Book Review: Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero? Bob Holman (Lion Hudson plc/ 2010 / £10.99)

Hardie, class struggle and keeping the faith

This review, by Richard Price, was first published in Permanent Revolution

The standard Marxist appraisal of Keir Hardie goes something like this. Although due respect must be paid to his pioneering role, Keir Hardie was ultimately a failure. The party he created was, up to the time of his death, a rickety contraption that remained predominantly Lib-Lab in its outlook. He failed to create a clearly socialist (still less a vanguard) party and made no decisive break with Labour’s emerging right wing.

He rejected Marxism and failed to align himself with the revolutionary, internationalist wing of social democracy. His opposition to capitalism and war remained on an ethical plane, while as a parliamentarian he was weak, erratic and given to the odd unprincipled manoeuvre.

So far, so negative. This is the ninth biography of Keir Hardie to be published since his death in 1915, ranging from quite brief sketches to the large scale work by Caroline Benn. The fact that this latest addition to Hardieana is written by a Christian socialist member of the Labour Party will probably contribute to a collective sigh in some parts of the left.

For all that, Holman’s book (with the exception of a rather laboured conclusion) is a useful overview of Hardie’s life, views and struggles that brings some fresh insights to a well-trodden period of labour history.

You can’t help thinking that Keir Hardie has been ill served both by his supporters and his detractors alike. For decades, Labour’s leaders would hail the name of Keir Hardie to rally conference behind policies that he would have denounced. Marxists from Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation onwards tended to hold a slightly patronising attitude towards this self-taught worker with his gruff speech and scruffy clothes, who lacked their advanced theoretical insights. He was, they concluded, more of a throwback to the nineteenth century than the herald of the twentieth.

Hardie had to overcome enormous obstacles early in life. Born, as they used to say, out of wedlock, he was raised in dire poverty by his mother and stepfather along with eight half brothers and sisters, initially in a one room dwelling in the Lanarkshire coalfield. He started work at eight years old. At 12 he was working with pit ponies, and was trapped underground in a colliery accident.

From an early age Hardie devoured books, which he read after a 12 hour working day, and was drawn to the temperance movement and evangelical Christianity – in contrast to his atheist parents who were influenced by the secularist Charles Bradlaugh.

Fiercely egalitarian

Hardie’s road to socialism was protracted, taking in activity as a trade unionist, union official, radical Liberal journalist and committed Christian. Holman persuasively makes the point that this latter aspect has been underplayed by previous biographers, probably for political reasons. Yet it is crucial to understanding his development, what motivated him, and also his drawn out breach with radical Liberalism. Hardie’s Christianity was very much that of the sermon on the mount – fiercely egalitarian and not afraid to quarrel with church leaders of any denomination who upheld the status quo. The choice that lay before British socialists in the 1890s was between three possible routes to construct a workers’ party – a small Marxist propaganda group; a party based on the unity of the various socialist groups; or a mass party based on the trade unions which socialists would seek to guide and influence.

Hardie took the latter course, and in doing so he had the encouragement of Friedrich Engels and Eleanor Marx. Despite his theoretical weaknesses, they saw in the ILP and Hardie’s activity a genuine movement on the rise, in contrast to the sectarian manoeuvrings of Hyndman’s SD F. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that Holman makes several inaccurate remarks about the SD F and he does not appear to have referred to such standard works as the biographies of William Morris, Eleanor Marx and H M Hyndman by E P Thompson, Yvonne Kapp and Chushichi Tsuzuki respectively. Much has been made in the past about the inconsistency of Hardie’s tactics towards Liberalism, and there is some truth in this. As against this, he faced two main problems. The first was that the unions, dominated by Lib-Lab and particularly the miners, were not going to be broken from Liberalism in the short term unless there was the prospect of real legislative advance. For the ILP, whose 28 candidates failed to win a single seat in the 1895 general election, this was an uphill struggle. However, it should be noted that its candidates averaged 1,500 votes per seat – a far higher average than the various left formations who have contested British elections over the last 14 years have achieved and with a much smaller population and franchise. Even so, the ILP leaders made no attempt to spin their results as a success. The real impetus for the unions to support a broad electoral project only came when their very functioning was threatened by the Taff Vale case. The second problem was that, partly in response to the emergence of organised labour, the Liberal Party entered the twentieth century with an increasingly state interventionist and reformist programme that made the task of breaking the unions from it all the more difficult.

So much writing about Hardie has centred on this relationship and break with Liberalism – and necessarily so. Holman’s biography has the merit that it allows us to construct a version of Hardie that is much more contemporary than his cloth (in reality more of a deerstalker) cap. He was a staunch republican (p79 and p119) and advocated the abolition of the House of Lords as early as 1884. He advocated women’s suffrage in the early 1880s (p33), long before the suffragette movement. He called for free school meals, and in spite of his religious views, supported secular education (p126). In 1905 he campaigned against the Aliens Bill, which aimed to exclude Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe (p123).

He exposed the role capitalist industry played in destroying both the environment and workers’ health (p107). In the Mid Lanark by election of 1887 he called for both Irish and Scottish home rule. He opposed the Boer War and attacked the role of British imperialism in India.

Personally incorruptible

During the great wave of militancy before the First World War, he publicly defended syndicalism and, while the TUC was cold shouldering the Irish TGWU, rushed to support James Larkin and the Dublin transport workers. Among his close friends were Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury, both very much on the left of the movement. Hardie had enormous resilience. His son in law Emrys Hughes (who was sympathetic to Trotsky) wrote: “To stand alone as Keir Hardie did in the House of Commons, scoffed at, shouted down, and to continue on undaunted and uncorrupted, demanded great strength of character and supreme courage.” (p188). He was personally incorruptible and on several occasions refused large sums of money to campaign for specific (and non-socialist) causes.

During the Boer War he faced down jingoistic mobs. In 1910 he spoke at the Second International in favour of a general strike to prevent war and, failing health notwithstanding, campaigned against the First World War, despite being in a minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. For all that he wasn’t (and never pretended to be) a Marxist, Holman’s book reminds us that there was a lot more to Hardie than being the founding father of a reformist party.