H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XI
The Dependent Labour Party

“THAT pig doesn’t weigh as much as I thought it did, but then I never thought it would.” This philosophic reflection of the humorous Irish peasant expresses exactly my frame of mind with reference to the British Labour Party. Put in more direct application to the politics of the period, the Labour Party has been a great disappointment to me personally, but then I never thought it would not. That was my curiously wavering view from the moment when the Independent Labour Party, then a declared Socialist body, instructed its delegates at the first important “Labour” Conference held in 1900 to throw Socialism overboard, and voted for a Labourism that nobody could define.

This was done partly in order to satisfy the semi-Liberal Trade Unionists and to obtain the advantage of the use of the Trade Union Funds which they controlled, and partly out of jealousy of, and in order to thwart, the Social-Democratic Federation whose definite principles were thought to be out of place in a policy of a compromise; as indeed they were. The gathering together of a large number of delegates from Trade Unions and Socialist organisations at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street in February 1900, was, however, considered at the time by the more sanguine as almost certain to result in a victory for that thoroughgoing policy of opposition to both political parties, and a consolidation of a definite Socialist group in the House of Commons, similar to that to be found in other European countries far behind the United Kingdom in economic and social development.

It was natural to take this view. A people which had got so far in appreciation of what the class war meant under Chartist leadership, long before Marx was heard of; which had taught the continental workers so much in the way of Trade Union organisation; which had adopted co-operation on such a vast scale, though unfortunately tainted with profit-making from the start and all through; which had obtained democratic political forms and had secured the right of combination, of public meeting, free speech, free press, free discussion, and in the main of majority rule, – such a people might have been expected not to lag behind but to lead their fellows of other countries in the great international effort for the overthrow of wage-slavery, when once they even began to constitute a separate political working-class party. But it was not to be for some time yet and, as I say, some of us, at any rate, in our subconscious estimation of passing events, knew it.

What a glorious thing it would have been for us Englishmen if we had had a Frederick the Great to give us a really good system of compulsory and gratuitous education in the eighteenth century; or if Napoleon had been in control of this island and had knocked all our silly old political institutions into a cocked hat at the beginning of the nineteenth! Ignorance, apathy, physical deterioration, and the servility engendered by sheer hopelessness take a lot of shaking up. It is scarcely too much to say that the educated middle class of this island is better prepared to accept Socialism even today than is the working class, which everywhere else is its mainstay. That our wage-earners form a deplorable exception in this respect is difficult, and in fact impossible, to reconcile with Marx’s theories, as pushed to an extreme by some of his followers. But the apparent contradiction is intelligible the moment we remember that a great social revolution calls not only for the development of the material conditions which render such a complete and possibly cataclysmic transformation possible, but also for adequate intellectual capacity on the part of the members of the disinherited class to enable them to comprehend and act upon the conditions which have been made ready for such change by themselves and their forbears, unconsciously and as it were automatically. Economic development: psychologic comprehension. These are the two essentials for constructive revolution. Anything short of this cometh to anarchy and evil.

This is not to state that what took place at the Labour Conference of February 1900 was of no consequence in hastening on or retarding the growth of Socialism. On the contrary, I am very strongly of opinion that had the Social-Democrats and Socialists present succeeded in what they were striving for, such success would have accelerated the course of events in this country by several years. The definite acceptance of clear-cut scientific class war Socialism by a majority of a conference of this character could not have failed to produce a highly educative effect upon the workers all through the country. Socialism, not mere trimming Labourism, would then have been the rallying cry of the coming political and Parliamentary party.

But it was not to be. When this conference was held our steady propaganda of revolutionary Socialism had been going on for more than nineteen years, and so far as we were concerned there was nothing wanting in the declaration of principles. Compromise found no favour in our ranks. As it was essentially a Labour Conference the two delegates of the SDF were both of them Labourers and Trade Unionists. They were James Macdonald, the tailor, and H. Quelch. The others were not so punctilious on this head. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the 130 delegates present were Trade Unionists first, and Socialists, if they were Socialists, afterwards. The late W.C. Steadman of the Barge Builders, better known as the “Karnty Karncil” from his strange pronunciation of the words London County Council, of which body he was a member, who afterwards became a Radical M.P. for one of the metropolitan divisions, was elected chairman. I knew Steadman well, and, though a Radical and voting regularly with the Liberal Party, I believe he was a thoroughly honest man.

