The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded by Keir Hardie and others in 1893 and “ended” some time in the 1970s, when what was left of it joined the Labour Party. For the first 25 years of its existence, it played a central role in British working class politics. Thereafter it was slowly pushed to the margins of labour politics, as its various functions were taken over by other organisations — the Labour party, the Communist Party, Trotskyist groups and, in the 1960s, by the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party).
In the 1930s there was perhaps a chance that it would become politically a fully-armed revolutionary Marxist organisation; but it never got beyond what Marxists call “centrism” — an organisation combining bits of revolutionary Marxism, of reformism, of pacifism, etc, in an unstable, shifting mix.
Its history divides into three broad periods, each of which has sub-divisions.
The first period ran from 1893 to 1918. The ILP was not the first modern socialist organisation in Britain. The Marxist Social-Democratic Federation was founded in 1883 (as the Democratic Federation, 1881) and the reformist Fabian Society in 1884. In 1884 too the Marxists split and the Socialist League — whose most prominent member was William Morris — emerged out of the SDF. But the ILP was much more of the existing labour, that is trade-union, movement than any of the others.
Keir Hardie’s “great idea” was to root socialist politics in the trade unions. Politically, the unions were still Liberal, electing a number of union-financed MPs (MPs did not get state pay until 1911) under the Liberal banner, the so-called “Lib-Labs.
But the unions of the unskilled were rising, after the dockers’ strike of 1889 and others. Hardie, a somewhat eclectic but honest and sincere socialist, who had gone to work in the coal mines at eleven, and had had to teach himself to read and write, stood for independent working class politics, combining Marxism with Christian socialism. Frederick Engels, living in London and regarding the SDF as hopelessly sectish, was for Keir Hardie’s new departure, and he encouraged those he influenced — Eleanor Marx, for instance — to join.
Tom Mann, who had been one of the leaders of the 1889 dockers’ strike, though he was himself a skilled engineer, was an early secretary of the ILP. The Marxist breakaway, the Socialist League, had by now fallen apart, “captured” by anarchists. Some returned to the SDF — William Morris, Ernest Belfort Bax, etc — and quite a few joined the ILP.
Hardie, elected to Parliament, stuck to his idea of “labour independence”. He founded a weekly paper, which would survive into the 1960s, greatly changed from era to era and variously called The Leader, The New Leader, and in its last phase the Socialist Leader.
But the ILP never expanded into the general Labour Party based on the unions which was Hardie’s aim. Partly that was because by the mid-90s there was a diminution in working class activity, after the founding of the new general trade unions. The ILP remained a regional organisation, mainly in the north of England and Scotland.
But events would help Hardie. Trade union legislation in 1875 had consolidated the legal rights which trade unions in fact had had for nearly half a century. In 1900 a judge awarded damages to a railway company for injury inflicted on it by striking workers. That “Taff Vale Judgement” changed the legal situation and faced unions taking strike action with financial ruin. It outlawed effective trade unionism.
It spurred the unions into more independent politics. In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed, consisting of some trade unions and the socialist organisations, the ILP, the SDF and others, with the goal of securing independent Labour representation in Parliament.
Over the next few years the LRC would draw in the remaining “Lib-Lab” MPs (most importantly those of the miners, who had ten “Lib-Lab” MPs).
The 1906 Liberal Government soon legislated to remove the effects of the Taff Vale Judgement. In 1909, however, another court judgement yet again helped spur on the forces of the independent working class politics. The Osborne Judgement found against unions being allowed to finance political action, such as that for which the Labour Party had been founded. That judgement too would be neutralised by Liberal government legislation, but not for a while, and not before trade unionists had been further alienated from the Liberal Party.
The Labour Party grew in the two general elections of 1910. The structure of the Party was still that of a loose federation of trade unions and affiliated socialist groups, of which the ILP was by far the biggest. The Labour Party still had no members other than the members of its affiliated organisations. If you wanted to “join the Labour Party”, you joined the ILP, or one of the other affiliates.
