Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Volume 2

Where is Britain Going?


Arising out of the fact that Mrs. Lloyd George, the wife of the former Premier, lost a valuable necklace, the Daily Herald, the organ of the Labour Party, meditated on the Liberal leaders who go over to the side of the enemy and give their wives valuable necklaces. The leader-writer of the paper came to the following instructive conclusion on this matter, “The existence of the Labour Party depends on its success in restraining the workers’ leaders from following this same disastrous road.” Arthur Ponsonby, a, hopeless Liberal, who even in the ranks of the Labour Party has not ceased to be a Liberal, in the same number of the paper gives himself over to reflections on how the Liberal leaders, Asquith and Lloyd George, ruined the great Liberal Party. “Yes”, the leader-writer repeats after him “the Liberal leaders have changed their simple habits and manners for the manner of life of the wealthy with whom they continually associate; they have assimilated arrogance in reference to the lower orders”, and so on.

One would have thought that there was nothing astonishing in the fact that Liberal leaders, in other words, of one of the two bourgeois parties, lead a bourgeois style of life. But for the Liberals in the Labour Party, Liberalism is represented as an abstract system of high ideas and Liberal Ministers who buy their wives necklaces are represented as traitors to the ideas of Liberalism.

The reflection on how to save the workers’ leaders from following this disastrous road is, however, more instructive. It is absolutely clear that these considerations are timid and stammering warnings to the semi-Liberal Labour leaders on the part of the semi-Liberal Labour journalists who have to reckon with the mood of its working-class readers. One can without difficulty imagine the careerist depravity which rules among the ministerial upper ten of the Labour Party! It is enough to mention that Mrs. Lloyd George herself, in a letter of protest to the editor of the Daily Herald, herself alluded to one or two facts like the “regal” present received by MacDonald from his capitalist friend. After these recollections the editors immediately bit their tongues. It is wretchedly puerile to imagine that the conduct of the Labour Party leaders can be regulated by cautionary tales of Lloyd George’s wife’s necklace and that politics can in general be guided by abstract moral prescriptions. On the contrary, the morals of a class, its party and its leaders derive from politics taken in the broadest historical sense of the word. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the organizations of the British working class.

The Daily Herald has hit upon the idea of the harmful effect that hobnobbing with the bourgeoisie has upon the worldly morals of “leaders”. But this of course is wholly dependent upon the political attitude towards the bourgeoisie. If they stand on the position of an implacable class struggle there will be no place for any kind of hail-fellow-well-met relations: Labour leaders will not yearn to be in bourgeois circles nor will the bourgeoisie let them in. But the leaders of the Labour Party defend the idea of the collaboration of classes and the rapprochement of their leaders. “Co-operation and mutual trust between employers and workers is the essential condition for the well-being of the country” – so, for example, Mr. Snowden taught at one of the parliamentary sittings this year. We hear similar speeches from Clynes, the Webbs and all the other leading lights. The trade union leaders adopt the same standpoint: all we hear from them is the necessity of frequent meetings between employers and workers’ representatives around a common table.

Yet at the same time the policy of a perpetual “amicable” dialogue of the workers’ leaders with bourgeois businessmen in the quest for common ground, that is to say, the setting aside of what distinguishes the one from the other, presents, as we have heard from the Daily Herald, a danger not only to the morals of the leaders but also for the development of the party. What should be done then? When John Burns betrayed the proletariat he began to say: “I do not want a special workers’ point of view any more than I want workers’ boots or workers’ margarine.” The fact that John Burns, who became a bourgeois minister, considerably improved his butter and his boots along this path is beyond question. But Burns’s evolution hardly improved the boots of the dockers who had raised Bums up on their shoulders. Morality flows from politics. For Snowden’s budget to please the City it is necessary for Snowden himself both in his way of life and his morality to stand closer to the bigwigs of the banks than the miners of Wales.

And what is the case with Thomas? We told above of the banquet of railway owners at which Thomas, the secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, swore that his soul belonged not to the working class but to “truth” and that he, Thomas, had come to the banquet in search of this truth. It is however noteworthy that while the whole of this foul affair is related in The Times, there is not a word on it in the Daily Herald. This woeful little paper occupies itself with moralizing in thin air, just try reining in Thomas with the parable of Mrs. Lloyd George’s necklace. Nothing would come of it. The Thomases have to be driven out. To do this it is necessary not to hush up Thomas’s banqueting and other embraces with the enemies, but to cry out about them, expose them and summon workers to a ruthless purging of their ranks. In order to change the morality it is necessary to change the politics.

