A prophet who faded out

The passing of Ramsay MacDonald prompts comment on the career of one whose life reflected much of the history of the Labour movement in this country. That movement mirrored many of its weaknesses, its mistakes, in MacDonald.

MacDonald’s political career commenced in the Liberal Party. He later joined the I.L.P. and fought an election for them at Southampton, when he obtained a few hundred votes. He joined the I.L.P. because, as he stated in a letter to Keir Hardie, the Liberals would not adopt him as their candidate for Southampton.

In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed; and MacDonald became its Secretary. It has been suggested that when the delegates at the first conference voted for him, they did so in error, confusing him with a J. MacDonald, who was a Northern trade union official. The aim of the L.R.C. was to promote Labour representation in Parliament, primarily to gain security for trade union funds after an adverse court decision in the Taff Vale case. The aim was not at first a new political party, nor of evolving a policy of opposition to the capitalist parties. Some of the delegates, in fact, that year, contested elections as Liberals. It was in 1906 that the Labour Party was formed out of the L.R.C. That year 29 Labour candidates were returned to the House of Commons. It thenceforth attempted to formulate its own policy. One of the 29 was MacDonald, who was elected for the double-barrelled constituency of Leicester, running in harness with a Liberal. MacDonald stated after the election that practically all those who voted for him voted also for the Liberal.

Circumstances favoured MacDonald. As Secretary of the L.R.C., and, after 1906, of the Labour Party, he was in a position to exert a powerful influence on the incipient Labour movement. His impressive appearance and powers of oratory served him as great personal assets, and, with the possible exception of the War period, he maintained his spell over the Labour Party until his break with them in 1931.

Unquestionably, the Labour Party was flattered by the man, as early literature shows. His writings and utterances were like papal encyclicals; they suggested, almost, the divine word from the sacred presence, an authority that should silence criticism, a withering, pitying disdain for unbelievers. Yet how superficial it all was! Underneath that appearance of brilliance there was no grip, no real understanding of the events of which he was the central figure.

Socialists Saw Through MacDonald

 Socialists were never taken in by MacDonald. Those who were taken in were his reformist associates in the I.L.P. and the trade unions, who, like himself, were Liberals at heart and dependent on Liberal votes. It is now 32 years since MacDonald’s “Socialism and Society” was reviewed in the Socialist Standard (November, 1905). It was there pointed out that MacDonald utterly repudiated all the essentials of Socialism. He repudiated the class-struggle, devoted a quarter of the book to criticism of Marx and Engels, and claimed that “the ethics of Socialism are provided by Evangelicalism; its politics by Liberalism.”

His own boast was that he brought respectability to the Socialist movement. “Respectability,” yes; deference to the prejudices of the so-called middle-class; but not to the “Socialist” movement. Only to the I.L.P. and Labour Party.

Yet the leaders of the Labour Party and I.L.P., from Maxton to Attlee, who knew MacDonald’s writings as well as he did himself, say they only discovered that MacDonald was not a Socialist in 1931!

MacDonald made some harsh criticisms of Marx and offered an admiring Labour Party a system of his own for the improvement of society, but he never understood Marx as well as Marx understood the MacDonald type of politician. Our reviewer in November, 1905, quoted the following passage, written by Marx in the “Communist Manifesto,” years before MacDonald was born:–

  A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society. To this section belong economists, philanthropists; humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working-class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole and corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of Socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.

MacDonald and the War

On the outbreak of war MacDonald acquired a reputation for being in opposition to it. All that he did, in fact, was to oppose the then Liberal Government’s foreign policy, which he claimed was responsible for the outbreak of war. This was soundly in line with the strategy of an opposition leader. But the capitalist government then was confronted with a critical situation. They wanted unconditional support for the War, not pious platitudes. Before MacDonald was able to recover from the infatuation of his own ponderous opposition speech he found himself branded as pacifist arid anti-war and an outcast from capitalist political and social circles. He was caught napping. It is difficult to draw any other interpretation from his speeches in the House of Commons at the outbreak of war in 1914. Still he sat the fence and managed to write ambiguous letters in favour of recruiting. Many times we drew attention to this. Indignant denials came from Labour quarters in the years after the War, when reaction to the carnage was on the upgrade and pacifist sentiment popular. MacDonald did not give unqualified opposition to the War on Socialist or any other grounds. He was, however, never the stamping jingo that many prominent Labourists were. He suffered the obloquy of political friends and foe alike.

