Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

4. Riding the Post-War Storm

Did Labour prevent a British revolution?

THE ARMISTICE in November 1918 saw simultaneous revolutionary outbreaks in Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bavaria. Even in victorious imperialist states massive class struggles erupted.

At that moment reformists threw all efforts into strangling the spirit of revolution. Their methods were similar, though in Britain the Labour leaders never had to resort to military repression as did their their counterparts in Germany’s SPD. As Rosa Luxemburg put it two weeks before her murder by the German equivalents of Henderson and MacDonald: ‘the banner of “socialism” serves merely as a fig leaf for the decent veiling of a counter-revolutionary policy.’ [1] In some cases reformists were catapulted into government, in others they were not. But as the newly formed Third – or Communist – International pointed out, ‘the Social Democrats obstruct the actual development of the revolution by rendering, whether as members of the administration or as members of the opposition, all possible assistance in restoring the equilibrium of the bourgeois state.’ [2]

The situation in Britain was not essentially different from abroad. If the Labour Party ever really intended to lead the struggle for socialism, this surely was the moment. The capitalist enemy was at its weakest, the workers at their strongest. Army mutinies began to disintegrate the physical force of the state and workers struck in vast numbers. Even the police unionised and stopped work. [3] Unrest leaked in 1919 when, excluding mining, as many days were lost through strike action as during the whole of 1911–14. [4]

Far from taking advantage of the state’s weakness. Labour declared its devoted loyalty. Clynes, for example, told MPs he had always opposed police unions [5] and Henderson went so far as to claim:

if one thing more than another has kept down the revolutionary spirit in recent years in this country it is the fact that labour has had the power to express its grievances upon the floor of this House. I believe that the coming of a Labour party into this House, even in limited numbers, has done that one thing. It has provided the brake, as it were, upon any desire upon the part of the extremists to go lengths industrially that they might have been disused to go if there had not been this method of giving expression to grievances. [6] [1*]

This assertion of Labour as the chief bulwark against revolution deserves careful consideration. On one level it was false, just as in 1911–14 Labour appeared irrelevant to workers’ mass extra-parliamentary activity. The advanced workers were as hostile to Labour’s methods as ever. They looked to the traditions of rank and file struggle and to the formation of a revolutionary Communist Party patterned on Bolshevism. As Chanie Rosenberg puts it in the conclusion to her book on 1919: ‘There is one permanent feature of the British scene that has hardly been mentioned. That is the Labour Party ... [It] was not to be seen.’ [8] This seems flatly to contradict Henderson’s claim. What was the truth?

The shifting centre of gravity

Not since 1905 had the Labour Party been as impotent in parliamentary terms as it was after the December 1918 ‘Coupon’ Election. Few parliaments have been more out of time with long term trends than the Lloyd George Coalition. Voting was held within days of ‘victory’ hitting the last gasp of patriotic hysteria. The characteristic slogans were ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘Make Germany Pay’. This made any taint of pacifism an electoral liability. Nonetheless Labour received 2.2 million votes, or 24 per cent of the poll.

The Tories and Lloyd George Liberals who shared the ‘Coupon’ formed a solid factional block of 53 Coalition MPs. They confronted an opposition of just 60 Labour MPs and 25 Free Liberals, led by Asquith. Labour’s best performers were defeated because of their pacifism or through bad luck. With MacDonald, Snowden, and even Henderson out there were only three ILP MPs among fifty trade unionists, half of them miners. In the PLP the stolid Scots miner Willie Adamson took the helm, shortly to be replaced by Clynes, himself no firebrand. As Allen Hutt put it: ‘Great things were toward in the country, but they found neither reflection nor inspiration in the activities of the Parliamentary Party.’ [9] Clearly Labour did not prevent a revolution by the brilliance of its parliamentary efforts.

