On September 13th 2015 at a packed TUC fringe event at the Brighton Corn Exchange, ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis delivered a stirring speech on how the Syriza government had been undermined by the EU’s financial institutions and what this portended for a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. At its close he finished with one last warning to the British left, born from his own experience in office, – “The enemy is always within. The enemy is always the Ramsay MacDonalds”.
Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn no-one would claim Labour is now led by a second Ramsay MacDonald (a role already perfectly filled by Neil Kinnock, who managed to betray his class and his party without even getting elected first). But although Corbyn’s mandate for a real socialist alternative is undeniable and impressive the Labour Party machine and most of its MPs remain unreformed. Too many local Labour parties – like my own in Brighton – are led by midget-Blairs whose response to the election of Corbyn and the subsequent inrush of enthusiastic new members is fear and distrust. Their strategy for the next four years will be to ignore, suppress and defuse their own members who wish to turn the party into a radical anti-austerity opposition. Nor are the unions Corbyn’s automatic allies. One need only see the grotesque Sir Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB, who after accepting his “honour” from the Tories for selling out public sector pensions condemned Corbyn’s stance on Trident as a threat to the “defence of the realm”.
Most Labour MPs are still stunned by the size of Corbyn’s victory, but internal resistance and sabotage of Corbyn’s agenda will inevitably increase the longer he remains leader. The future MacDonalds are plain to see – the likes of Umunna, Hunt, Cooper, Bradshaw, Cruddas, and fair few of his own Shadow Cabinet. These people have no political base inthe sense of mass support, but they do not need one. They have a platform and high profile cheerleaders in the form of Andrew Rawnsley, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore and the entire Guardian–Observer nexus of corporate liberals. Much of the naivety on the Labour left about this still-powerful strand inside Labour, and the latitude they continue to receive inside the wider party, derives from ignorance about Labour history and the lessons it contains. What, then, are the lessons of 1931, and why are “the Ramsay MacDonalds” still the main enemy?
In 1928 the voting age for women had been reduced from 30 to 21, bringing it in to line with men (a move strongly opposed by Winston Churchill and a host of reactionary Tories). This made the Labour Government elected in May 1929 the first in British history to be elected under equal universal suffrage, and the most legitimate government ever put into power by the British people. This was significant, given that power within British society continued to reside where it always had. A.J.P Taylor, in English History 1914-1945, neatly summarised the social forces aligned against Labour and the organised working class –
Universities, Chambers of Commerce, the civil service, the armed forces, nominally non-party organisations such as the Women’s Institute, and to a great extent the Church of England, were pillars of conservatism in thin disguise. Other things being equal, those who rule go on ruling, and those who are ruled acquiesce.
Once again, as in 1923 when the first minority Labour government was elected, Labour’s pre-election rhetoric outstripped its intentions in government. Its programme, “Labour and the Nation”, written by R.H Tawney, had declared that Labour’s aim was to “use the weapons forged in the victorious struggle for political democracy to end the capitalist dictatorship in which democracy finds everywhere its most insidious and relentless foe”. The biggest challenge facing the new government was the ever rising tide of mass unemployment, created by the great post-war depression of 1921-22. The problem of “the intractable million”, as it came to be known in the 1920s, carved great wounds in British society as unemployment reached and seldom dipped below 10% of the population. In 1922 the total of jobless had been 1.54 million. In 1929 it was still 1.2 million, about to jump up to nearly 2 million in 1930 and then exceed 2.5 million in 1931, as the effects of the Great Crash and a second, still worse economic depression hit Great Britain. In regions dependent on traditional staple industries unemployment rates was far higher than the national average, and poverty endemic.
After the 1929 General Election Labour did not have an absolute parliamentary majority. This would have been a severe impediment to pursuing radical policies, had that been the intention. However, the only genuine radical success of the 1924 government, John Wheatley, was carefully excluded from the new Cabinet. The reasons for this were made clear at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after the election, when Wheatley opposed forming a minority government, which he feared would inevitably pursue capitalist policies and end up cutting unemployment benefits to assuage the City. MacDonald ignored him, and said that the greatest danger the government faced was “sniping from within”. The vast majority of Labour MPs applauded him.
