100 years of faithful service to imperialism
There are people in the left movement, including some calling themselves communists, who make the assertion that the Labour Party is a party of the British working class, which can be an instrument of socialism in Britain. They are wrong. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that Labour right from its inception (not just today) has been a most resolute defender of British imperialism, a purveyor of racism and anti-communism among the working class. Instead of representing a step forward, the existence of the Labour Party has all along been a formidable obstacle to the development of a truly revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.
The first part of this article appeared in the last issue of
. In this issue we continue our analysis further. The concluding part will appear in the next issue.
Throughout the second half of the 19
century, the leaders of the craft unions, which comprised no more than 15% of the workforce, who had practically assumed the leadership of the working class after the defeat of Chartism, acted as the tail end of the Liberal Party and a conduit for the Liberal corruption of the workers. On more than one occasion, Marx and Engels commented on the servility, bourgeois respectability and opportunism of these leaders, as well as on the material foundation for this opportunism, namely, Britain’s colonial and industrial monopoly.
In an article dated 22 February 1874 on the English elections, Engels captures the depressing political scene, characterised by the absence of a working-class party as well as the corruption and sickening bourgeois respectability of the ‘labour leaders’:
As regards the workers it must be stated, to begin with, that no separate political working-class party has existed in England since the downfall of the Chartist Party … This is understandable in a country in which the working class has shared more than anywhere else in the advantages of the immense expansion of its large-scale industry. Nor could it have been otherwise in an England that ruled the world market
Whenever the workers lately took part in general politics in particular organisations, they did so almost exclusively as the extreme left wing of the ‘great Liberal Party’
” (Marx & Engels, On Britain, Moscow, 1953, p.466).
Four years later, in his letter to W Liebneckt dated 11 February, 1878, Marx expresses his total disgust at the demoralisation of the English working class by the period of corruption and the venality of the trade-union leaders:
The English working class had been gradually becoming more and more deeply demoralised by the period of corruption since 1848 and had at last
got to the point when it was nothing more than the tail end of the Great Liberal Party, i.e., of its oppressors, the capitalists. Its direction had passed completely into the hands of the venal trade-union leaders and professional agitators. These fellows shouted and howled behind the Gladstones and the whole gang of factory owners … in majorem gloriam
[to the greater glory]
of the tsar as the emancipator of nations, while they never raised a finger for their own brothers in South Wales, condemned by the mine-owners to die of .starvation. Wretches
How are we to explain the opportunism of the ‘labour leaders’ of that time? How are we to explain the phenomenon of the non-existence of a
“strong workers’ party with a definite programme
“? The answer must be sought in the British monopoly of the world market, and the connection between that monopoly, on the one hand, and opportunism in the British working-class movement, on the other. Marx and Engels traced this phenomenon, this connection between monopoly and the rise of opportunism among the privileged sections of the working class, over four long deaces (from 1852 to 1892), and in doing so earned the hatred of the opportunist ‘labour leaders’ branded by them as traitors to the working class.
In a letter of 7 October 1858, Engels wrote to Marx thus:
“The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. Of course, this is to a certain extent justifiable for a nation which is exploiting the whole world” (
Nearly a quarter of a century later, in a letter dated 11 August, 1881, Engels speaks of
“the worst type of British trade unions, which allow themselves to be led by men who have been bought by the capitalists, or at least are in their pay”.
Further, in a letter to Kautsky dated 12 September, 1882, Engels wrote:
“You ask me what the English workers think of colonial policy? Exactly the same as they think about politics in general, the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no working-class party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feat of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies”
The sharing by the workers of the feast of Britain’s monopoly of the world market and colonies bred in them bourgeois respectability.
Disgusted by the spirit of bourgeois respectability with which the British working class had become infected, Engels, in a letter to Sorge dated 7 December, 1889, complains bitterly:
he most repulsive thing here is the bourgeois ‘respectability’ … I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class. … Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the finest of them, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with the French, one can see what a revolution is good for, after all”
In March, 1891, Engels refers to the old skilled unions as
“rich and therefore cowardly
“, and, six months later, exulting at the unsuccessful attempt of the TUC to reverse the decision of the Congress the year before to campaign for an 8-hour day, he says:
“The old unions, with the textile workers at their head, had exerted all their strength towards overthrowing the 8-hour decision of 1890. They came to grief … and the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the BOURGEOIS LABOUR PARTY”
(Letter of 14 September 1891, cited it Lenin’s
Imperialism and the Split in Socialism
–1916 – Engels’ emphasis).
