Imperialism and social reform english Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914


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When the war of 1914 came to England, the Labour Party supported the government -- as of course did the Fabians and Robert Blatchford. Only a small number of socialists, principally those who constituted the Independent Labour Party,

withheld their approval. The I.L.P. leadership -- men like J. Ramsay Macdonald, Philip Snowden, and J. Bruce Glasier -was Radical in outlook. Their devotion to Free Trade and to peace stemmed from Bright and Cobden rather than from the internationalism of Marx and Engels. It was much these samesentiments which were to lead such Radicals as E. D. Morel, J. A. Hobson, L. T. Hobhouse and others to found the Union of Democratic Action, once war came, and to campaign for a negotiated peace without victory. Disgusted with the war policies of Liberalism, first under Asquith and then under Lloyd George, who finally formed his coalition in 1916, many of these pacifistic Radicals left Liberalism altogether and joined the I.L.P. and the Labour Party, to which the I.L.P. was affiliated. Partially as a result of their influence, the post-war Labour Party once again took up the internationalist cause and even elected J. Ramsay Macdonald, who had been denounced as a war-time 'traitor,' as its leader.

Labour experienced a large increase in numbers in the postwar years and this sealed the doom of the Liberal Party, which never again formed a government. The former Prime Minister Asquith became the leader of a faction rather than a party. Liberalism was dead and Labour was its heir, and the heir to the Cobdenite tradition of anti-imperialism. The national inheritance into which Labour party governments were ultimately to come had been diminished, however, by a kind of international death duty. Many of Great Britain's foreign investments had been liquidated to pay for the war against Imperial Germany. Lancashire was being increasingly hardpressed by Japanese and Indian competition. The United States was supplanting Great Britain as the leading creditor nation. The world found itself, by the late 'twenties, labouring under the burden of the most serious of industrial depressions. These new conditions at last persuaded many cosmopolitan Free Traders that a change in fiscal policy had become essential. Throughout this time, the Tories had continued to speak of the benefits of protection, and the newspapers of Canadianborn Lord Beaverbrook -- especially the leading organ of imperial protectionism, the Daily Express -- had constantly upheld the cause of imperial preference. But, during the early years of international depression, even Liberals -- the long-time fighter

for Free Trade, John Maynard Keynes, for example -- were speaking cautiously about the desirability of adopting a 'revenue' tariff. Labour Cobdenism, however, went deep. It was the 'socialist' Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Snowden who now stubbornly battled for the 'principle' of Free Trade. In 1930, there occurred a struggle within the Labour cabinet between Snowden's Cobdenite orthodoxy and the advocates of 'socialist protectionism.' The leader of the protectionists was Sir Oswald Mosley, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Snowden was finally defeated, but not by Mosley. A 'National' Government led by Macdonald adopted a tariff in 1932, and later in the same year in Ottawa, Great Britain and her self-governing dominions constructed the imperial preferential system for which Chamberlain had struggled. Snowden's cabinet opponent, Oswald Mosley, had a different role to play. He became the intellectual heir of the most extreme wing of Chamberlainism, of protectionist social-imperialism, and as such he emerged as the founder of the British Fascist Party.

The continental social-imperialists, as has been mentioned earlier, were the intellectual predecessors of the fascist movements (and even of the 'National Bolshevism' of the Stalin era) which became so important in the period between the wars. Hitler's 'National Socialism,' Mussolini's Fascism, and the Vichy regime of Pierre Laval and Marshal Pétain were substantially indebted to the social-imperialism of Schmoller and Stocker, of Labriola and Corradini, and of Maurras and Sorel. Great Britain, too, had its fascist party, a party whose doctrine resembled that of continental fascism much more than the British social-imperialism of thirty years earlier had resembled its continental counterpart. This was perhaps in part attributable to changes which had taken place in England's condition in the interim, but it partly resulted in British fascism's remaining a crank-movement which was reduced to imitating German and Italian fascism but was incapable of achieving their success. Yet despite much obvious emulation of continental older brothers, British fascist doctrine was firmly rooted in home soil.

