Source: Militant International Review, no. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1970)
Written: October 1968
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Fred 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010
Editor’s note: This article was written in October 1968, for the forerunner of Militant International Review. We are republishing it here in its original form because we believe that it retains its relevance as an analysis in Marxist terms of the long-term crisis of British capitalism, its effects on class relations, and the developments in the labour movement.
One of the most striking features of the last epoch since the Second World War has been the steady attrition of the power of British capitalism on a world scale. Year by year in relation to its mighty competitors, American imperialism and the mighty Russian bureaucracy, it has been outdistanced. Even in relation to its lesser rivals, France, Germany, Japan and Italy, its power has drastically declined. In every field the distance between the former might of the unchallenged world power and its present impotence and decay has been emphasised.
Only very reluctantly has British capitalism been induced to accept a lesser role. The bankruptcy of the power of British capitalism has been partly due to the terrible miscalculation of trying to keep up in the first division (militarily) with American imperialism and Russia instead of accepting relegation to that of a secondary national power. The consequence has been a series of defeats which has now extended over many decades. However, British imperialism was the first imperialist power to understand the impossibility of maintaining direct control over the Empire. Both under Tory and Labour governments step by step they retreated to indirect and economic means to try to maintain their former domination. Meanwhile, in spite of the sad recognition of her changed role, arms expenditure has still continued to rise even if more slowly than in the past. This expenditure remains as a dead weight on the British economy.
The Wilson government, perhaps even more than the Tory governments of the past, has remained in the hands of the permanent officials of the Foreign Office, of the Treasury and of other departments. The reluctant abandonment of the role of British imperialism East of Suez and in the Persian Gulf has been forced by the chronic crisis of British capitalism.
Wilson and the other Labour leaders have been compelled to swallow their fiery pre-1964 and post-election announcements. Heath and the other leaders are appealing to the jingo elements in the country and demanding the protection of the massive British investments in South East Asia and the Persian Gulf by continuing to maintain the bases in the area. In practice, even if they were in power they would be compelled to act in the same way as Wilson. The economic facts of life and the narrow shoulders of British imperialism are incapable of bearing the heavy burden of the military bases and of naval power in these areas. The decline can be graphically expressed not only in economic terms but in the collapse of British imperialism’s naval supremacy. For three centuries Britannia ruled the waves. Now her navy is only third in the list of world powers, that of America and that of Russia being twice as great. Britain’s invulnerability as a sea power has long been ended. Before the First World War British imperialism’s navy was equal to that of the next three naval powers together; the military race with Germany began when Germany attempted to challenge this supremacy and ended with the First World War.
After the First World War at the Conference of 1920, Britain had to accept parity with America and a 5.5.3. ratio with Japan. This in reality meant the supremacy of America. Now since the Second World War Britain’s navy has become second rate and can in no way challenge the mighty navies of Russia and America which have far outdistanced her. As Marxists have always explained, military and naval power is dependent on economic power. The vain endeavour to try and maintain the reverse has ended ignominiously for British capitalism.
In whatever direction British capitalism turns she finds herself thwarted, because of her weakness. From an imperial power she turned towards Europe once the relative success of the Common Market became apparent only to be contemptuously spurned by her former semi-satellite, France. The British diplomats have succeeded in getting the worst of all worlds. In politics there is no gratitude, and underlying all the failures has been the slow if relative decline of British capitalism in relation to her former rivals and allies.
The attempts of the Labour leaders at the dictates of the City of London to maintain the value of the pound in relation to other currencies was determined not only by economic factors but also by considerations of prestige and power internationally. In the pursuit of this will-o’-the-wisp, under the guidance of the “experts” the state threatened to bankrupt itself and the measures of the government resulted in economic standstill over a period of years; this at the expense of the living standards of the people. It further weakened British capitalism economically in comparison with other powers and still did not prevent the second devaluation of the pound since the Second World War. On each occasion it has been the Labour government that has had to do the dirty work of British capitalism and incur the odium from the lower middle class and those sections of the population who invested small sums in “savings”.
