Ada Salter and the Origins of Ethical Socialism

In writing his lauded biography of ILPer Ada Salter, GRAHAM TAYLOR began to wonder about the ILP’s ethical socialism. In a recent lecture to the Socialist History Society, he traced the history of those ideas and values which the Salters epitomised through their life and work in south east London.

I must start with a confession. When I began to study Ada Salter I was not fully aware of ethical socialism and I have had to learn about it as I went along. What I have to say therefore is only a product of the three years I spent researching my book. I am sure I have much more to learn.

With Ada Salter I have a much longer acquaintance. Originally I knew her merely as the wife of Dr Alfred Salter MP, a brilliant doctor who gave up his promising career to settle in Bermondsey with Ada and supply free medical care to the poor.

Ada Slater pic2Alfred followed Ada first into the Liberal Party and then into the Independent Labour Party but he was always presented as the leader and she the follower. This false impression had been created by Bermondsey Story, an otherwise wonderful biography of Alfred by Fenner Brockway, published in 1949 and reissued in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of Alfred’s death.

It was the preface to the 1995 edition, written by Barry Winter of the ILP, that corrected my erroneous view of Ada. Winter’s first sentence reads: “This is the story not just of a remarkable man, Dr Alfred Salter, but of his equally remarkable wife, Ada.”

He then went further, adding that the Bermondsey Story was not just the story of the Salters but of “a movement”. The ILP was not just a political party, Winter wrote, but “a way of life” and this way of life attempted to create a socialist life in the future out of “the way it was lived in the present”. The future socialist society would rest on certain human values but these would never be realised unless incorporated into “daily practices”.

The ethical means must always match the ethical ends. From Winter’s account it seemed that not only had Ada herself been underrated but also the philosophy of the ILP which in his book Brockway had called ‘ethical socialism’.

Ada Brown was born in Raunds, Northamptonshire, to a family of Methodist farmers. Her home, Thorpe House, was in an area which had been strongly Quaker and from her youth she was deeply opposed to war.

Inspired by Katherine Hughes, a Christian socialist who had founded in the slums of London an organisation called the Sisters of the People, Ada travelled to London and began a life-long struggle against the evils of the slums. As a Sister of the People, tending the poorest and running her soon to be famous clubs, she eventually joined the Bermondsey Settlement where she met, then married, Alfred Salter.

First for Labour

After the general election of 1906 Ada left the Liberal Party because its MPs failed to implement an election promise to extend the vote to women. She became active in the Women’s Labour League, championing the cause of working-class women not only in housing but also in the factories where they worked. In 1909 she was elected first ever Labour, and first ever woman, councillor in Bermondsey. In fact she was among the first women councillors in Britain.

Her trade union work in the local factories had an unexpected outcome. In 1911 there was a dock strike and suddenly in the hot days of August, when the unsafe conditions in the Bermondsey jam and biscuit factories became appalling, 12,000 women walked out on strike, initially in solidarity with the men but soon listing all the grievances of their own. Ada called in the famous trade union organiser, Mary Macarthur, and organised a rally in Southwark Park where Sylvia Pankhurst braved the disapproval of Emmeline and Christabel by speaking on behalf of the strikers.

Later, in the 1912 dock strike, Ada organised food relief for dockers’ families all along the river from London Bridge to Woolwich. Subsequently she was made an honorary member of the transport workers’ union, now Unite, as well as being honoured by the union which later became the GMB.

In 1913 Ada completed a project of which she was particularly proud. She set up a co-operative which at first was just a bakery but later was a supplier of a wide range of groceries. After extensive fund-raising (at which Ada was an expert) the local ILP had bought a bakery but only so as to run it as a co-operative with the participation of the workforce. This was ethical socialism in miniature and she remained chair of this model co-operative for many years. It prefigured the humane socialism of the future within the direst slums of the here and now.

In 1914 Ada was elected president of the Women’s Labour League, head of all the Labour women in Britain, but her term of office was blighted by the outbreak of war. She could not persuade the WLL to oppose the war as she and the ILP did, or support conscientious objectors. During the war she travelled to conferences in Bern and Zimmerwald to try and stop the war but without success.

