Labourism or communism?

Saturday July 17 sees the ‘Democratic socialism into the 21st century’ Tribune-sponsored national conference at the TUC’s Great Russell Street headquarters. It is sure to be well attended, though perhaps not quite the “labour movement event of the year” (Tribune July 2). The Labour left is undergoing a minor resurgence, having been systematically marginalised since the mid-1980s. The proclamation of Tony Blair as leader and the parliamentary landslide on May 1 1997 was associated in the minds of many bourgeois commentators with the final end of the Labour left - Tony Benn’s recent decision not to seek reselection was cited in a number of papers as confirmation (including Socialist Worker).

The obituaries are premature. The success of the Grassroots Alliance in NEC elections for the second year running testifies to an ability to articulate, and benefit from, passive discontent in the constituencies. More than that, the arrogance and heavy-handed authoritarianism of the Downing Street-Millbank Tower axis not only alienates wide swathes of constituency activists. Large numbers of backbenchers are not on-message either.

Organisationally the Tribune event is top-heavy with members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The boast is of “over” 90 MPs in support (Tribune July 2). Input from the trade union movement is far more modest (Tribune editor Mark Seddon carries the flag for the Grassroots Alliance). So, while the listed participants include John Edmonds, GMB general secretary, and two other lesser trade union luminaries, there are 17 MPs set to debate Labour’s future around the pregnant theme “Democratic socialism or 19th century liberalism”.

Interestingly besides a hard core of Campaign Group MPs - Diane Abbott, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Alan Simpson, Dennis Skinner - many others have been propelled into opposition. Not least that revolting creature, Frank Field. So there is a certain rapprochement going on. But around what? There exists no mass movement from below, a movement whose momentum and raw power sweeps timid leaders into political territory far beyond their mundane origins and ingrained prejudices. Obviously thwarted ambition is at work. There is also a growing frustration within the trade union bureaucracy at the government’s perceived failure to cater for Labour’s traditional paymasters. The minimum wage is extremely minimal. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws remain intimidatingly on the statute book. Venture capitalists, not general secretaries, earn prime ministerial plaudits. However, though the likes of Edmonds and Field personify a shift to the left by a fragmented layer of rightists - that is a switch from loyalism to oppositionism vis-à-vis the Blair project - it is essential to grasp the nature of what today constitutes the Labour left.

Twenty or thirty years ago the Labour left - including the Militant Tendency of Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe - had a vision of state socialism. Basically the plan was to achieve something like the “actually existing socialism” of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, only using different means. The top 100 or 200 monopolies were targeted for nationalisation. Capitalism would thereby be curbed, mastered and eventually transcended. What distinguished this British road? Socialism was to be realised primarily through the Labour Party and a parliamentary majority and would not dispense with, but radically reform and supplement, the established institutions of bourgeois democracy.

In the contemporary formulation of Benn the left had to win a Labour government so as to “transform capitalism by democracy into socialism” (T Benn Arguments for socialism Harmondsworth 1982, p218). Proletarian and bureaucratic revolution were both explicitly ruled out ... “These are not arguments for revolution,” stated Benn (ibid p221). Other ideologues such as Michael Barratt Brown (From Labourism to socialism 1972), Eric Heffer (The class struggle in parliament 1973), Stuart Holland (The socialist challenge 1975) and Geoff Hodgson (Socialism and parliamentary democracy 1979) advocated a similar state socialist approach.

This left - associated with the name of its figurehead, Tony Benn - was sentimentally inclined to the christian socialism of Bruce Glasier and Robert Blatchford. But Bennism was no primitive throwback. Intellectually it shrouded itself with seemingly sophisticated neo-Ricardian theories of value and distribution, criticised the post-World War II consensus and promoted, albeit platonically, the class struggle. This last feature was crucial. Bennism acquired an enthusiastic following, in part because of the disillusionment and disgust generated by the imagined failure of the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1960s and 70s. Wage freezes and national decline, moral backing for the US in Vietnam and Barbara Castle’s anti-trade union bill, economic stagnation and hyperinflation, the social contracts and sterling crises were also associated with a marked increase in working class combativity. Strike days in the 1970s reached levels unequalled since the 1926 general strike and the 1910-14, 1918-21 upsurges.

Bennism might have rendered Labour unelectable throughout the 1980s - given the domination of bourgeois ideas in society - but its utopian reformism was by the same measure largely responsible for Labour’s continued hold over the mass of class conscious workers - whose horizons unfortunately by and large never rose above syndicalism.

In comparison to Bennism today’s New Labour left is politically retrogressive and intellectually hollow. Instead of criticising Labour’s past, it celebrates Labour’s past. The ‘Declaration of the 44’, which will “provide the backdrop to the July 17 conference”, starts with a paean of praise for “past achievements”:

“The creation of the Labour Party at the turn of the century transformed British society and politics - for the first time working people and their families were represented by their own party committed to eradicating the evils of poverty and inequality through the redistribution of power and wealth. In partnership with the trade unions, the Labour Party has been the most important motor of social progress and civil liberties in 21st [sic] century Britain. Without it there would be no NHS, no comprehensive secondary education, no national minimum wage, no equal pay act, no sex or race discriminations acts and far fewer trade union rights” (Tribune July 2).