The former radical firebrand George Lansbury, Leader of Poplar Council in the 1920s, had been invited into the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works, but by 1929 he had lost some of his former zeal. With Lansbury muted the government, as in 1924, posed no objective threat to the British ruling class and its interests, no concrete programme to socialise the means of production, no attack of wealth and privilege, and no deviation from a pro-Empire foreign policy. The Fabian intellectual Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and the new Colonial and Dominions Secretary, said of the challenge of leading the country towards the socialist commonwealth, “All I know is that I don’t know how to do it”. Faced with this kind of “socialist”, the UK’s powerful vested interests had no need to resort to underhand or unconstitutional methods to subvert the Labour government. The capitalist economy itself, aided by servile newspaper empires run by rich plutocrats, served just as well.
The Federation of British Industries (the FBI, the pre-cursor to today’s CBI) drove the point home. It informed MacDonald that it had strong objections to an interventionist economic policy, and that it expected “a holiday from social legislation”. The FBI offered the government and the trade unions a deal – that in return for “greater flexibility in labour practice” it would deliver “a truce in wage rate reductions for the next eighteen months”. Robert Skidelsky’s comprehensive analysis of the economic policies of the 1929-1931 Labour government describes the City’s deep economic orthodoxy, and its fear that
Any tendency to toy with unsound expedients such as raising a huge loan for development purposes would seriously undermine international confidence. This was especially true, it was held, if the offending government were a Labour one (“Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-1931”, p.77).
The City worried unnecessarily. Labour’s Chancellor, Philip Snowden, could not have been more attentive to their needs had he got down and polished their shoes. He faithfully echoed the Treasury and the Bank of England’s commitment to the Gold Standard and Free Trade. Snowden’s unwillingness to take Sterling off the Gold Standard (to which the previous Tory Chancellor Churchill had returned the UK in 1925, thus stifling the flow of credit and hampering industrial expansion) had crippled from the start proposals to alleviate unemployment through government spending. In complete agreement with Treasury/City doctrine that deficit spending was calamitous and unemployment benefits were excessive, Snowden ensured the Labour manifesto’s “unqualified pledge” to deal “immediately and practically” with mass unemployment was never actioned, although by July 1930 unemployment had topped 2 million, and 2 ½ million by the end of the year.
When not restrained by Snowden’s financial strait-jacket Labour made a few jabs at some of the British economy’s worst injustices. It passed the Coal Mines Act 1930, which revoked the 8 hour day imposed on the miners in 1926 after the General Strike (it legislated for 7 ½ hours) and sought to control coal prices. The new Minister for Health, Arthur Greenwood, also made clear he would continue John Wheatley’s house building subsidies introduced in 1924, which had been under threat from the Tories, and legislated for a programme of slum clearance in the Housing Act 1930. These were resisted by the Conservative opposition under Stanley Baldwin but nevertheless had some residual impact, particularly later in the 1930s when Greenwood’s act led to a massive attack on Victorian slum housing.
These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929
These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929, whose ripple effect hit Britain in 1930 and 1931 and accelerated already high unemployment. As the devastating effect of the Great Crash sent shockwaves around the world and impacted on European economies, MacDonald gave voice to Labour’s deep yet incoherent belief that the capitalist system was fundamentally unsound, and it was beyond human ken to address it – “We are not on trial. It is the system under which we live. It has broken down everywhere, as it was bound to break down”. Unfortunately he had no schemes or policies to redress this breakdown, and he was not open to those who had.
The government’s doctrinal incoherence left it vulnerable to whoever talked loudest and wielded financial and institutional power. Sadly, this was not its own activists, or those calling for radical departures in economic policy. On the contrary
the decline in business profits produced a predictable clamour in favour of retrenchment in public expenditure, which was focused in a attack on the “dole”, and its alleged “abuses”, but over which already loomed the spectre of an unbalanced Budget and all its attendant evils. (Skidelsky, p.203).
