Thomas Bell


The British Labor Party, the I.L.P. and Communist Affiliation

(21 July 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 60, 21 July 1922, pp. 449–450.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive

The British Labor Party is a phenomenon in itself. It is a peculiarly British product that could scarcely flourish elsewhere.

It is not a Party in the strict sense of the word; it is rather a loose federation of trade unions, trades councils, and a few minor Socialist societies thrown in. But its main support, financial and moral, is in its powerful trade union backing.

This very looseness has always been its proud boast. Its leaders have always bragged about its catholicity when faced with the demands of Social Democratic elements for a more definite Socialist and centralized policy, or when assisted by reactionary conservative trade unionists who did not want to be tainted with Socialism. Indeed its very name, “The Labor Party”, and why it came to be labelled such is a most interesting page in the Party’s history that is worth reading. For the present it will suffice to point out that the struggle of twenty years ago to give the Labor Party a definite Socialist constitution and objective found its most strenuous opponent in the late Keir Hardie and Bruce Glasier, both pioneers of the present Independent Labor Party which is affiliated to the 2½ international.

Again and again, when the fanatical sectarians of the Social Democratic Federation, tried to impose a full-fledged Marxian constitution on the Party, Hardie and his followers in the I.L.P. insisted upon keeping Socialism in the background in case it would frighten away the liberal trade unionists and upon the need for rallying all “progressives” under the one banner. The one condition that became an obsession with Hardie was the recognition of the strict independence of the Labor Parly from the bourgeois Liberal or Tory Parties. And just as they fought against a definite Socialist program or constitution, so they compelled men like Richard Bell of the Railwaymen, who were more Liberal than Labor, to clear out of the ranks.

There never was any question about the program of the S.D.F. or of any affiliated Socialist society being too extreme. Extreme “Lefts” and moderate “Rights” were encouraged to meet under the common roof of Labor’s own political Party. In the light of their wisdom the Social Democrats as well as the other Marxist organizations left the field clear for the I.L.P. and took to the propaganda of the “pure doctrine” of Marxism. new situation tor the Labor Party; a situation that would not only bring out more sharply the essentially bourgeois character of the Labor Party leadersnip but would also demonstrate the fundamental difference between the I.L.P. and the Communists.

The I.L.P. was not slow to take advantage of its opportunities. It threw itself into the practical daily struggles of the workers. In the trade unions, in the cooperatives, in the various labor groups and Socialist clubs the I.L.P. was to be found, not as a mere critic, but occupying official posts.

The trade union jobs which they monopolized were used as financial feeders for the rising Labor Representation Committees; the cooperatives and their guilds were utilized for educational work, but always and everywhere the I.L.P.’er was to be found trying to put his stamp on the particular organisation he was working with.

It matters not that out of this great pioneer work there grew a crop of opportunist place-hunters and politicians who now act as lightning conductors to run every revolutionary aspiration of the proletariat into the ground. Nor need we be surprised that today nine-tenths of the Labor Party officials are either actual members of the I.L.P. or have been in the past. The important thing is the lessons from their experience as a Party. And this is just what the Communist Party has done.

The formation of the Communist Party in July 1920 was something more than a mere formal unity of groups or parties. It represented the synthesis of theoretic Marxism with revolutionary practice. Its declaration for immediate affiliation with the Labor Party and participation in all the daily struggles of the working class wiped out the exclusiveness and sectarianism of the past, and showed quite clearly that the Communists were determined to be a live party of the masses and not a mere educational club.

Whether the Labor Party caucus had hoped or not that we were going to be another little sect and were disappointed is immaterial. They were taking no risks, and so when our application for affiliation was made we were promptly turned down. Rejected by the leaders of the Labor Party most of whom, be it remembered, are I.L.P.’ers, our Party concentrated on the local Labor Party Councils and succeeded in retaining a hold in nineteen Locals.

All Communist branches were urged to renew application to the Local Labor Party and in two important centres, London and Glasgow our applications were sympathetically received. On the strength of the recommendations of the two latter bodies our Executive proposed a meeting with the Labor Party E.C. to discuss with them the outstanding differences and try to arrive at some definite settlement.

After two hours discussion we retired to await a questionnaire to be prepared by the Labor Party E.C. for the Communist Party to answer, the replies to be put before the Labor Party Conference on June 27th at Edinburgh.

The discussion at that joint committee meeting left no doubt in our minds that the advent of the C.P. had created a new situation for the Labor Party; a situation that would not only bring out more sharply the essentially bourgeois character of the Labor Party leadership but would also demonstrate the fundamental difference between the I.L.P. and the Communists.