Even in relation to the sterling bloc, which in part has endured since the 30s and was a weapon which British capitalism has used since the Second World War as a means of safeguarding her markets in India and Africa, the position is changing. In order to prevent a new run on sterling and a new devaluation where not British capitalism but outside “speculators” can call the tune, British capitalism has been forced to borrow yet another loan from international capital, and to attenuate the role of sterling as a reserve currency. This in its turn means a defeat for the policies of the City of London and a loss of the financial pre-eminence which Britain has maintained for centuries. The endeavour to hold on to all these different spheres of power has further aggravated the long-drawn [out] crisis of British capitalism and the relative decay of British industry. The latter, which was the basis of the former pro-eminence in all fields of British imperial grandeur, was too weak to stand the strain. And on the contrary, whereas in the past there had been an interaction of these factors to the benefit of British industry, now the burdens were too great and, therefore, as in a “power failure” the British industrialists had to shed the load. Thus part of the function of the sterling bloc and of the sterling balances in the event of a new run on the pound will be shared by foreign banks and foreign currencies.
In the past period, more than even under the Tories in the past, the government and the state have degenerated into a pliant tool of finance and industrial capital. The fusion of state monopoly capital and finance capital with the state is a process which unfolds steadily. The monopolies are linked with the state and the state promotes monopoly for the purpose of “efficiency” and competition abroad. This has not prevented the monopolies from becoming ever more parasitic and leaning on the state for the finance needed for necessary industrialisation. In their “mid-term Manifesto” the Labour leaders wag the finger of admonition at finance-industrial capital—in the politest terms possible of course—but demonstrate the complete parasitism of finance capital by pointing out that the super monopolies which in fact dominate the economy do not fulfil the function of taking “risks” which was fulfilled by capital in the past. The state provides the money for modernisation, the monopolies take the profits. Where there is a loss, that is the state’s business. Both the Tory and the Labour leaders express the interdependence of the monopolies with the state far more than in the past. The Industrial Reorganisation Corporation acts as a forcing house for the development of the monopolies. This is in contrast to the position of the arch-reformist Gaitskell as outlined in Challenge to Britain where the development of monopoly was seen as a threat to the very existence of democracy. Now the state acts as broker for mergers, as in the case of GEC-AEI and the new merger with English Electric. If there was a veto on the merger of what amounts to the big four banks into the big two, that was because this would be tempting a target for nationalisation. But in practice, the co-operation of the big four, formerly the big five, and soon to be the big three, with the Bank of England, makes them in practice into a virtual monopoly in any case. The business heads of these banks, from a purely “business” point of view of “efficiency and elimination of waste” saw the logical conclusion in a reduction of the banks—and their staff—into one or two streamlined organisations. Although baulking at the bank mergers, the government has not shrunk from the massive mergers such as that referred to above which have increased and consolidated British capitalism into the most monopolised country in the capitalist world.
The monopolies have used the nationalisation of the basic industries in their own interests. On the boards of nationalised industries sit generals, industrialists and other members and servants faithful to the interests of their class. The re-nationalisation of steel has been revealed as a colossal rescue operation for capitalism in its most inefficient and profiteering form. Against the first nationalisation there was a measure of resistance from the capitalist class, because they saw this as the last step, before a move into the lush pastures of engineering or chemicals and other profitable industries. But a second nationalisation was conceived as a lovely ramp for the owners and stockholders of the steel industry. Having taken over for a song the new plants erected with government money they proceeded to run the industry down from a technical point of view, to the detriment of their fellow industrialists. Now the state undertakes a rescue operation by over-compensation to those sections of the steel industry which will not pay and which require huge sums for modernisation in order to compete with the steel industries of Japan and America. The most profitable 10 percent remains in the hands of big business. At the same time the Tories have announced that after the resuscitation of the industry they will again hand it in good order—at knock-down prices of course—to private enterprise together with any tit-bits from road transport which remain under state control, which show any signs of profitability.
The government remains the biggest customer, investor, and employer in the country. At the moment 50 percent of all investment in industry comes from the government sector which now constitutes only about 16 percent of the economy. The more than 90 percent of productive manufacturing industry, including steel, in the hands of private capital, together with the dependent service industries, only succeed in investing the other half of the total. Such is the parasitism and loss of function of the so-called entrepreneurs.