Yet it still added its voice to the anti-Bolshevik chorus. For example, H.N. Brailsford, a leading ILP intellectual, described the October 1917 Revolution as ‘reckless and uncalculating folly’. [10] Clynes fulminated about Bolshevism being ‘a disease ... of this country and other countries as well.’ [11] In true Christian fashion Snowden wrote that workers’ power was ‘a treacherous mirage ... Better continue to suffer under domination and oppression than gain economic power through blood and slaughter. For what shall it profit us if we gain the material world and lose our own souls?’ [12]

Labour strenuously attacked domestic subversion. Thomas warned the Commons against the ‘large and growing body of organised Labour outside which does not believe in political action [by which he meant parliamentary action] ... It is a method which I am daily at war against.’ [13] Henderson ‘deplored’ strikes and claimed ‘I have done as much as any man alive to prevent strikes.’ [14] He was not very effective, as strikes erupted on an un-precedented scale.

This suggests that labour was not the bulwark against revolution that Henderson claimed. However a closer analysis of events shows reformism must never be discounted. The labour bureaucracy has two aspects – the Labour Party and the trade union officials. In 1919 union bureaucrats were the chief obstacle to revolution because of their influence over the heart of the class struggle – workers at the point of production. As Cramp of the NUR wrote in June 1919: ‘we find that the centre of gravity is passing from the House of Commons to the Headquarters of the great Trade Unions.’ [15] Shinwell was more explicit, telling the 1919 TUC: ‘this huge Congress of labour assesses as much capacity and more creative genius than the ... mediocrities assembled at Westminster.’ [16]

Nevertheless the Labour Party played a tremendously important role as the bureaucracy’s political auxiliary and the alibi for their actions. Labour was, as Desmond put it, officialdom’s ‘hidden hand’. [17] It complemented the efforts of the trade union bureaucracy, just as in periods of Labour government, the bureaucracy assists in the implementation of policies of wage restraint and so on. This is borne out by a study of the key sectors of engineering, mining and the railways.

Three disputes

For a variety of reasons, there was no organised and conscious revolutionary current involved in any of these disputes. Though the potential for revolutionaries was probably greater than in 1889 or 1911-14 they left the field free for reformism. [18]

In the engineers’ strike for a 40-hour week on Clydeside, Shinwell, a leading members of the ILP, was the most prominent figure. Was this Labour leading the industrial struggle forward? Alas, no. His involvement as president of the Trades Council consisted of confining the action. Despite his efforts the strike culminated in street fighting, police baton charges and the military occupation of Glasgow. Shinwell paid with a five-month jail sentence. But as Maxton informed the 1919 ILP Conference: ‘no doubt readers of the general press would have gathered the impression that the men who took part in this trouble in Glasgow were merely out to create trouble. Shinwell ... so far from being an inciting factor in the whole of the forty-hour movement, was there all the time as a restraining element among the strikers. [19] [2*]

The miners and railwaymen were a still greater threat. Here the state dared not attack directly but depended on reformist officials to disarm the movement. As government ministers admitted: ‘Trade Union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy’, the problem being that sometimes the ‘trade union was not highly enough developed to make its branch secretaries fall into line with Head Office.’ [20]

Robert Smillie was the miners’ leader, an ILP member of long standing, an old ally of Keir Hardie and a confirmed reformist. He was proud ‘to be the champion defeated Parliamentary candidate of the country ... Seven and a half unsuccessful elections stand to my credit – or discredit.’ [21] [3*]

The miners demanded a 80 per cent wage rise, two hours reduction in the working day and nationalisation under joint worker/owner control. Concessions were feasible over wages and conditions (wartime super-profits made sure of that), but the issue of nationalisation was a tremendous political threat. If granted it meant the working class could overcome the express wishes of the coal-owners, who were now desperate to end state interference. Nationalisation that was forced by mass struggle from below would not have been the Fabian version but the prelude to open class warfare. At a celebrated meeting with Lloyd George, the officials were told what was at stake:

if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us ... [But its] very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the State ... Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?

After that interview Smillie made this famous comment: ‘From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were’. [23] He was not beaten industrially, he was beaten by his reformist politics. As Trotsky put it ‘even in the minds of “socialists” the fetishism of bourgeois legality [forms] that ideal inner policeman.’ [24] When the real policemen were about to strike, the existence of ideological ones was crucial to the system.

