Wm Paul

The Responsibility of the Labour Party

Source: The Communist Review, January 1922, Vol. 2, No. 3.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

AT a recent Congress on unemployment, organised by the National Joint Council of the Trade Union Congress, Labour Party, and Parliamentary Labour Party, many points of vital importance were discussed. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, in the course of his speech, referred to the critical condition of the unemployed, and attempted to show that a part of the responsibility for the present crisis must be shouldered by the rank and file, and not by the leaders of the Labour movement. He stated that the workers had not voted intelligently in 1918, and suggested that those trade unionists who had voted for the Coalition ought, in common fairness, to pay the unemployment levies. We have here an attempt made to hold the masses responsible for the criminal blunders of the leaders of the Labour Party, so far as the present desperate plight of the workers is concerned. As it is characteristic of the MacDonald type of Labourism to blame the masses for results which have inevitably arisen through the stupid policy supported by the leaders, it may not be out of place, at this juncture, to examine the history of the official Labour Party and its relation to the present deplorable condition of the proletariat.

I. During the War

IT is now admitted by all sections in the Labour movement that the basic cause of present unemployment is the modern system of imperialist capitalism. By what means has the Labour Party attempted to oppose the imperialistic onslaughts of the British ruling class? In what manner has it sought to destroy capitalism?

When the war broke out in 1914 the Labour Party pledged itself, officially, to do everything in its power to assist the British group of international imperialists who were responsible for the events that made the war inevitable. This assistance, rendered by the Labour Party to the war-mongers, helped to bring into existence the chaos and misery which is rapidly enveloping the whole world. During the war, in consequence of the phenomenal demand for labour, the working class could have wrung many valuable concessions from capitalism. Instead of using these favourable conditions to make a successful onslaught against capital, the Labour leaders actually used their influence and power against every big attempt of the masses to strike or fight for better conditions. In every important strike, during the war, the official Labour movement betrayed the workers. The Munitions Acts, which sought to deprive the wage earners of the right to use their industrial power, were drafted and enforced by the connivance of the Labour Party and the Trade Union leaders. So conspicuously treacherous was the attitude of the leaders of the official Labour movement that every big strike, during the war, was led and organised by unofficial workshop groups. And in fighting these unofficial strikes the property owners were able to depend upon the willing and servile assistance of the official Labour leaders. Thus, when Lloyd George visited Glasgow, in a hopelessly futile attempt to brow-beat the shop stewards of the Clyde, he had to rely upon such a Labour champion as Mr. Arthur Henderson, who accompanied him on that memorable occasion. Despite the opposition of the official Labour movement, the unofficial shop stewards’ organisation, the most important leaders of which are now active workers in the Communist Party, won many valuable workshop concessions for the artisans—particularly in the engineering industry. In passing, we may observe that every one of these concessions, won by leaders, several of whom were imprisoned and deported, were voluntarily yielded to the employers by the officials of the Amalgamated Engineers’ Union. Thus the triumphs of the unofficial rank and file movement were betrayed by the cowardice of the official Labour movement.

The attitude of the leaders of the Labour Party towards the industrial workers, during the war, made it possible for the employing class to make millions out of munitions. These leaders by opposing strikers enabled the profiteers to exploit the masses upon an unprecedented scale.

The history of the war was one melancholy and monotonous sequence of betrayals of the masses by the official Labour Party. No treachery against the workers was so base but that the jingo Government could find some ambitious and distinguished Labour leader anxious to undertake it. The war policy of the Labour Party and its four years of ceaseless imperialistic propaganda; by stifling class issues beneath a mass and welter of jingo and national verbiage, created the political outlook of the masses in 1918 that enabled Lloyd George to achieve his wonderful Coalition victory. Despite this evidence, Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald now turns round and denounces the political ignorance of the masses in 1918, and seeks to blame them, and not his own colleagues, for the misery-laden conditions of to-day. We repeat, the Coalition triumph of 1918 was only possible thanks to the war policy and jingo ignorance of the Labour Party.

