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Socialism, Society and Politics in Britain 1880-1918 - 30 credits (HS1860)

Module Tutor: Dr Martin Wright

Course Description

This module evaluates the influence of socialists on society and politics in Britain up to the end of the Great War. It examines the origins and early development of the socialist movement, when the adoption of Marxist ideas by small groups of middle class idealists in the 1880s added a new and potentially revolutionary impetus to political and social thought. Over the next decades socialist ideas influenced most aspects of British politics and society. These ideas were debated in trade unions, churches and chapels, political parties and cultural and social organisations. Socialists, however, faced fundamental problems in translating their revolutionary principles into political reality. The vehicle ultimately chosen to pursue their political aims was the Labour Party, but as its power grew some socialists became critical of its ideology and strategy, resulting in a passionate debate which has never been resolved. Was the Labour Party the only realistic route of advance for British socialists? Did socialists offer a cure for all social ills, or were they as involved in imperialism and patriarchal rule as the rest of British society? This module examines a fascinating and exciting period of British history, though the perspective of a movement which sought to change fundamentally the nature of society and government. It explores the debates and disputes unleashed by the attempt to turn revolutionary theory into practical politics; debates which still reverberate in contemporary politics and society.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites N/A

Necessary for N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:
(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,
or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.
and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to approach critically the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

What is socialism? The European context, and discussion of main currents of socialist thought.
The British ‘Socialist Revival’ of the 1880s: context and events.
British socialist organisations (1): The Social Democratic Federation.
British socialist organisations (2): The Socialist League.
British socialist organisations (3): The Fabian Society.
British socialist organisations (4): The Clarion Movement.
British socialist organisations (5): The Independent Labour Party.
Debates within British socialism 1884-1900: Revolution or Reform?; Socialist Unity or Labour Alliance?
Socialism and Politics (1): The Labour Representation Committee 1900-1906.
Socialism and Politics (2): The Labour Party 1906 – 1914.
Socialism and Politics (3): Socialists, Labour and Liberalism
Debates within British socialism 1900-1914: Socialist critics of the Labour Party.
Socialism and Society (1): Socialists, Churches and Chapels.
Socialism and Society (2): Socialists and Popular Culture.
Socialism and Society (3): Women and socialism.
Socialism and Literature (1): The poetic impulse in British socialism.
Socialism and Literature (2):  Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
British socialism and the question of Britishness.
British Socialism, Imperialism and the Great War.
Continuities: British socialism after 1918.
Conclusion and summary of main themes.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module students will be better able to

  • Identify and discuss in detail the main features of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century British socialist movement and its social and political thought.
  • Locate and interpret that movement within its wider historical, economic, social and political contexts.
  • Evaluate the various strands of socialist thought present in pre-Great War Britain, and relate them to socialists’ political practice and strategy.
  • Evaluate the role and influence of a range of individuals active within the British socialist movement in this period.
  • Demonstrate a broad knowledge and critical understanding of the historiography of British socialism.
  • Demonstrate a critical approach to the use of primary sources relating to the British socialist movement in this period.

Skills that will be practised and developed:

By the end of the module students will be better able to:

  • Assimilate and evaluate information and knowledge, using relevant research techniques and technology.
  • Articulate and communicate ideas and arguments effectively, with supporting evidence, in orally and in writing.
  • Modify and develop, as well as defend, their own intellectual position.
  • Work effectively, both independently and as part of a team, to manage their own workload and use of time.
  • Think critically and challenge assumptions, particularly in relation to secondary historical sources.
  • Evaluate, analyse and interpret primary historical source material.

Suggested book purchases


Suggested preparatory reading

Mark Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (2011)
Logie Barrow & Ian Bullock, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement 1880-1914 (1996)
John Callaghan, Socialism in Britain Since 1884 (1990)
June Hannam & Karen Hunt, Socialist Women: Britain, 1880s-1920s (2002).
David Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1888-1906 (1983).
Keith Laybourn, The Rise of Socialism in Britain c. 1881-1951 (1997)
Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (1954)
Stanley Pierson, Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism (1973)
Stanley Pierson, British Socialists: The Journey from Fantasy to Politics (1979)
Duncan Tanner, Political Change and the Labour Party (1990)
Chris Waters, British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture (1990)
Paul Ward, Red Flag, Union Jack: Englishness, Patriotism and the British Left 1881-1924 (1998)
Stephen Yeo, ‘A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain 1883-1896’, History Workshop Journal (1977).