Though the Labour Party was organisationally independent (more or less: it made electoral pacts with the Liberals), it was not at all politically independent of Liberalism. The ILP was the broad socialist party within the Labour Party, but it was still a somewhat diluted socialism, mainly Christian-socialist, overlapping with left Liberalism.
Keir Hardie was “the founder” , but the man who shaped the organisation was Ramsey MacDonald, the party’s “man of business” , the parliamentary wheeler-dealer. He was held in deep suspicion by much of the party.
The Marxist SDF had taken part in the 1900 conference to found the LRC, but quit when a proposal that the new organisation would recognise the class struggle was rejected. That left the field heavily to the ILP. A number of ILP branches, disappointed with the results of parliamentary representation and the vague politics that went with it, left the ILP and fused with the Social Democratic Party (the former Social Democratic Federation) to form, in 1912, the British Socialist Party.
The First World War, which began in August 1914, put the ILP to the test. Hardie opposed the war, though not as sharply as revolutionaries would have liked, and so, to the surprise of his critics, did Ramsey MacDonald. Without actually splitting, the Labour Party divided into pacifist opponents of the war and those who supported it.
Keir Hardie died in 1915.
When a coalition Government was formed in 1916, Labour was in it, represented by George Barnes and by Arthur Henderson, who had succeeded MacDonald as secretary of the Labour Party. They went into the government, while some of their anti-war comrades went to jail!
Marxists oppose pacifism as an inadequate response to capitalist war. The Communist International would reject the idea that socialists should be conscientious objectors: they should not, it proclaimed, cut themselves off from the experience of the rest of the working class, but go with them and work to turn them against the ruling class and its wars. The main early resistance to the 1914 war was, however, an affair of conscientious objection and pacifist abstention.
Conscientious objectors were treated very badly, suffering long terms of imprisonment. Some ILPers were reshaped by that experience — notably Fenner Brockway, who would, for the next 30 years, be central to the ILP (and in 1938 write a valuable book recounting his experience and that of others in the war —Inside the Left).
The anti-war part of the ILP had contact with the German anti-war internationalists, Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
The ILP, like socialists and serious liberals everywhere, responded to the Russian Revolution of February 1917, which overthrew the Tsar, with great enthusiasm. The ILP was heavily involved in organising a tremendous July 1917 gathering of labour movement representatives, the Leeds Convention, which pronounced itself in favour of soviets in Britain modelled on the democratic workers’ councils that had sprung up in Russia Ramsey MacDonald, the future Prime Minister of both Labour and Tory-dominated governments, passionately called for soviets in Britain!.
The first phase of the ILP came to an end in 1918.
In that year the Labour party set up an organisation in every constituency consisting of individual members and representatives of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. The days of the ILP being the main Labour Party organisation for individual members were now over.
At the same time the Labour party adopted a socialist programme summed up in clause four of its constitution, which proclaimed the aim of the Labour Party to be “to secure for the workers by hand and brain the full fruits of their labour” and committed the party to nationalising industry.
The second phase of the ILP runs from 1918 to its disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932.
The Liberal Party had split during the war and was reducing itself to warring fragments. Labour, which won 57 seats in 1918, was steadily replacing the Liberal Party as the second party in Britain. Many Liberals now joined the Labour Party.
Ramsey MacDonald was elected leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A large number or newly elected MPs were ILP members. But the ILP was now in an anomalous position. What was its function?
To continue as a socialist “ginger” group in the new Labour Party? It was socialist, but very loosely so. Where did it stand in the new world created by war and the Russian Revolution? Where did it stand on the Communist International, which was set up in Moscow in 1919?
It almost decided to affiliate to the Communist International. As in 1911 it had lost branches to the BSP, now it lost supporters to the newly organised Communist Party (whose main forces had come from the BSP). A group of ILPers led by Rajani Palme Dutt, who would be the central political leader of the CP for many decades, went over to the Communist International.
