History: Labour recruits for carnage in WW1

The second instalment in our serialisation of a socialist history of the Labour Party. Read the first instalment: Labour's early years: 1900-1914 By Dave Stockton

The years of the First World War of 1914-18 were critical ones for the British labour movement. Its political party, its trade unions and the role they play in British life took on the shape that they have today, one that has survived despite the best efforts of Margaret Thatcher and her acknowledged disciple Tony Blair to rob the working class of any sort of party of its own.

The turning point was Labour’s support for the war, which saw it abandon the solemn pacifist pledges of its first generation of leaders. Wholehearted campaigning for war recruitment by union and Party leaders, their entry into government for the first time and their role in managing wartime production all convinced the rulers of the world’s largest empire that in Labour they had a loyal servant, willing and able to control the working class on their behalf.

The unions doubled in size during the war, from 4 to 8 million members, and their leaders were recognised by the capitalist state effectively as an “estate of the realm”. At the same time, and partly because of this, the war years also saw the birth of a rank and file movement of shop stewards, distinct from and hostile to the union bureaucracy.

The war also saw massive state intervention, to increase war production in a way that private enterprise alone could not. For many in the labour movement, this was tantamount to the advance of socialism – and was, they believed, irreversible. By the war’s end, nationalisation and state controls had become a central part of Labour’s ideology.

As the war progressed, it became clear to Britain’s rulers that its ramshackle and undemocratic constitution would have to be overhauled, especially after the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Britain, for all its claims to being the world’s oldest democracy, had nothing even approaching universal suffrage. Not only could women not vote, but neither too could 40 per cent of adult males, a proportion rising to 60 per cent in the working class.

The Liberal government elected in 1906, for all its other reforms, had stubbornly resisted changes to this system, leading to bitter clashes with the Suffragette movement. And given how restricted the property-based franchise was, it is notable just how far Labour’s leaders lagged behind their Chartist forbears.

Labour could only hope to escape from its third party status if the mass of the working class received the right to vote. But if they did so, then the Liberal Party’s days would be numbered. And Labour under Ramsay MacDonald had secret arrangements with the Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone to avoid clashes between their parties’ candidates. Without its own programme and tied to the Liberals, Labour’s independence was highly circumscribed.

Wartime state capitalism in industry and impending electoral reform combined with the ”threat” of Bolshevism to convince Labour’s leaders that they needed to adopt a “socialist” goal for a new, mass membership party that could hope to win power through elections.

The result was the Labour Party that we know today: a party rooted in the working class through the unions and at the ballot box, loyal to an exclusively parliamentary road to power and staunchly opposed to revolution, identifying “socialism” with a gradual growth of state intervention in the economy and society.

The autonomy of Labour MPs, both from the socialist societies that provided the party with activists and also (albeit to a lesser degree) from the unions, was enshrined in a resolution of the Party’s 1907 conference:

“That resolutions instructing the parliamentary group of Labour MPs as to their action in the House of Commons be taken as the opinion of the conference, on the understanding that the time and method of giving effect to these instructions be left to the Party in the House in conjunction with the National Executive.”

The next few decades showed that reforms conceded by the ruling class under the pressure of war, and immediately after it through fear of revolution, could still be taken away, especially from a Labour Party that limited itself to electoral action and from unions that limited themselves to “collective bargaining”.

Nevertheless this pattern of concessions followed by clawback, established in the First World War, was repeated on far bigger scale in the Second World War and its aftermath, the 1945 Attlee government. Three decades of capitalist expansion ensured that this time around, the process of clawback did not begin until the 1980s.

War on War

Since 1907, Labour had been affiliated to the Second International, a loose federation of socialist parties, many but not all of them Marxist in origin. But unlike most of these parties, Labour did not claim to be a socialist party. Its affiliated unions had little interest in the gatherings of “foreign socialists”. As Labour’s early historian G. D. H. Cole put it, “the party had in fact not taken its affiliation very seriously”.

But the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Fabian Society had been members of the Second International from the beginning. And it was these socialist groups that alongside the unions had founded first the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and then the Labour Party.

The ILP and the Fabians remained affiliated to the Party and chose their own representatives on its National Executive. The SDF (renamed the British Socialist Party in 1911) disaffiliated one year after its founding, when the LRC refused to espouse socialism and the class struggle. Nevertheless the SDF formed part of the British section of the International and decided to re-affiliate to Labour in 1914, although this was not ratified until 1916.

