The Conscience of His Generation: George Lansbury, Pacifism, and the 1930s

George Lansbury

There seldom has been a more committed idealist in British politics than George Lansbury. He once wrote that he sympathized with “…those who stand for principle.” [1] He was one of the first feminists, and actually resigned from his Parliamentary seat in 1912 in order to fight a by-election [which he lost] on the issue of female suffrage. [2] But one principle stood even higher than that, and that was his total opposition to war. He was an absolute pacifist, and his Christian moralism deeply influenced British politics during the 1930s.

George Lansbury was born in 1859, into a lower middle-class family. In his youth, he opposed British imperialism, and shared William Gladstone’s support for “…subject peoples struggling to be free.” [3] Thus, he opposed the Boer War, and ran for Parliament in the Bow and Broomley constituency against it. Running against a tide of pro-war sentiment, he received only 2,558 votes against 4,403 for his opponent. [4]

Although opposed to this war, he was not yet a pacifist, as he could still believe in a “just war.” [5] Yet he was moving in the direction of absolute pacifism. In 1910, he co-authored, along with Keir Hardie [the founder of the Labour Party] and others, the famous “War Against War” resolution. Nevertheless, war came in August 1914, and Lansbury spent the period between 1914 and 1918 as a conscientious objector.

After the war, Lansbury rose to the leadership of the Labour Party and in 1929, became a Cabinet member of the Second Labour Government. Then in 1931, financial disaster struck. Amid a monetary crisis, the Second Labour Government resigned, and a new “National” Government was formed. This Government “solved” the crisis, and then dissolved Parliament and fought a new General Election. The Labour Party suffered a landslide defeat, going from 289 MPs in 1929 to only 46 in 1931. All the former Cabinet members, except Lansbury, were defeated. Thus by default, he became Party leader.

While this was occurring, several external events started to occur which would end up breaking up the Versailles order and lead to World War II. The first was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, immediately as the General Election was occurring. Lansbury spoke up against the Government’s dither, saying in November 1931 in the House of Commons that there was:

a very strong feeling in the country that it would be rather grotesque that members of the Council of the League of Nations who are pledged against war should assist in carrying on war…[6]

Three months later, he said that he did not think that “…the civilised world can stand still and see this thing that is happening carried right through to the bitter end without any protest.” [7]

Yet at the same time, Lansbury did not believe in using force whatsoever to stop the aggressor(s). In the March 1933 Debate over the Air Estimates [Budget], Lansbury said:

I feel that violence and war and all the accomplishments of those evils have brought upon disaster on previous civilisations, and that it is not only morally true, but historically true, that individuals and nations that take to the sword perish by the sword…. [8]

As Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and the Hitlerian menace began to get more acute during 1934 and 1935, Lansbury’s pacifism started to become quaint and out-of-place. In the summer of 1935, Mussolini was positioned to invade and conquer Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. On August 1, 1935, in the House of Commons, Lansbury insisted that his Party would stand by the League of Nations in the dispute over Abyssinia, but also said that he would not, if he was Prime Minister, send the British Fleet to intervene. [9] In effect, this admission made the policy of collective security, of working in concert with other nations for security, rather a farce. Instead of advocating his Party’s policy, he mused:

Why cannot the British Government, taking the British people into their confidence, go to a disarmament conference and put our whole on the alter of international service, and go to a world economic conference and say, “We are the greatest Imperial nation in the world, we built up the greatest Empire in the world; we are willing, for the sake of peace and security, to put it all at the service of mankind?”[10]

Instead of talking about collective security, Lansbury was talking about unilateral disarmament, which in retrospect, was very folly to do so. But in keeping with Lansbury’s beliefs, he honestly believed that it was the moral and correct thing to do, and that by showing by example, other nations would follow. He ended a famous speech he gave in October 1935 before the Labour Party Conference with:

….If mine was the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peacefully and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand, and if necessary, this is where we will die.”[11]

Although being forced to relinquish the leadership that same conference, he nevertheless continued on a personal quest for peace, traveling, in 1936-37, to several countries, meeting with presidents as well as dictators. He was relentless in his gradually disappearing vision of peace. When World War II began in September 1939, he asked Parliament to seriously consider all of Hitler’s peace overtures. In many ways, the war that he strove to avoid at all costs, “broke” him, as WWI “broke” Keir Hardie. Lansbury died on May 7, 1940, three days shy of the Battle of France.


  1. [1] Jonathan Schneer, George Lansbury: Lives of the Left, (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 90.
  2. [2] Ibid., pp. 104-05.
  3. [3] Ibid., p. 132, quoting George Lansbury, The Arbitrator, May 1892.
  4. [4] Raymond Postgate, The Life of George Lansbury, (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1951), pp. 53-54.
  5. [5] Schneer, p. 133.
  6. [6] vol. 260, House of Commons Debates, 23 November 1931, col. 12.
  7. [7] 261 H.C. Debs., 22 February 1932, col. 176.
  8. [8] 275 H.C. Debs., 14 March 1933, col. 1926.
  9. [9] 304 H.C. Debs., 1 August 1935, col. 2894.
  10. [10] Ibid., col. 2898.
  11. [11] Postgate, pp. 175-77.