The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), founded in 1884, was the first Marxist party in Britain and became a forerunner of the British Socialist Party, founded in 1911, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, founded in 1920. However, due to poor leadership, sectarian divisions and lack of understanding of the role of trade unions, the SDF remained a minority grouping within late Victorian socialism and labour movement.


In 1881, Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842-1921), the son of a West India merchant and a former Tory radical, aided by two other Tory radicals, H. A. M. Butler Johnstone and John Morrison Davidson, brought together several radical and socialist clubs in London and founded the Democratic Federation, as a grouping of radicals, including former Chartists, O'Brienites (adherents of the Chartist leader Bronterre O'Brien) and land reformers. The group was transformed into the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The new organisation propounded socialist ideas derived from Karl Marx’s writings.

Hyndman beca me fascinated by Karl Marx’s Das Capital, which he read in a French translation during his voyage to America in 1880. After return to England he invited Marx and his youngest daughter Eleanor (“Tussy”) to dinner and told them that he considered the reviving of the Chartist movement. (Tsuzuki 33) Hyndman did not share Marx’s belief in the inevitability of popular revolution. Instead, he preferred gradual constitutional transformation because he genuinely had faith in the parliamentary road to socialism. He wrote to Marx:

Revolution is possible, since the recent foolish action of our Government in many directions I had almost put probable. But what I mean is I do not wish to push men on to what must be violence when they might easily attain their objects by peaceful action in common. [Tsuzuki 34]

In his Record of the Adventurous Life (1911), Hyndman quotes a curious conversation with Benjamin Disraeli, a staunch conservative, about the future of Britain.

'You can never carry it out with the Conservative party. That is quite certain. Your life would become a burden to you. It is only possible through such a democracy as you speak of. The moment you tried to realize it on our side you would find yourself surrounded by a phalanx of the great families who would thwart you at every turn: they and their women. And you would be no better off on the other side.'

'But this party system,' I rejoined, 'need not go on for ever?'

'No, but private property which you hope to communize, and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. I do not say it to discourage you, but you have taken upon yourself a very — heavy — work indeed, and' (smiling), 'even now you are not a very young man to have so much zeal and enthusiasm. It is a very difficult country to move, Mr. Hyndman, a very difficult country indeed, and one in which there is more disappointment to be looked for than success. But you do intend to go on?' I said I did. 'Then I shall have the pleasure of seeing you again.' (Tsuzuki 35)

Hyndman did not, however, have the opportunity to talk to Disraeli again. The Tory leader died within a few weeks, but interestingly, Hyndman tried to suggest in his memoir that Disraeli was not indifferent to socialist ideas. In fact, Disraeli had devised a political philosophy which is known as Tory socialism.


The programme of the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881, reminded of the Chartist programme, with the exception of the substitution of 'triennial' for 'annual' Parliaments.

In 1881, Hyndman published a pamphlet England for All: The Text-Book of Democracy, which contained a more detailed exposition of his political, social and economic views. Strangely enough, Hyndman blended some of the ideas of Disraeli's Tory democracy, or rather Tory socialism, with Marx's concept of surplus value. The pamphlet provoked Marx's anger because some its fragments plagiarised Das Kapital.

In his next pamphlet, Socialism Made Plain (1883), Hyndman, inspired by The Communist Manifesto, called for better housing for artisans and agricultural workers, free and compulsory education for all social classes, free meals for school children, the eight-hour workday, cumulative taxation, state ownership of railways and banks, the abolition of the national debt, and the organisation of the agricultural and industrial armies. (Busky 82)

In 1883, Hyndman published a book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in England, in which he acknowledged Marx's influence on his ideas and claimed that capitalism would soon collapse and that Britain was on the brink of anarchy. (Bevir 78) Hyndman tried to devise a strategy within the SDF to build a form of centralised state socialism in Britain, which was in line with Marx's ideas and the tradtion of English radicalism.

It should be noted, however, that Hyndman's socialism did not contradict his imperialistic views. “To my mind,” he stated, “we have to base the first real Socialistic combination upon the common interests and affinities of the great Celto-Teutonic peoples in America, in Australia, in these islands, and possibly in Germany.” He also declared: “I am quite content to bear the reproach of Chauvinism in regard to what I say about the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples.” (Tsuzuki 51)

As Norman Etherington pointed out, programmes designed to combine revolutionary socialism with imperial expansion attracted not only the SDF leadership but also its rank-and-file members. (89) However, after the Boer War, the SDF dreams of a socialist British Empire were completely smashed and the SDF took an anti-imperialist position.


The SDF attracted in its early days a number of radical middle-class intellectuals, including the poet William Morris, journalist and philosopher Ernest Belfort Bax, Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling, the artist Walter Crane, Henry “Harry” Quelch, the editor of the SDF press organ, Justice, who, nota bene, arranged for the SDF to print in 1902-03 Vladimir Lenin's newspaper Iskra, which had been banned in Russia, Helen Taylor, the step-daughter of John Stuart Mill, as well as labour activists, such as Tom Mann, John Burns and George Lansbury.

