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Arne Swabeck

The British Scene

The Danger of Left Reformism

(August 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 19, 15 August 1931, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With the accelerated speed of England’s growing decline from its world dominant imperialist position, the lines are becoming more clearly drawn for the contest o£ influence over the British working class. From the point of view of total population, the great majority composes the industrial proletariat. By history it has long ago been invested with the decisive role. But while the MacDonald type of workers’ “leadership” is approaching the end of its career, it would be folly to assume that the influence of reformism is about at an end. In this respect, the sharpest contest is still to take place between the forces of social reform and those of social revolution.

It is still to be fought, with the British Communist Party becoming a much more serious contender than its present small numbers and uninfluential position would indicate. Coming objective developments will inevitably count heavily in its favor even though it will face a much more cunning and much more “Left-appearing” form of reformism, quite distinguished from the now outright and open imperialist agents of the MacDonald, Henderson and Snowden type.

Reformism, having become pretty well discredited in England by the continuation of outright imperialist, policies by the MacDonald government, is bringing forward new champions and new defenders. The “Left” wing within the labor party is feeling the new breeze of working class discontent and is endeavoring to set its sails accordingly. Many efforts are being made by these “Lefts”, like Maxton, Lee, and Brockway to turn the labor government failures into capital for themselves. They sense the danger of growing working class dissatisfaction. They want “real and true reformism”. To make the most possible capital out of the present situation their slogans and demands are becoming ever more “Left” in appearance. They are finding important allies amongst the trade union bureaucracy who, in their deadly fear of any developing working class struggle, have always endeavored to turn all hopes toward the labor party and the labor government. The record of this process of failures and defeats of the workers is now, because of the same fear, turning trade union leaders toward criticism of the “labor” government. While a definite split is unquestionably developing within the labor party, a radical and a reactionary differentiation, a closer examination will soon prove that the radical section is merely a “Leftist” variation of the same old miserable Fabian type of reformism.

A General Political Fermentation

Because of the outstanding parliamentary character of British politics at home made possible by her ruthless non-parliamentary politics within the colonial empire, the manifestations of political ferment are first of all expressed in the parliamentary sphere. Growing oppositions, halfway splits and regular splits, are taking place within all three major parliamentary parties. Those, of course, all reflect the growing economic and political decline, the change of issues, and indicate that new problems are developing, problems which in the final analysis all bear directly on the question of class rule and the ability to hold the working class in subjection.

The already greatly declining Liberal party has practically lost a parliamentary section under Sir John Simon, to the Conservatives, while the balance of the group still hangs on to a horse-trading support of the “labor” government. Within the Conservative ranks there is developing the new united Empire party of Lord Rothermere and Beaverbrook. To an extent, this has hampered the Conservative party from taking immediate advantage of the Labor party weaknesses. But it is within the Labor party that the most important fermentation, opposition and splits are taking place. Because of its contradictory position of a party supposedly representing labor and yet being in control of a capitalist government, its fermentation has become the deepest and the most clearly expressive of the recent evolution of the British empire; both in respect to the colonial field and in respect to events at home.

The present economic decline became expressed first in the split-off by the Mosley section going to the extreme Right. Both in the character of this group, as well as in its proposals for solution of England’s plight, are undoubtedly contained serious Fascist elements. The endless petty pilferings of the “labor” government in its efforts to continue capitalist policies under a different label seems to have helped to lend a glamor of reality to the Mosleyites’ demand for a system of economic planning and a semi-dictatorship. And it is not surprising that the former “Left” leader A.J. Cook and the former Communist sympathizer, J.F. Horabin could become signatories to their manifesto. Perhaps the member which this group gained from the parliamentary fraction of the Conservative ranks, W.E.D. Allen, most clearly expressed the methods by which Fascism aims to get a foothold. In a statement: eulogizing the Mosley platform he said: “Let us save the admittedly capitalist ship and when that ship is saved we can discuss without prejudice the distribution of the cargo.”

