1940s >> 1947 >> no-516-august-1947

The Myth of May Day

The 1st of May, 1947, has seen a further extension of the Myth of May Day.

It has become fashionable in Labour circles to spread the fable that, in its early days, the “Labour Movement” was bold, fiery, and “r-r-r-revolutionary”—but now that it has grown up, assumed the responsibilities of Government and started to “lay the foundations” of the “Socialist State” (vide Daily Herald) it has put aside foolish things, as behoves “practical” and “realistic” people.

A typical expression of it is found in the article “What May Day means to me,” by the News-Chronicle Industrial correspondent, Ian Mackay, an ex-member of the Scottish I.L.P.

The sort of stuff that Mr. Mackay writes was echoed in raging accents and styles on Labour platforms all over the country.

  “May-Day then to my eager young mind was the great annual festival of freedom when the quenchless spirit of the common man was continually refreshed and rededicated to the endless quest, ‘the visionary gleam’ of a new life of love and friendship, liberty and peace among all the peoples of the world.  . . .
“Beyond the banners and the shouting of the slogan fanciers I could see far off, like Christian in the Bedford tinkers tale, a shining city where all men and women would be free and happy and clean in body and soul, where all the mean and petty wickedness of hunger and greed would be shameful memories, and mankind for the first time could advance harmoniously on to the gleaming uplands of the brave new world.”

We gather from Mr. Mackay’s vastly amusing gossip column on other days that he has since discovered somewhat more practical sources for the “continual refreshment” of his “quenchless spirit.”

What we are interested in, is Mr. Mackay’s accurate portrayal of the mental outlook of most of the supporters of the Labour Party—as expressed in the above collection of sonorous nothingness.

[We warn Ian that, if he’s not careful, providing he can do that sort of stuff solemnly at meetings, with the right Crosby catch in the throat at the end, he’ll find himself in the next Cabinet.]

The fact is, that, as one of Mr. Mackay’s Scottish colleagues, John Scanlon (“Pillow of Cloud”) has shown, it was precisely this sort of sentimental amiability, goodwill towards men, and vague hope of “a new world” which constituted the backbone of Labour Party pre-war speeches, the popularity of a Macdonald and Labour Party “Socialism.”

Professor Hearnshaw in his “Survey of Socialism” shows that the first MacDonald Labour Government called forth a book compiled and edited by a Labour Councillor, Mr. Dan Griffiths, which was regularly pushed by the “Daily Herald” and had a wide sale at Labour meetings, entitled “What is Socialism?” The definitions were by the usual “prominent personalities” which infest Labour Parties for jobs. There are 263 definitions; all different.

   “Taking the definitions in the order in which they are printed, we gather from them that socialism is a science, a religion, an attitude, a principle, a body of doctrine, a theory, a system, an organisation, a form of society, a faith, a spirit, a philosophy, a movement, a name, an expression of belief, a tendency, an aspiration, a way of living, an endeavour, a demand, a process, an ideal, a conception, an awakening, an atmosphere, and a programme. This is sufficiently perplexing, but the perplexity is increased when some of the definitions are examined in detail.” “Survey of Socialism,” F. J. C. Hearnshaw, p.28.

According to Mr. J. W. Bowen, former Labour M.P., “Socialism is light in the darkness of a depressed world.” Mr. W. Hampson, Labour M.P., “Socialism is sunlight opposed to darkness.” “Socialism is the navigation of social currents by the liberated soul of man,” R. W. Sorensen, Labour M.P. (Leyton). Mr. Wilfred Wellock, ex-Labour M.P., “Socialism is mankind functioning on the spiritual plane.”

“No better definition of socialism can be given in general terms than that it aims at the organisation of the material economic forces of society, and their control by human forces,” J. Ramsay MacDonald. As Professor Hearnshaw remarks “if ‘no better definition’ of socialism than this can be given, then indeed is human intelligence in a parlous condition.”

“To me, Socialism is the practical expression of Christ’s teaching,” says C. G. Ammon, now Lord Ammon. “Socialism is that form of society which will permit the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth,” H. C. Charlton, Labour M.P. Mr. Dan Griffiths, himself, just to clear up the other 262 Labour Leaders’ contradictory definitions of Socialism, weighs in with “Socialism implies an ever-learning, ever-improving ergatocracy.”

One Fabian lawyer, Mr. Alban Gordon, wrote “I cannot define socialism for you in some short snappy phrase, and what is more, neither can any other socialist. Even if I could, other socialists would probably repudiate my definition as heartily as I should theirs.” (‘‘The Common Sense of Socialism,” 1924).

It is this, and little more than this, that “Socialism” means to-day to many an amiable curate, and many a philanthropic member of Mr. Dan Griffiths team, who define socialism as “applied Christianity,” or the practical application of the principles taught in the “Sermon on the Mount” or “the realisation of the golden rule,” or “something else of the same admirable and entirely inoffensive kind,” says Hearnshaw.

