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J. Keir Hardie
Chapter 9. The Class War in Theory and Practice


BEFORE many months were over, Hardie was back again on the Continent, not this time in search of health, but to play his part in the International Congress at Amsterdam. It was said at the time that the Amsterdam Congress would be historical because of the great debate on international Socialist tactics. That is true, but not in the sense anticipated. Probably, the real historical interest in the Amsterdam Congress lies in the fact that it revealed deep schisms within the “International” itself which rendered that body wholly impotent when the supreme testing time came ten years later. These divisions were most evident amongst the delegates from France and Germany, the two countries where Socialism had been most successful in its efforts for Parliamentary representation.

In France, one section, led by Jaures, on the ground that the Republic was in danger and that clericalism was an ever-active menace to democracy, had been supporting the Anti-Clerical Ministry, though Jaures himself never took office. Another section, led by Jules Guesde, was opposed to any appearance of alliance with the Government. In Germany, the critical examination of Marx by Bernstein had been causing trouble, and the German Party at its annual conference in Dresden the previous year, had by an overwhelming vote condemned what it called Revisionist tendencies. At the Amsterdam Congress the German Party and the French Guesdists joined forces to make the German resolution international and applicable to Socialists in all countries without regard apparently to differing circumstances, political, economic, or historical. In reality the resolution was aimed at Jaures and his section. It declared the class war to be ever increasing in virulence and condemned Revisionist tendencies and Jaurks’ tactics. Bebel, Kautsky, Jaurks, Adler, Vandervelde, MacDonald, all took part in this debate. It was a veritable battle of giants, and for that reason, memorable to those who were present. We are only concerned, however, with the attitude of Hardie and the I.L.P. towards this question of Socialist tactics. The I.L.P. was, in its own tactics, as much opposed as the Germans and the Guesdists to Socialist participation in capitalist governments, but it had never affirmed that such tactics should be universally applicable nor, even in any one country, unalterable. In the case under debate, its delegates to the Congress held that the Socialist movement in each country must decide what its tactics should be, that any attempt by the International Congress to prescribe a given line of action would settle nothing, and that, indeed, in any country where Socialists themselves were strongly divided on the matter, such an attempt would only tend to deepen the division. As a matter of fact, there was a strong desire amongst the rank and file of the French Socialists for unity, and Jaures having been defeated by but the smallest majority, no resentment was caused by the debate and vote. The immediate result was to unite the French Party and make possible for it those years of political success with which the name of Jaures will be for ever associated. The result in Germany was nil. The controversy between the orthodox Marxian and the Revisionist continued and produced barrenness.

Moreover, the I.L.P. had never accepted the class war as an essential dogma of Socialist faith, and its delegates could not support a resolution embodying that dogma. In the British section, which comprised delegates from the I.L.P., the L.R.C., the S.D.F. and the Fabians, and over which Hardie presided, all this had to be debated with a view to deciding on which side the votes of the section would be cast, and there were stormy scenes within the section as well as in the Congress. In the end, there was some kind of compromise, and the vote of the section was given in favour of an amendment by Vandervelde, of Belgium, and Adler, of Austria, which, whilst affirming the whole doctrine of Socialism and accepting the Kautsky resolutions as determining the tactics of the movement, left out those portions which condemned revision. This amendment was defeated, but, as was afterwards pointed out, by the votes of nations which either had no parliamentary system, or no strong Labour Party in Parliament. The only European nations having parliamentary institutions which voted against it were Germany and Italy. “This,” said Hardie, “is a fact of the first significance and indicates clearly what the future has in store for the movement. ’* Some part of that future has already disclosed itself. The attempt to find a common measure of tactics for countries so widely separated in industrial and political development as Russia and Germany, or Russia and Great Britain, is doomed to failure. Tactics must be determined by circumstances and events.

There were two incidents in connection with this Conference of perhaps even greater significance than the debate on tactics. One was the public handshaking of the delegates from Japan and Russia, whose countries were at that time at war. The other was the appearance for the first time at an international congress of a representative from India, in the person of Naoroji, who delivered a strong indictment of British methods of government in India.

