From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
As the Labour Party slides into further crisis, we look at some of the lessons from Labour’s past. Here Hazel Croft introduces extracts from Leon Trotsky’s writings on Britain in the 1920s about parliament and the failure of reformism
Debates about the attitude socialists should adopt towards parliament have raged throughout the history of the socialist movement. In the 1870s Karl Marx wrote that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ He argued that the old institutions of capitalist society – parliament, the law courts, the police and the army – could not be weapons in the hands of socialist revolutionaries, but must be smashed and new institutions under democratic workers’ control set up in their place.
But how should socialists operate on a practical day to day basis? Should we stand for parliament – to expose it as a sham or to gain a platform for socialist ideas and strategy – or should we shun any involvement with it?
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky tackled these questions in his writings on Britain. Here we print extracts from his book Where is Britain Going? written at the end of 1924 and the beginning of 1925.
Trotsky wrote as the wave of revolutionary struggles which had swept across Europe in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution subsided. His writings on Britain were in part a polemic against Stalin’s emerging rule in Russia.
Trotsky believed that the future for Britain would be marked by social and economic turmoil. The United States was fast encroaching on Britain’s position as dominant world power. Trotsky predicted that Britain was approaching ‘an era of great revolutionary upheavals’. His major concern was that the British Communist Party – founded as a revolutionary party in 1920 – would not be able to match the tasks which lay ahead:
‘Will a Communist Party have time to take shape in Britain which is sufficiently strong, and sufficiently linked with the masses to draw at the right moment all the indispensable practical conclusions from the sharpening crisis? It is in this question that Britain’s destiny is summed up.’
The result was an incisive analysis of the decline of British capitalism, the treachery of the Labour leadership under Ramsay MacDonald – who had formed a minority Labour government for nine short months in 1924 before being ousted by the Tories – and of the role of socialists in the coming years of struggle.
Trotsky took as his starting point a speech by the then Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin about the ‘inevitability of gradualism’. Baldwin claimed all change in British life had been brought about by ‘peaceful means’. Revolutionary change, he implied, was alien to the British character.
But it was not only the right who advocated this view of the peaceful development of British capitalism. The Labour leaders too advocated peaceful reforms. In the first extract we print Trotsky counters this by arguing that every reform, every progressive piece of legislation throughout the history of British capitalism was a spin off from revolutionary upheavals in Europe.
In the second set of extracts Trotsky highlights the mockery of democracy existing in parliament and the impotence of the Labour leaders – however grovelling they are to the pomp and ceremony of office – to effect any change.
Critics of Trotsky’s book ridiculed him for suggesting that Britain was on the verge of mass class struggles. But his analysis was vindicated by events. One year later the nine day general strike of 1926 proved Trotsky’s analysis correct not only in his prediction of class struggle, but also in its tragic betrayal by the Labour and trade union leaders, and the weak and vacillating response by the Communist Party.
The Communist Party in the 1920s failed to rise to the tasks ahead of it and eventually became the British voice of Stalin’s foreign policy manoeuvres. But rereading Trotsky’s work today we can learn invaluable lessons about the arguments and obstacles which revolutionaries will face in the battles to come.
In the final analysis the whole of present-day Britain has come out of the revolution in the 17th century. In the great civil war of that era were born the Tories and Whigs who were to set their seals alternately on Britain’s history for over three centuries.
When Mr Baldwin appeals to the conservative traditions of British history, we must permit ourselves to remind him that the tradition of the Conservative Party itself is based firmly in the revolution of the middle of the 17th century. Similarly the reference to the ‘character of the British people’ forces us to recall that this character was beaten into shape by the hammer of the civil war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. The character of the Independents: petty bourgeois traders, artisans, free farmers, small landed gentry, businesslike, devout, economical, hard-working and enterprising, this character collided violently with the character of the idle, dissolute and haughty governing classes of old England: the court aristocracy, the titled state bureaucracy and the bishops. And yet both the former and the latter were Englishmen.
With a heavy military hammer, on the anvil of civil war, Oliver Cromwell forged that same national character which over two and a half centuries ensured gigantic advantages in the world for the British bourgeoisie. Only later, at the close of the 19th century, was it to reveal itself as too conservative, even from the standpoint of capitalist development. It is clear that the struggle of the Long Parliament against the tyranny of Charles I and Cromwell’s severe dictatorship had been prepared by Britain’s previous history.
But this means, simply, that a revolution is not made to order but grows organically out of the conditions of social development, and forms at least as inevitable a stage in the development of relations between the classes of one and the same nation as does war in the development of relations between organised nations.