Continuity in Foreign Affairs

 There is no doubt that up to a point capitalist politicians feared him, not because of his “Socialism,” but because he might interfere with their long-established administration of capitalism. They were quickly to learn from nine short months’ office (1924) that they had nothing to fear. For years MacDonald had sedulously fostered the notion that he was an authority on foreign affairs and would introduce drastic changes in British foreign policy when he took office. In 1924 the opportunity came. Rumour had it that a certain Trade Union leader wanted to be Foreign Secretary. The Daily Herald, The New Leader and prominent “left-wingers” urged him to take the job himself. He did. Foreign office permanent officials were nervous. But let us quote from an article published in the Labour Monthly (January, 1925), written by an anonymous author, V.D.C., whom it was suspected was an old adviser and colleague of MacDonald’s:–

   He came to the Foreign Office, he saw, and was conquered. Those skilled dealers with men took his measure swiftly. They praised him to his face and paid seeming deference to his love of authority. Behind his back they smiled and wondered at the anxiety with which they had looked forward to his coming. “He is the easiest Foreign Secretary I have ever had to manage,” was the complacent summing-up of one of the most powerful of them. They flattered him, deluded him, despised him, and, finally, by a shrewd stroke which his foolish confidence in flatteries made easy, brought him crashing to his political ruin. That would have been a tragedy – but the fall of little men does not stir our tragic senses, which demand that our pity shall not be mingled with contempt.
He has written his own epitaph in that amazing article in the Spectator in which he boasted naively how he – who had been sent to Downing Street to change the whole current of our Foreign Policy – had preserved its continuity.

Those nine months nearly eclipsed MacDonald. His stock sank, but, safe again as opposition leader, he recovered his prestige. The Labour Party could not take his measure as easily as these wily Foreign Office officials. In 1929 he was again the Premier.

From MacDonald to Morrison

In the 1929-31 Labour Government he started off amid the plaudits of his colleagues and followers. In 1931 he parted company with them and formed the National Government, the composition of which was predominantly Conservative. A few Labour M.P.s followed him. Many others would have done so but for the fact that he made it quite plain that he did not want them, and the fact that the T.U.C. had given out threatening hints to those that did. He sold the pass. Millions of Labour votes went over to the National Government. Each vote a measure of his worth to his new masters. How jubilant were the Conservatives. How bitter the Labourites. Even constituencies they had held since 1906 had deserted them. How they loathed him, how they sneered. Yet not one serious criticism could they make which did not at the same time mirror their own lack of Socialist principle and their intellectual poverty. He, the man they had made, the leader who was to lead the workers to “Socialism,” led them instead into the camp of the enemy. Had they the intelligence to understand, the experience would have destroyed the illusion of leadership for ever in the Labour Party.

Not a bit of it. The mugwumps are at it again. Mr. Hamilton Fyfe tells us that Mr. MacDonald was a leader of the “old school” and that “Mr. Morrison is the new type of leader, as MacDonald was the old.” Poor Herbert! Will he refuse to wear the Court dress and the cocked hat? Will he refuse to kiss the hands of kings and bow to the mighty? Will he, unlike MacDonald, whose chief sin was that he liked it, plead expediency and pretend that he does not approve really. And even if he does, will it make a great deal of difference? Is Herbert’s “Socialism” any different to that of MacDonald? MacDonald, in his book, “Socialism and Society,” said in 1905: “Public ownership, after all, is Socialism.” Morrison says the same. Another Labour leader of the “new school,” Mr. Arthur Greenwood, M.P., says: “Local government is, in essence, Socialism in action” (Manchester Guardian, November 15th, 1937). There is no real difference between the “new” and “old” schools. MacDonald incurred the hatred and displeasure of Labour leaders because he broke the rules of the Party game. He led his men into the enemy ranks. He tore down the discreet lace curtains that hid the petty reformist outlook, the jealousies, the limitations, the incompetence of these ambitious men in the Labour family who had deluded their sheep-like following (as they perhaps deluded themselves) that they were storming the citadel of capitalism’s rights and privileges. There is no difference. He led, now they lead. And if present international tendencies develop to that sharp point they will yet lead their followers into the bloody carnage of another war.

MacDonald’s life exemplified the immaturity of the working class in its painful march towards Socialism. As it grows stronger in understanding so it will move forward more independently, and the less opportunities will there be for men like Macdonald.

Harry Waite

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