Tom Quelch

Opposition to the Social Revolution in Britain

Source: The Communist International, 1921, No. 16-17, pp. 99-100, (1,597 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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In Britain the capitalist class and the working-class stand almost with the definiteness of contending armies, openly opposed to each other. The class lines are clearly defined. There is no mistaking who is a capitalist and who is a workman, who is rich and who is poor. The organisation of rich class is almost complete. The capitalists are banded together in their Chambers of Commerce, their masters’ and manufacturers’ associations. The workmen are organised in their powerful trade unions, or, as they are now, industrial Unions; such as the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, the National Union of Railwaymen, the Iron and Steel Trades’ Confederation, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Transport Workers’ Federation.

While there remain many workers outside the trade-unions, for all vital and effective purposes—as in all vital industries—the organised workers dominate the situation. That is to say, that while the industries of the country could be run without the unorganised workers, they could not be run without the trade unionists.

Outside of these two main classes there is a nebulous mass of professional men, literati, commercial travellers, petit-bourgeoisie, hangers-on of the capitalist system. This mass is reactionary, corrupt, just raised above the proletariat by lying and cheating. It provides recruiting material for White Guard organisations; for middle-class unions, etc.


The British capitalist class is the most astute, the most cunning, the most resourceful and the proudest ruling class in the world. It has been made so by centuries of experience of robbery and pillage and piracy in all parts of the world. It has learnt to “govern” by possessing colonies in every corner of the earth. The past five years of outrage, rapine and murder in Ireland would seem to point to the truth of the maxim “that statesmen never learn.” It knows how to create the atmosphere of liberty, and yet rule and rob with an iron hand. It knows how to manipulate democracy. It knows how to have “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the Press” which is no freedom. It knows how to break up and disperse incipient revolt. It knows how to corrupt leaders of the masses in India, in Egypt, in South Africa and at home. It knows how to purchase Labour leaders with honours, flattery, social position, money. It possesses a wide and profound knowledge of the economic and political forces. It possesses a secret service well and elaborately organised. British commercial and secret agents are perhaps the best equipped and the best supplied of all such creatures, and their number is tremendous. They are to be found everywhere.

Such a ruling class, naturally, knows well the art of protecting itself, both from internal revolt and external attack. Of all political policies, the policy of Britain has been the most Machiavellian, the most perfidious, the most cunning. Is not capitalist Britain known among the nations as “perfidious Albion”? How often has Britain encouraged Continental nations to fly at each others’ throats so that they should remain weak and leave her in a position of dominance? And how often have the working-class revolts at home been either cunningly betrayed and dispersed, or crushed and drenched in blood?

The British capitalist class has at disposal, first: all the “forces of the State.” These forces comprise Parliament, a well-organised bureaucracy, a strong judiciary, a powerful police, and the Army and the Navy. The Army is no longer a conscript army, but a volunteer army, an army that is kept in barracks and apart from the people. The Navy—the pride of the ruling class—is even more isolated from the masses. Only occasionally do the sailors, those fine sons of the working class, get leave to go ashore. Such leave is usually spent, in the ports—like Portsmouth. Chatham, Dover, Liverpool or Glasgow—and is usually a time of morbid excitement quite natural after so much confinement on board the battleships.

Secondly; the British capitalist class has at its disposal a powerful and wonderful Press. The capitalist newspapers of Britain are like no others in the world. They are unique, and their hold over the masses is supreme. Every morning and evening these newspapers circulate in millions amongst the workers, colouring their outlook on life, determining largely their political opinions, fashioning their thoughts, moulding their minds to a servile acceptance of things as they are or as the controllers of these mouthpieces of capitalism desire them to be. “Give me control of Fleet Street”—the centre of the British Press,—“and we will have a revolution in a couple of weeks,” said Robert Williams at a recent meeting in London. Williams was right. If Communists controlled the “Daily Mail”, the “Daily Mirror,” the “Daily News,” the “Daily Sketch,” the “Daily Chronicle” and the rest of the capitalist newspapers for two weeks, there would undoubtedly be a revolution, so great is their influence. The capitalists realise their strength in this connection. That is why in Britain there is only one daily newspaper—the “Daily Herald”—claiming to represent the working-class movement, and why the weekly journals of the workers are so small.

