Labour Review Vol 1. No.4. 1952
Where is British Labour Going?
The Crisis in the Labour Party
By G. Healy
After Morecambe, both the London Times and the New York Times observed that the Labour Party is facing its gravest crisis since 1931. What they failed to note is the world of difference between the two developments.
In 1931 the high and mighty gloated over the prostrate labour movement. MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas had deserted the Party which they and their associates had steered on to the rocks. The left was leaderless, weak and isolated. The workers were confused, helpless and hopeless.
Today the situation is reversed. The 1952 crisis has emerged from a victory of the Left over the Right which, for all its aggressiveness, is losing ground in the Party. The active majority of the workers is mobilised behind the leadership of the Left. Instead of demoralisation before the offensive of capitalist reaction, the movement is militantly determined to push ahead toward a socialist Britain.
For Labour, 1931 was a time of regression and defeat. 1952 is an occasion for renewed hopes and fresh advances. The class difference between the two periods is likewise mirrored in the big business press which hailed MacDonald as a hero-saviour of Britain, but now demands that Bevan and his associates be mercilessly crushed.
The present divergences within the Labour Party were not created by Morecambe. They have been developing for several years. The first symptoms were already discernible by 1949. They were brought into the open by the resignation of the three Bevanite members from the cabinet in 1951. They have been thrust to the centre of the stage by Morecambe and sharpened by what has happened since.
What lies at the root of these growing differences? And in what way can they find the best solution?
THE POST-WAR LABOUR GOVERNMENTS
The dissention between the old guard and the Party ranks which has ripened with Labour in opposition originated while Labour Held office. The current controversies cannot be understood except in the light of the experience of the past seven years.
When the British voters booted Churchill out and put Labour in, they were not endorsing the war time coalition but emphasising their desire for a decisive break with the old order. Labour’s triumph in 1945 was the English expression of the tidal wave of anti-capitalist feeling and revolutionary hope that surged throughout Europe and Asia after the darkness of the war years.
Labour’s tenure in office from 1945 to 1951 provided a monumental school of political education for the British working class. They learned both from its considerable achievements and from its glaring faults and failures.
On the credit side, the workers became convinced that Labour and its representatives, inadequate though they might be, took better care of peoples’ welfare and could manage the nation’s affairs more competently that any capitalist party. They welcomed the nationalisations as steps away from the chaos of private enterprise toward a more rational economy. They received valuable benefits from the National Health Scheme and other extensions of the social services. They saw that full employment could be maintained in peacetime as well as war and vowed never again to be hurled on to the dole. They were given glimpses of what a Labour regime could accomplish and even more, what a socialist future could bring.
The outstanding debit item on the balance sheet of the Labour government was undoubtedly its foreign policy. The spate of critical resolutions submitted to the Conference indicated how the Party ranks viewed that. They strongly opposed the exorbitant arms budget imposed by the Atlantic Alliance with its damaging effects upon social benefits and living standards. They were disappointed by the failure of the second Labour government to bring forth a more extensive programme of nationalisation or to enact measures for widening democratic participation and control by the workers in the nationalised industries. They felt that the general staff of the Right Wing, having raised the banner of “consolidation”, was letting the movement drift closer to conservatism both at home and in foreign affairs.
THE COLLAPSE OF FABIAN GRADUALISM
The representatives of the rank and file vented their discontent with the Old Guard on specific issues at Morecambe without generalising the ground of their opposition or bothering to consider the basic reasons for the behaviour of the Right Wing leaders. What was at the bottom of the flabbiness displayed by the Labour government, especially during the latter part of its term in office?
This feebleness demonstrated in practice the limitations of the Fabian gradualism which had been its philosophical guide for so many years. Fabianism proposed to refashion capitalism bit by bit, and step by step, until someday, somehow, it would be totally transformed into its opposite, from a system of exploitation, oppression, want and war into a co-operative commonwealth where all people of good will would live and work in fraternal harmony.
In the prolonged period of transition from capitalism to socialism there would have to be an agreed-upon division of power, property, income and functions between Capital and Labour. Labour would share power in Westminster and it the localities with the capitalist parties, alternating office with them as in a gentlemanly cricket game. In the economic domain state and municipal ownership would operate side by side with private enterprise; the two sectors would both compete and collaborate in this mixed economy. Government regulation would ensure that the public interest was safeguarded while government economic policy would see that the yearly national income was “fairly” shared among all classes. An educated corps of civil servants, expert executives, and board officials would administer government departments and supervise industry, while the unions, co-operatives and similar mass organisations would exercise certain checks and controls upon them.
