Thomas Bell

Ourselves and the Labour Party

Source: The Communist Review, October 1923, Vol. 4, No. 6.
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.

QUITE recently an article signed by Comrade Zinoviev appeared in “L’Humanité” entitled “The Hegemony of the Proletariat.” Reading the same, one is struck with the valuable lessons and analogies it carries for our Communist Movement in Great Britain, and its peculiar applicability to the developments now going on within the British Labour Party. In addition, this remarkable article throws a brilliant flashlight upon a period of history within the revolutionary movement of Russia in which the two central characters are the old Marxist theoretician, Plechanoff, and our inimitable Communist Leader, Lenin. One wishes that some competent revolutionary writer could place before the English-speaking workers this instructive period in revolutionary polemics; it would prove a salutary corrective to reformist and leftist alike.

In these words, “The Hegemony of the Proletariat,” says Zinoviev, “we have the essence of Bolshevism, the exponents being Plechanoff and Lenin.” We need not trouble about the formula at this stage; we will come to that later. At present we must lead up to the formula by way of the ideological conceptions of these great Party leaders.

The idea that the working class ought to be, should be, or will be, the driving force in the Proletarian Revolution, has never been accepted by our reformists. Overweighted by bourgeois education and training, our democratic reformists have tried to appear to rise above all class bias and speak for the bourgeois abstraction called the “Community”—which “Community,” it should be noted, embraces the classes.

As far back as 1889 Plechanoff had penetrated the sophistry of the capitalist democracy and caught the central idea of the hegemony of the proletariat. Already the revolutionary struggle of the period had revealed to him the role which the working class was destined to play in the Social Revolution. But in 1905 his experience was sealed in the glorious and heroic attempts to break the Czarism. Henceforth his vision is clearer. For him the interest of the revolution is the Supreme Law; “Parliamentarism and Universal Suffrage”—“all depends on circumstances.”


Adverting to Lenin, we find that as far back as 1894 he wrote a remarkable article on the subject and formulated for the first time with clearness and directness, the place of the working class in the hegemony of the proletariat struggling for the revolution in Russia. Since that time, says Zinoviev, the history of Bolshevism is nothing but a struggle to realise the import of this idea. And what is the kernel of this idea of the “Hegemony of the Proletariat”? It means the bourgeoisie is the class which rules, not merely in the factories and workshops, but everywhere and always. The working class represents all the exploited; i.e., also the non-possessing or landless peasants. The working class must therefore take the lead in all the battles of all the exploited, or, in other words, exercise its hegemony in the liberating struggle.

The Narodniki (the peasant Socialist Party), for example, had said, “The man of the future is the moujik.” The Social Democrats had said, “The man of the future is the worker.” To both these, Lenin and the Bolshevists replied, “The man of the future is the worker who will guide the peasants.” We here see that Bolshevism declares for the working class as the dynamic force in the struggle of all the exploited.

A clear understanding of this special role of the working class as the advanced guard in the struggle of all the exploited against the capitalist class is very significant for us in Great Britain. It is the crux of the problems confronting the Labour Party to-day. The Mensheviks in Russia looked upon the working class as mere tools by means of which Czardom was to be pulled down. The special task of the working class was to mount the barricades and shed its blood to dethrone Nicholas. Once that was accomplished the future power and authority of Government was to be handed over to and wielded by the Liberal bourgeoisie. For, as they thought, the revolution is the bourgeoisie.

In a similar way we have our Mensheviks in Great Britain—the Webbs, the MacDonalds, etc. These middle-class gentlemen think the sole task of the Trade Unions and the labouring class generally is merely to aid the Labour Party (this is, themselves) in capturing the offices of State. As to thoughts of a sudden transformation, perish the idea! What can the man in overalls and clogs want with high offices of State? What does or can he want to know of Foreign Policy or problems of Empire? These things are the exclusive prerogative of a specially trained class only to be found amongst the graduates and dons of the University, journalists, or trained statesmen—in a word, the petit middle-class elements with culture.

