Showing posts with label james maxton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label james maxton. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

James Maxton

Book Review from the August 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

"If it were not such a dreadful thing to say of anybody, I should say he meant well"
The Way of All Flesh

A biography can be written in one of two ways. It may be an "objective" study, an attempt at critically assessing the man, his work and his place in history. On the other hand, it may be a personal piece—an extended obituary notice, wherein the author pays his tribute to the departed. John McNair's James Maxton, the Beloved Rebel (Allen and Unwin, 12s. 6d.) is unashamedly the latter: a chronicle and eulogy of a leader whose faults, if he had them, are allowed no place.

Maxton is presented as a man of deep, passionate sincerity, devoted to the welfare of the poor, earning the affection even of opponents by his integrity and his refusal to compromise. He opposed the two world wars which his Labour colleagues supported; in the first he was imprisoned, in the second he led the tiny I.L.P. group of M.P.s that constituted the permanent opposition to all war measures. Above all, Maxton is shown as a Socialist, aiming to abolish exploitation and misery, working for the unification of all interested parties towards that end.

The book is heavily—perhaps unavoidably—weighted with reference to Maxton's Scottish background: for example, the poverty of the working class seems, at any rate to this writer, to be made almost a regional affair. Nevertheless, it provides an informal, informative history of Labour politics from 1920. The growing Labour movement threw up men like Maxton, protesting against the degradation of the working class. From 1920 to 1939 there was never less than a million unemployed. Towns became derelict; children were born, grew up and married on the dole. "Ten million working men, women and children underfed, underclothed, badly housed at a time which was 'generally regarded as prosperous.'" (J. Kuczynski, A Short History of Labour Conditions in Great Britain).

Maxton's party, the I.L.P., supplied most of the Labour leaders of the "twenties"; of the 192 members in the first Labour Parliament, 120 belonged to the I.L.P. Describing itself—in the New Leader in 1923—as "the militant Socialist wing of the Labour Party" the I.L.P. pressed vigorously a "living wage policy" aimed at "a narrowing of the gulf that separates rich and poor." Mr. McNair makes much of this policy and its advocates, and thereby raises some awkward questions. It may be protested that his is a work of biography, not of political theory, but since much of the praise of Maxton rests on the policies he pursued, facts must be faced.

For the truth is that, however ardently Maxton spoke of Socialism and the abolition of poverty, he and his party had contracted for neither: the "wild men from the Clyde" were as dangerous to the Capitalist system as a pantomime lion to its audience. Leave aside, if you like, the economic aspects—for example, that Socialism has nothing to do with wages; leave that aside and consider merely that many of the men Maxton supported and Mr. McNair praises were avowed upholders of capitalism.

Thus, a whole chapter of the book is given to reporting Maxton's allegation of murder against the Tory Government for the malnutrition deaths of poor people's children, and his subsequent suspension from the House of Commons. But in 1924, when Labour was in office, Ramsay MacDonald—Prime Minister, a leader of the I.L.P.—told the House: "We are not going to diminish industrial capital in order to provide relief." There was no denunciation by Maxton, nor is there any reference by Mr. McNair. Again, John Wheatley is praised for his work on housing as Minister of Health in the first Labour Cabinet. But Wheatley himself made quite clear what his position was. Introducing his housing bill in 1924, he said:
"Labour does not propose to interfere with private enterprise in the building of houses . . . It says to the man with small capital: 'Instead of putting your private capital into a risky investment, lend it to the local authorities at 4½ per cent. Without your having any trouble at all you will get a safe return for your money . . . ' The Labour Party's programme on housing is not a Socialist programme at all."
What is more, he repeated it a week later:
"I notice that the Right Honourable member for Twickenham in criticizing my proposals the other day, said: 'This is real Socialism' . . . The proposals which I am submitting are real Capitalism½an attempt to patch up in the interests of humanity, a capitalist ordered society,"
Maxton's hope was that the Labour Party would become Socialist. In 1929, seeing his lack of an overall majority, he urged that it should attempt sweeping legislation on behalf of the workers; it would fail, of course, but then could turn to the electorate and ask for the mandate it would undoubtedly receive. Perhaps in that one incident is shown what Maxton really failed to perceive. All his life he had hopes in the Labour Party as the agent for emancipating the working class; he never saw that the Labour Party had never set out to that end—or, when he did see it, he hoped he was mistaken.