After the war her fortunes revived. Women were allowed to vote and there was widespread disillusionment with the war which placed those who had opposed it in a favourable light. In 1922, when the ILP swept to power in Bermondsey, she became first woman mayor in London and first Labour woman mayor in Britain. To the outrage of her opponents, she flew the red flag over Bermondsey Town Hall.

This victory was Ada’s chance to transform or demolish the slums, her original aim in coming to London in 1896. She forced through, against Conservative and Liberal opposition, the building of 52 model council houses in Wilson Grove. They were a good example of ethical socialism in action, prefiguring the future society. Ada told the architect she appointed not only to maximise light and greenness (gardens front and back) but to agree all the details of his plans with the working-class women who would live there.

Those slums she could not demolish she transformed by means of her famous ‘beautification committee’. She planted 7,000 trees along the dingy streets of the slums and covered the borough with flowers, children’s playgrounds, art and music. Municipal representatives came from all over Europe, even from the USA, to admire Ada’s housing initiatives and to this day there are beautification committees in the USA descended from Ada’s inspiration.

From 1934, when Labour, led by Herbert Morrison, won control of the London County Council and Ada became vice-chair of Parks and Open Spaces (a paid post with real power) she was able to spread beautification all over London. As president of the National Gardens Guild in 1931-34 she extended her beautification schemes all over the country and made use of the BBC to further her campaigns.


Politically, the 1930s were disastrous for Ada. She had always worked well with all on the left. In 1908-09, for example, she had struck up a strong relationship with the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. In 1926 she and Alfred passionately supported the general strike and worked with the Communists in Southwark. But the situation deteriorated in the late 1920s as Labour became ever more anti-Communist and the Communists became ever more sectarian. Ada’s ILP found itself crushed between a Labour Party funded by the trade unions and a Communist Party funded by Moscow.

Ada Salter picIn 1932 the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party which was heartbreaking for Ada, a Labour councillor, and Alfred, a Labour MP. Ada joined the Socialist League, put together by the Labour Party Marxist, Stafford Cripps, but by 1937 this had failed too, leaving behind it only a left-wing journal, Tribune.

The final blow to the Salters came in 1939, when war was declared. Like Roosevelt, Stalin, the Communists and some old ILPers such as James Maxton, they were opposed to the war, which they regarded as imperialist. They found themselves at odds, not just with the Labour Party (again) but with many old ILPers who supported the war (such as, Brockway, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell).

Alfred predicted there would be no attempt to help Czechoslovakia or Poland, that millions of Jews would be killed by Hitler and, at the end of the war, whether Hitler or Stalin won, a dictatorship would rule from Berlin to Siberia. Millions would die, he said, and this time not only soldiers, but civilians.

During the war many of Ada’s tree-lined streets, houses and children’s playgrounds were bombed. To the outsider it might seems as if her life had been in vain but she never accepted that. The ILP had fulfilled its stated historical mission, from 1893 on, of bringing Britain to adult suffrage and a welfare state. What is more, the ILP project was as much to change hearts and minds, and prefigure the future, as it was to change structures.

Ada would not have been surprised to learn that in the future Alfred’s huge practice, dispensing free medicine, would be praised as ‘building an NHS before the NHS’, nor that she would be praised for being a ‘Green before the Greens’. Somebody had to be the pioneer. Somebody had to descend from theory and show the world what could be done in practice.

First use

That brings me back, naturally, to ethical socialism. To start with the phrase itself, I found it sometimes said that ‘ethical socialism’ was first used by Rosa Luxemburg, pejoratively, about the theory of her opponent, Eduard Bernstein. I have not been able to find the phrase in the collected works of Luxemburg, but in Reform and Revolution, her critique of Bernstein, she does accuse him of falling back on ethical ideas. It then appears that her critique was used against followers of Bernstein outside of Germany.

Anyone who has studied the writings of the ILP leaders in this period, especially Keir Hardie, will know from their references and phraseology that in addition to the well-documented influence of Ruskin and nonconformist religion, the chief influence on their thought was the Marxism of Bernstein and the French socialist, Jean Jaures. The work of Bernstein and Jaures was even translated by the ILP. It was therefore natural that the ILP should be dubbed ‘ethical socialist’ by the opponents of Bernstein and Jaures.

