Paul Foot

‘Parliamentary socialism’:
Labour’s road to disaster

(1 May 1969)

From Socialist Worker, No. 120, 1 May 1969, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

SOON AFTER the armistice of 1918, Dame Margot Asquith, wife of the wartime Prime Minister, wrote a letter to J.H.Thomas, the former railwaymen’s leader, then an MP. The letter read:

‘Dear Mr Thomas, As you are such a friend of ours I thought you would like this fine telegram from the King to my husband on the great day. I am not writing to you about politics, but to tell you from my heart how brave and good I think you have been and how much my husband thinks of you. We told the King at lunch exactly what we thought of you and he was very nice about you. Be careful of your health and keep tight hold of your men – and God Bless You. Margot Asquith.’ (J.H. Thomas: My Story, p. 29)

The letter according to Thomas ‘seemed to lift itself out of a mass of cherished correspondence’, and diligently he devoted himself to the Dame’s instructions and ‘kept tight hold of his men’.


Six years later, Thomas became the first Labour Colonial Secretary and introduced himself to the heads of his department with the words: ‘I am here to see that there is no mucking about with the British Empire’

Five years later still he was the ‘troubleshooter’ in the 1929 Labour government, appointed to solve the problem of unemployment. He solved it by increasing it threefold and cutting the unemployment benefit.

Then he left the Labour Party to serve in the National Government and his career ended in a court case involving fraud.

Conventional Labour historians prefer to dismiss the careers of men like Thomas, Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald as examples of personal aberration or original sin. But the Thomas road from working-class origins through parliament to betrayal symbolises the futility of 50 years of parliamentary activity and aspirations on the part of British Labour.

Even today, after the unimaginable collapse in the last four and a half years, conventional ‘left-wing’ demonstrations move, as if pulled by a magnet, to parliament, there to conduct ‘a lobby’, and so-called revolutionaries pin their politics to the idiotic slogan: Make the Left MPs fight.

The history of the British Labour Party is a history of parliamentary disaster. In 1924, a Labour government supported by the Liberals did nothing at all.

This was a considerable achievement compared with the record of the 1929–1931 government which did everything in its power to protect the gold standard and the interests of industrialists against the clamour of the unemployed.

The Labour government of 1945 and 1951 is remembered with sentimental nostalgia by the official Labour left, who recall the nationalisation of coal, railways, gas, electricity – and the National Health Service.

The real achievement of the 1945–51 Labour government has been less widely-publicised. As two commentators, one of whom is a Cabinet Minister in the present administration, put it:

‘In 1948–1950. when the economy appeared to be gaining both internal and external balance, there was a substantial shift away from planning in the direction of a free market system.’ (The Labour Government and British Industry by A.Rogow and Peter Shore, p. 71)

Under the smokescreen of nationalisation and welfare reforms the post-war Labour government concentrated its main efforts on the re-establishment of a capitalism seriously weakened by the war. Weak, plaintive industrialists grew, under Labour’s careful succour into implacable monopolists who wanted no more of ‘socialism’.

The inevitable irony was that Labour, because of the working-class support which it had ignored, was hounded from office by the very industrialists whom it had nourished.

By 1964, the Labour programme had been considerably diluted by the pressure of those who sought office. The reformist scraps offered to the masses have now been withheld and in their place the Labour government is now set on a course which is further to the right even than MacDonald’s in 1930.

The MacDonald government did at least repeal the Tory 1927 Trade Union Act which sought in some circumstances to make trade unionists liable for damage from disputes. Similarly. Wilson’s government passed an act in its first year of office overturning the

House of Lords’ Rookes v. Barnard decision, making a trade union official liable for strike damage.

It took a real election triumph, like 1966, to propel the government on a collision course with the unions and to enable them to propose legislation which shackles the unions more than the 1927 Act – and more than anything else since the first Labour parliamentarian entered Westminster.

Parliamentarians and reformists seek to explain all this as an unhappy accident. Unfortunately, they explain, the Labour governments were always dominated by right-wingers, who took the wrong course. Left-wingers, they proclaim, would have moved in a socialist direction.


But would they? Were not Wilson, Castle, Crossman, Greenwood darlings of the left? Was it an accident that every one of the promoted left-wingers, with the single exception of Frank Cousins, who had a good job to go back to and has now found an even better one, not only were ‘converted’ to the anti-working class politics of the government, but also became their most enthusiastic supporters?

History suggests otherwise. Keir Hardie, father of the ‘Labour Left’, called on his countrymen to rally to the flag in 1914 when he said, ‘the boom of guns can be heard’.