At the time that these lines are being written (April 1925), in spite of the Conservative government Britain’s official politics stand under the sign of compromise: there must be “collaboration” of both sides of industry, mutual concessions are essential, workers must somehow or other be made the “participants” in the revenue of industry and so forth. This frame of mind of the Conservatives reflects both the strength and the weakness of the British proletariat. By creating its own party it has forced the Conservatives to orientate themselves towards “conciliation”. But it still allows the Conservatives to place their hopes in “conciliation” because it leaves MacDonald, Thomas and Co. at the head of the Labour Party.

Baldwin delivers speech after speech on the need for mutual tolerance so that the country can get out of the difficulties of its present situation without a catastrophe. The workers’ “leader” Robert Smillie expresses his complete satisfaction with these speeches. “What a wonderful call for tolerance on both Sides!” Smillie promises to follow this call to the full. He hopes that the captains of industry will likewise take a more humane approach to the workers’ demands. “This is a wholly legitimate and reasonable desire”, the leading newspaper, The Times, assures us with the most solemn air. All these unctious speeches are made under the conditions of commercial and industrial difficulties, chronic unemployment, the loss of British shipbuilding orders to Germany and threatening conflicts in a whole series of industries. And this in Britain with all its experience of class battles. The memory of the labouring masses is truly short and the hypocrisy of the rulers immeasurable! The historical memory of the bourgeoisie lies in its traditions of rule, in institutions, the law of the land and in accumulated skills of statesmanship. The memory of the working class is in its party. The reformist party is a party with a short memory.

The conciliationism of the Conservatives may be hypocrisy but it is compelled by solid causes. At the centre of the efforts of Europe’s governing parties today there lies a concern to maintain external and internal peace. The so-called “reaction” against war and the methods of the first post-war period can in no way be explained merely by psychological causes. During the war the capitalist regime showed itself to be so powerful and elastic that it gave birth to the special illusions of war capitalism. Boldly centralized guidance of economic life, military seizure of the economic values that it lacked, the piling up of debts, unrestricted issues of paper money, the elimination of social danger by means of bloody force on the one hand and sops of all kinds on the other – it seemed in the heat of the moment that these methods would solve all problems and overcome all difficulties.

But economic reality was soon to clip the wings of war capitalism’s illusions. Germany approached the very edge of the abyss. The rich state of France failed to emerge from thinly disguised bankruptcy. The British state was compelled to support an army of unemployed twice the size of the army of French militarism. The riches of Europe have proved to be in no way limitless. A continuation of wars and upheavals would signify the inevitable doom of European capitalism. Hence the concern about “regularizing” the relations between states and classes.

During the last elections the British Conservatives played skilfully upon fear of upheavals. Now in power, they come forward as the party of conciliation, compromise and social benevolence. “Security – that is the key to the position” – these words of the Liberal Lord Grey are repeated by the Conservative Austen Chamberlain. The British press of both bourgeois camps lives on rehashing them. The striving for pacification, the creation of “normal” conditions, the maintenance of a firm currency, and the resumption of trade agreements do not of themselves solve a single one of the contradictions that led to the imperialist war and were yet more aggravated by it. But only by starting from this aspiration and from the political groupings that have been formed out of it can the current trend of home and foreign policy of Europe’s governing parties be understood.

Needless to say pacifist tendencies run into the opposition of postwar economics at every step. The British Conservatives have already started to undermine the Unemployed Insurance Act. Making British industry as it is now better able to compete cannot be done otherwise than by a reduction of wages. But this is incompatible with the maintenance of the present unemployment benefit, which raises the power of resistance of the working class. The first forward skirmishes on this ground have already started. They can lead to serious battles. In this sphere the Conservatives will in any case be quickly forced to speak up with their natural voice. The chiefs of the Labour Party will thereupon fall into an increasingly awkward situation.

Here it is quite apposite to recall the relations that were established in the House of Commons after the 1906 General Election when a strong Labour group appeared on the parliamentary scene for the first time. In the first two years the Labour MPs were surrounded with special courtesies. In the third year relations were upset considerably. By 1910 parliament was “ignoring” the Labour group. This was brought about not by intransigence on the part of the latter but because outside parliament the working masses were becoming more and more demanding. Having elected a significant number of MPs they were expecting substantial changes in their lot. These expectations were one of the factors that prepared the way for the mighty strike wave of 1911 to 1913.

