Skip to Content

Shall We Join The Labour Party?

There are some people whose sole contribution to working class organisation is to moan perpetually about the multiplicity of parties, and to bleat day and night for unity. They are the mentally indolent who never trouble to understand the principles of the parties they criticise, and knowing nothing of the underlying causes of political antagonisms their criticisms have no value whatever. In the main, they are probably sufferers from the peculiar sensitiveness of confused and untrained minds, to which the very idea of conflict is intensely painful. They can be happy only in trying to reconcile opposites, and to weld all the mutually destructive elements around them into one apparent whole. Thrust into a world in which class war reigns supreme, they must veil the hideous reality, or suffer the mental torture of having to search for a solution and struggle to apply it. It is a type of mind infinitely valuable to the ruling class, who are themselves vitally interested in hiding facts from their victims. It is the fate of somewhat more discriminating advocates of unity, like George Lansbury, that they receive the support of these muddled sentimentalists. Lansbury wrote in the Daily Herald (31st March) on “A United Labour Party,"  urging all the small political bodies which claim to be Socialist to merge themselves into one. His argument is, that broadly speaking, we all have a common object; and that in addition to bringing its attainment nearer, we should be better able to meet the ruling class in day-to-day battles. Unity “should mean that all who are members of our Trade Unions should be inside the Labour Movement." George Lansbury seems to believe that the working class position would be bettered by the formation of such a united front. Let us then examine the assumptions on which his argument rests.

Have the Socialists the same object in view as the Labour Party? Mr. Lansbury would say, that broadly speaking, they have; but in a sense, that is equally true of all the existing political parties. Owing to the present nearly universal adult franchise, no party can gain power except it has the support of a large section of the working class, hence no party dare omit to make the claim that it stands for the best interests of the workers. This does not involve the imputation of dishonesty to the openly capitalist parties. In addition to the motive of class interest, and often disguising it from them, is the sheer inability of some of the capitalist class to conceive of a social system other than their own. For them the best interests of the workers are bound up in the stability of the capitalist system.

We, on the contrary, know that the interests of the workers are bound up in the destruction of that system. The essentials of Capitalism are the existence of a politically emancipated, but propertyless working class on the one hand; and on the other, a numerically small class owning the machinery of wealth production. The workers are paid wages or salaries for operating that machinery out of the wealth produced, which is the exclusive property of the capitalists. The surplus in the form of rent, interest and profit remains in the hands of the latter. We do not pretend to regard as immoral either the system or those who profit by it. Had we lived at the time of the break up of Feudalism, it would have been our duty to fight for the capitalist form of private property, because that was a necessary advance on the previous form. The capitalists had a mission to perform, but now that their work is completed, another forward move is required. Capitalism, which was the only possible social organisation for the conditions prevailing at its inception, now has to go because conditions have changed. The present conditions are those to which Socialism alone is appropriate.

Just as the Feudal proprietors stood amid the ruins of their world and gazed back into the past, while the revolutionary capitalist class fought for the future, so now the capitalists are still contemplating the shadow of their former glories; while the workers struggle to use their achievements as the foundation of a new and higher form of society. And just as the representatives of that decaying system fought tooth and nail in defence of their class interests, and for the retention of the only stable organisation they knew, so also the capitalists will use fraud, force and cunning in their fruitless endeavour to maintain things as they are. The capitalists are fighting for their right to the private ownership of the means of life, and we fight to take it from them. When the workers awake to their class position they can by the conquest of the controlling force, the political machinery, recast society as they wish, because the minority, no longer in political control, will be powerless before them. We, of the Socialist Party, have no other aim than to give the workers the knowledge that will enable them to act. Because we think that conditions are ripe for Socialism now, and only knowledge is lacking, we are not prepared under any circumstances whatever to divert the workers' attention from the main object; we do not aid the capitalist class, nor do we seek their aid, because we consider these things will not serve any useful purpose; we do not endeavour to interest the workers in the administration, nor in the reform of the capitalist system, because we regard the one as a purely capitalist question, and the other as a means of prolonging the system which we are bent on destroying; we do not formulate immediate demands, because we know that the capitalists will not yield one jot of their position unless they are compelled, by circumstances, or unless the yielding is conceived by them in their own interests. Reforms of the latter type will be introduced by the capitalists and imposed by them, irrespective of our wishes; and when we are strong enough to challenge them we shall formulate the only demand worth making, the final demand. All who are prepared to fight for this are invited to unite with us for that purpose.

Is this the Labour Party’s purpose, too? If it is not, why should we ally ourselves with them? If the Labour Party’s policy is one with which we disagree, we should have to oppose it whether an affiliated body, or otherwise. We consider our end can best be served by opposing all non-Socialist bodies, and apart from its effectiveness, it is hardly honest to enter a party merely to hamper it as disloyal members. Incidentally, we do not share the touching belief of the Communists in the simplicity of the leaders of the Labour Party. The visitor who asks a householder to be allowed through the door in order to smash the windows from the inside, really ought not to expect a very cordial welcome.

