Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Volume 2

Where is Britain Going?

One or Two Peculiarities
of English Labour Leaders

On the death of Lord Curzon, party leaders and others delivered eulogistic addresses; the socialist MacDonald concluded: “He was a great public servant, a man who was a fine colleague, a man who had a very noble idea of public duty, which may well be emulated by his successors”. That about Curzon! When workers protested against this speech, the Daily Herald, the Labour Party’s daily paper, printed the protests under the modest headline Another Point of View. The wise editors evidently wished in this way to indicate that besides the courtiers’ Byzantine, bootlicking, lackeyish point of view, there was that of the workers as well.

At the beginning of April the not altogether unknown labour leader, Thomas, secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and former Colonial Secretary, participated with the prime minister, Baldwin, in a banquet given by the directors of the Great Western Railway Company. Baldwin had once been a director of this company, and Thomas had worked for him as a fireman. Mr. Baldwin spoke with magnificent condescension about his friend Jimmy Thomas, while Thomas proposed a toast to the directors of the “Great Western” and their chairman, Lord Churchill. Thomas spoke with great fondness of Mr. Baldwin who – just think of it! – had walked all his life in the footsteps of his venerable father. He himself (Thomas) – said this absolutely unprecedented lackey – would of course be accused of being a traitor to his class for banqueting and mixing with Baldwin but he, Thomas, did not belong to any class, for truth is not the property of a particular class.

Arising out of the debates provoked by the “left” Labour MPs over the voting of funds to the Prince of Wales for his overseas tour, the same Daily Herald came forth with a leading article on its attitude to royalty. Anybody who might have concluded from the debates that the Labour Party wishes to do away with royalty, says the newspaper, would have made a mistake. Yet, on the other hand, one cannot help noting that royalty is not improving its standing in the public opinion of sensible people: too much pomp and ceremonial, inspired possibly by “unintelligent advisers”; too much attention to horse-racing, with the inevitable totalisator; and what is more in East Africa the Duke and Duchess of York have been hunting rhinoceroses and other creatures who really deserve a better fate. Of course, the paper argues, one cannot blame the Royal Family on its own; tradition ties them too tightly to the habits and members of a particular class. But an effort should be made to break with this tradition. In our opinion this is not only desirable but necessary. A post must be found for the heir to the throne that will make him a part of the government machine, and so on and so forth, all in the same singularly vulgar, stupid and lackeyish vein. So in our country in the past – around 1905 and 1906 – might the organ of the Samara advocates of peaceful regeneration have written. [1]

The ubiquitous Mrs. Snowden intervened in the Royal Family affair, and stated in a brief letter that only loudmouthed soap-box orators could fail to understand that royal families belong to the most hard-working elements of Europe. And since the Bible itself says: “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn”, then Mrs. Snowden is, naturally enough, in favour of voting funds for the Prince of Wales’s tour.

“I am a socialist, a democrat and a Christian,” this same lady once wrote, explaining why she was against Bolshevism. That, however, is not a complete list of Mrs. Snowden’s virtues. Out of politeness we shall not name the rest.

The honourable Dr. Shiels, Labour MP for Edinburgh East, explained that the Prince of Wales’s tour was useful for trade, and consequently also for the working class. He, therefore, was in favour of the voting of the funds.

Let us now take one or two of the “left” or semi-left Labour MPs. Certain property rights of the Scottish Church were being discussed in parliament. A Scottish Labour MP, Johnston, invoked the Act of Union of 1707 [2] to deny the right of the British parliament to interfere with the solemnly acknowledged rights of the Scottish Church. Yet the Speaker refused to remove the matter from the order paper. Then Maclean, another Scottish MP, stated that if such a Bill went through he and his friends would go back to Scotland and call for the Act of Union between England and Scotland to be revoked and the Scottish parliament restored (laughter from the Conservatives and cheers from representatives of the Scottish Labour Party).

Everything is instructive here. The Scottish group, which stands on the left wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party, protests against ecclesiastical legislation, not starting out at all from the principle of the separation of church and state, or any practical considerations, but basing themselves on the sacred rights of the Scottish Church as guaranteed to it by a treaty which is now over two centuries old. In retaliation for the violation of the rights of the Scottish Church these same Labour MPS threaten to demand the restoration of the Scottish parliament, which would, of course, be quite useless to them.

