Thomas Bell

The Labour Government and the Labour Party

Speech at the Sixth Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Source: Speeches & Documents of the Sixth (Manchester) Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain, May 17-19, 1924
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
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.

Mr. Chairman and Comrades,
This resolution is perhaps the most important resolution that will be discussed at this conference, as you can gather from the fact that our fraternal delegates took such a serious view of the resolution which we had already put in your hands, and also that the Central Committee have been in session for four hours discussing the implications of the resolution and all involved in it. We have decided that though there were no differences in points of principle, still it was felt that by re-drafting the resolution we would be able to sharpen it in many directions and state quite clearly and definitely our views on the Labour Government and the Labour Party. We do not merely want a pious resolution passed here. We want not only to indicate our sentiments towards the Labour Party, but to lay down a political policy in relation to the Labour Government as it is at present, and as it may be in the future, in a word, how we visualise the Labour Government. This resolution, as I say, is regarded as being so important that it was considered it should try and embody our political attitude towards the Labour Government and Labour Party, so that when published and printed it would indicate to our comrades in other parties throughout the world that we in this country were measuring up to the present political situation, understood quite clearly the Labour Government and all its implications, and also clearly defined our attitude towards the Labour Party. In passing, I may say for the edification of the delegates more than for the edification of the Central Committee, that our comrades expressed themselves very definitely about our political infancy; political infancy in as much as we spend so much of our time on little organisational things at a time like this, which may be regarded as the biggest political situation that has come across Europe since the ebbing of the last revolutionary wave. At a time like this it is absurd that we should spend two days of our conference on purely organisational things when we ought to be discussing the political situation and our understanding of it and how we were going to organise in order to advance the revolutionary struggle. I want to mention this because undoubtedly we have got to acknowledge that as yet we spend too much of our time trying to point out how somebody in some particular district is not interpreting something as cleverly as we are doing—of showing a capacity for remembering the exact date that we posted a letter, and the time we replied to it. We do not yet seem to be able to appreciate how to approach questions purely from the point of view of politics, their political implications, and how to bring out the whole political significance of the resolutions and subjects we discuss. The question for example of the Minority Movement is an illustration. Instead of worrying about organisation, details of what happened here, there, and everywhere else, we ought to approach these resolutions from their political content, and approaching them from that angle, to get up and criticise them purely from this content and how in their operation we are going to get particular political results. With regard to the Labour Government, it is true to say that this Government has come much sooner than many of us appreciated eighteen months ago. Eighteen months ago we were discussing the possibilities of a Labour Government as something that would come in the distant future. But we did not appreciate how near it was and the tasks imposed upon us in the event of it coming into existence as soon as it has come.

Now we want to place on record our views regarding some of the points that were raised by the fraternal delegates yesterday. The question was stressed, for instance, about the Labour Government being in office through the disunity of the capitalist parties. It is literally true to say that the whole capitalist parties, the Liberals and Tories, have in their own camp been divided against themselves. They have been unable to present a united front as it were, against the growing Labour Party, and to prevent the Labour Party coming into office. At the same time, we should be closing our eyes to facts if we did not appreciate the point that had the Labour Government been a revolutionary government, had it been a government that stood for confiscation; had it been a Labour Government that proposed definitely when it took office to institute definite revolutionary measures; had it not indicated beforehand that it was only going to be the hand-rag of His Majesty, King George—then undoubtedly there would have been a united front of the Liberals and Tories, and the Labour Government would have been kept out. There is probably more design than choice in the advent of the Labour Government in office to-day (Applause). This design is a political design which is something we in this country have not yet learned to appreciate as a characteristic trait of our British bourgeoisie. Our British bourgeoisie is the most cunning section of any section of the world bourgeoisie. On many occasions we have quarrelled with ourselves as to whether this or that step taken by the bourgeoisie is a conscious step or not. So far as our experience of reading the history of the capitalist class in this country is concerned, I am of the opinion that it probably gets its aims more by setting a precedent than it does by conscious design. If we were to try and estimate roughly, I should say that probably it gets its object 95 per cent. by precedents and only 5 per cent. of its achievements are deliberate conscious acts. This is what is called our genius for compromise. During the war, for instance, on the question of the demand for food control—the democratic demand of the Labour movement that there should be equal rationing all round. How did our bourgeoisie meet it? It was met by the setting up of a Food Ministry, and the introduction of a representative of the Labour movement, not to a responsible position in the Food Ministry, but as an Under-Secretary, which was sufficient to concede to democratic approval, and to get their definite objective, namely, to smother up the growing insurgence at that time. They achieved their goal by staving off a very acute situation, because of their cunning, duplicity and ability to use an immediate situation for their own particular objective. And so I think we can truly say that in allowing the Labour Government to come into office, the capitalist parties of this country have taken a step back in order that they might take two or three steps forward. They took this step back in order to try and confuse the Labour movement, and set it by the ears in its own ranks. At the same time, I think we have got to take notice of the fact, and place it on record, that the taking of office by the Labour Government has been a distinct and decided advantage to us of the Communist Party in so far as it has enabled us to understand where the Labour Party stands: what it was prepared to do, and to bring much more sharply before the mass of the workers the difference of the policy of the Communist Party and the policy of the Labour Party and the Labour Government. It enables us to put the position much more clearly, and furthermore, it is going to hasten the ultimate disillusionment of the masses in this country as to the belief in the idea of a peaceful social transformation from capitalism into Socialism.