Maxton lacked, in fact, any clear-cut conception of Socialism, much as he talked about it. In 1928 he debated with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and expressed his entire agreement with the case Fitzgerald put forward—adding that he appreciated also the Fabians and the Communist Party! He held that Socialism was a question of "human will and human intelligence," to be attained by any variety of possible means.

Indeed, the I.L.P.'s attitude to the Communist Party and to Russia comprises one of the more curious matters in the book. One might set aside Maxton's early co-operation with Gallacher, but McNair will not do so. He writes with undisguised sympathy for the Russian Revolution and the early Bolshevik Government, condemning the British Government's attitude towards it. The I.L.P. today condemns the Russian dictatorship as strongly as everyone else, but Mr. McNair does not explain the difference. Would it be too uncharitable to suggest that the I.L.P. was "taken in" by the illusion of Russian "Socialism" and can deal with its mistakes only by ignoring them?

Maxton's lack of understanding is made the more regrettable by his undoubted sincerity. He was a fine orator, commanding respect and sympathy, but his moral indignation against injustice was never supported by analysis of the real causes of that injustice. Those who followed him were impelled by the same emotional force that drove him: "beloved rebel" is an apt and proud title, but its pleasant emotional sound is the key to Maxton's weakness.

Much has been written in recent times about the "decline" of the Labour movement. The phrase lacks accuracy, since a decline implies a height previously reached. The Labour movement gained its strength from the hopes of working people: men were sent to Parliament who spoke fervently of their opposition to capitalism, inequality and privilege. Many of them, unlike the Tories and Liberals, were from the working class itself, had experienced poverty, knew the problems. When at last they came to govern with an unassailable majority, after the war, their policies gave birth to nothing; the real truth is that they had always been barren.

The I.L.P., a negligible force today, was nothing more in its strongest days. It stood for a benevolent capitalism, its leaders for the most part unaware that capitalism contained no seeds of benevolence. Only Maxton's idealism distinguishes him from the MacDonalds and Hendersons and Snowdens; had he attained parliamentary office, he would have been no more able than they to deserve the title of "beloved rebel," or even rebel. Perhaps the most pointed comment on all that Mr. McNair's book describes is contained in two recent death notices—David Kirkwood and George Buchanan. These, with Maxton, were firebrands among the "wild men" of the 1920s. They died reconciled to capitalism: the one titled, the other with his wildness tamed by service on the National Assistance Board.

Robert Barltrop  

Monday, May 21, 2012

James Maxton - Wasted Years

"In the interests of economy they condemned hundreds of children to death and I call it murder." - James Maxton

James Maxton appeared to be Keir Hardie's natural successor. Maxton is remembered as one of the leading figures of the Red Clydeside era. His parents were both schoolteachers and he was educated at Hutchesons' Grammar School before going on to study at the University of Glasgow. He, too, was a teacher.

 In 1904 Maxton joined the Barrhead branch of the Independent Labour Party. From 1906 to 1910, he was active in the teachers' unions. When the First World War broke out Maxton was an opponent and became a conscientious objector, refusing conscription into the military, and instead given work on barges. During this time he was involved in organising strikes in the shipyards. Maxton's arrest followed his speech at a demonstration on Glasgow Green to protest against the implementation of the Munitions Act and the deportation of the Clyde Workers' Committee leadership to Edinburgh. At this demonstration Maxton, along with James McDougall and Jack Smith (an anarchist shop steward from Weirs munitions factory), gave speeches advocating strike action by Glasgow workers to ensure the non-implementation of the Munitions Act. At the subsequent trial of the three men at the High Court in Edinburgh on 25 April 1916, Maxton and McDougall were sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment and Smith was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment. Maxton won a seat as an MP for Glasgow Bridgeton in the 1922 general election.

Religion in Glasgow at this time was all-pervasive. Maxton, a supporter of Celtic was seen by many as pro-Catholic and he did indeed seek and receive the endorsement of the Catholic Church in Bridgeton, but, in return for their political sponsorship Maxton acquiesced to Catholic dogma on subjects such as birth control and denominational schools. Maxton could not be seen in favour of ILP moves to abolish religious instruction for a more secular educational system and he often acted counter to ILP policy on those issues. In regard to birth control he advocated "the intelligent control of the appetites and desires" !!  Losing the Catholic vote was too big a risk for a principled socialist stand on family life.