The role of revolution in the political and social development in general of Britain is not however limited to the 17th century. It could be said – although this may seem paradoxical – that all Britain’s subsequent development has taken place in the train of European revolutions. We shall give here merely an overall summary of the main elements which may prove to be of some use not only to Mr Baldwin.
The French Revolution gave a powerful thrust to the development of democratic tendencies in Britain and above all to the labour movement, which was driven underground by the Combination Laws of 1799. The war against revolutionary France was ‘popular’ only among the governing classes; the popular masses sympathised with the French Revolution and expressed their indignation against the Pitt government. The creation of the British trade union was to a large extent the result of the influence of the French Revolution on the labouring masses of Britain.
The triumph of reaction on the continent, which strengthened the position of the landlords, led in 1815 to the restoration of the Bourbons in France and the introduction of the Corn Laws in Britain.
The July Revolution of 1830 in France gave an impetus to the first electoral Reform Bill of 1831 in Britain: a bourgeois revolution on the continent produced a bourgeois reform in the British Isles.
The radical reorganisation of the administration of Canada, giving much greater autonomy, was carried out only after the rising in Canada of 1837–1838.
The revolutionary movement of Chartism led in 1844–1847 to the introduction of the ten-hour working day, and in 1846 to the repeal of the Corn Laws. The defeat of the revolutionary movement on the continent in 1848 not only meant the decline of the Chartist movement but put a brake on the democratisation of the British parliament for a long time afterwards.
The electoral reform of 1867 was preceded by the civil war in the United States. When in 1861 war flared up in America between the North and the South, British workers demonstrated their sympathy with the Northern states, while the sympathies of the ruling classes were wholly on the side of the slave-owners. It is instructive to note that the Liberal Palmerston, the so-called ‘Firebrand Palmerston’, and many of his colleagues including the notorious Gladstone, were in sympathy with the South and were quick to recognise the Southern states as belligerents rather than insurgents. Warships were built for the Southerners in British yards. The North nevertheless won and this revolutionary victory on American territory gained the vote for a section of the British working class (the 1867 Act). In Britain, incidentally, the reform was accompanied by a stormy movement which led to the ‘July Days’ of 1866, when major disorders lasted for 48 hours.
The defeat of the 1848 revolution had weakened the British workers but the Russian Revolution of 1905 immediately strengthened them. As a result of the 1906 general election the Labour Party formed for the first time a strong parliamentary group of 42 members. In this the influence of the 1905 revolution was clear!
In 1918, even before the end of the war, a new electoral reform was passed in Britain which considerably enlarged the ranks of working class voters, and allowed women to participate in elections for the first time. Even Mr Baldwin would probably not begin to deny that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was an important stimulus to this reform. The British bourgeois considered that a revolution could be avoided in this way. It follows that even for passing reforms, the principle of gradualness is insufficient and a real threat of revolution is necessary.
We communists are in no event inclined to advise the British proletariat to turn its back on parliament. On the contrary when individual British communists did reveal such a tendency they met with a rebuff from us at the international congresses. Thus the question is not whether the parliamentary road should be made use of but what place parliament occupies in the development of society and where the class forces lie, inside or outside parliament; in what form and on what ground these forces will collide and whether a parliament created by capitalism for its own development and protection can be made into a lever for the overthrow of capitalism.
To answer this question an attempt has to be made to imagine with a certain degree of concreteness what path the future political development of Britain will take. Clearly, any attempted forecast of this sort can only be of a conditional, tentative nature. But without such attempts we would be doomed to wander in the dark.
The present government has a firm majority in parliament. Consequently it is not excluded that it will survive in power for another three or four years although its term of office could prove shorter. In the course of this period the Conservative government which began with ‘conciliatory’ speeches by Baldwin will reveal that it has been in the last resort summoned to conserve all the contradictions and ulcers of postwar Britain.
With regard to the most terrible of these ulcers, chronic unemployment, the Conservative Party itself has no illusions. No substantial expansion of exports can be hoped for. Competition from America and Japan is mounting and German industry is reviving. France is exporting with the aid of a falling currency. Baldwin declares that politicians cannot bring relief to industry; it must find it within itself. The fresh efforts to re-establish the Gold Standard signify new sacrifices on the part of the population and consequently of industry, which foreshadow a further rise in discontent and alarm. The radicalisation of the British working class will proceed apace.
