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Why a Labour Party?

by John Maclean

From Forward, 13 August 1910

First published: Forward, 13 August 1910
Transcription\HTML Markup: Scottish Republican Socialist Movement Archive in 2002 and David Walters in 2003
Copyleft: John MacLean Internet Archive (, 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Again Mr Johnston maintains that I have not faced the issue. He wishes to settle whether we should have a Labour Party or not. For that matter the workers can have a thousand Labour Parties if they like. That was not the point which induced me top write. The question for me was and is—is the Labour Party a marxist one?

The SDP, since its inception almost, adopted what is sometimes called marxian socialism, the which has been usually sneered at by all outside the party. It was natural, then, that as a member of that party I should attempt to present the general attitude of that party towards the Labour Party to show that the claim made for it, that it was marxian, could hardly be upheld.

I endeavoured to give a general sketch of the Labour Party from its inception, the part played by the ILP in it, and the varying attitudes of certain SDPers towards it, to show that it would be inaccurate to describe it as marxian. The historical and concrete method adopted by me may not appeal to Mr Johnston, but it is certainly the marxian method of procedure no matter how clumsy may be my handling of that method.

So far as I am concerned, I refuse to separate the Labour Party from its origin, its evolution, its deeds, its leaders, and the attitude of the rank and file. To discuss it from the abstract point of view alone, to me seems barren. I remember a journalist reading a paper on “War”, in the midst of the Boer War, without even referring to it. When his hearers wished to get to grips with him on that war he absolutely refused to discuss it, as he maintained that such was irrelevant. Mr Johnston’s attitude appears to me to be like that of this particular journalist…

Mr Johnston holds that as the Labour Party is composed of workers, is maintained by workers, and fights for workers, it is all right, and is marxian. The old and new internationalists used to let communist anarchists attend their congresses. Marx bitterly opposed them, although they were out for social ownership, because they refused to fight through political channels and had confused ideas… At last these anarchists were excluded from international socialist congresses. Today the syndicalists trade unions of France and Italy, although they believe in social ownership, are opposed by the socialist parties of these countries because they repudiate politics…

Here we see trade unions making for socialism, and yet opposed by the socialist parties. I fancy they have more right to maintain they are “the heir of the marxian tradition” than the Labour Party, in that they have their faces turned towards socialism, but are making through a bog; the Labourists are on the solid road, but are marching to liberalism, i.e. in the direction opposite to socialism. All we Social Democrats wish them to do is to get them to right-about-turn.

And, bear in mind, that as trade unionists we are trying our best to get the workers into their proper unions, to get the unions fused or brought closer together, and to get the existing unionists converted to socialism. Furthermore, we try to get them to co- operate with us, and we co-operate with them, on all possible occasions. So far as my experience goes we get on well enough side by side; and in local elections in the West of Scotland Social Democrats have polled as well as Labour men who have fought a clean fight against capital, and we have done that, too, with the help of trade-union and co-operative organisations.

It is a significant fact, also, that the larger portion of our votes comes from those as yet unorganised, showing, no doubt, a strange phenomenon that men unprepared to unite economically or politically are still prepared to vote socialists into power. It does not follow, then, that socialism would wane away were the ILP to withdraw from the Labour Party and join with the SDP…

Mr Johnston may say I have given away my case when I point out that the Labour Party is on the path, and that all we need do is to educate the rank-and-file to make them move in the right direction.

My point is, that because the Labour Party is marching into the capitalist camp, it needs must meet with the opposition of marxians, according to precedent…