Thursday, April 28, 2016

Forty Wasted Years: Three Labour Leaders Look Back (1934)

From the May 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

Three men well on in years, each of whom has spent, a lifetime in the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party, have been looking back at the work those parties have done, and asking themselves whether it was good. Two of them, Lord Snowden and Mr. George Lansbury, have risen from obscurity to become Ministers of the Crown. The third, Mr. J. T. Abbott, has been active and influential in the I.L.P., of which he was for many years organiser. They are all three the possessors of qualities which would have made them an asset to any movement which had their undivided allegiance. They have all had their hour of triumph. Now they are all three either openly alienated from the movements they helped to form or putting forward a hostile policy. Lord Snowden, after serving in two Labour Governments, and being largely instrumental in swinging over working-class votes to the National Government which rose on the wreckage of the last Labour Government, soon left the National Government also and is now isolated from every organised movement, a lonely figure in the House of Lords. He tells us (John Bull, April 21st) that the “ best Government I have known" was a Liberal Government. "The years 1906 to 1914 were productive of a larger output of beneficial legislation than in any similar period in our history. ... I have no hesitation in saying that the Liberal Government of 1906 contained a larger number of able men than any Government I have known."

Mr. J. T. Abbott, after forty years in the I.L.P., finds himself compelled to resign, and is already outside the Labour Party. Late in life he must face the heartbreaking task of beginning all over again. In 1893 it was the Independent Labour Party; in 1934, he says, it is necessary to form an Independent Socialist Party! He partly realises now how wrong and useless the old effort was, and must be full of regret that he did not learn the lesson many years earlier.

Lastly there is Mr. George Lansbury, who for many weeks past has been laid up with a broken thigh. Pondering over the activities of his party he confesses (Clarion, April 14th and 21st) that he has had to throw over many views he has held for years. He sees now the meaningless nature of reforms—“ like baling out the ocean with a tea-spoon." He admits that some of his present views may conflict with Labour Party policy, but nevertheless declares against compromise, against fighting elections on any issue but Socialism, and against any more alliances with the Liberals. He states as clearly as he knows how that the only solution is common ownership and democratic control of the means of life. He admits that in saying these things he may be contradicting what he has been saying before. 

The significance of this declaration is not that it commits the Labour Party, of which Mr. Lansbury is leader—in that quarter it will be passed over and forgotten in a few weeks—nor that it means a deep and permanent change of attitude on his part. When he finds that the whole life of the Labour Party depends on a continuance of reform and compromise, as it does, he will either have to toe the line or he will be gradually superseded. It is almost a certainty that when he recovers his health he will again be absorbed in the day-to-day work of vote-catching and reformism and his sick-bed thoughts will be forgotten by him as by others. Already there are renewed talks of a Liberal-Labour alliance, which the Clarion receives sympathetically.

Nevertheless, the confession of past errors, and Lansbury's attempt to work out a new and different “profession of faith" has a significance. It shows, as the S.P.G.B. has claimed from its formation, that serious study of the working-class position and of the results of reformist activities cannot logically lead to any other conclusions than those we have been proclaiming high and low for thirty years. In spite of all the weight of influence against his appreciating these truths, Mr. Lansbury has been unable honestly to escape agreeing with at least some of them.

It is not a pleasant thought, either for the three chief actors or for their admirers, that their words and actions should testify to the complete and irretrievable failure of the Labour Party and I.L.P. For the working class, however, there is no need for despair. The forces and experiences which in the eyes of those who think have robbed the Labour Party of every vestige of a plausible case for reformism, have given the Socialist movement confidence and courage based on the confirmation that our case is sound and unanswerable.

As belief in Labourism declines, Socialism advances.
Edgar Hardcastle

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

An overly optimistic article written at the time when the SPGB was going through a few years of impressive growth and influence.