From the June 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent furore in the press and within the Labour Party itself over whether the Party will admit to its ranks “Marxists” has been the cause of much debate concerning the origins of Labourism. Tony Benn, a member of the Government, defended the notion that Marxism has had a strong influence in developing the Labour Party. Benn’s claim is spurious and unfounded: the rejection of Marxism, and hence revolution, fated Labour to follow a reformist path leading to the inevitable disillusionment of its members.
Most of Labour’s early leaders if asked what books were seminal in shaping their views of society would probably mention John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, the Bible. If Capital was mentioned at all it would come a long way down the list. In fact, it has been claimed that the Labour Party owes more to the writings of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, than to the founder of scientific Socialism, Karl Marx. Keir Hardie, founder of the Independent Labour Party, said: “I claim for Socialism that it is the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system,” It was said of Hardie’s meetings that they often began with a hymn, followed by a lesson, and concluded with a prayer.
The Labour Party’s view of society at its foundation was not an economic analysis of capitalism. The capitalist system was bad because it was run by hard-faced politicians who were indifferent to social evils, and not because of its economic laws which placed the pursuit of profit above all else. Therefore, the solution to the problems of society lay in removing these men from; office and replacing them with a more decent set who would, by reforms, abolish the poor, feed the hungry, etc.
This was a denial of reality. No party, however well-intentioned, could hope to spirit away the essential basis of capitalism, whilst at the same time acting as custodian of that very system. The only option was to change society in a revolutionary way and this was rejected out of hand by the Labourites. Thus, having no Marxist outlook, it was understandable that Labour leaders would find working with the avowedly capitalist Liberals no hardship (it still is the case). Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, said he could see “no profound” gulf between Liberalism and Socialism. He argued that socialism was to be furthered by the close collaboration of men of goodwill from all [sic] classes on the basis of “conceptions of right and wrong” common to all. Keir Hardie’s hatred of class strife was a direct result of his Christian beliefs and Liberal upbringing.
The Labourites from the beginning shied away from the fact that the working class’s interests were diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. In fact they held firmly to the principles of free-trade Liberalism. Keir Hardie himself left the Liberal Party not because he found the policies of Gladstone distasteful, but as a result of the way the local party branch chose its parliamentary candidates; a method which excluded working men. Hardie affirmed his still-felt affinity for Liberalism when he stood for election as an independent labour candidate in 1892. His election manifesto stated: “Generally I am in agreement with the present programme of the Liberal Party.” So much was Liberalism the cornerstone of much of the early ILP ideology that the Manchester Guardian could say, in 1901, of its annual conference: “what must strike a liberal . . . is, one would say, how much of the proceedings are devoted to the advocacy of traditional Liberal principles.”
When it came to deciding what Hardie’s party was to be called, the 1893 Conference rejected the idea of naming the new party the Socialist Labour Party, for in the words of Katherine Conway: “The new party has to appeal to an electorate, which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism.” This opportunistic approach to the working-class electorate has characterized the Labourites from the earliest times. Its refusal to commit itself to definite principles was the nearest it ever got to having principles, Henry Pelling, the historian, has argued in his book The Origins of the Labour Party that by adopting the broad, indefinite title of the ILP, the party was only reflecting the fact that most of its support lay in local parties and union branches which were not committed to socialism. The object of these bodies was to build a parliamentary party on the basis of social reform, not social revolution. The eight-hour day, abolition of overtime, old-age pensions, and so on, were prominent amongst the ILP’s early demands. Their allies in this were to be trade unions.
This appeal to trade unions proved ultimately successful. It was union support which saved the infant Labour party. For in the general election of the late 1890’s all the Labour candidates had been defeated, polling 44,000 votes in all, and the ILP was on the verge of bankruptcy.
But the unions were not attracted by overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with Socialism. What interested them most was the creation of a political party which would safeguard their immediate existence by using parliament to pass favourable legislation. This would have been entrusted to the Liberals, as traditionally had been the case. However, they had allowed the employers to organize strike-breaking organizations, especially in the docks, they had voted against the eighth-hour day demand, they had watched without a murmur the Taff Vale case of 1900. It was disillusionment with Liberalism and not capitalism which forced the unions to throw in their lot with Labour.
During the period between 1906 and 1914, the Labour mps merely acted as a pressure group, prepared to barter their vote for small, piecemeal legislative measures advancing the cause of trade unionism, and in this they were reasonably successful. For example, they secured the repeal of the Taff Vale judgement in the Trades Disputes Act of 1906. However, Labour was normally content to follow the Liberal lead at this time, which led it to be described as the “handmaiden of liberalism.”
Let us turn to another group concerned in the formation of the Labour Party, the Fabians. They were a group of well-to-do intellectuals, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb amongst them. It was the Fabians who, in Britain, made socialism synonymous with the state. They made the remarkable discovery that in the wasteland of capitalism there were patches of socialism in the form of public baths, parks, playfields, cemeteries, washhouses and public conveniences. Even the War Office and Scotland Yard had for them the character of socialist institutions. Another of their brilliant contributions was the theory of gradualism: the official socialism of the Labour Party. Finding words like “revolution” alien to their vocabulary, the Fabians argued that socialism was to evolve almost imperceptibly over many years, until one night everyone would go to bed (except those on nightshift) and in the morning they would wake up inside socialism. To quote Keir Hardie, Socialism would come “like a thief in the night”. The main agent for this unconscious change in society—no one was to be aware it was occurring, except the Fabians — was to be the state. Attempts at putting this theory into practice via nationalization have not brought Socialism one inch nearer, neither have they reduced class conflict—witness the recent bitter battles with the miners.
The emphasis it placed upon working within the capitalist system, meant that the Labour Party was open to all sorts of social reformers and cranks. Trade unionists, dissatisfied Liberals, well-to-do philanthropists, and out-and-out careerists saw in the Labour Party a meal-ticket. A direct result of the influx of the intellectuals and managerial types was the ousting of working people from the representative positions in the party. By 1945, Arthur Greenwood, Labour’s Lord Privy Seal, could say approvingly: “I look around my colleagues and I see landlords, capitalists and lawyers. We are a cross section of the national life, and this is something that has never happened before.” (Hansard, 17th August 1945)
Thus in the origins of the Labour Party we can see the seeds of future failures. The Labour Party has not brought Socialism about because from the outset it never was a Socialist party. It sought to win votes on the basis of social reform and not social revolution. Any socialists who might have existed in the Labour ranks at that time were swamped by non-socialists, who dictated the party’s course along essentially reformist and capitalist lines. Any notion that once into office the Labourites could take the capitalist dog for a walk has been subsequently shown to be false. The dog has taken them for a long walk down the road of power politics and social evils. Support of two world wars, presiding over massive unemployment, etc., has been the sorry outcome for a party, which failed to realize that capitalism can only be run in the interests of the capitalist class. It was not a question of good men with Christian principles, but of socialist economics.