Engels’ original sin?

Mike Macnair reviews 'Marx, Engels and modern British socialism: the political thought of HM Hyndman, EB Bax and William Morris' by Seamus Flaherty

British socialism has a history before the founding of the Labour Party in 1900 (or, for that matter, before the 1918 extension of the franchise allowed Labour to break through into double figures in percentage support). This history was one of small groups, single-issue campaigns, fairly weak trade unions and miscellaneous intellectual influencers. It issued out of the heavy defeats of Chartism, and of the European revolutions of 1848.

In that sense the history of socialism between the defeat of Chartism and the rise of the Labour Party has some limited similarities to the left politics of our own time - also one of small groups, single-issue campaigns, weak trade unions and so on, and also issuing out of a very serious defeat for left projects: not just the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also the abandonment of the European social democratic compromise, which turns out to have been a temporary geopolitical artefact of the ‘containment’ of communism.

The pre-Labour history is also at the origins of both the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was created by a fusion of several smaller pre-existing groups, and of the Labour Party: since it is reasonably clear that the Lib-Lab trade unionists, who sought the representation of the working class within the Liberal Party, would not have conceded the formation of the Labour Party without the growing competition of the left groups (mainly the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party) in local government elections in the 1890s.

Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842-1921) was the principal founder and leader of the Social Democratic Federation between its origin as the Democratic Federation in 1881 and Hyndman’s split in 1916 from what had become the British Socialist Party, in response to anti-war socialists winning a majority. He was a prolific author; his England for all (1881) linked to the launch of the DF, among other things attempted to popularise some (unattributed) arguments from Marx’s Capital.

Ernest Belfort Bax (1854-1926) participated in the SDF in 1882-84, then in the Socialist League split launched by William Morris, Eleanor Marx and others, returning to the SDF after the anarchists won control of the SL, and continuing in the SDF-BSP until he joined Hyndman’s pro-war split in 1916. He was more strongly interested in German philosophy than other British lefts of his time and is politically noteworthy as an originator of the theory of imperialism as generated by overproduction at home - expressed already in his 1885 article, ‘Imperialism v socialism’, in the SL newspaper Commonweal. With his 1896 attack on Eduard Bernstein’s ‘humanitarian interventionism’ he kicked off both the ‘revisionism’ controversy in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Second International, and the discussion of imperialism in those bodies.1 On the other hand, he was a notorious anti-feminist, in the strong sense of being a men’s rights campaigner, from early in his career.2

William Morris (1834-96) similarly participated in the early SDF and was probably the prime mover in the Socialist League (in which the SLers curiously walked out after they won a majority against Hyndman on the SDF executive in December 1884). Morris is chiefly famous for his artistic work, but also for his utopian novel News from nowhere (1890). Unlike Bax, he did not return to SDF membership after the anarchists got control of the SL, though he did argue as an ‘independent’ (and member of a local socialist society in Hammersmith) for socialist unity. Morris’s political career was thus relatively short and his immediate influence on the movement limited, though the ‘merrie England’ aspect of the combination of his Arts and Crafts work and News from nowhere had some indirect influence on the culture of the Independent Labour Party. Morris was, however, celebrated by the ‘humanist’ wing of the post-1956 ‘new left’ as representing an alternative to the supposed ‘scientism’ of the ‘old left’ - most clearly in EP Thompson’s work on Morris after his break from the CPGB, but a lot more widely than this.


In consequence, a study of the ideas of Hyndman, Bax and Morris and their relationships to the ideas of Marx and Engels - and to other ideas current in mid-late Victorian society - is potentially an interesting project. It has the inherent problem of perhaps being a ‘great men’ story (why this group, rather than a collective intellectual biography of the early British socialist writers, perhaps including the women?), but it does nonetheless have potential interest.

Secondly, Seamus Flaherty argues in his introduction that Hyndman, Bax and Morris have been subject to what EP Thompson called (in a different context) the “enormous condescension of posterity” - in their case, by way of the acceptance by subsequent historians of Friedrich Engels’ negative judgments (in his private correspondence) on them. Were these judgments wrong? Again, this is a worthwhile question. Engels, and, more so, Marx were prone to making scathing and questionable judgments in their private correspondence on people they worked with or came up against in their political and intellectual activity. The SL split from the SDF is, in fact, fairly clearly an example of bad immediate political judgment on Engels’ part (he thought the SL had large possibilities and the SDF would rapidly die; the reverse happened). So an open-minded exploration of the issues, with careful attention to what these authors wrote in its intellectual and political context, is a worthwhile project.