In his opening address as chairman he expressed the hope, under which there unquestionably lay a fear, that the Conference would not be manipulated by wire-pullers. His own position as chairman testified, if he could but have recognised it, that the policy of arrangement had already begun. His personal popularity and the belief of the Socialists in his integrity had been used to the detriment of the latter. But the fact that Socialism should have been the issue at all at such a gathering showed that our labour had not all been in vain. There were more than 500,000 Trade Unionists legitimately represented by direct vote of their members. The balance over and above the 500,000 was composed of 13,000 Independent Labour men, and 9,000 Social-Democrats. The whole Conference had been convened by the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress. Obviously, therefore, though the impetus came from the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, merely as Trade Unionists, could, if they thought proper, carry matters their own way.

Everything turned upon the resolution proposed by the Social-Democratic Federation. This ran as follows:

The Representatives of the working-class movement in the House of Commons shall form there a distinct party based upon the recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The party shall formulate its own policy for promoting practical legislative measures in the interests of Labour, and shall be prepared to co-operate with any party that will support such measures or will assist in opposing measures of an opposite character.

Nothing could be more plain, straightforward, and conclusive from the Socialist point of view. As a brief statement of principles and tactics for a Parliamentary party the resolution left little to desire. The first part declared out and out that the object of the party would be the realisation of Socialism: the second proclaimed that in the practical work of everyday life in the National Assembly some latitude in regard to temporary support of other parties or sections was inevitable. The SDF resolution was moved by James Macdonald, one of the earliest, if not indeed the first, of the Trade Unionists to join that body. Merely to name him is to recall to my mind a back room in a public-house in a turning out of the Tottenham Court Road, where early in 1881 I addressed a small knot of men on The Curse of Capital. Macdonald, I believe, was one of them. No man who has ever come among us has obtained a stronger grip of the true economic faith than “Jimmy” Macdonald. He has felt throughout the hatred of the class slavery which he preached, and he has preached throughout the hatred of the class slavery which he felt. Our friend Bernard Shaw once found in him a very ugly customer indeed.

This was at a conference on unemployment, held in Old Holborn Town Hall, or the Trade Union Hall hard by, I forget which. Macdonald opened the discussion. Shaw thought he had closed it with one of his clever, satirical speeches directed towards the destruction of all enthusiasm in the gathering, whether this was intentional on Shaw’s part or not. The chairman, whoever he was, thought also that the business of the meeting had concluded with Shaw’s speech and Shaw himself was quite convinced it had. Not so Macdonald. He claimed the right of reply. This was challenged by the chairman supported by Shaw. Some dissension arose thereupon, but Macdonald very properly insisted upon his right and obtained his hearing. Then Shaw for once in his life had the opportunity of listening to such a rush of conclusive argument, thorough exposure, and bitter ridicule turned upon himself, as he has only experienced in speech or in writing a few times in his life.

Macdonald was in no humour to spare a man who brought heartless chaff and fine-chopped literary ribaldry into a discussion upon such a terrible subject to the whole working-class as unemployment. As Macdonald spoke you could see the families starving, and their homes made desolate by the relentless and ruthless system of profitmongery that Shaw thought a fitting subject for jest. The audience sat at first in breathless silence and then Macdonald turned on Shaw. He simply ripped up Shaw’s middle-class quips, and pseudo-economic fantasies, and threw the fragments at him, one after the other. He laughed heartily at Shaw’s assumption of superiority and obvious overrating of himself, and made the whole of those present laugh with him not with Shaw. Winding up in a serious vein he showed why, as a member of the working class and a skilled tradesman himself, he knew that the question of unemployment lay at the root of all real change for the better, so long as capitalism and wagedom dominated society. Not the most skilled, thrifty, and sober worker and wage-earner present but by a turn of bad trade or a bout of ill-health might be reduced to almost hopeless misery, and be forced to join the great army of those whom Shaw’s class had sucked wealth out of when toiling and stigmatised as loafers and wastrels when the “labour-market” was overstocked. I have never heard what Shaw thought of the trampling that befel his devoted carcase on this occasion, and I am convinced that his contemptuous attitude and joking were merely a pose. But he has never tried this sort of thing again with a working-class audience since Macdonald thus fell foul of him and offered up his smart witticisms as a sweet-smelling sacrifice on the altar of genuine conviction.

