Jack Fitzgerald

Labour Leaders and their Prey
(At the Portsmouth Conference)

Source: Socialist Standard, March 1909.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
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.

The Riddle Answered

“Why does Russell Smart?” asks our contributor, WILFRED, in the February issue of this journal. We may answer: Because he is not smart enough to obtain a place with the “smart set” who are so successfully running the rank and file of the Labour Party into the Morass of Liberalism. And at no period of their career have they been so successful as at the last conference of their Party, held at Portsmouth.

The first smart move was to hold a “preliminary” conference on Unemployment and the Incidence of Taxation. This was so thin a swindle that one is surprised that some of the opposition office-hunters did not protest against it. But perhaps they thought the precedent might be useful—to themselves—in the future. By having a preliminary, and academic, discussion on the principle of unemployment, the “smart set” were able to completely closure any discussion of their policy on the matter when it arose at the conference proper. This was certainly a score for them. Moreover, while throwing a sop to certain sections of their Party by declaring that “Free Trade does not solve the unemployed problem,” they were so assiduous in backing up their Liberal political masters that the Daily News (30.1.09) could say that the conference “gave a good deal of its time to a defence of Free Trade and an assault upon Tariff Reform.” Mr. Fred Knee wanted the reference to Free Trade deleted and was supported by Mr. W. Thorne, M.P., who, however, said that “a Free Trade country was better for Labour than a Protectionist country!” The obvious and crushing retort to this “facing both ways” statement came from a fellow Gas-worker, Mr. Clynes, who asked “Why take the words out, then? ” Even Mr. Thorne might have noticed the beautiful “possibilist” position he was occupying, but running with the hare and hunting with the hounds requires smart men, and Thorne is hardly among the smartest.

This Abode of Purity

Mr. Keir Hardie made the brilliant statement that “we have mischief enough to contend with already, without introducing that element of corruption into our political system which Protection never fails to bring.”

Oh ! shades of Warren Hastings and the South African War, hide your ugly heads! In this time of purity and innocence there is no place for you. What if the apostle of Free Trade, John Bright, did say “adulteration is a legitimate form of competition”? are we not as white as the driven snow compared with those foul countries where Protection—and corruption—reign supreme?

For instance, the following resolution was passed by the conference:

That there shall be created a National Department of Labour, presided over by a Minister of State, who shall have a seat in the Cabinet.

For what purpose? Even the promoters of this resolution do not pretend that the creation of such an office can increase the amount of work or employment at present existing. Of itself it can do nothing for the workless toiler vainly seeking employment. Then why such an office? The answer is plain—to provide one of the “smart set” with a well-paid job. And note, not only well paid, but with Cabinet rank, so as to provide, almost with certainty, a pension when retiring from the toils of office.

This is not corruption. Oh no! it is the purest of purity, and all for the benefit of the workers. It is almost marvellous that, with so many ardent persons striving might and main for the workers’ benefit, not only is their position unimproved, but is even worse, as Mr. Keir Hardie himself showed when giving the figures of wealth and wages. He said, “Compared with 1901 wages in 1908 were down £26,000 a week or £1,300,000 a year. While working-class wages had fallen to this extent, the earnings (!) of those who paid income tax had, during the same period, increased by £147,000,000.” Yet Mr. Keir Hardie is never tired of denouncing the “ dogmatic Marxists” when they state facts exactly paralleled by his statement quoted above. Certainly people of a particular character require good memories such as this may be tabulated against them.

Little Steps in Treachery

The support of Liberalism was carried a step further in the discussion on the Incidence of Taxation. As Frederick Engels said, this is a matter of absorbing interest to the bourgeoisie, but of little moment to the proletariat. Therefore the “Labour Leaders” discussed it at length. Mr. Snowden said “Four-fifths of the duties raised from Customs and Excise were paid by the wage-earning classes. ” The wage-earning “classes” were quite ignorant of ever being in possession of such vast wealth, or they would have gone yachting in the Mediterranean or otherwise have “seen a bit of life,” instead of squandering their substance in taxes. Then the good Liberal stalking-horse, “Taxation of Land Values” was trotted out, giving Mr .G. Barnes an opportunity to air his profound knowledge and statesmanship.“We get to the bottom of all monopolies by taxing the land,” he said. This hoary old chestnut has so alluring an appearance to most working men that a detailed treatment of the point may well form the subject of a future article. All we need say here is that no shifting of the incidence of taxation, has the slightest material effect against the fact that the workers are wage-slaves, and while deprived of every means of living, except by the sale of their energies and abilities on the labour market, are completely at the mercy and control of the capitalist class. But the value of such agitation by the leaders of the Labour Party is shown by the articles in the Daily News referred to above, where it is stated that “the opinions of the conference differ little, if at all, upon practical politics from those of the vast mass of progressives in these islands.” Exactly what we have always stated in reference to these proposals.

