George Padmore 1944

Imperialism: The Basis of Labour Party Crisis

Source: Left, No. 92, June 1944. .
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for 2007.

The recent parliamentary clash between the Minister of Labour, Mr. Ernest Bevin, and Mr. Aneurin Bevan, Left-Wing Labourite M.P., over the infamous anti-working-class regulation 1A(a), has given rise to much speculation over the political fate of certain individuals involved.

We, however, are only concerned with this episode in so far as it reflects a fundamental ideological cleavage between the Trade Union hierarchy and the Socialist-minded Labour M.P.s and “Intellectuals,” who represent the more politically advanced membership of the Party.

To understand the basis of the ideological differences in outlook between the right-wing political Labour leaders and the Trade Union officials on the one hand, and the left-wing “Intellectuals” on the other, it is necessary to keep in mind the historical development of British Trade Unionism in relation to Imperialism. Only in this socio-political context can the crisis within the Parliamentary Labour Party be explained.

Every working-class organization functioning in a highly-developed capitalist society like Britain with a world-wide Empire, is, willy-nilly, influenced by its imperialistic environment. It is precisely because the ideology of the ruling-class has permeated the Labour Movement and corrupted influential sections of the leadership that Trade Union leaders have become so closely tied with Monopoly-Capitalists. And as a corollary of this, some of those Labour officials are now actively preaching capitalist control and planning, and at the same time helping Ministers of a Tory-disguised Government to make regulations against the fundamental interests of the working-class. In this way, the Corporate State is being gradually introduced. ‘

Empire Unites Labour and Capital

While genuine Socialists within the Labour Party may look upon it as the instrument for bringing about a fundamental transformation of the existing social order, the Trade Union leaders certainly have no such illusions. They have never really been converted to the Socialist objective, even though they have given lip-service to it. Their outlook is purely economic, and they have used their positions in the Labour Party to impose their aims. These aims have been to wring concessions from the ruling class, and they have come progressively to the point of view that if the capitalist class is to be in a position to accede their economic demands, that class must have their support whenever its position is threatened. The result has been that whenever British Capitalist-Imperialism is faced with a crisis, the Trade Union bosses have not utilised that crisis to forward the supposed Socialist aims of the Party, but rather they have joined forces with the capitalist class to resolve the crisis.

An ideological union has come about between the leaders of Labour and Capital on the basis of Empire. This united-front between the Imperialists and Trade Union officials constitutes the historic basis of Reformism in the British Labour Movement. The process has not been sudden; it has been gradually taking place with the development and expansion of British Capitalism into its Imperialist stage. Engels commented upon this social phenomenon as far back at 1882 in a letter to Kautsky, when he wrote:

“You ask me what the English workers think of colonial policy? Exactly the same as they think about politics in general, the same as what the bourgeoisie think. There is no working-class party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers merrily devour with them the fruits of the British colonial monopoly and of the British monopoly of the world market.” While to Marx he wrote even earlier (1858): “The British working-class is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. Of course, this is to a certain extent justifiable for a nation which is exploiting the whole world.”

This prophecy of Engels has been fulfilled to the letter. Today the British Labour Movement, thanks to the narrow outlook of the Trade Union leaders, stands as an expression of a bourgeois proletariat. And particularly on Foreign Policy and Imperial problems, the Trade Union and right-wing political Labour leaders have no definite programme of their own to set against that of the Tories.

Junior Partners in Imperialism, Ltd.

The British Colonial and Indian Empires are conceived as worldwide trading concerns owned by the capitalist class and operated primarily in the interests of that class. And since the reforms desired by the Labour leaders for the working-class in the metropolis derives from the spoils of Empire, these Trade Union leaders have, willy-nilly, been forced into the role of junior partners in the imperialist concern. They conclude that without the tribute from the Empire they will be unable to obtain those concessions, except they are prepared to challenge openly the whole fundamental basis of British Capitalist-Imperialism. This they are not prepared to do. So they are pursuing now a conscious policy of class-collaboration, and are naturally annoyed when their Socialist colleagues and “Intellectuals” try to push them along a Socialist road. Any criticism is resented. And all critics are to be ruthlessly dealt with. Labour must not he diverted from its chosen path. To further their point of view, they regard and use the Labour Party quite without deference to its professed socialistic aims, as a political apparatus which will look after their economic interests at Westminister. The Trade Union officials meet the capitalist bosses on the industrial sector, while the Trade Union M.P.s take care of the parliamentary arena. In this way both aspects of the joust for better working-class conditions are covered.

