Theodor Rothstein August 1909

The Crisis in the Independent Labour Party

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XIII No. 8 August 15, 1909, pp. 368-378, reprinted from Die Neue Zeit;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the present time a great confusion exists in the ranks of the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.). The four most important members of its National Council – Keir Hardie, MacDonald, Snowden and Bruce Glasier (editor of the party organ, the “Labour Leader”) – have, in consequence of the criticism of their policy as leaders of the Party which was expressed at the Easter Conference, demonstratively retired from office. In an open letter addressed to the members of the Party they point out that confusion has existed for some time, caused by the formation within their ranks of a group who do not know what they want, who to-day applaud the Labour Party, and to-morrow demand the formation of a new Socialist Party, who upset the minds of the comrades and undermine their confidence in the leaders by their criticisms and ugly allusions and erroneous statements. How could the business of the Party be carried on under such circumstances? It is indeed not a question of the tactics of the Party – these were laid down once for all when it was founded – but only as to whether the Party is desirous of carrying out these tactics, of insisting upon loyalty to the latter, and of rejecting any actions or methods not in agreement with them. But it is exactly on this point that the Conference has in some instances not supported the Council, thus leaving them, the writers of the letter, no choice but to resign the mandates given by the Party.

Horrible! What can have happened? What is this mysterious group which is confusing the spirits of the Party, and has driven the four most respected leaders and founders of the Party out of the “responsible” posts of the Party Ministry? The proclamation of the four – the quartette, as it is now called in I.L.P. circles – does not mention any names, but all the world knows that the allusion is to the Grayson group. Now, who is Grayson? Who constitute his group? Wherein consists their disruptive activity?

Grayson is still quite a young man, about 27 years old, gifted, full of temperament, a born agitator, but without any sort of theoretical knowledge, no Marxist – more inclined to be an opponent of Marxism – in short, a sentimental Socialist at an age when the wine is not yet fermented. Like all Socialists of this type – and the type is a historical one, dating far back beyond our period – he represents more the tribune of the people than the modern party man, and without being an anarchist or syndicalist, he has a great horror of parliamentarism and of the planned political struggle, which he looks upon as dirty jobbery. This horror seems to be very wide-spread in England, in spite of the prevalent fetish-worship of Parliament, and is caused by the lying and deceitful tactics of the bourgeois parties. It is more to be ascribed to this horror than to firmness of principle, that Grayson, when put up as candidate at a bye-election in the summer of 1907 by the workers of Colne Valley, a Yorkshire constituency, fought for the mandate as a declared Socialist upon an openly Socialist programme, and rejected the compromise proposed by his National Council to appear before the public as a mere “Labour candidate” according to the arrangement of the Labour Party bloc. In spite of his being boycotted by the administration of his own party, as well as that of the Labour Party, and having candidates of both the bourgeois parties opposed to him, he was elected and came into Parliament, the first representative of the workers to get in on a Socialist ticket; thus proving that the hushing-up policy of the National Council of the I.L.P. and their trade unionist colleagues of the bloc of the Labour Party is not a necessity, and occasioning great joy in the S.D.P., as well as among the Socialist elements in the I.L.P., but at least equally great annoyance among the National Council of the latter.

Since that time Grayson has come to be in permanent opposition o the heads of his party, as well as the Labour Party group in general. As he did not join the latter, it boycotted him, and on the few occasions when he spoke in the House (as a Parliamentarian he was chiefly remarkable by his absence) he always came into collision with it. As, for instance, when the English King’s visit to Reval was discussed. The Labour fraction, encouraged by the Radicals, had decided on an interpellation, and as polite people (unlike the Irish who always force their questions upon the “Honourable House”) they entered into negotiations with the Government as to when and under what conditions they would allow this interpellation to be discussed. The Government said they would be glad to meet the wishes of the Labour fraction; only the debate must be closured at a certain hour by the leader of the Labour Party himself, and besides, the speakers must observe a respectful tone towards the King. The group joyfully accepted the conditions, and during some hours made their speeches, which were a curious mixture of attacks upon the Anglo-Russian friendship, and loyal songs of praise to King Edward. The time for adjourning the debate had already passed, but two Liberals spoke in succession, and the leader of the Labour Group, Henderson, showed no signs of interrupting them, Suddenly there arose from his seat, the “enfant terrible,” Grayson, who might well be expected to adopt a sharp tone against the King. Immediately at a sign from the Government, Henderson rose and closured the debate. Grayson protested, but was not allowed to speak.