Interestingly, the ILP and the Salters never used the term, ‘ethical socialism’, themselves. At that time ‘ethical’ denoted anti-religious and humanist, as in the ‘Ethical Society’, and to use it would have been divisive for an ILP whose membership was roughly half religious and half not.

From Luxemburg’s point of view, ethical socialism was an error because it was not based on class warfare and did not recognise the need for imposition of socialism by state power. Bernstein’s response was that Marx and Engels had in their final years endorsed the idea that Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the USA could achieve socialism without armed revolution and without imposition by the state. He also argued that in advanced economies workers could not rule alone but must seek allies. Ethical appeals had the capacity to bridge self-interest and underpin alliances. Like Mazzini, he thought it was the unity of women, workers and ethnic minorities that would transform the world.

In the end, both Bernstein and Luxemburg were proved correct. In eastern Europe civil society and a strong middle class were insufficiently developed and Luxemburg was therefore right to predict that class warfare and revolution would be the only way forward. Tsarist oppression was too strong for any other course.

However, in western Europe Bernstein was right. There, the way forward was not top-down imposition but the building of alliances. Luxemburg, incidentally, later moved closer to Bernstein’s ideas by advocating in Germany a bottom-up strategy of ‘mass strike’, and by the end of her life was setting out in her Russian Revolution (1918) an ethical socialist position which the ILP itself welcomed.

Dwelling on Bernstein is not to argue that ethical socialism came from Germany, for Bernstein himself had lived in Britain for many years and was a close associate of Engels who had lived in Britain most of his life. They both appreciated the power of the native socialist tradition, whether religious or non-religious.

First socialist

Engels had analysed the Reformation, especially the ideas of Thomas Muenzer. Bernstein had written, just four years before his well-known book Evolutionary Socialism (to which Luxemburg objected), a book entitled Cromwell and Communism (1895). This described how in the 17th century Levellers and Diggers had anticipated many socialist ideas and how after the Restoration in 1660 many became Quakers. The last chapter is devoted entirely to John Bellers, the Quaker who was often regarded as the first ‘socialist’ in Britain, perhaps in the world.

It had been Robert Owen who first proclaimed, in a letter to The Times, his discovery that Bellers was the founder of what later became British socialism. The ‘colledges’ of industry Bellers proposed in 1696 were close to being socialist co-operatives and in 1714 he proposed what was in effect a free national health service. Karl Marx was amazed by Bellers’ understanding of labour and agreed with Owen’s high assessment, writing in Capital that Bellers is “a veritable phenomenon in the history of political economy”.

But it was not just Owen, Marx and Bernstein who rated Bellers so highly but also British Radicals. In 1885 Joseph Corfield’s obelisk, known as the Reformers’ Memorial, in Kensal Green Cemetery, listed 74 names of famous reformers – at their head was Owen, followed by Bellers. Thus, there was an authentic source of socialism in England – it was an ethical socialism, and Bernstein had drawn his inspiration from that native tradition.

This type of socialism, mixed with Methodism, and the flamboyant journalism of Robert Blatchford, and the aesthetics of William Morris, was derived not from class warfare or from vote-catching but from the ethical values of humanity and equality, combined with an economic analysis.

Of course, Marx liked Bellers because he so strongly insisted that all wealth came from labour but, unlike Marx, Bellers had arrived at that conclusion by proceeding from a Quaker humanitarianism. Bellers seems to have been the first person to call for the abolition of capital punishment; he had a plan for European peace; and he dwelt extensively on the need for humane prison reform, education of the young and care for the elderly.

Many in the ILP, including Ada and Alfred, had in their youth found their inspiration in Mazzini’s ‘gospel of humanity’ but the tradition emanating from Bellers, as had been recognised by Bernstein, had the advantage of combining with humanitarian and egalitarian values the materialist and economic analysis of capitalism which Marx had valued so highly.

