Ian Bullock on Socialism and Democracy in Britain
Paper given to the History Work in Progress Seminar at the University of Sussex
10 March 2005
This paper is a spin-off from the which I reported on to this seminar 3 years ago under the title 'The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left'. That in turn is part of the larger enquiry I have been pursuing – if one can so describe crawling along at the pace of an unhurried and geriatric snail with a heavy shell – since the mid '70s into the relationship in the British context of ideas of democracy – especially radical ideas of democracy – and socialism which has been – broadly – the subject of seminar papers to this group from time to time over the last several decades, the book with Logie Barrow on Democratic Ideas and the Labour Movement, my History Workshop Journal with Sian Reynolds in the 80's and my contribution to the book on Sylvia Pankhurst I edited with Richard Pankhurst in 1992.
This afternoon my focus is related but a little different. I want to explore the reaction of a substantial and important part of the British Left to the Bolshevik Revolution by looking at the way it was reported and debated in Labour Leader, official organ of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), during its final years between 1917-22. More than any other British socialist paper of the period Labour Leader reflected differing – and indeed increasingly polarised views. The conflict generated would help bring about the paper's demise. And it set a pattern broadly recognisable in the Labour Party for decades.
First I'll talk briefly about the paper and what it represented. Then I'll try and show how contrary to what is sometimes assumed – and even claimed in some of the literature – initial reactions to the Bolsheviks, even of future outright opponents like Philip Snowden – were predominantly positive. I'll trace the ways in which views became polarised and the Leader like the ILP itself a site of an increasingly bitter conflict and finally - or almost finally - I'll tell the story of how the paper came to a situation of near collapse that made it easier for those with other ideas to bring it to a end in 1922 – I think this is an interesting tale which as far as I'm aware has not been told before.
Originally – in the 1890s – the weekly Labour Leader was owned and edited by Keir Hardie, but by the 1900s it had become the official organ of the ILP. Post First World War with the new constituency parties in their infancy, the ILP was still the main means by which individuals participated in the Labour Party. Its membership fluctuated between c.30, 000 and perhaps twice that number in the immediate post-war years. The Leader's circulation rose from 51,000 in the summer of 1917 to about 62,000 by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. It had been edited since 1916 by Katharine Bruce Glasier, though Philip Snowden – ILP Chairman from 1917 till 1920, and MP until defeated in the post-war election of 1918 – was 'Supervising Editor'. A regular contributor throughout 1915 and 1916, his role now encompassed a weekly signed 'page of comments on political events', and 'leading articles'.
Because of both his crucial role in the story and the way his reactions exemplify to a large extent those of many other ILPers, I'm going to focus on Philip Snowden who became , as we'll see, one of the fiercest opponents of the Bolsheviks. But was he always so? Snowden's Autobiography, published in 1934 deals with the area focused on by this paper in a 12 page chapter entitled 'Communism in the Labour Movement'. This title, together with the statement 'I used my platform in the Labour Leader to dissociate the I.L.P paper from Communist methods' and his later mention of the 'abuse' – his word – he suffered from the Communist Party and the Left Wing of the ILP give the impression that he was from the outset an implacable opponent of the Bolsheviks. This is confirmed by Colin Cross, in his biography of Snowden.
During the summer of 1917 Snowden had written enthusiastically about Russia nearly every week in his Labour Leader articles, but after Lenin had seized power his comments were few and cautious. For several weeks he wrote nothing on Russia at all and then on December 12, he commented 'So far as an outsider can judge, the dominant party in Russia ought at the earliest possible moment to arrange for the election of the Constituent Assembly.' The nearest he ever came to defending the Bolsheviks was a warning in January, 1918, that what happened in Russia should not be judged by British standards.
But it's not true that Snowden wrote nothing about the 'October Revolution' until 12 December. And Snowden's January warning – and what he actually wrote about the Bolsheviks deserves more exploration.
On the 15 November 1917, Snowden wrote that the state of affairs in Russia was unclear but that it appeared that what he called 'Extremists' had captured the Government. But he went on to blame the Allies for provoking the seizure of power by failing to respond to pleas for peace negotiations to bring the war with Germany to an end made by 'the Russian Government and the Soviet.' Snowden's initial attitude to the Bolsheviks was coloured by his own opposition to the War and his hope that the Bolsheviks would hasten peace.