Let us now consider what the Labour Party does stand for. Although the rules of that Party prevent its candidates from running as Socialists, the word Socialism is often used by them. This is confusing, because the word is used by them to mean something essentially different from the meaning in which we use it. It is because the word is used so loosely and inaccurately, that we display our objects in every issue of this Journal. Mr. A. V. Dicey, a K.C., and not, therefore, likely to use terms loosely in the ordinary way, takes the trouble to explain in his “Law and Opinion During the 19th Century,” that where he uses the word Socialism, all he means is State as opposed to individual enterprise. Generally speaking, when members of the Labour Party talk about Socialism they also mean State or Municipal Ownership or Nationalisation. Thus we have the Daily Herald (5th April, 1923) devoting its main Editorial to praise of Municipal Trading (tramways, electricity undertakings, etc.) because of their efficiency and the value of the profits in lowering rates; and the Labour Magazine (April, 1923, p. 562) quoting against Sir A. Mond his own praise of the State Department which engaged in house building.

The Daily Herald (24th October, 1922) quotes from the Daily Mail (7th August, 1916) the following :—

      “Take away the working man’s fear of being exploited by private capital, by nationalising the essential industries. Let him see that by doing a full day’s work he is benefiting himself and the nation, and injuring no one . . . and Great Britain will enter on the new era as mighty in the time of peace as she proved herself in war.”

After that in heavy black type the Herald continues : —

    “THAT IS WHAT THE LABOUR PARTY MEANS TO DO.”

Mr. Sidney Webb, one of the intellectuals, is responsible for a really priceless exposition of the Labour Party’s kind of “Socialism” (Daily Herald, 1st March, 1922):—

    “My Socialism is founded on the four rules of arithmetic, the Ten Commandments, and the Union Jack.”

We have seen some curiosities, but nothing so extraordinary as this, but of course, not being intellectuals ourselves, perhaps we miss the point of it. The same person, in his “Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain," 1920, wrote (p. 1): ”Over a large part of Europe definitely Socialist administrations are actually in office.” It is because we believe that the Labour Party proposes to give us the same kind of “Socialism” as was visible all over Europe to Mr. Webb in 1920 that we oppose it. In passing I would like to draw Mr. Webb’s attention to the fact that, while this “Socialism” may have been based on the Ten Commandments and the four rules of arithmetic, it surely lacked the other ingredient, the Union Jack. Still, if some of the Labour Party’s mentally-fogged and imperialistic minor poets from the Clyde have their way, this may shortly be remedied.

The Webbs do not propose

      “The abolition of the ancient institution of an hereditary monarch (pp. 108), but (pp. 109) unless the court can acquire better manners . . . it may be expected that the institution of monarchy . . . will become unpopular.”

It is not intended to abolish private ownership (page 344) and people are encouraged to save money

      “to be used on such conditions as may be arranged (which may quite reasonably include a rate of interest if this is found necessary or desirable) for the industrial undertakings and public services of the several public authorities.” (Page 345.)

There will be “progressive taxation of incomes and of wealth passing by alienation or at death” and “differentiation against unearned incomes of more than a small amount” (page 346). In fact, we are, if the Webbs and the Labour Party have their way, going to keep capitalism just as it is now is in all essentials, except that we are to call it Socialism. That the limit of their desire is Nationalisation is shown by the following (page 318):

       “The process of transition from profit-making industry to public service, which has during the past quarter of a century made such great strides . . . will continue . . .”

The process referred to is in fact the process of transferring industries from individual to State control. This is not Socialism; is in itself directly harmful to the workers; and has not received, and will not receive, the least support from Socialists. Why is it impossible for these anti-Socialists to perceive that Nationalisationers “private ownership” in its last and most tyrannous form? While the capitalists can continue to receive interest on investments it is only because they still own and control the means of life. Does it matter to them whether they draw interest from commercial investments or on Government stock? Mr. Webb proposes that "Expropriation is to take the form of cash or Government securities, at their own market value . . ." (page 334), which is very nice, too—for the capitalists, but it is not Socialism.

Mr. Snowden, on the 20th March, 1923, introduced a Land Nationalisation Bill in the House of Commons, payment for the land to be made in 5 per cent, stock redeemable in 30 years. Mr. Snowden was quite right when he said (Manchester Guardian Reconstruction Number, October 26th, 1922):

      "The British Labour Party is certainly not Socialist in the sense in which Socialism is understood upon the Continent."

nor, I would add, in the sense in which Socialism is understood anywhere else by Socialists.