The leader of British fascism was and is Sir Oswald Mosley. Mosley, a scion of an old and respected landed family, was a

young serviceman who served in the trenches in Flanders and had returned to run in the Conservative interest for Harrow in the 'khaki election' of 1918. Upon being asked to define his policy on this occasion, he had replied 'Socialistic Imperialism.' 9 Mosley won Harrow. There then followed a series of remarkable shifts and accomplishments which drew national attention to the young man. In 1922, Mosley left the Conservatives to become an 'Independent.' In 1924, he joined the Labour Party and challenged Neville Chamberlain in what had practically become a family seat. By 1929, he was the acknowledged leader of the socialist forces in the Birmingham area and had been named the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the new Macdonald Cabinet. Already Beatrice Webb, who had previously marked out Joseph Chamberlain, H. H. Asquith, and R. B. Haldane, as 'coming men,' saw Mosley as a future national leader. For her, as early as 1924, he was 'the perfect politician who is also a perfect gentleman.' 10 Many of the younger socialist members, a group which included John Strachey and Aneurin Bevan, were attaching themselves to his leadership, most especially to his famous 'Birmingham proposals' of 1925 which had called for direct socialist action, in particular against the outposts of finance, instead of the donothing behaviour of the Macdonald forces. 11 These proposals and Mosley's efforts to spark the Labour party brought upon him the same fierce opposition of the propertied which Joseph Chamberlain had earned by his 'ransom' speech over forty years earlier.

The comparison to Chamberlain is most appropriate. The Birmingham Socialist M.P. who had, while yet a Conservative, declared his policy to be 'Socialistic Imperialism,' put forth, in 1930, a series of proposals designed to remedy the problem of unemployment. These proposals were proper 'Brummagem' ones involving protection against foreign imports and a turning to imperial markets and to an extension of the home market rather than a continued pressing for foreign markets. Mosley was in full revolt against Liberal orthodox economics



Beatrice Webb, Beatrice Webb's Diaries, 1912-1924 ( London: Longmans, 1952), p. 242.


See Oswald Mosley, Revolution by Reason ( London, 1925); see especially pp. 7-8.


Quoted in Mosley: The Facts ( London, 1957), p. 92.

and the gold standard, then so highly regarded by Chancellor of the Exchequer Snowden. After a row in which Snowden had called him a 'pocket Mussolini,' Mosley resigned from the cabinet and from the Labour party, forming a ' New Party,' and taking with him not only Bevan and Strachey, but such notables as Harold Nicolson, C. E. M. Joad, and Osbert Sitwell. Within a year, these men were to desert Mosley as the New Party's leader began to speak more and more about 'National Socialism,' with an increasing emphasis upon the component of nationalism, and seemed quite ready to give up his more socialistic proposals to obtain the support of such men of property as motor-car magnate, Sir William Morris. 12

In late 1931, Mosley united his New Party with fascist groups, which had been formed earlier, into the British Union of Fascists and affirmed the ideological identity of his movement with those of Mussolini and Hitler in Italy and Germany. Like them he denounced the control of the world by international finance, by 'Wall Street, and its sub-branch in the City of London,' 13 and set out to accomplish for Great Britain the 'self-contained' and self-sufficient Empire toward which Joseph Chamberlain had directed his efforts three decades earlier. Just as Bernard Shaw had enthusiastically greeted the Chamberlain campaign for Tariff Reform and was to find kind words for Mussolini, he wrote of Mosley as 'one of the few people who are writing and thinking about real things, and not about figments and phrases. You will hear something more of Sir Oswald before you are through with him. I know you dislike him, because he looks like a man who has some physical courage and is going to do something; and that is a terrible thing.' 14 Others who associated themselves more clearly with the new British Fascist party were men who believed they recognized in Mosley and his programme the ideal for which they had fought in the years before the war. Carlyon Bellairs, one of the original dozen members of the Fabian-formed Coefficients, who had been converted from Liberal-Imperialism



See A. K. Chesterton, Oswald Mosley, Portrait of a Leader ( London, 1937), passim; Cecil F. Melville, The Truth About The New Party ( London, 1931), pp. 28-31, 42-45 and passim; James Drennan, B.U.F.; Oswald Mosley and British Fascism ( London, 1934), passim.


Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live ( London, 1939), p. 3.