Grayson came into collision a second time with the Labour Party on the question of unemployment. The Labour Party had neglected this question very much, while it had supported with great enthusiasm the Government’s Licensing Bill. The protests against this outside the House were becoming more frequent and violent, and one fine day when the whole House was deep in discussing a paragraph of the Licensing Bill, Grayson appeared upon the scene and announced to the House an obstruction according to the Irish pattern if it would not occupy itself, instead of with trivialities, with the unemployment question. Grayson’s appearance was unexpected, and one could justly reproach him that he, who never appeared in Parliament and had let pass earlier and much more suitable occasions for a protest, had no right to dictate to his colleagues as to what they should occupy themselves with. Still, this formal reason could only be sufficient to prevent the Labour Party supporting him in his unasked-for and unforeseen protest. But these gentlemen went further, and when the leader of the House, the Prime Minister Asquith, moved Grayson’s suspension, none of them uttered a syllable of protest, some refrained from voting, and the others voted for the proposition.

This, then, is Grayson. No extraordinary hero, as you see; no pioneer; though, on the other hand, not quite an ordinary human being. Whence, then, comes his popularity? How did he manage to create a state of mind in his party by which the most respected leaders have been defeated? The answer is, he has created no state of mind; he has only given expression to that state of mind which was already present; and that is why he has become popular. Perhaps the same state of mind could have been expressed much better and more worthily by a different person. As a matter of fact, the manner in which he gives expression to it is too theatrical, sometimes bordering on caricature. Still, he it was who distinctly voiced the state of mind, and he is made much of by those who agree with him – as a symbol, a standard. Nothing could be more mistaken than to see in him the leader of an opposition. He is no leader, neither can he become one. He is but a point of crystallisation, round which those elements group themselves who have something they wish to express.

What is that state of mind? Who are these elements? The state of mind is: Discontent with the tactics adopted and carried on during the last few years by the I.L.P. leaders towards the Labour Party. Here we reach a much discussed topic, which was also raised in the “Neue Zeit” a short time ago. How should a Socialist Party behave towards a Labour Party like that in England? As Marxists we all indeed know that Socialism can only succeed as a labour movement, that Socialists do not constitute a special organisation opposed to the other labour parties, and that the Socialist idea and the organised proletariat united into a class party must go together, like – to use the striking expression of Comrade Kautsky – the connection between the final goal and the movement. In all Continental countries we have acted upon these principles, but not in England, where their application met with a hindrance in the form of the peculiar historic facts. For while in other countries it was the Socialists themselves who for the first time organised and mobilised the hitherto chaotic, or, to be quite correct, amorphous mass, the proletariat in England had already been organised and actively engaged in the political struggle for decades before the modern Socialists appeared in the historic arena. Therefore Socialism on the Continent was never for a moment separate from the general labour movement, but stood, on the contrary, in its midst as its central force, while in England it arose as something different – even something opposed. What were the English Marxists to do under these circumstances? Should they merge themselves in the Labour Party? But there was no such thing at the beginning of English Marxism, for the few trade unions which engaged in political action did not at that time constitute a special party, but only provided from among their ranks members and candidates for the Liberal Party. All then that the Socialists could do was to seek to win over the masses to themselves; and that they did. Were they successful? No. Marx himself did not succeed when he tried to unite the English labouring masses to the International. As long as the English trade unions were fighting for the suffrage, as a means of securing their right of coalition, it seemed as though Marx’s attempt were destined to succeed. But no sooner was the suffrage – and what a meagre suffrage! – won, and the right of coalition secured, than the unions left the International, and the whole movement was at .an end – the International was dissolved. This precedent cannot be too sharply emphasised in face of the widespread opinion that the S.D.F.’s want of success is to be attributed to its own mistakes. Ah! what Party has not made mistakes? Marx was surely free from great tactical errors, and did he fare any better? Engels, too, discontented with the S.D.F., made, after Marx’s death, several attempts with the Avelings and others, to set on foot a new Socialist movement, and to mobilise the masses for an independent political struggle. How did he fare? Any better than the S.D.F.? No; a thousand times worse. Not only did all the organisations and movements die down after fluttering a little while, but the leaders, the Avelings, Bax, Morris and others, were forced to make their peace with the S.D.F. The difficulty of the S.D.F.’s task lay, not in that body and its methods, but in the historically created state of mind of the English working class, who were unreceptive to Socialist propaganda. Therefore it is out of place to speak of mistakes on the part of the S.D.F. Kautsky, who knows English conditions much better than most critics of the S.D.F., admits this fact, but yet is of the opinion that the S.D.F. did itself a great deal of harm by its irreconcilable criticism of the trade unions. I cannot share this opinion either. In the first place it was not the trade unions that the S.D.F. criticised, but the trade union cretinism, which at that time was so wide-spread, and of which Germany has not been free from samples. The faith in trade union action, and especially trade union diplomacy, as the one means of salvation, was the principal obstacle to the political action of the masses, and how could the S.D.F. not fight against it? In the second place, if these tactics brought the S.D.F. the enmity of the trade unions, thereby injuring the former, how was it with the I.L.P., which was much more gentle in its attitude towards trade union cretinism? Was it any more successful in winning the sympathies of the unions for itself, and for Socialism? It is true that at first Engels had great hopes of this, but the hopes were not realised. The I.L.P. remained for years quite as small a group as the S.D.F., and the unions gave it quite as little attention. Therefore the alleged bitter tone adopted by the S.D.F. towards the trade unions was not a factor in the want of success of this Party’s agitation among the masses.