On January 1924, MacDonald became Prime Minister in the first minority Labour government for nine months. As Labour formed its first government, Lenin died in Moscow; and The Times editorialised to contrast MacDonald and Lenin, pronouncing Lenin out of date and MacDonald as the embodiment and vindication of non-dogmatic modern socialism…
Many MPs who were ILP members hived off, among them Ramsey MacDonald. By the mid-20s a lesser but scarcely more politically clear-headed or homogeneous ILP had emerged.
Its most important MPs were a group from Clydeside, led by James Maxton. Though not revolutionaries, they were serious left-wingers, loyal to the working class. The central leadership of the ILP now fell to Maxton and a group around him, most importantly Fenner Brockway. Maxton would retain that position until his death in 1946.
In 1929, Labour, led by MacDonald, formed its second minority government — just as world capitalism was starting to plunge down into the greatest slump in history. How would the Labour Party cope with the mass unemployment? It wouldn’t!
It was a helpless bourgeois government, dependent for its survival on the votes of Tories and Liberals, and led by people — Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald and Chancellor Philip Snowden — who were not only servants of the bourgeoisie but also, compared to bourgeois thinkers like Maynard Keynes, conservative servants of the bourgeoisie.
Like MacDonald, Snowden had opposed World War One, but his best idea now was to run capitalism according to its own laws and conventional bourgeois economic wisdom. The Labour Party polarised into right and left. The ILP under Maxton was now not only the main left wing Labour organisation, but the main left wing organisation in the country.
The Communist Party, like CPs everywhere then, obeying the orders of Stalin in Moscow, had turned crazily ultra-left. Calling the Labour Party “social fascist,” it broke up Labour Party meetings, tried to organise breakaway unions and — kept going by the influx of Russian money — reduced itself to an organisation of something over a thousand members, most of them unemployed.
The CP had been the controlling organisation of a network of constituency Labour parties disaffiliated after 1925 — when the Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party gave the final “no” to CP applications for affiliation — for refusing to expel CP members. This “National Left Wing Movement” published a weekly paper, the Sunday Worker and had a great and growing influence. But the CP in its ultra-left frenzy had deliberately destroyed the National Left Wing Movement.
When in July 1931 a parliamentary committee on unemployment recommended that the miserable dole paid to the unemployed be cut in order to “balance the books” of state finance, MacDonald and Snowden — and a former railway workers’ leader, now a minister, Jimmy Thomas — accepted it!
Meeting resistance in the Labour Party, they proposed to from a “National Government” consisting of Tories and some Liberals, with MacDonald continuing as Prime Minister. The Labour Party split. The MacDonaldites formed their own small “National Labour party”.
In the ensuing General Election, the Labour Party was massacred, reduced to nearly the number of MPs it had had 20 years earlier. The Party now turned generally left. George Lansbury became leader. He was a good-hearted sentimental-socialist old man, with a chequered history, some of it admirable. In 1922 he had led the Labour councillors of Poplar to jail rather than cut the local dole to the unemployed.
And the ILP? Like many others it believed that the final crisis of capitalism had come. It too was sharply radicalised. It had contracted a deep distrust of the rest of the Labour Party.
The now very small group of ILP MPs, led by Maxton, insisted that it should have its own system of discipline and not have to accept the general discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Labour party refused to accept this and in 1932, on that issue, the ILP left the Labour Party — perhaps 15,000 of them, with four MPs.
In fact, the ILP split. A large number of ILP people remained members of the Labour Party. They would be the core of a new “left wing” (in fact heavily Stalinist-influenced) Labour Party organisation called the Socialist League, which would be banned by the Labour Party in 1937.
The third period of ILP history now opened. It would last something more than a dozen years. It was the period when the ILP hovered close to becoming a revolutionary Marxist organisation.
The ILP proclaimed itself revolutionary socialist and opened talks and relations with the Stalinist “Communist” International, with the British CP and, soon, with Trotsky. It quickly adapted many of the characteristic ideas of the Stalinist movement — on Russia for example, on which it was very uncritical.
