In 1931, Labour right-wingers joined with the Tories to form a National Government. This act had but one purpose: to carry through ruthless cuts to save the profits of capitalism. Rob Sewell looks back at the great betrayal.
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
Marxist theory can be defined as the generalised historical experience of the working class, which acts as the memory of the Labour movement. Past defeats and mistakes can serve to enrich our understanding and prepare the new generations of Labour and trade union militants for the battles that loom ahead.
Leon Trotsky, reviewing his attempt to influence the leftward moving Independent Labour Party (ILP) in the early 1930s wrote:
“More than two years ago the writer of this article sought to arrive at an understanding with the leaders of the ILP by means of several articles and in letters; the attempt was barren of results: during that period, our criticism of the Communist International seemed to the leaders of the ILP to be ‘preconceived’, and ‘factionally’, perhaps even ‘personally’ motivated. Nothing remained except to yield the floor to time.”
Despite all the tumultuous events of the period, Trotsky’s attempt to influence the ILP came to nothing. The ILP, which had a great influence in the British Labour movement since it helped form the Labour Party, split from the Party in 1932 and moved in a semi-revolutionary direction.
But its failure to heed Trotsky’s advice to adopt a clear Marxist programme and face towards the traditional organisations of the working class resulted in its decline and eventual collapse.
The whole episode was a tragic opportunity missed for building a powerful Marxist force in Britain which could have changed the whole course of history. The experiences of the early 1930’s and the ILP split-off will serve to forewarn the new generation of class conscious workers in the battle to transform the mass organisations of the working class, the unions and the Labour Party, in the course of the struggle for socialism.
The crisis of 1931 and ensuing split provoked the biggest upheaval in the British Labour Party since its formation. The whole episode was borne out of the stormy events of the 1920s and the failure of the reformist policies pursued by the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31. The ILP was not some small sect. It played a prominent role in the British Labour movement. It provided the motive force behind the establishment of the Labour Party and developed a number of leaders from its ranks, including Ramsay MacDonald.
Although ideologically amorphous, the ILP tended to preserve the socialist thread of the Labour Party. Under the mighty impact of the world economic crash, the rise of fascism in Germany, and the betrayal of MacDonald, the rank and file of the ILP moved sharply to the left. The crisis of reforms reflected the impasse of British and world capitalism. In the epoch of capitalist expansion, the development of the productive forces provided the material basis for reformism, and enabled the system to afford certain concessions to the working class.
However, the epoch of capitalist crisis completely undermined this position. The reformist philosophy of changing society bit by bit proved untenable as right wing Labour Governments moved from reforms to counter-reforms.
Despite the boom years of the “Roaring Twenties”, British capitalism had undergone serious economic decline relative to other capitalist powers. It was now being overtaken by the powerful German and American economies.
The impasse of British industry was epitomised by the crisis in the coal industry. Since the war, the coal industry had been heavily subsidised by the state. The threat to deregulate the industry provoked the coalowners to launch an offensive to cut mineworker’s wages. This was seen by Baldwin, the Conservative Prime Minister, as a necessary general measure by the employers to “put industry back on its feet”. The attempt to slash wages and cut costs met the resistance of the working class and provoked the General Strike of 1926 and the nine month lockout of the miners. This battle was the most important in the history of the British working class and showed its revolutionary potential.
Unfortunately, due to the policies and actions of the reformist trade union leaders – both right and left – the strike was defeated.
In Where is Britain Going? Leon Trotsky explained that the British working class, when their aspirations are frustrated, tends to swing from the industrial to the political front and vice versa. The revolutionary wave after the war, resulted in a big strike wave and the explosive growth of the Labour Party. The ebbing of the strike wave after the defeat of Black Friday (1921), pushed the workers onto the political front.
“Paralysed in the sphere of economic action,” states Trotsky, “the energy of the masses was directed onto the political plane.” The election of the first minority Labour Government in 1924 gave rise to great expectations from the working class. However, its defeat after nine months caused the working class to swing over to the industrial front, The betrayal of the General Strike pushed the class once again to political action and the election of Labour in 1929.
The MacDonald Government proved to be a government of crisis. Steeped in the gradualism of Fabianism and unprepared to challenge capitalism. It tried to work within the confines of the “market economy”. Such a policy, on the basis of growing economic difficulties, resulted in their early reforms being replaced by severe counter-reforms.