One or two conclusions for today arise from this case. The flirting of Baldwin’s majority with the Labour group must all the more inevitably turn into its converse the more determined the pressure of the workers upon their group, upon capital and upon parliament. We have already spoken about this in connection with the question of the role of democracy and revolutionary force in the reciprocal relations between classes. Here we wish to approach the swine question from the standpoint of the inner development of the Labour Party itself.

The leading role in the British Labour Party is, as is well known, played by the leaders of the Independent Labour Party headed by MacDonald. The Independent Labour Party not only before but also during the war took a pacifist position, “condemned” social-imperialism and belonged in general to the centrist trend. The programme of the Independent Labour Party was aimed “against militarism in whatever form. Upon the termination of war the Independent party left the Second International [1] and in 1920 upon a conference resolution the Independents even entered into dealings with the Third International and set it twelve questions, each one more profound than the previous. The seventh question read: “can communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat only be established by armed force or are parties which leave this question open allowed to participate in the Third international?” The picture is highly instructive the butcher is armed with a jagged knife but the calf leaves the question open. Yet at that critical point the Independent party did raise the question of entering the Communist International while now it expels communists from the Labour Party.

The contrast between yesterday’s policy of the Independent party and today’s policy of the Labour Party, especially in the months where it was in power, hits one in the eye. Today the policy of the Fabians in the Independent Labour Party are distinct. from the policy of the same Fabians in the Labour Party. In these contradictions there sounds a weak echo of the struggle between tendencies of centrism and social-imperialism. These tendencies; intersect and combine in MacDonald himself – and as a result the Christian pacifist builds light cruisers in anticipation of the day when he will have to build heavy ones.

The main feature of socialist centrism is its reticence, its mediocre, half-and-half nature. It keeps going so long as it does not draw the ultimate conclusions and is not compelled to answer the basic questions set before it point-blank. In peaceful, “organic” periods centrism can keep going as the official doctrine even of a large and active workers’ party, as was the case with German Social-Democracy before the war, for in that period the solution of major problems of the life of the state did not depend on the party of the proletariat. But as a rule centrism is mostly typical of small organizations which precisely through their lack of influence absolve themselves from the need to provide a clear answer to all questions of politics and to bear practical responsibility for this answer. just such is the centrism of the Independent Labour Party.

The imperialist war revealed only too clearly that the labour bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy had been able over the preceding period of capitalist boom to undergo a deep petty-bourgeois degeneration, in terms of its way of life and overall mental outlook. But the petty bourgeois preserves the appearance of independence until the first shock.

At one stroke the war disclosed and strengthened the political dependence of the petty bourgeois upon the great and greater bourgeoisie. Social-imperialism was the form of such a dependence within the workers’ movement. But centrism insofar as it was preserved or reborn daring the war and after it, expressed in itself the terror of the petty-bourgeois among the Labour bureaucrats in the face of their complete and, what is more, open enslavement to imperialism.

German Social-Democracy, which for many years, even as early as Bebel’s time [2]; had followed an essentially centrist policy, could not as a result of its very strength maintain this position during the war: it had then to be either against the war, that is to take an essentially revolutionary path, or for the war, that is to cross openly over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. In Britain the Independent Labour Party as a propaganda organization within the working class was able not only to preserve but even to strengthen its centrist features during the war by “absolving itself of the responsibility”, busying itself with platonic protests and a pacifist sermon without carrying through their ideas to their conclusion or causing the belligerent state any embarrassments. The opposition of the Independents in Germany [3] was also of a centrist character, when they “absolved themselves of responsibility”, though without preventing the Scheidemanns and Eberts from placing the whole might of the workers’ organizations at the service of warring capital.

In Britain after the war we had an entirely unique “combination” of social-imperialist and centrist tendencies in the workers’ movement. The Independent Labour Party, as has already been said, could not have been better adapted to the role of an irresponsible centrist opposition which criticizes but does not cause the rulers great damage. However, the Independents were destined in a short time to become a political force and this at the same time changed their role and their physiognomy.

