From the September 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard
To justly appreciate the value of a "Great Man” it is wise to study his early life, when he was forming his views. Now, Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald is a "Great Man”—he must be, because he is Prime Minister—to understand him correctly one must look at his past. Let us do so.
I was very much struck with the ease with which Mr. MacDonald carried his top hat and the dignified way he wore his frock coat. Frankly, I was puzzled, as I took him for "a man of the people, raised from obscurity and clothed with a little temporary authority,” as Mr. George Barnes used to say, when he was "doing his bit” at home during the war. But a glance into the past helped me to solve the riddle. I came across an old copy of "To-day,” Vol. VII., January-June, 1887, and on page 66 found an article by Mr. MacDonald entitled "A Rock Ahead.”
In this article Mr. MacDonald is breaking a lance with certain unnamed Socialists to whom he refers as "censors of Socialism,” and in criticising them he makes clear his own position. He writes:—
"Of course, those Socialists who see in every tall hat the mark of a traitor, in every respectable outline the sign of a money-grabber, and in every appeal to reason a bait of the enemy’s, will not for a moment allow that the coming revolution is to be directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need, but of intellectual development; to be, in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do. But, nevertheless, so it must be, to be of any good. By pandering to all the desires of the very lowest class, we may soon gather round us a mob, and just possibly even make a revolution, but the social reconstruction of society will be further removed from us than ever. And yet I scarcely know if with such material a revolution of any sort would be a possibility.”
There, then, you have a fairly clear explanation of the origin of Mr. MacDonald’s "statesmanlike” capacities.
As becomes a man who has climbed to position in spite of motor-cars and biscuit factories, Mr. MacDonald had, in his early days, a fitting contempt for mere hewers of wood and drawers of water such as you and I, fellow-worker, and he expressed his view quite plainly. Here is how he put it:—
“Intimately, then, as Socialism concerns labour, and despite the efforts made in certain quarters to flout all Socialists who have not been ground in the mill of a labourer’s position, yet labour as such is simply useless for freeing itself. They tell us that the little glory we have, as heads of creation, is due to our being the last forms developed from the higher animals. And that may be true. But there is a second man in us now. That man is the intellect. Socialism is the first stage of its development. The intellect, as it develops, makes us feel our social evils—poverty, slavery, privilege; and our mental needs—leisure, beauty, hope. We become Socialists. The rude and uncultured masses, as a rule, espouse the same cause because the intellectual atmosphere they breathe has taught them to be discontented. The educated espouse it because of its natural justice. The former is the bad ground, the rock ahead; the latter the fruitful soil . . . "
"We want men who are clear-headed and far-seeing, men who, by moral force, can command respect, and who, though compromising nothing, know how to be reasonable.
Thus, then, did Mr. MacDonald lay down the path to guide him to his present position as chief of the Cabinet that controls the destinies of this great empire. He most emphatically knew “how to be reasonable.” And if, at election time, he exhausted himself working up constituencies by grand tours he was, no doubt, helping the “uncultured masses” to breathe the “intellectual atmosphere.” To people such as we are, motor tours through the deserts may appear almost as curious a way of gaining information of the practical steps necessary to achieve Socialism, as, for instance, Mr. Thomas’s trip to Canada to solve the unemployment question in England. But that is the difference between culture and lack of culture, as Mr. Webb has demonstrated by taking a peerage in order to abolish privilege, and Mr. Snowden by taking. a firm stand on behalf of the British property-owners at the Hague in order, no doubt, to abolish property. All this is very complicated and puzzling to us. But then we are but the uncultured mass whose business it is to present our backs as ladders for the use of the cultured people with ideals who, as they assure us, will bring Jerusalem to this green and pleasant land if only we will be patient and wait long enough.
If these gentlemen, in the course of their climbing, enjoy good dinners, nice wines, and grand tours, is it not fitting for cultured gentlemen like them ? And if we go without our dinners, drink water (if it rains) and tour the labour exchanges, while presenting our backs for the use of the climbers, well, is it not fitting for uncultured mugs like us?
I can hardly do better than finish this eulogy with the closing words of Mr. MacDonald’s article:—
Remember, then, if one of thy members offend thee, to cut it off and cast it from thee, for it is more profitable that one member should perish than that the whole body should be cast into the hell fire of failure.