ILP@120: James Maxton – Socialism’s Great Crusader

James Maxton was the ILP’s visionary leader and propagandist, a man with “an inherent sense of human equality” who ultimately failed in his mission to make socialism the common sense. GORDON BROWN MP assesses his life and legacy.

Throughout his career, whether on a street corner or in the House of Commons, Maxton had sought to make socialism the common sense of his age. In the industrial unrest of Glasgow during the Great War and after 1918, in his battles with Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour establishment of the 1920s, and even in his isolation in the 1930s, he saw his role as that of propagandist, a crusading politician rather than a career politician. He was, he admitted, “more concerned with the propagation of a new order called socialism than with the day to day routine of law making or national administration”.Maxton long•

Maxton never considered himself a potential party leader, or a future prime minister. In the 1920s many saw him as an alternative to Ramsay MacDonald and MacDonald himself, Manny Shinwell recalls, always considered Maxton “a kind of rival”. Instead, Maxton thought of himself as an agitator for socialism. “The leader who may be the best man for one stage of the journey,” Maxton frankly conceded to Jennie Lee, “is not necessarily the right leader for the next stage.”

Maxton’s indifference to high government office led opponents to charge him with indolence. “Vanity unsupported by a capacity for hard work is at the root of the trouble,” MacDonald concluded in 1929. Other political adversaries spoke of his spending hours reading only cheap detective fiction. “He could have achieved the highest office but for indolence, a defect about which he was perfectly frank,” Shinwell concluded. Others who worked with him held similar views. “Maxton was by nature lethargic,” one ILP secretary, John Paton, remarked, “disliking responsibility and committee work.”

Yet the sheer volume of his propaganda work belied this. Perhaps WJ Brown summed up Maxton best when he said, “his impatience with detail leads to the superficial comment, ‘If only he would work’. If ever he did in the sense meant by the criticisms, his special genius would be destroyed.”

Maxton was a visionary. Without Maxton, one colleague told an ILP conference, “there was a temptation to moderate our policy and our point of view”. His idealism had a political purpose, wrote Brown in 1930.

“In domestic politics there is an irresistible tendency of parties which begin as revolutionary to lose their revolutionary spirit and to prove themselves when they attain power little different from the parties they supersede… To arrest this drift a special mind is required. Maxton’s significance in political terms is that he possesses it in a pre-eminent degree… It must be a mind which thinks in large broad outlines and not lose itself in detail … it must be a character which is immune from the lures of office and negative to the invidious temptations of society… It must be a soul whose standards of value are formidable.”

When Maxton embarked on his political career in the first years of the century, there were only a handful of Labour Members of Parliament. When he died they commanded a parliamentary majority. In the early 1900s the Labour movement, both unions and Labour Party, struggled hard simply to exist. In 1946, when Maxton died, it was the foremost institution in the land.

Yet socialists saw in its rise to power a simultaneous erosion of its original idealism. The determined rebels of the 1920s had given way to the dark-suited grey men of the Labour establishment. When Emrys Hughes returned to Glasgow 30 years after the St Enoch demonstration of 1922 and visited the old meeting places – the theatre halls that were filled every Sunday, the cafés that blossomed in heated discussions about coming struggles, and the Labour committee rooms that were social centres for communities – he found “all the colour and life and vitality seemed to have gone out of politics and apathy prevailed … the crusading socialist movement was as good as dead”.

Ideological purity

Hughes’ obituary was, and remains, premature, but on at least one level Maxton had failed and would have been the first to admit it. He had set out to transform the ILP from a high-minded pressure group into a crusade for proletarian emancipation, from a propaganda society into an instrument for the overthrow of capitalism.

He ended his career as a leader without a party. If a successful socialist politician is one who advances the fortunes of his or her political party and progressively uses political power to transform society, Maxton enjoyed little success. Other less impressive backbench MPs have steered crucial Private Members’ Bills through the Commons. Maxton had not even one of these to his credit. The party whose cause he championed for 40 years could, with justice, be accused of committing political suicide for the sake of ideological purity.

