Colin Humphries


Looking Glasses

(Autumn 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.26, Autumn 1966, p.36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Clydesiders
R.K. Middlemass
Hutchinson, 50s.

British Politics 1918-1964
L.J. MacFarlane
Pergamon, 15s.

Modern British Politics
Samuel Beer
Faber, 32s 6d

The Clydesiders is an attempt, by a clerk to the House of Commons, to describe the impact and outcome of the election to parliament of a group of Scottish ILPers in the twenties. It is not a good book. Quite elementary factual errors occur (e.g., the SPGB is confused with BSP). The description of the development of the Clyde Workers’ Committee oscillates between being virtually incomprehensible and being definitely misleading. The narrow Glasgow and parliamentary focus prevents a clear presentation of the polarisation between Left and Right in the ILP in the late twenties.

Despite all these limitations, parts of the book are worth looking at. The descriptions of the parliamentary conduct of the ILP are illuminating in so far as they throw light on the possibilities and limitations of using parliament for propaganda purposes. Despite the author’s own belief in ‘parliamentary power’ his book is testimony to the impotency of any parliamentary left which cuts itself off from extra-parliamentary, class, forces. The ILPers were pushed into parliament by forces which they did not create and which, indeed, many of them feared. Once there they could disrupt business in order to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed, to gain the personal sympathy of reactionary MPs, but were not either inclined to or able to organise the unemployed to enforce remedies. When the ILP finally broke loose from the Labour Party machine in 1931 it was to find itself, despite its parliamentary representation and its independence from the ravages of Moscow, in real terms weaker and less important than the miniscule Communist Party – a lesson which neither the Labour Left nor the CPGB ever seems likely to learn.

As one might expect from a tutor of Ruskin College, British Politics 1918-64 is written from the standpoint of the fashionable, consensual ideology. Its judgments are few, and when elaborated, such that anyone from the House of Lords to the Tribune office might agree with them. Its underlying premise is that the class struggle is no more. It is a purely political history of the last fifty years and not even good political history. The refusal to take account of the social forces underlying political events and the studied impartiality of the narrative results in a reduction of the last fifty years to a series of inexplicable and not particularly interesting ministerial decisions, followed by the conclusion that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Beer’s book covers much the same ground as MacFarlane’s, and from very much the same standpoint, but is twice as long. The difference in length is accounted for by the fact that it attempts to account for the pattern of events it refers to. Indeed, this is its prime aim. Unfortunately, Beer does not attempt to do this in terms of the concrete complexity of British society – the basic class structure, the struggles, consciousnesses, etc, developing on the basis of this, the political ramifications – but instead he searches for ‘ideas’ underlying the political forces (‘collectivism,’ ‘conservatism’). Since these ideas are never related to the actual interests and aspirations of living men, they really have nothing to do with the subject matter. They are at best conceptual abstractions imposed by the writer upon his material. If Beer’s book is accepted as important in Universities throughout the country, that is yet another demonstration of the remaining relevance of Marx’s strictures on the Young Hegelians in the German Ideology.

Last updated on 16 November 2009