Then with regard to the point of the Labour Party and its obligations to the Labour movement. The Communist Party was the first to bring into the open and draw attention to the criminal decision on the part of the Labour Government as soon as they took office, to cut themselves adrift from the organised Labour Party and the general Trade Union Congress to which they owe their positions and to whom they ought to have been responsible; to disown the Labour movement and to declare quite openly that they held their office in trust for His Majesty, King George, and not for the organised Labour movement of this country. Comrades, the importance of this cannot be minimised.

We know what Jimmie Thomas is; we know what Johnny Clynes is; we know what these erstwhile leaders of the Labour movement who are in office at the present time, but we must emphasise this fact, we will not lose an opportunity of drawing the attention of the workers to the fact that those people who have been put into office, whether for good or ill, to express the organised will of the Labour movement—that as soon as they get into some particular bourgeois office they have been prepared to kick the ladder from beneath their feet and go right over, to the camp of the bourgeoisie. We want to get the workers to understand that when their leaders are pushed forward to take office they do so on behalf of the organised workers as a whole, and that they should hold their positions in trust for the working class, and be prevented from separating themselves from the organised working class. You get, for example, MacDonald as soon as he is in office writing about the importance of the benchers, and all kinds of beautiful phrases of democracy and so forth, and all the time contained in this beautiful writing was inherent a repudiation of definite Party control over the leaders of the organisation, paving the way for the day when he would be able to stand up and say, “I hold my position in trust for His Majesty, King George,” and I am not responsible to the Labour Party or the General Trade Union Congress, although I am quite willing to consider sympathetically any proposal or resolution that the Labour Party has to put before me.

We have also got to place on record the fact that as soon as the Labour Party in the 1922 election got its magnificent vote, we got then the first indication that the Labour Party leadership at all events was going to travel along the lines of the old Liberal Party. It issued its manifesto, and declared it had now to carry forward the great principles of radicalism. The result is that to-day we see the Labour Party being converted into a Liberal Party in order to justify its claims to carry forward the great traditions of radicalism. In the same way you get MacDonald at the Independent Labour Party Conference in the absurd position of going there as Prime Minister and simply talking to it in the same manner that Lloyd George talked to the Trade Union Congress when he had occasion to use that Congress.

