Clemens Dutt

British Labour and India

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 8, September 1926, No. 9, pp. 544-552, (3,126 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The United Front of British Imperialism

The recent debate on Indian affairs in the House of Commons, and the interchange of remarks between Lords Birkenhead and Olivier in the House of Lords emphasises one thing at least, and that is, that the British Labour movement has so far exercised singularly little influence on the policy of British imperialism.

British imperialism has all along pursued a logical and unwavering policy. Throughout the difficult post-war period, in India it has kept a level head and has astutely adopted exactly those measures best calculated to develop exploitation, to prevent and suppress revolt, and to safeguard its conquest and investments. The political concessions of the Government of India Act made certain of the support of the big capitalists and landlords, and now the series of economic concessions of the last few years, of which the appointment of the Textile Tariff Board is only the latest example, has further split away the middle bourgeoisie from the intransigent nationalist movement and thus, for the time being, deprived the latter of any capacity to harm. The difficult and dangerous process of turning India into a manufacturing country like Canada is being proceeded with on the firm basis of a partnership of British and Indian capital in the exploitation of the Indian masses, a partnership in which the British senior partner with five times as much capital invested has a correspondingly preponderant share in control.

This policy of British imperialism reflects exclusively capitalist interests, but it has not met with any serious criticism from the British Labour movement. The political leadership of the latter grew up under Liberal tuition and accepted in its entirety the Liberal policy of condemning imperialism in words and supporting it in practice.

Even the verbal condemnation of imperialism concerned only superficial aspects and not fundamentals. The reality of exploitation as the necessary basis of the Empire went unchallenged, while denuniciation expended itself on harsh methods of rule and the lack of democratic forms. Thus, from before the war until the present day, there is a history of effective co-operation between British capitalism and British labour in the maintenance and extension of the Empire. This united front of British labour and British imperialism has only become more prominent with the advent of the Labour Party to office, and with the growth of the British Empire’s threat to working-class standards at home.

The Attitude of the Labour Party to India

The characteristic feature of the India debate as described below takes its place a apart of the whole record of Labour imperialism. The official attitude of the Labour Party to the Empire since the war has been defined in the speech made in October, 1922, by Sidney Webb, at the time Chairman of the Labour Party. He declared:—

“The British Empire has disappeared since the Irish Treaty, and has become a British Commonwealth of Nations . . . The Labour Party cordially welcomed the change and adopted it as its policy with regard to the Empire.”

This propaganda of the “Commonwealth of Nations” as a disguise for the finance-capital octopus of British imperialism has been pursued vigorously since 1922. It has not escaped criticism by the rank and file, but it is still unrepudiated.

If the British Labour movement regards the Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations it is bound to oppose any movement which seeks to change by unconstitutional means the relationship between the units making up the Commonwealth. In fact, it is found that the official Labour policy has been to condemn movements for national freedom where they threaten to disrupt the bonds of Empire. With regard to India it is only necessary to quote the illuminating resolution of the National Joint Council, the forerunner of the Trades Union Congress General Council, passed in February, 1922, at the height of the crisis due to Gandhi’s non-co-operation movement.

While realising the necessity of preserving order in India, the Council deplores the political arrests . . . . but also deplores no less the action of the non-co-operators in boycotting these Parliamentary institutions recently conferred upon India by which grievances should be ventilated and wrongs redressed.

The resolution is primarily an assurance to British capitalism of full support in the task of “preserving order,” i.e., suppressing a revolt of the exploited masses, and secondly, an admonition to the Indian nationalists that they should confine their agitation within the limits prescribed by the British Government.

The consciously imperialist character of the Labour Party leadership was nakedly exposed during the short period of the Labour Government. It was a period of complete betrayal of all the old declarations of sympathy with the oppressed peoples of the British Empire, and of all the pledges of assistance and reforms that had been made in deference to working-class opinion. It demonstrated to the full the complete subservience of the official Labour Party leadership to the dictates of capitalist policy. The Empire was “carried on” and the Labour Party joined the Liberal and Conservative “pact” for “continuity” in imperial policy.

The Considered Judgment of all Parties

The tradition thus inaugurated has been loyally maintained. There has been no effective criticism by Labour of the Conservative administration of India, and in view of the Labour heritage of the Bengal Ordinance, of the imprisonment of Communists, and of government by certification (the Vice-regal prerogative of overriding the Legislative Assembly) there could not very well be any.

Last year Lord Birkenhead’s speech, as Secretary of State for India, went unchallenged in the House of Lords. In the subsequent debate in the House of Commons also, neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Party offered any real opposition to his threats and talk of the sharp edge of the sword. He was able to say in a later speech without any subsequent contradiction:—

The policy of the Government in relation to India was accepted without question, almost without criticism, in the House of Commons. Colonel Wedgwood and Mr. MacDonald accepted the broad principles upon which my speech has been framed. Therefore, I can say to my Indian critics that that which I said in the House of Lords represents not only the considered policy of a party, but the considered and deliberate judgment of all parties in the British nation.

