In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socialism and Labor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Texts: Anthologies and Selections
  • Intellectual and Historical Contexts
  • Precursors: Christian Socialism and Owenite Socialism
  • Romantic Legacies and Modernist Afterlives
  • Anti-colonialism and Imperial Skepticism
  • Gender, Feminism, and the “Woman Question”
  • Transnational Networks and International Imaginaries
  • Poetry of the Future
  • Novels and Short Fiction
  • Drama
  • Print, Popular Culture, and the Politics of Class
  • Sexual Radicalism and Free Love
  • Utopian Visions and Intentional Communities
  • Fabian Socialism
  • Nineteenth-Century Anarchism
  • The “Religion of Socialism”

Victorian Literature Socialism and Labor
Owen Holland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0179


The socialist movement emerged in Victorian Britain during the 1880s with the foundation of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation) in 1881, the Fabian Society in 1884, and the Socialist League in 1885. Sometimes referred to as a decade of “socialist revival,” owing to the existence of an earlier tradition of utopian socialism associated with the work of Robert Owen, the 1880s saw the establishment of political organizations that challenged the economic, social, political, and aesthetic foundations of Victorian capitalism. These organizations disagreed on questions of political strategy, but the movement, broadly defined, drew many prominent authors into its orbit, including William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter, Henry Woodd Nevinson, Margaret Harkness, Constance Howell, Clementina Black, Olive Schreiner, Jane Hume Clapperton, Isabella Ford, Dollie Radford, Edith Nesbit, and others, as well as visual artists such as Walter Crane. An efflorescence of socialist periodicals gave rise to a rich print culture, in which fiction and poetry jostled alongside political journalism and polemic. In different ways, and across a variety of genres and styles, these writers explored questions pertinent to the movement, including the nature of post-capitalist society, the emancipation of labor, structures of Victorian patriarchy and imperialism, the economic and ethical foundations of socialism and the means of moving beyond capitalism. Some were willing to consider a revolutionary overthrow of the existing social order, while others pursued a more moderate, reform-oriented agenda. The movement’s strong emphasis on the class politics of Victorian Britain (see the Oxford Bibliographies in Victorian Literature article by Ruth Livesey, “Class”) means that there are clear continuities with the earlier working-class Chartist movement for parliamentary reform (see Kirstie Blair, “Chartism”), while the more reform-minded socialists share certain thematic concerns with the mid-century social-problem novelists (see Bethan Carney, “Social-Problem Novel”). As detailed in subsequent sections of this bibliography, socialist writers and thinkers also frequently explored ideas shared by fin-de-siècle feminists and, in some cases, developed distinctive and radical critiques of Victorian imperialism and the British Empire. Some socialist writers, notably Morris and Wells, experimented with utopian narratives as a means of speculatively imagining futures beyond capitalism, while others, such as Margaret Harkness and Henry Nevinson, inclined toward literary naturalism. The movement’s diverse print culture today offers an archive of journalistic polemic, literary experimentation and creative mediations of that much-maligned genre, propaganda.

General Overviews

There are several useful chapter-length overviews of the fin-de-siècle socialist movement and its relationship to the literary culture of the period, including Greenslade 2007, Livesey 2016, and Mutch 2018. Betensky 2020 offers a helpful overview of some influential critical discussions of the concept of class as it pertains to the discipline of Victorian studies more broadly. Ingle 2002 and Klaus 2018 differently map out the contours of a tradition of socialist fiction in Britain, while Miller 2013 sheds interesting light on the movement’s print culture and Vaninskaya 2010 offers a wide-ranging account of socialist discussions of the idea of community. Bevir 2011 and Pierson 1979 usefully introduce the intellectual and political history of the movement.

  • Betensky, Carolyn. “The Concept of Class in Victorian Studies.” In The Routledge Companion to Victorian Literature. Edited by Denis Denisoff and Talia Schaffer, 319–329. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020.