The Independents became a force as a result of the intersection of two causes: in the first place because history has confronted the working class with the need to create its own party; secondly because the war and the post-war period which stirred millions-strong masses created in the beginning favourable repercussions for the ideas of labour pacifism and reformism, There were of course plenty of democratic pacifist ideas in the heads of British workers before the war too.
The difference is nevertheless colossal: in the past the British proletariat, insofar as it took part in political life, and especially during the first half of the nineteenth century, tied its democratic pacifist illusions to the activity of the Liberal Party. The latter did “not justify” these hopes and had forfeited the workers’ confidence. A special Labour Party arose as an invaluable historical conquest which nothing can now take away. But it must be clearly realized that the masses of workers became disillusioned more in Liberalism’s goodwill than in democratic pacifist methods of solving the social question and the more so now that new generations and new millions are being drawn into politics for the first time. They transferred their hopes and illusions to the Labour Party. For this very reason and only for this reason the Independents gained the opportunity to head it.

Behind the democratic pacifist illusions of the working masses stand their awakened class will, a deep discontent with their position and a readiness to back up their demands with all the means that the circumstances require. But the working class can build a party out of those ideological and personal leading elements which have been prepared by the entire preceding development of the country and all its theoretical and political culture.

Here generally speaking is the source of the great influence of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and including here of course both the Labour aristocrats and the bureaucrats. The formation of the British Labour Party became an inevitability precisely because a deep shift to the left took place in the masses of the proletariat. But the political staging of this shift to the left fell to the lot of those representatives of impotent conservative protestant pacifism who were at hand. Yet in transferring their headquarters on to the foundation of several million organized workers the Independents could not remain themselves, that is to say, they could not simply impose their centrist stamp on to the party of the proletariat. Finding themselves suddenly the leaders of a party of millions of workers they could no longer confine themselves to centrist reservations and pacifist passivity. They had, first as a responsible opposition and then as the government to answer either “yes” or “no” to the sharpest questions of political life. From the very moment that centrism became a political force it had to pass beyond the bounds of centrism, that is either draw revolutionary conclusions from its opposition to the imperialist state or openly enter its service.

The latter, of course, is what happened. MacDonald, the pacifist, started to build cruisers, to put Indians and Egyptians in jail and to operate diplomatically with forged documents. Once having become a political force centrism as centrism became a cipher. The deep swing to the left of the British working class that brought MacDonald’s party to power unexpectedly rapidly, facilitated the latter’s manifest swing to the right. Such is the link between yesterday and today and such is the reason why the little Independent Labour Party looks at its successes with a bitter perplexity and attempts to pretend to be centrist.

The practical programme of the British Labour Party led by the Independents has an essentially Liberal character and forms, especially in foreign policy, a belated echo of Gladstonian impotence. Gladstone was “compelled” to seize Egypt rather as MacDonald was “compelled” to build cruisers. Beaconsfield rather than Gladstone reflected capital’s imperialist requirements. Free Trade no longer solves a single problem. The refusal to fortify Singapore is absurd from the standpoint of the whole system of British imperialism. Singapore is the key to two oceans. Whoever wishes to preserve colonies, that is, to continue a policy of imperialist plunder, must have this key in his hands.

MacDonald remains on the ground of capitalism but he introduces cowardly amendments to it that solve nothing, save it from nothing yet increase all the difficulties and dangers. On the question of the fate of British industry there is no serious difference between the policies of the three parties. The basic feature of this policy is a confusion born out of a fear of upheaval. All three parties are conservative and fear above all industrial conflicts. A conservative parliament refuses to establish a minimum wage for the miners. The MPs elected by the miners say that the behaviour of parliament is “a direct summons to revolutionary actions’ although not one of them is seriously thinking in terms of revolutionary actions. The capitalists propose to the workers that the slate of the coal industry should be jointly investigated, hoping to prove what has no need of proof, namely that with the coal industry as it stands disorganized by private ownership, coal comes expensive even with a low wage. The Conservative and Liberal press sees salvation. The Labour leaders are following the same path. They all fear strikes that might strengthen the preponderance of foreign competitors. Yet if any sort of rationalization at all can be realised under the conditions of capitalism it cannot be achieved save under the greatest pressure of strikes on the part of the workers. By paralyzing the working masses through the trade unions the leaders are supporting the process of economic stagnation and decay.

