A New International Order
By Arthur Henderson
[The Yale Review, July 1918]
The growth of the political Labor movement in Britain before the war can hardly be said to have justified either the extravagant hopes of reformers or the equally extravagant fears of the possessing classes. Fifty years ago, at the time of the passing of the Reform Act of 1868 which enfranchised the workmen of the boroughs, a pessimistic aristocrat said in the House of Commons that the newly qualified electors would "launch their votes in one compact mass against the institutions and the property of the country." For many years after the utterance of this doleful prediction, however, observers might have sought vainly for evidence that the working-class vote was being launched in a compact mass against anything whatever; and certainly the institutions and the property of the country were not assailed by English working-men. From 1868 to 1906 the working-class vote was never sufficiently compact to secure the return to Parliament in any election of more than a dozen declared representatives of the organized industrial movement.
The first working-class organization founded for the specific purpose of obtaining political representation for the workers—the Labor Representation League—-came into existence in 1869. But the activities of the League up to the date of the general election of 1874 bore no fruit at all. In that election, out of fourteen candidates nominated by the League only two were returned; and one of these, Mr. Thomas Burt., is still a Member and the "Father" of the House of Commons. In 1880 the number of working-class representatives in Parliament was increased to three; in 1885 it rose to eleven; in 1892 it was fourteen; in 1895 it fell to twelve; in 1900 only eleven were returned; but in 1906, the date which marks the appearance in British politics of what may be described for the first time as a compact working-class vote, out of fifty working-class candidates who went to the poll, no fewer than 29 were elected members of Parliament.
Between 1895 and 1906, as these figures indicate, important changes had taken effect in the political organization of the working-class movement. The old Labor Representation League went out of existence more than a generation ago; a second political organization called the Electoral Committee was formed a year or two later in connection with the Trade Union Congress, but speedily failed; and it was not until 1899 that proper steps were taken to create a political organization for the purpose of promoting independent working-class action that had any promise of permanent success. In that year, the Trade Union Congress adopted a resolution inviting all the co-operative societies, socialist organizations, trade unions, and other working-class bodies to unite their efforts to secure an increased number of Labor members in Parliament. A conference of these societies was called in 1900, about half a million members being represented therein by 129 delegates; and in this conference the Labor Representation Committee was founded, having as its distinct aim the establishment of a separate Labor group in Parliament with its own whips and its own policy.
The principle of political independence was formulated in plain, terms three years later, when a resolution was adopted which required the members strictly to abstain from identifying themselves with, or promoting the interests Of, any section of the Liberal or Conservative Parties. At the same time arrangements were made to institute a parliamentary fund for the maintenance of Labor members and for assisting to pay election charges. At the general election of 1906, the 29 members who entered the House of Commons formed a compact and independent group, the Labor Representation Committee changed its name to the ''Labor Party," and efficient electoral machinery was established. Out of 78 candidatures promoted by the party in the general election of January, 1910, no fewer than 40 members were returned to Parliament.
In the light of this brief retrospect it can be seen that the idea of political democracy has not made phenomenal progress in Britain. The Labor Party has grown slowly. Without countenance from the orthodox parties, generally indeed in spite of bitter opposition from them, the organized workers have developed their policy of political independence in the characteristic British way: they did not have, as a conscious aim, the creation of a national party, bent on the conquest of political power. They had in view in the earlier days the more modest intention of obtaining representation in Parliament for purposes of self-protection. The leaven of socialist ideas, and especially the growth of the idea of internationalism, gave to the organized workers a wider outlook, and prepared the ground for the epoch-making decisions that have recently been registered. In the political education, of the workers the socialist societies have played a very considerable part. It is a significant fact that neither the industrial movement nor the socialist movement made any considerable, progress towards the conquest of political power until they joined forces in 1900. Experience in Britain, indeed, seems to bear out the view that, apart from, the organized industrial movement, the socialist parties are not within measurable distance of reaping any political reward commensurate with the sustained and well-directed propaganda they carry on. The propagandist energies of the socialist organizations in Britain, at any rate, did not suffice to win seats in Parliament.
