Mr Leicester concludes his reflective article “Electable? Leicester’s leader of the Labour Party did it” (October 12, Leicester Mercury) by asking: “I wonder what Ramsay MacDonald would have made of the state of his party today?”
In answer to this question I would argue that MacDonald would have been pleased with the current attacks upon the leader of the Labour Party — but for all the wrong reasons. History should teach us that had MacDonald been alive today he would certainly have aligned himself with the pro-business ‘New Labour’ MPs who continue to attack the principled leadership of Jeremy Corbyn from within.
MacDonald may have called himself “a pacifist” (something that even Corbyn does not self-identify with despite his opposition to war) but upon the launch of the First World War MacDonald showed his lack of principles by calling upon support for the war effort. This is despite his making generalised arguments about the needless nature of war.
MacDonald’s backing of the troops was evident on October 18, 1914, less than eleven weeks into the war, when:
“Ramsay MacDonald, the future Prime Minister, stood upon the staircase of the Corn Exchange and gazed out over a sea of 15,000 in Leicester’s Market Place. ‘Can anyone imagine what the state of Europe will be if we are beaten?’ came the Leicester MP’s imploring boom. ‘Can anyone imagine how heavy, how oppressive will be the shackles forged for the working classes of Europe if we are beaten?’” (July 26, 2014, Mercury)
Nevertheless textbooks continue to misremember MacDonald as a vehement opponent of the imperialist Great War. It is true, as Mr Leicester noted, that MacDonald “was mercilessly attacked by the press” (much like Corbyn), but this was in spite of the “patriotic ring” and the “careful and conciliatory” tone to his so-called anti-war speeches.
Historian Matthew Richardson observed in his book, Leicester in the Great War (2014), how MacDonald quickly “moderated his views… arguing that even though his supporters opposed the war they must resign themselves to it…”
This problematic moderation did not stop a torrent of lies being spread about MacDonald through the national and local press, with endless articles referring to his being a revolutionary socialist — a Bolshevik no less — who was receiving money from the German government.
Unfortunately the critical importance of the 1917 Russian Revolution (or Bolshevik Revolution) in ending the First World War continues to be ignored by historians. Nevertheless the socialist leader of this revolution, Vladimir Lenin, did subject MacDonald to principled, albeit merciless criticisms of his own.
Writing in 1919, Lenin referred to MacDonald and his fellow unprincipled socialists who dominated the Labour Party as “social-chauvinists, i.e., socialists in words and chauvinists in deeds; friends of the working class in words, but in deeds lackeys of ‘their own’ national bourgeoisie…”
Indeed, MacDonald’s politics proceeded to go from bad to worse, especially by his decidedly unsocialist decision to work in coalition with the Tories — an act of working-class betrayal that Jeremy Corbyn has never countenanced.
Now with the refreshing and changing trajectory of the Labour Party, members of the Labour movement must work hard to restore democracy to their party. In doing so they can then replace MacDonald’s opportunistic New Labour heirs with principled working-class representatives more in tune with the demands of the party’s ever-swelling membership.
This letter was published in the Leicester Mercury on November 1, 2016.