All were represented on the International Socialist Bureau (ISB), which performed a coordinating role in the International between its Congresses.

British socialist leaders like the SDF’s Henry Hyndman, ILP founder Keir Hardie and the Fabian leaders Sidney and Beatrice Webb played a significant role at these gatherings, primarily on account of the British Empire’s global role. Hardie gained fame within the International as the co-sponsor with French socialist Edouard Vaillant of a resolution at the 1910 Congress in Copenhagen, which called for a general strike in the event of war.

The Congresses of the International were increasingly pre-occupied with the mounting rivalries between the two groupings of “Great Powers”: the “Entente Cordiale” of Britain, France and (later) Russia and the “Central Powers” (principally Germany and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, plus Italy). Crises in Morocco in 1905 and 1911 and in the Balkans in 1912-13, in which the Great Powers or their lesser allies and dependents clashed, threatened to ignite a European or even a world-wide conflagration.

The Stuttgart Congress in 1907 debated a resolution drafted by veteran German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader August Bebel. This resolution identified the causes of the war threat and outlined the action that the international workers’ movement should adopt to combat it:

“Wars, therefore, are part of the very nature of capitalism; they will cease only when the capitalist system is abolished or when the enormous sacrifices in men and money required by the advance in military technique and the indignation called forth by armaments, drive the peoples to abolish this system”.

The draft went on to commit workers’ representatives in the various national parliaments “to combat the naval and military armaments with all their might […] and to refuse the means for these armaments”.

This meant that the sections of the International should follow the the SPD’s famous slogan “Not a man, not a penny, for this system”; that they should vote in parliament against armaments bills, and against war credits should a conflict break out. But the International did not pretend to exert any discipline over its sections, and Labour MPs typically voted for military budgets.

The 1907 resolution was sharpened by an amendment moved by the Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, the leader of the SPD’s left wing. This stated:

“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives […] to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation. In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

The First Balkan War of 1912 provoked the ISB to call an emergency Congress in Basel, Switzerland. It unanimously identified any impending conflict as an imperialist war, and threatened Europe’s ruling classes that war would inevitably “call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class”.

Citing the the Paris Commune of 1871 as the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russian revolution of 1905 as the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War, it also identified the naval arms race as a cause of the recent industrial “Great Unrest” in Britain and elsewhere.

In short, the Basel Congress threatened the ruling classes with revolutionary consequences if they took their countries to war. But as events were soon to prove, this was an empty threat unless the justification of “national defence” was dealt with decisively. And the Basel resolution made no reference to “national defence”, although it did call on the ISB to coordinate mass protests whenever war threatened.

From Pacifism to Patriotism

Although in general terms the entire International and the British labour movement were well aware of the danger of war, when it actually approached in July 1914 it took nearly everyone by surprise, revolutionaries and reformists alike.

In Britain, the war crisis came as an even greater shock, since Liberal Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s secret diplomacy was entirely unknown to Labour politicians or the public at large. They had no idea of the secret promises that Britain had made to France, including to deploy the Royal Navy if Germany sent warships into the Channel to blockade French ports. The Entente Cordiale, whatever its secret meaning, was not publicly a military alliance, though the joint Anglo-French naval manoeuvres of the pre-war years should have indicated what was afoot.

The International, which had been preparing for its Tenth Congress in Vienna, was now at the centre of the crisis. Hurriedly the ISB convened in Brussels, with Keir Hardie representing Britain. But all the ISB could do was to hold a peace rally in Brussels, and urge the parties of the International to do the same in their own countries.

Throughout late July and early August, these parties including the SPD called huge anti-war demonstrations, while their press denounced the war plans of Europe’s rulers. So far so good, or so it seemed.

A crowd packed Trafalgar Square on 2 August to hear Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury denounce the impending war and call for resistance to it. The British section of the ISB issued an appeal signed by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson:

“Workers, stand together therefore for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all. Men and women of Britain, you have now an unexampled opportunity of rendering a magnificent service to humanity, and to the world! Proclaim that for you the days of plunder and butchery have gone by; send messages of peace and fraternity to your fellows who have less liberty than you. Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with war. Up with the peaceful rule of the people.”