It was, then, this same James Macdonald, for many years past and still now Secretary of the London Trades Council – a close friend, by the way, of Mr. Frank Harris of Shakespeare and short story fame, when the latter was member of the SDF – who moved the resolution quoted above. He made an excellent speech as the mover, pointing out with force and eloquence that the workers had been made tools of the despoilers in their political sham-fights long enough; that now another great opportunity for asserting their claims as the only really important class in the community, without which no social existence was possible, lay before them; and that Socialism was and could be the only possible basis for a party which had in view the emancipation of the workers, the destruction of the class State, and the final abolition of wage-slavery and capitalism. All who worked in this direction were their friends, and all who went off elsewhere were their enemies.

The resolution was seconded by Quelch, and it would have been impossible to find any man who could do more justice in a cool argumentative determined style to the suggestions set forth. How any real Socialist could resist these speeches and refrain from voting for the resolution was a mystery, or would have been had some of us not known beforehand that sentimental Socialism was very little, if at all, better than dexterous Radicalism when put to the test. That the resolution itself and the speeches of the proposer and seconder found favour with the delegates was proved conclusively by the applause with which they were received. But applause is one thing, votes are quite another. A man cheers to express his opinions: he votes to suit his party.

The main amendment, after a trimming amendment by Mr. Wilkie, now member for Dundee, to meet this resolution was as follows:

This Congress is in favour of establishing a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who should have their own whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party opposing measures having an opposite tendency.

Like most amendments of this sort there was no principle in it whatever. It was drafted not to express principle, but to catch wavering votes and to give Socialists the excuse for voting against their avowed convictions. It was fitly proposed by Keir Hardie, M.P., and seconded by Mr. Wardle, M.P., now member for Stockport. I have expressed elsewhere my admiration for Hardie’s attitude when he was standing alone in the House of Commons as the champion of his class; but when men and women hold forth to me, as at times they do, about Hardie’s steadfast adherence to Socialism through all difficulties, I do not trouble about side-issues or obvious backslidings in Parliament or outside, I simply refer them to this amendment as quite sufficient “evidence to character” in this regard. Here could be no question of doubt or misunderstanding. The issue was as plain as it could be: Should the party representing Labour in the House of Commons be a Socialist Party, or should it be an intriguing, programmeless, go-as-you-please group, adding yet another purchasable faction to other purchasable factions in the House? Hardie solemnly proposed it should be the latter from the beginning and all through. And it was so.

There were, as said, 130 delegates attending the Conference. Of these only 53 voted for Keir Hardie’s amendment, and 39 against it and for James Macdonald’s original resolution – a majority of no more than 14 for the trimmers. But this obviously did not constitute a majority of the whole Conference against Socialism. That would have called for 66 votes instead of 53, and in my opinion the whole matter should have been referred to the bodies represented to vote upon again. An abstention of 38 votes out of 130, more than 25 per cent of the whole, was such a dereliction of duty on the part of the abstaining delegates as to call for a direct vote of all concerned.

I do not venture to say it would have ended differently; but such a referendum would have given a splendid opportunity for debating Socialism throughout the Trade Unions, with a definite object in view, and this could not have failed to be of great service. The difficulty is to get a clear decision on principle from great bodies of men, who have quite enough to do to consider how they will earn their daily bread, who are desperately ignorant of economics, and who have that disgusting addiction of modern Englishmen and Scotsmen to compromise which of course is only an euphemism for the surrender of the weaker side. At any rate the 53 to 39 was accepted as a final and decisive vote, and the non-Socialist political Labour Party was duly constituted.

The next important matter was to decide upon a Secretary. Here any one not accustomed to the habits and customs of English workers in Conference would have imagined that, being a gathering pre-eminently of Labour men who were protesting against the injurious dominance of the upper and middle class, an active Trade Unionist would to a certainty be appointed to this important position. Not so. A man who had never done a day’s work as a manual labourer in his life, who was not and did not pretend to be a Trade Unionist, who had been a Scotch schoolmaster, who was then working as a Liberal journalist and was at the time, I believe, also Private Secretary to that very earnest Radical M.P., Mr. Thomas Lough, was elected unanimously as first unpaid Secretary to the newly formed political Labour Party! It seemed quite incredible that this should have occurred.

