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Keir Hardie, From Serfdom to Socialism


Introduced and edited by John Callow


London: Lawrence & Wishart, in association with GMB, 2015

Paperback. 176 p. + 16 p. of new illustrations. ISBN 978-1910448472. £12.99


Reviewed by Deborah Mutch

De Montfort University, Leicester



John Callow’s splendid new edition of James Keir Hardie’s great work From Serfdom to Socialism – the first new edition since 1974 – not only commemorates the centenary of Hardie’s death but also arrives at an important time in the Labour Party’s history. The current period of left-wing reinvigoration after the neo-liberalism of the Blair and Brown years, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader taking the party in a new (old?) direction, and frantic attempts to undermine the political left by the right-wing media and ideologues gives the twenty-first-century reader a flavour of what Hardie would have battled against as he attempted to convince his readers of the necessity of socialism.

From Serfdom to Socialism breaks down Hardie’s ‘brief unadorned statement of the case for Socialism’ [50] into focused chapters and presents his ideas in terms ‘easily understandable by plain folk’ [50]. The text covers Basic Principles, Municipal Socialism, Socialism and the State, Socialism and Christianity, Socialism and the Woman Question, From Serfdom to Socialism, and ends with a Summary and Conclusion. Within this brief work (the whole of Hardie’s text, including the Foreword, spans only ninety-one pages) Hardie encompasses a wide range of discussion points.

In Basic Principles he refutes arguments for the superiority of the owners of material wealth over the poor, Herbert Spencer’s arguments for Individualism and Kropotkin and Tolstoy’s cry for the dismantling of the State. Hardie’s parliamentary socialism is stated clearly in this opening chapter as he dismisses the idea of a stateless society and looks towards mutual co-operation and the collective goal of the common weal rather than the protection of private property. The good of the common weal is to be achieved by the development of Municipal Socialism, he argues in the second chapter, as profits appropriated by the shareholder under capitalism are gathered and distributed by and for the benefit of the public. The state, Hardie points out, already produces the materials for war and he asks why this might not also include the materials for food and health. In a brief survey of successful communities in history Hardie points to their basis in collective organisation (for instance, the Greek Republic, the British Guilds in the Middle Ages). Only when the distribution of wealth becomes unequal do those societies begin to decay and so the collective and communistic societies are presented as both the most equal and the most productive. In the chapter Socialism and the State, Hardie sets forth the argument for the peaceful and parliamentary route to socialism over revolutionary change, counter-arguing the claim of some socialist groups that the poor have to be taken to the limits of poverty to provoke change through violent revolution. A starved and miserable people, Hardie states, are more likely ‘to sink into a nation of spiritless serfs than rise in revolt against their lot’ [73]. But it is not only the impoverished workers who will benefit from a socialist society: the middle classes should also be convinced of socialism’s good through humanitarian instincts and a revolt against the restriction of intellectual advance by the monomania of financial and business gain. At the heart of change is the necessity of solidarity and collective action.

In the first three chapters Hardie sets out his arguments for the building of British socialism by parliamentary means and in the following four chapters he develops his ethical socialism. This is not to say that his ethical socialism is not interwoven into the first three chapters; as he states in Basic Principles: ‘This change in the ownership of land and capital and in the object of production, however, is merely the medium through which it is hoped the Socialist spirit will find expression’ [59]. Nevertheless, in the second half of the text Hardie addresses the spiritual, individual, historical and gendered aspects of his vision for socialism.

In the chapter Socialism and Christianity he makes the association between the Biblical teachings of Christ and the historical drive for equality by religious leaders. He points to the socialistic message in the Sermon on the Mount, the communistic aims of the Peasant’s Revolts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the equality demanded by religious leaders such as John Ball, and the Christian ethics at the base of all socialist teachings. Socialism and the Worker sets out Hardie’s concerns for the deepening debasement of the worker as capitalism continues to wield its authority. Here capitalism’s power is argued to remove all form of choice or individualism from the worker, whose actions must be for capitalism’s benefit and not their own. The fragmentation of labour skills reduces the intellectual capacity of the worker and this is reflected in the degradation of the literature they produce and consume. Hardie’s strong desire for gender equality is set out in the chapter Socialism and the Woman Question (although that desire for equality does not stretch to placing female experience alongside the male in the text as a whole). He argues that ‘the sex problem is at the bottom of the Labour problem’ [105], not because of female oppression but because women workers are used to reduce the male wage. Nevertheless, Hardie returns to the arguments of August Bebel, Friedrich Engels, and Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx-Aveling on the imperative of economic parity in the drive for gender equality.