All this will prepare the coming to power of the Labour Party. But we have every reason to fear, or rather, to hope, that this process will cause much displeasure not only to Baldwin but to MacDonald too. Above all a growth in the number of industrial conflicts can be expected and along with this an increase in the pressure of the working masses upon their parliamentary representatives. Neither the former nor the latter can be to the taste of leaders who applaud Baldwin’s conciliatory speeches and express their grief over the dead Curzon.
The inner life of the parliamentary party as well as its position in parliament will thereby become the more difficult. On the other hand there can be no doubt that the capitalist tiger will soon stop purring about gradualness and start to show its claws. Under such conditions will MacDonald manage to retain his leadership until the next election? This question does not of course have a decisive importance and an answer to it can have only a conjectural nature. In any event a further sharpening of relations between the right and the so-called `left’ wings of the labour Party and, what is far more important, a strengthening of revolutionary tendencies in the masses can be expected. The possessing classes will begin to follow what is taking place in the ranks of the working class with mounting alarm and begin to prepare for the election well in advance. In such conditions the election campaign will acquire an exceedingly tense character. The last election, in which there figured a forged document, put out through all the bourgeois press and at all meetings on a signal from the centre, was only a pale shadow of elections to come.
The election, always assuming that it does not develop directly into a civil war (and generally speaking that is not excluded), will have three possible outcomes; either the Conservatives will return to power but with a sharply reduced majority; or else none of the parties will have a clear majority and the parliamentary position of last year will be reverted to, only in political conditions far less favourable to compromise; or finally an absolute majority will pass to the Labour Party.
In the event of a new victory for the Conservatives the indignation and impatience of the workers will inevitably sharpen. The question of the electoral mechanism and its swindling of constituencies will inevitably come to the fore with all its sharpness. The demand for a new, more democratic parliament will resound with greater force. This may for a while hold back the internal struggle inside the Labour Party to a certain extent but it will however create more favourable conditions for the revolutionary elements. Will the Conservatives make a peaceful concession over a question which may become for them a question of fate? Highly unlikely. On the contrary, once the question of power becomes sharply posed the Conservatives will attempt to split the workers, finding support from the Thomases at the top and the trade unionists who refuse to pay the political levy at the bottom. By no means excluded is an attempt by a Conservative government to produce isolated clashes, crush them by force, terrify the liberal philistines leading the Labour Party and thrust the movement back.
Could this plan succeed? Such a possibility cannot be ruled out. In so far as the leaders of the Labour Party lead it with their eyes shut, without perspectives and without any understanding of social realities, they make it easier for the Conservatives to strike a blow at the movement at the next and higher stage. Such a variant would contain a more or less serious temporary defeat for the working class but it would, of course, have nothing in common with that peaceful, parliamentary road that the compromisers imagine. On the contrary, a defeat of this sort would prepare for a resumption of the class struggle at the next stage in more decisive revolutionary forms and consequently under new leadership.
If after the next election neither of the parties has a majority, parliament will be prostrated. A repetition of the Labour-Liberal coalition could hardly take place after the experience gained and in a situation of new and sharpened inter-class and inter-party relations at that. A Conservative-Liberal government would be more probable. But this would in essence coincide with the first variant, that of a Conservative majority, that we have just been examining. In event of their failure to reach an agreement, the only parliamentary solution would be a revision of the electoral system. The question of constituencies, second ballots and so forth would become a question of the direct struggle of the two main parties for power.
Would a parliament divided between parties neither of which is in a position to take power be capable of passing a new electoral act? That is more than doubtful. It would in any case require powerful pressure from outside. The weakness of a parliament without a secure majority would create a favourable circumstance for such a pressure. But this once again opens up a revolutionary perspective.
However, this intermediate variant does not have for us an intrinsic importance as it is obvious that an unstable parliamentary position must be resolved in one direction or the other, that is to say leading either to a Conservative or to a Labour government. We have examined the first case. As regards the second case, this is precisely the one that presents for us the basic interest from the standpoint of the subject concerning us. The question consequently is: can it be assumed that the Labour Party, having made sure of an overall parliamentary majority at the election and put forward its own government, will carry out by a peaceful road the nationalisation of the principal branches of industry and develop socialist construction within the framework and methods of the present parliamentary system?
So as not to complicate the question at the start, we shall assume that MacDonald’s grouping of compromise with the liberals will retain the party’s official leadership in its hands even during the next election so that a Labour Party victory will lead to the formation of a MacDonald government. It will no longer, however, be a simple repetition of the first experience: first, it will have behind it, according to our supposition, a safe majority; secondly, inter-party relations must inevitably sharpen in the coming period, especially in event of a Labour Party victory.