I was not present myself, for, never having been a working man, I thought, perhaps foolishly, that in spite of all the long years of education and agitation I had devoted to the cause of Labour and Socialism I was scarcely entitled to be a delegate. Naturally, I was anxious to know how such an extraordinary thing had happened; for Mr. James Ramsay Macdonald, though he had been a member of the SDF, and was then an influential worker in the ILP, was not by any means generally well known or popular at this juncture among the Trade Unionists, who formed the overwhelming majority of the delegates. I was told that most of those who voted for this smart middle-class manipulator as Secretary thought they were voting for the James Macdonald who had moved the Socialist resolution, and that, the two Social-Democratic delegates being absent during this important vote, there was no one present to put the matter right. That the stroke must have been carefully engineered beforehand is quite certain, and what has gone on ever since gives rather a sinister complexion to the whole manœuvre.

It is perhaps worth noting that throughout this important Conference – for important in the interests of Labour it ought to have been, if it was not – Mr. John Burns, then as now member for Battersea, was using his utmost endeavours, no doubt by arrangement with his Liberal friends, to prevent anything in the shape of Socialism from being voted or acted upon. The very same man who, but a few short years before was almost daily denouncing Messrs. Broadhurst, Burt, Fen wick and others as traitors, time-servers, hacks of the Liberal capitalists, after a fashion which was considered not a little unseemly on his part even by us extreme Social-Democrats, was now engaged in playing an infinitely more nefarious game than those Liberal-Labour members played; was, in fact, using the influence he had gained as a Socialist, and the belief of many that he was a Socialist still, in order to enable him the more completely to gull and hoodwink his fellow Trade Unionists in the interest of the Liberals with whom he was now habitually associating. Yet even then it was quite useless for us to point out to the men he was cajoling that his every action proved he had a close understanding with the Liberal leaders, and was using his power to mislead them in order to make himself more useful, and to secure a higher position on that side than he could otherwise hope to obtain.

As to Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, he is not a man I care to waste much space upon. I have seen a good deal of him at various times, and when he was chosen as Secretary and became the guiding spirit in the Labour Party, I felt pretty confident as to what line he would adopt. Personal ambition has been his one motive throughout. I do not blame him so much for that. As was said of a far abler and more prominent man, we “did not even object to his having cards up his sleeve; but we felt a little hurt when he solemnly told us they were placed there by Providence.” It has been pretty much the same thing on a lower plane with Ramsay Macdonald. At one time I hoped against hope that, circumstances tending towards Socialism, Macdonald would turn in that direction too, as the most direct path towards success. But he saw his own interest too clearly to be misled in that way.

So up to now, as will shortly be manifest to all, he has been acting as a dangerous enemy to Socialism; while advocating it on the platform and abroad, whenever he felt it was tactically advisable to do so without risking a direct breach with the Liberal Party. A good speaker, a fair writer, and a man of considerable dexterity, he was certainly fortunate in his wife, whose premature death all deplored. But what has contributed to give him his political position more than anything else is the fact that he alone of all the Labour M.P.’s has had the advantage of a good education, on a higher plane than that of the Trade Unionists around him. And the opportunity to use this advantage against both them and us – though the Trade Unionists even now do not see the matter in this light – was his astounding election to the Secretaryship of the non-Socialist Labour Party at its first Conference.

I have dealt at some length with this early development of the Party, because it may be regarded as one of the results of the modern Socialist, or renewed Chartist, movement, set on foot by the Democratic Federation in 1881, and, as the clash of class strife comes nearer in this island, these incidents may assume a certain historical importance. Already it is unintelligible to able Professors from the continent of Europe, as well as to capable inquirers from America, how it has come about that Great Britain has still, in 1912, no Socialist group in Parliament, and why, of the two or three Socialists who have contrived to get there, by a certain amount of surrender of principle, not one has yet delivered a Socialist speech on the floor of the House of Commons.

What I have said partly explains this extraordinary situation; but I am bound to admit that, as I shall have occasion to confess even more definitely later, the real reasons for our having fallen so far behind the rest of the world elude me even now.

It is doubtful to my mind whether the Social-Democrats, when they found that there was to be no avowed Socialism in the Labour Party, and they failed even to get a programme of practical proposals formulated, ought not to have withdrawn then and there from a combination which, though it might be advantageous in some ways, could scarcely avoid being very harmful in others. But hope lingered. There was a possibility that events might force the new party to move in our direction, and there was still a chance that activity and criticism inside might be of more use than criticism and activity from without. Moreover, several of the ablest and most sincere Social-Democrats, Quelch, Tillett, Knee, Thorne and others were themselves bound up with the Labour Party through the organisations to which they respectively belonged, and in which they were doing admirable service. Consequently, we held on for more than two years in the face of growing difficulty and discouragement. Then it was decided to break away.

