Emile Burns 1942

Labour’s Way Forward

Author: Emile Burns;
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain;
Published: July 1942;
Printer: Metcalfe & Cooper Ltd. 10/24, Scrutton street, EC 2;
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.


The recent Labour Party Conference shows that deep changes are taking place in the outlook and spirit of the Labour Movement. From the crisis of 1931, through the coming to power of Hitler in Germany, the Abyssinia war, the Spanish struggle, the Munich days, the fight for the Peace Front with the Soviet Union in 1939, increasing numbers of Labour men and women have been aware of the need for a new outlook and a new policy on the part of the British Labour movement.

Those who realised this were not strong enough to overcome the barriers to a change of Labour's policy. The old outlook was too firmly entrenched in the leading positions. The Labour movement found itself condemned to support the policy which kept Britain divided from the progressive forces in the world - the Soviet Union, the Chinese national struggle, the Spanish people’s struggle, the forces in every country which were striving for the People’s Front against Fascism.

Hence - inevitably in one sense, but only because British Labour stood aside from the progressive front - the progressive forces suffered temporary defeat, and the war came. Now once again the process of the war itself, with Hitler’s conquests and subjection of Europe’s peoples, his attack on the Soviet Union and the growth of the war into world war, has put the same question to the British Labour Movement; is its policy adequate to the profound changes that are taking place in the world?

Millions of Labour men and women, Trade Unionists and Co-operators feel that it is not adequate. They want a more active leadership, a policy that unites instead of divides, a bold and confident outlook that can raise the giant of British Labour to its full height and make its voice decisive for the future of Britain.

The Labour Party Conference undoubtedly reflected the growth of this spirit. But it also revealed a number of tendencies which may weaken the movement rather than strengthen it, because they do not fully take into account the completely new situation facing British Labour.

The purpose of this pamphlet is to examine some of these tendencies, to show why they are inadequate and dangerous, and to suggest the main lines of the policy which can rally and unite the Labour movement to achieve the common purpose: the speedy destruction of Fascism, and the leadership of the progressive forces in shaping the world after the war.

The "come-out" tendency

The Labour movement knows that there are many weaknesses in the policy and drive of the present National Government. In spite of the urgent need, the people are not fully mobilised. There is too much consideration for vested interests. There is inequality of sacrifice, which reaches its highest expression in the contrast between the privileged position of the rich and the low rates of pay and allowances to the men in the armed forces and their dependants. Waste, muddle and obstruction hamper production. Defence regulations are enforced against workers while the employers go unscathed. There has been a lack of grip in tackling the coal shortage, the Black Market, and a host of other issues which need ruthless handling if Britain's full strength is to be mobilised for the war effort. India is still refused a National Government with full powers. There has been long hesitation in fully implementing the alliance with the Soviet Union by the development of a Second Front in Europe, which is only now recognised as essential.

The root of all these organisational and political weaknesses in the war effort is the continued domination, within the British national front, of vested property interests that are in conflict with the national interest, and of the reactionary Tory outlook associated with these property interests.

It is therefore only natural, and absolutely correct, that those in the Labour movement who feel most passionately the need to mobilise Britain for speedy victory should see the way forward in weakening the influence of property interests and of the Tory outlook, so that all policy is guided solely by the national interest and the consistent democratic outlook which is the guarantee of victory.

But how is this to be achieved?

One tendency, voiced particularly by Lord Strabolgi at the Labour Party Conference and in a letter published in Reynold's News of May 31st, 1942, urges the Labour Party "to leave the Coalition Government and form a constructive and patriotic opposition." The essence of Lord Strabolgi's case for coming out of the Government is:

"I believe that by so doing we would have a greater influence on events at home and abroad and help more effectively in the successful prosecution of the war. The alternative, all in the sacred name of unity, will be the weakening of Labour as a governing party, the loss of its separate identity and the silencing of its authoritative voice in the councils of the nation."

Is it a fact that Labour in Opposition would have more influence on events at home and abroad, and help more effectively in the successful prosecution of the war?

