Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2
The ILP on Clydeside
Alan McKinlay and R.J. Morris (eds.),
EACH chapter, written by a different author, takes a specific era in the history of the Independent Labour Party within the context of the political, economic and industrial struggles of the working class. The chapters dovetail, so that the book reads as a whole. Well-researched, the authors also debate conceptions made and propositions put forward by previous historians.
It is perhaps ironic that the vagaries of history demanded that the Scottish labour movement sought representatives in its own right, due to the fact that the weakness of trade union organisation in Scotland resulted in the Liberals refusing to recognise trade union or working-class candidates, known in England as ‘Lib-Labs’. The forerunner of the ILP was the Scottish Labour Party, founded in 1888, with which the ILP fused in 1894. The ILP was, of course, a national organisation, but its main strength continued to lie in Scotland, which in 1922 returned several MPs, among them James Maxton, David Kirkwood, John Wheatley and John McGovern, who gave to the Clydeside the appellation ‘Red’.
In its early days, the ILP built up local support in Scotland, involving itself in trade unions, and it was largely due to this work that Glasgow, which had been a bastion of Liberalism in 1914, was by the 1920s dominated by Labour politics. Gradually, however, electioneering work took precedence, and, of course, by 1920 the ILP was rivalled on its left by the newly-formed Communist Party of Great Britain, and on its right by the Labour Party’s decision in 1918 to accept individual membership, with the result that the ILP steered a centre route between them, veering sometimes to the left, and at other times to the right. As early as 1919 John Paton, the ILP’s General Secretary, described his party as ‘a rudderless ship drifting at the mercy of all currents in the political seas’.
In his 1934 pamphlet The ILP and the Fourth International: In the Middle of the Road, Trotsky states that whilst the ILP had indubitably undergone a serious evolution to the left, standing on the left wing of the parties that adhered to the London-Amsterdam Bureau, its use of Marxist-Leninist phraseology without a Marxist understanding of society prevented its development as a revolutionary organisation, and resulted in it becoming an appendage of the Stalinised Communist International. No doubt this is the reason that following the ILP’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932 – Arthur Henderson accused it of operating as ‘a party within a party’, a phrase which has continued to be used by the Labour Party against dissident left factions to this day – that the ILP steadily declined.
This book raises many questions appertaining to the present day with regard to revolutionary politics, organisation and the class struggle – which, after all, should be the reason we read such history. I could make some criticisms of the introductory and ultimate chapters in that they cover too wide a period in a sketchy manner, but for the student of labour history, this book is well worth reading.
Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011