IN 1910, Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, declared that ‘[Marx’s] memory is a consecrated treasure in the heart of millions of the best men and women of all lands.’ A generation later, in 1948, Harold Laski, Labour’s leading political theorist of the 1930s and 40s, wrote: ‘The Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.’
This reverential attitude towards Communism’s founding fathers, widely shared within the Labour Movement, has been such a familiar part of British political culture over the past century that its shocking nature escapes most casual observers and commentators. Yet Marx and Engels openly advocated violent revolution, the confiscation of private property, the destruction of traditional morality and the family, a State-owned and -controlled economy based on forced labour, and the physical elimination of their political opponents. Their 1848 Communist Manifesto bluntly stated: ‘Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality.’
The insouciance of so many on the British Left in regard to such matters resulted, quite logically, in a warm welcome for the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, despite its violent overthrow of Russia’s fledgling post-Tsarist democracy and the Red Terror subsequently unleashed by its leaders – principally Lenin and Trotsky– during the civil war provoked by the Communist seizure of power.
‘I have met all the men and women of my time considered great in the world of religion, literature, and politics; none compares with Lenin. He was a great man in every sense of the word,’ gushed George Lansbury, Labour’s leader during the 1930s, in his autobiography published in 1928.
Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, wrote in 1919: ‘The Russian Revolution has been one of the greatest events in the history of the world, and the attacks that have been made upon it by frightened ruling classes and hostile capitalism should rally to its defence everyone who cares for political liberty and freedom of thought . . . Labour is drawn to Lenin.’
Even in 1947, with Stalin in power and the Iron Curtain coming down over Europe, Laski still believed that ‘the Russian Revolution is the greatest and the most beneficent event in modern history since the French Revolution.’
To understand the perversity of these attitudes and judgments, meditate on this passage from Giles Udy’s 2017 study Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the seduction of the British Left (Biteback Publishing, London), in which he summarises the eventual cost of the ‘great socialist experiment’:
‘Between 1917 and 1922, in the Revolution and its aftermath, nine million Russians died from violence or famine provoked by the Civil War, about the same number as total military fatalities on all sides in the “Imperialist” Great War. During the years covered by the main portion of this book, 1929-31, when the second [minority] Labour Government [led by Ramsay MacDonald] was in power, another quarter of a million Russians were shot or died as a result of their imprisonment . . . At the height of [Stalin’s] Great Terror, in 1937-38, executions ran at over 10,000 each week. By 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Soviet Communism had been responsible for over twenty million deaths, almost three million of them in the gulag. Many of the fourteen million who survived the camps were so emotionally or physically damaged that they never fully recovered.’
Udy spells out the terrible human cost of agricultural collectivisation, only one of the crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet State.
‘Between twenty-five and thirty-five million people (including women, children and old people) were forced to join collective farms and surrender their homes and land to the State. A further 1.8million were deported, hundreds of thousands of whom died over the next few years or in the purges of the Great Terror in 1937-38. A few years later, the resulting disaster in agricultural production brought famine, which led to a further three to five million deaths from starvation. For these, Stalin and the Politburo bear direct responsibility . . . not least because the Soviet Union was earning foreign currency by exporting “surplus” grain even as millions of peasants were dying of starvation in Southern Russia and Ukraine.’
There was no shortage of evidence about what was happening. As Udy demonstrates, plenty of information was coming out of Russia during the 1920s and 30s through a whole variety of credible sources, including British and other foreign diplomats, businessmen and sailors, political and religious refugees, escaped prisoners, and last but by no means least, official Soviet decrees and documents, including the brutal speeches and pronouncements of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.
The mass of evidence clearly showed that this brave new world of socialism was a land of cruel oppression and death. The establishment of a vast archipelago of forced labour camps, mass executions of political prisoners, the savage persecution of religious believers, and the dispossession, imprisonment and extermination of the ‘kulaks’ – Russia’s entire class of independent peasant proprietors – provoked outrage and mass protest throughout the non-Communist world.
Against this background, the unwavering support for Soviet Communism expressed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, G D H Cole, and George Bernard Shaw, the Labour Party’s most prominent 20th century intellectuals apart from Laski, is both astonishing and revolting, and is meticulously documented by Giles Udy.
The minority Labour Governments (1924 and 1929-31) led by Ramsay MacDonald, and their intellectual supporters, refused by and large to acknowledge the truth about Soviet Communism or condemn the Soviet Government. They were quick to find excuses for any crimes or failings whose existence they did eventually acknowledge, and in general took the view that since the Communist goal of creating a collectivised, and therefore supposedly just and classless society, was such a noble one, the end justified the means.