Subsidies to industry under the Labour government have reached fantastic levels, if to this is added the grants, taxation and depreciation allowances. The expense of industry to the state has reached record levels. All the cherished shibboleths of reformism have been turned into their opposite. Now the magic Chancellor, Jenkins, as always in these cases reneging on his Fabian articles of faith, is preparing to switch from direct to indirect taxation. This will be a further blow at the poorer sections of the population. Step by step, under pressure of economic realities, facing the alternative of action against the monopolies or capitulation to them, they have “movingly” and as “realists and practical men” accepted the latter alternative.
One of the main causes of the weakened position of British capitalism was the inflation caused by the delusion that military expenditure (without reference to the economic base) could maintain the power, income, and prestige of the ruling class. In fact it has been one of the main causes of the fall in the purchasing power of the British currency. At the same time, devaluation has been the cause of inflation to the detriment of the real standards of living of the working class, especially of the most exploited and underpaid sections.
Devaluation marked an attempt on the part of the ruling class to reconcile themselves with the real relationship of forces on a world scale. This was in order to prepare for an attempted recovery, not as a first rate power, but as an equal amongst second rate powers. The world capitalist powers had to agree to a restoration of a semblance of competitiveness of the British economy by a devaluation of almost 15 percent. They did so for fear of the long-term consequences and because of an expanding world market in the post-war epoch. They could afford to do so; whereas the collapse of the British economy would have detonated a chain reaction and the common ruin of all.
Undoubtedly, there has been a certain recovery in exports in the latter part of the year (1968) and the devaluation has led to an increase of industrial production which will probably be in the region of 4 to 5 percent. This will be among the best results that British capitalism has attained since the war. The British share of the world market had dropped to less than 10 percent but it is likely to increase a little in the next period. This depends upon the extent of the recovery of world markets.
Recovery on the home market has, in 1968, led in the immediate period to an increase in imports, but the expansion of the home market will in its turn with the added protection of 15 percent lead to a growth of home industry, by increasing its competitiveness on the home market. It should be repeated here that one of the reasons for the endemic crisis of British capitalism lies in the massive import of manufactured goods which defeat British capitalism even in the home market, in spite of having, next to America, the highest tariffs in the world. From a position of continuing imbalance between imports and exports, Jenkins calculates that exports in 1969 will increase to such an extent that it will give a favourable balance of trade of up to £600 million.
It is not impossible that this forecast will be realised. However, this will depend upon the expansion of world trade, and, of course, this is dependent on political as well as economic factors. The situation in South East Asia, where a continuation of the Vietnam War would put the dollar in jeopardy and threaten to bring on a new financial crisis, is of course one of the factors in the situation. British capitalism is far less in control of world factors than at any other time in history.
A new movement of the workers in France would precipitate a devaluation of the franc and in a chain reaction bring down the dollar and the pound with it. This in its turn could produce big movements of the working class which would have economic effects. But as things stand at the moment it would seem that the likely course of events would be in the direction of a continuation of the present upswing on a world and national scale. One of the outstanding features of the post-war period has been the continuation of the enormous export of capital. This has drained British industry by the same monopolies which dominate the economy on a national scale.
This year, contemptuously brushing aside the government restrictions on the export of capital, it is reaching record levels. In the post-war period, having dissipated a great part of the resources invested overseas, they have now been built up to over £15,000 million, which, even taking into account the depreciation of money, amounts to a record level, apart from America the highest in the world. This is one of the factors that at one and the same time extends the economic power of the monopolies and aggravates the crisis at home.
The parasitism of the monopolies is now complete. In exports, in subsidies, in investment, in capital exports, they are inextricably intertwined with the state and the economy as a whole. The 300 monopolies with interlocking directorships with the banks and insurance giants have a greater grip over the economy than finance capital has ever possessed in the past. Within the space of less than a decade they have dwindled from over 600 to less than 300. This interlocking giant with tentacles like an octopus spreads into every facet of national life. They now lay themselves open as a tempting target for nationalisation. The demand for the taking over of the commanding heights thus assumes concrete shape.
Wilson and the government have more and more become the mouthpiece of “efficient”, of large-scale organisation of industry, and thus inevitably of big business. Wilson’s method has been that of changing the name of things in order to cover up the fact that there has been no change in policy.
