J. T. Murphy

The Empire Conference and the Workers

Source: The Communist Review, November 1923, Vol. 4, No. 7.
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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.

WHATEVER else the Imperial Conference may reveal during its further sessions it has already confirmed the Communist diagnosis of the conditions of the British Empire. Mr. J. H. Thomas may declare, “We love our Empire as well as those who proclaim it every day,” or Mr. Clynes may eloquently affirm that “We on the Labour side want as fervently as any class to see the British Empire well developed.” These fervent sentiments and hopes are as futile as the new labels recently devised for the Empire. The bluff is, called and it makes no difference whether we talk of a Commonwealth of Nations or a miniature League of Nations. The plain facts are the Empire is entangled in the collapsing fabric of capitalist civilisation and cannot escape.

Whether we take Baldwin’s survey of the international situation or Lord Curzon’s three-hour story of his blunderings in foreign politics, either individually or together we get the same result —a spectacle of political hopelessness.

Mr. Baldwin’s survey, for instance, recorded the British financial and naval surrender to America, and as he has to admit, the funding of the debt to the U.S.A. has placed a burden of 30,000,000 per annum on Britain and doubled the total debt to the U.S.A. On the other hand, consider what happened at Washington on the discussion of the limitation of armaments.

This historic conference relegated Britain’s supremacy of the seas into the background. In the departments of Imperial struggle (herein she was weakest, Britain secured actually nothing. She declared her willingness to limit submarines, armies, and aircraft. On not one of these accounts was there a concession from her opponents. In submarines she became only equal to America, whose greater building potentialities are obvious to the merest tyro. In aircraft she falls hopelessly behind France, the latter with 1,500 aeroplanes against Britain’s 529.

The natural corollary of this diplomatic defeat is to emphasise that other countries mist pay their debts to Britain, and look round for instruments to effect this aim and to neutralise the growing opposition. Such, indeed, is the substance of the conference deliberations. It explains the plea for the League. of Nations and the pitiful endeavours to strengthen the bonds of Empire. It explains Sir P. Lloyd Greame on the development of Empire preference, and his striking note which roused to attention all the contradictory elements within and without the Empire. Anxious at all costs to hold the Empire together, concession has followed concession to the colonies, but, singularly enough, and it is worth noting, nothing to India.


But surely the proposal of an Empire bloc within the League of Nations is the final touch of imbecility, if world peace is seriously contemplated. For rivalry in submarines, aircraft and armies is certain to follow an intensification of the tariff war between the leading rivals far the world market. Not that the tariff war is intended as an aggressive stroke. It was rather an act of political despair added to speeches of despair. We have only to note how the Press of the country, almost with one accord, deplored the vacuity of Mr. Baldwin’s speech and wished the South African “big noise” could assume the reins as Empire leader. Despair undoubtedly lies behind all this bluster and peroration. And we might ask, what boots it that the “resources of the Empire are boundless,” when the very development of these forces is pulling the Empire asunder?

The conference is historically belated. It is striving to be progressive with instruments that are useless to infuse into an artificial structure an organised unity which life, geography and economics forbid. Had the Empire even been the deliberately planned creation of imperialists instead of a growth with no plan, its present form and content would still doom it to destruction. Certainly by no stretch of the imagination can we conceive it as a geographical or economic unit. Five minutes consideration of the elementary facts of geography will make clear Britain’s eccentric geographical position and demonstrate that only the accident of historical development could give it that pre-eminent position it has held far a few short years. So long as America remained an undiscovered or an undeveloped continent, Britain could hold a historical key position. But once America became a power, Britain’s days as a dominating factor in world traffic and influence were bound to be numbered. Let the facts speak for themselves.


From Britain to Sydney, Australia, is 12,000 miles. From San Francisco, 6,470 miles and 8,500 miles from New York. From Britain to New Zealand, via Panama, it is 10,217 miles. From New York, 8,560 miles. From San Francisco to China it is 6,340 miles. From Britain to China 11,000 miles.