Maxton also agreed with Scottish home-rule and in support of a federal Britain presented in parliament bill argued that "He would ask for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth"

In some speeches during the 20s he put forward the need for trade unions to supplement political action with extra-parliamentary forms of protest.  During Glasgow's 1924 rent strikes he warned that he would bring the tenants on to the streets if the government refused to defend them against the landlords. He also began to align himself closer to the CPGB, supporting their efforts to affiliate to the Labour Party and attending unity meetings. In 1926 General Strike, Maxton was to issue a manifesto in support of the miners which said: "The [ILP] National Council calls on its 1,100 branches to place themselves unreservedly at the disposal of the miners and the Trade Union Movement in the biggest struggle in which British Labour has ever been engaged." The ILP put themselves passively at the disposal of TUC.

Maxton's whole political life was devoted to the Independent Labour Party. Maxton was chairman of the ILP from 1926 to 1931, and from 1934 to 1939. He was generally seen as the symbol of the ILP after its break from Labour in 1932. At the 1926 annual conference a series of policy documents were adopted under the title "Socialism in our Time" The "Living Wage Plan" called for a minimum wage for every citizen to be a: priority. This was to be combined with expanded social services and a national system of family allowances to be paid for by heavier taxation on high incomes. Other documents called for the nationalisation of banking and credit, including the City and the Bank of England, a call for the removal of the Ministry of Health's ban on giving advice on birth control at maternity clinics [opposed by Maxton] and a proposal that Labour should vote against all military estimates. There was little that was revolutionary about these demands. Yet the 1927 and 1928 Labour Party conferences rejected each proposal one by one. With the election of the minority Labour government in 1929 the differences between the ILP and the Labour Party leadership came to a head. Austerity measures were recommended by the "May Committee" interim report proposing a series of attacks on the unemployed. Benefits were to be reduced, limited to 26 weeks a year and in addition a series of measures, aimed at depriving married women and part time workers of the dole, were proposed. (Its final report called for more attacks on the unemployed and massive reductions in public sector employees' salaries, including teachers, the armed forces and the police) .Maxton led the opposition. The 17 strong Maxton group were denounced for threatening the government's survival and were  vilified by the leadership and the Parliamentary party for exposing the treachery of the Labour government. Emanuel Shinwell, a Red Clydeside comrade, launched a campaign against Maxton from within the ILP.

The National Administrative Council of the ILP in June 1931 carried the following resolution:
"It must be noted as a remarkable fact that to wage a Socialist fight against the poverty of the working class is made more difficult when a Labour Government is in power than at other times, and that obstacles are put in the way and threats directed against working class organisations maintaining that fight."

In the autumn of 1931 massive demonstrations of the unemployed took place against the cuts in benefits introduced by the newly-elected National Government. Ten thousand traditionally non-militant teachers marched in protest at 15% wage cuts and in September the Royal Navy fleet at Invergordon in Scotland "mutinied". Ten thousand ratings struck, refusing to put to sea until pay cuts were rescinded. The 1932 conference of the ILP adopted a new Statement of Policy which pointed to the inadequacy of purely parliamentary action and called for "mass industrial action as an additional means". The statement declared that capitalism was in deep crisis and that the class struggle as "the dynamic force in social change was nearing its decisive moment". Maxton and others supported disaffiliation from the Labour Party and an independent ILP. The 1932 Special Conference voted nearly two to one in favour of leaving the Labour Party. A minority led by another Red Clydesider, Kirkwood, rejoined the Labour Party forming the Socialist League.

In 1935 the USSR signed an agreement with France, the Stalin-Laval Pact, which explicitly recognised imperialist France's right to national defence. Maxton had already predicted, in 1934, what the outcome of the view Stalinist policy would be. Maxton declared: "The Russian government cannot become allied with the French Government without subduing the class struggle previously carried on by the French Communists. It cannot seek an alliance with the British Government without moderating the class struggle carried by the Communist Party here. Neither can it support the struggle carried on by the oppressed colonial peoples against both British and French imperialisms."