Take any concrete issue; the coal situation, service pay and allowances, the handling of the Black Market. Many Labour Members in Parliament have given full expression to the progressive standpoint on these and other issues. Could Labour exercise more influence by withdrawing its members from the Government and expressing its views as a so-called "Opposition"? Not at all, even if it challenged a division on every issue.

After all, what is a Parliamentary Opposition? The word has no meaning unless there is a political Party that opposes the main line of policy of the Government, seeks to rouse the country against it, and aims at defeating the Government and taking its place. Obviously, a Party that has such an aim should not have members in the Government.

But if the Labour Party approves - as I believe it overwhelmingly does - the Government's main policy of alliance with the Soviet Union and the USA for the defeat of Hitler, then it cannot withdraw its members from the Government.

Such a withdrawal would be extremely dangerous. There is an Opposition to the Government; an Opposition that does not want an allied victory over Hitler, that hates the Soviet Union and the British-Soviet Alliance, and seeks to split national unity and reach some form of "appeasement" with Hitler. If Labour came out of the Government, this would only make it easier for the real Opposition - the Munichites, the Cazalets and Phillimores - to undermine the national unity, to sow suspicions of Britain's intentions abroad, weaken the prosecution of the war and create a political situation at home and abroad which would be favourable to the triumph of "appeasement."

Is it true that the alternative to Labour's leaving the Government is "the weakening of Labour as a governing party, the loss of its separate identity and the silencing of its authoritative voice in the councils of the nation?"

No, the truth is directly the opposite. Nothing could more weaken Labour's position, more submerge its identity among the "independent" groups which represent everything from sheer muddled thinking to personal careerism and even defeatism, nothing could more silence its authoritative voice in the councils of the nation, than if it abandoned its direct share of responsibility in the government of the country at this supreme crisis.

It is not wrong policy that has brought the Socialist Soviet Union into coalition with Imperialist states and capitalist Governments: it is not wrong policy that has brought Socialists and Communists into coalition with capitalists in foreign governments that are fighting against the Axis Powers: it is not wrong policy for representatives of the British workers to continue in coalition with British capitalists. The maintenance of coalition, national and international, must be the cornerstone of the policy which will give Labour greater influence on events at home and abroad, and decide the war and the peace.

Does this mean that the position is hopeless - that Labour cannot do anything to strengthen "its authoritative voice in the councils of the nation?"

Not at all. It means only that coming out of the Government is not the way to do it. But there is another way; to campaign for Labour's demands up and down the country, and so to mobilise the workers and the entire people that the demands cannot be resisted by reactionary circles in and around the Government.

The power of a Minister is not in his strong right arm, or his strong left argument, but in the masses moving into political action behind him.

This is one part of the new outlook which Labour needs; to look less to individuals and positions, to look more to the working class and the people.

The by-election truce

Far wider than the relatively small group which wants Labour to leave the Government is the section of the Labour movement which is dissatisfied with the By-Election truce.

As it works at present, when a Parliamentary vacancy occurs the Party which previously held the seat is entitled to nominate the official Government candidate, and the other Parties in the Coalition must not put up or support any rival candidate.

There is a widespread feeling in Labour ranks against this arrangement.

It is easy to understand this feeling. The existing House of Commons grossly misrepresents the present political outlook in the country. The By-Election truce, as it now operates, preserves this distorted representation in Parliament and. prevents even the very gradual adjustment which would almost certainly come about if the Labour Party fought Tory seats. Moreover, with a Labour Party whose rank and file is in the ordinary way only mobilised at election times, the agreement not to fight elections leads to the decay in the Constituency Party machine and accentuates the general lifelessness of the movement. Therefore particularly the keenest and most active local stalwarts of the Labour movement chafe under the restrictions imposed by the truce: they quite correctly want to see Labour's supporters mobilised and Labour's power increased.

But the solution which they propose - for Labour to fight by-elections where the Government candidate is a Tory - is not the way forward. Everything that Labour does must be directed towards strengthening national unity. To fight elections on the Labour versus Tory basis would open up issues that divide, and thereby weaken unity on the main issue that unites the fullest British effort for the Allied victory over Hitler.

