Betrayal and Hope

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Review of 'The Socialist League in the 1930s', Michael Bor, Athena Press £15.99

For most workers the 1930s are looked back on as being a decade well worth forgetting - mass unemployment, the rise of fascism and the growing threat of another world war all contributed towards making it the most miserable decade of the 20th century. Politically the left was a shambles. Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour government of 1929-31 had demonstrated how they intended to deal with unemployment. They instituted a 10 percent cut in what were already miserably low benefits. This proved too much even for some cabinet members, and MacDonald handed in the government's resignation. He and other renegades joined with the Tories in forming a 'national' government. In the general election that followed, the number of Labour MPs dropped from 289 to 46.

The result of all this was the splitting away of the majority of the ILP from the Labour Party, but the ILP was already by then a weakened organisation and declined steadily throughout the 1930s. Left wingers who remained in the Labour Party (the great majority) formed the Socialist League, with the aim of fighting inside the party for genuine socialist policies. It was never a large organisation - from its beginning in October 1932 to its dissolution in 1937 its membership never exceeded 30,000. It never looked like becoming - indeed it never aimed at becoming - a mass-based organisation. To compensate for the absence of rank and file members it did include an impressive number of Labour Party intellectuals, including Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee, Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Betts (better known as Barbara Castle). The secretary was J T Murphy, leader of the First World War shop stewards movement, who had resigned from the Communist Party in 1931. It was he who described the league as 'the organisation of revolutionary socialists who are an integral part of the labour movement for the purpose of winning it completely for revolutionary socialism'.

The leading figure in the league was Stafford Cripps, nephew of Sydney and Beatrice Webb. Cripps only joined the Labour Party in May 1929, but the election fiasco of 1931 apparently changed this establishment figure into a raving revolutionary. At least it sounded that way! For a couple of years, with the Labour Party leadership still reeling from MacDonald's 'betrayal', Cripps and the Socialist League could function as an effective ginger group. For this brief time they enjoyed an influence out of proportion to their size. But by the time of their 1934 conference the Labour Party machine was back in action. The bureaucracy took control and the Socialist League did not win one resolution.

Following its disastrous defeats the league started to look for new allies. This meant, in effect, the Communist Party. The Communist Party was beginning to grow, the party line having changed from the lunatic 'social fascism' analysis of the third period to an almost equally disastrous support for the popular front. In January 1937 the league, along with the ILP and the CP, signed a unity manifesto calling for joint activity. The executive disaffiliated the league, which dissolved itself at its Whitsun conference. The revolutionaries who were to transform the Labour Party surrendered at the first whiff of grapeshot.

Michael Bor criticises the Socialist League for not advocating a radical response. He criticises their support for nationalisation on the Stalinist model. Somewhat confusingly, however, he seems to support what he suggests was the same model when it was implemented by the Atlee government ten years later.

The strongest criticism is reserved for the league's adherence to what he calls the old fashioned 19th century economic theories of Karl Marx - formulated when the science of economics was in its infancy. But do not let this put you off this book. It comprehensively covers the history of the Socialist League, and if you are interested in the politics of the 1930s it is well worth a read.