Mr. Snowden went on to say, again quite correctly, that the Labour Party stands for "nothing more than the nationalisation of the land, mines, and essential public services. . . . The nationalisation of the essential public services referred to does not carry the Labour Party further than many Radicals, who would vigorously disclaim being Socialistic, are prepared to go.”

Mr. Snowden himself, in the House of Commons on 20th March, 1923, used the words, "The Labour Party does not believe in confiscation” (Labour Magazine, April, 1923, page 561).

Now the Capitalists do at present own the means of wealth production. The Labour Party is either going to let them keep their wealth or it is going to take it away from them. There is no third course. To talk of buying them out or giving them something of equal value is absurd. The power to exploit the worker is a monopoly power, and has no equivalent, and there is no accumulated wealth of more than insignificant proportion other than that in the hands of the capitalists themselves. True, it has been proposed to tax the capitalist out of existence, but even Mr. Snowden would hardly suggest that the capitalists will be spoofed into submitting quietly to confiscation provided the confiscation is called taxation.

Mr. J. H. Thomas, in his book "When Labour Rules,” promises that the Labour Party will give the workers  "a share in the management” of industry. With whom are they going to share it if not with the private owners? And why aren’t the workers to have the whole? Mr. Thomas’s answer is that (page 24) "Capital will be entitled to some return.” The rich will, however, suffer "a proper limitation of their unearned wealth” (page 24). What, may I ask, is, according to Labour Party standards, a proper limitation of unearned wealth?

And it is for this that Mr. Lansbury wants us to join the Labour Party. He says (Daily Herald, 31st March) .

       “ . . . the central authority . . .  is not only legislative, but also administrative, and will become more and more so as we nationalise land, mines, minerals, transport, education, and many another industry.”

If Lansbury does not want to see his efforts for unity wasted he had better join MacDonald, who is trying to arrange something of the kind with the Independent Liberals. MacDonald writes of the Independent Liberal M.P.s:—

        “The best of the sixty ought to come over and act with the Labour Party. They share our immediate views on such questions as nationalisation, the capital levy, foreign policy, and not those of their leaders . . .”—(“The Socialist Review,” April, 1923, page 148.)

Needless to say, the Liberals do not share our views, and since all our energies will be directed to the destruction of capitalism, whether in the form of nationalisation or otherwise, Mr. Lansbury will not, if we can prevent it, nationalise anything. We fight nationalisation for the same reason that the Central Union of Industrial, Commercial and Transport Workers in Social Democratic Czechoslovakia fight it. In the Press Service (No. 207) of the International Federation of Trade Unions it is reported that the above Union bitterly protested against the Nationalisation of Forests:—

       “This land reform and nationalisation of forests are in line with the political requirements of the Czech Bourgeois parties. . . . The Trade Unions cannot and will not leave anything undone to protect the workers on the forests and agricultural estates from economic and social pauperisation."

We recognise that this brings us into necessary conflict with the Labour Party, but the recognition is not, as Mr. Lansbury would imply, only one-sided. For Labour Party members to use their majorities on Borough Councils to exclude the Socialist Standard from the Public Libraries, is, although somewhat silly, a quite legitimate form of warfare; it cannot, however, be said to be exactly brotherly, can it, George? One of the Boroughs where this happens is red revolutionary Poplar, a place not unknown to Mr. Lansbury.

If the Labour Party were Socialist this anxiety on their part to prevent their members and others from reading the case for Socialism would be curious.

Mr. Lansbury says of us and of the Communists that we "advocate impossible propositions." It is interesting to have this candid acknowledgment from one Labour man that Socialism is an impossible proposition, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the Labour Party can solve the problems which now face the working class by putting the brake on capitalist exploitation, and by making the Government and Municipal authorities the main and direct agents of that exploitation instead of leaving it to individual capitalists and private corporations, there is nothing more to say. If the Labour Party succeeds, then the advocates of Socialism are simply wasting their time. But if, in spite of all their patching and reforming, regulating and controlling, the contradictions of capitalism still produce their accustomed crop of class and international conflicts, and if, as I risk prophesying the Labour Party witch doctors fail to hypnotise the workers into contentment with their slavery, merely by labelling it differently, then recourse will still be had finally to the "impossible proposition" we advocate. We shall continue to advocate it because our knowledge and experience teach us that these problems cannot be solved inside capitalism. In the meantime I would only suggest that other supporters of the Labour Party might be as candid as Snowden and Lansbury and admit with G. D. H. Cole (“The World of Labour”) that:

       “It is at least time that all the forces of Labour in this country learnt to forsake the old superstition that the Labour Party is a Socialist Party. . . (page 207).

If they did this they would be honest, which is refreshing; they would be able to conduct their experiments free from the misrepresentation of enemies and the confusion of friends, and finally they would more easily appreciate our proposition—Socialism —when they had experienced the failure of their own.

Edgar Hardcastle