What could be gleaned about the early results of the Constituent Assembly elections was analysed and by 6 December 1917 Snowden thought they showed that the 'Bolshevists' – as he now called them – were 'far more representative of the Russian people than we have been led to believe'. They would be the single largest party in the Assembly 'and together with the 'Peasants' Social Revolutionary Party' would be able to 'form a responsible and representative government.'
Given the position of the ILP, Snowden's initial characterisation of the Bolsheviks as 'extremists' and the language of 'coalition', 'responsible and representative government', one might well anticipate from the Leader, and from Snowden in particular. a definitely hostile response to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. But not so.
His was a much more cautious response. He feared internal divisions between Russian revolutionaries would weaken peace negotiations with Germany. And:
With the limited knowledge we have of the actual state of affairs in Russia it would be foolish to dogmatise or take sides definitely in a temporary conflict. We are naturally prone to look at what is happening from our British point of view and to come to conclusions… influenced by our tradition and training in constitutional methods.'
Snowden was to retain some optimism about Bolshevik Russia throughout 1918. Keith Leybourn, in his biography of Snowden – much more recent in 1988 than Cross's in 1966c – has Snowden 'distressed to hear ILP pacifists supporting Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution' at the ILP annual conference in March 1918.
Yet in fact some weeks after that conference, in May 1918, Snowden claimed that 'The expectations of those who believed that the Bolsheviks had usurped authority by force in opposition to the wishes of the Russian people have been falsified by the facts' Noting with approval the stability of the new government he added 'The excesses which marked the first few months of revolutionary government have disappeared.' And even at the beginning of 1919, after the War had ended, Snowden was still seeing its survival in power as proof that it was 'Ésupported by the majority of the Russian people' and characterising the motives of the interventionists as 'Democratic Socialism must be stamped out wherever it shows its head.' Which is not to deny his underlying unease about the Bolsheviks.
Like Snowden, other reactions in the Leader initially tended to be broadly supportive of the Bolsheviks or at least prepared to suspend judgement. In the same issue, in January 1918, I quoted earlier, the Leader's 'International Notes' explained:-
The Bolsheviks believe – apparently with good reason – that they alone are able to secure a democratic peace. The Bolsheviks were, therefore, faced with the alternative of dissolving the Constituent Assembly or allowing Russia to give way to Germany and to compromise with the capitalist forces. They chose the former knowing that it was a definite breach of the accepted standards of democratic government.
The same issue reported the standing ovation given to Litvinoff, 'Plenipotentiary for Great Britain of the Russian People's Government' at the Labour Party Conference, an event which gives us some idea of the general atmosphere on the British Left at the time. Even when criticisms were made, the tone was broadly supportive. On 4 February readers were invited to 'ponder the historical fact' that the meeting of the 'All-Russian Congress and hence the executive government will be composed of delegates from provincial Soviets' and that the electorate 'is to be limited to persons engaged in active labour.' (original emphasis) The belief, or wish to believe in 'soviet democracy' was clearly crucial.
There was a distinctive trend towards presenting Bolshevik Russia as a sort of disinterested experiment – a word used many times. In the Leader, it begins in May 1918 with this plea:-
If the moderate Socialist elements will recognise the system of Soviet government …an experiment in solving the theoretical dispute between the industrial and political State, as represented by the Constituent Assembly, might be set on foot.
And a fortnight later the paper was announcing that 'The Soviet system is an experiment; it does not conflict with the principle of representative government, though at present the idle rich are excluded from political power.'
That's in May 1918. And the experiment metaphor continues to be employed. A year later in May 1919, for example, in a front page article on 'The War with Russia' , Norman Angell wrote
So now, although we do not approve of the methods of the Russian Socialist Republic, the attempt to give democracy a new meaning by grafting onto its political forms some methods of industrial self-government , however blunderingly that attempt may be made, is an experiment which mankind truly needs.'
Divisions appear - and evolve towards polarisation.
Though the general tone of the paper was broadly supportive of the Bolsheviks - or at least willing to suspend judgement – there were a few – a very few – early critics.
