JA Dawson December 1908

An Open Letter to Max Beer

Source: Justice 12 December 1908, p. 8
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

Dear Sir,—Your letter to the “Labour Leader” of November 27 was a surprise to many admirers of your expositions of Socialist theory. But after the preliminary shock may I be permitted to address a few remarks to you? You approve the policy of the Labour party. Previous to 1902 we were informed that an alliance between the Socialist and trade union movements was necessary to the success of Socialist propaganda. That alliance was made. The next step was an arrangement between the Labour group in the House of Commons and the Liberal-Labour members. The following quotation from the editorial of the current “Socialist Review,” of which Mr. Ramsay MacDonald is the reputed editor, reveals the type of the next alliance or arrangement: “The wary Socialist who studies the influences at work today—influences very largely created by the success of the Socialist and trade union combination in the Labour Party—sees that the rise of a Social-Radical group, as In France, might seriously upset political calculations.”

As you say in your letter: “The essence of modern Socialism, as Marx taught it, is the political independence of Labour.” It is sublime apathy or woeful ignorance to speak of the political independence of the Labour Party. Double membered constituencies are a byword, they stink in the nostrils of students of your economic writings. Prominent Socialists have obtained seats in our National Palaver by sacrificing their Socialism on the plea that the Labourists would soon come our way. When they become: M.P.’s, like you, Sir they talk loftily of the “mental condition” of the British Labour movement, and your remark, “We cannot force movements of oppressed classes, we must allow them to develop and to ripen,” is a sentiment uttered by every superficial Labourist with a great weariness of repetition. And please, leave the “practically unerring proletarian instinct” mind of Keir Hardie to the guidance of the “Socialist Review.” This instinct of Hardie’s has come to resemble what Thompson termed the tedium of Te Deum. After his tour round the world Mr. Hardie gave utterance to the following: “It was a common remark of business men in such places as Melbourne and Sydney that they preferred the Labour Party in office to almost any other, the explanation being that the Labour. Party had no sectional interest to serve, but regarded every question from the point of view of the progress of the Commonwealth.” (“Manchester Guardian,” March 28, 1908.) Truly a remarkable proletarian instinct. The expression “class war,” as MacDonald says, is really becoming merely a “grandiloquent and aggressive figure of speech.” Nothing more. And your letter will help to give “hard, rigid, unEnglish, class war Socialism” its quietus.

Whether Marx would have approved , or condemned, there is no virtue in a Labour Party as such. A working-class organisation may either be a mere peddling sick and burial society, or it may be that plus a desire for higher wage’s, though Marx has pointed out that the efforts of trade unions to obtain higher wages are usually mere attempts to maintain the price of labour-power. Or a working-class organisation may attempt to square things with the capitalists by arbitration, conciliation or negotiation of various brands, as seen in the railway agreement or the simple benevolence of Sir Christopher Furness. What Marx would have thought of such “organisation” is doubtful. Do not be too certain that he would have approved the tactics of the Labourists. In the “Communist Manifesto” we read the following concerning “Bourgeois Socialism”: “This form of Socialism by no means refers to a change in bourgeois relations of production, for which a revolution is necessary, but to administrative reforms carried out on the basis of these relations of production, thus leaving unaltered the relations of capital and wage-labour, and, at best, merely lessening the cost of government for the bourgeoisie and simplifying its administrative work.”

Speaking of Mr. MacDonald you wisely say: “At the publication of his ‘Socialism and Society’ he had no severer critic than myself.” I can remember well that number of “Justice.” Your criticism was earnestly pored over by many young Socialists, including your humble servant. I can assure you that its effects were salutary. You exposed Mr. MacDonald’s biological analogies to deserved ridicule. You showed what his knowledge of history and philosophy was worth; you effectually smothered his anti-Marxian ramblings. As you said: “The book is an attempt to clear the. Labour movement of Marxism.” MacDonald’s knowledge of Marxism and history, like Sam Weller’s knowledge of London, is extensive and peculiar. You well put it: “Bad as his knowledge of Marxism is, his knowledge of history is worse.” Anyone with a personal knowledge of the inside of the Labour movement knows how Marx is looked upon with contempt as a dry, scholarly, musty German: the inspiration of the Labourism is seemingly based on Ruskin Carlyle, and Kingsley, a poor basis for a proletarian party.

There is a working class and a capitalist class. There is a class war. Socialism is the expropriation of that capitalist class. The Labourists do not recognise this task, or, If they do, they do not realise the magnitude of it. They do not realise the adaptability of capitalism, or the futility of their insignificant reforms. Many of our Labour M.Ps are a queer blending of Gipsy Smith and Sir T Whittaker. Some are conscious or unconscious hacks of the capitalist class, who can beslaver them with praise and offer soft jobs when pressed hard.

Many Socialists say: Not independence but permeation. We will publish sociological literature and permeate the Liberal party and thus slowly attain Socialism. The transition to Socialism will be pellucid, orderly, idyllic. That is Fabianism. It will not do.

Others say organise independently on the basis of your class but not for Socialism. They join the trade unions with the aim of converting them to Socialism. The they refuse to accept a Socialist programme on the grounds of conciliating the non-Socialist element. That is Labourism. It will not do.

We others say that a Labour Party must have two features. It must be a working class party and it must have a definite objective—Socialism. It presupposes a Parliamentary party whose every aim is of set purpose with a view to Socialism. If we desire democratic Socialism we will form such a party. If we de not and attempt to organise with our enemies, instead of lifting them up to our level we shall mutilate ourselves and be dragged down to theirs. No revolution, said Carlyle, can possibly rise above the intellectual level of those who make it. . And Mr. Ramsay MacDonald in one of his lucid moments said: “Only by a combination of intellectual guidance and economic need does historical change become one and the same thing with progress.” And I echo: You cannot get Socialism by a dodge or by intrigues with the capitalist parties.—Yours fraternally,