The pacifist minority in the Labour Party was ineffectual in aiding the workers during the war. It accepted the fatuous and dangerous policy of non-resistance, and virulently opposed any movement based on force which sought to struggle against the Government and its imperialists. The most inspiring group of non-resisting idealists who opposed the war were the Quakers, the majority of whom were sincere Cobdenite, middle-class Liberals; many of them joined the I.L.P., and used their wealth and influence so effectively that that organisation tends ever more towards a moderate reform policy based upon a determined opposition to the use of force. This further explains the peculiar and weird mixture of collectivist State control and individualistic Cobdenism to be found in the I.L.P. to-day. The pacifist group inside the Labour Party was doubly weakened because of its lack of a definite and coherent policy against the war. This faction was led by the irresolute Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, the present Secretary of the Second international, whose attitude towards the war was never clearly defined. For example, he addressed a letter to the Mayor of Leicester—the town which he then represented in Parliament—which was promptly utilised by the jingoes as a recruiting circular to hound young men into the trenches. Mr. MacDonald’s attitude since the Armistice has been as vague and as confusing as was his wavering policy during the war. At a time when bankers, merchants, and even capitalist politicians were denouncing reparations and indemnities, it was left to Mr. J. R. MacDonald to propound unsound but extravagantly subtle schemes to show how the Germans could be made to pay for the war. The group of feeble Labour pacifists in the House of Commons was so logical in its policy of non-resistance that it recoiled from embarrassing the Government, and did not vote against the war credits. Contrast this cowardly opportunism with the daring revolutionary and anti-militarist action of Karl Liebknecht, in the German Reichstag, who both opposed the war and the war credits.

Thus, during the war, neither the official Labour Party with its jingoism, nor the MacDonald-Snowden group with its pacifism, gave the workers a lead in any line of action likely to assist them in their struggle against the master class. Between the bellicose imperialism of the one section and the timid, sentimental, quakerism of the other, the masses were so confused that they fell an easy victim to the stampede tactics of the Coalition stunt-election in 1918.

II. Labour Party, Russia, and Unemployment

IN the memorable days of 1918 the Labour Party had an exceptional opportunity to wipe out all the errors it had committed during the war. Two great messages, from over the seas, were sent to the British masses. One came from the revolutionary workers of Russia, and the other was sent from the cute imperialist sharks of Wall Street in New York. These two messages were personified in Lenin and President Wilson. The former made his appeal in the brusque language of the class struggle; the latter phrased his imperialist ideals in the sentimental, university rhetoric of middle-class pacificism. The official Labour Party immediately repudiated Bolshevism, and held Lenin and Trotsky up to public scorn; it took little or no interest in the fate of the Soviet Republic beyond denouncing it. While the Russian Communists were being vigorously and stupidly criticised by the imperialist and pacifist groups of the Labour Party these were both united in their enthusiastic acceptance of the honeyed and windy phrases of the capitalistic President Wilson. The I.L.P. traducers of Lenin sent a special telegraphic message to Wilson pledging their support. When imperialists, like Churchill, saw that the official Labour movement was violently opposed to the policy of the Russian Communists, they were emboldened, and even felt encouraged to make a series of armed onslaughts upon the Soviet Republic. These military attacks were reinforced by the blockade of Russia, and by the spending of millions of pounds, all of which were utilised to create chaos in the industrial and administrative machinery of the Soviets. The final outcome of the undeclared war and blockade was a rapid decrease in Britain’s export trade, which became one of the most important factors in intensifying the unemployed problem. Had the official Labour movement in this country shown the slightest sympathetic interest in the Soviet Republic; had it made some little gesture of international solidarity in response to the appeals of the revolutionary masses of Russia, the British imperialists would never have dared to have done the diabolical things they did against that country. The opposition of the Labour Party to the Soviet Republic, during the first three years of its existence, was the indirect cause of the. British Government’s attack upon Russia, and was, therefore, one of the contributory factors that helped to intensify unemployment and misery in this country.