With some exceptions, Ministers internalised and reflected these voices. Ostensibly socialist politicians elected by a primarily working class electoral base to restructure British capitalism and address the burning issue of unemployment began to see the unemployed themselves as the problem. Hugh Dalton, then a junior member of the government, recorded in his diary that
In niggling discussions about abuses and anomalies in the payment, in a small number of cases, of unemployment benefit, most Ministers and their officials quite lost sight of the major “abuse” and “anomaly” of mass unemployment itself.
There were ideas to tackle the blight of mass unemployment and the threat to social peace it represented, but they were advanced by an odd consortia of Independent Labour Party (ILP)/left Labour MPs, progressive Liberals and economists like J.M Keynes, and championed inside the Labour Government by Minister of Works George Lansbury and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Sir Oswald Mosley. Although these alternative policies were far and away the most creative and energetic proposals put forward at the time, and would eventually find effective expression in the USA as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, they suffered in Britain by association with Mosley. Brilliant but erratic, he eventually left Labour to form the New Party, and all his potential was wasted as he declined into fascism.
In January 1930 Mosley put all his proposals for dealing with unemployment into a document subsequently known as the “Mosley Memorandum” and sent it to the Prime Minister. Amongst other things it called for greater public ownership, control of banking and credit operations to ensure stimulus to the economy, increased pensions and social security payments, and protectionism. It also recommended the creation of a Development Bank that would co-ordinate government credit, rationalisation and regulation of the banks, and planned industrial development. The Memorandum was explicitly critical of the inability of British banks to focus on the long term national interest, considering them “…unfitted by tradition and present practice to play any such part”. Mosley had discussed an earlier draft of the memorandum with Lansbury, and also with J.M Keynes, who considered it “a very able document”.
MacDonald set up a Cabinet sub-committee consisting of himself, J.H Thomas (who had responsibility for tackling unemployment, and whose inactivity had driven Mosley into independent action), Arthur Greenwood, Tom Shaw and Margaret Bondfield. Only Bondfield, Minister of Labour and a former member of the TUC General Council, had any sympathy for the proposals. The Memorandum was also sent to the Treasury for views. After cursory consideration the Cabinet sub-committee rejected the memorandum, partly prompted by a negative assessment from the Treasury, partly by the savaging of Mosley’s proposals from a press that with minor exceptions was extremely conservative. The Daily Mail editorialised (May 22 1930) that
No reasonable person would refuse the Government in general and Mr J.H Thomas in particular commendation for the firm stand they have taken against the crazy proposals put forward by irresponsible members of their party, and against the wild-cat schemes of Sir Oswald Mosley”.
Instead the Mail strongly recommended “…the most drastic economy in expenditure, accompanied by large remissions in taxation.”
The leading members of the government feared and followed the wishes of the press and shaped policy around the headlines of the Mail. In frustration, Mosley resigned his government position and tied to bring the fight for alternative policies to the Parliamentary Party. At a packed and dramatic meeting of Labour MPs Mosley laid out his proposals in what those present reported as a brilliant and passionate speech. Nonetheless he was soundly defeated by 202 votes to 29 after MacDonald demanded loyalty to the leadership, and only a small minority of left-wing MPs (amongst whom was the young Aneurin Bevan, elected in 1929) were prepared to defy the Prime Minister. After this Mosley self-destructed, producing a manifesto supported by only 17 Labour MPs and in early 1931 leaving the Labour Party.
