Labour members want a new kind of politics

We need a brand new clause four

The battle with the right is sure to intensify after Corbyn’s re-election. As part of that battle James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists calls for the adoption of new principles

When Jeremy Corbyn is officially declared winner once again, a thorough-going review of our constitution surely ought to be put on the agenda. Understandably, clause four - agreed in 1918 and then rewritten under Tony Blair in 1995 - has been singled out by many. It carries totemic status for partisans both of the right and left.

But should the left seek to raise the 1918 Lazarus? Or should we audaciously reach out for another future? Asked last year if he wanted to bring back the old clause four, Corbyn said this: “I think we should talk about what the objectives of the party are, whether that’s restoring clause four as it was originally written or it’s a different one. But we shouldn’t shy away from public participation, public investment in industry and public control of the railways.”1

Very moderate. Nonetheless very welcome.

Of course, there are those now outside our ranks who are determined to look back. Dave Nellist - former Labour MP for Coventry South East, national chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and a leading member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - reportedly insisted that the old clause four must be “reinstated”.

As an aside, comrade Nellist said before Corbyn’s election as leader back in 2015 that he was “going to have to create a new party in the same way Tony Blair did in the 90s.”2 A good king/bad king contrivance forced upon SPEW because of its abject failure to recognise the underlying continuities amidst the retrogressive changes imposed during the 1990s. However, even the most blockheaded Victorian worshipper of royalty did not claim that - having succeeded his brother, the ‘good’ king Richard - the ‘bad’ king John founded a brand-new English kingdom.

SPEW seriously wants us to believe that Labour pre-1995 was a “political weapon for the workers’ movement” and that post-1995 it became a “British version of the Democrats in the USA”.3 Nonetheless in 2016 our supposedly capitalist party is preparing once again to announce Corbyn’s election as leader. A strategic misjudgement on SPEW’s part, to put it mildly. And, let us never forget, even after Corbyn first made it onto the ballot, SPEW was arguing that, the “sooner Unite breaks from Labour …, the better”.4 The unkind will call this a premeditated wrecking attempt; kinder souls will put it down to blundering idiocy.

Suffice to say, when it comes to clause four, SPEW is far from alone. As well as exiles, the mainstream Labour left also looks back to what is, in fact, an anti-working class tradition.


True, the 1918 clause four (part four) committed us to “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.

Mistakenly, this is often fondly remembered as a defining socialist moment. But when it was first drafted - amidst the slaughter of inter-imperialist war - the calculated aim of Sidney Webb, its Fabian author, was threefold.

Firstly, clause four socialism must be implicitly anti-Marxist. Webb well knew the history of the workers’ movement in Germany. Karl Marx famously mocked various passages in the Gotha programme (1875), not least those which declared that every worker should receive a “fair distribution of their proceeds of labour” and that “the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”.5 Contradictory and vacuous, concluded Marx. What is fair? What about replacement means of production? What about the expansion of production? What about those unable to work? More than that, Marx put these and other such woolly formulations down to an unneeded concession to the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle. His Workers’ programme (1862) called for “an equal right to the undiminished proceeds of labour”. Obviously Webb wanted to give clause four a distinct Lassallean coloration not out of admiration for Lassalle, but because he wanted to distance the Labour Party from Marxism.

Secondly, by adopting clause four socialism, the Labour Party could both distinguish itself from the exhausted, divided and rapidly declining Liberal Party and please the trade union bureaucracy. Since the 1890s the TUC had been drawing up various wish lists of what ought to be nationalised: eg, rails, mines, electricity, liquor and land. Clause four socialism also usefully went along with the grain of Britain’s wartime experience. There was steadily expanding state intervention in the economy. Nationalisation was, as a result, widely identified with efficiency, modernisation and beating the foreign enemy. It therefore appealed to technocratically minded elements amongst the middle classes.

Thirdly, clause four socialism could be used to divert the considerable rank-and-file sympathy that existed for the Russian Revolution into safe, peaceful and exclusively constitutional channels. That did not stop prime minister David Lloyd George from declaring, in his closing speech of the 1918 general election campaign, that the “Labour Party is being run by the extreme pacifist Bolshevik group”.6

Almost needless to say, clause four was mainly for show. A red ribbon around what was the standing programme of social liberalism. Yet, even if it had been put into effect, clause four socialism would remain statist, elitist and antithetical to working class self-liberation. Capitalism without capitalists does not count amongst our goals. Railways, mines, land, electricity, etc, passes into the hands of the British empire state.7 Capitalist owners are bought out. Eased into a comfortable retirement. But, as they vacate the field of production, a new class of state-appointed managers enters the fray. In terms of the division of labour, they substitute for the capitalists. The mass of the population, meanwhile, remain exploited wage-slaves. They would be subject to the same hierarchal chain of command, the same lack of control, the same mind-numbing routine.

Marxism, by contrast, is based on an altogether different perspective. If it is to win its freedom, the working class must overthrow the existing state. But - and this is crucial - in so doing the proletariat “abolishes itself as a proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and antagonisms, abolishes also the state as state”.8 Capitalist relations of production and the whole bureaucratic state apparatus are swept away. Every sphere of social life sees control exercised from below. All positions of command are elected or chosen by lot and are regularly rotated. Hierarchy is flattened. Alienation is overcome. What is produced and how it is produced radically alters too. Need, not exchange, is the ruling principle. And such an association of producers alone can create the benign conditions which allow for the full development of each and every individual.