One of the pretty clear reactionaries inside the British Labour Party, Dr. Haden Guest, a chauvinist, a militarist and a protectionist in parliament, mercilessly poured scorn on his own party’s line on the question of free trade and protectionism: MacDonald’s position, in Guest’s words, has a purely negative character and does not indicate any way out of the economic impasse. That the days of Free Trade are over really is absolutely obvious: the break-up of Liberalism has also been conditioned by the break-up of Free Trade.

But Britain can just as little seek a way out in protectionism. For a young capitalist country just developing, protectionism may be an unavoidable and progressive stage of development. But for the oldest industrial country whose industry was geared to the world market and had an offensive and conquering character the transition to protectionism is historical testimony to the beginning of a process of mortification, and signifies in practice the maintaining of certain branches of industry that are less viable in the given world situation, at the expense of other branches of the same British industry that are better adapted to the conditions of the world and the home market. The programme of senile protectionism of Baldwin’s party can be countered not by an equally senile and moribund Free Trade policy but only by the practical programme of a socialist overturn. But in order to tackle this programme it is necessary as a preliminary to purge the party both of the reactionary protectionists like Guest and reactionary free traders like MacDonald.

From what side and in what way can there come the change in the policy of the Labour Party that is inconceivable without a radical change in its leadership?

As the overall majority on the Executive Committee and other leading bodies of the British Labour Party belongs to the Independent Labour Party, the latter forms a ruling faction in the Labour Party. This system of inter-relations within the British Labour movement incidentally provides extremely valuable material on the question of “the dictatorship of a minority”, for it is just so that the leaders of the British party define the role of the Communist Party in the Soviet Republic – as the dictatorship of a minority. It can however be seen that the Independent Labour Party, which numbers some 30,000, has obtained a leading position in an organization that rests through the trade unions upon millions of members. But this organization, the Labour Party, comes to office thanks to the numerical strength and role of the British proletariat. Thus a most trifling minority of 30,000 people takes power in its hands in a country with a population of 40 million and ruling over hundreds of millions. A most real “democracy” consequently leads to the dictatorship of a party minority.

Admittedly the dictatorship of the Independent Labour Party is in a class sense not worth a rotten egg but this is a question on an entirely different plane. If, however, a party of 30,000 members without a revolutionary programme, without being tempered in struggle, and without solid traditions can come to power by the methods of bourgeois democracy and through the medium of an amorphous Labour Party resting upon the trade unions, why are these gentlemen so indignant and surprised when a theoretically and practically steeled communist party, with decades of heroic battles at the head of the popular masses behind it, a party that numbers hundreds of thousands of members comes to power resting upon the mass organizations of the workers and peasants? In any case the coming to power of the Independent Labour Party is incomparably less radical and deep-going than the coming to power of the Communist Party in Russia.

But the Independent Labour Party’s dizzy career presents interest not only from the standpoint of a polemic against arguments about the dictatorship of a communist minority. It is immeasurably more important to assess the rapid upsurge of the Independents from the standpoint of the future destiny of the British Communist Party. Several conclusions suggest themselves here.

The Independent Labour Party was born in a petty-bourgeois environment and being close in its sentiments and moods to the milieu of the trade union bureaucracy, together with it quite naturally headed the Labour Party when the masses forced their secretaries to create the latter under pressure. However, the Independent Labour Party is, by its fabulous advance, its political methods and its role, preparing and clearing the path for the Communist Party. In the course of decades the Independent Labour Party has gathered some 30,000 members in all. But when deep changes in the international situation and in the inner structure of British society gave birth to the Labour Party there at once arose an unexpected demand for the leadership of the Independents. The same course of political development is preparing at the next stage an even heavier “demand” for communism.

At the present time the Communist Party is numerically very small. At the last elections it collected only 53,000 votes – a figure which by comparison to the 5½ million Labour votes may create a dispiriting impression if the logic of Britain’s political development is not fully understood. To think that the communists will grow over the decades step by step, acquiring at each new parliamentary election a few tens or hundreds of thousands of new votes, would be to have a fundamentally false concept of the future. Of course for a certain relatively prolonged period communism will develop comparatively slowly but then an unavoidable and sudden change will occur: the Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents.