George Lansbury, a left pacifist, relates in a leading article in the Labour Party’s daily organ how working men and women at a meeting in Monmouthshire sang a religious hymn with great enthusiasm, and how this hymn “helped” him, Lansbury. Individual people may reject religion, he says, but the labour movement as a movement cannot reconcile itself to this. Our struggle needs enthusiasm, piety and faith, and this cannot be achieved only by an appeal to personal interests. Thus although our movement needs enthusiasm, it has according to Lansbury, no power to arouse it, but is compelled to borrow it from the priests.

John Wheatley, the former Minister of Health in MacDonald’s cabinet, is regarded as a more or less extreme left. But Wheatley is not only a socialist, but a Catholic too. Or to put it better: he is first and foremost a Catholic and only then a socialist. Since the Pope has called for a struggle against communism and socialism, the editors of the Daily Herald, courteously not naming His Holiness, requested Wheatley to clarify how things stood over the mutual relations between Catholicism and socialism. We must not suppose that the newspaper asked how a socialist could be a Catholic or a believer generally; no, the question was posed as to whether it was permissible for a Catholic to become a socialist. The obligation for a man to be a believer remained beyond doubt; placed in question was only the right of a believer to be a socialist, while remaining a good Catholic.
And it is on this ground that the “left” Wheatley takes his stand in his reply. He considers that Catholicism does not directly intrude in politics, but determines “only” the general rules of moral conduct, and obliges a socialist to apply his political principles “with due regard to the moral rights of others”. Wheatley maintains that the only correct policy on this question is that of the British party which, as distinct from continental socialism, has not adopted an “anti-Christian” slant. For this “left” a socialist policy is guided by personal morality and personal morality by religion. This is in no way distinguishable from the philosophy of Lloyd George who considers the church to be the central power station of all parties. Compromise receives here its religious sanctification.

With regard to the MP Kirkwood, who made a political attack on the Prince of Wales’s travelling allowance, a socialist wrote in the Daily Herald that he, Kirkwood, had a drop of old Cromwell’s blood in his veins, evidently meaning a drop of revolutionary determination. Whether or not this is the case we do not yet know. What Kirkwood has certainly inherited from Cromwell is piety. In his speech in Parliament Kirkwood declared that he had no personal grudge against the Prince and did not envy him. “The Prince can give me nothing. I am keeping excellent health, I enjoy independence as a man and there is only one before whom I bear responsibility for my actions and that is my creator.” From this speech we thus learn not only of the Scottish MP’s excellent health, but also of the fact that this health cannot be explained by the laws of biology and physiology but by the intentions of a creator, with whom Mr. Kirkwood, maintains quite definite relations, based upon personal favours on the one hand and sentiments of grateful obligation on the other.

The number of such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Almost all the political activity of the top layers of the Labour Party could be resolved into episodes of this sort, which at first sight seem to be amusing and indecent curiosities, but on which the peculiarities of past history have been deposited rather as, for example, the complex metabolic processes of an organism are precipitated out as bladder stones. But we wish it to be remembered that the “organic” nature of this or that peculiarity in no way precludes surgery to remove it.

The outlook of the leaders of the British Labour Party is a sort of amalgam of Conservatism and Liberalism, partly adapted to the requirements of the trade unions, or rather their top layers. All of them are ridden with the religion of “gradualness”. In addition they acknowledge the religion of the Old and New Testaments. They all consider themselves to be highly civilized people, yet they believe that the Heavenly Father created mankind only then, in his abundant love, to curse it, and subsequently to try, through the crucifixion his own son to straighten out this highly knotty affair a little. Out of the spirit of Christianity there have grown such national institutions as the trade union bureaucracy, MacDonald’s first ministry and Mrs. Snowden.

Closely tied to the religion of gradualness and the Calvinist belief in predestination [3] is the religion of national arrogance. MacDonald is convinced that since his bourgeoisie was once the foremost bourgeoisie in the world then he, MacDonald, has nothing whatsoever to learn from the barbarians and semi-barbarians on the continent of Europe. In this regard, as in all others, McDonald is merely apeing bourgeois leaders like Canning who proclaimed – albeit with far greater justification – that it did not become parliamentary Britain to learn politics from the nations of Europe.

Baldwin, in monotonously appealing to the conservative traditions of Britain’s political development, is doubtless hoping for support from the mighty buttress of bourgeois rule in the past. The bourgeoisie knew how to feed the top layers of the working class with conservatism. It was no accident that the most resolute fighters for Chartism came out of the artisan layers that had been proletarianized by the onslaught of capitalism within two generations.