Throughout the history of the working-class movement there has been a very close relationship between it and the socialist movement, and historically it would be difficult to say whether the project of international working-class organization originated with the socialists or with the trade-union leaders. What is certain is that the first International Working-Men's Association, founded in London in 1864, by the joint efforts of socialists and trade unionists, derived its authority chiefly from the support of the organized workers. When the headquarters of the first "International" were removed to New York in 1872, it quickly lost touch with the working-class movement in Europe and soon ceased to exist. But from the seed that was sown by the earlier internationalists, as from the alliance between the socialists and the trade unions, came new ideas of international organization which have had a direct influence upon the development of political democracy in all lands.
The quickening of the idea of political democracy has come during the war, and is largely the result of the war. No organization, certainly no political party, has been more deeply influenced by the war than the Labor Party. In the years that immediately preceded the outbreak of hostilities—from 1911 to 1914—there was much to stimulate political thinking and to favor a vigorous policy of working-class action: an extraordinary wave of industrial unrest swept over the country; there were formidable strikes; the political controversies that centred about the question of Irish Home Rule, Woman Suffrage, and the veto of the House of Lords, were singularly embittered. The discussions to which they gave rise involved issues of fundamental importance in the organization of society. But none of them had any effect upon the working-class mind comparable to that produced by the catastrophic breakdown of the capitalistic order of society during the war.
For the workers the war has only one meaning; it marks the filial stage in the disintegration and collapse of the political and economic system which was founded upon the private, ownership of property and upon the control of all the machinery of government by the possessing classes. This system implied the political and economic subordination of the working-classes, who were required to toil for their country and in time of war to fight for it, receiving only a bare subsistence wage as their share of the wealth they produced, and having no effective control over national policy, no real knowledge of the principles upon which their rulers conducted national affairs, no determining voice in national decisions which were for them quite literally matters of life or death. Against this system the organized workers have now declared open war. They are not content, however, simply to oppose this system. They propound a constructive alternative. Both in national and in international affairs they have formulated a programme of reconstruction embodied in two documents—the memorandum on war aims and the report on "Labor and the New Social Order"—that have obtained wide circulation in both hemispheres. In place of an economic organization of society based upon the profiteering activities of private capitalists, the workers have resolved to establish a new economic organization founded upon the principle of public ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution and the social use and enjoyment of the accruing wealth. For the political system which sanctioned and even encouraged national rivalries and racial jealousies, and by methods of secret diplomacy built up a toppling structure of international alliances buttressed by armaments and protective tariffs, the workers seek to substitute a real internationalism which aims at the creation of a society of nations pledged to maintain peace and to extend the boundaries of freedom, beginning with freedom of trade and commercial intercourse, and including the abolition by agreement of compulsory military service and competitive armaments. This, summarily stated, is the Labor policy. It has been carefully worked out in detail in the two documents I have cited above. The general social policy will be made the ground of our appeal to the British electorate at the next general election.
Since it was promulgated we have received many evidences that public opinion in Britain is prepared to support the party which professes these aims. There is in every country a growing belief in democracy's good intentions, and what is more to the purpose in Britain at least, a steadily deepening conviction that a fundamental reconstruction of society on the lines of the Labor Party's proposals is not only necessary but practicable. Measures of state control which were formerly derided as the impossible dreams of idealists, changes in methods of production, in the management and distribution of labor, in the organization of supplies of raw material and of food, restrictions upon the free use of capital by individuals, the appropriation of excess profits by the national exchequer—all these far-reaching innovations have served to illustrate and strengthen our argument. They signalize the breakdown of the capitalist system. They are the beginning of a more scientific organization of industry, the germ of the new social order.
Equally strong is our conviction that the international working-class policy embodied in the memorandum on war aims adopted at the Inter-Allied Labor and Socialist Conference held in London last February, represents the conscious aspiration of organized democracy in all lands. It is a policy of international co-operation. Its meaning has been much misunderstood in America. Those who know nothing of the temper of the British workers and have no means of judging the mood of the French, Belgian, and Italian socialists, interpret the common policy of working-class action which they have formulated as a policy of surrender to the militarist imperialism of Germany. This is a disastrous error. It is not a policy of surrender; it is not even a policy of compromise. It does not mean that the organized workers of Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, seek to open negotiations for peace with the militarist rulers of the Central Empires. It means simply that the working-class parties in the Allied countries seek to get into touch with the workers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria, in order to unite them in support of the democratic peace principles they have laid down.