However, there was one big joker in this deal. Labour would have to keep its place as a subordinate partner in this carefully contrived and indefinitely prolonged collaboration of class forces. The whole social structure would be thrown into disorder if Labour stepped out of line and threatened to act as the major decisive force. Such “Bolshevik” behaviour could not be countenanced in the properly regulated Fabian scheme of things.
Of course, the British ruling class would rather not see Labour in power at all, just as it would prefer to see trade unionism eliminated, but, unlike the German and Italian capitalists of the pre- war years, they were in no position to strike at Labour’s political and industrial organisations through fascism. They had to find some mode of co-existence with the Labour movement. They were most favourably inclined towards Fabianism precisely because its representatives sought to restrain Labour within bounds compatible with the continued existence of capitalism.
The brutal behaviour of the Tories in the 1926 General Strike showed what they were ready to do whenever Labour was goaded to challenge capitalist supremacy. On the other hand, this also warned the capitalist rulers of the need to seek collaboration with compliant sections of the Labour leadership to avert further head-on collisions.
This collaboration was closely cemented at the beginning of the war only to be disrupted at its close. In 1945 the Right Wing took complete charge of the government with an unexampled opportunity to carry out their ideas. Fabianism was put to the test under the most favourable political conditions – but this time without the camouflage of any coalition or the excuse of being in a minority.
The results are a matter of history; they can be judged by the movement. The verdict Morecambe passed on this experiment is – “tried and found wanting”.
REFORM OR REVOLUTION?
The question of abolishing capitalism and arriving at socialism by way of partial parliamentary reforms or through sweeping measures and revolutionary action has been debated for a long time in the British and world labour and socialist movements. The Right Wing has always been the champion of gradual, oh so gradual, evolution. But this problem is now being presented to the British nation and its working class in a somewhat different and quite unexpected way.
The post-war Labour governments instituted far-reaching reforms in the social and economic structure of British capitalism without touching its foundations. The ranks insist upon an even more drastic programme of nationalisations. But British capitalism has become so decrepit and its empire is so close to collapse that it cannot survive many more operations of this type. More nationalisations, more reforms, more social welfare threaten it with slow death. The irony of the situation is that more doses of reform have revolutionary implications in the present feeble state of British and world capitalism.
On the other hand, labour movement has become increasingly conscious of its powers and more and more determined to wield them for socialist purposes. It is pressing ever harder at a time when the capitalist regime lacks its former resources and resilience to cope with this mortal danger to its predominance.
Much is heard about the disequilibrium in the terms of world trade which prevents British economy from stabilising itself and gives rise to recurrent crises. But nothing is said of the no less important disequilibrium in the relations between the classes which has grown out of these international economic conditions and produces such sharp conflicts here at home.
Thus the old internal balance of forces in the economic and political spheres upon which Fabianism depended has been rapidly altered and is on the verge becoming radically reversed. The old division of property and power which enabled capitalism to dominate the nation can no longer be maintained except through the most artful manipulations or furious convulsions.
Under pressure from the masses the post-war Labour governments speeded up the undermining of the old regime without carrying the process through to its logical conclusion of dislodging and destroying it. They went about as far as gradualism could in modifying British capitalism while leaving its fundamental privileges and powers intact. To cut deeper into its tissues would come close to excising its most vital organs.
Faced with this prospect, the Right Wing leadership in 1948 flinched and drew back. They were not trained for such operations. They were educated to be the repairers and collaborators of capitalism, not its grave-diggers.
This helps explain the paralysis that afflicted the post-war Labour government and has so perplexed and frustrated the ranks of the Party. The fear of tampering with the foundations of capitalism lies at the bottom of the crisis affecting the Labour leadership.
This situation was not wilfully created by anyone. It has been the inescapable outcome of the whole development of social struggles in Great Britain during the first half century. The slowdown in the first post-war Labour government, followed by the breakdown of the second, stems from the incapacity of the Right Wing leaders to understand the essential features of this new stage in the relations between capital and labour in this country and the new tasks it dictates to Labour’s leaders. The Fabian philosophy which dares not transgress the limits of capitalism is absolutely unsuitable to the conditions which call for the most radical measures against capitalist power and privilege.