And so I want to place on record quite definitely our firm opinion that the Labour Government instead of being a weapon for the working class—a definite class organisation attempting to introduce measures of legislation that would have a definite class bias and character, and advance the definite interests of the working class—the Labour Government and the policy of the government is that of treason and treachery to the organised working class in this country, who made it possible for MacDonald and Co. to get there, and we must say so quite openly and fearlessly. Take the relationship of MacDonald to the colonies. The first thing that he does is to send a letter to the struggling masses of India, warning them that if they attempt to embark upon militant or direct action in order to get the first principle of social democracy—the right of determination of their own political destination—that such actions shall be met with all the power of the Empire and State, and using language that Lord Curzon himself would use. I want to definitely repudiate in the name of the organised militant working class movement of this country—and speaking to our brothers in India and all other colonies—to say that we repudiate such a policy, and that it is a policy we all reverse at the very first opportunity. The same with regard to the trial of Comrade Roy and the Indian workers of Cawnpore. Here you get the curious anomaly that Roy and the other twelve of our comrades are brought before the courts, are placed on trial for preaching a doctrine—and I am now using the language of the Under-Secretary for the Foreign Office—a doctrine that is calculated to win away the Indian people from their allegiance to His Majesty, King George. That is the language that is used by the Labour Government to our people who are endeavouring to try and institute a definite Communist movement in India. If it is wrong to preach such a doctrine in India, it is equally wrong to advocate the same objects in this country. True, the Communist Party is not declared illegal. The Communist Party in this country is not declared illegal. But we know very well the cunning and duplicity in this country that while they say that the Communist Party is not illegal, you can talk Communism as much as you like so long as you do not take any action that is calculated to interfere with the ruling class. This same spirit, I think, is incorporated in the general day he is spending his time, instead of challenging the whole of the official Labour movement at the present time. Look at the curious anomaly of a man like Frank Hodges—who owes his position to the fact that he was one of the fighters for the miners’ organisations. Where is he to-day? Today is spending his time, instead of challenging the whole power of capitalism, hob-nobbing with Royalty. There is no question of excuse for Frank Hodges. He was brought forward into the front ranks in the Labour movement through his study of Marxism—and to-day he is wasting his training, and finds it more convenient to go out with the Duke of York instead of seriously taking up the challenge of the working class against the bosses. The same attitude of mind is shown by MacDonald and the others when breakfasting with the Prince of Wales, attending Court functions, etc. These things we know are only empty baubles, and do not mean anything except to indicate that the corrupt policy and practices of the bourgeoisie have been highly successful so far as these particular leaders are concerned.

We must say to the workers, “this is a practice that must be repudiated if the working class movement of this country is not going to be run right into the camp of the bourgeoisie and betrayed again and again.”

Then with regard to the Anglo-Russian Conference. You all remember prior to the election how much we made of the possibilities of the Russian market for absorbing, or relieving the problem of unemployment here. And I am approaching the question on this occasion from this peculiar point of view to further illustrate the politics of our Labour Government. The anomalous breakdown of capitalism in this connection was brought sharply to the mass of the workers by saying, “here is your market, what is the matter with trying to bring about some commonsense understanding that will bring the unemployed workers into relation with this market, where the demand for products is so enormous?” And now you get the anomaly of a man like MacDonald, a Socialist leader, sitting at one side of the table and speaking in the language of the bourgeoisie to Dr. Rakovsky, an old-time comrade, who was trying to vindicate the principles for which the Second International in its infancy was designed to carry through. When our Comrade Rakovsky, put the definite suggestion that in order to get peace and amity there should be a clean sweep of all indebtedness, so that we could get that out of the way and get on to the practical commonsense discussion of credits and so forth, MacDonald refuses to respond. And also on the question of disarmament, we get the position of Comrade Rakovsky putting forward the definite policy of Soviet Russia calling for complete disarmament, and the reply on the part of MacDonald the pacifist, has yet to be made. MacDonald the pacifist—the man who for years has been preaching against armaments—has nothing to say to this demand on the part of our Comrade Rakovsky, for the operation of MacDonald’s own alleged principles. And so with regard to international legislation and to the freedom of the colonies, the Communist Party wants to say quite definitely to the Labour Government, it is your business to give absolute freedom and the right to the peoples of the Dominions and Colonies of the British Empire to determine their own conditions without any control by the British Government, and moreover, that the policy of mapping out spheres of influence between the Soviet Government and the British Government must not be countenanced by the workers’ movement in this country. If, on account of the particular circumstances it is necessary to deal with any particular small nationality or any particular dependency, then there must be representatives of these particular places present while their fate is being determined, and brought into the conference so that they shall have a voice in determining their own destiny. Instead of these things, we get MacDonald in nice beautiful phrases, speeches or letters, carrying forward the Liberal policy of the bourgeoisie. We must emphatically repudiate his particular attitude and tell the masses where we stand.