It is a matter of common history that the three great attempts of the working class to assist Russia originated outside the official Labour Party. The Councils of Action manifested a spontaneous outburst of the rank and file against the treacherous apathy of the Labour Party in its attitude towards Russia. So revolutionary were its inherent potentialities that the official Labour leaders were compelled to catch hold of it in order to emasculate it. The Councils of Action were a revolutionary portent and had sufficient influence to intimidate the Government. The “Hands off Russia” movement, which has done splendid and heroic work by opposing the British Government’s war on the Soviet Government, was brought into existence to do the work which ought to have been done by the official Labour Party. During the past year the unemployed have passed hundreds of resolutions demanding a change in the Government’s attitude towards Soviet Russia. The result of the joint and cumulative efforts of the Councils of Action, the Hands off Russia Committee, and the unemployed demonstrations, have had some effect upon the Government, which has been forced to modify its Russian policy. The present danger to Russia comes more from France than from Britain. The Soviet Government, of course, by its daring Red Army and by its brilliant strategy, has played no small part in forcing the British Government to alter its tactics. We begin to see a change in the attitude of the imperialist financiers towards the Soviet Government; their long noses smell profits in Russian concessions. Even Liberals, like Asquith, scenting votes in a popular demand for a more generous treatment of Russia, are now thundering their indictments against the Lloyd George Government for its scandalous treatment of the Soviet Republic.

After four long years of relentless and bloody struggle in Russia; after four years of bitter uphill fighting in this country, by unofficial groups, to get fair play for the Soviet Republic; after the Government has been compelled to modify its Russian policy; after the financiers and the Liberal politicians begin to see that something may be gained by adopting a more tolerant attitude towards Russia; now, at long last, the official Labour Party comes forward and indignantly demands, in its best Pecksniffian-MacDonald manner, that it is high time the Government changed its Russian policy. The Hendersons rush in where the Asquiths dared to tread!

III. Indemnities, Increased Production, and Unemployment

NO sooner was the war over than the propertied interests realised that somebody would have to pay for it. The first and most popular cry was to make the Germans foot the bill. This in practice means the intensified exploitation of the German masses through the medium of indemnities. There are two important reasons why the international Labour movement should oppose war indemnities. Firstly, a war indemnity is a form of working-class exploitation grafted upon national hatred; it stimulates imperialism and racial rancour, and is, therefore, opposed to the first and most elementary principle of internationalism. Secondly, war indemnities are based upon a series of dangerous and stupid economic fallacies. If Germany were to pay her indemnity in gold, and this is impossible, the sudden influx of so much of that yellow metal into this country would immediately paralyse our standard of prices and send them soaring heaven-wards. An increase in prices means a fall in the purchasing power of wages. Germany cannot pay all her indemnity in gold. She must, therefore, pay in goods. This means that millions of pounds worth of coal, ships, locomotives, etc., are sent into this country without any equivalent being paid for them. Every commodity that enters the country, in payment of an indemnity, not only causes unemployment by displacing labour and by glutting the market, but in addition it means the virtual enslavement of the German masses, who are forced down to the coolie level of subsistence. This reacts upon the British workers, who produce goods for the world’s market, and who are ultimately driven down to the same standard as their German colleagues. Indemnities ruin the workers in the country that receives them and ruin the wage-slaves in the country that produces them. Indemnities are economically unsound, in theory and in practice, and are only enforced in a vicious spirit of national malice and hatred, or by a group of financial cliques who see in the ruined country a chance to buy up its capital at a low price.

The merest tyro in economics understands all that we have said regarding indemnities. Despite the volumes that were written by economists and by Socialists, long before 1914, about the dangerous futility of indemnities, the Labour Party actually accepted the reactionary and imperialistic indemnity policy of making Germany pay for the war. This, coupled with its attitude towards Soviet Russia, proves that the Labour Party is as much responsible for the present condition of unemployment as is the Lloyd George Government, which it is at present attacking. The position of the Labour Party regarding indemnities shows that even in peace, as during the war, it bases its policy upon the needs of the reactionary jingoes, and not upon the vital needs of the masses. At the same time, it bitterly attacks the Communists who have been trying to show that the indemnity policy can only lead to the impoverishment of the masses both in Germany and in Britain.

The Communists foretold what the enforcement of indemnities would mean to this country and to the working class. Let the present misery of the unemployed demonstrate whether, or not, we spoke correctly? Even now certain groups of imperialists are anxious to scrap the whole policy of indemnities because these are destroying their particular interests.

Thus, at a time when bankers, merchants, and even capitalist statesmen are repudiating indemnities, these impositions upon the German workers are still defended by men like Mr. Ramsay Macdonald and Mr. H. Bottomley. At a time when the Liberal Party tables a motion in the House of Commons to the effect:—

“That this House is of opinion that the indemnity payments fixed for Germany under the Treaty of Peace and subsequent agreements are injurious to the trade of the world and, in particular, adversely affect this country; and expresses its opinion that the time has come for a revision of the whole position, with the reservation that all possible assistance should be given by Germany towards the rebuilding and reconstruction of the devastated areas in France.”