A general characteristic of the “Great Slump” period was a gigantic leap in the prestige of the USSR. Capitalism had seized up. The unemployed in the advanced countries numbered tens of millions. Production fell enormously. In America the banks closed their doors for a while. Political systems began to break down. In Germany, Hitler took power in January-March 1933, without resistance from the large German Communist Party and larger Social Democratic Party. In March 1934 social democratic workers in Vienna fought a civil war with reactionaries and, after a heroic fight, were crushed.
And at the same time as capitalism seemed to be collapsing, Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture and forced-march industrialisation was proclaimed by the Russian government and their CPs throughout the world to be an enormous success. On some levels, it was a great success, but, as a result of the Stalinists’ bureaucratic way of doing things, at enormous human cost. Social democrats who had not backed the October revolution, or Lenin and Trotsky at the head of the Russian state, now found that they liked Stalin greatly.
The veteran Fabian Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield, turned from being Colonial Secretary, Britain’s colonial chief jailer, in MacDonald’s government to embrace Stalinist “socialism”, becoming its uncritical propagandist and apologist together with his wife, Beatrice Webb.
The ILP joined the pro-Stalinist crowd. They talked about unity with the Communist International and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
At the same time, the leaders of the ILP did not entirely shed their bourgeois-democratic background; and in the circumstances, facing Stalinism, those were not entirely negative traits. They were people who not only were naturally critical of the “dictatorship” in Russia — though they made excuses for it — but also genuinely prized independence and freedom of mind. They could not but be aware of many things radically wrong in the Stalinist “communist” world. They had seen the criminally destructive operation of the CPGB since the ultra-left turn in 1928-9. They knew that CPs had absolutely no right of independent judgement, nor the right to hold differences of opinion within the Stalinist International.
The leaders of the ILP were above all people in political flux. They found themselves in transition without a clear idea of what to do, or where they were going.
Their flirting with the Stalinists inevitably gave rise very soon to a strong organised Stalinist faction within the ILP — the Revolutionary Policy Committee — pressing for immediate unity with the Stalinist organisations.
As between “Trotsky” and “Stalin” the ILP havered. The ILP made friendly responses to Trotsky’s call in mid 1933 for a new Communist International. They sponsored an important call for a new International put out by a small group of left wing organisations influenced by Trotsky, “The Declaration of Four”.
It was possible, of course, to conceive of such a new International not as Trotsky did, as a new Communist International, but as a general regroupment of all nominally revolutionary organisations; and that is how the ILP leaders saw it.
Was the half-turn to Trotskyism by the ILP just a search for a counterbalance to the pressure of the Stalinists? I doubt that they operated so cynically. The ILP leaders were manoeuvrers, trained in parliamentarianism. But their general conduct over a number of years suggests people confused and muddled but genuinely seeking a socialist solution.
A very small group of Trotskyists had emerged from the CP in late 1931. Trotsky urgently proposed that they join the ILP and help it make the transition to a coherent revolutionary political position. They refused. Eventually, a few Trotskyists did join and formed the “Marxist Group” inside.
Their most important recruit was the West Indian cricket journalist, CLR James. He would summarise the politics of Trotskyism in a very useful history of the Communist International in 1937.
The ILP leaders were incapable of making the transition to coherent revolutionary politics. They were pacifists, parliamentarians, unable to make clear revolutionary political decisions and stick to them. They were centrists — half-and-half people, eclectics.
Slowly they scattered the forces they had taken out of the Labour Party, losing many, including the Revolutionary Committee people, to the CP. Having come out in principle for a Fourth International, they drew back. They became part of an extraordinary international constellation of centrist parties that emerged in the 1930s — groups which had been pushed to the left by the events in Germany and Austria. Trotsky explained that the German and Austrian events “place definitely a tombstone over ‘classic’ reformism. Henceforth, only… obtuse leaders… political ichthyosauri will venture to speak openly of a perspective of peaceful development and democratic reforms, etc...
The majority of reformists now deliberately employ new colours… The new International cannot form itself in any other way than that of struggle against centrism. Ideological intransigence and flexible united front policy are in these conditions [our] weapons…A clear picture must be gained of the features most characteristic of … centrism.
