Complaint to Dave of ‘Though Cowards Flinch’.

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Comrade Dave of the blog ‘Though Cowards Flinch’ has written an assessment of today’s pre-budget report. He makes decent points on the good and bad aspects of Darling’s announcements.

However, I must protest at this: “About the best thing one can say regarding today’s pre-budget report is that it’s not quite so bad as Ramsay MacDonald slashing unemployment benefits in order to return public finances to some ‘order’”.

Whilst not wishing to detract from the central thrust of Dave’s post, my determination to try to rehabilitate Ramsay MacDonald’s reputation (at least partially) means that I can’t leave this be.

The public spending cuts eventually imposed by the National Government were more the responsibility of Chancellor Philip Snowden than Ramsay MacDonald. Snowden was the true disciple of orthodox economics; MacDonald was wishy washy on the subject and would have been pushed in any direction wanted by a forceful Chancellor. The Labour Cabinet also voted by a majority to accept the cuts, but Arthur Henderson made it clear he would resign from the government rather than let this pass.  

It’s wrong to demonise Ramsay MacDonald. It absolves people like Snowden who were more blameworthy. Anyway, instead of focusing on individual failures, it’s more interesting to ask why the Labour Party was so institutionally clueless when it came to the question of how to govern the country in a socialist manner.

Pedantic complaint over.

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7 Responses to “Complaint to Dave of ‘Though Cowards Flinch’.”

  1. Dave Semple Says:

    I don’t see how, being Prime Minister, things can be entirely removed from MacDonald’s door. First of all, the very notion of forming a national government should have been anathema – never mind leading the bloody thing. Second of all, while it’s quite true that the arch-reactionary Snowden can be blamed for the budget (and the Tories too, mind you), the buck, to borrow from Harry Truman, stopped with the head honcho.

    If MacDonald was wishy-washy, he had no one to blame but himself for it.

  2. captainjako Says:

    No, things can’t be removed from MacDonald’s door. Nor should they. Forming the National Government was a betrayal that obviously counts as a massive massive negative when looking at his record as leader.

    BUT:

    a) By the 1930s MacDonald was an increasingly confused old man who thought the split with the Labour Party would only be temporary and still considered himself a loyal socialist even when in bed with the Tories. I think this should be taken into account.

    b) I don’t think the formation of the National Government should totally overshadow other aspects of MacDonald’s life, such as his heroic efforts to bring the First World War to an end. He was undoubtedly the most anti-war Labour Prime Minister ever.

    c) MacDonald was a key player in getting the Labour Party off the ground. For that we must be grateful.

  3. leftoutside Says:

    Indeed, it was a massive wasted opportunity. Its disappointment in what may have been now as much as it must have been a betrayal then.

    I’m sure Ramsey doesn’t deserve quite the devilish reputation he has earned, but its going to be difficult to raise his reputation above anything other than “misguided and weak.” Good luck though, I’d appreciate some links if you’ve anything to convince me otherwise.

  4. captainjako Says:

    But anyway, wouldn’t the Marxist historian disagree with focusing on the role of the individual and prefer to draw attention to the structural forces leading to that situation?

  5. captainjako Says:

    I’m sure Ramsey doesn’t deserve quite the devilish reputation he has earned, but its going to be difficult to raise his reputation above anything other than “misguided and weak.”

    My thesis is basically just that it’s easier for Labourites to blame one individual and label them a ‘traitor’ rather than confront the more complex reasons why Labour’s performance in government has often been “misguided and weak”.

  6. Dave Semple Says:

    To say that a Marxist historian would disagree with focusing on the role of the individual is to caricature Marxist historiography.

    We certainly prefer to discuss the material forces and contexts which structured the lives of and ideologies that surround the individual, but individuals are still at the last masters of their own choices – especially such individuals as MacDonald, of wealth, power and education.

    The Labour Party of the time was then – as it is today – inadequate to the task of winning the struggle between the classes, and this engenders certain ways of thinking on behalf of those who see their own advancement within and depending on that party.

    Yet this fact does not absolve MacDonald of decisions which were his any more than the nature of the monarchies gifted to them meant that Nicholas II or Louis XVI were less guilty of their crimes against ‘their’ people.

    I certainly don’t consider MacDonald’s belief that the split would be temporary, or that he was still a socialist, to be mitigating. Such fatuity is pretty common amongst a certain kind of Right-Labourite careerist. Words like “pragmatic” tend to come up a lot when really it’s just another way of explaining away base treason, even to the watery ideals MacDonald (and said careerists) profess to believe in.

    Finally, whilst I have and will never forget MacDonald’s role in opposing the First World War even while the other great social-democratic parties capitulated, the proper inheritor of that mantle was George Lansbury. Henderson and the others, dashing around, typing such earnest communiques of peace and goodwill to the reactionary league of nations and the imperialist governments is a sad and terrible sight, not least because, instead of inciting the working class to revolt, they played right into Hitler’s hands. But least Lansbury and Henderson stood by their convictions.

    There we have their difference from MacDonald – in whatever decline he may have been; his actions in shoring up the Tories, in conspiring to hand over the government to arch-reactionary Baldwin and in so many other things were unforgivable.

    It is no accident that it wasn’t until David Marquand wrote a biography that MacDonald received some praise. History should bury both of them.

  7. Secularism and Sikh daggers « Though Cowards Flinch Says:

    […] Dave Semple Leave a comment Go to comments Following the form Jako established in his “Complaint to Dave of Though Cowards Flinch” article, I must now pen my own Complaint to CaptainJako of Frank Owen’s Paintbrush […]

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