The Shadow of the Great Betrayal

Ramsay MacDonald

by David Marquand
Rowman and Littlefield, 903 pp., $25.00

Ramsay MacDonald
Ramsay MacDonald; drawing by David Levine

A British political party has no chance of success if its leadership appears to be weak. The Liberals after Gladstone’s retirement, the Tories under Balfour, the Labour Party under Gaitskell, harassed as he was by an ever-growing alliance of left-wingers and fellow travelers, all languished in the wilderness because too many of the faithful felt unable to rally with enthusiasm behind the leadership. Yet in the Labour movement loyalty to the leadership, based as it was on the knowledge that unquestioning solidarity alone brought results in trade union disputes, became part of the mythology of the party. Despite the contending groups in 1900 when the party began to form, despite the bitter struggle between the syndicalist and revolutionary wing and the social democratic groups between 1911 and 1926 (the year of the General Strike), appeals at party conferences to loyalty prevented the party from splintering if only because the delegates knew that the British electoral system does not reward politicians who put unyielding adherence to principles before the compromises which hold all large parties together.

Precisely because left-wing politics are ideological, loyalty to the leadership was all the more important. British socialists in the first half of this century were agreed that equality and common ownership of the means of production were essential if the lot of the poor was to be improved and each man was to be assured a fair share of the products of his labor. The founding fathers of the Labour Party learned from Marx and from the Fabians that the power of capitalists had to be shorn: but how was this to be done in order to bring about equality and a classless society? Some wanted to destroy capitalism by strikes. Others were guild socialists and wanted to decentralize government and bring about worker’s control by evolutionary means. The Fabians wanted to make capitalism less wasteful and inefficient and believed this could be done by the nationalization of industries. All were internationalists and anti-imperialists: numbers of them were pacifists.

The man who brought these conflicting groups together and by his own magnetism formed the first and second Labour government was Ramsay MacDonald. From the time that he displaced Keir Hardie as the leader of the party, he managed with extraordinary skill to hold it together and reduced breakaway movements such as the Social Democratic Federation to the status of fringe groups. He won recognition of the infant party by forging an alliance with the Liberals when they were strong, and when they were weak he induced them to give Labour parliamentary support so that he was able to form two governments. He linked the party indissolubly to the trade union movement even though it fought against his policies on more than one occasion. This was not done by time-serving. Indeed, in the First World War MacDonald was a pacifist and after twelve years in the House…

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