Contradictorily, and definitely out of sync with the triumphalist alibi, the second, and final, paragraph of the ‘Declaration’ admits:

“At the turn of the millennium, poverty and gross inequality still disfigure our society and destroy the life of millions across the globe. That challenge cannot be met by a reversion to 19th century liberalism out of whose failure Labour was born. Labour’s future will be as a forward-looking internationalist and democratic socialist party fighting for social justice into the 21st century.”

With such a distorted view of the past it is perfectly logical for Tribune’s editorial to express the hope that its conference will “begin the process of reclaiming Labour for democratic socialism” (my emphasis). In other words the Labour Party was throughout its history more or less committed to “democratic socialism”, a 20th century soporific which Tribune earnestly wishes to see used into the next century.

From the aeroplane to the microchip, the 20th century witnessed enormous and awe-inspiring technical progress. The productive forces have grown in leaps and bounds, capitalism every day notching up achievements that dwarf the greatest wonders of pharaonic Egypt, classical Rome and imperial China. Capitalism is a mode of production that knows neither peace nor rest. It must constantly expand wealth for its own sake. Now there is an integrated world economy joining every continent into a single organism. However, within the system of surplus-value extraction there is not only a gulf between capitalistically rich and poor countries, but a permanent fight between labour and capital over the price and conditions whereby labour power is bought and sold.

The struggle to improve subsistence levels is undoubtedly aided by the existence of trade unions. Nevertheless workers stay mere wages slaves. The producers neither control the immediate product of their own collective labour; nor do they control a world economy which moves, not smoothly upwards, scaling ever newer heights, but, on the contrary, through a series of devastating crashes and slumps which in the 20th century become inextricably linked with terrible wars. Tens of millions have been slaughtered. The era of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons poses point blank the choice of socialism or barbarism.

The only positive solution is for the great mass, the workers, to organise themselves as a revolutionary class which overthrows all existing states as the first necessary step in a worldwide transition to communism: ie, the fullest freedom for all. By liberating themselves and abolishing exploitation, the workers liberate the whole of humanity.

Tragically the 20th century has been a century of failure. The inability of the working class to organise itself as a political force that breaks free from capitalism by conquering capitalism where as an organism it operates - ie, at the level of the world economy - resulted in the twin punishments of Stalinism and Hitlerism. Perhaps the main factor pacifying the working class has been social democracy and its British variant, Labourism. In Germany social democracy sided with the kaiser-socialist state in 1914 and, when thrust into power in the Weimar republic, presided over the counterrevolutionary murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919. Social democracy then acted to stabilise capitalist rule in the name of gradually reforming it into socialism.

The Labour Party was no different. It underwent its sudden clause four socialist conversion under the impact of the October Revolution in Russia, so as to divert workers here from dealing with their own capitalist state. By granting the reforms celebrated by Tribune, such as the NHS, Labourism attempted not to realise socialism, but put it off.

Labourism in terms of practice is not a break with liberalism. It is a continuation. Gladstone and Lloyd George had their pro-capitalist programmes of pro-working class social reform, including health and unemployment provisions. There was a sprinkling of trade union-sponsored Lib-Lab MPs too. Nor should it be forgotten that the intellectual father of the NHS was Beveridge, a Liberal peer (who also got backing from the ‘middle way’ Tory, Harold Macmillan).

The organisational forms of Labourism are distinct. Trade unions and their block vote were constitutionally dominant from the beginning. Lenin therefore rightly defined the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party. The base was proletarian. Yet the politics were thoroughly bourgeois: ie, reactionary.

The ideological honesty of Blair is highly problematic for those who seriously believed the state socialist lies of Old Labourism. That also goes for the auto-Labourite sects who as an article of faith insisted that it was the supposed duty of revolutionaries to choose the ‘lesser evil’ in general and other elections, because that is what the majority of class conscious workers do. Old Labourism has gone and, having done so, has thrown the Old Labourite left - both internal and external - into profound crisis. The Old Labour left responds by reinventing itself simply as Old Labour, full stop - thereby constituting the New Labour left. As to the external Old Labour left - the SWP, Morning Star, Workers Power, NCP, et al - in all probability they face extinction.

Blairism represents both a continuation of 20th century Labourism and a return to 19th century liberalism. An acrobatic feat made possible entirely due to the fact that the working class (which found a refracted expression as the subaltern pole in Labourism) at present exists sociologically, as wage slaves and voting fodder. But nothing more. Blair can afford to be an ideologically honest Labourite: his social-ism is unashamedly capitalism.

Needless to say, any serious analysis of the 20th century calls not for the resurrection of Old Labour. The 21st century should neither be about going back to 19th century liberalism nor reviving the corpse of Old Labourism. Our class cannot afford to relive the horrors of the 20th century. Quite the reverse: our class needs a political party designed not to reconcile us with, but to self-liberate us from, capital. Such a party must welcome into its ranks all partisans of socialism and human liberation and operate according to genuine democratic centralism - unity in action, factional rights and full freedom of criticism.

The scientific name of this party is the Communist Party

Jack Conrad