But in the year 1900 the position changed; a Labour Party arose. Now the S.D.F. was able to put into practice the principles of the Communist Manifesto. But it did not do so, and still stands opposite the Labour Party as a separate organisation, and does not join it. Why? Let us examine the situation.

The Labour Party arose as a committee for arranging Parliamentary candidatures in which the trade unions and Socialist organisations engaged at elections. Already, there had been several times a conflict, as the trade unions put up one candidate, the Socialists another, and the local committees, which arose for electoral purposes, a third. But at that time, 1899, a General Election was expected, and as the prestige of the Liberal Party had sunk very much, and the workers expressed the eager desire, if possible, to put up candidates from their own ranks, the danger was imminent that the former confusion would increase. And so it was decided at the Trades Union Congress in 1899, and that, not on the motion of the Socialists, but of the delegation of the Railway Union, whose leader, Richard Bell, was a Liberal Member of Parliament, to appoint a committee to which the Socialist organisations also could send representatives. Thus the foundation of the Labour Party was not an event to upset the world. It was merely an attempt to organise Labour candidatures without thereby diminishing their mutual independence by any programme or leading principle. The trade unions retained the same right as before, of putting up trade union officials who were only Liberals, and the Socialist organisations were given the right of entering the Parliamentary arena with their Socialist candidates. The only thing to be excluded was the putting up of rival candidatures.

This constituted the beginning of the “Labour Party.” What was of the greatest value was that the trade unions openly allied themselves with the Socialists, thereby admitting that the latter stood nearer to them, in spite of everything, than the bourgeois parties. Now the moment had come when the S.D.F. could act upon the principles of the Communist Manifesto. Did it do so? Certainly. It did not for a moment hesitate to affiliate to the Committee. It affiliated, and set to work at once upon the task which its position in the Labour Party laid upon it. This task was to enlighten those proletarian elements which as yet were scarcely conscious. It said to itself: The English proletariat – that portion of it which is organised in the trade unions – is not the raw mass which one has first to organise and get into motion. It was organised long since, and has already more than once taken an active part in the political struggle. If it now organises as an independent party, this is very far from being the important step that it is on the Continent under similar circumstances. The English proletariat, as experience has shown us, may indeed constitute itself formally as a class party, and yet go hand-in-hand with the bourgeois parties, only at last to be absorbed altogether into these. What the English workers urgently need is the class-consciousness without which an independent class party is impossible, and to implant this is the first and most important task of the Socialists who are inside the Labour Party.

