With or without clause four… Ditch labour!

HALF OF Labour’s 62 MEPs signed a Guardian advertisement opposing the change to clause four earlier this week. Just how sincere these ‘dedicated socialists’ are is best illustrated by continued rumours that such ‘opponents’ would be prepared to go along with Tony Blair if only he would give a firm commitment to renationalise water and British Rail. So only water and rail would, in the words of the clause, be ‘secured for the producers’. However, Blair - ably backed up by John Prescott, the left’s champion in last year’s leadership election - has ruled out any such deal.

Almost the entire left, from Socialist Worker to the Morning Star, sees clause four as a matter of crucial importance for the working class. But to understand why the clause was inserted in the Labour Party constitution in 1918 we need to grasp the nature of those times.

After the devastation and unspeakable suffering of World War I, the 1917 Russian Revolution stood out like a beacon for millions of workers, lighting up the road to a future of true working class liberation and peace. Across the whole of Europe revolutionary uprisings were springing up.

The job of the Labour Party was to divert and contain such passion along safe reformist lines. Its leaders, while declaring their support for socialism, stressed that in Britain it could be voted into existence by entirely peaceful, legal means. Just as Tony Blair does today, they made every attempt to allay the fears of the bourgeoisie and even enlist its support.

Sydney Webb, one of the constitution’s authors, set out to do just that in a Labour Party pamphlet. He wrote that the only people to be excluded from the new vision of society would be

“the unoccupied and unproductive recipients of rents and dividends - the so-called ‘idle rich’ - whom it is interesting to find The Times editorially declaring to be of no use to the community”.

He went on to say that this ‘socialism’ was “no more specific than a definite repudiation of the individualism that characterised all the political parties of the past generation”. The bourgeoisie as a whole could thus subscribe to Labour’s ‘socialism’. It would certainly claim to be very much ‘occupied and productive’.

Webb continued:

“It is indeed one of the claims of the Labour Party that science is on their side; that it is their proposals, not those of the Liberals or those of the Unionists, that nowadays receive the general support of the ‘orthodox’ economists; and that, as a matter of fact, it is essentially their proposals to which every minister of state, when he is brought up against a difficult problem of administration, has actually to turn ...”

How true Webb’s arguments are. Conservative as well as Labour administrations have resorted to measures of ‘social ownership’ when dictated by the needs of capitalism. But nationalisation does not equal socialism, and every advanced capitalist country has had, at some time, a large state sector.

Before recent privatisations in South Africa (a policy continued by the present ANC-led government) over 40% of the economy was state owned. Does that mean that Verwoed’s apartheid regime was more progressive than Mandela’s?

Sydney Webb, in a beautifully accurate prediction of the future, went on:

“... the programme of the Labour Party is, and probably will remain, less important ... than the spirit underlying the programme ...”

Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

“A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society ... The socialistic bourgeois ... requires in reality that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.”

What we need to cast away is Labour’s ‘bourgeois socialism’, clause four and all. Only through building our own Party can workers end capitalism and achieve our liberation.