In July 1935, for instance, Beatrice Webb boasted in her diary:‘We have all been very comfortable and even honoured in the old civilisation of profit-making capitalism: we welcome and are welcomed to the new civilisation of revolutionary Communism.’
George Bernard Shaw’s total and unquestioning support for Soviet Communism included a clear-eyed and shockingly frank acceptance of the inherently totalitarian character of socialism. In his twenty-page article on The Dictatorship of the Proletariat published in 1921 in Labour Monthly, Shaw was blunt: ‘Compulsory labour, with death as the final penalty, is the keystone of Socialism.’
Ten years later, in a radio broadcast to the United States in October 1931, Shaw openly defended the Soviet extermination of private capitalists and political dissidents in equally shocking language: ‘In this they [the Russians] are merely carrying out a proposal made by me many years ago. I urged that every person who owes his life to civilised society, and who has enjoyed since his childhood all its very costly protections and advantages, should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence, which should be summarily and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it . . . A great part of the secret of the success of Russian Communism is that every Russian knows that unless he makes his life a paying proposition for his country then he will probably lose it. I am proud to have been the first to advocate this most necessary reform. A well-kept garden must be weeded.’
G D H Cole (1889-1959) was one of Oxford’s most prominent academics of the first half of the 20th century, and chairman of the Fabian Society during most of the 1940s. He experienced no difficulty in defending and whitewashing Communist tyranny within the Soviet Union. In his pamphlet, The Intelligent Man’s Review of Europe To-Day, co-authored with his wife Margaret and published in 1933, Cole declared that ‘though the Soviet system in its present working does undoubtedly restrict individual liberty very seriously in certain directions, above all in the expression of political views hostile to the system itself, it has resulted in other directions in an enormous extension of the liberties of the great mass of the Russian people. Observers who come back from Russia, unless they are too prejudiced to notice what they see, practically all report that there exists among the Russian people of to-day, in non-political matters, a sense of freedom and of self-expression quite unknown among the mass of the people in any capitalist country.’
With the advent of the Cold War, preceded by the forcible Soviet occupation and subjugation of Eastern Europe after 1945, the leadership of the Labour Party, and most of its MPs and activists, lost their previous illusions about Communism and maintained a commitment to peaceful change and debate, and parliamentary democracy, but this never prevented a sizeable minority of them from expressing their sympathy and support for new totalitarian Communist ‘liberation movements’ and dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Africa during subsequent decades.
Today, tragically, the pro-Communist Left has regained control of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. One symbolic and significant result of this is that both, with some of their leading advisers, have expressed their admiration and support for the failed 21st century Marxist revolution and dictatorship in Venezuela.
The late Hugo Chavez and his ideologically faithful successor, Nicolás Maduro, earned plaudits from Labour’s leading duo despite their destruction of Venezuela’s oil-rich economy through extensive nationalisation and price controls, their suppression of economic and political liberty, and the enormous exodus of poverty-stricken refugees provoked by their ruinous socialist policies. In March 2013, Corbyn tweeted on Hugo Chavez’s death: ‘Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world.’
Following the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, Corbyn said that despite his ‘flaws’, he was a ‘huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th century socialism . . . Castro’s achievements were many’.
That is the tribute paid by the leader of the Labour Party to a Communist dictator responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 Cubans, the flight of well over a million refugees to the USA since 1959, and the imprisonment of 500,000 others over the same period.
As for John McDonnell, in reply to the question ‘Who has been most significant in terms of your thinking?’ put to him over a decade ago, he replied: ‘The fundamental Marxist writers: Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.’
The resurrection and current dominance of Marxist thinking within the Labour Party should concern us all because it poses a long-term threat to both our democracy and liberties. It does so, in the first place, because economic freedoms, such as the right to own property, run a business, choose one’s employment or leave money to one’s children are vital components of personal liberty. That includes the right to buy private health care and education rather than having to submit entirely to monopolistic ‘public services’ controlled by politicians and bureaucrats wielding the coercive power of the State, and able to impose their potentially intrusive and damaging political and ideological agendas on a captive population.
Such economic freedoms are not only the most important ones in the lives of ordinary people, and all too easily taken for granted; they are also the bedrock of all other freedoms – of conscience, speech, association and assembly, since these require the safeguard of economic independence from the State. As Trotsky himself admitted in 1937: ‘In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.’
Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, by contrast, with its ruinously expensive proposals for massive renationalisation, its hostility to private landlords and second home owners, and its desire to clobber the ‘rich’, raise taxes, rob shareholders, and undermine the economic position of independent schools, ignores these truths, exploits the politics of resentment and envy, and reveals a total inability or unwillingness to heed the lessons of history.
A longer version of this article first appeared in Self-Educated American on December 3, 2019, and is republished by kind permission.