With regard to the question of industrial disputes, we have had invaluable experience since the Labour Government came into office. The industrial revival has crystalised in the Transport Workers’ dispute and it is a fact that the Transport Workers were intimidated into affecting a compromise because the Labour Government was determined that military aid would have to be brought in. We must bring forward the evidence on this particular point so that the workers will see and know of the treachery of MacDonald, and understand quite clearly the character of this Government.

The policy of a Committee of Enquiry in the case of industrial disputes is a policy which, if it is not checked will inevitably lead to compulsory arbitration and will split the organised Labour movement from top to bottom.

We must warn the workers of this danger, and tell them that unless they put a stop to this policy and exercise definite control over these representatives of the Labour movement, we are heading straight for compulsory arbitration. As in the case of foreign affairs, so with legislative proposals, and domestic issues and so on. The Government’s pledges to the unemployed, for instance, must be brought out more clearly before the workers, telling the workers at the same time that in spite of the Government’s promises, here is all they have been able to do or willing to do. We have to bring these things sharply into the open so that the workers will understand. We must organise groups of workers to deal with special subjects such as the Rents Acts, as they have done in Germany and elsewhere. The workers must be made to realise that they are victims of capitalism. And these things must be pushed to the front more energetically. The same with regard to the Budget. We must point out that it is not a working class Budget in the real sense of the term at all. It is a purely Liberal Budget and is only calculated to carry out what is involved in the policy of bourgeois Free Trade. We must now tell the workers that they require to prepare themselves for fresh cuts in wages following the first steps of the Labour Government to establish a free breakfast table, and that there will be fresh attacks upon their conditions. Moreover, without any beating about the bush, we have got to tell the workers that such issues as the McKenna Duties, Free Trade and so on, are only calculated to divide them and set one section against another. With reference to such questions as taxation, well, the burden should be spread across the shoulders of those who are able to extract values from the workers, and who live on the exploitation of the workers. The Capital Levy should operate in order to take the necessary wealth from those who can afford to pay it, and in order to ensure that the workers shall not be interfered with on question of taxation. But it is no use our criticising these people—MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas and Clynes, and so on—unless we have an understanding of the political influences working, or the ideology of these people. And we should understand this when we talk about the middle class ideology of these people, of the leadership of the Labour Party, and so on. We need to take very definite note of the fact that the leadership of the Labour Party is inspired by the Independent Labour Party, one of the most important factors in shaping the ideology of the Labour Government. The I.L.P. has a vast technical machinery, many experts, politicians, and is so far the determining factor in shaping the policy of this particular government. We should also take note of the fact that the I.L.P. does exercise a certain amount of influence over large masses of workers in this country. We must see to it that so far as the working class movement and these parliamentary elements are concerned, the workers must be saved for the Labour movement from this middle class corruption and ideology of the I.L.P. We must win over the proletarian masses of workers who are still in the I.L.P., and who still dwell in the traditions of Keir Hardie and in the tradition of those early working class pioneers of the Independent Labour Party. We must draw attention to the pacifist policy of the I.L.P. in relation to the militarist demands being put forward by the members of their own particular Party, and point out these sharp contradictions in the leadership of the Party. In other words, the Communist Party in this country has a very serious responsibility. It is up to it to put forward the most strenuous efforts to save the working class movement from the corrupting influences of the middle class and bourgeois parties and the policy that is being operated to-day through the Labour Party. We must win these proletarian masses into the Communist Party. Again we have