The same thing was to be observed this year. The most characteristic feature of the rather dull and lifeless debate on Indian affairs in the House of Commons (the only one held during the year and nearly omitted this time, as being a waste of time) was, of course, the complete absence of any real criticism by the official Labour Opposition.

A very little Difference of Opinion

Earl Winterton, Under-Secretary of State for India, in his role as apologist for the government in the House of Commons, could present his picture of the state of India under British rule in tones of the greatest complacency, sure that he had nothing to fear in the debate that followed. Colonel Wedgwood, the Labour front bench representative, might indeed have spoken as a Conservative. The British Labour Party, in its character of official opposition, has less criticism of die-hard Tory administration than ever the Liberals had before it. Lord Winterton could not help remarking on this at the conclusion of the debate. He declared:—

It is a tribute to the success with which the administration of the Government of India has been carried on that there has been practically no serious criticism of the administration. That certainly would not have been the case three or four years ago. I am glad to say that there has been growing up, and I think it most important that there should grow up, a tradition that discussions on Indian policy, like discussions on foreign policy, should be conducted on a non-party basis. There is really very little difference of opinion between His Majesty’s Government and the Secretary of State and the leaders, at any rate, of the Party opposite.

There could not be a more damning indictment of a party which is supposed to be fighting in the British parliament for the interests of the working class, yet there has been no repudiation of this assertion, while on the other hand, there is every evidence of its truth. A particular example is the case of the Bengal Ordinance. The official Labour Party dare not denounce, even in the form of insincere parliamentary opposition, the continuance of this crime against Liberal principles. To the few back-benchers who raised the matter in the debate, Lord Winterton was able to reply:—

If their case is as strong as they represent it to be, it would be their duty to ask their leaders to move a Vote of Censure on His Majesty’s Government and the Secretary of State. We have had no condemnation from the Front Bench opposite of the Ordinance from the time it first came into operation until to-day; and for a very good reason that the policy underlying the Ordinance, and underlying the whole method of dealing with the situation in Bengal, was accepted by the late Government and by the late Secretary of State for India, Lord Olivier.

Lord Winterton’s Satisfaction

As for the speech of Lord Winterton, it was permeated with a spirit of undisguised satisfaction. It was true that he had to speak of the “menace” of the present communal tension, but that did not disturb his complacency. There was no need for the sabre-rattling indulged in by Lord Birkenhead last year, no need for threats to Indian politicians warning them not to sulk but to join hands with British rule in working the reforms. The concession policy of Great Britain has achieved its intended aim “of rallying the moderates,” and the noble lord was able to report that “the political history of India of the past nine months has been that of the progressive disintegration of the Swaraj Party.” With this remark should be coupled the comment made with great satisfaction that “the personal relations between the Government representatives and the non-official members, not even excluding the Swarajists, have been marked by the cordiality which has increasingly characterised them during the past two years.” The Government is naturally pleased by the growing approach to the model shown by the British House of Commons of sham fight and social fraternisation of political opponents.

The question of labour conditions in India was dismissed in a few words. The Trade Union Act is mentioned as intended “to foster the growth of a healthy Trade Union movement.” As the term “healthy” in the mouths of these spokesmen of capitalism invariably means servile (note, for instance, the contrary characterisation of Bengal, which Lord Winterton declared to “have enhanced its reputation for exhibiting definitely pathological conditions politically”), it can be accepted that the Government is satisfied with the fetters that have been forged for circumscribing trade union action, especially in view of the announcement that the Act is shortly to be followed by a further Bill providing machinery for compulsory arbitration in labour disputes.

The remaining reference to labour amounted to the statements, made in order to answer in advance possible criticisms of existing conditions, that no such thing as a standard of life existed in India, and that, therefore, no comparison with foreign standards could be made (!) and that “at present the will to take advantage of better conditions does not always exist.”

The Labour Party Echo

Such then was the Government pronouncement. How was it met by the representatives of the British working class? The first spokesman for the opposition, presumably the representative of the Labour front bench, was Colonel Wedgwood. He began with, a compliment to Lord Winterton, whom he said “gradually approaches our point of view,” and he continued with a panegyric of the new Viceroy that sounds amazing even in the records of Labour imperialism. He declared:—

Lord Irwin is perhaps an ideal man to have as Viceroy. He is not merely democratic but also has that vein of religious sincerity which is able to make at the present time so profound an appeal in a land such as India. He is a man to whom religion comes only second to pride in our country’s traditions.

That is exactly the sort of control and guidance that India wants at the present time.

This is the Labour Party estimate of a man who, as a member of the House of Commons, had distinguished himself only as a reactionary Conservative, and a faithful henchman of his party.