Hardie, in effect the founder of the ILP,  articulated this spirit of a ‘human socialism’ grounded in a materialist analysis. For, as with Bellers, his aim was a socialism built bottom up, winning over hearts and minds, prefiguring the future, and setting up co-operatives. The ILP aimed to turn the country into “one vast co-operative”, Hardie said, for under socialism “land and capital will be held by the community”. He was in favour of class struggle, but not class warfare, for there were good and bad employers and the ILP did not accept the use of inhumane means to achieve humane ends.

When Alfred Salter voted in favour of expelling Ramsay MacDonald from the party it was for his support of inhumane methods, austerity and cuts, to solve the 1931 economic crisis. Ethical socialism did not tolerate inhumane means for any end, however desirable. Curiously, the Salters’ rejection of MacDonald echoed the hedonism of the Bloomsbury group. Keynes rejected austerity because he decried the puritanical idea of making sacrifices in the short term for long term gain later.

Three-way division

Such ethical questions were particularly contentious when the ILP considered war. In 1914 nearly all the ILP opposed the war but the Norwich conference of 1915 showed that the ILP was divided on war in three ways.

The first group, led by MacDonald and Hardie, permitted war for genuine self-defence, or for a genuinely humanitarian purpose. They did not oppose war on principle. There was, secondly, a large group of uncompromising pacifists (the Glasiers, the Salters, Brockway) against all war on the grounds that killing was wrong. Thirdly, there were the ILP militants from Clydeside (Maxton, Manny Shinwell, John Wheatley), who were against all national wars but prepared to fight a civil war, as socialist revolutionaries, in self-defence against repression.

Thus, the ethical socialism of the ILP deplored violence as a means, but a large majority of members were prepared to use violence in self-defence against violence.

The ILP was sometimes dismissed as wishy-washy or ineffective but in 1914 it was far from wishy-washy, as it was the only British political party to oppose the war and one of very few in Europe. The Marxist British Socialist Party did not oppose the war because it was divided and in 1916 formally split. The Labour Party backed the war by a large majority and MacDonald, staying true to the ILP, was obliged to resign as leader on 7 August.

To take the decision to oppose the war in 1914 was not wishy-washy but tough, and even dangerous. Horatio Bottomley, in the jingoist John Bull magazine, denounced Hardie and MacDonald as ‘traitors’, for leading a ‘pro-German campaign’, and went so far as to call for MacDonald’s execution. The popular press whipped up mobs to violence, and MacDonald was stoned at meetings.

There was a huge personal pressure. John Bull confided to its readership that MacDonald was ‘the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl’. He had not previously known this as his family had never told him, and was devastated when, in the company of friends, he was shown it in a newspaper while sitting on a train.

Left-wing socialists throughout Europe hailed the ILP for its principled stand. Karl Liebknecht wrote to Brockway in December 1914 that only the Russian, Serbian and British (ILP) comrades had “saved the honour of socialism”. Letters arrived from Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin praising the ILP along similar lines. Even Lenin was impressed. It was generally agreed that, because of the ILP and only because of the ILP, the summer of 1914 was British socialism’s finest hour.

Moral influence

Why was the ILP successful in holding to its anti-war principles whereas the other left-wing parties, including the Marxist SPD in Germany, switched almost overnight from love of peace to support of war? Alexandra Kollontai presented an explanation.

The reason was, she said, that the left “underestimated the moral influence of the old bourgeois world”. The left relied on appealing to self-interest (such as higher wages) but in a crisis people did not follow self-interest. “The governments of the bourgeois states understood popular psychology” better than the left.

The ILP was successful precisely because it was based on an ethical politics, not just self-interest. Ethical socialism recognised that as well as the material interests of life there were also moral, aesthetic and spiritual interests. That was why, concluded Kollontai, the ILP was the only left-wing party able to oppose the war.

While the ILP did not stop the war it was very effective in achieving its other aims. It was set up in 1893 to secure parliamentary representation for the working class and soon included in that campaign votes for women. In 1918 this was mostly achieved, and the rest was achieved in 1928. Many leading campaigners for suffrage, including the suffragettes, came from the ILP.