Unfortunately, Flaherty’s book is not such an open-minded exploration. It is the book of a PhD thesis supervised by Gareth Stedman Jones, and, as sometimes happens with PhDs, the student has not achieved intellectual autonomy from the supervisor. The book is characterised throughout by uncritical reliance on citations of Stedman Jones’s work for points important to Flaherty’s argument.

Stedman Jones’s argument, as reported or appropriated by Flaherty, is a variant on two traditional political arguments, cast into a historiographical form. The first is ‘virtuous Fabianism, vicious Marxism’: in particular, ‘virtuous Lib-Labism’, reflecting the old 1980s Eurocommunist New Times idea that breaking up the old ‘progressive coalition’ in the Liberal Party by creating the Labour Party was a fundamental mistake. To defend this line had a degree of plausibility in the 1980s. However, after the triumphs of liberalism (irony) since the collapse of the USSR, and in particular the role of the Lib Dems in the Con-Dem coalition of 2010-15 (notably Vince Cable’s wizard wheeze to destroy employment rights indirectly by making employment tribunal litigation unaffordable for the workers), it ought to be clear that the Lib Dems are still the party of the New Poor Law of 1834 and the conviction of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and that the ‘broad progressive coalition’ of the type of the US Democrats or 19th century British Liberalism produces aggravation of social inequality, not its mitigation.

The second element goes further back into the new left: this is the ‘Engels vulgarised Marx’ story. If Alex Glasgow in his ‘Socialist ABC’ wrote that “S is for sad Stalinism, that gave us all such a bad name, and T is for Trotsky the hero, who had to take all of the blame”, the ‘new left’ were determined not to fall into Trotskyism. While they rejected Stalinism in eastern Europe as inhumane, still they thought that the people’s front and national roads were ‘shown to be true’ by 1941-45 and the post-war successes of ‘national liberation movements’. Instead, Stalinism was blamed as an amoral ‘scientism’, left appropriations of Bernstein’s theoretical critique of the SPD majority were unearthed, and Engels was blamed for originating this ‘scientism’. New left authors might have rewritten Alex Glasgow’s lines as: ‘S is for sad Stalinism, that gave us all such a bad name, and E is for Engels the villain, who ought to take most of the blame’.

In Flaherty’s book the version (as usual citing Stedman Jones) has the peculiar character that (a) Marx is taken to have moved towards what became Fabianism in his last years, and (b) Engels is said to have resisted Marx’s move in the same period away from a ‘linear’ theory of history and towards sympathy for the Russian Narodniks’ idea of a peasant-led socialism. True or untrue (and, frankly, they are probably both untrue) these are plainly inconsistent lines of argument for the purpose of damning Engels, since Marx-as-Fabian points towards gradualism and constitutionalism, Marx-as-Narodnik towards revolutionary terrorism and the virtues of the Russian Revolution ‘leaping over the capitalist stage’ (the latter a conception pretty clearly disproved by the fate of the Soviet-model regimes).

From these taken-for-granted premises, already asserted in the introduction (pp2-15) on the basis of Stedman Jones’s work, there would immediately follow without the intervening 220 pages Flaherty’s conclusion:

In the same degree as it is no longer possible to take the existence of ‘Marxism’ for granted at the outset of the 1880s, it is no longer desirable to take cues from historians in the Marxist tradition. This book has sought to dispel the last instances of Engelsian prejudice (p237).

Little to say

It would be inappropriate to use this review to argue with Stedman Jones’s conceptions, since these are merely relied on uncritically, and perhaps vulgarised, by Flaherty. The question is what Flaherty’s book adds to Stedman Jones’s arguments - since Flaherty presumes the arguments so heavily throughout that it would be quite impossible for any evidence he found in his reading to have called into question any part of them. Alternatively, what does Flaherty’s book add to our knowledge of the early socialist movement in Britain, or merely of the individuals Flaherty has studied (Hyndman, Bax, Morris), independent of Stedman Jones’s arguments?

The answer is, regrettably, not much. The book has, apart from the introduction and conclusion, four parts. ‘Origins’ consists of four chapters roughly covering the period before 1882: chapter 2 on Hyndman’s background; chapter 3 on the discussion of socialism in upmarket, ‘opinion-forming’ journals in the late 1870s and around 1880; chapter 4 on the Democratic Federation and Hyndman’s 1881 England for all; and chapter 5 on Bax’s early writings and his intellectual influences. The agenda, so far as one is visible, is to show that the authors’ divergences from Marx’s and Engels’s views reflected not a mere failure to understand these, but rather other intellectual influences on their ideas: Hyndman from Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill and contributors to the periodical debate; Bax from Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Immanuel Kant.

