James Keir Hardie, one of the earlier Labour MPs, was, at different times, Chairman of the Labour Party Annual Conference and Chairman and leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He was largely responsible for the formation of the Labour Party and it has been claimed for him that “More than any other man, he shaped the political history of the Labour Movement.” Members of the Labour Party praise him for making their party what it is today but, for a reason which will become obvious, they never quote his detailed statement about the kind of party he claimed to be creating. It was published in 1910 by the Independent Labour Party under the title My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance.
Keir Hardie had founded the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and was its Chairman. His purpose in issuing his Confession of Faith was to rebut the charge that, by affiliating to the Labour Party, the ILP had sacrificed its “socialist” character. Some of those who made the charge were members of the ILP. He defended affiliation to the Labour Party, which was, then as now, dominated by trade unions, on the ground of its practical advantage to the ILP but also, and primarily, on the ground of “socialist” principle — in line with his own declaration three years earlier that, for him, the socialist objective was “. . . free Communism in which … the rule of life will be — ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.” (Keir Hardie, From Serfdom to Socialism (1907), page 89).
His argument from expediency was to point out to the ILP that if they wanted to grow quickly, and in particular, if they wanted to get members elected to Parliament, their only hope was to have the support and the votes of trade unionists and to fight elections as Labour Party candidates. He indicated that there were some people “. . . who act as though their principle reason for being in the ILP is that they may get returned to Parliament.” He did not pretend that the votes the ILP thus picked up were the votes of Socialists.
He quoted figures to show that while it had taken the ILP seven years as an independent organization to reach 193 branches and an income of £721, within nine years of affiliation to the Labour Party (1900- 1909) these figures had jumped to 887 branches and an annual income of £8,871.
But his main argument was that forming Marxian Socialist organizations and propagating Socialism failed to bring quick growth and was wrong in principle. He instanced the small growth of the Social Democratic Federation and its failure to win any Parliamentary elections. (He did not name the SPGB but had a reference to “other Socialist or pseudo-Socialist” organizations.)
He argued that Marxian Socialist propaganda did not quickly attract large numbers of workers and that it was appreciation of this which had been the reason for the formation of the ILP, based on the different policy of
. . . conducting the propaganda in such a way as would win over working-class organizations, especially the Trade Unions to the support of Socialism, rather than alienate them.
This policy, known as “getting into the workers’ day-to-day struggles”, was advocated by the ILP and later by the Communist Party and always featured in controversy between the SPGB and those two organizations.
History has dealt mockingly with Keir Hardie’s theories. In appearance everything happened just as he said it would; in essentials nothing. The tactics he urged on the ILP got them members, money and seats in the House of Commons. In the 1929 Parliament more than 200 MPs belonged to the ILP — now it has no MPs and is all but dead, though its opportunist tactics are constantly revived by new so-called “left-wing” organisations. And the Labour Party first outstripped the Liberals, then became the largest party in Parliament and formed the government, all as Keir Hardie anticipated.
But what has happened to his belief that the policy he stood for would convert the working-class to Marxian Socialism? For that was the specific claim he spelled out in his Confession:
The Labour Party is the only expression of orthodox Marxian Socialism in Great Britain.
The Labour Party practices the Marxian policy of the class struggle, following Marx’s own example, and is blamed by its critics for doing so . . .
Thus it is proved that the founders of the ILP, and even more so, of the Labour Party, were, if I may use the expression, in the direct line of apostolic succession from Marx and the other great master minds of Socialist theory and policy.
Where is it all now? Keir Hardie himself later repudiated the class struggle. The ILP and Labour Party both dissociated themselves from Marxism. It was a General Secretary of the Labour Party, Mr. Morgan Phillips, who asserted that his party “. . owed more to Methodism than to Marx.” The Labour Party, TUC and the Unions all turned their backs on Marxian economics and gave whole-hearted support to anti-Marxist Keynesian myths of “controlled capitalism”, full employment and the end of crises. Even Keir Hardie’s belief that he was building a party completely apart and hostile to Tories and Liberals proved to be wrong because twice they have been in a three-party coalition government. (Is a third time now in the offing?). Above all, nobody in the Labour Party leadership today even pretends that that party is interested in the Marxian Socialist objective that Keir Hardie proclaimed.
The Labour Party has had sixteen years in office, years of administering capitalism just like any other capitalist party. Winning the workers over to Socialism was bound to be a slow business. It was made more difficult by Keir Hardie’s policies. Events have shown how right the SPGB was and how wrong was Keir Hardie.