In the same way ILP campaigning and pressure on the Liberals secured in 1909, then in 1916-18, the beginnings of a welfare state. The SDF, BSP and later the Communist Party had a far smaller impact on events in comparison, while the Labour Party was never in the vanguard, ever deferential to its trade union base and its career-minded MPs. In the 1920s, the ILP reached a peak of 147 MPs, far more than any other left-wing party in British history, though winning political power was not its aim. More could be achieved out of power than in.

Ada and Alfred Salter were also effective as politicians. Ada’s achievements have already been noted but Alfred was effective too. He was elected MP for Bermondsey in 1922 and held the seat for 22 of the next 23 years. By 1934 the Salters’ control of Bermondsey council was complete. They won 54 council seats out of 54. In the end the Tories and Liberals closed their party premises and left Bermondsey. This is not a record any contemporary politician should sniff at.

Bermondsey uprising

Contemporaries would not have recognised any description of Ada as wishy-washy or ineffective. She was credited by the ILP, it will be remembered, with bringing out on strike 12,000 women factory workers in the ‘Bermondsey uprising’ of 1911. In 1912 she spoke alongside Hardie and George Lansbury in Hyde Park as the representative of the striking London dockers who had recently honoured her work in saving their families from starvation.

Ada Slater book coverNor was she woolly in her Birmingham speech of 1912 when she denounced Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, and emphatically warned the country that, if Grey continued with his policies, then the likely outcome would be a war with Germany. This opposition to the 1914 war, incidentally, nearly cost Ada her life when a building she and her friend, Charlotte Despard, were speaking in was fire-bombed by flag-waving English ‘patriots’, and Alfred was nearly incinerated when a ‘patriotic’ mob set fire to a church where he was speaking in Southgate, London.

Ada was also very effective in what was called the ‘Bermondsey Revolution’ of the 1920s. In standing up for the general strike in 1926, in defiance of the Labour Party, she and Alfred did not take the easy option. Ada was a dab hand too at direct action. She and Margaret Llewelyn Davies at one stage occupied the council chamber of the LCC with women until the council had agreed to receive their delegation.

In 1928 Ada threatened to block planning permission for capitalist enterprises in Bermondsey unless the Liberals dropped their opposition to her ‘utopian’ council houses. Stunned, and not knowing what to do, they gave way. Imagine a new Labour mayor of London declaring he would block all business expansion until the Conservative government coughed up a billion pounds for new council houses.

Ethical socialism and the Salters ran out of steam in the 1930s for reasons that cannot be discussed here. The trade unions were in retreat, while feminism, the ILP and the left in general collapsed under the heavy blows of fascist ideology abroad and national government at home.

The socialist battles of the 1930s were all rearguard actions and after 1945 a new world appeared in which the left was dominated in the west by centralist social democrat parties and in the east by centralist Communism. Ethical socialism and the ILP almost ceased to exist.


In the 1950s ethical socialism was hijacked. A revisionist and conservative ‘ethical socialism’ emerged and became more or less the official philosophy of the German Social Democrats. In Britain the followers of hugh Gaitskell and Tony Crosland started to call themselves ‘ethical socialists’, referring not to the ethical socialism of the ILP but to the Christian socialism of the 19th century.

In 1988 this conservative trend was endorsed by academic research when Norman Dennis and Albert Halsey published English Ethical Socialism. Their emphasis on ‘English’ was important because the authors wished to appeal to tradition, patriotism and Christian values. Whereas the ILP’s ethical socialism had stood between Labour and Marxism, this English ethical socialism wanted to stand between Labour and Conservatism.

Dennis and Halsey did not even mention the ILP, let alone Hardie or Bernstein, and presented themselves as crusaders against Marxism and Tony Benn. They looked to Len Hobhouse, the sociologist, and to Richard Tawney, the economic historian, as their guides (though Tawney started as a member of the ILP) and traced their ethical socialism back not to the ‘colledges’ of John Bellers, nor even the model communities of Robert Owen, but to the rarefied utopia of Sir Thomas More.