On 5 August, the Labour Party’s National Executive also issued a statement, supported by MacDonald, that opposed war. But that very same day, a majority of Labour MPs overrode MacDonald’s objections and voted for war credits, swayed by hysterical propaganda about German atrocities in Belgium. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Party leader, with a now pro-war Arthur Henderson succeeding him.

Indeed in August 1914, all the parties of the Second International in the belligerent countries (except for the Russian and Serbian parties, and part of the Bulgarian party) shamefully reneged on their promises at the Stuttgart and Basel Congresses.

The French Socialist Party voted unanimously for war credits in the Chamber of Deputies. Belgian socialist leader Emile Vandervelde declared that socialists “must fulfil their duty without any hesitation” and vote “for all the credits that the government requires for the defence of the nation”. In both cases, their pro-war turns were presented as a justified response to German invasion.

But the biggest shock came from the SPD, the million-strong “jewel of the International”. On 4 August, its spokesman Hugo Haase addressed the Reichstag, arguing that the Social Democracy had to safeguard Germany’s “culture and independence”, and that “in the hour of danger we shall not desert our Fatherland”.

For him too, this was not a “war of conquest” on Germany’s part, but a war to defend a relatively democratic state against invasion by Tsarist Russian despotism, and by extension to defend the world’s largest socialist party.

By November 1914, Lenin had drawn the conclusion that “The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism”. Rosa Luxemburg similarly concluded that German Social Democracy had become “a stinking corpse.”

British Labour and the war

The British labour movement had never made any serious attempt to oppose the arms race. As Lenin noted in 1913, its Labour Party was “the workers’ organisation that is most opportunist and soaked in the spirit of liberal-labour policy.” He wrote this just after 15 Labour MPs voted to reduce the naval budget, while 21 absented themselves and four voted with the government. Tellingly for today’s debates, two of these four MPs cited the jobs of their constituents in the arms industry.

Labour’s leaders had never been working class internationalists, but rather identified with the lower middle class pacifism of the Liberals’ “Little Englander” radical wing. But August 1914 forced them to choose sides. Britain was now fighting an imperialist war to protect a division of the world’s resources that was favourable to it, while Germany and its allies wanted to redivide those resources. Labour’s leaders could either oppose the war and thereby weaken the “defence of the fatherland”, or they would be obliged to collaborate in the prosecution of the war.

The first course meant accepting that national defeat was a lesser evil compared to the working class movement’s complicity with its own exploiters. The second course tied the working class to the imperialist banditry of its own ruling class. In Germany this meant the “rape of Belgium”; and in Britain it meant the rape of Ireland.

Pacifism and “conscientious objection” to the war effort could be a personal solution for isolated individuals, but it was not a policy that could be pursued by mass working class organisations. A ruling class fighting a life or death struggle for its profits, colonies and markets cannot afford to allow its labour force to be “neutral”. In the hypocritical pretence of “defending democracy”, actual democratic rights like freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and the right to strike are suspended “for the duration”.

The only real alternative to complying with the war drive was therefore to oppose it with the methods of class struggle, to prevent the bosses from offloading onto the working class the misery and increased exploitation necessitated by their war. Through this struggle the need to end the war through a struggle for power to overthrow capitalism becomes clearer and clearer, first to thousands, and then to millions.

Instead, on 29 August Labour agreed to a political truce, meaning that it would not contest any by-elections for the duration of the war. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) had already declared an industrial truce five days earlier, and immediately set about suppressing strikes. Both agreed to participate in a mass armed forces recruitment campaign, to which the Party’s national and constituency agents were seconded.

After the promise of “victory by Christmas” failed to materialise and the long stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front set in, it became obvious that victory required a battle for increased war production. David Lloyd George, a wily demagogue with radical “friend of labour” credentials, was given the job of winning the labour movement to full participation in this battle.

He persuaded the union leaders to abandon all “custom and practice” that might impede the war effort. The gains of 50 years of trade unionism were sacrificed to the needs of munitions production.

In May 1915, Arthur Henderson entered the coalition government, nominally as President of the Board of Education but in fact as the representative of organised labour. In July 1915, the union leaders’ voluntary concessions were given the force of law with the passage of the Munitions of War Act. It was immediately used to ban a strike by 200,000 coal miners in South Wales, although the government later backed down.

