Early Labour Party

Nigel Gilbert is working on the early history of the Labour Party, concentrating in particular upon the period up to the end of the First World War. The key question is do we have to start all over again now that the modern Labour Party has tossed away all its values?

The Independent Labour Party was created in 1893 to achieve socialism by democratic means. It was the drive of Keir Hardie and others in the ILP over a period of 25 years which led to the establishment of a mass socialist party, ie the Labour Party, in 1918.

It is remarkable that the level of political discussion in this period was in advance of what it is today. This is mainly because the Labour Party had leaders who were prepared to argue for distinctive policies. Even so-called “moderates” supported socialist policies.

Such policies are badly needed today. It is a myth that there was once a time when socialist policies were appropriate, but that time is past. A struggle was always needed to win support for socialist policies. Where are the leaders capable of that struggle today?

Despite the wide support amongst the party and its leaders for socialist policies, there was in their midst an acknowledged leader, Ramsay MacDonald, whose commitment to socialism was idiosyncratic to say the least. He was totally pessimistic. Considering he was supposedly Labour’s leading theorist, the fact that nowhere did he lay down how socialism would be reached was quite a damning criticism.

Sartre, the French philosopher, noted that those who claimed to have gone beyond outdated Marxist thinking ended up by taking us back to pre-Marxist thinking. This was certainly true of MacDonald. His socialism was of an ethical kind. He wished away the class struggle and did not wish to focus on issues of material inequality. Instead, he looked forward to a time when everybody would achieve a life of greater spiritual content. The outcome of his leadership was leaving power and wealth exactly where it had always lain. How like New Labour!

To read more of this analysis of early 20th century Labour politics, please turn to the following articles, which are being developed:

1. Socialism is essential to Democracy
2. Socialism still has not had its day
3. MacDonald and nothing new about New Labour
4. The value of the public sector
5. The misinterpretation of Adam Smith
6. The current comedy of ideas