Today when the Conservatives have a firm majority in their hands they tend to treat MacDonald, Thomas and co with a patronising condescension. But as the Conservatives are made of more serious stuff than the mock socialists they will, when left in a minority, certainly show their claws and teeth. There can be no doubt therefore that even if the Conservatives could not prevent the formation of a stable government by the Labour Party by this or that parliamentary or extra-parliamentary method, the minority Conservatives would even in such an event, which might seem to be the most favourable from the standpoint of a peaceful development, do everything in their power to sabotage all the measures of the Labour government by means of the civil service, the judiciary, the military, the House of Lords and the courts.
Facing the Conservatives, as well as the remnants of the Liberals, would be the task of discrediting at all costs the first stable government of the working class. For here it is a question of life or death. It is not at all the old struggle between the Liberals and the Conservatives where disagreements never went beyond the bounds of the ‘family’ of the possessing classes. Any serious reforms by a Labour government in the field of taxation, nationalisation and a general democratisation of government would evoke a mighty flood of enthusiasm from the labouring masses, and – as appetite grows with the eating – successful moderate reforms would inevitably push towards the path of increasingly radical reforms. In other words, each additional day would further remove the possibility of the Conservatives’ return to power. The Conservatives could not fail to realise very clearly that this was no longer a routine change of government but the beginning of a socialist revolution by parliamentary means.
The resources of filibustering, legislative and administrative sabotage that the possessing classes have in their hands are very great for, whatever the parliamentary majority, the whole state apparatus is from top to bottom inextricably tied to the bourgeoisie. Belonging to it are: the whole of the press, the principal organs of local government, the universities, schools, the churches and innumerable clubs and voluntary associations in general. In its hands are the banks, the whole system of public credit, and finally, the transport and trading apparatus, so that the day-to-day food supply of London, including that of its Labour government, depends upon the big capitalist corporations.
It is absolutely self-evident that all these gigantic means will be brought into motion with furious violence in order to put a brake on the activity of the Labour government, paralyse its efforts, intimidate it, introduce a split in its parliamentary majority and finally to create a financial panic, dislocation of the food supply, lock-outs, to terrorise the top layers of the labour organisations and render the proletariat powerless. Only an utter fool can fail to understand that the bourgeoisie will move heaven, earth and the nether regions in the event of the actual coming to power of a Labour government.
Today’s so-called British fascism is for the time being more of a curiosity than anything else, but this curiosity is nonetheless symptomatic. The Conservatives are today still sitting too firmly in the saddle to need the aid of the fascists. But a sharpening of inter-party relations, the growth of the persistence and militancy of the working masses and the perspective of a Labour Party victory will inevitably cause the development of fascist tendencies on the right wing of the Conservatives. In a country that has become poorer in recent years, where the position of the small and middle bourgeois has worsened in the extreme and there is chronic unemployment, there will be no shortage of elements for the formation of fascist detachments. There can therefore be no doubt that at the moment of an election victory for the Labour Party the Conservatives will have behind them not only the official state apparatus but also the unofficial gangs of fascism. They will begin the bloody work of the provocateur before the parliament has even had time to proceed to the first reading of a bill for the nationalisation of the coal mines. What is there left for a Labour government to do? Either shamefully capitulate or crush the opposition. The latter decision will however by no means prove so simple.
The experience of Ireland bears witness that a solid material force and a tough state apparatus is indispensable to crush this sort of opposition. A Labour government will find itself with neither the former nor the latter. The police, the courts, the army and the territorial forces will always be on the side of the disruptors, saboteurs and fascists. The administrative machinery will have to be broken up and the reactionaries replaced by Labour Party members. There will be no other road. But it is quite obvious that such abrupt state measures, although wholly ‘legal’, will sharpen the legal and illegal opposition of unified bourgeois reaction in the extreme. In other words: this will also be a path of civil war.
But can the Labour Party when once in power, go about the business so cautiously, so tactfully and so skilfully that the bourgeoisie will, how shall we put it? – not feel the need for active resistance? Such an assumption is in itself of course laughable. It must nevertheless be recognised that just such is the basic hope of MacDonald and co. When today’s mock leader of the ILP says that the Labour Party will carry out only those reforms whose realisation can be ‘proved scientifically’ (MacDonald’s ‘science’ is already known to us) then he means that a Labour government would look inquiringly into the bourgeoisie’s eyes before every one of its reformist steps. Of course if everything depended upon MacDonald’s good will and his ‘scientifically’ justified reforms things would never come to a civil war – owing to the lack of any ground for one on the part of the bourgeoisie.