Study the speeches or writings of our middle-class leaders in the Labour Party, and what do we find? In practice they are one and all merely thinking of a Labour Party Government with the Capitalist sitting in the minority. It is here we approach one of the vital problems before the revolutionary and militant movements in Great Britain. Is the Labour Party to be allowed to continue under the fetish of Parliamentarism with its allegiance to the standard of capitalist democracy? If not, then how are we to secure or infuse into it that definite working-class direction in Labour Party policy which will counteract the influence of our Mensheviks? This is a question of vital interest and concern to Labourists and Communists alike. To this question we must try to find an answer while there is yet time.


The increasing alarm in capitalist circles at the growing possibilities of a Labour Government is becoming more and more manifest. Not a day passes but press, politician and captains of industry make reference to this (for them) calamity that is creeping over present-day society. They predict the end of all things should the Labour Party come to power. And, as we think, for very good reasons. It is customary on the part of many who profess Marxism to laugh at such bourgeois fears. What possible reason, it is asked, is there for apprehension in capitalist circles? And in face of the incompetency, the muddling and even open treachery of a number of Labour Leaders, there is certainly much reason for doubting. It is true there is often little to distinguish between, say, a speech by Ramsay MacDonald and Baldwin, or Sidney Webb and Sir John Simon. And if social changes depended upon the speeches of our Labourists, the ruling class could very well go to sleep, secure in the possession of their gains and privileges. But the great social changes imminent are neither likely to consult nor consider the desires of bourgeois or Labourist. Social changes are inherent in the very grain of our modern industrial system. Their class character may not always be apparent. They may be arrested for a time; they cannot be turned back.

Because of this we, who are working for the release of the forces making for social revolution, or for the removal of those obstacles which stand in the way of social change, cannot afford to under-estimate this alarm in the bourgeois camp. It would be a fatal mistake, for example, to attribute the speeches of Churchill or Lloyd George (who never fail to ring the alarm bell) to mere hysteria or demagogy. There is always a method in the madness of these apparent political harlequinades. On the other hand, encouragement in the belief that the Labour Party is either not fit to govern, or, if allowed to do so, would prove more bourgeois than the capitalists themselves, is to renounce the very fundamental basis of our working-class movement, namely, the struggle for power. Such an attitude is tantamount to supporting reaction. And we must frankly say it is a disease in some quarters of our Party. It finds its reflex especially in the doubts and fears as to the correctness of the tactic of the United Front, with special reference to the criticisms of the Labour Party.

But a recognition of political realities does not mean that all criticism of the Labour Leaders or Labour Party Policy should cease, far from it; we must never forget the experience of Kerensky in Russia, Scheidemann and Noske in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. In this country we have had our own experience, with Henderson, Barnes and Co. The memories of the Clyde deportation, the big Engineer strikes during the War, and the murder of Connolly, can never be wiped out.

It is folly to think the C.P. can ever give up its right to criticise the policy of the Labour Party or the personal conduct of the Labour Leaders in relation to fundamental working-class interest. To do that would be to yield up the political principles on which our Party is based, and that is unthinkable.

But unrelated reiteration and repetition is not criticism, and in this respect we must say we have made mistakes in the past. We must know how to estimate the political tendencies and forces that surround us, and haw to throw our weight and influence on such of those movements as are making for the disintegration of capitalist power. When we can do that we shall be on the fair way to becoming a real mass party. At the moment we must acknowledge that this is something which the Party has yet to learn.

Putting aside for the moment all argument about what a Labour Government might or might not, will or will not do, we are forced to recognise that from the very nature of things, no capitalist can view with equanimity the possible advent of the Labour Party to power. We need only consider, for example, the basis of credit and the element of risk. The apologist of capitalism never tires of preaching to the working class the holy doctrine of “risks” in business, and seeks to justify possession of their gains on this element of gamble. But individual speculation in business is one thing, risk in political control is another. Cases of bankruptcy here and there are not a danger. It is otherwise with the menace of class expropriation. The fear of the ruling class is not so much a fear of what the advent of the Labour Party to power is likely to do, as the intuitive feeling that forces are sure to be released which may mot be controlled within the limits of the present capitalist state. This fear is the basis of the whole bourgeois campaign. The call to all whose interests are bound up with the capitalist state to rally to its defence, has only one meaning. It is a bourgeois campaign of preparedness against the common struggle for power. The workers’ reply to this campaign of preparedness is a simple one. We must secure the early and sweeping return of the Labour Party to power.


