prime Minister would go to these councils bound by the extravagant election pledges he had made in 1918 in which he had promised to demand penalties from ‘the enemy’; whatever words of conciliation he might speak would be obscured by ugly echoes of the election campaign – his mandate was to ‘Make Germany Pay’.

This should have been the moment, then, at the end of 1918, when the conditions which had produced the bloody battles, blunders, and massacres of 1914-18 had to be finally removed, and for good. Europe could not simply be left to blunder out of the mud and blood as it had blundered in, in H. G. Wells’ phrase. Preposterous empires and monarchs, as well as tribal churches and territories,  had to be done away with. Instead, there would be created a League of Free Nations along the lines proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points which were to form the basis for the Paris peace negotiations which began the following January. This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by the disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history. Otherwise, the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. But the idealists who advocated this new form of peacebuilding were to be bitterly disappointed by the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed the blame and cost of the war on Germany, and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered central Europe in the name of the ideal of ‘self-determination’, while in reality rewarding land-grabbing nationalists and punishing the Hungarians for joining a war they did not start.


István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.


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