Thirdly, the British capitalist class has its interests defended by numerous religious and semi-religious organisations—from the State Church to the Wesleyan Brotherhood movements. Religion, as such, has very little interest for the masses, but many of these organisations possess thousands of members, and influence them, because they provide a social milieu, gathering places, clubs, gymnasia, games, concerts, etc.

By these various means the capitalist class in Britain holds down the masses.


But Britain also has, in great superfluity, its Mensheviks and social traitors and misleaders of the workers. They are not so well educated as the same breed on the European Continent—there is, for instance, all the difference in the world between Arthur Henderson and Emile Vandervelde. The one is a stodgy narrow-minded, rather puritanical man of mediocre attainments, while the other is a thinker of no mean order. Yet—apart from Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, who are Mensheviks sans phrase—Arthur Henderson is the leader of the misleaders. He represents the type—for the British Labour leaders are a type peculiar to themselves. In the majority of cases they have no knowledge of Socialist thought, next to no knowledge of the history of the working-class movement, and possess all the insular prejudices and heavy-headedness of the mass of their compatriots. The British Labour leaders usually develop through, first, their trade union branches, then the district councils of their trade unions, and then on to their executive committees. Their progress enables them to develop fluent speech, a genial spirit, usually very superficial, and a degree of cunning.

We have stated elsewhere that the British capitalists’ first line of defence is these Labour leaders.

The strange fact about the Labour leaders is that they do not “lead”. They call themselves leaders. The Right Hon. J.H. Thomas, for instance, and the Right Hon. Arthur Henderson frequently refer to themselves, either openly or by inference, as leaders. But they do not lead. They retard. They check. They hold back. They are used by the capitalist class to prevent any forward movement on the part of the workers.

As soon as there is rumour of discontent, in the factories, mines or mills, or the threat of a strike, these leaders are trotted along to the dissatisfied area, there to use their powers of persuasion, their diplomacy, their cunning, to ensure the smooth running of the industrial machinery.

The Government spent thousands of pounds on Labour leaders during the war, and thousands are still being spent on them. At trade union congresses and important Labour conferences, when the shambles of France and Flanders were soaked with the blood of British workers, when, every day, thousands were sent to their death, it was possible for anyone who knew the working-class movement to pick out the leaders and to tell what Government Committees they were on—paid Government Committees then sprang up like mushrooms—and, if one had inquired deeply enough, one could have told something concerning the amount of money these men were receiving for their support of the brutal war policy of the British capitalist class. These Labour leaders bargain their influence with the masses to the ruling class for social position, honours and money. In this respect they are like the plebs leaders of old Rome who frequently betrayed the plebeians to the patricians. The reputations of these Labour leaders are enhanced by the capitalist Press—which lavishes great praise on their wisdom, their sanity, their sound patriotism. They are feted and dined by the capitalists. When the capitalists consider them safe and reliable instruments, they are made Right Honourables—members of the King’s Privy Counci1—and C.B.E.’s and O.B.E.’s, and generally loaded with social distinctions. The leaders of the British Labour Party—The Right Hon. Arthur Henderson, the Right Hon. J.R. Clynes, the Right Hon. J.H. Thomas and so on—are most honourable men, as is also the secretary of the Trades Union Congress—the Right Hon. C.W. Bowerman.

As a matter of fact, the working-class movement in Britain is enmeshed with the webs woven by men “honoured” and paid by the capitalist class. Mainly recruited from the trade union bureaucracy, much advertised in the newspapers, generally less keen-witted than their masters, they readily play the part of Judas.