According to this conception of the situation, the S.D.F. tried to work in the Committee. It represented to the trade unionists how groundless and contrary to common sense a separate Labour Party was if it did not at the same time rest upon the fundamental antagonisms which divide the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, and demanded that the committee should acknowledge Socialism as the final goal of the aims of the Labour movement, and draw up a programme consisting of the demands for palliatives which had several times been formulated by the Trades Union Congresses. To its astonishment, however, in these attempts it met with the active opposition, not of the trade unionists, but of the I.L.P.! The latter entered the Committee with quite other ideas. For them the opportunity offered by this combination of all forces and funds of capturing seats in Parliament was the principal thing, and in order not to spoil this opportunity they would listen to nothing about any programme or any final goal. “Labourism” was sufficient for them. What did it matter to them that a Bell – or, indeed, a whole wing of Bells – could constitute itself in Parliament under this flag: persons who only differed technically from the Liberals, but materially marched hand-in-hand with the latter on all points? As long as a few seats might fall also to the share of the members of the I.L.P. there is no banner in the world more beautiful than that of “ Labourism.” Lately comrade Beer drew the attention of the I.L.P. leaders to the fact that, according to the well-known passages in the Sorge correspondence and a new explanation of the Communist Manifesto, they had, in their tactics, acted as the best and truest Marxists, whose great object is the organisation of the proletariat in an independent class party. The MacDonalds, Keir Hardies and Snowdens, who up till then had no idea of Marx, and had always spoken with the greatest contempt of all Marxian theories as “cant phrases,” were quite enchanted, and, like that Moliere hero who did not know that he had talked prose all his life, they suddenly became enthusiastic about Marxism. Yes, they said, we are just the ones who mean to act according to the spirit of Marx. “The I.L.P,” said the quartette in its manifesto, “was formed by Socialists who wished to carry out Marxian tactics, to weld the working class together into an independent party in order to conquer political power.”

What could the S.D.F. do under such circumstances? They were on a Committee – we must not forget that it was then, and. for the most part still is, only a committee – in which they were but a small minority opposed to a great majority of politically unstable trade union leaders, and of Socialists who supported these. They could, with a fair hope of eventual success, measure their strength against one or other of these elements; but what chance was there of overcoming both together? None whatever. They were therefore condemned from the first to impotence – to eternal fruitless struggles and eternal and bitter quarrelling. And if, at least, the struggle had been before the public, so that the masses themselves could have decided as to the right or wrong of the warring parties! But no, the battlefield was a committee, the negotiations of which the masses could know nothing but the results, and the results were majority resolutions, with which the S.D.F., if they would act loyally, must declare themselves in agreement. It was not unlike a Parliamentary bourgeois-Socialist bloc, the harmfulness of which consists in its rendering impossible the educational work of Social-Democracy. The S.D.F. decided to withdraw from so compromising a bloc. It was not their sectarian impatience with the narrowness of the trade unionists that caused the S.D.F. to retire, as some people suppose, and as one might imagine judging at first sight from externals. It was the deep conviction that all their efforts to work for Socialism on the Committee would be in vain, and that they would only compromise themselves and their cause. It is quite safe to say that they would not have left the bloc if they had had the I.L.P. their side at that time. It was just because the I.L.P. was against them that they could have no hope of influencing the trade unionists, and therewith their principal reason for taking part in the bloc was gone.

Certainly, as Kautsky says, they have lost a great deal through this. But this “great deal” must not be overestimated nor their gain underestimated. They are, indeed, no longer active in the central management, but in the trade unions themselves, as well as on the local committees of the Labour Party, their members are engaged in vigorous agitation. Even at the Annual Conference of the Labour Party their members sometimes appear, as representatives of trade unions, and work for their cause. It is due to them that the Labour Party has three times condemned the agitation for “ladies’ suffrage,” and demanded general suffrage for both sexes, and the Labour Party have them to thank that the attempt of the parliamentarians to make themselves independent of the Party, did not succeed. And at the same time the S.D.F. gained for themselves freedom to agitate, to act and to criticise, which was impossible as long as they remained in the bloc. If, in spite of the quasi-Liberal policy of the leaders, the workers have gone a good deal towards the left, and in the ranks of the I.L.P. itself a rebellion has broken out, we owe this principally to the agitation of the S.D.F. It is true that this effect of their agitation would have been still greater if they had remained in the Labour Party. Only the misfortune was that then this agitation would not have been possible at all. How could they, for instance, undertake an unemployment agitation if they were bound by a decision of the majority to work for a Licensing Bill? One can say quite for certain that the S,D.P, would either have had to forego its principles like the I.L.P., or would one day have found itself forced to leave the bloc. We know well what goes on even inside Socialist Parties between Marxists and opportunists.