In reality, the policies of the Labour government, like those of the Tory government before it, have been dictated by “the needs of the economy”. But the economy is a monopoly-ridden capitalist one, and therefore any policy is in reality dictated by the needs of big business. Either there has to be a complete break with the policy of supporting big business and taking to the road of Marxist socialist policies or the road that has been taken by the Labour leaders, that of capitulation to finance capital. There can be no middle road.
The “mistakes” of the Wilson government have been the mistakes of the “experts”, of the capitalist economists and of the professional advisers in the Civil Service, i.e. of the state machine. The bankruptcy of the policies of reformism, of an “independent road” (i.e. independent of the class struggle), with the “government” laying down the law to the classes, who must collaborate for the benefit of all, have demonstrated their futility.
Wilson tried to play the role of a “national” leader and in doing so had to separate himself from the working class and put himself on the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. Class attitudes in a class society are inevitable, and thus Wilson, with the policies mentioned above, in the early period secured the adulation of the capitalist press and the admiration of big business. The continued ailing of the British economy and the crisis of British capitalist power, forcibly revealed by the move towards devaluation, devalued Wilson in the eyes of the bourgeoisie.
From adulation, the press passed to hysteria in their denunciation of Wilson’s mistakes. In spite of the attacks on working class standards and the lavish concessions to the capitalist class, they tried to make Wilson a scapegoat for the disease of the system itself. At that stage they were oven toying with the idea of a National government, and even the forced resignation of Wilson, to bring forward as prime minister an even more right-wing figure such as Callaghan or Jenkins. For a whole period up to the Labour Party conference of 1968, a systematic campaign has been conducted to unseat Wilson. While the suggestion of a National government has been kept in reserve, at the same time the attempt was made to switch prime ministers. This failed because it would have meant a split in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the premature formation of a “national” government and the driving of the labour movement to the left.
Events at the TUC and the Labour Party conferences have forced the spokesmen of big business to make a re-assessment of the situation. The TUC and Labour Party conferences, have been forced into opposition or semi-opposition to the policies of the Labour government. The defeat of the government’s prices and incomes policy, both at the TUC and, by an overwhelming majority of the unions and the constituency parties at the LP conference, are symptomatic of the situation that is developing. 1969 will see the biggest upsurge of industrial struggles, official and unofficial, involving a wide cross-section of the organised working class, since the war. Engineering, docks, transport workers, clerks, draughtsmen, building workers have all been involved in industrial struggle.
The question of equal pay for women has also for the first time in decades assumed a burning actuality. The strike of the women workers at Ford’s has triggered off a whole series of strikes.
There has been the beginning of a swing to the left in the union branches and constituency Labour parties. This mood was reflected at the TUC and Labour Party conferences, which showed a questioning and critical mood developing among the organised and active advanced sections of the labour movement. At the present time this is only a mood and not an active and swelling movement. Hence the fact that it has not received any real organised expression.
However, it is again necessary to stress that this is the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. The spokesmen and representatives of the ruling class recognise this process clearly and it could be seen once again in the changed attitude to Wilson in particular, and the right wing leaders in general. Thus a new revamping of the role of Wilson has taken place in the press. They have accepted that while the Labour government last, Wilson will necessarily remain as its leader. They do not wish to open the flood-gates to the militancy and embitterment of the working class by provoking conspiracies against Wilson. With the developing mood of political and industrial militancy, the labour leaders need especially a former “man of the left”. Wilson would be better for the job than a National government or the Tories.
The strategists of big business have to calculate whether it may not even be better if the economic situation continues to improve in 1969-70 to have a new Labour government rather than a Conservative one. A Wilson-Jenkins “miracle” in the economic field, with secondary concessions to the working class, would, under these conditions, be better than a Tory government faced with a radicalised and united and embattled working class. Thus they are preparing to refurbish the image of Wilson as a national leader. If the economy should continue to ascend, they would prefer a Labour government to hold down the developing industrial militancy of the organised workers.