A sequel to the Congress was the necessity which it imposed upon Hardie of stating more clearly than ever before his views on the question of political tactics, and also on the question of the Class War. On the former, it will be best to give his own words. The following quotation from an article which he contributed to the “Nineteenth Century” will serve the purpose : “The situation, as revealed by the voting at Amsterdam is this. Wherever free Parliamentary institutions exist, and where Socialism has attained the status of being recognised as a Party, dogmatic absolutism is giving way before the advent of a more practical set of working principles. The schoolman is being displaced by the statesman. No hard and fast rule can be laid down for the application of the new methods, but generally speaking, where the Socialist propaganda has so far succeeded as to have built up a strong party in the state, and where the ties which kept the older parties together have so far been dissolved that there is no longer an effective Reform Party remaining, there the Socialists may be expected to lend their aid in erecting a new combination of such progressive forces as give an intellectual assent to Socialism, and are prepared to co-operate in waging war against reaction and in rallying the forces of democracy. When this can be done so as in no way to impair the freedom of action of a Socialist party, or to blur the vision of the Socialist ideal, it would appear as if the movement had really no option but to accept its share of the responsibility of guiding the State. Then, just in proportion as Socialism grows, so will the influence of the representatives in the national councils increase, and the world may wake up some morning to find that Socialism has come.”

Complementary to the foregoing statement must be taken his almost simultaneous declaration in the “Labour Leader,” that he could not conceive of any set of circumstances as likely to arise in his lifetime which would lead him to agree to an alliance with any Party then existing. “In Great Britain, for the present, there is no alternative to a rigid independence.”

This declaration occurred in “An Indictment of the Class War,” which extended through two articles in the “Leader.” In this “indictment” he maintained that to claim for the Socialist movement that it is a “class war” dependent upon its success upon the the “class consciousness” of one section of the community, was doing Socialism an injustice and indefinitely postponing its triumph. It was, he said, in fact, lowering it to the level of a faction fight. He objected to the principle of Socialism being overlaid by dogmatic interpretation. He agreed, of course, that there was a conflict of interests between those who own property and those who work for wages, but contended that it was the object of Socialism to remove the causes which produced this antagonism. “Socialism,” he said, “makes war upon a system, not upon a class,” and one of the dangers of magnifying the class war dogma was that it led men’s minds away from the true nature of the struggle. “The working class,” he said, “is not a class. It is a nation”; and, “it is a degradation of the Socialist movement to drag it down to the level of a mere struggle for supremacy between two contending factions.” He quoted Belfort Bax as saying that “mere class instinct which is anti-social, can never give us Socialism,” and he referred to Jaures as declaring that out of 49,000,000 people in France, not 200,000 were class-conscious Socialists, and to Lieb-knecht as saying the same thing about Germany, and he queried, “When are the proletarians to become class conscious?” He deduced from these facts, and from the philosophic arguments of Bax and Morris, that “Socialism would come, not by a war of classes, but by economic circumstances forcing the workers into a revolt which will absorb the middle class and thus wipe out classes altogether.”

Speaking of the "Communist Manifesto,” upon which the class war dogma is said to be based, he quoted the statement of Engels, one of its authors, that “the practical application of the principles of the manifesto will depend on the historical conditions for the time being existing,” and he recalled that the famous document was written in 1847, when Europe was a seething mass of revolutionary enthusiasm.”

Of the manifesto itself, he contended that, however correct it might be as a form of words, it was lacking in feeling and could not now be defended as being scientifically correct, inasmuch as the materialist theory therein expounded made no allowance for the law of growth or development. He agreed that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, but contended that in this country the workers had already politically the power to free themselves, and that it was the ignorance of the workers which hindered the spread of Socialism. That ignorance we were now called upon to attack with every weapon at our command, and it was because the class war dogma led the workers to look outside themselves for the causes which perpetuated their misery that he opposed its being made a leading feature in Socialist propaganda. That Socialism was revolutionary was indisputable, but he maintained that reformative improvements in the workers’ conditions did not necessarily weaken the revolutionary purpose of Socialism. He denied that revolution required the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie by open war. “No revolution can succeed which has not public opinion behind it, and when that opinion ripens, it, as we have seen over and over again, breaks down even the walls of self-interest.”