Reading the political barometer aright, the capitalist class correctly senses the growth of political restlessness in the masses. That spirit of patience, negotiation and compromise, so characteristic of the working class of this country and on which our ruling class has so long relied, is becoming exhausted. In recent years, indeed, it has been grossly outraged. Despite colossal sacrifices in wages, and with Trade Unions reduced to bankruptcy through prolonged and forced stoppages of work, unemployment has not been solved or even mitigated. This fourth winter of abnormal unemployment sees things going from bad to worse. Only the most confirmed pessimist in the Labour Movement, or dull-witted bourgeois, can believe it possible for the mass of the workers to remain passive and with eyes closed to the real issues before them.

History has no record of a slave class allowing itself to be immolated without a struggle. The bourgeois knows his history. He sees the faith of the masses in present-day institutions being shattered; that is why he is preparing. If this, our reading of the drift in the present political situation is correct, then the future policy and tactics of the Communist Party are clear. We must stimulate and work for the unfolding of all those tendencies within the industrial Labour Movement, as well as the political organisations of the working class, towards the development and unification of a definite class attack upon capitalism. In other words, we must realise a workers’ party with a definite class basis.

The importance of emphasising the class character, particularly of the Labour Party, cannot be overlooked. More and more as the Labour Party approaches the threshold of power, we find its middle-class leadership going out of its way to assure the capitalist class that all is well, and that there is no desire to precipitate any class conflict. It will be recalled that the first statement issued by the Labour Party after its successes at the last General Election was to assure all whom it might concern that the party intended to carry out the great traditions of radicalism, i.e., that it hoped to take the place of the decadent Liberal Party.

Only recently in reply to the Edinburgh speech of Baldwin, wherein he accused the Labour Party of seeking to transform society by violence, Ramsay MacDonald hastened to repudiate the suggestion and insisted upon the policy of reformism which is not in any way different from the proposals of progressive capitalism. During the famous Snowden Resolution in the House of Commons, we got the same thing, Socialism by Act of Parliament, with Compensation to all who may be inconvenienced!

The demoralising effect of such a policy, if left to go unchallenged, speaks for itself. It means the lack of a real proletarian fighting spirit such as characterises the organised Labour Movement to-day. Yet, without this definite working class bias and lead is developed, the Labour Party becomes as it is, and will continue to be, a mere stalking horse for the perpetuation of bourgeois power and domination.


To anyone versed in the history of the Russian Revolution, the present attitude of the Labour Party is akin to a policy of Menshevism pure and simple. We see the same elements the Bolshevik Party had to clear out of the road in 1917. For us the lesson should be plain; we must not wait for our October. Our demand that the working class should play a definite and specific role, and that the central one, in the struggles of all the proletariat, is a recognition and translation of the Marxian slogan, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

Today the exploitation of the Industrial working class, especially in Great Britain, allied to the naked robbery of the oppressed peoples in the colonies, is the foundation of capitalism in the British Empire. The British Empire, in fact, rests upon this twin exploitation of the masses at home and in the colonies, and in this we have the basis of the class struggle for the working class throughout the whole of the British Empire. Only the successful prosecution of this class struggle, leading to the complete conquest of political power by the working class at home and the liberation of the subject peoples in the colonies, can end this exploitation. In other words, only the working class can end capitalism and bring about the Socialist Society.

Those who speak in the name of Labour or the working class, and either repudiate by speech or by action the class character of our movement, are leading the working class to defeat. Conversely every tendency to express a clear class opposition to capitalism must be encouraged. In this way, we will stimulate in a positive way, the power of the working class in the Hegemony of the Proletariat and negate the bourgeois influences of our middle class leaders.

The immediate problem which the Communist Party must face is how best we can fight down those elements of Menshevism which deny the class struggle as the basis of our Labour Movement and how we can give the Labour Party and the Trade Union Movement as a whole a definite class character with the definite class purpose of achieving political control of the State for the workers.

The answer is: stimulate, encourage and strengthen every oppositional tendency within the working class movement against the bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois ideology of the co-operation of the classes. Only the working class fighting for the aims of all the exploited can secure the economic and political freedom of the proletariat. Only the working class can bring about the downfall of capitalism. This is the special role of the working class in the “Hegemony of the Proletariat.”