Joseph Fineberg

Marxism and the Labour Party

Source: The Call, March 7, 1918 (part I); March 14, 1918 (part II); March 21, 1918 (part III)
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.

“The genuine Socialist cannot fight against the working class.
He must be with that class, even when it blunders.”—MAXIM LITVINOFF.


From time to time in British working-class politics there is bound to arise the reconsideration of the relations of the Socialist bodies with the Labour Party. Some members of the British Socialist Party, for example, hold that a true Marxian and revolutionary policy demands separation from all non-Socialist organisations, even when of the working class. It is urged that as Socialists we cannot afford the time for the pettifogging issues that gain the attention of working-class bodies. We should carry on a propaganda that will bring the workers to see that capitalism must be over-thrown. It is held that by association with the Labour Party we are hampered by the dead weight of reaction that we must carry, and because we must share responsibility for the crimes and failures of its leaders. We should be independent of such entangling alliances; we should concentrate on the effort to turn the workers from their worship of false gods and direct them towards the shining light of scientific Socialism.

Since that is the case that some Socialists seek to erect, we must inquire into the nature of the Marxian theory. The distinction between Utopian Socialism and Scientific Socialism is in the fact that the former is a desire for a better order of society, which springs from the sentiments, whilst the latter—Scientific Socialism—is the result of an examination of the forces that govern social development and of an understanding of the direction that social tendencies are taking. The changes society has undergone are due to the changes in the methods of producing and exchanging wealth. In every epoch the class commanding the means of production was the governing class. In the Middle Ages, before the manufacture of commodities, the land-owning barons were the dominant class. In this age of commodity production the owners of factories, machinery, raw materials, and banks, constitute the capitalist class which is the dominant class. As methods of production change, those interested in the new methods find their development restricted by the laws and customs framed by the ruling class. Gradually, the class that depends for its rise to power upon the development of the new methods of production grows in numbers and influence, and assumes definite opposition to the existing order. Ultimately the ruling class is driven from power, and the control of society passes into the hands of the class that represents the new methods of production. These now reconstruct society in order to allow the free development of the system, favourable to themselves. In this way the capitalist class gained power, overthrew the landed aristocracy, and instituted constitutional government. The change may be rapid, as in the French Revolution, or slow as in England, where the struggle between the rising capitalist class and the landed aristocracy commenced with the Cromwellian Revolution, and did not terminate in the victory of the middle class until the passing of the Reform Act.

In each form of society there has developed certain antagonisms: the struggle of classes has arisen and created the movement for the overthrow of the existing order. The change does not come from without, but from within, and as a result of conditions created in the old order. Modern capitalism is subject to the same laws as the preceding forms of society. The capitalists’ exploitation of the propertyless worker engenders the class antagonism. The methods of production have changed from simple individualist manufacture to complex machine production. Production is no longer individual, but co-operative. Already the foundations of the new order are laid. The superstructure will be raised when the passage from individual to co-operative production has been completed by the cooperative ownership of the means of production in place of private ownership. We waive individual exceptions and say that the only class—as a class—that is interested in this change is the working class. Socialism, therefore, must come through the medium of the working-class movement.

We have read all this in the text-books, the reader may say, and because it is true we hold it to be wrong for the B.S.P. to remain in the Labour Party. To such, I answer, that they fail to apply the theories they study to the facts of life. Claiming to use the Marxian dialectic, in reality they are hide-bound. empiricists. Instead of regarding the Labour movement as a growth in development, they falsely conceive it to be unchanging, bound to remain as it is now. Claiming to be the only scientific Socialists, by endeavouring to establish a movement without roots in the groundwork of society, they prove themselves mere Utopians—the hopeless lumber of an outworn system of thought, divorced from social movement. There is only one working class to defeat the capitalist class. Whatever its faults, it is this working class alone that can take power and establish the Cooperative Commonwealth. It must, of course, possess the necessary ardour before it can achieve this object; and a study of the working-class movement in Britain reveals a slow but steady progress in the revolutionary ideas that arise as the result of Labour’s subservience to capital.