And Robert Blatchford, theoretical inspirer of the Left, made his teenage daughter play Rule Britannia every day throughout the First World War.

In 1925 a group of left-wingers drew up a Manifesto, headed the Socialist Club and printed in Lansbury’s Weekly. ‘A Labour government’ it declared at the outset ‘would be pledged to establish a socialist state.’

It proposed several acts of immediate legislation including the abolition of the House of Lords (‘no fraternisation with the enemy’), the abolition of the police and the handing over of police duties to a ‘citizens’ army’ with elected officers.

The manifesto was signed by Marion Phillips, Susan Lawrence, George Lansbury, Ernest Thurtle and John Scurr. By 1929, Marion Phillips, then an MP, was the staunchest defender of the proposed cut in unemployment benefit. Miss Lawrence was an Under Secretary of State, and sharply attacked John Wheatley for daring to attack the government.

George Lansbury was in the Cabinet and was a member of the Labour Party executive which framed the rules for the expulsion of James Maxton. The rules under which the expulsion was based were drawn up by John Scurr, chairman of the Consultative Committee.

And Mr Thurtle, who was Lansbury’s private secretary, resigned from the ILP because it would not support the policies of the MacDonald government.

Exactly the same process followed the 1931 debacle. The left-wing, under Stafford Cripps, joined the Socialist League.

‘Continuity of policy,’ wrote Cripps, ‘can find no place in a socialist programme. It is this complete severance with all traditional theories of government, this determination to seize power from the ruling class and transfer it to the people as a whole, that differentiates the present political struggle from all those that have gone before’.

‘This determination’ was amply demonstrated by Cripps himself as President of the Board of Trade and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1945–51 government, in which posts he fought heroically to protect British capitalism from competitors abroad and militants at home.

The reason for all this is not to be found in personal weakness or betrayal nor in the predominance of ‘right-wingers’, whatever that may mean. The personal betrayals are the reflection of something much deeper: the fundamental relief of Labour parliamentarians that the road to socialism can be paved in parliament: that universal suffrage to five-yearly parliaments is a sufficient precondition for the change from capitalism to socialism.

This view, held incidentally by Karl Marx, grossly underestimates the power and flexibility of the capitalist system. It underestimates the ability of the men who control industry and commerce to absorb democratic processes through parliaments every five years, while retaining undemocratic control of the power that matters: economic power.

The geographic basis of the parliamentary democracy (with its assumption that MPs must represent all: their constituents whatever their class) and the long gap between elections puts parliamentary representatives at an enormous distance from the people they represent, and by whom they cannot be recalled for five years.

The gap is further exaggerated by the cretinism and pomp of parliament itself for whose ‘charms’ and ‘glory’ no one, not even Maxton or Bevan, has failed to succumb.

With very little difficulty, the capitalist class has been able to ensure that the British labour movement, blinkered by its desire for parliamentary power, becomes separated from its representatives, and accordingly corrupted and deformed by the lack of democracy in its own ranks.


Faced with continued destruction and bribery from the ruling class, the Labour parliamentarian is confronted with a dilemma. Either he mobilises outside parliament confronts capitalism and calls in question his parliamentary illusions. Or he must try to run capitalism better than his opponents.

Without exception, he prefers to foster his illusions and pursue the latter course.

With parliamentary obsessions run insistence on ‘law and order’, the ‘good of the nation’ and so on, with which slogans the ruling class has persuaded Labour governments to discipline and humiliate the people who voted for them.

Finally, there is the certainty that in the extreme event of a Labour government moving seriously to tip the class balance in favour of the workers by parliamentary action, the capitalist class will abandon its parliamentary pretensions and move to a more direct struggle outside.

The idea that the ruling class will stand aside muttering about a ‘fair fight’ as the Workers’ Control Act,1969 is passed through the Commons (and the Lords?) is the fantasy of those who have not read about Vienna in 1934, or of Barcelona in 1936, or Athens in 1967, or (a prediction) Rome in 1969.

The slightest possibility that a social democratic government will move firmly against the capitalists will be greeted not with formal protests from Her Majesty’s Opposition but with flights of capital, military coups and mercenary invasions.

Ruling class power cannot be legislated out of existence. It has to be seized.

Office has nothing to do with power. Parliament does not offer the ‘road to socialism’. It offers a cul-de-sac. As Rosa Luxemburg put it in Reform and Revolution:

‘In the history of classes, Revolution is the act of political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being.

‘In each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of, and in contradistinction to, the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.’

Last updated on 13 January 2021