One point we would like to stress in this appraisal of the stand of the Trade Union leaders, who, thanks to the financial support of the Unions, dominate the inner councils of the Party; and that is the pro-imperialist course they are pursuing is absolutely conscious. The concern of these bureaucrats is now to try and persuade the rank-and-file membership to abandon the vestiges of anti-imperialism still clinging to the Party and to support in an unqualified manner the alliance with the ruling Capitalist-Imperialist class. There yet remains in its ranks, however, a number of genuine Socialists, who wish to see the worst features of Colonial role abolished or ameliorated, and, as a sop to this orientation on the problem of Empire, the Executive from time to time issues pious resolutions, statements and manifestoes, giving lip-service to the aspirations of the subject peoples in terms of Dominion status for India by and by, and the gradual evolvement of the Colonies of the West Indies, Africa, Burma and Ceylon, etc, to self-government. This is nothing but demagogy, aimed at creating the impression that the Labour Party stands for an improvement on the status quo, while endorsing the whole conception of Capitalist-Imperialism.

Mr. Shinwell Defends the Empire

The real fundamental principles of the Trade Union case were revealed in all their glaring nakedness in a recent parliamentary debate on the future of Empire. And it was left to Mr. Emanuel Shinwell who, by his past record, had earned himself the reputation of a “Left-Socialist,” to expose the bare ribs of Labour’s pro-imperialist leanings. Mr. Shinwell, seemingly having repented of his previous “Left” attitude, declared that:

“I have occasionally found myself in disagreement with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I am in hearty accord with the view he expressed some time ago on the suggested liquidation of the Empire. Sir, we have no intention, any one of us, of throwing the British Commonwealth of Nations overboard to satisfy a section of the American Press, or indeed anyone else.”

Having thus exposed himself as a supporter of Imperialism, Mr. Shinwell then presented his standpoint very logically.

“I venture to cross swords very humbly with General Smuts, who declared that after the war we shall be a very poor country,” he said. “Of course we shall be a poor country, of course our plight will be precarious, of course we shall have to reduce the standard of life of our people, and, of course, we shall become a second-rate, or even a third-or fourth rate Power unless we take appropriate steps to prevent it.”

And what are the appropriate steps proposed by Mr. Shinwell, spokesman of the Labour bureaucrats?

“The Colonies,” he maintained, “are not being developed in an economic sense as they ought to be...There should be an inquiry into the possibilities of expansion in all the Dominion countries, in India particularly, and in our Colonial possessions...We ought to take accumulated savings and invest a great proportion of them in those Empire countries who need them – some of them do not need them, having large sterling balances – and particularly in the Colonies.” [Hansard, April 20, 1944]

So you see the way the British workers are to maintain their post-war standards is not conceived by Mr. Shinwell in a Socialist New Order, but by investing the savings of the poor in colonial exploitation, thereby converting every working man and woman into shareholders of the Empire.

In this way, the workers will have vested interests with the capitalists in seeing that the native races remain “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the benefit of the British Herrenvolk.

The “Daily Herald,” official organ of the Labour Party, observes in its editorial on Mr. Shinwell’s speech, which supported a motion to promote post-war co-operation between the nations of the British Commonwealth (the white self-governing partners of the Empire), that “the motion was tabled in the names of Mr. Shinwell, a Socialist, Lord Winterton, a Conservative, Sir Edward Grigg, another Conservative, and Sir Herbert Williams, an ultra-Conservative.” ["Daily Herald,” April 23, 1944.] Clear evidence, this, of the close tie-up between the Tories and Labour leaders on the basis of Imperialism. The “Herald” attempts to take Mr. Shinwell to task for his views but in doing so exposes official Labour’s attitude on Empire.

“He (Mr. Shinwell) was far too much concerned with answering ‘sneers at the British Empire’ and with giving superfluous assurances that we have no intention of ‘throwing the British Commonwealth overboard.’ Who ever seriously supposed we had?” asks the “Daily Herald.” “A Socialist can afford to ignore critics of the Empire and to concentrate on the exposition of his Party’s aims.”