Naturally, this “indictment” provoked a storm of controversy within the movement. In this controversy Hardie did not again intervene. He had defined his attitude towards the class war theory, and he left it at that. Theoretical disputation amongst Socialists was distasteful to him. He was always more in his element fighting the avowed enemies of Socialism than in quarrelling with its friends. Even in fighting its enemies his desire was, if it were possible, to make friends of them, and in this he was not always unsuccessful.

There was no lack of problems, political and social, calling for immediate attention—problems the equitable solution of which meant the removal of obstacles in the path towards Socialism. Amongst these, the question of political sex-equality was one of the most important, and was now nearing the stage when Parliament could not neglect it much longer. This question illustrated, though he never used it in that way, Hardie’s contentions concerning the class war. The vote was demanded, not for working women only, but for all women, irrespective of class. It is true that a strong argument in its favour was the large place now occupied by women in the industrial field, their share in the staple trade of Lancashire being specially cited as proof of their right to the vote, but sex equality was and has always been the basis of the demand for women’s suffrage. Political equality with men had been demanded not on the grounds of special industrial or social ' service, but as a common citizen right. Yet in the very fact of agreement on this fundamental principle, there lay the germs of a disagreement out of which arose much confusion and friction within the suffragist movement itself. Political equality with men, but how? By pressing for “adult suffrage,” which, of course, included both sexes, or by demanding the franchise for women on the existing basis for men, namely, household franchise.

The I.L.P., of course, favoured both, political equality being inherent in its conception of social equality, and the National Council, with a view to securing legislation which would not only enfranchise women as householders, but also entitle them to equality with men in any future extension of the franchise, had drafted a Women’s Enfranchisement Bill to be introduced by Hardie at the first opportunity. As this is a matter of historical interest the text of the Bill may be given. It was as follows :—

“In all Acts relating to the qualification and registration of persons entitled to vote for the election of Members of Parliament, whatever words occur which import the masculine gender, shall be held to include women for all purposes connected with and having reference to the right to be registered as voters, and to vote in such election any law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding.”

There was division of opinion as to the wisdom of this line of advance both within the women’s movement and within the I.L.P. The Women’s Social and Political Union, in which Mrs. Pankhurst was the dominant force, favoured the policy embodied in the above Bill, which came to be known as the Limited Suffrage Bill. The Adult Suffrage League, which included amongst its leading members Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur, stooda as its name implies, for nothing short of adult suffrage. Hardie, knowing well that neither proposal would be carried without great opposition, favoured the “limited” proposal, chiefly for agitational purposes. “If,” he said, “the women have a Bill of their own, short, simple, and easily understood, and they concentrate upon that, even though it should never be discussed in Parliament until the general Adult Suffrage Bill is reached, they would, by their agitation, have created the necessary volume of public opinion to make it impossible for politicians to overlook their claims.” In the main this was the view held by the Party, and adhered to throughout the subsequent stormy period of agitation for women’s rights. This storm, however, was as yet only brewing.

More immediate were the threatenings of trouble from the growing hosts of unemployed workers. In ^r-September, Hardie, in Parliament, had called the attention of the Government to the fact that the unemployed problem could not be much longer ignored, and had, as usual, been assured by Mr. Balfour that “there was no evidence of exceptional distress.” Almost immediately, as if in answer to this assertion, the unemployed themselves contradicted it with a degree of violence reminiscent of the times of the Chartist movement. In Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and most of the big towns, not only were there large processions of workless people demanding that the civic authorities should take action for their relief, but also daily gatherings of these people in public places. At Leeds, during one procession, windows were broken all along the line of march. On the whole, however, the demonstrations were orderly, and, thanks largely to the local I.L.P. organisations, which usually took control, the unemployed agitation began to assume an organised and cohesive character such as had been lacking in previous periods of trade depression. Hardie was much in evidence both in the outside agitation and in Parliament, and it looked as if the very imminence of trouble and the call for leadership had restored him to full health and vigour. He declared—referring to the trouble at Leeds—that “if Parliament deliberately rules these men as being outside its ken, they are justified in refusing to be bound by laws made for the protection of well-to-do people.”

