J. T. Murphy

The Future of the Labour Party

Source: The Aldelphi, April 1933, Vol. 6, No. 1
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

[That such a vigorous and reliable Communist leader as Mr. J. T. Murphy should have decided to join the Socialist League, in order to help in creating a revolutionary Socialist nucleus within the Labour Party, is a political portent. It tends to confirm the belief of many Socialists that a new spirit of determination and unity is growing throughout the Labour Movement. — ED.]

THIS question is, in my opinion, the outstanding problem in the inner political life of the British working-class movement. The collapse of the Labour Government in 1931 under the pressure of the world economic crisis has proved much more than a governmental collapse. It was the collapse of theories and policies which had governed the Labour Movement of this country since the formation of the Labour Party. Yet the party did not collapse.

But why did it not collapse? The answer is—the Labour Party polled seven million votes because that vote represents the class action of the workers at the stage of political consciousness they had then reached. It represents the degree of class loyalty which the Labour Party was able to muster in the face of unparalleled panic. This is a profound testimony to the overwhelmingly working class composition of the Labour Party itself. It was this fact which determined the refusal of the rest of the Labour Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party to follow MacDonald into coalition. The theories they held led them as far as the May Committee. But it was one thing to consider its recommendations and another thing to put them across. It was the final realisation that they had to face the working class upon whom they depended for support that led to the break with MacDonald.

Judged by the theories they held there was no reason why they should not confirm the May Report. If one accepts the theory of gradualism—that socialism must come through the reform of prosperous capitalism—then of necessity one must agree to the measures to make it prosperous as the necessary stepping stones to socialism. Otherwise, bang goes the theory.

This is what actually happened. And the deeper the crisis of capitalism, the more shattering are the blows given to the gradualist theory. What becomes of the old familiar plea, “We don’t want to take over a broken-down concern, but a prosperous, well-organised, efficient business,” when capitalism is rapidly becoming a broken-down concern? The fall of the Labour Government in 1931 was the outward sign of the collapse of the theory and policy which had dominated the Labour Movement for decades.

Time had to elapse before this was reflected in the consciousness of the Labour Party itself. The first marked manifestation of this was seen in the Leicester Conference of the Labour Party last October. Although no alternative policy was clearly formulated, the Conference delegates emphatically declared that they wanted no more of gradualism and that the next Labour Government must go straight for socialism. The Conference banged the door on MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, and bolted it. They began to discuss what a socialist Government would do with the banks. The Conference did not get much further than this, although in the discussion those who stood for piecemeal measures were decisively defeated and the defeat included the defeat of the platform. The mountain of constitutional procedure, traditional associations and the machinery of officialdom weighed heavily upon the Conference.

But the movement had begun. The Socialist League, formed out of the split of the Independent Labour Party, focussed the new demand for drastic socialist measures. It was too much to expect the newly formed grouping to do more than it did. Enough at this point to recognise the beginning of the attempt to organise the forces which acknowledged the collapse of gradualism and the need for a new fundamentally socialist policy.

Since then the crisis has deepened. The army of unemployed has grown by hundreds of thousands. Imports and exports have decreased. War has broken out in South America and has been rapidly followed by the War in China. America has plunged into a new credit crisis. New alliances have been formed in Europe and swiftly on their heels has followed the triumph of the Fascist revolution in Germany. The Disarmament Conference is in collapse. Every country feels itself on the verge of war.

A new political awakening has begun in this country. At first it appeared as if the Communist Party was about to rally big forces with the Hunger March. But once again, by virtue of its inherent sectarianism, it shattered the support it gathered. The petition it had organised landed in the left luggage office of a railway station, instead of in Parliament. The Communist leaders of the unemployed were arrested and nothing much happened. The I.L.P. did not step into the breach. By February of this year the Labour Movement, taking up the same issues as the Hunger Marchers, rallied a demonstration to Hyde Park of 250,000 workers. A few weeks later the Rotherham by-election turned a seven hundred deficit into a sixteen thousand majority for labour. Obviously the Labour Party is regarded by the working class as their party.