The U.S.A. is the geographical pivot between the great oceans of the world fronting Europe on the East, and Asia on the West. Nor is there alternative satisfaction in financial or economic comparison. The dollar is pre-eminent in the world of finance, and eating into the vitals of Britain’s preserves. The Canadian position is notorious. In a few short years the financial relations of Britain and America in Canada have been completely reversed. Whereas British securities in Canada amount to 155,000,000 dollars, American securities amount to 550,000,000 dollars. In economic reserves and development America is now far ahead of Britain with an added tremendous advantage. It is at the centre of a geographical and economic unit, steadily absorbing a great chunk of the British Empire and situated favourably in relation to all the trade routes of the world.

On the contrary Britain is torn by development and even its preferences antagonise its elements. The preferences, for instance, welcomed by Australia, Canada, and South Africa, as grist to the mill indicating their importance to others as well as themselves are resented and undesired by India. Indeed, India, in its development, sets up its own tariff barriers against Britain, paralysing the cotton trade of Lancashire, the jute industry of Dundee and threatening the steel industry with a tariff of 33 per cent. Add to these facts the collapse of European economy and the parlous position of the Empire and Britain as its ruler is clear.

It is this situation which relegates to the realm of the unreal all attempts to see in the present Imperial Conference a progressive development towards the economic and political unity of the Empire. The conference is an attempt at salvage amidst ruin, a clutching at a broken reed in the flood tide of disaster.

Nothing could drive this home more forcibly than the report on emigration and the speech of Mr. Bruce of Australia. According to Mr. Bruce, after eighteen months’ effort only 31,832 emigrants had been “settled,” although the plan was designed to fix 50,000 per annum. Mr. Bruce wanted to help. In fact he and his Government had a great scheme. If the Empire rendered them assistance, in five years’ time they could fix up some 60,000 settlers. And if the British Government did not come by some agreement to help to make markets for Australian goods, then they would have to look elsewhere. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed grows towards the 2,000,000 and Britain is faced with the fact that 500,000 young people enter the labour market each year and thus add to the problems of economy.


At no part of the conference is labour discussed in any other aspect than that of the unemployed and their fitness for Empire development. It is of interest and importance, therefore, at once to turn to the Labour movement to examine its outlook and its relations to the problems of Empire. Without wasting further time and space on the slobberings of Messrs. Thomas, Clynes, Tillett and Bramley at the Empire Exhibition, let us get to, grips with the leaders of these leaders.

It is evident from the preceding observations that the break-down of European economy, the intensification of competition with the after-the-war rivals, and the persistence of unemployment on a large scale, will involve tariff preferences, struggles for cheap labour and new emigration schemes for Empire development, whilst the formation of an Empire bloc will intensify the imperialist rivalries leading to war. At the same time it is well to note the policy of the British government in securing this unity. To the colonies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—tariff concessions and preferential aids. To Ireland, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, it has meted differently. It has struggled to place the most reactionary (governments in power in the name of self-determination and supported them by air and military force.

What, then, have Messrs. W ebb, Thomas, Snowden, Clynes, MacDonald, and Co. to say to this situation? First, the Empire is a fact. On this all are agreed. It is a fact which we cannot dispute. Second, this fact involves the Labour movement in responsibilities. Again we are agreed. But what kind of responsibilities and to whom? Are we to perpetuate the Empire or to destroy it? Are we to liberate the workers held in subjection by the imperialists or to promulgate the claptrap of the apologists of imperialism and thereby continue the exploitation of the workers of the Dependencies and initiate them into the benefits (?) of “democracy” and “self-government”?

The present policy of the Labour leaders, the Fabians and the I.L.P. is undoubtedly in support of the latter. It is claimed that it would be fatal to liberate the countries which make up the Empire from the control of the central Government in Britain, for that would leave them victims to other imperialists. This is the essence of the argument advanced by Mr. Snowden, while Mr. Webb, in the “Empire Review” for October, dots the is and crosses the is of this policy. Having forgotten all that he has said about the decay of civilisation, Webb, by sheer force of habit, propounds the policy of the national minimum. He says:—

“This is, historically, perhaps the most important political invention of Labour and Socialist thought. . . To prescribe a minimum standard of civilised life, below which no individual can be suffered to fall; and to ensure that every person does in fact obtain at least the minimum is, as the economists to-day verbally admit, the very basis of social order. . . Even the thorny problem of ‘colour’ may probably be most successfully grappled with on this line. Prescribe and elaborate the notional minimum, exclusively on grounds of social hygiene, irrespective of colour or race; and allow immigration and employment irrespective of race or colour, only on conditions ensuring the attainment of this minimum. What will then be excluded will be not ‘colour’ but every form of ‘sweating.’”