Equally significant is the fact that the most radical elements in the modern British labour movement are most often natives of Ireland or Scotland (this rule does not of course extend to the Scotsman, MacDonald). The combination of social and national oppression in Ireland, given the sharp conflict between agricultural Ireland and capitalist England, facilitated abrupt leaps in consciousness. Scotland entered on the capitalist path later than England: a sharper turn in the life of the masses of the people gave rise to a sharper political reaction. If Messrs. British “socialists” were capable of thinking over their own history, and the role of Ireland and Scotland in particular, they would possibly manage to understand how and why backward Russia, with its abrupt transition to capitalism, brought forward the most determined revolutionary party and was the first to take the path of a socialist overturn.

The basis of the conservatism of British life is however being irreversibly undermined today. The “leaders” of the British working class imagined for decades that an independent workers” party was the gloomy privilege of continental Europe. Nowadays nothing is left of that naive and ignorant conceit. The proletariat forced the trade unions to create an independent party. It will not stop at this however.

The Liberal and semi-Liberal leaders of the Labour Party still think that a social revolution is the gloomy prerogative of continental Europe. But here again events will expose their backwardness. Much less time will be needed to turn the Labour Party into a revolutionary one than was necessary to create it.

The principal element in the conservatism of political development has been, and to some extent still is the Protestant-based religious nature of the British people. Puritanism was a harsh school, the social disciplining of the middle classes. The masses of the people however always resisted it. The proletarian did not feel himself to be “chosen” – Calvinist predestination was plainly not for him. From out of the Independents” movement there took shape English Liberalism, whose chief mission was to “educate” the working masses, that is to subordinate them to bourgeois society. Within certain limits and for a certain period Liberalism fulfilled this mission but in the end it as little succeeded in swallowing up the working class as Puritanism had.

The Labour Party took over from the Liberals, with the same Puritan and Liberal traditions. If one takes the Labour Party only on the level of MacDonald, Henderson and Co. then it has to be said that they have come to complete the uncompleted task of totally enslaving the working class within bourgeois society. But there is in fact, against their will, another process moving in the masses which must finally liquidate the Puritan-Liberal traditions, and in so doing liquidate MacDonald.

Catholicism, and likewise Anglicanism, were for the English middle classes an existing tradition bound up with the privileges of the nobility and the clergy. Against Catholicism and Anglicanism the young English bourgeoisie created Protestantism as its form of belief and as the justification of its place in society.

Calvinism, with its iron doctrine of predestination was a mystical form of approach to the law-governed character of history. The ascendant bourgeoisie felt that the laws of history were behind it, and this awareness they shrouded in the form of the doctrine of predestination. Calvin’s denial of free will in no way paralyzed the revolutionary energy of the Independents, on the contrary it powerfully reinforced it. The Independents felt themselves to be summoned to accomplish a great historical act. An analogy can with some truth be drawn between the doctrine of predestination in the Puritans” revolution and the role of Marxism in the revolution of the proletariat. In both cases the highest level of political activity rests not upon subjective impulse but on an iron conformity with a law, only in the one case mystically distorted and in the other scientifically known.

The British proletariat received Protestantism as a tradition already formed, that is to say, just as the bourgeoisie prior to the seventeenth century had received Catholicism and Anglicanism. As the awakened bourgeoisie counterposed Protestantism to Catholicism, the revolutionary proletariat will counterpose materialism and atheism to Protestantism.

While for Cromwell and his comrades-in-arms, Calvinism was the spiritual weapon in the revolutionary transformation of society, for the MacDonalds it merely inspires bowing and scraping before anything that has been “gradually” created. From Puritanism the MacDonalds have inherited – not its revolutionary strength but its religious prejudices. From the Owenites – not their communist enthusiasm but their reactionary Utopian hostility to the class struggle. From Britain’s past political history the Fabians [4] have borrowed only the spiritual dependence of the proletariat on the bourgeoisie. History has turned its backside on these gentlemen and the inscriptions they read there have become their programme.

An island position, wealth, success in world politics, all this cemented by Puritanism, the religion of the “chosen people”, has turned into an arrogant contempt for everything continental and generally un-British. Britain’s middle classes have been long convinced that the language, science, technology and culture of other nations do not merit study. All this has been completely taken over by the philistines currently heading the Labour Party.

It is curious that even Hyndman, who published while Marx was alive a book called England For All, refers in it to the author of Capital without naming either him or his work: the cause of this strange omission lay in the fact that Hyndman did not want to shock the British – is it really conceivable that a Briton could learn anything from a German!

