War: Why Socialists Oppose the Labour Party

Labour: The Party of War

Socialists oppose the Labour Party on many issues but no more so than Labour’s policy relating to war.

The Labour Party used to claim that it was anti-war and anti-Liberal and anti-Tory, but found itself belonging to war-time coalition governments. The Attlee government not only enacted peace-time conscription in the form of the National service act, but also carried out re-armament programmes to deal with a feared attack by the Russian state-capitalist dictatorship. It was the Attlee Labour government which commenced the development of the British atomic bomb.

The first Chairman of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie MP, published a booklet FROM SERFDOM TO FREEDOM (1907) during the year of his chairmanship. In it he declared, in somewhat confused terms, his support for the Marxist conception of Socialism, including the abolition of buying and selling. He wrote:

Socialism we believe to be the next step in the evolution of that form of state which will give the individual the fullest and freest room for expansion and development. State Socialism, with all its drawbacks…will prepare the way for free Communism in which the rule of life will be “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs (p. 89).

What he called “State Socialism” is of course state capitalism, or a policy of mass nationalisation. “State socialism” is also an oxymoron; a contradiction in terms. Where you have the State you have capitalism – class rule – not Socialism and where you have Socialism you do not have the machinery of government, including the armed forces, protecting the private ownership of the means of production and distribution.

Hardie, at the same time also claimed that the Labour Party was the only party in the country “in the Marxist tradition”. This was plainly a false assertion. The Socialist Party of Great Britain had been established in 1904 on a wholly Marxian political programme where many of Marx’s ideas such as the Labour Theory of Value, the materialist conception of history and the political concept of the class struggle informed the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

Hardie’s view that the Labour Party was “Marxist” and held an objective of “free communism” did not represent the views of the members of the Labour Party and were soon discarded, amongst other things, by Keir Hardie himself.

Here is what Keir Hardie had to say about war:

Whatever differences there may be in the International Socialist Movement concerning the tactics to be pursued in achieving Socialism there is perfect agreement on two leading points of principle: hostility to Militarism in all its forms and to war as a method of settling disputes between nations is the first…It would, for instance, be a difficult task, and one yearly becoming more so, for the rulers of say France and Germany, to again embroil those two nations in a war with each other (p.95).

It only showed how little Keir Hardie understood capitalism and how wrong he was in supposing that the members of the Labour Party would be governed by Socialist principles. Indeed, in August 1914 he was himself temporality swept off his feet by British war fever. It was possible for Keir Hardie in 1907 to look to the abolition of war and to the Labour Party leading the way. Eighty years later at the 1987 general election, the Labour Party Manifesto BRITAIN WILL WIN put forward a statement on war that could equally have appeared in the Tory Manifesto. It was headed “Defending Our Country”:

Labour has a proud record of acting in defence of Britain. It was a Labour government which helped to establish the North Atlantic Alliance. It was a Labour government which in the 1970’s put resources into rebuilding the Royal Navy and equipping the Royal Air force with the most up to date aircraft.

At the same time, Labour has always linked necessary defence with the need to reduce hostility between East and West. We must be alert in protecting our country sand equally alert in helping to keep away the scourge of war and nuclear destruction

Five years later, at the 1992 election the Labour Party Manifesto ITS TIME TO GET BRITAIN WORKING AGAIN, welcomed the changed international situation and remove to reduce the world’s stocks in nuclear weapons, but:

…until elimination of those stocks Labour will retain Britain’s nuclear capability, with the number of warheads no greater than the present total

Under the last Labour Government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, British capitalism was involved in five Wars; Kosovo, Sierra Leona, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Afghanistan conflict is still on-going, lasting longer than the First and Second World Wars combined. Ironically British combat troops are to leave Afghanistan in 2014 a hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War; the “war to end all wars”.

Labour Party Support for War

Even in the early days, the Labour Party has benefited from wars. The bloodbath of the First World War was supported by Labour from the start; on 5th August, 1914, the parliamentary Labour party voted to support the government's request for war credits of £100,000,000 while Labour spokesmen were enthusiastic in going round the country urging workers to join up and fight for the interest of the British capitalist class and its Empire. In May 1915, Arthur Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to hold a Cabinet post when Herbert Asquith invited him to join his coalition government along with two other Labour MP’s.