In September 1929 the Wall Street Crash ushered in the deepest slump in history. The resulting collapse in the productive forces internationally caused spiralling unemployment: in Germany seven million were out of work, in Britain nearly three million, in the US, 25% of the workforce was unemployed. The ensuing trade war between the capitalist powers meant a collapse of markets and widespread over-production. The Depression which followed, drove the capitalist governments worldwide to unload the crisis onto the backs of the working class through wide-spread wage cuts and government “economics”. The MacDonald Labour Government, under the pressures of both big business and the working class, was thrown into crisis.
Whereas the working class demanded measures to reduce unemployment, etc., the ruling class demanded savage cuts in “the national interest” to put industry back on its feet. The government bent its knee to Capital and duly carried through a series of cuts in the dole through its Anomalies Bill. Not content with this, big business demanded further “sacrifices” and “increased production”.
In the Commons, the bourgeois parties, Tory and Liberal, pressed home these demands with an amendment to a censure motion proposing the creation of a committee to investigate further “economies”. The committee in the words of Beatrice Webb consisted of “five clever, hard faced representatives of capitalism and two tame trade unionists”.
As expected, its report published in July 1931, recommended draconian cuts in Government spending to balance the books, assist industrial recovery and promote profitability. These measures included a 20% cut in teachers’ pay, 25% in service pay and a 20% reduction in unemployment benefits, imposed through a Means Test.
In August, despite the opposition of the Trade Union Congress, these anti-working class proposals were scandalously accepted by the Labour Cabinet.
As always, weakness invites aggression. The proposed cuts accepted by MacDonald did not go far enough to “restore confidence in sterling” and prevent a run on the pound. Under pressure from the Bank of England and Big Business, the Cabinet were forced to look for further cuts. Despite representation from the unions, MacDonald replied that “nothing gives me greater regret than to disagree with old industrial friends, but I really personally find it absolutely impossible to overlook dread realities, as I am afraid you are doing.” Beatrice Webb described the General Council as “pigs” saying “they won’t agree to any ‘cuts’ of Unemployment Insurance benefits or salaries or wages.”
Despite MacDonald’s subservient attitude, the Cabinet baulked at further cuts. For them the extra £12 million proved too difficult to swallow. The Cabinet split.
24 August 1931. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Labour Prime Minister to become the Prime Minister of a coalition National Government, which was dominated by Conservative MPs. The Labour Party branded him a traitor. pic.twitter.com/3YkPEJvXiM
— Prof Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) August 24, 2020
MacDonald, determined to overcome the crisis at all costs, went to see the King and opened up discussions with the Tory and Liberal leaders with a view to establishing a National Government. He told the Labour Chancellor Snowden: “Tomorrow every Duchess in London will be waiting to kiss me…”.
In order to use the authority of the Labour leaders to confuse and disorientate the working class, the Opposition leaders wanted MacDonald to maintain the Premiership. Sir Herbert Samuel cynically informed King George V that:
“In view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be to the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour Government, The best solution would be if Mr Ramsay MacDonald, either with his present, or with a reconstituted Labour Cabinet, could propose the economies required. If he failed to secure the support of a sufficient number of his colleagues, then the best alternative would be a National Government composed of members of the three parties. It would be preferable that Mr MacDonald should remain Prime Minister in such a National Government.”
MacDonald failed to convince sufficient of his “colleagues”, and on the advice of the Opposition leaders and the King announced the end of the Labour Government. He then called a panic General Election towards the end of August. The result was a landslide victory for the National Government of Tories, Liberals and National Labour – which gained 554 seats and 70% of the vote. The Labour Party, which was completely disorientated by the betrayal, was decimated at the polls, capturing only 52 seats and 6.5 million votes.
In 1931, this is what the UK House of Commons looked like (every MP in the bottom section was part of the National Government) pic.twitter.com/5FRRXFiaa4
— Stats for Lefties (@LeftieStats) July 18, 2020
Although the more class conscious workers remained solid with the Labour Party, the result revealed what Trotsky termed as the “dual soul” of the British working class.
“It surprises one anew,” states Trotsky, “what a terrible load of humiliation, conservatism, bigotry, conciliation, respect to the summits, to titles, to riches, to the Crown, drags in its thoughts the British working class which is at the same time capable of grand revolutionary insurrections.” (Chartism, pre-war movements of 1911, movements following the war, the strike movement of 1926).
“The British proletariat, the oldest, with the most traditions, is, in its thinking, methods, most empirical, carries in its chest two souls, and turns, as it were, with two faces to historical events.” (Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, p61.)
Reformism and revolution
The revolutionary side of the working class was to quickly show itself in the reaction to the betrayal and the radicalisation in the ranks of the Labour movement, especially the ILP. “An ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory,” wrote Lenin.