The Labour government, without a real economic slump as in 1929-31, is as yet not “exposed” to the organised masses in the labour movement—not even completely to the active sections. It depends on the events of the next 18 months to 2 years for the bourgeoisie, or rather its strategists, to decide on their tactics. What is clear is that they prefer to be “kind” to the leaders of the Labour government, through the mass media, thus showing that for the period of the life of the Labour government, they have accepted Wilson as the best Labour leader they have got.
It has always been necessary to understand the limitations of conferences, whose decisions are distorted by a measure of selected and slanted publicity given to its decisions. The broad masses and the active workers in the constituencies, the housewives and working people, have not got the time to follow in detail the processes and decisions of conference. Even the delegates at the conference are not completely clear as to the processes taking place.
Nevertheless, with all these limitations, the 3 million votes cast for the resolution from Liverpool of the Marxist left at the 1968 Conference, represents a modest success for the methods of Marxism, which has always tried uncompromisingly to put forward the issues in a clear fashion in the trade union branches, the CLPs, in the factories and among the youth.
One resolution, however, does not make a tendency, and while, undoubtedly, both within the trade union delegations and within the CLP delegations, there was a profound disquiet and uneasiness among the delegates, reflecting similar processes in the masses, there was not a sure and certain left current of thought. The basic impression left by the conference was that of confusion in the minds of the delegates as to where they were going. On the one hand, they know what they do not want—the policies of the present administration; and they vaguely desire socialist policies. But what to do is not yet clear to them.
Yet in many areas discontent is already beginning to be expressed. Many rank-and-filers in the CLPs and the trade union branches are looking for a way forward. Here and there even ultra-left ideas will be expressed as a gesture of despair. All these are portents of the coming developments in the movement. The so-called “lefts” are completely blind, and incapable of giving an impetus to the movement. On the contrary, their programme is the backward looking one of going “forward” to the ineffective programme of Wilson of 1964. Their criticism of the leadership is that they did not carry out this programme. Apart from the purely reformist character of the programme, it was sheer utopianism to expect that in the situation of British capitalism they could implement it. Wilson and the other leaders did not abandon the programme out of wickedness, but because the programme was utopian under present day conditions.
What was instructive, and a portent for the future, was the way in which a short but clear statement of a principled programme secured the massive support of the delegates, including even the trade union delegations—which showed the pressures seeping up through the ranks. This must have been somewhat of a shock to the purveyors of timid, muddled and watered-down resolutions among the so-called “lefts”.
Nevertheless, this must be taken in the context of the general level of consciousness of the working class and even of the active sections of the organised movement itself.
Great events, it is necessary to repeat, and the experience of mass movements, are still necessary to educate the masses. There will have to be many great experiences—even for the gathering together of a left reformist or centrist current, in which the ideas of Marxism will gather mass support.
In the event of a new economic crisis—which is dependent on world developments—the attempt to impose new and harsh measures against the working class will provoke deep resentment and a tide of revolt—which will have broad echoes in the Parliamentary Labour Party, especially in the trade union wing. This in its turn would inevitably raise the question of a National government. We have had a dress rehearsal of a “mild” nature in the baying of the mass media against the government at the time of devaluation. Any serious national or international crisis will provoke a split in the Parliamentary Party, and the going over of the right wing openly to the Tories. It should be remembered that the last National government was formed more than a quarter of a century ago, and has not the same connotations in the minds of the new generation as of the old. But it should be stressed that a National government would only be a reserve weapon to be played reluctantly by the ruling class, when other means have failed. Temporarily, it could inflict a crushing electoral defeat on the Labour Party; but it would undoubtedly push the labour movement—and, in words, the top leaders of the trade unions and Labour Party—far to the left.
If the economic situation improves in the immediate period ahead—and despite the pessimism of the industrialists (interested, of course, only in profit) this seems the most likely course of events, then the possibility of a further period of office of a labour government cannot be excluded.
