J. T. Murphy

The Political Mind of Ramsay MacDonald

Source: The Communist Review, March 1924, Vol. 4, No. 11.
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.

THE mingling of disappointment and praise arising from MacDonald’s first efforts as a government-maker is arresting. It will be observed that the disappointment comes from the ranks of the workers, the praise from the capitalist press. The full significance of his work in this direction, and his opening statement in the new Parliament, has probably not yet been realised by the workers who form the bulk of the parties in whose name he led “Labour” through the General Election. But to us they are not unexpected. His conduct so far is but the natural expression of the man, symptomatic of his outlook yet to be generally appreciated as non-socialist.

MacDonald has never departed from the Liberalism of his youth. His “socialism” is a dream and an emotion. His politics the embodiment of opportunism. Soar as he may into the clouds of fancy and wander as he may towards the far horizons of he knows not what, he treads always the beaten path of Liberalism. He denounces Capitalism only to embrace it. He sees the class war only to thunder moral denunciations against it from the olympian heights of his dreams, blind to the fact that he is thereby stifling the revolt of the slaves against their slavery—the very means of realising his dreams. He would deny the class war. He would assert that the revolt must be intellectual and proceed along lines which he prescribes. But then, as Trotsky once exclaimed, “MacDonald knows nothing about socialism—absolutely nothing.”


In so far as he has any sociological principles, MacDonald is a follower of Spencer, regarding society as an organism analogous to the animal organism. Social phenomena are accordingly looked at from a biological point of view. Strikes, political upheavals, social breakdowns, are diseases of the body politic. Institutions are its limbs, and morality and intellect the only means to social development. He, therefore, rejects class warfare, and revolutionary action, sets himself above society in the realm of the intellect to lecture humanity on its wicked ways, exhibits patience whilst the germs war with each other, irrespective of his admonitions or sermons. “The watchword of socialism is not ‘class-consciousness,’ but ‘community consciousness,’ “he says in” Socialism and Society," (p. 144)

To be logical he removes himself from realities to the realm of non-existent socialist order for his moral inspiration; only to return and patiently smother the workers with pacifism, and appeal to the ruling class to be more gentle.

“For Socialism,” he declares, “is not fully explained as the result of Labour against capitalism: it is a conception of Society in which the antagonisms from which that revolt arises are harmonised. Did Socialism only mean to put Labour in power so that cramped working class interests could pursue the same self-regarding policy as capitalist interests pursued, stormy indeed would be the prospect. It is true that in the conflicts, which divide the workman from his employer in present-day society, Socialism has to take sides with the forces that are making for the new society; but it is above the conflicts in spirit, and it is steadily infusing in both sides the creative desire to get beyond present divisions, and reach a state in which all service will be done for communal ends by men who feel the community in their hearts, and know that its wealth means their own wealth . . . Therefore, Socialism can only move men by education and moral idealism; its sound economic criticisms of the classes must be used as logs by which the fires of moral enthusiasm are kept blazing; it takes no part in a purely horizontal tug-of-war between the working and the capitalist class, but is Plutonic force beneath both, heaving them upwards.” (“Socialism: Critical and Constructive,” pp. 277-8).

What with the pull and the tug and the upward push, the undefined forces making for the community spirit, the negatives and the bonfires, and the moral urge, the mind of MacDonald repudiates first the working class as the force which alone can bring Socialism into being; second, he places himself at the head of the middle class as the harmoniser of contradictory forces; and third, binds himself to the Conservative methods and institutions of capitalism with formulæ which blinds him to the realities of the movement of social forces.

The proper organ for accomplishing socialism was the democratic State, which meant the organised political personality of a sovereign people. The State was not the organ of a class, but of the whole society. Indeed, Socialism could not be defined better than as the stage of social organisation when the State organises for society an adequate nutritive system; and democratic government is the signal that the change is taking place (“Socialism and Government,” p. 33). “Socialism would come through Parliament—or it would not come all.” (“Syndicalism,” p. 8.)

The answer to all this formulæ has been given so repeatedly in socialist literature, in the tragic experiences of the Second International (of which he is a prominent leader), and the history of social institutions, that we marvel it is still necessary to proclaim to the multitude that his confused revisionism is as fatal to the workers of Britain as the same revisionism of Kautsky, Bernstein, Adler and Bauer, has proved to the working masses of Europe.