Like President Wilson, the working-class leaders want a peace of reconciliation rather than a penal peace imposed by force or a peace of mutual exhaustion. In the words of the Inter-Allied memorandum, the workers believe that "whoever triumphs, the peoples will have lost unless an international system is established which will prevent war." Accordingly, we seek the co-operation of the organized workers in the enemy countries in the effort to create an international system which will make the world safe for democracy by removing as far as may be practicable the causes of war. We believe that the principles we have formulated, "No annexations or penal indemnities, and the right of nations freely to determine their own destinies," if applied to the problems of a political and territorial character which the war has thrust into the foreground, will bring permanent peace.
We have sought honestly and sincerely, in dealing with all the problems of territorial readjustment which await solution, to meet the claims of essential justice in each particular case. Our memorandum is not a peace treaty, but a statement of principle. It is an essay in practical statesmanship. It was not drafted by doctrinaire idealists, but by men of long political experience who know what the mass of the people think and feel about the problems of war and peace. That working-class diplomacy is idealist in spirit and intention I freely admit; that it takes no account of the realities of the present international situation I as strongly deny. When we are asked, as we have been asked, whether our peace proposals are "an irreducible minimum," we can only reply that the questioner completely misunderstands our position. It is not the business of the leaders of organized democracy to extricate the official diplomatists from their tragic embarrassments. Our business is to make the world safe for democracy by formulating conditions of peace and applying them in, detail to specific problems in order to-show that a final settlement is not beyond the reach of practical statesmanship.
This or that specific solution proposed in our memorandum may be varied in detail without endangering the vital principles upon which the proposals as a whole tare founded. Where the working-class diplomacy differs from diplomacy of the official type is in the method of approach to the final settlement. We repudiate all negotiations in which peoples and provinces are treated as pawns in a game and bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty without reference to their own interests or desires. We refuse to help the official diplomacy to make a patched-up peace based upon a series of mutual concessions and bargains in which the possession of Belgium by one power is regarded as an asset which can be exchanged for the African colonies held by another power.
Such a peace would perpetuate old elements of discord and perhaps cause new antagonisms between nations. We want the coming peace to be permanent. Our policy is deliberately planned to assuage the hatreds that have poisoned political life in Europe for generations. We mean to cut the entail of those inherited quarrels which have come down to us from the dynastic struggles of the past; and we desire to create a new international order purged of those elements of strife and enmity arising from the existence of competitive capitalism—an international system founded upon the complete democratization of political institutions in every country, and involving the establishment of suitable machinery for the settlement of disputes between nations by conciliation and judicial arbitration.
This is an ambitious programme. It manifestly involves as a prime condition a more rigorous assertion by the organized workers of the principle of political independence. It also requires for its practical development a much, stronger and more closely knit electoral organization in the country. It implies further a clearer perception of the possibilities of international working-class action. But organized democracy in every country where it can be said to exist, and especially in Britain where its roots have struck deeply, has shown itself to be thoroughly conscious that its political activities are thus conditioned.
In my judgment, organized Labor in America will be compelled by the logic of events to enter into closer alliance with the international working-class movement in Europe, and will have to assert itself more actively in national politics in the interests of the common ideal of democratic self-determination to which the workers everywhere are consciously pledging themselves. Revolutionary ideas are leavening the orthodox trade-union movement to an extent that some of the older leaders hardly realize. Political action on the part of the organized workers will not only be easier to advocate in the changed atmosphere of the coming time, but must be undertaken in order to concentrate their reforming energies, which might otherwise be dissipated in fruitless violence on the industrial field. Democracy will be revolutionary in aim, but it will adopt the political method in seeking to attain its ends, and will appeal for popular support on broad grounds of public right rather than of class interest.