Quoted in Mosley: The Facts, p. 25.

to Tariff Reform by Chamberlain, was now an open advocate of Mosley's views. Ralph D. Blumenfeld, who had formulated the slogan of ' Tariff Reform Means Work For All,' and had helped to convert the publisher of the Daily Express, Arthur Pearson , to Tariff Reform, and who now was the Chairman of that paper as well as a founder of an active Anti-Socialist Union, became associated with Mosley. One of the more vigorous of the Tariff Reform stalwarts in the pre-war House, an ex-Confederate leader, and now a member of the upper chamber, Lord Lloyd, gave moral support to the British Union. 15

Lest it be thought that the support of these social-imperialists of the turn of the century was given upon false or inadequate grounds, we need only turn to the many speeches and writings of Sir Oswald Mosley, who can be said to have combined virtually all of the salient views of virtually all of the social-imperialists whom we have discussed, and to have welded them into a British fascism. Whereas the earlier socialimperialists had spoken sotto voce, Mosley shouted, but the elements of his doctrine were the same as theirs.

Mosley was a compound of Joseph Chamberlain and Robert Blatchford, primarily, with healthy admixtures of Karl Pearson, and with somewhat lesser contributions from others we have discussed. In a Cambridge Union debate, as early as 1924, for example, he described the army and navy, in terms reminiscent of the Clarion's editor, as 'Socialist institutions because they have the spirit of the protection of the community, which is the Socialist spirit.' 16 Of course, Mosley and Blatchford shared a common distrust of the parliamentary and party system. This paragraph from a Mosley speech of August 1937 could as easily have been uttered by the imperial-socialist editor:

'Such are the lessons of division, arising from the war of parties and the war of class, which have set Britons at each others' throats so that disunion may rivet on their necks the yoke of their financial masters. Thus Merrie England in an age which could be golden, fades away in the smoke of the sweat shop and the slum, and the green beloved country becomes the playground of the stock-



See Labour Research Department, Who Backs Mosley ( London, 1934), pp. 11-12; also Frederic Mullaly, Fascism Inside England ( London, 1946), p. 62.


Quoted in Labour Research Department, op. cit., p. 5.

jobber, while the sturdy yeoman lines up in the unemployment queue. . . .' 17

Mosley's debt to Joseph Chamberlain's turn-of-the-century arguments is clearly visible in the British fascist leader's speech delivered in October 1936:

'But how are we to judge any system? Surely by the condition of the people. Today we have in England low wages, long hours, rotten houses, unemployment and poverty corrupting our people -- all absolutely unnecessary! With the vast imperial resources which are the heritage of this country . . . the problems of poverty and want can easily be solved by a government empowered by the people to carry out their will. While democratic governments are giving away the Empire which our fathers won, our people are abandoned to poverty and unemployment. Yet the Empire belongs to you, the people of Britain! The hands of Englishmen won this great Empire which has been the glory of the world; their sacrifice and heroism gained it for us. . . . Arise and enter your own, and be great, happy and wealthy once again! Arise in your thousands and work with us. . . .' 18

Mosley did not publicly acknowledge his debt to Chamberlain and to Blatchford, despite his obvious paraphrasings from their writings and speeches. His struggles with the Chamberlain family in Birmingham were perhaps too recent for him to do anything but denounce Conservative protection. His grounds for doing so were the same as those which had prevented Blatchford and the Clarion from joining Chamberlain's Tariff Reform campaign, despite their approval of protection. The Conservatives, Mosley asserted, 'have handed over the fiscal system of the country to a struggling committee of appointed businessmen who are vested with wide powers, but are endowed with inadequate information and with no machinery.' Like Blatchford, and his Clarion colleague R. B. Suthers, Mosley called for 'scientific' protection, protection which was 'made conditional upon industrial efficiency' and 'upon good wages to the workers.' 19 Mosley had joined socialism to protectionism as Blatchford, Suthers, and Bernard Shaw had urged.

Mosley's slogans were the same as those of Chamberlain



Quoted in Mosley: The Facts, p. 90.


Ibid., p. 90.