The debacle of 1931 hammered home amongst the Labour movement activists the inadequacies of reformism. It had been put to the test twice: in 1924 and 1929-31, and both had failed miserably. Fabianism was now discredited amongst wide layers of the traditional organisations.
Marxists are not opposed to reforms but to reformism, the erroneous conception that class society can in some way be changed gradually over a long period of time. History has repeatedly demonstrated the fallacy of this approach, which has paved the way for demoralisation and defeat.
It is the duty of every class conscious worker to fight for every single reform, however small. Only in this way will the working class become conscious of the need to actively transform society on socialist lines. The struggle for day to day demands must be linked to the task of changing society – as only in this way will it be possible to make the reforms permanent.
The responsibility of Marxists is to fight for a system of transitional demands which act as a bridge between the present level of working class consciousness and the need to overthrow capitalism: a living wage for all, work or full pay, workers’ control, nationalisation of the monopolies, and a workers’ government.
The revulsion against the gradualism of MacDonald and the impasse of capitalism internationally, pushed many workers in the direction of Marxism. The ranks of the ILP moved dramatically to the left, causing the whole organisation to move in a centrist direction.
Centrism, to use Trotsky’s words, was “a general name for most varied tendencies and groupings spread out between reformism and Marxism”. The hammer blow of events caused profound changes in the consciousness of the class, which was evolving in a revolutionary direction.
The whole of the ILP was in flux. Its Easter Conference stated that “the class struggle which is the dynamic force in social change is nearing its decisive moment… there is no time now for slow processes of gradual change. The imperative need is for Socialism now.” This provided a tremendous possibility for the building of the forces of Marxism in Britain. Unfortunately the reaction against the reformism of the Labour leadership pushed the ILP ranks towards a sectarian position in regard to the Labour Party.
Again, at its 1932 Easter Conference a debate took place over disaffiliation from the Labour Party, with a large section voting to give the party an ultimatum over its Standing Orders for the Parliamentary party. This organisational issue – the independence of the five ILP MPs from the discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party – served to disguise the real issues behind the imminent split. At its special Conference in July, given the lack of response from the Labour Party, the ILP voted to disaffiliate.
The decision to split was compounded by the lack of any clear perspective for the subsequent development of ILP. This caused Trotsky to comment that the “ILP split at the wrong time over the wrong issue.”
The British Communist Party, which had become completely Stalinist in its policies and methods, proved unable to take advantage of the turmoil in the movement particularly given its ultra-left stance. Originally the CP had a significant basis in the trade unions through the establishment of the Minority Movement, as well as the Labour Party itself.
However, from 1928 the Stalinists, burning their fingers with their previous opportunist line towards the trade union bureaucracy adopted the theory of “social fascism”. This bankrupt theory stated that capitalism had entered a new “Third Period” of crisis which meant that social democracy played the role of the left face of fascism! This sectarian policy resulted in a big fall in their membership and growing isolation in the Labour movement.
However, the ILP leadership due to its theoretical confusion and lack of perspective began to flirt with the Stalinists. Despite the ultra-left course of the CP they eagerly seized upon a “united front” with the ILP to gain a foothold I its ranks. Trotsky in a number of articles and letters attempted to influence the ILP and win it to a clear revolutionary standpoint.
In so doing, Trotsky explained it was necessary for it to turn its back on the Stalinists and face towards the mass organisations which were in ferment. “The ILP”, wrote Trotsky, “can save the workers’ movement of Britain from this new danger only by freeing itself from all unclarity and haziness with regard to the was and methods of the socialist revolution and by becoming a truly revolutionary party of the proletariat.” However, “what is…dangerous is a sectarian approach to the Labour Party.”
He drove home this point forcefully, “for every revolutionary organisation in England its attitude towards the masses and to the class is almost coincidental with its attitude towards the Labour Party, which bases itself upon the trade unions.” (Writings on Britain, vol 3, p107)
Trotsky dismissed those arguments then circulating in the ILP that the Labour Party was “dead”, “exposed”, “incapable of change”, etc., which have been echoed year in and year out by every sectarian group since then.
“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight million who voted Labour. It is a great danger for revolutionists to attach too much importance to Conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda – but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot shout louder than the strength of his own throat.”
The same remains true of the trade unions, the basic organisation of the class. The most important task has become, in Trotsky’s works, “the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy”. This could only be done, not by turning away from the unions, as the ultra-lefts argue, but by patient, systematic revolutionary work inside them. For Trotsky, “the trade union question remains the most important question of proletarian policy in Great Britain, as well as in the majority of old capitalist countries.”