“Why don’t you get into a nunnery and be done with it?” Aneurin Bevan had taunted Jennie Lee in 1931. “Lock yourself up in a cell away from the world and its wickedness, my Salvation Army lassie.” Like most of Maxton’s supporters who defected with him in 1932, she later returned to the Labour Party and considered her decision to leave the worst mistake of her political life.Maxton children•

Yet JamesMaxton’s journey through the politics of the 1920s and ’30s must be viewed in its context. Capitalism appeared to be approaching its final collapse. Mass unemployment and deprivation had created huge inequality and injustice in Britain. Yet at the very moment when events cried out for a radical political response, the British Labour Party seemed immobilised, frozen by the enormity of the challenge. The failure of capitalism and its consequence, the opportunity for socialist change, did not energise Labour but paralysed it. To the Labour leadership the crisis of capitalism was simply an excuse for postponing socialist change. To Maxton it was a unique opportunity to implement it.

Maxton’s view was straightforward. ‘Socialism in Our Time’ offered a non-violent road to full employment, social equality and public control over the economy. He knew that socialism could not be achieved by the palliative adjustments and spineless compromises that characterised MacDonald’s leadership but he knew also that Labour had to stand against the ultra-left and its belief that change must inevitably be violent.

Until 1917 revolution was discussed in the abstract. Afterwards many on the left were prepared to go the Russian road. Maxton, more than anyone, appreciated that, and the consequent necessity for a coherent, effective, yet still parliamentary democratic socialism which took account of British conditions. Hence the vehemence with which he tried to promote ‘Socialism in Our Time’.

He had a credible programme which was vindicated in its essentials by the post-war Keynesian revolution. He brought to it vast personal appeal and brilliant rhetorical skills. Yet he and his ILP failed dismally.

One reason was that the economic crisis of the 1920s and ’30s, far from increasing the possibility of radical change, diminished it. Though for the ultra-left the unemployed were an army already mobilised and simply waiting the summons to attack, mass unemployment had not radicalised working people. The unemployed were demoralised and isolated by their poverty from those still in work, refugees within society rather than a force ready to attack it. MacDonald told the unemployed to wait and hope, further diminishing their political potential.

Between the frustrated incendiarism of the ultra-left and the time serving passivity of MacDonald, Maxton offered a middle way. Maxton blamed both the ultra-left and the Labour right. He took account of the effect of unemployment on the morale of the unemployed but sought to give Labour a policy that would exchange their despair for hope. Yet his alternative, a government-led reflation that would help the poorest most, failed to capture the support of the Labour Party.

The ILP’s failure

Why did he fail? His failure was also that of the ILP. A party of activists, it was strong on enthusiasm and skilled in propaganda but outside Scotland and perhaps Lancashire it had never recruited the mass support of the trades union movement in the way the Labour Party did in 1945. Only rarely did the ILP succeed in convincing the trades union delegates at Labour Party conferences. With only a few exceptions, it never enjoyed the support of the most prominent trades union leaders of the time. Outside Scotland, only a few ordinary trades unionists joined its ranks.

In the 1930s the ILP paid an even greater price for its isolation from rank and file trades unionists. Elsewhere in the organisations of the Labour movement, the trades union connection averted what Tawney called “the deadly disease of dogmatic petrification” and saved British socialism from “the sterility which condemned to impotence a party severed from its working dass roots”. In its later history the ILP was so far from the realities of mass politics that it became, for long periods, an adventure playground for successive invasions of ultra-left theorists.

If the 1920s witnessed the rise of the Labour Party, the 1930s saw the collapse of the ILP. Now powerless in the country, Maxton was patronised in the House of Commons.

“The ruling class in this country have various ways of dealing with revolutionaries,” wrote Kingsley Martin in 1933. “Where it cannot buy them off its usual method is flattery. But Maxton has refused the aristocratic embrace – he makes a rule of never dining with rich men – so they have found another way. They have made a House of Commons character of him. He is their raven-haired pirate, a Captain Hook who waves his finger but who everyone knows is really the most lovable of fellows.

