What is the main justification of Labourism, put forward by socialists at its birth and still advanced by its apologists? What is the cry that rings out at every Labour Party Conference, to repress all serious dissent and maintain the incredible system intact? That Labourism attains the unity of the working-class movement, in a definitive and final form from which any departure would be treason and defeat. This call touches the deepest chord in the entire historical experience of the working class—the dispossessed, fragmented into atoms by the alienating pressures of capitalist society, who found and asserted themselves wholly through uniting in collective action. It echoes everything most sacred in the secular struggle of trade-unionism, everything that renders it more than merely another facet of the bourgeois order, everything which connects it potentially to socialism and to the future beyond the bourgeois order. It suggests that an organization embracing trade unionism and socialism together, and summing up all the latent might of the working class, must be right in principle.

The truth inherent in this call cannot be denied. It deserves to be called the truth of Labourism, its characteristically positive element. Yet we have seen in how many ways, and how profoundly, the Labour Party betrays its own truth—the historical falsehood with which it is organically linked, the antagonistic and regressive form which it gives to ‘unity’ in the concrete. At a moment when the question of uniting working-class forces has appeared again as a living possibility in more than one country, it is important to grasp fully the lesson of Labourism. In any given period, the working-class movement as a whole—like the working class itself—contains many contradictory tendencies: in part it is tied to the past, in part it looks hesitatingly towards the future, it is both the product of capitalism and the social force which can overthrow capitalism, struggle and subordination vie with one another in every interstice of its thought and action. Any unified movement must reflect these contradictions to some extent. Hence, its ultimate significance depends entirely upon which elements hold the initiative within it, upon how it actually expresses the contradictions in reality and in turn modifies their conflict. We have seen why, in Britain, the conservative burden borne by the workers was so heavy, so embedded in organization and popular psychology, why their type of class-consciousness contained subordination in its own texture.footnote33 This meant that it was absolutely necessary for a revolutionary left to dominate any unitary organization such as Labourism, assuming as its first task the reform of this massive nexus of traditional consciousness—that is, the nexus which in fact constituted the heart of Labourism. The conflicts inside Labourism could not have been avoided, by any different interplay of forces. But they might have been rendered conflicts of growth—instead of what we have seen, sterile and misdirected battles within a senseless dynamic, an economy founded upon the preservation of the dead weight of the past and insertion into the empirical evolutionism of the ruling class. Labourism’s unity has paralysed the vital contradiction of tendencies inside it, imprisoning British socialism instead of liberating it, and deforming its whole development.

The instrument of Labourist involution has been the trade-union majority, the permanent hegemony of trade-unionism over socialism. This fact, however, constitutes a criticism of the trade unions only in a very limited sense. By and large, they could not help being what they were; nor could they act other than they did inside the framework provided by the Labour Party. This is the whole tragedy of Labourism. British trade-unionism could not avoid stifling British socialism within one unified body, given the immense strength of the former and the weakness and incoherence of the latter. The price paid by the British Left for ‘unity’, therefore, was high—half a century of frustration for the most vital and militant forces in the working class, the formation of the permanent Fabian dynasty as their leadership.footnote34

The Labour Party encountered many vicissitudes in the 20 years after 1918, most of them unfavourable to it. It gradually increased its parliamentary representation, displacing the Liberal Party as His Majesty’s official Opposition, and formed the first Labour Government in 1924. This short-lived, minority government accomplished nothing, but was less of a disaster than the second Labour Government of 1929–31. The latter suffered the full impact of the Great Depression, totally unprepared, and had the task of trying to restore British capitalism to health ‘without the shadow of a constructive, or even a defensive, policy’.footnote35 Inevitably, MacDonald and the other Labour leaders were forced to attack working-class interests in order to ‘save the pound’, by reducing wages and payments to the unemployed, and this was too much. The trade unions rebelled, as well as the left wing. Disappointed by the reluctance of the working class to follow the logic of Labourist inter-classism to its rational conclusion, MacDonald abandoned class and Party to form the infamous ‘National’ government in coalition with Liberals and Conservatives. The ‘National’ government easily won the elections of 1931 and 1935, and by the beginning of the war in 1939 the Labour Party had scarcely recovered its position and strength of ten years previously. In between the two periods of government, the Labour Party had stood apart from the crucial test of the working class, the General Strike in defence of the miners in 1926, as if it did not exist.

Significant as they were in many ways, from our point of view these traumatic experiences are not of first importance. The Labour Party survived MacDonald and humiliating defeat by the ‘National’ régime without a major scission—it threw off individual leaders, but not the basic ideological traditions of leadership they represented. There were small left-wing rebellions, but the greater part of the Left remained loyal. We have already explored some of the reasons for this extraordinary cohesion, in the face of events that would surely have shat-tered most socialist parties. Another can be seen in the excuse so constantly offered by the Labour Right for the miserable showing of both Labour governments: that is, that since both were minority governments dependent upon Liberal support the principles of Fabianism had not really been tried, Labourism had not had a genuine chance to prove itself. In spite of their acute discontent, this argument appealed to the pragmatic instincts of the Left and to the universal sense of ‘fair-play’. It held the left wing in its accustomed role of trying to push the leadership ‘further to the left’, and left untouched the assumption underlying this role: that socialists and the Labour leadership were in fact travelling along the same road, towards the same destination. Fundamentally, in spite of many superficial symptoms of torture and crisis, Labourism drifted along intact through the inter-war years. It was waiting for power, for the chance to prove itself.