Letter to the editor about Ramsay MacDonald, plus Reply

Letter on Ramsey MacDonald

With regard to your reprint of an article by R. MacDonald (L&TUR No. 34 & 35), when he equates the antagonism between landlord and capitalist with the antagonism between workmen and capitalists, do you go along with this?

The fact that sections of the working class here and there, and from time to time, may favour the status quo, or consider their interests to be best served by the capitalist ownership of the means of production, in no way negates Marx’s position that the conflict between Labour and Capital is irreconcilable.

Even if the entire working class were to embrace the view that their interests were best served by capitalism, and to do so for an indefinite period of time, it still would not negate Marx’s view that the conflict between labour and capital is irreconcilable. The other conflicts to which MacDonald refers are of course reconcilable.

Correct me if I am wrong .. But if I am right how do you justify publish l an article such as this without a correction? To do so is bound to leave readers such as myself wondering if somebody is intent on creating the same kind of confusion in the labour movement of today, as R. MacDonald appears to have been bent on in his day.

An awareness that militant class war on its own can achieve little should develop in the course of the war itself. Why it did not is a question I will return to. MacDonald writes as if he believed that it was impossible for tradesmen and workers generally to learn from experience the limitations of militant struggle. He does not address the question – why they did not learn. Again, I will come back to that. He also seems to hold the view that the class war was something that was launched by the workers out of sheer pigheadedness.

Workmen did not create the conditions in which they were forced to work. If they had had a say in creating the conditions in which they work they could be accused of being very short-sighted in not legislating to protect their own interests, But they did not have a say, and all they could do was react, more or less blindly, to the position they found them-selves in. Militant class war, with all its limitations, was in the circumstances inevitable, Why, in the course of time, did an awareness of the limitations of militancy not develop and lead to a higher stage of awareness? This is the crucial question that needs to be looked into. Can anyone imagine that question being tackled without reference to the role of the middle class?

MacDonald in the earlier part of the chapter complain of socialists neglecting to consider conflicts within capitalism other than the one between labour and capital. He himself manages to discuss the limitations of militancy without a mention of the role the middle class played in perpetuating these same limitations. In your earlier extract he also warns of the danger of militant class war causing the Labour movement to revert to a form of individualism, and he manages to do so without any reference to the middle class. Yet if individualism is rife anywhere it is surely in the ranks of the middle class. Also, it is worth noting that, of the three main classes, the only one with a vested interest in the status quo is the middle class. Yet this is the class which, in the main, supplies us with our ‘revolutionaries’ and our ‘theorists’. God help us.

The big mistake the workers made was in allowing the middle class to monopolise the promotion of working class politics. We were expecting a section of a class, whose very existence depended on maintaining the class system, to develop the politics for a class whose only hope lies in abolishing that class system. Unless ideas for fundamental change can develop, directly out of the working class, the only change that can take place is change determined by the capita list class.

It is possible for members of the middle class to find themselves catapulted, for a variety of reasons, into the ranks of the working class, and some of them might genuinely take up the cause of the working class. Where that happens those concerned would have become working class. That, of course, would also be the case with individuals who came over to the working class, Something like that could well be happening at the moment.

It goes without saying that the working class should welcome into its ranks people with a genuine desire to help them promote their cause, and to assist them in developing their awareness of the problems they will have to come to terms with. But experience tells us that we cannot place political leadership in the hands of the middle class and hope that they will lead is on the road to socialism. To reform, useful reform? Yes. But socialism means changing the system, and for reasons just mentioned, that’s not on.

“Not only, therefore, is it incumbent upon socialism to recognise the existence of an intellectual motive, it must place that motive above the economic, because without it the economic struggle would be devoid of any constructive value, it would be a mere tug-of-war, it would never bring us socialism”.

During my time in the labour movement I have come across a few, a tiny few, calling themselves socialists who would disagree with the sentiments expressed here. Recognising the existence of the problem was not difficult, great numbers of socialists were aware of it in my experience. The difficulty lies in knowing what to do about it.

R. MacDonald and others since, could have done an invaluable service to the movement, by an honest attempt to explore the obstacles faced by those who attempted to raise the consciousness of working people, and to indicate where the main opposition to such efforts came from.·

I would like to mention one particular experience I had a long time ago. I do so because it is relevant to the points I am making here, and also because, although it as an important event in the history of working class politics it has never, to my knowledge, been mentioned in working class literature.

Al the height of the row in the old E.T.U. (Electricians, then controlled by Communists about ballot rigging I was a member of the North London Advisory Committee. Membership was restricted to those who were members of both the C.P. and the E. T.U. Some of us who had been opposed to ballot-rigging for a long time and had been fighting against it through the union branches and C.P. branches managed to get a special meeting of the advisory committee convened. Out of a membership of just over one hundred a total of sixty-two turned up for the meeting. I was asked to move the following motion – that a responsible body of the C.P. be set up to investigate the undemocratic behaviour of certain members of the C.P. within the E.T.U. After a lot of discussion and some argument that motion was approved with no votes against and one abstention.

A good example of working class awareness, wouldn’t you say? Who can say to what heights the ensuing discussion would have gone if the C.P. leadership had acted vigorously on this motion. What did happen? Very briefly and without going into great detail, what happened was this – the very next day six members of the advisory committee (who did not attend the official proper! y convened meeting at which the motion was passed) met in a back room somewhere and declared the advisory committee disbanded. They then proceeded to elect themselves the new advisory committee. They were recognised by the C.P. leadership.

It is not hard to imagine the effect this had on those workers who had come together at a democratically convened meeting and attempted again, in a democratic fashion, to clean out some of the filth that was masquerading in their movement as communists. A few of us however, continued to battle on within the C.P. Mark Young and myself visited many C.P. branches in North London. But C.P. branches in London at that time, were totally dominated by middle class individuals and needless to say, when they were informed they did not respond in the same way that the working class communists did earlier. They in fact refused to lift a finger.

Finally, the argument put forward by R. MacDonald could be used equally well to promote the objective of two opposing platforms. On the one hand they could be used to promote political and social awareness in their ranks. Alternatively. they could be used as part of a program for taming the workers, a reactionary platform. In the interests of clarity you should state which platform you believe [Ramsey Macdonald] was standing on when he put forward these arguments.

If the working class is to rise to the heights necessary to bring into existence a society superior in every way (in terms of meeting the progressive requirements of all mankind) to capitalism it will need to demonstrate that it is aware of. the international dimension to the struggle in this day and age. It will also have to learn to shoulder responsibility for its own development and not delegate the responsibility to others. An analysis of the role played by the middle class over the years in working class politics would be very useful in helping to develop such awareness.

Gerry Golden


Reply By the Editor

The writer treats the middle class as if it was identical with the capitalists. He confuses social and economic categories. Most middle class people work/or a living. A lot of them identify with the capitalists on the basis of tiny incomes from a few shares, but this is a delusion. The reality is much better described by the old Labour party formula of ‘workers by hand and brain’.

Anyway, in actual politics Thatcher was put into power by sections of the skilled working class, while many middle class people continued to vote Labour. It is to try to sort out the failure of life to conform the original Marxist model that we are republishing people like MacDonald. Discussion is always welcomed..)


This letter appeared in September 1993, in Issue 37 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.