THE WELFARE STATE
Early this year a group of prominent Labour thinkers produced an attempt to modernise the doctrines of Fabianism. It is not clear from an attentive reading of the articles in New Fabian Essays whether the contributors really wanted to praise Fabianism or bury it.
In any case, they made two points plain. These former MP’s and cabinet members recognised the inadequacies of the original Fabianism and connected it with the “loss of momentum” and sense of direction that befell the Labour government. They could hardly be expected to affirm that this failure signified the exhaustion of Fabianism – for were they not engaged in refurbishing it and adapting it to contemporary conditions? On the other hand, they were unable to offer an adequate explanation of what went wrong and why. How did the Labour government get derailed?
The Editor, Mr. R. H. Crossman, gave one important clue. The Right Wing defends its record in office by boasting of its success in establishing the Welfare State in Great Britain, something quite difference from American free enterprise or Russian communism. Mr. Crossman makes an extremely significant observation on this matter. “In the first post war months”, he writes, “the British people were ready to accept the peaceful socialist revolution, and if what it got was merely Welfare Capitalism, the fault lay with the politicians and not with the public.”
This is a severe but a correct judgment. The people wanted and expected socialism; they were given Welfare Capitalism. The substitute has turned out to be extremely unsatisfying. The Tories naturally hate whatever welfare is in it, although they thank their lucky stars for its capitalism. The workers like the welfare, but the capitalism prevents them from solving their vital problems.
The middle-class elements were so annoyed by this hybrid that they helped the Conservatives return to Westminster in 1951.
This was a setback for the Labour Party. But it was no defeat for the socialist programme which its leadership had failed to apply consistently. It was a condemnation of the Welfare Capitalism submitted by the Right Wing in place of a sustained drive toward socialism. It was the reaction of the people to that Fabianism which promised so much and performed so little.
What is a gradualist? “A gradualist is one who has a valid claim for a pound, demands a shilling, proclaims a great victory when he gets a farthing, and is then dismayed to find that higher prices have taken that away from him.” Let this be the epitaph of Fabianism.
ONE YEAR OF TORY MISRULE
The foremost agitator against capitalism is capitalism itself. This is being proved anew by the present Tory government. If the Welfare State grew unpopular under Attlee, Cripps and Morrison, it is becoming unbearable under Churchill and Butler’s administration.
The fact that British capitalism is sliding downhill does not mean it has become milder in disposition or less harmful. The weaker it grows, the more desperate and vicious it shows itself to be, the more it must support itself at the expense of the masses, and the sterner its resistance to further changes which threaten it with total dispossession.
All the familiar “iniquities and iniquities” of capitalism are now reasserting themselves. Higher prices and reduced consumption of food. Curtailed social services in the face of deepening misery and want. Textile, furniture and shoe factories shutting down while people go without. Less housing – more guns, tanks and bombs. Tax favours for the upper crust – reduced real incomes for the poor. Wage-restraint for the workers – record profits for the employers. Production and exports falling while unemployment doubles and short time spreads. Luxury on top - growing hunger and insecurity below.
The Tories have not adopted their economic policy out of sheer malice. Several of their measures were already fore-shadowed by Sir Stafford Cripps. It has been dictated by the decline of British capitalism which itself is a product of the disintegration of international capitalism. The capitalist world market has been severely contracted by the withdrawal of large areas from its control through the revolutionary developments following the war all the way from Eastern Europe to China. Whatever sap and strength is left in the old economy is concentrated in North America. Its European and British branches are blighted, withering, and rotting away. We see the evil fruits this is bringing today in Britain.
The Tory policies have only one merit. They have shown the British people, and especially the younger generation, what naked, unrestrained capitalist rule is really like. The past year has deepened the revulsion of the workers against the system Toryism represents and stiffened their resolve to get rid of it as soon as possible.