Nothing could be more absurd than the assumption that the development of the Community counsciousuess, etc., uniformally keeps pace with the development of the forces of production and the social relations arising therefrom, that only a parliamentary majority will signify the ripeness of society for socialism. For more than thirty years, Socialists have affirmed that the economic life of man is ripe for socialisation. Yet the parliamentary majorities everywhere are against it. It is equally true that the history of Europe proves, that, immediately there is the slightest prospect of a parliamentary majority being in favour of socialisation, the capitalist forces dismiss the parliamentary institution and establish a dictatorship over parliament. The pitiable, contemptible experience of MacDonald’s colleagues of the Second International in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, in their relations with the militant bourgeoisie have taught him nothing—nothing better than to approach a tank with a sermon and the swindlers of the nation with a voting card.

To approach society without regard to classes stamps the mind of MacDonald with all the failings of the middle class, its vacillation, its ineptitude, its pathetic attachment to the class that holds power in its hands.

Marx, whom MacDonald speaks about occasionally, but whose works he shows no sign of having read, characterised his outlook in a manner which leaves little more to be said. “The peculiar character of the Social Democracy is summed up in this,” says Marx:—

“That democratic republican institutions are demanded as the means, not to remove the two extremes—Capital and Wage Slavery—but in order to weaken their antagonisms and transform them into a harmonious whole. However different the methods may be that are proposed for the accomplishment of this object, however much the object itself may be festooned with more or less revolutionary fancies, the substance remains the same. This substance is the transformation of society upon democratic lines, but a transformation within the boundaries of the small traders’ class. No one must run away with the narrow notion that the small traders’ class means a principle to enforce a selfish class interest. It believes rather than the special conditions for its own emancipation are the general conditions under which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Likewise, must we avoid running away with the notion that the Democrats are all “shopkeepers” or enthuse for these. They may, by education or individual standing, be as distant from them as heaven is from earth. That which makes them representatives of the small traders’ classi is, that they do not intellectually leap which that class itself does not leap in practical life; that, consequently, they are theoretically driven to the same problems and solutions to which material interests and social standing drive the latter. Such in fact is at all times the relation of the “political” and the “literary” representatives of a class to the class they represent.” (18th Brumaire, p. 53.)

Once MacDonald is understood as belonging to this class, his role in the I.L.P. and the Labour Party stands out as a warning to the rank and file members of those organisations. Here we get the reason why Keir Hardie can move a resolution at the Copenhagen Conference in 1912, calling for a General Strike in the event of war, and MacDonald remaining content in 1914 to talk diplomatically, and send a recruiting letter to Leicester. Herein lies the reason why a Smillie can speak with enthusiasm of the “glorious Russian revolution,” while MacDonald alternately sneers and denounces its methods and rejoices in everything which appears to be a return of strength to capitalism. Hardie and Smillie belong to the fighters of the working class, instinctively and consciously anxious to deliver blow after blow in the interests of their class as the instrument of liberation from capitalism, while MacDonald only conjures the golden pictures of the future, from his imagination as ably as Lloyd George can picture the sunrise over the Welsh hills.

But the triumph of MacDonaldism in the I.L.P. is the defeat of the working class elements within its ranks and the party’s surrender to the middle-class. Until the proletarian elements within the I.L.P. have shaken themselves free from the drug of social pacifism they can never again play the role of a proletarian party holding aloft the banner of socialism, as they did in the early days of the Labour Party.

When the Labour Party grew out of the Liberalism of the Trade Unions, MacDonaldism was its natural product in contradistinction to the destructive working class policy of class war, sounded by the early Socialists. The Labour Party succumbed before the I.L.P. and its middle class leaders. The passing of Hardie was the passing of the proletarian leadership of the Party. The coming of war found it incapable of a class war policy, wandering in the mazes of military conscription, religious consciousness, and passive resistance. It has never recovered. The proletarian elements of the Party have succumbed to the paralysing influence of MacDonaldism. The nearer it approaches the possibility of forming a Labour Government the more parliamentarism overwhelmed the Party until its leading organ becomes a strike breaker and its chief the creator of a Conservative-cum-Liberal-cum-Labour Cabinet, the defender of imperialism, the hope of capitalism.

Such are the products of the befuddled mind of MacDonald, the idealist, the pacifist, the non-Socialist,—the Liberal.