But the first thing which brought the Labour Party to the front, made an impression on the mind of the public, and gave direct evidence of the growth of a new political force, was the success of the party candidates at the General Election of 1906. Though most of the seats were, beyond all question, won by arrangement with the Liberals, both nationally and locally, there was enough of genuine independence displayed in some of the threecornered contests to renew once more the sanguine aspirations of Socialists that at last a really independent working-class group would be formed in Parliament. Social-Democrats, having made no arrangements with Liberals, were again unfortunate in their candidatures. After a very good, and what most of us thought was likely to be a successful struggle at Burnley, I lost by 300 votes on a poll of nearly 16,000. Others fared worse. But our polls as a whole were by no means bad.

The total victories of the Labour Party were, however, a good deal more than respectable, showing a solid body – Shackleton, Will Thorne, and Hodge justify the epithet – of more than thirty members actually elected as representatives of Labour, and neither owning nor professing any allegiance to either the Liberal or Conservative faction. In spite of all previous experience, and regardless of discouragements and disappointment, we welcomed this victory almost as if it had been our own. We congratulated our doubtful friends upon their triumphs, expressed our hope and belief that they would rise to the level of their great opportunity, assured them of our support throughout the country at any period of stress and strain, and generally displayed, or so we flattered ourselves into thinking, an amount of magnanimity in excess even of that which people of our opinions habitually show.

Such an embracing all round never was seen. I myself, being invited thereto, went to the great meeting of congratulation and jubilation in the Horticultural Hall, Westminster, and took my seat upon the platform among the new M.P.’s, who had come thither to rejoice in the cheers of the faithful. If there lurked in the back of my mind just a touch of genial cynicism as I recalled the past and speculated on the future, any such untimely investigation into the hard realities of life and the soft sentimentalities of these robust-looking legislators was swept aside as I looked round the crowded hall, surveyed the blaze of scarlet decorations, and read the telling mottoes inscribed all over the walls in praise of Socialism as “The Only Hope of the Workers,” “Workers of the World Unite “ for the Social Revolution, and so on. A wave of enthusiasm temporarily swamped my critical faculty. It was good for me to be there. I shook hands with everybody; I told all the world what splendid fellows they all were; I joined heartily in the general congratulations; I even delivered a speech of such abounding effusiveness that I look back upon it with pride to this day. It is pleasant at times to make a fool of oneself. I hereby register my conviction that I did it most thoroughly that night.

And yet there was some excuse for my elation, even if it exceeded the boundary of pure reason. Here for the first time in English history sat a number of really decent, well-meaning men, who were going forward into the ancient Assembly, which had hitherto been dominated by landowners and burgesses, merchants, lawyers, bankers, and industrial capitalists, as representing the demands and formulating the aspirations of the working and wage-earning class to which they themselves belonged, which constituted the great propertyless majority of our countrymen, and represented the coming power in Great Britain as all over the world. If the rise of the middle class against the feudal nobility and their fellow-landowners under the Tudors, leading steadily on to the civil war of Charles and Cromwell and the final displacement of the short-sighted Stuart dynasty in the seventeenth century, was worthy of celebration in the highest of our verse and prose, surely here was a new and infinitely grander uprising which might well stir the minds and fire the hearts of men in the twentieth. It was not the chosen few on the platform or the gathered thousands in the hall itself who were to be considered. They might or might not be no better than unimaginative mediocrities; but the cause which they stood for and the changes which they were pledging themselves that night to advocate must lend dignity to the humblest among them. The last of the human slave systems was being attacked, even if the method of assault did seem rather ineffective and purposeless so far.

Thus it was that anticipation of a great fight, peaceful or forceful, and the Co-operative Commonwealth as the outcome of the conflict, rose up before me as I sat in that hall and rose to speak on that platform. I take it most of my M.P. friends to the right and the left of me would have believed I was bereft of my senses if I had told them of the glorious mission which I thought had luckily called them into its service. But I saw it all as it might have been none the less for that.

A few months later I was walking down Great George Street towards the Houses of Parliament, when a very old friend of mine, who had been many years in the House of Commons, crossed the road and came up to me. He began by upbraiding me for cutting all my old friends, which I denied to be the truth, and told him that it was merely force of circumstances that had kept me out of their way. Then, of course, after a few words of greeting, and reference to men of our day who had passed away, or who had done something remarkable, we turned to politics. My friend, I may say, is a man of open mind, wide information, and sincere goodwill towards his working countrymen, as devoid as a man of his position can be of mere class prejudice.