Although Mosley’s proposals were rejected by the Cabinet sub-committee and by most Labour MPs, his stinging criticisms of the lack of focus within Whitehall on the problem of unemployment had enough effect that MacDonald felt compelled to create a new Ministerial “panel” to bring greater coherence to government attempts to tackle the problem. To assist the panel a new Secretariat of senior civil servants was created headed by Sir John Anderson, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. Yet the force and logic of the Mosley Memorandum had clearly left an imprint on MacDonald, even if one he wished to discard. In July 1930 he sent the memorandum on to Sir John Anderson to “examine the proposals made here and see what is in them”. Whilst Sir John did not specifically reply to the Mosley Memorandum, he did respond on 31st July with a detailed summary of the findings of the Secretariat during its seven weeks of existence. Sir John wrote to MacDonald that the Secretariat considered the scale of the unemployment problem had been exaggerated as “a large number of people really abused the insurance scheme”. Rejecting the possibility of “radical measures” such as government funded schemes to promote employment in the depressed regions, he added that “we are now reaching the limit of works which will conform to any reasonable standard of economic utility or development” and the government must dispense with “illusions that a substantial reduction of unemployment figures is to be sought in the artificial provision of employment”.
In its short existence Anderson’s Secretariat had not examined the provision of the “dole”. More reliable data from the Ministry of Labour disproved Anderson’s assertion that there was wide-spread abuse. In the later opinion of a resolutely non-Marxist commentator, the explanation for Anderson’s complacency lay in the class solidarity of the British ruling elite –
It is perhaps not unfair to speculate that, far from having thoroughly investigated all possibilities, Anderson had met a number of captains of industry and the City, over luncheon or dinner at Brook’s or the Athenaeum, who had warned him that any “radical measures” would undoubtedly so damage confidence as to produce economic collapse (Skidelsky, p.219).
There was in any case virtually no chance that Mosley’s policy prescriptions would get past MacDonald and Snowden. After the fall of the government Mosley’s successor as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, future Labour leader Clement Attlee, confirmed to Hugh Dalton that “Snowden had been blocking every positive proposal for two years”. Now Snowden moved beyond inertia into outright Tory policy. With the threat posed by Mosley eliminated and unemployment now topping 3 million Snowden confirmed in February 1931 that, in line with Treasury orthodoxy, he envisaged a massive attack on social spending.
To provide him with the political cover he needed to force through measures he knew would be unpopular with his own party, Snowden took advantage of a Liberal motion (supported, with astonishing naivety, by most Labour MPs) for an independent committee of “experts” to examine the public accounts and make recommendations for cuts in public expenditure. To chair the committee he appointed the industrialist Sir George May, recently President of the Prudential Assurance Company and a man with no background or expertise in government finance. Four of the committee were likewise leading industrialists, balanced by two senior trade unionists. Snowden was prepared to wait upon their recommendations, and so his April 1931 Budget was comparatively mild. He was planning a much more severe “austerity” Budget in the autumn.
On August 1st the May Committee reported as expected, “a report compounded of prejudice, ignorance and panic” (Taylor, p. 288). It exaggerated the total deficit and strongly recommended that it be dealt with immediately by a £96 million programme of “economies”, most of which would be achieved by a 20% cut in unemployment benefits allied to an increase in contributions. In addition, conditions for receiving benefit would be tightened and receipt would be limited to 26 weeks in any one year. Teachers salaries would be cut by 20% and police officers by 12.5%. Public works programmes would be cut back. Keynes considered the report “”The most foolish document I have ever had the misfortune to read”. The two trade unionists on the committee dissented from its conclusions, suggesting there be fewer economies and increased taxation instead. Snowden ignored their dissent. MacDonald created another Cabinet sub-committee to consider the report, to meet later in August after the summer break.
On August 11th the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Ernest Harvey, laid out for MacDonald and Snowden his view of the seriousness of the economic crisis, now compounded by a run on the pound and contracting government finances. Sir Ernest then met the Conservative and Liberal Treasury spokesmen, and was more forthcoming than to the Prime Minister. According to Shadow Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, Sir Ernest made clear that “The cause of the trouble was not financial but political, and lay in the complete want of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government existing among foreigners”. The Bank of England’s concern was for the views of the big New York banking houses, whom the British government was asking for a short-term loan to tide over its deficit. New York did not believe a Labour Government, allied to the trade unions and the wider labour movement, would institute massive cuts to social spending. It needed reassurance and proof of compliance.
