V. I.   Lenin

Debates in Britain on Liberal Labour Policy

Written: Written in October 1912
Published: First published in Prosveshcheniye No. 4, April 1913. Signed: W.. Published according to the magazine text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1975], Moscow, Volume 18, pages 360-365.
Translated: Stepan Apresyan
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). 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.
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It is well known that in Britain there are two workers’ parties: the British Socialist Party, as the Social-Democrats now call themselves, and the so-called Independent Labour Party.

This split in the British workers’ socialist movement is no accident. It originated long ago. It arose out of the specific features of British history. Capitalism developed in Britain before it did in any other country, and for a long time Britain was the “workshop” of the world. This exceptional, monopoly position created relatively tolerable conditions of life for the labour aristocracy, i.e., for the minority of skilled, well-paid workers in Britain.

Hence the petty-bourgeois, craft spirit in the ranks of this labour aristocracy, which has been divorcing itself from its class, following in the wake of the Liberals, and treating socialism contemptuously as a “utopia”. The Independent Labour Party is a party of liberal labour policy. It is justly said that this Party is “independent” only of socialism, but very dependent on liberalism.

In recent times Britain’s monopoly has been thoroughly undermined. The previous relatively tolerable conditions of life have given way to extreme want as a consequence of the high cost of living. The class struggle is becoming immensely intensified, and along with this the basis for opportunism, the former basis for the spread of the ideas of liberal labour policy among the working class, is being undermined.

So long as these ideas persisted among considerable numbers of British workers, elimination of the split among the workers was out of the question. Unity cannot be created by phrases and desires, so long as the Social-Democrats   have to fight against liberal labour policy. At the present time, however, this unity is really becoming possible, be cause the protest against liberal labour policy is growing in the Independent Labour Party itself.

Before us lies the official report of the latest, Twentieth, Annual Conference of that Party, held at Merthyr on May 27 and 28, 1912. The debate on parliamentary policy given in the report is extremely interesting; essentially it was a debate on a deeper issue, that of Social-Democratic and liberal labour policies, although the speakers did not use these terms.

The Conference debate was opened by Jowett, M.P. He moved a resolution against supporting the Liberals, of which we shall speak in greater detail below, and a fellow-thinker, Conway, who seconded the motion, said plainly: “The aver age worker is asking the question whether the Labour Party in Parliament has a view of its own.” Suspicion is growing among the workers that the Labour Party is “tied” to the Liberals. “A feeling is growing in the country that the Labour Party is simply a wing of the Liberal Party.” It should be observed that the Parliamentary Labour Party consists not only of I.L.P. M.P.s, but also of M.P.s sponsored by trade unions. These call themselves Labour M.P.s and Labour Party members, and do not belong to the I.L.P. The British opportunists have succeeded in doing what the opportunists in other countries are frequently inclined to do, namely, in combining opportunist “socialist” M.P.s with the M.P.s of allegedly non-party trade unions. The notorious “broad labour party”, of which certain Mensheviks spoke in Russia in 1906–07, has materialised in Britain, and only in Britain.

To give practical expression to his views, Jowett moved a resolution, drawn up in the truly “British” manner, that is, without any general principles (the British pride them selves on their “practicality” and their dislike for general principles; this is just another expression of the craft spirit in the labour movement). The resolution called on the Labour group in the House of Commons to ignore all threats that the Liberal government might find itself in a minority and so be compelled to resign, and to vote steadfastly on the merits of the questions brought before them.

Jowett’s motion “took the bull by the horns”. The Liberal Cabinet in Britain, like the entire Liberal Party, is doing its utmost to persuade the workers that all forces must be united against reaction (i.e., against the Conservative Party), that the Liberal majority must be preserved, for it may melt away if the workers do not vote with the Liberals, and that the workers must not isolate themselves but must support the Liberals. And so Jowett puts the question clearly: vote “steadfastly”, ignore the threat that the Liberal government may fall, do not vote as the interests of the Liberal Party require it, but on the merits of the questions, i.e., in Marxist language—pursue an independent proletarian class policy and not a liberal labour policy.

(In the ranks of the Independent Labour Party, Marxism is rejected on principle, and that is why Marxist language is not used at all.)

The opportunists, who predominate in the Party, immediately attacked Jowett. And—characteristically—they did it exactly as opportunists, in a roundabout way, by an evasion. They did not want to say plainly that they were in favour of supporting the Liberals. They expressed their idea in general phrases, and, of course, did not fail to mention the “independence” of the working class. Just like our liquidators, who always shout especially loudly about the “independence” of the working class whenever they are in fact preparing to replace its independence by a liberal labour policy.

Murray, the representative of the opportunist majority, moved an amendment, i.e., counter-resolution, as follows:

That this Conference recognises that the Labour Party, in order to effectually carry out its object, must continue to regard all the possible consequences and effects, immediate and otherwise, of any line of action before adopting it, bearing in mind that its decisions must be guided solely by consideration for its own interest as a party. and by desire to increase its opportunities for attaining its ends.”

Compare the two motions. Jowett’s motion clearly demanded a break with the policy of supporting the Liberals. Murray’s consisted of meaningless commonplaces, quite plausible and at first sight indisputable, but in fact serving to disguise precisely the policy of supporting the Liberals. Had Murray been acquainted with Marx, and had he   been speaking to people who respected Marxism, he would have thought nothing of sweetening his opportunism with Marxist turns of speech and saying that Marxism demands that all the concrete circumstances of each particular case should be taken into consideration, that we must not tie our hands, that while preserving our independence we “take advantage of conflicts”, “seize at the Achilles heel of the contradictions” in the present regime, and so on and so forth.

