Henry Hyndman, the son of a rich businessman, was born in London on 7th March, 1842. After being educated at home, Hyndman entered Trinity College, Cambridge. After achieving his degree in 1861 he studied for the Bar for two years before deciding to become a journalist.
In 1866 Hyndman reported on the Italian war with Austria for the Pall Mall Gazette. Hyndman was horrified by the reality of war and became violently ill after visiting the front-line. Hyndman met the leaders of the Italian nationalist movement and was generally sympathetic to their cause.
In 1869 Hyndman toured the world visiting the United States, Australia and several European countries. He continued to write for the Pall Mall Gazette, where he praised the merits of British imperialism and criticised those advocating Home Rule for Ireland, Hyndman was also very hostile to the experiments in democracy that were taking place in America.
Hyndman decided on a career in politics but unable to find a party that he could fully support, decided to stand as an Independent for the constituency of Marylebone in the 1880 General Election. Denounced as a Tory by William Gladstone, Hyndman got very little support from the electorate and facing certain defeat, withdrew from the contest.
Soon after the election Hyndman read a novel based on the life of Ferdinand Lassalle. Hyndman became fascinated with Lassalle and decided to research this romantic hero who had been killed in a duel in 1864. Hyndman discovered that Lassalle had been a wealthy socialist who had financially supported the work of Karl Marx. Hyndman decided to read The Communist Manifesto and although he had doubts about some of Marx's ideas, for example, the inevitability of a socialist revolution, he was greatly impressed by his analysis of capitalism.
Hyndman now decided to form Britain's first socialist political party. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) had its first meeting on 7th June, 1881. Many socialists refused to join the SDF because they were highly suspicious of a wealthy man funding a radical political party. They were also aware that in the past Hyndman had been opposed to socialist ideas such as universal suffrage. Hyndman persuaded some socialists that he had genuinely changed his views, and those who eventually joined the SDF included William Morris, Ernest Bax, Henry Hyde Champion, John Burns, Ben Tillett, John Spargo, Tom Mann, Edward Aveling George Lansbury and Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx. However, Friedrich Engels, Marx's long-term collaborator, refused to support Hyndman's venture.
To publicize the SDF, Hyndman wrote a book, England for All (1881), where he attempted to explain the ideas of Karl Marx. This was followed by Socialism Made Plain (1883), where he provided details of the policies of the Social Democratic Federation. This included a demand for universal suffrage and the nationalization of the means of production and distribution. The SDF also published Justice, edited by the talented journalist, Henry Hyde Champion.
Ben Tillett was very impressed by Hyndman: "H. M. Hyndman was an arrogant intellectual possessing a mind, forensic, exact and ruthless, with a patience and a capacity for details devastating to an opponent. He was in many ways our chief intellectual prize. He seemed to us a mental giant. He was a schoolmaster and teacher, but he lacked the softer human quality which senses the needs as well as the weakness of humanity. In debate, he brooked but little discussion and no opposition at all. He failed specifically because of this intellectual attitude."
Bruce Glasier had doubts about his approach to politics: "Racy, argumentative, declamatory, bristling with topical allusions and scathing raillery, it was a hustings masterpiece. But it was almost wholly critical and destructive. The affirmative and regenerative aims of Socialism hardly emerged from it. There was hardly a ray of idealism in it. Capitalism was shown to be wasteful and wicked, but Socialism was not made to appear more practicable or desirable."
Paul Thompson argues in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967) that it was the publication of the book, Progress and Povery by Henry George that increased the popularity of the SDF: "The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness." By 1885 the organisation had over 700 members.
Although Henry Hyndman was a talented writer and public speaker, many members of the SDF questioned his leadership qualities. Hyndman was extremely authoritarian and tried to restrict internal debate about party policy. At a SDF meeting on 27th December, 1884, the executive voted by a majority of two (10-8), that it had no confidence in Hyndman. When Hyndman refused to resign, some members, including William Morris, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx left the party.
