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Joseph Burgess (1853-1934) and the Founding of the Independent Labour Party

Studies in British History S. v. 78

By (author) Kevin McPhillips
Format: Hardback
Publisher: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd, New York, United States
Imprint: Edwin Mellen Press Ltd
Published: 1st Jan 2005
Dimensions: w 159mm h 229mm d 19mm
Weight: 522g
ISBN-10: 0773460683
ISBN-13: 9780773460683
Barcode No: 9780773460683
This is an interesting account of the life of a little known writer and politician who played an important role in the early development of the Labour Party. It fills a gap in labour history with an account of Burgess moving from a Lancashire working class background to become an important figure in late the 19th century political arena. Joseph Burgess (1853-1934) was one of the founder members of the Independent Labour Party which was formed in January, 1893. Much more than this, it was he who, through his paper "Workman's Times", was largely responsible for organising the inaugural conference at Bradford in January 1893. However, like many early activists, he never quite rose to the ranks of the prominent and enduring ILP leaders, such as James Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, although he rubbed shoulders with them until the First World War. As a result he has never attracted the attention of biographers who thrive on the fame and notoriety of their nationally important subject and wallow in the plentitude of manuscript collections, letters and publications they have written, collected and bequeathed. Hardie left a large collection of letters, writings and records. MacDonald's legacy is positively monumental in proportions and Snowden's writings are widely available, although he had his letter collection destroyed upon his death. Burgess's archives are less extensive and Kevin McPhillips has done a magnificent job in reconstructing his career from the relatively small and scattered records of his life which often leave gaps. Whilst Burgess was not untypical of many men who emerged to form the ILP in the 1890s - born into a working - class textile family, raised in poverty and largely self-educated - he was untypical of most, other than socialist leaders, for his entry into socialism was through journalism. A few socialists - like Robert Blatchford, who owned and edited "The Clarion", H.M. Hyndman, who owned and edited "Justice", and James Keir Hardie, who edited and initially owned "Labour Leader" - became prominent figures in the early socialist movement through their journalistic activities. However, they were few in number largely because the early socialist and independent Labour movements could not support a large Labour and socialist press in its early days. Burgess, having earned his journalistic spurs through a variety of local and regional papers, came to prominence through the "Cotton Factory Times" and the "Yorkshire Factory Times" before editing, and indeed owning, the "Workman's Times". However, he was never able to make a success of his own newspaper in the 1890s largely because the ILP favoured Hardie's "Labour Leader" rather than Burgess's "The Workman's Times". Burgess's great claim to fame, as mentioned above, is the part he played in forming the National Independent Labour Party. It was in the "Workman's Times" in April 1892 that he announced the need for a 'friendly and serious' conference of socialists and from that month onwards he produced the form to establish the ILP which stated that 'Believing that the interests of Labour are paramount and must take precedence of all other interests...I desire to have my name enrolled on the register of the Independent Labour Party.' It attracted 3,500 applicants and the national conference was held in January 1893 at the Peckover Institute, Bradford and St. George's Hall, Bradford. Burgess also participated greatly in the conference, coming into conflict with George Bernard Shaw and supporting the unsuccessful Manchester Fourth Clause, which advocated that ILP members should not vote in any elections when there was no ILP or socialist candidate. In the 1890s, Burgess was set fair for the top of the ILP hierarchy but never quite made it. Dame fortune was his problem, for he was one of the most independent, quarrelsome and obdurate of individuals. He frequently argued with George Bernard Shaw, James Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie, although a mutual respect eventually developed between him and Hardie. He was obsessive about his own economic theory, challenging the Free - Trade inclined ILP and Labour Party to accept an element of Fair Trade whereby capital was invested at home rather than exported abroad. This, he argued, would create more work at home and enable the development of a more interventionist socialist state in the future. It was a theory which did not appeal to most other Labour leaders who saw it as some type of concession to Tory protectionism. After leaving the cotton textile industry, Burgess earned his living through writing for newspapers, editing newspapers, and lecturing for the socialist movement. He also acted in official capacities for the ILP in both Bradford and Glasgow at various times and managed to earn around GBP 1.10s 0d (GBP 1.50p) to GBP 2 per week. His relatively small and precarious finances were damaged by the failure of his papers and by his personal costs in financing his occasional parliamentary campaigns. It was not an easy existence and, from 1912, he was often dependent upon the personal income of his third wife. Burgess's nemesis as a socialist activist occurred with the First World War which began in August 1914. At that time he was editor of the "Bradford Pioneer", the newspaper of the Bradford ILP, President of the Bradford ILP and President of the Bradford Branch of the Church Socialist League. At the beginning of the War he announced, in the "Bradford Pioneer", that 'We have no quarrel with Germany'. However, in 1915 he published "Homeland and Empire?" a book in which he restated his economic theories and sought to combine socialism and nationalism, the Red Flag with the Union Jack. He then wrote, in the "Bradford Pioneer" of 16 July 1915, that 'There can be neither peace nor truce till the human menace of Prussian militarism has been destroyed.' Subsequently, Burgess resigned from the ILP, joined the Socialist National Defence Committee, joined H. M. Hyndman's new National Socialist Party and campaigned for it against Philip Snowden in Blackburn during 1917 and 1918. He later rejoined the Labour and ILP ranks but after the First World War he was a politically effete figure. Kevin McPhillips has done a sterling job in resurrecting the life and career of one of the founder members of the ILP. Burgess has long been a neglected figure but it should not be forgotten that he was a major contributor to that section of the early socialist movement, which included H. M. Hyndman, Robert Blatchford and E. R. Hartley, who were both socialists and nationalists. Dr. Paul Ward wrote of these socialists in his book "Red Flag, Union Jack". Kevin McPhillips has also taken us along this road.

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"This interesting book fills an important gap in Labour history" - Professor Michael E. Rose, the University of Manchester"