Book Review from the November 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard
James Ramsay MacDonald: Labour's Man of Destiny. By H. Hessell Tiltman. (Jarrold’s. 352 pages. 21s.)
This is a book about James Ramsay MacDonald, P.C., M.P. It is also as much a sketch of the Labour Party, of which he is held to have been the creator.
Ramsay MacDonald is portrayed as a man of great strength of character, who by sheer eloquence and intellectual ability is able to dominate and discipline the Labour Party, in spite of the I.L.P. “ginger” group of unruly schoolboys. An example is given (page 164) of an unofficial gathering of responsible Labour leaders who in 1924 met to discuss whether it was expedient to form a Government with the support of considerably less than a third of the number of seats in the House of Commons. They decided unanimously that it was not expedient. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald arrived upon the scene, and having listened to their arguments, proceeded to riddle them. In a very short time every man there was in agreement with him that they should take office. In contrast, we are presented with another side of his character, his "aloofness” and reserve, his love of the country and of quiet family life, and his having forsaken an academic career to which he is naturally inclined. Mr. Tiltman almost gives the impression that, but for this sacrifice by Mr. MacDonald of his liking for the academic life, the Labour Party would not have existed.
There are many people who hold the opinion that the Labour Party and the I.L.P. in the past were “more socialist” and "more revolutionary ” than they are to-day.
Mr. Tiltman’s book dispels the illusion. The policy of the Labour Party and its affiliated bodies, right from its inception, was reformist. The term socialism when it is used, is defined as being synonymous with municipal tramways, waterworks, and other Government services. Abundant material in support of this is reproduced from speeches and articles, and from local and parliamentary election programmes.
After the General Election of 1906, 29 Labour M.P.’s found their way to the House of Commons. (In the preceding Parliament there had been only four.) This was largely due to "compacts” and "understandings” with the Liberals. According to Mr. MacDonald one very important factor was the discontent that set in after the Boer War, which made their propaganda, which included a "criticism” of that campaign, acceptable to a larger percentage of the electorate. (See appendix, page 287.)
The author leads us up to the war. The Labour Party, after having drawn up a resolution in opposition to the Government’s "policy which had produced the war,” deserted MacDonald after the debate in the House of Commons, almost to a man. It must, however, always be remembered that Mr. MacDonald’s stand on the war was never based upon the Socialist refusal to defend the interests of the national groups of the capitalist class, but upon opposition to the Government’s foreign policy. He was of the opinion that, when "we were in it, it had to go on." Several speeches, articles, and letters (including the recruiting letter sent to the Mayor of Leicester) are reproduced in this book.
To those who lay great stress upon the fact that Ramsay MacDonald risked political suicide because of his war policy it may also be pointed out that Mr. MacDonald did not imagine that he was permanently destroying his career. He made a speech in the House of Commons on August 3rd, 1914 (see appendix C, page 285), and said : "I not only know, but I feel that the feeling of the House is against us. I have been through this before, and 1906 came as part recompense.” As indicated above, the 1906 elections showed a tremendous comparative increase of seats in the Labour Party’s favour. Far from anticipating political suicide it would seem that Mr. MacDonald expected his policy of criticism to capitalise in an eventual increase in the Labour Party’s representation in the House of Commons.
Mr. MacDonald is an astute politician, but he seems to have made some miscalculations in 1914—as, indeed, did many others.
For the rest, the book is sketchy and makes somewhat tedious reading. The author is too anxious to show Mr. MacDonald as a "great” man. That MacDonald has broken down the obstacles of a humble start in life, has been a good husband and a father may be very true. But how "great” would he have been had he preached Socialism, instead of preaching the advanced Liberal doctrines on which the Labour Party is built? Like others, he would have lived in comparative obscurity, his qualities unnoticed because they did not bear the hall mark of success as estimated in a capitalist world.