Smillie’s acceptance of the bourgeois state did not mean handing over negotiations to the Labour Party. As leader of an organisation which played a direct role in the daily working conditions and earnings of the miners, he assessed more direct influence than the party. The promise of an election five years hence would not silence the militants but a Royal Commission now might.

Smillie did not leap at the government offer of a commission chaired by Lord Sankey. As a sincere reformist, he wanted nationalisation and was not sure he could stall his members with a commission. It took all the guile of Sidney Webb to convince him. Beatrice Webb’s diary records: ‘Sidney found Smillie depressed with a cold and the feeling of responsibility ... he wanted the miners to go straight into the fight and win. Sidney reasoned in favour of accepting the commission ... but Smillie doubted whether he could get his delegates to go that far in meeting the government.’ [25] Webb clinched his arguments by suggesting equal representation for employers and miners (a far better ratio than the 6:1 proportion of Coalition to Labour MPs produced by bourgeois democracy in parliament, though hardly reflecting the true balance of one owner to several hundred miners).

To give the Sankey Commission extra democratic gloss it was for the first time instituted by Act of Parliament. The establishment of the Sankey Coal Commission was one of the great turning points in labour history, for it delayed indefinitely, a supreme opportunity to challenge ruling-class power. Smillie later explained his motives:

We could have enforced [nationalisation] at that time by our industrial strength ... But there is another way, a way that does not need industrial force. It is by putting a Labour Government in power.’ [26]

The railway strike was the next major crisis, but this time the union leaders as Jimmy Thomas, the epitome of the right-wing bureaucrat. Though a leading minister in the first two Labour governments, he claimed publicly not to be a socialist! [27] Thomas could not prevent a railway strike breaking out in September 1919 but he managed to end it within nine days.

For Thomas the primacy of nation over class was much more explicit than with Smillie. In a speech on Railwaymen and Citizenship he echoed Lloyd George’s words directly:

Our union is the strongest in the country. We can demand that unless such and such a thing is done, we can paralyse the community ...

[But] however strong and powerful we may be ... Citizenship has a stronger claim than any sectional interest.

To complete this hymn to reformism he added the bureaucrat’s catechism:

there were two dangers – people who could not read the signs of the times, reactionaries ... Equally was there the danger of those who believed that we could revolutionise by industrial trouble or introduce what was called the Russian method ... Both must be fought. [28]

Smillie and Thomas represented opposite viewpoints within the union bureaucracy, but the net effect of their actions was the same – by the autumn of 1919 the revolutionary opportunity had passed.

There is a theory which states that when workers move in a revolutionary direction they will turn to the Labour Party and remake it. 1919 proved this to be arrant nonsense. Even the most left-wing section – the ILP – stood entirely on the sidelines. Its historian writes that the ILP ‘displayed only the most casual interest in trade union affairs, neither the Leicester Pioneer Bradford Pioneer having industrial correspondents, and little better was the Labour Leader with a trade union column only once a month.’ [29] Indeed, the Labour Party was totally irrelevant as an organisation.

However, when we consider the Labour Party as a body of reformist ideas the picture is quite different. In 1919 the legacy of a centralised war economy and strong feelings of workers’ solidarity combined to make all disputes a state issue. Unlike the normal run of bargaining, union officials could not merely balance the forces of one section of workers against the individual capitalist, because every strike had political repercussions. While the impotent rump of 60 MPs had no authority, the ideas of reformism were an absolutely invaluable weapon in the hands of the bureaucracy.

Direct action – threat or opportunity?

By 1920 the revolutionary mood had receded though mass pressure was still very strong. This gave the leaders some limited scope for airing their differences. The ‘direct action’ debate must be seen in this context. Without a revolutionary current to make the officials turn their rhetoric into deeds, or exorcise the vacuity of their words, what was said never rose above posturing.

