Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism:
The Struggle for a New Consciousness

Stanley Pierson


Introduction xi
PART I. The British Sources: Quest for a New Consciousness in Nineteenth‑Century Britain
1. Anglican and Nonconformist Visions of a Christian Commonwealth 3
2. The Romantic Social Vision: Carlyle and Ruskin 22
3. Aspirations for a Rational Community: Utilitarians, Owenites, and Secularists 39
PART II. Transformations of Marxism  
4. The Reception of Marxism in Britain 59
          Henry Mayers Hyndman and the Formative Years of British Social Democracy 60
          William Morris: The Marxist as Utopian 75
          Two Prophets of a Socialist World View: Ernest Belfort Bax and Edward Carpenter 89
5. The Fabians 106
          Thomas Davidson and the Fellowship of the New Life 107
          Fabian Beginnings and Sidney Webb 112
          The Hampstead Group: From Marxism to Fabianism 119
          Fabians in the Early Nineties 130
6. Ethical Socialism 140
          John Bruce Glasier and the Poetic Impulse in British Socialism   141
          “Nunquam” and Merrie England  149
          Socialism and the "New Women" 161
          Social Democrats and the Problem of Sentiment  169
7. The Realists 174
          Marxism and the Working Classes: H. H. Champion, Friedrich Engels, and J. L. Mahon 175
          Marxists Adrift: John Burns and Tom Mann  190
          Keir Hardie: The Realist as Ethical Prophet  198
          Formation and Early Growth of the Independent Labour Party  204
PART III. The Challenge of Politics  
8. Divergent Strategies  217
          Rejection of Politics, Anarchism, and Tolstoyism 217
          The "Religion of Socialism": John Trevor and the Labour Churches 226
9. The Testing Years, 1895‑1900    246
          Decline of Socialist Enthusiasm   247
          The Process of Political Accommodation and the Role of Ramsay MacDonald  257
Conclusion 272
Unpublished Sources  281
Index  283


The "great unresolved dilemma" of Marxist sociology, Daniel Bell observed, was the question of "how the proletariat achieves the consciousness of its role." [1] Marx, according to Engels, had complete faith in the "intellectual development of the working class." [2] The proletariat would lead mankind out of the "false consciousness" of the bourgeoisie into an understanding that would be fully adequate to the task of creating a humane social order. But nineteenth‑century Marxists were unable to nurture a working class deeply informed about Socialist theory. Their failure is an important reason for the divergent strategies and outlooks that have characterized European Marxism in the twentieth century.

The struggle to develop a Socialist consciousness in Britain involved a process by which Marxist ideas were translated into familiar British terms and inspired a popular movement. During the course of the movement, from 1881 to 1900, the British Socialists attempted, through political and nonpolitical means, to implement their vision.

The first stage of the struggle was the encounter between Marxist ideas and native intellectual traditions. Marxist concepts filtered through three currents of nineteenth‑century thought before taking root in British society. One originated in a century‑long effort by leaders of organized religion to formulate the ideal of a Christian [xi/xii] community. The second derived from the writings of Carlyle and Ruskin. The third, utilitarianism, was given systematic expression by Bentham and the younger Mill and transmitted to the lower classes by the Owenites and the Secularists.

Marxist theory, in any strict sense of the term, disintegrated rapidly in the Britain of the eighties. But at the same time the major elements of this system of thought underwent new development. Through a complex process of mediation by British Socialist leaders, the rationalistic, the utopian, and what may be called the "realistic" strains in Marxism found new and distinctively British forms.

By the early nineties three different versions of Socialism had emerged—British Marxism, Fabianism, and a much less coherent school of thought that I have labeled Ethical Socialism. The last, strongly utopian in spirit, became the dominant form of British Socialism. It drew much of its vitality from moral and religious sentiments that had ceased to find satisfactory expression in the churches and the chapels. Through the blending of these feelings with the material aspirations of the working classes a new political party was born. But from the beginning the new Independent Labour party was characterized by a conflict between its utopian Socialist vision and its commitment to the immediate interests of the working classes. Indeed, some Socialists, fearing that their vision might be impaired, soon drew back from participation in the political process and sought other roads to Socialism. Their efforts paralleled those of the leaders of the Independent Labour Party to accommodate their Socialist principles to existing political possibilities.

