Why revive a stinking corpse?
Jack Conrad questions the worth of the ‘Labour4Clause4’ campaign being promoted by Socialist Appeal. Instead of fostering illusions in Fabian socialism, surely the task of Marxists is to win the Labour Party to Marxist socialism
A hundred years ago this month, the Labour Party adopted its famous clause four - a declaration of aims and principles, which Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, tells us committed the party to “the socialist transformation of society”.1
Undoubtedly, clause four - rewritten under Tony Blair in 1995 - carries totemic status for partisans both of the right and left. But should the left seek to raise the 1918 corpse from its grave? Or should we audaciously reach out for another future? Socialist Appeal, the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, is fully committed to what is, in fact, an anti-working class tradition.2 It has thrown its weight behind the ‘Labour4Clause4’ campaign and has, so far, gained the backing of Ken Loach, the leftwing film director, MPs Dennis Skinner, Ian Mearns and Ronnie Campbell, and trade union leaders such as Ian Hodson and Ronnie Draper of the bakers’ union, and Steve Hedley of the RMT.
The February 1918 Labour Party conference agreed a new constitution. Clause four (of the party’s objects) committed Labour to these aims (subsequently amended in 1959):
1. To organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.
2. To cooperate with the general council of the Trades Union Congress, or other kindred organisations, in joint political or other action in harmony with the party constitution and standing orders.
3. To give effect as far as possible to the principles from time to time approved by the party conference.
4. 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.
5. Generally to promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people, and more particularly of those who depend directly upon their own exertions by hand or by brain for the means of life.
6. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in the commonwealth overseas with a view to promoting the purposes of the party, and to take common action for the promotion of a higher standard of social and economic life for the working population of the respective countries.
7. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in other countries and to support the United Nations and its various agencies and other international organisations for the promotion of peace, the adjustment and settlement of international disputes by conciliation or judicial arbitration, the establishment and defence of human rights, and the improvement of the social and economic standards and conditions of work of the people of the world.
As with comrade Sewell, this formulation - crucially its fourth subsection - is celebrated as being a defining socialist moment. Yet, when it was first mooted in November 1917 - amidst the slaughter of inter-imperialist war - Sidney Webb, its Fabian author, had no thought or intention of promoting genuine socialism.
Indeed the Fabian Society had long been known as the quintessential expression of opportunism in the British labour movement. Leaders such as Webb, George Bernard Shaw and William Harcourt, were pro-imperialist, eugenicist and thoroughly elitist. The Fabians wanted Britain to retain its global empire; defective men, women and children were to be dealt with by the means of a “lethal chamber”; and the working class educated in the sprit of their betters. Understandably, Fabian ‘socialism’ was gradualist, managerial and relied on an alliance with enlightened liberals: in other words, we have a variety of bourgeois socialism.
By cynical calculation Webb had three goals in mind.
- Firstly, 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”.3
- 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 foreign rivals. It therefore appealed to technocratically minded elements amongst the middle classes.
- Thirdly, clause four socialism must be implicitly anti-Marxist. Webb knew the history of the Social Democratic Party in Germany well. And, of course, Karl Marx had famously mocked various passages in its 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”.4 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 explained these and other such woolly formulations as unneeded concessions 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.
Almost needless to say, clause four was mainly for show. A red ribbon around what was Labourism’s standing programme of social liberalism. In parliament Labour supported Liberal governments and their palliative measures of social reform. Because of its alliance with the Liberal Party, the party even found itself divided over the abolition of the House of Lords and the fight for female suffrage. While a tiny minority - eg, George Lansbury and Keir Hardie - defended the suffragettes and their militant tactics, the majority craved respectability. As Ramsay MacDonald wrote, “The violent methods … are wrong, and in their nature reactionary and anti-social, quite irrespective of vote or no vote.”5
Even if it had been put into effect, clause four socialism remains antithetical to working class self-liberation. Capitalism without capitalists does not count amongst our goals. Railways, mines, land, electricity, etc, would pass into the hands of the British empire state.6 Capitalist owners would be 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 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”.7 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 alone such an association of producers creates the benign conditions which allows for the full development of each and every individual.
Admittedly, the old clause four resulted from progressive political developments. The Russian Revolution has already been mentioned. But there is also the formation of the Socialist International, the world-wide celebration of May Day, the considerable influence of the socialist press, the increased size of trade union membership, the formation of the shop stewards network and the election of a growing body of Labour MPs. Then there were the horrors of World War I. Because of all this, and more, capitalism was widely considered abhorrent, outmoded and doomed. Socialism more and more became the common sense of the organised working class.8
By contrast, Fabian socialism meant arguing against unconstitutional methods, slowly expanding the provision of social welfare and persuading all classes of the benefits that would come to the nation, if the commanding heights of the economy were put in state hands. In other words, the Fabians consciously sought to ameliorate the mounting contradictions between labour and capital … and thus put off socialism. Fredrick Engels branded the Fabians as a:
band of careerists who understand enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution, but could not possibly entrust this gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone … Fear of revolution is their guiding principle.9
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 Labour Party to socialism met with mixed success. The 1900 founding conference rejected the “class war” ultimatum tabled by the Social Democratic Federation.10 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”.11
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 - in other words, the popular press - 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 vagaries of popularity. With the growth of militancy and radicalism, socialist declarations were considered a sure way of adding to Labour’s ranks in parliament.12 Forming a government being both a means and an end.
Nevertheless, the Blairising of clause four in 1995 was hugely symbolic - the ground having been 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 to not even 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 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, 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, 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.