The bourgeoisie is weighing up the mood of the workers, the strength of the labour movement, and the prospects after 1970. A Conservative government facing the forces of the trade union movement, psychologically intact and moving to the left, would face great difficulties on the industrial field. Defeated on the political plane, as the workers would see it, by the renegacy of their leaders, they would turn to the industrial field. And whereas the Labour government has succeeded in achieving greater results in holding the workers in check, and at the same time has given enormous concessions to the ruling class, it is not certain that the Conservatives could have a like success facing the forces of the workers virtually intact. Under such conditions a Conservative government would face an entirely different situation than after 1951 and could only impose their solutions at the cost of a heightening of class tension, and of the class struggle splitting the “nation” openly into hostile camps. Of course, the bourgeoisie are also waiting on events to decide their tactics. For the moment they are extending to the Labour leaders a favourable image in the mass media.
A new Labour government would come to power with an entirely different attitude on the part of the workers than did the Labour government of 1966. The attitude of the advanced sections of the movement, of the trade unions and CLPs, is far more critical and watchful than it has been in the past. It is even more censorious and “waiting on results” than the attitude of the workers in 1945. Then, on the basis of the new upsurge in production and of the nationalisations, the radicalisations of the working class was held in check. Now, on the new historical scale, events national and international will be piling one upon another, resulting in the radicalisation of the working class. If the beginning of the process of change in the consciousness of the advanced labour workers has begun even under the present conditions, a new impetus will take place with a Labour government which does not deliver the goods. The process of radicalisation, of the hardening of the opposition of the flabby “lefts” in Parliament, and within even the top leadership of the trade unions, will proceed not in the guarded and polite tea-table manners of the recent period, but of open and harsh opposition to the measures of the government.
This will of course be dependent on the economic and world situation. But the present curve of upward development within the framework of the world upswing will not last more than a few years, and will be followed at best by a recession within this broad framework.
What is interesting at the same time is to observe the process in the Conservative Party. From having been basically the party of big business—but with the top leadership under the control of the patricians, it has become the party of big business now, even so far as the selection of the top leadership is concerned. Heath is the personification of the British bourgeoisie. His mediocrity, his repellent image (which the mass media is trying to refurbish), his lack of impact—all this is a reflection of the bourgeoisie itself at the present period: a mirror which, of course, the bourgeoisie regards with distaste. In actual practice, while making a great deal of noise, the Conservative Party has in reality nothing to “oppose”. The Labour government has faithfully, if clumsily and stupidly, carried out the dictates of the capitalist class—much more effectively than a Conservative government could have done under the same conditions. This has put the Conservatives in rather an embarrassing position.
The Conservative victories at the by-elections and the council elections have been by default of the Labour voters, rather than by enthusiasm for the Tory Party. Basically, the programme of the Conservative Party is no different to that of the Labour leaders—with the difference that against the mass working class opposition they would find it difficult to apply. Any attempt on their part to carry through measures against the interests of the working class, in the teeth of the opposition of the labour movement, would provoke industrial upheavals, even possibly a new general strike.
But with the weakened condition of Britain, a new general strike would have far more catastrophic consequences economically, politically and socially than the general strike in France. With a new generation and with an enormously strengthened working class, its results would be entirely different from the general strike of 1926, Moreover, the white-collar workers now have an entirely different attitude than they had pre-war. Today, the bourgeoisie cannot even rely on the sons and daughters of the middle class and the ruling class themselves. This is evidenced by the radicalisation among the students, which is as yet in its early beginnings.
That is why the strategists of capital are as yet uncertain in which direction to turn. In the event of a Tory government, the masses in the trade union and labour movement will swing massively to the left. To maintain its position, the leadership will be compelled to put forward demagogic slogans, which in turn would feed the movement of the masses. The organisational differentiation within the labour movement might thereby be delayed to some extent: but only by engendering a wave of mass struggles against the Tory government which would threaten to overwhelm them.
A new thirteen-year period of Tory rule seems to be ruled out by the situation on a world scale and the relationship of classes at home. Thus, a Tory government would not be long lasting but would bring to power a Labour government under aroused mass pressure from its inception. Meanwhile, from the point of view of later developments, the Powell-Sandys wing of the Tory Party is being kept in being, as a reserve weapon. While not taking seriously most of the quaint and outmoded economic theories of Powell, at the same time the colour question is being kept in reserve, for use in the event of social crisis.