The term "consciousness" presents a problem of definition. Marx usually employed the term to emphasize the way in which men's ideas were shaped by their social setting. [3] His insights inspired later "sociologists of knowledge" to seek the connections between the [xiii/xiv] thought of individuals or classes and their positions in the productive process or the social structure. [4] No study of a Socialist movement can ignore the influence of objective social or economic factors. But much that is crucial in explaining Socialist development—its relationship to inherited patterns of thought and feeling, the quality of enthusiasm or self‑sacrifice it evoked, and the role of individuals—requires a sharper focus on the phenomenon of consciousness itself. Here the term is used to set off problems of theory and to include as well attitudes, sentiments, beliefs, purposes, and symbols, which were frequently only half formulated. So employed, the term "consciousness" lacks precision. Sometimes it applies to efforts to alter a few basic beliefs or values; at other times it relates to the hope for a comprehensive reconstruction of man's mental life. The term provides, however, a central orientation for the study.

There remains a problem of method. How does the historian describe the process through which new ideas become attached to deeply ingrained attitudes and feelings? I have relied largely on the technique of case studies. In my account of the critical stages in the growth of the Socialist movement I have presented biographical studies, or perhaps more accurately, intellectual portraits of those individuals who exemplified most clearly the shifts in emphasis or meaning. Their responses to the task of relating Socialist ideas to British life fall into patterns that enable one to trace with reasonable accuracy both the process of differentiating several forms of the Socialist consciousness and the main course of the movement. I have selected not only the most prominent figures in the various sections of the movement but a number of the men and women who were most active at the local levels of propaganda dissemination and organizational work. Often their development was idiosyncratic. Indeed, the lives of those Socialists who did not follow the main ideological and strategic paths of the movement, who attempted to steer it in new directions, or who held tenaciously to positions that most of their fellow Socialists were abandoning have a special importance in this inquiry. Their struggles, [xiii/xiv] their defeats, and their isolation serve to delineate more sharply the dilemmas of the movement and the ways in which they were resolved.

Compared to its counterparts on the continent, the British movement was small. It never developed a genuine mass basis, and it failed, except insofar as it allied itself with non‑Socialists, to become a significant political force. But the British movement represents an illuminating variant within the broader world of European Socialism. It demonstrated, even before the movements in Germany, France, Italy, and Russia, the instability as well as some of the diverse possibilities of the Marxist synthesis of ideas.


1 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (New York, 1960), p. 282. For a recent series of essays addressed to the problem, see Istvan Meszaros, ed., Aspects of History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971).

2 See Friedrich Engels' preface to the 1888 edition of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto (London, 1888).

3 See John Plamenatz, Ideology (London, 1970), pp. 23‑27, 46‑71. Also see Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780‑1950, Anchor Edition (New York, 1960), pp. 283‑303. This book deals with several themes examined in the present study; Williams' use of the term "culture" corresponds at many points with my use of the term "consciousness."

4 For a survey of this development see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York, 1967), pp. 1‑18.


Marxist ideas entered late Victorian Britain and imparted new inspiration to indigenous currents of social thought. In the process, however, the theoretical coherence of Marxism was lost—divided between its rationalistic drive and its ethical or visionary bent. The former blended easily with the native utilitarianism; the latter merged with modes of thought which were essentially romantic. The fate of Marxism in the 1880s thus confirmed the earlier divergence within British thought and culture.

That divergence expressed contrasting responses to the massive economic and social changes in Britain during the nineteenth century. The utilitarians accepted the changes and attempted to extend the rationalistic ethos which accompanied the process of industrialization; the social romantics rejected the emerging industrial order in favor of imaginary models of society drawn largely from the past. The Socialist movement not only perpetuated these ambivalent responses to social change, but provided a context in which to work out their implications. At the same time the earlier dilemmas of the utilitarian and romantic forms of consciousness, dilemmas which Marx had attempted to overcome by means of the dialectic, reappeared.