But even in the first real criticism of the Bolsheviks to appear in the Leader in March, the fervently pro-Bolshevik atmosphere on the Left in early 1918 is evident. The prominent pacifist Dr Alfred Salter – later to be the subject of Fenner Brockway's Bermondsey Story – contested the democratic legitimacy of the Bolsheviks – but only after applauding them at length 'for their unflinching courage, their incorruptible devotion to first principles, their uncompromising devotion to the ideal (called fanaticism by the worldly-wise) their openness and frankness'. However, he at last insisted 'with full allowance for the dangers and isolated position in which the Bolshevik movement finds itself, we must definitely dissociate ourselves from its violence, its suppression of opposing criticism and its disregard for democracy.' And he went on to argue that 'with the Soviets as they are today, less than half the nation is represented. Only a very few women are organized in the Workmen's and Soldiers' Councils, and probably a bare third of the total population of Russia can at present make its protest against, or give its sanction to, the acts of the Bolshevik Government.'
It was not until August 1918 that the Leader carried the first reader's letter unequivocally condemning the Bolsheviks. For Richard Robinson, 'The forcible dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was a crime against Democracy which should be emphatically repudiated by all Socialists'. An ambivalent editorial note followed. Robinson's view seems to have been a minority one at that stage.
By 1919 the terms of the debate were shifting While the 'bottom up' democracy of the soviets was still frequently invoked, the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and references to the 'vanguard' role of the Bolsheviks now increasingly appeared. One example of the new emphasis came from Charles Roden Buxton in May . For the Communist, he wrote, and bear in mind that there was no Communist party in Britain at this time, the starting point was recognition that 'the present state of society is the dictatorship of the minority that owns property in considerable quantities. which 'controls our minds, particularly through education and the Press' (most of this was italicised for emphasis). The initial step to change this 'must be taken by a minority acting on behalf of the non-propertied … it is futile to expect that you can convert a majority of the people at once to the new view of things. Universal Suffrage and Parliamentary Democracy, under the prevailing conditions, will merely register the acquiescence of the mass in the present condition of society.' Therefore 'an "advanced guard" as Lenin calls it … must take control of the Government. This minority will in practice be found among the industrial workers.'
Eventually the propertied would 'come over to the regime', a process hastened by penalising those who did not. In the meantime, the transition would be 'essentially a stage of civil war, but it need not be carried on by methods of violence.' The revolutionary government must refuse its opponents any share in political power; at this stage there could be no Constituent Assembly chosen by universal suffrage and 'It must keep in its own hands the machinery by which public opinion is formed'. There would be no free press, freedom of assembly or uncontrolled education. Yet 'This process must be clearly recognised as one of transition only': the 'ultimate goal' was 'complete democracy.'
For those who might not have shared Buxton's view Allied intervention muted criticism. With whatever reservations, the Bolsheviks, had to be defended against the 'vile … and in large measure unfounded charge of barbarism and terrorism'. And intervention must be opposed in accordance with the 'the right of self-determination'. July 1919 saw headlines, 'STOP THE WAR ON RUSSIA. IT IS A WAR AGAINST DEMOCRACY! IT IS A WAR ON SOCIALISM!' And Labour Leader went on to proclaim 'LONG LIVE THE RUSSIAN SOCIALIST REPUBLIC'.
Earlier that year an editorial in the Leader summed up that year's ILP annual conference:
'If the Conference showed a new trend it was in the direction of a movement towards the Left of the International. The gross misrepresentations of the Russian Soviet Government by the capitalist Governments and Press had created a sympathy with the Bolsheviks which was probably the cause of the determination of the Conference not to support any resolution which could possibly be construed as a reflection upon the Bolsheviks, rather than any approval of the Soviet form of government as a system which should be advocated in this country'
Perhaps… but there was no real shortage of ILP members prepared to advocate precisely that. At the Conference a NAC (National Administrative Council) on 'Democracy and Dictatorship' endorsing the 'principle of democracy' was defeated by 290 to 203. And when one speaker in the debate 'refused to condemn the Soviets and Lenin' the Leader reported 'this straight declaration was met with loud applause.'