What is necessary for this? A general answer is quite plain. The Independent Labour Party has accomplished its unprecedented rise because it assisted the working class to create a third, that is, its own, party. The last election shows what enthusiasm the British workers have for the instrument that they have created. But the party is not an end in itself. From it workers expect action and results. The British Labour Party grew up almost immediately as a party directly claiming government power and having already joined in it. In spite of the deeply compromising character of the first “Labour” government, the party acquired more than a million fresh votes at the new elections. Within the party, however, there took shape the so-called left wing, formless, spineless and devoid of any independent future. But the very fact of the emergence of an opposition bears witness to the growth of the demands of the masses and a parallel growth of anxiety at the top of the Party. A brief reflection on the nature of the MacDonalds, Thomases, Clyneses, Snowdens and all the others is sufficient to appreciate how catastrophically the contradictions between the demands of the masses and the numbskulled conservatism of leading top dogs of the Labour Party will mount, especially in event of its return to power.

In outlining this perspective we are starting out from the proposition that the current international and domestic situation of British capital is not only not improving but on the contrary continuing to worsen. Were this prognosis incorrect and had Britain been able to strengthen the empire and regain its former position on the world market, raise the level of industry, give work to the unemployed and increase wages, then political development would move in reverse: the aristocratic conservatism of the trade unions would be again reinforced, the Labour Party would enter a decline, within it the right wing would grow stronger and draw closer to Liberalism, which would in turn feel a certain surge in its vital forces. But there are not the least grounds for such a prognosis. On the contrary whatever the partial fluctuations in the economic and political conjuncture everything points to a further aggravation and deepening of those difficulties which Britain is currently undergoing and thereby to a further acceleration of the tempo of revolutionary development. But in these conditions it seems highly likely that the Labour Party will come to power at one of the subsequent stages and then a conflict between the working class and the Fabian top layer now standing at its head will be wholly unavoidable.

The Independents’ current role is brought about by the fact that their path has crossed the path of the proletariat. But this in no way means that these paths have merged for good. The rapid growth in the Independents’ influence is but a reflection of the exceptional power of working-class pressure; but it is just this pressure, generated by the whole situation, that will throw the British workers into collision with the Independent leaders. In proportion as this occurs the revolutionary qualities of the British Communist Party will, given, of course, a correct policy, pass over into a quantity of several millions.

A certain analogy would appear to arise between the fate of the Communist and Independent parties. Both the former and the latter for a long time existed as propaganda societies rather than parties of the working class. Then at a profound turning-point in Britain’s historical development the Independent party headed the proletariat. After a short interval the Communist Party will, we submit, undergo the same upsurge. [1*] The course of its development will at a certain point merge with the historical highroad of the British proletariat. This merging of ways will, however, occur quite differently than it did with the Independent party. In the case of the latter the bureaucracy of the trade unions formed the connecting link. The Independents can head the Labour Party only in so far as the trade union bureaucracy can weaken, neutralize and distort the independent class pressure of the proletariat. But the Communist Party will on the contrary be able to take the lead of the working class only in so far as it enters into an implacable conflict with the conservative bureaucracy in the trade unions and the Labour Party. The Communist Party can prepare itself for the leading role only by a ruthless criticism of all the leading staff of the British labour movement and only by a day-to-day exposure of its conservative, anti-proletarian, imperialist, monarchist and lackeyish role in all spheres of social life and the class movement.

The left wing of the Labour Party represents an attempt to regenerate centrism within MacDonald’s social-imperialist party. It thus reflects the disquiet of a part of the labour bureaucracy over the link with the leftward moving masses. It would be a monstrous illusion to think that these left elements of the old school are capable of heading the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat and its struggle for power. They represent a historical stage which is over. Their elasticity is extremely limited and their leftness is opportunist through and through. They do not lead nor are capable of leading the masses into struggle. Within the bounds of their reformist narrowness they revive the old irresponsible centrism without hindering, but rather, helping, MacDonald to bear the responsibility for the party’s leadership and in certain cases for the destiny of the British Empire too.

This picture is nowhere more sharply revealed than at the Gloucester Conference of the Independent Labour Party (Easter 1925). While grumping about MacDonald the Independents approved the so-called “activity” of the Labour government by 398 votes to 139. But even the opposition could permit itself the luxury of disapproval only because a majority for MacDonald was guaranteed. The lefts’ discontent with MacDonald is a discontent with themselves. MacDonald’s policy cannot be improved by in built changes. Centrism will, once in power, conduct MacDonald’s, that is to say, a capitalist policy. MacDonald’s line can be seriously opposed only by the line of a socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. It would be the greatest illusion to think that the Independents’ party is capable of evolving into a revolutionary party of the proletariat. The Fabians have to be squeezed out, “removed from their posts”. This can only be achieved by an implacable struggle against the centrism of the Independents.