The limitations of a utilitarian or rationalistic approach to social reconstruction became evident in the development of both the Social Democrats and the Fabians. Such an approach tended to assume the dominant values or modes of human satisfaction implicit in the existing social order; it ruled out ethical, aesthetic, or philosophical claims which questioned that order. Marx had dismissed the [272/273] utilitarianism underlying the Socialism of both Hyndman and Webb as a "sophistical rationalization of existing society." [1] His hostile judgment anticipated the narrowing of his aspiration by those British Socialists who accommodated their creed to the utilitarian tradition of social thought.

The Social Democratic and the Fabian forms of accommodation were quite different. The former were confident that Marxism provided a scientifically valid analysis of capitalism and a reliable picture of coming social and political developments. They thought their main task was to rescue the workers from the particularistic aspirations nurtured by prevailing associations and to impart a broader and more rational concept of working‑class interests. The Social Democrats proved unduly optimistic about the capacity or willingness of the workers to respond, but they did prepare the way for fresh working‑class political initiative. The Fabians, having discarded the crucial Marxist doctrines of class and exploitation, conceived of Socialist theory in more dynamic and adaptive terms. In Socialism they saw the extension of the rational and moral possibilities of existing institutions. While the Social Democrats were faithful to the Marxist insistence on the need to organize the working classes and concentrated on the growth of a class‑conscious proletariat, the Fabians set out to infiltrate and enlighten traditional political agencies. Both bodies, however, wished to achieve the society envisioned in nineteenth‑century utilitarianism—a society which would be more efficient and more just in its distribution of the goods and services made possible by the modern economic order.

Neither the Social Democratic nor Fabian memberships submitted easily to the narrowing of Socialist concern. The doctrinaire style, sectarian ethos, and continuing disputes about religious questions within the Federation suggested the play of nonutilitarian impulses and the tenuous hold of Hyndman's rationalistic theoretical commitment; the Federation's theoretical position was continually threatened by aspirations which were incompatible with its utilitarianism. [273/274] Hence the periodic defection of those who questioned, in ethical, aesthetic, or religious terms, the bases of the modern social order which the Social Democrats were seeking to modify. So too with the Fabians. Resistance to the gradual disengagement of the Society’s Socialism from basic philosophical claims was less visible. It was apparent in the highly erratic paths of members like Besant, Shaw, and Clarke, and the sense of the constriction of possibilities, effected by Webb, produced continuing tension within the Society.

The deeper drama in the developing Socialist consciousness unfolded among those who had rejected utilitarian forms of thought. They drew mainly on romantic and for the most part nostalgic reactions against the advancing industrial society. But these Socialists also carried over Carlyle and Ruskin's recognition of the losses entailed in the growth of modern capitalism; traditional conceptions of personal worth, social morality, and political obligation were all called into question by the development of a social order in which economic productivity and impersonal market relationships became dominant. Moreover, the later romanticism of Ruskin and Morris presented the outlines of a creative social vision. These sons of the affluent middle classes had become sensitive to modes of human satisfaction and possibilities for human fulfillment which lay beyond the horizons of their parents. Morris turned to Marxism because it promised the means of reinstating and implementing that vision.

The fusion Morris effected between the romantic vision and Marxism opened up new avenues for British Socialist development. But it also sharpened the divorce between consciousness and objective social reality which had characterized the thought of Carlyle and Ruskin. Indeed, from the Marxist standpoint the Socialism of Morris was regressive—a relapse into the subjectivism and idealism from which Marx had attempted to rescue earlier Socialist reformers. Moreover, the aesthetic and ethical impulses underlying Morris' Socialism soon revealed other limitations, for Morris carried much further the tendency (evident in Carlyle and Ruskin) toward eliminating clear acknowledgment of those impulses in men which did not harmonize with their desire for fellowship and beauty. Indeed, [274/275] Morris virtually dissolved moral claims in aesthetic feeling and made this feeling sovereign in human consciousness. He also tended to render the moral and aesthetic sentiments self‑sufficient and independent of both objective social realities and other psychological factors. It was a self‑stultifying outcome and challenged the creative spirits of the post‑Victorian generation to renew the search into man's inner life and the nature of his social existence. Thus Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, both of whom entered for a time into Socialist discussion groups, turned away from the movement in their singular quests for a more authentic understanding of modern man.

Insofar as the more prominent Socialist followers of Morris avoided the impasses into which his aesthetic reductionism led and retained the vision of a qualitatively different social order, they fell back on the moral sentiments released by a disintegrating religious tradition. The aesthetic gospel of Morris and Ruskin tended to fade out or degenerate into a form of hedonism (found, for example, in some of the Clarion clubs) which drew energy away from the movement. But a Socialist consciousness which had come to center on the moral and religious feelings, divorced from the old matrix of doctrine and ritual, was as vulnerable as Morris' utopianism. In Ethical Socialism, too, exaggeration of the power of the moral sentiments and depreciation of the force of objective social circumstances led to the disillusionment which overcame a number of Socialist propagandists after 1895.

British Socialists pursued various strategies in their efforts to overcome the gap between their vision of a radically new order of life and the recalcitrance of historical reality. A few had retreated further into the recesses of consciousness, seeking to give Socialism a deeper psychological or metaphysical anchorage. Bax sought to provide this in his notion of the "alogical," Carpenter in his belief in a cosmic or higher consciousness, and Davidson in his insistence on a common metaphysical ground beneath the moral sentiments. Trevor, too, for all his hostility to theological and metaphysical formulations, was seeking to tap religious sources of energy for the cause.

Other Socialists turned outward and attempted to shape social [275/276] reality to the forms demanded by their moral feelings. Such a turn might, as for those who contemplated a violent assault on the existing order, require a preliminary act of destruction. It might, as in the Tolstoyan and other Socialist colonies, bring withdrawal from conventional society and attempts to construct radically new forms of human association. But both strategies—toward deeper psychological or ontological levels of experience on the one hand and toward a total reconstruction of objective social forms on the other failed to discover motives or energies capable of sustaining the Socialist consciousness.

The Ethical Socialists escaped from the impasse into which their moralistically centered outlook had led only by following the route urged by Marx and Engels into direct involvement with the economic and political struggles of the working classes. The way was prepared by those Marxists of the late eighties who had broken with the pioneering Socialist organizations to develop a more realistic strategy. But the passage of Socialist ideas to the working classes meant further attenuation of Socialist consciousness. Just as the Marxists sacrificed much of their theoretical content in the process, so too the Ethical Socialists subordinated their distinctive claims to the customary interests of politically awakened sections of the working class. In this way the visionary element in British Socialism tended to fade out or to serve, as in Mann or Hardie, mainly as a means of mobilizing the workers for common action. What remained was a highly eclectic conception of Socialism compounded of Marxist, Fabian, and Ethical elements. It retained the general goals of collectivization or common ownership. But it lacked the cutting edge of serious theoretical analysis of existing society and it had lost the reach, exemplified most fully in Morris, for creative alternatives to prevailing modes of social and personal satisfaction. Through this process, however, the Socialist movement brought a new working-class political party into existence.

The filtering of their ideas to the British working classes did not, as Marx and Engels anticipated, bring a single, coherent Socialist consciousness. Indeed, Marxist ideas entered creatively into the working‑class movement only through the breakup of the distinctive [276/277] synthesis which Marx had constructed. By means of that breakup, however, disparate native thought traditions received from Marxism fresh impetus and meaning.

Those sections of the working classes which gained a new political orientation from the Socialist movement were not, as Engels suggested, simply giving conscious form to class "instincts." They were building in part on the attitudes and values developed earlier in the working-class efforts to achieve economic justice and self‑respect in the new industrial order. But they were also escaping to some extent from the confines of class and attempting to use a legacy of thought and imagination provided by the nineteenth‑century intellectuals who had reflected most deeply on the nature and possibilities of the social changes under way. Whether in its utilitarian or its romantic form, Socialism introduced its working‑class adherents to a century-long dialogue about the meaning of industrial society which transcended class limits. Indeed, between those members of the working classes who had acquired strong Socialist convictions and those who emphasized more immediate and tangible class interests there was an opposition which grew in the years ahead. The blend of the two outlooks within the ILP enabled it to carry out the complex maneuver of political disengagement and return necessary to launch a new party. While the romantic Socialist vision created a sense of distance from the older political parties and generated new political energies, the practical side of the ILP's program paved the way for its electoral alliance with the trade‑union leaders. But the alliance in turn further restrained the development of a Socialist consciousness in any deep or systematic sense of the term.

