History of British Socialism. Max Beer 1920

Reorganisation of the Labour Party

First published: History of British Socialism, Vol. II, 1920, G.Bell & Sons;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I. – Causes of the Reorganisation

The Labour Party consisted, up to the beginning of 1918, of bodies of the best organised wage-workers, with a slight admixture of middle class socialists. At party gatherings and conferences, the socialists as such played no part whatever; in the deliberations and councils of Labour their voices were scarcely heard. Indeed, the Labour Party conferences were little else than second and by no means improved editions of the trades union congresses. Cotton and coal controlled both. The constitution of the party was limited to the formation of a separate Parliamentary representation, with no other programme than the hardy annuals transmitted from one annual conference to the other. The Labour Party was an extended Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress.

The social revolutionary ferment, with its symptomatic unrest and strike fever, and the fiery cataclysm which shook Europe for the last years and laid bare the foundations of modern civilisation, rendered a reconstruction of society necessary and prompted the leading minds of the working classes to make the Labour Party the political instrument of that reconstruction. For, as Marx taught, the time must needs arrive when the class struggle turns into a political struggle – political, not only in the narrow meaning of Parliamentarism, but in its true, Greek meaning of social – of all matters concerning the constitution of society. That this work of reconstruction could only proceed on socialist lines, few contested, since the whole evolution of economic life tended in that direction. Individualism was dead, and its organ, the Liberal Party, was decaying, while the other parties had no other remedies but digging up the skeletons of past policies and clinging to shattered idols. Moreover, the last war turned the State into the largest producing and distributive agency of the nation; the Government controlled, directly or indirectly, production and distribution. It revealed, further, the enormous wealth of modern society and showed that poverty was altogether an unnecessary and preventible evil. “The real cause of the manifest unrest among the workers in connection with social matters,” declared a moderate Labour leader in 1918, “was the recognition by the working classes of the causes of their misery and degradation. While they used to be content when told that any reform costing a few millions a year would mean bankruptcy to the State, the most ignorant people now understood that if the State could spend eight millions a day on the destruction of humanity, they could at least find some millions for the reconstruction of humanity."[1]

For the reconstruction on socialist lines, the. Labour Party stood in need of social economic knowledge. And there were men and women with that knowledge, middle class intellectuals, who had cut themselves adrift from their class and sought admission to the Labour Party, but whose strait gate did not allow them to enter freely, since the old constitution of the. Labour Party has been made mainly for manual workers. Things shaped themselves as Marx foresaw when he declared that “in times when the class struggle is nearing the decisive hour .... a portion of the middle class ideologists, those who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole, joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands."[2] To allow them to join the Labour Party and supply the necessary knowledge to the proper instrument of reconstruction, a reorganisation or a new constitution of the Labour Party was necessary. The need was all the more imperative as the democratisation of the suffrage extended the basis of party life to the limits of the nation. The whole British nation became sovereign. The political programme of Chartism was now the law of the land, and it was henceforth the mission of the grandsons of the Chartists to take in hand the “ulterior motives” [1] of their grandfathers.


In August of the memorable year 1917, the Labour Party appointed a sub-committee to prepare a scheme of reorganisation. The work was soon taken in hand, the constitution drafted and submitted to the Labour Party Special Conference on February 26, 1918, which adopted it. The gates of the party were thrown open to the intellectual proletariat, and the British working classes given a socialist programme. Sidney Webb, in his commentary on the aims and objects of the reorganised Party, heads the last chapter with the apophthegm “ More light – but also more warmth![2] While, in 1896, he told the London International Socialist and Labour Congress that “ socialism needed light rather than heat,"[3] he now declared that it needed warmth as much as light.

The most important changes of the constitution concerned the ultimate aim of the party and the enrolment of members, as may be seen from the following:-

“3. (d) To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

“(e) Generally to promote the political, social, and economic emancipation of the people, and more particularly of those who depend directly upon their own exertions by hand or by brain for the means of life.”

The other important change concerned membership. While up to the beginning of 1918 the Labour Party was a confederation of trade unions and socialist bodies, which were affiliated each by a majority vote of its members, the new constitution provided also for the enrolment of individual members, and it afforded special facilities to women electors to join the party. The party has thus been organised on the double basis of national Labour or socialist bodies and constituency organisations, the latter enrolling individually men and women who subscribe to the party constitution and programme.