These are important contributions which are exceedingly plausible to the average worker and man in the street which cannot be met by the generalisation that “the alternative to Empire is the International of Soviet Republics for the world organisation of production.”


Nothing is to be gained by closing our eyes to the fact that there is a long way to travel from the first Soviet Republic to the world federation of Republics. And certainly the world federation is not the next step.

We have not yet got the German revolution, not to speak of the European revolution, or the British revolution, whilst the capacity of America to hold out against the revolution is enormous. It may take decades and at least years crowded with pressing problems of revolution progressively demanding answers step by step before we get a world federation of Socialist Republics. To face the immediate problems with the generalisation of world revolution is sheer negation, as dangerous as unfruitful. It leaves the workers victims to the plausible, and transforms revolutionaries into windbags.

What, then, is the Communist answer to the questions arising out of the existence of the Empire? If the workers come to power in this country what ought they to do? The answer is clear and definite. Repudiate the bonds of Empire and liberate the exploited masses and join in the fight to crush their enemies by helping to form workers’ and peasants’ Governments in the liberated countries. But the imperialists would attack? Then join in the defensive fight and use the situation to spread the revolution in the camp of the attackers. To hold aloof in the class war in the name of “self-determination” may be good pacifism. In our opinion, it is rank cowardice and certainly not the way to win victory for the workers.

But it may be asserted that by the act of liberation from the Empire it may not follow that the workers’ and peasants’ Government would come to power. Very well, the workers’ Government of Britain would have to use its economic, political and agitational power to ripen the conditions to secure such a consummation whilst being prepared to defend the liberated nation from the attacks of external forces. And here we are faced with the proposals of Mr. Webb which present more awkward questions to Mr. Webb than they do to us.

For example, it follows from the policy I have indicated that we must help the workers of these countries to struggle with us, and support their immediate demands for advancement against our class enemies. To fight for an equal standard for black and white is the obvious safeguard for both. Does Mr. Webb mean this when he talks of proscribing a national minimum irrespective of colour or race? If so, is he prepared to face the consequences? If not, he is landed once again into the camp of the imperialist exploiters. For example, the Indian Industrial Commission in Bombay in 1918 reported that the wages of cotton mill operatives ranged from 15s. 10d. to 3 2s. 7d. per month. The wages in the Calcutta jute mills were from 12s. to 2 per month, and the average wages of the workers in Bengal coalfields was 19s. per month. The hours of labour for men are 13 per day; for women and children 11 per day.

Is Mr. Webb (and the same query applies to all the Labour custodians of Empire) prepared to fight for the Indian workers to be brought to the same level as the British workers? If so, how? By waiting until they have the vote in the Indian constitution in the sweet by and by? Or by strikes? If the latter then the workers will be brought up against the State which will involve tremendous agitation here and probably conflict there. Can the Indian workers rely upon Mr. Webb and his friends to defend them in their hour of trial? It is inconceivable for the “gradualist” philosopher to answer in the affirmative. But if not he assuredly becomes a party to the instrument of imperial class exploitation that is bringing collapse to industry here because of its inability to compete on even terms. Witness the cotton and jute industries to-day.

It would be easy to illustrate still further the predicament of Mr. Webb and his subordinates by dealing with the question of coloured labour, social hygiene, etc. But we are convinced that the points already dealt with suffice to show the impracticability of our Labourist Empire defenders. The Communist alternative which can be put to that of the Imperial Conference and their understudies of the Labour Party and I.L.P. briefly stated is as follows: —

(1) Support every measure to organise the workers of the countries within the Empire, that will enable them to struggle for improvements as a means to developing their forces to secure self-government by the seizure of power.

(2) To conduct strenuous agitation in this country in support of these workers and peasants with a view to exposing the ramifications and implications of imperialism and uniting the workers of this country with the exploited workers throughout the Empire.

(3) To aid by every possible means, whether in the colonies or here, in securing the liberation of these countries from the control of the Empire and assist in their struggle against all the imperialists.

These are the tasks which provide the workers in the Empire with their answer to the Imperial Conference and the special obligations which history places upon the working class in Great Britain in the revolutionary struggle against international imperialism.