The dialectic of history has in this respect played a cruel trick upon Britain, having converted the advantages of her forward development into the cause of her present backwardness. We can see this in the field of industry, in science, in the state system and in political ideology. Britain developed without historical precedents. She could not seek and find a model for her own future in more advanced countries. She went forward gropingly and empirically, only generalizing her experience and looking ahead insofar as was unavoidable. Empiricism is stamped on the traditional mode of thought of the British – that means above all of the British bourgeois; and this same intellectual tradition has passed over to the top layers of the working class. Empiricism became a tradition and a banner, that is, it was coupled with a disdainful attitude to the “abstract” thought of the continent.

Germany for long philosophized about the true nature of the state, while the British bourgeoisie actually built the best state for the needs of its own rule. But with the passage of time it turned out that the German bourgeoisie which, being backward in practice tended towards theoretical speculation, turned its backwardness to advantage and created an industry far more scientifically organized and adapted to the struggle on the world market. The British socialist philistines took over from their bourgeoisie an arrogant attitude towards the continent in a period when Britain’s earlier advantages were turning into their opposite.

MacDonald, in establishing the “congenital” peculiarities of British socialism, states that to seek its ideological roots we “will have to pass by Marx to Godwin”. Godwin was a major figure for his time. But for a British person to go back to him is the same as for a German to seek roots in Weitling [5] or for a Russian to go back to Chernyshevsky. [6] We do not mean by this that the British labour movement does not have “peculiarities”. It is precisely the Marxist school which has always devoted the greatest attention to the idiosyncrasies of British development. But we explain these idiosyncrasies by objective conditions, the structure of society and the changes in it. We Marxists can, thanks to this, understand far better the course of development of the British labour movement, and better foretell its future than can the present-day “theoreticians” of the Labour Party. The old call of philosophy to “know thyself” has not sounded in their ears. They consider that they are summoned by destiny to re-construct the old society from top to bottom. Yet at the same time they halt, prostrate, before a line chalked across the floor. How can they assault bourgeois property if they dare not refuse pocket money to the Prince of Wales?

Royalty, they declare, “does not hinder” the country’s progress and works out cheaper than a president if you count all the expense of elections, and so on and so forth. Such speeches by Labour leaders typify a facet of their “idiosyncrasies” which cannot be called anything other than conservative block-headedness. Royalty is weak as long as the bourgeois parliament is the instrument of bourgeois rule and as long as the bourgeoisie has no need of extra-parliamentary methods. But the bourgeoisie can if necessary use royalty as the focus of all extra-parliamentary, i.e. real forces directed against the working class. The British bourgeoisie itself has well understood the danger of even the most fictitious monarchy. Thus in 1837 the British government abolished the title of the Great Mogul in India and deported its incumbent from [the holy city of Delhi, in spite of the fact that his name had already begun to lose its prestige. The English bourgeoisie knew that undeer favourable circumstances the Great Mogul might concentrate in himself the forces of the independent upper classes directed against English rule.

To proclaim a socialist platform and at the same time to declare that royal power does not “interfere” and is actually cheaper, is equivalent, for example, to a recognition of materialistic science combined with the use of magical incantations] [1*] against toothache on the grounds that the witch comes cheaper. In such a “trifle” the whole man is expressed, along with his spurious acknowledgement of materialist science and the complete falsity of his ideological system. For a socialist the question of the monarchy is not decided by today’s book-keeping, especially when the books are cooked. It is a matter of the complete overturn of society and of purging it of all elements of oppression. Such a task, both politically and psychologically, excludes any conciliation with the monarchy.

Messrs. MacDonald, Thomas and the rest are indignant with the workers who protested when their ministers arrayed themselves in clownish court dress. Of course this is not MacDonald’s main crime: but it does perfectly symbolize all the rest. When the rising bourgeoisie fought the nobility they renounced ringlets and silken doublets. The bourgeois revolutionaries wore the black dress of the Puritans. As against the Cavaliers they were nicknamed Roundheads. A new content finds itself a new form. Of course, the form of dress is only a convention, but the masses – rightly enough – do not have the patience to understand why the representatives of the working class have to adopt the buffoonish conventions of a court masquerade. And yet the masses will come to understand that he who is false in one small thing will be false in many things.

