Socialist struggles and the "Great" War

In retrospect the 1914-18 war became the time when the Independent Labour Party was tested - and not found wanting. When it had stood firm, almost, if not quite, alone, against the evils of militarism and upheld the internationalism of socialism when others flinched and buckled; when it kept the red flag flying. Many of the most prominent figures in the ILP between the wars - notably Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway and Jimmy Maxton - were conscientious objectors.

There was enough truth in this to justify the pride taken, though, as usual, things were a little more complicated in reality. In Inside the Left published in 1941 in the early stage of another world war, Fenner Brockway tells us that there was a spectrum of attitudes to the war to the be found in the ILP including about a fifth of the membership who "succumbed."

One such was Clement Attlee who, unlike his brother Tom who became a conscientious objector, joined up, took part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, was badly wounded in what is now Iraq and ended the war as a major. This did not stop him returning the ILP and playing quite an important role in it during its early post-war years.

The war was unexpected - Brockway recalled how, trying to warn of its danger ten days before it broke out in a speech in Oldham, he was urged to "Talk about Ireland, not Serbia." When it came, it struck Keir Hardie "like a physical blow and a spiritual blight" and many of his friends and comrades were convinced that it contributed to his early death in September 1915.

The bulk of the ILP stood firmly against the war, but as Brockway, again, says, "We were not Revolutionary Socialists. We were democratic pacifists." Not that this was in any way an easy option. Opponents of the war needed almost unbelievable reserves of courage. And not only moral courage. Brockway tells how in the early months of the war he was beaten up by five men after a meeting at Marple. After conscription was introduced in 1916 conscientious objectors - not seen before in a country that had previously relied on volunteers to fight its wars - suffered horribly.

It is tempting to give over the rest of this article to their terrible experiences and to the campaigns waged in Glasgow by the Clyde Workers' Committee and the gaoling of Maxton for sedition after he had publicly supported the local strike after several of the Committee members, including another prominent ILPer, David Kirkwood, were "deported." But suffice it to say that the No Conscription Fellowship was formed by Brockway and Clifford Allen to organise personal resistance to the war. This was one of two important wartime organisations in which the ILP played a key role. The origins of the other went back to before the outbreak of war.

In the years before 1914 Fred Jowett, a Labour MP and founder member of the ILP, had continually pressed Grey, the foreign secretary in the Liberal government, on whether "any undertaking, promise or understanding had been given to France that, in certain eventualities, British troops would be sent to assist the operations" and was told that "The answer is in the negative." As Jowett told the ILP annual conference in 1917 "The country had been deceived. I had been deceived." From 1914 Jowett was one of the many ILPers active in the Union of Democratic Control [UDC] which campaigned against "secret diplomacy" and for peace on the basis of national self-determination and international disarmament after the war had been brought to an end by a just peace. Ramsay MacDonald was a signatory of the letter that led to the UDC's formation. Its first historian, the former UDC activist and feminist, Helena Swanwick, would later write, "The Independent Labour Party from the first needed no conversion. It had the root of the matter, and from I.L.P. members the Union received some of its best support."

MacDonald had resigned as chair of the parliamentary Labour party on the outbreak of war but his position seemed less clear and more equivocal than that of many of his comrades. Writing in the 1950s, Emanuel Shinwell said that "He was neither for the war nor against it." When he spoke his audiences "heard a man who loathed past wars, regarded future wars with abhorrence, but carefully evaded giving his opinion on the basic question of the current one." This did not stop MacDonald being pilloried as an opponent of the war, especially at the "khaki election" of 1918 at which he and other ILP MPs lost their seats. Before this the appalling Horatio Bottomley targeted him in his popular John Bull magazine, even going to the length of publishing MacDonald’s birth certificate so as to smear him with being "illegitimate."

The Woolwich constituency had been held since well before the war by the veteran trade unionist and Labour MP, Will Crooks and was regarded as a "safe" Labour seat. When ill-health forced Crooks to retire MacDonald looked poised to return to parliament in the subsequent by-election in 1921. But he was defeated by a Coalition-Conservative candidate, Captain Robert Gee, VC. MacDonald quoted, in the ILP's weekly, the Labour Leader, the comment of a correspondent who tried to reassure him that for him to have won 13,041 votes, "fighting as a 'pacifist,' a V.C who had killed nine Germans with his own unaided hand, and to have chosen an arsenal as a field of battle is a miracle." In another article on the by-election, MacDonald complained, with justification, that "My private life was soused in a sewer bath. Widows and mothers who had lost sons were told of my night club kind of orgies throughout their racking sorrows."

MacDonald lost by only 683 votes and many angry members of the ILP and the Labour party believed the Communists and their allies in the "Left-Wing of the ILP" were responsible because of their divisive attacks on him and their campaign for abstentions though his perceived position on the war was clearly a significant factor. But the tide was starting to turn and soon a growing proportion of the British people began to recoil from the apparently pointless horrors of the war and to at least consider the possibility that the ILP had been right all along in opposing it.

The Woolwich by-election took place in March 1921. At the general election at the end of the following year the atmosphere had changed sufficiently for many ILP candidates, including MacDonald, to be returned. Within the parliamentary Labour party there were enough ILPers to secure MacDonald's success in the leadership election against Clynes, who had served in the wartime coalition government, though only by a margin of five votes. After the election at the end of 1923 the ILP accounted for120 of the 191 Labour MPs and MacDonald was able to form the first Labour government. It was, of course, a minority one and Labour was not even the largest party in the Commons, though that changed in 1929 when MacDonald formed his second, ill-fated, government. Clearly, opposition to the war was no longer the electoral curse it had been in the "khaki election" of December 1918.

In August 1922, Minnie Pallister, the ILP organiser for South Wales, was encouraging ILP members to feel confident in asserting how right the party had been. "We were right on the War. We were right on the Peace, We were right on Reparations," she proclaimed on the front page of the Labour Leader. Just before the outbreak of war in 1939 the ILP, which had disaffiliated in 1932, looked poised to rejoin the Labour Party - but war intervened and once more the ILP opposed it.

But in 1949, at the equivalent time after the end of the hostilities as Pallister's article, few thought that - in retrospect - the ILP had been right. The war to most seemed to have been a grim necessity, even a 'people's war'. But then, as the example of Attlee shows, there had been those on the Left who believed that in 1914.

Ian Bullock

1,361 words

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