Oswald Mosley, The Greater Britain ( London, 1932), p. 90.

and Blatchford. Mosley, too, called for a policy of the 'selfcontained Empire,' and urged that 'we build an Empire system that rests on the simple principle that the British people shall consume what the British people produce.' 'Nothing shall be imported into Britain,' Mosley declared, 'which can be produced within Great Britain . . . [this] will give employment to nearly a million and a half of our people. In addition, British industry will be free on the home market from the cheap foreign competition, which to-day holds down wages and diminishes the extent and purchasing power of the home market.' 20 In urging that immigration be stopped, he repeated the most famous of Blatchford's slogans: ' Britain for the British,' he declared, 'is our motto.' 21

The German National Socialists espoused the cause of 'productive' industrial capital and denounced 'parasitic' finance capital of the 'international bankers,' whom the older German social-imperialists had thought of as predominantly British, and whom the Nazis of the 'twenties and 'thirties thought of as Jewish. Like the Nazis, Mosley, too, denounced 'international Jewish finance,' in particular as it was represented by Wall Street. New York's new position in international banking had made it possible for British fascism to adopt, at least in part, the posture of 'proletarian nation' which German and Italian social-imperialism had been able to assume more naturally. Yet, despite the aping of the Germans and Italians, Mosley's opinions on this matter had to be substantially different, given the rather special nature of Great Britain's position. It was therefore thoroughly rooted in the special arguments of earlier English social-imperialism. In confirmation of the view of both Hobson and Schumpeter that protection was the inevitable basis for imperialism, Mosley roundly denounced the 'usurious' imperialism of Free Trade and adopted, rather fully, the neomercantile imperialism of the Tariff Reformers, which we have described above.

Great Britain's refusal of offers of imperial preference and her emphasis upon foreign trade as a more desirable alterna-



Oswald Mosley, Blackshirt Policy ( London, 1934), p. 30; and Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, pp. 41-42.


Oswald Mosley, Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered ( London, 1936), Question No. 94.

tive, Mosley held to be 'for the sole reason that the process is a means of collecting the usury of the City of London.' For this reason, 'an Empire system is sacrificed,' that is, 'solely because the British Government and our economic system are debt collectors for the City of London.' Imports, produced by sweated foreign labour, which displaced English labour, were simply the interest payments to the usurers. 22 In a speech in 1930, he inquired as Mackinder had earlier: 'Why is it so right and proper and desirable that capital should go overseas to equip factories to compete against us, to build roads and railways in the Argentine or in Timbuctoo, to provide employment for people in those countries. . . .' 23 In a book published in 1937, Mosley spoke of the 'conspiracy' which taught the British people 'to believe that to send steel to a remote country to build a bridge over a far away river, and to send bicycles for savages to ride over the bridge . . . is a transaction of sound economy and finance.' 24 As recently as 1956, although much of Mosley's programme has changed since the war of 1939, the British fascist spoke of the choice between 'a bankers' ' and 'a producers' ' economy, between 'an isolated island, giving to the whole world specialised services like banking and insurance, and a producers' economy, which meant entering a larger economic unit.' 25 In 1937, he had spoken of the 'top-heavy structure' of the British economy 26 and two years later, repeating the earlier arguments of Austen Chamberlain and Sir Gilbert Parker against tertiary industry, he called for 'the elimination of overlapping and redundant distributive services, and the reabsorption of such labour . . . back into productive industry.' 27

Mosley took up the theme of class harmony exposited by all the earlier social-imperialists in opposition to the doctrines of class struggle of the socialists. 'International finance and international Socialism,' he maintained in 1939, 'march openly hand in hand.' Disaster would be the only result of 'supporting international socialism in an age when only National Socialism



Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 45.


Quoted in Drennan, op. cit., p. 134.


Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 39.


Quoted in Mosley: The Facts, p. 255.


Ibid., p. 92.


Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 53.

can work.' 28 The solution to the problem of class conflict lay in the corporate state. 'Class war will be eliminated,' he wrote, 'by permanent machinery of government for reconciling the clash of class interests.' 29 In his support of corporativism, Mosley was almost entirely dependent on continental social imperialism, although we have noted that Ashley had touched on the issue. (Within the last few years, though curiously not in the 'thirties, Mosley has brought back one of the other petprojects of the tariff social-imperialists. Once again in confirmation of Hobson's view, Mosley has adopted the position that indirect rather than direct taxation was the preferable financial method for his corporative state. 'A man should be taxed not on what he earns but on what he spends,' he declared in 1956. 'All direct taxation of earnings would be eliminated. . . . We propose a combination of expenditure tax and indirect taxation.' 30 Clearly the prosperous 'fifties were a more appropriate time to campaign upon such a fiscal programme than the depressed 'thirties.)