Unfortunately, the leaders of the ILP ignored this advice. Not only did they fail to clarify their ideas, they continued to turn their backs on the Labour Party and called upon their members to withdraw from its ranks and opt-out f paying the union political levy. This orientation had dire consequences for the ILP. From 100,000 supporters in 1930, with nominally 140 MPs, the ILP was reduced to around 17.000 members at the time of the split, and 4,400 by 1935.
Tragically, the split from Labour took place as the Party was swinging to the left, in which the ILP could have played to decisive role. MacDonald’s betrayal, the slump and the depression, the growth of mass unemployment as well as the rise of fascism, all contributed to a growing radicalisation in the mass organisations. Even a number of the Labour leaders, reflecting the pressures from below, were affected by these events.
In 1932, Harold Laski, a leading Labour theoretician, asked whether “evolutionary socialism (had) deceived itself in believing that it can establish itself by peaceful means within the ambit of the capitalist system.” Another leading left figure, Stafford Cripps, in a pamphlet entitled Can Socialism Come by Constitutional Means? warned that “the ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat Parliamentary actions if the issue is the direct issue as to the continuance o their financial and political control.” He then went on to advocate emergency powers for a Labour Government to tackle the crisis.
If the Tories threatened to institute a military dictatorship, states Cripps, “it would probably be better and more conducive to the general peace and welfare of the country for the Socialist Government to make itself temporarily into a dictatorship until matters could again be put to the test at the polls.” Despite the split-off of the ILP, the ranks of the Labour Party moved steadily leftwards. The 1932 Labour Party Conference passed a resolution, without discussion which declared that “the main objective of the Labour Party is the establishment of Socialism” and that “the common ownership of the means of production and distribution is the only mans by which the producers by had and brain will be able to secure the full fruits of their industry.”
A further resolution moved by Sir Charles Trevelyan demanded:
“On assuming office, either with or without power, definite Socialist legislation must immediately promulgated, and that the Party shall stand or fall in the House of Commons on the principles in which it has faith.”
“Let us lay down in some such resolution as this the unshakeable mandate that they (the Labour Government) are to introduce at once, before attempting remedial measures of any other kind great socialist measures, or some general measure empowering them to nationalise the key industries o the country.”
Henderson the Party chairman on the eve of resigning, was practically howled down when he opposed the resolution as it would tie the hands of the leadership!
Clement Attlee, the future leader of the Party, spoke in favour saying: “The events of the last year have shown hat no further progress can be made in seeking to get crumbs from the rich man’s table…”
With the split of the ILP, the remaining left regrouped around a new organisation, the Socialist League. The League however, had a primarily middle class basis and proved ineffective in the struggle with Party’s right wing. By 1935, the League had joined the so-called “Unity Campaign”, involving the ILP and the Communist Party which had moved 180 degrees on Stalin’s orders to establish “popular fronts”. The initiative proved barren.
According to Fenner Brockway, the secretary of the ILP, “Its result was the destruction of the Socialist league, the loss of influence of Cripps, Bevan, Strauss and other ‘lefts’, the strengthening of reactionary leaders, and the disillusionment of the rank and file.”
The Unity Manifesto issued by the Campaign in 1936 was rejected by the Labour Party which had largely recovered from the debacle and was making gains. It used the League’s association with the CP to proscribe it. This ban was accepted by the left, which had been largely demoralised by the experience. This set-back was a product of opportunism of the League, the ILP and the Stalinists.
Their “unity” programme rather than being based upon a principled position was used to paper over their differences. The ILP, instead of offering a way forward for the British working class, disorientated its forces and lost great opportunities. This was borne out of theoretical confusion, incorrect perspectives and a false orientation.
While flirting with the CP in Britain, on the international scale, the ILP made an alliance with a number of centrist groupings and parties in the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity. Occasionally balancing between Stalinism and Trotskyism, this Bureau played an increasingly damaging role in fostering illusions in Stalinism and spreading confusion where it had any influence.
Its most damaging role was in Spain where its sister organisation, the POUM, despite the heroism of the Spanish proletariat, played a fatal role by entering the Popular Front government and using its great authority to subordinate the interests of the Spanish working class to the Liberal republicans. This policy resulted in the shipwreck of the revolution and ultimate victory of Franco.