The final chapter, From Serfdom to Socialism, takes a sociological approach to the development of private property, a refutation of the claims for individual freedom for the worker under capitalism and a projection into the establishment of socialism. The most visible resistance to capitalism by the worker, the trade unions, are shown to be overwhelmed by the power of capital and socialism is presented as the only real answer to the workers’ powerlessness and the epitome of human progress: ‘The slave dreams of emancipation the emancipated workman of citizenship; the enfranchised citizen of Socialism, the Socialist of Communism’ [116]. In his Summary and Conclusion, Hardie states clearly his religious conviction underpinning his socialism. He refuses to believe that socialism will rise out of ‘dead matter’ and material forces: ‘And so I claim that the Socialist, even when working as he necessarily does at present mainly, though not by any means altogether, in the realm of material things, is the human agent consciously co-operating with that great principle and growth and development which, for lack of a better term, we call the Divine Life, and assisting it to find higher and fuller expression in the human race’ [126]. It was this determinism and religious underpinning of Hardie’s socialism (and others) that Robert Blatchford took so much exception to in God and My Neighbour. Hardie entirely rejects the harsh materialism of Darwin’s evolution, arguing that it has been used to justify the brutality of capitalism and that the removal of that brutality as a spur to work would not result in stagnation but would free the workers, the artists and inventors.

John Callow’s engagingly written Introduction places both Hardie and Hardie’s text into its place in the history of the Labour Party. It is interesting to follow the reformulation and manipulation of Hardie’s image, work and persistent presence in the Labour Party as his figure is used to justify the many, diverse shifts in party direction and policy. The suppression of Hardie and the elevation of Ramsay MacDonald under the Blair leadership as set out in the party’s 1997 official history is particularly interesting. In retrospect, perhaps we should have been more wary of the turn away from Hardie the socialist to MacDonald the architect of the Gladstone-MacDonald pact with the Liberal Party. It is a shame that this edition appears to have been completed before the latest party leadership election as Hardie was once again – and very prominently – invoked during the Corbyn campaign. Callow goes on to refute the tradition that has built up around Hardie of his romanticism and mysticism over his political convictions, a refutation that From Serfdom to Socialism exemplifies, as well as the accusations of Hardie as operating on a lower intellectual level than that of Marxists Henry Mayers Hyndman and Ernest Belfort Bax. As Callow states: ‘The posthumous image of the unworldly Hardie – part seer, part poet – does him an injustice and detracts from his acumen, the scope of his ambitions and his will to succeed, whatever the odds stacked against him’ [40].

The edition is concluded with a wide range of contemporary extracts selected to set each chapter into its intellectual and philosophical context. This is a good idea but even more useful for the modern reader would have been further information about the sources of these extracts. For instance, it would have been helpful if the reader had been directed to the location of the manifestos of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party from which the extracts on page 145 have been taken. Similarly, I would have liked to see some annotation of the sources for the quotations Hardie liberally incorporates in the text. This would have helped the modern reader to appreciate the range and breadth of reading drawn upon by Hardie in his construction of the text and to put the quotations into their wider context.

Despite these small quibbles, the publication of this book is timely. There are, alas, too many similarities between Hardie’s period and today: unemployment (3.7% in 1907;(1) 5.6% in 2015(2)), draconian trade union legislation, job insecurity, food poverty and illness(3) and so John Callow’s edition of Hardie’s treatise speaks as urgently to the early twenty-first-century reader as it did to its readers more than a hundred years ago. I applaud the desire ‘to make Hardie’s work … available again, at a reasonable price’ [18] and hope that it may reproduce its original effects in contemporary Britain.


(1) James Denman & Paul McDonald, ‘Unemployment Statistics from 1881 to the Present Day’. Government Statistical Service (January 1996):   

[accessed 28October 2015].

(2) Office for National Statistics, ‘Statistical bulletin: UK Labour Market, August 2015’:

[accessed 28 October 2015].

(3) Laura Donnelly, ‘Gout and malnutrition levels soaring as Victorian disease return’. Telegraph, (27 October 2015):

[accessed 28 October 2015].


Illustrated version on The Victorian Web:

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