In the 1885 General Election, Hyndman and Henry Hyde Champion, without consulting their colleagues, accepted £340 from the Conservative Party to run parliamentary candidates in Hampstead and Kensington. The objective being to split the Liberal vote and therefore enabling the Conservative candidate to win. This strategy did not work and the two SDF's candidates only won 59 votes between them. The story leaked out and the political reputation of both men suffered from the idea that they were willing to accept "Tory Gold".
On 13th November, 1887, he Social Democratic Federation 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.
In 1890 the SDF was once again involved in internal conflict. Some members such as John Burns and Tom Mann believed that the SDF should be more active in trade union activities. Hyndman disagreed, as he wanted to concentrate on the main objective, bringing about a socialist revolution. Although outnumbered, Hyndman refused to change the strategy of the Social Democratic Federation, and Burns and Mann left the party.
Socialists such as Henry Hyde Champion, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and John Burns joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which led by James Keir Hardie, proposed a Christian Socialism, rather than 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.
Margaret McMillan saw Hyndman in 1897: "H. M. Hyndman, the great apostle of Karl Marx, was a rather corpulent, long-bearded man of fifty-five. He had an astonishing gift of oratory and was at once provocative and convincing. He spoke with the vehemence of a great soul and the simplicity of a child. Above all, he had vision. He saw the new society. His party, the Social Democratic Federation stood for Adult Suffrage. It worked for the Nationalization of Land and the instruments of production. These were to be administered for the good of all the people, not for the profiteering or benefit of a small class."
On 27th February 1900, Hyndman and the SDF met with the Independent Labour Party, 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 andestablished a new group, the British Socialist Party (BSP). The BSP had little impact and like the SDF, failed to win any of the parliamentary elections it contested.
Hyndman upset members of the BSP by supporting Britain's involvement in the First World War. The party split in two with Hyndman forming a new National Socialist Party. Henry Hyndman remained as the leader of this party until his death on 20th November, 1921.
H. M. Hyndman, the great apostle of Karl Marx, was a rather corpulent, long-bearded man of fifty-five. He had an astonishing gift of oratory and was at once provocative and convincing. He spoke with the vehemence of a great soul and the simplicity of a child. Above all, he had vision. He saw the new society. His party, the Social Democratic Federation stood for Adult Suffrage. It worked for the Nationalization of Land and the instruments of production. These were to be administered for the good of all the people, not for the profiteering or benefit of a small class.
H. M. Hyndman was an arrogant intellectual possessing a mind, forensic, exact and ruthless, with a patience and a capacity for details devastating to an opponent. He was in many ways our chief intellectual prize. He seemed to us a mental giant. He was a schoolmaster and teacher, but he lacked the softer human quality which senses the needs as well as the weakness of humanity. In debate, he brooked but little discussion and no opposition at all. He failed specifically because of this intellectual attitude.
Hyndman's essential bourgeois appearance attracted much attention. The tall hat, the frock coat, and the long beard often drew the curious-minded who would not have spent time listening to one in workman's attire. At almost every meeting he addressed, Hyndman would cynically thank the audience for so "generously supporting my class". Hyndman, like many strong personalities, had very pronounced likes and dislikes. To myself, he was ever kind and courteous. I am quite sure he did much valuable work at the particular time when that special work was needed.
Hyndman had an excellent command of statistics and finance, a good knowledge of political conditions in Europe. On the platform, with his waving beard and flowing frock-coat, his high and spacious forehead and head somewhat low and weak behind, he gave one rather the impression of a shop whose goods are all in the front window; and though a good and incisive speaker his frequent gusts of invective seemed out of keeping with the obvious natural kindliness of the man and rather suggested the idea that he was lashing himself up with his own tail.
Racy, argumentative, declamatory, bristling with topical allusions and scathing raillery, it was a hustings masterpiece. But it was almost wholly critical and destructive. The affirmative and regenerative aims of Socialism hardly emerged from it. There was hardly a ray of idealism in it. Capitalism was shown to be wasteful and wicked, but Socialism was not made to appear more practicable or desirable.