The trouble spots were mines nationalisation and international affairs. Smillie was the chief exponent of the left view. It was impossible to tell whether he made militant speeches merely to contain the movement, or to harness mass action for limited ends. His words contained both tendencies. First came a recognition of opportunities:

We are the best organised force in the world [and] sufficiently strong with the Government of the day to make it do anything ... in justice to the workers. [30]

Then fear of losing control:

It would be safer for the Labour Movement of this country to meet with the Trade Union movement, and calmly and constitutionally discuss the question and decide upon action, than wait until a revolution breaks out. [31] [4*]

Proposals for union-led direct action gave Labour and parliament a secondary role. John Bromley of the rail drivers explained why:

Were they going to ... wait another four years? They would be sacked ... They were told they had not a majority [of voters]. Could any man or woman there point to any progressive movement in the world that had waited for the majority to bring it about? Was there any Trade Union leader who would say that any good movement or reform in Trade Unionism had been brought about by the majority? [32]

The counter-arguments from Thomas, Clynes, Henderson and the right were based on the idea that ‘the nearer we get to power the further we should recede from any advocacy of violent methods.’ [34] If direct action were used ‘we may as well abolish the Labour Party and the whole political machinery at once ... The two things are absolutely irreconcilable.’ [35] If they coerced the present government what would happen when Labour won office, ‘were they going to concede to every other or any other class the right they were claiming?’ [36] They had no right to strike politically: ‘You can strike against employers, but on [political] questions the place for action is the ballot-box.’ [37] Summing it all up was McGurk, Chairman of the 1919 Labour Conference: ‘We are either constitutionalists or we are not constitutionalists ... we believe in the efficacy of the political weapon ... or why do we have a Labour Party?’ [38]

In the set-piece debates of the Triple Alliance, TUC and Labour Party, the direct actionists won majorities more than once, but their bluster proved empty. Thus when the government went back on its promise to honour the Sankey Commission’s findings every excuse was invented to delay action. Once the danger of a strike had passed the sop of a ‘Mines for the Nation’ campaign was offered: It consisted of ‘intensive political propaganda in preparation for a General Election.’ [39] The party paid little attention, which caused campaign organisers to complain of ‘the impossibility of ... securing the services of ... many of the Party’s front-rank platform speakers.’ [40]

Prospects for direct action were brighter on international issue. Trotsky wrote:

In the British labour movement international questions have always been a path of least resistance for the ‘leaders’. In regarding international issues as a sort of safety valve for the radical mood of the masses [the] leaders are prepared to bow to a certain degree to revolution [elsewhere] only the more surely to take revenge on the questions of the domestic class struggle. [41]

British repression in Ireland was a possible candidate for direct action. Labour’s position, as might be expected from a Liberal-influenced Party, was for Gladstonian Home Rule. But God forbid that the Irish should do anything about their own liberation! Forward declared the Easter 1916 Rising: ‘a tragedy of unrelieved gloom. Call it madness, or badness or both.’ [42] Socialist Review was worse: ‘We do not approve armed rebellion at all ... Nor do we plead the rebels’ cause ... Nor do we complain against the Government for having opposed and suppressed aimed rebellion by armed force.’ [43] So much for ILP pacifism!

Yet Labour’s position was not purely reactionary. The ability of reformists to mix class and nation is a constant source of wonder. Socialist Review’s article quoted above ended by saying: ‘what we ... protest against is not the suppression of the rebellion by military measures, but the needless harshness and excess.’ But this hardly provided the springboard for fighting government use of the Black and Tans in 1920.

Labour’s most daring hour

The Russian issue was different. In May 1920, largely through the agitation of revolutionaries such as Harry Pollitt, East London dockers prevented the shipping of munitions on The Jolly George to help Poland fight the Bolsheviks. [44] On 4 August 1920 the prime minister, Lloyd George, announced his intention to send British troops to back the Poles. A wave of revulsion stirred the war-weary population, as ‘all the middle class pacifists and many middle class taxpayers’ and even the City welcomed attempts to prevent conflict. [45]

Confident they had public opinion as well as militant workers behind them, the Parliamentary Labour Party, the party’s national executive and the TUC met to form a fifteen-strong Council of Action on 9 August. Four days later a national conference of trade union and Labour branch delegates was held. Some unbelievable speeches were delivered.