got to reinforce our attacks upon the bourgeois democracy. You heard yesterday when discussing our parliamentary candidates, that there is great difficulty in the minds of some of our comrades, and a desire to sink one’s identity and criticism of the parliamentary institution because they are afraid that it will prevent them from getting forward as candidates and becoming members of the House of Commons. Comrades, we have got to say to the workers quite clear and definitely, that they cannot bring about their emancipation by parliamentary institutions, and that the Communist Party runs candidates for parliament in order that it might organise the workers round about their specific political demands and bring sharply to the front the political struggles of the workers as against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and definitely aiming at marshalling the working class organisations and prepare for the time when we can replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat. So far as the bourgeois dictatorship is concerned, and the idea of a peaceful transformation, we must put an end once and for all, and clear out of the way these illusions. We must understand that the bourgeoisie of this country has shown itself quite prepared as in all other countries, when it comes to a definite challenge for their power, to use methods of terrorism, quite prepared to use civil war, and to prematurely provoke civil war if necessary for the maintenance of their power intact. They will do anything to suppress the workers’ struggle. So far as the parliamentary institution is concerned, we seek to use it for the purpose of approaching and teaching the workers, and leading them in the direction of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We say quite definitely, that we must be prepared and the workers must be prepared to meet terrorism with terrorism, and to meet civil war with civil war when civil war is demanded. That is the experience our comrades on the Continent have had. It will be our experience in one form or another in this country, and we must fearlessly face it. We must shed our illusions with regard to the beauties of parliamentary democracy and insist upon the solidarity of the workers. But they must not regard this as an industrial question or an economic question, and that as a political question, and so on. The whole of the forces of our movement, industrial and political, should be efficiently directed towards securing political power for the workers. With regard to the operation of this policy, we are right up against problems of the united front. We do not yet fully understand this question in this country. We do not appreciate it in all its implications. The locals accuse the Central Committee of not giving a definite lead and explaining to them as to what should be done in these definite circumstances, and in those particular circumstances. Too many of our members look upon the United Front as meaning a grand alliance between the Communist Party and the Labour Party. If you get this idea then you also get the idea and suggestion of manœuvring, manipulating, trickery and duplicity in order to try and get positions. Prominence should always be given to the Party, and our comrades should not sink their identity in order to get positions in these organisations. What we have not got to do is to show that we are much cleverer than the opposition. Once we subordinate the Party we begin on the downward path where comrades are putting their Communism in their pockets in order that no one should see it. We must try to understand these points and see that the United Front means the unity of the workers, the bringing of the workers forward in conjunction with the Communist Party, formulating the definite and particular aims of the workers and getting definite mass action towards the realisation of those particular aims. With regard to the question of criticism, should we criticise the leaders in office? There has never been any such question of not criticising the leadership in our policy of the United Front. We have never had any doubt about our right to criticise the reactionary officials in the operation of our United Front policy. What we have got to do, however, is to gather the workers together on a question on which they are willing to fight, and then we have got to say to the leaders: here is the issue you say you are willing to fight on; it is an issue that will advance the aims of the workers: then, if you will fight on it we will fight with you. And it may be necessary to fight with them on certain questions on which we know we will be defeated. Whether we fail or succeed, nevertheless, we have always the right to criticise. If they betray the workers, we must come out in the open and expose them.

