From Socialist Worker Review, No.116, January 1989, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
Manchester University Press £5.95
WHO WAS Thomas Johnson? In 1906 he founded the ILP paper Forward in Glasgow. In it he provided a platform for much of the left, particularly in Scotland. James Connolly and John Maclean contributed regularly when most other possibilities were closed to them. Some of Connolly’s most important writings on the dangers of partition of Ireland appeared there.
Johnson opposed the First World War from a pacifist standpoint, in 1923 he was elected as one of the “Red Clydeside” MPs. He became a minister in the 1929-31 government but did not side with MacDonald in the “Great Betrayal” of 1931. Later, during the Second World War, he was Secretary of State for Scotland in Churchill’s coalition.
At first glance this career would seem to mirror the path of so many Labour lefts as they move from radicalism to accommodation. But this is where the question of mythology comes in.
The “radicalism” of many of these people was never much more than skin deep. As an ethical socialist Johnston never adopted a revolutionary position. For him the way to achieve socialism was through the enlightenment of the working class through socialist propaganda. In order to do this it was justifiable, and even essential, that socialist propaganda appear, no matter how diluted. So during the war, which he opposed, he was allowed to appear.
When despite this Forward was banned at the same time of the banishment of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, he protested that he had never published anything that would undermine the war effort. During the post-war upheavals he opposed direct action even at a time when there were tanks in the streets of Glasgow.
His positions on other issues were just as “radical”. Despite his use of class arguments he tended to blame class antagonism on the greed of capitalists and not on capitalism itself. A similar thread ran through his approach to imperialism.
He felt that the British Empire, despite having been built on blood, could be a force for socialist transformation through the harmonisation of production and trade and the election of Labour governments in the dominions. He opposed Indian independence, although supporting Home Rule within the Empire, because on a visit to India he observed that Indian capitalists who were nationalists tended to treat their workers worse than British capitalists in India.
The myth that this book disposes of most clearly is that of the “Great Betrayal” of MacDonald in 1931. As the book points out, “in the immediate aftermath [of the formation of the National Government] there was sympathy for him [MacDonald] in the Labour ranks.” Johnson and many other Labour MPs did not really differ that much from MacDonald:
“Johnson accepted the view that the budget had to be balanced and the gold standard maintained; it was simply that he could not swallow unemployment [benefit] cuts. He was, moreover, not opposed to the idea of a National Government, and would probably have welcomed one which sought to balance the budget in any other way.”
The problem with Johnson was the problem with the Labour Party as a whole. In times of massive working class upheaval he was prepared to use and indeed appeared to relish the vocabulary of class conflict. But when the chance came to run the system it was more important to make the system run efficiently in order to make short-term gains, if any. This chasing after short-term amelioration led inevitably to accommodation with the system and the abandonment of the initial socialist motivation.
Last updated on 24.06.2010