Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - The Failure of a Dream (2008)

The ILP: Issues for Today
Written By: Christian Hogsbjerg
Date: January 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 30: Lent 2008 

The Failure of a Dream The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II Gidon Cohen (London, I.B.Taurus & Co 2007) 274 pp ISBN: 978-1845113001

In July 1932 at a special conference in Bradford, the Independent Labour Party [ILP] voted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in protest at the betrayals of the disastrous Labour Government of 1929-31, and pledged itself to build a socialist alternative. As Gidon Cohen notes in this authoritative and comprehensive new history of the ILP during the 1930s, ‘this was the most important Left-wing split in the history of the Labour Party.’

Yet, as Cohen also demonstrates, the subsequent decline of the ILP in size (from about 16,000 members in 1932 to under 3,000 by 1939) and influence in comparison to the Labour Party and Communist Party during the 1930s was a more complicated and uneven process than most historians have acknowledged. For example, the ILP managed to retain a national profile and organisation, and after the General Election of November 1935, emerged with four MPs in Glasgow on top of its several thousand members and thirty or so councillors. From where we are today, that looks quite impressive for a Left-of-Labour organisation.

Nor was the decline and fall of the ILP somehow inevitable, the unavoidable consequence of socialists attempting the impossible by trying to build a radical left political alternative to the Labour Party. Rather, Cohen suggests, attention needs to be given to ‘external elements, structures and behaviour beyond the control of the ILP’ which limited the potential space for the Party to grow – as well as internal political questions which the failure of the ILP to answer or settle resulting in it failing to take those opportunities that existed. Perhaps he might have explored the culture of the ILP in more depth, and explored some of the reasons why it was attractive to some of the most remarkable intellectuals in Britain during the 1930s from George Orwell to George Padmore. Nor does Cohen, it seems, attempt to develop an explicitly Marxist analysis - Trotskyist historians for example are criticised for tending ‘to assume rather than demonstrate both the appropriateness, and particularly the implications for the ILP’s strategy of Trotsky’s characterisation of a centrist Party, standing between “Marxism and Reformism”’.

Nevertheless, Cohen’s book is quite comprehensive, exhaustively researched and thus important for anyone interested in the political landscape of 1930s Britain. It also retains some relevance for today, particularly for those who have followed recent events in the Respect Coalition. The ILP ultimately failed to realise its dream of building a socialist alternative, in part because fundamental socialist principles were at times subordinated to pressures from pacifist and parliamentary currents in the Party.

The ILP resolved the inevitable tension between reformists and revolutionaries inside the organisation during the 1930s decisively in the favour of the Parliamentary Group around the charismatic Scottish firebrand James Maxton. The Parliamentary Group abused the power it wielded over the democratic structures of the ILP even, famously at the 1936 national conference in Keighley, blackmailing the General Secretary of the Party by threatening to resign from the Party if conference did not abandon its militantly anti-imperialist position with respect to Mussolini’s barbaric war in Ethiopia and adopt a pacifist non-interventionist position instead. That conference saw also the banning of ‘factions’ – which in practice meant the tiny Trotskyist Marxist Group around CLR James – while the Parliamentary Group remained as unaccountable and overbearing as ever.

In contrast to the sad fate of the ILP, Respect has not allowed its democratic structures to be abused at the whim of the ‘Parliamentary Group’ around George Galloway. Galloway has accordingly done what Maxton only threatened to do and split off with his supporters to form a new organisation. Quite how Galloway’s decision helps to build a democratic socialist alternative to New Labour remains unclear, but some comfort might be taken from the fact that those staying with Respect look as though they are at least trying to learn something from the history of the ILP.

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