Wearied with trying to manage a decomposing capitalism for the benefit of the people, the Right Wing leaders were relieved to retire from Westminster in 1951 and turn over that task to the Tories. They appear to be in no haste to resume office as receivers and caretakers of a social system heading towards bankruptcy. But the workers don’t want to see the Tory wreckers stay in power for the full five years. They want to oust the Tories and get on with the job of removing capitalism which was begun in 1945, halted in 1949, and shelved since then.
THE MEANING OF MORECAMBE
This was the background for Morecambe. The delegates were sent there by the active Party workers who are in daily touch with the voters to do the following things. Revise Party policy to give it a more radical and militant character. Offer a clear socialist alternative to Conservatism, strengthen the movement for the coming showdown with the Tories, and equip it for the next stage in the e-construction of Britain along socialist lines. Put in a leadership capable of doing the job.
It is a law of political struggle, as well as of the physical world that forward movement generates friction and heat. What counts in politics, however, is not the incidental friction and heat, but the progress made by change of positions. The contest between the stand-patters and the representatives of the ranks resulted in three important steps forward. First, the drift of the Party towards conservatism was repudiated and reversed. Second, certain extremely significant amendments were made to the proposed documents on foreign and domestic policy. Third, a Bevanite leadership was chosen to replace the agents of the discredited Old Guard and to pilot the Party for the next year.
Every genuine mass movement which ossifies at the top can renew its vitality only through the resurgence of new ideas and fresh forces from its midst. That is what happened at Morecambe.
A LESSON IN DEMOCRACY
Morecambe not only exemplified the virility and militancy of the movement but also its desire for genuine democracy. This word is often on the lips of the right wing leaders. But they have a bad habit of thinking and acting as though the Labour Party, the trade unions or the Labour government were their private property, and that the rank-and-file interference should be kept to a minimum. Hugh Gaitskell expressed this attitude when he characterised the Morecambe delegation as “the unthinking mob”.
The Party members rightly believe that the movement is primarily their affair and they should have the deciding voice on questions of policy and leadership. They exercised these rights somewhat boisterously at Morecambe, where they asserted their authority to change the direction of party activity.
This jolted and revolted the over-complacent Right Wing. But it was an encouraging manifestation of democratic processes correcting those who had lost touch with the sentiments of the ranks. At one point in the Morecambe debates, M.P. George Brown, an arch-exponent of the right, shouted, “This Party has lost its head!” A delegate who followed him replied, “You are wrong – it has regained its self- respect.” This little exchange dramatized the contrast between the oligarchs and the spokesman for the membership.
THE ANTI-BEVANITE CAMPAIGN
In the hullabaloo and hurly-burly since Morecambe, it may easily be overlooked that the decisions taken there in response to rank and file pressure greatly satisfied the activists in the Party and, from all reports, most of the working people. They felt it was a victory for their views and a big step along the right road.
This is the most important feature of the Morecambe Conference. The fury whipped up by the press lords against the proceedings should not be permitted to obscure this fact.
Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunts in the United States are the only thing comparable to this anti-Bevanite press campaign – and both have been inspired by equally reactionary motives. The hue and cry against Bevanism comes in the first place from the counting houses and country houses of the rich. They want to sow confusion and panic in order to forestall further advances by the Labour movement, especially to protect their property against new nationalisation measures. That beagle of the financial interests, The Economist, revealed this in its editorial alarm immediately after Morecambe, when it questioned whether the present electoral system shouldn’t be changed “to fend off the catastrophe” of a Bevanite Labour government. They regard Bevanism, the label given to the present radical temper of the people, as a threat to both their privileges and to the execution of their imperialist plans and war preparations.
Even the supposedly liberal organ, the Manchester Guardian, cries, “A Labour government with a Bevanite programme would be a disaster!” (13 Nov 1952). We might ask, “for whom?”
However, neither big business nor its press can hope to change the situation within the working class. For this they need assistance from influential figures and forces within the movement itself. These experts applied their smear, scare, and terror techniques to create an atmosphere for putting pressure upon susceptible elements in the Right Wing to carry forward this campaign. The roster of those who have joined the anti-Bevanite chorus shows that they have been conspicuously successful in this aim.
The Right Wing leaders undoubtedly sincerely believe that the Bevanite movement is a challenge which cannot be ignored and a menace which must be contained and crushed. This would be the logical conclusion from their positions, policy and outlook which leads them to collaboration in the operation of capitalism at home and alignment with American imperialism in foreign affairs. But a huge obstacle stands in their way – the mass of the movement itself. How can this be purged when over 90 per cent of the workers are infected to one degree or another with “Bevanitis”? This is the organisational problem the Right Wing master-minds are now grappling with.