“They treat him as an institution and entertainment. It is a point of honour among them to appreciate Maxton’s burning sincerity. Are they not tolerant? Does anyone doubt that they understand the working-class point of view? His presence in the House, they tell you, ‘raises politics to a higher plane’. Of course he is hopelessly impractical … but how sincere, what an idealist.”

Yet Maxton represented an important and identifiable tradition in the early history of socialist movements. In the pioneering days of the 1880s Hardie had been influenced by both Marxism and the Scottish radical and Christian traditions: in the early years of the 20th century Maxton too had sought to combine elements of Marxism with the influences of Christian teaching and Scottish radical thought.

More than anyone else John Maclean had been Maxton’s gateway to Marx, and Maxton was to write that Marx was “the impregnable rock on which the working class laid the foundations for a new social order”. The influence of Marx was, he said, “perhaps greater than any other individual” and “it was essential for men and women who were going to play a responsible part in the workers’ struggle to fully understand the Marxian point of view as regards working-class politics”.

“Our ethical standards are largely defined by economic considerations,” Maxton told the capitalist apologist Sir Ernest Benn during a radio debate in the 1920s when he warned him that the first duty of socialists was to rid society of “the dominating minority, the few acting as rulers and controllers of the destinies of men”.

But if Maxton was influenced by Marx – William Gallacher unfairly said that “Maxton’s knowledge of Marx was nil” – he was an incomplete Marxist. In an ILP lecture on ‘The Nature of Capitalism’ in August 1937 he warned of the dangers of “supernaturalising” and “canonising” Marx. Britain, he felt, should map out its own home-grown road to socialism, and in Maxton’s case much of his beliefs sprang from the Christian principles of duty and service and not a little perhaps from a middle-class social conscience. “I always feel guilty when I have something denied to the majority of my fellows,” he once explained.

In any struggle to reconcile hard-headed socialist analysis with practical down-to-earth social service, service for Maxton would come first. Indeed when he spoke to students at Glasgow University in March 1928 on the theme ‘Socialism is Life’ and argued that the working class “had been left to plough their difficult furrow with little help from the intellectuals of the universities”, he reminded students of what he considered their “evident duty”. It was “to put something extra into the common pool” in return for the advantages in opportunity and leisure that they enjoyed. Socialists were both revolutionaries and servants of the people.

“The capacity for anger – anger against a strong, cruel system – is a necessary part of the socialist make-up,” Maxton told the ILP conference in a stirring chairman’s address in 1927. “It is that feeling in our hearts that is the basis of revolution. But at the same time as that passionate anger swells up within us, what socialist worthy of the name does not feel in his heart a tremendous pity, a tremendous desire to relieve immediately the sufferings of the victim?

“That human love, human sympathy, human understanding is equally an absolute necessity of the socialist make-up. It constitutes the basis of our thought. These two things do not exist apart in different men, some men only feeling the one and some feeling the other. Almost every socialist feels both.”

No catastrophe or Armageddon was needed to achieve that socialist change. Socialism, said Maxton, would be achieved by “imagination, will and the courage to pool these qualities in common organisation” with their fellows. He never supported those socialists who refuse to make any compromise with the electorate. Mass uprisings, violence, bloodshed, or even syndicalism held no attractions for him. Even in the dark days of the means tests of the early 1930s, when across the political spectrum democracy was under siege, Maxton held to the view that socialists would work through a national representative assembly.

Through their exercise of democratic power they would bring society to the point where there was no alternative but to pass peacefully towards a socialist society. The overriding test of the progress of socialism would be how many people had become socialists. “The government can go no faster in progress than the people will allow them to,” he said in a lecture appropriately entitled ‘Democracy and the Spirit of Service’ in December 1924.

Utopian fool?

Maxton often spoke of himself as “a utopian fool”. Mankind, he believed, was “infinitely better than the social system within which it lives”. It was his faith in the capabilities of ordinary people, a faith born of his experiences as a teacher, that led him to advocate a social and economic democracy in which everyone played a part in making the decisions that mattered. The community, and not simply the capitalist, was capable of running industry and had, in the talents of working men and women, the ability to do so. He did not dispute the need for a division of labour, but there was no reason why “labourers and artisans” should not “be the social equals of the directive heads”.