We have also to guard against the purely reformist and opportunist interpretation of the United Front. The Communist Party puts forward practical demands for the purpose of teaching the masses the way of revolutionary action and bringing them out into open struggle and forcing that struggle against capitalism, sharpening the class antagonism and bringing them right into the open. That is why we put forward immediate demands. It is the same with regard to our policy in the R.I.L.U. and the Minority Movements. The root of the difficulty that we have had in connection with these two movements has been that many of the comrades working in these non-Party movements have not been good Party men. They have conceived, these organisations as being something entirely separate from the Party, and themselves as having no connection with the Communist Party. A Communist should be a Communist wherever he is, and think in terms of the Communist Party all the time. Whatever problem he is approaching he should think in terms of what the Central Committee of the Party would do. Every Communist should work all the time in the closest possible contact with the Central Committee. This question of political development, we have got to admit is not yet thoroughly developed in the minds of our members. We must frankly admit that it has yet to be cultivated. Undoubtedly something will come out of our experience. Out of sheer trial and test we shall come to realise these things. Meantime, we have got to say quite definitely on this particular point that so far as the Communist Party is concerned, and speaking of Communist Party members in relation to the Labour Party, we have a definite political programme and the defence of this particular programme through the Labour Party is our main object. In the promoting of Labour candidates, we are not concerned so much with the candidate getting there because of personal influence, and personal deportment. The basis must be the Party, programme, otherwise the victory is not for the Party at all. The points of the programme must be agreed upon by the Central Committee and operated under the jurisdiction and control of the Party Executive. Moreover, when a candidate is returned to the House of Commons, he should hold his position there as a member of the Communist Party, responsible to the Executive Committee of the Party. So far as many of the so-called leaders of the Labour movement are concerned, and in connection with the criticism of the fraternal delegates yesterday, we prefer their room to their company. At the same time, we have got to identify ourselves with them, if necessary, in going to the masses. We must criticise them all the time we are working with them, exposing them when they fail to fight, giving them credit where they show themselves willing to fight. Our supreme objective is the advancement of the workers’ struggle, and finally, the question of political power. In running candidates, we are not merely concerned with doing a little bit of propaganda. As a matter of fact, it has been said that our propaganda does not really begin until we get our candidates into the House of Commons. But our propaganda meetings go on all the time, under all circumstances and on all occasions. It never begins and never ends. We carry on propaganda in the Trade Unions, in the Co-operatives, in the Unemployed Movements in the Local Labour Parties, in Parliament. And our propaganda should be put forward clearly and definitely so that the masses will understand it and see the difference between the Communist Party and the Labour Party, and other bodies. On that point we are not merely propagandists, not merely place hunters. We are concerned with getting the workers to understand the necessity for struggle, the value and methods of struggle. Reasons are frequently advanced for keeping our programme in the background. Comrades, if there are seven reasons out of ten why we should keep our programme in the background before we get into office, then I can foresee that there will be eleven reasons out of ten why we should keep it dark once we have got into office in case we get flung out. That is a policy of opportunism. We have got to fight on our programme clearly and definitely, and we have got to see to it that the workers understand our programme. Once our members are in office, they have got to carry out the straight policy of the Central Committee. In asking members to do this, we are not asking impossible things. We have always to work to get the maximum results for the Party. The question of our political activity was referred to yesterday both in the speeches of Cachin and the other fraternal delegates. Our criticism must not be merely confined to words, but must be shown in deeds, not even confined to deeds in the old individualist anarchistic sense. In our propaganda we must always take advantage of every opportunity that arises. Recently, for example, we had the picture of the King and Queen of Rumania coming here, while thousands of workers are languishing in the prisons of Rumania. On such occasions we must agree on what is to be our policy. Shall we merely place on record the fact that so many of our comrades are in gaol. No comrades, we must consider what steps shall be taken to champion the cause of the workers, to bring the Communist Party to the front. And it is the same with Mussolini as with any other representative of the capitalist dictatorship. In the case of Labour leaders or Cabinet Ministers, we have got to point out their true character, point to the difference between their speeches, and their deeds, their promises and the things they carry out. In the past we have, of course, done much in this direction, and we understand and, know the political values of such procedure. We have had demonstrations. We have seen demonstrations in London, in Trafalgar Square, when the Square was surrounded by police standing arm to arm; there have been 400 of them right round the Square, standing and preventing our comrades from getting a mass demonstration into the Square. There are regulations preventing our comrades from marching on Westminster, into Whitehall. We know about these police regulations. We have seen the mounted police held in abeyance in the courts and other places; they have been concealed on the Embankment, taking advantage of the strategy of the situation, and when our comrades marched on Whitehall along Piccadilly, they have been beaten back by the mounted police endeavouring to break up the demonstration to prevent them getting to the House of Commons. This is the sort of thing we have experienced. Our fundamental aim must be to bring the mass of the workers into action because we believe that it is out of action that they will get their education. The best of their education will come out of actual participation in the class struggle. In conclusion, our policy is always one of developing the workers’ struggle for power, and we must see to it quite definitely so far as our Parliamentary policy is concerned that we do not look upon Parliament as the medium to working class emancipation. The workers must establish their own institutions upon the basis of the Labour movement and seek to set up the dictatorship of the proletariat. These are the principles of the Communist International. These are the principles of this Communist Party as a section of the Communist International. The whole International stands upon these principles of struggling for political power for the workers, bringing the masses into action against the bourgeois dictatorship and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.