Suddenly, after discussing the general political situation and condoling with me upon my defeats at Burnley, he said, “These new Labour men are of no earthly use to you, Hyndman.” “No?” I replied. “What’s the matter with them?” “Oh, they are of no account from your point of view. We have got them already. They are worse than the old lot you used to attack so bitterly. They pretend to be independent, but they are not so a bit in reality. You will see that when it comes to the test. We can rely upon them to vote with the Government to a man. They have a tremendous regard for forms and ceremonies, and already seem to know more about the Speaker’s ruling than I do, and to have much more fear of breaking in upon order. Besides, they are so dreadfully deferential – it makes me sick.” I told my old friend I thought he exaggerated, upon which he only reaffirmed his conviction that his quick judgment would be justified in the near future. This only confirmed the latent distrust which I felt at the back of my mind even when I was chanting jubilations in chorus with Ramsay Macdonald and the rest of them, as already narrated.

Yet I can declare most positively, and this my friend did not deny when I put it to him, that on their first appearance in the House the Labour Party created little short of a scare, and this feeling of alarm had spread from Parliament to London Society. Here at last it had come. It was no longer “only the Social Revolution going down Fleet Street,” as the tradesman in Fetter Lane said to his fellow-shopkeeper on the memorable 10th of April 1848, it was the advance guard of the Social Revolution, not to be bought off, or cozened, or flattered, or crushed into subservience, that had marched into the political Holy of holies with the intention of defying the Speaker and disregarding the sanctity of the Mace. Not the men themselves but what stood behind them engendered this semi-panic among “ politicians” and Society. I wonder sometimes if the worthy Trade Union secretaries, lay preachers, and skilled workers who constituted the great majority of the imposing Thirty understood what an effect they had produced. I judge not. At any rate they set to work to diminish it as hard as they could. And they succeeded. I went once to take a look at them after the chat in the street recorded above. I wanted to see with my own eyes what sort of appearance these champions of labour presented to the average spectator. They gave me the impression of dull and deferential respectability, anxious, and indeed eager, to show that they were just the same as the other members around them. I was not at all surprised to see the great majority of them afterwards become the mere tools of the Liberal Cabinet, more subservient even than Radicals in search of a place.

The record of their time-serving and servility has, of course, lost all interest already. That a Labour Party which, at any rate, pretended to be independent, and proclaimed itself to be the real representative of working-class aspirations, should allow the Plimsoll Load Line to be raised by Mr. Lloyd George in the interest of the shipowners without a syllable of protest, thus condemning numbers of sailors, men of their own class, to death by drowning without hope; that it should support enthusiastically in the House and take credit in the country for having inspired the “People’s Budget,” which taxed the people more heavily than any fiscal measure proposed in our day; that it should refuse to support any resolution for the reduction of indirect imposts on the working class for fear of upsetting the Liberal Government; that it should join in establishing the bureaucratic Labour Exchanges which have acted from the first, and could not but act, in reduction of wages; that it should exercise no influence in favour of the great strikes which broke out largely by reason of its incompetence to do anything effective for the toilers, while the purchasing power of unraised wages was decreasing steadily, and then heartily aid the Liberal lawyers and capitalists in bringing about the surrender of the strikers; that it should refrain from pressing the crucial question of the unemployed to a definite issue regardless of order or of “the tone of the House”; that it should be satisfied with a perfunctory challenge to the Government on its shooting down of the workers, which timid challenge itself was never followed up; that it should quite contentedly allow hundreds of railway men to be killed and thousands maimed yearly without a word of criticism, although automatic couplings would, as everybody knows, prevent this butchery; that it should use its utmost endeavours to rivet the wholesale swindle of the Insurance Act upon the necks of the wage-earners and establish a further vast nominated bureaucracy at a cost to the country of not less than £5,000,000 a year; that it should – but if I were to go on at this rate cataloguing the political crimes of the Labour-betraying Labour Party I should fill pages.

Enough to say that if the dominant classes of this country, after their first shock of surprise and fear, had wished to establish a set of meek, backboneless trimmers and sycophants in the House of Commons to gull the workers as Labour men, they would have organised on their own account precisely such a “Labour Party” as that which has made itself the laughing-stock of Socialists from 1907 to 1912.