The more clearly and acutely the question of conquering power comes to the fore, the more the Independent Labour Party will strive to evade an answer and substitute for the fundamental problem of revolution every kind of bureaucratic construction regarding the best parliamentary and financial methods of nationalizing industry. One of the commissions of the Independent Labour Party came to the conclusion that purchasing of the land, plants and factories should be preferred to confiscation as in Britain, according to the presentiments of the commission, nationalization will take place gradually, a la Baldwin, step by step; and it would be “unjust” to deprive one group of capitalists of its income while another group is still obtaining a return on its capital. “It would be another matter”, the commission’s report states, (we are quoting from the report in The Times) “if socialism came to us not gradually but all at once as the result of a catastrophic revolution: then the arguments against confiscation would lose the greater part of their force. But we”, says the report, “do not think that this combination is likely and we do not feel called upon to discuss this in the present report.”

Speaking in general there are no grounds to reject in principle the purchase of the land, factories and plants. Unfortunately however the political and financial opportunities to do this will never coincide. The financial state of the United States would make a purchasing operation wholly possible. But in America the question itself is not a practical one and there is not yet a party there that can pose it seriously. But by the time that such a party appears the economic position of the United States will have undergone extremely abrupt changes. In Britain on the contrary the question of nationalization stands at point-blank range as a question of the salvation of the British economy. But the position of state funds is such that the feasibility of purchasing appears more than dubious.

However the financial aspect of the question is only a secondary one. The main task consists in creating the political prerequisites for nationalization regardless of whether by purchase or not. After all it is a matter of life and death for the bourgeoisie. A revolution is inevitable precisely because the bourgeoisie will never let itself be strangled by a Fabian banking transaction. Bourgeois society in its present state cannot accept even partial nationalization except by besetting it with conditions which must impede the success of the measure in the extreme, while compromising the idea of nationalization and with it the Labour Party. For to every really bold, even if partial, attempt at nationalization the bourgeoisie will respond as a class. Other industries will resort to lock-outs, sabotage and the boycott of nationalized industries, that is to say, they will wage a life and death struggle. However cautious the original approach might be the task will in the end be reduced to the need to crack die resistance of the exploiters. When the Fabians declare to us that they do not feel themselves “called upon” to consider “this contingency” it has to be said that these gentlemen are basically mistaken as to their calling. It is very possible that the most businesslike of them will be useful in this or that department of a future workers’ state where they can occupy themselves with the accounting of individual items on a socialist balance-sheet. But they are of absolutely no use as long as it is still a question of creating the workers’ state, that is to say, the basic prerequisite of a socialist economy.

In one of his weekly reviews in the Daily Herald (4th April 1925) MacDonald let slip a few realistic words: “The position of the parties”, he said, “is these days such that the struggle will become increasingly hot and fierce. The Conservative Party will fight to the death and the more menacing that the power of the Labour Party becomes, the more monstrous the pressure of the reactionary MPs (the Conservative Party) will become”.

This is absolutely true. The more immediate the danger of the Labour Party coming to power the stronger the influence of such people as Curzon (it is not by chance that MacDonald called him a “model” for future public figures) will grow in the Conservative Party. For once it might appear that MacDonald’s appraisal of perspectives was correct. But in point of fact the Labour Party leader himself does not understand the meaning and weight of his own words. The observation that the Conservatives will fight to the death and the more frenziedly as time goes on, was required by him only to demonstrate the inexpediency of inter-party parliamentary committees. But in its essentials the prognosis given by MacDonald not only tells against inter-parliamentary committees but cries out against the possibility of solving the whole of the present-day social crisis by parliamentary methods. “The Conservative Party will fight to the death”. Correct! But that means that the Labour Party will only be able to defeat it in event of it exceeding their determination to struggle. It is not a matter of the competition between two parties but of the fate of two classes. But when two classes fight each other to the death the question is never solved by counting votes. This has never been so in history. And as long as classes exist it never will be so.