One of Chamberlain’s advisers, J.C.C Davidson, telephoned Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, on holiday in France, and told him to return home immediately. He sensed that the government “was already breaking up”. He may have been assisted in this by secret communications from MacDonald’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who broke Civil Service rules to pass information to the Opposition Front Bench. Davidson’s diaries record “MacDonald’s Private Secretary, Usher, kept me closely informed of the situation”. Apparently Usher doubted that Labour would survive much longer, as “…only Snowden and Thomas could be relied on to see the situation through, particularly if the correct solution to the crisis was a cut in unemployment insurance.”
Finally the TUC woke up to the scale of the crisis that was upon them. On the TUC General Council Ernest Bevin was the leading voice against the cuts programme. On August 17th he told the TGWU National Executive “The crisis has not arisen as result of anything the Labour Government has done, or of its social policy, or the cost of unemployment. It has arisen as result of the manipulation of finance by the City…”, and he was firm that “The City should not be saved at the expense of the working class and the poorest of our people”. Inside Parliament Arthur Henderson, hitherto a MacDonald loyalist but also linked to the trade unions, started to voice discontent with the May Report. Under immense pressure the Economy sub-committee reported back early to the full Cabinet on 19th August with proposals to implement much of the May Report, though trimming some of its severer recommendations. The Cabinet agreed to authorise a lesser programme of £56 million of economies, though there was vocal disagreement as to whether this would include cuts to unemployment benefits. The Opposition parties insisted that the full programme of cuts, including the 20% cut in unemployment benefit, must be made to ensure New York retained confidence in the UK economy.
Impelled by Bevin, the General Council sent a special deputation to meet the Economy sub-committee to convey its “complete opposition” to the proposed cuts. Asked for alternatives to Snowden’s cuts programme, the TUC General Secretary Walter Citrine questioned whether the “crisis” of sterling was really as catastrophic as the City maintained, and he outlined a programme of tariff reform and increased taxation for higher earners (especially those on “fixed yield” interest, i.e. rentiers) that could start to address it. The meeting became rancorous, with Snowden firm on the need for financial discipline as disaster would follow if sterling went off the Gold Standard. When he asked sarcastically why, if the TUC supported increased taxation on rentiers it did not support taxing teachers and policemen as well, Bevin answered that the latter were useful to society whilst the former were not!
A subsequent letter from the General Council to the Cabinet made it clear to those who supported the cuts, and to those who did not, where the organised labour movement stood. Whilst this gave strength to those, like Henderson, who were now disengaging themselves from MacDonald, it infuriated those in the Cabinet (still a majority) who supported him. Snowden, happy to accept direction from Treasury mandarins, snapped that interference by the TUC was an affront to democracy. Sidney Webb, having spent a lifetime lecturing the working class on what they should do and not do, was infuriated that their representatives should disagree with him. “The General Council are pigs” he raged to his wife Beatrice, although he did not exhibit similar hatred for the Opposition parties, the Bank of England, Sir George May or the New York banks.
But the crucial decisions were not to be made by the General Council, or by Labour MPs, or even the Labour Cabinet. MacDonald was subject to a tidal wave of extra-Parliamentary pressures. On August 20th MacDonald and Snowden met Neville Chamberlain and other Tory and Liberal leaders to discuss a common approach to the economic crisis. Chamberlain insisted that nothing less than the full May Report was acceptable to the Opposition. Snowden agreed this was required but was worried he could not carry his colleagues with him, whereupon Chamberlain urged MacDonald to consider the formation of a “national government” to carry forward the full cuts programme. This would be done “in the national interest”.