Britain’s industrial and colonial monopoly was
“the reason why, since the dying out of Owenism, there has been no socialism in England.”
With the end of this monopoly already in sight, Engels expressed himself in the following optimistic terms in his 1892 Preface to the second edition of his
Condition of the Working Class in England
With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working class will lose its privileged position, it will find itself generally, the privileged minority not excepted, on a level with its fellow workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be socialism again in England
And Engels had good reason to be optimistic, witnessing as he was the revival of the East End of London, which had become the home of ‘New Unionism’, that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of unskilled workers. The new unions, says Engels, were “
essentially different in character
” from the old unions in that, unlike the latter, they “…
were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either
consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited ‘respectable’ bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ‘old’ unionists
He contrasts these New Unionists with the representatives of old unionism that is, “
those people who are forgiven their being members of the working class because they themselves would like to drown their quality of being workers in the ocean of their liberalism
So exhilarated was Engels at this development as to declare with his characteristic youthful joy that “
…for all the faults committed
[by the East Enders]
in the past, present and future, the revival of the East End of London remains one of the most fruitful facts of this fin de siècle, and glad and proud I am to have lived to see it
Engels’ optimism proved to be short-lived, mainly because of the emergence of imperialism, which Marx and Engels did not live to see. Instead of Britain’s monopoly disappearing, in the conditions of imperialism it merely gave way to the monopoly of a handful of financially rich and powerful countries, which
“obtain superprofits amounting to … billions, ‘ride on the backs’ of hundred and hundreds of millions of the populations of foreign countries, fight among each other for the division of the particularly rich, particularly fat and particularly easy spoils
Imperialism and the Split in Socialism).
In the same article from which these lines are cited, Lenin goes on to develop the Marxist analysis of the connection between monopoly and the growth of opportunism among a significant minority of the working class, the ‘upper stratum’, the ‘aristocracy of labour’, of a given country, and the resultant split in the working class, for the bourgeoisie of a ‘great’ imperialist power is economically in a position to bribe the upper sections of ‘its’ workers by devoting for this purpose a portion of its superprofits which run into billions. “
Formerly the working class of ONE country could be bribed and corrupted”,
said Lenin, but now
“every capitalist ‘Great Power’ can and does bribe … strata of the ‘labour aristocracy’. Formerly ‘a bourgeois labour party’, to use Engels’ remarkably profound expression, could be found only in one country because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, and enjoyed it for a long period. Now the ‘bourgeois labour party’ is inevitable and typical for ALL the imperialist countries
In addition, the new unions came under such fierce attack from the bourgeoisie and the leadership of old craft unions alike that within a period of just three years they had lost most of their membership. If in 1890 the New Unions represented a quarter of the TUC’s membership, by 1900 they were a mere 10% of it. Moreover, under pressure from the ruling class, the leadership of the New Unions, unable to resist the prevailing climate of bourgeois corruption, itself began to follow in the footsteps of the old craft unions – even to the extent of refusing to recruit unskilled and casual workers.
The first organisational breach
The first organisational breach between the Liberal Party and labour took place in 1893 with the founding of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). This breach was the result of stiff foreign competition, which forced the liberal bourgeoisie to inflict a serious defeat on the textile industry strikers in 1892. The founding conference of the ILP made it clear that the ILP leadership, in particular Keir Hardie who was the moving spirit behind the founding of the ILP, though in favour of organisational independence, was not in favour of the political independence of the ILP.
Thus, in the sphere of politics, the Lib-Lab alliance was to continue. Precisely for this reason the founding conference rejected the call for naming the new party the ‘Socialist Labour Party’, instead calling it the Independent Labour Party, on the flimsy excuse that the party had to appeal to the mass of workers and not merely to socialists. The ‘masses’ to whom the ILP appealed, and who comprised its constituency, were none other than the upper stratum of workers organised in craft unions, characterised by their narrow outlook, bourgeois respectability and contempt for socialism.
A further series of defeats inflicted by the Liberal employers on several craft unions in the 1890s forced the TUC to take steps to establish the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) for the sole purpose of seeking parliamentary representation in organisational independence of the Liberal Party and as a means of defending the interests of its constituency – mainly the skilled workers organised in craft unions. In 1906 the LRC, which included the ILP among others, became the Labour Party.