This was most strongly felt in relation to the unemployed. That terrible phenomenon of capitalist production is ever with us even in good times, and becomes nothing short of a national disaster in bad. Things were thus bad in 1908, and agitation was going on outside for a reasonable organisation of men who were left workless by no fault of their own. A pitiful “Right to Work” Bill, which was not pressed to a fighting finish, and a few commonplace speeches were all the Labour Party thought itself called upon to contribute to the help of these unfortunates. Hence the rise – and fall? – of Victor Grayson.

Victor Grayson comes of the working class, but has been fortunate enough to obtain a good education in Manchester, and this advantage he has used for upholding the cause of the people. He was, I believe, once a member of the SDF; but the first I heard of him was in connection with the unemployed agitation in Manchester, where he displayed, as I heard all round at the time, remarkable vigour and courage as a leader of the men. I had the opportunity of learning about this when I went down myself, at the invitation of the Unemployed Committee, to speak at a great meeting at which the Lord Mayor of Manchester took the chair. That was a funny business, so far as anything could be funny in connection with such dire events as were then being enacted in the great Lancashire city. Truth to tell, I myself created a scene by certain remarks I made, and when I went on to say that the men of my own class, including those on the platform, always looked upon the workers either as “food for powder or food for plunder,” and proceeded to show that it was just because the unemployed could not be profitably used either in the one capacity or in the other that they were contemned and bludgeoned and starved, some of my fellow-speakers, and the Lord Mayor himself, if I remember aright, began to expostulate. I would not give way, but enforced my argument by what some may have thought offensive illustrations. Anyhow, the whole of the audience was with me, and eventually those of us who meant business had the platform and the meeting to ourselves. The thing made a bit of a stir at the time.

Well, it was his work at this juncture and his lecturing and agitating through the country which brought Grayson to the front and deservedly gained him great popularity. Just at the right moment, too, there came a bye-election in the Colne Valley, and Grayson, then a member of the ILP, was put forward as a Labour candidate. The Liberals, taken completely by surprise in a very difficult constituency to work up in a hurry, were beaten, and Grayson was returned to the House of Commons as a revolutionary Socialist.

We all rejoiced and hoped great things of him; the rather that the semi-Liberal wirepullers and preachermen of the Labour Party – Grayson is neither a Puritan, an ascetic, nor a man of God – did their utmost to thwart and belittle him in every way. The whole unemployed question was shelved as far as the Labour Party as a whole could shelve it. Then, suddenly, without any notice to his fellow-members, who, rightly or wrongly, he thought would interfere with his action instead of supporting it, Grayson broke through all the paraphernalia of obstacular balderdash which goes to maintain the much loved “order, order” of men who are anxious only to do nothing, and made a stirring but most irregular protest on behalf of the out-of-works.

The whole thing was done in an impulsive, ill-thought out way, I grant, and many Socialists who had been striving for consideration for the unemployed when Grayson was a baby could not approve of such a hysterical coup by a brilliant young platform speaker and agitator, when really determined and persistent effort was needed in order to do any good. Personally, I did not take that view. Grayson’ s defects were obvious enough to all who knew him. But he had done that which we had all been clamouring for: he had disregarded the capitalist-inspired counsels of Labourist wirepullers and trimmers, and had thought and acted in Parliament on behalf of the workless and starving men and women for whom he had agitated in Lancashire. He was turned out of the House of Commons at Westminster, but he became at once the most popular man in the country.

He had many of the qualities which would take him far on the right side. Though not blessed with by any means a strong constitution he had an amount of energy which, as in the case of “Jimmy,” not Ramsay, Macdonald, might carry him through the dead points of a consumptive tendency into as hale and hearty an old age as his promises to be; he had a platform style so attractive to the multitude that people flocked to hear him if only for the amusement of the thing; he was plucky, by no means badly read, and honest; pleasant in private life and with a great capacity for making friends. Never in my day in any country had a young man of twenty-six such a chance of making a great name for himself, and doing really fine work for his class and generation. Youth could live down a lot of blunders, and it seemed to me incredible that a sensitive, capable person of his natural turn for initiative could fail to see and to grasp the great opportunity which lay before him. In talking quite coolly with him at Manchester and elsewhere he certainly gave me the impression that he did see and would act.