And so the I.L.P. remained in possession of the field. How little the soi-disant Marxian tactics helped it in the solution of the problem of welding the working class into one independent party on the foundation of Labourism may be seen from the fact that at the beginning of the third year the number of the members of the Party had only increased from 375,000 to 469.000, and that the second Annual Conference was brought to an end very quickly because the delegates were very anxious to get to London in order to be present at the coronation festivities for the new king. What did save the Party from unavoidable ruin, and made it a real Labour movement, was not the I.L.P. with its Labourist tactics, but the famous Taff Vale judgment by the House of Lords in July, 1901. That was a still better means of enlightenment than the S.D.F. could ever accomplish with its agitation. For another whole year the trade unions failed to comprehend the new situation, but then they poured in great masses into the Labour Party. The number of affiliated unions rose all at once from 65, with 469,000 members, to 127, with 861,000 members, and in the following year, 1903-4, the Party already contained 165 unions with 969,000 members. Since then, it has grown to the extent of 172 unions and a membership of 1,152,000, and the current year will bring the affiliation of hundreds of thousands of miners.

Thus it has come about, in spite of the hushing-up tactics of the I.L.P., that the Labour Party – especially since the lucky elections of 1906 – has after all become a great power. Of course the I.L.P. leaders attribute this success to their tactics, and are thus encouraged to a further strengthening of these tactics. After the unions were reinstated in their rights during the first parliamentary session, the trade unionists in the House fell back into their former Liberal ideas, and the “Socialists” followed them in order to preserve the “unity” of the Party, and at the same time not to lose their seats. The result of the whole development was that at the present time the Labour Party represents nothing but the left wing of the Liberal Party, which fact entirely proves the original insight of the S.D.F., that the Labour Party in England must exist as a Socialist Party or not at all, to be right.

Here, after a long detour, we come to a right understanding of the events which are taking place at the present time in the ranks of the I.L.P. At first, dazzled by the outward successes of the Labour Party, the members of the I.L.P., who, in the main are, after all, proletarian’s, gradually began to understand that they had paid for these successes with their Socialist principles, with their Socialist action, indeed with their very existence as a Socialist Party. Their action in putting up Grayson as a candidate outside the Labour Party bloc, was the first protest against the tactics of the I.L.P. leaders, and the enthusiasm which his victory called forth, showed how sympathetically this protest had been received. Such cases of “insubordination” have increased from year to year,[1] and as the leaders retaliate more and more violently against them, the discontent has become stronger. At last the idea arose in some of their minds that the I.L.P. should leave the Labour Party bloc altogether, and together with the S.D.P. and other similar organisations, form a Socialist loc. The idea is unripe, just as its originators themselves, for instance, Grayson, are unripe; but there is more underlying it than bit of sectarianism, as it is represented by some to be – it is the expression of the rebellion fermenting in the I.L.P. against the opportunist tactics of its leaders.

And the latter understand it very well. Having fallen quite under the hegemony of the trade unionists, and dependent, as regards their seats, upon the Liberals (as they have not educated the working-class voters), they have lately been trying to intimidate the opposition, or to captivate it by pointing to the sympathy of the international proletariat. The certificate in Marxism solemnly awarded to them by comrade Beer was a splendid trump card for them, and Kautsky’s remarks at the last meeting of the International Bureau in Brussels have been suitably made use of. But neither these witnesses nor the suddenly adopted Marxian and Socialist phraseology, such as “class-conscious” and “comrade,” sufficed to convince the members of the I.L.P. that their leaders are Socialists “now as ever,” and the criticism of the opposition continued. At the Edinburgh Conference the differences were thrashed out. Should the I.L.P. retire from the Labour Party bloc? Should the local sections have the right to run candidates without the consent of the National Council? Should a member of the Party who is in Parliament without belonging to the bloc get a salary from the Party’s treasury? Should a Grayson, who will no longer appear with the leaders of the Party, such as Keir Hardie, at public meetings, still have his name upon the official list of the Party agitators? Thus were the points of difference placed by the National Council – all upside down! Of course, the National Council had a majority. The first question was negatived by all against 10 votes, the second by 248 to 123, and the third by 332 to 64. The leaders might well be satisfied. But no! The mood of the conference was very irritable, the majorities were obtained by means of all the force of Keir Hardie and of the chairman, MacDonald, and then each time the minority was considerable and by no means propitiated. A few more such victories, and the leaders are lost. Then came the vote on the fourth question, and behold, it was affirmed by 217 votes to 194. The leaders immediately conferred together and gave in their resignation. It was of no avail that the majority of the conference declared their full unabated confidence in their tried leaders, and withdrew the last vote by 249 votes to 110. But these figures in themselves were sufficiently uncomplimentary, and the offended quartette adhered to their decision.