Like Milner and Rhodes, Mosley, during the 'thirties, intoned that 'we believe profoundly in our own British race which has created the Empire.' This statement was followed by one bearing a more modern ring, though certainly reminiscent of Karl Pearson. 'We have created that Empire,' Mosley asserted, 'without race mixture or pollution. . . . It should only be necessary by education and propaganda to teach the British that racial mixtures are bad.' 31 Pearson's influence is even more clearly apparent in the fascist leader's emphasis upon the need to

'secure the production of children by the fit. . . . At present, birth control is known and practised by the relatively well off. It is largely unknown and less practised by the very poor. The result is exactly the reverse of the national interest. . . . The unfit will be offered the alternatives of segregation sufficient to prevent the production of unfit children, or voluntary sterilisation.' 32

Mosley laboured hard during the years preceding 1939 to persuade the middle and the working classes to accept his pro-



Ibid., pp. 67, 31.


Mosley, The Greater Britain, p. 28.


Quoted in Mosley: The Facts, p. 138, and passim.


Mosley, Fascism: 100 Questions, Question No. 93.


Ibid. , Question No. 76.

gramme. He made a special effort to entrench himself in Lancashire, the site of the cotton industries which had, by their support of Free Trade, contributed so much to the defeat of the Chamberlain programme thirty years before. Now, a hard-pressed Lancashire was more ready to listen to talk of protection than it had been earlier and the Mosley programme promised Lancashire the exclusion of all foreign textiles from entrance into any part of the empire, most particularly the exclusion of Japanese cottons from India, and the forcible removal of all Indian tariffs against Lancashire cottons. But the Lancashire working class turned down Mosley's 'offer' of India, setting him down as 'an employers' man.' 33 This was the reaction of the British working class generally. He was regarded as 'un-British,' especially after the reports of fascist meetings at which opponents of Mosley were severely beaten. Nor did Englishmen take to the private armies of the fascists, with their uniform black-shirts, and their strange salutes. It seemed all very 'foreign,' a mere imitation of the Nazis and Fascisti, and the Mosley party therefore was destined to remain a movement of a small minority.

Mosley insisted that his movement was not at all 'foreign,' that, like Liberalism and Socialism before it, it was an international movement, that it espoused a doctrine which all countries were finding more appropriate to the conditions of the twentieth century. He did not but easily could have demonstrated that, from the point of view of programme and doctrine, 'fascist' principles were directly derived from the views and principles and platforms of some of the most respected names in British politics, science, and scholarship. He could have pointed to the presence within his ranks, or as friendly to his cause, such former associates of Joseph Chamberlain as Bellairs, Lloyd, and Blumenfeld, and have observed that even J. L. Garvin, Chamberlain's friend and biographer, had had some kind words for him. 34 He made no such claims. Perhaps if he had he would have been disowned by such survivors of the old Chamberlain social-imperialism as H. J. Mackinder



See William Rust, Mosley and Lancashire ( London, 1937), p. 2 and passim.


See quote in A. K. Chesterton, op. cit., p. 93.

and Leopold Amery. They, too, would have regarded Mosley's movement as something quite 'foreign.'

For, in the larger sense, despite the evidence linking his programme with that of earlier social-imperialism, Sir Oswald Mosley's British Fascist Union was indeed alien to the British scene. In his denunciation of parliamentary institutions, he had joined Blatchford and Belloc, both of whom also fell outside of the normal pattern of British political life. Mosley's extremist presentation of the 'national socialist' case went against British libertarian traditions, as did his para-military organization with its violent methods. His admiring self-subordination to Hitler and Mussolini went against the British grain. Perhaps more important than any of these matters, the condition of Great Britain was still substantially different from that of Germany, or Italy, or any of the eastern European countries which went fascist during the period between the wars. Great Britain had not been defeated in the War of 1914, and, despite the fact that America was supplanting her as the leading financial power, she -- with her great Empire -- could still not regard herself, or be regarded, as a have-not country. Finally, many of the heterodox solutions to the problems of laissez-faire capitalism which had been proposed by the social-imperialists of the turn of the century were already being applied by calmer, more moderate men than the fascist leader. The Cobdenite orthodoxy -- represented at this time by men like Philip Snowden -- was doomed to be defeated not by a 'pocket Mussolini,' but by renegade international socialists like J. Ramsay Macdonald and by heterodox Liberals like John Maynard Keynes.

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