In this country the capitalist system was well into stride before the laws governing the development of capitalism were discovered. But economic laws, like the laws of Nature, operate whether they are known or unknown. Thus the antagonisms of classes were soon asserted. Without understanding the forces governing society the workers combined in organisations most effective at the time. They fought the capitalist class on its own ground, blindly, without an inkling of an idea of class solidarity. Yet these battles were an example of the workers’ participation in the class struggle, as complete as the activities of the highly organised movement of the future will be. After generations of this warfare, fought without a conscious aim, but overworking towards a definite end, the discoveries of Marx illumined the darkness in which the workers groped, and endowed them with a grand purpose. The more intelligent—we pay ourselves this compliment—see in his teachings a guide to our activities. But did Marx intend his message for a coterie of select disciples, standing on an eminence and clad in the white mantle of purity, and busily reproving the godless masses struggling in a welter of darkness and sin? Or did Marx view the working class as a whole? From his vast store of facts he deduced that the workers, by their gradual adoption of the principles he had enunciated, would fulfil his anticipations of the form the working-class movement would ultimately take. To Marx, the workers when they become Socialists do not become different from the rest of the working class. Their change in thought is an evidence of gradual transformation in the working-class movement. They remain of the workers, struggling with them for emancipation.


There are Socialists who assume the air of a child who, finding it can walk and talk, poses as superior to other babies, unaware that in time they, too, will acquire these accomplishments. These Socialists assert that by affiliation with the general working-class movement our progress is retarded by the slowly moving mass. But in any case, the progress of Socialism is governed by the advance of Socialist thought among the workers. The Socialist movement of to-day cannot bring Socialism. The Co-operative Commonwealth will be inaugurated by the mass action of the workers. To assert the contrary is a denial of the very principles the ultra-scientific so clamantly support. Steadily the workers move along the road to Socialism. Circumstances compel them to take that road, and the last decade has seen a tremendous change in outlook and organisation. Economic laws operate whether they are known or not, but if we understand their operation we can bend them to our purpose pad assist society along the course it tends to travel. As a Socialist Party we must bring this knowledge to the workers. What tactics must we pursue to that end?

The necessity for political action is taken for granted. Whenever the power of the governing class asserts itself, then the workers must fight. The State is the political expression of the dominant class, and since that dominant class uses the machinery of the State—law, justice, force—to maintain its own privileges and to impose its will upon the labouring mass, the workers contest their claims by political action. The distinction between political and industrial action is false; they are the two poles of the same movement. If this be agreed, those who oppose affiliation to the Labour Party are illogical.

The Trade Union membership, as a whole, does not yet appreciate the significance of its own movement. Although engaged in the class struggle, often in conflicts on a gigantic scale, it acts without coherence, and with a dim perception only of its reason and purpose in the struggle. It concerns itself with issues that seem trifling to those who long to move forward rapidly—a reduction of an hour in the working week, or a penny increase in the hourly rate of wages. Yet, what do Social-Democrats in Trade Unions do? They do not leave the Union as reactionary and hopeless. If the Trade Union is hopeless there is no hope. They do not start a new working-class movement in opposition to the old. Not being Utopians, they do not court failure. They remain in the Unions where the working class are. They take a leading part in the conflicts with the employers over smaller issues, knowing that these are the day-to-day evidences of the class struggle. They are injured by the mistakes of the unthinking mass. Our principles are outraged by the workers’ exasperating perversity. Yet they stay in the Unions, certain that facts and argument will finally bring the members to the acceptance of Socialist principles. By remaining in the Union we do not feel that they are compromised, or that they are in part responsible for the mistakes or treachery of leaders. We battle against the tide, now making headway, now pressed back, confident that when it rises to the flood it will carry us to fortune.