Apart from them a few upper-class Tory socialists also joined the SDF. They were: Henry Hyde Champion, Robert Frost, and James Joynes. These Tory radicals encouraged Hyndman and the popular radicals to accept the label 'socialist'. (Bevir 73) William Morris, who joined the Democratic Federation in 1883, soon became its coleader, and under the double leadership the group evolved towards a socialist party, and in 1884, its name was changed to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF membership rose rapidly in the middle 1890s, reaching over 10,000 in 137 branches all over the country. (Tsuzuki 108)

The SDF press organs

Edward Carpenter, a former Cambridge don who had given up his fellowship to live the simple life in a cottage near Sheffield, where he wrote “Towards Democracy,” a long socialist verse in the style of Walt Whitman, welcomed the emergence of a new socialist movement and gave the Federation a donation of 300 pounds (Tzusuki 52). The money was used to start a weekly paper, called Justice and subtitled 'Organ of the Social Democracy'. Its first number appeared on 19th January 1884, and within a few weeks Hyndman became its editor. Hyndman and his party comrades sold the newspaper for one penny in London's busiest thoroughfare. Jack Williams, a member of the SDF recalled:

There was Hyndman, in his immaculate frock coat and high hat; there was Morris, dressed in his usual blue serge suit and soft hat; Joynes in his aesthetic dress; Champion looking every inch the military man; Frost looking every inch the aristocrat; Quelch and myself in our everyday working clothes. I am sure we made an impression on that day. [Tsuzuki 52]

Until the end of the Victorian era, Justice remained one of the most highly respected socialist newspapers in Britain. It published many articles on socialist theory and history, but less on the daily concerns of the working class, and therefore, it failed to attract a wider readership (Crick 40).

The SDF also published from 1897 a monthly magazine, the Social Democrat, which brought more theoretical issues and translations of foreign socialist publications. It began as a twopenny magazine of 32 pages, and continued in that form for six years. In 1903, it was expanded to 64 pages and issued at 6d. However, the sale steadily diminished and in 1908 its price was reduced to threepence. In January, 1912, the Social Democrat was renamed the British Socialist.

Forms of agitation

The Social Democratic Federation exerted a marginal influence on the labour movement in the late Victorian era largely because of its relatively small membership and sectarian divisions. The SDF was successful in campaigning on behalf of the unemployed and free speech, but was unable to create a strong nationwide socialist movement in Britain.

The SDF was focused on political activity and tried unsuccessfully to run candidates in the 1885 General Election. However, the Federation damaged its reputation by accepting money from the Tories to run three of its socialist candidates.

The SDF also perceived itself as an educational, political organisation which had a mission to enlighten the working classes to the iniquities of capitalism and the advantages of socialism. To this end, the SDF contributed to the emergence of the network of Socialist Sunday Schools for children in 1886, which were set up as alternatives to Christian Sunday Schools. They taught children socialist ideas and ethical principles.

The Trafalgar Square Riots (Black Monday and Bloody Sunday)

In the years 1885-87, the SDF branches in London organised several demonstrations of the unemployed, calling for “A Right to Work.” On 8 February 1886, its leadership and a rival organisation, the London United Workingmen’s Committee, participated simultaneously in a demonstration which began peacefully in Trafalgar Square, but after the speeches, a crowd of 5,000 marched down Pall Mall, smashing windows and looting shops. After pausing in Hyde Park, much of the crowd then returned down Oxford Street, again breaking windows and looting, until it was dispersed by the police using a baton charge. The riot was later called Black Monday (Bevir 37). On 13 November 1887, the SDF and the Irish National League participated in another demonstration in support of the unemployed, coercion in Ireland and the release of MP William O'Brien, the Irish agitator. The demonstration, which was later called Bloody Sunday, turned into a violent riot as a result of which three people were killed and over two hundred wounded. These two unsuccessful demonstrations in the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee diminished the revolutionary spirit within the SDF leadership.

Attitude to trade unions

The SDF was criticised for overlooking the role of trade unions, although many of its members were active in labour movement. Some of them led the 'New Unions' of the 1880s. Will Thorne, led the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labourers; John Burns and Ben Tillett played an important role in the London Dock Strike of 1889.

Nevertheless, Hyndman was rather contemptuous of trade unionism in the early 1880s. Paradoxically, by family background and by political formation he was a radical Tory socialist rather than a Marxist socialist. He failed to take advantage of the growing power of new trade unionism, and wasted his talent on doctrinaire, mechanistic interpretations of Marxist theory. Hyndman believed that the welfare of the working-class could be improved through parliamentary reform and not through trade union agitation.

The SDF and the Woman Question

The SDF was ambivalent about the women's movement. Hyndman, Harry Quelch (editor of Justice) and Belfort Bax were critical of the suffragettes, but some others, for example, Charlotte Despard, Dora B. Montefiore and George Lansbury supported women's suffrage (David Young 5-6). Women, especially middle-class women, were generally perceived as a conservative force within society and as such were regarded as an enemy of socialism (oung 90).

