From International Socialism (1st series), No.79, June 1975, p.39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism
Cambridge, £5.00 hardback, £2.00 paperback.
The Evolution of the Labour Party 1910-1924
DAVID COATES has written a first-rate book. A measure of his achievement is that any future study of the Labour Party will certainly have to give serious consideration to his views. Likewise all socialists will find the book invaluable, a veritable arsenal of facts and arguments to prove there is no parliamentary road to socialism. Every supporter of IS should read it.
While David Coates has undoubtedly written the best work so far on the subject of the Labour Party, this does not mean it is without flaws. I think he relies too heavily upon official manifestos. These tend to be written for a single purpose – the winning of votes – and are not necessarily the clearest indication of political beliefs. Often statements made in the heat of battle, impromptu and under pressure, reveal more accurately the underlying principles upon which political behaviour is based.
Then his book would have been further improved had he bothered to consult a greater variety of left-wing sources. Although reformism has remained the dominant trend in the British working-class, there has always been a revolutionary current inside it This left opposition has published many journals containing useful information about, and arguments against, the various Labour leaderships. To be specific, David Coates would have gained a fuller insight into the development of social democracy before the First World War had he consulted The Socialist, monthly organ of the SLP. Similarly, the Socialist Review (predecessor to the present-day Socialist Worker) contained material that would have enriched his understanding of Bevanism in the Nineteen-fifties.
His failure to have an on the ground, as opposed to merely theoretical, knowledge of the political battles he analyses resulted in him making a number of questionable interpretations of events. For example, he suggests that 1955 marked the high-water mark of the Bevanite revolt, when the Labour leaders narrowly avoided defeat on the issue of German re-armament. Yet, it is arguable that 1952 was the time of greatest left pressure. Then Tribune’s circulation reached its highest point, with the regular productions of pamphlets, like One Way Only, which had a considerable impact; the Bevanite MPs in parliament displayed their greatest cohesion and fight; and the Constituency Labour Parties were places where matters of policy were furiously debated. David Coates should remember that by 1955 the Labour left were adopting an easier option than in 1952: it involves much less courage to attack military expenditure of another capitalist state than it does the military expenditure of one’s own . country. This is particularly true when it is remembered criticisms of German re-armament were laced with anti-German prejudices, In contrast, the criticisms of military expenditure In 1952 were made at a time when British troops were fighting in Korea. This needed much more guts and had greater socialist significance.
But this leads to a more general point David Coates maintains that the Labour left is now stronger than ever before. This is a rather different conclusion to the one I reached in an article in IS 52: I will not recapitulate my arguments for likening the Labour left to a clockwork toy, gradually running down, being more and more feeble, and slow as time goes on. Let me merely say that whereas David Coates sees the Labour left influencing the decision-making process, I see it enmeshed in the party apparatus so enthralled with its parliamentary manoeuvring that it allows its class roots to wither. But if David is right and the Labour left is stronger than ever before, then I think the obvious conclusion should be that we all should be inside the Labour Party. If ...
Alas, Dr Ross McKibbin’s work does not consider wider political issues: he concentrates his attention entirely upon the electoral development of the Labour Party. Almost nothing is said about the Labour Party’s attitude to industrial unrest and the suffragettes in the period before the First World War. The indifference or hostility of Ramsay MacDonald and most of his colleagues remains unanalysed. Consequently, his book tends to be rather dry and uninteresting, not dealing with the burning political issues of the day. And he makes a number of dubious assumptions, For example, he almost completely omits consideration of the First World War period, contending that this had little influence on Labour’s future development But it was during the First World War that Labour politicians had their first taste of office. Not only did this serve to whet their appetite, but it also allayed the fears of politicians in the two traditional parties. Far from Labour leaders disrupting the class system, they showed they were a powerful force for the maintenance of the status quo. Henderson denounced workers who went on strike in wartime; he journeyed to Russia, hoping in vain to bolster up Kerensky and keep the Bolsheviks out by making a few socialist utterances; and he thoroughly supported repression in Ireland, when news reached Parliament that the wounded James Connolly had been executed by the army, Henderson led the Labour MPs in a round of cheering.
Clearly, the rich had nothing to fear from the likes of Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald. That was why, quite correctly from their point of view, they did nothing to prevent the formation of the first labour government in 1923.
Last updated: 16.2.2008