The great opportunity came at the Portsmouth Conference of the Labour Party. Lady Warwick had a private party of her own there at the Queen’s Hotel, and my wife and myself were among her guests. The very first day was devoted to a discussion upon the unemployed. To do the managers – Ramsay Macdonald and the rest of them – bare justice, they could not by anything they contrived have given Grayson a better chance to defend his action in the House, and to formulate a policy himself in the Conference, than they afforded him in this way. He had spoken well in the Provinces meanwhile. Everybody therefore expected he would rise to the level of the occasion. There was a crowd of reporters – English, American, and foreign – present, and ready to flash his utterances to London and thence to all parts of the earth.

I confess I greatly envied this lucky young man the glorious opening thus provided for him by his own plucky conduct at the very beginning of his career. I only wished I could slip my somewhat burly carcase into his rather exiguous garments and take his place just for once, in order to tell mankind at large what I thought of the situation. For what could any one desire more than to have such an international megaphone to make his voice resound, full of its message of salvation for the disinherited, to the city and the world? It was, in fact, a most dramatic situation, which appealed to the imagination of every man and woman among us. We waited on tiptoe in a very agony of expectation for the great man of the day.

Time passed. Where was Grayson? Time passed still. Where was Grayson? Luncheon arrived. Still no Grayson. The day came to an end. No Grayson. It was all over. A very promising young leader had lost the chance of his life.

And that was not the end of the episode either. On the second or third day the missing man turned up – cool, cheery, unflustered, quite himself. Did he understand? I have never been able to say. But if he did not it was not for want of our telling him. We put the thing to him as plain as plain could be. He had sacrificed the great hearing he must have obtained, but yet there was time. The Conference would listen to him, the press would report him, the people would rush to acclaim him. He listened. An hour later he lounged elegantly against one of the pillars of the hall, and – carefully held his peace. At last more than one of us told him in so many words that if he left the Conference without making himself felt, Socialists as well as Labour men would have no further use for him: he was not only making a fool of himself but of us. On the last day he took a motor-drive into the country and never turned up at all.

It was a very bad business, and to this day I cannot understand it. Grayson has done a lot of good and some hard work since. He has never gone back upon Socialist opinions nor failed to carry on his revolutionary propaganda. But, well, – ready as I am to admit the value of his services, I can never forget that terrible Portsmouth fiasco. And to me it was the more saddening because the organisation of unemployed labour upon socially useful non-competitive work is, I am absolutely certain, by far the most important of all palliatives. It is peaceful, but it is essentially revolutionary. If there were no unemployed whatever on the labour market, the workers would very speedily come by their own.

But of the Labour Party as at present constituted what more is there to be said? It has become a creature of compromise and intrigue a medley of selling out and surrender. At the moment of writing it is making a show of independence, and George Lansbury, who was on the whole the best organiser the Social-Democratic Federation ever had, and who made a fine poll for us as a Social-Democrat for Bow and Bromley, has shown some life with his new friends. If he and Thorne and O’Grady and Jowett could only work solidly together in the House as Socialists, they might actually prove the most satisfactory proposition to minorities that the part is sometimes greater than the whole. But my impression is that the impulse towards a more satisfactory representation in Parliament of the wage-earning class, who form the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain, will come from without and not from within the political group.

When men have got into the habit of entering upon agreements and transactions with the enemy, it is very difficult for them to resume the attitude of independence, even if they ever were really independent in the class sense. If the Nonconformist Conscience were not spread so very broad as a Pharisaic phylactery across the foreheads of the leading Labourists, I might feel greater hope of their turning to the more excellent way of social revolution in place of following the easy (and profitable) path of bureaucratic trickery. That is only to say that in my opinion there is more in common between men of the Henderson type in political affairs and Lloyd George and his set than there is between them and genuine Socialists; and a Radical-Socialist party can scarcely fail to be essentially a corrupt party, with bribery and jobbery as its principal aids to success. That we see already.

In short the Labour Party, by its backing up of Mr. Lloyd George’s sinister bureaucratic policy, engineered wholly and solely in the interest of the capitalist class, has helped to create a vast horde of irresponsible tchinovniks, after the Russian model, only infinitely better paid, who have now vested interests to the tune of millions sterling a year as against the community at large. The claims of these improperly appointed and dangerous parasites and manipulators must be constantly challenged and repudiated by genuine workers and Socialists. Until they are swept out of the posts into which they have been pitchforked, for political and other reasons which cannot be openly avowed, there is no hope of any thoroughgoing change for the better.

Last updated on 1.11.2007