It is not however a question of MacDonald’s general philosophy nor of particular happy slips of his tongue, that is to say, not of how he justifies his activity, nor of what he wishes for, but of what he does and where his actions lead. If the question is approached from this angle then it turns out that MacDonald’s party is by all its work preparing the gigantic sweep and extreme severity of the proletarian revolution in Britain. It is none other than MacDonald’s party that strengthens the bourgeoisie’s self-confidence and at the same time stretches the patience of the proletariat to the limit. And by the time that this patience cracks the proletariat rising to its feet will collide headlong with the bourgeoisie whose consciousness of omnipotence has been only strengthened by the policy of MacDonald’s party. The longer that the Fabians restrain Britain’s revolutionary development the more terrible and furious will be the explosion.

The British bourgeoisie has been brought up on ruthlessness. Leading it along this path were the circumstances of an island existence, the moral philosophy of Calvinism, the practice of colonialism and national arrogance. Britain is being forced increasingly into the background. This irreversible process also creates a revolutionary situation. The British bourgeoisie, compelled as it is to make its peace with America, to retreat, to tack and to wait, is filling itself with the greatest bitterness which will reveal itself in terrible forms in a civil war. Thus the bourgeois scum of France, defeated in the war with the Prussians, took their revenge on the Communards; thus the officerdom of the routed Hohenzollern army took their revenge on the German workers.

All the cold cruelty that ruling-class Britain displayed towards the Indians, Egyptians and Irish and which has the appearance of racial arrogance, in the event of a civil war will reveal its class nature and prove to be directed against the proletariat. On the other hand the revolution will inevitably awaken in the British working class the deepest passions which have been so skilfully restrained and suppressed by social conventions, the church and the press, and diverted along artificial channels with the aid of boxing, football, racing and other forms of sport.

The concrete course of the struggle, its duration and its outcome will depend wholly upon the domestic and especially the international conditions of the moment in which it develops. In the decisive struggle against the proletariat the British bourgeoisie will enjoy the most powerful support of the bourgeoisie of the United States while the proletariat will rest for support primarily upon the working class of Europe and the oppressed popular masses of the colonies. The-nature of the British Empire will inevitably give this gigantic struggle an international scale. This will be one of the greatest dramas in world history. The destiny of the British proletariat in this struggle will be linked with the destiny of all mankind. The whole world situation and the role of the British proletariat in production and in society will guarantee its victory – on condition there is a correct and resolute revolutionary leadership. The Communist Party must develop and come to power as the party of proletarian dictatorship. There are no ways round this. Whoever believes there are and propounds them can only deceive British workers. That is the main conclusion of our analysis.


1*. A prognosis of this kind has of course a relative and approximate character and should in no event be equated with astronomical predictions of lunar or solar eclipses. The real course of development is always more complex than a necessarily schematic forecast. – L.D.T.

Last Chapter   |   Where is Britain Going?


1. The international organization of social democratic parties set up in 1889. With the outbreak of the First World War the overwhelming majority of its parties abandoned revolutionary Marxism and adopted a policy of alliance with the bourgeoisie of their respective nations and the organization collapsed. In 1919 it was reconstituted out of those socialist parties that still openly propounded class collaboration and as such became a major agency in restoring some degree of political stability to the capitalist world.

2. August Bebel (1840-1913), a turner by trade, started his political life as a left wing liberal but in 1865 under the influence of Wilhelm Liebknecht he became a Marxist and they joined in founding the German Social-Democratic Party at the Eisenach Congress of 1869. He remained leader of the party until his death, distinguishing himself as an organizer, socialist parliamentarian and writer. He fought firmly against Bernstein’s revisionism and in the International Congress of 1904 achieved the condemnation of socialist participation on bourgeois governments. Within the German party he took a sceptical attitude towards the struggle of Karl Liebknecht and the younger generation of the left wing who sought to pursue the fight for Marxism to the end on the question of war and reformism. His death shortly before the war left his formal position of hostility to war untested in practice.

3. This refers to the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany which was formed under the leadership of Kautsky and Haase and in 1917 broke away from the Social-Democratic Party mainly over its opposition to the war. Taking up a centrist position, vacillating between reformism and revolution, the party gained the support of broad layers of workers in the industrial areas. The revolutionary Spartacus League led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht acted as a separate group within the Independents until the latter went over to supporting the bourgeois republic in December 1918 when the Spartacists became the Communist Party of Germany. At the special congress of the Independents held at Halle in 1920 the majority of delegates voted to leave the party and join the Communist Party, affiliating to the Communist International. The rump, led by Crispien and Hilferding, rejoined the Social-Democratic Party in 1922.

Volume 2 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

return return return return return

Last updated on: 2.7.2007