The tendency will be under these circumstances for the Labour workers to move to the left and sections of the politically backward middle class elements who support the Nabbaros, Sandys, Powells, etc. to move to the right. From the settled and tranquil party of big business which the Tories have been for generations, they will become instead a party of upheaval and splits. The support or the alleged support which Powell received from a small section of the dissatisfied and economically threatened sections, traditionally Labour, in their attitude, such as the dockers and Smithfield porters, has been extensively exaggerated and puffed up by the press and other means of moulding public opinion.
Undoubtedly, many of the middle class layers that voted Labour in disappointment and frustration will swing back to the Tories. At a later stage, it is on this layer, that a strong right-wing Bonapartist or even fascist movement will be constructed. The Tory Party will find itself split from top to bottom in the social upheavals which lie ahead.
The Communist Party in the post-war period has suffered one staggering blow after the other. Dependent on Moscow in the past, the reverberations of events in the Stalinist states have inevitably reflected themselves in their ranks and at each stage caused a crisis. With the complete lack of theory, with the cynicism of the leadership, and degeneration of the organisation on Stalinist lines, they have been subject like all the Communist Parties in the metropolitan countries, to the pressure of capitalism, caused by the lengthy economic upswing which has taken place in the post-war period. Their influence among the masses has dropped even from the small share they had in pre-war days. Even in the trade unions, individual militants have secured support as militants not because of, but in spite of being members of the Communist Party. The latest events in Czechoslovakia have again provoked a crisis within their ranks.
Meanwhile, the entire basis of the party has been changed. Only a small percentage remain from the pre-war period or even the immediate post-war period. The average member of the Communist Party today has no greater understanding of the basic socialist theory than the average active member of the Labour Party. Consequently, it has been possible to swing the membership on to a nationalist policy. The events in Czechoslovakia have pushed the Communist Party leadership even further on this road. No longer under the direct domination of Moscow, with the leadership cynical and sceptical of the power of the working class, they have inevitably fallen victim to the disease of reformism. More skilled at deceiving the workers in their ranks than the Labour leaders, nevertheless, their association with Moscow, at this stage, has repelled the broad masses. Despite the enormous opportunities given by the crimes of the Labour government, they have been completely incapable of making appreciable gains.
At the same time, no longer having an anchor in the fanatical adherence of the membership to what they considered was the Soviet Union, (in reality the Soviet bureaucracy), they have been cast adrift. From being a powerful means of maintaining the control of the rank-and-file, the link with Moscow has become an embarrassment. This in its turn means that the membership can no longer be rigidly held in control by the leadership, but is subject to the blows of events at home and abroad. They are far more subject to crisis than the Stalinist parties were in the past. No longer is the CP sheltered by the wall of blood created by Stalin from the ideas of Marxism, and from the wind of events. The leadership, purely empirical, is now at the mercy of events. The profound dissatisfaction within the rank-and-file at the antics of the so-called “communists” in the West, and of the leadership at home, finds periodical outlet in the crises which beset the Party.
It is to be noticed that the swing to the left on the part of the delegates to the Labour Party conference (despite the fact that the vote for the economic resolution referred to above, far to the left of the propaganda of the so-called Communist Party, received scant mention in the pages of the Morning Star or the other journals of the CP) nevertheless, forced a change of course on the part of the Communist Party leadership. In articles, in material on the front page, and in the headlines, for the first time in many years the idea of “socialism” as a solution to the problems of the British workers is being put forward prominently not as a far off, remote and impractical solution, but as an immediate policy. This in turn will produce further contradictions within the ranks of the Communist Party laying them open to the genuine ideas of Marxism.
During the whole of the post-war period, the “left” within the Labour Party has remained politically muddled and organisationally chaotic. There has been nothing like the left wing which sprang into existence after the First World War and during the first and second Labour governments. It has remained amorphous and rather a potential force than an organised one. The Bevanite movement, even at its height in the last period of the Labour government (1945-51) and during the years of opposition to the Tories, never reached the stage of organisation or influence of the Clydeside left, or of the ILP. It remained essentially as only a deeper shade of pink reformism than that of the official leadership. At no time did it have any mass influence within the rank-and-file of the trade unions. Even in the constituencies, in which it had the undoubted support of a big section, if not the majority, its conclusions and ideas remained suspended in mid-air.