Another section of Colonel Wedgwood’s speech dealt with the possibility of a Labour Party being formed in the Assembly after the next election. His statement is interesting as it exposes only too bluntly one aspect of the significance of the propaganda on this subject which has been carried on by British and Indian Labour politicians. He said:—

I cannot help thinking and hoping that the mere emergence of a Labour Party will quicken interest in the better use of the Assembly. This will do more to break down the boycott of the Assembly, and the evasion of responsibility, then any form of Government pressure or expostulation.

This is in the exact spirit of the National Joint Council’s admonition to the non-co-operators of four years ago, quoted above. Both also contain ludicrous misstatements. The one speaks of “redressing wrongs” through the Indian legislatures. The Swarajist majorities have now had a surfeit of passing unavailing resolutions. The other speaks of the “evasion of responsibility.” The cry of the Nationalists is, “give us even only a little responsibility and we will co-operate!”

Colonel Wedgwood acts as a hardly-masked representative of imperialism. He wants the revolutionary Indian workers to act like the British labour-aristocracy and to pin their faith to parliamentary leaders who bargain and compromise in the sham legislatures, keeping within the constitutional limits allowed by the Imperialist power. Like the British Government he wants the Labour movement kept within “healthy” limits. When he went on in the debate to suggest that the Government should try to increase the prestige and popularity of the Assembly by awarding its members the title of “Honourable,” even Lord Winterton could not forbear interrupting with the remark that “the suggestion struck me as a curious one to come from those benches,” and he asked whether Colonel Wedgwood spoke on behalf of his party.

Col. Wedgwood accepted with pleasure Lord Winterton’s description of India as “now under prosperous conditions,” and he concluded his speech with an exhortation to “unite the princes and the British Government in showing to the world an example of what India can do in establishing freedom under the British flag.”

The other contributions to the debate need not be discussed here. A few of the Labour representatives did make some honest criticism of details of British rule in India (for instance, as regards the Bengal Ordinance), and did attempt to call attention to Labour conditions. But the official view of the Labour Party is that put forward by Colonel Wedgwood.

Effect of Labour Imperialism in India

This official view-point has an extensive hold. The Labour Party in its resolution on India at the Liverpool Conference, last year, of course subscribed to the doctrine of a “British Commonwealth of Nations,” and favoured the “free and equal partnership” of India with other members within it.

The Empire Policy Committee of the I.L.P. issued its report on Socialism and the Empire last March. Here again the policy favoured is “not a destructive one of breaking up the Empire but a constructive one seeking to develop it into a real Commonwealth of Nations.” In the case of the non-self-governing parts of the Empire “the ultimate goal is self-government, but that goal is not immediately attainable.”

Even the nominally left-wing leaders of the I.L.P. not infrequently find occasion to make declarations of support for the Empire. Wheatley supports it because “within the British Empire we have a nucleus of unity.” Kirkwood, during the Preference debate, June 12, 1925, declared:—

I am all out for cementing the British Empire.

Maxton, in the debate on the Trade Facilities Bill, March 2, 1926, announced:—

What we want to do is to build up a great Empire that shall house and develop a free people. That is an object we on these benches can share with any honourable member in this House.

The effect of this united front of Labour with imperialism is, of course, to create an intense distrust of the whole British working class among the revolutionary nationalists and masses of workers and peasants in the exploited territories of the British Empire. Indian Nationalists declare themselves disillusioned in the hopes they had based on the Labour Party, undeceived by “the ignoble record of the first Labour administration,” and they add, “nor is there any certainty of better results even with Labour in a majority.”—(Bombay Chronicle, September 19, 1925).

This situation has not been changed by the resolution of the Scarborough Congress of the Trades Union Congress last year. That resolution made considerable stir, for it meant that for the first time a leading organisation of British Labour declared for a complete break with the traditions of Labour imperialism. But the break was only in words, and has not been followed by any break in action.

The Time for Action

The Scarborough resolution was passed under pressure of rank and file opinion. It is a good indication that the old imperialist ideology is having to give way before the objective facts of the threat to the British working class that the British Empire in fact represents. The basis for Labour imperialism has been undermined.

The old ideology persists among the working-class leaders that came into power under different conditions, it persists also among the petty bourgeois types that are far removed from the workers’ struggle. But it is significant that the question of the Empire is a central question for the rank and file movement which includes all of what is vaguely termed the Left Wing.

The Trades Union Congress has declared its opposition to Labour imperialism. The task now is to translate this opposition into terms of action. It has been seen that in India the characteristic feature of recent development has been the closer union of British and Indian capital. That must be answered by the closer union of British and Indian labour. What is wanted now are not formulas or resolutions supporting the International Labour Office, or Imperial Preference, or denial of admission to goods made under “sweated” conditions, but practical concrete steps for the association and co-operation in action of the Labour movements in all parts of the Empire, and the development of a joint struggle against the combined forces of British imperialism.