The Labour man or woman who votes for a Government candidate who is a Tory is not voting for Toryism, any more than a Tory elector voting for a Government candidate who is Labour is voting for Socialism. This is not the issue before the electors. The votes are cast for the Government, for national unity in the Allied fight against Hitler.

Firstly, therefore, Labour can use by-elections to strengthen national unity, and similarly to strengthen Labour's influence against reactionary Tory policies by supporting the Government candidate, at the same time running a powerful campaign for the points of policy which Labour desires to press on the Government and on the candidate. In fact, there is not the slightest reason against, and the most powerful reason for, Labour Parties running active political campaigns for Labour's policy, not only when death or promotion creates a Parliamentary vacancy in their area, but all the time. This is the way to raise the spirit of the Movement all over the country and with the urgency which the present situation requires.

Secondly, the very desirable adjustment of the relation of forces in the House of Commons must be brought about in a way that does not encourage conflict and disunity within the nation, but increases the sense of unity of purpose and defeats the disruptors. In the days of the People's Front in France, each of the People's Front parties was entitled to put forward its own candidate at elections when no candidate secured a clear majority on the first ballot, the candidate who had secured the highest vote became the united candidate of the People's Front parties against any reactionary candidate. Thus the electoral system in France, with its second ballot where no clear majority was obtained, made possible an electoral agreement which secured the testing of opinion as between progressive candidates, together with progressive unity against reactionary candidates. If such an electoral system existed here, the same form of agreement between the parties in the National Front would be the right thing to work for. But as we have to work within the limits of our existing electoral system, a different solution must be found, but one which equally maintains unity.

The Communist Party has proposed such a solution. Its proposal is that when a Parliamentary vacancy occurs the selection of a candidate representing national unity behind the Government should not be the exclusive concern of the Party to which the former Member of Parliament was attached, but that all organisations in the constituency - Tory, Liberal, Labour, Communist and non-Party - should together choose the individual best fitted to represent the common purpose.

The adoption of a Government candidate in this way would unite the people instead of dividing them, would freeze out the "independents" who are exploiting the present situation for their own careerist aims, and would make it absolutely clear that any opposition candidate who was put up was against victory and for appeasement.

This is the common-sense solution of the difficulties caused by the present form of electoral truce. If those in the Labour Party who see the need for a change will work for this solution, there is no doubt it can be won. The will of the people is a mighty force when it drives in the right direction, gathering behind it all that is best in every section and class of the nation.

The "Socialism now" tendency

Of all the tendencies which reveal the stirring that is taking place in the Labour movement, the "Socialism Now" tendency is the most understandable and in some ways the most plausible. '

I am not speaking here of that anti-working-class doctrine put forward by avowed Trotskyists and the majority of the Independent Labour Party. Masquerading as "Socialists," these individuals tell the workers that the outcome of the war is of no importance for them, and do everything they can now to weaken the fight that Britain is in fact conducting alongside the Soviet Union and the European, American and Chinese peoples against the common enemy, the Axis Powers. Such a doctrine is not even plausible even those with very limited intelligence can see that it only helps Hitler and his friends in Britain.

The "Socialism Now" tendency within the Labour movement is expressed by stalwarts who do not for a moment doubt the importance of the outcome of the war for the workers, stalwarts who desire the earliest and most complete smashing of Fascism, and who base their arguments for immediate Socialism on the need for the more efficient prosecution of the war.

No one-at least in the working-class movement - doubts for a moment that a Socialist country can mobilise all its resources- its armed forces, its material and human productive resources, and above all its national unity of purpose-more efficiently than is possible for a country whose basis is capitalism. The Soviet Union provides the proof, if proof were needed. But let us be quite clear what we are talking about. We are talking of a Socialist country, in which after years of struggle there is no longer an exploiting class, but only working people - town workers, country workers, intellectual workers, devoted to their Socialist country and prepared to sacrifice everything for its cause.