Thomas called for a general strike: ‘No Parliamentary effort could do what we are asking you to do ... If this resolution is to be given effect to, it means a challenge to the whole Constitution of the country (cheers).’ The chairman of the Labour executive went on: ‘we may be compelled to do things that will cause them to abdicate. (Perhaps) we will be compelled, even against all Constitutions, to chance whether we cannot do something to take the country into our own hands for our own people.’ [46]

Even Ramsay MacDonald welcomed direct action because ‘confidence in Parliament is forfeited’. [47] This was the same man who had written: ‘to degrade in the imagination of the people even a bad House of Commons is a crime – a most heinous crime for Socialists’ [48]

In the event the government backed away from war. We cannot know whether a general strike would have been called, but there is no reason to suppose it was absolutely ruled out. Bureaucratically-led mass strikes are not unknown. Thus in 1920 the German Social Democrats and union leaders launched an effective general strike to defeat the Kapp Putsch against the Weimar Republic.

Was direct action ever more than hot air? To answer such a question we must evaluate the motives of the speakers and its effect on the listeners. The ultra-left is concerned only with the first, and the reformist only with the second.

The creation of local Councils of Action provided great opportunities for revolutionaries. The Communist Party, though very new (the first issue of its paper only appeared on 5 August) intervened in many areas and established its credentials. It did so without being inside the Labour Party and all the while arguing for workers to resist ‘attempts by trade union and Labour leaders to frustrate the wishes of the rank and file ... at the critical moment’. [49]

No less than 350 local Councils of Action were set up by September 1920 and some went far beyond what the official leaders intended. Merthyr Tydfil’s Central Council of local labour representatives was subject to instant recall and believed itself ‘destined to be an important instrument for the emancipation of the workers’. [50] Birmingham wanted a Congress of local councils to force the national body to honour its general strike commitment and so on. Lenin was misinformed when he took the Councils of Action to be ‘the same kind of dual power as we had under Kerensky,’ [51] but they nevertheless had a long-term impact. In 1926 these councils were revived as the organisational backbone of the General Strike.

The motives of the labour bureaucracy presented a very different picture from those of the rank and file. Underlying superficial differences between right and left officials there was a convergence of ideas. Direct action was to assist parliamentary action. Reviewing the motive for the Council of Action MacDonald wrote: ‘There was as much communism about the Council of Action and the policy that created it, as in taking a breakfast. [52] Direct action showed the ability of reformists to move radically to the left and manipulate extra-parliamentary activity when the need arose. The difference between left and right was never more than whether to offer the carrot or the stick and the years showed that both sides were adept in the use of either.

MacDonald and others claimed they were only defending the constitution, but no bourgeois constitution has ever conceded the right of the population to determine war and peace. The willingness of both right and left Labour and trade union leaders to use extra- parliamentary means proves that the point of reference for reformists is not this or that institution but the function of mediation between classes. [5*]

McGurk’s comment, ‘We are either constitutionalists, or we are not’, had highlighted an important question for socialists. For anyone who takes the emancipation of the working class seriously a choice of priorities must be made. On the one hand we have the classic reformist position as stated by Glasier: ‘A thousand votes definitely given for Socialism assesses more promise and potentiality for working class emancipation than 10 million workmen out on strike.’ [53] On the other there is Lenin’s statement that parliamentary action is ‘the lowest form of the movement’. [54]

In the drama of the post-war period only the first of these propositions was tested. Despite all the fire and brimstone the movement for mass struggle had been skilfully defused. In return the British working class has been rewarded by seven Labour governments. Who was right – Lenin or Glasier?

Black Friday – the transition to a governing party

There is a bitter irony in the history of the British labour movement. The labour bureaucracy has committed gross acts of betrayal, but the weakness of the revolutionary left has meant that far from being punished or overthrown they are frequently strengthened. Sell-outs can expose reformism. Alas, under certain conditions they can have the opposite result, weakening the rank and file and so raising the status and influence of the bureaucracy.