It is not easy; firstly because centrism in view of its organic indefiniteness is difficult to define precisely, being characterised much more by what it lacks than by what it holds…[There has been] a displacement between the poles, reformism and Marxism…
• In the sphere of theory centrism is imprecise and eclectic. It… is inclined (in words) to give preference to “revolutionary practice” over theory; without understanding that only Marxist theory can give to practice a revolutionary direction….
• In the sphere of ideology, centrism leads a parasitic existence: against revolutionary Marxists it repeats the old Menshevik arguments (those of Martov, Axelrod, and Plekhanov) generally without re-valuing them: On the other hand it borrows its principal arguments against the ‘right’ from the Marxists, that is, above all, from the Bolshevik-Leninists, suppressing, however, the point of the criticisms, subtracting the practical conclusions and so robbing criticism of [its practical point]…
• The centrist, never sure of his position and his methods, regards with detestation the revolutionary principle: State that which is…
• It is not a rare thing for the centrist to hide his own hybrid nature by calling out about the dangers of ‘sectarianism’; but by sectarianism he understands not a passivity of abstract propaganda (as is the way with the Bordigists) but the anxious care for principle, the clarity of position, political consistency, definiteness in organisation…
• Between the opportunist and the Marxist the centrist occupies a position which is, up to a certain point, analogous to that occupied by the petty bourgeoisie between the capitalist and the proletariat; he courts the approbation of the first and despises the second”.
Also in this galaxy were the SAP (Socialist Workers Party of Germany); a small Palestinian group, linked closely to the ILP (its best-known former member was Tony Cliff, the founder of the British SWP); a Dutch group led by Henk Sneevliet, an old communist militant who would be shot by the Nazis in 1942; the Spanish POUM and others.
Most of the theorists of this centrist galaxy came from a layer of ex-CPers had been expelled as “rightists” when the CI turned ultra-left in 1929. They had been followers of Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin had been in charge of the Communist International until 1928, and so the “rightist” groups had often been the leaders of their CPs up to the point of expulsion. Expelled, they could at first form sizeable organisations, far larger than the Trotskyist groups.
The “Brandlerite” groups (so called after the former leader of the German CP, Heinrich Brandler) accepted most of Stalinist ideology. They accepted Socialism in One Country; and more-or-less supported the regime in the USSR. They rejected the Trotskyists’ call for a new workers’ revolution (“political revolution”).
They criticised the policies of the Communist International outside Russia, but pretended that they could be separated from the Russian regime.
All of them accepted as just the first Moscow Trial, that of August 1936, in which Lenin’s closest co-workers, Zinoviev, Kamenev and others — and in absentia, Trotsky — were condemned as fascist agents and, most of them, shot. The ILP condemned the later trials, but was still evasive.
Some of the “Brandlerites” were vulgar “career Communists” — like the former US Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone, who would soon put his factional skills at the service of the CIA. Others were more honest — Brandler, himself, for example — but at best they were half-and-half liberal Stalinists. One 1930s “Brandlerite”, Willi Brandt, would become Chancellor of West Germany. Another was Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, though he was a Trotskyist in the 1930s and became “Brandlerite” only later.
The centrist galaxy also include some ex-Trotskyist splinters, for example the POUM of Spain.
One of the more curious parts of the story of the ILP and the other centrist groups, most of which would disappear in the Second World War period, is the role played in their political disintegration by the Spanish Civil War.
When the fascist generals revolted against the newly elected Popular Front government (July 1936) the left everywhere rallied to support the Spanish Republic and the great working class revolution that took place in Catalonia — the most important working class movement since the October revolution.
The workers who took control in Catalonia did not consolidate a state power of their own because, unfortunately, they were led by anarchists. The best of the anarchists, the honest revolutionaries, rejected the idea of creating a workers state; the worst of the anarchist leaders, belatedly understanding the need for state action, joined the government of the Republic!