At such a time the reactionary attitude of the Labour Party actually compelled one of its own journals, the Glasgow Forward (November 5th, 1921), to blurt out: “if the Labour Party does not hurry up it will miss the ’bus!” Now that the most intelligent Liberals and Conservatives are opposed to the old cry of making Germany pay; now that the misguided workers themselves are angrily demanding that an end be put to the payment of indemnities, there is every possibility that even the Labour Party may come out and say that it, too, is opposed to indemnities. Now that such a reactionary as Mr. Asquith has repudiated indemnities, and refers to them as a form of “midsummer madness”; it is perfectly safe for Mr. Ramsay MacDonald to come boldly forward and denounce the cruel exactions wrung from Germany and to read the workers another severe lesson for their political and economic ignorance, by excluding him from Parliament in 1918.

Although the imperialists announced their intention to make Germany pay for the war, they did not relax their efforts in attempting, also, to make the working class of Britain pay. When the war came to an end the capitalist class used all its powers of publicity to stimulate an enthusiastic national campaign on behalf of increased production. Under capitalism goods are not produced for use but for profit. Before a profit can be realised the goods must be sold in the world’s market. When large quantities of boots cannot be sold this does not mean that everyone has a pair of boots; it merely indicates that the boot market is glutted, and that boots cannot be sold. Boots, like every commodity in the present social system, are made for the market. When it is glutted by an over-production of boots the workers who made these are thrown out of work, and may soon find themselves without a pair of boots—because they produced too many! This is but one of the many hundreds of contradictions inherent in capitalism. As goods are produced for a profit it follows that the more wealth Labour creates the more profit there is for the boss. But it is also true that the faster the workers produce wealth the faster they glut the markets, and the faster are they thrown upon the scrap heap to starve. Under capitalism the cry of the employer is for increased production. When, therefore, the imperialists demanded that the workers should produce more it was the duty of the organised working-class movement, in anticipation of an industrial crisis and a severe spell of unemployment, to have resisted this demand. Everyone knows what happened. The leaders of the Labour Party who had backed up the imperialists during the war, and who had helped, by their advocacy of indemnities, to enslave the German masses and cause unemployment at home, came forward once again as the tools of the master class, and actually used their influence on behalf of increased production. On this occasion the jingo Labourists were reinforced by the assistance of the Cobdenite pacifists; Mr. Philip Snowden being one of the most eloquent advocates in beseeching the industrial artisans to work harder for the glory and profit of their masters. When these leaders were in the midst of this campaign for increased production, which under capitalism means increased profits and decreased relative wages, the reaction of the policy, supported by the Labour Party, regarding Soviet Russia, and the war indemnities, began to make itself felt by a sudden shrinkage in trade which heralded the beginning of the most tragic spell of unemployment ever experienced in the history of the British working class. When the masses were thrown out of the factories into the street, and when millions were workless and starving, the hollow mockery of the Labour leaders’ plea for increased production became so apparent that even they were forced, out of sheer shame, to disband their reactionary campaign.

We are now able to understand the part played by the Labour Party so far as the present unemployed crisis is concerned. At no time since 1914 has it made any attempt either to destroy capitalism, which is the basic cause of unemployment, or to take up any bold course that would have lightened the intolerable burden of misery which the masses are now bearing. It enthusiastically backed up imperialistic capitalism in 1914; it supported the outrageous and economically unsound indemnity policy of the jingoes; it failed to comprehend the full significance of the Soviet revolution, and lacked courage when Churchill was spending millions trying to dismember Russia; it conducted an “increased production” at a time when every sane person saw an industrial crisis looming up on the horizon. No amount of quibbling, no acrobatic displays of nimble platform somersaulting, can redeem the Labour Party from the above series of gross betrayals which, by a cumulative process, have resulted in the present industrial chaos which has hurled millions of workers into the hell of sheer despair. It is nothing but an insult to the misery of the masses to tell them that the fault is theirs, because they did not vote for the Labour Party in 1918. We have shown, in our brief outline, that the official Labour Party adopted a policy which was not only anti-revolutionary, but which never materially differed from that of Lloyd George. The Tories never had greater jingoes in its ranks than were certain distinguished members of the Labour Party. The indemnity champions of the Coalition never had such a subtle indemnity expert as Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald, nor had the employers a more eloquent exponent upon increased production than Mr. Philip Snowden. The Cabinet itself does not contain a member more embittered against the Communists, either in Russia or at home, than the Right Honourable J. H. Thomas, M.P., P.C., etc. Nothing that the Labour Party has done, as a parliamentary opposition group, has shown that even if it had been in power would its policy have averted the crisis which has now enmeshed the country, and which has brought in its train such social misery and anguish.