This happened in 1921 when the colliery owners demanded a wage cut of up to 50 per cent in some areas. On Black Friday, 15 April, the Triple Alliance leaders representing the railwaymen, transport workers and miners ran away from their promise to stand together and fight as one. They left one million miners to be smashed in a gruelling three month fight. Far from damaging the labour bureaucracy. Black Friday freed it from the spectre of revolution.

In 1919 and 1920 class confidence at the point of production had given trade union matters great weight on the scales of reformism. The capitalist ideology of the ‘nation’ was relatively light. Black Friday reversed this. The centre of reformism shifted from union officials towards the Labour Party.

The background to this development was the abrupt end of the post-war boom in early 1921. Compared with 1920 exports were down by 48 per cent, imports by 44 per cent. Between December 1920 and March 1921 unemployment tripled (from 5.8 to 17.8 per cent of insured workers). Labour had helped prevent major advance when conditions were favourable. Now that the workers were on the defensive, how good was it as a protective shield?

Alas it contributed nothing to the resistance of either the unemployed or the strongly organised workers. MacDonald, for example, denounced the workless for exacting the dole (the system did not exist then): ‘It matters not [to them] if the dole is ruinous and soon becomes intolerable ... and handicaps a true Socialist policy.’ Unemployed agitation would embarrass local Labour authorities or worse, compel them to grant the demands: ‘The next thing that happens is that they alienate support, their Labour and Socialist majorities disappear, and the old interests come into possession.’ And why should Labour be concerned with these folk anyway: ‘how many of the present unemployed supported [us] at the last election?’ [55]

Black Friday destroyed the resistance of the organised employed and Labour, though playing second fiddle to the union bureaucrats, contributed its bit to the deb√Ęcle. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, was confident that ‘J.H. Thomas wants no revolution. He wants to be Prime Minister ... I have complete confidence in Thomas’s selfishness [and] the Labour Party will be for moderation. They have nothing to gain politically.’ [56]

The consequences of Black Friday became plain as one disaster followed another. Trade union membership suddenly went into reverse, failing from its 1920 peak of eight million to just five million three years later. The Labour leaders fastened like vultures on the weakened body of the movement. It was with ill-concealed pleasure that MacDonald declared: ‘We may yet look back upon these dark days with gratitude.’ [57] He had good reason: ‘The events of this strike ought to settle for a long time the influence of those who preached the doctrine that Labour can emancipate itself by industrial means alone.’ [58]

Stripped of rhetoric the Labour left’s solution was little different from MacDonald’s. Labour Leader declared the lesson of Black Friday was the need to attack capitalism in its ‘legislative citadel’.

That citadel can be assaulted and won without a single child losing a meal ... without disorder and without fear of starvation ... For every insult, for every injury, for every broken promise and shattered illusion, the people can take revenge at the ballot box. [59]

The swing of the pendulum

The sudden decline of industrial militancy had a dramatic effect on Labour’s internal life and underlined its parasitic nature. When the body of the labour movement was healthy, Labour’s local organisation, as represented by the ILP, was weak. The first great rise in class struggle, 1910–14, cost the ILP a quarter of its membership. [60] The post-war revolutionary ferment left the party ‘in a state of confusion and crisis’. In contrast, the period of deep downturn, 1922–5, saw the ILP reaching ‘the pinnacle of its success’. [61] [6*]

By October 1922 Labour Leader was talking of ‘something remarkable in the atmosphere; a sense of relief, of hope, of new impulse to work [because the party is] no longer with one hand tied behind its back, in the conflict with Communism.’ [64] That same month John Paton, on the far left of the ILP, explained how militants defeated in class struggle could transfer their hopes to Labour as a substitute. He traced the rise and fall of workers’ struggle which led to its transformation into ‘political’ (by which he meant parliamentary) thinking. During the war workers had:

tasted for the first time a real sense of power. In engineering on the Clyde the shop stewards movement acquired a remarkable power and influence, while in mining areas the men openly boasted that THEY were running the pits ... The dazzling prospect of industrial freedom has gone like a dream ... sunk in despair, in utter disillusion.