Many others were making this suggestion, including George V. When MacDonald saw the King on the morning of August 23rd he told him the government could not reach agreement on the cuts and might have to resign. After MacDonald left the Palace the King saw Sir Herbert Samuel, the Liberal leader, and told him what the Prime Minister had said. Samuel was concerned, and told the King that “In view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be in the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour government”. He explained that if Labour did not stay in power the next best outcome would be a national government composed of representatives of all three parties, with MacDonald as Prime Minister to give the impression of continuity.
Later the same morning, the Editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson, fully informed of Whitehall and Palace discussions, called the King’s Private Secretary, Sir Clive Wigram, and suggested that the King needed to impress on MacDonald that it was his responsibility to “get the country out of the mess” and to do so “with any flattery he liked”. By this stage MacDonald did not need flattery to see himself as the national saviour rising above petty party concerns. The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.
The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.
That evening MacDonald received a telegram from the American banking plutocrat J.P Morgan, in the name of the New York banking houses from whom the government was seeking credits. He read it out to the Cabinet, emphasising Morgan’s blunt enquiry whether the programme of cuts under consideration “…had the sincere support and approval of the Bank of England and the City generally” since it was necessary that there be “internal confidence” in the government. It was clear that if it did not, and unless the programme included at least a 10% cut in unemployment benefits, the American loan would not be forthcoming. At this the Cabinet broke up in loud shouting. Eight Ministers (including Henderson and Lansbury) were adamant that they would not be dictated to by New York and would not accept the cuts in benefits.
MacDonald had no choice but to go back to the King and offer his resignation, which he did at 10.20 pm on August 23rd. Sir Clive Wigram recorded that the Prime Minister looked “scared and unbalanced”. The King reassured him that he was still needed, and that he if he could not carry his Cabinet he should from a national government. Relieved, MacDonald agreed to meet Baldwin and Samuel to discuss this, which he did in the presence of the King at 10.00 the next morning, August 24th. With the King’s promptings (already discussed and agreed with Baldwin and Samuel in separate meetings) MacDonald agreed to form a national government with himself as Prime Minister. At this point no member of the Cabinet had resigned and none, except Snowden, were even aware of MacDonald’s meetings with Baldwin and Samuel.
The last Labour Cabinet of that government was held that afternoon. In a tense atmosphere MacDonald informed his colleagues that at the request of the King he was to lead a national coalition government to institute “emergency measures”. He asked Snowden and Thomas to join him and they agreed. No other Ministers were even asked. That afternoon the Palace formally announced that MacDonald had resigned. The communiqué went on “The King then invited him to form a national administration. Mr MacDonald accepted the offer, and kissed hands on his appointment as the new Prime Minister”. At the same time it was announced that the new National Government would implement cuts of £70 million which would include a cut of 10% in unemployment benefits. New York was pleased. The loan was assured.
MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas ended their careers as mere figureheads for a “national” government that was essentially a Tory-Liberal coalition. They provided political cover to impose savage spending cuts and immense suffering on Labour’s heartlands, where unemployment was severest. The reasons for Labour’s collapse in 1931, for its inability to resist the austerity that the “national” government would inflict on the country throughout the 1930s, were many and varied, but fundamentally it was an intellectual failure. Macdonald and his closest supporters held to a narrow, anaemic conception of politics, a naive reformism with no understanding of how utterly ruthless the UK’s ruling class are and how far they will go to protect their power and privilege. Whilst the Labour Government was subject to unprecedented political and economic pressures during 1929-31 these could and should have been predicted. Even after the first effects of the Great Crash had reverberated across Europe and hit the British economy, the government could have survived, and protected those who had elected it, through a combination of greater flexibility in economic thinking, a firmer alliance with Labour’s core constituency and the trade unions, and political backbone. Instead, it allowed itself to become the willing victim of “a ministerial revolution engineered in the City, Downing St and Buckingham Palace” (Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, vol 1, p.118).