This was the “Christian Socialism” of Maurice, Charles Kingsley and Ludlow, which was lifted and made the stock-in-trade of the Labour Party by Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. But if all the Labour Party ever stood for was this vague, rather mushy sentimentalism, how has it won elections? the reader may ask.

The answer is, of course, by the “practical programme,” side-by-side with the Sermon-on-the-Mount stuff, which assured even the most timid voter that Labour Party “Socialism” was completely innocuous; the Labour Party, starting with its first programme, “Labour and the New Social Order” (written by Mr. Sidney Webb) sets forth its proposals of “practical steps.”

As Mr. Bernard Shaw has never tired of boasting, he and Mr. Webb give the Labour Party its practical programme. “In 1915,” wrote Mr. Shaw in the Times (July 4, 1924), “Socialism saved the country when private enterprise had brought us within two inches of defeat,” and he went on to show that by socialism he meant no more than the state control of mines, railways, shipping, munition works, food supplies and so on. Lest there should be any mistake as to his meaning he added: “Imagine Westminster without socialism—no streets, no bridges, no public lighting, no police, no schools, no water supply, no courts, no post and telegraphs and telephones, no army, no navy, no returning officer, no election no ‘Big Ben’ and no parliament.” (The Observer, March 16th, 1924).

These writings are the direct ancestors of “Let us Face the Future,” the 1945 Election Manifesto, with its proposals of Nationalisation.

Professor Hearnhaw does one very good service by decisively debunking the main fallacy of most Labour Party supporters in regard to so-called “private enterprise.”

  “But the enlargement of the sphere of the state—the extension of the activities of the central and municipal authorities—does not, by itself, even tend to eliminate capitalism, extinguish private enterprise, or eradicate competition, three of the things which genuine socialism invariably does.
“Take Mr. Shaw’s list of what he calls “socialistic ” institutions. Do publicly made and controlled streets and bridges tend to hamper capitalism, hinder private enterprise, lessen competition? They are the very means by which all these things increase indefinitely. Is the government’s postal, telegraphic and telephone service an obstacle to capitalistic ‘development, a barrier to private enterprise, a foe to competition? Only in so far as it is inefficient. In so far as it is efficient it is the most valuable possible aid to individualistic activity, and it was established precisely in order that it might be such.” P.78.

 “It may be asked, Does not the extension of the sphere of public enterprise inevitably entail the diminution of the sphere of private enterprise; if, for example, you nationalise the railways, do you not take away from private enterprise one large region wherein it now rules supreme? The answer is that the extension of the sphere of public enterprise undoubtedly modifies the sphere of private enterprise; but that it does not necessarily reduce it. The question seems to assume that there is a certain fixed quantity of ‘enterprise’ divided into two sections—viz., public and private—and that any increase in the one section involves a decrease in the other. That is not the case. Enterprise is capable of indefinite expansion. If the community, by means of its central and local authorities, takes over the tasks of making roads and bridges, of putting up street lamps and public clocks, of organising postal and telegraphic services, although it unquestionably obviates the possibility (or rather the necessity) of the tasks being undertaken by private persons, it nevertheless, in doing so, releases their energies for countless more fruitful enterprises, and provides them with means by which their individualistic and competitors’ activities may be immeasurably more productive than they would otherwise be.” P.80.

Professor Hearnshaw, the fanatical anti-Marxian, will be surprised to learn that he has stated a perfectly sound Marxian case against Capitalism. It is one which will not get votes for Tories either. As one Tory questioner stated, at a recent Socialist Party open-air meeting (after it had been explained how Labour Government Nationalisation and Public Ownership is really a strengthening of private enterprise): “So far I’ve voted Tory because I’m all for private enterprise. Now I shall vote Labour—because it’s best for private enterprise.”

The writer of the “Survey of Socialism” might have suspected something was amiss when he quoted the Socialist Standard for September, 1924.

  “Indignant Marxians rightly exclaim against the stupidity or hypocrisy with which, as they say, ‘literary parasites of the capitalist class [a very unkind allusion to the Fabians] are flooding the press with essays labelled “socialism,” in which everything is called “socialism” from a profit-sharing bakery to the government printing office’; and they quite justly maintain that ‘government ownership is not socialism,’ and that ‘the transfer of industries from private firms to state ownership is simply a policy dictated by capitalist needs and for capitalist advantage,’ adding that ‘the most open enemies of socialism have nationalised railways and other businesses without in any way benefitting the working class.’ ” P.82.

Those lines were written by our old pioneer comrade, Adolph Kohn. Whether the last two years have confirmed them, or not, we leave the reader to judge.

The Labour Party was never Socialist and never revolutionary. Mr. Mackay’s rosy dream of “shining cities” in “brave new worlds” were merely the “ants in the pants” of many active young people.

The Labour Party, in its early days, peddled a lushy mess of sentimental idealism admixed with large doses of Liberal State Capitalism. This is the reason it has ousted the now defunct Liberal Party—and incidentally, why ex-“r-r-r-evolutionary’’(?) I.L.P. “Socialists” like Mr. Mackay can spread the Myth of the Labour Party’s early May Days in the Liberal’s daily newspaper.

Horatio