Labour Supports Smuts

But since Mr. Arthur Greenwood, the Party’s official spokesman in the Commons, fully endorsed Mr. Shinwells views, we can only conclude that they also expressed the Party’s aims. Mr. Greenwood even went so far as to refer to General Smuts as “a man of great, ripe wisdom and a man whom we honour,” that same General Smuts, whose Government in South Africa is notorious for its treatment of its majority black population. It is significant to note that Smuts is the author of the Regionalism scheme, the latest device for the joint imperialist exploitation between Great Britain and the white Dominions of the Colonial territories, and which Mr. Shinwell accepted in principle. This Regionalism has also received recognition and acceptance by the Labour leaders, as testified by an official report of the National Executive issued on April 24, 1944. The report declares that:

“In regions such as Africa, South-East Asia, and the South-West Pacific, where neighbouring Colonies are administered by different Governments, we strongly recrnnmend the early creation of Regional Councils to co-ordinate economic policy, with a view to making the interests of the Colonial peoples primary beyond all doubt.”

The Labour leaders, judging from this document, stand, then, on the same side as the ultra-reactionary South African Government and the Tory Party, even though to mask their political bankruptcy they give lip-service to the interests of the Colonial people as being primary in any system of imperial rule operated by capitalists, and to the objective of Socialism. But, inasmuch as the Trade Union leaders dominate the Labour Party, it is obliged to act together with the Imperialists in carrying out their programme which it has endorsed for the Trade Union leaders regard their existence, as it does, to be bound up with the continuation of the Empire.

With regard to Palestine, they have gone one better than the Tories. In the same document quoted above, the Labour leaders propose that the Arabs be “encouraged” to leave Palestine to make way for the Jews. While we have the deepest sympathy for the Jewish victims of Hitlerism and would welcome any succour that might come to them, such an idea is preposterous. Surely it would be more in keeping with the principles which the Labour Party professes to “encourage” the British Imperialists to get out of Palestine and leave the Arabs and Jews to settle their affairs between themselves. For as long as the British remain in Palestine both Jews and Arabs will be used in their traditional game of divide and rule.

Trade Unions and Colonial Office

While the Trade Unions are being drawn closer and closer into the apparatus of the Capitalist State, a similar tie-up is taking place between the Trade Union Congress and the Colonial Office. Transport House is already working in close collaboration with Downing Street by recommending Trade Union functionaries to go out to the Colonies to act as Labour officials in the newly set-up Labour departments. In the past, Colonial civil servants were drawn exclusively from the middle class; they were university men who used the Colonies as a system of “out-door relief.” But since the official recognition of trade unionism in the Colonies in 1940, there has been a departure from the traditional policy of appointment and Trade Union functionaries, who were never confirmed Socialists at home, can hardly be expected to preach Socialism to the natives in the Colonies.

Colonel Oliver Stanley’s enlistment of active aid of the T.U.C. in supervising labour organisations in the subject territories is quite a brilliant piece of strategy. In doing this, the Tories will use British Trade Union appointees to put a curb upon the militancy of the coloured workers; for the intensification of post-War development of Colonial resources as recommended by Mr. Shinwell, will bring forth the active opposition of the native masses against the intensified oppression which is bound to produce. The Trade Union men as the servants of the Colonial Governments will have the equivalent of the authorities controlling the labour organisations in Germany. For Trade Union association without the right to strike differs no whit from Dr. Ley’s labour front.

If the British workers fall for the programme which some of their leaders are preparing for them – and they will fall for it if we fail to establish Left Unity and re-direct then along the path of Socialism and militant action – they will find themselves drawn into greater and more destructive wars.

The fundamental problems posed before Britain and the world cannot be solved in terms of “ultra-imperialism” or “supra-imperialism” but only in terms of a planned socialised society. It is, of course, possible to effect temporary adjustments, to establish some sort of patchwork pattern. But no permanent solution of the problems of the British and Empire peoples is possible within the framework of the existing social system.

Therefore, the pressing need is to arrest the disastrous policies which the Trade Union hierarchy and right-wing political Labour leaders are imposing upon the Movement, and to rally the genuine Socialist forces inside and outside the Party round a programme of action that will inspire the masses and imbue them with confidence in themselves. With the will to power, a genuine Socialist movement in Britain, in alliance with the progressive forces in the Dominions, India and the Colonial Empire, can transform the imperial structure of British Capitalism into a genuine Socialist Commonwealth, for the benefit of all – white, brown, black, yellow. Only along this road will the British people find lasting security, economic prosperity and social well-being. The path of Empire and Power Politics held out to them by the Tories and their Labour supporters means war and economic disaster.