Even at this stage, what is significant about the nascent left is the support which it is receiving in the trade union movement and having its reflection even in the top delegations of the really mass unions, of the T&GWU and AEF, the NUR and many others; this when the process of the development of the left wing is really in its early beginnings. Before there can be an organised left there has to be a movement of the masses themselves. All the seedbeds of revolt have been sown in the last period. But it required some disturbance for the shoots to break through over the protective shield established by the Transport House [Note: the then Labour Party headquarters] bureaucracy. How this comes about is, of course, dependent on the development of events nationally and internationally. Big strike movements, and any attempt to hold back living standards, an attempt to force through and apply anti-trade union legislation, could provoke a mass movement of revolt in the constituencies and the trade union branches.
Movements from below in their turn will provoke corresponding postures on the part of the trade union leaders and MPs, and in their turn be reflected in the rank-and file. From one event or another there will be a mass growth of the left. It may be that the LP itself will move to the left, and will be transformed into a centrist organisation, under the hammer blows of events. In this case the extreme right would be vomited forth with the same effect as the neo-socialist split in the Socialist Party in France in 1934-35. Here it is to be observed that the movement of the advanced elements is not the same thing as the movement of the masses, though they are linked together. At the present time, the bulk of the sincere lefts in the trade unions and LP are unclear as to how to achieve the aim of socialism. The limitations of the left were clearly expressed at the conference, which remains as a barometer of the processes within the movement.
The process, however, is a contradictory one. In many ways the consciousness of the organised active masses is on a higher level than ever before in history. But for this movement of opinion to be translated into organised reality requires a movement of the masses themselves.
The failure of the policies of MacDonald in 1929-31 in relation to the situation which existed nationally and internationally produced its organised reflection in the movement of the ILP towards Marxism. The fact that it remained in mid-way position is not a question that needs explaining here, as it has been dealt with elsewhere.
It may require the experience of a new Labour government under really adverse conditions to drive home the lessons to the rank-and-file. As explained previously, these considerations play a role also in the thinking and calculations of the advisers of the ruling class, from their point of view. But whichever way events unfold, there is the inevitability of the rise of a mass, organised left wing.
The whole situation is such that there can be abrupt turns not only internationally but nationally. The mass radicalisation in France which was precipitated into the May 1968 occupation of the factories is an indication of this process. The molecular process of change and radicalisation in the thinking of the masses is at present developing in all the main capitalist countries. It is in the tradition of the British movement to transform its organisations themselves, as evidenced by the processes in the AEF, NGA, T&GWU, NUM, and tomorrow the MGWU. But a hurricane of mass feeling and activity can suddenly change the outlook in the mass organisations. The process in its early beginnings can suddenly burst forth into active involvement of the workers themselves.
It is among the youth that the ideas of Marxism will gain the firmest and most enthusiastic adherents. The Labour Party Young Socialists are more and more accepting these ideas. But the young workers, having been brought to understand the basic ideas of Marxism, must carry these ideas into the adult parties, into the trade unions, into the wards and into the factory committees. From month to month, from week to week, from day to day, they will receive an ever more sympathetic hearing, as the forum of the LP conference demonstrates.
Those tendencies which have been empirically impressed by the episodic movements outside of the organised labour movement will end up as they began, on an opportunist basis. The student movement is in itself a reflection of the deep-going processes taking place within society. It is an indication of the radical upheavals that will affect not only the middle class, but the working class in the next stage.
But unless the best of the students can be convinced of the need to work in the mass organisations, their present radicalisation will merely be a phase of youthful “socialist measles”. They will tend to be absorbed into the milieu of middle class life. The CND, which had many links with the labour movement, but which, nevertheless, remained separate, but without clear and distinguishable aims, inevitably fizzled out. The demonstrations on Vietnam and like causes, while attracting the radical elements among the students and middle class, and even sections of the younger workers, will suffer a like fate. Nothing can replace the elementary movements of the masses in defence of their standards and even for a change of society. Of course, great events abroad would have their echo and would even provoke explosions among the masses in Britain.
But there are no short cuts to the achievement of the socialist aims embodied in the labour movement. The Marxists must absorb the lessons of the past and apply these ideas to the situation as it exists and as it is unfolding.