After the foregoing, any commentary would be superfluous. The meaning of the action of the four members of the administration of the party is rooted much deeper than in their personality or Grayson’s – it is rooted in the unbearable situation into which their opportunist policy itself has brought the I.L.P. The I.L.P. finds itself absorbed more and more by the Labour Party bloc, and as the latter tends more and more distinctly towards Liberalism, the I.L.P. itself is losing the foundation of its existence. Hence the revolt which has crystallised itself in so bizarre a form round a young man like Grayson, and hence the feeling of discomfort which has caused the Keir Hardies and MacDonalds to resign their position. It is the moral debacle of English opportunism, which could not be expressed more distinctly.

This fact is to be welcomed. It is possible that the four will return: more probably they will cut themselves off from the Party altogether, and constitute with the trade unionists and the bourgeois Radicals, a Radical-Socialist wing.[2] In any case, their tactics will no longer dominate the I.L.P. And this fact will gradually alter the position of the I.L.P. in the bloc, thereby making it possible for the S.D.P. to join the Labour Party. For like comrade Kautsky, most of the S.D.P. leaders realise that their existence outside the Labour Party is an anomaly, and if they have hitherto remained outside it was because the problem that Kautsky declares an impossible one, becomes, under certain circumstances, actual: Whether to share with a large Labour Party confusion and even worse things, and to renounce a clear-cut Socialist agitation among the masses, or rather to remain a small organisation, but to work unhindered towards the Socialist enlightenment of the proletariat? The degeneration of the Labour Party on the one hand, and the rebellion in the ranks of the I.L.P. on the other. have proved that the S.D.F.’s attitude towards this problem was a quite correct one; the mere fencing in of the proletariat into one Party has led to nothing, while the I.L.P. is now discovering that, as a political Party, it already stands on the brink of a chasm. But if the I.L.P. will now renounce its principle of “Labourism” and announce its readiness to work for Socialism inside the Labour Party bloc, the foundation will be created upon which the S.D.P. could collaborate. For it would then only have the trade union leaders to fight against, and allied with the I.L.P. it would be a match for these.

(in the “Neue Zeit”).

1. For the most part in the so-called double constituencies which elect two members, and in which, by an arrangement with the Liberals, one Liberal and one Labour member have been elected. In order not to disturb the arrangement with the Liberals for the future, the leaders never allowed a second Labour candidate to be run at bye-elections, and the local sections often revolted against this, and ignored the decision of the Party management. As the candidates put up in this way fail on account of the absence of unity, the leaders always succeed in hiding the real state of things by declaring that their objection to this and that candidature is based, not upon an understanding with the Liberals, but upon their conviction of the hopelessness of the fight. They said the same thing in the case of the severe defeat suffered at the Croydon bye-election by a Labour Candidate whose candidature had been urged upon the administration of the Party by the local section, and who had candidates of both bourgeois parties against him. Quite recently, however, a bye-election took place in Attercliffe, a Sheffield constituency. Both bourgeois parties put up their candidates, whereupon a split occurred among the Conservatives, and they ran two rival candidates. The workers there demanded a Labour candidature, but the leaders of the Party refused out of consideration for the Liberals. There was, they said, no chance of success. But the workers insisted, and at last the leaders of the Party had to give in. The Labour candidate was victorious; a proof of how to take the alleged insight of the leaders into election possibilities. It is simply an excuse in order to get out of the Liberals’ way.

2. Since this was written, George Lansbury has expressed in a Christian newspaper his conviction that some members of the Labour Party will son sit with some Radicals in a coalition Ministry.