By the middle of October, the Government had slightly changed its tune, and Mr. Long, the President of the Local Government Board, had called a conference of the Guardians and Borough Councillors of the Metropolitan area to consider the situation. This was immediately followed up by Hardie with a memorial signed by fourteen Members of Parliament asking for a special session, and with a pamphlet in which he dealt comprehensively with the unemployed problem, detailed the powers already possessed by local authorities and Boards of Guardians, and made suggestions for their immediate utilisation. He also considered the larger question of what the Government itself could do if it were willing, and proposed the creation of a new State Department with a Minister of Industry, and a new set of administrative^ councils, to initiate work and fake in charge lands and foreshores, afforestation, Building harbours of refuge, making^new roads, and so on—in fact, a practical programme of remedies, just falling short of Socialism but leading inevitably towards it, and proving that he was no, dreamer but simply a very practical man far in advance of his time. Upon this programme the November Municipal Elections were fought, and resulted in a considerable increase in the number of Labour representatives^on Town Councils throughout the country, a result which was taken as foreshadowing what was likely to happen at the first Parliamentary general election.

All through the winter the agitation continued, and contrary to the usual experience, did not slacken off in the spring. In April, the Government produced its "“Unemployed Workmen Bill,” and in so doing conceded for the first time the principle for which Hardie had fought ever since 1893, the principle of State responsibility for the unemployment problem. As was to be expected, the measure was not of a very drastic character. It followed the lines of Mr. Long’s suggestions of six months previously, and authorised local Councils to set up Distress Committees and Relief Committees to be financed by voluntary subscriptions and by a local rate not to exceed one penny in the pound of assessed rental. Unsatisfactory as the Bill was, Hardie recommended that it should be accepted, and as far as possible improved in Committee. He knew well that its very shortcomings would give rise to further discontent and intensify rather than allay the outside agitation uponjwhich he mainly relied for forcing the local authorities to do something practical, and for exposing the insincerity of the Government. The Liberals, when in power, he constantly ^reminded his audiences, had been quite as futile as the Tories in their dealings with unemployment. Hardie was undoubtedly, before everything else, an agitator, and in this respect was a continual puzzle to the Continental Socialists, who found difficulty in reconciling his professed rejection of the class war theory with what seemed to them his ever militant application of it, and when in the autumn the Government threatened to withdraw the Unemployment Bill, and Hardie made such an uproar in the House as compelled them to go on with it, and arrested the attention of the whole country, the Continental Socialist press was unstinted in its praise of his courage and of his tactics^ albeit somewhat mystified by the apparent inconsistency of his parliamentary practice with his congress professions. He was, in fact, doing as he had always done, facing the immediate issue and utilising the circumstances of” the moment for the purpose of far reaching propaganda.

Agitation with Hardie was almost a fine art, and always led on to more agitation, with an objective ever beyond. In the present case the objective was the coming general election. It was to this end that he created scenes in the House of Commons over the Unemployed Bill and the bludgeoning of unemployed demonstrations, rousing to anger the jeering backbench Tories by describing them to their faces as “well fed beasts.” It was to this end that he, with the I.L.P., projected a great series of demonstrations in support of the Bill to be held simultaneously all over the country. “Public opinion,” he said, “is a manufactured article, and represents that amount of agitation and education which any given cause has been able to exert upon the Community.’’ The devoted and tireless members of the I.L.P. had been supplying the agitation and education for years. He believed that public opinion was now in existence which would establish a substantial Party in Parliament at the first opportunity, and he was looking forward hopefully to that event. Already he had a glimpse of what might be possible with such a Party. In these latter months he was no longer fighting singlehanded and lonely. The new Labour Members, Henderson, Crooks, and Shackleton had been co-operating with him loyally and steadily, and his parliamentary work had been more congenial than ever before. His hopes were high, and he radiated optimism throughout the movement.

The Unemployment Bill passed, but was rendered practically ineffective by the accompanying “Regulations” and by the reluctance of local authorities to put it into operation, and, as Hardie anticipated, the general working-class discontent was intensified.


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