Social Democratic Federation

Social Democratic Federation

The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was established as Britain's first organised socialist political party by H. M. Hyndman, and had its first meeting on June 7, 1881. Those joining the SDF included William Morris, George Lansbury and Eleanor Marx. However, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's long-term collaborator, refused to support Hyndman's venture.

The party was originally known as the Democratic Federation, but changed its name in 1884, to make its socialist politics clearer following a merger with the Labour Emancipation League.

The SDF was an outwardly Marxist party but contained many members who, whilst being socialists, did not consider themselves Marxist. They took part in many elections but met with no success.

On November 13, 1887, the SDF organised and participated in the demonstration in Trafalgar Square that resulted in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Friedrich Engels severely criticised Hyndman for encouraging workers to take part in riots that he hoped would lead to revolution. Engels believed that British workers were not yet intellectually ready to take part in the uprising that would overthrow capitalism. The events did act as a recruiting agent for the party, and led to the formation of the Scottish Socialist Federation in 1888.

The attitudes and policies of the SDF generated a good deal of internal criticism and led to the formation of numerous breakaway parties. Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling left in 1884 to form the Socialist League. They accused the SDF of reformism and chauvinism. Similar charges were made by the groups which left to form the Socialist Labour Party in 1903 and the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. These groups also identified the SDF as part of the broad revisionist tendency within the Second International, which was being opposed by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and others.

Another source of contention was the SDF's attitude towards industrial organisation. Many trade unionists who were members of the SDF felt that the Federation neglected the industrial struggle. Some members, including John Burns and Tom Mann believed that the SDF should be more active in trade union activities. Hyndman disagreed, as he wanted to continue to concentrate on political (i.e. parliamentary) activities. Although outnumbered, Hyndman refused to change the strategy of the Social Democratic Federation, and Burns and Mann left the party in 1890. Similar criticisms were made by the Socialist Labour Party group, and by syndicalist-influenced socialists in the period leading up to World War I.

The SDF also lost ground to the right, and especially to Independent Labour Party (ILP). This party, led by James Keir Hardie, was more heavily influenced by Christian Socialism than by the atheistic Marxism of the SDF. The ILP also had the advantage of having Hardie as a member of the House of Commons after winning the West Ham South seat in the 1892 General Election. This enabled the ILP to argue that it was a more effective vehicle for change than the SDF. Prominent figures such as Henry Hyde Champion, Ben Tillett, Jim Connell and George Lansbury, all left the SDF for the ILP.

On February 27, 1900, Hyndman and the SDF met with the ILP, the Fabian Society and trade union leaders at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists.

The LRC eventually evolved into the Labour Party. Many members of the party were uncomfortable with the Marxism of the SDF and Hyndman had very little influence over the development of this political group. Hyndman eventually left the Labour Party. In 1907, he renamed the group the Social Democratic Party, and in 1911 established a new group, the British Socialist Party (BSP).

The Social Democratic Federation was also the name of a party led by Hyndman after 1919, when the National Socialist Party changed its name. The group enjoyed some short-term success but gradually faded into the Labour Party, being wound up in 1939.

ee also

*"Justice", journal of the SDF

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