Calls for a return of the old clause four are therefore perfectly understandable. But why go back to a Fabian past? Instead we surely need to persuade members and affiliates to take up the cause of “replacing the rule of capital with the rule of the working class”. Our socialism would (a) introduce a democratically planned economy, (b) end the ecologically ruinous cycle of production for the sake of production and (c) move towards a stateless, classless, moneyless society that embodies the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” (see model motion below).
Towards that end our party must be reorganised from top to bottom. A special conference - say in the spring of 2019 - should be called by the NEC with a view to radically overhauling the constitution and rules and undertaking an across-the-board political reorientation.
As everyone knows, Labour members loathe the undemocratic rules and structures put in place by Blair. The joint policy committee, the national policy forums - the whole sorry rigmarole - should be junked. The NEC must be unambiguously responsible for drafting manifestos. And, of course, the NEC needs to be fully accountable to a sovereign conference.
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 base and trade union affiliations, the Labour Party has been dominated by career politicians and trade union bureaucrats: a distinct social stratum, which in the last analysis serves not the interests of the working class, but the continuation of capitalist exploitation.
Speaking in the context of the need for the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain to affiliate to the Labour Party, Lenin said this:
... whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers, but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.
Regarded from this - the only correct - point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the German social chauvinist murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht - JC].13
Despite all the subsequent changes, this assessment retains its essential purchase. Labour is still a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Of course, once Corbyn was formally announced leader of the Labour Party, on September 12 2015, things became more complex. Labour became a chimera. Instead of a twofold contradiction, we have a threefold contradiction. The left dominates both the top and bottom of the party.
Corbyn is not the equivalent of George Lansbury or Michael Foot - an elementary mistake. They were promoted by the labour and trade union bureaucracy after a severe crisis: namely Ramsay MacDonald’s treachery and James Callaghan’s winter of discontent. Corbyn’s leadership is, in the first instance, the result of an historic accident. The ‘morons’ from the Parliamentary Labour Party lent him their nomination. After that, however, Corbyn owes everything to the mass membership. Those already in and those coming in.
That has given us the possibility of attacking the rightwing domination of the middle - the councillors, Iain McNicol and his national and regional apparatus, the Parliamentary Labour Party - from below and above. No wonder the more astute minds of the bourgeois commentariat can be found expressing profound worries over the prospects of Labour being dominated by leftwing socialists, militant trade unions and Marxists.
Of course, there is the danger that Corbyn will be drawn into yet further rotten compromises. We have already seen Trident renewal, a ‘jobs and the economy’ Brexit and the disgraceful silence over the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. In other words, it would be fatal for the leftwing majority at a grassroots level to content itself with playing a support role for Corbyn. Nor should the role of the left be to provide a counterweight to the rightwing pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
No, the left needs to fight for its own aims and principles.
This branch/CLP notes that this year marks the centenary of the adoption of clause four by the Labour Party.
The old clause four was drafted by the Fabian leader, Sidney Webb, in order to divert the considerable rank-and-file sympathy that existed for the Russian Revolution into safe, peaceful and exclusively constitutional channels. Clause four was managerial, statist and predicated on the continuation of wage-slavery. It had nothing to do with putting an end to capitalism and bringing about the socialist transformation of society.
This branch/CLP notes that, by sacrificing the old clause four in the full glare of publicity, Tony 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.
The Labour Party has been transformed by the influx of tens of thousands of new members and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. This branch/CLP therefore believes that the time is ripe to commit the party to the following, genuinely socialist, version of clause four.
1. Labour is the federal party of the working class. We strive to bring all trade unions, cooperatives, socialist societies and leftwing groups and parties under our banner. We believe that unity brings strength.
2. Labour is committed to replacing the rule of capital with the rule of the working class. Socialism introduces a democratically planned economy, ends the ecologically ruinous cycle of production for the sake of production and moves towards a stateless, classless, moneyless society that embodies the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. Alone such benign conditions create the possibility of every individual fully realising their innate potentialities.
3. Towards that end Labour commits itself to achieving a democratic republic. The standing army, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the state sponsorship of the Church of England must go. We support a single-chamber parliament, proportional representation and annual elections.
4. Labour seeks to win the active backing of the majority of people and forming a government on this basis.
5. We shall work with others, in particular in the European Union, in pursuit of the aim of replacing capitalism with working class rule and socialism.
This branch/CLP calls for this version of clause four to be included as part of Labour’s constitution at the earliest opportunity.
[For trade unions: This branch/conference calls upon the union to campaign within the Labour Party at all levels for this version of clause four to be included as part of Labour’s constitution at the earliest opportunity.]
2. As are Socialist Appeal’s old comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales. After the 1991 split in the Militant Tendency, the minority around Ted Grant, Alan Woods and Rob Sewell became Socialist Appeal. The majority - around Peter Taaffe, Tony Mulhearn, Hannah Sell and Dave Nellist - evolved through Militant Labour and became SPEW in 1997. Needless to say, comrade Nellist - former Labour MP for Coventry South East and nowadays national chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, insists that the 1918 clause four must be “reinstated” (Coventry Telegraph August 19 2015).
3. Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p64n.
4. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p83.
5. Socialist Review August 1912 - quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p25n.
6. 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).
7. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p267.
8. ‘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).
9. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York 2004, p83.
10. Though it had two guaranteed seats on the LRC’s leading body, the Social Democratic Federation disaffiliated in August 1901.
11. See RT McKenzie British political parties London 1963, pp465-71.
12. 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.
13. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-58.