The chances of ultimate success in this endeavour are far from bright for them. The existing relationship of forces in the Party, and even more, the tide of developments in the country, are running against them. Although they are shrewd politicians and experienced strategists, they do not understand the power of the revolutionary developments in the colonies and elsewhere today, so they do not grasp the depth of the changes taking place under their noses.
That is why they were taken aback by what happened at Morecambe and find themselves in such sharp opposition to their own rank and file both in the party and in the trade unions.
THE RIGHT WING AND THE LEFT
The events since Morecambe have shown that this Conference did not definitively settle the main questions in the dispute within the Party. On the contrary they have been more acutely posed by the clashes which have occurred since then.
These differences and conflicts do not depend upon individuals, no matter how prominent. The leading individuals themselves derive their importance and their influence far more from the philosophies, positions, programmes and forces they symbolise in the eyes of the working class public than from their personal qualities. Those who attribute the prevailing mood of the movement to the demagogy of individuals would do well to reflect of the following remarks from the French historian Michelet:
“The deeper I have excavated, the more surely I have satisfied myself that the best was underneath, in the obscure depths. And I have realised that it is quite wrong to take these brilliant and powerful talkers, who expressed the thought of the masses, for the sole actor in the drama. They were given the impulse by others much more than they gave it themselves. The principle actor is the people.”
If the broadest line was drawn between them, the contending sides would shape up as follows: The camp on the right embraces all those elements who stubbornly cling to the outworn ideas and mistaken policies of the past and persist in defending and maintaining them when the time has come to shake them off. They not only refuse to march along with the leftward swing of the masses, but actively or passively resent and resist it, striving to head it off and even behead it.
On the other side, which is popularly designated as Bevanite, are all those forces who, regardless of their previous positions and recent differences, have absorbed certain lessons from the post-war experience and are seeking to overcome the defects of the past. They wish to adopt and implement a programme of action that more closely conforms to the realities, needs and aspirations of the socialist and labour cause at this critical juncture of its evolution in England.
Jenny Lee gave a pithy definition of the difference between the Right Wing and the Left in the 10 October Tribune: “Some people are afraid of the consequences of applying their socialist principles. Others are afraid of the consequences of not applying them”, she said.
Let us see how this distinction works out on such a crucial question as the public versus the private ownership of the basic means of production.
THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC OWNERSHIP
The 1951 Handbook for Socialists published by the Labour Party says: “The British economy is a mixed economy. Our major basic industries, like coal, gas, electricity and transport, are publicly owned. But private industry still employs four-fifths of the total number of industrial workers in this country.”
These three sentences well summarise the present problem of our home economy. The post-war Labour governments nationalised a number of basic industries and, according to its own figures, so redistributed the national income that the wage earners received ten percent more than before and profiteers that much less. These were excellent reforms, but they did not change the essential nature of the economy. The capitalists retain four-fifths of industry under their direct ownership while at least one fourth of the national income still goes every year to the profit, interest and rent of this class. In this way these parasites maintain their domination over the lives of the people.
Centralised operation of the nationalised means of production has greatly benefitted the nation and the workers in these industries, and proved to be far more efficient than the monopolist combinations or capitalist competition. That is one reason why the Tories are so anxious to wreck these nationalised industries and restore them to private owners. But if government ownership and control has improved conditions within these industries, it has fallen far short of solving the basic problems of directing and planning the economy as a whole. In fact, it has served to accumulate these difficulties.
In 1858, two years before the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made prophetic speech in which he declared to the compromisers with the slave power of his day: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave half-free … It will become all one thing or all the other.”
This is precisely the predicament confronting Great Britain today. Labour is pledged to plan the national economy in the interests of the public and the producers. But a system which is one-fifth pubic owned and operated, and four fifths private owned and operated cannot really be planned or made to function efficiently and harmoniously. The two opposing sectors tend to work at cross-purposes, no matter how watchful and extensive government regulation may be.