The Stalinists, using Spain to show the European bourgeoisie that it had no need of fascism — that the Stalinists could control the workers instead — systematically undermined and finally, in May 1937, suppressed the working class revolution. They thereby ensured the victory of the fascists (in 1939).
In these events — where working class victory would have changed the course of world history — the small POUM, led by Andreas Nin, proved itself at best inadequate and at worst treacherous.
Instead of following the policy of the Bolsheviks in 1917 — intransigent opposition in order to educate the working class on the need to take power — Nin entered a Popular Front coalition government in Catalonia.
The effect on the galaxy of centrist groups was catastrophic. If Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1934 had pushed them to the left, Spain pulled them to the right.
Naturally they sided with the POUM against the Stalinists; but they saw their role as that of uncritical supporters, rationalisers and champions of the POUM. They slid into a wholesale political retreat from Bolshevik sharpness and clarity. (The arguments are most accessible today in the politically muddled writings of one of the POUM’s champions, Victor Serge.)
Facing a fight with the ILP Trotskyists, the ILP leaders banned “organised groups” within their party. As Trotsky commented, they did not ban or even try to control the most important “organised group” in the party, the group of MPs.
In 1938, the world came close to war when Hitler demanded the portion of Czechoslovakia occupied by ethnic Germans. Britain and France had made commitments to defend Czechoslovakia. But, at a meeting convened in Munich, Britain and France betrayed Czechoslovakia, thus gaining a year of peace before Hitler took over all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Chamberlain came back to Britain, waving a piece of paper and proclaiming: “It is to be peace in our time.”
And the ILP? In the House of Commons, the ILP leader, James Maxton got up and fulsomely congratulated Chamberlain for his commitment to peace! Trotsky commented that the party that tolerated Maxton as leader, or MP, was a joke.
What was wrong with what Maxton did? Even a mere postponement of the great slaughter was good. An additional period for the revolutionaries to organise might make a great difference to what would be possible when war did come.
But what Chamberlain did, as the chief political functionary of British imperialism, he did for his own reasons — for example, the fact that Britain was not yet fully rearmed, though rearmament was now going on feverishly.
For Maxton and the ILP to take responsibility for Chamberlain and what he had just done; to endorse and recommend to the workers the imperialist Munich “peace”; to praise British imperialism and its rulers — that was to be hopelessly confused, pacifist fools.
To think it good that war had not yet come, that was one thing. To belly-crawl to Chamberlain in the House of Commons, to abandon any attempt at socialist and working class political independence — that was something entirely different.
Yet after 1935-6, when the CPs turned to advocating coalition governments with (in Britain) Liberals and “progressive Tories” like Winston Churchill, the ILP was consistently to the left of the CPGB, and the biggest and most important “revolutionary socialist” organisation in Britain.
It criticised the CP from the left. It adopted bits and pieces from the consistent and coherent revolutionary Marxists of that time, Trotsky and his comrades. It remained militantly anti-fascist. The battle of Cable Street, which stopped the fascists marching into Jewish East End of London, and which myth attributes primarily to the CP, was primarily the work of the ILP.
When the war broke out in September 1939 the ILP was an organisation of a few thousand members, possessing a considerable wealth in property inherited from the past and four MPs. What did it do in the war?
In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact under which Stalin agreed to supply Hitler’s war machine with essential raw materials, and Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up Eastern Europe. It gave Hitler the green light for war.
Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and on 17 September Stalin’s armies invaded from the east. By agreement with Hitler, Stalin took about a third of the territory and people of the Polish state, consigning them, as Trotsky said, to “semi-slavery”.
Russia would later occupy the three Baltic countries and Bessarabia (part of Rumania). In November 1939, Stalin invaded Finland, where he met with fierce and unexpected resistance.
For six years the Stalinist regime had been preaching resistance to fascism. On Stalin’s signal, the CPs now turned to preaching peace on Hitler’s terms. They one-sidedly denounced British imperialism as warmongering and aggressive, in contrast to peace-loving Germany which, so they told those who would still listen to them, had unexpectedly shown its progressive character by aligning with the USSR.
