The Passing of Snowden
Philip Snowden had some praiseworthy qualities. He was determined, uncompromising according to his lights, and largely indifferent to what he regarded as the fickle moods of the crowd. He fought hard and disinterestedly for many of the causes to which he was attached. Yet his career, early and late, is, to Socialists, not an example, but a warning, a warning of the sterility of reformism. Indeed, the Socialist might well sum up Snowden’s life by saying that it is a pity such gifts as he had were never at any time devoted to Socialism. The Socialist Party, unlike Snowden’s lifelong admirers and associates, did not discover him to be wrong only in 1931. At the first, and unceasingly thereafter, the S.P.G.B. denounced Snowden’s theories and activities as being harmful to the Socialist movement, Never at any time did we join the misguided or dishonest band who called on the workers to put their trust in the Snowdens and MacDonalds of the I.L.P. and Labour Party. Only now, nearly 40 years too late to be of any use, do some of his erstwhile worshippers discover what Socialists knew from the beginning, that reformist organisation and effort does not lead to Socialism.
From its first issue in 1904 the Socialist Standard pointed out that Snowden was not a Socialist, but a Radical, concerned not with the abolition of capitalism but with the useless task of reforming it. Only now when Snowden is dead does everyone else perceive this. The Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill writes (Sunday Express, May 16th, 1937): —
Was he really a Socialist? Personally I doubt it.
I do not believe the Marxian aberration ever obsessed his keen intelligence.
He was a green-eyed, savage Victorian Radical, a later and more sharply defined edition of John Morley, with a double dose of what Mr. Bonar Law once aptly expressed as “Sympathy for the underdog.” In finance he was a Gladstonian purist—Free Trade, Gold Standard, Strict Discharge of State Obligations to Creditors, Frugality and Cheeseparing in Public Expenditure.
The Times (May 17th, 1937) remarks that Snowden’s conversion from Liberalism to Labourism “did not, in fact, deprive Radicalism of a devotee.” The Liberal Manchester Guardian, ever an admirer of Snowden, tells us that his Budget in 1924 was the bright spot in the first Labour Government’s record; “Liberals liked it because it was shaped on the most traditional of Liberal lines. The City liked it because it abolished the corporation profits tax, and was a model of sound finance.” (Manchester Guardian, May 17th, 1937.) Reynolds’s News, the Co-operative journal, finds that that Budget ”was certainly not what might have been expected from a Socialist Finance Minister, and might quite well have emanated from the Liberal and Conservative benches.” (Reynolds’s News, May 16th, 1937.) Professor Harold Laski, in a full-length article in the Daily Herald (May 17th) says: —
In essence he was a Benthamite Radical whose association with the Labour Party was less because he was a Socialist in the full sense of the term than because he was a stout egalitarian who saw no defence for the present social order.
Free trade, disarmament, social reform, control of the drink traffic, the rigorous taxation of those who could afford to pay—these were his political principles.
And again: —
He had not an atom of the revolutionary in him.
Why the Astonishment in 1931?
All of this is true, but why should Snowden’s associates suddenly turn and rend him because, in 1931, his lifelong Liberalism led him to support the National Government in order to prop up capitalism? Why should Laski denounce Snowden, in view of his own admission that Snowden’s attitude in 1931 was not a matter for surprise, but “was inherent in all that he was”? If there were any who supposed Snowden to be, not a Liberal but a Socialist, they never had any real ground for so doing. Snowden himself was comparatively frank and plain on the subject. Writing in the Manchester Guardian Commercial Reconstruction Supplement (October 26th, 1922) he said: —
The British Labour Party is certainly not Socialist in the sense in which Socialism is understood upon the Continent. It is not based upon the recognition of the class struggle: it does not accept the teachings of Marx . . . .
. . . . The Socialism of the Labour Party is just a matter-of-fact practical aim for the extension of the already widely accepted principle of the democratic ownership and control of the essential public services.
The nationalisation . . . . of public services does not carry the Labour Party further than many Radicals, who would vigorously disclaim being Socialistic, are prepared to go.
This was one half of Snowden’s creed; the pathetic delusion that capitalism ceases to be an exploiting system when the State or a statutory board becomes the direct agent of exploitation. (Snowden’s death occurred in the midst of the busmen’s bitter strike protest against the Transport Board!) The second half was his notion that capitalism, administered by the Labour Party, can be humanised. He dreamed of transferring wealth from rich to poor while maintaining the capitalist system. What, then, is the true explanation of the 1931 crisis, and the collapse of the Labour Government? It was the final bankruptcy of the theories held by Snowden and his party. Hard experience was showing that capitalism can only be administered in a capitalist way. The Socialist contention was proved up to the hilt.
In an untenable situation Snowden took the line which was strictly logical for him and his radical-reformist party, but many of his associates withdrew at the eleventh hour. They who had entered office on Liberal support and were carrying on negotiations with the Liberals, they who had been part of the War-time Coalition Government, suddenly pretended to abhor contact with openly capitalist parties. It is hardly surprising that Snowden denounced them with force and venom.
Who Betrayed the Workers?
It is only natural that the present leaders of the Labour Party should try to clear their own bedraggled reputations by throwing mud at Snowden and MacDonald. Many of these men, Laski for one, and the I.L.P. and Communist Party leaders, will now say that they always knew what manner of men Snowden and MacDonald were; that they were never Socialists, but only Radicals. What, then, is their defence against the charge that they deliberately hoodwinked the working class year after year? Why did they not tell the truth about the Labour leaders and the Labour Party before 1931?
Why, after the first Labour Government (described by the I.L.P. New Leader as “to an overwhelming extent an I.L.P. Government,” New Leader, February 8th, 1924), did Mr. Maxton and the I.L.P. go on appealing to the workers to support Snowden and the Labour Party at elections ?
Why did not Professor Laski tell the world in 1921 what he suddenly blared forth in 1931?
The Communists are in the same mess as Maxton. After the Labour Party’s War-time antics, after the first Labour Government, after the “betrayal” of the General Strike in 1926, we still found the Communist Party telling the workers to vote for Snowden and MacDonald and the rest of them—“Ramsay Mac,” as the Workers’ Weekly affectionately called him in 1923.
They are all in the dock with Snowden. If 1931 demonstrated the bankruptcy of his theories so it did of theirs.
Snowden’s life work was to help build up .the I.L.P. and Labour Party, and then, in his later years, to try to tear them down again. Work for Socialism brings no speedy apparent triumphs like the formation of Labour Governments, but it also avoids waste of effort like Snowden’s.