The rank and file challenge

But towards the end of 1915, opposition to the effects of the war began to emerge, as skilled workers resisted the destruction of gains that their powerful unions had wrested from employers since the 1850s. Since their national officials sat on war production committees and used the whole machinery of the union against them, these workers turned instead to their directly elected shop stewards for leadership.

Soaring prices, the hardships of the wives and widows of soldiers, food shortages, conscription and the slaughter in the trenches all began to deflate the balloon of patriotism.

In Glasgow, the Clyde Workers Committee initially led strikes against “dilution”, the replacement of skilled by unskilled workers, often women. But soon its struggles broadened from defence of male workers’ craft privileges to fighting rent increases and evictions, and a campaign against conscription. In the other crucial war production area, the Sheffield Workers Committee played a similar role. Gradually union militants became more political and more openly anti-war.

A series of strikes on Clydeside in the Spring of 1916 were broken only when their leaders were deported. Arthur Henderson was implicated in this repression. And Ramsay MacDonald, despite his “opposition” to the war, made it clear that he gave no support to this elemental working class resistance to its effects.

He told the House of Commons in the middle of the Clyde strikes that he would prefer to “destroy every particle of influence that ever I have had with the working men of this country” rather than allow a “division of opinion” from his “old colleagues” to make him into “an agent to bring men out on strike”.

This “division of opinion” was in any case more apparent than real. MacDonald tried to keep anti-war feeling under control and ineffectual. Henderson defended MacDonald against attempts by super-patriots in the unions, like seamen’s leader Havelock Wilson, to drive him and other pacifists out of the Party. Thus Labour, unlike every other socialist party in the belligerent countries, managed to avoid a split during the war.

MacDonald was allowed to hawk his conscientious objections around, so long as it did nothing to materially upset the war effort. And the depth of hypocrisy involved in Henderson’s support for Britain’s claim to be fighting for the “rights of small nations” was revealed over Ireland.

The Easter Rising of 1916 failed. Its leaders included Ireland’s most famous socialist, James Connolly. After the briefest hesitation to assess the likely reaction in Britain and Ireland, the government had them all shot. Not only did Henderson do nothing to save them, he was reported to have joined in the cheering of the Liberal and Tory rabble in the Commons when their executions were announced.

The Herald sanctimoniously editorialised that “no lover of peace can do anything but deplore the outbreak in Dublin”. And the Socialist Review, the ILP’s journal, went even further, saying that “We do not approve armed rebellion at all, any more than any other form of militarism and war. […] Nor do we complain against the government for having opposed and suppressed armed rebellion by armed force.” Plainly the ILP’s pacifism extended only to condemning the violence of the oppressed, not that of their oppressors.

The tragic element of the Irish rising was that it came too soon to rouse the masses into action. But as Lenin noted, such “premature” outbreaks were inevitable in the development of the revolutions that would result from the war. In less than a year the disintegrating nature of the war became obvious in a yet greater “outbreak”, the February 1917 revolution in Russia.

To the war-weary troops and workers in all the belligerent countries this was a beacon of hope. As the going got tougher for warmonger politicians like Lloyd George, their reliance on their “labour lieutenants” grew ever greater. When Lloyd George ousted Herbert Henry Asquith and went for total victory, he brought Henderson into the inner five-man War Cabinet.

British Labour adopts “socialism”

As already noted, the needs of war production forced the ruling class to accept far-reaching state intervention. Munitions factories were controlled by the state. Large-scale planning saw big industrialists brought into the Whitehall ministries, as were many trade union leaders, albeit in a more junior capacity.

The mines and railways were temporarily taken over by the state. All of this filled the Fabians in particular with enthusiasm, and opened the eyes of many hitherto still very pro-Liberal trade union bureaucrats to the virtues of “social ownership”.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb regarded these measures simply as a form of “collectivism” that could be built upon after the war, even though the astronomic war profiteering should have indicated that these were hardly anti-capitalist measures.

From their positions on the various war production committees, the Webbs proceeded to draft a series of projects continuing and extending the wartime controls, adding to them a few of their favourite proposals for social reform. Thus the old laissez-faire liberalism, whose influence had been strong amongst the pre-war trade union leaders, declined dramatically.

But a more radical shift “from below” was needed to transform Labour into an avowedly “socialist” party. The February 1917 revolution in Russia had covered the country with a network of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils, the so-called “soviets”. Dominated at this stage by the non-revolutionary Mensheviks, these bodies were not yet recognised as potential organs of a new type of state run by the working class. They did however suggest a way for the organised working class to put pressure on governments, and even pointed a way towards an end to the war.