The advocates of "Socialism Now" are talking of something different. They are talking of grafting on to the British economic system, which is capitalist, the so-called "Socialist" measure of nationalising one or more industries. If this were done, Britain would still remain a country sharply divided into classes. Even the former owners of the nationalised industries would still be living on the labour of the workers the only difference would be that they would draw their income as interest from the State instead of as dividend from their companies. Almost of necessity, taking actual conditions into account, the directors and managers of the nationalised concerns would be drawn from the capitalist class, even if representatives of the workers participated.

This would not make Britain a Socialist country. It would not eliminate the self-seeking, profit-grasping motives, which would still dominate the country, surrounding and preying on the nationalised industries. It would not bring national unity of will in the use of the country's resources. In a word you can't have Socialism under capitalism and you can't have the benefits of Socialism under capitalism.

What exactly is it that Labour supporters of the war hope to get by nationalisation? Their main aim is to ensure a single, unified control of one or more industries, in order to ensure better organisation and output than now results from the private, separate control of each enterprise. But nationalisation does not by itself establish such a control. The problem of setting up a single, efficient, control for the daily running of the industry would still have to be solved.

From the standpoint of winning the war, therefore, the question of ownership is not the urgent issue; the urgent issue is control, the achievement of a single, effective and efficient control.

In the present mood of the country, all those who really want victory will back the demand for effective control, although the demand for nationalisation would not only divide them, but tend to throw many sincere supporters of the war into the arms of the appeasers.

Of course, if the present owners of an industry - such as coal - persistently block or sabotage control in the national interest, it may be necessary to raise the demand for nationalisation. At that stage, when the need to clear out the owners had become obvious to others besides Socialists, the demand could have the united backing of all who genuinely support the war and are ready for all measures proved necessary to achieve victory. But this does not alter the fact that we could only reach this stage through a serious attempt to apply control, which all genuine supporters of the war now accept as necessary.

In what way can the Labour movement best fight to ensure effective control of industry from the standpoint of maximum production for the war effort, regardless of profit-grasping interests?

Certainly by political pressure for the general enforcement by the Government of that control "over everything and everybody" for which it already has Parliamentary authority: by political pressure to ensure special measures of centralised control over such industries as mining - the Government scheme for mining just introduced is a step in that direction, though it falls far short of what the miners and the Labour Party demanded.

But Labour must never lose sight of the fact that, in this society of ours, state control in practice means administration largely through capitalists and capitalist-minded individuals. Therefore political pressure for state control must be accompanied by that rousing of the workers in industry which will make the actual workers on the job, and not merely "representatives" of the workers, active participants in overcoming waste, inefficiency, or sabotage, and ensuring maximum output.

That policy, and not the demand for national ownership, is the way to achieve Labour's main immediate purpose.

The "now or never" school

This tendency, of which Professor Laski is the shining example, puts forward the demand for socialist measures now on the ground that immediate steps towards Socialism are the only guarantee that "the workers will not lose the peace": that unless such steps are taken now, when the capitalists are in a relatively weak position and can be induced to make concessions, they will never be taken after the war, when the capitalists will be relatively stronger and the working class weaker. Actually, the assumption that the workers will be weaker after the war is false; they will be much stronger if they now carry out the right policy. But let us see where Professor Laski's argument leads him.

In press articles in the past, Professor Laski has appealed to Mr. Churchill to be generous and introduce socialist measures now. In more recent statements, he seems to have abandoned hope of such generosity. In the New Statesman of June 6, 1942, he writes:

"Under the pretence of avoiding 'controversial' questions Mr. Churchill is, in fact, being allowed to determine the economic destiny of this country after victory... Those Labour leaders who support his policy... may assist in the achievement of a. military victory only to find that its economic basis has made impossible the very ends for which it has been fought."

The argument is simple enough, in spite of Professor Laski's unparalleled skill in using words to obscure what he is driving at. The meaning is: the capitalists are using the war situation to strengthen monopoly's hold over British industry for the future, so why should the workers bother about victory over fascism? In spite of lip service to winning the war, Professor Laski is in effect telling Labour that "the achievement of a military victory" under Mr. Churchill's leadership will be of no use to the working class because Mr. Churchill is refusing Socialist measures and encouraging the growth of monopoly, and thus "making impossible the very ends for which the war has been fought."