Some of the Stalinists even endorsed Nazi anti-semitism: the Mexican CP took to denouncing the “Jewish Trotskyists”!
There were initial stumblings and confusion. The British CP secretary, Harry Pollitt, had to resign because he initially supported Britain. The French party secretary Maurice Thorez went so far as to join the French army, and then deserted.
But soon the CP could work with a powerful current of resistance to the war in the British labour movement. Some of it was created by the CP, but by no means all.
In the left wing press of that time — for example, in the honest Glasgow paper Forward — you find lists of working class organisations passing resolutions against the war. That mood would begin to fade away after Hitler conquered mainland Europe in May-June 1941.
Remembering the First World War, people did not trust the ruling class. There were large numbers of pacifists for whom no war was ever justified, and for whom it would be preferable to war to let the Nazis march into Britain. In the Collected Essays of George Orwell, who was an ILPer until about the outbreak of the war, there are nasty, but just, polemics from this period against such pacifists.
The CP set up a “People’s Convention” — the name was taken from an episode in the history of Chartism, a hundred years earlier — to organise the “peace forces” and the opponents of “British imperialism”. They continued on those lines until Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, after which the CP became super-patriots, strike-breaking for the “war effort”.
And the ILP? The ILP opposed the war. Basically they took their stand on pacifist grounds, but also as opponents of British imperialism.
The political core of the organisation and its leadership was still the group of MPs around Maxton, who were pacifists. They were also honest people. They defended the Trotskyists, jailed in 1944. Oddly, in 1939, on the outbreak of war, their paper printed the appeal put out by the head of the Nazi police-state “union” movement, Robert Ley, calling on the workers of the world to support Germany! As being of some interest, I guess; even so, it was very strange, and in the context of their anti-war policy might be seen as “evidence” that the Germans weren’t entirely beyond reason.
But the ILP had no truck with the CP’s pro-German “anti-war” antics of 1939-41.
As alarm at Hitler’s conquest of almost all western Europe smothered most of the opposition to war, the ILP went with the current, without ever abandoning their formal opposition to the war.
They talked about the need to defeat the Nazis, but to war they counterposed their own method: immediate socialist revolution in Britain, and an appeal on revolutionary socialist lines to the German workers to overthrow Hitler. They would go on calling for “socialism now” while working with the tacit assumption that the war had to be won, or anyway could not be lost.
Fenner Brockway, the secretary of the ILP all through the 1930s and up to 1945, later noted that he had been for a British victory, and that after 1940 that was true of the party too. But that emerged, so to speak, underneath the formal pacifist opposition of the ILP to the war.
The ILP was of course explicitly in favour of “defending” the USSR, and openly said it wanted Russia to win. That was at odds with the formal opposition to Britain’s war – but to look for consistency and coherence in the ILP is to go to the goat’s house for wool. The ILP also said that the best help the British workers could give to Russia was to make a British revolution.
Its anti-war stand cost ILP its very able and prominent party chairman, C A Smith, who had for a while been part of the Trotskyist ILP group and had published an important interview with Trotsky in the mid-30s. Smith left the ILP to join Commonwealth, a left wing organisation which supported the war while opposing the Labour-Tory-Liberal truce and in by-elections challenging (and sometimes defeating) incumbent Tory candidates against which Labour would not stand.
How did the ILP’s stand on the war compare with that of the Trotskyists? The main group — there were others — was the Workers International League (WIL), which became the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). It formally opposed the war, which, they said, was an imperialist war on both sides. It was critical and contemptuous of the CP’s antics before June 1941.
Like the ILP, it called for a socialist revolution, but immediately it focused on calling for a Labour government and for Labour to leave the Tory-Labour-Liberal coalition government.
Formally “revolutionary defeatist”, the WIL did not bandy around that expression. The Trotskyists, too, did not disagree with the government’s goal of defeating the Nazis — or still less do as the CP had done between September 1939 and June 1941, and side with Britain’s enemies! Much of their propaganda was couched in terms of how best the Nazis could be defeated, and how foolish it would be to trust the ruling class to do it.