By summer 1919, international affiliation had become the crucial issue. There was little support for the Socialist International. Early in December the Leader lambasted it. It would 'deservedly collapse, unless it can do something to justify its existence' it predicted. This theme was taken up – perhaps surprisingly – by Ramsay MacDonald. The Socialist International seemed to him 'a gathering of compromised sections' unable to 'give a pure sounding call to the working classes.' But to commit to 'Moscow' (the Third International set up by the Bolsheviks) would mean becoming 'a mere wild revolutionary minority, and throw back the movement to where it was generations ago'. If the coming Socialist International meeting at Geneva failed, the ILP should try to 'recreate a new International' of 'national sections which, standing firm upon Socialist ground, recognise national differences and see the necessity of keeping in touch with every manifestation of the working class spirit – even the most extreme forms born of the war and its mischiefs'. Early in the New Year's Day Francis Johnson supported the French socialist Jean Longue's call for 'a meeting of what might be termed the left wing element in the Second International' with others including, crucially, 'representatives from the Russian section of the Moscow International.' It was not 'essential or necessary', he urged, 'that the International should be divided into Parliamentary and Soviet sections' and G D H Cole described the soviet/parliament split as 'a great calamity'. It was in this conciliatory spirit that the ILP took part in the 'Vienna Union.'- the so-called 'Two-and-a-half International' – which attempted unsuccessfully to reconstruct a united international.
1920 - before the Conference
In the run-up to the annual conference and at the same time as the publication by the ILP of Kautsky's Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the Leader promoted what it called 'Our ILP Debating Column'. This showed quite clearly the widening division of opinion on Bolshevism and everything associated with it. Participants included H H J Stenning, who had translated Kautsky. He saw Bolshevism as 'A Recrudescence of Blanquism', and attempted to dissociate from its version of 'The dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx. Broadly speaking he was supported by George Benson, John Scurr who reviewed Kautsky favourably, and opposed by Mark Starr, R K Weaver, C Manne and the splendidly named. P McOmish Dott who thought that if the Soviet government 'adopted the Swiss method whereby no law becomes effective until voted on and approved by the whole people at the half-yearly election, even Kautsky's criticism would fall to the ground.' Meanwhile, in his column, Snowden was still confident that 'Peace will certainly abolish the dictatorship and result in the formation of a democratic government which will be able to show the world what can be done by the proletariat to firmly establish the Socialist State.' In the 'Debating' column that week – at the end of January – R C Wallhead, accepted the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' as a temporary expedient, but believed this 'totally different from exulting it into a philosophy or adopting it as an integral part of a programme.' Acceptance of precisely this was a condition of affiliation to the Third International he insisted
At this point Clifford Allen joined the debate. He complained that:-
We are left to pick up what we can from rather superficial controversies in the LABOUR LEADER, and when we do publish any considerable work on Socialist policy, we choose Karl Kautsky's attack on Russian ideas and leave our members to go to other organisations for almost all the original documents of Soviet Russia.
Our leaders blame us for offering our platforms to speakers from other sections of the Socialist movement. But is not this partially due to the fact that the N.A.C tends to ignore important Socialist developments and by refraining from encouraging us in careful and impartial study, forces us into the hands of sectional propagandists?
As the 'Debate' proceeded, the divisions of the ILP were holding regional conferences. The first reported, early in January, was the Scottish ILP Conference. The Leader summed up the result succinctly.
…by decisive votes [it] decided in favouring:-
There had never been any doubt as to how the vote would go on the proposal to affiliate to the Third International, and, when it was announced the resolution: That the I.L.P. sever its connections with the Second and affiliate to the Third International had been carried by 158 votes to 28 there followed a demonstration of enthusiasm such as had never been equalled at a Scottish I.L.P. Conference. Delegates jumped to their feet in one delirious frenzy, surprised and gratified that they were united in their desire to link up with the Moscow International.
It was a spontaneous outburst of cheering which astounded the Press agents, who asked what it was all about.