The TUC conference which set up the LRC had little difficulty in rejecting the SDF formulation that the new organisation ought to be a
“party organisation separate from the capitalist parties based upon a recognition of class war”.
Instead it went on to accept, by a majority of 102 votes against 3, a motion worded by Keir Hardie to the effect that ‘this Conference is in favour of working-class opinion being represented in the House of Commons by men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement.’
From the very outset, not only did the LRC intend to be a parliamentary body, first and foremost, but it also excluded nine-tenths of the working class, formed as it was by the craft unions to protect their interests, inside and outside of parliament, and at the time of the setting up of the LRC a mere 100,000 of the 10 million unskilled workers were organised in the trade unions. Moreover, since the majority of even the male workers had no vote (women were barred from the electoral area altogether), the electorate which was to be the constituency of the LRC was largely drawn from the upper privileged stratum of the working class.
The turn of the century brought with it such a decline in the competitiveness of British capitalism as to threaten the conditions of life of even the upper stratum of the British working class. Unemployment among members of the unions (i.e., among skilled workers) rose from 2.5% to 8%, while wages fell by 6% in the first decade of the 20
century. The response of the union leadership to these deteriorating conditions was the same as that of the majority of present-day union leaders, i.e., complete capitulation.
The four years before the war witnessed a rise in the working-class movement, with marked resistance to the capitalist offensive. Millions of workers took to strike action. The seamen and dockers’ strike of 1911, and that of the railwaymen and miners in 1912, marked a high point in the development of the working-class movement. The Labour Party earned notoriety for itself by its total condemnation of the rising militant strike movement. J R Clynes declared at the 1914 Labour Party Conference:
“too many strikes caused a sense of disgust, of being a nuisance to the community”
(quoted in R Miliband,
Merlin, 1972, p. 38).
Politically, during this period the LRC, and from 1906 the Labour Party, continued to act as the tail end of the Liberal Party by concluding secret electoral pacts with the latter, with not the slightest attempt at independence.
The leading lights of the ILP, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald included, were prominent members of the Fabian Society, an organisation characterised by its love of municipal socialism, contempt for the working class, hatred of class struggle and a total hostility to Marxism. The socialism of the Fabian Society was but an extension of bourgeois liberalism. In 1895, Beatrice Webb, a member of that Society, expressed her contempt for the working class in these words:
“Judging from our knowledge of the labour movement we can expect no leader from the working class. Our only hope is in permeating the young middle-class man.”
She expected nothing from
“the myriads of deficient minds and deformed bodies that swarm our great cities”
“brutality, madness and crime”.
Not without reason did Engels characterise the Fabians as
“a clique of bourgeois ‘socialists’ … united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers”,
“… are immersed up to their necks in the intrigues of the Liberal Party, hold Liberal Party jobs, as for instance Sidney Webb
[the subsequent co-author, along with Henderson, of the infamous Clause IV of the Labour Party, which Tony Blair got rid of].
These gentry do everything that the workers have to be warned against.”
(Letter to Kautsky dated 4 September 1892).
In a letter of 18 January 1893, Engels returned to the subject, describing the Fabians as
“a gang of careerists”,
“fundamental principle is fear of revolution”
and whose socialism is
“an extreme but inevitable consequence of bourgeois liberalism”.
Although, says Engels, the Fabians
“have published several good works of a propagandist nature”,
“their specific tactics of hushing up the class struggle it all turns putrid. Because of the class struggle, they fanatically hate Marx and all of us.”
War and Labour
When the First World War broke out, with the sole honourable exception of the Bolsheviks in Russia, all the socialist parties, grouped at the time in the Second International, sided with their respective bourgeoisies, in complete violation of the internationalist resolutions of its 1910 (Copenhagen) and 1912 (Basle) Congresses. In so doing, the overwhelming majority of the leaders of the Second International became traitors to, and betrayers of, the cause of the international proletariat. They became the servitors of the bourgeoisie and supporters of the imperialist butchery under the slogan of ‘Defence of the Fatherland’, which amounted to a
“defence of the right to share in the plundering of foreign countries”
If the First World War witnessed the most flagrant betrayal of their socialist convictions by the majority of the Social-democratic parties of Europe, if it witnessed the complete victory of opportunism and the transformation of Social-democratic parties into national liberal-labour parties, in the case of the Labour Party in Britain no such transformation was necessary, for right from the outset, from the time of its formation, opportunism stood triumphant and Labour was never anything other than an opportunist and social chauvinist party – a level to which most of European Social Democracy, hitherto revolutionary, sank with the outbreak of the war.
