J.T. Walton Newbold

The Political Situation in Great Britain

(May 1923)

Source: The Communist Review, May 1923, Vol. 4, No. 1.
Publisher: 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.

SINCE the commencement of the present session of the Parliament the Tory, Government has suffered three very dramatic defeats at by-elections. In one case they lost a seat to a Liberal, and that in suburban West London, and in the other two cases two seats to the Labour Party, the one in the petit-bourgeois suburb of London at Mitcham, and the other in an industrial quarter of a city famous for religious and racial strife and consistent and continuous Toryism, the Edgehill division of the port of Liverpool. The causes of the defeats were twofold. First there was the customary habit of the British electorate to follow up a General Election with a series of rebuffs expressive of their disappointment with a new government, and, second, there was the question of the threatened increase of rents by reason of the decontrol of houses by the State—a temporary war measure. The houses more immediately threatened were those of the petit-bourgeoisie, who, therefore, voted Labour to frighten the Government into making and keeping a promise to delay decontrol until, from some quarter unnamed, new houses can be provided.

Again, there is profound but unintelligent discontent amongst the British bourgeoisie at the way things are going with the prestige of the nation, the dignity of the Empire, and the problems of taxation and trade. They want “Peace with honour.” It is not peace itself that they mind about, but “economy.” The Mesopotamia and Gallipoli campaigns have made any threat of war in those quarters very unpopular. It is unpleasant and unhealthy, even if honourable, to die for one’s country on the hill slopes of the Dardanelles or in the river marshes of Irak. Besides, it is better to sell cotton goods in the Levant than to help a few cosmopolitan speculators like Baharoff to get oil with the aid of taxpayers’ bombs and bayonets. Yet again, India seems to be willing to settle down and resume its normal relations, with Lancashire if only the Government will not antagonise the Khaliphat movement. However, of course, no British bourgeois will evacuate the East under threat of expulsion. To do so would be to lose “prestige” and risk trouble with “the beastly natives” everywhere, don’t you know. Again, everyone smarts at the indignitv of the French handling of British interests in occupied Germany just as much as he is incensed at the thought of letting off “the Huns’ who made the war and now refuse to pay for it. But the country has only one-third the aeroplanes that France has, and less submarines as well. To cap all, the new Government has made a most undignified capitulation to the American bondholders, and has burdened the taxpayer with yearly payments approximating £36,000,000 for eighty years.

Trade is not improving at all well, and taxation will not fall. The British bourgeoisie is a rat in a trap, and begins to be conscious of that disagreeable situation.

The Liberals have failed him. The Tories are failing him. Therefore he turns to the Labour Party for “Peace, Respectability, Stability and Economy.” Even so, he is perturbed. There are those “wild men” from Scotland, and some thirty-five others who object to their leaders fraternising with royalty. The leaders look and sound quite safe, but Snowden, though he may turn round and snarl at his supporters for cheering him too boisterously when attacking capitalism in his best parlour manner, and MacDonald, though he may tell the millionaire newspaper owners that his party has not one thousand millionth part of sympathy with Bolshevism, cannot restrain the avalanche that threatens from the back benches, impelled forward by the hopes their own oratory has awakened in the congested towns of the Clyde. The bourgeoisie wants a change—back to the old world before 1914. It must be remembered that in Britain the bourgeoisie, economic and ideological alike, is very big indeed, this being the home of the classical or competitive type of capitalism. Respectability, is rampant. Religion has been more democratic here than authoritarian; this is the home of Nonconformist sectarianism. Even Catholicism here has been associated with the Liberals as against the State Church, and, amongst the Irish, has stood for the national revolt of the expropriated race against the alien and Protestant ascendancy. The State Church has, for more than half a century, but more with each succeeding decade, had bishops and clergy who were in idealist revolt against the Manchester school of political thought that inspired industrialism. There is, also, an enormous mass of floating religious emotionalism and idealism, with no doctrinal bias and no sceptic cynicism. There are ideological bridges and causeways innumerable connecting the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

All this had its historic origin in the slow but very early development of bourgeois trade, bourgeois farming of land, and bourgeois industry in Great Britain.

The absence of a conscript army, the meeting of bourgeois and proletarian in the chapels, and the coming together of all classes on the racecourse have given to these gradations of class subdivisions a number of ideas and prejudices in common.

Again, the rebel elements, the adventurous personalities, have made their way to a colony or to the English-speaking United States.

British capitalism has, for three generations, been able to make its proletarians feel that their standard of life and comfort was continuously improving, and that they had a share in the government and profits of the common imperial heritage.

All this is now rapidly altering economically end fundamentally, but, psychologically and superficially, the change is very slow. The old traditions die very slowly away.

The Communist in Britain needs to have infinite patience, foresight and a willingness to seem a dreamer end to be ridiculed, He must remember that, traditionally and psychologically, he lives on an island of prosperity and of peace. He must equally realise and seek to make others realise, also, that economically and in the conditions of modern politics and war that insularity and privileged status have slipped away, Economically, Great Britain is riding at breakneck speed to revolution, Psychologically, her people think that everything in this country will be “the same yesterday, to-day; and for ever.”

It has been unfortunate for comrades here and throughout the International, that, on the one hand, they have allowed enthusiasm and hopeful expectation to negate their Marxian interpretation of history when judging the prospects of a revolutionary crisis in Great Britain (and in certain other countries) and, on the other, that they have been unintentionally misled by engineers from the Clyde, with their views unduly coloured by local and occupational conflicts of a temporary, though very dramatic character, who, generalising from particulars, foretold a revolutionary rising of the masses and by other comrades from London where, almost alone in all Britain, the trades’ councils and labour parties have been as much or more influenced by the Marxists than by the religious sentimentalists of the I.L.P.

The Clyde industrialists have foretold a Soviet Revolution. The London politicals have overlooked the fact that as the Labour Party ceased to be a federation of autonomous units and became a centralised party, the opportunities of Communists within its ranks would become less and less. Formerly, the Labour Party had no all-powerful junta. Now, it has a junta and a machinery of officialdom reaching down from the centre to the localities.

The bourgeoisie elements, discomfited and dislodged by the economic revolution, are coming into the Labour Party to strengthen is as an orthodox political machine and to saturate it still more with opportunism and the spirit of compromise. There may be a break inside the Labour Party. I think it will take the form of autonomy of organisation for the Scottish section of the Party but, as no Labour Party candidate can possible secure selection in the whole of the West Coast area unless he is approved by, and is a member of, the I.L.P., that will not mean a union or even an early alliance with the Communists.

This re-organisation, made—in the interests of opportunism—to get moderate men’s votes in Conservative England and extremist men’s votes in Radical Scotland, there will, probably, ensue a Labour Government.

Then, the debacle will begin, and the wholesale disillusion and disruption of the Labour Party rank and file membership set in. At present and until that time, the numerically weak Communist Party can best stand firm in asserting the inevitable failure of opportunism, the inevitable collapse of imperialism, demonstrating the domestic failure of capitalism, pointing to the fissures in its political superstructure, fighting with the masses of the unemployed to improve their lot, helping the unions to resist the ever-increasing onslaughts on working conditions and wage-rates, battling within the local labour parties to maintain and strengthen its influence, learning in the rough and tumble of everyday conflict to use the information and instruction which its slowly but steadily recruited membership will receive from the Party and from the International.

Last updated on: 10 August 2021