However, a motion condemning 'members of the I.L. P. who are so blinded by thoughts of governmental power as to assist the enemies of the first Soviet Republic' was rejected by 103 to 51. No 'enemies' were actually named in the motion, but – inevitably – MacDonald was mentioned the debate. Snowden noted that several more divisional conferences had passed similar resolutions in favour, due, he believed, to ignorance among the membership, including a failure to understand that the Third International had categorically declined to negotiate with a number of parties including the ILP which it deemed unfit 'to enter the temple of the elect.'.
Some divisions were hesitant about Third International affiliation. At one divisional conference, a frustrated delegate thought 'those who wanted more information about Russia, in view of all that had been published, should change their song from the "Red Flag" to "Lead Kindly Light".'
The 1920 ILP Conference
At the start of the conference a 'Third International gathering' chaired by C H Norman and addressed by Helen Crawfurd, Walton Newbold and J R Wilson drew about 200. It was agreed to 'act together' and 'to hold further meetings during the Conference proceedings.'
Affiliation to the Third International was debated at some length at the conference proper and when one delegate urged that they could'nt duck the issue of bloodshed and that 'the manifestos that have been issued calling the Moscow Conference say you must arm the proletariat and disarm the bourgeoisie'. This brought applause from the supporters of Third International affiliation. But the debate ended after Clifford Allen, making as Fenner Brockway later wrote 'his first mark as a national figure in the I.L.P.' supported a motion to postpone the affiliation decision until the ILP had made further enquiries. Those in two minds could rally behind his reminder that 'The majorities in the branches were narrow, a thing that extremists on both sides were apt to forget.'
Three votes were taken. Delegates voted 529 to 144 to disaffiliate from the Second but affiliation to the Third International gained only 206 votes. Further consultation and a future special conference was carried by 472.
Snowden's editorial presented the outcome as historic. 'Not since the I.L.P. came into existence has it been called upon to deal with a more critical situation than at this week's Annual Conference.' Affiliation to the Third International would have meant abandoning 'its anti-militarist and civic principles'. He was left 'with a feeling of relief rather than satisfaction.' Supporters of the Third International affiliation were misleading themselves. 'The kind of Socialist International they approved would bear little or no resemblance to the Moscow International with which they desired the I.L.P. to affiliate.'
1920 – the summer and autumn
The joint Labour Party/TUC delegation to Russia in May and June had serious consequences for the ILP. Attached to it was an 'unofficial' ILP duo, Clifford Allen and Richard Wallhead whose mission was to clarify the terms on which the ILP might affiliate to the Third International. Reports on their way to Russia claimed that 'the Norwegian Party' had been allowed to affiliate subject to the 'equal treatment of peasants and workers 'and – crucially from the ILP perspective – the rejection of 'arming' of the proletariat. An editorial in the same issue seemed to confirm this, encouraging the belief that affiliation terms were negotiable.
In June, 'What we saw in Russia', by Ben Turner, who chaired the delegation, received front-page treatment. They had seen what they wanted; there had been no 'organized camouflage'. They had had free access to Mensheviks. There was no 'anarchy', and 'The Trade Unions … take part in the actual government of Russia as well as in the government of their respective industries.' But the Bolsheviks did not 'deny that they have used repressive measures. They say that, so long as a great part of the world is plotting against them, they must have exceptional powers to arrest the counter-revolutionaries, monarchists, and officers of the old White Guard who act as agents and spies for the enemies of Russia.' The Extraordinary Commission was 'above ordinary law, but its members assured us that they always give the prisoners a trial and provide the indictment within 24 hours. The members of the delegation were given every opportunity to see the British prisoners and the Concentration Camp.'
Later, in July, Brockway reported the delegation had returned with 'very differing views about the Soviet regime. A A Purcell and Robert Williams can find no words of praise too unbounded, Mrs Snowden … finds it difficult to criticise sufficiently strongly. Reading the various accounts, one gets nevertheless an intelligent picture of the whole. It is not so much the facts which are disputed as the interpretation of the facts.' He went on to note that 'BolshevismÉis shown to involve great restrictions on personal liberty – suppression of freedom of speech, Press, and association, and industrial conscription with an almost military discipline. Apparently, too, even in the Soviet system there is little rank and file control'.