At a time when the ILP’s co-thinkers in Spain were being hunted down and murdered by the agents of the Stalinist secret police, Fenner Brockway refused to support the Dewey Commission into the Moscow Trials, calling instead for “an inquiry into the role of Trotskyism in the working class movement.” This political confusion, which was the hallmark of centrism, was the ultimate cause of its downfall.
Sectarian mistakes have been made throughout the history of the British Labour movement. As Lenin explained, “the movement pays for the opportunism of the leadership by ultra-left tendencies.”
Despite the warnings of Marx and Engels, the early British Marxists in the Social Democratic Federation maintained a sectarian attitude to the organised Labour Movement. Although they participated in the founding of the Labour Party at the turn of the century, they walked out within twelve months after failing to persuade the rank and file of the need for a Socialist programme. Under the impact of the Russia Revolution such a programme was adopted by the Party and enshrined Clause Four of the Party Constitution.
In the meantime, the “Marxists” of the SDF remained isolated in the outskirts of the movement for the last 90 years. Even when the British Communist Party was formed in 1920, Lenin argued for it to affiliate to the Labour Party.
However, such was the sectarianism of the early CP that their application was couched in the most ultra-left manner, inviting rejection.
Lenin himself took up these ultra-left tendencies that threatened to wreck the movement in Left-wing Communism and Infantile Disorder. Once the British CP managed to overcome its “infantile leftism”, which proved to be a general feature of the Communist Parties at this time, they began to develop a wide spread influence in the Labour movement. This was largely destroyed by the zigzag policy of the Stalinists, ending up with the suicidal policies of the Third Period.
The swing to the left in the early 1930’s provided a further golden opportunity for the development of genuine Marxism. Leon Trotsky recognised this potential and attempted to influence this movement and win it to a clear revolutionary position. The failure of the centrist leaders of the ILP to carry through this transition from reformism to Marxism resulted in a debacle for this developing left wing.
Marx explained many years ago that history repeats itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. The experiences of the SDF, the CP and the ILP are tragedies for the movement. The later experiences of the different sectarian groups, despite all these graphic lessons, can only be seen as a farce. Their repeated attempts to establish phantom “revolutionary” parties in competition with the Labour Party have always ended in shipwreck with their remnants scattered on the fringes of the Labour movement.
Marxists cannot, as was explained in the Communist Manifesto nearly 150 years ago, establish their own sectarian preconditions for participation in the organisations of the working class. They are distinguished, on the one hand, as “the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
Our task is not to “shout louder than our own throat”, which has been the hallmark of the ultra-left groups and who believe history begins with themselves. They lack a sense of proportion ad attempt to jump over reality by shortcuts and panaceas. The prime role of Marxism is to win the working class to its banner and prepare the forces politically and organisationally for the overthrow of capitalism and Stalinism. However there is no simple or straight line to this objective. It can only be achieved on the basis of mighty events that will radically change the consciousness and outlook of the working class.
Marxism will play its vital role in arming the working class with a clear programme, strategy and tactics. To achieve this end, Marxists must actively participate in the struggles of the class and in the life of its organisations. This does not mean that we strive to impose our ideas and programme artificially on the movement, but participate with the workers and “patiently explain”, to use Lenin’s words, our views at each stage. That is not to say that we simply sit back and wait on events, any more that Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Our participation in the struggles of the class is not done from a haughty sectarian approach, but in order to assist and point the best way forward. We “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole” (Marx). Those who remain outside of these organisations will be doomed to sectarian isolation.
This attitude and approach is essential if Marxism is to penetrate not only the advanced organised sections of the working class, but the class itself. The reformist leaders attempt to frighten the workers away from Marxism by portraying it as something alien. Unfortunately the actions of the sects give some credence to this assertion. In reality nothing could be further from the truth. Marxism has always had a basis of support in the British Labour movement, even before the creation of the Labour Party. Marxism is not some foreign creed but is, in essence, the generalised historical experience of the class internationally. It provides the class conscious worker with a doctrine and outlook that can cut through the smoke-screen of the ruling class and provide a scientific materialist explanation of events.
In other words Marxists do not set themselves up in opposition to the working class and its organisations but struggle alongside the workers to transform them into genuine fighting organisations. In Britain this means the trade unions and the Labour Party. There are no short cuts to this problem. There are no panaceas. It requires theoretical clarity and correct perspectives. On the basis of big events, which will radically transform the consciousness of the class and burn out any lingering illusions in capitalism, as well as a “patient approach”, Marxism can provide the necessary lever for the crucial transformation of the organisations of the working class.
This article was first published in Socialist Appeal (Britain) in 1992.