That is not the most of the matter. The private sector not only far outweighs the public part but subordinates and exploits it for its own anarchic, profit seeking aims. As the Handbook for Socialists itself points out: “Private industry will not function without the expectation of profit. However much Labour deplores the profit motive, in a mixed economy such as ours the incentive for profit has to remain.”
Consequently when the Labour government takes over, it has to administer this mixed economy in such a way as to assist private enterprise to earn adequate profits. Otherwise it will stop running. Every worker knows how lush these profits have been in the post-war years. Even capitalists displaced from nationalised industry have done well by reinvesting indemnities in other sectors. In addition, the old owners hold a heavy mortgage of government bonds with which they were handsomely compensated for their property. For example, the former coal owners were paid £50,000,000 in interest last year!
The workers in private industry are not disposed to see their conditions worsen and be subjected to profiteering and disorder, while their comrades labour in protected public sectors. This is especially true of workers in closely allied industries. Moreover, the workers in nationalised industries know that their own conditions are not secure so long as the Conservatives and capitalists have the upper hand.
BACKWARD OR FORWARD?
What is to be done? The simple solution of the Tories is to hand everything back to the privateers. The delegates at both the Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party Conference gave a fitting answer to this by resolving to resist denationalisation to the utmost. But they went much beyond that. They voted to pass over to the offensive by extending nationalisation to other key industries as soon as Labour gets back in power and break the monopolist stranglehold once and for all.
Here is another reason for panic in the right wing. They are not happy at this development. Many Right Wing leaders on the T.U.C. General Council and the Labour Party Executive are, to say the least, reluctant to proceed with a bold programme of expanding public ownership. Arthur Deakin and others openly opposed it at Margate. Others of the Party leaders have taken up a more evasive attitude. At Leicester, on 25 October, Herbert Morrison said that the next policy declaration of the Party should “seek a somewhat more elaborate and general mandate for public enterprise in relation to stated conditions” for the nation.
It would violate the expressed will of the Morecambe Conference and be unworthy of a socialist leadership to play hide and seek with the nation and the working class on a matter of such importance. The national leadership must work out a specific programme of major nationalisations to be put into effect as soon as it returns to office.
Certain Fabians are preaching that nationalisations are not essential for socialism. Even the Tories know better han that. It is absolutely impossible to organise and plan an economy along socialist lines unless the main means of production and exchange are publicly owned and centrally controlled.
This is a key question in the struggle to achieve socialism in Great Britain. Either the Tories will dismantle and destroy public property for the benefit of the stock-jobbing clients – or the Labour movement must go forward to take over all the strategic departments of the economy. The devotees of the present mixed economy among the Right Wing would like to deny and ignore these alternatives. But they cannot do so.
Part of the support Aneurin Bevan has among the workers comes from his recognition of this fact and his vigorous championship of more nationalisations as the only basis for a planned economy.
LABOUR’S FOREIGN POLICY IN EVOLUTION
Despite the volume of critical resolutions from the constituencies, the delegates did not make so big a break with the Right Wing at Morecambe on foreign policy as on other issues. In the main they went along with continuing the Atlantic Alliance and its associated measures. At the same time, they insisted upon significant amendments which disclosed their dissatisfaction with that policy and their intention to hedge about its application with important reservations.
Our resolution unanimously adopted contained these five points:
(a) No agreements with such anti-working class forces as Franco
(b) Stick to socialist principles, and refuse to subordinate them to American, Russian, or any other
(c) Promote East-West trade
(d) Resist the use of Britain’s military strength as a means of enforcing territorial changes in
Eastern Europe and elsewhere. (e) Refuse to condemn the risings of the oppresses peoples as Soviet-inspired plots, and affirm
that peace can best be secured by seeing that maximum aid is given to undeveloped areas.
All these modifications conform to a more independent and anti-imperialist course in external affairs. But it is equally necessary to note that they run into headlong conflict with the aims and actions of U.S. imperialism, to which Britain is bound by the Atlantic Alliance.
Washington not only seeks alliance with Franco but subsidises the deadliest enemies of the working class from Chiang Kai-Shek in Asia to the ex-Nazi generals in Germany. As the mainstay of world capitalism, the dollar diplomats are hostile to all socialist principles and to every move towards socialism which can be brought about only at the expense of capitalism. Through the Cold War blockade and the Battle Act, they are primarily responsible to restricting East-West trade. The Republican and Democratic parties have vied with each other to prove that every national liberation movement in the colonial world is engineered from the Kremlin and must be opposed and stamped out on that account.
