Book Review: ‘James Maxton – The Beloved Rebel’

“If it were not such a dreadful thing to say of anybody, I should say he meant well” – The Way of All Flesh

 ‘James Maxton – The Beloved Rebel’, by John McNair

A biography can be written in one of two ways. It may be an “objective” study, an attempt at critically assessing the man, his work and his place in history. On the other hand, it may be a personal piece—an extended obituary notice, wherein the author pays his tribute to the departed. John McNair’s James Maxton, the Beloved Rebel (Allen and Unwin, 12s. 6d.) is unashamedly the latter: a chronicle and eulogy of a leader whose faults, if he had them, are allowed no place.

Maxton is presented as a man of deep, passionate sincerity, devoted to the welfare of the poor, earning the affection even of opponents by his integrity and his refusal to compromise. He opposed the two world wars which his Labour colleagues supported; in the first he was imprisoned, in the second he led the tiny I.L.P. group of M.P.s that constituted the permanent opposition to all war measures. Above all, Maxton is shown as a Socialist, aiming to abolish exploitation and misery, working for the unification of all interested parties towards that end.

The book is heavily—perhaps unavoidably—weighted with reference to Maxton’s Scottish background: for example, the poverty of the working class seems, at any rate to this writer, to be made almost a regional affair. Nevertheless, it provides an informal, informative history of Labour politics from 1920. The growing Labour movement threw up men like Maxton, protesting against the degradation of the working class. From 1920 to 1939 there was never less than a million unemployed. Towns became derelict; children were born, grew up and married on the dole. “Ten million working men, women and children underfed, underclothed, badly housed at a time which was ‘generally regarded as prosperous.'” (J. Kuczynski, A Short History of Labour Conditions in Great Britain).

Maxton’s party, the I.L.P., supplied most of the Labour leaders of the “twenties”; of the 192 members in the first Labour Parliament, 120 belonged to the I.L.P. Describing itself—in the New Leader in 1923—as “the militant Socialist wing of the Labour Party” the I.L.P. pressed vigorously a “living wage policy” aimed at “a narrowing of the gulf that separates rich and poor.” Mr. McNair makes much of this policy and its advocates, and thereby raises some awkward questions. It may be protested that his is a work of biography, not of political theory, but since much of the praise of Maxton rests on the policies he pursued, facts must be faced.

For the truth is that, however ardently Maxton spoke of Socialism and the abolition of poverty, he and his party had contracted for neither: the “wild men from the Clyde” were as dangerous to the Capitalist system as a pantomime lion to its audience. Leave aside, if you like, the economic aspects—for example, that Socialism has nothing to do with wages; leave that aside and consider merely that many of the men Maxton supported and Mr. McNair praises were avowed upholders of capitalism.

Thus, a whole chapter of the book is given to reporting Maxton’s allegation of murder against the Tory Government for the malnutrition deaths of poor people’s children, and his subsequent suspension from the House of Commons. But in 1924, when Labour was in office, Ramsay MacDonald—Prime Minister, a leader of the I.L.P.—told the House: “We are not going to diminish industrial capital in order to provide relief.” There was no denunciation by Maxton, nor is there any reference by Mr. McNair. Again, John Wheatley is praised for his work on housing as Minister of Health in the first Labour Cabinet. But Wheatley himself made quite clear what his position was. Introducing his housing bill in 1924, he said:

    “Labour does not propose to interfere with private enterprise in the building of houses . . . It says to the man with small capital: ‘Instead of putting your private capital into a risky investment, lend it to the local authorities at 4½ per cent. Without your having any trouble at all you will get a safe return for your money . . . ‘ The Labour Party’s programme on housing is not a Socialist programme at all.”

What is more, he repeated it a week later:

    “I notice that the Right Honourable member for Twickenham in criticizing my proposals the other day, said: ‘This is real Socialism’ . . . The proposals which I am submitting are real Capitalism½an attempt to patch up in the interests of humanity, a capitalist ordered society,”

Maxton’s hope was that the Labour Party would become Socialist. In 1929, seeing his lack of an overall majority, he urged that it should attempt sweeping legislation on behalf of the workers; it would fail, of course, but then could turn to the electorate and ask for the mandate it would undoubtedly receive. Perhaps in that one incident is shown what Maxton really failed to perceive. All his life he had hopes in the Labour Party as the agent for emancipating the working class; he never saw that the Labour Party had never set out to that end—or, when he did see it, he hoped he was mistaken.

Maxton lacked, in fact, any clear-cut conception of Socialism, much as he talked about it. In 1928 he debated with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and expressed his entire agreement with the case Fitzgerald put forward—adding that he appreciated also the Fabians and the Communist Party! He held that Socialism was a question of “human will and human intelligence,” to be attained by any variety of possible means.

Indeed, the I.L.P.’s attitude to the Communist Party and to Russia comprises one of the more curious matters in the book. One might set aside Maxton’s early co-operation with Gallacher, but McNair will not do so. He writes with undisguised sympathy for the Russian Revolution and the early Bolshevik Government, condemning the British Government’s attitude towards it. The I.L.P. today condemns the Russian dictatorship as strongly as everyone else, but Mr. McNair does not explain the difference. Would it be too uncharitable to suggest that the I.L.P. was “taken in” by the illusion of Russian “Socialism” and can deal with its mistakes only by ignoring them?

Maxton’s lack of understanding is made the more regrettable by his undoubted sincerity. He was a fine orator, commanding respect and sympathy, but his moral indignation against injustice was never supported by analysis of the real causes of that injustice. Those who followed him were impelled by the same emotional force that drove him: “beloved rebel” is an apt and proud title, but its pleasant emotional sound is the key to Maxton’s weakness.

Much has been written in recent times about the “decline” of the Labour movement. The phrase lacks accuracy, since a decline implies a height previously reached. The Labour movement gained its strength from the hopes of working people: men were sent to Parliament who spoke fervently of their opposition to capitalism, inequality and privilege. Many of them, unlike the Tories and Liberals, were from the working class itself, had experienced poverty, knew the problems. When at last they came to govern with an unassailable majority, after the war, their policies gave birth to nothing; the real truth is that they had always been barren.

The I.L.P., a negligible force today, was nothing more in its strongest days. It stood for a benevolent capitalism, its leaders for the most part unaware that capitalism contained no seeds of benevolence. Only Maxton’s idealism distinguishes him from the MacDonalds and Hendersons and Snowdens; had he attained parliamentary office, he would have been no more able than they to deserve the title of “beloved rebel,” or even rebel. Perhaps the most pointed comment on all that Mr. McNair’s book describes is contained in two recent death notices—David Kirkwood and George Buchanan. These, with Maxton, were firebrands among the “wild men” of the 1920s. They died reconciled to capitalism: the one titled, the other with his wildness tamed by service on the National Assistance Board.

R. Coster

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