On the initiative of the Labour paper, the Herald, a huge unofficial conference was held in Leeds on 3 June 1917. The delegates were largely militant anti-war socialists and shop stewards, who witnessed the curious spectacle of Ramsay MacDonald hailing the Russian soviets. This conference called for the formation of local workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout Britain.

Indeed indirectly, it was the Russian soviets that drove Henderson (though not yet Labour) out of the war coalition. Prime Minister Lloyd George had dispatched Henderson to Russia on a fact-finding mission, and to help dissuade the Russians from making a separate peace. While there, the Congress of Soviets called for a Socialist Congress in Stockholm, to consist of socialists from both neutral and belligerent countries, to press for a negotiated end to the war.

While Henderson wanted to make this a merely consultative gathering, he nevertheless supported it and narrowly got the Labour Party to support it. But Lloyd George refused to allow delegates to travel to Stockholm, forcing Henderson to resign from the Cabinet.

In Russia, Henderson had come face to face with a revolution and heartily detested it. He complained on his return that: “The men are not content with asking for reasonable advances. Their demands are so extravagant that it is obvious they are prompted not so much with a desire for economic improvement as to secure a complete change in the control of industry”. Worse still, they wanted “supreme control in the hands of workers themselves”. And that Henderson would not hear of.

Henderson did however become convinced that Labour needed a thorough overhaul if it was to do better than the Russian Mensheviks had against its own British Bolsheviks, the militant shop stewards and the anti-war socialists like Glasgow’s John Maclean.

Working alongside the Webbs, Henderson persuaded the National Executive in September to undertake a “reorganisation of the party”, on the basis of “a wider extension of membership, the strengthening and development of local parties in the constituencies” and the adoption of a party constitution.

By October the outlines of this new constitution were clear. Individual membership at constituency level was to be introduced, something hitherto not possible except via membership of the ILP or the British Socialist Party. Thus these dangerously radical organisations, with their own conferences and policies and their own representation on Labour’s National Executive, which as the war dragged on were becoming dangerously receptive to Bolshevik influence, could be swamped or disciplined.

The Party’s National Executive, including the representatives of its affiliated socialist parties and societies, was henceforth to be elected by Labour’s national conference. This conference would be dominated by the “block vote” of the unions, through which union executives would each vote on behalf of their entire union’s membership, without any allowance for the range of views amongst their members.

Finally, a reformist “socialist” objective was needed to help outflank the more radical socialists and syndicalists, who hitherto had possessed a monopoly on socialist ideology.

In the middle of this, news of the Russian Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in November 1917 provided an added spur to Henderson and the Webbs’ reforms of the old federal “non-socialist” Labour Party. These proposals were considered at a conference in Nottingham in January 1918, which reconvened in London in February.

The Labour Party adopted the famous Clause Four of its constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” Alongside this it also adopted Sidney Webb’s programme for post-war reconstruction, “Labour and the New Social Order”.

A bourgeois workers’ party

Obviously a profound change had come over the old trade union parliamentary pressure group that had existed up to that point. The war had dispelled many naive illusions. It had brought Labour into government, albeit in a junior role. It had tested the patriotism of its parliamentary leaders, and shown the ruling class that it was completely reliable. It had proved that in a conflict between the interests of the working class and the needs of imperialist capitalism, Labour would side equivocally with the “class enemy”.

The “innocent” and muddle-headed opportunism symbolised before 1914 by Keir Hardie and George Lansbury was replaced by the cynical chauvinism of Arthur Henderson and the hypocritical semi-pacifism of Ramsay MacDonald.

Superficially, Labour became “more socialist” after 1918. But this adjustment had been made necessary by the leftward move of the British working class. It was needed as a weapon against Bolshevism and the shop stewards’ movement, and disguised the party’s deep commitment to its own country’s ruling class.

Lenin summed up the Labour Party’s nature quite crisply. Criticising those British socialists who saw it simply as the political organisation of the trade unions, he explained:

“Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.”

This is the party that Labour definitively became during the First World War, and the party that it remains today. A struggle today to overturn this legacy will be what determines its future.

Read the first instalment: Labour's early years: 1900-1914

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