Th. Rothstein 1907

Parliamentarism and the Working Class


Source: Justice, 26 January 1907, p. 6;
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


Nothing could be more characteristic of the spirit which animates certain shining lights of the Labour Party than the endeavour which is to be made at the Belfast Conference to render the Parliamentary representatives of the party independent of the Conference resolutions. Those who have watched the recent developments on the Continent know that such independence is the standing demand of the opportunist sections in all Socialist parties, and constitutes but the first step in the gradual betrayal of the working class. Under the pretext that a Member of Parliament is, in the first instance, responsible to his constituents—a pretext which, as shown in last week’s “Justice,” is as disingenuous as it is baseless, since the constituents, by returning a given candidate, thereby express their solidarity with his programme and his party—gentlemen of a certain type, who regard themselves as superior to the masses, who, as Engels once said of the Fabians, “cannot possibly make themselves believe that the crude proletariat could ever accomplish by itself the gigantic task of self-emancipation,” but who in their heart of hearts merely regard the working class as a footstool for their personal ambitions—these gentlemen regard it as an intolerable tyranny that their hands should be tied by general guiding principles laid down at party conferences, and demand, in the name of individual. liberty and political expediency, freedom for their action and independence for their decisions. The result is invariably the same—alliances with the Liberal and Radical parties, betrayal of the interests of the working class, and, for some, perhaps, a seat in the Ministry or a snug administrative post.

There is, however, apart from personal ambition, usually something else in this clamour for Parliamentary independence—it is the other opportunist trait, the exaggeration of the importance of Parliamentary work. Th gentlemen do not believe in class-war tactics. They do not believe that here is an irreconcilable antagonism of interests between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—an antagonism which it is the supreme duty of the leaders to make as patent as possible in order that the proletariat may organise itself for the complete political and economic dispossession of the bourgeoisie. They do not, therefore, regard Parliament as a means to revolutionise the minds, and to organise the forces of the proletariat, and believe, when we criticise their “statesmanlike” conduct in Parliament, and demand that they should aim, first and foremost, at the exposure of the hollow hypocrisy of the capitalist parties, that we wish them to discard all practical work, and to launch out in a campaign of abuse and strong phrases. What they see in Parliament is a nice comfortable place where, by means of clever diplomatic bargaining, and judicious, “temperate” speeches, you can obtain little favours for the working class without passing as a rude fellow or crude thinker, and without forfeiting the friendly pat on the shoulder and the invitation to a friendly cup of tea on the terrace from a “distinguished” statesman or man of business. Naturally they find that the party congresses cannot lay down rules of conduct for them, and they themselves must be left to manipulate the little ways and means which Parliamentary practice may offer them for achieving this or that “useful” object. As a result, we have again a bourgeois quagmire which sucks the gentlemen in, and renders them perfectly useless, if not positively pernicious, to the Labour movement.

But, of course, ours is a “legalist” mind. We are disposed “to the hopeless task of trying to bind the social and political progress with our red-tape formulae,” and we are blind “to the living processes of social evolution and political growth.” It is remarkable, however, that our view of what is the duty of representatives of Labour in Parliament should be supported by men who, without sharing any of our “formulae,” are, or were, nevertheless, genuine friends of the working class, possessing the additional advantage of themselves belonging to the bourgeoisie. Here is, for instance, what Mr. Frederic Harrison, at the time in the forefront of the movement for the legalisation of the trade unions and for independent political action of the working class, said in the course of an address on “The political function of the working class,” delivered before the London Trades Council, in March, 1868

“What a familiar picture to us this life in the House of Commons’. A question of great public interest has been talked over for years and years, and everyone knows perfectly what should be done. At last some judicious aspirant embodies it in a judicious little Bill, just timidly nibbling at the question, and hedging it round with all sorts of qualifications. And then he goes round to several judicious persons in the House, one of whom tells him that the ‘House’ will be afraid of this clause, and another, that this clause is unprecedented, and then that this other clause is rather too sweeping. So the poor Bill gets docked and twisted and pulled about, and all the little life in it is squeezed out; and then some very judicious speeches are made pro and con, and everybody declares it is a most important question, and ought to be considered, and a great deal of clever talking at each other goes on, the whole subject being utterly ignored all the while; and then it goes into committee, and more talking and paring and compromising goes on upon the clauses; and then the lawyers or the publicans, or some other meritorious class, discover that their interests are prejudiced by the Bill, and that they shall oppose it to the death. So the members are caught in the lobby and warned that if they vote for the Bill they will lose the lawyer or publican interest at their next election, and then somebody succeeds in getting the House counted out, and the Minister of the day, in sweet, constraining phrases, suggests that this important subject should be referred to a Select Committee upstairs; and then upstairs they go, and ten times more lobbying, and paring, and compromising, and (talking goes on than ever went on below, and the lawyers and the publicans are quite menacing, and hang about the galleries like savage dogs, and the poor legislators get very much harassed by the London season and the constant goading of the lawyers’ and the publicans, and then it gets very hot and uncomfortable in town, and someone whispers into the ear of the promoter of the Bill that he will be thought ‘impracticable’ in the House if he goes on, and ‘impracticable’ is an awful word, enough to damn any man in the House of Commons; and then members get up and ‘implore’ the hon. member to withdraw his Bill at this late period of the session; so at length the poor little Bill, all mutilated and mangled about, is withdrawn and the hon. member goes off to shoot on the moors, quite proud of having been so judicious, and of having shown so much business-like capacity . Now they call that legislation, and that is Parliamentary government. Do you think that you or any real representatives of yours are ever likely to be adepts of that art? Do you think you or they can ‘catch the tone’ of the House, and be true to yourselves still? Is that the kind of legislation—is that the type of government which satisfies you? Truly; I think, you do not so much need to ‘catch the tone of the House’ as to utterly transform it.”

I do not apologise for the length of the extract, because for its faithful portrayal of bourgeois parliamentarism this statement is simply a chef d’oeuvre. Yet after a lapse of forty years Labour leaders of a Labour party, not merely bourgeois well-wishers, not only do their utmost to “catch the tone of the House,” but actually ask the ‘permission a those who sent them there to give them every opportunity for becoming “adepts of that art” of legislation! Verily, a fall that cannot but evoke the wrath of that old champion of the trade unions. We know that the Parliamentary representatives of the old trade unions did not take to heart the warnings of Mr. Frederic Harrison. Unlike the bourgeois Radicals of the generation of Cobbett, of Fielden, and of Daniel O’Connell, and unlike the Irish Nationalists of their own day, they did not go to Parliament to transform its tone, and to make it the public battleground for fighting out the issue between the ruling class and the class which had sent them there. They went there, and adopted the “judicious” turn of mind which their enemies wanted them to adopt, and they soon became horrified at everything “impracticable,” with the result that ultimately even the trade union weapon was knocked out of the hands of the proletariat. Let us hope that this time the organised working class will not allow its representatives to play fast and loose with their interests, as those representatives did in the past. Mach as we criticise the tactics of the Labour Party, we nevertheless acknowledge the great importance of its formation, and we shall be the first to deplore its disintegration, which is sure to follow if the ambitions of certain of its leaders find support at the Conference.

TH. ROTHSTEIN