Since then, however, events in Germany have sent a shock of alarm throughout the working class movement. The Fascist Government has shown little discrimination with regard to the differences in the ranks of the movement. The Fascists have battered the heads of social democrats and communists alike, suppressed their newspapers, imprisoned members and leaders, and destroyed their organisations. There is no point in counting who is most bruised. The big fact is that the Fascists regarded the social democratic movement of Germany as of the same social basis as the Communist—namely, working class and anti-capitalist.

So acute is the situation throughout Europe that the Communist International has changed its line once more in response to the appeal of the Left Socialists and is prepared to negotiate with the Second International and its parties for a united front of working class struggle against Fascism and war. It is to be hoped that more will come of this than of previous efforts in a similar direction. Sufficient for the moment to indicate it as a measure of the tremendous change in the situation and the kind of issues and action the Labour Party is now discussing.

What effect has the changed situation upon the internal affairs of the Labour Party? Certainly there are few who will talk of gradualism, even among the leaders, whilst the mood of the workers is increasingly for a bold socialist challenge to capitalism. But how far has the socialist challenge advanced in terms of programme and leadership? There is no doubt that the Socialist League has travelled far since the Leicester Conference. It took up at once the question of what a socialist Government would do or ought to do. In a series of lectures, now published in pamphlet form, it has begun to develop a programme which it hopes to see adopted by the Labour Party as the mandate for the next Labour Government. Briefly stated, these pamphlets focus the demands for Socialisation of Banking, State Control of Credit and Prices, State Control of Foreign Trade, The Socialisation of Industry and Land, Independence of the Colonies, Abolition of the House of Lords, etc. They discuss the possibility of a “constitutional revolution.”

It is not possible here to deal with them in detail. Enough for the moment to indicate the fundamental character of the proposals and to show how far they supplant the gradualism of Labour and the Nation.

It must be observed that this programme starts from the premise of a socialist Parliamentary majority. It then proposes to carry the above mentioned measures in the course of a few years. Up to the present all the pamphlets look at socialism through the spectacles of Parliamentary Government. They view the opposition of the ruling class mainly as the opposition of the House of Lords, which they would abolish.

The fundamental defect of each of the pamphlets lies not in the working out of projects of socialism on the basis of having achieved a parliamentary majority, or in expounding plans for a socialised industry. Both are necessary. The defect lies, in my opinion, in the predominantly legalistic, instead of social-political, analysis of the situation. It is not wrong to aim at a parliamentary majority. The working class of this country will not attempt to reach socialism in any other way, until experience proves to them that this is closed. The folly is to shut one’s eyes to what the enemy is doing and will do to prevent the workers from getting such a majority and to the measures the propertied classes will take against socialism. Their resistance will not be limited to the veto of the House of Lords. The ramifications and key positions of the ruling class are numerous. What of the press and the class domination of the army, navy, air force, civil service, etc.? The demand for a parliamentary socialist government is at bottom a demand for a bloodless revolution. Surely therefore the first job of a socialist government must be to disarm the capitalist class so that they cannot make war on the workers or violently obstruct the operation of socialist laws?

Again I repeat, it is very good to consider and work out plans of socialisation for a socialist Government, but is it not advisable and necessary to consider how the various social forces are set in motion when revolutionary changes begin? It is a Marxist axiom that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Is this confined to voting for socialism? The writers of the pamphlets declare for Marxism. Very well, surely the first need is to be realistic in facing the tasks before us? Has not socialism its own state form? Are socialism and capitalism so much alike that the capitalist parliament will do for socialism? Yet the writers so far have only thought out a socialist scheme to be operated through parliament and it would appear that the workers have only to delegate powers to their M.P.s who will appoint socialist specialists to re-organise industry, etc.

The Socialist League will have to go much further along the path of Marxism. Nevertheless, it has begun the job. It is not shirking the issue of the class struggle. Whatever its shortcomings, it is the beginning of the new development of revolutionary socialist policy within the Labour Party. The rapid development of such a policy is our safeguard against another colossal working class defeat and a period of Fascist dictatorship. It is only necessary to look of Germany to realise that this estimate is no exaggeration.

These are some of the considerations which have led the writer to abandon his previous sectarian point of view and join the Socialist League.