In late July the Leader reported the questions put by Allen and Wallhead to the Third International and on 19 August Allen announced that he could not recommend 'unconditional affiliation to the Third International until it agrees that the policy of violence as a means of attaining power shall be an open question for the decision of each national party.'
Meanwhile, at the beginning of July, Emile Burns complained about 'the Times and Morning Post … making great use of interviews given them in Stockholm by Dr Guest and Mrs Snowden. Protests 'against the hostile interviews on Soviet Russia being accorded to the Capitalist Press by Mrs Snowden' asking the NAC to take action followed. Her book Through Bolshevik Russia further angered her critics. Leybourn says, it was 'the party's treatment of his wife' which he took as a 'personal insult' that drove Snowden from 'the mainstream of ILP politics' although conflict with the Leader's editor was, surely, another – related – factor.
Although the initial meeting of Third International supporters at the 1920 annual conference was reported, it is only at the very end of that year that the term 'Left Wing of the ILP' began to appear regularly in the Leader. Soon after that conference A T Rogers wrote in saying it was now the 'bounden duty' of every Third International supporter to 'immediately withdraw from the I.L.P,' but alarmed leading figures of the 'Left Wing' expressed the hope that no one would take this advice. They were 'seeking to unify the movement, not disrupt it'.
At the beginning of December Snowden noted that the Communist International had 'instructed' all the Communist groups in Britain to unite, including 'The Left Wing of the I.L.P'. while in the correspondence column H Parker attacked 'the attempt to establish and build up within the I.L.P an undemocratic and questionable group, namely ÒThe Provisional National Committee of the Left Wing of the I.L.P. Others still emphasized unity, Jim Simmons, chairman of the Midland Divisional Council, praised the 'Left Wingers' in his division 'who had refused to take part in any "wrecking movement" inside the party,' and he was later to plead for tolerance of 'loyal Left Wingers, like Fred Longden … who have refused to take part in the wrecking tactics of the last twelve months'.
Meanwhile, MacDonald was contesting the Woolwich by-election. Brockway's eve of poll report early in March confidently predicted a large majority. But MacDonald was defeated. Angry letters followed, some of which the editor, Katharine Bruce Glasier, summarized concluding with another critic of the 'Left Wing'.
Mr R Sedgwick writes with our full sympathy, that he thinks it will be agreed that the time has now arrived when Mr Walton Newbold and his like must conduct their 'relentless and ruthless fight out in the open' of Mr MacDonald and our other I.L.P. leaders, outside the ranks of the I.L.P… It can hardly be doubted that these men are out to smash our Party… Therefore let the Party give them clear notice to quit.'
Under severe pressure from all sides she refused to publish 'defamatory libels on individuals unsupported by evidence' including both a letter attacking Walton Newbold and one from him written, she said, 'under the kindly title "MacDonald Must Go"'.
Once again, the 1921 ILP conference at Easter was dominated by the affiliation issue. But now it was clearly a lost cause. P J Dollan noted that there had been 'some surprise' at the rejection by the Scottish ILP of a motion for joining the Third International by 93 to 57 in the light the previous year's vote.'
Wallhead's chairman's address slated the 'criminal record' of the British government towards Russia and referred to 'the great Socialist experiment'. But he was clear that:-
In the end Socialism can only be effectively established upon the freedom and frank acceptance of the new order by the mass of the people. Permanent dictatorship and repression is its very negation and could only result in a hideous travesty…
As for the 'Left Wing', 'There cannot be permitted allegiance to an outside body whose mandates are to be carried out against the expressed will of the Party … they should leave and join with an organisation to which they can honestly give their allegiance.' A request from the Communist Party for Arthur MacManus to address the conference on the Third International was rejected.
.John Beckett attempted to refer back sections of the NAC report both on Walton Newbold's ILP candidature at Motherwell Ethel Snowden's nomination to represent the ILP on the Labour Party Executive. Though defeated on a card vote by 235 to 191, this led to acrimonious debate. Beckett 'drew special attention to the article that appeared in the London Magazine. It was accompanied by pictures which had never been outdone for bestiality by the capitalist press in their propaganda against the Germans (Hear, hear) The Bolsheviks were shown dragging women half-naked from their homes.' Mrs Snowden had her defenders. R L Outhwaite said that 'During the war Mrs Snowden played a braver part than any man or woman in the country in her championship of the liberty of the I.L.P.ers who withstood conscription (Hear, hear). When she found that Trotsky shot C.Os she was naturally revolted.'