At the end of that war, the Labour Party got their reward when they were seen as a possible alternative to the Liberals as a party of government. Right from the start, in 1914, Labour officially declared:

The Head Office of the party, its entire machinery are to be placed at the disposal of the Government
(SPGB MANIFESTO, 1920 edition – The Labour Leader, 9th Sept. 1914)

Labour’s pious old fraud, Kier Hardie wrote:

I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting. I know too well all there is at stake (MANCHESTER GUARDIAN, 25th Nov. 1914)

J Ramsay Macdonald, supposedly a pacifist, went even further:

I want the serious men of the Trade Unions, the brotherhoods, and similar movements, to face their duty. To such it is sufficient to say, ‘England has need of you’, and to say it in the right way (DAILY CHRONICLE 14th Sept. 1914).

Not surprisingly, we say that the Labour Party and its leaders had blood on their hands. Unlike the Labour Party’s support for British capitalism and the interest of the ruling class, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, at the first chance it got, in September 1914, stated clearly: “No interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a drop of working-class blood”. From start to finish, the SPGB remained firmly opposed to the war. This was seen as a matter of Party principle - the principle of the class struggle and international class unity.

Socialist Opposition to all Wars

Then, as now, Socialists consistently argue that capitalism’s wars are fought over capitalist interests, such as the ownership and control of oil wells and pipelines, and so on. Similarly with World War II, even with the arguments put about the need to fight Fascism and ‘defend democracy’. Likewise with all the wars fought since then: the SPGB holds to the principle of class interest, not ‘national interest’.

Labour by contrast prided itself on running World War II efficiently. For instance, Herbert Morrison (Mandelson’s revered grandfather), the wartime Home Secretary boasted:

Having had two wars in one lifetime, we are naturally running the second war rather better, very much better, than the first. If we have a third war in our lifetime and I hope we shall not – we shall run that war with almost complete perfection... (Quoted in SOCIALIST STANDARD, Oct. 1943)

After World War II, British and US foreign policy was, and mostly still is, based mainly on the vital importance of controlling the oil resources of the Middle East. As Mark Curtis wrote in WEB OF DECEIT (2003, pp 15-6):

Oil is... the fundamental Anglo-American interest in the Middle East, and was described by British planners in 1947 as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’. “We must at all costs maintain control of this oil”, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956.

As the SPGB argued clearly, in a pamphlet in the same year:

There can be no capitalism without conflicts of economic interest. From these arise the national rivalries and hatreds, the fears and armaments which may at any time provoke war on a terrifying scale... (Preface: WAR AND THE WORKING CLASS 1956)

We argue that workers should disregard capitalism’s war propaganda:

It is not dictatorship, democracy, universal peace or pious sentiment that determines who the ‘enemy’ shall be. The ‘enemy’ is simply determined by what serves, or is expected to serve, the interests of capitalists... The real enemy of the world’s workers is always on their doorsteps. It is the capitalist class, both at home and abroad (THE CZECH CRISIS AND THE WORKERS 1938, pp 6-7)

What gives rise to wars is not that the people in other parts of the world are more given to violence than those in this country but capitalism itself. As Marx and Engels showed in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848), it was capitalism which created the separate nations to further the interests of sections of the world’s capitalists and it was the nature of the system that: “…the bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle…at all times with the bourgeois of foreign countries”.

The only way to end war and all the other social problems of capitalism is to get rid of the profit system altogether. It is for the workers of all lands to join together to achieve this objective. To that end the workers everywhere have to appreciate that it is no use to try to operate capitalism differently. It is not the good intention of Labour Party supporters that are at fault but their mistaken belief that they can refashion capitalism to their heart’s desire. It is not possible to remould capitalism into something satisfactory. Those who waste time and energy trying to do so are standing in the way of the only solution to today’s wars: SOCIALISM.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.