Book Review: ‘Fifty Years’ March – The Rise of the Labour Party’

Fifty Years Mark-Time 

‘Fifty Years’ March – The Rise of the Labour Party’, by Francis Williams, (Odhams Press, Ltd.)

Mr. Francis Williams, one-time Editor of the Daily Herald, has written a history of the Labour Party. “Fifty Years’ March, The Rise of the Labour Party”, published by Odhams Press, Ltd. We suspect that Mr. Williams wrote with a distemper brush. He has certainly given the Labour Party an unblemished white-washing. The main theme of this history is summed up by Mr. Attlee in the foreword to the book. He says:-

    “It is a story very characteristic of Britain, showing the triumph of reasonableness and practicability over doctrinaire impossibilism.”

Mr. Williams insists that the Labour Party is a Socialist Party, claiming that after years of endeavour by the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Clarion Scouts, it finally became a Socialist Party when it was re-organised by Arthur Henderson following the war of 1914-18. He says that the programme contained in “Labour and the New Social Order” put the seal on its Socialist character. But Mr. Williams does not give us even an attempt at a definition of Socialism. He writes on various pages of Christian Socialists, Marxist Socialists, Guild Socialists, reformists who were Socialists, industrial actionists who were Socialists, in fact, all sorts of different Socialists until we are forced to wonder if the word Socialism has any meaning at all for Mr. Williams.

Here, according to Mr. Williams, is Keir Hardie’s brand of Socialism : —

    “Only if men were moved, he believed, by the warm hearted, idealistic gospel of Socialism could there be created a new social order . . . ” (page 13.)

The author quotes Bruce Glasier : —

    . . . “It is from the prophets, apostles and saints, the religious mystics and heretics, rather than from statesmen, economists and political reformers, that the socialist movement derives its examples and ideals . . . Socialism means not only the Socialisation of wealth, not only the Socialisation of the means of production and distribution, but of our lives, our hearts—ourselves . . . ” (page 105.)

That Mr. Williams tells us, “was the spirit that made the early I.L.P.”. That spirit, he continues, “when harnessed to the intellectual integrity of the Fabians and the practical idealism and economic experience of the trade unions” made the Labour Party. Well, we knew that there was something wrong with the Labour Party, but we did not know that it was that.

Of Ramsay MacDonald, a man who, we are told on page 169, was suspected by trade unionists of being too Socialist, we learn that “he was a Socialist of a peculiarly philosophical and inactive—indeed one might say non-political—kind. His Socialism was not based on an understanding of the economic forces at work in society. He had little knowledge of economics . . . What made him a Socialist was a romanticized conception of natural history, acquired during his early biological studies and transformed without amendment to the political struggle” (pages 198-199).

Later in the book, the author quotes with approval from Robert Blatchford: “We can’t have Socialism without Socialists” and, Mr. Williams says: ” . . . that was the true answer . . . ” Having read in his book of the different brands of “Socialism” expounded by Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, Robert Blatchford, Victor Grayson, Tom Mann, J. H. Thomas, Philip Snowden and a shoal of others including the Communism of John Wyclif, we are left astounded that the author can quote that short passage from Blatchford and continue to call the Labour Party a Socialist Party.

One thing the author does make clear, although possibly without intending to do so. That is, that the founders of the Labour Party wanted to build a political Party with a substantial numerical strength and they were quite prepared to sacrifice their respective “Socialist” principles at the altar of a large membership. He tells that most of the prominent early workers in the Labour Party were far-seeing enough to build an organisation with numerical and financial strength and a firm foundation of mass support. He proceeds to show us throughout the pages of the book, how the so called Socialists of the Labour Party have had to compromise, twist, wriggle, turn, betray and mis-lead the non-Socialist mass support in order to hold it together. And after studying that sort of thing for years, seeing the struggle between the mass support and the leadership, the desertions, the betrayals, the collapses, and the failure to prevent the evils of capitalism, Mr. Williams still thinks that the Labour Party is a Socialist Party. He still has not learned that the strength of a working-class Party lies not just in its numbers but in its understanding of its objective and its determination to achieve it.

The first few chapters of the book present an interesting story of the early struggles of the workers in this country and of the efforts leading up to the foundation of the Labour Party, although the author betrays his prejudice when he writes of men like Hyndman and Karl Marx. Altogether the book is very readable providing the reader does not get as confused as the author as to what Socialism really is. If this book can be read in conjunction with the SOCIALIST STANDARD for the years that are covered it makes instructive and interesting reading.

W. Waters

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