However, the female members of the SDF expressed a different opinion about feminist activism. In 1909, one of the prominent female members of the SDF, Dora Montefiore stated that:

nothing but a social and economic revolution, in which, women themselves take a conscious and active part, can make for them complete emancipation. For this reason, we militant women strongly protest against the idea that Socialism can be given us by men... It is in working for our own emancipation that we shall gain that inner freedom, that sense of striking off our own chains, that really frees the individual. [93]

The anti-suffrage attitude remained quite strong in the SDF until 1907, when the SDF published its manifesto on the Question of Universal Suffrage. However, “the idea of the 'woman worker,'” as David Murray Young writes, “was not unproblematic for the SDF. Many believed that the phrase was self-contradictory and that under socialism women would not be a part of the workforce” (99).

Factions in SDF and secession

There were a few factions within the early SDF. Hyndman's faction aimed to create a united Marxist party in Britain. The second faction, led by John Burns, was less interested in Marxist radical ideology, but more in trade union activism and industrial disputes. The third faction, led by Joseph Lane, had an anarchist bias and was opposed to parliamentary politics. The fourth faction included intellectuals, such as William Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax, who were critical of Marxist economic determinism. Two more factions were regional; one was in Scotland and the other in Ireland.

On 23 December 1884, a major split occurred within the Social Democratic Federation which led to the resignation of William Morris, Belfort Bax, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, and a few other prominent members of the Federation. The secessionists accused Hyndman of 'autocratic' rule.

The secession of William Morris and his supporters from the SDF and the formation of the Socialist League in reaction to the autocratic leadership of Henry Hyndman proved that there were fundamental divisions within British socialism which thwarted the formation of a united socialist party in Britain at the end of the Victorian era.

The subsequent offshoots of the SDF included the Socialist Labour Party (1903), the Socialist Party of Great Britain (1904), and the National Socialist Party (1916). Some former members of the SDF turned to local working-class activism and later joined with the Fabian Society or the Independent Labour Party, and eventually, the Labour Party.

In spite of a severe blow caused by the secessions, the SDF continued to exist as an Anglo-Marxist organisation in the early twentiethth century, but its popularity faded. The SDF participated in the inauguration conference of the Labour Party in 1900, but remained ambivalent about its politics until 1918, when it adopted a socialist programme. In 1907, the SDF changed its name to the Social Democratic Party. The Social Democratic Federation was revived by Hyndman in 1919, when the National Socialist Party changed its name. After Hyndman's death in 1921, the SDF affiliated with the Labour Party. It ceased to exist after the outbreak of World War Two.


The Social Democratic Federation was a strand in late Victorian socialism and the first Marxist party in Britain, although Hyndman, quarreled with both Marx and Engels, who regarded him not as a socialist but a British 'chauvinist' and 'jingoist.' The SDF attracted, but did not always retain, the support of many of radical reformers and labour agitators, as well as some Tory radicals, who were adherents of Hyndman, but it could never effectively rouse the masses. However, it should be emphasised that in late Victorian Britain, H. M. Hyndman, the founder of the SDF and forerunner of Anglo-Marxism, was more identified with socialism than his famous contemporaries, Karl Marx, William Morris, or Bernard Shaw, and the SDF, which shared a lot of features of traditional English radicalism, remained the most pronounced Marxist organisation in England until the breaking out of the First World War. Its weakness lay not only in an uncritical adherence to vulgar and dogmatic Marxism (plain economic determinism), but also in an inability to understand the political potential of the growing trade unions and industrial actions.

References and Further Reading

Bauman, Zygmunt. Between Class and Elite: The Evolution of the British Labour Movement: A Sociological Study. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972.

Beer, M. History of British Socialism. London: George Bell, 1929.

Berlin, Isaiah. Karl Marx:His Life and Environment. New York: Time, 1963.

Bevir, Mark. The Making of British Socialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Busky, Donald F.Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2000.

Collins, H. "The Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation," in Essays in Labour History, 1886–1923, ed. A. Briggs and J. Saville. London: Macmillan, 1971.

Crick, Martin. The History of the Social-Democratic Federation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Ely, Richard T. Socialism: An Examination of Its Nature, Its Strength and Its Weakness, with Suggestions for Social Reform. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1894.

Etherington, Norman. “Hyndman, the Social-Democratic Federation and Imperialism,” Historical Studies, 16(62) 1974, 89-103.

Johnson, Graham. Social Democratic Politics in Britain 1881-1911. Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

Howell, David. British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1888-1906. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983.

Hobsbawm, E. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959.

Hunt, Karen. Equivocal Feminists: The Social Democratic Federation and the Woman Question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hyndmann, Henry Mayers. England for All. The Text-Book of Democracy. London: Gilbert and Rivington, 1881.

______. The Historical Basis of Socialism in England. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Co., 1883.

______. The Record of an Adventurous Life. London: Macmillan, 1911.

Thompson, E. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

____. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1955.

Tsuzuki, Chushichi. H. M. Hyndman and British Socialism. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Young, James D. Socialism and the English Working Class: A History of English Labour 1883-1939. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.

Young, David Murray. People, Place and Party: The Social Democratic Federation 1884-1911. Durham: Durham University, 2003;

Last modified 13 February 2014