The reason why some Socialists participate in the every-day struggle in the industrial field, and yet decline to take a part in political action, is that they regard industrial action as more important than political. That belief is without justification. If the political movement is the pole, opposite to the industrial movement, the standard of political activity is governed by the level of industrial activity. The ideas prevalent in the Labour Party reflect the ideas prevailing in the Trade Unions. That is inevitable since both bodies are composed of the same workers. We have already noted that Trade Unionism was established before Social Democracy was expounded. This point must be considered when we discuss the Labour Party, since the need for independent political action was not recognised till long after Trade Unionism was admitted to be essential. If participation in the daily struggle over the smaller issues that arise in the trade Union world is aright, why should participation in the Labour Party be wrong? Are not the demands at an election the political translation of the demands made during strikes? The issues are as broad or as narrow; the palliatives that arise for discussion during an election campaign are not less sound than the demand for increased wages. (The writer asserts that palliatives are economically sound). If it is agreed that political action is necessary to the working class, then it will follow that we shall agree to fight politically on the same issues as we fight industrially. Both methods, whatever the magnitude or nature of the immediate issue, are alike manifestations of the class struggle. Membership of the Labour Party is equal to the membership of a Trade Union. Voting for a Labour candidate with a programme that would palliate the evils of the capitalist system, whilst leaving the system fundamentally unaltered, is the corollary to striking for an increase in wages.

But striking is more revolutionary? What Social-Democrat can say that? With the Labour Movement as it is, when workmen strike they move against their particular employer or group of employers. When a workman votes for a Socialist or a Labour candidate he votes against the whole of the capitalist class; he votes for his own class without regard for craft or industrial divisions. The Trade Union Congress cannot effectively express the class interests of the workers because it has no power to coalesce the industrial elements that compose it. On the other hand, the Labour Party, though composed of the same elements as the Trade Union Congress, in its corporate capacity, mingles the various groups. It does not act for a particular group, but for the whole working class. Although working-class politics are not so dramatic as striking, nor their results so drastic, they are an educational factor of the first importance in developing a sense of class solidarity. The Labour Party is not a Socialist Party. But the forces operating to make the Trade Unions more effective on the industrial field will not be idle or powerless inside the Labour Party. As it is no breach of principle to be a Trade Unionist, it must be right to be in the Labour Party. Indeed, many who object to the affiliation of the B.S.P. with the Labour Party are members of that body through their Trade Unions. We have seen the most conscientious industrialists as delegates at Labour Party Conferences. If it is bad Socialist tactics to be in the Labour Party why are they there? There is no compulsion. Thanks to that good servant of the capitalist class, Osborne, they can plead a conscientious objection to Labour politics and decline to pay the political levy. Activity in the Labour Movement makes them good Marxists, while the rarified atmosphere of the club debating society turns men into spinners of violent words and useless theory mongers.


It may be urged that the objections to Socialists, as individuals, belonging to the Labour Party, are not so great as the objection to a Socialist organisation affiliating thereto. Away from politics we escape the dirt and turmoil thrown up by the ignorant herd and, making ourselves clean, we saunter along the olive groves in company with our equals. What then, is the function of a Socialist organisation? Clearly its business should be the propagation of the principles of Social-Democracy; to teach the workers how the wealth their labour produces is taken from them; to inculcate a sense of their duty to themselves and the part they have to play in completing the emancipation of mankind. The Socialist organisation must carry its propaganda to the workers; the workers will not come to us in order to receive it as a gift from our hands. Nay, more than that, we must carry our propaganda to that section of the workers upon whom it will be most effective. That section is the organised workers. No doubt there are as good Socialists outside the Trade Unions as in them. Indeed, there are some insular Socialists, who cling so tenaciously to the individualism they dare not or cannot shed, that they religiously refuse to join any organisation, and thus dissipate their well-intentioned but ineffective energy. Depreciate the Labour Movement to the full extent of our natural impatience, decry it because it is unconscious that it wages a class struggle, the Labour Movement is, nevertheless, bound to take power ultimately. We are not at fault; it is no use complaining that Socialist theory came at a later stage in working-class history, and therefore, that the could not build around the Socialist bodies a movement like that of Germany or France.