The seminal intellectual influence they relied upon was the Victorian thinker, TH Green. Both Tawney and Green were neo-Kantians who rested their socialism on the ethic of Kant, that individuals should pursue duty for its own sake and this duty was to treat all humans as an end not a means. The state should help individuals exercise moral choice, follow their conscience and so contribute to the general good. Green hoped his socialism of the common good would unite all classes and individuals.

An example of how this worked in practice was given in Social Research and Social Reform, Essays in Honour of A H Halsey (1992) edited by Colin Crouch and Anthony Heath. In one essay, Julia Parker praised as ethical socialists Samuel and Henrietta Barnett of Toynbee Hall. The Barnetts wanted moral improvement of individuals but, as there must be a basic minimum of existence for moral improvement to be possible and the slums of London did not meet that basic minimum, the Barnetts concluded in 1884 that social improvement was needed too.

Out of that conclusion came Toynbee Hall and the Settlement movement, by which Oxbridge graduates were brought into poor areas to assist the welfare, and improve the moral standards, of the inhabitants. This movement was regarded as epitomising Green’s philosophy.

In 2003 Matt Carter, in TH Green and the Development of Ethical Socialism, gave a similar account of conservative ethical socialism as placing encouragement of moral character above political reforms and placing ‘community’ above ‘sectional’ interests (such as workers, women and ethnic minorities). He praised not only Green but Hugh Hughes, the Methodist mentor of the young Ada Salter.

Radical reforms

What happened with Ada was instructive, however. Ada at first subscribed to Hughes’ Christian socialism and she joined the Methodist Settlement movement as a Sister of the People. However, right from the start, Ada declined to live in the Settlement buildings, separated from working class women, and insisted on living in the slums so as to take the side of the women and campaign politically for radical reforms.

In 2007 Halsey published a further book, Democracy in Crisis?, which contained essays by Roy Hattersley, Frank Field and Halsey himself. With this book, however, conservative ethical socialism self-destructed and virtually ceased to exist. The cause of its discredit had already appeared in Carter’s book of 2003, where he injudiciously listed as contemporary ethical socialists not only Hattersley, Kinnock and Smith but also, as “the best example”, Tony Blair, who thereupon launched the Iraq war and an extensive programme of privatising public services.

These policies were not only the antithesis of the ILP’s ethical socialism, which put humanity and equality above all else, but completely discredited conservative ethical socialism, which was supposed to be based on individual moral improvement. The Afghan and Iraq wars led to dire examples of moral degradation, as all wars do, while the privatisation of services for the less well-off led to examples of corporate greed.

Conservative ethical socialism had never really been coherent. Henry Pelling, the historian of Labour, had even challenged the idea that Green was a socialist since he did not want to replace the capitalist system with a socialist one and did not approve of state action to remedy injustice. Halsey had also struggled to defend the inclusion of Tawney in his conservative canon and in 2007 had to concede that Tawney thought of equality as “a morally binding value” in itself and, as an economic historian, took material factors into account. Both of these attributes would make him an ILP ethical socialist. Halsey could cling on to Tawney only by pointing to his patriotic moralism.

In 2008 Stephen Ingle, in his The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A Reassessment, took issue with all six major figures that Halsey claimed were ethical socialists. Thomas More, Cobbett, Green and Hobhouse were at best liberals; Tawney was in dispute; and, as for Orwell, “nowhere in the corpus of his work did Orwell use the phrase ‘ethical socialism’”.

More to the point, “nowhere did he show any interest in or knowledge of the various parts of the movement of ethical socialism that I have identified”. True, Orwell did join the ILP (although only briefly) but that might prove only that Orwell was closer to the ILP’s ethical socialism than to Halsey’s version.

Thus, conservative ethical socialism was laid to rest and it was in these circumstance that Blue Labour emerged in 2010 and soon occupied the political territory Halsey had forfeited.


In tandem with the liquidation of conservative ethical socialism there was a revival of the radical ethical socialism of the ILP. Since the end of the 1980s the centralism of both the Communists and the social democrats (‘Old Labour’) had virtually erased those trends from future consideration. At first Green parties, Liberals and left-wing nationalists seemed to be the only beneficiaries, but soon the word ethical returned to common parlance as a term with a radical edge (from ‘ethical’ foreign policy to ‘ethical’ investment and ‘ethical’ trading).

