The Labour Party has always prided itself on being different from the Liberals and Tories it its attitude to armaments and war. It charged the Liberals with having been responsible for the First World War and has often called the Tory leaders war makers. It declared its trust in the League of Nations and later in United Nations as means of preventing war, and condemned the Tories in particular for lack of enthusiasm in supporting the League and UNO. It was always to the fore in declaring its belief in disarmament and in securing peace among the nations through peaceful discussion to settle disputes. It attracted and tolerated a fringe of self-styled pacifists. In its early days it gave a certain amount of lip service to ideas of international working class action to prevent war. One of its best known leaders, Keir Hardie, writing in 1907, claimed for the Labour Party and the parties in other countries with which it was associated that the evil of war was already on the way to being eradicated.
“Whatever differences there may be in the International Socialist Movement concerning the tactics to be pursued in achieving Socialism, there is perfect agreement on two leading points of principle: hostility to militarism in all its forms and to war as a method of settling disputes between nations is the first. In countries where the Socialist parties are a real influence in the councils of the nation, the war spirit is suffering appreciable eclipse. It would, for instance, be a difficult task, and one yearly becoming more so, for the rulers of say France and Germany, to again embroil these two nations with each other. Probably the first effective service to which the growing forces of International Socialism will be put will be to make war upon war. The Holy Alliance which Socialism is achieving is not that of crowned heads but of homy hands and therein lies the only real hope there is of peace on earth. The other point of agreement concerns the essential principle of Socialism” (From Serfdom to Socialism).
These were the beliefs and hopes of Keir Hardie at that time: and all of them were wrong, as events were soon to prove. When the war came in 1914 the French and German governments had no difficulty at all in rallying the majority of the workers for war, including the majority of members and supporters of the parties Keir Hardie was writing about. They —and this included Keir Hardie—let themselves be tricked by the plea that in each country “National interests” were at stake and that these involved the working class.
The collapse of the International was represented as a failure of the Socialist movement to stand the test, a charge which was examined and shown to be false in lengthy article
in the Socialist Standard
fifty years ago. in the issue of March 1915. It was the collapse not of parties grounded in Socialist principles but of parties which, in the pursuit of mass membership, had turned aside from the hard task of spreading an understanding of the problem of replacing capitalism by Socialism, to follow the seemingly easy and fruitful road of chasing reforms of capitalism. They were parties aiming merely to take on the administration of capitalism and to show that they could do it as well as their Liberal and Tory rivals.
But the belief still persists among millions of Labour Party supporters that their party can indeed run affairs differently and in particular that they can bring a new attitude towards the avoidance of war. Yet all the evidence of the past Labour governments shows this to be a vain hope.
The Labour Party supported the war in 1914 and joined the coalition government to fight the war. In 1924, in office as a minority Labour government dependent on Liberal votes, they were responsible for expanding the navy and air force though claiming that by concentrating on more deadly but cheaper weapons they were able to cut the overall cost. And at the Labour Party Conference a year later (1925) the Executive was able to defeat a motion to support disarmament with the plea that “they could not afford to ignore the question of defence.” Ironically the “enemy” the delegates were asked to fear was not on this occasion Germany, but France.
The Labour Government had, to quote the words of one of their leaders Mr. J. H. Thomas, taken on the job of governing “while accepting the present order of society.” They were administrating capitalism, and armaments and war are an inescapable responsibility of those who do so. They carried on in the same way in the second Labour Government 1929-1931.
After the second World War, when again they were part of the National Government, they had six years of rule, this time with a large majority but again without any mandate for Socialism. Before they left office if had fallen to them to be involved in the Korean War and to initiate the great rearmament which sent expenditure up from £777 million in 1950-1 to £1,110 million in 1951-2. They were responsible for the development of nuclear weapons. In office again since last October they have made a special feature of their aim to reduce armaments but, according to forecasts of the forthcoming budget (Sunday Times 8.1.65.) the expenditure in the coming year is likely to reach the record figure of over £2,000 million.
The Labour government have already found themselves committed to sending troops to Malaysia, with the Navy Minister, Mr. Christopher Mayhew, voicing the possibility of sending additional forces to strengthen the 50,000 men and 70 warships already there. They may before long be involved in Vietnam.
Is it that they want war? Of course not, any more than Keir Hardie did in 1907. But they are pursuing a course which is equally fatal. Capitalism is a jungle of warring capitalist states—on both sides of the Iron Curtain- and in this jungle all governments live by the same rule of force in the pursuit of markets, raw materials etc. The only way out—half glimpsed by Keir Hardie—lies in united working class action to abolish capitalism and establish Socialism, not in alliance with the governments of the separate countries but against all of them. Far from endorsing the Socialist view on this, the Labour Government, like its predecessors, accepts the function of representing British capitalism against the rival capitalist groups.
The Government, and its supporters, devote their efforts to the task of gaining markets for British exports. As a first step towards understanding something about the nature of the capitalism they disown with words but support with deeds, they might ponder a wartime declaration of the late Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the earlier Labour government:
If after the coming of peace, we were to start once again the vicious circle of international trade competition we should be lost, and in a few years would be confronting another war.