George Benson, moving the motion rejecting the '21 conditions' of the Third International, referred to the requirement to change the leadership of the organisation and asked 'was the I.L.P. a political party or a Christmas party?'
'The Moscow amendment', sought acceptance of the 21 conditions and was lost by 97 to 521.
The Leader commented:
The Conference ended with many empty places owing to the secession of the Communist minority. There are many whom we shall miss, but we believe it will be better for them and for us that the two sections pursue their separate courses. The secession will probably not number more than a thousand.
Afterwards, the Rev Gordon Lang attacked what he called 'Communist Efforts to Disturb I.L.P. Branches' in Scotland. He recalled branch officials selling The Communist rather than the Leader and other ILP literature, and the heckling and bullying of chairs and speakers at meetings. The 'wild men' should be careful, he cautioned.
They had better remember … that they cannot all sit at the desk signing the death warrants of sentimental ILPers and the like. The plain truth is that they do not believe in their own vaguely defined 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. What is desired by them is a dictatorship of the Party.
Beginning of the end of the Leader. Snowden v Mrs Glasier
At the end of 1920, Snowden insisted that:
…Winston Churchill has done more than any living man to strengthen the Bolshevik Government. If it had not been for his policy the Russian people would themselves long ago have dealt with the gang of despots who usurped power by force and maintain it by tyranny aided by the help of British and French Bolsheviks like Churchill and Poincaire (sic).The best way to kill Bolshevism is to give the Russian people goods. Even if some of the men in power remain their methods will not survive the opening up of intercourse with the rest of the world.
This was too much for Katharine Bruce Glasier who appended a long editorial note. 'The Editor feels compelled to disassociate herself once and for all from Mr Snowden's bitter denunciations of the Bolshevik leaders'. She had, she said, no sympathy with their 'crude materialism', or their 'absurd attempts to interfere with the free self-government of the Socialist movements in other countries' but she believed them to be 'sincere' and 'ready to die for the cause.' Undeterred, Snowden returned to the attack the following week, applauding the refusal by the Labour Party of the affiliation of the CPGB.
Any other decision would have been an act of suicide. A great deal of harm has been done already to the Labour and Socialist movement in this country by its uncritical support of Bolshevism and by its support and toleration of Communist speakers. The Communists stand for the dictatorship of a minority which has seized power by force.
Over the following weeks the dispute continued with Mrs Glasier receiving, she said 'A veritable summer shower of kindly letters and resolutions' supporting her position 'and usually asserting it represents the general feeling of the I.L.P. membership'.
The ILP Executive tried to calm things, regretting 'the Editor's comments at the foot of Mr. Snowden's Note.' confirming the Editor's full discretion and responsibility for the contents while accepting that Snowden should be should be responsible only to the N.A.C. for his signed articles.
But both protagonists had had enough. Glasier told readers that the dispute ' was only the culmination of a series of differences between herself and Mr Phillip Snowden on the special matter at issue' while on 6 January Snowden announced that 'With the writing of this paragraph my contributions to Labour Leader cease.' The following week readers learned that from Easter the editor had asked for 'a release from her duties which will enable her to come out once again, with, she hopes a veritable host of other willing propagandists, to the market places and village greens.'
In her last weeks as editor she found herself refusing to print more letters, including one from 'C H Norman of the 'Left Wing' in which he chided the 'Vienna Union' for accepting Martoff (sic) as the Russian representative on its Executive Committee describing him as 'an ex-ally of Koltchak, and Denikin.' A fortnight later came an announcement that 'Mrs Bruce Glasier has had a rather serious nervous breakdown and has been ordered complete rest by her medical adviser.' Tom Johnson, the editor of Forward, would take over for the time being. And early in July it was announced that Bertram R Carter would become editor from August onwards.
The former editor, whose husband, a leading member of the ILP for decades, had died the previous summer, seems to have recovered quite quickly. By mid-June she was reported addressing large meetings in Middlesbrough. She was appointed as a 'special propagandist' and spent much of following 18 years on the road for ILP and Labour Party. She died in 1950 aged 83. It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the besieged editor.