The Tyranny of “Seats”

Then the “regular” business of the conference began. The chairman’s speech is not of sufficient importance for specific treatment, so we may take up the other points.

One of the first troubles to arise was on the action of the Executive Committee at the Dundee bye-election, where the said Executive had refused to support Mr. Stuart, of the Postmen’s Federation, against Mr. Winston Churchill. Even the most “thick and thin” of the Labour Party’s supporters would never dream of calling Mr. Stuart “extreme, ” or “dangerous. ” On the contrary, he is one of the “sanest” and “safest” men in their ranks. Then why this refusal of support ? Let the prophets speak. Mr. Stuart said “The Executive were accused of selling the Party to the Liberals. He would prefer to say that the Executive had not sense enough to sell them: it gave them away. “

To say that the Executive “had not sense enough to sell” the Party was more than any self-respecting Executive could stand. Mr. J. R. Mac Donald and Mr. Alex. Wilkie stepped into the deadly breach and proved that the Executive had sense enough to sell the Party. “The Executive,” said the former, “had never decided that the second seats in double-membered constituencies should not be fought, but they recognised that to try for both seats might result in losing the one held “ (italics ours). And why ? For the simple reason that the single seat is held by the support and permission of the Liberals, who would not allow the second seat to be contested by a “Labour” candidate. What better example than Leicester—Mr. MacDonald’s own constituency—need be given?

Mr Wilkie Indulges in Prophecy

Mr. Wilkie declared that “nothing short of an earthquake could win both these seats for Labour.” Of course, he meant the political earthquake that will occur just as soon as the rank and file grasp the main principles of Socialism and apply that knowledge to their actions. Then indeed Mr. Wilkie and his clique will be thrown off their political pins, and be buried beneath the debris of fallen capitalism. But for the present they are safe in their bargain, for to confirm the free hand they have always given themselves in this matter, the Executive had resolved that “it would be no violation of our Constitution if our members were to take part in Free Trade League meetings,” and this was approved by the conference. The rule of not identifying themselves with Tory or Liberal party is therefore thrown overboard in favour of Liberal Free Traders, and the “smart set” are triumphant.

Then interest centred around the resolution moved by Ben Tillett that “no member or candidate run under the auspices of the Labour Party shall appear or support any measure upon the same platform as members of the capitalist political parties.” This had reference to the Licensing Bill, and to the canting, snuffling hypocrisies of the slimy nonconformist Labour M.P.s of the Henderson type. To anyone acquainted with Tillett’s career it was easy to see that he laid himself open to a crushing rejoinder. His own dirty work in advocating emigration to Australia as a cure for unemployment, on behalf and in the pay of the New South Wales capitalists, should be sufficient to expose his double-dealing. Instead, however, of attacking him from this stand-point—no doubt because it was a case of pot and kettle—they preferred to fall back upon the old dodge of personalities. Quoting from Tillett’s pamphlet Mr. Henderson said “Is it helping the Party when Mr. Shackleton, Mr. Snowden and myself are described as toadies, sheer hypocrites, cruel hoaxers, Press flunkeys to Asquith, blackleg priests, and so on ? ... We will respect our manhood rather than be dictated to by men like Mr. Tillett.”

Evidently the sting of Tillett’s remarks lay in their truth, or surely, in respect for their manhood they would have demanded the substantiation or withdrawal of the statements. They did neither—knowing substantiation was easy. Mr. Shackleton said “No member of the Party to his knowledge had ever appeared on a Tory or Liberal platform except Mr. Tillett himself.” The exception is badly taken. Numerous instances are given in past issues of the Socialist Standard, and on p. 13, 3rd edition of our Party Manifesto is given proof of Mr. Shackleton—along with Crooks arid Henderson —appearing on the Liberal platform in support of Mr. Benn at Devonport. Some people should have long memories, but no doubt Mr. Shackleton felt just as capable of bluffing his way out of this difficulty as he had done over the question of his opposition to the abolition of the half-time system for children in the mills and factories.

Some mild amusement furnished by G. B. Shaw completed the performance given once more by these capitalist agents, which may well be entitled “Leading the Workers into the Liberal Trap.” Never was our opposition to and exposure of these unblushing frauds more fully justified than by the shameless effrontery of the old gang of axe-grinders and Labour exploiting politicians at the Portsmouth conference. Only by the propaganda of Socialism among the rank and file of the trade unions will they be made capable of understanding their position as wage slaves, and the consequent necessity for the abolition of capitalism, and not of patching it up, as advocated with monotonous persistence by the misleaders we have been dealing with. Having arrived at this understanding, the workers will recognise that their political power must be put to an infinitely better use than that of providing fat jobs for nimble-tongued tricksters, shepherds put over them by their wily masters—the achievement of their own emancipation, to wit. Then the workers will at once wrench themselves free from the strangle-hold of these Labour garroters, and hurl them to perdition together with that system of labour-exploitation of which they are part and parcel.