At the April Scarborough I.L.P. conference Jimmie Maxton and the other “Lefts” taunted the “labor” government, but in a well-measured moderate tone, leaving sufficient loopholes open for a retreat. Maxton asserted: “The labor government has signally failed to achieve the end to which its policy was directed – and that failure was not due to lack of efforts or lack of honesty, but because it was a capitalist objective, carried out in the main through the medium of capitalist machinery.” Very well, it it was a capitalist objective, how can one then speak of failure to achieve the end to which its policy was directed? And granted to the hilt that this objective was carried out through the medium of a capitalist machinery – which is entirely true – do Maxton or the other “Lefts’” draw the proper conclusion, namely to destroy this machinery and replace it with a proletarian machinery of government? Of course not. This is not their objective.

A motion for disaffiliation from the labor party at this conference suffered a defeat of 173 to 37. In many respects this I.L.P. conference repeats the tragic-comedy of the one of 1925. That was held after the experience of the first “labor” government and at the time of a rising wave of working class resistance. It approved, after much criticism, the MacDonald policies 398 to 139. At the Liverpool labor party conference that same year the “Left” section loomed strong but completely capitulated when under fire. Not only was there no split as some of the more gullible had expected but the conference, after settling the “Left” criticism, proceeded to exclude the Communists from the labor party.

Today also the prospects of splits are being whimpered. The “Lefts” are becoming more radical in their utterances. David Kirkwood as a delegate to the recent Second International congress declared that “the labor government preferred to coalesce with liberals and conservatives to maintain capitalism instead of overthrowing it.” The same Kirkwood has now been cited before the labor party disciplinary committee for having stated that, “the conditions of the worker are no better under a labor government.” The New Leader, official organ of the I.L.P. entered in his defense a denial of his having made such statement. It would then be pertinent to ask “why not?” A genuine Left wing leader [would] not only state so but also draw the proper conclusion therefrom. Seven M.P.s of the I.L.P. “Left.” section are also cited before the labor party disciplinary committee because of their voting to table the Anomalies Bill (the bill to correct the “abuse” of the dole).

The I.L.P. in the Past

Under pressure of the events of the. world war the “Left” I.L.P. disaffiliated from the Second International. It almost proposed joining the Comintern, but found satisfaction in the Two-and-a-Half International, to return a little while later to the Second. This excursion to the Left followed the working class pressure of the stormy struggles of 1917–1920. The ebb of this period found them returning to the original camp where they, of course, belong. Again with the working class rise and the struggles growing towards the general strike of 1926 these “Lefts” became critical, they became more radical, they again addressed letters to the Comintern, some of them sat in conferences with the Russians in the Anglo-Russian Unity Committee. That was upon invitation of the Stalin-Bucharin bloc. A deal with the “Lefts” – not the workers genuinely moving towards the Left – but the Left coverings of the Fabian imperialist agents. They quickly returned from this second excursion with the defeat, of the general strike, in which they had played their treacherous part.

Workers’ discontent is again beginning to grow and this time with more genuine, more real possibilities. It is occurring in a period of growing working class disillusionment with the servile Crown lackeys in whom they had long placed their faith. We are in a period when comrade Trotsky’s predictions, made in bis Whither England?, have increasing likeliness of coming true: “On the day when the English proletariat frees itself from the mental baseness of Fabianism, humanity, particularly in Europe, will increase in stature by at least a head.”

But the gentlemen of the “Left” are also again beginning a new zig-zag, endeavoring to arrest this growth. Dialectically, it may be contended that it occurs this time on a higher plane, at least on a higher plane of maturity of the English proletariat. While these Left coverings and their apparent radicalization express the workers’ discontent and in this sense records progress, they, of course, act as a brake upon the movement – a reformist brake. The Left phraseology cannot he separated from the important question of basic program. Fenner Brockway, for example, now proposes a “bold socialist program”, which would contain the essentials:

“Assume control of finances by nationalizing the banks ... Reconstruct basic industries under national ownership and direction ... Meet increased productive power of rationalization by concentrating upon increasing the consuming power of the masses of the people ... on a socialist basis to be fulfilled by national control of imports.”

It is, however, well to remember the shudder of these mental offspring of the original Fabian school when in 1926 the Comintern tersely stated the problem of the English proletariat as the one of armed revolutionary force. This is not at all the program of the “Left” I.L.P. They intend merely to repeat the early MacDonald career of reformism in vain hopes that their projected embellishments will make it more palatable.

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