The Party, by embodying into its constitution the declaration of common ownership of the means of production, has become a socialist Labour party.


The constructive work was outlined, on behalf of the Party, by Sidney Webb in his Labour and the New Social Order. He looked upon the last war as the final collapse of an industrial civilisation, which the workers would not seek to resuscitate. The war had destroyed the very basis of the individualist system of capitalist production. It proved economically far from efficient and morally indefensible. The new social edifice would be erected on four pillars: (a) the universal enforcement of the national minimum; (b) the democratic control of industry; (c) the revolution of national finance; and (d) the surplus wealth for the common good. The first principle of the Labour Party was the securing to every member of the community, in good times and bad alike, of all the requisites of healthy life and worthy citizenship. It would do this by enforcing the universal application of the policy of a prescribed minimum of health, leisure, education, and subsistence by the extension of such legislation as the Factory Acts, Public Health Acts, Housing Acts, Education Acts, Trade Boards Act, and by various measures against unemployment.

The principle of control of industry demanded the progressive elimination of the private capitalist from the control, of industry and the scientific reorganisation of the nation’s work on the basis of common ownership of the means of production and equitable distribution of the produce. The railways, mines, and electrical power should be immediately nationalised. In order to remove the evils of centralisation and the drawbacks of bureaucracy, the party would work for the fullest possible extension of the scope of democratically elected local governing bodies. Special care should be devoted to the democratisation of education and to the development of agriculture.

With regard to national finance, the party would raise the greater part of the revenue by direct taxation of the incomes above the necessary cost of family maintenance; a very substantial part of the National Debt should be paid off by a special levy on capital.

The absorption of the wealth of the community by individual proprietors must be stopped; the arising surplus wealth should be secured on the one hand by nationalisation and municipalisation and on the other hand by the steeply graduated taxation of private incomes and riches. The surplus wealth should be used for the perpetual improvement of the means of production and transport, for scientific research, and for the maintenance of the aged, sick, and infirm.

The party, in its Imperial policy, would repudiate all forcible domination of other races and countries; it would develop a system of Home Rule and democratic self-government within the Empire. Its foreign policy would rest on a universal league of nations, with suitable machinery for judicial arbitration and conciliation.

With these social reforms and political aspirations, the labouring population is being imbued and organised into a vast national party, which within the next ten years might be called upon to form a Government. Still, socialism will have no easy triumph. It will meet with dexterous manoeuvring and stubborn resistance on the part of the possessing classes and their adherents. For, capitalism, as a purely economic force, has not collapsed; the leaders of industry, commerce, and finance do not at all feel like a bankrupt or effete class. Modern society has accomplished industrial wonders; it has called into being productive forces and possibilities of wealth-creation beyond the dreams of all scientific Utopias. And this is its justification and its title to existence. It will, therefore, not readily abdicate. And yet, it is being seriously challenged for it has utterly failed in the domain of social ethics. Its very success, its most marvellous achievements have been bound up with the destruction of human solidarity and social service. In its pride of wealth and science it has looked upon the civitas terrena as the real order of the universe. It has turned religion and ethics into handmaids to minister to its bodily comforts. The contrast between material efflorescence and moral stagnation is the root cause of the disharmony of modern humanity. From this hellish chasm springs the world tempest.

Socialism is called upon to redress the balance of material and moral power, to help mankind to attain to an equilibrium of the main forces of life. Its instruments are the poor and the lowly, as in the days of old. But they must take up their mission with clean hands and pure hearts, and not to try to do God’s work with the devil’s tools. Worldly power, the formation of Labour and socialist governments, must be strictly subordinated not only to the socialisation of the means of production, but to the socialisation of man, to the restoration of the moral order of the world.


1. Labour Party, Report of the 18th Annual Conference, London., June, 1918 p.43 (speech by J.H. Thomas, M.P.).

2. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, English edition, 1888, p.14.

3. Cf. supra. p.95.

4. Labour Party (Sidney Webb), Labour and the New. Social Order, London, 1918, p.23.

5. Cf. supra, p.285.