In September 1935 the ILP conference had taken a decision to adopt a dual defeatist position referring to the war as a conflict between "rival dictators". At the same time they dropped the campaign for workers' sanctions against Abyssinia. Maxton, however, insisted upon the pre-conference policy in defence of Abyssinia and for the defeat of imperialist Italy. Maxton immediately convened a meeting of the Parliamentary Group of the ILP where they agreed unanimously to threaten resignation rather than carry out conference policy. The conference was bullied into accepting a referendum and  was held with the Parliamentary Group holding a gun to the head of the membership. The referendum returned a three to two majority in favour of Maxton's change of policy. The ILP parliamentarian's motivation for the split from the Labour Party was to preserve its own independence. Now preserved that same independence, this time from the membership of the ILP! Maxton also became more critical of the entryism of Trotskyists  and in late 1935 and 1936 and there were demands for the dissolution of all organised groups in the ILP, a measure aimed primarily at the Trotskyist "Marxist Group".

 On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Maxton called for the government to support the policy of Non-Intervention but later Maxton argued that the overt intervention of Germany and Italy required a British response and that Franco had practically unrestricted aid from the two fascist powers, while Britain had done nothing to help the Republicans. Worse than that, the Government had in effect tacitly supported the Fascists. Their "class prejudices were with Franco". He argued that non-intervention had actually been an act of discrimination against the Spanish people's government. If Spain had been ruled by a right-wing government, it would have been accorded all the rights normally accorded to foreign powers. As a pacifist Maxton opposed re-armament in the 1930s and supported the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. After the outbreak of the Second World War Maxton continued to advocate pacifism.

 Maxton said in accepting the ILP leadership: "It is the place of the ILP to lay stress on the mind and will of man as the determining factor in bringing about a change in social and economic affairs, and to work for and propagate socialism with speed but without catastrophe." But, of course, that "determining factor" was always subordinated to achieving a Labour majority in Parliament, as we have earlier said Maxton was willing to re-prioritise policies to satisfy his supporters prejudices.

In a debate with the SPGB, Maxton stated he "entirely agreed with the case put forward by his opponent. This statement of Socialist first principles was unassailable. The definitions were clear and correct. He accepted absolutely the diagnosis given. The workers accept capitalism and believe that the capitalists are a superior and necessary class. The only remedy is for the workers to awaken to the loss they suffer in being deprived of the necessities and luxuries of life. The problem before the Socialist is to awaken the worker to his subject position in society...The first necessity of an effective working-class organisation is the possession of a clear aim and policy. He and his opponent are equally doing the necessary propaganda...Socialism is a question of human will and human organisation. Socialism can be attained by violence or by the 'inevitability of gradualness.' All depends on human will and human intelligence. It depends not on any god or other power outside ourselves...The ILP will play an important part in achieving Socialism, a work not for the. ILP or the SPGB, but for the workers of the world."

In 1924 when the first Labour government came into office, out of 193 Labour MPs 132 were members of the ILP. Twenty-six of them were in the government and six of them, including the Prime Minister MacDonald, were in the cabinet. In 1929 out of 288 Labour MPs over 200 were members of the ILP. Again it was very strongly represented in the government and cabinet including, as before, MacDonald as Prime Minister. Among the MPs was another ILP member, Clement Attlee, who was to become Labour Prime Minister in the 1945 government. The ILP could congratulate itself on building up the mass party Keir Hardie and Maxton  wanted. But what of the next stage, getting the Labour Party to accept socialism as its object? And if the ILP was to win over the the workers to socialism, who was to win over the ILP membership and its leaders to socialism as a first step? Despite the ILP publishing works by Marx and Engels, and while Maxton could declare his support for their conception of socialism, their own publications and election programmes were full of proposals for reforming capitalism. ILP members had been recruited, not on the demand for socialism, but attracted by its reforms. The ILP consistently misled the workers with its description of nationalisation as socialism and Maxton especially welcomed the nationalisation of the Bank of England.

Maxton died on 23 July 1946, still a sitting MP for Bridgeton. When Maxton first won the seat in 1929 he got over 21,000 votes. When the ILP put up a candidate there at the 1955 election his vote was 2619 and he lost his deposit. The ILP has vanished and Maxton has become almost forgotten. Having devoted all his political life in the service of the ILP James Maxton's efforts achieved nothing for socialism.

Report of Fitzgerald/Maxton debate
Review of Maxton biography by Bill Knox