Opportunism can be expressed in terms of any doctrine you like, including Marxism. The peculiarity of the “destiny of Marxism” in Russia lies precisely in the fact that not only opportunism in the workers’ party, but also opportunism in the liberal party (Izgoyev and Co.), likes to dress itself in Marxist “terms”! But that is by the way. Let us return to Merthyr.

Jowett was supported by McLachlan.

What are the interests of a political party?” he asked. “Are the interests of the party merely to be served by retaining men in the House of Commons? If the interests of the party are to be considered, then the men and women who are outside Parliament have as much right to be considered as the men in Parliament. As a socialist organisation we should try to give effect to our principles in our political activities.”

And McLachlan referred to the vote on the Heswell Reformatory case. A boy inmate of the reformatory had been tortured to death. A question was asked in Parliament. The Liberal Cabinet was threatened with defeat: Britain is not Prussia, and a Cabinet that is in the minority must resign. And so, to save the Cabinet, the Labour M.P.s voted in favour of whitewashing the torturer.

The Labour Party, said McLachlan, keeps on taking into account the effect which their vote might have on the fate of the government, thinking that should the Cabinet fall, Parliament would be dissolved and a new general election announced. But that was nothing to be afraid of. The fall of the Cabinet and the announcement of new elections would result in a combination of the two bourgeois parties (McLachlan simply said: the “other two parties”, without the word “bourgeois”. The British do not like Marxist terms!), and the sooner that happened, the better for our movement. The words of our propagandists should be carried into effect by   the work of our men in the House. Until that was done, the Tory (i.e., Conservative) workman would never believe there was any difference between the Liberal and Labour Parties. Even if we lost every seat in the House through upholding our principles, it would do more good than attempts to coax a Liberal government into making concessions!

Keir Hardie, M.P., the Party leader, twists and turns.

It is not true to say that the Labour Party upholds the balance of power. The Liberals and Irishmen in the House can outvote the Tory and Labour members.... In the case of the Heswell Reformatory I voted for the government purely on the merits of the case, and not in support of the government. The superintendent had been guilty of harshness and cruelty, and every Labour member went to the House determined to vote against the government. But during the debate the other side was put, and it showed that although the superintendent had been guilty of cruel treatment, the record of the School was the best in the Kingdom. Under those circumstances it would have been wrong to vote against the government.... [Such is the p ass to which the British opportunists have brought the Labour Party: the leader was not howled down for that sort of speech, but was listened to calmly!]

The real trouble is hot with the I. L. P. members, but that when the Labour Party took over the Miners’ Federation, and the miners’ members joined the Labour group, they were Liberals, and they have not changed their opinions, since they gave a purely nominal adherence to the Party....

Jowett’s resolution reduces Parliamentary government to absurdity. The consequences of any vote must be considered....

I would advise the previous question as regards both the resolution and the amendment.” (!!!)

Lansbury, supporting Jowett’s resolution, said:

It is not so foolish as Keir Hardie would have us suppose. It does not mean that in voting upon a question every consideration should be ignored but only the consideration as to what effect it would have on the government. I got into the socialist movement through sheer disgust with political caucuses and bosses, and the control of the House of Commons by such people. My experience has been that every question that comes up for discussion has to be discussed in regard to its probable effect on the fortunes of the government of the day.

It makes it almost impossible for the Labour Party to differentiate itself from the Liberal Party. I do not know of any particular piece of legislation in connection with which the Labour Party has in any kind of way differentiated itself from the Liberals. We as a party were part and parcel of the government in regard to the Insurance Act.... The Labour Party voted steadily for the Bill, and stood by the government all the way through.

I was ashamed of the vote over the Heswell Reformatory. When a man poured boiling water over a boy until he died I felt ashamed of ... voting for the whitewashing of that man. On that occasion the Labour Party whips ran about the House bringing up their men to prevent the government being defeated.... To accustom men ... to voting against their consciences is deadly for the future of democracy in this country....”

Philip Snowden, M.P., one of the most rabid Opportunists, wriggled like an eel. He said:

My fighting instinct inclines me to support the resolution, but my common sense, judgement, and experience induce me to vote for the amendment. I agree that the present Parliamentary system has a demoralising effect upon those who went to the House moved by idealism and political enthusiasm. But I do not believe the adoption of Jowett’s resolution will make much difference. The merits of a question are not confined to the particular question itself. There are certain issues which the Labour Party considers of greater importance than any possible consequences of voting for the government—Women’s Suffrage is one—but are we to disregard consequences on every paltry issue? This policy would necessitate repeated General Elections and nothing is more irritating to the public than such con tests.... Politics means compromise.”

When a Vote was taken, 73 voted for the resolution and 195 against.

The opportunists carried the day. That is not surprising in an opportunist party like the British I.L.P. But it is now a fully established fact that opportunism is giving rise to an opposition in the ranks of this very Party.

The opponents of opportunism acted far more correctly than their like-minded colleagues in Germany frequently do when they defend rotten compromises with the opportunists. The fact that they came out openly with their resolution gave rise to an extremely important debate on principles, and this debate will have a very strong effect on the British working class. Liberal labour policy persists owing to tradition, routine and the agility of opportunist leaders. But its bankruptcy among the mass of the proletariat is inevitable.


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