Can the admirable propositions in this resolution be realised by clinging to the Right Wing foreign policy which is wholly orientated on the American Alliance? Is it possible to sympathise with the colonial peoples fighting for their freedom in Korea, Malaya, China, Persia, Egypt and Africa – and remain entangled with the imperialist coalition against them? Or to seek closed economic ties and mutual relations with anti-capitalist countries which are trying to build their economies along socialist lines – and line up with the plutocratic powers which are working to disrupt and destroy them? Or to co-operate with working class movements on all the continents – and be in league with the very capitalist classes they are pitted against? Or to defend peace - and be banded together with the makers of war?
These inconsistences show that the broad Left Wing has yet to take into account the full implications of its distrust for the old foreign policy. It has turned away from this policy without as yet working out a consistently socialist course. But, as the case of Korea has already proved, it is not possible to straddle conflicting class positions on life-and-death questions in foreign affairs. That will prove even harder to do than to preserve a mixed, or rather muddled, economy here at home. Sooner or later, one side or the other must be definitively chosen.
LOOMING THREATS OF CRISIS AND WAR
The current crisis in the Labour Party has so exceptional an urgency and sharp an edge because of the speed with which international events are moving, bringing with them the twin threats of economic slowdown or a new world war. It should be kept in mind that the last Labour government functioned under peace-time conditions favoured by a sellers’ world market. A new Labour government would have to take office with clouds of war thickening overhead and a downturn in world capitalist economy.
Signs of a slump have already appeared, even though the Conservative-controlled press maintains a conspiracy of silence around it. Production has fallen below the 1951 level. Since the first half of 1952, total exports have dropped 13 per cent. After the recession in textiles and other consumer goods, the engineering trade upon which the export drive hinges has been hit. One fifth of the nation’s dock-workers are jobless. Unemployment and short-time are rapidly mounting.
What will the leadership do if Labour takes over under these conditions? Follow MacDonald’s footsteps who tried to salvage a shipwrecked capitalism by squeezing the life-blood out of the working people? That would be even more dangerous and disastrous than in 1931, for two reasons. On the one hand, British capitalism has even less to give than it did then; on the other, the workers wouldn’t take it.
Having passed through the bitter days of MacDonaldism, the pre-war years, and after the experience of the post-war Labour governments, the British worker is a different human being. He has become accustomed to expect improvement in social and working conditions and is aware that he and his mates possess the power and the means to achieve them. No amount of soft talk can eradicate this profoundly revolutionary factor from his psychology.
Sensing the cold blasts of the incipient crisis, certain Right Wing spokesmen are already talking about the need to go slow, to give up hope of improvement, and refrain from any more anti-capitalist measures. They even hint at accepting lower standards to stabilise the listing economy, help the export drive, save the balance of payments, and incidentally, the profit margins of the bosses. This is the start of the slippery slope that can end only in MacDonaldism.
For Fabians, the socialist programme is something pleasant to contemplate in fair weather. But as soon as storms blow up, it must be stowed away for the duration. They shrink from applying appropriate remedies for the malignant maladies of a mortally stricken capitalism. Their formula for salvation is to ask the working class to make sacrifices. The workers have time and again demonstrated their capacities for sacrifice in a good cause. But they must first be convinced that the demands upon them are fully justified and made in their interest. They will not consent to give up their aims to save once more an unworthy and incurable social system.
Genuine socialists have an altogether different conception of the value and necessity of socialist ideas and methods. We don’t expect to overcome the inescapable consequences of capitalist anarchy and greed by capitalist measures. If we thought that, we would be Tories or Liberals. Furthermore, MacDonald and Churchill have tried that out before.
A Labour Party dedicated to socialism can cope with the problems posed by capitalist decay only by putting its own socialist programme into effect and thereby proving in practice the superiority of our procedures over theirs. Aneurin Bevan was right when he explained on the first day at Morecambe that the only effective way to combat unemployment and other scourges of capitalist depression was to go ahead and apply socialist measures and create a planned economy.