Where does such an outlook lead?

In the first place, to an all-out attack on Mr. Churchill, to the demand that Labour should denounce the electoral truce and come out of the Government. And this is precisely what Professor Laski advocates, he writes:

"To those who say that, without the electoral truce, the Churchill government could not continue on its present basis, my own answer is that, if we are to win this war on Tory principles, it is much better that it should be won by a Tory Government."

But this is not the only conclusion to which Professor Laski's outlook leads. For if "winning the war on Tory principles" "makes impossible the very ends for which it has been fought," there is no earthly reason why Professor Laski, or any Labour man or woman whom he may mislead, should support the war. The only condition on which anyone holding this standpoint could logically support the war would be if Labour had succeeded in throwing out Churchill and the Tories and establishing a Socialist Government to "win the war on Socialist principles," which is allegedly the only way to safeguard the ends for which it has been fought. A moment's thought, however, will show that any attempt to do this would split the country from top to bottom, and prevent the war from being won on any "principles" at all.

In fact, the more closely the "Now or Never" standpoint is examined, and in particular Professor Laski's exposition of it, the more difficult it is to distinguish it from the doctrine put forward without frills by the leaders of the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyists. It is not surprising that Laski the "Socialist," who advocates this standpoint, also argues that the Anglo-Soviet Treaty cannot be carried out, and provides "reasons" - for the continuation of the ban on the Daily Worker.

Therefore the "Now or Never" outlook is no part of the policy sought by those in the Labour movement who see the need for a change in the progressive direction. On the contrary, under cover of "Socialist" protestations the "Now or Never" group puts forward a policy which is in essence defeatist, reactionary and the most fatal that Labour could possibly adopt.

The real policy for Labour

If then, neither the "Come-out," nor the "End the Truce," nor the "Socialism Now," nor the "Now or Never" tendency can provide the policy for which progressive Labour men and women, Trade Unionists and Co-operators are searching, where will they find it?

Only if they start off from the basis that Hitler fascism is the main enemy of the working class in every country, and that therefore Labour must direct its full energies to securing the earliest possible Allied defeat of Hitler.

The policy that can put new life into the Labour movement is a policy directed towards winning the war this year.

Labour's policy must be worked out in relation to winning the war, and then it must be driven through in the most consistent and determined way, rousing the workers for political action that will sweep away obstacles to victory, defeat all appeasement tendencies, and increase Labour's authority within the National Front precisely because its win-the-war policy is correct in the eyes of the great majority of the people.

What are the essential points of such a victory policy as things stand now?

Our Government has signed a Treaty with the Soviet Union, and has agreed to open a Second Front in Europe this year.

The first point in Labour’s policy must therefore be to win the whole people for support of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty and the British-American invasion of Europe.

The opening of the Second Front means Britain playing its full part in the Alliance. It means giving the Red Army the chance to develop its offensive. It means rousing the peoples of Europe to join in the general offensive. It means victory this year.

The second point is that Labour should aim to create the best possible material and moral conditions for the success of the Western offensive.

This involves rousing the people to increase production to the utmost: to raise service men’s pay and allowances to their dependants: and to ensure the greatest possible measure of equality of sacrifice.

Third, to achieve these aims, Labour must seek to bring into joint action the widest possible sections of the British people.

This means, in the first place, the breaking down of the barriers erected by Transport House to joint action with the Communist Party and other organisations in which Communists participate. But it means also a clearer appreciation of the need for Labour to co-operate with Tories, with Liberals, with everyone in Britain who is prepared to work for Victory this year. And it means a clearer appreciation of the need to concentrate on the main job in hand - the defeat of Hitler - and not to be misled by those, however sincere, who work to divert Labour from this main purpose.

Fourth, Labour’s victory policy should seek to draw into action the widest possible masses of the people throughout the world against Hitler and the Axis Powers.

This involves two immediately vital points; The campaign for a National Government for India, with full powers: and the repudiation of Vansittart and his Labour followers.