Nor did he argue against the social importance of the exceptional talents which many people possessed. There would always be people “of outstanding capacity, musical, artistic, scientific, manual, commercial and financial, who will have the regard and respect of their fellows for the special contribution they are able to make to the common pool of humanity”. That, he found, an argument for equality, and not against it. “From my observations I believe that wealth and poverty both destroy the opportunity of enjoying the best things in life by those who suffer either one or the other.”

Maxton’s prescription of socialism was not, he said, “activated by envy, hatred, and malice: it was simply dictated as a necessity by my common sense”. Maxton, his friend Bob Edwards wrote, could not be bought. He never accepted hospitality he could not return and was unimpressed by all social distinctions. Although he owned up to his Glasgow MA he turned down an offer in 1930 of an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

He had little interest in material possessions. “In my philosophy of life the pleasure to be obtained from the possession of material things is much more limited than the pleasure to be obtained from human associations,” he wrote. “I want to meander through life surveying the world as I go, trying to understand it, taking that share of the work that is reasonable and just and receiving a modest share of the necessities of life.”

No one was more tolerant than Maxton, Attlee said. He was, wrote his colleague John McGovern, “the soul of honour and never at any time double-crossed a colleague”. Even the harsh experience of prison did not embitter him. “I was with him on the night of his release from prison,” wrote Dollan. “I marvelled at his lack of complaint.”

Throughout his career he treated his political opponents with charm and civility. When JH Thomas was hounded out of office in the 1930s Maxton defended him. Although he was deeply opposed to his politics, he felt “tremendous regret at his downfall”, and when Maxton met MacDonald in the Commons only two months before MacDonald died, they were able to exchange friendly reminiscences. Brockway described how MacDonald laid a hand on Maxton’s arm:

“‘Oh, Jimmy,’ he said, ‘I was staying with Sir James Barrie last weekend and he was enquiring most kindly after you.’ He hesitated and then added rather wistfully, ‘It’s good to think that we can have mutual friends even if fate has separated us from each other.’

“‘Oh, Mac,’ said Jimmy characteristically, ‘I shall always have a warm place in my heart for you for old time’s sake.’ MacDonald looked wonderingly at me. ‘I’m not so sure about Fenner,’ he said, ‘I’m not so sure he was my friend even in the old times.’

“He and Jimmy laughed and I laughed too, rather uneasily. He passed on without another word.”

In his last lecture to the ILP summer school, in 1945, Maxton had stressed the importance of the individual in society. “We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an ant-hill,” he told his audience. Cold, bureaucratic, centralised state socialism held no attractions for him. For Maxton the only test of socialist progress was in the improvement of the individual and thus the community. Greater educational opportunities would not only free exceptional people to realise their exceptional talents but allow common people to make the most of their common humanity, and ordinary people to realise their extraordinary potentials.

The social equality he supported was not for the sake of equality but for the sake of liberty. A truly socialist society would free men and women from the fear of poverty, the uncertainties of unemployment and the miseries of deprivation.

It is doubtful if, with his background, and his experience, Maxton could have thought any differently. Throughout his life he had seen how poverty crippled the schoolchildren he taught and how unemployment had devastated the constituency he represented. From the first, he had understood that men and women should be treated equally. “Write me as one who loved his fellow men,” Maxton once told an intending biographer.

Perhaps his colleague Fenner Brockway characterised him best. Maxton, wrote Brockway, seemed to have got nearest to the solution of life’s problems. He always lived his own life, yet he accepted everyone on equal terms. Maxton could be friendly to all without being subservient to any. “I think,” he concluded, “the secret of Maxton’s conduct was an inherent sense of human equality.”


Gordon Brown was prime minster and leader of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2010. He is MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Maxton bookThis is a slightly edited version of the final chapter of Maxton: A Biography, by Gordon Brown, published by Mainstream Publishing in 1986.

To read a full account of Maxton’s life and political career, click here.

‘The Will to Socialism’, written by Maxton in 1927, is available here.

Read other ILP profiles here.