Even now, when millions are walking the streets, the attitude of the Labour Party has been one of cowardice and characteristic ineptitude. Its timidity and apathy regarding the unemployed has been so apparent that in all the large industrial centres the workless masses have been compelled to throw up their own committees, outside of the Labour Party, organised and led, in most cases, by rank-and-file Communists. Just as in 1914-18, when a supreme international test was forced upon the official Labour movement, it broke down, and left the class struggle to be carried on by unofficial committees; so to-day, when faced with another crisis, directly affecting the unemployed masses, it once again leaves the brunt of the struggle to be faced by a special organisation which has to conduct the fight against the capitalist class, and which also tries to instil some courage into the Labour Party. The history of the events of the past few years has demonstrated that during periods of intense crisis the leadership of the masses passes out of the control of the official Labour Party; the future shall also verify that in the measure that the Labour Party becomes powerful, even to the point of assuming governmental control, so the greater will be its inevitable collapse when confronted with a critical social crisis that demands self-sacrificing courage and a revolutionary vision.

A Labour Party worthy of its name would have opposed capitalism in every one of its desperate and bloody imperialist adventures. It would have used every difficulty of the propertied interests to have battled for concessions for the workers. It would have indignantly repudiated the hypocritical pretensions of the emotional and rhetorical President Wilson. It would have supported Lenin in his effort to consolidate the revolutionary power of the Russian masses; this would instantly have checked the murderous campaign led by Churchill, against the Soviet Republic, and would have enabled Russia to concentrate all her powers upon internal reconstruction instead of draining off her best energies into a series of defensive wars. Had the Labour Party done this Russia would have been speedily recognised as a de facto Government, and trade with her would now have been in full swing. A Labour Party worthy of the name would have enforced its international policy by opposing the Versailles Treaty, by vigorously repudiating indemnities, and by compelling the British imperialists to exert a restraining influence upon France and her mad marauding exploits. It would have put into operation, through the trade unions, such a system of workshop control as would have averted the extreme bitterness of the present industrial slump. It would have utilised the keen fighting spirit of the masses during 1919 and 1920—who flocked to the banner of the trade unions in those years—to have struggled against capitalism; this would have made a serious inroad into the unions’ funds, but the money would have been spent in fighting, and the material well-being, the morale and revolutionary outlook of the masses would have been better than it is to-day. By refusing to struggle; by meekly adopting a non-revolutionary policy, by actually endorsing the reactionary plans of the imperialists and the enemies of the workers, the Thomases, Hendersons and Clynes, have not saved the sacred funds of their trade unions. Indeed, they have been forced to dissipate a 9/11th part of these to maintain unemployed members who are the direct victims of an industrial crisis which has been inhumanly intensified and aggravated as a consequence of the very tactics, political and industrial, of these Labour statesmen!

Thus we protest against the statement of Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald, that the unemployed are in their present hungry plight because of their political ignorance in 1918. Political ignorance forsooth! What will the rapidly awakening masses think of the amazing ignorance of a Labour “internationalist,” like Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald, whose economic stupidity was such that he brazenly advocated indemnities; or of a Mr. Snowden with his reactionary plea for increased production; or of a Privy Councillor like the Right Honourable J. H. Thomas and his idiotic gibberings against Soviet Russia? Who are these gentlemen that they dare throw stones at the politically ignorant masses? True it is, no doubt, that the present industrial crisis has been unduly aggravated due to political ignorance. And, as our brief sketch has demonstrated, that political ignorance may be traced, and can be found in abundance, in the Labour Party!