From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Socialism and the Challenge of War: Ideas and Politics in Britain 1912-1918
The 1914-18 War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, split world socialism into two parts: one reformist, the other revolutionary. The size of each part varied from country to country. The years 1918-20 were probably the nearest Britain has come to revolution this century. But the labour Party emerged as the mass organisation, with the Communist Party very much smaller.
Indirectly, Winter’s book sheds light on Labour’s side of this story. Present-day socialists may find it difficult to appreciate that the Labour Party’s 1918 Constitution seemed to commit it far more clearly to what people called ‘socialism’ than had seemed possible only a few years previously. This change helped slow down or contain many socialists’ development towards revolutionary politics. Many socialists, who had been bravely opposed to the war, were disgusted with the Labour leaders’ support for the wartime government. But their own thinking was sufficiently woolly for the leaders to regain control. Ramsay Macdonald, as an alleged wartime pacifist, managed to emerge with a left-wing halo. Arthur Henderson, Labour’s wartime leader, walked a longer tightrope. He had actually spent some time in the government, and in this capacity had been packed off to Russia shortly before the revolution, to beef up anti-revolutionary morale. Winter is at his most ironic on Henderson’s trip, which made precious little impact on Russia, but plenty on Henderson. He came back, aware that Bolshevism might spread to Britain unless Labour leaders like himself stopped identifying with the government and started making oppositional noises again.
After Henderson had extricated himself from the government, one development that helped re-unite him with Macdonald was the drafting of the 1918 Labour Party Constitution. By now, the main influence on the Labour leaders was Sidney Webb, who had previously been closer to the Liberals than to Labour. Sidney, with his wife Beatrice, was among the most exultantly bureaucratic of the ‘Fabian Socialists’. Indeed, the Webbs’ elitism was openly racist. The only exception to their ‘whites-are-tops’ racism was Japan, where they feasted with militarists shortly after a bloody government clampdown on socialists.
By now, readers will sense that the ‘ideas’ in Winter’s title are mostly the ideas in the brains of a few intellectuals: the Webbs, the fence-sitting historian G.D.H. Cole, and the moralistic Tawney: Winter’s book opens with a racy account of the industrial upheavals from 1910 to 1914. But most of his book is about ‘thinkers’. The changes in workers’ ideas are not at the centre of this book. As a result, even the ‘thinkers’ ideas appear in something of a void.
The book is written for academics. Though not by any means useless, it assumes too much, and leaves out too much, to make a good introduction to this crucial period in British socialist history.
Last updated on 30.12.2007