The conflict was a defining moment for Snowden also. He refused to accept renomination as Treasurer and though he remained an ILP member till 1927, played little or no part in its affairs after early 1921. And, as with the related issue of the treatment of Ethel, he seems to have taken the 'unseemly wrangle' with Glasier very personally. In his autobiography Snowden refers to her as the 'Acting-Editor' – never by name. The chapter following his account of the 'wrangle' celebrates the lives and contributions to the socialist cause of W C Anderson and J Bruce Glasier. But whereas William Anderson's wife, Mary MacArthur, gets a two-paragraph mention, there is no hint that Bruce Glasier was married to a woman so prominent in the ILP.
The End of the Labour Leader
The impetus behind the replacement of Labour Leader with the New Leader in 1922 came from the new treasurer, Clifford Allen, According to his biographer, Arthur Marwick, the NAC voted to transfer publication from Manchester to London with three dissenters 'probably R. C. Wallhead, Ben Riley, and Fred Jowett, who represented the core of the old-stagers' resistance to Allen's innovations'. In David Marquand's words, in his biography of MacDonald, 'He forced through a radical transformation of the worthy but unreadable Labour Leader, which was rechristened the New Leader and put under the editorship of the well-known socialist journalist, H. N. Brailsford'.
Readable-ness is subjective. As Marwick says, 'UnhappilyÉthe Party membership did not take too kindly to the new paper… What the Party as a whole really wanted was a vigorous propaganda paper, with space devoted to branch activities… There is little doubt that Allen's project was greatly aided by the almost simultaneous resignations of Snowden and Glasier. The prolonged battle over Third International affiliation made the wider debate on the nature of Bolshevik Russia crucial and increased its bitterness. A casualty was Labour Leader itself.
As a competitor of the Nation, the New Statesman and the Spectator Brailsford's enterprise was a success. Its circulation rose to 47,000 and Brockway, who took over as editor after Brailsford's resignation in October 1926, agreed that. 'Brailsford produced a paper of great literary merit, loved by school teachers for its Nature Notes, adored by artists for its woodcuts, and revered by intellectuals for its theoretical features.'
For those seeing the episode as a transfer from a plebeian to a comfortable bourgeois ambiance the fact that Brailsford began with a salary of £1,000 in contrast to Katharine Bruce Glasier's £2.17.0 rising to £3.5.0 a week was probably conclusive. 'ILP salaries were high under the Allen régime' noted Brockway. Indeed the editor's salary was criticised by a Sheffield delegate at the 1923 annual conference as being contrary to the traditions of the ILP and extravagant at a time of mass unemployment
At the beginning of his chapter on 'The ILP and the Communist International in The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, Walter Kendall saw 'The Comintern's ability to make inroads into the ILP' as 'an important test of its power to win support in Britain.' In his biography of MacDonald, David Marquand summed up the significance of victory or defeat in the ILP in 1919/1920 like this:
If the I.L.P. decided to affiliate to the Third International, there was a distinct possibility that a strong Communist party, able to speak in native accents and appeal to native traditions, might come into existence on British soil. In the turbulent climate of 1919 and 1920, such a party might have made considerable headway.
That this did not occur is probably more attributable to the combined effect of growing disillusion with the Bolsheviks, the fading of beliefs in the reality of 'soviet democracy' and, above all, the intransigence of the Third International, than to the efforts of opponents of affiliation. To most ILPers, the '21 Conditions' were outrageous.
Attitudes towards Communism remained diverse in the ILP. The corollary of relatively few defections to the CPGB was the continued presence of members who had voted for Third International affiliation even in 1921. Longden, complained of 'stupid statements' critical of Russia in April 1922' The spectrum of views foreshadowed those of Labour Party opinion for the next seven decades ranging from support of Communism to outspoken condemnation. Occupying an extensive middle was the view so succinctly summarised in Dollan's Labour Leader report of the 1921 ILP conference; ' The delegates did not repudiate Bolshevism for Russia, but they were not prepared to accept it for Britain'.
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