    This concise but ranging overview considers treatments of the concept of class in Victorian studies as evidenced in critical work on Chartist literature and the “Condition-of-England” novel, and notes the way in which contemporary critical discussions are heavily inflected by intersectional forms of analysis.

  • Bevir, Mark. The Making of British Socialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691150833.001.0001

    The most comprehensive recent historical study of the political thought of leading fin-de-siècle socialist thinkers and socialist organizations; includes chapters on Ernest Belfort Bax, Henry Mayers Hyndman, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, the Socialist Democratic Federation, the Fabian strategy of permeation and the Independent Labour Party, ethical anarchism and the Labour Church Movement.

  • Greenslade, William. “Socialism and Radicalism.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Gail Marshall, 73–90. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    A cogent overview of socialist and radical thought at the fin de siècle, focusing on contributions of the radical-liberal Grant Allen, the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the American economist Henry George, the Marxist socialists Henry Mayers Hyndman and William Morris, the secularists Charles Bradlaugh and G. W. Foote, and the libertarian personal politics of Olive Schreiner and Edward Carpenter, as well as several others.

  • Ingle, Stephen. Narratives of British Socialism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230287648

    Investigates the connection between imaginative literature and political thought in works by key fin-de-siècle socialist writers, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. Ingle shows fictional narratives offer a unique way of understanding political ideas. Also contains discussion of later figures, including Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

  • Klaus, H. Gustav, ed. The Rise of Socialist Fiction, 1880–1914. 2d ed. Brighton, UK: Edward Everett Root, 2018.

    First published in 1987, this volume continues the work of recovering a “neglected literary tradition” of socialist and working-class writing, begun in Klaus’s earlier volume The Socialist Novel in Britain (1982). Chapters include discussions of the “strike novels” of the 1890s, anarchism and fiction, interconnections between feminism and socialism, the figure of the ruling-class rebel and several lesser-known Victorian and Edwardian authors.

  • Livesey, Ruth. “Political Formations: Socialism, Feminism, Anarchism.” In Late Victorian into Modern. Edited by Laura Marcus, Michèle Mendelssohn, and Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr, 431–447. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Livesey demonstrates the “relations between anti-capitalist politics and literary experiment” in the work of several fin-de-siècle writers: William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Olive Schreiner each differently explored prospects for social equality, anti-capitalism, and alternative futures for sexual relations, while Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) responded to the political climate of anarchist terrorism and propaganda-by-deed.

  • Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvqr1cwq

    A ranging and creative study of fin-de-siècle radical print, including discussions of Morris’s utopianism, Shaw’s novels and plays, the poetry of the socialist movement, theosophy, and sexual radicalism. Miller adopts the more expansive term “radicalism,” in order not to exclude anarchist and non-socialist labor groupings.

  • Mutch, Deborah. “Socialist Fiction.” In Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction. Edited by Kevin A. Morrison, 229–232. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

    A brief encyclopedia-style essay that surveys the fiction of the British socialist movement published between 1880 and 1900, including discussion of publication methods (book-format publication and serialization), differing attitudes to the publication of fiction between differing socialist groups, and the prevalence of short stories.

  • Pierson, Stanley. British Socialists: The Journey from Fantasy to Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674420687

    Pierson’s study provides the most complete overview of the fin-de-siècle British socialist movement as a whole. While less-up-to-date than Bevir’s The Making of British Socialism, it remains valuable for its discussion of many figures and movements given less prominence in Bevir’s book, as well as its more expansive temporal range.

  • Vaninskaya, Anna. William Morris and the Idea of Community: Romance, History and Propaganda, 1880–1914. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641499.001.0001

    Organized as a discussion of the socialist movement’s three major genres—romance, historical writing and propaganda—this capacious study examines a wide number of socialist authors in the context of their attitudes to topics including religion, the pre-capitalist past, the nature of historical change, and socialist strategy. Focuses chiefly on William Morris’s appropriations of historical and contemporary romance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.