In Britain, at the present moment, it is extremely hazardous to speculate upon the future of political parties. The old party system is in the melting-pot along with many other survivals of a vanished epoch. Orthodox politicians no doubt expect that, when normal conditions are restored, the fragments of parties will be welded together under their former leaders and revised programmes will be constructed. It may be so. But I am inclined to think that for a generation to come the only homogeneous and united party n the British House of Commons will be the Labor Party. We have parties without leaders and leaders without parties. From the political confusions thus created, the Labor Party, however, is happily able to stand aloof. Its programme is clearly defined, its purposes sufficiently differentiated from those of the older parties to enable it to pursue a straight path. The new scheme of party organization which has been adopted with practical unanimity by a delegate conference specially summoned for the purpose, broadens the basis of membership in the party and enables us to enlist in the ranks every man and woman engaged in productive work, whether of hand or of brain.
Under the new Franchise Act more than eight million voters are added to the register, of whom six million are women—a considerable proportion of them married women. There can be no doubt that the bulk of the new electorate will be eager to exercise their right to vote at the next general election. In a political sense they are better prepared to employ their vote than were the masses of people enfranchised by the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1868. The electors of this generation have been educated by events. The war itself has caused a revolution in habits of thought. It has brought the masses of people face to lace with grim realities and has forced them to understand that the control of national policy is their own vital concert. I am profoundly convinced that, when the preoccupation of the war is past, the minds of the British people will be turned in the direction of constructive politics, and that the programme of the Labor Party will then command the support of every thinking man and woman.
But the war is not yet over. It has now entered upon its most critical phase on the western front. The new German offensive has necessarily thrust political discussions into the background. We can only await the inevitable changes in the mentality of the German people before we can take up again the political and moral offensive we had planned in order to bring the war to an end. But the renewal of the enemy's military effort does not invalidate the working-class policy. On the contrary, all that the militarist rulers of Germany have done—-the cynical and shameless peace with Russia, equally with the desperate gamble with the lives of men on the battlefield of Picardy—strengthens our appeal to the German working-classes to realize that the war will go on until they assert themselves against the common enemy of freedom and peace. When this new offensive fails, as fail it will, I look for a serious political reaction in the Central Empires, which will swing the German and Austrian people into line with us, and cause them to overthrow the autocratic imperialism that has deluged the world with blood.
Until the German workers move in the direction of peace we are powerless. The working-class parties in the Allied countries have taken the initiative, but they cannot make peace by themselves on the basis of conciliation. It is our duty to continue the struggle for the elimination of annexationist aims from the peace proposals of the Allied governments. It is also our duty to declare to the German, workers that their government stands in the way of peace, and to convince them that Germany's military success only postpones the possibility of democratic agreement.
Recent disclosures by German statesmen regarding war origins have shown conclusively that the argument of the German socialists that this was for them a war of national self-defense can no longer be sustained. The whole German case rested upon the belief that Britain was the responsible author of the war. This case was buttressed by Germany's fear of the Russian menace. Both these arguments have been demolished. The final justification of British policy prior to the war, and in the negotiations that, preceded, the outbreak of hostilities, is contained in the memoir written by Prince Lichuowsky, who was formerly German Ambassador in London. Both in a political and in a moral sense, therefore, German social-democrats occupy an untenable position, and one which we are convinced they will be compelled to evacuate when the peace movement in the Central Empires, temporarily submerged by the enthusiasm excited by the military successes won by the German armies in Picardy, revives. As soon as the German people realize that their armies have failed to break through on the western front, and they come to count the cost in human lives of the few miles of ground they have won, there will. be a universal revulsion of feeling throughout the Central Empires.
It will be our duty then to prosecute our policy with the utmost vigor in order to assist and encourage the German people to throw off the yoke of autocracy and militarism. We shall be able to convince the German people that their armies have not incurred their frightful losses in a war against Tsarism and the Entente's plans of conquest, but in order to further the schemes of conquest and annexation cherished by their own militarist rulers. We shall be able to convince the German people that a victory for such ruthless militarism would permanently fasten upon the peoples of the world, not excepting the peoples of the Central Empires themselves, the awful burden of armaments and enforced service. We shall be able to summon them, in the name of international right and the conscience of mankind, to make common cause with the organized workers in all other lands to re-establish peace and to extend the boundaries of democratic freedom.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald