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The 1880s saw the first generation of socialist propaganda in Britain and from the 1880s to the First World War the question of socialism was the central question of concern for the conscious members (whose numbers were ever growing) of the working class. 

If you read the biographies of any trade union leader of this period you will find him spending his Sundays - not in church - but in the local park speaking or listening to the socialist speakers addressing the working class and giving the Salvation Army very stiff competition. These meetings occurred not for the tourists in Hyde Park. Speakers Corner then (and continually through the 1950s) was the gathering place for all interested trade unionists. Not only Speakers Corner but virtually every public park in industrial cities and towns and villages up and down Britain. In Manchester the town council in the l890s tried to ban such meetings and provoked the bourgeois liberals into making a united front with the socialists to defend the Englishman's right to free speech.

A new generation of trade union leaders (Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Will Thorn, John Burns) had the great satisfaction of watching the old Lib-Labs, and even the Conservative Lancashire union leaders, swallow the pro-socialist resolutions passed at the TUC at this time. The older leaders preferred to retain their leadership positions and hold their own private opinions privately; thus when their members' views changed they tried to make sense of this change as best they could and so voiced the new ideas as being the opinions of the working man. Along with this propaganda and discussion inside the working class, there was also the growing desire to have members of their own class represent them in Parliament, just as the industrial bourgeoisie had acquired this desire as they became conscious of their economic power culminating in l832. It was a desire arising from the understanding that Parliament had the power to redress the grievances of the working class. The l847 Ten Hours Act had benefited the working class; the l87l and l875 Trade Union Bills had suppressed the bourgeoisie's attempt to defeat the trade unions politically.

The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in l899 had as its purpose "the representation of the working class in Parliament". It was to become the political party of the working class. It became that party because it had the support of the Trade Union leaders, i.e. the working class had recognised the need for a political party independent of the bourgeoisie.

The main political force in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee was the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Founded in 1893, Engels wrote to Sorge [1] about its first conference: 

"The SDF [the ideologically Marxist Social Democratic Federation] on the one hand and the Fabians on the other have not been able, with their sectarian attitude, to absorb the rush towards Socialism in the provinces, so the formation of a third party was quite a good thing. But the rush now has become so great, especially in the industrial areas of the North, that the new party came out already at this first Congress stronger than the SDF or the Fabians, if not stronger than both put together. And as the mass of the membership is certainly very good, as the centre of gravity lies in the provinces and not in London, the home of cliques, and as the main point of the programme is the same as ours, Aveling was right in joining and accepting a seat on the Executive." (Selected Correspondence, p.453)

[1] Friedrich Albert Sorge (1826-1906). German Socialist who played an important role in establishing the First International in the USA  

This development of socialism in the working class is reflected in Keir Hardie's speech to the first Congress of the ILP: 

"The Labour Movement, however, was not an organisation. It was neither a programme nor a constitution, but the expression of a great principle - the determination of the workers to be the arbiters of their own destiny. There were not in that meeting any of the great ones nor the learned ones amongst the sons of men, and therein lay the hope of the Labour Movement. We are here, continued Mr Hardie, such as we are, such as circumstances have created us, the expression of an inborn, an undying determination on the part of the democracy of this land to assert itself in its own spirit and through its own methods. [...] The demand of the Labour Party is for economic freedom. It is the natural outcome of political enfranchisement." (Conference Report, p6) 

"With Mr Gladstone's disappearance from politics there would be a scramble amongst different sections of the party (Liberals) for supremacy in the councils of the party. When that scramble came many would be driven in disgust into the Tory Party, but more would be attracted to any organisation which stood for righteousness in the state, and the faulty [fault? - PB] would be the fault of the ILP if the opportunity was not seized to make the party the dominant factor in the politics of the nation [...] He believed the ILP had a great opportunity if only, discarding all minor issues, it remembered that it was created for the purpose of realising Socialism - that that was the one item in its programme (hear, hear) [...] The danger was that the men who might be got in by minimising their demands would prove a source of weakness to them when the hour of trial came." (Conference Report, pp 4-5) 

How did the bourgeoisie react to this change in the political consciousness of the working class? Engels wrote to Lafargue [2] in Feb. l893: 

"The only country where the bourgeois still has a little common sense is England. Here the formation of the Independent Labour Party (though still in embryo) and its conduct in the Lancashire and Yorkshire elections have put a match to the government's backside; it is stirring itself, doing things unheard-of for a Liberal Government. The Registration Bill (l) unified the suffrage for all parliamentary, municipal etc elections, (2) adds at least 20 to 30 per cent to the working class vote, (3) removes the cost of election expenses from the candidates' shoulders and places it on those of the government [...] In short, the Liberals recognise that, to make sure of governing at the present time, there is nothing for it but to increase the political power of the working class who will naturally kick them out afterwards [...] once Home Rule is on the Statute Book, they (the Tories) will realise that there is nothing for it but to enter the lists to gain power, and to that end there remains but one means: to win the working class vote by political or economic concessions; thus the Liberals and Conservatives cannot help extending the power of the working class, and hastening the time which will eliminate both the one and the other. Amongst the workers here, things are going well. They begin to realise their strength more and more, and there is only one way of using it, namely, by forming an independent party." (Selected Correspondence, pp 456-7)

[2] Paul Lafargue (1841-1911), Karl Marx's son in law, played an important role in the development of Socialism in France and Spain.  

Engels's statement that the working class was not being led back into the bourgeoisie's political fold by the Liberals' concessions is borne out by the ILP Congress of 1895. Pete Curran of the Gasworkers gave the Chairman's address: 

"He said that the difference between the new ILP programme and the Liberals' Newcastle Programme was that 'the men-who drafted it (the ILP's) were sincere men; and the other point of difference was that it contained points and principles which inspired and would in future inspire to the realisation of its objects.'" (Conference Report, p.6)

The National Administrative Committee of the ILP in its Report for the 1895 Conference stated: 

"Even a Liberal Plutocrat, of the type of the Rt Hon J. Stansfield MP, felt it necessary a few days ago to declare; 'That we are on the verge of a possible catastrophe, such as the world has never seen'. The plutocracy having no faith in the power of democracy to undertake the entire responsibility of regulating the whole of the industrial forces, may view with alarm, the rapidly coming great and mighty changes. To us, who know the necessity for these changes, it is a matter for great rejoicing that we are entering upon the period that is bringing the complete break up of the capitalist system and our present hope and desire is, that we may be found worthy to rightly fulfil our position in contributing to the complete demolition of competitive chaos and to the establishing of the Industrial Commonwealth." (Conference Report, p 20) 

The ILP's accession of strength from l893 to l899 was the major factor in the trade unions' support for the Labour Representation Committee. The ILP was willing to "compromise its principles" by limiting the LRC's objects to the representation of the working class in Parliament because it rightly viewed the unification of the working class politically as being of more substance than a principled position. The ILP viewed the triumph of its socialist views as inevitable within a working class party, i.e. that the will of the working class for working class politics could not be rejected because it was not pure enough. The Labour Party's first political programme in 1918 showed that the ILP had been correct. Its own object: "The collective ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange" was a cornerstone of that programme. The ILP and other socialist organisations in the years between 1899 and 1918 had explained to the working class that its independent political expression necessarily implied socialism.