Now ... men’s minds are returning in the direction of building surely and solidly on the will of a politically educated people. [65]

The general election of 1922 confirmed what Paton had sensed. Compared with 1918 Labour’s vote doubled to 4.2 million at the very moment that trade union membership was plummeting. The quality of the Labour vote changed too. No longer was it an incidental spin-off of mass struggle. It represented an alternative to struggle for an embittered working class.

The transformation also showed itself in a strict separation between the industrial and political wings. The NUR split its chief posts – with Thomas as ‘political secretary’, and Cramp as ‘industrial secretary’. The Miners’ Federation decided their president and secretary could not sit in parliament. [66] The TUC replaced its ‘Parliamentary Committee’ with a General Council because it felt ‘that Congress should develop the industrial side of the Movement as against the “deputizing” or “political” conception.’ [67] From the other side the first Labour government insisted that trade unionists who became ministers must give up their union positions. [68]

These adjustments altered the balance of power between the hostile brothers – trade union officialdom and the professional politicians. As in the period of Taff Vale, it was the industrial retreat following Black Friday which allowed professional politicians such as MacDonald and Snowden to regain their influence. The unresolvable contradiction in the 1918 Constitution – a ‘classless’ party dominated by union officials – seemed to be working itself out in favour of the former.


1*. Labour politicians were not alone in thinking that in a post-war conditions reformism was the best defence of the existing system. C.P. Scott, a former Liberal MP, editor of the Manchester Guardian and a sharp political commentator had this to say: ‘the crude extravagance and injustice of the Bolshevik economic doctrine ... seems to be penetrating to some extent our own Labour extremists ... It couldn’t happen if we have a genuinely progressive Government whom the workers could trust. Possibly we might get that after a General Election when the Labour Party comes back with a force sufficient to determine policy. [7]

2*. Forward printed an account of Shinwell’s trial which stated that Shinwell addressed a meeting of his own seamen’s union to discuss:

the employment of yellow labour ... . Somebody in the audience shouted out – ‘What about the Strike’ – and Shinwell replied that ... the strike did not concern them.

Lord Scott Dickson – ‘There was no 40 hours’ movement among the seamen?’

Answer: ‘No.’

3*. This half arose because he was a prospective candidate for South Ayrshire but never went to the poll. Clegg writes: ‘Smillie’s undeserved reputation as a militant was due to his habit of making up his own mind and, once he had done so, paying little attention to what others had to say.’ [22]

4*. Robert Williams, leader of the Transport Workers and the most verbally extreme union leader (who went to the extent of joining the Communist Party) echoed these sentiments in his appeal for a national conference of workers’ representatives: ‘There can be no doubt that until the lead comes from some more or less responsible quarter, matters will reach such a state that open insurrection or revolutionary action may speedily ensue. We most hold the official convention to prevent unofficial strikes, to avoid the growth of anti-officialism among the best of our men and women ...’ [33]

5*. A failure to understand this point is the chief failing of Ralph Miliband’s otherwise valuable book Parliamentary Socialism. Its analysis, outlined in its first paragraph, is that the chief characteristic of Labour is its parliamentarism. The same weakness afflicts Geoffrey Foote’s useful book on The Labour Party’s Political Thought. Both authors understand the Labour Party’s limitations but fail to penetrate beneath the institutional surface, to the class relations beneath. The party is not an independent body but one half of a reformist labour bureaucracy, the other half being the union officials. If either feel that parliamentarism is actually an obstacle to the process of Mediation it may be put aside. This happened in 1914 and 1920. In the first case the bureaucracy was willing to see a political trace and the virtual extinction of parliament and the PLP in order to gain access to important positions. In both Miliband and Foote the actual class straggle plays little role in their analysis.

6*. In the early 1920s local Labour Parties were still in the process of formation and so the ILP continued to reflect what internal organisation there was. Writing of pre-war Britain, Williams wrote that ‘Over most of the country indeed the ILP was the Labour Party.’ [62] This was still true in 1918 when the ILP had 672 branches to Labour’s 158. The main growth of local Labour Parties seems to have taken place around 1924. [63]


1. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 415.

2. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestoes of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London 1980), p. 201 (emphasis added).

3. For details of the ferment in Britain after the end of the First World War, see C. Rosenberg, 1919 – Britain on the Brink of Revolution (London 1987).

4. J. Hinton, Labour and Socialism (Brighton 1983), p. 108.

5. Hansard 18 August 1918.

6. Hansard 7 November 1918.

7. Scott, Diaries, pp. 331–2 (entry for 30 January 1919).

8. Rosenberg, p. 83.

9. A. Hutt, A Post-War History of the British Working Class (Wakefield 1972), p. 15.

10. Quoted in Hutt, p. 33.

11. Hansard, 29 May 1919.

12. Quoted in Cross, p. 173.

13. Hansard, 29 May 1919.

14. Hansard, 29 October 1919.

15. Railway Review, 20 June 1919.

16. TUC 1919, p. 48.

17. Desmond, p. 96.

18. For an explanation see Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 (London 1986), pp. 81–92.

19. ILP Conference Report 1919, p. 72.

20. Bonar Law and Churchill, quoted in Rosenberg, p. 68.

21. R. Smillie, My Life for Labour (London 1924), pp. 97–8.

22. Clegg and others, p. 50.

23. Quoted in Bevan, In Place of Fear (London 1961), pp. 20–1.

24. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol. 1, p. 33.

25. Diaries, pp. 335-6 (entry for 22 Feruary 1919).

26. Daily Herald, 11 July 1914.

27. E. Barry, Nationalisation in British Politics (London 1965), p. 206 note.

28. Railway Review, 14 February 1919

29. Dowse, p. 65.

30. Smillie, TUC 1919, pp. 218–9.

31. Labour Conference 1919, p. 119.

32. Labour Conference 1919, p. 120.

33. The Times, 7 February 1919.

34. Clynes, in Daily Herald, 23 December 1918.

35. Thomas, TUC 1919, p. 294.

36. Clynes, Labour Conference 1919, p. 160.

37. Tom Shaw, TUC 1919, p. 291.

38. McGurk, Labour Conference 1919, p. 113.

39. TUC 1920, p. 88.

40. Labour Conference 1920, pp. 7–8.

41. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, p. 137.

42. Forward, 6 May 1916.

43. Socialist Review, Summer 1916, p. 205.

44. For details see J. Mahon, Harry Pollitt (London 1976), pp. 79–82.

45. Beatrice Webb’s diary and New Statesman, quoted in S. White, Britain and the Bolshevik Revolution (London 1979), pp. 49–50.

46. Quoted in Hutt, p. 39.

47. J.R. MacDonald, Parliament and Revolution (London 1919), p. 75.

48. MacDonald, Socialism and Government (1909) quoted in Bealey, The Social and Political Thought of the Labour Party (London 1970), p. 69 (Emphasis added).

49. The Communist, 12 August 1920.

50. Quoted in White, p. 47.

51. Lenin, On Britain, p. 470.

52. Socialist Review, July–September 1920, p. 206.

53. Glasier in 1913, quoted in Labour Leader, 7 April 1921.

54. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol: 16, p. 32.

55. Socialist Review, October–December 1921, p. 299.

56. Selection of quotations from Cabinet meetings on 4 and 5 April 1921 in Jones, pp. 133–6.

57. Socialist Review, July–September 1921, p. 197.

58. Socialist Review, January–March 1921, p. 13.

59. Labour Leader, 7 July 1921.

60. Hinton, p. 90.

61. Dowse, pp. 74 and 76.

62. Williams, p. 203 (emphasis added).

63. See McKibbin.

64. Labour Leader, 6 October 1922.

65. Labour Leader, 13 October 1922.

66. See Clegg and others, p. 356.

67. Bevin in 1919, quoted in A. Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Vol. 1 (London 1960 ), p. 111.

68. Clegg and others, p. 379.

Last updated on 10 January 2017