Literally on the eve of the war – two days before its outbreak – mammoth anti-war demonstrations took place in Britain, at which labour leaders not only
denounced the then impending war but also, as per the official policy of the Second International, vowed to oppose it. Yet by 5th August, 35 out of 40 Labour Members of Parliament had gone over to the bourgeoisie, leaving behind five MPs belonging to the ILP, including Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald. More than that. Shortly afterwards, Labour, declaring first an industrial, and then an electoral, truce, went on to act as a recruiting sergeant in this, the most dreadful slaughter of the international proletariat, in order to decide which group of the two imperialist robbers was to have what share of the booty. In cynical and corrupt disregard of the hundreds of millions of people in the British Empire, suffering the worst kind of exploitation and abominable oppression, humiliation and infamies, denied the most elementary rights, jailed and tortured for demanding freedom from the jackboot of British colonialism, in a manifesto issued during the war Labour asserted:
The victory of Germany would mean the death of democracy . … Until the power that has pillaged and outraged Belgium and the Belgians, and plunged nearly the whole of Europe into the awful misery, suffering and horror of war is beaten, there can be no peace
” (Quoted in H, Tracey,
The British Labour Party
Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald soon became enthusiastic, not to say jingoistic, supporters of British imperialism’s war effort. The latter stated that: “
Victory must therefore be ours. England is not played out, her mission is not accomplished . … The young men of the country … must settle the immediate issue of victory. Let them do it in the spirit of the brave men who crowned our country with honour in the times that are gone
” (quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein,
The Labour Party – a Marxist History,
Bookmarks, London, 1988, p.21).
The distance that Keir Hardie had travelled since the days of his opposition to the Boer war, the dishonesty of the argument that he employs, in justification of his support for the slaughter of the first imperialist world war, can best be gauged from the following remark of his:
A nation at war must be united, especially when its existence is at stake. In such filibustering expeditions as our own Boer war … where no national interest of any kind was involved, there were many occasions for diversity of opinion . … With the boom of the enemy guns within
earshot, the lads who have gone forth to fight their country’s battles must not be disheartened by any discordant notes at home
” (quoted in Miliband,
The real meaning, the real content, of Labour’s concept of democracy and liberty can perhaps be better perceived by reference to their attitude toward Irish freedom. When, taking advantage of the difficulty of the British government during the war, Irish people rose in the Easter rebellion of 1916 against British rule and proclaimed the Irish Republic, they faced nothing short of outright hostility and venomous denunciation from the British Labour Party.
, both ILP publications, denounced the Easter Rebellion and warmly supported its suppression by armed force by the government, describing James Connolly, the foremost leader of the rebellion, whose execution the War Cabinet authorised following the suppression, as being “
. When it was announced in the House of Commons that Connolly had been executed, Labour’s Parliamentary leader,
Arthur Henderson, led Labour MPs in a burst of applause by way of greeting this news item.
Labour and Soviet Russia
It goes without saying that Labour was deeply hostile to the Bolshevik regime and to Soviet Russia. It tacitly supported the imperialist intervention, organised and led by British imperialism, against Soviet Russia. Thanks to the heroic defence of the Revolution by the Russian masses and the Red Army, combined with the opposition of the proletariat of the imperialist countries, including that of Britain, the British government was compelled to put an end to this intervention.
Following the war, with the defeat of Germany and the disruption and disintegration of the Second International into warring national factions, each supporting its own bourgeoisie, the Labour Party, owing to its wealth and the numerical strength of the British trade unions,
“found itself willy-nilly the leading ‘Allied’ socialist party and the rock upon which European Social Democracy was already building its fortress against Bolshevism”
The Evolution of the Labour Party 1910-1924,
Oxford, 1973, p. 91).
Through its efforts to reconstruct the Second (Berne) International and the formation of the Two-and-a-half (Vienna) International, Labour did its dirtiest worst in attempts to isolate Soviet Russia and to frustrate the formation of the Third International.
To be concluded in the next issue
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