If a second MacDonald government was like the first one then there would be no cause to raise even the question of the feasibility of socialism by the parliamentary road, for the budget of the City has nothing in common with the budget of socialism. But even if a Labour government retained its former composition its policy would necessarily undergo a few changes. It is ridiculous to think that the same mighty Labour wave that raises MacDonald to power will immediately afterwards flood deferentially back. No, the demanding mood of the working class will grow in the extreme. Now there will be no longer any place for excuses of dependence on Liberal votes. The opposition of the Conservatives, the House of Lords, the bureaucracy and the monarchy will redouble the energy, impatience and indignation of the workers. The slanders and calumnies of the capitalist press will goad them on. If their own government in these conditions displayed even the most unfeigned energy it would still seem to be too sluggish to the working masses. But there is about as much ground for expecting revolutionary energy from MacDonald, Clynes and Snowden as there is to expect perfume to rise from a rotten beetroot.
Between a revolutionary onslaught by the masses and the fierce resistance of the bourgeoisie a MacDonald government would rush about from one side to the other, irritating some, not satisfying others, provoking the bourgeoisie by its inertia, exacerbating the revolutionary impatience of the workers, kindling a civil war and striving at the same time to deprive it of the necessary leadership on the side of the proletariat. Meanwhile the revolutionary wing would inevitably grow and the most far-sighted resolute and revolutionary elements of the working class would come to the top. On this path a MacDonald government would sooner or later, depending upon the balance of forces outside parliament, have to surrender its position either to a Conservative government with fascist and not conciliatory tendencies or to a revolutionary government that was really capable of carrying the job through to the finish. In both the one and the other event a new explosion of civil war is inevitable, a sharp collision between the classes all along the line. In the event of the Conservatives’ victory – the ruthless smashing of workers’ organisations; in the event of the victory of the proletariat – the shattering of the resistance of the exploiters by means of the revolutionary dictatorship.
Among MacDonald’s ‘left’ self-supporters and half-opponents who like him assume a democratic stance, there are some who will probably say: obviously if the bourgeois classes attempt to put up resistance to a democratically-elected Labour government, the latter will not balk at methods of the most severe coercion – but this will be not a class dictatorship, rather the power of a democratic state, ... and so on and so forth. It is quite futile to put the argument on this plane. To think in fact that the fate of society can be determined by whether there are elected to parliament 307 Labour MPs, ie a minority, or 308, ie a majority, and not by the effective balance of class forces at the moment of the sharp clash of classes over the basic question of their existence – to think in that way would mean to be completely captive to the fetish of parliamentary arithmetic.
And let us ask, what happens if the Conservatives, faced with a mounting revolutionary flood and the danger of a Labour government, not only refuse to democratise the electoral system but on the contrary introduce new restrictions? Unlikely! Some ninny will object who does not understand that where it is a matter of the life and death of classes anything is likely. But already in top circles in Britain a great deal of preparatory to-ing and fro-ing is going on over the reorganisation and strengthening of the House of Lords. MacDonald recently stated in connection with this that he could understand the concern of some Conservative lords but ‘why Liberals should make endeavours in the same direction I cannot understand’. The sage cannot understand why the Liberals are reinforcing a second line of trenches against the offensive of the working class. He does not understand this because he himself is a liberal, and a profoundly provincial, petty and limited one at that. He does not understand that the bourgeoisie has serious intentions, that it is preparing for a mortal struggle and that the crown and the House of Lords will occupy a prominent place in that struggle. Having curtailed the rights of the House of Commons, that is to say, carrying out a legal coup d’état, the Conservatives will, despite all the difficulties of such an undertaking, still emerge in a more advantageous situation than if they had had to organise opposition to a Labour government that had successfully reinforced itself. But obviously in such an event, some ‘left’ phrasemonger will exclaim, we should call upon the masses to resist. To use revolutionary force, does he mean? So does it turn out that revolutionary force is not only permissible but in fact inevitable in a case where the Conservatives carry out a pre-emptive coup d’état by the most legal parliamentary means? But in that case is it not simpler to say that revolutionary force is expedient when and where it strengthens the position of the proletariat, weakens or repulses the enemy and accelerates the socialist development of society?
But heroic promises to put up lightning resistance in the event the Conservatives should ‘dare’ and so forth are not worth a rotten egg. One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat. To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organisationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and of its turning at a certain stage into a civil war. The political education of the working class and the selection of its leading personnel must be adjusted to such a perspective. The illusions of compromise must be fought day in and day out, that is to say, war to the death must be declared on MacDonaldism. Thus and only thus does the question stand today.
Last updated: 4 March 2017