British Socialism and European History: The Right to Work, 1880-1914

Socialist History - ISSN 0969-4331
Volume 2021 Number 59

British Socialism and European History: The Right to Work, 1880-1914
Liam Ryan pages 31-48


This article builds on the insights of scholars who have sought to analyse the history of British socialism through a broader European analytical lens. It demonstrates that British socialists, as well as being aware of and influenced by contemporaneous late nineteenth and early twentieth-century developments on the continent, also drew inspiration from European history in order to justify specific political aims relating to the issue of unemployment. This insight is developed via the medium of a case study investigating the debate surrounding the ‘Right to Work’ campaigns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The socialist advocacy of the right to work owed an overt debt to French political and social theory, being most commonly associated with the ideas of Louis Blanc, a nineteenth-century reformer who argued that state-funded cooperative production on the part of workers provided the means by which capitalism could be overthrown. British socialists explicitly referred to the political and economic inspiration of Blanc and situated their own views and policies, particularly in relation to the state and the role of politics, as belonging to the same historical tradition. Indeed, socialists were forced to defend the reputation and legacy of Blanc in fractious late-Victorian and Edwardian era debates involving opponents of state support for the unemployed who commonly cited the failure of the National Workshops in the French Revolution of 1848. By paying close attention to the contours of the contested debate between socialists and anti-socialists over the historical lessons of the Workshops, this article will demonstrate the stature of Louis Blanc in British socialist circles and make a broader point about the relevance of European history to political culture in Britain.

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To cite this article
Liam Ryan (2021) British Socialism and European History: The Right to Work, 1880-1914, Socialist History, 2021(59), 31-48

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