Leave the old where it belongs

Let it rot in the grave

Labour should not revive the old Fabian clause four, says Jack Conrad. Instead a new, genuinely socialist version is needed

John McDonnell told the Labour Party’s Liverpool conference that it is “time to give people back control over their lives”. Revealingly, when exactly people had “control over their lives” went completely unexplored. Nevertheless, in the name of his thoroughly Keynesian economic programme, this supposed Marxist proceeded to champion Labour’s old clause four - adopted, of course, in February 1918. McDonnell insisted that the “clause four principles are as relevant today” for the “challenges of the modern economy” as they were “back then.”1

Apart from the champions of entrenched power and privilege - the Tories, BBC, Murdoch’s press, The Daily Telegraph, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Progress, Labour First, etc, etc - McDonnell’s speech got a generally positive reception. Naturally, the delegates loved it. Visitors too. Inevitably, he got his standing ovation. In a “snap verdict” The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow applauded McDonnell’s “inherent seriousness”.2 Even the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush offered grudging praise for the “sexy” presentation.3 Meanwhile, in Labour Heartlands, Paul Knaggs offered gushing, albeit rather incoherent, support: McDonnell set “an inspirational outlook to a 21st century model, with Labour rebuilding Britain a reality for the many, not the few”.4 “[B]rilliant stuff,” chimed Daniel Morley of Socialist Appeal.5

Socialist Appeal, the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, has been pushing the ‘Labour4Clause4’ campaign over the last year and has, so far, gained the backing of Ken Loach, the celebrated film director, MPs Dennis Skinner, Clive Lewis, 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. According to the campaign’s website, clause four committed Labour to “the socialist transformation of society”.6


Evidently, clause four - amended by Hugh Gaitskell in 1959 and totally rewritten by Tony Blair in 1995 - possesses a totemic status for partisans of the left.

Just before he was formally declared Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was asked if he wanted to bring back the old, 1918, clause four. He 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.7

A very moderate, but, nonetheless, very welcome statement. After all, it helped initiate what has become an increasingly wide debate over clause four.8

So should the left follow the lead of Labour4Clause4 and seek to raise the 1918 Lazarus from its grave? Or, on the contrary, should the left seek out a “different” - a far more audacious - clause four? History gives us more than a clue about what the right answer is.

The February 1918 conference not only transformed Labour into a definitive political party (there was to be individual membership for the first time). It also agreed a new constitution, which included these famous lines:

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.

Such formulations (and crucially the fourth clause) are still considered a defining socialist moment - and not only on the Labour left.9 Yet, when first mooted, in November 1917, amidst the horrors of inter-imperialist war, Sidney Webb, its Fabian author, had no thought, no wish, no intention of promoting genuine socialism.

Indeed the Fabian Society had long been known as the quintessential expression of the rightwing opportunism infecting the British labour movement. The likes of Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and William Harcourt were pro-imperialist, committed eugenicists and thoroughly elitist. The Fabians wanted Britain to retain its global empire - supposedly in order to educate the “immature” peoples of Africa and Asia.10 “Defective” men, women and children were to be dealt with by the extensive use of a “lethal chamber”: “if we desire a certain type of civilisation and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit in it” (George Bernard Shaw).11 As for the working class, it had to be educated in the spirit and ethos of their betters. Fabian ‘socialism’ was gradualist and managerial, relying on an alliance with enlightened liberals: in other words, a variety of bourgeois socialism.

In 1917-18 Sidney Webb had three goals in mind.

Red ribbon

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 had long supported Liberal governments and their palliative measures of social reform. Because of this alliance, the party even found itself divided over the abolition of the House of Lords and the fight for female suffrage. While a small 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.”13

The adoption of clause four did not mark a fundamental break with liberalism. Even if put into effect, clause four socialism remains antithetical to working class self-liberation. Capitalism without capitalists does not count as a socialist goal. True, railways, mines, land, electricity, etc would pass into the hands of the British empire state.14 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 the same hierarchical 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 surely vital for the challenges of both today and tomorrow - in so doing the proletariat “abolishes itself as a proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and antagonisms, abolishes also the state as state”.15 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 thereby overcome.

What is produced, how it is produced and why it is produced radically alters too. Need, not exchange, is the ruling principle. And such an association of producers alone creates the benign conditions that puts to an end the ecologically disastrous production for the sake of production and allows for the full development of each and every individual, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, nationality or so-called race.

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 worldwide 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 was World War I. Criminally, between 15 and 19 million died. Another 20 million suffered appalling injuries. Because of all this, and more, capitalism was widely considered morally bankrupt, abhorrent, outmoded and doomed. Socialism more and more became the common sense of the organised working class.16

Fabian socialism meant, however, eschewing 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. Understandably, Frederick 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.17

And, needless to say, the years 1918-20 witnessed army mutinies, colonial uprisings, brutal Black and Tan oppression meted out in Ireland and a massive strike wave. The working class was in ferment. But, now equipped with clause four, Labour leaders could both promise to deliver a “death blow” to the “individualistic system of capitalist production”, and dress up in socialistic colours that “great Commonwealth of all races, all colours, all religions and all degrees of civilisation that we call the British empire” (Labour and the new order 1918).18 Reformist wool was pulled over militant eyes.