Such a socialist policy is closely connected with the struggle for peace. The same delegate who rebuked George Brown at Morecambe declared that: “to take the profit out of war is to help save the peace”. This hit the nail on the head. The “merchants of death” on both sides of the Atlantic could be delivered no bigger blow than for British Labour to take power, hasten the elimination of capitalism here, and show the rest of the world what a peaceful socialist Britain could accomplish.
THE CHOICE BEFORE US
Three main programmes are contending for the allegiance of the British people today. One is Toryism, which seeks to prolong, by fraud if it can, by force if it must, the mastery of a parasitic plutocracy which should long ago have been laid in the grave beside the feudal aristocracy. This programme has no attraction of interest for the educated and organised working class of our day which understands the necessity for a new social order.
The choice for the working class, therefore, narrows down to the other two, which find their expression in the two wings of the Labour movement. The Right offers the creed of Fabianism, the practice of class collaboration in a capitalist welfare state based upon a mixed economy, and subservience to U.S. imperialism on the foreign field.
The fault of Fabianism is not that it insists upon reforms, but that it never intends to pass beyond them. The Marxist too, believes that reforms are necessary and beneficial, but in themselves they do not go far enough. They must be used as springboards and footholds for overcoming the whole of capitalism, not for tinkering with this of that part of it.
The Fabians contend that their piecemeal passage is the better road to socialism and better suited to the British traditions and sentiment. The Marxists reply that the Fabian road ends in a blind alley and does not lead the movement to its socialist goal at all. Even the reforms gained under favourable conditions are hacked away under conditions of capitalist reaction, crisis and war. Once economic stagnation sets in, the Fabians Welfare State quickly turns into an Ill-Fare state. This is no more a matter of theory. It is becoming a grim reality in Britain today.
That is why British labour needs and is demanding a new philosophy, a new leadership, a new outlook. The day for half-way measures and half-hearted actions has passed. Capitalism itself is forcing the movement to go all the way. At the next opportunity, Labour must use the political power at its command to concentrate all the decisive means of production under public control, give the workers in these industries democratic participation in their operations, institute overall planning of our national resources, and use them for the common good in the realisation of socialist equality.
Only this great goal can inspire the Left Wing and enable it to emerge victorious. The Right Wing is content with “the minimum of socialism in the maximum of time”. Twenty years ago Herbert Morrison declared at Bristol: “Socialism in our time is all romanticism.” Whatever he thought then, or believes now, this cannot be the outlook for British Labour today. The working people will be satisfied with nothing less than “the maximum of socialism in the minimum of time”.
At every Party gathering some right wing orator invokes the memory of the pioneers who laid the foundations of the Labour Party. We say: “Let’s celebrate them less and imitate them more.” We may not have to create a Labour Party, but let’s use that instrument to fulfil its Socialist purposes. This cannot be done without encountering misrepresentation, opposition and abuse, and passing through bitter internal struggle. But the socialist pioneers of 1952 will no more be daunted by this than were the pioneer socialists at the turn of the century.
This article appeared in 1952 in Labour Review, the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party, shortly after the Labour Party Annual Conference at Morecambe. At that time, the RCP existed as a faction within the Labour Party and together with others constituted a “Left-Wing” of the Party.
The article concerns a crucial turning point in the history of the working class movement in Britain. The 1945 Labour Government, having been elected with a massive majority, had been obliged to take serious steps toward socialism, setting up the health and social security system, and nationalising the coal, rail, gas and transport industries.
However, from this point on the Labour leaders, the Right-Wing, began to retreat. All thought of further nationalisation ceased. In 1951 they published A Handbook for Socialists in which they declared, “Private industry will not function without the expectation of profit. However much Labour deplores the profit motive, in a mixed economy such as ours the incentive for profit has to remain.”
This acceptance that capitalism must remain is clearly anathema to the struggle for socialism. It was the turning point of the class struggle for socialism in Britain; it was as far as we got. From that point on capitalism has reasserted itself in ever more draconian ways.
At the same time, this cowardly capitulation before the ruling class was the death knell of the Labour Party. Its subsequent history is one of continual retreat before capital to the point where it has been transformed into a qualitatively different kind of party, best described as “pseudo-Liberal”. It is nothing but the cadaver of its former self. Here is the inevitable fruit of the unscientific, non-Marxist, Utopian-Fabian “socialist” outlook.