I have to confess that my fidelity to the SDF was short-lived. While a willing and interested student of Marx I was fed up with the excessive adulation of the man and the attitude of the SDF leaders that he was a prophet and his book akin to the Bible as regards the distillation of truth in it. Hyndman's recurrent references to his friendship with Marx were both boring and suspect.
Hyndman had talked to Marx only once so far as anybody knew - in 1880. Twenty-six years later he was still describing the master's conversation as if it had happened yesterday. The suggestion that Marx liked and trusted Hyndman, which the latter was never tired of explaining, was probably really a confession that Hyndman had a childlike faith in, and unrequited adoration for, Marx.
Marx was not the type of man who liked anybody, least of all a rich and aristocratic young man with the manners and accent bred into him at Eton and a high regard for the genteel frock coat and top-hat without which Hyndman never appeared in public.
The story of the foundation of the Social Democratic Federation (the S.D.F.), the first avowedly socialist political party in England, has been recounted in some detail by historians of socialism. It will be sufficient here to say that it resulted from a coincidence of radical dissatisfaction with Gladstonian Liberalism, with the arrival on the political scene of H. M. Hyndman. It is clear from reports in the Radical that already some club speakers were urging the need for "a labour party which should be independent of the Liberal party" and arguing that "nearly every internal struggle in a country - whether it be Nihilism in Russia, Socialism in Germany, Communism in France, or Radicalism in England-could be reduced to this logical fact-a fight between the profit producer and the profit receiver. In 1881 the Radical began a campaign, very probably suggested by Hyndman, for "a non-Ministerial Radical party" to be led by Joseph Cowen, the radical M.P. for Newcastle. The first of a series of conferences resulting in the formation of the new party, the Democratic Federation, was held under Cohen's chairmanship in February. But the fact that the Democratic Federation survived, and developed into a socialist party, was because it very rapidly passed to Hyndman's leadership.
A man of independent means, widely travelled, a Cambridge graduate aged nearly 40, Hyndman was temperamentally a radical imperialist Conservative in the tradition of Disraeli, who had been converted to the Marxist standpoint by reading a French translation of Capital in 1880. He was to be the undaunted propagandist of English socialism for another forty years, but in spite of his dedication he was
Ensor found Wells "absurd" and recorded repeated "tedious discussion" and "silly personal bickering". Consequently although nine of the fifteen reform candidates were elected they were unable to form a united group. As Wells wrote to Ensor afterwards, "There ain't no always an incongruously unsuitable leader. A natural gambler and adventurer who delighted in political crisis, he totally lacked the personal tact and strategic skill which a successful politician needs. The personal enemies he made included Marx and Engels, William Morris, and the trade unionist socialist pioneers John Burns and Tom Mann. He regarded first the Independent Labour Party and then the early Labour Party with scorn. He opposed the campaign for an Eight Hour Day as a diversion, and denounced the "First of May folly". He regarded trade unions as politically unimportant and their leaders as "the most stodgy-brained dull-witted and slow going time-servers in the country". He opposed both the syndicalists and the suffragists in the 1900s, and suggested that women who struggled for their emancipation as a sex question "ought to be sent to an island by themselves". He was a persistent anti-semite, became a violent anti-German, supported Carson and the Ulster Protestants and backed allied intervention against the Russian revolution.' In considering the mistakes made by the S.D.F. in London and the eventual failure of Marxist socialism to consolidate its early advances, it is important to remember that it suffered throughout the period from singularly unsuitable leadership.
At first the Federation was a negligible force, with only two branches in 1881-2. It quickly lost the support of the radical clubs when Hyndman's hostility to "capitalist radicalism" was made apparent. The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness. George's book Progress and Poverty sold 400,000 copies. His argument pointed beyond land reform, and stimulated an intellectual interest in socialism, which he certainly never intended. The new atmosphere brought important recruits to the Democratic Federation in 1883 and 1884: William Morris, Dr. Edward Aveling a Darwinian chemist and secularist leader, Harry Quelch a packer in a city warehouse, H. H. Champion a former army officer, and John Burns, born in Battersea of Scots parents, a temperance enthusiast who had been influenced by an old French communard in his engineering workshop.