Ada Salter statueAfter the Iraq war in 2003 and the banking crash of 2008 the term, ‘ethical’, started to be used once again by left wing socialists. Terry Eagleton, who once fortified himself with large doses of Althusser, could now describe himself as an ‘ethical Marxist’. There was nothing un-revolutionary in the use of ‘ethical’. Eagleton said that ethics “entails in practice the complete political transformation of class society”.

At the same time Mark Sandle was demonstrating that early Marxism had ethical components built into its analysis. Marx wanted labour to be fulfilling and creative, and so did his ethical socialist disciple, William Morris. Similarly, Naomi Klein has echoed Kollontai in warning Green parties that it is not possible to win the argument on climate change by appealing to self-interest alone, but only by forging ‘alliances’ driven by a ‘moral imperative’.

There can be no doubt that this ethical trend has underpinned the emergence of Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. Their discourse is replete with appeals to humanity and equality and, like the Salters, they are respected even by opponents for their integrity.

I must now share some of the conclusions which I drew from my years of research on Ada Salter and ethical socialism. I suppose, first, above all, I was impressed by the unacknowledged inspirational power of the ILP and its achievements. Previously, I had understood that the welfare state and democracy had been pushed through by the pressure of mass movements on Liberal and Labour, but now I found that those mass movements had very largely been led by the ILP.

Secondly, I realised with a sense of shock how significant was the astonishing absence from conventional history of the ILP’s contribution. It meant that the history of the left in Britain has yet to be written. There have been histories from the point of view of the Communist Party and of the Labour Party, and even of Trotskyist sects, but no history that has situated the most successful, and most central, trend of the left – the ILP. Conversely, where there have been histories of the ILP itself, these have never been integrated into the whole.

Thus, I discovered that Ada Salter had been sidelined not simply as a woman, which I had half-expected, but also because the Salters’ belief-system, the ethical socialism of the ILP, had been eliminated from the historical record. It had been thought, seemingly, that the Labour and Liberal parties were central to the left as they had won elections and formed governments. In fact, of course, all the really important steps forward had been forced on governments from below by such bodies as the ILP.

When Ada’s statue was unveiled on the South Bank in 2014, it was, amazingly, only the 15th public statue of a woman in London. If the three queens (Boudicca, Anne and Victoria) are discounted, one third of the remaining 12 statues are of women who were ILP members or sympathisers: Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret MacDonald, Ada Salter (all members) and Virginia Woolf (a close sympathiser).

It is remarkable that from 2,000 years of British history the ILP has such a high representation. It has taken nearly a century for their achievements to be reassessed but, at long last, recognition is slowly coming, both to Ada Salter and the ethical socialism of the ILP.

Graham Taylor worked as a lecturer in further and higher education and has written extensively on the history of the labour movement. He is co-author of Grunwick: the Workers’ Story and Politics and Power.

This is an edited version of a talk given to the Socialist History Society at the Marx Memorial Library in London on Tuesday 26 April 2016.

He wrote profiles of Ada Salter and her husband Alfred for the ILP’s 120th anniversary series. They are available on this website here:

‘ILP@120: Ada Salter – Sister of the People’
‘ILP@120: Alfred Salter & the Bermondsey Revolution’.

Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism by Graham Taylor is published by Lawrence & Wishart and available to buy here for £18.99.

Barry Winter’s review of the book is here.


  1. Harry Barnes
    29 July 2017

    Graham Taylor’s book on Ada Salter is reviewed in the current Summer 2017 issue of “Labour Heritage”.

  2. Steve Bond
    27 September 2016

    I wanted to congratulate Graham on his wonderful book about Ada Salter. I have just read it, and found it informative, enjoyable and moving. Thank you so much for all the work you did to research her life and times, bring the information to a wider public.

    I am doing some research on a boot and shoe workers strike in 1918-20, and found your book immensely helpful in giving me ideas both about the politics of the period but also the research methods and sources you used. I am hoping to see Journeymen Theatre’s play about the Salters when they come to Sheffield.

    Could you please pass this comment onto Graham? many thanks

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