Chapter 2 has the additional aim of showing that Hyndman was not a Tory-radical (contrary to Engels’ view, and to Gladstone’s view at the time of Hyndman’s first attempt to stand for parliament). At most, this succeeds in showing that there was a ‘public intellectual’ milieu in 1870s-80s England which overlapped the two parties (as was, until rather recently, the case of Republicans and Democrats in the US intelligentsia) and that Hyndman was part of this milieu. Chapter 3 does not discuss the influence on the authors of the rise of support for German social democracy - in spite of this actually appearing as a matter some of them discussed.

Part II specifically on Hyndman contains two chapters. Chapter 6, on Hyndman’s 1883 The historical basis of socialism in England, displays the intellectual influence of Engels and Marx on Hyndman in spite of his citations in the book to Johann Karl Rodbertus, Ferdinand Lassalle, William Cobbett, Thorold Rogers and Lujo Brentano, and adoption of Lassalle’s “iron law of wages”. Chapter 7 had Hyndman again engaged with the controversies in the opinion-forming journals - with a last comment about Engels criticising Hyndman for ultra-leftism in 1886.

Part III on Bax has three chapters, mainly addressed to Bax as a philosopher. Chapter 8 addresses Bax’s attempt to construct something like Hegel’s Philosophy of history, and argues that Engels’s Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy contained a direct critique of Bax. Chapter 9 argues that Bax was a “revisionist before Bernstein” due to using Kantian epistemology and insisting on chance elements in history. Chapter 10 on (mainly) Bax’s 1890 ‘liberalism v socialism’ jumps backwards to Herbert Spencer’s 1884 articles, collected as Man against the state, and forwards to the “New Liberalism” of Dilke and others and the (allegedly) successful ‘infiltration’ of the Liberal Party by the Fabians. The focus is on the issue of liberty and Bax’s (alleged) failure to give a satisfactory answer to Mill’s and Spencer’s objections to socialism. A little space is given to Bax’s essay, ‘The will of the majority’, in his 1889 The ethics of socialism; and a bit more to Morris’s and Bax’s joint 1893 book Socialism: growth and outcome.

It is, I think, illustrative of Flaherty’s method that he says that Morris, due to his libertarianism, “romanticises” the Teutonic village community - without reference to Engels’ The mark published in 1892 (which is guilty of the same sin, if it is a sin) and that Bax was probably more cautious because of the influence of Mill - without reference to the debate in the European socialist movement at the time on ‘direct legislation by the people’ and Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation and social democracy published in the same year.3

Part IV consists of one chapter, on Morris, essentially addressed to arguing that News from nowhere was a polemical response to the Fabians, and in particular the 1889 Fabian essays, rather than to Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking backward. The account gives an opportunity to discuss further the supposed greater realism of the Fabians, but also to explain the libertarian aspects of Morris’s utopia through the influence of JS Mill (rather than the anarchists, with whom Morris had been working in the SL since 1885).

There is a general problem with the book of lack of chronological control - the argument jumps backwards and forwards; and in relation to Bax, though not in relation to Hyndman: Bax’s significantly later writings (from 1918) are taken to contribute to understanding what he wrote in the 1880s-90s. The reason is the thematic approach. Equally, I referred at the outset to Bax’s anti-feminism and ‘men’s rights’ campaigning, and to his anti-imperialism (already plain in 1885). Neither of these seems to be worth analysis to Flaherty.

The reason is, of course, that this is not an exploration of the political ideas of Hyndman, Bax and Morris, but merely a polemic in favour of the ‘virtuous Fabians, vicious Engels’ line: so that it is only those parts of the history and particular sources that lend themselves to this polemic that are discussed. Beyond this, the book has little to say. It would be more useful, rather than reading Flaherty, to read other authors’ discussions of these figures.


  1. ‘Imperialism v socialism’: marxists.org/archive/bax/1885/02/imperialism.htm. There is a partial translation of the Bernstein-Bax debate in H Tudor and JM Tudor Marxism and social democracy: the revisionist debate 1896-98 Cambridge 1988, chapters 2 and 5.↩︎

  2. There is, indeed, a modern ‘men’s rights’ website devoted to Bax: ernestbelfortbax.com.↩︎

  3. B Lewis (translator) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2019.↩︎