The opposition of Henderson and Sidney Webb is understandable. These gentlemen are clearly professional politicians who do not hide behind pseudo-Socialist phrases. It is different with Jowett, MacDonald and the I.L.P. generally. The latter still lisps the formulas of Socialism and pretends to speak solely in the name of the working class, its traditional policy has been to nuke the Labor Party more and more a Socialist party, after its own type, of course. It was reasonable therefore to expect support from their representatives in the Labor Party but as our discussion clearly showed, and as the subsequent Easter Conference of the I.L.P. revealed, there is now no longer any reason for the existence of both Parties.

The lifework of Keir Hardie – the pioneer of the I.L.P. – is now consummated in the Labor Party. The Labor Party is now committed to all the I.L.P. is asking for.

Moreover both parties are agreed in their opposition to the Communist International. The issues at the joint meeting were clearly the difference between the Second and the Third Internationals. Henderson tried to make the Communist Party an anarchist outfit by suggesting that since we did not accept parliamentary democracy as the method of bringing about the social emancipation of the working class there was no common ground betwixt us. A well-thumbed copy of the Theses and Statutes of the Communist International was produced by Henderson’s secretary and quoted against us. They had clearly studied our position. But it was of no avail for us to show them by citing from their own copy of our Theses that the C.P. was not anti-parliamentarian but that, while we had big parliamentary groups in the Third International, nevertheless we recognized the limitations of bourgeois democracy and so provided for extra-parliamentary action. We proved to them how even the Labor leaders themselves, as in the case of the “Councils of Action” that were thrown up to resist a new war on the side of Poland against Soviet Russia, were prepared to resort to “illegal” and extra-parliamentary action. On the other hand we quoted from the constitution of the Vienna or 2½ International to which the I.L.P. and one of its members F.W. Jowett who was then sitting in the President’s Chair of the Labor Party belong, where that body actually contemplates armed revolt as an alternative to bourgeois democracy. We asked to be treated on the same terms.

Another point of objection to the C.P. is that we are “under orders from Moscow” and therefore would not be loyal to the Labor Party constitution and accept the Labor Whip in the House of Commons. To this argument we pointed out that while we were a loyal constituent member of the Third International, nevertheless, it was sheer knavery to suggest that we were bereft of all initiative on matters affecting conditions in England. The centralized policy of the Communist Party in relation to its members would in no wav create a new situation since it was a common practice to find Labor Members voting against each other in the House of Commons.

The substantial difference between us is purely the opposition of the leaders of the Labor Party as representing the Second and the 2½ internationals, and the policy of the Communist International. This is clearly shown by the decision of these leaders to recommend the rejection of our affiliation when it came before the Party Conference which is now sitting in Edinburgh.

But while rejecting our affiliation these gentlemen dared to go further. They also amended the Constitution to make it compulsory for: 1) all delegates to the Party Congress “to accept the Labor Party constitution” and 2) for candidates to local or municipal bodies to belong to an organization that accepts the constitution. Henderson fears that even if defeated in the open congress we may still work through the localities and trade unions as their delegates and he wants to close every door against us.

The I.L.P. fraction in the Labor Party cheerfully joined hands with Henderson in creating their barbed wire fence since they now find the Communists are supplanting them everywhere by the practical daily work or our members in the trade unions, trades councils and amongst the unemployed.

As I have already indicated, the leadership of the Labor Party is a caucus or junta of these Second and 2½ Internationals. This decision to reject the demand of the Communists for a united front is a close parallel to the yellow leaders’ sabotage at the Berlin Conference of the united front of the world’ proletariat. At the same time it clearly shows these leaders on the offensive against us. It is another illustration of how the leaders do not want a united front and our inability to achieve it from the top. We must now try to do from below what we cannot do from the top. Our Party in England will not give up the struggle. We will prove over the heads of the leaders and if need be against them that the demand of the Communist Party, for the right to take place in the Labor Party cannot be set aside. The need for a single front against the capitalist offensive is greater today than ever it was. Under the impulse of the Communists the miners are returning to the unions and strengthening their organization for fresh battles. We are driving home to the metal workers the lessons of their recent defeat We are heading the struggles of the unemployed against the charity of the bourgeoisie and the half-hearted measures propounded by the Labor leaders.

With and amongst the proletarian masses, the Communist Party will go forward undaunted and yet break through the caucus of professional politicians, the Hendersons, Webbs, Thomases, MacDonalds, etc., who are now so faithfully playing the role of watchdogs for democracy.

Last updated on 9 May 2020