Does concentration now on such a policy mean the abandonment of Socialism?

No, it means taking practical steps to increase the influence and political power of the Labour movement.

No-one who has even the most elementary political under- standing can believe that Socialism will come as a gift from the Tory Party, either as a concession or as a reward "for services rendered." The workers have never been given anything that they have not been strong enough to take. The only guarantee of the advance to Socialism is Labour’s strength. This it can only get from activity now in the fight against the main enemy to any kind of progress — Hitler.

Act Now

The four points outlined above are the essentials of the policy for which everything that is progressive within the Labour movement is searching.

All who see the terrible responsibility that now falls on the Labour movement - that is - on themselves - see these as the essential points, though there are many other more detailed issues. Some of these points are embodied in resolutions of the Labour Party Conference. But it is vital to understand that they hang together, that they are parts of a single and consistent whole. Labour cannot support the Anglo-Soviet alliance to the full, and yet refuse joint action with all other Parties and groups in Anglo-Soviet Committees, any more than it can support the National Government in Whitehall and oppose its official candidates in the constituencies.

But it is one thing to have a policy. It is another thing to rouse the country on it, to create such mass determination among the people that it must become the policy of the Government, that the Government must operate it, that the personnel of the Government must if necessary be changed in order to operate it.

Without such a campaign, a policy means nothing but an idle expression of opinion. An essential part of the policy is joint action with other Parties and groups to secure its adoption by the Government: this is the only way in which an irresistible movement can be created. The way forward is therefore only through the Labour Movement ending the whole policy of bans and exclusions which keeps the Labour Party away from any political activity in which Communists participate.

How can this be achieved, in view of the stubborn attitude of Transport House?

Only if those in the Labour organisations who see the need for a changed policy come out into the open for this change, fighting for it within their own organisations, building up a movement for unity that sweeps away all barriers. Within the Labour movement, as within the country, it is no good believing in a policy unless you have the courage to fight for it and the determination that guarantees success.

A real fight by every Trade Unionist who believes in unity could ensure the sweeping away of the "Black Circular" at the Trades Union Congress next September, so that Trade Union Branches would no longer be prevented from electing Communists as delegates to Trades Councils.

A real fight by every Labour Party member, every Trade Unionist and Co-operator whose organisation is affiliated to the Labour Party, could sweep away every other barrier to unity at the Labour Party Conference next year.

The defeat of the Executive on the Daily Worker issue at this year's Conference shows that this is possible. The feeling for unity is there - particularly since the Spain days, every event has underlined the need for it. If it were effectively mobilised by progressive Labour itself, the barriers could be broken down long before the next Trades Union Congress and Labour Party Conference, and the full force of united Labour brought into action now, in this crisis, at this decisive moment in history.

Between 1937 and 1941 the individual membership of the Labour Party almost halved - it dropped from 447,000 to 226,000. The Executive alleges that this decline is due to war conditions. But in fact it began before the war, and has continued in this period when the greatest issues in history are facing the working class. The whole people, in and out of uniform, are more politically alert than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of workers are joining the Trade Unions, tens of thousands are playing an active part in the factories, mines and transport services. The membership of the Communist Party is rising rapidly its political campaigns are rousing literally scores of thousands into political activity all over Britain the sales of its pamphlets soar beyond anything previously experienced in Britain.

Only the Labour Party registers decline. Is this decline to continue? Or is the Labour Party and the British Labour movement as a whole to gather new strength out of the gigantic struggle of the peoples, and to take its rightful place in the world movement of the workers for the future of humanity?

The answer rests with the men and women who make up the Labour movement and all its organisations. Their vision, their political activity, their courage, their determination will decide. I am confident what the decision will be. But unless they act, and act quickly and in a resolute way, the reactionaries in the leadership will continue the policy which has brought disaster. Time is pressing; Events are moving swiftly to the climax that will determine the fate of mankind. And I must say to every Labour man and woman, Trade Unionist and Co-operator, what Pasionaria said to the peoples of the world when the fate of Spain - and with it, our fate - was hanging in the balance: act now, tomorrow may be too late!