Labour’s servility to the institutions it ostensibly set out to control was nowhere better illustrated than by the issue of the Gold Standard. A few days after the formation of the National Government MacDonald was asked why, before he collapsed the Labour government, he had not first summoned Parliament and candidly explained the situation to them. “There was no time” MacDonald replied. “Prompt action had to be taken to prevent the disaster of going off Gold”. A month later, on 21st September 1931, after advice from Treasury officials that despite the £80 million New York loan Britain’s gold reserves were still dangerously low, the National Government took Britain off the Gold Standard. The Treasury mandarins and newspaper editors who had insisted that the only way to prevent this national disaster was to slash unemployment benefits, made no complaint. Sidney Webb, when informed that Britain had, after all, left the Gold Standard, was incredulous, and his reaction summed up the first generation of Labour Ministers and the government of 1929-1931. “Nobody told us we could do that” he said.
If a transformed Corbyn-led Labour Party is elected – and it is a huge if – there will be many inside the Labour and Trade Union movement, and in the “liberal” media, lining up to tell it what it can and, more importantly, what it cannot do. Whether directly or indirectly these people are the compliant, instinctive servants of the 1%. They speak the language of an Oxbridge-BBC-Guardian elite, well schooled in visionless pragmatism and unquestioning acceptance of capitalist realism. Their every action will be devoted to undermining a Corbyn-led opposition and a socialist government. They should be recognised for what they are – our future Ramsay MacDonalds.
For all the Pet Shop Boys’ talk of having made “Electric, but more so”, Super is a very different beast from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because the duo enjoy playing with expectations, but there is a striking disconnect here between the bright, brash artwork and the sad world lit up by the strobe lights.
The dark side of Super is not the brooding BDSM hinted at by Electric’s wildest moments, but rather the resigned grief of Elysium and Nightlife. Nowhere on Electric will you find lyrics anything like “I live every day like a sad beast of prey” or “no one understands us here/imagine how free we will be if we disappear”; nowhere else in pop music, probably, will you find the line ‘I sound quite demented’, but then this is a band that once shoehorned the words ‘Carphone Warehouse’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ into the same verse.
If we’ve met Super’s characters before, it was longer ago than Electric – they appeared in ‘To Step Aside’, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’, even ‘Opportunities’. And the flawed superheroes who lend this album its bold title are hardly the Avengers.
There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on ‘The Dictator Decides’; the Shoreditch boys hoping their time at the top will last forever (‘Twenty-something’, ‘Groovy’); the star DJ, a celebrity only for as long as he can fill the dancefloor; the ‘Pop Kids’ whose romance and spark is dulled by the tedious march of time.
It must be said, though, that we visit some utterly barmy discos along the way. Oddest of all is ‘Happiness’ with its Junior Senior breakdown – so giddy, it’s easy to miss the bleak message that opens the album: ‘it’s a long way to happiness’.
And while Neil Tennant sneaks bits of himself into all his protagonists, only on closing track ‘Into Thin Air’ does it feel like he’s telling his own story: for four minutes, just like the dictator, he really does want to pack it all in. ‘Too much ugly talking; too many bad politicians’, he sings, perhaps describing the rabble to whom he has dedicated the rest of Super. If we didn’t know a third Stuart Price collaboration was already in the making, it would be tempting – and frightening – to see this as Tennant’s answer to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the song in which Bowie laid bare his own premature flight schedule.
‘Into Thin Air’ is Super’s bewitching highlight. It has echoes of Relentless, the wistful dance album that came with Very; a flash, too, of the Nightlife dancers’ slackening subjectivity. This is what Robert Miles’s ‘dream house’ should have been in 1996: a lullaby for the ecstatic. After the sugar rush of ‘Say It to Me’ and ‘Burn’, ‘Into Thin Air’ slips calmly, unseen, out of the club. The day is so very young and instead of heading home our hero walks towards the sunrise, his head full of sound and his feet no longer touching the road, while his friends feign concern at their inability to find him in the darkness.
This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017
The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.
Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.
This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.
This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative
Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.
This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.
From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.
From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.
Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.
A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).
But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.
Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).
For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.
Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.