Inquest on the I.L.P.
Fenner Brockway’s ‘Inside the Left’ (Allen & Unwin, 15/-) contains no original contribution to Socialist thought nor even an adequate restatement of old theories. Brockway says of Sir Stafford Cripps (p. 264) that Cripps “has no experience of the working-class and he has no real knowledge of Socialist theory. . . . I doubt whether he has ever read Marx or any book of fundamental Socialist economics.” Brockway has experience of the working-class and has probably read more about Socialist theory than Cripps but it is not unfair to say that he has no real understanding of it. In this he is a representative figure in the I.L.P. The I.L.P. membership, taking each incident of the working-class struggle in isolation, are able to use what they know of Socialist theory and past experience to discuss the pros and cons of short-term courses of action but have no clear idea of Socialism or of how capitalism is to be abolished. They have no standard, except a sentimental desire to do some immediate good to the workers, by which to measure their actions. When their actions happen to be sound it is only by accident. They have theories but no theory, aims but no aim, enthusiasm and energy but no direction.
Brockway’s book is full of interesting incidents and observations. It is written with candour and is honest according to the author’s lights. It is like the many books written by competent journalists who have “been there when it happened”; and like some of those books it will be a useful work to the critical reader but without the living of it and the writing of it having been of much use to the author from the point of view of acquiring understanding of what is going on below the surface of things.
The chief use of the book will be to serve as a warning of the futility of attempts to build a Socialist movement on a foundation of sentiment, hero-worship, and reformism and (though he may draw no useful conclusions himself) Brockway is completely candid in showing this, as one or two examples will indicate.
Of the I.L.P. in the war, 1914-1918, he writes: —
“The Party membership was not so united as the National Council. The I.L.P. had no clear-cut philosophy or policy at this time; its idealism impelled it to oppose war, but Socialist sentiment was up against another sentiment, the intense emotion of patriotism, and probably one-fifth of the Party succumbed.” (p. 47)
And again: —
“. . . the truth is that the I.L.P. had no unifying anti-war philosophy. One section of it was pacifist; another was opposed to a “balance of power war” on the continent but in favour of national defence; a third, while ready to take part in a class-war, was not prepared to support an imperialist war, though even this section had no thought-out revolutionary tactic (p. 52).
We were not revolutionary Socialists. We were democratic pacifists (p. 55).”
He admits by the way that MacDonald’s attitude was never that of complete opposition to the war, and gives (p. 56—59) an interesting and fairly convincing explanation of how McDonald, by a political error of judgment or the swift movement of events, found himself isolated when in fact he was hoping to place himself at the head of a powerful group (including Lloyd George) hostile to Sir Edward Grey’s foreign policy.
After 1918 Brockway devoted himself to the anti-war movement, believing that solid resistance to war could be built on the sentimental reaction against war that was then the fashion. He received from Bernard Shaw a sensible comment on its uselessness. This was in a letter (26 July, 1922) refusing to address a peace demonstration:—
“I grieve to say that I don’t believe in these demonstrations. People who get emotionally excited about peace are precisely the people who get emotionally excited about war. In this matter, action and reaction are equal. Lloyd George will do all that is necessary to make the nation send Xmas cards to all the other nations until he wants to send them to the trenches again. Ten minutes after that he will have them telling stories of enemy sergeants (probably French this time) with their pouches full of gouged English eyes and throwing bricks at you as you are dragged back to prison (p. 135).”
Brockway acknowledges the truth of this—afterwards.
“Writing in this year of war crises, 1939, one realises how. superficial was the effect of imposing No More War demonstrations which we organised from 1922 to 1924 and how justifiable was Mr. Shaw’s cynicism.”
Another illustration of the I.L.P.S floundering relates to a much later period, 1931-1933.
“I was elected chairman of the I.L.P. at Easter, 1931, and remained chairman until the end of 1933. During this period the I.L.P. disaffiliated from the Labour Party and began its inner struggle towards a revolutionary Socialist position. In the course of this inner struggle the I.L.P. experimented in many directions, at one time approaching the Communist International, and at another moving towards the Trotskyist position, at one stage attaching its hope to united fronts and at another reverting to purism, at one period going all out to prepare for Soviets and at another recognising again the value of Parliament (p. 237).”
To see this in proper perspective it needs to be remembered that 1931 was after the I.L.P. had been in existence for nearly 40 years.
A last example is the attitude of Brockway and the I.L.P.. towards leaders and leadership. As a youth Brockway was constantly being swept off his feet by oratory. John Morley’s ” finely-phrased oratory awed me, but I felt more enthusiasm for the audacious speech of a young recruit to Liberalism—Mr. Winston Churchill ” (p. 11).
This was before his conversion to “Socialism” but his attitude to leaders did not change. He was “entranced” by Keir Hardie (p. 17). He was a “Shaw worshipper” (p. 22), and MacDonald “expressed his opinions with the manner of a god and I felt at least that I was in the presence of a great man . . . his rich organ-like voice and oratory captivated me” (p. 35). He tells of a speech (in French) by Jean Jaurès, which Brockway “could not follow” and which probably not “one man in a hundred” of the audience understood, “but we all understood that he was illustrating the rise of the workers from slavery to freedom, and at his final cry of triumph we were all on our feet cheering with him” (p. 36).
Of course it can be said that this emotionalism, like admiration for the art and artifices of actors, is harmless; but in politics where it is played upon by leaders to sway the emotions of followers without regard to their understanding it is not harmless, far from it. Brockway gives a striking example of how harmful it can be. He had become thoroughly mistrustful of MacDonald because, among other things, MacDonald was working early in 1914 for a definite Labour Party alliance with the Liberals at the General Election. When Keir Hardie died MacDonald spoke at a memorial meeting in Glasgow and “many of those who heard him say that his oration rose to heights greater than they had ever known in human utterances. If there were doubts about MacDonald before in the minds of Scottish Socialists, this speech removed them. The extraordinary loyalty of Glasgow to MacDonald, which was responsible for his election to the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1921, and was never dispelled until the betrayal of the workers by the second Labour Government, had its roots in this speech more than in anything else ” (p. 65. Italics ours).
Can anyone read this and not perceive the truth of the S.P.G.B.’s claim that dependence on leadership is a menace to the working-clam movement and that not emotionalism and leader worship but knowledge, understanding and self-reliance are the workers’ road to emancipation?
Yet Brockway (who incidentally mistrusted MacDonald but for years deliberately refrained from passing on his grounds for mistrust to the workers) is still, at the end of his book, putting the case for leadership and hoping to find leaders who will be “worthy of the name” and who will “not be tempted by careerism” (p. 342), and stating that, in the final struggle for Socialism “and the critical period of the transition following it,” of course large power of direction must be given to the leaders” (p. 345). True, Brockway desires that “even then the final decision on issues of principle should remain with representatives of the workers,” but he does not explain how a movement of workers brought up to be spell-bound worshippers of oratory and personality are going to acquire the knowledge and self- reliance necessary for the task of breaking the spell.