Admittedly, the old clause four resulted from a far-reaching cultural shift - the Russian Revolution has already been mentioned. But there is also the 1867 Reform Act and the extension of the franchise, the considerable popularity of socialist propaganda, the growth of trade unions, the formation of the Labour Party and the horrors of World War I. Because of all this, and more, capitalism was widely considered abhorrent, outmoded and doomed. As a concomitant, socialism became the common sense of the organised working class.9

Of course, what the Fabians meant by socialism was a self-proclaimed extension of social liberalism. The Fabians would gradually expand social welfare provision and harness the commanding heights of the economy with a view to promoting the national interest.

In other words, the Fabians consciously sought to ameliorate the mounting contradictions between labour and capital and thus put off socialism. As Fredrick Engels damningly noted, “fear of revolution is their guiding principle”.10 And, needless to say, the years 1918-20 witnessed army mutinies, colonial uprisings, a massive strike wave and brutal Black and Tan oppression meted out in Ireland.

Interestingly, before 1918, attempts to commit the party to socialism met with mixed success. The 1900 founding conference rejected the “class war” ultimatum tabled by the Social Democratic Federation.11 Despite that, conference voted to support the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The next year a socialistic motion moved by Bruce Glasier was defeated. In 1903 another socialistic motion fell, this time without debate. Two years later, conference passed a motion with the exact same wording. In 1907 the previous endorsement of socialism was overturned at the prompting of … Bruce Glasier. Despite that, the same conference agreed to set the goal of “socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange”.12

The explanation for the seesawing doubtless lies with electoral expediency. While most in the party leadership considered themselves socialists of a kind, they were mortally afraid of losing out in the polls. What appeared acceptable to likely voters set their limits. So, instead of fearlessly presenting a bold socialist vision and building support on that basis, Sidney Webb, Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald and co chased the capricious vagaries of popularity. With the radicalisation of 1918-20, socialist declarations were considered a sure way of adding to Labour’s ranks in parliament.13 Forming a government being both a means and an end.

Nevertheless, the Blairisation of clause four in 1995 was hugely symbolic, the ground being laid by the Eurocommunists and their Marxism Today journal. Socialism was declared dead and buried, the working class a shrinking minority. Only if Labour accepted capitalism and reached out to the middle classes would it have a future. Neil Kinnock, John Smith and finally Tony Blair dragged the party ever further to the right. Out went the commitment to unilateral disarmament, out went the commitment to comprehensive education, out went the commitment to full employment, out went the commitment to repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws, out went the commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

By sacrificing the old clause four in the full glare of publicity, Blair and his New Labour clique sought to appease the establishment, the City, the Murdoch empire, the global plutocracy. Capitalism would be absolutely safe in their hands. A New Labour government could be relied upon not even to pay lip service to a British version of state capitalism. Leftwingers such as Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone protested, trade union leaders grumbled, but the April 1995 special conference voted by 65% in favour of Blair’s new clause four.

Needless to say, his version is stuffed full of managerial guff and classless nonsense. Just what one would expect from the architect of New Labour. After all, one of Blair’s big ideas was to replace ‘socialism’ with ‘social-ism’. Another was communitarianism. But, of course, the media glowed with admiration. Crucially, Rupert Murdoch agreed to unleash his attack dogs: within a few months John Major was almost universally derided as a total incompetent and heading a sleaze-mired government.

Riding high in the opinion polls, Blair inaugurated a series of internal ‘reforms’. Conference was gutted. No longer could it debate issues, vote on policy or embarrass the leadership in front of the media. Instead the whole thing became a rubber-stamping exercise. Then there were the tightly controlled policy forums, the focus groups and the staffing of the party machine with eager young careerists (most on temporary contracts). Blair thereby asserted himself over the national executive committee … considerably reducing its effectiveness in the process.

Real Marxists, not fake Marxists, have never talked of reclaiming Labour. It has never been ours in the sense of being a “political weapon for the workers’ movement”. No, despite the electoral and trade union base, our party has been dominated throughout its entire history by professional politicians and trade union bureaucrats who in the last analysis serve not the interests of the working class, but the nation: ie, British capitalism.

By adopting a new, a Marxist-inspired, clause four, we can show that the Labour Party has become a party of the working class and a socialist party that welcomes into its ranks all good socialists.


1. The Independent August 21 2015.

2. Coventry Telegraph August 19 2015.

3. P Taaffe, ‘Can Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge help to develop the socialist left?’ The Socialist June 19 2015.

4. The Socialist July 1 2015.

5. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p83.

6. Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p64n.

7. The Fabians supported the British government in the 1899-1902 Boer War. They justified their stand in a pamphlet, edited by Bernard Shaw, Fabianism and the empire (1900). They did not want Britain to lose out when it came to the division of the world by the great imperial powers. As might be expected, the Fabians wanted a civilising British empire. The white dominions should be given self-government. However, “for the lower breeds” there should be a “benevolent bureaucracy” of British civil servants and military officials guiding them to “adulthood” (G Foote The Labour Party’s political thought London 1985, p29-30).

8. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p267.

9. ‘Common sense’ being the continuously changing but widely held outlook of various classes and strata. Gramsci called it “folklore of philosophy”, because it exists “halfway between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science and economics of the specialists” (A Gramsci Selections from the prison notebooks London 1973, p326n).

10. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York 2004, p83.

11. Though it had two guaranteed seats on the LRC’s leading body, the SDF disaffiliated in August 1901.

12. See RT McKenzie British political parties London 1963, pp465-71.

13. Labour gained 15 seats in the December 1918 general election, making it the fourth largest party in parliament after Bonar Law’s Tories, Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals and Sinn Féin. It had a total of 57 MPs.