Dissident Missionaries? Re-Narrating the Political Strategy of the Social-Democratic Federation, 1884—1887

Owen, James
August 2008
Labour History Review (Maney Publishing);Aug2008, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p187
Academic Journal
In the first decade of its existence, the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) sent London-based 'missionaries' around England, in an attempt to educate and agitate amongst the workers. Using the case studies of John Burns in Nottingham and Tom Mann in Northumberland, this article examines the extent to which these missionaries negotiated the official policies of the SDF. The discussion aims to show that when both men addressed the local workers, their arguments and proposals often contrasted sharply with previously published positions. It suggests that rather than drawing, as the existing historiography has done, from the official publications of the SDF, a new narrative of the organisation's political strategies can be established by focusing on the actions and words of the missionaries. The article also offers a re-narration of the reasons for the failure of the political strategy of the SDF. Much of the historiography of the organisation has perpetuated the explanations given by the SDF itself, namely citing the non-revolutionary nature of the British working class. In contrast, this article considers its failures by examining how the interplay of progressive forces present in the political environment of Nottingham and Northumberland curtailed the efforts of Burns and Mann.


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