The dissolution of British Marxism has been explained in terms of the defects of its British spokesmen, of the engrained "bourgeois" habits of mind of the British workers, or of the special features of British institutional development. The fate of British Marxism may be traced more plausibly, however, to the dilemmas inherent in the attempt to achieve the kind of integral or dialectical relationship between consciousness and social development envisioned by Marx. Wherever Marxists have attempted to fulfill the promise of their dialectic in modem history, they have confronted a seemingly [277/278] inescapable opposition between the inner dynamics of consciousness and the compulsions of economic, social, and political institutions.

The fate of Marxism in late Victorian Britain was not an isolated and idiosyncratic phenomenon. It anticipated the wider development of Marxism in the twentieth century. Later European Marxism has followed much the same pattern of breakdown and reassimilation which took place in Britain. Where continental Marxists drew substantial sections of the working classes into social democratic parties and entered fully into the parliamentary process, these parties have tended to recapitulate the early development of working-class Socialism in Britain and slough off distinctively Marxist doctrines. Where the leaders of Marxist‑inspired parties refused, often under pressure from international Communism, to surrender their doctrines, or their "consciousness," they have suffered from the intellectual paralysis characteristic of Hyndman's organization. And insofar as later Marxist intellectuals attempted, like Morris, to reassert the ethical and visionary impulses implicit in the foundations of the creed, they have lost contact with the actual historical development of Marxist‑inspired movements or parties. Twentieth‑century Socialist thinkers, such as Georg Lukacs, Henry De Man, Ignazio Silone, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernst Bloch, and Leszek Kolakowski, have all found it necessary to choose between the inner claims of consciousness and the dictates of those guarding the orthodox forms of Marxism. Where they have accepted the claims of consciousness Marxist thinkers have also entered into renewed dialogue with other schools of European thought.

The Marxist drive for a new consciousness was Promethean; it meant a struggle to attain a philosophical understanding so close to action that the old "cleavage between ideal and reality" would disappear. [2] Here was the most fundamental of all the utopian elements in Marxism; in the British movement it found expression in the belief of Bax and Carpenter that "consciousness" as man had experienced it in the past would be superseded. The Marxist vision assumed, however, a linear and teleological view of consciousness, [278/279] or history, which modern thought with its extreme plurality has made less credible. The place of archaic and visionary forms of consciousness in the political upheavals of the twentieth century, moreover, has forced men to recognize the perils that lie in men's most generous wishes. These experiences have suggested that any radical resolution of the tension between man's consciousness and his social forms is likely to destroy those qualities which are most ennobling in man. Perhaps, as some Marxists have argued, the deeper wisdom in their conception of the dialectic lay simply in its creative, transcending impulse. [3] If so, the Marxist dialectic reinstated the older wisdom of the Hebraic‑Christian tradition, as well as the more modest imperatives of the liberal political ethos‑that men must constantly transform their historical existence without, however, claiming finality for their ideas or their social institutions.


1 See the appendix in Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx (Ann Arbor, 1962), p. 316.

2 George Lichtheim, Marxism (London, 1961), p. 406.

3 See for example, Roger Garaudy's interpretation of "dialectical supersession" in Marxism in the Twentieth Century, trans. René Hague (New York, 1971), pp. 103ff.

SOURCE: Pierson, Stanley. Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism: The Struggle for a New Consciousness. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1973. Contents, Introduction (xi-xiv), Conclusion (272-279).

See also:

Pierson, Stanley. British Socialists: the Journey from Fantasy to Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

_____________. Leaving Marxism: Studies in the Dissolution of an Ideology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

_____________. Marxist Intellectuals and the Working-Class Mentality in Germany, 1887-1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

Engels (& Borges) on Carlyle

A Pioneer in Workers' Education: Mark Starr and Workers' Education in Great Britain by Ronda Hauben

The Origins of Jack Lindsay's Contributions to British Marxist Thought by Joel R. Brouwer

Why E.P. Thompson is My Hero (E.P. Thompson's Universe of Knowledge) [rough draft]

E.P. Thompson on William Blake & Intellectual Traditions

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left: Essential Historical Surveys

Second International Marxism, German Social Democracy, Austro-Marxism: Selected Secondary Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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