Lansbury: A Figure of the Past
With the death of George Lansbury there has gone from the Labour Movement a figure of unusual character. There has passed out a type that will have no place in the future history of the Labour Party. The times that found a place for him have passed away. The necessities of the movement in which he was an impressive personality demand men of a different mould. The world in which we live has driven and will continue to drive that “movement” to place its leadership in the hands of men more able and of opportunistic Inclinations.
Lansbury’s life and work measures to some extent the progress and the place of the Labour Party in the history of the working class. He began his political career before the Labour Party was formed. As a youth, in the early ’eighties he was associated with the radical reform section of the Liberal Party. It was in this period that Lansbury announced his conversion to “ Socialism.” It is said that the conversion took place when, canvassing an East London constituency as a Liberal agent, a door was opened in response to his knocks by a woman whose only clothing was improvised from old sacks. It must be said, however, that this story circulated among those wags of East End workers who were mildly derisive of “Lansburyism.” His early career was devoted to local political activities. The Social Democrat (1900), in a biographical sketch, describes Lansbury fiercely contesting a Guardians election on a programme which included the abolition of skilly in the workhouse and the provision of shirts and drawers for the inmates. Lansbury’s “conversion” led him to the S.D.F. In 1894 he fought an election under their auspices and polled 207 votes: a somewhat ironic commentary on the “Marxist” character of the S.D.F. of the time. Lansbury has been described as a Socialist in the St. Simon tradition. This cannot be substantiated. The St. Simonites produced operative schemes. Lansbury affected a breezy disregard for plans and the details of policy. His last book, “The Way to Peace,” contains a phrase which was the keynote of his approach to all questions. He appeals to all who could adopt “broad principles of action and leave the general plan and details” to look after themselves. It was characteristic of Lansbury and led him to association with all sorts of hole-and-corner reformers and movements with a mission. To Lansbury it was sufficient to possess the urge and the fervour to put the world right.
Lansbury’s “principles of action” were so broad that his activities gained support from the most diverse quarters. He was one of those few Labour leaders whom those masters of scurrilous invective, the official Communists, refrained from attacking. He was “dear Mr. Lansbury” to thousands in the drawing rooms of the minor gentry. He was a lay preacher in the Church of England, and though of the High Church persuasion he was unique in that his broad principles straddled the gaps between the High, Low, and the Broad sections of the English Church, just as they managed to straddle the apparent extremes in the politics of the Labour Movement. Each section could claim Lansbury for its own. In his books, on the platform, in the pulpit, Lansbury preached a mixture of Christian Humanism and politics that could not be identified as anything particular. It was “Lansburyism.” Gossip (possibly originating among the sardonic unbelievers) had it that Lansbury, in his earlier days as a public figure, was a member of the free-thinking National Secular Society! The story may be false. But it could quite conceivably be true. What could there be in the “broad principles” of Lansburyism that could not approve the ethical principles and the human object of the N.S.S.? If Lansbury swallowed the S.D.P. without qualm or consciousness of inconsistency, then the N.S.S. pill needed no sugar. It would be pointless to argue Lansbury’s sincerity. Where the capacity for self- delusion is so complete and rides unchecked there can be no test for sincerity. It is meaningless. It says something, perhaps, for the character of the man that he could address a hard-bitten audience of workers on strike in the soul-saving language of the Salvationist without embarrassment to himself or to his audience.
By all reasonable standards George Lansbury should have been shocked by the militant atheism and the methods of the Bolshevist regime. He was not shocked. He visited Russia and talked with Lenin, saw the baby creches, and came back and wrote an eulogy of Russia. He only saw what he wanted to see. According to the “broad principles” and contempt for “details” which constituted Lansburyism sufficient was it that the will to change things existed. Of the historic significance of the Russian movement it would be flattering to Lansbury to assume that he understood anything about it.
His services to the Labour Party were among that Party’s assets in the formative period of the movement. The needs of the early Labour Party demanded missionary zeal and ability, not the qualities of the administrator. Lansbury fulfilled the need and without doubt made many thousands of sympathisers for the Labour Party in the days when (curious thought) it had to make efforts to break down the opposition from the prejudiced and the respectable. His zeal for causes brought a great deal of advertisement to himself and to the Labour Party. In the earlier days this was not unwelcome, to the latter, though in later years it brought a priggish rebuke for “Poplarism” from the pompous MacDonald. In 1912 he resigned his parliamentary seat in the Bow and Bromley division of Poplar and refought it on the Suffragette issue. He lost it. Despite his temperament he was not without shrewdness. On private support he managed to run the Daily Herald independently of the official Labour Party until it was taken over by Odhams and the T.U.C. Against it in pre-1914 years the official organ of the Labour Party, the Citizen, failed to survive. In 1932, by accident, because almost all the leaders of the Labour Party had lost their seats in the landslide against them in the election of 1931, he became the Party’s parliamentary leader. His reign was short. Political and international developments were driving the Labour Party into support for war and into conflict with Lansbury’s pacifism. After a brutal speech by Bevin accusing him of “hawking his conscience from conference to conference,” Lansbury lost the leadership. He was finished. And out went another leader. Another cruel lesson was driven home to him and to thousands who accepted his standards—the lesson that events mould men and movements despite their will.
The Labour Party will have little need or scope for future Lansburys. It will need men of a different calibre to attempt to prevent the disintegration which the future holds for it.
If Lansbury’s life teaches anything it teaches the futility of the reformism which was not only his but was the essential doctrine of the Labour Party. After half a century of fervent reformist zeal he left the world with a working class facing all the old problems existing more intense and numerous than ever.
Labourism and reformism, of which Lansbury was the embodiment, will be as ineffectual in facing those problems in the future as Lansbury’s peace talks with Hitler were in preventing the war.