The characteristics of conservatism, religiosity and national arrogance can be seen in varying degrees and combinations in all the official leaders of today, from the ultra-right Thomas to the “left” Kirkwood. It would be the greatest error to underestimate the tenacity of these conservative “peculiarities” of the top echelons of the British working class movement. By this we do not mean, of course, that church-going and nationalistic conservatism is wholly absent from the masses. But while these traits have worked their way into the flesh and blood of the leaders, disciples of the Liberal Party that they are, they have a much less deep-seated and stable character in the working masses. We have already said that Puritanism, the religion of the money-making classes, never succeeded in penetrating deep into the consciousness of the working masses. The same also applies to Liberalism. Workers used to vote for the Liberals but in their majority they remained workers, and the Liberals always had to be on their guard. The very displacement of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party was a result of the pressure of the proletarian masses.

In other circumstances, if Britain were growing economically stronger, then a Labour Party of the present type might be able to continue and deepen the “educational” work of Protestantism and Liberalism, that is to say, it would be able to bind the consciousness of broad circles of the working class more tightly to the national conservative traditions and discipline of the bourgeois order.

But under present-day conditions – with the evident economic decline of Britain and the lack of any perspective – the development can be expected to go in exactly the opposite direction. The war has already dealt a heavy blow to the traditional religiosity of the British masses. Not for nothing has Mr. Wells occupied himself with the creation of a new religion, attempting en route from Earth to Mars to make a career as a Fabian Calvin. We are doubtful of his success. The mole of revolution is digging too well this time! The masses will liberate themselves from the yoke of national conservatism, working out their own discipline of revolutionary action.

Under this pressure from below the top layers of the Labour Party will quickly shed their skins. We do not in the least mean by this that MacDonald will change his spots to those of a revolutionary. No, he will be cast out. But those who will in all probability form the first substitutes, people of the ilk of Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood, will inevitably reveal that they are but a left variant of the same basic Fabian type. Their radicalism is constrained by democracy and religion and poisoned by the national arrogance that ties them spiritually to the British bourgeoisie. The working class will in all probability have to renew its leadership several times before it creates a party really answering the historical situation and the tasks of the British proletariat.

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1. The reference is obscure, but it may apply to some item of minor inner party controversy. However the term Regenerator (or Renovator) normally applies to a dissident section within the Russian Orthodox Church which broke from the Patriarchate, wanted to modernize the Church, and was prepared to take a conciliatory attitude towards the Soviet government. The mention of Samara, a large town on the River Don, adds further to the obscurity of this reference.

2. Under the Articles of Union drawn up in 1706 the Scots had abandoned their own parliament but retained independent legal and ecclesiastical institutions. The final settlement followed several years of negotiations during which the Scots held out for trading independence. England’s initial refusal led to sharp retaliation in the form of the 1703 Security Act and trading agreements with France. The Scots accepted the Articles of Union only when they included the right to trade independently and on equal terms with England’s colonies. The Church question was not even at this point the main contentious issue.

3. A form of Protestant Christianity named after John Calvin (1509-1564), the Swiss divine and reformer. Its chief characteristics were a more radical break than its predecessors from the main doctrines of Catholicism, a belief that all were “predestined” to heaven or hell and a form of church government by “elders” from among the “elect”. Calvin set up a “City of God” in Geneva in 1541 which, incorporated a severe dictatorship to enforce the values necessary for the capitalist bourgeoisie – particularly the need to work hard and accumulate wealth. Calvinism had a strong influence on the type of Protestantism that developed in Scotland.

4. The Fabian Society was set up in 1884 by a group of mystics who had formerly constituted the Fellowship of the New Life. It soon secured the support of a Colonial Office clerk called Sidney Webb and a then obscure novelist and music critic, Bernard Shaw. Fabians advocated various social reforms which they sought to achieve by putting pressure on liberals, trade union leaders and anybody else prepared to listen. Falsely claiming to have brought about most collectivist legislation since the time of its foundation, the Fabian Society has nevertheless exercised a strong ideological influence within right wing sections of the Labour Party providing the chief alternative to Marxism and the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

5. Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871) was a leading German utopian socialist and a tailor by trade. His conception of an ideal communist society was partly influenced by Fourier and widely known during Marx’s early years.

6. Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), a Russian revolutionary democrat, utopian socialist writer, publicist and literary critic. One of the most outstanding Russian petty-bourgeois radicals during the 1870s and 1880s.

Note by TIA

1*. The passage between the square parentheses comes from the 1925 translation of the book.

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Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007