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Labour Review, February–March 1960

Bill Parry

MacDonald and Others

1931 Political Crisis. By R. Bassett. Macmillan, 42s.

The ‘centre’ of the Labour Movement usually avoids the lesson of 1931. It might seem strange that a good deal more ‘realism’ can be attributed to MacDonald and his supporters than to some of his critics.

R. Basset’s 1931 Political Crisis explains and justifies MacDonald’s desertion from the Labour Movement. He does so, by showing that the critics of the National Government (the T.U.C. and Labour Party included) who suggested as an alternative a system of graduated taxation, were not prepared to face realities.

The lesson which emerges for Marxists is that there were only two alternatives and that the middle-of-the-road led straight to the middle of the clouds. If capitalism was to be stabilised, MacDonald was correct in assuming that foreign credit would only be attracted by economising on the working-class. The Socialist alternative implied full-scale nationalization and equal trade agreements with former colonies.

Bassett’s vision is assiduously restricted to parliamentary, cabinet and committee meetings. He gives detailed accounts of conversations and correspondence between George V, Party leaders and financiers. We get graphic close-ups of the role of the Monarchy in capitalist democracy.

On several occasions, MacDonald was ready to throw in his hand, but each time the King would play his part; only a little flattery was needed. MacDonald would regain his confidence and step forward, once more, as Man of Destiny and Saviour of the Nation.

Naturally enough, an account of 1931 which justifies the National Government needs must leave the working-class out of the picture. We enter a world of financial crisis, where the British Labour Government looks forward to a £170 million deficit in the following year. Economies are sought to the extent of £78 million. This is rather too much for the Labour Government; £56 million is all they can stomach, £20 million of which is to come from cuts in unemployment benefits.

Should the remainder be made up, partially by a 10 per cent. cut in unemployment benefits, would credits be forthcoming? The question is put to the banks. New York and Paris would respond should the government’s proposals be backed by favourable public opinion. A minority of the Labour Cabinet cannot go through with it—the Cabinet is split.

Then follows the Party get-togethers, conversations with the King, the formation of the National Government, further financial crisis, the election, and the return of the National Government.

MacDonald quite consciously burnt all boats as far as the Labour Movement was concerned. What he did, he did for capitalism. How else can we interpret the quotation from The Times (August 26th, 1931):

‘It is said that when the Prime Minister met the Junior Ministers in the late (Labour) Government on Monday afternoon, he intimated that he would not expect any of the younger members, merely out of loyalty to himself, to follow him in the course he had taken. It was obvious that such action might prejudice their future careers in the Labour Party, and he would not ask for such sacrifices.’

Bassett underscores this point: ‘The greater the number of moderates associated with him in the National Government, the more influential would the Left Wing become in the main body of the Labour Party and the greater would be the danger that the Party might be drawn into anti-Parliamentary courses and his whole lifework ruined’.

For his personal sacrifices to capitalism, MacDonald received his due from the Labour Movement. Not a few of the Labour Cabinet, however, managed to avoid the Movement’s ostracism. Some of MacDonald’s severest critics belonged to the Labour Cabinet which had accepted nine-tenths of the economies imposed by the National Government.


The way many of the ‘moderates’ turned-coat on their former policies, once they saw the way these policies were being received by the ranks, is sickeningly typical of a whole stratum of policy-makers, classically personified in the Webbs.

Beatrice Webb’s Dairy, August 22: ‘The General Council are pigs’, S.W. (Sidney Webb) said, ‘they won’t agree to any “cuts” of unemployment insurance benefits or salaries or wages.’ Two days later, she is glad to see the back of those who consistently pressed for ‘cuts’. Three days after this, she enters into her Diary an abridged version of a letter from MacDonald to her husband. She deliberately omits the first sentence so as to suggest that MacDonald had ‘plotted’ the National Government.

An interesting feature of the Webbs is thereby revealed. It is all the easier to understand their white-washing the Soviet Government in the ’30s. BILL PARRY

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