The Socialist Parties are an integral part of the working-class movement. They are the centre from which propaganda is disseminated; members in the Trade Unions should be the agents of the Socialist Parties. The stronger the Socialist body the better can it permeate the working-class movement. It can do more than that. The activities of Socialists in the Trade Unions are diffused and scattered, and without a central organisation of Socialists we must wait until their work bears fruit, seen in a general change of opinion. Organised, the strength of all the Socialists becomes a united and definite section. As a body it, gives expression to Socialist opinion; it voices the demand for Socialist activity. By insistence and undeviating purpose it becomes the left wing of the workers movement, identified by its reiteration of the need for revolutionary change. The Socialist organisation is not submerged in the reactionary mass; its different tones distinguish it from all the rest. Its difference is more notable besides the reactionary indifferent mass than apart from them. The Socialist effort is not hampered. On the contrary, contact with the Labour organisations provides greater opportunity for action, and in directions that are effective.

It may be disappointing, but the Labour Party is the political expression of the working-class movement. It will remain so, and will become a revolutionary instrument just so far and as rapidly as the workers permit. The affiliation of the B.S.P. does not mean only that we send delegates to a Conference once a year. It means that the B.S.P. takes part in the national and local life of the working-class movement. The local organisations are even more important than the national. It is in the constituencies that the Party machinery works. In the local organisations we are in touch with the rank and file, and there the B.S.P., when participating in counsel, should be effective. Where the B.S.P. branches are definitely related to the local Labour Movement, they are as a rule most active, and rank as a force to be reckoned with. In rare instances only does a Socialist branch command a position apart from, or independent of, the rest of the local Labour bodies.

From the point of view of the national organisation, and its general welfare and advancement, the question whether the B.S.P. is affiliated to the Labour Party is of great importance. The Labour Party speaks for the organised workers. If the Socialist organisations stand apart confusion arises. That which is declared to be Labour’s aim is all that the Labour Movement can stand for. The inclusion of the Socialist Parties gives colour and life to the movement. They give to the Labour Party elements of virility, clear-thinking and set purpose which must have a cumulative effect. We can do one of two things. Come out of the Labour Party and leave the field to the non-Socialist elements that control it now; or remain in, taking part in this political expression of the class conflict, striving to impress press it with a Socialist character. If we leave the Labour Party we delimit the future of the B.S.P., and voluntarily condemn ourselves to hover round the fringes of Labour’s action, holding street-corner meetings and drifting to stagnation. Marx did not envisage that kind of desultory life when he called upon Socialists to fire the masses of the working class with their own ardour and determination.

Let those who say that by affiliation with the Labour Party we damage the B.S.P. and hamper our efforts for Socialism, show how it has so affected us. We know of no hampering influence. Our opposition to capitalism and war has been as consistent and emphatic though we are affiliated to the Labour Party, as it could ever have been were we apart from that body. Rather than having damaged the B.S.P. its reputation and influence has gained immeasurably by our affiliation. The small self-righteousness of isolation is no longer ours, but we are conscious of no responsibility for the misdeeds of any of the Labour Party leaders or members. Those who would make us responsible for all that Mr. Henderson, or Mr. Purdy, or Mr. Macdonald has done, wish us to be so. In that desire they prove their readiness to act as stupidly as those who sought to make its responsible for the manufactured infamies of Alec Cordon.

For thirty years, in this country, Social-Democracy was a voice crying in the wilderness. For thirty years Social-Democracy resisted the clear teaching of Marxism in matters of political action. For all that time we shirked the responsibility that our acceptance of International Socialism imposed on us. Then we found that a Socialist organisation failed in its task unless it served as the driving force within the Labour Movement. With common sense and ready to take our part in the hard, laborious, grinding work of Labour organisation, not fearing to soil our mantle if only we mould the mind of the workers’ movement into the form we would have it take, we shall prove the B.S.P. to be a true Marxist Party.