Previous attempts

Interestingly, before 1918 attempts to commit the Labour Party to one or another version of socialism met with failure. The 1900 founding conference, meeting in London’s Farringdon Hall, rejected by 59 votes to 39 the resolution moved by James MacDonald of the Social Democratic Federation, calling for the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Delegates from the Independent Labour Party argued that such a commitment was premature and would alienate the trade unions and therefore damage the infant movement. A suitably vague fudge was agreed. As a result, the SDF accused the ILP of an “incomprehensible” and “deplorable” act of “treachery, to which we have, unfortunately, by this time become accustomed”.19

The socialist societies wielded considerable influence over the Labour Party. Leave aside any representation via affiliated trade unions, the SDF was guaranteed two seats on the 12-strong NEC, the ILP two and the Fabians one. Despite that, in frustration, the August 1901 conference of the SDF voted 54-14 in favour of disaffiliation. A big mistake - as freely admitted not so many years later by its main leaders.

Further unsuccessful attempts to commit the Labour Party to public ownership followed in 1901 and 1903. Two years later conference passed a motion calling for the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. But this was not treated as a constitutional amendment. In 1907 there came another attempt, but once again it was rebuffed as being divisive.

The explanation for the caution lies with relations with the trade unions which were politically still Liberal; and the Labour MPs, who were too often mere Lib-Labs. While most Labour leaders considered themselves socialists by conviction, they were also mortally afraid of upsetting trade union big wigs and losing out in the polls. What appeared acceptable to likely voters - in other words, skilled male workers - set the limits.20 So, instead of fearlessly presenting a bold socialist vision and reaching out to the widest sections of the masses, Kier Hardie, Sidney Webb, Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald and co chased the vagaries of popularity. With the growth of militancy, radicalism and revolutionary sentiments in 1917-18, socialist declarations were now considered a sure way of adding to Labour’s ranks in parliament.21

A Tony

Nevertheless, the Blairising of clause four was hugely symbolic - the groundwork having been done by the Eurocommunists and their Marxism Today journal. Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 ‘Forward march of Labour halted?’ Marx memorial lecture provided an authoritative intellectual veneer.22 Revolutionary 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 for Blair’s new clause four with 65% in favour.

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 in favour of Blair. 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 even 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 to 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 the Labour Party needs to 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].23

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, on September 12 2015, things became more complex. Labour became a chimera. Instead of a twofold contradiction, we have a threefold contradiction. The top - the leader, the shadow cabinet, the NEC, the Victoria Street HQ - is dominated by leftwingers, who are moving to the right; the middle - the PLP, the European PLP and Labour council groups - is dominated by the right; the rank and file is dominated by left-moving leftwingers.

Corbyn is certainly 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 PLP lent him their nomination. After that, however, Corbyn owes everything to the mass membership.

That has given us the possibility of attacking the rightwing domination of the middle from below and above. No wonder the more astute minds of the bourgeois commentariat can be found expressing worries - not so much over the prospects of a Labour government in itself, but a Labour government that triggers a crisis of expectations and a popular explosion of anger.

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 collapse before the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. In other words, it would be fatal for the leftwing rank and file to content itself with playing a support role for Corbyn. Nor should the role of the leftwing rank and file be to provide a mere counterweight to the rightwing pressures being exerted on Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

No, the left needs to organise around its own distinct aims and principles, not least our own, new version of clause four.

Model motion

This branch/CLP notes that the old 1918 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 this, genuinely socialist, 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.)


1.Daily Mirror September 24 2018.

2.The Guardian September 24 2018.

3. New Statesman September 24 2018

4. labourheartlands.com/john-mcdonnell-the-red-meat-of-a-socialist-manifesto.

5. www.socialist.net/john-mcdonnell-clause-iv-more-relevant-than-ever.htm.

6. www.socialist.net/labour4clause4-campaign-launched-to-restore-labour-s-commitment-to-socialism.htm.

7. The Independent August 21 2015

8. Eg, Owen Jones in the first, relaunch, edition of Tribune. He argues for a new clause four - a clause four which would commit the party “to throw off not only the shackles of class, but of any injustice”. With equal banality he calls for a clause four which resonates with today and contains a “compelling vision of a future, in which the control of our lives is wrested back from the propertied elite” (my emphasis - O Jones, ‘Clause four at one hundred’ Tribune November-December 2018).

9. Socialist Appeal’s old comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales also have fond memories of the 1918 “socialist clause four” (Editorial The Socialist September 26 2018). Not surprisingly. When they were deeply ensconced in the Labour Party they were clause four socialists. And it was the attitude towards the Labour Party that split the organisation in 1991. The minority in Militant Tendency - 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 finally became SPEW.

SPEW’s official doctrine has it 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” (P Taaffe The Socialist June 19 2015). A strategic misjudgement, 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” (The Socialist July 1 2015). The unkind will call this a premeditated wrecking attempt; kinder souls will put it down to blundering idiocy.

10. See GB Shaw (ed) Fabianism and the empire London 1900.

11.. DJ Childs Modernism and eugenics Cambridge 2001, p9.

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

13. Socialist Review August 1912 - quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p25n.

14. 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). The Fabians 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).

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

16.‘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).

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

18. pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/LabourPartyLabourAndTheNewSocialOrder.pdf.

19. Quoted in M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p96.

20. Note the mass of male workers only got the vote in 1918 - along, of course, with middle class females who were over 30 years of age.

21. 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.

22. Marxism Today September 1978.

23. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-58.