They questioned the government’s anti-fascist sincerity, its reliability and its ability to defeat the Nazis. They talked of appealing to the German working class. Importantly, they did what they could about that, contacting prisoners of war. (Set to work on various projects, the prisoners of war could easily be reached).
They proclaimed as their own the war aim of defeating Nazi Germany, proposing to do it not in the ruling class’s way, but in their own working-class way. The working class in power could best do it. This was the “Proletarian War Policy” which the British group had taken ready-made from the US Socialist Workers Party.
They demanded that workers be trained, under trade union control, as army officers, and called for workers’ control of war industries. They fought for working-class interests, rejecting any class-collaboration in the interests of the war effort. They said that the best way to beat the Nazis was for the workers to press ahead and attempt to take power.
The practical difference between the ILP and the Trotskyists was that where the ILP called for “socialism now”, the WIL/RCP focused on calling for Labour to Power with socialist policies. They aimed thereby to “expose” and discredit the Labour Party. Their model here was the Bolsheviks before October 1917 and their “demands” on the other workers’ organisations, some of whom were in the Russian Provisional Government.
The Proletarian War Policy was more clear-cut about saying that the Nazis could not be allowed to win than the ILP was, with its patina of pacifism. The point of the Proletarian War Policy was proclaimed to be to win the war against the Nazis (and against British reactionary traitors who sympathised with them.)
Accepting the political rightness of the defeat of one side — infinitely the worse side, Nazi Germany — the Trotskyists retained their mortal hostility to the rulers on “their own” side, refusing class truce and working to overthrow them in the course of the war.
Some Trotskyists – most importantly the Workers’ Party of the USA – said that the Proletarian War Policy of the WIL/RCP was a form of “revolutionary defencism”. Whether that was true or not, the policy of the British Trotskyists implied no dimension of class peace or of confidence in the people leading the war. The message all through the war was: you don’t trust them to beat Hitler. The very opposite!
They remained revolutionaries. Their policy contained no element of defence of the capitalist regime, of the British Empire, or of the ruling class.
Neither the Trotskyists nor the ILP in World War Two Britain gave the ruling class any confidence. Both of them continued to support the right of the peoples of India and the rest of the British Empire to independence, and their right to fight for it.
The Third Period in the ILP’s history ended in 1945-6. In July 1945 the Labour Party won a tremendous victory, on a radical programme. Britain experienced a great political radicalisation. Churchill was personally popular for his anti-Nazi rhetoric and courageous war-time leadership — but at the first chance he was unceremoniously kicked out. Most of the army voted Labour.
The 1945 election was a decisive verdict too on the ILP’s relationship with the Labour Party and on its attempt to create an alternative labour party.
Even before the war the ILP had made approaches for a return to the Labour Party. They had been told that the Labour Party in terms of its organisational structure had moved beyond having a party affiliated to a party. The ILPers would have to go back into the Labour Party as individuals. The ILP refused.
The 1945 ILP conference debated return to the Labour Party once again. It rejected it, on the terms the Labour Party offered, and decided to make no more attempts to rejoin the Labour Party.
Fenner Brockway, who advocated going into the Labour Party, was defeated, and resigned as secretary. The decisive argument against him was put by Bob Edwards, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and himself a future Labour MP: the Tory Party had been definitively crushed and in future the political war would be between the pro-capitalist reformist Labour Party and the socialist ILP…
Maxton’s death in 1946 was also the death of the ILP in this phase of its history. The MPs, and many others, went back to the Labour Party as individuals.
The ILP had failed in the 1930s to become a revolutionary party. It had failed to take clear and consistent anti-Stalinist positions. Essentially, even in its politically “best” period, it had never gone beyond being a ramshackle left social democratic party, dominated politically by its parliamentarians and by Maxton especially, around whom there was a strong personality cult.
Now there would be a marked shift in the centrist mix. Vastly reduced, the ILP went into a new phase in which it would be ultra-sharp and schematic in its politics. This was, in terms of politics, perhaps its most interesting period.